Pen & Sword February Book reviews

By Steve Earles

Another fine batch of books from the ever-growing range of Pen & Sword…

The Secret Betrayal of Britain’s Wartime Allies: The Appeasement of Stalin and Its Post-War Consequences’ by Jim Auton MBE

Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

The fact that Jim Auton was actually there, and knows first hand of what he writes gives his book a chilling authenticity. While the book is an invaluable record of Jim’s involvement in World War 2, the most important part of it is the story of his attempts to trace the thousands of Czechoslovaks and Poles who had served alongside the British in World War 2. To his disgust and dismay, he discovered that many thousands of these Czechs and Poles had been executed or imprisoned by Stalin, merely for ‘crime’ of having served in Britain.

The Poles and Czechs were betrayed on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and his book is a searing indictment of betrayal, the horrors of communism, and the dangers of appeasing the wicked (like Stalin and his communists, for instance), instead of standing up to them.

A fine, if disturbing book, that deserves the widest possible readership, because we still appease evil today, and this is what happens, the innocent pay the price.

A Wood Called Bourlon: The Cover-up After Cambrai, 1917’ By William Moore

Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

The Allied tank victory in the Battle of Cambrai in 1917 should have shortened World War One. It vindicated the faith of Winston Churchill in the use of tanks. Bells were rung in celebration, it seemed everything would change. Yet it didn’t. Within days, victory turned to disaster. All the hard won gains were lost and thousands of British troops and guns were captured. How could this have happened? Author William Moore closely examines the evidence, a good deal of it previous unpublished, in his quest to answer this and other questions.

Other questions William Moore seeks to answer are: Was Field Marshall Haig a reckless gambler with the lives of the men under his command? Was General Byng, the man who lost so many men and weapons on Bourlon Ridge a visionary military planner or an aloof aristocrat determined to prove that cavalry still had a place in a modern war. The biggest question of all is why the British military leaders were so obsessed with capturing the wooded ridge of Bourlon, into which several divisions were thrown, with the Canadians eventually carrying the day.

There were great many blunders in World War One, Gallipoli for instance, costly in men lives, tragic in their consequences, yet these have a high profile, for reasons explored in this book, Bourlon has a low profile, indeed that is one of the questions Moore’s book tackles. There is an old saying: ‘Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.’ Some of those in charge even attempted to blame the men for the disaster.

A well-researched and somewhat shocking book, one that is well worth reading.

The Underground War: Vimy Ridge to Arras’ by Philip Robinson & Nigel Cave

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This is the first volume in a planned four book series focusing on an area of the Great War that doesn’t always get the attention it merits (though I think the broadcast of ‘Birdsong’ has made the existence of underground warfare known to a larger audience).

This first volume concentrates on concentrates on the central Artois, the area of the whole line of the Vimy Ridge to the River Scarpe and Arras.

The research is very good, drawing from German and French archival material.

Illustrations and diagrams are good throughout, which his very important in a book like this, to give the reader a greater sense of how things unfolded. Sites now opened to the public are also covered.

On the strength of this first volume I can see the whole series will be very worthwhile.

Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: The Casebook of Fred Wensley OBE, KPM-Victorial Crimebuster’ by Dick Kirby

Published by Pen & Sword

Reviewed by Steve Earles.

The well-titled ‘Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes’ tells the story of Fred Wensley, a gardener from Somerset who joined the Metropolitan Police in 1888. He was to retire 41 years later as Chief Constable of the C.I.D.

Among his many claims to fame are a failed attempt to catch Jack the Ripper. Following this he was to spend a staggering 25 years enforcing the law in Whitechapel.

Wensley’s advice to his officers was ‘don’t be afraid to make honest mistakes.’

After joining the C.I.D, he arrested a double-murderer, when he was off duty. He played an important part in the famous Siege of Sidney Street, and he destroyed the infamous Odessa and Bessarabian gangs.

If all that wasn’t enough, he also created the Flying Squad.

There were controversies too. Did Wensley frame a man called Stimie Morrison for murder? Wensley claimed that Edith Thompson, who was hanged for the murder of her husband was ‘a cold-blooded murderess’, though he defence council claimed she was ‘a fanciful dreamer.’

The first King’s Police Medal was awarded to Wensley and he appointed OBE, a distinguished career indeed.

The author, Dick Kirby, was a Flying Squad officer himself, and I felt this gives him a great emotional connection with his subject. He’s lived the life Wensley lived, so he knows it at all levels (Kirby actually appeared in the most recent film version of The Sweeny!). He’s a very talented author and researcher, who doesn’t talk down to the reader but engages them a like a good storyteller should

This book deserves both the widest possible readership, and it would make a fine docu-drama too if filmed.

The Ironclads of Cambrai’ by Bryan Cooper

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

During World War One, the British High Command was hidebound with men who wanted to fight a 19th century war in a 20th century world (there were a great many British officers in the Great War who still felt cavalry charges could be effective against trenches and machine guns for instance). Not so Winston Churchill. He believed the newly invented tank could turn the tide, breaking three years of bloody stalemate in the trenches and bringing the Great War to a rapid close. The tank’s development had been funded by the Royal Navy when Winston was First Lord of the Admiralty. This was not the only time Churchill was a lone voice of sanity, for instance he was unstinting in his support for the White anti-Bolshevik forces. If Churchill had been heeded, Communism would have been crushed in its infancy.

Nevertheless, finally, for the first time, on November 20, 1917, tanks were used for the first time in a massed attack. They repaid Churchill’s iron faith in them by breaking through the Hindenburg Line, followed by British infantry and cavalry divisions. In another first, the tanks were supported by aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps.

The brought about celebrations in the UK, where people felt only further success could follow. But the British High Command had no faith in the tanks, despite the evidence of their own eyes and failed to exploit the successes they had won. And so, the slaughter dragged on for another bloody year.

This is a marvellous hardback, well-presented version of a classic book original published in 1967, and Pen & Sword are to be praised for making it available again in such a good value for money, high quality edition.

Recently the BBC broadcast the series ‘Our Great War’ and covered the tanks at Cambrai in the well-written episode 3 ‘War Machine. Anyone who found that of interest will find much to discover here.

Highly recommended.

Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory’ By Martin Matrix Evans

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Like the Somme, Passcehndaele (also known as the ‘Third Battle of Ypres’) is one of the first names that jumps into anyone’s mind when the Great War is mention. The loss of life on both sides was terrible.

Evans does a find job of creating an unbiased account of the battle and putting it into the overall context of World War One. This is no mean feat, as the evocative cover of this book speaks volumes, a shattered Mark IV tank in a blasted landscape, it just screams despair.

Tanks were not used in the same way as they would be in the Battle of Cambrai, and the weather as always played a part. Overall, Evans has written a well-researched book that allows the readers to draw their own conclusions, which is as it should be.

The Forts & Fortifications of Europe 1815-1945: The Central States: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Czechoslovakia’ by J.E. Kaufmann and H.W. Kaufmann

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Following the Napoleonic Wars, while there was relative peace in Europe, the great powers did not trust each other, and an extensive phase of fortress building began.

This volume, as its title suggests, concentrates on the Germans, Austro-Hungarians and Czechs.

The authors are experts on their subject, and their work is very readable. The illustrations are superb, and it makes a fascinating read.

Overall, I don’t think anyone will write a better book on this subject.

The Royal Navy and the War at Sea 1914-1919’ Introduced and Complied by John Grehan & Martin Mace

Published by Pen and Sword Maritime

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This is a superb idea, compiling a book of original Royal Navy despatches from the period of both the Great War and the Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War.

You can be the best writer in the world, but the voices of those that were there will always be hard to beat.

The despatches from the Zeebrugge and Ostend Raids are utterly fascinating and invaluable, but the highlight of this much-need book has to be the despatches from the period that the Royal Navy was involved in the Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War. A war that far too little is written about in the West, so kudos to Pen & Sword for publishing this. I remember reading in Richard Pipes’ superb ‘Russia Under The Bolshevik Regime’ of the Royal Navy’s attempt to shell the Bolsheviks during the rout of the White armies, clearly men of great personal integrity were serving on those ships.

This is an absolutely indispensible book, not only for those interesting in the Royal Navy in World War, but those with an interest in the Russian Civil War.

Outstanding, and deserving of the utmost attention.