Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: "Red Inferno 1945" by Robert Conroy

Red Inferno: 1945

Well, revisiting Conroy's Red Inferno: 1945 brings out the nostalgia. It was my first review and the very first post on my own blog back in the fall of 2010. It was also the very first review I had ever written about an alternate history novel, since I was comparably new to the literary genre at the time, with my exposure not going beyond Stirling's ISoT and Flint's 1632. With all the things that have happened in between - changes in my personal life, my first novel successfully published, me dabbling with video reviews - I thought it would only be prudent to go back at the old stuff and re-evaluate some of it.

At the time of my initial review, I had heard mixed opinions about some of his earlier works, but that did not keep me from getting my hands on Red Inferno: 1945. You see, I am German, which makes my Kraut-Sense tingle with delight whenever an author of alternate histories with some repute - such as Robert Conroy - sets out to twist the actual events around and makes history diverge from what we know has happened. Russians and Allies clashing in Germany in 1945? Potentially awesome! An interesting point of divergence (POD) can make for some truly great stories, especially if an author knows the time and the historical protagonists he is writing about.

Only, it really is not that much of a good book. Spoilers incoming:

Conroy's POD is plausible enough. President Truman, still new to the office, and General Marshall are concerned over Stalin‘s apparent lack of concern for honoring the Yalta Agreements. To teach the Russians a lesson, they order Eisenhower to move a small, mobile force of two divisions to Potsdam, to the outskirts of Berlin (yes, I know it's technically a separate city). Publicly, the move is sold as a way to support the Russian advance against Berlin. The true motivation, however, is to send a signal to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet leadership: we are watching you, so behave. Of course, Stalin - being in possession of Eastern Europe and a massive armed force that has honed its skills against the bulk of the German Wehrmacht - isn‘t going to put up with the plans of the Western Powers. He orders Zhukov to teach the Americans a lesson and trap their units heading for Potsdam, to be then used as political leverage.

A Red Army officer in the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. betrays the plan to the United States in an effort to stop the columns heading towards Berlin. However, led by a gung-ho commander, the lead unit does not stop immediately when ordered to and instead advances further, mistakenly engaging Russian T-34s for German Panther tanks. They exchange fire and get trounced by the Russian guard formation they are facing. Quite some space of the following pages is filled with contemplations about 'Who shot first?', a question that becomes redundant once Russian POWs are interrogated. Still, the following Red Army offensive knocks all the Allied forces back across the Elbe River, and eventually the U.S. forces in Potsdam are trapped behind enemy lines. They will remain so for the rest of the story. Stalin's masterplan seems to be a repeat of the Battle of the Bulge: His plan calls for an advance on Antwerp which will split the Allied forces, annihilate their main resupply port, and ultimately force their surrender.

German-controlled territories in blue, May 1945.
Eisenhower falls back and uses his air superiority to bleed the Soviets, while the Allies hit with small attacks and falls back to the Weser River. Meanwhile, Field Marshal Montgomery suffers a nervous breakdown after the Russians manage a break through his forces' lines. A separate peace with the rump of Germany is concluded between Truman and a German government lead by Albert Speer and Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, leading to the western Allied forces using an increasing number of Germans as well as their equipment (though most of that is, at best, noted in subordinate clauses). They however refuse to use SS and other war criminals.

In the United Kingdom, violent anti-war riots break out. There is a brief attempt by the Soviets to institute a communist uprising in France, and the Soviet ambassador insults De Gaulle who agrees to help the Allies - but keeps his troops inside France, making the Communist revolution a stillborn concept. The most helpful events for the Allies are first a massive air raid against the Soviet oil fields in the Caucuses and then Romanian oil fields. This cripples the Russian gas production and puts strains on their already over taxed supply system. Another clever strategy by Eisenhower and the Allied commanders is the creation of a  fake supply depot in the Ruhr area to lure the Red Army into a trap. Zhukov, desperate for fuel, falls for the trick and sends his armies to the empty depot after they have crossed the Weser River. The Soviets stop, out of gas.

This is when the Allied secret weapons are used. Unbeknownest to even the British, Truman had the three existing nuclear warheads (three, since the test at Los Alamos never happened in this timeline) transported to the European theatre. Two of them are used, one against Zhukov's concentrated forces, the second one against Koniev's. The attack cripples the Soviet offensive capability and leads to a total collapse, and  the book jumps a year ahead, very briefly recounting what has happened, including a coup and the assassination of Stalin through Beria, civil wars in Eastern Europe against the Soviets and, among other things, that Japan is contemplating to surrender after Hiroshima has been nuked - in 1946.

On to the problems.

Historical handshake of Allied and Soviet troops at an
River Elbe crossing, 1945.
And believe me, this novel has some. It begins with some stupid editing mistakes (and I hope they are editing mistakes, not problems with Conroy's actual historical knowledge), like the claim in the introduction that Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1940. Last time I checked, Barbarossa started in 1941. Either way, it's not a good start for a novel to get such fundamental facts wrong.

Secondly, the German side is badly underutilized. At the start of the book, there are still several million men of the Wehrmacht under arms, and yet they hardly make an appearance - in a book playing smack in the middle of their country. The German units trapped in Potsdam with the American force are all fictitious. Seriously? We get tertiary characters on the U.S. side that are historical personalities (Paul Tibbets gets a horribly underused POV), but we cannot get one actual historical German unit. Are you kidding me? Conroy couldn‘t spend an hour looking at one of the probably thousands of books that cover the fall of Nazi Germany? Would it have been that hard for Conroy to find a real unit that was on the Elbe in April 1945? And he somehow could not come up with units that would have fit the Potsdam Pocket and fill them with a mix of fictional and historical characters? Please. I understand that the novel is mainly there to tell an American story, but it does so in Germany, surrounded by Germans. Not using them is not just sloppy, it's lazy, especially in the light of historical statements like Churchill's that they "killed the wrong pig" and Patton's idea of moving against the USSR with the remnants of the Wehrmacht.

Secondly, if you expect there to be truly breathtaking battle scenes between the Red Army and the western Allies' armies in this novel you will be disappointed. This sadly isn't Red Storm Rising, and compared to the scope of the conflict Conroy claims to cover, there aren't that many of them in the first place.

The characters are what I'd call solid cardboard cut-outs. They are no great works of fiction, but they serve their purpose, and they are ultimately likeable enough. Still, don't expect any of them to become part of your standard repertoire of characters you use as a reference when talking about fictional protagonists. There are, among others, a Lt. Colonel working for Intel who makes a critical decision, Harry S. Truman, Omar Bradley, Patton, a German ex-officer, a German girl and her eventual American lover (a U.S. sergeant later made lieutenant). Some rather unremarkable Russians round out the cast. Paul Tibbets of the historical Enola Gay also is featured, but strangely enough not in the chapter when the bombs are dropped. That is a massive wasted opportunity at some good characterization there.

In general, the plot isn't big enough to make up for the lack of memorable characters. A story which focuses more on events on the macro-level can tell an interesting narrative without having characters the reader is too invested in. A story with a tight focus needs strong characters to carry it on. Red Inferno: 1945 hangs somewhere in the middle, and suffers from doing so, spending not enough time on the grand scale to have an excuse for the lackluster characterization of a too large cast.

Third, he seems to be hell-bent on using real historical dates (and vessels) for whatever reason. For example, the nuclear attack against the Soviet spearheads is on August 6, 1945. Yes, when IRL Hiroshima was bombed. And which ship transports the bombs? The USS Indianapolis, of course. Only that she was engaged in the Pacific theatre and sending her all around the world makes no sense at all. We also get little input on how the war in the Pacific is progressing, despite the fact that the first chapters of Red Inferno deal with a situation in Europe where peace is within arms reach.

In the end, one gets the impression that it would have been more interesting to read about what has happened between 1945 and 1946 rather than linger on with the conflict that Conroy did describe. The turmoil created by the US-USSR War and the completely changed political and military landscape in Europe most certainly would have interested me personally more than the vantage point from a few widely dispersed characters who had little impact on the conclusion of the story.

Final Verdict: C-. Red Inferno: 1945 is a mediocre book that brings forth a great idea but waters it down by misplacing its narrative focus. A stronger focus on a grander scale of events, as well as adding another fifty pages to the book that rounded the perspective by adding a stronger German perspective would have made for a far superior book.

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The War Blogger hails from his lair over at, unsurprisingly, The War Blog. He also runs a channel and has published his first alternate history novel Wolf Hunt in 2011.


  1. OK, I gotta ask, how did you do the 'read more' thing?

  2. Korsgaard, could you specify that question? "Read more" for what? In preparation for my on work?


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