Gerald Hough, Desert Raids with the SAS (Pen & Sword, 2021)
One of the reasons I think we study war is that conflict brings out the best and worst in those who fight. Take Tony Hough, for example; a man probably destined for an adventurous life anyway, but he and the adventure of war were made for each other, though as with all warriors, Hough paid a terrible price in the loss of friends and of his innocence – a worn cliché, but an apt one in Hough’s case. Desert Raids with the SAS is his story, told by his son.
An excitable and youthful Hough had already joined the territorials when war broke out – ‘Suddenly life was full’. He joined the Scots Guards who were looking for skiers. Expecting to fight in Finland, Hough ended up in North Africa where he would make his reputation as a solid, dependable officer in the Rifle Brigade. Fighting the Italians with relative ease did not prepare Hough for the horrors of combat against the German blitzkrieg that enveloped and all but destroyed the British and Commonwealth forces. He took part in the Allied counter-attacks as a seasoned officer. In 1942, Hough’s battalion was disbanded, and he was invited to join the newly formed SAS.
Hough undertook his first SAS mission in November 1942, operating far in advance of the Allied army. But within a month, he was captured by the Italians and shipped to Italy in a submarine. In September 1943, Hough escaped his POW camp, then under German control. He and his comrade evaded the Germans by living in friendly houses and in a cave while they awaited the Allied advance up the peninsula. With the German heat ratcheted up where they were hiding, and his comrade missing after wandering down into the valley, Hough decided to make a run for it over the mountains. He crossed the lines with great difficulty and in terrible physical condition, but he made it – his comrade was captured and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. Hough convalesced in Algeria and England before returning to his regiment. He ended his service as a mayor of a town in occupied Germany. Gerard Hough finishes his story with an account of his own travels to Italy to retrace his father’s footsteps, and the story of the German evacuation of the village his father hid in during December 1943.
This is a curious ‘memoir’ that is told in the first person by Hough’s son with some of his father’s original material mixed in. That makes some aspects historically suspect beyond the usual issues with memoirs and faulty memories, but the novelistic approach also makes for a riveting read. The story of Anthony Hough is one of extraordinary courage, not just on his part, but that of the men he fought alongside and the people who helped him on his remarkable journey to freedom. It is one that once read will not be easily forgotten.
Gerald Hough, Desert Raids with the SAS (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Julian Romane, The First & Second Italian Wars 1494-1504 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In this narrative history of the Italian Wars, Julian Romane promises a ‘chronicle of violence and passion, of ambition, achievement and death, of defeat and victory’. War, he argues, is a ‘drama of the human heart’. Yet, Romane acknowledges that this decade transformed Western warfare as military innovation integrated with the political-economies of Europe, providing the energy for future European expansion. Those are big boots to fill in under 240 pages.
Romane’s narrative proceeds through small, subheaded sections that bring France and Italy into the mix and the ascension of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI – the Borgias run through this story like an irredeemably polluted river. Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494 kicks off the action. We follow him down through Italy while the Holy League organised some opposition. When they did, the two sides met at Fornovo in 1495, a major French victory. Charles VIII died in 1498, probably poisoned, according to Romane. The French throne fell to Louis XII. The wars continued.
Then we meet Cesare Borgia, the ‘Prince of Foxes’. He became the spearhead of Louis XII and the Pope in a campaign known as the Impresa. Romane describes Cesare’s mastery of artillery, manoeuvre, and training a disciplined army in the siege of Ravaldino in January 1500. A second Impresa brought the fall of Faenza, and a third, Urbino. Meanwhile, Louis XII campaigned too. His aim was Naples, and Cesare joined him. The campaign included the infamous sack of Capua, and Naples quickly surrendered rather than face the same fate. Cesare next took on a condottieri revolt and won in the cruel manner that made his reputation. He would fall, however, through an act of poisoning that killed Pope Alexander VI and left Cesare weakened. The new Pope, Julius II, despised the Borgias, making life more difficult for Cesare.
Enter Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, the great Spanish captain. His Spanish army struck in 1503, defeating the French at Seminara and Cerignola, then he conquered Naples and defeated the French at Garigliano. That forced the French to seek terms, bringing the wars to a temporary halt. In the middle of this Romane follows the adventures of the chivalrous page turned minor noble Pierre Bayard, that Romane suggests was the last of his kind, an anachronism on the eve of a new form of war.
Romane leaves much of the background knowledge that would be useful for understanding his narrative for a series of appendices on sources, Italy in 1490, the growth of finance, the development of gunpowder, Pope Alexander VI’s place in Church history, and the curious use of poison in the Renaissance. This seems to this reviewer as indicative of disconnects that run through Romane’s book. Some of the text is well-written, particularly his illuminating character sketches and scenes, but they are not helped by an often passively written narrative that hinders its flow – his reliance on subheadings does not help with that. Romane does untangle a complicated story and he makes the events easy to follow, but it feels like an opportunity missed: Romane’s style turns something potentially great into something good. Readers new to the early Italian Wars, however, will find this a good place to begin and perhaps that was all Romane set out to do.
Marc Hyden, Romulus – The Legend of Rome’s Founding Father (Pen & Sword, 2020)
(Review by Dom Sore)
When is a history book not a history book? It is not as pithy a question as it first seems. It is also a question that springs to mind whenever I think of Romulus – The Legend of Rome’s Founding Father.
Many of us know the story of Rome’s founding; the killing of a brother and the beginnings of a state that would influence history. In this book, Marc Hyden has not set out to define what is real, but to present what we have as history and leave it up to the reader to decide. The book isn’t overly long at 244 pages, and splits into 19 easy to read chapters, but has a very sparse bibliography.
Hyden begins by setting the scene for what he wants to achieve. He states he is presenting a history for us to read but on the understanding that there is little actual evidence for this, that the sources are often contradictory, and most were written well after the facts were alleged to have happened. It is in essence a biography of one man who may or may not have existed and collates what we know of his life. It is a very easy read, and for being based in myth, surprisingly free from hyperbolic deeds and superhuman feats. It is a tale of one, albeit extraordinary, man and his founding of a dynasty.
Given that it is based on myth there is very little to check for accuracy – that would be like pulling up Tolkien because his hobbits have a stride length that was too long. However, even though it is myth, it would have been nice to have more juxtaposition with what we actually know of the early history of Rome. We know there was a Monarchy of sorts, we know it became a Republic, and we have archaeology; adding some of that in would have improved the book immensely. And more maps, I like maps and the more detailed the better: every book should provide more maps!
If you want a book that gathers all we know about Romulus into one place and makes it easy to read, this is the book for you. Indeed, it is a welcome addition to my library. As long as you don’t expect to gain any great historical insight, you will like it as well.
Leo Marriott, Naval Battles of the Second World War (Pen & Sword, 2022)
In his introduction, Leo Marriott highlights the importance of naval operations to a war fought across the globe. In this first of a two volume set, Marriott surveys the naval battles in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The result is a slim but informative and action-packed book.
After a brief overall survey, Marriott sails into the South Atlantic and the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939, which ended in the demise of the Admiral Graf Spee. He sets the scene with the Royal Navy hunting down the German raider, then narrates the action, a close-run but successful affair for the RN. That account follows Marriott’s somewhat formulaic structure for his collection of battles. Our next stop is Narvik in April 1940 and a violent affair between destroyers for the first inconclusive battle, then the follow-up where the RN destroyed the rest of the German destroyers in the port. That was balanced somewhat by the loss of HMS Glorious with 1,500 hands, bounced by German battlecruisers off Norway in June 1940. In May 1941, it was the RN’s turn to hunt down a big dog, this time the famous Bismarck, though not without losing the HMS Hood in a cataclysmic explosion. In February 1942, the RN successfully intercepted an attempted German ‘Channel dash’. Marriott also includes chapters on the Arctic convoys, including the sinking of the Scharnhorst in December 1943. While all that was going on, the Battle of the Atlantic raged as the Allies slowly solved the U-Boat problem.
Part Two takes us into the Mediterranean Sea. As with the Atlantic battles, Marriott provides a brief overview before embarking on more detailed descriptions. The first of those is the destruction of the French fleet in July 1940. The Italian surface fleet provided better opposition than British propaganda gave them credit for, but in July 1940, the Allies took out the Bartolomeo Colleoni and followed that up in November with a major attack on the Italian base at Taranto, using the obsolete but surprisingly effective Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber. The biggest RN battle, and victory, of the war took place at Matapan in March 1941. Convoy actions also invoked some serious naval battles, particularly with the Allies interdicting supplies to the Axis forces in North Africa, and the Axis failing to do the same to prevent Malta’s role as a major hub of Allied operations. Marriott also covers the naval operations assisting Operation Torch with American ships taking centre stage for that.
Naval Battles of the Second World War is a useful gateway survey of two theatres of naval operations. Marriott does not get bogged down in details, but he provides enough information to whet the appetite for further reading. The book is also well-stocked with photos of many of the ships involved and his small but clear maps for each engagement are helpful too. Marriott also includes a helpful appendix listing the ships involved in all these operations, though his bibliography could have been significantly beefed up. But quibbles aside, I enjoyed my evening reading about World War II naval battles, and I look forward to reading Marriott’s volume on the Pacific theatre.