Sunday, April 14

Read n' Reviewed: From Leningrad to Narva - An Illustrated Study of the Battles in the Northern Baltic Area, January-September 1944

The Soviet's versus the Axis - OK, so you might have read it all before - but what piqued our interest about the latest book from PeKo Publishing is the fact that it covers the hard-fought battles from Leningrad to the Estonian border during Late WWII and the battle to save Europe from Stalinist Russia. Told from both sides with many unpublished photographs, this book seemed like a good read - see what we thought in our review...

Read n' Reviewed: From Leningrad to Narva - An Illustrated Study of the Battles in the Northern Baltic Area, January-September 1944
By PeKo Publishing
Author: Kamen Nevenkin
80 pages
106 photographs
Hardcover, A4 (295x210mm) in landscape format.
ISBN: 9786155583186
English language 
Price: €28.95
Product Link on the PeKo Publishing Website
Peko Publishing's latest book is a journal of the battles fought on the Eastern Front late WWII between the Russian and a mixed force of Germans, Estonians SS volunteers and conscripts in the push West from a relieved Leningrad to the Estonian border. 

The book is published of course by Peko Publications and penned by the well known Bulgarian history researcher Kamen Nevenkin. The words in the book synopsis "There, at river Narva, Germans, Estonians, and Waffen SS volunteers and conscripts from all over Europe stood firm for several months against numerous Soviet violent attacks. By doing so, they were able to cripple the ambitious military and political plans of Joseph Stalin, and to effectively postpone the Soviet re-conquest of the Baltic States for more than half a year."... it is an "interesting" way of looking at history and sure to be a little controversial, so I thought I would read it to see a little more about the book.

The book in physical form:

For those familiar with most of PeKo's books this one has a familiar format - on the outside anyway  - with the hardcover book of eighty pages, landscape format in roughly an A4 size (29.5cm X 21.5CM) dimensions. Inside is where we go into slightly different territory, with the book only being available in English, the book is roughly about half full or written text and the other half of mostly previously unpublished photos instead of the picture-to-a-page format of the "On the Battlefield" series that feature one particular vehicle. This book features the men and machine both Axis and Soviet.  
Broken into five chapters and a small resources section in the very rear of the book, each of these chapters is about fifteen to twenty pages in length. for those who just want a picture-to-a-page large format book contents need to look somewhere else, as this is more of a story recounted in block text with some photos to support that text. Right away the one thing I think this book is crying out for but not supplied is a series of maps to give context to the names of places and scenes of battle in the text. Often these place names are abstract to all of those but people with a lot of knowledge of the battles or these areas - so the inclusion of a series of maps to help illustrate the movements of these armies on both sides would improve the book. I ended up just using a map on my computer so I could see where the author was talking about.

The Author, a well known Hungarian researcher Mr Kamen Nevenkin starts us off in the circumstances of the battle for Leningrad in 1941. This chapter covers the first thirteen pages and puts a nice bookend on the furthermost part of the German advance in that sector. This is already a text-heavy book for those who like their history, there is a lot of the story of Leningrad's siege here, the players, the operations to relieve, encircle and capture Leningrad from both Axis and Soviet sides, it is all told in detail here.

By the start of the second chapter, we move from Leningrad to the battles westwards from  Novgorod from January 1944. The author tells of the efforts to relieve Leningrad, the push of the Soviets from the south-west in what was called "January Thunder". In this chapter, we learn a little of the divisions of the Soviet and Nordic, Dutch and German (with a few others thrown in) units who opposed them. We learn about the advances by a mix of soldiers from the Oranienbaum bridgehead and the push into the German lines from that area before we look south to the Soviet push from Novogrod. 

The Soviets attacked with two shock armies, and although encircled the book tells of how many of the Germans escaped the Novogrod cauldron. There are pictures of several of the material that had to be left behind in the breakout in these pages, often several of a group of vehicles seen at the same place.

This chapter ends in February 1944 with the Soviets and Germans facing each other at Luga, south-west of Leningrad - the city was relieved, but there was still far for the Soviets to recover.

The push West started with a raid by Colonel Urvanov's (pictures below)16th tank Brigade in their attack on the Novgorod pocket. The book explains the tactics of the fast-moving tanks covered with infantry - who smashed through the three lines of German defence after some effort and eliminated the desperate survivors who could not escape the encirclement. 

We learn the lessons garnered by the Soviets in the operation, we also see in the book some of the victorious tanks of the Soviet 16th Brigade in a series of shots, mostly of T-34's and the wreckage left of the German defender's positions.

The book moves on to the battles for Narva now, first describing the situation in strategical and political importance before talking about the German defenders of Gruppe "Sponheimer", the 214th Norweigan & Estonian SS divisions in front of the "Panther" line behind the river Narva, and explains a little on their battle performance. The Soviet offensive rolled on from there, and the author tells of the battles of Model's defensive prowess as a defensive expert, despite the weakening of the German line in manpower, and the resultant retreat to the "Panther" line by March 1944.

The assault on Narva is then documented, with the attack of General Govorov's 2nd shock army amongst others attacked over the ice and were driven back by the defence of several mixed Axis forces - even a Kriegsmarine penal battalion!  After the first, failed attempt by the Soviets to take Narva is discussed and dissected, the author lays out the Soviet's plan for the flanking double envelopment of the Axis positions in the again, failed second attempt to crack the Narva positions. The story of the Soviet's March 1944 offensive is then told, and we get more on the unsuccessful attempts of especially the 2nd Shock army to penetrate the Narva beachhead. 

The author explains the fortifications and defence by the Nord, Nederland and especially the Estonians who all conducted the defence of the stronghold. We also get a list of lessons learned by the Soviets at the time after the attacks - and some of it is pretty damning to the men in charge! The Germans tried to counterattack, and the results of these attacks on the Soviet "sacks" are told here also.

At sixty-six pages we are near the endgame, with the Battle of and fall of Narva the subject. The massive front wide Soviet attacks of July 1944 affected the Narva sector in a major way, and the Germans who were defending the river and town were stripped of units to be rushed south. The author tells of how and why, and the defence of the north after the stripping of much of the strength of the defenders under the newly appointed commander Major General der Infantrie Anton Grassner. 

The author explains that even though preparations were made to fall back to another shorter defensive line, why Hitler forbade it, the units that were made to support his stretched lines, and how they were ill prepared for the re-invigorated Russian offensive led again familiar opponents the 2nd Shock Army. 
The costly attacks from the Soviets and the desperate defence by units of the Axis from German and Estonian SS units is described. Often it seems from the sides of the German attack and the massive continued losses of the Soviets. Eventually, the Germans fell back to the Tannenberg line and Narva was lost.  In this chapter, we see several pictures of more disabled and unserviceable german vehicles in several smaller and medium-sized pictures to accompany the text.
The fate of the rearguard from Narva is told, it always seems a sad fate for those soldiers of any side left to defend so others can get away.  The final attacks by the Soviets led by Govorov on Steiner's defensive line of pan-European Axis defenders. The fate of these attacks, and the pointed lessons learned by the Soviets is again recorded by the author. Interesting reading to see these lessons learned.

The last few pages have several shots of the Soviet tanks of the 16th Brigade that were featured earlier in the book, and the last elements of Axis fighters in Estonia. The book explains the fall of the Finnish front and the toll on the Narva Operation in July and August of  1944, it also talks of the discrepancies of several sources on these numbers of casualties and of the Axis numbers of dead and wounded also.  When the Soviets outflanked the Tannenberg line the Axis pulled out of Estonia, and this is where the book ends.
...And that is all he read!

Well, it sure was a lot to read - at only eighty pages, this is 3/4 text to pictures, and I was not prepared for this much knowledge on the subject of the battles between Leningrad and the Estonian border. However, the knowledge inside the book is enlightening and the author knows his subject and tells the story effectively.

What would have helped this book immensely would be the inclusion of some more maps to put those less educated (most readers) in the subject in the scene with some perspective. Distances, terrain, positions of units - these are desperately needed in a book like this. I ended up using maps I found from the internet to look at while these many placed were being named.

Not for the casual reader, this book is more of a knowledge book for serious readers about the conflict. It is more focussed on places and units and the events than on people or recounted stories. This book does tell the story of a series of battles often forgotten or overshadowed by actions on the southern Russian fronts, the "poor man's front" is well described in this book. It is especially recommended for followers of Estonian wartime history of devotees of the Nordland and Nederland SS divisions.

Adam Norenberg

Thanks to PeKo Publishing for sending this book to me to read and review - It is available from their distributors or the PeKo website.