Tuesday 28 November 2017

Book Review: Stalingrad, Antony Beevor

Antony Beevor has a talent for writing military history that reads almost like an action novel. His account of the demise of the German 6th Army - the largest in the entire Wehrmacht at the time - during the fight for Stalingrad, is gripping.

The colossal scale of war on the Ostfront, and the barbarism of both sides, driven by pitiless ideologies, make this theatre particularly and ghoulishly fascinating. And, as is often said, Stalingrad is commonly viewed as the turning point both in this conflict, and the war at large.

A saluting skeleton greets German troops arriving in Stalingrad. [1]

The Germans pressed all available resource into their service.

Hitler and Stalin both became maniacally obsessed with imposing their will in this contest, neither permitting their beleaguered troops to give up or retreat. The profligacy of lives on both sides is truly appalling. Beevor, like the reader, is clearly enthralled by the carnage.

It strikes me that Hitler allowed himself to be deflected from his original goal of securing the breadbasket of the Ukraine and the oil of the Caucuses, and was lured into a wasteful concentration on prestige targets, namely cities: Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad.

Germans dug in beneath a knocked-out T-34.

A famous pic. of German troops amidst the rubble of Stalingrad.

These battles favoured the Russians, as they denied the Germans the undoubted advantages of their mobile 'blitzkrieg' tactics, drawing them into static battles of attrition, in which the weight of Soviet numbers could be used to wear the Germans and their sometimes less than enthusiastic allies (Italians, Romanians, Hungarians, etc.) down.

The detail of the battle itself is well conveyed. Although I'd have liked a few more maps to have helped track how things developed. And Beevor manages to move pretty deftly around the theatre, from the action amidst the rubble to developments elsewhere on the flanks, without spoiling the narrative flow.
Soviet troops fighting in the ruined City..

You can easily see how arduous such street-fighting must've been.

He also moves smoothly through the various gears, from the top brass, with their concerns of ideological and personal prestige, down the chain of command to the God-forsaken 'grunts', fighting for their lives in a Dantean inferno, the hellishness of which is made all the worse by the inhumanity of the political ideologies that drove this conflict.

On that topic, one thing that really strikes me, the more I read about Russian history during Stalin's reign, is that - whilst Hitler singled out certain groups, in particular the Jews, for merciless persecution - 'Uncle' Joe seems, whilst preserving a glacially cool exterior (unlike the often apoplectic Führer), to have been a psychotic mass murderer of a far more wide-rangingly brutal and paranoid type.
Russian POWs who starved to death in Stalingrad captivity.

Stalingrad literally became a blitzkrieg graveyard.

Another striking thing is how many Russians sought to join the Germans. Some might well have done so just as a means to survive. But many, especially those persecuted under Communism (e.g. Kulaks, Cossacks, Poles, Ukrainians) initially saw the Germans as liberators from the Stalinist/Communist yoke.

According to Beevor the NKVD, part of Stalin's internal police/terror apparatus, were shocked and appalled when they discovered how many Russians were collaborating with the German invaders. These 'Hiwis' (from 'Hilfswillige') in places made up as much as 25% of German forces, and some estimates - unsurprisingly uncertain in the fog of war - run as high as 80,000 for the battle at Stalingrad itself.

The pitiful remains of VIth Army, passing into captivity.

Young aryans of the vaunted 'master race', reduced to troglodytes.

In typically Stalinist fashion, such people became 'former Russians'. Caught between two such appallingly inhumane ideologies the sufferings of all concerned were, frankly unimaginable. But Beevor does a damn good job of trying to convey how things were, and it makes for terrifically gripping reading.


In researching images for this post I found a really cool post (click here) on abandoned German armour at Stalingrad. Some great images/info!

[1] Little did they know how prophetic this macabre roadside attraction would prove to be.

Book Review: Hitler & Churchill, Secrets of Leadership - Andrew Roberts

Subtitled 'Secrets of Leadership', this book grew, I believe, out of a radio programme of the same title Roberts produced for the BBC. It's an excellent book: an easy yet compelling read, in just over 200 pages Roberts uses that old 'compare and contrast' m.o. to examine these two Titans of 20th C. history.

Both Hitler and Churchill...

... liked wearing military uniforms.

This is the first of Roberts' books I've read in which his Tory position is made quite so plain, as he refers very disparagingly to liberals and the left, and their ideas, in a manner bordering at times on glib. Interestingly, however, whilst he's still an ardent Tory, Roberts' views on some issues appear to have evolved since this was written (2003); if you'd only read this book, you might find his later book Napoleon the Great somewhat surprising.

However, if the above sound like the potential criticisms they indeed are, nevertheless, this book remains an excellent and by and large very balanced examination of its complex, fascinating and difficult subjects. And what compelling subjects they are!

Both were powerful orators, capable of inspiring...

... who knew the power and drama of rhetoric.

Having said this, there is a slight (other reviews I've read prefer to say an extreme) imbalance, and in more than one way, in that the book not only gives Churchill more column space, ending with a study on how he's been perceived since his passing, but also falls in step with the vast majority of post WWII literature on the two men, in its fulsome praise of Churchill and sometimes crowing dismissals of Hitler.

But when the case is argued as eloquently and convincingly as Roberts does here, it's hard to disagree. And, in broad brushstroke terms, I personally don't. Nor is this book purely or simply Churchill hagiography vs Hitler as fall-guy punchbag. The failings of the former, and the strengths of the latter are examined.

Both understood the power ...

... of simple propaganda.

Roberts says very early in his book that he separates Hitler and Churchill by describing the former as a charismatic leader, and the latter as inspirational. To learn what what he means by that might require that you read this book. I'd highly recommend that you do.

A fascinating polemic which, despite not sharing the authors' politics, I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Book Review: Sherman Tank, Gavin Birch (Images of War)

Culled from the Imperial War Museum's extensive archives, collected during the war by the AFPU (Armed Forces Photographic Unit), what we have here is a black and white only pictorial record of Sherman tanks during WWII. The Germans and Americans often managed colour photography. But for us Brits, colour was on hold 'for the duration'.

A lot of the pics in this book are akin to this: a Sherman in British service. [1]*

Breaking for food, near Caen, 1944.*

I bought this book to help me detail a small collection of 1/72 Sherman models I recently acquired. I have to admit, I was somewhat disappointed to find that the pics in this book are predominantly of Shermans in British/Commonwealth service, with only a brief chunk given over to Shermans in American service, as I'm intending my models to be U.S. versions.

'Somewhere in Germany', a Firefly camouflaged for the country... in the city.*

Another disappointment is the very limited nature of the sourcing of images. A trawl around the web is much better for diversity. And this book has very little on the 'funnies', or on captured Shermans, lend-lease tanks, of the use of the Sherman outside of WWII.

Despite these issues, the book remains an excellent and useful pictorial resource. All the pictures are captioned, and there's a text that gives light/brief coverage of the history of these tanks and the theatres/operations they took part in. However, the text is really quite poor in some respects. I've noticed this with some other Pen & Sword titles; clumsy prose littered with errors, and the general air of a distinct lack of editorial finesse.

One of my favourite U.S. Shermans in action pics not featured in this book.

This was the sort of thing I was after: Shermans in U.S. service in Europe, WWII

The pictures included herein cover North Africa, Europe, and the Far East. Some of Hobart's Funnies are covered, but mostly it's your ordinary tanks, as opposed to the many variants. I paid £5 each for two 'Images of War' titles. And at that price, I'm happy. 

The text only merits two stars, whilst the pics warrant five. In the end I've opted for three and a half balkenkreuz, which seems apt/fair to me, as - despite the issues with the text - I do like the book overall, and it is a handy reference resource.

Canadian Shermans, deployed during the Korean War.


* Images that appear in both this review and the book under review are marked with an asterisk.

[1] Tow-bars being fitted to a British Sherman about to be towed by a Grant ARV.

A Russian lend-lease Sherman.

It's a pity there's nothing on Sherman's in Russian service, or when captured by the Germans or their allies. Of course there's plenty of stuff to be found on the web, as the pics above and below illustrate.

Herman... a German Sherman.

Book Review: The Blohm & Voss Bv 141, Richard Franks

This A4-sized paperback is chock-full of info, both verbal and visual, on the Blohm & Voss Bv 141, a strange looking asymmetrical reconnaissance aircraft designed and built for the Luftwaffe during WWII. In the end the equally funky if more conventionally symmetrical FW-189 was chosen in preference. Both of these planes shared almost identical complex cockpit-glazing - a proper aerial greenhouse of glass - to facilitate the observing role for which they were designed.

The authors'/publishers' obsessional interest in their subject is adroitly translated into a well laid out, highly informative resource, perfect for the almost equally obsessed enthusiast/modeller. As well as a potted history of the 'airframe', there's a long section by section breakdown, detailing the various areas of the plane, and how it evolved and developed. As well as technical diagrams from contemporary sources, and period photos, there are also very useful modern colour illustrations, showing numerous different models/liveries, etc.

At the rear of the book is an article which follows the popular build/review format of the modelling fraternity. A Hobbyboss 1/48 version of the kit is made, and this is also amply illustrated, both during construction and when completed. A list of available models in various scales, and other resources (decals, reference) is also included.

The kit I've built. Nice box art!

I bought my copy to help me make and detail the rather old/basic Airfix 1/72 kit of this fabulously odd-looking War bird, and found it terrifically helpful. There is always the web - free! - and this title ain't cheap, but having all this useful stuff gathered handily together makes it a worthwhile investment. I can see myself acquiring more from this series!

This is how my Bv 141 looks at present.

Belly up!


Pages from this book reproduced with the kind permission of Valiant Wings. N.B. This particular Airframe Detail title is now out of stock. Great to hear they sold out. But if you want them to republish, get in touch. Enough interest, and they probably will.

Sunday 26 November 2017

Kit Review: 1/72 PSC RSO, #1

The more I build PSC stuff, the more I like it. At least that was true this evening... when I made the first of the two RSO included in this box. There are also Pak 40 guns, and enough variant pieces to build three different types of the RSO.

My favourite variant is the rounded cab - as opposed to the more boxy angular cab variety, or the various other oddities, such as the mounted guns or the semi-aquatic version - so that's what I've built. I now have three RSO vehicles of this type, two in 1/72 (this PSC one, and an Ace one I built some time ago),  and one in 1/76 (by Milicast).

Cutting out the windows. The plastic is pretty thick in the doors!

Adding some very basic interior detailing.

In some respects this is my favourite so far: the component parts are all ultra-chunky, clean, and easy to assemble. The only major downers are lack of detail, and - worst of all in my view - the solid filled-in windows. 

This last I couldn't stomach. So I had to cut them all out, and add clear-plastic 'glass'. The end result of this has deformed the framing of the cab around the front of the doors, which is a shame. But I think the cabs look so much better for it. Of course it meant having to scratch-build some interior detail. But I quite enjoy that kind of malarkey.

Slopping on the paint... brush style...

Looks a little better after a second coat.

Having scratch-built cabin interior detailing, which I kept to a very bare and basic minimum, and added windows, I opted to hand paint the interior, in a vaguely elfenbein colour, as my airbrush is still dismantled, awaiting cleaning and reassembly.

A little bit of paintwork detailing.

And just seconds later, the whole vehicle... boom!

And finally, I assembled the rest of the kit, opting for the sides that are shown holding some kind of wide (winter?) track-links. I'll probably add some tools and a jack to the model, and then get the outer paint up to the same level of readiness as my other two RSOs. 

I'm still having trouble locating appropriate decals for this particular type of vehicle. So if anyone reading this knows of where they can be got, please leave a comment. Balkenkreuz and number-plates are fine. What I need are the circular Steyr logo, and the stencilled rectangle with vehicle stats, both of which, when they appear, are usually found on the vehicles doors.

I like the stowed tracks, and the exhaust pipe.

You can just about glimpse some of the interior.

So that's how she's looking at the close of festivities today. Incidentally my first spot of modelling since being laid low with a cold: spent the rest of the last week in bed. The upside of the illness was that I got to watch both Band of Brothers and The Pacific again, in their glorious entirety. Every cloud has a silver earring, as Count Arthur Strong might say!

Pictured below, my growing collection of mini RSOs. The Ace one is the most/best detailed, with the Milicast one a close second on that front. But the Milicast model was infuriatingly fiddly, with ill-fitting parts, and I hate gluing models that require super-glue, as I find it a right pain in the behind. 

Joining the ranks awaiting the paint workshop crew.

The Ace model was also troublesome, build-wise. In both instances, Ace and Milicast, fit left a lot to be desired in many places. The Ace kit also had photo-etched tracks, which, whilst they seemed fab in some ways - individually toothed metal tracks in 1/72! Cool, or so I initially thought - were a nightmare to work with. Plus I put them on facing the wrong way... doh!

I'm hoping that with RSO #2 from this PSC kit, I'll do the windows better, and not deform the cab so much. Not sure if I might also do the fourth and final one with the boxy cab... Hmmm!? Choices! I think I'll also add frame supports for the tarpaulin to this one. But I might just have the cover off, or rolled up or back, so as to stick some stowage in the rear cargo bed.