Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday Warbooks: Last Citadel

A review of Last Citadel: A Novel of the Battle of Kursk, by David L. Robbins.

In 1943, as the war rages on the Eastern Front and the outcome seems bleak for the Soviets, the biggest tank battle in history occurs in the fields around Kursk and Prokhorovka. Robbins takes his title from Operation Citadel, the German code name for the attack on Soviet forces dug in around Kursk.

Robbins interweaves four basic storylines: first, there's the old (but not obsolete) Cossack Dimitri, a master horseman turned tank driver under the commander, his son Valentin (literally under him --- Valentin steps on his shoulders to get him to steer). Dimitri deals with the war through the eyes of a traditionalist and clansman, who sees his son slipping away to the colder Soviet mentality. Next, Dimitri’s daughter, Katya, is a “Night Witch,” one of the female night bombing crew; she is shot down attempting to rescue her lover, a pilot, and joins a band of fierce partisans led by a gruff bandit self-styled “Colonel Bad.” The war for intelligence is tackled as well: German Colonel Abram Breit is an intelligence officer secretly supplying the Russians with information under the Lucy spy ring. Finally, there’s Luis de Vega, a Spanish SS officer, gaunt and skeletal thanks to a Soviet wound, who hungers for revenge and redemption as the commander of Germany’s new fearsome, supposedly invincible Tiger tanks.

Robbins brings it all together in a tight, fast-paced, dramatic, deeply researched book. At 414 pages, it’s an epic, but it centers on the human interest rather than the big picture. We feel Dimitri’s sense of loss, away from his son, his horses, and his swords, and the way he treats the tank like a living steed; Luis’ rage at being defined by his wound, and his love of bullfighting; Briet’s inner monologue as he betrays his country for all the right reasons; the heroic sacrifices that all the characters make. Robbins doesn’t make any of the characters one-sided; they all have their motivations, histories, and beliefs. We can empathize, if not sympathize, with even the Nazis.

It’s the story of a massive tank battle and an impressive rout, but Robbins tells it as a battle of wills: the differences between the personalities of Luis, who sees his men as faceless tools to be used and discarded in the undying quest for victory and adulation, and Dimitri, who holds clan above all else, are as telling as the technical differences between their tanks. It’s an exciting, hugely successful historical novel.


Sunday warbooks scoreboard:

Greco-Persian wars: 2
WWI: 2
WWII: 4 <---winning big now!
Vietnam: 2
Iraq wars: 2
General warfare: 2


NYC Educator said...

Congratulations on making it back alive.

Churlita said...

I love those kinds of war stories - the human part behind the battles.