In the annals of history, perhaps no war saw such savage fighting as there was in the Second World War which raged from 1939 to 1945. While there were many important battles during this long fought war which took an immense toll on both sides, one of the most savage has to be the fighting between the Russians and the Germans following Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941.
Both sides were guilty of what today would be politely called, “excesses.” The two powers had much at stake. The Russians were defending their Motherland and trying to get back all that they had lost. For the first time, in November 1942, Stalin and the Russian top brass felt the tide was slowly but surely turning in their favour. The Germans on the other hand had too much at stake to retreat from Russia, even if doing so may have been strategically a better option. Their Sixth Army still lay trapped in Stalingrad and Hitler made it a matter of ego. There would be no withdrawals, he ordered, irrespective of the huge costs this would entail in human lives.
It is in this setting that Prit Buttar writes this in-depth coverage of the battles in the Ukraine in his book, “On A Knife’s Edge: The Ukraine, November 1942-March 1943“.
The book is methodically researched and has first person accounts from both sides. You get to know what the common soldier felt on the Russian side as you do on the German side. Likewise, the thoughts and strategies planned by the top generals on both sides are shared through their own accounts. Both sides had ruthless, self-centered leaders who dominated all that they saw. We know that both Hitler and Stalin were more feared than respected by their own generals. The decisions they took were not always rational. They pandered to their own egos and their measures of success entailed huge losses of lives in their own sides. Hitler, for example, did not wish to give up any occupied land without a fight. For him, even tactical withdrawals so essential for the longer term benefit recommended by his generals spoke of defeatism. Stalin too was used to taking his own decisions. He made the mistake, as described in the book, of thinking the Germans were vanquished when they still had a lot of fight in them. Earlier, Hitler had made the same mistake when he felt Russia would be conquered in 1941 itself.
Buttar is an acknowledged expert on the fighting in the Eastern Front. He writes in great detail about each of the campaigns that took place in Russia. For the Germans, the loss of Stalingrad was a death-blow, from which they never fully recovered. Many have described this as one of the most significant turning points on the entire World War. Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus refused to budge from following Hitler’s orders blindly. Thousands of lives could have been saved had the break out happened earlier from the beleaguered city. Following this defeat for the Germans, this book focusses on the strategies that Field Marshal Erich von Manstein adopted to fight back in a losing cause.
Many incidents from the book stay in my mind. The use of explosive-carrying dogs in anti-tank operations by the Russians; the mounds of bodies of soldiers who fell on both sides lying by the road sides buried in the snow; the cruelty meted out with no quarters asked or given by both sides; the impact of wrong decisions made, again on both sides; and lastly the bravery displayed by the common soldier on both sides even while suffering facing inhuman circumstances in fighting for his homeland.
If, like me, you are a history and World War buff, you will enjoy this book. Others may find some parts too long drawn and descriptive though as I mentioned before, the reminiscences of those who fought the battles from both sides make the book more interesting and authentic. These were some of the bloodiest battles ever fought on land. It is most unlikely that such battles will ever be fought again. For this alone, the book is worth a read.