Tag Archives: book review

Merville Battery and the Dives Bridges and Pegasus Bridge and Horsa Bridge by Carl Shilleto

Having received these guides that both relate to the Airborne Brigdgehead in Normandy, and are both by Carl Shilleto, I thought it would make sense to review them together. I have used the Battleground series of Battlefield Guides myself when visiting Arnhem in the past. To my eternal regret, I haven’t actually managed to get to any other battlefields apart from Arnhem, so until the time that somebody gives me a break in becoming a battlefield guide I will have to make do with reading battlefield guide books from the comfort of my own home!

Mind you, in this case it’s not really a case of making do – these are very good books indeed. Exceptionally well illustrated with archive and contemporary photographs, and with a wealth of appendices covering recommended reading, order of battle, glossaries and a handy reference list of grid reference co-ordinates for Satnav use. The maps in particular are a great resource – in particular the colour maps on the back are very useful. Perhaps the only thing that is missing with this series is a larger scale, detailed Holts-style map, but I guess if you want something like that you can go out and buy one yourself, or one of the French Michelin maps. There isn’t a huge amount on tourist information – some basic information such as climate, health, getting there, the perils of battlefield relics are well covered. With the internet, and ever disappearing international borders, it shouldn’t take too much trouble to google up some ferries and hotels.

I’ve done a fair bit of studying of individual soldiers who fought in the airborne bridgehead – namely Portsmouth’s own Sergeant Sid Cornell DCM and the 16 year old Boy Para Private Bobby Johns. Reading this book has helped me understand what happened to both of them in much more context. And I guess that’s what a good battlefield guidebook should do – make you feel like you have been there, without actually being there. I wouldn’t mind betting that out of everyone who buys a battlefield guide, something like 75% might not actually got to the area. And is that such a bad thing?

Both Battleground guides are available from Pen and Sword

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Battleground General Arnhem 1944 by Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell

Wargaming is something that I have always fancied having a go at. In the main, it has been time and expense that has precluded me having a go. Similarly, I tend to steer clear of wargaming PC games, as I find it all too easy to spend all weekend playing them! Therefore I was very interested to see this book by Sutherland and Canwell which is, in essence, wargaming in a book. And obviously, with my personal interest in the Battle of Arnhem, I was doubly fascinated to have a go at wargaming Arnhem.

The concept is thus. You play in the role of either of the opposing commanders – in this case, either Major General Roy Urquhart or Waffen SS General Wilhelm Bittrich. After reading the opening entry, you are given a series of choices, which usually entail making a tactical decision. Each step entails going on to another decision if you decide on a particular course of action. In essence, it is kind of like a giant flow chart, but only listed in a book. As far as I can tell it is pretty accurate to history, militarily and in terms of the geography and the ‘feel’ of the battle. I’ve walked over the ground at Arnhem a couple of times, as well as reading every book about the battle more than once, so I guess I’m as much an expert about Arnhem as you can get. Of course, it is quite simplistic, compared to say a PC game or a school hall long board wargame, but that’s the beauty of it – you can sit on the train and play it with yourself, or maybe in conjunction with another fellow military history nerd.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, I won! Playing as Urquhart, I stayed at my HQ initially on the first day, but went ahead to switch the Recce Squadron and the rest of 1st Parachute Brigade to the southern route once I hit opposition on the way into the town. As a result the 2nd Battalion made the Bridge, and more of the Brigade than did in reality. Of course, I know that on the evening of the 17th Urquhart got himself trapped in Arnhem, so I prompltly pulled myself back to main HQ. The rest of the 1st Brigade were held up in the town, but on the second day I switched the 4th Brigade (Grandad included!) to the southern route, down through Oosterbeek. Along with the balance of the 1st Brigade, they made it to the Bridge. The 1st Airlanding Brigade remained on the drop zones, where the Poles later landed. With enough men on the northern end of the Bridge, I sat it out – too many Germans on the south, my probing recces found that the opposition there wasn’t worth wasting too many men on. However, once I heard that XXX Corps had taken Nijmegen Bridge and were advancing up the Island, I charged the south bank in an all or nothing coup de main – and took it!

Having read plenty of Arnhem books, I think that plan might well have worked – but of course, that takes a lot of hindsight. But then again, isn’t that what we do, as historians? Take account of hindsight where others could not at the time? When you consider how it must have been trying to make decisions back in September 1944 – when Urquhart et al knew none of this – you can see how success and failure were divided by such a thin line. A very sobering realisation indeed.

Battleground General Arnhem 1944 is published by Pen and Sword

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Counter-insurgency by Ian Beckett and John Pimlott

In the past I have heard all kind of funny things said about counter-insurgency warfare. It’s not ‘real war’, or that it causes armies to ‘go soft’. Both of which are, in my opinion, horse shit. But I guess on the other hand it is also symptomatic that military historians have not really studied COIN as much as they should have. This is a very useful book, therefore. And it is extremely relevant, in that both of the authors have lectured at Sandhurst and other Defence institutions.

The British Army has perhaps the most experience of fighting counter-insurgency. Not only does the Army have a history of fighting small, foreign wars against populations and having to make do and improvise, but in the long drawn-out withdrawl from Empire British Forces were time and time again called in to provide a bulwark against unsavoury insurgents. This happened in Malaya, Borneo, Aden, Oman, and in numerous places in Africa. And not to mention Northern Ireland. And the British Army has an enviable record of success. One of the key lessons learnt from the insurgency in Malaya is the importance of uniting civilian and military leadership – in Malaya the land forces commander was also the Governor-General, not only providing unity in leadership but also eliminating a possible area for rifts. In Oman, every effort was made to win ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals, and to take care of economic and social factors so the insurgency did not seem a viable alternative.

The French Army, on the other hand, did not fare too well in Vietnam or Algeria. The author of this chapter even feels that at times the French Army studied COIN so much that some officers began to sympathise far too much with revolutionary ideals. Certainly, the French failure in Vietnam led to the debacle that the US waded into not long after. And failure in Algeria led to all manner of instability at home, including leading the Generals to machine for a change of Government.

It would be difficult to argue that the US Army has a good reputation when it comes to COIN. Clearly, the flexible, unconventional and tactful approach that it calls for does not lend itself well to forces based on overwhelming firepower and materiel. Listening to quotes from US Generals over Vietnam, you get the feeling that it was not the kind of war that they wanted to fight. Well, you’re lucky if you get to pick your wars, otherwise you fight the ones your masters want you to. And when you do, you should fight to win. Or at the very least, not lose. Lines of command were hopelessly complicated – one observer found it hard to work out who was actually running the Vietnam War, with so many headquarters and Departments involved.

In contrast, the Portuguese Army actually had a pretty good track record at dealing with COIN in countries such as Guinea, Angola and Mozambique. This is even more remarkable when we consider Portugal’s size, it’s economy, and the fact that its forces were routed in Goa not long before. Their success in fielding such forces in their colonial possessions and their subsequent success would suggest that size is not an issue in dealing with COIN. A military coup led to Portugal’s withdrawal from Empire in 1974, rather than any kind of military reverse.

It’s a similar picture with the Rhodesian Army, which fought a COIN campaign against the pre-cursors to Robert Mugabe in the African bush. As well as the Selou Scouts and forming a Rhodesian SAS, part of the Rhodesian’s tactics for countering the terrorists included erecting game fences and minefields along frontiers. The amount of haven states along Rhodesia’s borders, however, made things more problematic. Rhodesia might have become Zimbabwe eventally, but the Rhodesian security forces were by no means defeated, and in the opinion of the author could have continued the campaign indefinitely.

So, looking at these various COIN campaigns, do any lessons emerge? Firstly, that civil and military leaderships needs to be as one – either united, or merged. Officers need to forget about ideas of set piece battles and focus on the campaign at hand, and how to win it. The US General who said that he would not let Vietnam ‘destroy everything that the US Army stands for’ was ironically showing the kind of inflexibility that loses COIN campaigns in any case. And far from making security forces ‘go soft’, the flexibility and agility required in COIN campaigns can actually be very useful – witness the experience gained by the British Army in Northern Ireland, and how it engendered excellent leadership at junior NCO level.

Whether we like it or not, insurgencies are a fact of life in the modern world, and if we want to defeat them we would do better to work out how best to make their success impossible, rather than bemoaning that they do not fit into our fixed ideas of what war is, or should be.

This is a very credible book, and I enjoyed reading it immensely.

Counter-insurgency is published by Pen and Sword

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America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War 1987-1988 by Lee Alan Zatarain

Isn’t it funny how the same parts of the world seem to feature in military history, again and again. No doubt spurred on by rising tensions between Iran and the US, this fine book by Lee Alan Zatarain has been published in the UK by Casemate.

The book starts with a gripping account of the Exocet strike on the USS Stark, an Oliver Hazard Perry class Frigate. She was struck by two Exocets, but despite intense fires and the loss of dozens of crew she somehow survived. It’s a gripping story of an ops room that was not quite on the ball on the one hand, but then some heroic efforts to save the ship on the other. In fact several officers were reprimanded for not defending the ship, but also decorated for then saving it. There are interesting parallels here with HMS Sheffield in the Falklands.

The Tanker War in the Gulf of the late 198o’s was an off-shoot of the bloody Iran-Iraq War, between a despotic Saddam Hussein on the one side and an Islamic Revolutionary Ayatollah Khomenei on the other. Both sides depended on oil to fund their war efforts, but at the same time sought to deny the other side their supply. Both belligerents targeted neutral commercial shipping, particularly oil tankers, using anti-ship missiles, mines and terrorist tactics.

The US Navy was drawn into the Gulf to protect shipping, after a number of neutral owned tankers were re-flagged under the stars and stripes. US Frigates and Destroyers began escorting convoys of tankers through the Straits of Hormuz and up to the oil terminals in the Gulf, as far as Kuwait. In one slightly embarrasing incident, a large tanker hit a mine, but the smaller and lighter warships cowered behind her, seeking protection in her wake.

The Iranians began using small fast craft to terrorize commecial shipping in the Gulf, and also laid hundreds if not thousands of mines in the Gulf. To counter against these classic low intensity tactics, the US transferred a unit of Army Special Forces Helicopters, with advanced equipment that enabled them to operate at night. The US Navy also leased two large barges, and moored them in the Gulf as Mobile Sea Bases. These heavily armoured bastions provided a home to Navy SEALs and their fast attack craft.

Another disaster befell the US Navy when the USS Samuel Roberts found herself stuck in an uncharted Iranian minefield. After striking a mine the crew managed to back their way out of the area while keeping the ship afloat; an extraordinary achievement for the Captain and crew. In fact one US Laboratory modelled the mine strike on the Roberts, and each time the ship sank within minutes. That the Roberts survived was no doubt due to some very able officers and men, and a first-class leadership culture.

The Roberts incident contrasts starkly with the situation that allowed the Ticonderoga class Aegis Cruiser USS Vincennes to shoot down an Iran Air Airbus after wrongly identifying it as a Iranian Air Force Phantom. How the most technically advanced ship in the US Navy managed to make such a fateful decision is startling. However videos shot on the Vincennes at the time show sailors in shorts and t-shirt milling around on the bridge, and whooping with delight at the missile strikes. Earlier that day she had been in action against some Iranian surface vessels, and it is believed that her gung-ho Captain had let his offensive spirit kick into over-drive. Whats more, before reaching the Gulf he had re-arranged his command team, a move which made it more difficult for air warfare to be properly managed.

The Vincennes incident in particular is very well investigated and summarised by Zatarain. And this is a book that naval history enthusiasts and indeed naval officers should enjoy, particulary in this world where we face a multitude of low-intensity asymetric wars on the one hand, and a resurgent Iran on the other. It poses interesting questions about naval units were handled in trying circumstances, only a couple of years after the lessons of the Falklands War.

Iran: The Tanker War 1987-1988 by Lee Alan Zatarain is published by Casemate

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Churchill Defiant by Barbara Leaming

The perceived wisdom regarding Winston Churchill seems to be that after leading Britain to victory, in 1945 his Conservative party was rejected by an electorate who put their trust in Attlee‘s Labour party to build a home fit for heroes. What is very rarely mentioned is that Churchill in fact served on as leader of the opposition, and somehow became Prime Minister again between 1951 and 1955.

Churchill was by no means a party politician, having already defected from the Conservatives to the Liberals and then back again during his career. During the war he concentrated almost completely on fighting the war, leaving domestic affairs to a number of Labour politicians. Whilst this was no doubt wise for the war effort, it marginalised Churchill’s appeal when it came to post-war politics.

The consensus amonst Conservative figures after 1945 was that Churchill would shuffle off into retirment, and hand over the his long-awaiting successor, Anthony Eden. But with his usual childlike stubborness, Churchill somehow managed to cling onto leadership of the party, even during a time when his now well-known depression was raging, and whilst he was engaged with writing his eponymous history of the Second Word War. Churchill routinely handed over more mundane party leadership duties to Eden, Salisbury and Butler.

It seems that Churchill really did miss the cut-and-thrust of international diplomacy more than anything else. Apart from pride, his greatest desire in clinging to power seems to have been to finish off where he left off in 1945: with a grand three-power summit with the US and the Soviet Union, in order to end the Cold War. This was a rather simplistic way of viewing things. Britain no longer had a place at the top table of world affairs, even if US leadership of the western world – in particular that of Eisenhower – left much to be desired. But is it right to keep a political career running merely in the name of placing a full stop?

Its amazing to read of just obstinate Churchill was in continually brushing off demands for his retirement. His colleagues were of course in an impossible position. Churchill was undoubtedly faltering and a shadow of his former self, but how to retire a war hero and national treasure? His cabinet colleagues, his family, doctor, staff, US president and politicians and even the royal establishment tried countless times to convince him to retire, without success. Even a number of serious strokes could not keep Churchill down. Evidence, if any was needed, that although his faculties were failing, the famous Bulldog spirit still remained. All the same, we have to be glad that whatever we think of them, modern Prime Ministers tend to be somewhat fitter and are not so difficult to ‘retire’.

I wanted to like this book. But, sadly, the manner in which it is based on what are loosely described as ‘conversations’ with conservative party figures makes it hard for me to think of it as a work of History. The paucity of references is disappointing. Barbara Leaming is a political biographer, whose most notable work was a life of President Kennedy. An American, she also has a background in writing articles for The Times, Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. It does feel very much like a work of journalism, and would no doubt make a great serialisation in American media, who are probably more fascinated by Churchill than even we are. It is, none the less, an interesting glimpse at British politics, and Churchill the man.

Churchill Defiant is published by Harper Collins

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Zulu: Queen Victoria’s Most Famous Little War by W.B. Bartlett

I’m reading another book at the moment about Winston Churchill, and the author writes at one point that after 1945 Churchill was harking for the long peace that he knew during the latter years of the Victorian era, in the early years of his life. Which is rather strange, as Churchill himself charged at Omdurman and was a war correspondent in the Boer War.

The ‘golden’ age of the British Empire was hallmarked by a lengthy peace between the European powers (save the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War), which is a very British way of seeing things, pulling up the draw bridge an’ all that. But at the same time, the British Empire brought about a plethora of small wars on virtually every continent. I’m always amazed by the huge range of wars that redcoats and native contingents found themselves fighting, particularly on the North West Frontier and in Africa.

Perhaps the most famous of these ‘little wars’ was that fought with the Zulu Empire in South Africa 1879. Here W.B. Bartlett has given this well-known but oft-misunderstood war a measured and scholarly treatment. Firstly, perceptions of the war have inevitably been tinted by the battle fought at Rorkes Drift, as immortalised in the 1946 film Zulu. The Zulu Impi descended on Rorkes Drift after inflicting a humiliting defeat on a British column at Isandlwana, another battle that is well known. But these two battles overshadow the rest of the war to the extent that the final outcome is little known.

The war seems to have begun in a typically British manner – no-one could point out precisely why the British wanted to advance into Zululand. In hindsight, it seems to have been a classic case of what I think of as ‘Empire creep’ – once one realm was captured, eyes instantly turned to that next door, even if there was nothing to capture and it was only a case of securing the frontier of land already held. There was no specific reason for the British to fight the Zulus, making the war somewhat un-necessary in any case.

The British commander was General John Thesiger, who during the campaign inherited the title of Lord Chelmsford. A controversial character, his legacy has been shaped by the humiliation at Isandlwana. The war began with several British columns advancing into Zululand, and in hindsight it appears that they were woefully underprepared and underestimated the Zulus. There was no intelligence to speak of, and the Natal Native Contingent were unreliable. This is a typically British military trait – starting a war with as little resources as possible, unprepared, and trying to get away with using as few British troops as possible. After the debacle at Isandlwana the Army was shaken out of its comfort zone, and eventually defeated the Zulus and captured King Cetshwayo.

The battle at Rorkes Drift is a curious incident in British military history. Undoubtedly a very brave action fought against overwhelming odds, it is important to remember that the South Wales Borderers were armed with Martini-Henry Rifles and were behind improvised but strong fortifications. Whilst it was a brave action, did it warrant such a large number of Victoria Crosses? It has to be said, that Rorkes Drift was probably used as a publicity coup to deflect attention from the terrible news of Isandlwana. Which as a shame, as it was still a brave fight none the less.

Another interesting story to come from the Zulu War is that of the death of the French Prince Imperial. A great-nephew of Napoleon and son of the Exiled French Emperor Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial begged to be allowed to go to South Africa to take part in the war in some capacity. That it was not his war in the first place and that he had no conceivable use was of no consequence, somehow he managed to pull enough strings to be allowed to go to a war that was not his. He was killed in the process. Although his death became something of a cause celebre, modern historians mostly agree that he should not have been there in the first place.

This is a balanced and refreshing take on what is a well-known but oft-understood war, two traits that often go hand in hand. By not concentrating overly on Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift, Bartlett reminds us that the war was much wider than we might realise, thanks to Hollywood.

Zulu: Queen Victoria’s Most Famous Little War is published by The History Press

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A Long Long War by Ken Wharton

I’ve always had an interest in ‘the troubles‘, as the war in Northern Ireland has euphemistically been called. I’ve already reviewed Ken Wharton‘s book ‘Bloody Belfast‘ which I enjoyed immensely, so I’m very interested to be able to read his first book on the war in the province, which has just been reprinted by Helion in paperback. The title really is ‘ronseal’ – Northern Ireland was the longest continuous operation fought by the British Army, and virtually every British soldier from 1969 to 1998 would have experience of the province.

Historiographically, at present it isn’t quite the ‘done thing’ to try to write about Northern Ireland ‘as it was’ – the peace process and the Good Friday agreement have meant that a certain political correctness has prevailed. Between Paisley and McGuinness shaking hands, the British soldier has vanished. Just as political prisoners were freed, much of the history has been ignored, whether it be the role that certain republicans played, and also the experiences of the British Squaddie on the streets and in the countryside. I suppose its the adage that ‘one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter’, and at the moment, one cannot help but feel that the IRA are seen as freedom fighters by many. Many of the stories in this book are extremely callous – the murder of female soldiers, indsicriminate bombings, using schools and children as cover, the cold-blooded murder of unarmed soldiers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the massace at Enniskillen in 1987.

I think its absolutely critical to really understand as much as we can the experiences of the British Squaddie on the ground in Belfast, Londonderry, Crossmaglen and elsewhere. Not only in terms of the lessons in counter-insurgency, of which there are many, but also in terms of what they, as men, went through. Its incredibly harrowing to read some of the traumatic stories of shootings and bombings. To be honest its hard to know where to begin recounting stories, but suffice to say I was incredibly moved reading some of the incidents that took place. And these are only case studies. Its all the more poignant when you know of relatives who served in Northern Ireland too. But amongst all the moving tales, there also some typical tommy-humour anecdotes too. Time and time again, the British soldier somehow manages to make light of even the most dire situation.

On a more strategic and tactical level, this book shows just how professional the British Army and its soldiers became at counter-insurgency and fighting amongst the civil population. This was a very different war to most others. There was never going to be any kind of surrender, or victory parade. The Army were there to support the civil power in bringing about peace, and not to defeat the nationalists. The Army in Ulster could in all likelihood have gone all out to destroy the IRA, but that would only have polarised the situation and recruited more terrorists for the cause. The Army therefore found itself in an all-but impossible position of having to be on the streets, but only being allowed to fire if fired upon or under threat. A testing ordeal indeed for any soldier. Fighting among the people was also a different experience – soldiers interaction with society, good and bad and with both protestant and catholic, was crucial. Verfy often the squaddie cuts to the chase where officers, historians or politicians would be prone to waffle, and I cannot help but agree with the one soldier who felt that Ian Paisley recruited more young catholics for the IRA than anyone else.

One thing I have always wondered, is to what extent the IRA – and this might apply to other paramilitary groups also – drew its membership from politically-motivated men, or rather from a thuggish element who would have turned to crime in any case. Some of the stories shared by soldiers here suggest that political motivation may not have been as strong as we might first think. Here the importance of civil and military co-operation is clear – if living conditions, employment etc are sorted out, people are less likely to turn to terrorism, as with most types of crime.

If I have to single out some stories, it is those of the members of the Ulster Defence Regiment that really have my admiration. Mostly territorial, the members of the UDR had normal day jobs, and served in the evenings and weekends. Living in the communities that they were serving, they were extremely vulnerable to terrorists 24/7, any many of them – including a number of female members – paid the price.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I believe very much in balance in history. For too long the history of Northern Ireland has been completely out of balance. Ken Wharton has done some crucial work in redressing the balance, and I’m sure these eyewitness history accounts will be useful for historians for years to come. Not just for the major incidents, but also for the recollections about barracks, equipment, food and morale. The photographs, many of them personal images taken by soldiers on the ground, are fascinating too. The men in this book, and those that they represent, deserve the utmost credit for the job that they did. The troubles might have deeply scarred Northern Ireland, but they must also have scarred many thousands of British soldiers and their families.

A Long Long War is published by Helion

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Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions in the Great War by Paul McCye

After the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, it was quickly realised that the relatively small size of Britain’s regular Army would not be enough to fight a long European War. Even after being reinforced by the Territorial Army, the British Expeditionary Force that left for France in 1914 was woefully small compared to the huge French and German Armies. The Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was under no illusions that the war would be long and bloody. His famous ‘your country needs you’ appeal inspired hundreds of thousands of men to volunteer to fight.

One of the most unique and tragic features of the Great War had its genesis in this recruitment drive. Kitchener promised that men who joined up together would be allowed to fight together, in the same Battalions. This ruling led to many ‘Pals’ Battalions, that were either distinctly in nature, or indeed some which were recruited from whole factories, professions or other social groups. Many towns and cities sponsored their own Battalions, recruited from the local young men. This book by Paul McCue focuses on the Pals Battalions raised by two London Boroughs – Wandsworth and Battersea.

Wandsworth’s Pals Battalion became part of the East Surrey Regiment, and was officially titled the 13th (Service) Battalion East Surrey Regiment (Wandsworth). Battersea’s Pals came under the Queens (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. Their proper title was the 10th (Service) Battalion Queens (Royal West Kent) Regiment (Battersea). After the decimation of the original British Expeditionary Force at the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and First Ypres, the demmands of war on the Western Front increasingly fell upon Kitchener’s ‘New Armies’, particularly the Pals Battalions. After a long period of training, most of them reached the front by early 1916, in time for Haig’s planned ‘big push’ on the Somme.

Both the Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions were mercifully spared the bloodshed on 1 July 1916 on the first day of the Somme, but both went on to see active service in the Somme and Ypres sectors, as well as other parts of the front. The Wandsworth Pals fought in several particularly tough battles at Villers-Plouich and Bourlon Wood, and then through the ‘Kaiser Offensive’ in 1918, when most of the Battalion were captured. After this the Battalion was disbanded. The Battersea Pals fought at Devil’s Wood, and in early 1918 were sent to reinforce the Italian Front, returning to Flanders in time for the armistice. The Battalion served in the occupation of Germany, before disbanding.

Paul McCue starts each section with a detailed history of each area in question. This is important, but I would probably give a very bried overview of the early history, with more emphasis on the early twentieth century context of the borough. We then progress onto an interesting history of how each Battalion was formed – in both cases, by the Mayor and Council. There are interesting tales of how the Councils insisted on the Battalion’s being officered completely by local men, and of interesting recruitment drives and fundraising efforts to kit out the units. There are plenty of stories about individual men, particularly Corporal Edward ‘Tiny’ Foster, who won the Victoria Cross. At the end of the book McCue has included a full Roll of Honour for both Battalions, listed by Cemetery and Memorial. This is an excellent resource for researchers.

The ‘Pals’ idea proved to be a dismal failure. If a Pals unit had a particulary tough battle, a whole towns menfolk could be lost in one fell swoop, and the impact on morale, both at home and on active service, was substantial. Whereas if men were dispersed around other units, losses would be more spread out. During the Second World War the Army did not make the same mistake, and dispersed men around Regiments much more.

I applaud Pen and Sword for their Pals series. The Pals units are a uniquely local story – perhaps the most striking example in military history of towns and cities having a shared military heritage, forged through enlistment, training, battle and then losses and casualties. Producing histories of each of the Pals Battalions around the country provides not only something of local importance, but also a rich tapestry of the experience of war for ordinary local men and its impact on communities. It’s seriously got me thinking about the Portsmouth Pals, and what little we know about them.

Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions in the Great War is published by Pen and Sword

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Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper by Martin Poppel

Airborne Warfare has always been one of my favourite subjects in military history. Its probably got something to do with the fact that my Granddad was a paratrooper and an Arnhem veteran, and – not surprisingly – I have read pretty much every book I can get my hands on about the great airborne battles of the Second World War. Or at least I thought I had. I’ve read about Bruneval, Sicily, Normandy and Arnhem, but only from the British and American (and Polish!) perspectives. But considering that the allies were relative latecomes to airborne warfare, its surprising to think that I have read virtually nothing about German paratroopers. Until now, that is.

Martin Poppel joined the German Fallschirmjaeger shortly before the start of the Second World War, and went on to see action in Poland, Holland, Crete, several stints on the Russian front, in Sicily and Italy, in Normandy and finally in Holland and north west Germany during early 1945. He was wounded three times (in Russia, Italy and Normandy). Initally serving as a junior soldier, he was eventually commissioned as an Officer, and ended the war as a Company Commander. He was captured when the allies crossed the Rhine in March 1945. Whatever the political direction of their masters, there can be no doubt that many Germans – especially the paratroopers – fought tenaciously throughout the war. After capture Poppel was taken to England and held in a Prisoner of War Camp in North East England, an experience he does not seem to have minded too much. He was finally released a year later in 1946. Fortunately, his family were in the US zone in Munich – many of his comrades families were in the Russian sphere.

Poppel’s war diary is a fascinating read. We gain a unique insight into the daily life of the German soldier. Poppel gives us plenty of interesting snippets, about comradely relations, equipment, rations, attitudes to the Nazis and the war in general. Its interesting to note that the elite status felt by parachute troops was not limited to the allies – the fallschirmjaeger were very proud of their status. They seem to have preferred to jump into action (Poppel performed two combat jumps) towards the end of the war the paratroopers were used increasingly as a ‘fire brigade’ in order to reinforce weak points. Another interesting point to note is that Germany’s airborne troops came under the command of the Luftwaffe rather than the Army, unlike the allies.

Its also interesting to note how Poppel refers to British soldiers almost completely as ‘Tommy’ or ‘the Tommies’. Also, how dismissive the German troops were of British and American equipment, and their fighting prowess. However, for me the most interesting point was how Poppel – by his own admission a supporter of the Nazi party earlier in the war – began to see the Nazi ideology in different eyes as the war went against Germany. When returning to his unit after being wounded, his commander warned him that his negative attitude had been noted. But, interestingly, when in a Prisoner of War Camp Poppel remarked that, even though he was by no means an ardent Nazi, he still could not believe what had happened to Germany, and it took some time for the last vestiges of years of Nazi indoctrination to disappear. Evidence of just how politicised the youth of Germany were. No wonder they fought so doggedly.

I found this a fascinating and enlightening read. It has reinforced, above all, my feeling that very often fighting men on either side have more in common with each other than they do with their own generals, and definitely more in common than they do with their own politicians. And, no matter how unpleasant some ideologies might be, in many cases men simply did not have any choice but to fight. And if we are to curb extremism, we need to understand how it takes hold.

Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper is published by The History Press

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The Real Enigma Heroes by Phil Shanahan

We’ve all heard about the film U-571. Or, more importantly, how its a travesty of a film. Supposedly a fictional film based on true events, it is nothing more than a plagiarism of heroism, twisted to maximise profits with scant regard for any kind of integrity.

The men who were the REAL heroes were Able Seaman Colin Grazier, Lieutenant Tony Fasson and NAAFI Canteen Assistant Tommy Brown. Serving onboard the Destroyer HMS Petard, in October 1942 they volunteered to join a boarding party for the sinking U-559. Although the U-Boat was rapidly sinking, Grazier and Fasson went down below and retrieved vital documents, passing them up the conning tower to Brown. They remained below searching, and were onboard when the ship went down. Colin Grieve and Tony Fasson were both awarded a posthumous George Cross, and Tommy Brown the George Medal.

The capture of vital Enigma code books enabled codebreakers at Bletchley Park to finally crack the Enigma riddle, and continue to read German communications until the end of the war. In particular, the capture helped the Allies to win the crucial Battle of the Atlantic. Without that victory, D-Day might not have been possible, and the war may have lasted much longer – raising the disturbing possibility of the Russians reaching the Rhine or the Channel.

Yet surprisingly, it has taken decades for Grazier, Fasson and Brown to receive any recognition. The official secrets act precluded any publicity being given to the incident. The British Government were also keen to ensure that the Germans – and Russians – did not find out that the Enigma code had been broken. And thus the situation remained. Even the men onboard HMS Petard on that fateful night were not aware of how important Grive and Fasson’s actions were.

Phil Shanahan, of the Tamworth Herald, has ensured that the mens names will be remembered for evermore. Starting with a chance discovery – that Grieve came from Tamworth, he was astounded that the winner of the George Cross was unknown in his home town. A series of articles in the Herald followed. A Committee was formed, and set about raising funds for a fitting tribute in Tamworth town centre. Along the way he had some interesting encounters, with the Producer of U-571, and the Imperial War Museum. The U-571 debacle in particular raised much publicity for the Colin Grive Project. As Shanahan states, not many English provincial journalists have been interviewed in a Dallas daily newspaper!

There are some emotive episodes. In particular, I felt a personal connection with the dilemma Phil Shanahan found when confronting the Imperial War Museum. It is simply impossible to cover absolutely everything in any museum or book. The sad fact is that many people have their cause that is close to them, but there is never enough room to give each of them the credit that they deserve. It is a dilemma that many a poor Curator has faced, and I feel that the people who have to choose what to leave out deserve more sympathy. Similarly, it is easy to understand the sentiment that Grieve and Fasson should have been awarded the Victoria Cross. It’s something that I have written about at the time – that bravery is bravery, regardless of enemy action. Yet they were awarded the George Cross under the standards set, and it would have been unprecedented to upgrade them to the VC.

This is a very interesting and rather unique book. It is, in many ways, two books in one – firstly the story of HMS Petard, and then secondly the long fight to earn Grazier, Fasson and Brown recognition. They are complementary stories, and are intwerwoven in the order of which Shanahan and his team uncovered the stories and embarked on their campaign. There are some small errors of accuracy, but you can feel Shanahan’s passion. Something that many historians would do well to take note of, and not those involved in the making of U-571.

A fine statue was commissioned and erected in Tamworth town square, and a nearby Hotel was named the Colin Grazier Hotel. A Tamworth Housing Estate has had its roads named after men involved in the incident. And every year, the people of Tamworth celebrate Colin Grazier Day, with a small ceremony at the memorial, and a tot of rum in the evening.

This is a book and a campaign that is gripping and most inspiring. If only more local newspapers and local councils would be more diligent in recognising our communities heroes. It has certainly motivated me to ensure that Portsmouth’s heroes of the two world wars should never be forgotten.

The Real Engima Heroes is published by The History Press

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Skorzeny: the most dangerous man in Europe by Charles Whiting

I had always been under the impression that Nazi Germany didn’t really ‘do’ special forces – much like Napoleon, Hitler didn’t seem to see the value of irregular warfare, and moreover there was not room for special operations in Blitzkrieg; the short, sharp war. The Germans had nothing to compare with the plethora of special forces that sprang up in Britain – the SAS, the SBS, the Commandos, the Paras, the Long Range Desert Group and Popski’s Private Army to name but a few.

Yet this book by Charles Whiting suggests that this is a slighty simplistic view. Otto Skorzeny performed some daring and almost improbable acts during the war – rescuing Mussolini from captivity, kidnapping the son of the Hungarian Regent, and an infamous role in the Battle of the Bulge. What is even more fascinating, is that Skorzeny was not a career soldier, and largely developed his own theories, which the Nazi High Command only showed interest in once the war turned against them. He gained unique access to Hitler and other Nazi grandees, and for a relatively junior officer had quite a privileged place in the Nazi war machine.

There are some interesting lessons for military enthusiasts. Principally, how special forces operations seemed in the main to only occur to both belligerents when they were forced onto the defensive – Britain in 1940, and Germany after Stalingrad and Alamein. But, whereas after 1940 Britain kept on developing special forces capability which came in use when the tide turned, Germany was continually on the back foot until defeat in 1945. Also, the fact that Skorzeny was outwardly an unpromising, amateur soldier shows how military hierarchies – particularly one as stiff as the ‘prussian’ officer class, are not always adept at embracing unconventional tactics.

The impact of Skorzeny’s operations in the Ardennes are perhaps his best known legacy. Heading up a special unit of men dressed in US uniforms, and who broke through the front line to cause havoc behind the American lines. Rumours spread that Skorzeny was going to go all the way to Paris to assasinate Eisenhower. Although slightly ridiculous, these rumours caused panic and meant Eisenhower was a virtual prisoner in his headquarters during a critical phase of the battle (this incident led to his ‘most dangerous man in Europe’ tag). Thus Skorzeny and his men had exerted an influence out of all proportion to their size, merely by the suggestion of what they might do. Such is the strategic impact of special forces.

One of the most prolific military historians ever, Whiting based this book on interviews with Skorzeny, while the former was lying seriously ill in Germany towards the end of his life. Whiting does not merely tell us about Skorzeny’s wartime career – there are also startling tales about his involvement in Peronist Argentina (including an affair with Eva Peron), and a shady role in Nasser’s Egypt. These are stories that may well be new to the eyes of many, me includuded, and they all go towards painting a picture of an extraordinary man.

Skorzeny: the most dangerous man in Europe is published by Pen and Sword

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The Great Western Railway in the First World War by Sandra Gittins

The problem with Railway History, is that any mention of ‘railways’ or ‘trains’ always has people jumping to conclusion, frequently of the anorak-wearing type. But railways are just as much about social history as they are about technology, as Sandra Gittins has shown. And this social history really came to the fore in 1914.

I found this book a real eye-opener in more ways than one. I hadn’t realised just what an impact railways had had on the war, but also what an impact the war had on the railways. An iconic image in British military history is the eponymous train pulling away from the station loaded with waving troops. More humbling is the spectre of trains pulling back into the same station carrying scores of wounded men.

If the First World War was the first truly industrialised war, then the Railways seem to have been a real force multiplier. The combustion engine had not been developed quite enough to be as significant as it would later become. The German state had built – in a typically German fashion – a complex system of railways that would speed their armies to the western front to enact the Schlieffen Plan, and then across Germany to fight the Russians in the east. The French and British took much longer to perfect their rail networks nearer the front, and the immediate importance of the Great Western Railway was in ferrying troops around country – principally to the embarkation ports for France, and also to the training camps on Salisbury Plain.

Other aspects of the GWR’s war I was quite unaware of. It comes as something of a surprise to read that the GWR’s engineering works were making munitions and artillery pieces for the Army. The GWR was also crucial in transporting coal from the Welsh mining areas to coastal ports, from where it could be taken to fuel the Royal Navy, which was still overwhelmingly coal powered. The company’s ferries were also pressed into service. There were so many train services running on Government service, and so little rolling stock left, that passenger services were seriously curtailed.

As the western front stagnated into static warfare, so infrastructure grew up to service the men and materiel flowing towards the trenches. An important component of this was the rail network. Initially the GWR sent a number of engines and rolling stock, and then built more specificially for the Government for service abroad. Some of these were of completely new designs, to transport aircraft and tanks. Eventually, GWR men were sent to France to both operate the existing rail networks, and to build new ones.

As with most large companies (in 1914 GWR employed in the region of 80,000 people), many employeed joined the forces. Some of these were on an individual basis, but the GWR also contributed men and officers to several Royal Engineers Railway Companies, and also some volunteer infantry units. This was very much in keeping with the ‘Pals’ ethos; that men who worked together and joined up together would be allowed to fight together. The absence of young men to work the railways led to the employment of women in many roles, and also not a few retired GWR employees.

Sandra Gittins has also included a very impressively researched Roll of Honour, in which most names have been discovered in the CWGC database. I’m working on a similar project at the moment, and its very inspiring to see that someone has gone into such depth. There are also some gallant tales, such as the sergeant and the private who managed to take prisoner 250 Germans between them, form them into a column and march them back to the British lines.

Overall, we are left with a couple of impressions. Firstly, that Railways were such a huge part of life in early twentieth century Britain, and for a large and prominent company such as the GWR, this must have been even more so. Also, we are given a sense of community – not only did companies form the heartbeat of the community, but also that these communities suffered so much from the human cost of war.

The Great Western Railway in the First World War is published by The History Press

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The Somme: France 1916 by Chris McNab (Pitkin Guide)

The Battle of the Somme in 1916 has a unique place in British Military History. As Chris McNab points out in his conclusion, it was by no means the only costly battle on the Western Front. But the grievous losses suffered on the first day alone – 57,470 British soldiers dead, wounded or missing – have occuiped the minds of many ever since. The British Army has never been quite the same, for a variety of reasons.

The focus is usually on the first day of the Battle – 1 July 1916 – but in fact the Somme operation lasted well into November, and was only ‘closed down’ due to the onset of winter weather. It was a battle aimed at breaking the deadlock on the Western Front, and to achieve a breakthrough. History tells us that this did not take place.

This Pitkin guide by Chris McNab gives us a very detailed overall picture of the Somme Campaign – from the outbreak of war, the battles of 1914 and 1915, the nature of Trench Warfare, the Commanders involved, the plans for the Offensive, the First Day and then the subsequent phases launched to try and re-invigorate the advance. The hardest task of any Historian writing about the Somme is to draw any kind of conclusion. The world knows all about the losses, and the small amount of land gained, but what about the more complex task of assessing whether it was a success or a failure?

McNab frequently refers to the deadlock of the Western Front, and this is perhaps the biggest factor that led to the Somme Offensive – a desire to return to mobile warfare and escape from the perils of static Trench Warfare. Mention the Somme, and the name of Douglas Haig is never likely to be far away. History has judged his leadership of the Somme offensive to be rather lacking. His background was as a Cavalry Officer, and he believed in ‘the charge’ of mobile warfare.

The Somme was planned to be a joint Anglo-French operation, born initially in December 1915. The Somme was chosen for no other reason other than that it was the junction between the two allied armies. When the Germans launched a strong offensive at Verdun, however, in February 1916 the ability of the French Army to co-operate on the Somme was be much reduced – hence the Somme took on a distinctly British character. The offensive also became an attempt to relieve the pressure on the Somme by drawing off German reserves.

A massive artilletu bombardment was planned to prepare the way for the infantry. During the week-long barrage, over 1,500 guns fired 1.7 million shells at the german front lines. Yet this overwhelming weight of fire did not have the intended results. In most cases the shells failed to cut the barbed wire. And secondly, a large proportion of shells simply did not explode – up to 30%, McNab argues. The Germans had also built highly effective deep dug-outs and shelters that largely survived the artillery fire.

After the massive losses on the first day, the British Army slowly and painfully moved forward, but with horrendous casualties. The battle bogged down into attrition. Haig came under increasing pressure from the British Government, who were asking why a few miles were costing tens of thousands of lives. Haig’s response was to order further attacks. The battle had been planned with the objective of making a breakthrough, but in hindsight a breakthrough became more and more unlikely. Yet Haig was sure that the German Army was on the verge of buckling.

In the second half of the 20th Century some historians labelled Haig and his Generals as ‘monsters’. The picture is rather more complicated, as Chris McNab rightly states. The commanders of the time were fighting at a time when technology – particularly the machine gun – favoured the defender, and innovations such as the Tank had not been developed enough in order to break down defensive positions. The Second World War tells us that even with air power, artillery and tanks, infantry will always have to cross no mans land and take on the enemy. The Somme had caused the Germans 630,000 casualties, and one only has to consider what might have happened at Verdun if the Germans had been able feed more reinforcements into that battle. The Germans eventually retreated from the Somme, but only to the fortified Hindenburg Line.

History has always had a fascination with the Somme. It was the first major battle in which the New Armies fought, and in particular the fate of the Pals Battalions has become imbued in British Culture. Chris McNab has written an insightful and thoughtful account of the Somme Offensive. In particular I found the emphasis that McNab has placed on prior developments and phases after the first day very important, and hopefully will buck the historical trend. It would be all too easy to fall into the trap of labelling Haig a monster, but quite rightly McNab lets the reader draw their own conclusions.

I found it very useful for my own research – looking at the 1st Hants who fought on the first day and at Le Transloy on 23 November, and the 14th and 15th Hants – the Portsmouth Pals Battalions – who fought in the September Battles. Chris McNab has helped put those men who fell in 1916 into context.

The Somme: France 1916 is published by Pitkin, part of The History Press

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Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan

For me, one of the most amusing stories of the Second World War is the argument between Winston Churchill and King George VI. Churchill was keen to get into the action, in his usual schoolboy like way. The King, meanwhile, felt that if the Prime Minister went, he should too. Eventually, Eisenhower pressured both into backing down – the King’s private secretary informed his master that if he was to go he would have to advise his daughter on a choice of Prime Minister, should he and Churchill be killed. George VI then ordered that if he could not go, then the Prime Minister could not go either. One wonders if the King, normally shy and content to not interfere, made a show wanting to go merely to prevent Churchill going!

Churchill eventually got to visit the Normandy Bridgehead on 13 June 1944. After sailing across the Channel on the fast Destroyer HMS Kelvin, the Prime Minister and his party disembarked at Arromanches, landing on the shore in a DUKW amphibious vehicle. The historic meeting between Winston Churchill and General Montgomery, the Land Forces Commander for Overlord, was filmed by none other than the South African Prime Minister Field Marshal Smuts. Monty was no doubt keen to get the visit over and done with, due to his well-known dislike for VIP visits while he was trying to fight a battle!

From the D-Day beaches the group travelled by lunch to Monty’s forward tactical Headquarters at Creully. Monty had developed a system of an advanced headquarters during his time in North Africa, and in North West Europe his spartan existence consisted of three caravans, captured from the Italians in the Desert. One of them housed an array of maps relating to the military situation, and Churchill was treated to a ‘Monty special’ description of how the battle was progressing. The group then had lunch, at which point the Prime Minister enquired about where the front line was (3 miles away) and whether there was any risk of their lunch being interrupted by a German counter-attack (Monty did not think so). One almost wonders if Churchill was hoping for some kind of drama – it would certainly have been in keeping with his mischievous personality.

From Monty’s Headquarters the group travelled back to the sea, where Churchill, Brooke and Smuts boarded the launch of Admiral Vian, the commander of the British Naval task force for Operation Neptune. They were mobbed while on the dockside, and Churchill returned the cheers of the soldiers and sailors. From there they sailed off the other British and Canadian beaches.

One interesting episode occured when Churchill informed those present that he had never been onboard a Royal Navy ship while she was engaging the enemy. As a result he convinced the commanding officer of the Kelvin to try and let him board the monitor HMS Roberts while she was bombarding German positions ashore, something that was not possible due to the difficulty of climbing onboard. On the return journey, however, an ambition was fulfilled when HMS Kelvin briefly joined in the shore bombardment before crossing the Channel. It is unclear whether the bombardment was militarily necessary, or put on to satisfy the Prime Minister.

Another interesting aspect that Jordan looks at is the Mulberry Harbour – opportune, given that Churchill sailed through it to and from Normandy. The origin for Mulberry is often given as a well known note when Churchill wrote to Lord Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, suggesting transportable harbours. I haven’t been able to research this myself, but personally I doubt whether Churchill was the sole originator of the idea. Britain had a multitude of scientists and engineers working on all kinds of ideas, so its possible that the idea was already being worked on, and that Churchill’s note has been given more importance than it deserves. Something very similar happened with the creation of Britain’s Airborne Forces in 1940.

None the less, William Jordan gives us a very interesting view of how Mulberry was developed, its consituent parts, how it was assembled off Arromanches, and in particular how some parts of the plan went awry – several caissons sank in the wrong positions, for example, and it proved difficult to tow some of the roadways across the Channel. Mulberry was surely one of the triumphs of Operation Overlord, and played a significant part in getting the Allies firmly ashore in June 1944. Along with Hobarts Funnies and PLUTO, Mulberry seems to have been one of those projects that the British excelled at – although I suspect that, like in other cases, Churchill’s involvement has been overestimated.

This is a very interesting guide, none the less. It is impeccably well researched, and illustrated with some never-seen-before photographs, which can only ever be a good thing. I’m also very impressed with the map on the back cover, showing Churchill’s movements through the Arromanches anchorage and the layout and development of Mulberry – it helps the reader get a very firm handle on an episode that tells us much about Churchill the man. Maybe the narrative clings a little too closely to orthodoxy for my liking, but perhaps on the other hand a Pitkin Guide is not the place for revisionism!

Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan is published by Pitkin, part of The History Press

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The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow

Like me – and, indeed, thousands of others out there – Simon Scarrow is obviously a big Sharpe fan. This book is the final instalment in his lightly-fictionalised series on the careers of Wellington and Napoleon.

The story of Wellington and Napoleon’s military careers is an epic one, and for the most part Scarrow does not overcook what are fantastic stories in the first place – the Peninsular War, the battles of Asspern, Essling and Wagram, the Invasion of Russia, the Battle of Borodino, the retreat from Moscow, the Battle of Leipzig and Napoleon’s defeat and abdication in 1814, before his return and final defeat at Waterloo.

The reader is left with a feeling that Napoleon, early in his career a gifted general, gradually became a tyrant, exactly of the kind that he fought to overthrow during the revolution. And Scarrow’s depth of understanding when describing British contemporary politics is clearly very good. The description of diplomatic intrigue between charcaters such as Talleyrand, Fouche and Metternich is insightful – after all, a good historical novel should inform as much as it entertains. And Sharpe fans will enjoy the respectful nod to Bernard Cornwell’s famous character during the Battle of Vitoria – something that could so easily have gone wrong, but works.

There are several downsides, however. I feel that by calling the Duke of Wellington ‘Arthur’, Scarrow allows the reader to develop a sense of familiarity with the him, that the man himself would almost certainly have not allowed in real life, given his well known coldness and aloof nature. Most of Napoleon’s Marshals come across as bumbling, disloyal and incompetent – Soult and Davout in particular have not been kindly treated here, compared to history’s view of them.

But most notably, the fictional meeting between Wellington and Napoleon just after Waterloo just does not work, not for this reader anyway. Wellington had no desire to meet Napoleon, and there was nothing to negotiate anyway. The great advantage of historical fiction is that the writer can take historical license. But in order to work and ring true; it has to be believable… which, sadly, is not the case here. But this is a difficult story to write, as anyone who picks it up is bound to know what the ending is. So its not surprising that Scarrow has looked for ways to freshen it up.

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