Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Into Oblivion - Jason D Mark

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in The Canadian Army Journal. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the journal. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor Canadian Army Journal ( Website for the Journal is:

Title: Into Oblivion: Kharkov to Stalingrad: The Story of Pionier-Bataillon 305
Author: Jason D. Mark
Publisher: Leaping Horseman Books
ISBN: 978-0-9922749-0-0
Pages: 611
Photographs: 334 b/w, 50 maps

The art of creating engaging history is a rare gift. It requires the author to present the material of the past in such a way as to capture the imagination and interest of a reader with little to no connection with the period in question. Jason Mark has once again risen to the challenge and surpassed the mark with his book ‘Into Oblivion’.
This unit, Pionier-Battalion (P-B) 305, part of the 305th “Bodensee” Infantry Division, was not exceptional, it was not elite nor was it key to a particular victory. It was made up of soldiers that were serving occupation duty in France when transferred to the Eastern Front in 1942. Like any unit, it had stronger and weaker members, the vast majority being average (although I would submit that any soldier engaged in fighting in WW2 was anything but average).

Mark has seamlessly interwoven a tactical, very personal story of the 305th P-B within an operational and strategic context; thus the reader is much better able to conceptualize what is being experienced by the soldiers. This ‘living history’ stems from many first hand sources but, primarily, the personal notes and photographs of Oberleutnant Grimm a veteran of the 305th P-B and survivor of not just the war, but heavy combat during the Battle of Stalingrad (he was furloughed on 14 Nov and could not rejoin his unit afterward) and the remainder of the war.  

The maps and photographs correspond closely to the narrative and provide in-depth visual references for the reader. One begins to appreciate the excessive toll that the eastern front took on soldiers, horses and equipment as, for example, marching 12 km’s took eight hours in the clinging mud. Additionally, the description of the effort required by the pioniers to destroy a single T-34 (before the advent of the panzerfaust) is terrifying; reinforcing the accomplishment relating to the award of the Tank Destruction Badge. 

Mark augments his narrative with numerous foot and end notes that add depth and dimension to the story. Additionally, he includes, as appendices, listings of individual biographies of the officers of the battalion, staffing rosters and iron crosses awarded and an in-depth bibliography. He also closes off the history of the Battalion with detailed descriptions of the post-Stalingrad experiences of the survivors (of which there were six from the Battalion); it is both sobering and sad.  

What is also fascinating about the nature of this narrative is the insight it provides into the German tactical and operational doctrine. How units interacted between themselves, degrees of interoperability between the Luftwaffe (Air Force) and the Army, the expectation/training for tactical command and the relationship between the officers and senior NCO’s is all discussed through the lens of the correspondence of the soldiers themselves as well as through unit histories and battle reports. Also, the reader comes to appreciate the changes in Russian tactics in 1942 and the challenges that it presented the German High Command as they strove to develop plans to counter the Russian retreats and the soldiers as they exhausted themselves (and their logistics) trying to keep in contact. 

This book is a thought provoking and humbling expose on the experiences of war from the very 'coalface' of conflict. The author has presented his subject as they would have wanted it; in their own words without embellishment. He has framed their experiences into the greater canvas of the war in 1942 in southern Russia, leading up to and including the conflagration that was Stalingrad. For the historian, professional or casual, this book is a vital addition to anyone’s library. 

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