Monday, 18 March 2019

Instrument of War: The German Army 1914-18 - Dennis Showalter

This review was submitted to Strategy and Tactics magazine. 

Title: Instrument of War: The German Army 1914-18
Editor: Dennis Showalter
ISBN: 978-1-4728-1300-8
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2016
Pages: 304
Photos: 43

The German Army had a reputation leading up to the beginning of World War 1 that placed it squarely at the top of equivalent European Armies. Based mainly upon its performance during the Wars of German Unification (Denmark and Austria) and the Franco-Prussian War, it was perceived to be, in many respects, the standard to be emulated. Showalter approaches his topic with this in mind and investigates whether this reputation was still deserved just prior to World War 1. He further examines how the Army and its command structure morphed as the War continued and the impact that this had on its effectiveness and resiliency.

His analysis commences with a brief overview of the national character of the army and its various levels of personnel readiness. This sets the stage for his discussion of the army and the commencement of the war. Showalter is very balanced in his praise and criticism of the army and the reputation that it had. He postulates that the Army was the wrong tool for the Schlieffen Plan and that German Senior leadership failed to appreciate its limitations, specifically in the areas of mobility and communications, ultimately resulting in the plans failure. He further  convincingly postulates that, while the Army was superior in many ways to its contemporaries, the German Leadership was extremely limited in their strategic grasp and could not decide upon priorities of effort following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan.

Showalter effectively encapsulates the rise and fall of German fortunes as the war descends into one of stalemate and attrition in the West and supporting a weakened Austro-Hungary in the East against Russia and Italy. He shows that for a good part of the war, Germany was superior at the tactical and operational levels; engaging in the use of aircraft, gas, storm troop tactics and the command empowerment of NCO’s and Junior Officers. He is, however, merciless in his criticism of the senior German leadership; its infighting, hubris, political intrigue and ultimate failure to acknowledge the necessity of working in tandem with the diplomatic elements of the Government as well as not recognizing the self-destructiveness of the war.

The theme throughout his book is that the main enemy of Germany was time. Every year weakened them and strengthened their adversaries, allowing the Allies to learn and close the gap between their respective armies. Compounding this was the diminishing pool of manpower available to Germany with which to make good its losses.

Showalter has proven himself to be an impartial judge of the German Army of this period; balanced in his praise and criticism. He draws attention to elements of German leadership and planning that are not necessarily readily apparent in many of the narratives of this war. There is no question that the Germans could have won the war given slightly different circumstances but, as Showalter points out, this would have been in spite of rather than because of the strategic level decision making. Despite its institutional weaknesses, the German Army proved itself to be an instrument of formidable depth and resilience; able to match the Allies right up until the last months of the War. Showalter gives the reader much to think about and ponder from his noteworthy analysis of this machine. A well-researched and very interesting book.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Illustrated History of the Sturmgeshutz-Abteilung 202 - Norbert Szamveber

This review has been submitted to Canadian Army Review.

Title: Illustrated History of the Sturmgeshutz-Abteilung 202
ISBN: 978-615-80072-6-9
Publisher: Peko
Year: 2016
Pages: 396
Photos/Maps: 118/40

This work, coming from Hungarian Publisher Peko, is an interesting analysis of the operational history of this assault gun unit. The author has drawn from the official operational reports and histories of the unit to provide a comprehensive exploration of the activities of the Unit from its creation in August, 1941 to its ultimate surrender with the rest of the German Heer (Army) on May 8, 1945. This is not a dry rendition of the daily activities unit life interspersed with moments of intense operational activity. Indeed, the author has undertaken to provide the reader with a narrative that not only flows but is also deeply descriptive and instructive of command methods, logistical challenges, organizational strengths as well as employment of the Stug III. Read with this approach in mind, the book provides a deep well of information to be gleaned by the attentive reader.

Included within the calendar breakdown are first hand recollections and battle reports that correspond to the given day. This is particularly striking as it provides a juxtaposition to the relatively two dimensional war diary style reporting. It is necessary to pay attention as one reads this book as skimming will guarantee that you miss salient points. As one reads through certain elements stand out:

1.      The creation of temporary kampfgruppes to counter Soviet attacks; usually built around the Stug batteries. Shows the adaptability of the German command structure;
2.      The speed with which the German command recognized and awarded exceptional conduct (one case relates 40 min for Adolf Hitler to confirm the awarding of three Knights crosses);
3.      The versatility of the assault artillery in supporting both offensive and defensive operations;
4.      The quality of the German crews, leadership and training compared to their Soviet adversaries under combat conditions and the incredible bravery of both sides;
5.      The incredible strain and pace of operations – one wonders at times when the crews slept;
6.      The superb support and turnaround time of the maintenance and logistics personnel in keeping the Stug batteries operational despite the huge challenges involved;
7.      The constant exchange and promulgation of lessons learned within the German command structure and the subsequent application of those lessons; and
8.      The degree to which joint operations were an inherent part of the German command ethos. 

Szamveber rounds out his book with a broad array of documents, maps and photographs that provided for a better visual appreciation of the weapon systems, developments in the Stug III technology, Orders of Battle and operational environments within which S-A 202 operated. A majority of the maps are copies of the original German maps which in some cases are somewhat hard to follow. Annexes of technical and operational data by the author also provide quick reference into the units’ workings and developments. This is a very high quality publication, presented in a way that enables the reader to really appreciate the complexities of operational command and utilization of a unique, critical Unit. 

Monday, 25 February 2019

Biafra’s War 1967-1970 - Al J Venter

This review has been submitted to Air Force magazine.

Title: Biafra’s War 1967-1970
Editor: Al J Venter
ISBN: 978-1-910294-69-7
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2015
Pages: 314
Photos/Maps: 149 (b/w) 26 (c)/5

Like many conflicts that ravaged the African continent in the years following the departure of the Colonial powers, the Biafran War has been largely forgotten by the West. It is indicative of how much society has changed that while the Rwandan genocide has become a watch word for deliberate slaughter, the million or so victims of the Biafran war, despite being mainly women and children subject to the cadaverous effects of starvation, did not elicit the international outrage typical of today’s responses. The author’s credibility in writing about this conflict is enhanced by his having been in situ for a significant part of it. Thus he has personally met many of the individuals that he writes about.

There are many facets of Biafra that came to typify African engagements during this period - the 1960’s and 70’s. In this case the engagement of third party nations indirectly or directly supporting one side or the other (or blocking aid) thereby influencing the outcome for national benefit. The British and Soviets each had an interest in helping Nigeria remain united and proactively protected their access to Nigerian oil; thereby finding themselves working together to ensure its continuity. The Portuguese and South Africans, by contrast, favoured Biafran sovereignty. The use of media to try and influence world opinion and the marked lack of response, despite the impact on women and children of the conflict, is indicative of the period in question. Venter’s insightful discussion of these issues provides an interesting counterpoint to similar situations today.

Not surprisingly, it was logistics that ultimately spelled the end for the Biafran cause. Venter goes into a great deal of detail discussing the lengths that the Biafran government undertook trying to ensure a steady flow of supplies into their enclave. Of particular note was the airbridge that served as the lifeline for medicine, ammunition and food for the population. Using primarily Super Constellations and Stratocruisers, these aircraft flew multiple missions per night into an adhoc airfield under the constant threat of air interdiction or bombing. An outstanding example and study in air logistics support.

Mercenaries also played key roles for both the Biafrans and the Nigerians. Undertaking responsibility as combat/transport pilots, trainers, communications and other specialist tasks, they filled the void that the native soldiers could not. Their experiences and treatment are extensively studied by the author and add to the Wild West environment that reflected this region. Names that became synonymous with mercenary operations throughout the African region added Biafra to their battle honours: Count Gustav von Rosen, Mike Gibson, Jan Zumbach, Jay Breytenbach, “Taffy” Williams, Rolf Steiner and Ares Klootwyk. Additionally, groups such as Medecins Sans Frontieres also had their origins in Biafra and are discussed at length by the author.

A further aspect of note covered by the narrative was the extensive improvisation used by the Biafrans to offset the lack of consistent logistics support. Thousands of cottage industries coordinated by the Biafran government made uniforms, distilled fuel, modified weapon systems, made tanks and developed unique weapons (such as the Ojukwu Bucket that acted as a deadly yet primitive claymore style mine). The creative ability of the Biafran people was extremely noteworthy and flies in the face of many preconceived notions of African peoples.

The author rounds out his narrative with a look ahead and behind for this region of Africa. His discussion of the causes of the fracture within the Nigerian confederation are enlightening and insightful and his observations on the effects of Boko Haram and the erosion of cohesion along religious as well as ethnic lines, cause for concern.

Helion has once again published a book of the highest quality, replete with excellent photographs (colour and b/w) as well as very useful maps. Venter has provided the reader with a work that, while on balance favouring the Biafran perspective, nevertheless gives due credit to the efforts of the Nigerian Federal leader’s success at reconciliation following the cessation of hostilities. His work captures the complexity and the nuance of the conflict and presents a tantalizing glimpse of what an African society is capable of when free from the shackles of endemic corruption. A book well worth reading.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

The Franco-Prussian War 1870-71 Vol 1 and 2 - Quintin Barry

This review was submitted to Military History Online.

Title: The Franco-Prussian War 1870-71 Vol 1 and 2
Author: Quintin Barry
ISBN: 978-1-906033-45-3//978-1-906033-46-0
Publisher: Helion and Company
Year: 2009
Pages: 342/530
Photos/Maps: 171/40

Mr Barry has penned a tour de force rendition of the (relatively) short yet dramatic engagement between the French Empire and the German Confederacy. The outcome changed the face of Europe and set the stage for the cataclysm’s to follow in the 20th century. Barry’s approach is detailed and comprehensive; as such he has divided his volumes around the Battle of Sedan which serves as a natural division between French Imperial and French Republican operations. His analysis and discussion are very detailed and he adds further nuance to his narrative by drawing upon anecdotes from participants. This is primarily a book detailing the role of Helmuth von Moltke as Chief of the German General Staff in building, training and ultimately directing the German Army in war; as well as his challenges in dealing with the sometimes divergent demands of the military and German Chancellor Bismark.

Given the broad spectrum of the war, Barry has done an excellent job at presenting the myriad of military engagements in a logical and straightforward manner. His descriptions focus upon the operational and strategic levels of command and he expends a great deal of effort in presenting multi-dimensional portrayals of the key German and French Commanders. This greatly facilitates a deep appreciation of the myriad of personalities that impact the execution of operations and their influence on events. It also goes far in reinforcing the key German leadership technique of decentralized execution of the Commanders Intent. Time and again, Barry quotes orders and diary inserts that relate the advantages gleaned by the German forces when senior officers did not micro manage their subordinates.

Of course not everything was in the Germans favour and Barry provides plenty of examples of the friction that existed within both the German and French command elements. The reader is also given deep insight into the extremely complicated political turmoil resulting from the collapse of the French Emperor’s government in the midst of the conflict and the profound resiliency of the French military and people in replenishing their losses in short order. Quantity may not replace quality but it certainly gave the German Commanders pause.

The maps are a great disappointment with this publication unfortunately. They are very hard to follow and therefore of very limited value. This is quite a drawback given the complexity of the operations. However, overall Barry has written an outstanding history of this war, in such a way that it retains the reader’s interest despite the complex maneuvering of the vast forces involved. I strongly recommend this work for those who wish to gain insight into the real time effects of the application of Commanders Intent as a tool of command.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

The Italian Folgore Parachute Division - Paolo Morisi

This review has been submitted to Military History Online.

Title: The Italian Folgore Parachute Division
Author: Paolo Morisi
ISBN: 978-1-911-09624-5
Publisher: Helion and Company
Year: 2016
Pages: 206
Photos/Maps: 84/9

Rightly or wrongly the Italian land forces of the Second World War are viewed as the poor cousins of the Axis alliance. A notable exception to this is the elite Folgore (Lightning) Parachute Division. Similar in nature to parachute elements in most armies, it was made up of the better officers and men of the Italian Army and was trained to a higher degree of skill and effectiveness. This book is a historical narrative of the development, operations and ultimate destruction of this unit.

Like many of its contemporaries, the Folgore was designed and equipped to be a light infantry element, thus it lacked prime movers, heavy weapons and other accoutrements that would impede its mobility. Initially developed with a view towards the invasion of Malta, when that was cancelled, it was rerolled into an infantry role in the African campaign. Unfortunately, it was not properly equipped for this new task and was ultimately trapped and, for the most part, destroyed during the Battle of El Alamien. The remnants continued to fight as the Axis retreated across the desert and was caught up in the final surrender of the Afrika Korps in Tunisia.

Morisi has presented a comprehensive analysis of the creation, recruitment, training and operational history of this Division. Its relatively short lifespan precluded it from earning the accolades that it perhaps deserved and this book is a focussed effort to redress that. The narrative is based upon extensive primary source material as well as interviews with surviving members of the Division and those that operated alongside and against it. Morisi has structured his work in a logical and engaging way placing particular emphasis upon the numerous operations that the Division was involved in. This is a very balanced rendition of the Units history as its strengths and weaknesses are discussed with equal candor. 

The quality of the publication is outstanding; typical of the Helion publishing house. The extensive maps and photographs also lend a visual appreciation to the narrative. I found this work to be very informative and thought provoking. Morisi has done an excellent job with his operational analysis and discussion of the larger strategic issues that affected the Divisions development and use. For those interested in a greater appreciation of one of the more effective Italian contributions to the Second World War, this book is recommended.

Strategy: Context and Adaption from Archidamus to Airpower - Richard J Bailey, James Forsyth, Mark Yeisley

This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics Magazine

Title: Strategy: Context and Adaption from Archidamus to Airpower
Editor: Richard J Bailey, James Forsyth, Mark Yeisley
ISBN: 978-1-682-47003-9
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Year: 2016
Pages: 279

Strategy is a dynamic, living thing; intimately influenced by technology, geography, society and science. The editors have collaborated in bringing together a series of essays, each dealing with different aspects of strategy and its application and influence on the modern battlefield. The authors of the essays are academics, experts in their fields and all PhD instructors associated with the US School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. The intent of this work is to both promote and facilitate change in the way that strategy is perceived and applied.

The chapters of the book represent facets of strategy and strategic thought that are not necessarily appreciated by those inculcated into the more traditional strategic trifecta: politics, plans and execution within a military context. The broadening of the strategic scope enables the planner to better appreciate the environment within which they are obligated to work and execute their task. This holistic approach recognizes the need to approach strategy in a dynamic and non-linear fashion backstopped against a comprehensive education of strategic thought.

Concurrent to the task of strategic expansion is the need to blend this thought practice with the application of airpower theory; or how to undertake achieving the strategic goal within the boundaries and limitations of modern airpower principles. This is a challenging task, readily acknowledged by the authors, but one that is of critical importance if one is to be effective. Nevertheless, the work underscores the need to think of strategic aims and goals beyond the simple application of force; and to do so in a concurrent fashion. This further assists in meeting the constraints of the applied force of airpower.

In addition to its variety of thought-provoking essays, this work contains an extensive array of foot and endnotes that further clarify the discussion points of the authors. This proved very helpful as, with any essay, there are aspects that require expansion in order to facilitate understanding. The book is rounded out with a comprehensive bibliography of supplemental and relevant readings. The academic intent of this work, which is to help identify for the reader/student, what strategy is in its most basic form. However, the authors readily acknowledge that this question is an elusive target and that the book really aims at providing guidance on numerous methods by which strategy may be sought. In this respect the book is very successful.

The authors have created a work that covers a broad range of strategic analysis and method. In the case of this book, the emphasis focuses upon the use of strategy in relation to the effective application of airpower; however, it should be noted that the methods discussed in this work have a relevance far outside of the military application of strategy. The process of understanding the underlying methods of deriving strategy and its application is as important as the determination of strategic executions. This work helps guide the reader in this direction. 

Monday, 17 December 2018

Miracle at the Litza: Hitler’s First Defeat on the Eastern Front - Alf R Jacobsen

This review has been submitted to the Australian Naval Institute Journal

Title: Miracle at the Litza: Hitler’s First Defeat on the Eastern Front
Author: Alf R Jacobsen
ISBN: 978-1-612-00506-5
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2017
Pages: 190
Photos/Maps: 71/8

Histories of the early stages of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, traditionally focus upon the line of activities running from the Baltic to Romania and the incredible successes that the Germans enjoyed during the first six months of that campaign. Lesser known but of longer term significance was the savage and austere fighting that occurred in the high arctic on the approaches to Murmansk. Jacobsen has drawn upon primary source material from the archives of Russia, Germany, England, Norway and Finland in an effort to address this shortcoming.

The book outlines the planning and execution of the German attacks across two lines of advance, the challenges faced and why they ultimately failed. He also provides a detailed account of the Russian and English efforts at countering these attacks. Ultimately these efforts, unlike the rest of the Eastern Front, were successful and served as an excellent example of joint operational planning and execution across both service elements and between the British and Russians.

Jacobsen does a noteworthy job of analyzing why the German/Finnish forces failed and it centers upon a few key lessons:

1.    A failure of German Intelligence to accurately determine the forces both physical as well as climatic facing them across the northern approaches to Murmansk;
2.    Failure to engage with the Finns early enough to have them provide meaningful input into the planning process;
3.    Failure of relations between German strategic, operational and tactical levels of Command and a resultant loss of trust and focus;
4.    German failure to maintain the schwerepunkt of attack and the subsequent reinforcement of failure as opposed to success between the Northern and Salla approaches to Murmansk; and
5.    A dilution of limited forces across the North.

Conversely, the author’s discussion of the Allied efforts also highlights certain lessons:

1.    The critical importance of effective joint operations (in this case naval and naval air) on both morale and flexibility;
2.    Effective intelligence; both the timely interception and effective use of;
3.    Allied engagement and the challenge of the perception of help versus tangible assistance on trust and cooperation;
4.    Ensuring that the correct assets are available to provide flexible response options to local commanders (in this case naval gunfire, submarine and naval air options); and
5.    The under-rated but critical importance of dogged resilience in effective defensive operations.

Jacobsen’s analysis and presentation of this previously underrepresented aspect of Operation Barbarossa is a nuanced, balanced and thoroughly readable work. The maps provided are somewhat busy and hard to follow but provide an adequate appreciation of elevations and the challenging nature of the environment. The book closes with a synopsis/analysis of the campaign by a former head of the Norwegian Armed Forces who lends a professional soldiers perspective from one who intimately knows the ground being fought over. Highly recommended.