Devil’s Birthday: The Bridges to Arnhem 1944 – Geoffrey Powell

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I read this book on Kindle and the number of small formatting errors in the text makes me believe that it is a scanned in document. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this practice it’s essential that somebody proof reads the version before it goes on sale. That way the integrity and clarity of the product remains unchanged. It won’t take away from what I’m about to say about the book but it would be nice to see publisher’s taking more care about their products on the digital market.

When I was about twelve my family went to Holland on holiday, specifically in the Gelderland region. Amongst the usual family days out spent riding bicycles, falling out of trees and exploring small towns; my dad insisted that we visit Oosterbeek. At twelve years old I didn’t really realise that Oosterbeek had any more significance than any other town we visited in Holland. That is until we got there. My dad pulled into the Arnhem-Oosterbeek cemetery and proceeded to drag us around grave by grave for several hours. Coach tours dropped in and out, each bringing a sudden ten minute outburst of furious and noisy remembrance. After a while one of the people that tended the graves came over and said how happy he was to see that some people spent more than a few moments wandering around. We were so lucky that this man knew so much and was happy to take time out to show us around and tell us so many stories about the people silent before us. I don’t tell many people but it’s probably my favourite moment from any holiday ever.

What’s this got to do with the book? Oosterbeek is a key location in the story of the failure of Operation Market Garden to bypass the Siegfried Line and get across the Rhine. Oosterbeek was the location that the British 1st Airborne division made their stand whilst waiting for relief before being withdrawn. It is a location that a large portion of this book centres around. As Powell lived through the failure at Arnhem he is best placed to give the reader a real sense of what it was like to live through it.

His book is a really solid overview of Operation Market Garden starting from its inception as a massively modified Operation Comet to the eventual withdrawal of the remnants of the British 1st Airborne division. He is unflinching in his analysis of some of the failings of Market Garden, especially the lack of trust between the British and the Dutch resistance groups. Powell sets out the information clearly and the events are easy to follow. I was especially happy to see that he had not neglected to comment on the situation of the American forces at the other objectives of Market Garden. Whilst he tells the reader about everything going on in the Arnhem area he didn’t forget to comment on the events that slowed down the advance on “Hell’s Highway.”

If I had one criticism of this book it would be that the author seems to give Monty the benefit of the doubt. Most of the criticism for the failure of the operation is deflected away from Monty and onto his subordinates or the supply situation in Europe. However, the author is a solider that fought during the operation and he is likely to have felt, as many did at the time, that Monty had done all he could to achieve success.

Overall Rating: 9 out of 10

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Eagle in the Snow – Wallace Breem

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If I was reviewing the last quarter of this book it would be flawless. The pace is right, the threat real and the ending in question. However, this is a novel about waiting for the inevitable. Waiting for the river to freeze, waiting for the barbarians to cross the frontier and waiting for help that might never come.

Characters are poorly fleshed out and I genuinely didn’t care when they died. Perhaps this is because the protagonist Maximus, leader of the 20th Legion, doesn’t seem to care very much about them. The novel is written from his perspective, after all, and so we see the characters through the eyes of a man that had to command rather than love his men.

The novel is written in first person and this struck me as unusual for a novel that tries to give the reader a sense of the scale of the threat to Rome’s frontiers. It leaves events within the novel feeling disjointed as we are shackled to Maximus. We are told that plenty of events unfold but we rarely get to witness these first hand. If the protagonist occupied the place of a legionnaire we would probably experience a more action packed, darker narrative of men dying for an emperor they’ve never seen. Instead Maximus’ leadership position let’s the reader witness the endemic corruption of the late Roman empire. He regularly battles with a crumbling civic administration to get the support he needs. The figures of power which Maximus confronts throughout the novel seem to have forgotten their allegiance to Rome whilst simultaneously demanding aid from her.

Whilst this book has it’s moments of excitement it is in all a rather slow read. Perhaps I wasn’t expecting this when I picked it up but this novel struggled to deliver a narrative that made me want to turn the page.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 10

The Pirates – Matthew West

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I bought “The Pirates” thinking that I’d finally get past the movies and come face to face with who Pirates were and what drove them to piracy. Whilst “The Pirates” did provide some information about this it never delivered anything I didn’t already know. That probably isn’t the books fault, piracy is something Hollywood borrows and romanticises. It has been well established in cinema since before I was born and will probably continue to be into the far future.

As a general summary this book is worth reading. It flits between famous pirate characters and discusses their lives at a glance. As an introduction to the story of the golden age of piracy it does well to loosely identify the pirates and their motives but little else. Besides a few interesting, if not humorous, anecdotes about life aboard pirate vessels this book was not very engaging.

If all the sections in this book, had been written like the section near the end about Black Bart I would be reviewing this book in a far more positive light. This section gives a biography of Black Bart highlighting the highs and lows of his career. The fact that Black Bart’s story features a meteoric rise in status followed by a tragic, if not deserved, end makes his section the most easy to engage with.

Rating: 3 out of 10

The Fall of Berlin 1945 – Antony Beevor

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The last months of the Second World War is a subject that rarely makes an appearance in the plethora of book that are available on the topic. This books features material on some of the most barbaric events in German history, the growing ineffectiveness of Nazi leadership, whilst simultaneously highlighting several heroic actions across Berlin by hard pressed German soldiers. I will warn you now, this isn’t an easy read. The rape of Berlin by the revenging Red Army features prominently throughout this book. There are many accounts from German women that show the horrors inflicted upon the civilian populations trapped by the Soviet advances. Whilst difficult to read these sections are necessary in humanising the German people. It is far too easy to dismiss the civilians as being “Nazis” when many ordinary Germans felt that the party had lost its grip on reality.

The madness that overtook the bunker of the Nazi leadership as the Soviets closed in is also something Beevor extensively explores. The difference between those on the outside of the bunker and those within is stark. Whilst on the streets people were forced to line up in the open for food as shells rained down, in the bunker parties raged and life carried on normally. Hitler, when confronted with Soviet advances, frequently showed how out of touch with the situation he was. He is often quoted in this book as having sent orders for armies to counter-attack with divisions that no longer existed. The decision by many field commanders to ignore Hitler’s directives may have been what saved the lives of many Wehrmacht soldiers.

I was especially caught up in the decision of General Wenck to use the 12th Army to hold open a corridor for civilians and remnants of the 9th Army. This decision allowed these people to retreat to the River Elbe, and in doing so, surrender to the Americans rather than the Soviets. Wenck’s decision to disregard Hitler’s call for an attack towards Berlin gives us a real sense of how disenfranchised the Wehrmacht had become. For Wenck it wasn’t “about Berlin any more,” it wasn’t “about the Reich any more.”

This book should definitely be read after Beevor’s book on the bitter fighting at Stalingrad. This book is almost a parallel of Stalingrad except that the roles are reversed and the outcome is certain. As this book stays heavily focused on the conflict between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, it is a perfect partner to the other work and helps to complete the story of the Eastern Front like few others. In Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht is at the height of its power fighting an unprepared and poorly equipped foe. In this book, the Soviet Union has survived the onslaught of 1941 and learned the hard lessons it needed to. The Wehrmacht on the other hand, is desperately short of equipment and manpower and is in no state to seriously oppose the threat posed by the Red Army. The outcome is already decided before the book has begun but the story is still worth reading in a world where cities are still under siege and fighting happens in the streets.

Rating: 8 out of 10

The Things Our Fathers Saw: Voices of the Pacific Theater – Matthew Rozell

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Westward we came across the smiling waves,
West to the outpost of our country’s might
‘Romantic land of brilliant tropic light’
Our land of broken memories and graves.  

Eastward we go and home,
so few Wrapped in their beds of clay our comrades sleep
The memories of this land are branded deep
And lost is the youth we knew.

Lieutenant Henry Lee

Rozell has got this book right. The pace, the tone, and the visceral nature of the accounts within all work together to show the horrors of war in the Pacific. Starting with the attack on Pearl harbour readers are given first hand accounts of what it was like to face an enemy that would rather die than surrender. The accounts from veterans are accompanied by chapter headers that give a greater sense of the historical background. It is this zooming in and out between the overarching campaign and those that experienced it on the ground that makes this book so approachable. You don’t need to already know reams of information about the war in the Pacific to be able to follow this book.

My only criticism of this book, if that is what it can be called, is that there is not enough of it. I feel that this book could have done with slightly more accounts from the people that were there. However, this is probably just because I am greedy and found the accounts contained in this book truly amazing. I will leave you with one section with a pertinent message for us today:

“I think that is one thing I learned with the atomic bomb, that there is no future in war, so as far as I am concerned…the worst thing that is happening is that young people are brought up to be in fear, and you should not be.” – Walter Hooke

Rating: 9 out of 10

Hitler’s Jet Plane: The ME 262 Story – Mano Ziegler

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Mano Ziegler, as a pilot of the legendary Me 163 rocket interceptor is uniquely placed to give the reader an insight into how the Nazi regime failed to utilise the Me 262 at the end of World War 2. His position as a member of the Luftwaffe gives us a perspective far removed from that of allied bias. Ziegler is honest about Hitler’s decaying mental state and his obsession with the “wunderwaffe” as a means of saving his diminishing power. Hitler’s determination to make the Me 262 into a “blitzbomber” doomed the aircraft. Time and again, developers and pilots sought to change the Fuhrer’s mind about the aircraft and time after time they failed. In the fighter configuration, the Me 262 was faster than anything the allies had and far better suited to attacking bombers than being one. Whilst Ziegler tells the reader of the innumerable benefits of the Me 262 he doesn’t avoid some of its major faults. He makes it very clear that an Me 262 caught on the ground was little but a sitting duck to allied air power.

Whilst this is a book about the use of the Me 262 in World War 2 by Nazi Germany it is much better read as a narrative of disharmony between the leadership and industry. This book tells us far more about the desperate situation Germany found itself in as the allies pressed in. What makes this book really worth reading, beyond its political scope, are the accounts of surviving Me 262 pilots. These accounts bring the aircraft to life and really let the reader “sit in the cockpit.”

Rating 7 out of 10

Prisoners of Geography – Tim Marshall

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In the winter of 2008 and early 2009 Russia turned off the supply of gas to the Ukraine. In doing so, large areas of the rest of Europe also lost a large proportion of their supply. Fear stalked the media and here in the UK there were many reports of how unprepared for a shortage we were. This was one of the moments that caused my teenage brain to become interested in Geopolitics. It was clear to me then that Russia wields its energy resources as a political weapon to ensure that most of Europe does little to oppose it. This seems to be clear to the author of this book as well. Tim Marshall sees the world in terms of its geographical constraints. To Marshall, rivers, mountains and oceans become major obstacles to countries and foreign policy. Mountains are unassailable physical barriers, rivers can only be overcome with massive investment and access to the seas is essential for economic success. If it isn’t already clear, I really enjoyed this book.

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