Michael Green, United States Marine Corps in Vietnam (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In the latest of Pen & Sword’s Images of War series, Michael Green surveys the actions of the United States Marine Corps through the Vietnam War. He does this in four chapters, creating a narrative arc familiar to most readers of the war: the USMC were the first American forces to arrive as a fighting force in 1965; their numbers increased as the war escalated; they were a pivotal force in the defining year of 1968; and the Marines fought through to the end in 1975 but large-scale operations ended much earlier. Along the way, Green describes the major actions involving the Marines, how they were organized, and the problems they faced, of which there were too many to list here, but not the least of which was a determined and elusive enemy that held most of the cards except supporting firepower. He concludes his chapters with brief assessments of that phase of the war, and for the most part it is not pretty reading for Americans.
The backbone of the Images of War books are the photographs, which in United States Marine Corps in Vietnam include colour plates. There are, as you might expect, many pictures of Marines in action in all their different roles with the combat photos, particularly from Hue and Khe Sanh, being the most impactful. Marine artillery and support weapons are fully described, and USMC warplanes are given due prominence. Green also includes photos of the enemy and their equipment, highlighting the disparities in resources available to the VC. Every photo tells a story, but so too does comparing photos. For example, compare the photographs of exhausted marines with the determined faces of their native enemies. For all the potent firepower available to the Marines, how much did all that matter when face to face with their enemies in their environment? Overall, the photos left me with the impression that the USMC was not designed for the Vietnam War, and the text confirms how they struggled to adapt to those unfamiliar conditions.
Green makes no great claims for this book, which is refreshingly honest, but the survey he has produced is illuminating while achieving what all introductory books should do: satisfy those who just need to know enough but prompt questions that demand further reading for those who want to know more. Green’s text is structured in short well-defined passages with sub-headings to help guide the reader along. There is perhaps an unavoidable emphasis on numbers and statistics, especially the body counts that American commanders during Vietnam took as a sign of winning, but crucially their enemy did not. Setting that aside, United States Marine Corps in Vietnam is a solid addition to the series and well worth a read. 8/10.
Michael Green, United States Marine Corps in Vietnam (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Bernard Edwards, From Hunter to Hunted The U-Boat War in the Atlantic 1939-1943 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In August 1939, Kommodore Karl Dönitz dispatched his U-boats out into the Atlantic in anticipation of a war just over the horizon. The U-38 sank the British merchant ship Manmar on 6 September with gunfire and torpedoes. Already, however, U-48, the most successful U-boat of the war, had opened her account, sinking the Royal Sceptre. Thus begins Bernard Edwards’ narrative of U-boat encounters from 1939 to May 1943 told from both sides as separate but connected case studies.
Combat in the early days of the war was very much cat-and-mouse between submarine and ship, as with the U-48 and the Heronspool. Heronspool lost that one, but her sister ship Stonepool became a mouse that roared, helping take out U-42 – Stonepool would later fall victim to a U-boat torpedo. In those opening engagements, ships were challenged with gunfire from the U-boat’ deck-gun then raked if they failed to stop. The crews were then allowed to abandon ship before a torpedo sent it to the bottom. Hitler’s directive to take the shackles off the U-boats in October 1939, however, ended any notions of further chivalry. As the fighting intensified, the convoy system evolved for merchant ships, but that was met with the ‘wolf pack’ tactics of the U-boats.
By the end of 1942, the Battle of the Atlantic was reaching its zenith, argues Edwards, with the Germans ascendant. In March 1943, U-boats straddled the shipping lanes like spiders waiting for sluggish flies. Convoy SC 122 with two other convoys sailed that month into the teeth of two storms, one from the weather, the other caused by U-boats: twenty-two ships were lost. The tide began to turn in April 1943, however, with the battle for convoy ONS5 that rolled across the Atlantic in a desperate struggle of ships, warships, warplanes, and U-boats. The Germans came off much worse in the long run, so that when ONS5 docked in Halifax on 12 May, the Germans had lost six U-boats and another seven severely damaged, 345 valuable crewmen had also been killed. The Germans never recovered from what they called Black May.
From Hunter to Hunted is an illuminating read for a theatre of World War II that is too often described in statistics and technical jargon. Edwards has the story-telling flourishes of a man well used to being at sea. He describes the actions in detail, while adding just enough background information to humanize the conflict without disrupting the narrative, though a final polish might have removed some unfortunate repetition. This book works well as a gateway book into the world of the U-boats for those with a passing interest or are daunted by bigger and more technical works. Those already familiar with U-boats will enjoy the stories in From Hunter to Hunted, and sometimes that is all you need from a book.
John Grehan and Alexander Nicoll, Dunkirk Evacuation Operation Dynamo (Frontline, 2020)
Few events sit higher in British military mythology than the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in May 1940. What was a staggering defeat by any measure became a source of national pride, a turning point not towards defeat but victory. It remains so with numerous books written about it and two major movies produced to tell the story. The latter is important because Dunkirk is understood best as a visual event; numbers and statistics are important, but do not have the image of a long line of defeated soldiers standing in the sea under fire, waiting for a ship to rescue them. That is where John Grehan and Alexander Nicoll’s Dunkirk Evacuation Operation Dynamo comes in as part of the Images of War series of books.
After an outline, narrating the fall of France that led to the evacuation, the authors describe the events chronologically across the nine days it took to bring those men back home. John Grehan has recently written a book on this subject, so we can skip across the text, suffice to say that in this volume it is well-paced and works well with the photographs. Grehan and Nicoll make it clear that likely catastrophe was all that most of the BEF could look forward to as they retreated back to Dunkirk, but instead an extraordinary effort was made to get the men off the beaches by a flotilla of ships large and small.
It is the photographs, however, that make this book: many are of the ships, planes, and men that crossed the Channel, and what became of some of them; others show the British streaming into the town and gathering on the beaches, including action shots of men firing and bombs exploding. The detritus of war is strewn across many of the photographs: vehicles and equipment abandoned in the flight of a retreating army – the British left an awful lot behind them, including many men. The ‘Aftermath’ chapter pictures were taken by the victorious Germans, which I found particularly interesting; how easy they must have thought war was at the time. A few photographs are stills from the 1958 movie Dunkirk, which I thought cheapened the book a bit and they should not have added them; they did not need to. Otherwise, Dunkirk Evacuation Operation Dynamo is an informative journey through the drama that was Dunkirk and a welcome addition to the Images of War series. 8/10
Philippe Caresse, The Battleships of the Iowa Class (Naval Institute Press, 2019)
While serving in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s, I had the privilege of spending some time aboard the battleship USS Iowa. I remember being awe-struck at this incredible war machine and the power that it manifested, and that was before it fired its 16” main guns. When I received Philippe Caresse’s The Battleships of the Iowa Class, therefore, I was delighted: a big ship needs a big book to tell her story.
Caresse covers all four of the Iowa class battleships – Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Wisconsin – in loving detail across 513 pages in a ‘coffee-table’ book. He is supported by dozens of colour and black & white photographs, technical drawings, and 3D graphics as he works his way through the evolution of the American battleship and its technical specifications. The latter are mind-boggling: 1.135 million rivets, 57,353 tons displaced, 53,820 square feet of upper deck, three 16” triple-gun turrets weighing 1,850 tons each, twelve 5” guns, four Phalanx, thirty-two cruise missiles, I could go on but you get the picture; the statistics running through the book are staggering. As for the photographs, they cover every technical and social aspect of these majestic vessels, from the engines and weapons to the messes, ship’s store, laundry, and brig, down to a photograph of an officer’s ‘head’ and Roosevelt’s bathtub on the Iowa. But it is the photographs of the big guns firing that capture the imagination and tell you what these ladies were all about. Caresse devotes the second part of his book to the history of the four ships. They fought in all of America’s wars until their decommissioning in the 1990s, experiencing triumphs and tragedies along the way. They are thankfully, but maybe a wee bit sadly, preserved as floating museums.
The Battleships of the Iowa Class is a wonderful homage to ships the likes of which we will never see again. The history sections apart, this is not a reading book, but one you dip into and explore, or use as a reference tool for modelling or historical research. The photographs and 3D renderings help you appreciate the complexity and, well, awesomeness of these incredible feats of engineering. For me, and probably everyone who served in the Iowa class battleships, Caresse brought back some cherished memories, but anyone interested in the big ships will love this book. 10/10
Philip Jowett, Liberty or Death Latin American Conflicts, 1900-70 (Osprey, 2019)
Latin America, from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, has merited few mentions in the mainstream of Military History unless the United States has been involved, and even then it is usually as a sideshow to larger geo-political affairs. Yet the entire continent has seen more than its share of conflict. In Liberty or Death Latin American Conflicts, Philip Jowett illuminates those wars fought between 1900 and 1970, sixty of them, that changed the political, economic, and social landscapes of South and Central America.
Jowett begins in the 19th Century with the end of European rule and the bloody civil and transnational wars that shook the continent. Some of them spilled over into the next century. Jowett moves on to the plethora of wars that erupted in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century, with Liberals fighting Conservatives in Colombia, a Secession movement in Bolivia, wars between nations, rebellion in Venezuala, civil wars in Uruguay, Honduras, Paraguay, and the Dominican Republic. Ecuador and Costa Rica also endured armed conflicts. Most of these wars were characterized by small and poorly equipped armies and a general shaking out of political power and border realignment. Running through the second decade and on to 1929 was the Mexican Revolution to which Jowett devotes two chapters, there being so much activity going on in separate phases.
World War I barely touched Latin America, which was just as well because they were too busy fighting each other, and that continued, giving a new meaning to the Roaring Twenties. The Honduran Civil War ended in 1920, then Costa Rica and Panama kicked off the Coto War in 1921. Paraguay fell into Civil War the following year, then another Civil War erupted in Honduras in 1924. Nicaragua too fell into civil war in 1926 which descended into the Sandino Rebellion that lasted until 1933. Venezuela’s sadistic dictator Juan Vincente Gomez overcame a series of rebellions in 1929. Then there was Brazil where revolutions came along like buses between 1922 and 1938, and worthy of a large chapter on its own.
Jowett deviates into US involvement in various conflicts, most notably Mexico, before returning to his chronological narrative with the Chaco War from 1932-1935 between Paraguay and Bolivia. We now see more warplanes and tanks entering the combat zones. The 1930s was the decade of coups in Argentina then Chile; Ecuador fell into civil war; and Cuba, Uruguay, and El Salvador suffered revolts. The mass ideologies of communism and fascism entered the frame. The decade ended with another rebellion in Mexico. Running through the 1930s were disputes over borders deep in the Amazon jungle between Colombia and Peru, and Peru and Ecuador who fought it out in 1941. World War II saw most Latin American countries support the US, though only Brazil offered ground support. Normal service resumed after the world war with civil war in Paraguay, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. A decade of war broke out in Colombia in 1948, though that country sent a force to help in Korea where it performed well. The 1950s was the decade of revolution. Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Guatemala, and, of course, Cuba. That island featured in the Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, but that decade also saw civil war in the Dominican Republic and various left-wing rebel movements, the most famous being Che Geuvara’s doomed effort in Bolivia.
There is a lot fighting to cover in Liberty or Death Latin American Conflicts and Jowett does a very good job of squeezing it all in to 352 pages. His text is clean if unexceptional with solid explanations of what went on in turbulent and often confusing times. There are also useful colour maps and many monochrome photographs but, surprisingly for an Osprey book, very few colour plates of uniforms. A useful bibliography is added for more in-depth research for those who want to dive into a fascinating but neglected theatre of almost constant warfare. 8/10.