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Book Review: Armor and Blood

By (August 30, 2013) No Comment

Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk – The Turning Point of World War IIarmor and blood
By Dennis E. Showalter
Random House, 2013

This past July marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk, an episode of World War II so epic in scope and consequence that military historian Dennis Showalter refers to it as the turning point of the entire war in his new book Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk. Turning points are always slippery things, and no detail of WWII is undebatable, but Showalter makes an impressively spirited attempt. His book is everything modern military history should be: concise, far-ranging, authoritative, and – as an unlooked-for bonus in an era Time magazine calls “post-literate” – very well-written.

It’s a big subject – the entire war scarcely affords a bigger one. The German Operation Citadel, launched in early July of 1943 against the Soviet Union, was designed as a make-or-break knockout blow on the Eastern Front, a great chopping pincer movement that would isolate the entire vast Kursk salient and deliver an entire population into Nazi hands. Tension between Hitler and his generals had never been tighter, but the typical lightning-strike German offensive philosophy was shared by enough of them to create fruitful potential for disaster; Showalter views the combination with an almost stoic detachment at times:

Hitler’s generals shared that risk-taking mind-set and accepted the apocalyptic visions accompanying it. That congruence shaped Barbarossa’s racist, genocidal nature. Worse than a crime, it was a mistake antagonizing broad spectrums of a population that could have been mobilized to work for and with the conquerors and in some cases even act against the Soviet system. But to behave differently would have required Nazis to be something other than Nazis – and, perhaps, German generals to be something other than German generals, at least when confronting Slavic Bolsheviks.

In brisk, gripping chapters, his book takes readers through the prelude to the battle, the battle itself in all its gargantuan proportions (nearly three million men, eight thousand tanks, nearly five thousand airplanes, countless collateral logistics, and a front hundreds of miles wide), and the complicated aftermaths for the Germans, the Russians, and the war itself. One of Showalter’s goals, he tells us, is to avoid so-called “war porn” – “whether in contexts of heroism, pathos, horror, or voyeurism” – and this is commendable, although impossible. Indeed, only a couple of pages after stating that aim, Showalter himself is talking about how the German panzer corps at the re-taking of the city of Kharkov needed only three days “to reduce the Red Army’s attack to prisoners or corpses,” and his summation of the battle certainly reads lurid enough:

For a Fuhrer and a high command still concerned with straightening the line in the northern and central sectors, Kharkov nevertheless seemed a sign from Bellona herself that even delaying the main offensive to clean up details and replace losses would have no consequences.

(Bellona, in case you were wondering, is the name of an ancient goddess of battle; she pops up quite frequently in war porn)

From the start, with often greater clarity even than that on display in Alexander Werth’s magisterial Russia at War: 1941-1945, Showalter assesses the essential madness of Operation Citadel with an unblinking scrutiny. He invokes the “familiar axiom of modern war” that an offensive requires a 3-to-1 superiority and details how badly the Soviet defenders outnumbered their German attackers on the eve of the battle – a disparity which led inevitably to a fatal imbalance at the very heart of the Nazi plan:

The German’s only chance was the steel-headed sledgehammer they eventually swung in July. And that highlights the essential paradox of Kursk. The factors that made the battle zone acceptable in operational terms also made it too restrictive to allow for the application of force multipliers the German army panzers had spent a decade cultivating. Kursk offered no opportunity for operational skill and little for tactical virtuosity.

“Militarily,” he tells us, “the strength of the defensive system meant the German offensive had to depend on mass and momentum – which is another way to describe a battle of attrition, the one type of combat the German way of war was structured to avoid.”

The end result was all but inevitable: the Russians inflicted a decisive, theater-reclaiming defeat on their Nazi attackers and gained a tactical initiative they’d retain until the end of the war – and long after. In vivid and careful detail (and with a particular flair for quick-but-memorable character sketches), Showalter gives Kursk the painstaking modern examination it’s always warranted. He calls the battle a “crisis of attrition” and a turning point. The case he makes is the strongest one yet made – and the book itself is a triumph.