Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review: The Americans, from the Ardennes to VE Day, Brooke S. Blades

This is the third and final instalment of what is now a trilogy, by American author Brook Blades, covering the Americans in NW Europe during WWII (I've posted a review of the first part here). The best thing about this book, as befits an Images of War title, is the rich and varied selection of photographs.

Troops of 399th Inf, 100th Div, entrenched near Bitche, France, Dec, '44.

The text is perfectably serviceable. But, as with many titles in the Images of War series, it's a data-heavy compression of large amounts of info, making for rather dry and not easily memorable reading. Chapters titles convey what is covered: The Winter Offensive (i.e. the Battle of the Bulge, part one); The Ardennes Winter (or Bulge, part two); Advance to the Rhine; Varsity (the Allied crossings of the Rhine); The Allies in Germany; Aftermath.

One of the more familiar images in the book.

There are also a few maps covering key events. But it's the photographs - and more than usual notice is given to the photographers who took these amazing shots - that are the stars in this book. Although I did recognise a good many images here that I've seen before elsewhere, given how much I've read and viewed on this theatre, the amount of new and unfamiliar photographic documentation presented here is, to me, very exciting and impressive. 

As a putative wargamer I particularly love the occasional aerial photos, of which there are a decent number. These really help convey something of the mix of strategic and tactical reality, as 'played' out in the real world. As well as many portrait like shots, and behind the lines stuff, there are a good deal of images captured on ornear the sharp end. And - one of my favourite types of scenario - there are a good deal of images of the logistical chain, from ammo and fuel-dumps to troops en-route, and equipment (particularly impressive are the rows of planes and gliders preparing for Varsity) being prepared for combat.

One of a number of interesting aerial photographs.

The main focus, as signalled by the title, is on Americans and their stuff. Next in order of coverage come their adversaries, the Germans. British and Canadian allies also appear, but less so, and chiefly in areas - such as after the messy aerial drops of Varsity - where they worked together, whether by chance or design.

The several photos of the paratroop deployments of Varsity, with their many planes and the almost ack-ack looking smatterings of parachutes, very densely concentrated, are amazing. This is one of the best in this excellent if occasionally rather variable, quality wise, series - by which I'm referring to IoW, as opposed to Blades' trilogy. Whilst I know I've got and have reviewed part one of this trilogy, this third and final volume is so good I feel I must ensure I also have volume two!

Cpl. Hood works to prevent trench-foot, near Bastogne, Jan, '45.

So, all in all, a fascinating and compelling resource, whose text covers the period as concisely and as thoroughly as could be wished for in a book mostly devoted to imagery. And in terms of the pictures, another exemplary addition to the Images of War series. Highly recommended. here

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Book Review: Holocaust, Stephen Wynn

This short and easy to read account of the holocaust is, I think, really very good. It's not your typical bloated academic heavyweight tome; worthy but nigh on unreadable. Put together by author (and former policeman) Stephen Wynn, it's refreshingly brief, drawing on a very small number of sources, but still covering quite a lot. 

Over 18 chapters he ranges from pre-war Nazi beginnings, very briefly looking at the roots of anti-Semitism in Germany at that time, and then building to the formulation of the 'final solution' at the infamous Wannsee Conference, in '42, chaired by the equally infamous Reinhard Heydrich..

Various 'Operations', most of the major concentration camps (and mention of many subsidiary ones), and such sub topics as Einsatzgruppen, and female guards, are all covered, before the book looks at contemporary news of the events and ponders how much and what/when the allies learned.

The book ends with Wynn saying 'It cannot and must not ever happen again'. Well, amen to that. But in my view Brexit, Trump, Bojo and co. bode ill for political stability in our times, with their cheap openly xenophobic populism. But back to the book: as a quick and easy introduction to a vast much covered subject, this is a lively and engaging read.  

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Book Review: The Sniper Anthology, Various.

Subtitled Snipers of the Second World War, ten different authors contribute ten short biographies of snipers of WWII. This appears to be a paperback reissue of a hardback that first published by Pelican in 2012.

Many of us will be aware of Vassili Zeitsev and Lyudmilla Pavlichenko, from movies like Enemy at The Gates and Battle for Sevastopol, which portray the two aforementioned Soviet sharpshooters. The intro and back cover blurb of this book admit that snipers haven't traditionally been exactly celebrated, except at the time and by the countries, and even then chiefly the armies, of the countries that they served. This appears to be changing somewhat, perhaps especially thanks to movies such as those mentioned above, and others more contemporary movies like Clint Eastwood's American Sniper.

I have to confess that I don't like the whole idea of snipers. Older fashioned modes of fighting wars, even if in actual practice they might be as or more barbaric as any other form or era of combat, in theory at least often subscribed to a kind of warrior code; enemies would meet and fight face to face. I recall being troubled by many scenes in the films mentioned above, in particular one where German troops are picked off as they celebrate Christmas around a campfire.

In fact I have to lay my cards on the table, and state that, whils I understand that in war one it I shall wise to always seek surprise and the advantage, etc, the kind of killing typical in sniping is just much too close to serial murder for me. This I shall especially so because the 'prey' is human, as opposed to the hunting of game, with which it is often compared or equated, and from which - especially in the past - experiences many snipers derived their expertise. 

Simo Häyhä.

Still, as 'war is all hell', really (and to quote an ACW general whose name momentarily escapes me), I can't pretend that I'm not still interested in this rather more cold-blooded m.o. And admitting as much, let's move on to the book under review!

At the time of posting this review I've only read forty percent of the book, i.e.four of the ten chapters. The first in the book, and the first I read, tells of Simo Häyhä, the Finnish sniper said to have killed at least 500 Russians, perhaps as many as 800, in just 100 days. His career of killing was cut short by a gunshot wound to the face, that saw him invalided out of the war. Unlike the many young men he stealthily slaughtered, he lived to the ripe old age of 92, apparently losing no sleep over the impressively sanguine butcher's bill he dealt his Soviet adversaries. 

Next I read chapter eight, on German sniper, or Scharfschützen, Sepp Allerberger. This was interesting enough, although it left me wishing there was also a chapter on Matthäus Hetzenauer,  Alleberger's fellow German sniper, with the highest tally of the German armed forces. But I see that there's a whole book devoted to the latter, so I might read that at some point. I also read chapter two, on Lyudmilla Pavlichenko, aka 'The Most Dangerous Woman on Earth' as the chapter's subtitle has it.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Thus far the most recent chapter I've read was the final one - and this is definitely the sort of anthology one can dip into or cherry-pick as one pleases - on British sniper Harry Furness.  I found this both the most interesting and also the best written of all the chapter story I've read so far. It was also the one on a subject I knew the least about, making it more interesting and exciting.

My overall verdict on this book at this point - admittedly still in the process of reading it - is that it's certainly a useful addition to one's WWII library, perhaps of particular interest to gun-nuts like my pal Paul? It's not exactly exhaustive, or even that in-depth, despite some of the claims made to that effect in the promo blurb on the cover and elsewhere. The writing is of a variable quality, but all (so far) perfectly serviceable, if not always exciting or inspiring. All told, a solid introductory level primer on an interesting if perhaps rather specialist subject.

The only picture of Harry Furness I could find!*

* Pavlichenko, on the other hand? There are tons of pics of her.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Book Review: The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age, Mark Jessop

I think this is a really rather excellent if somewhat odd or unusual book. What's excellent is the density of information, and the vivid evocation of the era. It's how he achieves the latter that makes it odd and unusual. 

Modern writing on such subjects tends to be either factual or fictional (at least in declared intent). A deliberate mixing of the two, as here, is a rare thing these days. At least in my reading experience. As such, it takes a bit of getting used to. What author Mark Jessop does is intersperse - usually at the start or finish of a chapter - fictionalised scenarios with the more traditional historical meat of the book.

Initially wary of such an approach, I both think and feel - and that's an important point, this rather unusual approach definitely appeals to the feelings as much as the intellect (quite a refreshing thing!) - that it's sufficiently well done to have won me over. It's definitely 'mannered', so to speak. But it's also highly effective at bringing the subject vividly to life.

Having read this I feel inclined to seek out other writings by the author. Naval doings are not my primary area of interest for this period. But well written books such as this are definitely helping me develop a nascent taste for the briny sagas of this colourful 'age of sail', when sea power was key to England punching well above her apparent weight. 

Since initially posting this review I've learned that this is actually part two of, or a follow up to, another similar book by Jessop, entitled The Royal Navy 1793–1800, Birth of a Superpower, also by Pen & Sword, and written in the same style. My only real criticism of this second part is the lack of a glossary, which for a landlubber like me would've been helpful.

A fascinating subject, well served by an erudite and imaginative author. Great stuff!

Friday, 29 November 2019

Book Review: Glasgow Museums, The Ship Models

Wow... What an incredible book!

This chunky near square deluxe hardback coffee-table type book is a thing of incredible beauty. Both as an object in itself - chock-full of richly coloured beautifully crisp photographs of stunning models - and for what it documents. Since this arrived a couple of days ago I've lost myself repeatedly in awe and wonder, simply perusing the fabulous images. I've only skimmed small portions of the text, so I won't say anything for now about that aspect. Visually this deserves ten stars. It's simply jaw-droppingly stunning.

According to the books subtitle, A History and Complete Illustrated Catalogue, it covers the entire collection, making it not only enchantingly seductive, but fabulously complete and comprehensive. The ship models in the collection cover an impressive range: from models depicting the 'age of sail', including some amazing creations crafted by prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars, through all manner of vessels, from the enormous and/or ornate, to the small, simple and humble. From skiffs and tugs to Noah's Ark (!?) and huge models of modern vessels. From rudimentary half-hulls, to staggeringly detailed ships.

If you love ship models, which to me encapsulate so many things, from the strange but compelling desire we have to make miniature representations of our inventions, to the almost fairytale romance and sublime/terrifying awe of our relationships with the elemental seas, this is an essential publication. Beautifully produced, an honourable homage to the vast expenditure of skill and passion that the objects it depicts represents. Awesome is a much overused and devalued term nowadays. But it really does fit the bill here.

A lot of books of this ilk are shamefully overpriced. At £35 this is actually fair, and good value. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Book Review: Early Jet Bombers, 1944-1954, Leo Marriott (Images of War)

If I'm completely honest it's only the German part of this that really interests me. They lead the way, and had the funkiest ideas and gear. But here you also get info and pics on British, French, US and Russian stuff. 

Because the Germans were in a too little too late scenario, that's kind of reflected here: after brief mention of prop powered bombers such as the Do-17, He-111 and the rarer He-177, there's just a few pics each and basic info on the Arado 234, the better known Me-262, and the Ju-287. 

It's a pity there isn't more on the Ar-234 (which stars on the cover). And some mention of the myriad unrealised German ideas would've been nice, in particular the Ho-229, which was at least being built. These latter projects would feed into postwar jet work for other nations, the US and Russia in particular. 

The text is minimal, but clear and informative, the pictures, all black and white, are fairly interesting. A useful reference book depicting the shift from the prop to the jet age in warfare.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Show Report: Scale Model World, Telford, 2019

Under cover of buying opportunities for xmas and birthday goodies, I was able to persuade Teresa to accompany me to Scale Model World in Telford. I first learned of the show, IPMS' flagship event, via model-making pals at the Wisbech IPMS branch. 

I booked us a night in an AirBnB place, near Wenlock Edge, in a very beautiful spot (and at a bargain price!), which turned out, having just had the car washed, to be down a muddy potholed lane. The weather, which had started sunny and turned rainy, had been an almost biblical deluge for most if the latter half of the journey.

We didn't get to see the countryside, or the local historical attraction - the world's first Iron Bridge, built by Abraham Darby III  - due to the poor weather and lack of sufficient spare time. The first day we barely saw anything through the heavy rains and eerie mists! The view across the valleys from the picture window of our B&B, on waking on Sunday, was magnificent in the sunshine. My photos don't really convey the splendour, alas.

The view from our AirB&B bed.

And up by the window itself.

Day One

Having dropped our gear at our accommodation, we headed to the show for the last hour or two of the opening Saturday. A fairly rapid tour of the three enormous main rooms at the Telford International Centre revealed the enormity of the event. Apparently it's the largest model show of its type in Europe, possibly even the world? And there's a strong International presence that tends to back that idea up.

In the end I didn't even look around either the competition area, or the 'kit swap' room. Doh! Nor did I take many, or in fact any, photos of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of models on display. I did briefly say hi to the Peterborough IPMS group, who are local (but I haven't visited), and the Wisbech group, who are even more local, and who I regularly attend.

One item I was very interested in beforehand was the Horton Ho-229, in 1/72 (also available in 1/144, 1/48 and 1/35), by Japanese co. Zoukei-Mura. Sadly for me, at £40 this was way too dear. It's a splendid looking kit, however, and a fascinating modelling subject. But I reckon I'll get a Revell one for now! Some pictures from the show follow.

Two 1/72 examples, and the dinky 1/144 version.

A very funky 1/35 version of the model.

Also available in 1/48! Note very cool wood textures (decals?).

Another view of the 1/72 kit: in both skeletal and skinned form.

The stall that stood out for me on my first dash around was Collect-a-Kit, on account of their vast stock of 1/76 and 1/72 kits, including lots of old Esci, which I feel peculiarly nostalgic about. Almost all of these kits were priced up at £8, which seemed quite reasonable and attractive. In the end I bought quite a few. But, and rather strangely, no Esci kits.

We rounded off our first day at SMW with a delicious Italian meal at Wildwood, followed by a trip to the pictures to see Roland Enmerich's Midway movie, which we both thoroughly enjoyed. After the ordeal of the overly long and foot to the floor oddysey of getting there, this was a great way to complete our first day.

Day Two

The Sunday allowed me to spend more time checking the entire show out more thoroughly. Sometimes I was accompanied by Teresa. But more often she was off doing her own thing. She showed most interest in bigger shinier models, and even suggested I buy her a lunar lander kit as we perused the very impressive NASA SIG stand.

Fool that I am I overspent on both days. And what with fuel, food, cinema and accommodation this proved to be a very expensive weekend. I'm going to have to find some stuff I can flog, to get money back into my haemorrhaging bank account. Pictured below, my haul from the show; all 1/72 or 1/76, except for the 1/35 Tamiya 88mm. The latter, something I always lusted after as skid, Teresa bought me as a b'day or Xmas gift. Bless her!

I do love these old kits; beautiful box art paintings!

More 88mm guns for a battery, and some IBG models (new to me).

Preiser figures, IBG mags (!), and the Tamiya 88mm.

I really love Preiser's 1/72 WWII German figures. I don't often see them on sale anywhere in the UK. A pity, as they're amongst the best for WWII Germans in 1/72. . The set I acquired at the show, whilst rather pricey, are beautifully sculpted. And come in kit form on numerous sprues, giving many assembly options. The Preiser boxes are also jam packed with info, inc 'Gestaltung- und Bemalvorschläge', or design and painting suggestions!

These figures, the IBG Stug, and the Hasegawa Mercedes G4 (inc. saluting Hitler and entourage!) were the first things from the show I unboxed and started working on. I'll be posting on these soon..

Monday, 11 November 2019

Film Review: Midway, 2019

Teresa and I went to see this new epic WWII movie whilst attending Scale Model World in Telford. The Odeon where we saw it has fantastically luxurious reclining chairs. Very nice! The small screening theatre we were in was practically empty. Perhaps 20 odd viewers in a room that might take 80-100. A pity, really, as a full house generates its own excitement.

Never mind that, however... I absolutely loved this film. Every time a modern movie on WWII comes out I have high hopes for it. Hopes that I fully expect will be dashed on viewing. Such was the case with Dunkirk, which I loathed with a passion. So much modern cinema is nowt more than dumb spectacle. I was worried this might fall into that trap.

The attack on Pearl Harbour...

... is briefly, brutally and excitingly depicted.

Well, in a way it does. It's a massive dose of schlockbusting CGI action, with an overly reverential approach to its square-jawed hypermasculine heroes. In many ways, whilst it professes earnestly to be a true story, however closely it may sail to the facts of events, it is a Hollywood fantasy of sorts. But, and here's the key thing for me, this is both enormous fun, and highly exciting drama. Emmerich also gets quite a lot in: we start before the war, jump to Pearl Harbour, and get to Midway itself via The Coral Sea, the Doolittle Raids and so on.

Dick Best (Ed Skrein) at left.

Doolittle (Aaron Eckhardt), in peril in Jap occupied China.

Murray (Keean Johnson), Best and fellow personnel.

An ensemble film, with a host of characters, events unfold at numerous levels, including both the domestic and the military (with the accent heavily on the latter!), depicting all involved, from top brass to lowly rankers. The group of characters we follow through these events are sufficiently engaging to keep us interested in the bigger picture as it develops.

All the actors acquit themselves well. Characters like Layton (Patrick Wilson), the intelligence guy, pilots lieutenants McClusky and Best (Ed Skrein and Luke Evans), and man at the top Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) are solid in the chief roles. But, offhand, I might pick out Dennis Quaid as Admiral Halsey and Nick Jonas as Machinist's Mate Bruno as two particularly engaging characters. In that respect this resembles old fashioned WWII epics like The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. And it actually trumps these old movies thanks to ever improving CGI.

Japanese attack...

U.S. ships at Pearl Harbour...

Bombs straddle a Carrier.

Epic scenes such as this are the meat and potatoes of this movie.

CGI was once a pet hate of mine, and occasionally still is: when a film looks like a PlayStation promo, or the CGI is simply unconvincing, I detest it. But in this film it makes for some truly epic and yet credible shots/scenes. Whilst we're on the technical side; the sound design of Dunkirk irritated and even appalled me. This, which when seen on the big screen is a veritable assault on the ears as much as the eyes, succeeds. The battle scenes - especially the aerial assaults on the ships - are incredibly intense.

I enjoyed this so much I'm sorely tempted to get back to the cinema in short order, and watch it again.  I don't think it's a truly great film. The characterisations are pretty thin, and it's all a bit chest-thumpingly manly. But I loved it, and enjoyed it enormously. If you think you might enjoy seeing Midway and the events leading up to it depicted in a fun action packed and yet epic but believable manner, I'd recommend Midway wholeheartedly.

This image is a fair representation of the excitement the film achieves.

Emmerich, beside TA-127, a North American Aviation T-6 Texan.

It was also interesting, as a kind of footnote, to find out (after watching the movie) that Emmerich had to finance this very Hollywood style production - the big studios were chary of another lavish WWII epic, many of which over the years have cost a lot and then flopped - outside the normal fiscal channels, including taking a cut in his own fee. I really hope this makes Emmerich and everyone involved a healthy profit!