Armor And Blood: The Battle Of Kursk: The Turning Point Of World War II, by Dennis E. Showalter, read by Robertson Dean
If you have read any book by Dennis Showalter before, you have some idea of what to expect . As a historian, Showalter combines both a fairly repetitive vocabulary, where he speaks of battles as “bagatelles” if they involve few casualties and uses plenty of cliches from gambling by referring to reinforcements as trump cards, and a wide interest in multiple layers of warfare from detailed discussion of microtactics of individual units and even platoons and squads to large matters of diplomatic history, grand strategy, and military doctrine. The result, as is the case in this book, is often fascinating to read or to listen to, with a complication of details as well as occasions where the 30,000′ view is taken and one gets a sense of how the action on the ground relates to the larger picture of lines on maps and consequences for nations and empires. To be sure, the second subtitle of the book is a bit overblown, as a war as large and complex as World War II had more than one turning point. Kursk was definitely one of them, but was far from the only one of them. One can look at El Alamain or Guadalcanal for ones that were turning points in World War II in the same way that Kursk was, a shift from the strategic defense to the strategic offense for the Allies against Axis powers in various theaters that proved ultimately enduring and decisive.
The contents of this book are somewhat detailed. The entire book as a whole consists of about seven very large chapters (each of them taking up more than an hour of reading) along with a brief epilogue. The chapters themselves take the battle in more or less chronological order, from its conception in the minds of German Wehrmacht high commanders looking to continue the offensive against the Soviet Union and maintain the strategic offensive and initiative before the opening of secondary fronts forced the cessation of all offenses except for local spoiling counterattacks. On the Russian side too there were extensive preparations for planned defenses to tie up and slow down a German advance so that a master counterstroke could be done that would wipe out the Germans bogged down in minefields and trenches and stopped cold by prepared guns and tanks covered by soil up to their turrets. As far as the battle is concerned, Showalter discusses it in great detail, allowing the reader to become familiar with the battle from the point of view of its participants and local commanders, and without resorting to the sort of myths that have endured in historiography. Ultimately, Showalter comments that the German advance was stopped as much by the lack of man and machinery left to the Germans as it was by the skill of Russian defenders and where the casualty ratio was a lopsided 6 to 1 in favor of the Germans, but where the lack of reinforcements ultimately stymied German efforts as much as the considerable skill and determination of the Russian soldiers and their leaders themselves. And once the Western allies opened up secondary fronts in Italy and later France, the Germans simply lacked the manpower to do more than try to hold on and bleed their enemies dry.
In one sense, reading about the Battle of Kursk, or any other battle on the Eastern Front, is like reading the real life equivalent to battle studies of Alien versus Predator, where both of the combatants are enemies of humanity and both of them brutal and inhuman and representing evil totalitarian regimes. To be sure, the battle was massive and its scope impressive, but this is a battle between two forms of evil, of which one of the bad guys happened to be able to endure largely because of American and to a lesser extent British aid, despite being an evil empire. On the other hand, it is difficult to read or listen to this account without feeling a great deal of compassion for those who were caught up in the meat grinder, burned to death like human torches in flaming T-34s or suffocated by being buried alive under trenches smashed in and buried by tanks. One can feel sympathy for the commonfolk of both the Russian and the German side without being fond in the least of the cruel dictators who ruled over them or the craven generals who sought for ambition and glory in serving those bloodthirsty and cruel despots. The book ends up being a worthwhile one largely because it spends enough time on the common soldiers and their plight to make the battle come alive in vivid descriptions and painful details. And while the book is no bagatelle to read, it is an achievement of a particularly worthwhile kind to readers of military history.
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