BOOK REVIEW : News Weekly
THE RETREAT: Hitler's First Defeat, by Michael Jones
, April 17, 2010
Turning-point in World War II
Hitler's First Defeat
by Michael Jones
(London: John Murray)
Paperback: 328 pages
Rec. price: AUD$42.00
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
With the hindsight of history, it seems almost incredible that Hitler dared to attack the Soviet Union in the deluded belief that the German Army could defeat it within a matter of weeks. His attempt is often compared to that of Napoleon Bonaparte, who in 1812 easily took Moscow, only to be forced to retreat by the onset of winter, which devastated the Grande ArmÃ©e.
Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 German blitzkrieg invasion of the Soviet Union, in its early phases, achieved outstanding success. On the Soviet side, Stalin ignored reliable warnings of the Hitler's imminent invasion, and the Red Army easily fell prey to the advancing Germans.
Hitler's battle objective was to destroy the Soviet Union's capacity to fight and to capture Moscow before the onset of winter. Even observers in the West during the summer of 1941 believed that this would be the likely outcome of Operation Barbarossa.
Historian Michael K. Jones, whose previous works include Stalingrad: How the Red Army Triumphed (2007) and Leningrad: State of Siege (2008), recounts the Soviet repulse of the Germans as the latter advanced on Moscow. He draws primarily from eyewitness accounts of Soviet and German soldiers who took part in the struggle.
The early sections of the book describe the initial German onslaught, which place the nature of the Soviet counter-attack in its context. Soviet authorities justifiably feared the imminent capture of Moscow, and took precautionary measures such as secretly moving Lenin's embalmed corpse from its mausoleum to a safer location.
However, in August, the German battle priorities changed - the focus of the invasion shifted to the southern theatre. Germany was intent on capturing key resources, thereby depriving the Soviet army of its ability to continue fighting.
The delayed German advance on Moscow thereby gave the Soviet Union crucial breathing-space. By late October, the Soviets remained undefeated.
The autumn rains came, slowing the German advance. The onset of winter merely exacerbated the German army's plight. Observers began to see eerie parallels with Napoleon's failed 1812 invasion of Russia, when his forces were defeated by "General Winter".
Incredibly, some German units managed to reach locations as close as 20 kilometres from Moscow. However, at this stage the hostile weather halted their advance.
Moreover, the German army's supply-lines were overstretched. Older soldiers who had fought on the Eastern Front in World War I believed that they had been better supplied in that conflict. What is particularly astonishing is that the German army, so confident was it of a swift victory over the Soviet Union, did not bother to issue its troops with winter uniforms.
The result was that the fighting capacity of many units was severely reduced. Many troops suffered conditions such as severe frostbite; others simply froze to death. This exacerbated the battle fatigue of the troops, many of whom by then had been in combat for almost six months.
The German army notoriously failed to equip is forces with appropriate supplies, such as anti-freeze for tanks so that they could continue fighting in winter conditions. Thus much materiel was rendered useless.
By contrast, Soviet troops, who launched their counter-attack on December 6, 1941, wore uniforms and used equipment designed for winter conditions. Furthermore, many of them were fresh troops transferred by Stalin from Siberia. During the following 10 days, the Germans were driven back along the front, in some instances, for considerable distances.
Hitler was angered at these retreats, many of which had been sanctioned by the commander of the German army, Field-Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch. Hitler thereupon took personal command of the army and ordered it to stand fast and not on any account to retreat.
The German army, now forbidden to make tactical withdrawals, ended up losing a significant amount of equipment, which thereby compromised its future military actions. While the Germans eventually regained some of the ground lost, it was not until spring that they could advance again.
Hitler's assumption of command of the army was to be a significant factor in Germany's eventual defeat. By the early months of 1942, Hitler had lost the confidence of many ordinary troops by the decisions he was making as commander-in-chief.
Michael Jones provides copious details of the terrible German mistreatment of Soviet prisoners-of-war. It is noteworthy that he also provides evidence that many German troops were shocked at this mistreatment.
The great strength of this book is that it is based primarily upon eyewitness accounts of the conflict. These sometimes impede the flow of the narrative; but they do at least give the reader an invaluable insight into the perspectives of both the German and Soviet soldiers.