books monthly august 2017

Remembering Passchendaele...

 

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Martin King & Ken Johnson: Warriors of the 106th

 

Published by Casemate 19th July 2017

 

The 106th were fresh, green and right in the pathway of the 5th German Army when the Battle of the Bulge began at 0530 hours on December 16, 1944. This book covers the history along with the individual stories of the incredible heroism, sacrifice and tenacity of these young Americans in the face of overwhelming odds. From this division 6,800 men were taken prisoner but their story didn't end there. For the ones who miraculously escaped, there was a battle to fight, and fight it they would with every ounce of strength and courage they could muster. They would fight debilitating weather conditions more reminiscent of Stalingrad than the Belgian Ardennes. They would fight a determined enemy and superior numbers and despite all adversity they would eventually prevail. One 106th GI waged his own personal war using guerilla tactics that caused serious consternation amongst the German troops. For another GI his main concern was recovering his clean underwear. These stories are heartwarming, heartbreaking, nerve-wracking and compelling. They aim to put the reader right there in the front lines, and in the stalags, during the final months of WWII.

 

King and Johnson's stirring account of the 106th is the stuff that legends are made of...

 

 

 

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Two stunning new books to mark the 100th anniversary of Passchendaele, one from Pen and Sword, the other from Helion and Company. Nothing to choose between them, but if anything, the Helion title feels perhaps a little more personal, based as is upon the personal recollections of men who were actually there. Both books are magnificently illustrated. If  had to choose only one, I would choose the Pen and Sword title, but really, either remembers the occasion perfectly, with dignity, and with splendour and aseditor, I am fortunate to have been sent a copy of both books.

Richard Van Emden: The Road To Passchendaele

Published by Pen and Sword 30th October 2017

Passchendaele is the next volume in the highly-regarded series of books from the best-selling First World War historian Richard van Emden. Once again, using the winning formula of diaries and memoirs, and above all original photographs taken on illegally-held cameras by the soldiers themselves, Richard tells the story of 1917, of life both in and out of the line culminating in perhaps the most dreaded battle of them all, the Battle of Passchendaele. His pervious book, The Somme, has now sold nearly 20,000 copies in hardback and softback, proving that the public appetite is undiminished for new, original stories illustrated with over 150 rarely or never-before-seen battlefield images. The author has an outstanding collection of over 5,000 privately-taken and overwhelmingly unpublished photographs, revealing the war as it was seen by the men involved, an existence that was sometimes exhilarating, too often terrifying, and occasionally even fun. Richard van Emden interviewed 270 veterans of the Great War, has written extensively about the soldiers' lives, and has worked on many television documentaries, always concentrating on the human aspects of war, its challenge and its cost to the millions of men involved. This book will be published in June 2017, in time for the 100th anniversary of the epic Battle of Passchendaele which began on 31st July 1917 Richard van Emden s books sold over 650,000 books and have appeared in The Times bestseller chart on a number of occasions. He lives in West London and regularly appears on television, mostly recently as BBC1 s historian for the national commemorations of the Somme Battle. He has appeared on over forty television documentaries and has written nineteen books on the First World War.

Richard van Emden is one of the world's leading authorities on WW1, and his contribution to the literature of Passchendaele is, quite simply, outstanding. Many of the photographs in this book are new, never before seen, but that is not what makes this book special, rather, it is the dignity and unparalleled authority Richard has in telling the story of Passchendaele. A worthy commemoration of the men who fought and died there. Superlative.

Alexandra Churchill: Passchendaele - 103 Days in Hell

Published by Helion and Copany 15th July 2017

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. In ‘Passchendaele: 103 Days in Hell,' Alexandra Churchill, with Andrew Holmes and Jonathan Dyer, explains this pivotal engagement using 103 personal stories of men who fought in it. Using a unique method that draws extensively on both official military records and work with the descendants and families of their chosen subjects, the authors paint a vivid and engaging picture of a battle that has become synonymous with the wasteful suffering and horror of the Western Front and how it effected men who took part in it. The book is beautifully presented with portraits, original and modern photography of the battlefield and of Commonwealth War Graves sites. This, combined with an imaginative, balanced selection of voices from on, behind, above and below the battlefields, and taken from both sides of no man's land, combine to make a lasting and worthy tribute to own for the centenary of Passchendaele.

There can be few people who have not seen the commemorative service from Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium, and it was really gratifying to see the BBC giving the event maximum coverage. Of course the best way to discover the truth about what happened during these horrific battles in WW1 (and WW2 of course) is to read the books. It was inevitable that the major military publishers would bring out their big guns for this occasion, and both Pen and Sword and Casemate are acknowledged experts in military history, and although there will be other commemorative volumes, these two have come my way and they are both equally brilliant, though in completely different ways. The Casemate book combines official records and testimony from people who were there and engaged in the fighting. This is a true commemoration of an event that must never be forgotten. We all know why Britain went to war in 1939; the reasons why it went to war in 1914 are less clear, and the futility of it all and the horrific battles and slaughter of men who were little more than chess pieces in a giant game for the generals is brought starkly into a grim reality in this unbelievably poignant and reflective book. Once you have read what fills the pages of this remarkable book, you will never feel the same about Passchendaele and the people who fought there. This is a Book of the Year contender.

Aleksei Isaev: Dubno 1941

Published by Helion 15th June 2017

In June 1941 - during the first week of the Nazi invasion in the Soviet Union - the quiet cornfields and towns of Western Ukraine were awakened by the clanking of steel and thunder of explosions; this was the greatest tank battle of the Second World War. About 3,000 tanks from the Red Army Kiev Special Military District clashed with about 800 German tanks of Heeresgruppe South. Why did the numerically superior Soviets fail? Hundreds of heavy KV-1 and KV-2 tanks, the five-turret giant T-35 and famous T-34 failed to stop the Germans. Based on recently available archival sources, A. Isaev describes the battle from a new point of view: that in fact it's not the tanks, but armored units, which win or lose battles. The Germans during the Blitzkrieg era had superior T&OE for their tank forces. The German Panzer Division could defeat their opponents not by using tanks, but by using artillery, which included heavy artillery, motorized infantry and engineers. The Red Army's armored unit - the Mechanized Corps - had a lot of teething troubles, as all of them lacked accompanying infantry and artillery. In 1941 the Soviet Armored Forces had to learn the difficult science - and mostly ‘art' - of combined warfare. Isaev traces the role of these factors in a huge battle around the small Ukrainian town of Dubno. Popular myths about impregnable KV and T-34 tanks are laid to rest. In reality, the Germans in 1941 had the necessary tools to combat them. The author also defines the real achievements on the Soviet side: the Blitzkrieg in the Ukraine had been slowed down. For the Soviet Union, the military situation in June 1941 was much worse than it was for France and Britain during the Western Campaign in 1940. The Red Army wasn't ready to fight as a whole and the border district's armies lacked infantry units, as they were just arriving from the internal regions of the USSR. In this case, the Red Army tanks became the ‘Iron Shield' of the Soviet Union; they even operated as fire brigades. In many cases, the German infantry - not tanks - became the main enemy of Soviet armored units in the Dubno battle. Poorly organized, but fierce, tank-based counter-attacks slowed down the German infantry - and while the Soviet tanks lost the battle, they won the war.

Aleksei Isaev's premise that tanks were not responsible for the Germans' superiority in this battle is an interesting one but doesn't detract from his overall assessment of the batttle, which is thorough and charged with intense atmosphere. Superb.

Valeriy Zamulin and Stuart Britton: The Battle of Kursk

Published by Helion 15th June 2017

In this book, noted historian of the Battle of Kursk Valeriy Zamulin, the author of multiple Russian-language books on the Battle of Kursk and Destroying the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrative takes a fresh look at several controversial and neglected topics regarding the battle and its run-up.

He starts with a detailed look at the Soviet and Russian historiography on the battle, showing how initially promising research was swamped by Party dogma and censorship during the Brezhnev area, before being resumed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Zamulin then transitions to discussions of how the southern shoulder of the Kursk bulge was formed, preparations for the battle on both sides, and the size and composition of Model's Ninth Army. He then examines such controversial topics as whether or not the II SS Panzer Corps was aware of the pending Soviet counterattack at Prokhorovka, and the effectiveness of the Soviet preemptive barrage that struck the German troops that were poised to attack. Zamulin also discusses whether or not General Vatutin, the Commander-in-Chief of Voronezh Front, erred when arranging his defenses. Zamulin also takes a look at how the myth of 1,500 tanks colliding on a narrow strip of farm fields became perpetuated in Soviet and foreign history books, when in fact it was impossible for the 5th Guards Tank Army's tanks to attack in massive wave after wave due to the constrictions of the terrain. Zamulin also reveals incidents of the battle that were long kept "behind the curtain" by Soviet censorship. For example, the 183rd Rifle Division defending the Prokhorovka axis was repeatedly struck by friendly aircraft, and a Soviet tank counterattack overran the positions of one of its battalions. Zamulin discusses other cases of fratricide in the Voronezh Front, including the death of one of the 1st Tank Army's foremost tank commanders in a friendly fire incident. In the process, he reveals that a wave of suicides swept through the junior command staff of the 5th Guards Tank Army immediately prior to the famous counteroffensive on 12 July 1943. All in all, Valeriy Zamulin with this collection of essays and articles, two of which have been reprinted from the Journal of Slavic Military History, makes a new contribution to our knowledge and understanding of this pivotal, epochal battle of the Second World War.

 

I'm sure that official documents chronicling Soviet involvement in various significant WW2 battles were heavily "edited" - the main thing to consider is that we are now able to read an accurate account of the Battle of Kursk. A brilliant piece of WW2 Soviet military history.

 

Lindsay O'Brien: Bandit Mentality

Published by Helion 15th June 2017

Bandit Mentality captures Lindsay ‘Kiwi' O'Brien's Bush War service from 1976-1980 at the coalface of the Rhodesian conflict. Starting in the BSA Police Support Unit, the police professional anti-terrorist battalion, he served across the country as a section leader and a troop commander before joining the UANC political armies as trainer and advisor. Much has been written about the Army's elite units, but Support Unit's war record was mainly unknown during the conflict, and has faded into obscurity afterwards. Support Unit started poorly supplied and equipped, but the caliber of the men, mostly African, was second-to-none. Support Unit specialized in the "grunt" work inside Rhodesia with none of the flamboyant helicopter or cross-border raids carried out by the army. O'Brien's war was primarily within selected tribal lands, seeking out and destroying terrorist units in brisk close range battles with little to no support. O'Brien moved from the police to working with the initial UANC deployment in the Zambezi Valley where the poorly trained recruits were delivered into the terrorist lair. They had to learn fast or die. O'Brien's account is a foreign-born perspective from a junior commander uninterested in promotion and the wrangling of upper command. He was decorated and wounded three times.

 

I remember the "negotiations" between the British Government and Ian Smith as if it were yesterday. This was a dark period in Rhodesian history, brought into stark reality by Lindsay O'Brien. Remarkable.

 

Linda Rios Bromley: Flight Of The Dragon

Published by Helion 15th June 2017

When Chang-di 'Robin' Yeh departed on his scheduled recon flight on 1 November 1963, his life was full of promise. In an instant, the experienced pilot transitioned from a free man to a prisoner held on spy charges by mainland China. Promised early on he would be returned to Taiwan, the weeks and months passed without change. Denounced by the government of Taiwan, Yeh became a man without a country. The son of a retired nationalist army general and educated in private schools, Yeh was forced to do the most menial jobs while in captivity: cleaning after farm animals, pulling weeds by hand, overhauling trucks and tallying workers' farm productions. Interrogations continued with the hope Yeh would break; the guards and interrogators were surprised at his unwavering position. Day after day, the examiners continued the questions about his flight, his aircraft, his squadron and even his family. They could not understand why he would not know all the intricacies of his aircraft and flight. After all, his was a new and special aircraft. Global changes between East and West provided slightly improved living conditions for prisoners. When the Chinese learned by accident that Yeh spoke English, they hatched a plan to use his language ability to their benefit while offering a better job using his skills. When Yeh's usefulness was exhausted, the Chinese offered him a chance to leave, but not without strings. After almost 20 years captive in China, the Taiwanese refused to allow him to return. Where could he go? Who could he turn to for help? Did his family know he was alive? Arranging his exit from China was another hurdle to clear. Using his ROCAF contacts from years past, 'Robin' found assistance where he did not expect it...

 

Fascinating account of Yeh's life and times as a political prisoner in mainland China during the 1960s.

 

George Nafziger: Imperial Bayonets

Published by Helion 15th June 2017

Imperial Bayonets examines the maneuvering systems of the French, Prussians, Russians, Austrians and British from 1792 to 1815. It studies infantry maneuvers and firepower, cavalry maneuvers, and artillery. It is THE definitive work on Napoleonic tactics and a must read for anyone wanting to understand the fundamentals of period tactics. It provides not only a discussion of every major maneuver of the five major powers, i.e. from line to square, or column, but does time and motion studies of how long it would take to execute those maneuvers and compares them to the other nations. It covers infantry and cavalry maneuvers on this level. It performs an analysis of both musketry effectiveness and artillery effectiveness, providing curves that demonstrate the effectiveness of both. It also covers brigade maneuvers and army marches.

 

There was a time when it seemed that Napoleon was going to become invincible - this fascinating book looks at his mastery of military tactics, paying especial attention to weapons and artillery.

 

Damien Wright: Churchill's Secret War With Lenin

Published by Helion 15th June 2017

After three years of great loss and suffering on the Eastern Front, Imperial Russia was in crisis and on the verge of revolution. In November 1917, Lenin's Bolsheviks (later known as 'Soviets') seized power, signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers and brutally murdered Tsar Nicholas (British King George's first cousin) and his children so there could be no return to the old order. As Russia fractured into loyalist 'White' and revolutionary 'Red' factions, the British government became increasingly drawn into the escalating Russian Civil War after hundreds of thousands of German troops transferred from the Eastern Front to France were used in the 1918 'Spring Offensive' which threatened Paris. What began with the landing of a small number of Royal Marines at Murmansk in March 1918 to protect Allied-donated war stores quickly escalated with the British government actively pursuing an undeclared war against the Bolsheviks on a number of fronts in support of British trained and equipped 'White Russian' Allies.

At the height of British military intervention in mid-1919, British troops were fighting the Soviets far into the Russian interior in the Baltic, North Russia, Siberia, Caspian and Crimea simultaneously. The full range of weapons in the British arsenal were deployed including the most modern aircraft, tanks and even poison gas. British forces were also drawn into peripheral conflicts against 'White' Finnish troops in North Russia and the German 'Iron Division' in the Baltic. It remains a little known fact that the last British troops killed by the German Army in the First World War were killed in the Baltic in late 1919, and that the last Canadian and Australian soldiers to die in the First World War suffered their fate in North Russia in 1919 many months after the Armistice.

Despite the award of five Victoria Crosses (including one posthumous) and the loss of hundreds of British and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen, most of whom remain buried in Russia, the campaign remains virtually unknown in Britain today. After withdrawal of all British forces in mid-1920, the British government attempted to cover up its military involvement in Russia by classifying all official documents. By the time files relating to the campaign were quietly released decades later there was little public interest. Few people in Britain today know that their nation ever fought a war against the Soviet Union. The culmination of more than 15 years of painstaking and exhaustive research with access to many previously classified official documents, unpublished diaries, manuscripts and personal accounts, author Damien Wright has written the first comprehensive campaign history of British and Commonwealth military intervention in the Russian Civil War 1918-20.

 

Superb account of the little-known involvement of Royal Marines as they engaged the new Bolsheviks (Soviets) immediately after the Russian Revolution.

 

George Peto and Peter Margaritis: Twenty-Two on Peleliu

Published by Casemate 17th August 2017

On September 15, 1944, the U.S. First Marine Division landed on a small island in the Central Pacific called Peleliu as a prelude to the liberation of the Philippines. Among the first wave of Marines that hit the beach that day was 22-year-old George Peto.
Growing up on a farm in Ohio, George always preferred being outdoors and exploring. This made school a challenge, but his hunting, fishing and trapping skills helped put food on his family's table. As a poor teenager living in a rough area, he got into regular brawls, and he found holding down a job hard because of his wanderlust. After working out West with the CCC, he decided that joining the Marines offered him the opportunity for adventure plus three square meals a day; so he and his brother joined the Corps in 1941, just a few months before Pearl Harbor.
Following boot camp and training, he was initially assigned to various guard units, until he was shipped out to the Pacific and assigned to the 1st Marines. His first combat experience was the landing at Finschhaven, followed by Cape Gloucester. Then as a Forward Observer, he went ashore in one of the lead amtracs at Peleliu and saw fierce fighting for a week before the regiment was relieved due to massive casualties. Six months later, his division became the immediate reserve for the initial landing on Okinawa. They encountered no resistance when they came ashore on D+1, but would go on to fight on Okinawa for over six months.
This is the wild and remarkable story of an "Old Breed" Marine, from his youth in the Great Depression, his training and combat in the Pacific, to his life after the war, told in his own words.

 

Peto's autobiography reads like a script from a Hollywood blockbuster...

 


 

The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its sixteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.