Tuesday, 16 January 2018
Title: The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb
Author: Neal Bascomb
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
Title: Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden, Wartime Secret Agent
Author: Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell
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.
Title: The Prisoner in his Palace
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.
Thursday, 30 November 2017
Title: The Battle of Kursk: Controversial and Neglected Aspects
Author: Valeriy Zamulin
The author, a Russian national, has written a number of very high quality books relating to the Battle of Kursk. This book carries on his tradition of in depth research coupled with a wealth of on-site knowledge. A professional historian and researcher, Zamulin excels at finding facets of the battle that a more generalist would have overlooked.
This book is a compendium of a series of expanded articles and publications that he has presented over the years relating to little known questions regarding Kursk. His work is predominantly from the Russian perspective and he is extremely balanced in his presentation of the facts. Drawing upon declassified material from the Russian, American and German archives, he challenges a number of the traditional Russian perspectives and does not hesitate to refute them. He also puts a very human face on the Russian commanders and leadership, regaling the reader with anecdotes of error, humanity, weakness and competence. It is clear that the Russians, despite two years of combat were still learning the difficult profession of arms, specifically in the areas of joint operations, counter-battery fire and security discipline; but they were learning and getting progressively better.
Zamulin commences his work with a comprehensive review of the Russian works on Kursk, their strengths, shortfalls and the impact of the state upon their accuracy. Each of his succeeding chapters deals with isolated aspects of Kursk and the development of the Kursk Bulge. Each is standalone and may be read independently; however, each provide insight into the nature of the battle and answer questions that might not occur to the casual reader. Such aspects as the effectiveness of the Russian counter-artillery preparation, the potential for the Germans to have won Kursk had they struck earlier, the Kasternoe Cauldron (where an additional 10 German and Hungarian divisions were destroyed in January 1943 during the realignment of the front lines) and a deep analysis of two of the little known but key Russian tank commanders at Kursk (Marshal of Armoured Forces Katukov and Chief Marshal of Armoured Forces Rotmistrov – identified with later ranks) are examined.
Title: Winning Wars Amongst the People: Case Studies in Asymmetric Conflict
Author: Peter A. Kiss
Publishers: Potomac Books
Asymmetric conflict is the modus operandi of the modern insurgent fighter and the Wests traditional methods of addressing using conventional forces has proven challenging in the extreme. The author has endeavoured to outline through an analysis of a series of unique, but related (insofar as asymmetric warfare has a common methodology), engagements, the characteristics of what he refers to as 4th generational (4G) warfare. He uses the examples as case studies in order to facilitate explanation of the causes, means of response and how successful (or not) authorities were in both containing and reversing the insurgencies/instabilities.
Each case study: Rhodesia 1962-1980, Punjab 1980-1994, Kosovo 1996-1999, France 2005 and modern day Hungary is broken down and analyzed using the criteria of response outlined in the beginning chapters of the book. These criteria relate to the paradigm shift required to address the characteristics of 4th generational warfare. Kiss spends the initial part of the book outlining what constitutes the shifts between generations of war, paying particular attention to the nature and characteristics of 4G. Thus, the 1st to 3rd generations have their origins in the Westphalian school where conflict centres upon the nation state and inter-national conflict. This represents the more traditional view of warfare.
Conversely, fourth generational warfare is defined by a series of traits that stand in unique contrast to the previous generations:
1. sovereignty is limited;
2. state loses monopoly over war;
3. a majority of the population is neutral;
4. belligerents behaviour is not constrained by the responsibilities inherent in state existence because they are not a state;
5. there is no clear victory or defeat;
6. the conflict is more a clash of wills than a trial of strength; and
7. belligerents will utilize means that are not considered to be military in nature (ie street politics and riots).
Kiss outlines that the people are medium within which the conflict between the government and non-government belligerents unfolds. The use of military force, as opposed to its traditional role of being the final arbiter, is now merely one of a series of supporting means utilized to reach each sides goals.
He then goes on to outline how it has come to pass that the State, as the final international structure of interaction, has diminished in stature and influence. He focuses on two distinct areas of development: economic and political integration as well as eroding sovereignty. The first comes as the result of the transfer of state authority to supranational organizations such as the UN, the rise of international business and criminal organizations (who do not owe their existence to a particular nation) and newly accepted theories of international conduct (ie the Right to Protect) that supersedes national authority. Additionally, Kiss makes very lucid and telling observations regarding the diminishment of the state due to the internet, ease of international travel, the failure of the state to guarantee the security of its citizens, demographic changes and the failure of minorities/immigrants to accept the values and standards of the host nation.
What all of this is leading to is a growing challenge to the States effectiveness at being able to overcome 4G insurgencies. The State, regardless of the nature of its leadership, is forced by its very existence to operate within a series of guidelines and limitations that the 4G insurgent is not. However, Kiss also advances the notion that pure terrorism (defined as being violence without goal) does not exist and therefore, terrorists/insurgents will always have an end state that they are working towards. Thus it becomes the challenge of each side to best determine how they are going to tailor their challenge/response in order to outlast the other.
The author's real world examples emphasize the timelines, complexities and uniqueness of 4G conflict. Each is representative of a different facet of this warfare and displays methods that were military successes but political failures (Rhodesia), asymmetric successes (Kosovo) and counterinsurgency successes (Punjab). He concludes each example with an outline of the lessons to be learned. His study of the outbreak of French minority violence is particularly sobering as it serves both as a lesson in response techniques and a cautionary tale for the future of intra-state relations.
The Tigers of Bastogne: Voices of the 10th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge - Michael Collins and Martin King
Author: Michael Collins and Martin King
Illustrations/Maps/Appendices: 47 B/W 10 maps 5 Appendices
Publisher: Casemate Publishing, Philadelphia, 2013
The Battle of the Bulge has rightly been considered one of the defining moments of the Second World War; desperate yet still powerful German forces achieved complete surprise against a notably weak point in the allied lines in the region of the Ardennes. For the last two weeks of December, 1945, American land units engaged in frantic and determined fighting, culminating in the defense of Bastogne. Traditionally, the unit most associated with this combat was the 101st Airborne “The Screaming Eagles”; however, there were other key contributors that held the line along with the 101st. This book is about one of these units: the 10th Armored Division, “The Tiger Division”, and its vital role in halting the onslaught of four German armies in the freezing cold and without air support.
The chapters are broken out to represent a day in the battle; each commencing with a weather report. The text itself is a mix of firsthand accounts in italics, copies of the narratives for the commendations received by individuals for actions on that particular day, unit after action reports and a narrative from the authors providing context and continuity. Taken together, it is a somewhat unique but effective rendition of the events of the period and it provides the reader with different perspectives from the official to the personal. Also provided are numerous appendices that provide the reader with reference material summarizing which American units were involved in the Battle, the command structure of the 10th Armored and a synopsis of individual commendations.
What was fascinating and telling about this Battle was the inability of the allied air forces to engage the Germans due to weather conditions. Thus from 15 to 23 December, the allied armies were without fighter, bomber and, most importantly for those surrounded in Bastogne, aerial resupply capability. The impact of this situation is clearly articulated in the recollections of the survivors as ammunition, medical supplies, fuel and food became scarce. The authors have done a commendable job presenting the tenacity with which the 10th Armored defended the approaches to and, ultimately, assisted in the defense of Bastogne itself.
I was however, somewhat disappointed with certain aspects of this book. Grammatically, there are a significant number of awkward sentences and glaring typographical errors in the text (I am referring here to the author’s narrative, not the first hand accounts). Additionally, the authors make claims in their narrative that are diametrically opposed to the conventional wisdom of this period and a vast array of expert historical literature written about the German army. In two places, Collins and King make the blanket statement that German forces were not known for flexibility or initiative and were actually renowned for their inability to operate autonomously below the regimental level (pages 30 and 168). While they are more than welcome to make these observations, they provide no references to back up their position. Given the fact that a preponderance of literature on World War 2 acknowledges the fact that the Germans, while not effective in all areas, were in reality one of the most capable armies at the operational and tactical levels, their comments are, to say the least, perplexing. Nevertheless, the production value of the book is high and the maps and photos are excellent.
Books preserving the recollections and memories of those who participated in the war are worth owning. However, this book is not inexpensive and is weak in terms of narrative and some content. Therefore, while it is important to recognize the role of the 10th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge and to preserve their memory, this must be balanced against the overall quality of the book itself. This book is average and I cannot strongly recommend it.
Wednesday, 29 November 2017
Title: Operation Telic: The British Campaign in Iraq 2003-2009
Author: Tim Ripley
Publisher: Telic-Herrick Publications
Photos/ Maps: 35/6
The War in Iraq was not popular nor was it clean. After Afghanistan, it seemed to many that the challenges of asymmetric warfare would be left behind in Iraq; a second rate conventional army led by an unpopular, sociopath would be a relatively easy adversary after the Taliban. The British led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, joined the United States as its primary ally, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was continued influence in the Middle East as well as a key position at the ‘table’. The war was not popular with the British people and PM Blair expended a significant amount of political capital to win over Parliament. What was to be however, a short, sharp engagement and a victory for democracy turned into a six year war of nerves and attrition between the allies and the factional forces of post Saddam Iraq. Op Telic the book, iterates the challenges, successes, shortfalls and frustrations encountered by the UK forces from a political, doctrinal, inter-ally and CIMIC perspective.
That it is able to cover such ground effectively is testament to its brevity and accuracy. The author was able to draw upon the recollections of the key players down to platoon level as well as the primary documentation of the various units engaged in Iraq over the period of the conflict. The author was also able to display the level of complexity associated with warfare of this nature. What is evident is the degree to which government engagement and planning did not appear to extend beyond the military defeat of the Iraqi’s. The US has been correctly criticized for its failure to plan beyond the fighting, but the British government was not clear of this failure either.
It is clear that the West had very little appreciation of what would result once the strongman and his henchmen had been removed and the traditional animosities and hatreds, suppressed for so long, allowed to burst forth. Ripley does an excellent job of tracing the rapid onslaught of internal dissent focussed on the UK forces as well as factional fighting within the Basra region. Caught in a spiral of unanticipated violence, political turmoil at home and divergent priorities amongst the Allied forces, Ripley describes a UK force struggling to deal with retraining, internal shortfalls, pressure to downsize and engaging in public works that it had never trained for. It became obvious very quickly that the lessons learned against the IRA did not have relevance in the Iraqi theatre many assumed they would.
The UK Forces showed considerable capacity for adaption and improvisation as the later years of the conflict illustrated. Nevertheless, Ripley’s book describes a military left, to a significant degree, at odds with its political masters in the UK and with a marked sense of cynicism and resentment amongst its soldiers and airmen. It also describes a society and force out of step with the realities of combat and the dangers associated with them. That the UK forces were brave and dedicated is beyond question, but the appetite for casualties and risk as well as the domestic and media attention paid to the slightest level of collateral damage has changed the nature of warfare for the West.
Ripley has crafted an excellent, balanced account of the British experiences in Iraq. He draws attention to a significant number of issues and challenges that have still not been resolved involving the soldier and their battlefields. His book is key to understanding the complexities of the modern theatre of operations and the issues that influence them. It is critical that training reflect the lessons learned, not the least of which is that the government that you may be fighting to support may be actively working against you. Based upon the conclusions of Ripley’s book, the term 360 degree battlefield may now be applied to not only to the physical fighting space, but also the domestic and international political realm as well as the media and legal spaces. The soldiers of today do not have a benign operating environment as Op Telic aptly shows.