Saturday, 5 September 2015

Book Review: Infernal Cauldron - Stephen Walsh

I don't know why, but as a rule I don't usually go for books of this sort - glossy papered, picture heavy, slim A4 format hardbacks - I think it's cause I associate the format with 'history-lite' treatments of subjects. 

But I bought this book second-hand, without bothering to check the format, from an Amazon re-seller. I got it because, having recently read several books on Hitler's life and career - I have a couple on Stalin to read next [1] - and a couple on Barbarossa, I wanted to continue 'zooming in' in the Ostfront. And Stalingrad, the turning point of both Barbarrosa and, arguably, the whole European war, seemed like the obvious place to start. I also have the Antony Beevor Stalingrad book, which, rather worryingly, I'm not sure if I've read or not!

This is the whole of one of the images used in the montage on the cover.

Walsh's book starts with an introductory first chapter that sets out German aims and means in launching Barborossa, the Nazi invasion of Russia, before, in chapter two, focussing on the advance to Stalingrad. Three chapters then describe the three successive German assaults on Stalingrad, that would eventually lead to the Germans occupying the (by then) bombed out shell of the Russian city that was named for the terrifyingly powerful Soviet leader. 

Chapters six and seven describe the Russian operation Uranus, and the Caucasus campaign, which culminate in the isolation and encirclement of Paulus' 6th Army, whilst chapters eight to ten describe, first, the moment when the fate of 6th Army hung in the balance (to break out? to be reached by relief from their own side? airlifts? to fight on?), then their annihilation/surrender, and finally the aftermath.

This pic, showing a crowd of German POWs after the Russian's recaptured Stalingrad, is in the book. The infamous grain elevator is in the background.

Walsh ably describes the war of wills that took place between Hitler and Stalin, also highlighting how, for all that both were brutal paranoid dictators, Stalin and the Russians triumphed not just because of a better match between means and ends (a recurrent them of Walsh's analysis of this titanic battle) on the Russian side, but because both Stalin and his commanders and troops proved flexible, evolving to meet the developing situations. 

In stark contrast Hitler's 'iron will', and his increasingly isolationist position in relation to the 'professional' German military leadership, meant that he refused to be flexible in his responses, the German forces became a monolithic and unchanging agent, the 'blunt instrument' if you like, of his 'will'.

Stalingrad... reduced to a sparse 'forest' of chimney-stacks. This pic isn't in this book.

In fact, if anything, Hitler had a retrograde evolution, trading down from the former triumphs of a war of manoeuvre, in which German troops continually isolated and then destroyed or captured Russian forces, in numerous Kesselschlacht (or 'cauldron battles'), and allowing the Russians to force him into an attritional head-on conflict, where the mobility that had brought so many triumphs was neutralised, and his own forces were ultimately sacrificed in an 'infernal cauldron' of their own.

Russian troops in action in the gutted city.

Walsh, a member of the Sandhurst faculty at the time of this books publication - I don't know if he still works there? - is a military authority of some professional standing (apparently he's been on TV as well, though I don't believe I've seen him in that capacity). I was somewhat surprised, in light of this, to find numerous picture captions making what seemed to me like rather basic errors, such as when a pic of two machine gunners is described as a single machine gunner, or Russians are described as sheltering beneath a Russian tank when it's clearly a German tank, etc.

Another pic that is in this book: a German soldier pays the ultimate price. Is this a genuine or a staged picture?

The picture captioning is a relatively minor niggle. More fundamentally, it's quite confusing trying to follow all the factual descriptions, of units, commanders, and geography. This is a frequent problem in narratives of military campaigns. Indeed, it's an area where the requirements of the subject frequently seem to be in a kind of conflict with the medium of writing. Clausewitz's book on the 1812 Russian campaign, for example, is, in my view, an awfully turgid read in the first section, where he does what Walsh does a lot of throughout practically all of this book, which is to, more or less, simply list the facts of the troop movements and engagements.

Paulus and staff surrender (this pic's not in the book).

However, it's far from all being bad news, as aspects of Walsh's analysis are very perceptive. What he says, perhaps too often for my liking (though it does bear repeating, in light of the German repetitions of the mistake) about the disparity between German ends and means is absolutely true. So also are his observations about the key differences between Russian and German evolution: the Russians did, and won, the Germans didn't and lost.

In terms of literary verve and clarity, this left something to be desired. But in terms of factual content and astute observation, it's excellent. It's also copiously illustrated, which is of course useful for us wargamers and modellers. There are also several maps, and even some interesting aerial surveillance photos. Whether I already read it or not, I think I'll go to Antony Beevor's Stalingrad next, as I imagine (I seem to be coming down on the I haven't read it line!), based on recently reading Ardennes, 1944, that it'll be rip-snorting good read.

This photo (a variant of which does appear in the book) was taken at Kursk, the last major German offensive on the Ostfront... So, not going so well, eh, 'Fritz'?

This post also found me finally getting around to developing a WWII scoring graphic equivalent to my 'Boney's Bicorne' system, for the Napoleonic era: as it's a very distinctive emblem, and not quite as contaminated as the swastika, not to mention that most of my interests lie in and around the German military machine, I've gone with the Balkankreuz, as used on tanks and planes, etc. I've also decided to add 1/2 scores, because this book didn't excite me enough to give it four, and wasn't so bad as to only merit three, so three and a half 'kreuz it is!


[1] What is it, exactly, that makes such monstrous dictators so compelling as subjects to read about? Well, I guess, at least in part, it is their very monstrosity!


  1. My goodness your reading is prolific! It could well be that the publisher chose and captioned those photos. That's happened to me.

  2. Hi Michael

    Thanks for the interesting comment. I too have been subject to editorial interventions (back when I used to contribute regularly to a drumming magazine) that might not always have enhanced my writing. But I hadn't thought of the possibility that the captions might not be by the author. Good point!

    And yes, I am a prolific reader. I also usually have numerous books on the go simultaneously, a fact that might sometimes enable me to appear to finish several at the same time, or in quick succession. But, truth be told, some of the reviews I'm putting online here now were originally written some time previously.