Endgame 1944: How Stalin Won the War by Jonathan Dimbleby review – the Red army’s advance into history

<span>The ‘mightiest onslaught’ of the second world war: Russian troops charge down a street during the advance through Poland, 1944.</span><span>Photograph: Hulton Getty</span>
The ‘mightiest onslaught’ of the second world war: Russian troops charge down a street during the advance through Poland, 1944.Photograph: Hulton Getty

As a historian, Jonathan Dimbleby has written several good books about the second world war. But this is the most interesting. It is not about “turning points”, those diamonds of interpretation that authors love to dig up, sharpen and mount on an alluring book jackets. Instead, Endgame 1944 is about what happened after a turning point, about the gigantic consequences as the inevitable slouched out of the future into the present.

At the core of Dimbleby’s book is Operation Bagration, on the war’s eastern front. It was named after the famous Russian general who died of wounds in 1812, resisting the French invaders at the Battle of Borodino. In 1944, Bagration was the name given to “the mightiest onslaught of the second world war”, the offensive by five “fronts”, four Soviet armies and one Polish, numbering well over a million men who set off across a line stretching almost from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It began in June, timed to take advantage of the Normandy landings in the first week of that month, and by August the Red army had halted on the outskirts of Warsaw. The advance, in some places by as much as 600km, had driven the Nazi armies out of much of the Baltic lands, Belarus, all of eastern Poland, western Ukraine and the border regions of Romania and Hungary. It was no walkover. The Soviet armies suffered horrifying casualties. But in “the five months since the start of Operations Overlord [Normandy] and Bagration, a total of 1,460,000 [German] men had been killed, wounded or captured, 900,000 of these on the eastern front”. That and the devastating losses of German armour and equipment were unsustainable.

The story of 1944 is of how generals, statesmen and humble soldiers played the ghastly hand dealt out to them

The turning points of Hitler’s war against Stalin are pretty familiar to British readers. We know about the Nazis’ rebuff outside Moscow in 1941, their catastrophe at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-3, their defeat the following summer at Kursk (the biggest tank battle in history). In fact, many chroniclers think that Europe’s whole future in the second half of the 20th century was already preordained on 22 June 1941, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his fatal invasion of the Soviet Union. That is why Sebastian Haffner (the Observer’s awe-inspiring commentator) used to say throughout the cold war that “We are living in Hitler’s Europe!”. Compared with those hinge-of-history events, Bagration is overlooked. But the story of 1944 is the story of how generals, statesmen and humble soldiers played the ghastly hand dealt out to them, from the Warsaw uprising and the siege of Budapest to the mass murder of Hungary’s Jews or the July plot to kill Hitler.

The first question raised by Dimbleby’s narrative, with all its military detail, is how on earth did the Wehrmacht manage to keep fighting for so long. By 1944, the German armies on the eastern front were massively outnumbered, and not just in men (“6.25 million troops as against the 2.46 million available” to German military command. The Soviet army groups “were equipped with more than twice as many tanks (5,800 versus 2,300) and four times as many aircraft …” As is becoming all too obvious in Ukraine today, Russia’s strength in war is not so much an inexhaustible supply of soldiers as a genius for mobilising resources. But in spite of these imbalances, the German retreat was a series of bitterly fought defensive battles rather than a rout. Dimbleby parallels his military story with often devastating extracts from Russian and German diaries and private letters (including pages by Vasily Grossman, surely the most gifted writer of the whole war). But the despairing outbursts of many German witnesses (“All is lost! The end is nigh!” was their tone) seem often misleading. They say more about the national taste for melodramatic self-pity than about the actual morale of the soldiers. British veterans of Normandy remembered the near-inhuman speed with which a defeated German unit would recover and launch a formidable counterattack. Almost to the end, the Wehrmacht on the eastern front retained grim courage and discipline.

Next to Konstantin Rokossovsky, a commander of Bagration, the Germans’ worst enemy was Adolf Hitler. Again and again, the Führer would declare towns feste Plätze (strongholds) and forbid timely retreat until whole divisions and even armies had been surrounded in a pocket. A lethal pattern kept recurring: the general flying to confront Hitler and plead with him, only to be accused of weakness; the decimation of the trapped forces; finally a doomed breakout ending in massacre. In contrast, Stalin kept in close contact with his field commanders but seldom interfered with their decisions. Rokossovsky even survived a stand-up row with Stalin over Bagration’s attack plan, and got his way.

Endgame 1944 sets the story of the great Russian offensive alongside the allied conferences and strategies developing at the same time. This means the stormy relationship between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill as they tried to agree on Europe’s postwar future. Jonathan Dimbleby has concentrated – to intensely dramatic effect – on Churchill’s passionate struggles to square his own conscience about what would happen to Poland. He knew, as the Poles in 1944 did not, that the Tehran conference at the end of 1943 had already abandoned Poland to Soviet domination. Stalin’s armies had “liberated” half of Poland; nothing short of another world war could remove them. But this was the nation for whose sake Britain had gone to war, to whom Churchill had promised restored statehood, freedom, democracy. He raged, threatened and wept as he tried to make the exiled Polish leaders accept their fate. But they refused, incredulous that Churchill seemed to be betraying them. Something in his romantic heart broke, never quite to heal. But outside the ruins of Warsaw, the Red army was gathering strength for the next colossal offensive, which would take it to within an hour’s drive of Berlin. The end of the endgame was in sight.

  • Endgame 1944: How Stalin Won the War by Jonathan Dimbleby is published by Viking (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply