Saturday, 24 January 2015

Langsdorff and the Battle of the River Plate - David Miller

This review was written by Chris Buckham and is published in the Canadian Naval review. Editor of the journal is Dr Ann Griffiths (Ann.Griffiths@Dal.Ca ). The website for the journal is:

Title: Langsdorff and the Battle of
 the River Plate
Author: David Miller
ISBN: 978-1-84884-490-2
Pages: 189
Illustrations: 19 B/W, 4 maps
Publisher: Pen and Sword Publishing 

Images of the German Panzerschiff Graf Spee scuttled in the River Plate estuary outside the Uruguayan port of Montevideo are some of the most well-known photographs of the Second World War. Debate has raged ever since amongst historians and scholars surrounding the decision making process that led the highly respected and competent Captain of the Graf Spee, Kapitan-zur-See Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff, to reach the conclusion that scuttling his ship was the only honorable course of action available to him. David Miller has undertaken to shed light on the ship, the man and the factors that influenced his decision and, in doing so, provide insight into Langsdorff’s decision. 

Starting out by providing historical context to the tradition of independent surface raiders as a doctrinal concept in the German Navy, Miller creates, for the reader, a sense of the degree of independence afforded to these Captains in the execution of their duties. Also, he provides a clear indication of the difficulty in strategic communications in the days before radar and adequate radio systems. 

Following this, Miller looks at the design features of the Panzersciff (armoured ship) of the Deutschland–class warship. Much has been written about the capabilities of these ships and the ingenuity of the design falling within the 10,000 ton Versailles Treaty limit. While much is true, this class of ship also had significant shortfalls including armour, hull design, galley location and command and control structures that made themselves readily apparent only after Graf Spee was well into her operational cruise to the south. 

The real central focus of the book follows with a detailed study of Langsdorff the Officer and career Navy man and a very comprehensive synopsis of Graf Spee’s first operational cruise culminating in the Battle of the River Plate. This is critical as the author not only provides an excellent summary of the significant events of the cruise and battle but also an evaluation of Langsdorff’s actions within the context of these activities. What information was he provided/have access to? What were the misinformation activities of the British and how successful were they? How did international law and the role of neutral countries affect his freedom of action? How effective was the support and direction given to him by the Reichsmarine? How did the damage to the ship and crew casualties affect decision making? What was his frame of mind and how was he affected by injuries sustained during the Battle? All of these questions are reviewed and answered in a balanced and even-handed manner utilizing an in-depth review of primary source material. 

The author does not passively summarize information that he has gleaned from source material available. Each section is analyzed with a view towards understanding why Langsdorff made the decisions that he did. This is the primary strength of this book and the reader can easily follow the logic applied by the author to reach his conclusions. 

This is a fascinating study into this famous battle. Without doubt, the decision to scuttle one’s ship has to be the loneliest and most difficult decision that a Captain may have to make. Why an officer, with the sterling reputation and obvious capability of Langsdorff, would take such a step is a question only he can answer with any degree of clarity; however, Miller has done a noteworthy job of shedding light upon the ship, crew, Captain, battle and environment that influenced the final fate of the Graf Spee. This is a book well worth reading.  

Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Frontiers of Imperial Rome - David J Breeze

Click for OptionsTitle: The Frontiers of Imperial Rome
Author: David J Breeze
ISBN: 978-1-84884-427-8
Publisher: Pen and Sword Publishers
Pages: 242
Photos/Maps/Illustrations: 28/17/32 

How a civilization controlled its borders speaks much to the level of sophistication, the confidence and the perceived nature of the threat from those external to itself. It is a reflection of the view of grand strategy and the method by which the central government emphasizes its approach to security and trade. Relatively speaking, there has been very little attention paid to this facet of the Roman Empire; David Breeze’s work has gone a long way to address this shortfall.  

The topic looks, at first blush, to be fairly dry and academic; however, Breeze’s approach is anything but. Recognizing at the outset the challenges facing the modern historian regarding the lack of comprehensive written records relating to any formal Imperial ‘frontier policy’; Breeze has incorporated into his analysis archeological records and studies thereby enabling the drawing of conclusions reinforced with non-traditional sources. 

He has divided his book into three distinct groups: Sources, The Frontiers and Interpretation. This is very helpful as it leads the reader along the line of reasoning that the author follows. Logical and linear, Breeze builds his position with focus and attention; thus we understand not just the ‘what’ of the Romans approach, but also the ‘why’ they did what they did from both a micro (local) and macro (Empire wide) perspective. He compliments his narrative with numerous sketches of regional Roman border posts and maps showing actual and extrapolated border control points.  

Under the ‘Sources’ section, Breeze looks at what was available from the historical studies of frontiers and the conclusions drawn. Of specific interest is the changing nature of the perception of the purpose of the frontiers that the Romans held at various times throughout the existence of the Empire. That the Romans recognized that there were frontiers is consistent; however, what these represented is what Breeze suggests changed over time. Additionally, he discusses the means Rome used of enforcing her will upon neighbours, namely through treaties and regulations outlining the rules of access and control. Why this is important is that it displays Rome’s use of diplomatic and legal means to enforce regional structure upon her adversaries and allies. Underlining and augmenting these means was the presence of the Roman army and navy. The distribution and employment of these assets and how they influenced the enforcement of regulations is also discussed in detail.   

Breeze contends that the Romans designed their border presence to control access to Roman territory vice prevent large scale invasion. In this regard, he suggests that the Roman view was not that far removed from modern border monitoring. Thus it was that many of the border posts were situated upon trade routes and key entry points along Imperial frontiers. In his section on the Frontiers, he reviews the physical nature of the geographic borders and how they influenced the development of Roman structures along said lines. Replete with maps and artists renditions of control points, this section studies in depth the unique nature and influence of desert, riverine, mountain, sea and linear barriers and terrains.

Finally, the Interpretation section investigates the effectiveness and utility of Rome’s frontier control policies. In studying the construction of the physical barriers, forts and ‘fortlets’ he notes that while they were effective in the control of people and movement, often times they took significant amount of time to complete reflecting perhaps the perception of need and threat at a given period of Rome’s history. He also undertakes a review of the degree of decentralization that Rome accepted over the completion of frontier structures reflecting recognition that while strategic policy may be exercised by the Emperor, it was left to the individual regional Governors to ensure the security of their regions. This section of Breeze’s work further evaluates the success of the frontiers in assisting in the effective continuation of the Empire and the different schools of thought relating to this.
I found the author’s writing style to be lucid and engaging. His conclusions are based upon well documented and researched hypothesis. Like any historical analysis there are going to be those who disagree with some of his findings; however, he has noted and, in many cases, incorporated the different schools of thought into his narrative, thereby providing balance and depth. The book itself is a fascinating study of the interaction between strategic/operational policy, diplomacy and military doctrine in the enforcement of frontier control. Well worth reading.

The Gathering Storm - Geirr H Haarr

Title: The Gathering Storm
Click for OptionsAuthor: Geirr H Haarr
ISBN: 978-1-59114-331-4
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Pages: 550
Photographs//maps: 229 b/w//14 

The period covering the early years of the Second World War (1939-1940) is often referred to in the west as ‘The Phony War”. This is mainly because from traditional history’s perspective very little occurred in the war during this time; this however completely ignores the one element where much was indeed happening during this period: the sea. Haarr’s book focusses exclusively on this aspect of the war and sheds a great deal of light upon it in terms of capability, technological advancement, doctrine and command and control. 
The narrative commences with a review of the interwar period for the German and British navies; highlighting those areas of development and focus for the governments and senior staff. What is really significant here are the decisions made regarding those aspects of capability and doctrine that were not emphasized and the implications that this had for the upcoming conflict. The British, facing economic realities could not maintain their historical degree of naval superiority and fell back on treaties as a means of offsetting the incredible cost of naval construction. They also, however, maintained a significant degree of bias towards a more traditional doctrine of battleships and surface warfare, despite the technological advances in subsurface capability. Thus, emphasis was not placed on the doctrinal development of anti-submarine capability in terms of both seamanship and ship design. Additionally, little thought or attention was given over to inter-service cooperation (specifically between the air and naval arms).  
For the Germans naval development was undertaken concurrent to development and expansion in the other arms. This posed a significant challenge as the competition for resources, control and money was extremely aggressive. Additionally, given the design and build time for ships, there was not always enough of an opportunity for test and evaluation of design concepts resulting in flaws in ship construction that hampered overall performance. An excellent example of this was the standard issue torpedo which had a flaw in its pressure trigger which resulted in significant operational failures. The rebuilding of the navy did however, provide the Germans with a doctrinal clean slate from which they were able to develop interoperability between naval and air assets, surface/subsurface platforms, minelaying and surface raider policies. It is the position of Haarr that while the Germans were a smaller force at the beginning of the war in terms of straight numbers, they were better positioned in terms of overall doctrine and capability.
Haarr writes extensively on the international situation in the North between the British, Scandinavian countries, Soviets and the Germans. This is a fascinating dance to follow as the British were keen to both disrupt the German flow of iron ore from Sweden and to assist the Finns in their war with the Soviets. Germany had no interest in the North beyond ensuring the neutrality of the Scandinavian states and protecting their access to resources. Ironically, it was, to a great extent, the activities of the British and her Allies that resulted in the German invasion. It is evident from the sources quoted in the book that it was only a matter of time before either the British or Germans occupied Norway and it was only a matter of a few days that separated their planned invasions.
Haarr refers to this period (1939-1940) as the 'Naval Battle of Britain' and he provides a compelling argument to support this assertion. He centres his discussion on the fact that Germany needed to push the Royal Navy from the North Sea in order to be able to protect their supply lines and undertake operations on the high seas (disruption of convoys supplying Britain and France). Given the flexibility of its doctrine and the modernity of its fleet, the Germans were initially very successful at knocking the Royal Navy onto its heels (at one point forcing its relocation into bases on the Irish Sea). Haarr proves conclusively that the German Navy had a very good opportunity to defeat the Royal Navy; however, shortfalls in technology (ie torpedo) and a failure to appreciate the capability and potential of such advances as mine laying submarines and magnetic mine technology resulted in these opportunities being squandered. The author also asserts that another central theme was a failure of the German Kriegsmarine to prioritize the expansion of the u-boat fleet until it was too late and the British had developed adequate responses to its threat.
Haarr is an excellent author, tying together very convoluted storylines into a lucid and engaging narrative. A particular strength of this book is the style with which Haarr layers high politics, competing operational demands and the drama of the life of the individual sailor (regardless of nationality) He provides copious footnotes and a very extensive bibliography of primary and secondary source material. Provided also are a series of appendices outlining details of losses and successes of all major combatants throughput this period. As both a source and a highly enjoyable read this book is strongly recommended.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Glass Cage - Nicholas Carr

Title: The Glass Cage                                                   
Author: Nicholas Carr   
ISBN: 978-0-393-24076-4
Publisher: Norton
Pages: 276
Photographs/Maps: 0 

There are two well known axioms that are often used to describe the human condition: "Knowledge is power" and "That which does not kill you, makes you stronger". Both seem, on the surface, to be both logical and unassailable; however, Carr's work, The Glass Cage, challenges the notion that the advancement of technology and its assumption of greater importance and a more central role in every facet of our lives, is making us stronger or more powerful as a society. 

Carr's central theme suggests that the advancement of automation in the world has not only made our lives easier in the sense that many of the mundane tasks that used to occupy our time are now accomplished by computers, but that it has also progressed to the point where the level of automation is no longer an enhancement of but a replacement for mankind. Human kind has now become a monitor/spectator to many of our daily activities.  

He draws upon a number of studies from a variety of disciplines that point to a gradual but marked decline in the capacity of humans to fend and think for themselves. Writing programs have autocorrect functions, shopping has targeted advertising, aircraft are automated such that pilots need only monitor, medicine has automated diagnostic systems, factories create systems that require little to no interface with human operators and gaming systems/communication technologies remove us further from actual face to face interaction. Carr acknowledges that, in and of themselves, these are not all negative advances and that there are practical benefits to be gained from applying technology. However, he suggests, given the gradual, insidious nature of the reliance that society has come to have on technology, that it has repercussions not only from an employment/societal perspective but also from a physical and psychological evaluation of who we are as humans. 

Carr presents that as we diminish our requirement to learn and, just as importantly, practise what we learn, our brains are undergoing physical change and, in some respects, atrophying; the same may be said for our ability to communicate and interact. These skills, like any, need to be used or they are lost. Carr backs up his assertions with practical examples and reference to numerous studies from the fields of medicine, ergonomics and psychology. 

He also, contends that the advent of technology as a replacement for the human in an equation is having the more subtle effect of raising the question of what is our role in the world. Are pilots still pilots if they are not physically flying the airplane and, as some may argue, they are no longer required in the cockpit at all? What is the role of a machinist if they are merely monitoring the equipment producing the good and what training and expertise do they really require?  

The West has become imbued with the idea that technology is a good thing and that there is little that it cannot do given time and development. While this may be true Carr advises that the computer works in the world of absolutes and has difficulty when faced with issues requiring subjective evaluation. He uses as an example the case where a driverless car must decide whether to hit a child who has run into the street or swerve into oncoming traffic thereby causing an accident that potentially kills its passengers. Additionally, the computer is only as good as the information and programming that goes into it. There are examples of technologies that are able to 'learn' and this will inevitably improve in the future but for now there are still some significant limitations on this ability. 

Why is all of this relevant to the leader of the future? I would contend that the further we remove ourselves from interaction with people and the practical world around us, the less capable we will be at dealing with situations and circumstances requiring decision making and those where the technological resources are not available. How well do we function today without smart phones and the internet? Technological development is not a bad thing but like anything it must be understood in the broader context of its impact. As a society we are driving forward without fully appreciating all of the ramifications of the tools that we have developed. Carr's book is a good read and presents a compelling argument for really asking ourselves what it is that we expect from technology and how do we, as humans, fit into that paradigm.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

At What Cost Sovereignty? - Dr Eric Lehre

This review was written by Chris Buckham and is published in the Canadian Naval review. Editor of the journal is Dr Ann Griffiths (Ann.Griffiths@Dal.Ca ). The website for the journal is:
Title: At What Cost Sovereignty?
Author: Dr Eric Lehre
ISBN: 978-1-896-44072-9
Publisher: Ctr/Foreign Policy Studies
Pages: 405
Nation-states throughout history have made concerted efforts to define themselves in specific terms in order to ensure that they retain both a unique place within the international community and a common baseline within their nations from which to develop their culture. These efforts manifest themselves in many ways; military independence being one of them. However, as the cost of maintaining a military capable of standalone international operations has spun beyond the financial affordability for many states, coalitions and alliance-based operations and development have become the norm. With this evolution, the line between national independence and reliance has become progressively less clear.

Dr. Lerhe addresses this perception in his work looking at whether the advent of interoperability with the United States has or has not undermined Canada’s military and, by extension, national independence. The sensitivity most Canadians hold in this regard given Canada’s respective size and geographic location compared with the United States, makes this is a very relevant and timely topic of study.

There are several themes that permeate Lerhe’s work such as the traditional underlying suspicion of the military held by the Canadian media, intelligentsia and some Canadians, suspicion of the military’s relations with the government and civil society, and a willingness to perceive any action by the government as capitulating to diplomatic pressures from the United States. In this book, Lerhe examines a difficult subject because the discussion among Canadians on this topic is fraught with emotion and he challenges their perceptions with the facts as presented.

Lerhe commences his study with a look at a cross section of existing literature on what defines sovereignty (in itself a challenge). He then develops a matrix by which examples may be evaluated for their impact first upon internal and external levels of sovereignty and second by their impact within those two criteria. His method of evaluation, as much as possible, removes subjectivity from the equation and better allows for a factual, unbiased determination. Following an explanation of what the issue is and how he will approach it, he provides a comprehensive historical analysis of Canada’s military and governmental approach to interoperability from the turn of the 19 century to modern times. He then reviews the major works on the issues with a view towards establishing the breadth of academic, governmental and military opinion on the subject. In order to determine which (if any) of these views is correct he then evaluates a series of recent controversial issues surrounding the war in Afghanistan including: Canadian detainee policy; Canada’s decision relating to Operation Iraqi Freedom ; rejection from ISAF 2001-2002; Task Force 151; and Canada’s response to 9/11.
In each case, Lerhe presents the background to the subject, how it affected Canadian decision-making and how the issue was perceived in the Canadian media and intelligentsia. Once this baseline has been established, Lerhe undertakes a detailed analysis of senior Canadian government and military decision-making, and the expectations and actions of US senior governmental leadership and diplomatic staff. He also examines what was made available to the media and public at the time, and the international conventions (i.e., the Geneva Convention) against which the decision-making was taken. Finally, he reviews the understanding and comprehension of these issues by contemporary academia and the media in their analysis and presentation of the subjects. He utilizes extensive interviewing of the key players involved, detailed review of previously classified diplomatic communiqu├ęs from all parties, and legal analysis of what Canada’s international obligations entail. And finally, he examines these findings against the control measures that he defined earlier in his book to determine the impact on sovereignty (both internal and external). Lerhe’s work is balanced and fair. He makes a concerted effort to acknowledge those who hold differing perspectives and, rather than dismissing them out of hand, he incorporates their opinions with a view to upholding or disproving them. I found his analysis to be comprehensive and based in fact drawn from first-hand sources. Where he must draw conclusion from conflicting perceptions he readily acknowledges this and does his utmost to retain his impartiality.
At What Cost Sovereignty is a fascinating read and a laudable study into the challenges that not only interoperability presents but also how preconceived notions, biases and perceptions of media and academia can affect opinion and policy. It is a very readable and engaging book and one that media, historians, government policy-makers and senior military personnel should study.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Siege of Brest 1941 - Rostislav Aliev

This review was written by Chris Buckham and is published in the Canadian Army Journal. Editor of the journal is Maj Chris Young ( The website for the journal is

Title: The Siege of Brest 1941
Author: Rostislav Aliev
ISBN: 978-1-78159-08-0
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Pages: 219
Photographs/Maps: 45/5

The battle for the fortress of Brest commenced immediately upon the attack by the Germans on the Soviet Union, 22 June, 1941. Located upon a strategic line of advance, it was the focus and task of the German 45th Infantry Division to capture it within the first 24 hours. To accomplish this feat, a heavy concentration of artillery including two massive 600cm siege mortars, were employed to reduce both the fortress and the garrison. However, despite achieving complete surprise on the garrison, steadfast leadership and dogged determination on the part of the Soviet survivors resulted in a brutal battle of attrition that lasted for seven days before the final contingent of Soviets surrendered (individual soldiers continued to fight until as late as August, 1941).

Aliev's most noteworthy achievement with this work lies not with the depth of detail or the lucidity of the text but in the fact that he has superbly rendered the story of the lead up and execution of the battle with a degree of suspense and drama rarely achieved in historical narrative. His humanization of key Russian and German figures adds life and dimension to this trial by combat.

By switching his storyline between the opposing sides, thereby creating concurrent lines of narrative, he gives the reader a clear vision of the perspective, stresses and decision influencers of each. One truly begins to appreciate the horror of the conditions under which the Russians fought and the cold blooded realities facing those wounded or captured by either side. Interspersed with these were instances of true humanity as Germans, while frustrated at the continued intransigence of the Russians, nevertheless came to see their opponents as warriors worthy of respect. Aliev is able to convey with startling clarity the responsibility assumed by the most junior of Russian offiers, a real sense of the brutality of the hand to hand fighting, the fear of close quarter combat with knives and grenades in the confined spaces of the fortress casemates and the suffering of the wounded and civilians trapped within the fortress.

The major critical observations on this book centre upon two points: there is no index nor a bibliography which is always important for reference at a later date and the fact that, while there are excellent maps tracing the unfolding combat, there is not a map that provides a single overview of the fortress itself. It would have been quite useful to have had a single reference for the layout. 

Aliev, for his part, does refer to sources that he used in his introduction (German Bundeswehr archives in Freiburg and Soviet recollections gathered in the 1950's by Sergei Smirnov's as well as the report by the commander of the 45th Infantry Div "Account of the taking of Brest-Litovsk"). By doing so, he is able to compare and confirm the recollections and timelines using sources from the opposing camps.

The efforts, names and valour of the warriors of Brest-Litovsk were unknown to the Soviet leadership for a long time and, it was not until the late 1950's that excavations of the fort recovered the final remains of many who had held out long after all hope had expired. For the Russians, Brest served as a shining example of courage and fidelity during a period of great loss and collapse. 
Stuart Britton undertook the translation of the original Russian transcript and has done a remarkable job of not only reproducing the work into english but also ensuring that the 'essence' of the narrative conveyed in the original work was maintained. The book is an excellent rendition of a little known battle that was literally a footnote in the massive campaign that was Barbarossa or the Great Patriotic War.  It serves as an excellent example of the effect that inspired leadership at the lowest level can have on the outcome of a battle. Aliev, has ensured through his efforts that the valour and sacrifice of both the defenders and the aggressors will not be forgotten.