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Posts Tagged ‘military history’

Battleground: The Greatest Tank Duels in History, ed. Steven J. Zaloga (Osprey Publishing 2011)

A big, solid book about a big, solid weapon: the tank. But tanks are mobile too. Their contradictions are part of what’s so fascinating about them. On the one hand, they’re terrifyingly powerful. They can crash through houses, wreak havoc with a single shot and grind human beings to bloody pulp. On the other hand, they’re horrifyingly vulnerable. The same armour that protects the crew can trap them:

On the defensive side, the T-72’s armor was vulnerable to the Abrams 120mm gun and its unshielded ammunition meant that penetrations usually led to catastrophic fires which incinerated the tank, often too quickly for the crew to escape. These spectacular explosions were profoundly demoralizing to the crews of neighboring tanks, who sometimes abandoned their own vehicles after witnessing such frightening conflagrations. (“M1 Abrams vs T-72: Desert Storm 1991”, “Analysis”, pg. 355)

That’s from the final section of the book, which covers the confrontation between American and Iraqi tanks in the Gulf War of 1991. Before that, the expert contributors discuss “T-34 vs Panther: Ukraine 1943”, “Tiger vs Sherman Firefly: Normandy 1944”, “M26 Pershing vs T-34-85: Korea 1950” and “Centurion vs T-55: Golan Heights 1973”. This is a work of serious military history and there’s a lot of technical, technological and tactical detail. But tanks aren’t just interesting: they’re exciting too and this book is also about the “mortal danger and adrenaline rush of combat” (pg. 119), whether that’s explicit or not.

And the first two sections are about the dark glamour of Nazism. Aesthetics and associations always mattered to Hitler’s death-cult, which is why exotic Panthers were fighting utilitarian T-34s in Ukraine and menacing Tigers were fighting feeble-sounding Fireflies in Normandy. German weapons and uniforms looked good too, as you can see in the short biography devoted to the “Tiger tank ace” Michael Wittmann:

… Wittmann served in the bitter defensive stands the Germans enacted in and around Caen during July [1944]. Yet on August 8 – by which time the now SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Wittmann had claimed 139 combat kills – the Panzer ace met a warrior’s end during a desperate counterattack launched against numerically superior Allied forces. (pg. 133)

Tanks are the modern equivalent of cavalry and the glamour that went with the latter now goes with the former. Like cavalry, tanks can transform battles in a single sudden burst of speed and violence. But cavalrymen were often thought of as gallant but stupid, as Conan-Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard proves. Tankmen have to be clever and courageous. And cool under pressure. As technology advances, the minds of the men who use it have to adapt. Those who adapt best, fight best and survive best.

War has always been about technology and technological advance, whether it was iron weapons surpassing bronze weapons millennia ago or computer viruses wrecking centrifuges in the 21st century, but tanks were a particularly big innovation. They combine the killing power of artillery with the mobility of cavalry and the toughness of fortifications: what could Alexander, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus or Napoleon have done with them? As it was, they appeared in a war whose generals are generally regarded as buffoons, not geniuses. That was the First World War, which this book acknowledges but doesn’t discuss at length. Tanks weren’t a perfected weapon then, after all.

They still aren’t, but they had got a lot closer by 1939 and the Second World War, which was their first great chance to show what they could do – or rather, what they could be. And what could they be? The difference between victory and defeat in battle. They were the basis of the Wehrmacht’s initial success, then of the Allies’ fight-back and eventual triumph. After that came the Korean War, the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, and Desert Storm. All of these are covered here and all have their lessons for the military historian and their excitement for the tank-buff. The text enlightens and the graphics illustrate. You even get to look through the gunsights. If you like tanks, you should like this book.

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The Wooden Horse by Eric WilliamsThe Wooden Horse, Eric Williams (Pen & Sword 2013)

This book is about much more than ingenuity, effort and escape: it’s about existence. First published in 1949, it tells the story of three British prisoners of war who found an especially ingenious way to overcome the anti-escape restrictions of Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań in Poland). The perimeter fence was a long way from the huts and the Germans were using seismographs to detect any sound of digging. Solution? Simple: start a tunnel beneath the open sky while men jump up and down around you to cover the sound of your digging.

But how on earth do you do that? The title of the book supplies the answer: build a wooden vaulting horse, knock it over a few times to show the guards that it’s innocently empty, then hide inside it the next time it’s carried out and start digging. The excavated soil is carried back in the horse when the vaulting session is over and the entrance to the tunnel is concealed with a trapdoor. This means that Eric Williams and his companions, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot, were using a disguise even before they escaped. They go under other names – Peter Howard, John Clinton and Philip Rowe – in this book, which is written like a novel in the third person. That allows Williams to use interior monologues, to switch locations and perspectives, and to be more descriptive than he would have been in a straight history. The Wooden Horse is full of sights, sounds, smells and sensations:

Peter leaned on the window-sill. It was late spring. Beyond the wire he could see the pale fronds of a silver birch graceful against the dark background of the pine forest […] a cascade of delicate green, almost yellow in the morning sun. […] Under the wire the sand was moist with dew and dew sparkled on the barbed wire. The long green living huts looked washed and cool, uncluttered as yet by the thousand prisoners who would soon spread their restlessness throughout the camp. He refused to think of the biting flies that would swarm into the hut and plague them as the day warmed up. (Part one, “Inside”, ch. 1, pg. 22)

He crossed to the trapdoor and lowered himself into the space under the hut. The sand felt cool to his hands and the air was musty and full of the odour of pinewood. He crawled towards the edge of the hut and lay waiting until John joined him. “After the next beam,” he whispered. “Then we’ll make a dash for the sand pit.” […] Peter looked up at the sky. It was the first time he had been out-of-doors at night since he was captured. There were no clouds and the heavens were trembling with a myriad stars. (Ibid., ch. 2, pg. 45)

The sheet of thin card the Escape committee had provided was almost as thick as that on which the pass was printed. He cut two pieces of the right size; cutting them carefully with the razor blade and metal ruler on the glass top of the dressing table, forgetting even the ultimate aim of his work. He would be absorbed for the rest of the afternoon and would finish the job with aching eyes and stiff shoulders; but rested and in some way renewed by the intensity of his concentration. (Part two, “Outside”, ch. 1, pp. 208-9)

There’s an important phrase in that final paragraph: “the ultimate aim”. What is it? Like the object it’s named after, The Wooden Horse is carrying more than it seems and in the end readers will find themselves in the same position as the German guards at Stalag Sagan. Just as there was much more to the vaulting than the guards realized, so there’s much more to the story of three prisoners and their escape than you first realize. The final page of The Wooden Horse will cast everything that’s gone before in a new light. It’s a memorable book about deception and disguise that is itself deceptive and wearing a disguise. A story set in a particular narrow time and situation is really about something much wider. You’ll learn a lot about life in a German POW camp in the Second World War, but you’ll also learn things about yourself. This is an existential book, sometimes in a serious way, sometimes not. Sometimes there’s humour in something serious, like the “ghosts” in the camp:

At some time in the early days the prisoners had managed to confuse the German nominal role, so that there were fewer of them on the books than were in the camp. These supernumeraries went into hiding at appell, and were kept in reserve to take the place of any prisoner who had escaped or who wanted for some reason to disappear. The life of a ghost was not a happy one. Not being on the roll he could draw no rations and even his letters from home had to be addressed to another prisoner. (“Inside”, pg. 85)

There are also glimpses of horror. When they escape to a Baltic port and try to find a ship for neutral Sweden, they see starving Russian prisoners being used as slave labour. “Escaping was still a sport to us,” says Eric Williams in an introduction he wrote in 1978. To the Russians it was an impossibility: they were too weak to attempt it, too far from home to consider it. And home was full of horror too. Wars are engines of cruelty and destruction, but even at its height the Second World War didn’t destroy everything or crush everyone. The Wooden Horse was made truly famous by the film, but the book has much more than the film. Sand, sun and trembling stars: after Williams broke out of Sagan, he broke into history and wrote a classic not just about escape, but about the essence of life.

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Sub-Machine Gun by Maxim Popenker and Anthony G. WilliamsSub-Machine Gun: The development of sub-machine guns and their ammunition from World War I to the present day, Maxim Popenker and Anthony G. Williams, (Crowood Press 2011)

There’s a special fascination to beautiful things that inflict pain, suffering and death. Like military aircraft, guns can be very beautiful. There’s an additional power in their ingenuity. For many decades, very intelligent gun-designers have racked their brains for better ways to wreck brains, bones and bodies:

Wounding effectiveness is generally measured by the size of the wound channels created in ballistic gel, which is designed to replicate the characteristics of flesh. This can, of course, only give an indication of the real results, since bodies are not composed of homogeneous material but contain organs of varying toughness, voids and bones; nevertheless the gel does allow comparative testing under controlled conditions. Two different channels are created when a bullet passes through the gel: the most important is the permanent channel, which is what the name implies – the track of destroyed material. Other things being equal, this determines the rate of blood loss, which is the main incapacitating mechanism. The other is the temporary channel, which is the much wider volume disturbed by the shockwave from the bullet’s passage. This is less serious, although it can still have some effect. (“Ammunition Design”, pg. 53)

As you’ll see here, bullets can be beautiful too. This book is about a weapon designed to combine maximum firepower with maximum portability: the sub-machine gun (SMG), which is a “fully automatic shoulder gun firing pistol ammunition” (Introduction, pg. 8). An SMG is a way for one man to massacre many men at high speed. That’s what makes the SMG frightening and fascinating. But the one man has to have an advanced industrial civilization behind him. This book is explicitly about SMGs, but implicitly about HBD, or human bio-diversity. Or rather: the lack of it. The nations listed in part 2, which describes sub-machine guns manufactured everywhere from Argentina to Vietnam, are all populated by highly intelligent light-skinned races.

But there’s diversity among the light-skinned: the huge nation of China gets seven pages, the tiny nation of Switzerland gets eleven. Europeans are innovators, Asians are adopters and adapters. But the United Kingdom does poorly by comparison with Switzerland too. Snobbery and stupidity help explain that: “Until the start of World War II the British military had practically ignored SMGs, referring to such weapons as ‘gangster guns’” (pg. 260). Once the war started, the military tried to repair its error, first with the Lanchester, “a very close copy of the German Schmeisser MP.28”, then with the Sten, “one of the crudest and most cheaply made, but the simplest and most effective guns of World War II” (ibid.).

The next nation in the list is the origin of “gangster guns”: the USA, the biggest and most important arms-manufacturer of them all. From the elegant Tommy-gun, made world-famous by Hollywood, to the stubby Kriss Super V, American sub-machine guns have been giving the world a lot of bang for not-so-much buck since the First World War, when the “noted ordnance expert” John T. Thompson “set up the Auto-Ordnance Corporation … in order to fund the development of automatic guns” (pg. 272). The “Annihilator” was released in 1919, but the Tommy-gun became famous under more sardonic names like the “Chicago typewriter” and “Chicago piano”. That’s what the British army didn’t like. The war changed their minds and by 1940 Britain couldn’t get enough of the Tommy-gun, in part because “many of them were lost en route, due to German submarine attacks” (ibid.).

Submarines are another fascinating weapon, but they’re a team effort from start to finish. SMGs involve teams of designers and manufacturers, but the collective effort is focused through an individual, the man who carries the SMG and fires it. He can be a soldier or a bodyguard, a gangster or a policeman, an assassin or a gun-enthusiast. The portability and power of the SMG are attractive in all those roles. This book would appeal to everyone who plays one of them. It discusses all aspects of the annihilator, from armour-piercing ammunition and the cost of manufacture to silencers and stocks.

It illustrates everything too. Some of the early SMGs are like works of art, some of the modern ones are like alien artifacts, so you can see evolution and innovation over nearly a full century, as manufacturers around the world compete to sell slaughter. The manufacturers range from the infamous to the obscure: even I had heard of Kalashnikov, Heckler & Koch and Uzi, but what about STAR, Cugir and Husqvarna? Unfortunately, not all of the photographs and weapon-summaries are dated, but that’s the only flaw I could see. Sub-Machine Gun is a book by experts aimed at enthusiasts. And what explains the appeal of the SMG? It’s summed up in the section devoted to “Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic”, another small region of Europe that’s big in armaments. In the 1960s, it produced the Scorpion SMG. Sub-machine guns are small, but they have a deadly sting.

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World Wide WingsThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Kite WriteThe Kite-Making Handbook, compiled by Rossella Guerra and Giuseppe Ferlenga (David & Charles 2004)

Gun GuideSmall Arms: 1914-45, Michael E. Haskew (Amber Books 2012)

The Basis of the BeastKillers: The Origins of Iron Maiden, 1975-1983, Neil Daniels (Soundcheck Books 2014)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Small Arms 1914-45 by Michael E. HaskewSmall Arms: 1914-45, Michael E. Haskew (Amber Books 2012)

Aircraft can be beautiful without being deadly. Guns are sometimes beautiful, always deadly. This is a book about death-machines designed to be used by a single individual: pistols, rifles, machine-guns, flame-throwers, rocket-launchers. It’s part of series called the Essential Weapons Identification Guides and covers every major army, conflict and theatre between the beginning of the First World War and the end of the Second. And some minor ones too. There are photographs and drawings of the weapons, technical specifications, occasional cut-away guides and scenes of the weapons in use, like “a rare photograph showing Axis troops manning a Maschinengewehr Solothurn 1930 (MG 30) somewhere on the Eastern Front” (pg. 135).

I found the contrast between the totalitarian and democratic armies interesting. German soldiers during the Second World War look disciplined and highly competent; American soldiers look sloppy and insubordinate. It’s natural soldiers versus decadent conscripts: the German military were out-gunned and out-numbered, never out-classed. The stern, purposeful faces of the “Soviet partisans” on page 135, who are armed with the “super-reliable 71-round-drum-magazine PPSh-41 submachine gun” in Belorussia, 1943, reminded me of this passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949):

At the age of three Comrade Ogilvy had refused all toys except a drum, a sub-machine gun, and a model helicopter. At six – a year early, by a special relaxation of the rules – he had joined the Spies, at nine he had been a troop leader. At eleven he had denounced his uncle to the Thought Police after overhearing a conversation which appeared to him to have criminal tendencies. At seventeen he had been a district organizer of the Junior Anti-Sex League. At nineteen he had designed a hand-grenade which had been adopted by the Ministry of Peace and which, at its first trial, had killed thirty-one Eurasian prisoners in one burst. (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1, ch. 4)

Orwell’s satire was based on an unpleasant reality: as the technology to enhance life advances, so does the technology to destroy it. War is a serious business and this is a book for people who are serious about war and its weaponry.

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