Will Yates, War Trials (Pen & Sword, 2021)
War Trials examines the corrosive effect the war in Iraq has had on the people and institutions that became involved in the debacle. At its heart is the story of a young Irish Guardsman, Joe McCleary, who is accused of a war crime in British occupied Basra and breaks into pieces under the intolerable mental weight of the event and the investigation that follows. But he is not the only one on trial in Yates’ superb investigation into the decision makers at all levels whose actions put this man into an impossible situation and to all intents and purposes left him there to rot.
Part I opens in blitz-shattered Bootle that McCleary’s grandparents struggled to survive. Post-war dreams faded more slowly for the town, and it was into this damaged environment that Joe McCleary joined the world in 1981. Yates switches to Basra in May 2003 and the search for an Iraqi boy drowned in the canal. A complaint is made to the British army by the boy’s father and an investigation begun that homes in on Joe McCleary of the Irish Guards. Yates continues to alternate stories in this fashion, narrating the investigation while allowing the background biography of McCleary to catch up with events. That happens with dramatic intensity when McCleary cracks under the pressure of the investigation and his experiences as a soldier. He is in very deep trouble.
Yates’s focus shifts in Part II to the war in Iraq. He spirals in from the causes of the war to the preparations by the British Army and McCleary’s role in it. Meanwhile, the investigation continues, and Joe’s mental decline accelerates. He has PTSD, but who wouldn’t based on the case Yates builds through these chapters, recounting atrocities on both sides in a war that should never have been fought? Yates flips around between the horrors of Basra and the dislocation of Bootle, the two melting together in McCleary’s shattering mind. The intertwining narratives are harrowing but necessary if we are to enter into McCleary’s world.
McCleary’s impending court martial set against a backdrop of terrorist attacks opens Part III. McCleary adds paranoia to his assembly of symptoms as his trial approaches. That took place in April 2006, but Joe McCleary’s personal trials had already taken place in Iraq, and his trial and subsequent naming in wider inquiries continued his ordeal well past the time when it should have been settled. Yates keeps that story bubbling while revealing what happened in Basra on the day that changed McCleary’s life.
War Trials is a searing indictment of the war in Iraq, the British Army, and a succession of British governments who did next to nothing to help soldiers like Joe McCleary caught up in their machinery. Yates’ writing is brilliant, exposing layer after layer of a modern horror story while keeping a sharp focus on the tragic destiny of the young soldier. His descriptive passages of the war claw at the emotions – I was reminded of Michael Herr’s unforgettable book on Vietnam, Dispatches. There are excuses for why all this happened, but Yates eviscerates any attempt at providing reasons. If War Trials does not leave you feeling angry that all this happened and could easily happen again, go back and start again. This is easily the best book I have read this year and perhaps the best written about the senseless war in Iraq.
Will Yates, War Trials (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Dan Hagedorn & Mario Overall, The Caribbean Legion and its Mercenary Air Forces 1947-1950 (Lime Tree Press, 2021)
Welcome to the post-World War II world of the Caribbean Legion, an organisation dedicated to the overthrow of dictatorships in the region and the implementation of democracies. Dan Hagedorn and Mario Overall are experts in warfare in this part of the world, and in this book they guide us through the exploits of the Legion with an emphasis on their use of a makeshift airforce.
Hagedorn and Overall begin by establishing the political context of a Caribbean region in flux during and shortly after WWII. They trace the origins of that into the promotion of democracy from the 1920s onwards in opposition to dictatorships in the region. The Caribbean Legion would take up that mantle after the War and had coalesced into an organization by February 1946. Their first serious test was the Cayo Confites affair, an attempt to remove the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. This was a failure but created the first air component for the Legion, the ELA at this point, with a transport service and some US warplanes. In short order, they had themselves a handy little airforce. They also acquired a few ships to support their invasion of the Dominican Republic. And then it all fell apart, including their collective arrest and transfer to Guatemala.
The Legion’s next adventure in 1948 was more successful, helping to knock over the Costa Rican government as part of the civil war that swept that nation, though few of the men took part in the actual combat. Their makeshift airforce was again prominent with some interesting modifications to some of the planes to turn them into fighting craft. The Legion’s leaders had outstayed their welcome in Costa Rica by January 1949, though most of the men had left by then. The Legion’s followed that with a return to the Dominican Republic to remove Trujillo. The planned airborne ‘invasion’ was an unmitigated fiasco. Subsequent diplomatic moves in the region heralded the end of the Legion. The authors add appendices on the various airplanes of the Legion, the Dominican military, and the Nicaraguan Air Force.
Hagedorn and Overall tell a fascinating tale of high ideals and low skulduggery as they piece together the exploits of the Caribbean Legion. They do so in an almost journalistic style replete with personal commentary and asides that makes this a fast read; perhaps a bit too much at times as the uninitiated reader struggles to hold on to the details. I sensed that there was a much bigger book in this if more of the background could have been fleshed out. Nevertheless, they capture the chaotic events involving the Legion very well and they clearly know their material. They are supported in their endeavour by some excellent photographs of warplanes. Readers interested in air warfare and post-War Caribbean conflict will enjoy this very much.
Hans Seidler, H*tl*r’s Anti-Tank Weapons 1939-1945 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
“Germans were masters of anti-tank warfare,” notes Hans Seidler. They ought to have been given the number of tanks they faced and the variety of weapons at their disposal. Seidler surveys these weapons and how they were used in this addition to Pen and Sword’s Images of War series.
The first serious German anti-tank gun was the PaK35/36, which was small and reliable. They took thousands of them into Poland in 1939, according to Seidler, most of them towed by animals. But these were not good enough to take out heavier tanks than the Poles fielded. The Germans therefore brought in the 4.7cm gun for future campaigns and mounted some on vehicles. Better organisation was also introduced. The invasion of France, while successful, heralded the problems to come on the Eastern Front. The 5cm PaK38 proved it could do the job against T-34s and 7.5cm PaK40 guns also came into play, along with better dedicated ammunition. The problem became producing enough of them to counter the growing number of enemy tanks, despite the Germans using captured weapons when they could. The Germans also needed manoeuvrability, so introduced the Marder anti-tank vehicles that performed well, but again there were never enough.
In 1943, the 8.8cm PaK43 came off the assembly line, becoming the most powerful gun the Germans had used to date. This was also mounted to create new tank hunters such as the Nashorn and Elefant. Seidler also surveys the Italian front where PaK40s proved useful but cumbersome. Metal shortages affected production by this time, leading to some German use of hybrid weapons. The Normandy landings and aftermath saw the rise of the hand-held panzerfaust and Panzerschreck anti-tank weapons used effectively by the infantry, which became common on all fronts. By 1945, anti-tank guns and vehicles outnumbered tanks on the Eastern Front, but they were spread too thin, according to Seidler. Indeed, the situation grew desperate despite the Jagdpanzer IV and Jagdpanther’s introduction in 1944, until the Germans were finally overwhelmed. Seidler concludes, however, that the anti-tank component of the Germany army had certainly made its mark.
The Images of War series relies heavily on the photographs to make the books work. Seidler’s anti-tank weapons succeeds on that score with many excellent photographs to accompany his basic but informative text. However, the balance of pictures is also important, and this book falls down somewhat on that with almost no coverage of the desert war and limited photographs from the Western Front; students of the Eastern Front will be very happy with it though. Diorama modelmakers and wargamers will especially appreciate Seidler’s book, though any WWII reader will enjoy this too.
Robert Garland, Greek Mythology (Pen & Sword, 2020)
“The gods are jealous and they do cruel things, often with absolutely no justification.” So says Helen, of Troy fame, towards the end of Robert Garland’s spirited retelling of the Greek myths. If you get that far in Garland’s book without hiding under your bed, hoping none of the gods and heroes in this book ever visit you, then you will surely agree.
All the significant gods and heroes have their stories told by Garland in a structure whereby one story flows into another. Odysseus is the star of the show, featuring in numerous stories, and the siege of Troy is the most significant event, tantalising as it is on the verge of recorded history – I prefer the mythological version. The stories are faithfully told from the first person perspective and in modern parlance, the justification being that the Greeks themselves retold these stories for their ‘modern’ audience so why can’t we? We hear, therefore, from amongst others Apollo and Achilles, Hermes and Heracles, Orion and Oedipus, and of course Zeus, but not Poseidon though we meet him often enough in other stories. Garland accompanies all this with some lovely, simple illustrations, which to take nothing away from the text, might be the highlight of the book.
Being brought up on Robert Graves’ Greek Myths, I was not sure Garland’s modernization would work. Indeed, I wasn’t sure all the way through until I finished the Envoi that marks the conclusion! Garland treads a fine line in just swerving away from trite in his simplifications, and this could have tipped into Greek Myths for young adults very easily, but there are some x-rated stories among the Greek myths and Garland does not shy away from those. I would not look for any analysis here either, that is not Garland’s remit; these are just stories for your enjoyment. Garland’s gods and heroes come across as rude, boorish, crass, selfish, egotistical, sex-crazed, and sometimes just downright nasty. I did not like or sympathize with any of them, but I was entertained by their stories and that was enough.