'87 Sir

Thirty years of service ----USNA Class of 1987 '87 Sir

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Battle of Britain-another chapter in the 1940 Western Campaign.

The Battle of Britain-Five Months That Changed History May-October 1940.  James Holland.  New York, St. Martin's Press, 2010.  ISBN 978-0-312-67500-4.  Illustrations.  Maps.  Notes & References.  Bibliography.  Index.  Pp. 677.  $40.00.

James Holland has a completely fresh take on the Battle of Britain and has written a compelling study of the battle.  This book does a marvelous job of combining operational and strategic analysis, technical assessment, and personal narratives.

What sets this book apart from other studies I have read is that Holland actually begins his work in the late 1930s by introducing the genesis of the Royal Air Force's Fighter Command, the beginning of Britain's air defense system, including the invention and weaponization of radar, and the personalities that prophesied the need to defend Britain from the reborn Luftwaffe.  The book then traces the Battle of France and how Britain nearly sacrificed its fighter force defending the doomed Allied forces in Belgium and France in a losing attempt to show allied solidarity for the crumbling French military.  Holland really broke some new ground with this Grouchy Historian by making the case that the Battle of Britain was in large part won over France before the first German bomb ever fell on England.

The personal battle of Air Marshall Dowding in preserving Britain's fighter force from immolation over France was only one factor that influenced the air campaign in the fall of 1940.  The genius of the RAF in integrating radar, radio, centralized command and control, and even pilot training and aircraft production to keep Fighter Command from being overrun by the Luftwaffe seems quite miraculous 70 years later.  It was the first integrated air defense system in history and proved just enough to keep the invasion from happening.

The Luftwaffe and Nazi Germany in particular come in for some well deserved scathing criticism from Holland.  The lack of a serious strategic bomber like the B-17 or Stirling essentially doomed the German effort from the start.  Although the effectiveness of Allied strategic bombing in World War II is still a subject of debate, a large, well equipped strategic bomber force, properly protected by fighters and hurled at the British air defenses in south-west England, may have prevailed in 1940.  Of course Holland also does an excellent, although very secondary effort at describing the complete chaos of German planning for invading England, with the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and Kreigsmarine each planning their piece of the effort in isolation.  In fact, as Holland lays out, the Luftwaffe high command, led by Goering, could not even coordinate their efforts to fight the battle and never really settled on basic tactical and operational issues of how fighters should escort bombers.  Given the chaos and angst that the unified Allied command had in planning the Normandy invasion of 1944, one can only imagine the slaughter had the Germans actually attempted a landing off Folkestone in September 1940.

Finally, this book actually meets my HIGH expectations for maps and illustrations.  The maps showing the division of England into air defense sectors and diagrams of the various flying formations are a welcome addition to this book.

Holland is described on the book jacket as a rising young military historian in England and this book clearly shows why.  It's a marvelous read for World War II buffs, aviation enthusiasts or anyone wanting to know about that period described a Britain's "Finest Hour."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

An Unusual History of World War II

December 1941:  31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World.  Craig Shirley.  Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2011.  ISBN 978-1-59555-457-4.  Illustrations.  Notes & References.  Bibliography.  Index.  Pp. x, 645.  $24.99.
 Mr. Shirley's volume is a combination of narrative history and historical chronology that both intrigued and disappointed me.  Although the concept was an interesting way of looking at one of the most crucial months in American history, it left me feeling like it was incomplete, partly as a result of the nature of the book, but also because I think the book had some historical possibilities unmet.

First, the book was an excellent account of military, political, social, and economic happenings during the crucial month.  What really jumped out at me were the eerie similarities to how America reacted after December 7 with how the nation reacted after September 11.  There was mass hysteria, rumors galore, and a general flailing about by the military and government to do something to reassure a scared populace.  Of course, there were also many things done in 1941 that would have made MSNBC and the ACLU explode 70 years later.  Mass numbers of Japanese, Germans, and Italians were detained without trial or due process in "concentration camps" throughout the US and the FBI routinely conducted mass arrests in those communities in the three weeks after Pearl Harbor.  Can you imagine the same thing happening in the Islamic or Hispanic Community today? Needless to say, there was nary a peep from anyone then, and in fact, most Americans welcomed the arrests as a necessary part of the war effort.

Shriley also captures the naive belief that Americans had that the global conflagration could somehow pass them by, just as the US buried our heads in the sand about Islamofacism for the decade prior to 9/11.  Finally the cultural aspects of the book were pretty interesting, especially the pop culture aspects that described the shopping, entertainment and general life of Americans prior to December 7.

However, Shirley reports the numerous news stories without really balancing out what REALLY happened, which was significantly different from what the public was told.  The truth of Pearl Harbor was successfully kept from Americans for some time, and Shirley gives a good sense of how the media and government collaborated in wartime censorship (something else MSNBC, CNN, NYT and most of the modern liberal media would implode about), there were other items that were reported as fact, mostly to keep up morale, that weren't true.  Capt. Colin Kelly  did not sink a Japanese (or Jap, as it was known before PC) battleship, and the Philippines Campaign was in fact, a much bigger fiasco than most Americans knew until after the war.  Shirley is quite correct in his assertion that Douglas MacArthur should have probably been court martialed along with Kimmel and Short and only escaped because the press loved him and turned him into the hero that FDR needed in those long weeks after the war, when everything was going badly for the US.  A postscript or some footnotes that told the real facts would have been welcome, as would the usual maps that I hold so dear to history books.

Overall, this is a fine example of popular history, although not as academic and complete as I would have liked, but it's a fine snapshot into how Americans lived, died and changed forever in one of the most crucial months in our history.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The New US Defense Strategy-How Risky Is It?

The new US defense strategy announced with trumpets and flourishes this week is long on flowery catch phrases and the current lingo of defense planning, but leaves a lot unspoken, unspecified and quite frankly, unknown.

It is tough for this particular Grouchy Historian to take anything seriously that begins with a paragraph full of dissembling and nonsense- “we have responsibly ended the war in Iraq” {translation to Obama-speak- I have at last fulfilled one of my campaign promises and the only national security topic I really care about, getting the hell out of Iraq no matter what.}  Just watch the news  and anyone with common sense can see how badly things are going in Iraq and foresee the increasing possibility of intense sectarian violence,  a Shia dictatorship aligned with Iran or plain old instability leading to new safe havens for Al Qaeda.   

And then there’s this- “allowing us to being the transition to Afghan responsibility” {translation to Obamaspeak- I wanna get the hell outta there too, but politics have kept me there, so if I’m reelected, screw them, I want those troops home so I can fire them.}  And finally, my personal favorite-“At the same time, we must put our fiscal house in order here at home…”  Words actually fail me on this….I mean we can chop the military by 25% or more, but how about the Department of Housing and Urban Development? Or Labor? Or the EPA?  Figure the odds of that happening.  Like all liberal, pacifist Democrats (to include Bill Clinton), Obama wants to “cut government spending” by cutting the military…period.

So, once you get past the bloviating nonsense of the Presidential cover page, the rest of the document is just fluff.  I mean it’s pretty good fluff as far as a strategy document goes, but one has to wonder if the U.S. military will be left with the capacity and capability needed to “Counter Terrorism and Irregular Warfare” or “Project Power Despite Anti-Access/Area Denial Challenges.”   

The shift to the Pacific is clearly needed as Europe continues to be on a death spiral of Euro malaise, declining birth rate, overheated socialism, and general neglect.  But ships and airplanes cost money, and lots of it, to build, man, operate and maintain.  Where’s that going to come from?  And will we be able to assure our allies that we will have the commitment to stand up to an increasingly belligerent China when (not if) China starts asserting its claims to the South China Sea with military forces?

There has been a lot of discussion about the coming cuts to ground forces and other personnel.  This is always the first thing that’s cut, as it produces an immediate return and the cuts don’t come in any one Congressman’s district, but the downstream effect is devastating on personal morale- one only needs to look at the state of the military at the end of Clinton’s two terms to see that.

So, what will be the long-term effects?  We shall see.  Will Iran get the bomb?  Will Mexico become a narco-terrorist controlled state?  Will Venezuela and Iran form a new axis of evil with Iranian missiles in the Western Hemisphere?

Stay tuned….could an Obama election make 2013 more like 1939?  Does he really think that just because HE got Osama there will be peace in our time?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Out with 2011----in with 2012

Well, 2011 is gone and here comes 2012.  Clearly, the Grouchy Historian was not too scholarly in 2011.  I only plowed through 18 books and 8 of them were fiction...darn good fiction, but fiction nonetheless.  Oyy, that is not good..perhaps a fallout from finishing up the MA in January and not having the pressure of academic knowledge to spur me along.

SO, 2012 is here and I am going to try and improve this mark...I figure 24 should be easily doable, and maybe 36 for a stretch goal.  Of course, brain candy will be thrown in, but I figure there is plenty on the Grouchy Historian bookshelves to choose from.

And, of course, 2012 is a critical election year, so there will be a lot of material to blog from since my pithy commentary and snarky observations were down significantly from previous years. 

Stay tuned....

Monday, January 2, 2012

The first book review of 2012- Max Hastings' Inferno

Inferno:  The World at War 1939-1945.  Max Hastings.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.  ISBN 978-0-307-27359-8.  Maps.  Illustrations.  Notes & References.  Bibliography.  Index.  Pp. xx, 729.  $35.00.

Max Hastings' magnum opus of World War II is an excellent study for the introductory student looking for a single volume history of the conflict.  One of several new single volume examinations of the war published in 2011, Hastings' work stands out for his ability to cover not only the military, but the political, economic and even social aspects of this global struggle.

Building on the style of his previous works of World War II history Armageddon, covering the European Theater in 1944-1945,  and Retribution, covering the war against Japan during the same timeframe, this book seamlessly  takes the reader around the various theaters of the war, and Hastings does an outstanding job of showing the truly global nature of the war and how decisions in each theater interacted with strategy, logistics, and coalition politics.

There are several really unique aspects of this book.  First, Hastings dives into some theaters not traditionally covered in single volume histories of the war, particularly the China-Burma-India theater.  He also does an outstanding job of discussing the home fronts and how each country mustered its economic and natural resources to supply the massive military machines involved.

However, Hastings continues to be of the "superior German Wehrmacht" school of thought and he is unsparing of his criticism of American and British generalship.  Although he rightly condemns the moral ambiguity of much of the German officer corps to Hitler's atrocities, he continues to admire the tactical prowess of German soldiers in small unit combat.  Hastings will also make no friends among British partisans as his fiercest criticism is for the British military and leadership, especially the fall of Singapore and the performance of the British army in the early campaigns of 1940-1941.  Although this is a continuing debate on the combat 'deficiency' of American and British units versus their German counterparts, new research makes a pretty compelling argument that Germany was not "rolled over" by superior American and British material and troop strength after the Normandy invasion.

His analysis that Soviet Russia contributed the most to the defeat of the Wehrmacht is essentially correct, but it is unlikely that Stalin's troops alone could have won the war.  Although it was quite clear that the German army that faced the Allies was at its peak in the early North African campaigns of 1942-1943, by 1944, American and British units were able to perform very effectively on the battlefield.  Hastings does an admirable job of explaining the differences in doctrine and tactics of an army of a dictatorship (Germans and Russians) versus a democracy (British and Americans) and quite correctly notes that the casualties that Hitler and Stalin were willing to have their troops endure would have been very problematic to FDR and Churchill.

This is really a minor difference of opinion and doesn't diminish the overall effectiveness of the book in presenting the history of the key conflict of the 20th century in a concise, highly readable manner for both the beginning student as well as the jaded grognard.