Thursday, 31 December 2015

Mussonlini’s Death March: Eyewitness Accounts of Italian Soldiers on the Eastern Front - Nuto Revelli

This review was submitted to Army History Magazine.

Title: Mussonlini’s Death March: Eyewitness Accounts of Italian Soldiers on the Eastern Front
Author: Nuto Revelli
ISBN: 978-0-7006-1908-5
Pages: 540
Illustrations: 2 maps
Publisher: University of Kansas Press

                When one considers the war on the Eastern Front, it is very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the war was exclusively between the Germans and Soviets (with a smattering of other nations). This is far from the truth; other nations provided significant forces operating under their own command and control, to the struggles in the East. The Italians provided an expeditionary army known as ARMIR (Italian Army in Russia and later the Italian 8th Army) consisting of a total of approximately 230,000 men. A vast majority of them (150,000) operated along the Don River and were thus overwhelmed by the Russian Operation Uranus (the code name for the overall operation in Stalingrad) in Dec 1942; of this total the Italians suffered 85,000 dead or missing and 27,000 wounded or frostbitten. An additional tragedy for the Italian servicemen was that, following the end of the war 10,000 prisoners were returned in either 1945 or 1946 by the Soviets (even though Italy had surrendered in 1943).

                Following the cessation of hostilities, Italy succumbed to a significant amount of internal upheaval as it struggled to emerge from the shadow of fascism and the extensive amount of destruction wrought by the war. Central to this were the struggles between the supporters of communism and capitalism. Veterans were therefore treated with varying degrees of disdain depending upon who they were dealing with in government.

Nuto Revelli was a veteran of the Eastern front; a veteran who escaped capture by the Russians and became a partisan following Italy’s surrender. A resident of the Cuneo region of Northwestern Italy, he was a member of the elite Alpini; divisions trained for conflict in the rugged mountains of Italy’s northern border. He became a professional historian after the war and decided that the story of Italy’s efforts, as related by the soldiers that fought, was lacking. He therefore interviewed 43 veterans of his region, all having experienced combat on the Eastern front and transcribed their stories verbatim. Originally collected and printed in Italian in 1966, the text has been translated by John Penuel for a reissue in English for the first time.

                There are a number of lessons which may be gleaned from the writings provided and it must be emphasized that the texts are all from the perspective of, for the most part, private and junior NCO soldiers (there are two officers, a lieutenant and a captain also included). They therefore did not have access to high level planning, strategy or visibility. Thus their views are quite narrow in keeping with what they were exposed to; but very telling in what they recall and what was of significance to them:

1.       Logistics at most levels of engagement were disastrous. Soldiers did not receive proper food or clothing to the point where, even within the Italian peninsula, there were still multiple cases of having to ‘live off of the land’. Uniforms and footwear were inadequate for conditions and were of poor quality. Mail delivery was inadequate and unreliable. The entire logistics system of the Italian military appears (from the perspective of the soldiers involved) to have been extremely tenuous and quickly failed under the pressure of the Russian campaign.

2.       Utilization of the forces in question was inappropriate. The divisions of the Alpini were trained and equipped to operate in mountainous conditions, not as general infantry. Thus their equipment (ie mountain artillery), training and expertise was not only misapplied but inadequate to deal with the equipment and numbers of the Soviet forces facing them.

3.       Leadership was found wanting within the Italian military as was training. As a general rule, officers did not mix with the soldiers and information regarding locations, destinations and conditions were withheld from the troops. Thus they lacked not only situational awareness but trust in their chains of command.  

4.       There was significant animosity and mistrust between the Germans and the Italians even during the period that they were allies. This perception of being the weaker of the allies and the condescension with which the Germans treated them did not promote harmony or develop common goals and visions. The Italian perception as they deployed for Russia was that Germany will have taken care of a vast majority of the fighting.

5.       Transport was very poor for the Italians. The Germans had requested “truck transported” units. The Italians provided “truck transportable” units meaning that they were trained to move by vehicle but had no integral transport equipment. This resulted in long marches, frostbite and soldiers that were both exhausted and suffering from terrible morale.

6.       Post war Italy was more interested in moving forward then caring for their injured, repatriating soldiers. The soldiers were eligible for multiple war pensions but the process and timeline set up by the government to have them actioned was so convoluted and inefficient that many were still not receiving money ten years following their return.

This is not an easy book to read. Notwithstanding the impact of the raw testimony from the survivors that, in itself, strains one’s ability to comprehend, the reader certainly feels the extent of the resignation to their individual fates. They have lost the passions of youth and have been crushed by fate and circumstance.

This book is also very difficult to read because of the style of the presentation. Because the testimony of the veterans is presented verbatim with very little editing, it is at times hard to follow and understand. This style is a two edged sword as it presents with deep legitimacy but also, lacking in context, it can be somewhat confusing.

Overall, this is a very moving work to the sacrifices of the Italian soldier on the Eastern front. It does not look at strategy or operational success and failure; it serves merely as a medium by which the soldier can tell his story. It provides very interesting insight into the experiences of these men in captivity and their reception upon repatriation and, additionally, what they anticipated going into Russia. The production value of the book is high and the translation from Italian very good. It is a work that should be read in conjunction with an operational history of the Italian Expeditionary Army in order to assist with context. 

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

This review was submitted to Military History Monthly Magazine.

Title: Behind the Lines: A Critical Survey of Special Operations in World War II
Author: Michael F. Dilley
ISBN: 978-1-61200-183-8
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 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 mass 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.

Barbarossa Unleashed - Craig W H Luther

This review has been submitted to the Journal of the RCAF

Title: Barbarossa Unleashed
Author: Craig W H Luther
ISBN: 978-0-7643-4376-6
Publisher: Schiffer
Year: 2013
Pages: 712
Photographs/maps: 185/23 handout

The number of books written about the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941 is legion. Thus it is that in order to stand out, a book must have some aspect of it that makes it unique  from the others; Luther's book has two. The first focuses upon the build-up to Barbarossa; not just the political and operational planning - that has been well covered - but the logistical detail and execution. Secondly, he limits (and I use the term loosely given the detail of the book) his narrative to the operations of Army Group Centre and its drive on Moscow. This narrowing of the scope of Luther's book highlights for the reader the immense challenges associated with Barbarossa and, most importantly from a learning perspective, what was done well by both the Soviet's and Germans and what was not.

Logistics is not an exciting field of military operations and planning and many of the histories of Barbarossa, while acknowledging it, pay only a cursory nod to the critical role that it played as well as the amount of work it took to execute as well as plan effectively. Luther does not do this; dedicating a full quarter of his work to the German planning, pre-deployment and deployment phases of the operation. The sheer numbers and complexity of the buildup and movement of the forces involved (for Army Group Centre alone) is staggering: well over 127,000 tons of ammunition, 52,000 tons of fuel, 45,800 tons of rations (these values equated to 20 days of supply only), millions of men and horses, vehicles and equipment from across Europe, in secret, to staging areas along the Soviet/German border. The movement tables for the railway system show hundreds of trains flowing the resources east; a five phased operation over a period February to June and entailing over 220 trains per day at its peak. Luther has done an excellent job highlighting this phenomenal success and providing an appreciation of the scope, distance and complexity of this undertaking.

He also goes beyond simply the reiteration of fact and provides the reader with an analysis of why the Germans arrived at the planning assumptions that they did and how that ultimately affected the outcome of the operation. He draws clear and concise lines of evaluation between a decision at the planning stage and its trickle down effect through the operational and tactical levels of execution. He also emphasizes the flexibility of the German support system with his discussion of the last minute decision to move 8 Air Corps across the lines of deployment. This decision to change the operational area of this massive organization (over 8000 vehicles alone) had the potential to derail the entire eastern deployment; that it did not was testament to the capability of the German logistics system.

Luther has drawn upon an extensive series of sources from both the Soviet and German archives as well as a massive amount of secondary sources. Each chapter is provided with its own end-notes thereby facilitating quick and timely review by the reader. As he transitions from the build-up to the execution phase of the campaign it is interesting that he maintains the balance between the frontline operations, the growing logistical challenges and the impact of the continued dysfunction between the strategic priorities of Hitler and those of OKW. His writing style seamlessly flows between these aspects and he brings a critical eye to his  evaluation of the impacts of these challenges.

His focus is upon the German onslaught to the gates of Moscow but he does incorporate into his study an analysis of the strengths and weakness of the Soviet military and its operational capacities. In doing so he provides a clear control line for the reader in terms of an evaluation of the capabilities of the adversaries.

The book itself is a very healthy tome. Included with it are a series of operational maps (in German) of the various periods leading up to the December battles outside of Moscow. The production value of the book is high and the text easily readable.

Luther has written a comprehensive and deeply analytical study of the lead up, launch and task execution of Army Group Centre in the monumental Barbarossa operation. This could be a very dry and dusty recitation of statistics and movements; however, he avoids this through a dynamic and engaging style that incorporates both an operational canvas and personal facets for the soldiers involved. His review of the logistics challenges married with the flawed intelligence and planning assumptions and evaluations go far in explaining how and why the Germans reached the zenith of their offensive capability literally at the gates of Moscow. Highly recommended as a an addition to any library on the Second World War. 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Wars, Pestilence and the Surgeon's Blade - Thomas Scotland and Steven Heys

Chris Buckham (2015) "Wars Pestilence and the Surgeon's Blade (Book Review)" Canadian Military History: Vol 24 Iss 2.

Title: Wars, Pestilence and the Surgeon's Blade

Authors: Thomas Scotland and Steven Heys
ISBN: 978-1-909384-09-5
Publisher: Helion and Company Ltd
Pages: 407
Photos: 78

There are two things guaranteed when it comes to warfare: death and injury. The authors, following on their extremely informative first book "War Surgery 1914-1918", have undertaken to shed light upon the development of surgical and medical practices throughout the 19th Century; focussing particularly upon three capstone events: the Peninsular war of 1808 -1814, the Crimean War 1853 -1856 and the Boer War of 1899 -1902. Each is studied in detail with a view towards determining where things had improved, stayed the same or regressed. Concurrent to this they highlight the activities of individuals who made significant contributions in a variety of areas that moved both knowledge and yardsticks relating to medicine and the administration thereof.

Scotland and Heys's evaluation falls into five distinct categories: medical surgery, administration and bureaucracy, logistics, lessons learned and statistical analysis. Each played a significant part in the expansion of knowledge and competency. The approach taken by the authors is to integrate the five together within the narrative in order to facilitate a multi-dimensional picture for the reader of the advancement (and regression) of medical support to the military.

It is both fascinating and disturbing to read about the lack of appreciation by British military (and civilian) leaders of the importance that a sound medical support system had for the successful execution of campaigns. It was only with the Peninsular campaign and the appointment of Dr James McGrigor as Wellington's Chief Medical Officer that the first steps in the formalization of medical care were taken. It was McGrigor who introduced the maintenance of patient records, standardized hospital care and recovery of wounded from the battlefield. He also established basic standards of training and education for those wishing to become military medical officers. Through his efforts, the first steps in the universality of care and the professionalization of the medical branch were taken.

McGrigor and his colleagues are also remembered as the individuals who initiated not only the maintenance of statistics relating to illness, injury and a myriad of other information tracking for the British army but also, and just as critical, the interpretation of those statistics as a means of recognizing efficiencies and deficiencies of care. It is estimated that his ability to track and advise Wellington on the health of his army provided him an additional divisions worth of soldiers at a critical time during the war.

Crimea, which occurred almost fifty years after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, was, from a medical perspective, a story of forgotten lessons and needless suffering and loss. A failure of effective reconnaissance, not enough time and effort put into preparation, a continued lack of appreciation of the importance of medical administration and provision and a complex and inefficient command structure all contributed to terrible losses resulting from illness and treatment deficiencies. 

The Boer war continued to be characterized by the shortcomings of the previous conflicts, despite noteworthy advancements in medical intervention techniques, knowledge of hygiene, administrative practices and doctrinal maturity. Death and personnel shortfalls due to illness continued to outnumber those caused by combat by a significant margin; again much of it preventable. For example, despite the fact that a vaccine for typhoid existed and was known to the army, it was decided not to inoculate the soldiers before departure. The net result was that during the Second Boer war 7,782 died of wounds while 13,139 died of disease.
The authors also look at smaller wars throughout the 1800's and the impact of operational geography upon death and illness rates (providing copious statistics for deaths per thousand in different regions as examples). They provide outstanding analysis of the complex intersection of scientific advances (such as the discovery of germs, anaesthetic and disinfectant), surgical, statistical and support techniques (of such pioneers as Keough, McGrigor, Ogston, NIghtingale and Guthrie) plus the military and political paradigm changes necessary to enact the changes required to see improvements in support to soldiers well being and health.

The British Army of the 19th century was old and steeped in its own traditions and foibles that set it apart from the civilian community it served. These traditions serves as strengths building regimental loyalties and comradeship; however, the also acted as impediments to change and a bulwark against what many perceived as interference from their political (read civilian) masters. Those promoting change within the medical services had to overcome the bias afforded to 'outsiders' in addition to learning and applying the lessons of hygiene, surgery and long term care. Each of these trials would have been formidable in and of themselves; together, as Scotland and Heys point out, they were decades in overcoming.

One of the real strengths of this book lies in the attention that it draws to the plight of the soldier in undertaking his trade. The average reader can pick up any one of thousands of books written that outline tactics, weapons capabilities, weapons production or any one of the many facets of warfare, but very few discuss the grim details of the human toll of fighting; and they are indeed grim. The present day soldier owes an immeasurable debt to those poor souls who served as the means for learning the art of healing and supporting the recovery of those wounded in combat or ill as a result of geographic location. We owe an equal debt to those doctors and practitioners who through their efforts and study advanced the medical trade in a military context.

The production value of this book is superb. The authors have incorporated a commendable series of endnotes for each chapter for further study but no overall bibliography. They have also provided for each of the focus wars, a brief synopsis of the what transpired. It is not particularly detailed but enough that it provides context without detracting from the focus of the book. I believe that it would have been very beneficial had they provided an organization chart of the command structure of the British military medical services for the periods covered as it was, as previously noted, rather convoluted and difficult to follow. The book is noteworthy however, for how readable and accessible the authors have made this subject to the reading audience.  Scotland and Heys are outstanding medical historians and are to be commended for their work in this book.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Green Leader Operation Gatling - Ian Pringle

This review submitted to the British Army Review.

Title: Green Leader Operation Gatling
Author: Ian Pringle
ISBN: 978-1-909982-93-2
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2015
Pages: 242
Photographs/maps: 37 b/w//31 colour/7

Operation Gatling was the operation name for the Rhodesian government’s response to the shooting down in September, 1978 of an unarmed civilian Rhodesian Air Viscount by a Strela heat-seeking missile fired by a team of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) fighters within Rhodesian airspace. They had infiltrated from bases within Zambia and, following the crash in which 18 passengers and crew survived from the 52 on board, an insurgent ZAPU group came across the crash site and proceeded to machine gun 10 of the survivors (the remaining 8 survived by hiding in the bush). This one act had profound repercussions for not only the Rhodesian people but also the fortunes of ZAPU and Nkomo.

Pringle's book is divided into two distinct parts, the first outlines the circumstances of the Viscount shoot down, the international environment within which Rhodesia found itself and a synopsis of the historical relations between Rhodesia and the world community. The second focusses on the conception, planning and audacious execution of the Rhodesian military’s combined arms operation against Nkomo and ZAPU within the sovereign territory of Zambia (including the internationally famous Green Leader transmission to Lusaka tower).

Notwithstanding the tragic rendition of the plight of the survivors, the main takeaway in the first section of the book was the lukewarm reaction of the international community to the attack on Rhodesian civilians. The fact the Nkomo was welcomed into England and overtly admitted his organizations complicity during an interview with the BBC with no ramifications is clear evidence of the attitude of the period and the environment within which Rhodesian operational decisions were reached.

There are a number of lessons that arise from the second portion narrative and the (overall) success of this mission. First among these is the critical necessity of joint operations. Rhodesia had developed an extremely effective doctrine called Fireforce which facilitated seamless inter-arm cooperation between air, ground and logistics forces. This jointness, arrived at well before many of its international contemporaries, resulted from both its unique operating environment as well as economic and political isolation. 

Secondly, the complexity of the operation from a planning and execution perspective and the extremely narrow margins for error was testament to the degree of expertise that Rhodesian forces had achieved. This speaks to the high level of training and inter service confidence that the various arms developed and maintained. Further evidence of this professionalism was the lack of micro-management from senior staff and government officials. This was critical to mission success as it pushed decision making authorization to the onsite commander thereby ensuring both timeliness and efficiency of command and control (C2). The uncontrovertible requirement for training and maintenance of skill sets prior to need is evident in these pages; like insurance, it is too late to garner it after the need arises.   

Pringle has once again drafted a book that clearly lays out the operational environment (social, international and economic) succinctly and accurately. His assessment of the skills of the Rhodesian military, its weapons innovation (alpha and golf bombs), doctrinal innovation (Fireforce) and command climate reinforces the adaptability of the Rhodesians and clearly identifies it as a standard to be emulated. Pringle's writing style is engaging and fluid and Helion, has published a very high quality book. Rhodesian operations have much to pass on to the modern asymmetric operator for planning, audacity and daring and I strongly recommend this book for both the military and civilian components of any modern military.