This is the first of a two part series covering the strategically important battles for control of the Dvina-Dnepr River defense zone which includes Smolensk, the important communication center and gateway to Moscow. Smolensk, on the Dnepr, and the surrounding area that is bracketed by Velikie Luki / Toropets to the north and Krichev / Roslavl to the south is the primary battle zone.
This is the area Stalin, with the help of his new reserve armies, wanted to stop and destroy AGC led by Guderian's 2nd PzG and Hoth's 3rd PzG and supported by the 9th, 4th and 2nd Armies. Though having greater manpower, the Red Army had fewer modern tanks to stop the panzers but the lack of T-34s was compensated for by effective artillery. Involved with their fragmented defense and the eventual counter offensives would be the Western, Reserve, Bryansk and Central Fronts.
Along with the above background info, Mr Glantz describes prewar doctrine, the plans for Operation Barbarossa, lists opposing forces, casualties to date, and the disadvantages the Germans would face in Russia then highlights the phenomenal advance of the Panzer Groups in the first weeks of war before starting the battle action. Stalin's plans to stop the Germans at the Rivers with his reserves is then discussed. This preamble is not only interesting but an imperative for most of us. In addition to the big picture, the ebb and flow of the daily sometimes hourly maneuverings will be presented through sitreps with the thoughts, concerns and reactions of the key commanders as they counter the enemy's advance. I find this coverage of this micro planning process most engaging, making the battle more real, personal but the author takes this practice to the limit. Any more of these reports and it would overpower his own narrative.
The main coverage begins on July 10th as the Germans were advancing on the key towns of Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev near the Dnepr River and will continue until August 24th. By that time the city of Smolensk and parts of the surrounding area had been captured but there is much left to do to secure the surrounding areas around the important towns of Yartsevo, Yelnya, Roslavl as well as liquidating the surviving pockets before diverting to Kiev. The tactical description is very good. Units of both sides are included as is the impact of terrain and weather conditions, logistics or if artillery was involved.
The author will show in his usual competent style, backed by diary entries and situation reports of all levels the operational details, usually down to division level, of these horrific battles that would cost both sides severely. Especially noteworthy is the coverage of the siege of Mogilev, closing the Smolensk pocket and the fanatical fighting in the Solovevo corridor. Also important is the Velikie Luki Counter, the assault on Geyr's 24th PzC, the Timoshenko's Offensive of 7/23, the Counter at Yelnya and the Dukhovshchina Offensive in mid August to name just a few. The Russians made little gains for their trouble but inflicted high casualties and demoralized the German forces. It gave Stalin time to form more armies to protect Moscow. The Russian resistance was so severe, it persuaded Hitler to go after easier prey on the flanks and had AGC slow the offensive in the center (Directives 33, 34) and sent Hoth north and Guderian to Kiev to help AGS.
Besides good coverage of the command decisions of Hoth and Guderian, the author also discusses Kluge, Bock, Weichs and Strauss as well as Timoshenko, Rokossovsky, Zhukov, Lukin, Kachalov, Kurochkin, Yeremenko and Konev on the Soviet side. Prior to the actual battle, the author presents the plans of the offensive giving the reader a better understanding of how the battle is to be prosecuted. Using communiques from dictators to the battlefield, Stalin's obsession to always attack and Hitler's impatience, indecision and changes in objectives is well covered. Its interesting to watch Hitler and Halder go from highly confident to seriously concern as the German war machine gets shredded. Hitler realizes the Soviets were far from vanquished and at a time when his panzer strength was at its lowest level and their supply lines the longest.
In addition to the extensive ground coverage, Mr Glantz also provides poignant analysis and conclusions throughout the book to help the reader gain a fuller appreciation of the battle action and the ramifications that will emerge from those battles. Some of his conclusions are: the Germans had tactical momentum but the price they were paying for their gains was too high and was unsustainable. Besides the lengthy delay and high casualties, supplies were exhausted, the panzers and trucks that remain were worn out and in need of major repairs. These shortages so early in the war would not bode well as the war stretches beyond the limits of Barbarossa. Both 3rd and 2nd PzGs, besides needing time to refit, had been delayed in redeploying to the flanks to help take Leningrad and Kiev respectively. As AGC moved further east the front line expanded, placing greater strain on its forces not to mention the ever growing supply lines.
The German command were arguing terribly and losing cohesion among themselves over the current battle and the plans for Moscow regarding diverting to Kiev. The German Command was clearly irrational, desperate; their forces were exhausted and poorly supplied, machinery poorly maintained and the rainy season and then winter fast approaching. Hitler and his generals were well aware of how Napoleon lost his Army in 1812 but they ignored all logic and history and pursued the impossible dream: Moscow. Its also pointed out that by August with German over-extension and with panzer divisions at less than half strength if Timoshenko had better communications, coordination and logistics with his armies, the German losses would have been greater. With Mr Glantz's level of detail and insight, the ramifications of this battle was having on both sides is clearly spelled out. In the final concise "Conclusion" chapter, the author hints at what is to come in the second volume due to Hitler's decision to move his armor to the flanks.
The many maps show the daily progress of the German pincers slowly, hypnotically closing around the Soviet armies near Smolensk. Maps for August show the little progress at the line that includes Yartsevo, Yelnya and Roslavl. The key cities and rivers are shown and will be handy landmarks from which you'll be able to follow the action. These maps will be essential in following the densely packed narrative and are spread out throughout the book so that the proper map is always near. Map pointers are given to show the relevant map. Some of the maps are recent creations and cover the sector while smaller area maps are original German maps. The newer maps have better clarity but less detail, not showing all the locations in the narrative. A few maps are slightly darken or blurred and are harder to study. Some maps have text typed over the map that blocks out features. A number of sector maps were missing Army boundary lines. There are also 28 photos of the key commanders; many photos are only thumbnail in size.
There are extensive Endnotes that provides additional ancillary info and an Bibliography if further study is desired. Knowing German or Russian will help. Within the Appendix and throughout the book, there are abbreviated Orders of Battle for both sides. These OBs are an excellent reference if needed. A useful Index is also provided that break down commanders, units, battles, cities and rivers.
This critical sector saw some of the harshest, complicated series of attacks, counterattacks and pocket liquidations that were sending troops in every direction, making an operational nightmare for the officers in 1941 but Mr Glantz does an excellent job of simplifying these complexities and with the use of the many maps and tables an interested reader will be able to follow the action and gain a true appreciation of this strategically critical struggle that saw the Soviets, despite the costs, succeed in slowing the German advance and eliminate the ability of Germany to win the war in 1941.
This book nearly rivals the author's "Armageddon" for comprehensiveness and definition but for those who enjoyed it should still like this one as well. If you're new to reading Glantz, you should be warned that this book is technically challenging requiring your full attention and with little anecdotal experiences may be considered dry. In providing a few aspects of the battle, I've tried to show the potential reader a glimpse of how much information the author has researched and choreographed into his book. Though it must also be said that the Russian side dominates this book and while the German side is not overlooked there were times throughout the book when, I felt, there could have been more to the German side. A prime example concerns the assault on Mogilev. While the details of the Russian garrison to hold the city and the relief attempts to free that garrison was comprehensive, the German maneuvers to take the city were clearly lacking. You had to see some of the German assault vicariously through Russian eyes. In a few instances confirming data was thin. This is the area where "Armageddon" has the edge. Despite the minor criticism, the volume of info presented is far above anything I've read before, making this book five stars.
From my perspective and despite the criticism, I recognize and appreciate the author's huge effort and time invested in providing the history of this pivotal campaign and for anyone who is seriously interested in the eastern front, this is a must read book and is highly recommended.