Cover of Red Storm on the Reich

Red Storm on the Reich
Christopher Duffy
403 pages, including index
published in 1991

It's not really something one likes to bring up in polite society, but I've always been fascinated with the military aspect of World War II and especially with the battles at the East Front, the titanic struggle between Nazi Germany and Stalin's USSR. I'm not the only one, judging from the wide range of websites and books dedicated to the subject. Even so, if you look beyond the hardcore of "enthusiasts", the East Front is still curiously underrepresented in both the popular image of the War and in serious study of it. Partially this was due of course to the simple fact that until 1991 or so, Soviet archives were inaccessible to western researchers, making it that much more difficult to write knowledgably about the East Front. And those books that did appear, were usually (consciously or not) written from the German point of view, simply because those archives were largely available.

Red Storm on the Reich was written just too early to take full advanage of the opening of the Soviet state archives, but even so Christopher Duffy has taken great pains to attempt to present both the Russian and the German point of view in his book. Red Storm on the Reich tells the story of the Soviet offensives of January to April 1945 in Poland and Germany and ends with the Russians knocking at the gates to Berlin. It is a front level history, meaning that the manoeuvres described did not just involve entire armies, they involved entire groups of armies. To show how these manoeuvres, offensives, counter-offensives and battles translate to a human scale, Duffy makes extensive and smart use of exceprts from various participant's diaries, memories and such, both Russian and German.

Duffy divides this story in six parts. In the first part, he gives a quick overview of the state of affairs just before the offensive and the plans made by the Soviet commanders for the offensive. In the second part, the main offensive is followed, which started on the Vistula and ultimately reached the Oder, liberating Poland, captured the important industrial region of Upper Silensia, one of the few great industrial regions still left tot he Germans and isolated East Prussia from the remainder of Germany. This had been achieved in less than a month, roughly from 12 January until Februari 4, 1945.

At that point the Russians were just a few hours drive away from Berlin, yet the offensive stalled there. The reasons for this were complicated. The Soviet armies themselves were at that point at the end of their supply lines, exhausted and in less than peak condition after weeks of heavy fighting. The German defence on the other hand, now fighting on their own soil stiffened considerably. the germans also had the advantage of short supply lines and air superiority; the early spring thaw made much of the grass airstrips the Russians had to rely on unworkable; the Germans however could use concrete airfields. Finally, the great offensive had also left threats to the north and the south of the breakthrough, in East Prussia and Lower Silensia, which had to be dealt with before a new offensive could be undertaken.

The story of the Russian offensives there, in Lower Silensia and East Prussia are dealt with by Duffy in parts three and four of the book, while part five details the siege of the various "fortress " cities left in the wake of the Russian offensive, which sometimes held out one to two months longer than the surrounding countryside, to no great gain to the defenders. In all these pockets, there was little to no hope of the German forces breaking out and joining up with the main body of Germany, yet they fought doggedly, some would even seay heroically on. At that point, the emphasis switched from winning to survival, with german troops essentially buying time to allow civilians to escape the Russian advance. Especially in the East Prussia pocket, the Wehrmacht and Kriegsmarine achieved miracles in evacuating civilians, getting them to "safety".

What makes Red Storm on the Reich so interesting is that Duffy doesn't lose himselve in the military manoeuvres. He is aware that these do not happen in a vacuum, that these have consequences beyond the immediate victory or defeat. In part six therefore, he describes the long term effects the Soviet victory had on Eastern Germany, what the geopolitical consequences were of the Soviet offensive: the loss of East Prussian and all of Germany east of the Oder, the millions of Germans who were driven out of these lands as well as out of Poland and elsewhere, the destruction of much of what remained of Germany and the death or wounding of much of its civilian population.

Red Storm on the Reich is therefore not an easy book; it is not the kind of book that revels in the description of battles and weapons. There's no carnography here, just an honest and well written account of one of the bloodiest offensives in the history of World War II. Recommended.

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