Monday, 19 June 2017

The Grand Scuttle - Dan van der Vat

Title: The Grand Scuttle
Author: Dan van der Vat
ISBN: 978-1-873-37629-4
Publisher: Spellmount
Year: 1982
Pages: 240
Photos/ Maps: 9/1

Following the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, many assumed that the First World War was concluded; however, in reality, the war was only on hold pending German ratification of the final peace treaty. As a condition of the Armistice, the Allied powers demanded that the German High Seas Fleet be interned in either an Allied or neutral port. The legal challenges of maintaining such a huge concentration of ships in one location precluded most neutral powers from agreeing resulting in the fleet being ordered to Scapa Flow until the cessation of negotiations. Seventy-four capital ships, stripped of their armaments, made their way to the English port to await the results of the Paris negotiations, the crews knowing that they and their ships were at the centre of intense debate and dissention between not only Germany and the Allied countries, but also between the Allies themselves.

Adding to the complexity of this situation was the fact that, because the ships were only interned but not surrendered, the Allies were not allowed under international law to place troops on board. Thus the ships continued to be crewed by German officers and men who were not allowed ashore during the period of internment. Additionally, the German Navy was beset by internal unrest and the massive spread of communism amongst the crews resulting in widespread insubordination and the abuse of officers (especially on the larger ships). These were the conditions under which the German Admiral Reuter (the German internment Commander) and his officers had to manage the fleet and prevent the British from having an excuse to board and seize the ships.

Van der Vat’s book is a study of the international environment leading up to the internment, the conditions under which the German fleet was held and, most importantly, how Reuter used his superior leadership skills to not only re-establish a degree of control over the sailors but also to guide the fleet to an honourable and noteworthy end despite the best efforts of the British. Concurrent to his description of the environment, van der Vat undertakes a detailed evaluation of the complexity of Reuter as a Commander and his sense of honour and duty. Given the paucity of information available to him and the limitations on external contact imposed by the British, it was he alone that made the decisions surrounding the conduct and ultimate fate of the fleet. Very few commanders have been given a more daunting task under more stressful conditions than Reuter.

While this book is older it nevertheless contains some extremely valuable lessons and insights applicable to the commanders of today. Issues of morale, acceptance of risk, decision making, maintenance of aim, duty and honour are displayed in bas relief as being central to retaining a degree of effectiveness under conditions of extreme adversity. A fascinating and engaging read.   

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle 1803-1805 - Alan Schom

Title: Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle 1803-1805
Author: Alan Schom
ISBN: 9-780-7-18131-99-9
Publisher: Michael Joseph Publishing
Year: 1990
Pages: 421
Photos/Maps: 55/16

Trafalgar has achieved such a level of renown and legend that it still, 212 years after it occurred, resonates in the annals of British and Royal Navy history. Lord Nelson, the British Commander at the Battle, is still recognized as being one of the finest Naval Commanders in British history. Schom’s book acknowledges Trafalgar’s pride of place and the skill of Nelson and his crews in literally ‘securing’ the shores of England from invasion; however, his book goes much further than his and places the Battle within the larger context of the period and the events leading up to that fateful confrontation. This is critical in that it presents Trafalgar not as a standalone event, significant as it was, but as a logical conclusion (the Battle itself, not the outcome) of English and, more importantly, French policy from the period 1803 onwards.

The political battle of wills, both internally and externally, between the nations of England and France are traced with a clarity of understanding without being bogged down in excess detail. The importance of the ‘personality’ as opposed to solely the political acumen of the main players is made patently obvious. Schom’s explanation of the roles of Addington, Pitt, St Vincent, Cornwallis and a host of other secondary but nonetheless key English individuals, in the battle of wills with France, is fascinating as the reader begins to appreciate the pettiness, insight, vision and jealousies of the players and the expanse of the domestic, let alone international, wars that were raging at this time.

Conversely, the French are also analyzed with the same keen eye. The main difference in their case is the overwhelming role that Napoleon plays in the direction of the French Imperial (and by extension Spanish) policy towards England. What quickly becomes apparent in the French case, is the capacity for the entirety of the resources of the Empire to be focused towards the realization of the Emperor’s dream of crushing England. Schom also adroitly makes clear the challenges not readily apparent to a casual observer, that being the ability to build ships does not an effective Navy make. The loss of the cream of the French Naval Officers during the Revolution left France with a dearth of experienced and capable officers. This shortage, more than anything else, provided the French Navy with its Achilles Heel. That, and their arrogance and disdain for their Spanish allies.

Schom culminates his book with a detailed study of the Battle itself. It is clear that victory was never a sure thing for the English as the French and Spanish Captains and crews, for the most part fought, with a determination and ferocity never before witnessed by the British. For all of his shortcomings (and there were many) the Combined Fleet Admiral, Villeneuve, in the end led his fleet into battle. Indeed, the battle may have ended very differently were it not for the apparent cowardice of the French Rear-Admiral Dumanoir who commanded the lead division of 10 French and Spanish ships and who deliberately sailed past and away from the battle, despite being ordered to engage and within sight of French, Spanish and British ships in active combat, thereby reducing the Combined Fleet by almost a third.

Schom’s book is an excellent rendition and analysis of this period. It highlights the very real threat posed by Napoleon to England and the closeness with which she avoided invasion. The expanse of his narrative and the style with which he delivers his story is insightful, enlightening and captivating. His approach is very balanced and candidly reveals the strengths and flaws the main characters involved. This book is strongly recommended.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle - Juliet Barker

Title: Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle
Author: Juliet Barker
ISBN: 9-780-3-16726-48-1
Publisher: Little, Brown Publishing
Year: 2005
Pages: 460
Photos/Maps: 34/1

Agincourt, along with Crecy and Poitiers, is easily recognized and remembered as one of the greatest English victories over the French during the period now known as the 100 Years War. Against all odds, King Henry V and his ill, tired and heavily outnumbered army crushed the cream of the French nobility in a battle that forever established the myth and legend of the Longbowman. It was this weapon that proved to be the undoing of the French; however, there was more to the victory then simply a weapon and Barker has done a very commendable job at presenting the battle within the framework of the reign of King Henry and his campaign in France.

Her approach involved setting the broad stage and working her way towards the battle itself. This allows the reader to better appreciate the environment and conditions within which the campaign was launched and undertaken. It also helps explain the political context of the times and the rifts within the French leadership and nobility that served to undermine their ability to collectively respond to the English threat. She also underscores King Henry’s successful efforts to unify his Kingdom, thereby securing his base prior to departing for the mainland.

Barker’s detailed descriptions of Henry’s movements to France and his advance from Harfleur to Calais presents the reader with a superb analysis of the challenges of operations and the nature of siege warfare during this period. She also incorporates thorough accounts of the chivalric influence on the conduct of combatants (in terms of siege warfare, group and individual combat). These early Rules of Engagement are extremely enlightening in setting the context of medieval warfare and the influence of individual honour.

The author’s description of the battle itself is comprehensive in scope and meticulous in detail without losing its readability. Success or failure in any endeavor is a combination of luck, opportunity and skill and there is no doubt that, taken at face value, the Battle was France’s to lose. Unfortunately for the French, fragmented leadership, poor weather conditions, a lack of effective planning and hubris resulted in catastrophic failure when faced with the steady, focused leadership of Henry and his command team combined with a motivated army desperate to get to Calais. A lack of appreciation of the devastating effect of the bodkin arrow combined with the power of the longbow sealed the fate of the French Army. Barker incorporates detailed descriptions of the methods of construction of the longbows, various arrow types and the training and time needed to be considered an effective archer (10 aimed shots a minute was considered the minimum standard acceptable). In itself, these discussions are fascinating and speak to the nature of the logistics challenges of the period.

This book was an excellent read and is highly recommended. Barker’s style, research and breadth of narrative serve only to further underscore her achievement.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

War Without Garlands: Operation Barbarossa 1941-1942 - Robert Kershaw

This review has been submitted to WarHistoryOnline.

Title: War Without Garlands: Operation Barbarossa 1941-1942
Author: Robert Kershaw
ISBN: 978-0-7110-3324-5
Year: 2010
Pages: 626
Pic: 31

Much has been written about Operation Barbarossa such that it is hard to see where new or unique information may be presented. Robert Kershaw has not presented any new material, the details of the attack and its challenges are well known to any historian or student of military history. What he has presented, in a comprehensive and illustrative manner, puts more of a human face on the titanic struggle from the perspective of both the Soviet and German soldiers and civilians.

It is hard to imagine in today's age, the massive expanse of the conflict between these two empires; more significantly to the incredible resource and manpower bill, being the psychological assumptions and paradigms underpinning the war. Kershaw has drawn extensively upon personal accounts, recollections, diaries and journals to develop a picture of the thoughts, concerns, fears and confidences of the participants, He has woven this thread throughout his presentation and analysis of the campaign itself. This provides for the reader a much deeper and expansive appreciation of the human dimension of the war.

This is the true strength of this book and what helps it stand out from the myriad of authors and texts relating to the Eastern Front. However, the reader must appreciate that it is difficult to retain a true third person perspective when developing a story line in this manner. Recollections are skewed through emotional and physical recentcy bias. Kershaw has presented the recollections as they are without significant interpretation. This is not a bad thing as it adds to the rawness and the power of the narrative; however, it must be understood that these constitute both factual and emotional elements. Additionally, they are very limited in their scope and perspective encompassing only the immediate environs of the writer.

War Without Garlands reflects the deep emotional and physical toll that this campaign took on both the German’s and the Soviets. The period in question 1941-1942, a period when the German military was, for the most part (save the winter debacle in front of Moscow), victorious and the Soviets on the defensive, enhances the impact of the personnel recollections.

This observation is in no way meant to take away from the strengths of this book. Kershaw’s writing style is very engaging and his research thorough. I very much enjoyed reading this work and appreciated its operational/strategic discussion and its tactical candor. I recommend that this book be include in any library of Eastern Front operations.

Swords Trembling in Their Scabbards - Michael Creese

This review has been submitted to WarHistoryOnline.

Title: Swords Trembling in Their Scabbards
Author: Michael Creese
ISBN: 978-9-099-82819
Publisher: Helion Publishing
Publication Year: 2015
Pages: 202
Illustrations:  10 B/W

The relationship between the British and Indians underwent fundamental changes commencing at the turn of the 20th Century. This was especially the case with the advent of the two world wars. No where was this change more pronounced than in the Army. Traditionally officered by the British, either regular force or as members of the East Indian Company, necessity, professional development and maturity witnessed the advent of Indianization within the army and the creation of an Indian Officer corps.

Creese’s book undertakes a study of how this transition came about and how this change was accepted by the members of the military. This work is an expansion of the autho’rs thesis and is a well researched and balanced study. It is somewhat of a dry read but it does relate the story of development of the Corps, specifically focusing on the experiences of one of the early commissioned Indians Amar Singh who maintained a detailed diary of his experiences.

Creese’s analysis clearly shows that the transition was not always easy nor smooth. The British, especially in the period following the First World War certainly recognized the need and inevitability of the change of Indian status.. Availability of British forces to man the Regiments as well as noteworthy Indian performance in the cauldron of the trenches all pointed towards change. Nevertheless, while many accepted the changing status it required a shift in the paradigm of both the British troops and officers. As Creese points out, this was not a one way street however; the perspective of the Indians themselves and their abilities also underwent profound change as they found themselves conducting operations against Western adversaries and being more than equal to the task.

The author has drawn upon extensive primary source material and his work is obviously well researched. His study of the transition outlines the changes at both the societal as well as the military level. The work addresses some of the misconceptions regarding the relationship of the British  and Indians serving within the military. Unlike other aspects of the administration, to a great extent the British leadership recognized and actively supported the elevation of competent Indians to positions of authority. This extended to the creation of a military academy along the lines of Sandhurst. Creese points out that the transition was in fact facilitated by the fact that the methodology and doctrine was seamless between the British and Indians as both were trained in the same manner.

While the work is academic in nature, any reader with an interest in societal change and the profound impact that the transition within the Indian military had on the stability of the independence of India itself, would do very well to read this book.