The War Winners

The War Winners

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.

A Righteous Enigma

A Righteous Enigma

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.
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“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.

A View From the Inside

A View From the Inside

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.

The Eyes Have It!

The Eyes Have It!

Conor Whately, A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Conor Whately follows in the footsteps of John Keegan’s Face of Battle approach to military history that has been around for a while now, but he digs deeper into the more encompassing sensory immersion of combat. However, Whately structures his book not around the five senses, as I expected, but in three sections: the Greek World, the Roman World, and Late Antiquity. Those are further sub-divided into prominent battles of the period. That allows Whately to consider the five senses collectively for each engagement. The chapters follow a similar pattern: context and sources, then Whately moves into the sensory experience.
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Part I, the Greek World, takes us to the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BCE. Whately’s main sources for this chapter are Xenophon’s Anabasis with help from Diodorus Siculus and general archaeological finds. He describes the sights and sounds of two armies advancing to contact then in battle. This is reasonably well-covered ground, but Whately continues with the other senses: touch, smell, and taste. Some of this falls outside the battlefield but still affects the battle experience. Whately’s description of the Battle of Issus (333 BCE) emphasizes the role of sight. He again takes us through the background and sources before analysing the peculiar visual aspects of this battle.
We’re into the Roman world in Part II, following the pattern set for the Greek battles. Whately picks Cannae (216 BCE) as his first battle to study; a bold choice given how much has been written about it. But Whately again approaches from the sensory perspective, picking three senses to highlight: sight, sound, and touch. Given the massacre that befell the Romans, that makes for some unpleasant reading. Two sieges come next: Jerusalem (70 CE) and Masada (72-74 CE). Of course, food and water, or lack thereof, was an essential item for the besieged. Then there were the sights, smells, and sounds of the horrors that accompanied the sack of a city. At Masada, that was different with the alleged mass suicide of the defenders. Whately ends this section with the fascinating story of a woman trapped in a cave with other rebels during the Bar Kokhba revolt.
Late Antiquity occupies Part III, beginning with the Battle of Strasbourg (357 CE). Here Whately deploys all five senses to make sense of the battle: the sight of banners through the dust clouds, the sounds of horns and trumpets, the push of battle lines, and the role of food, the taste and smell of it, for well-fed soldiers. The Siege of Edessa (544 CE) concludes Whately’s survey with the by now customary overview of the sensual experience with particular emphasis on the ordeal of the besieged. Whately sums all this up by arguing that studying the sensory approach to ancient warfare, we can open up new insights into how wars were fought and the lives of those who fought them.
Whately promises much with this book, and for the most part he delivers. He is correct that his approach provides an extension of the Face of Battle approach to warfare, though his strengths are in the audio-visual aspects that are reasonably familiar to military history students. Much of his background and narrative sections tread common ground too. But none of that should detract from an engaging book written in an entertaining style by a historian whose work is embedded in the primary sources. It says something when you read a historian and want to read more of his work. I look forward to doing that. Other students of ancient military history will also undoubtedly lap this up.

Das unverzichtbare Panzerbuch

Das unverzichtbare Panzerbuch

Wolfgang Schneider, Panzer tactics. German small unit armor tactics in World War II (Stackpole Books, 2020)
Panzer Tactics is a translation of a German work first published in 2000, containing 372 pages and a claimed 400 illustrations, though that seems on the low side to me. Schneider served as an armour officer in the German army and his knowledge of his subject shines through at all times. He has written a number of books on German tanks in WW2 and has a mastery of his subject, and he has clearly spent a lot of time in and around tanks, both modern and WW2.
Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, but not in this case. Here we have one that is far more than it claims and quite simply an essential source for anyone with an interest in the period or amour in general. Schneider has taken military training manuals, unit histories, after action reports, and a myriad of other documents and extracted and collated a wealth of information from them. These are backed up by hundreds of photos from a large variety of sources and are mostly previously unpublished. Add sketch maps and schematic diagrams and this becomes a primer for all things Panzerwaffe. Throughout, Schneider gives the German terms as well as the English, so if you are ever unclear about Hauptkauptkampfentfernung he spells it out for you, or his translator does at any rate.
Schneider sets out the various chapters thematically, starting with offensive operations, then defensive operations, unit movement, reconnaissance etc. They don’t all relate to tactics but also include logistics and maintenance, life in a panzer, and training and tank gunnery. These add to the completeness of the book, so while not strictly covered by the title they are more than welcome inclusions. There is a short chapter on tactics today and in the future, which seems a bit tagged on and unnecessary, but that is a very minor complaint for what is otherwise an excellent book. The illustrations are chosen to best illustrate the text so do not flow chronologically but thematically and show a huge variety of vehicles from a VW saloon to a Tiger II and everything in between. There are a number of oddities, like a Panzer I command tank in a combat unit in summer 1944, which as Schneider says, shouldn’t be there.
This is an excellent book on the German panzer arm and will appeal to anyone with an interest in the topic, be they a modeller, historian or wargamer. This should be the first item on their Xmas list.
Reviewed by Jim Graham