Thursday, 31 December 2015

Barbarossa Unleashed - Craig W H Luther

This review has been submitted to the Journal of the RCAF

Title: Barbarossa Unleashed
Author: Craig W H Luther
ISBN: 978-0-7643-4376-6
Publisher: Schiffer
Year: 2013
Pages: 712
Photographs/maps: 185/23 handout

The number of books written about the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941 is legion. Thus it is that in order to stand out, a book must have some aspect of it that makes it unique  from the others; Luther's book has two. The first focuses upon the build-up to Barbarossa; not just the political and operational planning - that has been well covered - but the logistical detail and execution. Secondly, he limits (and I use the term loosely given the detail of the book) his narrative to the operations of Army Group Centre and its drive on Moscow. This narrowing of the scope of Luther's book highlights for the reader the immense challenges associated with Barbarossa and, most importantly from a learning perspective, what was done well by both the Soviet's and Germans and what was not.

Logistics is not an exciting field of military operations and planning and many of the histories of Barbarossa, while acknowledging it, pay only a cursory nod to the critical role that it played as well as the amount of work it took to execute as well as plan effectively. Luther does not do this; dedicating a full quarter of his work to the German planning, pre-deployment and deployment phases of the operation. The sheer numbers and complexity of the buildup and movement of the forces involved (for Army Group Centre alone) is staggering: well over 127,000 tons of ammunition, 52,000 tons of fuel, 45,800 tons of rations (these values equated to 20 days of supply only), millions of men and horses, vehicles and equipment from across Europe, in secret, to staging areas along the Soviet/German border. The movement tables for the railway system show hundreds of trains flowing the resources east; a five phased operation over a period February to June and entailing over 220 trains per day at its peak. Luther has done an excellent job highlighting this phenomenal success and providing an appreciation of the scope, distance and complexity of this undertaking.

He also goes beyond simply the reiteration of fact and provides the reader with an analysis of why the Germans arrived at the planning assumptions that they did and how that ultimately affected the outcome of the operation. He draws clear and concise lines of evaluation between a decision at the planning stage and its trickle down effect through the operational and tactical levels of execution. He also emphasizes the flexibility of the German support system with his discussion of the last minute decision to move 8 Air Corps across the lines of deployment. This decision to change the operational area of this massive organization (over 8000 vehicles alone) had the potential to derail the entire eastern deployment; that it did not was testament to the capability of the German logistics system.

Luther has drawn upon an extensive series of sources from both the Soviet and German archives as well as a massive amount of secondary sources. Each chapter is provided with its own end-notes thereby facilitating quick and timely review by the reader. As he transitions from the build-up to the execution phase of the campaign it is interesting that he maintains the balance between the frontline operations, the growing logistical challenges and the impact of the continued dysfunction between the strategic priorities of Hitler and those of OKW. His writing style seamlessly flows between these aspects and he brings a critical eye to his  evaluation of the impacts of these challenges.

His focus is upon the German onslaught to the gates of Moscow but he does incorporate into his study an analysis of the strengths and weakness of the Soviet military and its operational capacities. In doing so he provides a clear control line for the reader in terms of an evaluation of the capabilities of the adversaries.

The book itself is a very healthy tome. Included with it are a series of operational maps (in German) of the various periods leading up to the December battles outside of Moscow. The production value of the book is high and the text easily readable.

Luther has written a comprehensive and deeply analytical study of the lead up, launch and task execution of Army Group Centre in the monumental Barbarossa operation. This could be a very dry and dusty recitation of statistics and movements; however, he avoids this through a dynamic and engaging style that incorporates both an operational canvas and personal facets for the soldiers involved. His review of the logistics challenges married with the flawed intelligence and planning assumptions and evaluations go far in explaining how and why the Germans reached the zenith of their offensive capability literally at the gates of Moscow. Highly recommended as a an addition to any library on the Second World War. 

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