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!