The End of the Third Reich

Vasili I. Chuikov, The End of the Third Reich (transl. Ruth Kisch, foreword Alistair Horne, London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1967)

And he who from any base calculations wishes to kindle the flame of war on another’s territory will without fail be fated to choke to his own death in the flame of atomic explosions over his own land. (p. 260)

Thus Vasili Chuikov, Marshall and Twice Hero of the Soviet Union, towards the end of his account of the Soviets’ victory over Berlin.

Spurred on by Silent Hunter and Battle Beneath the Waves, I watched Downfall and Enemy at the Gates. Downfall depicts the last days of Hitler in his bunker in Berlin, with the Soviets around the corner; a really good film, with strong acting, and based on Traudi Junge, Hitler’s secretary’s account of those last days (Downfall). Enemy tells the story of a sniper who becomes a Soviet folk hero supposedly helping morale in the defense of Stalingrad (Tsaritsyn/ Volgograd). It’s a so-so film, but I watched it more for material on WWII. But then I became more interested in the Soviet defence of Russia, the Eastern Front of WWII.

So I came across the Chuikov book. At Stalingrad, Chuikov commanded the 62nd Army of the Soviet Union, an army which was pivotal to the successful defence of that city. (Zhukov is the general in charge, but commanders like Chuikov were at the front, under Zhukov’s orders, but probably more important than their superiors.) His account of the battle on the Volga is recorded in his book, The Beginning of the Road.

The End of the Third Reich is Chuikov’s account of the campaign after Stalingrad. Now commanding the 8th Guards Army, Chuikov is at the forefront of the march on Berlin from the Volga and the book chronicles this campaign both in broad swathes (the general strategy across the whole of the Eastern front) and in some specifics (conversations between Chuikov and Nazi envoys as the latter try and save their skins).

The end of the book indeed records the last gasps of Nazi Germany when Nazi representatives, following Hitler’s suicide, approach Chuikov pleading for an armistice so that they can ‘re-organise’ the German government to then be able to surrender. This according to the last will of Hitler which still expressed a desire that this new government would ‘prosecute the war by all possible means’ (p.220). But Chuikov and the Soviets saw this as part of a wider plan to delay surrender and hopefully to exploit divisions and tensions among the Allies, mainly the US and Britain on the one hand versus the Soviet Union on the other.

The book is filled with interesting tidbits. In response to the German blitzkriege, the Soviets developed what they called reconnaisance in force – reconnaisance that develops into attack:

The essence of this technique was as follows: we would start reconnaisance in force not a day or two days before an attack, but two or three hours before it, so that the enemy would not have time to change his battle order afterwards. (p.30)

One also gets a sense of the intricacies of ground warfare, especially concerning supply lines. On the march from the Volga into Germany, a constant concern is getting ammunition, fuel, food and medical supplies to the frontline troops. At some point Zhukov orders a tank army to join Chuikov’s forces. According to Chuikov, the tanks would complicate a planned offensive because of the nature of the terrain [I forget the details], but, more importantly, with the roads now overrun with armoured vehicles, the 8th Guards’ march is slowed down significantly.

With reconnaisance in force, Chuikov is also able to take territory more quickly. At certain stages, the Soviet forces are gaining objectives faster than the targets set by H.Q. He asserts that Berlin could have been taken by February 1945 already, but that some intelligence and administrative miscalculations resulted in a pause which saw the surrender only on 1 May (officially 8 May). His own gut feeling about where the Nazi forces are concentrated is confirmed later on, supporting his view that the Berlin offensive could have happened earlier.

Chuikov writes with a sometimes comical mixture of adventure, humanism, propaganda (Soviet soldiers are better soldiers because their society instills in them something else, something other than the barbarism of Nazism) – and sometimes with a misguided attempt at lyricism, even as he protests that he’s not a writer and cannot write as well as the Soviet writers accompanying the forces. There is also the soldier’s bravado, as a friend, skimming through the book, pointed out: the nonchalance of the true soldier as bombs and mortars explode a few feet away.

Now to find The Beginning of the Road.

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