by Vincent Hunt
Solihul, Eng: Helion / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2017. Pp. xvi, 272.
Illus, maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $49.95. ISBN: 1911512064
Hitler’s Desperate Last Stand in the Baltics
Blood In the Forest tells of the end of the Second World War in the Baltics, focusing on Latvia’s Kurland region, the site of the Courland Pocket, into which remnants of Germany’s Army Group North had retreated as the Soviets advanced. One of the war’s last truly major campaigns, the Courland Pocket saw some 2,470,000 soldiers fight and 300,000 die just in the week of 22 June - 4 July 1944. According to Vincent Hunt (author of Fire and Ice: The Nazi’s Scorched Earth Campaign in Norway), Hitler would defend the Baltics “to the end” to deny Russia ice-free ports, and because Hitler was gambling on a new generation of “super submarines” to reverse Allied gains and needed safe Baltic waters for submarine development and sea-trials.
Hunt recounts the utter brutality and desperation of the Courland Pocket series of engagements but also of the effect it had on the population, geography, and life of modern Latvia. Even today there are forests in Kurland – the western district of Latvia – that are national forests because they cannot be safely logged due to unexploded ordnance, and tree trunks so filled with shrapnel and bullets that running a chainsaw through them would be too dangerous. The book is filled with gruesome stories on both sides – such as a man forced into Soviet service after watching his wife gut stabbed in front of him and left to bleed to death, his 6 year-old son spun by the feet as in the “airplane game” before the child’s head was smashed against the door jamb, then being told, “There, you no longer have a family to live for.” Hunt also does not pull any punches in describing the atrocities committed by the Arajs Battalions (Ploughman’s Battalion) which committed the worst of the atrocities, although Hunt gives it context both from the German propaganda side as well as from the experiences of how some Latvians were forced into Russian service after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
Unlike many books about WWII battles, this is a travelogue – almost a “road movie” as the front slowly retreated from east to west. Starting in Riga and moving west to Lestene, along the front to Liepaja looping back along the north, Hunt gives both a historic as well as a geographic tour of the region.
I personally note here that Blood in the Forest came as a stunning shock to me. Despite Latvian being my first language, despite both my parents being Latvian WWII refugees who only met after college in the USA, and despite my being deeply steeped in Latvian history and culture, including speaking only Latvian at home as a child, and attending Saturday Latvian School well into my teens; I (and my fellow Latvian School students with whom I’ve checked) had never heard of the Kurland Caldron (or Kurzemes Katls - in Latvian pronounced KuHr-zeh-mess Kah-tuls). Hunt discovered that the younger generation’s lack of awareness is likely a consequence of their elders’ coping mechanism reticence to speak of past tragedies; particularly for the Baltics, which as a direct lowland route from Europe to Moscow is all too tragically familiar with being a trampled battleground between Russia and the West. As Hunt quotes from a Latvian poem – “Only the memory of victory remains. Too much blood was shed for it.”
The book does have weaknesses. The footnoting is less than perfect, and for those not familiar with the geography of Latvia, mini-maps within the text would be more helpful than the center-folio of maps and pictures. That said, Hunt has produced a comprehensive work, extensively researched and well worth the read. But perhaps Hunt’s greatest contribution here is revealing that the pain and suffering of that time was so broad and so great, that Latvians – and Balts in general – often cannot bear to revisit that history for the sake of their own sanity. Hunt has written a military history, but has included a deeper understanding of how humans survive war.