Tuesday, 31 March 2015

In Final Defense of the Reich - Stephen M Rusiecki

Title: In Final Defense of the Reich
Author: Stephen M Rusiecki
Publisher: Naval Institute Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-59114-744-2
Pages: 439
Photographs: 30 b/w               

Rusiecki has written a fascinating and engaging book.  By April of 1945 the Third Reich was on its last days and, with the passage of time, there is a pervading sense and assumption that the Allied forces (especially in the West) were merely conducting mop-up style operations against a disorganized, demoralized and broken German army. While it is correct to say that indeed the German army was rapidly losing cohesion at the strategic level, Rusiecki’s book proves that this was not the case universally at the tactical and operational levels. His book describes the final struggle between an elite Waffen-SS unit, the 6th SS Mountain Division “Nord” reduced following constant fighting from its full time strength of 725 officers and 21,100 noncommissioned officers and soldiers complete with integral artillery and transport  assets to a rump of 2,000 officers and men and (primarily) the US 71st Infantry Division (the “Red Circle” men derived from their shoulder patch design) comprising 14,000 well trained but relatively unblooded US officers and men over a period 1-3 April, 1945 east of Frankfurt in the area of the Buedingen forest.
Rusiecki sets the stage for his readers by providing a comprehensive history of the 6th SS Nord and its wartime experiences leading up to its final confrontation with the 71st ID. Initially formed in March, 1941 it saw extensive action alongside the Finnish military in the Northern Theatre of Operations. Redesignated as a Mountain-Division in 1943, it specialized in cold-weather and mountain operations becoming one of the premier units of this type in the German military. With the collapse of the Northern Front in 1944 and a subsequent declaration of neutrality by the Finns in September,  6th Nord was forced to conduct, in conjunction with the rest of the German forces in Finland, a fighting retreat against their former allies to the Norwegian border (a distance of over 300 miles) over a period of two months. Once there, stress on the Western front resulted in the immediate redeployment of the division through Denmark to central Germany. Lack of transport and disruption of the transport that did exist by Allied intervention resulted in the division being fed piecemeal into the fighting in this region and a lot of their movement having to be undertaken by foot. Thus did the remnants of this heavily experienced but exhausted division find itself in March, 1945, east of Frankfurt, bypassed by fast moving Allied units, trying desperately to connect with any remaining organized German lines.
He then looks at the 71st ID; raised initially in 1943 as a 9,000 man ‘Light Division’ designed to be employable in both the European or Pacific theatre of operations. Unfortunately, evaluations and efforts to adjust the focus of the unit to meet the unique requirements of each of the theatres proved too daunting and the Light Division concept was deemed to be a failure. This resulted, in 1944 in the redesignation  of the unit as a standard 14,000 man Infantry Division. As the war progressed and pressure for additional forces grew, 71st ID received orders for deployment to the European theatre and, in February, 1945, it arrived onto French soil and a period of acclimatization. By mid-March, confident but unbloodied, it took its place in the line facing the remnants of the once mighty German Wehrmacht.
Rusiecki then seamlessly flows from a macro to a micro rendition of events. Tracing the movements of the respective units to their eventual confluence, he gradually narrows the focus of his narrative to the period of 1-3 April, 1945 as the battle that is the central pillar of his book unfolds. Transitioning between operational, tactical and individual experiences, he skillfully paints a picture of the desperation and dedication of the Germans of the 6th SS to their failing cause and the resolve of the Americans to crush this last bastion of resistance. Of particular interest to the reader is the impact and degree of confusion resulting from the fog of war that remains the common theme of both sides throughout this engagement. This book highlights exceptionally well the effects that weather, communication breakdown, poor (and conflicting) intelligence and preconceived assumptions have on decision making in the execution of a battle. Even with the benefit of having provided maps and a clear narrative, it still requires a high degree of concentration on the part of the reader to follow the machinations of the operation. The author closes his narrative with a follow-on regarding some of the major participants from each side; where they ended up and how they adapted to a peacetime environment.
Rusiecki has provided military history with a commendable addition. His bibliography is extensive and draws upon not only written accounts but also copious numbers of interviews with survivors from both sides. His narrative pulls no punches regarding the darker and lighter sides of the conflict and he presents his findings in a very balanced and fair manner. Certainly, after years of war, neither side was completely free of controversy yet neither did they, as combatants and representatives of their countries, deviate extensively from the acceptable rules of war. Each side fought hard and conducted themselves honourably. Given the complexities of the operation regarding numbers of units and movements, it would have been nice to have had larger and more detailed maps. The author does have numerous maps throughout the book corresponding to the stage of the conflict and I would stress that my observation is one of personal preference and is not a significant criticism of the book itself.
Mr Rusiecki’s work is an excellent addition to anyone’s library and an addition of note to professional military literature writ large. Highly recommended. 

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Billy Bishop VC Lone Wolf Hunter - Peter Kilduff

Title: Billy Bishop VC Lone Wolf Hunter
Author: Peter Kilduff
ISBN: 978-1-909-80813-3
Publisher: Grub Street
Pages: 192
Photos/ Maps: 75/2 

Billy Bishop's legacy has left an indelible mark upon not only the annals of World War 1 aviation but Canada as a nation. A small town boy of a middle class family, he rose to worldwide fame and the highest levels of Imperial society. His fame centred upon his claim to being not only a cold-blooded fighter pilot who preferred to hunt and kill on his own but also the top scoring Allied pilot of the war. 

Kilduff has undertaken a review of a subject that has been written about and debated extensively by historians, scholars and journalists. HIs intent is to determine the validity, based upon the available documentation and a study of the personality of the man himself (in his own and others words and recollections), of the persona and the reputation that ‘Billy Bishop’ has become; for it is no secret that the symbology of Billy Bishop has greatly eclipsed the man himself. 

The author draws upon a wide variety of sources to tease out who Bishop was. His conclusions, that Bishop was not a saint and certainly exaggerated his exploits in his letters home for the benefit of impressing his future wife, reinforce the position held by those doubters of the accuracy of his claims. However, balanced against this, is the fact that he was undoubtedly extremely brave, aggressive and willing to take the fight actively to the enemy which suggests that his claims are not as far-fetched as they may initially have seemed. The truth, as it may be determined this far after the fact, lies, so Kilduff suggests, somewhere in between. 

The book is a quick and enjoyable read. At times it feels somewhat shallow in terms of evaluation (especially in his early years) but it does effectively cover his training and operational flying time. It contains a great many photographs that give excellent perspective on why accurate determination of kills and damaged enemies was so difficult. The narrative utilizes first person recollections from Bishop himself, his trainers, fellow pilots and airmen and it builds a comprehensive picture of Bishop the pilot (and the personality that accompanied it). Additionally, Kilduff reviews each individual kill claim comparing them against British, German and eyewitness documents. 

I didn't find discover a lot of new material or revelations in this book that hasn't already been brought up in various other works, but it was well put together and useful as a reference. The production value of the book is excellent and the author has provided a solid bibliography for further reading. I found Kilduff's conclusion particularly poignant and relevant when compared with our modern tendency and need to challenge and discredit: does it really matter how many kills Bishop scored during the war; after all, it does not in any way diminish his bravery, service or legacy as one of the earliest Canadian heroes. True words and an enjoyable work. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Climax at Gallipoli - Rhys Crawley

Title: Climax at Gallipoli

Author: Rhys Crawley
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4426-9
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Pages: 364
Photo's/Maps: 10/9 

In August, 1915, the Allies launched a joint operation in the Dardanelles with a view towards striking eastward across the Gallipoli Peninsula and securing the strait for a naval thrust into the Black Sea. Ultimately, the idea was to crush Constantinople (the capital of the Ottoman Empire), force them out of the war and to open a logistics supply line to the Russian Empire. Driving inland from ANZAC Cove and Suvla Bay, the Allies came up against a well led, motivated, entrenched and well supplied Ottoman defender and were defeated after a valiant but hopeless battle that left tens of thousands wounded and dead.  

Contemporary literature has suggested that, while the Allies were not successful, it was a very close run thing and that had luck been a little more on the side of the Empire, victory was well within their grasp. The author has undertaken a study of the August Offensive with a view to determining whether in fact it was an 'almost' victory. His conclusion is that not only was it not but that it never really had a chance at all and should never have been attempted in the first place. 

The authors approach to his evaluation is both technical and belies a knowledge of the intricacies of military operations. He commences his review with a macro explanation of the region, the political pressure leading up to the engagement from London and an evaluation of the key personalities involved on the army and navy side. He then looks into a series of key facets to any successful operation: planning, combined operations, operational and tactical logistics, fire support and mobility.  

Within each, he analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the capabilities and assumptions made by the planners and how these translated into practical applications as the operation unfolded. As examples of key failures he notes the following (and this list is not exhaustive): 

            1. A failure of the army and navy commanders to identify expectations and assumptions to one another, nor to develop a common vision or plan;

            2. A failure of logistics due to: long lines of communications, a convoluted command (and therefore demand) structure, lack of preparation and development of adequate intermediate staging bases and insufficient capacity or room on landing beaches for effective receipt and onward movement of supplies;

            3. Undeveloped or tested doctrine for the complexities of amphibious and joint operations;

            4.  A lack of appreciation of the requirements of naval and artillery fire support, its limitations and the lack of a common operating picture for communications and fire missions; and

            5. A complete disregard for the capabilities of the Ottoman forces facing them. 

Each of these areas in and of themselves would have endangered the success of the August Offensive, taken together, they crushed any chance of victory. 

Crawley's book is an excellent study of the shortfalls of the August Offensive; its assumptions, planning deficiencies and doctrinal holes. His study is balanced and instructive but damning in its revelations. For military planners it is an outstanding example of capability falling far short of intention but not being recognized or accepted by those in charge. Additionally, the author has provided a comprehensive bibliography and notes section that provides the reader extensive opportunity for further study. The August Offensive should be studied and reviewed by future commanders for the lessons that it imparts and the tragedy that it was. Well recommended.



Monday, 16 March 2015

Red Devils Over the Yalu - Igor Seidov, Translated by Stuart Britton

Title: Red Devils Over the Yalu
Author: Igor Seidov, Translated by Stuart Britton
ISBN: 978-1-909384-41-5
Publisher: Helion
Pages: 598
Photos: 64 b/w 

The Korean War by October, 1950, was all but won by the UN and American forces; the North Koreans were pushed into pockets deep in the north of the country and the Allies ruled the skies and oceans. Everything changed however with the entrance of Chinese forces into the war on October 17th, 1950. What occurred immediately afterwards is very well known and chronicled in the histories of the Korean War, what has not been well remembered however, was the key role that the Soviet Union played not only in training and equipping the North Korean and Chinese Air Forces, but also in the direct provision of air force personnel into the fighting.  

For the first time, Seidov has chronicled in detail the exploits of Soviet aerial operations throughout the Korean War. Fighting wearing Chinese uniforms, utilizing Chinese phraseology while flying and operating in aircraft of Soviet make but bearing Chinese markings, these forces directly engaged Allied air forces and wrested control of the skies over the northern part of the Korean peninsula away from the West.  

Limited in their operational range due to restrictions imposed by the Soviet Government, these forces nevertheless had an immediate and dramatic effect upon the allied air campaign once they commenced operations on November 1st, 1950. The Mig 15 dominated the skies over the F-51's, F-80's, F9F's and F-84 of the West and heralded the demise of operational bombing with the heavy losses they inflicted upon the B-29 formations of the Far East Air Force. It was not, in fact, until the introduction of the F-86 Sabre of the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Group on the 15th of December, 1950, that the Allies were able to engage the Russians again on a level playing field. 

Seidov draws upon the declassified archives of both Russian and American combat records to verify or repudiate many of the long standing claims and beliefs associated with the Korean air war. For example, conventional wisdom has the American's destroying Migs at a rate of 8:1 and, while in absolute terms this is true, it is based primarily on the fact that the US attributed a majority of their losses to non-air combat related causes. Seidov goes on to show that many of the losses were in fact shoot-downs as opposed to mechanical or ground fire reasons. I found his evaluations to be very balanced and equally critical of both sides.  

Additionally, Seidov looks into the strategic engagement plan of the Soviets and analyzes it for strengths and weaknesses. He is very critical of the Russian practice to rotate units in their entirety due to the loss of operational experience and the necessity to relearn lessons and goes into great detail regarding the training and practices that US fighter pilot replacements went through before they were considered capable for full frontline duties. One area that would have been beneficial for Seidov to have investigated more was the reason why the Soviet High Command followed the rotation practice that they did. They were aware of the losses and the changes in the dynamic of the air war but Seidov only skirts the surface. 

The author has obviously interviewed numerous Russian, Chinese and North Korean veterans as he has incorporated hundreds of first hand accounts into the books narrative. These were fascinating as they discussed challenges, tactics and experiences of the other side that have heretofore never been related. 

The book is very detailed in its accounts of the engagements of the different Russian units throughout the period of the war. The degree of detail is a two edged sword in my opinion as it provides the reader a deep appreciation of the nature of Korean War air combat, while, concurrently, blending the individual stories thereby tending to blunt the tight narrative. 

Helion has published an excellent quality book and Stuart Britton's translation is outstanding. The book would have benefited from maps detailing the area of operations of the Russians and a regional map to facilitate an appreciation of the distances flown by the US and Russian aircraft. Overall, a very meaty book full of incredible detail that provides deep insight into the nature of air combat in Korea from the Russian perspective. For those fans and historians of the Korean War looking for new material, I would strongly recommend this book.

Army of Worn Soles - Scott Bury

Title: Army of Worn Soles

Author: Scott Bury
ISBN: 978-0-9879141-8-7
Publisher: The Written Word
This book is a fascinating 'memoir in novel form'' of a Canadian caught up in the maelstrom of the Second World War, far from home and in an army that he never imagined he would be fighting for. The author's father in law, Maurice Bury, is the subject of the book who, as a young Ukrainian immigrant to Canada, finds himself returning to the village of his parents with his mother in the mid-1930's while his father continues to struggle to makes ends meet in Montreal. His village is in a disputed region of northeastern Europe called Galacia which, although formerly part of Ukraine, was now part of Poland as a result of the dislocations following the First World War. The region that the young Bury lived in was further sub-divided into Soviet and German areas of control after the conquest of Poland by those two countries. As regional tensions increased, Bury, along with his friends and peers in Soviet occupied Poland was drafted into the Soviet army (despite proof of his Canadian citizenship) and, as a result of his education,he was made an officer and commander of an anti-tank section.

The story goes on to detail his training, combat and finally capture by German forces. His experiences as a prisoner - the deprivation, boredom and illness - make for sobering reading just as his recognition within the camp by a German officer who turns out to be his closest childhood friend, who had been caught on the German side with the delineation of Galacia, borders on the incredible. Further, that individuals successful efforts at freeing Bury through forged papers and facilitating his escape to the rump of Ukraine still governed by the Ukrainians serves as a testament to bonds of friendship that over-ride the limits of war.  That story in itself is so astounding that it could only happen in the confusion of war.

The author has drafted an eminently readable gem of a book that is representative of both Canada's immigration story and an incredible family history. Bury's experience's shed light on the realities of the eastern experience in a number of ways: the persecution of the Ukrainians by the Poles, the interaction between the Jewish, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian communities, the pre-war life of Ukrainian youth and the pride of Ukrainian heritage and Canadian citizenship. By doing so, it highlights and assists with comprehending the nature of society in that part of the world.

Bury, the author, translates his subjects experience's in such a way that the reader can appreciate the challenges, successes and failures encapsulated in Maurice's story. The book is not long but carries the reader forward as Maurice is swept up in the insanity of Eastern Europe in 1939 and beyond. As a fictional work, thus book would be noteworthy for its imaginative story, however, as a work of non-fiction it is simply astounding. Well worth a read.



Monday, 9 March 2015

Devil's Guard - George Robert Elford

Title: Devil's Guard
Author: George Robert Elford
ISBN: 978-0-440-12014-8
Publisher: Dell Publishing
Pages: 336
Photos/Maps: 0

Elford's book has become, in the opinion of many, a classic biography of a soldier engaged in asymmetric warfare. The main character, ex-Waffen SS partisanjaeger Hans Josef Wagemueller, is pro-ported to have met with the author in the far east and to have related his life story to him. The author recounts his tale, with as little change or embellishment as possible, of him leading his German troops west during the last days of the World War 2, escaping to Switzerland and ultimately joining the French Foreign Legion. The main thrust of the narrative centres upon his time with the Legion fighting in Indochina against the Viet Cong as part of an all-German battalion of veterans and his experiences there-in.

The story has generated a great deal of controversy over the years as there is no record of an all-German battalion nor of an individual named Wagemueller ever having fought as part of the Legion. Regardless of whether the story is truth or fiction really is however, beside the point as the lessons to be gleaned from it resonate either way.

Given the experiences that Western forces have had in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting asymmetric opponents, the question of what constitutes acceptable methods of executing a war has again become a central point of discussion and contention. Wagemueller's character in the book takes the position that war is, by its very nature, violent and horrible, but must be fought to win and, in order to do so, the conditions must be established and maintained whereby the side wishing to prevail does what it must to enforce its will upon the population and the enemy. It is a testament for the Real Politique approach to conflict.

Additionally, Elford's narrative translates doctrine into action as he describes through the storyline the how, what, where and why's of a unit doing what it has to in order to win. Wagemueller's character is uncompromising in his rendition of the toll that fighting to win takes upon all of the elements of society involved and, more importantly, the mental strength that soldiers must have in order to do what they have to do. Finally, and perhaps most telling, Wagemueller describes the methods by which his unit was recalled and disbanded as a result of a lack of support from the French government and population. The similarity to the impact of popular opinion on modern warfare is striking.

The story itself reads very well and is extremely engaging; the characters are presented with a human face, not enjoying what they are doing but undertaking it regardless. It is not a comfortable read and will tend to polarize its readers between those agreeing with and those appalled by the actions of the main characters. Its strength, I believe, lies in the fact that it was first published in the early 1970's during the height of the Vietnam conflict and yet, it still retains its relevance today as a means to stimulate healthy debate and discussion amongst military professionals and their leaders.