Chris Glenn, The Battle of Sekigahara (Frontline, 2021)
In just six hours, on 21 October 1600, an estimated 30,000 Japanese soldiers, belonging to many samurai clans, fell in the Battle of Sekigahara. This was by any measure a major battle in the early modern period, yet few outside of Japan have even heard of it, argues Chris Glenn. He sets out to fix that in this engaging narrative.
It takes a while for Glenn to get to the battle, which comes fully halfway through the book. That is because setting the scene is no easy task given the complexity of political relations in Japan in the years leading up to the climactic battle. Glenn leads us through those with a series of biographical narratives and a political geography lesson. Then he arrives at the immediate causes of the war leading to Sekigahara, which was essentially a conflict for power between rival eastern and western clans. The lead-in to the battle is filled with skirmishes and sieges, but also includes fascinating asides such as the pre-battle ceremony.
Glenn paints a vivid picture of the battlefield as the troops moved into position. He pauses to describe the various types of units involved, their weapons, and their tactics. Then we are into the battle, beginning with the state of the battlefield and the orders of battle, then onto the start of the fighting, which began with an attack by 30 cavalrymen against 17,000 enemy troops! Intense combat was soon widespread, however, creating confusion and a subsequent bloodbath, helped in no small part by battlefield defections and miscommunication. It was the Western army that suffered defections the most and it collapsed after some ferocious fighting. Glenn then describes the grisly, post-battle head viewing ceremony and narrates the aftermath of this decisive battle. A timeline and useful Who’s Who of Sekigahara concludes Glenn’s account.
Written in an anecdotal style of stories and sketches spun around a central narrative, Glenn’s informative and entertaining chronicle of the Battle of Sekigahara is a stand-out contribution to Samurai military history. This is a book that, while complete in itself as a battle narrative, prompts further reading into the world of the samurai, which often seems quite bizarre to readers more accustomed to the practical demands of warfare. The peculiar code of the samurai permeates the battle and Glenn’s account. It is fascinating reading, and for those with even a passing interest in samurai warfare, eye-opening and enlightening.
Chris Glenn, The Battle of Sekigahara (Frontline, 2021)
Ian Baxter, Panzergrenadiers 1942-1945 (Pen & Sword, 2021)
A new volume in the Images of War series brings us Panzergrenadiers as surveyed by Ian Baxter. The designation Panzergrenadier came into effect with the reorganization of the German army in 1942. The ‘new’ divisions were motorized and powerful, incorporating panzers, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and mobile infantry units. This allowed them to innovate rapid deployment tactics, which helped them become an elite fighting force, according to Baxter. He takes us through their history from organization through their wartime operations. Baxter notes that in 1944, the panzergrenadiers became increasingly important, especially on the Eastern Front, and he records their eventual demise in 1945. Baxter’s text is well-supported by many monochrome photographs of the men in the field with accompanying descriptions of their uniforms and equipment.
Baxter undoubtedly knows his stuff when it comes to the German army, but you sometimes get the impression he likes his subject just a bit too much. This comes from his almost constant use of positive caption descriptions of the panzergrenadiers who are moving forward, or poised for action, or who could deploy a couple of MG-34s to hold up an attacking enemy along a five mile frontage. Even within the 1944 chapter, when we know the Germans are losing the war, the captions describe them as advancing, and unusually for an Images of War book, there are no pictures of dead soldiers. Nevertheless, the photographs are an invaluable source for anyone interested in these hard-fighting, battle-tested troops, and modellers and wargamers will find plenty of inspirational material.
Ingo Bauernfeind, U.S. Aircraft Carriers 1939-45 (Casemate, 2021)
The aircraft carrier was the most important conventional weapon of World War II. What was potential before the war became an essential component of America’s war effort as Carriers replaced the previously mighty battleships as the spearhead. And to understand modern naval warfare is to recognize the role Carriers have played in it. To that end, Ingo Bauernfeind has written a tidy survey of the ships and warplanes that made up the United States’ Carrier force.
The book begins with a tribute to the USS Hornet, now a maritime museum. Then we are into the book, starting with the development of the big fleet carriers. This rattles along because Bauernfeind wants to get to WWII, which became a carrier war in the Pacific from the beginning when the Japanese used carriers to open proceedings at Pearl Harbor. As Bauernfeind narrates the war and the pivotal battles, other important battles are dropped into the text via box outs along with other useful information, such as anti-aircraft capabilities. He then works his way through the different classes of Carrier, including their vital statistics. Bauernfeind notes that Carriers were vulnerable on their own, a lesson they learned the hard way, so they were combined into Task Groups for maximum safety. When hit, most notably by kamikazes and torpedoes, they could take a lot of damage. Of course, that must be offset against the amount of damage the American Carriers inflicted on the Japanese.
The Navy also introduced Escort Carriers, which were much smaller than the Fleet Carriers. These were converted warships that provided transportation and local air cover for convoys. They were relatively small, though, and lightly armoured. They also had to keep their aircraft on the deck through lack of storage capacity. Many different classes of Escort Carrier served with the US Navy, and Bauernfeind surveys many of them with accompanying photographs. He then moves on to the Light Carriers. These were converted warships brought in to fill the gap until the main Carriers were built. Unlike the Escort Carriers, the Light Carriers could keep up with the Fleet Carriers and were a useful supplement in battle but were not great aircraft platforms.
Of course, aircraft carriers needed aircraft, and that is where Bauernfeind turns next. He starts with the Devastator, the workhorse torpedo bomber in the early stages of the war, but they were very vulnerable without fighter protection. The Vindicator follows, which was more useful for reconnaissance than bombing, but then Bauernfeind brings out the Dauntless, nicknamed ‘Slow But Deadly’, that sunk six Japanese carriers. The Helldiver was brought in to replace the Dauntless, and after a few tweaks, became a useful dive bomber. A third bomber was the durable Avenger that also proved very successful. For the fighters, Bauernfeind introduces the chunky, little Buffalo, which was unfortunately outclassed by the Japanese Zero. Then came the Wildcat, which proved very valuable in the air war, and the legendary Corsair that downed 2,140 Japanese aircraft for the loss of just 189! The Hellcat was also a later war addition and equally successful against the declining Japanese airpower, taking down 4,947 Japanese aircraft. Bauernfeind concludes with a chapter following the end of the USS Saratoga, which was sunk as part of America’s nuclear weapon experiments, then studied by divers, beginning in 1990; a guided tour of the museum ship USS Hornet, showing technical aspects up close and how men lived; and finally, a brief survey of the post-war careers of some of the Carriers.
Bauernfeind’s survey of US Carriers is an engaging read with many excellent accompanying photographs and colour artwork. He could have dropped the final chapters to include more photos, but that’s a quibble rather than a criticism. The book’s format also somewhat restricts the complete coverage some would like of these fascinating and powerful ships, but as an introduction it serves its purpose very well. If you like Carriers, you will undoubtedly enjoy this book.
Philip Bujak, The Bravest Man in the British Army (Pen & Sword)
John Sherwood Kelly, aged 51, died in August 1931, and was almost lost to history. Philip Bujak had other ideas, however, and has written Kelly’s biography. This was no ordinary man, or even soldier, but the bravest man in the British Army, argues Bujak, and he sets out to prove it.
“Jack” Kelly was born in South Africa in 1878, the son of a hero and invested from an early age with a righteous sense of justice; two traits that would exemplify his character in the challenges to come. His innate rebelliousness also shaped his life. Kelly joined the Independent Light Horse for the Boer War where he earned his commission and his first medals for bravery. He then fought in Somaliland in 1902 and against the Zula Bambatta uprising in 1905. In 1913, he sailed with his brother Ted to fight in Ireland, which put him in the right place for a soldier when the Great War started a year later. They both joined the King Edward’s Horse as lieutenants, then transferred to the 12th Norfolk Yeomanry. But it was as part of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers that Jack ended up at Gallipoli in 1915 where he was wounded and gassed, won the DSO, and ended up in temporary command of his battalion.
The massive South African proved adept at trench warfare and earned the sobriquet, ‘Bomb’ Kelly, demonstrating that he was still more soldier than British officer. On his return, he married, but was soon on his way to the Western Front and the Somme Offensive, this time with an Irish regiment, the Inniskillings. Kelly was severely wounded in that battle, but after convalescing in South Africa, Kelly returned to active duty. He was wounded again in July 1917, but fought in the Battle of Cambrai, leading the charge, but then his lungs collapsed, and he was on his way back to Blighty. He had also won the Victoria Cross he so coveted. The Great War wasn’t enough for the great South African, and he was soon on his way to fight in the Russian Civil War, leaving his messy domestic troubles behind – he had a passionate affair that produced a child, though his wife stood by him until the end. But more trouble than just war lay ahead.
In Russia, Kelly led from the front as usual, but he recognised the hopelessness of the mission and he fell foul of his commander, Major General Ironside. He accused Kelly of insubordination and worse, and finally relieved Kelly of his command. Humiliated, Kelly went home then went to the Press, or someone did in Kelly’s name. He also made an enemy of Winston Churchill and soon found out that war was his game, not politics. Kelly was reprimanded at his subsequent court-martial. Peacetime did not suit Kelly. He suffered from his wounds and encountered money problems. He ran for MP and lost; but he competed in sports at his local clubs and won. He helped build a road in Bolivia, but that turned into a fiasco. When Kelly came home in 1928, he was very ill. He made one final trip to Egypt in 1930 and died a year after his return.
Bujak has written an absorbing biography of an undoubtedly brave soldier but a deeply flawed man. Like many biographers, Bujak tends to tell you everything about his subject. He also struggles with a lack of evidence about who Jack Kelly really was outside of his military and civil record. What happens then is that the subject occasionally gets subsumed into the background. Nevertheless, Bujak draws the reader into Kelly’s life; he is such a fascinating character that you want to know more about him, and you cannot help but judge him for good and bad. As for being the bravest man in the British army? Perhaps he was, but he was also reckless, and if you distrust heroes, you will distrust Kelly. It is worth the journey through this book to find out.
Jack Devine, Spymaster’s Prism (Potomac Books, 2021)
When a former senior official in the CIA writes a book warning of the dangers posed to the West by Putin’s Russia, you have to take notice. That is precisely Jack Devine’s stated motive in Spymaster’s Prism. He surveys the Cold War history of competitive espionage between the USA and Soviet Union and how that has carried forward to the present day. All of that was carried out under a set of unwritten codes known as “Moscow Rules”. They helped keep the Cold War cool; but Devine notes that under Putin, those rules have been abrogated. We are therefore in a very dangerous situation.
Devine organises his book into thirteen intelligence lessons circling a central premise: “never trust the Russians”. It follows that Devine sees complacency towards Russia where there should be vigilance; Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election should have tipped us off to that. His evaluation of Putin and his strategic vision is scathing, but not surprising. This takes Devine into his survey of espionage from World War II when the Soviet Union’s KGB held most of the cards. The CIA was formed in response, but Devine points out that since 9/11 their efforts have been focused on the problems associated with that event with Russia left behind as almost an afterthought. And that chapter structure of looking back to look forward, typifies this book, which makes for an engaging and stimulating read. Along the way, we meet the notorious spies on both sides and the techniques used then and now to create leverage against the ‘enemy’. In the end, Devine pleads the case for renewed attention to Russia and a renegotiation for Moscow Rules.
As with all polemics, Spymaster’s Prism has to be treated carefully, and there is no doubt that Devine’s position in the CIA encourages a level of suspicion that his book might not deserve. From a historical perspective, Devine provides a fascinating insight into some of the great espionage cases of the 20th Century. His clear exposition of the current Russian threat is also well grounded in his sources, particularly the Mueller Investigation that should have, and maybe did, set all the alarm bells ringing. And there’s the rub; we don’t know what we don’t know, and we’re probably not supposed to, that’s how intelligence works. So, who is the audience for this public appeal? The politicians, American voters, the intelligence community, all of the above? I’m not sure, but I do know that as a student of espionage I enjoyed this book even if I’m not completely sold on Devine’s fearful thesis.