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Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/August 2019/Book reviews

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Italy and the Second World War: Alternative Perspectives - by Emanuele Sica and Richard Carrier (eds)

German and Italian paratroops at Monte Cassino in 1944

3/5 stars

By Hawkeye7

This is another one of those books that is a collection of academic papers. Unfortunately, university administrators have gotten wise to this trick, and have become reluctant to count them towards the mandatory publication quotas. By their nature, they are usually very uneven, and this one is no exception. They're also usually extremely expensive, a hundred bucks or more, and this one is no exception to that rule either. It was recommended to me by a reviewer, and it wasn't easy to find, but I managed to obtain an electronic copy through my university.

Italy's part in the Second World War has not been well covered, and there is not a great deal of enthusiasm for it in evidence either, so this book fills a gap. Much of it has been translated from Italian, and uses Italian sources not otherwise available in English, so if this is your area of interest, you should seek it out. The book is divided into four parts. The first part has four chapters on the Italian occupation in Yugoslavia, Greece and France. This is a really sensitive subject. The second part is about the Italians fighting on the Allied side after the 1943 armistice. Since the the Allies didn't fully trust the Italians, Italy became a "co-belligerent" rather than an Ally.

The first chapter actually covers Italy's role very well (although I would have appreciated more information on the logistical units), and forms a valuable reference. The third part is a patchy collection of chapters about the RSI; a more comprehensive one would have been appreciated. Italians consider the 1943-45 period to be a civil war. Of the 600,000 troops fighting on the German side in April 1945, 160,000 were Italians (another 70,000 Italians were fighting on the Allied side). The final part is a collection of three unrelated chapters, including a good one on "The Punishment of War Crimes Committed in Italy by the Germans", which is what I came for.

The book points out that 450,000 Italians died in the Second World War (from a population of 40 million), compared to 405,000 Americans (from a population of 130 million). This was much less than the death toll from the Great War, when 560–680,000 Italians died; but that was mainly soldiers on the Italian and Western fronts. During the Second World War some 200,000 Italian soldiers died in the fighting in North and East Africa, France, the Balkans, the Soviet Union and Italy before the Armistice; another 100,000 died after. But there were also 150,000 civilian deaths, of whom 60,000 were in Allied air raids—more than the British during the Blitz. For Italy, it was a brutal war, one that Italians have yet to fully come to terms with.

Publishing details: Sica, Emanuele; Carrier, Richard, eds. (2018). Italy and the Second World War: Alternative Perspectives. History of Warfare. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-36333-5. OCLC 1090168867.

Ghost Division - by A. Harding Ganz

4.5/5 stars

By Hawkeye7

This is a truly impressive book, large in size, with lots of sketch maps and illustrations. The author is a former US Army officer who was stationed in Germany with the 4th Armored Division during the Cold War. He later earned his doctorate in military history, and taught history at the Ohio State University at Newark. The book covers the story of the 11th Panzer Division in rich detail, and also uses this as a vehicle for telling the tale of the German armoured force during the war.

The 11th Panzer Division was one of those formed in 1940 when the number of panzer divisions was doubled. It saw service in the invasion of Yugoslavia, and then on the Russian front, participating in the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Kursk. It was then transferred to the Western Front, where it served for the rest of the war. It opposed the Allied landings in southern France (the reason I bought the book), and participated in the fighting in Lorraine and Alsace. The division's commanders included Ludwig Crüwell and Hermann Balck.

The book is written in MilHist German; ranks and unit types (and much, much more) is not translated. France is Frankreich, and a swastika is always referred to as a Hakenkreuz. German atrocities are not mentioned, but Russian ones are detailed, giving the reader a Landser's view of the war. Most of the unit came from Silesia until it was rebuilt in France in 1944 and incorporated many new recruits from western Germany. Russians are referred to as Ivans, with the grudging admiration seldom accorded to English-speaking soldiers, and there is a fair bit about the hiwis of both sexes (the observations about the differences between fighting in the Ostheer and Westheer are also quite illuminating). There is background about the activities of higher formations, but some better maps would be a great help.

As well as an impressive list of sources in English and German, Ganz draws on the records of the division (although only 1940 to 1943 survive), and interviews with the veterans, both those conducted by the US Army after the war, and by himself at reunions; the one in 1995 was attended by 950 veterans. The traditions of the 15th Panzer Regiment, which date back to 1673, were carried by the Bundeswehr's Panzer Battalion 54 (later renumbered 64) until it was disbanded in 2008, and are now with the 393rd.

This book probably contains far more detail than most readers would want to know, with blow-by-blow accounts of one tank action after another, but if the subject is one you are interested in, this book is highly recommended.

Publishing details: Ganz, A. Harding (2016). Ghost Division: The 11th "Gespenster" Panzer Division and the German Armoured Force in World War II. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-8117-1659-8. OCLC 974630336.

The Lost Battalions - by Tom Gilling

Australian and Dutch POWs in Thailand

3/5 stars

By Peacemaker67

Tom Gilling is an Australian novelist, so far as I can tell this is his first military history book. It tells the story of two Australian battalions of World War II, the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion and 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion. They saw action in the Syria–Lebanon campaign in mid-1941, then briefly fought the Japanese on Java before their capture in February the following year. The majority of the book is dedicated to the members of both battalions that worked on the notorious Thailand-Burma railway. It is subtitled "A battle that could not be won, an island that could not be defended, an ally that could not be trusted". I read it at Hawkeye7's suggestion, as part of my work on Arthur Blackburn VC, who commanded the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion.

Gilling begins by briefly covering the raising of the battalions, their service in Syria and Lebanon, and the fighting on Java. These first four chapters are essentially a summary of the relevant parts of Andrew Faulkner's 2008 book Arthur Blackburn, VC: An Australian Hero, His Men, and Their Two World Wars, and very little is new material. According to the acknowledgements, Faulkner helped Gilling with the book, so this is unsurprising if a little redundant. However, the book gets interesting at the point the Australians are captured, as the men of these two battalions were largely separated from their senior officers such as Blackburn, and the majority of both battalions were soon sent to help build the Thailand-Burma railway, the two units working towards the middle from opposite ends. At this point, Gilling brings in the accounts of two survivors, who he interviewed for the book. I was particularly interested in the account of the survivor from the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, as he is still alive and I know him, but have never heard anything about his experiences on the railway. It is in the chapters about the railway that this book hits its straps. The descriptions of the camps along the railway, the treatment meted out to the POWs and the illnesses they suffered are all compelling and well-written. The book ends with both men being liberated in Japan after being shipped there through submarine-infested waters once the railway was completed. In total, 139 members of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion died on the railway, along with 178 from the 2/2nd Pioneers.

Aside from the regurgitation of Faulkner in the early chapters, the book really fails to live up to the sub-title, as the poor decision-making that led the Australians to be landed on Java and the unwillingness of the Dutch to fight are glossed over. Faulkner and others have already examined these aspects in detail, so the book's sub-title was perhaps intending to make it sound controversial. It is not. The book's real essence is in the railway experience as seen through the eyes of two men, although Gilling does draw in other first-hand accounts from survivors' memoirs, such as the surgeon Weary Dunlop's war diaries.

Publishing details: Gilling, Tom (2018). The Lost Battalions. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-1-76063-708-8.

Recent external reviews

A depiction of the Siege of Acre (1189–1191)

Hosler, John D. (2018). The Siege of Acre, 1189-1191: Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and the Battle That Decided the Third Crusade. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300215502.

Huber, Florian (2019). Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself : The Downfall of Ordinary Germans, 1945. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 9780241399248.

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