Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Legions of Rome - Stephen Dando-Collins

 Title: Legions of Rome
Author: Stephen Dando-Collins
ISBN: 978-1-84916-230-2
Pages: 608
Illustrations: 24 colour/numerous B/W, 13 maps
Publisher: Quercus Publishing

The Roman Empire lasted for one thousand years as a Republic and a Dictatorship. During that time the Army of Rome enforced both the will and law of Rome to the four corners of the Empire. The Legions were the hammer of the Senate and Emperor and they had a huge influence not only on external enemies but also on the government and leadership of the Empire. Over the course of the Empire’s existence, the Legions changed in terms of structure, equipment, training and numbers. Author Dando-Collins has put together a comprehensive guide and overview to the Legions: the men, their structure and the battles that shaped their development and the Empire.

Commencing with a look at the men who made up the Legions, he undertakes a substantive explanation of all aspects of the individual soldiers training, command structure, discipline, diet, musicians, weapons, equipment and recognition system. The degree of administrative sophistication that the army achieved was notable and was as much a source of its success as was its operational and tactical development. A Legionary could move between multiple Legions throughout his career and, regardless of where the Legion was raised or employed, would be able to instantly be familiar with the routine. The author has broken down the organization by subject and provides very manageable explanations relating to each of the subsets. This makes for a very clear understanding of the Roman administration system. Thus, for example, we are provided a with a detailed account of the recognition program of the Legions including what (in order of precedence) would be awarded, the criteria that needed to be met, the oversight and methodology by which awards were vetted and the benefits that were granted along with the award.

Following this, a section devoted to the structure and operational doctrine of the Legions themselves was presented. The method of numerical designation, organization, command and control, battle doctrine, origin of Legionary Emblems, march and camp discipline. What I particularly enjoyed about this section was the detailed history of each individual Legion outlining its creation, regions of employment, significant positive and negative events in the history of the Legion and notable commanders. The reader begins to truly appreciate the complexity and longevity of the Roman army and its subcomponents. Additionally, Dando-Collins outlines the method by which the Roman machine was controlled from the center through “The Palatium”. One does not often hear about this administrative structure which was the interface between the Senate and Emperor and the employment of the Legions themselves. Another area that the author expands upon is the way in which the Romans maintained a strategic reserve of trained soldiers through the Evocati system which represented a pool of retired legionaries which could be recalled to duty in times of emergency.

The author rounds out his study of the Legions with a comprehensive summary of significant engagements involving the army commencing in 29 BC and running through to the fall of Rome in 410 AD. Closing out this study is an evaluation/discussion of the cause of the decline in the lethality of the Legions as fighting units and, with this decline, the gradual diminishment of the Empire itself. What is extremely interesting throughout this period is the degree to which the Roman Legions were willing to fight each other as readily as external enemies of the Empire. Not only does this speak to the command relationships within the Army and Empire, but it also draws attention to the self-imposed drain on manpower due to injury and death from these engagements. Conversely, it also sheds light on the depth and resiliency of the Legion system; very few Empires could afford the bleeding that Roman soldiers and generals imposed upon themselves.

This book is of outstanding quality and is excellent as an introduction for those trying to understand the Legions and their role within the Empire. Dando-Collins provides a comprehensive bibliography for additional investigation that the reader may wish to undertake. I recommend this book for both its relevance as an overview and its readability.      



Sunday, 15 June 2014

No Parachute - Arthur Gould Lee

Title: No Parachute

Author: Arthur Gould Lee
ISBN: 978-1-909-16604-2
Photo’s/Map: 24/1
Pages: 240
Publisher: Grub Street Publishing

Arthur Gould  Lee  retired as an Air Vice-Marshall after seeing service in both World Wars (1915-1946). He experienced the First World War as a fighter pilot operating on the Western Front. In this capacity, he identifies himself as one of the ‘fighters of no fame’; one of the many who fought, survived and lived to an old age, a privilege denied to so many of his compatriots, but who have not been counted amongst the ‘elite’ of Richthofen, Bishop, Ball or McCudden. Humility is a hallmark of this work; after all, from the vantage of the modern day reader, five confirmed kills and eleven shared would not be considered to be an achievement of minimal renown. In this regard he has set his tone to reflect the period within which he lived and served; a period within which thousands of nameless young men fought thousands of feet above the ground against equally determined adversaries.

Unlike today with our preponderance of technical gadgets that allow for instant communication across unprecedented distances, the period covered by AVM Lee’s book is the time of the hand-written note. One of the defining and unique aspects of the book is the fact that the narrative is derived directly from letters that he wrote to his wife daily during his operational time on the front. Lee was a prodigious writer and so his letters are not superficial but are insightful and expansive discussions of his experiences, comrades and thoughts as his war experience progressed.

I found this book to be very beneficial in gaining an appreciation of the variety of challenges and mission types undertaken by the pilots of this period. There is an absence of higher strategy providing context but this is not the point of the book, it is focused exclusively on the tactical experiences of the individual pilots. One of the main strengths of the book is the ability of the author to provide the reader an outstanding sense of the atmosphere of air operations. 

Given the fact that modern pilots are on oxygen above ten thousand feet, it becomes all the more impressive that, not only did Lee and his compatriots fly at altitudes in excess of twenty thousand feet in open cockpits but did so while regularly engaging in aerial combat. His discussions of low level trench strafing and the early days of low level bombing are hair-raising and shocking as he describes passing within feet of enemy infantry (and having to repeat the feat despite having lost the element of surprise). 

His descriptions of dog-fighting are also both exciting and harrowing. He comments that he could not understand how those pilots who had achieved high numbers of victories had done it as his experience with air-to-air combat was one of snap shots, frantic twisting and turning and desperate scanning as he sought not only to avoid being shot down but also mid-air collisions with friend or foe. His admiration for their accomplishments is obvious. 

A subject that Lee is particularly critical of and that is a regular topic of bitter discussion is the fact that the Royal Flying Corps (and subsequently the Royal Air Force) refused to allow for the use of parachutes by their pilots. Lee relates story after story of watching friend and foe make decisions to jump or remain with their aircraft and burn to death. It is obvious that he and his colleagues were particularly terrified of this scenario. In fact, he goes on to relate the understanding amongst pilots that the pistol that they carried was not for self-defence in the event of a crash but for ensuring that they were able to avoid the horror of burning or falling to their deaths.

The author makes a point of returning to this topic in greater detail in an annex at the end of his book. Following the end of the war and his advancement through the ranks, he undertook an investigation in order to determine why and who was responsible for such a murderous policy. His conclusion was that no one person in particular was responsible for the policy but that it was a culmination of a number of different factors including a lack of appreciation by higher headquarters of the environment in which pilots were operating, a concern surrounding excess weight (and by extension performance issues with the aircraft) and a misguided belief by HQ personnel that the pilots themselves had no interest in parachutes. His ultimate conclusion conveys frustration and a deep sadness for the tragic loss of young friends as a result of this avoidable travesty.

Additionally, Lee is equally critical of the failure of the British Government’s policy regarding aircraft development and manufacture. For a good proportion of the war, the RFC was forced to fly aircraft clearly obsolete when compared with those of the Germans. He provides a very enlightening and disturbing analysis of how and why this policy developed and ultimately failed the flyers at the front.

Finally, he takes aim at Trenchard’s forward operating policy and the British strategy of trying to maintain a physical air presence at every point along the front line. His umbrage with this policy centre’s upon the fact that the Germans practiced a policy of transferring Wings where needed, thereby ensuring local air superiority. The Allied strategy served to dilute Allied air resources, already in many cases substandard to their German adversaries, resulting, in Lee’s opinion, in unnecessary losses. 

Arthur Gould Lee's book is a window into an age long past and one that relates the beginning of man's conquest of the air. Like all pioneers, his was an age replete with danger, romance and unknown in a way that few of us can comprehend today. That he shares the intimacy of his thoughts, fears, triumphs and losses with the reader in a way that only a conversation between a married couple can convey is incredibly enlightening and humbling. The war in the air during WW1 was both exhilarating and terrifying and, thanks to Lee's work, the reader is given a fleeting glimpse of life as a fighter pilot on the Western Front. This book is not to be missed.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Crisis of Rome - Dr. Gareth C. Sampson

Title: The Crisis of Rome
Author: Dr. Gareth C. Sampson
Publisher: Pen and Sword, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-844-15972-7
Pages: 259
Photographs/maps: 16 b/w//22       

Rome, during the period of the first century BC, was anything but secure. Despite success and an empire that ran from Italy to Spain, large and capable enemies were active and threatening both the northern and southern borders of the Roman Empire. The author traces the impact of the actions of the adversaries on Roman foreign policy and the role that one man in particular, Marius, had upon not only leading Rome out of the multiple military crisis but also how his position and influence enabled him to force through fundamental changes in the structure, training and recruitment of the Roman Army and, by extension, Roman society and politics.
It may be argued that the ten years from 110 BC to 100 BC are amongst the most critical in the history of the Roman Empire. Although not as well known as the period of Julius Caesar and the Triumverates, the period in question represents a time when Rome could very well have been eliminated as a world power before it was able to fully establish itself. The southern enemy, under Numidian King Jugurtha, threatened Rome’s gains against Carthage and its position in Africa. In the north, migrating Gaulish tribes led by the Cimbri, had inflicted three crushing defeats upon Roman armies and were settling in the Po Valley of northern Italy; leaving them in a position to threaten the City of Rome itself. Marius, given unprecedented powers through multiple terms as Consul (a total of six within a ten year period), not only crushed both of these adversaries through a series of brilliant campaigns, but created the conditions for the ascendance of the Roman army and the establishment of one of the greatest empires in history.
Dr Sampson, drawing upon a series of primary source documents such as Plutarch, Cicero, Livy and literally dozens of others, traces the means and methods used by Marius to achieve his aims, the political environment within which he operated and the history of Rome, the Numidians and the Cimbri. He also studies how they came to clash. Recognizing that his information is limited (especially when dealing with cultures that practiced oral as opposed to written history), that a number of his sources were drafted well after the fact and that corroboration of conclusions and facts are in many cases impossible, Dr Sampson performs an admirable job of cross referencing and drawing logical conclusions from the information that he has.
His style of writing is engaging and he is able to provide the reader with a solid commentary that paints a clear picture of the events as they unfold. I was disappointed with the tactical maps provided and felt that they did not provide any added value to the narrative. Dr Sampson also provides a detailed evaluation of the changes brought about by Marius on the Roman army and the impact that this had on Roman society writ large (specifically the removal of the requirement for land ownership as a precursor to army service). Rounding out this notable work is an excellent bibliography and appendices that focus on evaluating Roman manpower resources during the period in question, brief synopses of the various ancient scholars and their works that he draws upon, the impact of Marius’ success upon the internal political situation in Rome itself and other significant international situations that concurrently influenced issues within Rome. Dr Sampson has written an eminently readable and engaging work on this fascinating period.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Fangs of the Lone Wolf - Dodge Billingsley

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 ( Website for the Journal is:

Title: The Fangs of the Lone Wolf
Author: Dodge Billingsley
ISBN: 978-1-909384-77-4
Pages: 181
Photo's/Maps: 11/30
Publisher: Helion Publishing

Between 1994 and 2009 the Russian Federation and the Chechen fighters fought two distinct wars over the question of independence for Chechnya. These wars were interesting in that, while they were both fought between the same adversaries, the nature, doctrine and skill sets evident in each conflict were, in fact, unique and gave each conflict a very individual character. The author, an experienced conflict reporter, was embedded regionally during the fighting and was able to interview a number of Chechen combatants on how they planned and executed operations.

One of the most evident and consistent conclusions drawn by the author was the critical limitations imposed upon the Chechen's by their lack of a coherent or reliable logistics system. Throughout both wars they were utterly unable to hold territory for any length of time due to their inability to resupply and maintain their forces. Thus, during the initial fighting in 1994/1995, while Chechen forces had artillery, tanks and other advanced weapons systems, they quickly became ineffective due to a lack of munitions, spares and recovery capabilities. 

The Chechen’s were also hampered by their ad hoc fighting and command and control structures. Units were formed around individuals from common towns or villages and were loyal only to their elected leaders. Often they would depart a battlefield for personal or clan reasons without notification to their central command. Orders from the centre were extremely general, often only outlining roughly where they were to deploy. Individual unit leaders would then determine tactics and plans without consulting neighbouring sections. This often resulted in fractured responses and a lack of confidence between units in the reliability of others.

Nevertheless, as the author relates, the Chechen’s were not lacking in courage or tactical capability. Employing advanced defensive techniques, they were regularly able to counter Russian offensive doctrine and inflict significant damage upon armour and air assets. They were also able to take advantage of local support for food, shelter and information depending upon the region within which they were operating. This changed as the second war dragged on and fatigue amongst the civilian population for the conflict combined with Russian success at promoting interse conflict between Chechen groups sapped sources of local support.

Another area that strikes the reader, where the Chechen's excelled, was their ability to improvise weapons systems out of everyday parts. Thus, despite the fact that they lacked access to formal weapons systems such as rocket launchers, they were able to maintain stocks by building their own. For example, they would salvage the driveshaft covers from MAZ trucks to serve as the launch tube for 57mm S-5 rockets and similarly, the driveshaft covers from Ural trucks for 80mm S-8 rockets. Sites for these weapons were developed by utilizing half -binoculars or something similar. The rockets themselves were usually salvaged from shot-down helicopters.

Billingsley has drafted his text in a series of vignettes, each accompanied by a colour map, that serve to highlight a different aspect of Chechen techniques in asymmetric warfare. He emphasizes Chechen strengths and weaknesses under different fighting scenarios providing a detailed account of the battles as recounted by individuals present on the field, followed by a commentary that encapsulates the lessons to be drawn for the encounter. His chapters are broken out by operational type such as 'Defense of an Urban Area', 'Raids', 'Ambush and Counterambush' and 'Defense of Lines of Communications' and may thus be read as a collective or individually without breaking the flow of the narrative.

I liked Billingsley's style of writing and the methods he used to summarize the chapters. I found that it provided a quick and accurate synopsis of the lessons to be gleaned from the Chechen experience. While the book is focused exclusively upon the Chechen's themselves, it is evident as one reads of the later battles of the 2000's, that the quality and professionalism of the Russians had also improved dramatically. Included with the book is a good bibliography of books and video's for additional reading. 

Helion has produced another quality book worth, to the reader, the investment of time and money. The authors unique insights, enabled by his close working relationship with the Chechen's, makes for a technical but interesting read. His narrative is blunt, honest and balanced and he does no shy away from critical conclusions of the Chechen efforts where warranted.


Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Forgotten Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys of World War II - Michael G Walling

Title: Forgotten Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys of World War II

Author: Michael G Walling
ISBN: 978-1-84908-718-6
Pages: 284
Publisher: Osprey Publishing

One of the most under-appreciated facets of the Second World War has to be the valour and sacrifice of the sailors of the merchant marine and the navies of the Soviet, British, American and Allies that struggled against tremendous odds to maintain a supply lifeline through the frigid Arctic waters, to the Soviet Union throughout the particularly bleak years of 1941-1943. Ranged against them, and no less determined and valourous, were the units of the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe who did their utmost to strangle this 'warm line' of support. Relatively speaking, little has been written about these efforts and the voices of these sailors and airmen have remained silent. This is no longer the case as a result of the efforts of Mr Walling.

The impact that the convoys had on the war effort may best be summarized by a quote from Mr Waling's book: "If a submarine sinks two 6000-ton ships and a 3000 ton tanker...(to achieve an equivalent loss) by air bombing, the enemy would have to make three thousand successful bombing sorties: from a 1943 US Navy assessment". This begins to provide strategic perspective on the importance played by these men and women and the merchant/convoy system to the success of the Allied war effort in the East. 

Walling presents his book with a synopsis of the convoy system, the nature of the threat posed by the Germans, the intelligence gathering methods of both sides and the methods available to the Allies to counter the Germans; this is critical as it provides the reader with the background to appreciate the rest of the book. The narrative of the book is both a rendition of the Allied convoy experience and a medium whereby the voices of the participants are heard again through recollections of survivors. 

The author is particularly adept at blending the narratives of the survivors within the larger storyline. This adds depth and appreciation of the sacrifices made by these crews and the incredible hardships to which they were exposed. Walling touches upon the fate of PQ-17 in some detail, representing as it does, the tragedy that results when German tactics coincide with Allied errors. What I found particularly interesting, were the sections relating to German surface and subsurface operations in the Kara Sea to the east of the Ural Mountains. The German cruiser Admiral Hipper and a number of u-boats conducted operations against secluded Russian northern coordination and tracking centres. There is little to no account of these operations in any detail that I have seen before and I was struck by the sheer isolation of these encounters in one of the most hostile environments on earth.

Mr Walling has written a fantastic book; a well-researched, high quality and eminently readable publication. The risks undertaken by those operating in the north were enormous and the bravery exhibited by both the Allies and Axis sailors and airmen in their struggle for supremacy must stand as one of the least appreciated aspects of the Second World War. I strongly encourage those with any interest in the history of this regional conflict to read this book.