The war on the Eastern Front started on June 22nd 1941. It ended a few days after Hitler’s suicide in Berlin in April 30th 1945. It was fought with untold savagery, cost millions of lives on both sides and absorbed the major part of Germany’s war effort between mid-1941 until the end of the war. It was vast in many respects; distances, forces, casualties, numbers of offensives. As such it is difficult to capture this titanic conflict in a single volume. The author of ‘Slaughter on the Easter Front’ has made a pretty decent try.
- Anthony Tucker-Jones
This book wisely concentrates on the overall strategy of the conflict, dealing in broad brush detail with each successive stage. Even major battles such as the siege of Leningrad and the battle of Stalingrad are passed over relatively quickly: to deal with these in detail would have rapidly bulked out the book to beyond what could comfortably be covered in a single volume.
The initial few chapters set the background for the conflict. Stalin’s 1937 purge of the leadership of the Red Army – and his effective decapitation of its officer corps – is covered; this would have a marked effect on the Soviet Army’s ability to handle large forces after the Wehrmacht attacked. On the military side, Zhukov’s brutal yet effective battle against the Japanese at Khalkhin-Gol in 1939 is discussed and compared with the far less effective war against the Finns in the Winter War of 1940.
On the German side, the book examines the intelligence failings, and from there the strategic errors, in the planning for Operation Barbarossa. There were plenty of both, and if the initial planning showed up problems, the Germans changed their assumptions until their planning gave the ‘right’ results. They would not be alone in this, for many Western countries – including the UK and US – expected Russia to quickly collapse after the German’s attacked on the 22nd June 1941.
One excellent aspect of this book is that it deals with Germany’s allies on the Eastern front. Even during the planning stage, Hitler realised that the Wehrmacht alone was not strong enough to defeat Stalin’s armies. So, he sought allies from many of the east European states with their own reasons to fear or hate Soviet Russia: Finland, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. Hitler also sought and received help from Mussolini’s Italy and demanded forces from vassal states such as Czechoslovakia. It was not just the Wehrmacht alone that crossed the Russian border – and it was to find some of its allies fragile instruments indeed.
The bulk of the book then deals with the Germany offensives and the eventual Russian counter offensives that pushed the Wehrmacht all the way back to Berlin and defeat. Hitler’s monumental error in underestimating Soviet Russia’s manpower and industrial might can be seen in the ever-decreasing scale of German offensives. The June 1941 offensive was across the entire front. The Summer 1942 offensive was just in the south of the front and was aimed at capturing the oil and mineral resources there. It was to end in the disaster at Stalingrad. The 1943 offensive, Operation Citadel, was no more than a spoiling offensive, aimed at stabilising the front for that year. Aimed at the huge salient around the town of Kursk, it had strictly limited objectives despite the bulk of the German armour and aircraft being deployed there. By now the Russians had the measure of the Wehrmacht, fought an initially defensive battle and then launched a counter offensive – the first of an entire series that drove the Germans back to Berlin over the next two years.
The book covers the very contrasting command styles of Hitler and Stalin. Hitler gave his generals wide reign at the start of the war then increasingly reserved all decision making for himself until he was down to discussing the fine detail of individual battalions. Stalin was exactly the reverse. Many of the initial Russian disasters in 1941 were down to Stalin attempting to micromanage the battle. But slowly he learned to trust generals such a Zhukov and the Red Army’s performance improved.
After the tide finally turned at Kursk, the books deals with some subjects not always covered some other general histories of the war on the Eastern front. The first is partisan warfare – a tactic the Russians became increasingly adept at using. The other is the gradual peeling away of Hitler’s allies. Even at the start of the Barbarossa campaign, Hitler knew he needed help from countries such as Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary and Romania. As the Russian Armies neared their borders, one by one these allies changed sides – a subject covered well by the book.
The final part of the book covers the Red Army as it closed in on Berlin, the competition between different commanders to get there first and the increasingly fantastical orders by Hitler to stem the tide. Postwar, it also covers Stalin’s vengeance on those he considered traitors to the motherland. And they were many; Vlasov’s pro-German army, the Russian HiWi’s that fought alongside their German captors, entire races like the Cossacks and Tartars. Even after the fall of Berlin, Stalin’s lust for blood was not over.
There are a series of appendixes at the end of the book. The first shows the sheer scale of the subject. It is a list of significant offensives by both sides. It covers nine pages with 15 - 18 offensives outlined per page. The author has done well to distil an extremely complex story into 300 very readable pages.
Two of the other appendixes give the terrible human cost of the conflict. Germany and its allies lost 5,178,000 killed, 4,426,000 missing and 824,000 dead in captivity. Russia and its allies lost 10,651,000 killed, 6,651,000 missing and 3,600,00 dead in captivity. Losses on that scale put the British Empire’s and US’s losses in North Africa and Europe into perspective.
A very readable book and one strongly recommended for anyone looking to get a broad overview of what was probably Hitler’s single greatest strategic mistake.