Archive | September 2015

Commandos … Australia’s WWII heroes

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By Frank Walker
Published by Hachette Australia
RRP $32.99 in paperback
ISBN 9780733631535

Frank Walker’s earlier books – The Tiger Man of Vietnam, Ghost Platoon and Maralinga have all been well received.

In this latest book, he has turned his attention to World War II and the story of the ANZAC soldiers, sailors and airmen who carried out many dangerous and virtually impossible missions behind enemy lines.

We have seen some of these stories told before …. Operation Rimau, for example, and the story of White Mouse Nancy Wake who, by April 1944, was the Allied agent for 7,000 resistance fighters in Central France. Her story is legendary. It is no wonder that, as Walker writes, she was ‘frustrated with the boredom of post war civilian life’.

Included too is the story the dam busters and their raid on the Mohne Dam.

What each story has in common is the determination of those involved to complete their missions. In doing so they all demonstrated incredible bravery and resourcefulness. Many made the ultimate sacrifice but yet they remain a great inspiration to others.

For more about Frank Walker, go to his website


The War with Germany – Volume 3: The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War


The War with Germany
Volume 3: The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War

By Robert Stevenson
Published by Oxford University Press
RRP $59.95 in hardback

ISBN 9780195576771

We offer here a different history for a different era, writes Dr Jeffrey Grey, Professor of History, UNSW Canberra, who is the series editor of the five volumes.

This is the third book in the five volume series: the two still to be published are The War at Home (October 2015) and The Australian Imperial Force (April 2016). The earlier volumes were Australia and the War in the Air (Vol 1) and The War with the Ottoman Empire (Vol 2). – see this blog in April 2015.

This latest book examines the performance of the Australian Army in the two theatres where it confronted the German Army during the First World War: German New Guinea and the Western Front. Australia’s involvement from beginning to end was determined and shaped primarily by the threat Germany posed to the British Empire.

The author acknowledges the difficulty of writing about what really happened given that Australia’s Great War story ‘has been deformed by a myopic focus on experiences of the digger’ and an unshakeable belief that Australian soldiers were exceptional.

He concludes that Australia’s forces earned their reputation for battlefield virtuosity for characteristics that were neither innate nor unique. Instead they only gradually and painfully became a great fighting force for the very same reasons that other contingents earned a place among the foremost ranks of the British Empire’s best.

This series was launched last year – here is the YouTube video of the launch.

Key Concepts in Military Ethics

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Key Concepts in Military Ethics
edited by Deane-Peter Baker

Published by UNSW Press
RRP $19.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781742234380

All the contributors to this book were, at the time of publication, part of the teaching and research team in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW Canberra, the campus responsible for all the degree programs offered to the cadets and midshipmen of the ADF at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA).

As such, writes Dr Deane-Peter Baker, the editor of this volume, ‘we’re a group of scholars who take the professional relevance of what we teach and write about very seriously indeed’.

The book is intended to serve as a companion volume to a new UNSW Canberra venture, a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called ‘Ethics for the Military Profession: An Introduction’.

It is structured as a series of ‘mini-chapters’ that cover a huge range of topics and issues: moral dilemmas, military and civilian interactions, freedom of the press, peacekeeping, terrorism, and humanitarian intervention. There is, for example, a chapter on The Military and the Media and an interesting chapter on Illegal Orders and Whistle-blowing.

Dr Deane-Peter Baker was appointed to UNSW Canberra in August 2012. He came to Canberra from Annapolis, Maryland, USA, where he was an Assistant Professor of Ethics in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law at the United States Naval Academy for two and a half years, having previously taught in South Africa.

In this small book, he has successfully brought together a concise yet detailed volume on military ethics that will interest serious readers of military matters.

Special Forces in Action: New book from Big Sky


Special Forces in Action 
Iraq * Syria * Afghanistan * Africa * Balkans
By Alexander Stilwell

Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $29.99 in hardback
ISBN: 9781925275131

Big Sky Publishing has produced a local edition of this book, first published by Amber Books in the UK.

Special Forces in Action is a detailed account of the operations of the world’s special forces over the past 25 years. From the First Gulf War to the covert operations of special forces in Somalia, Sierra Leon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria today, this book is full of details of the often clandestine activities of the world’s most elite soldiers. The invasion of Iraq, the search for war criminals in the Balkans, drug baron hunting in South America, hostage rescues in Africa, and the counter-terrorist initiatives since 9/11 the special forces role is always expanding.

Australian special forces get several mentions for their roles in Afghanistan, East Timor and Iraq.

The book is extensively illustrated with some interesting photographs. Author Alexander Stilwell lists among his achievements The Encyclopedia of the World’s Special Forces as well as contributing to the International Defence Review.

Sappers as heroes: Tunnel Rats vs the Taliban


Tunnel Rats vs the Taliban
How Aussie sappers led the way in the war on terror
By Jimmy Thomson and Sandy MacGregor

Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $29.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781760113544

Inspired by the original Australian Tunnel Rats of the war in Vietnam, these Tunnel Rats of Afghanistan have rooted out the enemy from deep inside their caves and mountain hideouts, have defused thousands of IEDs, built bridges and schools to win a war of hearts and minds, and fought side by side with special forces commandos and SAS troops. They, too, lost a disproportionate number of their comrades and many returned home with the devastating baggage of war, post-traumatic stress disorder.

This is an inspiring story of a special breed of soldier operating in a modern war against an enemy with medieval morals . . . and bombs triggered by mobile phones. In many ways, it is a story that connects the unsung heroes of Vietnam with the modern heroes of Afghanistan.

Towards the end of the book, there are two chapters in particular that drew my attention: ‘Wounded Warriors’ and ‘Was it worth it’.

There is a frank look at PTSD with admissions from some of those interviewed for the book that they did not let on how much they were struggling even after seeking treatment. ‘I was telling the psychs what they needed to hear so I would get the ticks in the boxes so I could go back overseas’ says one soldier. No doubt it is relatively easy to disguise mental anguish, but eventually it emerges with often devastating consequences for the individual.

‘Was it worth it’ relies on verbatim input from a range of individuals. The education of girls is a recurring theme among the positive achievements. Another interesting comment was that it provided combat experience for the army that had been lacking since Vietnam and yet that same contributor suggested the 24/7 comms environment bred a loss of robustness that only exercises in the bush back in Australia could rebuild.

So, some interesting and unexpected comments in book that describes the sappers’ role in today’s military engagements.

NEW BOOK: Victoria’s Cross: The untold story of Britain’s highest award for bravery

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Victoria’s Cross: The untold story of Britain’s highest award for bravery
By Gary Mead

Published by Atlantic Books; Dist. by Allen & Unwin
$49.99 in hardcover
ISBN 9781843542698

In his introduction to this book, Mead poses the question: how is it that, over more than a century and a half, the VC has mutated from its no doubt flawed but remarkably open and democratic origins, to become the tightly controlled, rather secretive and undemocratic honour it has become today.

He says that the behaviour necessary to gain a VC today is not so much courage as madness and that today’s recipients are carefully scrutinized as to how their story will be judged by the media and generally assessed to determine if they are the ‘right’ character to receive the award.

Born out of the Crimean War in 1856 and the fragility of the monarchy at that time, the VC’s prestige is such that it takes precedence over all other orders and medals in Britain. But while many books have been written about specific aspects of the VC and its recipients, none have asked why so many brave men who deserved the medal were denied it, and why no women have ever been awarded the VC, even though they are entitled.

Gary Mead’s vivid and balanced account of the VC’s life and times explores its role as a barometer for the shifting sands of political and social change during the last 150 years.

Reviewer Allan Mallinson, writing in The Spectator (6/6/15), offers a detailed review of the book that is worth reading – at this link:

High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq: Emma Sky tells her story in The Unravelling


The Unravelling
High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq
By Emma Sky

Published by Atlantic Books; Dist. by Allen & Unwin
RRP $39.99 in hardcover
ISBN 9781782392576

As Emma Sky writes in the preface to this book, this memoir recounts her experiences in Iraq over more than a decade. It started when she responded to the British government’s request for volunteers to help rebuild the country after the fall of Sadam Hussein in 2003.

She initially found herself responsible for Kirkuk, trying to diffuse tensions between the different Iraqis scrambling to control the province. It continued through the Surge when she served as the political adviser to General Ray Odierno, goes through the drawdown of US troops and ends with the takeover of a third of Iraq by the Islamic State.

It is a tale, she says, of unintended consequences, both of President Bush’s efforts to impose democracy and of President Obama’s detachment; of action as well as non-action.

As Robin Yassin-Kassab writes in his review (The Guardian, 6/6/15)

In November 2013, Obama praised “a strong, prosperous, inclusive and democratic Iraq”. By July 2014, Islamic State had driven the Iraqi army out of Mosul and set about cleansing religious minorities from the north. The confused response has so far been led by Iranian-backed Shia militias. The US airforce is back in theatre – and until now failing miserably. The Unravelling is an indispensable tool for understanding the background to this failure.

To read this full review, link here

With the present situation in the Middle East, the more we understand the background and how we arrived at the current instability, the better, in my opinion. Perhaps better understanding will prevent more misguided intervention, but perhaps it is too late for that.

This book is certainly worth reading if this is your sphere of interest. And particularly if this is your sphere of policy influence.

Antony Beevor at Brisbane Writers Festival: entertaining and erudite

Ardennes1944 copyArdennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble
By Antony Beevor

Published by Viking/Penguin Books
RRP $49.99 in hardcover
ISBN 9780670918645

Yesterday, Judy and I went to see Antony Beevor at the Brisbane Writers Festival. He was speaking about his latest book ‘Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble’.

Beevor, of course, is a highly regarded historian specializing in World War 2 (the European theatre, I should add).

His insights into the campaign, the subject of his latest book, were not surprising: ‘Terrain is always important,’ he said, ‘but it was particularly important in the Ardennes’. Then there was the intense cold, it was midwinter and the area was heavily forested.

Hitler, he said, examined maps to determine the plan for the campaign; he did not examine the physical areas. There is, he says, an element of megalomania about all dictators.

Thus, on 16 December 1944, Hitler launched his ‘last gamble’ in the snow-covered forests and gorges of the Ardennes. With more than a million men involved, it became the greatest battle of the war in western Europe. The Allies, taken by surprise, found themselves fighting two panzer armies.  Belgian civilians abandoned their home, justifiably afraid of German revenge.  Panic spread even to Paris.  While many American soldiers fled or surrendered, others held on heroically, creating breakwaters which slowed the German advance. The Ardennes was the battle which finally broke the back of the Wehrmacht.

Beevor talked frankly about his research in the Russian archives during Glasnost – now, he would be arrested if he returned to Russia, he said, where he faces 5 years in prison.

An hour passes very quickly in such a session. And it is the tidbits he leaves his audience with that are the most memorable.

He spoke briefly about the terrible ‘moral choice’ in war and reflecting on contemporary conflicts, he needed to say nothing more than that ‘intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage’.

He left his audience wanting more.

The Kamikaze Hunters: Fighting for the Pacific, 1945


The Kamikaze Hunters
Fighting for the Pacific, 1945
By Will Iredale

Published by Macmillan
RRP $29.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781447284710

As ever, when you dip into books you find some fascinating facts. I did not know for instance that there was a British Centre built in Sydney in 1945 from public donations. It operated as a hostel and recreation centre for the crews. At its height 6,000 meals were served daily ….. and it included a dance floor. Sydney had been chosen as the British Pacific Fleet’s main base

As Will Iredale writes in his introduction to this book, in the spring and summer of 1945, Britain was already celebrating victory over Germany, yet 6,000 miles away in the Pacific hundreds of young men, most barely out of their teens, were climbing into their fighters and bombers and taking off from the pitching, rolling decks of Royal Navy aircraft carriers to battle against the Japanese kamikazes.

These were the ‘flyboys’ of the British Pacific fleet, spearheaded by its six principal aircraft carriers, forming the 1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron.

It was a chance meeting with Royal Navy fighter pilot Keith Quilter, who was shot down by anti-aircraft fire in July 1945, that sparked his interest in the topic and this book.

You can see a short video at this link – which includes interviews with survivors and also the author at the book launch in London.

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