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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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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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Front cover of Shots from the Front by Richard HolmesShots from the Front: The British Soldier 1914-18, Richard Holmes (HarperPress 2008; paperback 2010)

This book is a well-judged mixture of interesting photographs and enlightening commentary. Richard Holmes is good at pointing out how scenes are staged and spotting when subjects are playing games: “it is clear from his mates’ expressions that the centre soldier, shovelling a huge spoonful of mashed potato into his mouth, is engaged in a wind-up” (pg. 26).

And those soldiers have “just come out of the line”, with the crumpled and mud-stained uniforms to prove it. There was a lot of mud and misery in the First World War, but there was fun too and even fraternization, like the football played between British and German troops on Christmas day in 1914. There are no photographs of that: cameras weren’t everywhere and the photographs wouldn’t have been officially approved anyway.* History is divided into B.C. and A.C. – Before Camera and After Camera – but that doesn’t mean history was always more accurate or truthful when cameras arrived. Sometimes the camera simply meant new ways to lie.

But back then there were things it couldn’t lie about. Some of the faces, expressions and postures in this book look like what they are: a century old. But some could be from much more recent wars. There’s actually a lot of genetic information here, because faces are a record of ancestry and race. So are machines, in another way. Military technology is the application of high intelligence to low extermination. It’s part of what Richard Dawkins calls the extended phenotype and it evolves much faster than the bodies it’s intended to destroy – or simply injure, because a wounded soldier can be more harmful to the enemy than a dead one. But for the most part armies haven’t innovated in their weaponry, merely refined what was being used a century ago: the guns, the grenades, the bombs and the first tanks, military aircraft and gas attacks.

Those last three made the First World War something new, separating it from everything that had gone before. Bullets are like arrows or slingshots and even artillery has ancient parallels: Roman siege-engines threw boulders and fired bolts, for example. But the tank made “its first appearance on the Somme in September 1916” on the British side. The German response was a huge anti-tank rifle, a captured specimen of which is being shown off by grinning New Zealanders on page 148. But the tank wasn’t a wonder-weapon: it was slow and liable to get trapped on bad ground. It was also difficult to communicate with and from: one of the photographs shows a carrier-pigeon being released through “an armoured port in a tank”. Holmes comments that this is a “perfect illustration of the way in which the war often combined ancient and modern” (pg. 91).

Another example is the photograph of a “highly successful mounted charge” in 1917 by the “4th Australian Light Horse Brigade” on page 155. That was in Mesopotamia and although the authenticity of the photograph is disputed, it’s certain that cavalry were used on that front. By then there was aerial combat over the fields of France in sophisticated aircraft. But this book is about soldiers, so the only aircraft shown is an “Australian kite balloon” being inflated on page 103. Aircraft are implicit elsewhere: there are three aerial photographs of “Faffémont farm, near Combles on the Somme”, taken from great height before and after bombardment. You can see trees and buildings in the first photo, taken in April 1916; rubble and matchwood in the second, taken in July; and a landscape of craters in the third, taken in September.

Other photos show the effects of such a bombardment from the ground: dead men and dead horses. But this isn’t a ghoulish book and there aren’t many corpses, partly because photographs of them were thought bad for civilian morale. So there are more photographs here of living men preparing to create corpses: fitting fuses, loading shells, sighting machine-guns, digging tunnels to lay explosives, sitting at the top of poles to spot for artillery. Fig. 100 “shows two Australians preparing jam-tin bombs at Gallipoli”. And they were literally jam-tins, filled with gun-cotton and, in this case, with “sections of barbed wire” to increase their lethality. Holmes notes that the two men are wearing “felt slippers, for this was no place to light a spark” (pg. 133).

Small facts like that help you understand the war better. So do small facts like these, included below a group photograph of some scruffily dressed troops:

That winter the first goatskin coats arrived. They came in a variety of colours, but were often unhelpfully light. Although they attracted both moisture and mud, and were noticeably goaty even when dry, they were very popular in that first chilly winter of trench warfare. (pg. 126)

And on page 237, Holmes notes something that the photographer almost certainly didn’t intend to capture: behind a machine-gun crew, a soldier is “‘chatting’, removing lice, ‘chats’ in soldier’s slang, and their eggs from the seams of his greyback shirt”. This familiar routine was “almost never photographed”. War is a big thing that is affected by small things like felt slippers, goatskin coats and lice. It’s also a bad thing, as the lice suggest, but that’s part of why it’s interesting. This book isn’t intended to be a history of the war and it won’t help you understand the strategists and generals. It’s about ordinary soldiers and their officers, joining up, fighting, sometimes dying, sometimes surviving.

The final section is called “In Parenthesis?”. The words are from the title of David Jones’ “great poem” about the war, but the question mark was put there by Holmes. Jones thought he had stepped outside the “brackets” of the war in 1918. But the 1920s and 1930s were actually between brackets: he hadn’t fought in the war to end all wars. The Second World War was more and worse and its origins can be seen in this book. But the First World War also looks back to the nineteenth century, when the Scottish quartermasters in fig. 45 must have begun their service. One is fat, one looks ferocious. They both have extravagant moustaches. Those men and their moustaches are long gone, but the First World War is still important. This book is a good way to understand what it was like to fight then, but an index would have made it even better.


*Update 31/v/14: In fact, there are photos of that.

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