Killing the dragon

Andrew Cockburn

  • The Road to Berlin: Stalin’s War with Germany by John Erickson
    Weidenfeld, 877 pp, £20.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 297 77238 4
  • The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s War with Germany by John Erickson
    Weidenfeld, 594 pp, £10.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 297 78350 5

Between 22 June 1941 and 9 May 1945 the Red Army of Workers and Peasants disposed of ten million German troops, destroyed over six hundred enemy divisions, liberated all of Eastern Europe and finally stormed, unaided, the ‘lair of the fascist beast’, Berlin. This achievement must be considered one of the most extraordinary in military history, for at the outset the Russians were caught completely by surprise and almost completely unprepared. Most of their professional military leadership had recently been consigned to the firing squad or labour camps, and had been replaced by incompetent time-servers. Within a few months of the attack a large proportion of the Soviet Union’s industrial and natural resources had fallen into enemy hands. The Russians’ British allies assumed at the time of the invasion that Germany would be victorious within a month or six weeks. Yet by 1943 the Soviet Union had trained new commanders and had rebuilt its industrial machine, far behind the lines, in greater strength than before. It was the British war effort that had become the sideshow.

The consequences of the remorseless Soviet advance from the ruins of Stalingrad to the ruins of Berlin are still very much with us today. Not only is the present political complexion of Eastern Europe determined by that onslaught: so is the near-universal perception of Soviet forces as a juggernaut of men and machines propelled forward with ruthless determination, crushing everything in its path. If the Soviets could overrun half of Europe in the teeth of the Wehrmacht, what is to prevent them continuing their westward march and overwhelming the supposedly puny and divided forces of the Western Alliance? The answer is, and has been since the late Forties, American nuclear weapons. And so, quite apart from the intrinsic interest of the story of the greatest military struggle in history, a proper understanding of the Red Army’s years of triumph is important for a contemplation of the present-day military and political situation in Europe. The Road to Berlin, the long-awaited sequel to The Road to Stalingrad, is as authoritative a summation as we are likely to see of what happened on the battlefields that marked the Soviet advance. Professor Erickson has dug deep into the vast collection of official and personal literature published on the subject in the Soviet Union, though, as he himself admits, the sheer size of that collection – 15,000 volumes – makes an entirely comprehensive survey impossible. In addition, he has had the benefit of personal interviews with many of the leading participants as well as having made considerable use of captured German archives and other non-Soviet material. The picture of the Soviet military machine which emerges from these pages is one of a giant steadily learning to use its faculties to maximum effect against a weakening enemy. On the long and bloody retreat to Stalingrad, the Soviet commanders, and especially Stalin himself, had perforce been educated in the ways of modern warfare. The system was working well enough by the end of 1942 to bring about the encirclement of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad – although, as Erickson points out, the Soviets miscalculated their catch, thinking they had trapped 86,000 of the enemy. The true figure was over 200,000. In the course of the next 29 months Stalin grew gradually more deft at handling his enormous armies against a steadily diminishing but still skilled and dangerous enemy. At the same time, his marshals and generals became more confident in the deployment and manoeuvring of their forces, and in pressing their professional assessments on the Stavka – the supreme command, which concerned itself with the most minute aspects of operations – and on ‘Khozyain’ (‘the boss’) himself.

That this process of education was not complete by the time of Stalingrad is demonstrated by the great opportunity for the destruction of the German forces in South-Eastern Russia that Stalin missed early in 1943. It was clear to both sides that the loss of Sixth Army had put the Southern Group of German forces – a million German and allied troops stretched east from the Dnieper into the Caucasus – at grave risk. If that huge salient could be cut at the base, then those forces would be doomed. But Stalin repeated his errors of the year before. At that time, emboldened by the success of the counter-attack in front of Moscow, he had dispersed his forces in over-confident offensives along the entire front. This underestimation of the enemy had led to the disasters of 1942. Now he launched an offensive at the crucial hinge of the German Southern Group at Rostov, but at the same time directed many of the armies lately engaged in the destruction of the Stalingrad cauldron against the German forces further north. As a result, the drive on Rostov failed, though only just, and Manstein, the greatest of the German commanders, was able to outmanoeuvre and defeat the Soviet offensive.

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