OxBlog

Thursday, April 27, 2006

# Posted 9:58 AM by Patrick Porter  

TRIUMPH ALONE? Its disgracefully late, but I'm reading Richard Overy's powerful get-back-to-basics account of World War Two, Why the Allies Won. Its central thesis is compelling. He argues that the victory of the Allies can't be ascribed simply to material advantage and industrial power.

His account of the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, as his focus for a wider discussion of Operation Barbarossa, is an important corrective to the assumption that the Soviet war machine eventually repelled the Nazis simply through a favourable resource imbalance. As he reminds us, Soviet forces outnumbered the German attackers in 1941, but were pulverised; enjoying only a slight margin of advantage in 1942-3, the gap was too small to explain it 'on the numbers' alone.

Overy revisits all of the variables that complicate the story: the nature and quality of weapons and training, the choices and decisions made with how to use them, the morale of the combatants, the nature of civil-military relations, and central direction which provided the food, labour and armaments to sustain 'deep war.'

My only slight criticism of the book so far is that in opposing one simplisitc interpretation, it succumbs to another seductive myth: that the Soviet victory was only that, a Soviet victory.

To be sure, the Soviets absorbed staggering losses in manpower that no other power could sustain. Georgi Zhukov's acumen was also important, not only as a gifted strategist whose foresight enabled the encirclement of Paulus' Sixth Army, but also as a General who had the ear of Stalin. In Stalin's world, those generals didn't grow on trees.

Also vital was the capacity of the Soviet population not only to fight with fanatical courage against the invader and transplant industries and populations into the interior to maintain the war effort, all spurred on by Stalin's appeals to a shared patriotism, even the imperial glories of the Tsarist memory. As Overy claims, 'The Soviet people were the instrument of their own redemption from the depths of war.'

But even though it is a factor with less grandeur, we shouldn't neglect the powerful assistance given the Soviet effort by American military and financial aid. According to military historian John Keegan,
Although the Soviet forces preferred their own weapon, the other donations provided the Soviet Union with a high proportion not only of its war-industrial requirements but also of its means to fight.

'Just imagine', Nikita Khrushchev later remarked, 'how we would have advanced from Stalingrad to Berlin without [American transport] them.' ; at the end of the war, the Soviet forces held 665,000 motor vehicles, of which 427,000 were Western, most of them American and a high proportion the magnificent 2 1/2 ton Dodge trucks, which effectively carried everything the Red Army needed in the field. American infustry also supplied 13 million Soviet Soldiers with their winter boots, American agriculture 5 million tons of food, sufficient to provide each Soviet soldier with half a pound of concentrated rations every day of the war.

The American railroad industry supplied 2000 locomotives, 11,000 freight carriages and 540,000 tons of rails, with which the Russains laid a greater length of line than they had built between 1928 and 1939. American supplies of high-grade petroleum were essentially to Russian production of aviation fuel, while three-quarters of Soviet consumption of copper in 1941-4 came from American sources.
Such contributions may or may not have been decisive. But without it, the eventual victory of the Soviet Union may have been even more expensive in blood and treasure.

Overlooking this aspect of the campaign means that Overy misses the full significance of one ceremonial event. In Tehran, where Churchill awarded Stalin the Sword of Honour as a gift from the British King George VI, Overy reports that American President Roosevelt 'was visibly moved as the sword was solemnly escorted from the room by a Soviet guard of honour.'

He was probably moved because his own government had made a great contribution to the Soviet war effort. Victory on the eastern front was the result of an unlikely combination: of Atlantic capitalism in partnership with Soviet man.
(6) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
Overy's book is superb - probably my favourite thing from all the course reading so far in the International Relations M.Phil.

Parts of it reminded me of John Keegan's "Intelligence in Warfare," particularly when Keegan is describing Nelson and Napoleon's chase around the Mediterranean.
 
Patrick,
The "Soviet Man", are you freakin' insane?
I'm back to reading only David's posts.
Mike Daley
 
I haven't read Overy, but after reading all through Erikkson's histories, my own general feeling is that not enough attention is given to the poor leadership on both sides.

Germany advanced as far as they did in 1941 not just because the Panzers were good but because Stalin and his Marshals made severe blunders; Russia won Stalingrad and Kursk because of idiotic decisions in the German High Command. (And not just by Hitler, either.) No doubt if Germany had done better, nuclear warfare would have come to Europe and decided the war that way, but German mistakes were critical in determining why the war panned out the way that they did.
 
Hey Scott, good point, but I guess the question remains why some powers are better able to exploit the poor decisions of others.

Overy points to improvements in the willingness and ability of Stalin to accept intelligence reports and permit action based on them (eg. the Nazi build-up at Kursk).

And Mike, I meant 'Soviet Man' as a slightly cheeky shorthand for the ordinary Soviet people and their role in defeating Hitler.

I'd much rather you debated my posts than ignored them. Lets break a lance, it'll be much more fun.
 
Check out Glantz, "Zhukov's Greatest Defeat".

One thing is clear. The Germans were better soldiers tactically and operationally.

The legendary suicidal courage of the Red Army soldier is not of a different sort. German counterattacks, for example, are described in terms of what forces begin, and those that are left when the battle is won. German battalions may start, but once the objective is won, there's a beat-up rifle company and a small field gun left.

Germany made so much ground initially in the war because, some say, Stalin purged his officer corps, requiring the promotion of officers years behind the expected experience, selection boards, and schools. It is even possible the Germans faked him into it.

In "A War to Be Won", the authors tell us that the German logisitical guys told the High Command what they could do and what they couldn't do. The High Command went ahead, anyway. The loggie guys were right. They generally are. This is only one reason to doubt the requirement that our potential enemies see their reality as we see their reality. Wishful thinking trumps anything.
There's an old saying that amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics, which is increasingly true as an officer rises in command.
And, after all those years of studying logistics, the High Command, professional soldiers all, said, Screw it. Let's go.
 

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