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   This week we briefly describe a quartet of fresh books with a little something to offer just about everyone.


Short, Neil. Hitler's Siegfried Line. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2002

ISBN 0-7509-2762-3
174 pages

Preface; Introduction; photos; maps; Postscript; Timeline; Typology; Bibliography; Index

   Short's book is more about operations against the Siegfried Line, aka the West Wall, than about the nature of the fortifications. The first chapter covers the genesis of the Line and provides a few pages of information on the types of obstacles and works built during the inter-war years. The second chapter covers the Phoney War and devotes attention to possible Allied strategies for breaking the Siegfried Line, while chapter three, "Decline," of only about seven pages, describes how the fortifications were stripped and fell into disrepair from 1940 through 1944. The next chapter briefly looks at the state of the line between May and September 1944. The final and heftiest chapter in the book describes the Allied operations against the Siegfried Line in the closing months of the war.
   In his conclusions, Short opines that the defensive works proved so tough for the Allies for three main reasons: lack of appropriate training for American infantrymen, lack of accurate and up-to-date intelligence about the positions, and Allied logistical difficulties.

   The West Wall, like the Atlantic Wall and the defensive lines in Italy and the East had been conquered. Never designed to repel an enemy attack indefinitely and with no prospect of relief, the forces manning the hopelessly outdated defences could do no more than delay the inevitable. This they did with a remarkable degree of success. Indeed, not only did this multifarious force manning the West Wall stop the Allied advance - in the three months after entering Germany the Allies' deepest penetration was 22 miles - it also inflicted terrible casualties on the Allies.9 Moreover, it enabled Hitler to establish a powerful strike-force which was used in the Ardennes counter-offensive. Had Hitler decided against launching his ill-starred offensive and instead fully manned the defences the battle for the Siegfried Line would have been far more costly. Fortunately he did not, and many veterans of the campaign have lived long and fulfilling lives as a consequence.

   Short closes his book with a couple of pages about the current state of the old defenses, a timeline, and a list of the various standardized types of Siegfried Line structures.
   Regretably, the book has little new to say about the ground operations against the West Wall in 1944-1945, and Short focuses relatively little attention on the extent and composition of the fortifications. The few maps are quite general in nature and give no indication of where the line was weaker or where the line was stronger. No diagrams or schematics show a typical stretch of the line or illuminate how a standard defensive sector was laid out. Anyone considering purchase of this book should keep those shortcomings in mind, and recognize that the book might have been more accurately titled "Battles for the Siegfried Line." Even so, this is the sort of book which tends to appeal to a wide audience of WWII enthusiasts.

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Rossino, Alexander B. Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003

ISBN 0-7006-1234-3
343 pages

Acknowledgments; Introduction; photos; Notes; Glossary; Bibliography; Index

   The staff at University Press of Kansas deserve an enormous amount of credit for their uncanny ability to attract top military writers and publish top military books year after year. Their latest WWII release, Hitler Strikes Poland by Alexander Rossino, is another example of UPK leading the way.
   Rossino's book, although nominally about the German invasion of Poland in 1939, views the events from an entirely fresh perspective, showing how the invasion was more than a simple military campaign. Almost two years before the advent of Hitler's brutal, ideologically motivated crusade against the Soviet Union, the German war machine from the very beginning of the conflict with Poland unleashed killing squads to wage a war which in this century would be dubbed "ethnic cleansing." Rather than detailing the deployments of opposing forces and following the battles of panzers against mounted lancers and dive bombers against a nation without effective anti-aircraft defenses, Rossino views the rapid German advances from the vantage of how SS troops, special police units, and the regular Army dealt with pockets of die-hard defenders, snipers in rear areas, Polish paramilitary and militia troops, and civilian caught in the battle zones. For example, in scenes chillingly similar to current events—and not generally discussed in histories of the campaign—Rossino demonstrates how German soldiers in combat, particularly in urban areas, showed little inclination to distinguish among enemy troops, armed civilians, and helpless non-combatants.

   Polish militia groups went on heightened alert in the last days of August and entered the fray immediately after the German attack began. According to a report filed on r September by Lieutenant General Brandt, Polish militia and regular troops inflicted heavy casualties on the Freikorps Ebbinghaus near Nowy Bytom, indicating the tenacity with which Polish irregulars intended to defend their homeland. Further reports to the VIII Corps filed on the following day agreed that the rear echelons of the 8th Infantry Division also encountered considerable resistance from Polish irregulars and snipers (Freischarler). An entry in the war diary of the 45th Infantry Division noted that the enemy "did not present a defensive front, but rather was using hedgerows and underbrush to fight isolated actions (Kleinkrieg), against which advance battalions are foundering. Sniper fire is making the troops very uncomfortable and insecure."
   The ferocity of Polish resistance soon made it clear that the available military security forces could not deal with the problem. On 2 September, therefore, General Busch instituted measures to counter the danger posed by Polish irregulars. Assigning the SS-Standarte "Germania" to guard artillery positions, Busch alerted his subordinates that "special Einsatzkommandos" were being deployed the next day "to prevent attacks on rear area troops, their communications, and command posts." He then issued an order to the entire VIII Corps, demanding that "any guerilla activity [Freischarlerunwesen] be dealt with severely using the harshest means available." In addition, Busch ordered General Neuling to shift his 239th Infantry Division from west of Katowice to the south behind the 8th Infantry Division. By late in the day on 2 September, Neuling's troops had moved into place near VIII Corps headquarters in Orzesze and initiated pacification actions. These resulted in the first executions of civilians by the army in East Upper Silesia as troops with the 239th Infantry Division shot thirty-seven Poles in Laziska Gorne, seventeen in Laziska Dolne, thirteen in Gostyn, and eleven in Laziska Srednie.
   ....
   On 3 September, the 5th Panzer Division finally broke through Polish defenses near Oswiecim, and the VIII Corps reported that regular Polish forces were evacuating Katowice. General Busch reacted by informing General Brandt that the 239th Infantry Division was now at his disposal, as well as Einsatzkommando I/I, the Freikorps Ebbinghaus, and the SS-Standarte "Germania." Busch charged these units with the task of reducing Polish resistance in Katowice and the surrounding area, as well as with securing the important industrial facilities that were located there. The available evidence suggests that the severity of the methods to be employed by Brandt and the Security Police was of little concern to the army given the intensity of Polish resistance. As the war diary of Colonel Wagner indicated, "a difficult battle with [Polish] bands has erupted in [East] Upper Silesia, which can only be broken through the use of draconian measures."
   SS chief Heinrich Himmler apparently agreed with Wagner's assessment of the situation and took the opportunity to issue a directive on 3 September calling for "insurgents" to be "shot on the spot." At the same time, Hitler instructed General Brauchitsch to warn "the population of Upper Silesia that mayors and city councilors, as well as all other community leaders, would guarantee with their lives that no sabotage of any kind, nor attacks by snipers will occur in their hometowns." The following day, Major General Otto von Knobelsdorff, the chief of staff for the 3d Frontier Guards, suspended standing regulations for the troops to capture snipers when possible for trial before a court-martial. Ordering instead that "the troops can only spare themselves bloody losses if irregulars are fought using the most ruthless and severe measures," Knobelsdorff demanded that "civilians found bearing arms be shot immediately!" His orders also stated, however, that German soldiers were only to return fire "when the target is clear," perhaps revealing concern that such an order could have a detrimental effect on the behavior of his men.

   Despite occasional efforts by Army officers to prevent atrocities by special killing squads that accompanied the advance, in almost every case these orders were overruled. Quickly hardened by combat, faced by armed men in civilian garb, often inured to brutal executions of Poles when these incidents were justified and rationalized by orders from higher headquarters, the rank and file of the regular Army was in September 1939 already far from blameless in shedding innocent blood in the name of security, collective punishment, and operational necessity.
   For readers expecting a straightforward explication of combat and maneuver during Case White, this book won't prove very fulfilling. For anyone looking for facts about a previously under-reported dimension of the campaign, Rossino's book provides a shocking eye-opener. Of the four books covered here, we can recommend this as the strongest and most informative.

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Konstam, Angus and Jak Mallmann Showell. Spearhead No. 7: 7th U-Boat Flotilla. Hersham, UK: Ian Allan Publishing, 2003

ISBN 0-7110-2957-1
96 pages

Acknowledgements; Abbreviations; photos; maps; sidebars; OBs; References; Index;

   As the seventh in Ian Allan's Spearhead series, this book follow more of a formulaic approach than the other three reviewed this week, and because of that cookie-cutter style seems a bit less ambitious and a bit less successful. 7th U-Boat Flotilla is also by far the most heavily illustrated of these four books, relying in large measure on photos to convey information, with the text reduced accordingly.
   Following the pattern set for this series, the book opens with "Origins & History," and then cycles through the familiar Spearhead chapters:

  • Ready for War
  • In Action
  • Insignia, Clothing, and Equipment
  • People
  • Assessment

   All the chapters are accompanied by copious photos, maps, diagrams, and sidebars, giving—as usual with this series—a rather magazine-like quality to the book. This approach has worked well for other Spearhead volumes, such as 1st Marine Division, 1st Infantry Division, and Leibstandarte, but here it doesn't succeed quite as much. Why? It seems like in the earlier volumes, more material was directly related to the specific unit being covered in the book. In this volume, however, it seems like there's a preponderance of more general material about the conduct of the U-boat war as a whole and relatively less coverage of the 7th Flotilla itself.

   By the summer of 1943, aircraft were seen as the worst enemy of the U-boat. Flak armament was increased, and boats were re-deployed to the south, around the Azores, which was thought to be beyond Allied air cover. This proved a costly error, as the US Navy deployed five escort carriers in the area, and losses continued. The most dangerous area was now considered the Bay of Biscay, which boats had to cross en route to their hunting grounds. Donitz ordered that boats travel together, to maximise their flak strength. This proved another failure, as the Allies simply attacked in larger formations. Of the 54 U-boats sunk during June and July 1943, 43 were sunk by air attack. Of the seven losses to the flotilla during these two months, aircraft sank four of the boats. There were still over 200 operational U-boats in service, but the Kriegsmarine was beginning to lose more boats than German shipyards could build. Donitz responded by placing a greater emphasis on the construction of new Type XXI (ocean-going) and Type XXIII (coastal) boats, which could stay submerged for longer, and had a greater submerged speed. However, this would not influence the course of the Atlantic campaign and, in the meantime, the U-boat arm was haemorrhaging from heavy losses. Operations were restricted during August and early September, while twin 20mm flak guns were added to most operational U-boats, giving them some improved degree of anti-aircraft protection. The Wanze radar search receivers were also fitted, giving improved warning against aircraft equipped with airborne radar.
   In mid-September 1943 Donitz decided to send his boats back into the North Atlantic, hoping to take advantage of new torpedoes. Some 22 boats of wolfpack 'Leuthen' tried to attack convoys ON.202 and ONS.18, sinking three escorts and six merchant ships, for the loss of three U-boats. One of these was U-338, depth-charged by aircraft off Iceland on 20 September. Worse was to follow. On 27 September U-221 commanded by Hans-Hartwig Trojer was sunk by an air attack off Ireland. Trojer was the last true ace in the flotilla, having sunk just under 70,000 tons of Allied shipping in five patrols. For the first time in two years, the squadron strength had dropped below 20 operational boats. Although the tactics employed by Donitz were effective, his ability to direct his wolfpacks towards convoys was thwarted in part by the Allied ability to read signals transmitted by German Enigma machines. The packs and patrol lines were pulled out of the western Atlantic by October, as Donitz concentrated his dwindling number of boats in the north-east Atlantic, where concentration of force and increased German aerial reconnaissance was expected to overcome the problems encountered in trying to intercept convoys.

   Given that the ground divisions of the other volumes mostly operated as a single, concentrated combat entity, whereas the boats of the flotilla tended to operate individually or in ad hoc wolfpacks, the lack of focus and cohesion in this book is probably unavoidable. This volume is not without value, it's just that most of the material here—not counting the photographs—can be easily extracted from a couple of other more general and readily available sources (including Kenneth Wynn's excellent references and some of co-author Jak P. Mallmann Showell's other works).
   Readers of the other Spearhead books will usually feel like they've learned quite a bit about an individual unit, while readers will probably emerge from this book feeling like they've learned less about a particular unit and more about the U-boat war as a whole. Consequently, it's difficult to recommend this volume as highly as some of the other Spearhead books, but the eye-catching graphics and easily digestible chunks of text will appeal to many U-boat enthusiasts, and of course collectors will want to acquire the entire series.

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Pons, Silvio. Stalin and the Inevitable War, 1936-1941. London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2002

ISBN 0-7146-5198-2
240 pages

Preface; Abbreviations; Prologue; Notes; Epilogue; Bibliography; Index

   Along with Rossino's Hitler Strikes Poland, this is a very scholarly, carefully researched book about events—and the reasons for events—outside the strictly military confines of the war. Where Rossino mostly limits himself to relating facts, Pons adds a large dollop of opinion and interpretation. Indeed, the subject matter of Stalin and the Inevitable War has over the years lent itself repeatedly to various interpretations by multitudes of writers and researchers.
   Pons views the evolution of Soviet policy through several crises leading up to the war: the German re-occupation of the Rhineland, the Spanish civil war, the Soviet purges, the Czech crisis, and the invasion of Poland. For each of these incidents, the book puts under the microscope the threads of Soviet diplomatic responses and the internal context for those responses. Somewhat surprisingly, Pons reveals more disarray and disagreement within the Kremlin than some other writers have detected. The dense text is very heavily footnoted as Pons interweaves Marxist doctrine with internal contradictions and conflicts, notably between Litvinov and Molotov.

   The British and French governments reacted to the Soviet eight-point plan of 17 April 1939 without any zeal. Rather, the Western governments proved themselves once again deeply insensitive to Soviet policy-making, confirming Litvinov's suspicion that the legacy of Munich still haunted Europe. Ten days after the Soviet proposal had been transmitted he was still complaining that he had not received any signal from Seeds. In the meantime, Surits had received a counter-proposal from Bonnet, who wanted a Soviet commitment to assist the Western powers should the USSR become involved in a war against Germany in central and eastern Europe; in exchange, the Western side would provide military assistance if Moscow's entry into such a conflict made it the target of Nazi aggression. On 28 April, in a message to Stalin, Litvinov called Bonnet's counter-proposal 'almost a mockery' since it flouted any reciprocity between French and Soviet commitments. Nevertheless, he conceded that the French had referred to the whole of central and eastern Europe, not only to Poland and Rumania - this was clearly positive.
   However, even after the prompt revision of their formula by the French, there was no agreement on the definition of central and eastern Europe. Within the USSR, a rigid position on the Baltic states was emerging. This was quite different from the position on Lithuania that Litvinov had suggested to Stalin and Molotov when the proposal of 17 April 1939 was being formulated. The British government continued to lie low. On 29 April Maiskii returned to London after several days of briefings in Moscow and promptly met with Halifax, only to be informed that if he wanted the British response to the Soviet proposal he would have to wait. On 3 May Seeds urged Litvinov to be patient for a little longer. On the same day, Litvinov assured Stalin that in his discussions with the French he would insist on the inclusion of the Baltic states among the countries to be guaranteed protection. He would assert the concept of an 'uniform defence' on Europe's eastern front; thus far the Western powers had offered guarantees only to Poland and Romania.
   Litvinov thus found himself in a vice, squeezed on one side by the attitude of the British government and on the other by the limits that Stalin had clearly imposed. After Munich Litvinov's fate had been far from secure, and now he was in a dramatic situation. Should the proposal offered on 17 April fail to draw takers, his role would be over; and it had received an extremely cool response. Chamberlain's foreign-policy shift did not dictate a unique Soviet response. As they decided to take Great Britain's guarantee to Poland seriously, Soviet policy-makers felt that the moment for extending negotiations with the West on the whole east European theatre had perhaps come. In their view, improved security was less a matter of accepting Western proposals, and confrontation with Germany, than of exploiting the German threat to Britain and France to promote a definition of Soviet interests in eastern Europe. And if Hitler's explicitly anti-Polish and anti-British orientation raised the value of Soviet participation in a mutual assistance pact with the Western powers, it might also open the way for an agreement between Germany and the USSR, negotiated according to the blueprint of 'parallel diplomacy' as performed in 1936-37. Should things move in that direction, Litvinov would no longer be indispensable to Stalin.
   On 3 May 1939, the Politburo removed Litvinov from his position as commissar for foreign affairs, ostensibly at his own request; Molotov was nominated to succeed him. On the same day, a telegram personally signed by Stalin informed Soviet diplomats that Litvinov had been dismissed due to a 'serious conflict' with Molotov which had arisen from Litvinov's 'disloyal attitude'. The telegram went on to say that he had asked to be relieved of his duties, and that Molotov would take over the direction of Soviet foreign policy, while retaining his post as leader of Sovnarkom. On 4 May, the Soviet press briefly reported this event without making any reference to 'conflict'.

   Pons has a tendency to split a great many academic and ideological hairs, but he has no truck with crackpot theories such as Stalin "tricking" Hitler into invading the Soviet Union. As to the theory that Stalin was preparing to launch his own pre-emptive strike against Germany, Pons disagrees unequivocably and further concludes that Stalin never relied on a consistent plan to embark upon war in Europe. "Stalin had already ceased to believe that there was any hope of preventing war, and had switched focus into the 'Brest paradigm', which might serve to legitimate a unilateral withdrawal from the European war. Stalin looked at two overlapping scenarios for how war could develop, the '1914 model' and the '1918 model', which between them accounted for the contemporaneous explosive mixture of civil wars and war between great powers. In the aftermath of the European crises, he built his foreign policy in accordance with the belief that a united capitalist bloc was the Soviet Union's main enemy, that every effort should be made to avoid entanglement in a collapsing 'old order' and that a great trench dug across eastern Europe was the best possible protection. He definitely came to see the USSR as embroiled in an unrelenting 'war of position' with the capitalist world. The longstanding cultural implant of this thinking helps us understand why the security concept forged by Stalin on the eve of World War II would survive the failure of Soviet foreign policy in face of the Nazi threat."
   More than any of the other books discussed here, Stalin and the Inevitable War has been written for the specialist and requires by far the most concentration in order to assimilate all of the author's arguments and nuances. Despite the wealth of information extracted from previously inaccessible archives, the book's scholarly nature, professorial tone, dense prose, and thicket of footnotes will probably put off all but the most serious readers and researchers.

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   All of these books are available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from the publishers or their distributors.
   Thanks to the publishers and/or distributors for providing these review copies.

Reviewed 30 March 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone
 

 

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