Disaster at Stalingrad - An Alternate History

By Paul Robinson 21 May 2013 0

There is a clue in the sub-title of this book but to be clear from the outset this is a novel not a history!  Not that any student of the Eastern Front during World War Two would be confused after reading the first few chapters but I?d hate for this review to get off on the wrong foot!

The review must also start with a confession of sorts.  In a rare moment of self awareness it surprised me that this was the first book I have ever read from the popular ?alternative history? genre.   As a reader of mainstream military history and historical fiction for over thirty years this is quite an achievement.  Although I have always had an interest in what is probably the mirror genre of ?future war? fiction (such as the novels of Harold Coyle and Tom Clancy?s Red Storm Rising).  But I confess not to have dallied there for a number of years.

The author in this case is a regular exponent of the alternative history novel.  Peter Tsouras has to his credit Disaster at D-Day, Hitler Victorious, Gettysburg An Alternative History, Third Reich Victorious and Cold War Hot (and I must say this last title sounds right up my street). 

Disaster at Stalingrad is set in 1942, the second year of the German Invasion of Russia and starts with the development of Plan Blue, the re-boot of the German attack started the previous year in Operation Barbarossa.   Immediately I saw the appeal of the alternative history approach; a very familiar landscape slowly begins to become less familiar and moves away from a well trodden path to a place of ?ifs?, ?buts? and ?maybes?.  Part of the enjoyment is spotting the points of deviation that the author creates.  As this is  novel I am loathe to give too much away, however I think it is safe to say that one of the key changes to history is that Reinhard Heydrich, the Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia is not assassinated at the roadside by Czech SOE agents!  He then goes on to influence German Naval Policy to have a dramatic impact on the Arctic convoys that supplied much war material to the Soviet Union.   This all goes on to influence the Soviet?s war fighting abilities as the German war machine presses into Southern Russia and heads towards the oilfields of the Caucasus.

The battle for Stalingrad part of the book very much follows the historical version of events with a few clever differences and the Soviets still unleash Operation Uranus, but again I won?t indulge in any spoilers.  It is also worth mentioning that this isn?t the main part of the story really but merely one key action within a broader campaign.  Although at the risk of slightly contradicting myself there is quite a bit of detail on the in and outs of the street fighting. What is interesting is how the events of the real timeline of the campaign continues to be at the core of the narrative until very close to the end of the book.  So even if you find the odd twist and turn a little too contrived or unrealistic to fully suspend your disbelief you are not completely put off the story. 

Of course with any novel the quality of the writing is vital; whereas with traditional military history you are sometimes prepared to put up with a poor writing style in order to find something out or learn something new about a particular campaign.  And whatever reservations I might have about the alternative scenario presented here you cannot, on the whole, fault Mr Tsouras? writing.  The set piece descriptions of the Battle of Bear Island and the Battle of 20° East are real page turners up there with the best of mainstream novel writers.  Also the dialogue between historical characters is believable and well structured.  And I found the insertion of some well known characters from the real War into alternative situations quite titillating. Some of the other descriptions of battles are a little sweeping but I guess that is what you have to do when trying to re-write the history of the southern part of the Russian Front and conclude the book within a sensible page count!  But there are a number of what I will call, with apologies to Mr Tsouras and Mr Clancy ?Clanceyesque? vignettes of lower level tactical encounters.

Okay so well written in the main but how realistic was it?  Or in other words how successfully did the author suspend my disbelief?  When dealing with purely military matters I found all the made up twists and turns logical and believable.  The author has a thorough understanding of the operational and strategic capabilities of the German/Axis and the Soviet military war machines and the equipment they used.  So happy to go along with the conceits of the plot in this respect.  Also his understanding of the impact of logistics, a key part of the book, is excellent. But I have to say that on the political side of the equation (using the word political somewhat loosely) I had a harder time accepting some of the differences between what actually happened and the world the author has created.  This mainly centres on how easily the Nazis policies on race would have allowed the creation of the line of attack against the Soviets which forms part of the fictional campaign in the Caucasus.  I think here I had to doubly suspend my disbelief.  Is that a reason not to read this book, no but it points out one of the perils of the genre.

One of the interesting aspects of the book is the creation of an alternative supporting literature.  So whilst a great many of the references are to actual books there are a number of books that are made up as part of the alternative past the author has created.  These include author?s name, the book title, publisher and date of publishing.  At first I found this somewhat odd but I guess it is all part of pitching the reader more firmly through the ?looking glass? and also must be part of the author?s discipline to ensure his creation comes across as realistic as possible.  To prevent any misunderstanding it is made clear at the beginning that the references co contain fictional sources but that these are marked with an asterisk.  As I got into the book I found these fictional references were a good way of showing how far from reality the author?s creation had gone.  There are very few of these in the first chapters but they increase as the book develops.

Finally like any good military history the book has a number of photographs in the centre-these are of some of the war time personalities, equipment (ships, tanks, planes) and battle scenes.  These plus some maps are helpful to those unfamiliar with the period.

Overall I enjoyed the book.  I liked spotting the less obvious deviations from history and thought it was well written.  And I liked the massive ?sting in the tail? at the end.  Of course I won?t mention what it was.  If you like the alternative history genre you will not want to miss this one.  If you are an Eastern Front enthusiast I?d say give it a go you might surprise yourself.  If you know nothing about the Second World War enjoy the read but maybe afterwards pick up an actual history of the conflict.

Available now in hardback from Pen & Sword Books, normal price £19.99 (ISBN 9781848326637)


Review written by: Paul Robinson



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