Foote’s Civil War – Volume 14

This completes the series, published originally as “The Civil War, a Narrative” by Shelby Foote. The original is three fat volumes. This re-release was a Time-Life series with added illustrations.

The period covered in this book is from the opening of the Spring 1865 offensive by Grant. This resulted in the decisive defeat of Pickett at Five Forks, followed by the breaking of the defensive lines of Petersburg soon after.  Lee was forced to evacuate Richmond and Petersburg.  The pursuit caught up quickly, and at Sayler’s Creek the Army of Northern Virginia was crushed again, losing many thousands of prisoners yet again.  Days later, the remnants were brought to bay and Lee surrendered.

This was followed by the surrender of the remaining armies, and the narrative follows the Assassination of Lincoln, the pursuit of Jefferson Davis and his final capture and imprisonment. He then uses Davis’ life as a framing mechanism for a view of the postwar period, ending with his death.

This set of books remains, even after 50 years, the best overall view of the whole war. It reads like a novel more than a textbook, and it’s almost 3000 pages means that there is time to give more than a paragraph on each battle or campaign or key figure. At least two sections of this book have been republished as independent books – one on Gettysburg, and one on Vicksburg.

The power of his writing is shown that each time I read the final chapters I feel sympathy for Jefferson Davis.  I’m a northern partisan, and Davis is an unlikeable person whose foibles probably hastened the South’s defeat, but Foote pulls it off all the same.

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Rommel’s Desert War – Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.

I just finished this book, my home ‘walkabout’ book today while getting a haircut and having an ice tea this afternoon. The book is one of the Stackpole Books’ Military History Series, which are a set of trade-paperback books on various subjects. From the list of book entries in the volume, the bulk of the books are about WWII.

I’ve picked up a few of these books from time to time and found them to be good overviews of the subjects, which often are not covered well in standard histories. The paperback release makes them about half the list price of new hardbacks, so you aren’t risking a whole lot.

For me, the most disappointing part of the book is the title. To me, it seemed to state that the book covered more of the Desert War than it did. The subtitle, The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps, also seems to say that it covers the entire life of the DAK.

The Desert War can be broken up into phases:

  • The Italian Offensive and Commonweath counteroffensive (1940 – Jan 1941)
  • The formation of the DAK and Rommel’s first offensive
  • The Siege of Tobruk and Commonwealth attempts to raise it
  • Rommel’s second offensive to El Alamein
  • The Battles of El Alamein
  • The retreat to Tunisia and Torch
  • The Tunisian Campaign to the final surrender of the DAK.

This book only covers the second offensive, El Alamein, and the retreat out of Cyrenaica. The first part of Tunisia is partly covered until the failure to take Tunis in the fall of 1942.  Looking at the books in the series, there is a book called “Desert Battles” and one called “Exit Rommel” that might cover the parts of the Desert war not covered here.

So aside from my snit about the title, how good is the book?  Pretty good. While the bulk of the text is centered around the DAK, there is some discussion of the Allied side and the view of Rommel seems fairly well-balanced.  The maps in the book are fairly basic, so some additional maps for some battles could be useful. It isn’t that hard to follow the flow of battles in the text  using the maps provided.

The point of view remains at the army level. Since armor forms the main striking force, I appreciated the fact that tank losses and force levels were given at the decision points. It makes the decision to break off an attack when you read that 200 of the 250 tanks were lost than, say, if you were told that the unit had lost 2000 men out of 20000.

I also appreciated the description of several of the stages in the long retreat out of Cyrenaica. Often histories jump directly from Egypt to Tunisia in a paragraph. There’s a description of an incident on the retreat that I hadn’t seen before.  The DAK is out of fuel and struggling to bring some up to allow them to continue the retreat. They learn that a key fuel supply ship was lost trying to reach them, and things look black. Then an officer comes in with astonishing news: Barrels of fuel from the sunken ship are washing up on the shore all around the army’s position! This windfall gives them enough fuel to move on and gain some time.

Rommel sure had the luck working that day.

Why Did the South Secede?

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Given that this year is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, if not secession, the question of why the war started keeps being raised. If you look at what was driving all politics and events in the country in the 1840-1860 period the answer is obvious – slavery. Frankly, you can’t even understand what is going on in this period without slavery.

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on Rommel’s Desert War

I’m about two-thirds (Ok, I’m guessing) through the book, and the DAK has just failed to break the El Alamein line for the first time.  The question raised in my mind is – was it the correct decision for Rommel to invade Egypt.

The situation is this – he has heavily defeated the 8th Army at Gazala, and captured Tobruk. This gives him a huge amount of supplies to use in the invasion. The Commonwealth forces are weak, and reduced by heavy losses in equipment and men. The fighting ability displayed in the battle was frankly pretty poor even before the defeat.

It’s sure that if Rommel had not invaded at once, the 8th Army would recover and come back, sooner or later.  Allied superiority in equipment and men would replenish the army  – as it did on the Alamein line. So not invading pretty much means going onto the defensive for some time, and possibly for good.

What were the other options?  Kesselring wanted to take the air support and use it for an invasion of Malta.  If Malta had fallen, then the submarines and planes there could no longer interfere with supplies. At this time they were sinking 80-90 percent of the material sent.

The question is – would this invasion have happened?  In order to help the DAK, the operation would have had to be started almost at once.  Since it required aid by the Italian Army and Navy, this could be a problem.

And the second question is would it have been successful?  The presence of the Royal Navy in the area made any seaborne attack risky.

My guess is, even if committed to, the invasion would have been postponed until too late to do any good. The air units would have had to redeploy to Italy and attack Malta, then defeat its air cover and smash its defenses. This would take time.  And the Axis didn’t really have a lot of time, since the Torch invasion in their rear was only five months off.

If Rommel had been able to push to Alexandria, it ls likely that the Torch invasion would have been redirected or postponed. I think it was worth a try, but once the first attack had been stopped in July, the DAK should have started pulling back instead of staying in a static defense.  There was little point in staying at El Alamein after that, and the equipment and men saved could have put up a stouter defense.

Of course, once Torch had come off.the wise choice would have been to extract the men and equipment from Africa rather than reinforce the Tunisia area massively, and then lose the entire force to capture in May 1943.  This is just another instance of the German Army’s weakness in planning in the war.  Tactically they could do a lot, but they continually lost due to poor planning and logistics.

Malta was a constant problem that they never solved, and they put little effort into solving it. Something as simple as mining the harbor could have helped against the subs and supply convoys needed to keep the island alive. If a few squadrons of planes could suppress the island, then the maintenance of this force should have been top priority.  And if Rommel could do wonders with his two divisions, why not give him a few more and wind the entire thing up once and for all.  And if Africa is not worth that, why defend it at all?

If the Africa Korps was not in Africa, the British would have found it impossible to insist in the invasion, in the face of the US Forces’ distaste for the Mediterranean sideshow.

Foote’s Civil War – Volume 13

I just finished this last night. The war is winding to a close, as the South has failed to stop Sherman in South and North Carolina. The battle of Bentonville has just been lost, so the ring around Lee is virtually closed.

Sheridan has finished crushing Early in the Valley, so North Virginia is also a dead issue. The date is late March, 1865, so Lee’s army will be taken out in about two weeks, followed by the surrender of the others.

There was quite a bit of discussion of the various peace feelers during this period, and how they foundered on Davis’ insistence on two nations versus Lincoln’s of reunion. Abe’s position is easy to understand, since he was winning, but it still is astonishing that so few in the responsible positions in the South were willing to try to save a few lives by ending things before the final campaigns, which were hardly bloodless.  Nobody with sense could fail to see the result – this is why the South had so much trouble with deserters.  Once you see that the nation is ‘gone up’, its time to see about getting your life back in order, even more so if you are from the parts of the country that Sherman and the other western armies are able to move about at will in.

Reading Update

My “public” has dropped off of late, possibly because I haven’t made a post. After the ‘big finish’ of the week before last, I’m now in the middle of a new set of books.

Walkabout Books

My new pair of books for walking around are “Count Belisarius” by Robert Graves and “Rommel’s Desert War”, a Greenhill book on the Desert War. The former is fiction, in the vein of ‘I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” by the same author.  So far it is interesting enough, but not as good as the books on Claudius.  I think it has suffered somewhat from the thinness of the ancient sources on this period, and the supposed author, a slave, is not as involved as Claudius was in the events.  I’m maybe a quarter way in, and approaching the time where more detail might be found.

The book on the Desert War is a little disappointing in that it neither covers the whole Desert War, nor Rommel’s entire time in command.  The first is more understandable — while it would be interesting to learn more about the initial Italian invasion of Egypt in 1940 and the debacle (from the Axis point of view) of the O’Connor offensive that followed, I can see that if the book is centering on Rommel’s command this would be a distraction. However, they skim over the entire period of Rommel’s first counteroffensive, where he drove the British and Commonwealth troops back to Egypt, beseiged Tobruk, and withstood the BattleAxe offensive, before finally falling back after the massive Crusader operation back out of Cyrenacia to regroup.  This period is about half of Rommel’s entire term in command of the Afrika Korps, so I don’t see why it is not covered, unless there is another book in the series on the subject.

Other Books in Progress

I’ve read a bit further in the Vicksburg books.  The Chickasaw Bayou offensive has been called off, and the text moves back to the slightly earlier defeat of Grant’s advance down the center of the state of Mississippi by the use of cavalry raids from Forrest and Van Dorn. This check allowed Pemberton to transfer troops to meet Sherman and defeat his attack on the city defenses.

I’m moving through the Foote Civil War volume, and am approaching the end of the volume. Hood’s 1864 Invasion of Tennessee has been blunted by the almost farcical battle at Spring Hill, then the tragic bloody assault at Franklin.  After having the part of the Northern forces he was facing march past his army at night within yards of his front, Hood decided to attack the fortified defenses of Franklin head on.  He killed as many men in 5 hours as fell in most battles that took two days, and all for nothing, because the troops were going to withdraw to Nashville no matter what he did.  Sherman has reached the coast and moved north, Fort Fisher has fallen, and the net is closing on Lee’s army.

Kindle Books

I had ordered a collection of Science Fiction stories on the Kindle and have been working through the books and stories by H. Beam Piper, an author I like a lot.  The Kindle is a pretty decent platform for reading these books. This collection has about 10 books and a dozen or more novellas and short stories by Piper alone.  The Paratime stories are there,  much of the Federation sequence and Empire sequences, plus a couple of books I had not seen before.  I’ve moved on to the section by Mack Reynolds.

I did order a couple more SF collections for a few dollars each, and a free edition that includes a couple of works by the Roman historian Tacitus – Germania and Agricola, that I have not read before.  I still think I am averse to spending the ‘full price’ for a Kindle book, but already the unit seems to justify its price to me.  I have not yet explored the options of loading book sets from sources other than Amazon, like Project Gutenberg.  I know they allow downloading of Kindle versions.

Thunder Along the Mississippi – Jack Coombe

I finally finished up my home walkabout book that I mentioned in one of my first posts. On the whole, the book seemed to ‘settle down’ once the naval actions started happening and the writing and errors diminished.

It ended up being a decent short overview of freshwater combat in the Civil War. Most of the action takes place on the Mississippi and tributaries, with an initial side trip up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. There’s not a lot of depth if you are familiar with the subject, as you would expect from a short book covering a large scope.  The errors found are peripheral to the subject covered. A pretty decent book, and worth the low price I paid at a used book store.

The GreenHill Dictionary of Military Quotations

When it rains, it pours!  I just finished this ‘bathroom reader’ book that I got as a present a few year back. Its edited by Peter Tsouras, and consists of quotations  throughout history, separated into subjects, and the subjects alphabetized.

This makes it pretty good for quick reading sessions, as you can go a half page at a time without losing anything. I’ve used ‘whos who’ type books that were throwins from my book club the same way.

I’m not sure its worth a full price purchase, unless you really need to namedrop quotes on varied military subject to impress the chicks.

The book promoted into its place is the Red Fairy Book throwin. This won’t be as easy to go through a page at a time, but such is life. It will be kind of a jolt – the fairy tale book has a lot more blood and violence in it.

The “Liberators” – Viktor Suvorov

Finished this book last night – it’s an old favorite I have in paperback I started in March and was reading on and off until now.  ‘Viktor Suvorov’ is the pen-name of a defected Soviet officer and spy. He has written several books since his defection in the 70s. The others are more serious, this is almost lighthearted as he gives some short pictures of life in the USSR, and in the Army ending in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. This is the invasion that ended the “Prague Spring” reform movement.

The book is an interesting picture of the real state of the USSR in the last generation before its fall. I’ll summarize his introduction, which tells why he became an army officer. Suvorov was a young peasant in the Ukraine on a collective farm. Nearby, on the Dnieper River, an ambitious head of a chemical plant decided to show his zeal by having the workers work overtime to make fertilizer. They did, and were celebrated as heroes.

The next day, the problem started. They had to move the fertilizer out of the tank to make room for more production at once. So they called the collective farm heads and demanded they do so. Suvorov was the truck driver. His farm head told him that he had to move 100 loads of chemicals from the factory. This would take about 60 trips, each trip taking hours. They only had 1 truck, and only enough fuel for three trips. In addition, there was nowhere to store the 60 loads on the farm. He was told to get it done somehow.

When he got there, and got his load, he followed the other trucks out. He also noticed that trucks were coming back very quickly to rejoin the line. The line went down to the river, and each truck dumped its load into the Dnepr River. Thousands of fish were killed by the poison. Then back to the line.

At some point the authorities stopped the process, but soon let them continue, as it was the only way out. The last load was taken back to the farm.

But even that wasn’t all – Suvorov dumped the load onto his private plot, which is where basically all food is grown on these farms. It killed the plants, and he was facing starvation. The only way out was to forge a passport, bribe some officials and join under a false name. This is because peasants are not allowed to join the army – they are bound to their farms. Serfdom isn’t quite dead in the USSR.

And that’s not even chapter 1. Worth getting for sure.

Medieval Civilisation – Jacques LeGoff

I finished one of my “walkabout” books – books I read while walking to lunch / at lunch / out to dinner.  It went pretty quickly, even when taken in small doses.

The book is less a book about the geopolitics of Europe in this age, or military events, than it is a social and psychological view of Middle Age man and his view of himself, his place in the world, and the relationship of the classes and social groups.  This said, it still held my interest, and I could use some more information about what went on. This era is not my strong point by any stretch.

I also appreciated that it looked at the world then through its own prism rather than slapping a Marxist or modern worldview on and papering over any bulges or cracks in the picture made.

It’s another in the line of good history books I’ve gotten through the Folio Society. The problem is, the supply is starting to run a little thin. They are leather-bound, with a form-fitting sleeve, and look nice on the shelf.  So far I don’t think I’ve had an awful volume. Thinking it over, the sequel to “Origins of WWII” by AJP Taylor was probably the most lacking. The Origins book was good.