Frank Ellis reviews an updated account of an epic struggle
David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, Revised and Expanded edition, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2015, Appendices, Index, Maps, Tables, Bibliography, pp. xv + pp.557, ISBN 978-0-7006–2121-7
When Titans Clashed was first published in 1995, and the authors, as they note, benefitted from the first wave of the declassified release of archival material resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Such, meanwhile, has been the accumulation of monographs on the war and the release of new archival material that the authors considered it necessary to update the 1995 publication.
The title itself raises two problems: in terms of manpower and matériel the Soviet Union was indeed a TITAN, Germany was a titan; nor did the Red Army stop Hitler. True, Soviet losses in dead, wounded and devastation went way beyond anything endured by Britain and the United States but without the Anglo-American Alliance the Soviet Union alone would not have stopped Hitler. I wonder whether Hitler, towards the end of the war when Germany was facing defeat, looked back at the summer of 1940 and realised that the failure to have captured or to have destroyed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Dunkirk, within his grasp, was the moment when Germany lost the war. Churchill politically could have survived the capture or the destruction of the BEF. He would have been replaced and his successor would have concluded a deal with Hitler.
Soviet and Russian historians, and, it seems, Glantz and House, might not like it but Britain’s survival in 1940 was to have immensely beneficial and profound consequences for the survival of Stalin’s empire. Had Britain been compelled to do a deal with Hitler in 1940 or been invaded and conquered there would have been no war on two fronts for Hitler and the entire strategic situation in Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa and Middle East would have turned in Germany’s favour. There would have been no British troops in North Africa, the Mediterranean would have become an Axis lake, there would have been no RAF bombing of German cities and industry, no resistance movements in German-occupied Europe being supplied and directed from London and no Second Front. All the advanced industries of Western Europe would now be under German control and geared to the war in the East. It is doubtful that the Soviet Union could have survived under those circumstances. So yes, the Red Army played a major role in defeating Hitler but it did not defeat Hitler on its own, nor could it have done so.
Later in the book the authors make the claim, totally outrageous from a British perspective, that ‘In the course of 1942 and early 1943, however, Great Britain and the United States made a small but growing contribution to the struggle against Hitler’. The United States, of course, did not enter the war until December 1941 by which time Britain had been at war for over two years. Not only does the Glantz/House claim ignore the British victory at El Alamein but it also fails to take into account that the most important contributions made by Britain were: (i) escaping from Dunkirk; (ii) defeating the Luftwaffe; and (iii) winning the intelligence war against Germany. If Britain had been defeated and invaded in 1940 it was game over for Stalin.
When Titans Clashed falls into four parts: the prelude 1918-1941; the first phase of the war from June 1941-November 1942; the second phase from November 1942 – December 1943 and the final phase from January 1944 – May 1945. Using new material, the authors update not just their 1995 publication but, in effect, others written by John Erickson and Earl Ziemke. The book comes with a mass of appendices, very detailed endnotes and an excellent bibliography, though this is marred by a number of idiosyncratic and incorrect translations of Russian-language titles. The updated operational narrative is the most important contribution made by the authors. The problems begin, at least for this reviewer, with the way in which the authors interpret Soviet performance, since they argue that the German defeat in the East was due more to Soviet superiority in leadership, planning and execution and less to sheer weight of men and equipment, a central contention in most German post-1945 memoirs. So the key matter is whether the authors’ view of a reborn Red Army, one that managed to absorb the lessons of modern war and then take them to a new stage, can withstand scrutiny.
The authors claim that in the mid 1930s the Soviet Union was the world leader in military planning and well ahead of its German counterparts in theoretical terms. I remain unconvinced. Heinz Guderian’s book, Achtung Panzer!, was not published until 1937 but it is quite clear that German thinking on armoured warfare was a matter of great concern
and interest for German commanders before the mid 1930s. Undeterred, the authors claim: ‘Large operational-level employment of panzer forces was still an experiment even in the 1940 campaign’. Again, I am bound to dissent. The first real test of the German armoured forces came in Poland in 1939 and the lessons and experiences of that campaign were studied and incorporated in preparation for the summer campaign of 1940. Completely absent from the Glantz & House summary is any mention of Major-General John Fuller who was way ahead of Tukhachevskii and Triandafillov in his appreciation of armoured warfare. The outstanding military Soviet theorist of the interwar period was Georgii S. Isserson whose appreciation of the new German approach to war – the relentless build up of forces on a potential foe’s borders such that an invasion can start without any preliminary, open mobilization, as was the case in World War I – identified what was to happen on 22nd June 1941. Two weeks before the German invasion Isserson was arrested and sentenced to death. The death penalty was commuted to ten years in a forced-labour camp, with five years loss of any rights upon release.
With regard to the two leaders, Glantz and House tell us that: ‘Like Hitler, he [Stalin] valued loyalty, orthodoxy, and intellectual subservience’. Of the two leaders Hitler was far more willing to consider the unorthodox, the innovative and the unexpected. The most obvious example and one which led to the most perfect military campaign of WWII was Hitler’s backing of von Manstein’s plan to send the tanks through the Ardennes despite considerable opposition from other generals. Hitler recognised that such was the boldness of the plan that it would completely wrong foot the Anglo-French leadership, which it did. In 1936 the orthodox view was that any move by Germany against the Rhineland would invite a military response from France. Hitler sensed the mood, dared and won. Moreover, there are plenty of examples where German generals stood up to Hitler. Hitler respected soldiers who stood their ground and argued their case. When Red Air Force head, General-lieutenant Pavel Rychagov, Hero of the Soviet Union, told Stalin that the reason why so many Soviet planes crashed was because they were flying coffins, Stalin told him that he ought not to have said that. Two days after the start of the war Rychagov was arrested. He was shot by the NKVD in October 1941.
In August 1939 the Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov and his German counterpart, von Ribbentrop concluded their Non-Aggression Pact initiating a new and glorious relationship of mutual respect, fraternal love and trust between Hitler (‘the bloody assassin of the workers’) and Stalin (‘the scum of the earth’). The Pact made possible the German-Soviet invasion of Poland and led to deliveries of valuable raw material to Germany. It was during this period of German-Soviet occupation of Poland that the NKVD murdered Polish prisoners of war at Katyn and other sites in the spring of 1940. Glantz and House give the number of Poles murdered by the NKVD as 15,131 when it was, in fact, 21,857. The relevant endnote is also in error since a number of files dealing with Katyn are still classified in the Russian Federation.
From Hitler’s point of view the Pact provided the ideal cover for German preparations to invade the Soviet Union (Unternehmen Barbarossa), and these preparations confront us with Stalin’s failure to heed the avalanche of intelligence data which over the months from December 1940 to June 1941 unambiguously pointed to hostile German intent. Glantz and House explain Stalin’s failure thus:
In retrospect, the most serious Soviet failure was neither strategic or tactical surprise but institutional surprise. In June 1941, the Red Army and Air Force were in transition, changing their organization, leadership, equipment, training, troop dispositions, and defensive plans. Had Hitler attacked four years earlier or even one year later, the Soviet armed forces would have been more than a match for the Wehrmacht.
The authors’ reliance on institutional surprise to explain not just the catastrophic intelligence failures – essentially Stalin’s – does not convince this reviewer at all. In any case, in Marxist-Leninist terms “institutions” and “superstructure” reflect the class nature of the state. To begin with, why, in June 1941, were the Red Army and Air Force undergoing all the upheavals noted by the authors? These upheavals arose from the wretched performance of the Red Army against the Finns, the terrifying awareness of just
what the Wehrmacht could do (Poland and France, for example, and brutally clear to Isserson), the dire and long-lasting consequences of Stalin’s purges, and an awareness that German armoured doctrine and leadership were inherently superior to anything Soviet. The failings of the Red Army in the war against Finland were themselves due to consequences stemming from the purges, so any changes which had to be introduced in the Red Army after the Winter War were also a direct consequence of the purges (Stalin). In fact, Glantz and House have earlier conceded Stalin’s responsibility for what happened in June 1941 when they noted, correctly, that ‘Stalin systematically purged all aspects of Soviet society, turning to the army in 1937’. Exactly: Stalin is guilty as charged. Stalin’s radio address, made on 3rd July 1941, 11 days after the start of the German invasion, also provides a strong hint that Stalin knew he had been deceived and outwitted by Hitler. In 1942, Stalin’s belief that the German offensive would be directed against Moscow and not to the south constitutes yet another intelligence failure.
Institutional changes were required because Red Army commanders, and even Stalin, realised that Marxist-Leninist slogans and agitprop were not going to stop German tanks. Thus the wider institutional changes taking place in June 1941 were themselves the outcome of earlier institutional changes (institutional change as a euphemism for mass murder, mass and selective terror, genocide and mass incarceration). True enough, there was a change in the military leadership taking place and one that went on after 22nd June 1941. Pavlov and many other Western Front commanders were executed by Stalin and Beria’s NKVD kept up the judicial murder in Kuibyshev, executing 25 prisoners including senior military figures in October 1941. Rychagov was one of those executed.
Why were changes in troop dispositions needed? By invading Poland in September 1939, and so being a prime cause of World War II along with NS-Germany and then later annexing (invading in plain English) Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well invading Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia, Stalin extended the borders of his Soviet Empire so making massive changes in troop dispositions and planning chaos inevitable. Again, it was all well and good to get the military commissars out of the way after the Finnish disaster but the mindset which encouraged incompetent Red Army commanders always to be looking over their shoulders could not be eradicated by a decree. Another critical failure on the part of Stalin was the infamous TASS communiqué of 13th June 1941 in which the Soviet regime obviously terrified by rumours of impending war between Germany and the Soviet Union, tried to play them down. Soviet denials of any German threat just 9 days before the invasion merely added to the confusion and disorientation among Red Commanders when the day came.
As soon as the Germans struck and the Red Army fell apart, Stalin reintroduced the military commissars that did nothing for effective command and control, never mind morale. According to the authors ‘This renewal of party influence and terror was unnecessary, since most soldiers were doing their utmost without such threats’. This defence is unconvincing in the light of the earlier point that ‘Organisation and command differentiate armies from mobs, but for the Red Army, both organisation and command dissolved rapidly’. Stalin, terrified of total collapse, resorted to the terror methods of the Civil War and Purges. The fact that the odious Lev Mekhlis, a complete military defective, was ever allowed to play any role in policing the military speaks for itself.
In order to restore some semblance of order the NKVD resorted to blocking detachments (zagraditel’nye otriady). One of their functions was to round up stragglers and deserters and get them back to military units as soon as possible. According to Glantz and House: ‘Both sides resorted to straggler control to maintain strength in the combat units, but this process has acquired a sinister and unjustified reputation with regard to the Red Army’. There are many compelling reasons why NKVD blocking detachments and, indeed, the whole process of dealing with Red Army soldiers separated from their units, have acquired this reputation. Firstly, any Soviet soldier who had been in a unit which had been encircled by the Germans and then managed to return to Soviet lines was regarded with profound suspicion by the NKVD. These soldiers were referred to as okruzhentsy, literally those who have been in encirclement. Okruzhentsy can be translated into English variously as ‘encirclement-escapee’, ‘encirclement-survivor’ or ‘encirclement-returner’. Assumed to have done something wrong, they were subjected to a process of fil’tratsiia (filtration). Regardless of whether they were deemed to be innocent of any wrong doing, they continued to be regarded with suspicion by the Special Section of the NKVD if they were returned to their units. Secondly, at moments of extreme crisis – Moscow 1941 and Stalingrad 1942 – the level of arbitrary behaviour on the part of the NKVD blocking detachments increased. Tired, hungry, fearful and cold soldiers caught up in the NKVD drag net could not always satisfy their interrogators and the NKVD operated on the principle of when in doubt execute.
Thirdly, Stalin’s two brutal orders – № 270 (16th August 1941) and № 227 (28th July 1942) – positively encouraged arbitrary and summary actions on the part of the NKVD. Such in the summer of 1941 was the speed of the German advance that the NKVD unable to evacuate prisoners to the rear, executed them in situ. It can also be noted that between 22nd June 1941 and 1st December 1941 a total of 14,473 Red Army soldiers were executed. 14,473 executions between 22nd June 1941 and 1st December 1941 gives a monthly average of circa 2,895. Thus the much-cited but never properly sourced figure of 13,500 executions attributed to Chuikov at Stalingrad may not be so far-fetched. Further, in their introduction to the reference work Lubianka (2003), Kokurin and Petrov report that that between July 1941 and May 1946 the NKVD and SMERSH arrested 700,000 people of whom ‘more than 70,000 were shot’. Even higher figures are cited by the Russian historian O. S. Smyslov. He writes that over the period 1941-1942 – I assume he means the eighteen-month period from June 1941 until December 1942 – 157, 593 were sentenced to be shot on orders of military tribunals. Fourthly, one must consider the fact that any Soviet citizen who was not mentally AWOL in the 1930s was well aware of the role played by the NKVD in the pre-war terror. Thus anything associated with the NKVD inevitably aroused fear, and was intended to. The NKVD was an indispensable part of the Soviet totalitarian state and its terror apparatus, in peace and in war. Without it the Soviet regime could not survive and in moments of crisis the imposition of NKVD terror was the norm.
Dealing with the final stages of the war, Glantz and House themselves provide evidence that supports this claim. Thus, they report that the Soviet 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts had forcibly conscripted men in Ukraine and Bessarabia to serve in the Red Army: ‘Blocking detachments pulled men out of villages, haystacks, or wherever they could be found and put them into uniform, issued them weapons…’. Here, then, is another reason why NKVD blocking detachments enjoy a sinister reputation. Nor would the return of the Red Army be a source of joy for all. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army was determined to liberate Ukraine from Soviet reoccupation. Also, the people of Bessarabia would not have forgotten the Soviet invasion in 1940 and saw no good reason to get killed for Stalin in a Red Army uniform. Fear of the NKVD and its blocking detachments and ‘straggler control’ or anything else carried out by the NKVD (and later SMERSH), did indeed have a sinister reputation. That reputation was wholly justified.
According to the authors the Soviet ability to make up new divisions as others were destroyed was the principal cause of the failure of Barbarossa. To quote the authors:
“Whereas prewar German estimates had postulated an enemy of approximately 300 divisions, by 31 December  the Soviets had fielded roughly 800 division-sized formations, including 483 Rifle Divisions. This allowed the Red Army to lose more than 4 million soldiers and 229 division equivalents in battle and still continue the struggle.”
I suggest that this tells us not so much about the ability of the Soviet regime to create hastily and poorly trained divisions but more about the total contempt for the lives of its soldiers. That it was necessary to throw together poorly trained divisions and feed them into the meat grinder so as to drown the invaders in blood was also a direct consequence of Stalin’s ideological vendetta against the Red Army in 1937.
The other key question arising from Barbarossa is how the German army managed to survive that terrible winter of 1941/1942. Its survival was down to Hitler’s order to stand fast which Glantz and House maintain owed more to stubbornness than rational calculation (the two are not mutually exclusive). Having made this concession to Hitler, they then claim that the survival of German forces was due to Soviet over-ambitious plans and less to Hitler’s stand-fast order. This is obviously inconsistent with the earlier observation that Hitler’s stubbornness, his stand-fast order, saved the day. Glantz and House then cast doubt on their claim that Hitler was stubborn and irrational. Thus: ‘It is noteworthy that the supposedly stubborn and irrational dictator would, once again, defer to the (mistaken) recommendations of his military advisers, contrary to the legend that he always opposed the professionals’. Given that one of the officers making this recommendation was Model, a soldier much admired by Hitler, it is not that surprising that Hitler should be persuaded. Also, the authors’ assessment of Hitler as ‘the supposedly stubborn and irrational dictator’ is inconsistent with their earlier view that ‘There is no question that Hitler was insane’.
It seems that Glantz and House are determined to destroy the reputation of German generals and to assert that of their Soviet rivals. Thus, they note that: ‘It is a telling commentary on the stereotype of Hitler’s interference that the commander in Crimea, Manstein, had Sponeck relieved, tried, and imprisoned for retreating without permission, the very action that more senior German commanders claimed was their prerogative when Hitler had relieved them before Moscow’. This is based on a misreading of what
happened. Von Manstein relieved Sponeck of his command but it was Hitler who gave orders for the court martial proceedings which were overseen by Göring. Under Göring’s control the verdict was the death penalty which was commuted by Hitler to imprisonment. Von Manstein says that he was not summoned to take part in the proceedings. Von Manstein also records that he made many attempts to secure the full rehabilitation of Sponeck but without success. After the July 20 1944 bomb plot Sponeck was shot on Himmler’s orders. As army commander von Manstein was quite within his rights to relieve a commander of his command and we have no good reason to doubt the sincerity of his final remarks on this matter: ‘His [Sponeck] memory as a soldier imbued with honour and as a leader with a strong sense of responsibility will be held in honour by all those who knew him’. That von Manstein interceded on Sponeck’s behalf after the trial highlights yet another key difference between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. If a Red Army commander was arrested by the NKVD on Stalin’s orders no senior commanders would intercede on his behalf, in effect opposing Stalin. Zhukov did not raise a finger to help Pavlov, and when the NKVD terror squads dragged off Red Army officers to be beaten, tortured and shot in the 1930s, and later, none of their comrades objected.
And so to Stalingrad, the terrible human-flesh-processing factory on the Volga. In the end, Stalin got his victory but his soldiers paid a dreadful price. Unfortunately, Glantz and House seriously understate the scale of Soviet losses since they only cite losses from 19th November 1942 – 2nd February 1943.
In his statistical analysis of Soviet casualties Krivosheev in an updated study published in 2001 – the original was first published in 1993 – divides the Stalingrad battle into two phases, the Stalingrad Strategic Defensive Operation (17th July 1942-18th November 1942) and the Stalingrad Strategic Offensive Operation (19th November 1942-2nd February 1943). Krivosheev’s analysis relies on two main categories of losses: bezvozvratnye poteri and sanitarnye poteri. Bezvozvratnyi can be translated as “irrevocable” but a more suitable English translation in this context would be “non-recoverable” or “non-returnable”. Under the term non-recoverable losses Krivosheev includes soldiers killed on the battlefield, soldiers wounded on the battlefield and who subsequently died of their wounds, soldiers posted as missing and those captured. Absent from this reckoning are deserters and those executed in accordance with the provisions of Stalin’s orders (№ 270 and № 227 for example).
Medical losses include soldiers who have been wounded but survived, concussion victims, those succumbing to illness and cold injuries. In the defensive phase Krivosheev cites total non-recoverable losses as 323,856 and medical losses as 319,986. Total losses for the defensive phase were thus 643,842. In the offensive phase non-recoverable losses were 154,885 and medical losses were 330,892. Total losses for the offensive phase were 485,777. Thus total Soviet losses at Stalingrad for both phases amount to a staggering 1,129,619. This figure could in fact be higher. Not made clear is just how many soldiers listed as medical losses by Krivosheev were amputees. Given the nature of such wounds these soldiers would have to be included as non-recoverable losses as well. The high concentrations of mortar, aviation bombs, anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, artillery shells and hand grenades in the confined spaces of an urban environment would have resulted in high numbers of amputees. Total non-recoverable losses for both phases of the battle cited by Krivosheev are 478,741. Bear in mind that this number does not take into account deserters, executions and amputees and so the likely figure of total Soviet non-recoverable losses could easily be 500,000 or higher. Only the Red Army could afford a victory at such a hideous price in blood and misery. If these observations on extra, unrecorded, non-recoverable losses are true for Stalingrad, they will also apply to all other non-recoverable losses recorded by Krivosheev.
It seems to be a staple that the Battle of Kursk (July 1943) was an utter catastrophe for the German Army and that the renewed, born-again Red Army simply outclassed the Germans in all respects. What is clear from Kursk is that the Red Army could continue to suffer horrendous losses and still advance. One obvious example is what happened at Prokhorovka. According to Glantz and House:
“Rotmistrov lost as many as 400 of the 500 attacking tanks to a force of fewer than 200 German tanks, and Vatutin’s larger plan to encircle the German spearheads failed due to poor coordination between forces. Still, Soviet sacrifices near Prokhorovka enabled the defenders to fight II SS Panzer Corps almost to a halt by 13 July. Worn down by a week of constant battle, the panzer spearheads were no match for the fresh reserves of the Soviet tank forces.”
The encounter at Prokhorovka which took place on 12th July 1943 was a massacre. Total Soviet tank losses are recorded as 235: the Germans lost just 3 tanks. When reports of the scale of the massacre inflicted on 5th Guards Tank Army by the SS divisions reached his headquarters, the commander of II SS Panzer Corps, SS Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser was so sceptical that he went forward to check. Subsequently, many Soviet tanks had to be written off so final Soviet tanks losses could be as high as 500. The only Soviet victory achieved at Prokhorovka was to create the myth that a crushing defeat had been inflicted on the Germans. Rotmistrov played his part in fabricating and disseminating the Prokhorovka myth.
What happened at Prokhorovka provides no evidence of a Red Army imbued with an ethos of professional ability, one that has learned from its German master, but evidence of an army whose still incompetent commanders continue to sacrifice men and equipment because they could. Glantz and House do not describe some calculated risk on the part of Rotmistrov but rather the massacre of Soviet tanks and the brave men in them by a tactically and professionally superior foe. What happened here was not war but preventable and evitable butchery. There is nothing in this massacre of which the Red Army can be proud: it is another shameful episode. One of the main causes of this Soviet disaster was that T34s, hurtling towards the German lines, fell into deep anti-tank ditches which had been dug on Zhukov’s orders. Was no senior Soviet commander aware of this defensive feature when planning this operation? Was Rotmistrov unaware of its existence, and, if so, why? In fact, Rotmistrov and tanks did not seem to go together. During Operation Bagration (June 1944) German tank hunters, using the Panzerfaust (the obvious design template for the later RPG), inflicted exceptionally heavy losses on Rotmistrov’s tanks. Jack was still not as good as his Master.
As noted, a major theme in When Titans Clashed is that as the war progressed on the Eastern front German professionalism waned whereas the Red Army and its commanders became more professional in their planning and conduct eventually outclassing their German counterparts. To cite the authors:
“Paradoxically, the Soviet-German struggle led the Soviets to de-emphasise ideology in favour of nationalism, even as it prompted the German Army to embrace a Soviet-style system of political officers and indoctrination.”
There is no such paradox at all, and the primacy of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism remained. What Soviet ideologues tried to achieve was an ideological fusion of a Soviet Rodina (Motherland) with, say, a Russian Rodina. As we know from a large number of declassified documents Red Army soldiers who raised awkward questions were dealt with by the Special Sections. What appeared to gullible Western reporters and Sovietophiles such as Alexander Werth as a relaxation of ideological pressure on the part of the regime was, in fact, a carefully managed and controlled campaign. The methodology was pure Lenin. When it suited the Soviet regime at moments of extreme danger it promised all things to all men. These were purely tactical, short-term concessions. Once the threat had passed the party reasserted strict ideological control. It had no choice. Russian nationalism, or any other nationalism, if not handled properly, posed a dire threat to the survival of the Soviet regime. In any case, nationalism of any kind had been condemned by Lenin in no uncertain terms. The other aspect to German ideological indoctrination is that it worked much better than Soviet multicultural propaganda. In the glory days it inspired German soldiers to fight for Hitler and as the tide of war turned it nurtured determination to fight on. The huge Lenin poster, issued in 1941 and reproduced in When Titans Clashed, makes the point that despite any talk of Russian nationalism, the views of the founder of the Soviet totalitarian state were paramount.
Whatever German commanders thought of Hitler’s generalship, they were right to see the overwhelming numbers of men and equipment on the Soviet side as a major factor working against Germany. By contrast, Glantz and House maintain that: ‘Perhaps the principal cause of the reversal in the Soviet-German conflict was the revolution in Soviet command, staff, and operational and tactical skills’. There are just too many examples of mass sacrifice and incompetence for this to be a credible view. Even less convincing is that, according to Glantz and House, the Soviet general staff studied and assessed their war experience ‘based on an exhaustive Marxist analysis of each battle, operation, and campaign’. The last thing any serious Soviet staff officer should have been doing was to allow his assessment of a battle to be influenced or corrupted by Marxist (or Leninist or Stalinist) nonsense. Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism was a primary cause of so many Soviet failures and disasters. Indeed, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism was used to justify the genocide in Ukraine, mass and selective terror and forced labour, and the mass murder of Polish prisoners of war in 1940. Any Marxist analysis would also have to accept that nationalism, patriotism and Mother Russia counted for a lot more than internationalism and the world proletariat. Indeed, the explicit appeals to Russian nationalism were a flagrant violation of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. So how did the Soviet General Staff square that circle?
Glantz and House (and others) claim to have found support for German professional decline, and increasing Soviet superiority, in the introduction in the German Army of so-called NS Führungsoffiziere (National-Socialist Leadership Officers) whom they consider to be a direct parallel with Soviet military commissars. The parallel is superficially attractive but fallacious. Firstly, the commissars had been an integral part of the Soviet terror apparatus from the inception of the Soviet state. This did not apply to the FO. Secondly, the tradition of independent military thinking was too deeply inculcated in the German Army for it to be completely undermined or eradicated by any FO, especially so late in the war. Had the FO been a permanent feature of the Wehrmacht since its inception, they might have come closer to resembling Soviet military commissars. The FO was a minor nuisance; the military commissar was a crippling and deadly liability. The other point that must be highlighted here is that commissars in Red Army units were bitterly resented. There is no evidence that the same level of resentment existed towards the FO and judging by the way the Germans fought FOs might actually have done some good.
Nor should too much be made of the abolition of the institute of military commissars in October 1942. Even with the military commissars out of the way Red Army commanders operated under the watchful eyes of the NKVD Special Sections and, after 1943, SMERSH with its vast network of informers covering all levels of the Red Army. In terms of internal and external surveillance the formation of SMERSH in April 1943 is a significant event. The other way in which Red Army commanders were monitored was by the presence of Stavka representatives attached to their headquarters. However, according to Glantz and House ‘The existence of this elaborate command structure did not mean that the field leaders were simply executing orders from Moscow’. I am not convinced especially when Stalin tells Konev that if his plan for the encirclement of L’vov failed, he, Konev, would be punished. The authors’ citation of a Soviet manual in which initiative and risk taking are stressed is then undermined by the following: ‘Though it is true that failure still received harsh punishment the Red officer corps, particularly in mobile units, was encouraged and expected to take risks and make decisions as necessary’. The problem with this assessment is that it ignores what actually happened. Further evidence of on-going party control was the reappearance of Mekhlis. Spreading his poison, Mekhlis convinced Stalin that General-colonel Petrov, appointed to command the 2nd Belorussian Front, was not up to the task and Petrov was removed.
A ubiquitous theme in German memoirs is that on the Eastern Front the German Army was overwhelmed by superior numbers and equipment. Glantz and House would have us believe that Soviet resources were not ‘inexhaustible’. In a literal sense there were not but for all practical purposes in comparison to the Germans they were. ‘Moreover’, according to the authors, ‘because the Soviets were almost continuously on the offensive they inevitably suffered heavier casualties at the tactical level than the German defenders’. How then are we to account for the hideously high Soviet losses in the Stalingrad defensive phase? According to Glantz and House, the Germans, the attackers, should have suffered much higher losses than the Soviet defenders, but the Germans did not. The Glantz-House claim that ‘by 1944 the Red Army manpower crisis was, in its own way, as serious as that confronting the Wehrmacht’ is truly bizarre. Also, Glantz and House provide evidence that undermines their claim. Commenting on the high losses for Operation Bagration, the authors note that ‘Despite such losses, Soviet manpower strength at the front continued to rise…’. This is hardly consistent with a Soviet manpower crisis. Further, citing Krivosheev, Glantz and House report that ‘the average operating strength of the Red Army during the first quarter of 1945 was 6,461,100 soldiers. Therefore, Soviet strategic superiority in manpower was about three to one over German forces, without counting the Western Allies. Soviet superiority in armor [sic] and artillery was even more pronounced’. Given how massively outnumbered and outgunned the Germans were, the German performance was all the more remarkable.
The authors note that ‘Among the hardest-hit units [Soviet] were the submachine-gun companies that rode on the backs of T34s as accompanying infantry during exploitation and pursuit operations’. Deploying infantry in this manner is asking for trouble. Enemy mortar and artillery fire would kill large numbers of Soviet tank-riding infantry. Another problem for this form of deployment was that if the infantry jumped off the tanks too soon the tanks would have no infantry support on an objective and the infantry, especially in deep snow or mud would be exhausted by the time they closed with German positions, assuming they had not been cut down by the murderous fire of MG 42s. On the other hand, if the infantry stayed on the tanks too long, certainly at ranges of less than 200 metres they could easily be shot off the tanks by rifle and machine-gun fire. The deployment of Soviet infantry on T34s is just another example of Soviet contempt for the lives of soldiers. T34s festooned with sub-machine-gun wielding troops make for good photo-propaganda copy but was lethal for the troops.
Source material is the bedrock of any historical writing and in the case of Soviet material the study of history was made all the more difficult by censorship. Unfortunately, nowhere in When Titans Clashed do Glantz and House show any real grasp of the enormity and scale of Soviet censorship and the dire effects it had on writing of any kind, not just about the Great Fatherland War. It may well be true that German memoirs are self-serving – surely one of the aims of any memoir – but when Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein wrote their memoirs, respectively, Erinnerungen eines Soldaten (Memories of a Soldier, 1950) and Verlorene Siege (Lost Victories, 1955), the authors did not have to worry about being arrested and incarcerated because they expressed views that were at odds with some official position of the post-1945 West German government. Had the two men the misfortune to be living in the communist DDR then there would have been no question of their memoirs ever having been published, and both men would have been arrested.
From 1941 until about 1985 the Soviet Communist party and its censorship apparatus made sure it controlled the interpretation of the war on the Eastern front. Throughout the entire Soviet period there are countless examples of Soviet writers, historians, poets and scientists being persecuted (arrested, harassed, imprisoned, tortured, sent to slave labour camps and shot). Compare, for example, Guderian’s and von Manstein’s freedom to write and publish as they pleased with what happened to Chuikov. Glantz and House refer to an article written by Chuikov in 1964 in which he claimed that Berlin could have been captured much sooner, in February 1945. Chuikov produced a fuller account in a book which was then attacked by the censors, an offending chapter was cut from future editions. No post-1945 German author in West Germany was ever subjected to such treatment.
Another example, and one that relates directly to the Glantz and House assessment of Stalin’s failings in 1941, is what happened to Alexander Nekrich after his book, 1941, 22nd June – the title speaks for itself – was published in 1965. The essence of Nekrich’s book was that responsibility for the disaster that unfolded after 22nd June 1941 was Stalin’s for failing to act on all the available intelligence. Nekrich paid a heavy price. He was denounced, vilified, expelled from the party and forced to leave the Soviet Union. An updated version of his book was finally published in 1995. Regardless of the merits of Nekrich’s book, they are considerable, the author’s fate is a major landmark in Soviet historiography of the Great Fatherland War. There is no reference to Nekrich or his book in When Titans Clashed.
1988, the year in which Vasilii Grossman’s Life and Fate and Boris Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago, were finally published in Soviet journals, was the year when one could properly say that the power of Soviet censorship was broken and that Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost’ was serious. The awareness in the West of the destructive power of Soviet censorship quite rightly made people highly sceptical of published Soviet accounts of the Great Fatherland War. It is also the case that a number of memoirs written by leading Soviet commanders and others (Zhukov, Bagramian, Kuznetsov, Sandalov, Rokossovskii, Tiulenev, Batov, Konev and Eremenko) which were published in the Soviet period were republished, after the Soviet collapse in 1991, this time without any interference from censors.
Glantz and House reveal a faith in Soviet sources which overall I cannot share. Thus, they argue that: ‘Most operational studies of the Great Patriotic War prepared by the Soviet General Staff are candid and objective, limited only by the political sensitivity of certain subjects’. The fact that these studies are ‘limited only by the political sensitivity of certain subjects’ is, of course, the problem and one that inflicts fatal and irreversible damage to the claim that these studies are ‘candid and objective’. Indeed, how can they be ‘candid and objective’ when the ideological surveillance and censorship apparatus determine, for example, that the numbers of Soviet soldiers executed by the NKVD and the volume of information available to Stalin indicating a German attack are politically sensitive? Given the destructive and intrusive nature of the Soviet censorship apparatus the Glantz and House assertion is simply not credible. A study of any kind cannot be ‘candid and objective’ if vast amounts of archival documents are not made available for ideological or political reasons and any researcher who published something that violated Soviet taboos is punished. Nekrich was just one example.
On occasions this willingness to trust Soviet sources borders on naiveté. On the lack of any assistance to the Polish uprising in August 1944 Glantz and House write: ‘The Soviets have long maintained their sincerity in attempting to assist the Polish uprising’. Glantz and House seem painfully unaware that Soviet claims to be sincere in their dealings with the Poles have the status of junk bonds. After all, from April 1943 until 1991 the Soviet regime issued point-blank denial after point-blank denial that the Soviet Union had been responsible for the murder of Polish prisoners of war at Katyn and other sites in 1940. These murders, insisted Soviet officials and Western leftists, were the work of the ‘German-fascist invaders’.
The emotional appeal of Soviet slogans such as Nikto ne zabyt, nichto ne zabyto (‘No one has been forgotten, nothing has been forgotten’, which is cited and translated by Glantz and House, the first part incorrectly, was rendered meaningless and insulting by the Soviet censorship. Writers and historians – Grossman and Nekrich are just a mere fraction of those who were persecuted – who challenged the Soviet regime’s orthodoxy were turned into unpeople and cast down the memory hole.
Soviet views of World War II are still very strong. In the revised edition of his statistical survey of Red Army losses, Krivosheev’s summary of the Red Army’s invasion of eastern Poland on 17th September 1939 is written in the wooden language of Soviet Newspeak, condemning ‘fascist Germany’ for invading Poland without any mention of the Non-Aggression Pact which made possible the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland. Further, Russians do not like to be reminded of the mass rape of German women. It culminated in
a hideous orgy against German women in April-May 1945 but the raping started as soon as the Red Army reached German territory. What happened in Nemmersdorf in October 1944 was a dire warning of what was to follow. The obvious parallel was the mass rape of Chinese women by the Imperial Japanese Army in Nanjing (1937-1938). The Glantz-House position on the mass rape in Berlin concedes the Soviet crime then tends to mitigation: ‘The equal, if not greater, horrors perpetrated by the Wehrmacht in Russia – horrors that help explain but do not excuse Soviet vengefulness – have been all but forgotten in the West’. That German soldiers committed acts of rape in the Soviet Union is not denied but I am not aware of mass rape on the scale committed by the Red Army. Nor is it true that crimes perpetrated by the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union have been forgotten. Germans and other Westerners are subjected to a relentless barrage of films, monographs and documentaries all designed to demonstrate the apparently unique evil of the NS-regime. In Britain, the state run BBC shows no interest in pursuing the real nature of the Soviet regime. Meanwhile, outside of a small circle of historians and other interested parties, Soviet crimes, including genocide, mass and selective terror and mass deportations, attract nothing like the same attention (or rage). Today, in Germany, historians in universities are terrified to examine the true nature of the Soviet state since it would make it impossible to sustain the argument that Hitler’s regime was the unique antithesis of everything we value as human beings.
Any respect for Red Army achievements in the war against the Wehrmacht must be tempered by the appalling profligacy of Stalin and his commanders with the lives of their soldiers. What actually emerges from When Titans Clashed is not unqualified admiration for Stalin, Zhukov, Rokossovskii et al – and I am sure against the authors’ best intentions – but admiration for the Wehrmacht. How did Germany manage to hold out for so long against the combined might of the British Empire, the Soviet Union and USA? In fact, there are plenty of examples which show that Germany was doing more than just holding on. Even as the war was being lost, Germany continued to produce world-class weapons. The Tiger and Panther outclassed any Allied tank. The Germans developed infra-red night sights for tank guns and sniper rifles. They produced the first assault rifle which was clearly copied by Kalashnikov, and the tank-killing Panzerfaust provided the obvious basis for the later Soviet RPG. In 1944 the Germans had an operational jet, were world leaders
in ballistic missile technology, and, as was clear after 1945, were much closer to getting an atomic bomb than the Allies had believed. Clearly, German assumptions about Soviet manpower and industrial resources were wrong and logistics proved to be a nightmare. Yet the Wehrmacht fought its way to the rivers Don, Volga and Terek, and the retreat to the borders of the Reich was not a rout.
On the German scorched-earth policy Glantz and House maintain that it contributed to indiscipline among German troops and that ‘Burning everything in sight clearly indicated that all hope of victory was gone…’. If that is the case, then how is one to interpret the Soviet policy of scorched earth encouraged by Stalin in his radio address of 3rd July 1941? Did such a policy contribute to a sense among Soviet troops that the Germans could not be stopped that resistance was hopeless? The answer is that it may well have done. Having encouraged this policy, Stalin, a year later, had to put a stop to it in Order № 227. German scorched-earth policy, pitiless without a doubt, was a rational response to Soviet superiority in men and matériel. Not to have pursued such a policy – it also included the forced evacuation of men of military age – would merely have enhanced existing Soviet advantages. If the German scorched-earth policy did contribute to a breakdown in discipline among German troops, senior Soviet commanders’ tolerating the mass rape of German women cannot have done anything to maintain discipline in the Red Army.
In conclusion, I am duty bound to pay tribute to the detailed operational summaries presented in When Titans Clashed but I am also duty bound to dissent from the authors’ assessment that the Red Army professionally outclassed the Wehrmacht, and I also reject the view that the Red Army stopped Hitler. The Red Army’s contribution was massive, in blood and treasure unparalleled, but without the British for two years and three months on their own, and then the Americans after Pearl Harbour, the Red Army would not have stopped Hitler, and when Churchill told Roosevelt to give Britain the tools and she would finish the job, the great man was also talking nonsense.
Frank Ellis 2016
Glantz & House, p.195
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Erich von Manstein, Verlorene Siege (1955), Bernard & Graefe in der Mönch Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Bonn, 19 Auflage, 2011, p.245
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FRANK ELLIS is a former soldier and academic. He is the author of The Stalingrad Cauldron: Inside the Encirclement and Destruction of the 6th Army, University Press of Kansas, 2013. His latest book is Barbarossa 1941: Reframing Hitler’s Invasion of Stalin’s Soviet Empire, University Press of Kansas, 2015