The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Marshal Zhukov: The Man Who Beat Hitler By Albert Axell, Longman Pearson, £ 19.99

Long before the fall of Berlin, the Third Reich’s generals regarded Georgi Zhukov — who led the battles of Moscow, Lenin-grad, Stalingrad and Berlin — as their most able opponent. British historian Albert Axell, in this book, tries to evaluate the military leadership of Zhukov in comparison with over-hyped Western generals like Bernard Montgomery, Dwight Eisenhower, and so on.

Zhukov’s colleagues and Western historians have charged him with cruelty. This is primarily because Zhukov used to threaten recalcitrant commanders over the phone. Axell rightly argues that given the context in which Zhukov operated, he had little choice. The battles which the Allies fought in Africa, Italy and France were chicken feed compared to the fierce Kesselschlachts on the Russian steppes. The average daily toll on the Russian side was 10,000 soldiers. In contrast, the Anglo-American forces lost 10,000 soldiers in the entire Normandy operation.

Zhukov started out as a cavalry officer in the Czarist Army and Axell says that he continued to apply traditional cavalry tactics to armoured warfare: deep penetrations, wide outflanking encirclements, and so on. Within the Red Army, Zhukov’s fame rose after he crushed the Imperial Japanese Army in Mongolia in 1939. Modern research has established that this defeat discouraged Japan from initiating a war against Russia during World War II.

The biggest pitfall for a biographer is to over-empathize with his subject. Axell seems unable or unwilling to point out Zhukov’s limitations. The Imperial Japanese Army was weak in tanks, ground support aircraft and artillery. So, defeating it can hardly be taken as an example of Zhukov’s greatness.

When Adolf Hitler sent his panzers east in the summer of 1941, Zhukov, like other Soviet generals, had no idea what to do. Zhukov may have displayed tenacity and bravery in Stalingrad and Leningrad in 1942, but he was hardly brilliant. The Russians won the tank battle of Kursk in mid-1943 owing to their numerical superiority — they had 5,000 tanks as against Germany’s 3,500. Similarly in Berlin, Zhukov conducted frontal attacks with masses of tanks. No wonder, the 15 year old “Hitler boys” defending river Oder could inflict heavy casualties on the Russians.

To sum up, Zhukov was certainly greater than many Western generals, if only because he could control more than a thousand tanks in the thick of battle. But he was no match for his Wehrmacht opponents. Neither did he pioneer a new kind of tank warfare a la Heinz Guderian nor was he able to conduct encirclement battle spread over a thousand kilometres with dash and speed as Erich von Manstein did, again and again. Nevertheless, Axell’s account, based on interviews with Soviet officers, is a break from the accounts of mediocre Allied commanders, which seem to come out every year from Western presses.

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