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. 

Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance - David Boyle

Title: Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance
Author: David Boyle
Publisher: Endeavour Press
Year: 2017
Digital Book

This is not a long book. Remarkably short in fact; not much over 100 pages. What it lacks in length however, it makes up for in content and quality. Given the number of books that have been written about the evacuation of Dunkirk, I was not expecting too much and was very pleasantly surprised. Boyle has focused his narrative around Vice-Admiral Bertram Home Ramsay, Commander of the Port of Dover and its environs. He was appointed to be overall Commander of the evacuation and, as such, was lead planner and executor of one of the most audacious and ambitious sea operations to date. The author has divided his story by day running from May 19th to June 3rd with a brief introduction to set the stage. The writing is tight and conveys the stress, uncertainty and determination of the participants with poignancy. This is a book about the planning and execution of the evacuation itself, not about the peripheral aspects such as the Highland Division’s and French army’s rearguard actions or the German efforts. I thoroughly enjoyed this work and would recommend it for those who wish to have a better appreciation of the level of work, coordination and luck that was required for the British (and French) to turn defeat into a viable opportunity.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Lost Opportunities: The Battle of the Ardennes 22 August 1914 - Simon J House

This review was submitted to Soldier Magazine.

Title: Lost Opportunities: The Battle of the Ardennes 22 August 1914
Author: Simon J House
ISBN: 978-1- 911096-42-9
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2017
Pages: 252
Photos/ Maps: 36/59 (in separate included book)

The author has undertaken an outstanding analysis of the French efforts to disrupt the German Schlieffen Plan by striking at the hinge of the German advance in the Ardennes. Despite achieving both tactical and operational surprise and having heavy numerical superiority, the French failed utterly in their endeavours. His book reviews the battles themselves, the qualities and competencies of the four key commanders involved (two German and two French) at the operational level as well as the doctrinal and training policies of Germany and France in the years leading up to the war. A superb study and a publication of the highest quality.

Wenn alle Bruder schweigen - Association of the Waffen SS

Title: Wenn alle Bruder schweigen
Author: Association of the Waffen SS
ISBN: 978-3-942145-00-8
Publisher: Edition Zeitgeschichte
Year: 2014
Pages: 592
Photos/ Maps: hundreds

In the early 1970’s The Association of the Waffen SS set out to create a commemorative book for their members that memorialized their wartime experiences in photo’s. The call for contributions was met with an overwhelming response from veterans and their families. Thus it is that this book contains literally hundreds if not thousands of never before seen photos of the training and wartime experiences of all branches of the Waffen-SS. The authors have drafted an introduction that discusses the development, recruiting, training, wartime and postwar experiences of the units as well as their international recruitment; however, the vast majority of the book (98%) is given over to photographs. All text in the book is in German and English. Also included are photos and descriptions of rank, uniforms and unit emblems.

The book is a fascinating picture study of the Units and their participation in the war. Following the cessation of hostilities, the Waffen-SS presented a difficult problem for the post-war German government given its history. Members and their families were denied any kind of support from the Government and were not allowed to join the newly formed German Heer (Army); they therefore relied upon themselves and their associations for support.

The introduction to the book was drafted by SS Oberstgruppenfuehrer and Genraloberst Paul Hausser, senior General of the Waffen-SS just before his death in 1972.

The book is not political nor is it an apology, it represents a pictorial history of the some of the hardest fighting, most capable and controversial units of the German military in World War 2 and I recommend it for anyone with an interest in German Second World War history.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Konev’s Golgotha - Mikhail Filippenkov

This review has been submitted to the Canadian Army Journal.

Title: Konev’s Golgotha
Author: Mikhail Filippenkov
ISBN: 978-1-910777-37-4
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2016
Pages: 168
Photos/ Maps: 18/8

In the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the archives of the former Soviet military were made available for historians to access when researching books relating to the Second World War. Unfortunately that window has now been significantly restricted again, limiting the ability of authors to provide a balanced accounting of events on the Eastern Front; this challenge was exacerbated by the systematic destruction of Soviet Unit records relating to operations where the Soviet Union suffered significant reversals. Operation Typhoon, the German drive for Moscow in October, 1941, falls into this category.

This work, which focusses upon the operational and tactical events running from 25 September to 12 October during which the pocket at Viaz’ma was closed, primarily deals with the Northern arm of this drive led by the Panzergruppe 3. The author traces the events leading to the capture of the town of Sychevka, a point north of Viaz’ma and critical to opening the road to Moscow. The author, a Russian national, does his best to provide a balance in the narrative between the Soviet forces of Konev’s Western Front and the German forces; unfortunately he is precluded from doing so due to the fact that all archives relating to Stavka (Soviet high command) and Front documents are still sealed. Thus, while he is able to draw some information from other sources, the book is mainly told from the German perspective.

Nevertheless, the approach taken by the author of a daily recitation of events does highlight some very interesting points on both sides: the quality of German command and control is evident in their ability to maintain decision making momentum over the Russian leadership; the dramatic changes in temperature and its effect upon the operational capabilities of both sides (the author refers to weather and temperature at the beginning of each day – the first wet snow fell on 7 October and the temperature fell to -40 at night by 10 October); the inability of the Germans to logistically maintain their forces and the incredible burden that this shortfall placed upon the rear services and the luftwaffe. Throughout the book the author refers to German units running short of fuel and the conscious decision by the German high command to not issue winter kit at the beginning of Typhoon due to the delay it would cause to the start date. The author also draws attention to the more effective combined arms operations of the Germans and the Russian lack of effective air reconnaissance. Finally, he acknowledges the overall superiority of German leadership and equipment while concurrently recognizing the strengths of the Russian forces in defensive operations.

Helion has maintained its high standard of quality with the production value of this work. This book is a quick and interesting read but should be read in conjunction with other authors such as David Glantz, Lev Lopukhovsky “The Viaz'ma Catastrophe, 1941: The Red Army's Disastrous Stand Against Operation Typhoon” or Svetlana Gerasimova’s “The Rzhev Slaughterhouse”. I also found that the maps provided with the text did not provide much detail on the area’s in the narrative; a shortcoming when the book is broken into daily analysis. Nevertheless, an interesting and engaging read.