Tuesday, 31 March 2015
In Final Defense of the Reich - Stephen M Rusiecki
Author: Stephen M Rusiecki
Publisher: Naval Institute Press, 2010
Photographs: 30 b/w
Rusiecki has written a fascinating and engaging book. By April of 1945 the Third Reich was on its last days and, with the passage of time, there is a pervading sense and assumption that the Allied forces (especially in the West) were merely conducting mop-up style operations against a disorganized, demoralized and broken German army. While it is correct to say that indeed the German army was rapidly losing cohesion at the strategic level, Rusiecki’s book proves that this was not the case universally at the tactical and operational levels. His book describes the final struggle between an elite Waffen-SS unit, the 6th SS Mountain Division “Nord” reduced following constant fighting from its full time strength of 725 officers and 21,100 noncommissioned officers and soldiers complete with integral artillery and transport assets to a rump of 2,000 officers and men and (primarily) the US 71st Infantry Division (the “Red Circle” men derived from their shoulder patch design) comprising 14,000 well trained but relatively unblooded US officers and men over a period 1-3 April, 1945 east of Frankfurt in the area of the Buedingen forest.
Rusiecki sets the stage for his readers by providing a comprehensive history of the 6th SS Nord and its wartime experiences leading up to its final confrontation with the 71st ID. Initially formed in March, 1941 it saw extensive action alongside the Finnish military in the Northern Theatre of Operations. Redesignated as a Mountain-Division in 1943, it specialized in cold-weather and mountain operations becoming one of the premier units of this type in the German military. With the collapse of the Northern Front in 1944 and a subsequent declaration of neutrality by the Finns in September, 6th Nord was forced to conduct, in conjunction with the rest of the German forces in Finland, a fighting retreat against their former allies to the Norwegian border (a distance of over 300 miles) over a period of two months. Once there, stress on the Western front resulted in the immediate redeployment of the division through Denmark to central Germany. Lack of transport and disruption of the transport that did exist by Allied intervention resulted in the division being fed piecemeal into the fighting in this region and a lot of their movement having to be undertaken by foot. Thus did the remnants of this heavily experienced but exhausted division find itself in March, 1945, east of Frankfurt, bypassed by fast moving Allied units, trying desperately to connect with any remaining organized German lines.
He then looks at the 71st ID; raised initially in 1943 as a 9,000 man ‘Light Division’ designed to be employable in both the European or Pacific theatre of operations. Unfortunately, evaluations and efforts to adjust the focus of the unit to meet the unique requirements of each of the theatres proved too daunting and the Light Division concept was deemed to be a failure. This resulted, in 1944 in the redesignation of the unit as a standard 14,000 man Infantry Division. As the war progressed and pressure for additional forces grew, 71st ID received orders for deployment to the European theatre and, in February, 1945, it arrived onto French soil and a period of acclimatization. By mid-March, confident but unbloodied, it took its place in the line facing the remnants of the once mighty German Wehrmacht.
Rusiecki then seamlessly flows from a macro to a micro rendition of events. Tracing the movements of the respective units to their eventual confluence, he gradually narrows the focus of his narrative to the period of 1-3 April, 1945 as the battle that is the central pillar of his book unfolds. Transitioning between operational, tactical and individual experiences, he skillfully paints a picture of the desperation and dedication of the Germans of the 6th SS to their failing cause and the resolve of the Americans to crush this last bastion of resistance. Of particular interest to the reader is the impact and degree of confusion resulting from the fog of war that remains the common theme of both sides throughout this engagement. This book highlights exceptionally well the effects that weather, communication breakdown, poor (and conflicting) intelligence and preconceived assumptions have on decision making in the execution of a battle. Even with the benefit of having provided maps and a clear narrative, it still requires a high degree of concentration on the part of the reader to follow the machinations of the operation. The author closes his narrative with a follow-on regarding some of the major participants from each side; where they ended up and how they adapted to a peacetime environment.
Rusiecki has provided military history with a commendable addition. His bibliography is extensive and draws upon not only written accounts but also copious numbers of interviews with survivors from both sides. His narrative pulls no punches regarding the darker and lighter sides of the conflict and he presents his findings in a very balanced and fair manner. Certainly, after years of war, neither side was completely free of controversy yet neither did they, as combatants and representatives of their countries, deviate extensively from the acceptable rules of war. Each side fought hard and conducted themselves honourably. Given the complexities of the operation regarding numbers of units and movements, it would have been nice to have had larger and more detailed maps. The author does have numerous maps throughout the book corresponding to the stage of the conflict and I would stress that my observation is one of personal preference and is not a significant criticism of the book itself.
Mr Rusiecki’s work is an excellent addition to anyone’s library and an addition of note to professional military literature writ large. Highly recommended.