Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Three Battles of Vitebsk Vol 1 - Jean Restayn

Title: The Three Battles of Vitebsk Vol 1
Author: Jean Restayn
ISBN: 978-1-92733-208-5
Publisher: JJ Fedorowicz Publishing
Year: 2016
Pages: 194
Photos/Maps: hundreds/fold out

This first Volume of a three volume set relates the battles between the 3rd Panzer Armee and the Soviets in the region of Vitebsk commencing in July, 1943. Overshadowed to a great extent by the titanic struggle at Kursk, Vitebsk was nonetheless another pivotal point where the Soviets exerted intense pressure on outnumbered German forces.

This book is somewhat unique in that it has something for everyone; for the reader and historian, a synopsis of the first battles including the build-up, for those who enjoy a visual narrative of the operating environment there are literally hundreds of black and white pictures that facilitate a vivid understanding of the conditions and the equipment and capabilities of the two protagonists; and for the model builder, a series of coloured plates depicting the paint schemes of the equipment used. The accompanying maps are good but busy.

The publisher is a small ‘boutique’ house specializing in German World War 2 histories and they produce a phenomenally high quality of product. There is no bibliography with this book but will be provided when the third volume is published. This work serves as an excellent companion to any work on the battles in this region.

Katanga 1960-63 - Christopher Othen

This review has been submitted to Sabretache magazine.

Title: Katanga 1960-63
Author: Christopher Othen
ISBN: 978-0-75096-288-9
Publisher: Trafalgar Square Publishing
Year: 2015
Pages: 256
Photos/Maps: 33/1

The nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo has earned, and deservedly so, a reputation for instability, corruption and violence. Following the decision by the Belgian’s to bow to international pressure and declare their Colony of Congo to be independent, factions, vying for control, position and influence, clashed both politically and militarily in an effort to cement their claims to power. Thus rose, in 1960, the nation state of Katanga in the South East corner of Congo under the charismatic leader Moise Tshombe.

What followed over the next three years was a dizzying dance of international and domestic intrigue featuring the Congolese leadership under Lumumba, United Nations, mercenaries, former colonial masters, globalized corporations, East/West manoeuvering and inter-tribal conflict. No institution was free from the stain of violence and assault including, it would appear, the UN. Before it ended in January, 1963, thousands would be dead or maimed, a Secretary-General (Dag Hammarskjold) would be killed and the aspirations of the breakaway country of Katanga, crushed.

The author presents a balanced view of the roles of the different actors in the tragedy of Congo. He spares no one or any organization either praise or criticism as earned. His research is thorough and comprehensive drawing upon a myriad of declassified primary source material from the UN archives as well as interviews and memoires of the participants.

It is particularly interesting to compare the changes in the perceived role of the UN from its Katanga intervention to the present day. For example, there does not appear to have been a declaration of Chapter 6, 7 or 8 by the Security Council and skirmishes with Belgian military seconded to the Katangan government were common. The UN was not, nor did it attempt to appear to be neutral; rather its role was aggressive and very ‘real politique’ in nature. U Thant, replacing Dag Hammarskjold as Secretary-General of the UN is presented as more than willing to use force to shut down Katanga.

The author’s analysis of the foundations of the separatist movement in Katanga is enlightening, revealing the complexities of tribal, colonial and international competition. As he discusses, it was often impossible to determine whose side an individual was on, such was the speed of change. Further adding to the myriad of actors were those outliers who appeared to have no plan or allegiance other than anarchy and murder. The Simba’s, roving gangs of loosely affiliated youth, high on drugs and using terror and the edge of the machete as their preferred method of discussion, overlaid the already crowded battlefield.

Othen’s style is dynamic and engaging; his book reads very well. While it would have been perhaps helpful to discuss the methodology by which the UN operated at this time, specifically with regard to chapter designations in support of operations; Othen is able to show and describe effectively the struggles that the UN had regarding its role and the financing of its operations. There is no question that Katanga represented an unprecedented engagement environment for the UN and that much of what it undertook was unfamiliar ground.

Overall a well written and fascinating study of an event that had a foundational impact on operations within Africa by the International Community as well as the United Nations. Othen has portrayed the complexity and brutality of the conflict in stark and unvarnished terms (including the pictures that accompany the book). While not well remembered today, the conflict surrounding the transition of Congo from colony to independence, was indicative of the challenges faced by the nascent African nations as well as the world community. Recommended.

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.