521 Red Storm on the Reich
by Christopher Duffy
Sadly, this book falls short. Christopher Duffy is best known for his excellent books on European warfare in the 18th Century. I am still not clear what he was trying to do in this book about the Red Army's drive across Poland and into Germany towards the end of the Second World War. It could be that Duffy was defeated by his source material, a mixture of self- serving testimony from the German commanders and highly selective and equally self- serving memoir from their Soviet counterparts. Or perhaps the canvas was just too big. But the end result is complicated and confusing with timelines and locations jumping all over the place. I would be surprised if Duffy considers this book among his best work.
520. Bandit Country
by Toby Harnden
This book by former Book of Year winner Toby Harnden had long been on my want- to- read list. Former Royal Navy officer and journalist Harnden took a look at the Northern Irish Troubles as seen through the prism of South Armagh, a strongly republican border community. Harnden tried to get all sides of the story but this 1999 book may just have been written too soon, when the IRA ceasefire still looked in jeopardy. That added to the fact that the republicans in South Armagh have a long standing distrust of any outsiders and of authority may have zipped some lips and hampered Harnden's efforts to be objective and even handed as possible. Much reading between the lines and looking at what is not said is therefore required. The cross border smuggling activities and mobster behaviour of some of the leading players, hard and ruthless men, also complicates this story. But all that said, Harnden is accomplished writer and journalist and this is a smooth, if not entirely satisfying, read.
519. Target Tirpitz
by Patrick Bishop
Who would have thought there were so many stories associated with the German pocket battleship Tirpitz? I have to take my hat off to former journalist Patrick Bishop for digging up so many. Some are a little tangential, such as the sinkings of the Bismark and the Scheer, but their inclusion is easily justified. The Tirpitz did not enjoy a sterling career but her very existence tied up a substantial proportion of the Royal Navy's major warships for much of the war. The British threw nearly everything but the kitchen sink, including human torpedoes and midget submarines , at the Tirpitz. Many brave men died attacking the German warship with what usually proved to be inadequate equipment. The book opens with an account of the vessel's sinking by RAF Lancasters as seen through the eyes of her German crew. Bishop is a smooth writer and this was an easy read.
518. The Life and Times of Pancho Villa
by Friedrich Katz
This is a whale of a book; at just under 820 pages of main text. But Austrian-raised US-based historian Friedrich Katz needed almost every page to do justice to this complex and fascinating tale of ex-bandit Pancho Villa's part in the Mexican civil wars around the period of the First World War. Katz does not waste many pages trying to unravel the baffling mix of propaganda and legend surrounding Villa's early life and criminal career. Instead, he focuses on the battle for power in Mexico and Villa's surprisingly large role in it. It is a story of greed, treachery, perfidy, cruelty, murder and corruption. Katz seems to conclude that while Villa was no angel, he is implicated in more than one murder and several massacres, his hands were cleaner than those of most of the other participants. The nature of revolution and revolutionary war is a central theme of the book. The malignant role played by the USA in this sad tale is also highlighted. Let's just say the business of the US government is Business. Villa made a lot of bad choices and decisions but Katz concludes his heart was, mostly, in the right place. This book was well worth the time it takes to get through.
517. The First World War
by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson
There has a been a lot of nonsense written about the First World War. All too many people take the version presented by the BBC comedy Blackadder Goes Forth as Gospel. This short, well illustrated, book by highly respected Australian academics Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson goes a long way to redressing a sense of balance to discussion of the controversial conflict. It is an excellent and thoughtful analysis of the war. The maps are well executed and helpful. The final chapter turns much all too accepted "wisdom" on its head and correctly points out the peace treaty did not make a second round 20 years later inevitable. I wish this had been my High School History text.
516. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
by Giles Milton
Giles Milton is an lively and entertaining writer. But is that enough to save this book about some of the more unconventional aspects of the British war effort during WW2? I would hope Milton would be the first to admit that he was obviously out of his comfort zone when he tackled this project, loosely based around the activities of the Special Operations Executive. Towards the end of the book he claims that one of the central characters, Millis Jeffris, was the first to realise the potential of shaped charge explosives. He appears to have been completely unaware that German airborne troops used them in 1940 when they attacked the Belgian fortress at Eben Emael. If I had read this earlier in the book I would have taken many of the other claims of technical innovation with a far larger grain of salt than I did. The book ranges far and wide for tales of daring- do and amusing anecdote. It ignores the SOE's disasters such as those in the Netherlands and Italy, where their networks were actually run by Axis intelligence agencies for much of the war. This is a good read but perhaps better put on the fiction shelf. I can't be bothered listing all the glaring errors but let's just say Brigadiers are not platoon commanders. And the Second World War in Europe did not end with an armistice.
515. Stand By For Action
by Commander William Donald
This is not so much a memoir of the war at sea 1939 to 1945 as a collection of ward room anecdotes from a career Royal Navy officer. But William Donald is such an engaging honest and humble narrator, with a way with words, that the book works. He certainly comes from the "if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all" school when it comes to his shipmates. But when you think about it, such a live and let live reflects the attitude needed on a small warship. The biggest part of the book concerns Donald's time escorting crucial merchant convoys along the British east coast, an aspect of the war seldom highlighted but fraught with hazard, but he also manages to turn up at Dunkirk, Norway, Anzio and Normandy.
514. Northern Ireland: An Agony Continued
by Ken Wharton.
Ex-soldier Ken Wharton appears to set himself the task of chronicling every death related to The Troubles in Northern Ireland. This volume covers the four years 1980 to 1983. It is an angry book. The former Royal Green Jacket makes no attempt to hide his contempt for all the terrorists who engaged in murder campaigns in Ireland, the UK and continental Europe. Or for those in the Republic of Ireland and United States who supported the killers. And it is hard not to agree with Wharton's conclusion that many of the deaths would not have happened without the victims' neighbours, supposed friends, and in a least one case family members, fingering them. Wharton draws on mainly on testimony from members of the Security Forces but there are also extracts from media sources and books about the conflict. Wharton is not a natural writer but perhaps his raw style helps enhance this bloody and brutal chronicle.
513. Tug of War
by W Denis Whitaker and Shelagh Whitaker
This book about the battle to open the Scheldt estuary in 1944 from Canadian husband and wife writing team Denis and Shelagh Whitaker got off to a flying, not to say promising, start. But then it somehow got bogged down, much like the Second World War campaign to open up access to the key port of Antwerp via the Scheldt. The Whitakers argue that if the British 11th Armoured Division had just pushed on a few extra miles after reaching Antwerp the campaign in Northwest Europe could have been ended in 1944. Denis Whitaker was a battalion commander during the bitter waterlogged battle to dislodge the German troops from the approaches to Antwerp but this is not a personal memoir. Though focused to some extent on the Canadian experience, the Whitakers cast their net wide to include the recollections of Belgian and Dutch civilians, resistance fighters, the Scots of the 52nd Lowland Division, British commandos and even some Germans. Mistakes were made, many in fact, at all levels and the Whitakers don't shy away from discussing them. The book leans heavily on first hand accounts and it's no surprise that the Whitakers used the same formula in a subsequent series of books about the war in Northwest Europe.
512. Loyal Service
edited by Colonel Bernd Horn and Dr Roch Legault
This a series of essays about French Canadian military leaders. Sadly, it's a mixed bag that ranges from the poor to the somewhat informative and insightful. The poorest entry is a statistical analysis of Quebec militia officers in the late 1700s through to the mid-1800s Possibly the strongest material material is contained in the early chapters which look at how New France dealt with the challenges posed by indigenous warriors and New Englanders. The book often alternates between examining the art of military leadership and the extra challenges Francophones often faced in a military usually dominated by English speakers, both British and Canadian.
511. Nine Lives
by Alan C Deere
Over the years since the Second World War there have been many many RAF fighter pilot memoirs. This one by New Zealander Al Deere is one of the best and most readable. Deere comes over as thoughtful and engagingly modest. The book moves from his childhood in New Zealand through his days with the pre-war RAF to D Day, with the focus on the Battle of Britain. The Nine Lives in the title refers to Deere's many brushes with death as he either crash lands or bails out either due to enemy action or mechanical failure. His score of kills slows down as he is promoted gradually to Wing Commander but his reflections on leadership and courage keep the reader enthralled even as his tally drops. The book was written in 1957 and perhaps benefits from being composed neither to soon or too long after the events discussed; still fresh in the memory but not clouded by time passed.
by Correlli Barnett
This book was not what I expected, though maybe I should have done after the demolition job Correlli Barnett did on Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Barnett's Napoleon Bonaparte is no military genius. Instead he is an opportunist chancer who had more than his fair share of luck and incompetent opponents. Again and again in this book Napoleon escapes the consequences of his own incompetence. Nor is he much of a politician or social visionary, more often behaving as the spoilt tantrum prone egotist Barnett claims he was from start to finish. Rather than France's greatest leader, he plunged his country into disaster. The one thing Barnett's Napoleon is good at is self promotion. To paraphrase German playwright Bertold Brecht, "Unhappy is the land without heroes, but unhappier still the one that needs them".
509. The Fighter Aces of the R.A.F.
by ECR Baker
This turned out to be a quick zoom through the 41 Royal Air Force pilots credited with destroying 20 or more enemy aircraft during the Second World War. Some of the accounts read like nothing more than a quick rehash of what the pilot in question told their squadron intelligence officer after returning from a successful sortie. Sadly, as the entries are arranged alphabetically this includes the very first account, "Sammy Allard," which proved to be one of the weakest chapters and I came close to putting the book aside and starting something else instead. But I stuck with it and it got better. Though not exactly brimming with insight, the book does give an idea of the variety of experiences, and planes, pilots flying with Fighter Command might encounter. There is even a mention of the most successful night-fighter radar operator. The book was first published in the early 1960s and Baker was able to interview several of the pilots who survived the war.
508. Trafalgar: the men, the battle, the storm
by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig
There have been a lot of books over the centuries about the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. This is one of the better efforts. Where academic Tim Clayton and television producer Phil Craig score highly is in using sources from all three combatant countries, Britain, Spain and France. And in showing sympathy and respect for all three. The battle scenes are well executed and give an excellent taste of what a fleet action must have been like in the early 19th Century. The book is slightly weaker when it comes to giving a feel for the standard of seamanship involved and the challenges faced by the sailors. But this is a minor quibble and perhaps reflects the very high standard set by much of the rest of the book. Clayton and Craig rightly dev
by David Fraser
This turned out to be a lacklustre biography of the man who headed the British Army from 1941 until 1946, General, later Field Marshal, Sir Alan Brooke. I had high-ish hopes as it was written by another senior British soldier turned military historian, Sir David Fraser. But somehow it just failed to gel for me. I felt Fraser failed to explain the strategic issues which Brook, as Chief of the Imperial General Staff and chairman of the chairman of the tri-service chiefs of staff committee had to wrestle with. As chairman of the chiefs of staff committee Brooke was Winston Churchill's principle, officially anyway, military advisor. His relations with Churchill and the US service chiefs were not always smooth. I think I can see why several authors felt there was more to be said about the complex relationship between Churchill, Brooke, the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, George Marshall, and President Franklin Roosevelt and decided to write their own books.
506. June 1944
by HP Willmott
Sandhurst lecturer H.P. Willmott focuses on June 1944 as marking a series of turning points in the Second World War in this insightful and thoughtful book from 1984. As well as the obvious, D Day, Willmott looks at the Soviet offensive which effectively destroyed the Nazi Army Group Centre, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Kohima, and the Capture of Rome. But he also examines the offensive that effectively knocked Finland out of the war and Japan's successful attack on the odious Chinese regime of Chiang Kai Sheck. Willmott justifies his choices well and presents a well argued case. Sadly, I got the American edition. The page design is poor and the standard of typesetting appalling. The decision to reset the text to take on American spellings and terminology regrettably resulted in a very shoddy product.
505. Singapore Burning
by Colin Smith
I came away from this book about the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 feeling "There but for the Grace of God Go I". Journalist Colin Smith does an excellent job of capturing the emotion and frustration surrounding one of the worst disasters in British Military History, with more than 100,000 troops surrendering to a Japanese force greatly inferior in numbers. Courage, cowardice, human nobility, incompetence and venality all feature in this fast paced narrative. Perhaps Smith is too kind to the British commander Lt.-Gen. Arthur Percival, who though technically competent was an uninspiring and uninspired leader. But there can be no denying he was dealt a very poor hand; it's just that he could have played it better. Smith is best when he is dealing with the human factor. He is less good, cavalier even, when it comes to easily checkable facts; for instance the HMS Prince of Wales was not as Smith claims a sister ship of HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson. My copy of this book was ex-library and someone has corrected many Smith's mistakes in pencil. Usually, I find this very annoying but in this case I was glad. I have just noticed the annotator has written on the title page "A Good Account but some glaring errors!" I entirely concur.
504. 1948: A Soldier's Tale
by Uri Avnery
This is actually two books about Israel's fight for survival after its official founding in 1948. Writer Uri Avnery wrote up a series of newspaper dispatches from the front while serving as a soldier and these form the basis of the first part of the book. It is one of the better accounts of modern(ish) war at the sharp end. Avnery said what he wrote was true but it wasn't the whole truth. So, he followed it with a 'fictional" account called "The Other Side of the Coin" with the soldiers identified by nickname. By designating it as fiction, he avoided it going through the censors. The second part of the book has the frontline unit all too frequently murdering and sometimes raping Arab Palestinians who fall into their hands and looting Arab villages. The narrator and his friends soon realise that the people who will do best out of the war also make sure to avoid the fighting or military service all together. In both books death is often messy and squalid. Avnery is correct when he observes that the books compliment each other.
503. Hunter Killers
by Iain Ballantyne
I had doubts that this book would live up to the hype on the cover which promised "the dramatic untold story of the Royal Navy's most secret service", namely its submarine crews. But in the hands of journalist Iain Ballantyne this book proved a treat. And the Cold War exploits of the British submariners were well worth telling. I knew from books about submarine warfare during the Second World War that it is a tricky business and Ballantyne has a very sure touch when it comes to bringing this alive in layman's language. As a former journalist and non-fiction writer myself I recognised some of the tricks of both trades employed in this book but Ballantyne pulls them off with great aplomb. He also has a sure touch when it comes to his sources and getting several highly experienced former skippers to share their secrets. I was left wondering what he and they held back. I was surprised at how many icebergs that British submarines collided with contained the same manganese alloy as the Soviets use in their submarine propellers. Ballantyne also branches off into the field of espionage and surface ship anti-submarine experiences. The last chapter which makes a plea for continued spending on the British submarine service may well explain the cooperation Ballantyne enjoyed from former members. This book is definitely on the short list for the 2020 Book of the Year.
502. Cassino: The Hollow Victory
by John Ellis
There are many books about the 1944 fight for the Italian town of Cassino; this is one of the best. John Ellis, already the author of the classic account of frontline experiences during the Second World War, The Sharp End, again kept the focus on the ordinary men caught up in the fighting. Few of the Allied Generals come out of this book well. New Zealand's top fighting commander Bernard Freyberg looks out of his depth leading a Corps rather than a Division. British Guardsmen Harold Alexander, Army Group commander, and Oliver Leese, who took over the 8th Army from Bernard Montgomery, also fail to impress and both were tragically over-promoted throughout the war. France's Alphonse Juin appears to be the only Allied general Ellis has any time for. The odious American commander of the joint US-British 5th Army, Mark Clark, comes out better than I expected; but I still think he was teflon scum. Clark is infamous for deciding he preferred to be photographed "liberating" Rome rather than cutting off and destroying the German 10th Army as ordered by the feeble Alexander. But Ellis points out that the 5th Army could never have entirely cut off the Germans' retreat anyway, though Clark's thirst for glory at the expense of thousands of Allied lives meant far too many of the 10th Army got through to fight another day. Part of the reason the Germans could escape was the giant traffic jam created when Alexander and Leese tried to funnel too many divisions down the Liri Valley. I'm not sure if this book is in the running for the 2020 Book of the Year. I found the constant, at times seemingly endless, stream of accounts of horrible death in the frontline eventually began to become wearisome. Even in the mid-20th Century there were only so many ways a man could be killed in battle. Someone, not necessarily Ellis, managed to confuse the Cameronians and Cameron Highlanders in both the index and appendix. And the Poles did not field an Airborne Division at Arnhem, it was a brigade.
501. Man of War
by Donald Macintyre and Basil W Bathe
This is a look at the warship from the days of crude almost dug-out canoes on the Nile during the time of the Egyptian pharaohs through to the nuclear aircraft carrier of the early 1970s. It is a book of two parts. The first part, written by academic Basil Bathe, takes the story up until the 1840s when steam finally took over from sail and is less good. Royal Navy veteran and well known naval historian Donald Macintyre produces a smoother read. But even then, this is a bit of specialist, perhaps even "anorak", book which focuses on the technical details. As well as looking at armour and gunnery, the book also takes in propulsion and hull design. Those hoping for an accessible history of naval warfare will be disappointed. But it is well illustrated with input from a large stable of naval experts. I was left wondering if there was a missing chapter about anti-submarine warfare during the First and Second World Wars which was lost when the "new and revised" edition of the book came out in 1974. A worthy read, but not an easy one.
500. The Sound of History: El Alamein 1942
by Richard Doherty
The book's title fooled me. I thought it was going to be built around tapes of interviews with veterans of the North African campaign, perhaps the Imperial War Museum's collection. Instead it proved to be a straightforward, but accessible and readable, account of the climax of the Second World War in the Western Desert. Doherty does not have much time for Bernard Montgomery and is perhaps a little ungenerous. He builds up Montgomery's predecessor Claude Auchinleck as the true architect of victory and perhaps is guilty of over-egging that pudding. We will never know if Auchinleck, and his eminence gris "Chink" Dorman, would have won at Alamein in late 1942. I can't help feeling that any assessment of Dorman should include the fact that in later life he tried to turn his home into a training camp for the IRA. The book is focused firmly on the experiences of the ordinary soldiers involved and Doherty has a good eye for telling details. It clearly illustrates that in war error is the rule and victory often goes to the side that makes the fewest serious mistakes.
499. More Fighting for Canada: Five Battles, 1760-1944
edited by Donald E Graves
This was a follow-up to Fighting for Canada (See Review 165) but instead of seven battles this one only looks at five. The first is the all-too-often forgotten sequel to the 1759 clash on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City, which the British lost. But luckily for the British the Royal Navy saved the day by driving off the French besiegers before they could recapture the city. The second chapter features Cut Knife Hill in 1885, which could easily have been Canada's own Little Big Horn, before moving to South Africa for the third chapter, probably the strongest, Chapter Four features a clash between an unusual Canadian unit which combined machine gun carrying trucks, traditional cavalry and cyclists against the Germans in the closing days of World War One before the book closes with Canadian tanks taking on the wily and skilful Germans in Italy in 1944. All the chapters were written by serving or former Canadian military men but somehow seem to lack the insights that this should have offered. All are workmanlike and balanced but not gripping. A worthy read for those interested in Canadian military history. As with the first collection, each chapter concludes with a short guide to the battlefield concerned.
498. The Red Knight of Germany
by Floyd Gibbons
I didn't expect much of this book. And the breathless hyperbole it kicked off with led to fears that the prose style would quickly pall and exhaust me. But this book about the First World War German air ace Manfred von Richtofen proved to be a better book than I expected. It was more than a blind peon of praise and hero worship. Author Floyd Gibbons appears to have spent a lot of time in the archives. He also peppers the book with contributions from the Red Baron's comrades and those British pilots he shot down but who survived. I had always understood that Richthofen's total of 80 enemy aircraft downed was mainly made up of pilots he swooped down on out of the blue and quickly shot in the back before vanishing again. But by Gibbon's account he was a highly skilled pilot, witness the aerial duel with the now almost forgotten British ace Lanoe Hawker. Gibbons comes down firmly on the version of Richthofen's death being at the hands of Canadian pilot Roy Brown, rather than Australian machine gunners on the ground. This was a lively read which offered several insights into the war in the air 1914-18.
497. Target Italy
by Roderick Bailey
This book took a while to get around to and was a pleasant surprise when I finally did read it. Academic Roderick Bailey takes a look at British attempts to organise resistance groups in Fascist Italy through the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. The book benefited from the small number of agents actually recruited to fight against their own country as it allowed Bailey to take a very close look at them than he would have been able to do if covering, say, resistance work in France. It also differs from most accounts of the SOE's activities in Europe in that Italy was at war with the British rather than an occupied country such as France or the Netherlands where the seeds of armed resistance were more likely to take root. The British manage to make a bad situation worse through incompetence. Italian Military Intelligence fool the SOE's man in Switzerland into using its agents as organise an imaginary sabotage organisation and also puts them in charge of contacting genuine anti-Fascists, therefore revealing their identities to Mussolini's men. Most of the SOE missions go wrong, with fatal consequences for those involved. A tragic tale well told.
496. A War of Patrols
by William Johnston
This book turns the official version of Canada's part in the Korean War on its head. The official version has it that the first Canadian contingent was made up of misfits who had either failed to adjust to civilian life after army service during the Second World War or of younger men too socially maladjusted to take advantage of the post war economic boom and it was the second, regular army, contingent that put the country's contribution on a professional basis. But Department of National Defence historian shows that the first contingent did a far better job than their successors. The difference comes down to the officers. Many of the first contingent's leaders were experienced WW2 veterans and the peacetime regular army officers who supplemented them were the keeners. The second contingent officers proved in the main to be lacklustre unimaginative careerists. The rank and file in both contingents were basically the same wartime volunteers; way too many of the men of the 1st, regular, battalions found reasons to stay in Canada rather than serve in the second contingent. Johnston appears to have a firm grip on the realities of the war in Korea and of the capacities of the units in the British-led Commonwealth Division. He counts the 25th Canadian Brigade as fortunate to serve with the division rather than one of the more wasteful of human life US formations. This could be the first Canadian book to win Book of the Year.
by Max Hastings
I was in no rush to read this after wading my way through Max Hastings's uninspiring Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes (Review 480). Mistake. It turns out from reading this book that former war correspondent Hastings does have a sense of humour and some insight into matters military. That might come over as patronising in view of his large canon of books on military history but the Oxford book was truly awful. Hastings has been highly discerning in his choice of 14 "Warriors" to profile. Each illustrates a different facet of the military life. I would not say that Hastings has an agenda but he definitely has some deeply held beliefs. The book starts with the Napoleonic Wars, with a French cavalryman who could well have been the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Brigadier Gerard, and goes through to an Israeli tank man in 1973. Not all of those portrayed are good role models, or honest, or competent, or likeable, or even successful as soldiers. I feared the number of Americans featured was a cynical decision aimed to courting sales in the USA but with one exception all were justified on the basis of the aspects of the fighting man's trade tthat hey highlighted. The only exception appeared to be a vehicle for Hastings's ponderings on the Vietnam War. Not Book of the Year material but I'm glad I did finally pull it from the to-read pile.
494. Daggers Drawn: Real Heroes of the SAS & SBS
by Mike Morgan
I once said to someone in the book business that such was the interest in the SAS that a book called "The SAS Embroidery Handbook" would be a best seller. Sadly, this one by evening newspaper journalist Mike has to be included in this category. I had hoped for some new and fresh stories drawn mainly from the rank and file who served with the Special Air Service during the Second World War. Instead, this was basically a sanitised retread of all the old stories. Though it mentions that many of the men in 1st SAS were scared of the legendary Irishman Paddy Mayne when he was on a drinking binge, it doesn't really go into the vicious cowardly physical attacks on the people involved in all too many of them. Roy Farran beat a Jewish teenager to death while stationed in Palestine after the war and there are questions about the fate some of the enemy soldiers who fell into his hands during the World War Two. But Farran provides this book's Forward. I'm disappointed that Morgan didn't query the veteran who claimed to have seen Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt coming to Luneburg Heath on May 4th 1945 to surrender to Montgomery as the German commander was captured by the Americans on May 1st 1945. And there was no Guards Division fighting in Italy, though the Guards Armoured Division did take part in the campaign in Northwest Europe. And I'm not clear if it was Morgan or SAS founder David Stirling that thought the US 1st Army fought in North Africa. All this was easily checked and the mistakes make me wonder what else Morgan got wrong.
by Martin Middlebrook and Patrick Mahoney
An excellently executed look at the sinking of the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Malaya in December 1941. The careful selection of firsthand accounts from the sailors and officers brings life and death during the war at sea on a large warship vividly alive. Until 10th December 1941 Britain had never lost two capital ships in a single day since Jutland in 1916. And sadly the admiral in charge, Tom Phillips, did not believe Japanese aircraft, either bombers or torpedo carrying, were capable of sinking his ships. But neither the Prince of Wales, one of Britain's most modern battleships but widely regarded as an unlucky vessel, and the 1916 built battlecruiser Repulse, were a match for the skilled torpedo plane pilots from Japan. Middlebrook, usually a good read, and Mahoney delved into official records, memoirs, personal testimony from both sides and into expert opinion to recreate the Royal Navy's worst day during the Second World War ,when the battleship era was conclusively shown to be over. 492.
Wellington's Peninsular Victories
by Michael Glover
This slim book was first published in 1963 and my copy was part of the Pan British Battles Series. Well known Napoleonic Wars historian Michael Glover knows his stuff and this is an excellent introduction to Wellington's campaigns in Portugal and Spain. Although it focuses on four battles, Busaco, Salamanca and Vitoria, about half the book is about campaigning in between. Glover, using numerous memoirs from the time, does a good job of giving an idea of what early 19th Century battles were like. But he faces the same problem as Wellington himself highlighted, it is as difficult to describe a battle as it would be a to describe a fancy ball. Sometimes I found myself a little lost by the descriptions of the battlefield manoeuvres.
491. The Burma Campaign
by Frank McLynn
At first, I thought this account of the fighting in and around Burma during the Second World War was in the running for the 2020 Book of the Year. But it proved to be seriously flawed, so flawed in fact that someone should be fired. Historian Frank McLynn has case his net wide over the years tackling a very wide range of subjects. I hope, despite the claims in the blurbs on the back of the book, this is not one of the best he has written. McLynn chose to use the experiences of four of the main players in the Burma campaign to hang his narrative upon - General William Slim, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Orde Wingate and US General "Vinegar" Joe Stillwell. I liked his attitude. Wingate comes over as mad as a hatter and the Royal Family's Mountbatten as an over-promoted military dilettante. Slim comes out very well. I came away with a better understanding of Stillwell but still think his anti-British streak did a lot of harm and even got a lot of brave men killed. Chinese fascist leader Chiang Kai-sheck comes out badly, as does British General Archie Wavell. McLynn also has little time for General Harold Alexander and he's right there too. Where the book collapses is that on several occasions McLynn doesn't know who he is talking about. This is not just a few typos, the mistakes actually take some effort. The 2nd and 3rd Burma Rifles he refers to is actually the 2/3 Gurkha Rifles. He appears to confuse Generals Giffard and Pownall at least twice; a direct quote from William Slim has him referring to "Slim" when obviously it should be Stillwell; Japanese General Kimura allegedly orders opposing Chinese troops to withdraw and the Americans, not New Zealand's General Freyberg, supposedly requested the bombing of Monte Cassino in Italy. And RAF's Keith Park an "unknown" at the time of his appointment to the Far East? Not to anyone who knows anything about the Battle of Britain or lived through it. I got fed up trying to untangle the carelessness and was left wondering what to believe and what not to believe.
490. Two Men in a Trench
by Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver
This is one of those books which goes with a television series. In this case the series was a venture into something called Battlefield Archaeology. But despite the claim on the book cover that Glasgow based Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver carried out "a full archaeological investigation" of six scenes of British conflict, it was after all only television and the digging was actually very limited and surprisingly little in the way of artefacts was found. One of the big surprises proved to be the failure to find any mass graves on any of the battlefields. Each of the six chapters gives a decent summary of historical events, information of about what might be found and tackles an aspect of the archaeological process. It is written in a chatty and accessible style, which may owe something to the fact that Oliver was a journalist on several of Scotland's leading newspapers before becoming a well known TV historian. The six sites are - Shrewsbury, Barnet, Flodden, Newark, Culloden and the Rosyth's defences in the Firth of Forth
489. The Royal Canadian Armoured Corps - An Illustrated History
by John Marteinson and Michael R McNorgan
This book came out in 2000 to mark the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps in the opening years of the Second World War. But the authors, who both served with Canadian armoured regiments, take the story back to the earliest French-Canadian cavalry regiment formed in 1759 to fight the British. The book follows the fortunes of the Canadian cavalry regiments through the War of 1812, the 1885 North-West Rebellion, the Second Boer War and the First World War. By far the biggest part of the book focuses on the Second World War. I suspect that one author tackled the Italian Campaign while the other looked at the fighting in Northwest Europe, and it shows. The illustrations and maps have been well chosen. The book then charts the story of Canadian armour, both regular and reserve unit, up until 2000. It is not an entirely happy story, an armoured corps often without decent tanks, and at times the book reads like a special pleading from the RCAC Association, who commissioned it.
488. Below the Belt
by John Winton
This may be a slim book but it's not a bad read. Naval historian and retired Royal Navy officer John Winton takes a look at some of the more unorthodox aspects of war at sea. He doesn't feel a need to pad his text for length as he steams through a world of fire-ships, midget, submarines, explosive motor-boats, aircraft carriers made of ice and of human torpedoes. But he let's himself down when it comes to some easily checked facts and this casts a shadow of suspicion on his accuracy. There is no Burra Forth in Shetland, it's Burra Firth, and the town in the Canadian Rockies is Jasper, not Jaspar. Some of the vessels and exports in this book are well known but there is enough new material to keep it interesting.
487. The World Atlas of Warfare
edited by Richard Holmes
Although there are some maps, I don't there are enough to justify this book being described as an "atlas". What it is is a look at the history of warfare up until the mid-1980s. The contributors were mainly academics associated with the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, with Richard Holmes writing eight of the 20 chapters. Some chapters are more readable and insightful than others. The book is well illustrated with photographs, artwork and diagrams. A 15 year old boy interested in military history would be delighted to get this as a Christmas present.
486. Patton: A Genius for War
by Carlo D'Este
It took me a while to get through this 800 page doorstep of a book by respected American military historian and retired lieutenant colonel Carlo D'Este. I had hoped that by the time I finished it, I might like the legendary US commander George Patton. Instead, I found him a paranoid mentally unbalanced snobbish suck-up whom some might feel prostituted his sister to gain promotion. Oh, and he was an adulterer too. But none of this might matter if he was indeed a military genius. However, I was unconvinced by D'Este's pleadings. He was good when the Germans were on the run at keeping them on the run but when they turned to fight, his battles turned into bloody slogging matches. At times D'Este seemed to skate over the less savoury aspects of Patton's behaviour. I pretty sure at least one of the "shirkers" attacked by Patton in a military hospital was actually sick, too sick to explain himself properly to a hysterical General. The book is almost half over before the Second World War starts. And D'Este hurts his own arguments by such gaffes as declaring that the Japanese over-ran Hong Kong in the summer of 1941, whereas it did not fall until late December of that year.
485. Easter Rising 1916 - The Birth of The Irish Republic
by Michael McNally and Peter Dennis
This is another of Osprey's Campaign series. So, it's no surprise that it is well illustrated, with helpful maps. It is generally fair and balanced, though there is a tendency to view events from the revolutionaries' point of view. The bulk of the fighters on both sides were poorly trained and inexperienced. The British should have had the advantage when it came to the quality of the officers but many performed poorly - which should have been an omen of events a few months later on the Somme. The worst revolutionary commander turned out to be a former British officer. The book offers a very readable but brief introduction to events which ultimately changed the face of northern Europe.
484. When Britain Saved the West - The Story of 1940
by Robin Prior
Highly respected Australian historian Robin Prior looks at whether Britain really did save Western Civilization from the Nazis in 1940. Prior, best known for his First World War books co-written with Trevor Wilson, takes a dispassionate look at the facts. I had not realised that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain refused to actually fight the Germans 1939 because he still hoped after their invasion of Poland that he could do a peace deal with Adolf Hitler. He looks at how Winston Churchill wrestled control of the war from Chamberlain and fellow arch-appeaser Lord Halifax, thanks to the support of the Labour Party and in the face of opposition from his fellow Tories. Then there is Dunkirk and the Fall of France, followed by the Battle of Britain and the German bombing campaign against Britain's civilian population. He ends with a look at how the USA effectively bankrupted Britain, failed to keep several key promises, and only came into the war against Germany fully when Hitler declared war on them. Prior keeps a sharp focus on the key facts and argues his case well. Not quite a contender for the 2020 Book of the Year but a good read nonetheless.
483. From Pachino to Ortona 1943
This account of the Canadian 1st Division's war in Italy was part of Department of National Defence's The Canadian Army at War series first published in 1945. It is an easy and informative read, moving smoothly from the Big to Small picture in its 160 pages. The text is backed up by photographs and the work of Canada's official war artists. There are also numerous maps. Pachino is where the Canadians landed in Sicily and Ortona was a seaside port which was bitterly contested with German paratroopers in the closing days of 1943. This is pretty much a model of what a short official campaign history should be.
482. Mutiny and Insurgency in India 1857-58
by T A Heathcote
Dr Tony Heathcote was a student of the matters oriental and brings a sympathy and understanding to the causes of what is commonly known as The Indian Mutiny. Nor does he shy away from the atrocities and war crimes committed by British troops, both white and coloured, during the suppression of the revolt. He also spent his career as a professional historian at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, so he knows his British Army. His approach is fair and balanced and he does not skate over the murders of women, children and male civilians by the insurgents. It was indeed, as the subtitle of the book promises, a very bloody civil war. At times the book reads like a bog-standard account of the fighting but can be regarded as a fine introduction to a complex conflict in which few can take much pride. So, a good primer.
481. A Genius for Deception
by Nicholas Rankin
This book about British deception operations during both the First and Second World Wars was first published as "Churchill's Wizards". Author Nicholas Rankin casts his net wide with a definition of "deception" which includes camouflage, propaganda, double agents, inflatable tanks and fake radio stations. But perhaps he spreads it too wide. His research often lets him down, probably due to the vast array of topics tackled. The French Army did not enter the First World War in 1914 dressed in Horizon Blue; the Irish rebels of 1916 were shot, not hanged; and the British unit which was home to so many of the specialised armoured vehicles in 1944 was the 79th Armoured Division, not the 79th Armoured Brigade. And those were just the glaring errors which leapt out at me. But Rankin has a good eye for a tale and tells a story well. The pace speeds up towards the end and some of the most interesting deceptions get scantier coverage than duller examples cited earlier in the book. Perhaps Rankin realised that he was getting close to his publisher’s set word total. A good read, but not a great one.
480. The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes
edited by Max Hastings
I can't say this book was a disappointment, because I didn't expect much from it. In short, even a casual random dip into it telegraphs a lacklustre and missed opportunity. To me, an anecdote is short amusing story. Many of those in this book prove to be neither. The first 100 of the 384 entries are more military history than anecdote. It might have better not to have started until the 17th Century or at least cut the number of "anecdotes" from before that period back to about twenty. Those who do not understand French are at a disadvantage and those who learned Spanish or German at secondary school will find it does them very little good when it comes to this book. There are many many truly amusing military stories out there. Few are in this book. Does Hastings have no sense of humour? Tellingly, the last anecdote is from Hastings himself and tells of how he was the first man who sailed with the Falklands Task Force in 1982 to get into Port Stanley after the Argentinian surrender. A more interesting tale would have been how a fellow journalist from a more plebeian background, convinced that the better socially-connected Hastings had failed to file other correspondents' reports as agreed and passed their contents off as his own work, was only just stopped from killing him with souvenir Argentinian bayonet in the bar of Stanley's Upland Goose.
479. The Lasting Honour
by Oliver Lindsay
This is a very readable account of The Fall of Hong Kong in December 1941 by a former officer in the Grenadier Guards who was stationed in the then British colony several decades later. Despite his military background Oliver Lindsay draws heavily from civilian sources to weave together this sorry tale of forlorn defence. The inexperienced British, Indian, and Canadian troops, along with Chinese volunteers, never stood a chance against the veteran Japanese 38th Division. There were never enough Empire troops to defend the colony and the Japanese ability to move across country at a far quicker rate than anticpated often stymied British commanders. Lindsay was also stationed in Canada and made good use of his time there to find out more about the two partially trained Canadian battalions who were basically sacrificed on the alter of Imperial solidarity. Lindsay takes the story beyond the Christmas Day surrender to look at the almost four years of captivity which followed. He also examines the fate of the all too few Japanese war criminals involved in the atrocities committed during the fighting and afterwards who were brought to justice after the war. The book is heavily laced with personal accounts and these give the book a nice edge.
478. Change and Challenge 1928-1978: 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards
by General Sir Cecil Blacker and Major General H G Woods
This is a quick canter through 50 years history of a nominally Irish cavalry regiment and written by two of its most distinguished former officers. It has several of the usual drawbacks of a regimental history written primarily for internal consumption. But it also looks at several aspects of the development of the British Army from an insiders' point of view. This includes the transition from horses to armoured vehicles, National Service, the switch to a "professional" army in the 1960s and the retreat from Empire. The Second World War was dealt with more briefly than I expected and I was reminded that many officers regard the advent of peace as a chance to "return to some real soldiering". But as both authors had won the Military Cross, this may be a little harsh. The number of words written about sporting achievements may well exceed those used to recounts events in 1940 and the retreat to Dunkirk. The book is perhaps a little officer-centric and references to the NCOs and rank-and-file members of the regiment seem a tad patronising. But it is an interesting read. The regiment's genuine links to Northern Ireland were pretty much scuppered by The Troubles which started at time when around 60% of the men came from the province.
477. To the Ends of the Air
by G E Livock
This special from the Imperial War Museum is a memoir from one of the pioneers of military seaplane aviation. Gerald Livock joined the Royal Naval Air Service in the early days of the First World War and only narrowly missed out on being in the first 1,000 licensed pilots in the United Kingdom. The possibilities of using aircraft based on ships was already being explored. But aircraft carriers in those days were used to transport seaplanes, which took off from the water. Livock proves an entertaining, and I suspect modest, guide to those days, when many planes resembled powered birdcages. I was a little disappointed, at first, to realise that Livock's First World War, and subsequent Russian Civil War, experiences accounted for only about the first third of the book. But his stories of pioneering seaplane flights in the Far East after the war proved enthralling. He even manages to take part in the suppression of a rebellion in Burma in the 1930s. The book ends in around 1930 but Livock went on to enjoy a distinguished career with Coastal Command before and during the Second World War.
476. Operation Varsity
by Tim Saunders
This is another book that spent too long on the "to-read" pile. It takes a look at the British 6th Airborne Division's drop east of the Rhine in March 1945 and is part of Pen & Sword's battlefield guide series. As usual for this series the book is rich in maps and photographs. But where the book really scores is that the author Tim Saunders spent 30 years in the infantry and retired as a major. As such, he brings a number of insights that other, purely civilian, authors might not be able to offer. The book also looks at the activities of the two Scots infantry divisions which linked up with the paratroopers and glider-borne troops of the Sixth Airborne, the 15th Scottish and 51st Highland, as well as 1 Commando Brigade, who crossed the Rhine in boats and amphibious vehicles. Sanders also peppers the book heavily with first-hand accounts of the fighting from the men who took part and they add much to the narrative. The book ends with recommendations for a short self-guided tour of the drop area and fighting. The one thing the book does not do and I would have been interested in Saunders's opinion is discuss the value of the 6th Airborne's operation. There are those who feel that its contribution to crossing the Rhine did not justify the casualties suffered.
475. It Doesn't Take A Hero
by General H Norman Schwarzkopf with Peter Petre
We have a very early entry for the 2020 Book of Year. This memoir by the commander of the Coalition forces in the First Gulf War was a pleasant surprise. Schwarzkopf has a lot of interesting things to say about soldiering and with the help of magazine writer Peter Petrie says them well. Although he is best known for his role in the war against Iraq, some of the most interesting parts of the book relate to Schwarzkopf's time in Vietnam. Both Schwarzkopf and the US Army learned much from that conflict and put the lessons to good use. Schwarzkopf comes over as a thoughtful and skilled officer and much of the wisdom he shares in this book is still applicable today. The Gulf War material is interesting, if only for the politics, but Schwarzkopf was more of a stage manager ,coming up with a plan and trusting his subordinates to implement it. West Point military academy had a big impact on the young Schwarzkopf and his recollections of his time there, including as an instructor, again make for interesting reading. He is also forthcoming about what life was like with an alcoholic mother and an often-absent soldier father. This is a hefty by very worthwhile book.
474. The Lost Battle: Crete 1941
by Callum MacDonald
This may well be a late entry in the race for the 2019 Book of the Year award. Professor Callum MacDonald takes a look at the first major airborne operation of the Second World War and offers some valuable insights and analysis. The opening of the book focuses on the formation and first deployments of Germany's elite airborne forces under Karl Student. It then moves onto the Pyrrhic victory which resulted in both the capture of Crete in 1941 and the effective destruction of Student's dream. Few reputations, including that of Winston Churchill, survive MacDonald's scrutiny unscathed. Only New Zealand's Bernard Freyberg, the garrison commander, comes out better than in the run of the mill verdicts of military historians. The grim, bloody and savage fighting is well handled. This book sat for too long on the to-read pile.
473. Beaumont Hamel
by Nigel Cave
This is another guide book in the Leo Cooper Battleground Europe series and in this case features one of the most visited sections of the old First World War Western Front; Beaumont Hamel. The Vimy Ridge: Arras guide book, also by Nigel Cave, has already been reviewed (Review 467) and sadly this one does not gel quite so well. The recipe is much the same with the guide material mixed in with a lot of archive material drawn from official sources and personal reminiscence. The fighting at Beaumont Hamel took place mainly during the Battle of Somme when the 29th Division, made up mainly of regular battalions that had already been mauled at Gallipoli, assaulted the German lines on the first day. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was to the fore and suffered heavily. In November 1916 the 51st Highland Division took up the torch and finally seized the British objectives. Then another division famed for its service at Gallipoli, the Royal Naval Division, entered the fray and also acquitted themselves well. In the Vimy Ridge book Cave highlighted the work of the Royal Engineers tunnelling companies, this time it is the stretcher bearers and Royal Army Medical Corps who enjoy some extra attention. The final section is a self-guided tour of the battlefield and main cemeteries. As I said, though an interesting read this one doesn't quite gel as well as the Vimy version.
by Ahmed Rashid
This book was rushed into reprint following the Saudi-dominated attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001. Noted Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid had taken an interest in the Taliban long before they succeeded in seizing control of most of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and his subject-matter expertise shines from almost every page. A new prologue was slapped on the book after the Al-Qa'ida attack but the final chapter, a look at the possible future for Afghanistan, was written in 1999 and not updated. So, the book is of purely historic value as a look at the rise of the Taliban thanks to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent, the United States of America. No-one comes out of the story well, though even Rashid failed to predict the train wreck that Afghanistan was to become. I understand this book was issued to Canadian troops deploying to that poor benighted country and must have been useful in the early days in a "how did things come to this" way. Rashid's sources were good and his analysis often spot on. Even today this book, though dated and the Taliban has changed in the past 20 years, still has a contribution to make to understanding this ongoing conflict
471. The Weight of Command
by J L Granastein
This is more a collection of notes than an actual proper look at what it was like to be a senior officer in the Canadian Army during the Second World War. Prominent Canadian military historian Jack Granastein wrote an excellent book back in the early 1990s called The Generals and for some reason it was thought it was a good idea to release some of his notes for it in book form. The result is patchy. One of the biggest problems is that Granastein decided to paraphrase what he was told and this makes it harder to judge how seriously to take what was said. Some of the generals were still alive in the early 1990s, though in varying states of health, and their testimony is probably the most interesting. Other contributors include some of the generals' subordinate commanders, staff officers who worked with them and family members. The family members make the least reliable and informed contributors. The verdicts, not surprisingly, vary but some repetitions of opinion begin to suggest when there is more than simple personal like or dislike at work. I now understand better why the technically skilled Guy Simmonds, Monty's favourite Canadian commander, was respected but not much liked. Granastein decided to quote contributors' factual mistakes but to correct the error with a footnote putting the record straight. This is a useful but by no means foolproof way of determining how seriously to take what is said.
by Stephen Taylor
This is a sympathetic look at a Cornish man who rose from deckhand to controversial admiral. Luckily for journalist Stephen Taylor one of Edward Pellew's sons hoped a decent biographer would come along - which he did more than 170 years later - and created an archive of papers associated with the admiral. Taylor's Pellew is both nepotistic and grasping, with perhaps a trace of persecution mania. But he was also perhaps Britain's finest frigate captain during the Napoleonic Wars and sadly underestimated as an admiral. In Taylor's skilful hands the old seadog comes alive and his faults only serve to make him more human. Taylor makes good use of what is left of Pellew's own papers and letters, official documents and log books and what his contemporaries had to say about him, both good and bad. This book is probably in the running for the 2019 Book of the Year.
469. Hitler's Soldiers
by Ben H Shepherd
Two of the great myths of the Second World War are that if Hitler had left it to his generals, the Germans could have won the war, and that the SS were responsible for all the massacres of prisoners and civilians. Glasgow Caledonian University's Ben Shepherd tries hard to puncture the lies told by self-serving German generals after the war. He easily demonstrates that Hitler perhaps got it right, and wrong, as often as his senior officers did. And that the regular German army could be just as vicious and barbarous as the SS. He also has a go at the myth that the Austrians behaved more decently that their German brethren, "go tell that to the Serbs", he says. Shepherd delves back as far as the First World War to look at how the German officer corps sold out to Hitler in order to restore the Army to what they saw as its rightful place amongst the militaries of Europe. Careerism, opportunism, greed and moral cowardice made them willing accomplices in the atrocities unleashed on occupied Europe and the Soviet Union. But he does admit that the German Army was better trained and led in the early years of the war than their clumsy opponents. One well known German general who attracts particular venom from Shepherd is Hans Guderian, but he was only one of the most blatant examples of a "general type" who reached high positions as Hitler sidelined anyone who didn't agree with him. Shepherd examines the tactics, the strategy, big-picture-little-picture, economics, psychology through the generals' own words, official documents and soldiers' letters. It all makes for a good read.
468. 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War
by Lyn Macdonald
One of the most successful popular historians of the First World War created this scrap book of the First World War and I was worried Lyn MacDonald would just palm the reader off with the material that hadn't been good enough for her previous books. Instead I was delighted to find a skilful and imaginative take on the War to End All Wars in the words of those who lived through the terrible years between August 1914 and November 1918. Actually, the book takes a look at life in the aftermath of the war in what they had been promised would be A Land Fit for Heroes. Diaries, memoirs, transcripts of interviews, letters, newspaper reports, official documents, leaflets, photos, cartoons, poems, doggerel verse and advertisements were all plumbed for this haunting memorial. The selection of material is spot on and even touches on many of the less discussed aspects of the conflict. Most of the material is from British or Empire/Commonwealth sources but there is also a sprinkling of German and American material. It is not all misery and there are even touches of humour and humanity. Collections such as this are seldom in the running for Book of the Year but this one will be. That's how good it is.
467. Vimy Ridge: Arras
by Nigel Cave
This is one of an extensive series of First World War battlefield guides put out by Barnsley-based Pen and Sword through its Leo Cooper imprint. It is perhaps no great surprise that the first one from the series I came across in Canada was set around the iconic 1917 battlefield of Vimy Ridge. But author Nigel Cave spends more space on the battles fought in 1915 by the French and 1916 by the British. The book also spends a lot of time on the fight underground fought by the mining engineers from all sides and their work blowing up enemy trenches. Cave draws heavily on memoirs, unit war diaries and regimental histories to bring the fighting to life for the reader. The last of part of the book is a self-guided tour of the area and never having been there, I can't comment on how useful it is. But this extensively illustrated book is a good little read and would stand alone on the strength of its coverage of the fighting and life in the trenches.
466. The Paper Dragon
by John Selby
I thought this book was only going to be about Britain's wars with China, beginning with the notorious Opium War of 1839. But former gunner and Sandhurst military history lecturer John Selby takes a look at all of China's major wars from 1839 through to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. I literally left this book on the shelve at one of my favourite second-hand bookshops for years but eventually succumbed. I'm glad I did, The Paper Dragon is an interesting read. The Opium War was, of course, about more than just the right of foreign merchants, many Scottish, to sell Indian opium to the Chinese. Imperial China's incompetence, corruption and arrogance played a large part in most of the conflicts with the British, French, Japanese and home-grown rebels. Nineteenth Century China was an interesting country and not the lame-duck push-over it is often made out to be. Many of the battles in this book are often relegated to footnotes and it was interesting to find out a little more about them.
465. Churchill as War Leader
by Richard Lamb
Churchill said that he intended to be one of the first to write a history of the Second World War and much of what he said in his version has been accepted by generations of historians as pretty close to gospel. The release of government documents tells a different story and Richard Lamb's time at the National Archives was not wasted. Sadly, around the time that the British official campaign histories were being finalised in 1951, it was apparent that Churchill was about to become Prime Minister again and several historians who should have known better balked at publishing material that might have contradicted the great man's version of events. Churchill succeeded in concealing his part in the disastrous Norwegian Campaign; his mis-steps when it came to attacking the French Fleet in North Africa in 1940; dealings with the French Vichy government; failure to realise how weak the defences of Singapore were while goading the Japanese into attacking the USA; failure to capitalise on the Italian surrender and failing to open the door to Japanese capitulation without the use of atomic weapons. I learned a couple of things from this book, including the plan for Canadian troops to invade northern Norway, the disastrous British attack at Castelrizo, just how truly awful Anthony Eden was, how mistaken the British were in supporting Tito in Yugoslavia, and the shortcomings of General Wavell. At the end of the day, Lamb concludes that no-one plays a perfect game and no-one else could have done so well as a British wartime leader as Churchill. The true story is far better than Churchill's version.
464. The Gloster Gladiator
by Francis K Mason
This slim volume about the last bi-plane to go into service with the Royal Air Force was apparently part of the Macdonald Aircraft Monograph series. It stops just short of being what one publisher of my acquaintance would call an "anorak" book. The first half of the book focuses on the development and design which came of the drawing board of HP Folland, the man behind the legendary First World War SE5 fighter. Some of the mysteries of aircraft design make for interesting reading. Then Mason looks at the service history of the Gladiator, both with foreign air forces and the British RAF and Fleet Air Arm. The book ends with some technical details and, perhaps this is a bit "anorak", details of which specific Gladiator was assigned to which specific squadron. The book is filled with photographs. An interesting oddity from 1964.
by Ted Barris
Canadian radio broadcaster Ted Barris knows a good story when he comes across it and the iconic capture of Vimy Ridge in 1917 provides him with plenty of good material. Barris's approach is very people-centred and the focus of the book is on experience of Canadians capturing a key position where British and French troops had repeatedly failed. He is, fortunately, less jingo-istic than many Canadian writers but it is noticeable that there is next to nothing about the role of the 51st Highland Division in the battle. This is a bit of shame as it would have been interesting to to contrast the British approach to the battle with that of the Canadian Corps. Barris obviously spent a lot of time trawling through letters, diaries, archives and veterans' taped reminiscences but he resists the temptation to weigh his tale down in an effort to impress the reader with the extent of his research. This is more of a "peoples' " history than a military history and though it does a good job of conveying what is must have been like to fight in the battle, it gives a worm's eye view rather than a useful account of the overall course of the fighting. A certain ignorance of matters military sometimes betrays itself, for example, I somehow doubt that an officer would be doing sentry duty in the frontline trenches. A solid but not inspired effort.
462. The Great Gamble
by Gregory Feifer
This book claims to recount the Soviet war in Afghanistan. But sadly, it is more a series of glimpses of that conflict rather than a cohesive look at it. The book is based around several interviews with citizens of the former Soviet Union who might as well have been chosen at random. The author, an American radio reporter often based in Kabul, perhaps intended the book to be a cautionary tale for his fellow countrymen and NATO troops who went into Afghanistan after 2001. But it is too vague when it comes to lessons to be learned - apart from it not being a good idea to rob and murder Afghans. This is not a terrible book but it did strike me as a missed opportunity to say something of real value. Feifer seems to think that Winston Churchill fought in Afghanistan and other examples of his knowledge of history are either poor or, perhaps, over-simplified. A disappointment.
461. The Chindit War
by Shelford Bidwell
The Chindits were both mythical Burmese creatures and mystical British soldiers. This book does much to draw aside the curtain so far as the latter incarnation is concerned. Artilleryman and military commentator Shelford Bidwell cuts through much of the nonsense surrounding the soldiers who went behind Japanese lines during the Burma campaign in 1944. An earlier excursion behind Japanese lines in 1943 gets little attention. The reputations of very few senior officers avoid withering under Bidwell's merciless but professional scrutiny. But even Bidwell is unable to speculate on what would have happened if visionary Chindit founder Orde Wingate had not been killed in a plane crash early in the campaign. The man who took over command, Joe Lentaigne, fails to meet Bidwell's high standards and must, according to him, take some of the blame for the Chindits failing to meet their full potential. Bidwell fought in the Second World War and this gives him an insight that many who have written about the Chindits often lack. Most books either eulogise Wingate and the Chindits or dismiss him as a crank and them as a waste of valuable resources. Bidwell's verdict is more nuanced. If there is a villain in this book it must be the "Limey" hating American general Slippery Joe Stillwell. Yet another example of British troops being squandered when they come under direct American command, another being the British component of the United States Fifth Army in Italy under Mark Clark.
460. Lawrence of Arabia's War
by Neil Faulkner
I was actually relieved that this book was less about T E Lawrence than the title suggested. Only about 25% of the content, if not less, is about Lawrence and what the book has to say about him is a balanced and fair assessment of his role in the Middle East during the First World War. The book is more about the activities of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force and its long drive from the Suez Canal to to Damascus. It shows a high degree of compassion for all involved; British, Anzac, Egyptian, Turkish, German, Austrian and the Arabs who fought on both sides. Archaeologist and Marxist historian Neil Faulkner brings a refreshing, even-handed and insightful approach to the conflict which has shaped the Middle East to this day. But it is more of a military history than a political one. Faulkner has done an excellent job of capturing the feel of the fighting in what was the British Empire's last big cavalry campaign. He also has a firm grip of the bigger picture. Too often the British and French role in the Middle East is simplistically branded a wholesale betrayal of the Arabs. Faulkner shows that the real story is more nuanced and complicated. This is a definite contender for the 2019 Book of the Year.
by Jacqueline Riding
I found this an interesting addition to the canon of books about one of the most romanticized episodes in Scottish history. Sadly, either because author Jacqueline Riding got bored or was too close to her quota of words, the book seems a little rushed and superficial towards the end. The book basically tells the story of the 1745-46 Jacobite Rising through the words of the participants. The fluid spelling in 18th Century diaries, letters and memoirs can be a little challenging at first but proves well worth the effort. Riding does her best to be even-handed but the volume of material from Jacobite sources heavily outweighs that from the Hanoverians. There are heroes and villains on both sides. The lack of active support for the Jacobites in England adds weight to the feeling that the perfidious 1707 Treaty of Union was a major spur to recruiting in Scotland. The accounts of the battles are surprisingly brief and I was left with the feeling that the cycle of atrocity and terror unleashed north of the Highland Line in the aftermath of Culloden was downplayed. I also wish Riding had done more to explore the anti-Scottish feeling which helped spur the rising and the even more vehement backlash which followed its failure. I think Riding also goes a little easier on Charles Edward Stuart and his cousin Cumberland than either deserves.
458. The Norwegian Campaign of 1940
by J L Moulton
The British campaign in Norway in 1940 was a fiasco and this book looks at what went very wrong. Author James Moulton was well qualified to comment because between 1957 and 1961 he was the United Kingdom's Chief of Amphibious Warfare and a decorated commando officer. Moulton dissects the highly flawed British response to the German invasion of Norway with an expert eye. The heaviest burden of blame is placed on the Royal Navy. The Army does not come out particularly well either and is definitely outfought by the better trained and led Germans. The Royal Air Force barely tries. The politicians do not come out well either and their lack of direction, on top of years of less than shoe-string budgeting for defence, only adds to the chaos. Sometimes the book's account of the campaign is difficult to follow but this may actually reflect its muddled piecemeal nature. The Norwegians' failure to mobilise properly also contributed to the defeat but it is hard to disagree with Moulton when he declares the British could have handled the campaign far more ably. I suspect that he was hoping the book would provide a cautionary tale for the British military leadership of the 1960s when it was written. In which case it may be even more relevant reading to the even more dysfunctional leadership of the British forces today.
457. Symbol of Courage
by Max Arthur
This compendium of Victoria Cross winners has its moments but is flawed. The book's promise to look at "the men behind the medal" is seldom honoured. In most cases the book simply paraphrases the official citation for the medal. Disappointingly, sometimes the book quotes exactly the same citation for multiple men who received the medal for the same incident. It also can be cavalier with the facts. One entry says a winner died as result of being transported in a fever impregnated wagon while a page of two later the same man is transported in a litter. And just which French General pronounced that the Charge of the Light Brigade may have been magnificent it was not war - Max Arthur gives two answers. Also he should have known that Montgomery did not establish the defensive line at Alamein but inherited it from Auchinlek. Where the book gets interesting is when Arthur does look take a closer look at the lives of the winners but he does not do this often enough. The book also mentions several campaigns and wars which have long been forgotten by the general public. Perhaps instead of going for a book which listed every one of the 1,355 winners up until 2005, Arthur might have done better to have focused on more detail about, say, 75 winners. Or, if he wanted to create a reliable reference which did include all the winners he should have been less cavalier in his research. I was left scratching my head when it came to the spellings of the home towns of several of the Scottish winners.
456. Knights of the Black Cross
by Bryan Perrett
This proved to be a brief but informative and insightful look at German armoured forces during the Second World War. Perhaps this should have been no surprise because author Bryan Perrett was a tankie in the British Army before becoming an author and military historian. Perrett points out that when the German Army swept through the Low Countries and France in 1940, their tanks were noticeably inferior to their British and French counterparts. Perrett ably demonstrates that it's not what you've got, it's what you do with it. Perrett skilfully blends tactics, strategy, organisation and equipment into a very readable and accessible text. This book could pretty much be a condensed history if the Rise and Fall of the Wehrmacht and its brother SS. Perrett is also pretty much spot on in his assessments of the German commanders and it is noticeable that he shares their doubts about the legendary Erwin Rommel. Regrettably, the book also demonstrates the problems associated with covering events in the Soviet Union after the 1941 German invasion in anything less than a volume of door-stop dimensions. This is a very good primer for those interested in how the Germans revolutionised 20th Century warfare.
455. Our Little Army in the Field
by Brian A Reid
Former Canadian artillery officer Brian Reid takes a look at the Canadian experience in the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. He is not a natural writer and sometimes his prose was a little leaden, at least for my taste. But Reid does not a bad job of taking the reader to the veldt and semi-desert of large swathes of South Africa. The Canadians started out by sending a specially formed infantry battalion made up of a sprinkling from the country's tiny regular force, part-time militia soldiers and civilian volunteers. Some artillery was also send but as the war went on more and more horsemen, in the form of such units the Canadian Mounted Rifles, the Royal Canadian Dragoons and the Lord Strathcona's Horse became the dominant contribution. He does not ignore the looting the Canadians were notorious for, nor the drunken ill-discipline, but neither does he dwell on them. Allegations that Boer prisoners were murdered are looked at but basically dismissed. The book is even-handed when it comes to the mistakes made by both British and Canadian commanders and certainly I cannot remember any of them that Reid considered played a perfect game. This is not a great book but it is a good one.
454. A Thousand Shall Fall
by Murray Peden
It looks as though I've had this Second World War bomber pilot memoir since 1997 and only just got around to reading it. I think that was because I noticed that more than half the book seemed to be taken up by his training experiences. But recently I'd come across several books recommending A Thousand Shall as one of the best of the aircrew memoirs. I was not disappointed. Peden proved to be an attractive and amusing character. The book is full of humorous anecdote and insight. The book is also a litany of the deaths of friends and colleagues. Training proves to be almost as dangerous as taking part in bombing missions. Peden, a Canadian, begins his active service career in the cockpit of a Stirling bomber. He proves to be a great admirer of the aircraft and damns the pre-war RAF command for insisting that Shorts made the wing span only 99 feet so that it could fit through the hanger doors - the few more feet recommended by the Stirling's designers would have enhanced its performance enormously. Then Peden and his crew switch to, of all things, Flying Fortresses. The fascinating exploits of 214 Squadron in the field of electronic counter measures to foil German night-fighter radar is a much too often neglected aspect of the Bomber Command Offensive. I think I agree; this is one of the best bomber aircrew memoirs. And, Air Marshal "Bomber" Harris apparently thought so too.
453. The 1st Cav in Vietnam
by Shelby Stanton
Former US Army paratrooper Shelby Stanton takes an admiring look at those pioneers of helicopter warfare, The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and their service in the Vietnam War. The book is a potted history of operations and look at the techniques employed. I got the feeling that Stanton felt that if the rest of the US Army had shown the same professionalism, enthusiasm and imagination as the "Skytroopers" and their support arms then perhaps it would not have lost the Vietnam War. The Korean War had hinted at the potential for helicopters to be used as the basis of a fast-moving, hard-hitting, combat force which could employ many of the roles performed by horse cavalry during the American Civil War and Indian Wars which followed. Stanton includes just enough individual combat stories to keep the book moving at a rapid trot. Eventually, the Air Cav are defeated not by the Vietnamese but by an unimaginative US Army bureaucracy.
452. Eighth Army
by Robin Neillands
This book by prolific British military historian Robin Neillands about the iconic 8th Army proved both fair and insightful. Neillands, a former commando, follows the story from North Africa through to the German surrender in Italy in 1945. It is a book of two halves. This might be because the North African campaigns involved a smaller number of troops and the battles were more dramatic than the slog up Italy. Neillands starts his tale long before the 8th Army even officially existed; with the first clashes between the forces of the British Empire and the Italians. When the Germans became involved, the short-comings of the British Army, especially its senior officer corps, became all too evident. Neillands's assessment of the British generals is hard to fault and his assessment of Bernard Montgomery balanced and fair. American military historians, quite rightly, get a hard time in this book for ignorance and bias. I feel Neillands may have been too kind to the odious American general Mark Clark, who decided the personal glory of capturing Rome was more important than destroying a German army. The book is heavily dotted with personal reminiscences and anecdotes from former members of the 8th Army and also with thoughtful analysis of high level strategy. One of Neillands's best books.
451. Hidden Soldier
by Padraig O'Keeffe with Ralph Riegal
When the Irish army turned Padraig O'Keeffe down, he turned to the French Foreign Legion. That must raise questions about recruiting for the army in the Irish Republic because O'Keeffe seems to have taken to soldiering like a duck to water. Former trainee chef O'Keeffe comes over as an engaging but perhaps at times prickly character. He sees service in Cambodia and Bosnia before the changing face of the Legion leads him to leave. Part of the problem seems to have been the same that afflicts to British Special Air Service, namely too many officers are there getting their ticket punched on their way up the career ladder. After eight years of unsatisfactory civilian life back in Ireland, O'Keeffe spends the second half of the book as part of a private security outfit in Iraq. It comes very close to costing him his life. His accounts of frontline service ring true but it's hard to know how much is Irish journalist Ralph Riegal's work. The story is hard to verify but some of the checkable facts are a little bit wobbly - for example, the Chinook helicopter is not from the Sikorsky stable; a bit of an "anorak" quibble but if someone can't get that right, what else did they get wrong? This is an easy but worthwhile read.
450. Marked for Death: The First World War in the Air
by James Hamilton-Paterson
The author of this book about the First World War in the Air, James Hamilton-Paterson, brings a refreshing perspective to a subject that sometimes seems to have been done to death. It is more a look at what it was like to fly in the war than a history of the conflict. Hamilton-Paterson sometimes strays well beyond the years 1914-18, for example when he reveals that only 15% of aircrew from Lancaster bombers during the Second World War succeeded in parachuting from the aircraft whereas US crews had a 50% survival rates, as he harvests fascinating insights about military aviation from its early days through to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is hard to argue with him when he claims, particularly when it came to British pilot training, that many many young lives were needlessly squandered. Paterson-Hamilton, himself privately educated, is also highly critical of the snobbery and elitism that often made a tough job harder than it needed to be. His discussion of what an unstable and unpleasant place Britain was for many people in the years immediately before 1914 is also insightful. Though his claim that for many working class soldiers that life in the trenches was better than life in the industrial slums may be over-egging the pudding a little. Hamilton-Paterson breaks the chapters down into technology, experiences, medical matters and military history; with just enough history to put the text into context. While the focus is mainly on the British and the Western Front, he also looks at winged warfare in Africa, the Alps, the Balkans, and Middle East. This is a lively well written and insightful addition to the canon. It might even be in the running for the 2019 Book of the Year.
449. Under the Bearskin
by Mark Evans with Andrew Sharples
It took me a me a while to pluck this one from the to-read-pile. Maybe that was because the author endorsements on the cover were from guys who have put out some stinkers of their own - Andy McNab, Damien Lewis and Patrick Hennessey. But my fears that this Brit-book about service in Afghanistan would be a re-run of Hennessey's truly dire Junior Officer's Reading Club were unjustified. Evans proved to be a far more sympathetic character than the odious Hennessey and able, with help from his former-Guards-officer-turned-writer mate Andy Sharples, to tell his tale well. The story centres around Evans's role as a liaison/trainer with the Afghan National Army during a hard fought siege in Helmand Province. That tale is interspersed with accounts of his mental health problems on his return to the UK as his life spirals downwards due to PTSD. His mentoring team is almost destroyed by an Apache helicopter attack. Evans is tortured from then on by questions about his own conduct. His relations with the commander a detachment from the old 5th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, once the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, also lead to interesting reading and cause further doubts in Evans's mind about his own competence. But it's noticeable that he only ever identifies fellow officers by name, with one exception; Sgt Chantelle Taylor, the head medic at the base. She wrote her own account of the siege and I wish I could remember what she had to say about Evans, the Argylls' officers and the Afghans. It is also noticeable that Evans and Sharples do not say what happened to the rest of the mentoring team, especially the ones injured in the Apache attack. It turns out that Evans had BUPA health insurance, so his experiences of PTSD treatment are not typical for a British soldier. This is one of the better books to have come out of the British experience in Afghanistan. He does not shy away from the uncomfortable truth that the British, as with the other NATO and US contingents, were in Afghanistan on sufferance from the locals and to many Afghans they were deeply unwelcome. I suspect Evans's therapy sessions may have made him more self-aware and honest about himself than the general run of British officers and the reader benefits from his candour.
448. Out of Step
by Michael Carver
I was quite pleased to get hold of this autobiography of Field Marshal Lord Carver, a former head of the British armed forces. A lot of this was down to his enjoyable and well informed books about the Second World War in the Western Desert, Tobruk and Alamein, and his Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Italy. This book went well until the last four or five chapters, which quite frankly were a chore. The decline sets in around the time he became the professional head of the British Army, Chief of the General Staff, in 1973. Up until this period Carver could be brutally honest about some of his fellow officers and political masters, both on the UK and USA, but discretion and state secrets now began to hamper the tale. The story of his time as Chief of the Defence Staff reads like a self-exculpatory plea in mitigation; though it does give a hint of how deliberately dysfunctional the way very senior command in the British armed forces is permitted to work. The tale of his involvement in the attempted elimination of white minority rule in Rhodesia is long winded and quite probably incomplete. But hindsight and knowledge of what happened in what is now called Zimbabwe since the book was published in 1989 may have coloured my disappointment in this section. Carver was obviously groomed from an early stage of his career for a top job and few I suspect would describe him as a maverick, despite the title of the book. Possibly the most interesting parts are his days in the desert, much of it as a staff officer, and later in Northwest Europe as one of the, if not the, youngest Brigadiers in the British Army. Peacekeeping in Cyprus and the British withdrawal from the Far East make interesting reading but what he has to say about the campaigns Northern Ireland and Kenya now read as coming far too close to simply toeing the official line. He does hint at being disturbed by the conduct of some of the paratroopers during the events of Bloody Sunday, but just the same quotes approvingly from the now discredited Widgery Report. Our US "allies" do not always come over particularly well; for example, I didn't know that they wanted to use tanks to break the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1947. So, an interesting read but nowhere a contender for the 2019 Book of the Year.
447. Military Blunders
by Saul David
The subtitle of this book is "The how and why of military failure". But in truth Saul David fails to deliver much insight or analysis in this 1997 book. As a summary of some of history's military fiascos, the book works well enough. Perhaps David spread his net too wide and might have been better to focus on fewer battles or campaigns than the 30 covered in this book. In several cases the coverage is too superficial and lightweight. Most reputable historians these days are agreed that 1915 Gallipoli Campaign never had a snowball's hope in Hell of succeeding and Sir Frederick Stopford's incompetence at Suvla was not a key factor. David made his name with a book claiming that the 51st Highland Division was deliberately sacrificed by Churchill in 1940. He rewarms the same fare in this book but even by his own account the loss of the bulk of the division could just as easily be explained by incompetence as a misplaced sense of political expediency aimed at keeping France in the war. The use of the word "infer" is a red flag. David breaks the book down into chapters which look at different reasons for failure, i.e., over-confidence, poor planning, incompetence, or poor troop performance. I wasn't always convinced by his arguments. But it's hard to disagree with his characterisation of Lord Louis Mountbatten as "dashing but incompetent". Until Dieppe in 1942, the Mountbatten's victims were restricted to the poor sods who made up the crews of his three ships. I'm not sure David was aware in 1997 that the word "squaw" was offensive.
446. Somme 1914-18: Lessons in War
by Martin Marix Evans
I can imagine the pitch to the publisher - let's look at the evolution of the First World War on the Western Front by examining all the battles fought at a certain location. And it wouldn't have hurt that the battlefield chosen was the Somme. Sadly, Martin Marix Evans delivered a bog-standard history which offered very little new insight and was forced to expand the geographic area beyond the Somme to garner enough material. The book plucks first-hand accounts from a wider range than many similar efforts; there is a bigger French contribution than is usually seen and perhaps more input from the United States of America than can be justified. The premise of the book was promising as the Somme area was fought over several times over the war. But I was wary of Evans after reading the error-riddled book he co-authored with that doyen of British military historians Richard Holmes; Battlefield. I wondered at the time, due to the book being so far below Holmes's usual standard, just how much of it was Evans's work. This book went a long way to confirming my suspicions. A couple of the spelling errors had me wondering if it had been badly transcribed from a taped dictation. And someone really have picked up that one notorious British general did not spell his name Hague.
445. The Oxford History of Modern War
edited by Charles Townsend
This is a collection of academic orientated essays looking at warfare since nation states became the norm in the 17th Century and the establishment of standing armies. So, the reader has to do some thinking but in the case of most chapters the effort is well worthwhile. The essays range across a variety of topics including the politics, the technology, the philosophy, women, various levels of conflict, peace movements and history. The quality, both of the discussion and the writing, varies but the standard is generally good. The only chapter I found disappointing was the look at sea warfare which I felt allowed itself to become too narrowly concerned with legal niceties. Most of the authors were based at English or American universities and were among the leading authorities on their subject matter at the time; the edition I read came out in 2004. A rewarding read.
444. The Dark Defile
by Diana Preston
This 2012 account of the disastrous first British invasion and occupation of Afghanistan somehow just falls short. Writer Diana Preston appears to have spent a lot of time going through letters and memoirs looking for first-hand accounts of the 1838 invasion, the occupation of Kabul and then the destruction of the British-Indian army involved in the misconceived and badly mishandled military adventure. But somehow she fails to bring events alive and ended up producing a rather insipid and lacklustre account. The book is not a terrible read but it is not memorable either. A C+, maybe a B-, of a book.
443. In Great Waters
by Spencer Dunmore
A look at the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War through a slightly Canadian lens. Spencer Dunmore had already made his name as a Canadian military historian through his books about air warfare. And in truth he seems rather more comfortable writing about the aviation aspects of the Allies’ desperate battle to prevent German submarines strangling the British war effort. Dunmore also looks at the activities of the German surface ships. The US Navy’s top admiral Ernest King did what he could to make the Germans’ job easier but then few of the participants played a perfect game. It is safe to say that King was not the brightest bulb on the nautical Christmas tree. Putting officers with no experience of aircraft in charge of British escort aircraft carriers was not always the best of ideas either. There was little new in this book when it came to the Big Picture but where Dunmore scores is in his selection of the personal experiences of the participants to illustrate the various facets of the war in the Atlantic. Dunmore is a smooth writer and this was an easy read.
442. War Against the Taliban
by Sandy Gall
I thought veteran TV newsman Sandy Gall retired years and years ago. But certainly, in 2011 when this book came out, he was still very much on his game. What struck me in this look at why the Afghan campaign was faltering in 2011 was the extent to which the West was actually financing the war against itself. The question is how much the picture has changed in the almost a decade since this book was written. One of the main sources of funding and support for the Taliban back in 2011, and I suspect still is today, is the Pakistani government through its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. The Americans sub-contracted the war against the Soviets to the ISI back in the 1980s and even after the Taliban were driven from government in 2001 the US cash was still pouring into the Pakistanis' purse. Pakistan shamelessly used the American money to further its own regional interests and that included funding and supporting the Taliban. Oddly, unbelievably even, the Americans only really woke up to this when Osama Bin Laden was found to be living in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. Another source of cash for the Taliban, according to Gall, was basically protection money paid by both some of the NATO contingents, their civilian transport contractors and numerous international aid projects to the Taliban. Complaints about endemic national corruption in Afghanistan were greeted by locals pointing at the equally wide-spread corruption involving US contractors. Britain does not come out well either. Poor military leadership at the top was only matched be even feebler support for aid projects from the civil service. The dysfunctionality now gripping the UK as result of the Brexit Crisis was only too evident in the Afghan intervention. Confused military command structures in Afghanistan only compounded the inadequate resourcing of the British contribution. And top of the list of reasons for failure in Afghanistan must be the ill-advised and basically stupid 2003 US intervention, aided and abetted by the British, in Iraq. What disappoints me is that much of what Gall highlighted in 2011 was obvious to those on the ground in Afghanistan in 2002. A lot of people who took home a substantial pay packet as servants of the Crown did not do their jobs and the price was paid in dead and maimed squaddies.
441. Too Important for the Generals
by Allan Mallinson
To put it mildly, soldier-turned-novelist Allan Mallinson is no fan of Field Marshal Douglas Haig's conduct of the First World War. In fact, his condemnation of how the war was fought includes most of the senior officers of all the participants. Anyone who hadn't taken the hint from the main title, would almost certainly have a further clue from the sub-heading "Losing and Winning the First World War". While many historians these days labour to rehabilitate Haig's reputation, Mallinson believes the Field Marshal's place in British public consciousness as an unimaginative butcher is close to the mark. As a former British Army officer he has no little insight into the problems of command and he is scathing about the commanders he believes wasted too many lives in obviously futile attempts to break the deadlock on the Western Front. He argues that instead of being rushed into action in 1914 the tiny British Army should have been used to as trainers to create a bigger an army fit for purpose. As it was the vastly expanded army took until late 1917 or early 1918 to become an effective force on the Western Front. But this was after squandering the flower of British manpower in 1915, 1916 and early 1917. He argues that its part in halting the German 1914 offensive could easily have been undertaken by the French and this would have avoided Britain's professional army being pretty much destroyed. He is also a great enthusiast for alternative theatres for offensive operations instead of unimaginative frontal assaults on a German Army which held all the aces on the Western Front. Mallinson is one of the few modern writers I've come across who believes the Dardenelles campaign had the faintest hope of succeeding.
440. Corps Commanders
by Douglas E Delaney
Corps commanders are often the forgotten generals. Canadian military academic Douglas Delaney, the chair of War Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada when he wrote this book, takes a look at these all important middlemen in the chain of military command. He also looks at how and why these men succeeded, and failed, on the battlefields of the Second World War. The corps commanders plan and manage the battles fought by the divisions and take their orders from the Army Commanders, often in the case of these the subjects of this book, Bernard Montgomery. Delaney cast his net wide in his selection of two British and three Canadian corps commanders. They range from the charismatic, such as Brit Brian Horrocks, to the competent but uninspiring Canadian Tommy Burns. There is also the incompetent but politically adept Canadian Charles Foulkes, who was smart enough to leave the real fighting to his talented subordinates in the latter stages of the Second World War but came close to being fired when supported by less able men immediately after the D-Day landings. Few now remember Brit John Crocker but Delaney makes a good case for him. And then there's Canadian Guy Simmonds, innovative and talented but whose people skills let him down and eventually allowed Foulkes leap-frog him in the promotion stakes. This is the best book I've read in 2019 but I'm not sure it will make the shortlist for Book of the Year.
439. Waterloo: New Perspectives
by David Hamilton-Williams
This book generated a lot of controversy when it first came out in 1995. And I'm baffled as to why - though I'm no expert on the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. To me, it is as coherent and plausible account of this much examined battle as most others. It differs from many in arguing that Napoleon did not have an off-day but in fact handled the battle rather well. It is also less eulogistic when it comes to the Duke of Wellington's performance on the 18th June and the days leading up to it. Hamilton-Williams also gave more space, and credit, to the non-British components of Wellington's army than in many accounts I've seen. As Wellington said himself, and I'm paraphrasing, it is as hard to give a coherent account of a battle as of a formal ball. I got the impression that Hamilton-Williams was more comfortable discussing the politics of Napoleon's restoration and the 100 Days than he was on the battlefield. The book squeezes the latter events of the battle, including the Prussian offensive at Plancenoit and the French Guard attack on Wellington's centre, into a surprisingly small number of pages and I was left wondering if he suddenly realised he was reaching the total number of words agreed with his publisher and condensed his account of the battle accordingly.
438. Battle for the Falklands (2): Naval Forces
by Adrian English with Anthony Watts
This Osprey Men at Arms Special was rushed out, along with two similar titles discussing the Air and Land campaigns in the aftermath of the 1982 Falklands War. Considering the quick turnaround and that the dust had not yet settled, much what appears in the book has stood the test of time. But then, it was, necessarily, a very bare-bones recitation of events. It also stresses what a near-run thing the Falklands War was. And that if the Argentinians had just been a little more patient, the British would a year or so later have run down its fleet to the extent that it would have been unable to recapture the islands. Nor do authors English and Watts shy away from discussing the inadequacies of many of the Royal Navy's vessels and their equipment. As is usual with an Osprey title, the book is heavily illustrated. But instead of the usual artists' renditions of uniforms and equipment in the centre section, there are colour photographs.
437. No Moon Tonight
by Don Charlwood
While not what I would class as a “classic” of life with RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War, No Moon Tonight is well worth reading. Australian navigator Don Charlwood proves to be a sensitive and thoughtful observer of life and death, a lot of death, among the bomber crews of the RAF in about 1942. He flew in Wellingtons, Manchesters and Lancasters and was lucky enough to be part of one of the very few crews from that era to complete the mandated 30 missions. He touchingly admits to not always being the best of navigators. More of the book takes place on the ground than in the air, but this is perhaps understandable when so many of the missions involved sitting at a map table cocooned in the fuselage of a bomber and must have been very much alike from his point of view. He also gives voice to his doubts about the morality of area bombing and its value to the war effort. This is an interesting glimpse behind the navigators’ curtain.
by Jenny Macleod
Only about a third of this short book tells the story of the disastrous British invasion of Turkey in 1915. The rest is devoted to discussing how the campaign is commemorated, with chapters looking at Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland and, finally at Turkey. The focus is very much on the politics of remembrance and very interesting they are. The discussions of commemorations in Ireland, where for a long time the hard-core Republican regime pretended that no decent Irishman fought anyone apart from the British during the First World War; Australia, where Anzac became the focus of growing national awareness; and Turkey, where it was tied up with the almost deification of Kemal Attaturk, regarded as the Turkish republic's founding father; were particularly interesting. So far the fighting is concerned, Macleod has little to say that is new. Personally, I was disappointed that the battle in which my great grandfather died was dismissed in one sentence covering five days of fighting. But in summary, the whole concept of the campaign was misguided and mismanaged, and the Turks were better led and in many cases better soldiers than the British, French, Anzacs, Indian Army men and the other Allied troops they faced.
435. Taking Command
by General David Richards
I paid full price for this, which trust me is unusual for me these days. But General Richards’s name had come up as the commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan and I was interested to see what he had to say for himself. The autobiography received mixed reviews when it came out and some accused Richards of using the word “I” too much. Well, it is an autobiography. Anyway, at the end of it, I didn’t want my money back. David Richards proved to be a better writer than many of the reviewers made out and it was an easy and engaging read. It was a little more lightweight than I would have hoped but I knew better than to expect much washing of dirty linen in public. What did come over is that the decision making process at the top of the British military is dysfunctional; but that is how the politicians like it – playing the top sailors, airmen and soldiers off against each other. The senior civil servants probably like it too – it’s only really the rank and file who pay the price after all. And maybe, some day, all of us will come to rue this institutional dysfunction. Interestingly, much of what Richards had to say back in 2013/14 about Afghanistan and Libya still holds true. So, the accusations of arrogance and self-importance levelled by some reviewers could be more than a tad harsh. Though I have to question his judgement in including in the book a photo of himself and the odious Aung San Suu Ky.
434. The Savage War
by Murray Brewster
This book was a disappointment, a big disappointment. The clue should have been in the subtitle - "The Untold Battles of Afghanistan". I should have thought that one through. The author Murray Brewster is a journalist. If the battles were really untold, then what was he doing during his day job? But while the subtitle may be the publisher's responsibility, the poor writing is Brewster's. There are two threads running through the book. One is Brewster's experiences as a newspaper reporter in Afghanistan. Other reviewers have accused Brewster of grafting whole passages of the Vietnam classic Dispatches into his text. I don't know about that, but I know I didn't recognise his description of Kabul airport. His account is a better read than I could written. His description of an incident in which an American pilot killed four Canadian soldiers and maimed several others as the "mistaken" dropping of a 250kg bomb got my back up. Major "Psycho" Schmidt deliberately dropped the bomb, ignoring instructions from the ground; it was not a mistake. The problem was that he didn't know who he was bombing and after finding out the guys on the ground were not Americans, perhaps he didn't really care. Brewster is at his best in this book when he pores over documents released under the Canadian Freedom of Information Act and discusses the conflicts in the corridors of power. But there's not enough good stuff. And there is too much poor editing. ".. out of fifty soldiers that made the crossing that morning, there were more than twenty casualties, including dead and wounded". Who else is Brewster including in the casualty list? A visit to a "girl's school". Just one pupil? Did Canadian soldiers really believe in the "invisibility" of their armoured vehicles? A bridge wired with "ninety mortars"? What should have been a very interesting book was a chore to finish. The one good thing I can say is that unlike many Canadian journalist's books about Afghanistan it is not a love letter to the Canadian Military.
433. Steel From the Sky
by Roger Ford
I am not sure if this book wasn't a missed opportunity. The book looks at the activities of the, usually, three-man teams, known as Jedburghs, parachuted into France by the Alliesto help train and arm the "French Resistance" after D-Day in June 1944. After a brief introduction and details of the training undertaken by the Jedburghs, Ford spends much of the book detailing each mission one-by-one. These accounts are based on the after-action reports provided by the Jedburghs, which Ford tried to double-check from other sources, including memoirs and the reports of other Jedburghs. The teams show themselves to be heart-touchingly human. Some claim credit for things they shouldn't have, some of the men are even, reading between the lines, obviously not suited to a combat role. The problem with Ford's approach is that many of the reports repeat basically the same experiences; feuding resistance groups, theft of kit by the French, all-too-often mishandled parachute drops (more likely when US aircrews were involved), self-proclaimed resistance groups that behave more like bandits and in the final analysis arriving in France too late to influence events. The result is too fragmented for my taste. I would rather have something that give the Bigger Picture better and used the after-action reports to provide telling illustrations of the matters being discussed. I also found it difficult to remember who was who as Ford switched between real names, noms-de-guerre and code names with baffling frequency. More reminders of which resistance group were Communist or Gaullist or somewhere in between would have come in handy. If Ford wanted the reader to feel some of the frustration felt by the Jedburgh teams in a complicated fast-moving war, then he succeeded. This is an interesting topic, I'm just not sure the approach taken in this book does it justice.
432. Wellington's Rifles
by Ray Cusick
It is hard to know what to say about this book. The author, Ray Cusick, was dying when he wrote it and did not live to see it on the bookshelves. I got the impression that, perhaps, if Cusick had been in better health and lived longer then this might have been a good book. But instead, it comes across as part of an early draft version. I found myself reading some sentences several times in attempt to fathom what was being said. At first I thought Cusick made a mistake when he apparently said there were four Highland regiments in 1800, the 71st, 72nd, 79th and 92nd. But I came to think he meant there were four Highland regiments represented in the ranks of the Experimental Rifle Corps. The selection of battles featured seemed eccentric and I was left wondering if Cusick had originally intended to cast his net considerably wider to illustrate both the Rifle Regiments and Light Infantry battalions in action. Although the 71st Highland regiment converted to Light Infantry in 1809, it gets scant coverage in the book and much of the little mention it gets what is said is in the context of fighting alongside the 52nd Oxfordshire Light Infantry at the Battle of Waterloo. I was unable to make sense of the reference to the "second American war" of 1794. The book also suffers from several unnecessary repetitions. Despite the main title, about a third of the book is about the evolution of the Light Infantry concept in North America and the Caribbean from 1750 onward. It might have been better for Cusick's reputation if a co-author had been brought in to build on and properly finish the work done by Cusick rather than publish a book trying to draw together a partially completed project.
431. Night Raid
by Taylor Downing
This book claims to be about the famous raid in 1942 in which men of the predominately Scottish “C” Company of the Parachute Regiment’s 2nd Battalion helped snatch top secret German radar equipment from a detection station on the north coast of France. But it seemed to me that about the half the book is about British radar research before the Second World War and in its early years. There is certainly more science than bang-bang. I’m afraid I lost faith in Downing when he announced that Inverary was “an old garrison town” in northwest Scotland, on the northern bank of Loch Fyne. How much trust as a researcher and historian can be given to someone who cannot even be bothered to look at a decent map? And I suspect Inverary hadn’t been home to a British garrison since the days of Rob Roy. I can’t be bothered finding out if the Glider Pilot Regiment was ever known simply as the “Glider Regiment” but I know the United States had more than two airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st, because the 17th was dropped on the east bank of the Rhine in 1945. Once C Company drop in, the book improves but I will be disappointed if there are not other better books about the Bruneval Raid.
430. Turning Points in Military History
by William R Weir
This book isn't so much about, as the title would suggest, major turning points in military history, but rather a gallop through the story of warfare. William R Weir is fine until he gets to the relatively recent past and then his American pre-occupations and biases reveal themselves. The book ends just after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and he makes some good points about how mistaken it was for the invaders to expect themselves to be regarded as "liberators". But up until the First American Civil War, sometimes referred to as the American War of Independence, Weir does a good job of discussing the evolution of war, though much of his focus is on western warfare. It is a brief but thoughtful summary. I wasn't sure about this book, based on his 50 Battles that Changed History but noted in my review of it (See Review 38) that I'd noted that Weir had some interesting insights and ideas. This book lacks the basic ignorance of well established facts that often makes me regret starting a book by an American author. So, kudos to Weir for that at least.
by David Blakeley
Actually, this is another book from the Damien Lewis ghost-writing machine. To put it mildly, the quality of Lewis's work variable. This isn't one of his better efforts. Captain Dave "The Face" Blakeley led an abortive reconnaissance mission into Iraq in 2003. There is too much repetition; too much about Blakeley's extremely expensive watch, sunglasses and his French lawyer paramour; and when the shooting finally starts it swerves too often into war-porn. The feel for dialogue shows a distinct tin earS; well written dialogue doesn't need to label each speaker every time because the reader quickly picks up on the individual speech patterns, in the case of this book the same voice is used for everyone. Cut a long story short, Blakeley and his eight-man team, in three heavily armed landrovers, are supposed to check out and mark airfield deep inside Iraq for a helicopter-borne landing but encounter stronger resistance than expected and have to fight their way back to American lines. It's hard to know how seriously to take a book that claims that the bulk of the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment went into Suez in 1956 in helicopters. Such ignorance of airborne operations and lessons learned from them is woeful in book carrying the name of a Parachute Regiment officer. I guess all those photos of the last British battalion level drop must be fake. On the subject of photos, the picture of Blakeley's landrover after it recrossed the American lines doesn't appear to show even a scratch on the bodywork despite the "malleting" described in the book.
428. Victory at Sea
by Lieutenant Commander P K Kemp
This book was better than I expected. It is one-volume history of Britain's war at sea 1939-45 written by the head of the Royal Navy's Historical Section. According to the introduction, it had been planned to issue an accessible official one-volume history as early as 1948 but it took almost a decade and a private publisher for it to be released. The Royal Navy did issue a hefty three-volume official history written by Captain Stephen Roscoe. I wanted to read this book as soon as possible after I'd digested, and could still remember, Roscoe's Churchill and the Admirals (See Review 422) about wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill's often ill-advised interference with naval strategy. Kemp does not single out Churchill as being to blame for the several miss-steps admitted to in this book when it came to the War at Sea. The big secret not mentioned in this book is that the British could read much of German radio traffic thanks to the decoding of the Enigma code. Sometimes Kemp refers to "naval intelligence" sources but this is the closest he comes to mentioning the role played by the codebreakers in Victory at Sea. The story might have been more interesting and less laudatory of Admiralty skill if Kemp had been allowed to discuss Enigma. But it is still an interesting read. Recounting a war fought in almost every body of water in the world, with the exception of the Antarctic coastline, in a single, affordable, volume is a task which means a lot of brevity. But Kemp manages to give just enough detail to bring the battles at sea, from the battleship duels to the activities of midget submarines, to life. He is also good on the bigger picture and strategy of worldwide naval operations. The early part of the book is taken up by the rundown, almost to the point of impotence, of the Royal Navy between the two world wars. Many of the wartime shortcomings, defeats and near defeats are explained in the context of the decision to give the lion's share of the armament spending to the Royal Air Force. Kemp more hints than spells out the almost war-losing effects of this policy in context of anti-submarine warfare and the lack of essential maritime attack and patrol aircraft due to the RAF's insistence on giving priority to Bomber Command over Coastal Command. The American Navy does not escape criticism either. Admiral Ernest King will need to be added to my list of Americans who came close to messing things up to an irretrievable extent. It's no secret that King did not buy into the plan to defeat Germany first and then deal with Japan. That meant a lot of people died in both the Pacific and the Atlantic to satisfy his, and the US Navy's, greed for glory.
427. The War Correspondents: The Anglo-Zulu War
by Prof. John Laband and Ian Knight
This book proved a pleasant surprise, if only because the book in the series covering he Second Boer War (1899-1902)(See Review 205) was such a disappointment. The Boer War version turned out to have drawn only from reports in The Times. This book spreads its net a little wider, though most of the newspapers quoted were based in what is now South Africa. This gives a slightly different perspective than British readers are used to. And the use of contemporary newspaper accounts, sometimes simply reprints of personal letters, helps give a strong feeling as to how people felt about events as they were happening. Ian Knight is a world authority on the conflict and that shows in the excellent and knowledgeable text linking the newspaper accounts. I don't know much about Professor Laband but on the basis of this book I will keep an eye out for anything else he has written. The twin disasters of Isandlwana and epic defence Rorke's Drift, immortalised in the 1960s film Zulu, both get coverage but do not overwhelm the book. The drudgery, brutality and sheer scale of the war are all excellently captured. This is a worthy addition to the library of anyone interested in Queen Victoria's Little Wars.
426. Behind Enemy Lines
by Sir Tommy Macpherson, with Richard Bath
This tale of wartime resistance/partisan/commando daring-do is engaging told. Macpherson served with the short-lived 11 (Scottish) Commando before being captured, eventually escaping from a German Prisoner of War camp and then parachuting into France to help co-ordinate resistance activity around the time of D-Day. Macpherson apparently made quite the impression by wearing his Cameron Highlander kilt as much as possible. The conquest of France, much of the country was pro-Nazi for much of the war and whose troops Macpherson had fought as commando, meant a transfer to northeast Italy to work with partisan fighters there. On several occasions the feuding between communist and non-communist partisan groups proved more deadly than the fight against the Germans and their collaborators. On the subject of collaborators, Macpherson has little sympathy for the Cossacks repatriated to almost certain death in the Soviet Union by the British after the Second World War. His verdict on Field Marshal Montgomery, along the lines of "nice but lonely", is also interesting. About a third of the book is about the Second World War with the first third about Macpherson's privileged up-bringing and the last part third is about his post-war business career and life, with a lot about sport. His boardroom battles seem as though they might have been as interesting reading as his wartime experiences. But I was left unclear as to whether he was actually proud of his work with the National Coal Board during the British miners' strike of the 1980s. Maybe I should have thought more about the endorsement on the front cover by Jeffrey Archer. But as I say, it's an engaging tale well told.
by Peter de Rosa
There may be some out there who believe that an armed insurrection at Easter must have involved angels and saints. If you are one of them, then this is the book about the 1916 Rising in Dublin for you; especially if you are also a Catholic mystic. The rebels, according to de Rosa, were all wise, brave and pure of heart. Many of the members of the Crown Forces are murdering thugs. The first clue that there was something wrong with this book was when the King's Own Scottish Borderers were described as kilted. Not only that but the Dublin crowd in 1914 teased them about their kilts. Anyone who has seen a photo of the KOSB around the time when its men opened fire on the a mob hauling smuggled rifles into Dublin can see they are not wearing kilts. The next clue is the amount of dialogue in the book which is surely a figment of de Rosa's imagination. Of course, perhaps the words were recorded in letters or memoirs. But de Rosa's grasp of the facts suggests a chronic lack of proper research. There was no British 178th Division, though men of the 178th Brigade were sent to Dublin in the days following the seizure of several key buildings in Dublin. Colonel Stewart was killed trying to get out of Khartoum in the mid 1880s, not into it. There are numerous other examples. Much the same has to be said for the thoughts ascribed to people in the book. It's unlikely anyone is privy to them. And the words de Rosa puts in the words of his characters in this grotesque eulogy show a tin ear when it comes to dialogue. I've never come across a Belfast man who used the word "bloomin'". The book dwells at almost pornographic length on the executions, and the lead-up to them, of the rebel leaders and in fact ends with the last one. I would actually have been interested in de Rosa's explanation of how the feeling of outrage against the fanatics who fought in the interests of the German Kaiser for their own vision of Home Rule turned into to widespread support for Irish independence. The people of Dublin who shouted abuse at the rebels are in de Rosa's opinion either venal or criminal, often both. I regret picking up this piece of tosh. And I'm disappointed in it because the Easter Rising is a fascinating historical episode with tragic repercussions which have lasted to this day. If I was awarding a prize for the worst book I've read in 2019, this would be without doubt the firm favourite at the moment to win.