Book Reviews

Besieged Book Cover

Besieged Book Cover

Besieged: The Epic Battle for Cholm

by Jason D. Mark
Pymble, NSW, AU: Leaping Horseman Books, 2011
596 pages, $AU 80.00
ISBN: 978-0-9751076-9-0

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Reviewed by Chris Buckham

The Battle of Cholm was one of the first major tests of the performance of the German Army under adverse conditions. Besieged, by Jason Mark, is the definitive work of this event.

Set on the Eastern Front, it covers the period from January to June 1942 when the German forces, reeling back under the counter-offensive of the Soviets outside Moscow, were forced into a series of ad hoc defensive operations. The brutal winter conditions, the collapse of portions of the German lines, and the confusion of the barely-controlled retreat resulted in a small force of a few thousand troops being surrounded in the village of Cholm. The subsequent achievements of this group, designated Kampfgruppe Scherer after the senior officer present, was to become one of the most famous stories of the Eastern Front conflict. Made up of a hodge-podge grouping of reservists, infantrymen, military police, service troops, aircrew, and naval drivers (in fact, there were remnants of over 60 different units trapped in Cholm), this force held out throughout the rest of the winter and into the spring against overwhelming Soviet forces.

 Jason Mark has presented his subject in a chronological fashion, drawing upon extensive primary source material which provides the readers with a unique insight into not only the tactical challenges presented to the Germans, but also the psychological stresses that the soldiers endured (and the means by which they overcame them). Generalmajor (Brigadier General) Theodor Scherer, the commander of 281 Sicherungs Division, was assigned the responsibility for the coordination of the defence of Cholm. Thus, circumstance and chance thrust him from command of a second-line security division into the centre of the fray, with the fate of thousands of surrounded forces places in his hands. Mark’s presentation of the material gives the reader a much more personal perspective of events as the battle for Cholm unfolds. One is able to appreciate the challenges faced by the German operational commanders as they grapple with limited resources and multiple concurrent crises in their efforts to stabilize the front from a viewpoint not available to Scherer. Thus, his repeated demands for support and resources, and his frustration at what he perceives as a lack of comprehension by his superiors at his forces’ precarious position is clearly defined against the ‘bigger picture’ with which his higher headquarters is dealing. Nevertheless, one empathizes with Scherer’s position and command as he is provided the minimal amount of logistics support to stay solvent, but not enough to create any form of buffer or strategic reserve. As one follows the pressure brought to bear by the Soviet forces surrounding the Germans, it is clear that their situation was dire indeed. Ultimately, through luck, perseverance, outstanding leadership (amongst both the officers and senior NCOs) and professionalism (within all of the trapped units) the siege was finally lifted after three-and-a-half months.

Mark’s use of primary source material from both the German and Soviet combatants provides some fascinating insights into the different leadership techniques at play. Of particular note is the style used by Scherer, who proves himself a leader of no little ability. He displays a very high ‘Emotional Quotient,’ thereby enabling him to get the best from the forces at his disposal. He is thus able to recognize and take advantage of the strengths of his officers and NCOs, thereby facilitating an incredibly high level of morale. I was particularly struck by his ability to see beyond specific trades and classifications, and to view all as officers/soldiers first. A clear example of this is his recognition of Oberzahlmeister (First Lieutenant equivalent) ‘Panzer’ Schmid with the Iron Cross First Class. Schmid, a paymaster (logistics) officer, assumed a position as an anti-tank crewman when injuries left the guns shorthanded. In this role, he was instrumental in destroying a number of Russian tanks. He was also given command of the north-eastern section of the Cholm defences when casualties among combat arms officers precluded their employment.

Scherer’s emphasis/insistence upon recognizing the achievements of his soldiers in a timely manner, irrespective of classification or trade, constituted one of the foundations of his leadership success. Additionally, the professionalism and individual capability of the Germans in terms of initiative and morale is also noteworthy. All of this played against the efforts of the Soviets, who were no less motivated and driven to defeat the Germans.

This siege is also of interest, due to the methods used by the Germans for resupply; namely, gliders and parachute drops. Unfortunately, the conclusions drawn from their success would later lead to an over-reliance upon the effectiveness of these means, with grave consequences for future operations (i.e., Stalingrad). Adding to the narrative are numerous photographs taken during the siege by the Germans. The stark black-and-white images serve to reinforce the desperation of both  the defenders and attackers, as well as the challenges faced by the Luftwaffe in effecting timely resupply. Rounding off the situational awareness provided to the reader are numerous maps that highlight and provide context to the narrative. Jason Mark has produced in Besieged a book of outstanding quality and depth, and one that is a must for the historian and professional leader of today.

Major Chris Buckham, CD, is a Logistics Officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. A graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, he holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, and a Master of Arts in International Relations. He is currently employed as an International Line of Communication (ILOC) officer with the multinational branch of European Command (EUCOM) J4 in Stuttgart, Germany.