Saturday, 27 December 2014

Barbarossa Through Soviet Eyes: The First 24 Hours - Artem Drabkin, Alexei Isaev

Title: Barbarossa Through Soviet Eyes: The First 24 Hours                                      
Author: Artem Drabkin, Alexei Isaev
ISBN: 978-1-84415-923-9
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Pages: 186
Photographs//maps: 129 b/w//3                                                         

22 June, 1941 is easily a day as important in the history of the Russian/Soviet peoples as Pearl Harbour is to the United States. Their societies were shocked, in disbelief, angry, resentful and in many cases pleased that the Germans had invaded.  What is oftentimes missing is a record of the reaction, the human face if you will, of the Soviet people as the German juggernaut swept over them. This is due to many things but mainly because of the closed and controlled nature of the Soviet Union post World War 2 and its reluctance to reveal anything that may be perceived as weakness. Thus a majority of the Eastern Front histories have been written and interpreted from a German perspective. This book represents an effort to rectify that imbalance and to add the voice of the Soviet soldier and civilian to the discussion.

Books originally in Russian sometimes lose a portion of their focus in translation and also are often in a style quite unique from traditional English writings; Drabkin’s book is no exception to this. The narrative is good but at times appears to flow off in directions that cause the reader to pause. Additionally, there are a significant number of instances where the author neglects to explain his point or perspective in adequate detail thus leaving the reader to wonder what was the intent.

Having said this however; there is much to compliment this book. Drabkin identifies early on that he initiated the book as a repository of the recollections of the generation that fought in the Great Patriotic War and he draws a great deal from the website ‘’ which he created as a central spot for veterans to have their stories preserved. While the book is quite short relative to the subject, he does give adequate balance to all of the elements, the rear echelon and the home front, in outlining experiences and recollections. He also spends a good deal of time on those aspects of the invasion that have received little to no coverage in contemporary history, specifically the actions of the Soviet navy in the Baltic and Black Sea.

Drabkin’s subjects range in age and responsibility (from, for example, children in the smallest villages far from the front to those with access to the inner sanctum of Stalin’s office) and it is very interesting to view the different perspectives and perceptions of that day. One is struck by the reliance people had on government radio and local newspapers for information, the confusion of the initial commands regarding response postures, the striking lack of initiative on the part of a significant number of commanders, and, in contrast, the bravery shown many who did assume the risk of independent response. It is also fascinating both the degree of shock and surprise felt by the Soviet people at being attacked by the Germans and the number of instances where Soviet soldiers were spontaneously attacked or impeded by Ukrainian, Polish, Baltic and other occupied peoples as they struggled to organize a response.

The book is a relatively quick read and, while it provides a strategic and operational context within which the recollections occur, there are better histories of Operation Barbarossa available for those seeking this information. Where it becomes much more worthwhile is the human face that it puts on the Soviet side of the conflict. Pen and Sword have published, as per, a quality book and the sources provided are a good lead for those looking at the Soviet side of the war.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Battle for the Baltic Islands 1917 - Gary Staff

This review was written by Chris Buckham but published by Sabretache magazine. The website for the magazine is: the editor is Mr Paul Skrebels
Title: Battle for the Baltic Islands 1917
Author: Gary Staff
ISBN: 978-1-84415-7877
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Pages: 178
Photographs/Maps: 47 b/w//15

Conventional knowledge regarding naval operations in the First World War tends to be limited to the Battle of Jutland and perhaps the Battle of the Falkland Islands. Additionally, they are traditionally focussed almost exclusively upon engagements between the British and the German capital fleets; Russian, French, Austro-Hungarian and Italian fleet operations have generally been forgotten. Furthermore, the casual history buff will know only that the German High Seas fleet did not have another major engagement with the British following Jutland, rebelled at the end of the war and was scuttled after being interred at Scapa Flow. This is one of the main attractions of Staff’s book, the fact that it sheds light on a heretofore little known, yet critical, joint German engagement that had a fundamental impact upon the course of the war.

The German Fleet was, in fact, quite busy with operations in the Baltic against the naval forces of the Czar. This book centres upon the largest of these engagements, the Baltic Islands. Why this battle was undertaken involved both operational and strategic considerations on the part of the German Empire. Germany desperately needed to free up forces from the eastern front and the Russians continued to fight despite the Russian revolution which toppled the Czar and destabilized the country; Germany needed to deliver a blow that would quickly bring ‘whomever’ on the Russian side to surrender talks. The Baltic Islands were key to this as they controlled access to the Gulf of Finland which, in turn, controlled the approaches to St Petersburg, the Russian capital.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this battle was the jointness of the operation (led by the German navy under the command of Vizeadmiral Ehrhard Schmidt) on the German side. Planning involved the landing of naval as well as regular army forces (at Regimental and Divisional strength), supported by aircraft and zeppelin assets. The complexity of the planning, the cooperation between the elements and the critical success of the operation itself is testament to the capabilities of the German leadership. Another facet was the impact of the revolution on the effectiveness of the Russian forces. Soldier’s/sailor’s councils acted to consistently challenge and undermine the command and control of the Russian Commanders (as they had to convince as much as order in many cases). Regardless, they were still very well led by the overall Russian fleet commander, Vice-Admiral MK Bakhirev; there was a great deal of fight left in the Russians as they too realized the importance of these islands.
Staff’s writing style is very engaging and his analysis thorough and comprehensive. He presents a very balanced view of both of the protagonists in terms of tactics, personalities and strategic interests. Additionally, he draws attention to a number of interesting facets of the engagement that serve as a foreshadow of things to come: the fact that despite the confusion of the Russian Revolution, the Czar’s Intelligence service continued to function almost unaffected and the German Air Force undertook a series of successful air raids on not only land positions but also naval targets. The end of the book contains a series of appendices that explain the technical capabilities of the naval forces engaged, their command structures and a timeline of the battle; excellent for quick reference. Finally, much of the narrative is drawn from first hand recollections and sources of individuals present at the situations described. The author has made very good use of these, weaving the accounts seamlessly into the broader storyline.
Overall, I strongly recommend this book for its high production value, fascinating history and the strength of the writing and research of the author. The role that the German Fleet played in the war has been diminished and greatly overshadowed by events elsewhere and its utility as an effective arm of German foreign policy largely lost; Staff’s book sheds light on a successful fleet  engagement that had a fundamental impact upon the course of the war and resonated far beyond the islands that it was fought over.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Lieutenant Don’t Know - Jeff Clement

Title: The Lieutenant Don’t Know
Author: Jeff Clement
ISBN: 978-1-61200-248-4
Publisher: Casemate
Pages: 264
Photographs/Maps: 46/2
The author has drafted a very readable account of his training and deployment as a Lieutenant in charge of 2nd Platoon, Combat Logistics Battalion 6 in Afghanistan during 2010. He focusses a great deal upon the warrior ethos of the Marines and the flexibility with which they are employed. His observations on tactical leadership and planning are insightful and backed up through personal experience and examples. I enjoyed his obvious enthusiasm, candor and honesty; his tale is one of personal growth as a leader and the successes and failures that he met while enroute. This is a very informative and worthwhile book for a junior officer.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Organisation Todt: From Autobahns to the Atlantic Wall - John Christopher

Title: Organisation Todt: From Autobahns to the Atlantic Wall
Author: John Christopher
ISBN: 978-1-4456-3856-0
Publisher: Amberley
Pages: 255
Photographs/Maps: 71b/w//38 colour//5
Rating: 3.5/5

Christopher has reproduced an edited version of an intelligence report produced in March, 1945 for the benefit of Allied commanders. Organization Todt (OT) was the construction engineering arm of the German Government charged with both the planning and execution of all major construction projects throughout the Reich; at its height it comprised over 1.5 million personnel. It was an extremely effective organization, undertaking, in five years, the largest building program since the Roman Empire. The book is an outstanding reference for this institution but it is very dry in its presentation; nevertheless, a fascinating study of a little known but critical aspect of the Reich.  

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Caen Controversy: The Battle for Sword Beach 1944 - Andrew Stewart

Title: Caen Controversy:
The Battle for Sword Beach 1944
Author: Andrew Stewart
ISBN: 978-1-909982-12-3
Publisher: Helion
Pages: 164
Photographs/maps: 34 b/w//10 colour 

What is the Caen Controversy? In a nutshell, this centre’s upon a school of thought that suggests that the 3rd Br Inf Div, tasked with the capture of Caen following their landing at Sword Beach on D-Day, did not achieve their goal in the anticipated time period due to an excessive amount of caution on the part of the command staff. Stewart has taken it upon himself to address this question with in-depth analysis of D-Day planning expectations, Divisional preparation, German defences and conditions as the attack unfolded. 

Stewart commences his discussion with a macro discussion of the planning surrounding the invasion. He provides particular emphasis on those aspects of the plan that are not often focussed upon, I believe, in order to provide a broader spectrum of insight for the reader. To that end, he discusses at some length the influence and stress under which the meteorologists laboured coming up with their go/no-go recommendation. He also spends a great deal of ink describing the complexities of the various elemental aspects of the invasion: naval, air and land; emphasized when one considers that the naval operations order alone was over 1100 pages long and covered over 22 separate actions. 

In order to provide an overall appreciation of the challenges facing the Allies on D-Day, the author undertakes a study of the German forces, their challenges, command climate and capabilities and a synopsis of their strengths and weaknesses. It is a fascinating study to view the development of the German preparations, intelligence efforts and response as they await what they know will be an inevitable attempt by the Allies at an invasion. 

As he draws the narrative into the actual invasion, he narrows the focus to Sword beach itself and the supporting activities of the 6th AB Div which would provide flank support and capture or destroy key bridges across the river Orne to the left of the landing beach. The command decisions of Maj Gen Rennie, CO of the 3rd Inf Div and, more importantly, Brigadier KP Smith, CO of the 185 Inf Bde, the spear point of the 3rd’s drive inland on 6 June, are reviewed in depth with a view towards understanding how their experiences and the environment affected their decision making. Stewart’s narrative closes on the evening of 6 June with the 3rd Div having achieved a solid lodgement but not the close to capturing the city of Caen as planned.  

Stewart’s evaluation of the battle for Sword beach is excellent. His operational insight and ability to seamlessly flow into a tactical narrative make this a battlefield study of some significant worth. He is very balanced in his evaluations with a keen eye towards the impact of the human condition on the limited success of the 3rd on D-Day. It is clear why Brig Smith was relieved within a few days of the landing; his tactical decision making was not in keeping with the audacity demanded by the D-Day plan. His troops certainly did not lack courage but they did lack a single-mindedness of purpose and focus that was permeated from the top.

I enjoyed reading this book a great deal although it would have been helpful to have included an organizational chart and some additional maps that laid out the lines of approach of the 3rd Div more clearly. The inclusion of a concise review of the planning and naval aspects of D-day and Sword assaults was very enlightening and provided additional insight into not only the complexity of the attack but what was also effectively achieved. Stewart is to be commended and Helion has published another quality book well worth the investment.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Illustrated History of World War 1 - Andrew Wiest

Title: The Illustrated History of World War 1
Author: Andrew Wiest
ISBN: 978-1-78274-137-4
Publisher: Amber
Pages: 256
Photographs/maps: 100’s
Rating 4/5
There are many publications about WW1 in this centenary year of its commencement. This book is a high quality publication that provides the reader with an excellent synopsis of the war in pictures and maps broken down by year. He incorporates all of the fronts, both air and sea actions as well as short biographies of all of the major political and military figures. The information presented is not new but many of the photographs I have not seen before. I enjoyed the layout, style and presentation immensely; a good book to pick up and put down at your leisure and worth the investment.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Empires of the Dead - David Crane

Title: Empires of the Dead
Author: David Crane
ISBN: 978-0-00-745668-0
Publisher: William Collins
Pages: 289
Photographs//maps: 12 b/w/15 clr//3 

When one travels the battlefields of WW1 and 2 throughout the world, it is very likely that you will come across one of the hundreds of Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s interment sites. Each is laid out identically with a stylized cross and inverted sword overseeing the rows of common gravestones marking the final intermingled resting places of officers and men. They are striking and moving places, stark reminders of the sacrifices and service given by so many to their countries. 

What is not well known or remembered is the road that led to the creation of these final resting places; the personalities, drama, anguish and reflection that marked the discussion and national debate surrounding the remembrance of the war dead. Crane has authored a book that lays out in a balanced and insightful way just what were the driving factors behind the debates, how the War Graves Commission came to be, the impact of World War 1 on the national psyche of not just Great Britain but the entire Empire, and who were the personalities who navigated the waters of emotion and pride that came to typify discussion. 

Central to the success of this program was Fabian Ware. While his name has, to a great extent, been lost to history, it was his vision and drive that saw the concept of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission take root and flourish. Cranes traces the role that this remarkable personality played and how his core belief in the unifying power of the British Empire and the debt that it owed its soldiers served as his unwavering guiding light. 

For the first time in its history, a war had directly affected all facets of society equally from the highest nobility to the lowest labourer and all in between. The British common man and the Imperial colonies would not be left out of the discussion of how to memorialize the dead. Ware displayed remarkable insight when, in setting up his initial Commission, he included representatives from all walks including senior government and union leaders as well as senior Colonial representatives.  

The breadth and complexity of this program was astounding: over 1,300 graveyards in France alone, over 580,000 graves that required exhumation and reinterment and a mandate that literally was worldwide. Additionally, was the necessity to come up with a means of memorializing the tens of thousands of soldiers with no known resting place in such a way as to provide their families with an opportunity for closure and remembrance; this while trying to manage cost, land distribution and artistic difference.
Crane’s book not only relates the story of the development of the Commonwealth War Grave Commission, he also captures the mood of the nations as they struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the sacrifice that had been made. From the point of view of 100 years later, it is almost impossible to fully grasp the depth of grief and loss that affected every facet of societies; Crane’s book provides a glimpse into that abyss. This is an outstanding book in every way: educational, moving, gripping and above all insightful and wrenching.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Valour Road - John Nadler

Title: Valour Road
Author: John Nadler
ISBN: 978-0-670-06821-0
Publisher: Viking Canada
Pages: 368
Photographs: 37 b/w

The title ‘Valour Road’ refers to the name that Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba was changed to once it was discovered that three of the 71 Victoria Crosses (the highest medal for combat valour) awarded to Canadians since its inception following the Crimean War, had come not only from that street, but from the same block. All three were awarded during the First World War; two posthumously. The recipients Leo Clarke, Robert Shankland, and Fred Hall were all recognized for exceptional bravery in the face of the enemy and their stories and the story of the place from which they came is the focus of this book.

Nadler combines the accuracy and detail of a historian with the engaging style of a reporter to bring to life the world of these three soldiers, both at home and at the front. The tale is gripping and harrowing as one is plunged into the chaos and violence of trench warfare while concurrently introduced to the activities of the home front and their unique challenges. The author limits his narrative to the story of these families and soldiers. In doing so he is able to bring out detail that would inevitably be lost were the scope broader. Thus is the reader introduced to the Winnipeg ‘Bomber’ unit that Leo Clark and his brother were a part of; these  soldiers undertook hazardous strikes against enemy trench lines securing the flanks of the main body attacks. Such was their fame and reputation that the City of Winnipeg named their Canadian Football Team after them.

Nadler has drawn upon present day family recollections, diaries, unit histories and British, French and Canadian national military histories to put together a story of remarkable depth and personality. This fusion of historical narrative and personal recollection adds significant breadth to this snapshot of time. I was particularly impressed by the isolation of Winnipeg during this period. Access to information was very limited and it often took a significant amount of time to garner news about casualties and the Front. Further, the idea of travelling to Europe was comparable to the idea of going to the moon today. Despite this, the home front remained very supportive and active; Nadler does a commendable job of shedding light on the stresses of absent soldiers on the routine of everyday life. I was also impressed by the unquestioning loyalty to Empire and the Crown; on the surface a seemingly simpler but extremely challenging period for Canada.

Nadler’s descriptions of life at the front are of particular poignancy. The emphasis on the lives of these three soldiers and their immediate comrades brings the readers focus to the lowest and most basic level of life experience. Faces are put to the WW1 experience; these men are no longer black and white still photographs on a page. They are alive once more with their strengths, fears, flaws and desires highlighted in harsh reality. The capacity for these soldiers to be able to fight, function and maintain their sanity within the absolute nightmare of the Front, is testament to their strength of character developed through their upbringing and bonds of comradeship. Through their recollections we are introduced to the terror, boredom and humour of life in a time far removed from today.

What would have added to the story, in my opinion, would have been the inclusion of maps of the regions in which these men were operating. This would have provided better context and a visual reference for the reader.

This is a gem of a book. For Canadians it serves as an outstanding study of our history both domestic and overseas. Nadler has done an outstanding job and deserves full credit for the contribution he has made to the Canadian story. The narrative of these three men, their comrades and their families is the story of Canada at the turn of the century and we may be proud of the legacy that they left behind.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Malta: The Spitfire Year 1942 - C Shores, B Cull, N Malizia

Title: Malta: The Spitfire Year 1942
Author: C Shores, B Cull, N Malizia
ISBN: 978-0-948-81716-8
Publisher: Grub Street
Pages: 704
Photos/Maps:100’s b/w /3

The authors have a long record of producing quality books of exceptional detail and breadth. This follow on to their first installment “Malta: The Hurricane Year 1941” is no exception.

As with their previous works, the authors break down their narrative into individual days and provide the reader with significant incidents on the ground, at sea and in the air as they occur (incorporating the experiences of both the Allied and Axis forces). The degree of detail that they are able to provide throughout their discussion (down to the serial numbers of individual aircraft engaged for example) is stunning and certainly adds a tactical dimension that compliments the strategic and operational narrative beautifully.

Books should be educational and not just a reiteration of dry facts and statistics; to that end the reader learns a great deal about the peripheral activities that were critical but have been neglected in the documentaries regarding the Battle for Malta. For example, the Italians lacked the capacity for RDF (Radar Direction Finding) resulting in their being severely hampered in naval operations in the Mediterranean. What is not well known was their superb capability in the development of ‘Servizio Alfa’ (Alfa Service) which entailed the use radio interception in order to track British movements, advise their aircraft of impending interceptions and interfere with British radio direction finding to draw Allied aircraft off course as they were transiting toward Malta. The Germans, for their part, employed multiple Freya radar systems to aid in the tracking and engagement of Allied resources.

Additionally, their discussions relating to the Allied use of Ultra intercepts – Ultra was the German coding system that had been broken by the British and subsequently provided unprecedented insight into Axis operations – showed the lengths to which the UK went to protect their accomplishments. The Commander at Malta was provided with information derived from Ultra about Axis convoy movements; however, he was ordered to have the convoys located via reconnaissance flights before engaging in order to ensure that no suspicions were raised regarding how the Allies were able to find these targets.

This book is focussed upon the air campaign associated with Malta; however, the sea and land campaigns within Africa and the Mediterranean could not help but have a direct effect upon the fortunes of the island. The authors incorporate these facets seamlessly into the narrative and provide for the reader not only ‘the bigger picture’ but also highlights the variety of operations that were undertaken concurrently (torpedo attacks, harassment bombing operations, fighter interception, reconnaissance, air sea rescue etc) by all players involved.

Due to the fact that the authors have broken out the narrative into individual days, one develops an appreciation of the scope and nature of operations that occurred on a daily basis but never have been recounted in histories. Individual strikes, close calls, narratives of downed flyers spending days floating in the Mediterranean with little hope for rescue are all included. Additionally, the steps taken by the Allies to aggressively take the fight to the enemy with strikes on Axis airfields and harbours despite the heavy pressure of the Axis on the defences of Malta are very eye opening.

One also begins to appreciate just how perilous was the situation facing the Allies. The logistic lines were extremely tenuous and the ability of aircraft to respond to Axis incursions relied exclusively upon the ability of tankers and supply ships to get through to the island; the story of the tenacious defence of and fortuitous arrival of the oil tanker Ohio being recounted in great detail. Associated with this, were the events surrounding the rescue of two Italian pilots (shot down while attacking the convoy) by a German flying boat being guided and escorted by British Spitfires and Beaufighters; all as a result of mistaken communications!

There is a heavy Canadian connection to the air battle above and around Malta. RCAF pilots and aircrew were a significant and integral part of operations associated with the battle. Probably best known is the success of Plt Ofr GF ‘Buzz’ Beurling of 249 Sqn. His reputation as a loner and superb fighter pilot was enhanced by his being the top scoring Allied pilot during the Malta Campaign with 26.5 kills credited (compared with his next closest at 12.5 kills).

There are very few observations to be made regarding this book that may be seen as anything but positive; the most significant being that the index is printed in a painfully small font. The degree of detail provided is unsurpassed and the flow and tone of the narrative, tight and engaging. Grub Street has produced a book of the highest quality. I highly recommend this book. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Diary of a Night Bomber Pilot in World War 1 - Clive Semple

Title: Diary of a Night Bomber Pilot in World War 1
Author: Clive Semple
ISBN: 978-1-86227-425-5
Publisher: Spellmount Publishers
Pages: 320
Photos/Maps: 100+b/w//9 colour

Memoirs are a two-edged source for historians; while they provide a plethora of information relating to the ‘how’s and why’s’ of decision making for the subject of the book, they also tend toward being selective in recollection and can also be very self- serving and a source of justification by the author. A diary, on the other hand, is a source with great potential and use. Written in real time and with the prejudices, attitudes, frustrations and honesty of the moment; it provides unprecedented insight into the mind of the author and an invaluable tool from which to develop a book.

Clive Semple’s father, Leslie, joined the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS) in 1917 (at the age of 18) and served as a night bomber pilot flying Handley Page bombers until he resigned his commission in 1919 (after a period of occupation duty in Germany). He spoke rarely about his service during the war and it was not until his death in 1971 that the author discovered a time capsule of photo’s, documents and his diary in a box in Leslie’s attic. Drawing upon all of these resources and specifically the diary, Semple drafted an outstanding picture of life for a young man as he makes his way through training and wartime operations.

Semple has done a great deal of research in order to provide the reader with context and explanation of his father’s diary entries. Thus the diary serves as the thread that connects the narrative together. What makes this book unique is the fact that it does not merely serve as a recollection of the author’s operational wartime service but also the social environment within which he lived. It is fascinating to read about him dealing with the stresses and expectations of being an officer/trainee in wartime (and the responsibilities and expectations demanded of him) while concurrently being exposed, for the first time, to the challenges of the real world of women and combat as a na├»ve young man.

Some of the more notable aspects of Semple’s narrative include:

  1. Ongoing animosity and lack of cooperation between members of the Royal Navy and Army (reinforced by Leslie’s observations) that led ultimately to the formation of the Royal Air Force (combining the RFC and RNAS – vigorously contested by the Army and Navy) by government decree;

  1. The vision shown by the Admiralty in its support (as early as 1914) of the creation of a bomber force;

  1. The dysfunction/inefficiency in aircraft design, production, training and allocation of resources as the Navy and Army sparred for aircraft and personnel;

  1.  The sang froid with which Leslie relates the losses amongst his peers during training and operations. While they are undoubtedly painful, it is clear that they are also readily accepted as the price of war and not a lot of time is spent on dwelling upon them. Interesting when one remembers that he is only 18 at this time; and

  1. The detailed accounts of the specific training associated with night operations and the rudimentary techniques used for bombing accuracy. Additionally, it is interesting to follow in the narrative the development of the use of bombing as a separate arm of air operations.

Leslie’s diary also provides very interesting insights into the immediate postwar environment that the servicemen were faced with. He notes, example, the difference between occupation experiences/relations involving French and English with the Germans; he writes very favourably about the Germans and his interactions with them. Also, he is very moved and affected by what he sees as he visits the battlefields that, up to this point, he had only seen from above. Finally, his thoughts and observations regarding military life in the immediate aftermath of the war is fascinating as it brings into focus issues of employment, discipline and morale as soldiers who had been involved in vicious fighting for upwards of four years suddenly found themselves with time on their hands.

Leslie left four volumes of photographs with his diary and Semple has included hundreds of these as a compliment to the narrative. His descriptions and expansion on his father’s diary installments are well researched and complimentary. They add depth without assuming control of the narrative. There a few comments that are off the mark such as his ruminations about why parachutes were never adopted in the RAF but, for the most part, he is accurate and succinct.

This book is a rare find as it fills a gap that has not be written about in great detail; that of Allied night bombing efforts in WW1. The insights, photographs and commentary by Leslie Semple provide the reader with a window into this world viewed through the lens of an 18 year old pilot officer in wartime. His son, the author, has provided noteworthy background and is to be commended for producing a book of such personal and educational value.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Coming of the Dawn - A.K. Silk

Title: The Coming of the Dawn
Author: A.K. Silk
ISBN: 978-1-927-53335-2
Pages: 246

This book represents the author's first foray into the world of fiction. A lifelong passion for history and the centenary of the beginning of the First World War has led to his drafting of this novel of squadron life and death in 1918. His story focusses upon Patrick Dyson, a 2Lt transferring from the infantry into the Royal Flying Corps, as he struggles with the morality of combat, post traumatic stress (known then as shell shock), personal loss and the day to day interactions with his fellow squadron mates. 

Fiction serves as an excellent medium for the passage of lessons and the investigation of the human condition in times of extreme dislocation and stress. The author is able to create for the reader the atmosphere of the environment and experience required to convey the what, why and how of what would be, for the vast majority of us, circumstances that may only be understood in the abstract.

Silk has done a commendable job at creating a storyline that maintains pace and tension. The reader appreciates the struggle that Dyson and his fellow aircrew endure as they grapple with the daily terror of not only combat (and the prospect of burning to death or horrible injury) but also the potential of being viewed as a coward and ostracized by their peers and countrymen should they not meet the criteria of conduct expected by their comrades.

Silk's narrative reveals a deep period knowledge that shows that he has done his research about his subject, thereby adding both a depth of realism to his storyline and education for his readers. I was particularly struck by his description of Dyson's struggles with his own fear of combat and failure as he endures his introduction to aerial combat. One comes away appreciating what it took for these young men to undertake their missions in the full knowledge of what potentially lay ahead for them. 

Without a doubt. a strength in any novel is the ability of the author to surprise the reader with plot twists and turns. The Coming of the Dawn does not disappoint in this regard as Silk ensures a number of concurrent story lines intersect such that they keep the reader guessing. Aerial combat is interwoven with the apparent contradiction of social interaction with the enemy and the critical need for acceptance of the combatants by their peers.

This is a book worth reading. It represents a solid and worthy introduction of Silk into the genre of aerial fiction. For those who have enjoyed Spencer Dunmore and Derek Robinson as authors, Silk will not disappoint.  

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Devil’s General: The Life of Hyazinth von Strachwitz, "The Panzer Graf" - Raymond Bagdonas

Title: The Devil’s General
Author: Raymond Bagdonas
ISBN: 978-1-61200-222-4
Publisher: Casemate Publishers
Pages: 357
Photos/Maps: 39/8

Author Raymond Bagdonas has written his first book on a subject of fascinating depth, that of the life and operational experience of Hyazinth von Strachwitz, "The Panzer Graf". Coming from a long line of aristocratic, strongly Catholic Germans, von Strachwitz, while largely unknown today, was a man of exceptional leadership and operational/tactical acumen. A veteran of the First and Second World Wars, he served first as a cavalry officer and later as a Panzer commander.

A consummate commander and leader, he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class for bravery within the first six weeks of the commencement of WW1 before being captured and spending the remainder as a POW. Following his release, he was thrust into the mayhem that was postwar Germany as a member of the Selbstschutz Oberschleisen (a Silesian Freikorps unit) fighting Polish separatists in Eastern Germany. Following the stabilization of the country and the rise of the Nazi Party, von Strachwitz joined the SS and received a reserve commission. This led to a re-activation with a reserve cavalry regiment and a return to uniformed service.

Technological advancements within the German military led to cavalry units being replaced with tanks (panzers); thus commenced the legend of the “Panzer Graf”. Over the next eleven years, von Strachwitz would become a master Panzer Commander, ultimately becoming the most highly decorated Regimental Commander in the German Army. Over the course of his WW2 career he was the recipient of the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds, Oak Leaves and Swords (one of only 27 recipients within the German military), the German Panzer Assault Badge in Gold for 100 Engagements (14 awarded in total throughout the war) and the Wound Badge in Gold (five or more wounds). Personally credited with 150-200 destroyed enemy tanks, he fought with the 16th Panzer Division, Grossdeutschesland Panzergrenadier Division (GD) and the Panzerverband Strachwitz .

Following his incarceration as a Colonel General of Panzer Troops by the Americans for 18 months during which he drafted a number of treatise on his experiences fighting the Russians, a penniless von Strachwitz and his wife moved to Jordan in order to assist in the training and modernization of the Jordanian military. Ultimately returning to Germany, he passed away in 1968 and was interred in Grabenstatt.

Bagdonas has done a commendable job given the limitations of access to information and primary source documents. Much of the original unit documentation that covered von Strachwitz’s early years was lost when 16th Panzer was destroyed at Stalingrad and follow-on unit documents were lost in the confusion of the later years of the war. Therefore, a significant amount of Bagdonas’s narrative is anecdotal or subjective in nature based upon secondary and tertiary sources. Where this becomes more noticeable is when he makes observation or comments for which, in my opinion, there should be additional commentary or identification of source. For example, he makes the observation in his narrative that numerous US interrogators utilized torture in their quest to break prisoners following Germany’s surrender in 1945; what is missing is the source where he found this information.

Bagdonas’ writing and flow are very good and the reader is easily engaged with his informative style. Additionally, he provides numerous anecdotal information that add depth to the commentary. His discussions about why the GD did not have a chaplain, the competition between the fusilier/grenadier regiments and the unique challenges relating to utilization of a combined arms unit such as GD when the expertise of the Commander did not always translate into effective use of all unit elements, are all examples of this.

I felt that his use of appendices added greatly to the provision of information surrounding von Strachwitz’s accomplishments. The bibliography that he provides is very useful in identifying additional sources to the reader on the various engagements in which the Panzer Graf was engaged.

Bagdonas notes that von Strachwitz left no memoirs or notes; so gathering and drafting a comprehensive biography was extremely difficult. I feel that he has done a commendable job and that the book may serve future generations as an example of an individual who responded to the call of his nation twice and served in an honourable and selfless way throughout. As a leader, commander and officer, von Strachwitz was an individual to emulate.

Although, it feels that the narrative is, at times somewhat shallow as it relates to the subject of von Strachwitz, I would still recommend this book for its publication quality, its photo/map inserts and the information that the author provides about this noteworthy historical figure.    

Friday, 8 August 2014

Germanicus: The Magnificent Life and Mysterious Death of Rome's Most Popular General - Lindsay Powell

Title: Germanicus: The Magnificent Life
and Mysterious Death of  
Rome's Most Popular General
Author: Lindsay Powell
ISBN: 978-1-78159-120-8
Publisher: Pen and Sword Publishing
Pages: 338
Photos/Maps: 44/13

Ancient history is, by its very nature, fickle. Names of great men and women which were on everyone's lips during their lifetimes are forgotten with the passage of time. Ask today about the great men of the Roman Empire and many will say Julius Caesar; press further and they may come up with Augustus or Hadrian, rarely however will people be able to name beyond that. Ask them about the Great Generals of antiquity and they may say Sun Tzu, Atilla the Hun or Pompey followed by silence. That is the curse of many who were masters of their craft in times of old; lack or a loss of records and they are relegated to the dustbin of the past, utterly lost to all but a few. Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, one of the finest Generals and politicians of his day, feted and adored throughout the known world, is one of those men. 

Mr Powell has crafted an excellent biography of the man and his world. I was particularly impressed by the amount of primary source material that he was able to draw upon in the research for his book. No less than 45 unique sources from antiquity were cited or reviewed. It is of course, an occupational limitation when researching ancient figures that there will be a limited amount of sources and an inability to corroborate will become a factor. It then falls to the historian to draw reasonable and balanced conclusions as best he can based upon the information that he has access to. Powell has done this, and clearly acknowledged it when he has, in what I consider to be a fair presentation and interpretation of the facts.

The author opens his work with a series of family tree's and a chronology of the period running from 17 BCE to 20 CE covering the birth and death of Germanicus. These are very beneficial as they set the stage for the reader regarding the family that Germanicus was born into and the environment within which he lived. The period in question covering the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius are thought of generally as a time of the Roman Empire ascendant; and yet there were numerous instances that threatened the stability and very existence of the Empire itself: the mutiny of the Rhine Legions, the destruction of Varus's Legions in Germany and the vicious and ongoing conflict in Illricum. Set against this were the political turmoil of Imperial transition, the heightened sensitivities of Tiberius especially against the popularity and success of Germanicus and the consistent challenge of maintaining positive relations with adjoining states and peoples.

It was throughout this hotbed of history that Germanicus rose to prominence as both a subtle and skilled politician as well as a ruthless and brilliant military commander. Powell breaks his narrative into a series of distinct yet consecutive chapters that trace Germanicus' life and death chronologically. Again this is very helpful for the reader as it sets the subject within the context of the greater world around him in an easily accessible manner. He closes out his storyline with a discussion of how and why Germanicus' family fell within a few years of his death from the pinnacle of Roman society and influence to ignominious disgrace and ruin.

I particularly like Powell's narrative style. It is extremely readable and engaging, providing an educational narrative on a fascinating period of history. The addition of numerous maps and drawings are also very helpful in providing context to the story. The management of an empire as vast and complicated as the Roman would have been a challenge to any modern day leader; remove the benefits of technological advancements and it becomes all the more astounding that Rome was able to thrive and grow at all and is a clear indication of the strength of the Roman administrative system. Powell explains the complexities of this system as he traces the political advancement and education of Germanicus culminating in his being appointed with 'imperium proconsulare' by Tiberius (in effect overseer of the East); responsible directly and second only to the Emperor himself. Throughout, Powell does an admirable job of analyzing the ancient source commentary on these events.

There are many lessons for the modern day commander to be gleaned from the life of Germanicus. His recognition of legitimate grievance amongst the Rhine Legions while punishing those who transgressed the line of discipline may be compared with a similar success by Petain in the First World War with mutinying French soldiers. His knowledge of when to use coercion and when to use diplomacy not only cemented his reputation amongst his soldiers as a commander who did not squander lives but also with his potential opponents who recognized in him both a worthy adversary and a honourable man. His lack of hubris and willingness to focus on whatever task was directed by the Emperor ensured the continued confidence of that Office. 

Germanicus was a soldier and statesman of outstanding ability who set service to Rome above all else. Powell has done an exemplary job at shedding light upon the character and accomplishments of this noteworthy Roman. The book itself is of a very high quality with only a few typesetting issues to mar the presentation. I strongly recommend this work.