Sunday, 30 October 2016

Blockade: Cruiser Warfare and the Starvation of Germany in World War One - Steve R Dunn

This review has been submitted to War History Online Magazine.

Title: Blockade: Cruiser Warfare and the Starvation of Germany in World War One
Author: Steve R Dunn
ISBN: 978-1-84832-340-7
Publisher: Pena and Sword//Seaforth
Year: 2016
Pages: 208
Photos/Maps: 15/1

One of the least appreciated battlegrounds of the First World War was the ocean. The Battle of Jutland has been well documented as has been the fact that Germany was subject to a very effective naval blockade; however, the details of that blockade and its actual effect are at best superficially known to the reading public. Blockade seeks to redress that delta with its discussion of the methodology of the blockade, focusing upon the actions of the 10th Cruiser Squadron covering the ‘Northern Approaches” and renditions of noteworthy individual ship actions. Further, he touches upon little known German efforts to both break the blockade and effect a similar style of blockade on the British Islands.

Dunn begins his work with a look at the impact of the German surface raider’s and the u-boat campaign. He additionally looks at the challenges of the Law of the Sea as it pertains to submarine warfare (so-called ‘unrestricted warfare’). His analysis is succinct and easily grasped and enables the reader to comprehend the difficulty and potential of this new form of warfare both doctrinally and practically. Additionally, his narrative clearly shows the effect that individual commerce raiders had when released upon merchant fleets unprotected on the vast oceans.

He also discusses the legality (and superficially, the morality) of a universal blockade not specifically aimed at military resources but Germany writ large and the doctrinal transition from close to distant blockade. The legality of the blockade as a method of warfare is interesting in that it highlights the hypocrisy of the international and historical discussion of this period. Much was made (especially amongst neutrals) of the illegality of unrestricted seaborne warfare to the point where calls were made by the British to declare submarine warfare a war crime. Yet, the dubious legality of the general blockade of Germany was never questioned despite the fact that over 750,000 German civilian deaths may be directly attributable to a lack of food during the war.

The 10th Cruiser Squadron, comprising obsolete cruisers and armed merchant vessels (AMC’s), was responsible for an inverted triangle running from Iceland to Norway with its southern point on the Orkney’s. The deeply hostile environment and hardships that these sailors suffered and their unacknowledged triumph at denying the Germans merchant access is recounted by Dunn in a gripping narrative of courage and endurance. He focusses on the human face of this campaign as opposed to a stark rendition of dates and numbers. The statistics serve to reinforce the significance of the accomplishments of the officers and sailors themselves. Dunn’s account of the unsung heroes and combatants of this region is not limited to the Allies but also encompasses the German officers and sailors who constantly strove to break the 10th Cruiser Sqn’s stranglehold on this region.

This book serves as an excellent introduction into the details of the blockade; its history, evolution and effect. It touches upon themes that should be discussed in more detail such as the morality and legality of the blockade and the stigma of German attempts at unrestricted warfare; however, these are not pursued in any real analytical depth. Dunn’s work is solid and very readable and is recommended for those seeking to gain insight into the nature of this kind of warfare and its impact upon the Allied war effort in 1914-1918.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Enemy in the East - Rolf-Dieter Muller

This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics Magazine

Title: Enemy in the East
Author: Rolf-Dieter Muller
ISBN: 978-1-78076-829-8
Publisher: IB Taurus/Raincoast Books
Year: 2015
Pages: 316
Photos/Maps: 22/7

There has been much speculation on the degree of proactive involvement the military leadership of the German Armed Forces had in the conception and planning of the attack on Russia. During the trials following the war, it was consistently suggested that the conception for the idea of the attack was Hitler’s alone and that the military’s role in this was that of following the orders of a legitimate government. Muller seeks to undermine that theory by proving that the military was both a proactive and willing partner in the conception and development of the attack on Russia contrary to long held belief.

This was a very interesting and enjoyable book to read. The author has done a noteworthy job at shedding light upon a period of intense international lobbying and exchange. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this was his discussion and analysis of the close relationship that existed between the Germans and Poles right up until the last few months before war broke out. Poland and Germany held a common view of the threat posed by Russia and were very active partners in planning and executing the breakup of Czechslovakia as well as planning for the further redistribution of Ukrainian land and the resettlement of any Jews in their territory. Muller has painted a very clear picture of two nations with very common interests; further reinforced by the extent to which Germany tried to accommodate Poland’s wishes.

He also clearly relates the rapidly changing international situation that necessitated continuous and re-prioritization of planning by the German military. Additionally, the rapid pace of operations precluded addressing many of the shortfalls recognized by the German military commanders in their equipment and doctrine. It is not clear; however, that the German military proactively worked at pushing political policy East. It is true and is proven by the author that the military was not at all happy with the prospect of striking at the West but, while more confident of their chances with Russia, they were still seeking time and delay in order to build up their experience and capabilities.

The author has also been successful with his analysis of Stalin’s adept handling of the international uncertainty leading up to the outbreak of hostilities. He played Germany for incredible accommodations in spheres of interest and positioning that significantly diminished Germany’s advantages when war came two years later. Not the least of these involved pushing the German start line for an attack into Russian hundreds of kilometers to the west. It is very clear from Muller’s study that the German military and leadership chaffed under this imposed cooperation.

A very well researched and insightful study of the international twists and turns leading up to war in the East. What is patently obvious is that Hitler maintained a clear but consistently frustrated focus on attacking Russia at the earliest opportunity and that the Polish leadership, while tragically misreading German intent and Western capability, inadvertently prevented a German victory in Russia while concurrently sacrificing its territory and populations to the ravages of both German and Russia forces. An interesting book that does much to dispel the myth of a Germany bent on crushing a helpless Poland but does not succeed in proving the case that the German military was any more complicit in pushing for an attack on Russia.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Ostland - David Thomas

Title: Ostland
Author: David Thomas
ISBN: 978-162-3-65849-6
Publisher: Quercus
Year: 2015
Pages: 400

David Thomas’s novel is an in-depth psychological analysis of how an individual is able to be manipulated and, by extension, enable themselves to be manipulated thereby adjusting their moral compass in a justifiable manner. It is a study of transformation facilitated by duty, circumstance, training and conditioning.

Commencing in pre-war Germany, the author traces the career of a brilliant young police detective as he commences his profession with one of the elite crime squad units in Berlin. What starts as an idealistic, somewhat na├»ve approach to the harsh realities of police work undergoes a gradual but inexorable change as his success results in promotion and additional responsibilities concurrent with the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of war. This entails a commission in the SS, a transfer to Minsk and an expanding task of dealing with partisans and other undesirables (namely Jews). The narrative flips between the pre-war and war period to the early 1960’s when another idealist undertakes the prosecution of one of West Germany’s greatest police officers for war crimes (the self-same young police detective).

The author has created a fascinating and disturbing analysis of human nature and its strength and vulnerability. Looked at with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to condemn in the strongest terms and with broad strokes the behaviours of those responsible for the slaughter of so many. Yet, examined in greater detail it becomes apparent that the activities of these individuals may in fact be far more nuanced than the black and white that society wishes.

This book is not an apology or an excuse for the appalling activities of the SS, Gestapo and the police forces who carried out the policies of the WW2 German government but neither is it a blanket condemnation. Like all great books, the author sets out to force the readers, through the medium of a story, to challenge paradigms, cause to reflect and to think. Thomas succeeds in this endeavour extremely well.  His story telling is factual and tight, the pace, while not dynamic is nonetheless engaging. This is a well written, disturbing narrative of a cast of characters and their society in a struggle that transcends the sounds of the guns and strikes at the very nature of who we are and how we deal with unimaginable circumstances.