Friday, 23 August 2019

Battle for Angola: The End of the Cold War in Africa 1975-89 - Al J Venter

This review has been submitted to the Canadian Army Journal.

Title: Battle for Angola: The End of the Cold War in Africa 1975-89
Author: Al J Venter
ISBN: 978-1-911096-41-2
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2017
Pages: 527
Maps/Photos: 5/100’s (colour, b/w) 

Al Venter is one of the most prolific writers of the myriad of African wars that has beset that continent in the years following independence. His works have an added level of authenticity due to the fact that he is anything but an armchair historian, he has actually participated in and been wounded in a number of them, including the Border Wars with Angola. Much of the history of the African Wars has been forgotten with the advent of ISIS, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria but there is much to learn about symmetric response to both symmetric and asymmetric enemies.  

In his review of the wars, the author encompasses the conflicts technological, doctrinal and societal impacts and how these changed over the course of the war. He also draws upon first-hand accounts of operational commanders, weapons designers and soldiers to provide for a more nuanced and realistic sense of the success and challenges faced by the protagonists. Included in this are discussions of the asymmetric elements of the war; specifically UNITA and SWAPO as well as the Angolan Army (and their material and personnel supporters Cuba, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact). Much of the book is a discussion of the tactical and operational effectiveness of these organizations, their doctrine and how it was countered by both the Portuguese (before independence in 1974) as well as the South Africans. The role of mercenary groups such as Executive Outcome is also deeply intertwined within these conflicts. Venter discusses the influence of other regional conflicts and the role that they played in South African planning; the Rhodesians’ Fire Force concept, lessons learned from Biafra, the Portuguese Special Forces and tribal Bushmen all played a role and are analyzed in depth. 

The technological advances that resulted from the nature of the conflict as well as the self-sufficiency required of the South Africans (due to the international arms embargo) is very interesting. The requirement for vehicles that were specifically designed to provide effective protection against mines while still enabling a robust cross country capability resulted in the development of an entirely new class of vehicles: Ratels, Eland’s and Buffel’s all put South Africa at the very forefront of Infantry Fighting Vehicle technology.  

Venter’s work encompasses the complex nature of the war spanning the strategic Cold War period, the regional conflicts between the various tribal and national groups and the tactical nature of the traditional and asymmetric elements of the war. His analysis is deep and thoughtful and based upon first hand and expert knowledge. His discussion of the various paramilitary and Special Forces and some of their more notable successes and failures further enhances the scope of the work. This is a highly readable account of the struggle for South West Africa and the impact that it had both internationally and regionally. Helion has published a superb book replete with high quality photographs; the bibliography is extensive. There are many lessons to be learned from the engagements in Africa and without a doubt Venter and his work is an outstanding source.

The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914 - Dennis Showalter, Joseph P Robinson, Janet A Robinson

This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics magazine.

Title: The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914
Author: Dennis Showalter, Joseph P Robinson, Janet A Robinson
ISBN: 978-1-476-67462-9
Publisher: McFarland Books
Year: 2019
Pages: 217
Photos/Maps: 22/9  

Germany entered the First World War confident that it would be able to deal a crushing blow to the Western Front Allies within a few weeks, thereby freeing its forces to turn East in order to deal with Russia in turn; events turned out quite differently. The authors have undertaken an in-depth analysis of what circumstances and practices contributed to this over-estimation. The book is a succinct and insightful review; not long but telling in its conclusions.  

The authors look at two distinct but critical shortfalls amongst the German execution of the invasion plans of the West. They are: critical failings within the planning itself, and most tellingly, a failure of reconnaissance. Each exacerbated the shortfalls of the others and resulted in crucial errors in decision making, ultimately leading to the failure of the German efforts in the West.  

Von Moltke committed a number of key errors in the development of the plan itself. These were related to both strategic and operational planning and reflected interesting elements of the German General Staff’s relationship with other government departments. Moltke made the decision to avoid crossing the Maastricht Corridor of Holland in order to provide for a potential neutral access point to the North Sea should Germany require it. This judgement was clearly a Foreign Affairs and Kaiser responsibility; however they were not part of the process. It is estimated that the resulting Liege bottleneck cost the Germans at least three days. He also decided to reshuffle the allocation of cavalry assets away from the Northern Wing of the German advance without any reduction in the task allocation. They were therefore unable to complete any of the activities effectively. Additionally, he created ad hoc Cavalry Corp’s with Headquarters that had not been exercised in peacetime, resulting in confusion and inefficiency. Finally, in the planning phase, the Germans assumed away elements that ran contrary to their vision of how the invasion would work; specifically, the fact that the Belgian Army would fight and not allow for free passage. 

The authors then presents a detailed account of the first four weeks of the War; focussing on the challenges that arose as a result of the issues identified above. For an Army and General Staff that had an almost mystical reputation, fundamental errors in planning exacerbated challenges in execution. These were further compounded by a failure to fully appreciate the reconnaissance capabilities of the nascent air and cavalry elements. This failure in reconnaissance resulted in the Germans not having the visibility of the battlefield that was essential to the effective control of the complex operation that they were trying to execute. The conclusions postulated by the authors as to why this occurred are reasonable and applicable to modern command staffs.   

An comprehensive bibliography and notes section round out this excellent text. The author’s style is succinct and very readable. They have taken an interesting and unique perspective on the shortfalls which, as they point out, the Germans came very close to overcoming despite them. An outstanding addition to any library or reading list.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Rails of War: Supplying the Americans and Their Allies in China-Burma-India - Steven James Hantzis

This review was submitted to the Army History Journal

Title: Rails of War: Supplying the Americans and Their Allies in China-Burma-India
Author: Steven James Hantzis
ISBN: 978-1-612348-53-7
Publisher: Potomac Books
Year: 2017
Pages: 199
Photos/Maps: 25/6

The author Stephen James Hantzis, in his book Rails of War, has written a story relating the experiences of his father, Sergeant Hantzis, during his Second World War service in the Far East. The theatre in which he operated was in the eastern provincial region of India, specifically on the borders of what is today known as Myanmar. In 1944, while the Japanese were being pushed back across the Pacific theatre of operations, in this particular area they were still an offensive threat and seeking to break the British hold on India itself. What is less well known is the degree to which the Japanese were able to call upon Indian deserters in order to facilitate their offensive capabilities. The authors father was a sergeant in an American unit, the 721st Railway Operating Battalion, whose responsibility was to maintain the flow of supplies and material east to the 14th Army as well as to the regional American forces operating in support of the 14th Army.

This book is not an in-depth analysis of the strategic and operational events surrounding that particular area but more the story of the experiences of the authors father. The perspective of a sergeant working in conjunction with the other Americans who for the first time were exposed not only to a wartime environment but also the environmental and societal shock of working with the Indians (in India) and other nationalities associated with railway. For many of them, this was their first time outside of the continental United States. One of the strengths of this book is the fact that the author is able to provide the reader with a macro as well as micro synopsis of the events surrounding the period 1944 1945. For example, the author combines his discussion of not only the allied strategies associated with trying to defend the border of India but also the Japanese commander’s vision on how he hoped to bring India under the influence of the Japanese empire with a drive to Kolkata. The expectation was, from a Japanese perspective, that having broken through the allied lines and captured the regional capital Calcutta, they would be able to drive India out of the war thereby facilitating peace with the Chinese who would no longer be able to be supported by the flow of goods and supplies coming in from India over the hump. This would then free up over 2 million experienced Japanese soldiers who could then be utilized elsewhere in the field of combat. Another point of interest is the fact that the authors father was engaged in a key logistics function supporting Allied Ops in Burma. Japanese operational doctrine dictated that their soldiers travelled very light and were reliant upon capturing supplies from the Allies to augment their logistic shortfalls; thus they focussed much of their attention on the logistics hubs of the Allied armies.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book was the fact that he focusses his attention on the logistic requirements and support efforts made by the allies; In many cases historians focus exclusively on the operations and the front line soldiers either naval, air, or army and their engagement directly with the enemy. In this case the author has focussed upon a little known aspect of the Burma campaign which was the building and maintenance of the railway lifeline to the front. Air operations over ‘the hump’ have garnered a store of historical significance for the efforts made by the C - 47 pilots flying and dropping supplies to isolated operators. However, lesser known but of greater value were the efforts made by the railway troops who not only maintained the flow of supplies going to the front but also rebuilt the railway system itself, which was in very poor condition, but also serviced and refurbished the equipment which in the tropical environment deteriorated at a much faster rate then in the United States or Europe. The situations and conditions that faced Sgt Hantzis and his staff as related by the author also underscore the effect and challenge of the differences in culture, language and tradition. It is often forgotten in today’s world of extensive communications options just how limited was international exposure for many of the men from the small towns of the United States.
This book is an easy read and provides sufficient detail to enable to reader to appreciate the gravity of the environment in the Far East in 1944 as well as the challenges associated with trying to build, maintain and run a railway under the conditions of wartime India. The author provides a comprehensive bibliography that provides for further reading relating to both the logistics and operational environment. I enjoyed the book as it related a very personal as well as historical account of this theatre.

Warfare in the Woods and Forests - Anthony Clayton

Title: Warfare in the Woods and Forests 
Author: Anthony Clayton
ISBN: 978-0-253-35688-8
Publisher: Stackpole Books
Year: 2012
Pages: 145

Environmental considerations always play a key part of any military operational planning. Each represents a unique and challenging set of concerns that must be identified; training to meet these challenges is key. Forests and woods present a unique opportunity because, like mountains, jungles and swamp areas, they favour not only the defence but also asymmetric and lower technological enemies. They exacerbate the difficulties in extricating an enemy force and require significantly more resources to execute properly. There has not been a lot of thought and consideration given to the execution of operations (both offensive and defensive) in wooded environments so Clayton’s work specifically focussed on forests is a welcome addition.

Clayton divides his work into a series of period analysis commencing with the pre-firearm era and early modern warfare. Following this he looks at the advent of firearms and their impact and ends with the influence of modern technology (artillery, armour, aviation, automatic weapons etc) on the effective execution of operations within a wooded environment. Throughout the book, the author encompasses the psychological impact of forests on soldiers. The sense of closeness and lack of visibility augments the terror of close quarter combat; especially when combined with an enemy engaging in asymmetric methods of combat (such as natives or partisans).

Training to make use of camouflage and ground in order to limit an aggressors advantages is key to the effective use of forests. The author makes great use of practical examples to reinforce his narrative. The Soviet-Finnish Winter War is an excellent case in point. The odds in terms of men and equipment heavily favoured the Soviets but the Finnish mastery of the terrain more than overcame this until the Russians adapted their tactics. This, the training and skills required being key to the confidence of effective forest work, is a consistent theme throughout the book, regardless of the period in question.

A rather short treatise, it is nevertheless a worthwhile book to read and absorb the lessons therein. The author has provided an interesting bibliography that expands upon the examples introduced in the narrative. Effective training ensures that wooded terrain serves as another tool in the strategists toolbox both from an offensive and defensive perspective.

Maritime Operations in the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905 Vol 1, 2 - Julian S Corbett

This review was submitted to the Canadian Naval Review.

Title: Maritime Operations in the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905 Vol 1, 2
Author: Julian S Corbett
ISBN: 978-1-59114-197-6
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Year: 2015
Pages: 1134 (two volumes)
Photos/ Maps: 0

The Russo-Japanese War has continuing historical significance because it represents the coming of age of a Far Eastern power (Japan) who, for the first time, successfully challenged and destroyed a European superpower in both a land and, more significantly, naval conflict. Corbett’s work was drafted originally as a classified report for the British Committee on Imperial Defence shortly after the war. It received very limited release and was only made available to the general public seventy five years after his death.

Traditionally, historians have focussed their attention on the Battle of Tsushima Strait, where the Russian Baltic fleet was utterly destroyed by the Japanese High Seas fleet; however, this was a small, albeit significant, aspect of the overall war. Corbett’s analysis takes a much more holistic approach; undertaking to examine the conflict in its entirety and embedding Tsushima into a larger strategic engagement supporting Japanese land operations. Additionally, he traces the operational doctrine of each nation, their strengths and weaknesses and how this impacted operational decision making. There were in fact three Russian fleets engaged at various times during the course of this war; all were effectively destroyed by the Japanese. Corbett, in addition to discussing the battles themselves, puts this fact into context when he identifies that the Japanese only had one fleet available to them; if it had been lost, then the entire underpinning of its Imperial program would be removed. This was key to the Japanese war planning and operational execution.

The author, while generally viewed as one of the pre-eminent naval historians of his era, excels in this report at seamlessly weaving between the strategic, operational and tactical levels of the war; clearly explaining the role of the various arms and how they interacted. He also discusses the influence of the international situation on the decision making processes of the governments and the field commanders. As an example, one of the key factors that drove strategic decision making was the perspective that each of the nations had on the relative importance of the region. Corbett identifies that Japan saw the challenge of Russia as a direct threat to its strategic interests with direct and far-reaching implications for its future. Conversely, Russia viewed the same situation as, at best, having only regional implications and did not view the situation nearly as seriously. 

The publication would benefit from maps of the region and the naval combat as it unfolded. While he provides detailed descriptions of the combats, it is difficult for the naval layman to follow the maneuvers. Additionally, providing regional maps would greatly benefit the perspective and appreciation of expanse and distances.

Notwithstanding this point, Corbett has drafted an exceptional analysis of the Russo-Japanese war. His style and is very engaging and easily maintains the reader’s interest throughout. His analysis and ability to succinctly capture the broad canvas of this conflict makes this book mandatory reading for commanders at all levels (regardless of element) who wish to appreciate the complexities of combined operations. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Return of the Barbarians - Jakub J Grygiel

Title: Return of the Barbarians
Author: Jakub J Grygiel
ISBN: 978-1-107-15857-3
Publisher: Cambridge UP
Year: 2018
Pages: 222

The study of history in order to glean methods and hints at how to deal with modern day challenges is well appreciated by strategists and historians. Notwithstanding that, there are many who fail to appreciate the similarities between modern asymmetric warfare and the battles of the past. Grygiel has undertaken an effort to draw a direct line between much of what is happening today and instances where this has been experienced in the pre-modern era.

The author has focused his attention primarily on the later period of the Roman Empire. During that period, the Empire was beset, especially from Germania on the opposite bank of the Danube, by persistent small scale strikes by groups of barbarians. These groups would strike randomly and quickly, pillage and burn before rapidly departing. Because they were operating out of an uncivilized region with no centralized Government, it was very difficult for Rome to draw upon its traditional, conventional means (diplomacy, deterrence or military) of dealing with adversaries such as the Parthians. Compounding the effects of these raids was the psychological fear that they produced; far in excess of their actual damage.

Grygiel succeeds in connecting this environment to the modern one of asymmetric terrorism. Through the advent of technology, these groups are able to strike at random from decentralized cells with little to no warning. These attacks, often very high profile in nature (such as the Madrid train bombing), result in deep disruption amongst the targeted nations far in excess of the damage done. Further, traditional conventional militaries are not equipped to effectively counter these attacks. Therefore despite the advent of technology many of these terrorist cells are still able to operate with a high degree of impunity.

 Much of the success of the barbarians centered upon their ability to undermine the confidence in the population in the State’s ability to provide protection. As Grygiel points out, this resulted in the local population taking on the responsibility for protection themselves. However, and again this is typical in much of today’s Western world, much of the Roman population had lived within the protection of the Empire for hundreds of years and therefore, did not have the knowledge or ability, to fight and respond effectively. This further exacerbated the challenge of response as regions began isolating themselves from Rome as they barricaded themselves within fortified towns and cities.

Grygiel asserts that much could be learned from the responses attempted by Rome to counter these threats from small, mobile barbarian cells. It is an interesting and compelling argument that he puts forward. Of course the tools available to the Nations of today are far more sophisticated than the ones of the Roman Empire, but the enemy is also far more sophisticated. The lessons of history remain for us to use should we look; Grygiels book suggests that very little happening today is new and that much remains a rehash of previous experiences. A fascinating read.

Monday, 1 July 2019

China's Vision of Victory - Jonathon DT Ward

Title: China's Vision of Victory

Author: Jonathon DT Ward
ISBN: 978-0-57-843810-8
Publisher: Atlas
Pages: 274

 In China’s Vision of Victory, the author has presented the reader with a comprehensive, insightful and thought provoking concept of what drives the Chinese and what goal they seek to attain. Western analysts have traditionally viewed China through the lens of a nation in gradual transition to one more in common with Western ideals. Initially, this perspective may have been understood given the experiences of the Soviet Union, Arab Spring and Tiananmen Square; however, this approach missed much of what were the underlying motivators of the Chinese leadership and by extension the Chinese people. Ward’s book approaches the question of Chinese aspirations from the perspective of one who has lived among the Chinese, has traveled extensively throughout China and its environs and is able to communicate fluently (both verbal and written) with the people in their own dialect. 

He has divided his book into five interconnected but distinct sections: rejuvenation and national destiny, ‘Blue National Soil’ - Military and Strategic Geography, Economic and Technological Ambitions, Global Reach and National Interest and Vision for New World Order. This is important because while each is unique, they are inextricably linked and help explain the common vision that the Chinese are pursuing. China is playing the long game and has the distinct advantage of having a government system that allows for the resources of the entire State: administrative, economic, military, diplomatic and societal, to be focused upon the task at hand. Ward clearly defines very early on exactly what that task is and, as he emphatically states, it is not the assumption of super power status in the world. Rather it is the return of China to what it sees as its natural position of pre-eminence amongst the international community. This distinction is critical to understanding the Chinese approach to domestic and international relations. To the Chinese, the ends justify whatever means need be used to achieve their return and every action they take is predicated upon how it will aid them in achieving their goal.

Ward presents a very compelling argument drawing a comparison between the external and internal Chinese messaging. The Domestic audience is constantly reminded of the “Century of Humiliation” starting from 1840 when a weak and corrupt China was pillaged by the forces of the West and how the newly revitalized China will return the world to its natural order. To the external audience, China presents a more conciliatory face, striving very hard to be seen as a benign power working in conjunction with world organizations to ensure peaceful coexistence. Emphasis is placed upon the efforts to raise its people from poverty and the use of Western PR firms to manage the message to foreign populations. 

This book is very well written and researched. It presents a comprehensive view of the Chinese goals and how they strive to achieve them. It also paints a rather bleak picture of the Western response to this threat. Ward pulls no punches nor does he present his arguments in such a way as to suggest that he has an underlying agenda. The threat that China presents to the world as it continues to awake from its slumber is real and tangible. That the West has been slow to respond is evidence of our complacency and hubris as well as the success at Chinese efforts at misinformation. Ward’s work needs to be read and discussed. It is a sobering call for action that Western powers ignore at their peril.