Reading and learning are two of my passions and it is my pleasure to share these books with you.I have read them all and have found them to be both insightful and engaging. I encourage your feedback and I hope that you enjoy them as much as I did.
Maj Chris Buckham
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
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 ‘iremember.ru’
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.
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 fleetengagement
that had a fundamental impact upon the course of the war and resonated far
beyond the islands that it was fought over.
Title: The Lieutenant Don’t Know Author: Jeff Clement ISBN: 978-1-61200-248-4 Publisher: Casemate Hardcover Pages: 264 Photographs/Maps: 46/2
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
Title: Organisation Todt: From
Autobahns to the Atlantic Wall
Author: John Christopher ISBN: 978-1-4456-3856-0 Publisher: Amberley Softcover 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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; thesesoldiers 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
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.
Author: C Shores, B Cull, N
Malizia ISBN: 978-0-948-81716-8 Publisher: Grub Street Hardcover 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
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.
Title: Diary of a Night Bomber Pilot in World War 1
Author: Clive Semple
Publisher: Spellmount Publishers
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 naïve young man.
Some of the more notable aspects of Semple’s narrative include:
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;
The vision shown by the Admiralty in its support (as early as 1914) of the creation of a bomber force;
The dysfunction/inefficiency in aircraft design, production, training and allocation of resources as the Navy and Army sparred for aircraft and personnel;
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.