- The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943 by Robert M. Citino
Of all the combatants in World War II, no military establishment involved in that conflict has received more attention than that of the Third Reich. Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht has been the subject of hundreds of books ranging widely in quality, from the extremely perceptive to the utterly trivial. Likewise, the authors of these books range from true scholars who are well acquainted with primary and secondary sources, to cut-and-paste artists who write books about the German Army without first learning to read German. Among the former is Robert Citino, who has established himself as one of the most insightful students of German military history. His latest book, The Wehrmacht Retreats, is the latest and a most impressive addition to his body of work.
This volume is essentially a continuation of his book The Death of the Wehrmacht (Lawrence, 2007), which focused on the 1942 campaigns in Russia and North Africa. This new work moves forward through 1943, a year that ended with Germany in retreat on all fronts, and its leadership now coming to the realization that the war was truly lost. Citino proceeds in a chronological manner, beginning with the crisis created by the Allied invasion of North Africa and Erwin Rommel’s defeat at the hands of Bernard Montgomery, and followed by the Italo-German retreat from Egypt and then Libya. After examining the stabilization of the front in Tunisia, Citino turns his attention to the eastern front and the continuation of the Soviet counteroffensive, which was ultimately halted by Erich von Manstein’s famous “backhand blow” that recaptured Kharkov. The following chapters alternate between the Mediterranean and the eastern fronts.
Like all of Citino’s work, this book brims with perceptive insights and clever observations. A fine example of this is the chapter on Erich von Manstein’s victory at the third battle of Kharkov. While acknowledging that Manstein was indeed a fine operational and tactical commander, Citino complicates the comfortable image of Manstein brilliantly maneuvering armies on a map like a grandmaster pieces on a chessboard. Although Manstein displayed an admirable sense of timing and understood that the Soviet offensive was losing momentum, the outcome of the “backhand blow” often depended on the decisions of others, over which Manstein had little control. He did not hesitate, however, to take credit for the positive outcomes. [End Page 230]
With respect to the eastern front, Citino cleverly points out how the postwar memoirs written by German generals have shaped our perceptions of how the war was conducted, as well as of the nature of their relationship with Hitler. Lack of access to the Soviet archives had long allowed the Germans to have the field all to themselves. Thus they were able to frame the issues as they saw fit and turn the war into something that Hitler had lost, not one that the Allies had won. In terms of the Mediterranean, Citino brilliantly dismantles the image of “Smiling Albert” Kesselring as an able defensive commander. He points out that, given the realities of military geography in Italy, any competent commander could have conducted as effective a defense there as Kesselring did. Citino also clearly demonstrates how events on one front influenced decisions on another. This was particularly true with regard to the decision to halt the Kursk offensive as well as the Allied invasion of Sicily.
The book does have its flaws. The most notable one is the absence of any real discussion of coalition warfare. In April 1943, for example, Hitler met Italy’s Benito Mussolini, Romania’s Ion Antonescu, and Hungary’s Miklos Horthy, but all four men were never in the same room at the same time. This was in stark contrast to joint strategic decision making by the Allies, to which Citino gives some attention. Both Mussolini and Antonescu urged Hitler to make a separate peace, except that Mussolini wanted one with the Western powers, while Antonescu...