Monday, 30 October 2017

The Hill - Ray Rigby

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Battle of Copenhagen 1801 - Ole Feldbaek

This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics magazine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 28 October 2017

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

This review has been submitted to Army History Magazine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 17 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review has been submitted to the British Army Review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 September 2017

The Sword Behind the Shield - Norbert Szamveber

This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics magazine.

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

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

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

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

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