Sunday, 17 July 2022

Dunkirk: German Operations in France 1940 - Hans-Adolf Jacobsen

 This review has been submitted to Strategy and Tactics magazine.

Title: Dunkirk: German Operations in France 1940
Author: Hans-Adolf Jacobsen
ISBN: 978-1-612-00659-8
Publisher: Casemate Publishers
Year: 2019
Pages: 234
Photos/Maps: 0/14 

The Battle for and evacuation at Dunkirk may be very accurately viewed as a tactical victory for the Germans and a strategic victory for the British. The former were able to utterly defeat their adversary on the battlefield while the latter were able to save their army (minus equipment) to fight another day. This book, one of the “Die Whermacht in Kampf” series, examines the conduct of the battle and the reasons why the German failed to close the noose around the British army before it was able to escape. While the vast majority of the book is focussed upon the German’s efforts and actions, there is enough given over to the British and French to provide context. It is important to note that this series was undertaken originally in the 1950’s by German senior commanders and academics; and while they still did not have access to all of the primary source documentation (some was still in the hands of the Allies) relating to the event, they did take full advantage of the senior level participants and the primary source material that they did have. These studies are, in effect, a post mortem lessons learned about how the Germans executed their operations from both a command as well as a tactics perspective. 

Approximately two thirds of the book is given over to the execution of the operations leading up to the end of Fall Gelb (Plan Yellow – the initial invasion of France and the Low Countries; and the commencement of Fall Rot (Plan Red – the invasion of the main body of France). While this is interesting, it is not overly unique and has been presented in many other works on Dunkirk. What is the gem of this book is the analysis of the German senior command decisions that facilitated the British evacuations. Many modern works point to Hitlers Halt Order of 22 May which enabled the Allies to establish a defensive perimeter around Dunkirk. While it is true that the order was given, it was, in fact, von Rundstedt (Commander of Army Group A) who gave the order to halt and the author clarifies how and why this came about.  Additionally, and more interestingly, Jacobsen makes the argument, drawing upon primary sources, that there was in fact, three main issues at play: 1. the failure of a unified command structure for the Dunkirk Operation resulting in a failure to develop and execute a plan to destroy the Dunkirk bridgehead, 2. An assumption by the senior command in Berlin that Fall Gelb was, for all intents, finished (prior to destroying the Allied armies)and, as a result, attention was turned towards Fall Rot and units were withdrawn from Dunkirk that may have made an operational difference; and, 3. A failure of appreciation amongst the most senior of German commanders regarding the capability and role of the ‘fast units’ involved in the Dunkirk operation. 

This book is an excellent study in some of the less appreciated elements of German operations around Dunkirk. The maps provided are somewhat difficult to follow but nevertheless provide a visual appreciation of the battlespace. It is acknowledged by the authors that they do not have access to the breadth of primary source material that they would like but, even with this being the case, this work is well worth a read.

Monday, 4 April 2022

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City - KJ Parker

Title: Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City 
Author: KJ Parker
ISBN: 978-0-316-27079-3
Publisher: Orbit Books
Year: 2019
Pages: 350
Photos/Maps: NA 

While surfing the net and going down Amazon rabbit holes, I stumbled across this little gem of a book. The title intrigued me as did the writing pedigree of the author. For those of you who are fans of the Stainless Steel Rat of Harry Harrison or the Terry Pratchett series of books, this will be another author to enjoy. KJ Parker is a pseudonym of Tom Holt and his sarcastic, tongue in cheek (moderately) anti-hero main character both entertains and teaches as he stumbles his way through the narrative. 

In this case, our hero, Orhan, is commander of an engineering regiment in the Imperial Army who finds himself in the unlikely position of commanding the defence of the capital city as it is under seige by forces of an unknown origin. The story of how he ended up in this position, his actions and the intrigues that he must endure are very entertaining without being silly or trite. Further the author has weaved a relatively complex story without entangling the reader with multiple layers families and alliances. There are many lessons to be gleaned from how Orhan handles different situations and scenarios. He is a caustic yet self-effacing character who leads through engagement and a common touch. The benefits of this style manifest themselves in his subordinates beginning to undertake actions in keeping with his ‘commanders’ intent’ without having to be told or micromanaged. For the leader of today, be they military or civilian, there are relevant lessons to be learned from Orhan’s efforts. 

Parker has drafted an entertaining and suitably complex book that is a unique take on an old theme. Educational without being preachy or dry, his characters actions resonate with real world scenarios. I strongly recommend this book. 

Tuesday, 22 March 2022

Fortress Budapest Vol 1 and 2: The Siege of the Hungarian Capital 1944-45 - Kamen Nevenkin

This review has been submitted to the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research

Title: Fortress Budapest Vol 1 and 2: The Siege of the Hungarian Capital 1944-45
Author: Kamen Nevenkin
ISBN: 978-615-80072-5-2
Publisher: PeKo Publishing
Year: 2020
Pages: 1107 Vol 1, 467 Vol 2
Photos/Maps: Vol 2 is all maps and photographs

Periodically one comes across a work of such depth and detail that it must surely be immediately ranked as the standard operational and tactical analysis of a particular event available to historians and military enthusiasts. These books by Bulgarian historian Nevenkin fall into that category. The authors lens encapsulates the entire 108 day campaign by the Soviets to seal off and capture the Hungarian capital of Budapest; transitioning from the macro level to the micro as he focuses upon the 50 days of fighting within the city itself. His narrative seamlessly swings from the Soviets to the Hungarian and German defenders who had turned the city into a fortress of hardpoints and mutually supporting gun positions. Caught between these forces were the civilians, desperate to escape and survive.

Nevenkin was able to draw upon previously unavailable primary source material from Russian and Hungarian archives to augment those from the German military. This has facilitated a level of detail, from multiple perspectives, formally impossible in his discussion of the unfolding combat; of particular note, the author has combined period photographs and maps to recreate visual representations of strongpoints within the city, including arcs of fire for artillery, machine gun and anti-tank nests, right down to the individual city block. In addition to providing the reader with a street level appreciation of the nature of the fighting, he has also provided an unprecedented level of visual detail, at the tactical level, of the complexity of fighting in built up areas. 

Interspersed within the narrative are hundreds of recollections by the officers and soldiers participating in the brutal fighting around and within Budapest. These stories serve to add a more personal sheen to the discussion of unit movement and engagements, serving to remind the reader that behind the words and numbers are real human beings, dying and being wounded in their thousands. Certainly, one is struck by the mass that the Soviets were able to bring to the fight in terms of both men and material. However, it is not only this that stands out; Eastern Front historians will note the progress made by the Soviets in combined arms attacks at the tactical and operational levels as well as the significant improvement in their strategic orchestration at the Corps, Army and Front levels. It is evident that Axis troops still maintained a clear superiority in terms of leadership, soldier skills and equipment; but the gap was noticeably closing. It is also obvious that, whatever delta remained between the Soviet and Axis forces, this was further diminished by the growing material imbalance between the forces engaged. 

It is insightful to note that as the ring closed and tightened around Budapest, the Axis leadership resorted to more and more desperate measures to keep the trapped forces resupplied. Bombers, gliders and transport aircraft were all used to deliver supplies; Nevenkin’s discussion of these efforts is both detailed and very engaging as he draws upon the journals and diaries of aircrew involved in these efforts. It is also indicative of the continued effectiveness of the Luftwaffe at this late point in the war (late 44-Jan 45). 

This two volume set on the battles leading up to investment of Budapest, the siege and ultimate capture of the city and the attempted breakout by Axis forces, may easily be considered to be the seminal work on this event. The level of detail, the seamless incorporation of first person accounts, the research and reproduction of maps and photographs all serve to emphasize the incredible level of research and work of history that the author has produced. This book is not for the casual reader, although the style of writing makes it more than accessible, but rather, fulfils the dual role of outstanding historical resource and battle study superbly. It is also important to note that while this book is an analysis of the combat raging around and within the Hungarian Capital, it is also built upon a foundation of the storied history between Hungary and its eastern neighbours. The author is to be commended for an excellent work and Peko Publishing for their continued superb quality of production.

Friday, 11 March 2022

After Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters June 1916 – November 1918 - James Goldrick

This review has been submitted to the Canadian Naval Review

Title: After Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters June 1916 – November 1918
Author: James Goldrick
ISBN: 978-1-5267-4298-8
Publisher: Pen and Sword Publishing
Year: 2018
Pages: 332
Photos/Maps: 32/13 

The prevalent assumption amongst a significant portion of casual World War 1 enthusiasts is that, following the inconclusive Battle of Jutland, the German High Seas Fleet maintained a very limited presence on the high seas for the duration of the war, the Royal Navy continued, for the most part unchallenged, preserving the stranglehold on Germany and that the Baltic saw little if any activity whatsoever. Of course, this is far from the truth and Adm (ret'd) Goldrick’s work goes a long way in dismissing those misconceptions. His narrative iterates the experiences of the major Northern Theatre Battle Fleets (RN, German and Russian), as they undertake operations from the Gulf of Finland to the edge of the North Sea. While it is true that a second major fleet action along the lines of Jutland did not materialize, Goldrick makes it very clear that significant actions were very much the norm right up until the end of the war. 

The author is a professional Navy man, and that expertise comes through in his analysis and discussion of the engagements and operational challenges/successes of the different navies. Additionally, and just as significantly, he expands the scope of his narrative to include detailed reviews on the technological developments of the adversaries as the war progressed. These include but are not limited to mine warfare, naval air capabilities, gunnery, and submarine development. His observations and explanations on the impact of these areas on offensive and defensive operations are succinct and insightful. 

Navies operate in an international environment, free from the restraints of trench warfare etc. As such, they cannot help but interact with assets of non-combatant nations and these interactions can have far reaching effects well beyond their immediate boundaries. Goldrick incorporates his thoughts on the impact of these international engagements on the course of the war itself. The declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans in 1917, for example, was directly responsible for facilitating the entrance of the United States into the war. 

A particular strength of this book is the section that the author refers to as the ‘Reflections’. In this area, he finalizes the work with a series of conclusions on the overall conduct of the naval war by each of the main protagonists. His observations are telling and prescient. He is critical of the method by which the German Navy was utilized, suggesting that its strengths were not fully recognized specifically in the areas of surface raiders, submarine warfare (not unrestricted however), and operational doctrine in the use of mixed-use flotilla’s and scouting groups. Nevertheless, the author also recognizes the limitations imposed on the fleet by external factors such as the expanse of the submarine service on personnel and the deterioration of the ships themselves as the war progressed due to (presumably) the impact of the blockade on engineering supplies. The British, for their part, missed significant opportunities regarding mine warfare and the advent of naval aviation. Additionally, its failure to pursue more aggressively a coordinated effort with the Russians that may well have squeezed the German ability to respond on two naval fronts concurrently. The author also makes note of the Russian reluctance to engage in the Western regions of the Baltic Sea. Surely here was a missed opportunity to interdict the flow of resources, particularly iron ore, from Sweden to Germany. 

This was a very enjoyable book to read; educational, relevant, and featuring a good balance of technical insight as well as flowing narrative. It is strongly recommended for the casual historian as well as the dedicated researcher. The publisher has produced a very high quality book to go with the excellent read.

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

Panzers on the Vistula: Retreat and Route in East Prussia 1945 - Hans Schaufler

This review has been submitted to War History Online.

Title: Panzers on the Vistula: Retreat and Route in East Prussia 1945
Author: Hans Schaufler
ISBN: 978-1-526-73431-0
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Year: 2018
Pages: 139
Photos/Maps: 42/6

The author served as a member of the 4th Panzer Division from 1939-1945. Commencing his career as soldier, he finished the war as a 2nd Lieutenant and signals officer for Panzer Regiment 35 of the 4th Panzer. This autobiography of his experiences commences in the dying days of the war as 4th Panzer grapples with the Soviets during the three battles of the Kurland Pocket (encompassing the Baltic region of Latvia). These battles, running from October 1944 until early January, 1945 culminated in 4th Panzer being evacuated by sea to the port of Danzig where the main narrative of the book begins. The author establishes himself as a thoughtful and insightful observer, well placed to present the reader with a strong sense of the environment within which he carried out his duties. 

The discussion of the fighting in the Danzig region is of particular note for a number of reasons. As the situation for the Germans continued to deteriorate, Shaufler notes the difference between units that maintain their discipline (such as his) and those that fracture. He discusses at some length the impact that leadership and unit pride has on continued cohesion and effectiveness, even in the face of catastrophe. Additionally, one is struck by the ability of the Germans to continue to logistically support their forces. While it was getting more difficult to maintain effective supply lines, Schaufler remarks repeatedly on how they were able to overcome. Given the pressure from the Soviet forces, the reinforcement of the Regiment with 27 new panther tanks in late February, 1945 serves as a good example. 

The book is not limited to discussion of the military elements of the author’s experiences. He highlights at length about the impact upon the non-combatant population of the fighting. As the Danzig region was cut off from a land route back to Germany by the Soviet forces, the civilian population became more desperate for a way out. Refugees clogging the roads impacted the ability of German forces to move throughout the region. Also, the limited naval support available to carry people and equipment out, had to be balanced between military forces critical to the ongoing defence of Germany, and the civilian population trapped within the pocket. Typical of the tragedy of this time was the sinking of the Goya, a liner, that was evacuating 7000 civilians and soldiers out of the Danzig area. The author narrowly missed being a passenger but lost hundreds of his comrades when a submarine sunk the ship on 16 April, 1945. Only 137 people were rescued. 

The story that the author relates regarding his and a few of his comrades, eventual escape back to Germany via a small watercraft following the cessation of hostilities on May 8, 1945, is an adventure in itself. His description of the chaos, luck and determination to return to Germany proper is an excellent synopsis of the desperation and anarchy evident in Central Europe as the war came to a close. He has also included first person accounts of those soldiers who escaped to Sweden only to be turned over to the Soviets months after the war was over as well as those who did not escape and were interred for years in Soviet prisons. 

Overall a very interesting and engaging read. This is a tactical, street level perspective on the closing days of the war and its immediate aftermath. While there are no references provided, the author presents a passionate and insightful account of his and his comrades’ experiences.

Thursday, 24 February 2022

Retribution: The Soviet Reconquest of Western Ukraine, 1943-44 - Prit Buttar

This review has been submitted to Iron Cross Magazine. 

Title: Retribution: The Soviet Reconquest of Western Ukraine, 1943-44
Author: Prit Buttar
ISBN: 978-1-4728-3532-1
Publisher: Osprey Publishing
Year: 2019
Pages: 472

Retribution follows as the fourth book in the author’s World War 2 Eastern Front series. Picking up the narrative following the climactic Battle of Kursk, the author details the gradual withdrawal of the German forces back towards the western edge of the Ukraine. Despite continued superior German tactical skill and equipment, it was evident that Soviet tactical and operational competence were steadily improving. Regardless of desperate German resistance and their success at blunting many of the Soviet drives, German forces were gradually but inexorably being worn down by the unremitting Soviet pressure. Hampered by Hitler’s micromanagement and ‘not one step back’ orders, German commanders struggled to maintain operational cohesion. Nevertheless, through the use of ‘fire-brigade’ mobile forces and the selective ignoring of Hitler’s orders, the Germans were able to avoid the destruction of their depleted, but still intact, armies as the they fell back towards the Ukrainian border. Such was the depth of Soviet strength that even the significant natural barriers of the Dniepr and the Donets rivers proved insufficient to halt them. Ultimately, it was the reality of extended lines of logistics and the massive loss of men and material that led to the halt of the westward drive of the Soviets and allowed the Germans a respite within which to regroup. 

The authors weaving of individual experiences and stories, from both sides of the conflict, into the greater narrative lends both depth and a human element to his work. The reader is able to appreciate that behind the units and causality lists, there are individuals who were experiencing a degree of drama that truly beggars the imagination. It is this skill that sets this author’s work apart from many of the more academic works of operational analysis that have been written about World War 2. Additionally, one is better able to appreciate the true vastness and complexity of the operations taking place; what has to happen to ensure the continued forward drive of the frontline units, how are commanders able to manage millions of soldiers and their equipment across thousands of kilometers of battleground and a myriad of other trials to be overcome. The ability of the author to capture the essence of these types of questions and be able to give the reader a small sense of the pressure and challenge experienced daily by the soldiers and officers involved is truly noteworthy. 

Included in this work are a series of excellent maps and notes as well as a comprehensive bibliography. For lovers of military history, military professionals from both an operational and support background, and students of the art of war, this work is an outstanding addition to anyone’s library and professional development reading list. Buttar is to be commended on another outstanding contribution to the history of a theatre of war that has not had the attention that it deserves.

Friday, 3 December 2021

Panzer Tactics: Tank Operations in the East, 1941-42 - Oskar Munzel (translated by Linden Lyons)

Review submitted to Strategy and Tactics Magazine. 

Title: Panzer Tactics: Tank Operations in the East, 1941-42
Author: Oskar Munzel (translated by Linden Lyons)
ISBN: 978-1-61200-989-6
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2021
Pages: 167
Photos/Maps: 0/21

Casemate Publishing is reissuing newly translated versions of the “Die Werhrmacht Im Kampf”:Battles and Problems of the Second World War series originally published in German during the 1950’s and 60’s. Written by former senior Commanders of the German Army, they capture the perspectives of those who were influential in how these campaigns and battles were planned and executed. The author, Munzel, was a member of the 6th Panzer Regiment from June, 1941 to December, 1943; he was its Commander from December, 1941. He also Commanded the 14th and 2nd Panzer Divisions and was the recipient of the Knight’s Cross. The 6th Pz Reg was directly involved in the operations described in this book and he thus brings a unique and eminently qualified operational perspective to his analysis.  

This work focuses first upon three major panzer operations leading up to the Battle for Moscow: the encirclement operations around Uman, the turn south to Kiev and the subsequent drive for Moscow. It then touches upon the reorientation south to the Caucasus and culminates in a series of conclusions based upon the experiences of the author. Drawing upon his personal perspectives, the recollections of other senior Panzer Commanders, as well as primary source material such as combat reports, war diaries and original orders, the author is able to both instruct and mentor the reader on elements of operations that only one who has experienced the cauldron and stress of battle can truly appreciate.  

Munzel’s refers to a number of themes that are prevalent throughout his discussion of the battles. Logistics and the ability to maintain a reliable source of supply for the operational forces was always a challenge even as early as the first few weeks of the Barbarossa Campaign. Shortages of ammunition and fuel are mentioned many times and the benefits of diesel engines that were used by the Russians. Overcoming these challenges are even more critical when one considers that the foundation of the German operational doctrine was deep interdiction by mobile forces. Additionally, was the critical need for aggressive, operationally focussed commanders at the Major, Lt-Col and Colonel ranks. These were the key individuals who set the tone for their units. Developing and mentoring leadership to match the nature of German operational doctrine ensured that senior NCO’s and Officers were able to assume command with assurance and an appreciation of the commanders intent. The author also discusses the impact of improvisation on German tactics as well as capabilities. The ability to improvise without higher direction is a skill set that was critical to the effective execution of German operations in the East. It ensured that opportunities that had not been foreseen were able to be exploited and it also enabled the Germans to overcome a more numerous enemy that was much more pedantic in their operational command and doctrine. Innovation on the part of German engineers enabled the incorporation and utilization of captured equipment, thereby offsetting some of the industrial shortfalls that they had begun to experience. The downside of this was the logistical nightmare that ensued as a result of the myriad of parts and ammunition types required to keep equipment operational; this had a detrimental effect upon an already strained logistics tail. Finally, the adverse effects of climate on the transportation infrastructure of the Soviet State, particularly rain degrading the road networks, combined with an inability of soft skinned vehicles to operate effectively off road further reduced the efficient logistical support to operations. 

The author’s writing style is clear and has a resonance to modern day. There are operational maps provided that facilitate the reader tracing the advances of the forces in question. They are copies of the original German operational maps from the time, are quite detailed, but at times difficult to follow; however, they do meet the need. Additionally, Munzel’s provides excerpts, at the end of the book,  from the War Diary of the 8th Company, 6 Pz Regt, that provide a snapshot of significant daily activities and the distances covered by the unit. This is useful as it gives the reader a sense of how fast the Germans were advancing and, by extension, how challenging was the effective maintenance of logistics, command and control as well as foot bound infantry support. 

This is an excellent book. Engaging in its narrative and educational in its conclusions. Casemate has published a high quality work worthy of the historian, the professional and the casual reader.