Category Archives: Book Reviews

Heavy Metal Reading

The British Army has ebbed and flowed with armour, but generally apart from the halcyon days of BAOR the flow has been towards the lighter end of the spectrum and this continues today.  My first command however was tracked, as was my last, and most of my staff tours has been done to the rumble of tracks. With only three Armoured Infantry Brigades in the British Army now, there are not many remaining who have diesel in their veins to the same extent.

For those who have not experienced close-up armoured warfare the overwhelming first impression is of speed and scale. For unprepared commanders the shock action of armour may verge on fratricidal. This is even before we consider the logisitcal implications of working with an armoured unit (and I well remember the apocryphal mayhem occasioned by a squadron of Royal Scots Dragoon Guards being detached to 3 Commando Brigade on the Al-Faw peninsula in summer 2003). In order to alleviate some of this, here are my recommendations of the the three best books on unit and sub-unit armoured warfare.

Tigers In The Mud‘ by Otto Carius 

Otto Carius served in the German Army throughout World War Two and saw action on both fronts. More than anything else with armour, this book taught me the value of conducting a thorough ground reconnaissance when working with armour.  Working with armour is a matter of thinking big, heavy and fast when looking at the ground.  The principles for use are the same, only the parameters are different. And while no doubt battle tanks will soon become a system of systems, with manned ‘mother, vehicles being supported by unmanned air and ground vehicles, I think that it will be some time yet before the need for a thorough recce of the route, the going and firing positions by the commanders on foot, is replaced by other means.

The Graf interrupted me.  “You’ll also get over this ridiculous ditch without a bridge!” “With all due respect, no, Herr Graf.  I still know this area from the time when the Russians hadn’t yet advanced so far, and they were just getting ready to infiltrate across the Nara.  Back then, of course, I studied the terrain intensely.  Because even if the ditch isn’t an obstacle for infantry for tanks it is…

And then there are the legendary German orders, that tell us a lot about tactical proficiency and auftragstaktik in the Heer;  comparison of their orders with ours is illuminating.

Two tanks will drive into the village at full speed and surprise Ivan.  He must not be allowed to fire a shot.  Lieutenant Nienstedt will bring up the remaining six tanks.  Herr Nienstedt!  You will remain on the reverse slope until I give you further orders.  Let’s just hope that the patron saint of radios isn’t sleeping!  Herr Nienstedt, this is your first operation with us.  Remember one thing more than anything else: as long as you are patient, everything will work.  The first two are Kerscher and me.  Everything else should be obvious.  What will happen later will be determined by the situation as it develops.

Tank Action‘ by David Render

‘Tank Action’ is one of those recent gems of military publishing, and I am looking forward to following it up by reading ‘An Englishman At War‘, the wartime diaries of his commanding officer in the Sherwood Rangers.  ‘Tank Action’ is as much about command as it is about armoured warfare and is excellent at highlighting the close knit nature of armoured vehicle crews where more so than in the infantry, a crew is only as good as it’s weakest member.  The book also clearly highlights in the opening chapters how armoured troops are specialist troops.

Training on Churchill and Valentine tanks, I had only seen a Sherman once in the eighteen months I spent at Bovington and Sandhurst. But most tanks were similar in concept Andy design and my training had taught me the importance of checking the bore alignment of the main armament to the sighting system, prior to commencing operations in any tank.  Misalignment would mean that the gun could not be fired accurately and was likely to be proved fatal in an engagement with a German panzer.  I asked the nonchalant trio squatting round the fire which one of them was the gunner.  A surly-looking individual stood up.  My inquiry as to whether the gun had been properly tested and adjusted produced an indifferent shrug of the shoulders from the man who was responsible for ensuring that the gun was properly sighted. When I told him to get in the tank and check it, he told me to ‘piss off’ and ‘check it myself’.

The Heights of Courage‘ by Avigdor Kahalani

Avigdor Kahalani commanded the 77th Armoured Battalion equipped with Centurion tanks on the Golan heights during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  Kahalani’s battalion formed the backbone of the defence on the Golan Heights in the ‘Valley of Tears Battle then spearheaded the Israeli counter-assault down towards Damascus. With a government and often a military infatuated with special forces and ‘predator porn precision’, we lose sight to our peril just what armour en masse is capable of.  Kahalani’s book clearly highlights just what armour in mass brings, devastating combat capability and shock impact as well as giving what is probably the best example of I have read of armour and infantry operating in concert.

Each tank commander chose a position, moved into it and began to pick of Syrians.  It was as if the gunners were settling all the scores since midday on the Day of Atonement.  Syrian vehicles were burning, their crews scuttling back out of the field of fire.  We paid no attention to them.  The tanks were more important.  Few Syrian guns answered us.  Taken completely by surprise, the Syrian armour raced for shelter – and there was none.  We had the high ground once more and they were burning in the valley.

The tanks were firing shells at random and pouring machine-gun bursts into communication trenches along the roadside.  In this kind of advance, you keep firing even if you can’t see a target.  It keeps the enemy’s head down and causes the shock – which might be vital if you only have one axis on which to move.

Lastly an honourable mention.  “Tank Tracks To Rangoon” is an excellent book on the versatility and effectiveness of armour in complex terrain, it shatters many myths.

Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France

 

Front Cover

In his book “Before the Dawn” published in 1957 Brigadier Smyth VC, MC wrote of disembarking at Cherbourg in April 1940: “…a French sentry leaned up against a sentry box with his rifle negligently propped up beside him. He was fat, unshaven, and incredibly dirty; he had his hands in his pockets and was smoking a cigarette. I often thought of that sentry in the days to come. He somehow symbolised the decline of France between the wars and the way in which the fine French Army of 1918 had deteriorated by 1939…” This myth, born in the defeat of 1940, perpetuated in the memoirs of that campaign generation and revitalised by the surge of interest in German Wehrmacht performance by the US and UK militaries in the 1980s does not stand detailed scrutiny; this book provides some such much needed scrutiny of it.

This is a book more about politics and systems than it is about tactics and strategy. It focuses on analysis of why the campaign of 1940 unfolded as it did, rather than on the campaign itself.  May’s thesis is that a combination of poor policy decisions, hubris, and systemic failures in intelligence (Allied) combined with: excellent political intelligence, operational art and pure luck (German); and that these all played a part in the the rise of the Wehrmacht and the collapse of the Third Republic.

There were four areas of this book that I found most interesting from a professional perspective:

  • Hitler’s use of political intelligence
  • Wehrmacht wargaming
  • Allied intelligence failures
  • The study of history

Hitler’s use of Political Intelligence.

Hitler’s use of open source intelligence (OSINT), the Forschungsamt (a Signals Intelligence agency much like GCHQ and the NSA) are not widely known, but played a critical part in his decision making. In the 1930s access to such intelligence gave Hitler confidence in what international reaction would be to his various moves, confidence that the military hierarchy lacked. There is much to learn today from Hitlers use of such intelligence, and for those operating at the operational levels and above it stresses the importance of the Information sphere of operations.

Wehrmacht Wargaming.

In December 1939 a strategic level war game was held at Zossen to in effect, test the original Plan Yellow concept against Manstein’s alternative. Colonel Liss was to play the part of Allied commander-in-chief Gamelin. Liss “did not have to act according to German principles, but was supposed to adopt decisions and measures which . . . the Allied command would presumably follow.” The Zossen wargame is a master class in wargaming  and should be known and studied by all those who work in Intelligence and Plans. My biggest frustration as a Planner was in getting intelligence staff to think and respond like the enemy and to give me confidence that the enemy responses (and their timelines) were credible.

Allied Intelligence Failures. 

The German offensive through the Ardennes should not have come as the surprise that it did. The reason that it did is because of the systemic flaws in Allied intelligence and the culture of Allied (especially French) Intelligence which favoured technical intelligence over the integration of intelligence with operations. There are key lessons here for intelligence staff, operations staff and politicians. Lessons which were re-visited in the build up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Study of History.

Brigadier Smyth believed in the myth of France’s collapse, and he was there.  History is a matter of both analysis and perception, and in analysing perceptions it is important to put people’s experiences into context. The French were not averse to war with Germany, the contrasts in reaction to the announcement of war between Paris and Berlin are stark. The French also fought well, the crossing of the Meuse was hard fought, and the battle of Hannut on May 13 and 14 deserves to be better known. For Brigadier Smyth context that would have helped would have been that Cherbourg was garrisoned by third rate reservist formations. For professionals studying military history a basic understanding of how to study history is a must.

Conclusion.

This book should be read by those concerned with the design and use of intelligence systems, as well as those involved in operational level planning. For those students of the 1940 campaign this is a much needed analysis which adds context to a much misunderstood campaign. It should be read in conjunction with Karl-Heinz Frieser’s Blitzkrieg Legend.