John Walter, Weapons of the Civil War Cavalryman (Osprey, 2020)
Weapons of the Civil War Cavalryman is part of Osprey’s Weapon series. Its author, John Walter, has written many books on small arms, so you know he is going into the weeds in his latest work, and if you thought that the Civil War cavalryman carried just a saber, carbine, and pistol then think again; there was much more variety in their weapons than popular culture suggests.
Walter dives straight into his subject, discussing the weapons American soldiers carried in their conflicts leading up to the Civil War before continuing into an overview of weapons logistics, particularly their manufacture in the US and foreign suppliers. He expands on the developments of the various longarms – rifles and carbines – of both sides, and there were many different types. Walter follows that with similar discussions on revolvers, including French and British models, with a detour into the small derringers for personal use as a last resort, and bladed weapons. How the cavalry was raised, organised, and fought is summarized with some examples of their use in battle. Walter notes there was no standard issue for all of these because the Civil War was initially a volunteer war. Walter also teases out the debate between the classic saber and the revolver for close combat. He finishes with an appendix on patents and a useful little bibliography for further reading.
If you are familiar with Osprey books, you will know that it is the illustrations and photographs that make them worthwhile, without disregarding the obvious expertise of the author of course. Weapons of the Civil War Cavalryman does not disappoint in that regard, including an illustration of the famous and futile cavalry charge with lances at Valverde in 1862. In addition, photographs of weapons are included on almost every page. Anyone interested in Civil War cavalry will appreciate this slim but interesting book.
John Walter, Weapons of the Civil War Cavalryman (Osprey, 2020)
Jon Diamond, MacArthur’s Papua New Guinea Offensive 1942-1943 Images of War (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In MacArthur’s Papua New Guinea Offensive, Jon Diamond takes us into the heart of a brutal battle during World War II, fought by under-trained soldiers in a vicious environment across almost impossible terrain. Along with the victory at the neighbouring island of Guadalcanal, the Papua campaign marked the zenith of Japanese Imperial ambitions in the Pacific and the turning of the tide in favour of the Allies.
Diamond begins with an overview of the early Pacific War, beginning with Japanese expansion across Asia after Pearl Harbor then focusing on the campaign in Papua New Guinea. That put them in reach of Australia, but they would need to take Port Moresby on the south of the island, which was held by the Australians. When MacArthur arrived to take command of the South West Pacific Theatre, he was tasked with capturing Buna on the north of the island to establish an airfield. The Japanese beat him to it and tried to push over the Owen Stanley Range to Port Moresby, so began the brutal fighting on the Kokoda Trail connecting Port Moresby to Buna. This was conducted against the backdrop of the failed Japanese effort to defend nearby Guadalcanal that put the Japanese on the defensive around Buna. The Australians turned to the offensive with the under-trained Americans pushing in too with engineering and air support. They took Buna then pushed on along the coast to drive the Japanese out for good. Winning was a relentless slog against the elements, disease, and of course the redoubtable Japanese, very few of whom survived. Mixed in with the narrative, there is a chapter on terrain, weaponry, and fortifications that all favoured the defenders, particularly in ground unsuitable for tanks. If that was not enough, the Japanese became experts at constructing concealed bunkers that had to be taken the hard way, man to man. Diamond also considers the commanders and soldiers on both sides.
The Images of War series depends on the collected photographs alongside the narrative to make the books work. In this case, there are too many photos included from the Burma front, the Philippines, the Doolittle Raid, and Guadalcanal, but those from the Papua campaign are informative. Many of the photographs show the awful conditions these men had to fight in – mud, tall grass, rivers, jungle, more mud – and the incredible efforts of soldiers and engineers to overcome them. Diamond includes photographs of the major commanders and soldiers, the latter mostly marching or resting, but there are some excellent combat photographs too, particularly of the Japanese: the deterioration of the soldiers on both sides as the battle wore on is evident. Diamond does not forget the Papuan natives who risked their lives for the Allies and made such an important contribution to victory.
This account of the Papua New Guinea campaign does not break any new ground, but Diamond tells the story well, and the accompanying photographs are useful visual aids for understanding the hell these soldiers went through. There are more detailed books that describe this campaign, but as a primer, Diamond’s MacArthur’s Papua New Guinea Offensive does the job more than adequately and is well worth reading.
Alberto Toscano, A Champion Cyclist Against the Nazis (Pen & Sword, 2020)
As I write this review, the Tour de France is in full flow with commentators extolling in hyperbolic fashion the heroics of professional cyclists. Without denigrating those undoubtedly great athletes, however, a true hero of cycling was a pious young Italian Gino Bartali who saved the lives of eight-hundred Jews from under the noses of their fascist pursuers during World War II. In A Champion Cyclist Against the Nazis prominent Italian writer, Alberto Toscano, narrates Bartali’s remarkable story.
Gino Bartali was an extraordinary cyclist; a two-time winner of the Tour de France, three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, and a winner of over 180 other races. Born in Florence in 1914, Bartali, like so many other poor Italians, lived for his bike as almost an extension of himself. He bought his first one aged 12, won his first race at 16, and turned pro in 1935 aged 20. He also grew up deeply religious. Bartali’s anti-fascism was already on show in the 1930s, which brought him to the attention of the Mussolini regime; when he won the Tour de France in 1938, he refused to salute Mussolini from the podium. That was also the year everything changed with Italy’s racial laws aimed at Jews. Then Italy declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940, ending sport for the foreseeable future. Bartali was called up, but his role in the war was that of traffic policeman until Italy surrendered to the Allies in July 1943. The Germans invaded, reinstating Mussolini, and the transport of the Jews to the death camps began – 8,000 would go, but few came back. Bartali hid Jews in his house and engaged with the Catholic resistance networks to save more Jews. Under the guise of training, Bartali carried forged papers for Jews and money in the frame of his bicycle between monasteries, convents, and his home in Florence. When stopped, he told sports stories to the Nazi and fascist guards to distract them. He also had to avoid Allied planes that strafed the roads. After the war, Bartali returned to professional cycling. He won the Giro d’Italia in 1946, then the Tour de France in 1948 against a backdrop of political turmoil in Italy. He retired in 1954 after failing to overcome injuries from a car accident. Bartali became a minor TV celebrity in subsequent years and stayed close to cycling. He died in 2000.
Toscano writes with love for Bartali, often referring to him simply as Gino. However, while this is a biography about Bartali, he features less than you might think, especially in his work saving Jews. That is for the simple reason that Bartali refused to talk about it. What we have then is a light, enthusiastically written biography infused with political and cultural references, particularly movies, and some fascinating insights into Bartali’s cycling career and the politics of the professional cycling. Toscano also displays a deep hatred of fascism and sets his veneration of Bartali against that, highlighting optimistically the triumph of simple goodness over evil. In these times of re-emerging fascism, that is a comforting thought.
Carl Fredrik Sverdrup, The Mongol Conquests (Helion, 2017, 2020)
Most of us have heard of Genghis Khan and his Mongols and the massive empire they created across Asia in the 13th Century. Less well known is that the Empire continued to expand after his death under his great general Sube’etei. Carl Fredrik Sverdrup’s book dissects the military campaigns that brought this about, focusing on operational aspects. The result is a detailed and authoritative account that will be hard to surpass.
After an annotated discussion of the main sources and a brief background survey, The Mongol Conquests is split into two parts; the first tracking Genghis Khan on campaign and the second Sube’etei. Sverdrup describes the Mongol army then delves into their campaigns, battles, and sieges in a blizzard of short chapters for both generals each with an introductory comment from a source and most with a map included. He also stops the action at times to provide a short overview of the chapters to follow. Sverdrup adds a brief verdict for most of the campaigns, which combine to form a cogent analysis of Mongol performance and that of their enemies. He leaves no doubt that the Mongols were a highly intelligent, determined, and ruthless foe – of Sube’etei, Sverdrup writes that he “conquered for the sake of conquest” and it showed, though Genghis Khan also displayed considerable diplomatic skills. He also notes, however, that the Mongols were not ‘supermen’ as they are often portrayed, and for the most part they deployed superior tactics and strategies over brute force and terror to achieve victory. They also suffered several defeats and setbacks, and in the end, even the Mongols under their greatest generals discovered the limits of Empire. Sverdrup concludes with useful appendices on the Mongol army and a list of their battles.
Historians rely on their sources to write with authority, and Sverdrup surely cannot be faulted in that regard. Each chapter concludes with the sources used and Sverdrup is also willing to engage modern historians and their interpretations. He appends a significant bibliography too. I highlight that here because The Mongol Conquests is Sverdrup’s first book, but he handles his material with some aplomb. Not only are his sometimes controversial arguments solidly argued, he writes well too – the Battle of Sanfeng chapter was a particular highlight for me as an example of how to clearly narrate a battle. Overall, Sverdrup’s book is an excellent introduction to the Mongol conquests of the 13th Century and a ‘must-read’ for enthusiasts of mediaeval warfare in the East.
Eric Lee, Night of the Bayonets (Greenhill Books, 2020)
On 5 May 1945, the German forces in the Netherlands surrendered and the war was over. But not for all of them. On the small island of Texel off the coast of Holland, a battle that started on 5 April raged among former allies wearing German uniforms. The instigators were a unit of Georgian Wehrmacht soldiers that prematurely rose up against the German garrison only to find themselves in a fight to the death with German soldiers sent to crush them. Somewhere in this mix was the Dutch Resistance, themselves split along ideological lines, and the island’s civilians who mistakenly thought their war was over too. Eric Lee pulls together the strands of this confusing episode to present a remarkable tale of a little-known event.
Lee begins with Georgia’s ties to Russia and Germany during and after WWI before moving on to Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, capturing millions of soldiers who they treated abysmally. Some Georgians, however, enlisted with the Germans to escape that particular hell. They were formed into units under German officers and served behind the lines on the Eastern Front, hunting Partisans, where they proved unreliable and prone to desertion. In 1944, the Georgian Legion was formed and the 822nd Battalion were posted to Texel in 1945. The island with its artillery defences formed a small but important cog in the German Atlantic Wall. By the time the Georgians arrived, they were riddled with anti-German sentiment and ripe for mutiny. They even helped the Dutch resistance.
When ordered to the mainland to fight the Allies on 6 April, the Georgians pre-empted their move by attacking the Germans. But they did not capture the artillery batteries, and word got out, all the way to Hitler who ordered every Georgian killed. The Dutch Resistance joined in, but they too would get caught in the backlash. On 6 April, the German shelling began, then reinforcements arrived. The Georgians held out, hoping for the Allies to arrive, even sending a lifeboat for help, but none came. A guerrilla war broke out with no mercy given on either side, or to the Dutch civilians by the Germans.
Lee points out that the Allies knew about the mutiny but left it to burn out. The Canadians finally arrived to intervene and evacuate the two contingents. Most of the Georgians ended up in Soviet prison camps for a short while but were not shot as per Stalin’s orders for turncoats. Lee continues with a discussion on the myth that arose around the Texel uprising and particularly the role the Soviet Union played in that propaganda, including a movie that was “a lie from beginning to end”. With renewed Georgian independence in 1991 came new commemorations, but much of the myth remains.
Night of the Bayonets is one of those dramatic local events that casts a light on larger themes, thus it is a story deserving of a book. Eric Lee has therefore performed a valuable service writing what might be the definitive account. His writing is journalistic in style and a bit loose in places, but he holds the narrative together well. The uprising itself is given about one-third of the book, which seems a bit thin, particularly when Lee incorporates a few seemingly unrelated digressions. Lee’s efforts to place the Texel uprising in context are, however, useful for understanding its wider implications. I certainly came away from this book with a deeper knowledge of many facets of World War II that I had not considered before, and you cannot ask for much more than that. 7/10
Ian Gardner, Sent By the Iron Sky (Osprey, 2019)
In Sent By the Iron Sky, Ian Gardner follows an American parachute battalion from its training grounds in the United States through the hell of combat in World War II. Though late to get into the war, the battalion fought through the entire campaign to liberate Europe. Gardner’s book, his fifth on US paratroopers, takes his readers along for an invigorating but thankfully much safer ride.
The Third Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment began its existence in July 1942 at its training base near Toccoa Georgia. The selected soldiers who made it through training received their ‘wings’ in the New Year, but more training followed for their role in retaking Europe. They set sail for England, and yet more training, in September 1943. On the night of 5 June 1944, 700 soldiers boarded 45 aircraft for the drop into Normandy. It was an almost total calamity with many wounded, captured, and killed, including their talismanic Colonel, Robert Wolverton. Severe fighting followed around Carentan, costing many more casualties; some survivors returned to England, others became guests of the Germans as POWs. They jumped again into another disaster, this time Operation Market Garden in September 1944. The battalion took part in the fighting for Eindhoven, losing more men in the process. The men who survived all that were given some time off behind the lines but were soon back in action when the Germans launched their offensive through the Ardennes, known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 506th were tasked with defending Foy as part of the defence of Bastogne. That battle extended into January with the village changing hands several times, but the Americans broke through and the Germans retreated again. With Germany collapsing, the 506th moved to Bavaria where they took part in humanitarian operations for survivors of labour camps. The end of the war came with the battalion at Hitler’s Berchtesgaden, and from there they returned to England then the United States. The 506th was officially deactivated on 30 November 1945. Gardner concludes with the moving reunion of survivors at a Missouri hotel in June 1946.
Sent By the Iron Sky is a nuts and bolts narrative history sprinkled with snippets of first-hand accounts. Longer inserts record particular events and acts of courage from an individual perspective. Abundant photos accompany the text, some of them colourized, and many telling poignant stories of the fates of the soldiers in their captions. Gardner’s strengths are his attention to detail and his absorbing combat descriptions, though his chapters on POWs and the Labour Camps are also deftly handled. Those familiar with Gardner’s previous work on American paratroopers will rightly look forward to this straightforward, no-nonsense account even while they might feel a sense of déjà vu. All in all, this is another fitting memorial to a cadre of very brave men. 9/10