Yves Beraud, German Mountain Troops 1939-42 (Casemate, 2020)
For the German war effort in World War II, a clear bell curve emerges, illustrating their military rise and fall. The peak seems to occur sometime in 1942 when German expansion ground to a halt and defence and withdrawal became the dominant strategy. In German Mountain Troops 1939-42, Yves Beraud surveys a select branch of the Wehrmacht that fought at the cutting edge of the German advance across its European borders.
Beraud opens with a timeline of the development and operations of the Gebirgsdivision from 1935 to 1942. He gets into the details over the next series of chapters, starting with troop development before September 1939. The mountain troops first saw action in the invasion of Poland. They performed well, but it was not long before they displayed some disturbing practices in treatment of civilians and prisoners, which Beraud is a bit quick to excuse. From Poland, they helped attack Norway in 1940 and fought in some proper mountains in some proper winter weather. Afterwards, some mountain troops remained as the occupying force, while others took part in the invasion of France. The French offered stiff resistance at first, causing many casualties, but the advance was irresistible. With the French defeated, the Gebirgsdivision troops embarked for the Balkans and Crete in 1941. In Greece, they helped break through the Metaxas Line in difficult terrain but with considerable losses. The fighting in Yugoslavia was no picnic either but again they succeeded. In Crete, the Gebirgsdivision all but saved the combined air and sea operation from disaster, according to Beraud. Then came the Eastern Front. The mountain troops fought with Army Group South and breached the hastily constructed Stalin Line with relative ease, but the further they pushed, the greater the Soviet resistance, and then the weather started closing in. Spring 1942 brought more Soviet counterattacks and a thaw, bringing movement almost a halt until May. Some mountain troops fought with Army Group North that faced many of the same problems as their counterparts in the south. Beraud returns to Norway and Finland to review the mountain troops and their failed attempt to take Murmansk along with other operations in hostile conditions. Beraud concludes his work with appendices on organization, tactical symbols, and some useful abbreviations.
German Mountain Troops 1939-42 is a narrative operational history interspersed with vignettes on uniforms, commanders, and foreign recruits fighting for the Germans. Beraud’s text, structured somewhat repetitively in ‘clipped’ paragraphs with little extraneous detail, is supported by a great collection of colour and monochrome photographs – one with the men wearing patterned tablecloths to stave off the cold in Norway is my favourite. These were undoubtedly resourceful soldiers, marching thousands of miles across Europe, sometimes fighting on skis, often using mules in mountainous terrain to carry supplies, almost always taking on the hardest tasks at the cutting edge of German assaults. Beraud’s description of their hard-earned reputation as fierce soldiers, however, occasionally masks their more brutal methods, and his evident sympathy for them is sometimes unsettling. There is not much depth of analysis in this book, but it will appeal to readers interested in the German army in the early phases of World War II.