Beyond Dead Germans
Published on behalf of Zachary Schwartz
Our obsession with dead Germans is blinding us. Though the study of German military history was critical to the Maneuver Warfare Movement’s founding and remains a rightful cornerstone of our warfighting doctrine, Marines today are all too often locked into an unhealthy fixation on the Germans. This particularly applies to the German military of World War Two. It is easy to understand the appeal. The Wehrmacht was, on the whole, technologically advanced, exceptionally well trained, motivated, and had a superior ability to implement combined arms in support of maneuver, particularly when compared to the 1939 Red Army. Their equipment and tactics were stamped into the collective American conscious. Walk around the Marine Corps and ask what “Hitler’s Buzzsaw” is or what a “Tiger Tank” was. I would be willing to bet you’ll be treated to a spiel about the MG42’s rate of fire or the stopping power of the Tiger’s 8.8cm gun within, at most, two to three queries.
Unfortunately for us, this obsession with the German way of war has been warping our collective orientation since the beginning of the Maneuver Warfare Movement. As we bought into the German perspective on World War Two more and more, we lost sight of the lessons to be learned from their greatest enemy: the Soviet Union. In a recent article in the Marine Corps Gazette, I argued for a renewed effort to understand the Soviet experience in World War Two. By the end of the war, the Soviets were outfighting the Nazis tactically, operationally, and strategically. They had become the dominant military in Europe, and one could argue that General George Patton’s blustery calls to take on the Soviets in 1945 would have resulted in the armies of democracy being handily thrown from the Continent.
Most importantly to today’s Maneuverists, the experiences of the Red Army in World War Two, both their massive failures and massive successes, directly informed the future of the military of the Russian Federation. The painful lessons learned by the Soviets on information operations, deception, combined arms, liminal warfare, and air defense are all clearly on display in the modern Russian military. Furthermore: these lessons helped influence the Communist armies faced by American forces in Korea and Vietnam. In light of the recent “pivot to the Pacific,” the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is far more likely to draw inspiration from the uncomfortably Eastern Soviets than the familiarly Western Germans.
With this understanding, here are some sources I would recommend to any Maneuverist seeking to revisit the Eastern Front with a desire to learn from the Soviet experience.
Overall History of the Eastern Front
Ghosts of the Ostfront- Dan Carlin
This podcast, part of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series, offers a riveting and well researched narrative of the Soviet-German conflict. His storytelling brings the conflict to life in an unbiased account that will keep you engaged. Good for an overall, broad-brush history of the Eastern Front.
When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler- Col David Glantz, USA(R) and Johnathan House
I humbly consider this to be the best single volume history of the Eastern Front. It brings to light the reinvention of the Red Army during World War Two and compresses a huge amount of information into a readable history of the conflict. The sources used are well documented so you can really expand your research. Readers get a great picture of the successes and failures that allowed the Soviets to reduce Berlin to rubble and forge the most effective army in Europe by 1945.
Soviet Military Operational Art: In Pursuit of Deep Battle- Col David Glantz, USA(R)
This book steps outside of the 1941-45 timeframe and examines the development of the operational level of war from the Russian Civil War through World War Two and into Cold War Red Army doctrine. Very good for understanding how the Soviets learned from military history, particularly their own experiences.
Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov- Geoffrey Roberts
Well researched and well written biography of Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov, the Soviet commander most responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany. Captures Marshal Zhukov’s force of personality and ruthless drive to win in combat.
K.K Rokossovsky: The Red Army’s Gentleman Commander- Boris Sokolov
Biography of Marshal of the Soviet Union Konstantin K. Rokossovsky. A lesser-known Soviet commander, one of the key figures at Stalingrad, Kursk, and Operation Bagration. Fascinating as he was falsely imprisoned during Stalin’s purges in 1937 and then released before the war. He went on to be one of the most successful Red Army commanders. Less of an authoritarian leader than Zhukov, he led more through inspiration than ruthlessness.
Blood on the Shores- Viktor Leonov
Leonov’s own account of his service as a sailor and officer in the reconnaissance arm of the Soviet Naval Infantry. Offers a rare view into the light infantry maritime combat between Soviet “marines” and German mountain troops (Gebirgsjäger) in the fjords of Northern Finland.
Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army- Catherine Merridale
A history of the Eastern Front as experienced and suffered through by the officers and soldiers of the Red Army. Captures the often-hidden experiences and thoughts of the average men and women who made up the Red Army as they fought for survival from 1939-1945. Brings life to the faceless horde portrayed in German Army memoirs like Forgotten Soldier and Lost Victories. Extremely well written.
The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War Two- Svetlana Alexievich
A Nobel Prize for Literature winning-collection of interviews from the approximately one million Soviet women who served in World War Two. Their experiences include nurses, machine gunners, fighter pilots, snipers, and radio operators. The interviews are gripping and offer a unique window into the Eastern Front. The veterans speak with an unusual amount of candor and, due to the paltry number of female combatants in the Wehrmacht, their perspective has no comparable account on the Axis side.
Penalty Strike: The Memoirs of a Red Army Penal Company Commander- Alexander Pylcyn
Pylcyn writes of his experience as a young infantry officer in command of a shtraf (penal) company. This unit comprised disgraced former officers charged with regaining their honor through combat (either by being wounded or reprieved on account of bravery). The leadership challenges for a young officer in this position are understandably staggering. Excellent accounts of small unit combat including infiltration tactics, opposed river crossings, and mine clearance (by hand!).
One of the best ways to understand a conflict is to place yourself in the shoes of the commanders who fought in it! I am an avid fan of wargaming and here are two computer wargames that uniquely capture combat on the Eastern Front from both the Soviet and German perspectives.
Steel Divison II- A real time tactics wargame, this simulation captures the sweeping scale of battles on the Eastern Front quite well. The scale is balanced enough to allow for the visualization of massive units but also the intimacy of close combat. Units can be issued “smart” orders and will operate on their own initiative to carry them out. It allows for online play, historical battles, custom battles, and campaigning. Very user friendly, especially once you get the hang of it.
Combat Mission: Red Thunder- Probably the most tactically accurate portrayal of Eastern Front combat available in a real time tactics game. Can be played turn based or real time. Scale is generally battalion level. Offers the ability to ‘hot seat,’ or go head-to-head against another player on the same computer. Online play is also available. The game offers historical battles, custom battles, and campaigns. It has a brutal learning curve but is unmatched for historical accuracy.
These are just a few of the many resources out there. Feel free to reach out with any that you feel are particularly useful or not.
German military history will always be a vital resource for understanding maneuver warfare. But the Soviet experience in World War Two has just as many if not more lessons to offer students of the military profession. The study of the Soviet experience also has the pressing benefit of allowing Marines to better orient on our modern peer adversaries. For Maneuverists to ignore these lessons in favor of the comfort of continued German fetishization is to allow our biases to lead us down a path towards ignorance—and defeat.
Author Bio: Captain Schwartz is the Weapons Company Commander, V37. He is also a founder and frequent contributor to The Connecting File, an online newsletter for infantry company commanders. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.