Lukas Müller, Wings Over the Hindu Kush (Helion, 2020)
Like most people, I suspect, I have not given much thought to air warfare in Afghanistan beyond Soviet helicopters strafing hillsides and American bombers raining down their loads onto far away mountains. Otherwise, Afghan wars have always seemed like relentless grinding ground wars. Lukas Müller has changed my perspective on that with his information packed and lavishly illustrated Wings Over the Hindu Kush.
Müller’s remit is the Afghan air forces between 1989, with the communist government on the brink of falling, and 2001 when the Americans entered the fray with their irresistible air power. He begins with an overview of the geography and history of the troubled region, which is useful because once Müller gets into the weeds of the civil wars of the 1990s it all becomes very hard to follow. Suffice to say, when Soviet/Russian funding ended in 1992, Afghanistan fell apart at the seams with faction fighting faction and tribe versus tribe. The Taliban entered the fray in 1994, bringing some semblance of centralised control by 2000 though it was never complete. Their fundamentalist backed terrorism, however, brought them into conflict with the United States of America and there could only be one winner when that happened.
As for air power, it became as fractured as everything else in Afghanistan with lack of parts, fuel, and trained manpower reducing effective combat operations to a rarity despite some factions making the effort to put warplanes and helicopters into the air. The rump government used air power against the Taliban but lost bases through Taliban advances, though this too swung back and forward. To be clear, Müller is not discussing large numbers of aircraft, so each combat loss, pilot defection, and accident had a disproportionate effect on overall airpower. Such attacks that did happen were mostly ineffectual. In October 2001, when Operation Enduring Freedom began, the Taliban found out what an actual air offensive looked like as their air power, including SAM and radar defences, was stripped away in an intensive bombardment. Their air force added to the growing plane graveyards around Afghanistan’s airfields. The Taliban’s overall power in the region also disintegrated under the pressure. In the end, given the circumstances of the civil wars, it was remarkable that there were any warplanes left for the Americans and RAF to destroy, which is in part testament to the men who kept them flying at all.
Wings Over the Hindu Kush is a remarkable little book of just over 60 pages, including some wonderfully rendered colour plates of aircraft and 4 pages of detailed appendices on the organization and plight of individual planes and helicopters. The rest of the book is packed full of text with Müller making the best of the threadbare sources at his disposal. Indeed, it works very well as a potted history of the Afghan civil wars as much as it is a guide to the air war. Müller has certainly plugged a hole in our understanding of the region and its turbulent history while informing and entertaining his readers. That makes Wings Over the Hindu Kush a solid addition to Helion’s Asia at War series.
Lukas Müller, Wings Over the Hindu Kush (Helion, 2020)
Lawrence Paterson, Operation Colossus (Greenhill Books, 2020)
When I think of British paratroopers in World War II, D-Day comes to mind, or Arnhem, but in Operation Colossus, Lawrence Paterson takes us to the foundational operation for the Paras in February 1941. This was the small but spectacular assault on the Tragino Aqueduct in Italy. Paterson narrates that operation from the initial plans to its aftermath in an absorbing read.
Paterson begins with the impulse to create small, specialized units that could take the fight to the Germans while Britain repaired its shattered army after Dunkirk. He introduces us to the players in this drama and how the RAF and Army worked out how to pull off airborne operations. Through a rigorous selection process, thirty-eight officers and men were formed into X-Troop and segregated for special training, two were added later, including an Italian interpreter. They took part in a strenuous training programme of practice drops and drills to create an elite force. Their selected target was an aqueduct in Italy that in retrospect, argues Paterson, was ill-chosen. The enthusiastic men of X-Troop were warned that few might return from the mission, which proved prophetic for most of them until the war ended.
The mission’s staging post was Malta from which eight Whitley bombers ascended to fly into Italy where they dropped most of their men more or less on target. Once on the ground, the raiders rounded up the local civilians, laid their guncotton charges, and lit the fuses. They were partially successful, damaging the aqueduct, but now they had to escape across 60 miles of Italian countryside to their waiting submarine. They split up but were all caught and interrogated; their interpreter was executed. The men of X-Troop spent the rest of the war in POW camps, though a few escaped with some hair-raising tales to tell of their adventures. X-Troop’s efforts were originally deemed a failure, but the propaganda effect on morale at home and in Italy was significant for good and bad. The formation of airborne units continued, however, incorporating the lessons learned from this attack.
Operation Colossus is a fascinating story worthy of a book, and Paterson’s diligent research honours the event and the men who took part. He uses sources as close to the action as he could get and that, along with his informative biographical details, personalises what could have been a humdrum operational report about a small action in a great war. Paterson also highlights the logistical and planning difficulties of staging a joint operation without glossing over the many mistakes that were made. Operation Colossus therefore achieves its goals and World War II readers will no doubt enjoy reading it.
David R. Higgins, Poland 1939 German Soldier versus Polish Soldier (Osprey, 2020)
In Osprey Publishing’s latest Combat series offering, David Higgins surveys the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. The angle he takes to cover well-worn historical ground is to emphasize the soldiers while explaining the action. It is a tricky balancing act in such a condensed format, but one Higgins handles well.
Higgins begins with a potted history of post-World War I Poland and its relationship with Germany, ending with Hitler’s decision to invade Poland in September 1939. He then examines the doctrine and combat roles of both armies. He finds the Poles woefully behind in military spending, slow to modernize, and biased towards its cavalry arm that only constituted ten percent of Poland’s army. The Germans were also well ahead in logistics, technology, and tactics, though morale on both sides was generally high on the eve of the invasion. With both sides established, Higgins takes us into the three major engagements that led to Polish defeat: Cutting the ‘Polish Corridor’, thus isolating and destroying Polish units and forcing the Poles into retreat despite several, albeit unsuccessful, counterattacks; the fighting around Łomża and Nowogród where the Germans found it harder going; and the Polish counterattack that created the Bzura Pocket but could not be sustained. Higgins helpfully analyses all this condensed action in his concluding section with a nod to the campaign’s aftermath.
German Soldier versus Polish Soldier is a solid contribution to the Combat series. Higgins confidently narrates the major fighting, showing that the Germans did not have it all their own way despite their seemingly rapid success. The text is amply illustrated with colour plate illustrations of soldiers in action, maps, and black and white photographs. There is arguably too much operational narrative in a book on soldiers in combat, making some of it feel like a bit of a rehash, but a newcomer to the invasion will appreciate the context. Wargamers and other military hobbyists will certainly enjoy reading this.
Trevor Barnes, Dead Doubles (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020)
Recent books on the major spy cases of the post-war era have mainly focused on notorious individuals – Philby, Burgess, MacLean, Fuchs, and Blake – with the multiple participant Portland Spy Ring becoming a bit lost in the shuffle. Until now. Trevor Barnes, in his brilliant exposition Dead Doubles, narrates and analyses a spy case that was every bit as potentially damaging to British national security as anything those traitors achieved and puts the Portland Spy Ring into the top echelon of British espionage disasters.
After a series of notes identifying the players in this drama, and a teasing preface, Barnes methodically unpacks the case. He begins with the investigation, from the initial police report in 1955, which was all but discarded, through the painstaking process of uncovering two couples of ‘illegals’ – deep undercover spies, living publicly normal lives in England – that were connected by their Soviet handler, Konon Molody. One couple, the Cohens/Krogers, you might describe as ‘proper’ spies that the FBI had been hunting for years, while the other couple were a greedy opportunist and his deluded mistress. Between them, they stole secrets relating to the Royal Navy’s submarine development programme. Their trial proved problematic because MI5 could not reveal much of the top-secret evidence that played a pivotal role in the investigation, but a hanging judge and seemingly compliant defence ensured conviction and prison sentences for all concerned. The Cohens and Molody were exchanged for British spies, receiving a hero’s welcome in the Soviet Union, while Houghton and Gee served their time, married, then faded into obscurity. Barnes leaves us with the uncomfortable suggestion that the spy ring was much wider, and perhaps deeper, than this group.
Dead Doubles is a gripping story merged with scholarly analysis. Barnes has a novelist’s touch, though more LeCarre than Fleming, with an eye for the telling detail as he folds his characters into the narrative. He also exposes the messiness of the espionage game where small mistakes can have huge consequences, professionalism and rank amateurism clash, and people on all sides are rarely who they appear to be for good and bad. Dead Doubles, therefore, ranks as one of the best of the recent crop of books on Cold War espionage and is surely the definitive account of the Portland Spy Ring.
Thomas Newdick, German Bomber Aircraft of World War II (Amber Books, 2020) & German Fighter Aircraft of World War II (Amber Books, 2020)
When I was a wee boy, I used to dig feverishly into the newly opened cereal boxes for cheap plastic WWII aircraft toys – I still remember my first Heinkel HE-111. I have had a soft spot for WWII warplanes ever since. So, it was with great nostalgic happiness that I received two new books from Thomas Newdick on WWII German bombers and fighters.
After a brief introduction, each book is arranged by type of plane then chronologically. Newdick narrates the technical development of the plane with box-outs summarizing the weight, dimensions, powerplant, speed, range, ceiling, crew, and armament. The plane is graphically illustrated, sometimes in various liveries, and a few of the more famous planes are given a two-page ‘action’ illustration with annotations. Newdick also sprinkles some contemporary black and white photographs through his texts. However, the range of warplanes does not fall into such convenient categories as bombers and fighters. Therefore, Newdick adds seaplanes, transports and gliders, ground-attack, reconnaissance, and helicopters to his bombers, while the fighters are split into single-seat monoplanes, jet and rocket fighters, and heavy fighters.
Newdick’s two books provided quite a satisfying rummage for an evening. There are many other books covering the same subjects, of course, but these ones are quite small compared to the coffee-table book I have on my shelf, while covering everything I need to know about the planes. Newdick only covers technical aspects of the planes, which is appropriate for a series labelled Technical Guide, but some operational context would have been useful. The colour illustrations are first class and modelers might find them helpful. Air wargame enthusiasts will also appreciate Newdick’s efforts. My favourite of all the planes was still the Heinkel HE-111, which would make five-years-old me, digging in my cornflakes, very happy!
Karen Schaefer, German Military and the Weimar Republic (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Germany in November 1918 lay prostrate at the feet of its conquerors as they dictated the terms of German surrender. The country had to pay massive reparations and demilitarize while setting up a democracy that went against the national grain. That would be a tall order for any nation. General Hans von Seeckt took command of the army and was tasked with finding a new strategic role for it. History has not treated him well, regarding him as closed-minded and one of the old guard. In this absorbing book, Karen Schaefer has a different interpretation to run by you.
Schaefer begins with the literature on Seeckt and finds it lacking any consideration of his strategic ideas. Historians, contends Schaefer, have argued that Seeckt was an undefeated general chasing dreams of renewed war but without understanding the new military or political realities. Schaefer disagrees in just about every respect with that portrait. The rest of her book tells us why. She sets out her stall by contrasting Seeckt with Erich Ludendorff, an undoubted hero of World War I and an advocate of total war. Schaefer then steadily builds her case, examining Seeckt’s views on military strategy and his political philosophy that favoured civil authority over the military and a defensive, balanced posture by Germany. However, rising military and political opposition, against the backdrop of economic turmoil and a new aggressive nationalist spirit bent on revenge for Versailles, derailed Seeckt. He retired in 1926, but the arguments remain between his vision and that of Ludendorf, Seeckt’s nemesis.
German Military and the Weimar Republic is derived from Schaefer’s PhD thesis and it shows for better and worse. Her book is structured as an argument narrowly tied to Seeckt and his political-military philosophy, and as such relies on at least an understanding of the Weimar Republic background to fully comprehend. I suspect that significantly reduces Schaefer’s audience, which is a pity because her book is well-written and her thesis appears solid. To make this work for a wider audience, she needed more context and perhaps more pit-stop summaries for her less knowledgeable readers to catch their breath. Nevertheless, Schaefer provides a valuable window into military thinking during that vital period when Germany still had choices, however limited, and is therefore an important book worth reading for students of the Weimar Republic.