Review: Hitler’s Last Levy

Hitler’s Last Levy

Hans Kissell was chief of operations for the German “Volkssturm” (lit. “People’s Storm”), the infamous last-ditch militia created at the end of World War II. In Hitler’s Last Levy, published in German in the 1960s and translated decades later, he told their story. It’s an interesting look at a horrific footnote.

The Volkssturm was both a desperation formation and Martin Bormann’s attempt at making his own pet army (like the SS was for Himmler or the Luftwaffe ground formations were for Goering). Kissell goes into detail and includes a massive amount of direct primary sources. While this is a work by a German WWII commander, its subject matter makes it at least a little better than the usual “we fought in our unstoppable kitty-tanks until we ran out of ammunition and fought totally cleanly” memoirs. It’s impossible to portray the ragged old men as some kind of super-army, and they had far less opportunity to commit war crimes simply because by that point they were losing. And Kissell doesn’t hesitate to point to their (many) weaknesses.

Because of this, and because of the wealth of primary sources and details (for instance, describing how on paper, some Volkstturm battalions had an organic battery of captured anti-tank guns), I recommend this for anyone wanting to know about them or similar emergency territorial formations. Yes, it’s dated and slanted. But it’s not nearly as bad in those regards as you might think.

A Thousand Words: Valkyrie

Valkyrie

2008’s Valkyrie stars Tom Cruise and depicts the July 20 Plot that tried and failed to kill Hitler. An unusual historical movie for Hollywood, it has both the strengths and weaknesses of a lavish production aimed at a big audience. The strengths are obvious-great production values. The visual style is excellent, and the John Ottman score is nothing short of amazing.

However, it also, in the interest of audience morality, sugar-coats and oversimplifies the plotters. The movie does do a decent job in showing how unlikely it was for the Valkyrie conspirators to actually gain control of the government even if Hitler and his inner circle were killed off. However, it does not dwell on how the actual plotters ranged from “ok, at least a little better than Hitler, but that’s definitely not saying much” to “Really bad, including Einsatzgruppen commanders and mass POW-killers”. It also does not bring up that the Allies would never have accepted the terms the plotters wanted to offer, and would have just viewed it as infighting among thugs. While understandable, this is still a missed opportunity for complexity in addition to an inaccuracy.

Leaving factual issues aside, the acting is a mixed bag. Cruise himself is quite wooden, but a lot of the supporting cast does well. Tom Wilkinson does a great job as the weaselly General Fromm in my favorite role. An underrated performance is David Bamber as Hitler. Not only does he come across as appropriately menacing, but he’s menacing in a soft-spoken way that’s quite different from the usual (including Downfall) bombastic Hitler.

For all its issues, Valkyrie is still worth a watch, especially if you don’t mind historical inaccuracy.

Weird Wargaming: From The Periphery to the Centfront

The force deployments of the Cold War Central Front have been one of the most obsessively studied and analyzed of all time. Yet some surprising curveballs can still emerge. One of them I recently found was unadopted suggestions to move either Turkish or Italian forces to permanent bases in West Germany. The Turkish force I heard was two divisions. The Italian one was undefined.

The biggest (purely military and not political) risk I felt was that a significant portion of these nation’s heavy formations (the only viable ones for a conventional Fuldapocalypse) would have to be moved. Thus they would need to be either reequiped with cheaper and less capable superpower surplus, beefed up expensively, or have fewer mechanized units on their own territory.

As for where to put them, there were a few options. One was the obvious use of them to shore up the always vital and always vulnerable NORTHAG. Another was to put them in Southern Germany and/or other areas with good defensible terrain (such as the Harz Mountains) to free up Bundeswehr troops to go elsewhere.

However they were equipped and wherever they went, having these alternate deployments seems like it would make for an interesting wargame scenario.

Weird Wargaming: The Victorious Third Reich

One of the most interesting gaps in alternate history fiction is the seeming lack of a Larry Bond-style serious look at a conflict involving a victorious Nazi Germany. Now, nearly all of this is because most scenarios involving it are “soft” AH made by and for people with less knowledge or concern about rivet-counting plausibility. This isn’t a critique of their quality, it’s just pointing out what’s involved. A semi-hard look at what this would entail can be interesting, and I have some thoughts.

First, the formations are almost certainly going to be outgrowths of early-war organizations. It’s basically impossible for the Germans to win with too late a point of divergence, and there’ll be the “why fix what isn’t broken” mindset. This means things like no gimmick units like the Volksgrenadiers, and large divisions with lots of equipment at full paper strength. It does mean a weird parallel with historical postwar divisions, but then again-that’s how it goes.

Second, it will be dominated by the Wehrmacht. Historically, the SS gained comparative prominence because of the Wehrmacht/Heer supposedly being to blame for losing the war and the plots (ie July 20) that originated within the regular army. This would not be the case here. The most likely fate for the SS is to get purged in Long Knives Part 2 and possibly get supplanted by yet another edgelord alphabet soup organization.

But for the sake of weird wargaming, I’ve warmed to the idea of them using captured/foreign designs and factories to equip their army, potentially rearming them with German calibers-or not. This happened in Marching Through Georgia of all books, with clunkily upgunned KV tanks. While there it was to provide a punching bag for the Mary Sues, it’s still an interesting possibility. And it fits with the theme. Historically, the reason for all the infamous “Foreign Legions” was to get access to a manpower source the main army couldn’t touch, and ramshackle improvisations are closer to what the bulk of the SS truly was than the stereotype of hundreds of shiny cat-tanks. (This stereotype is reinforced by the fact that the western allies largely fought only the legitimately capable and well-equipped SS units, not the Dirlewanger-style garbage ones better at massacres than fighting opponents who shot back)

Third, factionalism was built into the system. The Heer, the SS, the Luftwaffe paratrooper and “field divisions”, the Volkssturm being in large part Martin Bormann’s attempt to get an “army” for himself, and no doubt more examples all speaks to this. One effect of this will be a lot of duplicative units, as everyone wants their share of the pie.

Another is that a nation with all the factionalism but without the existential threat might very well see its qualitative edge wane dramatically. It could be reminiscent of the South Vietnamese military. A politically charged, scheming, cutthroat army whose units are wildly, willdy uneven, ranging from ultra-competent to utterly ineffectual. Everything from case studies of such armies to anecdotal evidence from both Vietnam and contemporary Afghanistan points to this being the defining feature of over-politicized armies more than complete ineptitude, along with a good or bad high-level commander having more of an effect on low-level performance than they likely would in a less politicized one.

The result would be something distinct from both real postwar and real wartime armies. Its opponents would range from the Western Allies shielded by water, the remnants of the USSR shielded by the Urals, the occupants of territory it’d further expand into-or Japan after a likely falling out and power struggle over spheres of influence.

Looking At Desperation Formations

Occasionally, I dip into what I’ve called “Normandy Syndrome”, which goes something like this. Because the Normandy Campaign may be the single most studied and written about engagement in western history (with the possible exception of Gettysburg), I tend to look at other, different, more novel conflicts. However, this means that because I haven’t looked at them in some time, the big name campaigns become understudied to me in their own right, meaning that then I do take a look at them…

Generally though, I go back once I’ve had my fill. This time is partially an exception, as I’m looking at (gulp) Axis military formations. Don’t worry, this isn’t me becoming the kind of person who can memorize the name of every single Tiger II platoon commander. In fact, what interests me the most is the bad, hodgepodge, underresourced formations.

One area where Normandy Syndrome in general holds up is in force structure. It’s very easy to find and understand Soviet/American organizations as applied postwar. So thus seeing how different ones looked is distinctive to me, and I’m a sucker for OOB charts. But seeing unit TO&Es derived from limited resources, as opposed to Cold War excess, is also a good worldbuilding exercise for postwar formations under similar constraints.

First up are the Italians. Divisions with two three-battalion regiments, often “reinforced” by a Blackshirt battalion or [small] regiment, were the order of the day. I’ll get back to this formation later.

A 1943 assessment of Italian artillery (pg. 79) said it was a hodgepodge, middling force. A postwar assessment of Italian artillery (pg. 25) said-it was a hodgepodge, middling force. Contrary to the stereotype, both sources praise the crews, but note they were underequipped and unsurprisingly deployed forward more often than the Western Allied norm. Which makes sense given transportation issues and the comparative lack of direct fire support.

Then there’s ZE GERMANS. Not the wunderwaffe Germans, but the tattered, late-war, desperate Germans. For all the “lol-Italians” snickering, it’s worth noting that the Germans themselves had six battalion divisions later in the war, both of a downscaled classic type of two three-battalion regiments and a “Volksgrenadier” type of three two-battalion ones that was (on paper) equipped with more automatic weapons to make up for it.

Volksgrenadiers and Volkssturm are often confused. The former was meant to be more capable than other similar-sized formations due to a mass of automatic rifles and machine guns and even in practice was no worse than any other later-war formation, while the latter was the last-ditch pathetic old men with panzerfausts and ancient rifles militia that people know.

Then there’s my favorite, the later-war armored formations. By 1945, a “Panzer” division had only one battalion of actual tanks and one of APCs even at full strength. In fact, it reminds me more than anything of a postwar light OPFOR formation. One battalion of tanks, a few miscellaneous AFVs and vehicles (ie, for the WW2 formations, it was gun tank destroyers, for postwar ones, they’d be likely replaced by ATGM carriers), and some infantry in softskin trucks, equivalent either to a small division or just a brigade, depending on the type. In practice, well, I’ve heard multiple sources say, and I believe them, that the 1945 Germans were comparable qualitatively to the 1941 Soviets.

Because having too few resources is far more common than having too many (and this is before attrition!) I feel looking at the Axis minors and late-war Germans is a good exercise if developing fictional formations. It’s also a very refreshing and important contrast from the usual myth of waves of Tigers.

Review: Cauldron

Cauldron

The 1990s were not a good decade for technothrillers in terms of popularity and sales, and in my opinion, no book illustrates the problems they faced more than Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin’s Cauldron. The question of who to fight a World War III against loomed greatly, and the usual suspects had lost all credibility in the immediate post-USSR, post-Gulf War period.

So it was the US against a-French/German nationalist alliance? Ok.

Icelands

While Cauldron obviously doesn’t fit the “Iceland Pattern” of a Russo-American WW3 in terms of direct events, it does follow the story structure greatly. Too greatly, and this is one of the problems that too many post-1991 technothrillers had. With the scope of conflict (usually) shrinking, too many of them decided to be scaled-down great-power thrillers rather than scaled-up adventure thrillers.

Cauldron is more a symptom than a cause of this decline. It has most of the same issues that Bond’s own Red Phoenix struggled with. That book was written during the Cold War and featured a far more realistic opponent, but they both shared a similar formulaic attitude and a “but we have to show battles at land, at sea, and in the air” attitude.

Rivets

It’s infodump city here. Lots of political infodumps, lots of military infodumps, you name it. Par for the course.

Zombie Sorceresses

After December 26, 1991, the zombie sorceresses were at work finding opponents. The problem of what the opponent would be between the fall of the USSR and 9/11 plagued factual researchers as well as fiction writers-one of the most notorious cases I’ve seen was a RAND study that featured a joint Syrian-Iraqi invasion of Turkey (!) as a contingency plan.

Still, the decision to include not just Western Europe, but a cherrypicked part of Western Europe is very zombie sorceress, made all the worse by Bond’s decision to have a lengthy political intro. This means the implausibility is dwelled on rather than handwaved past.

The “Wha”?

Ok, so Cauldron has a laundry list of issues that plague the genre. It’s as if Bond was trying deliberately to chain them.

  • Having the story be self-contained in one book. This is a valid stylistic choice, a necessity given traditional publishing, and most of the time is a better alternative to the bloated series where nothing happens (see my Axis of Evil review for an example of that). But it means space is at a premium. The later points show how the book wastes that precious space.
  • There’s a too-long opening act. There’s no surprise at the outcome (in a book about a war, a war starts), and the political maneuvering isn’t well written.
  • Even once the action starts, there’s a checklist to fit land, sea, and air clashes all in one book, getting in each other’s way.
  • The entire Russian subplot is both clunky and pointless, an example of too many plots for ones own good.
  • The prose, while not terrible, gets a little too clunky and rivet counter-esque for its own good.

Beyond that, very little can rise above that. There are some tales where massive flaws can be forgiven because the good things are equally spectacular. Cauldron goes from iffy to merely decent-in action and characters.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Completely in isolation, Cauldron is a middle of the road technothriller with all the faults and features of one. But in context, it serves as a picture-perfect example of a genre that was fading from its height, shifting from mainstream to enthusiast fiction. Most of this was due to political and cultural factors beyond its control. But Bond’s literary choices didn’t help.

The shift to being more niche would have consequences for later WWIII/army thrillers, but that’s a subject for another time.