Monday, 28 September 2015

Chief of Staff: The Principle Officers Behind History's Great Commanders Vol 1 - Edited by Maj Gen David T Zabecki

Title: Chief of Staff: The Principle Officers Behind History's Great Commanders Vol 1

Author: Edited by Maj Gen David T Zabecki
ISBN: 978-1-59114-990-3
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Year: 2008
Pages: 241
Photos: 14 

The role of the Chief of Staff within a military hierarchy is perhaps one of the most complex and nuanced of positions. Many references are made to it during staff courses and historical analysis but it is, in many respects, one of the least understood or properly utilized of positions; especially in the modern context as the Commander has a myriad of methods with which to both gather and disseminate the most minute of detail. Nevertheless, the role of the Chief of Staff was and remains critical to the effective planning and execution of operations. In this book, Zabecki and the contributors outline and analyze the chief of staff systems of four major powers (France, the UK, Prussia and Russia) and the effectiveness, via individual write-ups, of some of the more note-worthy soldiers employed in these billets during wartime from the Napoleonic Wars until the end of WW1. 

It is suggested in the narrative that this responsibility represents perhaps one of the most difficult positions that a staff officer may be placed in, as their success or failure will have profound implications for the operation within which they are involved; this is very true. It is also true, and borne out by the examples, that the relationship between the Commander and his COS is the basis of that effectiveness and that this relationship often times transcends a formal "orders driven" structure. Indeed the ideal COS is a multi-faceted creature for the Commander: psychologist, interpreter, priest, friend and motivator. They also hold the distinction, especially within the Prussian model, of having the absolute trust of the Commander and the ability to exercise command on his behalf without seeking approval first (in German this is called 'Vollmacht' and was usually granted in crisis situations). 

Zabecki provides a synopsis of the different staff systems followed by the major powers leading up to WW1. Each was unique in terms of structure and the expectations levied against the COS's. The most formal and professional was without doubt the Prussian/German model; however, as the author makes clear, it was also the most difficult to emulate entailing as it did a philosophy of command not inherent in the other nations. The authors explanations are clear and concise and provide an excellent lead-in to the individual evaluations. 

The chapters on the individual COS's are more a of a mixed bag. As each is written by a different individual the emphasis and approach is somewhat different. This is, in my opinion, a strength as the analysis is fresh and unique; however, there were a couple that placed too much attention on the individuals career rather than his role as a Chief of Staff. Nevertheless, they are, for the most part, extremely interesting and enlightening. Not all of the subjects were exceptional COS's, indeed some were quite mediocre; however, all served at critical points, were reflective of the national environment within which they developed and each is a lesson for future Chief's of Staff. 

A critical book that discusses in an accessible and engaging manner the key role that COS's play in the effectiveness of senior commanders. These are lessons that modern militaries ignore at their peril. The advent of technology has not diminished the importance of the COS, in fact, it is more important than ever as armies become larger and more technical in nature. Included is a comprehensive bibliography and endnote section. I highly recommend this book.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

God's Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad - Charles Allen

Title: God's Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad
Author: Charles Allen
ISBN: 978-0-349-11879-6
Publisher: Abacus
Pages: 349
Photos/Maps: 30/5

Wahhabism has been in existence for centuries and has been the source of radical destabilization within regions of the British Raj, India, the Ottoman Empire, the Nejd and, in more modern times, the Western world. It also maintains very deep and traditional ties with and enjoys ongoing patronage and support from one of the most longstanding allies of the West in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. It represents perhaps the most extreme form of Islam in history and has been traditionally disavowed by moderate and mainstream Islamic schools. It has also been the subject of repeated efforts to destroy it through military action and, while it may have been diminished, it has never been eliminated.

Given that it is the foundation of the groups that represent the perceived greatest threat to the West and its tenants (Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Hindustani Fanatics etc), relatively little is known and even less understood about the motivations and religious underpinnings that drive these followers to act as they do. Allen has undertaken to not only trace the history and development of Wahhabism but to also provide the context within which the doctrine of this group has been nurtured. This is critical to the understanding of what drives the Wahhabist and the author has done a superlative job at boiling down a very complex issue into a manageable and comprehensible narrative. Most importantly, he has done this without diminishing the message or 'dumbing down' the content.

It is interesting to see how the cult of the personality figures so prominently within Wahhabism. Centred upon religious Madrassahs or schools, the students are indoctrinated from a young age, with limited external exposure and often from economically challenged backgrounds. They are vulnerable to the influences and charisma of their teachers who operate free from external oversight. Like cults anywhere, they prey upon the weak and impressionable. However, it must be stated that the roots of wahhabist discontent stem from a complex cocktail of disillusionment with the status quo, fear of change to the tenants of Islam and a perceived inability to influence from within the traditional structure.

Wahhabists are not interested in debate or discussion. Allen's book paints a very clear picture of a group operating under the notion that, regardless of the source of the challenge, the initiator is wrong and they are correct. He does not suggest ways to address or undermine the influence of wahhabism, merely outlining the how's and why's relating to the creation and flourishing of it.
A fascinating read and a superb synopsis of the history of this religious organization. It is not going away nor will it be stamped out through military action alone. It is not a movement that relies upon centralized direction, nor will it be short of recruits while misguided teachers prey upon the uneducated and destitute. I strongly recommend this book; it is fair, balanced and, above all, educational.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Other First World War: The Blood-Soaked Russian Fronts 1914-1922 - Douglas Boyd

This review has been submitted to Military History Monthly for publication.

Title: The Other First World War: The Blood-Soaked Russian Fronts 1914-1922
Author: Douglas Boyd
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9358-9
Publisher: Trafalgar Press
Pages: 256
Photos/Maps: 38/13 

From an international perspective, other than the actual collapse of the Russian Czar, very little is known or understood about the conflict in the East during the Great War years (1914-1918) and the follow-on Russian civil war period (1918-1922). Yet, the impact of those years on the future of both the world and European civilization in particular cannot be understated. Boyd has endeavoured to relate a synopsis of the actual events and the impact of them on the broader international canvas. 

Boyd's rendition of the Brusilov Campaign and the Battle of Tannenberg are highlights of this book and he certainly does a reasonable job of the flow of events in between. He makes some very interesting observations however, that I would have liked to see some additional references made for further study. These include the role that Romanian forces played in the operations on the Eastern Front as well as the operational challenges of the various “Colour” factions and how they came to be. Unfortunately, he also makes regular comments within his narrative without the benefit of endnotes which I feel would have merited reference in order to confirm source. 

He does not provide a comprehensive bibliography but references endnotes at the close of each chapter. I also found that the maps used were of limited value due to the quality of both diagrams and the choice of style of map; certainly, a series of comprehensive 'overview' maps would have been very beneficial in following the myriad of changes and fronts throughout this period. 

In my opinion Boyd has undertaken a very distracting style of writing as he tends to flow off on tangents that would appear to have little to nothing to do with the narrative. A key example of involves a discussion of his (the authors) time in a Stasi prison in 1959 interjected into the middle of his discussion on the Kerensky offensive in 1917. While the intention was good, I found it to be a very frustrating habit.
The quality of the publication and the photographs are high and Boyd provides a reasonable overview or start point for those wishing to garner a very high level appreciation of the complexity of the Russian war, revolution and civil war. However, I would suggest that the portion accepted was larger than the diner could effectively consume and that significant aspects of the book will leave the reader more confused than enlightened. Perhaps this in itself best conveys the degree of confusion experienced by all of the players involved in the tragic opera that was the Russian Front 1914-1922.

Monday, 14 September 2015

To Rule the Winds: The Evolution of the British Fighter Force Vol 1 - Prelude to War - The Years to 1914 - Michael C Fox

This review has been submitted to Airforce Magazine

Title: To Rule the Winds: The Evolution of the British Fighter Force Vol 1 - Prelude to War - The Years to 1914
Author: Michael C Fox
Publisher: Helion
ISBN: 978-1-909384-14-9
Pages: 314
Photos: 87
Tables: 14 

The early years of military aviation in Britain is not one of dynamic leadership or decision. Indeed, the British Government was well behind their counterparts on the mainland regarding recognition of military aviation capability/potential, assistance to the fledgling civilian industry and civil/military cooperation in the field of aviation. The author has endeavoured to trace the development of the British Fighter Force and the challenges that it faced both technologically and politically as it transformed from nascent straggler into a world leader of aviation technology. His first volume focusses on the period leading up to the First World War when aviation was at its birth. Indeed, even the concept of lighter than air 'craft' was being identified with two distinct tracks being followed: the airship and the airplane. 

What is fascinating about this period (and expressed very well by the author) is the struggle amongst government, civilian and military leaders as to what was required in terms of capability, who would control it, what developmental track should be followed (airship or airplane), how much money should be invested and should development be exclusively within the military or should civilian industry be both engaged and nurtured. These questions as much as the development of the capability itself dominated the discussion of this new element. Fox traces the challenges and arguments amongst the key players and emphasizes the recognition of the necessity for not only risk acceptance but also vision amongst the pioneers. It is difficult to appreciate from a modern perspective the degree of risk assumed should the leaders/developpers guess wrong as to where to put limited money and resources. 

Intertwined in the development of the physical aircraft itself was the challenge of doctrine or what the aircraft was anticipated to do. Fox discusses at length the debates regarding what the military saw as the potential use of aircraft in an operational setting. Focus centred upon reconnaissance which served as a logical and obvious start point but which quickly led to a variety of follow-on challenges; such as kinds of armaments that would be needed to ensure that the aircraft could undertake its mission unmolested. Communication with the ground was also understood to be a critical capability if reconnaissance was to be seen as worthwhile. Information had to be passed quickly or it rapidly became of limited value. How that was to be achieved became another line of discussion. Additionally, the nature of the aircraft design in terms of stability was of ongoing debate. An effective combat aircraft required significant instability to promote maneuverability yet that required skilled pilots and did not promote a good reconnaissance platform. Fox's evaluation of these issues is both insightful and clear.
The author has provided an in depth and comprehensive bibliography utilizing both primary and secondary sources. His use of tables also provides for quick and clear information for the reader. Fox has put together an excellent book, well researched and comprehensible. The machinations and struggles of the designers, government and customers of the fledgling military aviation arm is both noteworthy and broad ranging. Fox has shed light upon a little known or appreciated aspect of military development. In a period when extensive criticism has been leveled at the leadership for myopia and short-sightedness, Fox has provided a logical and well written analysis of the successes and failures of the British leadership and designers as they grappled with an absolutely untested technology and the consummate risk of getting the answers wrong.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Wavell in the Middle East, 1939-1941: A Study in Generalship - Harold E. Raugh, Jr

This review was published in Army History magazine.

Title: Wavell in the Middle East, 1939-1941: A Study in Generalship

Author: Harold E. Raugh, Jr.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4305-7
Pages: 323
Photos//Maps: 29 b/w//12
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press 

 This book, a reprint of the original hardcover edition printed in the UK in 1993, is a detailed analysis of the effectiveness of the command of Field-Marshal Archie Wavell during his time as Commander in Chief of the Middle East, 1939-1941. This period saw an intensity and breadth of operations unique to the Second World War in that Wavell was tasked not only with the planning and execution of regional military operations (at one time overseeing seven concurrent operations/campaigns geographically vast distances apart) but additionally with a lead role in the political forum as a key representative of His Majesty's Government in the region. Each of these hats would have been daunting in and of themselves; taken together they were a burden that would severely strain any commander. Added to this has to be the pressure exerted almost daily by Churchill in his desire to provide 'helpful' motivation, the difficult (almost impossible) relationship that existed between them from a personality perspective, the expectations and desperation of the British people and Empire wracked by the continuous successes of the German military, the need to placate the various governments of the Imperial forces that he employed and the operational challenge of facing one of Germany's greatest field commanders, Field Marshal Rommel. 

I particularly enjoyed Raugh's approach to his subject. Despite the fact that he must incorporate descriptions of campaigns in Syria, Greece, Crete, Iraq, East Africa and North Africa he avoids the greatest pitfall potentiality associated with a work of this nature by ensuring that he keeps his narrative firmly focussed upon Wavell as a man and Commander and does not stray into a study of his campaigns (except as a means of highlighting Wavell's strengths and weaknesses in command role). Given the intensity and scope of the period this is no easy feat. 

The author undertakes a structured approach to his subject, building, through detailed examination of his developmental years, a comprehensive image of the personality and character of Wavell. In an evaluation of this nature, I believe this to be indispensable as it builds for the reader a deep appreciation of how the man came to be and why he ultimately responded the way that he did in later years. Additionally, it creates an understanding of the environment within which Wavell the commander developed and the reputation that he had with his peers and colleagues (and of course, his opinion of them).   

An evaluation of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses as a commander requires that there be a criteria established against which the author may measure his subject. In this case Raugh has utilized the scale developed by Norman Dixon in his work "On Psychology of Military Incompetence".  Measured against these criteria Wavell is evaluated as being, not without flaws, but easily a superb commander. Of specific note was his ability to recognize and incorporate new and cutting edge technologies into his planning such as aircraft for reconnaissance and transport and the creation of special forces such as the Long Range Desert Patrol (which acted as a massive force multiplier for the Allies during a time of significant resource constraint). During the interwar period, Wavell recognized the potential of armoured warfare as well as the critical importance of effective logistics and administration in the successful outcome of large scale operations. Additionally, he was a prolific writer and reader and was not averse to adopting the suggestions of subordinates (in some cases many grades below him) thereby building in them a deep self-confidence and a fierce loyalty.  

Finally, as Raugh points out, his central concern above all else, was the well-being of his soldiers. Consistently throughout the narrative, Raugh presents firsthand accounts from privates to Generals, recounting tales of their deep and abiding respect and trust in Wavell as both a Commander and tactician. This manifested itself in his soldiers never losing faith in him despite the repeated setbacks in Greece, Crete and later, North Africa. This extended to his never undermining his political masters (despite the reciprocation of this on their part), nor seeking glory or political favour for himself. Raugh makes great use of primary source material in order to build this picture of Wavell, the man and commander (both being indispensable facets of the whole). 

There are two areas of concern that I would raise with this work, none of which however, are sufficient to significantly undermine the overall superb quality of this evaluation but are worthy of note. The first relates to the quality of the publication itself; while the overall book is well presented, I always take umbrage when the photographs are printed on the cheap such that they look like poor newspaper reproductions. Secondly, while Raugh has shown himself to be a sterling historian, he includes in his narrative the standard blanket observations about senior leadership in the First World War as being out of touch with the realities of Western Front conditions and afraid to venture forward. This is as tiresome as it is false but, in fairness, he is not alone in reinforcing this paradigm.  

Wavell was a commander of the highest order in terms of capability, insight, morality and humility. This stands in stark contrast to some of the better known Allied commanders of the war such as Patton, Montgomery or DeGaulle. While there is no doubting their dedication or capability, theirs was a leadership and success of plenty. It is perhaps a greater legacy to say that Wavell's success at holding the line was all the more significant as it came during the period of the war when the Allies were on their heels and desperate for good news. His was a leadership that truly tested the mettle of a commander: leadership under extreme adversity.  

Raugh's study is balanced, fair and extremely readable. This book holds many key lessons for the leader of the future and it is a testament to the quality of Raugh's work that the successes and failures of Wavell are presented in such a way as to be still as relevant today as they were seventy years ago. Wavell, on whom history has not maintained the light that he merits, deserves no less (although, it must be stated, he would not complain). Very highly recommended for all elements and leadership levels.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

The Combat History of the 21st Panzer Division - Werner Kortenhaus

Title: The Combat History of the 21st Panzer Division
Author: Werner Kortenhaus
ISBN: 978-1-907677-71-7
Publisher: Helion
Pages: 494
Maps: 21 in separate map book (included)
Photos: 70

The invasion of Normandy has been written about and analyzed in a plethora of books and articles and, at first blush, Kortenhaus's book would appear to be another addition to this list; and yet it stands unique for a number of reasons.The 21st Panzer was the only fully operational panzer division to find itself within immediate striking distance of the beaches on the 6 JUne, 1944. Thus it was the cornerstone of the German response capability during the critical first hours of the Allied landing. This operational history draws its information predominantly from German sources - the primary being the battle diaries of the division itself - thus it not only provides a German perspective on the battle but also incorporates the broader scope of command and control, operational and tactical training, equipment and environmental issues and concerns.

The first portion of the book focuses upon the larger command and control challenges facing not only the division but the Western theatre; specifically surrounding issues of who and at what level would control the western Panzer divisions. This was central to response and planning; however, significant differing opinions within the German high command as to how best to respond to an invasion further hampered effective response planning. This portion serves as an excellent lesson for senior commanders and is analyzed by Kortenhaus with a critical eye towards the impact of the human factors in operational planning.

Another fascinating aspect of this division was the initiative and engineering expertise of Hauptmann (Captain) Becker. Upon reactivation (the original 21st Panzer was destroyed in May 1943 in Africa), the German command in Berlin directed that it be outfitted using captured equipment from the French campaign. While there were thousands of vehicles in compounds captured during the 1940 campaign, they had not been maintained and were, in many cases left to degenerate. Capt Becker, on his own initiative, combined french tank chassis and 10.5 cm guns to create a new mobile antitank weapons system that proved itself to be extremely effective. The concept of 'necessity being the mother of invention' is starkly evident. It is a testament to the German command style that he was given the resources and support to create what was in fact an entirely new weapons system in such a short time.

The author has drawn upon the Division's war diaries to trace the ongoing combat experiences of the unit throughout the next year as it fought progressively more desperate actions while retreating back into Germany before meeting its final demise on the Oderfront at Halbe.  The last remnants made their way into Russian captivity on 8 May, 1945. This translation from the original German serves as an excellent insight into German tactics and perspectives as the war progressed at the unit level. Challenges with resupply, command and experience become more central as greater pressure was brought to bear. How they address these and retain their combat effectiveness is enlightening for the modern Commander.

Regardless of the content, the value of the book would remain limited if the dialogue and presentation was ponderous and dry. The author has drafted an eminently accessible book replete with anecdotal example that presents a more robust and full narrative. I found the  discussion of Operations Goodwood and Totalize to be particularly enlightening due to the fact that they emphasized the viewpoint of the Axis and their operational/tactical doctrine.

Helion has provided a separate map book with this publication which is outstanding, clearly laying out the progress of the Division. Additionally, the production value is extremely high with an easily readable text.  

The history of the later years of the 21st Panzer is a microcosm of the German war effort in the later parts of the war: noteworthy initiative and morale despite overwhelming odds, strong operational leadership with more convoluted and challenging strategic direction, impressive tactical acumen, diminishing logistic and reinforcement support and high motivation right until the end.

The author, with this translation, has provided a wide audience with an outstanding operational counterpoint to the narratives of the Allied sources of this period. An articulate and engaging read, I strongly recommend this book.