Heinrich Gerlach
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Breakout at Stalingrad by Heinrich Gerlach

A few years ago, I found a podcast called “Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History,” which disappointingly wasn’t about the origins of adult entertainment, but an episodic series that told stories from various time periods.
“Ghosts of the Ostfront parts 1-4” detail the Wehrmacht invasion of Soviet Russia. Masterfully told with high production values, Dan Carlin details the encirclement and eventual destruction by Russian troops of the German Sixth Army, led by General Paulus.

I found it fascinating and through the theatre of the mind, it transported me to those fateful days when the Sixth Army realised that Hitler had abandoned them and there was no help coming. Bereft of food, ammunition and eventually hope, an army of Hitler’s best troops awaited destruction as the Russians bore relentlessly on.
A quarter of a million German soldiers died in the “Cauldron” around Stalingrad. In today’s modern world where single-digit military casualties make headlines, this is a mind-bending number of incomprehensible magnitudes.
The podcast really made an impression on me, so when I received this book to review, I was eager to read more about this period of the war.

Breakout at Stalingrad is a novel written by Heinrich Gerlach who was at Stalingrad during that time. It follows a large cast of Wehrmacht soldiers as they deal with the constricting trap that will kill two thirds of them.
Whilst it is a novel, the authenticity of the experiences is drawn from Gerlach’s own memories and Lieutenant Breuer is essentially a pseudonym for Gerlach.

I shared the impending doom of the soldiers in the book, knowing what was to befall them. I wanted to warn them, tell them to get out of there and as they realised the gravity of the situation, I felt sick to the stomach along with them.
The remarkable thing about Breakout at Stalingrad is that the book reads very much like a modern novel, not a work of fiction written by Gerlach seventy years ago in the Russian POW camp he resided in after Stalingrad.
There are themes that run through the book like a swirl of caramel in ice cream. One of which is the spirit of the great World War One poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Gibson. The futility of war and the realisation that their lives are worthless in the eyes of their superiors – small denomination poker chips at a big game frivolously spent without regard. Another theme is that the best and worst of mankind rise to the surface in times of great danger. A soldier named Lakosch makes the cardinal sin of wanting to surrender and one officer sentences him to death by firing squad. Another officer lies about the soldier’s execution and frees the poor man.

Some officers hold on to their Teutonic honour and some scramble for the last plane out of the Cauldron, abandoning their men. They lie, they cheat, they steal. Some share bread, water, horse legs. They help a helpless man and the padre gives injured and dying men hope and belief that he no longer feels.

Bizarrely, it is hard not to feel for these men, who by their own admissions were marching in a parade for Hitler not that long ago and enjoyed the fast, relatively easy victories in Europe up until Operation Barbarossa.
That some of them believed whole-heartedly in Hitler and his philosophies didn’t make me angry at them, it just made me sad that they had so much misplaced faith. Most of the troops in the book are more pragmatic, though, and lay the blame for their current predicament squarely at Hitler and Goering’s feet.
There are a few issues with the book, but not enough to detract significantly from my score. The cast of characters is large – maybe twenty – and apart from Breuer and a couple of others, they are not very well described, causing some confusion at times.

A cast of characters would’ve been a useful addition that would clarify who’s who. There is also some repetition towards the end that could’ve been excised and a lag in pace that occurs not coincidentally at the same time.
Gerlach or the translator has converted many Germanic expressions to their equivalent English counterparts which isn’t particularly grating in my opinion, but I can see how it might put some readers off to read German soldiers crowing: “Strike a light” like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

However, these are minor problems in a book that has some terrific action sequences and some genuinely unsettling parts. Gerlach, in keeping with the times, eschews overly descriptive battle scenes, so readers expecting Saving Private Ryan in literary form will have to look elsewhere. The feeling of helplessness and desperation is stamped on every page and it is easy to see and forgive some of the worst of mankind’s behaviour when left with no alternative.
Easily one of the best books I’ve read this year and I have no hesitation in giving it the maximum score.
5/5 Ju-52s

Postscript – After the 550 page epic story, there is approximately another 150 pages of appendices, including a short account detailing the retrieval via hypnosis of this lost novel, the physical copy was confiscated at a border crossing. I will update this review when I have completed the appendices, but as I have had this book a long time, I wanted to put the review of the story up first.

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