65 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2005
The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of World War II's Most Decorated Platoon, Alex Kershaw's latest foray into the WWII genre, is a quick, straight-forward read that tells the inspiring story of the Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) Platoon, 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division. This small unit of US GI's can fairly be credited with one of the most significant defensive actions associated with the Battle of the Bulge - Hitler's last gamble to turn the tide of war in the West. Kershaw spins a riveting yarn of the eighteeen young men who battled until killed (2 members) or captured (the remainder) at the small Belgian town of Lanzerath on 16 December 1944 against an overwhelming force (1st Battalion, Fallschirmjager Regiment 9 - temporarily assigned to 1st SS-Panzer Division).
The Longest Winter is separated into three major parts: 1) training and pre-battle actions; 2) The Battle of Lanzerath itself; and 3) captivity, liberation and post-war accolades. While the second section is the main theme of the book and is written with flair, it is not particularly original. It was John S. D. Eisenhower who first detailed the Battle of Lanzerath in his 1969 The Bitter Woods. More recently the actions of the I&R/394th have been competently put to page by Stephen Ambrose (Citizen Soldiers, 1997) and Ronald Drez (25 Yards of War, 2001). In contrast, the first and third sections of The Longest Winter represent narratives of new information. Almost all of the actions associated with the I&R/394th are crafted entirely from interviews Kershaw conducted with surviving members of the platoon. While this provides an engaging narrative with a human feel, it lacks the historical clarity of thoroughly researched material.
Kershaw uses a "broad perspective" storyboard in The Longest Winter. He intermingles the story of the I&R/394th with the larger story of the Ardennes Offensive and ETO in general. This style creates a very readable prose that provides a bigger picture. However, this approach also risks losing the readers interest in the story at the heart of the book - the I&R/394th actions. Moreover, when moving into broader areas, Kershaw seems to lose historical clarity as many errors of fact can be found throughout these sections. These errors - such as incorrect references to SS units (e.g., reference to the 1st-SS Panzer Division as being descendent from the original concentration camp guard units, when the SS-Totenkopfverbande was in reality the concentration camp guard and was not related to 1st-SS Panzer Division, p. 54) and names of individuals (e.g., Hermann Black when it should be Hermann Balck, p. 115, 320) - are really hard to understand as Kershaw clearly cites works (in the bibliography) where correct facts are given. In the case of name problems these could be editorial, but in cases where textual statements are wrong editing was only the last check on Kershaw's research.
Final analysis: In the end The Longest Winter is a well crafted and easily read work that lacks depth of analysis and research. From a reading standpoint this is a 5 star book, from a historical standpoint it gets 2.5 stars. Total value: 3 stars.
48 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2004
Every book I've read about the Battle of the Bulge is complicated and confusing because it was such a massive and chaotic battle with a cast of several hundred thousand Americans. Finally, a book comes along that reduces it to a very human level, just eighteen men, and describes what it was really like to fight from a fox-hole against all odds that December. I understood enough about the battle without it becoming overwhelming but got to know some remarkable individuals and that is what really makes you appreciate their sacrifice - when they are no longer soldiers but human beings. Recommended to anybody wanting to be inspired by a great story of survival against all odds.
60 of 73 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2005
To base a book mainly on interviews with 10 surviving members of the I & R platoon provides Keshaw with a very small data base to work with. Consequently he pads his book with accounts of Hitler, Eisenhower, J. Peiper, and others, none of which is particularly relevant to his story. Even brief retelling of Robert Kriz's crossing of the Rhine or the surrender at Iserlohn is in no way connected to the platoon.Remarkably he is able to extract from these 10 men not only accounts of their experiences, but actual conversations they had 60 years earlier. Because Kershaw writes in the present tense, the reader is led to believe he is receiving a stenographic reproduction. It would be acceptable to use memories, but the author needs to alert the reader to the fact that these comments or verbal exchanges are recalled and therefore subject to all sorts of distortions. Kershaw, who is given to fictionalizing, also conflates the comments of non--99ers with the platoon members, so the reader is led to believe these were the attitudes and experiences of the I & R guys. Finally the number of errors in this book are legion. The ASTP stood for the Army's Special Training Program, not the "Advanced STP." Aubel is not "just across the French border" but rather is in eastern Belgium, close to the German border. GI's did not wear "beanie caps" but wool caps. Lyle Bouck and the others were not "the first batch of prisoners at Hammelburg," rather 100s of non coms and privates from the 99th arrived there on Dec. 26 and 27th, whereas his group arrived on January 18th and there were no searchlights, as he claims. "Würzburg was not "famous for its ball-bearing factories"; that was Scheinfurt. The Danube was not "blue" but brown and its waters were not "swollen by the spring melt from the Alps." The Danube is too far north. The photo of Robert Kriz had the following caption: "Lt. Colonel Robert Kriz....has been awarded the DSC, March 1945." The two bars on his overseas cap indicate Kriz was a captain and the medal pinned on his chest is a Silver Star and the date is April 8, 1944 at Camp Maxey, Texas. It was not Omar Bradley's Twelth Army but rather 12th Army Group, the 99th's sector was north of Cologen, not south, General Lauer's headquarters was at Butgenbach not "Büllingen." Kershaw quotes an unidentified POW who says he saw the "gray waters of the Rhine" as he crossed the river in a boxcar. No 99th POW ever admitted seeing the Rhine as they were locked up and couldn't see out. Stalag Fallingbostel was 30 miles not "100 miles" north of Hanover. Kershaw prints a quote from Lyle Bouck and cites "Dauntless: the History of the 99th Division." But that quote does not exist on page 213. He states that the 99th Division lost "more than a thousand men to trench foot, pneumonia, and frostbite." His source for this figure is Stephen Ambrose, "Citizen Soldiers." But on page 187, Ambrose writes 822 men were lost to "frostbite, pneumonia,a and trench foot." All of these errors, and there are more, may seem pedantic, but it indicates that the author did not carefully do his research. If he is unwilling to put in the time and effort to get basic facts right, then doesn't this raise questions about the author's credibility?
57 of 72 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2004
This is the story of a platoon of men that quite possibly changed the course of the Battle of the Bulge by delaying the initial German attack just long enough to give the Allies the time they needed to regroup. These heroes were asked to "hold at all costs," and that is exactly what they did until their ammunition ran out. By doing so, they had slowed the German advance enough to allow the Allies to react to what was happening. What these men suffered after being captured and how they were able to survive until the end of the war is further proof of just how great they were. The book is very well written and I recommend it very highly. My only criticisms of the book are the one typo that I found and the error by the author of his description of Bradley, Montgomery, and Deevers leading Armies. I believe by this time in the war they all were in charge of army groups. That aside, this was a great book of an even greater story.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2009
There are too many errors in the "facts" of this story to list, so I'll just point out the one that bothers me the most. The 99th division did not capture the Ludendorff bridge at Remagen as indicated in this book. The 9th Armored along with 78th division captured the bridge and established the bridge head. Even rudimentary research would have revealed this fact. So when an author can't get the obvious correct, it calls into question every statement in the book. If you can't or won't do the research on WWII... then don't write about it. My father fought at the Ludendorff bridge, and you do a great dis-service to the men who where there and gave their lives when you mis-state the facts of the battles.
44 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2004
First with "The Bedford Boys," and now with "The Longest Winter," Alex Kershaw shows a talent for spotlighting extraordinary human interest stories embedded within larger World War II battle narratives. I've read a few books about the Battle of the Bulge, but nothing as personal or riveting as Kershaw's account of the I&R platoon of the 394 Infantry Regiment. Nominally a recognizance unit, this platoon found itself inconveniently positioned in the five-mile gap in the Allied lines at the very moment that [...] launched his final, desperate offensive in the Ardennes. The small band's fierce resistance played a central role in thwarting [...] audacious scheme and ensuring Allied victory in the West. But the Americans paid a heavy price for their gallantry -- a story that Kershaw captures in vivid, often poignant detail. "The Longest Winter" is a terrific World War II tale and an extremely difficult book to put down.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 2004
Alex Kershaw's story on the small intelligence platoon and their heroism before, during and after the Battle of the Bulge proves to be an engrossing tale. I found this part of the book to be highly interesting and if not truely admirable that the author was able to come up with this story that must be told. I had hope that the author would have gone into greater details into this platoon since many of the members are still alive today.
The book would have been better if the author kept his focus on the platoon and not on the "bigger picture". Most readers who read this book will already have a good understanding of the Ardennes Offensive by the German forces in December of 1944. If they do not, this is not the book that will give you any great insight on the battle. There are plenty of books out there that does a superior job of telling of the Bulge then this one can at any length.
Worst are the numerous errors in the text which I can't seem understand. A good examples would be on page 64 when author wrote "Irwin Rommel" instead Erwin Rommel or on page 115 when he wrote "Hermann Black" instead Hermann Balck. Was this a typo or a careless error since even the index got the wrong name! Also on page 54, the author goes into a lot hype about the "Death Head" insignia which every SS soldier wear...even Muslim SS soldiers! Author is also mistaken the fact that Peiper's 1st SS Panzer Division, "Leibstandarte" was originally built as Hitler's personal bodyguard unit and they never served as guards at the camps. Those guards made up the 3rd SS Panzer Division, the "Totenkopf" which was not Peiper's parent division. While these are just sample errors, individually they are rather harmless but collectively, you began to questioned the author's researching ability and it does downgrade the overall quality of the book.
Still, I enjoyed this book about this extraordinary platoon made up of extraordinary men. Their story needed to be told but I wished it was told in greater details and without the redundant history lesson that serves no one but entry level reader who may be misled by many of its errors.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2007
Having read numerous books on various wars and battles it is always nice to get 'down into the foxholes' with the troops on the front lines. This is such a book. We are transported to the 394th I & R company who held a 'very thin line' on the Ghost Front. This story is the encounter that 22 men had against an overwhelming force of 500 paratroop units of the Germans. Snow had fallen, and they had reinforced their foxholes with cut logs, creating a wooden bunker with rifle slits. A tremendous field-of-fire was had from the woods-edge of a snow-filled meadow that lead away down to the town where the Germans began their operations.
Wave after wave attacked throughout the day, until the U.S. troops had lost most of their ammo, and had lost their .50 caliber MG due to overheating the barrel. The book leads you through this with alacrity. From the point that they are taken in as P.O.W.s the book began to drag for me. I prefer the action, not the post-action.
It does give you the sense of urgency that the 394th felt, and the sinking feeling of being ordered to "Hold the line at all costs!" Then losing contact with HQ...
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2007
Kershaw does a wonderful job of finally completely documenting the story of these men on the front lines of the Bulge. His writing style is "reader friendly". I think the area where he particularly deserves compliments is the time he's taken to locate and personally interview the men still living or those family members of the now-deceased. For me, the conveyance of the first-hand experiences and recollections makes Kershaw's books more personal, aand I appreciate that.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2006
I first heard about the book "The Longest Winter" in March 2005, standing next to the foxholes in Lanzerath, Belgium, that Lyle Bouck and his platoon fought in over 60 years ago. I was glad and excited when I got the opportunity to read the book and get a more in-depth telling of the story that I had heard. Unfortunately, the book did not live up to its own billing or even the story that it tells.
Kershaw tells the story of the I&R platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, in World War II. In the first part of the book, Kershaw describes their stateside training. Then Kershaw describes their one day of combat during the Battle of the Bulge. Finally, in the last section of the book, Kershaw tells the story of the members of the platoon in Germany POW camps. He intersperses his narrative about the platoon with other accounts from the Battle of the Bulge; occasional updates about the 394th Infantry Regiment after the Battle of the Bulge; repeated stories about Jochen Pieper, the infamous German commander; and even firsthand accounts of Hitler, Eisenhower, and other leaders.
The book is subtitled "The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of WWII's Most Decorated Platoon," but the story does not live up to the title. Lyle Bouck's platoon only saw one day of intense combat and spent the rest of the war in POW camps. Their actions were certainly heroic and worthy of telling, but they don't live up to the title which implies that they spent many days and even months in combat.
Because the platoon's story is so short and is based primarily on interviews with about a dozen surviving members, Kershaw had to pad the story with many other subjects. The book opens with a firsthand account of the assassination attempt against Hitler. It includes a chapter on the bombing of Dresden. In the middle of the stories about the soldiers in POW camps, Kershaw jumps back to describe the 394th crossing the Rhine, or Jochen Pieper in Hungary. Kershaw also gives firsthand accounts of Hitler's decision to attack in the Ardennes and Eisenhower's hurried meeting with all of the senior allied commanders at the beginning of the Battle of Bulge. Not only do these stories make the book's perspective jump randomly and difficult to follow, they are also out of place in a book ostensibly about a single platoon.
Maybe because he was too busy padding the book with marginally relevant stories, Kershaw also fails to adequately explain why the platoon's actions were so critical. Their day-long defense of Lanzerath ended up being critical in the drive to stop Kampgruppe Pieper. Had the German 3rd Fallschirmjager not been slowed by the I&R platoon, Kampfgruppe Peiper could have been many hours faster reaching its objectives and beaten many of the American reinforcements rushing to the area to stop the German offensive. Kershaw does not seem to appreciate this in his choppy, condensed narrative about Pieper's advance.
Another glaring weakness in the book is that it is rife with factual errors, especially about the "bigger picture" of World War II. A sample: the Germans knew that the Allies had broken the Ultra code (the code was called "Enigma," and the Germans did NOT know that it had been broken); he mentions "Panzer and Tiger tanks;" he said that Patton slapped a soldier in North Africa (it was two soldiers in Sicily); he repeatedly misspells Würzburg and refers to it as a famous ball-bearing producer, when it was nearby Schweinfurt that was targeted for its ball bearing production; and many others. Kershaw doesn't even appear to understand the U.S. Army very well: his caption for the picture of Sergeant Slape said that he went on to become a "master sergeant - the highest rank for a noncommissioned officer," the text says that he became "Sergeant Major of the Army," while in fact he retired as a command sergeant major; he repeatedly refers to "Colonel Kriz" when it is clear from the text that Kriz was, at that time, a lieutenant colonel; and when Kriz is discharged just a few months later, Kershaw calls him "Major Kriz." Even if Kershaw made this many mistakes in his manuscript, a halfway knowledgeable or competent researcher or fact-checker could have cleaned this book up.
Despite these many drawbacks, I am still glad I read this book. It tells a good story about the men in the platoon and is a very easy read. These men performed well and suffered terribly during World War II, and their story is worth knowing. Although these men deserved to have their story told better, at least their story is out there for all to read.