A turning point of the American War in Vietnam
By Mark Bowden
Published by Grove Press; Distributed in Australia by Allen and Unwin
RRP $32.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781611855104
31 January 1968 was a pivotal date in the Vietnam War. It was on this day that North Vietnamese troops supported by Viet Cong guerrillas launched a series of coordinated attacks across South Vietnam.
It caught the American military hierarchy by complete surprise. It became known as the Tet Offensive. Its aim was to overrun the American and South Vietnamese armies thus triggering a popular uprising which they hoped (expected?) would result in the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government.
The early days of the campaign saw nearly 10,000 North Vietnamese troops capture all but two embattled compounds in the city of Hue, the historic capital of Vietnam.
In this engrossing book, Mark Bowden reconstructs hour by hour how a much inferior sized force of American and South Vietnamese troops were finally able to emerge victorious after twenty-five days of bitter urban warfare.
While the Tet Offensive eventually failed, the North Vietnamese did score a major psychological victory. Support for the war in America started to decline resulting in President Lyndon Johnson announcing he would not be seeking re-election.
The belief that an American victory was inevitable had been severely undermined and Bowden believes that “never again would Americans fully trust their leaders”.
To read a more extensive review of this book published in The New York Times (4 July 2017) go to THIS LINK.
Defending the Rock
How Gibraltar defeated Hitler
By Nicholas Rankin
Published by Faber & Faber; Dist. by Allen and Unwin
RRP $39.99 in hardback • ISBN 9780571307708
The actual Rock of Gibraltar is a chunk of Jurassic limestone at the very southern tip of Spain at the strategically vital entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. It became a British protectorate in 1704 when the English, aided by the Dutch, ousted the Spanish governor. The Rock became the portal for British expansion eastwards as far as the Suez Canal.
Fast forward to World War II. Gibraltar is menaced on all sides – by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Vichy France and Francoist Spain. Every day Gibraltar had to let thousands of people cross its frontier to work. Among them came spies and saboteurs, eager to blow up its 25 miles of secret tunnels.
By 1940, civilians were being compulsorily evacuated to Morocco. By 1942, Gibraltar became US General Eisenhower’s HQ for the invasion of North Africa, the campaign that led to Allied victory in the Mediterranean.
Rankin suggests it was Hitler’s failure to commit to ridding himself of his last opponent – England – either by invasion, blockade or cutting its Mediterranean links of Gibraltar, Malta and the Suez that was pivotal to the outcome of the war.
While the sub-title of this book, ‘How Gibraltar defeated Hitler’, seems to me to be a bridge too far, Rankin has nevertheless written a fascinating book which demonstrates the strategic value of Gibraltar in the broader context of the war in Europe.
For a more comprehensive review of this book, go to The Guardian (21 Sep 2017) at THIS LINK.
Monash & Chauvel
How Australia’s two greatest generals changed the course of world history
By Roland Perry
Published by Allen and Unwin
RRP $34.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781760291433
John Monash commanded the Australian forces on the Western Front at the most critical time of World War I, 1918. With his German Jewish heritage, Monash was an outsider who had risen to his position through his ground-breaking military achievements. He learned the lessons of past failures and devised the tactics that allowed his Australian troops to break through the stalemate of trench warfare, masterminding crucial battles, including Amiens, Mont St Quentin, Peronne, and at the Hindenburg Line that broke the German Army in France. In the war against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East,
Harry Chauvel led the 34,000-strong Desert Mounted Column. Chauvel was an Empire man, who considered himself as British first, Australian second. However, his attitude changed during the course of the war when he realised he would have to ignore the directives of his British superiors and take the initiative in planning battle tactics himself if he was to defeat the Turks. He did this at Romani in the Sinai in August 1916; at Beersheba on 31 October 1917; and in the final 1918 drive to defeat the Turks.
By the end of the war both Monash and Chauvel had brought a distinctly Australian sensibility to their areas of operation. With this latest book Roland Perry has written a highly readable account of the careers of the two most important Australian field commanders of the First World War.
For a more extensive review of this book, go to this review in The Sydney Morning Herald (8 Feb 2018) – LINK HERE.
Australians on the Western Front 1918
Vol 1 Resisting the great German offensive
By David W Cameron
Published by Viking/Penguin Random House
RRP $34.99 in paperback • ISBN 9780143788614
David Cameron, the author of The Battle for Lone Pine and The Charge, has now turned his attention to the final year of the war, 1918, and in particular the crucial battles fought in March and April.
1917 had been a bloody year for the Allies, culminating in the terrible battle of Passchendaele where the British Commonwealth suffered close to 350,000 casualties.
Early 1918 was expected to see a fresh German offensive, boosted by the troops returning from the Russian line following Russia’s withdrawal from the war. The Germans intended to drive a wedge between the British and French lines and force them back toward the Channel ports.
And the offensive duly eventuated when the Germans launched their attack on 21 March. They initially made significant inroads into the British Fifth Army’s line with the aim of pushing them back to the vital railway hub of Amiens.
Cameron recounts in minute detail how the attack unfolded and the role the Australians played in eventually repulsing the Germans. Drawing heavily on battalion diaries and soldiers’ letters, Cameron weaves a compelling narrative around the campaign’s significant moments including the Australian Army Corps’ heavy involvement in the battles of Dernancourt, Villers-Bretonneux and Hazebrouck.
NOTE: The great Allied offensive of August 1918 will be covered in volume 2 of this comprehensive history of the final year of the war.
The Doomsday Machine
Confessions of a nuclear war planner
By Daniel Ellsberg
Published by Bloomsbury
RRP $39.99 in hardback • ISBN 9781608196708
Recently featured in the film, The Post, Daniel Ellsberg was a high level defence analyst who copied and leaked 7,000 pages of secret documents on the Vietnam War (the Pentagon Papers), revealing vital information about the war that had been kept from the American public.
What is not widely known is that he simultaneously copied 8,000 pages of even more highly classified material about nuclear war plans which he also intended to leak. What emerges now, years later, is an insider’s account of the most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization. But these are not just any arms; these are nuclear arms capable of the destruction of mankind.
He writes in detail about the Cuban missile crisis which in the end saw Khrushchev finally back down amid assurances that the US would not overthrow the Cuban government. He quotes Khrushchev on the resolution of the crisis. (Khrushchev expected the Chinese and Albanians to accuse him of weakness.) “What good would it have done me in the last hour of my life to know that though our great nation and the United States were in complete ruin, the national honor of the Soviet Union was intact”. As Ellsberg writes, “that last line …. Deserves to be studied by all those whose fingers hover over the trigger to a Doomsday Machine.”
Ellsberg has produced a compelling memoir of an insider’s account of what a nuclear strike really means, how precarious the chain of command is and just how urgent it is that nuclear disarmament be taken seriously if we are to avoid a catastrophic event from which not only will no winners emerge, no one will emerge.
In his final chapter he writes of his regret at not releasing the documentation about nuclear war planning that he had copied at the time of the Pentagon Papers, and then subsequently lost after clumsy attempts to hide the box containing the documents.
In fact he now urges current well-placed potential whistleblowers to come forward to raise public awareness of the awful threat the world faces.
For a more comprehensive review of this book, see the review by Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School, published in The New York Times:
The Making of the Fuhrer
By Paul Ham
Published by William Heinemann
RRP $32.99 in hardback • ISBN 9780143786559
Despite being studied and analysed by numerous biographers, Adolf Hitler still remains an enigma to many historians.
Paul Ham has chosen to examine Hitler’s early life to try to understand what, in short, “made the Fuhrer”. Unlike many returning soldiers from the First World War, Ham says “Hitler thrilled to battle, refused to accept defeat and fell into the darkest slough of despond at the Armistice”.
If this assessment is accurate, then it is not difficult to understand why Hitler was driven to avenge what he perceived as a great injustice to the German nation and its severe treatment under the Treaty of Versailles.
Ham argues that Hitler was an opportunist who took advantage of the catastrophic conditions that had debased German society in the post war years rather than a natural born leader who was always destined to rule.
Given these conditions, the time was ripe for the emergence of a ‘saviour’ who would make Germany great again. As it turned out, Hitler possessed the necessary traits to assume this role.
Ham believes, along with the acclaimed historian Ian Kershaw, that “what happened under Hitler is unimaginable without the experience of the First World War and what followed it”.
Based on this, Ham concludes that “Hitler was an extreme example of a recurring and dangerous type of political animal, one that thrives in chaos, revolution and economic collapse”. This is a sobering conclusion.
Could we see the rise of such a dictator again given the re-emergence of far right political ideology? We can only hope not.
No Front Line
Australia’s Special Forces at war in Afghanistan
By Chris Masters
Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $34.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781760111144
Chris Masters is highly regarded in Australia as an investigative journalist par excellence.
This, his latest book, has been ten years in the making with Masters having been given unprecedented access to all levels of Australia’s Special Forces, becoming the first and only reporter to be embedded with Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan.
What he lays before the reader, to use his own words, is “as tough an investigative mission as I’ve ever undertaken”.
His detailed descriptions of engagements are revealing as he recounts each phase of Australia’s involvement in a war in which distinguishing friend from foe is a constant challenge.
By the Australian Defence Force’s own estimation, Masters writes, “not since World War I have Australians engaged in such intense and sustained conflict. If personnel did become desensitized it is not surprising”.
As problems emerged, it was the stories of misbehaviour and misdemeanours that made the headlines. Yet the legacy for those who served, as Masters observes, is carried by “a narrow cohort now largely disconnected from the broad community” in circumstances where “the outcome is not [a matter of] national survival” accentuating “doubts about cost, risk and moral comfort”.
This is an outstanding book which gives the reader a real insight into what it means to be part of an elite force fighting a war where the objectives and rules of engagement are determined thousands of miles away in a political environment into which they have little real input.
Note: There is no connection between Chris Masters and myself.
Publishers Penguin Random House have announced that Paul Ham’s book Passchendaele: Requiem for Doomed Youth has won the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
In making the award, the judges commented that Passchendaele is both a moving examination of the suffering of individuals within this worldwide catastrophe and a skilful exploration of the large-scale political machinations that created it. In his meticulous description of the events and miscalculations that led to its pointless bloodshed, Ham cleverly and subtly reminds us of the continuing relevance of this long-past battle to government decision-making today.
We offer our congratulations to Paul Ham who has become a significant contributor to the Australian military history oeuvre.
About the Prize
The Douglas Stewart Prize ($40,000) is for a prose work other than a work of fiction. Books including biographies, autobiographies and works of history, philosophy and literary criticism may be nominated provided they display literary qualities. Oral histories are ineligible unless the author claims artistic responsibility for the majority of the text. Books compiled by an editor and/or consisting of contributions of more than four writers are not eligible for the Douglas Stewart Prize. An award will not be given for a work consisting principally of photographs or illustrations unless the text is of substantial length and of sufficient merit in its own right. In such cases, no part of the prize money will be paid to the photographer or illustrator. Nominators should be selective about the works entered into this category. Works must be considered literature.
From Bomber Command to the French Resistance
By Michael Veitch
Published by Hachette CLICK HERE TO BUY
RRP $35.00 in paperback | ISBN 9780733637230
Many young Australian men volunteered to serve in Britain’s Bomber Command but not many also fought with the French Resistance. Barney Greatrex was one of the few.
He joined the RAAF and trained as a bomb-aimer before being despatched to England and serving in 61 Squadron, flying Lancaster bombers over Europe.
Good fortune was a commodity needed in spades if one was to survive these frequent bombing raids but Barney’s luck almost ran out on his twentieth mission. His plane was shot down over occupied France but fortunately for Barney, he was able to escape the burning aircraft and parachute to safety. He was the only crew member to survive. He then had a second stroke of luck.
After stumbling through the forest for days, he came across a small village and was taken in by a French family who had connections with the local resistance group. And so began the second part of Barney’s war experiences.
He became a fully paid up member of the French Resistance and was part of the group which greeted the Allies after the landing at Normandy, having evaded capture which would have meant sure death at the hands of the German army.
He was later awarded the French Legion of Honour but kept all this secret until approached by Michael Veitch to tell his story. Veitch is an accomplished storyteller who has brought Barney’s incredible story to life and ensured that his story is known to future generations.
Sadly Barney died on 17 February this year at the grand age of 97. RIP Barney. Lest we forget.