Category Archives: Book of the Week

Mosquito Menacing the Reich: Combat Action in the Twin-Engine Wooden Wonder of World War II by Martin W. Bowman

I must confess I’ve always known OF the De Havilland Mosquito – apart from the fact that it was constructed from almost entirely from wood. But equally, I’ve never known very much about what it accomplished during the war. This book is an ideal remedy for what I suspect is a common affliction for those of us who know all about Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters but have a knowledge gap when it comes to other Second World War aircraft types!

The Mosquito was originally conceived as a Medium Bomber, but ended up serving a number of roles with the RAF, and indeed with the USAAF as well. With its speed and high operating altitude, it served as a medium bomber, a precision strike aircraft, a pathfinder and marker, an anti-shipping strike platform, in North West Europe and in South East Asia. That it was also used by the Americans speaks volumes of its reputation.

For much of its service, only the Luftwaffe’s new jets could outperform it, speed wise. It had a higher operational ceiling than most other aircraft, and indeed German flak, so could quite often avoid danger. It proved to be ideal for precision bombing, where accuracy was needed that could not be obtained by Heavy Bombers. Leonard Cheshire VC used a Mosquito to perfect precision bombing of railway yards in the run up to D-Day, and Mosquitos were also used against the Tirpitz. Perhaps the Mosquito’s most famous raids were those on German Headquarters in The Hague, Aarhus and Oslo. Popular consesus might think that precision bombing came with Tomahawk cruise missiles, but the Mosquito’s effectiveness came a clear 40 odd years before.

Mosquitos were also often used in daylight, and for diversionary raids at night when Bomber Command’s main force was attacking elsewhere. They also famously raided Berlin night after night, just as much for the nuisance value as anything else. Hermann Goring was apparently furious that a Mosquito raid knocked out a radio station, thus putting one of his speeches off air.

At times perhaps there are more personal accounts than there are history, but the story is much better told in the words of the men who were there. With a crew of only two -a pilot and a navigator – they seem to have had to show more initiative and shoulder much more of a responsibility than other aircrew, given the highly specialised roles in which their aircraft were employed, often with a much greater degree of independence than say a Bomber crew with the main force.

This is a brilliant book my Martin Bowman. It’s choc full of accounts from men who flew and navigated the Mosquito. I enjoyed reading it immensely. It’s a great tribute to not only a wonderful aircraft – which deserves a more prominent place in aviation history – but also the incredibly brave men who flew it. It’s such a shame that there aren’t any surviving in airworthy fashion – I’m sure it would be quite a sight.

Mosquito: Menacing the Reich is published by Pen and Sword

 

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

Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research Enquiry Service 1939-1952 by Stuart Hadaway

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has ever shed such light on something that I have worked on in the past. I’ve written about plenty of men – particularly airmen – who were lost during the Second World War – and reading about the work of the Missing Research Enquiry Service has helped me gain a much better understanding of the process involved in tracing missing men during and after the war. I guess it’s one of those things that we don’t tend to think about too much, but how did we get from the height of the war, with thousands of men being lost in action – many of fate unknown – to the neatly-kept Commonwealth War Cemeteries and Memorials to the Missing of today?

As the war was ongoing, the RAF maintained a Casualty Branch that dealt with information about men lost – either killed, taken prisoner or missing – over enemy territory. This involved collating intelligence – in some cases from the enemy via the Red Cross – to maintain personnel records, and inform next of kin. Many bereaved relatives of course received a terse Government Service telegram. But it is the fate of those thousands of missing airmen that concerns us most in this book. Early in the war it was recognised that the RAF’s apparatus for tracing missing airmen was inadequate – hence the birth of the Missing Research Section in 1941. Collecting and collating intelligence reports from a variety of sources, this information provided a basis for post-war inquiries.

With the liberation of Europe ongoing, in December 1944 the MRS was expanded into the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, and small teams were sent to France and then the rest of Europe to gradually seek the missing men. Initially the MRES consisted of only 14 men, which was soon found to be nowhere near enough. With 42,000 men missing in Europe alone, this was quite some task.

One thing that really struck me is how few people were working in this field, and dealing with so many cases. And it was extensive work – travelling, working on intelligence, talking to locals, and being present at exhumations. It certainly wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Thousands of men were lost over thousands of square miles of Europe, let alone other continents such as South East Asia, which posed problems all of its own.

The manner in which some men were identified is quite intriguing. For the most part, RAF identity discs perished quickly in soil, so identification was left to items such as uniforms, rings, or even paperwork that had survived stuffed in pockets. It was detective work of the highest order, which in some respects a historian of war casualties can both sympathise with and admire.

I think especially of men such as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Flight Sergeant Francis Compton DFM, men who were shot down over occupied Europe and must have gone through the process of having their crash sites and burial locations being traced and identified by the MRES.

This is a fascinating book, full of anecdotes. As I mentioned in my introduction, I can’t remember the last time I learnt so much from one book about a subject I knew very little about, and a subject that I should know a lot about at that. It certainly adds to my grasp of researching ‘missing’ airmen, and adds a vital puzzle to understanding their stories.

Missing Believed Killed is published by Pen and Sword

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

War Surgery 1914-18 edited by Thomas Scotland and Steven Hays

How many military historians – people for whom writing about death and injury is part of their vocation – actually have anything more than a rudimentary understanding of battlefield medicine? Nope, me neither. And for somebody who has been specialising in war casualties, that is something I really should remedy.

Therefore I was intrigued to receive this book looking at war surgery in the First World War. It is actually edited by a pair of medical professionals who also have an interest in military history, which for me is crucial. Medicine is such a specialist field, that to be honest I think only medical professionals can really do it justice. But this isn’t just a scientific, geeky look at things that the layman would never understand. It is structured very sensibly, beginning with a basic introduction to the First World War and the Western Front, and also to the history of battlefield medicine.

A very interesting chapter looks at the manner in which wounded soldiers came into contact with medical help – namely, the evacuation chain. Wounded soldiers were treated immediately by their Regimental Medical Officer, aided by a team of stretcher bearers. Men were then taken to a Field Ambulance, usually by ambulance wagons and cars. Lightly wounded might be sent to an advanced dressing station to be patched up and sent back. More seriously wounded would be passed on to a Casualty Clearing Station by motor convoy. From there the wounded would be despatched to a stationary base hospital, usually in French coastal towns such as Rouen, Etaples, Le Havre of Boulogne. Men who did not respond to treatment might be shipped back to England for further care. With much of the war being fought in a stationary, almost siege-like manner, evacuation trains could be implemented, even incorporating river transport.

Obviously, many wounded were in shock, and in need of stabilising and resucitation. And with thousands of men requiring treatment almost on a daily basis, it was an ideal proving ground for medical officers to establish best practice. Anaesthetic had been discovered and pioneered in the later years of the nineteenth century, and with many men requiring operations, anaesthesia was also a key consideration in the treatment of many.

Something I had not really though of is the varying pathology of warfare. Men wounded on the Western Front – in cold, wet and muddy conditions – were very vulnerable to infections, and the heavily fertile Flanders mud was an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. And with a large proportion of open wounds, the early onset of infection was a serious problem. By contrast, men serving in warmer climes were at threat of other illnesses, notably Dysentery in Gallipoli and Malaria in Mesopotamia. As in previous centuries, a large proportion of deaths were to illness rather than wounds received in action.

As with Anaesthesia, X-rays had been pioneered relatively shortly before 1914. Gradually X-ray facilities were established at base hospitals, and a few locations further forward in the medical chain. X-ray machines were relatively large, unwieldy and expensive, and being so far back behind the lines it took time for men to reach them. Another consideration was the quality of imaging, and the ability of medical officers to interpret them and consider an appropriate course of treatment.

With many men suffering broken bones – in particular due to gunshot wounds – orthopaedic surgery was important. a large proportion of broken bones were suffered in the form of fractured femurs. As a major bone, a frature of the femur could be catastrophic, and poorly healed might cripple a man for life. The newly-invented Thomas splint helped medical officers on the front line to immobilise a man quickly, and radically improve their chances of recovery. A great example of how war prompted a remarkable medical innovation.

Throughout military history abdominal wounds had often been regarded as particularly troublesome, as to a lesser extent had penetrative chest wounds. Any wounds in these areas might threaten vital organs, and hence chances of recovery were often very low. Performing delicate operations on vital organs were particularly trying, and not something that could be performed easily in makeshift facilities. Also, the risk of infection was ever-present.

Something I had not ever thought of was the development of plastic surgery during the First World War. As with any way, men suffered horrific scars. I had always thought that plastic surgery was first developed during the Second World War with burnt aircrew, but some of the images of Great War Soldiers having their faces gradually rebuilt with flaps and the like are staggering. The Great War was possibly the first war in which cosmetic injuries were taken seriously.

Something else that really impressed me is the manner in which the medical services expanded to take on what was an unbelievable burden. The Royal Army Medical Corps was tiny in 1914, as was the British Army as a whole. With each Regimental-level unit needing an MO, and countless other medical units needing staffing, where did all these extra doctors come from? It was a considerable balancing act to make sure that there were adequate doctors at the front, but that there were also adequate doctors at home in Britain too.

I’ve got the utmost respect for doctors who serve on the front line. They deal with some of the most traumatic injuries, in trying circumstances and with scant resources. When faced with overwhelming casualties they have to take on an unbelievably tragic method of triage – which casualties have the best chance of success with the resources available? Those deemed unlikely to survive are left to their fate.

This is a brilliant book. Considering that the editors and contributors are medical professionals, it reads incredibly well as a history book – much more readable than many a military history text! I recommend it wholeheartedly to any historian of the Great War who wishes to develop a broader understanding of battlefield medicine. It has certainly helped me to broaden mine, and I must confess, I now think that researching casualties of war without looking at surgery in war is simply inadequate.

War Surgery 1914-18 is published by Helion

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

Operation Enduring Freedom: America’s Afghan War 2001 to 2002 by Tim Ripley

This really is a first class book. Ordinarily, I would argue that it is very difficult to write history, in particular military history, until at least thirty years have passed. Sometimes events that happened relatively recently are very difficult to analyse, without the benifit of sufficient hindsight. But here Tim Ripley has given a first class exposition of one of the most controversial conflicts of modern times.

Ripley goes into incredible detail, and I am sure that his description of the air war in particular will be new to most readers. I for one had no idea what aircraft were operating where over Afghanistan. Pointedly, the US Navy had to move two aircraft carriers to the Pakistan coast, as there were no suitable usable airfields in the surrounding countries. Hence most of the tactical aircraft flying on Enduring Freedom were US Navy. But of course, we know that Aircraft Carriers are a luxury, because our leaders and betters tell us so (irony!).

One area in which the US did perform very well in 2001 and 2002 was the integration of Defence and intelligence. In this scenario, Central Command worked almost seamlessly with the CIA, who had significant experience in Afghanistan. The use of technology by the US was also an incredible force multiplier. The Taliban simply had no answer to the UAV’s such as the Predator, and could not hide from the satellite technology and high tec communications that enabled the US to fight in a way that the Taliban could never counter.

The complex social fabric of Afghanistan is absolutely crucial to understand. Made up of a veritable patchwork quilt of tribes and ethnic backgrounds, its not surprising perhaps that Afghanistan has spent the majority of its existence in some kind of upheaval. The tribal loyalties in particular are something that Ripley does well to describe. Even then, I had trouble keeping track of all of the different forces at play, particularly as tribes could change their loyalties at the drop of a hat. In a similar manner, Pakistan’s President Musharaf seems to have been playing the US. Pakistan had supported the Taliban prior to 9/11, and only switched sides when threatened with dire consequences by the US. But Pakistani forces did very little to secure the Afghan border, and then handed over hundreds of supposed prisoners, who it rapidly transpired were not terrorists or illegal combatants at all.

One thing that does emege, and confirms my impression, is that Donald Rumsfeld was completely inept as Secretary of Defence and, looking back, seems to have got almost all of the major calls wrong, basing his decision making on neo-conservative ideals rather than the strategic or tactical realities. This was a worrying trend that continued into the Iraq Invasion in 2003.

Ripley’s closing argument is that in some respects, the apparent success of operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 was really a hollow victory. Yes, Bin Laden was on the run and the Taliban fell. The US Forces and their allies had won the war, but thanks to Rumsfeld’s intellectually bankrupt policies, they lost the peace. With more sensible humanitarian and infrastructure work, the kind of troop deployments required from 2006 onwards – such as the British Army’s bloody campaign in Helmand – would have been un-necessary. The momentum was lost, as Iraq took up everyone’s attention.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Book of the Week

The Devils Birthday by Geoffrey Powell

In the past I have been quite critical of the historiography of Arnhem. More than half of the books published that have Arnhem in the title or blurb offer little or no new analysis – the battle has been so raked over, that you have to wonder if there is really anything new to write. Such is why I will probably never attempt a book on Arnhem.

Written some years ago now, The Devils Birthday has aged rather well, and has always been one of my favoured works on Market Garden. And now, it has been reprinted by Pen and Sword. And not before time – it might serve to remind younger scholars and enthusiasts that much of what is presented as ‘new’ in military history, has already been written years before. This was, as the blurb tells us, the first book to be written about Market Garden as a whole by a British writer.

Perhaps the greatest faux pax in this book, is that Powell suggests that Lieutenant-General Boy Browning uttered the immortal ‘Bridge too far‘ line.  But crucially – and I have no idea why it took anyone so long to realise – Powell doesn’t actually substantiate how he knew that Browning had said such a thing. In all likelihood, it was – and remains to this day – an urban myth. As recent research has shown, there is no evidence that Browning made the ‘Bridge too far’ statement prior to the battle.

But that aside, this is a very good book. And especially so for a particpant in the battle, and a military man. It is well referenced and has good bibliography, particularly when it comes to official documentary sources. And we have to remember that Powell was writing originally in 1984- at a time when many of the key participants were still alive and able to contribute. It is perhaps a little heavy on narrative and a touch light on critique and robust conclusion – particularly when compared to modern Arnhem writers such as Robert Kershaw and William Buckingham – but military officers do tend not to drive points home against the establishment in writing!

It is a very able and useful study of the battle of Arnhem. What makes it all the more interesting is that Powell served as a company commander with the 156th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem, and was one of very few officers to return across the Rhine after the battle. Remarkably, when he and the remnants of his battalion landed on the south bank of the Rhine, they formed up and marched to billets in Nijmegen. And after almost ten days of bitter fighting. Tellingly, Powell tells this story, but is too modest to state that he was the officer in command.

The Devils Birthday is published by Pen and Sword

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

Naval Weapons of World War One by Norman Friedman

Norman Friedman gives us an incredibly comprehensive view of the weapons used by the Great War navies of… ready for this…? Britain, Germany, France, the United States, Italy, Russia, Japan, Austria, Spain, Sweden, and other navies. Here, naval weapons include guns, torpedoes, mines and anti-submarine weapons. There must have been a risk that main guns would overshadow mines and torpedoes.

This is quite some book, and I can only marvel at the amount of research that must have gone into it. Perhaps I found some of the technological stuff a bit perplexing – there were so many different calibres of gun, for example, it is hard to keep track of them all! But Friedman doesn’t just offer a technological narrative, he also gives a very good background in the historical developments that led to the early twentieth century naval arms race, and how the manufacture and development of weapons progressed. Names such as Armstrong figure prominently. And that is refreshing, as so often we get a – dare I say it – geeky analysis of why a 4.99inch gun is different to a 5inch gun, without any regard for the ships that they were fitted to, the men who operated them, and the admirals who fought them. I have found quite commonly when analysing modern naval warfare, than some correspondents tend to get too bogged down with the technology – ie, the make up or resistors in a sea wolf launcher – with no regard at all for the human aspect of things.

One thing that surprised me is just how many different types of guns were in use. In these days of commonality and procurement-led equipment policies, it is hard to fathom that the Royal Navy used to operate all manner of different calibre and type of guns. It must have been a supply chain nightmare. Imagine all of the spare parts, maintenance know how, operating experience and ammunition complexities. I guess it was as a result of the rapid change in technology in the nineteenth century. After all, the Royal Navy fought at Trafalgar with smootbore muzzle loaders, and went into action at Jutland with huge, rifled breech loaders. And then when you take into account the massive innovations in explosives, then its little wonder that the navies changed so dramatically. After all, guns and rounds are the raison d’etre of any Dreadnought. And then we have the vastly complex issues of naval tactics in the Dreadnought age, the Battlecruiser conundrum et al. And then when you compare these issues among the various navies, you have a very interesting picture.

But here Friedman does place the technology well within the wider context. There is a lot of compare and contrast, which is of course vital when considering why and how certain navies fared differently to others. It is excellently illustrated with some first class photographs, which are well interpreted. I found it very illuminating indeed. As somebody who does tend to concentrate on the social history side of things, it would be all too easy to ignore technology as ‘cold’ history. But to understand the story of men who served at sea in the Great War, then we should be prepared to be engrossed in the weapons that they worked with.

Not only that, but it looks pretty snazzy on my bookshelf!

Naval Weapons of World War One is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, technology, Uncategorized, World War One

Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield

Cover of "Forgotten Victory: The First Wo...

Cover via Amazon

Going against a commonly-held perception is perhaps the greatest challenge that faces any historian. Some things in history are just so taken for granted that they are held as unassailable truths. As one of the fell0w-students on my degree course stated once, memorably, ‘Henry VIII was just a fat bloke who ate chicken’. Run against such a ‘historical truth’, and you runk the risk of being desricbed as a revisionist as best, and at worst a charlatan. In this book Gary Sheffield treads a very careful and well-reasoned path. Our understanding of the First World War is choc full of myths and misconceptions. Sheffield sequentially and convincingly deals with many of the inaccuracies that have become ingrained in national consciousness. National Consciousness, as Sheffield enlightens us, does tend to pull historical events out of their context.

Perhaps the biggest myth that Sheffield deals with is that of the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘. Haig et al are filed neatly under ‘butcher’, and they sacrificed the lives of millions of brave men. Sheffield argues – convincingly, in my mind – that not only could Haig and his generals have not done much different, but also that progressively from 1916 onwards the BEF – and its generals – learnt rather quickly how to fight a modern war, and didn’t do too bad in the circumstances. On the Somme in 1916 the BEF relieved the pressure from the French at Verdun, and almost caused the German Army to crack. It almost did the same once again in 1917 at Ypres. It has become all too easy for any of us, in hindsight, to judge that the First World War was a a barbaric waste of life for no good reason. In fact, the BEF, by its actions, did result in the defeat of the German Army in the field, which ended the war. Haig was not a complete technophobe, as has been alleged. He understood air power, and embraced innovations such as the Tank – giving them his full support.

Trench Warfare, and the demands that it placed upon the British Army, was a complete abboration in British military history. Never before had Britain fielded a vast citizen army on the continent; for a small, elite, imperial police force, this resulted in a waterfall of change in a matter of weeks and months, let alone years. Once Kitcheners Armies took to the field and the BEF gained some valuable lessons, the British Army began to acquit itself quite well. Plumer, in particular, comes in for much praise. Perhaps the most important innovation of the Great War was the importance of the set-piece attack – detailed planning of an all arms battle, with all arms communicating as far as possible. Interesting, is it not,  that Montgomery served on Plumers staff? Crucually, Sheffield does not doubt that the BEF suffered horrific casualties, but he does argue – thougtfully – that a high butchers bill does not necessarily mean that those thousands of lives were lost in vain.

World War One did, in some respects, end unsatisfactorily for all sides. The German Army had been defeated – or, in many ways, had defeated itself. Yet the German nation and people did not suffer the full consequences of defeat, and hence the myth of the stab in the back took hold. The US under Wilson imposed ideals of liberal democracy on the rest of the world, then promptly retreated to isolationism once more. The vast loss of life led to policies of appeasement, particularly for Britain and France. And hence, perhaps, perceptions of the Great War have been shaped by its consequent events that took place years afterwards. The Allies won the war, but did not win the peace.

In terms of British military history, Gary Sheffield is perhaps the most prominent voice in the field today. Forgotten Victory has considerably aided my broader understanding of the First World War, from the international rivalries and complex web of alliances that made it happen, to the hopelessly compromised peace settlement after, which all but condemmed Europe to war less than a generation later. But sadly, calm, collected histories do not tend to change popular consciousness. Which is a pity, as I cannot help but feel that Sheffield treads a very well reasoned path here.

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, western front, World War One