Last updated 15 January 2012: added Companion to the Red Army.


In Brief

Reviews of other books

Companion to the Red Army, Steven J Zaloga and Leland S Ness

For too long there has been a gap in the understanding of readers of the Red Army in 1939-45, most accounts having focussed on the campaigns of the Soviet forces rather than their composition, apart from mention of the T-34. Some accounts and beliefs may also have been influenced by the Cold War and the German perception of being overwhelmed by masses of men and material. In this long overdue book, Zaloga and Ness examine the changing structure of the Red Army in this time frame, in particular its arms of service and divisional structures, and its equipment. Apart from Stalin's baleful influence at the beginning of the war, two things stand out: firstly, not even the Soviets could sustain an indefinite pool of limitless manpower, with the result that only three new rifle divisions were formed in 1943-45 and many of the others fell far below their authorised numbers; and secondly, one of the most restricting influences on the Army's performance was a lack of communications equipment, ie radios. Other interesting and important aspects are the lack of a decent infantry anti-tank weapon in the later war years, even though the US sent the USSR approximately 8,500 bazookas, and the continued use of cavalry as front-line units until the beginning of 1945 when the Soviets were no longer in suitable terrain for such use (the last cavalry units nevertheless not being given up until 1955). Armour and artillery are covered in some depth. In short this is an indispensable book for anyone interested in the Eastern Front.

Myths and Legends of the Second World War, James Hayward

Readable and at the same time objective account of some of the canards, old chestnuts and untruths that still linger sixty years after the end of the war. Hayward covers a broad sweep and disposes of some stories that have been a long time dying. For example, Polish lancers did not charge German panzers in 1939 (the origin of the story lays in an inadvertent meeting with German armoured cars that was blown up by Axis correspondents), while there was no spy living in Scotland who lay the foundation for Günther Prien's attack on the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. The myth of Italian cowardice is also laid to rest. A whole chapter is devoted to the supposed failed German invasion of 1940, based on stories of bodies washed up and British experiments with burning oil on seawater, and another chapter - very usefully - is dedicated to "Hitler myths", including his supposed genital deformities, sex life and escape from Berlin after the war. The final chapter deals with aviation myths, including the crashes of Glenn Miller and General Sikorski, and with an amused air touches upon X-Files territory with German flying saucer experiments and "foo fighters". This is in brief an extremely useful book for debunking much conspiracy theory from the conflict.

Reaping the Whirlwind: the German and Japanese Experience of World War Two, Nigel Cawthorne

Reaping the Whirlwind is a compact book of experiences of the Second World War told from the German and Japanese side. It is divided into two halves, the German and Japanese, relating the rise and fall of the Axis powers through the eyes of fighting men and civilians (almost all of the latter German) as told in letters, diaries and anecdotes. While there are brief sections on naval combat (particularly from the point of view of U-boats) and aerial combat, the overwhelming majority of voices are those of soldiers. Perhaps this reflects the fact that on the ground the experience could be most bitter in defeat. The early chapters in each section focus on the heady years of victory, but most of the book concentrates on the retreats and final defeat at the hands of the Allies and the Soviets. While some figures tell their story in a couple of sentences, other tales are longer, for example that of the German police commander of Leipzig in 1945. The Japanese accounts tend to be longer for the simple reason that many of them kept diaries which were often recovered by the Allies when the diarist was killed or taken prisoner. The Germans in the west comment on the prodigious amount of material available to the US, something one Japanese diarist notes even during the 1942 Philippines campaign. Reading Japanese accounts, one notices the pervasive culture of self-sacrifice and the obsession with dying for Japan and the Emperor (and one assumes these are genuine feelings, since a diarist would probably not have intended his work to fall into enemy hands) and the belief that spiritual fervour can somehow compensate for material inferiority. At the same time, many of the Japanese note how hungry, starving or ill they often are, and comment on the complete absence of their aircraft from the skies in later years. The final chapter in each half contains entries on how the people and combatants tried to come to terms with both defeat and what had been done in their name during the war, and there are touching accounts of how they were pleasantly surprised to find their views of the vengeful Allies wrong (as well as, unfortunately, a couple of notes on the rapes carried out by some Red Army men in Germany). One criticism of the book is that the translation and proofreading appear to have been less than thorough: thus we have the term "assault gun" (actually a kind of armoured vehicle) being used when it appears "assault rifle" is meant, and at various times the term "top private" occurs in connection with the Japanese, when probably the English equivalent would be Private First Class (although, confusingly, the rank of "superior private" did exist). Nevertheless this is an easily readable book and worth a look.

Books on Military History | Books | Culture | Back to Home