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.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Battle of Kursk: Controversial and Neglected Aspects - Valeriy Zamulin

This review was submitted to War History Online Magazine.

Title: The Battle of Kursk: Controversial and Neglected Aspects
Author: Valeriy Zamulin
ISBN: 978-1-911512-37-0
Publisher: Helion
Pages: 404
Photos/Maps: 89/8

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.

For those seeking an overall synopsis of the Battle of Kursk, this is not the book for you. For those students of history that wish to delve deeper into some of the lesser known aspects of the battle, read on! Helion has maintained its extremely high quality of publications and Stuart Britton has once again translated and edited a deeply engaging and readable work.

Winning Wars Amongst the People: Case Studies in Asymmetric Conflict - Peter A. Kiss

This review was submitted to Army History magazine.

Title: Winning Wars Amongst the People: Case Studies in Asymmetric Conflict
Author: Peter A. Kiss
ISBN: 978-1612-347-004
Publishers: Potomac Books
Pages: 289
Maps: 5

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.

Kiss's book is a thoughtful and insightful look into a mode of warfare that is rapidly becoming the norm for traditional nation states to address. It is a style not confined by borders, ethnicity, religion nor economy but is influenced by all. His style is clear and lucid and his arguments for the future convincing. His work is well worth studying for those involved with developing policies that will serve as the framework of responses for nation states in future conflicts.

The Tigers of Bastogne: Voices of the 10th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge - Michael Collins and Martin King

Title: The Tigers of Bastogne: Voices of the 10th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge
Author: Michael Collins and Martin King
ISBN: 9781612001814
Pages: 271
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.