War in a Stringbag
by Charles Lamb
As I've written before, I think the main criteria for literary award judges should be "I wish I'd written that". Well, I couldn't have written the 2020 Book of the Year because I didn't fly a Royal Navy Swordfish bi-plane during the Second World War. But I do wish that I could tell a story as engaging as Charles Lamb does in War in a Stringbag. Lamb somehow mixes humility with humour, hilarity with horror, as he recounts his part in some of the most Royal Navy's most important actions in war. As well as an excellent raconteur, Lamb also shows himself to be a thoughtful and humane man. This is a book which easily justifies the claim that is a "classic". Lamb just pipped William Johnstone's A War of Patrols which takes a refreshingly honest look at the Canadian Army's part in the Korean War and puts the record straight when it comes to the much maligned battalions specially raised for the conflict. Iain Ballantyne's look at the activities of British submarines during the Cold War in Hunter Killers was the third book on the short list. An extraordinary and genuinely little known tale exceptionally well told.
A rash of late contenders made it hard to choose the 2019 Book of the Year. The contenders included Commander by Stephen Taylor (Review 470); Lawrence of Arabia’s War by Neil Faulkner (Review 460); 1914-1918 by Lyn Macdonald (468); Marked for Death by James Hamilton-Paterson (450); Corps Commanders by Douglas Delaney (440) and The Lost Battle: Crete 1941 by Callum MacDonald (474). But at the end of the day it came down to Faulkener’s account of the First World War in the Middle East and Hamilton-Paterson’s account of war in the air 1914-18. Both were well written and took refreshing looks as subjects which many may have felt left very little new to say. Hamilton-Paterson came out top by the narrowest of margins for his insightful and informative approach which proved just slightly more thought-provoking than Faulkener. It was a very strong field and I would have little hesitation in recommending any of the contenders.
In the Service of the Sultan
by Ian Gardiner
Well, the short list for the 2018 Book of the Year Award was very short - three books only. Dan Collins did a nice, not say sensitive job, of interviewing 25 winners of gallantry awards from Iraq and Afghanistan in his book In Foreign Fields. The former sports journalist obviously had a knack for getting soldiers to open up to him and tell their stories. The second runner-up also featured a gallantry medal winner. This time it was Australian SAS signaller Martin "Jock" Wallace in a story told by fellow Aussie journalist Sandra Lee. Lee succeeds in bringing Wallace to life and also the wintry Afghan mountainside where the SAS man and a company from the US 10th Mountain Division battled a determined and skillful Taliban force for 18 desperate hours in 2002. But the winner is In the Service of the Sultan by Ian Gardiner. The Sultan is the Sultan of Oman, a former Cameronians/Scottish Rifles officer, the time is the mid-1970s, and Gardiner is a young Royal Marine officer on attachment. He proves to be a born raconteur with a knack for putting his patter into very readable prose. He is also a skilled soldier, who would go to command a company of Royal Marines in the Falklands War, and the book is an excellent primer on small unit actions and counter-insurgency operations, in this case against communist-backed rebel tribesmen in the province of Dhofar. He also incorporates the experiences of many of his fellow officers serving the Sultan and has an obvious affection and respect for his Muslim soldiers. This book took an early lead in the search for the 2018 Book of the Year and never really lost it.
The Manner of Men
by Stuart Tootal
The 2017 Book of the Year is....... drum roll....... The Manner of Men by Stuart Tootal. This year's shortlist was stronger than in many previous years and in a change of format there will be a list of the runners-up. Tootal took the title with this account of the 9th Parachute Battalion's attack on the Merville Battery on the morning of D Day in 1944 which prevented its guns being used to their full effect on the eastern wing of the Allied invasion fleet. Tootal, as a former parachute battalion commander in Afghanistan, showed an understanding of the problems faced by the 9th Battalion's leaders and how they were dealt with rarely seen in most recent books about the Second World War. And as a combat veteran he may have had more luck getting the surviving veterans of the 1944 battle to open up than many modern writers would. The accounts of the fighting are unflinching without tipping over into war pornography. He is also good on the internal power politics of an infantry battalion. OK, to the runners-up. Gallipoli by Peter Hart was a very strong contender. He more than captured the squalor and randomness of death on the Turkish peninsula in 1915. On a higher level he also made a strong case for the whole enterprise being doomed from the start and argues it would have failed even without the muddle-headedness and incompetence of the senior British officer corps. Zulu Rising by Ian Knight also only narrowly missed the top award. Knight busted many myths about the massacre of British troops at Islandwana in 1879 and the subsequent successful defence of the mission station at Rorke's Drift. He brought some much needed balance by paying more attention to Zulu accounts of the war.
A Spy Among Friends
by Ben Macintyre
This year had a longer shortlist for the Book of the Year than has been seen for several years past. At the end of the day the winner was decided using the old "By Jings, I wish I'd written that" rule of thumb. And the book I wished I had written was A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre. The spy being referred to in the title is the loathsome Kim Philby. The "friends" are the intelligence agents he took for a ride after he infiltrated British Secret Service on behalf of his Soviet masters in Moscow. Not included as "friends" are the numerous people murdered by the Communists acting on the information he supplied. Sadly, charm does not come through on the printed page - and Philby at his peak in the 1940s and 50s was said to be charming man. Personally, I found the Philby portrayed in this book, and several of his friends, loathsome. I suspect that was Macintyre's intent. Hindsight is always 20/20 but it is hard to believe that Philby would have lasted as long as he did if a number of people had done their jobs even competently. Macintyre does a great job of bringing the various characters and the world they inhabited to life. There have been many books written about Philby and his fellow upper class traitors, but few spell out so clearly the culpability of British Society in their crimes. It would be nice to think it could never happen again - but it could. A cautionary tale indeed. Anyway, Macintyre beat out Hew Strachan, for his wide-ranging and sober book of the TV series The First World War; Bob Shepherd for his memoir of his days as a private security consultant and bodyguard, The Circuit; and David Cordingly's excellent "biography" of a British warship during the Napoleonic Wars, Billy Ruffian. Robert Kershaw's look at the life and experiences of tank crews during the Second World War, Tank Men, would also have been in the running but for some silly factual errors.
Gulf War One
By Hugh McManners
The 2015 Book of the Year has gone to a book that I almost put back on the shelf when I found it in a charity shop. Gulf War One by Falklands War veteran Hugh McManners looked, at first sight, like a bog-standard collection of literary sound bites about a conflict in 1991 which has pretty much slipped from popular memory. But McManners skillfully stitched the first person recollections into a coherent and highly readable account of Britons at war. Many of the interviewees were senior officers or politicians, including then Prime Minister John Major. McManners seems to have caught them in their more candid moments and the picture they paint is far from pretty, sometimes more reminiscent of the Crimean War than a modern conflict. Perhaps as so many were retired by the time the book was written that they were prepared to be more truthful than they could afford to be 20 years before. McManners also includes a strong sprinkling of squaddies. The picture that emerges is a credible mixture of bravery and jobs-worth-ism. There have been a lot of books written about the British Army's deployment to Afghanistan. I hope it will not be 20 years before someone produces a book of this one's calibre about that conflict.
England's Last War Against France
by Colin Smith
In another context, journalism awards to be precise, I suggested that one of the main qualifications for the winner should be whether the judge can, or wants to, admit "Jeepers Creepers, I wish I'd written that". Well, I wish I'd been quicker off the mark and written about Britain's clashes with Vichy France during the Second World War. The French killed a lot of Britons and their allies but it's something that isn't discussed much. After the war, everyone was persuaded to pretend that the French were gallant allies. Everyone in France was, supposedly, in The Resistance. The truth is, of course, far more complex. Journalist Colin Smith does a good job of peeling away some of the rotten onion skin to get at something far closer to the truth. One of the reasons I know he did a good job is because I had already started compiling a file on the French and their collaboration with Nazi Germany. I'd already written, in Scottish Military Disasters, about No. 11 (Scottish) Commando's 1941 fight with the Vichy French on the Litani River in present-day Lebanon. And more recently I'd come across an account of the Royal Scots Fusiliers campaign in Madagascar. So, I knew there was a complex and intriguing story to be told. Smith's book only confirmed that. I doubt if I could have done a better job of telling this sorry tale than Smith did.
The Bang-Bang Club
by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva
The 2013 Book of the Year turned out to be a three-way race, and a very close contest at that. Eventually I decided to go with The Bang-Bang Club, a book about photographers I suspected before I started it that I wouldn’t like. I expected a self-indulgent tale of high-maintenance prima donnas and war junkies. Instead I found I was reading a thoughtful account of murder and mayhem in South Africa black townships in the run-up to the first democratic elections there in 1994. The other books in the running were The Taliban Don’t Wave by former Canadian Army officer Robert Semrau, who was court-martialed for executing a badly wounded Taliban fighter. It was one of the few Canadian books to come out of Afghanistan that did not paint Canadian troops as being, without exception, paragons of professionalism, courage and honesty. The Canadian military does attract some very high calibre people but it also has some flawed people. Writers who fail to acknowledge that are short-changing both the troops and the reader. However, making it Book of the Year would have meant three out of four awards going to books about Afghanistan. The third book in contention, Road of Bones by Fergal Keane about the 1944 Battle of Kohima against the Japanese. It was an excellent depiction of men at war from one of Britain’s top broadcast journalists but I couldn’t help feeling that it was beginning to run out of steam a few chapters before the end. That said, I’d highly recommend all three of these books and any one of them could have won the 2013 Book of the Year.
Dead Men Risen
by Toby Harnden
I don’t know if this doorstep of a book (656 pages) is indeed “the defining story of Britain’s war in Afghanistan” as claimed on the front cover. But I can say it is one of the best I’ve read. Daily Telegraph journalist Harnden, a former Royal Navy officer, takes a detailed and hard look at the Welsh Guards’ operations in Afghanistan in 2009. The story is seen mainly through the eyes of the officers and senior non-commissioned officers, but is none the worse for that. It is a tale of stoicism and flashes of bravery. Grown men cry. But it’s also a balanced account and several men in the book lose their bottle. There are also accusations of incompetence and cowardice. The Labour Government of time comes in for harsh criticism for under-resourcing its troops in Afghanistan. Senior commanders are also criticised for ill-judged strategies and tactics. Although Harnden doesn’t name names, some senior officers seemed to have been telling Labour that they could do the job with the resources available and then briefing the Tory opposition at the time about shortages of crucial equipment. There’s little doubt that Harnden does not approve of the British policy of spreading their troops too thinly across Helmand and ending up controlling no territory beyond the range of their rifles. Nearly every foot patrol ends up fighting its way back to base. Roadside bombs take a heavy toll of the soldiers. The senior commanders initially putting the success of the bombs down to the incompetence of the soldiers sweeping for them, rather than the sophistication of the bomb makers, is a very telling indictment of the men running the campaign. The message of this book is clear – if you’re going to fight a war, do it properly. But this book is not a polemic, it is a snapshot of the Brits at war and a good one. Harnden gives voice to the men on the ground who question not only how the campaign was being fought in 2009 but whether it should have been fought at all.
The Sharp End
by Tim Cook
If I was offering a prize for the best military history book I've read in the past year, this would be it. The book is the story of the Canadian Army during the first two years of the First World War. But I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the First World War, or any war for that matter.
Cook, the Canadian War Museum's expert on the conflict, has delved deeply into both the official records and private letters, to tell the story of the Canadians as they built up their army from a few regulars and Boer War veterans into one of the crack formations on the Western Front. Mistakes were made, many mistakes, and Cook doesn't shy away from discussing them. Nor to does he avoid some of the unpleasant truths, such as the execution of prisoners. His unblinking eye roams freely over the bickering and petty jealousies of the senior officers and the misery of the frontline soldiers' lives in the trenches. Few who sailed with the First Contingent made it back to Canada unscathed and many did not come back at all. Battalions are wiped out in desperate battles which achieved little. Cook cleverly weaves discussion of various aspects of the soldiers' lives, from medical care to leave arrangement and food, in between accounts of these battles.
He has a great eye for a telling quote drawn from a letter home or a diary which brings the horror of the first industrial war to life. Those of you who've read Scottish Military Disasters may remember that I was dismissive of the true combat value of the bayonet, beyond scaring the living daylights out of an already shaken foe. But Cook's changed my mind. He's right when he argues that few men were treated for bayonet wounds because bayonet fights were usually to the death. If there was ever a conflict where the bayonet might have had some value it was in the rat-trap trenches where there was nowhere to run and a bullet could just as easily kill a friend as a foe. The invention of the submachine-gun had changed things by the time the Second World War came around.
I'm starting to judge books about the First World War by the way they treat Haig and his senior commanders. Cook is fair and realistic. I suspect one reason why Cook's work stands head and shoulders above much writing on Canadian military history is that he has a wide knowledge about the First World War as a whole. Too many other writers' claims of amazing Canadian innovation are based on a profound ignorance of what was going on in the British Expeditionary Force outwith the Canadian Corps.
An Ordinary Soldier and Task Force Helmand
By Doug Beattie, with Philip Gomm
Looking in the bookshop at Heathrow Airport recently I got the impression that every soldier who has served in Afghanistan has written a book about their time there. If you can only read one, or maybe two, then this read something by Doug Beattie.
As a mentor and trainer to first the Afghan National Police, in the first book, and the Afghan National Army, in the second, Beattie went toe-to-toe with the Taliban nearly every day he was in the field. This stuff is from the heart and not second-hand, as told to a journalist or some flabby ex-soldier turned writer. Beattie insists that he's just an ordinary soldier and is full of praise for the small team of British squaddies, often not obvious hero material, who took the war to the Taliban. He doesn't pull many punches with his opinions and is often outspoken. It was only towards the end of An Ordinary Soldier that I realised that the first draft had been written as a form of self-therapy following his return home from his first deployment to Afghanistan.
This book comes from an unusual viewpoint because Beattie rose through the ranks to Regimental Sergeant Major and then became one of the few late-entry officers not to be shunted off behind a desk as battalion family welfare officer but to actually see frontline action. Beattie is a character, a real scrapper, and brings perspective sadly too seldom seen in military books. He certainly didn't trigger my bullshit detector.