- Panzer Operations: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941–1945
Reconstructed from various sources, Erhard Raus's memoirs provide a fascinating look into mechanized warfare in an unforgiving environment. Edited and translated by Steven H. Newton, Raus's narrative concentrates on tactics and small unit action. A brigade commander with the 6th Panzer Division in June 1941, the Austrian-born Raus steadily rose through the ranks, ultimately commanding panzer armies after 1943 until unceremoniously sacked by Hitler in March 1945.
The German effort in the east became a war of "gigantic improvisation" forced upon the Wehrmacht as a result of the political and military leadership's "improper" conclusions regarding "strategy and military policy" (p. 1). In short, Raus attributes defeat in the east to insufficient knowledge regarding climate, terrain, and the general socioeconomic and political conditions in the east. Preparations for Barbarossa were therefore completely inadequate. Hence, commanders at every level had to improvise solutions to awesome problems from day one. Whether combating crippling summer dust or paralyzing subzero winter temperatures, German soldiers in the east accomplished what they did only through inspired improvisation.
Raus learned combat tactics under fire, yet he had an innate grasp of combined-arms warfare. As the 6th Panzer Division's commander, he decimated Soviet armor formations in the unsuccessful effort to relieve the Sixth Army at Stalingrad in late 1942. He was also a crafty officer, as his February 1942 "snail offensive" demonstrates. In that campaign, with meager assets Raus launched judicious surgical strikes against key villages to secure the Ninth Army's line of communication during the furious Soviet winter counter-offensive of 1941-42. As the German military situation deteriorated, he performed brilliantly on the strategic defensive. His dogged defense of Belgorod and Kharkov stabilized the front in 1943 at critical moments. Raus, however, should best be remembered for his creation of the "zone defense," with which he stymied Soviet attacks with minimal losses in 1944 at Lvov and then in East Prussia. Static but flexible, the zone defense greatly contrasts with his more famous contemporaries' mobile defense, which required yielding territory.
Although indeed satisfyingly "less self-serving" (p. xv) than the personal accounts of better-known generals, such as Heinz Guderian, Raus nevertheless takes a subtle stab at exonerating himself from complicity in Hitler's war of annihilation in the east. The German Landser, according to Raus, conducted himself impeccably on the battlefield, often honoring the vanquished Soviet enemy with prayers and military honors. The Red Army, of course, acted treacherously, mutilating the bodies of dead German troops and slaughtering civilians. He nevertheless praises his stealthy and adept opponents for their tenacity, endurance, and iron discipline, and denies that Red [End Page 265] Army commissars imposed a fanatic will to fight through fear. Instead, the commissars, by their "personal exemplification of the soldier and fighter" (p. 6), inspired their troops to fight to the bitter end.
Despite a liberal sprinkling of typographical errors and poor maps, this remains an informative and compelling account. It contains some jargon, but Raus provides sufficient whiffs of gunpowder to engross even the nonspecialist.