Friday, 23 March 2018

War in the East: A Military History of the Russo-Turkish War 1877-78 - Quintin Barry

This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics Magazine.

Title: War in the East: A Military History of the Russo-Turkish War 1877-78
Author: Quintin Barry
ISBN: 978-1-911096-69-6
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2016
Pages: 534
Photos/ Maps: 100’s/17

Barry has once again focussed his attention on a war of less prominence internationally but one that had very significant implications for the region in which it took place. The Ottoman Empire at the time of the conflict encompassed the European regions of Bulgaria, portions of modern day Romania and areas of Bosnia. The Russians were very much interested in extending their access and influence to encompass not only the Black Sea but also were seeking passage to the Mediterranean via the Dardanelles. The Ottomans were, even at this time, seen as the weak man of Europe, heavily corrupt and vulnerable to collapse; the Russians, following the brutal suppression of a Bulgarian uprising by the Turks, saw an opportunity to break their neighbour to the south and extend their influence regionally.

What looked to be a simple operation that would result in Russian victory and accompanying international prestige turned into a difficult, costly and grinding campaign that was far more challenging than anyone had originally anticipated. While the Russians achieved complete victory in the end, it was as much a result of Turkish incompetence as Russian capability. It also came very close to resulting in war between Russia and Great Britain due to the concerns about Russian interest in the Dardanelles. Barry presents a very accurate and telling view of the international pressure brought to bear upon both protagonists as the European community sought to protect their own interests and limit the reach of Russia.

Barry has done a noteworthy analysis of this war. He succinctly encompasses the international as well as the operational components of the war; he also clearly highlights where opportunities were lost to both sides. For example his discussion of the Turkish Black Sea fleet and the Danube gunboat squadrons are indicative of the lack of operational appreciation shown by the Turkish commanders. The book represents a strategic/operational analysis of the conflict in that he only periodically dips into the tactical stories of the soldiers themselves. It is enough however, to gain a good appreciation of the conditions and environment under which the conflict was fought. Of particular note was Barry’s discussion of the extensive use of fortifications and the power of the defensive war compared to the offensive. The use of trenches and hard points by the Turks gave a hint of the nature of war to come, lessons that were not readily grasped by the observers.

I was very disappointed with the maps provided as I found the actions in the narrative difficult to follow on them. Beyond that the book is very well written and the photo’s/drawings provide very good context to the narrative. Barry closes his book with an excellent synopsis of the forces involved as well as a comprehensive bibliography. An engaging read and study of the last major conflict of the 1800’s.

Confronting Case Blue: Briansk Front’s Attempt to Derail the German Drive to the Caucasus, July 1942 - Igor’ Sdvizhkov

This review has been submitted to War History Online.

Title: Confronting Case Blue: Briansk Front’s Attempt to Derail the German Drive to the Caucasus, July 1942
Author: Igor’ Sdvizhkov
ISBN: 978-1-911096-43-6
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2016
Pages: 420
Photos/Maps: 9/8

During the summer of 1942, the Germans were well into their drive to the Caucasus and the capture of vast areas of the southern Soviet Union. The Soviets, desperate to try and blunt the German efforts, launched a series of spoiling attacks into the flanks of the stretched German Forces. The author has analyzed one of the more significant of those attacks with a view to shedding light on the strengths and weaknesses of the adversaries at this point in the war. His perspective is primarily from the Soviet side and he is brutally honest in his evaluations of the leadership and C2 (command and control) of the Soviet and German forces.

The author breaks down his analysis into chapters representing days as well as sides. Thus he will present a synopsis of the Russian actions on July 25th in one chapter followed in the next chapter by an analysis of the German actions over the same period. His extensive use of primary source material makes it very interesting for the reader to note how the adversaries were interpreting each other’s actions. This method also provides for an outstanding comparison between the command and control methodologies of the two sides.

The Germans by this point on the war were acknowledging that some Russian equipment (specifically the T-34) was superior in both quality and quantity to the front line German tanks. Additionally, Russian manpower reserves were beginning to make themselves felt; however, the Germans still had a clear advantage in combined/joint warfare capability (especially regarding the use of airpower) and in their combat and support leadership. The author relates numerous examples of opportunities that the Russians squandered as a result of their leadership (focussing primarily on Major and above) failing to make decisions or assuming control with the loss of a commander. Conversely, German leadership proves itself to be dynamic, proactive and engaged. Senior commanders are at the front assessing situations and providing guidance and direction as required. The soldiers on both sides are brave but it is the leadership that makes a telling difference in this campaign.

It is also fascinating to see the degree to which the political arm of the Soviet military takes precedence and exerts influence upon operations. Reports quoted by the author repeatedly speak in ‘Bolshevik’ and draw attention to the failings of leaders within a political vice a tactical or operational context. It speaks volumes as to why there was a dearth of initiative within the Russian leadership. Additionally, the author draws attention to the experience and educational background of the key Russian commanders. The instability of the interwar years within the Soviet Union culminating in the deep purges of the late 1930’s and the devastating results of the first year of the war, resulted in many of these Officers being promoted quickly into positions that they were not prepared properly for.

Helion’s publishing quality is excellent and the translation by Britton of top quality. The writing style of the Russian historians is quite different from Western authors but does not detract from the content. An interesting book worth the time.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Logistics in the Falklands War: A Case Study in Expeditionary Warfare - Kenneth L Privratsky

This review has been submitted to The Journal of the RCAF

Title: Logistics in the Falklands War: A Case Study in Expeditionary Warfare
Author: Kenneth L Privratsky
ISBN: 978-1-47382-312-9
Publisher: Pen and Sword Books
Year: 2016
Pages: 271
Photos/Maps: 54/6

The Falkland’s War was a conflict that no-one anticipated or effectively planned for. A conventional war fought between two individual nations, one NATO the other South American, had simply not been in the paradigm of western planners for literally decades as focus had remained exclusively on the NATO-Warsaw Pact standoff. That the British prevailed was as much a testament to professionalism and their ability to improvise as it was to a heavy dose of luck. Logistics was the key to success in this conflict; the author, drawing upon interviews and primary source material, paints a vivid picture of the challenges facing the support elements of this force. The lessons that he gleans from his research are many and I have identified some of the more significant ones below, covering a broad spectrum of support doctrine.

Effective control of logistics relies heavily upon a clear delineation of command and responsibility. Give the distances involved and the resultant paucity of resources, it was strange that the overall commander of the British Task Force (Commander South Atlantic Task Force) Admiral Fieldhouse, did not sail with the fleet. This left task force logisticians trying to support four sub-group commanders (Rear Admiral Woodward – Commander Carrier Battle Group, Brig Thompson – Commander Landing Force, Commodore Clapp – Commander Amphibious Task Force and Captain Young – Commander Op Paraquet) who each had equal standing under Fieldhouse. Poor strategic and operational communication ability meant that inevitably conflicts arose relating to priority of support.

Additional challenges identified by the author included the breakdown of logistics discipline during the deployment phase to Ascension Island. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual case and has been repeated many times since the Falklands War. Clear marking, tracking information and prioritization is critical if items are not to be mishandled or misplaced. As soon as tracking control is lost over items, especially during a period of intense throughput, it is like randomly placing a book on a library shelf, the item will be most likely lost for the duration of the operation. The same holds true for inaccurate prioritization. Items are handled and given space on aircraft etc based upon their identified priority. Unfortunately, the old adage holds true: if everything is identified as priority, then nothing is priority. The need to maintain logistics discipline, regardless of the pressure to get things out of the door, is absolutely critical to the effective support of an operation.

Another area that the author discusses in detail is the atrophying of skill sets such as amphibious assaults into austere environments fully supported by logistics. Cost cutting and a paradigm of first world support available through NATO nations sapped the British of experience and knowledge. This reluctance to expend defence dollars on realistic training was not limited to the UK but their experience serves as a warning to other nations that it is “too late to buy insurance once the house is on fire”. Many Western members of the NATO alliance find themselves severely limited in their ability to undertake operations of any significant magnitude unilaterally due to a degradation or atrophying of skills and resources due to a reliance upon others to make up any shortfalls.

British victory in the Falkland’s war was not a foregone conclusion. One of the points that the author makes is that, while the British did lose a significant number of assets during the war, predominantly they were picket ships or combat vessels as opposed to support ships. Argentine orders to their pilots were to target the logistics elements of the fleet thereby crippling the British before they could get a foothold on the ground. The pilots, generally, went after the fighting elements and either consciously or otherwise, disregarded their orders. That they did was exceptionally fortunate for the British.

Privratsky’s book is the first to look at the Falkland’s war purely from the perspective of logistics. His work is thoughtful and insightful and conveys messages that continue to be relevant and timely. Many will argue that technology is making the world smaller and more accessible; however, as the Falkland’s war demonstrated, advances in technology raise both the level of expectation of the operators towards their support elements but also increases the degree of complexity that logisticians must overcome in maintaining and supporting far flung ops worldwide. This book contains a significant number of lessons for militaries of all stripes and capabilities and should be reviewed in detail.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Aden Insurgency: The Savage War in Yemen 1962-1967 - Jonathon Walker

Title: Aden Insurgency: The Savage War in Yemen 1962-1967
Author: Jonathon Walker
ISBN: 978-1-473827-63-9
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Year: 2014
Pages: 332
Photos/ Maps: 17/10

Anyone following the news these days will be aware of the ongoing civil/proxy war taking place in Yemen. Regional forces as well as rebel and government elements are locked in a ferocious war where no action, however barbaric by modern standards, appears off-limits. Unfortunately, this is not a new or unique situation for this region of the world as Walker so aptly discusses in his book.

Aden was originally a strategically critical naval station that provided a stop off point midway between the far flung Eastern and Western elements of the British Empire. The region outside of the immediate area of this port was viewed as a semi-autonomous area that was exemplified by brutal tribal conflicts and regional proxy engagements between Egyptian, British and Saudi forces or their client forces.

Walker provides an outstanding baseline analysis of the political and tribal intrigue that permeated the area. Ferociously independent tribes and a brutal, austere environment provided the back drop for ongoing British operations as they attempted to prevent the expansion of Egyptian influence into the region. Walker expertly and concisely navigates the international and political intrigue that typified this conflict. He also provides an adroit analysis of the strain placed upon the British forces as they attempted to maintain stability in newly independent colonies while learning to deal with the unique nature of warfare in the Aden/Yemen region.

Further complicating the issue was the proxy war being assisted by the British between the rebels who had taken control of Yemen (assisted by the Egyptians) and the Yemeni Royalist forces (supported by the British). While on the one hand the British were overtly engaged in operations within the Aden Protectorate, they were also clandestinely working with the Royalists; the complexity of this conflict was truly stunning and could have served as an excellent learning tool for the more recent Afghan conflict.

Drawing upon interviews with the major players in the years following the conflict, the author is able to draw out opinions and observations that uniformed or government service would have prevented. One of the more prevalent of these was the role British domestic politics played in announcing a timeline for British withdrawal. This changed the entire character of the Aden insurgency as groups originally aligned with the British now were forced to look out for their own best interests knowing what fate awaited them with the departure of their erstwhile allies. Another key lesson to be derived from the conflict.

While the gravity and violence of this war has generally been overshadowed by the US engagement in Vietnam, it nevertheless stands as an outstanding school room for future operations within the region. The complex social and political dynamic characterizing Aden serves as both a warning and a lesson for non-regional powers attempting to subdue or influence these peoples. Walker has done a good job at contextualizing the ferocity and complexity of this fight.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb - Neal Bascomb

This review has been submitted to The Canadian Army Journal

Title: The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb
Author: Neal Bascomb
ISBN: 978-0-544-36805-7
Publisher: HMH
Year: 2016
Pages: 378
Photos/Maps: 49/6

Following the invasion and capitulation of Norway in 1940, as a theatre of operations the region became a sideshow, overshadowed by the massive conflagration being played out in mainland Europe, Russia and the Far East; however, despite the focus elsewhere, perhaps one of the most important dramas of the war was being played out in the quiet, snow covered but brutal region of the Norwegian interior. Few people have heard of Kompani Linge and the heavy water production plant at Vemork (the only plant of its kind in the world); fewer still are aware of the multiple efforts of Allied forces and operatives to destroy the capability of the plant to provide heavy water (critical to the production of an atomic bomb) to the German scientific and war effort and scarcer still are those aware of the success of nine Norwegian operatives who parachuted into the inhospitable Vidda region, survived a crushingly hostile environment and succeeded not only in penetrating the plant and destroying critical infrastructure but also escaping with no loss of life (on either side). Bascomb’s book recounts their story.

Deeply researched and written in a style that relates the stress, dangers and profound knowledge and cohesion of the men involved, the author removes any sense of the glamour of covert warfare. Rather, his narrative relates the effects of stress, boredom and fear on the human psyche as well as accurately describing the courage and dedication required to make this mission a success. It is a vivid rendition of the mental and psychological strength required of those undertaking this style of clandestine warfare and should be studied as a case study in special operations.

He does not only focus upon the successful Norwegian led mission but also the numerous efforts of the RAF, USAF and, most noteworthy, of the 261st Company of the Royal Engineers who tried to penetrate the German defences via glider insertion and were lost to a man through accident and execution by the Axis forces. Bascomb provides a very sobering account of their exertions and sacrifices.

The author paints a vivid picture of life in Norway under occupation; the efforts to continue ‘normal’ life or at best moderate co-existence, the impact of collaborators and the challenges of trying to build and maintain an element of resistance to the Axis. Of particular note is the ability of the Norwegians resistance fighters to survive in one of the harshest climates on earth; their capacity to hunt and live off of the land even at the height of winter (albeit on the edge of starvation) is in itself an epic tale.

This story is an adventure tale for the ages and the men who undertook to see the sabotage of the German atomic program are as great hero’s as those that fought on the front lines in the major theatres of war. Theirs was a silent, unheralded effort and it is to Bascomb’s credit that their names and achievements have not been forgotten. A well written account that should be part of any library dedicated to special operations of the Second World War.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden, Wartime Secret Agent - Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell

This review submitted to Soldier magazine.

Title: Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden, Wartime Secret Agent
Author:   Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell
ISBN: 978-1445661643
Publisher: Amberley
Year: 2017
Pages: 336

This book is a fascinating account of a courageous heroine who, with courage, cunning and tenacity, chose to serve her country behind enemy lines in occupied France as an SOE agent. Betrayed and imprisoned in a concentration camp, she paid the ultimate price for her dedication to duty. The author has crafted an excellent history of the woman, her motivations and her achievements; without embellishment or undo fanfare. It also sheds light on the methods used for interrogation and their effect upon the strength of the psyche. A true hero, this work does her credit and sheds light upon the critical operational role that women played in the Second World War. 

The Prisoner in his Palace - Will Bardenwerper

This review submitted to Soldier magazine.

Title: The Prisoner in his Palace
ISBN: 978-1-50111-783-1
Publisher: Scribner
Year: 2017
Pages: 201

This book focuses on the experiences of the US Marines who were responsible for guarding Saddam Hussein during the final 6 months of his life and the struggle that they had with the deep contrast between the Saddam they knew and the public perception of the world at large. The author paints a vivid and compelling picture of a kind and thoughtful prisoner that the guards saw and the ruthless killer that was his public face and legacy. Well written and researched, this book speaks volumes about the challenge of trying to paint an individual in terms of absolutes when we are, in fact, varying shades of grey.