Sunday, June 16, 2013

Book Review 285: The Battle of the Tanks, Kursk, 1943

THE BATTLE OF THE TANKS, KURSK, 1943, by Lloyd Clark. 468 pages, illustrated. Atlantic Monthly, $30

When the western Allies finally opened the “real” second front in June 1944, Stalin was underwhelmed. The panicky calls for a “second front now” in 1942 were genuine.

The Soviets had defeated the Germans in September 1941 -- the Wehrmacht was weakening each day after that -- and if they could hold on, they would win whether or not there was a second front. But it was not clear they could hold on.

It would be interesting to know what was going on in that massive but convoluted brain of Stalin’s. By 1944, did he even want a second front? The help of the western democracies would shorten and cheapen the war for Russia, but Stalin took long views and was, so far as anyone can tell, unaffected by immediate costs.

With no invasion in western Europe, the old revolutionary would have had a free hand in Europe.

The battle of Kursk finally made it clear to anyone that Germany would not prevail. Lloyd Clark calls it “the greatest set piece battle in the history of war.”

“The Battle of the Tanks” is a disappointing look at it. The book has many good points, although the maps are not one of them. But despite its considerable length, it leaves much untouched.

For example, since this was the biggest tank battle of all time (although it is a grim thing to recognize that the tank battles in southwest Asia in 1973, between insignificant states, not superpowers, were in a similar class), it would have been well to have a summary of the characteristics of the various armored vehicles. This is available, in mind-numbing detail, elsewhere in the books designed to attract the creepy armchair war lovers, but it ought to have been here, too.

Clark relies heavily on the Red Army and English war correspondents, which is a good thing. Less use is made of the German reporters. It is hard to guess why.

Clark hammers the theme of flawed intelligence on the German side. The paranoid police state isolation of the USSR turned out to be a huge strategic asset. The Germans  had no real idea about how big Soviet industrial might had become and always underestimated it.

Considering that they (the Nazis, anyway) were supposed to  be intellectual disciples of Karl Haushofer who predicted the greatest concentration of political-economic power would be in the “world island,” which was, broadly, the USSR, this is surprising -- if we grant that the Nazis thought very deeply about anything, which they didn’t.

But even at the tactical level, the Germans (like the Japanese) had a fatal tendency to define rather than investigate their enemy. Clark states it well:

“From their many intelligence sources, the Soviets gained a full and well-rounded picture of their enemy and his intentions. But they made a concerted attempt to disguise this from the Germans, allowing them to think that they had maintained operational surprise by leaving them to go about their business unmolested.”

The Germans advanced into a trap. The Russians had prepared a defense of unbelievable depth. The Russian preparation was on a level of genius like Wellington’s at Torres Vedras.

There are a few errors indicating poor editorial work. The Nazis were not the largest party in the Reichstag at the end of the Weimar republic; General Warlimont’s name was Walter, not Alfred; and a few more.

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