Wednesday 19 May 2021

Book Review: Hitler's Panther Tank Battalions, Ian Baxter (IoW)

In this slim but well illustrated volume, Ian Baxter outlines the history of the Panther tanks' service in WWII, from its over-hasty introduction in 1943 to its demise, along with the inevitable fall of the vastly outnumbered and outgunned Third Reich that spawned it.

The Panther has to be one of the best looking tanks of WWII, and Germany produced a lot of the funkiest looking AFVs in this period to compete for that position, many of which, the Panther included, remain iconic in the history of armoured warfare to this day. But, as Baxter points out, there were never enough, and rushed to the front as they so often were, either they themselves or their crews were often unready.

In respect of that last point, as the tank itself got better, despite having entered service too soon, and consequently suffering many teething issues, especially perhaps at the legendary tank-ageddon that was Kursk, the overall position and make up of the German forces steadily deteriorated, as experienced crews were irretrievably lost, to be replaced by green under-trained youths and/or the older men of 'ear and stomach' battalions.

This interesting and very useful addition to the ever growing Images of War series arrived in a wonderfully timely fashion for me, as my next modelling project at that point was abother of those hoary old Airfix 1/76 Panthers ('twas this ol' kit that was my first build, or re-introduction to the hobby, on returning to the model-making, etc!). As anyone who's built this model will know, it's a kit that needs some modifications, as it's pretty poor in certain respects. This book proved to be the perfect resource to help me do just that. 

After a brief intro, the chapter titles map out the narrative:

  1. Eastern Front Battles, 1943 - the Panther is introduced, fights at Kursk, and like the whole German force, is pushed back and ground down.
  2. Italian Warfare, 1943-44 - deployed defensively in less than ideal terrain, Panthers struggle, but, as usual, acquit themselves well. 
  3. Eastern Front, 1944 - despite improvements and Herculean production efforts, replenished Panther units are simply ground to nothing by the Russian juggernaut.
  4. The Last Year of the War, 1955/45 - D-Day opens the Panthers' western war, and despite brave fighting on all front, from France and Belgium to Italy, Hungary and the Eastern front, the end is inevitable.

Three appendices flesh out further info: specs; variants; unit composition.*

All of this is amply illustrated with period black and white photographs. Mostly of Panthers, as you'd expect, but also occasionally of other vehicles that were found in Panther units, like Pz IV, half-tracks and numerous other vehicles, from cars and trucks to armoured cars. Many of the pics will be familiar to grizzled armour buffs, but many aren't.

All in all a solid entry in this series. Well worth having.

*Specifically of a 'Typical Pz Rec. Grenadier Battalion, 1943-44.'

Tuesday 18 May 2021

Book Review: Pictorial History of the US 3rd Armored Division in WWII, Darren Neely

Having just read a text based account of the 12th SS Hitlerjugend in Normandy, this pictorial history from the Allied side of the same Western European theatre was a welcome change of pace.

The US 3rd Armrd Div arrived in Europe about a fortnight after D-Day, and from then onwards was at the sharp end - as befits a unit also named ‘Spearhead’ - from France to Belgium and in into Germany and wars end. 

The huge number of black and white photographs gathered together here are a terrifically rich and evocative resource, perfect for the history buff, modeller or wargamer. Split into four chapters, each begins with a short summary of the operations the Div took part in during a given period, and then fleshes this out with loads of captioned photos. 

Some of the darker photos could perhaps have been filtered and tweaked a bit for better clarity. And, a pet peeve of mine, it’s deuced hard to relate numerous ‘note such and such’ textual admonitions to the corresponding images, due to them being smaller, cropped, insufficiently clear, or whatever. Hence docking half a star. 

Most of the pics depict US troops and materiel, naturally. But there’s also a lot of imagery showing knocked out German stuff. So, all in all a fascinating and useful resource, bringing to life this units crucial part in the post-Normandy Western Front campaign. 

Monday 17 May 2021

Book Review: Pz Gren, 1942-5 (IoW), Ian Baxter

Another entry in the Images of War series covering WWII German forces from Ian Baxter. This one dealing with the Panzer-Grenadier Divisions. I’d give the pictorial content four kreuz, or stars, the text three, so three and a half over all. 

As with pretty much all the Baxter titles that I've encountered the text is a bit sloppy and repetitive (partic' so in the latter respect via the captions, which frequently repeat stuff from the body text). And sometimes things that are not visible in the image - that are too small, cropped, or just indistinct - are remarked upon, or there’s even an outright mistake as to content, such as when a Stug is misidentified as a train!

Nevertheless, there’s a good deal of useful info on the history of these units: how they came into being, where they fought, what became of them, etc. Appendices at the rear of the book also list all the units referred to in the text, giving more of this same basic info again. 

But it’s the pictures that are the main attraction, naturally. All black and white; some I’ve seen before, but many, indeed most, are new to me, which is always nice and refreshing. Most of the images are of a decent quality. All told, another useful reference work for the WWII military history buff. 

Sunday 16 May 2021

Book Review: Napoleon & the Invasion of England, Wheeler & Broadley

NB - Another of my forays into archival material. I read this book a number of years ago, and wrote and posted a review on Amazon’s UK website, also some years back. This is a slightly amended version of that. I was prompted to revisit it as I’m currently reading the superb Coastal Defences of the British Empire, by Daniel MacCannell.

Napoleon's mooted invasion of England - actually a task set for him by the Directory that he didn't seem to have his heart in (the fact that he hoped initially he might be allowed to live out his exile in England is interesting and revealing) - is a fascinating subject, and I'm quite surprised there aren't a lot more books on the subject than there appear to be.

This book is a reprint of a work written in the early years of the 20th century, and it's age does show a little in two respects: the tone of the writing can occasionally feel a tad dated, and the level of detail reflects an obsessiveness that seems almost Victorian in its zeal. I'm writing this not quite having finished the book, which I started several years ago, and eventually lost impetus with.

This said, the first two thirds of the book were, I felt, fascinating and engaging. Although Boney never seemed to quite believe in it, as a project, yet he threw himself into it with what was to become known as his trademark vigour, endlessly commissioning huge lists of highly detailed jobs for his subordinates, always demanding the next to impossible. As well as a decent if occasionally stodgy and perhaps over long text, there's an abundance of illustrative material, much of which is quite charming, such as the images of invasion via tunnels, floating castles, or even a fleet of dirigibles!

No source is left unvisited, so we are treated to commemorative medals, songs and poems, cartoons, pamphlets, extracts from personal letters, public announcements and military correspondence. No proverbial stone is left unturned. Given that almost every aspect of Napoleon's career is exhaustively written about, it's a little odd to me that, and especially what with our penchant for an overly Anglocentric reading of the era bearing the name of the man many here liked to call the 'Corsican upstart', we're not more interested in his plans to invade our shores.

So, for all that this isn't perfect, at least it's a solid and comprehensive treatment of a fascinating subject. Even though I’m still yet to finish it, I did (and still do) like it. But this is certainly more a book for the devoted Napoleonic history buff than the casual reader.

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. 


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.