Friday, 31 January 2014

Imperial General: The Remarkable Career of Petellius Cerialis - Philip Matyszak

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in Ancient Warfare Magazine. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the magazine. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact: Dirk van Gorp (  Website for the Magazine is:‎

Title: Imperial General: The Remarkable Career of Petellius Cerialis
Author: Philip Matyszak
ISBN: 978-1-848841-192
Pages: 188
Illustrations: 15 B/W, 3 maps
Publisher: Pen and Sword Publishing

                There are a number of historical figures that are readily recognizable to the modern day reader; Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Alexander the Great all fall into this category. Petellius Cerialis is not one of them; however, he lived during one of the most unstable and exciting times of the Roman Empire and was in the right place at the right time to play a crucial, albeit understated, role in its eventual successful outcome. Records found from the Roman period in question provide historians with a plethora of information relating to the life and work of Cerialis. It is very unique to have this degree of detail relating to a historical figure and the author, Matyszak, has done an admirable job of bringing the character to life.

                In order to place the narrative in context Matyszak has structured his book in such a way that the reader is able to appreciate the political, societal, historical and economic factors that led up to the events within which Cerialis played such a central role. His ability to highlight and explain key aspects of Roman history and society (for example the emphasis/high regard placed upon the successful military/politician) is central to the accessibility of this book to the population at large. His writing is both clear and direct which makes for an entertaining and engaging read. Matyszak style is also hallmarked by his ability to weave seamlessly between the strategic (ie Roman empire at large) picture with the tactical level. This is particularly beneficial due to the degree of complexity involved with the year 69 AD “The Year of the Four Emperors”. 

He also personalizes the narrative with a dry somewhat cynical wit. An outstanding example of this was his reference to a conversation between the senator Seneca and the Emperor Nero as the latter was descending into isolation and paranoia. In a classic example of understatement Seneca advises Nero: “no matter how many you kill, you can’t kill your successor”. The author salts his book with numerous examples of this style of commentary.

Another worthy achievement of Matyszak’s work is the manner in which he provides ancillary information to the reader that adds depth to the storyline. Thus, when he discusses the engagements between Roman and ‘Barbarians’ he outlines how the Romans ensured local/tactical superiority through their fighting style versus that of the adversary. Due to the German/Celtic style of fighting (primarily utilizing a five foot slashing sword) they required greater individual room for maneuver than the Romans with their stabbing swords (the gladius). Therefore, the Romans were able to maintain a frontage superiority of 5 soldiers to 3. Also, the title Imperial General refers to the change in dynamic between the Roman Generals of the Republic who would strive for personal advancement to Consul of the Senate through military success, and the Generals of the Empire who’s success was focused on gaining Imperial favour.

The complexity of the relationship between the Army and the political arm of the Roman administration and the degree of which the Army had come to see itself as the final arbiter of who would become (and remain) the Emperor is a major theme throughout Matyszak’s book. Cerialis’ challenge and response, as an Imperial General, when faced with disgruntled Rhine Legions in Gaul and the demoralized Legions in Britain is a fascinating study of leadership under adverse conditions. Once Matyszak has painted the ‘big hand/small map’ picture, he is able to focus his attention on the career of Cerialis. His deep involvement in the initial response to the rebellion of Boudica in Britain and in the re-establishment of central command to the Rhine legions were both highlights of Cerialis’ career. Through his focus on Cerialis, the author provides a riveting, in-depth analysis of the tangled relationships that existed between Rome and her Generals.
This book is an extremely readable analysis of Rome during a period of instability and internal strife. Matyszak has done a commendable job at unraveling the complexities of this period and highlighting the role of Cerialis in the success and re-establishment of stability within the Empire. Anyone, professional historian, those with a casual interest in Roman Imperial intrigue or those looking for an interesting read will all be satisfied with this book. I certainly was.   

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Panzer Warfare on the Eastern Front - Hans Schaufler

Title: Panzer Warfare on the Eastern Front
Author: Hans Schaufler
ISBN: 978-1-781-59005-8
Pages: 341
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Photos: 77 b/w//4 maps

Hans Schaufler has not so much written a book as gathered an anthology of the experiences of his  fellow panzer soldiers into a time capsule of Eastern Front operations. Focussing on five panzer divisions: 4th, 9th, 11th, 16th and the 18th he has made a concerted effort to provide a medium whereby the voice of history may be passed on by those who actually experienced it. One of the interesting and unique aspects of his narrative is the fact that the author really does take a very hands off approach, to the point where there is no introduction or conclusion, nor is there any commentary by him of the inputs of the soldiers and officers who have contributed. His editorial input is limited to ensuring the narrative follows a definite timeline and that the stories make grammatical sense. Additionally, he provides appendices of the order of battle's of the five panzer divisions and a rank equivalency chart.

Not only has the author gathered the narratives, but he is also a contributor himself having served with the 4th Panzer-Division. This style of storytelling provides for the reader a sense of authenticity that is lacking from the traditional historical work. This generation is quickly passing into history themselves and with them, the personal aspect of an experience that may only be passed on by someone who has 'lived' it themselves.

This work is not a study of grand strategic plans, or dramatic operational pincer movements, it does not glorify nor denigrate war and it is not a justification for what occurred during those tumultuous years. What it does do is provide short snippets that relate the reminisces  of a soldier within a squad or a platoon of events that were memorable to him. The stories are exciting, tragic, funny, ridiculous or surreal, but all are honest and genuine. Whether relating the experiences of a young Oberwachmeister finding himself having to fight off wolves from the back of a Russian panje wagon while on patrol in the dead of winter, a Gefreiter telling of a hopeless panzer crew and their disastrous training display in front of the divisional commander or of the Oberstleutnant operations officer of the 16 Panzer Division recreating the daily logs of the unit that were destroyed following its surrender at Stalingrad from memory following 13 years of captivity, these stories resonate with life. When looking at themes that may be found throughout the book, I noted that regardless of the nature of the story been recounted, the underlying loyalty and comradeship between the landser never wavered and was always viewed as a source of strength and courage.

The quality of the book itself is good however, the photo's are of a lower production value. One can certainly see the changes and the consistency in the recollections as the chapters flow from the initial invasion in 1941 through to the disintegration and chaos of the last months of the war. Overall, I would highly recommend this work as a critical testament to the drama, farce and terror faced and overcome by soldiers of any nation but, in this particular case, Germany.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Winds of Destruction: The Autobiography of a Rhodesian Combat Pilot - PJH Petter-Bowyer

Title: Winds of Destruction: The Autobiography of a Rhodesian Combat Pilot

Author: PJH Petter-Bowyer
ISBN: 9-780-9-5484-903-0
Pages: 392
Publisher: 30 Degrees South Publishing
Photos/Maps: 305/3 

Rarely does one individual find themselves in a position to have a profound and long-lasting affect upon the history of their Nation. Even more rarely is it that the individual in question is equal to and takes full advantage of the opportunity with which they have been presented. Petter-Bowyer was one such individual and his autobiography reads like something between a 'Q' Bond novel and a Boys Own Adventure book. 

Commencing with his upbringing in the Rhodesian countryside, it follows his early years through introduction to the military and pilot training. The reader is able to get a sense of the atmosphere within which the formative years of P-B were influenced; of note is the sense of professionalism and pride in their country and their growing concern as the world dynamic begins to change. Specifically, the role that Great Britain played in the saga of Rhodesia and the gradual sense of alienation and then deep betrayal towards the country that so many Rhodesians had fought and died for during the war. 

The 1960’s saw the gradual isolation of Rhodesia from the world community as Western Europe pulled back from colonialism and gave indigenous populations freedom to run their own countries. The reluctance of Rhodesia to follow suit resulted in alienation and the imposition of embargo’s on its economy and military. PB speaks repeatedly of the enterprising and independent spirit of Rhodesians and this circumstance further enhanced this trait. 

The book follows a fairly typical path, following PB’s career, highlighting numerous points of achievement and frustration. What is unique is the explanation of the development and implementation of the items within the confines of international embargos imposed by the west. Given the increasing difficulty in obtaining spares and equipment combined with the gradually deteriorating terrorist situation resulting from ZANU and ZANLA operations provided a unique opportunity for an entrepreneur to really shine. 

The ‘Fireforce’ doctrinal strike concept, developed by the army and airforce to provide maximum impact when hitting rebel camps and insurgents, needed as much of a force multiplier as possible to ensure effectiveness. PB was directly responsible for the concept and development of such things as the Alpha bomb (a circular bomb dropped in clusters of 400 that ‘bounced’ on impact to a height of 6 ft before exploding – perfect for strikes without hardstand), Golf bombs that used a fuel air explosive mixture, Flechette bombs, controlling tracking dogs from helicopters thereby significantly increasing tracking speed and distance and developing helicopter door mounts for 7.62 twin machine guns thereby massively increasing the lethality of the aircraft and its role within ‘Fireforce’. 

What was of particular note was the way the author was able to convey the sense of purpose and conviction with which the members of the Rhodesian military conducted themselves. This is noteworthy because, throughout the period following the Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Great Britain in 1964, Rhodesia was consistently struggling against outside agencies using it as a pawn in a much larger game. It is fascinating and sad to watch the trust that Rhodesia had in the Empire, followed on by closer relationships with Portugal (through its colony in Mozambique) and South Africa (as, ultimately, its only access to the world), used and abused (especially it would appear, by South Africa). Regardless of the continual blows to its sense of belonging within the world community, it would appear that, while they did not forget or forgive, the Rhodesians certainly continued to overcome when they should have broken.

The book itself is well written; PB has broken it down into numerous smaller subchapters that enable him to clearly travel from topic to topic without breaking up the flow of the narrative. The numerous photographs and sketches add a great deal to understanding the text with visual cues. The publication size of the book is a bit awkward being significantly larger than a typical softcover; however, this does fall within personal preference as opposed to the quality of the work. What I also found fascinating was the way that he relates the transition to majority rule and the impact that it had upon the military. The military continued to fight against the external rebel forces even after the white government of Ian Smith had transitioned to the first black prime-minister, Bishop Muzorewa. This change was remarkable due to the seamlessness of the transition. This was followed by close interaction/liaison with former ZANLA and ZAMU foes as the country settled into its new black majority role. Given the violence that a significant number of nations had experienced in similar circumstances, the maturity displayed by the white and black communities of Rhodesia was noteworthy. 

That is not to say that it was completely painless or without rancor. PB is very clear on his thoughts regarding the international community's culpability as Robert  Mugabe and his people assumed the reigns of power. This work is a fascinating study of the Rhodesian military and airforce from the perspective of an individual blessed and cursed with the opportunity to "live in interesting times".

Friday, 10 January 2014

Behind the Lines: A Critical Survey of Special Operations in World War II - Michael Dilley

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

Title: Behind the Lines: A Critical Survey of Special Operations in
World War II
Author: Michael F. Dilley
Pages: 262
Publisher: Casemate Harvard University Press
Photos/Maps: 30 b/w

Michael Dilley has drafted an interesting work outlining the role of Special Operations in the execution of tasks during World War II. Utilizing criteria established by spec ops authors William H. McRaven and Lucien S. Vandenbroucke, he drafts a synopsis of an operation and then provides an evaluation of the planning and execution against the identified criteria. Additionally, he has divided his book into two distinct sections; the first relating to operations behind enemy lines and the second referring to operations behind friendly lines.
While Mr Dilley’s book provides some interesting insight into the operations that he has selected and draws attention to previously little known capabilities/units (such as the Japanese ‘Golden Kites’) I felt that his criteria for selection and review left me somewhat confused. Modern criteria will divide forces into Tier 1 and Tier 2 units; Tier 1 being the small unit assault for specific missions and Tier 2 being those units such as Rangers or Parachute regiments that require additional training and specialization. That being the case, his focus, I would suggest, is somewhat broader than Special Operations and more attuned to Special Forces.
A number of his reviews such as that of the Russian ‘Locusts’, Japanese ‘Golden Kites’ and the ‘Triple Nickle’ are confusing as they appear to be more along the line of standard parachute unit assaults or, in the case of Triple Nickle, aid to civil power. The exclusion of units such as the Italian Decima Flottiglia MAS attack on the port of Alexandria in 1941 was very surprising with its absence. Additionally, I noted that there were no footnotes supporting any of the narratives.
What was positive was the provision of a bibliography at the end of each chapter relating specifically to the missions discussed. Also, I did like the synopsis in the appendices which laid down the evaluation techniques of spec ops in detail.

Overall, a high production value book that sheds light on a number of units and missions that have faded from collective memory; from the perspective of viable case studies however, of limited benefit. I give this an average recommendation.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Operation Typhoon - David Stahel

Title: Operation Typhoon
Author: David Stahel
ISBN: 978-1-107-03512-6
Pages: 412
Illustrations:  21 B/W, 15 maps
Publisher: Cambridge University Press Publishing

​Four themes resonate throughout Stahel's work on the German thrust towards Moscow in October, 1941: 1. logistics: its challenges and importance, 2. the failure of the German high command to accept the capability limitations of their forces, 3. the extreme willingness of the Soviet soldiers to sacrifice themselves, and 4. the equal determination and inner strength of the German soldier to continue to drive forward despite dwindling supplies and atrocious weather conditions. Each of these veins of discussion permeate the narrative and serve to reinforce the desperation of the two antagonists.
Stahels work focuses on the Germans primarily and the successes and difficulties with which they were meeting. In my experience, a vast majority of works relating to the Second World War do not give a suitable level of attention to the issue of logistics and home front morale. Stahel, while remaining at the strategic perspective (with some minor forays down to the operational) identifies almost exclusively with the elephant in the German room: logistics. The narrative discusses in detail why it was that a command structure so adept at waging war chose to ignore this vital aspect. It is a fascinating glimpse into the human psyche and continues to be as relevant today as it was in October, 1941.
Stahel does not dismiss the masterful way that the German's undertook the operational execution of war; indeed, the very fact that they were as successful against the Russians in their drive for Moscow is a testament to this. However, Stahel does do a noteworthy job of shining a light upon the achilles heal of their war effort: the strategic planning and execution of operations. This book is unique in that it is not about the success that the Germans experienced during October of 1941 but, more accurately, about why they could not have won despite their successes. It is clear from the text, backed up by solid research, that the Germans were not defeated by the Russians but by themselves and their inability to recognize what was within the realm of the possible. That they could defeat the Russian military was not in doubt; that they could stay ahead of a collapsing logistics system, overheated German public opinion, the worsening weather, and above all, their own inability to acknowledge the realities of their situation definitely was.
Cambridge has published a wonderful book, of the highest quality, and a very welcome addition to any historians library. An extremely extensive bibliography rounds out a work of exemplary worth. Logistics receives the most talk and the least attention in any operation yet it is as much the key to victory or defeat as the finest combat unit and, as Stahel has so eloquently proven, is ignored at one's absolute peril.