Tag Archives: soviet union

Philosophy and Football T-Shirts

As a football fan, historian and sometime-philosopher (normally after a few pints!), I’ve found these t-shirts form Philosophy Football pretty cool.

They’ve recently released a range of t-shirts to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad – possibly the most pivotal event in the Second World War. Incorporating much of the familiar soviet art work and styling – which, I have to say, I find rather cool – one nice t-shirt in particular features the slogan ‘nobody is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten!’ in Russian script.

They are inspired by an Anna Akhmatova poem:

We know what’s at stake and how great the foe’s power,
And what is now coming to pass.
The hour of courage has struck on the clock
And our courage will hold to the last.
The bullets can kill us, but cannot deter;
Though our houses will fall, we shall remain.

 

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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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The Battle of the North Cape by Angus Konstam

Angus Konstam is a consumate naval historian, and in the past I have made much use of his work on pirates and motor torpedo boats. Here, he turns his attention to one of the least-known naval battles of the Second World War, that of the North Cape, which resulted in the sinking of the German Battlecruiser Scharnhorst.

In 1943 the Western Allies were reinforcing the Soviet Union via the treacherous Arctic Convoys, in the main from Scotland to the ports of Archangel and Murmansk. By supplying large amounts of lend-lease material, the Western Allies were helping the Soviets to fight the Germans on the Eastern Front. Hence the Arctic Convoy route became a vital point for the allies to defend, and the Germans to attack.

Although the German Navy was nowhere near the size of the Royal Navy, it was still feared that surface raiders such as the Scharnhorst might slip out of their Fjords in Norway and wreak havoc on the convoys. That is to say nothing either of the threat of U-Boats. As a result of these threats of the importance of their cargoes, convoys were shephered by naval escorts, and significant convoys were shadowed by larger units of the Home Fleet.

Convoy JW55B had sailed from Loch Ewe in Scotland, and the Scharnhorst, along with her escorting destroyers, sailed out of Altenfjord in Norway to intercept. Thanks to Ultra intelligence decrypts the Royal Navy knew that she had sailed. The convoy was escorted by a powerful force of Cruisers, and the commander of the Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, sailed from Scapa Flow in his Flagship HMS Duke of York. Bruce Fraser is possibly one of the least well-known fighting Admirals of the Second World War.

The Scharnhorst was eventually detected by the shadowing force of Cruisers, which after engaging her briefly, reported her presence to Fraser in Duke of York. Eventually the Royal Navy’s ships circled in on the Battlecruiser as she steamed back to Norway. Superior gunnery skills from the British ships pounded the Scharnhorst into scrap metal, and a torpedo attack from British destroyers finally sent her below the waves.

What Konstam does really well here, is to demonstrate the fighting qualities of both navies. The Royal Navy was adept at sailing snd fighting anywhere – be it freezing cold seas, with mountainous waves. In fact, in Nelsonian tradition, it was expected of Captains to lay their ships alongside enemy and pound them into razorblades. The Kriegsmarine, for the most part, hid its major ships away from danger, and did not wish to risk their loss. The Admiralty devolved much responsibility to its commanders, who could fight their ships as they though fit. In contrast, Hitler, Donitz and the Fleet Command in Kiel interfered constantly with Konter Admiral Bey’s command. Konstam also emphasises the superiority of British technology, particularly the use or radars in gunnery direction.

This is a very gripping read, and one that I enjoyed immensely. The North Cape was a dramatic battle, and Angus Konstam tells its story engagingly.

The Battle of The North Cape is published by Pen and Sword

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Churchill Defiant by Barbara Leaming

The perceived wisdom regarding Winston Churchill seems to be that after leading Britain to victory, in 1945 his Conservative party was rejected by an electorate who put their trust in Attlee‘s Labour party to build a home fit for heroes. What is very rarely mentioned is that Churchill in fact served on as leader of the opposition, and somehow became Prime Minister again between 1951 and 1955.

Churchill was by no means a party politician, having already defected from the Conservatives to the Liberals and then back again during his career. During the war he concentrated almost completely on fighting the war, leaving domestic affairs to a number of Labour politicians. Whilst this was no doubt wise for the war effort, it marginalised Churchill’s appeal when it came to post-war politics.

The consensus amonst Conservative figures after 1945 was that Churchill would shuffle off into retirment, and hand over the his long-awaiting successor, Anthony Eden. But with his usual childlike stubborness, Churchill somehow managed to cling onto leadership of the party, even during a time when his now well-known depression was raging, and whilst he was engaged with writing his eponymous history of the Second Word War. Churchill routinely handed over more mundane party leadership duties to Eden, Salisbury and Butler.

It seems that Churchill really did miss the cut-and-thrust of international diplomacy more than anything else. Apart from pride, his greatest desire in clinging to power seems to have been to finish off where he left off in 1945: with a grand three-power summit with the US and the Soviet Union, in order to end the Cold War. This was a rather simplistic way of viewing things. Britain no longer had a place at the top table of world affairs, even if US leadership of the western world – in particular that of Eisenhower – left much to be desired. But is it right to keep a political career running merely in the name of placing a full stop?

Its amazing to read of just obstinate Churchill was in continually brushing off demands for his retirement. His colleagues were of course in an impossible position. Churchill was undoubtedly faltering and a shadow of his former self, but how to retire a war hero and national treasure? His cabinet colleagues, his family, doctor, staff, US president and politicians and even the royal establishment tried countless times to convince him to retire, without success. Even a number of serious strokes could not keep Churchill down. Evidence, if any was needed, that although his faculties were failing, the famous Bulldog spirit still remained. All the same, we have to be glad that whatever we think of them, modern Prime Ministers tend to be somewhat fitter and are not so difficult to ‘retire’.

I wanted to like this book. But, sadly, the manner in which it is based on what are loosely described as ‘conversations’ with conservative party figures makes it hard for me to think of it as a work of History. The paucity of references is disappointing. Barbara Leaming is a political biographer, whose most notable work was a life of President Kennedy. An American, she also has a background in writing articles for The Times, Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. It does feel very much like a work of journalism, and would no doubt make a great serialisation in American media, who are probably more fascinated by Churchill than even we are. It is, none the less, an interesting glimpse at British politics, and Churchill the man.

Churchill Defiant is published by Harper Collins

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Russian Cold War Maps of the UK

I’ve just discovered a site that shows old Russian military maps of Britain during the Cold War. Its a commercial site, but you can still look at sections for free.

Its amazing just how detailed they are. My street is all there, and you can make out my streets name in the cyrillic script. My old school is there too, complete with running track. Where I work is even labelled as what clearly translates to ‘Museum’. As far as I can see they didn’t get anything wrong at all. If only I could read Russian I could see just how accurately they managed to identify the buildings in the Dockyard and on Portsdown Hill.

Of course, its not surprising that the Russians had such detailed maps – this was the space age after all, and there were plenty of satellites in the sky. But even with detailed photographs, how did they get to know what every building was? Every wharf and dry-dock in the Dockyard is correctly named and numbered. It was either from material that leaked out, such as Navy Days guides, or from ‘other sources’…..

Its incredible to think of just how much information each side knew about the other. Relatives in the armed forces at the time tell me that they were told exactly how many nuclear ballistic missiles the Soviet Union had readily aimed at their home towns. Perhaps it was this mutually assured destruction and familiarity that prevented it ever becoming hot? Maybe if there had been more unknowns, things might have been more dicey?

But back to the maps… a lot of this run-of-the-mill information would have been in the standard Ordnance Survey map, available in all good bookshops!

Take a look at Russian Maps here

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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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Katyn 1940 by Eugenia Maresch

Far too many horrific and tragic events took place between 1939 and 1945. One of the saddest ironiest of the recent death of the Polish President, First Lady and many prominent Poles in an air crash was that they were on their way to take part in a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish Officers by the Soviets in 1940. Its a timely reminder that massacres long ago have very strong resonance in the present day.

This book by Eugenia Marsch is a forensic and exacting attempt to describe the way in which the west – and the British Government in particular – did not, for whatever reason, hold the Soviets to account for what they perpetrated at Katyn. During the war and for many years afterwards the Soviets insisted that the killings must have been carried out by the Germans – after all, the Nazis did have a track record for mass killings. It was only during the 1980′s, and with Glasnost and Perestroika, that the Russians finally admitted to the atrocity.

The first section describes in crystal clear detail how the mass graves at Katyn were discovered. In particular its interesting to read about how the Germans were keen to involve a team of Polish doctors an official from the Polish Red Cross – why would they be so open to invite the Poles to the scene if they were guilty of the killings? And in terms of the forensic and criminological evidence, it is almost beyond doubt that Katyn was perpetrated by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.

The western Governments were faced with something of a dilemma. From evidence, it seems that they were in little doubt that the Russians were responsible – but as they were in a wartime alliance with Soviet Russia, Britain and the US were stuck between a rock and a hard place. They were under no illusions that Stalin was a deeply unpleasant character, but the priority was to defeat Germany, and the bulk of the fighting was being undertaken by the Russians on the Eastern Front. When Winston Churchill was chided by one MP for making a complimentary speech about Stalin, he replied, ‘If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least one complimentary reference to the devil in Parliament’, and I think that sums up the dilemma perfectly.

Of course, as a matter of principle the Western Governments should have pursued the perpetrators in the strongest possible manner. But Governments have to act in the reality of the situation, and the Soviets were of course going to deny their part in Katyn for years. And until several years after 1945, it was in no-ones interests to inflame tensions with the Russians. The war had to be won, and after that, thousands – probably many of them Poles – may have died if the west had confronted them. I guess the Katyn issue is not unlike that of Auschwitz – the Allies knew what was going on there, and of course its easy to think that they should have done something. But the Allies really couldn’t achieve that level of accuracy with their bombing – as seen in the Butt report.

It was only with the onset of the Cold War that the west was able to confront the Katyn issue – in particular a US Congressional committee did much to highlight the affair to the US and the world at large. Even though the Soviets continued to deny it, Historians all but confirmed that the Katyn massacre was carried out by the NKVD.

This is a fine book, and I found it incredibly gripping reading – I have always found Polish history interesting. It is very heavy reading at times – the author includes in full a lot of contemporary documents, and I suspect that the text has been translated from Polish to English. I would like to have seen more engagement with other historians work, as many other writers have looked at Katyn over the years, and it is better to engage within a disourse than to ignore it.

What of the authors argument, that the British Government was hypocritical? Whilst it is impossible not to grasp the strength of feeling, it is hard to see what exactly the diplomats, civil servants and politicians could have done. Sadly though, Britain did not have a great track record of standing up for Poles during the war as seen by the Sosabowski affair after Arnhem. We might wonder how objective it is, in that it was written by a Pole. I think it is about as balanced as we could expect. But Katyn is an important part of the Polish psyche, and that is exactly why what happened there in 1940 should never be forgotten.

Katyn 1940 is published by The History Press

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