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The Moscow Option, A Book Review

Discussion in 'Biographies and Everything Else' started by belasar, Jul 22, 2013.

  1. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    The Moscow Option: An Alternative Second World War, By David Downing, 2001, Military Book Club Publishing, 223 pages, Maps, Notes

    Alternate history speculation is not everyone's cup of tea. For some it borders on hearsay, the war happened in the only way it could and no change would have any meaningful impact. Others hold that the world we live in now could be radically different from the one we know with only a few different roads taken. For me the virtue of Alternate History is that can offer insight as to why things happened as they did and a presents a chilling reminder that for a period of time the fate of humanity hung in the balance.

    There are no super weapons, no radical revamping of prewar inventories and no super rational leadership or change in the major players. Nazi's are Nazi's, Japanese are Japanese and the Allies remain true to their nature. Downing offers two points, one in European War and another in the Pacific, where the Axis turn right where historically they turned left. Both are plausible and both are far reaching in my opinion.

    In Europe, Hitler is injured in a flying accident while returning from a meeting in Russia with his Generals before deciding to halt Army Group Center and order the encircling of the Kiev pocket. From this point, and for the next several months, Goering is the unsure head of the Nazi Reich. In the Pacific during the Kido Butai's Indian Ocean adventure, the possibility of their codes having been compromised is given serious consideration prior to the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway.

    Downing writes his book as if it is actual history and not speculation. Each Axis move is countered by a plausible Allied move. Both sides make inspired guesses and frightful errors as the historically did, only different ones. The Book does not go into specifics as to how or when the war ends, nor does it give much insight on how different today would be, but it does offer hints. It concludes in late 1942 at what appears to be a new and different Axis high point, the rest is left to the imagination of the reader.

    Pleasantly written, even if some of the events are not so pleasant to contemplate, this slim volume could be read in a long weekend. For those who enjoy this format or are willing to give a try, I say go for it!

    BR-XXXII
     
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  2. Carronade

    Carronade Ace Patron  

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    I thought it was o.k., but like too many other books historical and speculative, it assumes that the only issue in Russia in fall 1941 as Kiev or Moscow and ignores the fact that the Germans could and did launch two simultaneous army group offensives, of which the northern one advanced further than the distance from Smolensk to Moscow.

    I also didn't see the point of the Japanese storyline. That's another speculation worth exploring, but it has no connection with the "Moscow Option". It might be interesting to consider how the war in Europe would have been affected if the Japanese had mentioned to their ally that the art of code-breaking seemed to have advanced a bit further than previously thought.......
     
  3. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    I am not sure I fully understand your critique on point one, but I do with the second point, though it does not trouble me greatly as it is a work of fiction. Unlike many Alt-History theory's Downing keeps his within reason and none of his characters act in a manor contrary to their nature.
     
  4. Carronade

    Carronade Ace Patron  

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    I've mentioned it before, the implication that the only things the German army was capable of were either continuing the advance on Moscow or turning south to attack Kiev. I think this stems from the prominence of Guderian's memoir, with its dramatic tale of his arguing "Moscow or Kiev?" with Hitler, as if the whole campaign hinged on the deployment of his dozen divisions.

    I agree with the necessity of securing the southern flank, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the army could not continue advancing - especially since it did. An army group led by Panzer Groups 3 and 4 advanced as far as Moscow - I say "as far as" because it was Army Group North advancing to Leningrad and Tikhvin.

    There's also a tendency to assume that the situations on the two flanks were analogous, that if it made sense to send PzG 2 south, it must also make sense to send Pz3 north. This is simply not true. On the south, there was already a long open flank, which would get longer as AG Center advanced on Moscow. Reinforcements and supplies from all over the Soviet Union would flow either to Moscow itself or to the south. There was no comparable danger in the north, and taking Moscow would further isolate Leningrad and the northern sector. In effect, the advance on Moscow secured its own left flank, but made the right the point of danger.

    Historically the Germans were able to execute two "bounds", one before and one after the fall rasputitsa. Each bound involved two operations, all of which were successful, with large bags of Russian troops at Kiev, Vyazma, and Bryansk. It was only when they tried for Moscow on a third bound that they ran into winter and disaster.

    Historically the bounds were:
    Phase 1: Kiev and Leningrad
    Phase 2: Vyazma and Bryansk

    They could just as easily have been
    Phase 1: Kiev and Vyazma (about 3/4 of the way from Smolensk to Moscow)
    Phase 2: Bryansk and Moscow - the Bryansk operation would continue to protect the southern flank of the main advance.
     
  5. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    Thank you Carronade for the clarification I now understand your objection.

    With respect I am not sure it is completely fair however.

    Many What-if's flow from the "How could Germany/Japan win the War?" concept and as such fall into disrepute in that they ignore many realities of the Axis powers and assume one or two key changes become the magic bullet that lead to victory. Downing does not say that Germany and Japan "win" the war, only that it could easily been longer, harder and vastly more costly without any Deus ex Machine like change in events.

    By ending the book at the close of 1942 he allows the reader to decide for themselves how things fell into place, but his off the cuff hints like a Waffen-SS/Heer civil war and the destruction of two German cities by Atomic bombs tend to indicate that they were, if possible, worse for Germany.

    He did choose one of the more popular alternate German options when it could have been something more inventive, but as it is a work of fiction I am willing to accept dealer's choice and it fits with the scenario of a air accident at that time.

    As with all fiction, and Downing calls it a "Bald faced lie in book form" himself, it comes down to whether or not it resonates with the reader and of course it won't with everybody.

    For me it did, but I understand how it might not in your case.
     
  6. LJAd

    LJAd Well-Known Member

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    The first time I read it (there was no second time),I was not impressed : an other case of HCH fiction,based on Halder,Guderian,Manstein and Liddel Hart:
    First,Downing is giving us the creeps with his first deus ex machina : stupid Adolf (who spoiled the German chances to win) is out,temporarily,and the smart generals are taking over,and ,every thing is going well (the causes who delayed Typhoon suddenly have disappeared and,mysteriously,Typhoon is succeeding).Tha,;Adolf is returning and is spoiling everything(making the reader happy,because he "knows" that with Adolf,allied victory is certain).

    The end :another deus ex machina : 2 A Bombs,resulting in civil war in Adolfland .

    And,the Soviets (will ask some sceptical people):would they not be in Berlin in may 1945? And,why not ? Why would it take 2 ABombs in september 1945? Only 2 A Bombs ?

    Is this not because the claim of Downing is that the role of the Soviets was neglectable? 2 US Bombs were sufficient ? The usual jingoistic boasting ? Thus H CH blahblah .

    Of course,there is an attenuating circumstance :Downing was writing for a Western public ,consisting of a lot of" cool man" people which demanded jingoistic boasting ,and Downing was writing for a living ......
     
  7. Carronade

    Carronade Ace Patron  

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    The only thing I object to - not just in this book, it's almost universal - is the unquestioned acceptance of the premise that they couldn't possibly continue the offensive towards Moscow in August-September if they sent Guderian's panzer group south to Kiev.
     
  8. LJAd

    LJAd Well-Known Member

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    As such,the question :could the Germans continue the offensive towards Moscow in August/September,is irrelevant ,the relevant question is : would a such attack be successful.
     
  9. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    In reading your post I am tempted to ask did we read the same book? :)

    I am sure we did and as I submitted in my review the author by design leave's some elements open to the audience to draw their own conclusions. This becomes widespread for events that take place after the book closes at the end of 1942 where the Axis powers have taken setbacks. To be honest I did not wish to give out too many details in order to allow anyone who picked it up the chance to be entertained without knowing the ending, but to respond to your post I feel I now must.

    The observation that the choice of Moscow First boils down to "Hitler is stupid, the Generals Brilliant" is for lack of a better term, simplistic. It comes about not because the General's make a better argument, but through the well documented bureaucratic and leadership ineptitude exhibited by the Nazi hierarchy. Goering, unable to think for himself, and unwilling to allow anyone else to usurp his tenuous position merely agree to try and implement the Fuhrer Directives currently in force. I.E. hold the course until Hitler can tell them what to do. Considering the hold Hitler had and his way of allowing his underlings to fight amongst themselves for scraps of power so that they could never focus on unseating him, makes this hypothetical outcome plausible in my opinion.

    Do the Halder-Guderian faction get what they want, yes to a point. Does it have a net benefit to the Nazi cause, yes to a point. Moscow is captured, so is Leningrad (but at a hideous cost to the 18th Army), German troops get decent winter quarters and the loss of the Moscow-Leningrad rail nets prevent a Soviet Winter offensive. All good, right?

    What you are ignoring is the downside of unintended consequences of "getting their way" that results. Even longer supply lines, with even more places to create vengeful Partisans. The Generals had no answer for it historically and they still have none. It does not end the war or seriously shake the will of Stalin who vows to carry on. The Soviet armies retreat in good order and no large scale encirclements take place. They have longer lines to cover and cannot counter attact as they wish, but it stimulates a more realistic approach on the part of STAVKA who do not throw away troops in the second half of the Winter attack or Kharkov. Finally the loss of a Panzer Corps and Luftflotte to Rommel so as to enact another Fuhrer Directive. Assets that will be missed in the summer of 1942.

    Support given to Rommel makes Reader happy, but not the "Brilliant Generals". It gets good results and Egypt is taken, with some aide by restless Arabs who want Britain out, but do not understand the cost of "liberation". The greater problem still exists. The supply lines to the front are nearly ruinous in themselves, the enemy while reeling, isn't giving up. Worse America and her industry is now at the complete disposal of the British and Russians. The "Brilliant Generals" have no way to bring victory or even a acceptable peace to Germany. In effect they trade one pool of quicksand for a different pool.

    Same music, different lyrics.

    Spring comes and Hitler resumes control. He his moderately pleased, but of course had he not been injured, things would have gone much better. I will give you a moment to collect yourselves and stop laughing.

    Hitler doesn't ruin all their 'success' but in effect does what he historically did. Send his armies in different directions, where they cannot support one another, to capture objectives with ill supported columns. None of them are strong enough, none of them adequately supported by supply or air support and the Allies are not making the same mistakes they did in 1941.

    Does all this sound somewhat familiar?

    As for the Soviets not reaching Berlin in April 1945, this seems self evident and no disservice to Holy Mother Russia. While it is possible that a even larger Reich might collapse faster than it did historically, this ignores the realities from the Anglo-American-Soviet side in this scenario.

    Russia must retake All of European Russia, not just most of it. Germany would fight hard to retain Moscow and Leningrad for as long as possible, just as they historically did for every "Strategic Point" as determined by Hitler. Another year of reconquest seem quite reasonable just for this, but this is not all of Stalin's headache's.

    Turkey and Japan have declared war on Russia, and while both almost at once regret their choice, they, plus other factors, sever two out of three Lend-Lease pipelines (Though a fourth is about to open), thus reducing the amount of aid. Even if Russia decides to fight a purely static war in the Far East, this will still consume Men, Equipment and supplies. Items not available to crush the German invader. Russia in effect must go farther with less, so a longer war is far from fantasy, and much more likely.

    The Atomic weapons were created in part because of the fear that Germany was working on them as well. If the FDR-Churchill alliance retained the "Europe First" strategy and the war lasted into some point in 1946, then their use on Germany to speed the end of the war is obvious to me. If there is a Wehrmacht-SS civil war, then the bombs alone clearly do not end the war in and of themselves. Considering Hitler's nature it is doubtful he would make the decision Hirohito did after being struck and the SS would know that their fate was inseparable from their leaders.

    Historically there were cracks in the relationship between Himmler, Goering, their private armies/empires and the traditional Heer, so a civil war brought on by the unprecedented destruction created by the atomic's and the ever closing Allied armies are not so far fetched. It is telling that the anti-Hitler conspiracy had roots Heer and the civil authorities, but no where else.

    This book was meant to entertain and to offer a cautionary tale that we could have paid a greater price for victory than we did, and not to prove some fanboy fantasy that Germany could or should have won the war.
     
  10. LJAd

    LJAd Well-Known Member

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    I am still not impressed:the whole thing is swarming with improbabilities,,absurdities and historical inaccuracies,as:


    the dismissal of von Brauchitz because of an insignifiant quarrel about the commitment of the LSS,while in the OTL,..there had been more serious quarrels between Hitler and Brauchitz,which did not result in a dismissal of von Brauchitz,and,while in the OTL,von Brauchitz had been replaced because of ilness .

    It's maybe nitpicking,but,even a ATL has to have some bearing with reality .

    the interventing of Turkey : this was totally improbable,because the Turkish army could not operate outside Turkey,and Germany had not the means to change this .

    the intervention of Japan :in the OTL,Japan did not intervene,because an intervenion would result in a very weaken and vulnerable Japan vis -à-vis the US,and ,DD presents a Japanese intervention,and,big Japanese successes(more than in the OTL) against the US .

    More important :I don't see how the (temporary) absence of Hitler would change anything on the situation on the East Front,as in the OTL(before the elimination of Hitler in the ATL) Barbarossa had failed .


    Other points : the 2 ABombs in september 1945:this implies that Overlord did not happen/that Overlord failed.

    :that the ABombs would result in a civil war between the SS and the army is very questionable : in the OTL,the putsch of 20 july failed (without the intervention of the SS),because of the plain fact that Hitler survived:the army would not rebel against Hitler ,even when the German cities were destroyed by conventional attacks (Hamburg was destroyed in 1943),thusnwhy would the Army revolt because of the nucleair attacks? Unless Hitler died in these attacks.....

    :the use of the ABombs is also questionable:that they were build because of the possibility that the Germans could have them,does not mean that they would be used against Germany : there was the danger of a German reprisal with gas (the possibility/probability of which was unknown).The use of the A Bomb against Germany was an option,but it was not obvious .
     
  11. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    It is perfectly valid to say you did not enjoy the book or premise, an opinion I can respect. As for the rest I offer this.

    At the time in the book where von Brauchitz is relieved Hitler is a different man from the OTL. He has suffered a medical crisis far worse than the July 20 Bomb plot and has for a period of months had his authority usurped by his recovery so it is not implausible that his perception of his Generals is closer to that of 1944 than 1940. Even so he had at this period in the OTL little compunction in relieving anyone who offered a dissenting view if they caught him on a bad day. On Dec 26th 1941 Guderian and some 40 other generals were relieved by Hitler.

    As for Turkey I agree that its entry is improbable in the OTL, but not impossible in the ATL. By its very definition Improbable is not impossible in any case. With all of European Russia under the Nazi flag, Egypt under the Fascist flag of Italy and German troops in Palestine and moving along Turkey's northeastern border into northern Irag and pressure from Berlin to get on board or else, it is not so far fetched that they would bite the bullet to get on the bandwagon before it passed them by. Italy did with France after all. In realistic terms none of Hitler's Allies could operate beyond their own borders, but that reality did not stop them from joining the Axis.

    As for Japan, again improbable is not impossible and the situation is different in the ATL.

    The Kwantung Army had in its midst the most radical and most anti-communist officers in the Imperial Forces of Japan. They had on two occasions started border incursions against Russia without the full approval of the Imperial Council, more such against the Chinese, miring the Empire in a conflict it could not win and a collision course with the United States. Another arrogant and boneheaded blunder is far from impossible.

    In truth Japan should have won either the Battle of the Coral Sea or Midway (or both) had they not chosen to squander their superb Kido Butai in operations where they employ only part of their carrier aviation, giving the USN battle conditions that are nearly even. The USN was in optimal position because of code breaking, take that away and that is not science fiction by any means, and the US Pacific Fleet is in dire straits until the new Essex and Independence Class carriers begin to deploy.

    This would have been like Hitler sending his Panzers against the Maginot Line in 1940, rather than using them as they were designed to go around such obstacles.

    Back to Hitler and Germany.

    As I stated in my previous post, capturing Moscow does not end the war, merely change the names of the battlefields fought on in 1942. I will say it again, same music, different lyrics.

    A great many things we know of as history is not mentioned, so we can only guess or use our imagination as I think Downing had intended from the start. I went though the challenges faced by Stalin, but omitted those faced by the west at the close of the book in this ATL.

    In Europe Britain has lost Egypt and Turkey has joined the Axis. America has begun committing troops to the Middle East and Operation Torch has been cancelled. In the Pacific Japan's Navy has been checked off Panama, but some months later than the OTL and the US Pacific Fleet is down to the Carriers Saratoga, Wasp and perhaps Ranger. (after the historical Midway the US had 5 Carriers Enterprise, Hornet, Wasp, Saratoga and Ranger [Ranger was never seriously considered for use in the Pacific in the OTL because of her age and limitations]) Japan has had more time to complete their bases in the Solomon's and start defenses at Midway.

    The book closes with Stalin contemplating using his husbanded reserves against Hitler's week allies holding the line and Churchill is planning the reconquest of Egypt, this leaves the British 9th Army blocking Guderian et all in northern Iraq but omits Turkey.

    Logically Stalin driving from the north east and 9th Army pushing from the south make good strategic sense but likely nixed by Stalin who would never be keen on western armies 'liberating' Soviet Republics, especially those who were fractious and had oil reserves. This in turn would leave Turkey as the most likely target of 9th Army

    There are several good reasons for a Anglo-American Army Group to target Turkey, while 8th Army (possibly expanded to another Anglo-American Army Group) recaptures Egypt and Libya. First its there and Turkey is weak, offering the Allies a chance to knock out an Axis power quickly. Secondly FDR and Churchill could not ignore the possibility of a Panzer Army driving out of the Turkish rail/road net with the Arabian and Iranian oil fields as their objectives. Yes we know it could not happen from our god like perch on history, but they couldn't. Thirdly the possibility of opening the Bosphorus for Lend-Lease to Russia would be very tempting indeed. It would also allow airbases to strike at Nazi targets unreachable from England, like the Rumanian Oil production facilities.

    Churchill had always favored a move on the Soft Underbelly of Europe and if Turkey is targeted and taken the option becomes far more possible. Fighting "along side" the Soviet Union, a Second Front in 1943, the chance to avoid losing Eastern Europe and the Balkans to a Soviet Iron Curtain would thrill Churchill, and might be too much for FDR/Marshall to overcome.

    The Allies face a longer campaign to clear North Africa and the Central Mediterranean, which in turn could delay Overlord and a delay of just weeks could mean that a best only a lodgment and no breakout is possible before the Winter of 1944. Overlord does not fail per se, just not as far reaching as the Historical time line. Overlord might be considered as nothing more than a "Roundup" with the main Western Allied effort in the Balkans.

    A war lasting into 1946 would be an catastrophe for the German people, greater than that they historically faced. We were bombing targets of little or no strategic value in early 1945, using conventional arms. Food would be in even shorter supply than the OTL. It is tempting to say that the July 20th Bomb plot had no support, but a good number of senior German Generals knew of it, at least in vague terms. They wouldn't support it, but they wouldn't expose it either. Rommel knew and I don't believe Guderian's denials, they are too self serving. The German leave system meant that the front line soldiers knew what was happening back home and everyone but a fanatic has a breaking point.

    We don't know how widespread this so called Civil war is but it is an historical fact that during the last 6 months of the actual war SS execution squads roamed the rear areas shooting or hanging on the spot, without trial, any Wehrmacht personnel they suspected of "cowardice". On occasion the Wehrmacht victims fought back. Unlikely, perhaps but not impossible.

    The American's faced and expected the Japanese to use gas on the landing beaches if the Empire refused to yield after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The objection to their use on Germany smacks of a racist belief that we could use them on an Asian race but not a European one, because they "looked like us". The same imperative that drove their use on Japan, we spent all this money and could not leave it on the shelf at the expense of Allied lives, would still apply. FDR and Churchill again and again stressed that Hitler was the primary enemy and a president (Truman) knew if he failed to use it as soon as it was ready would at best not get re-elected and possibly impeached.

    Whew!
     

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