Writing “Where the Iron Crosses Grow” taught me that George Santayana was on to something when he stated that “those who do not remember history will be condemned to repeat it.” While nobody is likely to re-fight the Battle of Kursk in modern times, the military history of the Crimea remains uniquely relevant even in the 21st Century.
Most English-language history of the Second World is driven by a few well-known iconic moments, like the Battle of Britain, D-Day, Iwo Jima and the Atomic Bombs. Thanks to cinema, Operation Market-Garden, the Battle of the Bulge and Stalingrad get an honorable mention. In recent years, the Eastern Front has received much more attention, including by Osprey, but even much of this coverage revolves around a few already well-known battles such as Moscow and Kursk.
For the past decade, I have been availing myself of the German records section of the National Archives at College Park, Maryland and have been amazed by the wealth of primary source material that has not yet made its way into popular (or even specialist) histories. Through Osprey’s Campaign series, I have attempted to bring some of this material to light in volumes such as Demyansk 1942-43, Kharkov 1942 and Sevastopol 1942. However in researching the Battle of Sevastopol, I found that there was a much wider story to be told than just the German assault on a fortified city. Once I began delving into Soviet sources, I could see that the Crimea really needed a much larger book to do justice to its role in the Second World War. Yet it was also soon apparent that the military history of the Crimea went well beyond the confines of standard Eastern Front histories.
One of the things that I wanted to do in “Where the Iron Crosses Grow” was to evoke the human dimension of combat that James Coburn depicted in the 1977 film “Cross of Iron.” What little has seeped through to Western consciousness about warfare in the Crimea has tended to focus on sensationalized weapons like “Dora” and “Karl,” rather than the human dimension. Yet warfare in the Crimea was replete with some of the most interesting and charismatic combat leaders on the Eastern Front – men like Bärenfänger, von Hitzfeld, Gorpishchenko, Koshevoi – as well as notorious mass murders like von Alvensleben, Ohlendorf, Bela Kun and Zemliachka. The Crimea is also exciting as a subject since there was combat on all three spheres – on the ground, in the air and on adjoining seas. There was high drama in this arena of combat, between convoy battles, amphibious landings, tank offensives and massive air attacks, that is rarely found altogether in other aspects of the Second World War. I also tried to bring out the pathos in this subject, through episodes such as Generalmajor Erich Grüner, a highly decorated German commander who had distinguished himself in many earlier battles, leading the final stand of his abandoned 111. Infanterie-Division at the water’s edge as T-34 tanks overran his unit. He died on his feet, with his Ritterkreuz at his throat. Nor will many readers be familiar with the desperate courage displayed by the Soviet defenders of the Adzhimushkay Quarry outside Kerch.
I intended to drive home one of the main points that I’ve learned researching Crimean history going back to the time of Catherine the Great, namely that the fate of this region is driven by prestige and terrain. Russia has coveted this region for centuries and has shed copious amounts of blood to steal it from others, particularly the Crimean Tatars. The Crimea caught Hitler’s fancy as well and he dreamed of turning it into a neo-Gothic Eden named Gotengau. Yet it was the terrain that ultimately decided the outcome, since there is only one decent avenue of approach into the Crimea – the narrow Perekop Isthmus – which the Tatars fortified in the 18th Century. Various armies have struggled to force their way into this position – it has been assaulted five times in the past 100 years – and even now, Russian and Ukrainian forces are confronting each other across the old Tatar Ditch. Who would have thought that in the era of the Internet and GPS-guided bombs, an 18th Century ditch dug by Crimean Tatars would again become a relevant military feature? Yet in the long run, possession of this region has always ended up being a costly and futile endeavor, which will apparently have to be re-learned again in our time.
Where the Iron Crosses Grow is out now! Keep an eye out for more exclusive Osprey author reveals coming soon