The Johnson City Tennessee Library at dawn. One of my favorite libraries and a place to stop after a long day of work to decompress and find joy in the stacks.
Today's visit to the Grumble Jones library occurs on November 19th...a day in 1942 which saw the launching of the Soviet Union's Operation Uranus, which would result in the surrounding of the Axis Forces in Stalingrad. So naturally today's volume for discussion will be one of the very best books out there on the Battle of Stalingrad.
In recent years, there have been a great many outstanding works on the Battle of Stalingrad, David Glantz, Anthony Beevor and Jason D. Mark come quickly to mind as some of the top authors out there. Most of us are familiar with William Craig's, Enemy at the Gates. I picked up my Ballantine paperback copy in 1975. As a fifth grader reading about the battle, I will admit to not understanding much of what I read. As a 10 year old, I simply didn't have enough knowledge about the Eastern Front to really put things into historical and strategic context. But the book certainly made an impression on me and conveyed the horrors of Stalingrad very well.
Then of course, we have seen a number of Stalingrad movies come out from American, German and Russian productions. The most recent movies, Enemy at the Gates in 2001, a German Stalingrad from 1993 and a Russian Stalingrad in 2013 are all good movies, but all three feel like they miss the mark in showing us what Stalingrad may actually have looked like. I know that sounds strange, bu after you look at ASL's Red Barricades map and then the available historical photos, you see a much more spread out and open environment than the more claustrophobic city fights shown in the aforementioned movies.
Let's start with the most recent one. It's full of action...much of it very much over the top as we follow a group of diehard Russians holding out in a "Pavlov's House" kind of thing. Lots of drama as we meet the Russian team and then the German team. Poor Thomas Kretchmar finds himself in yet another Stalingrad movie, playing a conflicted German officer...oh wait...he did that in the German Stalingrad as well. Kretschmar might need an honorary Stalingrad medal for the time spent in both movies.
I'll admit that I was quite excited for this movie when it came out and quickly bought the DVD. I have yet to watch it a second time.
1993's Stalingrad is pretty much from the German perspective and I will admit to enjoying this film version the most of the three movies. But it too suffers from some over the top moments...the German Captain with the wooden hand and the evil German "Chain Dog" Captain who torments the poor Landsers throughout the movie. You wonder, wasn't Stalingrad bad enough without adding that?? The obvious answer is yes. The battle scenes are well done for the most part, but watching the German AT Gun trying to stop T-34's from pushing through a snow covered German position is like watching me play ASL...that crew misses way too much in the beginning of the sequence. Presumably rolling a lot of 11's. At any rate, this movie does a capable job of making you empathize with the plight of the Germans caught in Stalingrad. And I often think Americans are far more often drawn to relating to the German suffering in Stalingrad and forgetting just who was the invader in this particular battle. Yes, the Germans did suffer horribly in Stalingrad...but they were never invited to the party as I recall. The shame of it, is that we really haven't seen a good movie of this type showing us the Russians. They clearly suffered horribly as well and even today, the total number of Russian dead is either completely unknown or purposely hidden. Suffice to say that this battle ranks at top of the list of most horrible in history with only Verdun standing as its peer.
Last on the list of movies (hang on, I'll get to the book) is Enemy at the Gates, which to it's credit brings us into the Russian side of the story very well. Yes, lots of over the top moments and scenes that just make you cringe. The actor portraying von Paulus...what can I say...just completely miscast. And those ridiculous scenes of von Paulus' HQ with lines of Panzer MK III's leading up to his tent. Yeah...the Germans had this thing for lining up their tanks. Please...still bothers me.
Naturally, the sniper duel is the primary story line and very enjoyable. Of the three movies, this is the one I can enjoy again and again.
Now, you might think we are done with the movies, but I want to talk about one more film. Trust me, there is a method to my madness.
The final movie is one that you can find on Youtube. 1959's Hunde wollt ihr ewig leben (Stalingrad Dogs do you want to live forever). This black and white film from the German perspective is a bit of a gem. Of all the movies, I believe it best captures the actual look of the Stalingrad battlefield.
I highly recommend it, when you have some time to kill while you are waiting for your wife to get ready to go out on a Saturday morning...(or you can blog like me!!).
It's also very interesting to see WWII movies made in the 1950's, especially German ones. We must remember that in 1959, the last survivors of Stalingrad had only returned home as late as 1956. So, again, I recommend this movie to enrich your overall Stalingrad cinematic experience. No better way to experience Stalingrad than from the comfort of your den.
Thank goodness, none of us had to experience the actual Stalingrad.
And it's that word "actual" that leads me to this month's volume. I know...rather a long setup to get there. But, the visual record of Stalingrad is what I most wanted to discuss this month.
And a recent Ebay win, made me the proud owner of a long sought after copy of Jason D. Mark, Angriff: The German Attack on Stalingrad in Photos. I cannot tell you how long, I have wanted to obtain a copy. But the prices on Ebay for Mark's books are akin to prices for ASL's Armies of Oblivion Module. Simply waaay too much money. But then, while conducing another of my casual Ebay searches, I see a Buy it Now copy for $78 dollars. SNAP...and with two fools watching it. So they got to watch me Buy it Now.As an aside note...why does anyone watch a Buy it Now offering...it just seems a bit silly. So my Irish luck held out and I snagged a copy of this great book for $78 bucks when all the other listings for it were nearly $200.
And yes, I did a happy dance. My collection of Mark's books is probably my most cherished. They are simply phenomenal books. I cannot think of another author (except maybe Douglas Nash) who does such a good job of properly captioning the photographs in their books.
The book itself is large and about the same size as the Leaping Horsemen. It's a nice size and I like it a bit more than the Into Oblivion and Besieged books' format.
One of the cornerstones of Mark's books is that, while they are primarily photographic histories, they are also chock full of background narrative. His books aren't MBI quality books, where you just get a bunch of pictures, with a little bit of captioning. Now, Mark's pictures are in sequence, attributed to an event and you are given the nitty gritty detail of what is in that picture. In short, Mark brings the pictures to life. He draws you into them, pieces them together for you and allows you to see the "actual" battle in a way you would otherwise miss.
This is why I wanted to discuss the popular movies about Stalingrad, which have for better or worse given us our mind's eye view of the Battle of Stalingrad. And it's wrong.Just a few minutes into Angriff and you are seeing a very different landscape than what you imagined. And suddenly you see fields of fire, that you would not have imagined existed. German units are moving through a devastated, but exposed urban landscape.
One of the interesting observations that I made while I going through the book is just how well suited the German Stug's were for this kind of fighting. Their low silhouette seems perfectly suited for this kind of combat.
And lastly, we come to one of the my all-time favorite pictures from the Second World War. For many years, I mistakenly thought this picture was from the 1939 battle for Warsaw. Don't know why I always thought that, but I did. And this picture always seemed to be right in the thick of the action. You see these guys and believe they just jumped into this shell hole and in any moment will continue their assault.
And then you see this picture and the sequence of pictures leading up to it in Angriff. And oh..guess what...it's completely staged. The picture is so well taken by a veteran Kriegsberichter that we believe ourselves completely caught up in an actual combat sequence. Mark does a great job of constructing how this picture was taken and explains that it was indeed a famous image on many German war-time publications. And even knowing that it was staged does little to diminish it's overall quality as an excellent shot of German Landsers in combat.
So, that ends this month's visit to the Grumble Jones Library. Good luck in finding yourself a copy of Angriff and any of Jason D. Mark's other outstanding works. These are truly must have volumes for the ASL player.
Here's wishing you all a very happy Thanksgiving!!