The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943, by Robert M. Citino, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2012, $34.95
This well-researched, well-written and fascinating book about the retreating Wehrmacht in 1943 reminds us that nothing is inevitable in military history, except German counterattack. Rommel’s 1,000-mile retreat to Tunis after El Alamein in late 1942, Kasserine Pass in early 1943, the attempts to save Stalingrad before its February 1943 surrender, the massive panzer assault in the Kursk salient that July, above all the Sicilian and mainland Italian campaigns: In each case the brighter Germans knew they were losing but nonetheless staged dogged and, in some cases, brilliant counterattacks. This is, therefore, a story of a doomed resistance against overwhelming odds, but full of astonishing if short-term reversals.
Citino, a history professor at the University of North Texas, has written eight books about soldiering, from the Thirty Years’ War to Operation Desert Storm, concentrating mainly on Germany and particularly on the Wehrmacht. This latest is an important contribution to World War II history, examining that understudied 12 months after the war had started to turn against Adolf Hitler in Russia and North Africa but before it became decisive and irreversible. The Bewgungskrieg, or war of operational movement, favored by the German General Staff since the days of Frederick the Great, was turning into the attritional Stellungskrieg reminiscent of the Western Front in World War I, which could only spell disaster for the outnumbered Wehrmacht.
Those German officers who blamed the failure of grand strategy entirely on Hitler are unmasked as protesting far too much by Citino, who carefully and painstakingly, citing all the relevant original German military sources, proves the Führer actually had vocal support from various senior officers for all of the most disastrous decisions of 1943. The myth of the genius-strategist staff officers constantly being overruled by the strategically inept former corporal is exploded by this thoughtful and scholarly work, which covers every theater (and is particularly good on the vital Caucasus front, the study of which often tends to be overshadowed by the contemporaneous Götterdämerung played out at Stalingrad).
In 1980 British historian John Grigg’s 1943: The Victory That Never Was argued that Nazi Germany could have been beaten that year. It elicited much heartbreak from people, especially those whose loved ones had been killed in 1944 and 1945. Yet this book effectively puts an end to that argument, showing that the Wehrmacht, despite the fact its most knowledgeable officers understood Germany was going to lose, was determined to fight on and certainly had the physical capacity to do so. The way in which the author explains how the interplay between the various fronts worked—the Germans having to withdraw troops from the Kursk offensive to shore up resistance to the Al-lied attacks in Italy, for example—is also masterful. The year 1943 was indeed pivotal, and in Citino it has found a fine historian.