Zhukov’s Greatest Defeat: The Red Army’s Epic Disaster in Operation Mars, 1942, by David M. Glantz, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1999, $39.95.
The historical record of the Soviet-German conflict has pointed to 1942 as a crucial year in the struggle. Soviet historians have emphasized the importance of the Battle of Stalingrad–Operation Uranus–in which the Red Army not only stopped the Germans in a brilliantly planned and executed counterattack, but also trapped and eventually destroyed the German Sixth Army. It was this victory that changed the war’s momentum and led to the great strategic victories, such as Kursk, that culminated in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Although some accounts of the Stalingrad campaign mention Operation Mars, the Soviet effort in the north against the German Army Group Center, that campaign tends to be portrayed as a minor diversionary attack meant to assist the larger operation in the south. But in Zhukov’s Greatest Defeat: The Red Army’s Epic Disaster in Operation Mars, 1942, David M. Glantz provides compelling evidence that Operation Mars not only was the equal of Saturn in terms of Soviet effort but, in fact, was also the personal priority of Marshal Georgi Zhukov, deputy commander of the Soviet high command.
Glantz’s credentials as a historian are solid. The founder and former director of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Study Office, he has written extensively about the Eastern Front, including such works as How the Red Army Stopped Hitler and Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War II. He also serves as the editor of the Journal of Slavic Military Studies.
Glantz states that his basic goal is to publish the truth about Operation Mars for the sake of the tens of thousands who fell during that campaign. He achieves his purpose through a detailed examination of the operation at all levels of action and in each of the four sectors where the Soviets placed their main efforts.
The author provides an excellent treatment of the terrain and weather in the north and describes their importance to the operation. Mars took place in forests, marshes and other difficult country, and that–combined with the harsh winter weather–made combat, movement and communications extremely difficult. Drawing heavily from newly opened Soviet archives, Glantz details operational orders, the massive troop buildup and the allocation of strategic forces. He also includes numerous maps that add visual support to the text and help to clarify some often confusing situations.
Glantz’s strong narrative vividly portrays the fighting. His coverage of both sides of the action is compelling, focusing on both small-scale conflicts and the larger picture. Glantz details the operational planning and execution that took place on both sides and points out the strengths of the Germans and the Soviets. The German high command was adept at deploying its stretched forces to parry Soviet thrusts and to stabilize critical sectors, while the Soviet effort relied more on brute force and a willingness to expend men and materiel. Despite local successes by the Red Army, the Wehrmacht ultimately triumphed in Operation Mars.
Glantz also shows how the Soviet leadership’s desperation and frustration led to costly frontal attacks and the continuation of fighting even after it was clear that victory was no longer possible. On occasion, Glantz tends to stray into an overly personalized treatment, focusing on an “inside-the-head” viewpoint. While his thoughts are usually credible, they are hypothetical, and they detract unnecessarily from the historical narrative.
But this is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent book. Zhukov’s Greatest Defeat is a powerful work that relies on solid scholarship, strong sources and a clear and concise writing style. Glantz places the Soviet efforts of 1942, as well as the career of Marshal Zhukov, in a new light.