Category Archives: Book of the Week

Arnhem: Battle of the Woods DVD by Battlefield History

I’ve reviewed quite a few Battlefield History DVD‘s before, and they just keep getting better and better. This edition in their Arnhem series looks at the role of the 4th Parachute Brigade, from their drop on Ginkel Heath on 18 September 1944 until they joined the Oosterbeek perimeter two days later.

I should register a vested interest, in that my late Grandfather fought with the 11th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem. He hardly ever talked about the battle – unsurprisingly, as he was wounded and taken prisoner and the battle did not go well for the 11th Battalion – so it is a real treat to see so much focus given to his unit, one that has often been overlooked in the history of Arnhem. It’s nice to see a contribution from a soldier who was with the 11th, as so few histories of Arnhem contain anything from them.

I’ve been to Arnhem a couple of times myself, and have always found it hard to describe the terrain in that corner of Holland. This DVD does an admirable job of helping he viewer get a feel for what the battlefield was like. And that’s half the ‘battle’ – bad pun – with military history, ‘smelling’ the battlefield. The clips of re-enactors, equipment and visits to military museums add to the atmosphere and depth of the production.

I enjoyed watching it immensely, and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Arnhem: Battle of the Woods is published by Pen and Sword Digital

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Filed under Airborne Warfare, Army, Arnhem, Book of the Week, World War Two

VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 by Stephen Snelling

I am a big fan of this series of books on the Victoria Cross. There are literally hundreds of books out there about the VC, and with many hundreds of winners there are plenty of subjects to write about. The problem I find is, that often we read about the same or similar stories in books. Some of the VC stories are well known – and for very good reasons, of course. But isn’t it great to read about some of the lesser-known deeds as well? Therefore I think it’s quite a nice touch to cover all of the Victoria Crosses awarded for a particular campaign, in one volume. This particular volume looks at the Battle of Passchendale – more properly, Third Ypres – fought between July and November 1917.  A remarkable 61 VC’s were awarded, to men from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. There were a couple of VC winners at Passchendaele with strong Portsmouth connections.

James Ockendon was a 26 year old action Company Sergeant Major in the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who won the Victoria Cross at ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm on 4 October 1917. Born in Portsmouth, Ockendon had joined the ‘Dubs’ pre-war in 1909, and was serving in India when war was declared. When the Battalion were recalled in 1914, he joined the 29th Division and subsequently fought at Gallipoli, before being sent to the Western Front in 1916. Apparently on the eve of Battle, Ockendon’s Battalion were adressed by a General, who asked ‘who is going to win a Victoria Cross tomorrow?’, to which Ocekdon replied, ‘I am, sir, or I will leave my skin in dirty old Belgium’. Two months previously he had been awarded the Military Medal. When a platoon officer was killed by a Machine Gun and another wounded, Ockendon found himself in charge of his company and took it upon himself to charge the position, killing all but one of the Germans. He chased the survivor for some distance before bayonetting him. After the attack Ockendon gathered the survivors of his company, and headed for ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm. Although they were met by heavy fire, Ockendon somehow managed to convince the Germans to surrender. Ockendon wad described as a quiet, unassuming man, and was feted when he returned to Portsmouth on leave later in 1917. He was discharged from the Army in 1918 after suffering from the effects of Gas. James Ockendon VC MM died in 1966, at the age of 75. His son, also called James, is still a member of the Portsmouth Royal British Legion, and to this day Ockendon’s VC is the only one that I have seen outside of a display case.

Dennis Hewitt was serving with the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the 1st Portsmouth Pals, when he won the Victoria Cross at St Julien on the first day of Third Ypres, on 31 July 1917. Born in London, his maternal grandfather was a deputy lieutenant of Hampshire, which might explain why he joined the county regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916 after studying at Winchester College and then Sandhurst. At the age of 19 he found himself commanding a company, in the second wave of the attack near Steenbeck. Resistance was stiff along Pilckem Ridge, and Hewitt tried to re-organise his company, despite being badly wounded by a shell blast. Refusing treatment, he led the company on to the next objective line, and although the objective was secured, Hewitt became a casualty in the hail of machine gun fire. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. He might not have strictly speaking been a Portsmouth lad, but he died serving with and leading many a young man from Portsmouth.

Montague Moore was serving in the 15th Hampshires, the 2nd Portsmouth Pals, at Passchendaele. Born in Bournemouth in 1896, he went to Sandhurst in 1915 at the age of 18. Commissioned into the Hampshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916, he was wounded in the leg at Messines Ridge in 1917. Back in time for Third Ypres, he led 120 men in an attack at Tower Hamlets on 20 October 1917. They captured the objective, but suffered heavy losses. They remained on the objective overnight, and were shelled the next day by British artillery, who thought that they had all been killed. Eventually Moore had only 10 men left. Moore and his party sat out the rest of the day and the next night, and returned to the British lines under the cover of the morning mist, after being in no mans land for almost 48 hours. Their return was greeted with amazement. Moore retired from the Army in 1926, and retired to Kenya, where he died in 1966.

All of the stories are very well written, and have been researched in fitting detail. It’s a very inspiring read. Of course, I’m a big fan or researching, writing and reading individuals stories, whether they be decorated or not. They all have something different to teach us. I’m thinking out aloud here, but wouldn’t it be interested to see a book of ‘near misses’ to the VC sometime?

VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 is published by The History Press

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Filed under Book of the Week, Uncategorized, victoria cross, western front, World War One

Walking D-Day by Paul Reed

Paul Reed has carved out something of a niche with his ‘Walking’ Battlefield Guides. His ‘Walking the Somme‘ in particular set the standard for Battlefield Guides, long before the explosion in Battlefield tourism. The interesting thing I find about Battlefield Guides is that I own so many of them, yet out of all the Battlefields out there I have only ever actually been to Arnhem! The thing is, they are actually useful for getting a grip on what happened, where and when. If you forget that you’re sat in living room, and if the book is well written and well illustrated, then you can still go some way to visualising what happened at the Battlefield in question. Paul has spent an awful lot of time around Battlefields in North West Europe, and it certainly shows in the manner in which he writes.

This is unlike most other Battlefield Guides on Normandy, in that it only deals with D-Day itself. No doubt if you are interested in visiting the Battlefield area in Normandy in general you might find this a bit anaemic, but I actually think its a very good choice. To do all of the D-Day beaches and all of the Normandy sites, in detail, would take you forever. However, doing the D-Day Beaches and the airborne areas might take you a nice couple of days, and would make much more sense into the bargain. And from what I have seen such a tour would take in some lovely scenery as a nice by product. There are plenty of museums and sites to see along the landing beaches too. Perhaps a Holt’s style map might make a useful addition, but there are plenty of places from where the tourist can obtain a good map nowadays. It has enough useful practical information without being overloaded – the beauty of the modern world is that anyone can go online and search for hotels, ferries etc, so there isn’t such a need to include them in what is first and foremost a history book.

I’ve written a fair bit about what happened on D-Day, unsurprisingly, for a Portsmouth military historian and somebody who has worked at the D-Day Museum in Southsea. I found Paul’s book very illuminating – in particular, I enjoyed the section on Sword Beach near Ouistreham, where I was unable to get off my ferry a month or so ago! I also enjoyed reading about the 1st Hampshires at Hamel in the first wave on D-Day. I’ve written about them in my own book, but reading their story here certainly added to my understanding of what happened in those fateful hours on 6 June 1944. Obviously elements such as Pegasus Bridge and Merville have been raked over so much that it is difficult to write much new about them. It’s also got some cracking illustrations, including many that I haven’t seen before. In common with many battles, we are used to seeing the same old photographs of D-Day again and again, so it’s nice to see some that I suspect have never been published before.

It’s quite hard to write about such a well-known event as D-Day in a fresh way, in what is a very crowded market, and especially when it comes to the battlefield guide. But Paul Reed has done a very good job indeed here. My acid test for any battlefield guide is whether it makes me feel like I have been there, when I haven’t. This one sure does. I don’t know how Paul finds time to fit it all in!

Walking D-Day is published by Pen and Sword

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Flying Among Heroes by Norman Franks and Simon Muggleton

With the Bomber Command Memorial in London only having been unveiled a couple of days ago, I guess it is pretty fitting to be reviewing the story of a Second World War Bomber pilot. I’ve always been in awe of the job that these very brave young men did, and it’s always interesting to hear of their stories.

This book is the story of a Second World War RAF aviator, Squadron Leader Tom Cooke DFC AFC DFM AE. Joining the RAF as an 18 year old in 1939, he graduated to flying bombers. Cooke won the DFM as a Sergeant Pilot flying Whitlet Bombers, and was later commissioned as an officer. He later served tours flying Wellington’s and Stirlings. He was awarded the DFC and AFC. In between tours with Bomber Command Squadrons he also served as an instructor in Operational Conversion Units, teaching new pilots. In this capacity he took part in the famous thousand Bomber raids on Cologne and Essen, when Bomber Harris combed out the OCU’s in order to put up as many Bombers as possible.

He returned to operations flying Halifax Bombers, but this time in a slightly unorthdox manners – namely, Special Duties, dropping special agents behind the lines in occupied Europe. On his twelfth mission he was shot down over France, and managed to evade his way back over the Pyrenees, and home to Britain via Gibraltar. Having been in contact with the French Resistance he was not allowed to fly operationally over Europe again, as he knew too much about vulnerable contacts in occupied territory. Instead, after ‘escape leave’ he was transferred to South East Asia and Burma. After leaving the RAF in 1946 he re-enlisted, finally reaching the rank of Squadron Leader, and after finally leaving the service worked as a commerical airline pilot.

It’s quite possible to do a lot of research piecing together the career of RAF Bomber Crew. If the man’s log book survives then that’s a real bonus. Also, Squadron records state the aircraft that flew on specific missions, who exactly was on board, what bomb load they carried, when they took off and landed, and a brief report of their experiences. Some crewmembers, in particular gunners, filled out air combat reports when they encountered enemy fighters.

In an interesting way, this book is quite similar to some of the research I have done on Portsmouth RAF Bomber Crew, using the same sources. Only here, Franks and Muggleton were able to call on some oral history interviews in the Imperial War Museum, with not only Cooke but also some of his crew. My one criticism would be that the text does not perhaps flow as well as it could. The authors have chosen to include stories about other men, aircraft and raids, presumably to add context. Whilst these additions do this, they do have the side effect of breaking up the narrative of Cooke’s story. I would probably rather have read Cooke’s story, as there are plenty of good books on the Bomber Offensive in general. None the less, it is still very much an interesting and gripping read.

Flying Among Heroes is published by The History Press

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Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Royal Air Force, World War Two

The British Field Marshals 1736-1997 by T.A. Heathcote

This is one of those books that I read through, cover to cover, within hours of opening. There’s something almost holy about the British Field Marshal. Even more so since the 1995 Betts report recommended that senior officers should not be appointed to Field Marshal, Admiral of the Fleet or Marshal of the Royal Air Force, except in special circumstances. The feeling is that the Field Marshal is now a thing of history, and indeed there are very few surviving holders of this high rank alive. Added to this, Field Marshals never retire, and are on the active list for life. Anyone promoted to the top of the tree, and awarded the Prince Regent-designed Baton, is in exalted company indeed. Of the 138 men to hold the rank, there are some fine names indeed to consider – Wellington, Roberts, Kitchener, French, Haig, Plumer, Allenby, Robertson, Birdwood, Smuts, Gort, Wavell, Brooke, Alexander, Montgomery, Wilson, Auchinleck and Slim.

The interesting thing is, that Field Marshal as a rank has never been a condition, or benefit, or serving in a particular appointment. There were points in both the First and Second World Wars when the Chief of the Imperial General Staff  – the head of the British Army – was a General, while theatre commanders – technically subordinates – were Field Marshals. The rank can often be awarded by Royal approval, as it was to Haig in 1916 and Montgomery in 1944. It has also been awarded on an honorary level to 22 British and Foreign Monarchs, Royal Consorts of officers of commonwealth or Allied Armies – one of them being Marshal Foch, and also a certain Emperor Hirohito.

I was particularly interested to read the analysis of what arms Field Marshals came from. As someone who has critiqued the armed forces for the background of their leaders, I was intrigued to see how the Army fared. And it’s rather interesting. 20 Field Marshals came from the Cavalry, 4 from Armour, 10 from Artillery, 5 Engineers, 18 Foot Guards, 48 Line Infantry (including 8 scottish, 14 Rifles or Light Infantry and 1 Gurkha), and 11 from the old Indian Army. The schools attended by Field Marshals is also an interesting appendix –  15 for Eton, 3 from Charterhouse, 3 from Marlborough, 4 from Wellington, 6 Westminster, 5 from Winchester and 2 from Harrow.

The individual entries about each Field Marshal are informative, but concise as you would expect from a Biographical Dictionary. I particularly enjoyed reading about some of the older, lesser known Field Marshals pre-Wellington. We often think that the Iron Duke was the first Field Marshal. After he captured Marshal Jourdan’s Baton at Vitoria, the Prince Regent promised to send him the Baton of a British Field Marshal in return. No such Baton existed, however, so one had to be hastily designed!

It is of course a shame that we no longer, generally speaking, appoint Field Marshals. As much as the historian in me would love to see the Baton awarded more regularly, the realist in me acknowledges that our armed forces are so small, and the nature of warfare is so different nowadays, that it is perhaps not appropriate to automatically promote officers to the rank, when it is largely symbolic. If in the future we found ourselves in a mass-mobilisation war and generals were again commanding large forces in action, then by all means bring it back. But the clue is in the title – ‘Field Marshal’, he who marshal’s the field of battle. Is a Field Marshal’s place in Whitehall, in peacetime?

Funnily enough, a matter of days ago it was announced that General Lord Guthrie – Chief of the Defence Staff 1997-2001,  the last CDS not to be promoted to the highest level and the provider of the foreword for this book – was being made a Field Marshal in the Queens Birthday Honours. Also awarded the rank, along with Admiral of the Fleet and Marshal of the Royal Air Force, was Prince Charles. Illustrating succinctly how Field Marshals can be appointed after a lifetime of service, or as an honour.

The British Field Marshals 1736-1997 is published by Pen and Sword

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‘Sir, They’re Taking the Kids Indoors’ by Ken Wharton

One of the sad facts of the Northern Ireland peace process is the way in which the experiences of the thousands of British soldiers who served in one of Britain’s most complex wars have been swept under the carpet. Sadly, as with many peace processes, it seems that a by-product of moderating the hard-liners in the interests of a bright future, is that some uncomfortable truths about the past are conveniently overlooked.

Ken Wharton, however, has been ploughing something of a lone furrow when it comes to ensuring that the humble British Squaddie in Northern Ireland isn’t forgotten. This book remembers the years of 1973 and 1974. The title alludes to the manner in which the IRA had an uncanny knack of ensuring that nationalist families took their children off the streets before an impending terrorist attack. Patrolling British soldiers would be well aware that something was awry, by the absence of the usually ubiquitous children on the streets. ‘Sir, they’re taking the kids indoors’ was more often than not a signal that something unpleasant was about to happen.

Northern Ireland must have been the most difficult conflict imaginable for a soldier. Restricted by what were completely unrealistic rules of engagement – particularly having to play by all of the rules, when the paramilitaries definitely did not – can’t have been easy. And I have to say as well, I am in awe of the bravery of some of these ex-squaddies, putting their names to their experiences and views so publicly, especially when certain unsavoury elements might be looking.

I always learn something new from Kens books. From the month my month breakdownof incidents, I get the impression that it was not necessarily the big well-known incidents that caused such a heavy death toll in the Province, but the constant ‘drip-drip’ effect of ‘smaller’ incidents, almost on a daily basis throughout the troubles. Perhaps to many, Northern Ireland consisted of Bloody Sunday, Warrenpoint and Hunger Strikes, and nothing else in between. Also, its only from looking at the list of fatalities that you can see just what a prediliction some paramilitary groups had for violence that often had nothing to do with the Troubles. With many of the incidents that Ken writes about, you could interchange the sectartian elements – religions, groups or neighbourhoods – and they would be virtually identical.

Something more controversial, certainly in the current era, is the extent to which Irish-American ‘aid’ helped to finance the IRA. To what extent was this intentional? This is probably something for a diligent historian to work on in years to come with the advantage of hindsight and when the potential for embarassment does not cause such a barrier. But it’s surely more than a coincidence that many of the weapons used by the IRA in this period were American-made Armalites or Garands.

This is the fourth of Ken’s Northern Ireland books that I have reviewed, and I have enjoyed reading every one of them. There are some cracking stories here – the Republican neighbourhood dog that had its vocal cords taken out by a Paras SLR, and other real, whites of the eyes, front line experiences. In generations to come I think these books will be extremely useful and important.

‘Sir, they’re taking the Kids indoors’ is published by Helion

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D-Day in Photographs by Andrew Whitmarsh

D-Day – and indeed the subsequent  Battle of Normandy – has to be one of the most photographed military campaigns in history. Even before the age of mass media and digital photography, some of the images that came out of 6 June 1944 are iconic. But we could also be forgiven for wondering, if there are so many photographs of Normandy, why do we keep seeing the same photographs again and again in books? If I asked you to nominate five famous D-Day images, I reckon I could probably guess three of them. In fact, it’s quite shameful how some authors – and indeed publishers – seem willing to peddle the same images, and history, over and over again whilst presenting it as ‘new’ to the unsuspecting enthusiast. This is a quandry that Andrew Whitmarsh has gone a long way towards remedying.

It is intriguing why authors decide to use some photos over and over again as illustrations. There are literally millions of photographs in military museums, such as the Imperial War Museum. And the D-Day Museum‘s collections are no different. There aremany photographs, most from the collections of the D-Day Museum, many of which have never been seen before. But it’s not just a catalogue of photos – they are very well explained and interpreted, and cover not just D-Day itself, but also the build up to the liberation, and the subsequent fighting in Normandy in the summer of 1944. There is also a very interesting section about the fantastic Overlord Embroidery. Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestery, the Embroidery is an epic portrayal of Operation Overlord, and is housed in the D-Day Museum. Almost as interesting as the Embroidery itself, is a behind-the-scenes look at how it was conceived and created, and how it came to Portsmouth.

Published some years ago in hardback, the publishers have recently released a paperback version. As somebody who has possibly ready every book published about D-Day, it is refreshing to see some new images. I enjoyed reading this book very much.

D-Day in Photographs is published by The History Press

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Filed under Book of the Week, d-day, World War Two