Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Advance From Mons 1914 - Walter Bloem

This review has been submitted to War History Online for publication.

Title: The Advance From Mons 1914
Author: Walter Bloem
ISBN: 978-1-907677-04-5
Publisher: Helion
Pages: 126
Photos: 0

Bloem was a reserve Captain in the Royal Prussian Grenadier Regiment Prinz Carl von Preussen and was engaged from the very first days of the First World War. In civilian life he was an author and he used that skill set to draft a recollection of his experiences during mobilization and combat from July to September 1914 on the Western Front. Unlike many who draft their memoires, Bloem wrote immediately following his experiences with the eye and prose of a professional writer; his work is therefore readable, poignant and insightful. 

The German Army was viewed as one of the most professional of armies in the prewar period and it is interesting to read about the challenges that he experienced during the mobilization phase. The reader begins to appreciate the degree of planning and flexibility that was needed to effectively undertake the activation and movement of so many troops and supplies.  

Additionally, the strength of character, confidence and professionalism of both the Officer and NCO’s of his unit is rapidly evident. Notwithstanding this, he also struggles with the shock of initial combat like any other. What is especially interesting however, is his focus on ‘fighting the battle’. He hears and acknowledges the concerns and complaints of his soldiers regarding mail and food etc but he maintains his priority of leading and fighting as is the duty of the Officer. He and his senior NCO’s are intensely interested in the welfare of their soldiers but not at the expense of combat effectiveness. 

Unlike contemporary assumptions, Bloem ensures that his soldiers are briefed as much as is possible on the goals and centres of gravity at both the national level and the tactical so they may understand their role and position (ie professional development). It is interesting to get a sense of the degree to which he and his soldiers had to trust the Chain of Command as, given the technology of the period, comprehending what was happening outside of one’s immediate environs (while in the heat of battle) was very limited. This serves as an example of the confidence in each other, unit cohesion and esprit des corps developed during intensive peacetime training.  

This is a short book; however, it is extremely well written and serves as an outstanding snapshot of life during the hectic and dynamic days of the summer and fall of 1914. Bloem’s work should be read by all junior Officers and NCO’s and is an excellent testament of their roles, responsibilities and the mental strength required to be effective under the stress of combat.


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Repairing the Panzers Vol 1 and 2 - Lukas Friedl

Title: Repairing the Panzers Vol 1 and 2
Author: Lukas Friedl
ISBN: 978-0-9841820-5-3
Publisher: Panzerwrecks
Pages: 256
Photos: 280 

The strength of these books lies not only with the copious numbers of outstanding photographs but also with the in-depth narrative surrounding the challenges and observations of both peace and wartime support. Coming from a small publishing house, this book is unique in that it focusses exclusively on the maintenance and logistics aspects of German Panzer operations (which is a refreshing departure from the hundreds of books focussing on operations and doctrine). 

The photographs are educational in and of themselves both from the visuals and the brief captions associated with them. The difference between field and garrison conditions is profound and the use of innovation under field conditions in order to overcome not only material but also environmental challenges is very educational. One learns to appreciate the sub-zero environment as opposed to the desert climate and the unique aspects of each as an example. 

Another aspect of these books, just as relevant and educational, is the narrative that accompanies the photographs. Drawing upon actual reports and unit histories, the author draws attention to the shortcomings in various pieces of equipment, support doctrine, training and development. As an example, the Germans strove to offset their material shortages by utilizing captured equipment. This, however, resulted in individual units having hundreds of varieties of equipment on their inventory thereby exacerbating spares and lubricant issues.  

He also includes extracts from official inspection reports outling issues such as deficiencies in driver training, poor break-in periods for engines and components, a lack of oversight in unit/crew maintenance practices and equipment shortfalls. Additionally, he draws attention via narrative as well as photography of the challenge of field recovery, especially given the difficulties of environment and size/weight of the German tanks. The standard heavy recovery vehicle for the Germans was the SdKfz 9 (18 T half-track vehicle). Recovery companies were always short of these critical vehicles and it would take, as an example, three to tow a Tiger and up to 5 to tow a Ferdinand tank. 

The author is to be commended for providing such a wealth of visual and narrative information in the form of these very high quality production books. Very highly recommended for those interested in a more support focussed aspect of World War 2 operations.

Why the Japanese Lost - Bryan Perrett

This review has been submitted to Sabretache Magazine for publication.

Title: Why the Japanese Lost

Author: Bryan Perrett
ISBN: 978-1-78159-198-7
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Pages: 234
Photos: 44 

The author has undertaken a very ambitious goal of outlining and explaining what it was that caused the Japanese Empire to fail in their World War 2 ambitions. The causes are legion and it is necessary to cover a very wide spectrum of facets and influences in order to even begin to scratch the surface. There are, admittedly, some very obvious items: economic limitations, a lack of material depth, doctrinal shortfalls and operational errors; however, there are also a number of aspects that were just as influential but are, at best, difficult to quantify. These include martial ardour, religious philosophy, societal influences and historical context to name a few. 

Perrett has focussed his narrative on the naval aspects of the Pacific War with only very cursory mentions of China, Burma and Russia. I felt that this book was somewhat misleading in so far as it, to a great extent, only re-examined aspects of the war that have been studied in numerous other venues. His iterations on the Pacific conflict do provide a good overview of the naval war as it progressed; highlighting various battles such as Midway, Leyte Gulf, Solomon Islands and the Java Sea. It is interesting to note the degree to which the Japanese retained offensive capability even after the crushing defeat of Midway. 

Nevertheless, I was anticipating a more in-depth study of the less well known aspects of Japanese fighting doctrine and goals. A more detailed analysis of internal political-military relations, the concept of gekokujo or ‘rule from below’, command oversight challenges, logistics and the role of the Emperor all were given short shrift.  

He does provide some historical context with a brief study of the introduction of Japan into the modern community of nations and the influence that the Royal Navy had on their early years, Additionally, he devotes two chapters to the war between Russia and Japan that marked not only the emergence of Japan onto the world stage but also the Japanese navy as a force to be reckoned with.
The production value of the book is good with many high-quality photographs. I would recommend this book as a start point for the reader interested in Japanese martial history but, with its emphasis upon naval operations and a relatively cursory bibliography, there are more encompassing options available.

Monday, 20 July 2015

In Peace Prepared: Innovation and Adaptation in Canada's Cold War Army - Andrew B Godefroy

This review has been published in Soldier Magazine:

Title: In Peace Prepared: Innovation and Adaptation in Canada's Cold War Army
Author: Andrew B Godefroy

ISBN: 978-0-7748-2702-7
Publisher: UBCPress
Pages: 275
Photos: 44 

The impact of the Cold War and the Nuclear Age upon not only the doctrine and equipment but also the very composition of the Canadian Army is not well understood; nor is the role that Canadian Commanders played in proactively shaping both Canadian as well as influencing NATO doctrine and structure. Godefroy's book looks at how these men grappled with the transition to an entirely new form of warfare, their forward thinking and vision as well as the challenges faced and overcome. Canada's military displayed a remarkable resiliency and adaptability that has largely been forgotten. The author has produced a balanced, eminently readable history of this noteworthy accomplishment.   

Fleeing From The Fuehrer - Charmian Brinson and William Kaczynski

This review has been published in Soldier magazine:

Title: Fleeing From The Fuehrer
Author: Charmian Brinson and William Kaczynski
ISBN: 978-0-7509-6188-2
Publisher: The History Press
Pages: 192
Photos: 145 

This is a very unique and fascinating book. In an age of electronic communication, it is easy to forget how critical the written letter was to millions of people displaced by the ravages of war. World War 2 was witness to one of the largest displacements of people, on a global scale; never before seen or imagined. The authors have collected and studied the role that mail played in keeping families connected, reuniting those loved ones pulled apart by conflict and how the post actually reflected the one means by which, regardless of whose side one was on, connections were maintained. A comprehensive and thoughtful work.

A Street in Arnhem: The Agony of Occupation and Liberation - Robert Kershaw

This review was submitted to the Canadian Army Journal.
Title: A Street in Arnhem: The Agony of Occupation and Liberation
Author: Robert Kershaw

ISBN: 978-1-7110-3754-0
Publisher: Ian Allen
Pages: 304
Photos/Maps: 39/4 

Operation Market-Garden, its ambitious goals, challenges and ultimate failure are well known to both historians and the general public; however, the details of the fighting that took place between the German defenders and Allied attackers within the towns of Oosterbeek and Arnhem are not nearly as well understood or documented. Even less so is the trial by fire that the civilian population living in Oosterbeek underwent as the adversaries grappled with one another.  

Kershaw's book commences with a broad perspective on the history of the town and its people as well as the Battle of Arnhem itself before focussing upon the effect of the fighting on its epicentre, two streets: Stationsweg and Utrechtseweg. Over the course of eight days of intense combat, these streets, their populations and an entire way of life was utterly transformed.  

Kershaw's style is very personal; while he draws in the broad strokes of the units, fighting styles, larger influences of the Western Campaign and the regional actions of the Market-Garden Operation, the real strength of the book lies in its rendition of the personal reminisces of those involved in the fighting (including civilian, Allied and German sources). This adds a great deal of depth and understanding for the reader of the real impact on those participating and, more importantly, their motivations, fears and observations as their world was turned on its head. 

There are a number of central lessons to be gleaned from this book: 

1. The impact of five years of war had had upon the individual quality of the German soldier. Throughout the book, comment is made (especially by the civilian population) of the changes in quality, deportment and professionalism compared to the German Army that had passed through the region in 1940; 

2. The frustration and disillusionment of the Allied soldiers with their high command with the poor planning and lack of support as they fought for their lives with relief only 10 km away; 

3. The resiliency of the civilian population, completely unused to war suddenly forced into basements with no food or water or access to medicine for their wounded; 

4. The ability of German forces to undertake offensive operations this late in the war and the hubris with which the Allied planners assumed away resistance; 

5. Language barriers amongst the Allied forces which prevented effective cooperation (Polish and English paratroopers); 

6. The vulnerability of Allied air forces as they attempted to drop reinforcements and supplies to the beleaguered Allied paratroopers. The intervention of Luftwaffe anti-aircraft units and the engagement of Luftwaffe fighter units amongst the Dakotah aircraft of the Allies was frightful; and  

7. Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease as the Allies, in an effort to liberate Holland and progress the end of the war, caused the utter destruction of a region of the country previously untouched by the ravages of conflict.

The publishers have produced a very high quality book with excellent coloured overview maps in the inside front and rear covers. The font is very easy to read and the author has provided a very comprehensive bibliography and end note sections. Canadians played a significant role in the operation as it was Canadian Engineers who evacuated the British and Poles across the Lower Rhine river to safety. A strongly written, educational, balanced and engaging book well worth a read.



Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army's Victory That Shaped World War II - Stuart D Goldman

This review has been published in the magazine: Army History

Title: Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army's Victory That Shaped World War II
Author: Stuart D Goldman
ISBN: 978-1-5891-14339-0
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Pages: 240
Photos: 24
The Battle of Nomonhan has been described by author, Stuart Goldman as “the most important World War II battle that most people have never heard of” (p. 5). Indeed, in many respects this is true and it comes across with striking clarity in this definitive work on the subject. Nomonham, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II, is two narratives that are mutually complementary, one providing critical background information for the other.
The first half of Goldman’s book sets the environment at the macro level. Drawing on extensive access to both declassified Soviet/Russian and Japanese archival material, Goldman provides insight into the intensity of the political, economic, and national turmoil that gripped the nations of Japan and the Soviet Union during this period. This baseline information is critical to understanding the Battle of Nomonhan; indeed, taken in isolation this conflict would make absolutely no sense to the reader as it was fought over nonstrategic ground for seemingly irrelevant reasons. From the Soviet perspective, a series of critical factors influenced not only its actions, but those of its adversaries. It was terrified of strategic isolation between two powerful opponents: Germany and Japan. Therefore, its behavior during the first half of the 1930s was initially focused on placating Japan while trying to turn the attention of Germany west. The thawing of relations with Germany in the latter half of the 1930s and the commencement of Japan’s war with China (and the subsequent weakening of the Japanese Manchukuo Army) resulted in a more confrontational regional stance. Unfortunately, Stalin’s subsequent purge of the USSR military leadership starting in 1937 undermined the message of the less accommodating Soviets and reinforced the preconceived low opinion of the local Japanese command to the Soviet military.
Japan, for its part, was undergoing its own internal challenges. Perhaps more than any other country, Japan had been experiencing internal machinations unlike anything that had happened is the west. An aggressive, agrarian society built upon the tenants of the Bushido Code of the Samurai had been supplanted within a few short decades into a modern  technological and industrialized society led by a government that was dominated by serving military officers. Racist, assertive, and lacking in domestic resources, it followed an expansionist policy bound to bring it in conflict with its neighbors, especially China and Russia.
A unique and traditional aspect of the Japanese code of honor was absolute subservience to the will of the emperor and to those in high office; however, with the rapid onset of technological change this subservience adapted itself under a concept called gekokujo or “rule from below.” Basically, this entailed the younger generation of the Japanese military seeing themselves as the experts in the new Japan with a duty to force decisions that older, more traditional members of society were unable or unwilling to make (as determined by the subordinate officers). The traditional reluctance against losing face or causing another to do so resulted in these younger leaders having a inordinate amount of authority and influence over their seniors. This perverted sense of honor and command and control would have profound consequences in the subsequent battles between the Soviets and Japanese.
The second part of the book delves into the battle itself, commencing with a precursor engagement at a location called Changkufeng. What is important about the geography of this region (both at Nomonhan and Changkufeng), situated at the intersection of the Soviet Union, Manchukuo, and Mongolia, is not its strategic relevance, but the fact that the border was not clearly defined because of the area’s isolation. Therefore, there was ample flexibility for an aggressive staff looking for a fight as movements close to the borders could be interpreted as incursions.
Goldman’s discussion about the battle—which was actually a series of escalating strikes and counterstrikes—is illustrative of the hubris and fanatical courage of the Japanese and the determination of the Russians. During this period the degree of blatant insubordination by Japanese commanders on the ground, against clear direction from Tokyo,was breathtaking. Conversely, the failure of the Japanese senior command to deal effectively and aggressively with the out of control local commanders is equally shocking and telling. This conflict served as a clear indicator to those paying attention of what would become both the strengths and weaknesses of the adversaries. The final tally of between 30,000 and 50,000 casualties and over 100,000 soldiers engaged in this undeclared war is a sobering indicator of the intensity of this conflict.
Nomonhan, 1939 is a particularly noteworthy book on this four-month battle. Goldman’s writing style is engaging and absorbing. As a historian, he brings a unique ability to inform and entertain; his topic is complex and vast but he deftly navigates the reader in a clear and logical way. The book has extensive endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography. This reviewer would recommend the book very strongly to anyone, historians and casual readers alike, who wish to comprehend the intricacies of the Far East in the months prior to Japan’s entry into World War II.