Gregg Adams, Japanese Infantryman versus US Marine Rifleman (Osprey, 2023)
An atoll is an almost flat, ring-shaped coral reef encircling a lagoon. There are many of them in the Pacific Ocean, but they barely trouble mapmakers. The Japanese found them useful as forward bases for air and sea operations, however, and dug elaborate defences out of almost nothing. It was up the United States Marine Corps to take these atolls, fighting yard by sandy yard. Gregg Adams highlights three American assaults on atolls to illustrate how these two determined enemies locked horns in a desperate struggle for tactical and strategic supremacy.
Adams examines the fighting on the Tarawa, Roi-Namur, and Eniwetok atolls in the Gilberts and Marshall Islands. From late 1942, the Japanese fortified these islands as part of their strategic defence. By October 1943, the US Navy was strong enough to take the offensive in the Gilbert Islands with Tarawa as the first target for a Marine landing. After that victory, they attacked the Marshall Islands in February 1944. Adams reviews the opposing sides and their doctrines. That includes US amphibious warfare, which was more complicated than it looks in the movies and newsreels! For the Japanese defenders, they had to dig in, counterattack, and sacrifice when necessary. Adams next surveys the structure of both sides; we find the US Marine Corps up against a variety of Japanese units, including civilian units that were still required to fight. Then we are into the actions on Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll; Namur Island, Kwajalein Atoll; and Engebi Island, Eniwetok Atoll. These accounts are accompanied by many photographs showing shattered palm trees and buildings, and Marines trying to make best use of whatever cover they can find under fire from the hidden Japanese. In his analysis of this peculiar combat, Adams notes that the Americans had to learn as they went from atoll to atoll, developing new weapons and tactics. The Japanese learned almost nothing, partly from believing that what they were doing would work; a misplaced optimism as it turned out. Adams highlights the plight of Japanese garrisons increasingly isolated on other atolls as the Americans swept past them on their next mission.
It somewhat boggles the mind that men were sent into combat on these heavily defended little atolls. Adams demonstrates, however, that far from being crass assaults there was planning and method behind them, and the US studied each attack before launching the next one. There were also not many options when the defenders refused to surrender. Adams is ably assisted by Osprey’s usual artwork, and the book as a whole is a satisfying and illuminating read.
Gregg Adams, Japanese Infantryman versus US Marine Rifleman (Osprey, 2023)
Paul L Dawson, Fighting Napoleon at Home (Frontline, 2023)
Historical wars were seldom as popular as later ‘patriots’ would have you believe. All wars have dissenters, some against the war on principle, some who are opportunists furthering their causes. When wars coincide with economic and political crises at home, that dissent can turn revolutionary. If you follow Paul Dawson’s thesis on unrest in Britain during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, you will see how close Britain came to an epoch-changing revolution.
Dawson sets up a dichotomy between Loyalists and Radical reformers that came into political conflict during the American Revolution. Many of the Radicals in that war continued their opposition into the Napoleonic Wars via the French Revolution. Loyalists, such as Edmund Burke, were vehemently opposed to events in France, inspiring actions against reformers. Undaunted, notes Dawson, the reformers established Jacobin clubs, particularly in the new urban, industrial centres. As they grew in popularity and became a perceived threat to the establishment, these clubs were soon infiltrated by Loyalist spies. Loyalists formed groups too, then came government oppression under the guise of fighting sedition. Free speech was curtailed along with the free press, and with the power of the judiciary against them, there was little the reformers could do. Loyalists also hounded reformer Thomas Paine out of the country, burning him in effigy. Dawson follows the career of noted Radical Henry Redhead Yorke who operated mostly out of Sheffield. Yorke would later recant, but before then the Loyalists saw him as a clear threat along with other Radicals. When the reformers were linked to a French-backed revolution in Ireland and armed rebellion in England, the government acted by rounding up Radicals on charges of high treason.
In 1795, loyalists formed volunteer military units to ‘aid magistrates in clamping down on radical societies’, according to Dawson. This came at a time of high unemployment and food shortages, leading to riots. The government introduced the 1795 Gagging Acts as retribution. Subsequent treason trials resulted in a split amongst reformers, leaving a hard core of Radicals. They formed the United Englishmen, a secretive group with radical links to France and the United Irishmen movement. But French inaction in 1796 failed to incite an English revolution. A new wave of repression followed in 1798 in response to alarms over revolutionary fervour in England.
Dawson moves onto Luddism, a movement inspired by the ban on Trade Unions in 1799 along with a ban on reform societies while famine again swept the country. Machine breaking began in 1799 too, then it erupted in 1811 – this is covered in more detail in Dawson’s companion volume, The Battle Against the Luddites (Pen & Sword, 2023). Widespread food riots occurred in 1800, and alarmingly, the Volunteer Corps in Sheffield refused to put down that town’s unrest. Disease accompanied famine and a full scale revolution seemed on the cards. Dawson notes the unpopularity of the war with France in 1801, the same year that the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act expired, and protests intensified into planning for a revolution. Magistrates broke up seditious meetings and made arrests, often with military support. Hopes of widespread revolution faded, however, with falling food prices and no immediate expectation of French support.
Dawson switches to the Despard Coup amidst rising tensions in Ireland and England in 1802. Plans were laid to seize the Tower of London and overthrow the government with the aid of disaffected soldiers, but it never happened. In a show trial, Despard and others were sentenced to death on flimsy evidence. That did not end radical activism but dampened latent enthusiasm for revolution. War broke out with France again in 1803 and protests continued with the possibility of a French landing. Despite a new famine, however, support for the war increased. Dawson concludes by arguing that the French wars were matched on the home front by competing ideologies, a battle for the soul of the nation, that set the scene for a hundred years of working class struggle.
Paul Dawson has written a strident account of political unrest that will surprise many readers fed on a diet of unwavering British opposition to France. Dawson bases his narrative firmly in the primary sources and his thesis is clearly mapped out, though he seems to give too much credit to the accounts of spies who had much to gain from exaggerating the threat posed by Radicals. Without digging too deeply into Dawson’s argument, be prepared for a by-the-book Marxist interpretation, pitching the working class against the ruling elites. That sometimes drifts into polemic, with Dawson outraged at the reaction to political demands we now take for granted and his habit of making historical comparisons with modern events. This book is also somewhat mistitled, with most of the action taking place before the wars against Napoleon. Nevertheless, in exposing the dark underbelly of British politics, Dawson makes an interesting and useful contribution to the history of this important period.
Robert Lyman, A War of Empires (Osprey, 2021)
The notion that the Burma campaign in World War II is forgotten has long been dispelled by a series of recent histories. It remains, however, a complex episode and difficult to unravel, with all its competing narratives across a wide range of players. Robert Lyman’s engaging and lucid A War of Empires is therefore a welcome addition to the Burma library.
Lyman is quick to point out that the army that defeated the Japanese in Burma was Indian not British, although the latter played their full part. It was certainly the hubristic British that neglected this portion of their empire when the Japanese army came calling in December 1941. Lyman calls this a ‘dereliction of duty’ for allowing the catastrophe that ensued as the Japanese cut the defending forces to ribbons all the way to the Indian border.
Enter Major General William ‘Bill’ Slim who took command of a Corps then 14 Army, preventing retreat from becoming a disgrace, then built up the Anglo-Indian forces physically and morally so that they could stop, turn, and then defeat the Japanese. They achieved this by reeling the Japanese into a rather foolhardy attack centred on Imphal, repulsed them, then launched a counter-offensive that drove the Japanese back down through Burma in 1945. Along the way, Lyman discusses the regeneration of the Indian army; the problems of command among the Allied commanders, bringing the Chinese and Americans into this equation; the nationalist aspirations of many Burmese and Indians duped into complicity with the Japanese; the long-range, behind the lines efforts of Orde Wingate’s Chindits; the crucial appointment of Louis Mountbatten as Allied Supreme Commander; the stunning stand of the Anglo-Indians at Kohima ridge; the conflict amongst the Japanese command as their fortunes turned; and Slim’s brilliant final campaign against the stubborn and fanatical Japanese resistance. And those are just the highlights in a comprehensive account.
Lyman sums up the Burma campaign in his closing chapter. He castigates the Japanese empire for its cruelty and wantonness in Burma, while arguing that independence from Britain was already in the future, though his evidence for this feels a bit soft. Lyman also argues that the Burma campaign was the birth of Indian independence in which the Indian army played a pivotal role – he concludes that this was an Indian victory won by an Indian army. Countering the usual argument that Burma was a sideshow, Lyman stresses the importance of the Burma campaign for the defeat of Japan.
A War of Empires is an outstanding military history of the Burma campaign. Lyman skilfully untangles the complex web of narratives overlaying what was anything but a straightforward fight. He also artfully balances the action on the ground with the wider competing political interests of Britain, India, China, Japan, and the United States. However, Lyman is not so much Anglo-centric as Slim-centric, though here too he points out Slim’s good fortune at key moments and notes the contributions of others who paved the way to victory. It is Slim’s story, however, that pulls all Lyman’s threads together. Lyman’s concluding analysis is provocative, and some might disagree with aspects of it, but few could argue against Lyman’s elevation of India into the spotlight. All in all, this is an excellent read and a splendid starting point for any student of World War II in the Far East.