Friday, June 7, 2013

Book Review 282: The Men of Barbarossa

THE MEN OF BARBAROSSA: Commanders of the German Invasion of Russia, 1941, by Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. 296 pages, illustrated. Casemate, $32.95

I cannot figure out the point of Samuel Mitcham's book. A study of the leadership of the biggest military operation in history (up to that time) and why it failed would be valuable. But “The Men of Barbarossa” is not that.

We are given the postings of the various commanders when they were junior officers, which tells us nothing about their development as commanders. Sometimes we are told the names of their daughters, or at times that they were unhappily married.

Apparently Mitcham put in whatever he had, without any thought.

There is not even a general discussion about the education and training of German officers. This can be found elsewhere but should have been found here, too.

Most went from gymnasium (high school) to a cadet school, producing a caste of men with narrow outlooks and vast areas about which they were ignorant. With the Nazi officers, the situation was different. Some were highly educated in the civilian system (many doctorates), and some were basically dropouts.

As a result, these men were incapable of understanding even simple management questions. Here and there, Mitcham (who clearly knows a lot about the subject) drops a factoid that illuminates.

Georg Thomas, one of the rare educated generals, who headed the economics office, tried to tell the operational leadership that the manpower replacements available in late 1941 were no more than about 430,000 men.

If the German army suffered more than 430,000 casualties, it would start weakening. This mark was passed in September, when Russia had won the war.

No one (except perhaps Thomas) knew it at the time, but the decision had been achieved – so long as the Russians were able to replace their losses, which they did.

Also, there is no discussion of a very obvious problem faced by the German army in its officer supply. Every historian of the Russo-German mentions, at greater or less length, the handicap faced by the Red Army because most of its trained officers had been murdered in 1937-38.

Few, if any – although this book by Mitcham would be an obvious place for the topic to be addressed – bother to note that the Germans faced the exact same problem.

They had not shot nearly as many of their experienced officers as the Russians had, but the number of experienced officers they had was small (because of the Versailles Treaty restrictions), and not nearly enough to staff an army that was 40 times larger (by the opening of Barbarossa) than it had been eight years earlier.

But Mitcham does not discuss this either.

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