Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/November 2019/Book reviews
The Hidden Army - Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne
- By Willbb234
Particularly towards the end of World War II, the Allied forces were running low on well-trained pilots. For downed pilots to return from enemy soil was very rare, so, masterminded by Airey Neave, a top-secret plan was set up to conceal and save dozens of pilots who would otherwise end up in POW camps.
The solution to the problem was dreamt up by Neave in mid-1944 - a makeshift camp constructed in Fréteval Forest, France, would be used to house downed airmen until their relief after D-Day. The book details the struggles in the United Kingdom, particularly the struggles of MI9, the wing of the secret service tasked with overseeing the operation; the role of the Resistance; and the daily life in the camp, including the anticipation of the oncoming invasion and experiences of individual airmen.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book - small, secret operations like this were essential to the success of the Allies in the war - I did find a couple of areas to be a little disappointing. Firstly, the book lacked focus and often talked about unrelated events. The book only gets to the camp at chapter 9 and two chapters are devoted to the escape and evasion of Neave, which, as much as it is interesting to hear, is not the purpose of the book. Secondly, the book sometimes became a bit confusing, jumping back and forth between locations and people.
How to Defend Australia - by Hugh White
- By Hawkeye7
Hugh White is an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, and a former deputy secretary for strategy at the Australian Department of Defence. This book is a polemic on Australian defence strategy.
Most of what White has to say is fairly basic, the sort of thing that you can hear from the armchair strategists at the local pub or on the internet. Australia is an island-continent, and its neighbours are also island nations. This leads to consideration of a maritime strategy, based on controlling the air and waters surrounding it. White talks about a strategy of denial using submarines, mines and aircraft.
This looks good on the map, but on the ground it's a whole different story. Australia has a land area of 7,682,300 square kilometres (2,966,200 sq mi) with 26,000 kilometres (16,000 mi) of coastline. That means that it no simple task to defend it with widely dispersed and short-legged aircraft, or a half-dozen Collins-class submarines. In practice, much of the burden of the maritime defence falls on the Army, which serves as a multiplier for the difficulty of transporting an invasion force down under. White is in error in asserting that light forces would be best for this; on the contrary, a heavily armoured force will make the invader's task all the more difficult.
Especially in the chapter on the Navy, White ignores the lessons of the past decades. To guard the waters around Australia, patrol boats seemed a good idea, as they are less expensive than major warships, and can be deployed in numbers by a Navy severely restricted in manpower. It soon became clear that just getting on station (a journey of thousands of kilometres) occupied much of their time. Thus, the Attack-class patrol boats were replaced by the larger Fremantle class, which in turn were replaced by the still larger Armidale class. A similar dynamic is driving the submarine replacement, to the extent that nuclear power is being seriously considered.
As it stands, only one country has the capability of launching an invasion of Australia: the United States. Nobody thinks that is likely, but White argues that China and India may develop such a capability in the future. Australia has valuable resources of food, minerals and oil, but most are also to be found in its neighbours, which were the real target of Japan back in 1941. An invasion of Australia therefore looks like robbers driving past several banks to hit one across town.
This also leads to the chapter that has attracted the most interest in the media, in which he puts the case for Australia's acquisition of nuclear weapons, namely to resist nuclear blackmail from China and India. Unlike the NATO countries, Australia has never formally been under the US nuclear umbrella (our Wikipedia article says it is but White does not agree).
Thinking about the defence of Australia highlights one important fact: it isn't what the Australian Defence Force has been doing since 1942. Rather, it has been deployed on a variety of missions in support of its neighbours, its allies, and its government's policies. The rise of China and India and the decline of the United States may change this, but it probably won't.
A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 - by Charles R. Shrader
- By Hawkeye7
Charles R. Shrader was an instructor at the US Army Command and General Staff College and Army War College. This book follows his previous works on logistics in the Korean War (Communist Logistics in the Korean War, 1950-1953, Algerian War (The First Helicopter War, 1995), the Greek Civil War (The Withered Vine, 1999).
Shrader argues that while leadership, intelligence and individual valour have always been important, the decisive factor in modern wars has increasingly been logistics, the ability to deploy and maintain forces in the field. In this book on the Indochina War, he relates how both sides often had to call off otherwise successful and promising campaigns when logistical difficulties became insurmountable.
The environment in Indochina was characterised by harsh climate, varied and rugged terrain, great distances and limited transportation infrastructure. Shrader relates how, ultimately, the Viet Minh developed an efficient and effective logistical system that was well-suited to the prevailing conditions while the modern and highly-mechanised French forces, despite the advantages of better technology, were not.
The French Far East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO) relied on road transport. This was problematic from the start, as the road network was poor; but increasingly road convoys were ambushed, requiring escorts, with convoys having to fight their way through. In some cases, instead of bringing supplies to beleaguered garrisons, they had to draw upon the garrison's meagre stocks to fight their way home. Reliance shifted to air supply, but there were never enough aircraft for this.
In contrast, the Viet Minh's system of porters, often using bicycles that they would walk alongside, steering with sticks, proved far more flexible and adaptable to the terrain and conditions. This was a learning process, whereby techniques were gradually improved. In the end, the CEFEO's over-reliance on air supply, combined with an underestimation of the Viet Minh's capabilities, led to French defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the war or in military logistics in general. It has some good maps, which is fortunate, as few of the place names are likely to be familiar to most readers.
Publishing details: Charles R., Shrader (2015). A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-6575-2. OCLC 958281540.
Jungle Cavalry: Australian Independent Companies and Commandos 1941-1945 - Gregory Blake
- By Nick-D
Jungle Cavalry is a history of the independent companies and commando units raised by the Australian Army during World War II. It is heavily based on the author's recently awarded PhD thesis. In the thesis, Blake notes that there is no single account of the way in which the Australian Army used its elite units during World War II. The thesis, and this book, are an attempt to fill this important gap.
The book provides a very useful account of how the Australian Army first raised independent companies in 1941 and how the missions of these units evolved over the war as they transitioned from guerrilla-style independent companies to elite light infantry commando squadrons. It also covers the operations the units undertook in detail, along with some fair-handed analysis of how they performed. Blake concludes that the units were at their most effective when they used guerrilla tactics, but even then their impact was often limited. He also covers what can only be described as war crimes committed by the units, which included routinely killing wounded Japanese soldiers and extra-judicial killings of Papuans suspected of assisting the Japanese - both topics warrant further attention.
However, I found other elements of the book to be frustrating. Most significantly, while the process with which the first three independent companies were raised is covered in detail, there's no coverage at all of how the other nine such units were raised - they simply appear in the narrative. How the units were structured is also never described, with a seeming assumption that readers will be familiar with this obscure detail (apparently they were organised into troops, issued lots of sub-machine guns and some mortars but didn't have any medium machine guns). An appendix providing details on both issues would have been invaluable. Blake also doesn't strongly link the evolution of the units with that of the rest of the army - for instance, their transformation into highly effective units in 1943 was presumably part of the same process which produced the jungle divisions and the adoption of more conservative tactics in 1944-45 seems in line with the Army's general focus on minimising casualties through the use of massive firepower whenever possible. I was also irritated by the random capitalisation of some words, and some odd grammar - the book reads more like a final draft than a finished product and this is particularly irksome given that it is being sold for a high price.
Overall, this is a useful work, especially for covering what the independent companies and commando squadrons did and achieved, but its shortcomings prevent it succeeding in its goal of providing a definitive history of these units.
Recent external reviews
- Stam, Nike (October 2019). "Review of Clarke, Howard B.; Johnson, Ruth, eds., The Vikings in Ireland and Beyond: Before and After the Battle of Clontarf". H-War, H-Net Reviews.
- Ascherson, Neal (27 October 2019). "Checkpoint Charlie by Iain MacGregor review – Berlin's secrets and spies". The Observer.
- Savage, Charlie (28 October 2019). "What Jim Mattis Really Thought of Donald Trump". The New York Times.
Multiple recent military history books
- Ricks, Thomas E. (7 November 2019). "Battlefields: Recent Books in Military History". The New York Times.