Defending the Gates: Vasily Zaitsev

The 2001 Movie Enemy at the Gates brought a Russian sniper into the limelight once again- Vasily Zaitsev. Centered around the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, Zaitsev, played by Jude Law, dukes it out with German sniper Erwin Konig. While the movie is not entirely realistic, the two really did exist. So who was Vasily Zaitsev and why is he so important?

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Vasily Zaitsev

Born in Yeleninka, a small town about an hour away from Magnitogorsk, Vasily Gergorovich Zaitsev was a natural hunter. His peasant origins made him an easy target for the Soviet military, who traditionally drew its forces from the massive peasant population. Zaitsev traveled to Magnitogorsk to study at a technical school. Eventually, he enlisted in the Russian Navy and became a bookkeeper in the Far East Fleet.

Vasily Zaitsev volunteered to join the 284th Rifle Division in the Soviet Army. The Division recruited most of its troops from Siberia and Eastern Russia in order to transfer more experienced troops from the quiet Manchurian Front to the German Invasion. Zaitsev’s sharpshooting ability was quickly noted, and he was trained as a sniper. He relied on a simple 1891 Mosin-Nagant Rifle, a veteran of the First World War. The Russian is most revered for his actions at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, in which he killed 225 soldiers & officers as well as 11 snipers. Zaitsev’s heroics made him a morale boost for the Soviets and a threat to the Germans. When Erwin Konig, a renowned German sniper, was sent to deal with him, Zaitsev managed to kill him on Mamaev Hill. Working with Nikolai Kulikov, the sniper developed his own tactics and sniper school during the battle. Firstly, Zaitsev never fired from the same spot. Movement was key in order to prevent any enemies from locking onto a particular position. “Sixes” was another of Zaitsev’s tactics. Three teams of 2 men would be positioned in order to cover a large area to maximize sight and damage. Zaitsev trained other snipers such as Tania Chernova, who he shared a relationship with.

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Zaitsev’s Mosin-Nagant Rifle

In January 1943, Zaitsev was hit by a mortar round and nearly blinded. He was immediately taken to a hospital where he slowly recovered. On February 22, he was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union. Zaitsev returned to combat later in the war, ending it in 1945 as a captain. Chernova thought Zaitsev was dead until 1969, when she finally learned he was alive and married.

Vasily Zaitsev is immortalized in William Craig’s book, Enemy at the Gates, and in the 2001 film of the same name as well as War of the Rats by David L. Robbins. Zaitsev died in December 1991, and was initially buried in Kiev before being moved to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). He was buried with full military honours.

Gebirgsjäger: The Alpine Warriors of the German Army

The Gebirgsjäger were the alpine troops of the German army during the Second World War, serving in many regions throughout the war. Using pack animals, these elite troops of the German army were tasked to defending and attacking mountainous areas where many regular troops would be unable to fight in. After the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria, the Gebirgsjäger were formed, inspired by the Tyrolean Jägers of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War.

The Gebirgsjäger wore a patch with an edelweiss depicted.The edelweiss is a flower found normally in alpine conditions and high altitudes. They wore the regular feldgrau uniform, but with hiking boots, and sometimes skis or snowshoes. They also wore a Bergmutze, similar to the cap of Austrian troops in the First World War. The cap could be buttoned under the chin to provide warmth in freezing temperatures. As well as their specific uniform, Gebirgsjäger carried a special carbine called the G33/40, produced in Czechoslovakia. The steel plate at the bottom was used to crunch into ice to give a soldier a stabilizer while scaling rocks and mountains. A small number were produced, but they were perfect for mountain warfare. Many Gebirgsjäger used Russian weapons because they were better designed for cold weather.

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Gebirgsjäger in the Russian mountains

With the German Blitzkrieg into Poland and Norway, many Gebirgsjäger were placed in Army Group South. The Blitzkrieg smashed through Poland towards Russia, and by 1941, Operation Barbarossa was in full swing. The Gebirgsjager fought through the mountainous country of Ukraine. The 1st Mountain Division managed to capture the city of Lviv (then Lvov). They crashed through the Stalin Line and into the Caucasus. The Gebirgsjäger lifted a German flag on top of Mount Elbrus. The Gebirgsjäger also fought ferociously in Hungary as well as Northern Greece.

In 1942, Operation Edelweiss was launched in an attempt to capture oil fields in the Caucasus. Spearheaded by Gebirgsjäger units, the Germans swept through Baku and along the Volga River. The Gebirgsjäger assaulted the western slopes of Mt. Elbrus along with Romanian Mountain Troops. They were held by the Soviet rear guard, eventually capturing the mountains with some difficulty. They attempted to reach the coast near Sukhumi in order to outflank Soviet positions, but poor weather and stiff resistance held their advance. Over the operation, the Germans took some 10,000 casualties, but managed to squeeze their way towards Stalingrad.

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Gebirgsjäger cap badge

A recurring theme for mountain troops was heavy casualties with success. The inexhaustible number of Soviet troops managed to hold the alpine troops in battle, but the Gebirgsjäger deserve credit for their abilities and quality throughout the Second World War.

Book Review: The Longest Afternoon

The Longest Afternoon by Brendan Simms recollects the story of the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion at the Battle of Waterloo. The King’s German Legion was made up of infantry, cavalry, and artillery of German states, and they fought valiantly in many battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Many of the original troops were Hanoverian, as are a large portion of the soldiers described in this book.

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Praise: Simms uses over thirty primary sources for his book, making sure this story is realistic. The chaos in La Haye Sainte is described in furious detail that makes you feel as if you are right there in the battle. Some characters are very appealing and you find yourself attached to some of the German officers. Simms provides some background on the KGL (King’s German Legion), its formation, its battle honours, and its members. I definitely learned some interesting facts about the culture of the KGL and how they were a heavily bilingual unit and how some even Anglicised their names and married English women.

Criticism: The book focuses on the theme of how these riflemen “won” the Battle of Waterloo. My personal opinion does come through, in which I view the arrival of Prussian troops to be the cause of an allied victory. It’s hard to believe how some 400 riflemen saved the entire battle, but he does make a good case. The map provided of La Haye Sainte isn’t very good and is missing a lot of labels that Simms talks about in his book. The book is a meagre 128 pages, and was priced quite high at about $20. If you’re interested in a short book, go right ahead and read this, but beware the price and trust your libraries.

This book is very short, but, if you’re interested in the British army or the Napoleonic Wars, you should definitely give this a read. It contains many primary sources from German troops, which provide an interesting background to the battle. La Haye Sainte is also a very underrated portion of Waterloo, and this book definitely places heavy importance on the location (but perhaps a bit too much).

Rating: 3/5

Wargame Figures: The Mexican Adventure 1861-67

The Mexican Adventure was the Franco-Hapsburg invasion of Mexico from 1861 to 1867. With a complex tangle of Imperial Mexico and a Mexican Republican Army led by Benito Juarez, the Mexican Adventure was full of some amazing characters and battles. This collection of wargame miniatures covers most of the units in the war, including the Belgian and Austrian volunteers as well as a wide variety of French soldiers.

The Mexican Adventure

If you would like to use my figures for a wargame, feel free to click the link here.

Be sure to look at the rest of the figures I have created ranging from the Franco-Prussian War, the Second Schleswig War, and the Crimean War.

Wargame Figures: Baden during the Franco-Prussian War 1870-71

Baden was one of the smaller German states to serve in the Franco-Prussian War. Their uniforms were very close to those of the Prussians.

Here is the link if you would like to print any of these figures out: http://www.juniorgeneral.org/index.php/figure/view/BadenFrancoPrussianWar

 

 

Uniforms of the Ages: Zouaves

The uniform of the zouaves was one of the most flamboyant of the mid to late 19th century, and their influences spread through numerous armies in the world. Zouaves originated in the 1830s after the Zwawa tribe of Algeria helped French soldiers capture Algeria in a war against the Ottoman Empire. The zouaves were originally raised as light infantry regiments because of the Algerians ability to fight in skirmishing warfare, tactics that the French Second Empire was unfamiliar with. Zouave units spread to many parts of the world, including the US, the Papal States, Spain, and even Poland.

This zouave is of the 3rd Zouave Regiment of the French Army. Starting from the head, one notices that the soldier wears a fez. The fez is traditional of North African countries, and offers a flair to the soldier. Some wore turbans wrapped around their fez, and fez tassel colours varied from army to army. Zouaves wore a shirt, varying by regiment, and it was covered by a short, open jacket. The pattern on the jacket is called tombeaux. Zouaves wore sashes under their belts in regimental colours. Their large pantaloons, called sarouel, were a trademark of the zouave units. Zouaves also wore gaiters over their shoes, most commonly white or tan.

The French Zouaves had a standard uniform, just like the one pictured. Pantaloons were red, jackets were dark blue with red piping, sashes were light blue, and fezzes had light blue tassels. The distinctions between French units were the bottom of the tombeaux. This Zouave has yellow colouring, indicating his unit is the 3rd Zouaves. The 1st Zouaves had red colouring, and the 2nd was white.
The United States adopted zouaves in 1861 after a tour of French zouaves introduced the idea to the Americans. The tour was mostly in the North, so most zouave units were part of the US Army rather than the Confederate Army. The US Zouaves had a large variation of uniforms in order to differentiate between units. Two of the many US zouave regiments were the 5th New York, known as Duryee’s Zouaves, and the 155th Pennsylvania. Duryee’s Zouaves wore a uniform very close to that of the French. They had a red fez with a yellow tassel, and a dark blue jacket over a dark blue shirt. The tombeaux were red, as was the piping. Their sash was red but was piped in light blue. The pantaloons and gaiters were of the same colour as the French. The 155th PA wore a more Americanized zouave uniform that resembled the uniforms of the French Turcos. They wore a red fez with a dark blue tassel. The jacket and shirt were a lightish gray-blue, and the jacket had yellow tombeaux and piping. The pantaloons were the same colour of the jacket, and the sash was bright red.

The Papal States raised a regiment of zouaves in 1861 in order to combat the Italian Risorgimento movement led by the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. The regiment was made up of many different nationalities including Italian, French, Dutch, Irish, and Belgian. The Papal Zouaves wore a blue kepi with a red band. Their jacket was blue with red piping, as was their shirt. The red sash was worn above blue pants, and the gaiters were white. The zouaves fought in numerous battles until the end of the Italian Wars of Unification in 1870, and even then, the legend of the Papal Zouaves continued as the French soldiers in the unit fought once more in the Franco-Prussian War as the “Volunteers of the West.”

Poland raised a regiment of zouaves, known as the “Zouaves of Death”, during the January Uprising against Russia in 1863. They were raised by François Rochebrune, a French zouave officer who had served in Crimea. The “Zouaves of Death” wore a red fez, a black jacket without tombeaux, and a trademark shirt with a large white emblazoned cross. Their pants were black as were their boots, which were knee-length. This regiment was butchered in the uprising, but Rochebrune survived. He received a “Legion of Honour” for his bravery.

Zouaves were renowned for their bravery and skill in battle, but they are more known for their outlandish uniforms. Their North African style of dress was good for hot weather, as it was designed for fighting in Algeria, and it is evident why other nations raised units.

 

Book Review: African Kaiser

African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi focuses on the little-known theatre of the First World War- East Africa. A semi-biography of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and semi-recollection of the East African campaigns, this book gives a lot of information in all 422 of it pages. The book contains maps of Africa circa 1914 and some photos related to von Lettow and the German Schutztruppe. The book covers a lengthy period of German colonialism in Africa, mentioning their backgrounds and the initial unwillingness to participate in imperialism. Von Lettow, “the Lion of Africa”, is one of the Great War’s most fascinating generals, and Gaudi makes sure that his readers are fully aware.

Praise: This book provides a large amount of information that I did not know, and was certainly interested in. Gaudi uses a very smooth writing style which is interesting to read and presents facts in a good way. The book discusses Germany’s background of colonization and Otto von Bismarck’s reluctance to do so. There is information on the Herero Rebellion in German Southwest Africa, the Meji-Meji Rebellion, the Schutztruppe, the diseases troops faced while on campaign in Africa, and much more. Gaudi also uses many Swahili words throughout the book to convey the language of the askari. The extensive bibliography indicates a good use of primary sources as well. African Kaiser is full of adventure into the heart of East Africa, portrayals of vicious bush fighting, and, of course, Oberleutnant Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Interestingly, Gaudi provides a perspective in which one finds it hard to take sides. Neither side is portrayed in such a way that is superior in morals to the other, and that is uncommon in history books. There is almost a familiar connection with British officer Richard Meinertzhagen, as his diaries are used to give a British perspective. The South African units led by Jan Smuts are also covered well.

Criticism:

African Kaiser begins in an extremely strange way, set of the Estonian coast. A large portion of this book seemed to be aimless and unrelated really to the main point of the book. It was only till pg.110 that one sees the first glimpses of German East Africa. There seems to be a lot of talking about pointless things such as the Boxer Rebellion or how certain worms and ailments affect the human body. While I can understand Gaudi for putting these in the book, I am not sure such a large amount of time needed to be spent on it. Yes, von Lettow served in China, and yes the strange beginning ties in with the rest of the book once you read the full chapter (at a stretch), but it felt sometimes as though there was a large amount of “time wasting” and delaying the point that this is a biography of von Lettow and East Africa.

I certainly enjoyed reading African Kaiser, but there were flaws that made it stray from the point. A large focus of this book was the slow process of German colonization, and tying it with von Lettow at any opportune moment. I was skeptical of the book, but when Gaudi began talking about the First World War, the book redeemed most of my doubts. The book is well written and draws readers in, and it is an interesting topic to write about.

Rating: 4/5