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.

The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History - Williamson Murray and Kevin Woods

This review has been submitted to the Canadian Army Journal. 

Title: The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History 
Author: Williamson Murray and Kevin Woods
ISBN: 978-1-107-67392-2
Publisher: Cambridge UP
Year: 2016
Pages: 397
Photos/Maps: 0/11

The Iran-Iraq war ran between 1980 and 1988 and effectively devastated generations of young men (estimated casualties for Iraq: between 550,000 and 1,040,000 and for Iran: between 1,050,000 and 1,930,000) as well as effectively bankrupting both economies (Iraq: 159 Billion USD//Iran 69 Billion USD). Relatively speaking, little has been written about this war due mainly to it being overshadowed by the Desert Storm operations as well as Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it holds lessons for the military professional to learn from. The authors have focused on primarily the Iraqi side of the conflict and have undertaken extensive analysis of documentation captured during the collapse of the Saddam regime. They readily acknowledge that their study is still somewhat limited by the lack of access to Iranian documentation but it certainly sheds a much broader light on the political, operational and economic facets of the war on the respective adversaries.

The military commanders on both sides of this conflict were hamstrung by individual styles of government that bread atmospheres of insecurity and mistrust amongst leadership. Decision making was as much a product of battlefield realities as it was political oversight and expectation. The authors have done a noteworthy job of tracing the impact of these realities as they translated into battlefield success or failure (with its resulting consequences).

Of particular interest is the study of the multi-faceted layers that prompted the Iraqi’s to launch against the Iranians: perceptions of internal weakness amongst the Iranians who were in the latter stages of a revolution against the secular establishment, international (read Arabic and US) support to undermine the Iranian Ayatollah, a desire to become a paramount power in the Middle East and deep seated hatred and mistrust between the Arab and Persian ethnic groups.

The authors also study in detail the respective operational methodologies of each player; noting for example the continuing failure of the Iraqi’s to be able to exploit significant technological and resource advantages over their larger but internationally isolated counterpart. Additionally they look at the Iranian’s use of poorly trained but highly motivated volunteers looking to defend and advance the Iranian revolutions domestic agenda through human wave doctrine. The effect of these is traced forward throughout the conflict years and its ultimate impact on the wars outcome.

This war is interesting as the stakes for each respective government went far beyond the loss or gain of territory. Each recognized that a peace might only be achieved when one or the other was utterly exhausted. The Iranians acknowledged this reality first and, rather than risk collapse of the Ayatollahs regime, they accepted a humiliating defeat and the consequent results. A significant part of the ultimate success of the Iraqi’s was the recognition by Saddam of the need to reinforce competence amongst his generals as opposed to the traditional sycophancy. As the authors point out however, this policy was quickly reversed once the war was successfully completed.

A very well crafted analysis of the war and its long term effects upon the region right up until the collapse of Saddam’s regime. The effect of religious, ethnic, governmental and opportunistic policies and the international attention/support provided Iraq and denied Iran upon the ultimate outcome of the war is a key learning outcome from one of the most recent intra-state wars in modern history.

Nanjing1937: Battle for a Doomed City - Peter Harmsen

This review has been submitted to Sabretache Journal.

Title: Nanjing1937: Battle for a Doomed City
Author: Peter Harmsen
ISBN: 978-1-61200-28-2
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2015
Pages: 336
Photographs/Maps: 52/12

            The Sino-Japanese War which precluded but was, for the most art, eclipsed by World War 2, was a particularly vicious conflict in which the Japanese were notorious for their particularly brutal approach to warfare. Harmsen’s book follows on his last work about the fall of Shanghai and the continuing fight between the two powers. Many of the Japanese and Chinese units initially introduced in the Shanghai work continue to be followed as they march and fight east to Nanjing. Nanjing was important to the Kai-shek government as its capital and the symbology of being the final resting place of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China. For the Japanese, it was viewed as the last remaining major city that they needed to capture in order to force the surrender of the Chinese.

            Hansen has done a good job with his narrative covering the period running from the fall of Shanghai to the fall of Nanjing. He provides a clear picture of the difficulty of operations, both offensive and defensive, faced by the opposing forces as a result of challenging weather conditions, unreliable logistics, poor reconnaissance and a hostile population (for the Japanese). He also explains the important role of the international community in creating a safe haven environment for civilians as well as eyewitness accounts of the nature and ferocity of the fighting; including the conduct of the combatant armies towards property and civilians.

            The battle for Nanjing has become synonymous with rape, murder and pillage on the part of the Japanese. Harmsen not only discusses this as part of the overall discussion but he also brings attention to perhaps the two most significant questions relating to this particular portion of the war. Those being: how much of the direction, conduct and control of the war was actually exercised by Tokyo and why was it that the Japanese conducted themselves so appallingly in their treatment of the Chinese? The author does not undertake enough analysis of these questions for the satisfaction of the reader. He certainly does not ignore them and he does suggest reasons for the actions and the loss of control such as the frustration felt by the Japanese at the lack of appreciation on the part of the Chinese at their liberation. Unfortunately, given the depth and breadth of the brutality and the complete absence of humanity in the Japanese treatment towards the Chinese civilians, it would be assumed that a deeper more comprehensive discussion would have been undertaken by the author. Similarly, the obvious loss of strategic control by the Japanese high command and its government to the commanders of the Central China Area Army was another area where a more comprehensive analysis may have helped to understand better the Japanese command climate and societal influences on their approach to war.

            Certainly one area that is well covered and is worthy of standalone research is the role of the Soviet Union in the battle. Having essentially wiped out the Chinese Air Force, the Japanese had command of the air. The Soviets intervened and provided pilots, ground crew and aircraft in support of Kai-shek’s forces. While this did not alter the tide of battle, it did cause considerable difficulty for the Japanese forces in the area. The author does a commendable job at tracing the roots of this assistance and its impact.

            Overall however, Harmsen has done a very good job at relating the nature and the scope of the conflict surrounding the fall of Nanjing. His book is well researched and makes for fascinating reading, touching as it does the spectrum of perspectives from the strategic to the tactical and both local and international observations. His research is comprehensive and his writing style engaging. The books production value is very high. This book is recommended for those wishing to garner an appreciation of the nature of war in the far east before the western powers became engaged.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Training and Development of German General Staff Officers - Siegfried Westphal

Title: Training and Development of German General Staff Officers
Author: Siegfried Westphal
Publisher: Lightening Source
Year: 2015
Pages: 99
Photos/ Maps:

General der Kavallerie Siegfried Westphal served in the German Army from 1917 until 1945. During that time he was employed in line and staff positions at a variety of levels; specifically Chief of Staff at Divisional, Corps and Army Group level. Following the successful conclusion of the Second World War, the Allied forces under Col SLA Marshall undertook a program of drawing upon German senior officers to draft treatise on their areas of expertise for future generations. Westphal, focused his efforts on the training and professional progression of staff officers within the German General Staff Officer development program.

The book is a reproduction of the original document prepared by Westphal, therefore, while the duplication value is satisfactory, it is not of the highest quality. Nevertheless, the information imparted by Westphal on the German program is of the highest value to both military and civilian agencies. He has divided his report into four distinct parts: The Selection and Education of General Staff Officers in Peace and War, the Organization, Work and Inner Life of the General Staff, the General Staff in WW2 and Basic Problems of the General Staff. Each of these sections is subdivided into areas of detailed study that provide an in-depth analysis based on his personal experience and professional evaluation of these broader headings.

His analysis is insightful and forthright. The recency of his practical experience under high intensity combat operations lends credence to his observations. He emphasizes the necessity to adjust aspects of the training and development of these officers to meet the realities of operations but he identifies key areas which must remain untouched. Additionally, he highlights those aspects of the training that were deficient and had a real time negative effect upon the effectiveness of German combat operations; specifically, he is referring to the logistics and support elements of planning and execution.

This treatise is not long but it is extremely useful in learning from an expert whose has experienced the good and bad of the German General Staff Officer program. That the Germans were well ahead of their counterparts at the time in the development and training of their staff experts is well documented and acknowledged; Westphal’s work provides additional depth and breadth regarding the strengths and weaknesses of this noteworthy organization.     

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

South Pacific Cauldron - Alan Rems

This review was published in the Canadian Naval Review

Title: South Pacific Cauldron
Author: Alan Rems
ISBN: 978-1-61251-470-3
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Pages: 284
Photos/Maps: 42/16

The public's knowledge of the Pacific Campaign during World War 2 is very limited and focussed. Battles such as Pearl Harbour, Bataan, Singapore, Midway and Iwo Jima come quickly to mind when challenged, but in actual fact, these represent but a few of the myriad of battles fought in the shadows of the European conflict and the Battle of the Atlantic. Rems' intent with this book has been to shed light, in one comprehensive work,  upon those battles fought with no less violence, intensity and anguish in some of the most difficult environments on earth, that have faded from the collective conscience of the world writ large. 

Further marginalizing the history of this conflict was he fact that the South Pacific Campaign served as both a prelude and to secure the southern flank of the much higher profile Central Pacific Offensive launched in late 1943. Maintaining a perspective that incorporates all of the major combatants (US, Japanese, Australian and New Zealand) he has ensured a balanced and studied approach to the successes and failures of the parties  involved and thus an excellent study of lessons for the present.

Commencing with the Battle of Guadalcanal, the author focuses his attention on the operations in the South Pacific chain of island (Primarily the Solomon Islands, New Britain and New Guinea). It is very enlightening and surprising how effective and aggressive the Japanese remained despite an inexorable turning of the tide both in terms of resources and technology. For example, of the twelve naval  battles of the Solomon Island campaign, the Japanese won or drew even in ten of them. Noteworthy technological advantages remained with the Japanese in terms of torpedo and torpedo bomber well into 1944; additionally, superior tactical control of surface assets in combat also remained with the Japanese commanders until the beginning of 1944.

The author undertakes a detailed analysis of the various combatant forces and it is striking the patterns that emerge. For example, it is clear that on the Japanese side, intelligence was woefully inaccurate, repeatedly underestimating Allied forces and intentions. Also, the Japanese were superb jungle fighters able to take advantage of terrain to develop formidable defensive works. As soldiers and aircrew, they were extremely resilient, tough fighters consistently taking horrible casualties compared to the Allies. Additionally, they were often operating under conditions of extreme malnutrition bordering on starvation as well as rampant illness. Logistically, it was evident that the Japanese were operating under extremely adverse conditions and yet, somehow, were able to maintain operational capability despite the incredible shortages. Unfortunately, the author does not provide a great deal of insight into this aspect of the operations limiting his Japanese analysis to the actions of senior officers; this would have been very enlightening and helpful as a counterpoint to the Allied   undertakings.

On the Allied side, his discussions are fascinating. One is struck very early on by the interservice and international rivalries within and between the Allied forces. Resistance to joint operational command was very ingrained and was the cause of a series of losses that could have been avoided. Additionally, the Allies had broken the Japanese codes and were therefore in a much better position to proactively engage. Allied soldiers were equally as tough as their counterparts and a healthy respect for both the climate and between the adversaries was a hallmark of journals and recollections. What was also very interesting, was, especially within the Australian forces, was the employment of Divisions in diametrically opposite environments. Thus the Australian 7th Division, famous for its stand at Tobruk in North Africa was transferred to New Guinea and had to learn from scratch how to become effective jungle fighters. Again, the logistics of the offensives are given scant attention by the author despite the fact that many of the operations were undertaken with the sole purpose of providing operating bases.

Also, in terms of straight numbers, it is easy to understand why these campaigns did not challenge for the limelight in domestic attention. The operations generally involved small numbers of troops when compared with European or even Central Pacific operations) and were long drawn out affairs. Geography and infrastructure ensured that these actions were not quick nor dramatic. The environment was as dangerous and unforgiving as the enemy and was under appreciated at the combatants extreme peril.

Rems provides excellent maps and photographs that serve to reinforce his narrative. Despite the areas of his work that could have been given greater appreciation (the Japanese operational and tactical demands and the logistics of the Allied effort) his writing is strong, his analysis balanced and his style engaging. It is easy to understand, although, unless actually experienced not fully appreciate, the horrible conditions under which these operations took place: determined, unforgiving adversaries, geography that was easily some of the most difficult in the world to operate within and generally ignored in the domestic and world press. A solid bibliography rounds out Rems' work. It serves as a fitting testament to those fighting in a horrific sideline and the challenges that they faced.

The Horns of the Beast - James Stejskal

This review has been submitted to Military History Monthly Magazine.

Title: The Horns of the Beast
Author: James Stejskal
ISBN: 978-1-909982-78-9
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2014
Pages: 140
Photos/ Maps: 64/9

Very few have heard of the Swakop River Campaign in South-West Africa (SWA). Undertaken by South African troops against the forces within the German colony, it was concluded by the Allies in July, 1915. Relatively speaking it was a minor campaign when compared to the European and Turkish conflicts or even, for that matter, the East African campaign in what is today Kenya and Tanzania. Nevertheless, it was important for a number of reasons: it resulted in South Africa being responsible for SWA, it isolated the German surface raiders operating in the Far East and it reduced the German presence overseas.

For the Allies, victory was a forgone conclusion as the German forces were heavily outnumbered and they could not rely upon indigenous forces due to heavy handed policies which had both subdued as well as alienated their relationships. Additionally, German tactics were flawed and poorly executed by their commanders. Psychologically, the German officers were defeated almost immediately and this negativity transferred itself to their responsible forces. Finally, the physical environment in the region was not conducive to guerrilla style warfare being dry and, for the most part, open.

The author has done a good job at analyzing the challenges faced by both adversaries. The South African’s, while heavily outnumbering the Germans, were hampered by poor logistical planning as well as a revolt amongst those Boers who felt that they should not be fighting on behalf of the British Empire. It would have been interesting to have had more information on the nature and extent of this revolt as it was very significant to the timely execution of their mission. The Germans also allowed themselves to be distracted by a confrontation with the Portuguese colony of Angola (with whom they were not even at war). While successful, it removed a significant number of badly needed forces for the period of the three months that these troops were engaged.

Overall, a short but interesting read. The author finishes with photos and notes on the present day conditions of the different battlefields. Recommended for those interested in some of the more peripheral battlefields of WW1.