The Bitter Siege

The Bitter Siege

Gary Sterne, The Americans and Germans at Bastogne (Pen & Sword, 2020)
You might not think there is much left to say about the iconic siege of Bastogne, the lynchpin engagement in the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944. You would be wrong. Gary Sterne recasts the Bastogne story by integrating the memories of the commanders on both sides. By doing this, Sterne hopes to generate a new analysis of the battle. But he also acknowledges the problems with the sources, making his effort at piecing together this jigsaw replete with difficulties. To Sterne’s credit, he achieves most of his objectives.
Sterne begins with the German officers planning the offensive, a survey worth the price of the book on its own. Then the artillery rains down on the Americans, allowing Sterne to start mixing his sources against the chronology. The German advance begins, causing panic, and sweeping most of the Americans aside. But not all. Sterne takes us into Bastogne where the US defence is stiffening. The Germans were initially unconcerned, believing they could sweep up Bastogne at will. But they were wrong. A core force from the 101st Division, along with other units and stragglers from the retreat, held on resolutely in what became the legendary siege of Bastogne. Desperate combat ensued all around the town, but the Americans won through the fortitude of the defenders aided by control of the air, and then the final breakthrough as their comrades relieved them.
Sterne handles his German sources directly while paraphrasing much of the American sources, subsuming them into the narrative. It just works, but it sometimes feels like two different methods are being used, which can be jarring at times. Nevertheless, Sterne’s working through the command levels sweeps in and out from the front lines very effectively, lingering on the intense combat then zooming out to draw the wider picture. Sterne is supported by many excellent maps to help us understand this confusing battle. All in all, Sterne’s book adds more quality to the growing body of work on the Battle of the Bulge, and is well worth reading.
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Roman Imperial Handover

Roman Imperial Handover

John D. Grainger, The Roman Imperial Succession (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In The Roman Imperial Succession, John Grainger sets out to uncover how Roman Emperors became accepted in their enormously powerful position. This is not as easy as it seems: no one established a constitutional process for the handover of power. Yet there were over eighty Emperors. Grainger considers their accession, which was generally facilitated by a small group of wealthy and powerful men, though the army often had a great, and sometimes total, say at times. A dynastic connection helped too, but not always.
Grainger puts any confusion in the process at the door of the first Emperor, Augustus, and his personal and somewhat ad-hoc arrangements. That personal dynamic also usually meant that the living Emperor arranged his successor, with the obvious attendant problems of potential usurpation. The Imperial system itself was unstable, argues Grainger, through factionalism and the long ideological and nostalgic shadow of the Roman Republic. He works his way through all this by examining the various crises that came at the end of dynasties and how they were resolved, at least until the next crisis.
Grainger does a good job of untangling a complex subject, and he does so in an engaging blend of narrative and analysis. He also uses his sources well, particularly for the periods when sources were patchy at best. He is let down a little by some cheap looking dynastic family trees added to the text, but on the whole I enjoyed reading this book and generalists interested in the mechanisms of Imperial power transfers will too.
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The Vital Link

The Vital Link

Peter E. Davies, Ho Chi Minh Trail 1964-73 (Osprey, 2020)
There is little doubt that without the Ho Chi Minh trail, North Vietnam’s attempt to defeat its southern counterpart would have failed. The United States knew this too and did their best to close the arterial path that ran from near the Chinese border to just north of Saigon and many points in between. Both sides displayed ingenuity, tenacity, and courage in what became a war of attrition within the wider Vietnam War. Peter Davies tells that story.
The romantic image of the Ho Chi Minh trail is that of the hardy Vietnamese sneaking along a tiny jungle track with supplies for the front. While that was true, Davies demonstrates how the North Vietnamese developed the Trail as you would any other road, widening, solidifying, and providing utilities, except they were under an intense bombardment the likes of which had not been seen since World War II. The Americans threw everything they had at the Trail but were impeded by much of it being in neighbouring countries to Vietnam: the NV ignored that, the US could not, officially anyway. As well as an increasingly sophisticated air interdiction campaign to deal with the trail, the Americans sponsored covert operations in Laos and Cambodia, backed insurgencies, particularly in Laos, and simply bombed the hell out of it. They caused massive casualties, but this was a Canute-like task against an inexorable tide.
Davies examines all aspects of the US capabilities, including weapons, strategies, and tactics. They sliced and diced the landscape into operational zones to facilitate their attacks and used every plane at their disposal. They even dispersed tons of herbicides to strip the forest bare. The North Vietnamese relied on guile and manpower, knowing that a single mistake could lose a complete convoy to air strikes. They used every means at their disposal to camouflage movement: weather, tunnels, caves, night-time movement etc., and they provided flak protection at key points with varying degrees of success. But what impresses most is the sheer fortitude of those taking incredible risks to maintain the war effort.
Ho Chi Minh Trail is an excellent primer on this critical component of the Vietnam War. Davies does a very good job of untangling all the different actions being conducted simultaneously along the complex logistical highway and he efficiently captures the intensity of the combat. This is an operational study, so Davies does not engage with the experiences of those doing the fighting, but that is clearly not his remit here. This tidy little book will appeal to anyone interested in the air war in Vietnam, and students of the war in general.
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Portugal’s Vietnam

Portugal’s Vietnam

Al J Venter, The Last of Africa’s Cold War Conflicts (Pen & Sword, 2020)
We often think of colonial wars as a 19th Century phenomenon, or wars of liberation fought against the English or French. Al Venter, however, surveys the oldest colonial power, Portugal, and its problems in West Africa, and in particular Portuguese Guinea. It was here in 1963 that communist-backed guerrillas launched what they thought would be a short and victorious campaign. They were very wrong: the struggle that ensued was long and bitter.
Venter points out that Portuguese Guinea, about the size of Belgium, was an “ungodly place to fight a war” where the Soviet and Cuban-backed guerrillas had the edge on the Portuguese defenders in organization, leadership, and initiative. They also had cross-border support, particularly from Senegal. The terrain being fought over was often swamp or rainforest riddled with waterways. Little wonder that some called this war “Portugal’s Vietnam”. After five years of stalemate, marked by sometimes intense fighting, brutality on both sides, and declining Portuguese morale, Portugal sent in General Antonio de Spinola who turned the tide through reforms and disciplined military action. But the war dragged on, fought by the Portuguese on a shoestring and in a haphazard manner, only to end abruptly in 1974 with Portuguese withdrawal as a consequence of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal.
The author was personally involved in this conflict as a journalist with unprecedented access. He therefore presents detailed portraits of those involved and the main events but does that within the wider context. This little, back of beyond colony somehow became a Cold War testbed, while being all but ignored by the media, but Venter never loses sight of the local conflict – his chapter recounting the death of famous Portuguese soldier Joao Bacar is particularly moving. Venter’s chapters are connected aspects of the war, reminiscent of Michael Herr’s Dispatches on Vietnam, with some overlap and repetition but without causing confusion. Tales of combat abound, some of them very hairy indeed, but these are more than war stories, as they offer valuable insights into the people and the country. Venter also, wistfully compares modern Guine-Bissau with the Portuguese colony and finds it wanting after decades of civil wars and coups. He concludes with an analysis of what went wrong for Portugal, which breaks down to they could not afford their colonial wars.
This was not the book I was expecting from its bland title. I thought perhaps another poorly written old soldier’s memoir or a dry strategic overview with too much politics. But, not at all, this is fascinating and well-written account of a war that few remember. Anyone interested in Africa’s wars against European powers will want to read this book, while modern warfare students will glean much from it too. The Last of Africa’s Cold War Conflicts is one of the better books on war that I have read in 2020.
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Ducking and Diving

Ducking and Diving

Peter E. Davies, A-4 Skyhawk vs North Vietnamese AAA (Osprey, 2020)
In this, one of the more contrived Osprey titles, Peter Davies surveys the compact Douglas A-4D Skyhawk and its performance in the Vietnam War against a range of North Vietnamese anti-aircraft weapons.
Developed to tight specifications, the A-4D, entered service in 1956 and became the US Navy’s main strike aircraft in Vietnam. While that was happening, the North Vietnamese expanded their AAA, importing better weapons, mostly from the Soviet Union, and more of them. Davies works his way through those tandem developments, identifying the key steps and weapons used. As you might expect, he highlights the technical specifications. Davies turns to how these weapons were used in a discussion of the strategic situation for both sides, with Davies echoing complaints that US political decisions allowed the North Vietnamese to reorganize and re-arm. He then relates the experiences of those who manned these weapons, although the addition of a photograph of an all-female NV gun crew illustrates the total war effort of the North Vietnamese. The pilot descriptions of coping with anti-aircraft fire is particularly interesting and many pilots were fortunate that the A-4D proved so sturdy. Davies’ accounts of lost pilots show the danger of their actions, though it could not have been a picnic on the receiving end of an A-4D strike either. All this is brought home in Davies’ section on statistics and analysis.
The Osprey Duel books work best when both sides are given equal weight. In this one, however, Davies tips the balance decidedly to the A-4D. He cannot be blamed for that because a historian has to follow the evidence and there is clearly more available on the American side. Still, the AAA defences are well described within those limitations. Davies is also assisted by excellent graphics, and photographs that illuminate our understanding of the weapons and people involved in these tense engagements. If you want to supplement your knowledge on the air war in Vietnam, or just enjoy reading about modern warplanes, then you will enjoy this book.
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A One-Sided Duel

A One-Sided Duel

Mark Stille, Malaya & Dutch East Indies 1941-42 (Osprey, 2020)
In Malaya & Dutch East Indies 1941-42, Mark Stille presents a cogent guide to the Japanese attacks on British and Dutch possessions in southeast Asia during World War II. His focus is on the air war but puts that into context with land and naval operations. The result is a satisfying read with enough technical information to keep the ‘airheads’ happy.
Before Stille begins his narrative and analysis, he provides a brief but handy chronology of the campaigns – they are brief because this was one-way traffic. As with all good campaign books, Stille surveys the respective strengths of the combatants, starting with Japanese air power. He discusses organization and tactics for the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force and Imperial Japanese Army Air Force, and he notes that the two held no common doctrine or operational skills: they were in effect two separate air forces in a common cause. Their warplanes were not that great either, especially the bombers, but then Stille comes to their opposition, mainly Dutch and British, which was wholly inadequate in quantity and quality and manned by inexperienced crews – Stille barely has a good word to say about them, and rightly so. The United States Army Air Force was also deployed but lacked numbers and logistical support, despite having the best Allied fighter in the P-40.
Stille embarks on a narrative of the Japanese campaign plans, first with Malay then the Netherlands East Indies, countered by Britain and the Dutch defensive set-ups. He finds the latter incoherent and inadequate. As for the campaign, which is described next, the Japanese quickly established air superiority, and any hopes of British naval support all but collapsed with the sinking of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales battleships (Force Z). Japanese successes on the ground allowed them to leapfrog their airfields, thus maintaining their aerial pressure. The Allies attempted to fight back, with some small success, but they were overwhelmed, particularly on their poorly defended airfields. After four months, the Japanese victory was total: numbers and better aircraft and crews paid off in the end. Stille demonstrates that the bravery shown by the Allied pilots was simply not enough.
As with all Osprey Campaign books, Malaya & Dutch East Indies 1941-42 is a basic but high quality guide to the subject. Stille’s text is lucid with clutter-free narrative and analysis, and he is ably supported by a wide range of black and white photographs, colour plates, and maps. He expresses an unmistakeable disdain for Allied preparations and efforts without denigrating the men involved in the combat, while clearly establishing why the Japanese won even with a fleet of mostly average warplanes. This is a solid effort and will be useful to anyone interested in the early Pacific War.
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