'87 Sir

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Battle of the Bulge-70 years later.

As many Americans go about doing their Christmas shopping...signing up for Obamacare...and wondering if they can now go to their corner coffee shop without some Islamic whackjob taking them hostage, it is time to mark the 70th Anniversary of the biggest battle the US Army ever fought...the German Ardennes offensive of 1944...popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Since this is the 70th anniversary there have been many ceremonies, particularly in Belgium, and there have even been some interesting articles written.  And it is fitting that the world should mark this occasion, the last gasp of the Third Reich and the biggest victory in the US Army's history.

The magnitude of the battle is pretty hard to comprehend for modern Americans, especially those educated in the mish-mash social studies world of the American secondary and college education systems, where I'm sure it receives all of 10 minutes worth of attention...mentioned somewhere between the New Deal and the Great Society, no doubt.

But let's review---in this battle, About 19,000 U.S. soldiers died, and 47,500 were wounded and more than 23,000 missing...that means the of all US combat deaths in World War 2, 10% of them occurred in this single battle.

That is a staggering number.  In addition, nearly two full US infantry regiments were surrounded and captured by the Germans at the start of the battle...almost 6,000 US troops, the largest US mass surrender since Bataan in 1942.

However, at the end of the battle, the German Wehrmacht had suffered 100,000 casualties, and Hitler's last strategic reserve was destroyed.

Most American's today couldn't comprehend the staggering level of slaughter...we rightly mourn the loss of every service member in combat, but seem to come unglued at the fact that war involves death and destruction on an unimaginable scale...war is no video game.

Unfortunately, most of those old vets are gone, along with the valor and stories of sacrifice, hardship, and a mutual cause that united all Americans.  Their generation will be missed.  My godfather was one of them, and I have previously written about his service in the 82nd Airborne Division.  He never talked about the war or his service and I wish I had been aware of his service earlier to maybe get some hint of what he did in the war. 

And, of course, no Grouchy Historian blog post would be complete with books to go with the snark
and insightful observations.  I saw this book on Amazon a few months ago and decided to pre-order it.  I have read most of the classic accounts of the battle...John Toland, Charles MacDonald, and John McManus.  I was a little skeptical what else there was to know. 

Hmmm, well, guess again.  Dr. Caddick-Adams, a Brit no less, has written what could only be described as a revisionist history of the battle.  Now normally, this would make me CRINGE, but his narrative, thesis, and supporting research are hard to resist.  He debunks many myths and spears many sacred cows in the book--from the role of Ultra within the overall Allied intelligence failure, to the real reason Hitler launched the attack and why he chose the Ardennes...it's not the reason you think, Hitler was even more crazy than I thought.

This is truly a fresh look at this battle, well written, with excellent maps and illustrations.  What I really liked about this book was...well--the epilogue, where Dr. Caddick-Adams reviews the multitude of histories of the war, from the US Army official version (one of the so-called Green Books, written before the existence of Ultra was revealed) to the recent microhistories written by John McManus and others.  This was very interesting as he picks apart, in detail and with academic detachment, the good and bad part of each previous history and why he researched and wrote his history in the manner he did.

I do enjoy books that reexamine history and offer new insights, especially if they can do it without wandering into useless rabbit holes of gender, racial, social justice or some other prism of modern PC crap.  Sadly, even military history is not immune from this horrible virus.

Fortunately this book is still traditional military history, enriched with just a touch of psychology (Hitler-whackjob) and personalities (oyyy..Monty) to explain how the valor of the GI and Landsers still is worth telling.  I highly recommend it.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Blast from the past

 So I grabbed this from the library the other day. Guilty confession...I love to play 1 series of computer games called Combat Mission...yea..got it..old guy playing computer games, but everyone has to have some guilty pleasure...besides bacon. Well, I have been eagerly awaiting the new tactical simulation (ha, not a computer game like those ridiculous shoot 'em ups the under 30 crowd loves) that encompasses modern warfare in a near-future Ukraine. Or depending on Vlad the Impaler's mood...not so distant future--more on that later. 

ANYWAY, one of the so-called recommended readings for modern warfare discussed in the company's web forum was this book (yes, old guys get together on web forums to discuss military history books...color people surprised)...which I first read about 25 years ago...yup long freakin' time...when I kind of went through my Harold Coyle/Tom Clancy/Larry Bond/Dale Brown phase of reading.   
I call it the "Golden Age" of military and future war fiction--during the Cold War, before Operation Desert Storm, when your imagination could pretty much run wild as no one had any IDEA what a NATO/Warsaw Pact conflict might look like. Unless, of course, they were savvy military analysts and examined the Yom Kippur War, which offered a great deal of information to anyone smart enough to study it thoroughly, another topic for later discussion.
Well, I decided to pick this book up again and found that it really hasn't lost much in the 30 years or so since it was written.  Taut, realistic and in retrospect, pretty darn good at capturing the essence of modern combined arms warfare at the company or battalion level.  Of course like most military fiction of that time, it was long on toys and action, but short on characters, however, I have to say that this particular book did pretty well.  I think every book of that era was measured against Tom Clancy's landmark Red Storm Rising..still one of my all time favorite books, and this one did really well...it didn't hurt that it also sought for inspiration General Sir John Hackett's The Third World War...the granddaddy of all modern military fiction...written while Tom Clancy was still selling insurance.

Of course, we now know from combat experience in Desert Storm, particularly the Battle of 73 Easting that that the M1 Abrams tank was so far superior to the Soviet/Russian T-62 and T-72 tanks that in company sized actions, the M1 would have wiped out nearly all it's opponents.  However, not really knowing how superior the M1 really was, Coyle captures a really good essence in his descriptions of the battles. 

The scale and magnitude of the slaughter of modern combat comes through really well...even if on a micro scale.  In minutes, a tank company can slice through an unprotected mechanized infantry company or a well-sited tank company can wipe out a battalion worth of enemy vehicles in short order...both concepts clearly shown in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

All in all, it was an enjoyable trip down memory line...and a fine way of relearning that a well written story can stand the test of time.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Grouchy Historian's Favorite Books of 2014

 We come to the end of another year of books, therefore, it's time for another edition of my favorite books, both fiction and non-fiction. 

Sadly my lofty goal of reading 36 books for the year was missed AGAIN, kinda like the Obamacare enrollment numbers. Oh, well...gives me something to shoot for again next year. Which hopefully will be a LITTLE more conducive to reading than this year was...oyyyyy.....

And NO, Hard Choices by Hillary "What Difference Does it Make?" Clinton did not make my fiction best-seller list.

Overall, I have to say this was not a particularly inspiring year for non-fiction. Although there was a continuing push of new material covering World War I, most of it covered the origins of the war, and perhaps the first six months of fighting. I know there was a bit more strictly military history at the end of the year, and I expect 2015 to produce many more volumes on the major battles of the war. 

Of note, I am heartened to see a new influx of materials on the American contribution to the final two years of the year, particularly the early combat actions of American troops in the spring of 1918.

And, it could also be that I just didn't get to many of the non-fiction books on my shelf as I spent the first quarter of the year studying for my PMP, and delved into some very technical reading (for Dummies, of course) on Big Data and Predictive Analytics. Ouch..
Anyway, without further ado, I think the best award for non-fiction should go to......drum roll please......

 Neptune-by my old professor Craig Symonds. Yup, although I gushed profusely about Rick Atkinson's magnificent Liberation Trilogy in another review...in terms of covering with narrative excellence and depth of research of a fairly neglected topic, Neptune was hard to beat. I have not read anything previously on the Navy's contribution to the Normandy invasion and this book not only did that well, but covered the whole issue of the role of amphibious shipping to the success of the Allied war effort and the key fact that the shortage or availability of "some damn thing called LSTs" was critical to the successful invasion of Europe. A good book for anyone looking for the whole story of the Normandy invasion.

Non-Fiction was equally challenging. I don't usually read a lot of non-fiction...I have my favored little band of authors and I don't deviate much. I have to say that JD Robb was particularly good this year with two excellent volumes...and of course I always enjoy the Heat-series of book tied to my favorite TV show. However, in terms of well-written plot and attention span keeping, I have to say my favorite book this year was.................Liberty 1784 by Robert Conroy. 

Well written and plausible alternate history is my favorite genre and Robert Conroy has really come into his own with his last two hard-backs. This particular book was scary realistic in its point-of-departure where the British win the Battle of Yorktown and nearly snuff the Revolution. Well written, with a cast of very interesting characters, it just beat out my other absolute literary addiction...the Monster Hunter series of books by Larry Correia. This year's Monster Hunter with Agent Franks was truly hard to put down, but was edged out...a little...hopefully Agent Franks won't be mad.

I am finishing up another couple of excellent books that may sneak onto my 2014 completed list...and of course, there is a bit of holiday down time to jump start my 2015 reading...I hope.