330. Six Days
by Jeremy Bowen
The BBC's Jeremy Bowen tackles the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and her neighbours Egypt, Syria and Jordan. And as is to be expected, the reaction to this 2003 book attracted howls of anti-semitism from the Pro-Israel lobby. Certainly his claims that Israeli soldiers murdered prisoners and civilians and looted Arab property could be expected to draw the ire of those who favour the plucky little Israeli school of history. Bowen argues the 1967 War was indeed a David Vs Goliath affair - only the Israel was military Goliath. Not that, according to Bowen, all Israelis were in on the secret of how much better prepared for war their country was than their Arab neighbours. Bowen marshals his facts well and while obviously no fan of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank he is also critical of the Arab leaders who so mishandled the war and in fact the whole crisis, sacrificing soldiers and civilians needlessly. The United States of America and the Soviet Union hardly come out of this book well either. Bowen gets away with rapid changes of location and side in a fast paced timeline based narrative which encompasses military, diplomatic and civilian experiences. He succeeds in putting a human face to war and suffering both during and after a war which is still not, fifty years later, still not really over.
329. Sweating the Metal
by Flt Lt Alex "Frenchie" Duncan
This is a look at the experiences of Royal Air Force Chinook pilots in Afghanistan. I was suspicious about the better than average quality of the writing, so I looked beyond the author credit on the cover page and found the copyright is not Duncan's name but that of journalist and military writer Antony Loveless. The pair tell Duncan's tale well. There are also contributions from some of Duncan's fellow pilots sprinkled throughout the book. Most of the best stories relate to picking up wounded soldiers and civilians while under fire. Duncan comes over as a nice enough bloke; he takes pain to stress that the bravery awards, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Force Cross, reflect as much on the excellence of his co-pilots and crews as on his own actions. He heaps effusive praise on the squaddies manning isolated bases dotted around Helmand Province. His rather more dismissive comments about some members of the military who never left their bases but bought great big killing/combat knives before their return to the UK appears to have raised the ire of those who never left their base and bought great big killing/combat knives before their return to the UK. I liked the fact that towards the end of the book Duncan admits he is not that keen on returning to Afghanistan. The early chapters focus on the training Duncan had to go through before being trusted with an expensive and complicated Chinook twin-rotor helicopter. There is a very odd mistake when it comes to the name of the American military supermarket known as the PX; the name appears in the book as BX, mistranscription from tape or a slip of the typesetter's finger? It would be interesting to know more about the mechanics of Duncan and Loveless's collaboration. At least I'd be interested. This is a well constructed look at life in the firing line and helps widen the public's picture of what went on in Afghanistan.
328. Charlie Company
by Peter Cochrane
I missed out on this book when it first came out in 1977 and came to regret it. These recollections of a Second World War officer in the Cameron Highlanders is often cited as a classic example of the genre. I'm not sure I would go that far, but they are very good read. Peter Cochrane went into the publishing after he was demobbed in 1946 and he certainly has a way with the written word. He refuses to become bogged down in shot by shot, bayonet charge by bayonet charge, accounts of each battle that he and the men of C Company of the 2nd Camerons fought in the Western Desert, Eritrea and Italy. Instead he paints a vivid picture of what it was like to be in battle and on campaign - just enough detail to give a flavour and feel, not enough to bog the reader down. Cochrane was awarded both the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order but writes so modestly about his own role in the fighting that some readers may be left wondering why. The book is almost as much about some of the characters he served with as about his own experiences and thoughts about command at platoon and company level. The book is heavily sprinkled with the kind the humour that helped get Cochrane, his fellow officers and their men through some pretty hard times. This book may have benefited from being written in the 1970s when memories were still fresh and Cochrane was still at the peak of his writing powers. Sadly, some more recent examples of the genre are all too obviously retirement projects that add little to the reader's understanding of war or the Second World War in particular. This in contrast is a fascinating insight into a Scottish infantry unit at war.
by Iain Cameron Taylor
This is a nice little primer on the Jacobite's 1745 Rebellion which was first produced as a National Trust for Scotland guidebook to the Culloden battlefield in 1965. Lieutenant Colonel Iain Cameron Taylor, the trust's one-time historian, put together a very readable and informative account of the lead-up to the 1746 battle, the fighting, and the aftermath that has stood the test of time. When Taylor strays into legend he makes it clear that the tale being told should be taken with a pinch of salt. Though the book is pretty accurate factually, Taylor left little doubt to where his sympathies lay. He describes the Scots who fought on the Government side as "mercenaries". But it is hard to argue with Taylor's assertion that the Westminster Government in victory extended its punitive policies beyond the rebels who took up arms against it to include a substantial slice of Scotland's population. The 1707 Treaty of Union was ignored when rebels, and suspected rebels, were taken to England for trial and punishment.
326. The Imperial War Museum Book of the Somme
by Malcolm Brown
Military historian Malcolm Brown delves into the archives of the Imperial War Museum to paint a vivid picture of one of Britain's bloodiest battles. The 1916 summer offensive in France is burned into the national consciousness as the prime example of British Army blundering and Lions led by Donkeys. Brown paints a far more subtle and thoughtful picture using the writings of the frontline participants, in letters, dairies and even the occasional book. Brown chose his contributors well. They range from the surprisingly optimistic and keen to the heavily disillusioned. Many of the contributors did not survive the fighting or were killed later in the war. There are even a couple of German contributors and some French representation. This is a definitely a worm's eye view of the fighting. Brown does enough in the text linking the soldiers' thoughts and recollections into context but there is little detailed discussion of what the Generals were trying to achieve or assessments of their competence - or incompetence. When the book was first published in 1996 first person accounts of the fighting on the Western Front from non-professional writers were not as common as they are now. But today's reader may still be impressed by the fresh perspectives and surprises provided by Brown's harvest from the museum archives. As one of pioneers, perhaps Brown got the pick of the litter when it came to the IWM archives. Brown also takes a quick look at the home front, trench newspapers and the 1918 fighting on the old 1916 battleground. This book wears its age very well.
325. The Eyes of the Fleet
by Anthony Price
Thriller writer and former journalist Anthony Price takes a look at the lives of some of characters who captained the workhorses of Nelson's navy. The frigates were the jacks of all trades during the wars against the French between 1793 and 1815. It was the frigates which formed the backbone of the blockades of enemy ports and hunted down the warships and merchant shipping of the French and their allies. The frigate's crews also staged commando-style raids on harbours and enemy installations. The ships were often the first really important command of many of the heroes and villains of the Royal Navy. Price expertly mixes background material on the Royal Navy of those days, both for officers and seamen, with a closer look at the adventures of six of the frigate captains of the time. Oddly, he sustains the conceit that the fictional character Horatio Hornblower was a genuine historical figure. He also takes a look at the oft forgotten clashes at sea between the British and American navies during what the Canadians call The War of 1812 - which did not reflect well on the former. This was a good read and Price seems to know his stuff; but from such an experienced author I, for some reason expected, a slightly smoother writing style.
324. Manstein - Hitler's Greatest General
by Mungo Melvin
It quickly dawned on me after I started this book that Mungo Melvin was a Scot. He mentioned things that only a Scot would care about. A little research revealed that Major General Melvin was privately educated in Edinburgh before beginning an army career with the Royal Engineers. The latter part of his British military career was spent as a historian and analyst - an intellectual at the Ministry of Defence. This means that he is able to give an informed opinion on the Second World War achievements of Erich von Manstein; reckoned by many to be Hitler's best general. Although it was Manstein who was the driving force behind the plan which destroyed the French Army in a matter of weeks in 1940, most of the focus of the book is on his campaigns against the Red Army. It is not too much of a leap to suggest that the book owes a lot to Melvin's professional analysis during his time with the British Army, and at the German Armed Forces College in Hamburg, of the respective performances of the Werhmacht and the Red Army during the Second World War. What better preparation for a Soviet invasion of modern day western Europe than an objective look at how the Red Army got to Berlin in 1945? Manstein later insisted that it was only because the Germans were so heavily outnumbered by the Soviets that the war was lost. Melvin does not agree and takes a couple of swipes at those, particularly the Americans, who buy into this viewpoint. Melvin is a sympathetic but not uncritical biographer. Manstein who, like everyone else, was a complex man not without blindspots and flaws. There are many types of courage and perhaps moral courage is one of the most important in this life. This is no expanded academic treatise but a readable and thought provoking look at a fascinating soldier. There is also a swipe at some of modern Britain's senior generals, more politicians in uniform than soldiers, in the context of Manstein's own relationship with Hitler.
323. D-Day Commando
by Ken Ford
The title is a little misleading as this history of 48 Royal Marines Commando follows the unit all the way from Normandy to the Netherlands. But, 48 Commando was formed to make up for a shortfall in the number of commando units available for the D-Day Landings, so perhaps that was what the title was getting at. Unlike Army Commando units, the Royal Marines commandos were not all volunteers but formed from existing Royal Marines units. In the case of 48 Commando, it was built around the 7th Battalion of the Royal Marines and a unit formed to guard naval facilities in the Mediterranean. Ken Ford has done an excellent job of weaving in eye-witness material from members of 48 Commando. The descriptions of the chaos and mayhem on Juno Beach, where the commandos were landed in support of Canadian troops, are first class. Ford also does well with period 48 Commando spent attached to the 6th Airborne Division on the eastern flank of the British landing area and the now too often forgotten Walcheren landings. It is hard to know how much Ford was just lucky in finding such articulate and honest veterans and how much was down to his skill in getting them to talk. But as small unit histories go, this is a very good one.
322. Sniping in the Great War
by Martin Pegler
This is not really an examination of sniping during the First World War. Sniping techniques and lore come a long way behind the technical details of sniping rifles and scopes, with the main focus on the weapons used by British and Commonwealth troops. There is much discussion of the types of screws and fittings used to attach sights to rifles. This should not be a surprise as author Martin Pegler was for a long time the firearms expert at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. That's not say that there is nothing in this book about the snipers themselves but perhaps not as much as the blurb promises. The one thing that struck me is the short ranges at which snipers operated on the Western Front. The readers who will get the most out of this book are the firearms enthusiasts.
321. Caen 1944
by Ken Ford
This is another one from the Osprey Campaign series. It looks at the British and Canadian attempts to capture the city of Caen after the D-Day Landings. The fighting north of the city tied down the bulk of the Germany's best troops and armour and would eventually allow the United States Army to break out of its bridgehead against far less capable opposition. But the cost of the fighting around Caen almost crippled the British/Canadian army and the price paid was high. Ken Ford was a well known military historian in 2004 and was perhaps a natural choice to write the text to accompany this lavishly illustrated book with its combination of combat photos, maps and original artwork. But perhaps the decision to compress three major offensives- Epsom, Charnwood and Goodwood - into one slim book was mistake. Ford's text is workmanlike but a little pedestrian and lacking in fresh insights.
320. Canadian Military History
edited by Marc Milner
This is an eclectic pot-pourri of essays and memoir extracts related to Canada's military history. The first entry is an accessible account of the of the suppression of the 1885 rebellion in the Northwest Territories. Perhaps it was felt that conflicts which predated the foundation of modern Canada in 1867, such as the British Conquest in the 1700s and the repulse of the 1812 invasion of British North America by the United States and the Irish republican invasion in the 1860s were already well covered. The selection of topics was made by University of New Brunswick academic Marc Milner and were intended to be both informative and thought provoking. The subjects include Canada's part in the Second Boer War, the formation of Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914, a look at the CEF's legendary (in Canada at least) commander Arthur Currie, Dieppe in 1942, psychiatric casualties, the activities of Canadian squadrons in Bomber Command, the problems faced by the all-too-rapidly expanded Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War and its challenges when it came to anti-submarine technology, the navy's role in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, through to operations within Canada in the 1970s and 1990s. This book was a better read than I expected.
319. El Alamein and the Struggle for North Africa
edited by Jill Edwards
This book from the American University in Cairo came out in 2012 to help mark the 70th anniversary of the 8th Army's victory over German and Italian forces in Egypt. The book is a series of essays on subjects with some link, sometimes a little tenuous, to the iconic Battle of Alamein. The contributors spread their net wide with looks at, for example, the Siege of Malta, civilian life in Alexandria, the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, training regimes for the Indian Army, pondering as to whether Rommel was a military genius, contributions by Commonwealth and Free French troops to the campaign, and another look at Claude Auchinlek's successes and failures in the desert. Most of the essays make for interesting reading, though the one about excavating old Italian trenches and gun positions may only be of interest to someone planning a similar project.
318. A Spy Among Friends
by Ben Macintyre
Just when you thought there was nothing more to be said about the dreadful Kim Philby, Ben Macintyre comes up with a slightly different angle and take. Macintyre examines the arch-traitor's career by looking at several of his associates and people who thought he was their friend. In particular, Macintyre looks at Nicholas Elliott. Sadly, charm does not translate well into ink on a page; and Philby was said to be a charmer. Reading this book, I for one am left wondering what people saw in Philby. He and several of his closest associates seem like total shits to me. The degree of incompetence allowed by the Old Boys' network which ran British intelligence in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s is staggering. Just how did Guy Burgess, the Foreign Office diplomat Philby risked his career as a KGB spy to tip off about his pending arrest, keep his job in Washington. Never mind his drink-sodden promiscuity, he was going around Washington tapping highly placed Americans for loans he almost certainly had no intentions of repaying. Is this how British diplomats are expected to behave? Elliott was perhaps Philby's staunchest defender when questions were asked about whose side Philby was really on and how many people had been murdered by the Soviets acting on information he supplied. So, naturally, in the cosy world of MI6 in 1960s, it was Elliott who was sent to tell his fellow agent that he'd finally been rumbled. No suprise that Philby fled to Moscow almost as soon as Elliott's chat with him ended. Elliott, by the way, is the man who master-minded the failed diving expedition under the hull of a Soviet warship on a goodwill visit to Portsmouth which caused an international scandal - and claimed the life of legendary British diver Buster Crabb; a broken bantamcock of a man teetering one breath away from a heart-attack before he even entered the water. And Prime Minister Anthony Eden had forbidden any spying on the Soviets while they were in Portsmouth. But Elliott and MI6 knew better than Eden what was good for Britain. Anyone surprised that Elliott got to keep his job? Macintyre does an excellent job of bringing the seedy class-ridden world of MI6 to life. Philby, posing as a fascist journalist but financed by Soviet intelligence, had received a medal from Spain's General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. So, to MI6 it made complete sense to put Philby in charge of Britain's spies in Spain during the Second World war. Even if Philby was what he claimed to be, was he really the best man for the job? Read this book and judge for yourself.
317. War in Afghanistan: Eight Battles in the South
by Sean M Maloney
This is a look at a range of Canadian operations in Afghanistan as seen through a semi-official prism. Army officer turned academic Sean Malone is the Canadian Army's offical historian and this appears to be an attempt to replicate the classic Seven Firefights in Vietnam. The book was published in 2012 and covers operations between 2007 and 2009. Some actions Maloney went along on, others he interviewed the participants about afterwards. Time will tell how good his analysis was. I found some of the accounts of the fighting a little hard to follow and Maloney's conclusions a little on the sunny side. But the book does a good job of explaining some of the complexities of Afghanistan and coalition warfare there. It also helps put some the operations, and associated losses, into contexts not possible to explain fully in the Canadian media for security reasons at the time. Sadly, someone could have done a better job when it came to proof reading and at least one map is reprinted in the wrong chapter. And while the Americans, Danes and British all put in the occasional sub-par performance, I cannot recall Maloney mentioning any mess-ups by the the Canadians.
316. The True Glory
by Max Arthur
This is a look at the Royal Navy between 1914 and 1939 as seen through the eyes of the men and women who served in the Senior Service. Max Arthur is a master of turning veterans' reminiscences into highly readable books. And he has done it yet again. The book ranges wide to examine some less than obvious aspects of the Royal Navy's work, such as the Royal Naval Air Service, the Invergordon Mutiny and the sailors in khaki who served as infantry men with the Royal Naval Division. The now almost forgotten war against the Bolsheviks in Russia is also well covered, along with more obvious topics such as the Battle of Jutland. By the time the book was published in 1996 the number of surviving veterans was already dwindling and that may explain why there are so many officers quoted, the officer class tend to live longer than the working class. Women and members of the Royal Marines also get a fair crack of the whip in this book. Some of the transcription of the taped interviews leaves a little to be desired: I'm fairly sure "the bridge" of a naval gun is actually the "the breech". But this is a minor quibble about a fascinating collection of stories from the days when Britainna did indeed rule the waves.
315. Quebec 1759
by C P Stacey
This proved to be a concise, balanced and sensible look at the battle which brought Canada into the orbit of the British Empire. Stacey, long Canada's official military historian, copyrighted the book 1959 in time for the bicentenary of the brief battle on the Plains of Abraham outside the walls of the capital of French-Canada, Quebec City. He dug out several forgotten, misquoted or neglected sources to create an insightful account of the battle. He also cast a professional eye, he was a Canadian Army colonel with a long career as a part-time soldier, over the terrain to bust some of the myths and legends surrounding the iconic battle. Neither the commanding generals, James Wolfe and Louis-Joseph Montcalm, comes through as a military genius. Stacey, harking back to his work on the Second World War, remarks that in that conflict Wolfe might have managed the role of corps commander, perhaps Brian Horrocks, to a Field Marshal Montgomery. Stacey points out that luck played a large role in Wolfe's final victory when a more sensible plan might have been to land his troops further from the city walls. This is a valuable piece of the still growing canon of books about the battle that changed the course of world history by freeing the British colonies in North America from the threat of French domination of the continent.
314. Mutiny at Salerno
by Saul David
I picked this one up and put it down again several times before finally deciding to splash out on it. I was not entirely impressed by Saul David's previous book, which looked at the capture of the much vaunted 51st Highland Division in 1940. This one again features the 51st, only this time is about the members who were convicted of mutiny after refusing to be drafted into other units which were fighting in the Salerno beachead. The bulk of the just under 195 "mutineers" were veterans of the 8th Army's famous 51st and 50th Tyne Tees Divisions scooped from a reinforcement camp in North Africa where they were awaiting return to their units following hospital treatment for wounds or illness. David interviewed some of the surviving participants; mutineers, men who agreed to be reinforcements and members of the court martial defence and prosecution teams. He also managed to get his hands on a lot of the legal paperwork. It all makes for a sorry tale. The veterans were told they were returning to their own units and some of the men later convicted of mutiny actually volunteered for the draft before they had completed their recoveries. Important witnesses from North Africa lied or were un-co-operative with the defence team. The defence team was not given enough time to prepare their case, vital evidence was withheld from them or they did not grasp its significance. The court martial panel were misled by their advisor when considering the evidence before it. The court martial was a definite case of "March the Guilty Bastards In". No firm evidence of collusion, required for a mutiny conviction, was presented but the panel was told they were permitted by the number of men involved to assume that there was collusion. The military authorities were both incompetent and vindictive almost from start to finish. Several showed themselves expert at loading the dice against the squaddies. But for a lucky visit by a senior British general to North Africa three sergeants would have been shot. The veterans' belief in justice and fair play was betrayed. For years afterwards politicians misled the House of Commons and the British public as to the facts. This was not the British Army's, nor Britain's, finest moment. The only winners where the never-been-on-the-frontlines deceitful and/or incompetent officers responsible for the fiasco. There was a massive cock-up but only the veterans who placed unit loyalty ahead of blind obedience to mediocrity and incompetence paid the price. Two days sitting on a beach at Salerno suggests that the need for reinforcements was not critical as the military authorities were later to claim.
313. 1914 1918
by David Stevenson
This is perhaps not, as the blurb on the back of the book claims, the "definitive' history of the the First World War; but it is a good one. Stevenson, a history professor at the London School of Economics when he wrote the book, knows his stuff and has a firm grip of the subject. He looks at how the war sprang from an assassination in the Balkans that should be been of only local importance into a conflict which claimed millions of lives and changed the course of world history. Stevenson takes a wider view of the war than just the fighting and weaves in international power politics, economics, and social history. The focus is firmly on the Western Front, too much so some might argue, but it was after all the decisive theatre of operations. Stevenson takes the story beyond the 11th of November 1918 to look at how the loss of wartime unity among the Allies and United States of America in the years following the war pretty much squandered the victory and looks at the lessons of the conflict that we still apparently have to learn. Though not definitive, this is a very valuable contribution to the discussion.
312. Stick Leader
by Charlie Warren
This book is an oddity, perhaps even a rarity. It is a Rhodesian soldier's tale of his, and to an extent his regiment, the Rhodesian Light Infantry's, part in the bush war against communist supported guerillas determined to overthrow white minority rule. I suspect the book was self-published; going by the punctuation, spelling and grammatical errors with which it is littered. But in way all these things enhance the book. They help capture the rawness of the story. It is very much told in Charlie Warren's own words - unfiltered or processed by ghost-writers and editors. There is none of synthetic "squaddie-speak" favoured by tabloid journalists hired to ghost-write several of the British rank-and-file accounts of the war in Afghanistan. It is far from "politically correct" and perhaps to some the content might be offensive. But I think it does give a valuable insight into how and why units like the RLI fought. It also has the feel of being written by someone with one eye on his fellow soldiers calling him out for bull-shitting. Warren is bitter at the outcome of the war which created Zimbabwe. He didn't think much of Robert Mugabe's men when he fought ZANLA and certainly does not believe the average citizen of Zimbabwe is better off now than they were in 1980 - the exact opposite in fact. The army world that Warren describes would be very familiar to British soldiers of the late 1970s.
311. True Stories of the Commandos
by Robin Hunter
This is one of a series written for Virgin Publishing by "Robin Hunter" which also featured True Stories of the Foreign Legion, the SAS, the SBS and the Paras. The formula is always the same; reminiscences interspersed with some linking text putting the memories in historical context and perhaps giving a little background information too. This should be the best of the series as "Robin Hunter"is a pyseudonym used by respected military historian and former commando Robin Neillands. The selection of first-hand tales told in this book is excellent. The linking text falls just short of a comprehensive history of the Army Commandos during the Second World War but it was not intended to be that. By the way, don't be fooled by the cover photo which shows a modern commando in desert camouflage; the book is about the Army Commandos 1940 to 1945 and even the Royal Marines Commandos of the period are given only a supporting role. Where the book falls short is in the quality of the research behind the linking text. The 11 (Scottish) Commando Regimental Sergeant Major who took charge when all the officers were put out of action at the Litani River in 1941 was not called Fraser - it was RSM Tevendale. The 1941 raid on Sptizbergen was not primarily a Norwegian operation but was carried out by Canada's Loyal Edmonton Regiment. And as a Scot, Neillands should have known that the 52nd Division was known as the Lowland Division. I expected better from a military historian of Neilland's calibre. I don't know if he allowed himself to be a little sloppy when writing as Robin Hunter for Virgin or whether he was ill at time he undertook this project and perhaps even sub-contracted part of the job to a less capable assistant. This is a good book that could have been better.
310. God's War
by Christopher Tyerman
This book about the Crusades took a long time to read. And it wasn't just the just over 900 pages of text that took the time. Tyerman, a lecturer at Oxford University, is not a natural writer. He seems to prefer long words to short and tortuous sentences to simple. This is a shame because he would appear to know his material well and somewhere in there has some very interesting observations to make. The Crusades were, to say the least, complicated. When most people think of the Crusades they think of the Middle East. But as Tyerman points out there were Crusades in Spain, southern France, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, North Africa and what is now Turkey. Politics, religious fervour, greed and opportunism all played a part in the complex phenomenon that often dominated politics in medieval Europe from 1095 into the early 1500s. And it would appear the Europeans have not learned much since 1095. Narrow national interest, unreliable allies, dubious local partners and lack of resources crippled most the crusades. Sound familiar? Imagine the European Union trying to run the war in Afghanistan on its own and you have a pretty good idea of what most crusades were like. Much of the story of this book is about how western Europe developed between the Normans and the Renaissance. Tyerman works hard to dispel many of myths and misconceptions and to cut away much of the self-serving propaganda associated with many of the Crusading attempts.
309. The Paladin Dictionary of Battles
by George Bruce
This 1986 edition was an update of a 1971 book which was itself an updating of a 1904 book detailing some of what the author rated as significant world battles. Journalist George Brice added to Thomas Harbottle's original work, completed shortly before he died, by including numerous 20th Century clashes, including several long-running guerilla wars. Most of the entries are short; giving the opposing sides, date, numbers involved, a very brief summary of events and the outcome. The battles range from major turning points in history to minor skirmishes which one or other of the authors believed were in some way significant. No collection of this kind can ever be exhaustive. But Bruce and Harbottle cast their net wide to include mid-19th Century clashes in the heart of Europe, South American civil wars, numerous clashes around the Indian sub-continent and several wars on Asia's Pacific coast. This is a handy reference, as far as it goes, and I will be keeping it close to hand from now on.
by Lloyd Clark
This book proved to be a sensible and sober look at what some soldiers who took part in it described as a sideshow of a sideshow. Lecturer at Sandhurst, military historian and television pundit Lloyd Clark strikes just about the right balance between capturing the personal misery and destruction on the Italian beachhead just south of Rome in 1944 and the bigger, strategic, picture. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed the American and British landings would set a wildcat loose on the stagnating Italian front but ended up branding the operation a beached whale. But Clark identifies Churchill as one of the villains of the piece. The Americans were never keen on the Italian campaign and starved it of resources, preferring to concentrate resources on the D Day Landings in France. The Anzio landing behind the German lines was only a good idea if it was properly resourced. It was not, and Churchill should have stepped back from it. Clark argues that the landing did indeed catch the Germans off balance but not enough troops were available to exploit the potential breakthrough. US General John Lucas could perhaps have pushed out further in the days immediately following the landing but could just as easily have been cut-off as the Germans expertly moved in to contain the incursion. Lucas's duplicitious boss General Mark Clark had in fact ordered him to be cautious and then turned around and fired him for lack of progress. Lucas probably should never have commanded the landing and certainly his successor Lucien Truscott proved a more dynamic and inspiring leader. General Clark, a publicity hogging glory hunter with blood on his hands if ever there was one, deprived the operation the fruits of its hard-fought breakout by opting to be known as the liberator of Rome rather than cut off and destroy retreating German troops side-stepping the Eternal City. Hitler and his commanders knew Rome was militarily worthless. It is a shame that Clark's almost criminal irreponsibility was to cost so many British, Canadian, Polish and French lives in the following months; he was an American problem and they should have dealt with him. Lloyd Clark uses British, American, German and Italian letters, diaries and reminiscences to bring out the personal tales of death, mutilation and wretchedness of the fighting. The Epilogue will, and has, brought a lump to throat of the most determined cynic.
307. Forgotten Voices of the Great War
by Max Arthur
I have been a fan of Max Arthur's collections of military reminiscences since I read his most excellent book about the Falklands War "Above All, Courage". This book focuses on the First World War and is based on recordings held at the Imperial War Museum and, once again, Arthur has shown a sure touch when selecting experiences. He also manages to capture, or should it be "retain"in print, the spirit of a generation now departed. Some of the reminiscences are horrific and heart-breaking. Others are more humorous. He also spreads his net beyond the frontline soldiers to take in memories from such diverse people as munitions workers, widows, contentious objectors and schoolchildren. Although the focus is on the British there are also Americans, Canadians, French, Germans and Australians. I have to admit I was little puzzled by the plethora of Americans towards the end of the book and the complete absence of Canadians. The tiny Canadian Corps captured far more in the way of German troops and equipment in the closing 100 Days of the War than the entire United States Army. Also, some of the voices cannot really be described as "forgotten". The poet Edmund Blunden and Joe Murray of the Royal Naval Division wrote books about their experiences. But these are minor quibbles.
306. Billy Ruffian
by David Cordingly
The publishers of this book took a chance in choosing an obscure title and putting a picture of Napoleon on the front - because it is actually the "biography" of a warship. The "Billy Ruffian" of the title is the 74-gun Bellerophon from the Napoleonic Wars. And the painting of Napoleon is apparently justified because it was the Bellerophon which carried the French leader to England after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. But the story of the Bellerophon in the hands of naval historian David Cordingly is about more than simply a brief accident of history. Cordingly uses the tale of the Bellerophon, from builder's yard to breaker's yard, to hang a wider portrait of the Royal Navy in the days of Nelson, Cochrane and St. Vincent. The ship was not entirely typical because it managed, unlike most of the Royal Navy at the time, to take part in several full fleet actions, including The Glorious First of June, The Nile and Trafalgar. Cordingly does an excellent job of bringing both the ship and its crew to life using contemporary reports, memoirs, official records and diaries and letters. He moves deftly between the day-to-day minutae of shipboard life to the bigger military and political picture which put events into context. The chapters on Napoleon's surrender to the captain of the Bellerophon and his transportation to England were more interesting than I expected. But I was a little disappointed that Cordingly did not expend a little more of his talent on the ship's final days as a prison hulk. This book is in the running for the 2016 Book of the Year - a very pleasant surprise.
305. The Second World War in 100 Objects
by Julian Thompson and Allan R Millett
I was looking forward to this after enjoying the companion book about the First World War by Gary Sheffield. But I couldn't help feeling just a little let down. Of course, it is a conceit to believe that the complex wars can be encapsulated in 100 objects; no matter how iconic they may seem. But I felt Sheffield and his collabrators did a better job of weaving the bigger picture of their subject into the text than Thompson and Millett. Former Royal Marines Commando Julian Thompson has proved himself to be an excellent and perceptive military historian. Thompson's text is interesting and well-informed but falls slightly short of Sheffield's breadth of vision. He also focuses a little too much for my taste on special forces and clandestine operations. But no two people will ever agree on even 100 objects. Millett, an American museum expert and retired part-time Marine, produces slightly clunkier prose and concentrates on American items. It is a shame that he did not stop at that because his text on the Canadian infantry is seriously flawed. Contrary to what he claims, many Canadian infantry units in the First World War had highly distinctive cap or bonnet badges rather than simply numbers. And the Canadian infantry regiments in the Second World War were single battalion, so there was no need for insignia to denote which battalion a soldier was from. Quite why Millett rather than Thompson was asked to write this entry when the Canadian soldiers served with British formations in Northwest Europe and Italy baffles me. The book is lavishly illustrated with over 220 photos.
304. The Suicide Battalion
by James L McWilliams and R James Steel
The overwrought title does this book few favours. It is in fact the chronicle of one Canadian battalion during the First World War and not a bad example of the type at that - there have certainly been worse. It was written in the mid-1970s when there were still more than a few veterans of the 46th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force still alive to speak to the authors. The book also leans heavily on letters, diaries and official documents. The first hand accounts are good as far as they go and the book neither romanticizes nor over-dramatizes the veterans' experiences on the Western Front. I am not sure how well the use of official documents was executed. I decided to follow-up an event said to have happened on 7th July 1918 only to find from the battalion war diary that it could not have taken place before the 9th July. The authors have a good eye for anecdotes but I was left feeling that the book had narrowly failed to bring the battalion to life on the page.
by Robert Jackson
I would say this is an excellent introduction to the story of the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940 - but no more than that. First published in 1976, the book may well underplay the chaos in the Dunkirk area between 26th May and 3rd June. And by doing that Robert Jackson misses the chance to pay tribute to the skill and courage of the men who made the evacuation of the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force and a large number of French troops such a success. It also has to be said that the British got some lucky breaks. It's hard to say whether the Germans were incompetent or just did not try very hard. Jackson was probably overwhelmed by research material and had a tough time deciding what to leave out. He uses just about enough to create a cohesive and informative narrative. His analysis of the background to the evacuation is also sound. But by keeping the story short and readable, Jackson was forced to jettison perhaps too much of the tale. The decision to cover the naval and air force operations in chapters separate from the army's part, may have been a mistake because the timeline is lost. But overall, I would say this book has stood the test of time.
302. Imperial Reckoning
by Caroline Elkins
Where to start with this turgidly written effort: perhaps I should say that I have no problem believing that Crown Forces in Kenya in the 1950s did indeed murder, torture and burn down villages during their campaign against the Mau Mau. Every British colonial anti-insurgency campaign since the Second World War has featured examples of one or all of the above. The only variable has been the extent to which these tools have been used. Unfortunately, Elkins's book is big on accusation and disappointingly light on hard evidence. I repeatedly searched the footnotes for the sources of claims made in this book and found none. Elkins is an American who believes Northern Ireland is a British colony. This book relies heavily on interviews conducted with people who were imprisoned for being Mau Mau. I fear that if Elkins conducted a similar project in France about the Second World War she would declare that everyone was in The Resistance and no French person knows anything about how their Jewish neighbours ended up in concentration camps. This book badly lacks context and balance. It also drips with racism and snobbery. I think there are four murders committed by the Mau Mau detailed in the book. Much of the rest is a catalogue of British and non-Mau Mau African atrocity. Elkins apparently cannot see why any decent person would not be a Mau Mau. In Elkins's book those Africans who opposed the Mau Mau did it for only the most venal and selfish reasons. I couldn't help notice that most of the members of the Crown Forces accused of murder or torture are identified only by their nicknames. I would have thought any historian worth his or her salt could have found out the real names. Or was someone afraid of being successfully sued for defamation? Elkins fails to properly explain why Kenyans turned their backs on the Mau Mau after Independence. She also insists on over-egging the pudding by making silly claims such as that the Crown Forces modelled their uniforms on the Nazi SS. I wonder what she makes of the fact that the protective helmets worn by Police SWAT teams swarming around the Black neighbourhoods of US cities today are most certainly inspired by the SS version of the German "coal-scuttle" tin hat. There were better books about the Mau Mau written before this 2005 effort and there have been many superior ones written since. It would be hard to find a worse one than this. I would suggest that Elkins's next foray into the sanctimonious should be "Chain Gang: The Untold Story of America's Racial Gulags". I found reading this book a chore.
301. 1914: The Men Who Went to War
by Malcolm Brown
This is yet another collaboration between the Imperial War Museum and former BBC television documentary maker Malcolm Brown. Brown casts his net wider than I expected. I thought the focus of this book would be the British Expeditionary Force, "The Old Contemptibles", and the fighting which took place before the war became bogged down in the trenches. Instead, Brown looks at the declaration of war, the recruiting of the First Hundred Thousand, war on the Home Front, German naval attacks on towns on the English East Coast, imperial adventures (including the disastrous attack on Tanga) and the 1914 Christmas Truce. There was just about enough about the Retreat from Mons, the Battle of Aisne, and First Ypres to satisfy me. Brown also looks at how the wounded, physical and mental, were treated. The book is based mainly on letters and diaries written in 1914, rather than the extensive but hindsight-laden archive of interviews with veterans held by the museum. In a thoughtful appendix, Brown briefly details the fates of the contributors who did not survive the war. Brown also links to the extracts with an informative text which puts them into context. And there are few German accounts which give an insight into how the war was seen from the other side. The letters and diaries sometimes contradict several of the usually accepted narratives associated with the early months of the war.
300. Tank Men
by Robert Kershaw
Former soldier turned military historian Robert Kershaw takes a look at the most important part of a tank - the crew. But sadly this interesting idea is marred by some poor proof reading and some howlers when it comes to factual errors. Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty when he threw his weight behind the development of the tank, not First Sea Lord; that was Jacky Fisher. The Crocodile variant of the Churchill tank did not spew flame from the barrel of its 75mm gun but from a projector nozzle in the hull. There is no such British army battalion as the 5th Cameronian Highlanders. And I take it when the book refers to "radio fits" it means "radio sets". Regrettably, the factual errors badly undermine Kershaw's credibility. This is a shame because he has some interesting things to say. The book looks at the experiences of tank crews in both World Wars, though mostly the Second, from several nations. The British, followed by the Germans, get the most space but there are also a sprinkling of Soviets and Americans, and the book even mentions the Canadians and Italians. Some of the experiences are common to all tank crews. Others, particularly when the British and Americans come up against vastly superior German tanks after June 1944 are a little more specific to a particular side. Kershaw also looks at issues which affected all frontline soldiers such as fear and combat fatigue. The focus is on the men, with a couple of female Soviet soldiers thrown into the mix, but Kershaw also looks at the development of tank design and tactics. This is a good and worthwhile read, but flawed by silly mistakes; which may have cost it its place in the running for the 2016 Book of the Year.
299. Personal Memoirs
by Ulysses S Grant
For several years I had been on the look-out for this book, not so much for what General U.S. Grant had to say but because his publisher Mark Twain had such high hopes and admiration for it. Twain, the pen name of legendary American humourist Samuel Clements, believed Grant's memoir was his own greatest contribution to literature. I am not sure how much Twain/Clements had to do with the editing of the book but at least in the early part it is an interesting and easy read. Grant comes over a humane and humble man and his recollections of his time at West Point and his participation in the invasion of Mexico in 1846 are excellently told. Most of the book focuses on the American Civil War and to an extent the wheels start to come off the story after the capture of the Confederate fortifications at Vicksburg in 1863. It is not clear whether Grant's tale falters because he was dying from cancer when he wrote it, or because he moves from battlefield command to a higher plane after being promoted to the Union Army's principal commander. The story becomes one of a massive game of chess. Only many of the pieces refuse to, or are incapable of, moving as ordered. Many regard Grant as winning mainly the war through attrition. Grant was smarter than that and the Confederate's legendary Robert E Lee was not as good as many claim. But I could not help feeling Grant underplayed the level of the unnecessary carnage involved in several of his battles while failing to give due credit to his opponents. This is one man's testimony, though perhaps amongst more honest and least self-serving of the memoirs written by senior military men over the ages. But it must be weighed alongside that of other participants when History renders its verdict on the conduct of a war that killed more Americans than any other before or since.
298. A Damned Un-English Weapon
by Edwyn Gray
The weapon referred to is the submarine. Edwyn Gray's account of the activities of British submarines during the First World War was first published in 1971 and has stood the test of time well. Gray is a master of creating atmosphere with a few well chosen words. In this book the reader can almost smell the electricity arcing from malfunctioning electrical circuit boards on board the primitive submarines of the time. The book focuses on the human element, particularly the submarine commanders; who were more likely to write memoirs than the ordinary sailors. Many of the tales involve out-of-control submarines plunging bow first into the sea bottom. If Gray is able to furnish a pretty full account, then the reader can guess that there were at least some survivors. Though I have a feeling that in one account the details are supplied in a log scribbled by a member of a crew which did all die. British submarines did well in the Baltic and off the Turkish coast but then the Admiralty put most of their most experienced and best skippers into ill-conceived steam-powered subs intended to operate with the main British fleet. Of some interest to those fascinated by the German submarine campaign of the Second World War is an account of the career of the First World War career of British sub captain Max Horton. Horton was to be instrumental in defeating Hitler's U-boats during the Second World War. By Gray's account, the British during the First World were far less ruthless than many of their German counter-parts when it came to sinking merchant and passenger ships without warning.
297. A Time of Tyrants
by Trevor Royle
This is a look at Scotland during the Second World War by journalist Trevor Royle. It covers a wide sweep of topics from the arts, politics, Scottish nationalism, health care, industry and conscription into civilian trades; as well as matters military. The book was a follow-up to his look at Scotland and the First World War, The Flowers of the Forest. There are times when Royle appears to be operating on the very edge of his comfort zone and a couple of occasions even when he seems to have slipped out of it. I would not go as far as one reviewer who claimed the book was riddled with errors. But Royle's summary of the 1940 Norwegian Campaign was, if someone was being kind, misleading or, if not being kind, just plain wrong. And there is no "e" at the end of the new town Livingston. The wide scope and sweep of book's content was perhaps too big for the time allowed by the publisher's deadline. On the overseas military side of things Royle appears to have opted to highlight the activities of certain battalions. He has been careful to make sure all the well known Scottish regiments get a mention but this approach means sacrificing several good stories. The book ends with an odd and already dated piece about the opening of the Scottish Parliament. Despite much of the above, I will try to get my hands on Flowers of the Forest.
296. The Complete War Walks
by Richard Holmes
It was with great reluctance that I bought this book. Respected British military historian Richard Holmes put his name to an error riddled book called Battlefield and I feared a repetition of that dismal effort. But I was pleasantly surprised. By the way, why are so many surprises not pleasant? Anyway, this is the book of a BBC 2 television series in which Holmes visited some key British battlefields. Perhaps the budget limitations meant that all but one of the battles were within what I calculate to be easy travelling distance of London. Holmes literally tramped some well known ground - Hastings, Agincourt, Bosworth, Naseby, The Boyne, Waterloo, Mons, Le Cateau, The Somme, Arras, Dunkirk, Normandy and London 1940. Holmes does a good job of putting the battles in context, has a good eye for an illuminating anecdote or memoir, and manages to make sense of what must have at time seemed to most the participants to be barely organised chaos. Even the "battlefield today" sections are interesting as Holmes crams in some more history into the almost guidebook-style text. This is actually a combination of two books but the join hardly shows. That is except for the chapters on the Second World War battle at Arras and the account of the Dunkirk campaign. Some of the Dunkirk material is almost exactly the same, very near cut-and-paste, of the Arras text. But this is a very minor quibble. This book offers a very readable and informative introduction to British military history.
295. Inside the Soviet Army
by Viktor Suvorov
Part polemic, part memoir, part insight, this relic of the Cold War first appeared in 1982. The question is how much does the Russian Army of today still resemble the Soviet Red Army of the late 1960s and early 1970s when Victor Suvorov, a pseudonym adopted by an military intelligence officer who defected to the West, served in its ranks? There are indications that the basic culture has not changed. The book warns that the Soviet Union can never be trusted, is hiding its true military capacity and will use nuclear weapons from the start of a conflict with NATO. Even when the book first came out, readers were warned by western commentators to take some of the content with a pinch of salt. Respected former general and military historian John Hackett wrote in the forward: "Though I know him personally rather well, Viktor Suvorov is aware that I cannot go all the way with him in some of his arguments and I am sometimes bound to wonder whether his is always interpreting the evidence correctly". Nevertheless, Hackett recommended the book. It is perhaps a view of the Red Army as seen through a cracked glass but it did, and to an extent still does, give an insider's view of one of the greatest military machines the World has ever seen. There were things in 1982 that the West could have learned from the Red Army and the same may still be true today.
294. Forgotten Voices of the Secret War
by Roderick Bailey
Despite the gimmicky title and a wobbly start, this proved to be an interesting and worthwhile book. Roderick Bailey and his team delved into the audio archives of the Imperial War Museum to have a look at the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. Bailey ranged widely in this compilation to include several of the lesser known aspects of the sabotage network's activities. The SOE is best known for its work with the fledgling French resistance and indeed there is much in the book about that. But he also takes in the lesser known fighting in Italy, Malaya, Borneo, Vietnam, Norway and Greece. Yugoslavia also features prominently. Bailey also cast his net wide when it came to personnel. The recollections come from resistance leaders, clerks, air crew, sailors, wireless operators, administrators and training officers. The stars of the book are the ones who chose to be the most honest. The SOE's work involved making some heart wrenching decisions which all too often decided who lived and who died. There are several tales of prisoners executed in cold blood. Lice also feature. An often fascinating look at a very diverse bunch of people.
293. 1812: Napoleon's Russian Campaign
by Richard K Riehn
American writer Richard Riehn argues, pretty convincingly, that Napoleon Bonaparte was his own worst enemy during his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. He points out that Napoleon gambled the lives of his half-million strong army on the Russians coming at him head-on and being decisively defeated; followed by a quick capitulation. Otherwise the campaign was doomed. The Russians muddled through, kept their field armies intact and did not surrender, even when Napoleon occupied Moscow. Time and space were both on the Russian's side. Napoleon seldom showed the skill that had made him the terror and vanquisher of Continental Europe. His leadership style depended on bickering and divided subordinates. They, perhaps not surprisingly, often let him, their colleagues and even themselves down. The French and their, sometimes reluctant, allies decided to live off the land but chose a desolate route to Russia's heart. Riehn makes a good case for General Winter playing far less of a part in Napoleon's defeat than his admirers often claim.
292. Why the Allies Won
by Richard Overy
A stimulating look at why the defeat of Germany and Japan during the Second World War was not inevitable after all. It is all too tempting to believe that the Axis stood no chance in the face of overwhelming United States industrial might and massive Soviet manpower. But Overy, a British history professor, repeats the old refrain that it's not what you've got, it's what you with it. He shows that the contest was more finely balanced than the statistics suggest. The Americans and Soviets learned, adapted, and usually made the most of the advantages they enjoyed. The nature of society in Nazi Germany and militarist Japan meant they did not learn and squandered their strengths. Overy looks at a wide range of factors; politics, morale, innovation leadership, military prowess, and ideology, to name only a few. He gives more credit to the British-American bombing offensive than many historians. The focus is more on the Americans than the British. He suggests that the biggest loser in the long-run was the Soviet Union, though the British didn't do particularly well either.
291. The Yom Kippur War
By Simon Dunstan
This is another offering from the prolific British military publisher Osprey which combines to previous soft cover books into a single hardback. This time the subject matter is the Israeli-Arab conflict of October 1973. The text is both well-informed and informative. Inevitably, the conflict is seen mainly through Israeli eyes. Though author Simon Dunstan battles gamely to overcome Arab reticence when it comes to how they effectively blew their best chance of inflicting a major military defeat on their enemy. In the end, the verdict has to be too many political generals and not enough real soldiers in command positions. As usual with Osprey, the book is lavishly illustrated with well chosen photos, maps, and artists’ impressions of the fighting. This is a quick but interesting read which is well up to Osprey’s usual high standards.
290. The Killing Time
by Edwyn A Gray
You can almost smell the diesel fumes choking up the interiors of the German submarines in this evocative account of the Kaiser's U-Boats during the First World War. Edwyn Gray delved deep into the memoirs of the U-Boat captains who survived the war to come up with this highly readable book about the sea campaign which nearly brought Britain to her knees by cutting off her supplies. The tales told sometimes involve courage and humanity. Just as often they involve courage and ruthless cruelty. The Royal Navy's senior officers do not always come out well either as they cluelessly blunder about the oceans offering up their crews and the merchant shipping they are supposed to protect as victims of the more professional Germans. I had not realised until I read this book how many submarines were sunk by other submarines, nor how many fell victim to naval mines. What Gray does fail to do, and this is a minor quibble, is show just how close the Germans came to sinking enough merchant ships to sever Britain's maritime lifeline in 1917. The book also takes a welcome look at the activities of the U-Boats in the Mediterranean and Turkish waters, in addition to the English Channel, North Sea and Atlantic.
289. The Circuit
by Bob Shepherd
This book about the bodyguarding business in conflict zones proved a pleasant surprise. I was expecting something a little more testosterone charged; possibly because Bob Shepherd is a former member of the Special Air Service and I feared this book might be typical product of the SAS memoir industry. But Shepherd comes over a sane and sensible, professional and reliable. A bit of an old sly fox in fact. His stories of working as a bodyguard in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are well told and very interesting. I hesitate to say he tells the tales well because the copyright on the book is in the name of his wife, Patricia Sabga. She is an American TV reporter. Shepherd worked as a security advisor and bodyguard to US television crews in all four countries I have already mentioned. His observations on the TV news business are as interesting as what he has to say about being at the sharp end of the international private security business. The book ends with a condemnation of the direction that business was heading when it was published in 2008. I will leave it to Shepherd to explain why he dedicated the book to one of the SAS men who died on the infamous Brave Two Zero mission during the First Gulf War. And I think we have another contender for Book of the Year.
288. Hitler's Pre-emptive War
by Henrik O Lunde
This book about the 1940 Norway Campaign appeared to have some things going for it. Henrick Lunde is retired US Army officer and therefore can be expected to have a handle on matters military. As he was born in Norway and only came to the USA as a child, it was probable that he would make more use of Norwegian sources than do most Anglo writers. And thirdly as America was neutral in 1940, it is to be expected he might be less partisan in his judgements than British, French, Polish or German writers. But I get the impression that Lunde wrote this book to counter British claims that the Norwegians put up rather a poor show in the face of the German invasion. The book turned out not really to be about the Norwegian Campaign but focused mainly on the fighting around Narvik in the north of the country. It also focused heavily on what Norwegian efforts on the battlefield. The nature of the fighting meant that key battles were often fought at platoon or company level. Better and more maps would have helped a lot. What maps there were in the book were of variable quality and some promised maps did not seem to be in the book at all. The British Army and Royal Navy do not come out well in Lunde's estimation. The Royal Air Force basically washed its hands of the whole campaign. The British, according to Lunde and there's no reason to doubt him, did not treat their allies, especially the Norwegians, very well. At both tactical and strategic levels their approach to the campaign was often muddle-headed and inept. What is missing is "The Why" of all this. Too much of the book is about the hapless though often brave Norwegians and not enough is about explaining why the British performed so badly. The Germans come out very well, followed by the Norwegians, then the French and Polish and bottom of the table are the Brits. Lunde is, sad to say, not a natural writer. I had high hopes of this book but ......
287. The First World War
by Hew Strachan
I don't often go for the book of the TV series. But the TV series of the same name was so refreshing that I decided to blow my book-buying budget on this one. And I was not disappointed. Professor Strachan moves the focus away from the usual Anglo-centric view of the First World War to examine why it really was a "world" war. Germany, France and Britain and their struggle on the Western Front is only a part of the story in this book. Strachan gives the other players such as Turkey, Austro-Hungry, Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, and Japan their share of the spotlight. Battles such as the Somme and Gallipoli are dealt with briefly but expertly and with a high degree of insight. Economics and international Realpolitik are given their rightful place alongside military developments. If this isn't already the Scottish school text book on the First World War, it should be. There are few single volumes that encapsulate so much insight and wisdom within such a readable text. We have our first contender for the 2016 Book of the Year.
286. The Faber Book of Espionage
Edited by Nigel West
This anthology is heady mixture of fact and fiction. And being about the byzantine world of spies, some of the fiction is really fact and some of the fact is almost pure fiction. The only thing all the entries have in common is that they were written by people who at one time or another were involved in the murky world of ..... and there lies the rub. The book includes spies, spy-catchers, filing clerks, speed boat captains, resistance workers, double agents, some possible triple agents, patriots, politicians, traitors, backroom boys and girls, frauds, thieves, secret policemen, snoopers, professionals, amateurs and semi-professionals. Strictly speaking, working with resistance guerilla fighters is not, to my mind at least, really espionage. Perhaps the safest thing to say is that all the entries are by people whose working lives involved a degree of secrecy in the interest of the British state. Editor "Nigel West", a prolific writer on intelligence matters and former Tory MP under his real name of Rupert Allason, cast his net widely but wisely when he compiled this book. There are very few duds in this fascinating collection.
285. Spoken from the Front
Edited by Andy McNab
This collection of stories from British service personnel who served in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2008 is, sadly, marred by sloppy editing and proof reading. The book is drawn from interviews, diaries and email messages from a wide variety of British participants in the war. The tales told vary from painted toe nails hidden from sight in army boots to deeds of amazing courage. The spectrum of experience varies from people who seldom left the safety of an armed camp to folk who seem to have been under fire nearly every day. McNab, a former soldier, provides some linking commentary intended to put the events detailed into some context. The stories themselves are fine and often interesting. The frustrations of dealing with lying Afghan interpreters; corrupt, drug abusing and child abusing Afghan cops; and Afghan soldiers who threaten Brits trying to treat Taliban wounded at gunpoint all get an airing. Nor do some of the participants shy away from discussing civilians killed as a result of British operations. But the book has too many silly errors in it. I hate when I have to check something I have read and this happened too many times with this book. In one extract someone is said to be serving with the RAC and in the next the RAF. I am fairly sure ND is short for "negligent discharge", not "negative discharge". When an Ulsterman says what sounds like "penned" this should almost certainly be transcribed as "pinned". The "O" in the Royal Artillery's 4/73 Sphinx Battery's full designation does not stand for "Operations" but for "Observation". This book was an excellent idea but the execution was disappointing. Very few books are completely error free, but the participants in this project deserved better than this.
284. Dieppe: The Dawn of Decision
by Jacques Mordal
This one turned out to be a translation of a French book about the joint British-Canadian raid on Dieppe in August 1942. This had not been apparent from the start but it became obvious when one of the maps was in French. The book starts its story during the fall of France in 1940, including the capture of the 51st Highland Division at St. Valery just along the coast. The same cliff-lined shoreline which made it almost impossible to evacuate the Highland Division also made Dieppe a really really bad place to attempt the landing. That, basically, is all this 1961 book has to add to the discussion of the ill-fated operation. It also features more material seen through the eyes of the Germans and French civilians than many books on Dieppe. What comes through, mostly, is that the attack was a bad idea. There is little about the planning or thought processes involved. The actual fighting is dealt with in several surprisingly short chapters. The book goes onto the describe the 1944 capture of Le Havre, near St Valery, by the Highland Division and the occupation of Dieppe by Canadian troops. Mordal points out that the raid alerted the Germans to several flaws in their coastal defence procedures and they were quick to apply the lessons learned. His argument that the Allies also learned much is less convincing.
283. Voices of the Foreign Legion
by Adrian D Gilbert
I was in no rush to read this. So much has been written about the French Foreign Legion that it is struggle to find much that is fresh. The same old legends and stories are often recycled year after year as fresh titles are added to the genre. Never has so much been written about so few. So, Adrian Gilbert's book was a pleasant surprise. In the opening chapters he cuts away much of myth and mystique to take a sober and sensible look at this band of mercenaries. He neither condemns nor glorifies those who decide to further the aims of France through mercenary service. Many of the "voices" in the early part of the book are those of reasonably recent members of the Legion. Though, he sometimes ducks back to an earlier account to help put life in the modern Legion into perspective. The second half of the book is a brief canter through the history of the Legion as seen through the eyes of its members. Gilbert manages to come up with a selection of tales that not only illustrate the points he is making but also inform and entertain. Gilbert is an experienced writer and military historian has produced a very smooth and easy read. Anyone thinking of joining the Legion would be well advised to have a look at this book before signing on the dotted line to serve France for five years.
282. Gallipoli: Command under Fire
by Eric J Erickson
This book argues that the Turks beat the British because they had better command and control mechanisms and fielded better troops. Eric J Erickson was an American artillery officer and when he wrote this book he was teaching at the US Marine Corps University. Sometimes this dissection of the two approaches to command reads like too much of a PhD thesis. But Erickson makes a good argument. The Turkish command and control system does indeed seem to have worked better than the amateurish British approach. The Turks modelled their system on the German one and several of senior Turkish Army commanders were on loan from Germany. The Turks followed the basic rules of warfare, such as concentration of force. Efficient battlefield reporting procedures meant the commanders had an excellent idea what was happening. Many of Turks were veterans of the Balkan Wars and knew their business. The British in contrast lumbered themselves with complex plans which usually did not survive first contact with the enemy and then had no idea, thanks to sloppy battlefield reporting procedures, what was going on. Ad hoc command arrangements meant little genuine control was exercised on the movement of desperately needed reinforcements. The British troops were often inexperienced and not particularly well trained. The commanders were often too old and inexperienced at handling troops in the numbers required to take on the Turks. The British consistently under-estimated the Turks. According to Erickson the British never came close to winning. Sadly, the book is marred by poor editing. There is one paragraph which is obviously a rewrite of the previous one but both have been included. During the account of the late June Battle of Gully Ravine the book starts referring to events happening in July. The loss of the 156th Brigade of the 52nd Lowland Division from the effective order of battle is referred to as if it had already been explained by its virtual destruction at Gully Ravine. There is nothing in the book about the 156th's attack at Gully Ravine. I found myself re-reading paragraphs I could not understand in case I had missed something - but I don't think I had. So, an interesting project marred by sloppiness. A bit like the Gallipoli Campaign itself.
281. Loose Cannons
by Graeme Donald
This is probably one of the better military miscellanies, claiming to detail 101 martial mishaps, myths and misadventures. Journalist, word expert and quiz question-setter Graeme Donald is a smooth writer. Some of the tales are perhaps too well known to be new to the people who would be interested enough in the subject matter to buy this book, but it might be difficult to come up with 101 completely fresh tales. However, there is enough that is new to keep the reader interested. Sometimes Donald stretches a point too far. The armed stand-off between British and American troops in 1859 was not really about a pig but a territorial dispute over the US-Canadian border. It is not clear whether Donald's breezy writing style led him to apparently completely dismiss Crimean War correspondent William Russell's reference to the "thin red line" when he should have known that what the Times man actually wrote was pretty close to that - "thin red streak". He also trots out the old canard that an Englishman invented what is now thought of as the kilt. And though the White House in Washington was sometimes referred to by that name before the British burned it in 1814, the whitewash does indeed hide scorch marks on the stonework. The US President's official residence was indeed rebuilt but at least some of the original stonework was used. There are several stories in the book I'd be tempted to take with a pinch of salt and without footnotes on his sources it is difficult to assess their credibility. But this was book was never intended to be the kind that has footnotes. And Donald did put me straight on a couple of things.
280. The Shame and the Glory: Dieppe
by Terence Robertson
For many years this was THE Canadian account of the disastrous Canadian attack on the French holiday resort of Dieppe in August 1942. The release of official records in recent years spawned a couple of books desperate to come up with something new to say. But Terence Robertson had the advantage over more recent authors in that he had been a Royal Navy officer during the Second World War and had a definite feel for what he was writing about. His later career as a journalist and biographer honed his journalistic and writing skills. The way Robertson tells it, it is easy to sympathise with the Canadian soldiers who refused to leave the landing craft and had to be forced onto the beaches at gunpoint. The moving meat-grinder of death sweeping back and forth along the shorelines is excellently brought to life, as it were. The first half of the book focuses on the planning and training for the raid. Allied politics combined with the overweening arrogance and ambition to pretty much doom the enterprise. Personally, I felt this book gives Lord Louis Mountbatten too easy a ride and is too harsh in its judgement of British army commander Bernard Montgomery. The Royal Air Force's Bomber Command was as usual unhelpful. Nothing was worth diverting a single bomber for a single day from the bombing of Germany as far as the infamous Air Marshal "Bomber" Harris was concerned. Without bomber support the frontal assault on Dieppe's waterfront was a very dubious proposition. And in any case, reducing buildings to rubble often creates better improvised strongpoints than leaving them standing. Montgomery went off to find international fame in North Africa believing the mission had been scrubbed. Mountbatten had other ideas. Hindsight is always 20/20 but it is hard to believe that the Dieppe Landing ever had much chance of success. Only the commandos under Lord Lovat fully achieved their mission. Elsewhere a handful of second and third rate German troops had little difficulty killing or surrounding the Canadians. Robertson reports amazing courage and despicable cowardice and cruelty. Sadly, Robertson pretty much ignores the air battle over Dieppe and the English Channel in which RAF Fighter Command's plan to cripple the Luftwaffe went tragically awry. Robertson appears to subscribe to the "valuable lessons were learned and applied during the D Day Landings" school of thought. But it is hard to see what lessons this tragic cock-up taught that were not obvious. Or were not learned from the later Allied landings in North Africa, Sicily, Salerno and Anzio.
279. The Revolution in Ireland 1906 - 1923
by W Alison Phillips
I knew this book would be an oddity. And I was not disappointed. Walter Alison Phillips was an English academic working at Dublin University during the turbulent years which saw Ireland regain its independence from Westminster. Phillips was firmly against an Irish republic, and the almost inevitable partition of island based on apparently sectarian divisions arising from the British pull-out from the 26 counties. His prejudices are barely concealed and his frankly racist generalisations damage his arguments. But he does have some ideas worth examining. The Sinn Fein organisation which became the driving force behind the independence movement was indeed revolutionary. The British response to the 1916 Easter Rising and the campaign of murder, intimidation and anarchy that followed was indeed wrong headed; alternating savage retribution with excessive leniency. When the victors fell out in 1922 the former revolutionaries who made up the new Free State government was far more ruthless in dealing with their enemies that the British ever were. Phillips also suggests that the revolutionaries' protectionist economic policies would have spelled ruin for the industrialised north east corner of Ireland. His attitude in this book is basically "a plague on all their houses" when it comes to Sinn Fein, the old Nationalist Party, the British Government and the meddling Americans. I am not sure how seriously to take Phillips opinions on the role by the Bolshevik Russians in the toxic stew. His sympathies with the Ulster Unionists and distaste for what he describes as the "Young Ireland" movement mean that he may have been too inclined to give the former the benefit of the doubt and be too harsh on the latter. Some of his history is also a bit suspect. Republican commander Tom Barry was not a former British officer, he was a corporal in the Royal Artillery. But that does not mean that this contemporary, though partisan, survey of events should be tossed in the bin.
278. No Man's Land
by John Toland
Prolific American writer John Toland devotes his undoubted talents to a look at events in 1918 leading to the Armistice on November 11th of that year. The book basically starts with the German Spring Offensives and Toland does a fine job of knitting together accounts from frontline participants on both sides of the Western Front. But he also devotes pretty much equal space to the Allied politicians' reaction to the German's near complete breakthrough. Haig comes out of this book looking better than in many accounts but his French counter-part Petain shows many of the dismal personality traits that would later manifest themselves in 1940 with France's surrender to the Germans. As American participation in the war increased, so Toland's focus moves to his fellow countrymen. But he avoids much of the blind chauvinism which blights so many American accounts of the conflict. The book shows US President Woodrow Wilson trying to impose his ideas for peace on the nations that up until had borne the brunt of repelling the Kaiser's hordes. It is important to remember that the United States was not one of the Allies but regarded itself as a temporary co-belligerent. Tricky times. The final chapters scrutinize events in Germany as its generals first of all beg for a cease-fire and then successfully distance themselves from it and create the "stabbed in the back myth" that was so potent that Germany had another go in 1939. The book pays little heed to events outside the Western Front. The only exception is discussion of events in Bolshevik Russia, where the United States felt it had interests. I would imagine that Toland had several researchers helping him find the wide range of memoirs and documents quoted in this 600-pager. But I can only presume that the British and American offensive launched on November 1918 in northern Russia that he mentions is a reference to the Bolshevik attack on British, Canadian and American troops at Tuglas. This is a book written by and for Americans. Toland knew his audience and his craft perhaps too well to write a completely fair and balanced account of the final months of the First World War. But he did write a very good one.
277. The Battle
by Richard Overy
One of the United Kingdom's top historians takes a look at the myths surrounding the Battle of Britain in this short book which came out on the 60th anniversary of the iconic clash in the skies over southern England. The result is more of a long essay than a book, but none the worse for that. The book argues that the German army and navy may not have been capable of mounting a seaborne invasion of the United Kingdom and the Luftwaffe's campaign was more intended to maintain the pressure on the British to sue for peace than anything else. What counted were fighter planes and pilots and in that department the Germans were fewer than the legendary British "Few". German intelligence badly underestimated the capacities of the Royal Air Force and the British over-estimated that of their opponents. Both sides therefore made mistakes. The German mistakes were more serious. Overy seems to believe that the battle was pretty much a draw but by not losing, the British managed to survive to be numbered among the victors of the war in 1945. This was a bold attempt in its time to puncture some of Britain's long-cherished myths and straighten the record at least a little.
276. The Russo-Japanese war 1904-05
A Ivanov and P Jowett
This is another entry in the famous Osprey Men-at-Arms series. Both one of the authors, Alexie Ivanov, and the illustrator, Andrei Karachtchouk, were born in Russia. I am not sure whether this is why there is a greater focus on the Russian army than on the Japanese; five pages of full colour drawings to three for the Japanese. The balance of the text is similar. But I would like to believe that the imbalance reflects the greater variety of different troop types the Russians deployed in this sadly neglected war. The book kicks off with a chronological summary of the war followed by a quick discussion of the use of machine guns, trenches, telephones and radios, observation balloons and Chinese forces. Then it takes a quick look at the how the two opposing armies shaped up before looking at the nitty-gritty of the uniforms and personal equipment. The illustrations are well up to Osprey's usual standard. This is an interesting introduction to one of the forgotten wars of the 20th Century. Even in 1905 many military experts failed to realise the lessons that should have been obvious to anyone preparing for what was seen even then as the almost inevitable clash between the European democracies and the Kaiser's Germany.
by Kenneth Macksey
This book was not what I expected - in good way. Its lurid cover and sensationalist blurb on the back of this cheap paperback led me to expect a potboiling rehash of old tales of commando daring-do. Macksey was at one time among the most highly prolific British writers on matters military. A fulltime writer pretty much has to produce a book a year and over a couple of decades that can lead to some variation in quality. This book proved to be better than I expected. It looks at the various British, US and Commonwealth units which mounted seaborne hit and run raids during the Second World War. Many of the battles recounted take place in the corridors of power rather than on the coast of German-occupied Europe or Japanese held Pacific islands. Many senior military men on both sides of the Atlantic doubted the value of often expensive pin-prick raids by men creamed off from regular units who were crying out for just the sort of leadership they could provide. From Day One the sea raiders had many enemies and doubters in Whitehall and Washington. Silly mistakes and lack of experience gave the doubters plenty of ammunition. Macksey, a former tank regiment officer, provides short and clear-sighted accounts of many of raids. He steers clear of romanticism and mythology in this thoughtful book. At the end of the day, I was not convinced of Lord Louis Mountbatten's greatness as head of Combined Operations or the necessity of the Dieppe Raid of 1942. But I did learn a lot. And that's the whole point, isn't it?
274. Dangerous Lives
by Anthony Feinstein
The receipt slipped in between the pages shows that this book about war journalists sat around unread at my place for a decade and cost me fifty pence brand new. It is written by a Canadian psychiatrist, using American spellings, and is based on a questionnaire sent out to 140 "war journalists" followed by interviews with 28 of them. Surprise, surprise, it showed they were more likely to suffer from PTSD and/or depression than journalists who never go near a combat zone. Perhaps the more surprising thing is that around 75% of them were basically unaffected psychiatrically by their experiences. It has long been known that journalists who specialise in war reporting were quite likely to be clinical psychopaths, as the rewards of the job are usually outweighed by the risks run. Also unsurprisingly, the journalists' motives ranged from macho thrill-seeking to a genuine belief in the need to let the world know what is happening in war zones, especially to innocent civilians. It is difficult to know which kind to feel sorriest for. Those motivated by higher ideals must be dismayed to find that the viewing, listen and reading publics often decide that both sides are as bad as each other and intervention is a waste of time: any excuse to do nothing. Some of those who helped Feinstein with his study agreed to be identified in the book, other accounts and quotes appear anonymously. The cases in which the journalist is named carry more heft because it is possible to gauge the quality of their work and to some extent assess the credibility of what is said. Feinstein takes a couple of odd forks in this book, and perhaps some of the cases are recounted to justify the cost of gathering them. The discussion of how American TV journalists employed by CNN dealt with the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in particular seemed out of place.
273. Joint Force Harrier
by Ade Orchard and James Barrington
This is a look at the war in Afghanistan as seen from the cockpit of a Harrier ground attack aircraft. Orchard was the commander of the Naval Air Squadron which flew out of Kandahar airfield in support of Coalition troops in late 2006 and early 2007. His co-writer Barrington is a former military pilot turned intelligence officer turned spy thriller writer. So, the book moves along a fair clip with the focus on the action in the air. Orchard wisely recounts the exploits of his fellow pilots, either culled from mission debriefs or shared over coffees at one of the several doughnut shops on the sprawling base. These are told in supposedly verbatim quotes, which capture the immediacy of events and put a human face on events. But unless tape recorders were involved, no-one can recreate such discussions entirely accurately. Did the unit intelligence officer really miss out the British campaigns in Afghanistan between 1878 and 1880 in his background briefing to the squadron? I would hope not; very scary if he did. Orchard and Barrington seem to do a good job of conveying what it is like to be in the cockpit of a highly complex machine of war. But as at the time the book was written Orchard was still a serving officer in the Royal Navy, there has to be a suspicion that much was held back and he may well have a more interesting book in him when he retires from Her Majesty's navy.
by Robert Harvey
This is a version of the life of one of Scotland's greatest fighting sailors - Thomas Cochrane. Sadly, the outspoken but impoverished nobleman was his own worst enemy. While very successful against the French and Spanish during the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, Cochrane's jousts with the British Establishment, and in particular the Admiralty, were less satisfying. He was one of the last people in Britain to be humiliated in the stocks. That was after he was convicted of a stock market scam involving boosting the price of a certain stock by planting false news that Napoleon had been killed by Russian Cossacks. Robert Harvey seems convinced Cochrane was completely innocent and may even have been framed by some of his many enemies with the British ruling class. Cochrane's uncle was certainly involved and the visit of the man who brought the false news to London to Cochrane's home shortly after his arrival takes some explaining. Harvey also suggests that but for his feuds with the Establishment Cochrane would be as famous and well regarded as Horatio Nelson. But then he also tells how Cochrane was at his best acting as a lone wolf, a sea wolf no less. His attempts at fleet actions as a mercenary admiral fighting for Chilean, Brazilian and Greek independence were not entirely successful. Cochrane, also an MP and inventor, comes across in this readable book as a complex and flawed man. I came away from this book not quite the fan of Cochrane that Harvey became as he researched the book.
271. Stalin's General
by Geoffrey Roberts
I paid more for this book than I usually do these days - and I was disappointed. Georgy Zhukov was involved in most of the decisive Red Army battles against the Germans during the Second World War. I was hoping this book would explain just how Zhukov managed to defeat the much vaunted German war machine. But this book proved superficial on almost every front and I finished it not much more the wiser. Nor did I feel I knew much more about Zhukov as a human being. Roberts appears to rely heavily on Stalin's office diary to establish whether Zhukov could really have met the Soviet dictator on such and such a day and discussed so and so. The diary shows that Zhukov's memory was sometimes a little faulty and he may on occasion have exaggerated his part in the decision making process. Zhukov made enemies amongst his fellow Soviet generals who felt he was too keen to take credit for their work. Zhukov would have been almost unique amongst military commanders if that did not happen. How many people on the street can name Montgomery's two Army Commanders, 1st Canadian and 2nd British, in 1945 or a senior subordinate of Patton's? I had concerns about Roberts's grasp on the history of the Second World War. The Afrika Korps was not air-lifted out of North Africa following the Anglo-American landings in 1942. And everything else I that have read about the 1945 Potsdam Conference states that US President Harry Truman did not spell out to Stalin that the new very powerful bomb that had just been tested was a nuclear weapon. Either Roberts got it wrong or almost all recent histories of the war did.
by Rodric Braithwaite
This is a realistic, wise and sympathetic look at the Soviet experience in Afghanistan which undermines the propaganda of the Reagan and Thatcher Years. Rodric Braithwaite was the British ambassador in Moscow between 1988 and 1992, the time of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan country and its aftermath. So, he started out with a firm grip of what was really happening and built on it to create a remarkable and valuable book. Soviet soldiers believed, as did their NATO successors, that they were in Afghanistan to help. In fact, the Soviets may have done more to improve life there through economic development and education than the western democracies did after 2001. But they probably also did a lot more damage too when the Afghans bit the hand that was trying to feed them. The geriatric Soviet leadership was determined not to send Soviet troops to prop up their blood-thirsty and not entirely popular Communist allies in Afghanistan. But in a fit of Cold War paranoia they took their eyes off the ball for just long enough to momentarily lose the plot and launch into a tragedy. Their concerns about United States' mischief-making were not entirely groundless and the Americans in their enthusiasm for baiting the Soviet Bear, in partnership with the government of Pakistan (working to its own twisted agenda), laid the foundations of a continuing and bloody tragedy. Braithwaite knows his Russians and does an excellent job of putting human faces to a terrible and futile war. The aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the political dislocation which threw official archives wide open, all too briefly, mean that Braithwaite was able to produce a far more accurate account of the Russian involvement in Afghanistan than we are likely to see for at least a decade, probably more, when it comes to NATO's activities in that benighted country.
by John Selby
This is a highly readable look at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854 from a former British gunner who also taught military history at Sandhurst military academy. Balaclava is most famous for the Charge of the Light Brigade but was also the source of the oft-quoted phrase "Thin Red Line". Legendary Times journalist William Russell actually originally described the 93rd Highlanders stand against a large force of Russian cavalry as being undertaken by a "thin red streak tipped with steel" but later amended the phrase to "Thin Red Line". The battle also included the successful, but neglected, Charge of the Heavy Brigade in which the Royal Scots Greys played a leading part. Selby went to some trouble to personalise his account of the battle by leaning heavily on accounts from soldiers who served on both sides. This is the first book I've come across that takes a good look at the fate of the men from the Light Brigade who were taken prisoner by the Russians. Although the book focuses on Balaclava it also includes a look at the Allies' campaign in the Bulgaria, the landing in the Crimea, the battles of Alma and Inkerman, the eventual capture of Sebastapol and the general conduct of the campaign. Selby proves less harsh on British commander Lord Raglan, Lord Lucan and Cardigan than many historians and it is obvious that carpenter's son turned general Colin Campbell is one of his heroes.
268. Bullet Proof
by Matt Croucher and Robert Jobson
I decided on several occasions not to buy this book but when the price dropped to two dollars, a pound, I decided to chance it. I had a feeling that it was going to be ghost-written in by a tabloid journalist in pseudo-squaddie speak and be torqued up more than somewhat. The book proved to be slightly more of a puzzle. I don't know how George Cross winner Matt Croucher and tabloid Royals writer Jobson tackled this project but I suspect the Royal Marines Commando's voice dominated. Sometimes I thought perhaps Jobson, rightly, decided to limit his rewrite to tidying up a transcription of Croucher's taped reminiscences. A fuller glossary explaining more of the Bootneck and iPod Generation phrases used would have been handy. And some of the transcription seemed a bit dodgy - I'm pretty certain "skylighting" should be "sky-lining" and "firearms carry" was supposed to be "fireman's carry". It is harder to decide if Jobson also torqued up Croucher's story. Croucher's second-by-second recollections of combat incidents are surprisingly detailed. But I suppose there are people memories that work that way. The Croucher of the book certainly seems to have had some very narrow escapes from death. Perhaps the most amazing is when he threw himself backwards onto a booby-trapped grenade in a Taliban compound after triggering it. His day-sack and body armour took the brunt of the explosion, saving him and two colleagues from serious injury. This was an interesting read but I think the proof of the pudding would be to know what Croucher's fellow Royal Marines made of it. Croucher has some strong opinions, particularly about civilians, and he is not backward at coming forward with them. That is one of the things that makes this book interesting.
267. Total War Volume II
by Guy Wint and John Pritchard
This second volume of one of the best histories of the Second World War is subtitled "The Greater East Asia and Pacific War"and as with Volume One, about the war against Germany, is thought-provoking and nuanced. Wint, a former civil servant and journalist, worked in the Far East and India from 1942. Pritchard was an American academic who spent much of his working life in Britain and specialised in Japanese history. The result of their work is a fascinating look at the national insanity that was the Japanese war against China, the United States and the Britain. Insanity, bestiality, delusion, and military fascism all feature heavily in this sad and bloody tale. Japan's efforts to ape the European empires in the Far East was doomed from the start. The out-of-control Japanese military's response to the quite frankly racist European and American treatment of their island nation defied logic and common sense. More than two-thirds of the book is taken up with events preceding the sneak attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor but the tale the authors tell is well worth it. But sadly they fail, I feel, to explain the horrendous bestiality the Japanese unleashed on their victims from 1931 onward. Deluded, muddle-headed, racist and incompetent has to be the verdict on the Japanese. Only the equally muddled-headed, racist and incompetent conduct of the British and Americans allowed the Japanese their early successes. The difference was the Brits and Americans learned from their mistakes and had time on their side.
266. The Informer
by Sean O'Callaghan
This is an extraordinary story from a very extraordinary man. The book details how Irish republican O’Callaghan rejoined the Irish Republican Army with the sole aim of helping destroying it after dropping out years earlier. He claims he became one of the top Irish police spies within the highly secretive and tight-knit organisation. And despite his constant sabotage of the IRA’s operations no-one suspected for years that he was a spy for the Irish government and later the British. The book gives an almost unique insight into the workings of the IRA and life within the prison system, both in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland, for a man convicted of killing a member of the security forces. There’s a lot of squalor and brutality in this tale. Few come out of it well. There have been other books by IRA men who worked for the security services in Northern Ireland but none of them worked with the lead players to the same extent as O’Callaghan claims he did. He names names. O’Callaghan also proves to be a very good writer. He tells his tale well.
265. Discovering British Regimental Traditions
by Ian F W Beckett
Either this is a small book or a large pamphlet. It is certainly a quick and at times interesting read. The book takes a brief look at some of the traditions of the British army but it really more of a taster than a comprehensive guide. Sometimes the facts seemed to have been sacrificed for the sake of brevity and as a Scot I am perhaps more sensitive to the omissions relating to the Scottish regiments. Beckett states that the only regiments named after persons not of royal blood are the Green Howards and the Duke of Wellington's Regiment. Perhaps we did have a King Gordon or the Crown should indeed sit on the brow of a Cameron. One anecdote relating to one of the Edinburgh Volunteer Rifle units seems to be based on a misreading passage in a book about its history. And when discussing the adoption of khaki Beckett highlights the Ox and Bucks use of it in 1857 but ignores the 74th Highlanders' highly serviceable 1851 campaign uniform worn in South Africa. The book ranges widely in topics tackled, including medals, monuments, and support units, when perhaps is should have concentrated more on the much storied fighting regiments.
264. Forward into Battle
by Paddy Griffiths
Paddy Griffiths, a former lecturer at Sandhurst military college, was a stirrer and this look at battle tactics from the Napoleonic Wars to the Falklands was controversial. Griffiths argued in this short book, really a series of five essays, that the quality of the men counted as much, if not more, as the weapons used. He starts the book by tackling the orthodox belief that the British thin red line's musket volleys destroyed the densely packed French columns on the battlefields of the Peninsular War. Then he tackles military practise and theory, not always the same thing, between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War with lengthy looks at the American Civil War and the Franco-German War of 1870. Then the book moves onto the opening moves of the First World War and how tactics evolved. He points out that Germany's storm-troopers came closer to breaking the deadlock on the Western Front than British tanks did. He then takes on the use of tanks during the Second World War, taking on several orthodoxies on the way, before looking at what went wrong for the Americans in Vietnam. One of features of the American battles in Vietnam was that they were often brought operations to a halt to focus on the evacuation of casualties. Sadly, Griffith's book came out before the recent conflict in Afghanistan and therefore does not examine any parallels with how the war was fought there. This book has a lot of interesting ideas in it but I was not convinced that Griffiths always had the facts to back up his arguments. He described the 93rd Highlanders' on the battlefield at New Orleans as "inexplicably" halting under a hail of American fire. A little more research would have revealed why they halted. The last chapter is a look at the likely course of a clash between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Germany, the conclusions of which have not so far been tested. This book is a stimulating look at tactics and it is a shame it came out before the battle to liberate Kuwait and the Anglo-US invasion of Iraq in 2003 had occurred and could be examined by Griffiths. I am sure they would have given Griffiths and his readers plenty of food for thought.
263. The Secret History of MI6
by Keith Jeffrey
This book was a big disappointment. History professor Keith Jeffrey was given access to MI6's archives covering the period up to 1949 and a little beyond. Unfortunately, MI6 does not keep very good records. The result is a book which is heavy on bureaucratic bickering and administrative details and light on operational detail. Jeffrey charts the history of the Secret Intelligence Service from the fake beard and invisible ink early days through the years between the world wars when it was more concerned with using its limited budget battling the "threat" from the British Labour Party than finding out what was happening in Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy or Stalin's Soviet Union through to the Second World War. Although arch-traitor, and supposed MI6 wunderkind, Kim Philby gets a couple of mentions, the book barely touches on why a Soviet agent was able to become a key player in British intelligence or the damage he managed to do. The book completely ignores accusations that MI6 eminence gris Claude Dansey sacrificed a French resistance network and its British agents in Machiavellian scheme to infiltrate the Gestapo in France. Nor is there any discussion of the allegations that Dick Ellis was a double-agent, serving first of the Germans and then the Soviets. Rather oddly, considering the number of people undoubtedly involved in vetting the book, the book claims that Lord Mountbatten was involved establishing the British commandos in 1940 when in fact he was a flotilla commander with the Royal Navy. If Jeffrey could not even get that right, one has to wonder what else he got wrong. Finishing this lengthy tome became a chore.
262. Wearing the Green Beret
by Jake Olafsen
Jake Olafsen is a Canadian who joined the Royal Marines Commandos and served with them in Afghanistan twice. It is interesting to read a book about the British military written in a North American voice rather than a moonlighting journalist's ghost written squaddie-speak. About half the book is taken up with the rigorous training Olafson had to undertake when he was training to be a commando. Then the book moves to Afghanistan. For a Canadian audience much of what Olafsen says might be fresh. There are still very few Canadian rank-and-file accounts of the fighting in Afghanistan. But for British readers, most of it has been said and told before. The final section of the book is basically about a world tour the Royal Marines undertook in which they trained alongside their counterparts from many nations. His account of the performance of Saudi troops is both funny and worrying. Not a bad read.
by Philip Haythornewaite
The focus of this book is firmly on the rank-and-file members of Britain's army during the Napoleonic Wars. Philip Haythornewaite is one of the most prolific British writers when it comes to this war. He has put his years of reading soldiers' memories from the period to good use to create a highly readable and amusing book. Not all the memoirs were written by rankers, or even former rankers, but the officers' points of view and anecdotes regarding their men make for valuable contributions to this portrait of the British fighting man in war and peace. The chapters cover the recruitment, training, discipline, living conditions, life on campaign, battles, women and retirement. I would have been interested in what Haythornewaite made of one of my favourite memoirs, Vicissitudes in the Life of a Scottish Soldier, but sadly it goes unmentioned. But most of the old favourites and many of the more obscure memoirs are mined by Haythornewaite for tales and anecdotes which illustrate the points he wants to make about hard men in hard times.
260. The Killing Ground
by Tim Travers
This book sometimes reads like a PhD thesis. But then author Tim Travers was a university professor when he wrote it. It is also a book of two halves. The entire book is supposed to be a look at how and why the British Army fought the way it did on the Western Front during the First World War. The answer, according to Travers, lies with the way British officers were recruited and the military education they received in the 1890s. The officer corps was a closed-shop made up of bickering cliques. Much of the doctrine dated back to Napoleonic thinking. Character and leadership were far more important than applying brainpower to harness the technology available to win the war. Machine-guns, tanks, aircraft and improved artillery were all mis-used. British commander Douglas Haig and his staff were remote and out of touch with frontline reality. The Army and Corps headquarters were not much better. Nearly all of this is admirably dealt with in the first half of the book. Travers looks at the planning and execution, in both senses of the word, involved in the Battle of the Somme. Both left much to be desired. I had expected the book to look at the lessons learned from the sorry Somme and how they were applied in 1917 and 1918. But instead Travers spends the following two chapters discussing the shortcomings of the Official History of the War. The final 100 days of the war when the Allies, and in particular the British, finally broke through the German defensive line are almost completely ignored. It could be that Travers is arguing that the British did not actually learn much, or change much, after the Somme. And that the Germans were beaten because their society fractured under the stresses and strains of the war. It is hard not to conclude that the British Army was indeed led by donkeys. But the same could equally well have been said of British society as a whole. The United Kingdom was already in major decline before 1914.
259. Monty - Final Years of Field Marshal
by Nigel Hamilton
It is hard to know what to make of Nigel Hamilton's three part mammoth biography of the strange man whom Hamilton believes was one of Britain's greatest soldiers. Hamilton certainly seems to have done his research in interviewing so many of Bernard Montgomery's admirers and detractors. He marshals a convincing argument that flies in the face of many military historians' verdicts on Montgomery. There is a lot of money to be made from attacking Montgomery. One of the biggest problems with Montgomery is that he was never allowed to carry through his master plan to defeat Germany before Christmas 1944. We will never know if he was right or wrong. American generals Omar Bradley and George Patton had other ideas which involved THEM winning the war and supreme allied commander Eisenhower, possibly already with an eye on the US Presidency, went along with his countrymen. The real war in the west was between the Allied generals and, if Hamilton is to be believed, the price paid was the unnecessary deaths of tens or thousands of American, British and Canadian soldiers. Many British historians have bought into the American version of how the war was won created to hide from the US public the unnecessary slaughter of its young men. Hamilton is a very sympathetic biographer but even he could not hide the fact that the little Field Marshal could be a very unpleasant man and his abrasive character did a lot of damage. Vanity, insensitivity, and arrogance often drowned out or masked the more appealing sides of Montgomery's character. Even Hamilton is hard put to explain Montgomery's disgraceful treatment of his right-hand man for much of the Second World War, his chief of staff Freddie de Guingand. Montgomery seems to have been paranoid that his loyal subordinate would somehow steal credit from him if his role in the war was even mentioned. While most of this book is taken up with sad tale of the war between Monty and the Americans, the Field Marshal's brief period as head of the British Army and his involvement in the fledgling NATO organisation are also examined. As there are so few mainstream books looking at the men who have headed Britain's armed forces since the Second World War or the history of NATO and its predecessor Western Union Defence Organization both topics were well worth examining. This is a fascinating take on Britain's part in the defeat of Germany in the Second World War. It also strikes me as one of the better researched military biographies.
258. No Worse Enemy
by Ben Anderson
London-based television film-maker Ben Anderson takes an honest look at the British and American military's campaigns in Afghanistan and concludes they probably should not have bothered. The book is an account of the time he spent with troops of both nations as they attempt, and fail, to bring stability and peace to Helmand. Anderson concludes that by supporting a corrupt Kabul regime dominated by warlords and drug dealers that the western troops' mission is doomed from the start. He cites numerous examples of opportunities missed when it comes to bringing the local population onside, or at least into a state of neutrality. He also took the trouble to have the Afghans he recorded speaking properly translated when he got back home. It turned out that on many occasions the Afghan translators accompanying the troops were deliberately misleading their paymasters as to what the local population were saying. I had hoped the book would be about 50/50 about the British and Americans but it was mainly about the time Anderson spent with the US Marines. The British were under-resourced and there were not enough of them to hold the areas they spent so much blood to temporarily occupy. Anderson was interested to see what would happen when better resourced US troops took over. He found that no nation in the world could send the number of troops needed to subdue Helmand. And talk of the Afghan government being capable of doing the job were self-serving propaganda aimed at explaining a defeated NATO's scramble to get out of Afghanistan. The book is a simple eyewitness account of what Anderson saw and heard during several attachments to British and US troops rather than a polemic. But what Anderson witnessed is sobering and sad. Add another book to the short-list for the 2015 Book of the Year.
257. Hundred Days
by Nick Lloyd
This look at the last 100 days of the First World War takes a good run at puncturing one of the central myths that led to the Second World War - namely that the German Army was unbeaten in the field and was stabbed in the pack by craven politicians. Professional historian Nick Lloyd shows beyond a doubt that the German Army cracked and even argues that the world would have been better served if the Allies and Americans had pressed on into Germany. But what he doesn't do is explain why the German Army collapsed. Was the Allied blockade finally succeeding? Or was it that the Germans just cracked under the strain following the failure of their spring offensive? The book gives more credit for the final victory to the Americans and French than most British accounts. But I'm not sure it does the British contribution full credit. The French had been a busted flush since 1917 and the Americans were still at the bottom of a very costly, for them, learning curve. Lloyd seems to suggest that the British basically won because they were slightly less worn out than the Germans. That said, Lloyd is better writer than most academics and he strikes about the right balance between the small and big pictures.
256. Crucible of War
by Fred Anderson
This is more of a political history of the Seven Years' War as seen through American eyes than a military history. The fighting which saw the British seize Canada and several French colonies in the Caribbean is dealt with in pretty short order. For instance I was disappointed that so little was said about the Highland regiments at Fort Duquesne and Ticonderoga. Anderson, an American academic, tends to see his fellow countrymen and their motivations through somewhat rose tinted spectacles. George Washington gets a rather better press than he deserves. Basically, Anderson argues that the Seven Years' War, known to Americans as the French and Indian War, laid the groundwork for the American War of Independence just over a decade later. That's nothing new. His analysis of the part played by the Indians is interesting. His contention that they would have been effectively exterminated even if the British had not lost the war of Independence is not so strong. The black population might also have something to say about his belief that the Revolution was a good thing for democracy and freedom. Their contemporaries on the slave plantations of the West Indies were freed a lot earlier. His arguments that genocide and continued bondage were inevitable whoever ruled seem dubious when one looks at what happened in the part of North America which remained under British rule. Canada is not far from perfect but I think I'd rather be black or Indian there than in the good old USA.
255. Infantry Brigadier
by Howard Kippenberger
I've been trying to get my hands on a copy of this book for years. And I was not disappointed. Despite the title, the book follows New Zealander Howard Kippenberger's career as a battalion commander through to, briefly, a divisional commander during the Second World War. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the challenges faced by a medium level military commander. Men behave badly, men behave well in this book. Some people disappoint, others surprise in a good way. Kippenberger, a veteran of the Western Front in the First World War, is not afraid to criticise and appears to be refreshingly candid about his own failings. The New Zealanders were among the most reliable troops in the Western Desert and it is interesting to read a memoir by one of the men who helped build that reputation. The book follows Kippenberger's odyssey from New Zealand to Italy via the Western Desert and Greece and through its abrupt end when he stepped on a landmine while in command of the 2nd New Zealand Division at Monte Cassino. I am surprised that this book has ever been out of print since it was first released in 1949.
254. The Rhine Crossings 1945
by Ken Ford and Howard Gerrard
This is one of Osprey's "Campaign" Series and looks at Rhine crossing conducted by troops under the command Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in 1945. The book follows the series template by putting the battle in the wider context of the war, looking at the opposing commanders and troops, an account of the fighting, an examination of the aftermath and at how the battlefield looks now - all accompanied by numerous maps and photographs and three double-page artistic reconstructions of some of the action. Ken Ford, a respected expert on the Allied campaign in Northwest Europe, has a produced a workman-like text. He argues that Montgomery's plan was not the overkill that American critics often label it but he does criticise the decision to drop the British 6th Airborne and US 17th Airborne Divisions on the east side of the river. This is a decent enough book but I don't think I would have shelled out the original asking price of $26.95 Canadian for it.
253. Helmand - The Diaries of Front-Line Soldiers
A look at the war in Afghanistan as seen through the diaries of some of the British soldiers who served there. The book is built around the diary of Lieutenant John Thornton of 40 Commando, Royal Marines. It avoids the blokey soldier-speak typical of ghost-written accounts of the conflict but I can't help feeling the entries have been a little sanitised. There are extracts from a total six diaries, three from officers who served with Thornton in 2007-2008 and one from his brother Ian who served in Afghanistan in 2011-2012. The only one written by a non-officer was written by a junior nco who served with Thornton. Thornton was killed by a mine with only a couple more weeks to serve in Afghanistan. Many of the diaries are accounts of day-to-day life in a Forward Operating Base and give an excellent idea of the tedium that can be involved rather than just the "highlight" battles against the Taliban. The diaries themselves are fine but the book could have done with at least one more go-through by a proof reader and a little more attention paid to explaining the slang and military terms employed. This book is worth reading but it's not as ground-breaking as the blurb on the back claims.
252. Total War: Volume 1
by Peter Calvocoressi
A stimulating look at the war against Germany between 1939 and 1945. Of course, other nations sided with the Germans but without them, there would have been no war. Calvocoressi blends political, military and social history to paint a picture of the Second World War that demonstrates that it was both more nuanced and complex than most people realise. The book was first written in 1972 and revised in 1989. It still basically stands the test of time. It is hard to conclude that the British actually "won" the war. The country escaped German occupation but that was basically the extent of what it got out of the war. The Americans used the leverage they enjoyed to cripple the United Kingdom economically and make sure there was no level playing field after the war. Calvocoressi also raises the question of why the British people fought for a government that before the war had been happy to condemn so many of them to poverty, poor health and malnutrition. Though this is no patriotic flag-waver, it is hard not to conclude that the Second World War was Britain's finest, and effectively final as an independent country's, hour. This is a clear-headed and perceptive account of the war. One thing that puzzled me was Calvocoressi's claim that the Allied air drops of September 1944 aimed at capturing the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem was the last major airborne operation of the war. I wonder how the men of the British 6th Airborne and US 17th Airborne feel about their drop on the east bank of the Rhine in 1945 feel about their efforts being dismissed so casually.
251. In the Heat of Battle
by Donough O'Brien
The steel of character is often tested in the heat of battle. Ex-Irish Guards officer Donough O'Brien takes a look at those who passed and failed the test in this whirlwind tour of world history. It's hard to argue with his decision to put Lord Mountbatten, US commanders Mark Clark and Douglas MacArthur into the "did not rise to the occasion" category. I even learned that Clark, the glory-hunter who blew the chance to cut off the German army in Italy for the sake of "liberating" Rome, was a cousin of the head of the US military during the Second World War, George Marshall. That might explain a lot. And only the most cringing sook these days would argue Mountbatten had much military talent; but he was related to the Royal Family. Some of the tales in the book are well known but there is enough lesser known material to keep it interesting. The book spans centuries and continents and therein may lie its weakness. O'Brien is a good enough writer, or had a good enough editor, to keep the book moving along at a fresh clip. But he may lack the depth of knowledge required to pull off such an ambitious project. The first bombing raid by an aircraft was not in 1914 Belgium but in Libya in 1911. The Battle of Omdurman was fought in 1898, not 1878. And he misattributes some lines from Hilaire Belloc to Rudyard Kipling. O'Brien skates perilously close to lacking credibility.
250. The French Foreign Legion
by Douglas Boyd
The Foreign Legion is one of the most famous, and controversial, military units in the world. It is surrounded by legend and myth. Band of Brothers, or brutal mercenaries bent on imposing French foreign policy right or wrong? Longtime resident of France and former BBC producer Douglas Boyd attempts to strip away much of the mythology, much of it self-generated by the Legion, to take a sensible and sober look at the unit. Boyd mixes eyewitness accounts with wider historical context to examine a unit which has had more than its shares of highs and lows. He chooses the start the book with the French defeat at Dien Ben Phu in 1954 and Algerian War of Independence which ended in 1962. Then he moves back to the founding of the Legion in 1831 when it was used by the French government as a way of getting foreign political refugees off the streets of Paris. Brothels, booze, theft, mutiny, massacre, treachery and desertion all feature in Boyd's fascinating and well written account. I think this one has to be on the shortlist for the 2015 Book of the Year.
249. One Blue Bonnet
by Brigadier Frank Coutts
This is a good old fashioned, not say good natured, memoir from a former King's Own Scottish Borderer. Frank Coutts tells his own story well and carefully avoids most controversy. The closest he comes is when he suggests some of the people appointed to run the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh may not have been the best candidates for the job. The son of the manse, Coutts was privately educated at Glasgow Academy and after a spell in Canada joined the Metropolitan Police as a constable. The Second World War changed everything and after becoming an officer in the KOSB he decided to stay on in the peace-time Army. Senior officers were understanding when it came to arranging postings which allowed his to play rugby for Scotland in the immediate post-war years. The book is filled with delightful anecdotes about policing, rugby and army life. Unpleasantness is avoided, though it apparent he did not always agree with changes to the way the Army in general, and in Scotland in particular, was run. Or should that be run down? After retirement from the military Coutts became heavily involved in service charities, the Scottish Rugby Union and numerous fund raising campaigns. One teeny quibble is that towards the end of the book Coutts seems to feel obliged to list everyone he worked with on these worthy projects. The book ends with Coutts still hopeful that the KOSB could avoid being merged with the Royal Scots. It was not to be. Judging from this book I would say that Coutts would have been very much in demand as an after-dinner speaker.
248. Aviation Assault Battle Group
by The Black Watch
This is an account of the activities of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland, in Afghanistan in 2009 as seen through the eyes of its members and the soldiers attached to the unit. The battalion took part in a number of raids into Taliban territory using Chinook helicopters. Most chapters begin with a formal summary of the operation concerned followed by eyewitness accounts by the participants. The project was co-ordinated by two of the battalion's officers. Sometimes the summaries are a little too much in officer-speak and there are irritating punctuation and spelling errors littered throughout the text. That said, the numerous photographs are excellent. The various eyewitness accounts vary in quality. They range from almost stream of consciousness through to the almost deliberately banal. There is very little negative said in this book. Though, tellingly, the faces of all the Afghans who appear in the photos have been blurred. This book is interesting because it shows how a British infantry battalion battlegroup sees itself and wants to be portrayed.
247. Montgomery of Alamein
by Alun Chalfont
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery must be one of the most controversial British soldiers ever. Just how good was he? Or how bad? Many books have been written about him and I was in no hurry to read another. But I wish I had got around to this one sooner. Lord Chalfont was an officer in the British Army between 1939 and 1961, for most of the time as plain Alun Gwyn Jones, and in this book he brings some valuable insights into how that organisation functions. The elderly Montgomery also at co-operated with Chalfont, by then a successful politician and journalist, when he began researching the book. I was a little worried near the beginning of book when I realised that Chalfont planned to focus heavily on Montgomery's relationship with his mother. Cue the cornflake box psychiatry. But Chalfont makes a convincing argument for the child indeed being the father of the man. Chalfont's Montgomery is vain, arrogant, narrow minded, socially inept, intellectually limited, intolerant, insensitive and talented. Believe it or not, this is a sympathetic portrait. During the Second World War Britain desperately need generals who took soldiering seriously. Montgomery was one of the very few who fitted that bill. But he had serious limitations as a commander. According to Chalfont, Montgomery lacked the imagination and spark that would of elevated him from a very good plain cook when it came to the generals' art into one of the greats. Perhaps even Montgomery didn't understand his own talent. He often excelled in being flexible when plans did not work but then always insisted afterwards that his battles always went to plan. There is a good argument in this book that if Montgomery had not been such a ruthless shit he, and Britain, would not have fared so well in the war. He was a good picker when it came to subordinates and at cutting the deadwood and losers out of his headquarters. His predecessors in the Western Desert, Claude Auchinlek in particular, may have been smarter but they tolerated too much incompetence. Let us hope that the British Army never allows itself to sink so low again that it needs another Montgomery.
246. The Man who Broke Napoleon's Codes
by Mark Urban
Mark Urban has written some good books; this is not one of them. George Scovell, when he wasn't doing other things, decrypted French messages during the Peninsula War. Scovell is supposed to be the anchor of this book but is more of an excuse for it. The book meanders and sometimes Urban does not seem to know what it is supposed to be about. Is it about Scovell, is it about the short-comings of the Duke of Wellington, is about Wellington's inner-circle during the Iberian campaign or is it a history of the Peninsula War? Some filler material is to be expected and context and background are important. But at the end of the day there is just not enough about Scovell. This, sadly, is a project that just didn't quite come off. Urban appears to fall short of fulfilling the promise of his pitch to his publisher. The book falls hard between several stools. I would also suggest it is not as easy a read as Urban usually manages to produce. The most interesting bits are about the Duke of Wellington. He does not come out of this book as a likeable man. Nor is he the military genius of popular memory.
245. Tales from the Special Forces Club
by Sean Rayment
This, sadly, is only a bog standard collection of reminiscences from ageing members of the Special Forces Club in London. I say "sadly" because the old geezers former Parachute Regiment officer turned author Sean Rayment chose to write about were, without exception, brave and in many cases prove to be real characters. The problem is that what they have to say has nearly all been said before. Rayment is a good writer and sympathetic. But there is little that throws any new light on anything. The exploits of the Special Operations Executive in France, the Long Range Desert Group and Special Air Service in North Africa, the Chindits in Burma, Popski's Private Army in Italy, the commandos at Dieppe and the RAF pilots flying agents into France and Norway have long provided fodder for writers and memoirists. The only really neglected subject covered in this book was the Special Operation's Executive's Force 136 in Burma. The book is marred by some silly mistakes. For instance, I seriously doubt that the King's Royal Rifle Corps was disbanded during the Second World War. This book is an easy read but only worth effort if the reader is new to the activities of Britain's Second World War "private armies" and the Special Operations Executive.
244. Gulf War One
by Hugh McManners
This book was far better than I expected it to be. Leafing through and seeing it was broken down into mainly brief paragraphs attributed to various participants, I wasn't expecting such a coherent account of the 1991 Gulf War. But McManners, a veteran of the Falklands War turned highly successful writer on military matters, very skilfully stitches together a very readable but very well informed account of the war. The participants in the project range from former Prime Minister John Major down to one of the soldiers from the Army War Graves Unit. Sadly, it takes something like 20 years before some people feel comfortable telling the truth. I hope it will not take 20 years for the war in Afghanistan to produce a book of similar calibre. The majority of the interviewees are senior officers or politicians but McManners includes a fair and refreshing sprinkling of squaddies, just enough to balance the Big Picture stuff with a worm's eye view of the conflict. Much of what is said could, depressingly, could also have been said during the Crimean War. Medical provision for British troops in the Gulf was well below what was provided even by the National Health Service at the time. The book makes a good case for claims that many soldiers were poisoned by the hastily administered course of anti-chemical warfare drugs. There were also major concerns about how the notoriously unreliable Challenger tank would perform. The British Army had to strip down the whole of its fleet of Challengers stationed in Germany to provide enough tanks and spares for the Gulf War. The British Army of the Rhine is exposed as a sham. Petty jealousy and jobsworth-ism also play a role in this tale. But there is also good humour and courage. Some of the people in this book I would have no problem working with or for. Others; not so much. Some of the most interesting material comes at the end of the book when returning members of the military find it hard to adjust to petty bureaucracy and jealous colleagues back in the United Kingdom and West Germany. And the treatment doled out to veterans who suffered long-term physical or psychiatric damage by the Ministry of Defence and its lawyers verges on the criminal. This book is in the running for the 2015 Book of the Year.
243. The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5
by Christopher Andrew
The key word here is "Authorised". This is MI5's version of its history. The copyright resides not with academic historian turned chronicler of matters secret Christopher Andrew but with The Crown. This book has to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt. Andrew was selected for the project, which marked the centenary of the Security Service, because he was regarded as a safe pair of hands. He was given, for a semi-outsider, unprecedented access to the archives and members of the organisation. But neither can tell the full story. I would be surprised if some sections of MI5 were not more co-operative than others, and the same would go for various generations of former employees. With the best will in the world, Andrew had a tough assignment. I couldn't help feel he was a little too inclined to give his employer the benefit of the doubt. It is hard to believe that Englishmen did a better job of infiltrating some of the seediest bars in Glasgow to spy on Protestant extremists than Scottish cops could. And it's not really that amusing that the latter-day debutantes of MI5 had trouble transcribing wire taps of Scottish Communist miners' leader Mick McGahey due to his Scots accent. If the guy was worth bugging, it was worth doing it properly. This raises the question of just how representative the security service was, and perhaps is, of the society was supposedly protects and whose interests it operates in. The Soviets worked out that MI5 surveillance only worked 9-5, Monday to Friday. They could not credit the incompetence of MI5 when it came to the Cambridge Five - Philby, Burgess, Mclean, Blunt and Cairncross - and convinced themselves that they might be victims of a machiavellian double cross by triple agents. Andrew works hard to discredit claims that the head of MI5, Roger Hollis, was a Soviet spy and that the security service conspired against Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He also appears to accept that MI5 was always able to distinguish between healthy dissent as opposed to subversion and would defy their political masters in Whitehall who wanted the security service to be more pro-active. Andrew puts a lot of effort into undermining the claims of former MI5 officers who criticised their employer and also of politicians, mainly Labour, who were suspicious of the agency. There are several omissions in this book which made me wonder if Andrew simply did not think certain matters were important or was not aware of them. And then of course there might be the justifiable withholding information on the grounds of continued national security. Though it is odd that most of the omissions involve incidents in which it might be hard to put a positive "spin" on. Including footnotes, this book stretches to 1,000 pages. Andrew is a capable writer but I was not sure he created a smooth enough read to carry off such a weighty tome. But then again, the quality of the writing was not the prime consideration in this book. Oh, and the Sullom Voe oil terminal in Shetland is referred to several times as "Sullum Voe". Such careless and/or ignorance is worrying in a book that must have been read and re-read many times by MI5 officials before and after being sent to the printers.
242. Through German Eyes: The British and the Somme 1916
by Christopher Duffy
There are many books about the Battle of the Somme; this is one of the more unusual ones because it looks at the fight through mainly German eyes. Christopher Duffy is best known for his work on 18th Century conflicts but in this book he shows just how versatile he is. The book is based on German reports on the battle and the interviews their intelligence officers conducted with captured British soldiers. One of the problems I had with this book when I first started reading it was spotting when Duffy was commenting and when he was quoting German sources. Both had much of interest to say. Both poke major holes in the version of the battle which has burned itself deep into the British popular memory. Not all the British soldiers were lions. And not all the generals were donkeys. A look at the German reports shows that the fight was far closer than most British people realise. Though the Germans lost fewer men, they still lost a lot and those they did lose were pretty much irreplaceable. As well as the actual fighting, the German intelligence officer were interested in British morale, the home front and politics. And the prisoners who proved so chatty, and provided a surprising amount of valuable information, prove to be an interesting bunch, ranging from malcontented deserters through to brave smart men who were very unlucky to be captured. The book makes a good case for the British introducing conscription sooner than they did. The volunteers of 1914 and 1915 were high calibre men, and too many were killed off before the British command had got to grips with how to fight the war. The British also seem to have suffered from poor training, an institutional lack of initiative, and inadequate junior officers. The German reports are also candid about their own shortcomings. Duffy may have a point when he points out that The Somme almost certainly marked the beginning of the end for the Germans.
241. Marching to the Drums
Edited by Ian Knight
This is a collection of old magazine articles recounting the experiences of rank and file soldiers who fought during Queen Victoria's reign. Most appear to have come from a journal called Royal Magazine and were published in the opening decade of the 20th Century. Editor Ian Knight, best known for his books on the Zulu War of 1879, has done an excellent job of selecting the articles. Although many are first-person accounts, there is more than a hint of a ghost-writers being involved. But whoever the ghost-writers were they would appear to have done an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the Old Sweats. There is much of the "Of course soldiers in my day were much tougher than they are now" which continues to this day. Every generation of soldiers seems to believe that the succeeding ones have an easier time and are softer than they were. The book starts off with the Crimean War but then most of the accounts arise from what are now referred to as Victoria's Small Wars. Many collections of first hand accounts of 19th Century warfare keep them very short but the ones in this book are quite lengthy and Knight did the right thing in not editing them down. The result is a fascinating glimpse of the stoic British soldier of the 19th Century fighting a variety of foes ranging from the Russians, Sudanese spearmen, shotgun-wielding Maoris through to Boer marksmen armed with the latest rifles. The terrain and climate often prove as much of an enemy as the narrators march and fight their way through dank jungle, swamp, desert and bleak mountain range. This is one of the more interesting books I've read this year.
240. Canada's Army
by J L Granastein
This history of Canada's army from the days when the French and British were fighting for control of North America's attic through to the Afghan conflict has an agenda. In two World Wars Canada, eventually, produced effective armies. But good armies are not built overnight and the cost of learning is reckoned in wrecked human lives. Granastein's book is intended as a warning that Canadians must be prepared to sacrifice social spending in order to pay the societal insurance premiums required to have an effective military. Military spending is very like an insurance policy. Granastein looks at how in both World Wars Canada managed to build an army from virtually nothing and wonders if it could ever do it again. By the late 1960s Canada's military had crumbled under the combined weight of budget cuts and trend hippy-dippy anti-war rhetoric. Most Canadians still don't believe the country needs an army. For much of its history Britain guaranteed its existence, now it is the United States which fulfils the role. Canadians believe they make great peacekeepers and that should be the limit if its army's duties. These are the messages of Granastein's book and they hard to argue with. Canadians are wilfully ignorant when it comes to military matters. But Granastein laces his polemic with many well chosen personal accounts of Canadians at war. And as a former army officer turned academic, much of his analysis of how the Canadian military managed to rise to the challenges arising from two World Wars is worth considering. I have a minor quibble when it comes to his chapter on recent events in Afghanistan. He writes the British off as risk adverse and ineffective. While the British were hampered by much uninspired and unimaginative jobsworth-leadership, the casualty figures suggest they were not completely useless. As Granastein got his information from Canadian participants in the Afghan conflict, this apparent rift is a matter of concern.
239. Scotland the Brave
by John Laffin
There are many many books celebrating Scotland's military heritage. This is one of the better efforts, though not without its flaws. Australian John Laffin, who served in the hard-fought New Guinea campaign during the Second World War, produced this love letter to the Scottish soldier in 1963. His sharp eye and feel for anecdote make for a very readable book. But he seems to have bought into a lot of myths. As I've said elsewhere, no-one seems to have ever come up with a solid example of the Germans during the First World War calling the kilted regiments "The Ladies from Hell". And he seems to have accepted the 1822 propaganda written by former Black Watch officer David Stewart about the raising and early service of the Highland regiments hook, line and sinker. The brief histories of the Scottish regiments are also a bit suspect - I don't think the Gordon Highlanders played much of a role in the 1812 Battle of Salamanca. The book breaks the subject down into several themes; pipe music, army life, the kilt, etc, etc. The book is a good read but should not be regarded as tremendously accurate. But where it falls down is in the production. Paragraphs are obviously out of sequence. I'm not sure whether Laffin or his editor thinks the Battle of Lundy's Lane was fought during the American Revolution or during what Canadians call The War of 1812. So, an interesting book that should not be taken too seriously.
238. 20th Century Battlefields
by Peter and Dan Snow
Father and son TV presenters Peter and Dan Snow assemble a series of snapshots of some battles fought during the 20th Century. The choice of battles in a book like this is always subjective. The book was a spin-off from a British TV series of the same name, so perhaps it is no surprise that Amiens, 1918, the Imjin River, 1951, and the Falklands, 1982, all feature as "key battles" of a bloody century. There is little new in the Falklands chapter but the Snows are probably right to say Amiens is unfairly forgotten. The Korean War chapter raises the possibility that English public school understatement by British officers meant the American command failed to appreciate that a "sticky"situation translated to a "critical" collapse in the face of overwhelming odds. The Snows also suggest that the Americans may have chosen to divert resources to save the lives of their own countrymen rather than the hard-pressed British. The other battles featured are Midway, Stalingrad, Tet, Yom Kippur and the First Gulf War. The various chapters are good introductions to the various battles but seldom add new information or insight. The backgrounds to the battles are concise, fair, and well written. The clever choices when it comes eyewitness accounts do much to bring the battles alive and inject the human element in the book.
237. The Tank War
by Mark Urban
I was torn between the Mark Urban brandname, he's usually a good read, and the imbecilic claim on the title page that this book was some sort of British version of Band of Brothers. But luckily, I decided to take the chance. What Urban has done is to put a single Second World War British unit under the microscope. He picked the 5th Battle of the Royal Tank Regiment, apparently known as the Filthy Fifth for their disdain of spit and polish. The battalion served in France in 1940 and then in North Africa, Italy, and Northwest Europe 1944-45. Urban weaves together diaries, both personal and official, books, unpublished memoirs, and interviews with surviving veterans to create a picture of one British armoured unit at war. Inadequate equipment and poor leadership often prove as much of a challenge as the Germans. But Urban makes a good fist of arguing that the tankies were more than a match for Germans. Regimental and Army politics both feature in this tale. So do inexperienced and sometimes cowardly officers foisted on the regiment because they happen to be nice middle class boys or Regular Army officers who need to get out from behind a safe desk job to protect their careers with a brief frontline posting. Two of the most experienced and respected sergeants in the battalion are transferred out after refusing to serve under the command of men they, and most of the unit, believe will get them all killed un-necessarily. Urban pulls a cheap trick by announcing two out of three men mentioned in one paragraph will not survive the war. But the trick works because the reader wants to know which of these characters survives. Urban spent his "gap year" before university as an officer with the Royal Tank Regiment and this helps give him a perspective that less privileged authors might lack. Although the passage of 70 years makes it almost impossible for the modern reader, or writer, to really grasp what the war was like for such a distant generation, this book may come closer than most.
236. Field Marshal Earl Haig
by Philip Warner
Scots commander Douglas Haig is for many one of the great villains of the First World War. He is often portrayed as a glorified Colonel Blimp who callously squandered the lives of a generation of young British males in bloody and pointless attacks on the Western Front. Sandhurst instructor, and former British Army officer, Philip Warner attempts in this book to look beyond the caricature and find the real Douglas Haig. Warner comes to pretty much the same conclusion that a very reluctant British Prime Minister David Lloyd George came to during the war; that Haig was the best commander the British Army produce at that time. Warner follows Haig from childhood to Oxford University, which he attended as a way of circumventing his failure to pass the admission exam for Sandhurst, through to his death. Haig seems to have failed several key exams during his career but through string-pulling managed to progress up the promotion ladder. He was also a diligent though not very imaginative soldier; stolid and competent rather than inspired. A hard worker. Warner argues that Haig's determination and strength of character were key factors in holding the British Army together as first the French and then the German armies crumbled under the strain. Haig was also an early supporter of tanks and air power. Warner tends to blame Haig's subordinates for many of the blood baths on the Western Front and only criticises the Scot for failing to enforce his will on them. An intelligence chief who was not above lying and constantly fed Haig over-optimistic reports did not help. But Haig must be held responsible for these failures. Warner also makes much of the political pressure put on Haig by British politicians who then failed to support him and even denied him crucially needed reinforcements. Warner suggests that Haig was forced to continue offensives long after they had run out of steam because of the constant need to take pressure off the tottering French Army. This book puts forward some interesting ideas but contributes to the debate over Haig's competence rather than settling it.
235. Six Months Without Sundays
by Max Benitz
I had a chance to get this book about the Scots Guards in Afghanistan when it first came out four years ago but didn't. The big selling point was that Benitz was neither a journalist nor a soldier - he was former child actor. Interesting gimmick but no guarantee of a worthwhile book. But it turns out that young Benitz is actually quite a good writer and had some interesting things to say. The 2010 Scots Guards' deployment in Afghanistan co-incided with a policy move away from stand-up fights with the Taliban involving massive amounts of fire-power and bombs dropped. It had finally been realised that killing Afghans, any Afghans, was counter-productive. The trendy catch-phrase was "Courageous Restraint". That didn't stop several members of the Scots Guards and the regiments attached to the battalion being killed - particularly when at least one very skilled Taliban sniper arrived on the scene. Benitz did a deal with the Scots Guards and the Ministry of Defence which allowed him to become a paying guest of the regiment in Afghanistan and spend a lot of time hanging out with the "Jock Guards" at their mini-bases and to go on patrol with them. He regarded himself as an anthropologist explaining to the general public what their boys, and girls, were doing in Afghanistan and how they were doing it. To a large extent he succeeds. At least some of the rank-and-file open up to him. He chatted with several men who were later to be killed or seriously injured. But I suspect many of the men only confide to Benitz to the same extent that they would open up to their officers. Benitz is pretty obviously from the officer class. His rendering of what he describes as "Jockanese" shows a surprisingly tin-ear for a former actor armed with a mini-tape recorder. But at the end of the day, Benitz manages to render a nicely flavoured portrait of a British infantry battalion at war. The biggest stumbling blocks to success, according to Benitz, are the Afghan Government, which shows little or no interest in improving the lives of the locals, and Whitehall civil servants. Benitz and his publishers allowed both the Scots Guards and the Ministry of Defence final approval of the book. But I suspect that self-censorship may have prevented this book being one of the classic accounts of Britain's war in Afghanistan.
by Antony Beevor
So far, Antony Beevor's name on a book has promised much and he has never failed to deliver. This book covers the D-Day Landings in June 1944 through to the liberation of Paris in August of that year. Oddly, Beevor got off to a bad start by declaring that the Royal Navy's fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow was off the northwest coast of Scotland. But then I understand he used to be an officer in the British Army and a degree of bewilderment when it comes to matters geographic is therefore to be expected. Beevor focuses heavily on the frontline participants, be they British, American, German, French or even Canadian. I can't remember if he quoted any Poles but I'd be surprised if he didn't. I hadn't known that more French were killed in the bombing and shelling than the total British civilian death toll in the Second World War. But at least the Allies, unlike the Germans, were not deliberating murdering civilians. Beevor also tackles the thorny problem of how the general performance of Allied soldiers in combat compared with that of the Germans. What he doesn't really do is examine the performance of Britain's General Bernard Montgomery. He accuses British 2nd Army commander Miles Dempsey of being Montgomery's poodle but then mainly discusses Dempsey's performance. Perhaps Beevor felt he had nothing fresh to say in the acrimonious and continuing debate over the egotistical Montgomery's handling of the fighting. The result is that this book is a little too heavily weighted towards a worm's eye view of the campaign but Beevor, being the narrative craftsman that he is, still manages to create a challenging and informative tome.
by Charles Spencer
I had my doubts about this book. If ever there was a child of privilege it would be Charles Spencer. The Queen is his god-mother. He was once Prince Charles's brother-in-law. In Britain, a lot of doors are opened for such a man that are firmly slammed in the face of those of us not brought up in a stately home. I was unimpressed by his stint with the American NBC network. The Yanks love The Royals far more than the Brits do. I could just imagine the US network chiefs delighting in having "A Real Life Dook" on the staff. And professional standards in US network news are not that high anyway. But this turned out to be quite a good book. It is built around the 1704 Battle of Blenheim. Spencer argues the Allied victory won by the Duke of Malborough and Eugene of Savoy over the French changed the course of European history. Such claims are usually hard to sustain but Spencer makes a good fist of it. His writing style is very readable and he does an excellent job of putting events in context. Very few people reading this book would find themselves rooting for Louis XIV and the French. Spencer keeps the story flowing without letting it get bogged down with a clutter of detail designed to show the depth of his research. The quotes from primary sources, contemporary diaries, letters and books, are well chosen. There are some nice little pen portraits of the main antagonists. Spencer admits that it is hard for anyone to get a good handle on Malborough himself and sticks mainly to his political and military achievements without delving too deeply into the accusations of monetary malfeasance. I have one very minor quibble:- I'm not sure Spencer has quite got the hang of when to write "English" and when to use the term "British". The casual reader would probably not realise that a disproportionate number of Malborough's infantry battalions were Scottish. Despite that, Blenheim is the first volume to get on the shortlist for this site's 2015 Book of the Year Award.
232. Bunch of Five
by Frank Kitson
The British Army long prided itself on what it regarded on their special expertise in dealing with terrorist organisations. General Frank Kitson was one of the driving, and more thoughtful, forces behind the British approach to terrorism in the 1970s. In this 1977 book Kitson takes the reader through his service against the Mau Mau in Kenya, Chinese communist insurgents in Malaya, and then tribesmen in Oman. Finally he looks at his time as a battalion commander engaged in what was ironically termed "peacekeeping" in Cyprus; trying to stop the warring Greek and Turkish communities from massacring each other. His intention in the book was to explain how his experiences had formed his theories when it came to dealing fighting terrorists and insurgents. Although the action in the book stops in 1967, the latter chapters are obviously intended for an audience embroiled in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The book helps explain why the recent British campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq did not go so well. Two of the critical ingredients laid down by Kitson for a successful campaign were simply not there. One advantage Kitson and his boys had was long-standing previous involvement in the areas in which they fought, which offered a firm foundation to build upon. But in Afghanistan and Iraq good intelligence sources were hard to come by and the British found themselves being used, at least at first, as unwitting errand boys for the various warlords and factions. But perhaps even more importantly, the British lacked the control of the political process in both countries which was necessary to pull the rug from underneath the feet of the terrorists. So, it's hard to know how many of the lessons Kitson learned are still relevant today. Certainly, it's clear from his book that even in Kitson's day many of the British brass had to be dragged screaming and kicking to drink at the well of knowledge. But, as a snapshot of the life of a British officer during the Twilight of Empire, this book still has some value.
231. A General's Life
by Omar N Bradley and Clay Blair
There are just some autobiographies that should not have been written. This is one. Second World War US commander Omar Bradley already had an excellent account of his service in the form of a 1950s book called A Soldier's Life. It turns out that it was ghost written by one of his military assistants. But Bradley came out of it looking professional. This book is cobbled together from notes made for A Soldier's Life; Bradley's own attempt at an autobiography and tapes of interviews he gave to author and journalist Clay Brown. It is impossible to determine how much the book reflects Bradley's thoughts. I hope the answer is "very little". He comes across as a bitter and mean-spirited paranoid. Though it was refreshing to see US military "heroes" George Custer, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur's names all lumped together in one far from complimentary sentence. The book makes liberal use of other people's autobiographies and memoirs. And it is difficult to work out when Blair is using material he got from Bradley and when he is recycling histories of the war. In A Soldier's Life, Bradley appears to have become disillusioned with Britain's General Bernard Montgomery as the war progressed. In this book, Bradley hated Montgomery from the first. In fact, he has little time at all for any British soldier, or politician. Montgomery was Bradley's boss after the D Day landings, but you wouldn't know that from this book. Nor would you know the RAF took part in the 1949 Berlin Airlift. According to this book it was the Americans who single-handedly beat the Germans in 1945. It was American paratroopers who linked up with the Soviets in the British sector but everyone had to pretend it was the British 6th Airborne Division. The book also ignores such bloody, and many would say pointless, slug-fests orchestrated by Bradley as St. Lo and the Hurtgen Forrest. Blair admits that Bradley's recollections of his early years were better than those of his later career. Judging by this book, Bradley's recollections got dimmer around 1941. That said, the chapters on the Korean War, when Bradley was President Truman's senior professional military advisor, are probably the most interesting - and scary. Who would have guessed that politics of power in the United States make it such a systemically dysfunctional country? Bradley's attempt to "put the record straight" in this book does him no favours.
230. Company Commander
by Major Russell Lewis
This account of B Company of the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment's 2008 posting to Afghanistan reads like it is based on notes made at the time by the unit's commander. Certainly, those notes have been tidied up but it still gives a glimpse of what it was like commanding an isolated Forward Operating Base in Helmand. Though he does not harp on about it, Major Lewis's tale makes several mentions of the loneliness of command. There are just some things he cannot share with his men, even his fellow officers and senior NCOs. Lewis comes over as a diligent and caring commander. Though it might be interesting to see what others based at FOB Inkerman had to say. It is only near the end that Lewis reveals that his area of operations was basically only five square kilometres. Not a lot of Afghan real estate to control. A typical day sees the Paras go out on patrol, come under fire, return fire and retreat back to their base. Some might suggest that the Afghans are doing an excellent job of containment. Not that that is fault of Lewis and his men. They do all that is asked of them and more. But the question has to be asked that perhaps they should have been asked to do something else. One thing that Lewis mentions that seldom comes up in books about the war in the Afghanistan is the beauty of the sunrises and the amazing number of stars in the night sky. And one thing he does not mention is the Military Cross he earned during the mission or how he earned it.
by Nigel Steel and Peter Hart
The First World War on the Western Front was an artillery war. But most books focus on the poor bloody infantry. So, it's nice to see a book giving the gunners the credit they deserve. Throughout the war it was the artillery that was the great killer. Though at Passchendaele in 1917 the sea of sucking mud also claimed an untold number of victims. The 1917 battles were the archetypal Western Front fights, with woods reduced to matchsticks and the ground to a soup of brown mud and toxic chemicals. Nigel Steel and Peter Hart make extensive use of eyewitness accounts of the fighting but also do a good job of presenting the bigger picture. Few of the British leaders come out of their account well. Prime Minister David Lloyd George may have grumbled about Field Marshal Douglas Haig and his generals but he did little to stop them feeding the British army into futile and nightmare attacks. Haig himself should have called a halt long before he did. General Hubert Gough was the wrong man in the wrong place when it came to launching the initial attack. General Herbert Plumer, one of Haig's better commanders, started well but ultimately blotted his copybook with a series of hasty and ill-conceived attacks. The Germans played far from a perfect game but the British played a worse one. According to the eye-witness accounts quoted by Steel and Hart, many of the British soldiers knew their lives were being thrown away in offensives which even had they succeeded would have done little to end the war. This is a sad tale well told.
228. The Dam Busters
by Paul Brickhill
I'm not sure how helpful this review is going to be. It turns out that I read the "Cadet" edition, which in theory was specially edited so that parents and/or schools could safely put it in the hands of children. But I somehow doubt that much was edited out, though it would be hard to say how much got the chop without ploughing through a copy of the original. The book was one of the first about the activities of the Royal Air Force's crack 617 Squadron during the Second World War. The squadron is was formed, and is best known, for the 1943 raid on the German hydro dams using bouncing bombs. But the squadron was also involved in numerous pinpoint raids using other specially designed bombs and equipment; several of which sprang from the fertile imagination of Professor Barnes Wallace. I found some of the later missions more interesting to read about than the raid on the dams. I'm sure there have been countless books written by now about the activities of 617 Squadron, including accounts of its attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz, but this one is the grand-daddy of them all. Paul Brickhill was a fighter pilot during the Second World War, so he has a feel for life in the wartime RAF. His work as a journalist after the war shows in the writing. It's pretty obvious that some of the dialogue in the book cannot be verbatim but probably has a ring of truth to it. Brickhill also managed to speak to many of the RAF survivors of the raids and Barnes Wallace. The book first came out in 1951 and some of the writing is a little stiff upper lip for modern taste. However, it is no great surprise that it has outlasted most of its contemporaries amongst the books written shortly after the Second World War. Sometimes a bit of reading between the lines is required, both regarding the behaviour of squadron members and the general performance of the rest of Bomber Command.
227. Striking Back
by Neil Cherry
This is a look at the early days of the British commando and airborne forces. I am not convinced that exploits of early raiders recounted are as unknown as Cherry and his publisher claim. But perhaps time has loosened some old soldiers' memories and more in the way of official records and documents are now available to writers than used to be the case. Certainly the picture painted by Cherry is less square-jawed and competent than was seen in books which were published closer to the time of the events. Cherry has, rightly, leant heavily on interviews with survivors of the early raids and on after-action reports. He has focused on some of the lesser known raids such as Vaagso in Norway and the destruction of the hydro electric plant at Glomfjord, and again rightly so. A large chunk of book is taken up with the highly successful German radar set snatch from Bruneval in France by C Company of the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. And it was god to see the Royal Engineers' abortive glider-borne attack on the Norwegian heavy water plant at Telemark being treated as more than a footnote to accounts of the successful attacks by Norwegian patriots. The first parachute raid by British troops, on a viaduct in Italy, also receives lengthy coverage. It is harder to understand why Cherry bothered with his cursory accounts of the Dieppe and St. Nazaire raids. If the book was an exhaustive account of British raiding activities between 1940 and 1942 I could understand the two raids being included for the sake of completeness. But as it misses out several raids, including No. 11 Commando's attack on the bridge over the Litani River in Lebanon, the book is obviously not a complete account. The book's appendices stretch to over 100 pages, mainly equipment and personnel lists, after-action reports and operational orders. Possibly, these will only be of interest to real enthusiasts. But there are also some silly errors and misprints. The commander of the Bruneval raid Major John Frost's parent regiment is given as the Cameronian Rifles. Perhaps if someone had paid attention to the relevant appendix, it would have been realised that the regiment was The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). A lot of work obviously went into this book and it is a shame to find it marred by such sloppiness.
by Lance Goddard
This is basically a picture book brought out to accompany a television documentary about Canada's contribution to the D-Day Landings. Canadian troops managed to push further inland into France than either the British or Americans on the 6th of June 1944. The photo research is of a high standard and draws heavily on official archives in Canada and the United Kingdom. Many, especially those featuring Canadian paratroopers, could just as easily have been taken in modern-day Afghanistan - much the same faces stare out from the page. The excellent photos are interspersed with short extracts from interviews with veterans of the landings; air force, navy and army. The one that stuck in my mind was from a guy whose pal got a letter from his wife saying she was going off with another man. The pal was killed and the wife would have got a widow's pension. Goddard puts the veterans' stories into context with workman-like linking paragraphs. This was a quick read but an interesting one.
225. The History of Cavalry
by Z Grbasic and V Vuksic
I picked this book mainly for the illustrations, in particular one of a trooper from the Royal Scots Greys wearing a steel breastplate. I still have to check that in the early days of the regiment the troopers wore cuirasses. This is basically a coffee table book. It was written by two Yugoslavs, published in Germany, translated into American English and typeset in Italy. Some of the translation is a bit ropey and the spellings not even acceptable to Americans. It follows the evolution of cavalry from around 1660 through to the Second World War. The bulk of the book looks at the period encompassing the Seven Years War through to the Napoleonic Wars, the heyday of cavalry. It takes an overview of the campaigns and battles, the role played in them by the cavalry, and a look at the evolution of cavalry tactics. The sections after the American Civil War are a little too cursory. The Second World War is covered in a single sentence - "At the beginning of World War II, west of Grudziadz, with heavy losses and no results, Polish lancers charged against German tanks, the cavalry of the new age". This is also the final sentence in the main text and perhaps strives too hard to be profound.
224. Eight Lives Down
by Chris Hunter
I said in my review of Chris Hunter's book Extreme Risk that I planned to read the army bomb disposal expert's first book as well. Eight Lives Down focuses on the squaddie-turned-officer's exploits in Iraq in 2004. The book is billed in the blurb on the back as "The most exciting and nerve-jangling work of military non-fiction since Bravo Two Zero". Hmm, I guess a lot depends on how much of Bravo Two Zero a person believes. Hunter finds himself plunged into a battle of wits with the bomb makers who actually relish killing their fellow Iraqis providing they are from an another Islamic sect. The stakes are raised when the bombers decide to kill the man who is doing such a good job of thwarting their murder campaign. Booby-trapped booby traps get more sophisticated and deadly as the bomber makers import ideas and hardware from their terrorist pals across the world. Hunter risks a bullet through the head from a sniper's rifle nearly every time he defuses a bomb. Hunter himself is a character and he does a good job of depicting the men of his highly motivated and highly skilled team. But it is perhaps his discussion of his failing marriage that is the most illuminating part of this book. It is all too easy when dashing about a war zone busy putting years of training into practise to forget the lonely and terrified family members living on their nerves at home.
223. Forgotten Victory
by Gary Sheffield
Back in November, I think it was, I wrote a blog about why the First World War was not futile and why Kaiser Wilhem II and his generals had to be stopped. That blog would have been better argued if I had read this book by respected historian Gary Sheffield before I wrote it. In this book Sheffield marshals a strong argument against the popular Lions Led by Donkeys in a pointless war version of the conflict all too sadly lodged firmly in British popular mythology. Yes, the war was horrific and the losses were heavy. But as Sheffield points out the British, Australians, Indians, Canadians, South Africans and New Zealanders took the lion's share in the 1918 defeat of the German Menace. Among the targets Sheffield has in his myth-busting sights are the Americans, who still believe it was them who won the war, and those who believe the scribblings of a few privileged officer poets truly represent the views of the majority of men who fought in the front line. The American Expeditionary Force would have been an army to reckon with in 1919 but in 1918 it had only begun to negotiate the steep learning curve that made British, and to a lesser extent French, troops such war winners. It took the British Army until late 1917 to get its act together. Terrible mistakes were made as Field Marshal Douglas Haig and his generals struggled to create a trained army and find ways to cut through the Gordian Knot of trench warfare on the Western Front. But as Sheffield sensibly points out, they started from almost nothing. And the Germans made some terrible mistakes too. From the coverage of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, it is clear that not enough supposedly informed commentators on the conflict have read this valuable contribution to the argument.
222. The Trumpet in the Hall
by Bernard Fergusson
Bernard Fergusson comes through in this classic military autobiography as an extraordinary man with some extraordinary tales to tell. I already knew Fergusson was a talented writer through his history, The Black Watch and the King's Enemies, about his regiment during the Second World War, and his account of commanding a Chindit column in Burma, Beyond the River Chindwin. This book had long been on my "Want to Read" list and when I spotted a copy in a Canadian second-hand book store at a reasonable price, I snapped it up. I'm glad a did. The son of a First World War general and Ayrshire landowner, Fergusson opted to join the Black Watch rather than his father and grand-father's regiment, the Grenadier Guards, after he left Eton. He was a definite son of privilege and his personal and family connections served him well throughout his career. And yet I found it hard to grudge him that. He was a character and tells his tales with a lot of humour. He probably needed that humour. The miseries of commanding a Chindit column in Burma would test the most irrepressible sense of humour. Men had to be left behind to face almost certain death, either at the hands of the Japanese or Burmese villagers. The murder of friends and colleagues in Palestine, both before and after the Second World War would also strain the most even-tempered of men. But, sadly, Fergusson decided to keep much secret. His frequent refusal to name names when it comes to people and military units began to become a little irritating. The picture Fergusson paints of himself in this book is engaging. But in reality, I suspect he was a hard man. American Brit hater "Vinegar" Joe Stillwell astutely noted when he met the monocled brigadier "He looks like a dude, but I think he's a soldier". "Dude" was obviously not a complementary term when Stillwell used it. Fergusson is very coy in the book about his dealings with former SAS man Roy Farran. Fergusson refused to give evidence against Farran when he was court martialed for the murder of a Jewish teenager in Palestine. He fails to explain why and his story from then on doesn't make a lot of sense. A promise that after serving in Palestine he would command the 1st Black Watch came close to going unfulfilled. What Fergusson's bosses knew was that Farran had confessed to him that he had bashed the teenager's head in with the rock. Without Fergusson's evidence, and thanks also to a written confession from Farran being ruled inadmissible as evidence, the murder case collapsed. Farran would go on to become Attorney General of the Canadian province of Alberta. Fergusson's military career stuttered and eventually died. This book is an excellent read, but has to be taken with a hefty dose of salt.
221. Death or Victory
by Dan Snow
I wasn't aware that British television presenter Dan Snow was one of "Canada's best historians". This book about the British capture of Quebec from the French in 1759 is part of series called Canada's History purports to feature the work of some of the country's top historians. The introduction is signed by Snow's auntie, Margaret MacMillan, a respected historian in her own right and descendent of former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Dan is the son of respected British television journalist Peter Snow. Snow Minor has produced a very readable and even-handed account of the campaign which wrested French North America into the British Empire. His account leans heavily of contemporary accounts written by participants from both sides. But there is little new in this book. At times I felt he was padding and repeating himself to bring the text up to an agreed number of words. The British commander, James Wolfe, remains an enigma. Sometimes, Snow appears to have let his flowery flights of prose get out of hand. For instance, I'm not clear which Highland regiment he thinks took part in the 1982 Falklands War. And if he has worked out what tartan the men and officers of the 78th Fraser Highlanders wore in 1759, then he's done better than many who have spent their adult lives trying to solve that mystery. By the way, I know Snow was born in Canada. But as Irish politician Daniel O'Connell said of the Duke of Wellington : "He was born in Ireland, but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse".
220. History of the Peloponnesian War
I've had a copy of this most ancient of war stories for almost 25 years but only got around to reading it recently. This 1954 translation by American academic Rex Warner was very readable. The story of the wars between Sparta and Athens between 431 BC and 411 BC has much to teach modern military men. Athenian general Nicias's arguments against invading Sicily could well have made in the context of Afghanistan. The invasion proved a disaster for the Athenians. Thucydides himself was a disgraced Athenian commander and had his own opinions of his fellow generals and opponents. He mixes political intrigue, philosophy, history, diplomacy, rhetoric and frontline reporting into a heady brew. Both Sparta and Athens depended heavily on alliances with other city states in what are now Greece, Italy, western Turkey and around the Black Sea. Keeping these "allies" under control proved challenging. The Athenians had the better fleet and made use of sea power in a way that was not repeated until the days of the British Empire. In fact, my guess would be that this text was closely studied wherever the rulers of the British Empire were being educated. Although the war did not end until 404 BC with the defeat of Athens, this book ends in mid-sentence while discussing the aftermath of a 411 naval victory for the Athenians. It is a shame Thucydides did not manage to finish his account.
219. The Alexander Memoirs 1940-1945
by Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis
I've had this book sitting around unread for a long time. What made me finally pick it up was Rudyard Kipling's history of the Irish Guards in the First World War. Harold Alexander is often depicted in histories of the Second World War as a charming but far from clever British commander who had an advantage over more capable colleagues in that he was a Limey that the Yanks could work with. Kipling's book portrays Alexander as one of the Irish Guards' star performers. After reading this book I'm a little puzzled as to why Alexander bothered writing this book. Perhaps he felt it was time to tell his version of the Second World War. Sometimes, the gentlemanly veneer wears a little thin. His disgust with US glory hunter General Mark Clark's decision to "liberate" Rome in 1944 rather than trap the retreating Germans is obvious. According to Alexander, he gave rather more in the way of orders to subordinates such as George Patton and Bernard Montgomery than history has given him credit for. Alexander also counters claims that Montgomery "stole" the plans of his predecessor in the Western Desert, Claude Auchinlek, by pointing out that the prickly little British commander was too arrogant to adopt anyone else's ideas. The book itself is odd. There are sections of reminiscence of the retreat to Dunkirk, retreat in Burma, Alamein, Tunisia, Sicily and Italy which are followed by bog-standard brief summaries of the campaigns. All in all, an odd book.
218. The Irish Guards in the Great War - The Second Battalion
by Rudyard Kipling
Having already reviewed the volume recounting the exploits of the 1st Battalion, I wasn't sure whether to bother with a review of this one. But I was a intrigued because I knew that Rudyard Kipling's 18-year-old son John had been killed while serving with the 2nd Battalion at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Jack Kipling was reported as missing and his father's efforts to find out what happened to him brought the writer into close contact with many members of the 2nd Battalion. So, I wondered if this might result in this volume being a little different from the first one. I think I did detect a slightly different feel. Once again Kipling successfully drew on official regimental documents, officers' letters and some interviews with rank-and-file members of the battalion to create one of the more usual unit histories of the period. As with the volume concerning the 1st Battalion, Kipling made heavy use of unattributed supposed quotes from a members of the rank-and-file in what can only be described as a Kiplingesque Irish patois. It is impossible to tell if the quotes are anywhere near genuine or intended only to give an Irish flavour to the account. Once again, Kipling does an excellent job of capturing the confusion, misery and humour of a battalion at war on the Western Front. The battalion itself is the main character and takes on a life of its own - as Kipling no doubt intended. While many battalion histories of the period focus on the fighting and battles, Kipling tried to portray the day-to-day existence of Irish Guards, in and out of the line. The appearances of Captain the Honourable H R L G Alexander and his rise to command of the battalion will be of particular interest to those who are intrigued to know what the Second World War Field Marshal did during the First World War.
217. Spitfire Ace
by Martin Davidson and James Taylor
This is an odd little spin-off from a television series. It's yet another book about the Battle of Britain. For all that, it's not too awful. The authors succeed in offering a glimpse of what it was like to be at the controls of one of Britain's most iconic weapons of war when less than 2,000 flyers were all that stood by the country and defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany. I don't think either Davidson or Taylor would claim to have written a definitive history of the Battle of Britain. Nor, I hope, would they claim to have added many fresh insights into it. The writing at times was a little too hyperbole filled. But the conclusions reached are sensible and sober. The interviews with veterans, including a couple of Germans, are well chosen. The inclusion of interviews with some of the RAF ground crew is welcome. This book proved to be a neat introduction to the battle.
216. How Wars are Won
by Bevin Alexander
This book has a whiff of changing horses in mid-stream. American military historian seems to have started out working on a general survey of how history's top commanders succeeded. And then in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon he attempted to graft the lessons from his survey onto how the United States might tackle the threats it faced in the aftermath of 9/11. I'm not sure that works. Alexander, writing in 2002, forecast that there would be no more sweeping armoured campaigns of the type seen during the First Gulf War in 1991. A year later, he was proved wrong as the United States and Britain, with some token allies, swept into Iraq. Alexander claimed to have identified 13 potential battle/war-winning rules for success. Sadly, there is little new in his analysis. I suspect his belief that the German Schlieffen Plan could have worked in 1914 and was only foiled by its feeble implementation by Von Moltke would be vigorously contested by many historians. His contention that Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was head and shoulders above the other American Civil War generals is less controversial - but hardly new. This book is an easy read but seems to be very much a re-tread of Alexander's previous books.
by John Latimer
After Waterloo and Arnhem, Alamein must be one of the most written about battles in British history. It launched the meteoric rise to fame of one of the country's most controversial generals, Bernard Montgomery, and saw the defeat of one of Germany's most iconic generals, Erwin Rommel. Former British Army officer Jon Latimer tries to walk a fine line when it comes to Montgomery's contribution. He seeks to debunk the notion that Montgomery could not lose the battle thanks to the massive material advantage he enjoyed and that he took credit for plans drawn up by his predecessor in the desert Claude Auchinlek. Latimer points out that the British frequently outnumbered the Germans and Italians in the North African desert and yet still failed to smash them. This a book of two halves. The first part looks at why the British, New Zealanders, Australians, Indians and South Africans found the struggle against the Afrika Korps so difficult before Montgomery took charge. The second-half recounts the battle. Latimer gives the contribution of Allied air power, both on the battlefield and in cutting cross-Mediterranean Axis fuel convoys, well deserved attention. The account of the battle leans heavily on first-hand accounts and is well done as far as it goes. But where the book falls down is in analysing the higher direction of the battle. Was Montgomery justified in his disgust with his armoured commanders? The performance of the tanks was disappointing. But to what extent did Montgomery himself misunderstand how to employ them? The tank crews themselves were brave. But what of their commanders? I did not find the answers to these questions in this book.
214. Keep Your Head Down
by Nathan Mullins
I almost gave this book a miss and that would have been my loss. It was only when I realised that the character on a front cover looking like an assault gun-wielding member of the famously bearded US rock band ZZ Top was wearing an unfamiliar camouflage pattern on his uniform that I had a closer look. The book turned out to be by a member of an Australian special forces unit about his four month's service in Afghanistan. It was only when I started reading that it became clear that all the Australians involved were part-time soldiers. That would be like one of the Territorial Army squadrons of the British Special Air Service deploying en masse to Afghanistan. Mullins turned out to be a former Ozzie cop turned international aid worker and member of Australia's 1st Commando Regiment. It took a couple of pages to get used to his very chatty writing style and apparent flippancy. The book was obviously written in an attempt to explain to his fellow Australians what their boys and girls in uniform were doing in Afghanistan in 2009 and early 2010. The reservists were very much involved in an iron-fist-in-a-velvet glove operation. Not pissing off the Afghans unnecessarily by turning their villages into battle-grounds and staging mid-night raids on them was a definite priority. The mission was not to kill insurgents but to persuade the Afghans that their lives would be better without the Taliban. But the book is not a constant round of village meetings and dishing out antibiotics to the locals. The Taliban put in many appearances in the book and there is shooting. Mullins throughout his time in Afghanistan tried to put himself into the minds of both the villagers and the Taliban and understand why they behaved the way they did. This is a view of the Coalition's operations in Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of a member of a rather unusual unit. I suspect it will be a late-entry in the 2014 Book of the Year.
213. A Portrait of Lord Nelson
by Oliver Warner
This slim book took longer to read than I expected. I'm not sure why that was. The writing style was not terrible, though it didn't exactly flow either. Perhaps it was because I thought the book would be more about the iconic Royal Navy commander's military genius and skill at sea and less about his mistress Lady Emma Hamilton. War at sea in the days of sail was a complex and tricky business and I felt this book failed to capture its intricacies. But Warner does capture the intricacies and complexities of Horatio Nelson's own character. And that, after all, is what the title of the book promises. A chance encounter in Whitehall office waiting room between Nelson and the Duke of Wellington oddly sums Nelson up nicely. The Iron Duke found the naval hero silly and vain during the first part of their encounter. Then Nelson left the room and when he returned he was changed man. Wellington found himself very impressed by the naval hero's grasp of military reality and high intellect. It seems while he was out of the room Nelson had taken the trouble to discover the identity of the hook-nosed gentleman he was sharing a waiting room with. The Nelson Warner describes is both vain and brilliant. The admiral did indeed make a fool of himself, and disappoint many of his friends, over Lady Hamilton. But by turning long-accepted naval tactics on their heads he succeeded in smashing the combined French-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in way few, if any, of his contemporaries could have done.
212. England's Last War Against France
by Colin Smith
When I first saw this book, I was more than a little exasperated. Britain's war against Vichy France during the Second World War was getting near to the top of my list of possible topics for a new book or magazine article. I had already written about 11 Commando's battle around the Litani River in present-day Lebanon in Scottish Military Disasters. And I had just read about the Royal Scots Fusiliers campaign in Madagascar. But now former Observer journalist Colin Smith had beaten me to the punch. And a fine job he has done. France's aid to Nazi Germany is not discussed very often. Officially neutral, the unoccupied rump of France after Germany's successful Blitzkreig of 1940 was an enthusiastic partner of the Nazis. Britain decided it could not risk the modern French battlefleet, based in North Africa, falling into the hands of Germans and attacked it. This was despite assurances that the French would scuttle their fleet rather than let it fall into German hands. The French did indeed scuttle what was left of their fleet when the Germans invaded unoccupied Vichy France in 1942. But the British attack in 1940 had embittered the French and soured relations. The story Smith tells is complex and tragic. But at the end of the day, the French regime sided with evil and a lot of people, British and French, died. Among the first to die was a Royal Navy submarine commander who had boarded a French submarine tied up at Plymouth after the France signed its 1940 Armistice with Germany. He was shot by a French officer who had little hope of preventing the French submarine being seized by the British. Three British sailors and one French died in the Plymouth incident. The Frenchmen responsible for the bloodshed were returned to France unscathed. Somehow, that opening incident captured the essence of the whole sorry business. Smith's research is good. Some of his flippant asides can be a bit grating but his writing is strong and pacy. This one is in the running for the 2014 Book of the Year.
211. The First World War in 100 Objects
by Gary Sheffield
It took a very substantial drop in price before I decided to shell out for this one. The whole "Blah Blah in 100 Objects" or fifty objects or whatever number has always struck me as a bit gimmicky. But in the right hands, it can produce something worth reading. And Gary Sheffield knows his First World War. Actually, it's might be truer to say that Sheffield and his three collaborators know their stuff because around a third of the book was written by other experts. Whatever, it's nicely done. The conceit that a complicated and sprawling event such as the First World War can be summed up in 100 objects is, of course, a nonsense. But Sheffield and his team make use of the objects selected to explore some too often neglected aspects of the conflict. The selection is varied and the scope wide. And yet most of the main events of the war are skillfully woven into the text.
by Sebastian Junger
This was a book I had to grab quickly or lose out on what might, or might not, have been an excellent bargain price. It turned out to be well worth reading. In fact, early on I had it pinned as the possible winner of the 2014 Book of the Year. Junger, off-and-on, followed the fortunes of a platoon from the US 173rd Airborne Brigade as they occupied make-shift mini-forts in the heart of Taliban territory in Afghanistan for 15 months. The guys at the heart of the story saw a lot of action and many dead. Junger, a US magazine journalist, attempts to use the conflict in at the southern end of the Korengal Valley, one of the main Taliban supply routes from Pakistan, as a microcosm for modern war. He compares what happens to the US soldiers in valley to studies conducted by military psychiatrists and other brain-boffins since the Second World War. I've never spent weeks on end trailing US soldiers around Afghanistan, but I think Junger did a good job of capturing what that would be like. He discusses his own reaction to danger and that of the soldiers. He also puts his finger on why so many soldiers returning from Afghanistan find it difficult to adjust to "normal" life afterwards. It's not the horrors they have seen, it is the rushes of excitement suddenly missing from their lives and the feeling of being a member of a tight knit group who would literally die for each other. But parts of the book left me puzzled. He debates whether to accept the offer of a US uniform to wear on a particularly hazardous patrol and asks "If we get compromised I'll be the only the guy in civilian clothes, and suppose someone gets hit", he muses. What does that mean? There were too many times I was distracted by trying to guess what Junger was talking about. I was also puzzled by his claim that dopamine in the brain mimics the effects of cocaine. Surely he has got that the wrong way around? And that's why interesting though this book was, it isn't on the shortlist for Book of the Year after all. And I don't think there's any such rifle as a Henri-Martin.
209. The Ironclads of Cambrai
by Bryan Cooper
The Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 was one of the most extraordinary of the First World War. When former journalist Bryan Cooper wrote this book in the 1960s there were still a few survivors around for him to interview. But Cooper went further. He also consulted many German sources, both official and memoirs. The outline of the battle is simple. Although British tanks had first been used in the latter months of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, they had never been used en-masse before Cambrai. The surprise attack with hundreds of tanks was a great success. British commander Field Marshal Douglas Haig decided to continue the offensive for a further week but for most of the time the bulk of the tanks were out of action due to either mechanical failure or enemy action. Then the Germans counter-attacked and pretty much drove the British back to their start-line. Cooper claims two things stopped the British offensive reaching Cambrai itself and busting the German defensive line wide-open. One was the incompetence of the British cavalry commanders. Throughout the war, the cavalry claimed to be chomping at the bit to show what they could do if they were given the chance to work in open countryside. Cambrai was their chance and they blew it. Cooper gives two reasons for this - the senior cavalry commanders insisted on keeping a tight rein on their regiments but stayed so far back in the rear themselves that opportunity after opportunity was lost before orders reached the frontline troopers. And, secondly in the context of cavalry, guys on horses had little chance against men manning machine-guns. The second failure was of the much vaunted 51st Highland Division. It's commander Lieutenant General George Harper and senior staff did not have much faith in tanks. The Highlanders let the tanks go into action basically unsupported and the attack in their sector faltered. According to Cooper, the failure of the 51st to seize their objectives on time held up the whole break-through and the best chance of cracking the German trench lines was lost. Cooper dismisses arguments that the Cambrai offensive failed because of a lack of reserves. Haig turned down French troops and many of his commanders mis-used the reserves that were available. This was particularly true in the case of the 51st Division. Harper and his staff had already squandered the lives of their men in the Arras offensive in the spring of 1917. The kilties deserved better.
208. A Photographic History of the Boer War 1899-1902
by Emanoel Lee
This book bills itself as "A Photographic History of the Boer War 1899-1902". And it does indeed include many previously unpublished photos from the conflict. The South African War, which began in 1899, was one of the first conflicts in which many amateur photographers, mainly equipped with the new mass produced Kodak cameras, made their own picture record. Lee was neither a professional writer nor a historian. He was a London surgeon. His medical knowledge gives an added dimension to the book. His attribution of the large number of woman and children who died in the British concentration camps to poor nutrition rather than deliberate starvation and a previous lack of exposure to childhood diseases amongst a people brought up on isolated farms certainly rings true. Lee was also a South African and this also brings a fresh perspective on, and under-standing of, the conflict which many British readers may have missed out on. His introduction to the book, which discusses the explosion of amateur photography in the 1890s, is also interesting. Where the book falls down a little is in Lee's knowledge of military history. His claim that the Highland regiments' spats were cut in a special way to commemorate the 1899 disaster at Magersfontein is laughable. And I can't help concluding that the unit referred to as "Lovetts" is actually the Lovat Scouts. So, if you're interested in a book by a South African surgeon with a knowledge of late 19th Century photography then this is just the kind of book which will interest you.
207. One of Our Submarines
by Edward Young
The activities of the British submarine service is one of the least discussed chapters of the Second World War. Edward Young does a very good job of explaining what it was all about. And it was a tricky business. The book follows Young's career from joining the service through to skippering a sub in the Far East. He keeps the story moving along at a nice clip while explaining such intricacies as keeping a submarine balanced under water and getting in the correct position to fire torpedoes. A mistake in the trimming of the water and air tanks could send a submarine plunging to the bottom of the sea and held fast in mud. Early in the book Young barely escapes with his life after the submarine he was on is accidently rammed by a British ship. German and Japanese submarine hunters, both surface ships and aircraft, sometimes prove to be the least of the threats faced by the British submarine crews. Crude mechanical on-board targeting calculators prove inadequate to the tasks which were to be done in a second after the war with the introduction of computers. The book ends with rather an anti-climax as Young and his submarine Storm serve alongside US submarines based in Australia. The British subs are relegated to a minor role because of the US submarines are bigger and better equipped, with a far greater operational range. British submarines, designed for use in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, end up playing an almost a token role in the battle against Japanese shipping. Perhaps the book was published too soon after the war, it came out in 1952, for Young to be completely honest about the challenges of operating in a confined cramped space for long periods with inevitably flawed human beings. Young himself admits to mistakes and some lucky escapes from the consequences of them. But overall, this book deserves its designation as a classic.
206. The Irish Guards in the Great War: The First Battalion
by Rudyard Kipling
There were many battalion histories written in the aftermath of the First World War but few were penned by one of the most famous authors of the time. Rudyard Kipling's only son Jack was killed while serving with the Irish Guards in 1915. When the regiment asked him if he would write about their part in the war, Kipling threw himself into the project heart and soul. Most of the other battalion histories from the conflict were written by men who had served in the units covered. Kipling may have lacked the first hand experience but from unit diaries, documents, letters and interviews, added to a literary flourish, assembled one of the most unusual books to emerge from the war. A similar volume written in more recent times would probably include more first-hand accounts. But Kipling treats the 1st Battalion as an organic entity with a life of its own, not a collection of men. There is much humanity in this book but central to the story is the sum of those human parts; the battalion. Kipling captures a war in which most men's vision of the conflict does not extend much beyond grenade-throwing range but he gives just enough of the bigger picture to put events in context. There is one thing that puzzles me. The book is sown with anonymous quotes from rankers written in the kind of soldier-speak, with a supposed Irish tinge, that Kipling used in his books about India. What I was left wondering was whether the quotes were genuine or composite confections of imagination intended to give a worm's eye view of the battalion's war. I think because the book came out in 1923, there is some reading between the lines required when it comes to the battalion's performance over the whole four years. Like human beings, a battalion can have good days and bad days.
205. The War Correspondents: The Boer War
by Raymond Sibbald
This book, sadly, was not quite as advertised. It is indeed a collection of newspaper reports filed by correspondents during the 1899-1902 war in South Africa; but all the correspondents are from the Times. I'm pretty familiar with newspaper reports from the Boer War and they are often refreshing critical of the British army leadership of the time. To paraphrase a report from the Glasgow Herald I saw read decades ago "We understand that British soldiers on occasion are forced by circumstance to fly the white flag, but 40 full armed men surrendering to seven Boer farmers does stick in the craw more than somewhat". Sadly, I lost the cutting many years ago. Also sadly the Times seems to have been more inclined to toe the Establishment line. There are some criticisms, something not seen during the First World War, but nothing like the searing censures seen in the Scottish papers of the time. Sibbald, an academic who once worked at Sandhurst, does highlight the sensational reporting from the Times which turned the lacklustre sieges of Kimberly and Mafeking into Victorian epics - including Baden-Powell's decision to starve the local African population in order to feed the whites. He also takes the Times to task misreporting the British concentration camp programme which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Boer women and children. Regrettably, Sibbald seriously undermined his credibility by his sloppy notes on the Battle of Magersfontein - there was no Scottish Brigade, it was the Highland Brigade that came a cropper, and their commander was Andy, not Archie, Wauchope. I had high hopes of this book but I was disappointed.
204. Russia at War
by Alexander Werth
It is easy to believe that this look at the Second World War as seen through the eyes of a Moscow-based British journalist would have been controversial when it came out at the height of the Cold War in 1964. Werth's family fled Russia around the time of the 1917 Revolution and he was 16-years-old, so many readers might have been surprised by his apparently balanced account of events in his native land as the Communist Party led it to victory over the Germans. This is not a military history of the war, the crucial battle of Kursk is dismissed in a couple of pages, but a series of snapshots of the conflict seen through a Russian prism. Werth drew from his work as a journalist, official histories and his contacts in Russia to create something more akin to a scrapbook. German atrocities, concentration camps, and life the home front all get as much attention as the actual fighting. Werth does much to explain why the Soviet Union sided with the Germans to carve up Poland in 1939 and the Communist's perhaps well founded suspicions as to why the United States chose to drop two atom bombs on Japan. As Russia flexes its muscles again, a re-release of this book might be timely.
203. Welcome to Flanders Fields
by Daniel G Dancocks
This is a good enough read but not one of the best books Canadian military historian Dancocks produced. The book takes a look at the formation of the 1st Canadian Division in 1914 and its first major battle at Ypres in the Spring of 1915. Dancocks spends a little too much time on the minutiae of the raising of the Canadian battalions and their training in Canada and England and not enough on the meat of his tale; the fighting. He highlights the "Canadian-ness" of the battalions and their supposed differences from the British contemporaries but then fails to explain how this came about when two-thirds of the volunteers were British-born. But he least he does give credit to the British battalions which sent to reinforce the Canadians in their efforts to stem the German advance which followed the first use of poison gas on the Western Front. The Canadian commanders over the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel come in for a lot of criticism but as most, at best, had only been junior officers in the Boer War a lot was being asked of them. The star of the show, in Dancocks's eyes, was the commander of the Canadian 2nd Brigade, Arthur Currie, who had no previous combat experience and who had defrauded his pre-war militia unit to cover the debts of his civilian business. Currie, who rose to be a very successful commander of the elite Canadian Corps later in the war, was criticised in 1915 and for years afterwards for leaving his command post during the fighting to personally seek reinforcements from a neighbouring British commander. I was not totally convinced by Dancocks's defence of his hero. The Canadians were badly handicapped in the battle by the fact that their Ross rifles were very prone to jamming when British manufactured ammunition was used in them. The fact that the German advance was ultimately stopped raises the question of how important musketry, as it was still called then, actually was on the Western Front. Dancocks is honest enough to admit that the Germans themselves had not expected their poison gas to work as well as it did and did not have enough men ready to exploit the gaps created in the Allied front. Dancocks obviously knew his subject well and makes good use of eye-witness accounts but book lacks his usual insight.
202. Dawn of D-Day
by David Howarth
I was not expecting much of this 1959 book about the D-Day Landings in June 1944. So, this collection of first-hand accounts woven together by David Howarth was a very pleasant surprise. I had expected a book written only 15 years after the landings would be more gung-ho. But Howarth seems to have done an excellent job of getting his subjects to open up to him. One of the most poignant stories comes from a soldier who pushed a comrade who was blocking the troops' exit from a landing craft into the water after he was hit by enemy fire. Was the comrade dead or alive when he was shoved? Another story concerns an officer who hears the men under his command vowing to massacre the occupants of a German strongpoint which had already inflicted a number of casualties on them. Howarth does not pull a lot of punches. He captures the horror, chaos and loneliness experienced by the soldiers as they hit the beaches and airborne landing zones. Howarth also interviewed German soldiers and tells the tales of French civilians caught up in the fighting. Although the book is primarily a collection of eye-witness accounts, Howarth gives just enough of the bigger picture to keep them in context. He captures the randomness of death on the battlefield and the wide range of humanity who found themselves for one day locked together by one of the major operations of military history.
201. A Military History of Britain
by Jeremy Black
British university professor Jeremy Black makes an attempt to explain Britain's military history to an American readership. The book is a brief survey of Britain's military past written for a specialist security think-tank based in the United States. I had expected something a little more fawning to the Americans, especially when discussing events after 1917 when an exhausted Britain handed over the reins of world leadership to their trans-Atlantic cousins. But Black's assessment of the much mythologised American Revolution, which should be known as the First American Civil War, is sober and reasonable. He also admits that Britain appeased US territorial ambitions at the expense of Canada and discusses how the US administration wanted the UK to hand over the Falkland islanders to a brutal Argentinian government, which it believed would go Communist if the invasion failed. So, plaudits to Black for not sugar-coating things for his American paymasters. Black is also fairer and more informed than most English-based historians when it comes to Scotland and Wales. English historians seem to have long been aware that Irish history is complicated but generally give their Scots and Welsh neighbours a lot less attention. Although the subtitle says the book cover the period 1775 to the present day (which turns out to be 2006), Black delves back into 55 BC. I would suspect that this informative and thoughtful little book might be useful in the United States where the red coats are still the baddies of history. I had a couple of very very minor quibbles. I'm not sure if Black realises that the Highland Light Infantry actually succeeded in capturing Buenos Aires in 1806 and wonder how the British could be defeated by "defensive" fire from the Boers at Majuba in 1881. And the tactics Black suggests the British learned after 1900 in South Africa against later Boer opponents were already in use on the Northwest Frontier of India in the late 1890s. I can't help but point out that if Black had read Scottish Military Disasters.............
200. The Historical Atlas of World War II
by Alexander and Malcolm Swanston
If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a map worth? This book combines original maps with historic photographs and analysis of events during the Second World War. The text is pretty bog standard but does go a long way to putting the maps into context and explaining what they show. The book is let down by some poor proof-reading. I couldn't help concluding there were words missed from the text and some of the spelling seemed a little eccentric. The writing style was also a little awkward and clunky at times - backwards ran the sentences until reeled the mind. But the maps and charts were good. The authors are also to be congratulated on giving some attention to lesser known campaigns of the war, such as the fighting in China, northern Scandinavia, Iraq, Syria and north-east Africa. This is a colourful, well illustrated, introduction to the war.
199. Intelligence in War
by John Keegan
Despite its title, there isn't really a lot of inspired discussion of the role of intelligence in war in this book. It reads more like some left-over material salvaged from the notebooks of respected military historian John Keegan. The mentions of intelligence seem like an excuse to recycle some bog-standard accounts of several campaigns with little new to say in any of them. This, to be honest, is not an example of what Keegan at his best was capable of. Anyone who has never read about Nelson's pursuit of Napoleon's army to Egypt, Stonewall Jackson's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, the 1914 Battle of Cornel, the 1941 German invasion of Crete, the Japanese naval defeat at Midway, the Battle of the Atlantic, the German V1 and V2 weapons and the Falklands War of 1982 may just find something of interest between the covers of this book.
198. Battle of Britain
by Patrick Bishop
After Waterloo and the Somme, the Battle of Britain must be one of the most written about conflicts in British history. So, I was in no rush to read yet another book covering the aerial conflict during the summer of 1940. As it turned out, Patrick Bishop did not a bad job. There can't really be much new in a book about the Battle of Britain but Bishop has written an accessible and sensible account of the clashes between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe in the skies over and around Britain. Bishop mixes personal reminiscence with day-by-day analysis of the fighting based on official records. Without slowing down the narrative, he broadens the story beyond the fighter boys to take in the military support workers and civilians. As historians swing constantly from eulogising "The Few" as the saviours of western democracy to declaring that a victory for the RAF was inevitable, Bishop shows that the conflict was a indeed pretty near thing. The German decision to switch from its highly successful attacks RAF infrastructure to bombing London is explained as more than foolish spite. The Germans were worried that the RAF would retreat north out of their effective reach and wanted the lure the British fighters into a battle over London which would guarantee their destruction. It is apparent from Bishop's work that the Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt 109s were getting the better of the British Spitfires and Hurricanes for much of the time. This was not due so much to technical superiority in the case of the Spitfires but because of the crucial height advantage the German fighters usually enjoyed. One issue I wish Bishop had tackled was how so many British pilots came to need plastic surgery for serious burns to their faces and hands. Canadian wartime plastic surgeon Ross Tilly said he was not aware of any operations being required by pilots who wore gloves, helmets, goggles and oxygen masks.
197. Russell's Despatches from the Crimea
by William Russell
William Russell of the Times is often regarded as the grandfather of British War Reporting. And judging by this collection of his articles from the Crimean War, rightly so. I've said in another forum that the criteria used by judges of articles submitted for journalism awards should simply be "I wish I'd written that". Well, I wish I'd read more Russell before I went to Kosovo or Afghanistan - I would have done a better job. Russell brings to life the grimness, brutality, discomfort and humour of life on campaign with Queen Victoria's army in the mid-1850s. I can't help feeling that his description of the 93rd Highlanders confronting the hordes of Russian cavalry on the Balaclava plain as "a thin red streak" is actually a better description than the oft misquoted "thin red line" which has entered popular memory. Russell's writing remains remarkably untainted by jingoism and the dead and wounded Russians elicit as much sympathy from him as those of his fellow countrymen. Readers of the Times would have to have been rather dim if after reading Russell's reports they did not to realise that the French were the more effective Allied force in the Crimea. Although written more than 150 years ago, Russell's articles have more than stood the test of time. They remain some the finest examples of war reporting ever written.
196. Shock Troops
by Tim Cook
This second part of Canadian military historian Tim Cook's account of the Canadian Corps in the First World War lives up to the high standard set by its predecessor At the Sharp End, which won this website's Book of the Year Award in 2011. Shock Troops takes up the story in 1917 when Canadian troops stormed Vimy Ridge in a textbook operation which went far to secure their reputation as one of the British Expeditionary Force's elite fighting units. But this is not a piece of typical Canadian historical chauvinism. Cook spells out the terrible blood price the Canadians paid to maintain their elite reputation. And that reputation did not rest on a force of North American supermen. Cook looks at the reasons for the Canadians' success and finds it could have been easily repeated by many of the British units they served alongside. The Canadian commanders were quicker to absorb the lessons of the Western Front and trusted their own men more than the British did. The Canadians also found it easier to say "No" to some of the more incompetent of the British Generals. They also gained from serving as a constant and coherent four division force rather than being constantly switched between corps as their British colleagues were. As well as the battles, Cook takes a look at the lives and deaths of the ordinary soldier on the Western Front and much of what he says applies equally to the British Tommies and Jocks. This is not only an excellent book about the First World War but also about modern war. The toxic soup the men fought in thanks to chemical weapons is often forgotten. The Canadian Corps was badly chewed up in the last 100 Days of the war and anyone who thinks Haig's armies were pushing at an open door as the Germans retreated from France and Belgium is in for an education. This book is too good to be restricted to only a Canadian readership.
195. Monsoon Victory
by Gerald Hanley
I had trouble getting into this book about the 11th East African Division's 1944 advance to the Chindwin River in Burma. Hanley was better known as a novelist and I initially found his writing a little overwrought and even mentally exhausting. Hanley was attached to the division as a Special War Correspondent and the book is a bit of an oddity. It's not a campaign history, but rather a series of snapshots of the advance through a monsoon against a tenacious and fierce foe. Some modern readers might find his discussion of the African troops who made up the division rather patronizing and his opinions of a Japanese somewhat racist. But many of the men who fought the Japanese were baffled by them. Hanley was correct about one thing, the men of the 11th Division returned to Africa changed men and in turn changed Africa. War veterans provided much of the muscle and brain for the independence movements which drove the British out of their countries, beginning with Ghana. At the end of the day Hanley does not a bad job of portraying the discomfort laced with brief periods of excitement which characterise a soldier's life on campaign. Some may find his portrayal of cheery cockney artillerymen a little cliched but the book is a product of its time, it was first published in 1946, and is interesting for that reason alone.
194. Storming the Falklands
by Tony Banks
I wasn't sure about this book when I picked it up. But I soon got into it as the Scottish old folks homes millionaire tells the story of his life so far. Like me, Banks spent in his teenage years in one of the less salubrious parts of urban Scotland, Dundee for him and Livingston in my case. He's only slightly older than me, so I got a lot of the references. At first I thought Banks had written the book himself. He'd quit an accountancy course to join the Parachute Regiment and therefore obviously had some brains. But when the story reached the Falkland Islands, it became clear that there was a ghost writer involved. No soldier would report that he served with "D Company of 11 Platoon" or that a Scorpion light tank was an armoured car. The book starts a slow slide in quality after the Falklands. His tales of an urban Scottish childhood and his army experiences are the highlights. He brings to life the savagery and brutality of the fighting at Goose Green and Wireless Ridge. He has friends die and talks about the execution of a young Argentine after he'd surrendered. He also questions the award of a Victoria Cross to his battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel H Jones. It is only in recent years that the full story of the fighting at Goose Green and criticism of Jones's role has surfaced - early accounts did not make a lot of sense because no-one wanted to throw mud at a posthumous VC winner. Banks then describes his, at the time, unrecognised battle with combat stress. He leaves the army and eventually gets into what was once known as "pension farming" just at the time that local councils were getting out. The turning point for Banks would seem to have been meeting a former soldier kicked out of the army after serving in Iraq due to his own combat stress. The book then moves towards an appeal for more understanding for and support of ex-soldiers suffering from combat stress. Banks had grabbed a trumpet from an Argentinean prisoner after the invaders surrendered and decides to return it as part of his own healing process. During his visit to their home country he finds the Argentinean veterans are pretty messed up too. But by now the book is becoming more of a magazine article and less of a memoir. I would have loved to have read the Argentinean army musician's recollections of Banks taking his trumpet and his thoughts at that moment in time. The book ends with Banks returning to the Falklands and is basically a string of islanders' memories of the occupation and liberation. At the end of the day, I'm not sure this book would have seen the light of day if Banks had not become a millionaire.
193. Vimy Ridge and Arras
by Peter Barton, with Jeremy Banning
The British offensive in Arras in spring 1917 is one of the lesser known campaigns of the First World War, a long way behind the fighting on the Somme and Passchendaele. But its opening day, 9th April, was one of the British army's few successes of the war. Peter Barton and his researcher Jeremy Banning have produced a lavishly illustrated but often insightful account of what went right and then, as the campaign ground on, what went very wrong. The book makes intelligent use of contemporary maps and personal accounts from participants in the fighting. It also reproduces military panorama photographs taken from the front line trenches on both sides showing the countryside and villages at the centre of the fighting. These are supplemented by aerial photographs. It is hard after reading this book not to subscribe to the old cliche that the British were lions led by donkeys. The Germans recovered quickly from the first shock of the British and Canadian advance to easily contain a series of bungled attempts to move further forward. Three Scottish divisions were at the heart of the fighting, the 9th, the 15th and the 51st. The 51st Highland Division lived up to the nickname inspired by its HD shoulder flashes, Harper's Duds, thanks to some very poor leadership by its divisional commander Major General G M Harper and his staff. They and the rest of the British, Australian and Canadian troops involved deserved far better.
192. In Afghanistan
by David Loyn
Respected BBC correspondent David Loyn takes a canter through the history of European intervention in Afghanistan in this book, which argues that the West never learns. Loyn claims that the same mistakes have been repeated again and again since Britain first established diplomatic relations with Afghanistan in 1809. Much of what he has to say is valid but arguing the Afghans have not changed in 200 years is much the same as suggesting the British haven't changed in 200 years either. Although social and political change may have moved slower in Afghanistan it is foolish to suggest there has been no development at all. Afghanistan enjoys the same tribal set-up that once prevented England conquering Scotland by military force. Scotland was, and Afghanistan remains, a mosaic of private fiefdoms in which conquering the capital made little difference because government writ barely extended beyond the city boundaries. The only thing that unites all Afghans is hatred of foreign domination. Scotland was also once, in the mid 1600s, run by religious fanatics, the Covenanters, who are sometimes, and not entirely fatuously, referred to as The Tartan Taliban. It is interesting to note that the British only got their heads out of the backsides in Afghanistan in recent years when Scot Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Loyn argues after 200 years the time may have come for someone to put the interests of Afghans first. The benighted country has for too long been a pawn in another nation's war. First it was the British and the Russians, then the Russians and the Americans. Throw in the Pakistanis and the Saudi Arabian Islamic extremists, add self-serving and corrupting international aid organisations and you have a sad mess. And let's not forget the Iranians who have seen recent US led invasions of two of its neighbours - Afghanistan and Iraq. This book is a valuable contribution to the discussion of what should be done to help one of the unluckiest nations in the world out of the hole into which we have thrown it.
by Ken Ford and Steven J Zaloga
This offering from Osprey Publishing is actually a compilation of five earlier books about the D Day Landings in June 1944 brought out by the company in its Campaign series. Unlike many books on the topic, it takes a close look at the various units and commanders involved. As with so many Osprey books, it is lavishly illustrated with maps, photographs and artists' impressions of the action. Sadly, especially in the case of the artists' work, the placing of much of this work across two pages means much is lost into the centre binding. The writing is somewhat patchy; there were times when I had problems following the action being described. I also found the use of American spellings in what I took to be a British publication a little irritating. The amount of space given to the American landings also seemed out of proportion. However, perhaps this can be justified, to an extent, by the fact that the landing at Omah Beach came so close to failure. The book also wrongly identifies captured Korean Yang Kyoungjong as being from one of the Soviet Asiatic republics in German uniform. But that said, this was an enjoyable and sensible look at one of the biggest and most complicated operations of the Second World War.
190. The Scottish Commander
by Peter Reese
Scots soldiers lost more battles than they won in the days before they had the resources of the British Empire behind them. But they managed to win just enough battles to remain independent until 1707. Let's be honest, the military history of Scotland is a catalogue of defeat. Native stubbornness rather than the brilliance of Scotland's generals kept the country free, most of the time, of the English yoke. Former soldier Peter Reese takes a look in this book at some of the Scottish commanders who managed to rise above the abysmal heights of mediocrity that so many of their countrymen struggled to reach. It is hard not to conclude that the Scots commanders often fared better when they were in the service of foreign masters, be they English, Swedish, French or German. Reese kicks off his survey of twenty Scottish commanders with William Wallace, who beat the English at Stirling Bridge but was heavily defeated when England's First Team took the field at Falkirk in 1298. Most of the names on Reese's list will be familiar to those interested in Scottish history - Bruce, Montrose, Claverhouse and Lord George Murray, for example. Sir John Moore is better known than his Napoleonic War contemporary Ralph Abercrombie. The mercenaries D'Aubigny, Hepburn, Gordon and Keith are probably less well known. Reese does much to redress the injustice perpetrated by English historians who marginalize the Scottish role at the key "English" Civil War battle at Marston Moor in the chapter on Leven and Leslie. His decision to include Sir Douglas Haig as one of "Scotland's Greatest Military Leaders" was controversial and Reese readily acknowledges that. The inclusion of the founder of the much-storied Special Air Service, David Stirling, was also an interesting choice of subject. The book works reasonably well as an introduction to Scotland's military history. Reese's attempts to suggest there was a Scottish style of command and draw parallels between his various subjects did not quite come off. Trying to tackle a long and varied period of history is always challenging. Reese gives the impression of drifting out of his historical comfort zone when he tackles Empire builders Colin Campbell and Hector "Fighting Mac" MacDonald. The Sikh War of the late 1840s was not the suppression of an insurrection but the conquest of an independent state. The 93rd Highlanders were not referred to as a "thin red line" by famed Crimean War correspondent William Russell but as a "thin red streak". In a book about Scots, I was surprised to find the British Expeditionary Force at Mons in 1914 was made up of "English" battalions. And Reese's claim that the Special Air Service was the first new regiment in the British Empire since the Boer War seems to overlook the creation of the Royal Tank Regiment during the First World War. No book is ever 100% free of error but Reese skates perilously close to losing credibility through silly errors.
189. Extreme Risk
by Major Chris Hunter
Where this book scores over many reminiscences by British soldiers of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is that there does not appear to be a ghost-writer. Hunter, a ranker turned bomb-disposal expert, speaks for himself and that gives the book a flavour missing from many books in the genre. A ghost-writer, often a tabloid journalist, tends to pass the soldiers' reminiscences through a standardised bloke-ish filter in which the feel of individual personality is lost. This book is a follow-up to Hunter's best-selling Eight Lives Down about his service in Iraq, which I have not read yet but plan to. The earlier part of the book which basically takes Hunter's story back to his officer training and Sandhurst through to bomb disposal in Northern Ireland, via a logistics unit, is perhaps stronger than the latter sections. After Northern Ireland the book turns into a series of vignettes which offer tantalizing glimpses of the ongoing game of chess between terrorist bomb-makers and western governments. Operational security means that most of the latter chapters only contain partial accounts and information. That does not stop the book being an interesting read but it does make a sometimes frustrating one. Hunter seems like a bit of a character and appears candid about the cost, both emotional and in lives, paid by the bomb disposal teams. This book is a glimpse rather than the full story but still well worth reading.
188. Saturday at MI 9
by Airey Neave
Even when this book was written in 1969 there was still much about the cloak and dagger work done during the Second World War that it was felt was better kept secret. Neave was part of a small unit based in London, M.I.9, which tried to help Allied sympathisers in Occupied Europe smuggle escaped Prisoners of War and downed bomber crews back to the United Kingdom. Neave himself had earlier in the war had escaped from Colditz Castle where the Germans decided to put all their bad eggs when it came to chronic escapers in one basket. Neave obviously had a good tale to tell when it came to the activities of M.I.9 but felt he could not tell it fully. The Cold War was still going on and it was not known if the Allied sympathisers and their families might be needed again. Neave certainly still had links to British intelligence and acted as an advisor to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Irish republican terrorists certainly thought it was worth booby trapping his car at the House of Commons and blowing him to pieces in 1979. Neave obviously wanted to draw attention to the incredible courage of the men, women, and children who risked torture and death to help Allied aircrew escape from the Germans and their collaborators. But he felt his hands were tied when it came to revealing the full details of their activities. The result is a partial glimpse of a fascinating part of the secret war in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. But it is no more than a glimpse - a sometimes frustrating glimpse. Neave was desk-bound in London when many of the events described took place and relies heavily on what the survivors of the escape networks told him after the war - often after emerging from a concentration camp. So, much of the book is second or third hand. Some of it is also guesswork; informed guesswork but guesswork just the same. Many of the relevant British files are no longer classified and I would imagine based on this book that there are some very interesting stories sitting mouldering in the National Archives at Kew.
by Donald Thomas
This book paints a balanced but somehow sympathetic portrait of one of the "villains" of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, was one of the most notorious soldiers of the early Victorian age. He stole other men's wives, he was once tried for attempted murder and he rowed constantly with his regimental subordinates. He was arrogant and ignorant. But he was also by his own standards honourable and by most standards brave. Donald Thomas, who was teaching at Cardiff University when he wrote this book, delved deeply into contemporary newspapers, magazines, court documents and letters to draw a fascinating picture not only of Cardigan's life but also of his times. As one of the most boring books I was forced to read in high school English classes noted "The past is a different country". Cardigan comes over as not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree - but he didn't have to be. At Balaclava he did all that was asked of him - and all that was asked was that he led the cavalrymen of the Light Brigade to almost certain annihilation. Though he did query his orders. Reading this book it is hard not to conclude that much of his unpopularity with the officers of the regiments he commanded was due to them being much like him - arrogant ignorant popinjays. But almost without exception they also did their duty when they finally went to war. It is worth noting that his troopers held him in far higher esteem than his regimental officers. I wish Dr Thomas had taken slightly more time to explain how men like Cardigan and his brother-in-law Lord Lucan managed to become, respectively, a brigadier and the commander of the British cavalry in the Crimea. There would appear to have been plenty of other titled mediocrities to choose from.
186. Spitfire: The Biography
by Jonathan Glancey
The book dates back to the gimmick of writing the "biography" of inanimate objects, countries or cities. But as the iconic Spitfire was an smooth plane to fly, this is a smooth and easy read. I think it may have helped that Glancey has actually flown a Spitfire. Glancey traces the development of the plane and follows it through its various incarnations during the Second World War and afterwards. All too often the Spitfire story is taken only as far as the Battle of Britain in 1940. This could have turned into a recitation of technical detail of interest only to enthusiasts but Glancey keeps it surprising readable. He draws of the memoirs of, and interviews with, pilots and the less glamorous actors such as the designers, factory workers and delivery pilots. He also looks at the cultural impact of the plane which became a national symbol and even how it became the subject of so many modelling kits. The least successful chapter is the one which compares the Spitfire with other Second World War fighters; that does read a little like a recitation of technical jargon. But over all, this book was a surprisingly good read.
185. A Century of Service
by Donald E Graves
This coffee table book was commissioned by a Canadian reservist unit celebrating its centenary in 2005 from well known Canadian military historian Donald Graves. As would be expected from such a publication, it is lavishly illustrated with photographs, maps, colour plates and drawings of vehicles. The regiment now known as the South Alberta Light Horse actually traces its roots back to around 1885 when what are now the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were the centre of a rising by Indians and mixed-race settlers. Local white settlers formed their own mounted units to support militia units sent from Manitoba and points east to quell the rebellion. The Sally Horse can claim descent from some of these units. The unit also claims descent from an infantry battalion and a cavalry unit from the First World War and a tank unit and artillery regiment from the Second. So, the book is pretty much a history of Canadian fighting men at war. Graves had already written a history of the South Alberta Regiment, the Second World War tank unit, when he was approached to write this wider ranging history. To be honest, the SAR chapters of this book are by far the best. Elsewhere, Graves sometimes appears on occasion to have bitten off more than he can chew. I was puzzled by a reference to a British war against the Boers in South Africa in the 1870s. At that time the Boers wanted British protection from the Zulus and it was only in the early 1880s, after the defeat of the Zulus, that they re-asserted their independence. Graves seems unaware that Canada raised an infantry battalion to fight in the Indian Mutiny in 1857. His grasp of the composition of the Kitchener's New Army during the First World War seems a little shaky - I don't think it was almost entirely recruited in "the industrial midlands". It would appear that Graves's brief was to write a book for people with little knowledge of military matters and sometimes his explanations slow the flow of the book down. But he does a good job of chronicling the ups and downs of peacetime part-time soldiering in Canada over more than a century. I came away from this book with the impression that Graves's hands were a little too tied by having to please too many masters on the committee which commissioned the book.
184. The Vanished Army
by Tim Carew
When Tim Carew wrote this book in the early 1960s there were still significant numbers of British survivors of the First World War around to be interviewed for it. The book focuses on the opening few weeks of the war when the British Expeditionary Force was almost wiped out to a man as it battled to stem the German advance though Belgium and Northern France. As with Carew's other books it is an easy and smooth read. I sometimes wondered how he could know exactly what soldiers in action had said and sometimes even thought - particularly when they did not survive. Sometimes histories say more about the period they were written during than the period they are written about. There's more of whiff of Britain in the 1960s in this book. I think if it had been written a decade or two later there might have been some cowards in it. The book is about the destruction of one of the most highly trained and professional armies Britain ever dispatched to war - which may not be saying much, but then nearly all armies go to war trained to fight the previous war. Although some of the regiments had seen recent service in some nasty little wars, it was essentially a peacetime army. I've always found that the most bellicose in peacetime are often the most disappointing performers when the bodily waste solids strike the rotating blade of the air agitating system. The empty oil drum makes the loudest noise when it's whacked with a stick. I believe that the procession of stoic good humoured but somewhat dim Tommies led by sword-waving pink faced Public School boys did exist, but I think in reality there was more to the story than that. In a nation where educational opportunity was a a rare thing at the time for most of the working population, I'm inclined to think there was more to the rank and file than a bunch of heavily tattooed and foul-mouthed beer swillers. I would also like to believe that the Scots regiments were composed of more than just belligerent Oatmeal Savages. The book hints that the Scots were less inclined to take prisoners than the average Tommy. This book is a good read but I think it only tells part of the story.
by Max Hastings
Finally, a strong contender for the 2014 Book of the Year. This is possibly former war reporter Max Hastings's best book. He looks at the battle for Germany from late 1944 through to the Germans' final surrender. But instead of focusing only on generals and soldiers, Hastings widens the scope of the book to include civilians, Prisoners of War, slave workers and politicians. The book leans heavily on first-hand reminiscences which are deftly woven into a realistic narrative of one of the great tragedies of the Twentieth Century. The picture Hastings paints is grim. More people behave badly than behave well. Few leaders, military or political, escape criticism. The US-British-Canadian advance from the west is uninspired and uninspiring. Lacklustre Allied troops in Hastings' book are almost always outfought by outnumbered Germans. There is nothing new in the claim that Germany would not have been defeated without a massive sacrifice in the lives from the Soviet Red Army. But Hastings puts a lot of meat on the bare bones arising from that statement. He also does not flinch from detailing the looting and rape spree the Red Army unleashed as it advanced. Sadly, the details of the unremitting atrocities previously committed by the Germans on Soviet soil are outwith the scope of the book, though Hastings does mention them. There is also nothing new in saying that Stalin was probably a greater mass murderer than Hitler but Hastings does a good job of discussing the moral ambiguities involved in an alliance with one brand of evil to defeat another evil. This is a story about people, not military manoeuvres; people being murdered, people being starved, people being raped, bombed, betrayed, brutalised, massacred, drowned, robbed, mutilated and/or dispossessed. Hastings even quotes some Germans bitter about being "victimised". I'm not sure anyone but a German can really get to the bottom of how one of the best educated populations in Europe could be so brainwashed. The book is slightly marred by the final preachy chapter in which Hastings subjects the reader to his rather right wing opinions. The facts and testimonies that he has assembled are eloquent enough on their own. Anyone thinking of starting a war should read this book first.
182. The Rogue's March
by Peter F Stevens
After the United States invaded Mexico in 1846 a number of its soldiers switched sides. This book by Irish-American journalist Peter Stevens looks at why the men deserted and what happened to them. The Mexicans formed the deserters into an artillery unit. As the most of the deserters were recent Irish immigrants to the United States the unit was known as the San Patricios and it managed to see action in most of the major battles of the war. The central character in the drama was a former British soldier from Galway called John Riley. He had expected that his service in the British Army would lead to quick promotion when he joined the US Army. But he failed to take into account the anti-Irish hysteria sweeping his adopted country and in particular its army. The US officers, who regarded themselves as being drawn from the elite of American society, persecuted and brutally abused the Irish and their fellow Catholic immigrants from Germany. Stevens produces evidence that Catholic immigrants were more likely to be disciplined and more severely dealt with than their American-born comrades. Coupled with concerns about fighting in what was an obvious land-grab by the United States, the abusive treatment resulted in one-in-five Irish-born soldiers deserting. The Mexicans welcomed the deserters with open arms. I was a little puzzled as to why Stevens thought that serving as a British regimental engineer, a pioneer, qualified Reilly to be an artillery commander. The courage and skill of the San Patricios was not enough to save the Mexicans from defeat in the face of the courage and skill of their former comrades in the US Army, many of them Irish and German immigrants fresh of the boat. Forty-six of the San Patricios were captured and executed. In a piece of macabre theatre one mass hanging was conducted at the very moment the Stars and Stripes billowed from the flag pole of the last fort defending Mexico City to mark its capture. The deserters were kept standing below the gallows for hours while US troops battled to seize the fort. Riley escaped execution because technically he had deserted before war began and could only be flogged and branded. Stevens tells this sad, and still little-known, tale reasonably well. Because the San Patricios fought in nearly all the main battles, the book is also a good introduction to the US campaign against Mexico. Many of the junior officers who feature in it went on to become senior commanders in the American Civil War, including Stonewall Jackson, Robert E Lee and Ulysses S Grant.
181. The Dieppe Raid
by Robin Neillands
This is a dispassionate look at one of the most disastrous British military operations of the Second World War. Neillands, a former Royal Marine, argues that the attempt by British commandos and Canadian troops to seize the French resort was doomed from the start. Dieppe was about the worst place to attack and the planning was appalling. It was literally a suicide mission. What little chance the troops had of success vanished when the Royal Navy refused to send a battleship into the channel to bombard the town and soften up the German defences and the Royal Air Force declined to bomb the place. The German troops defending the Dieppe coastline were hardly elite, but they didn't have to be to almost wipe out the Canadian and British soldiers trapped on the beaches. Neillands admits he is baffled as to the logic behind the mission or even who gave it the final go-ahead. He has little problem demolishing the argument that valuable lessons were learned from the disaster which later saved lives during the D Day Landings. Neillands points out that the senior officers who planned the Dieppe raid were already ignoring conventional military wisdom and planning procedures. The only troops who came anywhere near achieving their objectives were the commandos, who drew up their own plans. Neillands leavens his analysis with personal reminiscences from soldiers involved in the doomed mission. There can be no doubting the courage of many of the men involved. But sadly over 4,000 men were killed, maimed, wounded or were imprisoned for almost three years as result of taking part in an operation that should never have gone ahead.
by Robert Harvey
This book is subtitled "The Maverick Genius of Great Military Readers". But, sadly, it has little to say that is either new or insightful. Basically, it is a series of bog-standard mini-biographies of - Robert Clive, James Wolfe, George Washington, Horatio Nelson, Thomas Cochrane, the Duke of Wellington, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Ulysses Grant, Erwin Rommel, Bernard Montgomery, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. Each chapter ends with an attempt to justify the maverick label, some more successful than others. I'm not sure I would even recommend this book as an introduction to the careers of any of these men. It is either badly written or badly edited. I was little puzzled as to how the German anti-tank guns in the Western Desert during the Second World War gave them air superiority over the British. In one paragraph American Douglas MacArthur is leading his men into action against the Germans during the First World War and in the next paragraph he is recovering from a mysterious wound. I think the fact that Scottish Peninsular War general Robert Craufurd was known as Black Bob should have been a clue that his name wasn't Robin Craufurd. How could American veterans travel to Washington in 1932 to protest against something that didn't happen until 1934? And do we really need to be told that the Nazis "conscripted many Czech and Polish conscripts" ? I now know why this book was in the Bargain Section of the bookshop. Only it wasn't much of a bargain.
by Brigadier John Durnford-Slater
A gallop through the Second World War as seen through the eyes of one of Britain's first commandos. Artilleryman Durnford-Slater was appointed as the first commanding officer of No. 3 Commando in 1940. He helped pioneer British commando techniques and took part in several of their first raids. The book was first published in 1953, so it does not dwell on the horrors of war. Heroes are praised but the less able, through mentioned, usually go un-named. Durnford-Slater tells the tale he decided to tell with abundant good humour. He often tells stories against himself. The book loses something as Durnford-Slater moves from frontline command to more of an administrative and planning role after D-Day. I find myself believing the old war horse when he says he missed frontline soldiering. Horses play a surprisingly large part in the book as Durnford-Slater frequents the race courses of England and bends over backwards to place bets with bookie William Hill from the frontline. His proclamation at the end of the book that he had "a wonderful war" is not something that one would expect to see in a more modern book. But the declaration fits perfectly with the persona Dunford-Slater adopted to get himself and his men through the war.
178. Pendulum of War
by Niall Barr
Military academic Nial Barr takes a look at what he describes as the three battles of El Alamein. Barr examines the failings of the Eighth Army as it struggled to contain the onward rush of the Axis after its crushing defeat at Gazala in June 1942. The joint Italian-German force had once again out-thought and out-fought the better-supplied and numerically superior Eighth Army. The Gazala defeat led to Britain's Middle East commander General Claude Auchinleck taking direct command of the Eighth Army and stemming German General Erwin Rommel's advance on Cairo and the Suez Canal. Barr argues that Auchinleck had a fine military brain and laid a solid foundation for the Eighth Army's final triumph on the El Alamein line. But unfortunately, neither Auchinleck nor his right-hand man Major-General Eric Dorman-Smith, had the people or command skills required to get the best out of their multi-national force of British, Indian, French, Australian and New Zealand troops. The infantry consistently felt that the British tanks had let them down. The commanders of the British armour felt they were mis-used and misunderstood. German tanks and their use of anti-tank guns proved more than a match for the British armoured brigades. Barr has surprisingly little to say about Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery, whose career was built on his victory at El Alamein. He says Montgomery did not really know how to make best use of his armour and failed to plan much beyond breaking through the Rommel's minefield and anti-tank defences. But, unlike Auchinlek and Dorman-Smith, he knew how to communicate his wishes and how to command. Barr attributes Montgomery's victory to several factors. His artillery commanders had learned the correct lessons from previous defeats. Mine clearance was systemized. The allies had gained control of the air. The Axis troops had become complacent following a string of victories and failed to appreciate that the Eighth Army had transformed itself into a more skillful and better trained force than it had been in June 1942. And perhaps most of all, the German tanks had almost no fuel, thanks to the Allied activity in the Mediterranean which had sunk several badly needed oil tankers. I would have put this book in the running for Book of the Year but for one blatant blunder. Barr declared that the 51st Highland Division had been made up of the regular Highland battalions when war broke out. It was actually made up of Territorial Battalions with a leavening of regular units drafted in after the outbreak of the war. But if Barr got that wrong, what else did he get wrong?
177. A Rumor of War
by Philip Caputo
This is one of the best known of the American Vietnam War memoirs. Author Philip Caputo was among the first US Marines to land in Vietnam in 1965 and claims to have seen things were going very wrong from the start. Caputo and his men soon found themselves in a futile and brutal war. It is a war that seldom seems to bring out the best in American youth. The American military had lost its way before the first US boots hit the ground. It was run like a US corporation and corporate culture is not conducive to fighting a war. The Green Machine's "product" was dead Vietnamese. As Caputo points out, every dead Vietnamese citizen was retrospectively inducted into the Viet Cong by the US Military's bean-counters - amongst whom Caputo was for a period numbered. After leaving the military Caputo became a journalist and actually covered the North Vietnamese victory in 1975 and the US evacuation of Saigon. Caputo is a good writer. But this book is over-written. The writing is often mannered and bloated. Caputo takes a full page or so to reveal the blindingly obvious when his men kill a Vietnamese prisoner. The book takes an interesting turn when Caputo is accused of ordering the murder of suspected Viet Cong bomb makers. This book might have been classic account of the Vietnam War if it hadn't set out to be a classic of the Vietnam War.
176. George Washington: Gentleman Warrior
by Stephen Brumwell
First let me get my Stephen Brumwell disclaimer out of the way. I know Steve and respect his abilities as military historian. This book about the military career of the first President of the United States won a prestigious prize awarded to the best book relating to that nation's early history. And deservedly so. Brumwell, a former British journalist living in the Netherlands, views the American icon through less rosy tinted lenses than most so-called historians in the president's homeland. The Washington portrayed is a more ambitious and ruthless figure than American legend would have it. With the exception of his Princeton Campaign, he was not much of a battlefield commander. The British let him off the hook by failing to pursue the military campaign vigourously enough in the early days when they still hoped a peaceful settlement was possible. What Washington did do was create an army to fight the British and kept it in the field until French intervention, in what was really the First American Civil War, swung the conflict against the British. Washington had begun his military career fighting on the British side against the French. He learned his trade as a soldier under British tutelage and strove to be a model member of the British officer class. He also modelled his Continental Army on the British Army. Brumwell dug deeply into contemporary sources for his portrait of Washington and the wars in which he fought, both against the British and the French. After reading this book I know more about both conflicts and I thought I was pretty well informed about them already. This was a military biography but I would have welcomed a little more about other aspects of Washington's public life. For instance, I would have liked to have seen what Brumwell made of the allegation that Washington and his cronies had little choice but to launch a coup because of some questionable land deals they were involved in. Creating a new legal jurisdiction and re-writing the law is one way to avoid a jail term.
175.The Six Day War 1967: Sinai
by Simon Dunstan
A look at one of the most successful military operations since the Second World War. The Israeli air force and army cut through their Egyptian opponents like a knife through butter in a surprise attack in 1967. Simon Dunstan does a workman-like job in this book from Osprey publishing. Like most Osprey books it is lavishly illustrated with photographs, maps and artist recreations of some of the key actions. Dunstan leavens a straight-forward factual recitation of the campaign with some eye-witness accounts from participants. Most of these accounts are from Israelis. The book certainly views the campaign through the eyes of the Israelis and at times refers to the Egyptians as "the enemy". I may be reading too much into this reference but Dunstan could easily have rephrased it if he wanted to avoid accusations of bias and partisanship.
by Richard Holmes
In the last book he wrote before his death 2011, respected English military historian takes a look at British soldiers’ lives from around 1660 to the present day. It is an affectionate look but Holmes does not shy away from the less wholesome aspects of soldiering in the British Army. Not all the stories and anecdotes portray the men in a flattering light. Holmes has dug deep into his own experiences as an army reservist, lecturer at Sandhurst and a number of almost forgotten published reminiscences to create this book. It is not purely a story of battles and derring-do. Holmes looks at who was recruited, how they were recruited, how they were treated after they entered the Army and how they lived. I have two reservations about the book. Holmes seems far more comfortable discussing the lives and loves of the officers. Somehow he does not quite capture the rank and file quite so well. Secondly, for most of the period covered by the book, the Scots were over-represented in the British Army. But most of the stories and anecdotes are about Englishmen. The Irish get a fair kick of the can but that might be because so many of them served in English regiments. When the Scots do get a mention, I get the impression that Holmes regarded them as Oatmeal Savages. There were several places in the book in which a Scottish example would have illustrated Holmes’s point better than the one he used. Discussion of the Salerno Mutiny during the Second World War, in which members of the 51st Highland Division refused to go into the front line as reinforcements for non-Scottish regiments, would have been an interesting example of the perils of over-encouraging regimental tribalism. What was a fencible? You will not find the answer in this book. The chapter on religion focuses on the trials and tribulations of Church of England chaplains through the centuries – with a tip of the hat to Irish Catholic military padres. What about the 93rd Highlanders and their regimental church elders? This was an interesting book, but really it should have been called English Soldiers.
173. The Korean War
by Brian Catchpole
This is a look at the Korean War through a British lens. As most histories of the war focus on the United States contribution, by far the largest of any of the western nations, this has to be welcome. I almost wrote that the American contribution was “the largest” but that would be to forget the Chinese troops who fought in the war. Brian Catchpole, unlike many writers, is careful to pay tribute to the bravery and hardiness of the Chinese. He is not so impressed by the North Koreans. Catchpole follows the general course of the war from both a military and political standpoint. He also takes a look at the naval and air campaigns, propaganda, guerrilla fighting, the treatment of prisoners and the contributions made by the various other nations involved; including the Turks, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, French and Soviets. This is a sound introduction to what many still regard as The Forgotten War.
172. Sniper One
by Sgt Dan Mills
This is a squaddie’s eye-view of some of the fiercest fighting involving British troops in Iraq. Sergeant Dan Mills was the head of the 1st Battalion of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment’s sniper platoon when it deployed to the city of Al Almarah in 2004. The soldiers had been told to expect a peace-keeping mission. Instead Y Company, which included Mills and his men, were in almost non-stop combat. Almost as soon as they arrived in the southern Iraqi town one of the most senior member of the platoon was badly injured by a grenade. The pace of the action rarely slows down after that. The sniper platoon regarded themselves as the elite of the regiment. But this is no story of long-shots picking off insurgents at mind-boggling distances. Mills and his men are often in the thick of the fighting, either from their roof top positions at the British base in the city or on patrol. Mills paints a lively and vivid picture of the men he served with. Not all are heroes but in one-way or another nearly all are characters. Not are all the officers super leaders. But neither are they clueless clowns. No ghost-writer is explicitly identified but the name Tom Newton Dunn, who has worked with other British servicemen to put their stories into print, appears in the acknowledgements. In less skilful hands, Mills might have been morphed into a generic Every-Squaddie, speaking to the reader in tabloid cliches. Having never met Mills, I cannot say how truly the book reflects his character. But the narrator in the book has a story to tell and tells it well, with plenty of shots of squaddie humour.
171. The Last of the Few
by Max Arthur
Max Arthur has built his writing career on being a conduit for British soldiers, sailors and airmen to relate their experiences. He is rather good at getting them to open up when he interviews them and of capturing the essence of their stories when he puts them on paper. His book about the Falklands War, Above All Courage, is a classic. This book is about the Battle of Britain. The “Few” were perhaps already too few when he undertook the project and as well as interviews with the veterans, he also drew on written accounts and tape recordings held at the Imperial War Museum to produce the book. He sensibly keeps the personal accounts short and very few run for more than a page. He also cast his net wider than just the British pilots. There are reminiscences from German pilots and bomber crews, RAF ground crew and some of the women who worked on detecting and plotting the German raids. But the pilots are at the heart of the book. Many of their tales involve being in the air, a sudden bang, flames licking through the cockpit of their Spitfire or Hurricane and the struggle to bail out. The air battles were obviously more a matter of ambush than an aerial joust. Several of those whose memories are included in the book failed to survive the war and perhaps the book would have benefited from notes mentioning the fact at the end of the relevant final anecdote. The stories in this book show that it takes all sorts to make an air force. Giving the Battle of Britain the Max Arthur treatment was a worthwhile endeavour.
170. The Great War Myth
by John Mosier
My irritation with this book grew as I got deeper into it. American university professor of English John Mosier’s polemic claims that his countrymen won the First World War almost single-handed. According to Mosier, the British and French could do nothing right, while the Germans did not make a single misstep. The Germans only threw in the towel when they came up against the Americans and realised they had met their match when it came to generalship and fighting qualities. About two-thirds of the way through, as the Germans continued to play a perfect game and the Brits and French failed to show any marked improvement in performance, I guessed where Mosier was going with the book; the American Expeditionary Force won the war. Much of the material Mosier uses to back-up his argument comes from French sources and was new to me. For all I knew he might have a point. But then when the British assumed the burden of the conflict in 1916 I was on firmer ground. It is hard to take someone who believes “The First Hundred Thousand” refers to the first 100,000 British casualties rather than the first intake of volunteer British soldiers too seriously. The claim that the British lost the city of Ypres in October 1914 would come as news to the Germans. In fact, many of Mosier’s references to the British are snide or sarcastic. Where the facts do not back Mosier up, he ignores them. I’m pretty sure that the Germans called the First Battle of Ypres Die Kindermord (Massacre of the Innocents) for good reason but Mosier makes no mention of it. He claims the Canadian Corps was wiped out capturing Vimy Ridge in 1917. A lot of Canadians believe the corps played a leading role in the defeat of the Germans in August 1918. Mosier fails to explain why the German Spring Offensive of 1918 failed, perhaps because the facts do not fit his thesis. He also pretty much ignores the British offensives of the late 1918 which drove the Germans back towards their own frontier. To Mosier this was an orderly strategic withdrawal; which does not explain the captured Germans and men. I recently saw a Canadian television documentary which went to great pains to stress that the Canadian Corps scooped up far more German troops and equipment in late 1918 than the entire American Expeditionary Force managed to. Having read Mosier’s book I now understand why that was felt necessary.
169. Operation Mincemeat
by Ben Macintyre
I shied away from this book for some time because I'd seen and read about "The Man Who Never Was" before. I wasn't too sure what journalist Ben Macintyre would have to add to the story of how British Intelligence duped the Germans during the Second World War through the use a corpse washed ashore in Spain which was carrying what were purported to be top secret invasion plans. But it turns out that for some reason one of the key figures in the deception was allowed to take home a trunk of secret files on the caper. Macintyre got access to the trunk and the story he has to tell is somewhat different from the authorised account which appeared in The Man Who Never Was. The trunk belonged to the naval intelligence officer who not only wrote the Man Who Never Was but also stage-managed the caper. The basic story is well known. British Intelligence got hold of a corpse, chained a briefcase to it containing letters which suggested that the Allied preparations to invade Sicily were actually a bluff to disguise plans to land elsewhere in the Mediterranean, dumped it in the sea off Spain, and hoped the Fascist Spanish would make the Germans aware of the case's contents. The plan worked like a charm. The Germans sent troops to Greece instead of Sicily. Macintyre tells the tale well and obviously did a lot of research into the various characters involved. The plan almost went off the rails at several points. The two key letters entrusted to the bogus courier were addressed to senior British commanders in North Africa. But a thoughtful reader would wonder why one of the supposed authors of one letter would know the contents of the other letter. A major slip-up. Then the brief case ended up in the hands of the Spanish navy, the least Fascist of the military, and it took some effort on the part of the British to nudge them into handing the contents to the Germans. In fact, one Spanish official even tried to hand the case back to the British un-opened. The British also under-estimated the Spanish pathologist, who noted that the "courier" had been dead for far longer than the ticket stubs found on him suggested. Macintyre is probably correct when he speculates that it was only because one of the key German intelligence analysts was vehemently, but secretly, anti-Nazi that the ruse succeeded. Macinytre introduces some unusual characters, including the Soviet spy brother of a key figure in British intelligence and a cross-dressing commando. But sometimes he is too reluctant to drop them from the book when they cease to be part of the plot. I'm still not sure what the brother of the undertaker who briefly had custody of the corpse in London was doing in the book. The book also discusses the second deception associated with the Man Who Never Was - the disinformation campaign associated with the preparation of the book and film of that name. Sadly, a British censor failed to realise that the true identity of the corpse was supposed to be a secret; thus robbing Macintyre of the chance to reveal the solution to the decades-long mystery. A file which eventually found its way into the National Archives at Kew identified the corpse as a Welsh down-and-out.
168. Wellington: The Years of the Sword
by Elizabeth Longford
Sometimes it helps when writing a biography if the author is related to the subject. Elizabeth Longford came from the same family which supplied the legendary victor of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, with his wife, Kitty Packenham. In the early chapters of the book I found Lady Longford’s obsession with the doings of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, to which Wellington belonged, a little tiresome. But I came around to the opinion that her shared background with Wellington actually helped her give an insight into the British commander’s life and character. Longford delved into family papers, letters and memoirs to not only recreate the exploits of the duke but also to paint a picture of his times. Wellington’s worries were not confined to the battlegrounds of Europe but also to the political battles waged in London. And politics also saddled him with some of the most incompetent subordinates in the British Army at the time. Speaking of which, according to Longford, it is very unlikely that Wellington ever declared that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. That’s a myth that hurts the British armed forces to this day. Longford peppers the text with recollections from soldiers of all ranks to great effect. She follows his career from the day he joined the 73rd Highlanders in 1787 through his days in India, Portugal and Spain and finally Waterloo. This was a very readable biography of a controversial British military icon which goes a long way to fleshing out the character of the man who beat Boney at Waterloo.
168. We Fought at Arnhem
by Mike Rossiter
I thought the last thing the World needed was yet another book about the destruction of the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem in September 1944. I can’t help thinking it has been some time since anyone has had anything particularly fresh to say about Operation Market Garden. So, this book was a pleasant surprise. Rossiter built his book around the experiences of three former members of the division at Arnhem. He tells the stories of three working class blokes, two from the Midlands and one from Cumbria, before the war and follows them all the way into the prisoner of war camps after the fighting in the Netherlands. Most books end the story of Arnhem when the battered survivors of the division are evacuated to the south bank of the Rhine. Rossiter seems to have done a good job of persuading the veterans to open up about their experiences during the often brutal and bloody fighting. But the book goes beyond just an edited transcript of the war stories of three men. Rossiter does an excellent job of placing the men's experiences into the bigger story. The memoirs of other soldiers and accounts, official and non-official, have been heavily mined to create a snapshot of men at war. One of my grandfathers’ brothers fought at Arnhem but he died before I was born. Now thanks to Rossiter I have a better idea of what he probably went through.
167. Haig’s Command
by Denis Winter
This book is the flip side of John Terraine’s Douglas Haig: the Educated Soldier (see below Review 151) . While Terraine claims the controversial Scottish general was the best man available for the job when it came to commanding the British Army on the Western Front for some of the most important battles of the First World War, Winter argues he was a disaster. Winter alleges that the British government whitewashed Haig’s incompetence after the First World War because it knew a second round was imminent and the truth would damage public morale and its relations with potential allies. He says the military archives was literally burned to ashes as the official government historians worked through them to ensure that the sanitised version of the war they produced could never be corrected. Haig was the main beneficiary. Winter argues he was blunderer from the start but also a schemer and master politician. Winter points to the Canadian and Australian records to back up his claims. They were never, says Winter, as effectively weeded as the British archives. Winter sets out to demolish the claims that Haig was starved of reinforcements by British Prime Minister Lloyd George and this led to the Germans managing to smash through the British lines in March 1918. He also criticizes Haig’s pursuit of the German Army after the August 1918 offensive at Amiens. Winter alleges that Haig allowed the Germans to conduct an orderly and controlled retreat rather than putting them on the run. Haig was basically pushing at an open door. Military history swings like a pendulum. At the moment it would appear that Winter’s work is being ignored and Haig is again being hailed as the architect of victory on the Western Front. But I would recommend anyone interested in Haig’s career to have a look at this 1991 book.
166. Ian Fleming’s Commandos
by Nicholas Rankin
This is really three books loosely knitted into one. But that does not prevent it from being an excellent read. The first strand is the military career of Ian Fleming, the creator of the fictional British super-spy James Bond, when he was with Naval Intelligence during the Second World War. The second thread is the tale of the commando unit he helped form which was to snatch military secrets from the retreating Germans and Italians in Europe. And there’s some pinching secrets from the Vichy French in North Africa as well. The third thread is a look at British naval intelligence and code-breaking during the war. I suppose a fourth thread might be just how advanced a lot of the weapons and other technology the Germans were working on really was. Rankin interviewed former members of what was usually known as 30 Assault Commando for the book but perhaps he felt they did not provide him with enough material for a full book. I could have done with a little more of their adventures, fascinating though the bigger espionage and technology is. Rankin uses footnotes when he believes that real-life characters and incidents inspired parts of the Bond books. The book opens with the commandos trying to get into Dieppe in 1942 to blow the safes at German naval headquarters. But Rankin stops short of claiming, as a more recent Canadian book does, that the whole disastrous raid was staged purely as a cover for the British attempt to get their hands on the latest German naval codes in a bid to counter the submarine menace in the Atlantic. Fleming himself proves an elusive character to pin down in the pages of this book. But perhaps the same was true in real life. American writers Ernest Hemmingway and John Steinbeck also have walk-on parts in the book, as war correspondents. I already knew Hemmingway was a waste of space as war reporter but it was interesting to find out that Steinbeck fictionalised his encounter with 30 Assault Commando. This is a fascinating, and very well researched, glimpse of the murky world of intelligence and men at war.
165. Fighting for Canada
edited by Donald Graves
A team of respected Canadian military historians look in turn at seven battles involving Canadian troops in this well illustrated volume. The battles range from Ticonderoga in 1758, in which the Black Watch was almost wiped out by French troops in present-day New York State, to Kapelsche Veer in the Netherlands in 1945. These two battles, which bookend the volume, are probably the best. Ian McCulloch, a former commanding officer of the Black Watch of Canada, has written several very readable books about the Highland regiments in the late 1750s and does a good job with Ticonderoga. Graves is better known for his Napoleonic era military histories but weaves a very readable account of the bitter fighting on the banks of the Maas in 1945. Sadly, the five chapters in between rarely rose above the pedestrian. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but I felt a couple of the chapters could have been cut back by about 25%. Graves links the seven battles with a brief summary of the development of Canada’s military in the years between them. Defeats and costly victories predominate as the authors take the reader on a tour of the battlefields in Canada, South Africa, France, the United States and the Netherlands. Each chapter concludes with a short guide to the battlefields as they looked in the late 1990s
164. Wellington’s Highland Warriors
by Stuart Reid
I have a box where I store the best books about Scottish military history. This one is going into it. Reid, a former soldier, takes a realistic look at the early days of Scotland’s much vaunted Highland regiments. The reference to Wellington in the book’s title is a little misleading because Reid kicks off with the founding of what would become the Black Watch in 1725. Reid’s tales of the Highland regiments are illuminating, amusing and very well researched. He takes the middle ground between the romantics who claim that regiments of bold heilan laddies loyally followed their old clan chiefs to fight in Britain’s wars and those who believe the Highland regiments were raised by ruthless landlords who did not hesitate to use coercion to fill the ranks. Reid’s story is far more complex. He takes aim at one proponent of each myth. Stewart of Garth, who wrote the grand-daddy of histories of the Highland regiments in the 1822 and whose work formed the basis of many books until recently is one of the romantics. Popular and more modern historian John Prebble gets short shrift too, mainly for his book Mutiny which covered the early days of some of the Highland regiments. Reid touches on several incidents which appear in my own Scottish Military Disasters, which makes it easier to get a feel for the quality of his research. Some of the best material comes from the rivalry between the recruiters from the 79th Cameron Highlanders and the 92nd Gordon Highlanders who both had their sights set on Lochaber. He also has a good chapter on the home defence, or Fencible, regiments which served in Ireland during the 1798; a sadly neglected aspect of Scottish military history. He gets a little too tied up in unravelling the story of the Gordon Highlanders clinging to the stirrups of the Scots Greys when they charged the French at Waterloo. The key is to realise that the Greys were barely moving at more than a trot when they passed through the Gordons to get at the French and the paintings showing the Highlanders clinging to horses charging with nostrils flaring are the result of artistic licence. Sadly, Reid got one teenie-weenie thing wrong. The Highland Light Infantry were not dismayed not to become a kilted regiment as a result of the 1881 army re-organisation. The regiment opted for trews rather than kilts. The mistake was soon realised but it was not until 1947 that it was remedied. This is a very readable book but those expecting a blow-by-blow history of the Highland regiments during the Napoleonic Wars will be disappointed. On the other hand, those interested in a well-informed and sensible look at the Highland regiments will not be at all disappointed.
163. Master of the Battlefield
by Nigel Hamilton
This is the second instalment of Hamilton’s monumental biography of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. It follows the controversial British general’s career from El Alamein in 1942 to the breakout from the D-Day beaches in Normandy in 1944. While Hamilton is not completely blind to Montgomery’s character flaws, he is definitely a fan. The debunking the Montgomery Myth industry was in full flow when the book came out in 1983, but Hamilton does a good job of debunking the debunkers. One quote from early in the book stuck with me. It was from a British officer who said that while he had many criticisms of Montgomery but he found the vast bulk of attacks on the Field Marshal’s reputation came from such second-raters that he preferred not to be associated with them. Hamilton had access to Montgomery’s own papers and many of the soldier’s associates were still alive and available for interview. Hamilton paints a picture of a flawed individual who was baffled and frustrated by colleagues who put personal ambition ahead of professionalism and the lives of their soldiers. Hamilton seems to believe that history was rewritten to present American commander Dwight Eisenhower as a more competent soldier than he actually was to aid his bid for the US presidency. Patton comes over as a glory hunting crank who had a habit of going for militarily insignificant but prestigious targets. I came away with the feeling that it was a great shame that Montgomery managed to alienate US General Omar Bradley, who as a fellow professional would have been a valuable ally in the inter-service inter-national backroom war being waged within the US-British high command. Hamilton marshals his facts well and certainly suggests there is a case to answer when it comes to those he accuses of defaming a man he contends does indeed merit a place in the pantheon of great British military commanders – a very short list by the way.
162. Fighting Ships
by David Davies
This book focuses on the British warships of the Napoleonic Wars and their battles. It is part of British publisher Robinson’s “Brief History” series and lives up to its generally high standard. After looking at the men and the ships of the Royal Navy in the first two chapters, the book plunges into descriptions of the main battles of the conflicts. Davies does a good job of putting the battles in context. He also manages to strike the right balance between explaining how each battle was fought without getting bogged down in too much detail. A former soldier, Davies is also a sailor and does an excellent job of explaining the restrictions placed on the captains and crews of the ships by the vagaries of wind and tide. This is a worthwhile introduction to a complex subject which still has the power to fascinate British readers.
161. No Lack of Courage
by Bernd Horn
Serving Canadian army officer and military historian Colonel Bernd Horn takes a look at 2006’s Operation Medusa in Afghanistan. The operation was billed in Canada as the battle that saved Afghanistan and Horn goes some way to explaining what would appear to have been hyperbole. The Taliban made the mistake of digging in near Kandahar City and daring Western troops to dislodge them. The Canadian-led offensive did indeed hammer the Taliban but lack of boots on the ground, mainly due to other Nato nations refusing to risk their soldiers in combat, allowed the bulk of the insurgents to slip away. Horn’s status as a serving officer proves a double-edged sword in this book. He has the knowledge and insight to make some sense of the events. But he is also trying to write about people who are his colleagues and perhaps some of them may be his boss some time in the future. There are criticisms of the way the battle was fought but I could not helping feeling that both Horn and some of the serving soldiers he interviewed for the book were pulling their punches. On the other hand, I was surprised at how far some of the Canadian troops went when it came to criticizing their superiors. Horn is a little too fond of military jargon in this book. It gives little feel for what it was like to battle the Taliban; but perhaps it was not intended to. The book often reads more like a well-written official Lessons Learned account than something aimed at the general public. I found Horn’s reluctance to use the word “said” rather tiresome. For example, on one page the various people quoted “laughed”, “professed”, “noted”, “conceded”, “lauded”, “revealed” and “described”. The book ends with a sober assessment of what Operation Medusa achieved – and more importantly what it did not achieve and why.
160. The American Civil War
by John Keegan
British readers might well find a good book about the American Civil War of interest. This is not it. Leading British military historian John Keegan does not appear to have been at the top of his game when he tackled the war that claimed more United States casualties than all the other wars that nation has fought in combined. I used to think that the American fascination with the war was typical US-centric navel gazing. But there is actually much about it that is of interest to military history buffs. Sadly, the late Mr. Keegan rarely managed to rise above a workman-like account and the book falls apart at the end. It was obviously written for the US market and there are several references in it that will mean nothing to even a well informed British reader. He panders to US prejudice with a reference to “British invaders” during the War of 1812 when he well knows that the war was begun by a US invasion of Canada. The book gets worse as it goes on. I had to re-read several sentences to divine their meaning and find it hard to believe that any educated British writer would have used some of the phrasing involved. The book incorporates some material that had already appeared in American magazines and I can only presume that the publisher failed to translate them back into comprehensible English for the book. Towards the end, the book degenerates into several badly edited essays which read like second-from last drafts. At one point the reader is informed that “The US Army, though nearly 3 per cent black by 1865...” and then a few pages later “By 1865 one-tenth of the Union army was black.” Maybe I missed some subtle distinction but I don’t think so. Shoddy, shoddy, shoddy.
159. Alamein and the desert war
edited by Derek Jewell
This book was brought out by the Sunday Times to mark the 25th anniversary of what for many Britons in 1967 was still the turning point of the Second World War – General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army’s victory at El Alamein. It is an extensively illustrated series of essays ranging through a variety of topics from the fighting to civilian life in Cairo in 1942. Montgomery’s old foe Erwin Rommel was apparently still a bigger hero to the British in 1967 than he was to his fellow Germans. The book includes an article from old Field Marshal Montgomery himself about the battle. It’s pretty obvious that he felt some need to respond to the critics who were coming out of the woodwork by then to denigrate his handling of the campaign. This proved to be a stimulating miscellany.
158. What it is Like to go to War
by Karl Marlantes
The winner of one of the U.S. Marine Corps's top bravery medals takes a look at how to avoid, or at least minimize, combat stress. Marlantes won his Naval Cross, equivalent to the Military Cross, as a lieutenant in Vietnam. He is almost painfully honest about his time in Vietnam and the book is intended to help present day and future soldiers avoid many of the mistakes he and the military made. Much of what he has to say is so blindly obvious that it’s almost unbelievable that the same mistakes continue to be made to this day. This book has much to say that is of value not only to soldiers but to their families and others who deal with them on their return from war. Some of his responses and solutions are a little mystical and hippy-dippy; but everyone has their own way of dealing with combat stress. Although written with an American reader in mind, much of what Marlantes preaches is just as relevant to soldiers from the rest of the English-speaking world. He is a former Rhodes Scholar and draws from ancient texts and legends to illustrate several of his points. One of the things he laments is the loss of the steadying influence of long-service privates and corporals from the modern military – something the Highland Light Infantry’s Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Oatts pointed out more than half-a-century ago in one of his excellent histories of the regiment. Marlantes also has some interesting things to say about the value of gallantry awards and how they are made. One fact he highlights that is seldom mentioned these days is the randomness of death on the modern battlefield and the stress that that generates. A piece of shrapnel kills good soldiers just as easily as bad ones and all the correctly executed battle-drills and training in the world make no difference - if your name's on the bullet, it will find you.
edited by Richard Holmes
I bought this summary of “decisive conflicts in history” put out by Oxford University Press as a quick reference book: Big Mistake. The parts of book which overlapped with my own knowledge were at best misleading and at worst downright inaccurate. The book reports that 5,000 Frenchmen were part of the Scottish army which invaded England in 1513 and came to grief at Flodden. I don’t think so. The Government troops at Killiecrankie in 1689 are referred to as “English”. Only one English infantry regiment was present, the rest of the government infantry were either Scots or members of the Dutch Army’s Scots Brigade. Then, rather patronizingly, the book explains that the Battle of Culloden was not the Scots versus English affair of popular memory, but then adds there were “some French” in the ranks of the Jacobites. In the context of the passage this is misleading because although there were two French regiments present, one was composed of Scots and the other of Irishmen. There was no 52nd Scottish Division during the Second World War. There was the 52nd Lowland Division and a 15th Scottish Division. The unit being referred to is the 52nd Lowland. This book simply cannot be trusted. I would not take anything it says at face value. Some of the sentence structure is also confusing. I would have expected better from Oxford University Press. I would also have expected better from Richard Holmes. A co-editor is credited – Martin Marix Evans.
156. The Battle for Spain
by Anthony Beevor
This book about the Spanish Civil War is actually a reworking of a volume Beevor wrote in the early 1980s, before his career took off with such Second World War classics as Stalingrad and Berlin. Beevor thought it was worth revisiting the Spanish Civil War in 2006 because of the wealth of archive material, particularly from the former Soviet Union, that became available in the intervening 25 years. The tale he has to tell is a sorry one. The book does its best to be even-handed but that is not easy when one side murdered about ten times as many people as the other. And the British decided to back the side that killed the most people. Although supposedly neutral, the British policy of non-intervention and embargo clearly worked in favour of Franco’s nationalists. The Royal Navy was particularly helpful to the coalition of fascists, religious medievalists and monarchists determined to overthrow the democratically elected Republican government of Spain. Of course, as Beevor points out, the Republicans’ democratic credentials were somewhat suspect. Beevor charts how the policies of Britain, France and the United States drove the Spanish government into the arms of Stalin’s Soviet Union. It was as much the toxic cancer of Stalinism that defeated the Republic as Franco. While the forces of fascism unified under Franco, the Republicans splintered and warred amongst themselves. Thanks mainly the British, the deck was heavily stacked in favour of Franco. My reading of this book is that the wretched Neville Chamberlain did not want to antagonise Nazi Germany by complaining about its overt support for Franco because he believed the real enemy was Soviet Russia. His appeasement policies were primarily intended to use Nazi Germany to take on the Soviet Union in a proxy war. But between the betrayal of Spain and Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain only succeeded in driving Stalin into the arms of Hitler. And pandering to Fascism in the mid-to-late 1930s was not entirely unpopular with a substantial section of the British electorate. Back to the book: Beevor deftly combines the political with the military in this readable and accessible account of the conflict.
155. Trigger Time
By Mick Flynn
This is follow-up to Flynn’s best-seller Bullet Magnet and is perhaps not quite as good. Bullet Magnet told the story of Flynn’s career in the Household Cavalry from the late 1970s through to his deployment in Afghanistan. This book rehashes some of the Afghanistan content from Bullet Magnet but is mainly fresh material from Flynn’s three tours there. Once again, Flynn has teamed-up with a ghost-writer Will Pearson and the latter has, in the main, done an excellent job of capturing the soldier’s voice. This is a smooth and entertaining read. But is also somehow a little insubstantial. There’s just something lacking. Perhaps Bullet Magnet was just too hard an act to follow.
154. Tiger Force
by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss
This book came out of a Pulitzer Prize winning series of newspaper articles by two American journalists about a succession of massacres of civilians in 1967 South Vietnam. And for once the Pulitzer prize committee got it right. A top American military cop took the files on the activities of Tiger Force home with him when he was fired and they were donated to a university on his death without anyone realising the dynamite they contained. Tiger Force was a reconnaissance platoon attached to the 327th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. They embarked on a horrifying campaign of murder and mutilation of unarmed men, women and children. Their kill-rate was not so good when it came to taking on Vietnamese carrying guns. None of the officers at the 327th seemed to question why when the platoon was generating such a high body count, it never seemed to recover any weapons. The Heart of Darkness indeed. Soldiers from the platoon who complained or disobeyed orders to murder civilians were sidelined. The results of military police inquiry launched in the early 1970s, which revealed in detail the activities of Tiger Force, were quietly shelved by military top brass and their political bosses at the White House. In the aftermath of Watergate, no-one wanted another scandal. The 1948 massacre of ethnic Chinese rubber plantation workers at Batang Kali by a Scots Guards patrol pales in comparison with the trail of systemic murder and mutilation Tiger Force left behind them (See Batang Kali Revisited). But the activities of Tiger Force and the Scots Guards have many common factors. Both involved young soldiers, weak leadership from officers obsessed with deniability, sleazy politicians, cover-ups and blatant murder. The difference is that the British Establishment continues to maintain that the 24 men killed at Batang Kali were shot while trying to escape. Oh, for a couple of journalists of a calibre of Sallah and Weiss when it comes to Batang Kali. And a box of papers that someone with a sense of human decency removed from the smothering cover-up obsessed clutches of Whitehall would also be useful.
153. The Last War Heroes
by Stephen Bull
I’m not big on books that accompany television series and I took some persuading to pick this one up. I’m glad I did. Dr. Stephen Bull is a respected expert on military tactics during the Second World War and an accomplished writer. In this book he weaves together interviews with British, Canadian, American and Russian veterans who took part in the 1944-45 Allied advances on Berlin with a concise overview of the battles involved. As would be expected with a television spin-off book, it is lavishly illustrated. Some pages focus on the weapons used by all sides. The weakest parts of the book are the direct tie-ins with the Channel 4 television series which feature still photographs of modern-day attempts to recreate the devastation done by the weapons. They just don’t work. By far the best parts of the book are the veterans’ worm’s-eye memories of life and death in a war zone. The final chapter in which the veterans reflect on “their” war is one of the strongest and most illuminating.
152. The British at the Gates
by Robin Reilly
Though this book bills itself as the story of the British attempt to seize the American city of New Orleans in 1814 almost half of it is taken up with the history of the War of 1812. That is perhaps no bad thing because the American invasion of Canada is a footnote in most British histories of the Napoleonic Wars and grossly misrepresented in American histories. I am not clear if Reilly, a senior executive at fine china makers Wedgwood, had an eye on the American market when he wrote this book. To me, he seems far to inclined to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt when it comes to causes of the war. He quotes extensively from debates in Congress in the run-up to the invasion of Canada, seemingly unaware that politicians seldom say in public what they really think. He also claims to be baffled by American acceptance, despite all the evidence to the contrary, of assurances given to them by Napoleon while rejecting British attempts to head-off war. But if the proposition that the United States was motivated by a desire to take advantage of Britain being embroiled in saving Europe from French dictatorship to seize Canada, then events are not so baffling after all. The Ghent Peace Treaty, signed before Britain’s humiliating defeat at New Orleans in January 1815, did not settle any of the issues the U.S. claimed to have been going to war over. Reilly obviously did a lot of research before writing this book. Sadly, he appears to have succumbed to the temptation to cram the results of that research into the text at the expense of keeping the book moving along at a decent pace.
151. Douglas Haig – The Educated Soldier
by John Terraine
This 1963 book set out to restore the reputation of one of Britain’s most controversial soldiers. Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s career during the First World War is often caricatured as unmitigated callous and senseless butchery. Terraine goes further than many fellow historians who characterise Haig as, at most, the best of a very sad and bad collection of British commanders during the conflict and argues he was actually a highly capable commander. Terraine postulates that Haig was let down by his subordinates and his political masters in London. According to Terraine, Haig was one of the few Allied generals to have “a grip” on how to win the war. But his policy of allowing his generals a high degree of latitude in how the battles were fought cost Haig his reputation and hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth troops their lives. Battles were fought at places and at times not of Haig’s choosing but to satisfy the demands of the French. Terraine also points the finger at British Prime Minister David Lloyd George for starving Haig of troops and diverting what reinforcements were available to dead-end campaigns such as Italy and Salonika. The politician’s aim was to save lives by keeping them out of Haig’s meat-grinder but Terraine suggests the lack of adequate numbers of soldiers on the Western Front may actually have cost lives as British soldiers tried to fight the war on a shoestring. In the early 1960s there were still a number of soldiers who worked with Haig available for interview and Terraine took advantage of this. He also appears to have carried out meticulous research in the archives. But I cannot help but wonder if Terraine was a little selective in the material he decided to use. A cursory reading of this book would leave the impression that Haig never made a serious mistake. That can’t be true – no-one plays a perfect game. Certainly, Haig would appear to have been a faster learner than most of his colleagues and this book goes some way to cutting away the caricature that surrounds his reputation to this day. One annoying tic in this book is Terraine’s habit of quoting passages in French without any translation at all. This is an important, if controversial, contribution to the debate over Britain’s part in the First World War.
150. Brasso, Blanco and Bull
by Tony Thorne
I am not sure I would agree with the description of this book on the front cover that it is “a hilarious memoir of National Service”. But it is certainly in the main an amusing account of one man’s stint of compulsory military service in the British Army of the late 1950s. Thorne elected to complete his National Service before going to Cambridge University. I am not sure that I should have been surprised that in a English Home Counties regiment, the Buffs, that there were so many public school boys in Thorne’s intake. And I was definitely not aghast when most of them were soon sent for officer training. Perhaps England’s private schools do indeed attract Britain’s brightest and best. Although many disparaged National Service as a complete waste of time, I cannot help but think that perhaps for Thorne his time in the Army number amongst the happiest of his life – I suspect they certainly provided him with some of his best stories. He certainly tells his tales well in this diverting little dip into military nostalgia.
149. Proud Heritage Vol. 1
by Lt.-Col. L B Oatts
When I reviewed Volume II of this history of the Highland Light Infantry recently I lamented that I not been able to read Volume I. Well, thanks to the generosity of a couple of readers, I have now read Volume 1. Once again, Oatts proved to be a very readable regimental historian. The humour and sharp eye for a good tale that characterise his writing are present. He has some interesting things to say about soldiers ancient and modern, though modern only goes up to the 1950s. In particular, he laments the loss of the long-service privates of the 1800s who he felt gave the regiment its character and strength. Oatts follows the fortunes of the 71st from its formation in 1778 as MacLeod’s Highlanders, through its battles in India (when it was usually heavily out-numbered), the Peninsular War and Waterloo, Canada, the Crimea and the Indian Mutiny. The 71st did most of its campaigning in trousers or trews and often struggled to be recognised as a Highland regiment. I did not know until I read this book that in the mid-1800s its recruiting sergeants were paid a hefty premium for persuading Gaelic speakers to take the Queen’s Shilling. But there were other aspects of the book that left me puzzled. At the end of the chapter on the 1811 Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro, Oatts claims that some of the account of the fighting draws from the diary of Sgt. William Gavin. Gavin was not present at the battle and his diary does not describe the fighting. I cannot help but wonder that if Oatts got that wrong, what else did he get wrong.
148. Helmand Assault
by Ewen Southby-Tailyor
This turned out to be a sadly unsatisfying book. Written by a former Royal Marines officer it attempts to chronicle the exploits of 3 Commando Brigade in Afghanistan over the winter of 2008-2009. A hack from the Ministry of Defence’s media relations department could have written this. The book reads as though Southby-Tailyor look through some military signal logs, talked to some of his officer chums, and then sat down and hammered out the book. The uninterrupted run of successful missions was suspiciously unmarred by failure of any kind. The bootnecks do not seem to have made a single mis-step. The brigade deserved a more honest chronicler. What I take to be the supposed thoughts of the Marines when the action kicks off pepper the text. Some ring true, almost as many seem patronizing. The book fails to give a feel of what it is like to fight in Afghanistan. Nor does it do a much better job when it comes to placing the brigade’s missions within the wider context of the war in Afghanistan.
147. The Highland Brigade – Its Battles and Heroes
by James Cromb
The late 19th Century was perhaps the high-water mark for the Highland soldier. The Victorian public could not read enough about the brawny kilted soldiers whose dash and courage, if this book is to be believed, saved the Empire’s bacon again and again. It was the last 50 years of the 19th Century that cemented the iconic reputation of the Highland regiments in the public imagination and this book, published in 1902, undoubtedly played a part in that. The book follows the fortunes of several of the Highland units from the Crimean War to the end of the Boer War. Cromb relied heavily on the standard military histories of the period and newspaper accounts for his material but he also interviewed veterans in his native Dundee. The 1902 edition was the second; the first had followed the exploits of the units up until the Sudan Campaign of 1884. In truth, the chapters up to 1884 are the strongest and the Boer War material the weakest. I was disappointed that the fighting at Retief’s Nek in July 1900 merited barely a mention. Cromb died before the second edition could be completed and it was finished off by his son David. That may explain the drop-off in quality towards the end of the book. It is a definite eulogy to the be-whiskered kiltie but there are hints of controversy. The tales are told in a stirring manner with a definite eye to bringing a lump of Scottish pride to the throats of both the genteel readers in Morningside and library-book borrowing denizens of the Glasgow and Dundee slums of the time. In many ways it is an ancestor of the deluge of books flowing from the present-day conflict in Afghanistan.
146. The Battle of the Atlantic
by Andrew Williams
It’s often said that war is made up by long periods of tedium broken up by sudden flashes of terror. Or something along those lines. The German attempt to sever Britain’s supply lifeline with North America during the Second World War must surely exemplify the whole tedium/terror axiom. But it was also the key struggle between the Western Allies and the Germans. If the Germans had succeeded, there would have been no Allied land victories in Europe or North Africa. And the Germans came close. When this book came out, it accompanied a television series of the same name. It therefore relies heavily on transcripts of interviews with participants from all sides. But Williams resists the temptation to simply fill out the book with lengthy eye-witness accounts. The quotes are well selected and the analysis of events in between them is perceptive and illuminating. The focus of the book seems to be on the German U-boat crews, those Assassins of the Sea, but the scientists, merchant sailors, air crew, and Allied naval personnel also get a kick at the can. The book pretty much wraps the story up in late-1942 when Williams declares the Germans at last lost the see-saw battle of technology. Both sides made appalling mistakes but at the end of the day, victory went to the side with the greatest industrial and scientific resources. I would say this is one of the more successful book-of-the-television series genre that I've come across.
145. Fire Strike 7/9
by Sgt. Paul “Bommer” Grahame and Damien Lewis
The war in Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of a British forward air controller and co-writer Damien Lewis, best known for his work as a television news reporter. Grahame’s job was to identify targets for Coalition pilots as troops of the 2 Mercians fought it out toe-to-toe with the Taliban in the Green Zone on the banks of the Helmand River. Grahame was a very busy boy and the action is almost non-stop. The Taliban prove a wily and competent foe and on a couple of occasions come very close to surrounding and over-whelming British troops. Their hides are only saved, according to Grahame, by his skill and moral courage in calling in air-strikes within yards of their positions. I tend to believe him. Sadly, I also tend to believe him when he says that senior British officers decide that armed Taliban fighters should be free to wander the battle zone unmolested and can only be attacked once they opened fire on British troops. There is also a bizarre passage in which a British officer insists that only British aircraft – almost as rare as hen’s teeth – can be used to attack the Taliban. Grahame finds US pilots far more willing to play ball with him than their British and French counterparts. This was a quick, smooth and easy read. It stopped short of being war-porn but somehow seemed a little superficial.
by Michael A Elliott
American academic Michael Elliott takes a look at the continuing fascination with the Battle of the Littlebighorn and US cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer. This is not a history of the heaviest defeat the Plains Indians managed to inflict on the US military. The focus is on the present day. Elliott meets Custer impersonators, battlefield custodians, history buffs, museum staff, Indian rights activists, battle recreators and descendants of participants in the events of the 1860s and 1870s which led to the battle. The result is thought-provoking. Why does a battle in a remote part of Montana still exert such a pull on the imagination? The focus of the book is firmly on the American psyche but as someone who lives in Canada on what was once Indian land, some of what Elliott has to say makes uncomfortable reading. Elliott follows Custer’s story through the American Civil War, the Washita Massacre, his life in the Michigan town of Munro, through to the fight near the banks of the Little Bighorn. The book is full of ironies: most of the Indians who take part in the two annual, competing, recreations of the battle in Montana and play the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who wiped out Custer and his men are members of the Crow tribe, which provided Custer with scouts. The Crows are playing the roles of their traditional enemies. Descendants of the men and women who fought the United States now proudly celebrate the Stars and Stripes – but also want their sovereignty recognised. Parallels are drawn between Custer's attack on a sleeping Indian village at Washita and the events of 9/11. It’s all very confusing, mixed-up even. The Custer who emerges from this book was no military genius, but neither was he a homicidal or genocidal maniac. This is more about how history gets written than a history.
143. Bitter Victory
by Carlo D’Este
Few of the Allied commanders in this book about the Battle for Sicily come out well, and some come out of the story very badly. British general Harold Alexander fails almost completely in his job:- controlling prima donna subordinates George Patton and Bernard Montgomery. The British air and sea commanders appear to have fought their own wars and must bear heavily responsibility for allowing the Germans to successfully evacuate the island. The British, Americans and Canadians may have captured the island but throughout the fighting the Germans made fools of them. Outnumbered almost ten-to-one, the Germans made the Allies pay a heavy price for every square foot of the island. D’Este, an American former soldier, wrote the book in the late 1980s when many of the leading participants on both sides were still alive and available for interview. He also had access to American documents which had only recently been de-classified. The British and American commanders were still to a large extent still learning their jobs and about each other. The Germans seem to have already mastered their trade and were not hampered by the demands of inter-Allied co-operation and politics. Although some Italian troops do fight, most seem to be looking for excuses to surrender. Britain’s Montgomery makes some honest mistakes, but America’s Patton allows his cranky hatred of the British to undermine the campaign. His show-boating dash to Palermo instead of cutting the Germans off from the ports they need for a successful evacuation was one of the major mistakes of the campaign. I had not realised until I read this book how little Omar Bradley, Patton’s subordinate in Sicily and later his boss in Northwest Europe, detested Patton. D’Este seems, sadly, more at ease when discussing the American commanders than the British. So it is difficult to know if the British made heavy going of the fighting because of a lack of leadership or because they were facing tougher opponents in the shape of the bulk of the German troops.
142. Proud Heritage Vol. II
by Lt-Col. L B Oatts
The Highland Light Infantry struck it lucky when they chose Oatts to chronicle the regiment’s history in the 1950s. A long-time regular soldier and regimental enthusiast, Oatts wrote one of the most readable unit histories in the British canon. His writings proved easy to read and included both flashes of humour and soldierly insight. As a commander of pro-British Burmese guerrillas during the Second World War, Oatts had a lot of soldierly credibility. Vol. II focuses on the old 74th Highlanders, sometimes regarded as one of poor relations amongst the Highland regiments – in fact considered by some not to really be a Highland regiment after it was de-kilted in 1809. The chapters on the regiment's early days in India, including the legendary Battle of Assaye, and its battles in the Peninsular War are particularly strong. The accounts of the now almost forgotten campaigns against the Kaffirs and Basutos in the 1850s are reminders that the Zulus were not the only formidable foes the British fought in South Africa. My one criticism of this book is that on a couple of occasions it refers the reader to passages in Volume One for more detail and I have never read that volume and may never get my hands on it.
141. The Taliban Don’t Wave
by Robert Semrau
At last; a book about the Canadian military in Afghanistan that does not paint that nation’s soldiers as being, without exception, paragons of virtue. Semrau’s account of his time working with the Afghan National Army includes a realistic proportion of Canadian slackers, jobs-worths, incompetents and fools. That may be because Semrau is an insider and not a journalist. But he’s a very special insider, or should I say “former insider”. Semrau was court-martialed for the mercy-killing of a Taliban insurgent who had been torn to pieces by a helicopter’s auto-cannon. He was kicked out of the Canadian army. In view of that, the book shows a surprising lack of bitterness and a lot of good humour. He does not have much to say about the incident that led to his court-martial. He basically pleads what our American cousins would call The Fifth. By his own account, Semrau was a bit of a maverick. To maintain morale, he laced his speech with off-the-wall references to such movies as Starship Troopers, Star Wars and The Matrix. He loses his temper with fellow officers who he believes are not doing their jobs properly and may have been a little too gung-ho for some. It is all too easy to see how he ended up being thrown to the wolves. Semrau led a four-man team of Canadian advisors attached to the Afghan army. Like most he was exasperated by the ANA’s curious mix of reckless courage, venal self-preservation, incompetence and street savvy. Semrau’s interactions with British troops also prove on occasions to be less than satisfactory. This is one of the more honest and insightful books about the war in Afghanistan. It’s definitely in the running for the 2013 Book of the Year.
140. Guy Simonds and the Art of Command
by Terry Copp
Guy Simonds was possibly the most successful Canadian commander of the Second World War. Respected Canadian historian Terry Copp attempts to explain why that was in this book sponsored by the present-day Canadian military. The book looks at Simonds’s performance in Northwest Europe after D-Day and relies heavily on summaries of briefings given by Simonds and orders he issued. In between the archive documents, Copp gives a brief summary of battles Simonds planned. I could have done with more analysis of whether Simonds did the right thing at the right time rather than a straight report of what happened. The archive documents give a clue as to why Simonds was so unpopular with his fellow senior Canadian officers. He was a protégé of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and both were unpopular with their peers. Simonds comes over as consummate professional but also a man lacking in certain human graces. Like his mentor, Simonds did not gladly tolerate people he regarded as fools. But Simonds was also capable of imagination and his use of converted self-propelled guns as armoured personal carriers during the Normandy Break-out was revolutionary for the time.
139. Bad Company
by Chantelle Taylor
This is a good second-from-last draft of a book. Sadly, it is marred by poor proof reading, some awful spelling errors and some not so good grammar. The way the quotes are handled often left me wondering who was speaking. The book, sadly, has all the hallmarks of being self-published. If that is true, it is a shame - because combat medic Taylor, the first British woman to shoot dead a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan, does have some interesting things to say. One thing I’m pretty confident about is that she did not have a ghost writer. In many ways this is a good thing because her voice is authentic, though sometimes hard to follow. The core of the book is her time with B Company of the Argylls, or the 5th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, as they hold a fortified outpost in Helmand Province. The truth is I might not have bought this book if I had not been interested in what it had to say about the Jocks. Taylor does an excellent job of conveying the speech patterns of the Scots soldiers and her admiration and affection for them is obvious. Late on in the book it is revealed that her mother is Glaswegian and her big brothers were all born in Scotland – so perhaps it’s no surprise that she has such a grip of the patois of the post-industrial Central Belt. Combat medics are usually pretty smart people and Sergeant Taylor’s portrait of the British soldier at war and the miserable living conditions at the outpost is a welcome addition to the vast canon of Afghan war stories out there. She understands the British soldier because she was one and she is able to give a worm’s eye view of the war with no axe to grind. The shooting of the Afghan is dealt with quickly and this reflects Taylor’s attitude that she was a soldier first and a woman second. I suspect her friends in the military were not surprised that she had no hesitation in using her rifle. But I cannot help but feel she is being a little naïve when she blames the woes of the British mission in Afghanistan solely on Labour politicians. Yes, there were equipment deficiencies and shortages and lives were lost unnecessarily. But it’s the red-tabbed Generals who decide what equipment to buy and spending priorities. It was the red-tabbed generals who told their Labour Government masters that the Army could handle the mission and then told their friends in the Tory Opposition something different.
138. Somme Mud
by E P F Lynch
An Australian private looks back on his experiences on the Western Front during the First World War and what he has to say rings true. Apart from throwing fruit at unpopular British officers, this book could have been written by a member of any of the Allied forces who took part in the fighting. Lynch, who refers to himself as Nulla throughout the book, does not shy away from issues such as looting and the impromptu execution of Germans who left it too late to surrender. Mud, lice, artillery shells and machine gun bullets all add to the misery. Some men die lingering horrible deaths, others are instantly vaporised by high explosive. Lynch even claims to have encountered a German machine gunner chained to his weapon, though it turns out it was the German himself who did the chaining. This bravado backfires when the German is badly wounded but cannot be evacuated until the chain is cut. Bayonets feature more in Lynch’s tale than many historians would have us believe really happened. Lynch wrote the book in 1921 but failed to find a publisher. It was only when it was turned over by his family to Australian military historian Will Davies in 2002 that it finally began the journey into the public record. Lynch obviously intended the book to be a celebration of the “mateship” that he believed had seen him and his comrades through the bloody crucible of the Western Front.
137. McCrae's Battalion
by Jack Alexander
This account of the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots in the First World War was a labour of love - a 12-year labour of love. Jack Alexander spent a dozen years working on this book and it shows - both for good and bad. The "good" is that it is well researched, the "bad" is that he may have been too reluctant to jettison material when it came to writing the book. Sometimes it just gets bogged down in too much detail. The 16th was one of Kitchener's battalions. It was unusual in that it included many of the Hearts first team and many other Scottish footballers. The book relies heavily on letters home and diaries that Alexander found during his research, which appears to have involved a lot of time hunting down the surviving family members of the battalion's soldiers. The battalion was pretty much wiped out twice - on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and again while trying to hold back the German Spring Offensive of 1918. The descriptions of the fighting are well done but the book might, and this really is a very minor criticism, have been benefited from a look at the battles in the wider context of the war. Although written in the Queen's English, some of Alexander's phrasing had me doing a double take. Maybe I've been away from Scotland too long to immediately recognise the nuances and rhythm of English as it is used in the Lothians. This book was a best seller in Scotland, and rightly so.
136. Losing Small Wars
by Frank Ledwidge
A British former naval intelligence officer takes a look at what went wrong with the British campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the answers Ledwidge gives are straightforward. There are too many British generals and too many of them have mediocre minds. The British rotate as many as they can in and out of active theatres to give them hands-on experience. These mediocre minds have bought in too easily, and lazily, to the notion that the British Army has much to teach the world about conducting anti-insurgency operations. Believing your own publicity comes before a fall. Ledwidge, a lawyer in civilian life, makes a good case for the proposition that the Generals gave very bad advice to the politicians and bit off more than they could chew in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This has all damaged the British Army's reputation in the eyes of Uncle Sam. The Americans have made big mistakes too. The difference is that the Americans are able and willing to learn from their mistakes - unlike the British. German general Erwin Rommel noted the same in North Africa in 1942-43 and it would appear it remains true. Ledwidge shies away from naming names when it comes to the jobs-worths who made such a mess of things. He also stops short of claiming that this is because the senior ranks are mainly drawn from such small sliver of British society, namely the privately educated. There might be those who argue that drawing from a talent pool made up of only 7% of the population is, to say the least, unwise. Ledwidge argues that one of the answers to the present malaise might be to follow the American example and send officers on the promotion fast track to civilian universities to get a broader education than can be provided at military institutions. He appears to be believe that this might result in some of them actually starting to think- maybe even think outside the box. The sooner there is a major shake-up, the fewer the number of squaddies who will be killed by these bunglers. This is a thought provoking book and well worth reading. But it carries both the advantages and baggage of being written by an insider. He should have named and shamed.
135. The Bang-Bang Club
by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva
This book turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I expected a self-indulgent tale of high-maintenance prima donnas and war junkies. Instead I found I was reading a thoughtful account of murder and mayhem in South Africa in the run-up to the first democratic elections there in 1994. The book focused more on events in the slum townships and poverty stricken black homelands than on the lives of the photographers. I never did get a satisfactory answer as to why the murderous mobs never turned on the photographers who were recording their vile deeds. Perhaps the fact that most of the photographers were white and the murderers were black might have had something to do with that; although a jammed automatic rifle seemed to save them from being mown down once. The book also tackles the moral dilemma of taking a photograph when perhaps a more active intervention might have been more appropriate. The members of the so-called Bang-Bang Club only rush the critically wounded and dying to hospital after they’ve taken their photos. Some of the photographers are killed and others kill themselves in this sobering tale from the world of Conflict Photography. Few of the agencies and publications which use, and I mean “use”, the photographers come out well from this story. The story is seen through the eyes of Marinovich although perhaps it could equally well have been narrated by Silva. Right now, this book is in the running for my 2013 Book of the Year Award.
133. March of Death
by Christopher Summerville
This turned out to be a workman-like account of the British retreat through Spain to Corunna during the Napoleonic Wars. Summerville uses contemporary diaries, letters, memoirs, and official reports to recreate one of the most harrowing episodes in British military history. The book might have flowed better if Summerville had paraphrased more of the eye-witness accounts or edited them more severely. The English used in the early 1800s is a little too flowery. Bewildered and inexperienced British soldiers tramp their way through mountain passes to avoid being trapped by their French foes under Napoleon and his marshals. It does indeed turn into a march of death as the weakest, including many of the soldiers’ wives and children, die in the harsh Iberian winter. Angered by the lack of support provided by their weak and inefficient Spanish allies, many of the ragged soldiers loot, burn and murder their way across Spain. Drunkenness is all too common. Summerville also looks at how much the Scot who commanded the British, Sir John Moore, was to blame for the gruesome and gruelling retreat. When finally allowed to fight the French, the British acquit themselves well and hold off attempts to destroy them before the Royal Navy can evacuate them from the port of Corunna. Summerville writes well and this is an interesting addition to the vast body of books about the Peninsular War.
132. Confessions of a Mullah Warrior
by Masood Farivar
An Americanized Afghan’s account of his journey from middle class life in his native country and adventures in his adopted homeland. I thought there would be more about his experiences fighting against the Afghan Government after the Soviet withdrawal but his time as a mujahideen turned out to short. Though he does come under fire, his war was a little uneventful and brief. More interesting was his account of his time in a Saudi sponsored religious school in Pakistan before he became a jihadi. It is easy to see how young refugee males might take a wrong path. But there is a puzzle at the centre of this book. I didn’t feel he really explained just how he went from being refugee to one of the most prestigious private schools in the United States for a year and then onto Harvard. That kind of thing does not come cheap but I couldn’t work out who was paying for it. It seems to me he owed someone big time and I'd find it easier to assess his credibility if I knew whom. After Harvard, thanks to the US equivalent of the old school tie network, Farivar appears to be made for life. He becomes a journalist and in truth he seems to be a good writer. But that’s always hard to know because so many books are actually polished beyond recognition by the publisher’s editorial team. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. This is an articulate and thought-provoking contribution to the vast canon of books about the long-running conflict in Afghanistan from someone with a different perspective from most writers on the subject.
131. Hastings to Culloden
by John Adair and Peter Young
A quick canter through some British battles. Peter Young was at one time one of the best known military historians in Britain and wrote a lot of fine material. This is not an example of his best work. It is also little too Anglo-centric. Readers would be forgiven for not realising that more than half of the troops who took on the Royalists at Marston Moor in 1644 were Scottish. And they might be surprised after reading the account in this book to realise that the Royalists lost the battle. According to this book the Battle of Culloden was between the Scots and the English. It wasn’t quite that cut and dried. The book boasts of making extensive use of contemporary accounts. This is not the boon Adair and Young believe it to be. Modern readers may find it hard work deciphering the archaic English used in the accounts and wish the information contained in them had been paraphrased. I had hoped for more insight into the battles from two authors who had both served in the British Army.
130. Three Armies on the Somme
by William Philpott
This book basically argues that the Somme was not the disaster that it is portrayed as in British popular memory. In fact, British academic William Philpott argues that the German Army eventually died from the wounds inflicted on it at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Philpott is not a great writer and there were times when his prose was as difficult to wade through as the thigh-high mud of the Somme. But this book is thought-provoking. Unlike all too many British accounts of the battle, Philpott takes a close look at the French contribution to the battle. The French were far more professional in their approach to the fighting than the British. Philpott argues that by the end of the fighting the British had learned their trade. One thing Philpott did not explore was why it took so long, and such a high butcher’s bill, to learn the obvious lessons. Two of the most successful “British” generals, Canada’s Arthur Currie and Australia’s John Monash, did not come from the ranks of pre-1914 British officer corps. I would have been interested to see what Philpott had to say about that. Philpott deftly avoids getting bogged down in the first day of the battle and puts the clash into its context within the First World War. He also broadens his account to discuss the role played by the politicians – and they don’t come out well. He points the finger for misrepresenting the battle firmly at Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. He also has some harsh words for some historians – in particular APJ Taylor. I was not entirely convinced that all Philpott’s arguments were valid but they are worth considering.
129. Panzer Battles
by F.W. von Mellenthin
German staff officer von Mellenthin fought against the Poles, the French, the British, the Soviets and the Americans during the Second World War. For British readers, possibly the most interesting part of the book concerns the Desert War in North Africa before the arrival of General Bernard Montgomery. It’s hard not to conclude that the difference between Montgomery and his predecessors in North Africa was that the future field marshal put up with less nonsense from his armoured division commanders. While General Claude Auchinlek comes through in this book as a competent, if not sometimes skilful, commander, he failed to impose his will on the commanders of the British armoured divisions. Even Montgomery, a far more ruthless character, had serious problems with his tank division commanders, which were still unresolved during British/Canadian attempts to break-out from the D-Day beaches. Sadly, von Mellenthin did not fight against Montgomery after North Africa, so it doesn’t have much to say about the British performance in Northwest Europe after D-Day. Von Mellenthin’s portrait of German commander Erwin Rommel is less adulatory than the one painted by many British historians but would appear to be fair and realistic. This book was written in the 1950s and was obviously intended as a “how-to” primer on how best to fight the Red Army. Von Mellenthin claims to want NATO to avoid making the same mistakes as the Germans did in Russia. And he does admit that mistakes were made - and they were not all made by Hitler.
128. On Combat
by Dave Grossman with Loren W Christensen
Grossman is best known for his book On Killing. Grossman is former American soldier, while Christensen is an ex-cop and former military policeman. The book takes a wide view of what constitutes “combat” and includes policing in the United States. There used to be a television programme called Greatest Car Chases, or something like that, and it seemed that nearly every week one of the chases would end with a bunch of cop swarming a crashed vehicle and the narrator saying “We’ll never know why (so-and-so) didn’t simply pull over for Officer (such-and-such) and avoid a pursuit situation”. This was because the cops had killed the driver. Reading this book I can understand why that happened so often. Let’s just say, I’m glad I don’t live in the United States. The book is part examination of how human beings respond to combat situations, part advice on how to get through combat alive and part polemic. The book rages against children being exposed to violence on both television and computer games. The discussion of PTSD was sensible and some people who think they have it might want to think again after reading this book. The book is very American-centric and a little too Stars and Stripes flag-wavy for me. I had trouble identifying what lessons were universal and which were peculiar to the culture of the United States. Oh, and Archibald Wavell was never “supreme commander of the British forces in World War II”. The index is often out by three or four pages. Grossman when he wrote this book was working as a “consultant” to numerous police and military organisations and he had something to sell. The book is published by one of the companies he was involved with at the time.
by Thomas E Ricks
This account of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath up to 2005 is definitely the work of an American journalist. By that I do not just mean it is almost exclusively concerned with the activities of US politicians and soldiers; but the style is also very American. It relies far too heavily on unattributed quotes by supposed “insiders”. Now, as a former journalist I know that it is not always possible to identify all the sources in a story and that readers are asked to trust that the un-named ones are credible. But Ricks carries it too far. Sometimes the source of a fact needs to be protected but those indulging in character assassination and expressions of opinion should not be allowed to hide behind a cloak of anonymity. The book quotes very few of the allies of the United States or Iraqis. The role of the British government in giving credibility to the American demand for an invasion goes sadly unexamined. The book gets better after the action moves from the corridors of Washington to Iraq but is still disappointing. The behaviour of American troops, according to Ricks, throws petrol on the smouldering embers of resistance to the invasion. I think he is right there and his suggestion that his government owes its coalition partners an apology is welcome. The Americans seem to have had a knack of doing exactly the wrong thing when it comes to dealing with an insurgency. This book can be considered a contribution to the discussion of what went wrong in Iraq but I would not consider it a definitive account.
126. The Perilous Road to Rome & Beyond
by Edward Grace
This is what I call a Grandpa Book – as in “What did you do in the war Grandpa”. As the veterans of the Second World War retired, many seem to have decided the time had come to write a book about their experiences. The war gave a lot of men chances to see places they would never have otherwise seen and have experiences, good and bad, that they would otherwise have missed out on. There are a lot of Grandpa Books out there. And it takes something a little extra to stand out from the crowd. This book does not stand out. The best of the genre give a glimpse of the fear and the weariness; the elation and the despair; the comradeship and the coping mechanisms. Others reveal little more than a doting grandfather would share with a child. Sadly, this book falls into the latter category. It is more of a recitation of events than a portrait of men at war. Grace was a platoon commander with the 6th Gordon Highlanders in Tunisia and Anzio in Italy. But we learn little of what that felt like and even less about the men of his platoon. One saving grace is that Grace does not attempt to reproduce the accents of North East Scotland in print. As with all too many Grandpa Books, this one falters when the author goes beyond his own personal experience. As a veteran of the Italian campaign he should have known that the plan to switch troops to the invasion of the French Rivera, which doomed the push towards the Alps to a stalemate, was not, as he states, cancelled. One thing puzzled me. The book jacket said Grace was commissioned into the Gordon Highlanders. But a photo and a drawing of the author by a German prisoner of war clearly show him wearing the uniform of the Cameron Highlanders. The book makes it clear he served with the Gordons but the Cameron connection goes unexplained. If you only have time to read one Grandpa Book this year, I’d say go for Black Watch by Tom Renouf, though it’s not without its flaws either.
by Juliet Barker
A look at one of England’s most iconic victories over the French. Juliet Barker takes full advantage of the extensive records kept by Henry V’s bureaucrats to put the battle in 1415 under the microscope. And in all honesty she does not a bad job. She doesn’t quite bring the grim slogging match in the mire alive but she does do a fine job of recreating the nuances of the period. Her basic point is that the outnumbered and exhausted English army beat the flower of French chivalry because the French leadership couldn’t work together. I was a little disappointed that Barker didn’t do more at the end of the book to explain how the fruits of Henry’s stunning victory were squandered in the years that followed. One piece of trivia that tickled my fancy was that Churchill ordered Laurence Olivier to cut the treason scenes from his 1944 morale boosting film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V.
124. The War I Always Wanted
by Brandon Friedman
One of the things about taking the Queen’s Shilling is that you are committed to doing the Queen’s Business: right or wrong. The same is obviously true for members of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division and Lieutenant Brandon Friedman is not impressed. Basically, clearing Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan in 2002: Good. The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq: Bad. Friedman comes over in this book as a pretty decent bloke. It doesn’t take long for his childhood fantasies about soldiering to take a hard knock from reality. He seems to write so honestly that I can’t help wondering if this book started out as some form of therapy. Certainly by his own account, he doesn’t treat his family and friends particularly well on his return from Iraq. The strain of being “on” all the time in Iraq, night and day, in camp and on patrol, obviously took a heavy toll on his psyche. This is a short book but scarcely a word is wasted. At first I was disappointed that the Afghan material seemed to be confined to two or three chapters. But then I realised that he was interspersing the Iraq episodes with incidents in Afghanistan and making comparisons. He laments that he never got to fire his rifle in anger in either Afghanistan or Iraq before deciding to resign his commission. And then there’s a twist in the tale. This is an interesting insight into what it is like to fight in a modern war.
123. The Brigade
by Terry Copp
One of Canada’s top military historians, Terry Copp, attempts to put the Canadian Army’s role in defeating the Germans during the Second World War under the microscope. This isn’t a bad book, but Copp doesn’t quite pull it off. Copp’s examination of the Fifth Infantry Brigade’s progress through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany doesn’t quite jell. He opted to focus on a “typical” Canadian infantry brigade on the sensible grounds that a battalion history might be too narrow a sample and a divisional history was too big a canvas. But somehow he failed to get under the skin of the Canadian soldiers. This is a shame, because Copp can be an insightful and sympathetic chronicler. He is critical of British and Canadian generals; Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s management of the Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group is often criticised. I was a little baffled by his references to both Montgomery and his boss Field Marshal Alan Brooke’s lack of appreciation of how to fight the Germans prior to the D Day Landings when both came out of the disastrous 1940 fighting in France and Belgium with their reputations enhanced. This was an interesting read, but it could have been so much better.
122. The Battle That Stopped Rome
by Peter S Ellis
American anthropologist Peter Wells attempts to reconstruct the massacre of three Roman legions in Germany 2,000 years ago from historic accounts and battlefield archaeology. The battlefield site, long shrouded in legend, was identified in 1987 by an officer serving with the British Army of the Rhine. Wells has to fill in many of the gaps where the works of Roman historians and/or the archaeology are unable to help. So, he uses a lot of imagination but his guesses seem sensible and realistic. The book is a nice little primer on the Roman Army of the time and how the Romans built an Empire. Wells claims the world would have a been a far different place if Varus and his legions had not been ambushed by their former German allies in the Teutonberg Forest. Certainly, there’s a good chance that there would have been no Germany as we know it.
121. Monty’s Highlanders
by Patrick Delaforce
This history of the famed 51st Highland Division in Second World War was, quite frankly, a disappointment. The shame of it is that I know that Delaforce can do better. For some reason in this book he decided to use a lot of army jargon without any explanation or translation. A reader would have to be a real military buff to understand material such as “The advance was made on a single axis and the GOC and CRA fought the battle by day on wireless sets in their jeeps and in the evening returned to TAC Division HQ by which time the signal lines were laid to the fighting units, the Field Regiments and the “next for duty” Brigade. The GSO1 moved the Main Div HQ if necessary twice a day to come up near to the TAC Div HQ or even join them in the evening”. Much of the writing is choppy and although Delaforce frequently quotes first-hand accounts he somehow fails to give much a sense of what the fighting was like. He follows the history of the 51st through the surrender of the original division to the Germans under Rommel at St. Valery in 1940 through to its reconstruction based on swallowing up the 9th Scottish Division, to the battlefields of North Africa, Sicily and Northwest Europe. He gives much credit to Major General “Tartan Tam” Wimberley for turning the 51st into one of the crack divisions of the 8th Army. But he completely ignores the downside of Wimberley’s efforts to re-instil unit pride – the Salerno Mutiny in 1943 in which men of the division refused to be drafted into other units as badly-needed reinforcements. Delaforce cannot ignore the very disappointing performance of the division in the weeks after D Day – Montgomery warned his bosses it was “NOT battleworthy” and even considered returning it to the UK. But I couldn’t help feeling that Delaforce pulled his punches when it came to explaining just what a disappointment the 51st was at the time. Under a new commanding officer, Major General Thomas Rennie, the division retrieved its reputation but Delaforce failed to convince me that it was, as the book claims, the best division in the British Army during the Second World War.
120. The Somme
by Peter Barton
This beautifully illustrated book is subtitled "The Unseen Panoramas" and I didn’t give that too much thought to what that meant. It turned out the book is built around official British Army photographs taken looking from its positions at the German lines. I often read that the Somme was a “quiet sector” but I didn’t give what that meant much thought either. What the pre-offensive panoramas show are farmers’ fields, churches and small villages – naturally the German trenches cannot be seen. As the book progresses these rural vistas turn into the moonscapes usually associated with the Western Front – as one Aussie apparently said “miles and miles of shit-coloured f-all”. The book also features how the battlefields of the Somme look now. Barton and collaborator Jeremy Banning take a closer look than most do at the work of the Royal Engineers – in particular how tunnels and trenches dug out into no-man’s land could have avoided much of the slaughter. There are some excellent contemporary and modern maps. But where the book scores most strongly is in the selection of diaries and letters from the soldiers involved. It will be a long time before I can shake the image of the soldier whose chest was blown away to expose his frantically beating heart. Or the letter from one frontline soldier to his brother castigating him for volunteering for active service. There is also two letters from two injured officers to a wounded sergeant who spent eight days stranded in a shell-hole tending them. One officer seems grateful to the sergeant for saving his life, the other writes to demand the return of his compass. The authors do not shy away from discussing the killing of Germans attempting to surrender. One of my mum’s grandfathers was killed fighting at the Somme and thanks to this book I now have a better idea of what was involved – and I’d read plenty of books about the Somme over the years.
119. Task Force
by Martin Middlebrook
Respected popular historian turns his attention to the 1982 Falkland’s Conflict. Middlebrook keeps the diplomatic background to the campaign to a minimum in this 1987 examination of the military aspects of the fighting. The scars of war were still a little raw in the mid-1980s when the book was written but Middlebrook does not shy away for discussing friendly-fire deaths and British mis-steps. Some writers have since gone a little further in questioning the early conduct of the Battle of Goose Green, which resulted in a posthumous VC for Lieutenant-Colonel H Jones. He also hints at several criticisms of the Welsh Guards that go beyond just the disastrous events at Bluff Cove when 32 members of the unit were killed on a transport ship. I’m not sure if Middlebrook is stopping short of saying it might have been better if the Queen’s Own Highlanders had been sent to the Falklands instead. The book relies heavily on interviews Middlebrook did with British participants and he weaves extracts into the text almost seamlessly. I wish he had included some interviews with the Welsh Guardsmen who survived Bluff Cove and this omission stands out like a sore thumb. Some of the eyewitness testimony interested me because it tells of men who failed to function well under the stress of battle – a welcome change from most more recent books about the Canadians in Afghanistan in which every soldier is a paragon of courage, stoicism and integrity. Middlebrook laments early-on the lack of Argentinian input into his project and later wrote a second book on featuring the Argie take on the war.
by Peter Edwards
Former British Army infantry officer and fox-hunting man Peter Edwards takes a look at one of the Duke of Wellington’s earliest victories in the Peninsular War. Although the book is titled Talavera, only the final 70 or so pages deal with the 1809 battle. Instead, Edwards casts a professional infantryman’s eye over the problems Wellington faced while fighting the French in Portugal and Spain. The book relies heavily on contemporary, mainly British and allied German, accounts. Some of these slow the flow of the book down a little too much and some paraphrasing might have been welcome. The book also needs better battle maps. Edwards’s interest in Talavera is explained by the fact that his old regiment, the 48th Foot, fought there. He even claims Nottinghamshire Regiment, as it was known when he joined it, saved Wellington’s bacon at the battle. Edwards writes with an engaging less than formal style and this book is a generally a smooth read that offers some interesting insights on warfare in Wellington’s day.
117. The Scottish Soldier and Empire
by Edward M. Speirs
University of Leeds academic Edward Speirs has produced an excellent combination of strong research and readability. He looks at the Scottish soldier between the Crimean War, which began in 1854, through to the end of the Second Boer War in 1902. In some ways, if I may say so, he makes several of the same points that I made in The Great Kiltie Con in his examination of how the Scottish soldier became a national icon and even a source of Scottish national pride. He also asks if the performance of Scottish soldiers matched the hype. Speirs delves into the work of fellow academics, regimental histories soldiers’ memoirs and letters, and contemporary newspapers as he follows the Scottish regiments through the Crimea, the deserts of Egypt and Sudan and the jungles of West Africa and South African veldt.
116. Kandahar Tour
by Lee Windsor, David Chaters, and Brent Wilson
This book bills itself as an account of the “turning point in Canada’s Afghan mission”. It’s by three academics and purports to put the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment’s 2007 stint in Afghanistan under the microscope. As with every Canadian book on the Afghanistan mission I’ve read so far all the soldiers are paragons of courage and ability. And because the book also looks at the civilian reconstruction workers and police instructors, so are the non-military characters. The book pans the media for failing to report the reconstruction work and focusing on the deaths of soldiers. I’d say that is not a reflection on the media but a criticism of the Canadian government’s spin-doctors. The book also takes a look at events back at base in Canada. The academics appear to have a somewhat rosy view of events in 2007. I wish what they said was true. But in parallel with this book I was reading some American stuff from the 1960s about Vietnam. The similarities are striking. The days when I had a handle on what the Canadian military was really up to are long past. But one thing I am pretty sure of is that the Parachute company of the 3rd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry is not called Charles Company. The error is repeated several times; so it’s not a typing error. Time will tell just how gullible Messrs Windsor, Chaters and Wilson were.
115. Road of Bones
by Fergal Keane
One of Britain’s top radio journalists takes a look at the Battle of Kohima in 1944 in a book which will take some beating in my Book of the Year stakes. Keane examines several aspects of the campaign fought on the India-Burma border that many military histories would ignore. He has been to many war zones and covers the campaign as he would a modern conflict. The plight of the refugees fleeing Burma after the Japanese invasion; the role played by the local Naga tribes in the conflict; the problems of readjusting to life after taking part in some of the bitterest, nastiest, fighting of the Second World War: these aspects of the story and many others are well covered by Keane. He appears to have made an effort to interview a wide range of participants in the campaign or their children. Not surprisingly, many of those interviewed tell a professional interviewer far more than they ever told their children. He also made an effort to speak to a number of Japanese about their memories of the battle which broke the Japanese Army in Burma. Much of the focus is on the part played by the 4th Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment in the confused and bloody hand-to-hand fighting involved in repelling the Japanese. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a little more about another aspect of the battle – the winkling out of the Japanese from their defensive positions by the troops in the relief column. Anyone thinking of starting a war, or participating in one, would be well advised to read this thoughtful and wide-ranging book.
114. History of the British Army
edited by Peter Young and J P Lawford
This is what used to be, and may still be, called a coffee table book. It’s an old one, it cost 63 shillings when it came out, and ends the story at 1968. It’s also a bit of curate’s egg – good in parts, not so good in others. Both Young and Lawford were former soldiers who taught military history at Sandhurst. They rounded up some of their former colleagues and other distinguished military historians for this thoughtful gallop through the history of the Army from 1660. Being an ensemble production, some chapters hit the mark with a blend of anecdote, insight and surprise takes on events. Sadly, others are a mere recitation of battles. The chapter on the Army between the First and Second World Wars by Sir Basil Liddell Hart reads like a long gripe that the generals of the time wouldn’t listen to him. The book also takes a couple of side trips not usually seen in books of this kind to look at the support services and the work of the Royal Engineers.
113. Commando Men
by Bryan Samain
I suspect this book, first published in 1948, was written as a “what we did in the war” souvenir for the soldiers of 45 Royal Marine Commando and their families. It’s a basically a summary of the unit’s operations from the D Day Landings through to the surrender of Germany. As with many of the ilk, it doesn’t touch much on the horrors of war. But it does give an idea of the bitter slog through Holland and Germany in 1944-45. It’s a interesting, though short, read. By the way, Samain was 45 Commando’s intelligence officer.
by Tom Segev
When I was little, my grandpa used to tell how he did everything he could in the 1930s to avoid being by the Army to Palestine to help put down what was termed The Arab Revolt. He wanted no part in the brutality involved. Israeli journalist Tom Segev’s look at the Six Day War in 1967 makes frequent references to how the British conducted themselves in Palestine before and after the Second World War. And he concludes that his fellow countrymen didn’t behave themselves much better in Occupied Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank after the Six Day War than the British had. But in view of the fact that Segev believes that British paratroopers, complete with distinctive red berets, were running around Palestine in the 1930s, I’m left wondering how seriously to take anything else he says seriously. Britain didn’t have paratroopers until 1940. He also makes reference to British officer Orde Wingate, who he describes as “disturbed” and an expert torturer of Arabs. It’s not clear if Segev is aware that Wingate was also one of the best friends the Zionists had in the British Garrison. This book had way less “bang-bang” than I expected and far more of a condemnation of the mis-steps and mismanagement which followed Israel’s 1967 victory. The divisions in Israeli society between those Jews of European descent and those from North Africa and the Middle East was something I hadn’t given a lot of thought to. This is more of a political and social history of the War than a military one. But my problem with it is that I just don’t know how much of it to believe. Segev appears to be over zealous in his effort to draw exact parallels between British and Israeli behaviour in Palestine. Also, he views the war entirely from the viewpoint of the Israelis and events in the Whitehouse. I would have welcomed a little more information about what was going on in the Arab capitals in 1967.
111. Battle of the Reichswald
by Peter Elstob
None but real military buffs will recognise the name of this battle. But it was one of the toughest fought by the British Army during the Second World War. It was written by former tank commander Peter Elstob, whom I suspect may have fought in the battle between the River Maas and the Rhine in early 1945. The bid to breach the German border fortifications was billed as Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s final war-winner. Sadly, his American colleagues could not hide their glee when it literally bogged down in the mud of an unseasonably early thaw. What should have been a British, and to an extent Canadian, blitzkrieg turned into a slogging match. Four of Britain’s top infantry divisions, the 15th Scottish, 43rd Wessex, 51st Highland and 53rd Welsh battled equally hard fighting, and frequently outnumbered, German troops. Elstob is good on the build-up to the battle and its opening stages. But I couldn’t help feeling that the account of the month-long battle was overly squeezed to meet the word count set for the book. Perhaps there are only so many ways to describe British infantrymen wading through mud into a hurricane of machine-gun, mortar and shell fire while nearly all their tank support slips and slides in the mud.
110. Bomb Hunters
by Sean Rayment
This is another odd book. It bills itself as the being about Britain’s top bomb disposal operators in Afghanistan – a country in which bombs claim more lives than bullets. But British journalist takes the reader on a couple of diversions which have very little to do with dismantling Improvised Explosive Devices and are more about the general fighting in Afghanistan. I’m not clear why Rayment did this. Was it because he didn’t feel he had gathered enough material from following the incredibly brave men and women who play a high stakes game of mental chess with the Taliban’s bomb makers? Or did Rayment, a former officer in the Parachute Regiment, feel he would only have one kick of the can when it comes to books about Afghanistan and he wanted to squeeze as many of his insights into the conflict as a he could? Unlike many writers, Rayment gives the Taliban credit for being a savvy and brave foe. He has little time for British commanders who say one thing in off-the-record chats with journalists but refuse to go public to highlight the needless squandering of the lives of the men and women under their command. Rayment says some things that need said, but somehow he didn’t take me to Afghanistan and the war of wits waged by the bomb disposal teams. As I’ve been there twice, that shouldn’t have been that difficult. On the other hand, it was a smooth read.
109. Trench Fighting 1914-18
by Charles Messenger
This is an excellent little primer on the First World War; as fought on the Western Front. Charles Messenger, who was still a serving officer in the Royal Tank Regiment when he wrote this book, takes a sensible look at battles which changed British society for the worse. He bookends the all-too slow four year military learning curve on the Western Front with the early open manoeuvres of its opening days in 1914 and the Allied break-throughs of late 1918. His view of the controversial General Douglas Haig seems balanced, and in fact none of the commanders on either side completely avoid criticism. As an officer in the Royal Armoured Corps his thoughts on the early tanks are of particular interest. Messenger captures most of the salient points and highlights (or should it be lowlights?) in this concise but thoughtful analysis of the campaigns which consumed and destroyed a generation of western Europeans: I include many of those not killed as victims too.
108. The War Lords
edited by Field Marshal Sir Michael Carver
This is a collected of potted biographies of some of the main commanders of the First and Second World Wars. And it suffers one of the main problems of the genre. The biographies are written by men, and all the contributors are men, who are often partisans keen to argue their hero’s place in the pantheon of military greats. The book came out in 1976 and features some of the top military historians of the time – John Terraine, Alistair Horne, Robert Rhodes James, Correlli Barnett and Ronald Lewin to name only a couple. All the usual suspects are here when it comes to military commanders. But I think there are few today who would agree that Lord Louis Mountbatten was a military great. According to the guy who wrote Mountbatten’s biography, the fellah practically won the Second World War single-handed. But the Mountbatten contribution is the weakest in what is generally a thoughtful and a sometimes provoking collection of essays on military leadership.
106.Military’s Strangest Campaigns and Characters
by Tom Quinn
This collection of military oddities contains just enough interesting material to make it worth reading. But it also appears to have been put together in a rush. Facts are sometimes repeated in a way which suggests poor editing. There are also some howlers. For instance, I don’t think Czechoslovakia was controlled by the Communists in 1936; the Browning is an automatic pistol, not a revolver; I doubt if the Poles were still fighting in France in 1942; and I don’t think 1,000 female snipers making 1,200 kills in 1943 is really that impressive a record. I’m also a little baffled by the snide remark about the Roman Catholic Church and Quinn’s summary of the Cold War adds little to the book. It’s also obvious that Quinn is no great fan of Britain’s officer class. It sometimes seemed that Quinn's intention was to use this book to preach rather than entertain. Despite this, the entries are generally well written and the bulk of them are entertaining. Some of the anecdotes fell a bit flat with me but no-one’s sense of humour is the same and it is too much to expect every one of them to hit the right spot. I recognised some of the anecdotes, including all the Scottish ones, but most the material was new to me. I enjoyed this book, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it.
105. Soldier Against the Odds
by Lofty Large
This was one of the first of the Special Air Service memoirs to come out, back in 1987. In fact, this book is a combination of two memoirs written by SAS legend Lofty Large about his service with the unit and his experiences in the Korean War. Although Large claims not to be a writer, he does a good job of giving a bloke’s eye view of soldiering, or as he describes it a “trog’s” eye view. There aren’t that many accounts from British soldiers of their service in Korea, certainly they are far rarer than SAS books. Large was captured at the Imjin River with the Gallant Glosters and his account of the fighting and his time in the Chinese prisoner of war camp make good reading. Large also served with the SAS in Malaya, Borneo, Oman and Aden. I suspect there are many operations and incidents which he did not include in the book. He is often scathing about the quality of the officers but his love of the job is obvious. I’m glad I picked this book up. All too often the SAS winged dagger on the cover of a book is an indication that it’s what I call war porn. But this one does a good job of conveying the mixture of the excitement, the boredom, the frustration, the slogging and the good-matesmanship of SAS soldiering in the days when the two most important bits of equipment in the unit’s armoury were masking tape and a ball of string.
104. No Simple Victory
by Norman Davies
Academic historian Norman Davies attempts to puncture the Anglocentric view that Britain and the USA won the Second World War in Europe. Davies takes particular aim at US writers who prattle on about the Greatest Generation and the Last Good War. He argues that it was Soviet military might which beat the Germans and the Soviet regime was even more murderous than the Nazis. The UK and USA have little to be proud of, according to Davies, as they betrayed many of their allies, Poland in particular, to the Soviets and their main military contribution was a murderous, wasteful, and ineffective bombing campaign. Davies argues that the Soviets would have smashed the Germans even if the Allies had not made the D-Day Landings. Very little of what Davies has to say is new. He appears to think he is breaking new ground but really, he isn’t. Even in the mid-1980s it had long been clear it was the Soviets, not the Germans as the Allies claimed in 1943, who had murdered 25,000 Polish officers and community leaders who vanished in 1940. It’s hardly a secret that the Soviets invaded eastern Poland in 1939. Likewise, the fact that Stalin and his henchmen were the greatest mass murderers in world history was not new when this book came out in 2006. Nor was it news that the Soviets faced and defeated 75% of German military might. I found much of this book patronizing. I expected better from Davies. But if you believe that the British invented concentration camps, then maybe you’ll learn something from this book.
103. The Dictionary of British Military History
by George Usher
I bought this is a quick reference book, you know; dates of key battles, etc. Sad to say, it proved Not Fit for Purpose. It’s hard to know whether the mistakes in it are due to ignorance or sloppy proof-reading. Dates in the mini-biographies don’t make sense and seem to be out of sequence. The old Musketry School was at Hythe, not Hyde. The US 82nd Airborne were dropped into Sicily, not the 8th Airborne; which never existed. Whichever regiment Guy Carelton commanded in 1758 it was not the unit which became known as the Duke of Albany’s Highlanders, because it wasn’t formed until 1778. Sir Colin Campbell’s real family name was MacLiver; not McIver. While there was a Battle of Carbisdale in 1650, there wasn’t a Battle of Carbiesdale. I don’t think the Black Watch were ever known for their red cockades, red hackles yes; cockades; no. The 79th Highlanders were known as the Cameronian Volunteers for a brief period after they were formed but did not serve as the Cameronian Highlanders for a decade. I suspect many of the officers selected for mini-biographies were included because Usher was short of dictionary entries for the particular letter in the alphabet that their surname begins with. Many of them seem to have been military nonentities. I wouldn’t trust this book to get the date of the Battle of Waterloo correct (which it does) and therefore it is useless to me. The best that can be said for it is that it provides information that needs double-checked.
102.Military Misfortunes – the Anatomy of Failure in War
by Eliot A Cohen and John Gooch
This book by academics Cohen, an American, and Gooch, a Brit, argues that military setbacks are often caused more by organisational/systemic failures than through the incompetence of individual commanders. They admit that the reasons for military failure are complex and frequently numerous but attempt to make a strong case for the systemic breakdown theory. I have to admit that I wasn’t completely convinced by all their arguments. An organisation is after all a collection of fallible human beings and the sum of their talents and short-comings. The turn-around in the fortunes of the United Nations forces in 1950s Korea when General Matthew Ridgeway was appointed seems to be to suggest that a competent commander can overcome many of the so-called systemic/organisational flaws which Cohen and Gooch put such emphasis upon. The pair examine Pearl Harbour, Gallipoli, the Fall of France in 1940, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Korea 1950, and the frankly disastrous 1942 anti-submarine warfare campaign waged by the US Navy on the American Atlantic seaboard. Only the anti-submarine campaign discussion is fully convincing when it comes to the systemic versus incompetence argument. Each chapter is accompanied by a dinky flow-chart which supposedly explains everything. I found these charts unhelpful, as the reasons for failure are, as the authors concede, too complex to be explained in the sort of presentation highly paid management consultants might stage for a highly lucrative, but gullible, client.
101.The Path of Duty
edited by Ken Tingley
A little oddity from Edmonton, Canada. This is a collection of approximately 100 letters to his children from an Edmonton politician and businessman who joined the Royal Fusiliers at the outbreak of the First World War as a private. This is book is as much about middle class Edwardian fatherhood as it is about soldiering, maybe even more about fatherhood than soldiering. Alwyn Bramley-Moore comes through as a decent man and a loving father but he is also a product of his time. He obviously firmly believes in the British Empire and the White Man’s Burden. There’s also a hint of anti-Semitism. Edmonton historian Ken Tingley is to be congratulated for not air-brushing the latter from the letters. Many soldiers wrote letters home during the war but not so many, I think, directly to their children. And it is Bramley-Moore’s attempts to fulfil his fatherly duties at long distance which give an interesting glimpse at the man and his times. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that Bramley-Moore never saw his children again after he left Edmonton. He was killed by a sniper in 1916 while serving with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
100. Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive – The German View of the Battle of the Bulge
edited by Danny S Parker
This is actually the German Generals’ version of the Battle of the Bulge. It is based on post-war debriefings by the US military of the three Generals who commanded the three armies which took part in the December 1944 offensive. So anyone reading this expecting nitty-gritty blood and mud accounts will be disappointed. It reads much like chess masters discussing a championship game. What does come through is how hopeless and misguided the Ardennes offensive was. The German Army was on its last legs, both in terms of equipment and manpower. The Allies were right to consider an attack through the Ardennes was unlikely because it made little sense. Yes, the Germans had successfully attacked via the Ardennes in 1940. But in 1940 they attacked in summer, the Belgians didn’t contest their advance, and the German Army was a far more efficient beast. I’m not sure if the debriefed German Generals –Dietrich, Brandenberger and von Manteuffel – were trying to curry favour with their captors but they praise the quality of the American troops they faced. This contradicts suggestions that the Americans, at least at first, folded like a cheap deck chair in the face of the panzers.
99. The Battle of Mogadishu
Edited by Matt Eversmann and Dan Schilling
Six soldiers who took part in one of the most infamous American operations of modern times, the botched raid in Somalian 1993 immortalised in the book and film Blackhawk Down, tell their own stories. The six men who tell their stories in this book are highly thoughtful and articulate, and therefore possibly not typical of the soldiers who took part in the fighting which claimed the lives of 19 of their comrades - and hundreds, if not thousands of Somalis. What surprised me about this book was how much these guys remembered: many of the accounts are almost bullet-by-bullet. Schilling, being from the US Air Force, is perhaps the most critical of poor planning and muddled thinking that led to what should have been a straight-forward snatch mission turning into a blood bath.
98. Monty – The Making of a General 1887-1942
by Nigel Hamilton
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was probably the most controversial British general of the Second World War. Some believe he should considered as being in the same class as legendary British commanders the Duke of Marlborough and Duke of Wellington. That was certainly the view of many until the 1960s – at least in Britain; the Americans always disparaged him. The 1960s saw the pendulum swing the other way and many writers claimed he was greatly over-rated. Montgomery was accused of stealing the battle winning ideas of his predecessors at the 8th Army and critics said that anyone could have won his most celebrated victory – Alamein in 1942. This book, based on Montgomery’s own papers and interviews with many of his Second World War associates, came out in 1982 and was obviously intended to contradict the soldier’s critics. It follows Montgomery’s life up until the Germans and their Italian allies decided to retreat from Alamein. Author Nigel Hamilton has certainly attempted to do a thorough job of refuting many of the criticisms of Montgomery and has marshalled a number of impressive witnesses and documents to support his claim that the general was indeed one of the Greats. He argues that the British had outnumbered the Germans to a greater extent in desert battles before Alamein and still lost. He also points to evidence that Montgomery’s tank commanders came very close to losing the battle for him through incompetence and disobedience. I think I’ll make the effort to read the subsequent volumes of Hamilton’s biography of Montgomery.
97. The Making of the British Army
by Allan Mallinson
This is more of a polemic or extended essay than a history of the British Army. Mallinson, a former officer perhaps better known for his historical military fiction, admits that he did not intend to produce an exhaustive history of the British soldier. That might be as well, as I cannot recommend this as a reliable reference book. His claim that there were 23 Highland regiments in 1763 caused my eyebrows to twitch a little. But I know for sure that the Black Watch was not the only kilted regiment in the Army in 1801. And General John Moore died after being hit by a cannon ball and not from a gunshot wound. I could never work out if Mallinson thought that General Colin Campbell rose from the ranks or not. He mentions Campbell, whose real name was McLiver and who was the son a Glasgow cabinet-maker, in the same breath as two men who did rise from the ranks to senior officer status -General Hector MacDonald and Field Marshal Wullie Robertson. But Campbell was never a ranker, an uncle called Campbell smoothed his way directly into the officer corps. The point Mallinson appears to want made is that the British Army is in danger of losing nearly everything that once made it a force to be reckoned with and Britain a world power. I agree that tradition is important and that the recent creation of the infantry Super Regiments has done a lot of damage. The Rifles appear to have been a great success but I think the jury is still out on the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Certainly, Mallinson has little trouble finding excellent examples from history to back up this part of his argument. I’m not so sure the amateurism of the officer corps has been such a boon. Mallinson argues this Gentlemen rather than Players attitude has led to out-of-the-box thinking, innovation and flexibility that many other armies envy: I’m not convinced. Mallinson seems to approve of the fact that the British Army is the biggest employer of old Etonians in the world. I don’t see that as a plus for the Army. But whether a person agrees with Mallinson or not, he has some interesting things to say.
96.Wolfe at Quebec
by Christopher Hibbert
This is a good workman-like introduction to what turned out to be a turning point in world history. In one of his earliest books, Christopher Hibbert takes a short look at the rather odd British soldier who captured the key French stronghold of Quebec in Canada in 1759. I got the impression that Hibbert didn’t actually think much of General James Wolfe and he makes a convincing case that Wolfe’s mismanagement of the siege prolonged the war. Anyone who doubts that the capture of Quebec changed the course of history should consider whether the colonial bourgeois in the New England states would have kicked the British Army out just over a decade later if there had still been a French Army in North America. The British Empire gained Canada but lost a far greater prize.
95. Dead Men Risen
by Toby Harnden
I don’t know if this doorstep of a book (656 pages) is indeed “the defining story of Britain’s war in Afghanistan” as claimed on the front cover. But I can say it is one of the best I’ve read. Daily Telegraph journalist Harnden, a former Royal Navy officer, takes a detailed and hard look at the Welsh Guards’ operations in Afghanistan in 2009. The story is seen mainly through the eyes of the officers and senior non-commissioned officers, but is none the worse for that. It is a tale of stoicism and flashes of bravery. Grown men cry. But it’s also a balanced account and several men in the book lose their bottle. There are also accusations of incompetence and cowardice. The Labour Government of time comes in for harsh criticism for under-resourcing its troops in Afghanistan. Senior commanders are also criticised for ill-judged strategies and tactics. Although Harnden doesn’t name names, some senior officers seemed to have been telling Labour that they could do the job with the resources available and then briefing the Tory opposition at the time about shortages of crucial equipment. There’s little doubt that Harnden does not approve of the British policy of spreading their troops too thinly across Helmand and ending up controlling no territory beyond the range of their rifles. Nearly every foot patrol ends up fighting its way back to base. Roadside bombs take a heavy toll of the soldiers. The senior commanders initially putting the success of the bombs down to the incompetence of the soldiers sweeping for them, rather than the sophistication of the bomb makers, is a very telling indictment of the men running the campaign. The message of this book is clear – if you’re going to fight a war, do it properly. But this book is not a polemic, it is a snapshot of the Brits at war and a good one. Harnden gives voice to the men on the ground who question not only how the campaign was being fought in 2009 but whether it should have been fought at all.
94. The D-Day Dodgers
by Daniel G Dancocks
The story of the Canadians in Italy from the invasion of Sicily in 1943 through to the end of the war from one of Canada’s best military historians. Dancocks has little trouble getting to grips with the grim Italian campaign. He often lets the soldiers from this all-too often neglected theatre of operations tell their own stories but he is also good on the bigger picture, whether it be Canadian politics back home or army politics in London and Italy. Dancocks proves to be no great admirer of British general Bernard Montgomery or his successor at the 8th Army, Oliver Leese. I’m more inclined to take Dancocks's criticisms of Montgomery more seriously those coming from many other critics, especially American ones. Few of the senior officers featured in this book seem to have played a perfect game. As I’ve said, Dancocks has done an excellent job collecting primary sources for this book and weaving their stories into a realistic and sensible narrative. The mud, the misery and the mistakes are conveyed with skill in a book that refuses to become bogged down itself while describing a campaign that was a slogging match.
by Tom Renouf
The best bits of this book come when Black Watch veteran Tom Renouf tells of his own experiences as a teenage soldier during the Second World War. The weakest parts are when he turns historian for the 51st Highland Division. There are no false heroics in this book, Renouf is honest about the fear and war weariness he and his comrades felt as they fought their way into the heart of Germany after the D Day Landings. The book was first published in 2011 and truths that might have been upsetting for families in the years immediately after the war are told. Renouf, secretary of the 51st Highland Division Veterans Association, includes many second-hand accounts from the division’s long journey from defeat in France in 1940 through the fighting in North Africa to Northwest Europe. But few are as gripping as his own memories of the war. Where the book falls down is when he widens the picture even further. Renouf must have been in his 80s when he wrote this book. His publishers and editor should have been a bit more vigorous when it came to fact checking. Houghton le Spring is in Country Durham, not Northumberland. It took Horrocks and XXX Corps a lot longer than three days to reach the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem in September 1944. What exactly is the 6th Airborne Parachute Regiment? My guess is the 6th Airborne Division. I admire Renouf’s attempt to make this book about more than just himself. But what made this book this book different from the run-of-the-mill military history was Renouf’s honesty and his ability to tell his own story well. I could have done with less second-hand divisional history and more Renouf.
92.Bizarre Tales from World War II
by William B Breuer
Breuer is pretty prolific when it comes to pumping out books about the Second World War. And sadly, this feels like a bit of pot-boiler. Bruer warns the reader that he or she may find some of the stories hard to believe. Indeed. The tales often end with either the words “no doubt” or “this may have been the only” and I can't help feeling this means even Bruer isn't entirely confident in his research. I found that many of the stories are neither bizarre nor unusual. The focus is very much on the American forces. I had the impression that Bruer might be recycling research from some of his previous books and many of tales did not justify a second outing. His assertion that Petain was installed as leader of France by Hitler in 1940 was surprising. And I'm not sure how he backs up his claim that one of the many Soviet agents within British intelligence, Kim Philby, likely turned over the Allied plans for the 1942 invasion of North Africa to the Nazis.
91. Task Force Black
by Mark Urban
This strikes me as Mark Urban's least satisfactory book. Well-known British print and television journalist tries to tell the story of the British Special Air Service's time in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 in what is billed as the "explosive true story of the SAS and the secret war" in that country. What handicaps Urban is that so many of his sources are anonymous, for obvious reasons. In a business which is rife with back-biting and ruthless careerism, it's hard to assess the credibility of Urban's informants if they are not identified. I couldn't help feeling that many of the soldiers who spoke to Urban had their own agendas and axes to grind. Perhaps telling the "true story" so soon after the events described is just too much of an uphill struggle. The SAS did most of their work in Iraq not in the British-occupied south of the country but in Baghdad and the notorious Sunni Triangle. This left them heavily dependent on American resources. Many United States commanders, probably rightly, had serious concerns about London's commitment to fighting the insurgents in Iraq. Although some of the raids conducted by the SAS and other British special forces units are described, this book focuses mainly on the politics of the war; military and civilian, Iraqi, Iranian, US and British. It is not a pretty story and the British don't always come out smelling of roses. I'm not surprised that the British Government tried so hard to kill this book off.
90. Fix Bayonets!
by Donald E Graves
This book bills itself as the story of a Welch Fusilier at war between the years 1796 and 1815. The problem is that the fusilier in question, Thomas Pearson, didn’t write much about himself and few of his contemporaries had much to say about him either. What the book actually does, and does quite well, is to look at the life of a typical British officer during that period and examine the battles that officer was involved in. Graves, who is one of Canada’s most respected military historians, certainly seems to know the period. What attracted Graves to Pearson was that the soldier was a key figure in several battles in the War of 1812; in which British regulars and Canadian troops repelled a number of attempted American invasions of the British colony. Pearson also fought in Denmark, Egypt, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal. So, he is an excellent vehicle for Graves’s exploration of Napoleonic warfare. But Graves sometimes seems to forget the Duke of Wellington’s dictum along the lines of it is no more possible to give a coherent account of a battle than it is to give an account of a court ball. Sometimes the book gets bogged down by Graves’s attempts to render a blow-by-blow account of Pearson’s battles. For all that, it’s a good book; particularly for those whose awareness of the War of 1812 is sketchy.
by Martin Middlebrook
I’ve always had a lot of time for Martin Middlebrook’s work. So, I’m sad to report that I found this one of his least satisfactory books. Perhaps this is due to the subject matter. North Atlantic convoys during the Second World War were by their nature very long periods of boredom sometimes punctuated by sudden horror. Middlebrook obviously put a lot of work into this, both in the form of interviews with the sailors on both sides and in naval archives. But it just doesn’t gel. Some of the book reads like a move-by-move report of a chess game. The book focuses mainly on two convoys in March 1943. The naval escort was too small and the many of its ships in it too decrepit for the job. The refusal of several merchant ships to stop to pick up survivors meant that the convoy was on several occasions left unprotected from the German U-boats because the navy ships had stopped to carry out rescue work. No fewer than 21 ships were torpedoed in what was to prove the last hurrah of the German U-boat service. The so-called “Air Gap” in the mid-Atlantic was closed not long afterwards and Allied aircraft patrols sharply curtailed U-boat activities from then on. Middlebrook points out that the Air Gap could easily have been closed before March 1943 but US Admiral Ernest King disobeyed orders and refused to assign the long-range aircraft required. Throughout the war King badly mishandled the Battle of the Atlantic and caused the deaths of many brave men and women. The Royal Navy’s senior admirals also played their part in the near-disaster which engulfed the convoys by assigning the modern ships which could have hunted the U-boats to protect British battleships that seldom left harbour. The flashes of beautifully written text in the book which document the cowardice and the courage, the venality and the self-sacrifice, are not enough to carry this plodding book.
88. Danger Close
by Stuart Tootal
This book was so good that I read in two sittings. Tootal was the commander of the first British troops deployed into Afghanistan’s Helmand Province in 2006. I saw the book several months ago but chose to buy Mick Flynn’s Bullet Magnet instead. The next time I was in the bookshop, Danger Close had been sold and was not restocked. I’m glad I made to effort to get a copy. I’d thought as a battle group commander, Tootal would have spent his time at the British base at Camp Bastion but I was wrong. Tootal was a very hands-on commander and led the men of the 3 PARA Battlegroup into action on several occasions. He even helped fill sandbags and carry the bodies of the dead and injured. Tootal writes like an angel and as a commanding officer has a different perspective from many who write about the conflict in Afghanistan. He’s good on both the politics, civilian and military, and the action. He obviously also has a way of getting the soldiers to open up to him about their experiences as many of the events he describes so vividly he was not there for. His professionalism and compassion show through as he tells an insider’s story in his own well-chosen words. Tootal chose to quit the Army after Afghanistan – in part because of his disgust at the way the badly injured men from his battlegroup were treated on their return to the United Kingdom. Also, he could not bring himself to join the jobs-worth generals who seem content to preside over the destruction of the British army for the sake of saving or enhancing their own pensions.
87. Duel of Eagles
by Peter Townsend
Perhaps the grand-daddy of the books about the Battle of Britain written by one of the pilots who took part in it. This book was most interesting when it came to the history of the Royal Air Force between the two World Wars - in fact the Battle of Britain doesn’t get going until about half-way through. Townsend’s discussion of the RAF’s fight for survival and a decent budget between the wars throws a lot of light on the RAF’s blind and misplaced adherence to strategic bombing as a war-winner. The RAF leadership does not come out of this book well. Even during the battle for Britain’s survival in 1940 it was riven with infighting and outright disobedience of orders. The two men Townsend credits with winning the battle, Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding and Air Vice-Marshall Keith Park lose their jobs almost as soon as it is won. Townsend is obviously a big fan of Dowding and Park as the architects of victory. But this ignores Dowding’s decision to put the battle-winning radar operators and the command and control centres above ground where they were vulnerable to German bombers. The Germans came within days of winning the battle but shot themselves in the foot by switching their effort from destroying the RAF to bombing London. Townsend obviously spent a lot of time researching this book and interviewing participants from both sides. This sometimes leads to a confusing narrative as he attempts to switch between the Big and Small pictures with bewildering frequency. The book would have flowed better if he had exercised some discipline and ditched some of the interviews.
86. Sky Men
by Robert Kershaw
This book was a pleasant surprise. Rather than being a rehash of previous histories of airborne operations, Kershaw gives an excellent account of what it was, and is, like to arrive on the battlefield from the sky. Kershaw as a former officer in the Britain’s Parachute Regiment knows what makes the men in this book tick and does an excellent job of explaining it. The book claims to be based on “exclusive interviews” but a check on the sources quoted at the back reveals that these were limited to a small number of British paratroopers. Most of the quotes appear to have come from written sources and I found this actually added to my admiration for the work. These quotes are expertly woven in, so that they almost read as if they were answers to the author’s questions. He must have spent a lot time hitting the books. Kershaw does not restrict himself to British or even US paratroopers. The Russians, Germans, French, Japanese, South Africans, Israelis all get a crack of the whip. Kershaw also quotes soldiers who were the objects of airborne attack over from the Second World War onwards. Despite his admiration for the men who travel by air to battle, Kershaw is not blind to the limitations of airborne operations. His analysis of the value of these operations is both thoughtful and insightful.
85.Brothers in Arms
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton
It’s hard to know what to make of this book by American former basketball super star Kareen Abdul-Jabbar. He and Anthony Walton follow the fortunes of a black tank unit during the Second World War. The way the black volunteers are treated by both the United States Army and the white civilian populations around their training camps is heart-breaking. The 761st Tank Battalion was a show-piece never expected to see combat. The U.S. Army did not believe Negroes had any place in combat. But after a long spell in the U.S. acting as “enemy” troops during exercises to prepare white units for D-Day, the 761st was one of the only fully trained tank units left in 1944 to reinforce Patton’s 3rd Army in Europe. Murdered and beaten with impunity by locals and cops in the segregated Southern states of the U.S. and frequently despised by some of their own white officers, the men of the 761st and other black units fought well and many died for a country that treated them as worse than second class citizens. The English, Dutch, and even German civilians all showed more respect for the black soldiers than their fellow countrymen, both in and out of uniform, did. I was reminded of a quote from an English woman who was asked during the Second World War what she thought of Americans. “They’re lovely; but I’m not so sure about those dreadful white people they brought with them,” she said. So, an interesting story. But a lot of the writing in the book is clunky and the word choices jarring. I don’t think either Abdul-Jabbar or Walton did much research when it came to the Germans and their equipment. The book focuses on a handful of the black soldiers, in particular a friend of Abdul-Jabbar’s father. Here, the pair of writers seem to have succeeded in getting the men to open up about their experiences and talk frankly about their war. I say “seem” because there have been two previous books about what this book bills as “WWII’s Forgotten Heroes” and I don’t know how much of the good material in this book was mined from them. One of the book’s strongest features is its fine evocation of what the Second World War felt like from inside a Sherman tank. It’s worth reading just for that.
84. The Ghosts of Medak Pocket
by Carol Off
I was aware of this book about Canadian peacekeepers and Croat troops exchanging fire in 1993 when it first came out in 2004. But I knew some of the guys involved and their stories, so I was in no rush to read this book. When I finally got around to reading it, the book did not tell me much I didn’t know. I was not shocked, as the book blurb promised I would be, that many of the most extreme Croat nationalists were Canadian residents or former Canadian residents. Off does not let the facts get in the way of a well turned phrase. How can a Croat folk hero who died in 1859 breathe “cordite reeking air” when Cordite wasn’t invented until 1891? Her account of the rundown of the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry after the Second World War would have been more convincing if the battalion had existed then– it was formed to fight in the Korean War. Last I heard, only one soldier had been convicted in relation to the murder of a Somali teenager in 1993; not two as Off claims. The second suspect suffered severe brain damage during a botched suicide attempt and has yet to be brought to trial. This may seem like nit-picking, but such slip-ups cast a dark shadow over the credibility of Off’s other claims.
Where Off scores over many recent books about the Canadian military is that she does not paint it as staffed entirely by paragons by self-less courage and integrity. But there is little new in her highlighting the shameful way the soldiers were treated after their return to Canada. Allegations that some of the soldiers tried to poison their superiors; that some suffer from health problems after living in bunkers dug into soil laced with industrial toxins; and that no steps were taken to deal with possible cases of PTSD were not even new in 2004.
83. Operation Snake Bite
by Stephen Grey
A perceptive glimpse of the war in Afghanistan as it was in 2007 from a Sunday Times reporter. Grey manages to capture both the big and little pictures when it comes to the fight for the Taliban held town of Musa Qala. He obviously spent a lot time talking to the soldiers – British Afghan and American – who took part in the battle and at times seems almost to be giving a bullet-by-bullet account. Grey himself came under fire during the fighting. As a reporter who has been to Afghanistan, I admired the way he had obviously got the soldiers on the ground to share their stories – and doubts about the way the war was being conducted – with him. But Grey also managed to get many of the diplomats and senior soldiers to share too and this is where the book really scores. The picture Grey paints is not a pretty one. In Helmand province the government is unpopular and corrupt. Some suspect the capture of Musa Qala had more to do with its importance as a hub of the Afghan heroin trade than making the world a safer place to live in. Afghan President Hamid Karzai does not come out of this book well. This book tells the story of how brave men died and asks if at the end of the day those deaths were worth it.
82. Unlikely Soldiers
by Johnathan F Vance
I wondered how Canadian history professor Johnathan Vance was going to spin a whole book out of the exceptionally short active service careers of two Canadians who parachuted into Occupied France during the Second World War. Frank Pickersgill and Ken Macalister were captured within days of arriving in France and were later hanged from meat hooks at Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Vance bulks up the book by describing the training typical Special Operations Executive agents were given and by detailing the fate of other members of the organisation captured by the Gestapo in the same swoop. The fantastic courage of most of the agents is matched by stunning incompetence of SOE headquarters. The Germans were able to use captured radio sets, including Macalister’s, to trick the British into dropping weapons and agents into their hands. In one outrageous example of stupidity when a captured agent failed to include his security check code in a message sent from his German-controlled radio set to London, the SOE radioed back reminding him not to do it again. The Gestapo didn’t take long to extract the security check code after that. Vance obviously did a lot of research into the lives of Pickersgill and Macalister. He describes in detail their childhoods and university careers. I found myself not entirely liking either man, Macalister defrauded the Rhodes Scholarship scheme and Pickersgill was a sponger. But their courage after their capture is undeniable. Vance makes the most of this opportunity to put an SOE operation under the microscope and succeeds in putting together a fascinating glimpse at one of the most over-romanticized aspects of the Second World War. His approach to the story of virtual destruction of SOE operations in northern France in 1943-44 is sensible and free of the many of the wilder conspiracy theories and speculations usually associated with the whole sad, tragic, business.
81. To War with Wellington
by Peter Snow
Respected British television journalist Peter Snow follows the career of the Duke of Wellington through his Peninsula campaigns to Waterloo. Snow takes a realistic look at the British general’s successes and failures to paint a rounded picture of a complex man. He also leans heavily on the numerous memoirs written by British soldiers of all ranks to bring to live the battlefields of Portugal, Spain, Belgium and southern France alive. They were far for universal in their admiration for Wellington. Snow also does a good job of explaining the importance of the various battles fought during the Peninsula War. I wish he had had more to say about Wellington’s campaigns in India, which first established his reputation as an above-average British commander and learned his trade.
80. Rebels and Informers
by Oliver Knox
I wasn’t sure what I’d make of this book when I picked it up and after reading it, I’m still not sure. Knox looks at the lives of four of the key figures in the French-supported 1798 Rising in Ireland – Wolf Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Hamilton Rowan and William Drennan. All were major figures in the United Irishmen, a Protestant-dominated secret society dedicated to kicking the British out of Ireland through an alliance with the French revolutionary government, and Irish Catholic organisations demanding land and political reform. They were up against a cosy and corrupt Irish administration dominated by Anglo-Irish Anglicans and closely tied to London. And they were up against a legion of British spies and agents provocateurs who had infiltrated the ranks of the United Irishmen. Knox relies heavily on the four men’s own letters and court transcripts to tell his story. I found their writing style florid and bloated, as much writing of the late 18th Century was. I would have welcomed some paraphrasing. Knox is also not very strong on putting the men’s actions into historical context. The book climaxes with the failed 1798 Rising but it is dealt with in one chapter. The aims of the mainly Protestant United Irishmen, inspired by the French Revolution and the Scottish Enlightenment, meant an alliance with the popular, and mainly Catholic, Gaelic peasant movement which was fragile from the beginning. This book reads like a long footnote to a better one about the much mythologised sectarian blood bath which was the 1798 Rising.
79. My Friend the Mercenary
by James Brabazon
Despite the provocative title and an over-wrought and over-written prologue, I found this tale of a British man’s attempt to become a television war correspondent quite interesting – at first. Brabazon candour in admitting that he went into the war-torn African country of Liberia in 2002 to play at soldiers and prove himself to himself was quite a definite plus. As a former journalist I sympathised his account of the dilemmas he faced as he tried to walk the line between witness-journalist and actual participant in the savage civil war civil war. His descent into becoming an adrenalin-junkie hooked on war is a warning to all would-be conflict zone reporters. The account of his first trip in Liberia, and to an extent his second, is an excellent read. But, I think you’d have to been there to understand his affection for South African mercenary Nick du Toit. The former apartheid-era special forces soldier was hired by Brabazon as a his bodyguard in Liberia. I’m not sure if it’s a testimony to Brabazon’s writing skills or an indictment of his naivety that he doesn’t appear in the book to realise that du Toit is playing him. How many top mercenaries work for free? Brabazon seems to think du Toit does. The South African mercenary draws Brabazon into his schemes. du Toit introduces Brabazon to a cast of seedy and dangerous men; who turn out to be planning to over-throw the government of oil rich Equatorial Guinea. Then they will install a regime which will do the bidding of western multi-nationals. du Toit asks Brabazon to film the coup for television and make it look as though it is a popular uprising. Brabazon agrees but the deal falls through. It’s at around this point that I feel I’m being played too. The people Brabazon is running with should have been on his radar as very nasty pieces of work from the first. Even in 2002, their names were known to anyone of took an interest in regime change in the Third World. Did Brabazon really not do his homework? Is he really surprised that his phone calls to du Toit are being monitored and that his American girlfriend is an intelligence agent? I guessed straight away what she was. I think Brabazon worked out who was behind the attempted coup but has decided not to identify them in print. Whether that’s because of their high-paid lawyers or that he finally realised that perhaps he was dealing with people for whom murder is not personal but simply business, I don’t know. But I read the last third of the book, when he is supposed to be finding out just how du Toit wound up rotting in one of Africa’s most notorious prisons, with growing frustration and irritation. I wish Brabazon had done more to expose the people paying for the coup; people who believe that’s what’s good for them and their companies is good for their countries too, and the British and American government officials who agree with them. It’s all about the oil, dude.
78. Legacy of Valour
by Daniel Dancocks
I am becoming nervous of Canadian books about the First World War. A depressing number prove to be chauvinistic and poorly researched. Daniel Dancocks’s account of the Canadian Corps’s capture of the village of Passchendaele in 1917 is not one of them. The Canadians were called in in the latter weeks of the muddy blood-letting at Passchendaele to capture the rubble after British troops had failed. Dancocks does a good job of explaining how the Canadians did it. He also draws heavily on accounts from the soldiers involved to give an idea of what it was like doing it. Dancocks bookends the story of the Canadian assault with perceptive looks at events leading up to it and following it. British Expeditionary Force commander Sir Douglas Haig is given sympathetic treatment and the critics who condemned the 1917 Flanders campaign as a futile bloodbath are dubbed “feeble minded”. Dancocks argues that the battle was justified and made a substantial contribution to Germany’s defeat. While Haig comes out of this book well, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George does not. Dancocks paints him as vindictive and muddle-headed. He argues Lloyd George came perilously close to losing the war. There were a couple of times I felt the need to double-check something Dancocks said, but on each occasion he was right and I was mistaken. He may have been a little too selective in the facts he marshalled to back up his arguments but that does not detract from the quality of his research. This is a thought-provoking look at a part of the First World War that is all too often overlooked in both the United Kingdom and Canada.
77. Killing Zone
by Harry McCallion
I saw this book when it first came out in 1995 and, based on the lurid cover, wrote it off as war-porn. A couple of years later I learned that this book by a British special forces soldier-turned-lawyer was a cut above the usual SAS “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you” pap. But by then, it was hard to get. So I was delighted to stumble across a copy in a charity shop recently. McCallion takes the reader through his chaotic and poverty stricken childhood in England and Scotland – his father and uncles were violent criminals and his mother didn’t have very good taste in men – through his early career in the Parachute Regiment, onto the South African Army’s elite Recces, a stint in the SAS and finally his time as a cop with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. McCallion does not pretend that the Parachute Regiment of the early 1970s was one big happy family. The phrase “nasty Jock” turns up more than once. One of the interesting contrasts in the book is between his attitude to Northern Ireland when he was para and later when he was a constable in the RUC. He is unapologetic about his service in the South African Army, seeing his job as to fight Communists rather than oppress the black majority. As an SAS man he parachutes into the sea off the Falkland Islands just in time for the Argentinian surrender. His SAS service takes him back to Northern Ireland. The SAS part of the book is the least satisfying – too coy, too many secrets and semi-secrets which he felt needed protected when he wrote the book. The pace and flow picks up again when McCallion switches to the RUC. He is equally disgusted by both the Republican and the Unionist para-militaries who dominate the communities he helps police. Then a freak car accident ends his police career but he is smart enough, and interested enough, to become a lawyer: not the future he expected when he showed up at the Parachute Regiment’s training depot as a scrawny, underweight, and socially maladjusted teenage scrapper. He tells the tale of that journey with an insight and flashes of self-awareness that do indeed lift this book out of the war-porn category.
76. The Junior Officers’ Reading Club
by Patrick Hennessey
This book by a former officer in the Grenadier Guards about his time in Iraq and Afghanistan came highly recommended. Hennessey seems to have wanted to write a homage to the well known Vietnam book “Dispatches”, only set in Afghanistan. He tries too hard and the result is a dog’s breakfast. What do you make of these words “for no reason and for every reason”, closely followed by “I was right, and I was wrong”? Pretentious or gobbledy-gook? Every time I picked this book up I spent three pages trying to get the hang of his tortured sentences. It’s a long time since I’ve had to re-read sentences on such a regular basis to understand the what the author is trying to say. I don’t blame him for pushing the whole “iPod generation at war” angle as a he moves from playing soldiers at Sandhurst, to war tourist in Iraq, and through to the real deal in Afghanistan. I just wish he’d written it in comprehensible English. I couldn’t be bothered going back through the book to work out how many of the men he served with were killed. One sergeant and three officers? One sergeant and one officer for sure. I don’t know.
His insights into the guilt felt about the selfishness of going to war and leaving loved ones behind to worry, and the alienation felt on return to “normal” life in the UK, are far from new. I got no feel for any of the other soldiers he served with or even for Afghanistan. I’ve been to Afghanistan, so the latter shouldn’t have been too difficult. I was confused by his description of Kabul airport until I came to the conclusion that he was probably talking about the U.S.’s Bagram air base some distance from the city. This book was written for people who go to dinner parties in Chelsea by someone who goes to dinner parties in Chelsea. About two-thirds of the way through I thought “I bet this guy wore designer stubble when he was in Afghanistan” and flipped to the author picture at the back of the book. I was right. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, even for a joke.
75.Eisenhower and Montgomery at the Falaise Gap
by William Weidner
This book bills itself as the “untold story of Allied Discord at the Falaise Gap”, but to an extent could be called “some left-of-field speculation as to why British and American forces failed to surround and destroy a force of 150,000 German soldiers in Normandy”. According to Weidner, U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower and fellow American General Omar Bradley hid the fact that British General Bernard Montgomery messed up and let the Germans escape. It’s now no secret that both U.S. Generals loathed Montgomery but Weidner does not really explain why they would lie up until their deaths to protect the Brit’s reputation. There are certainly a lot of questions about the Normandy campaign and in particular the failure to seal off the Falaise Pocket and trap the Germans. But this book does not have much to contribute. Weidner’s text is confused and confusing. He repeats passages almost word for word throughout the book and this makes it difficult to follow both the timelines and his arguments. Montgomery is certainly one of Britain’s most controversial generals but I find it hard to believe that he deliberately failed to capture the key port of Antwerp because he wanted to sabotage the American war effort. I cannot help but believe Weidner has been very selective in whom he quotes and when a source fails to provide a quote which reinforces his argument, Weidner claims conspiracy or incompetence. The book may make some valid points, it’s hard to know without years of research into his allegations. But one claim, that no British troops took part in the Landings in the South of France which followed D-Day, took only five minutes to double-check. I think the men of the British 4th, 5th (Scottish) and 6th (Royal Welch) Battalions of the Parachute Regiment may be surprised to find they were not there. The crux of Weidner’s polemic is that Montgomery was insane and incompetent and the British and Canadians were crap. The Americans were duped until the closing days of war into being pawns of the British. Churchill could not afford to let Eisenhower sack Montgomery because the British government would have collapsed. The only person who comes out of this book well is the notoriously Brit-hating American general George Patton.
74. Secret Agent
by David Stafford
I’m usually put off by books that claim, as this one does, to be “the true story of the covert war against Hitler” or anything along those lines. But I’m glad I picked this one up. It’s a lot better than it looks. The cover’s use of an army paratrooper on a book about secret agents also appeared to be a red flag. The book is based on a BBC television series and author David Stafford deftly weaves in short interview transcripts in which former members of World War Two’s Special Operations Executive tell their own stories. The interviewees not only include under-cover agents sent into Occupied Europe but also the support team members back in Britain. The support workers include the pilots and sailors who got the agents into Europe, the forgers who made their fake papers, the radio operators and decoders, the women who made the agents clothing, and the skilled craftsmen who made the spy and sabotage equipment required for a mission.
Stafford proves adept at capturing both the day-to-day lives of SOE agents in Occupied Europe and also in putting their work in context. The book does not claim to be definitive but it is an excellent introduction to an all-too-often heavily mythologized aspect of the Second World War.
73. The Wars of Afghanistan
by Peter Tomsen
This a book that should be read by anyone who has fellow citizens serving in Afghanistan. Former United States diplomat and Afghan specialist gives his view of what needs to be done in Afghanistan. Basically, what he recommends is letting the Afghans sort things out themselves and preventing outside interference in that country’s affairs. Tomsen says the most important thing is to stop Pakistan waging a proxy war against America and its allies through Afghanistan. He claims that Pakistan has long duped the Americans into believing it is an ally, while actually trying to install a West-hating Muslim extremist government in Afghanistan. He argues that the CIA has been pivotal in supporting its sister intelligence agency in Pakistan, the ISI, in undermining a made-in-Afghanistan solution. But he doesn’t really explain why. He dismisses claims that Pakistani support for the Taliban is the work of a few rogue ISI agents – the ISI is the Government of Pakistan according to Tomsen. Tomsen was the US State Department’s envoy to the Afghans up until between 1989 and 1992 and his account of how his efforts to secure a just peace were frustrated sometimes reads as a long “the dog ate my homework” letter. Recent events demonstrate that the political system in the USA is dysfunctional, as the checks and balances on presidential power are abused to bring the work of government to a grinding halt, but according to Tomsen the civil service, populated by political placemen, is also dysfunctional.
Tomsen sometimes seems too inclined to accept the Afghan’s own version of their country’s history when it comes to clashes with the major powers. He also undermines his own credibility by claiming his country killed Chinese diplomatic staff when it bombed the Chinese embassy in Budapest during the Yugoslav crisis. Here’s a clue, the embassy is indeed in a city beginning with “B” but the city involved is the capital of a country with a name beginning with “S”. And he should settle on one spelling, preferably the correct one, when it comes to the name of respected BBC World Service journalist Lyse Doucet. Tomsen is not a good writer, and obviously he was let down by his editor, but he does have some valuable insights to share in this 700 page tome.
The responsibility for the present conflict in Afghanistan rests heavily on the shoulders of the United States and the mess still being made of the American war in that country should have its Coalition partners thinking twice about participation in it. They should at least threaten to pull out unless the Americans finally get their act together. It’s one thing for them to squander the lives of their own citizens but American politicians should not be allowed to get the nationals of other countries killed through their dysfunctional conduct.
72. White Devil
by Stephen Brumwell
OK, in the interests of full disclosure; I’ve swapped some e-mails with Steve and he’s one of the Good Guys. Luckily, he’s also one of the best writers out there on British military history and I’d give this book a good review anyway. The White Devil of the title is Major Robert Rogers who led a force of hard-bitten frontiersmen and Indians against the French and their Indian allies in the 1750s. The book cover touts it as the true story which inspired the Last of the Mohicans but fans of old movies will recognise that the heart of the story is actually the real life attack on the Indian village of St. Francis featured in the old Spencer Tracy movie Northwest Passage. Although Rodgers is a central character, the book is an excellent gallop through the frontier wars between Britain and France which eventually resulted in Canada becoming British. Brumwell does a great job of bringing the period and the fighting to life. He combines meticulous research with a lively easy-to-read writing style. The cannibalism, and who eats whom, turns at least one common myth on its head. I suspect Brumwell’s meticulousness and integrity hobbled the book slightly. While I know what Rogers, and the opposing armies did, I didn’t really get a feel for Rogers the man. I think this is because Brumwell refused to write anything he could not verify from the vast array of memoirs, letters, official documents and oral tradition he consulted. He even sought out descendants of the Abenakis Indians who lived at St. Francis to mine the legends and stories they have from the raid. As account of what is often known as The French-Indian War, this book is hard to beat. But, again, I was left wanting a better feel for Rogers himself. That said, I have yet to regret reading a Brumwell book. He has a life of American icon George Washington coming out soon. Let the myth-smashing begin!
71. Military Errors of World War Two
by Keith Macksey
Former Royal Tank Regiment officer and military commentator Keith Macksey takes a look at where a variety of Second World War commanders went wrong. The writing is good, the history concise and the criticisms thought-provoking. Glory-hunting and atrophied brains are only two of the factors which sent brave men to unnecessary deaths. Macksey treats this project as an exercise in “lessons to be learned” and avoids ill-tempered character assassination. American, German, Soviet, Japanese and British commanders all come under the microscope and are found wanting. The book moves from Europe, to the Pacific, to the North African Desert to examine how systemic and personal failings led to defeat on land, sea and in the air. Politicians do not escape lightly either. It is clear that Macksey hoped his book would help prevent serving commanders from falling into the same traps as their predecessors did in 1939-45.
70. Poor Bloody Infantry
by W H A Groom
This memoir of the First World War from a private in the Rifle Brigade could easily be renamed “Look Back in Anger”. Groom wrote the book in the early 1970s in a bid to counter the picture painted of stoic cheerful Tommies battling the Hun. He takes aim at historians for accepting official histories and books written by officers or journalists about the war at face value. Groom claims the officers fought a different war from the rank-and-file and had little understanding of what their men were really going through. It’s hard to argue with Groom’s contention that any private who decided he could follow poet Siegfried Sassoon’s example and simply opt out of the war would have been shot. Groom argues that it was fear of a firing squad that kept tired, miserable, and disillusioned men going over the top in attacks they knew were doomed to fail. In Groom’s world the front-line soldiers can only really hope for two outcomes – a wound so serious that they will be returned to Britain or a quick death. Survival unscathed is highly improbable. Groom comes across as a sensitive, sensible and thoughtful man. It is a shame that he felt compelled to put the record straight in the face of what he saw a mass of distorted memoirs and bad history. His argument that if the Battle of Passchendaele 1917 had been abandoned earlier that Haig would have had enough reserves to exploit the successful mass tank attack at Cambrai merits serious consideration. As a man who was lucky to escape being an unwilling victim of Haig’s war of attrition, he has little time for the Scottish general.
69. The Wars of Napoleon
by Charles Esdaile
This book by English academic historian Charles Esdaile puts the Napoleonic Wars into their political and social contexts. Esdaile spends a lot of time dispelling the notion that Napoleon was eventually hoisted by his own petard when the rest of Europe adopted his “Nation at Arms” approach to warfare. That’s not something I have ever believed, so he was pushing at an open and unlocked door so far as this reader was concerned. But Esdaile does have some interesting things to say. Unlike most British accounts of the conflict, Esdaile looks closely at the bigger European picture and the reasons behind both Napoleon’s successes and failures. Where this book fell down was Esdaile’s writing style. I find it ponderous and sometimes difficult to follow. He could have done with a decent editor.
68. Counterfeit Spies
by Nigel West
An odd little book from well-known writer on British intelligence matters which looks at books written by or about bogus Second World War secret agents. Sometimes West comes straight out and fingers someone as a liar. More amusing is when he twists the English language out of shape to avoid being sued for libel while still exposing a fraud. One of his favourite methods is to say that someone is mistaken but it’s not clear if it is the subject of the book or the author. Here’s a tip for someone claiming to have been parachuted into German Occupied France – don’t claim to have jumped out of a Lysander. West has some contacts in the British intelligence community and this helped him do some double-checking of the claims being made in the books. But to a large extent he relies on common-sense to pick out the lies. Some of his accusations are based on the supposed agents ignoring Standard Operating Procedures, but there are many cases in which men and women whose bona fides are beyond doubt who did some very stupid things while on missions – so, this is not quite the red flag that West suggests. One of the most disturbing things about many of the cases it is that it would appear the reputable publishers were either extremely gullible or were party to the frauds. By the way, several of the red flags West spots in these bogus tales of wartime derring-do still crop up in some of the supposed Special Forces memoirs.
67. Fields of Fire
by Terry Copp
This is an excellent introduction to the Canadian part in the fighting in Normandy during and after the D-Day Landings in June 1944 by respected historian Terry Copp. Copp wrote the book to counter a widely held belief that both the Canadians and British had performed poorly in Normandy. It is based on a series of lectures he gave in 1998. He basically fleshed out his lectures to create a book. His arguments and criticisms appear very valid but I was left wishing he’d expanded on them a little more fully. That is why I have to describe the book as an “introduction”. One of the main points of the book is that naval guns and air support, both from fighter-bombers and heavy bombers, was nowhere near as effective as is often claimed. He is also very critical of several of the decisions made by Allied armies’ commander General Bernard Montgomery and accuses him of failing badly to take advantage of an excellent opportunity to trap and destroy the German armies in west of the Seine.
66. No Holding Back
by Brian A Reid
This is a fresh assessment of the controversial Canadian-led Operation Totalize during the Battle of Normandy in August 1944 by a retired Canadian artillery man. Reid has gone back to unit battle diaries and contemporary reports rather than recycling previous authors’ accounts of the failed offensive. In doing so, he attempts to show that the Canadians did not perform as badly as many authors say and the Germans didn’t do as well as has been claimed. Reid puts his own military training and experience to good use in dispelling many of the myths which have grown up about the battle – which saw the first use of converted tank hulls as armoured personnel carriers. The early stages of the battle are of interest to Scottish readers as one of the two assault divisions was the 51st Highland.
Reid does a good job of arguing that it’s surprising that the inexperienced Canadians and Poles involved came so close to success and a break-through south of Caen. This was particularly impressive because some of the Canadian regimental and brigade commanders failed dismally in their duties. A Canadian over-estimation of the probable effectiveness of heavy bombers, both British and American, as substitutes for artillery barrages in the second phase of the operation is also explained. As a former military instructor, Reid also has a good grasp of the part the cumbersome command-and-control system used by the 21st Army played in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The far more flexible German system, which included senior commanders going into the front lines, may have proved the undoing of the Canadian-British attack.
The book also contains some excellent potted technical information about the equipment used by both sides. Although sometimes a little too forensic in its analysis of events, this is an illuminating read from someone whose opinions deserve to be taken seriously.
65. A History of Warfare
by Montgomery of Alamein
Britain’s most famous 20th Century commander casts his eye over the military history of the world. The most interesting thing about this book was trying to work out how much of it was written by the old Field Marshal. He must have been around 80 years old when it was compiled. I had hoped for a little more insight into, and critical evaluation of, the various commanders mentioned in the book. But much of it is pretty bog-standard for the “military history of the world” genre. I suspect that while Montgomery read the book and added notes, the bulk of it was written by someone else. Possibly, more than one person wrote it, because some parts are a smoother read than others. But when the old general did intervene, his comments are worth reading. His attacks on the British commanders during the First World War are bitter and I had not realised that he was so opposed to the use of the atom bombs on Japan. This was an interesting but not a great read.
64. The Battle
by Alessandro Barbero
This book about the Battle of Waterloo by Italian professor of medieval history Alessandro Barbero looks at the battle from a wider perspective than most. Most English-language accounts focus on the part played by British troops in the fighting but Barbero reminds the reader that most of the troops in the Duke of Wellington’s army were from mainland Europe. In fact, several of his commanders had previously served in Napoleon’s forces against him. Barbero includes the stories of the Dutch, Belgian and German troops who helped fight the battle. He is also more sympathetic to the French than many British writers have been and the hard-fighting the Prussians did to reach the Allies at Waterloo is also given due credit. Barbero also illustrates the truth of Wellington’s own statement after the battle that it was “the nearest run thing you say in your life”.
The book is translated from Italian, so it’s hard to assess Barbero’s own writing. The American translator John Cullen does a good job but his lack of experience with military topics sometimes shows. Again and again, units “disband” under fire. There are some other jarring word choices but perhaps they stand out because of the generally high standard of translation. Someone should have told Cullen that the Scottish cavalry regiment is the Royal Scots Greys, not “Grays”. Gray is the standard American spelling for the colour but that’s not the regiment’s name. I spell World Trade Center “center” because that was the name of the building. I wish Americans would show the same respect when it comes to proper names.
63. The Pursuit of Victory
by Roger Knight
This life and times of Horatio Nelson, hero of Trafalgar, by one of Britain’s top naval historians, Roger Knight, proved rather better on the times than on the life. Knight was excellent when it came to painting a picture of the life of a naval officer from the days of the American Revolution through to the Napoleonic Wars. The role patronage and nepotism played in gaining promotion in the Royal Navy of those days is well portrayed by Knight. But I didn’t get a feel for Nelson himself. Yes, Knight’s Lord Nelson makes mistakes and is flawed. I can tell that Knight feels Lady Emma Hamilton was a big mistake. Several myths regarding the admiral are skewered. However, I came away from this book feeling Nelson was still a bit of an enigma. But perhaps it’s asking too much of a biographer tied to written reminiscences, often self-serving, and official documents to capture the essence of a man. Though Knight sometimes sacrificed completeness for pace, this book about sea warfare in the days of sail was a good read.
by Ed Macy
This book is basically made up of the bits that British Apache attack helicopter pilot Ed Macy didn’t manage to include in his first book “Apache” about his part in the war in Afghanistan. As with “Apache”, it’s well written and a smooth, easy, read. He takes his story back to joining the Parachute Regiment in the early 1980s, the accident which wrecked his chances of joining the SAS, his decision to get a “sitting-down” job as an army helicopter pilot, his training, service in Northern Ireland and learning to fly the demanding and sophisticated British version of the legendary Apache attack helicopter. The first book centred on the daring under-fire rescue a wounded British soldier during a battle with the Taliban. This time the highlight, for me at least, is his duel with a Taliban anti-aircraft gunner posted on the roof of a building dominating the approaches to a beleaguered British post in Helmand Province.
Macy moves the story along nicely but also manages to capture many of the challenges involved in getting the most out of the Apache. He literally has a birds-eye view of several major British operations in Afghanistan and the intelligence to understand what he’s witnessing. This helps give the reader several valuable insights in the war and how it is being fought.
61. Contact Charlie
by Chris Wattie
I’d heard quite a lot about Canadian journalist Chris Wattie’s account of the fighting in the Panjwayi area of Afghanistan during the summer of 2006. But I found this an odd book. Wattie was embedded with the Canadian Army for part of the period covered by the book. Much of content is based on interviews he did afterwards with some of the participants in the fighting. It’s not clear from reading the book what Wattie witnessed and what he reconstructed. There were times when I felt I detected a little bit of journalistic licence being used to move the story along. Wattie was, and may still be, an officer in the reserves and has a good idea what he’s talking about and describing.
The book focuses on the activities of Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Many of the characters appear in other journalists’ books about the Canadian deployment. Somehow Wattie failed to give me a feel for these guys. All too often his descriptions read more like a stream of clichés. Wattie doesn’t spell it out but I can’t help thinking the Canadians should have learned a lot from their attempts to capture the Taliban base known as the White School House – which cost them six soldiers. On both occasions they were driven off by the Taliban. The Canadians were usually heavily outnumbered. A weak battalion was asked to do a job that needed three battalions. I hate to be a backseat driver, but all three weapons on a vehicle jamming suggests something very wrong happening. Grenades that don’t go off are useless. The sight of Canadian troops pulling back too soon from the vicinity of a besieged Taliban strongpoint was a clear warning that it was about to be bombed by aircraft or shelled by heavy artillery. So, no surprise that the Taliban had time to slip away. The Taliban laying mines on the road leading to their base should not have surprised anyone. None of the above takes away from the raw courage many of the soldiers demonstrated. The Canadians paid heavily for the combat experience they gained and were rotated out before they could make full use of the lessons learned.
This isn’t a bad book. Maybe a little too cliché ridden but one of the best glimpses of the Canadian Army in action to emerge in recent years. I have to say that I found the claim that the fighting around the White School House “saved Afghanistan” just a little hard to swallow.
60a. The Good Soldiers
by David Finkel
The story of an United States infantry battalion during its 15 months as garrison of one of the most deprived areas of Baghdad from 2007 to 2008 by award winning American journalist David Finkel.
At first I found this book over-written and overwrought. But I either got in the mood for Finkel’s prose or he eased off in the over-writing. The book follows the battalion from deployment through to its return to the United States. It gets into nooks and crannies seldom explored in the journalism of the war in Iraq. The scenes in the Stateside hospital where the mangled and burned were sent proved particularly powerful.
The book follows the death, physical and mental carnage of the war in sometimes forensic detail. Family, friends, politicians, Iraqi cops, double-dealing Iraqi power brokers and translators feature alongside the soldiers in this squalid tale. The men who killed 12 members of the battalion and reduced other members to brain-damaged disfigured multiple-amputees are only glimpsed fleetingly. Finkel follows the members of the battalion on leave, climbing into their patrol Humvees not knowing if they will fall victim to a roadside bomb and through the drudgery of life inside the barbed wire and blast-walls of their base. The soldiers’ bewilderment over why people are trying to kill them when they believe they are there to help improve the locals’ quality of life in many cases soon turns to contempt and hatred.
The Americans do things differently. The battalion was created to go to Iraq and disbanded on its return to America. The war is fought by men who until they were thrust into the booby-trapped cauldron of Baghdad were strangers. It’s hard to know if a British or Canadian unit would have suffered the same morale problems and complete mental break-downs. I never got a real feel, despite Finkel’s efforts, for the battalion commander. Was he a good or bad leader?
This was a tough read but a worthwhile read. Anyone planning to send young men and women into harm’s way should be forced to read it.
60. Lightning War
by Ronald E Powaski
This account of the early days of the Second World War in Europe by American university professor Powaski proved a disappointment. I was looking forward to reading what claimed to be “the first book to cover the campaign as a whole, examining the issue from all sides”.
Looking in vain for a mention of the 51st Highland Division’s capture at St. Valery I came across an account of a supposed massacre of 400 SS men by the Durham Light Infantry. I’d never heard of such a massacre. Powaski admitted the evidence was “limited” but he believed it was “probable” that the massacre of prisoners taken after the May 21 British counter-offensive at Arras in 1940 did take place. I’m just glad Powaski isn’t teaching me. His evidence is that no-one seems to know for sure what happened to the prisoners taken at Arras and a Tank Regiment officer reported the DLI men “displayed great animosity” towards the Germans. It’s quite possible that the Durhams did kill some prisoners (see Opinion Page 4) but the mechanics of murdering 400 men and leaving no witnesses or evidence make a nonsense of claims that there was a wholesale massacre. The SS staged massacres of around 200 British soldiers later in the campaign and there were survivors. The German propaganda machine made no reference in 1940 to a massacre of SS men. After the war when an SS commander, from the same division as the DLI’s supposed victims, made no claim that his men were retaliating following a British atrocity. Ten minutes on the internet reveals that around 170 of the German prisoners at Arras were from the 7th Panzer Division. That would leave 230 SS men, not 400.
In my eyes, Powaski lost all credibility by putting the massacre down as “probable”. I couldn’t take anything he wrote elsewhere seriously. He also seemed to suggest that British general Bernard Montgomery was made a field marshal for his performance in North Africa and Sicily. The promotion came after Montgomery was shunted aside from his job as Allied army commander following his successful campaign in Normandy, Herr Professor.
59. The Generalship of Alexander the Great
by J F C Fuller
One of the best of his generation’s military historians takes a look at the career of one of the great legends of the ancient world. Fuller, one of the First World War pioneers of tank warfare, looks at the lessons modern commanders could learn from the Macedonian who conquered much of the world known to him. The book is based on the research he did when an instructor at the British staff college in the 1920s.
Fuller combines a strong narrative writing style with an insight into matters military rarely found. He also points out that Alexander’s success was as much due to political astuteness as on skill on the battlefield. The material on the conquest of Afghanistan and lessons to be learned from Alexander’s campaign should be of interest to modern military men.
An interesting book, but not a great book.
58. Bullet Magnet
by Mick Flynn
Sometimes it seems that there will soon be more British books about the war in Afghanistan than were published about the whole of the Second World War. They break down into two categories; personal memoir and the stories of individual units. The latter are usually written by authors with the track record in military history. The memoirs often involve ghost-writers – which gives some indication of how lucrative the market is at the moment.
Bullet Magnet is one of the latter. It may also be one of the best. It’s an easy read but not so smooth and polished that the soldier’s voice is lost. Flynn, a Welshman of Irish heritage, is certainly a character. The book follows his military career from the late 1970s through to Afghanistan. He served in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq, Bosnia and the Afghanistan. So, he’s seen more action than most British soldiers and he tells his tales well. He’s also good on peacetime soldiering, the practical jokes and the punch-ups.
Flynn’s not afraid to criticise. Not only the officers, whose stupidity in relieving a Northern Irish police station’s army garrison at the precisely the same time every day cost two of Flynn’s mates their lives, but also his fellow soldiers. Being a tankie, Flynn knows only too well how his life is often in the hands of his drivers and fellow crew members. Soldiers failing to do exactly what they’re told comes close to costing lives several times in this book. The U.S. air force inevitably also manages to contribute to the British death toll.
Flynn and I are about the same age. That may have made this an easier read for me than some others because I get a lot of the references and, quite frankly, bad jokes in this book. Flynn comes over as a good guy to have in your corner in either a bar room brawl or a battlefield.
57. The Fighting Canadians
by David Bercuson
Noted Canadian military history academic David Bercuson takes a look at the experiences of Canadian troops through the ages in this strange little book. I say “strange” because it appears to fall between two stools. It is too basic, and the battles too well known, to add much to the regular reader of military history’s store of knowledge and yet not engaging enough to draw in the general reader. The involvement of Canadian troops in the fighting in Afghanistan has created greater interest in military matters than has been seen for years. This book may be an attempt to cash in on that interest.
I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Bercuson and this one leaves me wondering if he actually wrote it. No book is ever 100% error free but this one is sloppy. There comes a point when a book loses credibility because of the number of silly mistakes it contains and this one crossed that threshold. I’d be very careful before challenging such an academic eminence on Canadian military history. But there was only one Highland regiment with Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, yet Bercuson writes of ‘regiments’. It’s “Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders”, not “Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders”. The primary object of the Second World War’s commando raid at St Nazaire was the destruction of the massive dry dock facility, not submarine pens. These were all errors that I spotted without having to crack open a reference book to check.
The book purports to examine the importance of the British-style regimental system by examining various military actions. But all it does is provide a Readers’ Digest-style litany of brief glimpses of Canadians in action. The attempt to link present day Canadian soldiers with the Native warriors wears thin very quickly.
I have to give this book a C-Minus.
56. The Thin Red Line
by Julian Spilsbury
The Crimean War seen through the eyes of the British via their diaries, letters and other scribblings. Spilsbury a former soldier and television writer, proves very capable of weaving together personal experience and the bigger picture. He gives just enough background and analysis to place the personal accounts in context, without bogging the narration down. The war is seen through the eyes of privates, sergeants, officers, medics, officers wives and a few other odds and sods. The National Army Museum put out a similar book but this one might have the edge because Spilsbury keeps the quotes short and punchy.
The reference to the Thin Red Line is of course to the Sutherland Highlanders at Balaclava, the original “thin red streak” in the much misquoted Times report of that battle. Oddly, Spilsbury appears to have been a little careless when it comes to names. There was no such unit as The Royal North British, though there was a Royal North British Fusiliers, better known as the Royal Scots Fusiliers. He also had me searching for a commanding officer of the Black Watch in the Peninsula War whose son “Colonel” Cameron led the regiment in the Crimea. Spilsbury attributed an interesting tactical innovation to the father which the son employed at the Battle of Alma. But I could find no Cameron listed as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Black Watch in Spain or Portugual. There was a Cameron commanded the Gordon Highlanders and another of that name commanding the Cameron Highlanders around the time in question.
I was also interested, considering how often Spilsbury foreshadowed the arrival of the socially well-connected Florence Nightingale in what Spilsbury had to say about Mary Seacole, a woman from the West Indies who also worked hard to ease the suffering of the soldiers. Not a word. I can’t imagine that Spilsbury was unaware of Seacole, so I can only conclude he decided she’s been getting too much credit in recent times.
55. Shake Hands With The Devil
by Romeo Dallaire
I found this insider’s story of what went wrong in Rwanda back in 1993 hard read. For once, this wasn’t because the book was badly written or factually challenged. Canadian Dallaire was the United Nations military commander in Rwanda during the 100 day genocide campaign that claimed around 800,000 lives. What he has to say about what went wrong is a sobering and shaming indictment against almost everyone involved – including you, me and just about every adult who was alive at the time.
I used to cover military matters for the paper I worked for and when Dallaire was found distraught and suicidal on a park bench in Ottawa, I heard that it was unfortunate, but he had been promoted beyond his capabilities thanks to his being a French-Canadian.
Reading his account, and much of it rings true, it’s amazing that he managed to achieve anything at all in the face of hypocrisy, indifference, incompetence, cynical self-interest and let’s be blunt – pure evil. The western military powers consistently said one thing, did another, and lied about what they were doing. The Hutu leaders of the Rwandan government cynically unleashed a massive genocide to save their own necks. The Tutsi led rebels deliberately slowed their advance, regarding the Tutsis trapped and murdered in Hutu dominated areas as necessary collateral damage. But it was Tutsi rebels who saw through the sham UN operation in Rwanda and were the real defenders of the Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The UN peacekeepers were massively under-resourced and betrayed, and largely undermined, by headquarters in New York. Non Government relief agencies went pretty much only where the TV cameras were and not where help was really needed.
This book didn’t do much to disabuse me of my belief that the United Nations is a massive employment agency for the children and cronies of Third World dictators. The few good men and women Dallaire led, and even then not all of them, are amongst the only people who come out of this book well. The UN’s Security Council’s members dissembled and promoted what they saw as their own national self-interest while hundreds of thousands of their fellow human beings were hacked to pieces.
Evil flourishes when good people do nothing. I did nothing. This book has me looking hard at why that was.
54. The Great Anglo-Boer War
by Byron Farwell
American writer Byron Farwell takes a look at the 1899-1902 Boer War. I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Farwell book and this one is no exception. He switches between personal experiences and the Big Picture almost seamlessly. Farwell once again shows he knows his Victorian soldiers and soldiering. And as an American, he is less partisan than many British and South African writers on what has been labelled “The Last Gentleman’s War”. Farwell shows that while there were many incidents of chivalry there was also much cruelty, both deliberate and accidental. This is one of the first books on this subject I've come across that takes a close look at the concentration camps where thousands of Boer children died. He is also fair in how he apportions the blame for those deaths. He also looks at what happened to the Boer fighters captured and sent to prison camps throughout the British Empire. All in all, a worthwhile read.
53. The Somme
by Martin Gilbert
This is an odd book. Written by Martin Gilbert, best known for biographies of Winston Churchill, issued to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the battle it’s part history and part guide to the war graveyards of the Somme. There’s also a sprinkling of poetry, mostly written by Englishmen killed during the months of the fighting in 1916. Gilbert peppers the book with apparently random details of those killed and I for one found this a bit of distraction. He also seemed bent on naming every United States citizen killed. To read this book one would think more U.S. citizens than Scots died. As I lost a great-grandfather, who didn’t qualify for a mention, I don’t think that’s quite true.
Gilbert, however, does a good job of conveying the gritty reality of the fighting and also puts it in its wider context within the history of the First World War. He brings in the battles fought in the corridors of Whitehall. He avoids much of the hysteria usually associated with this highly emotive and controversial battle. He doesn’t overly focus on the appalling losses of the notorious First Day when just under 20,000 British soldiers were killed in a matter of hours. That comes to something like 20 battalions wiped off the face of the earth. Gilbert also suggests that the deaths were not as futile as popular British memory suggests. He argues that the fighting tore the heart of the German Army in a way that it didn’t do to the British and resulted in a strategic withdrawal to the more easily defended Hindenburg Line. If the German offensives of March 1918 had begun from the old German lines on the Somme, they may well have over-run Paris.
52. Montgomery in Europe 1943-45: Success or Failure
by Richard Lamb
When I was younger, the revisionists were already busy demolishing the Monty Legend. At Alamein he couldn’t lose because he massively out-numbered Rommel in men and tanks. His campaign in Europe was disappointing. He was only good in set-pieces in which he heavily out-numbered the Germans. George Patton was the genius and Monty was a pompous little credit-hogging shit.
Journalist, historian and former soldier Richard Lamb tries to walk a line between the wartime propaganda which painted Montgomery as a latter-day Marlborough or Wellington and the American-inspired revisionists. Lamb is critical of Montgomery’s performance in Sicily and Italy, particularly his slow march to the relief of the Anglo-American troops at Salerno. But gradually it becomes apparent that Lamb has a lot of sympathy for the little British general, whose hardest fights in Northwest Europe were with his US colleagues and the senior British officers who surrounded Eisenhower and who were determined to curry American general's favour by spearheading the attacks on Montgomery.
Montgomery, despite his own claims, did make mistakes and could be excruciatingly vain and arrogant. But of the four main players in the Allied campaign, Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton, he was possibly the most honest and professional. I’ve read all four men’s memoirs and Montgomery was the only one to admit to making a mistake – failing to clear the Scheldt approaches to Antwerp rapidly enough and to trap the German 15th Army on the wrong side of the waterway. Lamb makes it clear that Monty also has to take a large share of the blame for the debacle at Arnhem. He under-estimated the resilience and powers of recovery of the German Army after he had inflicted on them their worst defeat in the war in the West – Normandy. Operation Market Garden would only work if the Germans were still on the run and reeling. They weren't.
Bradley and Patton connived to thwart efforts at a unified command structure and sabotaged efforts to co-ordinate the campaign in Northwest Europe. Montgomery was enough of a professional to see fighting two separate campaigns was squandering Allied lives and prolonging the war. He offered to serve under Bradley if that’s what it took to put the war on professional footing. It didn’t happen. Lamb shows that Eisenhower lied to Montgomery and misled him about the resources available to him when it looked as though Pentagon instructions to sideline British and Canadian efforts might be derailed. Lamb shows Eisenhower was contemptuous of the British by the end of the war, even though British and Canadian troops made up about a third of the army.
This book first came out in 1983 and could not be written now. Lamb interviewed many of Montgomery’s officers and colleagues, both admirers and detractors, and they are all now dead. He managed to interview many who walked the middle ground to criticise some things and to give praise in other matters where praise was due. Montgomery was often his own worst enemy but he was egged-on his rows with Eisenhower by Churchill and his own boss Alan Brooke, who both had grave reservations about the American as a battlefield commander. Montgomery could be charming, he managed to win Churchill over. But Eisenhower was a tougher nut to crack and Montgomery may have been too naive for the job. Montgomery was possibly the best that Britain could do at the time when it came to generals. We’ll never know if Bill Slim would have done as well in Europe as he did in Burma.
by Christopher Gravett
This is a lavishly illustrated compilation of three books from specialist military-interest publisher Osprey. It looks at the knights of England from 1200 to 1600. As well as discussing the evolution of armour from chain mail to plate, Gravett, a former senior curator of the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London, looks at social and military aspects of knighthood. I sometimes wished Gravett had opted to use less technical language when discussing armour; I found it irritating to be constantly flipping to the glossary at the back. But I did come away from reading this book with a better idea as to why the medieval English repeatedly failed to conquer Scotland. The English, like the Romans, found it wasn’t worth the money they’d have to spend. Scotland being a highly decentralised society meant that capturing Edinburgh had as much impact on holding the country as, say, NATO controlling Kabul in Afghanistan.
50. Elephant Bill
by Lt-Col J H Williams
Although this book plays heavily on contribution “Elephant Bill” Williams and his pachyderms made to the British campaign during Second World War in Burma, about two-thirds of the book is about Williams’s career before the war. It’s none the worse a read for that. In fact it’s a very good read. Williams is expert teller of tales about life in the jungles of Burma both before and during the war, The wartime accounts of plight of refugees fleeing the Japanese offer an insight into a seldom discussed aspect of the conflict.
Williams knows just how much detail to give without bogging down his tales from Britain’s colonial rule in Burma. The elephants are major and well drawn characters in a cast which also includes eccentric ex-pats, tigers, and Burmese bandits. There is a sense of humanity and wisdom to Williams’s writing. I can’t help feeling that he would have had no part in the tired colonial seediness which seems to pervade the 1948 Batang Kali Massacre in nearby Malaya and the subsequent cover-up.
49. The War that Killed Achilles
by Caroline Alexander
This book bills itself as “The True story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War”. I’m not to sure that it’s possible to know the true story of the Iliad, which was written something like 2,700 years ago or of the war itself, which is believed to have been fought 500 years before that. Classical scholar Alexander takes a good stab at dissecting the text with an eye firmly fixed on the probable sources of the myths and possible historical background to one of the best known war stories of all time. She also tries to show parallels between the war experiences of the Greeks and Trojans and that of modern day soldiers. She makes a good case for Achilles, the central figure in the story, suffering from some form of PTSD after his best friend his killed.
This is a reasonably accessible and thought-provoking book that does much to refute the notion that the lliad glorifies War. Though how anyone who has read any of numerous translations could think that the almost never ending catalogue of violent and gory death was a glorification of war baffles me.
48. The World at War
by Mark Arnold-Forster
It’s hard to believe that this book was first published in 1973, as an accompaniment to a British television documentary series. It’s a highly readable summary of the Second World War which has stood the test of time very well. Despite a lot of claims made by some recent books that they represent radical re-appraisals of the conflict, Arnold-Foster missed very little. The one gap in the book is the fact that it was still a closely guarded secret in 1973 that the British, and possibly the Soviets, were able to read the top secret German Enigma code. So, some of the inspired “guess work” when it came to German intentions wasn’t so inspired after all.
This book is an excellent stand-alone history of the war.
47. Terror on the Chesapeake
by Christopher T George
I had a feeling that this American book about the fighting around Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812-14 might be a bit of an oddity. After all, the Americans seem to think they won that war. This book was written by an Englishman who only recently became a US citizen. But if I expected that to mean it might be a balanced account of the British campaign, which culminated in the burning of president’s mansion in Washington, I was soon disabused of that notion. Throughout, the British are referred to as “the enemy”. About the only time British sources are quoted is when they are critical of British operations.
I have to admit I don’t know much about the fighting around Chesapeake Bay, I’ve read more about how a scratch force of British regulars and Canadian militia drove back the American invasion of 1812 and held the Americans at bay until more British troops could arrive from Europe. And of course there’s the disastrous, for the British point of view, New Orleans campaign. But I felt I was being cheated in this book of a balanced account. I do know that the British naval captain at the centre of the Mutiny on the Bounty was called William, not, as this book states, Edmund, Bligh. And I’m not sure the 102nd Foot was a fencible regiment – as the fencibles were a British home defence force. The book climaxes with the British failing to take Baltimore after burning the federal buildings in Washington. George presents this as a major reverse for the British but reading the book it would seem that the Brits had pretty much decided not to pursue the attack if the American militia put up a fight – which they did on this occasion. As far as I can work out from this book the “Terror” seems to have many comprised of burning military and US federal government facilities on the shores of the bay in a bid to divert American regulars away from trying to conquer Canada. That seems legitimate. And didn’t the Americans torch what is now known as Toronto? One irritation of this book was George’s attitude to the black slaves who joined the British. If the Brits are “the enemy”, what does that make the slaves? Towards the end George is at pains to point out that the British attitude to the slaves was cynical and that they turned them away once they’d outlived their usefulness. That still seems better than breaking their health through hard physical labour and raping the women.
by Nicholas Booth
Journalist Nicholas Booth tries to unravel the lies and distortions surrounding the wartime career of double-agent Eddie Chapman. Small-time London crook Chapman found himself in a Channel Island jail when the Germans invaded in 1940. He persuaded them to train him as a spy and saboteur and parachute him into England. He was picked up by police and turned over to British intelligence. They faked the partial destruction of a key aircraft factory to cement Chapman’s credentials as a German agent and returned him to Occupied Europe. Chapman was then parachuted back into England and this time radioed false reports as to where VI pilotless bombs were landing. The Germans were misled by his information and the doodle-bugs started missing their intended target areas.
These facts are pretty clear-cut. Booth leant heavily de-classified MI5 files for this book. The problem lies in the fact that a lot of the information in the files was supplied by Chapman himself. Some of it might be true, by the same token it might be a pack of self-serving lies. Most of his MI5 handlers seemed to have harboured a dislike and distrust of Chapman. He was a thief, a philanderer and a violent man. Some of the claims in the book defy belief and there may be a very good reason for that.
45. Fifteen Days
by Christie Blatchford
I joked when I got this book that it would show me how it should be done. I really wanted to like this award-winning book about the Canadians in Afghanistan by one of the few Canadian newspaper columnists I admire. But it was chore to read.
I think Blatchford may have lost me early on when she wrote about the “condescending and vainglorious manner journalists the world over have perfected”. Speak for yourself Ms Blatchford. I never felt condescending to any of the soldiers that I met out in Afghanistan. I suspect Blatchford used to be very similar to other Toronto media types who wonder what any intelligent well-adjusted man or woman would be doing in the Canadian army. She obviously found, as most reporters do, that the vast majority of troops in Afghanistan were smart, decent and professional. But they are not candidates for sainthood. How can I put this without causing offence? I prefer people to be portrayed as more rounded. War brings out the best in some people, the worst in others. There’s not even a hint of the latter in this book.
The book is basically 15 magazine articles based on interviews with soldiers, their friends and family members. Most focus on the deaths of Canadian soldiers. Blatchford visited the Canadian troops in Afghanistan four times. She’s obviously a game old bird and won the confidence and trust of at least some of the soldiers by going out in the field with them. I had to smile when it turned out that she missed the fact that a US plane had attacked some of the soldiers she was out with and only learned of the incident many days later. As someone who has also been “embedded” I couldn’t help but think “There but for the grace of the Almighty go I.”
The incidents are dealt with out of sequence, which can make things hard to follow as soldiers who have been killed or injured, re-appear hale and hearty a couple of chapters further on. Sometimes the writing sacrifices clarity for punchiness. If you find the following irritating, you won’t like this book – “The soldiers found a line of machine gun fire from an AK-47 along the side of one of the ANA trucks…” Blatchford also peppers the book with soldier-speak which I suspect the average reader would have to go over twice to understand.
This is a minor point but one I want to make in relation to the deaths of four Canadian troops during a life-fire exercise at the hand of a US pilot. That pilot, Major Harry “Psycho” Schmidt did not “mistakenly bomb” the Canadians as Blatchford says. He deliberately bombed them, he just didn’t wait to find out who “them” was.
by Ed Macy
I put this book back on the shelf at the shop when I first came across it because I thought it was going to be war-porn. Luckily for me, it was still there a week later. Macy was a pilot in Afghanistan flying one of the most potent killing machines in history – the British version of the Apache attack helicopter. Not only that, but he was the key figure in the rescue operation which involved flying four Royal Marine Commandos into an Afghan fortress under fire while clinging to the outside of Apaches. A dramatic story well told by Macy.
Macy was the highest rank a British soldier can hold short of holding the Queen’s Commission. That makes him a smart guy. Being able to fly an Apache means he’s more than smart. He captures the humour and trials of army life excellently. He stops just short of war-porn in his description of the Apache, instead coming over as a workman proud of the tools of his trade. He’s also good at giving an overall picture of the war in Afghanistan in 2007 while at the same time serving up a thoughtful and credible slice of military life.
This is a very smooth read. So smooth in fact that I looked at the acknowledgements for hint of a ghost writer. And there tabloid journalist Tom Newton Dunn gets a mention. It is a wise man who knows when to ask for help. But a little help doesn’t take anything away from Macy as a story teller or make it less of a smooth read. As the author of two books I can say that they were both team efforts and a good editor is worth his or her weight in gold.
The closing chapters of this book are both sobering and thoughtful – and perhaps a little sad.
This is one of the best books I’ve read about the war in Afghanistan.
43. How Robert E Lee Lost the Civil War
by Edward H Bonekemper III
I have to admit I’m not as well read as I’d like to be when it comes to the American Civil War. Part of that is because a lot of the stuff I’ve read didn’t make a lot of sense. But if Robert E Lee is not portrayed as a paragon of military genius, who had a rare off-day at Gettysburg, but as a liability; a lot of things suddenly make sense.
Bonekemper was a lawyer when he wrote this book and that perhaps shows in that he paints too black and one-sided a picture of Lee, as a prosecutor would. If Lee was really the menace portrayed here, then surely he wouldn’t have enjoyed the respect he did during the war. I’d always thought that Lee inflicted more casualties on the Union armies than they did on his troops and it was only the weight of Federal numbers that defeated him. But Bonekemper shows that Lee often lost a higher percentage of troops than his Federal opponents did. He also refused, as Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s chief military advisor, to release troops badly needed on other battle fronts. Instead of playing a waiting game which would sap the Union’s will to fight, Lee launched a series of ill-advised and poorly co-ordinated offensives which destroyed the flower of his army again and again. Bonekemper is also interesting on just how and why, and to whose benefit, Lee was raised to the status of military sainthood.
Provocative title, provocative book.
42. Salerno – A Military Fiasco
by Eric Morris
Morris, a lecturer at Sandhurst when he wrote this book, obviously spent a lot of time speaking to men who fought in this all-too-often neglected 1943 amphibious landing and battle in Italy. He should have been more ruthless when it came to reducing the amount of personal reminiscence he used. The clutter of individual stories often gets in the way of explaining what went wrong during and after the Anglo-American 5th Army landed on the beaches.
Morris explains that it was only the guts of the ordinary soldiers, British and American that prevented the incompetence of the generals, including that of the dreadful poseur Mark Clark as commander of the 5th Army, from this battle being a bigger setback than it actually was. The Germans only narrowly failed to drive the Allies back into the sea and if this had been a boxing match they would have been awarded a technical knock-out.
The book also touches on the infamous Salerno Mutiny in which many veterans of the 51st Highland Division refused to be posted to English units. No-one, especially the senior commanders, comes out well from that story.
41. Battlefield Britain
by Peter and Dan Snow
Well-known British television presenter Peter Snow teamed up with his Oxford-educated historian son Dan for this lavishly illustrated book to accompany the television series of the same name.
The book focuses on six conflicts – Boudicca’s final showdown with the Romans; Hastings, the Battle for Wales in the 1400s, the Spanish Armada, Naseby, the Boyne, Culloden and the Battle of Britain. As well as excellent summaries of the battles and the background to them the book also features attempts to recreate a part of the soldiers’ experiences in the battles. This may have worked well on television but not so well in a book. The same goes for the use of computer generated reconstructions of the action which were such an interesting part of the television series; the reproductions in the book are grainy and fuzzy.
I suspect the battles featured were selected to include conflicts from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This meant that I learned about Owen Glendower’s fight to free Wales of the English and discovered that the Battle of the Boyne was far more interesting than I knew. I found the account of Culloden balanced and fair.
40. With Wings Like Eagles
by Michael Korda
This book is billed as the “untold story of the Battle of Britain”. I don’t think there was anything in it that I didn’t already know. That said, Korda is a good writer and he brings the story of the epic and desperate battle in the skies over and around Britain in the summer of 1940 to life. He is especially good on the backroom battles that the architect of the British victory, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, had to fight in the corridors of Whitehall and the Air Ministry to prevent his carefully thought out plans being derailed. If the Battle of Britain is a something you don’t know much about; then this is an excellent introduction to the subject.
by M R D Foot
Noted Oxford University historian M R D Foot draws on his own experiences as a British agent France during the Second World War to produce this thoughtful and thought-provoking look at the resistance movements of the period.
Though he hardly mentions his own exploits, it is obvious from the book that he knows his subject well and has given it a lot of sober thought. The book is an overall look at the role of the various resistance movements, nearly all in Europe, rather than a series of colourful tales. But Foot peppers it with some memorable anecdotes which raise the book well beyond the level of a dry academic treatise.
38. 50 Battles That Changed The World
by William Weir
Any book that claims to list the fifty most important battles ever fought in human history can be expected to be a little subjective in its choices. But that’s half the fun of a book like this. However, Weir perhaps lets his Americanism get the better of his judgement. I think many outside the United States would have trouble swallowing his claim that Bunker Hill is the third most important battle ever fought. I found his claims about the career of Gordon of Khartoum intriguing. But I would have taken them more seriously if he hadn’t claimed that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the first time in history that opposing fleets had been more than 100 miles apart. As an American, I thought he would have known a little more about Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack was inspired and modelled on the highly successful attack by British carrier-borne aircraft on the Italian fleet at Taranto in 1940. As I used to tell trainee newspaper reporters; “one stupid mistake and the whole story loses credibility: you might as well not have bothered writing it”. I would have expected Weir as a former newspaper reporter, a Korean War era combat correspondent no less, to be a little more careful with the facts. I can’t fault Weir’s writing, it’s lively. And he has some interesting things to say: I just don’t know how seriously to take his analysis. Everyone makes mistakes, but the Pearl Harbor one is a howler.
37. Conquer or Die!
by Ben Hughes
I had high hopes of this book about the role played by British mercenaries in the South American wars of liberation from Spanish rule in the early 1800s. I knew that many veterans of the Duke of Wellington’s armies had played a key role in stiffening the rebel armies commanded by Simon Bolivar. Hughes relied heavily on the memoirs of the British mercenaries of a war in which crocodiles, poison arrows and tropical disease claimed many lives. But Hughes could have done with a good editor to tidy up his writing. The phrase “backwards ran the sentences until reeled the mind” is sadly applicable. The narrative is almost as confused and piecemeal as the war itself. Finishing this book became a chore.
by Max Hastings
I enjoyed this door-step of a book – until the last few chapters. Former journalist Max Hastings’s book explored several too-often neglected aspects of the War against Japan. The chapters on the fighting, or lack of it, in China and the surprisingly poor performance of Australian troops in the closing stages of the Second World War were both educational.
The tale Hastings tells is a tale of waste and often pointless conflict. The Americans often sidelined, and even sabotaged, their nominal allies while inter-service rivalries resulted in two wars being fought in the Pacific when one co-ordinated campaign would have defeated Japan with far less loss of life. Admiral Chester Nimitz comes out reasonably well but Hastings has little time for General Douglas MacArthur in the southwest Pacific. I said in my review of Bloody Buna that MacArthur learned the lessons of the bloody campaign in New Guinea. After further reading, I’ve changed my mind. I think this book about what was essentially an American war against Japan benefits from being written by a non-American. Hastings’s appraisals of the American commanders seems both fair and untainted by the hero-worship which all too often mars American accounts. Far too frequently victory was won by industrial might and weight of numbers rather than inspired leadership. A lot of American boys died to win headlines back in the U.S. for their publicity-hungry for their commanders rather than to win the war. The Japanese commanders come over as vile and murderous. Prisoners and civilians suffer most. Even the lives of Japanese civilians, slaughtered in U.S. fire bombing of their cities, meant little to the military fascists who ran the country.
Where the book falls down is in its final chapters. It’s almost as though it was written by a different person. The text is larded with obscure words (e.g. persiflage) which had me, an avid reader, reaching for a big dictionary. There are also some very pompous statements in there. Discussing the atom bomb, Hastings declares “ It is a delusion of those who know little of battle, to suppose that death inflicted by atomic weapons is uniquely terrible.” I don’t think it takes a genius, or a former war correspondent, to work out that being torn into by shrapnel and bleeding to death is no picnic.
35. Fenian Fire
by Christy Campbell
This book claims to expose a British Government plot to assassinate Queen Victoria. It’s an interesting book, but not that interesting. What this book reveals is a scheme to make it appear that violent Irish nationalists were planning to blow-up Victoria in 1887 during her Golden Jubilee celebrations.
Campbell, a former journalist, has painstakingly combed British government archives for details of how the various British anti-terrorist agencies battled to keep a lid on Irish-American bomb plots in the late 1800s. Surprisingly, some of the records remain sealed to this day. The cast of characters is fascinating, ranging from a British spy-chief to Irish-American Mexican generals. The Irish-American terrorist organisations are riddled with men taking money from the British. The British have several agencies who seem as keen on battling each other as on preventing bomb attacks. Things haven’t changed much. The fight between the Home Office controlled MI5 and the Foreign Office’s MI6 for operational supremacy which marked the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland for much of the late 20th Century was foreshadowed almost 100 years before. But at least United States Presidents have stopped inviting Irish terrorists to the White House as honoured guests.
As I’ve already mentioned, this book depends on archive evidence. I couldn’t help feeling sometimes that Campbell could have brought himself to cut down on the direct quotes and move the story on a little quicker. But that said, Campbell keeps speculation about what’s missing from the archives to a minimum and sticks closely to the verifiable facts. This is an interesting look at a too-often forgotten episode in British-Irish and British-U.S. relations.
34. Zinky Boys
by Svetlana Alexievich
They thought they were going to help the Afghans to a better life. Instead, they were dragged into a world of torture, bullying, corruption, massacre, violent death and disease. The Zinky Boys of the title refers to the casualties of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who were sent home to their loved ones in zinc coffins. Journalist Alexievich interviewed veterans of the conflict, male and female, military and civilian, about their experiences in what has been called Russia’s Vietnam. She also interviewed the mothers and widows of the dead. The picture she paints is grim. The idealistic teenage conscripts, in Afghanistan to fulfil what they were told was their “international duty” are soon disillusioned and embittered. They seem to have genuinely believed they were in Afghanistan to help ease the Afghans from a life of medieval drudgery into the 20th Century. It doesn’t take them long to realise they are not welcome and the Afghans will kill them if they get a chance. Some find themselves branded “baby killers” when they return to civilian life by a country which has come to regard the war they fought in as “a mistake”. This is a collection of harrowing stories which those countries which have troops in Afghanistan now would do well to pay attention to.
33. Setting the Desert on Fire
by James Barr
This is an excellent introduction to the British funded and supplied Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule during the First World War. The famous, or perhaps infamous, Lawrence of Arabia is certainly a key figure in this book but it also gives the other British officers, civil servants and politicians their share of the credit – or should that be the blame. What started out as an attempt to muddy the waters after the Turkish Sultan called for a Jihad against the Allies eventually turned into an armed revolt that was far more successful than the British expected. According to Barr, the British never believed they would have to honour the promises of independence they made to the Arab nationalists. When push came to shove, the British decided it was more in their interests to keep their French allies sweet, or at least less bitter and belligerent, and turn over Arab-liberated territory to them.
This is not a pretty story in so many ways but Barr tells it well. He took the trouble to visit many of the places, including many desert railway stations, which featured in the revolt. He even goes to the trouble of having one of Lawrence’s diaries forensically analysed to find out what might have been on some pages that the eccentric masochist tore out. Was Lawrence, as he later claimed, almost raped by a Turkish officer? Barr thinks he knows.
32. Ardennes: The Secret War
by Charles Whiting
Prolific military writer Charles Whiting has a look at the special operations side of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Whiting focuses on how the Germans managed to “hide” an army of 600,000 men and completely surprise the Americans and British.
The book also follows the fortunes of the handful SS Commandos who dressed up in US uniforms and helped wreak chaos and distrust behind the Allied lines. Thirdly, Whiting adds in the story of the German paratroopers’ ill-fated drop during the battle. Whiting interviewed the main players in the story he tells, intelligence boss Hermann Giskes, SS Commando chief Otto Skorzeny, and infamous SS Panzer leader Jochen Peiper.
Whiting discusses several lesser known aspects of the campaign and cuts through many of the face-saving lies told by the Allied commanders in its aftermath. The book also includes an account of the infamous massacre of US prisoners at Malmedy.
31. Armies of the Raj
by Byron Farwell
I picked this one up based on Farwell’s excellent books on the British Army in the 1900s, particularly Mr Kipling’s Army and Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. This one wasn’t quite up to the same standard, but it was interesting all the same. I’d expected more anecdote and less politics.
I wasn’t sure when I read Mr Kipling’s Army whether Farwell was British or American. It turned out he was American and this works to the advantage of this book. He is able to look at the British army in India with an outsider’s eye. This means he’s not shy about discussing the racism which under-pinned British rule in India. But he’s also not shy about discussing the opportunism and irresponsibility of the “Hindu lawyers” who took over from the old British Raj in 1947. Gandhi does not come out well.
The book is less a military history of India and more of a taster. It focuses on some key incidents. It made me think again about the notorious massacre of nationalists at Amritsar in 1919 and although I’d seen mention of the 1915 Singapore Mutiny, I hadn’t realised just how interesting it was. The casual brutality of ordinary British soldiers towards the Indians, including murder and rape, is something I’ve seldom seen discussed in British books. It always struck me as odd that when Britain was the destination for hundreds of thousands of migrants from India and Pakistan after the Second World War that racist attitudes instilled by Britain’s rulers into the working class consciousness were suddenly condemned. For decades about the only working class people who’d encountered anyone from the Indian sub-continent were soldiers. And they’d been told that any Hindu, Muslim or Sikh who thought they could run their homelands better than a white man could and should be shot.
30. Airborne Carpet
by Anthony Farrar-Hockley
Former Parachute Regiment commander Farrar-Hockley takes a look at one of the most famous airborne operations in history – the attempt to seize the Dutch river crossings in Operation Market Garden. Few of the British and American commanders escape criticism in this book, while the Germans seem to make few mistakes and play their hand well.
About half the book, another in the excellent Pan/Ballantine history of the Second World War, is spent putting the plan in the context of the attempt to rush the Rhine in the aftermath of the break-out from the Normandy beaches. It ranges from highly personal accounts of the fighting to the higher strategic picture. Farrar-Hockley spreads the blame widely for the failure of the British tanks to reach Arnhem before the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment lost its hold on the northern end of the bridge over the Rhine. Oddly, he doesn’t point a finger at General “Boy” Browning, whose insistence on using scarce air transport to fly in a large headquarters unit to the Nijmegen cut down the number of combat troops dropped there. The long delay in capturing the crucial Nijmegen bridge over the River Waal could easily be blamed on the lack infantry men and airborne artillery available to the US 82nd Airborne for the task. Although the tanks and infantry of the British XXX Corps faced heavy opposition as they pushed up the highway from the Belgian-Dutch border towards Arnhem, Farrar-Hockley makes it clear that he thinks they could have moved faster.
This is an excellent and balanced introduction to one of the most famous battles of the Second World War and despite being written 40 years ago has stood the test of time well.
29. Dynamic of Destruction
by Alan Kramer
Forget nearly everything you learned in high school about the First World War; if Professor Kramer of Trinity College, Dublin, is to be believed. And I think he is. Kramer delves into historical nooks and crannies throughout Europe and Turkey to produce a highly plausible account of the true causes of the war, the conduct war itself and rise of fascism afterwards.
Contrary to what I was taught, France didn’t want a war with Germany aimed at recovering Alsace Lorraine. And the Germans most definitely did want a war, a war in which “beastliness” was a matter policy. The Italians come out badly in this book, both during and after the fighting, and the British generals come out better than you might expect – according to Kramer, the Somme was actually a British victory. There are genocides and attempted genocides galore. Murder, wanton destruction and rape also feature heavily.
Much of the book’s focus is on the Germans. I wish Kramer had had more to say about the British. It’s good to know that my great-grandfathers’ deaths were in a good cause and that contrary to popular memory the First World War was not a futile bloodbath. The British gained little because they had little to gain in the first place – except for defeating evil. History is always changing because history is always more about explaining, and excusing, the present than examining the past. History is not written by the victors, it is written by all the participants and the most dangerous history, as shown by Kramer, is written by the losers.
This book is filled with interesting facts and ideas. I think I knew that Mussolini’s “war wound” was actually syphilis, but I didn’t know Hitler was hospitalised in the First World War due to blindness brought on by hysteria. Of course, Hitler didn’t want that known and he had most of the people who were aware of his hysterical blindness murdered.
The one thing I would have liked Kramer to have cast his remorseless spotlight-of-truth upon was the admiration many of the British middle class had for Mussolini and the lack of reaction when tanks were deployed on the streets of Glasgow in 1919 to keep the Red Clydesiders cowed.
28. New Guinea
by John Vader
In my review of Bloody Buna by Lida Mayo (see below) I said that US general Douglas MacArthur learned the lessons of that campaign – not according to this book. MacArthur remained an out-of-touch glory-seeker to the end and men died in unnecessary battles, according to the author of this excellent book from the Pan/Ballantine history of the Second World War.
Vader looks at the fighting in New Guinea campaign through a definite Australian lens. He’s excellent when it comes to jumping from the over-all strategic picture to individual combat experience. Where this book falls down is when it comes to the American contribution to the campaign. Lots of good Australian material, very little, except criticism, of American input. According to Vader, a foot soldier turned Spitfire pilot, both the Australians and Americans fed inexperienced troops, militiamen in the case of the former and National Guardsmen in the case of the second, and Aussies did better. Vader also slams McArthur for failing to take advantage of fighting experience amongst senior Australian officers in the Middle East and instead surrounding himself with US officers whose only war experience was losing the Philippines to the Japanese. Vader echoes Mayo’s criticisms of MacArthur as a classic example of a First World War chateau general who had little idea of what was really going on in New Guinea and who sent many brave men to unnecessary deaths as a result. He was sadly mistaken about the number of Japanese troops his men faced and therefore over-critical of their lack of progress in taking back occupied areas.
New Guinea seldom gets more than a few paragraphs in British and US histories of the war. This book goes some way to redressing that.
by Martin Blumenson
I’d read the Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery and Patton accounts of the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and North West Europe and to be honest Patton’s was the most disappointing.
But Patton was a soldier and maybe writing memoir wasn’t his forte (although many generals are very good writers). So, I thought I’d give him another chance and read this book by respected historian Martin Blumenson. Blumenson served on Patton’s staff and that may be the problem with this book. He has an extreme case of hero-worship. Patton is ill-served; at least I hope he is, otherwise it is hard to understand how he managed to retain a battlefield command for long. Blumenson’s Patton is a clown and a crank. Blumenson attributes Patton’s emotional instability, including his notorious physical attacks on hospitalised soldiers, to too many head injuries. Patton’s marital infidelities are either only mentioned in passing or hinted at – you can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats his wife and Patton gets a failing grade.
There is little evidence of military genius in this book. Montgomery slugs it out toe-to-toe with the Germans in Sicily and France while the Patton drives his men hard to loop around behind them. I believe the Germans did like to know where Patton was; but only in the same way that you want to keep an eye on the little punk known to carry a knife who is dancing around on the edges of a street fight. The combination worked well, playing to both Patton and Montgomery’s strengths. Patton did well keeping the Germans on the run after the breakout from Normandy but once resistance hardened, his battles were bloodbaths. Blumenson’s Patton has no time for his fellow generals, American or British – nearly all are timid and unimaginative. According to Blumenson, Patton was prevented from winning the war not once but twice. Thwarted again and again by military midgets. He alone anticipated the German Christmas offensive Ardennes. Then when it happened, he was reluctant to stop his own private war and help his fellow US generals deal with it. Blumenson doesn’t discuss Patton’s repeated disregard of Eisenhower’s orders and sabotage of overall Allied strategy, often assisted by his own boss Bradley, a man he detested.
Blumenson has more trouble with Patton’s blatant hatred for the Jews after the German surrender and his refusal to weed out Nazis in the US occupation zone. Even Blumenson has to admit that Patton was by this stage, delusional. I would suggest from reading this book that Patton was in trouble before that.
If you only have time in your life to read one book about Patton, I’d recommend you choose one other than this.
By the way, back to the various generals’ memoirs, as far as I can remember Montgomery was the only one who confessed to a major mistake – failing to seize the Scheldt approaches to the crucial port of Antwerp quickly enough.
26. Paths of Glory
by Stephen Brumwell
Respected military historian, and former journalist, Stephen Brumwell takes a hard look at the life and career of the controversial General James Wolfe. Wolfe’s once shining reputation as the man who won Canada for the British has been tarnished in the past few decades. He has been accused of been a ditherer and a war criminal. Wolfe is seldom mentioned in Canada these days, such is the sensitivity of the French-speaking Canadians. It’s not clear whether it took a Brit outsider or just a meticulous and able historian to re-asses Wolfe’s career. I certainly remember in primary school learning about Wolfe and then later hearing he wasn’t such a hero after all. The fight on the Plains of Abraham which broke the French army defending Quebec in 1759 was preceded by several weeks of unsuccessful campaigning. Brumwell explains why that was and Wolfe comes out with his reputation intact.
One of the first things that impressed me about this book, a bit of an acid test when it came to Brumwell’s credibility, was that he did not buy into the story that Wolfe refused to personally execute a Jacobite prisoner after Culloden. The book went from strength to strength from then on. It relies heavily on Wolfe’s own letters and diaries and those of his contemporaries – both detractors and admirers. Brumwell has a firm grasp of the realities of 18th Century warfare, particularly in the North American theatre of operations, and he uses his knowledge to analyse Wolfe’s skill as a general. I won’t spoil it by divulging his verdict.
One thing I hadn’t realised before reading this book was how much of Wolfe’s career was spent in Scotland – not only that but much of his time was spent in and around many of my old stamping grounds.
I understand Brumwell is working on a life of George Washington, I'm looking forward to reading it. If there's been nonsense written about Wolfe, there been even more written about Washington.
25. War Reporting for Cowards
by Chris Ayres
I wasn't going to review this book because, quite frankly, the best thing about it is the title. But the review planned for this week isn't ready. I'm glad I only paid about a dollar, about 65 pence in real money, for this book because it wasn't worth much more than that. It really really annoyed me. It's the first-person tiresome tale of how one of the English chattering classes bought himself a job with a well known and prestigious Rupert Murdoch newspaper through the “intern” system (where you have to be able to work for free for a long period before you get the job). Then he got himself sent to the USA. There he leveraged his association with Rupert Murdoch's media empire into a highly coveted embedding with the US forces going into Iraq. This was a bad move from everyone's point of view. Ayres's account of his nine days as a war correspondent (which is near the very end of the book) in 2003 is one long unappealing whinge. Not anywhere near as funny as it could have been. The real shame is that he took an embedding spot that someone less whiney could have made far better use of.
by Mark Urban
British journalist Mark Urban takes a look at the American Revolution through the eyes of one British regiment. Urban appears to have selected the Welch Fusiliers for two reasons; one, they were involved in several of a major campaigns of the war, two, a number of its soldiers left diaries or letters which offer a lot of information to work from. The book gives an interesting snapshot of life in the British Army of the period and the type of fighting involved in the campaign. The Welch Fusiliers were among the troops the march on Concord and Lexington, which intended to extinguish the flame of rebellion in the New England colonies, and they took part in the running retreat back to Boston which ensued. They were also amongst the British troops trapped at Yorktown and forced to surrender in the last major British humiliation of the war. Urban moves across a wide span of locations, from drawing rooms of Boston, New York and London to the dense wilderness of North Carolina and the miserable trenches at Yorktown. The cast of characters ranges from well-connected officers who gained promotion after promotion without seeing any fighting to desperate deserters pleading for their lives after being captured. Urban is also good on the squabbling amongst themselves of the British generals and of their political masters back in London. The war was barely winnable in the first place and the intervention of the French, Spanish and Dutch pretty much made defeat inevitable. A number of Scots are included in the book, approximately 25% of all British officers at the time were from Scotland and the Welch Fusiliers had their share, but Urban isn't quite spot on when it comes to Scottish regiments. His claim that the Fraser Highlanders were recruited to a fight the rebels by a Highland chief keen to make amends for his clan being on the Jacobite side at Culloden doesn't quite ring true. The regiment had originally been raised about 20 years earlier and took part in the Conquest of Canada.
Where it is a little disappointing is in putting events into the wider context of the war. I wanted to know more about both the rebels and the loyalists the Welch encountered and what they were fighting for. Some of the hints that Urban drops, such as the number of military executions being higher in Washington's Army than in the British and the campaign of murder and terror conducted by the “Patriots” against suspected loyalists, left me wanting just a little more information. This book, and I rarely say this, could have done with a few more pages.
23. A Bard of Wolfe's Army
by Earl John Chapman and Ian Macpherson McCulloch
An account of the life and adventures of Tain man James Thompson's part of in the conquest of Canada and his life in Quebec City afterwards. By the time he died in 1830 at the age of 98 he was one of the last men alive who had served with the British army which took Quebec from the French in 1759.
The book is split into three distinct parts; a biography of Thompson, a selection of his recollections of his days with the 78th Fraser Highlanders and his part in repelling an American attempt to take Quebec in 1775; and potted biographies of many of the historic characters who feature in the book. An interesting picture of life in a Highland regiment in the late 1750s and of life in Quebec after the capture of the city. Some of Thompson's anecdotes are funny, some are valuable eyewitness accounts of history in the making and some seem to be pure name-dropping. The old warrior comes alive, both the good and bad sides.
The book has numerous illustrations, including 14 in colour.
22. Friendly Fire
by Michael Friscolanti
On 17th April 2002 an U.S. National Guard F-16 fighter-bomber swooped down on a Canadian life-fire training exercise in Afghanistan and dropped a bomb which killed four members of the Edmonton-based Canadian Light Infantry and wounded eight more. A few days earlier I had been standing almost exactly where the bomb hit and had I still been in Afghanistan that night I would have been at the exercise and could well have been in pretty much the same spot.
So, I found this book by journalist Friscolanti a hard read. The cover claims it tells the “untold story” of an event that I have long had trouble understanding. How could the pilots, one a highly experienced man at the top of his game, have launched such an attack within sight of the biggest military base in southern Afghanistan, disobeying instructions to hold fire until air controllers could work out what was going on at Tarnack Farms. How was it possible to mistake machine gun fire and an anti-tank rocket launcher for a threat to one of the most sophisticated killing machines of the 21st Century? I wanted to understand. This wasn't the first story I'd worked on in which US Nation Guard pilots had killed allied troops out with the heat of battle and fog of war– nine British soldiers died when A-10 Warthogs attacked their convoy after the fighting in the First Gulf War had ended. Obviously, there were systemic problems but at the end of the day, responsibility lies with the man who pulls the trigger.
Using interviews with many of the main participants, newspaper cuttings, hearing transcripts and classified documents, Friscolanti recounts the events of that terrible night and inquiries into the killings. US Air Force chiefs concluded that the pilot supposedly in charge, Maj. Bill Umbach, had failed to control former Top Gun instructor Maj. Harry “Psycho” Schmidt. They also concluded Schmidt had behaved recklessly. But no combat-experienced F-16 pilot could be found in the entire US military to testify at a court martial that Schmidt had done anything they wouldn't have done in the same situation. Schmidt was offered an administrative slap on the wrist but demanded a court-martial. That was when some of his fellow pilots decided he wasn't playing the game and told military prosecutors they would testify against him. Schmidt changed his mind and agreed to an administrative punishment. But both he and Umbach, both of whom were had already been taken off flying duties, appealed against the terms of the reprimand they ultimately received, convinced they'd done nothing wrong and were being scapegoated. The appeals were rejected.
Much of the book's coverage of the board of inquiry and disciplinary proceedings is based on transcripts. I was sometimes so frustrated by the red herrings thrown out by the prosecution, including court-room antics such as blaming the victims, that I wanted to throw this book out of the window. I was also irritated by Friscolanti's continual use of jargon, such as “pickle button” for the bomb release switch. Some of the writing is overwrought but that said, I'm glad I stuck with this book to the end. I actually read the end first because Schmidt there gets almost the final say. Anyone who has sat in a court room will know how important it is to be the last person the jury hears from. I was annoyed at Schmidt having the final word, almost as annoyed as by the use of US spellings throughout the book, but Friscolanti did the right thing. It was only after reading the whole book that Schmidt's comments at the end made sense when it came to the Big Why. Reading between the lines it becomes clear that Schmidt was pissed off that he wasn't in charge. When they thought they were being fired at Umbach didn't even have the presence of mind to switch off his navigation lights and Schmidt decided to show him how things should be done. While Umbach bumbled about the skies – actually doing the right thing by holding off until it was clearer what was going on down below – Schmidt went into kill mode. He invoked “self-defence”, claiming he was acting to protect Umbach who was five miles away and in no danger, and dropped his bomb with near pin-point accuracy. At the end of the book he claims to have seen a light close by which he believed was Umbach's plane still in the danger zone – a claim not made at any of the hearings. Both men make no bones about regretting the loss of life, but it's the loss of life of any soldier, they do not feel any responsibility for killing the Canadian soldiers. This is a sad story in so many ways.
21. Breda Fomm
by Kenneth Macksey
Part of the Ballentine's history of the Second World War, this book follows the standard series format which includes an abundance of photos, details of the main weapons used and a text which moves easily from the over-all strategic picture to individual fire-fights. This account of the British destruction of the Italian 10th Army in North Africa benefits from being written by Kenneth Macksey who combines his own experience in Second World War tank battles with an easy writing style. The tanks of the 7th Armoured Division were key to General Richard O'Connor's battles against the Italians. Macksey benefited from being able to discuss the campaign with O'Connor, a former member of the Scottish Rifles, and Italian general Mario Torsiello. His insight into the nature of tank warfare and flashes of humour help to make this account of a campaign fought on a shoe-string one of the most satisfying books in the series.
20. The Peninsular War
by Charles Esdaile
This book got rave reviews when it came out in 2002 – a least judging by the extracts printed on the back cover and the first few inside pages. Perhaps I should have read the full reviews, because I don't think this really is the new “standard work” on the fighting in Spain and Portugal between 1808 and 1814, as several of the reviews appear from the extracts to proclaim. This book is firmly focused on the Spanish point of view. It's interesting to view the fight against the French through a Spanish lens but a more rounded account explaining more about the British and Portuguese points of view would have come closer to meeting the criteria for a “standard work”. Greater detail as to what was going on in Spain's South American colonies would also have been welcome. The war sounded the death knell of Spain's overseas Empire, leaving it within a few years with only Cuba and the Philippines. I'd have to read the book again to check if Esdaile explained why United States ships based in France were attacking British shipping – the Americans had decided to take advantage of Britain's war against Napoleon to attempt the conquest of Canada in 1812.
The book is certainly a valuable addition to accounts of the war and a welcome change from many British accounts which restrict themselves almost entirely to accounts of the Duke of Wellington's victories. Esdaile, a university history lecturer, reappraises the extent to which the campaign contributed to the fall of Napoleon and the true contribution that the Spanish guerrilla fighters made. Wellington is shown to be fallible and the British Army more often than not goes on a murder and plunder rampage in nearly every city it captures. I wish Esdaile had found some space to comment on the behaviour of the Highland troops. They were a class apart from Wellington's “scum of the earth”, which made up the bulk of the British infantry, in that many were virtual conscripts forced into the Army by greedy northern landlords who paid five guineas per recruit.
19. The Raiders of Arakan
by C E Lucas Phillips
I thought this book was going to be about something else. Readers of what I call my blog will remember that I recently wondered why when I was kid we played Japs and Commandos, rather than say, Cowboys and Indians. When I saw this book, from the man who brought us such classic commando tales as Cockleshell Heroes and The Greatest Raid of All, I thought I might be closer to an answer. But this book turned out to be not about the exploits of 3 Commando Brigade in the Far East. It was about a little known reconnaissance force made up of villagers from the Arakan area on the border of India and Burma and known as V Force. The book focuses on one of the British officers sent to manage the force called Dennis Holmes and is obviously heavily based on his own words. There's no doubting that Holmes was a brave and resourceful man but I was left wondering if Lucas Phillips had enough for whole book about him.
Brigadier Lucas Phillips must have been in his late 60s or early 70s when he wrote this book and sometimes the language is a bit Boys' Own. It's full of good chaps of the right sort leading brave but disreputable looking villagers and coal-black Africans from the 81st West African Division with wide ivory smiles. I was also surprised to see Lord Louis Mountbatten getting credit for a lot of smart moves in the Burma Theatre which I'm more used to seeing attributed to General Bill Slim. Perhaps that was the price of a forward to the book from Lord Louis. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for this one but I found one mission or raid blending into accounts of very previous similar operations.
18e. Lightning War
by Bryan Perret
I never thought of Britain's General Bill Slim as a Blitzkrieg commander – until I read this book. Perret doesn't confine himself to tank warfare as he traces the history of what is too often regarded as a phenomenon confined to the German Army of 1939-40. Instead he highlights the melding of First World War German Stormtrooper tactics with the mechanisation pioneered by their British enemies to create a means of striking hard and fast at defensive weakpoints and create havoc.
18d. Bloody Buna
by Lida Mayo
I've often wondered why Douglas MacArthur is so highly rated as a general and after reading this short account (178 pages) by a former senior historian with the U.S. Army's Office of Military History, I'm still none the wiser. MacArthur comes out as a typical “Chateau General” of World War One with no idea of the magnitude of the task he is setting his soldiers or even how many soldiers he has. Commanders are fired almost as often as tank guns as Australian and American troops battle skilful and well dug-in Japanese troops in New Guinea. MacArthur only made one very brief visit to the island during the campaign.
MacArthur needed a victory in late 1942 and early 1943 to save his career and he didn't care what it cost. The troops were, with the exception of some Australian veterans of the desert fighting in North Africa, inexperienced and ill-equipped. All things considered, they did a fantastic job but it was a job that didn't really need done. Allied naval and air blockade of New Guinea brought the Japanese advance across the island to a halt and their troops could easily have been left to wither on the vine without further blood letting. But MacArthur wanted to be the first to inflict a defeat on the Japanese. The US Navy and its Marines were well on their way to winning at Guadalcanal but MacArthur beat them to the punch.
Mayo does a good job of conveying the misery of the fighting. though much of the focus of the book is on the travails of Aussies and Yanks of Lieutenant-Colonel rank and above. Inter-allied rivalry between the Australian and American commanders, both eager to be credited with winning the final battle, hindered the campaign; as did US air force claims that they could fill the traditional role of the artillery in blasting the Japanese from their bunkers. The Kokoda Trail/Buna fighting was a lesson in how not-to do things – but at least MacArthur appears to have learned from his mistakes.
18c. The Sharp End
by Tim Cook
If I was offering a prize for the best military history book I've read in the past year, this would be it. The book is the story of the Canadian Army during the first two years of the First World War. But I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the First World War, or any war for that matter.
Cook, the Canadian War Museum's expert on the conflict, has delved deeply into both the official records and private letters, to tell the story of the Canadians as they built up their army from a few regulars and Boer War veterans into one of the crack formations on the Western Front. Mistakes were made, many mistakes, and Cook doesn't shy away from discussing them. Nor to does he avoid some of the unpleasant truths, such as the execution of prisoners. His unblinking eye roams freely over the bickering and petty jealousies of the senior officers and the misery of the frontline soldiers' lives in the trenches. Few who sailed with the First Contingent made it back to Canada unscathed and many did not come back at all. Battalions are wiped out in desperate battles which achieved little. Cook cleverly weaves discussion of various aspects of the soldiers' lives, from medical care to leave arrangement and food, in between accounts of these battles.
He has a great eye for a telling quote drawn from a letter home or a diary which brings the horror of the first industrial war to life. Those of you who've read Scottish Military Disasters may remember that I was dismissive of the true combat value of the bayonet, beyond scaring the living daylights out of an already shaken foe. But Cook's changed my mind. He's right when he argues that few men were treated for bayonet wounds because bayonet fights were usually to the death. If there was ever a conflict where the bayonet might have had some value it was in the rat-trap trenches where there was nowhere to run and a bullet could just as easily kill a friend as a foe. The invention of the submachine-gun had changed things by the time the Second World War came around.
I'm starting to judge books about the First World War by the way they treat Haig and his senior commanders. Cook is fair and realistic. I suspect one reason why Cook's work stands head and shoulders above much writing on Canadian military history is that he has a wide knowledge about the First World War as a whole. Too many other writers' claims of amazing Canadian innovation are based on a profound ignorance of what was going on in the British Expeditionary Force out with the Canadian Corps.
18b. Forgotten Voices of Burma
by Julian Thompson
I don't usually bother reviewing anthologies or collections of reminiscences because they are more a matter of editing rather than the quality of the writing and research. But I'm making an exception in this case. Retired general Julian Thompson has done a fantastic job of weaving together these transcriptions from the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive into a very coherent narrative of the 14th Army's campaign against the Japanese in Burma. Apart from chapter introductions to put the narratives in context, Thompson lets the soldiers and airmen tell their own stories in their own words; sometimes just two sentences from one contributor and sometimes almost a half page. Thompson's own experiences in the 1982 Falklands War mean he has a great sympathy and understanding for what the soldiers have to say. This was a cruel war, a race war almost, and the old soldiers don't pull many punches. Thompson remarks in his conclusion that the interviewees had shown a candidness that they would seldom demonstrate outside the close circle of their fellow veterans – the old “if you have to ask, you won't understand” - and attributes this to the prestige of the Imperial War Museum's oral history project.
The flip side of compiling such a highly coherent narrative, sometimes several men describing the same incident, is that certain soldiers and units appear again and again. This means that the war is mainly seen through the eyes of men serving with a handful of units – The 2nd Durham Light Infantry, 2nd Duke of Wellington's, 7th/10th Baluchs, 13th King's Regiment, 3rd Caribineers, 9th Border Regiment, 3rd /2nd Gurkha Rifles, 4th West Kents, 1st Gambia Regiment, 2nd Leicesters, 2nd Queen's, 1st Lancashire Fusiliers, 2nd Dorsets, or 2nd Norfolks. Scottish units such as the Royal Scots, Seaforths, Camerons and Cameronians get walk-on mentions but I could have done with a few more Scottish voices. Mind you, being shot in the jaw is pretty much the same experience whether you're from Dartmouth or Denny.
18a. Rogue Warrior of the SAS
by Roy Bradford and Martin Dillon
I picked this book about legendary Special Air Service commander Paddy Mayne up for a couple of reasons. Those of you who have read Scottish Military Disasters will recall that Mayne features in the chapter about No 11 (Scottish) Commando and its 1941 fight against the Vichy French, in what is now Lebanon. I was interested to see what Bradford and Dillon had to say about claims Mayne had launched a cowardly and vicious attack on a fellow commando officer who had reprimanded the Ulsterman for being drunk. Sadly, the book had nothing to say about the incident. But Bradford and Dillon did recount several other incidences of Mayne turning violent and nasty while under the influence of alcohol.
Using family letters, interviews and official documents, Bradford and Dillon try hard to capture the essence of a very complicated and dangerous man. Dangerous to the Germans and Italians when sober, dangerous to almost anyone in his vicinity when drunk. The men who served with him speaking highly of his skill, courage and leadership in battle. He inspired confidence and he knew his job. He was a good boss. I think I'd have worked with him, but I wouldn't have gone drinking with him. Mind you, he might not have wanted me working for him; he had high standards.
The book's latter part is better than the first, perhaps because more Irishmen had gravitated into his orbit as the war went on and the Belfast-born authors had a better relationship with the old soldiers they interviewed about the fighting in Europe. Some of the most interesting parts of the book were the passages relating to the difficulties several of the SAS men had settling back into civilian life after the war. Mayne was among them, and was to die in 1955 after wrapping his red sports car around a power pole near his home.
Both authors are journalists, I've got a lot of time for Dillon, and I'm not sure that they fully realised what they were taking on when they decided to write about Mayne. Certain darker aspects of the story are only hinted at and it's not clear if Dillon and Bradford are displaying some sense of delicacy or whether the guys they interviewed were deliberately vague and coy.
18.The Golden Warrior
by Lawrence James
I read T.E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom when I was teenager and somehow knew to take it with a pinch of salt. It struck me as beautifully written, perhaps even poetic. According to James it would strike a teenager as such, because it was written by someone who never quite grew up. The Lawrence of Arabia portrayed by James is a complex figure who paid men to beat him until he bled and who created his own myth. And yet he is not an unattractive character and appears to have had many redeeming qualities, not least his sense of fairness and generosity. But James leaves little doubt that Lawrence both exaggerated the impact of the desert guerrilla campaign in Syria on the war effort and his own role in that campaign. Lawrence insisted in an over-romantic portrayal of his Hashemite allies in the war against the Turks. It turns out that the Hashemites were perfectly willing to betray their British backers and do a deal with the Turks which would have given them the power they sought in the Middle East. What Lawrence did do was help torpedo a German-Turkish inspired anti-British Islamic Jihad stretching from Egypt to India. James also questions the fighting qualities of the Hashemite guerrillas who often appear to behave more like jackals than warriors. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the campaign waged by Lawrence's biographers, in particular Basil Liddle Hart and Robert Graves, against anyone who dared suggest he was less than a hero and role model for 20th Century man. James suggests this was due more to wanting to hide the fact that Lawrence had fooled them with his lies than with any regard for the truth. James points out that biographies of Lawrence will continue to come out because he offers such a fertile field of study. This is mainly because he told so many lies.
17. Colossal Cracks
by Stephen Ashley Hart
This book examines the performance of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and his two subordinate Army commanders, Miles Dempsey of the 2nd British Army and Harry Crerar of the 1st Canadian Army from D-Day onwards. Ashley, a lecturer at Sandhurst, at least when the book was written, argues that all three did the best they could with British troops who would never be able to match their German opponents man-for-man. This partly due to the fact that due to the small size of the pre-war British Army, not enough good trainers were available to turn civilian conscripts into soldiers. Another factor was that the Germans had been indoctrinated since they were children. A lack of reinforcements contributed to a casualty adverse approach to the fighting. The British and Canadian armies therefore relied heavily on massed artillery support. But this reliance meant the British and Canadians were unable to advance quickly enough to take advantage of opportunities offered by unexpected break-throughs – something the Americans were noticeably better at. Hart argues that at the end of the day the Anglo-Canadian and United States approaches were equally effective. He also argues that Dempsey was probably a better general than he gets credit for. This book obviously started life as an academic thesis but the general reader may find some of the ideas in it stimulating.
16. The Battle for the Rhine 1944
by Robin Neillands
I was going to give this book a miss. But I'm glad I didn't. Neillands put together a concise and highly coherent account of events from the break-out from the D-Day beach-heads to the collapse of the German offensive in Ardennes. I long suspected that the British, Canadians and Americans, and the British and Canadians in particular, had lost their edge following the fighting in Normandy and that was why the defeat of Germany turned into such a slog. Neillands put me right. I've read other books on the subject but somehow got bogged down in the detail and failed to see the bigger picture. Neillands, I suspect with a lot of input from retired British general Julian Thompson, cuts through the self-serving post-war accounts from the generals involved with surgical precision to point fingers at the guilty men. If you're a big fan of Patton and think Montgomery was a waste of space, then this isn't the book for you. I was particularly interested in the chapters on Market Garden, my Mum had an uncle who was captured at Arnhem, and Neilland's book does a good job of explaining what went wrong in one of the biggest miscalculations of the Second World War. I never did have much time for Britain's Lieutenant General “Boy” Browning, who commanded the three airborne divisions involved in Market Garden, and Neillands justifies my long held reservations about him. .
15. The Seven Ages of the British Army
by Field Marshal Lord Carver
This is a gallop through the history of the British Army from the time of Cromwell to the Falklands War by one of the most distinguished generals of the late 20th Century. Michael Carver has three threads running through the book; a summary of campaigns, a look at a leading soldier of the day and something on the working conditions of the average soldier. His leading soldiers are Cromwell, Marlborough, Wellington, Wolseley, Roberts, Haig, Montgomery and Templar.
The early chapters are pretty bog standard and offer very little in the way fresh insights. But Carver hits his stride from the First World War onwards. This may be because he would come across many of the participants during his own Army career, which began in 1935. His portrait of Haig is sympathetic, I'm not sure what he made of Montgomery and Templar was obviously a hero of Carver's.
A good read, but Carver's later "The British Army in the Twentieth Century" expands on the most interesting parts of it and is better value for money.
by Stephen Brumwell
This is a look at the British Army which fought in North America and the Caribbean between 1755 and 1763. Brumwell draws heavily on letters home and diaries to puncture the popular notion that the British soldier of the time was a basically the scum of the earth flogged and drilled into becoming a mindless automaton. He reveals a far more interesting portrait of soldiers who learned quickly to adapt to warfare in the North American “wilderness”, which was far different from the battles being fought by their comrades in Europe.
The book is obviously based on a Phd thesis but unlike so many tomes of that ilk is highly readable and engaging. Brumwell, a former journalist, knows a story when he sees it and tells his tales well. There's even a chapter about the Highland troops recruited from the broken clans after Culloden to serve in the Americas. The Highlanders created a reputation as fighters that lasted well into the late 20th Century and Brumwell takes an honest look at how well deserved it was.
by Major General Julian Thompson
Despite the title, this book is about more than Dunkirk. Instead, it discusses the British Expeditionary Force's defeat in 1940. Actually, the defeat was of the French Army and the British just got caught up in their ineptitude. Thompson, one of Britain's best generals of recent times, weaves together grand strategy and personal accounts to provide an excellent account of the confused and confusing events of that summer as the German panzer divisions swept across France in almost any direction they chose to go. Despite their lack of training, out-dated tactics and poor equipment the tough Tommies and Jocks of the BEF put up a surprisingly dogged fight. Thompson uses his training and experience as a senior British officer to bring some penetrating insights into what went wrong to this sorry story of unnecessary defeat. Here's a little test: How many of you can name the Scottish battalions evacuated from Dunkirk? Talk about forgotten heroes.
by Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham
The authors' background as artilllerymen during the Second World War comes through in this examination of the British weapons and tactics between 1904 and 1945. The section covering the Second World War is almost exclusively about the gunners. That said, about the only thing the Germans admired about the British in 1942-45 was the efficiency of their artillery. But I for one would have been interested in what these two astute critics had to say about British armoured and infantry tactics during the conflict. In some ways this book comes through as being written with an eye on reaching modern day thinkers within the British military. Although it was re-issued in 2004, the epilogue is from 1981 and slams the British Army as being without a workable doctrine and as "unprofessional coalition of arms and services". While the second part of the book focuses heavily on the artillery, and in particularly how it was organised, the first sections on the run-up to the First World War and the war itself are far more balanced. They portray an army caught between being asked to act as an imperial policeman and being ordered to prepare to take on a full-scale war in Europe. Although it is often said that the British Expeditionary Force was the finest body of trained troops to sail from Britain's shores, Bidwell and Graham portray a force woefully prepared for 20th Century warfare. Yes, the Germans mistook British rifle fire for machine guns, but such rapid fire could only be kept up for a few minutes before the rifles malfunctioned due to stress. Bidwell and Graham's assessment of General Haig and his command style avoids the usual partisan posturing of either dubbing him a donkey or a misunderstood genius. The authors rightly lament the loss of professionalism and imagination built up in the last years of the First World War by the British Army as it slid back into a self-satisfied men's club between the wars in which amateurism was once again a badge of pride. I think they are a bit harsh on the rank and file between the war. They are portrayed as loyal, tough but not that smart. As the grandson of a man who was basically sold to the Army in 1928, I think that judgement is a bit harsh. I'm sure my grandfather wasn't the only bright young lad put in the army to escape the poverty of those terrible years. It may well be that conscription during the Second World War did indeed raise the average IQ of most units but my pre-war professional soldier artilleryman grandpa was smart enough to realise that the British Army didn't have a chance against the professionals of German Army.
by Richard Holmes
One of Britain's leading military historians takes on the subject of the man he describes as "Britain's Greatest General". Holmes argues that John Churchill never lost a battle or failed to take a fortress he besieged. At the same time he combined the coalition keeping-together skills which Dwight Eisenhower struggled so hard to master with responsibility for keeping his army supplied and a political career as an MP. Never before or since has so much responsibility been vested in one British soldier and, according to Holmes, never has one risen to the challenges so successfully. Holmes is good at setting the background to Marlborough's career, both militarily and politically, and does a good job of describing the fighting. He uses the letters and diaries of Churchill's contemporaries, from prince to private food soldier, well. This book is a good read and an interesting introduction to a fascinating but these days often-neglected period of European history. But I wish Holmes had done more to explain the financial scandals which tarnish Churchill's reputation to this day. Arguing that everyone fiddled the books and there were far worse fraudsters than Churchill just isn't fair to his subject. I was left wondering just how much of a crook this military genius actually was. I'm not suggesting Holmes has done a snow-job but he seems to have skirted around some of the less savoury aspects of the general's character.
10. Malakand Field Force
by Winston S Churchill
Although this book was written more than 100 years ago, parts of Churchill's account of an almost forgotten fight on the North West Frontier of India are still relevant to modern soldiers campaigning in Afghanistan. In fact, Churchill speculates that the fanatical Muslim fighters the British punitive columns face are being armed and encouraged by the Afghans.
Churchill, who managed to combine his duties a member of General Bindon Blood's staff with working as a war correspondent, shows himself to be no jingoist and to be prepared to see both sides of the conflict. He doesn't pull a lot of punches when it comes the suffering war imposes on both sides but he also shows himself to be a keen fighting man himself. Much of the work done by the British columns involves burning down and destroying mountain villages sympathetic to a Jihad and Churchill mocks the politicians back home who accept official assurances that only the property of the “guilty” is involved. He wants the British public to know exactly what is being done in its name. Churchill is very good on the frustrations of dealing with village elders who claim to have no control over the few young hot-heads from the community they blame for the violence but then when the Brits play hard-ball seem to be able to end the killing after all. This is no Boys' Own tale of daring-do on the frontier but rather a well written account of a war that many Canadian, British and US soldiers of the present day would have little difficulty recognising. Sometimes it seems all that's missing are the armoured vehicles, helicopters and jet fighter-bombers.
9. Duel for Kilimanjaro
by Leonard Mosley
This is another old one, but it's still out there. Journalist and historian Leonard Mosley tells the story of what must be one of the few campaigns the Germans won during the First World War. This book wasn't the first time I'd heard of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's fight against the British in German East Africa but it was the first to bring the campaign to life. One advantage Mosley had over the other chroniclers of this mostly forgotten war was that he actually interviewed von Lettow-Vorbeck about how he forced the British to send 160,000 troops to the German colony to chase his 10,000 mainly African force for four years. Few of the British come out of this story well. The German was no genius but the British, and here I include the South Africans and Rhodesians, appear to have been in the main pretty clueless. Racism made the British underestimate the quality of the black Askaris who under von Lettow-Vorbeck's command. They paid a heavy price for that. Disease, crocodiles and hippos claimed more lives on both sides that bullets and bayonets. The Germans only surrendered after the Armistice was signed in November 1918. They'd consistently out-witted and out-fought everyone sent against them. One thing I hadn't realised was that Rwanda was part of German East Africa before it was grabbed by the Belgians as their price for fighting the Germans in Africa.
8. The Day of Battle
by Rick Atkinson
This book was a disappointment. I don't why I was surprised at that because its predecessor “An Army at Dawn” was a disappointment as well. The second mentioned billed itself as a history of the US and British armies in Tunisia. I was interested because I had a grandfather who fought in the campaign as part of the British 1st Army. I was also interested because in comparison with other campaigns, Tunisia doesn't get much coverage. I was looking forward to learning more about the dynamics of British-US military alliance. What I got was a not half-bad account of the US war in Tunisia. But the British were caricatures. I had trouble telling the Brit generals apart.
This second part of the “The Liberation Trilogy” is, if anything worse. Once again it bills itself as an account of both the British and US campaigns, this time in Italy. And once again, the focus is on the Americans. The text is peppered with one sentence quotes from Brits, New Zealanders, Canadians, and Poles. But they are unenlightening. It's almost as though they are in the book to justify the claim that it's a full account. Atkinson is a respected American journalist and his knowledge of his neighbours to the North is poor. He claims that Canada's Maple Leaf flag flew over a town captured by the Canucks. That's odd because the Maple Leaf flag wasn't introduced until 1967. He also refers to a Canadian serving with the 48th Highlanders as though that would be unusual. The 48th was a Canadian unit. And what exactly was the 17th Battalion of the British 21st Lancers? No such unit. Though there was a 17th/21st Lancers; created when two lancer regiments were combined.
The real giveaway is to what this book is comes at the end when Atkinson only gives the US casualty figures for the fighting in Italy. Few commanders come out well in this book but all those who do are Americans. Atkinson has an annoying habit of launching on a description of someone and only revealing his identity after several sentences. Maybe cute once, but he does it again and again.
On other occasions he quotes “a British signaller”, “a British gunner”, etc, but doesn't reveal their name. Why not?
This book is probably a quite good account of the US part in the Italian Campaign. But if you're not American, don't bother.
7. War on the Nile
by Michael Barthorp
Another pleasant surprise. This book is an excellent introduction to the British campaigns in Egypt and Sudan between 1882 and 1898. Barthorp is good with both the little details which bring the story alive and with the bigger picture. The story is of Britain's reluctant, and sometimes half-hearted, intervention in Egyptian affairs and runs from the British bombardment of Alexandria to Lord Kitchener's victory over the Madhists in 1898, via the exploits of Gordon of Khartoum. Barthorp is obviously very comfortable when it comes to discussing soldiering in the late Victorian era and his brief pen portraits of the principal players, on the British side at least, are succinct and illuminating. The book is lavishly illustrated and Barthorp and his team are to be congratulated on publishing so many seldom seen photographs from the campaigns. Highland regiments played a leading role in many of the battles and this book gives the Scots their due.
6. We Lead Others Follow
by Kenneth Radley
This book about the Canadian 1st Division during the First World War makes a welcome change from the usual chauvinistic tosh written on the subject. Author Kenneth Radley was a professional soldier and he manages to avoid the outrageous claims for tactical innovation all too often seen in Canadian books on this subject. I recall seeing a book attributing the creeping artillery barrage to the Canadians in 1917 on the same day that I read about the 9th Highland Light Infantry (Glasgow Highlanders) advancing behind one in 1916.
Radley strips away the myth to cast a professional eye over the reasons why the Canadian Corps were counted amongst the elite units which were called on to spearhead the offensives which finally drove the Germans from their fortified positions in late 1918. Radley pays tribute to the British regular officers, several who rose to high command during the Second World War, who helped turn a raw militia force in which no officer had done more than command a battalion, into a crack force. I've always wondered whether the Canadian army attracted these high-flying Britishers because it was a top flight force or whether it became a highly effective unit because of the Brits. Radley attributes much of the 1st Division's success to good staff work and hard training. The Canadian Corps also had an advantage over British units because it remained intact while British divisions were constantly being switched from corps to corps, with disastrous implications for cohesion. One factor Radley doesn't comment on is the calibre of reinforcements. The Canadian Corps were still receiving full grown adults as reinforcements in the closing months of the war while the British were filling their ranks with under-nourished teenage products of slum life.
I've got a feeling that this book started out as a university thesis or staff college paper. It can't quite shake the ghost of its academic origins. But overall, it's readable and informative.
5. The Indian Mutiny
by Richard Collier
This is another older book, but still getable. Collier does an excellent job of conveying the horror and brutality of what we Westerners call the Indian Mutiny. In India there's long been a movement to have it regarded as The First War of Independence. Collier's book is one of the few “western” books to look at the conflict from both sides. In the acknowledgements he pays tribute to his researchers and the praise is well deserved. The book relies heavily on private diaries and letters and what they have to tell is often harrowing. Collier has shown a lot of discipline by not demonstrating the enormous amount of research involved by weighing the book down with evidence of it. Instead, he has managed to use the experiences of a few people to demonstrate the plight of the many. He has a great eye for good story and tells his tales well. Sometimes I found myself wondering how can he know what that guy was thinking as a faced the crowd when the guy is torn to pieces on the same page? But that's a minor quibble and I think Collier can be cut a little slack when it comes to narrative licence.
4. Hell Riders
By Terry Brighton
The debate amongst Scottish military history buffs over the “Scotland Forever” charge at the battle of Waterloo when the Gordons reportedly grabbed onto the stirrups of the Scots Greys to get at the French rages to this day.
Common sense says that there is no way the Gordons could have held onto the stirrups of horses engaged in a full-blown cavalry charge and many regard the whole incident as a military myth. I've always thought that some of the Gordons did try to join the Greys in the charge and now that I've read this account of the Charge of the Light Brigade I am convinced that they did. Terry Brighton was the regimental museum historian for one of the regiments which charged at Balaclava and he knows his cavalry drill. Cavalry only go full out for the last 40 or so yards. They only move at more than a trot for 250 yards. The Greys when they moved through the Gordons, knocking down Highlanders who were too slow to get out of the way, they would have been trotting, only twice a man's walking pace. Some of the battle-intoxicated Gordons could easily have tried to hitch a ride towards the French and taken a few giant horse assisted steps before common sense, and possibly the flat of a cavalryman's sabre across the face, kicked in again.
Brighton knows his stuff and he brings the charge and its participants to vivid life. His evocation of life for the ordinary soldier of the 1850s seem spot-on (not having served in Queen Victoria's Army I can't say for sure). Brighton even claims the charge was a success. I won't say why, but it's hard to fault his logic. This is an older book and if you want to read it, you may have to get it from your local library. It's nice to see Scot Mary Seacole getting some recognition for her work nursing the sick in the Crimea and making the soldiers' hard lives on the shores of the Black Sea a little more bearable. All too often the far better socially connected Florence Nightingale's legend eclipses Seacole's stalwart contribution.
by Tim Newark
My first thought when I saw this book was that the last thing the world needs is another tome eulogizing the Highland regiments – especially another one from an Englishman. A quick flick through it at the National Library of Scotland in May did little to change my initial feeling that this once just another in visit to a well that has almost run dry when it comes to new things to say. Books about the Highland soldier seem to come out pretty regularly at 10 year intervals – I guess when the previous tome gets hard to find on the bookshop shelves.
But I was too harsh. I took it out from the University of Alberta Library last week and read it cover-to-cover in day. To me that's the mark of a good book. Newark makes excellent use of diaries, memoirs and, in the case of more recent events, personal interviews to bring to life many of the battles and minor actions the Highland regiments have been involved in. His rediscovery of an account of the Battles of Quarte Bras and Waterloo by a private in the Cameron Highlanders is a real find and yields some of the freshest and liveliest material in what is becoming a rather jaded genre.
This is a good book, but perhaps Newark could have spent more time looking at several books which came out around the time he was apparently working on it in 2008, and no prizes for guessing one of the books I'm referring to, and less time researching Hollywood's portrayal of the Highland regiments in the late 1920s and 1930s. For example, had he done a little more thorough research he would have known that Ticonderoga in 1758 was not a victory for the British. And he wouldn't be claiming that his book "reveals for the first time the terrible fate that awaited a Highland regiment captured in Indian two centuries ago". Far from the first to do so, very far from it Mr Newark. And allegations from a Black Watch officer that in 1884 a general sent the regiment on a suicide mission out of spite were discussed in a 2006 book about Scottish soldiers. So, not quite the revelation Newark claims. And just how the inclusion of Shetlanders in the Gordon Highlanders made the regiment more “Highland” baffles me more than somewhat. But these are very very minor points which perhaps stand out all the more because so much of the book is actually very informative. The slip-ups stand out like sore thumbs because a lot of excellent research had obviously gone into it.
It's obvious that the movies Braveheart and Rob Roy got under the author's skin for some reason and he accuses both of playing fast and loose with the historical facts by blaming everything on the English while ignoring the ignoble role of many Scots. I seem to remember that Mel Gibson spent a big chunk of Braveheart tracking down Scottish “traitors” and killing them. And I don't recall any of the bad guys in Rob Roy, the Liam Neason version, being English. Even Tim Roth's villainous character turns out to be half-Scottish.
Newark condemns to amalgamation of the Highland regiments into the Royal Regiment of Scotland in his final chapter. Perhaps this suits his need to bookend his chronicle of Highland regiments with both their creation and their demise. But it's not clear if he fully understood the significance of the story he tells of the decision in the late 1950s to take their distinctive regimental badges away and issue them all with a Highland Brigade badge (The “Crucified Moose”). Soldiers could be transferred between the regiments in the brigade against their will and Whitehall mandarins believed they were well on their way to creating what was basically a multi-battalion super-regiment. Newark fails to mention that the Brigade cap badge was actually introduced and was worn for several years before the Highland regiments succeeded in getting their own badges restored in the late 1960s and the Highland Brigade plan collapsed. It will be interesting to see if the same tenacity and imagination, not to say moral courage, will re-emerge when it comes to the battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
2. Forgotten Soldiers
by Brian Moynahan
This book was a pleasant surprise, though Moynahan's aim of showing how an individual soldier can influence a whole battle or a campaign often misses the mark. But while the former journalist may be pushing the argument on behalf of these 15 “forgotten” soldiers a little too hard, what he is good at is giving a feeling for the fights they were in. Actually, one of the chapters isn't about a soldier at all. It's about American businessman Andrew Higgins who developed the allies' most successful landing craft. This is the weakest chapter in the book and I got the feeling that Mr Moynahan just wanted to include this guy in a book, any book. I was baffled as to how the Higgins boat would have made things any better at Dieppe.
Amongst those featured are the naval pilot whose torpedo plane crippled the Bismarck's steering gear just as it was about to escape the wrathful guns of the Royal Navy, the Israeli tank commander who almost single-handedly, at least according to the book, blunted the Syrian offensive on the Golan Heights in 1973 and the British sergeant whose one shot at a German tank stopped what could have been a major disaster for the British, Canadians and Americans landing on the Normandy beaches in 1944. Some of Moynahan's claims are maybe a little far-fetched but that doesn't make the soldiers' stories any the less compelling. I've never seen the role of the humble bicycle in the Fall of Singapore explained so well.
1. An Ordinary Soldier and Task Force Helmand
By Doug Beattie, with Philip Gomm
Looking in the bookshop at Heathrow Airport recently I got the impression that every soldier who has served in Afghanistan has written a book about their time there. If you can only read one, or maybe two, then this read something by Doug Beattie.
As a mentor and trainer to first the Afghan National Police, in the first book, and the Afghan National Army, in the second, Beattie went toe-to-toe with the Taliban nearly every day he was in the field. This stuff is from the heart and not second-hand, as told to a journalist or some flabby ex-soldier turned writer. Beattie insists that he's just an ordinary soldier and is full of praise for the small team of British squaddies, often not obvious hero material, who took the war to the Taliban. He doesn't pull many punches with his opinions and is often outspoken. It was only towards the end of An Ordinary Soldier that I realised that the first draft had been written as a form of self-therapy following his return home from his first deployment to Afghanistan.
This book comes from an unusual viewpoint because Beattie rose through the ranks to Regimental Sergeant Major and then became one of the few late-entry officers not to be shunted off behind a desk as battalion family welfare officer but to actually see frontline action. Beattie is a character, a real scrapper, and brings perspective sadly too seldom seen in military books. He certainly didn't trigger my bullshit detector.