Monday, 24 June 2013

The Passing of the Night - Gen Robbie Risner

Title: The Passing of the Night
Author: Gen Robbie Risner
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 0-345-33677-1
Pages: 248
Photographs: 0     

                Robbie Risner has written a book outlining his experiences as a prisoner during the Vietnam war from 1965 until 1972. He commences with an outline of his experiences leading up to his air operations in Vietnam. He commenced operational flying in WW2 and became an ace during the Korean conflict. In the process, he marries and has a family of five children.  While his writing is rather cursory over this period, it does set the tone of his personality and approach prior to his incarceration.

                The vast majority of this book is focused upon his time as a prisoner of the Vietnamese and it is in this area that the book serves as an excellent educational tool for those who find themselves on the wrong side of the lines. Aircrew have the dubious distinction of projecting force far behind enemy lines and are therefore at a higher risk of capture. It is therefore, critical that they be exposed to the potential challenges that they may face at the hands of a determined enemy intelligence service.

                Risner’s writing is very direct and matter of fact. He presents his captors and their actions in a rather formal manner that is surprisingly effective in conveying the horror that they inflicted upon their prisoners. The methods that the Vietnamese used, including sleep deprivation, physical torture, psychological trauma, isolation, denial of rations and control of access to mail, are classic methods used to break prisoners and make them amenable to exploitation for propaganda and intelligence purposes. Risner’s book provides an outstanding guide to those going into harm’s way of why they need to be prepared through realistic training on what might lie ahead.

                He also goes into great detail on how he and the other prisoners handled the stresses of captivity. Maintenance of the command structure within the prison, communication via morse code and other means, mutual support and creation of a means to advised new prisoners on what to expect were critical to morale. Additionally, he speaks to the issue of knowing when and how to ‘give in’ to the captors demands. For a military prisoner, it is anathema to provide assistance and information to the enemy and psychologically traumatizing to ‘break’. Risner, acknowledges this and the fact that everyone has their limits; he writes how he came to grips with this himself and how he, and the other prisoners, helped those who faced this challenge to understand that it was not wrong. He also provided direction on when it was acceptable to cooperate and in what capacity. All of this is both critical and relevant to soldiers everywhere.
                I liked this book; it is honest and engaging. The writing is clear and direct. The books purpose is really focused on his internment and how he dealt with it. He doesn’t speak extensively on his return and efforts at reintegration into US society and the impact that this had on his family in any real detail. As previously stated, the strength of the book is shedding light on the strength of the human spirit and how one can overcome adversity under conditions that defy comprehension.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

A History of the Mediterranean Air War Vol 1 June 1940-Jan 1942 - Christopher Shores, Giovanni Massimello, Russell Guest

 The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in The Journal of the RCAF. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the journal. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor RCAF Journal ( Website for the Journal is:

Title: A History of the Mediterranean Air War Vol 1: North Africa June 1940 – January 1942
Author: Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello with Russell Guest
ISBN- 13: 978-1-908117-07-6
Publisher: Grub Street
Pages: 560
Photo’s: 100’s b/w

With this book the authors are revisiting some very comfortable ground stemming from Shores and Ring’s original work ‘Fighters Over the Desert’ (1969) on the air war in the desert. Acknowledging that the passage of time has revealed errors of omission and has provided access to previously unavailable sources of information, they have decided that the time is right for a review. It should be stressed that this new book is not simply a rework of Shores previous but stands alone as a new look at air warfare in the desert.

Shores approaches his subject in two ways. With the commencement of each chapter he provides an overview of the strategic and operational activities impacting decision making and the execution of operations. Following this “situation of the estimate” he then provides a breakdown of the activities of the antagonists identified by date. Significant events, losses and victories are all outlined in detail down to the serial number of the aircraft involved. The degree of detail is actually quite phenomenal with a synopsis box at the end of each write-up illustrating the axis/allies claims and losses.

This storyline would be quite dry if the authors had not added numerous first person accounts of experiences (from all sides) thereby adding depth, breadth and a human face to the narrative. While these stories are fascinating and enlightening, the strength of this book remains its incredible depth and scope of detail. For a researcher, the book provides commendable insight into the nomenclature and development of the air forces of the desert. It is fascinating to see the degree of complexity in the command and control and the structure of the RAF, Luftwaffe and Italian air forces. Each chapter is predicated by an explanation of the changes that occurred within each of the services as well as a graphical representation of units and available aircraft.

Additionally, the authors provide regional context through the inclusion of discussion relating to critical theatre level challenges. I refer in this case to the impact of the Island of Malta on the desert war. In their relation of regional issues, the authors spend a significant amount of time outlining the conflict centering upon Malta and the efforts of the Axis to crush Allied capability through airpower and the concurrent efforts at strangulation of the Axis logistics support in the Mediterranean by Allied surface and air units. Shores also looks at the efforts that the Allies had to expend to deal with Vichy French and Italian forces in the ‘rear’ areas of Ethiopia, Iraq and Syria.

The authors effortlessly transition from the strategic/operational down to the tactical events of the Mediterranean air war. Much is drawn from Shores’ previous books: Malta: The Hurricane Years, 1940-41, Air War for Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete, 1940-41 and Dust Clouds in the Middle East: The Air War for East Africa, Iraq, Syria and Madagascar, 1940-42. This is very beneficial as it provides the author (and by extension the reader) with an outstanding background/baseline from which to further develop the scope of the new work. 

Shores also succeeds in succinctly identifying shortfalls within the relationships and capabilities of the different noteworthy personalities that influenced operations. Thus one is made aware of the extent to which the British government, spearheaded by Churchill, injected itself into the running and execution of Allied operations often with disastrous results. Conversely, the challenges of developing and maintaining the Axis coalition are also highlighted.

Rounding out the book, the authors have provided an extensive and very useful bibliography encompassing all of their primary and secondary sources. Highlighting another noteworthy addition, the index is one of the most detailed that I have ever come across. Finally, the book itself is of the highest quality printing and binding.

                The overall strength of this book lies in its detail. The authors have produced a work of exceptional depth and detail. There is something for everyone; for readers seeking insight into the experiences of those who participated in the Mediterranean war, it is in ample supply; for those looking for detail regarding operations and aircraft, again you will be more than satisfied, and for those who enjoy photography from the period you will not be disappointed in the least. I was very excited as both a military historian and a casual reader to have had the opportunity to read and review this book. It is a critical addition to the libraries of the academic and anyone looking for details of life in the Mediterranean theatre of war.   

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Battle of the Frontiers: Ardennes 1914 - Terrence Zuber

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in Airforce magazine. Therefore, the material is proprietary to the Air Force Association of Canada and is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the association. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor Airforce magazine ( ). I support the Air Force Association’s important mission to inform new generations of Canadians about the value and importance of their country’s air force. A link to the AirForce Magazine website is:
Title: The Battle of the Frontiers: Ardennes 1914 
Author: Terence Zuber
ISBN: 978-0-7524-5255-5
Pages: 314
Illustrations: 22 b/w/20 maps
Publisher: The History Press

Terence Zuber, retired US Colonel and the author of a series of acclaimed books on the First World War and pre-war period, is an unabashed supporter of the German doctrinal and training system. This does not preclude him from being critical of German tactics or operational decisions but it is important to realize before one reads his books. They are predominantly focused on the operational and tactical successes of the German military and its doctrine.

Ardennes 1914 is no exception. What I enjoyed about the book is the degree of detail with which he presents his case studies. In this book he examines a series of engagements between the German and French armies late in August 1914. Through a detailed analysis of the application of operational and tactical doctrine, he underscores the strengths of the German training and the weaknesses of the French. As part of the introduction to the topic, he provides an in-depth analysis of the development of German doctrine and the training undertaken by the pre-war army. He counterbalances this with a look at French doctrine, but not to the same extent as the German.

Zuber has obviously done his research as evidenced by the extensive end-notes utilizing a plethora of primary source material such as Regimental histories and archival material. When possible, he takes advantage of first person accounts from both the French and German side to provide a human face to his narrative. Consistent throughout is evidence of excellence in German marksmanship, tactical innovation, communication and combined arms operations (effective use of machine gun, artillery and cavalry) as well as aggressive reconnaissance.

What is also evident however are the challenges of effective control through the ‘fog of war’. An especially telling example is when the German Fifth Army Chief of Staff demanded authorization to advance despite this opening his flanks to assault by the French. The weakness in the German strategic HQ to control this type of behaviour is telling. At the tactical/operational level this is not as significant an issue for the Germans as they are consummate gatherers of battlefield intelligence. The French, in contrast, appear to have maintained an extremely poor battlefield picture through their abysmal battlefield reporting and reconnaissance. As a result, the Germans are able to maintain the initiative and are consistently catching the French off guard.

Zuber also emphasizes the German focus on individual initiative. The German leadership ethos demanded that units receive clear ‘commanders intent’ without un-necessary detail. This is to say, they were provided direction on ‘what’ was expected, not ‘how’ it was to be achieved. The German NCO and Officer were expected to make decisions on the spot within the context of what the Commander wanted to achieve. This was in direct contrast to the French whose doctrine focused on ‘top-down’ direction. French orders went into copious amounts of detail trying to address all of the potential challenges that may be faced (based upon the anticipated realities of the rear HQ as opposed to the realities on the ground). This resulted in individual initiative being stymied in the French officer.

What I did not enjoy about this particular edition of the Zuber’s book fell into two areas. The first was the typeface; extremely small and difficult to read. The second was the selection and layout of the maps that went along with the narrative. Zuber’s attention to detail demands clear maps to allow the reader to follow the flow of the battles. The maps provided are centrally located in the book as opposed to being with the description of the battle and are also not clearly laid out between French and German units (being monochrome). Only with difficulty, is the reader able to track the movement of the units. This, in my opinion, diminishes somewhat, the effectiveness of the outstanding narrative.

Notwithstanding the above comments, Zuber has written an outstanding book. Despite my observations regarding the layout of this publication, I highly recommend it as a great addition to any historian’s library.