Thursday, 10 August 2017
This review has been submitted to the Canadian Army Journal.
Author: Mikhail Filippenkov
Photos/ Maps: 18/8
In the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the archives of the former Soviet military were made available for historians to access when researching books relating to the Second World War. Unfortunately that window has now been significantly restricted again, limiting the ability of authors to provide a balanced accounting of events on the Eastern Front; this challenge was exacerbated by the systematic destruction of Soviet Unit records relating to operations where the Soviet Union suffered significant reversals. Operation Typhoon, the German drive for Moscow in October, 1941, falls into this category.
This work, which focusses upon the operational and tactical events running from 25 September to 12 October during which the pocket at Viaz’ma was closed, primarily deals with the Northern arm of this drive led by the Panzergruppe 3. The author traces the events leading to the capture of the town of Sychevka, a point north of Viaz’ma and critical to opening the road to Moscow. The author, a Russian national, does his best to provide a balance in the narrative between the Soviet forces of Konev’s Western Front and the German forces; unfortunately he is precluded from doing so due to the fact that all archives relating to Stavka (Soviet high command) and Front documents are still sealed. Thus, while he is able to draw some information from other sources, the book is mainly told from the German perspective.
Nevertheless, the approach taken by the author of a daily recitation of events does highlight some very interesting points on both sides: the quality of German command and control is evident in their ability to maintain decision making momentum over the Russian leadership; the dramatic changes in temperature and its effect upon the operational capabilities of both sides (the author refers to weather and temperature at the beginning of each day – the first wet snow fell on 7 October and the temperature fell to -40 at night by 10 October); the inability of the Germans to logistically maintain their forces and the incredible burden that this shortfall placed upon the rear services and the luftwaffe. Throughout the book the author refers to German units running short of fuel and the conscious decision by the German high command to not issue winter kit at the beginning of Typhoon due to the delay it would cause to the start date. The author also draws attention to the more effective combined arms operations of the Germans and the Russian lack of effective air reconnaissance. Finally, he acknowledges the overall superiority of German leadership and equipment while concurrently recognizing the strengths of the Russian forces in defensive operations.
Helion has maintained its high standard of quality with the production value of this work. This book is a quick and interesting read but should be read in conjunction with other authors such as David Glantz, Lev Lopukhovsky “The Viaz'ma Catastrophe, 1941: The Red Army's Disastrous Stand Against Operation Typhoon” or Svetlana Gerasimova’s “The Rzhev Slaughterhouse”. I also found that the maps provided with the text did not provide much detail on the area’s in the narrative; a shortcoming when the book is broken into daily analysis. Nevertheless, an interesting and engaging read.
This review has been submitted to Airforce Magazine.
Author: Duncan Grinnell-Milne
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Photos/ Maps: 4/0
Autobiographies of the early days of the Royal Flying Corps (later to be known as the Royal Air Force) never cease to impress. Perhaps it is the sense of wonder and élan with which these early pilots and observers recount their adventures; and that was what it was for many of these young gentlemen, an adventure. Wind in the Wire is the author’s story of his time in the RFC and his experiences as one of the early, and late, pilots of the First World War.
The first thing that strikes the reader is the prose with which the author writes. Despite not being a professional writer, he is able to turn a phrase in such a way as to convey to the reader a clear sense of the image and the humanity behind the description. His humility, joy, fears, frustrations and doubts are expressed simply and honestly, without pretense or embellishment. He is as forthright about his insecurities at learning to fly and joining an operational squadron as he is about his growing confidence and aggression in the air.
This is a book solely about his flying period; from when he reports for pilot training from his Regiment in July, 1915 to his last flight of the war in 1919. The narrative may be divided into three distinct parts: his training, his first operational squadron and being captured and finally his escape and rejoining 56 Squadron for the last months of the war. Each section alone stands as a fascinating tale of growth and adventure; taken together they represent a life’s worth of experiences compacted into three and a half short years.
The first section relates the author’s experiences in learning to fly as well as his first Squadron in France. What stands out is the quality of leadership and, during this time of the war, the lack of knowledge relating to even basic flying. Skills such as spinning, formation, bombing and gunnery were all being learned ‘on the fly’ and even the more senior pilots did not know much more than the most junior.
The author does not dwell on the details of his incarceration period in any detail save that made numerous attempts at escape and that he turned down multiple offers by the Germans to have him transferred to neutral Holland where he would be precluded from further participation in the war but would not be held to the same degree of restriction as he was in Germany. It is very interesting to learn of the different approaches that many of the internee’s adopted as a result of their newfound circumstances and the options available such as transfer to a neutral country.
The period transitioning his escape and return to flying duty is of particular interest because it represents in fact a time capsule. During the two and a half years of his time as a POW, the entire spectrum of air combat had utterly changed. The doctrine, airframes, weapons and organizational structure of the RFC (and the Germans) was nothing like it was when he was captured. His description of endeavouring to get back into operational flying on the Western Front, his retraining and the “Rip van Winkle” effect of coming to grips with his new surroundings is gripping and absorbing. His treatment at 56 Squadron as somewhat of a carnival freak due to the fact that he was returning aircrew from a bygone era (escapees were never returned to combat roles at this time so he was doubly unique) is very interesting to follow. Even his description of the advent of bureaucracy within the RFC when compared to his first arrival in France in 1915 is both insightful, telling and humorous.
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the book however, is the concluding pages as the war comes to an unexpected end. The author, being only 23 at this time, relates the deep sense of loss and dislocation as the Squadron and the War, representing familiarity, structure as well as profound comradeship, is systematically, and without fanfare, stripped down and disbanded. Although it is impossible to fully render the sense of isolation felt by the author and his peers (indeed if one has not experienced the intensity of war and its effect upon its combatants, mere words have difficulty translating it), G-M’s writing does convey to the reader the emotional turmoil as few books have.
Although this book relates the experiences of a war that was fought one hundred years ago, its significance reverberates even today. This book is a classic of airmanship and courage and should be read in conjunction with the likes of Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising, Arthur Gould Lee’s Open Cockpit and No Parachute as well as VM Yate’s Winged Victory. An outstanding work of literature and a must for any historian of the military arts.
Tuesday, 25 July 2017
Author: Gerald Seymour
History may be told by many different means: documentaries, historical treatise, papers and of course, historical fiction. Seymour’s novel falls into the latter category. It is considerably more difficult to effectively tell a story within the confines of a historical period because it is incumbent upon the author to not only weave an engaging tale but also to do so within the confines of the setting within which it takes place. Readers of historical fiction will be the first to point out inaccuracies and errors in the setting of the story – far more than within the storyline itself!
It is in this environment that Seymour has woven his tale of Northern Ireland during the time of the troubles. He immerses the reader into the deadly and unforgiving world of the Brits and the Provo’s: its politics, domestic toll, futility and tragedy. The storyline is deep, multi-faceted and reflects the complexities of the unfolding story through multiple lenses. The book has the intricacy of a Leon Uris tale and shares the poignancy of Trinity.
Author: Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Publisher: Henry Holt Books
This is the fourth book in the series written by the authors identifying controversial or sensationalist aspects about the deaths of their subjects; in this case Gen George S Patton. The book provides an overview of Patton’s drive through Western Europe and his clashes with many of his superiors and allies. It includes his efforts to try and have the war extended beyond the defeat of Germany into a clash with the Soviet Union.
That Patton was a dynamic, driven and controversial General is beyond doubt. That there was a conspiracy to have him killed for political reasons has not, in the opinion of this reviewer, been proven by this narrative. Indeed the portion relating to his death and the alleged plot takes up only the final few pages of the book. There are a number of books and authors that provide a much better analysis of Patton as a Commander and a General. This book, while providing a broad brush discussion of his achievements, did not provide any more than a shallow recitation of the Patton experience. It was also very suggestive of a USA bias regarding Patton’s competencies (suggesting for example that the only Axis General that was equal to Patton was Rommel – something that historians would take umbrage with when considering Manstein, Guderian, Balck, Raus or Manteuffel to name a few).
Friday, 21 July 2017
This review has been submitted to Sabretache Magazine
Title: The Last Punisher
Author: Kevin Lacz
Publisher: Threshold Books
The Last Punisher is the author’s account of his training and operational experience as a member of Seal Team Three during the Battle of Ramadi. This is not an operational analysis of the battle nor a discussion of the tactical methods used by Special Forces, more it is a memoire of the authors time with the SEALS, the impact that the men of his team had on him and his outlook as well as how he matured both as an operator as well as a man as a result of his experiences (both positive and negative). The book is a quick read and has the four key elements of special forces (specops) operations: team loyalty, elitism, aggression and plenty of dip.
A number of themes come out of the book, ones that reflect the unique nature of the specops environment:
1. A strong sense of team cohesion and loyalty. While there is definitely a pride in one’s country, the driving sense of supporting the men of your stick is one that permeates throughout the narrative;
2. The unique command relationship that exists within a specops environment. The role of officers, NCO’s and soldiers is not as defined as in conventional forces. This relaxing of the rules is supposed to be offset by the level of professionalism and training of the operators. One of the challenges however, rests in the rapid expansion of specops soldiers in the last ten years. This expansion naturally runs the risk of diluting the experience and professionalism that provides the foundation of the specops ethos;
3. The us/them approach to other members of the armed services adopted by the specops teams. In his book Lacz alludes to this when he discusses joint ops with conventional forces. It is always a challenge to remember that everyone plays a role and it is critical that there is an appreciation of what those roles bring to the mission;
4. The key role that specops soldiers play in training Iraqi soldiers and the difficulties associated with this. Lacz discusses this at some length and does acknowledge improvement and engagement by the indigenous forces with the passage of time;
5. The disdain with the structure and regulation of the conventional military. Again, this is a reflection of the elitism that permeates the specops culture. Balanced against performance and professionalism this may be managed but left unchecked it can lead to a sense of superiority that can easily undermine the cohesion of the larger military and serve as a negative example to line soldiers;
6. The sense of purpose, discipline and structure that the SEALS provided for Lacz. Certainly, this is not limited to specops soldiers and it is a truism that military service can focus the efforts of capable but drifting young men and women. Lacz mentions this repeatedly and with a profound sense of gratitude; and finally
7. Lacz writes of his ability to walk away at the end of his service period and not live a life focussed in the past. For many military members and specops soldiers, it is extremely difficult to leave the sense of comradery and purpose that reflects military life. Reintegrating into a civilian environment is challenging and unsettling for many whose bonds have been forged in combat.
There is no question that Lacz feels very strongly about his team mates, his country and the role that he played in the War on Terror. His book serves as a testament to both his team-mates and the opportunities that his country has provided him. It is also a recognition of the role that his family’s support provided him in his reintegration back into civilian life. The Last Punisher is an honest tribute his years as a SEAL and the impact that it has had on his life. Recommended.
Tuesday, 11 July 2017
This review has been submitted to Review in History.
Author: Andrew Lownie
ISBN: 978-1- 250-10099-3
Photos/ Maps: 60/0
Few spy scandals have rocked the Western World like the notorious Cambridge Spy Scandal of the 1950’s. This book focuses on perhaps the best known of this group: Guy Burgess, his life, education, personality, motivations and the heady academic and political cauldron of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s UK.
The first thing that strikes the reader about this book is the degree to which the privileged society that was Burgess’ social circle both protected and tolerated behaviour that would have been completely unacceptable elsewhere. Burgess and many of his peers were open and flagrant homosexuals which was not tolerated nor legal in the UK during this period. Lownie masterfully, traces the development of Burgess’s personality through his school years and evaluates those individuals and circumstances that heavily influenced his outlook. His evaluation of Burgess’ behaviours reveals an individual of contradictions; self-absorption paired with restless brilliance and a complete domination of the id, while, concurrently, displaying a high level of loyalty to his inner circle of friends.
The book is also a fascinating study of British society and the role of connections, schools and economic well-being in garnering position and influence. Thus it was that, despite numerous questionable social traits and work results, Burgess’s connections and the loyalty of his school and work alumni to ‘one of their own’ enabled him access to the highest levels of foreign office employment and, by extension, correspondence. It was beyond the pale that anyone with breeding would betray the club. Thus it was that he was protected and shielded regardless of what became a pattern of increasingly erratic and questionable behaviour. Indeed, such was the level of institutional blindness amongst the British Foreign Office that he was actually posted to the US embassy where, although not provided a meaningful job (he was too much of a loose cannon for that) he still retained access to the highest levels of sensitive official papers and correspondence.
Another intriguing aspect to Lownie’s study is the level of loyalty that Burgess and his closest confidants held for each other. This allegiance transcended national affiliations and their mutual support and views served to strengthen their desire to undermine the strength of the corrupt West. Interestingly, while their efforts focused on the passage of information to the Soviets, for Burgess, this loyalty did not extend to an acceptance of the greatness of the Soviet Union, but a belief that British communism would prove superior to the Russian.
Burgess continued to be a study of contrasts throughout his life. Thus it was that there are continued references to his slovenly appearance and lack of personal hygiene amongst his friends and co-workers, while, concurrently, his insistence at wearing an Old Etonian tie at all times. It would appear from Lownie’s evaluation that Burgess was a deeply troubled personality, continuously seeking the next thrill while studiously avoiding the responsibilities of maturity and age. He constantly sought to be the centre of attention yet engaged in self-destructive and self-absorbed conduct. His drinking was legendary as was his flamboyant and reckless behaviour and yet he yearned for the company of others all the while alienating them with his conduct.
As Lownie describes, literally thousands of cables and messages were passed over to the Soviets during Burgess’s lifetime; so many that they were too numerous to decipher in total. Such was the flow of information that the Soviets suspected Burgess of being a double agent as they could not believe that the quantity and quality of the information that he was providing could be done without the knowledge of the British counter-intelligence people.
Monday, 10 July 2017
Title: Allies Are a Tiresome Lot: The British Army in Italy in the First World War
Author: John Dillon
Photos/ Maps: 15/4
As part of their Wolverhampton Military Studies program, Helion has published this interesting study of the experiences and undertakings of the British Army deployed to Italy in support of the Italian Front. Dillon has provided a comprehensive overview of the unique challenges, social environs and environmental differences facing the British and how they adapted their doctrine and regulations accordingly.
The Italians were a late comer to the war and were not held in high regard by the British command; however, a number of setbacks had, by 1917 driven the Italian government to the brink of surrender. The Allies, specifically the British, under significant pressure on the Western front due to the war weariness of the French (having recently mutinied), the recent loss of Romania and the deteriorating situation in the East with Russia, could not afford to lose the Italians without incurring a substantial threat to the entire war effort. They therefore reluctantly agreed to pull badly needed troops from the Western Front to bolster the Italians.
The Italian Front for soldiers recently engaged in the horrors of the Western Front was, in many respects, a paradise. Combat was infrequent, distances to the enemy trenches were as far as over a kilometre in many cases, the weather was mild, the ground dry and the daily routine easy; boredom became as much a challenge as the enemy. These unique challenges form the basis of Dillon’s work. He divides his narrative into distinctive sections, each stand-alone and covering such areas as medical, crime and punishment, morale and working with the Italians. He also provides, at the outset, a synopsis of the Italian war effort both in terms of the fighting as well as the relations of the Italian Government with its Allies. He closes his book with the British/Italian engagement with the Austro-Hungarians during the final months of the war and the challenges associated with the tense post war regional relations and the need to bring the soldiers home.
As this is a relatively unknown aspect of the First World War Dillon’s work is significant in the light it sheds on the unique facets of this campaign. He writes with clarity and humour, relating conditions and situations not seen on other fronts. This is a serious work however, well researched and presented. He draws on a plethora of primary source material to provide not only the strategic perspective but also the soldier’s narrative, weaving in many firsthand accounts into his writing.