Saturday, 7 July 2018

Blood in the Forest: The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket - Vincent Hunt

This review has been submitted to Canadian Army Today Magazine.

Title: Blood in the Forest: The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket
Author: Vincent Hunt
ISBN: 978-1-91151-206-6
Publisher: Helion Publishing
Year: 2017
Pages: 268
Photos/Maps: 38/6

While the world’s attention was focussed upon the dramatic race between the US and British forces in the West and the Soviet forces in the East racing towards Berlin, a cataclysmic struggle was unfolding on a small (relatively) expanse of land jutting out into the Baltic Sea from Latvia: the Courland Pocket. Germany had to hold onto the ports and facilities in this region to continue to give it an area within which to develop and build its new u-boat fleet (free from the strategic bombers of the West) and to deny the Soviets unfettered access to the Baltic Sea. The Soviets, for their part, viewed this region as not only part of their empire occupied by the Germans but as a breakaway region (Latvia) that needed to be reconquered and occupied.

Over a half-million soldiers were involved in the fighting on both sides. Interestingly, the Germans were able to maintain their logistical support lines due to the port facilities at Liepaja and Ventspils. As a result, and also due to the constricted lines of approach open to the Soviets, the Germans and their Allies were able to hold off the Soviets despite six distinct Army level battles between October, 1944 and May, 1945. Over that period the Germans were pushed back but retained over two-thirds of the territory originally held at the commencement of the fighting.

Unique to this campaign was the distribution of Latvian nationals fighting for both protagonists (Soviet and German). The reasons for doing so were varied and in many cases did not involve a choice; nevertheless, families were often divided and members found themselves fighting each other on opposite sides. Adding additional complexity to the region was the asymmetric fighting going on behind both the German and Soviet lines involving a myriad of groups oftentimes fighting each other as well as the ‘occupiers’.

The author has adopted a distinctive approach to his writing that initially is somewhat distracting until the reader adapts to it. As opposed to drafting an exclusively historical narrative to describe the events of the period, he has interwoven a discussion of his modern day travels throughout the region, his meetings with survivors and a rendition of the period events of the battles. He also discusses issues not directly related to the base line narrative such as the experiences of Vaira Vike-Freiberga the former President of Latvia who was a young girl during the period of the war. While these stories perhaps add overall context to the environment, they do not add to the discussion of the specifics of the Courland struggle.

What the author has presented well is the complexity of the societal aspects of the fighting. There was no question in anyone’s minds that the Germans were not going to prevail. Given that, the Latvians were looking to promises made by the Allied governments that they would be granted independence once Germany had surrendered; they therefore wished to facilitate this by preventing a reoccupation by the Soviets by assisting the Germans in resistance. They were therefore caught on the horns of a dilemma as they desperately tried to find a way out of the vice of the German and Soviet Armies. Hunt does a commendable job explaining and analyzing the motivations and hopes of the different protagonists. As he notes however, he was not able to get a perspective from the Russian side as no veterans from the conflict could be found.

An interesting and thoughtful book that would be further enhanced by being read in conjunction with a more detailed account of the Courland Pocket military campaign. The text serves as an excellent multifaceted analysis of the modern and historical impacts of the fighting. It is worth a read.

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