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The Stalingrad Front

To the Editors:

Jason Epstein’s reply [Letters, NYR, March 9] cannot be allowed to pass without comment. He still taxes me with not knowing the contents of David Glantz’s book, which was published over a year after Stalingrad in the United States and has not yet appeared here in the UK. Epstein clearly has no idea of the size of the former Soviet military archives at Podolsk, otherwise he would not expect me to read up every detail on what was happening in the Vyazma-Rhzev sector as well as my own subject. Worst of all, he focuses his attack on “a careless error on page 321 in which [I identify] Eremenko as ‘commander of the Stalingrad Front.”’ Indeed I do. So does John Erickson, so does Samsonov, and so does every historian on the subject, to say nothing of the Stalingrad Front documents in TsAMO, the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense at Podolsk. General Vasilevsky was the Stavka representative and supervisor of the front, as I too make clear. Epstein says that he believes that military historians “should get their facts right.” I believe that this also applies to critics before they launch intemperate attacks.

Antony Beevor
London, England

Jason Epstein replies:

Mr. Beevor is right that Eremenko had the official title of commander of the Stalingrad Front. But, as Ipointed out, his book creates confusion about the command structure at Stalingrad because of deep flaws in his understanding of the battle and the winter campaign. Three Soviet fronts were involved in the Battle of Stalingrad: the Southwest Front, the Don Front, and Eremenko’s Stalin-grad Front. On September 26, 1942, Stalin named General A.M. Vasilevsky, chief of the Red Army general staff, to command all three fronts in the November offensive, code-named Uranus, which Vasilevsky and Georgi Zhukov, first deputy minister of defense and Vasilevsky’s superior, had begun planning with other members of the general staff earlier that month. This became the Stalingrad encirclement. Simultaneously Stalin announced that Zhukov himself would command a second major operation against German Army Group Center at Rzhev, northwest of Moscow, code-named Mars.

In other words, Stalin had given his ranking staff officers operational command over the respective parts of his two-part winter offensive in addition to their supervisory duties. Mars was a costly failure which in his memoirs Zhukov misrepresented as a diversion to prevent German Army Group Center from assisting their comrades at Stalingrad rather than a major offensive in its own right. In his recent book, Zhukov’s Greatest Defeat, David Glantz exposes Zhukov’s falsification and recounts in detail the Mars disaster, which had long been covered up by official Soviet sources. According to John Erickson, the leading historian of Stalingrad, “the full significance of Stalingrad…cannot be grasped without understanding the role of Operation Mars,” which was “deliberately misrepresented by Zhukov himself” and is now the subject of “Glantz’s indispensable account.”

Beevor, unaware of Glantz’s sources and of Mars, proves Erickson’s claim. He does not mention Stalin’s two-part strategy and repeats Zhukov’s false claim that his operation was a feint. More important, he does not identify Vasilevsky as commander of Uranus but refers to him in the Soviet Order of Battle for that operation only as a representative of the Stavka along with Zhukov and another staff officer. The potential confusion that I noted in my review over the respective roles of Vasilevsky and his subordinate Eremenko arises from Beevor’s failure to grasp Vasilevsky’s actual leadership of the Stalingrad encirclement. I wrote therefore that readers unaware of Vasilevsky’s operational command would probably infer, as I did at first reading, from the title “commander of the Stalingrad Front” that Eremenko was himself in overall charge of operations at Stalingrad. To make matters worse, Beevor calls the destruction of German forces at Stalingrad “Zhukov’s Trap” when the trap was actually sprung by Vasilevsky while Zhukov, preoccupied with Mars, merely observed Vasilevsky’s success from afar, perhaps with envy. It is Glantz, not Beevor, who reveals that on the day Uranus was launched Zhukov was at general staff headquarters in Moscow, where he learned of Vasilevsky’s success. He returned to his Mars headquarters later that day and remained there through much of December until Mars was finally suspended and its components flowed south to join Vasilevsky’s triumphant advance to the west.

Beevor did not have to read every document in the Soviet archives to learn of Stalin’s two-part strategy nor did he have to await publication of Glantz’s book. Glantz’s scholarly curiosity led him to the appropriate documents, which Beevor could also have read if he had shared Glantz’s lively suspicion of Soviet historiography. For example, he might have noted, as Glantz did, that the vodka ration allocated to the various Mars fronts equaled or exceeded the quantities sent to the Stalingrad fronts. “This unusual indicator,” Glantz writes, “clearly demonstrates the relative importance of Operation Mars.” Moreover, Glantz refers in an earlier book, When Titans Clash (1995), to Mars as “a major attempt to defeat Army Group Center and may initially have been more important than operation Uranus.” In this book Glantz also mentions the possibility of a cover-up. Beevor lists this book in his bibliography but may not have read this passage.

Glantz is a superb historian and a brilliant detective who by ferreting out Zhukov’s deception placed the Battle of Stalingrad and its chain of command in correct perspective. Beevor’s failure to grasp Vasilevsky’s role as actual commander of the Stalingrad encirclement is not merely careless but reflects a fatal error of omission, the cause of his many subsequent misunderstandings including “the full significance” of Vasilevsky’s triumph and Zhukov’s failure. If Uranus had also failed the Soviet position might have collapsed entirely, with unthinkable consequences. I understated the gravity of Beevor’s omission in my review and in my reply to his previous letter. For this, I apologize to the ghost of General Vasilevsky, the hero of Stalingrad and perhaps the savior of us all.

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