Reviewed by: Michael Jones
Author: David Stahel
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Price (RRP): £25
On 22 June 1941 Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his surprise assault on the Soviet Union, and in the first weeks of the war his forces struck a series of hammer blows against his reeling foes.
German victories at Minsk and Smolensk put the führer’s troops well on the road to Moscow but in August Hitler chose to move south instead. He pushed his Panzers deep into the Ukraine and won a great encirclement battle outside Kiev, killing or capturing nearly three-quarters of a million Soviet soldiers and destroying a mass of military equipment.
The German Wehrmacht seemed invincible. The Nazi regime was euphoric.
“An autobahn is being planned to the Crimean peninsula,” one foreign office official exclaimed happily in mid-September 1941. Five days later, as the month-long battle culminated in a resounding German triumph, a Wehrmacht soldier added: “There ought to be some newsreel men here… tanks and armoured cars, men heady with the excitement of the attack… running Russians, hiding or surrendering! It is a marvellous sight!”
Yet the mood of exhilaration was short-lived. In October Hitler launched a last great offensive against the Russian capital, but within three months German armies were rebuffed outside Moscow and in atrocious winter weather pushed onto the defensive by a resurgent Red Army.
Appearances can be deceptive in military history, and, with hindsight, the clash at Kiev – far from being an overwhelming success – was a German victory bought at a terrible price. Until now, however, it has lacked a full length study. This state of affairs is remedied by David Stahel’s thorough and perceptive account.
Stahel, an independent researcher based in Berlin, has already written well on the opening months of the Barbarossa onslaught and his present book shows mastery of the German sources and a thorough grasp of the campaign’s operational planning. Issues of logistics and command are leavened by valuable insights into the strategic miscalculations of Hitler and his high command and vivid use of veteran testimony.
At the end of the Second World War many German generals blamed Kiev on Hitler meddling in the war, claiming that by diverting his forces south, the führer missed a great opportunity to capture Moscow before the onset of winter.
Stahel is rightly sceptical of such simplistic judgments, and his incisive survey cuts through much of the postwar myth-making about the battle to show its real cost – the irreplaceable losses suffered by the German armoured formations that had done so much to create the devastating power of blitzkrieg.
In a very real sense Kiev was a pyrrhic victory.
Michael Jones is the author of Total War: From Stalingrad to Berlin (John Murray, 2011)