Brute Force – John Ellis

Subtitle:  Allied strategy and Tactics in the second world war

I really wanted to like this book better.  It has some good points, and brings out some interesting angles, but in the end the relentless negativism about, well, everything both sides did in the war began to irritate as much as a pimply pre-teenager who just keeps repeating that everything sucks.

It is crammed full of details about Allied production and Axis lack of production.  I especially liked the measurement of the effectiveness versus cost of the Allied bomber offensives and the U-Boat war.  The bomber cost was especially thought provoking, as for a time the Allies were losing more trained pilot than they were killing even civilians.

He does spend some time attacking the Axis, mostly on the fact that without production to match the Allies they were going to come up short in the end.  But the bulk of the book is just critique that quickly degrades into carping.  Because nothing the Allies do can be right.

Either they were bad at putting their strength into play or committing overkill.  Offensives were bad because they hit the strong points and had no strategy, or if they didn’t hit a strong point they were up against no opposition and didn’t count.  For any particular general he quotes all of his rivals about how he sucked, then when discussing these rivals quotes the original fellow about his enemy.  In small doses this can be amusing, but four hundred pages or so the joke loses its humor.

Near the end of the book, I suddenly started to wonder what year this had been written – 1990.  That made a lot of things come into focus.  In those years it was very fashionable to tear into US and its military ability as a way to try and prop up the old bipolar world view.  The first Gulf War put an end to that sort of thing for the most part.

Normally I re-strategizing old campaigns and pointing out problems and errors.  But you have to balance that tearing down with the fact that matters were not so clear then as today in your easy chair reading or writing a book, and running a war is easier to talk about than to do.  Ellis gives the impression that he thinks he would have been a better war leader and general than all of the rest put together.  Given that he couldn’t lead me to accept his conclusions that I more or less agreed with from the start shows that he wouldn’t have been.

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Quest for Decisive Victory – Robert M. Citino

Subtitled “From Stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe, 1899-1940″, this book traces the dilemma facing war planners as the increasing firepower of infantry and artillery drove wars into stalemate.   The issue started to become apparent in the Boer War at the turn of the century, when the initial moves of England’s army were baffled by smaller, more mobile forces, resulting in serious losses.  The 1905 Russo-Japanese war showed the tendency for the forces to resort to entrenchments, which by WWI managed to reach from end to end of many fronts, resulting in a static front and high losses.

After WWI, all armies realized that the tank and aircraft were going to be key developments in the future.  The winners, however, tended to have institutional politics affecting the decision-making…usually it was the cavalry branch not wanting to be run out of business.  The integration of air power was also often limited by politics, with the air power advocates over-selling the importance of strategic air bombing by claiming that bombing of cities alone would win any future war.  This fear of mutual destruction by air drove a lot of the Allied hesitation in the early parts of WWII.

Ironically, the very act of dismantling the German Army after the Treaty of Versailles helped Germany avoid these issues, as the tiny army was inadequate for conventional answers, and the small size drove out the entrenched careerists that clog up the works in normal times.  That, and the German national bias toward combined arms and tight integration and quick wars aided them in finding the right solution – the Panzer Division, with mobile infantry, artillery, and tanks in unison, along with tactical air power at the point of attack.

The interwar period described here in detail is interesting, and Citino adds a dash of correction to the claims of the post-war “Armor Evangelists” like J.F.C Fuller and Lidell Hart and even Heinz Guderian to have seen the entire solution from the start.  He adds in the contributions of other, lesser known men like Hans von Seeckt.

Like Citino’s other books, this is an interesting and valuable history. It gives you a fresh look at even topics that have been rehashed time and time again.  I have a second book that seems to be a continuation of this one – “Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm”  that I will soon be giving a look to.

Grave Secrets of the Dinosaurs – Phillip Manning

This is a pretty interesting book on the discovery of Dakota, a ‘duckbill’ dinosaur that was exceptionally well preserved – the impression of the skin itself is preserved over much of the body, and the outline of the muscle is still present, as the body was not crushed after burial or distorted.

The information on Dakota himself is pretty limited, as the book was published before

Hadrosauridae (Dakota) - 01

Hadrosauridae (Dakota) – 01 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

they could finish.  You do get to read about the practical problems of trying to X-ray a giant rock.  To partly make up for this, there is a bit of background on other ‘mummy’ discoveries in the past.

So it is a tad disappointing that the results given in the book are so limited.

Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective – Arthur B. Reeve

Like a lot of Kindle offerings, this is a huge collection of reading material – some 13 books.  And most of them are in turn a collation of short mysteries, so if your reading time is more bite sized chunks than long sessions that’s another advantage.

I’m not a big mystery buff, so I hadn’t heard of Reeve or Kennedy.  The price of the collection was low enough to risk it, and it turned out well.  A good way to describe it is a “CSI’ set in 1914.  Kennedy uses his science to determine the bad guy and collect evidence.  He then collects everyone into his lab to ‘put the finger’ on him.  Some of the techniques are old hat, but others are still a bit exotic to this day.

The setup is very ‘Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson’ –  the other main character is a news reporter who tags along with Kennedy and chips in with some help.  The stories tend to be more cerebral than physical.  The stories move about through different strata of society, so you get a picture of life at the time, or at least what could be printed in a classy magazine.  So it may not be gritty, but I imagine there is a kind of realism that the readers would expect.

There are a few books that don’t fill the pattern.  Two use Kennedy, but you won’t recognize him.  Instead of being a loner scientist genius, he’s in love with a lovely rich girl and is as dumb as a post.  He continually leaves his girl to be snatched by the bad guy and his minions only to rescue her.  The explanation is that these were adapted movie scripts that he did, and read much like the Perils of Pauline

There is another collection of stories about a woman “Detective”, Constance Dunlap.  It is interesting because the moral view is a lot more ambiguous.  She starts out helping her husband embezzle money from his company, but in the end he kills himself to shield her involvement.  After that, with a comfortable amount of money, she tends to help out those getting the short end of things –  one case she helps a man who was urged by his company to behave illegally and was being made a fall guy for it.  In several others she is faced with opposing a detective who moves from being mistaken towards being corrupt.  She uses some of the tools that Kennedy uses herself to defend her clients.

Good reading – even the movie adaptations read well, if you ignore the idiot character factor.

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Islands of Destiny – John Prados

Islands of Destiny is a book about the Solomons Islands campaign from mid-1942 to 1943.  The thesis, which is pretty sound, is that this is the real ‘turning point’ of the Pacific War, where the balance finally shifted from the initial Japanese dominance to the final overwhelming US advantage.

Japanese troops load onto a warship in prepara...

Japanese troops load onto a warship in preparation for a Tokyo Express run sometime in 1942 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even after the defeat at Midway, the Japanese were still on the strategic offensive in the South Pacific, threatening to cut the trade route to Australia, or strain it by requiring a huge diversion.  This ended with Operation Shoestring, the snatching of Guadalcanal’s Henderson field from the Japanese.  For months after that, the battle for the island continued on more or less even terms between the two sides.  There were surface ship actions, carrier battles, and ground and air combat.  Both sides were straining to supply this combat far from either sides’ bases.  Both sides were trying to learn how to conduct a war on the job.

Unlike most books, this one goes into the combats after Guadalcanal fell and the US moved up the island chain toward the base at Rabaul.  This was also the period where the production of the US really started to come on line and dominate the theater.  At the start, the Japanese had dreams of strangling the Marines on one island.  By the end, the Japanese were themselves cut off and bypassed as the US moved on toward Japan.

U.S. Army soldiers on Bougainville (one of the...

U.S. Army soldiers on Bougainville (one of the Solomon Islands) in World War II. Japanese forces tried infiltrating the U.S. lines at night; at dawn, the U.S. soldiers would clear them out. In this picture, infantrymen are advancing in the cover of an M4 Sherman tank. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The book does not go into huge detail on any one action, as it is a more strategic view. There is a lot of information on the code breaking efforts on both sides and its effects.  It tends to be more even-handed in its coverage, following the US and its problems and the Japanese and theirs.  The problems of each side often had a counterpart on the other.

While in the end the US and its production and development would have overcome the Japanese, this ‘swing period’ before that could happen was difficult – the Japanese had more skilled pilots and good weapons, and their Navy was better handled.  Although the cost was high, this campaign kept the Japanese busy here and wore down the edge.  By the end of the campaign, superior radar, aircraft and swarms of carriers and support ships made all the other campaigns a foregone conclusion.

Vanished Kingdoms – CCCP and wrapup

This last chapter of Norman Davies‘ book on states that have been lost to history purports to be on the Soviet Union.  However, it really spends most of its effort in discussing Estonia, and again falls a bit flat.

In a way, it reminds me of the chapter on Byzantium.  There, he spent so much effort on complaining about how everyone miscasts and ignores the state’s impact that he barely noticed that he was producing the same result himself.  Here, even as he complains about the simplistic nature of everyone’s view of the USSR and its rise he glosses over that same period in a few paragraphs.  A good chapter on the USSR would have been interesting.  A good chapter on Estonia would have been so as well.  A chapter that wanders from one subject to the other accomplishes little.

…and a wrap!

There are fifteen chapters in the book, about ten of which stuck to the theme well and were interesting and successful.  The failures to me were the chapters where he lost track of what his book was about and either chose a poor subject or misused a good one.  The first half to two-thirds were very good, and had me thinking about getting more of his works.  The latter part of the book had me questioning that, as the closer the chapters neared the present day the worse they were.

I suppose if he follows that pattern than I could just be ready for the book to taper off in value in the last two centuries or so.