Please forgive my familiarity. Mr. Nash seemed so formal.
I just finished reading HELL'S GATE The Battle of the Cherkassy Pocket Jan-Feb 1944. I have to say that I am really behind the curve here, as so many others have already read your amazing book. I am kind of embarrassed that I didn't come by it years sooner, as I have many excellent books in my library, and have always seemed to focus on the Eastern Front, mainly around Stalingrad. Having lurked this site for some time now, I read reviews of this book here, on the forum, and knew immediately I had to have this book. Wrangling the funds from my Fiscal Department (re - the wife) was a bit of a challenge, but I prevailed. Your book is simply amazing and worth every penny (well, lots of pennies actually).
I was aware of the battle from other strategic and tactical reads, but the breath, depth, and scope of your research was stunning. Please allow me to rave a little.
The details and the interviews are the parts I really enjoyed the most. I have always felt that if an author was able to draw you in and make you feel you were actually there, almost experiencing the fear, hopelessnes, despair, and elation of the moments, then the author had worked the magic they sought. It is one thing to detail some generals and colonels standing around a map table, calmly discussing where to move this unit, and casualty figures for that unit. You may feel you are looking over their shoulder, but really, so what. But when you describe, in graphic detail, the fears of men fighting to escape almost certain death, plowing through deep snow, Russian shells exploding all around, and your reader can see this happening in his mind's eye, then you have really succeeded. The magic takes over. And it did with your book.
You laid the groundwork in wonderful detail, and provided maps galore. I never really felt I was lost, as I could always go back a few pages and figure out where the unit was fighting. The photos were truly amazing, and literally put a face on the fighting men. Your interviews translated into gripping stories of desperate survival. Little details were just perfect. As the 57th Inf. fights their way out, Gen. Trowitz stands on the bank of that horrible stream, urging his men to safety. Then, the honor of the last man of the unit to cross was allowed to Oblt. Kandziora, of the Feldgendarmerie platoon, who had probably been the last to leave his traffic direction post in Shanderovka, and knowing how these things normally go, had figured his survival was close to nil, being the last of the last of the last to leave.
A rearguard officer, Eberhard Heder, finds himself in a balka near Pochapintsy, with leaderless men. A soldier shouts for an officer to take command and give them orders. The men desperately need leaders to save them. Heder takes control, finds a map, calms and controls the men, then leads them in charges to break through and cross the Gniloy. The men's courage was never in question, but they needed an officer to point them in the right direction....to save their lives. Heder does the only thing open to him. He leads.
Willy Hein, still seriously wounded, leads 500-600 men in a wild charge against tanks, with no anti-tank weapons for use. We read these encounters over and over again. Gerhard Mayer and thousands of soldiers and officers charging Soviet tanks and guns near Hill 239. Attacking with bayonets against armor and machine guns. Oberst Gerhard Franz watches in helpless rage as Soviet tanks bravely attack columns of wounded men in panje wagons, grinding horses and wounded into bloody pulp with their tank treads. Franz grabs a sniper rifle, and uses it to help hundreds of men break through Russian strongpoints. Franz then joins a massive charge of 4,000 or more men, bayonets out, led by an officer on horse back while roaring the ancient German battle cry "Hurrah" as they overwhelm a Russian position of tanks and guns. Tanks are blown up, and Russian tankers are actually taken prisoner, not butchered on the spot.
Obw. Krause and Gef. Fritz Hamann have the good sense to drag many panzerfausts with them. They run into a wall of Russian tanks, blocking their way. The troops are milling about, starting to panic or give up. What do Krause and Hamann do? What else! Of course they attack with their panzerfausts, blowing up several tanks each, taking prisoners, forcing the tanks to flee the insane Germans, and allow hundreds of men to continue their desperate treck towards freedom. When they get to the Gniloy Tikich, the same prisoners they took in their struggle against the tanks, now show them how to safely swim the stream, using their greatcoats as wings to help keep buoyancy. Doug, this is truly amazing stuff. I read with chills up my spine and sometimes tears in my eyes. Do you have any idea if Krause and Hamann survived the war?
Of course, Ferdinand Kaisergruber's odyssey is stunning. It was so neat to see your relationship with that survivor.
Well then, I guess you can see just how much I enjoyed your work of art. I could hardly put it down, and found myself looking forward to getting home from work, so I could read more chapters. Thank-you so much for writing this amazing book. It is easily a collectors item. I might never have found it were it not for Feldgrau.net and this post.