Monday, 16 July 2018

Case Red: The Collapse of France - Robert Forczyk

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

Title: Case Red: The Collapse of France
Author: Robert Forczyk
ISBN: 978-1-4728-2442-4
Publisher: Osprey Publishing
Year: 2017
Pages: 464
Photos/Maps: 60/7

Studies relating to the Battle for France in 1940 tend to focus upon the initial weeks of the conflict running from the invasion of the Low Countries (Fall Gelb) and culminating in the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk. Relatively little has been drafted relating to the follow-on Fall Rot (Case Red) which encompassed the drive south following Dunkirk and the capture of the remaining French territory. Forczyk’s book undertakes to address this shortfall and to draw attention to the Allied efforts, political and military, to contain the German drive. Included in his analysis are a series of studies highlighting challenges and successes by both sides and their background causes.

The author commences his work with a broad study of the Allied efforts in the years leading up to the invasion (1919-1939). This is critical for the reader to better appreciate the lack of coordination and internal dissention between the Western Countries. This was especially true of Belgium whose foreign policies served to both weaken and undermine French plans for countering the Germans.

His discussions draw attention to a number of areas that have generally not been addressed in past books on the battle of France. Following the evacuation at Dunkirk, there was an operational pause on the part of the Germans as they reformed their units and undertook the planning for the second phase of the attack on France: Fall Rot. Much of the planning and preparation has been glossed over in the major histories of this conflict. Hitler had given the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – German High Command) only ten days between the end of Fall Gelb and the beginning of Fall Rot (25 May to 5 June). During that time in addition to planning the next stages of the advance, they also had to coordiante and deliver over 50,000 tons of supplies from Germany to their forward units (200 miles over destroyed and damaged transportation infrastructure). Support on this scale had  never been attempted before; Forczyk discusses in detail the logistical efforts of this period and the challenges overcome.

Additionally, it is important to note that the French remained a potent adversary even after their initial setbacks; one that the Germans viewed very seriously. The author looks at the methodology that the Germans undertook in order to retain their advantage after the element of surprise had been lost through superior planning and execution as well as joint operations between air and ground forces.

Forcyzk is balanced in his appraisals of the adversary’s capabilities but he is particularly scathing in this analysis of the French and British High Commands. He specifically focusses upon their divergence from both political oversight and control as well as the abrogation of their responsibility towards the soldiers under their command. This appears particularly true in the case of Weygand, the French Commander as he repeatedly dismissed direction from the French Government.    

Included in this work are a number of minor incidents that have been lost or overlooked. For example the French air force undertook 11 air raids on German cities during the Battle of France including the first air raid on Berlin when a single Farman bomber flew a round trip mission of over 3000 km, dropping 3 tonnes of bombs before returning back to base. The inclusion of these types of stories add both depth and breadth to Forcyzk’s narrative.

Osprey has published an excellent book that is well worth adding to one’s library. The author has drafted a book that adds much to the limited amount available on the German operations following Dunkirk. He sheds additional light on the deep challenges that the Western Allies faced in the early years of the war while also drawing attention to German areas of weakness. A very worthwhile read.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Blood in the Forest: The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket - Vincent Hunt

This review has been submitted to Canadian Army Today Magazine.

Title: Blood in the Forest: The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket
Author: Vincent Hunt
ISBN: 978-1-91151-206-6
Publisher: Helion Publishing
Year: 2017
Pages: 268
Photos/Maps: 38/6

While the world’s attention was focussed upon the dramatic race between the US and British forces in the West and the Soviet forces in the East racing towards Berlin, a cataclysmic struggle was unfolding on a small (relatively) expanse of land jutting out into the Baltic Sea from Latvia: the Courland Pocket. Germany had to hold onto the ports and facilities in this region to continue to give it an area within which to develop and build its new u-boat fleet (free from the strategic bombers of the West) and to deny the Soviets unfettered access to the Baltic Sea. The Soviets, for their part, viewed this region as not only part of their empire occupied by the Germans but as a breakaway region (Latvia) that needed to be reconquered and occupied.

Over a half-million soldiers were involved in the fighting on both sides. Interestingly, the Germans were able to maintain their logistical support lines due to the port facilities at Liepaja and Ventspils. As a result, and also due to the constricted lines of approach open to the Soviets, the Germans and their Allies were able to hold off the Soviets despite six distinct Army level battles between October, 1944 and May, 1945. Over that period the Germans were pushed back but retained over two-thirds of the territory originally held at the commencement of the fighting.

Unique to this campaign was the distribution of Latvian nationals fighting for both protagonists (Soviet and German). The reasons for doing so were varied and in many cases did not involve a choice; nevertheless, families were often divided and members found themselves fighting each other on opposite sides. Adding additional complexity to the region was the asymmetric fighting going on behind both the German and Soviet lines involving a myriad of groups oftentimes fighting each other as well as the ‘occupiers’.

The author has adopted a distinctive approach to his writing that initially is somewhat distracting until the reader adapts to it. As opposed to drafting an exclusively historical narrative to describe the events of the period, he has interwoven a discussion of his modern day travels throughout the region, his meetings with survivors and a rendition of the period events of the battles. He also discusses issues not directly related to the base line narrative such as the experiences of Vaira Vike-Freiberga the former President of Latvia who was a young girl during the period of the war. While these stories perhaps add overall context to the environment, they do not add to the discussion of the specifics of the Courland struggle.

What the author has presented well is the complexity of the societal aspects of the fighting. There was no question in anyone’s minds that the Germans were not going to prevail. Given that, the Latvians were looking to promises made by the Allied governments that they would be granted independence once Germany had surrendered; they therefore wished to facilitate this by preventing a reoccupation by the Soviets by assisting the Germans in resistance. They were therefore caught on the horns of a dilemma as they desperately tried to find a way out of the vice of the German and Soviet Armies. Hunt does a commendable job explaining and analyzing the motivations and hopes of the different protagonists. As he notes however, he was not able to get a perspective from the Russian side as no veterans from the conflict could be found.

An interesting and thoughtful book that would be further enhanced by being read in conjunction with a more detailed account of the Courland Pocket military campaign. The text serves as an excellent multifaceted analysis of the modern and historical impacts of the fighting. It is worth a read.

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.