Saka Light Cavalry

Saka Light Cavalry

Saturday, 22 June 2013

ISLAND OF FIRE, The Battle for the Barrikady Gun Factory in Stalingrad November 1942 - February 1943 Book Review

If you think the books title is long you need to see the book! This beast comes in with a whopping 641 pages, but that's only half the story. Whilst the book has lots of photos, many of them never before published and mini maps showing the action being covered the majority of the space is reserved for fairly small type text as you can see below.

Jason D. Mark is not only the author of the book but owns the Publishing Company who produce it, Leaping Horseman Books. This is a very small publishing house specialising on the Russian Front in WWII in general and Stalingrad in particular. They have to date (including a soon to be published book  ten titles of which four are written by Mr. Mark, one co-written by him and two books in part translated by him! Quite simply the whole thing stands or falls based on his shoulders and it's fair to say that you have reason to be weary of such an organisation especially when you see the price tag of books themselves.

When you consider that Mr. Mark is not a qualified Historian and indeed has been attacked for presuming to have written such books as this without such training by others who do have such training then you may be forgiven for hearing warning sirens in your head. However unqualified Mr. Mark may be he has managed to get access to far more unused sources than any other recent author qualified or not! However I really can't comment on how well he has managed to sift through this and come up with a balanced or enlightened view. If I was put on the spot I would say he does allow his attachment to the combatants to colour his opinion and he does come across as naive regarding the brutality that both sides were clearly not just capable of but performed throughout the whole of the war let alone specific to Stalingrad. This does not really make his work overly flawed but the reader needs to realise that it's possible that the author fails to see what he does not want to see and this could impact on other details within the book.

Stalingrad was a huge battle and given it's pivotal roll on the Eastern Front and as such the whole war it has had a great deal written about it. However to my knowledge no book has ever gone into the detail as this book. It's not just day by day, it's building by building, many of the men who you get to know through the book die further in the book, many more go missing, this is a relatively recent way of writing books and in this case many of these men can be fixed in your mind through photographs so it can get personal for the reader as well. Mr. Mark shows a tendency to show a neutral stance during the narration but I am not convinced this is more than smoke and mirrors. To me I believe he is pro-German if only for the tragic end for oh so many of the men of the Sixth Army.

Mark's objective seems to have been to make the whole battle a more personal affair taking just one section of the battle and focusing on the combatants in this relatively small area of Stalingrad. This is the part of the city that for the most part was a war of attrition over blocks of buildings and factory complexes then as the offensive power of the Germans waned the fight became a battle of singular buildings and finally down to room by room bloody affairs. He does an excellent job of using the combatants own words and adding the detail missing to give you a fairly clear picture of where and when these actions took place. 

Unlike so many other books that will zoom in to give you some specific detail to highlight events in a sector then zoom back out quickly to brush over other events and on with the main narrative. For Mark this IS the main narrative and as such he only zooms out occasionally so as to give the reader a quick look at the bigger picture. As such the book is a treasure trove of detail for the urban skirmish wargamer, not just WWII many of the little actions could be transferred into many a setting, especially given the claustrophobic nature of much of the action.

Anyone who wishes to play the ASL Red Barricades campaign, this is indeed essential reading and will go a long way towards making you realise what a sterling job the designers did with that module. Indeed it's such a deep pool of scenario ideas for ASL I would not be surprised if a good number have not had this book at the heart of their creation. 

If you want to read the book for the history then you will get a lot of nitty gritty detail, Mark does a good job of keeping it in context to the bigger picture and makes sense of why the battle broke down into attacks on single buildings and why and how the Germans were sucked into a high cost low gain assaults and why it ultimately failed and then how they changed tactics which were working. This book indeed supplies better answers than many a history book dealing with the battle in it's entirety. However don't be fooled into thinking the lessons learned about the Barrikady can be repeated for the rest of Stalingrad, not that Mr. Mark attempts to connect the two. This is in a way a weakness of the book, it's never sets out to be a book about Stalingrad, yes it covers the run up to and post Stalingrad battle but this book is squarely dealing with the factory complexes that became cut off from the rest of the Russian lines except by the tenuous link via the Volga. 

If you are new to Stalingrad then I would suggest one of the other great works available on the battle but if you have a particular interest in this part of the battle or already have a firm knowledge of the battle then this book has a lot to offer. However it's not without possible pitfalls. The book starts to fall into a steady pattern that whilst giving a real feel of the daily grind of the late stages of the battle also by definition starts to become a little tedious as a pattern emerges with little sign of the German's bucking the trend. As such I found it starting to lag and even looking forward to reaching the end just to break the cycle. Fortunately it managed to keep my attention to the inevitable collapse, if only just at times.

The book could have ended here but Mark had gathered far too much material to just leave in there and instead gives a potted history of all the Pioneer units that were brought into the battle about midpoint. The trouble for me with this was that I was ready to put the book down and move on so reading one potted history after another (and their being somewhat similar) really ended the book on a downside. With hindsight I would have done much better to have put the book down, read another book then returned to the latter sections of the book a little more fresh and enjoyed the final chapters that bit more. Given the weight of the book how uncomfortable it can get with prolonged reading always at it's worst at the start or end of the book it was a bit too much a bit too late.

However if you a big fan of Stalingrad and or small unit detail then this book may well be a perfect fit for your library. Given it's an Australian book and at the moment out of Print in Hardback (mine is paperback) it can be a little hard to track down. Leaping Horseman Books have copies of this book in softback for sale at $100 Australian, $92 US, 70 Euro or £60 plus postage which is to say the least, eye wateringly expensive. 

The second hand market may be the direction to go, it seems to hold it's value well as more people seem to want to own it than copies to supply all. E-bay At the moment no copies are on e-bay UK though four other books are for between £40 ish and £70+, it's a sellers market.


  1. That sounds like a great book and a good review too

  2. Glad you liked the review


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