Massimo Predonzani and Vincenzo Alberici, The Italian Wars volume 2 (Helion, 2021)
Writing about the Italian Wars of the early 16th Century must be the historical equivalent of spinning plates; there are so many players in motion at any given time and they all play an important role at some point in the narrative. That complexity can be a turn-off for even the most enthusiastic of history readers. But this was a period of fluctuation and fluidity as early modern Europe slowly emerged from the mediaeval world, and it is worth studying on many levels. In this second volume of The Italian Wars, Massimo Predonzani and Vincenzo Alberici guide their readers through the major campaigns and battles between 1509 and 1515.
The authors begin with the situation in Italy after 1495. We find Louis XII using diplomacy to prepare for his intended invasion of Lombardy in 1499. That went well for the French, but the aftermath turned into a complex mess as the power players once more fought over the various Italian States with cities as pawns in the game. After some jockeying, the War of the League of Cambrai broke out after the invasion of Cadore by the Emperor Maximilian in 1508 that did not end well. He aligned with France and Spain in the League of Cambrai against Venice. Our authors narrate the campaign leading to the Battle of Agnadello in 1509, then the battle itself, which did not go well for the Venetians. Here the action pauses while the authors discuss the order of battle and casualties. The campaign continued; the Venetians retired to defend the city’s defences, the French had their spoils of war with the capture of Milan, and Emperor Maximillian took up the task of fighting the Venetians, though not successfully. The campaign petered out in 1510. But peace would not last long.
With the French as the major regional power, the rest, led by the Papacy, ganged up on them in the Holy League and the wars kicked off again. In February 1512, the French attacked, advancing steadily on Ravenna where another major battle took place on 10 April. The French won a hard fought affair but lost their captain. Again, the authors pause to discuss casualties and the longer term aftermath, which was another period of shifting alliances and tit-for-tat warfare, leading to a period the authors call the ‘armed peace’. A new French King, a new Pope, and shifting alliances set off another round of fighting with French ambitions in Northern Italy at the heart of affairs. That led to the third major battle covered by our authors at Marignano in September 1515. This was essentially a headlong charge by the Swiss against a well-defended French position with the subsequent fighting lasting into the night. Battle resumed the next morning, but reinforcements for the French swung the battle against the Swiss who retired to Milan. More fighting followed, but peace broke out temporarily when the main combatants signed a treaty in August 1516. With their narrative complete, our authors turn to an analysis the major armies involved – the French, Venetians, Spanish, Swiss, the Neapolitans, and, of course, the German Landsknechts, and a lesson in 15th century military heraldry.
Massimo Predonzani and Vincenzo Alberici have pulled off a significant achievement with this book, and the others in the series. They have produced an authoritative account of events and their context, much of which is backed by a solid set of footnotes. The structure of their book is well-handled, reflecting the ebb and flow of these wars and the diplomatic chicanery behind them. The authors include vivid battle descriptions supported by colour plates of various troops and their flags involved in the wars and many contemporary monochrome illustrations. This is highly recommended for students of Renaissance warfare, but also any history reader that enjoys a gripping and dramatic narrative.
Massimo Predonzani and Vincenzo Alberici, The Italian Wars volume 2 (Helion, 2021)
Ian Baxter, H*tl*r’s Heavy Tiger Tank Battalions 1942-1945 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
The Tiger was arguably the most feared tank in World War II. Grouped together into battalions, they could deliver a devastating blow. But they could not win the war on their own, or even a battle, and they were vulnerable to mechanical breakdowns and Allied countermeasures such as anti-tank weapons and aircraft. Every tank that entered combat, therefore, had a support network of men and machines to keep it in the field. Ian Baxter’s latest work on the German army for the Images of War series accompanies the Tiger Battalions on their pursuit of a losing cause.
After a quick outline of the Panzerwaffe in 1941/1942, and their foray into the Soviet Union, Baxter gets down to the business of discussing Tigers. The Tiger was the biggest German tank to date in April 1942, weighing in at 56 tons with thick armour and an 88mm gun, a powerful beast by any standards. They were also expensive and high maintenance, though 1,350 Tiger Is were manufactured during the War. Tigers were organized into heavy battalions to spearhead breakthroughs. And with that background established, Baxter moves into chapters narrating the Tigers in action, profusely illustrated, of course, with many photographs of the tanks and their support vehicles.
The Eastern Front and North Africa in 1942 and 1943 are considered first. Baxter notes that the introduction of Tigers could produce dramatic results locally, but they also struggled with poor roads and weak bridges. Moreover, in Africa, there were not enough of them to make a true difference in battle. The action in 1943 stays on the Eastern Front, but moves to Sicily from Africa, though that was a stepping stone back to Italy once Allied superiority began to tell. The Tiger was used in numbers at Kursk, but despite local successes, they could not break the Soviet defences. Tigers were also withdrawn to assist on other fronts as the Allied squeeze tightened.
1944 saw a new front open in the West while operations continued on the Eastern Front. The Tiger was by now mainly a defensive weapon, notes Baxter, and ad-hoc battlegroups were sent to prop up crumbling defences. But again, there were too few of them and replacements were hard to come by. Their movements were also restricted by Allied air power. The last year of the war found Tigers supporting the German defensive lines in Italy, but losses were unsustainable. They also helped squash Operation Market Garden in Holland, but again with losses they could not replace, and took the lead in the Ardennes Offensive, aided by the bigger Tiger IIs, but fuel shortages crippled them. On the Eastern Front, they were simply overwhelmed. Six short appendices close out Baxter’s book. They cover Tiger profiles with graphic artwork (disappointingly in monochrome rather than colour); battalion histories and markings; and battalion equipment and organization.
The Images of War series depends on a wide variety of quality photographs to make the book work. This volume has those in abundance, which will make modellers and wargamers happy. Baxter’s text is serviceable; it doesn’t have to be great, but Baxter’s sometimes uncritical approach towards the Germans gets a bit cloying at times, and for all the Tiger was a feared weapon, the Germans seemed to lose an awful lot of them. He also tends to waste caption space by stating the obvious. Nevertheless, those quibbles aside, this is an entertaining and informative book on an iconic tank that WWII enthusiasts will enjoy.
Mark C. Wilkins, British Fighter Aircraft in World War I (Casemate, 2021)
Most books on World War I warplanes focus on their effectiveness in combat or the experience of the pilots over the trenches. But how did the planes get there in the first place? Mark Wilkins tells the stories of the British designers and manufacturers who overcame considerable odds to build Britain’s air war capability. Along the way, we gain a new appreciation for these aircraft and for some of the men who keep the promise of these early machines alive for modern, but more peaceful, audiences.
Designing and building fighters was an intensely competitive business, according to Wilkins, and in the years before the Great War, Britain lagged far behind Germany and France. The desire to participate changed rapidly with the realisation that Britain was no longer an island and air power was the coming force. Limited resources, and seemingly limited thinking, pushed Britain down a different path for aircraft design and manufacturing. Wilkins ponders the British aircraft industry at war, which had to produce quickly using a mostly untrained female workforce, resulting in simplified designs. It did not help that the Royal Navy and army were prioritised over aircraft production. Wilkins describes the production process in fine detail before embarking on a chapter by chapter review of the major aircraft producers, such as B&CAC, the Royal Aircraft Factory, Airco, Avro, and the Sopwith Aviation Company.
The main chapters are potted business histories in a way, detailing how the main characters became involved in the industry, their first planes, and the ones they were famous for with the necessary technical details added. Those iconic planes include the Bristol Bulldog, S.E.5a, AMC D.H.2, Avro 504, and Sopwith Camel. Wilkins also describes the various engines and props used on these planes. He adds some fascinating asides, such as General Henderson mandating that the Royal Aircraft Factory could not produce planes that flew over 100mph! Or Tom Sopwith using his sister’s sewing machine to sew the fabric coverings for his first planes. Wilkins concludes by reiterating his thesis of a dynamic aircraft industry springing to life when the Great War began, which was led by entrepreneurs who succeeded despite government restrictions. Their impact is still felt today. A couple of appendices close out Wilkins’ book: The 1915 Defence of the Realm Act and some Aircraft Designer Patents.
This is a book that hits you between the eyes from the first page with beautiful colour photographs of British warplanes in flight. They are supported throughout by monochrome photographs of the men and women built the planes, technical drawings, contemporary adverts for aircraft related products, and graphic art pictures. But it’s not really a book about the planes; rather, it is how they came to appear over the battlefields that interests Wilkins, something that adds to our understanding of how the War was fought. Arguably the stars of the book appear in the sidebars by David Bremner, John Shaw, John Gaertner, Kip Lankeneau, and John Saunders, who reconstruct these magnificent aircraft. Wilkins writes well, managing to balance technical detail with the stories of the men behind these planes. References to England instead of Britain are annoying for some of us, but that is a quibble for a book that is thoroughly enjoyable for those interested in World War I British warplanes.
Simon Elliott, Old Testament Warriors (Casemate, 2021)
In Old Testament Warriors, the prolific Simon Elliott surveys the civilizations of the Ancient Near East with his focus on military systems and developments. He covers almost all the bases and introduces readers to a fascinating list of characters and peoples.
Elliott begins ‘in the beginning’ with the first attempts at organized warfare, going back into the neolithic period then stressing the importance of the city of Jericho’s defences as an evolutionary step in warfare. That leads him into the Sumerian civilization and growing evidence for warfare and armies. Then came Sargon the Great from Kish who brought Sumerian dominance to a violent end before a resurgence then a final demise in 2004 BCE. That led to the rise of Assyria and Babylon. However, it is to the Egyptians that Elliott turns next. He works through the Old Kingdom and into its neighbours, Nubia, Canaan, and Libya, but eschews later developments to avoid a collision with a companion volume on the later Egyptians.
Chapter 3 introduces the weapon synonymous with this era of warfare: the chariot. Elliott places the chariot military revolution in around 1690 BCE. The Hurrians and Hyksos were the first serious users of chariots in the Bronze Age, and Elliott goes into more detail on the Kingdom of Mitanni, the leading Hurrian kingdom. Coming away from the Near East, Elliott moves into Europe with the Minoans and Mycenaeans. It was the demise of the Mycenaeans among others that led to the mass migration of destructive groups known as the Sea Peoples from around 1230 BCE. They linked Europe to the Near East, and it is to there that Elliott returns to discuss the small but influential Hebrew Kingdoms and the Philistines.
One curious aspect of Hebrew warfare was the lack of chariots, which they made up for with surprise assaults often at night. The Hebrews joined together under the United Monarchy of the Israelites – Saul, David, and Solomon – who fought the Philistines with varied success. The Divided Monarchy followed in the first millennium BCE with war between Israel and Judea. It didn’t matter too much because both would fall, squashed between the rising and ruthless Assyrians and the powerful Egyptians. The Babylonians came next in a winner takes all battle at Carchemish in 605 BCE. They then dismantled Judea.
Elliott closes out his survey with a deeper look at the Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians, which were the major powers during the biblical period. He includes here the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE, involving 6,000 chariots! The book ends with the defeat of Babylon by Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE. Elliott concludes with observations on the evolution of warfare in the biblical period and the importance of literacy in cultivating civilizations.
Old Testament Warriors is a solid survey of this period. Each chapter begins with an introduction, which is old-fashioned and a bit wasteful for a book this short, but the narrative and analysis flows quite seamlessly for the most part. Elliott’s writing is clear, as we have come to expect, and his text is supported by photographs of wargames figures, some general landscapes, and archaeological artefacts. The civilizations under Elliott’s gaze are viewed primarily through their military organisations, and we can follow the development of weapons and armour, though that may also be a product of greater archaeological evidence. I would have liked to have seen more references to the Holy Bible and a better bibliography for further exploration, but as a general introduction to this fascinating era of warfare, Old Testament Warriors will do the job.
Terry C Treadwell, Outlaws of the Wild West (Frontline, 2021)
The saloon doors swish open, the piano stops playing, and everyone goes silent and looks to see who has entered. It is the gunfighter, a notorious outlaw as seen on the Wanted Dead or Alive poster pinned outside the sheriff’s office. He is here for trouble, and you better keep out of his way. At least that is how the legend goes as captured in the dime novels, movies, and TV shows about the American Wild West. Terry Treadwell’s compilation of real outlaws in the late 19th Century frontier country paints a different picture, one where romance is often replaced by savage reality.
Treadwell’s thirty-eight criminal histories cover the usual suspects – Butch and Sundance, the James brothers, Billy the Kid – and strips them of their mythologies. Most of his readers will have heard of those and probably won’t be that surprised that the glitter of Hollywood is mostly fairy dust. Some readers will also recognise the ‘Cowboys’, the Dalton brothers, the Wild Bunch, and the surprisingly disappointing Calamity Jane. Treadwell’s exploration into the lesser known outlaws, however, reveals a wide diaspora of criminals from different racial and ethnic groups and class backgrounds. No one, it seems, was immune from the criminality ‘gene’, and the degree of lawlessness did not appear to depend on any background trait either, except perhaps bad luck or poor decision-making. Indeed, Treadwell highlights some truly psychopathic individuals like Cullen Baker and William Longley, among others.
On the face of it, Treadwell’s compilation of stories is a well-written, entertaining collection, but reading them all in one go will wear down your good humour. His stories are also illustrated with photographs – many outlaws enjoyed having their portrait taken, though Treadwell includes many of their sharply contrasting posed death photographs that frontier law enforcement enjoyed equally. Dig deeper into these stories, however, and you discover a Wild West scarred by racism and bigotry, a failure of capitalism on the fringes, and, of course, violence and vigilantism. In that regard, Outlaws of the Wild West is more than a collection of stories but a thought-provoking exposure of a fissure in American history.