Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Early Battles of the Eighth Army - Adrian Stewart

Title: The Early Battles of the Eighth Army
Author: Adrian Stewart
ISBN: 0-85052-851-8
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Pages: 182
Photo’s: 30 b/w

                The Desert War tends to be loosely divided into three main phases: 1. the Italians and the British, 2. the Axis (Germans and Italians) and the British and, 3. the Axis and the Allies (British and Americans). Stewarts book deals exclusively with what I have identified as the second phase; that being the extensive fighting between Operation Crusader and the Second Battle of El Alamein.

                This period of the Desert War tends to be viewed as one where the Allies under first General Sir Archibald Wavell followed by General Sir Claude Auchinleck were consistently outgeneraled and out fought by the Afrika Korps under Gen Erwin Rommel “The Desert Fox”. While this was so, it was not as clear cut as initially assumed by historians. Stewart examines each of the major operations undertaken by the Allies and Axis during this period and, following an explanation of what transpired, offers in depth explanations of the strengths and weaknesses on each side. As a result of this analysis, the reader quickly realizes that the war in the desert was not the one sided affair that a cursory glance at history may suggest.

                Stewarts work draws a number of conclusions that highlight some of the key pertinent factors affecting the Desert War:

1.       Equipment quality was often, although not always, in favour of the Germans,
            2.       Equipment quantity was, more often than not, consistently in favour of the Allies,
             3.       Rommel was a very difficult subordinate who frequently ignored or selectively 
                   ‘interpreted’ his orders without regard for the larger strategic picture,  
4.     Rommel was a daring, aggressive commander who was willing to accept great risk for success. This approach was adopted by his subordinate commanders and he provided them the independence needed to achieve success,
5.     Rommel did not appreciate or outright ignored the logistical difficulty faced by his Army and overestimated his Army’s capability. His hubris resulted in him ignoring opportunities to secure his strategic  line of communication (the capture of Malta),
6.     Auchinleck was a micromanager who did not have faith in his senior Army commanders. This compromised confidence throughout his chain of command,
7.     Psychologically, Auchinleck allowed himself to be beaten and this translated into a paradigm of retreat that permeated the senior command of the Army,
8.       Auchinleck let slip opportunity due to poor operational decisions (ie Jock Column’s), and
9.      Auchinleck’s HQ was very dysfunctional with very poor communication/coordination  and elemental HQ’s (ie Desert Air Force) not being co-located.


Stewart has drafted an excellent book that clearly outlines the strengths and weaknesses of
each Army’s command personality. The personality of a commander has a huge influence upon the operational effectiveness of a unit; by extension this applies doubly so to Theatre Commands. The Allies had multiple opportunities to break the back of the Afrika Korps well before the 2nd Battle of El Alamein but they failed to take advantage of opportunity. Stewart contends and I agree that this can mainly be attributed to command ineffectiveness. This is not to take away from the audacity and competence of Rommel as an operational commander; the Afrika Korps earned the victories they won. However, the early years of conflict in the desert were never as one sided as they initially appeared. 

Friday, 26 July 2013

Making Sense of the Troubles - David McKittrick and David McVea

Title: Making Sense of the Troubles
Author: David McKittrick and David McVea
ISBN: 978-0-14-100305-4
Pages: 352
Publisher: Penguin Publishing

                Northern Ireland has, for the most part, emerged from the dark period known as “The Troubles”. While tension between Catholics and Protestants, Irish and English still exist, it has been subsumed by the, albeit imperfect, political process as opposed to the way of the gun. What is still unknown to many however, is the history behind the challenges of Northern Ireland. McKittrick and McVea have drafted a detailed synopsis of the events, decisions and legal and ethical drama that became the hallmark of the Irish story.

                Starting with the creation of the Irish Republic in 1922, they trace the regional political turmoil that saw a most convoluted interaction between the Republic of Ireland, the UK and the Loyalist and Republican factions in the north. The detailed analysis outlining the methods with which the Loyalists held onto power (and why), the decision of London not to intervene despite their clear oversight role (thereby enabling the Loyalist leaders to carry on despite blatant inequality against the Republican Catholics) provides an outstanding macro level overview of the conditions leading up the breakout of hostilities in 1969.

                Following the commencement of hostilities from extremist factions of both the Republican and Loyalist side, the authors trace the involvement of London and Dublin, initially politically and finally on both (for the UK) the political and military fronts, as they are drawn inexorably into the worsening situation. The reader is then led through the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing the parties as they grapple with the deepening crisis of the 1970’s and 80’s until, ultimately, fatigue, necessity and reality combine to gradually  draw the factions to initial common ground with the Good Friday Accord in 1998. This was not the end of the Northern Irish story as low level violence and political conflict continued; it marked however, the beginning of the end of the violence and the start of the reconciliation of all partied involved.

                The book is an extremely balanced rendition of the problem of Northern Ireland. No parties involved were completely innocent or guilty and the challenge to the authors was to present what had occurred in a manner easily followed by the reader and in such a way that resulting opinion would be based on fact and not popular myth. McKittrick and McVea are outstandingly successful in their efforts in this regard. Additionally, they provide a very helpful timeline/synopsis of the significant events in Northern Irish history as well as charts and graphs that clearly lay out the ebb and flow of the violence. Another strength of this work is the bibliographical insert that provides the reader with additional reference material.

                Overall, a great success for McKittrick and McVea. The Gordian Knot that was the Northern Irish peace process is presented in an even and fair manner consistent with the high standards of journalism and education that the authors have maintained over years of observing the activities of the North. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

With the Old Breed - E.B. Sledge

Title: With the Old Breed
Author: E.B. Sledge
ISBN: 978-0-89141-906-8
Pages: 326
Illustrations: 42 B/W, 10 maps
Publisher: Ballantine Books

                EB Sledge was a soldier. Like soldiers everywhere who have experienced and lived through war, he was profoundly affected by it. His memoire of his experiences, originally drafted for his family, has become a classic of the wartime genre. Joining the Marine corps in 1942, he took part in the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa. Originally slated to become an officer, Sledge transferred to the ranks in order to get to the front faster. This was not because he was enamored with the idea of fighting but because of a simple desire to do his part on behalf of his country. He became a rifleman in the 1st Division, 3rd Bn, 5th Company and remained with that unit as a mortar man for the rest of the war.

                Sledge’s writing style is very straightforward and direct. He does not glorify his participation (if anything he downplays his role) in the fighting but focuses his attention at trying to relate what he saw and did to those who can hardly imagine the horrors that he and his buddies experienced. Given that he was writing as a rifleman, his view and perspective was very local and has little if any vision beyond the tactical. This is enlightening because so many memoirs are written by those who were removed from the front line due to rank or task.

                He related the good and bad in his peers, the enemy and himself. Such things as a Gunnery Sergeant that makes him dig his foxhole through a buried Japanese corpse (literally) or a Lieutenant that actually briefs the men on  where they are and what they are to do and why (with maps) is indicative of the spectrum of experience that he sees. The description of the environment in which he and his fellow marines fight and the brutality that he witnesses beggars belief. That so many of the marines not only functioned effectively but were able to recover to civilian life once the war ended  is testament, as Sledge puts, to the outstanding esprit des corps within his unit, the Marine Corps and the mental toughness developed through realistic training.

                Sledge is a quiet, humble man who returned to civilian life following the war as a professor in a small university. He is adamant that what he experienced and accomplished was unremarkable within the context of the Pacific war. While this may be true (as far as it goes), what he has written for himself, his family and really, as a testimony to the Marine Corps in the Pacific war, is anything but unremarkable. He has created a lasting legacy for future generations of the scope of sacrifice and dedication that he and his peers gave for future generations.

                This is, quite simply, mandatory reading for anyone, regardless of whether they are military or civilian, who strives to understand the true meaning of the word selflessness.

Hitler's Final Fortress: Breslau 1945 - Richard Hargreaves

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in The Canadian Army Journal. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the journal. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor Canadian Army Journal (ANDREW.GODEFROY@forces.gc.ca). Website for the Journal is: http://www.army.forces.gc.ca/caj/default-eng.asp?view=more

Title: Hitler’s Final Fortress: Breslau 1945
Author: Richard Hargreaves
ISBN: 978-1-84884-515-2
Pages: 268
Illustrations: 44 B/W, 11 maps
Publisher: Pen and Sword Publishing

                Breslau has had a long and storied history that has, like many European cities, seen ebbs and flows in fortune. Following the First World War and the collapse of the German Empire, Breslau was plunged into an economic decline that saw vast numbers of people destitute and without hope. The rise of the Nazi’s in the late 20’s/early 30’s witnessed a corresponding resurgence in Breslau’s fortunes as Germany’s economy recovered. With recovery; however, came the control and infiltration of the Nazi regime into all aspects of Breslau’s life. The onslaught of war did not see a diminishment of Breslau’s fortune’s as its location precluded it being bombed or damaged (gaining the region the unofficial moniker “Luftschutzkeller Deutschlands” – Germany’s air raid shelter).

                All of this ended with a sudden brutality in January, 1945 as the massive Soviet armies under Marshall Konev drove west using all of the lessons of Blitzkrieg so painfully learned over the previous three and a half years. By 13 February, Breslau was declared a festung (fortress) by Hitler, had been bypassed by fast-moving Soviet forces and was now under siege. For three months, despite constant bombardment and gradual but inevitable constriction, Breslau held out, true to the orders of Hitler. The end was preordained however, and on May 6th Breslau surrendered. The Russians, furious at the long siege, inflicted a horrific, drunken revenge upon the population. This, sadly, was not the end of the suffering for the people of Breslau as, in a final act of tragedy; the population was evicted as the city and region were given to Poland as part of the peace treaty. Breslau, a city existing since 1241, paid the ultimate price and disappeared only to be reborn as the Polish city of Wroclaw.

                Hargreaves has blended a synopsis of the history of the region and city with an outstanding rendition of the siege and its aftermath. Drawing upon a plethora of first hand published and unpublished sources, he has skillfully blended a macro and micro view of the battlefield thereby providing the reader accounts of the conflict that add depth, context and a personal element to the narrative.

                 Hargreaves’ writing style is very lucid and engaging. He provides an expansive bibliography as well as extensive footnotes. The book has a number of small scale maps at the beginning of the narrative that enables the reader to follow the advance of the Soviet forces into the city. I would have enjoyed having a larger scale map showing the relative positions of the German and Soviet forces before the commencement of the final drive into the heart of Germany. Additionally, Hargreaves discusses tactics, motivations and weapons that were utilized by the combatants that are excellent in providing the readers with insight into both the capabilities and the morale of the opposing forces. He does draw attention to some little known efforts by the Soviets involving ‘underwater bridges’. These were bridges that were built below the surface of the rivers to hide them from the Germans. I would have liked to have seen footnoting around this point outlining where the ideas for this originated as it was both effective and unconventional.

                Overall, this book is an enjoyable and educational success. Hargreaves’ efforts should be included in any casual or serious historian’s library. It sheds light upon an aspect of the war in the east that few of us in the west are aware of. Even in the dying days of the war, when all was lost, the Germans continued to fight ferociously against the Soviet juggernaut. The price that the people of Breslau paid for this devotion was staggering. Well done and strongly recommended.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Five Days That Shocked the World - Nicholas Best

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in Soldier Magazine. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the magazine. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Assistant Editor Soldier Magazine (rclark@soldiermagazine.co.uk). Website for the Magazine is: http://www.army.mod.uk/soldier-magazine/soldier-magazine.aspx

Title: Five Days That Shocked the World
Author: Nicholas Best
ISBN: 978-1-78200-624-4
Publisher: Osprey Publishing
Best’s book is simply outstanding. The books available that discuss the end of the war are legion, but to have one that puts such emphasis on the human dimension of the final collapse of Germany and the cessation of hostilities is phenomenal. Best has written a classic that encompasses first person accounts that run the gambit from farcical to tragic. The soft cover production is of good quality but the font is far too small for ease of reading. I strongly recommend this book for those who want to put a human face on the dislocation, joy and chaos of the last days of the Second World War.

Chicken Street, Afghanistan Before the Taliban - John Lane

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in Soldier Magazine. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the magazine. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Assistant Editor Soldier Magazine (rclark@soldiermagazine.co.uk). Website for the Magazine is: http://www.army.mod.uk/soldier-magazine/soldier-magazine.aspx

Title: Chicken Street, Afghanistan Before the Taliban: Clearing the Deadly Remnants of War
Author: John Lane
ISBN: 978-1-909384-26-2
Publisher: Helion and Co, GG Books UK
Lane addresses a topic that has been largely forgotten in the maelstrom that has become the fighting in Afghanistan; that being the brief period between the rise of the Taliban and the retreat of the Soviet Union. During that period, significant efforts were made to clear the Afghan countryside of the millions of mines and unexploded devices that plagued the population. Lane’s book is engaging and enlightening, highlighting the challenges, successes and frustrations of operating within the Afghan communities. He writes well and his narrative is direct and concise. The closes his book with an epilogue outlining what occurred following his departure in 1994. A good read.