Soviet-USA relations: 1917-20

 Russia leaves the war: Soviet-American relations

Book review by Fred Lane

Kennan, G.F. (1956) Soviet-American relations, 1917-1920: Volume 1, Russia leaves the war. Princeton University Press: Princeton. Paperback version (available used from US$3, Barnes and Noble) 544 pp including index, maps and photos.

This old learned treatise smacks of bygone-era literary devices but it is well worth a re-read in this post-Cold War period. The second chapter includes character analyses in florid Dickensian “best of times and worst of times” style, but this might well be apt because USA Secretary of State Lansing correctly predicted a Bolshevik “Terror” exceeding that of the French Revolution (p 156). Set in the 1917 to 1920 period, but chiefly between November 1917 and March 1918, this Volume 1 describes how the Russian Bolsheviks and the hard- line USA capitalists drew their respective lines in the sand.

Volume 2, not reviewed here, describes some of the immediate aftermath, like the rag-tag military interventions by British, American, Czechoslovak, Japanese and other armed forces that ranged widely from Murmansk to Siberia.

George Kennan is eminently qualified to discuss these events. He was an American Foreign Service Officer for 27 years, a specialist in Russian affairs and an ambassador to the USSR in 1952. After his retirement in 1953, he joined Princeton University, becoming a Professor in the Institute for Advanced Study. This book won a Pulitzer Prize for History.

The Americans supported the February 1917 revolution and its Kerensky Provisional Government through rapid formal recognition and substantial loan allocations. President Wilson praised the revolution when he asked Congress to declare war against Germany on 2 April. However, the November 1917 revolution, instigated by a tiny Bolshevik splinter group, caught nearly everyone by surprise. It threw the professional diplomatic corps and their masters into a virtual catatonic shock.

On the one hand, Americans applauded the end of an autocracy in early 1917, just as they had rid themselves of their British overlords in 1776. On the other hand, they were grossly affronted by the Bolsheviks taking democracy too far later that year, for instance by declaring a unilateral “no reparations, no annexations” armistice in the middle of a major war that America had just entered, never mind the reign of terror.

The American ambassador’s job in 1917 was not easy. Petrograd (St Petersburg/Leningrad), Moscow and other major Russian cities were awash in 1917 with American special interest groups, including the Red Cross and the YMCA. They perhaps had little to do other than to get in each other’s way, meddle in official matters and pretend they had special links to the President or some other senior American bureaucrat. For instance, the American Red Cross Commission, initially under Frank G. Billings, William Boyce Thompson and Raymond Robins, arrived with a host of doctors and nurses holding US Army commissions (“40 officers but no privates”), yet the Russians had surplus medical personnel. They were tolerated because they brought scarce medical supplies with them.

Daily contact

Robins maintained almost daily contact with Trotsky, initially without his ambassador’s knowledge, during critical periods when embassy channels were deliberately closed awaiting “head office” decisions. Similarly, the Stevens Railway Mission “was accepted only for the sake of the railway supplies which, it was hoped, would come with it.” Finally, the “most pretentious of all”, the special goodwill Root Mission “… had little effect other than to burden with a series of onerous social engagements the harried ministers of the Provisional Government, already involved in a life-and-death battle against the forces of disintegration” (p.21).

Governor David R FrancisAgainst this background, the American embassy, under a recently-appointed elderly ex-Middle West businessman, Governor David R. Francis (left), operated very much in the shadow of the elegant French, British and other Petrograd embassies with their grand retinues and intimate contacts at all the higher levels of Russian society. The cigar-smoking, whisky-drinking, poker-playing American ambassador contrasted strongly with the polished multi-lingual professional diplomats of his major allies. He also ran foul of intra-embassy intrigues and at a busy time even had to fight a recall conspiracy initiated by self-styled “Presidential representative” Edgar Sisson, a fast-talking dilettante facilitator attached to the Root Mission.

The architect of much of this turmoil was Petrograd-based Bolshevik Foreign Minister Leon Trotsky, who pushed forward an armistice with Germany and neutralised international efforts to influence outcomes adverse to his cause. Under the guise of “open diplomacy”, he selectively published top-secret treaties, contradictory confidential statements made by foreign nations and even blatant forgeries.

Craftily seeming to accede to a strongly expressed American wish to hold German troops on the Russian Front, instead of releasing them to fight Americans in France, Trotsky inserted a clause into the armistice agreement that halted German troop transfers “which had not already been ordered or begun” at the time of signing the treaty. Germany ensured all troop transfer orders were written well before any pen hit the Armistice paper. Picking his targets carefully, Trotsky displayed a fine sense of diplomatic manipulation by marginalising the opposition and ultimately defeating the Allies’ diplomats in detail on all major points, including eventual official recognition for his government.

International intrigues Britain, France, America and Germany all jostled for influence with the numerous anti-Bolshevik factions, particularly in Murmansk, the Caucasus and Romania, but “Washington’s decisions (were) based on information which was almost invariably ill-founded and out-of-date; in these circumstances, the United States Government contrived to restrict itself to limited and discreet commitments,” Kennan grudgingly admits (p.190).

Murder, thuggery, forgery and intimidation characterised the Bolsheviks’ grab for power, especially around the time of the Petrograd Constituent Assembly in February 1918. They used armed sailors, ostensibly as protective sentries, to intimidate delegates. Only Germany had the courage and power to confront them, as they did after the failure of the first Brest-Litovsk armistice talks, about the same time. Trotsky’s bullying “no war, no peace” gambit got the reward it deserved, as Germany simply snapped up more Russian territory, thank you.

Leadership theories

Sociological “society-makes-the-leader” sophistry theories find little support here. Without overtly addressing the issue, time and again Kennan shows how strong and ruthless individuals shaped history and influenced social structures for generations. The comparatively weak or vacillating found themselves dead or steamrollered. Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro would agree. This is yet another example of how political power really grows out of the barrel of a gun and the ruthlessness of the gun-holder.

The Great War

The Great War


Book review by Kevin Rickard

Carlyon, L. The Great War. Pan Macmillan Australia Pty. Ltd.: Sydney, 2006. 863 pp., $39.95 (ABC Shop).

This is a meticulously researched, elegantly told account of the battles, actions and ‘God forsaken fights’ in which the five Divisions of the AIF were involved in Belgium and France in World War I.

Les Carlyon had previously written Gallipoli. This book, The Great War, perhaps surpasses even Gallipoli in the expanse and magnitude of the battles detailed and analysed. It is in three parts, covering the activities of the AIF in the years 1916-1918. A number of poignant photographs add to the impact of this work.

To those of us who had family members in the first AIF in Belgium and France between 1916 and 1918, the book is a must read. Actions of relatives, Divisions, Brigades or Battalions can often be recognised in this saga with much sadness and grief but also with enormous pride.

The book details the tragic loss of life and casualties suffered by the AIF during the Somme offensive. We read especially of the Australian participation in such battles as those at Fromelles, Pozieres, Mouquete Farm, Bullecourt, Ypres, Menin Road, Villers Bretonneaux, Amiens, Mont St. Quentin and Passchendaele. We also read the portrayal and, what might now be considered, the ineptitude of many of the British commanders and generals that led to the tragic death of Australians, New Zealanders, British as well as Canadian and South African soldiers. The deaths and casualty figures speak for themselves. Some 61,700 Australians did not come home – two thirds of them lie along a line that stretches from Villers Bretonneaux to Passchendaele. The wounded ran to 150,000.

Victoria Crosses

Details are given of the remarkable heroism under fire of many Australian Victoria Cross winners, some of whom also won the Military Cross or the Military Medal. We become familiar with the Australian origins of these extraordinary warriors, their roots in Australia and their family circumstances. Such men as Albert Jacka, Fred Tubb, Harry Murray, Donovan Joynt and Joe Maxwell are but a few.

Through the book we read of the activities of generals with the AIF like Birdwood, Rosenthal and Gellibrand and how the Australian troops appeared to be responsive to LGEN Sir William Birdwood. There are stories about the legendary Pompey Elliott – the brigadier often seen in the front lines with his men but who unfortunately and to his everlasting disappointment, was not given a Division. Towards the end of the book we are told of the great skill and intellectual ability of Monash and the steadfastness of his newly formed Australian Corps and its commanders.

Douglas Haig

There is a continuous analysis throughout the book of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig who, although well qualified, was perceived as aloof and heartless. There are also references to the doubtful capacity of General Sir Hubert Gough, who was eventually replaced as the Field Commander. There is much fascination in the interaction between the politicians (the suits), like Asquith and Lloyd George and the senior generals — Field Marshall Haig and Field Marshall Lord Kitchener. Both of the latter are represented as remote from the Front Line.

In the midst of all of the above, there is an account of the Australian debate on Conscription, thought necessary by the Australian Government of the day to replace the rapidly diminishing Australian Divisions at the behest of the British Government. The Home front adversaries were Prime Minister Billy Hughes and the fearless advocate for the ‘No’ case in the referendum, Dr Daniel Mannix, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne at that time. The ‘No’ case won, the possibility of conscription was defeated. There is a detailed analysis of the results, which illustrate the surprising spread of the referendum votes.

In the end, the extraordinary Australian Corps under the leadership of General Sir John Monash fought the main adversary, the Germans, in the later battles of 1918. The Australian Corps broke through the Hindenburgh Line, which led to the eventual defeat of Germany.

The achievements of the Australians in World War I were truly extraordinary. It is impossible not to feel immensely proud of our men of the First AIF and of our heritage. We can also be most grateful to Les Carlyon for putting this amazing story before us in such a readable, personable and fascinating fashion.

Eric Nave, Codebreaker

Eric Nave: RAN code breaker

Book review by Kevin A. Rickard

Pfennigwerth, I. A man of intelligence: The life of Captain Eric Nave, Australian codebreaker extraordinary. Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd: Dural. 2006. 304pp., 18 pp. of plates, illustrations and maps. $29.95 paperback.

A man of intelligence is the biography of an enterprising and successful Australian Japanese code breaker, CAPT Theodore Eric Nave OBE RN ret. The book is written by CAPT Ian Pfennigwerth RAN ret, a communicator and a previous captain of HMAS Perth and Director of Naval Intelligence.

The story tells in some detail how a lad from Adelaide with intelligence, ambition, diligent application and considerable good fortune carved his own special niche in the arcane world of codebreaking. It portrays and explores Nave’s entire career, especially during the period between WW I and WW II, when Nave served at sea on the China Station as an RN officer. While posted to the RN cruisers HMS Kent or Hawkins and visits to Hong Kong or Shanghai, Nave was able to intercept signals from the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).

At first he decrypted those IJN signals emanating from Nanjing, Shanghai and Tianjing that were in plain language, but later because of his skill both at cryptanalysis and the Japanese language he was able to break the IJN codes. He was thus able to decipher numerous important signals from the Japanese fleet.

Secret build up

The above events coincided with the time when the Japanese were brutally invading parts of China. The Naval duplicity of the Japanese at this time in their dealings with the British and the United States was calculated and eventually lethal, especially to the Americans at Pearl Harbor. This was due to the secret build up of the IJN Far East Fleet in contravention of the Washington Naval Treaty.

Through Nave’s special cryptanalysis and language skills much vital information about the Japanese fleet was forwarded to the Admiralty in London from the China Station.This is an intriguing part of the Nave story. While serving in the Far East Combined Bureau, Nave and British Intelligence had access to high level Japanese information via the powerful British intercept station on Stonecutters Island off Hong Kong. In this context there is reference to a book called Betrayal at Pearl Harbor: How Churchill lured Roosevelt into World War II, co-authored by James Rushbridger and Eric Nave. Pfennigwerth contends that certain statements by Nave have been mischievously transformed by Rushbridger. Further, the allegations that the British, and by inference Nave, were aware of plans to strike Pearl Harbor are conjecture by Rushbridger.

Japanese language skills

After several years on the China Station with the RN, he contracted tropical sprue, a debilitating malabsorption state that necessitated his return to Australia in the early ’40s. But he had much more to offer. Initially this was with Frumel, the Fleet radio unit in Melbourne. Here he clashed with a difficult USN officer. That officer’s and the American mindset at the time, was actually typified in a statement attributed to General MacArthur in a discussion with Prime Minister Curtin that “the US building up forces in the Commonwealth is not so much from an interest in Australia but rather from its utility as a base from which to hit Japan.”

Nave worked with the Australian Army in Central Bureau in Brisbane from 1942-45, essentially operating as a member of MacArthur’s staff. He was then involved with the first Signals Intelligence Bureau and the development of the Defence Signals Organisation in Melbourne.

After finally leaving the RN in which his commission had been gazetted in London in 1930, 13 years after joining the RAN, Nave was involved in the very beginnings of ASIO. Nave was Head of Section C, responsible for the policies and standards of ASIO’s personal vetting. Accordingly, he had much to do with the security of both the first Royal Tour of Australia in 1954 and the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. He also became peripherally involved in the infamous Petrov affair during the Menzies era.

42 years service

After 42 years of Government service, Nave retired in 1959. But he still had much to offer. He went on to become the National President of the Naval Association. Here he was influential in the concept of Navy Week and Navy Day on October 4, the anniversary of the entry of the First Australian Fleet into Sydney Harbour in 1913.

So the book follows the career of an intelligent young man who joined the RAN in 1917 as a Midshipman Paymaster. The RAN almost missed him. He was initially informed that he had failed the RAN entrance exam in history, his strongest subject. But, after the timely intervention of an Australian Senator, at the request of Nave’s father, Nave was told the following day, he had passed the examination for entry to the RAN with access to a permanent commission.

The manuscript is rather technical in parts, regarding cryptography and signals. However this is all swept up within the background of the fascinating historical events of the ’30s and ’40s in South-East Asia and Australia’s war with Japan. All these events had great relevance to the subsequent destiny of Australia.




Book review by Kevin Rickard

Veitch, M. Flak: True stories from the men who flew in World War Two. Pan Macmillan Australia Pty. Ltd.: Sydney. 2006. 288pp. $32.95.

The journalist author has had a lifelong interest in history, especially the aviation history of World War II. He maintains that inside the head of every pilot, navigator or air gunner who flew in combat during World War II there are at least one or more extraordinary stories. His theory is proven by the contents of this splendid book. Veitch travelled around Australia to personally interview ex-RAAF and RAF aircrew members to bring to life a remarkable series of stories from 25 airmen in Flak.

The title of the book “Flak” is a word well known to aviators. It is an abbreviation of the German word fliegerabwehrkanone, which literally means “aviation defence gun.” The World War II aircrew stories are individually spellbinding. They reflect the bravery of the men who flew and survived as well as those who did not survive, either because of enemy action or often because of most unfortunate flying accidents.

Several compelling stories are highlighted. Alec Hurse (p 41) the bomb aimer, took over piloting a Stirling bomber when the pilot was badly wounded. The aircraft had attacked the railway junction at Nantes in the Loire Valley on 11 June 1944. Hurse found himself flying a damaged aircraft at night from France to England and was ordered to land the bomber at Boscombe Down – the RAF airfield with the longest runway in England. He succeeded, winning the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM) for his efforts.

Of the 103 CGMs the RAF awarded, nine went to Australians. The CGM was originally a Navy decoration equivalent to the officers’ Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

Two Victoria Crosses

Allen Tyson (p 33) an air gunner, relates a very black day for RAF 12 Squadron in May 1940 when all their aircraft were lost attacking two bridges over the Albert Canal in Maastricht. Two posthumous Victoria Crosses were awarded to the battle crews that day. The Germans had replacement pontoon bridges assembled the next day.

Spitfire pilot Ken Fox (p191) details the dogfights related to the pursuit of the big German warships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen in their channel dash from Brest to Wilhelmshaven. Later, as an instructor, he taught, “Always turn into the attack. Never try to outrun or out-dive a Messerschmitt. In a Spitfire your advantage was manoeuvrability.”

Charles (Bud) Tingwell (the benevolent QC in the movie The Castle) also flew Spitfires as a photo reconnaissance pilot (p 128). On most ops he always expected to be shot down. He nearly was, by a man with a Luger pistol, when he was flying at 300 feet over Crete. The pistol’s bullets damaged his air pressure system. He took four attempts to land his damaged Spitfire in North Africa, to the consternation of the English ground crew.

The aircraftThere are many tales in this fascinating book about the large variety of aircraft flown: Spitfires, Kittyhawks, Mosquitos, Beaufighters, Wirraways, Tiger Moths, Avro Ansons, Handley-Page Hampdens, Lockheed Hudsons, Dakotas and Catalinas, as well as Lancaster, Wellington, Mitchell and Liberator bombers.

Flak is a superb collection of tales of Australian airmen from World War II. Woven within the stories there are fascinating historical facts about Australian and British airmen during the war. Bud Tingwell in his brief foreword, thanks “Michael Veitch for illuminating so much about so many.”

Berlin downfall, 1945

 The fall of Berlin

berlinBook review by Fred Lane

Beevor, A. (2002) Berlin: The downfall 1945. Penguin Books: London. 490 pp including index and footnotes. $35.00.

Antony Beevor has done it again. On top of his excellent description of the siege of Stalingrad (Naval Officers Club Newsletter 51 pp. 23-4), he now describes in authoritative and entertaining detail the final push that overwhelmed Berlin in 1945.

He reminds us that Hitler’s interference, by disregarding valid intelligence reports and insisting on suicidal tactics, probably helped the Red Army’s thrust on Berlin more than any other single factor. Despite overwhelming repeated independent eyewitness and other evidence of massive troop build-ups on the Vistula and East Prussia fronts around 9 January 1945, Hitler was content to believe his sycophants, like Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, and even Keitel who should have known better, that 8,000 Russian aircraft deployed just behind the front line were mere decoys. Instead of redeploying some 200,000 troops wasting away in Latvia, he left them there to rot and failed to guard against his greatest danger.

Sideshows like the fuel-consuming Ardennes offensive in December 1944 and futile planning to retake Budapest were uppermost in Hitler’s mind during the crucial planning stages of the final Russian offensives. He also placed far too much faith on the new Wunderwaffen “V” weapons. At the same time he seemed oblivious to the effects of mounting pressure from day and night air raids.

Folly and lies

The folly and lies of chocolate soldiers and political expediency begat the seeds of massive disaster.

Beevor traces the downfall of Berlin from the massive Russian assault, planned since October 1944 and unleashed on 12 January 1945. The first attacks were across the Vistula River, south of Warsaw, in conditions favoured by the Red Army: a blinding snowstorm at night. The major German strategy, no retreat, was weak. They did create a new defence force, the Volkssturm, in 1944, and this militia of mainly teenagers and grandfathers was supposed to strengthen resistance and hold back the Red Army. “Some forty Volkssturm battalions raised in Silesia were allocated to defend their eastern and north-eastern frontiers. A few concrete emplacements were built, but since they had no anti-tank weapons, Soviet tank forces went straight through them,” said Beevor (p 41).

On 27 January, the Russians liberated the first and perhaps worst of the German extermination camps, Auschwitz. Of an initial estimate of 4,000,000 prisoners entering the camp, only 3,000 were left, “many too sick to save” (p 44).

Refugees torpedoed: greatest ever loss of life at sea

On 30 January, the greatest ever loss of life at sea to date occurred when a Soviet submarine torpedoed the cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff. Designed for 2,000 passengers, but with between 6,600 and 9,000 refugees from Gdynia aboard, at least 5,300 and possibly 7,400 of them are estimated to have perished in the icy Baltic Sea. On 16 April another Soviet submarine sank the hospital ship Goya with “nearly 7,000 refugees.” Only 165 people were rescued (p 188).

Hitler made his last broadcast on 30 January, exactly 12 years after the Nazis came to power. “His voice had lost all its strength and sounded completely different,” says Beevor. This did not stop Hitler meddling in army plans and flying into monumental rages whenever he perceived treachery, which seemed to be often. Even though Himmler lacked the training and experience for Wehrmacht command, Hitler put him in charge of the most vital of the German forces, Army Group Vistula. Hitler’s strategy and Himmler’s puerile attempts to follow it sacrificed thousands of lives and precious resources on under-strength counterattacks and futile resistance.

By April, Himmler contracted a bout of timely influenza and he abandoned his post for a sanatorium some 40 kilometres safely to the west of his now exposed army headquarters. General Guderian, Chief of the Army Supreme Command, persuaded him to step down, but Himmler was reluctant to put such a resignation in writing and risk Hitler’s wrath. Nevertheless, he permitted Guderian to tell Hitler of his wishes and let Guderian reorganise his headquarters.

About this time, the Soviets were building up a massive force for their Berlin assault. This involved no less than “2.5 million men, 41,600 guns and mortars, 6250 tanks and self-propelled guns and 7,500 aircraft,” says Beevor (p 147). Simply feeding such a force and supplying it with ammunition is a daunting task. Welding the whole into a cohesive fighting mass required very rare skills.

On the German side, instead of imminent danger uniting everybody under a common goal, senior Nazis conspired for months against one another for aims as disparate as inheriting Hitler’s mantle to organising postwar partisan Werewolf forces. Goering, Goebbels, Borman and Himmler all scrabbled tooth and nail for Führer status in anticipation of Hitler’s demise. Instead of a single Werewolf organisation, a second was set up and even a third proposed by rival Nazi factions. In any event, despite grandiose plans, lack of equipment and training for the very few volunteers and conscripts doomed the idea to failure from the start.

Singleness of purpose problems were not confined to the Germans. There was an undercurrent of machinations, distrust and deceit by the Allies at the highest levels, especially about wartime plans that impinged on postwar politics.

The licentious soldiery

Beevor discusses the effects of alcohol and propaganda (pp 169-70) as root causes of the shocking rape and plunder by the Red Army of German citizens (pp 30-33) and even routine rape of their own nationals deported to Germany and liberated by the Soviet advance (p 110). Is he correct? Perhaps he should go no further than his early observation that while very few Red Army weaknesses remained in 1945, “The worst was the chaotic lack of discipline (due in part) to the terrible attrition among young officers,” (p 13-14).

Cycle stealing
A Red Army soldier attempts to steal a bicycle from a woman in broad daylight.

This alone would seem both necessary and sufficient to account for the atrocities committed by the victorious testosterone-laden troops. A cursory look at history shows how isolated instances occur, but blatant rape and plunder rarely follow victory by well-disciplined and ably led troops. Yet they are an almost invariable corollary when discipline breaks down. This seems to hold true throughout the ages and across all cultures, through tribal skirmishes to multi-nation conflicts.

The big message here, muddied by Beevor’s analysis, is that it might be not so much alcohol and propaganda but simple lack of discipline that causes these excesses.

Propaganda or not, Beevor’s tale of the assault on Berlin and the political manoeuvres of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill make riveting reading. The book contains many well-documented references, eyewitness reports, maps and photographs. It might be argued that the waging of war is too important to be left to the generals, but the book convincingly demonstrates that the kind of political interference exercised by the Nazi politicians risks disaster.


Beevor, A. (1998) Stalingrad. Penguin Books: London.


Stalingrad book cover

The Stalingrad siege

Book review by Fred Lane

Beevor, A. (1998) Stalingrad. Penguin Books. 494pp, including maps, photos, index and comprehensive chapter footnotes. Paperback $35

Retired British Army officer Antony Beevor won many literary prizes and reviewer acclaim with this book. Together with Harrison Salisbury’s description of the 900-day siege of Leningrad (Salisbury 1969) and John Erikson’s version of Stalingrad (Erikson 2003), these books graphically illustrate the ghastly carnage of the truly world-shaping Ostfront battles.

Before the Germans fired their first Operation Barbarossa shot on 21 June 1941, the Red Army was slowly recovering from the loss of no less than 36,671 officers executed in a senseless Stalinist political purge. Of 706 officers of brigade commander or higher rank, a mere 303 remained.

Political meddling

Time and time again, military disaster and unnecessary casualties followed operational meddling by both Stalin and Hitler. Compared with the losses reported in the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the wanton sacrifice of human life and suffering is mind-boggling.

In the first three weeks of Barbarossa, the Red Army reported losses of 3,500 tanks, 6,000 aircraft and two million men. Within the first three months another 3,000 tanks had been lost and the Germans had captured 965,000 prisoners. To this must be added hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties from Hitler’s Rassen-kamp (Race War).

The German Army reported 400,000 of their own casualties in the same period. All this was well before they invested Stalingrad and the bitter 1941/42 Russian winter.

Operation Blue

After a pause, due mainly to Hitler denying his armies equipment for Russian winter warfare, Operation Blue shattered Russian defensive lines in June 1942. By 23 August, 16th Division Panzers had established themselves on the Volga just to the north of Stalingrad.

Stalingrad, at that stage, was the third largest city in the Soviets. Although 60,000 of its civilians were transported for slave labour in Germany, about 10,000, including 1,000 children, remained and survived the five month-long battle. Some were evacuated to safety across the Volga, but it was a deliberate and callous top-level Stavka policy to leave civilians in the battlefield. Many civilians attempted to escape, but like fellow army deserters were summarily executed by NKVD and other troops. Stalingrad’s civilians, including children, were used by both sides to dig fortifications, spy and carry supplies.
However, it is the graphic saga of the dogged defence of Stalingrad that is the main subject of this book. Eyewitness accounts give new meaning to “total war”.

Until Stalingrad and Leningrad, the Russian campaign was marked by chaotic logistics and even worse leadership. In contrast the Germans noted that many individual groups of isolated Soviet soldiers in rear areas fought for weeks, without supplies, “long after others would have surrendered”.

In Stalingrad, the Russian strategy of turning nearly every pile of rubble into either a fortress or a barricade from which to mount repeated counter-attacks paid off. It was not unusual to have one floor of a building occupied by Germans, another by Russian forces, fighting each other. This kind of battle might ebb and flow for days at a time, with no hope of tank, artillery or air support from either side. Sewers, tunnels and air spaces above ceilings all became major tactical objectives. This strategy nullified German superiority in mechanised movement and air warfare. Although the first air assaults of more than 1500 sorties a day killed some 40,000 Stalingrad civilians, they also set the stage for the ensuing infantry battles by providing streets of rubble and leaving only the sturdiest structures standing.

Sailors fight as infantry

Russian sailors, fighting as infantry, were prominent in a number of vital actions. One brigade had been sent across Siberia from the Far East Fleet. Their officers were chiefly 18-year old cadets from Leningrad, who were given three weeks Army training on their way south before linking with their men. One of the sailors’ major defensive positions was a big square grain silo, which they held against tremendous odds and repeated assaults.

Sewer tactics
Soviet soldiers emerge from manholes and damaged buildings to counterattack in Stalingrad.

On 14 October the Germans launched all-out attacks on the remnants of the Dzerzhinsky Tractor Factory. They were met by mines, dug-in T-34 tanks and 45 mm and 96 mm anti-tank guns concealed in the rubble. The factory was over-run at great cost, but pockets of resistance lasted for days, from which counter-attacks emerged at night. The German effort petered out towards the end of October due chiefly to exhaustion and lack of ammunition. A renewed offensive launched 11 November met a similar fate.

Meanwhile, Generals Georgy Zhukov and Alexandr Vasilevsky, back in Moscow, developed Operation Uranus, a brilliant counterstroke aiming to cut off all the German forces besieging Stalingrad. Launched on 11 November, chiefly against Romanian troops guarding the German 6th Army’s northern flank, 100 to 150km west of Stalingrad, it linked up with a bold thrust from the south and closed the trap 11 days later.

Despite bombastic Luftwaffe assurances, the trapped army could not be resupplied by air. Hitler’s chief response was to issue gallantry medals and he twice promoted Paulus, the 6th Army’s commander. Aware that no German Field Marshal had ever been captured alive, Paulus, on receiving this promotion just two days before his surrender announced, “I have no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal.” The entire German 6th Army was captured or killed. It comprised about 290,000 souls and included between 50,000 and 70,000 Hiwis (Ukranian and other Soviet forced labourers and collaborators).

Very few survivors

Very few of the diseased and emaciated German soldiers captured in this action survived their imprisonment and even fewer Hiwis saw the war’s end. In brutal retribution many were clubbed to death, ostensibly to save ammunition.

This well-written book is an essential text for anyone interested in the mechanics of large scale street warfare.


Erikson, J. The road to Stalingrad. Orion Publishing Co: London, 2003.
Salisbury, H.E. The 900 days: The siege of Leningrad. Pan Books: London, 1969.

HMS Glorious loss



The Loss of HMS Glorious

Book review by John van Gelder

Winton, J. (1999) Carrier Glorious: The life and death of an aircraft carrier. Cassell Military Paperbacks: London. $16.95.

John Winton is a well-known author of many fiction and non-fiction books concerning the Royal Navy and naval subjects generally. In this book he has brought to life a fascinating story of a ship and many, perhaps unusual, people who served in her during a period of massive evolution in the Royal Navy. Regrettably, the end of the story is tragic in the extreme and controversial beyond belief.

Winton’s thoroughly researched book traces the history of Glorious from concept, building, service in World War I as a “big gun cruiser” to her conversion to an aircraft carrier and re-commissioning in 1930. Operation of the ship throughout the 1930s, primarily in the Mediterranean, provides great insight into the frustrations experienced by aviators, both RN and RAF, due to their perceived divided loyalties. The author does point out that the heavy RN/RAF battles were fought in the vicinity of Whitehall rather than at squadron level, where integration appeared to be on a happy note. In fact, during the 1930s Glorious had the reputation of being an efficient, well-run and happy ship.

The final two thirds of the book is concerned with the ship’s operations after the appointment of a new captain on 16 June 1939, until she was sunk twelve months later.

There is no doubt that the arrival of CAPT Guy D’Oyly-Hughes DSO DSC had a profound adverse effect, not so much on the ship’s company, but on the senior command structure of the vessel. The author treats this central character in a fairly even-handed manner in setting out the views of his supporters and detractors. On balance it would appear that the captain suffered from some very severe psychological problems. It is interesting to note that the remarks of the military historian Correlli Barnett, in his book Engage the enemy more closely, is far more forthright and scathing regarding D’Oyly-Hughes’s character. The reader, as in so many literary works, is left to ponder to what degree the captain’s mental state may have had on the subsequent tragic events.

Flawed aviation strategy?

For any person, with or without sea experience in the navy, this is a most absorbing story. The narrative raises many questions that beg answers as to why certain decisions were made in the operational area of Norway 62 years ago. Unfortunately, these questions can only now be answered in one’s imagination.

The evacuation of the two RAF squadrons, 263 Squadron Gladiators and 46 Squadron Hurricanes, from their bases in Norway and their landing on Glorious without arrestor hooks and without incident was a remarkable achievement and well described by Winton.

Leaving aside the issue of conflicts of personalities within Glorious, and there were many, there are two questions of utmost importance. Why was Glorious given permission from higher authority to proceed independently from the operational area back to Scapa Flow escorted by HMS Ardent and Acasta? Glorious had requested this course of action but for what reason? She was certainly not short of fuel.

HMS Glorious
HMS Glorious, showing her 1930s-style “flying off deck” at hangar deck level.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, since the carrier was proceeding independently without any support from heavy surface vessels in good weather and excellent visibility, why was she not flying reconnaissance patrols? Apparently, one Swordfish and a flight of three Sea Gladiators were at ten minutes notice, but they were not even ranged on the flight deck.

The author provides a detailed account of the destruction of Glorious and her escorts by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. There is a clear impression that the first inkling Glorious had of the presence of the German ships was when the first salvoes of 15-inch projectiles crashed around her from a range of 28,600 yards.

Gallant destroyers

The subsequent actions of Ardent and Acasta during the engagement were gallant beyond belief. There was only one survivor from both ships, making it difficult to imagine why posthumous awards for bravery were not made after the event.

In the sinking of Glorious, Ardent and Acasta the casualty list amounted to 1,519 killed, with only 34 survivors.

This is a well-written book. It is historically informative and contains lessons for both naval personnel and politicians, even in this missile age.

(Ed.note: Some of the blame for the reckless mishandling and almost criminal waste of RN aircraft carriers in the early stages of the war has been sheeted home to political interference, probably by Winston Churchill, and an ineffective, probably demented, First Sea Lord.)

Despite leading the world in some aspects, such as damage control and aircraft refuelling systems, the RN was woefully behind with modern aircraft and carrier employment strategies, Taranto notwithstanding. Before and even after the loss of Glorious it had long been argued by the RAF and supported by senior RN officers that modern aircraft were just too fast for the carriers.
The hookless RAF Hurricanes demonstrated convincingly that they could safely take off and land aboard Glorious. This was at a time when the Japanese were building their Zeroes and the USN was experimenting with a number of advanced fighter types.

Winton alludes to a “powerful force” supporting D’Oyly-Hughes and names Churchill as the probable ally. This “connection” might help to explain D’Oyly-Hughes’s arrogance based on ignorance and an evident reluctance of senior flag officers to curb his recklessness.

Churchill himself glosses over the tragedy, yet as he demolishes the “fuel shortage” straw man argument he offers no plausible alternative explanation.

“The Glorious had been detached early that morning to proceed home independently owing to a shortage of fuel, and by now was nearly 200 miles ahead of the main convoy. This explanation is not convincing. The Glorious presumably had enough fuel to steam at the speed of the convoy. All should have kept together.” (Churchill p. 516)

No British authority satisfactorily explains the apparent failure to act on Glorious‘s enemy report. One nearby cruiser, HMS Devonshire, heard her WT calls, but could take no action, such as relaying the message, for very good reasons. Hundreds of survivors needlessly succumbed to exposure after successfully abandoning ship because the Admiralty initiated no timely search and rescue operation.


Barnett, C.  Engage the enemy more closely: The Royal Navy in WW II. Norton: New York, 1991.
Churchill W.S. The second world war, Vol 1. Cassel and Co: London, 1948.