Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, The Cold War and the Cambridge Spy Ring - Andrew Lownie

This review has been submitted to Review in History.

Title: Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, The Cold War and the Cambridge Spy Ring
Author: Andrew Lownie
ISBN: 978-1- 250-10099-3
Publisher: Raincoast
Year: 2015
Hardcover
Pages: 433
Photos/ Maps: 60/0

Few spy scandals have rocked the Western World like the notorious Cambridge Spy Scandal of the 1950’s. This book focuses on perhaps the best known of this group: Guy Burgess, his life, education, personality, motivations and the heady academic and political cauldron of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s UK.

The first thing that strikes the reader about this book is the degree to which the privileged society that was Burgess’ social circle both protected and tolerated behaviour that would have been completely unacceptable elsewhere. Burgess and many of his peers were open and flagrant homosexuals which was not tolerated nor legal in the UK during this period. Lownie masterfully, traces the development of Burgess’s personality through his school years and evaluates those individuals and circumstances that heavily influenced his outlook. His evaluation of Burgess’ behaviours reveals an individual of contradictions; self-absorption paired with restless brilliance and a complete domination of the id, while, concurrently, displaying a high level of loyalty to his inner circle of friends.

The book is also a fascinating study of British society and the role of connections, schools and economic well-being in garnering position and influence. Thus it was that, despite numerous questionable social traits and work results, Burgess’s connections and the loyalty of his school and work alumni to ‘one of their own’ enabled him access to the highest levels of foreign office employment and, by extension, correspondence. It was beyond the pale that anyone with breeding would betray the club. Thus it was that he was protected and shielded regardless of what became a pattern of increasingly erratic and questionable behaviour. Indeed, such was the level of institutional blindness amongst the British Foreign Office that he was actually posted to the US embassy where, although not provided a meaningful job (he was too much of a loose cannon for that) he still retained access to the highest levels of sensitive official papers and correspondence.

Another intriguing aspect to Lownie’s study is the level of loyalty that Burgess and his closest confidants held for each other. This allegiance transcended national affiliations and their mutual support and views served to strengthen their desire to undermine the strength of the corrupt West. Interestingly, while their efforts focused on the passage of information to the Soviets, for Burgess, this loyalty did not extend to an acceptance of the greatness of the Soviet Union, but a belief that British communism would prove superior to the Russian.

Burgess continued to be a study of contrasts throughout his life. Thus it was that there are continued references to his slovenly appearance and lack of personal hygiene amongst his friends and co-workers, while, concurrently, his insistence at wearing an Old Etonian tie at all times. It would appear from Lownie’s evaluation that Burgess was a deeply troubled personality, continuously seeking the next thrill while studiously avoiding the responsibilities of maturity and age. He constantly sought to be the centre of attention yet engaged in self-destructive and self-absorbed conduct. His drinking was legendary as was his flamboyant and reckless behaviour and yet he yearned for the company of others all the while alienating them with his conduct.

As Lownie describes, literally thousands of cables and messages were passed over to the Soviets during Burgess’s lifetime; so many that they were too numerous to decipher in total. Such was the flow of information that the Soviets suspected Burgess of being a double agent as they could not believe that the quantity and quality of the information that he was providing could be done without the knowledge of the British counter-intelligence people.

Burgess and his compatriots were a product of their times. His effectiveness as an operative and his ability to ultimately avoid capture and escape reads like a strange adventure novel as opposed to a real life drama. Lownie has done an outstanding job at detailing the environmental as well as psychological underpinnings of Burgess’ behaviours; additionally, he has also shed a great deal of light on the nuances of the society that facilitated this behaviour. The book is eminently readable and engaging and is strongly recommended.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Allies Are a Tiresome Lot: The British Army in Italy in the First World War - John Dillon

This review has been submitted to War History Online.


Title: Allies Are a Tiresome Lot: The British Army in Italy in the First World War
Author: John Dillon
ISBN: 978-1-910777-32-9
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2015
Hardcover
Pages: 224
Photos/ Maps: 15/4

As part of their Wolverhampton Military Studies program, Helion has published this interesting study of the experiences and undertakings of the British Army deployed to Italy in support of the Italian Front. Dillon has provided a comprehensive overview of the unique challenges, social environs and environmental differences facing the British and how they adapted their doctrine and regulations accordingly.

The Italians were a late comer to the war and were not held in high regard by the British command; however, a number of setbacks had, by 1917 driven the Italian government to the brink of surrender. The Allies, specifically the British, under significant pressure on the Western front due to the war weariness of the French (having recently mutinied), the recent loss of Romania and the deteriorating situation in the East with Russia, could not afford to lose the Italians without incurring a substantial threat to the entire war effort. They therefore reluctantly agreed to pull badly needed troops from the Western Front to bolster the Italians.

The Italian Front for soldiers recently engaged in the horrors of the Western Front was, in many respects, a paradise. Combat was infrequent, distances to the enemy trenches were as far as over a kilometre in many cases, the weather was mild, the ground dry and the daily routine easy; boredom became as much a challenge as the enemy. These unique challenges form the basis of Dillon’s work. He divides his narrative into distinctive sections, each stand-alone and covering such areas as medical, crime and punishment, morale and working with the Italians. He also provides, at the outset, a synopsis of the Italian war effort both in terms of the fighting as well as the relations of the Italian Government with its Allies. He closes his book with the British/Italian engagement with the Austro-Hungarians during the final months of the war and the challenges associated with the tense post war regional relations and the need to bring the soldiers home.

As this is a relatively unknown aspect of the First World War Dillon’s work is significant in the light it sheds on the unique facets of this campaign. He writes with clarity and humour, relating conditions and situations not seen on other fronts. This is a serious work however, well researched and presented. He draws on a plethora of primary source material to provide not only the strategic perspective but also the soldier’s narrative, weaving in many firsthand accounts into his writing.

Helion has maintained its high standard of quality with the production value of this work. Dillon’s book is a fascinating account of the strange world that the British soldiers, fresh from the Western Front, found themselves; the challenges that they faced and the methods that they used to adapt to this new environment.

Monday, 3 July 2017

A History of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945 Vol 3 Tunisia and the End in Africa November 1942-May 1943 - Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello

This review has been submitted to The RCAF Journal

Title: A History of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945 Vol 3 Tunisia and the End in Africa November 1942-May 1943
Author: Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello
ISBN: 978-1-910690-00-0
Publisher: Grub Street
Year: 2016
Hardcover
Pages: 680
Photos/ Maps: 100’s/Area maps on inside covers

With this book the authors have completed the third in the Mediterranean Air War series tracing the details of the air war in the desert and its environs during World War Two. Covering the period from November 1942 until May 1943, this installment focuses upon the arrival of the United States, and the gradual but inexorable decline in the fortunes of the Axis powers as they become squeezed into a tightening ring centred upon Tunis. As with the other books in the series, this book is replete with a level of detail that will appeal to the researcher as well as a readability that will draw in the casual historian. It is interesting to note the increasing complexity of the war in Africa with the opening of new fronts and the arrival of new actors on the stage; specifically the USAAF and the US Navy. This fact is reinforced when one considers the length of the book compared with the short period of time that it covers (6 months).

The book commences with an operational overview of the situation facing the combatants as 1942 came to a close. Included in this narrative is the Order of Battle for the Allied and Axis air forces at this time. The authors also provide a solid baseline for the reader with an analysis of the Allied air plans for the operations in the eastern and western regions. The intent of the first portion of the book is to provide the reader with a big picture of the region, its challenges, the participants and the operational environment within which they operated. One of the strengths of the narrative is its ability to convey the detail and complexity of the environment while concurrently providing a real life perspective that both educates and entertains. One of the central tenants of the Allied plan was to catch the Axis forces in a pincer movement that would cut them off from a potential avenue of retreat through Tunisia. It is a testament to the professionalism and operational acumen of the Axis air forces that they were able to provide continuing support to the ground forces despite the lengthening odds against them.

The main body of the book covers the day by day activities throughout the region. This follows a standard format whereby an overall explanation of the significant events is followed by a ‘list’ of the losses and victories experienced by the various nations. The detail in this portion is phenomenal and reflects the degree of analysis and research that has gone into the development of this book. It is this type of detail that makes this work ideal for the researcher although, for the more casual, reader it can become a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless, the methodology conveys the intense nature of the combat environment even on days when operations were considered to be quiet. Where possible, the authors have included photographs of the individuals being discussed adding a degree of personality to the accounts.

The authors close with a series of narratives by pilots who participated in this theatre during the period of the book. They convey a very personal touch and outlook unavailable to a researching author by virtue of the individuals having ‘lived the adventure’. This short section adds significant depth to the descriptions provided earlier in the work and round out the book very nicely.


Grub Street has once again published a book of the highest quality. A relatively boutique publishing house, they have consistently impressed with the standards of their products both in terms of presentation and value. The knowledge and detail provided in Vol 3 of this series is truly amazing. This book is a must have for those wishing to fully appreciate the odds that faced the Axis powers in the closing months of the African Campaign and the dramatic changes that enabled the Allies to both gain and expand their dominance of the African airspace. A strongly recommended purchase.   

Survivors of Stalingrad: Eyewitness Accounts from the Sixth Army, 1942-1943 - edited by Reinhold Busch

This review has been submitted to the British Army Review

Title: Survivors of Stalingrad: Eyewitness Accounts from the Sixth Army, 1942-1943
Author: edited by Reinhold Busch
ISBN: 978-1-84832-766-2
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2016
Hardcover
Pages: 264
Photos/ Maps: 38/4

The Eastern Front campaign was fought by both sides with a ruthlessness and brutality seldom seen in what is recognized as a modern conflict. Perhaps by virtue of its scale, certain events and battles have come to be seen as ‘key’ and ‘turning points’. Names such as Kursk, Moscow, Leningrad and of course Stalingrad have become synonymous with callousness, endurance, heroism and loss. Such was the calamity of the Eastern Front campaign both physically and psychologically that it is difficult for the reader of today to fully appreciate the extent and nature of the struggle without the benefit of having experienced it. Many of the survivors of this conflict were reluctant to share their experiences outside of the closed circle of comrades with whom they shared this bitter cup. Busch, while undertaking research on the medical system of the Wehrmacht was able to come across a number of these survivors and to gather their experiences almost by accident. The stories draw forth a spectrum of emotions in the reader, made all the more poignant by what is not said.

The recollections are raw but not self-pitying or melancholic. There is a recognition of their good fortune at surviving but no glorification of the event. In many cases the stories are almost too matter of fact. Perhaps the passage of time has provided for a more nuanced perspective; with the shock and horror diminished but not forgotten. It is clear that the men writing these renditions do not see themselves a special, merely lucky to have survived. It is important to note that the recollections are not exclusively from those who escaped from the pocket but also those who survived not only the Battle itself, but also years of brutal imprisonment that followed.

The author provides an introduction and background about how the project came about and then the rest of the book is given over to the stories themselves. Each chapter is a standalone recollection by the writer. Thus the book may be read in stages without losing any of its flow or impact. It is both humbling and fascinating to read of the different experiences. Where possible, the author has provided a picture of the soldier thereby adding a ‘face to the name’. What is particularly noteworthy are the efforts many of these men made to rejoin their units inside the Stalingrad pocket despite being on leave or somehow outside of the ring. This dedication to duty and comrades underscores the level of unit cohesion and morale typical of the German army of the period.


This is a book that sheds light upon the best and worst of the human condition. It stands as testament to the baseness of mankind as well as the astonishing levels to which it may rise; both its greatest strength and its limitation. Busch’s book is disturbing and thought provoking and is a memorial to those who sacrificed for their country and their comrades.         

Sedan 1870: The Eclipse of France - Douglas Fermer

This review has been submitted to The British Military History Journal.

Title: Sedan 1870: The Eclipse of France
Author: Douglas Fermer
ISBN: 978-1-473-82889-6
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Year: 2015
Softcover
Pages: 244
Photos/ Maps: 30/10

The Franco-Prussian War marked a historic shift in the dynamics of the European political and national stage; the decline of France and the rise of the German confederation. This was made all the more significant given the assumption by many of the predominance of French martial prowess and the relatively junior position of Germany. The results of the war left the French in political and military disarray and the Germans as the new masters of the profession of arms. Fermer’s book covers the events leading up to the commencement of the war and the proceedings up to the conclusion of the Battle of Sedan and the surrender of Napoleon III, Emperor of the French.

While the book ultimately focusses upon the Battle of Sedan, the author has undertaken to provide the reader with a comprehensive understanding of not only the events but also the capabilities and political/military realities of the protagonists leading up to the conflict. This is critical as it speaks to the conditions that resulted in the unforeseen military cataclysm for France. The analysis undertaken by Fermer looks at not only the size and capabilities of the respective armies, but more importantly their respective doctrines and leadership.

France’s doctrine relating to combat was only part of the equation and, as Fermer so aptly discusses, it was the doctrine surrounding the processes relating to mobilization and logistics that proved to be the true Achilles Heel of the French. Their plans were unrealistic, unproven and based on capabilities that existed only on paper. Further exacerbating this shortcoming, the French political and military leadership chose to ignore the realities of French weakness and undertake their roles and responsibilities more as partisan political adversaries living in a delusional  world of past glories rather than the real politique of 1870 Europe.

Fermer also casts a strong light on the nascent German Empire and its efforts to establish itself as a leading member within the European host of nations. While Fermer equitably identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the German approach, it is clear that the political and military leadership of Prussia (read Germany) was much better prepared and in tune than the French. They also had the benefit of much more recent combat experience with the Danish and Austrian wars where they were able undertake critical analysis of their plans and doctrine.

Having prepared the groundwork through this macro, pan-European approach, Fermer is able to focus on the immediate events leading up the outbreak of hostilities and the initial stages of the war. His eye is critical and unrelenting as he relates the activities of the individual armies and commanders. As he discusses, the French were not without opportunity and courage but they were immediately caught behind the ‘power curve’ and surrendered the initiative to the Germans. The Germans, for their part, maintained a clear operational focus that allowed their armies to operate independently but in concert with one another. The French command and support structure rapidly collapsed under the rapidly changing operational and tactical environment and they found themselves operating reactively instead of proactively with little or no central control.

The narrative reaches its apogee with its examination of the Battle of Sedan itself. The study is such that the reader instinctively feels for the French soldiers as they fight with futile desperation under a command that has abrogated its responsibilities to the vagaries of fate. The unfolding of the battle is easily followed and related with a critical eye to the impact of local encounters on the overall battle. Both the German and French leadership is studied in some detail as to their conduct and competence with lessons to be learned for the modern day practitioner.


Fermer is an eminently readable author and his books well worth the investment. Sedan 1870, is an excellent study in hubris and hunger, doctrine and professionalism and the underlying motivation that drives troops, regardless of the quality of their leadership, to astonishing levels of self-sacrifice.       

Monday, 19 June 2017

The Grand Scuttle - Dan van der Vat

Title: The Grand Scuttle
Author: Dan van der Vat
ISBN: 978-1-873-37629-4
Publisher: Spellmount
Year: 1982
Hardcover
Pages: 240
Photos/ Maps: 9/1

Following the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, many assumed that the First World War was concluded; however, in reality, the war was only on hold pending German ratification of the final peace treaty. As a condition of the Armistice, the Allied powers demanded that the German High Seas Fleet be interned in either an Allied or neutral port. The legal challenges of maintaining such a huge concentration of ships in one location precluded most neutral powers from agreeing resulting in the fleet being ordered to Scapa Flow until the cessation of negotiations. Seventy-four capital ships, stripped of their armaments, made their way to the English port to await the results of the Paris negotiations, the crews knowing that they and their ships were at the centre of intense debate and dissention between not only Germany and the Allied countries, but also between the Allies themselves.

Adding to the complexity of this situation was the fact that, because the ships were only interned but not surrendered, the Allies were not allowed under international law to place troops on board. Thus the ships continued to be crewed by German officers and men who were not allowed ashore during the period of internment. Additionally, the German Navy was beset by internal unrest and the massive spread of communism amongst the crews resulting in widespread insubordination and the abuse of officers (especially on the larger ships). These were the conditions under which the German Admiral Reuter (the German internment Commander) and his officers had to manage the fleet and prevent the British from having an excuse to board and seize the ships.

Van der Vat’s book is a study of the international environment leading up to the internment, the conditions under which the German fleet was held and, most importantly, how Reuter used his superior leadership skills to not only re-establish a degree of control over the sailors but also to guide the fleet to an honourable and noteworthy end despite the best efforts of the British. Concurrent to his description of the environment, van der Vat undertakes a detailed evaluation of the complexity of Reuter as a Commander and his sense of honour and duty. Given the paucity of information available to him and the limitations on external contact imposed by the British, it was he alone that made the decisions surrounding the conduct and ultimate fate of the fleet. Very few commanders have been given a more daunting task under more stressful conditions than Reuter.


While this book is older it nevertheless contains some extremely valuable lessons and insights applicable to the commanders of today. Issues of morale, acceptance of risk, decision making, maintenance of aim, duty and honour are displayed in bas relief as being central to retaining a degree of effectiveness under conditions of extreme adversity. A fascinating and engaging read.   

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle 1803-1805 - Alan Schom



Title: Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle 1803-1805
Author: Alan Schom
ISBN: 9-780-7-18131-99-9
Publisher: Michael Joseph Publishing
Year: 1990
Hardcover
Pages: 421
Photos/Maps: 55/16

Trafalgar has achieved such a level of renown and legend that it still, 212 years after it occurred, resonates in the annals of British and Royal Navy history. Lord Nelson, the British Commander at the Battle, is still recognized as being one of the finest Naval Commanders in British history. Schom’s book acknowledges Trafalgar’s pride of place and the skill of Nelson and his crews in literally ‘securing’ the shores of England from invasion; however, his book goes much further than his and places the Battle within the larger context of the period and the events leading up to that fateful confrontation. This is critical in that it presents Trafalgar not as a standalone event, significant as it was, but as a logical conclusion (the Battle itself, not the outcome) of English and, more importantly, French policy from the period 1803 onwards.

The political battle of wills, both internally and externally, between the nations of England and France are traced with a clarity of understanding without being bogged down in excess detail. The importance of the ‘personality’ as opposed to solely the political acumen of the main players is made patently obvious. Schom’s explanation of the roles of Addington, Pitt, St Vincent, Cornwallis and a host of other secondary but nonetheless key English individuals, in the battle of wills with France, is fascinating as the reader begins to appreciate the pettiness, insight, vision and jealousies of the players and the expanse of the domestic, let alone international, wars that were raging at this time.

Conversely, the French are also analyzed with the same keen eye. The main difference in their case is the overwhelming role that Napoleon plays in the direction of the French Imperial (and by extension Spanish) policy towards England. What quickly becomes apparent in the French case, is the capacity for the entirety of the resources of the Empire to be focused towards the realization of the Emperor’s dream of crushing England. Schom also adroitly makes clear the challenges not readily apparent to a casual observer, that being the ability to build ships does not an effective Navy make. The loss of the cream of the French Naval Officers during the Revolution left France with a dearth of experienced and capable officers. This shortage, more than anything else, provided the French Navy with its Achilles Heel. That, and their arrogance and disdain for their Spanish allies.

Schom culminates his book with a detailed study of the Battle itself. It is clear that victory was never a sure thing for the English as the French and Spanish Captains and crews, for the most part fought, with a determination and ferocity never before witnessed by the British. For all of his shortcomings (and there were many) the Combined Fleet Admiral, Villeneuve, in the end led his fleet into battle. Indeed, the battle may have ended very differently were it not for the apparent cowardice of the French Rear-Admiral Dumanoir who commanded the lead division of 10 French and Spanish ships and who deliberately sailed past and away from the battle, despite being ordered to engage and within sight of French, Spanish and British ships in active combat, thereby reducing the Combined Fleet by almost a third.

Schom’s book is an excellent rendition and analysis of this period. It highlights the very real threat posed by Napoleon to England and the closeness with which she avoided invasion. The expanse of his narrative and the style with which he delivers his story is insightful, enlightening and captivating. His approach is very balanced and candidly reveals the strengths and flaws the main characters involved. This book is strongly recommended.