Peter E. Davies, Ho Chi Minh Trail 1964-73 (Osprey, 2020)
There is little doubt that without the Ho Chi Minh trail, North Vietnam’s attempt to defeat its southern counterpart would have failed. The United States knew this too and did their best to close the arterial path that ran from near the Chinese border to just north of Saigon and many points in between. Both sides displayed ingenuity, tenacity, and courage in what became a war of attrition within the wider Vietnam War. Peter Davies tells that story.
The romantic image of the Ho Chi Minh trail is that of the hardy Vietnamese sneaking along a tiny jungle track with supplies for the front. While that was true, Davies demonstrates how the North Vietnamese developed the Trail as you would any other road, widening, solidifying, and providing utilities, except they were under an intense bombardment the likes of which had not been seen since World War II. The Americans threw everything they had at the Trail but were impeded by much of it being in neighbouring countries to Vietnam: the NV ignored that, the US could not, officially anyway. As well as an increasingly sophisticated air interdiction campaign to deal with the trail, the Americans sponsored covert operations in Laos and Cambodia, backed insurgencies, particularly in Laos, and simply bombed the hell out of it. They caused massive casualties, but this was a Canute-like task against an inexorable tide.
Davies examines all aspects of the US capabilities, including weapons, strategies, and tactics. They sliced and diced the landscape into operational zones to facilitate their attacks and used every plane at their disposal. They even dispersed tons of herbicides to strip the forest bare. The North Vietnamese relied on guile and manpower, knowing that a single mistake could lose a complete convoy to air strikes. They used every means at their disposal to camouflage movement: weather, tunnels, caves, night-time movement etc., and they provided flak protection at key points with varying degrees of success. But what impresses most is the sheer fortitude of those taking incredible risks to maintain the war effort.
Ho Chi Minh Trail is an excellent primer on this critical component of the Vietnam War. Davies does a very good job of untangling all the different actions being conducted simultaneously along the complex logistical highway and he efficiently captures the intensity of the combat. This is an operational study, so Davies does not engage with the experiences of those doing the fighting, but that is clearly not his remit here. This tidy little book will appeal to anyone interested in the air war in Vietnam, and students of the war in general.
Peter E. Davies, Ho Chi Minh Trail 1964-73 (Osprey, 2020)
Al J Venter, The Last of Africa’s Cold War Conflicts (Pen & Sword, 2020)
We often think of colonial wars as a 19th Century phenomenon, or wars of liberation fought against the English or French. Al Venter, however, surveys the oldest colonial power, Portugal, and its problems in West Africa, and in particular Portuguese Guinea. It was here in 1963 that communist-backed guerrillas launched what they thought would be a short and victorious campaign. They were very wrong: the struggle that ensued was long and bitter.
Venter points out that Portuguese Guinea, about the size of Belgium, was an “ungodly place to fight a war” where the Soviet and Cuban-backed guerrillas had the edge on the Portuguese defenders in organization, leadership, and initiative. They also had cross-border support, particularly from Senegal. The terrain being fought over was often swamp or rainforest riddled with waterways. Little wonder that some called this war “Portugal’s Vietnam”. After five years of stalemate, marked by sometimes intense fighting, brutality on both sides, and declining Portuguese morale, Portugal sent in General Antonio de Spinola who turned the tide through reforms and disciplined military action. But the war dragged on, fought by the Portuguese on a shoestring and in a haphazard manner, only to end abruptly in 1974 with Portuguese withdrawal as a consequence of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal.
The author was personally involved in this conflict as a journalist with unprecedented access. He therefore presents detailed portraits of those involved and the main events but does that within the wider context. This little, back of beyond colony somehow became a Cold War testbed, while being all but ignored by the media, but Venter never loses sight of the local conflict – his chapter recounting the death of famous Portuguese soldier Joao Bacar is particularly moving. Venter’s chapters are connected aspects of the war, reminiscent of Michael Herr’s Dispatches on Vietnam, with some overlap and repetition but without causing confusion. Tales of combat abound, some of them very hairy indeed, but these are more than war stories, as they offer valuable insights into the people and the country. Venter also, wistfully compares modern Guine-Bissau with the Portuguese colony and finds it wanting after decades of civil wars and coups. He concludes with an analysis of what went wrong for Portugal, which breaks down to they could not afford their colonial wars.
This was not the book I was expecting from its bland title. I thought perhaps another poorly written old soldier’s memoir or a dry strategic overview with too much politics. But, not at all, this is fascinating and well-written account of a war that few remember. Anyone interested in Africa’s wars against European powers will want to read this book, while modern warfare students will glean much from it too. The Last of Africa’s Cold War Conflicts is one of the better books on war that I have read in 2020.
Peter E. Davies, A-4 Skyhawk vs North Vietnamese AAA (Osprey, 2020)
In this, one of the more contrived Osprey titles, Peter Davies surveys the compact Douglas A-4D Skyhawk and its performance in the Vietnam War against a range of North Vietnamese anti-aircraft weapons.
Developed to tight specifications, the A-4D, entered service in 1956 and became the US Navy’s main strike aircraft in Vietnam. While that was happening, the North Vietnamese expanded their AAA, importing better weapons, mostly from the Soviet Union, and more of them. Davies works his way through those tandem developments, identifying the key steps and weapons used. As you might expect, he highlights the technical specifications. Davies turns to how these weapons were used in a discussion of the strategic situation for both sides, with Davies echoing complaints that US political decisions allowed the North Vietnamese to reorganize and re-arm. He then relates the experiences of those who manned these weapons, although the addition of a photograph of an all-female NV gun crew illustrates the total war effort of the North Vietnamese. The pilot descriptions of coping with anti-aircraft fire is particularly interesting and many pilots were fortunate that the A-4D proved so sturdy. Davies’ accounts of lost pilots show the danger of their actions, though it could not have been a picnic on the receiving end of an A-4D strike either. All this is brought home in Davies’ section on statistics and analysis.
The Osprey Duel books work best when both sides are given equal weight. In this one, however, Davies tips the balance decidedly to the A-4D. He cannot be blamed for that because a historian has to follow the evidence and there is clearly more available on the American side. Still, the AAA defences are well described within those limitations. Davies is also assisted by excellent graphics, and photographs that illuminate our understanding of the weapons and people involved in these tense engagements. If you want to supplement your knowledge on the air war in Vietnam, or just enjoy reading about modern warplanes, then you will enjoy this book.
Mark Stille, Malaya & Dutch East Indies 1941-42 (Osprey, 2020)
In Malaya & Dutch East Indies 1941-42, Mark Stille presents a cogent guide to the Japanese attacks on British and Dutch possessions in southeast Asia during World War II. His focus is on the air war but puts that into context with land and naval operations. The result is a satisfying read with enough technical information to keep the ‘airheads’ happy.
Before Stille begins his narrative and analysis, he provides a brief but handy chronology of the campaigns – they are brief because this was one-way traffic. As with all good campaign books, Stille surveys the respective strengths of the combatants, starting with Japanese air power. He discusses organization and tactics for the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force and Imperial Japanese Army Air Force, and he notes that the two held no common doctrine or operational skills: they were in effect two separate air forces in a common cause. Their warplanes were not that great either, especially the bombers, but then Stille comes to their opposition, mainly Dutch and British, which was wholly inadequate in quantity and quality and manned by inexperienced crews – Stille barely has a good word to say about them, and rightly so. The United States Army Air Force was also deployed but lacked numbers and logistical support, despite having the best Allied fighter in the P-40.
Stille embarks on a narrative of the Japanese campaign plans, first with Malay then the Netherlands East Indies, countered by Britain and the Dutch defensive set-ups. He finds the latter incoherent and inadequate. As for the campaign, which is described next, the Japanese quickly established air superiority, and any hopes of British naval support all but collapsed with the sinking of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales battleships (Force Z). Japanese successes on the ground allowed them to leapfrog their airfields, thus maintaining their aerial pressure. The Allies attempted to fight back, with some small success, but they were overwhelmed, particularly on their poorly defended airfields. After four months, the Japanese victory was total: numbers and better aircraft and crews paid off in the end. Stille demonstrates that the bravery shown by the Allied pilots was simply not enough.
As with all Osprey Campaign books, Malaya & Dutch East Indies 1941-42 is a basic but high quality guide to the subject. Stille’s text is lucid with clutter-free narrative and analysis, and he is ably supported by a wide range of black and white photographs, colour plates, and maps. He expresses an unmistakeable disdain for Allied preparations and efforts without denigrating the men involved in the combat, while clearly establishing why the Japanese won even with a fleet of mostly average warplanes. This is a solid effort and will be useful to anyone interested in the early Pacific War.
Timothy Venning, Cromwell’s Failed State and the Monarchy (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In Cromwell’s Failed State and the Monarchy, Timothy Venning discusses the post-war period from 1646 to 1655. It is a detailed rollercoaster ride of war and politics, and one not for the casual reader.
Venning launches into his book with an overview of possible outcomes to the Civil War, all of which had their problems. Given all the factions and personalities involved, that was hardly surprising. At the centre of all this was what to do with the obstinate Charles I. When he tried to reignite the fires of civil war, his fate was sealed in most quarters. Venning covers Charles’ contentious trial and execution in 1649, before moving into a Republic with decidedly shaky foundations. The complex political game continued after Charles’ execution. Charles II entered the picture, casting his shadow across all the major events in the 1650s, while Cromwell’s seemingly inexorable rise continued. He campaigned in Ireland and Scotland, but his greatest potential threat came from the Royalist invasion of 1651, though he quashed that with apparent ease. That left the Commonwealth in the clear, or so it seemed. Politics remained fractious at best and war with the Dutch did not help; Cromwell’s patience snapped on 20 April 1653 and he instigated a coup. What to do after that was the problem. The Nominated Parliament followed but was not successful. Venning leaves us with Cromwell as a King in all but name.
As a reading experience, Cromwell’s Failed State and the Monarchy is hard work, like joining a conversation with strangers half-way through. Venning goes straight into the weeds from the first page, and what follows is a seemingly endless list of questions and telegraphing sub-headings that create a sometimes disorienting stop-start effect. There are some good, flowing passages, in particular Cromwell’s operations in Ireland and Scotland, and Venning knows his material, which is fine for those already steeped in this period. This is therefore not a book for beginners or casual readers, but civil war era enthusiasts will find it useful.