Miracle at the Litza: Hitler’s First Defeat on the Eastern Front

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Miracle at the Litza: Hitler’s First Defeat on the Eastern Front. By Alf R. Jacobsen. Casemate Publishers, Havertown Philadelphia, 2017.

Reviewed by Chris Buckham

HISTORIES of the early stages of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia in 1941, traditionally focus upon the line of activities running from the Baltic to Romania and the incredible successes that the Germans enjoyed during the first six months of that campaign. Lesser known but of perhaps longer term significance was the savage and austere fighting that occurred in the high arctic on the approaches to Murmansk. This northern artic operations formed part of a classic joint maritime campaign.

Jacobsen has drawn upon primary source material from the archives of Russia, Germany, England, Norway and Finland in an effort to address this shortcoming.

The book outlines the planning and execution of the German attacks across two lines of advance, the challenges faced and why they ultimately failed. It also provides a detailed account of the Russian and English efforts at countering these attacks. Ultimately these efforts, unlike the rest of the Eastern Front, were successful and served as an excellent example of joint operational planning and execution across all three service elements and between the British and Russians. It is clear that the British success at breaking the Enigma codes ultimately undermined the Germans efforts at supporting their operation through maritime assets. The Allies, on the other hand, although desperately short of trained personnel and materiel used the flexibility of sea power to gain a decisive operational victory in the north.

Jacobsen does a noteworthy job of analyzing why the German/Finnish forces failed and it centers upon a few key lessons:

– A failure of German Intelligence to accurately determine the forces both physical as well as climatic facing them across the northern approaches to Murmansk;
– Failure to engage with the Finns early enough to have them provide meaningful input into the planning process;
– Failure of relations between German strategic, operational and tactical levels of Command and a resultant loss of trust and focus;
– German failure to maintain the ‘schwerepunkt’ of attack and the subsequent reinforcement of failure as opposed to success between the Northern and Salla approaches to Murmansk; and
– A dilution of limited forces across the North.

Conversely, the author’s discussion of the Allied efforts also highlights certain lessons:

– The critical importance of effective joint operations (in this case naval and naval air) on both morale and flexibility;
– Effective intelligence; both the timely interception and effective use of;
– Allied engagement and the challenge of the perception of help versus tangible assistance on trust and cooperation;
– Ensuring that the correct assets are available to provide flexible response options to local commanders (in this case naval gunfire, submarine and naval air options); and
– The under-rated but critical importance of dogged resilience in effective defensive operations.

Jacobsen’s analysis and presentation of this previously underrepresented aspect of Operation Barbarossa is a nuanced, balanced and thoroughly readable work. The maps provided are somewhat busy and hard to follow but provide an adequate appreciation of elevations and the challenging nature of the environment. The book closes with a synopsis/analysis of the campaign by a former head of the Norwegian Armed Forces who lends a professional soldiers perspective from one who intimately knows the ground being fought over.

‘Miracle at the Litza’ is a little known, but excellent case-study of a successful maritime defence and as such it is highly recommended.

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