Monday, 30 October 2017

The Hill - Ray Rigby

Title: The Hill
Author: Ray Rigby
Publisher: Endeavour Press
Year: 2015
Pages: 201

The story of The Hill unfolds in a British detention barracks somewhere in the desert mid-way through World War II. This is a story of the dynamics of interaction between the staff members, the prisoners and the environment within which they find themselves set against the artificial backdrop of the war itself. A simple narrative on the surface belies an incredibly complex storyline with deep nuance and shade. This is concurrently a story of human survival, leadership and the psychology of control and power.

It is not simply a story of the abuse of that power however, but also a study in the use of coercion, discipline and motivation to mold soldiers and men. Enforced with a steady and guided hand, the techniques used by the camp Sergeant-Major and his NCO’s are efficient and very effective. However, the line that is walked is a narrow one and it is very easy to slide into destructive behaviours. The book is a treatise on the critical importance of professionalism and unit discipline and the pitfalls of allowing complacency to take hold.

The novel is written such that the perspective of the prisoners as well as the staff are revealed. Within an environment of controllers and controlees, there is a unique dynamic that exists where each side has a defined role to play, within set guidelines, some written and some simply understood. Rigby has done an outstanding job at recreating that balance and iterating what happens when there is a flaw or weakness in the fabric of the relationship.

The story really is a study of the human condition within the controlled environment of a wartime military prison. The reader is able to study and examine the interaction of the participants from a third person perspective and one readily comes to the conclusion that each of the protagonists are prisoners in their own unique way. It is in this way that the brilliance of Rigby’s narrative shines through; the characters are a reflection of the good and bad in each of us.

This is a gripping story and an outstanding cerebral study. To be truly appreciated it must be read with an open mind and a critical eye. This book should be studied by students of leadership, the military arts and psychologists. It is a very thought -provoking and challenging work.  

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Battle of Copenhagen 1801 - Ole Feldbaek

This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics magazine.

Title: The Battle of Copenhagen 1801
Author: Ole Feldbaek
ISBN: 978-1-47388-661-2
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Year: 2016
Pages: 270
Photos/ Maps: 23/5

There is an African proverb which says: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets hurt”; such was the situation that tiny Denmark found itself as it hurtled towards a war that it knew it could not win against the British Empire. Faced with participating in an alliance between Russia and France on the one side demanding that Denmark live up to its obligations as part of the Alliance of Armed Neutrals against Britain, and the weight of the Royal Navy on the other demanding that it sever all ties with the Alliance and form a bond with the UK – Denmark, in the full knowledge that it was doomed, had to choose. Obliteration as a state should it defy France and Russia, or defeat and reduction to a third or fourth rate power should it stand up to Admiral Nelson and the Royal Navy; consciously, but with a deep sense of resignation and pride, it chose the latter.

Feldbaek has produced a book drawing upon primary source material from Danish as well as the UK archives; however, the book is drafted with a significant emphasis from the Danish perspective. He has provided the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the political and economic drivers and influencers of the period as well as the real politique decision making that typified these years. One appreciates the very fine line that Denmark tried to walk diplomatically between the international heavy weights of Russia, France and Britain.

The author presents an excellent analysis of a Danish government that tried to follow a diplomatic line that it had no chance of backing up by force. A failure in undertaking long term investment in the defences of Copenhagen and its environs left it particularly vulnerable to sea borne attack. Nevertheless, Feldbaek shows clearly that, once war was inevitable, the Danish leadership did all that it could to prepare and that the people of Denmark, from professional sailor to craftsman, responded to the call to arms, undertaking gunnery drills right up to the morning of the day of battle (with the British fleet a few hundred yards distant).

This was an interesting and unique naval fight as it did not require any movement between the adversaries; both sides were, for the most part, stationary. This was a brutal, slogging match where gunnery speed and accuracy were the defining factors. The British acknowledged after the fact that the Danes requited themselves very well despite their lack of expertise. The author also provided a fascinating study regarding the concurrent activities as the battle raged such as the hundreds of small boats plying the waters between the battle lines carrying boarding parties, prisoners and rescue parties (all subject the rifle and cannon fire blasting across this naval no man’s land) and the land resupply of the Danish fleet.

The book is very well researched and written. It is not a dry historical rendition of the past but a vibrant and engaging account of a defining moment of the Napoleonic wars. It puts a human face on the cross section of protagonists from the lowest of the seamen to the most senior of leadership. For naval enthusiasts as well as those followers of the Napoleonic period this book provides an excellent account of a naval battle often times lost in the emphasis placed upon the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

A War of Logistics – Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 - Charles R Shrader

This review has been submitted to Army History Magazine.

Title: A War of Logistics – Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954
Author: Charles R Shrader
ISBN: 978-0-8131-6575-2
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Year: 2015
Pages: 488
Photos/Maps: 15/13

The War in Indochina is best remembered today for the decisive French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954; however, the conflict that led up to that was protracted, brutal and new. New in terms of the style of warfare being fought and the impact that the result would have well beyond the borders of Indochina. The author has approached the war from an unconventional perspective, one that has been heretofore a facet but not a central theme of works on the war; that of logistics and its role in the victory of the Viet Minh and the loss of the French. This was a war won and lost entirely on the strength and weakness of the respective logistics capabilities and doctrine of the adversaries.

Shrader has effectively woven an insightful evaluation and analysis of the operational doctrine of both parties while maintaining his central theme of the key impact of logistics. Commencing with a strategic view of the conflict, he looks at the psychology and hubris of the post war French and their assumption of superiority over the Viet Minh. This, combined with an unstable national approach from France, precluded the resources from being assigned in terms of manpower as well as material that ultimately was needed for success.

He leads into the successful recognition by the Viet Minh of the necessity to not only outfight but also to outlast the French. The three stage operational approach combined with a successful utilization of the strengths of the Viet people – human capital – enabled for a flexible and dynamic asymmetric approach to conflict that the European approach of the French struggled to counter.

Shrader discusses at length how, from the French approach, heavy weapons and combined arms operations heavily based upon the lessons learned during the European conflict served as the central method of engagement. Artillery, armour, aircraft and naval contingents enabled the French to control set points but surrendered the countryside to the more mobile and agile Viet Minh and by extension, the initiative. The nature of the French approach to warfare resulted in a heavy logistics bill that had difficulty being met. Strategically, long lines of support stretching back to France or Japan due to a lack of an integral industrial capability in Indochina meant long delays in the meeting of demands. Operationally, the necessity of the French to establish isolated forward operating bases in order to counter the inflow of the Viet Minh forces and supplies required a reliance upon air or naval resupply methods that were costly, inefficient and resource intensive themselves.

Conversely, the Viet Minh acknowledged their inability to counter the French in set piece battles and, for the most part, did not allow themselves to be drawn into fights where they may be subjected to superior French armament. Shrader identifies how the Viet Minh leaders played a superior international hand by securing their lines of support from China. In addition, their requirements were far less extensive. The author has undertaken extensive in-depth research that backs up his conclusions. The typical Viet Minh soldier, for example only required approximately half of the daily weight of requirements compared with his French counterpart. The depth to which the author goes in his analysis of the typical demands of the respective forces is highly educational and telling for the reader; the French demands far outstripped their capability while the Viet Minh adjusted their tactics in line with their logistics capability and expertise.

The book also illustrates the flexibility of the Viet Minh logistics methodology compared to the French. Being far less technologically encumbered, they were significantly more agile in their mobility and much less rigid in their operational doctrine; thereby being able to manipulate their procedures far faster than the French. Unlike the French who were, for the most part, confined to pre-existing Indochinese transport infrastructure and vehicles, the Viet Minh developed a national level mobilization process whereby non-combatants were obliged to support operations through their use as porters. Regional command structures were created that facilitated the uninterrupted flow of supplies from one section to the next through its transfer between regionally assigned porters. They also developed the science of camouflage to previously unseen levels and maintained field craft discipline rigidly. The French were never able to develop a counter strategy to effectively undermine this tactic.

Shrader makes it clear that the French were not incompetent, merely hamstrung through a lack of logistics flexibility, non-responsive doctrine, a paradigm of their adversary based upon pre-existing hubris, a non-supportive National Government and a logistics dogma rooted in a European operational theatre. They were able to achieve some successes against the Viet Minh and their use of air and riverine resupply systems supported off road operations well. Unfortunately, the depth of capacity was heavily in favour of the Viet Minh as theirs was viewed as a national struggle and, consequently, given the support required through a more universally supported approach. The French certainly had the upper hand during periods of the conflict such as when they cut off Viet Minh access to critical rice growing regions (which served as a trade currency as well as supply for the Viet Minh). The logistics limitations suffered by the French were simply too great to enable them to follow up on their local successes.

Shrader’s book is an excellent study of the critical importance that logistics plays in the effective execution of tactical operations and strategic campaigns. For a vast majority of the conflict French technology heavily outweighed the Viet Minh; that they were unable to defeat them is testament to the ability of the Viet Minh to offset French advantage through non-traditional tactics and supply doctrine. The author has presented a balanced and in-depth study of this conflict and his conclusions are well supported through the use of primary source material from both sides. This is a book well worth reading for operators and supporters alike.  

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Wenn alle Bruder schweigen-When All Our Brothers Are Silent - Waffen SS Association

Title: Wenn alle Bruder schweigen-When All Our Brothers Are Silent
Author: Waffen SS Association
ISBN: 9-783-9-42145-00-8
Publisher: Edition Zeitgeschichte
Year: 2014
Pages: 592
Photos/Maps: 100’s/7

The Waffen SS has left an indelible mark and paradigm amongst historians and the casual followers of the Second World War. Whatever one might feel about their political philosophy and activities during the war, the fact remains that, as a fighting force, they were recognized by their adversaries as some of the most professional, tough soldiers of the German forces. Used as a ‘fire fighters’ as the war progressed, they were involved in all of the major campaigns and frontiers throughout the conflict.

When the war ended they were treated as pariahs by the new German State and neither veterans nor veteran’s families were entitled to any form of wartime compensation or recognition. As a result, the Waffen SS Association stepped in to provide some degree of assistance to the families of the soldiers as well as to provide support to one another. In early 1972, the Waffen SS Association called upon their members to provide photographs and recollections to put together a history of the SS in pictures of both wartime and prewar experiences.

The result is a remarkable book; written in German with full English subtitles. Many of the photographs are extremely rare and have been used in this book only. It provides a deep, visual history of the SS, the conditions under which they trained and fought, and the close bonds of comradeship that bound them together. There is a synopsis of the history provided in the beginning of the book that provides a good overall picture of the SS, their operational history and a discussion (albeit very brief) of some of the accusations raised against them. Further, the book provides a collection of unit emblems, renditions of uniforms and detailed rank insignia as well as regional maps of SS operational theatres. The clear focus of the book are the photographs and each is provided with an explanation. This book is an outstanding addition to any collection relating to the German Army of World War 2.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Royal Betrayal: The Great Baccarat Scandal of 1890 - Michael Scott

Title: Royal Betrayal: The Great Baccarat Scandal of 1890
Author: Michael Scott
Publisher: Endeavour Press
Year: 2017
Pages: 190

Endeavour Press is a publishing house specializing in digital or e-publishing. It makes for a very efficient way to access and enjoy their works. Royal Betrayal is a narrative relating to a scandal that, by modern standards, would appear to be of the utmost triviality but, when placed in the context of the 1890’s, threatened to undermine the very foundation of English society.

The book entails an allegation of cheating at a popular upper class parlour game called baccarat at a time where personal honour counted for everything within the closed ranks of London society. Present at the game when the assertion was suggested was the Prince of Wales, himself the subject of a series of questionable activities and public scandal in the media. The book traces the machinations of the participants through attempted cover-up, media intrigue, public trial (where the Prince of Wales himself was forced to testify) and finally the fall out.

In order to fully appreciate the magnitude of the indignity and public humiliation of this event and its potential ramifications for the Royal Household, one must understand the degree to which the public was becoming fatigued with the hypocrisy and double standards of the period between the privileged and not; also the role of the media in spreading salacious gossip about the Royals. Scott has done a commendable job at highlighting the vast gulf that existed between the classes in Victorian England.

The story is a fascinating and engaging one as much for the intrigue as for the potential consequences of the event. The narrative is somewhat awkward at points and the author has a distracting habit of injecting questions into the storyline that serve to break the flow of the tale. Nevertheless, it is gripping account that might be mistaken for a good fictional yarn if it was not credited as fact. A keen example of the shallowness, crass and petty politics of the Victorian age.  

Hitler’s Fremde Heere Ost: German Military Intelligence on the Eastern Front 1942-1945 - Magnus Pahl (translated by Derik Hammond)

This review has been submitted to the British Army Review.

Title: Hitler’s Fremde Heere Ost: German Military Intelligence on the Eastern Front 1942-1945
Author: Magnus Pahl (translated by Derik Hammond)
ISBN: 978-1-910777-08-4
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2016
Pages: 410
Photos/ Maps: 28/4

Many questions remain about the decision of Germany to attack the Soviet Union in 1941; one of the most compelling was how did the Germans underestimate so significantly the size and depth of the Soviet industrial as well as military capability? Accusatory fingers have traditionally been leveled at a failure on the part of the military intelligence organization to accurately predict this. Pahl’s book addresses this and many other questions by analyzing the German military intelligence organization from the ground up; its strengths, weaknesses, operating environment (political and operational), leadership and mandate.

There are two concurrent tracks that the author follows in his analysis. The first focuses upon the establishment and development of the intelligence service within the German military and the State and its relationship with the RHSA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt – Senior Bureau of Reich Security) and the Abwher. Compartmentalisation was one of the means by which Hitler maintained control over the Nazi state/war machine and intelligence was no exception. Thus it was that although given a mandate to undertake all forms of intelligence gathering including strategic, the FHO was never given the resources nor access to undertake the strategic level effectively; nor did the various elements of the intelligence services (state and Nazi party) cooperate willingly.

The second element that the author traces is the role of MGen Reinhard Gehlen in professionalizing and developing the effectiveness of the FHO. He commanded the organization from 1942 onwards and was instrumental in transitioning it from an ad hoc to a structured and far more proactive and engaged organization. Pahl clearly shows the role that Gehlan played in this as well as his vision of the future. Such was his impact that, as the author relates, he was able to not only maintain the integrity of his organization as the war effort collapsed, but was also able to ensure that the most effective members, gathered information and networks developed against the Soviets were able to be made available to the Americans and the German state following the surrender. That this was accomplished within weeks of the end of the war is testament to his vision, preparation and organizational skills.

This is a comprehensively researched book that paints a picture for the reader of the deep competence as well as structural and ideological weakness of the wartime German state. It contains many lessons for modern intelligence organizations relating to development, interoperability and doctrinal requirements to meet mandate. Pahl’s work delves into both the complex structure but also the doctrine related to the German intelligence services and the challenges that it faced. Within the German military there was a professional bias against the kind of clandestine work associated with spying and it was only with great difficulty was Gehlen able to recruit and establish a formal training regime to meet the needs of the military. However, as Pahl clearly shows, while Gehlen was able to very effectively provide for the operational and tactical needs of the military, he was never able to overcome the bureaucratic friction inherent in the structure of the State.

Pahl’s work provides an outstanding bibliography and notes section offering a plethora of additional reading material and sources. There is an error in the publication of the book where a map is reproduced in place of the FHO structure; however, this is minor when taken as a whole. It is also somewhat of a technical read more geared toward the ardent historian or those with an interest in the intelligence services during the war. Nevertheless, Pahl’s work definitively answers the questions of how and why the Germans had such difficulty building an in-depth appreciation of the Soviets and is well worth the time to read. 

Friday, 15 September 2017

The Sword Behind the Shield - Norbert Szamveber

This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics magazine.

Title: The Sword Behind the Shield
Author: Norbert Szamveber
ISBN: 978-1-909982-19-2
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2015
Pages: 491
Photos/ Maps: 0/16

In early 1945 the world’s attention was focused on the tightening vice on Berlin as the US and British drove in from the west and the Soviets from the East, relatively little attention was given to the fighting in the southeastern region around the besieged Hungarian capital of Budapest. It was in this region that, in an effort to both relieve the garrison as well as keep Hungary in the war, that the Germans (with Hungarian forces) launched a series of operations dubbed Konrad I, II, III. Ultimately they proved to be unsuccessful at relieving Budapest but not for operational or tactical reasons; it was the strategic decisions made in Berlin that ultimately undermined the ability of the Axis to succeed. While the Axis came close to succeeding, the direction that the garrison was not to attempt a breakout to meet up with the relief efforts as well as Soviet pressure in the direction of Berlin that resulting in forces being withdrawn that ultimately prevented operational success.

It is the attention that the book brings to the continued operational effectiveness of the German forces even as late as February, 1945 that stands as one of the most interesting aspects of the narrative. The German ability to continue to plan and execute combined operations effectively is underscored, as an example, by the fact that the Luftwaffe and Hungarian air force was flying up to 455 sorties per day in ground attack and air interdiction operations in support of Konrad. This at a time when it was assumed that the Luftwaffe was a spent force. Szamveber shows through his use of combat reports and other primary source material that, despite logistical as well as material shortages that the Axis were able to execute deep penetration operations against the opposing Soviet forces.

He balances his narrative very effectively by analyzing Soviet capabilities and efforts to block the German advances. The Soviet forces continue to prove themselves masters at the art of battlefield camouflage as well as the use of prepared defensive positions (anti-tanks nests had multiple overlapping weapon systems for example). The author notes that the Germans still felt themselves to be more than equal to the Russians in weaponry and operational/tactical skill sets but that there was a definite improvement in the Soviet capability at the junior and senior officer level; the mid-level officers still were a weakness. Also, it is interesting to see that the Soviets were also suffering significant challenges as the quality of their infantry was markedly lower as the war progressed; a result, no doubt, of the appalling casualties of the previous three years.

Szamveber’s work is an outstanding operational and tactical analysis of the German efforts outside of Budapest and the Soviets determination to thwart them. A detailed map section helps to visualize the operations (although a separate map book would have been better). The author has provide detailed summaries of tables of equipment and casualty rates to show the deltas under which the units were operating. This is a book for the reader with an eye for operational and tactical detail. Helion continues to provide outstanding quality in its book production. 

Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance - David Boyle

Title: Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance
Author: David Boyle
Publisher: Endeavour Press
Year: 2017
Digital Book

This is not a long book. Remarkably short in fact; not much over 100 pages. What it lacks in length however, it makes up for in content and quality. Given the number of books that have been written about the evacuation of Dunkirk, I was not expecting too much and was very pleasantly surprised. Boyle has focused his narrative around Vice-Admiral Bertram Home Ramsay, Commander of the Port of Dover and its environs. He was appointed to be overall Commander of the evacuation and, as such, was lead planner and executor of one of the most audacious and ambitious sea operations to date. The author has divided his story by day running from May 19th to June 3rd with a brief introduction to set the stage. The writing is tight and conveys the stress, uncertainty and determination of the participants with poignancy. This is a book about the planning and execution of the evacuation itself, not about the peripheral aspects such as the Highland Division’s and French army’s rearguard actions or the German efforts. I thoroughly enjoyed this work and would recommend it for those who wish to have a better appreciation of the level of work, coordination and luck that was required for the British (and French) to turn defeat into a viable opportunity.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Lost Opportunities: The Battle of the Ardennes 22 August 1914 - Simon J House

This review was submitted to Soldier Magazine.

Title: Lost Opportunities: The Battle of the Ardennes 22 August 1914
Author: Simon J House
ISBN: 978-1- 911096-42-9
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2017
Pages: 252
Photos/ Maps: 36/59 (in separate included book)

The author has undertaken an outstanding analysis of the French efforts to disrupt the German Schlieffen Plan by striking at the hinge of the German advance in the Ardennes. Despite achieving both tactical and operational surprise and having heavy numerical superiority, the French failed utterly in their endeavours. His book reviews the battles themselves, the qualities and competencies of the four key commanders involved (two German and two French) at the operational level as well as the doctrinal and training policies of Germany and France in the years leading up to the war. A superb study and a publication of the highest quality.

Wenn alle Bruder schweigen - Association of the Waffen SS

Title: Wenn alle Bruder schweigen
Author: Association of the Waffen SS
ISBN: 978-3-942145-00-8
Publisher: Edition Zeitgeschichte
Year: 2014
Pages: 592
Photos/ Maps: hundreds

In the early 1970’s The Association of the Waffen SS set out to create a commemorative book for their members that memorialized their wartime experiences in photo’s. The call for contributions was met with an overwhelming response from veterans and their families. Thus it is that this book contains literally hundreds if not thousands of never before seen photos of the training and wartime experiences of all branches of the Waffen-SS. The authors have drafted an introduction that discusses the development, recruiting, training, wartime and postwar experiences of the units as well as their international recruitment; however, the vast majority of the book (98%) is given over to photographs. All text in the book is in German and English. Also included are photos and descriptions of rank, uniforms and unit emblems.

The book is a fascinating picture study of the Units and their participation in the war. Following the cessation of hostilities, the Waffen-SS presented a difficult problem for the post-war German government given its history. Members and their families were denied any kind of support from the Government and were not allowed to join the newly formed German Heer (Army); they therefore relied upon themselves and their associations for support.

The introduction to the book was drafted by SS Oberstgruppenfuehrer and Genraloberst Paul Hausser, senior General of the Waffen-SS just before his death in 1972.

The book is not political nor is it an apology, it represents a pictorial history of the some of the hardest fighting, most capable and controversial units of the German military in World War 2 and I recommend it for anyone with an interest in German Second World War history.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Konev’s Golgotha - Mikhail Filippenkov

This review has been submitted to the Canadian Army Journal.

Title: Konev’s Golgotha
Author: Mikhail Filippenkov
ISBN: 978-1-910777-37-4
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2016
Pages: 168
Photos/ Maps: 18/8

In the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the archives of the former Soviet military were made available for historians to access when researching books relating to the Second World War. Unfortunately that window has now been significantly restricted again, limiting the ability of authors to provide a balanced accounting of events on the Eastern Front; this challenge was exacerbated by the systematic destruction of Soviet Unit records relating to operations where the Soviet Union suffered significant reversals. Operation Typhoon, the German drive for Moscow in October, 1941, falls into this category.

This work, which focusses upon the operational and tactical events running from 25 September to 12 October during which the pocket at Viaz’ma was closed, primarily deals with the Northern arm of this drive led by the Panzergruppe 3. The author traces the events leading to the capture of the town of Sychevka, a point north of Viaz’ma and critical to opening the road to Moscow. The author, a Russian national, does his best to provide a balance in the narrative between the Soviet forces of Konev’s Western Front and the German forces; unfortunately he is precluded from doing so due to the fact that all archives relating to Stavka (Soviet high command) and Front documents are still sealed. Thus, while he is able to draw some information from other sources, the book is mainly told from the German perspective.

Nevertheless, the approach taken by the author of a daily recitation of events does highlight some very interesting points on both sides: the quality of German command and control is evident in their ability to maintain decision making momentum over the Russian leadership; the dramatic changes in temperature and its effect upon the operational capabilities of both sides (the author refers to weather and temperature at the beginning of each day – the first wet snow fell on 7 October and the temperature fell to -40 at night by 10 October); the inability of the Germans to logistically maintain their forces and the incredible burden that this shortfall placed upon the rear services and the luftwaffe. Throughout the book the author refers to German units running short of fuel and the conscious decision by the German high command to not issue winter kit at the beginning of Typhoon due to the delay it would cause to the start date. The author also draws attention to the more effective combined arms operations of the Germans and the Russian lack of effective air reconnaissance. Finally, he acknowledges the overall superiority of German leadership and equipment while concurrently recognizing the strengths of the Russian forces in defensive operations.

Helion has maintained its high standard of quality with the production value of this work. This book is a quick and interesting read but should be read in conjunction with other authors such as David Glantz, Lev Lopukhovsky “The Viaz'ma Catastrophe, 1941: The Red Army's Disastrous Stand Against Operation Typhoon” or Svetlana Gerasimova’s “The Rzhev Slaughterhouse”. I also found that the maps provided with the text did not provide much detail on the area’s in the narrative; a shortcoming when the book is broken into daily analysis. Nevertheless, an interesting and engaging read.

Wind in the Wires - Duncan Grinnell-Milne

This review has been submitted to Airforce Magazine.

Title: Wind in the Wires
Author: Duncan Grinnell-Milne
ISBN: 978-1-90980-801-0
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Year: 2014
Pages: 238
Photos/ Maps: 4/0

Autobiographies of the early days of the Royal Flying Corps (later to be known as the Royal Air Force) never cease to impress. Perhaps it is the sense of wonder and √©lan with which these early pilots and observers recount their adventures; and that was what it was for many of these young gentlemen, an adventure. Wind in the Wire is the author’s story of his time in the RFC and his experiences as one of the early, and late, pilots of the First World War.

The first thing that strikes the reader is the prose with which the author writes. Despite not being a professional writer, he is able to turn a phrase in such a way as to convey to the reader a clear sense of the image and the humanity behind the description. His humility, joy, fears, frustrations and doubts are expressed simply and honestly, without pretense or embellishment. He is as forthright about his insecurities at learning to fly and joining an operational squadron as he is about his growing confidence and aggression in the air.

This is a book solely about his flying period; from when he reports for pilot training from his Regiment in July, 1915 to his last flight of the war in 1919. The narrative may be divided into three distinct parts: his training, his first operational squadron and being captured and finally his escape and rejoining 56 Squadron for the last months of the war. Each section alone stands as a fascinating tale of growth and adventure; taken together they represent a life’s worth of experiences compacted into three and a half short years.

The first section relates the author’s experiences in learning to fly as well as his first Squadron in France. What stands out is the quality of leadership and, during this time of the war, the lack of knowledge relating to even basic flying. Skills such as spinning, formation, bombing and gunnery were all being learned ‘on the fly’ and even the more senior pilots did not know much more than the most junior. 

The author does not dwell on the details of his incarceration period in any detail save that made numerous attempts at escape and that he turned down multiple offers by the Germans to have him transferred to neutral Holland where he would be precluded from further participation in the war but would not be held to the same degree of restriction as he was in Germany. It is very interesting to learn of the different approaches that many of the internee’s adopted as a result of their newfound circumstances and the options available such as transfer to a neutral country.

The period transitioning his escape and return to flying duty is of particular interest because it represents in fact a time capsule. During the two and a half years of his time as a POW, the entire spectrum of air combat had utterly changed. The doctrine, airframes, weapons and organizational structure of the RFC (and the Germans) was nothing like it was when he was captured. His description of endeavouring to get back into operational flying on the Western Front, his retraining and the “Rip van Winkle” effect of coming to grips with his new surroundings is gripping and absorbing. His treatment at 56 Squadron as somewhat of a carnival freak due to the fact that he was returning aircrew from a bygone era (escapees were never returned to combat roles at this time so he was doubly unique) is very interesting to follow. Even his description of the advent of bureaucracy within the RFC when compared to his first arrival in France in 1915 is both insightful, telling and humorous.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the book however, is the concluding pages as the war comes to an unexpected end. The author, being only 23 at this time, relates the deep sense of loss and dislocation as the Squadron and the War, representing familiarity, structure as well as profound comradeship, is systematically, and without fanfare, stripped down and disbanded. Although it is impossible to fully render the sense of isolation felt by the author and his peers (indeed if one has not experienced the intensity of war and its effect upon its combatants, mere words have difficulty translating it), G-M’s writing does convey to the reader the emotional turmoil as few books have.

Although this book relates the experiences of a war that was fought one hundred years ago, its significance reverberates even today. This book is a classic of airmanship and courage and should be read in conjunction with the likes of Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising, Arthur Gould Lee’s Open Cockpit and No Parachute as well as VM Yate’s Winged Victory. An outstanding work of literature and a must for any historian of the military arts.   

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Journeyman Tailor - Gerald Seymour

Title: The Journeyman Tailor
Author: Gerald Seymour
ISBN: 978-1-444-76025-5
Publisher: Hodder
Year: 1992
Pages: 352
Photographs/Maps: 0

History may be told by many different means: documentaries, historical treatise, papers and of course, historical fiction. Seymour’s novel falls into the latter category. It is considerably more difficult to effectively tell a story within the confines of a historical period because it is incumbent upon the author to not only weave an engaging tale but also to do so within the confines of the setting within which it takes place. Readers of historical fiction will be the first to point out inaccuracies and errors in the setting of the story – far more than within the storyline itself!

It is in this environment that Seymour has woven his tale of Northern Ireland during the time of the troubles. He immerses the reader into the deadly and unforgiving world of the Brits and the Provo’s: its politics, domestic toll, futility and tragedy. The storyline is deep, multi-faceted and reflects the complexities of the unfolding story through multiple lenses. The book has the intricacy of a Leon Uris tale and shares the poignancy of Trinity.

Seymour knows his topic intimately and it is reflected in the subtleties of language and description that add depth and legitimacy to his narrative. The strength of the story is reflected in the fact that the reader easily feels empathy and ire with all of the characters regardless of their political stripe. There are no hero’s in this book, only victims, and it is in that respect that this tale holds the reader and rises above the rest. It is all the more memorable for it.