Category Archives: Review

Book Review The Secret Capture: U-110 and the Enigma Story, Author Stephen Roskill

This is a well written account of the capture of  the German submarine  U-110 on May 1941. This was possibly one of the most important naval actions of the battle of the Atlantic, with far reaching results. Although U-110 sank on tow, its precious Enigma machine had been extracted and its secrets helped to inform British naval intelligence of German U Boat movements and route convoys to avoid them.

The book was originally written in 1959, to rebut the claims of Rear-Admiral Daniel V. Gallery USN that his capture of U -505 in June 1944 was unique. In the official history “The War At Sea.” Roskill had downplayed the capture of U Boats.  U110 merited only a single line with the statement that it had been sunk. The first third of the The Secret Capture tells the story of the other submarine captures of the Second World War.  The rest of the book is a fine account of convoy OB318, its encounters with U Boats and the capture of U110 by the 3rd Escort Group under Captain Addison Joe Baker-Creswell, to whom the book is dedicated. There could be no mention of Enigma, but there are references to books, codes and enough “secret material” to fill two crates.

It is a very readable account which covers the human story of the war at sea from the point of view of officers and men from the Royal Navy and merchant marine. Roskill went to some length to track down ex sailors and merchant seamen ten years after the events.  He is a good writer and spins a good dit.

The book has 167 pages, and sixteen black and white photographs. There are six charts and two diagrams to explain the movements and convoy formations.  These are clear and helpful.

This edition includes a new foreword by Baker-Crewsell’s son Charles, with more biographical information.   Professor Barry Gough has written a short new introduction that explains the context and importance of the recovery of the Enigma machine.

There are two reservations about the work.  The book doesn’t quite do what it says on the cover. I would have expected to have read more about the exploitation of the Enigma machine. The 2011 edition seems overpriced with at RRP of £16.99, though you will not need to pay that to obtain it online, and the 1959 edition can be obtained for £0.80

This is a good historic tale, told well.

Elstob – A One Man Show

Last Friday the OP visited a remarkable show at  the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Gaisford Street London NW5.  It was a one man show by Jonathan Douglas, MBE a veteran actor and radio journalist, best known as  a radio host in Hong Kong.  This was a series of monologues exploring the last 24 hours of life of  Lieutenant Colonel Wilfreth Elstob VC, DSO MC who died, aged 29, in the heroic defence of Manchester Hill on 21st March 1918.   It was great to see a play written about a real soldier from the First World War who wasn’t a war poet.  Elstob himself  was an interesting man, whose character, motivation and deeds offers a different view of the men who fought and died in the Great War.

Why Elstob?   The 16th Manchesters were one of  dozens of battalions that faced the onslaught of the German kaiserschlacht,  the action for which “Journey’s End” is a  theatrical  prologue.  Elstob was one of ten men awarded the Victoria Cross for actions on the  21st March, and one of some four hundred and fifty recipients of that award on the western Front.

Standards presented to the City Pals 1914

‘Wilfreth Elstob joined the Manchester Regiment as a private soldier in 1914; ‘a burly former schoolmaster.’  He was quickly commission into the 16th battalion (1st City Pals) and a captain and acting company commander  on their successful assault on the first day of the Somme.  1st of July when the battalion stormed the German lines at Montauban.  In October 1916 he took comm and of the battalion. He commanded his battalion through the 1917 battles  at Arras and Passcendaele, and temporarily a whole brigade  Elstob was a gallant popular, efficient and effective commander.  His comrades cared enough about his posthumous reputation to collect the information and lobby for him to be awarded the Victoria Cross after the war ended.

Memorial to the 2nd and 16th Manchester dedicated in 1996

Richard Holmes singled out the action on Manchester Hill as the focus for the Kaiserschlacht  part of the 1918 episode of ‘The Western Front.’   Holmes used a couple of quotes from Elstob.  As the band turning back to camp after the battalion marched to Manchester Hill Elstob remarked. “Those are the only men  who will get out of this alive”; About the quarry. “Here is battalion HQ: Here we fight and here we die.”   Was this a fatalistic reflection of the mood of the time?   Were these sentences  evidence that Elstob was close to cracking?  After all, either of these phrases deserve a listing in the Army Rumour SErvice’s list of “Phrases you would rather not hear”

Officers of the 16th Manchester Regiment 1914 – Elstob was the last to survive.

Its a brave attempt to get inside the mind of a hero and charismativc leader.   Jonathan Douglas’  interpretation of Elstob’s mind is thought provoking.   Douglas had done a good job of researching the details of his subject’s service.  References to places such as Montauban and  Trones Wood reflect diligent research,  beyond the expectations of typical Camden Fringe goers.   The dialogue reflects the known comments about Elstob’s character.

Sure, Douglas is not Au fait with the details of military life. It was “stand to” rather than “reveille”  in the  trenches themselves and a singing competition is more plausible in camp than in the quarry.   However, the result is a characterization of a complex character, a far cry from the caricature  often portrayed.  This is more ambitious than another version of RC Sherrif’s Stanhope.

Douglas had gone well beyond the call of duty and made a reconnaissance of the quarry on Manchester Hill. He bypassed the metal gates to break in across the barbed wire and worked his way through the  tangled undergrowth to take a picture of the site where Elstob and his comrades may still lie.

I could not find a review or a website, but if anyone wants to contact Jonathan Douglas, the OP has contact details.

Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940 – John Kiszely

I cannot recommend too highly John Kiszely’s book: Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940.   This is a great book that anyone interested in modern strategy and military affairs will find interesting.  It also casts a contrasting light on the popular view of 1940 influenced by films about Dunkirk and Churchll.

On Tuesday, at RUSI, he received the Duke of Wellington Award for the best military history work of the year. This is a military history, but with a specific purpose.  The work was inspired by his time at the Higher Command and Staff College for a study of a campaign as a whole, and that the Norway Campaign which ended in a defeat might offer more lessons than a success. In his book he dissects the campaign from policy decisions in cabinet through to the events on the ground and on the waves.

It should be a valuable case study for anyone with an interest in business or political strategy. While written for the general reader, John Kiszely explores causality and the interplay between the personalities and institutional cultures of the organisations that took part.

For anyone with an interest in the events of 1940, it adds sharp critical insight to the state of Britain’s armed forces and leadership. This pulls no patriotic punches. The frank admission that companies of Guardsmen ran away must have been painful to document. The book is an essential sobering complement to the sometimes public smugness about 1940 Dunkirk and Churchill.

It is a cautionary tale about military intervention and compulsory reading for anyone advocating that something must be done about some international crisis.  It is well written without labouring points or underlining obvious lessons, there is much that is familiar from recent history.  A divided cabinet. Public opinion demanding action. Institutions barely fit for purpose. It is also an object lesson about the longer view.  The OP asked how much damage did the occupation of Norway do in the long term to the allied cause.  The answer was probably very little: indeed, the German naval losses may have saved Britain from the Germans attempting an invasion the same year.

Its published by Cambridge University Press £28.00

 

China’s War with Japan – Rana Mitter, winner of the Duke of Westminster Award

china_war_with_JapanYesterday Dr Rana Mitter gave the lecture after receiving the Duke of Westminster Prize for Military History at RUSI for his book “China’s war with Japan 1937-1945- the Struggle for Survival” . His is fascinating not only does it tell the story of what has been a neglected corner, but it is also has much to say about the background to current day geo-politicval issues in Asia.

Much has been written about various turning points in WW2,. Such as the British decision, under Churchill, to fight on in 1940. Just as important was the decision by the Chinese Nationalist government to continue fighting after much of their country had been over-run. Had the Chinese surrendered in 1940, there would have been no quagmire holding down Japanese troops which could have been used in South East Asia , against British India or the Soviet Union. It is humbling to realise that the London Blitz started over a year after the sustained Japanese bombing of the Chinese temporary capital at Chongqing, – or Chungking as it was then known in English. Nor that the date 4th May 1919 was the 20th anniversary of a key date in Chinese history, the massed demonstrations in favour of modernisation. Nor was I aware that the Chinese Nationalist government were influenced by the Beveridge report which set out the post war welfare state.

It was particularly interesting to hear about who modern China has acknowledged the story of the nationalist Chinese part in the Second World War. How books films and ceremonies now commemorate events which could never have been mentioned a few years ago. For example. The hundred thousand Chinese soldiers who fought in Burma received no pensions or acknowledgement, of which around eighty are still alive. This year a memorial is being erected to their memory. It is a whole new dimension to the term “Forgotten army”

The conclusion of the lecture and the talk concerned the implications of modern China embracing the history of the war  against Japan.    China was one of the big four allies.  It paid a heavy price to survive and win.    It did not obtain the same territorial advantages gained by the USA and USSR.  Nor was there the same accommodation with the defeated enemies.  There is a sense of unfinished business.