Men of Steel: 1st SS Panzer Corps, The Ardennes and Eastern Front 1944-45, Michael Reynolds

Men of Steel: 1st SS Panzer Corps, The Ardennes and Eastern Front 1944-45, Michael Reynolds

There are two different reviews to be written of this book - one reflecting a real problem with the work and one reflecting its real achievements.

The problem with this book is the author's attitude towards the SS. Having spent so long researching their achievements he has become rather too sympathetic to their point of view, dismissing atrocities committed by them, while condemning any action taken against them. An early example comes when retreating SS columns are attacked and destroyed by members of the Belgian resistance. Reynolds finds it 'sad that brave soldiers should die away from the battlefield' and wonders if the 'actions of the Resistance forces were worthwhile' as the SS were leaving the area, apparently forgetting that those SS troops were still fighting troops, and were not simply going home to disband. Rather illogically he then mentions atrocities committed by the SS when they returned to the exact same area!

One rather wonders whether Reynolds is simply being rather defensive here - faced with the problem of justifying spending so much of his time studying a military unit accused of so many atrocities he seems to have chosen to dismiss them rather that acknowledge that the object of his study had a very dark side as well as being a impressive military unit. It doesn't help that he assumes that we have already read his biography of Jochen Peiper, the key figure in the most notorious of these atrocities.

On the positive side this is a hugely detailed history of one of the key German military units of 1944 and 1945. A vast number of German sources have been used, providing a different and very useful view of the fighting in the Ardennes and on the Eastern Front. Some reviews have criticised the book for not including more rounded accounts of the various battles involved, but I don't agree - this is a history of a particular unit, and like all such histories has to focus on the fighting that directly involved its subject. Enough background information is provided to place the action in context.

Other reviews have suggested that Reynolds is unfair to the corps' American opponents during the Battle of the Bulge. Again I have to disagree with this - Reynolds makes it clear that the main reason for the failure of 1 SS Panzer Corps in the Ardennes was the determination and excellent fighting qualities of the American units opposing them, something that clearly came as a surprise to the Germans at the time.

Reynolds provides a well balanced account of the 1 SS Panzer Corps as a fighting unit in a period when it didn't actually perform very well. Having been almost destroyed in Normandy the two divisions in the corps were brought back up to strength with impressive speed (mostly because the SS received a higher priority than the army in the German system), but with an inevitable impact on their fighting ability. In the Ardennes the corps made limited progress, despite expectations that it would lead the attack. By the end of the battle of the Bulge the two divisions had been almost destroyed yet again, and needed another period of rebuilding, but they were then thrown into the fighting in Hungary during the last German offensive of the war, where they also failed to make any real progress. Finally, as the war came to an end, and aware of the fate that awaited any SS troops to fall into Soviet hands, they were able to retreat west, surrendering to the Americans.

Reynolds has made good use of both American and Russian sources, as well as masses of German accounts. Where these sources don't agree he often looks in some detail at the different accounts, before picking the one that seems most plausible, acknowledging the flaws in each of his sources (generally the Americans exaggerated the number of troops they had faced while the Germans under-estimated the amount of troops available to them, and some German units failed to leave any records, often because of the heavy casualties suffered).

If you are interested in the fighting on both fronts in Europe as the Second World War came to an end or in the German army in general then this will be a very valuable addition to your library - just be aware of its flaws and limits, and use it alongside other books to get a more balanced view of the corps. This is a very detailed and often quite technical book, so is perhaps not for the casual reader, but it will appeal to anyone who is interested in a more in-depth study of these events. 

1 - The Leibstandarte: February 1933-June 1944
2 - SS Division Hitlerjugend: June 1943-June 1944
3 - I SS Panzer Corps: 6 June-12 September 1944
4 - Rebuilding in the Reich: 22 September-11 December 1944
6 - Preparations for Battle: 12-16 December 1944
7 - AUTUMN MIST: 16 December 1944
8 - AUTUMN MIST: 17 December 1944
9 - The Other Side of the Hill: Night 17-18 December 1944
10 - AUTUMN MIST: 18 December 1944
11 - AUTUMN MIST: 19 December 1944
12 - The Other Side of the Hill: 19-20 December 1944
13 - AUTUMN MIST: 20 December 1944
14 - AUTUMN MIST: 21 December 1944
15 - AUTUMN MIST: 22 December 1944
16 - AUTUMN MIST: 23-27 December 1944
17 - The Big Picture: 27-29 December 1944
18 - A New Hitlerjugend Front: 27-30 December 1944
19 - The Leibstandarte at Bastogne: 28 December 1944-12 January 1945
20 - The Hitlerjugend at Bastogne: 30 December 1944-10 January 1945
21 - The Situation in early 1945
22 - The Soviet Side of the Hill
23 - The Gran Bridgehead: 12-24 February 1945
25 - The Balaton Offensive: 6-18 March 1945
26 - The Storm from the East: 16 March-1 April 1945
27 - Tales from the Vienna Woods: 1-21 April 1945
28 - The Twilight of the Gods: 22 April-10 May 1945
29 - Captives, Camps and Courts
Appendix I: Waffen-SS Panzer Division 1944
Appendix II: Volks-Grenadier Division December 1944
Appendix III: US Infantry Division 1944
Appendix IV: US Armoured Division 1944
Appendix V: 1st SS Panzer Division LAH, 16 December 1944 & 12th SS Panzer Division HJ 16 December 1944
Appendix VI: Soviet Guards Mechanized Corps 1945
Appendix VII Soviet Guards Rifle Division 1945

Author: Michael Reynolds
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 354
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2009 reprint of 1999 original

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