Bombs Over Bullets?

Bombs Over Bullets?

Martin Stansfeld, Japanese Carriers and Victory in the Pacific (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Could Japan have won the war in the Pacific? Perhaps not, but Martin Stansfeld argues that they had a better chance of doing so if they had followed a carrier strategy over building more battleships. That leads him to manufacture a tantalising ‘what-if’ based on Japanese carrier potential in this enjoyable book.
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Who reads the acknowledgements? You might like to read this one, however, because this is where Stansfeld outlines the prominent historical works on which so much of his conjecture is based. He begins constructing his historical platform with the ‘Mutsu Incident’; the loss of a Japanese battleship in 1943. In the first of his ‘what ifs’, Stansfeld posits that if it had happened in 1936 then the subsequent battleship building programme might never have happened, and the Emperor might have listened to the carrier based thinking of Isoroku Yamamato. That prologue establishes Stansfeld’s method of describing historical realities to construct alternative narratives. Along the way, Standfeld visits the Washington Treaty and how that worked, or didn’t, the development of naval aircraft, Japan’s construction of the ‘shadow fleet’- a fleet of ‘legal’ ships designed for quick carrier conversion – and then Stansfeld gets into his Yamamato thesis, the idea that Japan could have built a ‘Phantom Fleet’ of carriers, and finally, he analyses what might have been the massive, decisive fleet battle off the Marianas between a properly tooled Imperial Japanese Navy and the US Navy.
Written in a sometimes loose fashion without footnotes, this often has the feel of a stretched essay, building the speculative argument steadily on firm historical foundations. Stansfeld demonstrates that Japan had the tools available to switch to a carrier led force; what if they had built them and trained the pilots needed to conduct operations and create a reserve? Stansfeld’s discussion of carrier building and merchant ship conversion is illuminating in that regard. He is also scathing on Japan’s decision to build two super-battleships instead of carriers, and he considers the capacity of Japanese dockyards to produce those, leading to a 1,000 plane fleet by the close of 1941. Stansfeld argues that the Japanese would have been able to conduct this programme in relative secrecy, mostly through the hubris of Allied intelligence. Stansfeld’s exploration of this through contemporary editions of Jane’s Fighting Ships is fascinating.
When Stansfeld takes us out to sea, and into battle, he stops off at Pearl Harbor to again denounce the reliance on battleships then deal with the question of why the Japanese did not take Hawaii – he argues that with the correct carrier support, they could have taken Oahu then the rest of the islands. They could also have taken Ceylon in the Indian Ocean with a potential link-up with the Germans in Arabia, though he acknowledges the latter is highly speculative given Nazi racial ideology. After moving his pieces around the Pacific War board, Stansfeld comes to a postulated battle (and much of this reads like the after-action report of a complex and one-sided boardgame) at the Seychelles. This would set the Allies back by years, Stansfeld argues, then would come the decisive carrier battle in the Marianas Islands in August 1945. He accounts for ‘rogue factors’ a bit too readily, then posits two scenarios where one side or the other wins (I felt like Lucy had pulled the ball away), but either way, the world would have changed forever.
I am not a fan of ‘what-if’ speculations; they tend to be one-sided, not accounting for the reactions of the enemy to developing situations; they also often fail to account for enough variables or take them for granted; and they often marginalise the human factor, which modern military history has done so much to highlight. But Stansfeld’s effort is better than most I’ve read. That is partly because it is well-written, though with some irritating detours such as the Nanking massacre, the Vietnam War comparison that wasn’t, the Star Wars movie, Rosie the Riveter, Bikini Atoll atom bomb tests, and Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Stansfeld also builds his argument on a platform of solid evidence and doesn’t erupt into wholesale fantasies. My biggest disappointment on completion was that Stansfeld could have dumped the counterfactual element of this book and written an engaging history that would have stood with some of the best that he mentions in his text – he clearly knows his stuff. Nevertheless, this was an engaging and provocative read and recommended for students of the Pacific War.

A Ripping Yarn

A Ripping Yarn

Rod Beattie, Jack the Ripper – The Policeman (Pen & Sword, 2022)
London, 1888, a city gripped by the fear of a serial killer in its midst. A man who preyed on women in the poorest part of the city, Jack the Ripper. In over 130 years since, many suspects have been identified and mostly discarded. But Rod Beattie thinks he knows the answer to crime’s biggest mystery, a man completely overlooked but hiding in plain sight.
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Beattie immediately launches into his argument, which assumes that only a police officer could have committed these crimes. And he has one in mind: Bowden Endacott, a name familiar to those who have studied these murders. Beattie outlines Endacott’s troubled upbringing and his service in the Devon police before he joined the Metropolitan Police in London. Along with a modern FBI profile, the Cass case of 1887 provides the gallows for Beattie on which to hang Endacott. This was his arrest of an innocent Elizabeth Cass for prostitution and his subsequent trial for perjury that effectively ruined Endacott’s career despite his acquittal. His superiors assigned Endacott to guard duty at the British Museum where he remained for the rest of his career. But, argues Beattie, Endacott raged against prostitutes in his career stagnation, and he would have his revenge.
Martha Tabram, murdered in August 1888, was the Ripper’s first victim, according to Beattie, though it is not quite clear why he argues this. The first accepted victim of Jack the Ripper was Mary Ann Nichols, a friend of Tabram. Beattie narrates this crime, but without any evidence at all, places Endacott at the scene. After a brief discussion of ‘Leather Apron’, which seems to have no obvious bearing on Beattie’s thesis, he turns to the murder of Annie Chapman. As with the other murder descriptions, this is a routine retelling of a well-known story, but Beattie makes no attempt to place Endacott at this scene, though he does add a postscript of The Illustrated Police News story of a man seen changing his clothes that Beattie takes as evidence the police knew who the killer was, and Endacott fitted the description.
Elizabeth Stride was the next victim, but not of the Ripper, according to Beattie; Stride’s boyfriend ‘undoubtedly’ killed her. That does not prevent him from describing the details of this murder, though again, it has nothing to do with his thesis. Moving on to Catherine Eddowes, Beattie argues that she knew who the killer was, tried to blackmail him, and paid a terrible price. Endacott was the ‘strange man’ seen talking to Eddowes, Beattie argues, but the evidence, he suggests, shows that the policeman was not acting alone but with a doctor he knew. Finally, we come to Mary Jane Kelly so brutally savaged in her home. Beattie highlights a question at the inquest that apparently revealed the police had suspicions that the killer ‘was one of their own’, though he does not try to square that with his previous argument that the police already knew who it was. Beattie adds other victims to his list; two ‘trial runs’ before Martha Tabram, the second attributed to Endacott by Beattie; and two after Kelly, though Beattie makes no attempt to implicate Endacott in those crimes.
This is a somewhat baffling theory on the identity of Jack the Ripper. Beattie presents almost no evidence beyond the tangential that Endacott had anything to do with these murders. There is also too much supposition in establishing Endacott’s character as a potential Ripper. Added to that are some glaring contradictions, e.g., that only a policeman could be trusted (p2), yet in 1887, ‘the police were disliked and mistrusted by the populace’ (p13), and that the police knew who did the killings, but then they didn’t just a few pages later. If Beattie had provided some footnotes, that might have helped, but then again, with almost no concrete evidence submitted against Endacott, perhaps not. Unfortunately for Beattie, it will take more than 126 pages based on five books and some newspaper articles to convince the average Ripperologist to take this line of inquiry seriously, and I suspect that harsher critics than me will gleefully rip Beattie’s thesis to pieces.

‘I am Eunus!’

‘I am Eunus!’

Natale Barca, Rome’s Sicilian Slave Wars (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Most of us have heard of Spartacus who initiated a slave uprising against Rome and led them a merry dance until brutally suppressed. But as Natale Barca highlights, Spartacus was not the only slave to do so. Barca focuses on two rebellions on the island of Sicily during the Roman Republic, at least one of which caused greater problems to Rome than even the mighty Spartacus. This book is therefore the story of often heroic resistance against overwhelming odds even if it was ultimately futile, and it is one worth reading.
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Barca begins with the background of the Mediterranean slave trade, the prevalence of piracy in the region, and Roman army participation in acquiring the hundreds of thousands of slaves they needed to keep their economy churning. After touching on the peculiarities of Roman slavery, Barca works his way into the slave rebellions. Early efforts at mass slave resistance were episodic, but Barca acknowledges that the lack of evidence for rebellions does not preclude other rebellions taking place in the burgeoning empire. That brings him to Sicily.
Sicily provided the backdrop for the drama to follow, and Barca takes us on a tour of an island steeped in Hellenic history long before the Romans took full control in 212 BCE and turned it into Rome’s granary. Of course, that relied on slave labour, but the Romans treated their slaves in Sicily brutally and corruption was rife. Braca thus paints a picture of almost inevitable revolt. Enter Eunus, a self-proclaimed prophet and follower of Dionysus, god of the oppressed. He inspired a rebellion at Henna in 135, which initiated a monarchy across western Sicily with Eunus as its king, now named Antiochus. Barca describes this kingdom and its army, both established along Hellenistic lines.
Rome’s initial hubristic reaction, as a police action, failed miserably. The revolt spread, but not everywhere, and this time the Romans would send in the army. The first serious military interventions failed too, but Barca notes, Rome might lose battles, but not wars. And so it proved in 132 when the Romans took Henna and captured Eunus who died in captivity, evading the gruesome execution Rome had planned for him, though many of his followers did not prove so ‘fortunate’.
Fast forward to 104 BCE and a second major slave insurrection. This began for different reasons, though the background remained much the same, and the course of events proved similar too. The Romans under-reacted, were defeated, then found a way to win, which they finally did in 99 BCE. The epilogue for this rebellion was that one thousand survivors were sent to be killed by wild animals in Rome, but they committed suicide to a man instead. Barca concludes with some thought on why these revolts took place, before adding an appendix on Spartacus and a chronology of events.
This is a well-researched and well-written book about two slave uprisings that have stayed too long in the shadow of Spartacus’ more famous rebellion. Barca places these events into their local and broader contexts, illuminating the struggles of slaves under the thumb of a horrific regime. Some nods to Marxist theory are not very helpful, but they are understandable, and should be weighed against the glorification of Rome that is all too common in recent historiography. Military history students will enjoy this book too. Barca’s observation, that Rome might lose battles but not wars, applies all too well to Sicily’s slave wars, which, in the end, were valiant efforts but doomed almost from their inception.

An Honourable Man?

An Honourable Man?

Alexander R. Brondarbit, Soldier, Rebel, Traitor (Pen & Sword, 2022)
Soldier, Rebel, Traitor is the biography of John, Lord Wenlock, a somewhat peripheral, yet still controversial, member of the lesser baronage during the Wars of the Roses. What role Wenlock played in the twists and turns in that war and why, requires a nuanced approach rather than mere labelling as soldier, rebel, or traitor, according to medieval scholar Alexander Brondarbit, and he sets out to do just that, bringing together disparate sources to illuminate the life of this shadowy character.
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In keeping with traditional biographies, Brondarbit furnishes us with Wenlock’s background and upbringing before the young noble emerges into the light, beginning his military career from 1421. Wenlock served in the expedition to France that year and stayed until 1432 with only one break. In 1429, he inherited land, and on his return, sat for Parliament. That did not stop him from being involved in some internecine fighting, but Brondarbit notes that Wenlock’s star was certainly ascending in both wealth and influence. That led to his becoming a Royal courtier in Henry VI’s court. As England’s war effort faltered in France, Wenlock was appointed as one of the ambassadorial team sent to treat with France in the 1440s. He then became an usher in the chamber of the new queen, Margaret of Anjou. Brondarbit discerns a man of ability and political acumen as he follows Wenlock’s career in the 1440s; a man still on the rise, but his world was about to erupt.
At the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, a trusted courtier would surely back the House of Lancaster? Not so, Brondarbit records. Wenlock was with the king at St. Albans in 1455, but he was soon in the Yorkist camp and attainted for Treason in November 1459. Wenlock was an active participant in the Yorkist cause, conducting raids, expeditions, and other missions, and fighting in two major battles. He was a prominent member of the court of Edward IV after Towton and became a significant landowner. Though he was not in the top tier of Edward’s lieutenants, he wielded considerable influence. In return, Brondarbit argues, Wenlock was a tireless workhorse for Edward not least in the field of diplomacy. But Wenlock as a soldier also took part in the attempted reduction of the main Northumbrian castles in 1462. Nevertheless, when Warwick broke with Edward, Wenlock followed in 1470. He was thus on the wrong side because Warwick died at the Battle of Barnet. Wenlock was killed at Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471; by his own ally, according to some, when he allegedly refused to attack – Brondarbit doubts this. Wenlock was undoubtedly a soldier and a rebel, but was he a turncoat? Brondarbit concludes by arguing that the evidence does not sustain that view in any meaningful way, particularly in light of his contemporaries and their actions.
This well-written biography provides a window into the complex world of the Wars of the Roses. Alexander Brondarbit clearly has a grasp of the period, and he fits Wenlock into it despite a lack of straightforward sources; that is quite an achievement. This is also a relatively slim volume, yet Brondarbit packs it with context and detail without losing sight of his subject. Even if you are not a student of the Wars of the Roses, you should still enjoy this biography; Wenlock was a complicated man living in turbulent times. For Wars of the Roses students, the bibliography alone is worth your investment, and the book is well worth reading for its insight into the politics of 15th Century England.

The Jungle Fighters

The Jungle Fighters

Mark Forsdike, The Malayan Emergency (Pen & Sword, 2022)
In the collapsing colonial world after World War II, Imperial victories did not come along too often. The French, Dutch, and British all suffered serious setbacks with the notable exception of the British defeat of the insurgency in Malaya in the early 1950s. In the latest edition of Pen & Sword’s Images of War series, Mark Forsdike takes us through the ‘crucial years’ of that conflict.
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Forsdike starts with the causes of the communist insurgency, which began, like so many revolutions in the Far East, in the turmoil of Japanese defeat in 1945. In a country of 80% jungle, Forsdike notes, defeating the insurgents was not an easy proposition, but the British and Commonwealth forces learned from their mistakes and found ways to win. The most successful battalion in rooting out the enemy, according to Forsdike, was the 1st Battalion The Suffolk Regiment, and it is that unit the author follows from 1949 to 1953.
The Suffolks arrived at Singapore in July 1949. They trained and acclimatized before embarking on active operations. Their first combat took place only a few weeks later. The battalion soon learned to adapt to the demands of jungle warfare. This didn’t just apply to tactics and survival, but equipment and weapons too. Making tea, however, was a constant. Forsdike describes the jungle conditions under which the men fought, reminding us that many of them were national service squaddies from urban areas. Though he includes a section on camp life away from the fighting, it was their success in combat that marked out the Suffolks, and most of the text and photographs follow them in the field. They took part in patrols in all sorts of terrain, and they laid ambushes, often aided by locals or ‘Ibans’, jungle fighters from Borneo. Intelligence, speed, and decisiveness often made the difference between success and failure. Sometimes the battalion took part in large operations, but most of their work was in small operations with a few casualties caused each time. The Suffolks lost 21 men in their time in Malaya compared to nearly 200 of the enemy. Inter-platoon competition in the Battalion made them more effective, and they were so successful that they had their tour extended by 5 months. Forsdike concludes with the soldiers leaving Malaya in 1953 and their continued brotherhood afterwards through regimental organisations.
The Malayan Emergency is a solid addition to the Images of War series. These books succeed on their combination of text and photographs, and Forsdike has managed both of those very well. He allows the men who fought to speak for themselves as much as possible, and he weaves that into the context of the conflict. The photographs are mostly of the men whose memories we are reading, but they also give an atmospheric account of the conditions and climate they endured, and Forsdike does not shy away from including images of death on both sides. The book suffers a wee bit from its focus on just the one regiment rather than the broader picture of British and Commonwealth involvement, and from Forsdike’s over-attachment to his subject, which enables him to gloss over some of the less flattering aspects of the British effort in Malaya, including the shooting of wounded insurgents. Nevertheless, this book works well as an introduction to the Emergency and provides a good feel for how that conflict was conducted.

A Flawed Agenda

A Flawed Agenda

Paul Johnson, The Brookwood Killers (Frontline, 2022)
In The Brookwood Killers, Paul Johnson stitches together a compendium of murderers connected by their names appearing on a WWII memorial at the Brookwood Military Cemetery. His objective, he states, is ‘simply to supply the reader with the details…’. His agenda, however, is rather different.
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Johnson begins with an overview of crime during WWII. He notes that reported crime rose 57% in those six years, fuelled by wartime restrictions. Johnson moves on to describe the process of execution and treatment of the executed bodies. He also remarks on the haphazard policies for commemorating servicemen convicted of murder – the ‘majority’ of their victims, Johnson fumes, lie in ‘unmarked graves [with] no formal recognition for them.’ Johnson arrives at the Brookwood Memorial and a list of 21 executed men; the list includes none above the rank of Sergeant, 15 were Privates or the equivalent, 6 were 21 years old or younger, and 3 were executed after the end of the War. Almost all were hanged (not ‘hung’ as Johnson repeatedly errs) except two killed by firing squad after courts-martial and one died by his own hand.
Other than a half-page conclusion, the rest of the book comprises short case-studies of the crimes for which the men were executed. These include a bigamist who murdered his baby, various sexually motivated killers, a drug dealer, an armed robber, a traitor, a jealous husband, a spurned lover, and a murder/suicide case. Other than being executed servicemen and appearing on the Brookwood memorial, they had nothing in common. Johnson’s structure for each case is the same: the location of the man’s name on the War Memorial, their service number and unit, and the date they were executed precede the account. Then Johnson describes the victim and assailants, how they came to commit their crimes, the investigation and evidence against them, the trial and sentence, and the aftermath if any – the exception is the treachery case of Theodore Schurch.
Johnson argues that despite his stated objective in just presenting details, this book is ‘an attempt to understand the circumstances, the actions and the outcome of a crime…’ But it is not: Johnson’s transparent agenda is to have the names of these executed men expunged from the Brookwood war memorial. He clearly resents them being included there, particularly when their victims are ‘often […] ignored or overlooked.’ Johnson deploys two intertwined and flawed methods to make his case. The first is to set up a false equivalency whereby no one visits the graves of the victims, but many people visit the war memorial and see these men’s names. It is false because there are 3,500 names at Brookwood; thus, the equivalency would be to argue that nobody visits the cemeteries where the victims are buried, which is highly unlikely. Some of the victims may also have been cremated or buried in pauper’s graves; just because Johnson does not know what happened, does not mean that others are equally ignorant. Moreover, at 80 years since the victims’ deaths, visits to their graves are likely less frequent than visits to a Commonwealth war memorial.
Appealing to his readers’ emotions is Johnson’s second method of bending the argument his way. He softens them up early by collating ‘murder, rape and mutilate’ and suggesting that war provided the ‘opportunity to seek out potential victims.’ A cursory glance at Johnson’s case-studies reveals that only a couple of these crimes fall into those two categories; the rest have tragic motives, but Johnson has already planted the image of the bloodthirsty killer seeking his chance to indulge his desires. As for the victims, Johnson’s introduction and several chapters conclude with the simple instruction: ‘Remember them.’ He reiterates that: ‘When you gaze upon the name of…spare a thought for them too’, as if somehow you are not already doing so. Johnson sometimes trips himself up with this mantra; for example, when he states in the case of Kitty Lyon that she ‘lies in an unmarked grave that has no visitors’, he has just finished describing her funeral ‘amid a mass of floral tributes…the sizeable congregation…at the grave a large crowd attended…’ Thus, Johnson does well to remind us of the victims, but they are not the sharp chisel he wants to use to eradicate the names of the executed. Then there is the inclusion of colourized photographs for victims, their assailants, and some locations. This is highly unusual for books on World War II, but it has the effect of making this all more current, to enhance the emotional impact.
To his credit, despite his shallow treatment of the sociological issues illustrated by his case-studies, Johnson just about manages to keep the lid on several cans of worms that once opened would produce a very different underlying narrative to his compendium. Scratch the surface of these stories and the brutality of the English judicial system in World War II lies exposed. Many of the juries recommended mercy for those they found guilty, but the judges donned their black caps anyway, and the Home Secretary backed the judges over appeals and petitions. Also evident are the backgrounds of some severely troubled men who were not allowed to go into combat but were able to come and go freely when it was clear that they should have been incarcerated or received treatment – despite the relative lack of mental health awareness, that is a telling factor. In addition, it is clear that race and ethnicity played a significant role in who lived or died at the hands of English wartime justice. Johnson includes the statistic that between 3 September 1939 and 31 December 1947, ‘at least’ 44 soldiers were executed for murder; 27 were colonial or native troops, including 3 Palestinian Arabs. The inclusion of some of them here is justified only because the executed men appear on the Brookwood memorial. A significant curiosity also appears, that again to his credit Johnson mentions; one-third of these case-studies relate to Canadian soldiers, which prompted a complaint during the war from a member of the Canadian judiciary, relating to the capriciousness in the way cases involving his countrymen were dealt with.
If reading compendiums of murders is something you enjoy, then Johnson’s book will appeal to you. But do not be fooled into thinking his gossamer threads of argument have any merit as they relate to who should be remembered and who should not, or how they are remembered. Johnson describes tragic events for all involved, but it does not take much digging to discover even deeper tragedies lurking in the undergrowth of these case-studies. A better book might have examined those as well.