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Monday, May 18, 2015

A great book about an almost forgotten battle.

So for Christmas I got another in the series of my favorite, and only computer game--Combat Mission Fortress Italy.

I know, big surprise, old guy veteran plays war-games.  But I have enjoyed the franchise for nearly a decade, it it truly is a war-game for manly grognards.

Anyway, because I'm me I also decided to read up on this theater for World War II as it doesn't nearly get the press as the campaign in Northwest Europe.  Interestingly, many veterans of the Italian campaign complain that the Normandy invasion of June 6 completely and unfairly overshadowed the fall of Rome on June 4, the first of the Axis powers capitals to be captured.

So, I got this little gem from Carlo D'Este, an accomplished military historian who has written extensively on World War II and it does not disappoint.

Several things really stand out from this history...first, the Allies were still in the learning stage for amphibious assaults, coalition campaigns, combined arms warfare, and even close air support.  CLEARLY, the more I read, the more I am glad that cooler heads prevailed and the US did not push Britain into attempting a Cross-Channel assault in 1942 or 1943.  As if the Dieppe fiasco wasn't enough, the Sicily campaign showed just what a disaster that might have been.

Second, I did not know that the Germans actually made not one, but two parachute drops into Sicily to reinforce their defenses with combat hardened Fallschirmjager.  The tactical ability of the German Wehrmacht on the defensive was pretty awesome to behold, and the Germans clearly punched above their weight in this campaign.

Finally, and most interesting, the British rush to seize the Primosole Bridge in the early part of the campaign was eerily similar to the disaster at Arnhem almost exactly one year later.  Elements of the British 1st Airborne Division were dropped to seize a key bridge for British ground forces to swiftly move over and advance to Messina, the crucial objective of the campaign to trap all the German and Italian defenders on the island.

Much like the Arnhem drop, the paratroopers succeeded in a wild fight to capture the approaches to the bridge, but like their comrades a year later, these brave men were overrun by the quick reacting Germans  as their overland relief column stalled.

It was amazing to read this section of the book and not go..."HOW did they screw this up twice and get so many good men killed?"

Overall the Allies do not come across well in this book...D'Este pulls no punches in his scathing critique of the Allied commanders, especially Field Marshall Harold Alexander and his feuding subordinates-George Patton and Bernard Montgomery.  He is more sympathetic to the Germans and their tactically well done retreat from the island, withdrawing nearly all their surviving troops, equipment and stores before the Allies could cut off their escape.

I really liked this book a lot...it's a bit slow to get started as D'Este feels the need to give you a  LOT of background, but once it gets going, it is a marvelous battle history of what became one of the great learning campaigns for the Allied high command.

Friday, May 15, 2015

American Sniper-Yes! Hot mess of an author-Yes?

So, as I anxiously await my copy of American Sniper on Blu-ray, I decided to download this book on my Kindle.

Now, don't get me wrong, Chris Kyle clearly LOVES guns...and is very good at using them to send Islamoterrorists to meet their 72 virgins and Allah.

But, as an author, he clearly needed a better ghost writer for this book.
Although I enjoyed his enthusiasm and his story telling, I found the book more than  a little ADHD and unfocused.  Each chapter started with one of his chosen firearms, but then wanders off to talk about other contemporary firearms and a little history too.

Unfortunately, it is not well woven together and would be highly confusing, I think, for the reader who knows nothing about guns or American history.  I actually think he did a pretty good job of choosing the 10 firearms-especially his choice of the Colt Revolver, .45 M1911 pistol, and the M-1 Garand rifle.  His research is also pretty good, and from a technical point of view, his viewpoint is right on about why each of these guns was nearly revolutionary for their time.

I just wish this book had been organized better and stayed on track.  It was a fine effort that needed a tad more focus.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Pop" Military History that does not impress me

So, clearly all military history is not well written military history.

I picked up three volumes of what I loosely call "pop" military history from across the pond--Pen and Sword Publishing in the UK.

Now Pen and Sword publishes dozens of titles a year, most pretty good, which cover a wide variety of topics on military history.

Sadly, in my opinion, these three volumes fall short of being well written history on several counts. 

 Granted, the author takes a very big bite, trying to write a history of very long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in less than 200 pages, but I was still unimpressed. 

First of all, NONE of these books have any maps...seriously?  That violates the prime directive of writing military history, as far as I am concerned.  The geographically challenged "pop" history reader of the 21st century probably couldn't even locate Iraq on a global map, much less Baghdad or Fallujah.  This seems like a very serious omission to me.

Second, the writing is, to say the least, a bit disjointed.  The book on the Gulf War is probably the best as it covers a fairly short conflict that can be broken into bite-sized chunks covering the air, land, and sea aspects of the conflict fairly easily.

However, the Iraq and Afghan conflicts were much more complicated and fluid and I frankly could not really determine the narrative the author was following.  I felt like the books skipped from the initial military actions to the end, without nearly enough middle action.  Granted insurgencies are messy and sometimes don't make thrilling military history like tank battles and Special Forces guys on horseback, but there is a lot of history to be found in both conflicts...however, probably not in a mere 100 pages of large print text.

On the plus side, and to be fair, the books were lavishly illustrated, probably in keeping with the "pop" history theme and as an added bonus, presented a much more "British" centric view of the conflicts which I actually found pretty interesting.  Clearly Pen and Sword is focused on a Trans-Atlantic and not just American market.

Overall, I assume these books will do well for the first time reader or the VERY casual reader of history who likes lots of pictures (you know, like Obama's foreign policy team and State Department spokespersons), but I have to say, I am glad I did not pay too much for them.