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.