The Desert Generals – Correlli Barnett

The Desert Generals is an excellent book on the Desert War in North Africa in World War II.  It follows the British perspective, which is refreshing, since the temptation to make these campaigns all about Rommel is often overwhelming.

It also gives a fair shake to all the generals that fought there, not just Montgomery.  In fact, it is pretty hard on Monty and his attempts to take credit for others’ work in the run up to the Second and Third Battles of El Alamein.  See – you probably didn’t know that there were three of them.

The first featured general is Richard O’Connor, who faced the Italian invasion of Egypt in 1940 and pulled off a model armored counteroffensive that wiped out virtually the entire Italian army.  But in a common feature of the Desert War, just as he was poised to take Libya, the threat of a German invasion of Greece led to his forces being pulled away.  He was captured by the Germans in the first phase of Rommel’s offensive, when the scattered occupation forces were driven back to Egypt.

After this offensive and the failure of a premature counterattack, Operation Battleaxe, the CinC of the Middle East, Wavell, was sacked and General Claude Auchinleck was put in his place.  Like Wavell, Auchinleck was distracted by the issues of several different fronts during his tenure – he was responsible for the occupation of Syria, and for the possible defense of Iran from Germans coming through Russia.

His appointments to run the Western Desert force did not turn out well.  The first, General Cunningham wilted under the strain of the “Crusader” battle and it was only Auchinleck’s timely intervention that kept the army from retiring back to Egypt.  Instead, by holding fast Rommel had to retreat out of Cyrenaica.  But again, the needs of the Empire due to the Japanese attacks in the Far East led to this force being dispersed and the opportunity lost.

His second appointment, Ritchie, botched the Battle of Gazala and Tobruk and had the army reeling back to Egypt. Again, Auchinleck took over command and reorganized the army sufficiently to stop Rommel at the first Battle of El Alamein in July.  He prepared the defensive plan for the second battle that took place in August, but he was sacked two weeks before that battle and Montgomery took over.  Naturally, Monty never mentioned that he took over someone else’s plan.

Barnett is very critical of Monty’s plan for third Alamein, which dissolved into confusion and casualties due to its own clumsiness, but gives him props for coming up with a new plan.  Of course, since Monty scheduled the battle to happen just before Torch landed an army in Rommel’s rear, he knew that sooner or later Rommel would need to retreat.  He also knew, from Ultra decryptions, exactly how much fuel, ammo, and tanks Rommel had from day-to-day, which makes his ponderous pursuit after the battle even more inexplicable.

The book was originally published before Ultra was revealed, so there is an addendum in each chapter saying how twenty years of new information changed the original text, which was surprisingly little.

The book goes into some of the reasons why the Western Desert Force never quite got the hang of mobile warfare due to inexperience, organizational problems and just not having the right style.  It is a good corrective to the standard treatments of the campaign.

Notable Historical Trials III – The Boston Massacre

This latest chapter of the Folio Society’s set on Historical Trials is from the turbulent era before the American Revolution.  In March 1770 a mob of townsmen were taunting and threatening a sentry who called out the guard. The guard arrived after running a gauntlet of townsmen, and soon after they fired into the crowd, killing five.

Naturally, tensions rose even higher at this, and the soldiers and officers were put on trial for murder.  It was early on shown that the officers did not give an order to fire, and in fact worked to stop the firing, so they were cleared.  It was to the credit of the Americans that two Patriot lawyers, John Adams and Josiah Quincy.  The defense attempted to show that the troops had a right to self-defense, and were justified in thinking that the mob, throwing objects, yelling death threats and armed with clubs was a threat and attacked first.  The soldiers that could not be witnessed as shooting one of the dead men were acquitted outright, and the other two were convicted only of manslaughter and given light sentences.

While the massacre was used to whip up support for the Patriots in other colonies, I think it speaks well of those on the spot that they still considered themselves bound by law and that they defended the hated British soldiers.

Dieppe – Denis & Shelagh Whitaker


The Dieppe Raid was an attempt to strike across the channel at the Germans in 1942. The operation was intended to accomplish several purposes – give experience to the troops, practice a landing, release pressure on the Russians by diverting troops to France.  It was a disaster, with the attacking forces suffering severe casualties and most of the remainder being captured.

In a way this is two books in one. Brigadier General Denis Whitaker was there – he was a Captain and was the senior officer in his brigade to survive wounds, death or capture. So part of this book is his personal narrative of the workup to the operation and the raid itself, and his personal view of matters.  Around this Shelagh Whitaker writes a conventional history of the planning and execution of the operation.

Most of the book covers the politics of the Allies and how it impacted the raid.  In 1942, the Russians were hard pressed, Rommel was pressing on Alamein, and the Americans wanted to get into action as soon as possible but were leery of being diverted into peripheral operations.  The English had agreed to a 1943 invasion before Rommel’s offensive into Egypt, but they didn’t really want to.  There was also a danger that doing nothing would cause either the Russians to leave the war, or the Americans to concentrate on the Pacific or both.

The first raid on Dieppe was cancelled due to weather.  When Churchill sold the US and the Russians on the invasion of Africa, Operation Torch, and a major cross-channel raid, the only one they had ready was a repeat of the Dieppe raid.

The original plan had a number of flaws, and rushing to re-do it didn’t improve anything.  Public news broadcasts had put the Germans on alert, and the invasion convoy collided with a German convoy, removing all surprise.  The shelling and air preparation was inadequate and partially cancelled. The tanks were often unable to move across the rocky beach, throwing tracks.  Those that made it ran up to walls that kept them from advancing inland.  The men were raked with machine guns and grenades dropped from the cliffs above.

The conclusion shows the efforts to shuck responsibility.  The authors try to show that the Canadians did not die in vain. The operation preserved the Alliance, caused troops to be deployed to France, and so on.  Some of these may be a bit forced, but I can understand why the Brigadier would want to find some justification for such severe losses.

Desert War Trilogy III – The End in Africa — Alan Moorehead

This book completes the Folio Society trilogy by Alan Moorehead, a war correspondent with the Allied forces in World War II in the North African campaign.  This volume deals mostly with the Tunisian campaign, although there is an interesting detour trip around Africa to the US and then back to England and on a convoy to join up with the armies in Algeria after Torch.

In terms of historical narrative of the war, this volume is the most complete in its coverage of the main theatre.  In the others he tended to get sent off to other hot spots during lulls and miss some or all of the action, but here he more or less stayed put and followed the action.  You get a good observers view of the campaign that ended with the surrender of around 250,000 Axis troops but somehow gets glossed over in favor of ‘El Alamein, Kassarine and then they gave up’ descriptions.  This makes the fact that Moorehead does his most complete job of a campaign write-up since the 1940 O’Connor offensive especially pleasing.

But it isn’t all about the big picture – there are plenty of day-to-day stories of the men on a dumpy little destroyer convoying supplies, of the civilians in the rear areas and between the lines and how they react, and the troops, both the Commonwealth and US that do the dirty work.  There’s even a little insight into the troops they fight against.

In all, while this isn’t a blow-by-blow of the entire war in Africa, it does give depth to those histories, while also shedding a lot of light on campaigns that are often glossed over – Abyssinia, the Syrian campaign, O’Connor’s Offensive, and the end in Tunisia.

Guadalcanal – Richard Frank

I finally finished this book on the air-sea-land campaign to hold Guadalcanal against the Japanese.  Only a few months after the battles of Coral Sea and Midway slowed the Japanese advance, for the first time the US took the offensive by snatching the island away from the worker gangs that were installing an airfield.

Started on a shoestring with a Navy strained with the losses from Pearl Harbor and the needs of a two ocean war, this battle is unique in that the issue was in doubt for some months until the inability of the Japanese to supply their troops led to an abandonment of the island.  In later battles the USN was strong enough the issue was never in doubt.

The book is very well researched and written, giving a view of both sides, the Japanese and the US.  In a lot of ways the Japanese were better than the US during this fight, but the US got better and the Japanese lost their initial edge.  Also, throughout the US was in a better logistic position, and the Japanese neglect of supply led to many of the troops they delivered starving to death on the island.

This book is one of the standard works on the subject, and it deserves its reputation. An excellent book on a complicated operation.

 

 

Kindle Review – “Personal Recollections of Distinguished Generals” – William Shanks

I got this book not from Kindle’s own site, but manually loaded it from another website.  It worked pretty well, all things considered.

Unlike the Kindle’s own downloaded texts, this one was a pretty poor scan in places and it continually got confused about page headings as text and so on.  There were some garbled letters in the real text but you soon got used to V being Y in names every so often.  Hard to complain since it was free.

One thing I did is to mark the chapters as bookmarks or highlights as I read, which made popping around a lot easier later.

The book itself is an obscure title that seems very familiar to a Civil War buff because it was itself a source for so many histories that came after it.  The author, a newsman that travelled with (presumably) the Army of the Cumberland for the bulk of the war, relates his opinion of the major generals he ran into during the war – Grant, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, and Joe Hooker and gives a chapter on each. He’s a sharp man, and opinionated, and gives a good capsule on each, as well as some great anecdotes that historians ever after could not resist repeating.  In the later chapter some lesser generals and some that he did not like get some scrutiny as well.  Some he liked, some he did not.

This is a great source if you are interested in some background on the Cumberland Army and its generals.

Notable Historical Trials II – Admiral Byng

This final chapter of the second volume of the Folio Society’s set on historical trials is of Admiral Byng, who was shot on his quarterdeck for not winning a sea battle.  Although this isn’t mentioned in the chapter, at the time the English Navy had adopted a set of rules for battle called “Fighting Instructions”.

These instructions basically were to line up one on one, and if you had extra ships they waited out the battle behind the line.  It more or less assured a drawn battle.  Apparently Byng, who was expected to relieve the English base at Minorca, did an even worse job than usual, only getting a fragment of his line into action at all.  With the French fleet still in action, Byng had to retire.

In his defense, the English were doing their usual thing of not being ready to fight at the start of a war, and when the French took advantage the popular ire was extreme.  Since Byng was a sour old guy, he seemed made to order for scapegoat.  The judges at the trial found him innocent of cowardice, but did find that he had not done his utmost.  The expectation that the King would commute the sentence to avoid death, but he let the execution proceed.

One surviving item from this trial is the quip from Voltaire that England shoots an Admiral every so often ‘to encourage the others’.  Voltaire actually sent a letter from the French Admiral asking that Byng not be exectuted for losing to him.

Notable Historical Trials II – Jonathan Wild

I finished this chapter in the Folio Society’s set of notable historical trials. Jonathan Wild was a man who ‘organized’ crime in London for a time.  He posed as a man who would use ‘contacts’ to retrieve stolen property from thieves, but in reality he had sent the thieves to the house in the first place.  The criminals liked it because they took less risk ‘returning’ the goods than finding a fence.

One interesting fallout from his conviction is that most Londoners missed the service, since the thriving went on once he was gone.  He even became something of a cult hero, with plays and stories being written about him.  The disgruntlement with the new situation ironically led to the start of official police organizations in the city.

On the Reading List…

Status

With the completion of Notable Historical Trials II, we move on to Volume III for the master bath book.  This is a good book for that kind of reading, since each chapter is an isolated story, so the continuity is easier to keep.

The downstairs book to replace Drusus is Dieppe – a book on the Raid of Dieppe in World War II by a participant.   It starts out with him as a junior officer being called in to debrief the head commanders after the action, because the hundred or so senior men in his unit had been killed, wounded, or captured.

I also bought a few more Kindle books but have been rereading H. Beam Piper classics for the most part.

Eager for Glory – Lindsay Powell

The subtitle says it all – “The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conquerer of Germania”.

Drusus was the younger brother of Tiberius, and son of the Emperor Augustus’ wife Livia.  He was the father of Germanicus, and of the future Emperor Claudius, and the grandfather of Emperor Caligula.  But his life and death falls into the gap in the records after the end of the Civil Wars and before the histories by Seutonius and Tacitus take over.

Drusus died young, but he was put to work young and so accomplished a lot. He was in charge of subduing the mountain tribes in the Alps to ‘fill in’ the northern borders of Italy to the Rhine and Danube. Today this would be the border areas of France and Italy, Switzerland, Southern Germany and Austria.  With some help from his brother, Drusus accomplished this in a few campaigns.

After this Drusus was put in charge of the Gallic Provinces (modern day France), again doing very well.  As part of ensuring the safety of Gaul, Augustus decided that Germania should be pacified and Drusus took on the job.  In two years the northern half of Germany nearly to the Elbe was pacified.  During the third campaign in 9 BCE, Drusus fell with his horse and one of his legs was crushed.  He died just after his brother Tiberius reached him after an epic ride across the Empire.

This situation persisted for only about 20 years – in 9 AD a revolt fooled the governor of Germany into sending three legions into a trap at Teutoburg Wald, where they were massacred.  This setback led to Augustus and Tiberius more or less writing off Imperial expansion, and most future Emperors followed suit.  It is interesting to think that if things had happened differently in this period, that the Empire could have developed far differently.

The book itself is excellent – it has a number of superb maps of the areas Drusus fought over and of some of the cities in the area.  The writing is good, if a bit scholarly – don’t come expecting a lot of purple prose.  It isn’t a long book, but still covers his life, and a summary of his legacy in his decendants and in monuments that still survive today.

I had been wondering about some of the books I have seen on Amazon on Roman subjects and generals over the last months –  I think the bulk of them are from this publisher, Pen and Sword Military.  The last, on the survival was a mixed bag, but this effort makes up for that.  It is an excellent book on a subject I have heard little about.  I’ll be looking into more of this series in the future.