30 June 2011
|The Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany (from Wikipedia, taken by "Victorgrigas")|
Aftermath and Legacy
The population pyramid says it all. Even today, the Great Patriotic War continues to have a demographic effect on Russia and the other 14 nations that comprise the former Soviet Union. The male/female balance in the USSR tilted decisively in favour of women as a result of the huge numbers of men killed in the war - even today, there is still a noticeable imbalance between men and women, worsened by lower male life expectancy due to widespread alcohol abuse.
Everyone in the country was touched by the war in some way even if they survived; particularly those who liberated the death camps. The biggest and bloodiest war in history had devastated large parts of the country. If the Second World War still resonates even among young children in the UK today, then the effect must be just as large in Russia and the other republics.
A large number of war films and TV series were produced (and are still produced) by Soviet/Russian companies; most of these are not particularly well-known in the West. I've only heard of a few (Seventeen Moments of Spring, for example) and seen none of them - my Russian is only basic at best and I'd need subtitles to watch them.
Stalin's victory in the war led him to a wave of popularity that lasted until the Secret Speech in 1956 - he still remains pretty popular in Russia today, much to the puzzlement of Western commentators, including myself. His well-known paranoia remained and only his death in March 1953 prevented another major purge.
The USSR gained a considerable amount of territory from the war - including parts of Germany, Poland, Romania and Finland, as well as ending the independence of the three Baltic republics that had gained their freedom in 1918. It also retained a fear of attack from the West - with Germany now replaced by NATO, led by the United States. The retention of very large military forces, as well as the large-scale naval build up under Gorshkov, all stemmed from a desire to defend the Motherland, rather than wanting to take over the world (not that spreading communism wasn't part of Soviet foreign policy).
Of course, the large Soviet military meant that the West, fearing an attack itself, spent considerable amounts of money on weaponry itself.
It can only be said that if Hitler had never come to power, the world would be a much better place.
The sheer scale of the Great Patriotic War boggles the mind. I visited Auschwitz a few years ago and saw one of the rooms they had where the pile of shoes that had been found when the camp was liberated. That's the moment that the sheer scale of The Holocaust hit me fully. Ten million was only really just a number until then. 26.6 million (and those were just the people in the USSR) is now a far realer number.
There was a casual indifference to human life on both sides during this conflict. I've yet to mention the Soviet tactics of NKVD commissars shooting retreating forces and the use of penal units to clear minefields by running across them. The latter sounds more like something someone would do in a computer game. Of course, the Germans were far worse - Hitler's lack of grip on military realities doomed millions.
I think the memories of this war, combined with the threat of nuclear destruction, has helped us ensure broad levels of peace in Europe for over 60 years. Hopefully, the memories will not die with the veterans.
I will close with one simple word in Russian to those who helped bring down the most evil man in history:
29 June 2011
|Soviet soldiers hosting the Soviet flag on the balcony of Hotel Adlon in Berlin after the Battle of Berlin.(Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R77767 / CC-BY-SA), via Wikipedia|
As 1945 began, any sensible military commentator on either side (if there had been any publicly writing on the German side) could see that the Thousand Year Reich was not going to survive the year, especially as it was outnumbered six to two million on the Eastern Front, while running out of fuel and ammunition.
Many of the German High Command knew that and that the best thing to do was make peace, although the chances of a negotiated peace treaty had now gone out of the proverbial window, especially after the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. In fact, some of them had tried to remove the biggest obstacle to peace, namely Hitler himself, the previous July in the failed Valkyrie plot.
Adolf Hitler had lost it by this point. He still believed that he could win the war with the new wonder weapons he was bringing into service. Some of these weapons, such as the Me-262 jet fighter, would have been good had there been sufficient numbers of them. Others, like the V-2 short-range-ballistic missile, were just sucking up increasingly diminishing resources as the strategic bombing efforts of the Allies took their toll of German manufacturing - and civilian lives.
Now hiding out in a bunker under the Reichs Chancellery (one that wasn't really up to a command and control job due to lack of communication equipment), Hitler tried to give orders to units that when they still existed could not hope to fulfil them.
Until Hitler was eliminated, by one means or another, a good number of Germans were going to fight on. For others, there was another reason - it was a matter of defending their own country. In the east, it seemed for many to be a choice between Red or dead.
As the Soviet forces advanced, they began to loot, rape and murder on a massive scale, taking their revenge for what the Germans had done to them. Of course, most of them didn't and historian David Jones suggests that only 10-15% got up to this sort of thing. My response to that is: 10-15% is very high by any normal standards. A massive flight of refugees ensued as Germans fled west to try and escape the Soviets - 425,000 refugees were evacuated by sea, the biggest such evacuation in history.
In one case, a cruise liner packed with refugees, M.S. Wilhelm Gustlof, was misidentified as a troop ship by a Soviet submarine and sunk. It is estimated that 9,400 people drowned - making this the worst maritime disaster of all time. It's also one of the least remembered.
Lead up to Berlin
The Soviets launched another massive offensive on 17 January 1945 from bridgeheads on the Vistula river in Poland. The forces soon entered pre-war German territory and by 31 January, they were less than 40 miles from Berlin on the Oder river; soon to form part of the post-war border of East Germany. The fortress cities were generally surrounded by Soviet forces. Some of these cities would end up with different names after the war, such as Danzig (Gdansk) and Breslau (Wroclaw).
By April, Vienna and Budapest were under Soviet control; the final target, Berlin was now in sight.
The Final Battle - Berlin
The reasons for the Western Allies not getting to Berlin first are both clear and unclear. Certainly, there had been a hard slog through the Ruhr area - indeed, all the way from Normandy. There was still a lot of "mopping up" to do and concerns about a "National Redoubt" forming in the Bavaria area, where the die-hards would make their final stands. However, in an environment where it was increasingly clear that the USSR was not playing ball with regards to freedom post-war, Eisenhower's declaration of Berlin as a secondary target when he tended to link military action to political objectives is strange. Churchill disagreed, but the US stuck to their guns.
Stalin wanted the glory as well. He told the Western Allies that the offensive on Berlin would be in the second half of May and would only involve secondary forces; as the Allies cleared the Rhine and the Weser, he moved up the attack into late April. The stuff about "secondary forces" was a lie, because the forces who would attack were led by Marshals Zhukov and Koniev, two of his two commanders.
The 1st Belorussian (Zhukov) and 1st Ukrainian Fronts were basically allowed by Stalin to race for the city; whoever got to Lübben on the Spree river would have first crack at the city. It was clear from the force dispositions that the former would have the easier job.
Berlin's defence fell to Generalleutnant Helmuth Reymann; the eventual "plan" involved three defensive rings and various obstacle areas. It was a good plan - it just completely lacked the materiel and the men to put it into effect, even when the elderly Volksturm and juvenile Hitler Youth brigades were thrown in.
As mentioned, Zhukov had the easier job of the two relevant Soviet commanders - he almost managed to mess it up.
On 16 April, a massive artillery barrage kicked off Zhukov's part of Operation Berlin around the Seelow Heights, the last major defence line before reaching Berlin itself; 10,000 guns fired for 20 minutes, before 143 searchlights turned on to help the attacking Soviet troops, with the artillery moving its aim forward to the German positions.
Unfortunately for Zhukov, confusion ensued as marshy terrain caused coordination to break down and a massive traffic jam ensued as bridging units were moved up. Zhukov threw in his tank armies and just made things worse. The German defences eventually cracked - but it took four days and a lot of casualties.
On 18/19 April, the final RAF raid on Berlin took place. On 20 April, bombing of the city by Soviet artillery began, while elements of the German 9th Army launched desperate counter-attacks at Frankfurt-an-Oder. The German leader celebrated his 56th birthday and was seen for the last time in public.
Two days later, the Red Army was in the suburbs of Berlin. At this point after discovering a counter-offensive he'd ordered of the SS units Army Detachment Steiner (basically a big corps in reality) had never been launched and his worst enemies were in the capital, Hitler decided to stay in Berlin until the end; the concept of Hitler fleeing abroad has been explored in some works of fiction, but he'd just be too recognisable (maybe).
Berlin's taking was a much faster, but ultimately more successful version of Stalingrad. The fighting took on a house-to-house, room-to-room nature, particularly in the final assault on the Reichstag. It could take hours just to cross a street.
On 23 April, Hermann Goering, at Berchtesgaden, told Hitler that if he hadn't heard from him by 11.00pm that night, he was going to take over as he assumed that the Fuhrer was not free to act. Hitler was enraged and promptly sacked the overweight Luftwaffe head from all his positions.
25 April was marked by three developments of note, the linking up of US and Soviet forces at Torgau, the encirclement of Berlin entirely.
Over the next seven days, facing intense resistance but still with overwhelming numbers, the Soviet forces pushed their way through Berlin. The narrow streets were dangerous for tanks - there could be a Panzerfaust-carrying German in any window - and just as unpleasant for the infantry. Civilians just had to survive as best as they could.
An attempt to relieve the city by the Germans was launched on 26 April and completely failed; large elements of the 9th Army were surrounded the same day near Halbe. 9th Army, desperate to surrender to the Western Allies instead of the Soviets launched a desperate breakout west that actually succeeded and got them to 12th Army's lines on 1 May.
On the night of 28/29 April, the Soviets had reached Anhalt station, a major rail terminus in central Berlin (it no longer exists - it was closed in 1952 and knocked down in 1960, although an S-Bahn station of that name remains present). This was half a mile from Hitler's bunker, where he would marry his mistress Eva Braun that morning and write his will.
On that same day, Hitler heard the news of Mussolini's death at the hands of Italian partisans and was informed of just how bad the situation now was. With the Red Army beginning to attack the centre of the city, the man who had once ruled an empire running from Brest to the outskirts of Moscow decided that he would take the easy way out. The next day, Adolf Hitler, quite possibly the most evil man in history, shot himself, his wife taking poison. The SS did a botched job on cremating his body - it would take the Soviets to finish the job properly. In 1970, they dumped his ashes in the Elbe river.
The Red Army launched a massive assault on the Reichstag that afternoon - a decision to go into a pretty worthless building (as it was largely damaged due to the 1933 fire), albeit one that was heavily defended, was largely for propaganda reasons - a false report of the Soviet flag being raised there had led to large numbers of war correspondents turning up and the local commander did not want to disappoint them. With the clock running down to May Day, it was a race to get a flag onto the roof, but it was duly done so with 70 minutes to go. Then promptly taken down again by the Germans again. It would take a further two days to fully clear the building.
[The famous Reichstag flag-raising photo is actually a re-enactment with the flag in a different position and taken during the day as it was too dark at the time for a decent photograph.]
On 3pm on 2 May, General Weidling surrendered the remaining forces in Berlin, although resistance continued for a few hours afterwards.
The Soviet and Polish forces took over 300,000 casualties in the assault (based on the usual 1 in 4 deaths as was common at the time, we're looking at nearly 100,000 dead); the German and civilian figures are estimated at approximately 22,000 dead each. In addition, a million Berliners were now homeless.
The Final Days
The Germans essentially completely collapsed after this point as forces began to surrender en masse. In the West, British Field Marshal Montgomery launched an attack into Denmark to liberate that country before the Red Army could get there and got the surrender of forces facing him at Luneberg Heath on 4 May, promptly nicking the original of the surrender document for his own collection.
On 7 May, General Jodl went to Rheims offered to surrender all forces facing the Western Allies to Eisenhower. Ike told him that he would only accept the surrender of all German forces and negotiations would be broken off otherwise. The Germans had no choice to accept and it was agreed that the war would end at 2301 Central European Time on 8 May. This would be 0101 Moscow time, which is why they mark the end of the war on 9 May instead.
Some fighting would continue in the east until 13 May as the last elements of German resistance were suppressed - on a Dutch island called Texel, Georgian soldiers in a German unit revolted and a battle between them and the Germans with Dutch help on the former side continued until 20 May.
For most citizens of the Soviet Union, on 9 May 1945, the bloodiest war in history that had killed 26.6 million of their fellow countrymen and women, leaving every family with at least one family member dead, the war was over.
The impact, though, had only just begun.
28 June 2011
I didn't get to first ad break; therefore this must get:
27 June 2011
|Soviet troops in Lvov, Ukraine, 1944 (via Wikipedia)|
When one thinks of the year 1944, one automatically thinks of Operation Overlord and the liberation of France, along with the debacle that was Market Garden. Western popular opinion doesn't really remember the considerable advances against heavy opposition that the Red Army and its allies would make during this year. Perhaps it's the lack of a big, memorable "spectacular", like the huge amphibious landing that was D-Day or the street fighting of Berlin.
Despite making a lot of headway in the post-Kursk attacks, the front line in the Eastern Front, an assignment increasingly dreaded by German troops, remained entirely within the USSR as of the beginning of 1944. By the end of it, Soviet forces had ejected the Germans from the USSR entirely, had gained control of Romania and Bulgaria, was half-way into Yugoslavia and was at the gates of pre-Hitler Germany.
In the process, one would argue for the worse, the USSR had established the conditions for its post-war domination of Central and Eastern Europe.
The year opened with two big offensives in Ukraine and the Crimea, designed to clear the Soviet breadbasket of enemy forces. These areas were also important to Hitler; with the Crimea in Soviet hands, the VVS (Soviet Air Force) would be in bombing range of the Romanian oil refineries - refineries that Germany had to control if it was to keep its vehicles moving.
The Korsun Pocket
The Red Army forced its way across the Dnepr river in many places due to sheer weight of numbers, but a salient of German forces still existed between Kanev and Cherkassy, with two whole Corps of 8th Army in the area. There was an airfield at Korsun in said salient, so any forces that got cut off could be resupplied by air (a risky proposition though considering increasing Soviet air superiority), but von Manstein was sufficiently concerned about encirclement to ask to be allowed to withdraw. You can guess Hitler's answer.
Stavka spotted the situation and on 24 January, the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts attacked from opposite ends. After four days, the "Korsun Pocket" closed, with 57,000 Germans trapped inside, now under command of General Wilhelm Stemmerman. While the Korsun airfield was initially used to supply the forces in there, that was eventually abandoned due to increasing pressure. An attempt to relieve the German forces and encircle the encircling forces (another one of of Hitler's daft ideas, as most of the forces needed were under half strength) fell foul of an early spring thaw.
Stemmerman was eventually allowed to launch a breakout attempt on 16 February, having to abandon nearly of his heavy equipment (due to lack of fuel and horses. People often forget the large role played by our hooved friends on all sides in the war), but erroneously believed that a key hill (Hill 239) was in German hands. With the radios destroyed, he couldn't be informed otherwise. The initial thrust of the breakout forces ran into the enemy and the situation promptly turned into a full-scale rout, as panicked German soldiers in same cases ended up swimming across a freezing river to escape.
Eventually 35,000 men escaped, but with most of their weaponry lost, six German divisions had been effectively neutralised.
By June, US bombers and fighters could conduct "shuttle" missions, flying from the UK to attack German targets, landing in the USSR to refuel and rearm, attack targets in Romania and then return via Italy to the UK. Known as Operation Frantic, it had mixed success - the original targets had been captured by the autumn, operations were suspended for the winter and it was no longer needed by spring 1945.
The advances in the south and north now left a 250-mile bulge occupied by Army Group Centre between the Pripyat marshes and the Dvina river. As their summer offensive, the Soviets decided to eliminate this rather large bulge.
Hitler, anticipating an attack in the south, had taken most of AGC's tanks to reinforce there. He had also implemented a policy of fortified areas around key communication centres, while completely ignoring some useful natural barriers. The "fester platz" as these cities became known was another of Hitler's dumber ideas - the Soviets just bypassed them, deciding to deal with them later at will.
After a massive pre-attack bout of partisan activity, similar to that which would proceed Overlord in the same month, the first phase of the attack began on 19 June 1944.
To cut a long story short, Bagration was a massive success. With the Luftwaffe forces having been withdrawn to deal, as best they could, with the Allied landings in Normandy, the Soviet Union enjoyed clear superiority in pretty much every area, including strategic surprise. The weakened German defences were smashed and retreating forces were either cut off or continually harassed. Minsk was liberated on 3 July and by the end of the month, the Germans were completely out of the USSR. Various forces were cut off and eliminated - 28 divisions would end up either destroyed or ineffective; the Germans losing almost 300,000 men, either dead or captured. A massive hole was now open in the German front; the Soviets would go through it all the way to Berlin.
The Warsaw Uprising
By 31 July, Soviet forces were approaching Warsaw. Radio Moscow called on the people to rise up against the Nazis and the Polish Home Army promptly did just that the next day, expecting Soviet help to arrive in just a few days.
It wouldn't come. Stalin halted the Red Army short of Warsaw and prohibited the Western allies from using Soviet airfields to supply the resistance, limiting what they could do in terms of air drops because of the distances involved. It is no surprise that after two months of fighting intense German attacks, the survivors had to surrender. 100,000 - 200,000 civilians died in the fighting, which was then followed by the Germans starting to level the city, completing 70% of the job.
The failure of the Warsaw Uprising must be deemed the most cynically disgusting act of the war by Stalin; by allowing the Home Army, linked to the pre-war exiled government (now in London) to fail and lose much of its leadership, the way was set for a pro-Soviet government to take over after the war, with the Soviets claiming they had "liberated" Warsaw when they finally arrived in January 1945.
The rest of the year
The Soviet forces continued advancing, entering Romania in August and Bulgaria in September. Both pro-Axis governments were overthrown by internal forces and both countries promptly changed sides to supporting the Allies. Both would ultimately become communist. Finland also concluded a peace treaty in this year.
As 1944 came to an end, it was clear that the war was going to end in Europe during the next year. But it was still not over.
26 June 2011
25 June 2011
|"To the West!" - Soviet propaganda poster (via Wikipedia)|
As today is Armed Forces Day in the United Kingdom, it seems appropriate to start this entry with a discussion of the small, but significant British role in the Great Patriotic War - namely the Arctic Convoys.
Between 1941 and 1945, British merchant ships carried thousands of tons of supplies from the UK to northern Russia. This was one of the riskiest assignments of the war and a number of convoys were cancelled because of the losses. Most of the route was inside the range of German shore-based aircraft, even skirting around occupied Norway. Many of the convoys were carried out in the depths of the Arctic winter, where equipment froze up and sometimes even men. If you ended up in the sea, chances are you were going to die from hypothermia in fairly short order. However, supplies did manage to get through - helping the people of the USSR continue to fight against the Germans.
100 ships were sunk and almost 3,000 British sailors died - most of whom have no grave but the sea. May they never be forgotten.
Following the German defeat at Stalingrad, the Soviets started to fight their way back towards Germany; a dangerous gap for the Germans now opening up in their lines. The Red Army took Kharkov, but following the confusion that ensued after that, the Germans, thanks to a German general (von Manstein) getting his way for once, managed to take the city back in a successful counter-attack in February 1943, which broadly stabilised the situation.
Then the spring thaw turned the roads into slush and mud, bringing things to a bit of a halt, allowing both sides to take stock and try and gain the initiative. The Soviet lines now had a salient (a bulge in their lines) around Kursk, with several Armies in it. The Germans spotted an opportunity. Using 9th Army from the north and 4th Panzer from the South, both aiming for Kursk, they would cut the troops off in a pincer attack and hopefully eliminate a large amount of the Red Army.
However, Stavka (the Soviet High Command, sometimes incorrectly capitalised) were not idiots by any stretch of the imagination and they realised Kursk was the likely German target. Marshal Zhukov (the only man to have gained 4 Hero of the Soviet Union awards legitimately) persuaded Stalin and Stavka that this would need to be dealt with first rather than resuming the offensive, putting together a large reserve to deal with this.
Both sides used the spring to prepare; the Germans transferring a huge amount of their armour to the area (roughly 70%, including some of their newest tanks like the Panther) and the Soviets setting up an elaborate deception plan, while building up vastly improved defences.
On 4 July 1943, Operation Citadel, as the Germans called it, began with the usual air and artillery bombardment, something which didn't exactly take the USSR by surprise as they had good intelligence on German intentions (including ULTRA decrypts of Enigma and Lorenz signals traffic). As to be expected, both advances soon ran into heavy resistance and both would end up in failure, as the Soviets threw their reserves.
In the north, the Germans got about 10 miles before the grinding to a halt. By 10 July, they couldn't advance any further, having worn themselves out on the Soviet defences and with a vulnerable left flank.
In the south, the Germans were more successful but still had problems getting through the Soviet lines. In the end, neither offensive would even get a third of the way through the Soviet defences.
On 12 July, the key engagement of the battle took place. 2nd Panzer Corps met 5th Guards Tank Army in the biggest tank battle of all time - Prokhorovka. After initial bombardments, the battle turned into a full-blown tank-on-tank melee that air support couldn't get involved with for fear of blue-on-blue, to use the current parlance. What precisely happened isn't entirely clear, particularly in terms of numbers, but the battle must be considered a draw - neither side succeeded and suffered heavy losses. The battle was, however, a massive propaganda victory for the USSR - they had stopped the cream of German army in its tracks.
On the same day, the Red Army launched a counter-offensive to the north of the salient (Operation Kutuzov), but in the end, other events would also intervene. On 10 July, having successfully hoodwinked Germany into believing that Crete would be the target via Operation Mincemeat (the one involving a dead tramp), the US and UK invaded Sicily. With the need to divert forces there, Hitler cancelled the Citadel operation on 17 July.
Thanks to the superior numbers, tactics and planning of their opponent, the last major German offensive on the Eastern front had failed. Many of their tanks were destroyed and they'd lost a lot of men. So had the Red Army, but they could recover.
The Germans fell back over the rest of the year and by the start of 1944, the Soviet forces were back into Ukraine.
23 June 2011
22 June 2011
|Soviet forces storm a factory in Stalingrad|
I have decided to move Kursk until tomorrow, to avoid an overly long post.
After the British victory at El Alamein ended Rommel's dreams of conquering Egypt and started a long retreat that would end up with the complete destruction of Axis forces in North Africa, Winston Churchill, always a man with a great turn of phrase, said this:
"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning".If El Alamein was the end of the beginning, Stalingrad has a strong case that it was the beginning of the end of the Second World War. After this, the Germans never gained another strategic victory (Operation Market Garden, for all the attention focussed on the failures at Arnhem, cannot be called one, as the Allies had still made a considerable advance).
It's been said before, but it's best to say it again: Hitler was a useless military commander. His military experience was spent entirely as a messenger; he never commanded a platoon, let alone an army. His micro-management proclivities cost the Wehrmacht dear, much like his (very brief in time) successor Karl Doenitz did with the Kriegsmarine's U-Boat forces, which suffered the highest casualty rate of any arm in any side in the entire war. Churchill, who had some more command experience and had previous naval leadership knowledge as First Sea Lord during the First World War, generally left his generals to get on with the job. Also, Hitler generally refused to countenance any form of withdrawal to more defensible lines and sacked a number of commanders for doing so without authorisation.
All of this resulted in the decision to draw up and then launch Case Blue; an attack by Army Group South, now split into Army Groups A and B, on Stalingrad and the Caucasus oil fields, as well as cutting the Volga river. This (so Hitler hoped) force the Soviet Union to sue for peace. The offensive was launched, over some pretty strong objections from Wehrmacht officers (including Fedor von Bock, who was dismissed for objecting to the splitting of Army Group South) who knew what they were doing a bit more than Hitler, on 28 June 1942.
The Germans ran into resistance at Voronezh, but the Red Army forces there eventually withdrew - and this is the important bit - in good order. While a "tactical withdrawal" is sometimes mocked by wargamers as "running away", it has a significant difference from a disorderly rout (like the Old Guard at Waterloo) as it still leaves your forces in a relatively good condition.
With Voronezh captured, the Germans were feeling confident of victory. At this point Hitler made a fatal mistake. He diverted 4th Panzer Army from Stalingrad and retasked it with attacking the oil fields. In the process, it crossed the line of march of the 6th Army - and caused a massive traffic jam. One must remember that most of the roads of Europe at this time were single-lane paved highways at best and muddy tracks at worst. If a tank breaks down, or runs out of petrol; it's going to take a while to get it out of the way. Speaking of petrol, an army marches on it as much as food today. In the process of this giant jam, 4th Panzer Army had taken most of 6th Army's fuel... The whole mess delayed the Germans by two weeks - giving the Soviet Southern Front time to withdraw in good order to Stalingrad.
The Germans were advancing towards the Volga and meeting little resistance. At Army Group B, they were realising, to use the old cliché, that things were quiet... too quiet. You know what generally happens after that.
The Main Battle
German forces arrived in the Stalingrad area in late August, starting off with heavy bombing raids. Civilians started to flee across the Volga - with the ferries being used to bring reinforcements in, so naturally said ferries became targets. However, the ferries kept running.
By 1 September, things were becoming rather reminiscent of a game of Warhammer 40,000 (the Imperial Guard in said game bear strong resemblances to the Red Army, right down to the Commissars who shoot 'deserters'). Fighting ended up literally room-to-room in some cases. The rubble from shelling created more hiding places for the defenders.
The battle dragged on and on, turning into a bloody game of attrition. Individual acts of heroism stand out here - most notably Sgt Yakov Pavlov, whose platoon defended a key strong-point for 59 days. Famous snipers like Vasily Zaitsev and Tanya Chernova wreaked havoc (although there is very little evidence for the story depicted in Enemy at the Gates). T-34s went straight from the Krasny Oktyabr (that's Red October for non-Russian speakers) factory into battle. We haven't even mentioned the female fighter pilots.
The Soviet forces were having supply problems - they needed to hold out long enough for the Volga to freeze over completely and the Germans now controlled 90% of the city. When ice floes started to form, rendering the river temporarily unusable, supplies were air dropped, but most ended up in German hands.
The Germans having rather exposed flanks as a result of their advance (the Soviets had moved away and so they weren't too worried about them initially), guarded by weaker forces from other Axis powers like Romania, who weren't too keen to die in someone else's war of expansion. On 19 November, they launched a counter-attack (Operation Uranus) and a day later, a second one from the south (Operation Saturn). The attack routed the Romanians and rapidly cut off 6th Army's supply lines.
General von Paulus, commander of 6th Army, knew he was in trouble. He asked for permission to withdraw twice and was refused. Eventually 6th Army was surrounded - their horror was only just beginning.
Ill-advised attempts to re-supply by air and a failed attempt to relieve 6th Army just cost the Germans a lot of men and equipment. 6th Army was trapped in a Russian winter, starving to death. Ammo and medical supplies were running out.
As disaster loomed, Hitler evacuated everybody else from the Caucusus region. von Paulus asked for permission to surrender and was instead promoted to Field Marshal (so if he died, Hitler could use the fact that no German Field Marshal had ever been taken alive as propaganda). Eventually, he decided to surrender anyway on 31 January 1943. 90,000 Germans were captured - only 5,000 would return to Germany, some spending twelve years as POWs. von Paulus remained as a "guest" of the East Germans until his death in 1957.
The battle of Stalingrad was over.
After an ill-advised attack that claimed well over a million lives on both sides and devastated a city, Germany's martial reputation was gone. The Soviet army was now starting its long journey to Berlin.
21 June 2011
I'm also planning a review of Carte Blanche once that is concluded. Television wise, I'm going to be watching Falling Skies and Torchwood: Miracle Day - expect reviews of the pilot of the former and a whole season review of the latter. Of course, all plans are subject to change with no notice whatsoever.
20 June 2011
|Soviet troops counter attacking in 1941 (via Wikipedia)|
During one of the coldest winters on record (the 1940s was a particularly cold decade), the Red Army launched a counter-attack against the German forces that had invaded their homeland. While this succeeded in removing Moscow from direct danger, it wasn't the spectacular success of the initial German invasion and eventually stalled as the weather improved.
The counter-offensive should be better remembered for two new weapons that fully arrived on the scene during it - the T-34 medium tank, considered to be one of the best tanks of the war and the Katayusha (although both had featured in combat earlier). The latter deserves further discussion.
The BM-13 truck-mounted rocket artillery system isn't the most accurate weapon on earth by any stretch of the imagination. Chucking a load of small rockets at a large area does not cause a lot of property damage or a huge number of casualties.
What it does cause is a lot of fear, because you never know where the next one is going to land. This leads to the troops on the receiving end being rather ineffective at best as they're too busy trying to stay alive.
The psychological effect of Multiple Launch Rocket Systems is apparent even today - far more Israeli children have suffered mental problems than actually being killed by Hamas and Hezbollah rocket attacks.
I would not like to come under attack from them, that's for sure.
On 28 June 1942, the Germans launched another offensive - called Case Blue by them - aimed at Stalingrad and the Caucasus region. The area contained vast reserves of oil and other important resources needed for the German war effort; an effort that was rapidly consuming the materials that Germany had available to it.
In hindsight, the entire offensive was a stupid idea - it was too ambitious by half.
The offensive initially went well - the Germans took the areas of the Crimea that they'd not got the previous year and advanced rapidly towards what is now Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. If Hitler could get through those, he could open the door to Turkey and the Middle East, causing Britain problems in Egypt.
He didn't though - the Red Army had plenty of reserves available and threw them in to the massive battles that unfolded. German progress stalled in the Caucasus and stalled badly. The new target of the Wehrmacht now became Stalingrad - the fall of that, it would believe, would be a massive blow to Soviet prestige.
That battle will be covered tomorrow, but it is fair to say that the Soviets had taken one step forward near Moscow and two steps back in the Caucasus. They weren't out by any means, but much of their territory remained under German occupation and their casualties were still huge. They had the men to spare, but that's of course no comfort to the families.
It would be another miserable winter for the citizens of the western USSR, especially the Jews.
19 June 2011
|Soviet gun crew in action at Odessa, 1941 (via Wikipedia)|
The Book of Hosea in the Old Testament has this famous passage:
"They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind"
Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was definitely a case of this - the decision to launch "Fall Barbarossa" (Operation Barbarossa) would cost Germany the war and millions of Germans their lives.
Yet, it could have succeeded had not Hitler made some massive mistakes.
The invasion gained complete surprise; the Soviet Union completely ignored the signs. Forces were in the wrong place (while they were aligned for an invasion of Ukraine, they still would have had a problem against Panzer spearheads), training was poor and tanks weren't used properly. However, they did get something right elsewhere; they correctly figured Japan was not going to attack them in the Far East and were able to transfer troops that made a key difference.
It is no surprise that the Red Army was thrown back reeling, with industry dismantled in a rush and millions affected by scorched earth policies. Admittedly this was a major help for the Soviets in preventing Germany from gaining key resources, but the human cost was still huge.
In two months, the Germans and their allies had advanced hundreds of miles. Millions of Soviet troops were dead or captured (which in many cases the latter meant you were becoming the former fairly quickly). However, this progress was illusory. Hitler did not focus on one single target - the best one, in military terms, was probably the Caucasus (where the oil was). Instead he tried to get that, Leningrad and Moscow. He would get none of them. Key delays, including the assault on Kiev that took several key weeks, despite the huge Soviet losses during what was ultimately a German victory, cost the Germans time and prevented them from finishing the campaign before winter hit - rendering the roads impassable and turning life for the Wehrmacht into absolute frozen misery.
Also the Germans vastly underestimated the numbers and tenacity of their opponents; they were not weak sub-humans by any stretch of the imagination - and they were fighting on their own turf.
However, there is one more important reason why Barbarossa failed - the Nazi policy of extermination. A significant percentage of the people of the Western USSR initially viewed the Germans as liberators from repressive Russian rule. When local nationalists and SS Einsatzgruppen started massacring Jews, such as at Babi Yar, and those also they suspected of being "Commissars", this made things worse for the Germans. Not only did these acts of mass murder take up German forces that could actually be on the front, they created a partisan movement that caused the Germans even more problems, especially when the Germans reacted to said partisans in their usual vicious manner.
As December 1941 began, both sides were heavily battered, suffering massive losses. While the Germans were now stuck, the Soviets had their "breadbasket" (Ukraine) under enemy occupation, Moscow under threat and Leningrad under siege.
The last thing you would expect under these cold winter conditions was for the Soviets to launch an offensive.
Which is precisely what they did. I'll cover this tomorrow.
18 June 2011
It isn't. It's a boring work that should have lost at least an episode on the edit and needed a better director.
The Shadow Line is basically a murder mystery/conspiracy thriller in the same vein as Edge of Darkness etc. A drug dealer by the name of Harvey Wratten is murdered (his body is found by two coppers who deliberately ignore the "do not touch the corpse rule"). The police investigate and so do the criminals.
One of the officers is DI Jonah Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is returning to work after the death of his colleague via a bullet that is now lodged in his skull. He doesn't remember the events that led up to his colleague's death. He's going to find out.
In the meantime, Joseph Bede (Christopher Eccleston), a man with a wife dying of cancer, is trying to arrange a major drug deal.
What sounds like a brilliant premise is fatally flawed in the execution. I'll list the reason
1. The primary problem is the funereal pacing, more suited to a book. Nearly every scene is longer than it should have been and the ending went along far too long.
2. The plot was confusing and hard to keep track of. You didn't remember who was who in the drugs trade, that's for certain.
3. I was also annoyed at unconvincing police cars and oddly enough shoulder numbers (I live in London - I know what Met Police vehicles and shoulder numbers look like).
4. Then there's the dialogue: characters go on bizarre tangents in the middle of conversations and some of the speech ("It's time to call the cops!") is just bizarre.
5. The acting also leaves much to be desired. Especially Kierston Wearing's DS Lia Honey, who was rapidly nicknamed "DS Collagen" on Gallifrey Base and who ended up having a rubber pistol held against her neck (you could see it bend).
6. Finally, the resolution to the plot was a bit rubbish. Counterpoint could have been so much better (perhaps police officers were buying up drugs to prevent them from ending up on the street, which of course means the dealers are getting money). The [spoiler] was overdone and the ending dragged far too much.
There were two things that were good about this. Firstly, the haunting theme tune, "Pause" by Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo, which I bought off Amazon during this run (I don't do that for many themes).
Secondly, Stephen Rea's Gatehouse. This calm, polite killer stole most of the scenes that he was in. Never has the word "Beep" been so ominous. Sadly, even he got a bit poor near the end.
I think that the primary cause of failure for this was Hugo Blick (a man whose experience has been comedy) deciding to write, produce and direct. Those are three different roles and it takes a rare genius to do the trifecta. Blick, alas, was not sort of person.
3/10. This could have been so much better.
For those of you who are looking at the reviews: this is the system I use – a modified version of the one used by Gallifrey Base in their rating threads for Doctor Who episodes.
· 10: Fantastic! The absolute pinnacle
· 9: They don't get much better than this!
· 8: It's certainly worthy of very high praise!
· 7: Well above average, but no masterpiece
· 6: Just a cut above average
· 5: Can't find a better example of average media
· 4: It's below average, but only just!
· 3: This one's bad but it's got some good in it, just there.
· 2: It's not the worst, that's something else. But...
· 1: I'd rather listen to a tape loop of leaf blower noise!
As a man with a keen interest in things Russian, I could let this anniversary go by without making some comment on my blog. This series will be in seven parts, hopefully one a day:
- Part One: 1939 and 1940 - the lead-up to the war
- Part Two: 1941 - the initial invasion
- Part Three: 1942
- Part Four: 1943 - with a focus on Stalingrad and Kursk
- Part Five: 1944
- Part Six: 1945 - with a focus on Berlin.
- Part Seven: The consequences then and now.
Part One: A Delaying Deal with the Devil
|Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov signs the German-Soviet non-aggression pact; Joachim von Ribbentrop and Josef Stalin stand behind him, Moscow, 23 Augst 1939 (via Wikipedia, original German photo)|
It's fair to say that the Soviet Union was viewed with a great deal of suspicion by much of the world very much since the October Revolution. The Communist system naturally had very negative implications for the ruling elites of the West; reports of atrocities going on in the USSR (as it turned out later, pretty well founded) naturally must have made people afraid of what Marxism- Leninism would mean if it were to become the governing ideology of their country. Many of the Fascist groups that took power in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s played on the fear of this to get votes and retain power; it can be argued that Hitler would never have gotten anywhere near the Reichs Chancellery without the USSR.
Many, to their later shame, decided to try and deal with the "devil they knew" - even Churchill himself was keen to have good relations with Fascist Italy until the Abyssinian invasion of 1935-6, which showed the clear lack of power of the League of Nations. It seemed to be a decent alternative to the economic chaos of the Great Depression - despite the fact that Hitler's hatred of Jews was clear from the off.
If the West had made better relations with the USSR earlier, the entire war could have been prevented.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 22 August 1939, in which Germany and the Soviet Union agreed not to attack each other (all while the former at least was secretly planning to do so anyway) is rightly considered a nasty, grubby deal that resulted in massive, unprecedented suffering for the peoples of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. As a historian, I do not seek to justify it - only to understand why the deal was made.
We know why Hitler did it - he wanted to be able to invade Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. The Soviet reason is a bit more complex.
There's a saying: "it's not paranoia if they're really out to get you". While Stalin was not the sanest man around, he had good reason to be paranoid - British forces had been involved in the Russian Civil War; there had been plots to oust him (dealt with by "Operation Trust", a Soviet intelligence operation that had basically created a fake plot so they could control any plotters) and Hitler's comments about Lebensraum were a clear statement that he was "out to get" the USSR.
It's also not like the Red Army was exactly in brilliant form - the Great Purges had crippled its command structure, with large numbers of senior officers ending up dead or in the gulags. The Red Army's embarrassing stalemate against Finland in the Winter War of 1940 only served to show up its failings quite clearly.
Moscow needed time to prepare (so for that matter, did Germany, as their weapons programmes were tied to a war in 1945, not 1939). Arguably that delay did the trick and may well have saved the USSR.
Yet, one can only feel that if Russia had come to the defence of Poland or at least threatened to do so, a lot of lives could have been saved. Mind you, it's very unlikely the Poles would have let Soviet forces in - they didn't when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and indeed took a part for themselves. Perhaps a threat to their own existence might have changed their minds... we'll never know.
Edit: The evidence regarding plans by the USSR for an attack on Germany is highly disputed. I have revised the paragraph appropriately.
13 June 2011
This is a story that like the TARDIS is simultaneously big and small. When the Doctor takes out a Cyberfleet (full kudos for using the ships from "The Invasion") in the pre-title sequence, you know that you're in for a large story. However, this multi-location epic involves a number of very intimate scenes with Team TARDIS, particularly between Rory and Amy.
Let's start with the multi-locational aspect: the jumping about collecting people bit in the first act is rather reminiscent of "The Pandorica Opens" and works just as well. Mind you, when the Sontaran came up, I ended up thinking of a certain recurring character in the Gallifrey Base Screencaps thread... They're going to have some fun with that...
When we get to Demon's Run, things get even more interesting. There's a lot of "soldiers at work" dialogue that gives what might be one-note characters a lot more foundation and makes you feel sorry for them. Lorna Bucket reminds me of "Lynda-with-a-y" from way back in "Bad Wolf" and touches the audience in a similar manner.
I wasn't too keen on the portrayal of the Clerics. The Moff is an atheist, I'm a thin Anglican. We're not going to agree on much in the religion field, but I honestly felt some of the stuff was overdoing it a little and could have been reined in.
Matt Smith seemed slightly off at times, but made up for it in others. I think I find myself comparing him with Tennant more than I really should and I know the Doctor was supposed to be subdued then, but still... Great stuff from Arthur Darvill as usual and Karen Gillan was also pretty good. Alex Kingston, who doesn't appear all that much, was also wonderful.
The plot was excellent and it was good to see the Silurians again - they're one of the better 'new' creatures of the Moffat era. The dialogue was excellent as usual and I see that the Moff still is doing the gay jokes. Plus I found the idea of the Doctor speaking 'baby' great; there's strong evidence that all babies speak in the same language.
Then that ending: a lot of things make sense as a result, including River Song's name. We still haven't found out who [spoiler] the Doctor in "The Impossible Astronaut", but I guess we'll find out at some point. It's a great point to end for the mid-season break.
9/10. You've got to be something truly special to get a 10 and this wasn't quite it, for a few reasons. Still, one of the best episodes of the season so far.
The show must be judged a failure and I'm going to give some reasons why I think it failed.
Lack of likeable characters
There was maybe one character in this show I truly cared for: Ginn. The rest of the characters, from Scott through to Colonel Young, were likeable at best. Dr. Rush was an arrogant man with a strong hint of selfishness; Colonel Young lacked authority and Chloe just served to get put in peril. Whenever a character from the original show appeared, they demonstrated just how superior they were - even Rodney "Go suck on a lemon" McKay.
A lot of the time I couldn't even remember the names of some of the minor cast; which clearly means they weren't that good.
Lack of good aliens
The original show had the Goa'uld, Atlantis the Ori. This show had blue fish-like creatures and an army of space drones; none of which had any decent individuals or even spoke English. The Lucian Alliance don't count.
A concept that was limited in scope
There was the ship; a bunch of planets without intelligent life and that was generally it. The team frequently had to use the communication stones to "go" to Earth, because there clearly wasn't enough to do on the ship plot-wise.
Inability to kill a good number of the cast
If you're going to do a dark science-fiction drama, you should at least kill a few people off permanently, not keep hitting the reset button. It would have been better dramatically if whats-her-name had died when the hydrodome vented last week.
Throwing in sex and violence
May well have turned some people away from the show. A lot of the time, sex scenes aren't really necessary.
Other realism issues
Just how many people went through the gate at Icarus and how did they manage to get that much supplies through before the whole planet went up?
All the characters wore the same clothes day in day out, but they never got worn out or needed to be patched.
TJ's hair. The ability of women not to have serious visible roots (as well as being able to have good make-up) after 9 months plus on a desert island etc. is a common problem in this type of work. Please, someone, fix it.
When watching a show turns into a chore, you know you have problems; I can't think of many episodes that I actually enjoyed.
I don't yet know the final outcome, but I guess we won't be getting the answer to where TJ got her peroxide from.
xj900uk: Eva Green worked out that in order to properly converse with the Dark Forces in the forest at midnight, she first has to get her kit off.
DuncanRose: Now there's a chat up line worth trying .
11 June 2011
Mind you, I'm not entirely sure why I've got over 50 hits from your article on the Angela Merkel doll...
10 June 2011
One of the most unwittingly prescient things that I've ever written was part of the TV Tropes entry on a British cop show called The Bill, where I stated that the show's long-term future had to be considered uncertain. This was in 2009; it ended within a year.
For those of you not familiar with the show (something rather hard to be if you were British); The Bill was a police procedural that ran from 1983 (in a pilot one-hour drama called "Woodentop", part of the Storyboard strand), to 2010, pretty much on a weekly or bi-weekly basis from 1987. Set in the fictional London area of Sun Hill, it focussed on the coppers of one relief at the local police station; very much one of the "cops and docs" type of shows, but (mostly) with less angst. The show got a bit silly c. 2005 under a certain Paul Marquess' tenure as Executive Producer and started to improve after his departure, but a controversial move to a 9pm timeslot and elimination of the classic "Overkill" theme music dropped ratings to the extent that ITV pulled the plug.
During its time, it was very much a household name and attracted a large number of well-known guest stars, including a number of famous actors at the beginning of their careers (including Sean Bean - who appears in this season and doesn't die horribly - and Keira Knightley). There's a joke that if three members of Equity meet in a pub, two of them will have appeared in The Bill... Even today, you can still run into actors who used to play starring roles on British TV and even in American shows.
Anyway, back to the beginning. I arrived in the show in late 2000 (the conclusion of the Don Beech arc); the first season is well before my time.
The four-disc DVD set does not come with any extras. It doesn't even have subtitles. What we get are the original masters complete with title cards and the scrolling thing in the top right that informs you when an ad break is approaching. No modern show would ship like this.
That complaint over, let's look at the episodes themselves. We get "Woodentop" and the eleven episodes of the 1984-5 first series. Each of these episodes is memorable and most of them are actually rather good. "A Friend in Need" provides an inventive, if very illegal, way to get a free lunch. "It's Not Such a Bad Job After All" is a story of the dangers of the big city. "Burning the Books" is an ultimately farcical story about the hunt for some porn.
The first thing that you notice from watching these episodes is that a long-standing "rule" of the show; that every scene must feature a copper and scenes of villains going "muh-ha-ha" (or the equivalent) among themselves should not occur, isn't around at this time. There are numerous scenes, particular in "Death of a Cracksman" where three crooks discuss how they're going to break into a safe they've stolen, where villains are the only characters in the scene. There's also areas where civilians are, say, finding a body, the common starting point for many a cop show.
You'll also find that the theme tune is different from the "classic" one; nearly entirely different.
At times, this looks and sounds very 80s. On one estate we encounter kids who look like they've just escaped from a David Bowie video. There's an "Early Air Raid Warning" light in the Sun Hill front office. One particular villain is singing "Karma Chameleon" (an 80s song if there ever was one) just before he's arrested.
Which brings me onto policing methodology and general behaviour. In a police force on the cusp of PACE, you get characters behaving in manners that you wouldn't get away with today. PC Jim Carver clips a boy around the ear in the pilot and no further action is ultimately taken when his father says he would have done the same thing. DI Roy Galloway (of whom more later) actually uses borderline ethnic slurs on suspects and gets physical with others.. Another villain actively comes onto WPC (now there's a term that's long gone) June Ackland and actually puts his arm around her on more than one occasion. The local criminals are on fairly friendly terms with Galloway and officers in general; we also get a fair share of Cockney geezers in this. Also, there are no ethnic minority officers present at all.
In addition, CID and uniform do not get on well at all. Stand up shouting matches between Sergeant Bob Cryer and Galloway do occur.
Then, there's the results of life in an age before the Internet and mobile phones; which I only vaguely remember. Galloway has to leave a number he can be contacted at when he goes to lunch. DS Ted Roach and DC Mike Dashwood have to literally travel to a Benefits Office to find a suspect's last known address. Reports have to done on typewriter (there's only one computer in the whole nick). You'd love to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.
Speaking of living in places; Sun Hill is located in the East End of London. For the early years of the show, filming was done in and around the Wapping area; which shows here (Whitechapel Market is recognisable in at least two scenes). It only later moved to the Merton area after the News International strike in 1985/6 (there were concerns the actors would be mistaken for real police officers).
The stories are strong, with good plots that generally justify the 50 minute running times that shows had back then. There are some great moments of humour: "The Sweet Smell of Failure" in particular as well as the ending of "Death of a Cracksman". Mind you, there are some dragging moments, particularly in "A Friend in Need".
OK, have I forgotten anything?
Yes, you have, sunshine! Me!
Ah, Mr Galloway, sorry - the characters. A number of long-term stalwarts appear for the first time here (Carver, Ackland, Cryer, PC Reg Hollis and also PC Tony Stamp as an extra), but some less remembered characters also turn up. Most notably, Sun Hill's first DI, Roy Galloway. He's played by Robert Pugh in the pilot, but John Salthouse took over the role for the series proper. Galloway puts the fiery in "fiery redhead". A man with a permanent short fuse (yes, sir, I know that you have some very annoying people to deal with), a brusque attitude and some marital problems clearly looming, he's certainly memorable in any scene he's in.
So summing, this is an excellent DVD providing a great look back at how the UK's highest episode count cop show began, although it arguably has very little rewatch value due to the lack of extras. Recommended for fans of a show that will be missed by many - but best to borrow or rent if you can't find it for less than £15.
06 June 2011
"The Almost People", the second part of what we're going to have to call a three-parter now, involves two Doctors. As any long-term fan knows, the multi-Doctor stories are generally considered among the best in the show (with the exception of "The Two Doctors"...)
So having Matt Smith play against himself with the wonders of modern camera technology was a rather wonderful thing. The two played off each other brilliantly, with great dialogue and a rather wonderful twist that busted through Amy's prejudice. There were also good homages to the past and the first appearance of Tom Baker's voice in the new era.
Plot was well... a bit so-so. It involved a lot of machinery stuff, the acid (where is that coming from anyway - I know you don't get acid from the ground...). Some of the emotional stuff may have been a bit overdone in my opinion, but it wasn't too bad. Rory's sudden decision to lock up the Originals seemed a bit out of character to me.
We also got one of the old tropes of doubles; the "I'm not the evil twin! She is!" thing. I've seen variants on this going back to an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark with Tia and Tamera Mowry way back in the mid-1990s and this was an interesting new one. Mind you, why would the Flesh dissolve like it? Surely, it behaves just like other matter.
Then we had the ending. Now, that's a game-changer. How long has Amy been, well, in that state? I suppose we'll find out.
Good episode with some great themes and a reasonable pace, boosted by a wonderful ending.
Joe Beard has written an excellent article on the events and their significance. (H/T Brant @ Grog News)
May those involved never be forgotten.