Friday, 3 April 2020

Island of Fire – The Battle for the Barrikady Gun Factory in Stalingrad - Jason D Mark

This review was submitted to the Canadian Army Journal.

Title: Island of Fire – The Battle for the Barrikady Gun Factory in Stalingrad
Author: Jason D Mark
ISBN: 978-0-253-35688-8
Publisher: Stackpole Books
Year: 2018
Pages: 641
Photos/Maps: Numerous

The Battle of Stalingrad and the effect that it had on the ongoing fighting on the Eastern Front has been exceptionally well documented. A majority of the books look at Stalingrad from the strategic and operational context; Jason Mark’s approach is different as he has taken the battle down to the tactical level and the Battalion, Company, Platoon and individual soldier perspective. By focussing on such a finite and defined area, Mark provides the reader with a very real sense of the minutia of the fighting and the mind-numbing sense of helplessness and savagery that gripped the combatants on each side.  

As with his other books, Mark has gathered a vast array of photographs from a variety of sources that, in many cases, have never been seen before. He has also created a series of maps that reflect the narrative at that point in the story. Unlike many books where the maps are centralized, these are readily accessible to the reader at the appropriate point in the narrative. Additionally, he has also found aerial reconnaissance photos from the period that he has used to develop the equivalent of today’s satellite imagery with locations marked to provide perspective.

The amount of research put into this work is phenomenal. Mark’s area of expertise is Eastern Front with an emphasis on the Stalingrad region. As with his other works, he has uncovered and included a plethora of information not found elsewhere that adds an intimacy to the narrative. What also stands out in this work is the balance between the German and Russian perspectives. Mark has not limited his focus to only the German side, which has traditionally been a shortfall in Eastern Front books, but has placed an emphasis on presenting the same level of detail from both the Russian and German views. Thus, while the reader is engaged with, for example, the German efforts to retake ‘Pavlov’s House’, a multi-story building held by a small band of Russian soldiers under Sergeant Yakov Pavlov, they are also able to read about the concurrent efforts of the Russians inside the building to retain it. This degree of detail is rare.

This book, while emphasizing the fighting for and in the region of the Barrikady Gun Factory does cover the battle of Stalingrad from start to finish. The focus is on the units engaged in the fighting in and around the Factory within the larger context of the Stalingrad operation. Broken out by day, the reader is plunged into the maelstrom along with the soldiers themselves. Rarely is a book able to convey the degree to which this small piece of hell, within the greater Stalingrad vortex, had become the crux of so many soldier’s lives.

This is a reprint of Mark’s original Leaping Horseman Publications book and the Stackpole printing, while good, is not to the original standard. Nevertheless, the quality of writing, research and presentation of Mark’s book remains. For anyone interested in Eastern Front operations with a view towards getting a deeper sense of the reality of the fighting and sacrifice made by the soldiers of both adversaries, this book is an absolute must.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

The Square and the Tower - Niall Ferguson

This review has been submitted to Cdn Army Today Magazine

Title: The Square and the Tower
Author: Niall Ferguson
ISBN: 978-0-735-22291-5
Publisher: Penguin Press
Year: 2018
Pages: 563

Niall Ferguson’s area of expertise is economic history; he has been the author of a number of very engaging books ranging from the impacts of empire to the history of money. With this work, he has turned his attention to the ongoing struggle for power and influence between two fundamentally different elements in the quest for supremacy. The title of the book “The Square and the Tower” refer to St Mark’s Square in Venice where the mercantile class would meet to peddle their goods and the Tower, immediately adjacent to the Square, where the rulers of Venice held court. The ‘square’ refers to a horizontal proliferation of information and influence between individuals along a common, informal plain; whereas the ‘tower’ is a vertical or stratified application of control, culminating in a defined head or council. Throughout history, traditional leadership, be they monarchs, parliaments or dictatorships, have struggled with the real or perceived influences of the non-traditional groups or social networks such as unions, freemasons, illuminati or the like.

Ferguson suggests that accepted history in the modern age has, to a great extent, been a product that has been promulgated by the more traditional elements of our societies and that there are significant components that may have been disregarded or lost as a result; less traditional stories being relegated to the bin of conspiracy theory. Drawing upon different concepts of network theory (such as degrees of separation, viral contagions and homophily), he endeavours to show that the modern revolution in unstructured technology has resulted, not in a new or unique situation, but in what he describes as a Second Network Revolution founded in such things as the internet and Facebook.

The book is not an easy read nor does it have a sense of where it would like to lie; as a scientific analysis of the issues, a journalistic report or a historical, sociological treatise. While suggesting that the impact of Networks has not been the subject of a lot of historical attention, there is ample information, studies and analysis relating to organizational development to draw that conclusion into question. Ferguson also intersperses his discussion of Network theory with a series of charts and graphs that provide visual representations in support of his discussions.

Overall, the author has presented a work that feels that it is over-emphasizing the uniqueness of its discussion. Additionally, there are elements of the work that leave the reader hanging, looking for further explanation or expansion. As a historical work, some of Ferguson's observations appear to be quite general and lacking in the deeper scrutiny one would have anticipated.

Nevertheless, while not the best of Ferguson's work, this book certainly provides the reader with an interesting and thoughtful analysis of his thesis. Furthermore, there is ample suggestion and information to stimulate follow-on questions and discussion. The on-going struggle between extra-national social networking companies and traditional methods of governance are not going away and this book provides a timely and insightful discussion.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Rising Sun, Falling Skies - Jeffrey R Cox

This review has been submitted to Sabretache Journal.

Title: Rising Sun, Falling Skies
Author: Jeffrey R Cox
ISBN: 978-1-4728-1060-1
Publisher: Osprey Books
Year: 2015
Pages: 487
Photos/Maps: 27/5

This book is the first installment of a multi-part series on the Pacific Naval War. It covers the five month period running from December, 1941 until April, 1942; a time when the Japanese Imperial Navy ran rampant over the Allies in the Far East. His narrative conveys, in quick, accessible and engaging prose, the tragic sets of events that led to the deaths of thousands of Allied sailors and airmen. Balanced against this is his evaluation of the overwhelming capability and expertise of the Japanese Imperial Navy and Naval Air Forces.

Cox covers the broad spectrum of regional actions, ranging seamlessly from the Philippines, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies to Australia. Presented in an eminently readable style, he conveys to the reader the terror, frustration and defiance of the Allied leadership and crews as they careened from engagement to engagement. The failure to effectively coordinate common doctrine and operational tactics between the various national actors, manifested itself in the ad hoc planning and execution of forays against the enemy. More often than not, this resulted in the degradation of the Allied fleets and aircraft through damage and loss.

Most significantly however, is Cox’s clear assertion that the true weakness in the Allied cause was not the ships or sailors themselves, but the National Governments and their senior respective leadership coordinating the battle space in the Far East. Failing to appreciate the consummate skill of the Japanese, nor their capabilities (such as the Long Lance torpedo), the Allied leadership, caught flat footed, was never able to regain the initiative and remained reactive to the Japanese onslaught. Further to this, Cox identifies deep national divisions between the senior leadership that manifested itself in a lack of trust amongst the operational crews for their senior commanders. Nevertheless, Cox’s research shows conclusively that the bravery and audacity with which the Allied crews faced their adversaries, even in the face of certain defeat, never wavered.

Cox also provides an in-depth analysis of the Japanese operations; their strengths and weaknesses and their conduct throughout the campaign. The Java Campaign definitely revealed a broad range of capabilities amongst the Japanese Commanders. Their ships were of the highest quality and the crews themselves trained to a peak level that would only degrade as the war progressed. The Japanese use of their Air Arm as a means of reconnaissance, attack (enabling their ships to standoff a safe distance), observing the fall of their shots (thereby overcoming the Allied use of smoke) and interdiction of Allied air forces was doctrinally far ahead of their adversaries. Cox is balanced in his analysis however, and is very critical of a number of the Japanese Commanders who showed themselves as mediocre at best. A good case in point was the ineptitude of Admiral Hara who managed to sink more of his own ships than did the Allies while defending the beachhead on Java.

Replete with anecdotes that show the best and worst of the combatants on both sides, Cox’s work is an excellent study of the early days of the Pacific War. Cox is an outstanding author with a real gift for developing a narrative that maintains the reader’s interest while still doing justice to the subject. 

Friday, 31 January 2020

The 64th Army at Stalingrad 1942-43 - Dann Falk

This review has been submitted to War History Online.

Title: The 64th Army at Stalingrad 1942-43
Author: Dann Falk
ISBN: 978-1-732-60741-5
Publisher: Falken Books
Year: 2019
Pages: 289
Photos/Maps: 21/32

Much has been written from the German perspective on the lead up to and the subsequent titanic struggle for the city of Stalingrad; however, Falk’s work has provided a perspective rarely presented, that of one of the Soviet Armies that faced the German onslaught. Fighting to the point of annihilation, the 64th held the key territory south of the city and west of the Volga River, thereby ensuring that the flow of resources via that key waterway continued to get through.

The author has taken a holistic approach in his rendition of the creation and operations of the 64th. He commences with an introduction that provides a ‘big hand/small map’ synopsis of the conduct of the Great Patriotic War; providing the reader with a comprehensive background to the environment and nature of the conflict into which the 64th was deployed. Each following chapter commences on the first of the month and is broken into a narrative that relates key dates/events during that period. Starting on 1 December, 1941 and concluding with the month of February, 1943, they all follow the same format: a synopsis outlining its assigned Command, the Commander, Units (by element) and Strength (broken into listed combat strength and actual ration strength). This is very helpful as it enables the reader to appreciate at a glance, the real time effect of operations upon the 64th. Following that synopsis, key events by date within the month are discussed in chronological order.

Another element of the work that is not readily found in many of the narratives of the Eastern Front is the emphasis that the author places on the logistics aspects of supporting the 64th. He goes into great detail outlining not only the nature and scope of the daily demands required by an Army on operations but also the challenges associated with stockpiling and delivering these resources. This, while concurrently suffering from the effects of air and land interdiction by the Germans and the requirement to continuously fall back in the face of Wehrmacht offense. This approach allows those not well versed in the conduct of large scale operations to better appreciate the complexities of warfare on a scale heretofore unheard of in the annals of war.

Also included in the work are a series of unique maps created by the author. Clear and concise, they are free of much of the clag that cause many of the maps in books to be of limited or no value. The bibliography is also worthy of note as it includes extensive primary and secondary source material not only in English but also from Russian and German sources. Additionally, a broad set of endnotes adds noteworthy depth and scope to the narrative.

Overall, this is a very interesting work shedding light upon an element of Eastern Front operations rarely covered in conventional literature. Well laid out, concise and informative, it retains its interest for the reader despite the breadth of statistical information provided. It is strongly recommended both as an informative source of Soviet operations but also as an excellent counterpoint to the myriad of German work on the Eastern Front.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Case White: The Invasion of Poland 1939 - Robert Forczyk

This review has been submitted to Canadian Army Review

Title: Case White: The Invasion of Poland 1939
Author: Robert Forczyk
ISBN: 978-0-253-35688-8
Publisher: Osprey Books
Year: 2019
Pages: 406
Photos/Maps: Advance Copy/8

Conventional historical wisdom suggests that the German invasion of Poland in 1939, triggering the beginning of WW2, was a foregone conclusion of victory for the Germans. Images of Polish cavalry charging German armoured forces and being destroyed have been used to portray the futility of the Polish resistance. Forczyk has addressed a number of these fallacies in his new, comprehensive analysis of Case White.

Commencing with an in-depth review of the events in the region of Northeastern Europe following the end of World War 1 and leading up to the 1930’s, Forczyk paints a broad canvass of the political, economic and social challenges that destabilized the region. This also clearly indicates the complexity of the interactions of the personalities and their influence on local relations. It is a little known fact that the German military had significant respect for the post war Polish commander Pilsudski (his memoirs were recommended reading for German Officers). However, his death in 1935 and the subsequent diminishment of trust between the German and Polish governments soured relations.

The account of the preparation and fighting is very balanced. It is easily forgotten that for both sides this was their first introduction to large scale, combined arms operations. Forczyk’s narrative easily encapsulates the challenges faced by the various combatant’s; their successes and failures. The Germans had developed the capability for close air support using Stuka dive bombers but found, for example, that their methodology for coordination was too slow in many cases to be effective. Additionally, in many cases, application of panzer doctrine was spotty and inconsistent, resulting in heavier losses than anticipated. The author is also commended for incorporating not just the operational elements into his study but also the impact of logistics. In many cases the German support elements were not able to keep up with the more mobile panzer forces.

 Conversely, the Polish forces proved themselves to be tenacious fighters but under poor strategic guidance. As Forczyk relates, the Poles were (and allowed themselves to be) mislead by the promises of assistance from the West. This reflected an inconsistent approach to modernization that was impacted by economic and personality based limitations. Additionally, a failure to realistically plan for mobilization and defensive operations (that emphasized non-critical regions of the country), combined to undermine Polish potential for effective defensive operations.

The third critical element of Case White was the Soviet invasion of Poland from the East. Typical of the Soviet leadership at the time, units were only provided with two days notice of the impending operation. Nor were there any formal plans developed for the integration of German and Soviet forces. Forczyk’s book describes in detail not only the ad hoc nature of the operational relationship between two ‘Allied’ nations but also the reprehensible response of the Polish allies, England and France, to the Soviet invasion. Tepid would be far too generous a word; as he states, Germany got war and the Soviets nothing for their actions.

Forczyk’s Case White is an outstanding book; deeply researched and eminently readable. His attention to detail, extensive annexes and copious endnotes provide a wealth of knowledge to the reader outside of the narrative itself. Case White is a highly recommended addition to anyone’s library and sheds light on what rapidly became a forgotten or secondary element of the Second World War.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Battle for Angola: The End of the Cold War in Africa 1975-89 - Al J Venter

This review has been submitted to the Canadian Army Journal.

Title: Battle for Angola: The End of the Cold War in Africa 1975-89
Author: Al J Venter
ISBN: 978-1-911096-41-2
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2017
Pages: 527
Maps/Photos: 5/100’s (colour, b/w) 

Al Venter is one of the most prolific writers of the myriad of African wars that has beset that continent in the years following independence. His works have an added level of authenticity due to the fact that he is anything but an armchair historian, he has actually participated in and been wounded in a number of them, including the Border Wars with Angola. Much of the history of the African Wars has been forgotten with the advent of ISIS, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria but there is much to learn about symmetric response to both symmetric and asymmetric enemies.  

In his review of the wars, the author encompasses the conflicts technological, doctrinal and societal impacts and how these changed over the course of the war. He also draws upon first-hand accounts of operational commanders, weapons designers and soldiers to provide for a more nuanced and realistic sense of the success and challenges faced by the protagonists. Included in this are discussions of the asymmetric elements of the war; specifically UNITA and SWAPO as well as the Angolan Army (and their material and personnel supporters Cuba, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact). Much of the book is a discussion of the tactical and operational effectiveness of these organizations, their doctrine and how it was countered by both the Portuguese (before independence in 1974) as well as the South Africans. The role of mercenary groups such as Executive Outcome is also deeply intertwined within these conflicts. Venter discusses the influence of other regional conflicts and the role that they played in South African planning; the Rhodesians’ Fire Force concept, lessons learned from Biafra, the Portuguese Special Forces and tribal Bushmen all played a role and are analyzed in depth. 

The technological advances that resulted from the nature of the conflict as well as the self-sufficiency required of the South Africans (due to the international arms embargo) is very interesting. The requirement for vehicles that were specifically designed to provide effective protection against mines while still enabling a robust cross country capability resulted in the development of an entirely new class of vehicles: Ratels, Eland’s and Buffel’s all put South Africa at the very forefront of Infantry Fighting Vehicle technology.  

Venter’s work encompasses the complex nature of the war spanning the strategic Cold War period, the regional conflicts between the various tribal and national groups and the tactical nature of the traditional and asymmetric elements of the war. His analysis is deep and thoughtful and based upon first hand and expert knowledge. His discussion of the various paramilitary and Special Forces and some of their more notable successes and failures further enhances the scope of the work. This is a highly readable account of the struggle for South West Africa and the impact that it had both internationally and regionally. Helion has published a superb book replete with high quality photographs; the bibliography is extensive. There are many lessons to be learned from the engagements in Africa and without a doubt Venter and his work is an outstanding source.

The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914 - Dennis Showalter, Joseph P Robinson, Janet A Robinson

This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics magazine.

Title: The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914
Author: Dennis Showalter, Joseph P Robinson, Janet A Robinson
ISBN: 978-1-476-67462-9
Publisher: McFarland Books
Year: 2019
Pages: 217
Photos/Maps: 22/9  

Germany entered the First World War confident that it would be able to deal a crushing blow to the Western Front Allies within a few weeks, thereby freeing its forces to turn East in order to deal with Russia in turn; events turned out quite differently. The authors have undertaken an in-depth analysis of what circumstances and practices contributed to this over-estimation. The book is a succinct and insightful review; not long but telling in its conclusions.  

The authors look at two distinct but critical shortfalls amongst the German execution of the invasion plans of the West. They are: critical failings within the planning itself, and most tellingly, a failure of reconnaissance. Each exacerbated the shortfalls of the others and resulted in crucial errors in decision making, ultimately leading to the failure of the German efforts in the West.  

Von Moltke committed a number of key errors in the development of the plan itself. These were related to both strategic and operational planning and reflected interesting elements of the German General Staff’s relationship with other government departments. Moltke made the decision to avoid crossing the Maastricht Corridor of Holland in order to provide for a potential neutral access point to the North Sea should Germany require it. This judgement was clearly a Foreign Affairs and Kaiser responsibility; however they were not part of the process. It is estimated that the resulting Liege bottleneck cost the Germans at least three days. He also decided to reshuffle the allocation of cavalry assets away from the Northern Wing of the German advance without any reduction in the task allocation. They were therefore unable to complete any of the activities effectively. Additionally, he created ad hoc Cavalry Corp’s with Headquarters that had not been exercised in peacetime, resulting in confusion and inefficiency. Finally, in the planning phase, the Germans assumed away elements that ran contrary to their vision of how the invasion would work; specifically, the fact that the Belgian Army would fight and not allow for free passage. 

The authors then presents a detailed account of the first four weeks of the War; focussing on the challenges that arose as a result of the issues identified above. For an Army and General Staff that had an almost mystical reputation, fundamental errors in planning exacerbated challenges in execution. These were further compounded by a failure to fully appreciate the reconnaissance capabilities of the nascent air and cavalry elements. This failure in reconnaissance resulted in the Germans not having the visibility of the battlefield that was essential to the effective control of the complex operation that they were trying to execute. The conclusions postulated by the authors as to why this occurred are reasonable and applicable to modern command staffs.   

An comprehensive bibliography and notes section round out this excellent text. The author’s style is succinct and very readable. They have taken an interesting and unique perspective on the shortfalls which, as they point out, the Germans came very close to overcoming despite them. An outstanding addition to any library or reading list.