Book Review

Operation Typhoon: Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941 by David Stahel, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2013, 429 pages, $25.95.

Operation Typhoon is the third in Stahel’s trilogy on the war in the East. This book is a companion to his Kiev 1941 and picks up from the conclusion of that operation.

The issue with many books on Operation Typhoon is their failure to carefully delineate that Operation Typhoon was really two separate and distinct operations. The first phase was the devastating German attack that ripped asunder the Soviet defensive lines and rocked the Soviet Union onto its heels. It was of such devastating consequence that Moscow panicked, and the Soviet Union perhaps tottered on the brink of psychological collapse and defeat. Both weather and logistical matters forced the Germans to pause for conditions in which they could maneuver.

The second phase was the German last-gasp effort to capture Moscow, with the attendant dire consequences for not just the Wehrmacht but for the attendant survival of the Third Reich itself.

Those who want solely a combat-oriented book may be somewhat disappointed. Stahel, as he did with Kiev 1941, forces the reader to engage in a macro perspective of how Operation Typhoon fits into the overall war. Stahel gives us an overview of economics and ideology, and how these influences drove both sides’ actions – as well as a tactical overview and how the forces the foes went to war with in terms of weapons affected the campaign. The book primarily focuses on Vyzama-Bryansk, but I would expect Stahel to focus his effort on that. The success of Vzyama-Bryansk in a larger sense set the stage for the subsequent unhinging of Germany’s successes.

What Stahel sets forth in ugly detail is the infighting among German commanders. The picture painted of many figures, already tarnished by their acquiescence to the war of genocide in the east, is further eroded by their petty inability to work together for victory. For the modern American military leader, despite an era of some rock-star generals, these attributes seem unimaginable. Stahel continues with some of the themes from Kiev 1941, showing how worsening conditions only exacerbated many of the Wehrmacht’s flaws, primarily a poor logistical system and an air force stretched to the breaking point by substandard Russian airfields. His use of letters and commanders’ notebooks make for livelier and easier reading than David Glantz’ work.

Yet Stahel is not above making certain there are modern lessons for leaders that are immutable from Operation Typhoon. In fact, for those of us who have fought in the current war-on-terrorism campaigns, there are uncomfortable parallels of how perhaps we have won many tactical victories while losing the strategic initiative. Stahel concludes that Germany in this campaign still had operational superiority. What is interesting is he deftly analyzes both sides’ competing claims, skewering to some degree the official Soviet line of German superiority in numbers. Stahel takes the Soviets to task in his conclusion for not better preparing defensive works, as it was obvious that after the Battles of Smolensk in July-August 1941 that Kiev was but a diversion.

Unlike Kiev 1941, the maps in Operation Typhoon are first-rate, easy to understand and add value to the overall book. In Kiev Stahel wandered a bit, but in Operation Typhoon, his writing shot group is much tighter and well-focused. The book is well-cited, and I sense Stahel pays greater attention to Soviet archival material. Glantz speaks fondly of Operation Typhoon, noting simply, “It is a must-read.” My comments for Kiev 1941 I echo here, that for both the combat leader and the logistician, this book is very highly recommended.