Friday, July 10

Read n' reviewed: Combat History of Sturmpanzer - Abteilung 217 by Haasler & Vosters from Panzerwrecks Publishing.

Timm Haasler & Simon Vosters has combined with Panzerwrecks to publish a new book featuring the Combat History of Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217 during WWII. Stand by for plenty of great images, illustrations by Felipe Rodna and text describing the men and machines of this unit and what we thought of the whole collected works in our review...

Read n' reviewed: Combat History of Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217
Author Timm Haasler & Simon Vosters
7 Artworks by Felipe Rodna 
Hardcover, landscape format, (275mm x215mm)
284 Pages, 183 Photos
10 Maps & bookmark included
Price: £44.99
Product Link on the Panzerwrecks Website
Tim Hasler and Simon Vosters have a new book release through Panzerwrecks in the UK. This is a big book featuring the formation, makeup, exploits, machines and achievements of the Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217 (Assault tank Division 217). Famously the only division on the western front to use the Sturmpanzer IV (commonly known as the Brumbarr) by many modellers out there.

The book is a good 2cm thick!
The book's contents & its physical form:
I was interested in this book after seeing the preview of it on the Panzerwrecks site. A combination of just under three hundred pages full of information, seven commissioned artworks by the talented Felipe Rodna (including interior views) that replicate just some of the one hundred and eighty-three large-format photographs. The inclusion of ten 
maps to show the unit's movements and activities throughout its history as well as the very modern feature of the QR codes that can be scanned with your smartphone to pull up a current day Google maps or street view image of that same location in the present day.

The thick, hard, cover of the landscape format book is a semigloss finish and themed in black and white with a bright medium blue that carries throughout the chapters and lettering in the book, much in the same style of Panzerwrecks' other works. It is an attractive (and rather hefty) package with the internal structure divided into mostly text in about 60% of the book with the other 40% being the 183 photographs, 10 maps and colour artworks by Mr Rodna. There are several pages of just block text, but these look rather dull in photographs, so forgive me if I did not include these in the photos in this review.
The Story:
Combat History of Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217 tells the story of the only Sturmpanzer IV equipped unit to see action on the western front. Formed in May 1944, Stu.Pz.Abt.217 fought in Normandy, Belgium, Aachen and the Ardennes Offensive before finally perishing in Ruhr pocket in April 1945. This book was researched over a period of more than twenty years using hundreds of German and American records, the authors Timm Haasler and Simon Vosters retracing the steps of the battalion to offer the reader the most comprehensive coverage to date.
Chapters in this book:
01 Activation of Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217
02 Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217 in Normandy
03 Withdrawal from Normandy and engagements in the Aachen area
04 Rest and Refitting
05 Between Aachen and the Ardennes
06 The Ardennes Offensive
07 Last traces
08 The Sturmpanzer IV
09 Appendix

Using the "QR" codes in this book
We see in this book the use of "QR" codes. These bar codes can be scanned by most android and apple phones, I know that in my android phone the Google assistant simply scans it for me. (a quick search on google will tell you more about your own phone) Once the bar-code is scanned in through the camera you can see the view on your phone as it looks as per the last time it was photographed by the map people (whoever they are?). This simple but amazing technology helps historians find these places and it helps the reader better relate these places as they are now to what they were back then.

Once scanned the results side by sideshow what was, and what is now - some of the original buildings are still there, if just in a facade - amazing! A novel addition to the book and these are spread right throughout this publication.

OK - so now you know how the book looks, feels and what it is comprised of, we will go from page to page chapter to chapter in the book to show you more of the details inside the book and its qualities good or bad...

Page by page:

Block text dominates the earlier parts of the book and rightly so. After a brief introduction outlying the book's Synopsys and the road to the Sturmpanzer IV, we learn of the inception of the unit in the first chapter "Activation of Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217". Ten pages of text with some large photographs describing in listed detail the structure and personnel of the new Abteilung give you an understanding from the first pages the number of men and vehicles of the unit that helps going forward. We see the men and Sturmpanzers in the field undergoing training to become combat-ready with a nice series of photos in this short, ten-page chapter.

We go into the second chapter "
Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217 in Normandy" with the unit's reported arriving south of Caen just after D-Day. Through unit first-hand accounts and unit histories, we learn a little of the actual vehicle readiness of the unit as well as the defences staged around the area. Several familiar names come into the story, and not all in a positive way, Wittmann, Wünsche and the 1st SS, all of these familiars intertwine with our unit in the battles to stop the breakthrough by the Allies in "Operation Totalize". We see the first of the seven artworks by the very talented Felipe Rodna. 

The book replicates a large-format photo with Filipe's colour illustration. I have said before and I say it again here, it is a book to modellers and to those who need a little help to properly imagine these machines in real life. These illustrations add so much life to the subjects and a great painting guide for anyone with a scale model Sturmpanzer IV needing a touch of colour authenticity and diorama inspiration. 

Several large-format (page-sized) photographs of Sturmpanzer IV's in various conditions, mostly captured - fill the rest of this chapter. Not only photographically images, but a very good and clear map of the Positions of the three companies of the battalion, the major place names, roads and geography of the area South of Caen during July through August of 1944. The superiority of the air by the allies, the relentless nature of the fighting in that small space and numbers thrown against the unit did not leave as many casualties as one might think however, the unit now had to fall back from Normandy further southwards.

The next chapter "Withdrawal from Normandy and engagements in the Aachen area" covers what it says on the tin, with Abteilung 217 moving south-east. The story picks up on the 20th of August 1944 with several pictures of a destroyed Strumpanzer IV (No#36), from outside and inside, the tank's howitzer and mantle were completely blown out by internal explosions with crews of the units of several vehicles destroying them for a lack of petrol in the face of the allies. Into early September the unit's reforming of men and machines after their loss on the road back to the river Meuse to the Westwall is recounted in an overview type of fashion until we read the letter to the high command from the temporary commander of the 3./ Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217 - who spells out the situation of their desperate defences a little more tactically and with some more immediacy if the reader was in any doubt of the unit having it easy at that time of the battle.

The rounds through Belgium towards the German border and the unit and men's movements, defending actions and then subsequent retreats are explained in the large block text sections of several pages. These are intermingled with more series of pictures of broken and blown up Sturmpanzer IV's, often with allied soldiers posing in the shots and several containing the same vehicle with information coming in layers from every photo and text caption that accompanies it. Maps again show us the path and areas of note along the path of the unit. These are VERY helpful to the reader and I found myself placing my bookmark in it to refer too which helped a lot.

The varied reports from different sources make this book a more interesting read - Belgian civilians, Panzergrenadiers attached to the units, US and of course the first-hand recollection from the men and officers from Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217 when they are added give an extra layer of interest to the stories. I love reading first-hand accounts, and I really appreciate the authors putting them in here from so many places. the effort to research this book must have been a lot of hard work. Several pages of solid block text talking of the fighting right up to the German border fill the pages of the latter part of the third chapter, with the Battles for Aachen included in this part of the book. 

We do get a very good period map of Aachen as well as one commissioned for the book. I would say it would be better to include these maps a little earlier in the book so when you are reading about the battles it could be better placed on the first page next to the chapter so as to make it easier for the reader.

Through day by day accounts, we read about the first and second battles of Aachen and the final surrender of the first German city to be captured by the allies on the 21st of October 1944. There are several smaller pictures of the soldiers of the city surrendering and the toll the fighting took on the buildings in several very good photographs.
Chapter four starts at page seventy-nine and it tells the story of 
Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217's
 rest and refitting phase in the area of Duisburg-Hochfeld. Fourteen pages of mostly large-format photographs fill this section, and the photos are all of the German origins as they were, of course, taken behind enemy lines. These shots from the men in the unit lead to a more varied selection over the "U.S. G.I. on a blow'd up tank" which is often the case in some publications. There are some great pictures of Sturmpanzers training, with their crews around them, maneuvering, and at rest - lined up in barracks taken by the men who drove and fought in them in this section.

We do get some tables with replacements & convalescents, unit losses since September and status reports of the readiness of vehicles in the unit in this chapter, along with some block text describing morale and tasks which the unit had to undertake to enable further readiness to go back to the front are illuminating to this reader. 

Mid-November 1944 in the Hurtgen Forest in Belgium sees the start of the next chapter "Between Aachen and the Ardennes", where the unit's actions in the time before the "Bulge" are chronicled. The unit's strength in men and machines and the defence of the forest in combination with several other units mish-mashed throughout the area are discussed, an illustrated map, as well as several excellent aerial maps illustrating their area of operations, are included.

All of these maps in the series are keyed to show two farms that are also shown (in contemporary photographs) and these all add a lot to the block text in this section and help the mind connect with all of the place names mentioned in this part. There is a lot here to read as the several double spread pages of block text seem to dominate this chapter, but the insight in these makes for some excellent reading.

Several photos from an American perspective show the StuG's and Sturmhaubitze of Sturm Artillerie-brigade 667 that show parked up and immobilized vehicles, some interesting details in Zimmerit patterns and unit emblems noted int he accompanying text add interest.  A bit of a non-sequitur in the difference of this unit and the similarly named Sturmpanzer - Abteilung z.b.V.218 and the story of the vehicle it doesn't to Abt 217. This section is 

In November and December of 1944 photographers and newsreel cameramen, both visited the companies and some of these shots are seen in a series of photographs looking very heroic shots from the PK (propaganda Kompanie) of the temporary commander Oberleutenant Gauglitz looking very heroic (complete with a walking cane) talking and directing his troops and tanks in the snow. Several Sturmpanzers are seen maneuvering and firing in some of the best photographs of the book in this large series of shots from the same time. The photos continue right through to an earlier timeframe in 1944 with muddy conditions, destroyed US M-10's and several other soldiers featuring in rural and urban areas. Great, inspiring stuff for modellers in here.

The unit's operations in the Ardennes Offensive are next to be retold in pictures and text in the period of late November 1944 onwards. After a rebuilding phase, the unit's strength in December 1944 is noted in tables and some contrasting information that disputes some of the actual strength of the unit and the actual location at the time of the beginning of the operation is enlightening. As the operation begins we have several first-hand accounts from different sources on both sides of the German offensive which shed a lot of light on the particulars of the attack and the lives of the soldiers involved and their own microscopic view of the battle in front of the. I love these first-hand accounts from soldiers and I always pay particular interest to them in my reading. 

Understrength at that time, Abt. 217's numbers were in dispute from two reports presented in the book as the author tries to provide their insight into the conditions of the unit and their combination with the 3rd Fallschirmjagers before the US counterattack on the 12th. of January 1944. The reports from different sources are combined to provide the best guesses at the actions taken part but the company, while more coloured maps are included to give the reader that visual aid of the areas mentioned in the preceding pages. The fighting right through to February of the unit covers the rest of this chapter. Herein there are more official unit strengths in tables, along with more first hand (and the son of a tanker's account also) giving us further good insight into the condition of the men, machinery and morale before the unit made a fighting withdrawal back towards the Rhine.

The final chapter in this same format showing the unit in action is called "Last Traces" and it documents the unit's time from February until April in 1945. Defence of the Roer River and the towns inside the German border. We have a map here to help us find the places mentioned, but some of them are so small they are not included on the map. Through various sources including the US 9th division's records, we hear of Abt.217's soldiers being captured or killed, giving us information from their appearance on the battlefield or the information they gave to the captors of their dispositions at that time which were very dire indeed. 

The authors give us some photos in a series of a Sturmpanzer IV turned on its side along with another of Mr Rodna's excellent artworks to bring colour to the scene. One of the last units across the Remagen bridge into Germany, the unit was sent to rest and refit in March. The first-hand accounts of the unit's strength (or lack of it) and the accounts of the final engagements by the unit in the Siegen / Freudenberg areas south-west of Cologne inside Germany, plus the capture of the last soldiers of the unit - (used as infantry as their tanks stopped working) fill out the last pages of this chapter which draws a close to the operational account of this unit in the west. 

Notably, we have an account of one soldier's attempt to illude capture in civilian clothes and a  few pages of the highlights of the carriers of three decorated soldiers of the unit in official documents, newspaper clippings and text from the author as an interesting addition to the end of fighting.

In a chapter that looks like it is made just for modellers, we look at the Sturmpanzer IV itself in exactly fifty pages. This chapter very much discusses the Sturmpanzer IV's development (albeit just briefly enough to be quite interesting). We learn about the differences in Sturmpanzer IV types, how Abt.217's tanks were fitted with some specifics that apply to the unit's mounts.  Several pictures of the Sturmpanzer IV in use in different theatres (including the Eastern front) are included in these pages. We also get most interestingly the detail from the soldiers themselves in first-hand accounts as to what soldiers of Abt.217 & Abt.219 though of these vehicles in use and in combat which was very interesting to this reader. We have some pictures and information about the four surviving Sturmpanzer IV's and some excellent photos of the tanks being built in the factories that are very clear and full of detail modellers especially will love.

Mr Rodna gives us two excellent internal cut-out drawings of the Sturmpanzer, and we get some excellent plain views and then in explicit walk around detail of the type from the collection of Hillary Doyle, Nuts and Bolts and the author's collections.

Older, now impossible to source photos of the type's internals and surviving examples like this one in pieces (and then mostly assembled and restored) in the Munster collection are thankfully included.

The Appendix features the readiness reports during the war of the three units in Abt.217, an (extensive) bibliography and references to NARA and other codes, and those pesky endnotes which are spread throughout the book included at the end. To be honest - these notes which have you referring to the back of the book might break up the flow, but I would prefer them all included in the same place as I am reading in the book.

...And after 284 pages, that is all for this book!

This is a really serious bit of research resource gathering and weighting, it is also a book with a lot of text that is not really meant for the casual reader. Many people will buy this book hoping that it is full of pictures, and yes, there are seven artworks,183 Photos and 10 Maps included in the book, the rest of the book is full of block text, and there is a lot of reading to be had in here. 

Because of all that reading, there is also a lot of knowledge about the war, about the Sturmpanzer and about Abt.217's history to be gleaned from this book.  Those who are dedicated could read this over a week or two, and the resources, especially towards the back of the book, are a boon for modellers.

The writing is excellent, engaging and the subject had me interested to the end, while the presentation and layout of the book are first class. There is a lot in here to get through and I am glad that the authors have brought this history and reference to light in this very good book.

Adam Norenberg

Thanks to Panzerwrecks Publishing for sending this book to us to read and to review. If you like what you see here you can get the book at a discount or a short time from the Panzerwrecks Website.