In the Second World War Germany lost four million military dead. Three million of those were on the Eastern Front. From June 1941 onwards never fewer than seventy-five percent of German’s land and air assets were on the Eastern Front. In the whole of the war the United Kingdom lost 0.4 percent of her population, the USA 0.3 percent, whilst a conservative estimate suggests the USSR lost twenty percent of her population – ten million military and seventeen million civilian deaths. It was on the Eastern Front that the European war was decided. The history of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the USSR has been recorded in great detail, and the battles of Kiev, Smolensk and Stalingrad, and the siege of Leningrad and others are well known and occupy many feet of bookshelves. But there are other campaigns that were just as brutal, just as destructive, just as bloody and just as expensive in men and materiel which have passed most historians by. One such is the battle and battles for the Rzhev Salient in 1942 and 43.
Formed when the initial German advance on Moscow had stalled and following the Soviet counter-attack, by the end of 1941 the Rzhev Salient was a German held finger shaped area roughly twenty miles wide and fifty from north to south that pushed into Soviet territory, its point roughly 140 miles west northwest of Moscow. In itself it had little strategic value for the German army, indeed Army Group Centre could have shortened its front and freed up units to be used elsewhere had they abandoned it (as they did in 1943, at their own pace), but partly a reluctance to retreat and partly a hope that it could be used as a springboard to renew the advance on Moscow kept them there.
In this book Prit Buttar, a well-known and acclaimed historian of the Eastern Front, takes us through the desperate battles where the Soviets try to retake the salient and the Germans fight to hold it. By assiduous use of primary sources, including war diaries, letters, operation orders and interviews, the author allows us to see the reality of war both from the operational viewpoint of Army Group/Front, army, corps and divisional commanders, but also the worms’ eye perspective of individual junior officers, tank commanders and private soldiers at all levels. No holds were barred by either side: the German rationale being that as the USSR had not ratified the Hague Convention their soldiers were not entitled to its protection, and the Russians forbidden to retreat by an increasingly paranoiac Stalin.
This is an excellent book and a worthy addition to studies of the Eastern Front. While the maps are clear and those readers with military experience will be well conversant with conventional symbols, it might have been helpful to include an appendix explaining them for those who are not. Again, the selection of plates might have been improved by drawing on the Bundesarchive photographic library with its excellent and wide ranging coverage of the Eastern Front. Withal, these are minor quibbles for a riveting account of a campaign that produced no gain for either side – the Soviets did not destroy Army Group Centre and the Germans were unable to renew the drive to Moscow – despite appalling casualties on both sides.
Meat Grinder: The Battles for the Rzhev Salient 1942-43 by Prit Buttar is out now and published by Osprey.
Gordon Corrigan is a former army officer and the author of Mud, Blood and Poppycock: Britain and the Great War.