Cataclysm – The War on the Eastern Front
By Keith Cumins
Helion &Company Ltd – £29.95
Depending on ones’ point of view, Cataclysm – The War on the Eastern Front 1941-45 is either a fascinating read or a by far too factual read for it’s own good. There’s no denying that author and former scientist Keith Cumins most certainly knows his Operation Barbarossa; surely one of the if not the most cataclysmic of military confrontations of the Twentieth Century. A conflict so incomprehensibly ghastly and grotesque (not to mention unspeakably cruel and unnecessary), that even by today’s pulse induced, rating standards of televised inhumanity, it takes some beating.
As Professor of Modern History at London’s King’s College, Richard Overy wrote in the Introduction to his outstanding book on the subject, Russia’s War: ‘’The conflict was fought on such a gigantic scale and with such an intensity of feeling that conventional historical discourse seems ill-equipped to convey […] very satisfactorily. The human cost, now estimated by some Soviet scholars to be as high 43 – 47 million people, can only poorly be conveyed by statistics.’’
Herein lies the quintessential problem with Cumins’ Cataclysm. For as comprehensively and no doubt arduously researched as this book is, rather than being an historical overview of Hitler’s contemptuous folly, it reads rather more like a tank manual. That’s not to say tank manuals (or any other manual come to that) aren’t necessary, but given the sheer, unprecedented tragedy of the subject matter, a shred of benevolence wouldn’t have gone amiss.
To be sure, one can pick almost any page at random, only to be confronted with a tumultuous undertaking of militaristic facts and figures; which, like most things in life that veer towards dense repetition, only hold their worth for particularly short periods of time. For instance, on page 28 (‘Barbarossa’) Cumins writes: ‘’On 10 July, as Timoshenko was adjusting to his new role, II Pz Group began to cross the Dnieper. Guderian was unable to cross at the most favourable points such as Zhlobin, Rogachev, Mogilev, and Orsha since these were heavily fortified, and he was obiliged to make the crossings at Stary Bykhov to the north of Rogachev, and at Shklov and Kopys between Mogilev and Orsha in 13 Army’s sector. Nonetheless Guderian was confident of success, and a few days earlier he had told his corps commanders to ignore the flanks and drive for Smolensk.,’’ while on page 139 (‘The End of the Beginning’) he writes: ‘’While 7 Pz in Slavyansk held off Vatutin’s forces, elements of 3 Pz Div arriving from Rostov forced through a relief column from the southeast and re-established contact with the town. Mackensen, fighting in territory thoroughly familiar to him from the battles of 1942, moved his XL Pz Corps and III Pz Corps headquarters into the area. Although German forces were pushed back from Barvenkovo on 9 February and from Lozova the next day, General Sigfrid Henrici’s XL Pz Corps was able to prevent any rapid Soviet exploitation south from the Barvenkovo.,’’ while on page 275 (‘Berlin’) he writes: ‘’At this time 3 Ukrainian Front, with just 400 armoured fighting vehicles, included 4 Gds Army, 26 Army, 57 Army, Bulgarian 1 Army, and Yugoslav 3 Army. In reserve Tolbukhin also had 27 Army, transferred from 2 Ukrainian Front, and a number of independent corps […].’’
As such, not the most stimulating of reads.
Again, full credit must invariably be given to Cumins’ tireless, commendable investigation, into what is clearly a book of profound love on a subject so evidently close to his heart. That said, it really does read far too scientifically, which ought hardly be surprising given that the author is himself, a retired scientist.
Before embarking upon such a colossal discipline, it might have been an idea for him to have considered taking a little heed of the following lines from Overy’s aforementioned Russia’s War: ‘’It is surely no accident that poetry meant so much to ordinary Russians and that through poetry, not a mere recital of numbers, the awful reality of war could be expressed: ‘Tired with the last fatigue/Seized by the death-before-death,/His great hands limply spread,/The soldier lies.’