Monday, 25 April 2016

Blood and Iron: The German Conquest of Sevastopol - C.G. Sweeting

Title: Blood and Iron: The German Conquest of Sevastopol
Author: C.G. Sweeting
ISBN: 978-1-57488-7976
Publisher: Potomac Books
Year: 2004
Pages: 200
Photographs/Maps: 99 b/w//4

The conquest of the Crimean peninsula and the capture of the fortress city of Sevastopol marked the culmination of months of preparation and intricate planning led by the brilliant general Field Marshall von Manstein. For the Axis forces this victory represented both the waning days of their offensive power and their excellence in the tactical and operational art of war; for the Soviets, their dogged resilience and capacity to continuously bounce back from crushing losses that would have crippled other nations.

Sweeting’s book commences with a very broad brush overview of Operation Barbarossa  thus far before narrowing down to focus upon an analysis of the capabilities of the Soviet, German and Romanian forces destined to clash in this campaign. Part in parcel of this examination is a detailed review of the German commander von Manstein and his strengths as both planner and combat commander. The authors overall approach is balanced, fair and comprehensive despite the shortness of the narrative.

The battle is tracked from the initial thrust of the Germans across the Crimean Perekop Isthmus and their subsequent drive to the gates of Sevastopol and the capture of Kerch on the Sea of Azov. The lessons derived from this section of the book include the advantages of close air support for the Germans, the continued challenges derived from the delta between the German and Romanian allies in terms of both capability and strategic goals, the shortfalls in Axis naval capacity (and the inability to prevent Soviet reinforcement by sea) and the continued dominance of the German forces over the Soviet. Additionally, an operational limitation for the Germans in terms of the use of paratroopers as a force projection option (they had never recovered both in terms of personnel and transport from the Crete campaign) is highlighted.

This section is followed by a review of the Soviet response through seaborne landings behind those Axis forces extended forward into the Kerch region. The resulting successful 100 mile retreat to the Feodosiya narrows highlighted the continued operational expertise of the Germans as well as the growing proficiency of the Soviets in joint operations. Von Manstein’s ability to quickly realign his forces to meet and eradicate this threat (despite being heavily outnumbered) while maintaining the siege of the Sevastopol was indicative of his operational brilliance. The losses sustained by the Soviets during these counterattacks exceeded 170,000 prisoners with untold thousands of dead and wounded.

The final section of the narrative covers the final assault and capture of Sevastopol itself. Sweeting does a commendable job with this review highlighting the role of the siege artillery brought forward specifically for this task (including the massive ‘Dora’ 81 mm cannon with her specially designed shells that could penetrate 5-6 meters of steel reinforced concrete). Sweetings writing captures for the reader the absolute brutal nature of the fighting associated with the capture of this fortress.

He closes his book with a series of annexes/appendices on the types and capabilities of the weapons utilized by both sides during this campaign. Moreover, he provides two detailed sections on the siege artillery of the Germans: the Karl and Dora weapons. These appendices are excellent in facilitating an appreciation of the unique nature of siege warfare.

Overall, this is a rather short but informative study of the Crimean campaign with a special emphasis upon the siege and capture of the fortress of Sevastopol. It is well written and flows well, however, the maps included were not adequate. Sweetings narrative style is technical where needed while not sacrificing the ‘human’ element of the fighting. As a start point for someone interested in this campaign I would not hesitate to recommend this book.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Thieves of State - Sarah Chayes

This review has been submitted to The Journal of the RCAF

Title: Thieves of State
Author: Sarah Chayes
ISBN: 978-0-393-23946-1
Publisher: Norton
Year: 2015
Pages: 262
Photos/Maps: 0/7

Media and Government attention, traditionally and more notably during the last 15 years, has been focused upon the economics and operational tactics of identified terrorist groups and their supporters. A phenomenal amount of military and economic resource has been brought to bear in an effort to crush these organizations. Notably missing from the dialogue however, has been attention to those governments whose actions have instigated, enabled and facilitated these activities. Nor does it appear that there is a clear understanding of the direct link between the corrupt practices of national leadership and an appreciation of its impact upon the ability of fringe organizations to advance their causes. Chayes’s book sheds a blinding light upon the clear connection between these activities, their impact and western government’s reluctance to acknowledge them.

Starting with a discussion of the writings of Locke, Milton, Nizam al-Mulk, Luther and Machiavelli (to name but a few) she looks at the repeated acknowledgement of the responsibility of leaders to their people; the so called ‘Mirrors of Princes’ treaties. These were texts emphasizing the critical necessity of leadership to be accountable to the people whom they lead (and the potential impacts if they are not followed). This book is not however, a dry political analysis; Chayes draws upon her 10 years of work in Afghanistan as a reporter, an entrepreneur and a foreign policy adviser to the US military in order to draft an accessible and eminently readable discussion of the endemic corruption of the Karzai government and the response of the US political and military establishments.

Her approach is not jaundiced but balanced and telling, and her examination of the issues and of the impact that pervasive corruption has upon the ability of fringe elements to recruit and operate, extremely effective. The author has broken out her analysis into distinctive methods or techniques of corruption; each having in common a “bottom up flow” of monies. Those practicing systemic corruption she identifies as ‘Kleptocracies’ further breaking them down into sub-categories such as: Resource, Post-Soviet, Bureaucratic, Military-Kleptocratic Complex and Vertically Integrated Criminal Syndicates. Each type is explained in detail with examples and facts.

Additionally, Chaye discusses how populations, denied access to legitimate forms of redress due to corrupt officials and entities, are left with no option but revolt as a means of addressing their grievances. Thus, groups such as Boko Haram (the name means roughly Western Education is Forbidden), initially a fringe, self-sustaining community was driven into armed rebellion by the unethical practices of the Nigerian police and bureaucracy. Their name was derived from the fact that Nigerians know their civil service to be absolutely corrupt and also that to get a job within said civil service one has to have a western style degree from a university. Thus irrespective of the logic of their belief, they have equated the corruption with not only the system of government but also the education needed to work within that system. It is critical to the determination of effective responses to these groups that the root causes of their formation be acknowledged and addressed as part of the solution.

Recognizing this, Chaye provides a series of practical actions that governments may take in order to influence the behaviours of corrupt regimes. These multi-faceted approaches run the gambit from aid and financially based approaches to diplomatic and business focused tactics. Unavoidable within these methodologies is the necessity to work in tandem with other nations to ensure a common front.   

While corruption is not the only element facilitating violence, it may certainly be grasped as a medium within which violent reaction amongst the people takes hold and flourishes. Chayes clearly illustrates that fighting fringe elements such as Al-Shabbab and Boko Haram is necessary, however, it is equally as critical to recognize these organizations as indicative of a much deeper malaise: corruption; to treat the symptoms without acknowledging the actual disease will never break the cycle. This book is vital to appreciating the scope and nature of corruption, the potential impact of not addressing it and also methodologies that may be exercised to counter it.