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
Eric Lee, Night of the Bayonets (Greenhill Books, 2020)
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
Greg Way, Fallschirmjäger! (Helion, 2020)
In Fallschirmjäger!, Greg Way records the memories of some of Hitler’s elite paratrooper troops. He is an admirer of an almost completely volunteer force that exemplified the virtues of soldiers, their esprit de corps. He interviewed veterans and solicited more memories through a website. He soon had enough material to merit collating it in a permanent record. Fallschirmjäger! is the very worthy result.
Fallschirmjäger! is structured as a source book with just a brief introduction for ranks, a glossary of terms, and a précis of operations. Each chapter is handed over to a single veteran’s recollections, of which there are sixteen in Part I, and three war diaries in Part II. The recollections begin with a brief biography of the veteran, their wartime service, and what became of them after the war. Way sprinkles their accounts with illuminating photographs donated by the veterans and footnotes for confirmation and context. The men describe their rigorous selection process and intense training befitting an elite unit. Then they took part in the Invasions of Poland and the Low Countries, dropped on Crete in that expensive operation, and fought in Italy, North Africa, the Eastern Front, and Normandy. All of Way’s veterans, except one, were captured and spent time as POWs.
Reviewing a source book of this nature boils down to one question: does it help us understand the subject? In this case that receives a resounding, yes. Way’s sensible approach, to let these soldiers speak in their own voices without interference, brings out the immediacy of their experiences: their arduous training, jumping into the dark over enemy territory, the terror and helplessness of floating to the ground under fire, the intensity of combat, the shock of being wounded, frostbite on the Eastern Front, a comrade’s suicide, the fear of capture; the general horrors of war. Memoirs such as these can also be problematic because of what is often missing, or misremembered, such as political affiliations, thoughts on their leadership and role in the war, and the rare mentions of German atrocities, though those against them are prominent. Nevertheless, Way has performed a valuable service for the historical record of the Fallschirmjäger that will be useful for historians and general readers interested in World War II. 9/10
Alexander Merrow, Agostino von Hassell, and Gregory Starace, Caesar’s Great Success (Frontline, 2020)
The Roman General Julius Caesar must rank in the top three of the Western Hemisphere’s greatest generals. During his meteoric rise in the 1st Century BCE, Caesar dominated multiple enemies in far-flung environments, winning dozens of battles along the way. Nevertheless, argue the authors of Caesar’s Great Success, it was Caesar’s logistical brilliance, two-thousand years ahead of is time, that makes him stand out from the rest. They set out their case in this occasionally quirky book.
The opening chapter narrates Caesar’s campaigns and examines the size of his army during those operations. That was a huge number, bearing in mind all the animals and non-combat manpower involved, and they all had to be fed. Caesar’s army required mountains of grain as the staple ingredient in their diet – they marched and fought on bread and porridge. The soldiers supplemented their grain with meat, salt, olive oil, and cheese to a greater or lesser degree, and they drank sour wine (posca). Caesar’s success came from ensuring his men had a good supply of all that. The authors are careful to point out that Rome already had a logistical framework in place, but Caesar enhanced its administration and transport infrastructure, improving road and river communications. He was also a master of creating and maintaining effective supply lines. We follow the army on the march, discovering what the soldiers carried, how they constructed marching camps, why they foraged and what for, and requisitioning supplies, which at times took the form of pillaging and plunder. All of this logistical effort had a strategic purpose. Caesar’s campaigns often had supply in mind, though he sometimes surrendered that security for speed and surprise. He also blocked enemy supplies, especially water sources. The authors illustrate Caesar’s tapping into a ‘timeless framework’ of logistical support through a comparison with the North African campaign in World War II. They conclude with a chapter on Caesar’s legacy in modern cuisine, though they dispel the myth that Caesar Salad had any connection to the great general!
The claim that logistical brilliance was Caesar’s Great Success may be over egging the pudding, but the authors cannot be blamed for hyping what is after all the unsexy side of military history. That might also explain the peculiar inclusion of recipes to end each chapter and the colour plates of meals. The unnecessary addition of the comparison with a World War II campaign also feels contrived: a more useful historical comparison might have been with Alexander the Great’s army as detailed in Donald Engels’ excellent Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (UC Press, 1980) that covers much of the same ground. Setting aside those conceptual issues, the authors have produced a valuable book for understanding how Caesar’s campaigns worked and his strategic considerations. Their sifting of the evidence used to recreate the soldiers’ lives away from the battlefield is deftly handled, as is the authors’ setting that into the broader context. Merrow and his colleagues have written a recipe for related inquiries into other ancient armies, and you won’t read Ancient military history quite the same way again after reading this book.
Gerry Van Tonder, Korean War Chinese Invasion October 1950 – March 1951 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In October 1950, the CIA reported to President Truman that there was little likelihood of a Chinese invasion of North Korea. They were very wrong. A month later, a tsunami of Chinese soldiers had poured across the border with the aim of extinguishing the United Nations forces, and they nearly succeeded. In his continuing series on the Korean War, Gerry Van Tonder brings us that story.
Van Tonder begins with a survey of the newly constituted Chinese army. This was a massive organization, full of veterans from the Chinese Civil War, though logistically deficient. And far from their tactics being mindless human waves, the Chinese used the Korean terrain to their tactical advantage to infiltrate and undermine their enemy. The Chinese presence was soon felt by the geographically divided UN forces as they advanced north. The Americans quickly took to the defensive backed by British and Commonwealth forces; the Republic of Korea forces meanwhile melted away under the initial onslaught. Van Tonder places significant weight on the air war that initially favoured the Americans but became more equal with the arrival of Soviet MIG-15s into the infamous Mig Alley. It would be well into 1951, however, before the Chinese found their feet in this new age of jet warfare. Back on the ground, the vainglorious MacArthur seemed to ignore the Chinese threat and pushed towards the Yalu river in his ‘home-by-Christmas’ campaign. But the Chinese lured them forward and hit hard, sending the UN forces back in what would become a full retreat, the most famous part of which was the incredible escape of the US 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir aided in no small part by American air superiority. Van Tonder describes the subsequent evacuation of UN forces as ‘MacArthur’s Dunkirk’. Despite suffering enormous casualties, the Chinese pressed on with a new offensive into the New Year with Seoul falling on 4 January, but the UN held their lines, just. A UN counterattack recovered Seoul and solidified along the 38th Parallel, and that is where Van Tonder leaves this book to begin his final volume in the series.
Like the other volumes in this series, Chinese Invasion is mainly concerned with operational matters peppered with lower level experiential stories to enliven the narrative. The latter is Van Tonder’s strength while for the larger history it is sometimes confusing when Van Tonder skips back and forward across the chronology to highlight different aspects of the fighting. I also found the inclusion of snippets from British newspapers an odd source when discussing American operations. Nevertheless, readers attracted to the Korean War will no doubt find this book interesting and a useful addition to their collection.