Tag Archives: British Military History

Book Review: The Longest Afternoon by Brendan Simms

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

There have been hundreds of books written about the battle of Waterloo in the last two centuries.  Most acknowledge that the defense of the two farms at La Haye Saint and Hougemont were decisive in the allied victory.  Curiously, to my knowledge there has not been a microhistory written of the actions in and around the farmhouse of La Haye Saint.  Brendan Simms has rectified that era in his new work The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo.

This slim volume packs an amazing amount of detail between the covers.  The book itself is less than 200 pages in overall length.  The narrative is separated into eight short chapters and appendix, ten page bibliography, and 27 pages of notes.

The story of the defense of La Haye Saint is often remarked upon but seldom recounted.  Simms corrects this with his detailed history of the defense of the farm and even more interestingly the men of the King’s German Legion (KGL) that defended it.  The KGL is one of those strange units that only appears in wartime and does not long survive the war that called it into existence.  It was made up mostly of Hanoverians who fled French occupied Hanover to fight for the English and their German king to liberate their homeland.  They both were and were not considered elite troops but it was mostly an accident of history that the 2nd Light Battalion (rifles) of the KGL was detailed to defend La Haye Saint on the day of battle.

The thing that makes this book so good is the depth of scholarship that went into it.  Simms is able to reconstruct an hour by hour, and in places almost minute by minute account of the battle in and around the farm.  He can do this because he managed to discover several unpublished memoirs by members of the KGL, including one written by an enlisted man.  This allows him to not only name names but to describe somewhat the personalities of the characters involved in the fight.

The defense of La Haye Saint invokes other famous British defensive stands such as Rorke’s Drift and Le Cateau.  That the soldiers were mostly not British is irrelevant as the Hanoverians were just as determined in service of George III as any native English soldiers.  The KGL was eventually driven from the farmhouse late in the day after they depleted their ammunition and could not be resupplied.  There defeat was not really a defeat though as they had managed to tie up the French in the center of the battlefield long enough for Blücher and his Prussian army to arrive on napoleons flank and bought the time necessary to stave off defeat.  It was only shortly after the farm was surrendered that Wellington ordered a general advance as it became clear that the French had shot their bolt and were defeated.

The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo is narrative and microhistory at its best. For anyone seeking to understand the reasons for napoleons defeat at Waterloo this book is indispensable. I highly recommend this book. 

Gallipoli, 1915: Analysis of a Glorious Failure

The Allied invasion of Gallipoli and its subsequent failure represented perhaps the greatest lost opportunity of the First World War.  There is every reason to expect that if the invasion of Turkey had been successful then much the same results would have accrued to the Allies then as were to accrue twenty-eight years later when the Allies successfully invaded Italy in the Second World War.  The tangible results of the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 was the capitulation of the government of Mussolini, and the diversion of up to sixteen German divisions in Italy that could have been more profitably used in France.  Additionally, one of Germany’s most capable generals, Albert Kesselring was also tied down in Italy.  If Kesselring had instead been in France it is conceivable that his operational creativity and flexibility could have made a crucial difference after Rommel was wounded in August 1944.

Anzac Cove shortly after the Start of the Dardanelles Operation
Anzac Cove shortly after the Start of the Dardanelles Operation

The Allies hoped that by successfully knocking Turkey out of the war they would open up a warm water route to Russia, divert German strength from the Western Front, and quickly conquer the Middle East thus freeing up western troops for service in France.  The Germans had been supplying and advising the Turkish army and navy since before the war in hopes of completing the Berlin-Baghdad railway and thus simplifying their access to Middle East oil.  The Allied invasion of Gallipoli in 1915 was a bold strategic move that if successfully executed could have changed the course of World War I.  The assault only became a disaster through poor, unrealistic planning and operational mismanagement.

The Allied assault at Gallipoli could have been as successful an operation as the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943-1944 if only the Allied planners had appreciated the real possibilities of a realistically planned operation.  The basic premise of both the Gallipoli and Italian campaigns was the same, namely to tie down enemy forces so that the war-winning blow could be landed elsewhere.  The vastly different outcomes in similar wars almost demand a comparison of the factors that led one operation to success and the other to failure.  There are many similarities between the concepts of the campaigns.  Both Gallipoli and the Italian campaign were considered secondary, both were very much ad hoc, both were fit into the larger Allied war-plans as off the cuff operations, and lastly neither were seen as potentially war-winning from the outset.

The origins of the Gallipoli campaign lie in the combination of stalemate on the Western Front and the Russian reverses after their disastrous defeat at Tannenberg in the fall of 1914 and the entry of the Turks into the war in December 1914.  The Western Front was seemingly locked in a stalemate without some innovation and it was felt that the Russians were on the verge of collapse after their massive losses at Tannenberg.  The thought was that if the Dardanelles could be forced and a warm water route to Russia opened the Russians could be assisted and the danger of their collapse could be averted.

The idea of forcing the Dardanelles was initially put forth by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in response to a request for a demonstration against the Turks to relieve pressure against the Russians.  Thus the initial concept of the operation was as a simple demonstration by the Royal Navy to force the Dardanelles there was no thought of a troop landing in support of naval forces, it was only later that an assault by land forces was added to the plan.  The Gallipoli campaign is one of the glaring examples in recent military history of what has become known as “mission creep” or the inevitable addition of tasks to what was originally a simple and straightforward assignment.

Planning initially began only for a naval attack to force the narrows at Gallipoli as Lord Kitchener, the British War Minister, said troops were not available for a land assault.  The initial plan called for the Mediterranean fleet to force the narrows and break out into the Black Sea where they could harass and interdict Turkish coastal shipping in support of the Russian army.  It was only after the Royal Navy’s failure in February 1915 with the loss of two capital ships that the idea of landing troops on the Gallipoli peninsula was batted around.  After the idea’s approval, only two months of planning went into the operation and the assault occurred in April 1915, with troops hurriedly collected from the Middle East and the diversion of the ANZAC corps that was stopped en route to the Western Front and assigned to the operation.

The Battle of Messines Ridge – 1917

From the opening months of the World War I, Flanders was the decisive sector for the British Army.  It was in an around the medieval Belgian town of Ypres that the original BEF had decimated themselves fending off German attacks from October to December, 1914.  Ypres and the salient surrounding it was where the British would see the hardest and most prolonged fighting of all the places where the British would fight in World War I.

The Battle of Messines Ridge fought from 7-14 June, 1914 was not really a separate battle at all but rather the opening phase of what would come to be known variously as the Third Battle of  Ypres or Passchendaele.

Messines 1

 

The Battlefield: Then and Now
The Battlefield: Then and Now

The Messines Ridge is on the southern shoulder of what was then the Ypres salient.  It is commanding terrain the possession of which allowed the German army to see almost all the way into the center of the city of Ypres itself and observe British movements inside the salient allowing the Germans to target British concentrations of troops very accurately.

The Ridge itself is not very high, about 90 feet, but that was more than high enough for military purposes given the flat nature of the terrain in Flanders near the coast.  I never fully appreciated the advantage to be gained from possession of a 90 foot ridge-line until my first visit to the battlefield in 2004 while on R&R from my tour in Iraq.  In Flanders a 90 foot difference in elevation makes all the difference in the world.

Possession of the Messines Ridge would allow the British to deny observation of a significant portion of their rear area to the German army and would also serve as an excellent stepping off point for follow on offensive operations both to expand the salient and effect the ever elusive breakout that all generals from any side fervently wished for.

The immediate commander and primary planner for the British forces in the lead-up to Messines Ridge was Gen. Herbert Plumer who had the unfortunate reputation with Haig of being a plodder.  Plumer reputation among the troops however was different.  He was on of the few British generals who the troops adored or even loved because of his well-known concern for their welfare and desire to avoid excessive casualties.

Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle
Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle

The plan Plumer came up with to take the ridge entailed the explosion of 25 mines that the Royal Army had laboriously emplaced under the ridge in the months leading up to the commencement of the offensive.  The mines ranged in size from the 96,500 lb St. Eloi mine to the 30,000 lb Petit Bois mines.  These were set to essentially demolish and demoralize the German front line trenches whereupon the British troops were expected to easily occupy them before the stunned Germans could react and throw them out.

A creeping barrage by 2/3 of the 2,200 artillery pieces available was to “shoot the attacking infantry in” once the mines exploded.  The rest of the artillery was reserved for use in the counter battery role to suppress German artillery to a depth of 9,000 yards along the attack front.

A preliminary bombardment lasting almost two weeks was also planned for the preparing the battlefield and hindering the Germans from reinforcing the sector to be attacked.  (NOTE:  preliminary bombardments of this style were not meant so much to destroy defensive works so much as to demoralize the enemy, injure defenders, and keep the enemies head down allowing attacking infantry to assault when the time came)

The Messines battle was the opening act of what was ultimately planned to be a British rupture of the German defenses in Flanders.  The overall plan failed.

At approximately  3:10 a.m. on the morning of June 7th, 1917 19 of the 25 emplaced mines exploded.  The 4 Birdcage mines were not detonated because the Germans had already evacuated the area by Zero-Hour and two failed to explode. The mines were wildly successful and the British troops did indeed essentially waltz into the German positions and establish occupancy.

The Germans attempted to counterattack on day one but they were unable to keep the British from occupying and holding the entirety of the first three lines of German trenches except for a portion of their third line which they retook from II ANZAC Corps.

On the morning of 8 June the II ANZAC Corps retook the section of the German third line they had been ejected from.  The rest of the British assault divisions set about consolidating the defenses in the newly won positions while the British artillery provided disrupting fire on German counterattacks while a portion of the artillery was displaced forward.

German artillery unleashed a massive bombardment on the captured trenches during which it is estimated that the British suffered up to 90% of their casualties during the battle.

Once large-scale German counterattacks stopped on 14 June the Messines sector settled down until the Passchendaele battle restarted active fighting in the beginning of July.

The Battle for Messines Ridge was one of the few arguably successful offensives of World War I prior to the offensives of the Last Hundred Days in 1918.

Messines 4

Book Review: The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945 by Richard Overy

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945 is one of those books that is going to end up a standard work for a long time to come.  It is the single most comprehensive history of the Allied bombing of Germany and occupied Europe during WWII that I have seen since the strategic bombing survey published by the US government in the immediate post-war years.

I have a review copy of the book so the page counts may be a little different in the published version.  The book itself is 561 pages with 78 pages of notes, a 26 pages bibliography, and an 18 page index.  It is divided into six chapters.  The first three chapters are a chronological account of the air war over Germany and the last three are thematic dealing with the logic of bombing and the campaigns in Italy and the occupied countries.

Every book about the war talks about the bombing campaign and most take for granted that it was effective at least partially in reducing Germany’s war-making ability.  This book examines the war in detail and tries to establish the effectiveness, if any, of the Allied bombing offensive.  The answer is mixed at best.

It has always struck me as odd that despite the expenditure of hundreds of tons of bombs and the devastation of the center and surrounding regions of most industrial towns in Germany, german war production continued to increase throughout the war.  Indeed, the most productive war of the month in terms of number of tanks and aircraft constructed was march of 1945.  Given that, how could it be said that the bombing campaign was successful as many historians and the leaders of the campaign claimed?

The point of bombing was not to kill civilians, but to reduce the war making capacity of Germany.  What Dr. Overy makes clear is that while industrial capacity was negatively affected in the wake of many raids, what was lost was regained and then some so rapidly that production halts were temporary at best.  he attributes this to two causes; one, bombing accuracy was abysmal, and two, the Germans were very good at repairing damage and getting production lines running again.

It was considered a good raid by the british if there bombs fell within 5 miles of the target and three Americans thought within 3 miles was good.  Bombing accuracy was so bad because the bombers flew very high to avoid AA fire and in the case of the English, they flew at night.  The lower the bombers flew, the more accurate they were but they also suffered horrendous losses at low altitude due to AA fire and German fighters.

Added to bombing inaccuracy, was the depth and responsiveness of the German Civil and Air Defense Systems.  The Germans had a multitude of agencies tasked with dealing with raiding damage and the German people themselves pitched in to make things good.  The striking thing is that the Germans could have been even more effective if they had streamlined their civil defense organizations and avoided having a plethora of agencies trying to do the same thing.

The story of the bombing of italy shows that where the germans were very good, the Italians were very bad and italian civilians suffered as a result.  Of special interest is the discussion of the bombing of occupied countries and the response of the occupied people to the destruction and loss of life inherent in being bombed to get their freedom.

This is an outstanding book and I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they are knowledgeable about the Allied Bombing campaign of WWII.  The book dispels some myths and puts the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of strategic bombing in context to who the war was won and the Nazis defeated.

Book Review: D-Day – Minute-by-Minute by Jonathan Mayo

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Next Week is the 70th Anniversary of D-Day the Allied invasion of Europe.  I would guess that most people don’t think about it and if they do the picture that comes to their mind is a scene from Saving Private Ryan.  The movie gives a good idea but the words of those who were there are priceless gems in my opinion.

D-Day: Minute by Minute is a description of the events of D-day in the order in which they occurred taken from transcripts and interviews of those that were there.

It gives the reader a sense of the disordered perspective the average participant has in combat. All is chaos and confusion and it take courage and determination just to keep going, much less fight effectively.  It says much for the soldiers, sailors, and airman of the allied armies that they persevered despite the chaos of the landings.

The book itself is separated into three chapters that cover the period leading up to D-Day, the 5th of June, and D-Day itself.  By far the greatest portion of the book is dedicated to D-Day, 198 pages.  There is brief introduction and a postscript that details what happened to the people whose stories are told in the main narrative.  It also includes a 16 page, very tightly packed bibliography.

The minute-by-minute format is very appealing for an event as momentous as D-Day.  It gives the reader a sense of how the day played out and what I thought was more important, that the issue of whether the Allies would succeed or fail was in doubt until late in the afternoon.  One of the best things about this book is that although it focuses on retelling events from the Allied perspective it does not ignore the Germans fighting them and the recollections of several of the Normandy beach defenders are included as well.

This is an outstanding book and should be required reading in High School history classes.  I doubt that will happen though.  Everybody, whether history buff or not, should read this book.  I highly recommend it.  That it has been released near the 70th anniversary of the landings is appropriate as it gives voice to the generation that fought there and is rapidly passing away.