Waldemar Goralski, USS Stevens (Kagero, 2020)
The United States of America built 175 Fletcher Class destroyers, some of which were notable for their aircraft carrying capability. One of those was the USS Stevens, commissioned in February 1943, though the airplane function was removed that December. She is the subject of this illustration heavy book by Waldemar Goralski. The USS Stevens served as an Atlantic convoy escort and in the Pacific as a carrier and convoy escort. She also helped with shore bombardment, fire support, and air defence as the American net closed in on Japan. She was decommissioned in July 1946 but stayed in reserve until 1972. The rest of this oddly satisfying book is made up of beautifully rendered colour graphic illustrations of the visible structure of the USS Stevens. A series of monochrome scale drawings is included as a fold-out supplement. I can’t imagine a casual reader picking this book up, but certainly a modelmaker or WWII US Navy enthusiast will enjoy poring over the artwork.
Waldemar Goralski, USS Stevens (Kagero, 2020)
Christopher Brice ed., Forgotten Victorian Generals (Helion, 2021)
Say what you like about the Victorian period and the British Empire, but there’s no doubting the range of colourful characters that inhabited the era. Nowhere is this truer than in the British Army. In this collection of essays, Christopher Brice has drawn together essays from various historians on seven of Queen Victoria’s lesser lights.
Anyone doubting the relevance of this work need only turn to the first general on the list, Sir George White, who made his reputation as a young major in Afghanistan in the 1878 campaign as described by Rodney Atwood. He went on to command in Burma during a particularly volatile period, then in Balochistan. He was also the hero of the Ladysmith siege during the Boer War. Ian Beckett narrates the career of Sir William Lockhart. He served in the Indian Mutiny and the Far East then back to the North-West Frontier. Indeed, he would become the army’s foremost frontier expert. His signal moment came when he commanded the Tirah Campaign in the winter of 1897. Unfortunately, Lockhart’s career ended with his premature death from malaria in March 1900.
Christopher Brice takes up the baton with his account of Sir Robert Cornelis Napier. Napier, Brice points out, is now largely forgotten but was once Britain’s ‘go-to’ general in the event of war. He arrived in India in 1829 to command the 1st Bengal Sappers but greater things lay ahead. He served in the Anglo-Sikh Wars and the Indian Mutiny. He also commanded in China and led the stunning 1867 Abyssinian expedition. From there, he returned to become the Commander-in-Chief of India then took up the same position in Gibraltar. That was his last command as new leaders were rising in the British army. Edward Gosling looks at the career of Sir John Charles Ardagh, a Royal Engineer from 1859 who made his reputation as an intelligence officer, beginning in 1875. Much of his valuable work lay in engineering, surveying, and diplomacy, though he saw action in the Sudan. Gosling argues that Ardagh was an important general through the modernization period for Victoria’s army.
Notable historian John Laband’s contribution is an analysis of the aristocratic Sir Arthur Cunynghame in South Africa from 1873 to 1878. He was a veteran of the First Opium War and the Crimean War before landing in India in 1862. He commanded his first true colonial expedition in 1877 in the Ninth Cape Frontier War in South Africa, though he saw no action. Politics rather than military failure did him in and he was recalled to Britain. Paul Ramsay continues the essays with his review of Sir William Nicholson, the ‘leading staff officer of his generation’. He spent thirty years in India, Afghanistan, Egypt, and South African honing his skills as an engineer and staff officer, and played a significant role in preparing the British army for World War I. Finally, Roger Stearn considers Lord Wantage VC. He joined the Scots Fusilier Guards in 1850 and was one of the earliest VC winners, earning his in the Crimean War. However, he never commanded a formation in battle, according to Stearn. Indeed, he did not see much action at all after Crimea, but he played a role from the side lines as one of the benevolent aristocracy that populated Late Victorian England.
While all that might seem like an extensive summary of contents, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this enthralling and information packed book: Victoria’s generals were an extremely industrious lot. The seven essays are uniformly well-written by historians who know their material, though there is some inevitable overlap between essays. As for the generals, what comes across are universal attributes, such as courage, administrative expertise, political awareness, and logistical and planning skills that kept an extensive empire running through Victoria’s long reign. That these were the ‘forgotten’ generals speaks volumes for those who are still household names. If you have an interest in the Victorian empire or the 19th Century British army, you will want to read this book.
John Grehan & Alexander Nicoll, Saipan 1944 (Frontline, 2021)
Spring 1944, and the war in the Pacific had turned against Japan. But as long as their homeland remained free from threat, argue Grehan and Nicoll in Saipan 1944, then war’s end looked no closer. If the Americans could take the Mariana Islands, that would change because the new B-29s could hit Japan. The most heavily defended was Saipan; this book in the Images of War series tells the story of the American assault and the bitter fighting that followed.
The authors take us through the whole of Operation Forager intended to capture Saipan. The Americans underestimated Japanese strength on the 12.5 mile long misshapen island where 32,000 Japanese defenders waited, not the expected 17,000. D-Day was 15 June 1944, supported by naval gunfire and aerial bombardment, but that didn’t prevent the Marines deploying onto the beaches under a storm of Japanese fire. Nevertheless, the Marines pushed inland and onto the high ground, winkling the Japanese out of their caves and bunkers one by one in intense combat that lasted for several days before entrapping the Japanese remnants on the north of the island. Grehan and Nicoll detour to cover the massive but one-sided naval battle of the Philippine Sea that took place during the conquest of Saipan. Returning to the island, the authors describe the last desperate banzai attack of the defenders on 7 July: over 4,300 Japanese died. All that was left was to mop up holdouts and survivors, but the horror was not over as hundreds of civilians committed suicide by jumping from cliffs. With Saipan taken, the authors conclude with photographs of B-29s taking off to bomb Japan, mission accomplished.
As with all Images of War books, Saipan 1944’s success lies in the range and quality of its photographs. On the whole, these are informative and sometimes thought provoking. There are perhaps too many naval photographs, but the modern pictures of where the action took place are interesting, and the combat photographs of US Marines graphically portray what they endured. The accompanying text is concise, and the authors make good use of quotes from those involved. They also include some very useful maps so that readers can follow the action. Overall, this is a solid addition to the series.
Richard Merry, The Great War in the Argonne Forest (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Mention the Argonne Forest and the likely response will be to remember the Americans who fought there so bravely in 1918. But in this quite unusual book, Richard Merry reminds us of all the others of various nationalities who sacrificed so much in this quiet, heavily-wooded part of France, including his great uncle Bob.
Merry begins by describing the isolated but strategically important Argonne region in northeast France and its sometimes bloody history even before WWI. For one year from the Autumn of 1914, the Argonne was torn apart by the war, but that sector fell mostly quiet from Autumn 1915 to 1918. Having set that table, Merry gets into the details of the fighting and the role of Bob who joined the French Foreign Legion because he was too old for the British army but ended up in the British army anyway!
The book proceeds chronologically, Merry narrating the action in the forest during 1914. As with everywhere else along the Western Front, trenches soon appeared and the war of attrition with which we are so familiar set in as the hoped for Christmas victory faded into history. The New Year began with an assault by Italians, fighting with the French Foreign Legion, in the Argonne then more of the tit-for-tat attacks that typified trench warfare. That included underground fighting as the enemies tried to dig under each other, and the use of dogs to locate wounded men. One notable luminary on this front was Erwin Rommel who would remember this region well for another war. In 1916, the action shifted to nearby Verdun, leaving the Argonne relatively calm.
In 1917, America entered a war for which they were completely unprepared. That would have a great impact on the Argonne region in 1918. And that is where Merry goes next, with the Americans into the forest, including the stories of the ‘Lost Battalion’ and Alvin York’s heroics. On 10 October 1918, the Germans finally left the Argonne. Merry’s closing chapters narrate the aftermath and rehabilitation of the Argonne after the Great War only for it to become the scene of more fighting in World War II. As for great uncle Bob, he survived the war physically, though whether he did mentally is another question. Merry adds a brief guide for the Argonne to the modern traveller wishing to visit where hell happened.
Merry’s account of the Argonne is unusual for a military history narrative in that he focuses on a single region over the whole war and beyond. He makes this work by placing this local sector into the broader conflict and world events. For events in the forests, Merry uses local knowledge mixed with secondary source narratives and primary source quotes, including some from Uncle Bob, to illuminate the often confusing war in this region. A reasonable assortment of maps accompanies the text. The result is an engaging book that Great War enthusiasts will appreciate even if some of it treads familiar ground.
Anthony J. Candil, Tank combat in Spain, Armored warfare during the Spanish Civil War 1936 – 1939 (Casemate, 2021)
Anthony Candil was a career tanker in the Spanish army and brings his expertise to this slightly neglected subject. It is taken as gospel that the Spanish Civil War was a testing ground for the major powers, but Candil challenges this and other assumptions about the war. He sets out his case that the war had more effect on tank design than on tactics while accepting that the Spanish terrain is very different from the Steppe or North Africa.
The chapters start with the origins and beginnings of the war, through organisation and structure, foreign intervention, etc in a straightforward narrative. Candil examines the use of armour by both sides and tactical deployment both good and bad. He ends with an appraisal of equipment and armament produced and used on a country by country basis, examining the Soviet Union, Italian and German tanks, setting out the advantages and disadvantages of all.
There are a number of things which were new to me, possibly because unlike most writers in English, Candil has examined sources in Spanish that may have been inaccessible to others. Want to know how to disable a Soviet tank using only two blankets? This book will tell you how, though it only works if the tanks don’t have infantry support. Candil also makes the interesting point that despite the Nationalist tanks being markedly inferior to the Soviet supplied Republican ones, they tended to take fewer casualties due to better tactics and the development of anti-tank tactics and weapons. In Candil’s view, these combined arms groups were more the predecessor of WW2 tactics than the tanks themselves.
My one criticism would be that occasionally Candil’s politics seep out; he was after all an officer who joined the army ten years before Franco’s death. The Republic is described as “Red” and he also claims that “there was no real democracy on the Republican side” even though they were the elected government. Despite being a career Spanish army officer, Candil is now a US citizen and lives in the South. That said, this is a very useful book for anyone with an interest in armour in the war as it comprehensively covers the organisation and use of armour by the Republic, the Nationalists, and intervention forces.
This book runs to 240 pages, including 20 pages of endnotes and an extensive bibliography. There are numerous photos and though they tend to be similar and generic, for example “Pz I in a Spanish town”, they are good for both modellers and wargamers. The Spanish Civil War sometimes seems to be approaching saturation point with books, and many cover the same well-trodden ground, but with this book Candil brings fresh insights and new information to the debate. This book is a worthwhile investment for any wargamer with an interest in the period and might cause some to rethink their assumptions on armour and its use. Reviewed by Jim Graham