Book Review: The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943

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by Robert M. Citino

Lawrence, Ks.: University Press of Kansas, 2012. Pp. xxvii, 410. Illus., maps, notes, biblio, index. $34.95. ISBN: 0700618260

Certainly no war has received more attention than the titanic struggle that was the Second World War.  It can be said with equal certainty that no military establishment involved in that conflict has received more attention than that of Nazi Germany.  Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht has been the subject of hundreds of books, ranging in quality from the utterly trite to the shrewdly insightful.  Likewise, the authors of these works range from slapdash artists for whom a total lack of familiarity with German is not an impediment to writing on the Wehrmacht to careful investigators who are well acquainted with primary and secondary sources.  Among the latter group is Robert Citino, who has produced an impressive number of fine works on German military history.  The Wehrmacht Retreats, is the latest addition to Citino’s oeuvre, and a most welcome one.

In a sense this volume is a continuation of Citino's Death of the Wehrmacht, focused on the 1942 campaigns in Russia and North Africa. 

This work moves the story forward through 1943, a year that ended with the Germans in retreat on all fronts, and many coming to the realization that the war was already lost.  Citino proceeds in a chronological manner, beginning with the crisis created by the Allied invasion of North Africa and Erwin Rommel’s defeat at the hands of Bernard Montgomery, followed by the Italo-German retreat from first Egypt and then Libya.  After the stabilization of the front in Tunisia, Citino moves to the Eastern Front and the continuation of the Soviet counteroffensive, ultimately halted by Erich von Manstein’s famous “backhand blow” that recaptured Kharkov. Thereafter successive chapters alternate between the Mediterranean and Eastern Fronts.  A final concluding chapter brings the work to a nice finish.

Like all of Citino’s work, this book is fairly brimming with perceptive insights and shrewd observations.  A fine example of this is the chapter on Manstein’s victory in the Third Battle of Kharkov.  Acknowledging that Manstein was indeed a fine operational and tactical commander (something that Manstein was always eager to emphasize in his memoir Lost Victories, which could have had the more accurate title of “Boy was I Brilliant””), Citino notes that the reality was a bit more complicated.

Like several other egocentric commanders in history -- Pompey, MacArthur -- Manstein often took credit for  results that were brought about by decisions of others, over whom Manstein could exercise but little control.

On the matter of the Eastern Front, Citino challenges, more implicitly than overtly, one of the truisms of history.  The winners, it is often said, are the ones who write the history.  Citino cleverly points out, however, the importance of the memoirs penned by German generals after the war and how they served to shape our Western perceptions of how the war was conducted, as well as their relationship with their conveniently deceased Führer.

In terms of the Mediterranean, Citino also effectively demolishes the image of “Smiling Albert” Kesselring as a uniquely able defensive commander.  Citino points out that given the realities of military geography in Italy, any tactically or operationally competent commander (and the German Army had a number of them) could have conducted as effective a defense of Italy as did Kesselring.

Citino also clearly demonstrates how events on one front influenced decisions regarding the other front.

The book does have its flaws.  Over the course of April 1943 Hitler met Benito Mussolini, Romania’s Ion Antonescu, and Hungary’s Miklos Horthy, but all four men were never in the same room at the same time.  In addition, while both Mussolini and Antonescu urged Hitler to make a separate peace, Mussolini wanted peace with the western powers, while Antonescu urged Hitler to make a deal with Stalin.  Regrettably, none of this makes it into the book.

Another issue Citino might have covered in more detail was the defection of Italy and its consequences.  Although Citino provides a nice examination of the disarming of the Italian armed forces once King Victor Emanuel III and Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio fled to Allied lines, he confines his discussion to the Italian peninsula.  Large Italian forces on garrison duty in the Balkans and Southern France also had to be disarmed and replaced by German troops.  A discussion of this would have enhanced Citino’s otherwise excellent analysis of Hitler’s constant struggle to find sufficient numbers of troops to man the still far flung battle fronts.

These, however, are relatively minor slips.  Citino’s work, as always, is based on a superb grasp of both primary and secondary sources and aided by a fine understanding of the nuances of the German language.  The writing is always lively and a good read.

A volume in the University Press of Kansas series “Modern War Stories”, The Wehrmacht Retreats is a must for both the serious scholar to even the most casual student of World War II.

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Our Reviewer: Richard L. DiNardo teaches at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, in Quantico.  He is the author or editor of several works in military history, among them Breakthrough: The Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign, 1915, Germany and the Axis Powers: From Coalition to Collapse, and James Longstreet: The Man, The Soldier, The Controversy.



    

Reviewer: Richard L. DiNardo    


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