Book Reviews

Long Way Down: An Epic Journey by Motorcycle from Scotland to South Africa by  Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman; read 30 July 2017

It doesn’t seem like almost 10 years since I thoroughly enjoyed watching the documentary film from which this book is derived but time surely flies.  This is the story of Boorman and McGregor’s 2nd motorbike expedition taking them from John O Groats to Cape Aguilas and then on to Cape Town.  Of course this is something of a rich man’s expedition with 2 very well off actors leading a TV crew in the making of a travel documentary but that should be put aside.  The journey was still a tough one and the DVD is excellent for vicarious travel, sadly more so than the book.

The book is written in an alternating diary style (not daily as the trip took 3 months or so) where each author picks up  from where the other leaves. Highlights along the way included the CHAS hospice in Perth where the authors spent time with young people who sadly were dying, one of whom – William – was pleased that Obi Wan had signed his Star Wars DVD.  We learn later that William had passed away before the trip was even complete. 

The travel descriptions of the trip through Europe in heavy rain and then across Libya, before the chaos since unleashed by another Cameron folly, visiting Leptis Magna and then to Egypt and the Pyramids to Lake Nasser are OK but seemed spoiled to the authors by the rush to get to Lake Nasser in order to catch a particular ferry into Sudan, this did not come across in the TV version but it seems there were tensions in the team this time around.

From Lake Nasser, the trip went through Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda , Botswana and Nmibia before reaching S Africa but one doesn’t really get a sense of place in the authors’ descriptions which seems to talk more about how hard the roads were on the bikes than taking time to experience the journey.  Nor does one really get a feel for the other expedition members – the film crews and fixers that ere as essential to the journey as the 2 guys up front having fun.  To be truthful the book isn’t the most inspiring with both authors going on a bit too much about how they miss their wives and when McGregor’s wife arrives to travel with them for a while in Africa, Boorman is too effusive in his praise for her for my taste, especially when watching the TV programme of the trip she came across, to me at least, as a bit of a pain in the a*se.  Having said that I thoroughly enjoyed the film of the journey so given a choice I would suggest you get the DVD rather than the book.

How to Live in a Van and Travel – Live everywhere, be free and have adventures in a campervan or motorhome – your home on wheels by Mike Hudson; read 26 July 2017

I have always hankered after a campervan, what has tended to put me off has been the price and they remain expensive though as Mike Hudson shows here they need not be so (though I shall still prefer to get a newer custom van than Mike).  Mike is somewhat more hardcore than I intend to be as he lives in his van permanently and that isn’t my intention though there are plenty of good tips here on how to do so.  This book is not really a travel guide book or but it is an excellent even guide book to make best use of a van based lifestyle and gives food for thought on one’s everyday lifestyle in that many of the ideas make sense whether you live I a mansion or a van – in particular about de-cluttering and living simply. 

The book is very easy to read as it is a practical guide where you can skip sections that don’t necessarily apply and focus on areas of interest – such as dealing with the police or what documents to keep available or even how to get online across Europe.  The book provides a list of handy resources to follow up for a range of topics depending on one’s particular interest.  It also provides a few cheeky tips worth knowing for any traveller – McDonalds toilets are always clean and you can usually pick a receipt off any table to ‘prove’ you’re a customer!
A couple of key takeaways that appealed to me are:
1 - that living this lifestyle, the whole world is your back garden
2 – Enjoy the journey, make time for it and meander slowly to your destination, don’t be afraid to get lost
3 – say Yes whenever you get the opportunity - it will lead to more and better experiences

In short, an excellent book worth reading for anyone who spends time travelling – aimed at van based travellers but useful for anyone travelling on a budget.  Mike also has a Facebook page and a rather good blog with some fantastic photos of his travels at http://www.vandogtraveller.com/
For further inspiration, it’s also worth looking at Mick and Gayle’s adventures on https://gayleybird.blogspot.co.uk/  where amongst some great walking stuff there is also excellent advice on buying and importing campervans.

The World of Cycling According to G, Geraint Thomas; read 11 July 2017

Not so much an autobiography as a series of vignettes that might have come to mind for discussion on the team bus when bored (one of the chapters is titled Boredom) between races this book is, nevertheless a fun read.  Thomas’s personality is probably the reason for that as he comes across as both humorous and self-deprecating.  In here too are some good tips – I solved the squeaking chain on my Brompton by paying attention to Thomas’s instruction, squeaky chains need lubrication – I should have known that but it was identifying the source of the squeak that was my problem.

Having seen Thomas hold the Yellow Jersey for the first few days of this year’s TDF one might have been surprised as to how meekly this multi Gold Medal Olympian surrendered it to his Team Leader but this book provides the answer.  What most people fail to realise is the pro-cycling is not an individual sport but a team one and as Thomas points out the man on the podium in the Yellow should only be likened to the striker who scored the winning goal.  The other team members all play an equal part in getting him into position to score that winning goal and at the same time to prevent the other team(s) from scoring.

The book is an easy and most enjoyable read that with its non-chronological approach allows you to dip in and out as you wish.  Other players make appearances – Hoy, Wiggins, Froome, Stannard et al are all mentioned to special praise is saved for Shane Sutton and Dave Brailsford both of whom the author holds in very high regard indeed.  And why not?  Despite recent controversies, it would be hard to see British Cycling having achieved anything like its recent dominance of this wonderful sport without their, and Chris Boardman’s, single minded approach to performance improvement. 

The hard, to me superhuman, exploits of pro cyclist training and performance – just read the chapter on Tenerife – do not disguise the fact that Thomas enjoys his work even at the toughest of times (Crashes, Hospitalisation, Rain etc are all in here) and that cycling is great fun – what better recommendation for the book can there be?

Dam Busters: The Race to Smash the Dams, 1943 by James Holland; read 2 July 2017

'this is tripe of the wildest description ... there is not the smallest chance of it working.’ said Air Marshall Harris when presented with the idea of an attack on the Ruhr dams at the beginning of 1943.  James Holland, when interviewed, said that he would have probably agreed with the CinC Bomber Command.  The achievement of the men of 617 squadron in breaching the Mohne and Eder dams on the night of 17 May 1943 was a remarkable feat of daring and airmanship but what was as remarkable was that when the squadron was formed only 6 weeks earlier, no working version of their weapon had been built!  A strong argument could be made that Barnes Wallis had significantly over-sold his brainchild the bouncing bomb and that Harris’s response was highly rational.  So the success of the attack must be hailed not only as a military success but a scientific and engineering one given that the weapon went from prototype to successful and spectacular deployment in such a short period.

The Dambuster’s story is not unfamiliar to most who have seen the 1956 film (why oh why did they not film it in colour?) based on Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book.  I can highly recommend Brickhill’s book despite what we now know to be inaccuracies, a result of most of the subject material still being classified when it was written. From my memory of reading it some 30 plus years ago, has an immediacy that Holland cannot possibly replicate and it goes on to cover the use of Tallboys and Grand Slams as well as Cheshire’s and others leadership of the squadron.  Of course, the weakness in Brickhill is its errors and omissions that now Holland has cleared up in this excellent re-telling of the story.

Opening with a gripping account of the 1942 daylight raid to Augsburg which highlighted the difficulties of navigation and unacceptable casualties faced by a low level unescorted daylight raid, the book then goes on to tell of the work of Barnes Wallis in trying to identify key economic choke points for attack to shorten the war.  Encouraged by MI6’s Gp Capt Winterbotham and by the Admiralty’s Admiral Renouf,  Wallis worked on his bouncing bomb concept (Highball as a Mosquito carried anti-ship version and the larger Upkeep which would be used against the dams) in spite of opposition from Bomber Command and the Ministry of Aircraft production, both of which were concerned not to waste scarce resources just as the strategic bomber offensive was seriously getting underway.  However, when the concept was explained to the Chief of the Air Staff, Portal, he saw that it was a gamble worth taking and ordered Harris to proceed.  To his credit, once told to execute the operation Harris provided all necessary resources.  In just 8 weeks 617 sqn was formed and trained for the operation.  The bomb was manufactured and trialled – final trials only completing 3 days before the operation, the timing of which was critical since after May 1943 water levels would drop in the reservoirs and the operation would not be feasible.

Contrary to popular belief, and the 1955 film, the 617 put together in April 1943 was not a select group of crack crews.  Whilst Gibson could select some of his crews and a number had completed a tour of ops this was certainly not true of all – Byer’s crew (sadly the 1st to be lost - to Flak crossing the Dutch coast) had only completed 4 missions prior to the raid. Gibson himself aged just 24 and according to Holland exhausted having just completed his 3rd tour (the second of which had been with Night Fighters), was suffering from stress and gout.  Gibson’s deputy – Sqn Ldr ‘Dinghy’ Young sadly did not survive the raid - shot down as he left enemy airspace – rightly gets enormous credit in the book that death denied him for the support he provided the Sqn Cdr and for the administrative skills that made the sqn training programme so effective.  Indeed, it was Young’s Upkeep that would breach the Mohne.

Holland’s book is not just a competent technical or military history of one of the most famous RAF raids of the war it is also a moving Human story of future’s lost that interweaves private papers of those who flew on the raid, one of the most tragic of whom was 32 year old Australian  Charlie Wheeler who was due to marry his sweetheart the week following the raid.  Wheeler was killed when his Lancaster AJ-E hit powerlines on the route to the target.   Excellent use is made of the private material available to the author that reminds us that in war death is a random and heartless stalker of the battlefield.  Of 617 Sqn 8 of 19 aircraft failed to return.  Flying at low level it is astonishing that 3 crew managed to escape the loss of their aircraft (2 from Hopwood’s aircraft – 2nd to attack the Mohne and lost to Flak) at all.

In the final analysis of the raid, Holland is adamant that, contrary to recent belief, the raid was a severe blow to the Nazis still reeling from the defeat in N Africa and the invasion of Sicily and preparing to attack at Kursk.  The huge resources committed to repair the Mohne and Eder when already faced with these imperatives, Holland claims indicate their huge importance to the Germany Ruhr industries.  Additionally, the raid was a terrific psychological blow, drawing great applause in both Washington and Moscow and even today recalled in Germany as the Mohne Katastrophe.  A small quibble I have with the book is that there are some annoying editing errors - wrong dates and ranks at time and a photo captioned as Maltby talking to Gibson cannot be accuratley captioned as Maltby was a Flt Lt where the picture shows a Sqn Ldr.  Hopefully in later editions these errors will be corrected.  

This review is dedicated to the Crews who flew on Operation Chastise


Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast by Charlie Connelly; read 21 Jun 2017
Inspired by tales of his nautical and, by the sounds of it, oft inebriated grandfather, Charlie Connelly set out to visit all the areas of the Met Offices shipping forecast, or to fly over or sail through these areas where no land boundary existed, although area Trafalgar would be primarily represented by a pub of the same name near Britain’s maritime museum at Greenwich. 
This book is a gem, it is funny and informative in equal measures as Connelly travels around the British Isles and its surrounding landscapes from Bracknell –  from where the Met Office prepares the forecast -  to Vestmannaeyjar in South East Iceland and all points in between in order to complete his odyssey within a calendar year.   After Bracknell, Connolly witnesses the  forecast being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 long wave, being confused as he hears through his headpiece the FM broadcast at the same time as he is witnessing the LW transmission. 



Rigs in Cromarty Firth - like Connelly I too always find these to be impressive
After the BBC, the author commences his journey on the Norwegian island of Utsira and works his way from here through the whole forecast.  I the time he visits Cromarty where, like me, he is impressed by the parked drill rigs, Arbroath, Cromer where he tells the inspirational tale of Henry Blogg GC BEM , Bilbao, Dover, Syllt, Denmark, Ireland, Fair Isle, Shetland and plenty more.  For each Area visited he provides a history and description of the trip all written in a fine style and with self-deprecating humour.  People met along the way either literally such as the Norwegian Teacher who speaks perfect English whom Connolly 1st meets on Utsira and then bumps into on a later trip to Stavanger and who, with nothing Admiral Robert Fitzroy – captain of the Beagle of Darwin and evolution fame – the only person after whom a Forecast Area is named. 
This is a travel book that can be read as an anthology, it is comic whilst at the same time often inspirational.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone.

Ice Fall in Norway by Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wycombe-Fiennes; read 16 Jun 2017


Published in 1972 when Fiennes was still using his full surname, this book tells the story of the 1st of his Expeditions about which he was to write, I am not sure but I believe the excellent ‘Where Soldiers Fear to Tread’ was written earlier but is not about an expedition.  Fiennes really came to popular recognition by the end of the 1970s during the Transglobe Expedition but by then he had already written not only this book but also books covering the ‘Headless Valley’ in remote Canada (a story also told and watched by me as a youngster on BBC2’s ‘World Around Us’), and Arctic travels to the North Pole.

This book, covers the events of the autumn of 1970 when Fiennes was still in the army but led a private expedition to the Jostedals Glacier in Norway.  To gain sponsorship for the trip Fiennes developed a scientific programme to survey a part of the glacier that the Norwegian Government had been unable to survey due to bad weather (this was in the days before easy access to commercial satellites) when they had recently carried out aerial survey of the ice sheet.  Other scientific work would include a biological survey and to ease costs much of the equipment from the Landrovers of the support party to the inflatable boats the team planned to raft from the glacial lake at the foot of the Briksdalsbre glacier, after carrying out a dangerous descent, to the town of Olden.

Of course, the scientific work was important but it was secondary to Fiennes primary objective which was adventure.  To save time on the survey, and because it would be fun I suspect, the team would parachute onto the glacier then carry out the required survey.  Having completed their research programme in dreadful weather, they had to descend the Briksdalsbre glacier, which in 1970 was a steep icefall, and then raft down the glacial outstream in rubber dinghies – Fiennes had earlier tried Kayaks but these had been destroyed in the rocks.  To be fair to the kayaks the rubber dinghies whilst surviving the rock encounters proved no good for getting human occupants safely to the lower level of the Floen river as the team was forced to abandon the descent of the higher reaches.

The book tells the story of the adventure well and includes the selection and training of team members in the required skills of langlauf skiing, freefall parachuting and rafting.  It is interesting to compare this story with the later expeditions of Fiennes in that it is relatively less professional (e.g. failing to take survival equipment when away from base camp a failing that was very nearly fatal from the telling here) and more naiive and compared to modern tales it does appear somewhat blasé about the risks taken by the expedition members – perhaps they were tougher back in the day.

Mud, Blood and Poppycock: Britain and the Great by Gordon Corrigan.  Read 12 June 2017


In his review of this book, Hew Strachan points out that:

“Britain's fixation with its First World War generals is without parallel elsewhere. It was in Germany that General von Ludendorff engineered a covert military dictatorship and then lost the war: yet the Bundesrepublik has no equivalent to Gordon Corrigan. Thanks to the Second World War Germany has bigger fish to fry. The accusations levelled at Field-Marshal Haig and his subordinates can be intemperate, but they do not include complicity in genocide.

The French case is more instructive. Joffre, Foch and Petain presided over twice the number of deaths sustained by the British Expeditionary Force, but they have generated no comparable literature. Given what happened in 1940, the successful defence of the nation in 1914-1918 is less controversial than its conduct and consequent casualties suggest”.

In 1918, after 4 hard years, the largest army that Britain has ever fielded inflicted decisive defeat on the German Army in Belgium and Picardy – forcing it into headlong retreat and Ludendorff to seek the Armistice that would end the 1st World War.  And yet in 2016 throughout the UK the centenary of the 1st Day of the Somme was still ‘celebrated’ by sombre TV reporting and commemorations so although Strachan in his review of this book complains that its title over-sells the book as it the history does not support the Blackadder view of the war he fails to recognise that in the popular imagination it is exactly the Blackadder view that is still the widely held one and only those with a deeper interest recognise the mendacity of that narrative, a narrative it seems that only arose after Haig’s death in 1928 (many thousands of ex-soldiers mourning at the funeral of their erstwhile commander).

Corrigan argues clearly that the British Army of 1914-18 was not only justly engaged but given the technical and organisational challenges (not least of which was the expansion of a tiny all professional army into one of over 2 million citizen soldiers) that its commanders did a reasonable, if not stellar, job in winning that war against what in 1914 had been the most powerful army in the world.  Of course, it would take 4 long years and many deaths but Corrigan makes a case for the ‘Butchers Bill’, given that the war had to be fought, being almost inevitable given the size of forces engaged and the lethality of weapons systems, that in fact became more lethal as the war continued.  Of course, mistakes were made but not excessively so and casualty rates overall on the Western Front were no worse during WW1 than in Normandy 30 years later.  Corrigan is right to point out that the reason Britain suffered fewer casualties in the 2nd World War was not because of better generalship but because she wasn’t engaged against her primary continental foe in the main theatre of operations for most of the 2nd war.  That fate would fall to the USSR.  the First World War was the only time in history that Britain has fielded a mass army that defeated the main enemy in the principal theatre of war – a fact that even today is overlooked in the popular imagination.

Nevertheless, Corrigan, though I believe correct in the general thrust of is arguments around the ‘Butchers Bill’ does overplay his hand.  Discussing the Somme in 1916, and Ypres a year later he fails to question Haig’s perseverance with these campaigns.  The 1st day of the Somme was the 121st day of the battle of Verdun and it is true that Haig would have preferred to commence the offensive later in the year when Tanks would be available but to say that the Somme was fought to relieve pressure on Verdun, is not true.  The attack was part of Allied strategy decided at the Chantilly conference at the end of 1915, only the timing of the attack was brought forward because of Verdun.  Referencing the Passchendaele (3rd Ypres) battle to the French mutinies of 1917 after the Nivelle offensive is disingenuous, Haig fought the battle at his own insistence he, like the French could have gone onto the defensives and await the arrival of new armies from the USA in 1918, he chose not to do so.

In addition to the main narrative on the conduct of the war, there are some interesting chapters that are less often covered, in particular on the weapons employed and developed during the war from Chlorine to Mustard Gas to grenades that eventually would become less lethal to their users over time, to tanks and aircraft; on  military discipline where Corrigan is right to point out that  of 3000 plus British soldiers sentenced to death during the war in approximately 90% of these cases the sentence was commuted or suspended.  Shell shock was recognised as a psychological trauma and in many cases, was treated as such.  At a time when the civilian punishment for certain crimes included the death penalty (15% of those executed would have faced capital punishment for their crimes in civilian life) Corrigan is right to remind us that past is a different country and despite popular clamours at the time the book was written (early 2000s) for pardons for those executed, the author rails by making the case that these men were often repeat offenders, were fairly and justly tried.


Overall, whilst historians in the last 2 or 3 decades have produced a much more balanced and nuanced view of Britain’s performance on the Western Front in WW1, this rebalancing has yet to filter to the general populace so despite Hew Strachan’s mild criticism I would say that this book does indeed puncture some comfortable popular myths, even if the well-read and professionals in the field already believe such myths to have been consigned to the waste basket it is still all to common to see misrepresentation of the facts of the war in popular mainstream media.  For this reason Corrigan’s book is well worth reading.

Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk. Read 23 May 2017
Len Deighton is best known for his spy novels though this book is not his only factual one.  As can be expected from such an accomplished novelist, the writing is engaging and the book is a very easy read.  It is also well researched, written in 1979 when several participants in the events described were still around to provide personal views it is pleasing that Deighton has included some of this material – not least the book’s foreword by General Nehring – Guderian’s chief of staff in 1940. 


Heinz Guderian 
(By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-218-0504-36 / Dieck / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5476517)

The book is broken down into 5 sections that lead the reader, in logical steps, from the defeat of Germany in 1918 through to the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk in May 1940:

Hitler and his Army’ deals briskly with the aftermath of the 1st WW to include the Sparticist revolt and the Freikorps and the rise of the Nazis, the weakness of the Weimar republic and the seizure of power in 1933.  The section is well written but of course much fuller histories are available – most notably from Richard J Evans.  Note is made of the rise of the SA under Rohm as a real power within the state – outnumbering the Army by nearly 4 to 1 by 1934 and even being used by the Army as a paramilitary border protection force on the Polish border.  With the rise of large para military forces such as the SA and against external threats particularly as perceived on the eastern border, Deighton posits that by the early 30s, Germany’s tiny armistice limited was incapable of maintaining the state monopoly on violence.  Hitler’s purge of the SA was, therefore, a reaffirmation of the role of the army in that role at a time when Hitler was still in its pocket so to speak – though the army’s passive acceptance of the murder of some of its own, notably Schleicher, during the night of the long knives is to Deighton an odd sign of its weakness when it could still have reigned in Hitler’s ambition.  Thereafter, like Blitzkrieg itself, Hitler opportunistically took advantages of the events that serendipity placed in his path to consolidate power – the Reichstag fire, the death of Hindenberg, the Blomberg marriage and the Fritsch scandal so that by 1938 it was he not the army that was in the ascendancy.

‘Hitler at war’ covers the German takeovers of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway and Denmark from 1938 to April 1940.  In none of these campaign’s is any form ‘Blitzkrieg’ used.  The formidable Czech border defences of the Sudetenland are meekly handed over at the insistence of Chamberlain and the French in order to keep ‘peace in our time’ before the conquest of the whole, now defenceless country just 6 months later, in early 1939.  Again, as in gaining his ascendency over the German Army, Hitler is simply opportunistic.  Deighton is pretty clear that the modern Czech Army and its formidable defences could have defeated the Germans had they been given the opportunity to do so.  The invasion of Poland uses conventional Prussian army methods of Encirclement (though Guderian – charging over his ancestral lands – makes a rapid advance to the rear of Polish forces) which then make the defenders fight an offensive and costly battle in the Cauldron Battle created by the encirclement (Kesselschlact). Of course Poland is further weakened by the Ribbentrop/Molotov pact and consequent Soviet invasion and by the failure of the Western allies to attack in the west as promised though it is unlikely this last would have aided in anyway by the time it occurred.

The takeover of Scandinavia is almost a sideshow in response to the threat posed by the British to raw materials deliveries from Sweden.  In the race to capture Norway the Germans are simply better prepared and better led than the British, although the Royal Navy does fearful damage to the German destroyer forces.

Part 3 - Blitzkrieg Weapons and Methods – provides a discussion on the development and use of tanks in the 1st WW.  The use of all arms warfare by the British in 1918 though was not dependent on the tank – by October hardly any were left serviceable and it was artillery and air power that were more essential to the allied victory at the time.  Nevertheless this all arms doctrine was to be studied effectively between the wars and the rise of armour champions such as Liddel-Hart and Fuller in Britain, DeGaulle in France and Guderian in Germany is discussed at length, as is the different armies approach to the deployment of tanks – France saw them as infantry support weapons primarily so despite having the best tanks in the world in 1940 only deployed them in small packets.  Whereas the British and Germans had developed the concept of the Armoured Division, the claim is made by Deighton, that only the Germans considered an unsupported Divisional/Corps thrust as practicable against a modern enemy.  The Germans were proved right but only in 1940 as it soon becomes clear that the Blitzkrieg across France was as much a success due to French ineptness in generalship as to German genius. In 1940 the French correctly identified that artillery was a key battlefield weapon – and had been the decisive weapon in WW1.  What they failed to realise, unlike the Germans was that artillery could be airborne in the form of tactical air power providing close air support which meant that mobile forces could keep moving without the need to await the arrival of its supporting artillery.  In 1940 the Stuka was the mobile forces preferred artillery piece, in 1944/5 it would be the fighter-bomber.

‘Battle for the River Meuse’ describes the attacks by Guderian through the Ardennes and Romell (who had an easier journey to the north of Guderian. Clearly energetic leadership was a major factor in the success of the crossings whilst French counter attacks were persistently cancelled as the French High Command either failed to react or to believe what they were being told.  Deighton uses hyperbole in claiming that once across the Meuse 'there could be no doubt' of German victory.  This doesn't bear scrutiny as the French (as De Gaulle showed possible) and British (at Arras) showed a concerted attack on panzer flanks not only capable of temporarily stopping the advance but better organised could have defeated it.  Indeed, Deighton himself concludes that:
‘...the rashness of the German plan must not be eclipsed by its success.  The most precious part of Germany's military resources was to be overextended in a way that ignored every lesson of history.  It would need little expertise, very little boldness and no more than the available Allied forces to cut Panzergruppe Kleist off from its support and force Germany to humiliating defeat.  The Germans gambled everything upon the slowness and incompetence of the Allies and were proved right.’

The truth is that far from inventing a new form of warfare, the mercurial talents of Guderian and Rommel were particularly effective in spreading panic and confusion by their speed in crossing the Meuse and then advancing at the junction of the Allied armies with the Somme offering a flank protection from the large and intact French forces to the south.  By attacking at this point with fast mobile forces whilst the British had advanced into Belgium to the North, the German Panzergruppe was able to cut allied lines of communication and cut the British off from reinforcement and resupply – leaving only a line of retreat to Dunkirk. 

Flawed victory is the final section and makes the argument that by stopping the Panzers when he did that Hitler allowed the BEF to be evacuated and thereby to form the nucleus of the army that was to return to Europe in 1944.  Gort is praised for his decision to evacuate and Brooke is criticised for his critique of Gort later published in his diaries.  It is hard to argue that the halt order was anything but rational – it was the fear that the Panzers had outrun there support and cut have been cut off and destroyed (it is a criticism of Montgomery’s plan at Arnhem in 1944 that it was trying to advance on a narrow 1 tank front – but this is exactly what the Germans are conventionally praised for doing in 1940!).  Hitler and the German generals knew very well that there was a reason that Armies in ww1 advanced on a broad front and that was to avoid flank attack which was still a threat in 1940 and this was a reasonable fear especially as the main body of the French army had yet to be engaged.  As for the effective evacuation of the BEF, not even the Royal Navy believed it would get more than 40 000 troops off the beaches let alone the more than 300 000 that were eventually recovered. 

Overall I was surprised how up to date with current thinking this 1979 book was.  In parts, it is dated in particular its regular criticism of WW1 generals, a view now somewhat revised.  It is also dated in its acceptance of David Irving as a reliable historical source – a reasonable position to take in 1979 before Irving’s exposure as a fraud by Richard Evans. In spite of this the book makes some valid points.  Blitzkrieg as a doctrine was a myth – a word invented by a Time journalist - and Deighton’s correspondent Nehring confirms this and he should know.  What is usually forgotten is that 90% of the German forces did not form this armoured column but was either horse drawn (indeed the Wehrmacht had bought most of the British Army’s horses in the mid 30s as Germany was chronically short of oil and expected to remain so in wartime) or travelled on foot – no faster than Roman Legionnaries – hardly designed for lightning war.  It was these forces that the British had moved forward to engage on the Dyle (and thus into Manstein’s trap) and it would be these forces that would defeat France, it was the armoured divisions though that picked the lock.

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson. Read 16 May 2017
As the sun finally set on the British Empire a senior diplomat is said to have told Denis Healey that all that Britain would leave behind as its legacy would be Association Football and the words Fuck Off.  On the contrary argues Ferguson who seeks to show that the legacy of the British Empire was essentially positive.  Whilst he acknowledges that racism, discrimination and xenophobia were themselves legacies he writes these off as having existed before colonialism anyway though he fails to adequately accept their effects in an imperial context and solely resulting from the scramble for empires by European states were for many individuals simply horrific.  On the positive side of the balance sheet were:

1.      The triumph of capitalism as the optimal system of economic organisation
2.      The Anglicization of Australasia and North America
3.      The internationalisation of the English language
4.      The enduring influence of the Protestant version of Christianity
5.      The survival of parliamentary institutions – this particularly reference against the rise of Nazism and WW2

Frankly, apart from number 5, I am not sure that all the above were or are unalloyed successes, and I’m sure the indigenous populations of Australia and N America would not have thought so.  Today’s problems in the middle east have much to do with the scramble for imperial positions by Britain and France in 1919.  I could go on but I am being too hard on the British Empire but only because the author over-plays his hand.  This is a good short history of the largest empire in human history, created almost accidentally and created often from the rubble of other people’s empires and possessions, particularly from those of France and Spain.  Furthermore, it is important to remember that the jewel in the crown – India -was never a single political entity but an empire itself to which the British arrived late and supplanted other non-native rulers – in this case the Mughals.

The story that is told is a good general history of the rise of Empire from the Elizabethan privateers brought England into contact with the Spanish Empire to the granting of Royal monopolies the trading companies, most famously the East India company, on the Dutch model.  Oddly, given the later hegemony of the British Empire, the English rarely achieved first mover advantage. As Johnny come lately, England was excluded exclusion from the rich  S American continent having to make do with North America instead – then seen as a poorer alternative.  Later the Seven Years War brought many French and possessions under Britain’s control but also sowed the seeds of cessation by her 13 N American colonies. 

Private enterprise was hugely acquisitive in the name of Empire.  India, through Clive and Africa from Cairo to Capetown, through Rhodes were largely obtained by adventurers whilst Australasia was to a large degree incorporated because of the publicly funded work of explorers such as Cook.  Unlike previous conquerors, the British exported huge numbers of their population, Ferguson calls this largest mass migration in history of some 20 million people over the life of the Empire the ‘White Plague’, to their colonies through Plantation, Transportation, Religious Persecution or into the 19th century through Missionary Zeal and a whole host of other push/pull factors.  As immigrants everywhere tend to these added dynamism to the colonies that helped keep ties back to the old country whilst developing the new ones.

It is possible to see several upside items on the balance sheet of the British Empire – the ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (after at 1st being a key participant) – Pax Britannica, the proliferation of Free Trade from the mid-19th century, significant investment in developing economies, the ending of harmful practices such as suttee in India.  Ferguson also identifies that the Empire system was remarkable efficient.  In India, just 1000 civil servants administered to a population of some 400 million!  It is remarkable that by spending   just 2% of its GDP (comparable to today’s % of GDP spent on Defence) Britain    not only possessed the largest and most modern navy in the world but also an Army of some 300 000 men (excluding the much larger Indian army funded by the Raj rather than the British taxpayer.

In the final analysis of Ferguson claims for the British Empire (alongside its prodigal colony the USA and the USSR) the honour of accepting its eclipse as a necessary condition for the liberty and liberal systems we see in the world today and here the book runs up against the stops.  His point is almost that the Empire’s most important positive position on the balance sheet is that it was still around in 1940 to achieve its finest hour and to me this is simplistic in that it ignores entirely the question of to what extent it helped create the conditions for Great Power rivalry in the 1st place in the years prior to 1914.  In the final analysis, having set out to answer the question ‘was the empire a good or bad thing’ (a question unlikely to ever have a definitive answer as it depends primarily on whether you were one of the winners or losers under the system) his position that for the most part it was a good thing is frankly not supported by his text which is less thesis than reporting.  Furthermore, this book written in 2003 about an empire that lasted for 300 years is now out of date – made so by the likes of the 2008 financial crisis and 2016’s Brexit vote when Britain has decided to retreat not only from Empire but from the world and where the liberal systems, Free Trade and Capitalism, claimed as positive outcomes of empire (rightly so in my view) by the author are under attack across the Western World. In the end this book was something of a disappointment – maybe I should have read it in 2003 rather than in 2017.

Captain James Cook: A Biography by Richard Hough; read 3 May 2017



My scrawl inside the front cover of this book reveals that I purchased it in 1994.  Having now read it I wonder why it has taken me the best part of a quarter century to get around to reading it especially as I had lent it to my dad 20 years ago and he had been very complimentary about it.  
Cook’s widow, Elizabeth, survived him by 56 years and outlived all their children.  Sadly, in the last decade of her long life she burned most of his correspondence from her husband thereby denying historians a treasure trove of material on the famous explorer’s life and personal views.  Fortunately, enough remains from Cook’s own journal, logs and the writing of others for Hough to put together the 446 pages of this fascinating biography.  Cook would join the Navy a non-commissioned rank and would rise to become one of its most celebrated officers, who no doubt would have become an Admiral had he survived (a rank guaranteed by his appointment as a Post Captain after his 2nd Great Voyage). 
Matthew at the helm of Endeavour Sydney 2013
Cook was not originally destined for the life of a Navigator as his original apprenticeship was to a shopkeeper in a small fishing village near Whitby, where, as the apprentice, he would sleep under the shop counter every night.  Apparently, he was well treated in the post but his restless mind was stirred by the business of shipping that was the mainstay of Whitby – then a major port and shipbuilding town.   After 18 months, he was freed from his indenture to take up another apprenticeship this time as – this time as a mariner.  By the Age of 27 he was a qualified mariner and highly though of by his employer who was disappointed on losing him at this point to the Royal Navy.  Hough postulates that Cook was aware, that with the 7 years’ war going on and with his skills as a sailor there was a good chance of him being pressed into service so his approach was to take the initiative and to offer his services 1st.  Cook would see service in Newfoundland and Canada at the siege of Quebec, as a Warrant Officer and whilst in North America would learn the art of surveying, a skill the mastery of which would bring him fame and fortune and would provide maps that in some cases would remain in use until the 20th century. 
Cook's 1st Voyage (Att 
By AlexiusHoratius at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41516799)
The book describes Cook’s 3 epic voyages of discovery in detail – the 1st  as a Lieutenant (1768-71) in the Endeavour was to last 3 years and was to make him famous , although his passenger Joseph Banks was to claim much of the expedition’s kudos, Cook’s role was not eclipsed in the slightest.  The expedition was scientific in nature with the primary aims of observing the transit of Venus (an event that would not again happen until the late 19th century – and not at all in the 20th!) and discovering the, as we now know mythical, great Southern Continent – the existence of which Cook was sceptical.  The expedition was a scientific triumph, Banks and his party discovered and painted many new species, New Zealand was discovered for the 1st time by Europeans and large parts of its coast were surveyed.  The East coast of Australia was also discovered for the 1st time, Cook’s nephew Isaac Smith becoming the 1st European to land on this coast.  It is one of the great tragedies of this voyage that Cook had managed to keep his crew in good health and had warded of scurvy by the insistence of a sauerkraut diet, that the ship took on contaminated water at Batavia on the way home and was to lose a very high proportion of the crew including the hugely talented young artist, Sydney Parkinson, whose works, especially recording flora and fauna, were part of the rich scientific treasure brought back by the Voyage.
Supposed location of Terra Australis

In 1752 a member of the Royal Society of London, Alexander Dalrymple, had found Luis Váez de Torres' testimony proving the existence of a passage south of New Guinea now known as Torres Strait, whilst translating some Spanish documents captured in the Philippines. This discovery led Dalrymple to publish An Historical Collection of the Several Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean  in 1770–1771 which aroused widespread interest in his claim of the existence of an unknown continent.

Because of the huge success of the Endeavour’s voyage, Cook was commissioned by the Navy, on advice from the Royal Society, to determine once and for all the existence of the Southern continent.  Cook did not at all believe in such a continent but nevertheless was eager to lead the 2-ship Expedition (1772-75) knowing full well that plenty of other discoveries would await.  Cook would be expedition leader in the Resolution with the gout afflicted Tobias Furneaux captaining the 2nd ship HMS Adventure.  Departure was delayed, primarily because of Joseph Banks insistence on modifications to the Resolution which made it unseaworthy and Banks himself unwelcome enough for the revocation of his invite to sail on the voyage.  Banks place was taken by the permanently grumpy German Forster with whom very few on board would get along though whom it seems Cook could tolerate.  Once again the expedition was a success.  Of course, no Southern continent was found but on 17 January 1773, Resolution was the first ship to cross the Antarctic Circle which she crossed twice more on the voyage. The third crossing, on 3 February 1774, was to be the most southerly penetration, reaching latitude 71°10′ South at longitude 106°54′ West. Cook undertook a series of vast sweeps across the Pacific, finally proving there was no Terra Australis.  On each occasion Resolution’s southerly progress was halted by Icebergs and pack.
 
Eventually Cook and Furneaux were separated in poor weather and Furneaux would return to Britain a full year ahead of Cook who would spend that time visiting, amongst others, the South Sandwich Islands and South Georgia, Easter Island, the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Society Islands,  the Tongan Islands, and the New Hebrides.  Cook was a supremely skilled astronomical Navigator and for this reason the Kendall K 1 chronometer (a development of Harrison’s H3) was tested on this voyage and found by Cook to be accurate for Navigation.
Cook's 2nd Voyage (Att 
By Jon Platek - self-made, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17405980)
On his return, Cook was appointed Post Captain, and given a sinecure at Greenwich Hospital.  He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, and awarded the Copley Gold Medal for completing his second voyage without losing a man to scurvy.  Given time he was guaranteed an Admiralcy.  This was a time when he, now a relatively wealthy man and certainly a famous one could have enjoyed some homelife with the wife and children with whom until now he had spent so long apart from and it seemed that this was his desire and yet when the opportunity arose to voyage to discover the North-West passage it seems that almost on a whim (or was it boredom?) that he put his own name forward to lead the, for him fatal, 3rd voyage.
Cook's 3rd Voyage (Blue is track after Cook's death)
(Att 
By AlexiusHoratius (talk) - self-made, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17406012
Once again in the Resolution Cook, accompanied by Clerke’s HMS Discovery sailed from Britain on 12 July 1776.  On board was a menagerie of Animals – a gift from King George III to his Tahitian ‘subjects’ which he hoped would prevent them fighting tribal wars – as well as the Tahitian Omai whom Furneaux had taken to Britain on his return on the previous voyage.  Omai’s return was the public cover for the expedition to discover the North-West passage and claim lands on the north west of the American continent not yet claimed by Spain or other European powers.  On arrival in Tahiti early signs of Cook’s changing personality were evident in his gratuitous cruelty, not seen on earlier voyages, in response to the islander’s removal of His Majesty’s property.  Cook’s increasingly uneven temper, Hough indicates may have been the result of a parasitic infection picked up on his 2nd voyage and it was a temper that was to get him killed on Hawaii in 1779.  Before then however he had charted much of the North Western coast of the American continent in 1777 , sailed through the Bering Strait, before being beaten back by Arctic pack ice in 1778.  Unlike in earlier voyages, and perhaps linked to his uneven mental state, Cook seemed to have been in little hurry to complete his work hough absolutely determined to achieve the discovery of the NW passage hence having failed in 1778 it was his intention to try again in 1779 (in fact it would be Clerke, after Cook’s death who would make the attempt in 1779). 
Death of Cook
Cook’s demise, after being well treated by the Hawaiian islanders (Hough considers that he was indeed seen as a god).  Is well treated by Hough who unrolls the events of that morning with tragic inevitability.  Here there is coolness, arrogance, cowardice (by the RM Lieut who was meant to support Cook), bravery on the part of both Cook and his assailants and confusion.  It is in the description of these events that Hough makes Cook seem most human and in the final voyage he is justly critical of his subject’s treatment of both his crew and the people’s he meets – though he does point to the parasite infestation as the source of this poor treatment.  In the end Cook’s death was tragic and certainly not inevitable (as was that of the unfortunate tubercular Clerke a year later) but it was to a large degree the result of his own bad humour and misjudgement.


Gods of Metal by Eric Schlosser;  read 30 April 2017


This book is a Penguin Special only 107 pages long, written in 2015 and ideal to read on a short flight as I did yesterday en route from Aberdeen to Oslo.  Essentially it is an expanded piece of investigative Journalism that tells the tale of 3 Catholic peace activists - Gregory Bertje-Obed the youngest being in his late 50s, Michael Walli who was in his early 60s and 82 yr old nun Megan Rice -  who broke into the Y12 Nuclear weapons manufacturing and storage facility in Tenessee in 2012. 

The book outlines the origins of the, to be frank peripheral but devout, Catholic pacifist movement from pre WW2 through the 50s and Vietnam to the present day from which Bertje-Obed , Walli and Rice drew inspiration leading to ‘plowshares’ protests that protestors made from the 70s on by sneaking into US nuclear bases and daubing blood on equipment before waiting for arrest and imprisonment to make their point that war is bad and Nuclear weapons evil.   I would guess that the book was expanded from an original news piece that told the story of the break in to the facility and the prosecution of the protagonists – under federal sabotage laws which seem somewhat draconian given the actual damage done (ranging in estimate from $800 - $80 000!) by the protestors daubing the walls of the facility with paint and blood.    Some key takeaways though from the book, apart from a skewed justice system, that we should all be concerned about are the following:

1 – It was relatively easy for the protestors to gain access to a supposedly secure site and so it should also be for a determined terrorist to do so.

2 – Nuclear materials in the US are being guarded by private contractors (good old G4S at the time) and they are more concerned about profit, cost and bonuses than nuclear security.

3 – because of 2 above US Nuclear materials are not in the least secure

Put Me Back On My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson by William Fotheringham; read 21 April 2017

Nowadays the list of British cycling greats is long – Wiggins, Froome, Cavendish, Hoy, the Kennys, but when this book was written in 2003 the list was short.  In 2002 and 2003 Cycling Weekly had placed Chris Boardman ahead of Tom Simpson as the best British rider of all time and had caused many an argument in cycling circles around the country as a result.  At the time of his death, still not 30 years old, on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France, Simpson was in a class of his own amongst British Riders and the tragic nature, the spectacle, the location, the untimeliness and the use of amphetamines all added to the legend of Tom Simpson.  Fotheringham’s book distils the story of Simpson.

Simpson was a Nott’s miner’s son and talented amateur cyclist when in 1959, at the age of 21, and with £100 in his pocket he left Britain to earn his crust as a professional on the Continent amongst its glamourous and to a 1950’s Briton almost exotic road racing scene. Back then it took 2 days to get from Nottinghamshire to Belgium – Europe was a distant place for most Brits then although it seems that most Brits would prefer it to still be so!  Settling 1st in France but for the most part basing himself in Ghent, coincidentally he also avoided National Service in Britain – not so much as a determined draft dodger but because he was so focussed on his goal of professional racing.  A goal that was to lead to a perfectionism and ‘marginal (though in those days not scientific) gains’ approach to all things that might lead to a performance edge from training regimes, through nutrition and eventually to amphetamine use (legal in the sport until 1965 it should be noted).  Simpson’s talent was quickly spotted and he was signed up as a pro by the end of 1959. From here there was no going back he was following his dream. 

Simpson’s use of performance enhancing drugs to today’s mind, and mine before reading this book, places him amongst the realm of sporting cheats in the class of Armstrong et al but Fotheringham adds more subtlety and context to the black and white we see today.  As I have already said until 1965 amphetamines were perfectly legal within the Peloton and even thereafter few questions were asked.  Anquetil raged at authorities for interfering with rider’s choices and few questioned him.  Of course, riders at the top of the tree, of whom Simpson was one, could afford better drugs or ‘Mickey Finns' as Simpson referred to them as one interviewee – Colin Lewis a onetime roommate of Simpson on the tour - recalled Simpson paying £800 (4 x Lewis’s own retainer) to for a year’s supply.  So even if everyone was on drugs one’s income would buy some advantage. 

Simpson, it seems was driven by a need to make sufficient money for himself and his young family knowing that his pro career would be limited and he was a driven man.  He made several business deals, mostly in property, to set up his future.  Indeed, his wife and children were staying at their property in Corsica on the day he died.  It was this drive that made him seek every possible advantage and he was determined to win the tour (which even without his tragic death I suspect he could not have achieved – in previous years he has always faded towards the end of this gruelling challenge though not through lack of effort).  On Ventoux on 13 July 1967, in intense heat the drive to be successful would kill Simpson.

Fotheringham does a good job of autopsy at a distance in reviewing the evidence of what killed Simpson.  It wasn’t the drugs that killed him although they allowed him to continue beyond the point where he might have given up.  Amphetamines are mental not physical stimulants so would have affected his judgement but it was his body that shut down under severe heat stress and dehydration.  This heat stress was in itself caused by a combination of factors – the unusually hot conditions of the 1977 Tour, Simpson’s illness (diarrhoea over the previous days) adding to his dehydration, the exceedingly long stages of the Tour, since much reduced, during which riders were not allowed to receive drinks from supporting cars, instead relying on raiding passing cafes for whatever fluid was available – sadly for Simpson his last drink was a large amount of Brandy gleaned from one such raid which would as we know today have exacerbated his dehydration even further.  All these combined to cause Simpson’s heart failure in the stress of climbing Ventoux leading to his death tragically just short of the summit.  One could certainly argue that it was the Tour de France and Simpson’s drive to win that killed him.


At the end of this book I no longer considered Simpson a drug cheat instead he comes across as a meticulous professional with a clear goal to make the most money he can before his talents declined with age.  Drugs were simply another aspect of that professionalism, ubiquitous since the inaugural 1903 Tour and banned only the year or so before Simpson's death.  As an example of this focus, to extract the full value of his 1965 world championship win Simpson 18 times throughout Europe in three weeks, driving 12,000 miles between events a truly exhausting schedule.  In the 60s sports science was still a distant thing though Simpson’s approach was to his mind scientific though just wrong –e.g. in those days it was received wisdom amongst riders that drinking during a ride was bad for you rather than necessary.  Pseudo-scientific heuristics such as this would do more to kill Simpson than the pills he carried.  

Canvas Flying, Seagulls Crying: From Scottish Lochs to Celtic Shores by Justin Tyers; read 9 April 2017

I bought this book by accident thinking it was the story of Justin and Linda’s building and sailing away of their boat ‘Caol Ila’ after losing everything in a house fire.  In fact that story is told in ‘Phoenix from the Ashes’ which, having read this book, I have now got on my kindle which should be enough of a recommendation for this excellent read.

The book covers 2 very different winter experiences whilst the couple live aboard their boat.  The 1st is over wintering on the West coast of Scotland and the next year on the River Fal in Cornwall which provide 2 very different experiences.  After each winter the summer’s cruising – from Scotland via Ireland and the Scillies to Cornwall and the next year to France – is interspersed with tales of living ashore, working in exchange for rent and cash with a couple of naturists, and of the variety of characters met along the way.  In many ways this is a gentle tale of simple living and coastal cruising but it is told with humour and with some cracking lines from Justin.



The last 2 chapters cover a period of over 6 years, for most of which the couple live on Islay where Linda obtains a healthcare job to be near her sickening mother and where ‘Caol Ila’ becomes almost completely neglected until after 6 years the couple realise that they are once again simply working to pay the bills and set out south once again, Justin narrowly missing getting run down by a Tanker of the coast of Wales – largely he admits as a result of his own rusty seamanship. 


Definitely worth a read, my only criticism is that this is very much Justin’s story rather than Justin and Linda’s story.  The voice throughout is that of Justin and it would have been worth having Linda write a few chapters to give her perspective on their lifestyle and travels.  This though is a minor criticism so I shall shortly be reading the 1st book in this series.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel, Foreword by Neil Armstrong.  Read 28 March 2017

This is a cracking little book, essentially an expanded magazine article that was itself inspired by a Harvard conference in 1993.  The book tells the story of the self-taught clock maker John Harrison and his solution to the ‘Longitude Problem’ a problem that Neil Armstrong in the foreword to the book points out has been unsolved by man throughout most of history, despite the   application of some of humanity’s greatest minds – Galileo, Newton, Flamsteed and Halley amongst them, all of whom make guest starring appearances in the book. 


Admiral Cloudesly Shovell lost during Scilly Isles Disaster 1707

Essentially the ‘Longitude problem’ was the inability of Navigators to tell their longitude on the earth’s surface. Latitude was easy you just need to measure the height of the sun above the horizon at local midday.  Longitude needed either an accurate map of the stars (and a clear night) or, and this was the solution in the days before GPS, an accurate comparison of local time against a given reference time.  Not until John Harrison was anyone able to make a sufficiently accurate timepiece that was unaffected by the movement of a ship (as were pendulum clocks) or variations in temperature (as were metal components – at least until Harrison invented the bimetallic strip where one metal component counteracted the other) and with minimal friction in its mechanics.

John Harrison (By Philippe Joseph Tassaert (1732-1803)After Thomas King († circa 1796) [1767 painting] - [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=318112 (

The author starts with the wrecking of Admiral Shovell’s British fleet on the Isles of Scilly in 1707 which led to the Government, in 1714, passing the Longitude act and offering a price of £20 000 to whoever could solve the problem.  The problem would be solved, within the parameters 1st set by the act,  by carpenter and self-taught clock maker John Harrison within 25 years (with his H1 marine chronometer) though he was never to claim the full prize, largely due to his own perfectionist approach (he took H1 away telling the Longitude Board that he was sure he could do better – which he was to do with H2 and H3) and to the machinations of a range of scientists, especially the villain of this book – the Astronomer Royal the Rev Nevil Myskelene – who identified that the accurate mapping of the stars could also resolve the Longitude problem.  The difference between the 2 approaches was in the simplicity, for the average seaman, of the horological approach vs the difficulties in the astronomical one (difficult measurements, night-time only observations, vagaries of the weather, need to use almanacs and logarithms).




Harrison's Chronometer from top H1 to H4 (internal) (H2 - H2 Von Jonathan Cardy - Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39743755
)
‘Longitude’ tells with verve the tale of Harrison’s search for perfection (eventually in the H4 and H5 watches), the ever greater obstacles put in his way to claim his prize (he was eventually to receive most of the value of it only after the intervention of the King) along with the astronomical developments that unfortunately for Harrison were coming to fruition only at the same time as his own project.  The desire of the Board of Longitude to make Harrison’s developments easily replicable is also considered and their tests of Harrison’s watches are all in there including the 1st voyages of Captain Cook.

This short, pacey book is well worth a read and has inspired me to add a visit to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich to view Harrison's craftsmanship, to my 'to do list'.




Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean (Penguin World War II Collection pub 2015); read 21 March 2017

It has been claimed that Fitzroy Maclean was one of the real life inspirations for Ian Fleming’s character of James Bond.  According to his obituary in ‘The Independent’ “Fitzroy Maclean owes his place in history to the extraordinary 18 months he spent as Winston Churchill's special envoy to the Yugoslav leader Josip Tito in 1943-45. He sometimes expressed regret that, as with his hero Bonnie Prince Charlie, the historically significant portion of his life was compressed into 18 months at a comparatively young age. More dispassionate commentators would say that he packed an unbelievable amount into his 85 years.” Indeed, whilst this autobiography covers, roughly the 10 years between 1935-45 MacLean was to go on to serve in Government, briefly, and Parliament, at length, achieving much beyond these years for which he is famous.

First published in 1949, this autobiography is broken into 3 parts each of which would qualify in its own right as worthy of a book. Part One tells of the author’s years in the Soviet Union from 1937 to 1939.  Having spent a couple of years as a diplomat at the Paris Embassy, a plumb posting, MacLean asked to go to the USSR, as no-one else wanted to go this was an easy assignment to get!  Arriving in Moscow at the height of Stalin’s purges (and witness to one of the most famous trial – that of Bukharin and co – the story of which is told here with great insight) the young polyglot was determined to see as much of the country as possible and to get away from the cloying paranoia of Moscow where for a Soviet National to be seen talking, even in passing, to a foreigner could lead to torture, imprisonment or even death.

MacLean’s travel hobby was a pastime highly discouraged by the Soviet Government. Nevertheless, he was determined to see as much of the fabled silk road as possible and in a series of journeys, recounted here superbly, and with an ever increasing posse of NKVD watchers he was to visit the Caucasus, Samarkand, Chinese Turkestan (from where he was deported) and Bukhara and Kabul – the latter then much more peaceful than today.  IN reading of these adventures I was struck by the realisation of just what a different place the world is today from the time when MacLean was travelling which of course is now the best part of a century ago.  Places that were then difficult to visit are now relatively easy to get to and vice versa of course.

As a career diplomat, MacLean was not allowed to join the armed forces nor to resign his post at the start of the 2nd World War.  Determined to join the army he announced his intention to run for Parliament – thus barring him from remaining in the Foreign office, ran and was elected as Conservative MP for Lancaster and promptly joined the Army as a Private soldier thereby prompting Churchill to comment that he had used the ‘House of Commons as a Public Convenience’.  Family connections meant that he was commissioned son after basic training and his friend David Stirling got him into the SAS in the North African campaign where he served with distinction on several raids and reconnaissance’s – notably of Benghazi.  With the threat to Iran where there were plenty of Nazi sympathisers, in 1942, of the German’s breaking through in the Caucuses and thereby threatening Britain’s main oil supply he was seconded to the theatre to set up an irregular group of SAS to work as they had in the Western Desert and it was here that he was also tasked with, and successfully succeeded in kidnapping a pro-German Iranian General – a tale he also recounts in his appearance in the early 1980s on Desert Island Discs.  This period as an irregular soldier in North Africa and the Middle East makes up the 2nd part of the book

Part three tells the tale of the Balkan War, where MacLean now a Brigadier (I think as he never really mentions his promotions in the book though he was eventually to rise to the rank of Major General) is parachuted into Yugoslavia* at Churchill’s specific request to identify which group of Partisans – the Chetniks or the communist partisans of whom little was known (though a revelation in the desert island discs interview but not the book is that Ultra Intercepts of German Traffic was indicating the Germans were taking severe losses at the hands of the latter – hence the reason for the mission).  As he was dropped into German Occupied Europe, neither MacLean nor anyone else in the west had any idea who Tito was.  Rumours abounded that it was codename that applied to different people, that Tito was a committee or that Tito was a woman.  What was known was that a full scale 3-way guerrilla war was in progress and that the partisans previously supported by the British – the Chetniks were either quiescent or even allied to the Germans seeing Tito’s communists as the main enemy.  Churchill personally gave MacLean the mission of finding out which group was killing most Germans regardless of political persuasion so that Allied resources would be allocated to the group doing most for the Allied War effort.

MacLean quickly became a confidant to Tito and the 2 men obviously got on well though neither was in the pocket of the other.  MacLean’s British mission to Tito eventually became a large one supported eventually by the RAF’s ‘Balkan Air Force’ operating from Italy and even setting up base with a full Commando Brigade and RN support on the island of Vis though none of this happened overnight and there were many nights spent in the woods of Bosnia on the run from German offensives.  At the end MacLean was in on the liberation of Belgrade and the negotiations between the Royal Jugoslav Government in exile and Tito’s partisans for the setting up of an interim government (which as we know was not to last). The book ends with MacLean’s flight out of Yugoslavia in early 1945 as the British Ambassador (previously accredited to King Peter’s court in exile) arrives to normalise relations with the new government

*spelled throughout the book as Jugoslavia, another indication of the passing of time since the events recalled as is the punctuation where a surfeit of hyphenated words would not be used as they are here.  This older forms of spelling and grammar actually help to place this book in its time rather well and remind one that the events we are talking about are now long since passed so I am glad that in this Penguin World War II Collection edition, published in 2015, that the original text has been kept.

Maclean’s turn on BBC “Desert Island Discs” is well worth listening to its available as a podcast from the BBC’s Desert Island Discs Archives 1981-85.  Overall this is a cracking read at more than 500 pages it could easily have formed 3 books but I am glad that for continuity MacLean chose to tell the story of this decade of his life in one.

Ghosts of Targets Past: The Lives and Losses of a Lancaster Crew in 1944-45 by Philip Gray; read 31 Jan 17

First published in 1995, my copy was the later Grub Street paperback bought book directly from the author, Philip Gray, at an IWM air show at Duxford, in 2010 I think. Philip Gray was kind enough to sign it ‘Happy Landings’ to my son Matthew (13 at the time) and it has taken me until now to get around to reading this excellently written tale of life in Bomber Command right at the end of the 2nd World War. The book is dedicated to Gray’s 21 year old room mate who died during basic training in Arizona and whose body remains in a tiny cemetery on the other side of the world.
Arriving at 3 Group’s 186 squadron at the end of 1944 with his crew directly from training (in fact finishing their training slightly early due to the prowess of their navigator (not as some may suspect due to any shortage of trained crews as the RAF training machine was by this stage of the war turning out very highly trained crews in huge numbers) Philip Gray would carry out 16 bombing mission over the rapidly shrinking Reich and would also take part in the Operation Manna food drops over the Netherlands and Op Exodus return of POWs from Europe. All of this makes this memoir of Bomber Command significantly different from all the others I have read as most of Gray’s missions were to be flown during daylight in formation and with fighter escort one gets a very different picture of the war in the air at this juncture than one generally reads of the night raids of the previous winters.  Nevertheless, despite much reduced loss rates by this stage of the war operational flying remained dangerous and Gray tells of nearly crashing on take-off on his second mission (one from which the Lancaster of a crew that arrived at 186 along with Gray did not return) , of the terror of seeing flak bursts all around and of other bombers in his squadron blowing up or falling from the sky on the bomb run  (sights usually denied at night) . 

This book tells the tale of operations undertaken by the crew so well that one can picture the sights described with ease, but what can sound thrilling story-telling at 70 years distance is bounded by the humanity of Gray’s writing – the Ghosts of the title are recalled wit sadness, the importance of Lady Luck in avoiding instant and undeserved oblivion and the stealing of youth by the nature of war are written about touchingly. 
I don’t know if Philip Gray is still alive, sadly most of his crew have passed as he notes their post war lives in the glossary, if he is I would very much like to thank him for writing down the story of his war.  Hopefully the sights witnessed by him and many like him shall never be seen again though we cannot take this as a given and must guard against the narrow nationalisms that led to the youths of so many young men being lost forever.  I heartily recommend this book to everyone.

The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War by Jonathan Dimbleby; read 16 January 2017

I read Jonathan Dimbleby’s Destiny in the Desert (see below) a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it and it is great to see that Dimbleby has followed that book up with another corker.  This is narrative history at its best with a gripping and flowing narrative from start to finish which I would recommend to any reader.  It tells the story of perhaps the most important, definitely most overlooked, and longest battle of the 2nd world war form the sinking of the Athenia on 3 September 1939 to the sailing of the final Arctic convoy (JW67) – a few days after VE day in 1945 and its arrival, unscathed in Murmansk on 20 May 1945.   In between is the horror of daily battles between the Royal Navy, Merchant Mariners of many nations and the Kriegsmarine’s surface fleet and U-Boats.  These were joined from mid-1941 by the US Navy – operating as a belligerent long before Pearl Harbor, offering protection to any ship joining a US convoy to Iceland (recently occupied by the British and then handed to the Americans).

The term "Battle of the Atlantic" was coined by Churchill in February 1941. It has been called the "longest, largest, and most complex" naval battle in history.    It involved thousands of ships in more than 100 convoy battles and perhaps 1,000 single-ship encounters, in a theatre covering thousands of square miles of ocean. The situation changed constantly, with one side or the other gaining advantage, as participating countries surrendered, joined, and even changed sides in the war, and as new weapons, tactics, counter-measures, and equipment were developed by both sides. The Allies gradually gained the upper hand, overcoming German surface raiders by the end of 1942 and defeating the U-boats by mid-1943, though losses due to U-boats continued until war's end. The outcome of the battle was a strategic victory for the Allies—the German blockade failed—but at great cost: 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk for the loss of 783 U-boats.
 The high drama of the war at sea is well told through the diaries of those who played a direct part – the merchant seamen (over 50 000 of whom perished in the numerous actions of the battle) who survived the ordeals of U Boat attacks and wrecking of their ships.  The RN destroyer and corvette Captains and crews struggling to hunt the elusive U-Boats and the U-Boat Captains themselves whose chances of survival by the end of the war were almost nil – the U-Boat arm suffered higher proportionate casualties than any arm of any service of any country during the war. Also told are the major fleet actions – the removal of Germany’s surface fleet (River Plate; Bismarck, the Channel Dash), often at high cost, as a threat and the consequent eclipse of Raeder as the head of the Kriegsmarine by the ruthless Donitz, the loss of whose son on his 1st U Boat mission, seemed to make no outward impression on him.
Britain was highly dependent on imported goods throughout the war requiring more than a million tons of imported material per week in order to be able to survive and fight.  Donitz coined the term for  the Battle of the Atlantic as the ‘tonnage war’ it being  the British (later  Allied) struggle to supply Britain and the Axis attempt to stem the flow of merchant shipping that enabled Britain to keep fighting. From 1942 onwards, the Germans also sought to prevent the build-up of Allied supplies and equipment in Britain in preparation for the invasion of occupied Europe. The defeat of the U-boat threat was a pre-requisite for the defeat of Germany this applied not only to the Atlantic convoy but also to those in support of the USSR – every one of which, according to Stalin was absolutely crucial.  Churchill said after the war that:
‘The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome’
It is odd therefore, as Dimbleby points out right from the start of the book that the Churchill’s view of the battle as defensive rather than offensive prevented closed his mind to the opportunities to defeat the U Boats much earlier than in fact was the case.  By 1941 it was clear that the key to the defeat of the U Boat lay in 3 solutions – well equipped escort vessels with trained and aggressive crews, improved detection technology – in particular the development of 10cm radar capable of spotting U boats from 60+miles and the provision of aircraft.  It is almost criminal that despite possessing long range aircraft capable of closing the mid-Atlantic air gap that these aircraft continued to be allocated to the RAF’s bomber offensive against Germany until mid 1943.  The key culprits in this were Churchill himself who, backed up by his scientific adviser Lord Cherwell‘s  highly selective use of statistics  led him to believe that the bomber was Britain’s best available means of pulverizing the Nazi enemy despite a steady accumulation of evidence to the contrary.  This emphasis on ‘Offensive’ operations was a false dichotomy as the ‘defensive’ battle at sea was the one that would eventually lead to the ability to build up forces for the overwhelming Allied land offensive in Normandy!  Occasionally Churchill wavered, but never for long enough to modify a strategic priority which had a profoundly damaging impact on the Battle of the Atlantic by failing to allocate sufficient aircraft.
One surprising area covering the Technical prosecution of the war, is the effectiveness of ULTRA (the enigma decrypts of Bletchley park).  In this battle whilst ULTRA was important and allowed the routing of convoys away from some wolfpacks - this was not always the case as the decrypt could often be too late or because for large parts of the war the Kriegsmarine changing of cypher codes rendered ULTRA tactically insignificant.  Conversely it is recorded here how the Germans were often able to re-route wolfpacks towards even diverted convoys because their own version of Bletchley Park (B Dienst) were reading the rather less secure coded messages of the RN!
Of course Churchill was not alone in this error – he was ably assisted by the Air Chiefs – Portal and Harris who continued to insist that the way to achieve victory was to defeat Germany from the air.  Perhaps this could all have been avoided if the 1st Sea Lord – Dudley Pound – had possessed the energy of his eventual successor and had been able to argue his corner forcibly in COS  and Cabinet Committees, perhaps the greatest tragedy was that he was unfit to command – suffering from an undiagnosed brain tumour that was to kill him in 1943 – but was not relieved despite his propensity to sleep through even important meetings  - surely Churchill should bear responsibility for this.  To his credit after being directed to do so at the  Casablanca conference Portal was, in 1943, to insist that VLR Liberators be transferred in sufficient numbers to close the Air Gap.  Brooking no objection from Harris these aircraft were rapidly delivered and the effect on the Battle were immediate and conclusive.  In March 1943 of 600 merchant ships were sent to the bottom.  In April, with the introduction of VLR air cover and escort carriers (released after the Torch Landings) the U-Boats were sunk in ever larger numbers and by the end of the year merchant sinkings had been reduce tenfold – the allies had won the battle.
Between 1939 and 1945, 781 U-boats were lost, taking with them 30,000 out of the 38,000 men (80%) who went to sea.  Over 50 000 Merchant sailors and over 30 000 RN sailors were also lost in this most inhospitable of battlefields.   Dimbleby’s book is a fine tribute to them all.

No Cunning Plan by Sir Tony Robinson; read 11 December 2016

Wandering around Leicester a couple of Saturday’s ago I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts, BBC’s History Extra, when I heard an interview with Sir Tony Robinson about, among other things, his time on ‘Time Team’.  At the end of the interview – well worth downloading btw – Robinson’s recently published autobiography ‘No Cunning Plan’.  Interest piqued I bought it right away.  The book gets its title from 2 sources, Blackadder and the realisation by Robinson as he sat in a submarine 12000 feet below the waves and 20 feet from the Titanic that he had got there without any conscious strategy.
Like most folk, I suspect, I thought Robinson arrived fully formed as Baldrick in 1983 and then went on to ‘Time Team’ and writing children’s books but as this book shows the twice knighted (in 2004 by Michael Abney-Hastings, , who had emigrated to Australia in 1960, married, fathered five children, and lived in Jerilderie, New South Wales and whom Robinson and his crew had identified as the true King of England via his descent from the Duke of Clarence rather than the ‘illegitimate’ Edward IV; and in 2013 by the actual Queen of England’s grandson Prince William) had been an actor since childhood and had a quarter of a century of jobbing parts in stage and cinema as an adult before Blackadder.
The book opens with Robinson in Australia receiving the news of his Knighthood – for services to the Labour party and charity rather than for acting -  before introducing us to Mick Aston and the time team dig in the grounds of Buckingham Palace where , as predicted by the Duke of Edinburgh, they would find ‘Bugger All’.  Born in South Woodford to parents who had married  before but had been kept apart by the 2nd World War (Father in the RAF near Peterhead and Mother in the WAAF in S England – hints of infidelities by both parties out in the early chapters) Robinson would become a useless Grammar School student but regularly employed child actor, he was in the cast of the original London production of Oliver, acted alongside Tony Newly and Judy Garland (enjoying 4 days pay and plenty of Chicken for a  walk on part that lasted a few seconds) before moving on to drama schools and having to unlearn his child actor habits. 
Throughout this book is honest – tales of infidelity and drug taking are not omitted by the thrice married Robinson but it is also very funny, self-deprecating and hugely entertaining.  Prior to Blackadder the 60s and 70s are painted vividly with tales of work at the Bristol Old Vic, communal living in Bristol, periods of unemployment working at the  London Docks into which in 1975 he would be pushed by John Wayne are all told with humour and candidness.  Becoming aware of the new comic writing talent coming out of Oxford and Cambridge (not a part of his world) Robinson was pleased to be asked to take part in the pilot of Rowan Atkinson’s ‘The Blackadder’, though he was sceptical of the quality of the story and its obscure historical setting. In the event  filming was delayed due to a strike at the BBC he was unable to take part another actor taking his place.  The following year he was surprised to be offered the part in the now commissioned series but willingly accepted and was paid the vast sum of £2000 (2016 ££) for the series which was to prove to be a bit of a flop.  In the end the revival of Blackadder in 1985 is comedy history and Robinson’s part in it was, he admits small at the time.
Robinson’s involvement in politics is covered from his initial involvement in the CRAPE section of Equity to eventual membership of New Labour’s National Executive committee.  A fan, until the fall out of Iraq became clear, of Tony Blair, Robinson played a role in the modernisation of Equity and New Labour – it was mainly for this work that he was to receive his knighthood.
As I have said this is an honest and funny tale.  Given my interests I would have like more on the 20 years of ‘Time Team’ but for the general reader that may well have unbalanced the story.  In the end this is a very funny human tale and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Alanbrooke by David Fraser; read 1 December 2016

This book was 1st published in 1982 and I 1st read it in early 1999.  This is the biography of Field Marshal Alan Brooke, later Viscount Alanbrooke, of whom General MacArthur wrote, ignoring Brooke’s Ulster origin, 'is undoubtedly the greatest soldier that England has produced since Wellington.’  Undoubtedly he is also one of the least known, by the public at any rate, of Britain’s WW2 generals.  Much of the material presented in the book is 1st hand testimony from Brooke himself as he was an inveterate writer of letters, initially to his mother and then to his wives (the 1st of whom was killed in a car crash) and from the start of the 2nd WW he was to keep a series of diaries. The book is concerned for the most part by Brooke’s 2nd WW career in which he was to be a Corps Commander in the BEF and whose performance in leading an orderly retreat to Dunkirk was highly praised both then and since.  After Dunkirk he was appointed to command UK Home Forces and therefore to direct the battle against any German Invasion.  In 1941, just before Japan’s entry into the war, he succeeded Dill as the professional head of the British Army – the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) - and just a few months later would become chair of the British chiefs of Staff Committee , posts that he would hold until after the war and for which he would be honoured later.
Brooke’s family took regular holidays in France and it was during one of these trips that Brooke was born in 1883.  Brooke was the 7th and youngest child of Sir Victor Brooke, 3rd Baronet, of Colebrooke, Brookeborough, County Fermanagh.  Brought up and educated in Pau, Brooke was  fluent in French and was a lifelong Francophile.  His early years were happy ones, despite his father’s early death, and he was devoted to his mother whilst his older siblings were in turn devoted to him.
Commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1902, his early career was spent in India where he was to become interested in Nature and his lifelong passion Ornithology.  Returning to Britain in July 1914 to get married he was retained in Europe and fought on the Western Front, rising to Lt Col and gaining a reputation as a superb Artillery officer.  The book provides an excellent history of the development of artillery use in this war and of Brooke’s part in that. Between the wars he was to rise inexorably, via Staff college to the rank of Lt General – working in 1938/9 under the RAF’s ACM Dowding as the head of Air Defence Artillery, before taking command of 2 Corps on the outbreak of war.
Brooke’s greatest contribution to his country was in the role of CIGS and this is the real meat of this book.  During the years as CIGS, Brooke had a stormy relationship with Winston Churchill. Brooke was often frustrated with the Prime Minister's habits and working methods, the hours he kept, his abuse in cabinet  of generals and constant, and often lunatic, meddling in strategic matters – a recurring favourite operation of Churchill’s was for a landing in Norway rather than in France.  Despite his frustration’s   Brooke greatly admired Churchill for the way he inspired the Allied cause and for the way he bore the heavy burden of war leadership. In one typical passage in Brooke's war diaries Churchill is described as a "genius mixed with an astonishing lack of vision – he is quite the most difficult man to work with that I have ever struck but I should not have missed the chance of working with him for anything on earth!".   Dill had found Churchill all but impossible to work with and it was Brooke’s credit that he had the strength of character to stand up to Churchill when few others could or would.  This book although acknowledging Churchill’s contribution, as did Brooke, to the allied cause also highlights much of the folly of the great man’s thinking that Brooke is credited with mollifying.
Once the USA entered the war, Britain would increasingly take a lessening role in Europe, and was largely excluded by the Anglophobe Admiral King from operations in the Pacific – her war against Japan being thence limited to the India/Burma theatre.  It is not clear from this biography that the CIGS did a lot of thinking about SE Asia being focussed as he was on the defeat of Germany as a priority – via N Africa and Italy and eventually Normandy.  It was to be a great disappointment to Brooke that, having been promised by Churchill the Supreme Allied Commander role for Overlord that the job went to an American – Eisenhower.  A man of Brooke’s claimed grasp of strategy must surely have known that this role would be given to an American given the then much greater resources being applied by the US than by Britain.  Frankly it is hard to see how Brooke, would have been acceptable to the US Chiefs of Staff given their suspicion of him – the result of his support for the Italian Campaign – ultimately a costly sideshow in (even as Brooke admitted of defensible terrain!); The US correctly identified that the decisive front for W Allies and in providing succour to USSR as in WW1 would be NW Europe not Mediterranean / Dodacanese / Aegean / Balkans – Last 3 Churchill’s ideas and even Norway again Churchill.  The major failing of Alanbrooke was in the loss of trust from the Americans (whom he tended to look down on – especially  Marshall who IMHO was the true Strategic Genius of WW2 and beyond) .

Brooke’s continued support for operations in Italy in 1943 and right upto 1945 make claims for his ‘Strategic Greatness’ most questionable, however he must be credited with the prevention of a premature Allied Invasion of France – strongly and effectively opposing ‘Sledgehammer ‘ in  1942 and further plans for invasion, under Pressure from Stalin and the USA, in 1943.  Brooke clearly identified that the risk of an unsuccessful invasion was too high in 1943 with the Wehrmacht still unbroken in the East, with internal LOC s and the Luftwaffe yet to be degraded sufficiently.  Brooke knew that WW2, just as WW1, was a war of attrition and he preferred the attrition to take place in the East rather than against a slowly building seaborne invasion force.
Fraser is clearly a fan of Brooke and this is a highly readable book but he is uncritical of his subject. Of course Brooke was a soldier of the British Empire and had the outlook of such a man.  He, even Fraser admits, did not consider the Soviet threat much beyond the end of the war.  Most unforgivably he was too disdainful of the best American Generals (MacArthur excluded of whom he was a fan) in particular Marshall and Eisenhower.  In these pages the old calumny is repeated that whilst Eisenhower had unmatched political skills that he wasn’t a particularly good field commander.  Anyone who studied the NW Europe campaign, and in particular the Battle of the Bulge must surely conclude that Eisenhower was a Field General of the 1st order and that none of the British Generals available, Brooke included, possessed the humility and tact required of the Supreme Commander.

Palace Cobra by Ed Rasimus ; read 21 November 2016

In 2013 I read and thoroughly enjoyed, Ed Rasimus’s ‘When Thunder Rolled’ his telling of his 1966 100 mission tour of Vietnam flying the F105.  Rasimus’s style is witty and irreverent without losing sight of the seriousness of the events, and fear felt, that he is recalling.  I’m not sure why it took me so long to getting around to reading is second book ‘Palace Cobra’ as I had bought it immediately on finishing his 1st.

This book, like the 1st, is a great read.  It tells the story of Rasimus’ 1972 Tour during Operation Linebacker 1 and 2 campaigns designed to bring North Vietnam to the peace table in Paris and to allow US disengagement from SE Asia.  This time, after instructional and staff tours, Rasimus is no longer a junior Lieutenant but a Major who has volunteered – thereby ending his marriage - to fly F4s in the final stages of the war.

Returning to Korat in Thailand form where he had flown single seat F105s in 1966 Rasimus is quick to appreciate the changes in the intervening years.  Now there are many more aeroplanes of many types  and aircrew (man more 2 seaters) on the base.  The reduced threat level and consequently less terrifying sorties still do not come free of charge as the appendices show Linebacker 1 and 2 losses – the latter poignant as for the most part they were the multi-man crews of B52s -   but lessons have been learned and many aircrew are much more experienced and better equipped both personally and in the equipment provided for survival in what is still a high threat environment.  The frustrations of fighting a war with ever changing political restrictions and dropping ordnance on seemingly empty jungle, are recounted with both glee and resignation in a very well told story.

Determined not to die in a losing cause Rasimus and his companions  continued the air war in the North and now the South as the NVA encroaches.  Along with wonderfully evocative tales of large attack packages using multiple tankers, MiGCAP, Bombers and Weasels ‘Crow’ , there are tales of particular missions as well as even airfield departures (in Radar Trail in bad weather)  and arrivals in battle damaged or low fuel aircraft that give a full picture of operating complex weapons such as the F4.  Amongst all this action there are tales of trips to downtown Korat – now somewhat seedier than previously which suits the less youthful and more cynical Rasimus.

Overall a cracking good 318 pages well worth a read for anyone with an interest in aviation.


Game of Spies: The Secret Agent, the Traitor and the Nazi, Bordeaux 1942-1944 by Paddy Ashdown; completed 17 November 2016

Having thoroughly enjoyed Paddy Ashdown’s tale of Operation Frankton ‘A Brilliant Little Operation’ a few years ago and his autobiography last year I had high hopes for this book and I was not disappointed.  As Ashdown himself admits it was during the research for ‘A Brilliant Little Operation’ that he 1st came across the story of the Scientist network – SOE’s network in Bordeaux and here he tells the story of its most successful agent, the French born, Roger Landes who operated from Bordeaux during 2 periods between 1942 and 1944.  His time away from the city being the result of successful German counter intelligence led by Gestapo Officer Friedrich Dohse and aided by the ‘traitor’ Andre  Grandclement – to whom, in the epilogue, Ashdown is somewhat kinder than history has recorded.  Ashdown in the end concludes that Grandclement was in fact a misguided patriot who saw bolshevism as the main threat to France and collaborated, when head of the OCM in the region, with Dohse in order to free his men from captivity and in the belief that Germany would in any case be defeated.  Indeed Ashdown is slow to judge each man as being a soldier himself he knows that no-one can say how he himself would have acted given the choices each of the protagonists and other players in this story were faced with.

The book opens with Landes’ execution of Grandclement and Grandclement’s wife and it is brutal introduction to the blurring of morality that occurred many times in occupied Europe during the 2nd World War.

From this brutal opening the story is told of the recruitment of Landes into SOE and from there the setting up of the Scientist network under Claude de Baissac (David) in Bordeaux, of which Landes (codename Stanislas) was the radio operator.  Landes it seems led a charmed life , having his false papers identified as such by a Policeman who happened to be in the resisatance but could just as easily have been collaborating with the Germans.  On another occasions the 5ft 4” Landes dropped the suitcase containing his radio set from his bike and was assisted in reloading it onto his bike by a Gestapo officer who was searching for him but was looking for a ‘British Officer’ and who seems to have had a different mental picture of a British Officer than the man in front of him represented.

After de Baissac's return to England on 16/17 August, Landes succeeded him as the network's head. But after Grandclement’s turning by Dohse, the noose started to close around Scientist. In return for the freeing of his wife (who did not support her husband’s actions but who was sadly to pay the price for them) and a number of resistance members and given their agreement not to attack the Germans but only communists who the right wing Grandclement  saw as the real threat to France.  Grandclement was to arrange for the turning over to Dohse the majority of the British weapons that had been parachuted into region – for which he would be condemned by SOE as a traitor.  An interesting sideshow , the brainchild of Dohse, was the formation of the ‘Maquis Officiale’which the Germans provided with returned British Small arms from the caches that had been turned over.  This Maquis Officiale was thus German sponsored and armed as an anti-communist force that would fight the real Maquis! Thus was the internal politics of occupied France shown to be more complex than most outsiders realise.

With the Dohse’s noose tightening , Landes left on the night of 1 November 1943, crossing the Pyrénées, being held for a time in Spain and finally reaching Gibraltar before repatriation – after some grilling by MI5 who it seems believed , at least initially that Landes rather than Grandclement was the man who had betrayed Scientist.

Landes second mission began on 2/3 March 1944. The second attempt was successful, and he was accompanied by Allyre Sirois. As the head of the ACTOR network and this time codenamed ‘Aristide’, rebuilt from the remains of the SCIENTIST, Landes arranged for the re- equipping of the resistance in time to support the D-Day invasion, Landes was to be the head of several Resistance groups up until the liberation of Bordeaux. On the city's liberation on 17 September 1944, he was presented to général de Gaulle, who said to him "You're English? Your place is not here" and asked him to leave the country within 2 days – De Gaulle needed the myth of the ‘Resistance’ to be French rather than British led and it is telling that Resistance members that fought in British led networks did not receive the pensions of their French led counterparts after the war.

Just as interesting as the story of Landes in these years is the story of Frierdich Dohse the Gestapo agent who, for the most part, eschewed the brutal tactics usually ascribed to his organisation for much more subtle, and often very effective, ways of achieving his aims.  Dohse, it seems , is also one of the few, if not only, Gestapo personnel whose diary was published and thus is a strong source record for the period.


Overall this book is a well written narrative history that reads like a thriller – it is a true spy story. The story centres on three men: one British, one French and one German and the duel they fought out in an atmosphere of collaboration and betrayal and where assassination or death by firing squad or the death camps awaited those betrayed or captured, or even as in Lucette Grandclement’s case just happened to be connected to the wrong person.


Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland; read 6 November 2016

Having previously read Holland’s ‘Rubicon’ and ‘Persian Fire’ I was looking forward to ‘Dynasty’.  In the end though it was well written and readable it was something of a disappointment as it was largely a repeat of information, and legends, already known with no new insight – perhaps a trap that is hard to avoid given the paucity of new sources and the reliance that has to be made on the same ancient authors and physical history.  The book is worth a read though if you are already well acquainted with Roman History and the Julio-Claudian Emperors then I would borrow a copy rather than buy one.  If however the subject is new to you then you shall be rewarded by a competent telling of the rise of Augustus, the terrorism and civil war that ended the Roman Republic and gave him absolute power as 1st citizen (Princeps was the title he and his immediate successors used to mask their rise to absolute monarchy).
After setting the scene for Rome’s aversion to Monarchy after the overthrow of the last of the Tarquins, Holland shows in the demise of Scipio Africanus the power of the Senate in defending the republic until the destabilising rise of the 1st Triumvirate (oddly he misses out the dictatorship of Sulla and the Social War of 91-88BC that is a warning sign of the later troubles), the rise and fall of Caesar and then the 2nd Triumvirate of Octavius (Caesar’s adopted son); Anthony and Lepidus.  From here the book is into the main thrust.  Lepidus is quickly side-lined Octavius and Anthony divide the Empire between them and Octavius subjugates the Roman Senate and its power structures through murder and intrigue until the point when he has established unquestioned authority and then mobilises the Legions under Agrippa (Octavius himself being quite hopeless in battle – both inept and cowardly) to defeat Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31BC.  Secure as sole ruler and renamed Augustus, he then had the good sense to cloak his military dictatorship in the clothes of republican symbolism as consul on multiple occasions and as 1st citizen rather than the monarch that he de Facto was. 
Augustus’s true genius was in getting the Roman elite to buy in to his fiction – a fiction maintained by his successor Tiberius but then let slip especially by Gaius (Caligula) and Nero.  The letting slip of the façade, and the behaviour of these latter 2 emperors in terrorising the senators and equestrians (i.e. those with a lot to lose) of their own day in the end played a major part in the decline of the dynasty.
Holland deals well with the transitional nature of the regime from Augustus, through Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero (only the 1st 2 of whom died in their beds).  Whilst to be a member of the August family is to be born into privilege , very few of those who are survive themselves to become emperor – instead exile , murder or fratricide are their fate and that includes the emperors themselves – the last 3 of the dynasty all being murdered (Nero technically a suicide but whilst on the run).  The list of these unfortunates is long – the 2 Julias, Agrippina the elder, Agrippa Postumus, Germancus, Britannicus, Agrippina the younger – married Claudius, murdered him and then was murdered in turn by her son Nero!  Graves’ I Claudius being never far from the truth!
Tiberius, Rome’s best general, the adopted son of Augustus, and natural son of Livia, succeeded him in 14 AD without question thereby demonstrating the embeddedness of the system Augustus’s policies and survival into old age had achieved.  Tiberius, like Augustus before him lived to ripe old age and was unchallenged in his primacy.  Despite his own withdrawal from public life his growing paranoia meant the demise of many whom he saw as threats, even those such as Sejanus who had planned to profit from their relationship with the Princeps.  After a few years as a god, however, he was organising purges and engaging in orgies with the children of the elite so obscene that his ward,  Caligula, was “one of the few people from ancient history to be as familiar to pornographers as classicists”,
Caligula – the only survivor of Germanicus’s decimated family spent his formative years in Tiberius presence but was thus able to profit from his death and to then explore the boundaries of what an emperor could do – until he found the boundary as being the Praetorian Guard. 
After Caligula came the savvy and under-rated Claudius, the deformed son of Germanicus, “so despised and discounted by his relatives that not even Caligula had got around to eliminating him.”  Perhaps the least bloody of all the Julio-Claudians, even he left a trail of the over-reaching and unwary in his wake until his own demise at the hands of his niece, and wife, who supplanted him with the final member of the dynasty - Nero a man so insufferable that half the empire rose against him.
Dynasty does not shrink from seeing the Roman emperors for what they were: “the west’s primal examples of tyranny”. Tales of their paranoid depravity make historians uneasy, having registered the doubts, however, Holland takes the accounts of the god-emperors’ cruelties seriously, too much so for my liking though it is true that most Romans , apart from Tacitus, were themselves willing to believe that Nero himself had ordered the torching of Rome, after all it wasn’t unreasonable to believe that an emperor, who had murdered his mother and wife, was capable of anything.
As another reviewer has pointed out:

‘All the Julio-Claudians were dead by the time of Nero’s death, more often than not at the hands of their own relatives. When they went, the plebeian commander Vespasian made his move. The son of a provincial official, who had no connection to the imperial family, he ordered his legions into Italy and revealed that for all the talk of their augustness and divinity, Roman emperors were what they had always been - military dictators’




Life on Air by David Attenborough; Read 12 Oct 2016

Today, I still remember as a 9 yr old child watching David Attenborough’s 1973 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in which he recounted, amongst other things, 1st contact with Papua New Guinea tribesmen and wonderful natural history expeditions around the world (these can still be seen ).  To my generation even then he was the Face of Natural History broadcasting, and this was before his iconic and ground-breaking ‘Life on Earth’ and its follow on ‘Living Planet’ ‘Trails of Life’ ‘Blue Planet’ and so on that have come to define the benchmarks for Natural History  filming.  And yet at the time he had just resigned form a top BBC Management post (Director of Programmes) to work as a freelance producer of Natural History and anthropology programmes, having previously served as controller of BBC 2 from 1966 – 69 in which role he had proved midwife to the nascent channel and seen through the delivery of such triumphs of public service broadcasting as ‘Civilisation’ and ‘The Ascent of Man’ as well as the occasional series ‘Chronicle’ and ‘Horizon’. 

This high-flyer, for Attenborough can be described as nothing less, has written a superb book, witty and erudite with not a word wasted.  Attenborough begins his story as a recently married 26 yr old, out of Cambridge and National Service with the Royal Navy and realising that his chosen career in book publishing wasn’t really for him he applies to be one of the early generation of TV producers with the BBC in 1952 (having been turned down by BBC Radio and having never actually watched TV himself).  Today, 64 years later Attenborough is still presenting and writing TV programmes and this book makes one realise just how far the medium has come in that time (though the book finishes in 2009). In the early 50s TV was not the dominant cultural medium it is today.  Few people had TVs, the cameras were primitive and there was no way of recording sound at the same time as pictures. As a young producer Attenborough, produced studio based programmes such as ‘Animal Vegetable or Mineral’ but eventually, through his zoological contacts he discovered the opportunity to persuade  the powers that be  that it would be a good idea for him to spend part of each year abroad, finding and filming exotic animals. This was the origin of Zoo Quest of which there were to be series across the world before the format was deemed to have had its day.  As the title implies, Attenborough and colleagues from London Zoo travelled the world to capture animals for the London Zoo that would then be brought into the studio to be described to viewers – an horrific thought today but in the 50s conservation was not seen as it is today.  The original presenter was to have been Jack Lester of London Zoo but his contraction of an unknown illness (and shortly after the 2nd Zoo Quest expedition his death at just 48 ) meant that he presented only the 1st programme before Attenborough was drafted in to go on front of the cameras in his stead – the rest is history.

The book records with humour and enthusiasm and many a witty anecdote all of the Zoo Quest expeditons before moving on, as did Attenborough into senior management after a brief spell as a freelancer and a year of study of Anthropology at LSE.  I have already discussed this period above but in many ways this section is fascinating – not least because it is the less well known of Sir David’s life.  He deals very well with BBC politics and with government pressures (as well as those of ITV) on the Corporation and his defence of the BBC is exemplary – no one reading this book could possibly not consider the BBC to be the Jewel in the UK’s cultural crown.

Attenborough had only agreed, in 1965, to go from the LSE back to the BBC on the understanding that he would do the job of Controller of BBC2 for a limited period and provided he could still spend time travelling the world on expedition for a few months each year in order to keep up with Technology – at least that was his excuse.  So in his period in management he continued to make programmes and travelling to such places as the Northern Territory of Australia.  In 1972 he was suggested as a candidate for the position of Director-General of the BBC but knowing that he had no appetite for the job, he once again became a freelance in 1973 to return to full-time programme-making, leaving him free to write and present his planned natural history epic that was to take 3 years to film and was to be released to critical acclaim as Life on Earth (1979) – the Landmark programme of its type.  Given that Attenborough’s voice, at least in the UK, is synonymous with Natural History film-making it is astonishing that the US network that had reluctantly signed up to co-produce the series with BBC2 pulled out of the agreement when Attenborough objected to them removing his pieces to camera and voice commentary on the grounds that ‘Americans would struggle to understand his accent’.  Eventually the series was picked up in the US, for a much lower fee, by a public service broadcaster and was critically acclaimed there as in Britain even with Attenborough’s voice!   The book also covers the making of the rest of Life series each of which took several years to make:

·         The Living Planet (1984)
·         The Trials of Life (1990)
·         Life in the Freezer (1993)
·         The Private Life of Plants (1995)
·         The Life of Birds (1998)
·         The Life of Mammals (2002)
·         Life in the Undergrowth (2005)
·         Life in Cold Blood (2008)

In addition a number of one –offs are recounted as well as the Blue Planet (presenter only and for which Attenborough is clear to, make sure he takes little credit – extremely modest as he is).

Having read this book I am not surprised that Sir David Attenborough has been described as a National Treasure.  His body of work stands alone as an exemplar of its kind and this book is a most worthy accompaniment.




It's in the Blood: My Life – 15 May 2008 by Lawrence Dallaglio and David Walsh; read 10 October 2016

Having enjoyed Chris Boardman’s autobiography I decided that I ought to read one or two more of the sports biographies that litter my shelves.  That of Lawrence Nero Bruno Dallaglio – former England Captain, British Lion, Grand Slam and World and European Cup winner and multiple winner of Premiership titles,  stood out for its subject matter and at over 400 pages was longer than most in this category, additionally as David Walsh (of Lance Armstrong exposé fame)  was also involved in its writing I was sure it would be a good read.

I was not disappointed; the coverage of Dallaglio’s early life and upbringing is really good though I do think the book could have been more reflective and insightful on the great man’s stellar rugby career.  The son of an Italian immigrant and Irish Mother, Dallaglio was brought up with his older sister in London.  It would appear that this family had a surfeit of talent as Francesca was an incredibly talented dancer and as we know Lawrence wasn’t half bad at Rugby and was even a talented choir boy – singing at one stage backing vocals to Tina Turner. Sent to Ampleforth School,  Dallaglio would start to excel at Rugby – making county and England Schools appearances and with little family money to rely upon he would also think up several ‘wide-boy’ money making schemes most notably a scheme to sell Zippo lighters.  Perhaps this gives a clue to his later difficulties with the News of the World sting.

Tragically Francesca would be killed in the Marchioness disaster, her loss would have a profound effect on the family and Mrs Dallaglio would be at the forefront of the fight for justice for the victims whilst Lawrence took himself off to live on a narrow boat on the Thames and play Rugby for Wasps a club with which he remained throughout his career.

Youngsters today are impatient to get to play senior rugby, and with the success of professional teams and their academies it is not uncommon to see teenagers make 1st team debuts, but Dallaglio’s career spanned the transition from amateur to pro rugby and then youngsters were less likely to get a chance then today for one thing they were less well built.  Dallaglio himself, according to this book didn’t go into a gym until he was 22 and didn’t make a 1st team appearance until he was 23 (nor did he make the England U21 squad)  – but then went on to make over 80 caps for England and the Lions so the later start didn’t do him any harm.

The rugby story told herein does lack insight I think – whilst Dallaglio is good on narrative accounts of WHAT happened – from England Sevens success through England career , the 97 Lions (less is made of the 2001 and 2005 tours – though to be fair the leg break ended the 2005 tour early) , World cup and Wasps, the WHY is less well covered.  This is for the most part a narrative story rather than an analytic one.  Nevertheless the story is a good one.  Lawrence is not afraid to criticise Clive Woodward’s approach at times – in particular just before the 2003 World Cup final, but for the most part is supportive of his National coach, whom he considers a friend.  It is clear though that his coaching heroes are Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards, then of Wasps now of Wales and the 2013/17 Lions. 

The book ends with the 2007 World Cup in which England reached the final – after some awful early performances and 4 years of under-performance since 2003.  Dallaglio pulls no punches in laying the blame of the early tournament performances at the then Coach’s,  Brain Ashton, door.  It seems clear from this account that whilst Ashton was a good coach, he should not have been head coach and provided no clarity to what was wanted from his players.

Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-98 by Michael Palin; read 01 Oct 2016

This is the third volume of Michael Palin's widely acclaimed diaries although only one that I have so far read. I got this book having seen Palin’s ‘Travelling To Work’ tour in Aberdeens’ Music Hall a couple of years ago.  Having read this I shall certainly look out the previous volumes.

One thing about diary entries is that they add immediacy to past events.  This book opens with Palin on the 1st leg of his ‘Around the World in 80 days’ travelogue (for which Alan Whicker was the 1st choice of the BBC) which was to lead to Palin’s unplanned and unexpected detour into travel which has defined his career since, and which I remember  very well watching as it was 1st broadcast.  As we move through the decade ‘Pole to Pole’ and eventually ‘Full Circle’ are also covered though   diary entries for the ‘Pole to Pole’ trip are lost en route.  Having avidly watched these programmes and remembering them easily, one is also struck by things we have forgotten, or at least are only distantly remembered,  since the 1990s notably the number of IRA bombings in London in the early part of the decade, BSE – then seen as a real threat to our future lives but and even the death of Princess Diana, an event that occurred on the morning of the day on which the 1st episode of ‘Full Circle’ was shown causing it to be moved to BBC2 at the last minute.

At the opening of the book, ’80 days’ is a new venture and a one-off whereas Palin’s recent success as KKKKen in a Fish Called Wanda made him much in demand as an actor whilst he still seems to have considered himself primarily as a writer.  Hence on return from his around the world trip he is quick to complete the BBC book of the series and then struggles to get his screenplay of American Friends, based on events in his great-grandfather’s life in the mid 19th century, produced.  The writing of this film and its production seems to be beset by difficulty and eventually it is a flop despite some positive reviews, also a flop is his play ‘The Weekend’ starring Richard Wilson which despite a good reception in the provinces is panned by critics in the West End, nevertheless between these disappointments is the success of Palin as Jim Nelson in Bleasdale’s GBH.  Also successful , after a flase start is his 1st Novel ‘Hemingway’s Chair’ , knocked off in 4 months and still available today. Other TV and film work, mostly now forgotten or even left on the cutting room floor and are also covered in these pages as is the ultimately aborted attempt to put together a Python tour in the USA that each Python for his own reasons – greed; indifference; busy-ness etc – are never able to agree to at the right time.

During the period covered, Palin has to deal with the death of his Mother and of close friends – notably Graham Chapman and is continuing to come to terms with the suicide of his elder sister – Angela – in 1987. Along the way his wife, Helen, has a tumour removed from her brain during his ‘Full Circle’ trip and their 3 children grow up and leave home.  To an outsider the impression of Palin  is that he is one of us but in reality these diaries also reveal an incredibly ‘Luvvy’ lifestyle with regular theatre trips and dinner with numerous ‘great and good’ of the British TV and theatre, I am not sure why this was a surprise to me given Palin’s long career in this sector – perhaps he is just good at coming across as being unaffected by it.

Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts; Read 13 September 2016

In answer to the question ‘who is the greatest Captain of the Age’ it is said that the Duke of Wellington replied ‘of this age, of past ages of any age Napoleon’.  A General at 24 and Head of State within 6 years of arriving in France as an impoverished, though not quite penniless member of the Corsican minor nobility, via Italy, Egypt, Austria; Germany; Poland, Spain and Russia to  exile on  Elba and then staging the remarkable comeback of the 100 days (during which 100 000 men were to lose their lives) before his final defeat at Waterloo aged 46 and dead of stomach cancer in St Helenian exile in 1821, Napoleon’s career was truly one of the most meteoric in history. 



Napoleon was born in Corsica in 1769, a bookish but not a scholarly child, whose written French was poor and whose funny accent earned him plenty of teasing at school. He found his way in the army, graduating from the Ecole Militaire in Paris and finding a commission as an artillery officer. He spent several years fighting in Corsica, then in 1793 played a prominent role in ejecting the British from the port of Toulon and captured the city for republican forces which earned him his generalship.  Napoleon’s subsequent career took him to Italy where he defeated geriatric Austrian Generals but gained the powerbase that would elevate him, via the coup of 18 Brumaire to power as First Consul of France thus ending the French Revolution. This bloodless coup d'état overthrew the Directory, replacing it with the French Consulate. This occurred on 9 November 1799, which was 18 Brumaire, Year VIII under the soon to be abandoned French Republican Calendar.  So by the age of 30 he was effectively dictator of France, In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor, with his wife, Josephine, alongside him as Empress.  Once in control of the organs of State he would attempt to impose his Continental System that would make Britain and implacable enemy and lead eventually to his disastrous invasion of Russia – not a war of conquest but an attempt to force Czar Alexander to abide by the System – that would eventually lead to his downfall.

Andrew Roberts has written a magnificent 900 page biography making, for the 1st time full use of Napoleon’s 33,000 letters and having walked almost all of Napoleon’s 60 battlefields. Undoubtedly Roberts is an admirer of his subject whom he paints as not only a successful commander but also as a true man of the Enlightenment interested in science – maths being the art of the artillery officer that he always remained – a man whose civil reforms (the Code Napoleon) remain in the fabric of many countries in addition to France to this day.  It was the fundamental changes he made in France that make it the modern state that it is today.

Always moving at breakneck speed Napoleon is shown to be a workaholic genius whom it seems has often had a bad press in Britain.  Roberts argues, successfully, that his subject is seen too often in the light of the European dictators of the 20th century, by whose standards he in fact comes across as a man of great humanity – only 6 people suffering execution under his rule for political ‘crimes’ a number that actually stacks up very well against the ‘liberal’ state of Britain in his own times, though it is fair also to point out that some 4-5 million people died as a result of the wars that now bear his name. 




Napoleon's Tomb - Les Invalides

Does the title of the book bear scrutiny?  Should Napoleon be thought of as "the Great"? As Roberts points out, this epithet has been given to  only a few: Alexander of Macedon, Rameses of Egypt, Darius of Persia, Charlemagne, Alfred of Wessex, Peter and Catherine of Russia, Frederick of Prussia etc. Others who have missed out perhaps have had even greater claim – Elizabeth of England , Frederick Barbarossa, Charles V of Spain and Louis XIV of France.  The conclusion Roberts makes is that the appellation of "the Great" should be applied to those with the ability to stamp their personality on to their times.  By this standard Napoleon clearly fits the bill and Roberts demonstrates the man’s greatness admirably.  This book is a magnificent biography that refutes the recent trend away from the ‘great man’ school of history it is also a rollicking good adventure story and history.  Napoleon clearly shaped events in his time and Roberts’ title is valid.

A Good Article on Napoleon by Andrew Roberts

No Place Like Home, Thank God: A 22,000 Mile Bicycle Ride Around Europe by Steven Primrose-Smith; read 19 August 2016

“… we're sold a lie. Work hard, save for your pension and reap your reward when you retire. You've earned it! But even if you reach retirement age – hardly a given – your body is unlikely to manage the things it could in its twenties, thirties and forties. We see advertisements for retirement plans with silver foxes and foxettes engaged in something mildly adventurous, perhaps trekking up a little hill in the Lake District and beaming radiantly at each other in pastel knitwear. Look, folks, we got there. We're having the time of our lives. Buy our plan. But the things you'd ideally do today if only you'd more time might not be possible decades down the line. One dodgy knee and any physical plans are buggered.” Writes Steven Primrose-Smith near the beginning of this wonderful book. 

After a near fatal brain haemorrhage (3 in fact), with high blood pressure and as a result of long-term hypertension with kidneys functioning at only 60%,  Steven Primrose-Smith decided that there was a better way to recovery than taking pills for the rest of his life – instead he would spend the next 3 summers cycling 22,000 miles visiting every capital city in Europe – including the ones that aren’t really capitals (Douglas IOM; Cardiff; Monaco etc).  At the same time he would do 3 OU degrees (and the OU network would be crucial in providing support on his travels) as well as in each country he visits try a food that he has never before tasted – the worst of which is very early on when in France he just about manages to hold down a ‘poo sausage’, other delicacies included instant donkey milk and even fried insects.  His primary objective is to confirm, or otherwise, that there is nowhere worse in Europe e than his home town of Blackburn.

The book is a delight to read as Stephen succeeds in his objectives (except for reaching Moscow – which he wisely decides isn’t worth dying for given the nature of Russia’s roads and the competence of her drivers).  The tales of his travels are well written and full of humour that had me laughing out loud – who for example would have known that the ‘Kunsthaus was an art gallery and not the Swiss parliament’ or that ‘Some lives seem to be defined by a single moment: Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, Einstein's imagining of special relativity, Josef Fritzl's first visit to The Ideal Home Exhibition’.  These or just 2 of the vignettes that appealed to my particular sense of humour but there is plenty here for everyone.  This is a great travel book in which the bike is important – particularly when in the final year it seems to struggle to keep spokes from breaking, but the cycling is not the story here – it is the places and the people along with Primrose-Smith’s story-telling that stand out.

The book is also something else.  At the end Primrose-Smith realises that Blackburn isn’t that bad a place after all but that it is familiarity that breeds contempt. So instead of seeing this book as a travelogue it should also be used as an inspiration to get out there and do something yourself.  Surely Primrose-Smith  is right when he says “What I planned to do was the sanest thing ever. The nutty ones are those who say they'd love to do an adventure but never get around to it”.  And to prove that his OU Maths course didn’t go to waste his final words on probability are worth repeating:

As Primrose-Smith says in his epilogue:


“The chance of your winning the jackpot of the UK lottery is extremely low, 1 in 13,983,816 to be precise (or 49!/43!6! if you want the calculation). You'd consider yourself very fortunate indeed if you won but you've already defeated much longer odds than those. You won life. For the sake of round numbers later down the line, let's assume the average woman is fertile from age nineteen to forty and has two and a half children that make it to sexual maturity. With one egg per month there's only a one in a hundred chance that… any particular egg will grow up and have children of its own. Let's also assume … the average length of a human generation, is 33 years….We can now go back to any given year and work out the odds of your being here from that date. Let's choose the year 1600. Since that time you have had about twelve ancestors, each with a one in a hundred chance of being born, meaning that, given the situation in 1600, the likelihood of your existing was one in 10012 or, … a bit less likely than winning the lottery jackpot three times in a row. If you want to calculate the odds of your being here from the year 300 AD – the year of Bruce Forsyth's birth – my scientific calculator gives up, but the odds are massive, something like one in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. And that was only 1,700 years ago. Modern humans are believed to have been around for 200,000 years and so your chance of being here since then is one in 1006000, which is one followed by 12,000 zeroes. Probability-wise that's roughly the same as winning the lottery jackpot every single Saturday from its launch in 1994 until the year 2027. But this is only a tiny fraction of the real calculation. You also have to consider all the evolution, with its random mutations, that had to occur exactly as it did over billions of years for humankind to come about in the first place, all the tectonic plate movements that isolated some populations and enabled others to be wiped out by predators, the geological make-up of the Earth and its composition as a result of condensing gases from the remnants of the early Solar System, but also the cloud from which the Solar System emerged and the earlier stars that burned their hydrogen and helium to form the heavier elements within that cloud that were eventually necessary to make you exactly as you are. The chance of your being here is so infinitesimally small as to be zero, or no chance whatsoever. You, me, any of us, shouldn't really be here at all. Make the most of it (my emphasis).

I loved this book!

Triumphs and Turbulence: My Autobiography by Chris Boardman; Read 27 August 2016

At the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 Chris Boardman won Britain’s 1st Olympic Gold Medal in cycling in over 70 years.  Back then Team GB would win only 4 Golds (Linford Christie 100m; Sally Gunnel 400m Hurdles; Steve Redgrave – Rowing and Boardman in the 4000m Cycling Pursuit).  Skip forward to London 2012 (where this book ends) and Britain’s cyclists alone won more Golds than the whole team had done in 1992.  Today Britain’s track cyclists and their associated technical support are the envy of the world and in every year but 1 since 2012 the Tour de France Winner has been British.  Chris Boardman has been at the heart of all these developments and here he tells his story.
 
As with any Autobiography the book starts with Chris’s early years, born into a family of cyclists (his father was shortlisted for the 1964 Olympics and sadly his mother was killed on her bike just weeks before I bought this book) Chris struggled at School but was a talented rider himself.  By the age of 20 he was married with the 1st of 6 children and earning a precarious living but training hard in his chosen (and then amateur) sport he was a leading rider in the UK and selected for the Olympics.

Riding the revolutionary Lotus bike brought 2 world records in a day as well as the Gold Medal in Barcelona and provided an opening for Boardman to make it into the professional ranks.  His successful assault on  the world hour record and then becoming the 1st British cyclist to wear the Yellow Jersey in the TDF since Tommy Simpson 30 years earlier are n themselves huge achievements but the story told here is bigger than that.  The Lotus bike was the start for Boardman ( and through him GB cycling) of a journey to seek performance through the scientific method in the application of aerodynamics; physiology, materials sciences (e.g. the Pixie suit) and psychology that Boardman was to recognise as keys to success in competition.  In applying science to his own performance he and a small team laid the foundations for today’s track and road successes for the likes of Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins etc.  Boardman though is a humble man and he recognises the contribution of many others in this wave of scientific and creative endeavor including the man often seen as his rival – Graeme Obree.


 From Amateur time trial champion via the Olympics and TDF and the rise of Team GB cycling to bringing high performance road bikes bearing his name to the mass market by selling the Boardman brand at Halfords (and the success of Boardman Bikes as the mount for successful Gold Medal wins in 2008; 2012 and 2016) this book has it all.  A thoroughly enjoyable insight into the career of Britain’s 1st modern cycling star. 

Too Important For The Generals: Losing and Winning the First World War - by Allan Mallinson; Read 18 Aug 2016

‘War is too important to be left to the generals’ Georges Clemenceau – French Premier
I found this book whilst browsing through the excellent independent bookshop in Peebles.  With the centenary of the Somme upon us and having studied the 1st World War via Oxford University’s excellent distance learning programme back in 2014 I was intrigued to pick up this volume – written as it was by a former British Army Brigadier. 

The book is primarily concerned with the direction of the war from a British perspective though much of its points are clearly applicable to the Germans and French whose politicians like those of the British took a back seat once the war had commenced and allowed the military men to direct National Strategic Level decisions that the author argues should have been the preserve of the politicians.  Thus in Germany we have the increasing influence of the General Staff and eventually the effective dictatorship of Ludendorff and Hindenburg.  In the early years of the war in France successive weak governments are unable to reign in Joffre (the saviour of the Marne but also the buffoon of Plan XVII !).  Britain between 1914 and 1916, under the languorous Asquith, drifted in setting strategy at the highest level with only the like of Churchill, Kitchener (a soldier but within the cabinet until his death)  and Lloyd-George willing to grasp the nettle of Strategy.  

This book takes a somewhat contrary view to much of the reading I have done on this subject over the past couple of years and its arguments are certainly worthy of consideration.  Mallinson argues that the ‘learning curve’ of the British Army was far too long – it should never have taken until 1918 to identify the means to unlock the Western Front.  Outmoded practices such as appointing Generals to command based on seniority rather than combat experience and effectiveness were rife, and many examples are provided, this compares extremely unfavourably with the practice of the likes of Montgomery and  Eisenhower in the next war who were ruthless in the removal of subordinates.   The focus on the Western Front as the only place where Germany could be defeated was, argues Mallinson, the result of the thinking of the Generals on the Western Front (as well as the imperative of the French to kick the Germans off French soil) who, he argues were parochial in their approach and, being based on that Front, were unable to see the opportunities presented in other theatres such as Iraq, the Near East and Southern Europe.

Mallinson’s hero is clearly Churchill   whom he praises for the preparation of the Navy and for the Dardanelles concept – not seen by Mallinson as the foolish idea that many others have represented it but as a possibly war-winning campaign incredibly badly organised and carried out by generals and admirals long past retirement  age.  Mallinson is clearly an Easterner who argues persuasively that instead of repeating frontal assaults against prepared defences on the Western Front Britain could have simply held the line there and instead sought a strategy to win by Naval Blockade and by kicking in a back door rather than battering away at the seemingly impregnable front gates, in Italy, or Salonica front perhaps.  Indeed one of the reasons for Ludendorff’s breakdown in November 1918 was the removal of Bulgaria from the Alliance powers as a result of the British led break out from Salonica, though this does need to be set against the ongoing retreat in the west and the collapsing Home Front at the same time.

The one weakness of the book  is that it tends to skims over defeat of the German Army in the west in the  ‘100 days’.  Mallinson does provide some excellent rationale as to how the war in the west was won at this point – namely the fatal weakening of the German Army from losses of irreplaceable manpower and, as important, their advance out of their excellent prepared defensive positions  during the Kaiserschlacht of Mar 1918 as well as the employment by Haig of  all-arms warfare and effective counter battery artillery.  But these were surely not enough?  Ferguson (The Pity of War) highlights the much increased propensity of German troops to surrender towards the end of 1918 as a key factor in the military collapse.  The collapse in German morale what led to these surrenders was caused by multiple factors – not least their capture of British supplies during operation Michael that by comparison with their own rations were both plentiful and luxurious – this a result of 4 years of effective Naval blockade as was the appalling conditions for civilians in Germany itself; the arrival of US troops and collapse of her Eastern allies were final nails in Imperial Germany’s coffin.


Mallinson makes a persuasive argument that the Entente powers could have fought the war differently and at a much lower Human cost; he provides examples of how this could have been done.  We shall never know if he is right but it does seem clear that for much of the war Britain’s politicians failed to grasp the nettle to direct strategy effectively and that by the time Lloyd-George replaced Asquith he had fewer options available than if the politicians had provided leadership from the start.  The contrast with Churchill in  and from 1940 is clear.

MI9 – Escape and Evasion 1939-1945; Read 28 June 2016

For a long time Foot and Langley’s book has been the standard reference on the subject of Escape and Evasion (escapers were those who had been captured and then escaped while evaders had never been held by the Germans) during the 2nd World War.  Although published in 1979 it remains so.  Of course the book could do with an update as the authors themselves identified that many of the documents relating to MI9s activities would not be released until 2010.  Langley died in 1983 and Foot in 2012 so this update shall need to be someone else’s work,  Nevertheless no update would have the personal knowledge of the original authors – both of whom escaped from occupied France during the war – Langley having lost an arm at Dunkirk and Foot after capture during an SAS raid in 1944. 

MI9 was created in 1940 by Norman Crockatt to whom the authors ascribe considerable competence and political nous, indeed brilliance, in putting together and running the department whilst maintaining excellent relations with his SIS (notably Claude Dansey) and US counterparts later in the war.  MI9 staff would include a number of notables, including Airey Neave (after his own escape from Colditz), Langley (seconded as liaison from SIS), De Bruin and even the stage magician Jasper Maskelyne, who designed saws and collapsible shovels that could be hidden inside baseball and cricket bats and maps concealed in packs of playing cards.

MI9’s greatest achievements were in the North West Europe theatre.  The setting up of a number of escape lines, notably the ‘Comet’ and ‘Pat’ lines is recorded here as is the terrible fates of many of the brave civilians who worked on these escape lines.  According  to this book  2,373 British and Commonwealth servicemen and 2,700 Americans were taken to Britain by such escape lines during the Second World War. Notable organisers of these lines include for Comet Andrée ("Dédée") de Jongh who inspired by her childhood heroine – Edith Cavell - appeared in the British consulate in Bilbao with a British soldier (James Cromar from Aberdeen) and two Belgian volunteers (Merchiers and Sterckmans), having travelled by train from Paris to Bayonne and then on foot over the Pyrenees through the Basque Country. She requested British support for her escape network (later named 'Comet line'), which was granted by MI9.    De Jongh escorted 118 airmen over the Pyrenees herself before she was arrested and imprisoned in a concentration camp though she, unlike her father and sister, would survive the war and be awarded the George Medal.

Albert-Marie Edmond Guérisse (later Major General Comte GC, KBE, DSO)  was a Belgian Resistance member who organized escape routes for downed Allied pilots during World War II under the alias of Patrick Albert "Pat" O'Leary, the name of a Canadian friend. His escape line was dubbed the Pat Line.  On 25 April 1941, during a mission to place Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents in Collioure, on Roussillon coast in southern France, Guérisse was in the skiff on its way back to the ship when it turned over and he had to swim ashore. To the Vichy French coast guards, Guérisse claimed he was a Canadian airman named Pat O'Leary. The 'Canadian' identity attempted to explain his not-quite British accent in English, and his not-quite French accent in French, without compromising his relatives in occupied Belgium.

He was taken to Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort near Nîmes, where he met 'fellow British' officers, including SOE operative Ian Garrow who got him released and took him to Marseille. In this roundabout way, Guérisse was inducted into the clandestine work on escape-lines. Both for security in Vichy France and for consistency in his story, Guérisse decided to continue with the O'Leary alias while he remained ashore in France. At this point he might still have assumed that his work in France was a temporary measure and that he would, in his turn, make his way to Gibraltar and resume his original naval service. Events were to dictate otherwise.
Initially he was one of Garrow's assistants, along with others such as Nancy Wake, but when the Vichy France authorities captured Garrow in October 1941, Guérisse took over as chief of the escape network.  He smuggled a German uniform to Garrow in his cell in Mauzac concentration camp, which helped Garrow's escape on 6 December 1941. At this point the British decided it was time for Garrow to return to London, so Guérisse continued in command and expanded the reach of the escape line's operations. The line carried over 600 escapees to Spain and back to Britain.

In January 1943, the escape line was   betrayed by French turncoat Roger le Neveu; Guérisse was arrested in Toulouse in March. On the way to prison he managed to get one of the younger members, Fabien de Cortes, to escape from the train and warn the British. After his arrest the line was, in turn, taken over by Marie Dissard.  Guérisse told nothing to the Gestapo interrogators when he was tortured and then was sent to a series of concentration camps.  In the summer of 1944, he was at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in Alsace with another SOE agent, Brian Stonehouse. At the camp he witnessed the arrival of four other female SOE agents, Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden, and Sonya Olschanezky, who were all executed and disposed of in the crematorium in an attempt to make them disappear without a trace, under the programme of "Night and Fog". After the war, Guérisse and Stonehouse were able to testify at the Nazi war crimes trials as to the women's fate.

A number of legendary escapers make an appearance in the book, notably Roger Bushell,  ‘Wings Day and Douglas Bader all of whom made the lives of their guards difficult (Bader in particular known as a fearless ‘goon’-baiter).  What is astonishing to the general reader is just how much escape equipment MI9 was able to infiltrate into Prison camps and how much intelligence the inmates of the camps were able to communicate back to MI9 – largely through a simple code system.  Perhaps the most unusual escape kit that made its way into a German Prison camp was the full dress uniform of one particular RN officer, who then dressed in it, forged an ID card as Lt I Baggerov of the Bulgarian Navy and simply walked out of the prison camp!  He made it as far as the port of Hamburg before recapture (happily his second attempt though less ‘stylish’ would result in a home run).

Some lesser known stories make it into the book.  A true hero – awarded a posthumous MiD  (VC could not be awarded as no senior British witness was present at his murder) was Lt John Godwin RN.  Godwin had taken part in a raid named Operation Checkmate on Axis shipping near Haugesund, north of Stavanger, Norway.  His party managed to sink a minesweeper and a number of steamers using limpet mines, but he was eventually captured with the rest of his party, a commando sergeant, two Naval Petty Officers and three seamen.  They were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where contrary to the Geneva Convention, they were forced to march 30 miles a day on cobbles testing army boots.  It is noted that Godwin’s leadership was instrumental in maintaining extremely high morale amongst his team.  Sadly on 2 February 1945 they were led to execution, in accordance with Hitler's Commando Order of 1942. Godwin managed to wrestle the pistol of the firing party commander from his belt and shot him dead before being himself shot.

Of course there were also a number of less heroic figures.  One particular Sqn Ldr set himself up in Paris where he remained for most of the war,  an especially successful gambler at the horse racing at Longchamps, he refused to make any attempt to return to the allied lines until Paris was liberated – amazingly he faced no disciplinary action.

MI9's operation in Eastern Europe and Italy were less successful.  With very little co-operation from the Russians, successful escapes to the east were few and far between.  An escaper may be shot out of hand by either the Germans or the Russians in that theatre, whilst escapes to Yugoslavian partisans could be equally hazardous – the partisans failing to understand why escapers duty did not mean that they should not simply join the partisan group and continue to fight as foot soldiers.  In Italy in 1943 MI9 came to the odd conclusion that Italy would be out of the war in a few days and decided to order the 80,000 PoWs in Italy to "stay put" and wait for Allied forces to arrive.  Order P/W 87190, issued on 7 June 1943, stated that "in the event of an Allied invasion of Italy, officers commanding prison camps will ensure that prisoners of war remain within camp. Authority is granted to all officers commanding to take necessary disciplinary action to prevent individual prisoners of war attempting to rejoin their own units."    The result of this order, despite the Italians opening the gates, was that 50,000 POWs were seized by the Germans whilst the fate of most of the remaining 30,000 is a mystery. After the war, the MoD estimated that 11,500 escaped, by risking a perilous crossing of the Alps into Switzerland or getting through German lines to reach Allied forces.  This Italian episode was perhaps MI9's biggest failing.  The authors try to pin the blame on Montgomery but to date no evidence has arisen of Montgomery or his staff  issuing any stay put order.

Although its responsibilities were global, MI9’s  actions were proscribed in the far east by the logistical difficulties caused by the vast distances and harsh terrain, to say nothing of the savagery of the Japanese (who would happily take revenge on remaining prisoners if anyone did escape).  A notable exception was the example of Lt Col Sir Lindsay Ryde who was serving as a Doctor in Hong Kong when the colony surrendered on Christmas Day 1941.  Having witnessed the murder of doctors, nurses and patients, he escaped on 9 Jan 1942 to unoccupied Chungking, a feat for which he was appointed O. B. E. in 1942. While a colonel in the Indian Army, Ride formed and commanded theBritish Army Aid Group, headquartered in Kweilin, Kwangsi. This MI9 unit provided help, medical and otherwise, to POW escapees from Hong Kong while gathering intelligence. Throughout the war the BAAG sent agents to gather military intelligence in southern China and Hong Kong and these agents had also facilitated many of the POWs' escapes from Hong Kong to the Allied Command Headquarters in Chungking, China's war-time capital. Escaped POWs were then debriefed by BAAG staff and subsequently rejoined the war effort. 128 men, for example, were re-trained for further operations in Burma with the Chindits.

This book is to date the best history, indeed it is the standard reference on this subject.  My only criticism is that as it was written in 1979 an update with latest Docs would be most welcome (2010 quoted as when many of these would be available); of course we no longer have available the eyewitness testimony and interpretation but I am sure an update should be attempted.



All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939 – 1945 by  Max Hastings, read 25 May 2016
‘Bomber Command’ (1979) was Hasting’s 1st book on the 2nd World War and after writing ‘All Hell Let Loose’ (2011) Hastings is on record as having said all that he has now said all that he has to say on the Second World War – though he has since written ‘The Secret War’ .  ‘All Hell Let Loose’ was named as one of the Daily Telegraph's Books of the Year 2011 but for me, though highly readable it is not the last word on its subject, primarily for the reason that it presents  the standard British narrative of the 1939-1945 conflict and although it examines  the part played by the people of the British Empire, notably Indians and Burmese, better than many of its competitors, it overestimates the power of Germany to win the war after 1940 that accounts by the Likes of Evans and Holland clearly identify.

Hastings is a highly readable historian and it must have been hard, given his extensive earlier writing on the period, not to repeat himself but he achieves this by including as far as possible previously unpublished personal accounts woven into his general narrative.  He does this everyman perspective with aplomb. 

Throughout the story is told competently.  Though few new insights are brought out, Hastings highlights many little known episodes such as the 1941 battles in Syria between the British and Free French forces against those of Vichy France.  The USA is hardly mentioned until it enters the war despite its key Part in supplying Britain with Arms and equipment (James Holland’s the ‘War in the West’ much stronger here as is James Prior’s  ‘When Britain Saved the West’ ) when more back story is given.  The valiant performance of the American Army at Corregidor and Bataan are contrasted well with the woeful British performance in Malaya and Singapore. 

Hastings clearly admires the fighting ability of the Wehrmacht which  he argues displayed an efficiency largely absent from the allied armies. Had Hitler not invaded Russia Hastings seems to believe that Germany would have won the war and all Europe would now be a vast German colony.  This is taking the fighting performance of the Wehrmacht much too far.  Though Hastings believes that the key Personality of the war was Stalin who alone amongst the allies showed an utter indifference to casualties, I believe that many other Authors have shown that the economic and, from 1940, increasing fighting power of the British Empire forces and especially the USA would have doomed Nazi Germany especially as German state was incredibly poorly organised for war whatever the fanaticism of her battlefield troops.


The 2nd World War claimed around 60 million lives.  Hasting’s ‘everyman’ approach has given a voice to a few of these lives and to those of their loved ones.  The approach gives the book a human immediacy set amongst great and terrible things.   To a degree hackneyed conclusions, errors and omissions (China is hardly mentioned )  in the book are more than made up by the telling of these stories.  This would never have been my ‘Book of the Year’ but it was still a jolly good read that I would recommend to any reader.

On the Trail of Genghis Khan, An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads  by Tim Cope; completed 27 April 2016

In 2004 Tim Cope set out from the ancient capital of the Mongolian Empire – Kharkhorin (Karakorum) - with 3 horses and his then girlfriend Kathrin (who was planning to travel with him for the 1st 2 months of what was planned to be an 18 month adventure).  Tim’s dream was to ride the 10,000 km across the Eurasian Steppe to the Danube in the tracks of the armies of the Mongols.  The Danube in Hungary being the farthest the undefeated Mongols had travelled in their remarkable conquests of the 1st half of the 13th Century.

The Journey would last for 3 years rather than the planned 18 months and sadly Tim and Kathrin’s relationship did not survive but the story related is that of an epic journey. Along the way Cope was to deal with sub-zero temperatures during the brutal winters, horse thieves and alcoholics at more than one turn (vodka being ubiquitous for most of the route) and the tragic death of his father. 

Cope was a novice rider when he started the journey, though he had at least received some training before departing Australia.  Although he had to relinquish his 1st team of 3 Mongolian horses when he crossed from that country into Kazakhstan (export of Mongolian horses being illegal) he would be accompanied for the entire reaming rout by 2 of the 3 replacements Taskonir and Ogonyok whilst his 3rd would be changed out Ruslan and 2 x Cokes).  He would also be accompanied by the ever faithful dog Tigon left with him by his 1st guide in Kazakhstan.

Although the story of an epic journey, this story is an intensely human one and it is the encounters with people throughout that resonate more than the landscape that is being traversed.  The terrible cost of Soviet control over the land and its people is well recorded. A regime that lasted for only 70 years succeeded in ripping the nomadic peoples from their lands and cultural knowledge through repression and collectivisation and on its collapse left them without the knowledge and skills to survive as their ancestors had done.  Under Stalin’s push for industrialisation forced collectivisation  in Kazakhstan alone led to the starvation of more than a million people. In Ukraine the same policy led to the deaths by famine and ideological cruelty to millions more in what is now known as the Holodomor. Destruction of the landscape by this same regime – the most notable example being the Aral Sea – in pursuit of forced collectivisation and industrialisation provides a sorry legacy.  Even the collapse of the USSR has brought ecological disaster.  The Saiga has become critically endangered, though herds numbered in the thousands just 20 years before Cope’s trip.  In this case they have been hunted for meat and for their horns (as ever a popular and no doubt utterly useless ingredient in Chinese medicine) by people suddenly left with few means to make a living once the state collapsed.

Cope’s journey is also a very personal one well told.  The journey was not continuous and was broken at 3 points – the last of which being when Cope had to travel home from Ukraine in 2006 after the death of his father in an RTA. Cope does not gloss over this cataclysmic event. In fact some of the best writing in the book describes the pain of his loss, his return to Australia for the funeral and thereafter the continuance of the journey and its changed nature after his loss. 

Cop'es other stops came during the 1st winter of the trip when he stumbled into the corrupt gold mining town of Akbakai on the Betpak Dala and was taken in by 2 Russian Alcoholics on Xmas eve.  The winter weather and a paid for trip to London would strand him here for the best part of 3 months. Later he would return to Australia in early 2006 to receive an award – a trip that would reunite him with his father for the last time – though neither knew it.


This book was not completed until 6 years after the Author had returned home (it might have come out sooner had not Cope’s journals been stolen from the back of his car outside his sister’s flat in Melbourne).  Despite the delay the book is still fresh and perhaps even benefits from more reflection than it would if it had been written immediately after the completion of the journey.

Why Was Charles I Executed? by Clive Holmes; completed 3 Apr 2016

This book is required reading for my recent on line course ‘Civil War and Revolution: Britain Divided, 1640 – 1660’ run by Oxford University.  The book is well suited to that course as its chapters are primarily broken down in to a similar structure to the course itself namely:

Why did Charles I call the Long Parliament? – he needed funds and Parliament was the only means to get sufficient.

How did the King gain support in Parliament? – essentially because he was able to represent himself as a moderate in response to Pym’s demands and a large part of Parliament was in any case conservative wishing to preserve the social order.

How did the King get an army? – By issuing commissions of Array in June 1642; in addition a large number of Welsh Volunteers joined the King after he raised his standard at Chester and Shrewbury.

Why did Parliament Win the Civil War? – Because they controlled the greater wealth and resources and had a wider power base.

Why was the King executed? Because the Army became fed up of his machinations to continue to prevaricate after he had been offered reasonable terms ‘the Heads of Proposals’.  His escape and then enticement of the Scots to invade England ‘the Engagement’, sealed his fate.

Why was the Rump Parliament Dissolved? – Because it did not deliver on the demands of the Army.

Why was Cromwell Offered the Crown? – A lack of imagination, Cromwell’s period of rule as Protector, especially after the dissolution of the Rump was essentially a period of personal rule made legitimate only by his position as commander of the army. It was essentially an unsustainable system – as was discovered on his death with the very early collapse of his son’s reign as protector.

Was there an English Revolution?- Homes makes the case that there wasn’t as by the end of the Protectorate, the survivors of the  social classes who had controlled England before the civil war had re-established their positions.

The book provides a competent history of the key events but is not always the easiest of reads.  Key social movements of the period such as The Levellers and Quakers do not get the thoroughness of coverage I would have thought they deserve. 


The last chapter for me was the most interesting.  I had always thought that the Restoration was a monumental display of a lack of imagination on behalf of the English Parliament.  Holmes goes a long way to showing that on the contrary the English Republic had few backers during the 1550s and that Cromwell was never able to deliver a constitutional settlement other than by coup d etat.

The Old Ways, a Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane; completed 18 March 2016

This is a beautifully written book, though the Author stretches the meaning of the title by including journeys along sea lanes in the Hebrides through the Minch and on to Sùla Sgeir  – ancient pathways that have left no mark but cleansed by the ever changing sea.  I must admit that I loved those chapters.  The author points out that this is the 3rd of a trilogy but that it is also meant to stand alone, for which I am glad as I was unaware of the other books though now I shall seek them out.

I 1st came across Robert Macfarlane when he was presenting a TV programme on Nan Shepard’s ‘The Living Mountain’ – the latest edition for which he provides the Foreword.  As a writer, Macfarlane is a poetic Simon Winchester – he weaves together literature, history, landscape and personal experience in wonderfully crafted sentences as he travels along the ancient tracks (including sea lanes) of Britain (Icknield Way; The Broomway; The Ridgeway; Cairngorms ; Lewis – including the Guga hunt Sùla Sgeir, Palestine, Spain and China.  The book is not a travelogue but a celebration of landscape and the people who have inhabited and travelled through it over millennia. Macfarlane philosophises  that paths offer not just a means of traversing space, but of feeling as well as of understanding those who have gone before.

As a literary celebration of ancient ways it is not surprising that the book is littered with the ghosts of those who have gone before both literally and metaphorically.  Literally the ghostly screams that wake the sleeping author on the Ridgway – terrifying but unexplained appear alongside the very real presences of those  artists and poets who have previously travelled and written about or painted these places.  Nan Shepherd is here with her love of the Cairngorms and with her concept of walking into rather than on to the ‘living mountains’ being wonderfully explained. MacFarlane’s extraordinary grandfather is here too on retirement to Tomintoul after a life of adventure.  Eric Ravilious painter, designer, book illustrator and wood engraver, known for his watercolours of the South Downs, is here and his tragic death whilst a war artist is poignantly told – a member of an RAF Hudson crew lost off Iceland in 1942 while searching for another lost plane. Borrow too is here but MacFarlane’s other hero – after his grandfather – is Edwardian poet Edward Thomas whose poetry flowered in a remarkably short time before being cruelly snuffed out on the 1st day of the Battle of Arras – Easter Monday 1917 (note Thomas was not an anti-war poet but from his writings someone who saw beauty in nature even amongst the destruction of the Western Front. MacFarlane is inspired Thomas for whom “the mind was a landscape of a kind and walking a means of crossing it.”

This book was a joy to read the only issue I have with it is that now I shall have to find the previous volumes and also re-read Borrow and the others!

With over 700 pages of close-typed text and an additional 200 pages of Notes, Bibliography and Index Caddick-Adams has produced the definitive work on this subject.  I recently gave 10 out of 10 to Antony Beevor’s Ardennes 1944 so I’ll have to make this and 11 from 10 though in fact the 2 books complement each other superbly.  Caddick-Adams starts his story of the Ardennes offensive much earlier than Beevor in the late summer of 1944 and goes on to the conclusion of the War in the final part of the book.  Caddick-Adams research has been meticulous and his writing style keeps the reader engaged throughout as the story moves on at a cracking pace.  Use of witness testimony is extensive and well referenced and is backed up by Caddick-Adams’ own extensive knowledge of the battlefield gained by having walked over it for many years whilst stationed in the region with the British Army.

The Genesis of the Battle is described in the 260 pages of Part One. Caddick-Adams traces the origins of the Battle to Hitler’s faulty (and frankly wishful) strategic thinking that led to the Ardennes as his choice of location for the battle initially planned for November 1944 but delayed until mid-December as the Allies relentlessly attacked out of Normandy then across France.  Market Garden and the battles of the Hurtgen forest bringing the Allies to the end of their rapid advance and halting to catch breath.  Over-reliance on Ultra which, due to excellent German Opsec aided by the lesser need for radio communication as the Wehrmacht retreated into Germany where more use could be made of internal communications, was a factor in the failure of Allied Intelligence to foresee the attack though there were plenty of clues available that an attack was imminent.  These clues included civilian witnesses and reports from forward deployed units that were reporting increased German activity to their front in the last few days before the attack.    Unfortunately the clues went unheeded for a number of reasons, not least that the initial attack would fall, for the most part on the less experienced divisions in the line but also on a hubristic belief that the Germans were in any case all but beaten. 

Part 2 covers the initial German attack on 16 December – ‘Null Tag’.  The Author moves from South to North from the 4th ID sector, on to the 28th ID sector then further north to the 106th ID sector. The 99th ID defending the Elsenborn ridge (which is never breached) is then covered. The Conference at SHAEF between Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton directs Patton (who has already prepared his staff for a turn North to Bastogne) to relieve the soon to be besieged but well defended Bastogne. Special forces operations of Heydte (late and ineffective paradrop), Skorzeny are also covered. Jochen Peiper’s initial charge is also found here though the atrocities at Malmedy are covered later in part 3. Caddick-Adams does an excellent job of recording the individual series of battles and contacts that took place throughout the period and it is evident very quickly that the offensive is in trouble as 1st day objectives are never close to being met by the Germans.  US forces are initially forced back through a mixture of inexperience, lack of unit strength at key points and primarily though the effect of the surprise attack.  Neverthless the GIs in the line are shown to put up a tenacious and increasingly effective defence.  Furthermore Eisenhower’s recognition of the German threat and his effective response to re-organise his Armies and feed in more and more reinforcements prove him to be an effective Field Commander.  Caddick-Adams is less strong than Beevor in the treatment of the Allied Commanders though Eisenhower, Patton and Simpson (9th Army and one of the few American commanders to get on well with Montgomery) all gain plaudits.

Part three covers most of the Battle after the 1st day until the final stopping of Peiper and the turn of the Germans onto the Defensive shortly after Xmas Day.  By 26 December the Wehrmacht had come to a standstill and although the Bulge would not be flattened out until mid January, Part 4 is the shortest part of the book and takes the story beyond the Battle to the end of the war and to a discussion on the reputations of the key Generals.  This latter part is interesting but superfluous excepting that it book-ends the battle neatly.

From one’s previous knowledge (including the 1965 film of the battle) it is often assumed that the Germans were well armed in King Tiger tanks and mechanised infantry.  In fact the author shows that this was not the case.  The King Tiger was a rare and, and over-rated beast being too heavy and thirsty for the terrain.  German panzer forces were made up mostly of Panthers (admittedly excellent) Pz IVs and StuGs for the most part.   The infantry was anything but mechanised and suffered accordingly slow progress throughout the battle.  Many of the German infantry formations were Volksgrenadier Divisions made up of ‘combed out’ personnel from civilian industry, school leavers, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel for whom there were neither aircraft nor ships left to service.  These units were very inexperienced and would consequently suffer very high casualties.  Almost all German formations were under-strength though the SS Units were provided with the best equipment and were closest to Established strength.  This was ironic as the best performing German Army in the campaign was not Hitler’s favourite 6th SS Pz Army but Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Pz Army.  The All Infantry 7th Army to the south of the Bulge was fought to a standstill almost immediately.

Logistically the Germans were a mess and it would be logistics that ultimately doomed their offensive, in fact they were never strong enough to carry their objectives against a tactically astute and tenacious US Army able to reinforce with large numbers of fresh troops.  Reliant on horse-drawn transport, a plethora of different calibre weapons (captured for a large part) and the need to capture US supplies in order to reach objectives whilst whenever the skies were clear their LOCs were interdicted by Allied Air Power it is not surprising that Hitler’s Generals wished to limit the scope of the offensive to reach the Meuse (which in any case proved beyond them) rather than Antwerp.  In short the Wehrmacht reaped the benefit of surprise in the 1st few days of the offensive though even then were unable to reach their daily objectives but was woefully inadequate in its ability to defeat Eisenhower.

The Battle of the Bulge was a decisive American Victory.  Caddick-Adams shows conclusively that the Germans failed on the tactical level in failing to reach the Meuse, at the operational level in failing to reach Antwerp and at the Strategic Level in failing to split the Western Allies (an event more likely to be caused by Montgomery’s egotism than any German feat of Arms in any case!).  This is superb book and would recommend reading both this and Beevor’s ‘Ardennes 1944’.


Canoeing the Congo: The First Source-to-Sea Descent of the Congo River by Phil Harwood; completed 3 March 2016

I first heard of Phil Harwood’s ‘Canoeing the Congo’ expedition just last year when I was listening to an episode form the excellent ‘The Pursuit Zone’ podcast ( http://www.thepursuitzone.com/tpz085/ ).  Phil is an ex Royal Marine and was working for The Outward Bound when he received a bursary from the Churchill Foundation to undertake his dream trip of the first ‘source to sea’ descent of the 4700km Congo River in Central Africa, from its source in north-eastern Zambia.  The Congo is one of the world’s great rivers, 4700km long it is the 8th longest and it is the deepest; its flow rate is second only to that of the Amazon.

Phil Harwood tells the story of this epic journey with considerable humour and the book is a joy to read.  There is a DVD which I shall have to get around to ordering.  Phil’s journey lasted for 5 months and the heroes of this journey are the many fishermen who assist Phil in many things from providing food and route advice. Although there are many occasions when local bullies – claiming to be ‘customs’ or ‘immigration’ attempted to extort money no only from Phil but also from other local travellers, there were only 2 occasions when he had to get his machete out to defend himself – usually firm rebuttals or at worst  aggressive shouting was enough to head off trouble. 

All the usual wildlife encounters are here – crocodiles; hippo; elephant and even a captured and tortured tortoise (released by Phil) but the main star is the river itself.  This varies from swamp to fast flowing (and at the end impassable ) rapid.  One stretch, known as ‘The Abattoir’ because of its still recent history of cannibalism and for criminal activity finds the 4 brothers Phil wisely decided to hire as bodyguards being asked repeatedly by the locals, ‘Why haven’t you cut his throat yet?’

This is a very enjoyable, Boy’s Own tale of adventures in a still dangerous part of the world – warlordism and civil war were rife until the early 2000s and the country was littered by weapons – though luckily for Phil on occasion these were not always well maintained.  The book is hugely enjoyable.

The War in the West - A New History: Volume 1: Germany Ascendant 1939-1941 (A New History Vol 1) by James Holland; completed 18 February 2016

This is the 1st of what I expect will be a 3 book series that explores the 2nd World War in the West.  Leaving aside the limitations necessarily imposed when treating a global conflict from the viewpoint of one front (i.e. the exclusion of the Eastern and Far East and the interconnecting events and dependencies that necessarily drove decisions – particularly Allied ones in the Western Theatre) the book is a good one and insightful in its conclusions.

War in the West draws heavily on diaries both published and personal, some of which may already be familiar from reading elsewhere.  Nevertheless these entries are well used to take the story forward from the outbreak of war to just before the attack on Russia.    The book moves on at a gallop as Holland weaves together his sources to tell a coherent history of the period that covers the invasions ofNorway, the Low Countries,   France, Greece and Crete, the War at Sea, the Battle of Britain, Mussolini’s prevarication before coming in on the German side – though his motives were to gain a separate Italian Mediterranean empire rather than simply to help the Germans.

Many reviewers have claimed that this book debunks a number of myths about the war but in truth there is little new except to those who have read recent publications.  What Holland does here though is to bring together many of the previously ‘received wisdoms’ and dissects them in one coherent narrative.

In the not so recent past, much was written of the German feat of Arms ‘Blitzkreig’ that led to the defeat of France.  Recently this has been challenged here and elsewhere.  Holland points out that there was no such word coined at the time but that fast moving manoeuvre warfare had been a Prussian Army doctrine since the time of Frederick the Great (who in any case lost half his battles!).  despite early German successes Holland believes that Germany was doomed to lose the war almost from the start (Richard Evans marks Germany’s failure to defeat Britain in 1940 as the point she lost the war.)  

One of Holland’s more thought-provoking arguments is that the German Army of 1940-1 was unbeatable because Goebbel’s propaganda machine had been wonderfully effective in convincing the world that the Wehrmacht was invincible. Goebbels  had done a masterful job of convincing the Allies that it had more troops, was better armed and equipped and had better tactics than it really did. In reality the defeat of France was in no way inevitable. Holland demonstrates that it was not so much a feat of brilliant German attack (the Germans possessed a plodder for every Guderian and Rommel) as a lost opportunity for collective defence organisation by Britain and France in the months prior to the attack.  France’s army was as big as Germany’s and more mechanised; France had more and better tanks than the Germans though her doctrine was poor;  the British Army of 1939 was the most modern in the world (in weaponry, mechanisation and even in having the most effective and economic uniforms)  though as ever much smaller in size than her continental neighbours.  Even today people forget that by 1945, let alone in 1940 most German military transport was horse-drawn!  Even in 1937 by contrast the British Army was completely mechanised!

The war at sea is really well covered in the book.  Although Britain lost some Capital ships early on (Royal Oak ; Glorious) she had by far the strongest navy in the world and destroyed Germany’s destroyers in Norway thereby making a German invasion of Britain almost impossible (later rendered conclusively impossible by RAF Fighter Command and its integrated Air Defence System – of which Germany had knowledge but no understanding).  The U boats of this period did a lot of harm to Allied shipping, until convoys were quickly introduced, but its effectiveness was limited by small numbers and the priority given to resource hungry and therefore wasteful vanity projects (Bismarck, Tirpitz).  Although the U Boat war cost many Merchant ships, Britain had access to 87% of the World’s merchant marine so the lifeline of supplies from the US and elsewhere was maintained.  Holland makes a convincing argument that contrary to ‘received wisdom’ Britain under Churchill in 1940/41 was planning on how to win the war not on how to avoid defeat! Churchill knew that Britain had access to global resources whereas Germany did not.

Whilst the book is concerned for the most part with the Ascendency of Germany during this phase of the War, her Italian ally is also well covered.  Mussolini came late to the war and very few of his Generals wanted war with Britain, knowing full well that they were poorly equipped and not ready for war as was plainly evidenced by Italian performance in N Africa and even against the Greeks.  Apart from her modern surface fleet, struck by the RN at Taranto, Italy’s forces were not ready for war and after mobilisation she had to carry out a de-mobilisation to allow soldiers from peasant families to return to bring in the harvest in order to prevent widespread food shaortages!  The Greek and Balkan campaigns that resulted from Italian hubris forced the Germans to come to the aid of their ally and were crucial in delaying Barbarossa and possibly helped to preserve Moscow in the winter of 1941. 

Also covered here in detail are the preparations in the USA for war that FDR seemed to know the US could not avoid but for which the American public was not yet ready to accept.  The re-organisation of US industry not only to fill British orders but to expand the US armed forces is detailed and the US certainly applied the best people to the job.  It is clear that Churchill and FDR far outclassed Hitler in their strategic thinking. Holland does not reach the same conclusions as Prior in ‘When Britain Saved the West: The Story of 1940’ that Roosevelt  did his best to stay out of the war even in the face of 70% of US public opinion (and his own Cabinet’s resolve) to get involved and to fleece the British at the same time .  Holland instead takes a more conventional view of FDRs support for Britain though of course his aim was never the preservation of the British Empire but the preservation of liberal western democracy.

In summary Holland does an excellent job in narrating the events of the 1st 2 years of the 2nd World War in Western Europe.  Hitler gambled that France and Britain would not go to war for Poland, it was a huge error for despite the spectacular and unexpected successes in Norway, France and the Low Countries, Holland’s narrative is that even these would not have led to a German victory in the conflict.  Germany was always short on resources, tanks, and trained soldiers. Britain and France together had more men in uniform than Germany.  With the defeat of France, Churchill never conceived of anything but victory.  Britain was the richest country in Europe with a massive empire and its resources at its disposal.  Churchill proved ruthless and determined as was shown in his orders to sink the French Fleet at Mers el Kebir to prevent its use by Germany.  Britain had the tacit and increasingly overt support of the USA and even without Barbarossa, Holland’s narrative is supportive of an eventual British victory.


I am very much looking forward to the next instalment 9 from 10 


A Thousand Shall Fall by Murray Peden completed 21 January 2016

"I saw Air Marshal William Avery Bishop only once - at a recruiting rally in the Winnipeg Auditorium in the spring of 1941. I was seventeen, impatiently awaiting my eighteenth birthday so that I could join up. My classmate at Gordon Bell High, Rod Dunphy sat beside me, both of us exhilarated by the pugnacious speech of the short, stocky flyer who, at that moment, was the greatest fighter pilot alive, with a score of seventy-two confirmed victories.” Thus opens Murray Peden’s A Thousand shall fall.  One of those to fall would be the young Rod Dunphy (KIA 29 12 43) alongside whom Peden was seated on that day.

Inspired to join the RCAF Peden enlisted for flying training in 1941 and would join his operational squadron (214) in 1943/4.  Peden is an excellent story-teller who relates in detail is years in training and his operational tour (30 operations initially on Stirlings of 3 Group and then B17 Fortresses of 100 Group on RCM operations providing jamming for Main Force raids.
Peden’s early training was on Tiger Moths and it was here that he met Francis Plate an American youngster who had joined the RCAF and with whom he:
‘frequently managed to get solo sessions at the same time. We would enliven these by arranging to meet over some town in the aerobatics area where we would proceed to take turns topping the other's performance”

It was after graduating together to Multi-Engined training on Cessna Cranes that Peden experienced the 1st loss of a close friend as Plate crashed shortly after take off on a solo night flight.  Sadly Plate was not to be the last of Peden’s close friends to be killed but the 1st of many.

I thought I was familiar with Bomber Command operations but I was surprised by a number of things in this book.  For instance it was a revelation to find out just how thorough Bomber Command training was as Peden logged more than 540 hrs before joining 214 Sqn; this was more than twice the amount of hours I had logged at end of the Hercules OCU course in 1986! So contrary to expectations, and despite horrendous losses, it is clear that the RAF had an extremely effective and thorough training operation even at the height of Bomber losses (which were worst over the period Peden was flying his tour).  For Peden after his training on Cranes in Canada, he travelled to the UK in a convoy with several other young aircrew and after kicking his heels at the RCAF reception centre in Bournemouth (where he witnessed a low level FW190 raid) he moved to Advanced Flying training at Kidlington on Airspeed Oxfords then to  No. 12 Operational Training Unit at Chipping Warden on Wellingtons and where he would team up with the crew with whom he would fly his tour. This was followed by a move to 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit, he learned to fly the Stirling and then, still only nineteen years old, he was posted to 214 Sqn.

Peden’s description of his operational tour is excellent.  He provides a mission by mission account of his 30 sorties with his crew as well as his 1st 2 familiarisation sorties as 2nd dickie.  I had never read an account from an airman who had joined a Stirling squadron so there is a lot that is new here.  Peden liked the handling characteristics of the aircraft but it’s very low service ceiling of 12 000 ft meant that the aircraft suffered higher casualties than the other Heavies.  Joining a Stirling Sqn late in the war meant that the number of operations as part of Main Force in the aircraft for Peden and his crew would be few but it did mean that their tour was varied as they were detached several times to act as Agent and weapons droppers on detachment to 161 Sqn at Tempsford (see my review for We landed by Moonlight).

As many of Peden’s  friends flew through(and were killed during)  the Battle of Berlin in the winter of 1943/4, Peden was probably lucky that 214 Sqn was withdrawn from the Orbat to re-equip with Fortresses at this time although it was not long before they were again operational as part of 100Gp.  Peden describes the RCM operations of this Gp in detail before going on to give details of his missions on the aircraft. Murray recalled that, "We went to war without bombs but with Tinsel, ABC, Mandrel, Jostle and all the other countermeasures invented by the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Malvern. The crew included a "Special Wireless Operator," a fluent German-speaking airman whose primary function was to tune his powerful jammer -- code-named 'Jostle' -- to the frequencies being used by the German night-fighter controllers and blot out their transmissions to their own questing night-fighters."

Unlike today, the jamming aircraft of WW2 were never ‘stand-off jammers’.  The 100Gp aircraft flew all the way to and over the target with Main Force and casualties were commensurate (apparently the Bomber Command Planners expected the RCM aircraft casualties too be higher than those of Main Force so this was no cushy number).  Apart from when he accidentally flew over London (and its trigger happy AA gunners) in a Stirling, Peden’s  closest call was when, after being heavily damaged by an Me 410 fighter that wounded two of his crew, he flew back to England with an engine on fire. The right main tyre had been shredded and the Fortress swung off the runway upon landing, cutting a Lancaster that had landed with a 12,000 pound bomb still on board, in half!


For me this is THE best book I have yet read by a Bomber crewman of the 2nd World War.  It is detailed but humane.  It is also unusual given the aircraft and variety of operations flown by the Author and his crew.  It also clearly identifies the human cost of war.  A must read.


The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (with Introduction by Robert MacFarlane); Read 28 December 2015

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) wrote this book during the last years of the Second World War but only published it in 1977.  My edition is the 2011 one which has Robert MacFarlane ‘s excellent biographical and interpretive introduction. The book is short – around 100 pages and is comprised of a series of themed chapters that do indeed bring the Cairngorm Mountains to life and describe the author’s many journeys through these superb hills.   Shepherd sees the Cairngorms as a single mountain, hence the singular title.

The book’s prose has been described as ‘poetic’ and that is a fair comment.  For a philistine like myself this meant that it took a couple of chapters to get into it but it was worth sticking around.  One is struck by who the seemingly changeless mountains have indeed changed since the time the author was travelling through a landscape I also know (though nowhere near as well as the author).  

Deforestation after the 1st World War and during the 2nd is recorded as are encounters with the people who then worked in the hills, notably of one who had taken Gladstone to The Pools of Dee in the Lairig Ghru.  One is struck with the thought that just 70+ years ago the Cairngorms were then a much more lived-in landscape than today as hill goers back then seemingly were welcome to sleep on the floors of those who worked and lived in the area.


It is not people, however, that are the main themes of the book but nature – the rock; ice; frost; birds and animals event the nature of light as clouds move across the landscape.  This is a beautiful written book by someone who was truly intimate with the Cairngorms.  Nan Shepherd has inspired me to get outdoors and to explore the Cairngorms  more in 2016.  What better recommendation. 

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (Sailor's Classics) by Nicholas Tomalin  and Ron Hall  with an Introduction by Jonathan Raban; Read 26 December 2015

Donald Crowhurst, an experienced weekend sailor, left Teignmouth on 31 October 1968 in his newly built Trimaran ‘Teignmouth Electron’ ; the last participant to set off on the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, the first  single-handed, round-the-world yacht race.  The following July, within sight of claiming the cash prize of £5000 for the fastest circumnavigation and whilst preparations were being energetically made for a Hero’s Welcome at Teignmouth, the ‘Teignmouth Electron’ was found abandoned in the Atlantic.  Left aboard were the vessels charts and 3 of Crowhurst’s 4 logbooks which quickly  revealed that Crowhurst had never left the Atlantic and indeed had in fact never travelled non-stop having put into port for repairs in Argentina. 

I first heard about Donald Crowhurst when reading Chris Bloomington’s ‘Quest for Adventure’ some 20 odd years ago when Bonington was recalling the story of the race and its actual winner (now  Sir) Robin Knox-Johnston .  In that book Crowhurst is only a bit player.  I came by this book on reading a Facebook post of a friend and decided to read it for myself and I am truly glad that I did so.   The version I obtained is the latest paperback one which contains an excellent and humane introduction by Jonathan Raban as well as an Afterword the 1994 edition’s Foreword by Knox-Johnston.  The original book was published in 1970 by Sunday Times Journalists Tomalin (killed in the Yom Kippur war of 1973) and Hall who had obtained access to the log books and co-operation from Crowhurst’s widow Clare.

This book tells the true story of a tragic misadventure, the authors forensically trace the actual voyage taken by Crowhurst, in itself a remarkable journey, rather than the one he was claiming via his deliberately intermittent and vague radio messages to his backers in the UK.  At the time almost everyone (Sir Francis Chichester the notable exception) believed in the claimed record speeds and distances made by Crowhurst.   The authors not only do an excellent job in tracing the journey but they are also even handed in attempting to divine Crowhurst’ s motives.

Crowhurst was born in India in 1932 and raised as a girl until the age of 7, given his mother's desire for a daughter rather than a son.   The family moved to England after Indian independence and his father died in 1948. Due to family financial problems he was forced to leave school early and started a five-year apprenticeship at the Royal Aircraft Establishment where he began a lifelong interest in and talent with electronics.  In 1953 he received an RAF commission but was asked to leave   in 1954 for reasons that are unclear; he was then commissioned in to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in 1956 but left the same  year having tried to steal a car.   Crowhurst eventually moved to Bridgwater, where he started his business Electron Utilisation. He was active in his local community as a member of the Liberal Party and was elected to Bridgwater Borough Council.  By 1967 his business was failing and it seems that he saw the Golden Globe as an opportunity to save his company through the publicity he would receive as an entrant and in winning, and it seems he genuinely believed he would win, the race.

It seems that Crowhurst was a mercurial character with a superb ability to sell his ideas, if not his products, and he was able, only very late in the day, to get financial backing from a local business tycoon, Stanley Best, who had invested heavily in Crowhurst's failing business. Once committed to the race, Crowhurst mortgaged both his business and home against Best's continued financial support, placing himself in a grave financial situation. It was thus that he had built, in Norfolk, a Trimaran that turned out not to be the boat of his dreams.  Fast with a following wind she struggled to make any headway into wind, probably due to the reduced sail area from that originally proposed (the result of Crowhurst’s own requirement to install an inflatable buoyancy device on the main mast).  Ironically Crowhurst’s buoyancy device was the operating end of a never to be completed self-righting system that he deemed necessary to take a Trimaran around Cape Horn (once capsized Trimarans have rarely, if ever, been righted).

True to his mercurial character, Crowhurst’ s plan to win is cobbled together from a standing start within a year.  Building the boat within 6 months leaves no time to properly trial her or fit her out.  He left Teignmouth on the last day allowed by the race organisers and with his boat and supplied in disarray, 6 weeks later he is the slowest of all the boats in the race and it seems it was at this point, with some though not severe damage to the boat and with a still not functioning buoyancy system, that Crowhurst decided not to complete a circumnavigation, although it was still not clear that he had any other sought of plan at this stage.  From a small lie around this time – a claim of a then solo record sail of 243 miles in a day (a distance he did actually cover just before the end of his race) – bigger ones develop.  Crowhurst it seems was trying to keep his options open, perhaps of going as far as Australia or to Cape Town before retiring gracefully, but it seems that he was very poor at resolving options and instead his control of voyage spiralled out of control as he sent vague and fictional messages back to the UK regarding his position and intentions. 

From early on in the race then we see Crowhurst falsifying his log and position reports to give the impression he was still in a race when in fact he knew he could not win or even complete the required trip.  Crowhurst’s motivations for remaining at sea seem to have been to put in a creditable performance that could be presented to his backers.  Unfortunately for him, one by one those in front of him dropped out and he failed to take the options to retire when he had the chance to do so.  He couldn’t’ even pull out when he stopped for repairs in Argentina because he had been presenting himself at that time as being on the other side of the Atlantic off South Africa! Eventually it seemed that Crowhurst decided that with only Knox-Johnston and Tetley left in the race ahead of him that he would amble in as the 3rd person to finish; no-one would be too careful to look at his logs and he would still be a local hero; Knox-Johnston would be the 1st finisher and Tetley winner of the £5000 for the fastest trip.  All that Crowhurst would have to do would be to sail aimlessly around the S Atlantic until a suitable time to turn for home for a gallant 3rd place.  Unfortunately for Crowhurst, Tetley, perhaps spurred on by Crowhurst’s false position reports  pushed his boat too hard and sank.  Crowhurst could not now plausibly fail to win the prize as fastest finisher and as preparations were being made for his triumphant return in the UK, Crowhurst descended into despair and even, as the authors believed madness.  Sometime on the 243rd day of his voyage it would appear that he stepped off the ‘Teignmouth Electron’.
 
Sir Francis Chichester called this book "The sea drama of the century."  In truth it is as much a tragic human drama.  Crowhurst was a complex character who dared to dream but was sucked into a Nightmare driven on by his commitments to Stanley Best (who was unaware of his friend’s turmoil); his financial situation; his fear of letting his family down and even by the BBC team for whom he was filming (also unaware of Crowhurst’s predicament).  This book is a must read.

Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World Paperback  by James Hamilton-Paterson; read 17 December 2015

According to ‘The Economist’ (19 Dec 2015), Britain has the second largest Aerospace Industry in the world, 2nd only to the USA.  This might be true but it is also true that Britain builds very few actual aeroplanes. Britain’s aerospace industry these days consists of BAE Systems jointly building the Typhoon with Germany, Spain and Italy and providing wings for Airbus.  Rolls Royce builds Engines but no one actually seems to build aeroplanes!  James Hamilton-Paterson’s book charts the lamentable decline of the industry from 1946 until the cancellation of the TSR2 in the 1960s.  He identifies a number of causes for the decline:

1 - Lack of Government support for the industry, in fact at times downright obstructionism, vandalism and stupidity – as epitomised by the Sandys Defence White Paper of 1957.
2 – Poor and outdated management practices of the variety of aircraft manufacturing companies that emerged from the 2nd World War. These included long management lunch culture and a lack of engineers and engineering feedback as well as sclerotic problem-solving.
3 - Dispersed and poor manufacturing facilities that made sense in wartime but added unnecessary cost in peacetime – Gloster’s Meteors had to be disassembled after production and road transported to the company airfield several  miles away to be tested and even Vicker’s V Bomber the Valiant 1st flew from a grass runway!
4 – The perennial British disease of under-investment and parsimony
5 – Waste and lack of focus  – requiring 4 companies to bid for the V Bomber Contract and then getting 3 to build 3 different aircraft as an example; multiplicity of firms all trying to do everything


DH108 Swallow 146 - All Crashed killing their Pilot


In 1945 Britain was the world leader in Jet Engine Technology and   Hamilton-Paterson, after opening with a dramatic account of the 1952 SBAC Farnborough Air Show and the Crash of the DH110 that killed John Derry, his Observer Tony Richards and 29 Spectators*, he goes on to relate the development of the many types that the then fertile British Industry was producing.  However, within this silver lining there was already a cloud.  Also displaying at the 1952 SBAC show was the SARO Princess a flying boat for which there was patently no need but lacking strategic direction was still being touted by SARO. And the Supersonic test Miles 52 had been cancelled at the end of the war – allowing the USA’s Bell X1 to be the 1st the break the Sound Barrier in 1947.  By 1950, when Britain was still building Meteors the USA had the F86 and the USSR the MiG15 (powered by a copy of the RR Nene provided freely by Britain) and were already planning for the supersonic successors to these.  Britain would not have a supersonic fighter until the fearsomely complex Lightning entered Service in 1960

SARO Princess Prototype at Farnborough 1952 - already obsolete


DH110 
("De Havilland DH.110 WG236 in flight c1952" by USN - U.S. Navy Naval Aviation News July 1952 [1], inside cover.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:De_Havilland_DH.110_WG236_in_flight_c1952.jpg#/media/File:De_Havilland_DH.110_WG236_in_flight_c1952.jpg)
Sea Vixens - Developed from DH110 in Competition for orders with Gloster's Javelin
(Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sea_vixens_refuelling_arp.jpg#/media/File:Sea_vixens_refuelling_arp.jpg)

Much of the book is taken up with the character of Bill Waterton, a childhood hero of the author, starting with his participation in the RAF’s High Speed Flight that captured the world airspeed record in Meteors during 1946 (Luftwaffe records of the Me163 were ignored).  Sqn Ldr Waterton AFC then departed the RAF and joined Gloster as Chief Test Pilot – testing and demonstrating Meteors around the world, even flying at 0 feet along the Champs Elysee.  Waterton was to be sacked by Glosters during the development of the Javelin (after having landed a prototype that had lost its elevators for which he was awarded the GM) because of his criticisms of the aircraft.  Waterton’s criticisms form a convenient central theme the author uses to highlight what went wrong with the industry in the 1950.  Nevertheless the real stars of the narrative are the aircraft themselves and there were many good ones and may where the author contends that opportunities were missed.  Foremost  among these was the Fairey FD2 (rather than the oft trumpeted TSR2 for which the author recalls much criticism made by Jon Farley of Harrier fame). On 10 March 1956 the FD 2 broke the World Air Speed Record, raising it to 1,132 mph, an increase of 300 mph over the previous record, and thus became the first aircraft to exceed 1,000 mph  in level flight.  And what did the British do with it?  They made it be tested in France (to avoid sonic booms over S England**) where Dassault provided test facilities and an airfield.  Dassault was already working on the Mirage but seemed to take much more inspiration from the FD2 than did anyone in Britain.  The Mirage was to become a world beater selling nearly 2000 ac (cf the Lightning’s 300 odd sales).  The author certainly believed the FD2 could have been a British Mirage had it been allowed to have been developed sadly Duncan Sandys put paid to that.


FD2
("Fairey Delta 2". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fairey_Delta_2.jpg#/media/File:Fairey_Delta_2.jpg)


English Electric Canberra

The talk in 1952 of a New Elizabethan Age (that I remember reading about in the Ladybird Book of Kings and Queens of England during the 1960s) proved to be hubristic in the extreme for Britain as a whole and also for the British Aircraft industry that even then had lost the lead it had just 7 years earlier to the USA and the USSR.  A Britain with no professional management and a sparsity of engineers could not do everything in aviation but it could have, and did do some amazing things in the 40s and 50s and this book tells the story of those achievements; the Canberra a worldwide seller – event to the USAF- and retired only in 2009 from the RAF inventory, the Hunter was also a world beater.  The Comet, the world’s 1st Jet Airliner, was less successful because of poorly understood fatigue issues but was years ahead of the competition.

DH Comet - this one a mark 4
(BEA de Havilland DH-106 Comet 4B Berlin" by BEA_De_Havilland_DH-106_Comet_4B_Manteufel.jpg: Ralf Manteufelderivative work: Altair78 (talk) - BEA_De_Havilland_DH-106_Comet_4B_Manteufel.jpg. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BEA_de_Havilland_DH-106_Comet_4B_Berlin.jpg#/media/File:BEA_de_Havilland_DH-106_Comet_4B_Berlin.jpg)
Vickers Viscount
"G-arir" by MilborneOne - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:G-arir.jpg#/media/File:G-arir.jpg
Bristol Britannia
(Bristol 175 Britannia 312 G-AOVT BOAC Ringway 04.08.62 edited-3" by RuthAS - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bristol_175_Britannia_312_G-AOVT_BOAC_Ringway_04.08.62_edited-3.jpg#/media/File:Bristol_175_Britannia_312_G-AOVT_BOAC_Ringway_04.08.62_edited-3.jpg)


In 1945 Britain was the world's leading designer and builder of aircraft. Today there is not a single aircraft manufacturer of any significance in the country. Hamilton-Paterson  not only charts the decline that takes us from there to here but also gives a great impression of what it was like to think of oneself as a ‘New Elizabethan’ even as rationing was still in place.  A thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining read.

*The past is indeed a different country, as the Author notes this crash did not end the flying display of the day as even as ambulances attended to the injured, Neville Duke, having just witnessed the death of his friend,  taxied out the prototype Hawker Hunter to begin his display.  Showing pluck that seems to be missing entirely these days the show went on, and no-one needed counselling.

**The Ministry of Supply refused to allow this testing over the UK, so Fairey took the Delta 2 first to France and later to Norway for these tests. The French government required the tests to be insured against damage claims. This proved impractically expensive with any UK based insurance company, but a French company insured them for £40. No claims were ever received in either France or Norway.






Britain's V Bombers from Top - Short Sperrin (cancelled after 2 produced); Valiant, Vulcan and Victor

(Sperrin : "Short Sperrin Gyron engine" by RuthAS - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Short_Sperrin_Gyron_engine.jpg#/media/File:Short_Sperrin_Gyron_engine.jpg; Valiant : Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Valiant.vbomber.700pix.jpg#/media/File:Valiant.vbomber.700pix.jpg)



 
"Hunter and meteor at kemble arp" by Adrian Pingstone 
 Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hunter_and_meteor_at_kemble_arp.jpg#/media/File:Hunter_and_meteor_at_kemble_arp.jpg


Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain Kindle Edition by George Mahood; completed 3 December 2015

The basic idea upon which this book is written is a promising one.   George and Ben challenge themselves to cycle from Land’s End to John O Groats without spending any money, thus proving the basic generosity of the people of Britain along the way.  To make the challenge as hard as possible they start in nothing but a pair of Union Jack boxer shorts (and a camera) without even bikes for their cycling trip with the intention of gaining everything they need along the way.

After a promising start the book does not live up to the grand idea.  Of course there are fine vignettes as the pair travel northwards but the writing isn’t great I’m afraid.  The same joke repeated endlessly gets less funny and eventually annoying rather than funnier! Faux stupidity is not the same as self-deprecation and it is common in this book.  An aspect that I found particularly annoying was the treatment by Mahood of many of the generous people who provided them with free food, lodgings and a great deal of kindness, at points these people are described as looking like the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ (a woman) or in Peter Attenborough’s case of ‘stinking of drink’.  Such descriptions, and they are many, are liberally and ungraciously spread throughout the book and detract from one’s enjoyment of the story.

This does become a repetitive travelogue rather than a story of a great little adventure, essentially it comes across no more than 2 men on a long bout of begging.  Every day they ‘blag’ food, ‘blag’ somewhere to sleep and so on.  Then following day is then spent either making unpleasant comments about the people that had helped them or in juvenile banter.  Little of the places travelled through, other than the nightly stopping points is told. All of this is rather disappointing and the adventure of the trip in which 2 men do cycle on inappropriate bikes and clothing, the length of the country is lost!  The book ends by making the point that adventure need not cost a lot and all that one has to do is get out there and explore – excellent advice and I do wish the book had been written in this spirit.

Overall the book was an OK read for me as many of the encounters made along the way were interesting, though often spoiled in the telling, I would rate the book as a 5 out of 10 

Ardennes 1944 – Hitler’s Last Gamble by Antony Beevor; Read 20 November 2015

‘The German’s biggest mistake was to underestimate the soldiers of an army they affected to despise’ are Antony Beevor’s concluding words on this superb history of the Battle of the Bulge.  Launched on 16 December against the weakly held Ardennes sector of the Allied front the 6th SS Panzer Army and 5th Panzer Army’s attack aimed at capturing Antwerp to split the western allies, force the Canadians out of the war and the British into “another Dunkirk”.   The attack was Hitler’s desperate last gamble; it lasted for 6 weeks but was effectively defeated by Xmas day.

This battle was American Army’s biggest battle in Europe during WW2 and despite the initial surprise (brought about, according to Beevor, by the element of surprise (the 5th Fallschirmjager boarded their Ju52s thinking they were going on an exercise); a failure of allied intelligence; and the inexperience of many US troops facing the onslaught) and German victories the desperate defence of the Elsenborn Ridge, St Vith and famously Bastogne blunted the attack.  American reinforcements were rapidly deployed.  Troops were kept re-supplied, from Xmas eve by Glider and C47 as well as by truck.  The often despised ComZ command worked miracles in the supply of the US forces and even more so in removing supplies, notably gasoline, from under the noses of the advancing Germans.  The Allied Counter attack commenced on 3 January and within 4 weeks the ‘Bulge’ in the allied lines had been removed

The majority of the tale told here is spent on the 1st desperate 2 weeks of the fighting, the details of the German attacks and the allied defence.  Well known tales such as the massacre of US POWs at Malmedy by elements of the SS Kampfgruppe Peiper are well told and remain shocking.  Less well known are the murders of civilians and regularly of POWs by the SS throughout the campaign.   The Malmedy massacre was known to the allies within hours from escapees and one result was that the Americans would take few SS prisoners.  Omar Bradley is quoted, on hearing of SS prisoners being interrogated , as saying  ‘.. prisoners form the SS?’  The clear implication is that “a number of generals… openly approved of the shooting of (German) prisoners in retaliation”.  Indeed it seems that US, British and French troops were not immune to shooting captives.

Very few of the Allied commanders come out of the battle well.  Hodges (1st Army) in particular appears to have had some sort of breakdown.  Bradley (12 Army Group) lost touch with his Armies and did not regain his tactical assuredness until well after the Battle.  Eisenhower, more commonly seen as an exemplary diplomat rather than a field commander, however proved his mettle.  He was decisive and  effective.  Willing to take unpopular decisions and brook no opposition.  Patton, while not error free,  performed wonders in switching the 3rd Army’s line of advance from East to North in 24 hours to relive Bastogne.  Montgomery was tactically brilliant in securing the northern flank of the attack with 30 Corp and was correct to suggest to Eisenhower that 1st and 9th US Armies were transferred to his command.  Eisenhower was equally correct in acceding to the FM’s request over the protests of the out of touch Bradley.  The German commander of the 5th Panzer Army, Hasso von Manteuffel said of Montgomery’s leadership:

'The operations of the American 1st Army had developed into a series of individual holding actions. Montgomery's contribution to restoring the situation was that he turned a series of isolated actions into a coherent battle fought according to a clear and definite plan. It was his refusal to engage in premature and piecemeal counter-attacks which enabled the Americans to gather their reserves and frustrate the German attempts to extend their breakthrough'

Unfortunately Montgomery’s insufferable egotism and tactlessness in exaggerating his contribution and demanding strategic control of the allied invasion of Germany, was subsequently sidelined and worse, Beevor concludes, his arrogance would affect PRESIDENT Eisenhower’s treatment of Britain during Suez 12 years later.  By the end of the Battle the only US general who could stand to be in Monty’s presence was Joe Collins, elsewhere he was detested.  The fact that  Churchill, in the House of Commons, had to make it clear that the British role had largely been a supporting one demonstrates just how far Montgomery had overstepped the mark in claiming undue credit for the victory.

At the Divisional level  and below US leadership  for the most part performed superbly as did the often inexperienced replacements who were drafted into the defensive lines.  The 101 Airborne trucked in to assist the defence of Bastogne under their 3rd in Command Brig McAuliffe receive the acclaim they deserve whilst Beevor goes on to recognize the effortof less well known infantry, artillery and tank units also.  For the 1st time African American troops were used in the front line and contrary to the prejudices of their commanders, fought well.  Around St Vith Generals  Hasbrouck (7 Armoured )  and Jones (106 Infantry) worked defensive miracles despite the intensity of the German Attacks.  I the north ‘Lightning’ Joe Collins (incidentally one of the few senior US commanders to fight both in European and Pacific Theatres) also performed well and uniquely for an American (and a number of British) got on well with Montgomery.

In the end the Germans never got near the Meuse, let alone Antwerp, and the battle was effectively over by Christmas Day.  sides suffered about 80,000 casualties with a further 30,000 civilians killed and wounded.  This ultimately futile battle,  the last gasp of a doomed and bankrupt ideology is brilliantly told by the author.  The story is gripping and Beevor flits easily from High Commanders at their headquarters to the dough boys in their foxholes.  The suffering of the starving German troops, some only 15yrs old and the freezing GIs, the terrified civilians and helpless farm animals is gripping in its intensity. 

Having sown the wind in the Ardennes, Hitler reaped the whirlwind on the eastern front when the Russians’ January offensive made huge gains in short order.  Stalin’s assertion that he borught his attack forward to relieve pressure on the Americans in the Ardennes was propaganda as he in fact brought it forward because of the long range weather forecast.  Indeed it is likely that the American’s destruction of the German forces in the Ardennes helped Stalin rather than vice versa .

Ten out of ten for this book


We Landed by Moonlight: Secret RAF Landings in France, 1940-1944 by Hugh Verity; Completed 19 November 2015

The author of this book, written in 1975, was a pilot and later a Flight Commander of 161 (Special Duties) Squadron.  This squadron, based at Tempsford, was equipped with a variety of types including, for weapons and agent drops, Halifaxes.  This book concentrates on the Lysander and Hudson operations that landed in France during the full moon periods of each month from 1941 until after the Liberation in 1944.  Of course for the most part the book tells only half the story - the clandestine night-time flights and landings throughout France of SOE and French Resistance Agents in Lysander and Hudson aircraft. Verity is able in a number of cases to tell the story beyond the flights themselves and say what happened to individual agents or networks but for the most part their operations are beyond the scope of the book.

At times the book is a bit of a struggle to read.  A lot of research has gone into the book (an appendix at the end shows all of the Lysander and Hudson operations carried out and the results of these trips) however the level of detail sometimes detracts from the overall story making the book come across as an Op Record Book rather than a narrative history.  Having said that, there are plenty of places that depart from the ORB approach such that the story is both coherent and even thrilling.

The early Lysander pickups occurred before the Author joined the squadron but they are still recorded here as the development of the tricks of night landings in blacked out France, of Resistance laid night-time runways in farmer’s fields using just 3 lights in an L shape and the use of Tangmere as a forward deployment base.  After the author joins the squadron, at that time commanded by Wg Cdr Pickard (later killed flying Mosquitos on Op Jericho) further developments occur including the use of the twin engine Hudson and even, later in the war, the C47 to land in enemy occupied territory.

Difficulties in finding blacked out fields often in foggy conditions and the sometimes lethal fogging in of bases in Britain for returning aircraft, are vividly told.  Other hazards included obstacles on approach and take off (on more than 1 occasion aircraft flew through trees or overhead power lines – though rarely to lethal effect) and the possibility of getting bogged down in muddy fields after rain that meant the abandonment of otherwise serviceable aircraft in a number of French fields.  The abandonment of the aircraft not only meant that its pilot was now an evader but that the Germans would become aware of resistance activity in an area.  Indeed the Germans were able to infiltrate a number of the resistance groups. The list of Agents, many female, that 161 Sqn took to France but who were arrested and executed or sent to concentration camps is long. 



Whilst the losses suffered by the Lysander and Hudson flights were not great when compared to those of Bomber Command, Verity provides a postscript that charts the later stories of those who served with the Sqn.  This poignantly reminds the reader that wartime operations were lethal as many of those who survived their tour with 161 Sqn failed to survive the war.  

Marked for Death; the First War in the Air by James Hamilton-Paterson completed 10 November 2015

In this highly readable book, James Hamilton-Paterson traces the development of military  aviation from the Wright Brothers to the end of the First World War by which time the frail machines of 1914 (which were not unknown simply to fall apart in mid-flight) to the efficient war machines of 1918.  For the most part though this is not a history of the aircraft – though much technical knowledge is imparted, for example the reasons for the predominance of biplanes in the period being due as much to the need to ensure structural strength as to gain additional lift.  The wings of a biplane could be made remarkably stiff when built as a box girder, and rolling could then be achieved by the far simpler method of ailerons rather than wing warping that was used on earlier aircraft.

The author W E John (himself shot down and captured in 1918) acts as a book end.  His shooting down at the beginning is followed by the discussion of his literary creation’s attitudes to life and death in the air war of 1914-18.  The fear and mental anguish of men who daily flew until death almost inevitably found them, as well as the coping mechanisms (invariably drink, loud partying and studied insouciance) forms much of the book’s subject matter.  The young (and not so young – at least one of the protagonists mentioned was 53!) men who took to the air. The stresses on these men were immense, not only those caused by combat and the fear of death in the wooden and fabric tinder boxes in which the fuel tank was in immediate proximity to the pilot.  Other stresses were caused by the frequent training accidents and structural failures caused by poorly understood aeronautical engineering of the day.  Of course there was context to this story and Hamilton-Paterson brings this out clearly when he sums up the attitude to casualties of the time, a time when the armies could be losing thousands of men a day.  To quote Hamilton-Paterson :

“It was wartime: the state could expend lives with impunity … if a teenager was sent into combat in an aircraft he was quite unqualified to fly and failed to return, his empty chair in the mess that night would by official decree be filled with his equally unqualified successor. If a drunken, burnt-out instructor crashed and killed his eighteen-year-old student it was either God’s will, the luck of the draw or hard cheese: you took your pick.

Most of the focus of the book is on the air war over the Western Front and upon the RFC in particular although the German Air Force on this front is well covered also.  Of course the force’s airmen faced similar problems and fears.  Britain started the war at something of a disadvantage in the Air to other European Powers.  France was the clear leader in aircraft and the German Zeppelins were pretty much impregnable throughout the war – able to fly too high to be intercepted except on rare occasions although they were replaced in the West by the Gotha types by 1917.  

Another key theme that is picked up is the political infighting in the British Political and Military spheres.  Noisy protestations in the House of Commons by the likes of Pemberton-Billing during the Fokker Scourge of 1915 to improve the types of machine available to  the RFC; the poorly organised response from British industry to supply adequate machines with the Army (RFC) and Navy (RNAS) having  preferred suppliers.  The publicly funded RAE at Farnborough  a particular target for Pemberton-Billing’s ire being the preferred supplier to the RFC with the private sector (Sopwith et al) more commonly supplying the RNAS.  The failure of the Army and Navy to co-operate meant that Sopwith’s excellent Triplane supplied to the RNAS was far less used than it should have been in preventing German Air Superiority in 1916.

The working in Silos of the 2 air arms was eventually brought to an end by the formation of the single air arm the RAF, brought about as a direct result of German ‘Strategic Bombing’ by Zeppelins and later Gothas and Staakens against London and other British towns that the RFC and RNAS proved quite incapable of preventing.  The Politicians eventually losing patience and enacting the Smuts recommendation to create the RAF.

The book challenges a number of received wisdoms including the allegation that airmen were not issued with parachutes because the Generals thought it would mean the crews would bale out too early.  As the author notes ‘no  such policy statement has yet come to light and quite possibly does not exist, if it ever did. What is usually quoted today is a sentence from a report that reads: ‘It is the opinion of the [Air] Board that the presence of such an apparatus might impair the fighting spirit of pilots and cause them to abandon machines which might otherwise be capable of returning to base for repair.’  In fact all air forces failed to provide aircrews with parachutes for most of the war (only the Germans finally providing them in the last few months of the war.  In truth the flimsy machines of 1914 simply could not carry the added weight of parachutes! As machine improved the additional weight carrying capacity was at first taken up with additional ammunition, guns, fuel and W/T equipment.  Additionally Hamilton-Paterson points out the reluctance of aircrews themselves of wearing safety equipment that was provided – notably helmets, goggles and most surprisingly seat belts!

Whilst there is little discussion of the war on the Eastern Front, there is a very welcome final chapter that covers the very wide geographical area from the Alps on the Italian/Austrian Front to Mesopotamia and includes the Balkans, Palestine and even Egypt.  The difficulties in operating in these areas were many including much fewer opportunities for forced landings if an engine failed due to the terrain below and in maintaining wooden aircraft in the desert where glues would fail and wood would warp.  A particular event recounted that shows even late in the war, the invulnerability of the Zeppelin is the 4200 mile journey of the L59 from Bulgaria, across the Mediterranean and Egypt to Khartoum and back.
 
This book is very well written, at times humorous, always interesting and a real page turner.  Very Highly recommended – I’m off to read Hamilton-Paterson earlier book Empire of the Clouds ASAP.




Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die by Andro Linklater; Completed 22 October 2015

Spencer Perceval is the only British Prime Minister so far to have been assassinated and today I think it is fair to say that if his name is known at all by the British public, that it is known for this reason alone.  Few know of his policies or administration and his name has disappeared into obscurity over the last 200 years and yet on the day he was killed he was, according to Andro Linklater’s book, unchallenged in his dominance of the British Government and could have looked forward to many more years of political primacy.  His murder by John Bellingham on 11 May 1812 in the House of Commons was greeted by horror among the political classes. Perceval was ‘a man whose personal qualities gave offence to no one – whose private life was an example to all – and who, however firm and unbending his principles, yet conducted political conflicts in a way that robbed them of their characteristic bitterness’ wrote John Stoddard in The Times immediately after the assassination.  And yet the murder was met by rejoicing in the streets of London even outside Downing Street where his widow Jane would have heard the crowd celebrating her husband’s demise.



This rejoicing holds one of the clues that Andro Linklater threads together to present the reasons behind the assassination as although John Bellingham had his own specific reasons for killing Perceval, it should be remembered that the early 19th century was a very turbulent time indeed.  This was the time of the Luddites when death was the penalty for smashing the newly industrial machines. Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France for 20 years and the end of this war was not in sight, although Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar had made the Royal Navy the global maritime hegemon, Wellington’s costly army in the Peninsular appeared to be going nowhere.  War loomed with the USA as a result of the Perceval government’s use of Orders in Council (a means for passing laws without passing an Act of Parliament which would need a pesky majority vote) that allowed RN ships to intercept neutral ships at sea (a means of blockading France in response to Napoleon’s Continental system targeting British trade in Europe).  An unintended consequence of the Orders in Council regarding trade was that by 1812 global trade was tumbling in volumes which was causing further distress in Britain’s industrial cities and particularly in ports, such as Liverpool – Bellingham’s home – to compound the recent crackdown on the slave trade championed by the evangelical Wilberforce and his close ally Spencer Perceval thereby making enemies of some seriously wealthy individuals. 


Spencer Perceval

Linklater tells the story of the rise of Perceval, the 2nd son of an Irish noble, to the top job from (relatively) impoverished solicitor through the office of Attorney General and eventually to Prime Minister.  His happy, and unusually for the time it appears, devoted marriage to Jane and the young family being raised (he was killed a week before his youngest son’s 5th birthday). Linklater highlights Perceval’s political philosophy, with an  evangelical  belief in providence, that made him ruthless in his political dealings, supremely assured in his views, anti-Catholic and deeply conservative politically – he saw the structure of political classes as essentially unchangeable in a time when huge societal changes were happening. 


John Bellingham

John Bellingham’s somewhat less fortunate life story is also told.  The son of a lunatic, Bellingham had run away from an apprenticeship to a Jeweller funded by his uncle.  In early 1794 it is believed that he opened a tin factory on London's Oxford Street, but it failed and he was declared bankrupt.  By the late 1790s he was working as a clerk in a counting house and in around 1800 he went to Archangel as an agent for importers and exporters. He returned to England in 1802 and was a merchant broker in Liverpool. He married Mary Neville in 1803. Having seen the rewards that could be obtained by trading for timber and iron in Russia, Bellingham put together an expedition to Archangel in 1804 taking his wife and new born son with him.  It is at this point that his unspectacular though moderately comfortable life was to take the turn that was to lead to his killing of Perceval 8 years later.  

In autumn 1803, the Russian ship Soyuz insured at Lloyd's of London had been lost in the White Sea. Her owners filed a claim on their insurance, but an anonymous letter told Lloyd's the ship had been sabotaged. Soloman Van Brienen (Bellingham’s business partner) believed Bellingham was the author, and retaliated by accusing him of a debt of 4,890 roubles to a bankruptcy of which he was an assignee. Bellingham, about to return from Russia to Britain on 16 November 1804, had his travelling pass withdrawn because of the alleged debt.

Van Brienen persuaded the local Governor-General to imprison Bellingham, and he was placed in a Russian jail. One year later, Bellingham secured his release and went to Saint Petersburg, where he attempted to impeach the Governor-General. This angered the Russian authorities, who charged him with leaving Arkhangel in a clandestine manner. He was again imprisoned until October 1808, when he was put out onto the streets, but still without permission to leave. In desperation, he petitioned the Tsar. He was allowed to leave Russia in 1809, arriving in England in December.  Throughout his time in Russia, Bellingham had attempted to get the British Ambassador and consul to intervene on his behalf.  As the debt was a civil rather than criminal matter this was outside their remit, though it appears likely that he was supported in some ways by payments whilst he was in gaol.  It is in 1808 that Bellingham’s obsessive character is 1st noticed as his re-imprisonment was the result of his failure to pay a nominal sum for damages (easily within his capability) prefer to suffer gaol than pay an unjust fine.

On his return to Britain in 1810 Bellingham commenced his petitioning for compensation of £100000 to the government.  In his view, though not in law, this was compensation due him for his losses between 1804 and 1809.  Linklater shows that Bellingham’s friends thought him ‘mad’ in his obsession for redress. 

Over the following years, he took his claim for compensation (reducing the sum by 1812 to £8000) to every arm of the judicial system up to the Prince Regent and  requesting Perceval submit his claim to Parliament he was repeatedly (and correctly) rebuffed.  It is quite clear that, if not mad, then Bellingham must have been an obsessive of the highest order.  In his logic the killing of the PM was simply the next stage in the judicial process.  At his trial 4 days after the killing, Bellingham refuted the position of his defence team that he was insane and therefore not guilty of murder.  Indeed he thanked the prosecution for themselves asserting that he was rational (which they demonstrated by his careful preparation for the killing).  Bellingham in his own mind could see only the logic that his position was just therefore his appeals to the judicial system having been rebuffed that he must kill Perceval but having no personal malice against the PM (no malice pre pense) he was simply executing justice and therefore could only be found innocent.  It was the right of every man, Bellingham believed, to petition parliament for the redress of grievances, but Perceval insisted that the government had no obligation to recompense him, and refused to receive his petition. Obviously enough, or so it seemed to Bellingham, his only remaining chance of a remedy was to kill the prime minister. He had no personal grudge against Perceval; to kill him would be a simple act of justice; and when at his trial he explained the reasons for his action, he would of course be acquitted and indemnified. As he himself said at the trial:


"Recollect, Gentlemen, what was my situation. Recollect that my family was ruined and myself destroyed, merely because it was Mr Perceval's pleasure that justice should not be granted; sheltering himself behind the imagined security of his station, and trampling upon law and right in the belief that no retribution could reach him. I demand only my right, and not a favour; I demand what is the birthright and privilege of every Englishman.
Gentlemen, when a minister sets himself above the laws, as Mr Perceval did, he does it as his own personal risk. If this were not so, the mere will of the minister would become the law, and what would then become of your liberties?
I trust that this serious lesson will operate as a warning to all future ministers, and that they will henceforth do the thing that is right, for if the upper ranks of society are permitted to act wrong with impunity, the inferior ramifications will soon become wholly corrupted.
Gentlemen, my life is in your hands, I rely confidently in your justice."

The jury took 14 minutes to find him guilty.  Linklater goes beyond the trial and the obvious guilt of Bellngham.  It was clearly in the government’s interest to execute Bellingham quickly in order to demonstrate to the mob the power of government.  Although there were fears that Bellingham might be part of a larger revolutionary plot against the regime he himself denied this and it seems his accusers were content by his repeated denials although with 4 days between the murder and the trial there would have been little time to discover a conspiracy.  Linklater however has had 200 years and whilst he cannot prove a conspiracy, the question Qui Bono? Certainly throws up a number of loose ends.

Linklater’s examination of Bellingham’s financial affairs in the months leading up to the assassination when he was lodging in London , preparing to set his case before Parliament and latterly to kill the PM, indicate that someone was funding Bellingham relatively lavish stay in the capital.  This position is not improbable; though 2 centuries removed it is certainly unprovable.  Certainly Perceval had enemies, particularly in Bellingham’s home of Liverpool where the anti-slave trade policies in particular were costing powerful men a lot of cash as mentioned early.  Tied to a global recession brought about by deep recession and credit crunch and also the increasing belligerence of the USA resulting from maritime interceptions.  In Britain there were demands from merchants, shippers, manufacturers and workers for the orders in council to be rescinded. Few doubted that Perceval would resist, and that the orders would stay in place until Napoleon was defeated or Perceval ceased to be prime minister – both apparently distant prospects. Perceval was on his way to the Commons chamber to oppose the rescinding of the orders when Bellingham shot him. A month later Lord Liverpool, of all appropriate titles, became prime minister, the orders in council "evaporated", and the economy began to recover.

Linklater points the finger at 2 men as the financiers of Bellingham. Thomas Wilson, a London merchant and banker to the trade with Russia, and Elisha Peck, an American businessman resident in Liverpool, men with fortunes to lose if the orders in council continued in force, and with every reason to wish Perceval dead. One or both may have been employing Bellingham, in a small way, as their agent; both would probably have heard him declare that if Perceval did not make him proper restitution, he would kill the premier. Both had every reason to fund Bellingham until he was driven to make his attempt, without Bellingham ever understanding how they were using him.  Of course Linklater cannot prove the involvement of these 2 men but the case made is certainly plausible.

One of the devices used by Linklater to explain Bellingham’s reasoning is the concept of double entry book-keeping with which Bellingham as a former accountant would have understood. For each payment there is a balancing debit.  In Bellingham’s mind his pursuit of justice was valid as he saw it as the government’s duty to protect him, its citizen and compensate him for his losses and imprisonment in Russia between 1804-10.  To him this debit owed could be paid by a cash sum of £8000 or the life of Perceval.

It is also worth looking at the credit and debit side of Perceval’s legacy.  Fiercely conservative and anti-Catholic he was nevertheless central to the abolition of the Slave Trade and can certainly be credited with the saving of many thousands of African from this horrific fate.  The single minded determination he set (as a debit) against political reform can be set against the credit of his keeping the Duke of Wellington in the field when everyone else wished to  recall the Duke, thus ensuring Britain would eventually win the war and become the Century’s Global Hegemon. As a debit there is his strict preservation of the rights of the aristocracy but the weakening of the power of the Monarch (in the shape of the Prince Regent) is to the credit side.  As Linklater points out, Perceval is not well remembered, nevertheless his legacy is not a minor one.


This book was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative read.


Great Britain's Great War by Jeremy Paxman; completed 7 October 2015

Jeremy Paxman’s book, which accompany’ s last year’s TV series of the same name, takes a different slant on the 1st World War than many of the other books released to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the war. This book is neither a military history nor a grand sweeping history that aims to examine and explain the causes and consequences of the – as some have said, the seminal event of the 20th Century. Instead this book is more of a social and political history of the effects of the war in Britain alone and only, for the most part, for the 4 years of the war itself.

Paxman’s jaunty style is well suited to the book though for some such a serious subject might deserve a more serious tone. Paxman get away with this by pointing out the many absurdities that evolved in public life throughout the war – from the progressively restrictive Defence of The Realm provisions to the absurd (though believed) paranoia of the likes of Pemberton Billing’s claims of homosexual spy rings right to the heart of government to the power of the Northcliffe press to influence government policy, deployed even to oust Asquith and replace him with Lloyd George as Prime Minister.

The prologue covers the short life, and death at Gallipoli of ‘Uncle Charlie’ – Paxman’s personal link to the war (Charlie was his mother’s uncle). Uncle Charlie was serving in Gallipoli with a Field Ambulance when he was killed (though nothing is known of the manner of his death). Paxman relates that family mythology had always said that Charlies was killed on his 18th birthday whilst storming the beach at Gallipoli. Paxman himself points out that the effects left by his mother in fact shows that Charlies was several months past his 24th birthday when he was killed. In many ways the death of Charlie is an analogy for many myths that have grown up around the war and Paxman works tirelessly to dispel many of these.

Of course all of the major military events involving British forces are covered in the book but they are not central. The British Army’s learning curve can be followed from the destruction of the original BEF, through the recruitment of Kitchener’s new army to the conscript army post 1916 until the final offensives of 1918. Political machinations at home and the jockeying between Kitchener and French then French and Haig in 1914-15 move on from 1916 to the machination of Lloyd George and Bonar-Law to replace Asquith from the end of 1916.

Women’s place in the workplace, in the often lethally toxic air of the munitions factories is well covered as is the now inconceivable number of days lost in strikes (with even the Metropolitan Police striking) when the nation was at war. Paradoxically the strikes were more likely when the British were doing well on the Battlefield when unions saw opportunities to increase the number of reserved occupations or improve the pay of their members (usually to the chagrin of those at the front). The beginning of the decline of the British class system is noted as sons of the landed gentry are killed in huge numbers leaving a shortage of officers leading to, for the 1st time, the mass promotion of able soldiers and leaders from the ranks to become a new breed of junior officer.

Paxman points out that our recent thinking around the effects of the war is flawed in many ways. For one thing, the Britain of 1914 was not the Britain of today. Then society was more rigid and certainly far less concerned with individual rights and far more concerned with collective duty (this was also true of the other major combatant nations). . There were no serious mutinies in the British forces, (unlike in the French, German and Russian) so it seems that the British soldiery was stoic about massive losses. To us, with our far better developed sense of individual rights, it seems inconceivable that so many men would willingly fight in the mass battles and accept the casualties so cheerfully and yet they did. Modern history teachers in today’s schools teach the 1st WW through the works of the war poets such as Owen and Sassoon but here Paxman points out there were plenty of poets at the time who wrote in support of the war. My own sons were given ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ to read without the teachers even considering there were alternative views of the combatants as shown for example in ‘Storm of Steel’.

Paxman is very good a reporting the war from a perspective ‘within’ the period rather than from a modernist perspective, doing a very good job of representing events as those who took part would have seen them whilst still providing the insight that we get 100 years removed. A book that is enjoyable, thought-provoking and even entertaining. Well worth the read.


Gypsy Moth Circles the World – Sir Francis Chichester; Completed 4 Oct 2015

This book is Francis Chichester’s account of his 1966-67 circumnavigation of the world in the specially built (though Chichester is critical of her sea-going capabilities– she had a tendency to broach - and of her original self-steering until modifications were done to her keel and steering during her stopover in Sydney) Gypsy Moth IV. Chichester himself admits that he was not the 1st person to sail solo around the world (he was aware of at least 9 before him) but his journey captured the imagination of the British public (perhaps because of his age (65) and the speed of his trip – at the time this was the fastest solo circumnavigation by some way. The book was an international best-seller when it appeared in 1967.

The book is considered a classic, but for me, though good is not in the same class as ‘The Lonely Sea and Sky’. Nevertheless it does tell the story of how one man realised his dream of circumnavigating the globe which he had attempted but failed to achieve (by aircraft) in 1931 so is a story of persistence and determination. Chichester’s character comes across throughout the book a stoic and unflappable character who admits to feeling fear but has the sense not to let it get in his way as it is unhelpful in the extreme situations (storms and capsize) that he encounters on his trip.
There are key stages that flow through the book though it is not actually sub-divided:

Preparation which includes the design and construction of GM IV.
The outward trip to Australia following as far as possible the old clipper route
Stopover and refit in Sydney
Sydney to Cape Horn and
Finally the run up the Atlantic and homecoming

The book has a number of appendices useful to those planning such a trip though these are obviously dated plus a eulogy from a friend and finally Sheila Chichester’s view of the trip from the ‘Wife’s Viewpoint’ this latter part is frankly a bit nutty given over as it is to rather a lot of spiritual and religious rambling. Though to be fair, Chichester himself found Sheila’s support, especially in the preparation and stopover stages, to be essential and practical.

I enjoyed the read but do have a number of criticisms although I can see how these have come about. Firstly the day to day struggle of sailing a small boat alone for months does come across as a little dry – but then I am sure that one day was usually pretty much like another unless something particularly dramatic happened (such as the capsize ofter leaving Australia). Secondly, Chichester uses a lot of sailing terms, a glossary or drawing of which sail was which would be helpful to the general reader. Nevertheless, the story is one that is inspiring it shows that one should not set yourself limits but instead reach for difficult and interesting goals.


Wellington by Richard Holmes – Completed 5 September 2015

Another one from the Sunday Times bestseller list, I was interested to read Holme’s biography of Britain’s greatest ever General (or maybe 1st equal with Marlborough) because of his reputation as a 1st order TV historian. The book was apparently written in 2002 to accompany a TV series (which I sadly missed) for which Holmes was able to visit most of the battlefields upon which Wellington fought. Wellington, admits Holmes, was a hero to the young author but over time he had been less enamoured of his subject and this book represented a personal quest to find the ‘real’ Wellington. The Author emerged from this process with his admiration restored with his final verdict on Wellington "He is easy to admire; harder, perhaps, to like".

Wellington was born Arthur Wesley (later Wellesley) in 1769, the 3rd son of the Marquis of Mornington, a debt laden member of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. There is no evidence of the young Wesley excelling at anything and on his father’s death he was removed from Eton as it was deemed his younger brother would be a better investment. In common with many young aristocrats of the time his entry into the Army was through the purchase of a commission, and through his elder brother Richard’s influence gained preferment as an ADC (based in Dublin Castle) for which additional pay was provided. At this time Army officers were not full time professionals (indeed they were invariably amateurs) ; connections were more important than ability so Wesley’s advancements as far as Lt Col were either through the intercession of Richard’s or through purchase this allowed him to rise from Ensign to Lt Col in just 6 years without ever seeing action, included in which time was 2 years sitting as an MP (1789-91) in the Irish House of Parliament (gained through a Rotten Borough).

It was in this period that Wesley met Kitty Pakenham, the daughter of Edward Pakenham, 2nd Baron Longford. He sought her hand but was turned down by her brother Thomas, Earl of Longford, who considered Wesley to be a young man, in debt, with very poor prospects. An accomplished violinist, Wesley, devastated by rejection, burnt his violins in anger, and resolved to pursue a military career in earnest. On his return from India 10 years later he was to marry Kitty, despite not meeting here again until their wedding day (exclaiming to a confidant ‘she’s grown ugly by God’! by which time it was too late to honourably withdraw, their marriage was to be an unhappy one).

Gazetted Lt Col in the 33rd Regiment in September 1793, Wesley took the regiment to fight against revolutionary France under the Duke of York in 1794. The campaign was not a success, though Wesley was to learn some of his 1st lessons of the importance of logistics that was to be really taken on board when the Regiment was redeployed to India.
It was India (1797-1804) that was the making of Wesley. It was here that he made his fortune. He arrived as Wesley and left as Wellesley by then worth over £2.5M in today’s terms. Although initially still a Lt Col, under his brother Richard’s Governor Generalship, Wellesley was given prominent command in the 4th Anglo-Mysore war fighting at the Battle of Seringapatam (which he would later call one of the closest run of his life.) The Wellesley ‘system’ was to increase British power in India by the seizure of control of previously independent fiefdoms of the Moghul Emperors. Promoted to Brigadier ad then Major General, though still junior to others, Wellesley was instrumental in provoking the 2nd Anglo-Maratha war (for which he would have to defend his Brother in the House of Lords upon his return) the key battle for which were Assaye, Argaum and Gawilghur. Success in the Indian campaigns was in large part due to the organisational ability of this relatively junior commander. Richard Holmes notes that Wellesley was quick to learn key lessons on the supply of an army in the field and of the need not to alienate the civilian populations, the importance of Drill Discipline and reconnaissance both personal and through the use of scouts. Wellington was to claim that he never learned any more of the art of war after India and that everything else was but putting his learning into Practice. As Holmes puts it: "A commander who could cope with the Western Ghats would be well prepared for Extremadura."


On his return to Britain, and after short interludes to marry, and serve as a Tory MP for 2 years and to take part in the 2nd Battle of Copenhagen. Wellesley was sent as a Lt General to fight Napoleon’s armies in the Peninsula from 1808-14. It was in the Peninsula that Wellington earned his Dukedom and rose form the rank of a junior (in seniority) Lt General, a factor that led to the failure to follow up Wellington’s victory at Vimeiro in 1808 when he was superseded in command immediately after the battle with General Dalrymple refusing Wellelsley’s advice to follow up the victory and attack the retreating French. Instead Dalrymple signed the Treaty of Cintra to which Wellesley unwisely added his name, thereby incurring recall to London for an investigation by Parliament into the terms of the Treaty. Exonerated, Wellesley returned to Portugal in 1809 for his unprecedented series of Victories at the head of allied (British, Portuguese and Spanish) armies. It was his command of Allied Armies in both the Peninsula, winning stunning victories such as Talavera , Salamanca, and Badajoz plus his earlier securing of Portugal by the construction of the in depth defensive system of the Lines of Torres Vedras plus his later leadership at Waterloo that elevates Wellington to the 1st rank of British Generalship ahead of the likes of Montgomery (famously annoying to his Allies) and even Slim. Holmes is very sure footed in his description of these Battles, and is able to describe the battlefield with a soldier’s eye. Even Wellington’s failure, and subsequent retreat from Burgos is not excused but Holmes also points out that Wellington himself was not uncritical of his performance here, with command comes accountability which Wellington did not seem to shirk.

Holmes is a sympathetic biographer and his eye for a Battlefield brings insight to his interpretation of the various battles fought. It is a shame that the maps, at least in the paperback version, are not clearly marked with the positions of opposing forces, representing only topography. Holmes identifies a key flaw in Wellington’s command – its fragility. Wellington had no time for 2nds in command and would not communicate his plans to subordinates, he was an exceptionally poor delegator and insisted on personal control – all well and good as long as he was not a casualty which fortunately he was not though he could easily have become one as in those times Generals fought at the front. Indeed at Waterloo, Wellington’s command group suffered 30% higher casualties than the main body of the army.

The book is a good one, though not the best on Wellington. For me Elizabeth Longford’s 2 volume life is both more detailed and is much stronger on the 2nd half of Wellington’s life. Indeed this book, like most on the subject is good on the years 1793 -1815 but then covers only in scant outline his many achievements after 1815. In 1815, Wellington was 46 years old and in the prime of life. He would live to be 81. In the intervening years he would be the Ambassador to France, Britain’s representative at the Congress of Vienna, which was to order the European Balance of Power until 1914! He would be Prime Minister; he would engineer Catholic Emancipation, oppose electoral reform and be, several times, Commander In Chief of the Army. For ordinary men, any one of these achievements would be worthy of a book to themselves and perhaps it is a measure of the greatness of Wellington that they are but a footnote in most biographies. Admittedly Holmes, as an unashamed military historian can be excused his skimming over of these later achievements but for me it does detract from the overall picture.


Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer; Completed 1 September 2015

My interest in this book was piqued whilst listening to the an episode of the excellent BBC History Extra podcast in which Spencer was discussing its recent publication and in the space of about 40 minutes went over some of the key protagonists and their fates. The book itself is more detailed and is a wonderful narrative history. Spencer is an excellent story-teller and I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed his earlier work, Blenheim, until reading this one.

What is known to most as The English Civil War would be more accurately termed as the ‘War of the Three Kingdoms’. As a percentage of population killed it far exceeds the 1st World War in lethality, particularly in Ireland. Ireland suffered a loss of 41% of its population during these wars to put some context to this it is worth recalling that in the USSR during the Second World War the population of fell by 16%!
The early chapters of the book cover the origins of the war, the King’s personal rule having dismissed an insubordinate and increasingly ascendant Parliament which ended after Charles tried to force his Anglican prayer book on his Scottish Calvinist subjects that led them in turn to invade England. The invasion required Charles to recall Parliament in order to raise funds to fight the Scots and it all descended from there.

Having lost the 1st of the Civil Wars by to Parliament 1646, Charles would probably have kept his crown and his head by accepting curbs to royal power. However, unwilling to accept the outcome of the 1st war Charles was to prove himself a duplicitous negotiator and after encouraging the remaining Royalists and the Scots to take arms against Parliament once again he was to lose the 2nd of the 3 Civil Wars. It was for this duplicity that in January 1649 Charles 1st was tried, as this book shows by something of a Kangaroo court, for treason and beheaded. The book identifies the 80 or so regicides, not just those 59 whose names and seals appeared on the king’s death warrant, but those who had worked in other ways to put the king to death, inventing the authority and necessary procedures to kill the king including a number who were involved in the administration of the King’s captivity and execution. At this time these men were at the peak of their power and although some would lose influence over the years of the republic or commonwealth, in particular for opposing Cromwell’s seizure of power in his own coup (contrary to the ideals for which they fought in the 1640s) those that would survive the republic would be hunted down with the full force of the state upon Monck’s restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

Some of these regicides did not have to wait that long as Royalist assassins in Europe attempted to take revenge from the very start. The 1st Regicide, the Dutch professor Dr Isaac Dorislaus was murdered in The Hague in 1649 by royalist refugees whilst on a diplomatic mission for Parliament. The book traces the, usually grisly, fates of the 80 Regicides of the King, most of whom were still alive at the restoration and who felt themselves, at least at 1st after hearing the Declaration of Breda and the restored Royalty’s proclamations of indemnity, to be safe. Very soon they were to be disabused of their naïve beliefs. Spencer traces the increasing vindictiveness of both houses of Parliament against their former comrades as they tried them in turn for treason. The final days of these men and the courage shown by most (the notable exception being the preacher The final chapters cover the pursuit to Europe in Germany the Netherlands and Switzerland) and, in the case of Goffe, Whalley and Dixwell to the Americas, of those less trusting regicides is also covered including for some their final escape but for others their demise at the hands of assassins or for some, such as John Barkstead, Miles Corbet and John Okey, to be betrayed by Okey’s former protégé Downing and act for which Downing was characterised by Samuel Pepys as odious though useful to the king. Pepys called Downing a “perfidious rogue" and remarked that "the entire world took notice of him for a most ungrateful villain for his pains." Nevertheless he received a baronetcy and riches form the King and the Street which now bears his name is the home of British Prime Ministers today.

What I had not realised before reading this was the number of what we would now refer to as war crimes, that took place during the Civil War. In particular the murder of Prisoners, especially of those who had surrendered on the promise of their lives being spared. Nor had I appreciated after the civil war just how much Cromwell’s take over had been a military coup with ‘Pride’s Purge’ of Parliament expelling most of its members to leave the Rump. The role of Religion in the Civil War was well known to me but the Religious faith of the Regicides, which seems to have given many comfort upon the scaffold, comes across as extremely strong. In the modern world we often fail to realise just how important religion was to our even recent ancestors, and just how far (even into committing the most heinous of crimes) it drove their actions. Something that we perhaps should remember when looking at more troubled parts of the world.

I have a couple of gripes towards the end of the book, in which the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’ is described a s a bloodless coup as it was not bloodless – this is an English narrative not a British one. Firstly it was not a coup but the last successful foreign invasion (by more than 40 000 troops) of Britain that led to an awful lot of bloodshed in Ireland in particular but also in Scotland. The Battle of the Boyne that essentially completed the ‘Revolution’ has echoed until the turn of the 21st Century and is still commemorated by one side of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland to this day. In Scotland the 1692 massacre of Glencoe was a direct consequence of the 1688 ‘Revolution’.

Aside from these minor gripes that creep in towards the end of the book, I thoroughly enjoyed this history which proceeds at a cracking pace throughout.

A list of the Regicides and their fates is currently available on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regicides_of_Charles_I


A Distant Mirror : The Calamitous 14th Century – Barbara Tuchman; Completed 18 August 2015

At nearly 700 pages this is a monster of a book which I started on some months ago. Nevertheless it is an excellent narrative history that on its release in 1978 won a number of prizes. To most, including me, Barbara Tuchman is better known as a historian of the 20th century and in particular the 1st World War. This book is however a European history of the 14th Century centred around the travails fo Ftrance in particular but ranging across the whole of Europe in its protagaonists. As a literaray device, the author follows the life of Enguerrand VII de Coucy (1340-97); Tuchman chose him as a central figure partly because he lived a relatively long life for the period and could therefore stay in the story during most of the 14th century. Furthermore he was involved in many of the key events of the 2nd half of the century. Like many of his class at the time he was wedded more to class than nation at one time, through his marriage to Princess Isabella of England (a marriage contracted whilst he was a hostage in England) holding the Earldom of Oxford whilst being also the Sire de Coucy a vassal of the king of France. The book relies much on Froissart's Chronicles which in some way at least explains its sympathetic treatment of Coucy of whom Froissart was an admirer.

The book’s main themes are the various crises of the 14th century, starting with famine caused by the start of the Little Ice Age then the truly horrific Black Death which left anything up to 50% of Europe’s population dead and also started the breakdown of the feudal system as consequent labour shortages across the continent for the 1st time in several hundred years allowed the peasant and serf classes to break away from their tied positions (though opposed by their feudal masters). The other key themes are the Schism of the church between Rome and Avignon, the ravages of the Chivalric classes and roaming bands of mercenaries, various outbreaks of anti-semitism and the advance into Europe towards the end of the century of the Ottoman Empire. The Climax of the book is at the Battle of Nicopolis (in Bulgaria) where the crusading army, nominally under the command of Sigismund the Holy Roman Emperor, was disastrously defeated when the French Knights failed to heed the entreaties of the Emperor and charged the Ottoman line without waiting for the supporting infantry to keep up. Throughout the book, Tuchman is critical of the French knightly insistence on valour as being of greater import than military competence, indeed she puts this at the route of many of the French reverses including Crecy and culminating in Nicopolis. The same paradigm, stemming at least in part, from the haughty belief of the aristocrats that they were inherently superioir in all ways to their social inferiors is also a factor in the defeat of Knights against Peasant in the Battle of the Golden Spurs that liberation of Switzerland earlier in the century.
HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR CHALRES IV

The title, A Distant Mirror, conveys Tuchman's idea that the death and suffering of the 14th century reflect that of the 20th century, especially the horrors of World War I but frankly I see this as something of a stretch, mainly as the reasons she clearly identifies as benighting the century are clearly absent from the 20th’s quite different issues. She does herself say "People of the Middle Ages existed under mental, moral, and physical circumstances so different from our own as to constitute almost a foreign civilization" so perhaps I have misunderstood the meaning of the ‘distant mirror’ as for me it is so distant as to be opaque. With her focus on the troubles in France in particular its wars with England, known now as The Hundred Year’s War does hide the fact that there was progress and prosperity in other realms. In particular in Bohemia the 14th century saw something of a Golden Age under Charles IV. Nevertheless these are minor points as this is a magnificent history of the century.


The Lonely Sea and the Sky by Sir Francis Chichester. Completed 12 August 2015

As a youngster in the late 1960s and early 1970s I, along with many of my generation were somewhat awed by Sir Francis Chichester who, in 1967, had become the first person to achieve a true solo circumnavigation of the world having stopped only once. Shortly afterwards Chichester was knighted and also honoured by the Post Office’s issuing of a 1/9d stamp (which I had at one point in my stamp collection – now long since lost sadly), which showed him aboard his boat Gipsy Moth IV. This was contrary to normal practice as Chichester was neither a member of the royal family nor dead when the stamp was issued and demonstrates just how much his achievement was valued at the time. Of course in the following year Robin Knox-Johnston’s triumph in the Whitbread Single-handed Non Stop Round the World Race overshadowed Chichester’s achievement and nowadays many sailors do solo circumnavigations (both nonstop and with halts) every year.

What I did not know as a youngster was that Chichester was not only an accomplished sailor but had been, in the 1920s and 1930s a pioneering aviator. This book tells the full story of his early life, his unhappy schooldays, his Father’s aloofness and of his being packed off at the age of 18 to New Zealand with just £10 in his pocket (roughly £350 in today’s money). Determining not to return to Britain until he had made his £10 into £20 000 ( £850 000 in 2015 terms), the young Chichester tried his hand as a stoker (on the ship taking him to NZ) , a farmhand, a boxer, a shepherd, a lumberjack, a member of three trade Unions - the Firemen's, the Miners' and the Timber Workers' - a railway worker, a gold prospector, a coal miner, before finding his talents as a salesman that, with a Partner he hit the lodestone as a land agent, he also found time to marry, father a child and then separate from his wife all before the age of 28. On returning to Britain in 1929, to his family’s indifference, with £20 000 in his pocket he determined to learn to fly and to buy his own aeroplane a de Havilland Gypsy Moth which he intended to fly back to New Zealand via Australia.

The story of his attempt to break the record of a solo flight from Britain to Australia is well told by Chichester. These are pioneering times that are being recorded of night flying without prior instruction, of flights over desert following the tracks of vehicle and of continually troublesome technology at the edge of its capability. It is no wonder that so many early aviators became casualties when Chichester’s curiosity leads to ideas such as this:

‘The sky was overcast, with ten-tenths at 1,000 feet. I climbed up into the cloud, and proceeded until I had passed through a 9,000 feet layer of it to emerge at 10,000 feet in brilliant sunshine over a snowy white field of cloud. Not only had I no compass, but no blind-flying instruments at all. I reckoned that if I got into trouble I could force the plane into a spin, and that it was bound to spin round the vertical axis, and that therefore I should be sure to emerge vertically from the cloud’ !

Well yes that would work but a modern aviator would consider you mad to fly through 9000ft of cloud without instruments and definitely would not recommend spinning through it to recover without knowing the height of the cloud base and the terrain below! One really does have to admire the bravery of men such as Chichester who, knowing the risks, were so willing to push boundaries in their thirst for discovery.

Chichester failed to take the record but he was only the 2nd person to fly solo from Britain to Australia and the story he tells of the trip is wonderful. Unlike many others he didn’t stop at that achievement but had the idea to convert his plane to a Seaplane to allow him greater range and more landing opportunities that would enable him, firstly to cross the Tasman Sea from East to West and then continue north in order to circumnavigate the globe. Chichester’s trip across the Tasman Sea is a classic. To enable it to happen he developed his own navigation system, learned to take Sun shots and had the bravery to launch into the unknown to achieve landing by tiny Lord Howe Island (where the plane is wrecked and then rebuilt by Chichester and the Islanders) before carrying on to Australia (he actually got a lift for the last 100 miles or so from the ‘only aircraft carrier in the Southern Hemisphere’. All the time he was flying a plane with an unknown but serious defect in the right float that left it continually full of water.

From Australia (July 3 – Aug 14 1931), Chichester continued his journey North in his quest at circumnavigation. His route carried him along the Eastern seaboard of Australia to New Guinea and then to the Philippines and Formosa (Taiwan) before coming to mainland China. At this time China was a lawless place with pirates at a number of coastal landing sites. Though this was still prior to the Japanese invasion, it is obvious that tensions were high and the Japanese were distrustful of the pioneering Englishman. The flight finally ended in Japan when Chichester flew into a cable stretched across the bay at Katsuura wrecking the aircraft and almost killing the Author.

These first flights take up around 50% of the book and describe truly pioneering flights. The period from 1936 to the end of WW2 takes up the next 20%. Despite these years also containing some remarkable (to anyone else) achievements, Chichester takes his foot of the throttle. For 5 years after his crash he returned to New Zealand and contented himself with fishing in his spare time until in 1936 when he persuaded a friend, Frank Herrick, to fly from Australia to Britain. Chichester would be the pilot and Herrick provided the plane a DH Puss Moth. At this point Chichester had not flown for 5 years.
The description of this flight does not match those of his early flights mainly as it was more of a tour than a challenge. The pair flew from Australia to China then (failing to get the Soviet’s permission to go through Siberia) they turned left to go to India , Persia, and Iraq – where after landing in the dark, Herrick walked into the still rotating propeller, seriously injuring himself. Form Iraq they hurried to the UK, via Cairo and N Africa, to allow Herrick to get treatment.

In the UK Chichester met and married Sheila and then returned to NZ but with the clouds of war gathering he decided to return to Britain and become a Fighter Pilot. To his surprise, Chichester’s piloting skills were deemed surplus to requirements and it was not until 1941 that he was finally accepted by the RAF as a non-aircrew Navigation Instructor. Later in the War when he would often arrive at bases in his Nav School’s aircraft and cause consternation by having no brevet on his chest – causing many to wonder where the pilot had gone.

After the War Chichester’s flair for business helped him to succeed in a new venture. Planning to be a toy maker but unable to get sufficient raw materials in post war Britain, a friend suggested that he make jigsaw puzzles. Using 15,000 maps left over from his Nav school courses, he bought a ton of cardboard and turned these maps into map jigsaws. Unfortunately sales were disappointing until a man walked into his office and said, 'This picture map of London is the best I've seen; if you will take it off this lousy piece of cardboard I'll order 5,000. So Chichester became a map publisher by accident. Success in this venture allowed him time to pursue his Sailing interests which by the 1950s were significant, he claimed that he had taken up sailing instead of flying again as flying was no longer the adventure it had been ‘I decided to go in for sailing or gliding, and plumped for sailing, because it was more sociable; the family could weekend in a yacht, but hardly in a glider’.

The final 30% of this book is taken up with Chichester’s sailing, first as a crew member for the races mentioned below and then covering his victory in the 1st single-handed transatlantic yacht race, held in 1960, before then setting the record time for a solo East-West Atlantic crossing . Being much in demand as a Navigator he crewed for numerous owners in several races, including a number of Fastnets until, in 1958, he was diagnosed with incurable Lung cancer, now believed to have been a lung abscess. After a change of diet, and a prolonged stay in France, Chichester’s ‘cancer’ appeared to be in remission and he took up long distance solo sailing.

The 1st single-handed transatlantic yacht race, held in 1960 was the brainchild of Royal Marine hero 'Blondie' Hasler of ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ fame. One of the main criteria for the race was that the yachts should be fitted with self-steering devices (not then commercially available). Each sailor therefore designed his own device – Chichester using a book on sailing model boats to find his own solution (a device he later named Miranda) to fit to his yacht Gipsy Moth III. Chichester was the winner of this race (he would come 2nd in in 1964’s race – though by then his sights were set on a bigger adventure). The account of the crossing and the reception in the USA is thrilling. Chichester also covers the return journey, this time with his wife on board.

The book ends with Chichester’s then record setting solo crossing of the Atlantic in June 1962. Chichester set himself a target of 30 days based on the best times a fully crewed vessel was thought able to achieve and then set to work out how a solo sailor could achieve the same time. In the end he managed in a record 34 days.

Having been largely forgotten for the last 40 years, it was a joy to read this book and to realise just what a pioneer Sir Francis Chichester was in his time. When challenged, Chichester’s answer to the question 'Why did you do it?' was that it 'intensifies life'. We can all learn from Chichester’s adage that: ‘the joy of living comes from action, from making the attempt, from the effort, not from success.’

This book is a must read for anyone with a spirit of adventure.



Global Flyer: Around the World in 80 Flying Days by Brian Milton; Completed 29 July 2015

I came across this book by accident when I heard that my local airstrip at Insch had hosted Brian Milton when he had diverted there on the final leg of the first circumnavigation of the world by a microlight aircraft. Not being follower microlight aviation I had no idea that anyone had even circumnavigated the world in one. My interest piqued, I obtained a copy of the book via Amazon and started to read. Fortuitously I was also reading Sir Francis Chichester’s ‘The Lonely Sea and the Sky’ as I was reading Milton’s book and it was this that made me realise just how pioneering Brian Milton was on this flight as I could compare it directly with Chichester’s flights to Australia and across the Tasman sea during the 1920 and 30s

This book describes the flight that started in March 1998 when Brian Milton and Keith Reynolds set out to fly a single-engined weight shift microlight around the world in 80 days. The flight would in fact take 120 days (though actual flying would be 80 days) with around 40 days lost to bureaucratic interference – mostly in Russia where the flyers were detained for weeks and where Keith Reynolds departed the project. Other bureaucratic time losses were encountered in Japan – where private microlight flying was very much frowned upon, China and somewhat surprisingly Denmark which was obstructive when permission to land at, and cross, Greenland was required.

The early part of the book covers Milton’s search for sponsorship for this trip. As a London based financial journalist he is able, after a number of dead ends, to make the right contacts that leads to GTC Global investments (hence the title), one of the Lichtenstein Royal Family’s conglomerate of companies providing the necessary funds. Of course with the sponsorship comes a loss of control as he who pays the piper calls the tune. Struggles with various GTC Global’s requirements and personnel ensue. It is hard to tell how much of the personality clashes can be laid at the foot of everyone but Milton does have a habit of falling out with people. Having said that he is remarkably honest about his relationships and personal fears. In particular his own personal Djinn 1st encountered over India when he became the 1st person to fly from the UK to Australia in a microlight.

During the search for sponsorship Richard Branson was approached but declined whilst at the same time initiating a threat to put together his own Virgin team record attempt. This threat is a theme throughout the book and Milton credits it as a major factor in Keith Reynold’s decision to leave the project (along with personal differences regarding risk acceptance and female company) in Siberia.
Obviously the vast majority of the book is taken up with the journey itself which is a true adventure. The idea was for the route to follow, within reason that taken by the fictitious Phileas Fogg. The departure point was London in March 1998 and Brian would return, accompanied from the Orkney Islands by friends in their own microlights in July (having diverted to Insch because of bad weather in the Cairngorms). The route was across Europe to the Middle East. Over Syria they were intercepted by a Syrian MiG and over the Saudi desert they lost the engine-cooling water leading to the need several times on motorways to top up the water. Continuing on over India, Japan and into China the pair eventually ran into Russian bureaucracy at Sakhalin – leading to the split up of the team. With Brian and a Russian Navigator (required by the Russian authorities) continuing eventually to Alaska Brian found out that GTC global had been bought out and, citing ‘safety concerns’ as Brian was now alone, informed Brian and his support team that they were pulling out of the deal.
Without additional funds Milton continues his flight across Canada and the USA and eventually Baffin Island – Greenland-Iceland to Faeroes and Orkney. Encountering the worst weather of the trip between Greenland and Iceland.

Overall I found this to be an honest, warts and all, account of an epic adventure which, outside the microlight fraternity has gone remarkably unnoticed. I have seen one Amazon reviewer commenting that Milton comes across as self- congratulatory. For me he tells a good tale and given the level of the achievement I would say he has plenty to be smug about especially as the flight earned Milton the Royal Aero Club's Britannia Trophy and the Segrave Trophy, once held by Amy Johnston. Furthermore the Daily Telegraph once described Milton as one of the ‘Top 20 great British adventurers still living’. This book certainly gels with that assessment IMHO.




Spitfire Ace of Aces – The Wartime Story of Johnnie Johnson by Dilip Sarkar; Completed 22 July 2015

The very 1st book I took out from Carre’s Grammar School Library on my 1st day at the school in September 1975 was ‘Johnnie’ Johnson’s ‘Wing Leader’. Since that time I have read it on numerous occasions and now have my own copy. Like many schoolboys of that time I also built Airfix’s Spitfire Mk IX that represented Johnson’s aircraft whilst Wing Leader of the Canadian manned Kenley Wing in 1943 (although to be honest the Airfix kit was awfully inaccurate).

Officially, James Edgar (Johnnie) Johnson was the RAF’s top scoring fighter ace of WW2 with 38 ½ victories (though Marmaduke StJ Pattle was believed to have scored over 50 before he was killed over Crete in 1941 and the squadron records were lost). 38 of Johnson’s victories were against German fighters and Johnson completed a total of over 700 operational sorties between 1940 and 1945, rising from the rank of Sergeant to Group Captain in the process overtaking most of his peers. Johnson’s most successful combat tour was in 1943, leading what was initially the Kenley Wing and which subsequently became 127 Wing. In this period, Johnnie claimed fourteen enemy aircraft destroyed while flying Spitfire EN398 - the most successful Spitfire ever.

Of course Wing Leader was an autobiography written in 1956 by a still serving RAF Officer so could be expected to have left a lot of detail about, particularly as protagonists were still young men. ‘Spitfire Ace of Aces’ brings ‘Wing Leader’ up to date and adds detail to the text by the use of interviews, Johnson’s log books, ORBs and Combat reports. The book also has a lot of new photos.

Unfortunately ‘Spitfire Ace of Aces’ doesn’t really fulfil its promise nor take us much further than ‘Wing Leader’. The early narrative is fine though a little too trusting and lazy use of discredited shibboleths e.g. mentioning in the Battle of Britain period that ‘… the enemy did not fully appreciate the significance of radar’ (they did, what they failed to understand was the fully integrated nature of the RAF’s C2 system). Nevertheless we are taken at a fair clip up until 1943 and the appointment of Johnson as Wg Cdr Flying at Kenley and there we get bogged down in what should be the best bit of the book as the author seems to get stuck in the minutiae of Johnson’s log book. Over reliance diaries /ORBs makes this section a difficult read. There is a lot of repetition where single combats are recalled from several pilot’s perspectives and monotony in going over ops where no contact is made with the Luftwaffe and at points even mentioning 30 minute air tests! This section could have been so much better with careful editing.

The book gets its mojo back around D-Day where a good narrative story is told but then loses it again when we move from the Arnhem battle to the end of the war in next to no time (here ‘Wing Leader’ is so much better) this is really a lost opportunity.

For me though the real lost opportunity is the failure to follow up Johnson’s post war career. Given access to log books and personal interviews with his subject I would have hoped the author could have written a fuller biography as Johnson served with the USAF in the Korean War then commanded V Bombers in the Cold War and was AOC the Middle East eventually rising to the rank of Air Vice Marshall. Johnson’s marriage to his wife, Paula, is mentioned during the war years and she is quoted as a witness throughout but no word is made of the fact that the couple separated in the 1950s and Johnson later lived with the widow of another RAF pilot. All these omissions do a dis-service to a genuine War Hero as they fail to flesh out the complex human being who was ‘Johnnie’ Johnson. The last chapter in particular is a big disappointment to me being more of an eulogy for the author’s (an my own childhood) hero than a rounded history.

In summary a Curate’s Egg of a book. A good companion volume to ‘Wing Leader’, that fills in some historical gaps and lots of details, but not a substitute and, crucially a significant part of the story is missing.


The Man Who Cycled The World by Mark Beaumont completed 13 May 15

Over the last few years I have been privileged to attend several talks by Mark Beaumont, most recently at the Huntly ex-servicemen’s club. In these he has talked about his round the world bike ride of 2007/8 and his further adventures (which include cycling the length of North and South America and climbing the highest mountains in each continent, an attempted row across the Atlantic and a rowing expedition to the Geographic North Pole). Mark is an excellent and engaging speaker but until now I had not taken the time to assess his capability as a writer despite having owned this book since 2009!

I am glad that I have finally gotten around to picking up and reading this book which tells the tale of Mark’s early life and schoolboy adventures (including cycling LEJOG at the age of 15) and eventually leads us to his astonishing record breaking trip around the world in 194 days and 17 hours, in which he beat the previous record by almost 3 months. Mark recalls the difficulties involved in raising funds for his trip whilst training and working in a hotel washing dishes for a living.

From the outset it should be noted that Mark saw this adventure as a race rather than a trip to see the world. He set out to cover 18 000 miles going one way and through 2 antipodal points (Madrid and Auckland) in order to meet Guinness Book of Records requirements, in reality to make sure he wasn’t short on miles he added a safety margin of additional distance. All the time he would need to average 100 miles a day and planned only a few rest days and days to travel intercontinentally by air (as was allowed by Guinness). His calculation of the time required was uncannily accurate at 195 days.

The actual trip is broken down into geographic sections. Starting in Paris, Mark travels through a wet Western Europe supported by his Polish masseur as far as Ukraine – which with its Cyrillic script, poor roads and mafia run ‘hotels’ surprises Mark in its alien-ness eventually arriving in European Turkey at Istanbul.

Form Istanbul the trip eastwards becomes very different as Anatolian Turkey passes into a surprisingly easy-going Iran and on into Pakistan. Pakistan turns out to be one of the more problematic countries on the itinerary with a police escort required throughout and with the escorting police having very little understanding of Mark’s aims. India on the other hand enchants Mark with its noise and colour ( and free Elephant ride).

After India come a the Monsoon in SE Asia and Singapore. The 3000 miles across Australia where the expected tailwinds turn ou to be headwinds for pretty much the entire 30 days of the crossing are a slog. Christmas in spent in New Zealand. On all of these legs Mark’s single-minded pursuit of his goal comes across as he turns down a number of opportunities to spend more time in interesting places.

In the United States Mark is run over and mugged in the same day. The son of the lady who ran him over stepping in the help him get back on the road within 24 hours of his accident. The final leg is through Portugal (meeting once again his masseur) and Spain (with a Police escort through Madrid) into France and back to Paris.

In the Epilogue, Mark’s mother gives an excellent account of her work as the Base Camp support, a role in which she was on call 24/7 to arranged visas, travel, contacted embassies and carried out a whole host of other supporting tasks. She also provide, for me at least, the funniest couple of sentances in the book when, without a hint of irony she comes up with this:

“With my knowledge of first aid and homeopathy I gave my wrist attention and kept going, telling myself it was a bad sprain. After two weeks I was persuaded to have it X-rayed and found I had a clean break.”

It’s perhaps a little cruel of me to highlight these couple of sentences as Mrs. B did indeed do a fantastic job for Mark on the ride and deserves plaudits for her efforts. This was Mark’s first book and was written just after completing the ride. It comes across as fresh and is a thoroughly enjoyable read. The undoubted repetitiveness of riding over 100 miles a day (especially for a month across the GAFA of Australia) never comes across in the writing.


D DAY - Through German Eyes - Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944 by Holger Eckhertz ; Completed 15 May 2015

Holger Eckhertz has collated the interviews taken by his grandfather, Dieter in 1954 on the 10th anniversary of the Invasion. Dieter Eckhertz, as a military journalist, had toured the Atlantic Wall defences in the spring of 1944 interviewing troops for the German propaganda magazines such as ‘Signal’ and ‘Die Wehrmacht’. In 1954 on the tenth anniversary of D Day, Dieter tracked down some of the troops whose units he had visited. His intention to compile these recollections into a complete book was prevented his death in 1955. Here, his Grandson, has taken over and selected the experiences of 5 individuals (one for each of the Invasion beaches - Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword) to be representative of the whole.

This is a short book, available as far as I am aware only on Kindle. The page count (kindle estimate) is only 141 pages. Nevertheless it takes the perspective, rarely seen, of German troops on D-Day. I think the particular value in the book is not only does it take the German Eye Witness accounts but those accounts were recorded within 10 years of the end of the Second World War when German was still a vanquished and divided nation at the height of the Cold War when even West Germany was disarmed and excluded from Nato membership. So unlike other books of the type it is not the later recollections of old men that is recorded here but the voices of men still in their 20s or early 30s for whom the events would have been recent and traumatic occurrences.

One is left with a number of impressions from reading these stories. Some of these impressions which were not expected. The main thing that comes across was the force of the Allied assault. In terms of Naval and Air Power the force applied comes across as absolutely immense. In terms of violence, the horrific sights of men dying by mid-20th century weapons such as flame-throwing tanks and of medieval weaponry (bayonet and butt) comes across in awful intensity. There is no effort made to excuse atrocities commited by the likes of the SS – in particular the murder of POWs, in fact the interviewees for the most part seemed to have taken this for granted and no worse than Allied actions.

Something I had not taken note of before reading this book was the German view that they were the defenders of a United (rather than oppressed) Europe as shown in the following quotation (note also the mention of Race – central to Nazi philosophy):
“Why would men, who were the same race as us, who were physically similar to us, why would they hate us in this way? Why would they want to burn us alive, when we were protecting Europe? What was the origin of this hatred? I had no answer to such questions.”
Of course we now see in this the hand of Josef Goebbels but one can see its foundation in the fear of the Russians on the Eastern Front and in the inclusion within the Wehrmacht of volunteers form many nations – particularly Russians and Baltic troops – some of whom are recorded her as fighting bravely against the Allies.

In sum this is a fascinating read.


Walking Home – Travels with a troubadour on the Pennine Way – Simon Armitage Completed 7 April 2015

Simon Armitage CBE is an accomplished English poet who in 1999 was named the Millennium Poet. Since 2011 he has been Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield. Personally I had never heard of him and even after starting this book had no idea of his accomplisments – poetry not being my thing (excepting Wordsworth and Coleridge – both renowned as walkers) though walking very much is my thing. So I bought this book because of its subject – a walk along the Pennine Way.

Published in 2012 the book was a Sunday Times best-seller for over a month. I think this might have been overdoing it but it is indeed an enjoyable read, and in places quite funny. To someone into lightweight backpacking, the author’s approach of staying in hotels and having his luggage (the weighty ‘Tombstone’ suitcase) transported for him from night stop to night stop seems a bit cissy but each to his own and in any case the premise for the author’s journey is both unusual and worthwhile.

Armitage’s approach to the Walk is to tackle it ‘the wrong way around’ i.e. from North to South as in this way he shall be walking towards his home in Yorkshire just a couple of days walk from the Edale end. Armitage considers the Pennine Way to be “a pointless exercise, leading from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular, via no particular route and for no particular reason.” His plan was also to start penniless and to earn his keep by giving poetry readings (donations in the sock please) at each night’s stopping point. Along the way he would walk with a variety of respondents to his blogged pleas for assistance. Happily, Armitage earns enough (£3086.42 to be precise plus sundry other deposited objects) to fund his trip (including beer and food) and meets a range of interesting characters along the way.

The walk is told as a daily diary account of distance and references to maps that are covered that then progresses to experiences and people. This is not a guide to the Pennine Way but a personal and deeply interesting narrative story that is most enjoyable. Unsurprisingly, given the author’s day job, the prose is always good and at times wonderful. In particular as he approaches Kinder Scout on the last day it is wonderfully evocative language.


Wayward Sailor: In Search of the Real Tristan Jones by Anthony Dalton completed 2 April 2015

In 2012 I read Tristan Jones’ ‘Ice’, an enjoyable tale of sailing adventures in the high Arctic though having read all of Tilmans’ books it was clear that ‘Ice’ was, if not completely fanciful, significantly embroidered. As Dalton shows in this excellent biography, my suspicions were correct as Jones was serving on a Royal Navy based in Singapore, aboard ship, and in southern England throughout the period he claimed to have been in the Arctic.

Though some have taken this biography which Dalton claims was originally ‘intended to be a tribute to Tristan Jones…. to be an admiring look at his life’, to be an attack on Tristan Jones it is nothing more than a balanced look at a fascinating life. I also think that Dalton, although he de-bunks a number of myths is sympathetic to Jones. That Arthur ‘Tristan’ Jones was something of a rogue is hard to dispute after reading this book but equally it is hard to dispute that his was a life well lived and that in spite of many of the wild claims made in his books that he still achieved an awful lot in not a particularly long life (he was 66 and a double amputee when he died in 1995).
Dalton’s biography uses interviews with Jones’ friends and acquaintances plus private letters and the log books kept by Jones himself to separate fact from the fictions woven by Jones in his best-selling sailing books. For many, Tristan Jones was reputed to be one of the great small-boat mariners of the twentieth century. This is plainly a fiction though his actual achievements were still impressive. Dalton estimates that he sailed well over 70 000 miles in small boats mostly as skipper of a small crew – he rarely sailed solo (against Jones claimed 345 000 miles under sail in small boats,180 000 of which he claimed to have been alone) this is still an impressive tally. It is also clear that Jones was a talented sailor with an instinctive gift as well as a talented writer and story-teller. Dalton shows that, in spite of the bogus claims, its possible that Jones was the first to sail a foreign boat on Lake Titicaca and was almost certainly the first person to take a sea-going boat across the width of South America. He was probably the first to sail in the Mato Grosso. After losing one leg he was certainly the first to take an oceangoing Tri-maran across Europe, from the North Sea to the Black Sea as well as leading (with a disabled crew) the first expedition to cross the Malay Peninsula by river. All of these achievements are, to me at least, worthy of note particularly given the ill health of his final years.

Tristan Jones other claims were clearly bogus and to be frank I think most people knew this even during his life. He claimed:
• Twenty-two Atlantic crossings under sail record (actually 3)
• Farthest north under sail (made in ‘Ice’)
• 1st circumnavigation of Iceland (Ice)
• Farthest up the Amazon (Incredible Journey)
• 1st to transit the Panama Canal under sail alone (Incredible Journey) in reality he used ‘Sea Dart’s’ engine
• 1st to sail on both the highest and the lowest bodies of navigable water in the world (there is no evidence that he sailed on the Dead Sea; Lake Titicaca where he did sail was already a busy place)
• 1st across Europe with an oceangoing sailboat
• 1st across Thailand's Isthmus of Kra

Dalton concludes his book with the admiring statement that ‘Tristan Jones's true record as an adventurer, a writer, and a seaman is one he had every reason to be proud of. His actual voyages are evidence that he was an accomplished sailor, and his books are written by a skilled author who was awarded two literary prizes in Wales.’ I would agree with this assessment but would also say that Jones invention of his own image in order to make a living was equally impressive and should (unlike his less endearing penchant for booze, cigarettes and pugnacity) be admired. It should be noted that ‘Arthur Jones was nobody for forty years before his metamorphosis into Tristan Jones-a literary meteor rocketing through unsuspecting skies above unpredictable seas’

Tristan Jones created a number of myths about his life, claiming to have been born at sea off Tristan da Cunha in 1924 to a Welsh sea Captain and then growing up in a small Welsh Village before leaving to join the Royal Navy in 1939 and fighting valiantly in several major Actions (sinking of the Hood, Bismarck and Scharnhorst to name a few) including being torpedoed on 3 occasions. In truth Arthur Jones was born in Liverpool in 1929 to an unmarried Lancashire girl (who may have been Welsh) and grew up in orphanages. He joined the Royal Navy aged 17 in 1946 and served, mostly at shore stations until 1960 when it is possible that he was medically discharged. At this point Jones bought an old lifeboat ‘Cresswell’ and conducted at least some whisky smuggling runs to France until it appears he was captured and spent a short period as a guest of the Republic before being declared ‘Persona non Grata’ and told to stay out of France (at this point he appears to have obtained the 1st of several false passports). Ignoring the French authorities it seems that he took ‘Cresswell’ through the French canal system to the Mediterranean where he would spend the next few years based out of the Balearics for the most part getting into various scrapes (one witness stated "During the two years I spent in Ibiza I never saw the man sober.... He was very abusive, mostly verbally, sometimes even physically). On selling ‘Cresswell’ sometime around 1967 he owned another boat ‘Banjo’ for around a year and scraped a living delivering other people's yachts.

Around 1968 Jones appears to have been lucky and was recommended as a skipper to the American Businessman Arthur Cohen for his 37 foot yacht ‘Barbara’ in which the 1st part of ‘The Incredible Journey’ is set. Jones and his crew were employed to carry out a circumnavigation from Westport USA via the Mediterranean, across the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia, thence to Japan, and on to the west coast of the United States by way of Alaska. During the voyage Cohen would fly out at various points to get some days sailing on his yacht or would instruct the crew to pick up and take to sea a variety of business friend and contacts. The circumnavigation was eventually given up on and Jones was required to return across the Atlantic from S Africa to the Caribbean in 1973. To this point Jones’ only major sailing voyage was the one he had just completed in Barbaras. He would make only two more extensive voyages in the next twenty years- the classic one in Sea Dart from the Caribbean to Peru and then crossing the S American continent and the other 1983 in the Tri-maran ‘Outward Leg’

During his travels in ‘Barbara’ Jones was 1st published in magazines and in 1977 he published ‘Incredible Journey’ – his bestselling account of the travels in ‘Barbara and Sea Dart’ that was the foundation for his move from the sea to a Greenwich Village apartment to write six books in three years and reinvent his past. It is sad that from here it seems that Jones became entrapped by his newly invented life story and felt forced to live up to it despite its contradictions. I suspect the stress involved in keeping up a variety of fictions contributed to his later poor health.

After the amputation of his left leg in 1982 Jones sailed the loaned Tri-maran ‘Outward Leg’ more than halfway around the world from the US via Europe to finally settle in Phuket Thailand. ‘Outward Leg had been loaned by its owners to Jones to prove that disability need not be a barrier to a circumnavigation. Of course Jones decided not to continue the circumnavigation and went his own way. In Germany he met a young companion Thomas Ettenhuber who stayed with him for the next 4 years until he was murdered(probably) in Thailand by which time the owners of ‘Outward Leg’ having had enough of Jones wayward personality had reclaimed their boat. Before Ettenhubers death with a crew of young Thai amputees and the able-bodied Ettenhuber, Tristan did lead the 1st river corssing of the Malay Peninsula. Ettenhuber’s death seemed to knock the stuffing out of Jones though his self-centred nature which was increasingly coming to the fore at this time meant that Ettenhuber got little of the credit he was due when Jones was writing of their adventures together and Ettenhuber’s mother, when in Thailand to reclaim her only son’s body was brusquely treated.

In 1991 Jones was to lose his remaining leg and for the next few years with little new income from writing (his last few years had provided little sailing to write even for magazines). He did briefly return to the sea and continued to write though did not submit new works for publication. ‘The Sound of a Different Drum’ was an original work of fiction. Dalton records that it was superbly written but that as it was a story of love between 2 gay yachtsmen it was ahead of its time. According to Dalton ‘Had it been written as a "straight" novel it would certainly have been published, and the ensuing income would have made Tristan's last months far more comfortable’. This and several other manuscripts written in Jones last years gives Dalton room to speculate that Jones may have been gay or bisexual though of course the evidence is circumstantial – and in today’s more liberal climate irrelevant. It is a shame however that if these manuscripts are as good as Dalton claims, and given the quality of his other writing there is no reason to doubt Dalton’s assessment, that they have never been published.

With little income from his writing and no opportunity for lecturing, Jones final years were uncomfortable and he was reliant on charity from admirers, mostly from America. As Dalton says ‘The rattle of coins in his figurative tin cup began to be heard wherever in the world he had fans. His newsletters cried out for donations to the Atlantis Society, which by then was little more than an excuse to maintain Tristan and his staff of Thai boys in Phuket. The thousands of dollars he earned from the sale of Gabriel (his last boat) were never mentioned’.
Dalton makes some final epitaphic points:

‘Tristan Jones was an enigma. ... He lived to be sixty-six years old and managed to keep the first forty a mystery….. Brice Keller, a fan, contributed to an Internet guest book about Tristan. His words make a fitting epitaph: "Tris was a great sailor and storyteller, I don't care if he never left his flat and dreamt up every one of his books. They have provided countless hours of enjoyment for myself and many others."

My final assessment of this book is that it is a finely written first class biography that shows Jones ‘warts n all’ but at the same time is sympathetic to the main character right to the end.
Jones was a complex man – like all of us imperfect but in spite of his many flaws it is hard not to admire how he created his own life and myth.


Incredible Voyage – Tristan Jones Completed 10 March 2015

A couple of years ago, before he retired, I noticed a picture of a small yacht on John Pennel’s desk. We then discussed his plans for travels and I mentioned that I owned Tillman’s anthology of sailing books (last read in 1986) which I then lent to John. In return John lent me Tristan Jones’ ‘Ice’. Jones book was packaged as athe story of a factual journey but was so full of tall tales, though well told, as to raise suspicion. I now know that it was in fact entirely made up. Nevertheless I enjoyed the book and John recommended that I read ‘The Incredible Voyage’

‘The Incredible Voyage’, published in 1977, tells the story of Jones’ 6 year long journey (in 2 boats – ‘Barbara’ and ‘Sea Dart’)to obtain the "vertical sailing record of the world". Having sailed his boat on the earth's lowest stretch of water, the Dead Sea, at 1,250 feet below sea-level, Jones determined to sail the highest, Lake Titicaca, 12,580 ft amsl in the Andes. Incredible may be an accurate description , given Jones’ known penchant for mixing fact and fiction, and it is now known that he did not sail on the Dead Sea though he did haul Sea Dart form the coast of Peru to Lake Titicaca and then exited South America via the Rivers Paraguay and Plate.

‘The Incredible Voyage’ tells the tale of how Jones and Conrad Jelinik sailed across the Atlantic then trucked Arthur Cohen’s ‘Barbara’ through Israel to the Dead Sea (fiction) then to the Red Sea (fact) before travelling in the Indian Ocean down the West Coast of Africa and then across the Atlantic in order to gain access to Lake Titicaca via the Amazon. Jones’ tells how he and Jelinik failed to progress in the Amazon and were beaten back to the Caribbean from where Jelinik flew home. At the time of the voyage Jones was acting as skipper of ‘Barbara’ on behalf of her owner who in reality would ask Jones’ to meet him and his guests at a variety of ports with from where they would carry out a few days sailing. Jones’ mentions none of this but inspite of some over dramatization he tells a good and enjoyable story. Sometimes his turn of phrase grates to modern ears in its forced machismo but it is easy enough to gloss over these failings.

In real life Jones and Jelinik went their separate ways once Jones’ contract as Skipper of ‘Barbara’ came to an end on reaching the Caribbean and it was here that Jones purchased ‘Sea Dart’ a 23 footer that would indeed complete an incredible journey. Jones tells a gripping yarn of taking ‘Sea Dart’ through the Panama canal and then down the coast of South America – beating relentlessly against wind and current before fetching up in Peru and transporting ‘Sea Dart’ overland to Lake Titicaca then spending several months ‘exploring’ the lake before continuing the journey overland and by river to fetch up eventually in Argentina. This story is enjoyable and to a large extent factual, although the Quechan Indian (Huanapoco) whom Jones’ claimed to travel with him was a work of fiction as were the numerous terms Jones is thrown in gaol and the struggle through the Mato Grosso is significantly over embellished.

A couple of stories do really jar. In particular the fictional account of Jones visit to the Bolivian Yacht Club which he paints as an outpost of escaped Nazis (crew of the Graf Spee). His literary treatment of people who extended him a hand of welcome and who in reality had been born and bred in Bolivia is unsettling and frankly mean spirited.

For me it is a shame that so much of this story is fiction. Jones’ achievement in not only sailing such a small vessel as ‘Sea Dart’ so far (I am not a sailor but a friend who is tells me he would take such a vessel on day trips only!) and of taking an ocean going vessel from West to East across South America was in itself a fantastic achievement worthy of its own telling without embellishment. As Anthony Dalton says in ‘Wayward Sailor:
‘Despite her skipper's transgressions, Sea Dart had become the first oceangoing sailboat to travel the width of South America, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. She almost certainly had the right to be known as the first such vessel to sail on Lake Titicaca, and to sail the rivers of the Mato Grosso. Tristan's falsifications aside, the twenty-one-month voyage from Bequia to Buenos Aires, calling at nine countries, was a magnificent achievement-not only for the diminutive Sea Dart, but also for her stubborn, determined captain.’

Overall an enjoyable read but perhaps of its time.


Mud, Sweat and Gears: Cycling From Land's End to John O'Groats (Via the Pub)by Ellie Bennett Completed 28 Feb 2015

I really enjoyed this gem of a book. This is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously and as the Author says herself this is not simply a description of a LEJOG cycle ride but could be better described as ‘Mick and Ellie’s thousand mile pub crawl’. But then it is more than that also.

This is a story of Ellie Bennett’s and her companion Mick’s cycle from Land’s End to John O Groats and beyond as they make best use of the month they are on the road by taking a somewhat scenic route and on reaching John O Groats they take the ferry to Orkney and spend a few days cycling around the Orcadian Mainland before returning to their homes in Bristol. I get the impression that the book is a distillation of the Blog that Ellie admits posting as they travelled and this gives the story a freshness that is often missed in similar tales. The book is written in diary format with a day by day account of Ellies’ adventures and a daily and running tally of miles done and pints sunk. This format works wonderfully well as it allows Ellie to provide a wonderful daily travelogue that provides tasting notes and provenance of the many real ales (CAMRA get just praise here) that are now available across Britain – even into Scotland (a massive improvement since when I 1st moved here in 1986 the only beers available were the execrable Tennant Lager and McEwan’s export)! Whilst I am on the subject one of Ellie’s discoveries in Scotland is my own favourite Ale – Inveralmond Brewery’s ‘Ossian’.

In addition to the mileage, cycling and Beer drinking there are some wonderful historical vignettes linked to the places visited – I for one didn’t know that Butch Cassidy came from Lancashire! All of this – the travel, the history and the beer is linked by a witty narrative that makes one think that ‘you know I could do that’ especially when Ellie herself admits to not being a ‘real cyclist’ when confronted by other end to enders who have taken days to her weeks in making the journey, though I suspect her way is more mine – where one can enjoy the journey rather than target the finish (for anyone who is interested the current record time for the journey is 44 hours, 4 minutes and 20 seconds)

Ellie’s Blog is at http://elliestravelstories.blogspot.co.uk/ the blog has trip reports from other trips and although it is a while since it was last updated it is an enjoyable read itself.


Bomber Command – By Max Hastings – Completed 1 January 2015

I bought this book in 1979 when it was 1st published and last read it in 1990 so I thought I would take another look. The book was Max Hastings 1st foray into writing History rather than Journalism and stands up well to his other, later, works. Whilst writing the book Hastings had advantages that later writers have not – not only were archives becoming open after under the 30 years rule but many of the participants in Bomber Commands campaign were still relatively young – in their late 50s/early 60s and available for interview as was MRAF Sir Arthur Harris the wartime leader of the Command. On release in 1979 this book attracted fierce controversy – Ira Eaker encouraged Harris to sue Hastings and many of the participants were understandably (given the loss of over 55 500 men) sensitive to criticism. Today however, this book is now seen as a classic and one of the 1st modern histories of the RAF’s Bomber Offensive. It seeks to tell the story of the Bomber Offensive from start to finish not only in bare chronology but by using a range of personal testimony by showing what it was like to be a participant in.

As a narrator Hastings is hard to beat. The prelude tells the tale of the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 18 December 1939 raid on Wilhelmshaven in which 22 Wellingtons attempted to attack (without dropping bombs for fear of hitting civilians) German naval units in Wilhelmshaven. 12 Wellingtons were destroyed for the loss of 2 Me109s. (for an account of the Battle see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Heligoland_Bight_(1939)#cite_note-Holmes_2010.2C_p._86-5 )

Chapter 1 recounts the now well known history of the formation of the RAF in WW1 and inter war service rivalry and the rise of the Trenchard Doctrine of Strategic Air Attack. Ch 2 covers the exploits of 82 Sqn as an analogy for the daylight strikes of 2 group in late 1939-to the end of 1940 when attacks were made on German armour in the lead up to Dunkirk and thereafter on German shipping. Whilst it was Fighter Command that got the plaudits in this period, 2 Gp’s losses were proportionately heavier and were compared by Churchill to the Charge of the Light Brigade – to a man with Churchill’s historical outlook a clear intimation of gallantry paired with futility in sacrifice.

Whilst 2 Group was flying the outdated Blenheim in day raids that were only truly sustainable after the introduction of the excellent Mosquito later in the war, the day bombers brethren in 3, 4 and 5 Gps were suffering relatively light losses flying night sorties dropping leaflets (until May 1940) and then bombs on German targets (and Italian from 10 June) in amateurish night attacks. These early night raids are covered in Chapter 3 when 10 Sqn is the analogy used for the wider night bomber force. Equipped with Whitley’s the Sqn made the same errors as others. It proved almost impossible to find pinpoint targets at night let alone cities. At this early stage in the war crews were left to find their own way to the target and were given free range regarding bombing heights (some crews bombing from above cloud on ETA , others gliding to below cloud. At first crews were instructed to bring bombs home rather than risk dropping on civilian targets. To highlight the inaccuracy of navigation at this early stage of the war, the story is told of one crew that became lost in an electrical storm and bombed the Fighter Command base of Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire rather than a Luftwaffe base in Denmark!

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the ‘crisis of confidence’ that struck the direction of the Bomber Offensive in 1940-41 and then then move to area bombing in in ’41-’42 as it was realised that the technology of the time was quite incapable of hitting precision targets (or even cities) by night. The publication of the Butt Report is discussed as is the first attack, in December 1940 on Mannheim, where a city was specifically targeted (at Churchill’s insistence in response to the attack on Coventry a month earlier). Portal is identified as the 1st to see German civilian ‘morale’ as a legitimate and worthwhile target – though initially as a by-product of widespread general disruption rather than the deliberate targeting of the working class areas of major cities that became the norm from 1942. There is discussion on 2 key facets of the allocation of resources to the offensive. The Navy in particular was critical of the amount of resources dedicated to the offensive rather than to anti-shipping and anti-submarine ops and the defence of the Empire in the Far East. Hastings takes the view that resources were indeed over-allocated to the Bombers but that Churchill’s aggressive spirit meant that there was little point in the Navy complaining. The discussion on resource allocation is a good one and continues throughout the book. Overy in his ‘The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945’ published this year makes resource misallocation one of his main criticisms of the offensive. The second point considered is the morality of attacking non-combatants and it is fair to say that for most in Britain by 1941/2 very few were concerned about the plight of German women and children. Hastings considers that a referendum would have been heavily in favour of bombing German towns had the British people been consulted (which they were not) although the government never formally admitted a change of targeting policy. Only after Dresden did Churchill seek to distance himself (shamefully in my opinion) for the targeting policy that he himself had insisted upon and whose favourite, Lord Cherwell, had insisted upon the area bombing policy.

Chapters 5 and 7 reverts back to following operations, now in 1942 and with Harris newly appointed as CinC, using a single squadron, 50 and then 76 squadrons, as analogies for the whole force. 50 squadron re-equipped in this year from Hampdens to Manchesters and then to Lancasters and the nature of target as well as the crews also changed as the early war pioneers were replaced more and more by the post 1939 volunteers – the cream of their generation. Only now, under Harris’ forceful leadership did the force start its build up into the well-equipped, technical and effective air bombardment weapon that would reach its apogee in 1945. In the chapter on 76 sqn (Halifaxes) there is time given over to LMF that is interesting and well balanced. Men deemed to be LMF were ruthlessly dealt with but from a modern view these men had simply used up all their reserves – any man who completed 1 mission is a hero in my book!

Chapter 6 is titled ‘Protest and Policy’ and deals with the, admittedly limited, protests on moral grounds by the MPs Richard Stokes and Alfred Salter and notably by Bishop Bell sitting in the house of Lords. To be frank I think too much emphasis is placed on these protests here as even at the time The Archbishop of York replied to Bell in Parliament "it is a lesser evil to bomb the war-loving Germans than to sacrifice the lives of our fellow countrymen..., or to delay the delivery of many now held in slavery". Of course there certainly was a moral case to answer, but in the context of mid/late 2nd World War, it is arguable if it was a strong case when the defeat of Hitler was such a necessity. Other criticisms of the area offensive were probably more pertinent – the Navy and Army’s criticism of the resources allocated to Bomber Command being the most pertinent and certainly is backed up by Richard Overy. Also here is discussion on policies such as the tactical made by Harris (Bomber Stream) and opposed by him but introduced nevertheless (Pathfinder Force).

Chapter 8 looks at the offensive form the German side up until 1944. This book does not analyse the effects of the bombers on Germany as effectively or as forensically as last year’s masterpiece by Overy but it does have excellent storytelling and superb eye witness accounts of the events. The narrative is coherent and is amongst the 1st to try to analyse whether the offensive was ‘worth it’. Hastings concludes, like Overy 35 years later, that the offensive was for the most part ineffective in achieving its aims and resources employed could have been better directed elsewhere though unlike Overy he fails to sufficiently recognise the vast diversion of effort required by the Nazis to home defence that the campaigns of the RAF and, later the USAAF, caused. German responses to the night offensive are highlighted – technical improvements as well as tactical ones such as Wild Boar and Tame Boar. Like Overy, Hastings identifies the USAAF daylight campaign of late 1943/ early 1944 - effectively a counter-air campaign - and attacks economic choke points rather than cities as being the decisive bombing operations of the war. Hastings discounts the effect on German war production. German war production did increase but was severely restrained; furthermore, although Hastings presents charts to show otherwise Edgerton in ‘Britain’s War Machine’ convincingly disputes the claim that Germany out-produced Britain late in the war. Edgerton is backed up by Evans in ‘The Third Reich’ at war and I tend to believe these 2 later books.

Next we deal with the ‘Battle of Berlin’ launched by Harris in November 1943. This period in the end proved the most lethal to Bomber crews throughout the war. Despite its name the Battle many other targets were also attacked. The RAF lost 1,047 bombers culminating in the raid on Nuremberg on 30 March 1944, when 94 bombers were shot down and 71 were damaged, out of 795 aircraft. Harris’s claim that the Battle "will cost us between 400 and 500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war" was clearly not borne out by the facts and the battle was clearly a defeat for Harris, although he would never admit it. As Hastings points out it was in this period that the Trenchard Doctrine was finally proven false as cover supposedly afforded by Night was lifted by the German defences and losses rose to an unsustainable level. By the end of the battle even the night bombers required fighter escort (in the shape of Serrate and intruder Mosquitoes). A whole range of technological improvements were employed in this period and Hastings discusses the use and effectiveness of these – from ABC to Serrate to Oboe, Monica and others. The Command and Harris’s position, in spite of his opposition to the policy, was in my opinion saved by the switch of Operational Command to Eisenhower on 1 April 1944 to allow for preparations and support of Overlord.

Arguments around Point Blank and Overlord are discussed in some detail and Harris’s opposition to his force’s transfer to Eisenhower was strong, requiring in the end a direct order from Portal. Harris always considered the Point-blank and Transportation and Oil plans as panacea strongly believing he could win the war through strategic bombing alone. In opposing Overlord, claiming that it was a strategic and wasteful blunder that detracted from the ability of the Strategic Air Forces to end the war, Harris was clearly deluded and should have been sacked at this point. Despite his misgivings Harris’s force was deployed in support of Overlord and against Transportation , Oil and later Crossbow targets as well as in tactical support of the ground forces. Whilst there was controversy at the time between the Transportation and Oil targets, the attack on the French transport system did effectively isolate the Normandy battlefield and in Oil, Spaatz had accidentally found the Nazi’s Achilles heel a point also made by Overy. Crossbow was given priority because of political concerns though Harris called the V weapons ‘silly little rockets’ given that his own Command could deal more death in a night than the V Weapons ever caused.

Chapter 12 covers 97 sqn’s travails as they are transferred from 8 Gp to 5 Gp in late 1943 through to the support of D-Day and beyond. There is good coverage of the individuals in the squadrons as well as comparison between 8 Gp and 5 Gp target marking techniques. 5 Gp was the outstanding Bomber Group of the War and Cochrane, its AOC the outstanding Bomber leader of the war – highly innovative and a driving commander. The horrendous operating conditions of crews flying in winter and returning to fogged out airfields to’ break cloud at 300ft into 300 yards visibility we circled at 200ft for 10 minutes before landing’ are hard to comprehend when one realises that even modern airliners with the latest instrument landing aids don’t are required to divert if they get to 200’ and can’t see the airfield! Poignant stories of crew losses during day formation flying training as well as the pre-invasion Ops over France (such as Mailly Le Camp) where loss rates at times reached those over the Reich and on the routine trips – a crew here, another there makes one wonder just how men went out night after night. In this chapter the high loss rates of early 1944 give way to lower rates from July/August onwards but still the losses keep coming. I was particularly taken by the story of a pilot who flew ops with his Spaniel. Poignantly, Hastings talks of the spaniel ‘finally falling from the night sky with his master over Germany’.

Chapter 13 opens the review of the final phase of the Bomber war that is gone into in greater detail in chapter 14. Ch13 starts this discussion starting with an account of the 5 Gp attack that devastated Darmstadt on 11 September 1944. Horrific descriptions of the sights and destruction experienced by the population during the firestorm that destroyed much of the old city centre and up to 12 500 people for the loss of 12 Lancasters. USSBS reports after the war indicate that this attack reduced the city’s industrial output by between 0.4 and 1.5 months but that the general collapse of the German Economy by this stage in the war having more effect than the bombing. Moving into ch14 Harris continued to concentrate his efforts on the attack on German cities in the belief that this was the best way to shorten the war. That he was wrong seems to me beyond doubt. Portal carried out a long correspondence with Harris urging, though not ordering him, to concentrate on the Oil targets that Spaatz had finally identified as the key weak point in the German economy. Modern studies clearly indicate that Portal and Spaatz were correct and that oil was not just another panacea target. The official historians of the offensive accused Harris of intransigence and inflexibility in thought and deed however Portal really must bear the charge of weakness for neither sacking Harris at this point nor insisting on attacks on oil even though Harris did indeed offer (without intention) to resign.

In the final assessment of the Campaign the attack on Dresden and the USAAF plan ‘Clarion’ are discussed. Contrary to much popular belief, from Bomber Command’s perspective, Dresden was not a special operation but just one of over 30 attacks on German cities in 1945. Dresden was specifically requested as a target (though it had always been on the target list) by Churchill in order to assist the collapse of the German Front then facing the Soviets under Marshall Koniev. What was unusual about Dresden was the amount of death and damage caused by the firestorm that occurred (though other towns at this time suffered proportionately worse damage), and an unfortunate SHAEF briefing shortly afterwards that stated specifically that the raid was intended to terrorise the German population. It was also unusual in that Churchill now realised that the need for attacks on cities had passed and he immediately sought to distance himself from it whereas Harris, true to form, stood by his actions. Hastings makes the error in recalling the Dresdne attack of overstating the number of casualties, he uses David Irving’s grossly inflated figure of 100 000 dead, as the upper limit (the still horrific number of 35 000 is the more likely actual number) and he also repeats the Nazi and post-war soviet propaganda that Dresden’s industry was not committed to the war effort, a ridiculous claim given Speer’s conversion of almost all German economic production to the war effort. Nevertheless Dresden and Clarion do allow Hastings to make a summary of his overall thesis that as late as 1943 Bomber Command’s operations against the cities of Germany were legitimate and morally acceptable in that the attacks damaged the German War effort and, by demonstrating positive action, prevented the Americans forcing the Western Allies into prematurely invading Europe, thereby saving many more allied lives than were lost in the Bomber Offensive. However in 1943 and into 1944 the Command did not possess the means to be effective in city attacks except on rare occasions. By 1945 when the Command did possess the means (all Lancaster force of 1600 ac ) the moral legitimacy of area bombing no longer existed because of the effects of the Allied and Soviet ground advances and yet the attacks continued. The one area where Hastings is weak, and where this analysis breaks down, is in the question of German resources committed to defence against the bombers. Many thousands of 88mm and other heavy calibre weapons that could not then be deployed against the Soviets, losses of aircrews and technical equipment, over a million troops and Flak Helpers etc. Hastings is not the only person to question the legitimacy of committing the massive resources to Bomber Command that were done so and here he is on strong ground. By 1945 Bomber Command alone consumed the same resources as the whole of the British Army equipment budget and by concentrating on bombers at the expense of transport ac Britain was left at a disadvantage in the development of civilian air transport after the war.

Britain (and the Empire) lost more officers to aircraft casualties in WW2 than they had in all of WW I and the loss rate of bomber crews was exceeded only by German U-boat crews. This book is an excellent read and a fine tribute to those crews. The device of moving between chapters on particular sqns at particular times interspersed with chapters on more general issues is an excellent way to celebrate the bravery and fears of the bomber crews whilst maintaining the context of grand strategic arguments during total war. It really was one of the 1st books to take a critical look at the RAF Bomber Offensive of the 2nd World War and is a tribute to those who fought and died in these nightly battles. Their commanders come off much less well. Though it is true that they were honourable men trying to shorten the war in the way they thought most effective. They have been proven wrong not only by Hastings but by time.

Harris is castigated not for the Area Bombing policy but for is inflexibility and resistance to change (tactical and strategic) and for frankly carrying on his own private war. Portal was weak in not insisting on concentration on counter air in 1943 and oil in 1944 and allowing Harris far too much autonomy. Churchill and Cherwell were in fact the authors of the Area Bombing campaign although Churchill managed, successfully to distance himself from it after the war and Cherwell, who at one point (whilst opposing the Transportation and Oil plans) claimed to be the father of the campaign also managed to slope shoulders and pass the blame to Harris at war’s end. One charge that Harris must accept, however, is that which FM Haig of the 1st WW has had to bear (in his case unfairly) and that is the charge of carelessness with his men’s lives in pursuit of unrealistic and unattainable objectives (total defeat of Nazi Germany by Area Bombing alone). Harris, unlike Haig, did not, it appears, learn from failure but continued to batter away at the same old problem in the same old way. Unlike Haig, Harris resisted many of the technical/tactical advances that were proposed to him unless forced by others to undertake them – the foremost example being his resistance to the PFF.

The Third Reich at War - Richard J Evans ; Completed 5 December 2014

This is the 3rd and final book in Evan’s excellent trilogy and in this case I was on familiar ground. There was nothing here that was new to me here. It was clear from the start that the whole rationale of the Nazi Regime was European and then global domination by violent means. That this was a fantastical aim is shown by Evans but has also been commented on elsewhere (in particular see War of the World by Niall Ferguson) as the resources available to Germany, even after her successful conquests of 1939-41 were tiny when compared to those available to her opponents. When Germany failed to knock Britain out of the war – she was doomed from that moment and indeed Evans describes the Battle of Britain as his 1st major turning point of the War. Towards the end of the book Evans tells the 1944 joke of a naive young German looking at a globe of the world: huge green swaths for the Soviet Union, pink for the British Empire, mauve for the US. 'And this blue spot?' he asks, fingering Germany. 'Oh! Does the Leader know how small it is?'

In his introduction to the book Evans states that this volume aims to be about Germany and the Germans rather than a military history of the war itself. Nevertheless the war is clearly the thematic narrative from start to finish. Evans concentrates on key turning points and their effects on the ever worsening situation in Germany. Alongside the military events leading to Germany’s inevitable defeat the other key theme – though Evans states otherwise – is the Holocaust which is not surprising given the Nazi Regime’s wholly racial view of the world and indeed Hitler’s exterminatory racial motive behind starting and maintaining the war.
The book is organized into 7 Chapters. Chapter one starts, where the last book left off , with the invasion of Poland. Also covered are the 1st atrocities against Jews, Polish Civilians and Intelligentsia in particular priests. The chapter also covers the Ribbentrop/Molotov pact. I have always though it odd that the Pope did not effectively protest at the killing of Polish Priests and Evans does not answer my question here. It is not true that the RC , and other churches, did not protest as is shown within another part of this chapter which deals with campaign of murder (‘involuntary euthanasia’) of mentally ill and physically handicapped German citizens which was effectively ended by internal resistance and in particular the bravery of Archbishop von Galen – whose sermons of July and August 1941 were printed and distributed illegally to be read from the pulpit of many RC churches and whose texts were included in leaflets dropped by the RAF. The sermons protested against Nazi policies on euthanasia, Gestapo terror, forced sterilization and concentration camps. Hitler wanted to have von Galen removed, but Goebbels told him this would result in the loss of the loyalty of Westphalia and it was agreed that the Nazis would wait until the end of the war before killing him. As a result of his actions however the euthanasia campaign was halted in Germany (though not of course in the East).

Chapter 2 covers the period of 1940-1 with the War in the West up to Evans’s 1st turning point the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. The campaigns fought with verve in Norway and against France were effective and created a great deal of euphoria in Germany and were the high point of the Nazi Reaich. However Evans argues convincingly that the failure to knock Britain out of the war effectively doomed the Nazis as Britain could always call on greater resources than Germany. Today we tend to think of ‘little’ Britain standing alone against the might of Nazi dominated Europe but this has always been a myth. Britain and the Western Allies were unprepared for war it is true but Britain alone could always call on the resources of the largest Empire ever to have existed and she had only recently commenced re-armament, her economy was stronger than Germany’s and is telling the even at the height of the war she devoted far less of her GNP to the war effort. Until December 1941 she also had the tacit assistance of the USA (whom Hitler saw as a future enemy in any case). See ‘Britain’s War Machine’ by David Edgerton for more detail on the comparative strengths of Britain and Germany. The second half of this chapter deals with preparations for the invasion of Russia and in particular events in the Mediterranean theatre. In the Balkans campaigns, we note the bestiality of the Nazi’s being matched by their Croat allies against the Serbs in Yugoslavia – one particularly horrific event being the ‘processing’ of Serb captives through an abattoir. Some discussion is had around whether Barbarossa was decisively delayed by Hitler’s enforced support of Mussolini’s troops inept performances in the Balkans but this argument is given short shrift.

Chapter 3 deals with events in the East form the launching of Barbarossa though to the next ‘turning’ point the failure to take Moscow at the end of 1941. Also covered in this chapter, though as I have said pervading the whole book, is the ‘Fianl Solution’. Military successes in Russia before the end of 1941 were indeed spectacular with millions of Soviet troops being captured (to go on to suffer terribly at the hands of their captors) but what is highlighted from a very early stage was that the scale of Wehrmacht casualties were also enormous even in these early successful stages of the invasion. Hitler’s interference in strategic decisions is, for the 1st time, counter –productive as he over-rules his generals and fails to follow their advice to advance on Moscow. Hitler’s preference for advancing further south (ostensibly to grab resources) meant that the defences of Moscow had time to be prepared and Stalin able to switch troops from the far east. Unable to deliver the knockout blow in 1941 Hitler had missed his chance especially as the Soviets were able to counter attack to relieve pressure on Moscow. The final solution pervades the whole book and frankly Evan’s adds no new insights though the unrelenting and systematic bestiality of the Reich’s treatment of its helpless victims – Jews in particular and less systematically but still inhuman treatment of Polish and other captive populations, along with Soviet POWs, slave labourers and others. Evans demonstrates, here and throughout the book, beyond any doubt that the extermination and maltreatment of these individuals was widely known throughout the whole of German Society.

Chapter 4 covers 1942/3. It leads to the military disaster at Stalingrad where 250, 000 troops were lost to Hitler’s refusal to accept reality (a further 250 000 were lost just months later when the Allies defeated the Axis in N Africa which is covered in Ch 5) the military analysis here is comprehensive but for a more full account of Stalingrad one should read Antony Beevor’s book. This chapter also looks at the War Economy and the exploitation of slave labour (if workers were from the East) or nominally free foreign workers from the occupied but nominally self-governing Western countries. For a variety of reasons but mostly because of maltreatment and poor rations the Nazi’s labourers were never as productive towards the war economy as they might have been, absence and sabotage along with slow working were not uncommon. As early as January 1942 Fritz Todt had realised that the war was lost but his fortuitous (for Hitler) death in a plane crash brought Speer to the fore as armaments minister. In spite of Speer’s rationalization of industry however there always remained competing fiefdoms within the Nazi system that led to inefficiencies – e.g. the Air Force’s championing of the V1 vs the Army’s V2 programme that led to poor prioritisation. It is not surprising that Germany had a huge range of advanced projects that never quite made production by war’s end as each of these diverse projects were competing for a very limited amount of resources but without any overall system of prioritisation.

Chapter 5 sees the rapid decline of Nazi power as defeat in North Africa, Russia at Stalingrad and then Kursk is partnered by the collapse and withdrawal from the war of Italy (to the detriment of thousands of Italian troops who now became German POWs and suffered only slightly less grievously in captivity than did Soviet Prisoners). Evans, unlike Overy, sees the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive that started in earnest in 1943 as the catalyst that brought to home the realization for most Germans that the war was lost. The destruction of the cities and the industrial dislocation this caused was enormous. Although Speer was able to increase the number of aircraft Germany did produce as the attacks increased in intensity, Evans shows that the gap between Allied and German war production widened significantly and in spite of greater attempts at producing Fighter aircraft the net result by the time the Soviets launched Operation Bagration in June 1944 there were only 500 Fighter aircraft available on the Eastern Front against many thousand Soviet ac.

The Home Front, including religious, social, artistic and scientific life is examined in Chapter 6. The looting of Art by senior Nazis, including Hitler, is well known as is the promotion of key cultural figures. Scientific studies, including experimentation on living Human beings are also well attested. What is sometimes not realised was just how useless, as well as degrading and lethal, such experimentation was – providing almost nothing of value, based as it mostly was on nonsensical racial theories, to at least act as a memorial to its victims. Germany’s attempts to build an Atom bomb are covered here but were mostly halfhearted as Hitler considered Nuclear Physics to be ‘Jewish Science’. This chapter also covers the start of the collapse of Nazi Germany and sees the borders of Reich start to collapse as Overlord in the West is followed weeks later by Bagration in the East. The military pressure is relentless, the Allies have unrestrained air superiority and the Soviets put ever more troops in the field – usually used with a profligacy unknown in the west. As the military situation worsens the German Resistance is covered – in particular the botched July 44 bomb plot that in a large part of the army was seen as an abhorrence and which never really looked like succeeding.

The final chapter deals with the final months of the war – when the Allied Bombers dropped more tonnage than the rest of the war put together. The collapse, defeat and withdrawal from the war of Germany’s allies – and eventually to Hitler’s last delusional weeks in the Berlin Bunker. The increasing campaign of terror against Germany’s own citizens by the Gestapo and SS is also covered but for more detail here tries Ian Kershaw’s ‘The End’. To finish, short potted post war biographies of the War Criminals and their final fates are presented as well as the post war lives of some of the sources whose diaries have been used througout the trilogy
Overall this book is a fitting end to Evan’s masterful trilogy but it is profoundly depressing. Mass murder and terror have rarely been so bestial and carried out on such a scale and fact after fact that is recalled here of murder after murder make it hard to keep hold of the notion that each fact represents the ending, in a vile manner, of an innocent life. Without doubt Evan’s work gives a lie to claims that it was only a clique or just the SS that was responsible for the terrible events that shrouded Europe between 1933 and 1945. For now I am going to need to read something much lighter in tone than this book but as a final word I shall recall the words of German Army Captain Willem Hosenfeld:

‘With this terrible murder of the Jews, we have lost the war. We have brought upon ourselves an indelible disgrace, a curse that can never be lifted. We deserve no mercy, we are all guilty.’

'Always Right' by Niall Ferguson - Kindle Single 34 pages Completed 14 November 2014

“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate” – Margaret Thatcher

I thought I would open the review of this kindle single with the above quote which puts in context the words spoken by Margaret Thatcher that are often used to criticise her approach i.e. “There is no such thing as society.” It is clear to see that when the whole paragraph is presented her view was rather less selfish than it has been presented by her political enemies.

Margaret Thatcher (premiership 1979-91) was the most influential British Prime Minister since Attlee. Having said that, she was also the most divisive (possibly ever); she is still reviled in many parts of Britain – notably in the post-industrial North, the former coal producing regions and in Scotland. In these parts she is blamed for the industrial decline of traditional industries and the consequent social cost of very high unemployment that occurred particularly in her early years in power. In ‘Always Right’ Niall Ferguson aims to show that such views are by a wide margin well off the mark. Today most people forget that, along with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, she one of the main actors during the last decade of the Cold War that brought the end to the European Communism and the re-unification of East and West Europe.

Thatcher was a conviction politician and a radical rather than a true Tory a distinction that is often overlooked. That she rose to dominate the Conservative Party is really something of a mystery but her influence on post 1980s Britain has been long-lasting. The Britain of which she became Prime Minister was a completely different one to that she left behind in 1991. Ferguson reminds us that the Britain of the 1970s was torn industrial unrest – remember ‘Red Robbo - by high inflation (in fact stagflation) running at 27% in 1975 and was a country where trains were always late and not much else worked. When Thatcher was elected Prime Minister nearly half of British households did not own a car! The past is indeed a different country and people have forgotten their time in the Britain of the 1970s.

At the core of Thatcher’s philosophy was “A man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the State as servant”. Much of the criticism of Thatcher that lasts to this day is grounded in a rosy, and as Ferguson points out, fallacious view of the world of the 1980s. The decline of old industries was inevitable given a rapidly globalising world and Britons, argues Ferguson, were much better off at the end of her term than at the start of it. As Ferguson points out, backing up his argument with appropriate, though selective data, Thatcher was right about most things:

‘She was right that the British trade unions had become much too powerful. She was right that nationalized industries had to be privatized. She was right that inflation has monetary causes. She was also mostly right about foreign policy. She was right to drive the forces of the Argentine junta out of the Falklands and she was right to exhort a “wobbly” George H.W. Bush to mete out the same treatment to Saddam Hussein’s forces in Kuwait. She was right to see the opportunity offered by Gorbachev’

Unlike the Conservative leaders of today, Thatcher was right in her approach to Europe and in placing herself at the centre, rather than the periphery of policy making. It was her who drove the EU in the direction of real free trade by backing and signing the , Single European Act of 1986. Like her Labour, and equally reviled successor Gordon Brown, she was also correct in opposing European currency union.
Overall, this book is an excellent essay that strips away much of the nonsense spoken of the Thatcher years and rightly celebrates the achievements of those times, most of which have been forgotten or mis-remembered. The use of data backs up Ferguson’s key points though I suspect it is selective, nevertheless it is good to get an historian’s perspective, rather than a politician’s one, of the period. I suspect that 50 years from now Ferguson’s view will be the dominant one.


The Third Reich in Power - Richard J Evans ; Completed 7 November 2014

This book, the 2nd in Evan’s trilogy commences where ‘The coming of the 3rd Reich’ finishes and covers the6 years the Nazis were in power prior to the commencement of WW2. Writing a review of the contents is something of a task given the depth and breadth that Evan’s has covered in this masterful account of those 6 years. Unlike in 1914, there can be no thought that Europe was ‘sleep-walking’ into war in 1939. Hitler from the outset planned for war as his plans to transform Berlin into ‘Germania’a World Capital by 1950 shows. This book details the means taken to get there.
The book is based around 7 key themes – commencing with consolidation of power and subjugation of Legal System, through the role of Culture and Propaganda, the Subjugation of Religion and the Education system, then to Economic Policy and in particular its focus on re-armament, Society and Everyday life and finishing in the final 2 chapters which focus on racial policy, and in particular the persecution of the Jews, before recounting the regime’s foreign policy (intended from the start to lead to war) to end on the eve of the 2nd world war.

Evans outlines the chaotic /competitive leadership structure and tug of war over party fiefdoms – Goering vs Himmler (cf Kershaw’s ‘The End : Hitler’s Germany 1944-45’) Goebbels vs Rosenberg. This in itself was a symptom of Nazi ideology based on a specious interpretation of Darwin’s Laws of Natural selection that also gave rise to theories of racial hygiene and other pseudo-scientific nonsense. Hitler wanted his acolytes to struggle for their position assuming that the strongest (which he equated to ‘best’) would rise to the top. In reality it simply led to cronyism and Kleptocracy flowing from Hitler down to the lowest SA man

From the very start the Nazi regime was a nasty and vicious polity though initially the courts stood up to regime pressure (for example acquitting some of those accused (falsely) of being implicit in the Reichstag fire). Incensed by these acquittals Hitler simply ignored the law and the regime set up ‘Peoples Courts’ to try political rather than criminal cases. Unsurprisingly these were outside the normal legal protections. Immediately on coming to power the regime created the system of concentration camps – initially to hold thousands of political prisoners, many of whom had been elected Reichstag deputies. Where criminal and people’s courts sent prisoners to gaol, it soon became common practice, with the complicity of the prison service, for inmates to be immediately re-arrested once their prison term was complete – though now it was the Gestapo that arrested them and placed them into ‘protective’ custody which was anything but ‘protective’ in camps such as Dachau. Within just a couple of years there was a marked increase in capital offences – from just Murder under the Weimar republic to printing leaflets critical of Hitler (now classed as Treason) under the Reich!

Over the 6 years covered in this book we see how the regime progresses from persecution of communists and trade unionists through to anyone denounced by neighbours and then on to the feeble minded and so on. The picture changes from one in which the citizenry are at first relieved to see an end to the violent street fighting of the late Weimar republic (in which the Nazis were a key component) to one that is ‘intimidated… into acquiescence’. In the section on religion, Pastor Niemoller’s famous poem provides a chronological tale of the cowering of the German populace:

‘First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.’

Evans surveys Nazi propaganda and Goebbels triumph in his power struggle with Rosenberg. The influence of Goebbels and Rosenberg on the Arts is discussed as a major section in the book as is the use of art to pass a propagandistic message – from Riefenstahl’s filming of the Berlin Olympics to the 1937 ‘Exhibition of Degenerate Art’. The theft of art from German museums and Jewish owners by the Nazi elite is also shown to have started long before the commencement of the war.

The regime's main method of reducing the power of the churches and private beliefs was in getting to the Young –through schools and the Hitler Youth primarily but also in the closure of non-Nazi youth clubs including religious ones. The protestant church was the 1st to succumb to Nazi pressure so the ‘German Christians’ effectively became a supportive arm of state religion. Against this a number of Protestants (including Bonhoeffer) joined the Confessional Church within which dissent was more common but could lead to imprisonment or worse. It is fair to say that a number of German christians were sympathetic to the Nazi’s nationalist programme in any case at least initially.

A concordat was agreed with the Catholic Church within which the Church agreed to keep out of politics in return for which the regime agreed not to meddle in church affairs. The degree to which the regime could be trusted to abide by the terms of the concordat, however, can be shown by the murder of senior Catholic Lay people in ‘the Night of the Long Knives’. Nevertheless the churches protests – such as they were, were mute or non-existent. Sadly it seems the RC church was more concerned to protect its institutions than its parishioners and members and despite being a global entity was ineffective in preventing the murder of priests and civilians in Poland by 1939. By 1939 the power of the churches in Germany had been severely curbed.

In spite of its own use of religious methods of indoctrination and appeals to emotions, in particular Nationalism, Evans points out that Nazism itself could not be classed as Religion – it had no coherent doctrine; no sacred text (cf Marxism) it certainly had a cult of death but not of after life; furthermore it was an exclusively racial ideology appropriate only to Germans (cf Marxism).
In Education the focus of the Nazi government was clearly to develop an unquestioning reservoir of manpower suitable to be moulded into Soldiers. The effect of Hitler Youth in schools was disruptive as HJ leaders encouraged youngsters to challenge the authority of parents and teachers in order to replace such authority by the Party. In spite of the establishment of a number of ‘Elite’ Schools the system of which in itself showed internal divisions /fiefdoms of the regime – Reich Schools (SA); Hitler Schools; Napolus (based on Army); Order Castles etc, by 1939 there was a demonstrably marked decline in educational standards as none of these ‘elite schools’ actually produced better results than the established Grammar School System

In the 1930s, Hitler's obsession with Lebensraum ie Territory came about because of the Nazi desire for German Self Sufficiency that was required by Autarky. Partly this was based on German Experience in WW1 of the British Blockade. Ignoring the policies that removed millions of Hectares from food production - such as the Fortifications of the West Wall - that were 'own goals' and in fact lead to rationing in Nazi Germany even before WW2 , Hitler's philosophy was driven by 2 things - 1 need for resources to provide for the German People; 2 - need to replace resources used fund the re-armament programme of the 1930s which had been done basically by printing money – what some have referred to as the dazzling deficit financing of Hjalmar Schacht.

The much trumpeted myth of the Nazi party’s ending of unemployment in the 1930s is shown to have been achieved not only by massive and unsustainable overspending but also by bribing women to leave the workforce, by removing Jews from State and later Private employment, by forced conscription of unemployed workers to agricultural labour schemes for which they received payments that were lower than their unemployment benefits. The construction of Autobahns was a visible infrastructure project but it was never an extensive one and in any case car ownership in Germany in the early to mid-1930s was in fact lower than even in the Irish Republic let alone in comparison to Britain and France.

Whilst I knew that the Nazi narrative of ‘Economic Recovery’ was a myth and if anything it was based on overheating the economy to pay for re-armament; I knew that the global economy was already recovering when the Nazi’s came to power; I knew that the ‘people’s car’ was a scam on German Workers who were required to put aside money every month until they had put enough aside to pay for a brand new VW – none of which was ever delivered making the ‘savings scheme nothing more than a tax. Even so I had no idea of the scale of this particular lie. By 1939 25% of GDP was being spent on the Armed Forces – this was completely unsustainable and in fact could only be sustained by going to war in order to steal resources from conquered nations. Hitler had originally planned to go to war in 1942 but his lack of economic resources – his effective bankrupting of the German Economy – required this to be brought forward to 1939; Evans shows in fact that Hitler would have preferred 1938 even but was headed off by Chamberlain.

The final parts of the book deal firstly with Nazi racial policies in particular its policies of anti-semitism but also dealing with its views on Gypsies and the forced sterilisation programmes to which over 300 000 German citizens had been subjected by 1939. Much of this is well known but the constant ratcheting up of the pressure on the Jews in particular (with a short respite ordered by – and consequently proving his control over it – by Hitler in the run up to the 1936 Olympics) from 1933 through to Kristallnacht in November 1938 and beyond is powerfully narrated. In Foreign Policy by 1938 we see the conclusion of several years of Nazi interference in Austria with the Anschluss and thereafter the Czechoslovakian crisis. The Nazi soviet pact is shown to be the unexpected coup that prepared the ground for the invasion of Poland by which time Hitler probably believed Britain and France would not in any case fight. The view from the other capitals of Europe is not covered in detail as from the outset Evans perspective is to show that of Germany and the Germans.

To conclude, Evans demonstrates a number of key truths within this book. One is of the Nazis as modernisers from an early stage they crushed or subverted they Conservative elements of Society – Religion, Arts , Culture and the Army. The Reich was not a 'regression' to barbarism; it was a leap forward into a new, science-based barbarism. Eugenics and anti-semitic politics were 'modern' conceptions. Secondly, Evans proves that the underlying purpose of the regime from the very start and in all that it did was war. Thirdly Evans proves that Hitler was always 'in the driving seat' the Reich in this period 'was not a story of ceaseless radicalisation driven on by inherent instabilities in its system of rule, or by a constant competition for power between its satraps and minions, in which the most radical policy was always the most likely to be implemented' In short this book is a Tour de Force


Mosquito: Menacing the Reich - Martin Bowman; Completed 11 Oct 14

Since childhood I have been fascinated by the Story of the RAF’s Wooden Wonder – the DeHavilland Mosquito – considering at one stage to write to ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ to get a ride in one thankfully I didn’t do that. Still I bought this book recently and in the end enjoyed it though it is like the Curate’s Egg.

The book is organised into 10 chapters dealing with the various uses of the aircraft though oddly given the title of the book the final chapter is about the Mosquito’s use in the Far East. The final chapter really just skims over Far east operations and is distinctly unsatisfying it would have been better to leave out this chapter and to write a separate book on the topic. There remains an imbalance with the remaining chapters also in that Chapters 1-5 deal with Bomber Command’s use of the plane in daylight, night, nuisance raid and Path Finding ops but little if anything is mentioned on Day and Night Fighter and Night Escort ops. The inclusion of Photographic Reconnaissance as part of Chapter 3 and in particular Chapter 7 (USAAF use of Mosquitoes) is however interesting and to me very new.

There is a single Chapter on Coastal Command Operations and One whole chapter devoted to a single raid Chapter 9 The Shell-House Raid which whilst fascinating given the inclusion of aircrew accounts doesn’t really leave a balanced impression of the use of the aircraft.

At first I found the chronological blow-by-blow accounts of operations in each chapter a little tedious and began to think that it was going to be a list of operation after operation however the book is saved by good use of 1st hand accounts from the aircrews who survived (and a surprising number, given the much better survivability of Mosquitoes than other aircraft, did not) and detailed end notes that provide much additional context as well as biographical notes about many of the crews. The new information (PR and USAAF Agent Drops) combined with the amount of 1st hand accounts easily overcome the shortcomings of the book and in the end it is a good readable, though by no means definitive, account.


Life of Lee – by Lee Evans - Audiobook; Gave up Listening 17 September 2014

I got this audiobook to listen to on an 8 hour long road journey that I would be sharing with my son. I am not a huge fan of Lee Evans but previously I had listened to audiobooks by Tony Hawks and Michael McIntyre that had made the journey seem much shorter and amused myself and Matthew, rather than one or the other of us.

Sadly this book was disappointing and I am glad I did not end up listening to it for a single 8 hour stretch. The book covers Lee Evan’s life only up to the age of 18 and frankly, apart from the odd turn of phrase, is mundane in the extreme. The early life that is described here is not dissimilar from that which one suspects most working class lads in the 1970s would have led. I had the impression that many of the escapades recalled had at least some exaggeration but even then they didn’t differ greatly from what I would have considered a run of the mill 1970s childhood. Much of the analogy is laboured in the extreme and is definitely not funny.

Not much more I can say I’m afraid. 2 out of 10 from me at best. So dull that I couldn’t be bothered listening as far as the end.


Destiny in the Desert: The Story behind El Alamein - the Battle That Turned the Tide by Jonathan Dimbleby; Completed 3 September 2014

Although I completed this book on 3 September 2014 I had actually started reading it in July 2013. What took me so long? Well several distractions and other interests including an Oxford University Online course looking at World War One side-lined me. Coming back to the book in August this year I was somewhat incredulous at my own inability to have finished it 1st time around as it is an excellent book.

I can’t quite remember now why I bought this particular book but I suspect it was because I had read a review in BBC History Magazine. As usual for most new book purchases I downloaded this to my Kindle so it’s the kindle edition that gets reviewed here. In outline the book covers the British vs Italian and then German/Italian campaigns in the Western Desert from 1940 until the end of the Battle of Alamein in early November 1942. There are a final 2 chapters that skim over the final Allied Victory in North Africa (including the Torch Landings and Montgomery’s pursuit of the HeeresGruppe Afrika[1] post Alamein) and the initial attack on Italy by which time the USA was the senior partner of the Western Allies. So essentially this book concentrates on the British battles and Churchill’s Strategy .

Whilst it is well known that North Africa was Britain’s only land battlefront against the Axis Powers in between the fall of France and the Attack on Italy in 1943, it is often forgotten just why Britain was in North Africa at the time. The reasons are made quite clear in this book. Primarily this was fought as a campaing to defend the British Empire and, particularly after the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, a battle to prevent a giant pincer movement against British Controlled oilfields in Persia and Iraq. As Dimbleby points out some historians have judged the emphasis on the German threat to Persia and Iraq to be misplaced or exaggerated; at the time it seemed to be a very present danger indeed especially after the German capture of Sebastopol in 1942.

The book traces the early British successes against the more numerous Italians in their colony of Libya in 1940/1 under the aggressive and talented General Richard O’Connor before the intervention of the Afrika Corps. Thereafter, and once O’Connor is captured, the battle flows back and forth across North Africa between Libya and Egypt in Offensive and Counter Offensive. Churchill’s interference is included and not always favourably as his need for political successes forces Commanders such as Wavell to send troops to an unwinnable Greek Campaign thus denuding the Eight Army and getting sacked when he loses battles against Rommel. Wavell and Later Auchinleck are constantly badgered to attack in the desert before sufficient troops and stores are in place and are further hampered by being dual hatted CinCs with responsibility for not only N Africa but also for the Middle East Theatre as a whole (which included Palestine; Persia and Iraq) and the requirements to defend the area as a whole. Indeed this is pointed out in Auchinleck’s response to Churchill’s pressing for offensive Action at Alamein during July 1942. In his reply to Churchill, Auchinleck conceded, ‘I quite understand the situation … My aim is to destroy him (Rommel) as far east as possible … unless we can destroy the German forces here and so be enabled to transfer troops to Persia we stand to lose Iraq and the oil should the Russian front break.

By mid 1942 Churchill was under severe political pressure, Stalin and Roosevelt were pressing for the Western Allies to attack France to relieve his forces on the Eastern Front; the American Chiefs of Staff were pressing for a landing in North West Europe in 1942 (which history has shown would have been disastrous) and were pushing to switch priorities to the Pacific if Britain continued to oppose such landings; the Cabinet was pressing for the PM to relinquish his post as Minister of Defence and, worse, Stafford Cripps was threatening to resign from the cabinet and to challenge for the leadership of Britain. Against this backdrop sat almost 2 years of military failures under Churchill and he needed a decisive victory immediately.
In July 1942 Auchinleck sacked the latest commander of the 8th Army and took control of the Army himself stopping Rommel’s last (though not known at the time) advance at Alamein. Immediately Churchill pushed Auchinleck for a counter-offensive. The ‘Auk’, quite rightly refused; he needed new troops, supplies and tanks before any possibility of a successful offensive could be carried out. He promised an attack in September. A furious Churchill flew out to confront Auchinleck who, like his predecessor, was now sacked. Churchill offered the role of CinC Mid East and GOC 8th Army to the CIGS – General Alan Brooke who deffered and the eventual solution was to select Gen Harold Alexander as CinC and Strafer Gott as GOC. Gott would not take up his position, being killed when the Bristol Bombay he was travelling in was shot down. Enter Montgomery.

‘‘If he is disagreeable to those about him he is also disagreeable to the enemy.’ Winston Churchill on Montgomery’ is the book’s opening to the final 2 battles of Alamein. Dimbleby is no fan of Montgomery whose self regard and disagreeableness is legendary. Dimbleby contests the assertion by Montgomery that he planned the defence of Alam Halfa (2nd Alamein) and 3rd Alamein (2nd according to Monty in whose memoirs the July battle is not always given its due) without reference to Auchinleck’s plans and this may or may not be the case. What is the case is the according to De Guingand – chief of staff to Monty but also to Auchinleck in his 8th Army role – Montgomery did add steel to the Army. He also ignored Churchill’s please to attack and waited 6 weeks beyond even Auchinleck’s September date before launching 3rd Alamein – protected from Churchill’s wrath by Alexander, Brooke and his own massive self-regard as well as the fact that Churchill could hardly get away with sacking yet another General, particularly as he had just won Alam Halfa! Dimbleby states that Montgomery’s plan for the decisive Alamein battle was a simple WW1 battle (on in which Monthy accurately predicted 13 000 casualties) of attrition. This claim is not without merit. Opening up on a narrow front at with a massive artillery bombardment followed by a massive infantry attack on a wide fron (with a diversionary attack to the South) the battle does indeed have similarities to the 1st world war and indeed was one in which Montgomery’s large superiority in Armour (which suffered heavy casualties); men and supplies simply overwhelmed the German and Italian defenders. In most ways however this was a battle that resembled the final British offensives of the previous wars with commanders at the front; closely co-ordinated use of airpower, night fighting and flexible responses with quite brilliant staff work (at Monty’s lead )changing the point of attack when required. In fact too few historians recognize that most 2nd WW battles were simply developments of those from WW1 with better all arms co-ordination allowing them to be thankfully shorter in duration. Ultimately the battle was successful and the rest is history.

Although there is a broader, and I think better description of the final Alamein battle in Nigel Hamilton’s ‘Monty – Making of the General’, Dimbleby captures the main points very well and his coverage of the earlier issues is good. For me, given that Monty arrived late to the desert and this book he comes in for a little bit too much stick – this may be accurate but there isn’t enough here to make such a judgement. Dimbleby seems to agree with an earlier writer in considering Montgomery one of the most over-rated generals in the British Army but he was after all the victor of Alamein where he did impose himself upon his Army and where he resisted calls for an early attack that others might well have succumbed to. Was the North African Campaign worth the effort? At the end of it all the Germans lost as many troops as they had at Stalingrad, Italy was able to be attacked and knocked out of the war and Germany was no longer able to threaten Allied Oil Supplies.

[1] The much larger successor to Rommel’s Afrika Korps


Marathon: The Battle That Changed Western Civilization by Richard A. Billows; Read 31 July 2014

2011 was the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon and this book came out just in time to commemorate that event. Having spent a lot of time this year reading books commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of World War, I decided to jump back 25 centuries to understand a different conflict for which, postulates this author, we can still hear the faint echoes to this day. In fact, despite the title, only a very small portion of this book is about the battle of Marathon with the majority being a history of the rise of Athens in particular and other Greek cities up to that point.

The Archaic period of Greece is superbly well covered in this book. Arising out of the post Homeric dark ages the book charts the growth of Athens and its various systems of Government from the reforms of Solon in the early 6th century B.C., the tyranny of Pisistratus and his son, Cleisthenes' democratic reforms, plus its interaction with other Greek city states, especially Sparta and her allies. The development of Greek military tactics – the hoplite phalanx is discussed and described in detail. The very high participation of citizens in the Athenian hoplite host is explained by the development of its political systems.

Also covered is the rise of the Persian Empire under its 1st 3 kings Cyrus; Cambyses and Darius (another good read on this topic is Tom Holland’s ‘Persian Fire’). Persia’s religion, military and governmental structure is well covered and sets the scene for this ancient ‘clash of civilisations’ that later arises from the revolt of the Anatolian Greek states against the Empire and the support provided to them by Athens.

For those who wish to know the brief outline of the battle is as follows. The invading Persian army, intent on punishing the Greeks for the sack of their regional capital in Anatolia and support for the Anatolian Greek cities landed at Marathon with a large Naval fleet and mixed force of infantry and cavalry. The Greek hoplite phalanx was vulnerable to encirclement by cavalry but easily a match for the less heavily armoured Persian infantry if they could be isolated. Obligingly the Persians split their forces and re-embarked a large portion of their force and almost all their cavalry with the intent of sailing behind the Athenian/Platean Force and attacking Athens directly whilst its army was held down at Marathon. On learning of the Persian plan the Greek leaders held a heated war council which was evenly split between attacking the Persian army undefended by cavalry and returning directly to defend Athens. The argument was ended by the casting vote of the Polemarch or War Archon, Callimachus whom Miltiades had convinced to vote in favour of a battle.

Employing a tactic later employed by Hannibal and Caesar, the Greeks thinned out the centre of their army and reinforced the flanks. The intent was to funnel the Persians into the weaker centre but to overwhelm and then turn in the Persian flanks allowing the encirclement and destruction of the Persian force. To achieve this, the Greeks had to close under Persian arrow fire (likely max range 100m) so the heavily armoured Greeks were running the last hundred metres or so to impact the Persian troops. The battle then went as planned with initial Persian pressure on the Athenian centre being held and then the effective encirclement. It is likely that the battle lasted no more than 2 hours and was over by around 11 am. The butcher’s bill being roughly 6400 Persian dead against 192 Athenian and 11 Plataean losses (a ratio not uncommon in ancient battles where it seems that most casualties occurred when armies turned in headlong flight and troops exposed their unprotected backs to pursuers – as indeed happened at Marathon).

Today our own culture still celebrates the battle of Marathon by numerously recreating the mythical 26 mile run of Philippides (aka Pheidipides) from the battlefield to Athens to announce the Athenian victory before dropping dead – a feat that this author actually ascribes to Roman rather than Greek accounts of the battle. In fact Philippides ran to Sparta and back twice over 4 days - a total distance of 520 miles - whereas it was the whole Athenian army that covered the distance from Marathon to Athens (in around 6 hours in full armour having already fought a 2 hour battle!). Even at the time the battle was much celebrated for its importance in preserving Greece from the Persian Empire indeed so important was the war to Aeschylus and the Greeks that, upon his death, around 456 BC, his epitaph commemorated his participation in the victory at Marathon rather than his success as a playwright (which continues to this day).

The battle of Marathon did not finally put an end to Persian designs upon Greece which would come some 20 years later in the defeat of Xerxes army at the Battle of Platea (at the end of the campaign that included the more famous battles of Thermopylae and Salamis). Nevertheless the author contends that Marathon was important even for this later war as it provided confidence amongst the Greeks that the Persian’s could in fact be defeated. The book makes a convincing argument that earlier authors such as Creasy were indeed correct in identifying the battle as one of the most important in history. In addition to ending the myth of Persian invincibility, it preserved the nascent (only 15 year old) Athenian system of Democracy and allowed Athens itself to take a lead in Greece. Had the Persian’s won Athens would have been destroyed and its people resettled in other parts of the Persian Empire (normal Persian policy) we would likely never have heard of Athens except as a footnote, nor its great philosophers. The Persians would probably have conquered the rest of Greece and the book ends with the conclusion:

‘What that would have meant for the later history of democratic theory and democratic governing systems can only be guessed at; but it is obvious that without its most successful model, the story of democracy in ancient Greece would have [been] very different and likely much poorer; and the concept of democracy as a viable governing system, indeed the whole vocabulary of democratic politics, would have been radically different.’

An excellent book; if you are interested in the period or in military history generally you will enjoy reading it.


50 People Who Screwed Up Scotland by Allan Brown – completed July 30 2014

I bought this book on the strength of a positive review in the ‘Press and Journal’ one weekend. I have since noted that a number of other reviews have been less than complimentary about the book. My own view is somewhere between the 2 extremes.

The main premise of the book – that Scotland is in fact Screwed Up is not supported anywhere in the text though Brown does point out that that Scottish exceptionalism exemplified by the "Wha's Like Us? Damn Few An' They're A' Deid" or that Scotland is in some way exceptionally compassionate when compared with other nations (particularly England) are mythical inventions. Brown goes too far in claiming that "the population, in the main, is coarse, badly educated and poorly spoken" though I suspect there is a grain of truth in the contention that “Uniquely amongst civilised nations, the Scots have learnt their national history not from a song or an epic poem but from a souvenir tea-towel” though given the myths that other nations hold dear this is really not much of a criticism.

The book can be funny but also mean-spirited; I have no idea how Lulu has ‘screwed up Scotland’ simply because in the author’s terms she hasn’t lived up to the promise of pop superstardom she showed in her youth. In fact for many of the subjects (particularly the superannuated pop and film stars that are covered) it seems that their most heinous of crimes are that as they became older they didn’t keep doing the same things – in other words they ‘sold out’ but who doesn’t when one has a mortgage to pay. There are some fun metaphors – such as a description of James Kelman as a ‘walking raincloud’ but no serious attempt to justify the selection of the 50 miscreants.

There are some real villains in here such as Sir John Lockhart-Ross but they are few and far between. No attempt is made to look at people, deserving or not, whom many Scots might consider to have truly screwed up Scotland. Despite being a fan myself I could certainly make an argument for the inclusion of Margaret Thatcher here but there is no sign at all of the Iron Lady whose legacy in Scotland has been poisonous for Tories; nor is there space here for Tony Blair, whose messianic warmongering has certainly put the Union at threat by alienating large portions of the Scottish Labour electorate.

My advice is to take the book for what it is - an at times amusing series of short essays, playing loose with facts, on public figures the author doesn’t like and against the Scottish Nationalist Agenda. The book is amusing in quite a few parts but lightweight. Worth a read on a long train journey perhaps



Night Fighter over Germany – Flying Beaufighters and Mosquitos in World War 2 – Graham White Completed 19 July 14

Some of the comments on Amazon regarding this book are critical as the Title does not reflect the content. This is a valid criticism as the book hardly touched on the Author’s 30+ operations flying as a Night Escort towards the end of the 2nd world war. Instead the book covers the life of an operational NCO pilot from his enlistment in 1941 to demob in 1950. The fact that the Author continued to fly after the war is a testament to his skill as a pilot so it is a shame that operational missions over Germany are not covered.

Nevertheless, the Author’s story is an interesting one. Sent to the USA for initial training he returned to the UK to find that unlike the rest of his course he did not go to a Bomber OTU (which likely saved his life) but to fly as a Staff pilot flying trainee Navigators in Avro Ansons in Northumberland. This sidetrack then took him to Night Fighter training which was carried out in Beaufighters before eventually arriving on a Mosquito squadron in 1944. As already mentioned there is little in here about operational sorties but there is a wealth of stories about the daily escapades of squadron aircrews during the war. These stories were at times laugh out loud and reminders of Service Humour including the fatalistic black humour still common today in the armed forces. At other times there are poignant reminders about just how dangerous even non-operational wartime flying was – stories Mosquitoes crashing during formation flying practice or Bomber Affiliation sorties or of Target towing aircraft simply vanishing over the North Sea.

If you want an action packed tale of Night Intruder work then this is not the book for you. If you want a great read and a good laugh then get yourself a copy.


The Coming of the Third Reich - Richard J Evans Completed 2 July 14

Richard Evans was the star defence witness during David Irving's Holocaust denial libel in 2001. The Coming of the Third Reich is the 1st in a trilogy of histories the other titles in the series being ‘The Third Reich in Power’ and ‘The Third Reich at War’. This book starts long before the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and traces the Wilhelmina era rise of Anti-Semitism, Social and National Darwinism and rise of Aryan Master Race myths and Pagan Symbolism (Swastika first appearing as a political symbol in 1902). In the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire the book identifies the growth of German Nationalism amongst the German Speaking Austrian elite with even German Speaking Politicians in Austrian Parliament speaking for amalgamation with the Reich of Wilhelm 2nd.

In 1815 whilst Prussia was a growing power, Germany did not exist as a country but German speakers were spread across the continent from the Rhine into the Russian Empire. For Evans the Germany before 1815 has no relevance to the rise of Nazism – it is a different territory and people altogether. From 1815 however the story changes with the rise of first nationalism and then in short order of an industrial working class. Under Bismarck Germany was united in the 1860s though Bismarck deliberately excluded Austria from his 2nd Reich. Bismarck’s victories – over Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870) – led to the growth of German Nationalism that was to last into the 1st World War, by which time Germany had overtaken Britain as an industrial, though not financial, power.

For many Germans the war was seen as just in that it would allow Germany to achieve her ‘rightful’ place amongst the European Nations. And for most Germans defeat was a shock that came as unexpected when the western front collapsed in 1918. At this point the military dictators (Hindenburg and especially Ludendorff) rapidly transferred power and blame for defeat to the extant civilian parliament they had previously circumvented. Thus arose the ‘stab in the back’ myth that was further exacerbated by the so-called harsh terms of the Versailles settlement (though in fact these terms were significantly lighter than the Allies could have expected had Germany won the war and were no worse than those imposed on France by Bismarck in 1870).

The majority of the book deals with events after 1918 beginning with the establishment of the Weimar Republic. Evans charts the attempts of the Weimar republic to hold together the Germany of the 1920s but identifies the weaknesses of the constitution and its key office holders as well as the essentially Nationalist nature of the organs of state terror – the Police and Army as well as the Freikorps - that led eventually and perhaps inevitably to the seizure of power by the Nazis or some other group. The period of hyperinflation of the early ‘20s and the following stabilisation had a disproportionate negative effect on the working and middle classes steadily eroded the legitimacy of the parties that supported democracy and the republic. Political unrest throughout the 1920s and into the ‘30s is told from the viewpoint of contemporary sources, anti-Semitism in Germany seems to have been rife throughout the period and of course the Nazis capitalised on the pre-existing prejudices to define the Jews as an internal enemy along with the ‘November Traitors’ of 1918.

Right from the inception of the Republic the Presidential right to rule by decree, which was meant to be applied only in extremis, was abused by President Ebert. From here on in this precedent legitimised all future applications of Rule by Decree – including by President Hindenburg (successor to Ebert) and Chancellors such as Papen and Schleicher as well as eventually Hitler. In spite of vicious and deadly political unrest between Nazis and Communists and well as other Nationalist and Socialist groupings the Republic never established itself as Leviathan and the parliamentary immunity granted to politicians supporting both sides allowed them collude on several occasions to provide amnesties for ‘political prisoners’ guilty of crimes including murder.

Evans notes that in the 1920 75% of the electorate had voted for parties that supported democracy. After the turmoil of the Weimar years a similar percentage voted for parties, of left and right, opposed to democracy. Evans’ work takes one coolly through all the key events of the Weimar republic and its subjugation by the right wing politicians who negotiated with Hitler to appoint Hitler to the role of Chancellor – in the belief they could control the Nazis. Once Hitler is in power the Reichstag Fire (which Evans does not attribute to the Nazis) provides Hitler’s excuse to outlaw opposing political parties starting with the Communists but eventually subsuming all. Evan’s account of the terror and sadism unleashed by the Nazis almost instantaneously upon Hitler’s accession is all the more appalling because it concentrates on small detail. It is clear that the Nazis under Hitler, Goering, Himmler and Goebbels were well prepared to seize power but were also rapidly adaptive to events to ensure they made best use of other’s vacillation and hubris.

A fascinating book that records events that without making moral judgements – these are left to the reader – clearly highlights the evil of the Nazis; the hubris of the right wing coalition that brought them to power and structural weakness of the Weimar republic as well as the massive levels of political violence in the Germany of the 20’s and 30’s coupled with polarisation of left and right. That Germans of all shades were antipathetic towards ‘Jews and Foreigners’ to such a degree did come as a surprise.

Having read William Shirer’s 1st hand account of the rise of the Nazis (Berlin Diary and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) both of which I highly recommend I was surprised how much more Evan’s volume has added to my knowledge and understanding of these events. 10 out of 10.


Mosquito Pathfinder - by Albert Smith and Ian Smith; Crecy Publishing Ltd. (April 2004)

Over a period of just under 2 years, Albert Smith survived 90 operational sorties as a Wellington (38 sorties) then Mosquito Navigator as part of the Bomber Offensive against Germany at a time when the average number of sorties a crew could expect to survive was just 10 missions. The book opens with the shooting down of Albert’s Mosquito on a mission to Karlsruhe at the end of 1944 before going back to the beginning of the story and recounting the 16 year old Albert’s enlistment in the RAF and Navigator training in Florida before commencing bombing operations in January 1943.

On arrival at Operational Training Unit in 1942 Albert was sought out by an experience Pilot – Flt Lt Peters and the crew was selected in the usual haphazard way but the fortunes of war would not keep them together for long - after surviving their 1st mission, Albert and his Bomb Aimer flew their second mission not with their own crew but with the Sqn commander and Flight Commander respectively. Whilst Albert returned the Flight Commander’s aircraft was one of only 2 aircraft lost on the raid and so the part luck played in survival is tragically demonstrated.

An excellent feature of the book is the italic postscript for each mission flown that is added by Albert’s son Ian. For each mission details from Bomber Command’s operations as a whole (number and type of aircraft involved and losses) is included and where available details of the effects on the target (casualties and damage reports) which add an overall context to the battles engaged in by Albert and his crew.

This book is extremely well written, providing an excellent view of life on operational squadrons and the main concerns of the young men of Bomber command – Survival ; Beer and a Sex (or lack of it) – with survival uppermost. Albert admits his terror of the Flak around the Ruhr but is lucky that his Wellington Crew are posted to North Africa in the final throes of that Campaign to complete his first tour before spending several months as an Instructor back in England. To his own surprise Albert finds himself volunteering for a 2nd tour in early 1944 after conversion to Pathfinder Mosquitos he and his new pilot, Johnny, are posted to 109squadron just after D-Day. Thus Albert has missed the worst period for Bomber Command crew casualties – the winter of 1943/4, nevertheless there is still much danger and Pathfinder work includes daylight marking of V1 sites in France and support for the allied armies in Normandy as well as a return to attacks on Germany in the day as well as at night.

I found this book un-put- downable.


Book Review: The Eastern Front 1914-1917 – Norman Stone; Completed 3 June 2014

Norman Stone has for many years been based in Turkey and is I believe currently the Professor of History at the University of Bilkent. When this book was first published in 1976, he was still based in the UK but it is clear that his specialisation was Eastern Europe as this book is still considered to be the definitive English language history of the 1st World War in the East.
Although the 1st World War started (simplistically) as a result of tensions in the east – German fear of increasing economic and military power of Russia; the assassination in Sarajevo; Russian support for the aggressively irredentist Serbia - for most Western readers the war in the East is unknown and for most the war was one of men being wastefully thrown at prepared trench systems of the western battlefields gaining ground only at vast cost and then only for little reward. In the East the war was different but some of the problems similar. There was far more movement across vast spaces but as in the west no decisive strategic victories – despite Ludendorff’s claims for the likes of Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes (Stone points out that the Russians were back in Prussia just a few months later).

Stone’s book draws on Russian literature, including personal letters, and available economic data as well as archival material from the Austrian war archives to take the reader through the various war campaigns – mainly of 1914 to the end of 1916. 1917 is less well covered and the Kerensky campaign hardly at all. For a western reader unsure of the geography it makes sense to give a second reading just to grasp what is happening and where. Throughout the discussion of the military campaigns the incompetence of Russian and Austrian senior commanders – appointed because of political connections rather than merit and jealously trying to preserve their own positions in a time of National crisis – is clear when compared to the more professional though in the event hardly more successful German military leadership. The stand- out commander on all sides is however not German but Russian – Brusilov. Brusilov’s offensive of 1916 was perhaps the most effective of the whole war until Haig’s 100 days that ended the war in the West. Brusilov was the 1st commander to understand the need to break in to the enemy front, using stealth rather than simply pulverising a few square kilometres of frontline trench with artillery, on a wide front to prevent the attacker’s being halted by enfilading fire (as happened in most battles and particularly to the Germans at Verdun), with the attacking reserves close enough to get onto the enemy reserve positions as soon as the frontline troops had taken the initial defences and with a mobile force (cavalry ) able to cross a battlefield and get in behind the enemy without getting held up in a morass of mud caused by otherwise ineffective artillery. This simple formula was later copied by Ludendorff in the March 1918 Operation Michael and by Haig – leading to the defeat of the German army in the field in 1918. The formula discovered by Brusilov was driven by expediency – he lacked the shells (though Stone effectively argues plenty of Shell was available to the Russian Army as a whole) to simply blast the enemy and needed to think of a different way of attack.

An excellent aspect of the book is its debunking of a number of myths foremost of which is the Russian excuse for failures on the battlefield as being the result of Shell shortage. Stone demonstrates that plenty of Shell was produced by Russian Industry and that for the most part Russia possessed more Shell than her enemies. The shortage was invariably a result of poor allocation of priorities, and in particular commanders at all level hoarding and even hiding shells because they had little faith in the logistics system. Stone also highlights just how inefficient the Russian bureaucracy was in organising for war – calling up only 11 million soldiers (about the same as France ) form a population of 190 million (against Frances 40 million) and war production being secondary to other manufactured goods including makeup. Russia’s reliance on imports was at the heart of a number of issues including her unrealised belief that Britain and France would be able to supply war Materiel in any great quantity. Also coming in for criticism is the inability of the Russian government to manage rail timetables efficiently (again plenty of rolling stock was available) ; Russia’s own goal in banning alcohol – thus eliminating a huge tax income without any attempt to replace tax take and without any effective system of direct taxation.

As already mentioned it was not only the Russian Empire that struggled to organise for modern warfare. Bothe Russia and Austria-Hungary were essentially Ancien Regimes in the industrial age and neither possessed effective administrations to deal with the economic and logistic challenges most especially resource allocation equal to the task. Germany did possess the ability but as Falkenhayn recognised, and Stone agrees, Germany could only win the war by defeating the Western powers and her resources were allocated accordingly. An additional problem for the Austro-Hungarians was the fractured nature of her administration, specifically Hungarian landowners and politicians seeking to profit from the war at the state’s expense. Much has been made of the multinational and multi-lingual nature of the Austrian forces (one regiment even speaking English as it was the only common language) adding to confusion but Stone points out that Czech and Ruthenian troops instantly "improved" in quality once the Austrian officers were replaced with Prussians, essentially proving that leadership rather than ethnicity was the issue. As the war progressed, German troops and officers were more and more integrated into the Austrian army so much so that the Austrians on the Eastern (more than the Italian) front eventually became instruments of the German army rather than the Austrian Emperor.

The final part of the book looks at the revolutions in Russia that effectively brought the war to an end. Stone makes the point that government mismanagement of the war economy and infrastructure and in particular the money supply, lead to rampant inflation, destroyed wages and eventually leads to the social conditions required for a broadly supported revolution. At the end the claim that the Bolshevik revolution occurred not because of the war itself but because a rapidly modernising economy; large population movements not to the army but to the cities was unable to withstand the strain is I think interesting but contentious and not wholly supportable.

In the introduction to this book Stone highlights the paucity of English Language writing on the subject pointing out that the then canon of literature on the subject consisted only of 2 books, one of which was by Churchill’s written in 1931. Unfortunately the picture has not much changed as it is now nearly 40 years since this publication. As a result the materials that must now be available from the opening up of Russian and post-communist European archives after the end of the cold war have still to be analysed and there must inevitably be gaps in the conclusions – particularly the economic and political ones made within this book. This is not a criticism of Stone’s work but simply to highlight the opportunity out there for a suitable review and update. This work remains the definitive English language work on the topic. It is well written and its points are well made. As such it is a must read for any student of the conflict but there is space for a new history.



The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. By Richard Overy. Completed April 2014

Richard Overy’s new book has had positive reviews from much more prestigious readers than I and it is not difficult to see why. I think this book is probably the definitive study of the Strategic Bombing Campaigns carried out against targets in Europe during the 2nd World War. The exclusion of the equivalent campaigns in the Pacific and Chinese theatre’s is a shame but is understandable given the wealth of material required just for the European theatre.

Overy charts the development in the 1930s of Strategic bombing theory by European powers and the consequent development of the air forces of Britain and Germany in particular. What is apparent is that the civilian populations of Europe from the outset of the war expected themselves to be targets of aerial attack (the 1st world war had already been understood as a ‘total war’) and some Civil Defence measures had already been taken, especially in Germany. In some quarters it was thought that, as British PM Baldwin stated as early as 1932, the “bomber always get through” and it was believed that such devastation would quickly be caused that populations and economies of the attacked would be incapable of withstanding the assault. As Overy points out this was not the case – especially early in the war - as the attacking air forces were simply incapable of delivering heavy attacks with any accuracy against defended targets although the Spanish Civil War example of Guernica certainly stoked the pre-war assumptions. Even later in the war when allied bombers with the range and payload to do serious damage had become available in numbers, only the most blinkered exponents of Air Power (and one of these must certainly have been Bomber Command’s chief – Arthur Harris) still believed bombers could deliver a “knockout blow”. The bombing campaign in Europe and especially that of the RAF had become a ‘Western Front in the air’ a war of attrition with no clear-cut end. One frightening statistic worth noting is that only 50% of Bomber Command aircrew survived the war whereas 90% of 1st world war Tommies survived the war on the Western Front.

A key strength of this book is its view of each of the aerial campaigns against civilian and economic targets – the Battle of Britain; the RAF and USAAF offensives against Germany and Italy, the Russian (desultory) attacks on Germany and Germany’s attack on Russian strategic targets (also desultory – in the event many more Russian civilians were killed by artillery and bullets than by air dropped bombs). The most important campaigns were those of Germany against Britain and of the RAF/USAAF against Germany but each campaign is given space and both attackers and defenders capabilities are covered including civil defence measures. In the east the air war was mostly tactical in support of the huge armies constantly in action. In the west for the most part of the war air power alone was employed ostensibly against military targets by the USAAF (though Eighth Air Force post-raid assessment showed that the vast majority of bombs dropped came fell more than 2,000 feet from the target) and against cities by the RAF - justified because it would shorten the war and save the lives of Allied soldiers, and destroy the ability and will of German industrial workers to produce the material of war - an assertion that Overy shows to be difficult to reconcile with the five long years of British bombing.

Overy demonstrates, convincingly in my view, that the resources given to the Allied air forces to pursue their campaigns were for the most part wasted and could have been better employed in other ways but given the unwillingness of the British in particular to start a ground campaign in the West before 1944 were understandable at the time. The 40% of the armed forces’ direct military budget that was consumed by the proponents of air power during the war, together with the diversion of skilled technical and scientific manpower that went with it, looks like poor value for money now.

The trouble was that most of the claims made for air power’s effectiveness were never delivered. Whilst the Allied campaigns against Germany did have significant effects for example the:
‘substantial diversion of guns and aircraft away from the fighting fronts where they were needed more than ever by the summer of 1943. By late August there were over 1,000 fighter aircraft stationed in Germany, 45.5 per cent of all German fighter strength, and a further 224 in northern France. Over the same period the number of heavy anti-aircraft guns on the home front increased from 4,800 before Gomorrah to over 6,000 by the end of August, including more of the heavier 10.5-cm and 12.8-cm’

It was however, only when the USAAF was able to force the Luftwaffe on to the defensive and provide long range escort fighters were decisive contributions made. The destruction of the Luftwaffe was essential as a prelude to the Allied Invasion and this was achieved almost entirely by the USAAF. In one week during February 1944 the Luftwaffe lost one-third of its single-engine fighters and almost one-fifth of its fighter crew. By contrast, the number of P-51 ‘Mustang’ fighters available was 90 per cent higher at the end of ‘Big Week’ than it had been at the beginning. As a consequence the hours devoted to training for a new German fighter pilot fell from 210 in 1942 to 112 by 1944; operational training was reduced from 50 hours to 20.
Hungarian émigré economist, Nicholas Kaldor, a member of the USSBS team, argued that the critical factors in choosing economic targets were the degree of ‘cushion’, the degree of ‘depth’ and the degree of ‘vulnerability’. - for most of the war period Germany had a large cushion of resources of capital stock, labour and raw materials that could be allocated to sustaining war production - Only in 1944, with the American decision to focus on enemy air power, oil and transport were three targets chosen which fortuitously matched Kaldor’s calculation that the economic effects of allied Strategic bombing were realised.

In this review I have concentrated on the bombing strategy of the Western powers only because these were by far the most damaging and prolonged attacks of the war. This book does however cover every combatant in the European theatre – including lesser powers such as Bulgaria and Romania and it provides excellent perspective across the theatre. It must be noted that none of the combatants were squeamish about killing civilians and as the war went on they all became less concerned about such moral niceties. In the end, Overy’s verdict is damning. He argues convincingly that “strategic bombing proved in the end to be inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principle assignments and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations.” This is a book that has challenged my own pre-conceptions. A must read for anyone with an interest in the subject.



Book Review - Just for Kicks – Kenny Logan’s Autobiography. – Completed 28 Apr 14

Ok so for a change of subject –this year most of my reading has been around the topic of World War 1 or for variety other military history – making me a somewhat dull conversationalist. So with a return train Journey to Glasgow on the cards I decided to read something else. I borrowed Kenny Logan’s autobiography from my son and read that.

Kenny Logan’s father was a well-respected farmer in Stirling who didn’t marry until he was 40 and was 55 by the time Kenny was born. This book describes Logan’s early life and love of farming and his close relationship with his older cousin Hamish who acted as a surrogate father in many ways but whose tragic early death was a blow to the young Logan. Hamish did not live to see his 1st game for Scotland but Logan expresses his pleasure that his father, though terminally ill, did indeed live long enough to see that 1st Cap. Logan’s love of farming and his decision to take over the running of the family farm on his father’s death is all included in this book but the main theme is of course Rugby.
When Logan ended his career he was Scotland’s most capped winger with 70 caps, and a large part of this story is around Kenny’s trials and tribulations with the Scottish National team. Given the parlous state of Scottish Rugby today it is often forgotten that in the 1990’s when Logan was playing most of his rugby that Scotland won a Grand Slam (90), missed out in the last game on 2 grand slams (95 and 96) and were the last champions of the 5 Nations competition (99). Logan recalls a love-hate relationship with Jim Telfer who was either coach or a senior administrator throughout Logan’s time as an international.

This was also the era when the game turned professional and Logan’s move to London, from Stirling County, to play for Wasps is recounted. At the start of the Professional era it seemed that clubs went daft with paying their players – Logan was offered £120 000 to play in the English 2nd division but eventually accepted £80 000 to play for Wasps where in his 1st season he helped them to the English Champions title. Even today nearly 20 years on these figures would not look out of place at most pro clubs outside France.

The final chapters of the book cover Logan’s participation in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and the birth of his children but these aspects of his life are not overdone.

The most serious issue raised by the book is not the Rugby but Logan’s illiteracy. It is an indictment of the Scottish Education system that as late as the 1980’s a pupil could go through the whole school system with undiagnosed dyslexia and leave at 16 being able to write only his name. Logan is honest about the troubles this gave him in later life including the debilitating nature of his illiteracy on his confidence which prevented him getting treatment when supported by his future wife Gabby.

Definitely worth a read



I flew for the Fuhrer – Heinz Knoke – Kindle Edition – completed 24 Apr 14

I came to this book via Richard Overy’s ‘The Bombing War’ (see separate review) as it was referenced as a record of the defeat of the Luftwaffe Fighter Forces by the USAAF P38s; P47s and P51s from late 1943.

Knoke joined the Luftwaffe just prior to the outbreak of war having spent his formative years during the Nazi era prior to the war. Knoke describes his flight training in detail and it is obvious that, even with the numerous accidents that did occur, the Luftwaffe training regime of the 1938-40 period provided this intake of pilots a much better chance of survival than the late war training was able to – with much reduced hours and hundreds of Allied fighters waiting to pounce. For the most part, the book describes Knoke’s operational flying from early sweeps over the Channel in late 1940 to early 1941 then operation Barbarossa to the defence of the Reich which takes up the majority of the story. Knoke was credited with 33 kills – mostly US bombers.

I did not find Knoke to be a sympathetic character, knowing that in the early post war years his politics remained sympathetic to Nazi policies despite protestations within the book that the Nazi Leaders had ‘betrayed the German people’ - a commonly used excuse for complicity of many German soldiers after the war. Knoke describes the invasion of Poland as a liberation of the German minority from wanton massacres – whilst it is possible that he believed this at the time it should not have been repeated in 1953 when the book was written even if the book was based on Knoke’s diaries. Similarly the invasion of the USSR is represented as a defensive battle to protect Western Civilisation from Bolshevism and visceral hatred of the Russian troops shines through. Knoke expresses delight at killing Russians during the early days of Operation Barbarossa but does not express the same hatred of the Western allies – recounting how he was pleased to see a British pilot escape from his downed Spitfire and on another occasion sharing a cigarette with a P47 pilot after they had both shot the other down. From this it is clear that Nazi racial theories had permeated the young Knoke pretty thoroughly. Some of the events recounted may be confused – the account of shooting down one of the Mosquitos that interrupted Goering’s speech by raiding Berlin on 30 Jan 1943 cannot be true as all of these aircraft returned to base although an aircraft from a follow on raid that afternoon was lost.

In summary the book is a good read with very good descriptions of aerial battles over Germany. Its Author in my view comes across as a rather unpleasant individual – a product I suppose of Nazi indoctrination during the 1930s and 40s


The War That Never Was – Duff Hart Davis – Pub 2012

This book was a Sunday Times Bestseller. And the subject is one that I was quite unaware of. The book tells the story of a group of British Mercenaries known as the British Field Liaison Force (BFLF) operating, with Tacit UK government support, against Nasser’s forces in the Yemen between 1963 and 1967.

The story concentrates for the most part on the participation of British Mercenaries under the command of Lt Col Jim Johnson and their acts as advisors to the Yemeni Royalist forces after the toppling of that regime by Nasser and Republican Yemeni’s in 1963. It is claimed that during the period of the war that upwards of 20 000 (the number varies) Egyptian troops were embroiled in an insurgency advised by the BFLF. It should be noted that of the 80 or so British government sponsored Mercenaries only 12 of these were British at any one time and the book only fleetingly covers the experiences of the French and Belgian mercenaries employed.

Some interesting characters are central to the story and it is hard to see that in today’s context any UK government getting away with supporting such adventurism. Key to the story are Jim Johnson a former CO of 21 SAS; David Stirling – the Founder of the SAS; Tony Boyle – son of Marshall of the RAF Dermot Boyle; Peter de La Billiere – at that time a serving soldier and advisor to the British Ambassador in Saudi Arabia ; Peter Amery – a serving Tory MP and Duncan Sandys whose involvement continued beyond his party’s defeat in the 1964 general election. The reason for government involvement can only be explained in terms of the end of the imperial project. Britain was to withdraw from Aden in 1968 but still saw herself as having strategic interests in the gulf and East of Suez. The desire to keep the USSR out of the area was equally important though interestingly GB involvement was contrary to the wishes of the US which at least at the start of the war is seen to be supporting Nasser. A key aim for the GB government was to support Saudi Arabia which provided the majority of funds for the mercenary operation. A little known aspect of the conflict was the fact that Israel provided weapons drops from C97 transports at night to desert strips.

Whilst the story is fast paced, there are a number of repetitions and others have put this down to the Author bringing together a number of different sources form the key participants. This does detract from the telling. For me it was also unsettling, in fact distasteful , to read about the horrific deaths of largely peasant troops – both Egyptian and Yemini in causes that I am sure were of no real concern to them although this is not the fault of the book.

The War That Never Was has been described as a ‘Rollicking good story!!’ and this is due to it being a story of the tactics of the conflict. It recounts the experiences of a few individuals and a variety of tactical engagements , the Israeli air drops and the Egyptian use of Chemical weapons on the battlefield. There is little Strategic analysis – yes Britain’s motives are mentioned but not explained in any detail. There is not a great deal of analysis behind the causes of the conflict other than Soviet Cold War ambition and Nasser’s pan Arabism. Saudi ambitions to rule Yemen through the tribal sheikhs explains balancing act over support to the Royalists but is not truly analysed. The Saudis' preference to use money rather than ‘ kinetic means’ predates General Petraeus's articulation of this as a 'weapon system' by 40 years but is again poorly explored.

Overall this is a ‘Boy’s Own’ tale of adventurers and imperial battles which is both its strength and its limitation. Definitely worth a read.


Margaret MacMillan “The War That Ended Peace”

Margaret MacMillan is an Oxford professor and a great granddaughter of David Lloyd George. The ‘Economist’ says that this book will ‘rank among the best books of the centennial crop’ and it is hard to disagree with this assessment.

MacMillan opens with a description of the Paris Exposition of 1900 and from there traces the developments that led to war. Whilst MacMillan covers the range of factors that led to war – Alliance Systems; the Naval Arms Race; the; the instability of declining empires in the Balkans and the rise of aggressive nationalism in Serbia and Germany as well as the influence of now forgotten ideologies such as Social Darwinism, the main focus of her argument is that the decisions of approximately 60 individuals are those that led to war. MacMillan’s assessment of the factors indicates that they in themselves need not have led to war.

Alliance systems were claimed after the war as one of the main causes of the war. However in the 1914 Triple Entente/Triple Alliance systems were essentially defensive and did not require any party to go to war (Italy did not join the German/Austro-Hungarian campaigns on the grounds that neither had been attacked and right up until the attack on Belgium, Britain’s government maintained that it would act as it saw fit and not be bound by its friendship with France). MacMillan points out that NATO and the Warsaw Pact later in the century ‘brought a balance, which was in the end a peaceful one, to Europe during the Cold War.’

Brinkmanship had become endemic in Europe but in all previous crises, statemen had stepped back from the Brink - MacMillan covers these crises in detail and their resolution. but one gets a feeling that each crisis tightened the noose (this might only be because one now knows what the final outcome was)

The war was not inevitable, MacMillan contrasts the choices made by European statesmen unfavourably to those of JFK, who when faced with military pressures for war and even shorter decision timescales in 1962 had the courage to make the choices required for peace rather than war. Unfortunately the statesmen of 1914 lacked that courage. She points out that Germany’s key leaders, in particular the Kaiser, Bethmann and Moltke may not have deliberately started the Great War, but by taking its coming for granted, even desirable, by issuing the blank cheque to Austria-Hungary, and by sticking to a war plan defined in 1906 that required France to be attacked regardless of whether she intended to remain neutral or not and by attacking neutral Belgium to facilitate this attack they certainly allowed it to happen. Serendipity is also highlighted as those most likely to be voices for reason were eliminated from the scene – Franz Josef himself tried to savoi earlier Balkan conflicts. ‘Please restrain Conrad,’ he wrote in 1908. ‘He must stop this warmongering.’; in France Caillaux resigned in July 1914 as his wife was arrested and tried for the murder of the editor of Le Figaro (she was acquitted as it was classed as a crime of passion), the German deputy Foreign minister Kedderlin had died in 1912 and Rasputin was recovering from having been stabbed. MacMillan writes, ‘It was Europe and the world’s tragedy in retrospect that none of the key players in 1914 were great and imaginative leaders who had the courage to stand out against the pressure building up for war.’

This is a book is a ‘Tour de Force’ extremely well researched and a clear statement for ‘The Great Man’ theory of history (or in this case ‘The Weak Man’ theory) 10 out of 10


Bradley Wiggins: My Time: An Autobiography

I am not a cyclist, other than occasionally, nor am I someone who watches the sport on TV so whilst I know when the Tour de France is on every I don’t follow it. Having read this book I will pay more attention from now on. My interest has been fired by reading this book.

The book is a ghost written autobiography that focuses on the lead up to and events of 2012 an annus mirabalis in for Wiggins in particular and British Cycling (especially team Sky) in general. There is early coverage, though not in any detail, of events prior to Wiggins signing for Team Sky, a little on his early life and time with the Garmin Team after turning Pro but the majority of the action is around the time with Team Sky and in particular the 2012 Tour de France and preparation for it. The book goes on to cover the 2012 Olympics but not in great detail.

Wiggins talks frankly about cycling’s doping scandals and points out that because of this he has won more Tours than Lance Armstrong! Team Sky’s approach to performance excellence – training; attention to small details; the use of sports science and pre-race preparation are all covered well.

The language and style of this book may not be to everybody’s taste, there are a lot of colloquialisms and some repetition that might have been tidied up had there not been a rush to release it in time to crown a fantastic 2012 for Bradley Wiggins. As the book is classed as an autobiography I would have liked more on the overall life journey of Wiggin. Nonetheless I must say that I really enjoyed the read.


Review 1st Book Completed in2014 – The Winter King by Thomas Penn

Henry VII (as Duke of Richmond) landed at Milford Haven in 1485 with a small band of followers but by the end of the year was king of England having defeated the experienced Richard III at Bosworth Field. Some have called Henry the most unlikely king ever to have occupied the throne having descended not from the direct Royal Lineage of York or Lancaster but from Henry V’s widow’s marriage to a Welsh member of her household.

After an initial explanation of Henry’s early life this book concentrates on Henry’s final decade in power. The book shows him to be the supreme exponent of Machiavellian methods as he sought to establish England as a major European power and to establish the Tudor dynasty. The picture painted is not a pleasant one but it is accurate. Henry’s England was one in which arbitrary fines and ‘bonds’ (effectively pre-emptive fines) were used to enrich the Royal Coffers, where blatantly innocent men and women were accused of heinous crimes just so cash could be extracted from them. Henry was a tyrant willing to use ancient half-forgotten laws to extract cash form his subjects and run a network of spies and cronies seeking any sign of disloyalty. Under Henry’s rule the state made huge inroads into the private lives of the population and in doing so he commenced the transition of England from a medieval state to Modernity – without yet the brakes of parliament acting too effectively. Particularly interesting is Henry’s use of effective placemen, promoted on merit rather than on social rank, to remove himself from the greatest excesses though as Penn points out Henry was at all times at the centre of the web.

To sum up this book I can do no better than to concur with Diarmaid MacCulloch that the book is ‘An exceptionally stylish literary debut. Henry VII may be the most unlikely person ever to have occupied the throne of England, and his biographers have rarely conveyed just what a weird man he was. Thomas Penn does this triumphantly, and in the process manages to place his subject in a vividly realised landscape. His book should be the first port of call for anyone trying to understand England's most flagrant usurper since William the Conqueror’ I can heartily recommend this book

2nd Book of 2014 - Losing Small Wars – Author Frank Ledwidge

The Author provides a no nonsense and unsentimental critique of Britain’s military defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you don’t consider them defeats then you need to be aware that a recent parliamentary report by the House of Commons Public Administration Committee no less characterized the recent wars as ‘strategic failures’ and consider that of 7,000 British soldiers in Basra in 2006 only 200 were actually available for patrolling – the rest being engaged in ‘force protection’ i.e. guarding themselves whilst the British have now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were, and have achieved less than the Soviets. Ledwidge is no peacenik with an agenda (other than to improve the standard of Britain’s armed forces) he served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq as a military intelligence officer and in Afghanistan as a civilian justice advisor, his biog states that he is a qualified Lawyer. Additionally he has recently been a lecturer for Kings College, London at the RAF College, Cranwell.

Ledwidge highlights that in recent years it has been popular to blame the politicians for British failures (lack of funds, equipment etc. and getting us into wars that (IMHO) were none of our business in the 1st place). Whilst Ledwidge doesn’t let the politicians off the hook – the 2010 defence review is seen for what it was ‘an ill-thought-out reheat of its 1998 predecessor’ but this book essentially takes aim at British military leadership; Ledwidge takes the Generals to task.

Ledwidge contrasts the performance of British military leadership with that of the Americans pointing out that the US forces, led by flexible and very highly educated leaders were much quicker to realize the need to change direction radically and ‘unburdened by useless shibboleths of the past, such as Malaya or even Northern Ireland, it was able to identify the simple and robust actions required successfully to protect what remained of vulnerable populations’

The author identifies a number of key British weaknesses:
1. A military culture of ‘cracking on’ – being seen to do something. The belief being that doing anything is better than nothing. Ledwidge does not agree pointing out that doing nothing in the context of Helmand may indeed be the best course of action.
2. Believing their own propaganda – ‘Taken in by their own legends of triumph in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus, as well as Northern Ireland, our military leaders failed to extract from those wars any relevant lessons’. There is still a belief that the British army is good at counter insurgency because we ‘did’ Malaya so well although that campaign ended over 50 years ago. Lessons from Northern Ireland are ignored in Helmand.
3. Failure to speak truth to power – accepting politicians directives and ‘cracking on’
4. Failure to provide elite level education, and its consequent outcome of conceptual flexibility, for leaders.
5. Failure to define strategic goals for these wars noting ‘a cavalier attitude to post-entry planning, a mentality geared to an excessive readiness to use extreme violence, an attachment to archaic traditions and imagined histories’
6. Inadequate equipment and a dearth of personnel coexisted alongside a vastly swollen command structure that was proportionately eight times the size of that of the US marines. The sheer numbers at the top of the British military pyramid makes for interesting comparisons. The US armed forces are 10 times the size of the British but have only 4 times as many officers of 1 star and above rank. Israel with armed forces roughly the same size as the UK has only 10% the number of ‘starred’ officers.

Ledwidge, does not simply throw rocks; he seeks to offer structural solutions that he believes shall ensure that the UK forces of the future will learn lessons . His prescription is to:
1. Cut the number of officers with one star or more, across all three services, from 500 to 150. This would make the corps of generals ‘only’ twice the size, proportionately, of the complement of general officers in the US marines, and about three times the size of the Israeli equivalent.
2. Use the savings that accrue from this cull of hundreds of million-pound officers to set up a UK equivalent to the US Advanced Civil Schooling programme. This would allow officers and warrant officers with the potential and the will to do so to get out of their social and intellectual comfort zones and explore new thought in graduate research study in civilian institutions.
3. Carry out wholesale review of how the British military machine functions in civil and internal conflict; the emphasis being on much less kinetic power and much more on civilian led work.

This book is highly readable, well argued, and devastatingly critical of the senior levels of the British Military. The ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ epithet seems to be more applicable to the British army of 2014 than 1914. I can heartily recommend this book

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