Friday, 4 June 2021

Narvik: The Struggle of Battle Group Dietl in the Spring of 1940 - Alex Buchner (Translated by Janice Ancker)

This review has been submitted to Air Force

Title: Narvik: The Struggle of Battle Group Dietl in the Spring of 1940
Author: Alex Buchner (Translated by Janice Ancker)
ISBN: 978-1-61200-917-9
Publisher: Casemate Publishing
Year: 2020
Pages: 218
Photos/Maps: 0/9 

The German invasion of Norway, in April/May 1940, is viewed by many as another example of German military prowess and the Allied response one of incompetence and vacillation. In many respects that is true, however, the battle that took place over the Northern port of Narvik stands out as a particularly vivid example of missed opportunity by the Allies and a mixture of tenacity and great luck on the part of the Germans. 

This work, part of “Die Wehrmacht im Kampf” series from Casemate, was originally published in the late 1950’s by Buchner who was present at the battle as part of the German Mountain Troops. He was thus able to draw upon not only the recollections of his compatriots but also his own experiences during the fighting. Written solely from the perspective of the German forces present, it is the first time in English that a narrative of the fighting has been available exclusively from that viewpoint. 

Originally deployed as the most northern element of the invasion forces, a convoy made up of ten destroyers ferried at high speed, 2,700 German Mountain troops with only their personal kit and a minimum of additional supplies to Narvik in order to seize this key port for the export of Swedish ore. All of their follow-on supplies, specialized winter warfare kit and heavy weapons were to follow in a second echelon of support ships expected within 48 hours of their arrival. Unfortunately for the Germans, while their seizure of Narvik and its surrounding area went generally as planned, the Royal Navy succeeded in surprising and sinking all 10 of the German destroyers as well as all save one of the follow-on support ships. Thereby isolated and cut off from support, the Germans, numbering 2,700 Mountain Troops and 2,600 Naval personnel, were faced with holding off at least five times as many Allied soldiers, readily supplied by the Royal Navy who controlled the sea access. However, under the inspired leadership of Generalleutnant Dietl, the Germans, utilizing audacity, initiative, skill and daring (and enjoying more than a fair degree of luck) managed to hold off the more pedestrian efforts on the part of the Allies to oust them from their tenuous hold on Narvik. 

What stands out in this narrative are the critical roles that leadership and morale played in the German success. Buchner relates, in very telling prose, the incredibly debilitating environment within which the Germans had to operate. Northern Norway in April and May is a very hostile winter climate which would have challenged the finest of troops let alone a force that was comprised half of Naval personnel now being used in a Mountain Infantry role. The author describes the methods the German leadership took to both integrate these men into infantry roles and also to fully utilize the specialist skills that they possessed (communications, support and small watercraft control). The Germans showed great skill at taking full advantage of the resources that were available to them.

The writing style of the author is surprisingly engaging. The reader is able to fully appreciate not only the challenges of the environment but of the formidable skill of the German soldiers and officers in adjusting to a fluid and dynamic combat environment. One is left with a distinct appreciation of the benefits of hard training, audacious leadership throughout the chain of command and a deep-rooted belief by the Germans in competency of their Commanders. 

The book is a good quality publication although pictures would have added to the general presentation. The maps provided at the front were in German from the original publication but are able to be used to follow the unfolding events. A series of appendices outline orders of battle at various points for the opposing forces, orders and directives and timelines for the reinforcement of the German forces. The author has also included a comprehensive bibliography (utilizing German primary source material) as well as thorough notes section. Overall, a well written and very interesting book that would serve as an excellent counter point to publications of Allied efforts in Norway.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan 1945-47 - DM Giangreco

This review has been submitted to the RCAF Journal. 

Title: Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan 1945-47
Author: DM Giangreco
ISBN: 978-1-682-47165-4
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Year: 2017
Pages: 552
Photos/Maps: 26/13

The last months of the Second World War were characterized by some of the most vicious fighting experienced in the Pacific Theatre. Tenacious resistance by Japanese forces on Iwo Jima and Okinawa resulting in the highest casualty rates thus far experienced by US forces in the Pacific, presaging a struggle for the Japanese home islands that would dwarf all previous battles. Fear of the massive casualties that were anticipated to be sustained by the US from an invasion of the Japanese home islands, war fatigue amongst the population and an acknowledgement by US leadership of the continued resistance anticipated by Japanese forces (both civilian and military) led to a decision by President Truman to utilize nuclear weapons in an effort to shock the Japanese into surrender. Ultimately, the two nuclear strikes did prompt the Japanese into accepting unconditional surrender (save for the protection of the Emperor from prosecution as a war criminal); however, it also led to future widespread condemnation by some historians and anti-nuclear factions that felt nothing justified the use of these weapons.

 Giangreco’s work looks at the myriad of complex and ethical challenges faced by the US decision makers as they grappled with how to bring the war with Japan to a close as rapidly as possible with a minimum loss of American, Japanese and Allied lives.

 The author’s book is characterized by a deep and comprehensive analysis and understanding of the planning challenges and political atmosphere within which the senior planning staff operated. He has drawn extensively upon the original operational plans of both the US and Japanese for attack and defence as well as primary source intelligence analysis undertaken by both adversaries. Of particular note is his research into and use of what was actually briefed to the decision makers. This is critical as it speaks to what was the information that they were basing their decisions upon.

The narrative in Hell to Pay follows a series of concurrent and mutually supportive tracks:

1.     An accessible and broad analysis of the international political situation following the close of hostilities with Germany. The US, Soviet Union, Japan, China, UK and the Commonwealth all feature prominently in this as the significant remaining players. The author looks at the domestic stressors, perceived and real political goals, and what capabilities each has to participate in the final engagement with Japan;

2.      An in-depth review of the situation within Japan itself: what was the domestic political environment like, what were the actual resources that Japan could still draw upon in terms of military forces and their capabilities, what did the Japanese perceive as the possible options for invasion and how were they preparing to respond, what were the Japanese goals in continuing to resist, what were the Japanese operational plans for defence and resistance, what did they anticipate to be the casualties and were they prepared to accept these and how well prepared were the Japanese for the invasion; and

3.      A similar but broader and deeper examination of the debate within senior US circles  regarding what was the best way to deal with Japan rounds out this interwoven text. Combined with the Japanese perspective, this thread is easily the most engrossing. Again drawn from predominantly primary source material, it sheds light on the massive undertaking that faced the US both from a manpower as well as materiel perspective. Taking into consideration that the invasion would be far more complex than anything in history (compared with Normandy which was a “shore to shore” invasion with only a short channel crossing, the invasion of Japan would have be executed and supported exclusively from the sea); the invasion fleet alone was estimated to be over 4000 ships. The author identifies and discusses the three main options (and the accompanying factors for and against each) available to the Truman Administration: 1. A series of nuclear strikes on designated cities in an effort to shock the Japanese Government into surrender, 2. Siege of Japanese home islands, cutting off all food and resources, thereby driving them into capitulation, and 3. Invasion.

The level of detail and accompanying examination of what information each side had to go on as they struggled with what decisions to take are hallmarks of Giangreco’s work. He has approached the subject with the third person analysis of the consummate historian while adding a degree of humanity and engagement within the text itself. The reader is left with a profound appreciation of the magnitude and complexity of the problem facing the Allies, the degree to which the Japanese were prepared to continue resisting (and their far greater capability to undertake resistance than was previously understood) and the political and societal pressures on Truman that can only be fully appreciated by a society that was suffering between 65,000 and 100,000 casualties per month since June of 1944.

The book concludes with a series of appendices that present the reader with elements of the actual planning documents for Op Downfall (invasion of Japan), Op Blacklist (occupation of Japan) and the actual G-2 (Intelligence) analysis prepared by both US and Japanese Forces during the lead up to Op Downfall (included in the Japanese portion are postwar interrogation records with key Japanese military commanders and Intelligence analysts). Additionally, there is a very detailed notes section and bibliography.

Anyone who wishes to better appreciate the decision making environment facing the Japanese and Allied leaders going into 1945 and the struggle to come to the correct conclusion on whether or not to use the nuclear option must read this book. Whether one is a critic or supportive of the decision, this work will provide context and information to better help inform the debate positions of each side. Hell to Pay is also an outstanding source book for military logistics professionals, as well as Naval and Airforce operators who wish to improve their understanding of the complexity of an operation of this magnitude. An excellent work and very strongly endorsed.

Monday, 22 February 2021

Military Strategy: A Global History - Jeremy Black

This review has been submitted to Proceedings Magazine. 

Title: Military Strategy: A Global History
Author: Jeremy Black
ISBN: 978-0-300-21718-6
Publisher: Yale UP
Pages: 306

Dr Jeremy Black is world renowned as one of the most prolific authors of history in the present day. With over 100 books to his credit and a litany of board appointments for a number of well respected journals and magazines, it was with great anticipation that his most recent work on Military Strategy was awaited. Dr Black notes in his introduction, that while strategy has become a byword in government, industry, military and academia in the modern day, in doing so, its core focus and intent has been lost and diluted. His intent in writing this work is to present the reader with a perspective on how strategy has been employed throughout history and to bring to the fore non-Eurocentric perspectives on the application of strategy. One is certainly struck by the audacity and breadth of the endeavour.

It should be noted at the outset that this is a work not for the faint of heart. There is an assumption of a fairly advanced baseline understanding of history and the key participants who are referenced in the book. Additionally, the work is quite dense and heavy, and does require a more advanced vocabulary than would be expected in a traditional contemporary work.

Appreciating that the thesis of the book was going to present significant challenges in execution, Black does introduce his subject well, laying the groundwork for the detailed analysis to follow. Unfortunately, evidence of over-reach rapidly makes itself known in the following chapters. While reference to Indian, Chinese, Ottoman and Japanese rulers and cultures are made, these are only skimmed without a depth of analysis that would enable them to act as a foil to Western dogma. Thus it is, for example, that the Chinese Kangxi Emperor, who the author compares to Julius Caesar or Napoleon, is not given any depth of comment or mention about how he enacted his strategy in an environment so different from the West. With each chapter, further emphasis is placed on the roles and approaches of traditional western powers such as the US, Great Britain, France and Germany. Additionally, while the role of non-operational influencers of strategy (such as logistics, technology and demographics) are mentioned they are not included within the more detailed exploration of strategy presented.

Nevertheless, an author of Black’s stature is not going to present a work that is without merit. He does present a series of excellent insights into how strategy should be considered and applied based upon his historical review. He postulates that theory is fine (in theory) however, all of the books and works related to the theoretical application of strategy need to be understood against the context of strategy as dynamic and changing. There is no “one size fits all’ model when it comes to appreciating how to apply a strategy to a given circumstance; strategic aims and goals of states change with the passage of time. He makes the observations, with examples, that constraints (what must be done) and restraints (what must not be done) serve to influence the strategic vision of a state. Moreover, such things as what constitutes a victory for a state (ie The Yom Kippur War of 1973), what is acceptable behaviour in the execution of war and what represents the element undertaking the execution of strategy (ie The War on Terror) are not fixed. All of these aspects differ with time, perspective and expectations of the actors involved.

The author sums up his work with a comprehensive bibliography and footnotes section. Overall, a valiant attempt at a comprehensive study of the practice of strategy throughout history which, while it contains some very valuable analysis and discussion was really doomed to fall short of the aggressive outcome that the author set for himself. 

Friday, 1 January 2021

To Defeat the Few: The Luftwaffe’s Campaign to Destroy RAF Fighter Command Aug-Sept 1940 - Douglas C Dildy and Paul F Crickmore

This review has been submitted to the Journal of the RCAF. 

Title: To Defeat the Few: The Luftwaffe’s Campaign to Destroy RAF Fighter Command Aug-Sept 1940
Author: Douglas C Dildy and Paul F Crickmore
ISBN: 978-1-4728-3918-3
Publisher: Osprey Publishing
Year: 2020
Pages: 384
Photos/Maps: 303/9

A majority of the histories of the Battle of Britain have been drafted from the perspective of the RAF; viewed generally as a small understrength fighter force poised against a blooded, supremely confident and experienced Luftwaffe. Rising to the challenge, David defeated Goliath in a classic tale of prevailing against great odds. Indeed, in some respects this is a very accurate narrative; however, as Dildy and Crickmore have set out to show, that is only a small part of the story.

The authors have approached their analysis of the Battle of Britain from the perspective of the Germans. Why this is important is that it provides the reader with a better understanding of the German challenges, the means at their disposal to overcome them and how decisions were reached that ultimately decided the course of the battle. What sets this book apart from other studies is that the authors have situated their study within the context of an independent counter air campaign (the Luftwaffe’s efforts to defeat the RAF) engaging an adversary with a multilayered and integrated air defence system.

A vast majority of the histories of the Battle of Britain, emphasize the numerous errors that the Luftwaffe made in the execution of its campaign; it is easy to view these as mistakes if one lacks the context of why the Germans made these decisions. This work addresses those shortfalls. Appreciating what the operational and tactical aims of the Luftwaffe were in this engagement is critical to the better comprehension of what drove those decisions. The authors add additional depth to this by clearly analyzing what lay within the technical capabilities and knowledge of the Luftwaffe. Keeping in mind that they had not been faced with an adversary with the command and control infrastructure available to the RAF before.

This work is replete with tables, graphs, rare or previously unpublished photographs and colour maps that add a great deal of scope to the study. The quality of the book is outstanding and it is eminently readable for the casual and serious historian. Too often, histories lower the quality of their work to the lowest common denominator; sacrificing nuance for ‘black and white’ statements. This book does not fall into that category. That errors were made by the Luftwaffe in the execution of its campaign is without doubt (such as changing the focus of the campaign to London); nevertheless, as this work clearly illustrates, the majority were made using the best tools available within the context of their greater strategic goal. This is definitely recommended for the operational thinker, it is not a book for those seeking first hand accounts of victory and defeat. An excellent addition to any library.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Montgomery: Friends Within Foes Without, Relationships in and Around 21st Army Group - Malcolm Pill

This review has been published in British Army Review. 

Title: Montgomery: Friends Within Foes Without, Relationships in and Around 21st Army Group
Author: Malcolm Pill
ISBN: 978-1-912690-53-4
Publisher: Unicorn Publishing
Year: 2019
Pages: 303
Photos: 30

Montgomery has proven to be, along with Patton for the Americans, perhaps the most controversial of the British senior commanders of the Second World War.  That he was a brilliant commander (with an ego to match) has been analyzed in multiple biographies and studies; Pill however, has approached his study of Montgomery strictly from the perspective of his personal and command relationships with his immediate staff and, externally, with those leaders of the British, Canadian and American forces germane to his command relationships. Pill’s is a story of personality, style and expectations as opposed to operational or tactical scrutiny. 

Pill’s multifaceted approach reveals a great deal about the inner thoughts of Montgomery: what he saw as important, how he viewed the execution of the war, what were the events and experiences that shaped both his and those with whom he interacted, perspectives and what influenced his decision making. While he has drawn upon a multitude of sources, it is the personal diaries and letters (he was a prodigious chronicler) of Montgomery and his confreres where Pill is able to shed light on the inner thoughts of the man. Unlike memoires which, written in the immediacy of the moment, are a much better source for glimpses into the honest thinking of the authors.

The author has divided his narrative into a series of sub-sections that fall broadly into Montgomery’s dealings with subordinates within 21st Army Gp, allies (and external commands) and operations within which he was involved. Pill’s engaging account casts a critical light not upon Montgomery’s capabilities as a tactician and operational planner, but upon his confidence and competence as a leader and commander. Much of the controversy, Pill conclusively proves, that Montgomery was involved with, was of his own making and not the result of external circumstance. Montgomery’s experience as commander of the 8th Army in North Africa and his subsequent endearment to the British nation as the ‘victor over Rommel’, ultimately led him to fall victim to that all too common occurrence of ‘believing his own press’. As Pill observes, this loss of humility resulted in an inflated sense of self that was toxic to relations with those not under his direct command. Montgomery’s inability to acknowledge the competencies and effectiveness of others outside of his immediate control was his Achilles heel and undermined much of the cooperation and support that he might otherwise have enjoyed.

This is a unique and fascinating account of the man and the commander that was Montgomery. The reader is left with the impression that, once the war ended, he struggled to find his place. Certainly his relations with a majority of his subordinate commanders remained good in the years following the war but the fact that he had burned so many bridges within the British command community and on the international stage precluded his being considered for many positions that he would otherwise have been eminently qualified for. Pill has done his research and his book serves as an excellent example and warning for those leaders who come after.

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

I Will Run Wild: The Pacific War from Pearl Harbour to Midway - Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

This review has been submitted to the RCAF Journal.

Title: I Will Run Wild: The Pacific War from Pearl Harbour to Midway
Author: Thomas McKelvey Cleaver
ISBN: 978-1-4728-4133-9
Publisher: Osprey Publishing
Year: 2020
Pages: 320
Photos/Maps: 68/5

The title of this book is drawn from the Commander of the Japanese Navy, Adm Yamamoto’s, comment when advised that war with the United States was inevitable: “For the first six months I will run wild. After that I can promise nothing”. Indeed the Japanese did, repeatedly defeating the Far East forces of the UK, Holland, the Commonwealth and the US. Cleaver’s is a fastidiously researched account of those months; with a particular emphasis upon the US experience. 

Conventional wisdom suggests that this period was one of predominant success for the forces of Imperial Japan; however, as the author demonstrates, the angel of fortune flies on wings made up of a combination of opportunity, competency and luck. As Cleaver’s narrative unfolds, repeated examples are presented where this assertion is proven: 

  1.    The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour crippling the US Pacific Fleet while missing both its carriers as well as the maintenance and fuel storage reserves of the harbour;
  2.       The Japanese codes (that had been broken by the US in early 1942) being changed on 27 May, 1942; seven days before the attack on Midway but too late to prevent the US from knowing the order of battle and the anticipated attack date;
  3.       The US relief fleet for the garrison at Wake Island (under attack by land and sea forces of Japan) being turned back 24 hrs before their anticipated engagement with the Japanese (who were not aware of their presence and were not at all prepared for a sea engagement); and
  4.       A Japanese Zero ditched during an attack on the Aleutian Islands being found completely by chance by a lost Catalina , intact, because the pilots who had been escorting the crippled aircraft did not want to destroy it from the air (despite standing orders to do so) for fear of possibly injuring their friend and fellow pilot. Up to this point the US had not been able to capture a Zero; the Japanese considered it a loss no less serious than the Battle of Midway itself. 

As with his other books, Cleaver draws heavily upon first-hand accounts from a myriad of sources and ranks, adding a poignancy to his narrative and a very human face to the fighting. His style skillfully captures the breadth of the geographic canvas that was the Pacific Theatre of Operation; concurrently presenting it in a style accessible to both the avid historian and the casual reader. 

An eminently comprehensible and informative work that presents the reader with all of the hubris, drama and humanity from a myriad of perspectives. A recommended addition to those seeking a deeper appreciation of the challenges of the Pacific War.

Saturday, 5 December 2020

The Battle of The Peaks and Longstop Hill, Tunisia, April-May 1943 - Ian Mitchell

This review has been submitted to British Army Review.

Title: The Battle of The Peaks and Longstop Hill, Tunisia, April-May 1943 
Author: Ian Mitchell
ISBN: 978-1-911628-93-4
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2019
Pages: 352
Photos/Maps: 26/15 

With the passage of time, historical recollection tends to focus upon key events and battles (Kursk, El Alamein, D-Day etc) while the smaller ones recede into the reminiscences of those who were there; ultimately to be lost. This is not to suggest that these battles are any less important or key to those soldiers who fought and died in them. It is for this fact that books, such as the authors, are so important in keeping the memory alive of these events for future generations. 

The Peaks and Long Stop Hill were key engagements in the overall Allied strategy of driving the Afrika Korps into an untenable operational position; ultimately resulting in its surrender. A relatively small engagement involving combined infantry and armoured units, the book relates the challenges of operations against dug in, experienced Afrika Korps troops occupying the high ground. Presented in articulate and engaging prose, the author approaches the narrative of the operations holistically, incorporating the efforts of the logisticians and support troops as well as the combat troops involved. It is refreshing to see this emphasis as, all too often, exclusive attention is given to the combat and little or none to the support elements. This provides the reader a deeper appreciation of the difficulties associated with combined arms operations and planning in relatively austere environments. 

Mitchell endeavours to situate the operation in the wider context of the Battle for Africa which had been raging for over two years by this point. This ‘big hand/small map’ inclusion is important in that it shines a light upon the importance of evicting the Germans from their positions in forwarding the Allied strategy. Provided along with the narrative are a series of modern day colour pictures of the region which provide excellent perspective of the operational environment. Additionally, a series of very high quality maps serve to track each of the significant elements of the battles as they unfolded. Combined with the numerous first hand accounts included in the text from all ranks and both sides, these provide the reader with a much better appreciation of what the troops endured and overcame. 

The detail and analysis provided by the author of the individual unit and Brigades actions is very noteworthy as his discussion of the German defensive efforts. The narrative structure of the book and presentation of the planning methodologies (and what influenced the decision making) is really quite superb. Mitchell closes his work with a comprehensive listing of his source material as well as the locations from which he was able to obtain them. Helion, as always, has provided an absolutely first rate publication. This is an excellent work of research and presentation and a very worthy addition to anyone’s library.