Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Infighting Admirals: Fisher’s Feud with Beresford and the Reactionaries - Geoffrey Penn

Title: Infighting Admirals: Fisher’s Feud with Beresford and the Reactionaries
Author: Geoffrey Penn
ISBN: 978-0-85052-756-8
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Year: 2000
Pages: 264
Photos: 31

It is hard to imagine the degree of influence that the Royal Navy had, at the end of the 1800’s, on British public opinion and therefore, by extension, politics. At that time it was entirely possible to transfer between active duty positions and political office as long as one wasn’t on duty (but was on ‘half-pay’ semi-retirement). This gave naval officers, especially ambitious ones, a great deal of scope for influence and mischief. The two officers at the centre of this work were contemporaries, once friends and, in the end, deep set rivals. Both had their supporters and detractors; the UK and, most especially the Royal Navy, were fortunate in the final outcome of the feud.

Penn’s work does an outstanding job at providing a comprehensive picture of each man’s personality, development, influences and ambitions. This is key in providing context to the nature of the rivalry that developed between them. Both loved the Navy but for different reasons. Fisher saw it as an extension of British influence and domination and one that was under threat from a lack of focus and professionalism as well as operational and developmental stagnation. His vision was one of fundamental change to all aspects the Navy. Conversely, Beresford also viewed the Navy as an extension of British power, but not in terms of a professional arm but more as a hereditary right and norm. What had worked in the past will continue to work in the future. In his view the Navy served to glorify the country and the Admiral in charge and quantity more than made up for quality as long as the turnout was good.

This book is really about personalities and the environments within which they worked. Penn excels at encapsulating the nature of military and political service and the ways by which influence was exercised. Also of note is the role of the major newspapers of the period. They were the twitter of their period and policies and reputations were subject to their whims. It is truly incredible the degree to which Beresford was able to publically flout military protocol and discipline in his efforts to advance his own agenda. The failure of the Royal Navy and its political masters to nip this behaviour was indicative of the intricacies of class and position.

Fisher’s advancement was also unique in that he had no political or family connections to draw upon; his competency and luck were his tickets to promotion. He was a visionary with little time for political niceties and he drove forward his agenda with a single-mindedness of purpose. Fisher’s success, despite deep rooted resentment and resistance amongst the Naval Old School, serves as a testament to the adages relating to being the right man at the right time.

Penn’s work is an eminently readable account of one of the most fascinating periods of the Royal Navy outside of wartime. Little remembered today, the experiences of Fisher and Beresford should serve as opposing examples of leadership and self-sacrifice that are the bedrock of effective military command. Penn’s book should be read by any who are interested in examples of effective and ineffective arts of command as well as the inherent dangers in complacency.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Russia’s Last Gasp – The Eastern Front 1916-1917 - Prit Buttar

Title: Russia’s Last Gasp – The Eastern Front 1916-1917
Author: Prit Buttar
ISBN: 978-1-4728-1276-6
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2016
Pages: 472
Photos/Maps: 49/15

Russia’s Last Gasp is the third of four books relating to the tumultuous fighting on the Eastern Front during World War 1. Focussing on the last year of Russia’s formal engagement in the war and the last year of the Czar’s reign, it relates both the zenith and nadir of Russian fortunes as well as the secondary and tertiary effects thereof on the region. The recognition of a Polish State by the Central Powers and the effective use of fire and movement in the destruction of Romania as an Entente ally serve as two of the more notable events covered by Buttar. Most telling however, is the use of new tactics by the Russians in their Brusilov campaign which, but for a disastrous lack of cooperation and coordination amongst the Russian commanders, came within an ace of collapsing the Astro-Hungarian Empire.

Once again, the author is insightful, entertaining and comprehensive in his analysis and presentation. He masterfully deconstructs the Gordion Knot of political, operational and personality threads to present the reader with a logical rendition of the significant events and facts while ensuring the complexity of the environment is appreciated. Buttar has a gift for being able to convey a sense of the horror’s experienced by the soldiers at the coal face of combat; a skill that is often lost when authors relate battles in terms of numbers lost and ground gained.

His discussion of the Brusilov campaign is more interesting for the analysis of the planning and tactical changes that Brusilov developed to break the Austro-Hungarians. Taking advantage of lessons learned, Brusilov undertook to adjust the use of artillery as well as the methods of the infantry attack. These changes enabled the Russians to break through defensive lines that had proven impenetrable in the past. Once again Austro-Hungary teetered on the brink of collapse and it was only the Germans ability to rapidly shift reinforcements south that prevented collapse.

The Romanian campaign is very interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the unique joint operations between the Austro-Hungarians, Germans, Turks and Bulgarians against the Romanians (who were, in effect, left to their own devices by the Allied forces). Senior command of all of the forces was retained by Germans (von Falkenhayn out of Hungary and von Mackensen from Bulgaria). Their coordination and cooperation stood in marked contrast to the Allied forces available (Russia in the North and the British and French in Salonika). Buttar has done an admirable job at analysis and provision of lessons learned.

This book represents yet another stellar work by Buttar. His transition from the strategic to the tactical perspective is seamless and fluid and his analysis of the conflicts of 1916-1917, thoughtful and insightful. His works have shed light on lost opportunities by both adversaries to take advantage of the more dynamic battlefields of the East as a means of breaking deadlock in the West. Osprey has produced an excellent quality book, well worth the investment.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Composite Warfare: The Conduct of Successful Ground Force Operations in Africa - Eeben Barlow

This review has been submitted to the Canadian Army Journal

Title: Composite Warfare: The Conduct of Successful Ground Force Operations in Africa
Author: Eeben Barlow
ISBN: 978-1-92821-176-1
Publisher: 30 Degrees South
Year: 2016
Pages: 534
Photos: 100’s

Africa is in many respects a little understood continent; specifically with respect to armed conflict, the causes thereof and the methodology of effectively combatting them, this is even more acute. Without having experienced life in the Dark Continent and its nuances, it is difficult to appreciate its myriad of challenges relating to operations. Notwithstanding this, Barlow has produced a book that goes a long way towards providing the reader with a comprehensive analysis of not only the unique facets of operating in Africa but also the nature of political, economic and military interface that colours African engagement. Having operated as a member of the SADF (South African Defence Force) in command and special operations capacities, a founding member and commander of Executive Outcome and advisor to many African Governments on doctrine and policy, the author is uniquely qualified to discuss the African operating environment.

This is not a book to read once and put away; indeed such is the breadth of knowledge that there are lessons to be gleaned with each successive engagement. He combines a straight forward analytical style with a deep bibliography and first hand examples that round out his narrative and give credence to his hypothesis. For the Western professional operative, there will be elements of the book that are well known; but many aspects of the book will be very useful to understanding the driving motivators of African leadership and soldiery (either symmetric or asymmetric).

In order to fully appreciate the value of Barlow’s work, it must be remembered who is the intended audience for this work. Primarily this will be African Government forces and perhaps those para and non-traditional elements operating within the African continent. For this reason the book entails a broad cross section of vertical and horizontal instruction. There is information contained in the work for all; it is easy for a Western power to dismiss some of the information provided as too basic and, by extension, the entire work. It must be remembered however, that the African theatre of operations is dramatically different North to South and East to West and Barlow’s work undertakes an analysis of the unique aspects of operations reflective of the different environments.

One of the more consistent and challenging aspects of African conflicts are the prevalence of asymmetric conflicts that may run independent or concurrent to more traditional operations. The author dedicates a significant amount of the book discussing the unique nature of African asymmetric conflict; its underlying causes, the variety of environment both physical and societal and the tools and training critical to be effective. The information that he presents is insightful and very relevant; especially when discussing the nature of inter-service and international joint operations. It is worth noting however, that support elements are not discussed in any real depth in the book. This is disappointing as logistics represents a key element of success and Africa represents a particularly hostile environment for support.

This is not an easy read as it presents very much like doctrine; it does come across as dry and academic. Nevertheless, it is replete with useful information gleaned from the author’s decades of operational experience on the African continent. As a reference book it is strongly recommended for anyone undertaking operations for the first time in Africa.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Shot Down and in the Drink//Shot Down and on the Run - Graham Pitchfork

Title: Shot Down and in the Drink//Shot Down and on the Run
Author: Graham Pitchfork
ISBN: 978-1-4728-2727-2//978-1-4728-2727-7
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2017
Pages: 276/258
Photos/ Maps: 40/33
One of the more unique aspects of wartime is the nature of the predicaments that aircrew find themselves in following a crash or enemy engagement. In modern times we have the benefits of GPS, electronic locator beacons (ELT’s), specialized immersion suits, radios and cell phones. None of these were available during the Second World War and, given the relative infancy of air travel (keep in mind that aircraft had only been in operation in larger numbers following the end of the First World War) not a lot of policy or doctrine had been developed for search and rescue. Pitchfork has, in his two books, looked at very similar predicaments but also very diverse environments that aircrew found themselves and what had been developed, often with the benefit of experience rather than determined planning, to deal with their challenges.

For any mariner or aircrew that has been sunk, crashed or shot down, being in the water has to be one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable. With little or no means of contact, not knowing if anyone is even aware that you are down, no access to fresh water or food, subject to the ravages of heat and cold, seasick and possibly wounded, the future surely seemed bleak at best. Pitchfork outlines the ways in which the Allies tried to overcome these challenges through the use of a robust LifeBoat (RLNI) and an Air-Sea Rescue organization, specialized aircraft such as the PBY and the Walrus and recovery equipment such as the rubberized dinghy. He also relates the activation of a unit, MI9, responsible to all aspects of doctrine and coordination related to water borne recovery. The author then goes on to relate the efforts made in the different theatres of war (ie Pacific and Mediterranean) and the unique challenges that each presented. Additionally he relates in detail the experiences of the aircrew themselves (including one story involving a pigeon). It is very safe to say that training, preparation and a healthy piece of luck played a huge role in the recovery of these individuals; they all more than earned inclusion in the prestigious ‘Goldfish’ club.

His second book in this series, Shot Down and on the Run, outlines the involvement of MI9, the agency responsible for the training, debriefing and the coordination of the return of downed aircrew not only on the Continent but internationally. The complexity of this undertaking is clearly related in this work. Not only were combatant nations involved but neutral countries such as Spain and Sweden had to be engaged. It is of note the variety of support the Allies received from these nations. Additionally, the nature of the rescue varied heavily from region to region as rescuers as diverse as Russian partisans, Serbian fighters, Senussi Arabs and Pacific Coast Watchers. MI9 was the lead agency tasked with developing the structure and training required for those finding themselves in enemy territory. The nature of this training was completely different from water borne rescue and served not only as a source of knowledge for those on the run but also for the Allied intelligence agencies able to debrief these individuals upon their return.

Pitchforks books are engaging and fascinating reads. They represent a comprehensive rendition of the breadth and scope of the responsibilities of the organizations (specifically MI9) tasked with finding and rescuing these downed airmen. I was a little surprised that the issue of Ferry Command (that agency responsible for transporting aircraft from North America to the UK and Pacific) was not addressed. Certainly they represented a unique challenge given the distance and environment in which they operated. Nevertheless, an excellent set of books and well worth the time and expense.

Friday, 23 March 2018

War in the East: A Military History of the Russo-Turkish War 1877-78 - Quintin Barry

This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics Magazine.

Title: War in the East: A Military History of the Russo-Turkish War 1877-78
Author: Quintin Barry
ISBN: 978-1-911096-69-6
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2016
Pages: 534
Photos/ Maps: 100’s/17

Barry has once again focussed his attention on a war of less prominence internationally but one that had very significant implications for the region in which it took place. The Ottoman Empire at the time of the conflict encompassed the European regions of Bulgaria, portions of modern day Romania and areas of Bosnia. The Russians were very much interested in extending their access and influence to encompass not only the Black Sea but also were seeking passage to the Mediterranean via the Dardanelles. The Ottomans were, even at this time, seen as the weak man of Europe, heavily corrupt and vulnerable to collapse; the Russians, following the brutal suppression of a Bulgarian uprising by the Turks, saw an opportunity to break their neighbour to the south and extend their influence regionally.

What looked to be a simple operation that would result in Russian victory and accompanying international prestige turned into a difficult, costly and grinding campaign that was far more challenging than anyone had originally anticipated. While the Russians achieved complete victory in the end, it was as much a result of Turkish incompetence as Russian capability. It also came very close to resulting in war between Russia and Great Britain due to the concerns about Russian interest in the Dardanelles. Barry presents a very accurate and telling view of the international pressure brought to bear upon both protagonists as the European community sought to protect their own interests and limit the reach of Russia.

Barry has done a noteworthy analysis of this war. He succinctly encompasses the international as well as the operational components of the war; he also clearly highlights where opportunities were lost to both sides. For example his discussion of the Turkish Black Sea fleet and the Danube gunboat squadrons are indicative of the lack of operational appreciation shown by the Turkish commanders. The book represents a strategic/operational analysis of the conflict in that he only periodically dips into the tactical stories of the soldiers themselves. It is enough however, to gain a good appreciation of the conditions and environment under which the conflict was fought. Of particular note was Barry’s discussion of the extensive use of fortifications and the power of the defensive war compared to the offensive. The use of trenches and hard points by the Turks gave a hint of the nature of war to come, lessons that were not readily grasped by the observers.

I was very disappointed with the maps provided as I found the actions in the narrative difficult to follow on them. Beyond that the book is very well written and the photo’s/drawings provide very good context to the narrative. Barry closes his book with an excellent synopsis of the forces involved as well as a comprehensive bibliography. An engaging read and study of the last major conflict of the 1800’s.

Confronting Case Blue: Briansk Front’s Attempt to Derail the German Drive to the Caucasus, July 1942 - Igor’ Sdvizhkov

This review has been submitted to War History Online.

Title: Confronting Case Blue: Briansk Front’s Attempt to Derail the German Drive to the Caucasus, July 1942
Author: Igor’ Sdvizhkov
ISBN: 978-1-911096-43-6
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2016
Pages: 420
Photos/Maps: 9/8

During the summer of 1942, the Germans were well into their drive to the Caucasus and the capture of vast areas of the southern Soviet Union. The Soviets, desperate to try and blunt the German efforts, launched a series of spoiling attacks into the flanks of the stretched German Forces. The author has analyzed one of the more significant of those attacks with a view to shedding light on the strengths and weaknesses of the adversaries at this point in the war. His perspective is primarily from the Soviet side and he is brutally honest in his evaluations of the leadership and C2 (command and control) of the Soviet and German forces.

The author breaks down his analysis into chapters representing days as well as sides. Thus he will present a synopsis of the Russian actions on July 25th in one chapter followed in the next chapter by an analysis of the German actions over the same period. His extensive use of primary source material makes it very interesting for the reader to note how the adversaries were interpreting each other’s actions. This method also provides for an outstanding comparison between the command and control methodologies of the two sides.

The Germans by this point on the war were acknowledging that some Russian equipment (specifically the T-34) was superior in both quality and quantity to the front line German tanks. Additionally, Russian manpower reserves were beginning to make themselves felt; however, the Germans still had a clear advantage in combined/joint warfare capability (especially regarding the use of airpower) and in their combat and support leadership. The author relates numerous examples of opportunities that the Russians squandered as a result of their leadership (focussing primarily on Major and above) failing to make decisions or assuming control with the loss of a commander. Conversely, German leadership proves itself to be dynamic, proactive and engaged. Senior commanders are at the front assessing situations and providing guidance and direction as required. The soldiers on both sides are brave but it is the leadership that makes a telling difference in this campaign.

It is also fascinating to see the degree to which the political arm of the Soviet military takes precedence and exerts influence upon operations. Reports quoted by the author repeatedly speak in ‘Bolshevik’ and draw attention to the failings of leaders within a political vice a tactical or operational context. It speaks volumes as to why there was a dearth of initiative within the Russian leadership. Additionally, the author draws attention to the experience and educational background of the key Russian commanders. The instability of the interwar years within the Soviet Union culminating in the deep purges of the late 1930’s and the devastating results of the first year of the war, resulted in many of these Officers being promoted quickly into positions that they were not prepared properly for.

Helion’s publishing quality is excellent and the translation by Britton of top quality. The writing style of the Russian historians is quite different from Western authors but does not detract from the content. An interesting book worth the time.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Logistics in the Falklands War: A Case Study in Expeditionary Warfare - Kenneth L Privratsky

This review has been submitted to The Journal of the RCAF

Title: Logistics in the Falklands War: A Case Study in Expeditionary Warfare
Author: Kenneth L Privratsky
ISBN: 978-1-47382-312-9
Publisher: Pen and Sword Books
Year: 2016
Pages: 271
Photos/Maps: 54/6

The Falkland’s War was a conflict that no-one anticipated or effectively planned for. A conventional war fought between two individual nations, one NATO the other South American, had simply not been in the paradigm of western planners for literally decades as focus had remained exclusively on the NATO-Warsaw Pact standoff. That the British prevailed was as much a testament to professionalism and their ability to improvise as it was to a heavy dose of luck. Logistics was the key to success in this conflict; the author, drawing upon interviews and primary source material, paints a vivid picture of the challenges facing the support elements of this force. The lessons that he gleans from his research are many and I have identified some of the more significant ones below, covering a broad spectrum of support doctrine.

Effective control of logistics relies heavily upon a clear delineation of command and responsibility. Give the distances involved and the resultant paucity of resources, it was strange that the overall commander of the British Task Force (Commander South Atlantic Task Force) Admiral Fieldhouse, did not sail with the fleet. This left task force logisticians trying to support four sub-group commanders (Rear Admiral Woodward – Commander Carrier Battle Group, Brig Thompson – Commander Landing Force, Commodore Clapp – Commander Amphibious Task Force and Captain Young – Commander Op Paraquet) who each had equal standing under Fieldhouse. Poor strategic and operational communication ability meant that inevitably conflicts arose relating to priority of support.

Additional challenges identified by the author included the breakdown of logistics discipline during the deployment phase to Ascension Island. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual case and has been repeated many times since the Falklands War. Clear marking, tracking information and prioritization is critical if items are not to be mishandled or misplaced. As soon as tracking control is lost over items, especially during a period of intense throughput, it is like randomly placing a book on a library shelf, the item will be most likely lost for the duration of the operation. The same holds true for inaccurate prioritization. Items are handled and given space on aircraft etc based upon their identified priority. Unfortunately, the old adage holds true: if everything is identified as priority, then nothing is priority. The need to maintain logistics discipline, regardless of the pressure to get things out of the door, is absolutely critical to the effective support of an operation.

Another area that the author discusses in detail is the atrophying of skill sets such as amphibious assaults into austere environments fully supported by logistics. Cost cutting and a paradigm of first world support available through NATO nations sapped the British of experience and knowledge. This reluctance to expend defence dollars on realistic training was not limited to the UK but their experience serves as a warning to other nations that it is “too late to buy insurance once the house is on fire”. Many Western members of the NATO alliance find themselves severely limited in their ability to undertake operations of any significant magnitude unilaterally due to a degradation or atrophying of skills and resources due to a reliance upon others to make up any shortfalls.

British victory in the Falkland’s war was not a foregone conclusion. One of the points that the author makes is that, while the British did lose a significant number of assets during the war, predominantly they were picket ships or combat vessels as opposed to support ships. Argentine orders to their pilots were to target the logistics elements of the fleet thereby crippling the British before they could get a foothold on the ground. The pilots, generally, went after the fighting elements and either consciously or otherwise, disregarded their orders. That they did was exceptionally fortunate for the British.

Privratsky’s book is the first to look at the Falkland’s war purely from the perspective of logistics. His work is thoughtful and insightful and conveys messages that continue to be relevant and timely. Many will argue that technology is making the world smaller and more accessible; however, as the Falkland’s war demonstrated, advances in technology raise both the level of expectation of the operators towards their support elements but also increases the degree of complexity that logisticians must overcome in maintaining and supporting far flung ops worldwide. This book contains a significant number of lessons for militaries of all stripes and capabilities and should be reviewed in detail.