A Literary Field Return

The picture below is a bit unusual. It’s a picture those of us spending too much time going through war diaries see often, it is a battalion field return of officers, by rank (actual/temporary), name, and whether they are with the unit or not. So far, so boring (unless you happen to have a relative on the list). But this one is from October 1941, for 3 R.T.R., and it is a bit special, at least to us nerds, and maybe to those who were boys in the sixties, and lapped up anything that was written about the desert war.


This return contains two names that many will recognise, first that of Captain Cyril Joly, at the time Adjutant of the battalion, and author of Take These Men, a fictionalised, but realistic, novel of tank men in the desert war (you can find it at this link). Second is Acting Captain (actual 2nd Lieutenant) Robert Crisp, author of Brazen Chariots, a first-hand account of Operation CRUSADER, and The Gods Were Neutral, a first-hand account of the disastrous campaign in Greece in 1941 – the books can be found at these links: The Gods Were Neutral (wrong tank on the cover, never mind) and Brazen Chariots (and whoever designed that cover should be severely chastised!).

Happy reading!

Book Review – To the Last Round

To the Last Round is an oral history of the South Nottinghamshire Hussars (107 Royal Horse Artillery) by the Imperial War Museum’s oral historian, Peter Hart. Like his other books this is very readable, and very strongly focused on giving a voice to the men who served in the regiment during the war.

The book starts with the beginning of the war, and takes the reader through to the 6 June 1942, when the regiment was overrun by German tanks at the ‘Cauldron’.

The book is primarily based on the interviews with the men, which are well woven into a relatively sparse narrative about the campaign. The focus is always on the personal experience. While there are some errors in the overall narrative (such as ascribing the first name ‘Clive’ to General Claude Auchinleck), these do not detract from reading.

Where the book stands out is in the insight it gives the reader about the conditions in occupied Tobruk, from the boredom of being in a fortress under siege, to the terror of constant bombardment. There are a number of photos, with most of them portray photos of the men who were in the regiment.

The book ends on the Gazala battles, where many men of the regiment died firing their guns to the last moment, in a heroic but pointless last stand.

I can not recommend this book highly enough to anyone who wants to know what the war in the desert was like for the men who fought it.

 There are two interesting stories connected to Ray Ellis, who was with the regiment at Tobruk, and during its last battle at this and this link.

Book Review – “Fighting Flotilla” by Peter C. Smith

Anyone who has looked at previous book reviews knows that I am a great fan of Peter C. Smith’s work. That’s why I bought without hesitation Fighting Flotilla when it was recommended to me in the marvellous naval bookshop Maritime Books in Greenwich. I was not disappointed!

Fighting Flotilla is the very aptly named history of the Royal Navy’s L-Class destroyers and their service in World War II. It does not just address the service however, but also contains a long and involved discussion on the design of the class, the various options that were considered in terms of size, armament and engine power, and the compromises that were made in their design.

The L-class, with its flottilla leader HMS Laforey, comprised eight vessels and I think it would be fair to say the class did not have a good war, since six of them were lost to enemy action, in some cases with heavy loss of life.  Three of them, HMS Lance, Lively and Ghurka, did not even manage a year’s service between their completion and their loss, such was the pressure on the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean at the time. The class is of particular interest to me since two of them, HMS Lance and HMS Lively* were part of Force K throughout the CRUSADER period, while HMS Legion participated in the sinking by 4th Destroyer Flotilla of the two light Italian cruisers di Giussano and da Barbiano and joined Force K afterwards.  It is interesting to note that all threee of these would be lost by April.  HMS Lively sunk by aircraft in the waters between Crete and Tobruk, while HMS Lance and Legion were sunk at their moorings in Grand Harbour in Malta while undergoing repairs, but not before Legion claims to have engaged the Italian battleship Littorio in a gun duel at point blank range (4,400 yards) during the 2nd Battle of Sirte in March 1942 (eyewitness accounts of this action are in the book)!

HMS Lance entering Grand Harbour, La Valetta, Malta - from Wikimedia Commons

HMS Lance entering Grand Harbour, La Valetta, Malta - from Wikimedia Commons

 Now, about the book.  As usual with books by Peter C. Smith, this one is a good mix of document-based research and facts emanating from personal recollections.  The book is basically covering two parts, the development of the class, in the context of the constraints of the Naval Treaties at the time and the threat assessment, followed by the service history of the eight vessels of the class.  This is a good approach for a reader like me, since it gives me the context of how these vessels came to be, and then follows it by the very interesting stories of their lifes and ends.  In doing so the book does not only provide a deep insight into the world of Royal Navy ship procurement towards the very end of the inter-war period (the L-class was built as part of the 1937 Royal Navy estimate), but also provides a good technical overview of the various challenges and trade-offs involved in destroyer design during this period. This was a class that was planned before and built largely during the war, and it underwent many changes while on the stocks because of it, to accommodate experience from the war and the need to get ships out into the sea to fight the Axis. This is why half the class ended up with the advanced, fully enclosed 4.7″ turrets, while the remainder received open 4″ high-angle turrets, which made them very useful as AA defence vessels. The different turrets also had a visual impact – in my opinion the 4″-armed L-class vessels have a far more balanced look to them than the 4.7″-armed.  See e.g. this photo of HMS Lightning  (4.7″) versus this of HMS Legion (4″).

Apart from the information in the text, the book also contains a raft of photographs and diagrams, e.g. cut-away and detailed technical drawings of the design of the two types of main gun turret (4.7″ and 4″) used on the L-class, and the ships as a whole, comparing design and as built.   The selection of photographs indicate that the author spent a lot of time going through the IWM’s photo archive, and some of them seem not to have been reproduced in many places, if at all elsewhere.

The eyewitness accounts of the actions are well placed in the general text, relevant, and add to the depth of the immersion.

Appendices cover the main weapons system, fire control, general fixtures and fittings and the crew compliments in peace and war.  At the end, all the ship’s badges are reproduced, with heraldic information, as well as pendant numbers and the names of commanding officers.  I seriously doubt that there is much else to know about the L-class after the reader finishes this book.

I can only highly recommend this book (like anything by Peter C. Smith, but I think I am repeating myself) to anyone interested in naval actions in the Mediterranean during World War II, or interested in inter-war destroyer design in the Royal Navy.  Unfortunately you’ll have to look for a used copy, since it is currently not in print.

You can also find a detailed account of the life and death of WW2’s HMS Lively at this link. She was the sixteenth and last of the name in the Royal Navy for now at least. I think somebody needs to start a campaign to get that name re-assigned to a vessel.

* HMS Lively has another appeal for me, since she was one of the ships commanded by fictional Royal Navy hero Jack Aubrey. By coincidence, Jack Aubrey’s HMS Lively of 1804, a 28-gun frigate, was in real life also lost while on convoy escort in 1810, wrecked  in the Mediterranean off Malta. 

The Mediterranean Fleet – Greece to Tripoli

This is another of the official books published by the Ministry of Information, this time in 1944. The same caveats apply as in “The Tiger Kills”, but so do the same reasons for recommending it. There are very good accounts of naval operations off Crete during the evacuation, of the Tobruk Run, the effort to keep the garrison of besieged Tobruk supplied in 1941, and of the Malta convoys.

Recommended reading.

Book Review – Levine

The War Against Rommel’s Supply Lines

Alan J. Levine

Four Stars out of Five

This is a very good book providing an in-depth analysis into the battle raging against the umbilical cord tying the Axis forces in North Africa to their base in Italy. In my opinion, no student of the war in the Mediterranean will be able to ignore it.

The book covers the whole of the supply struggle waged in the Mediterranean, but focuses on the period following the Alamein battles and the invasion of North Africa by US and British forces, when it became imperative for Allied planners to prevent a permanent lodging of Axis forces in Tunisia, to the surrender of Axis forces in May 1943. Five out of six chapters are devoted to this effort, while the first chapter provides a concise, yet highly informative and well-researched summary of what went on during 1940-42.

The focus chapters deal with the planning of the invasion of French North Africa, and in particular the role and establishment of 12th Air Force. The author describes well the troubles this formation went through when it was first established, and the very difficult command arrangements at the start of the campaign in Tunisia. The following chapters discuss the invasion, the attack against the build-up of Axis forces in Tunisia, which is rightly described in a very critical manner, the re-organisation of the forces engaged in the logistical battle from January 1943 onwards, and their contribution to the eventual victory. The book gives time to both US and British forces engaged in the battle, and is quite (and justly) complimentary to the Italian effort in keeping the Axis forces in Tunisia supplied.

The author manages well to weave a narrative integrating theatre strategy and individual actions, although at times the information packed into single sentences or paragraphs can become overwhelming. I am also not convinced about the need for as much detail as is sometimes provided and editing could maybe have parsed the text a bit more of unnecessary detail.

The book is very well-researched, going through archival material such as unit records of air formations engaged in the battle, or patrol reports of submarines, and it makes very good use of official histories, of both sides. This is a particularly outstanding feature of the book – where possible, the author made the effort of trying to verify claims made by Allied forces against air and sea targets, by checking the Axis records. While this is no doubt a thankless task, and often a wild goose chase, it is one that cannot be lauded enough. The author has also gone to good length in providing a background on the technical capabilities of the Allied weapons available for the task, highlighting the planes and submarines in particular.

The book sports an index, an extensive literature list, and a good set of endnotes – in other words, it is a serious research work. What is missing is a list of maps, although since there are only two, so maybe that was not considered necessary. Which leads me to: sufficient in number and detail maps are missing, so I recommend having an Atlas of WW2 handy while reading it, unless you have a North Africa map in your head. The selection of pictures is appropriate to the topic, and the quality is acceptable, especially considering the price. What I really would have liked to see are diagrams of air-sea attack formations. These are described verbally, but a picture would help very much in understanding the roles of the various planes engaging shipping targets. But that is really the only major gripe I can think of.

Thanks go to Stackpole for not only publishing a book that is clearly dealing with a somewhat esoteric topic (why bother with logistics – when you could have the umpteenth 750-page colour book about Waffen SS-Tigers?), but making the effort to create a very attractive presentation, and pricing it very reasonably. Highly recommended.

Book Review – Afrika Korps Tome 1 – 1941

Afrika Korps Tome 1 – 1941
by Cédric Mas

 Batailles & Blindés Hors Série No. 6

Four Stars out of Five
While not technically a book, this special issue of the French magazine Batailles & Blindés, written by fellow forum member 13eme DBLE, alias Cédric Mas, certainly contains all that would make for a very good book, plus some added goodies for modelers that are only available in magazines. While I can find some things to criticise, overall I think that anyone who speaks French and is interested in the war in Africa should get this, if they can (it is almost sold out), or at the very least Volume II, and hopefully Vol. III in the future. You’ll regret not following my advice.
The book (for want of a better term) is about 130 pages, in A4 format. The format has been put to good use, since it contains a vast number of pictures from Cédric’s personal collection, a number of very well drawn maps, and (modelers behold), detailed plan drawings of seven vehicles that served with the Commonwealth and Axis armies in North Africa, as well as a good number of beautifully executed colour drawings of vehicles and guns of both sides.
The text is a straightforward, well-researched narrative that follows the development of the battles in the desert in a lot of detail. It is obvious that Cédric has done his research, and then some. While I would certainly not always agree with him on his assessment of particular actions, overall I cannot but tip my hat to him, and even where I disagree with him, the issues are not always clear-cut. If you speak French and want a readable and accessible history of the actions in the desert, you need to look no further than this. The text is well written and marvelously supported by the large number of rare photographs that Cédric has made available for the book, all of which have been treated with care to make for good quality prints. What is nice is that Cédric is at the end of each of the three chapters addressing the key questions one may ask about a particular event or battle described in them, in the form of a set of questions and answers which address these issues. Cédric has clearly thought them through, and the analysis he provides in his answers helps to round off the narrative. It is also nice to see the Italians getting a very fair treatment in the text. A pleasant change from the usual Italian bashing.
So why only four stars? Well, first of all it is in French… Okay, I am joking, that is not the issue. There are serious problems with the editing, in particular Commonwealth unit names are in some cases consistently wrong (e.g. “11th Hussards”, instead of “11th Hussars”). This may seem a minor niggle, but it starts to grate after repeated reading, also because it is such an easy mistake to avoid. Unfortunately also, the book lacks a literature list, something I would be very keen on reading, and an index. All of these things together would normally suffice to bring a book down to three stars in my view, but this would be unjustifiably harsh on the excellent research that Cédric has presented us with. So the missing star to five should be seen as an encouragement to add those missing items in the next volume, while the added star from three is a recognition of his achievement in research and presentation.
A must-read, in my view. Hopefully somebody will be able to translate it into English one day.