Monday 30 September 2019

Book Review: Coastal Convoys, Nick Hewitt

I'm torn between giving this four or five stars. In some respects it's fantastic. And I have really enjoyed reading quite a lot of it. 

But, rather like the conditions of the conflict it describes, there are moments of, well... if not boredom, perhaps ennui? In part this is due to a degree of repetition and duplication (probably nigh on impossible to avoid given the subject), and in part because the narrative kind of fizzles a bit around mid-war, mostly as a result of delayed reactions to first Operation Barbarossa, and the subsequent Eastward shift in German attention, and then the entry of the US, and another seismic shift of maritime operations (on the global scale) to the Pacific.

But, on the positive side, throughout the whole war Britain, who initially stood alone (sort of, remembering of course our Empire/Commonwealth resources, etc), had to 'keep the home fires burning'. And it was essentially this (as well as other domestic and international stuff), the supply of coal in particular, that drove the coastal shipping Hewitt covers in this mostly very fascinating and informative account.

A photograph taken from what I guess is a destroyer escort, of a typical east coast convoy.

The book and its jacket blurb make much of the gap-filling nature of this account, pointing out that it's a largely ignored aspect of the British naval war, overshadowed primarily by the convoys and conflicts of the Atlantic. Ironically I've now read more (i.e. this book!) on this 'neglected theatre' than I have yet to read - I have Dimbleby's 'War in the Atlantic' (unread) - on it's more oft-covered cousin.

Hewitt makes heavy and mostly very good use of all sorts of 'primary' sources (heavily footnoted, etc.), which can and does make some of this very compelling and, as several heaping praise on it in the blurb note, very human. This unglamorous traffic of, in the main, 'dirty little coasters' was essential to Britain's survival: coal came down from the north, to the energy-hungry more heavily populated south; and trade, both domestic and international, had to go on.

The 'dirty little steamer' visible here is typical small fry of the coastal convoys.

Having geared up for submarine warfare, WWI style, WWII instead saw increased use of mining, air power, and E-Boats, with U-boats only occasionally intruding, meaning Britain started at something of a disadvantage. It's the drama associated with initially coping with and then more or less overcoming these challenges that makes the first half of the war (and the first two-thirds of this book) most interesting.

As much as I enjoyed this, and I really did, and as valuable an addition to the maritime history of WWII as it appears to be, I felt I had to go with four stars on my Amazon review. Here on my blog, however, I can give this four and a half stars, so I do.

This famous bit of footage is mentioned in the book.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

Book Review: 7th SS at War, Ian Baxter (Images of War)

As the cover blurb for this book informs us, Pen and Sword's Images of War series now has numerous volumes dedicated to various SS formations, this being (like it's subject!) the seventh. And from what I gather from reading further they may all be by Ian Baxter. 

Whilst the comprehensiveness of the aim is great, the execution isn't quite up to par with the best in the IoW line. I say this because more of the images herein are either of related units - such as Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops), regular Wehrmacht or Bulgarian forces, or SS troops who may or may not actually be Prinz Eugen - than are clearly and definitively of the stated/titular subject. This and the fairly poor quality of some images occasionally make this feel a bit thin and cobbled together. Still, as the Panzerwrecks guy's are fond of saying, a poor quality image is better than no image at all.

This fellow isn't in the book.

Nor this one neither (I don't think?).

In just over 100 pages, organised as five very short chapters, each preceding blocks of captioned photos, Baxter's main body of text is okay. Very brief and outline like, it does at least stay closer to its core subject than does the visual element. The history of the unit is covered, from its formation to its demise, with coverage of its major deployments/operations and some info on commanders.

Prinz Eugen's main theatre of operations was the rugged and brutal Balkans, where Nazi ideology was pursued with utmost ruthlessness. The 7th SS were instrumental in this, being constantly deployed in anti-insurgency capacities that frequently included merciless reprisals for partisan activity, routinely visited indiscriminately on the local civilian population. No winning hearts and minds here. Whilst Baxter mentions this frequently in the text, there's very little imagery on this aspect, aside from a few relatively innocuous looking round-up/interrogation photos (of course what happened next may have been far worse). [1]

When you see that Odal rune, you know it's Prinz Eugen.

Neither this chap, nor the one above, are in the book.

On the positive side, and despite the fact that the images that are certainly of Prinz Eugen forces aren't always as clear or as copious as one might wish for, the subject is a very interesting one. Called a volunteer (Freiwilligen was part of the original unit title) and Mountain (Gebirgs) unit, it was in fact made up of conscripted troops as well as volunteers. And, as with other units operating in the same region, such as SS Handschar, it stretched or diluted the Aryan superman ideology that was a central tenet of the SS/Nazi creed.

Perhaps in keeping with the inherent racism in this scheme, Prinz Eugen, like more and more units in the German armed forces as time went on was, whilst basically armed and equipped as German troops, issued with less 'purely' Teutonic high-end gear. This is a theme Baxter and the photographs substantiate at several points, and is of interest to us WWII gear nuts.

French tanks of Prinz Eugen, in impressively rugged settings.*

A Czech ZB-53 or MG-37 machine-gun in German service. *

But perhaps best and most noteworthy off all, the landscapes in which Prinz Eugen fought are also sublime, in the original romantic sense, meaning both beautiful and yet terrifying/inhuman. And the weather was equally extreme. The war that was fought in this pitiless natural paradise brought hell to earth in a Dantean way whose repercussions have echoed down into later days. But whilst Baxter touches on the WWII aspects of 7th SS' part in this long-running and often ethnically based tragedy, no real mention is made of the long-term roots or latter 20th Century aftermath.

Some of the picture captioning is redundantly repetitious of stuff in the main text (or other previous captions), and occasionally looks either a bit lazy or slapdash, as when the caption to an image of greatcoat wearing troops without any other visible gear crossing a rickety wooden footbridge opines about the slow progress made in such rugged terrain by heavily laden troops. The caption is of course quite correct. But it doesn't sit well with the accompanying image, which shows very lightly burdened soldiers. [2]

Prinz Eugen troops scaled mountains... *

... trudged through mud and snow... *

... and relied on horses and mules as much as trucks and armour. *

Despite all my criticisms, I do like this book, and it is very interesting/useful reference. I imagine over time I'll try and collect all of Baxter's IoW titles on the SS. But it could fairly easily have been somewhat better. And I wish it was. Nevertheless, well worth adding to your library if you're a WWII history obsessive. Especially so if you're particularly interested in the Germans and the SS during WWII (as I am), obviously.


* Any images marked with an asterisk appear in this book. The others don't.

[1] The only image that I feel really captures this aspect of the conflict is a photo on p. 101, (shown below) of a group of prisoners sat in a field. Mostly they're young men, but there are a few women, and there's a fair range of ages. The fear and apprehension in their faces is palpable and chilling. The caption says they're captured partisans. And perhaps they are. Whether or not they are, they seem to know their fate will not be a happy one.

Faces that say, 'uh-oh...' *

[2] I always feel a bit bad, nit-picking on errors in books such as this which, for any/all their faults, are both very useful, and the work of people as passionate about their interests in the subject no doubt as I am. But on the other hand, we should all strive for the best we can, and especially so where the enterprise is also commercial. So for example the combo of poorly cropped image and subsequently redundant caption in the lower portion of page 94, in which we see naught but a soldier's head and the empty sky, and not the pack animals the caption refers to, shouldn't have passed the editorial process.

Inclusion of a few artefacts, such as this I.D. badge would've been nice.

Monday 23 September 2019

Book Review: Hitler's Paratroopers in Normandy, Gilberto Villahermosa

This excellent book is a compelling and fascinating account of Hitler's Fallschirmjagers in their latter-war role as elite infantry defenders, as opposed to their early-war role of airborne attackers, and more specifically the part played by II Parachute Corps in the Normandy '44 campaign.

Numerous actions are covered, ranging from the better known, such as the rather muddled loss of Carentan and the more determined defence of St. Lô, to the more obscure, such as St.-Côme-du-Mont, Hill 192 and the defence of Sainteny/Sèves Island. The largest actions are the siege of Brest and the encirclement and collapse of the Falaise pocket.

How things started... *

In all these events the primary focus is on the involvement of the fallschirmjager, with a secondary theme being a look at their leadership, in figures such as Ramcke, Schimpf and most particularly Eugen Meindl. In a book written by a modern American military man about German soldiers who were fighting, for the most part, his own countrymen [1], author Villahermosa is admirably balanced in his treatment of his subjects.

The maps, grouped together at the beginning of the book, could've been better. Some are nigh on illegible. Standardising the design and image quality of the maps (whilst some are pixellated and poor, others are very clear), and having the appropriate maps nearer the pages where the actions are related, might've improved the readers chances of following the often geographically challenging scenarios.

... and how they ended, option #1... *

Whilst there are copious footnotes to sources, and a list of equivalent U.S. and WWII German ranks, there's no glossary. It's my firm belief every specialist book in our niche areas of interest ought to have one! There are even a few instances of quotes being repeated/recycled (in one instance identical words being attributed to two different German commanders [2]), and some minor editorial mistakes.

But overall it's an excellently balanced and exciting account. Very well written in the main, it also appears to me (admitted enthusiastic amateur that I am) well constructed and researched. The more I read on this theatre, the more it strikes me that the German's were in the grip of a 'Lost Cause' mindset comparable in some ways to the Confederates in the ACW: fighting for a morally bankrupt racist vision against an enemy of vastly superior resources in men and material; their ultimate defeat looks, both at the time and in retrospect, inevitable [3].

... or, for the lucky ones, option #2, captivity.*

Nevertheless, as Villahermosa documents, what fragments of these units survived the fairly cataclysmic defeat in Normandy were recycled and reorganised, and continued to fight in Holland, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere. The frankly appallingly wasteful loss of life, limb and property, visited not only on combatants but also the picturesque landscapes and people of Normandy and elsewhere is obviously terrible. But it makes for very compelling historical drama!

I loved reading this book, and would highly recommend this to those interested the Fallschirmjager, their leaders, and this period/theatre of WWII.


[1] Mention is made of the other Allies' involvement (British, Canadian, Polish, French) where appropriate. But in the main this is U.S. vs. Germany. Mention is also made of the German use of Ost-truppen and other foreign elements.

[2] I meant to note where this occurred, but didn't, and can no longer locate it. But, in fairness to the author, it's not representative of the solid writing throughout, so I'm not bothered, frankly.

[3] And, of course, many Germans were fighting more for their comrades and homeland than Hitler's racist agenda. But Villahermosa doesn't dodge the fact that, like most German elite forces, such as the SS, being an ardent Nazi was both more usual and approved of in such organisations. Ramcke, for example, inordinately vain according to his British jailors, is described by the author as a 'fanatical, diehard Nazi, hard-core anti-Semite, and blatant racist.' Sadly for all involved, the Germans, and especially those most in thrall to Hitler's mania for the 'triumph of the will' concept, were those least able to see the inevitability short lifespan of the supposed Thousand Year Reich.

* Sometimes I illustrate my posts with pics from the book under review, and sometimes with pics not found in the book, occasionally using both. In this instance all the images I've used are also in the book.

Thursday 19 September 2019

Book Reviews: The U-Boat Commanders, Jeremy Dixon & Knights of the Battle of Britain, Chris Goss

Two quite similar books under review in this post, one on the avionics plane and the other on a maritime tack. The books most obvious similarities are that they focus on German medal-winners of WWII. The former gaining their laurels fighting in the Luftwaffe, the latter proving hardy in the Kriegsmarine. [1] I'll look at them t'other way round, seas then skies.

In just over 300 pages, with about 200 illustrations, Jeremy Dixon gives us 123 short biog's of German Kriegsmarine personnel who won the various grades of Knight's Cross serving in the U-Boat arm. He starts with the highest grades and works downwards, each class getting bigger as we get lower down the grades. This is quite good, as it front-loads the book with the high-scorers, amongst whom are some of the more familiar names, like Kretschmer, Prien and Topp.

The nature of this book, and others like it (see below!) is great in that it lends itself to dipping into, as opposed to the more normal front to back and all of the way through of normal narrative history. I love the latter as well, don't get me wrong. But when you read as much as I do, then a change in format and feel can be quite refreshing!

You could, of course, read this cover to cover. And if this is your foremost area of interest, you might well choose to do so. I'm only recently getting more into the maritime stuff, having traditionally favoured land-based warfare over either aerial or naval combat. But books like this are helping feed a growing interest in the perilous combats on the briny seas. Possibly a bit specialist for the general WWII reader. Nevertheless, a solid, readable and informative resource.

This book has a more concentrated focus, in that it only covers Ritterkreuz awards made during the Battle of Britain. 121 airmen are profiled, over roughly 200 pages, 118 of them appearing once, for being awarded the Ritterkreuz, with three - Werner Molders, Adolf Galland and Helmut Wick - being featured a second time [2], for achieving the next grade, mit Eichenlaub (with Oak-leaves).

In most respects this is very like the similarly themed U-Boat book, differing only in how it's organised - chronologically, as opposed to in descending order of grade - and the shorter time-span it covers, April to December, 1940, as opposed to the whole war. Each entry succinctly synopsises the life and career of the recipient, whilst also giving a brief account of their part in the Battle of Britain.

Copiously illustrated in black and white throughout, with a short additional photo section towards the end, this is ideal for dipping into. Again, if this is your primary area of interest a cover to cover read might be in order. But for me it's a case of occasionally having a glance through, and cherry picking a few entries. This makes it eminently suited to workplace reading, if one's job allows occasional time-outs, as mine occasionally does.

A fascinating and informative resource.


[1] Sorry, couldn't resist the pun!

[2] In these cases the first entry is the fuller account, the second being very cursory.

Book Review: Nürnberg's Panzer Factory, MacDougall & Neely,

Phwooaar!!! This is top quality Panzer-porn, guaranteed to give the hardcore Panzer nutter a raging Panzer horn!

Sorry... (wiping drool from corner of mouth), let's try and be a bit more dignified. What we have here is a fantastic selection of really seriously fabulous photographs, many published here for the first time (albeit this is now a while ago [1]), documenting the WWII work of the M.A.N. factory at Nürnberg, with a particular focus on Panther production.

Actually it's a bit more than just that, as pictorially it starts with M.A.N. Diesel trucks, includes the very unusual Sperrmaschine (only four were ever built) [2], covers M.A.N.'s production of Panzers I, II and III (plus variants), and so on. It's also broader than the title alone might suggest in that it incorporates photos taken at other but related sites/facilities. The text, whilst refreshingly concise, starts with background and pre-war info, and then moves on to brief chapter summaries and picture captions.

Pp. 46-7, detailed images of a badly damaged Panzer in for repairs.

The landscape format suits the contents, each photo getting it's own page [3]. The captions and 'chapter heading' style summaries are great. But it's the images that really seal the deal. The quality throughout is superb. And the subject matter, and depth, breadth and width of detail, are just superlatively brilliant. All told this is as close to perfection in this niche area of publishing as I've yet seen.

I recently watched an American wartime newsreel someone uploaded to YouTube that showed the factory production and proving ground testing of M3 tanks. Despite the rather overdone 'movietone news' style chest thumping war-era propaganda bombast it was fascinating. But for some reason I find the German war effort even more fascinating and compelling. And this superb book documents several aspects of that, Panther production in particular (obviously!), wonderfully well.

I was able to comfortably read the entire text of this terrific book in one day (and that whilst engaged in some reasonably demanding home-renovation DIY!). Fascinating and informative as this was - and I loved it - it's the pictorial aspect that really sets this apart, and which will doubtless provide countless further hours of fascination and enjoyment. Ten out of ten, and definitely very highly recommended.

Pp. 72-3, Panthers under construction. 


[1] 2013.

[2] All four of which you can see here.

[3] This holds true for the vast majority of the pictorial content. Between pp. 182-194, however, the format changes to two or three images per page. This segment covers the bomb damage inflicted by Allied air raids.

Monday 16 September 2019

1/72 WWII - Revell Sdkfz 7/1 with flak & trailer

NB: This post was originally published by me ages ago. All of sudden, and for no reason I can understand, it's popped up here, with a publishing date of 16th Sept, 2019. Can anyone enlighten me as to how or why this might happen? I was editing the 'labels' on numerous posts yesterday, to standardise certain search terms, and hopefully make the blog a bit more streamlined. But, as far as I know, I didn't edit this post. And even if I had done, it should still remain in sequence, unless I were to deliberately change the 'schedule publishing' date. Weird!?

I love this model! It's actually more like three kits in one, rather than just one kit. As well as the superb Sdkfz 7/1 half-track, you get the delightfully intricate four-barrelled anti-aricraft gun, and, admittedly not quite so exciting as the vehicle or the gun (but still fun to build), the ammunition trailer.

If any of the models I've built so far have been mouth-wateringly good, then I'd have to say this is one such. It's certainly amongst the best for getting the model-making maw a-droolin'. The styrene itself is almost tasty... it makes me think of top quality dried pasta. It even looks the part! 

As with many 1/72 AFV models, this commences with the running-gear. It's terribly well designed, although some hardcore old school modellers might object to the fact that several multipart wheel elements are provided here as single pieces. Although this does potentially lessen the amount of fun to be had gluing bits together, this kit still has a high enough part count (thanks chiefly to the gun), and  this design approach also has the distinct advantage of simplifying this stage, and guaranteeing a much tidier result into the bargain.

The winch is finger-lickin' good!

Perhaps the best tracks on a 1/72 model ever!?

I simply have to say something about the tracks in this kit: they are, in my view, far and away the best tracks in any 1/72 model I've as yet encountered. They're made form the same styrene as the rest of the kit, and are beautifully rendered. They are as flexible as they need to be, to easily wrap them around the wheels. And, being ordinary modelling styrene, they are totally easy to glue.

The only problem with these otherwise superb tracks is that they weren't exactly to-the-millimetre accurate, in terms of the length needed for a totally snug fit. As some of these pictures show, there are gaps. On one set of tracks the lone gap was negligible. On the other (one would've expected exact symmetry!) the gap was so large I cut a section of track off, so as to spread the gap between two points, with the aim of having two slightly smaller gaps, rather than one large one. 

If this set had included a few spare individual links, to plug such gaps, they would have been 10/10 perfect.

After the running gear and some of the cab were built, it was time to make the ammo trailer. I might like to build another one of these and have the ammo trailer open, with shells being unloaded, etc.

Once the trailer is assembled, it's the turn of the gun. This is a lovely thing, if a bit fiddly to assemble. If I were making it now I might want to replace some of the parts with finer detailed photo-etched parts, e.g. the sights, and possibly even the barrels. The latter might be better for being replaced with turned metal parts. But this was my first such model, and I was content to put it together as it was, straight out of the box.

The whole vehicle has, by this stage, been base-coated in matt black, sprayed with hair lacquer, and then undercoated in dunkelgelb. The only bit of the vehicle to have been painted any more than this is the deck of the fighting compartment, which I decided to have a go at detailing ahead of the rest of the paint job. I must've met I'm quite pleased at how this has come out, with traces of rust and paint scratched off, etc.

Some of the above pictures appear to have got out of sequence! As I'm currently putting the finishing touches to this entry whilst staying in Belgium for the Waterloo 200 celebrations, I'm not going to be so fussy us to rearrange my post just yet (I can do that later). But some of the pictures shown above and below record my progress when painting the internal cab details.

I also painted and added a driver figure (I think I've got pictures of him somewhere, not sure where though!). I've Blu-Tacked the upper cab hatches, in the roof, in their positions, for the duration of the external paint job, with a view to eventually glueing them in the open position, so that interested parties might get a glimpse inside the cab. Even then, I doubt very much will be visible!


Although armoured cab half tracks aren't my favourites, in terms of looks, this kit is such a joy to build that I almost feel I like the ugly beast. Painting the interior of the cab and adding the figure gave me a massive thrill - am I some kind of modelling deviant? - despite (or is that because of) the knowledge that the work would be nigh on invisible once the model's completed.