Tag Archives: eastern front

The Battle of El Alamein: 70 years on

English: El Alamein 1942: British infantry adv...

El Alamein 1942: British infantry advances through the dust and smoke of the battle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Second Battle of El Alamein, frequently cited as the turning point of the war in North Africa, began 70 years ago today. Whilst at the time it was no doubt a great morale boost for a victory-bereft British public, who had only seen defeat since 1939. History would suggest however that the Second World War was, for the most part, won and lost on the Eastern Front, given the vastly larger number of troops in action in that theatre. Given the perilous state of the country’s armed forces between 1940 and 1942, and given that for a large part of that time Britain was standing alone, a limited campaign in North Africa was probably all that the Army was capable of fighting at the time.

Alamein did once and for all prevent the Germans from breaking through to the Suez Canal, and the oilfields of the Middle East. My Grandad was in Iraq at the time, but ‘missed out’ on Alamein. Of course, it could¬† said that the Battle of Alam Halfa earlier in 1942 probably ended Rommel’s last chance of winning the war in North Africa. However, Alamein did also mark the rise of Montgomery in public consciousness as a senior commander who won battles.

On the subject of El Alamein, the guys at Philosophy Football have released a special El Alamein 70th anniversary t-shirt, with a Desert Rat artwork and in a nice sandy colour. Check out Philosophy Football’s website here.

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Hitler Triumphant: Alternate Histories of World War II edited by Peter G. Tsouras

I’ve always been a bit dubious about alternate histories. I’ve always thought of them as ‘what might of happened, but didn’t happen’. Therefore if it didn’t happen, why are we worrying about it? But then again, I guess thats like saying that just because something is in the past then it’s irrelevant, as its behind us. Just as understanding the past gives us a handle on the future, understanding how past events turned out how they did probably gives us a firmer grip on that handle. Confused? me too! Now that we’ve established that alternate histories and conspiracy theories are not the same thing, lets take a look at this thought provoking book.

One thing you can say about Hitler, is that perhaps no-one in history has shown such inconsistency when it comes to decision making – at times he had an impeccable intuition, and at other times managed to cock things up when it was far easier to get it right. It is, surely, a matter of conjecture to imagine a scenario in which Hitler might have won the war – the strength of the US and Soviet Union made it pretty unlikely in my mind. But, certainly, some aspects of the war might have turned out very differently.

Let’s consider some of the chapters. In ‘May Day’ by Nigel Jones, Lord Halifax becomes Premier instead of Churchill, who is made Minister for War. Churchill is killed flying over France in 1940, the Panzers do not pause before Dunkirk, the BEF is overwhelmed and Hallifax sues for peace. This set of circumstances were by no means impossible. Hallifax seemed to be everyones preferred candidate to succeed Chaimberlain. Churchill was lucky to escape harm during the war. And, above all, Hallifax did not have the gumption to keep up the fight when things got tough.

Operation Felix sees the Spanish colluding in the Axis, and supporting the capture of Gibraltar. Of course without such a strategic port the Mediterranean would have been closed to British shipping, Malta overwhelmed, North Africa seriously weakened and Italy strengthened. Again, if Spain had joined in the war on the Axis side, it is hard to see how Gibraltar could have outalsted a prolonged onslaught, although one suspects its defenders might have put up a serious fight. A couple of chapters consider how the war might have turned out if Mussolini and the Italians had performed better than they did, and although this is mere conjecture, a stronger Italy would have presented less of a millstone to the Third Reich.

One very interesting scenario is the co-opting of Nazi and Islamic interests in the conquest of the Middle East. It is well known that Hitler courted the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, an extremist islamic figure. An uprising in Palestine and Iraq would have seriously undermined British control of vital oil reserves, and the route to India. A further chapter sees the Caucasus – on the flank of the Middle East and an oil field itself – captured by Kurt Student‘s paratroopers, following on from Crete. As for the Eastern Front overall, successive chapters see Moscow captured by the Wehrmacht, and the beleagured Sixth Army at Stalingrad breaks out and joins up with the rest of the German Army, avoiding a serious strategic defeat that in the event turned the tide on the Eastern Front.

Going back to the Mediterranean, Malta was lost under prolonged bombardment, after supply convoys failed to get through. The loss of Malta would have removed a thorn in the side of the Axis supply routes to North Africa, removed a key staging post from the Royal Navy, and gave the Italiand and Germans a platform to control the Med. The loss of Malta was something that was a very real risk, I feel.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the last chapter considers what might have happened had the US Generals prevailed and an early invasion been launched in the Cotentin peninsula before 1944. In this scenario, a smaller, poorly trained and unprepared allied army is eventually thrown back into the sea, after landing in too small an beachead. Hitler is then free to concentrate on the Eastern Front, while US and British relations are irreparably damaged. Oddly, this scenario sees Patton and Monty becoming firm friends, reminding us that it is, after all, an alternative history!

I found this a very thought provoking read. Some of the scenarios were more likely in my opinion than others, but considering how various decisions were made and events transpired between 1939 and 1945, the war could have taken a lot longer and cost many more lives, had the allies made more errors and Hitler made less. It would have taken a coincidental set of events, but did not such a course of events derail Operation Market Garden?

Hitler Triumphant is published by Pen and Sword

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The Soviet Soldier of World War Two by Philippe Rio

This book is an absolute gem!

As somebody who was brought up on D-Day and Arnhem, my knowledge of the Eastern Front is pretty limited. Sure, I know about Stalingrad,  the Kursk, Berlin, that kind of thing. But to say I know very little about the Red Army is an understatement indeed.

In concept this book is very similar to the ‘handbook’ series produced by Sutton, but bigger, shinier, and more detailed. My first thought was, how the hell did they get hold of all this militaria and ephemera? If it’s somebody’s personal collection, it must have taken them years – and a decent bank balance – to acquire. Some of the photographs in particular have never been seen before.

Im also glad to say its not just a nerdy look at trinkets. If there is one thing that you can say about the Red Army, it is that it was very much a child of its contexts. And those contexts are very important – Lenin and the 1917 Revolution, the Civil War, Stalin and the Great Purges, and the Spanish Civil War. The fact that Russian -and indeed Soviety – history, culture and society are so different from what we know in the west make it all the more important for us to come to terms with peculiarities such as the commisar and womens service.

It’s jammed full of statistics – hardware, manpower and units – and also gives good coverage to the different arms of service – infantry, cavalry, ski troops, parachutists, armour, and services such as the signals, medics, engineers, NKVD and partisans. But it is in medals, orders, badges and insignia where things get really crazy. For what was supposed to be a classless society, the USSR had an unbelievable amount of decorations, rank distinctions and identifying marks! The possibilities for different arm of service colours on headwear, sleeves and shoulder boards are mind boggling!

The amount of different headgear and uniforms is also interesting – in particular my personal favourite, the Ushanka. Of course, the Red Army also developed much specialist equipment and clothing for cold weather fighting, such as warm footwear and greatcoats. Personal Equipment and small arms are also covered, and the book finishes with a number of portrait studies and interpretations of Red Army figures. An Infanty Kapitan in Brest-Litovsk in 1941, for example, or a Serzhant of the Guards Infantry in Poland in July 1944.

I should imagine anyone wanting to re-enact the Red Army would find this absolutely invaluable.

The Soviet Soldier of World War Two is published by Histoire et Collections

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Guns against the Reich by Petr Mikhin

Guns

This is an english translation of a memoir that was originally written in Russian. And its a pretty good translation: sometimes books translated from another language can read very heavily, but here the translator has captured the essence of the original story.

Peter Mikhin was studying at a Mathematics student when Germany invaded Russia in 1941. He and his contemporaries were summarily ‘recruited’ as artillery officers – with little or no choice in the matter – and after rudimentary training were sent to the front. Mikhin seems to have lived a charmed life, and somehow managed to survive the war relatively intact. Along the way he fought numerous battles, often at close quarters. Although he was nominally an artillery officer, frequently Mikhin and his men were assigned infantry-esque duties, such as snatching prisoners.

The real value of this book is the valuable insight that it gives us into life on the eastern front. Perhaps in the west we have not heard too much about the social history of the Russian Soldier of the Second World War. Sure, we all know the rough outline of Moscow-Stalingrad-Kursk-Berlin. But what we need to remember is the sheer scale of the fighting, from the Arctic circle to the Black Sea, sucking in million upon million of men. Compared to the Eastern Front, the Western Front was a relatively short sideshow.

Its very interesting indeed to read about the nature of discipline in the Red Army – of course in a totalitarian, politicised regime, officer-men relations take on a completely different shape. But interesting, they always seem to have referred to each other as ‘comrade’, regardless of their rank. We also read about the Russian soldier’s attitudes to death – namely that since they had no choice but to obey an order, they were resigned to their fate. But even as atheists, they often refer to fate, and a belief in some kind of higher power. The political officers and the NKVD loom largely too, and seem to have been feared more than the Germans. It is also noticeable that on the Eastern Front life was much more expendable, especially when contrasted with a British Army that strove at all costs to avoid the losses of the Somme and Passchendaele.

And remember that until the fall of the Berlin Wall such accounts from behind the Iron Curtain were very rare indeed. Its very noticeable that as Mikhin was writing his recollections in 1984 there are still vestiges of Soviet propaganda, the motherland ‘and all that’. Yet aside from the deep politicisation, many of the anecdotes told by Mikhin will be familiar to soldiers the world over – time and time again we find that a soldier is a soldier, no matter what uniform he wears.

Guns Against the Reich is published by Pen and Sword

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