Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Marshall KK Rokossovsky: The Red Army’s Gentleman Commander - Dr Boris Sokolov

This review has been submitted to the Canadian Army Journal

Title: Marshall KK Rokossovsky: The Red Army’s Gentleman Commander
Author: Dr Boris Sokolov
ISBN: 978-1-909982-10-9
Publisher: Helion Publishing
Year: 2015
Pages: 493
Photographs/Maps: 23/11

History is replete with biographies of US, Canadian, British and German Commanders from the Second World War; however, there is a marked lack of in-depth commander studies from the Russian perspective that have not been skewed through the Soviet lens. Marshall Rokossovsky is a case in point. One of the finest Commanders of the Second World War, a Pole who considered himself to be Russian but was never truly trusted or accepted by either, a Bolshevik, victim of Stalin’s purges and a cavalryman who began his military career in 1916, Rokossovsky life and career represented a microcosm of the potential, good and bad of the Soviet Union. A humble yet driven commander he lacked a formal higher education but was an avid student of the martial arts. He was deeply involved throughout the Barbarossa Campaign commencing as a Corps Commander in June, 1941, ending as a Front Commander in 1945 and ended his career as the Chief Inspector of the Soviet Army and Deputy Minister of Defense.

Sokolov is very upfront that he holds Rokossovsky in the highest regard as both an Officer and a man. Alone amongst the Marshall’s he did not resort to threats or intimidation nor did he directly order the execution of any subordinates. He was a driven Commander who held the lives of his soldiers in the highest regard. Nevertheless, the author is balanced in his appraisal of the Marshall and does not hesitate to highlight areas of weakness as well as strength. His assessment of Rokossovsky as a strategist and maneuver warfare specialist clearly identifies that, while competent, he was not a master of his craft; rather his strength lay in his leadership and motivation of his soldiers and officers, the drawing upon their skill sets and his willingness to accept risk and make decisions.

There was not a great deal of source material available for this book left by Rokossovsky, therefore, Sokolov drew upon primary sources in the Russian archives, recollections of former subordinates and colleagues as well as family members and histories. The material reflects the challenges of separating the chaff and wheat in terms of the written recollections of the Soviet era. Typical of this period was a tendency of commanders to modify their reports to place them in a better light. Sokolov has done an excellent job at identifying instances of this and using alternate sources to draw attention to these inconsistencies. He has provided insight into his subject’s strengths and weaknesses through an in depth analysis of the challenges that Rokossovsky faced during his career. Consistent throughout were four themes: his love of family, his struggle with Polish/Russian identity, his loyalty and responsibility to the soldiers under his command and his avoidance of any criticism of Stalin despite his horrible experiences at Stalin’s direction.

Stuart Britton once again has provided an excellent translation from the original Russian and Helion, the publisher, has produced a book of the highest quality. Sokolov deserves high praise for his work and the attention that he has brought to a little known but superb Russian Commander. His writing style is quite different from traditional Western authors as it reverts periodically to an almost spoken text; however this only requires getting used to and does not take away from the quality of the research. He also provides a selected bibliography, unfortunately for the Western reader it primarily refers to Russian sources. A very interesting and engaging read.

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