Endgame at Stalingrad (Book One), by David Glantz (“with” Jonathan House, whatever that means), is the latest in what was originally to have been a trilogy of books about the Stalingrad campaign but has by now morphed into what can only be called a quintilogy. Thus it is actually now only the third of a planned five books on the battle by Glantz, who is truly the Robert Jordan of military history.
The first volume of the “trilogy” covered Soviet attempts to cope with Case Blue, the 1942 German offensive on the East Front, particularly as that campaign approached the environs of Stalingrad and met its highwater mark. The second volume of the “trilogy,” far more claustrophobic, concentrates intensely on the fall fighting for Stalingrad itself, pitting the German 6th Army against the Soviet 62nd Army, and also covering the various Soviet counterattacks north and south of Stalingrad and their effects on the overall battle.
This book, “Book One” of “Volume 3” of the “trilogy,” steps back from Stalingrad (in fact, the fighting in Stalingrad is rarely mentioned and Chuikov, the “star” of Volume 2, is barely even mentioned in this volume). This book, hereinafter referred to as “Book One,” covers two subjects. First, it takes about 180 pages to discuss the background of and preparations for Operation Uranus, the Soviet counterstroke at Stalingrad that ended up destroying the German 6th Army. Second, the bulk of the book covers the operations of only the first eleven days of the Soviet offensive, from November 19 through November 30. It is, then, by far the narrowest book in time frame of the whole quintilogy.
David Glantz, the author, is something of an icon among both scholars and buffs of East Front military history. His books sell well and grace the shelves of many a military history buff. However, grace those shelves though they may, they also tend to gather dust on them—the dirty little secret about David Glantz is that the number of people who own books by David Glantz far outnumbers the number of people who successfully finish any of them.
I want to note right up front that Glantz has many strengths. He was a pioneer in utilizing compilations of Soviet documents released by Russian archives and he has certainly enhanced our understanding of a variety of East Front operations. He has the ability to assess military operations (which, oddly enough, many military historians do not), and for the most part, his judgments tend to be sound and accurate. I should also note that, though I do not know Glantz personally, I know a number of people who have interacted with him, from professional historians to various hobbyists and buffs, and universally they describe him as friendly and willing to help. I feel it is important to stress these things before embarking upon a somewhat harsh review of someone often thought rather highly of; this review contains serious criticisms of both Glantz and his publisher (in this case, University Press of Kansas, though they could apply about as accurately to Helion). What I’d like to see is both Glantz and his editors work to eliminate the weaknesses of his works and focus on expanding the strengths. I think every student of East Front military history would benefit as a result. (people who want to skip the negative stuff can scroll to the very end where I summarize the three main ways that this book adds to the literature)
Before getting into the nitty gritty, I’d like to address the writing. Glantz is a very fast writer, something that has enabled him to produce a long series of cube-shaped books in a relatively short period of time, but always not a careful writer, nor is he any sort of stylist. His prose tends to be clean but uninspired. It is also sloppy at times and his books need careful line-editing and proofreading, which they do not always seem to get. Helion, the publisher of his Smolensk books, written more or less contemporaneously with his Stalingrad series, has been a worse offender than Kansas, seemingly doing little more than spell-checking Glantz. As a result, those books are full of glitches such as confusing the words “breach” and “breech” or misusing the word “literally,” a word that Glantz honestly seems not to understand. The Stalingrad books are, in general, better edited, but only relatively. Indeed, in the very first page of the preface to Book One, Glantz writes that the Red Army “literally [turned] Germany’s world upside down.” Really? Germany’s world was literally turned upside down? I don’t blame Glantz for this—or other misuses of the word “literally” that appear in this volume—so much as I do whoever was responsible for editing his book. That’s pretty inexcusable. The book suffers from other errors of hasty compilation and/or insufficient editing and proofreading, such as referring to Jason Mark’s Death of the Leaping Horseman as a history of the 25th Panzer Division rather than the 24th Panzer Division.
Another writing issue that appears in this book is bloat. Glantz is among the writers most susceptible to bloat and the majority of his books suffer from it. The tendency to bloat seems to stem from two sources: 1) his tendency to write hastily (it is a commonplace among writers that it is often easier to write a longer text than it is to craft a well-edited shorter piece on the same subject) and 2) his “kitchen sink” philosophy, which is simply to throw everything in rather than weigh its true usefulness. As a result, Glantz is actually a master of a variety of different kinds of bloat, from “reproducing text” bloat (most evident in his recent Smolensk books, which are virtually lightly-rewritten reproductions of Soviet orders and daily action reports) to “biographical background” bloat (in which Glantz provides the career resume of virtually every officer mentioned in a book, however briefly) to “endnotes” bloat (in which Glantz fills the endnotes with unimportant additional information) to “order of battle” bloat (in which Glantz fills page after page with lists of units, many very unimportant) to “appendix” bloat (which is fairly self-explanatory). The result of all of this is that most of his books are far larger than they need to be, which can be aggravating for a number of reasons.
Book One suffers from endnote bloat but especially from order of battle bloat. Indeed, the main reason that Glantz takes 180 pages to describe the preparations for Operation Uranus is that much of this section is devoted to endless listings of military units, many of which are never again mentioned in the text. Does Glantz really need to take the time to list the 26th, 100th, 101st, 102nd, 130th, 28th, and 37th Pontoon-Bridge Battalions (subordinated to the 5th Tank Army and 1st Guards Army)? The answer is no; they turn out to be irrelevant to the text. But Glantz mentions them and endless other formations in this section, taking up page after page. Glantz mentions various aerial formations, too, even though the entire book contains virtually no discussion of air operations. Order of Battle fixations like this are one of the things that typically divide professional historians from amateur historians—amateur historians love compiling this sort of order of battle minutiae—and it is not clear why Glantz falls into this trap. But he does.
With all of this text (Book One clocks in at 655 pages), one would think that the book must be well-researched. Is it? Sometimes it is hard to tell. Another sort of bloat that this book suffers from is bibliography bloat—there are many works cited in the bibliography that absolutely have no relevance to this book. For example, Glantz cites a work on Soviet partisans. Are partisans discussed in this book at all? No, they are not. So why does this book even appear in the bibliography (another good question is why Soviet partisans are not in fact discussed in the book; Italian memoirs reveal that they were present and quite active in the area)? This is just one of countless questionable books that show up in the bibliography.
The endnotes are more revealing. They clearly show the use that Glantz makes of primary and secondary Russian-language sources, which should not be surprising, as that’s basically Glantz’s claim to fame. But they also reveal that the range of sources actually used for the book, as opposed to simply appearing in the bibliography, are more narrow than one would think—and what is actually taken from those sources more narrow than the entire range of information that they contain. So, for example, Glantz makes rather sparing use of Soviet memoirs (whether of commanders or low-ranking officers or men), and even less so of German. There are obvious reasons to use such memoirs (or contemporary documents such as letters or diaries, etc.) carefully, stemming as most do from the Soviet era, but eschewing them to the degree and in the way that Glantz does negates their main advantage: their ability to provide context and description to the reader that formal after action reports simply cannot. Glantz does provide a very small number of such quotations, to rather good effect, so it is not clear why he did not do this more often (certainly the source material for such exists). I should note, though, that on one occasion he does provide a very unfortunate passage from the memoirs of German pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel that has a good chance to have been made up out of whole cloth.
Glantz’s sources are also extremely Soviet-centric. While this is understandable to a certain degree, given Glantz’s desire to highlight previously opaque Soviet operations, the plain fact is that operational level histories need to look at both sides. Glantz actually did a much better job of utilizing German sources in Volume Two than he does here in Book One of Volume Three. Historians such as David Stahel have shown how illuminating looking at some of these lower level German records can be; it would be nice if Glantz made more use of such sources himself than he has here and in the past. Book One adequately describes German operational countermeasures to the Soviet breakthrough, but is oddly lacking in its discussion of higher level German decision making (lacking to a much greater degree than in previous volumes of this “trilogy” or in his Smolensk books as well)—a subject of crucial importance to the battle of Stalingrad (so much so that one historian in the 1980s actually devoted an entire book to it). As a result, the reader will come away with a rather incomplete impression of how the Germans actually reacted (in a non-operational sense) to the Soviet counterstroke.
But if Glantz’s coverage of the German side is lacking, he has a much bigger problem when it comes to sources, and that is the Romanian question. Glantz understands Russian and he understands German, but he does not apparently read Romanian (or Italian or Hungarian). For Volumes One and Two, this was not really a problem, as the Romanian Third Army was not important. But for this particular book, one focusing so narrowly on the Nov 19-20 breakthrough and the immediately following operations, the Romanians played a starring role. The Romanian Third Army was the major target of the Southwestern Front, while the Romanian formations of Fourth Panzer Army (often referred to as the Romanian Fourth Army) was the breakthrough target of the Stalingrad Front. Thus for the first several day so fighting, the bulk of the Axis combatants were actually Romanians, and they continued to play a major role through the rest of November. Unfortunately, Glantz does not utilize any Romanian language sources (though someone of his reputation could easily have gotten assistance from Romanian archivists, and he also could have hired one or more research assistants). Instead, the bulk of Glantz’s information about Romanian participation comes from a single book: Mark Axworthy’s (et al) Third Axis, Fourth Ally. Someone reading the book without checking the endnotes might at first be impressed by how often combat involving Romanians is discussed—far more so than in almost any other study of the battle (German-centric works tend to portray them simply as collapsing and running away, sometimes throwing a bone to Lascar). However, except for some information from the Soviet perspective, virtually all of the endnotes for this Romanian material come from Axworthy’s book, which is cited again and again and again. Glantz’s reliance on a single work for information on this important subject certainly is somewhat risky at best. Does this actually matter? The answer is yes, it does. For example, in a previous work Glantz discusses to some degree the subsequent Soviet operation that destroyed the Italian 8th Army. Not doing research in Italian language sources, Glantz made several factual errors that he never would have made had he consulted the copious Italian sources on the matter. Could the same be true here? That is certainly possible. I have to say that in this post Cold War era, it is pretty hard to write the definitive book about the Stalingrad counteroffensive without adequately treating the Romanian issue.
The last thing that I want to discuss here is what constitutes the bulk of Book One: Glantz’s descriptions of the Soviet operations (and German responses) during the period November 19-30. Book One is, after all, a work of operational level military history. Unfortunately, Glantz approaches operational level military history at this level from a rather problematic perspective. With operational level military history, the main duty of the historian is to describe the course of military operations and the reasons why those operations took the form and course that they did, so that the reader can understand the nature and flow of the combat operations.
This is not, however, what Glantz does. Although it seems hard to believe, Glantz rarely seems very interested in what factors shaped a particular military operation, what the course of it was, what it was like (including the impressions of participants) and, basically, what happened in that combat. So, for example, in Volume Two Glantz very rarely addressed the issue of terrain when discussing the city fighting in Stalingrad. One might think that, if beginning to describe the fight for a particular factory complex, Glantz might attempt to describe the complex, the nature of the terrain and the relevant considerations it played. However, he rarely did that, nor does he do much of anything equivalent here in Book One, either. Terrain, whether natural or manmade, doesn’t interest him that much, though there will be the occasional reference to gullies, etc.
More importantly, Glantz does not describe what happens in the vast majority of the fighting that he depicts. Why was a particular attack successful? What happened before it was successful? By and large, the reader will never know from reading this book. Rather, in Book One Glantz adopts the role of the ultimate “phase line” historian. He is not so much interested in what happens during an attack than in simply how it turns out. Did the attack gain one kilometer or three? Did it get five kilometers closer to Place X or just four?
Glantz structures the combat operation descriptions in Book One in a very rigid fashion. Essentially, he divides the fighting by day, then by front, then by army, and takes every single one in turn. Thus he will start describing operations on November 22. He will first take the Southwestern Front. Then he will take Formation X in the Southwestern Front and detail the operations of that army or corps. Then he will take the next formation in the front and so on. When he is through with Southwestern Front, he’ll move to Don Front and do the same. Then on to Stalingrad Front for the same thing. Then maybe a short section on German reactions. Then it is November 23 and lather, rinse, repeat, until we have reached November 30.
The effect of this, lurching from formation to formation, is rather disjointed, and arguably not the best approach. For example, given that the breakthrough operations of Southwestern and Stalingrad Fronts were totally independent until they linked up after several days of fighting, might perhaps it have been better to discuss all of the Southwestern Front operations during those days in one section, and then do the same for Stalingrad Front? This would allow readers to more easily follow the course of operations, and would also eliminate one of the problems inherent in the methodology that Glantz did choose, which is that Glantz must continually repeat himself whenever he loops back to a particular army (thus some events are referred to two, three, or even four or more different times).
And when Glantz does describe the operations of a particular formation (5th Tank Army, 1st Guards Army, whatever), here is how he always does it. He will describe in great detail the exact positions of every attacking (or defending) unit. Then he will announce, one by one, the results of each unit. Unit A’s attack got three kilometers. Unit B’s attack stalled after 400 yards. And so forth. Note that he doesn’t typically describe what happens in those attacks (though sometimes he will make an offhand reference about tanks lost or a counterattack or some other vague factor), only the results. In essence, then, what Glantz does repeatedly throughout this book is simply describe the end-lines for each day’s combat. On day x, army y got to point z. Over and over he does this.
So even a careful reader will basically only learn how well each formation did during each snippet of time, without necessarily understanding why this was the case. This is in sharp contrast to better-written works of operational military history, in which the reader comes away with a much more holistic understanding not only of the results, but how things got to those results. Alvin Coox’s magisterial Nomanhan, for example, allows the reader to understand exactly why various Japanese or Soviet attacks succeeded or failed, and to come away with an understanding of what was important in those battles. Valeriy Zamulin’s Demolishing the Myth often allows readers to understand far more than what the phase lines of the battle of Kursk were, but what actually happened during those operations. Charles Sharp and Jack Radey’s recent The Defense of Moscow 1941: The Northern Flank also does a far better job of operational level military history, using many of the same types of sources used by Glantz.
In Book One, moreover, it is often difficult even to follow Glantz’s “phase line” approach to operational level military history. This is due to the book’s greatest weakness: its maps. Good maps often mean the difference between a successful or unsuccessful work of military history and Glantz is infamous for his horrible maps. The maps in Book One are among his worst. First, Glantz does not use one style of cartography. He uses a variety of non-consistent map styles, which only rarely have keys or legends, and some of them are so bizarre (the map on page 210 in particular is incomprehensible). Some of the maps are fairly decent and usable (oddly, the best maps tend to be maps depicting offensive plans rather than actual operations), while others are so bad as to be virtually incomprehensible.
The most common type of map, which Glantz has utilized many times before, is a photocopied or scanned German situation map onto which Glantz pastes (perhaps literally) unit designations and sometimes other markings. He uses these copied situation maps at a variety of scales, from a scale so large that no place names are even legible to a scale so magnified (see the map on page 295, for example) that it doesn’t even look like a map at all, but the scratches and scribbling of a child or a crazy person. Because place names on these maps are German in origin, they use a different transliteration of Russian than Glantz does, which means you might not be able to find a place on the map (unless Glantz has pasted a new transliteration, which he does once in a while). Often, though, the copies are so bad and reproduced at such a scale that virtually nothing on the map is comprehensible—and certainly not the positions and operations Glantz often intends the maps to display.
I cannot emphasize the poor map quality enough. I wish Glantz would look at works of operational level military history with excellent maps and try to emulate them. For example, Amersfoort and Kamphuis’s May 1940: The Battle for the Netherlands, or Grant and Tamayama’s Burma 1942: The Japanese Invasion. Or the U.S. Army “green” books, for that matter, whose style of cartography Glantz is certainly familiar with. Glantz’s descriptions of the operations later in November suffer in particular from extremely poor maps that make it really difficult to understand the operations described.
I should note, too, that if this book had better maps, it could be a lot shorter. So much of the bloat in this book is taken up with describing in detail exactly where each unit is at a particular point in time, either before or after an attack. But that sort of information is exactly what maps portray better and more concisely than prose can. If Glantz had better maps, and more of them, the reader could much more easily understand the course of the breakthrough at Stalingrad, the subject of the book.
For those brave souls who have read this far, let me end on an up note, and take a minute to mention some of the positive contributions that this book does make, despite its many flaws. First, it provides an illuminating discussion of the genesis of the plans for the Soviet counterattack. Second, it describes in more detail the nature of the Soviet operations (particularly for the period Nov 19-23) than any other book I’ve seen. Most books on Stalingrad, which are German-centric, portray the Soviet attacks as an unstoppable, undifferentiated tide. Glantz allows the reader to understand much better than any other work does the nature of the Soviet attacks, what they were designed to do, and the problems that they faced in trying to carry out their missions. Lastly, Glantz makes a pretty convincing case that the German 48th Panzer Corps, much maligned or even dismissed in the historical literature, actually played a much more effective role than historians have previously given it credit for.
Because of these elements, and others, this book is certainly a must-read for students of the Eastern Front and of the Battle of Stalingrad. But the significant flaws in the book render it less helpful and eye-opening than it otherwise could have been.