Monday, 10 May 2021

Book Review: Hitlerjugend, 12th SS Pz Div, Normandy, Saunders/Hone.


Superb! A thoroughly gripping account of the role of the SS Hitlerjugend’s role in the  Normandy ‘44 campaign. From the units creation, to its deployment and combat, opposite British and Canadian forces in the battle for Caen and beyond. Well illustrated with maps and photographs, and enlivened with firsthand accounts, I found this a terrifically engaging and informative read. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Book Reviews: Anthony Tucker Jones

Today’s post is another of my occasional ‘trinity’ or trilogy reviews. On this occasion under review we have three titles, all on WWII armour, by author Anthony Tucker-Jones: Allied Armour, Stalin’s Armour and Hitler’s Armour. 


Allied Armour, 1939-45

Whilst well enough written, Allied Armour - and by Allied what’s really meant is British and American - is, to a very great extent, rather cloyingly data-rich and dry, mostly comprising recitations of the many campaigns in which its subject was involved, with a lot of commander’s names, unit numbers and place names, but - unusually and, it must be said, unhelpfully - no maps. 

I can see why some might be critical of such books, as they are neither deep dives into the tanks themselves, nor any of the particular campaigns. Rather what we have is a series of succinct synopses of the various campaigns as a whole, with a focus on the armoured warfare aspects. Still, I think having works of this type provides a kind of mid-level matrix, knowledge of which is very useful. This can then be deepened by works of more detail on specific armour or actions. 

From Matildas at Arras, via Faliase to the Rhine, 16 chapters cover not only the entire war in the west - including the North African and Mediterranean campaigns - but also the Australasian and Pacific theatres. And in the final 17th chapter, Industrial Muscle, we learn the true scale of armour production for each of the various combatant powers. For example, British and German tank production was roughly equal in quantity, if not quality. But against the combined industrial output of Uncles Sam and Joe, the Axis were doomed. Sherman tank production alone being more or less equal to all British and German tank manufacture combined!

Two appendices list all the Allied armoured divisions and, crucially, there's an alphabetical list of tank types. This last section is as important to the book as the foregoing chapters, as it's where a lot of the more specific vehicle related info' is. Despite the text veering, in places, perilously close to being rather dry and info-heavy, and in danger of falling between the stools of detail and generality, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Enough to read it all the way through, with enthusiasm, and still look forward to following it up with the Russian companion. 


Stalin’s Armour, 1941-45

Having just read the Allied Armour volume of what one might regard as a ‘tank trilogy’, and thoroughly enjoyed it, I’ve dived straight into Stalin’s Armour, 1941-1945. Thank goodness Anthony Tucker-Jones is a good writer! In less capable hands the data-rich material could induce a coma. 

Fortunately the maelstrom of commander’s names, unit titles, and place names is leavened somewhat by, on the one hand, more general descriptive history, such as on the development of Soviet armour - Kotin’s KVs or Koshkin’s T-34? - and on the other, more specific anecdotal reminiscences.

The total absence of maps is an issue with all the volumes in this tank series, leading me to dock a star/kreuz. And it is, for me, even more of an issue in this particular volume, given the scale of operations on the Ostfront. 

Anyone familiar with Hitler’s costly misadventures on the Eastern Front will almost certainly already know that, as a German talking head (ex-soldier) says in, the superb ITV series, The World At War... eventually millions of ant will overcomne even the elepohant (or words to that effect!*). Echoing this, Tucker-Jones concludes ‘Faced by this crude arithmetic the T-34 carried all before it.’

* I've been unable to locate the exact quote!

As with the other companion volumes, there’s a section of black and white photos. Rather oddly most the images in this volume are of damaged, destroyed or captured Soviet materiel, often being inspected by German troops. There are also two appendices, the first listing the many ‘Red Army Tank Units 1941-45’, the second comprising brief descriptions of ‘Soviet Tanks and Tracked AFVs 1941-45’.

For me, with each volume I read, it seems the three titles in this little trilogy are forming a useful ‘matrix’; the more one reads on these subject and campaigns the better and more detailed a picture one develops. The material here does occasionally veer towards the info-heavy side. But all told this a compelling enough read for me to happily and heartily recommend it.


Hitler’s Armour, ...

And so I come last to the one of these three books that most excites my interest, Hitler’s Panzers, The Complete History, 1933-45. This third title in the AFV trilogy by AT-J is organised somewhat differently from the others. Split into four sections, and with larger appendices, 18 chapters tell the fascinating story of Germany’s legendary WWII Panzerwaffe.

Part I, ‘Designing Tractors’ looks at the development of the various main tank types, from the Versailles-busting but otherwise fairly innocuous Pz I through to the awesome but over-engineered and under-produced Tiger II. This is one of the best and most interesting parts of the trilogy, for my money. 

Parts II, III and IV - Off To War, Sturmgesch├╝tz Not Panzers and Wasted Opportunities - cover the war itself. The balance of bigger picture, and close-up detail, is better here, for my money, than in the Allied or Russian titles, in both of which the maelstrom of campaign info’ can be overwhelming (and without maps hard to make sense of). 

Guderian is referred to more than any other Panzer enthusiast, the theme of his tug of war with Hitler - the latter obsessed with both his idea of the ‘triumph of the will’ and size (big guns, big tanks!) - being something of a theme throughout the book. There are those who feel Guderian overstates his own role and importance in all of this. ATJ doesn't raise this issue.

Whereas the Allied volume ranges across Europe, bridging to North Africa via the Med’, and even the conflict with Japan in the further flung Pacific theatre, and the Russian volume has an early Eastern episode in the Russo-Japanese conflict on the edges of Northern China, this German themed volume kind of ties them all together, via the two Eastern and Western Fronts on which all three of these combatant powers fought.  

David Willey's terrific Tank Chat on the Pz IV.

To those familiar with WWII, Germany’s issues of over-engineering, too much diversity, and insufficient levels of production will all be familiar themes. And, as in other areas, these issues bedevilled tank and AFV development and deployment. But these are also amongst the things that make WWII German tanks the most fascinating. And it doesn’t hurt that they also looked so damn cool! 

Anthony Tucker-Jones ultimately concludes that of all the Panzers Germany produced and fielded during WWII, the best, in terms of efficacy, reliability and sheer weight of numbers, was the Pz IV. Germany built approx’ 8,500 Pz IV, according to T-J, whilst Russia’s factories churned out 55,000 T-34s. And Sherman output totalled about 50,000, all told. The more celebrated Panthers and Tigers are critiqued for being rushed into service (and therefore plagues with technical issues), and their impact dissipated, never being built or deployed in large enough numbers to have a decisive impact. 

Hitler’s Panzers also benefits from more picture sections, and more extensive appendices. The latter include production figures, Panzer and Panzergrenadier Division lists, and individual appendices for each of the Pz I-VI, listing and describing variants. Rather oddly these go I, II III IV, and then VI (Tigers) precedes V (Panthers). A bit odd!? There are, regrettably, no maps or glossary. 

CONCLUSIONS

I’d say that, together or separately, these books are a worthwhile additions to the library of any self-respecting WWII history enthusiast. I read them all, one after another, without losing enthusiasm. In fact the interest and excitement mounted with each new volume. I also think they get better progressively (I don’t know what order the author wrote them in?), the Allied book being pretty good, the Russian one a little better, and the German one the best of the three. 

Their best points are that they cover all the major theatres of war, and do so in a readable manner, albeit occasionally being somewhat dizzyingly data-rich. There are one of two things that might be improved on future editions, such as remedying the complete absence of maps. The picture selections could also be better and more diverse. Maps would help the reader follow the actions described, and the picture segments could do a better job of covering the many AFVs mentioned in the text. 

I can see why for some, these might in places fall between the stools of generality and detail. Taken as a whole, however, I think they form an excellent core of information on the development and combat histories of these mighty brutal metal beasts of war. All told, I really enjoyed reading them, and would definitely recommend them. 

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Kit Build/Review: 1/72 Roden SdKfz 234/4, pt. I.


Despite the Coronavirus lockdown, I’ve hardly done any mini-military stuff for ages. 

I thought being forced to stay home would mean a massive bonanza of model making and figure painting. But no, instead I’ve been either resting, reading, working (from home) or doing household stuff, from the quotidian chores, to building a shed and a greenhouse. 

And as a result, I’ve not had the time or energy to model or paint. I even had a bit of a break from the reading. But now I’m making a conscious effort to get back in the saddle. And in that vein, here’s my first 1/72 kit build and review since, well... poss before Xmas!?

The latest kit to go on the production line is this lovely Roden 1/72 SdKfz 234/4. I do love Roden’s box art! Very colourful and evocative. David Willey of Tank Museum curatorial fame does a great Tank Chat on the German 8-rad’ line of AFVs. I include a link to it here, for reference/interest. 

I started the build out of sequence, with the Pak-40 type gun. It’s a very detailed little sub-construction. Very fiddly and intricate, but great. Unfortunately I didn't photograph the building of the gun. So construction pics start with the running-gear.



The somewhat open cab design of this vehicle also required that I paint the interior. Willey notes in his chat how the Bovington example is painted incorrectly, the vehicle itself only came into series production in the later part of the war, the dunkelgelb as opposed to dunkelgrau era! The interior is also similarly incorrect. I decided to give mine an elfenbein interior, such as was sported by German tanks.

After I’d built the gun, I went back to the ‘proper order of things’, which meant running-gear. And boy is the Roden’s 234 style eight-wheeler assembly complex and fiddly! I think it’s designed such that, in theory, the wheels can be aligned at differing angles, and even, possibly, rotate! But in reality this doesn’t work. Or at least it didn’t for me. This is my second Roden 234. My first was a Puma variant (see the build of that here). And it was the same story, re the wheels. 

My version of an elfenbein interior, blocked in.

Washes and weathering, early stages.

Washes and weathering, pretty much done.

Painting and weathering the interior, and the gun, which I decided to attach (another out of sequence improvisation of my own choosing) was kind of fun, and yet also kind of frustrating. I’ve learned that I’m really bad at the ‘pin-wash’/panel line type stuff.

Anyway, I did the best I could, and after a while, I achieved a result I decided was good enough. I was thinking of putting driver figures into the fore and aft driving seats. But I haven’t. I definitely will on the next 234 with a similarly open fighting compartment. 

Basically finished, assembly wise.

I'll prob' add a few bits of extra stowage. But not much.

At the time of posting, this 234/4 variant is now basically built. But before I paint the exterior, some gaps need filling. And I’ll probably add a little detailing, such as stowage. 

I noticed in many wartime images online that there appear to be rods - barrel-cleaning stuff, perhaps? - on the left side of the vehicle, that are not a feature included in this kit. They should be a fun and easy scratch-build addition!

Part two will be painting and decals. To follow soon, I hope!

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Book Review: SdKfz 251/9 & 22, Kanonenwagen, Dennis Oliver (Land Craft)

 


Another excellent instalment in the ever-growing Dennis Oliver section of the WWII German Tank/Land Cradt series. This time on kanonenwagen variants of the German half-track workhorse that was the SdKfz 251.

All the usual elements are in place: a brief history of the design and manufacture; unit histories; the ever inspiring colour profiles segment; model showcase/products; unit composition (under the official German 'kreigsstarkenweisung' heading!): technical details, etc. 

Terrifically illustrated on all fronts, from contemporary black and white photos to the colour profiles and beautifully built models. One of the nicest builds, by Juanjo Domingez, is in my favourite/chosen 1/72, and, despite its tiny size, is the chosen and favoured 'cover girl', so to speak. 

Perusing this inspires me to possibly try converting one of my extant 251s into a long-barrelled kanonenwagen! And I would, unhesitatingly, recommend this to those interested in the AFVs and suchlike of this fascinating era. Excellent!


Thursday, 19 November 2020

Book Review: The Ghettos of Nazi-Occupied Poland, Ian Baxter (Images of War)



As someone who literally loves the uniforms, equipment, materiel, and quite often even the combatants and their stories, the whole racist/fascist aspects of the Nazi regime are anathema to me. It would be beyond churlish, in my view, to even attempt to downplay, ignore or worse still deny or support those aspects of what was an appalling ideology.

Having said that, for the most part I do separate the two aspects: the fascinating military machine/history, and the contemptible visions it was employed in furthering. In the same way I could happily assemble both sides of American Civil War forces, or, for that matter, English Civil War armies, without declaring allegiance to any of the views espoused (or not) by the combatants.*

With those thoughts in mind, what of this book? Well, thus far I haven't read much of the textual content. Instead I've just studied the many interesting images and read the captions for them, and occasional parts of the text, like the short intro/aftermath segments. In some ways, whilst the underlying segregationist concept is, to me, awful - if not as unusual historically as some might suggest - what strikes one most, at first glance, is the ordinary everyday banality of much of it, street scenes and people milling about, even markets, policemen, firemen, postal workers, people working in factories, etc.


Ghetto residents working in a shoe-factory, Lodz.

But this disguises, now as it did for the Germans back then, including perhaps those who took most of these photos, who might've look at some of these images and fooled themselves they weren't being all that bad, several key things: first and foremost these weren't ghettos 'naturally' formed, so to speak, by ethnic groups choosing to congregate, as many around the world to this day remain. They were government enforced relocations, and part of the more sinister so called 'cleansing', i.e. institutionalised genocide. Aka the infamous 'final solution' to 'the Jewish problem'. 

And whilst the Germans, lovers of bureaucracy and form filling, list-making and so on, did create the semblance of normal institutions within ghettos, these were token gestures, beneath which racist contempt saw them utilise the Jewish population as a disposable low-maintenance workforce. Those who weren't dying of starvation, or diseases like cholera, typhus, and so on, would be working in German industries, mostly towards the war effort

This photographic study concentrates mainly on the ghettos as photographed, on the whole, by a number of German servicemen. Some of these collections of photos only surfaced in fairly recent years.  And, unusually for a WWII Images of war title they include a segment of colour photographs. 

One of a number of colour images. Biebow visits Lodz.

The main chapter headings convey the content:

Ghettoisation - Jews** are removed from their homes and relocated, mostly by train, but also on foot. This section also has numerous pictures of german 'brass' and functionaries, like Hans Biebow, a businessman turned Ghetto administrator.

Life in the Ghettos - This is, at first glance, the most apparently humdrum chapter. But the banality belies the underlying brutality, as the casual littering of corpses occasionally reminds the viewer

Liquidation of the Ghettos - as ominous as it sounds; this is the segment that, inevitably, depicts - even if only in a few shocking images - the most brutal part of the Nazi war crimes process, the wholesale butchery of unarmed non-combatants.

The Warsaw Uprising - Another brutally bleak chapter in this sad story sees the largest of the ghettos rise up, only to be mercilessly crushed.

The book ends with The Aftermath and two appendices. The first lists major Polish ghettos (but by no means all of them), many illustrated by single photos, and the second and last says a brief word on the infamous Reserve Police Battalion 101, who were instrumental in facilitating Nazi policy in these tragic times.

Personally I think it's very salutory to remind oneself of the reality and the enormity of these crimes against humanity. Their scale beggars belief, and their proximity in time should be a warning against complacency. On a European tour with a band I was once in, our Dutch tour bus driver took us to a transit camp in, I think, Belgium. To stand in a place of that type - not even an extermination camp - and think how whole categories of humans were treated as disposable trash, was a very powerful experience.


Note on photos: the two colour photos I've used here - so washed out they almost look black and white - are, like a number in the book, from the USHMM, or United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


* It's worth remembering that many soldiers are not primarily fighting for the causes their leaders say they stand for. Many just fight for their nation, homes and families, each other, or simply to stay alive.

** And, let's not forget, other so called 'undesirables', such as leftists, gypsys, homosexuals, and so on. But obviously, as per the title, this book concentrates on the Jewish aspect of Nazi persecution, it being the largest and primary 'out group'.


Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Book Reviews: The French at Waterloo; Eyewitness Accounts, vols I & II, Andrew Field


One might be forgiven for wondering why, instead of two fairly slim volumes, at £20 each, these two books weren't instead published as a single fatter book, at say £25-30. But setting aside that brief attack of penny-pinching cynicism, the actual content of these two books, both reviewed here, is superb. 


Vol I - Napoleon, Imperial HQ & Ist Corps

"I cannot get over our defeat. We were manoeuvred like so many pumpkins." Col. Marbot.

After an opening chapter on the usage/reliability of eyewitness accounts, volume one begins with three descriptions from Napoleon: the official post battle report, as dictated to Fleury de Chabalon, which appeared soon after the battle in le Moniteur, then Gorgaud's and Bertrand's accounts. All three are widely accepted as being Napoleon's own versions of events, and each one is a successively larger and more detailed reiteration of the same basic themes.

The accounts that follow, from Napleon's Household and then the Imperial HQ, unsurprisingly perhaps, largely follow their leaders' version of events. Except that is where his subordinates have incurred his blame, and then they might seek to excuse of justify themselves. All of this makes the first half or two thirds of this first volume somewhat repetitive, especially as the numerous accounts frequently recapitulate the same lists of unit dispositions and the major sequences of events.

Marcellin Marbot, in his 7th Hussar togs, c. 1815.*

Where volume one really comes to life, for me at any rate - and what makes it five bicornes, not four, or four and a half - is in the Ist Corps accounts. Especially so in those from the middling and lower ranks, whose colourful and lively narratives generally focus more closely on events the individuals concerned actually witnessed or took part in. The 'big hats', with eyes on posterity (and higher social standing to fall from) tend to give overviews coloured by hindsight, later/wider reading, and post-war politicking. 

Napoleon's own influence on the French readings of events, unsurprisingly, casts a long shadow. And yet despite this, the natural 'fog of war', and the blame games - around Ney and Grouchy in particular, but also bearing on the actions of others, like d'Erlon, Marcognet, etc. - reveal how widely the same events can be perceived or understood, not just by the antagonist nations, but within the same nation's own armies.

An excellent and fascinating collection. Essential reading for the Napoleonic/Waterloo enthusiast.

* Acc. to Wikipedia!



Vol II - IInd & VIth Corps, Cavalry, Artillery, Imperial Guard & Medical Services

"(T)his immortal slaughter." Larreguy de Civrieux.

The same standard of excellence is observed here as elsewhere in Field's terrific work on the whole French experience of the Waterloo campaign. 

A brief introduction recapitulates things he said in volume one, in particular addressing the reliability of the types of material that make up these fascinating books. He then moves through the various military bodies already listed above, citing numerous extracts from the memoirs of participants, mostly from the upper echelons - i.e. officers - with, as per volume one, brief biographical notes about the person concerned followed by their recollections of these momentous events and their parts in them.

First of all it's terrific that we are gradually getting access to more of this French material, after two centuries in which the English tradition of Waterloo historiography has been pretty one sided. There is something of an irony in this respect, re the fate of Capt. Siborne and his researches, which occurred so soon after the battle, and which sought to include accounts from all sides. There are several interesting books on Siborne, his dioramas, and the research he undertook in order to build them, as well as Siborne's own writings (which I have, but as yet haven't read; they're reputedly rather tough going!). [1]

Sylvain Larreguy, c. 1828.

But returning to the accounts in hand themselves, they are great, adding a lot of colour and interest to this much written about (most written about?) of epoch-ending/making battles. I won't go into great detail about any specific accounts contained herein. But it is interesting to note how they differ from traditional Anglo-centric accounts, on things ranging from relatively minor actions that don't appear in English histories, to more controversial claims, such as the frequently repeated claim that the French took and even held Hougoumont for a while at some point.

But in the end, whatever the veracity of some of these interesting claims/differences, it all adds up to more interesting and useful reference on this most compelling of battles. I'd even go so far as to say that Field's entire oeuvre on this subject is all essential to the genuine Napoleonic/Waterloo buff. In a word, brilliant.

The author (found this pic in an online Wilts news article!).

[1] In both volumes Siborne is, if my memory serves, only mentioned the once: on p. 106 of vol II Field laments how the French Guard officers, unlike Siborne's English correspondents, only told of their own local experiences. I think the mention he gets in volume I is on a similar theme, re sources and their limitations, but I can't pinpoint it (no indexes!?).

Book Review: Dark Valley, Piers Brendon



NB: This is one of my occasional archival posts, regarding a book I read and reviewed years ago, but haven't posted here, that I thought might be of interest.

A small departure here in that this not strictly a book about WWII, as such, but the dark decade of the 1930s, that prepared the way. I won't go into any detail regarding the contents. There are lots of decent reviews and synopses to be found online. I simply want to add my voice to the general chorus of acclaim this book has deservedly garnered.  

Like William Shirer's Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich this is sweeping, compelling history that really draws you in. The kind of thing that'll threaten to end your fiction reading. Why read fiction when real world events are so massively interesting? The 1930s are a particularly fascinating decade, with totalitarian regimes, be they fascist or communist, gaining a worldwide foothold unparalleled before or since.

As others elsewhere have observed, Brendon has an excellent writing style, and is truly masterful at weaving together complex narrative and small anecdotal details. What a period the first half of the C20th was, and - leaving aside WWI - what a period the 1930s were. With Stalin, Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, the Hawkish Japanese military, the latter already at war in China, and more besides, all sandwiched between the cataclysms of two world wars! 

I borrowed this from a friend many years ago, and liked it so much I had to get my own copy after reading his, in a repeat of what had already happened with the aforementioned Shirer book.

The material relating to Japan is, I find, particularly fascinating, as so much historical literature on this period and the two world wars is so Euro-centric. Also the militarism of Japan differed markedly from that of Russia, Germany and Italy, in that it was much more broad based, rather than focussing on a charismatic figurehead. Indeed, the Japanese emperor seems to have been carried along on a martial current that flowed through a whole class (primarily the officer class), ultimately more or less saturating the whole culture.

One specific episode amongst the many in this brilliant book that really struck me - haunted me even, for a little while after reading it - was the horror of Magnitogorsk, in Stalinist Russia. The name of the city alone sounds both awesome and terrifying! A hint of what was happening can be inferred from the fact it was declared a closed city, i.e. off limits to foreigners, in 1937. But I won't say why here. Buy this superb book and read about it yourself.

Book Review: Wellington in 100 Objects, Gareth Glover


In the venerable tradition started - as far as I know? - by the British Museum's exemplary History of the World in 100 Objects, the book I'm reviewing here today joins an ever growing assortment of similarly themed books on numerous historical subjects. Prolific Napoleonic author Gareth Glover notches up yet more titles, annexing ever more shelf-space, authoring several such books on Napoleonic matters himself, including this one. And there are also titles by other authors, on the Third Reich, and all sorts.

In this book the objects themselves range from the tiny - a looted silver fork - to the massive - castles, stately homes, even whole villages, towns or cities, that Arthur Wellesley had some connection with. From the obvious, like his boots or campaign cape, to the more obscure, like dentures, or the saw used to amputate Lord Uxbridge's leg. 


From the humourous... [1]

And in the process of examining this wealth of material, which is frequently supplemented by other related stuff, we learn masses about not just the famed and celebrated victor of Waterloo, but his family, the times in which he lived, and the many and varied places his life story connects together. From the Congress of Vienna, to Napoleon's lonely and remote exile on St. Helena. From ancestral roots in Ireland, to nepotistic postings in India. And with his activities and interests connecting him with everywhere from the far-flung, such as to the Americas, to such near neighbours as Portugal, Spain and Northwest Europe.


Wellington doesn't have quite the same the mercurial mythological magnetism that Boney had, and continues to have. At the time of posting this review this book is listed as 'currently unavailable' on Amazon's UK website, unlike the pendant title, also by Glover, on Napoleon in 100 Objects. But, and especially so for the English, he is, and ought to be, someone we want to know more about. And this book does an admirable job of facilitating that.


... to the more macabre. [2]

NOTES:

[1] Wellington infamously duelled Lord Winchelsea, in 1829, whilst he (the former) was P.M!

[2] The saw and a bloodied surgeon's glove, from National Army Museum's collections, allegedly used to remove Uxbridge's shattered leg, at or just after Waterloo.