Category Archives: Book reviews

The Duke of York’s Flanders Campaign – Steve Brown

I have long been curious about Britain’s first campaign in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars – in Flanders in 1793-5. I was curious because I had seen so little written about it. For most people British military history in this era starts with the Maida campaign of 1807 or Moore in Spain 1808-09. There is sometimes a reference to the Anglo-Russian Expedition to North Holland in 1799. How much was the vaunted proficiency of the British army evident before these campaigns, I wondered? So when I saw this history published by Frontline Books, I couldn’t resist it. It proved a most interesting read, and shed light on an episode that wargamers should take more notice of.

The book covers the history of the First Coalition (1793 to 1795) more generally, which I found very useful, before looking at the Flanders campaign in detail. Until near the end, Britain’s contribution to this coalition effort, which was led by the Austrians until they withdrew at the end, was led by Prince Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany, the second son of George III. It was his first experience of military command, but it was the fashion for armies to be led by “princes of the blood”, and this eased relations with coalition allies (the prince was fluent in German and familiar with the dramatis personae of high society in Austria, Prussia and Hanover). Apart from Austria, these allies were Hanover (part of George III’s realm), the Netherlands, and Hesse – with a theoretical contribution by Prussia that failed to materialise. The campaign was a failure for the Allies, mainly because of poor Austrian leadership. This resulted in Austria losing Belgium (as we now call what was then the Austrian Netherlands) to France, followed rapidly by the rest of the Netherlands.

Why did Austrian leadership fail? I didn’t find the book very satisfactory in explaining this. Two main reasons are offered: divergent strategic interests, and outdated strategic doctrines. While these were both doubtless true, I think that Steve Brown fails to explain them properly. What did Austria want to achieve? In the end what undermined Austrian resolve (and that of the Prussians) was a Russian threat to Poland. Was that their worry all along and did that make them hesitate to commit troops deep into France? This idea is not explored. The Austrians were not the only ones guilty of a lack of clear focus – the British government insisted on a diversion to try and take Dunkirk, and diverted troops to campaigns in the West Indies and the Mediterranean. Coalition warfare always struggles when it comes to clarity of objectives – and historians too often moan about this, rather than properly interpreting the conflicting aims. Warfare is politics by other means, after all, and not a be-all and end-all. On outmoded strategic ideas, Mr Brown makes much of the Austrian attachment to the “cordon system”, which let them to disperse forces. This builds on a narrative that was current at the time (the Duke of York himself refers to it), developed later by such writers as Clausewitz, and has been a staple of historians ever since. But that leaves a question: if it was so obviously wrong, why did the Austrians stick with it? If that was actually what they were doing. My main rule of historical analysis is that if you don’t understand how you yourself could have been tempted to take a particular course of action, then you haven’t actually understood it. Nobody defends the cordon system – which means that nobody is taking the trouble to understand what commanders who used it were trying to do. I was not able to pick up a deep enough appreciation of this campaign to develop a view myself. The maps in the book are generally unsatisfactory, and Mr Brown assumes too much knowledge of the local geography.

Mr Brown is a bit better on the tactical details of the battles. These are extremely interesting. There were no great set-pieces along the lines of the Napoleonic period – but rather a series of much more scattered encounters, often relating to the capture of fortresses and strategic towns. The coalition troops fought very well for the most part, with the general exception of the Dutch (whose people were not bought into the defence of royalty and aristocracy). Often Allied troops won out against vastly superior numbers. The French forces were in a state of flux – with elements of the old royal army combining with various flavours of volunteers and conscripts. The French did start to develop tactics that made best use of their advantages – which were mainly numbers – which has been the main historical interest of these campaigns hitherto. This has been dealt with expertly by the late Paddy Griffiths in particular, and this account of the Flanders campaign bears Griffiths out, though it doesn’t dwell on this aspect of the campaign. Griffiths suggested that the French innovations, far from being a new and superior way of war, were developed as a way of using poor quality troops against superior professional armies – and were largely dropped as the French army regained its professionalism under Napoleon. But until I read this book I didn’t appreciate just how effective the coalition troops generally were. The Austrian army was considered the best of the major powers, and their performance in this campaign bears this out (though Mr Brown reckons the Hessians to be the best troops in this campaign). This should provide a lot of interest to wargamers. The two sides provide an interesting contrast. Coalition armies may be nightmare to command, but the variety of troops they incorporate is a wargamer’s delight. And what’s more the coalition’s cavalry arm was very strong – including a substantial British element, featuring Household cavalry, the Union Brigade, and many other units, who had a good campaign. Britain did not field such a strong force of cavalry until 1813, Mr Brown reckons. Of course, the uniforms are totally different to the Napoleonic phase of the wars, but even so this era deserves more attention form the hobby than it gets. If I was in the mood to take on another army-building project, I would be tempted!

As for British tactics, Mr Brown has not much to say – as the British contribution to the coalition effort was not a major one. Many of the British infantry units were freshly raised and of very poor quality. Officers were often inexperienced surplus sons from aristocratic families, who had acquired commissions through purchase. Having said that, the British units generally seem to have fought well enough, using the conventional three-deep line for infantry. They seem to have been used aggressively in bayonet attacks, rather than attempted much with musketry. The Guards units performed well, as well as the cavalry. The weaknesses of the British units was more a question of a loss of discipline off the battlefield, with a lot of looting in particular.

The campaign ended in ignominy, when the Austrians pulled out, and then the French attacked in the winter. The remaining coalition forces were forced into a calamitous retreat where the logistics and discipline broke down and many men were lost. This was doubtless a searing experience for those that were there. And this was something of a Who’s Who of British and Hanoverian officers who were to feature prominently later on, not least of whom was the future Duke of Wellington, who commanded a regiment of infantry. There is an interesting appendix listing these officers who came to prominence later. There are many familiar names on the French side too, such as MacDonald and Vandamme, but most of the famous French names of later were elsewhere. There was another important participant, whom Mr Brown barely gives a mention: Gerhard von Scharnhorst, who served as a staff officer in the Hanoverian army. His experiences of the new French tactics deeply influenced him, and this in turn was very influential in the rebuilding of the Prussian army after 1807.

The Duke of York’s performance was undistinguished, though Mr Brown suggests that much of the criticism he has received is unfair. However, he does suggest that he lacked the gravitas to stamp his authority on an unruly army. He moved on to command the whole British army, where he is reckoned to have done an excellent job, helping to make it become the effective force of the Peninsular campaign. For him, and for the many other British alumni of the campaign, the Flanders episode was a powerful lesson in how not to manage a military campaign. That can certainly been seen in Wellington’s insistence of stern discipline and focused command.

This is an interesting book on an interesting campaign. I think it falls a bit short on the analysis, where it too often follows conventional wisdom, often quoting other historians’ analysis verbatim, and not leaving me with the clarity on events that I had hoped for. The maps are disappointing. But it throws welcome light on an important episode of British military history.

David Rowland’s The Stress of Battle – quantifying the human factor

This is an astonishing book, first published back in 2005, with a second edition in 2019, which recently came into the Caliver bookshop. Despite the subtitle the book is not aimed at hobby wargames – more the sort of thing armed forces would run. But there is a lot of interest for us hobbyists. Like a lot of highly insightful works, what it says is bloomin’ obvious once you have read it, but somehow it changes the way you think about things profoundly – in this case the behaviour of men in battle conditions.

The book describes a journey in what is called “Operational Research” in the context of analysing military combat. It started with trying to understand why the combat performance of weapons was so far below what went on in the firing rage, and to quantify this “degradation” and the various factors that affected it. It describes a journey of analysing progressively more complex situations, to get a better understanding of the components of weapon and human effectiveness.

The main journey started in the 1970s with trials using real (British Army) troops in staged battles using laser pulse devices mounted on guns and sensors on the vehicles and people to simulate fire without risk of injury. The first set were tank battles, and then there were a series of infantry battles with armoured support. The tank exercises revealed a number of interesting insights n how battles evolved, and quickly descended into mini-battles with just a few tanks on either side (or one to one) – this was staged in Germany in classic rolling terrain. The infantry exercises showed huge amounts of degradation – reduced weapon effectiveness compared with the effective maximum on shown on firing ranges. Rifle effectiveness was just 5%, and machine-guns 21%.

The next step was to look at historical data, using the trial data as the basis for estimating some of the variables (such as the relative effectiveness of rifles over machine-guns). They looked at the effectiveness of defence fire against an attack, starting with the simplest situation of attacks in the open. They used data going back to the US Civil War, on the basis that the dynamics of small arms fire have not changed much since the rifle replaced the musket. Still, later wars tended to provide more usable data, so WW2 tended to dominate. They progressively added complexities – preparatory bombardments, suppression fire from tanks, prepared defences and so on. They moved on to consider fighting in built-up areas, including the effects of rubble, and woods. Overall they found a further degradation compared to laser-simulation trials of 90%. In other words rifle fire was at just 0.5% of theoretical effectiveness (depending on various conditions), and machine-guns 2%.

The researchers were clear that this degradation had a lot to do with how individuals responded to danger. Two observers from WW2 were particularly on their minds. The first British Lt-Col Lionel Wigram, who went to Sicily in July 1943 to observe infantry behaviour:

His principal finding was that in every platoon there were “six gutful men who will go anywhere”, with “twelve ‘sheep’ who will follow that short distance behind if they are well led”. But there were also ‘”four to six who will run away”. It made uncomfortable reading and apparently General Montgomery suppressed it on the grounds that it would be bad for morale. In addition, Wigram himself lost his temporary rank and was posted to a battalion in Italy as a Major, only to be killed.

David Rowland’s Stress of Battle p61-62

Also quoted was Lt-Col SLA Marshall of the US Army who was commissioned study to infantry behaviour immediately after the war. He observed that only on average only 15% of men took an active part in battle with their weapons, and rarely more than 25% even under intense local pressure. The average was higher for heavy weapons. This was based on battles in NW Europe and the Pacific; he claimed the rate of participation was much higher in Korea. This analysis was pretty subjective but it clearly pointed to an important truth.

All this became clearer in the next phase of the research, when the team looked at battles involving armour. This started with looking at the effectiveness of anti-tank guns against tank attacks, as these data were easiest to make sense of. Their data came initially from encounters by British guns in the Western Desert and Tunisia. Unlike infantry battles, they were examining relatively small numbers of weapons, and the individual performance of weapons was more apparent. They saw that the results were heavily influenced by what they called “heroic behaviour”, which usually resulted in a gallantry award. This covered 20-30% of guns. To cut a long story short, they found support for a model closely approximating to Wigram’s observations for infantry. There were three groups of men: “heroes”, those with degraded performance, and those who took no part at all. The ratios were consistent with Wigram’s observation (18:55:27). Incidentally Wigram’s ratio of ‘gutful” is quite high; anti-tank crew performance tended to be led by the best performer in the group, who was usually at least sergeant rank – Marshall’s ratio of 15% would be typical of infantrymen. I think Wigram was following the British 78th Battleaxe division, who were veterans. There was some variation of performance within each group, but these were minor compared to the variation between the groups; there was no continuum of individual performance. The heroic group operated at a similar level to the soldiers in the non-lethal trials, the “followers” (my terminology) operated at about 30% of this level, and the “shirkers” did not participate in the battle at all. They picked out examples from the battles that they studied, of some guns killing over a dozen tanks, while other guns from the same unit were abandoned without firing a shot. Looking more closely at the heroes, they found that this correlated strongly with rank. A much higher proportion of NCOs than other ranks, and higher proportion of officers to NCOs. Doubtless the causality of this worked both ways.

The studies went on to look at progressively more complex situations in armour combats, and then to look at the effects of surprise and shock, but the three classes of behaviour was the critical finding. There were a number of other findings that will be of interest to wargamers. Two were very striking:

  • Defenders of urban areas proved to be at a substantial disadvantage to the attackers, usually suffering very heavy casualties. The most effective strategy for defence was to hold back forces in reserve and launch a counter-attack. This runs contrary to the expectations of those who aren’t infantrymen, but I think that experienced soldiers knew this. The Germans at Salerno seem to have understood this, for example, in their defence of Battapaglia. This does not apply if the built-up area has been reduced to rubble, which turns it into a more normal battlefield – though not if the bombardment is just before the attack, when the shock can have a major effect. Wargamers rarely understand this dynamic over built-up areas, suffering something of a Hougoumont complex – treating all built-up areas like the heroically defended farm complex at Waterloo (and its neighbour La Haye Sainte). It doesn’t help that in larger scale games a village is often represent by a single building model. While this result was derived mainly from WW2 data, I think it is timeless.
  • Anti-tank guns proved two to three times more effective than tanks at destroying tanks, in spite their lack of mobility and protection. Mobile anti-tank guns (portees and self-propelled guns) had similar performance to towed guns, and even the open-turreted M10 (generally highly disadvantaged in wargames) was more similar to its towed equivalent than tanks. The authors explanation is equally unexpected: it is because they had a higher proportion of “heroes” manning them, specifically they were more likely to have an officer or senior NCO in command, or an officer could easily move from gun to gun and exert influence (or actually take over the firing himself). They had no need to look for alternative explanations, though they were able to dream up a few.

For me the dog that didn’t bark was differences in troop quality. Of course the data was seldom good enough to produce different estimates for different types of troops. It was drawn overwhelmingly from battles between British, American and German troops. These men came from similar societal backgrounds, were trained in roughly similar ways, and they were mainly conscripts. So, although modern writers like to talk up the superior quality of German troops, it shouldn’t be so surprising that when you get down to platoon and company level the troops behaved similarly. On two occasions did the researchers try to distinguish elite units. When looking at troops defending rubble they noted that the defenders on several occasions were German paratroops (Monte Cassino loomed large, but there were other battles covering 40% of the data). Allowing for their greater allocation of machine-guns, the researchers found a slightly better performance for the paratroopers, but not a significant one. The also looked at the performance of Gurkha troops, and found a slightly higher proportion of gallantry awards, indicating a higher proportion ‘heroes”, and so better combat performance. The effects were not decisive.

The three types of behaviour in combat, and their rough proportions and linkage to seniority is timeless, I think – and much of the art of warfare is based on managing this fact, from the invention of the Greek phalanx onwards. I have often said that the relatively lacklustre performance of Austrian troops in Napoleonic times came down to a lower ratio of cadres in their large companies. When a period of campaigning had increased the cadre ratio (attrition affects the cadres less), they performed better, such as in 1800, when they nearly ended Napoleon’s career at Marengo. Elite units are created to increase the proportion of “heroes” and eliminate the shirkers – though possibly at a substantial cost to the rest of the army.

And for wargamers? In most games we use large figure scales and we can average out the effects. Even in WW2 games, where the figure ratios are often 1 to 1, we like to group people together in teams, so that the individual behaviour is averaged, and let the dice do the rest. But this works less well for armoured warfare, where we tend to assume all vehicles are crewed by heroes. This produces a better game, given that tank numbers tend be quite low, and so an only one in four chance of the tank being fully functional can easily take the fun away. Still the examples given of a single 6-pounder destroying multiple German tanks (mainly Panzer IIIs I think) could not happen if those tanks had been manned by fully functioning crews.

This book has been around for a bit, and it must have influenced some rules writing. I can see its influence on the Too Fat Lardies offerings, especially I Ain’t been Shot Mum and its Big Men. But generally our games work more like those non-lethal trials with laser-pulse weapons.

This book isn’t a particularly easy read. It uses a lot of technical language and even for someone like me that knows a bit about statistical analysis, it is quite to follow at times – the blurb suggests that its many charts help make things clear, but they didn’t for me. But you can skip through those bits – and I don’t hesitate to recommend this book for anybody who wants to understand land warfare better, especially WW2.

Napoleon and the World War of 1813: Lessons in Coalition Warfighting

It’s been a while since I have posted anything. I’ve been reasonably busy on the hobby front, but I’m getting a bit bogged down on improving my terrain – which involves many parallel paths with a rather distant endpoint. Meanwhile I have been reading a bit, and I’m reporting back on this book by Lieutenant-General Jonathan Riley (or J.P. Riley) published back in 2000. I remember reading a review of it in The Economist, and I eventually picked it up at a bookstall in Salute a number of years later; it languished a number more years before I eventually read it. Since my Napoleonic hobby projects are increasingly focusing on 1813, after 1815, it struck me as relevant.

The book is a high level account of three campaigns in 1813: in Central Europe, with the decisive battle of Leipzig, in Spain (with Vitoria as the centrepiece) and in North America, especially in Canada as the War of 1812 played out. The nominal theme of the book is the study of how multinational coalitions work in warfare, where he draws out parallels from later wars, right up to NATO. The coalitions are self-explanatory in the case of the first two campaigns (and include Napoleon’s armies in Central Europe, albeit that the French allies were highly subordinate); in Canada the British side is presented as a coalition between the British government, French and British colonists, and the Native American tribes (which he, back n 2000, is able to call “Indians”, though his account does accord them full respect). The narrative and the commentary on coalitions don’t integrate entirely satisfactorily though – the narrative tends to take over, and it is not especially penetrating on his main subject. I read a very interesting study of coalition fighting a few years ago which was based on a research thesis by an American military academic, which used the Russian-Prussian alliance in 1813 as a case study – and which got much more into the weeds of coalition warfare. It was able to do this because the researcher got behind the mainstream campaign accounts and into some of the telling details. An example was the complaint that Russian generals were a bit too free and easy with exposing their troops to artillery bombardment, according to their Prussian subordinates.

General Riley does hit on some important insights, though, showing features of coalition warfare which military historians tend to present as command failures. It is the nature of coalition warfare that campaigns only continue for as long as common objectives remain agreed. For example as the allied armies reached the Rhine at the end of the year they stopped; some commentators (starting with, at the time, Jomini) regretted this as a wasted opportunity, as Napoleon was vulnerable. But the allies had never agreed to enter France as a coalition, as some members (notably Austria) had reservations about what might happen next – they liked the idea of a reasonably strong France, and were not signed up to a restoration of the Bourbons. The coalition simply had to stop to consider their next move, and see if Napoleon would come to terms. This in turn delayed Wellington’s invasion of France. This is not unlike the first Gulf War after Kuwait was recaptured more easily than many thought. The coalition could not simply proceed to Baghdad.

I was a bit disappointed with the campaign narratives for Central Europe and the Peninsula. The book was never meant to deliver anything special here, but it is very British Old School, based on secondary sources in turn derived primarily from British and French sources. Doubtless this was under the influence of the great historian David Chandler, who contributed the forward. His work was largely where I started my serious history reading back in the 1970s, but we’ve moved on. The Central Europe account is very much centred on Napoleon, with the deliberations of the allies treated very superficially – a big weakness for a book on coalition warfare. I am still none the wiser as to why the allies did not withdraw after the first day of Dresden, for example. And he keeps to the generally accepted story that Napoleon nearly beat the Army of Bohemia on the first day of Leipzig, with the day being saved by the intervention of Tsar Alexander. I simply don’t think that Napoleon had enough hours in the day to accomplish what he needed to do to win the battle, and this story has evolved from the typical French historian’s downplaying all Napoleon’s failures. The allied armies of 1813 were very resilient, had plenty of cavalry, and were very hard to beat properly. But I don’t know enough about the events of this day to present a convincing case – or any opinion on the Tsar’s intervention. The focus on Napoleon and the French also brings forward the lack of initiative shown my most of his senior commanders – and this is discussed as a downside of his highly centralised system of command and control. This is fair enough, but the obverse is not commented on. This is that the allied subordinate commanders often showed good judgement and initiative – something that had not been noted earlier in the wars.

I had similar problems with the account of the Peninsular campaign. Here the problem is the tendency to shoehorn the account onto a very standard British stereotype, of the French coming on “in the same old way” at steadfast British infantry, and increasingly steadfast Portuguese and Spanish, with every encounter being on a ridge. I have only researched Vitoria properly, where General Riley does underplay the French tactical successes, without being seriously wrong on the overall narrative. For Sorauren I noted that he did not follow Oman’s somewhat more nuanced narrative, and went for a very old-school version that this was a typical encounter – though I don’t think the overall distortion matters all that much in the end.

General Riley’s account of the War of 1812 was much more interesting, as this was something I knew little about. The actual campaigns are not all that interesting in themselves – though doubtless a good source of small scale encounters of the sort that make interesting wargames without all the difficulties large scale battles bring. The interesting bit was the differing interests of the various groups, from American settlers to Canadians to native Americans. I hadn’t appreciated that one of the big issues that drove the original conflict between the colonies and home government in America was that the colonists wanted freedom to displace the Native Americans – which is why the latter sided with the British. It goes to show just how ethnically-centred the concept of freedom was that drove the American revolution.

Overall this a flawed book that hasn’t aged well; I wouldn’t recommend that anybody buy it. The subject matter is interesting, but we can surely do much better these days. Good military history demands confident coverage of the big stuff – the bigger context and politics – and a willingness to look hard at the small stuff. General Riley does the first part well enough, but is disappointing on the second.

Two books on Sicily 1943

My 1943 project focuses on British troops in the Mediterranean that year. I started it as a teenager in the late 1970s, but suspended it, like so much else, when I left home in 1979. I have so far focused my research on two campaigns: Tunisia in January to May (and especially the First Army) and Salerno in September. Between these two comes the battle for Sicily in July to August, which I have neglected. I bought these two books to start to fill the gap.

The first is James Holland’s Sicily ’43. Mr Holland seems to be one of the most popular British historians of WW2 at the moment, but this is the first of his books that I have read. I am impressed. This is how history should be written for general consumption. Wargamers will find that it lacks detail, but it should offer inspiration for further research – or may put them off trying to recreate the combats on the tabletop altogether – more of that later.

The 38 day battle for Sicily (starting from the date of the invasion itself rather than the pre-campaign, as the cover of the other book does) has been somewhat neglected by historians – along with the rest of the subjects of my 1943 project. In between the battles of the Western Desert 1940 to 1942, and Normandy and north west Europe 1944 to 1945, and the Russian Front 1941 to 1945, Tunisia, Sicily ad Italy don’t get much of a look-in. Inasmuch as historians have dealt with it, they have tended to be very critical of the Allied command. They have suggested they were too cautious, and should not have let so many Germans and their equipment get out at the end. Mr Holland seeks to set the record straight.

In this he is mainly convincing. Only on one issue do I think he needed to say more – could the Allies have succeeded with a smaller invasion launched earlier? The Axis defence was in disarray at the start of the attack, and things would have been even worse if the attack had been conducted earlier. The key is the Etna area in the north east. This was very easy to defend, and the Germans managed to do so successfully with reinforcements sent in shortly after the invasion started – and most of all with airborne troops. The Allies would have had to get there very quickly to head this off, across terrain that made movement difficult. It probably was too risky, at a time when the Allies did not want defeats – but it would have been worth exploring this a bit more by looking at the resources available to both sides. Incidentally one of the interesting aspects of Sicily was the use of airborne forces. Theses were an innovation for both Allied powers, who learnt the hard way the difficulties of inserting them directly into enemy territory. There were disasters, especially for the British glider troops, and the shooting down of many American transports by friendly fire by the navy. The Germans showed that they had learned the lesson by using airborne forces for a rapid insertion behind their own lines, mostly landing the troops in airfields. It turned a rout into a hard-fought battle which bought time and cost the Allies many casualties.

Mr Holland’s style is to range from the top command to the front line, not neglecting the experience of civilians caught in the middle. He looks at all participants sympathetically – this is the best way to draw out telling insights. Too many histories just look at one participant (based on the sources most readily accessible to the author); this can be good for drama, but not so much for understanding what was happening and why. Another mistake is historians being too eager to criticise the decisions of participants. My rule of thumb when doing historical analysis (which I developed as a history student) is that unless you understand how you yourself could have taken a decision, especially a bad one, you have not understood why it was taken. That requires a sympathetic approach. It also makes more enjoyable reading – though that may just be down to my personal taste. Mr Holland scores well on both counts. It is fluently written too, another plus in an era when history writing is often badly edited. I found some clichés, such as the frequent use of “to say the least”, a bit annoying, but that’s small stuff.

The second book, which is shorter, and which I read first, is not so well-written: Eagles over Husky by Alexander Fitzgerald-Black. It concentrates on the air campaign, and plays to my increasing interest in the use of air power in support of military campaigns. It too seeks to set the record straight – as a number of authors criticised the Allied air effort in the campaign. The air forces were accused of fighting a private war and not supporting the armies well enough, and then letting the Germans get away at Messina. Mr Fitzgerald-Black has little difficulty in putting the counter-arguments. For my taste he overdoes it; Mr Holland comes to the same conclusions, but with much less argument. Mr Hamilton-Black feels it is necessary to take apart the criticism line by line, showing how it is not based on facts. This is a bit tiring for readers like me, as it just seems to give air time to nonsense.

That’s my only real criticism of this work though. It draws heavily from sources on all sides to give a convincing picture. Like Mr Holland he combines a strong strategic narrative with many vignettes of the action. He makes an interesting case that the Allies forced the Germans to make a similar commitment of resources to this theatre as the eastern front (while Kursk was going on) and the north (where the Allied strategic bombing had got going), but suffered vastly more losses than in either other theatre. The campaign was an important step in the breaking of the Luftwaffe across the whole continent. Perhaps that argument can be challenged – but I’m not the person to do it!

So what is in the Sicilian campaign for wargamers? There is quite a bit of interest at a strategic level – but his can only really be tackled in a board game (which I think has been done). A Rommel-style grand-tactical game may be feasible, most easily for the Axis counterattack against the Americans at Gela, where you even get to use a unit of Tigers. (Incidentally Tigers proved hard to use in the difficult terrain and primitive roads – they mostly broke down through being over-worked). The early battles are pretty unsatisfactory from a gaming point of view though, one or two episodes excepted. The defence was very disorganised; the Italians have little stomach for a fight, and the Germans lacked decent leadership; the main challenge for the Allies (and it was considerable) was logistics. Later the fighting got much tougher; a Rommel game would encounter the sorts of problems with mountain warfare that I described for Longstop Hill in Tunisia.

Tactical gaming is more promising, but a bit limited in a different way. There are a lot of important clashes at company and even platoon level, as it was hard to deploy larger formations in the terrain. The problem for the Allies was crossing open (but rough) terrain which exposed their troops to concealed weapons and indirect fire, while canalising them onto mined roads. Their trump card was plentiful artillery and air power. I don’t think this makes for a great tabletop game. There is much less of the Normandy-style fighting in close terrain. Still you can create a game with orchards, olive groves, farms and villages. It should really involve hills and rocks too. A battle for a hilltop village could be visually very attractive, if much harder to recreate than a bit of bocage country. You get to use German paratroops too.

As for air power the key is finding a game where the player chooses between air superiority, interdiction and close support – out of scope for a tactical game, but a possibility in an expanded Rommel-style game perhaps. Air superiority was settled very quickly though.

I have not settled on rules for my 1943 project. I have just bought a second-hand copy of Chain of Command, and this looks very promising. There are other good systems for one-to-one games (Battlegroup and I ain’t been shot Mum) which I’m a bit less convinced about. Rommel also looks quite exciting – but hard to use out of the box in this theatre. I would like something in between – Rapid Fire! and Fistful of TOWs nominally fill that space, but I’m not that happy with either. The long journey continues.

John Hussey’s Waterloo Vol II – a flawed offering

And now I have finished volume two! I have to say I’m rather disappointed. As with the first volume, the book’s strength is that it tackles the high politics with confidence. But there is a lot less politics in this stage of things. And after a while Mr Hussey’s style starts to grate, on me anyway.

The biggest problem is one that he shares with most other histories of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s too judgemental. This is not done in a sneaky way by hiding facts, but he is too quick to present his conclusions on whether particular actors were good or bad at their job. He is especially harsh on the Prussians. This is how 19th Century histories tended to be written, when the events were still quite fresh, and had some sort of bearing on political and military events. But the distance of time should change the tone, so that the focus, in the words of the great 20th Century historian AJP Taylor, is “what happened and why”. The reader should be given insight. Instead most modern historians, who tend not to be academics, feel the need to join in the ding-dong started by those judgmental 19th Century historians. Mr Hussey has disappeared down this rabbit hole.

The descriptions of the battles (mainly the great day itself) are quite brief. That’s fine: the book was always intended as a strategic narrative. But he still could have presented more clearly what we do know and what we don’t. Too often he simply follows an old narrative that he must know is questionable. For example, when he describes the great cavalry attacks we get a completely conventional British version of events. The cavalry came on; the plucky British gunners fired at them, then escaped to the nearby squares wheeling one of gun’s wheels as they went; the cavalry than retired and the gunners went back to their guns an recommenced firing. This is a very problematic account, that many historians reject (where were the limbers and the ammunition supply train?), and leads neatly into one of the more interesting Waterloo controversies, which is why Wellington seems to have thought that he was let down by his artillery. The suggestion is that many gunners abandoned their pieces never to return, and had to be replaced by Wellington’s reserves of horse artillery. This controversy does not get mentioned. In fact not a hint of this debate is presented. I would also have liked a discussion of the French account of this period of the battle, which talks of their cavalry controlling the ridge for a substantial period, rather than the quick in-and-out of a number of waves, suggested by the British version. Mr Hussey does present a few of the controversies, such as the performance of the Netherlands troops, but the selection seems distinctly random.

On one matter he does choose to stick his head out and break free from the standard British account. He suggests that both commanders failed to realise the significance of the farm of La Haye Sainte, in the centre of the field. He suggests that the French should have pulverised it with artillery and taken it quickly, allowing them to press an infantry attack on the centre. Meanwhile Wellington failed to fortify it, unlike Hougoumont. Leave aside the point that these criticisms are mutually exclusive (if the farm was so easy to demolish, why waste time fortifying it?), and I think this account presents problems. My first thought is that I don’t think I can think of a case where massed field artillery (mainly 6pdrs) ever demolished a brick-built farm – this job was usually left to howitzers, which could set the buildings ablaze. Then again, I’m not sure that a relatively small farm in the open ever proved to be a decisive strongpoint in this era, before that day – maybe that was because they were vulnerable, unlike the much more substantial villages, like Aspern and Essling, that so often dominated battles. There is another issue though – the farm was in a distinct hollow, and sheltered by orchards and gardens. It was not as visible as many assume. From the French side the main feature providing the shelter was the “grand-battery ridge”, a low rise which is where most, including Mr Hussey, assume the French placed their artillery, even if “grand battery” is not an accurate description. At the left end of this feature the farm would have certainly been visible, but only one or two hundred yards from it – and quite vulnerable to rifle fire from the farm and the nearby sandpits. Further to right and the lining up and visibility would have been a problem, as the feature curves back a bit. This seems to sum up the problem of Mr Hussey’s whole approach. If your focus is what happened and why, you would start to look for explanations as to why La Hay Sainte might have been neglected, and why the French made no attempt to concentrate artillery on it. And if you had, you might well have spotted the problem. Instead Mr Hussey wants a bit of ding-dong. Incidentally, I tumbled on the visibility issue when setting out wargames terrain using a contour map.

So given this it is no surprise that Mr Hussey has nothing to say on what I think is one of the big puzzles of the battle – the speed with which the Prussians reached Plancenoit. At 4pm, according to this book (and it is generally accepted) the Prussians were nowhere to be seen. They then started to merge from the Bois de Paris; that is over 2km from Plancenoit. They faced Lobau’s forces of two divisions of cavalry and two of infantry. They had numerical superiority but they had decided to press forward before they had consolidated IV Corps for the attack – with only two brigades (actually sizeable divisions) and some cavalry available. By 6pm, according to Mr Hussey they hadn’t just reached Plancenoit, but they had taken it the first time and then been thrown out. Something about this account does not add up. Unfortunately records on both sides are very sketchy. I think Lobau must have pulled back very quickly without putting up any real fight when the Prussians first emerged.

And of course the book was published before Paul Dawson’s recent research suggesting that French casualties were lower than generally thought (though making sense of that book would be a big project, so Mr Hussey was perhaps fortunate there).

Overall Mr Hussey brings forward little fresh evidence. He has unearthed some neglected insights from some secondary sources from Germany and the Netherlands. His coverage of the more strategic aspects of the campaign – right up to the peace treaty – is welcome, given how many people focus on just four days in June 1815. Here his judgemental style can grate, but it I don’t generally disagree. His account of the climactic day is distinctly weak. Waterloo is one of the most written-about battles in history, and I have still to find a satisfactory account of what happened and why.

Ian Mitchell: Long Stop Hill, Tunisia 1943

My 1943 project (focused on the British Mediterranean campaign of that year) starts with Tunisia, though most of my recent focus has been on Salerno in Italy. This recently published book by Ian Mitchell (who has served both in the Navy and Army) looked of interest; it’s correct title is The Battle of the Peaks and Long Stop Hill, but Long Stop is the easily the best known of the engagements covered, and was the main objective of the campaign. It is a well-written book, but a bit unsatisfactory from my perspective., though I learned much from it.

Long Stop Hill (as it was named by British troops) was a relatively low but rocky double hill which stood alongside the the principal route to Tunis from the west and blocked approaches to the country’s principal port from this direction. With the the Army’s approach from the south blocked by even tougher terrain it became a critical objective for Allied forces in order to end the war in Africa, so that operations against mainland Europe could start. The Germans had turned it into a formidable fortress. It was assigned to the First Army’s 78th “Battle-Axe” Division. This book is an account of the campaign to take it, including the capture of nearby (and higher) peaks that were considered to be critical preliminary objectives, because they could be used to observe and direct artillery fire on the attacking forces.

The book is very successful in achieving what it aims to do – which is to give an account of the British units that carried out this series of attacks. We learn a lot about the soldiers involved, especially the officers, and individual achievements are highlighted. This coverage extends to supporting units, such as engineers, medical services and so on. This is quite a popular style of book, and is aimed especially at people whose ancestors or relatives took part. You do get a feel for the experience, and people are named where possible. Amongst other things it draws attention to the achievements of the First Army, one of the War’s forgotten formations, whose achievements are often overlooked. I would only fault the book on one thing within this remit: it needs more maps. It especially needs a map of the whole campaign area, explaining how the various objectives fitted together. It has just one map of the wider campaign area, which shows the movements in late 1942 (and the first battle of Long Stop Hill); it could usefully have repeated this map to show the movements of April and May 1943 as well. Poor maps is one of the persistent features of modern military writing, and unfortunately this book suffers somewhat: there are maps of the individual battles, which aren’t brilliant but do help a lot. It is thankfully free of other features of modern military books, such as frequent typos and inconsistencies, which arise from poor editing. Publishers don’t provide this service any more, and doubtless authors feel under pressure to bring their projects to a conclusion and so skip the editing. Mr Mitchell doubtless did the editing himself, assisted by friends and family. A hard, grinding job which has fortunately been done to a high professional standard.

The first problem I had with this book is that the frequent digressions into the past histories of those involved slows the narrative pace down, and it isn’t a riveting read. It is rather easy to put down, and it took me a lot longer to finish reading than it should have. A more fundamental problem is that its treatment of the German side of the story is cursory, and its main source seems to be British intelligence documents. Mr Mitchell does try to give their side, but he was not prepared to to the considerable and messy research required to get a more complete picture, from records that would doubtless have been incomplete anyway – and it is tangential to the book’s main purpose. This does limit the book’s value in trying to get a full understanding of what happened and why. A second problem is that analysis of the tactical problems is a bit weak and incidental, as well being limited by its British perspective. A third problem is that Mr Mitchell gets too drawn into the perspective of the soldiers within 78th Division, at the expense of the wider picture. He complains that the troops were overworked, and attacks conducted with less than adequate preparation. Given that this operation was on the critical path of the entire Allied Mediterranean war effort, I don’t think that these complaints are surprising, and he makes no attempt to show that the end result would have been achieved more quickly if the troops hadn’t been pushed so aggressively. His complaints of troops being wasted in unnecessary operations is more understandable, I prefer a more detached stance at this distance in time, This is war, not a game of cricket (and there are too many cricket analogies, though this arises from the fact that a lot of the officers were cricketers).

The tactical problems were considerable. The ground was rough and unsuitable for most vehicles, off the very limited roads. It could provide cover to troops who stayed still, and very good cover if you could dig into the rock, through natural fissures or with the use of explosives. But you were very exposed and highly visible if you moved through it. And if the enemy possessed the commanding heights they could direct artillery and mortars onto exposed troops with devastating effect, never mind the usual problem with machine-guns. This forced many of the attacks to be conducted at night. These were generally successful on the less heavily defended objectives; the open nature of the terrain reduced the usual chances of troops getting lost and mixed up, no doubt. The German tactics against night operations seemed to been the use of programmed mortar , artillery and machine-gun fire – which caused casualties, but were not enough to stop determined troops. But night attacks failed against the more important targets, notably the mountain of Tanngoucha, the village of Heidous, and Long Stop itself. In daylight the British did have a secret weapon: the Churchill tank, which could operate in terrain other vehicles couldn’t, and wrong-footed the German defences. This proved decisive, but the supporting infantry was still highly exposed.

One question that occurs to me, but the book doesn’t deal with, was whether the divisional strategy was well conceived. This was to work through a succession of peaks leading up to Long Stop, on the basis that each overlooked the next target, and that holding them would give the Germans a decisive advantage. But the British were unable to capture Tanngoucha or Heidous, covering Long Stop’s flank before the launch of their first assault on Long Stop. The nearer of Long Stop’s peaks was captured with these supposedly critical features still in German hands. Their occupation was more important for the second peak, but did this work two ways? The British quickly captured Heidous and Tanngoucha after the first peak of Long Stop fell. Heidous was abandoned and the resistance at Tanngoucha seemed weakened; Long stop seemed critical to the holding of these objectives as much as the other way round. This question is simply not discussed. Provision of a map showing all the peaks might have helped understand this conundrum a bit better.

Another issue is that quite a few of the minor details that wargamers like to know are missing. What armament did the Churchills have? The 6pdr was standard, but it is known that some were armed with 3in howitzers, as the 6pdr HE shell was deficient (this included a few Mark Is with the howitzer in the bow and 2pdr in the turret). Other Churchills were fitted with 75mm guns taken from knocked-out Shermans, but I don’t know if the 25th Tank Brigade (the unit involved) had any of these at this time, though they certainly did later. One source on the web suggests that these did not come into service until the Churchills were deployed in Italy, in 1944. But in my old Tank Battles in Miniature 4, written by wargames legend Donald Featherstone, it says that the conversions were made in January 1943, and they were used in Africa. Since Don served in Churchills in Tunisia (though not in this campaign) you’d expect him to get that sort of detail right! Another issue is that the book (and contemporary accounts) make much mention of German 75mm antitank guns. Were these PAK 40s, or were they the lighter PAK 38-based French 75s, which were less capable? PAK 40s were in use at this stage of the war, and the Germans did send state-of-the-art equipment to Tunisia, but in one episode it describes Churchills coming under fire from the 75s and suffering hits, but without that much damage being done. That doesn’t sound like the PAK 40 (in another episode it describes Churchills being knocked out by the 75mm guns of Panzer IVs, similar to the PAK 40). One issue that the PAK 40 was much heavier than the PAK 38, and o would have ben much more difficult to manoeuvre in terrain unsuitable for vehicles. How good the British officers were at identifying 75s correctly is another matter too; they noxiously over-reported Tiger tanks and 88mm guns. These guns could even have been 50mm PAK 38s.

What are my learnings for wargames simulation? First and foremost it reinforces a point I already knew. Artillery is central to this type of warfare, as it was to most of the warfare engaged in by British forces in the war, with the possible exception of action in the western Desert. Wargames rules are too dismissive of it, and usually little creative energy is put into bringing it into the game realistically. I have read more than once the claim that in the sort of company-level game which is the focus of most rules there would not be on-call access to artillery beyond mortars, so this should be out of scope. What this book (and others) shows is that is nonsense (though perfectly true for air support, I think). A company at the critical point of an attack (and very often a single company operation was critical) did have access to artillery, in both attack and defence. If wargames are going to focus on these important battles, as well as clashes of patrols, then they need to bring the big guns in as a central element.

Beyond this, I gained some new respect for two rule mechanisms that I don’t especially like from a personal game-playing perspective. The first belongs to the Battlegroup rules, and is the central mechanism for measuring each side’s will to keep going. The mechanism is randomised and the other side doesn’t know how close your side is to collapse. This book shows that encounters really do end by one side or other giving up after their will to fight has suddenly collapsed, which is very well simulated by these rules. The other is the Two Fat Lardies emphasis on individual characters, such as the “great men” in I Ain’t Been Shot Mum. This book is full of individual acts which dramatically influenced the course of a battle – and this is often what people who take part in these battles remember. How much the heroic types were known at the start of the battle is another matter, but I suspect they might have been.

How about the grand tactical game of Rommel? In terms of the forces involved (a division plus supporting units on both sides) and geographical area, this campaign looks an ideal subject. The rules’ focus on command resources as a proxy for the importance of planning looks spot on. But these battles took place over days, while Rommel is mainly about a single day of action. Also the rules don’t deal with the importance of vantage points, absolutely central here – though as I wrote in my initial review, this can probably be fixed quite easily. And night time is for recovery in Rommel, not prime time for combat. Still there may be some way of factoring all this in over a two-week time horizon for a game – the terrain clearly slows things down, so each move will cover much longer in elapsed time. This might be one way of testing the British peak-by-peak strategy with one that tried to bypass them with a stronger initial focus on Long Stop Hill itself.

Finally I just need to say that the climax of the events that this book describes, the two-stage battle for Long Stop Hill itself was quite an astonishing feat of arms by the British troops, and one of the outstanding feats of the Army in the war. The first attack was down to the 8th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, a unit that had suffered heavy casualties in the campaign to date, assisted by the 1st East Surreys (ditto). They drove through fierce artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire (including from the flank); the HQ company was wiped out, probably by mortars. And yet the survivors pushed on right up the summit, which it captured with barely 60 soldiers left active. The attack on the second peak was no less spectacular in its way. The approach was a long and exposed one (attacking directly from one peak to the other was too difficult), and this second peak was more strongly fortified by the Germans. The Churchills of the Northern Irish Horse led the way, alongside the 5th Buffs, who were very exposed and suffered heavy casualties. The tanks knocked out machine gun posts identified by the infantry, one group of tanks took higher ground that the Germans hadn’t expected them to be able to reach, and was able to deal with the German antitank guns from above. Another group of tanks cut off the German retreat. Artillery was constantly active led by FOOs right up in the thick of it. The British were not supposed to be as good as the Germans at inter-arm cooperation, but this attack was a model.

Th fighting described in this book is very different from that undertaken in North West Europe, or in the Western Desert (or on the Russian front come to that), though it was to be repeated in Sicily and Italy. It presents different challenges to do justice on the tabletop, but intriguing to try.

Nafziger’s 1813 trilogy: a useful resource but a poor history

Back to this blog’s original focus: Napoleonics! My reading about this era has focused mainly on the Waterloo campaign, the Peninsula War (1808 to 1813) and the Austrian campaign of 1809. I have dabbled in other campaigns: Napoleon in Italy 1796/7, Suvarov’s campaign 1799, Marengo 1800, Austerlitz 1805, and Russia 1812. That left a huge gap: the epic Central European campaigns of 1813 (and to a lesser extent the battles in France in 1814). I thought I needed to do something about this, saw an offer on George Nafziger’s three books on the subject, and bought them.

I started the first book, on Lutzen and Bautzen, last year, read the second, centring on the battle of Dresden, during lockdown, and have now finished the third, centring on Leipzig. I have very mixed feelings about the whole experience.

Captain Nafziger is well-known amongst wargamers for his intricate research whose main output is orders of battle for many encounters in Napoleonic and other wars, where he went much deeper than the usual British and French sources. He has also ventured into wider military history, with an account of the 1812 campaign, which I have, and others which I haven’t). Unfortunately his ability to ferret out and absorb multiple sources does not make him a great historian, and this series of books doesn’t show him at his best. His prose is leaden. His editorial choices are rather strange. No detail about which unit was to the left or right of another unit is too small for him to note down, but swathes of more strategic information get left out. His accounts include strings of place names, many of which do not appear on the (usually) sparse maps, and little geographical context is offered. It really is very hard to understand what is going on. The result is that I’m still pretty confused about how the earlier campaign, resulting in the battles of Lutzen and Bautzen, unfolded and why things happened as they did. The other books are generally a bit better, but still very hard going. Occasionally there do seem to errors. I found one case of what looked like the same episode being repeated. There are almost no eye-witness quotations to provide context and atmosphere (though in some ways this is a relief: some modern historians give too many undigested eye-witness accounts, and not enough interpretation).

Occasionally Captain Nafziger’s method works. His account of the prelude to Liepzig, the battle of Liebertwolkwitz, is much clearer than the two versions I had previously read (one by Digby Smith). but mostly it is thoroughly confusing. How accurate is all of this? I suspect him of giving too much credence to French accounts of their own prowess, though he does try to be objective. At Bautzen he describes dreadful execution done by French batteries firing across the river. And yet it was very hard to tally these with what he describes as happening to the Allied troops at the other end (which has a single horse battery being forced to retreat, if I remember correctly). There were other cases where praise for the conduct of French commanders is made for achievements that look quite modest. Where French sources are the main ones available, such as for many of the sieges a the end of the book, the accounts are very lopsided.

There is a lack of strategic commentary. Where he provides it, it reads more like thinking aloud than properly-developed argument. Overall there is a very 19th century feel to his commentary. In this era commentators (including military theorists) felt that Napoleon’s early campaigns (from 1796 to 1805 in particular), with their rapid manoeuvre and decisive battles were the epitome of good generalship, and the standard to which all military leaders should aspire. So they are continually critical of Napoleon’s more “lethargic” later campaigns, and have a good laugh at the floundering grand tactical leadership of the Allies. But war was changing, with massed armies, deficient training and stretched officer cadres. You had to fight wars differently. I suspect many of Napoleon’s “errors” can be explained by such considerations, which, for example, did not allow him to expose the logistical centre of Dresden. And, there is a plausible interpretation of the the Allies’ second campaign, masterminded by the Austrian Prince Schwartzenberg, as being one of the most brilliant of the era. There is a more modern flavour to these campaigns, compared to the more 18th Century earlier campaigns. It reminds me rather of the classic comparison of the generalship of Lee and grant in the American Civil War: one seems to look forward and the other back.

What are the takeaways? First I was right about 1813: this is in many ways the pinnacle of the Napoleonic Wars. In a wargamers’ terms (let’s dance lightly over the pain and suffering) this is very rich source of action – with the two sides remarkably well-matched. The sheer scale of it is clearly one of the big problems the author faced in his account. I might very well like to compare this work unfavourably with such masterpieces as Rory Muir’s book on Salamanca, or Eric Gill’s trilogy on the 1809 campaign – but these were much smaller affairs. It is very strange that these epic battles in 1813 are so weakly covered by English-language historians. Captain Nafziger is to be congratulated on taking such a challenge on. The level of detail in this book will make it a useful resource. But I badly need to read a more strategic account to get a clearer idea of what was happening (there are a couple around).

Incidentally, something rather interesting does emerge from wading through the mass of detail: it is how well the Austrians performed, right up to leadership level. I would go as far as to suggest that they were the most aggressive of the troops in the alliance in the second campaign (they were the freshest of the combatants, so this should to be too surprising). This is a far cry from the standard English language account which suggests that they performed poorly because their heart wasn’t in it. Indeed Austrian and Prussian leadership at corps level seems to be every bit as good as that of Napoleon’s veterans, and often better.

There are some mysteries to me that these books throw up, and which my further reading will address. The first is to get some kind of coherent narrative around the first campaign. I don’t buy the standard account that Napoleon outwitted the Allies and had them on the ropes when the armistice was agreed. After all, why then did Napoleon agree to the armistice? There is surely a strategic narrative that tells a rather different tale. Second is why did the Allies accept battle at Dresden when they realised that Napoleon was there in strength, especially when their deployment was so flawed? Third, was Napoleon really so close to crushing the Army of Bohemia after the Allied calamity of Dresden? And finally how close was Napoleon really to achieving victory against the Army of Bohemia on the first day of Leipzig?

That last needs to be explored in a wargame. I really don’t understand why this part of the battle isn’t attempted more often by wargamers. It’s big, but so is Borodino. And it has everything – Guard units and cuirassiers aplenty on both sides, and lots of drama. There are lots and lots of other wargames ideas to be found in these books (though I in many cases these will require the finding of much better maps). There are a couple of very interesting smaller battles that caught my eye too.

Conclusion. 1813 is where I need to be directing my future energies on Napoleonic wargames, following the realisation of my Ligny project for 1815.

Review: Patton versus the Panzers

This book is written by US author Steven Zaloga, who is an expert on WW2 armoured warfare. As I try to get to grips with warfare in this era, especially in the Western theatre (including Italy), I thought this would be an interesting study. It has indeed given me a lot to think about.

The main purpose of this study is to use a series of battles in 1944 to gain an understanding of the dynamics of tank battles between the US and German forces, and in particular the idea that German tanks were vastly superior to their US counterparts. Somewhere there is a powerful meme that the Americans (or Allies perhaps) lost five Shermans to every Panther they engaged. Mr Zaloga shows that this is nonsense; his main case is that tactical factors determined which side fared better, more than the quality of their tanks.

The subject is a series of encounters between General Patton’s Third Army and an attempted counteroffensive by the Germans, in September 1944, in the French province of Lorraine, near the border with Germany. It is interesting because it is a rare encounter battle between two forces moving forwards, and it stands alongside the bigger Battle of the Bulge as being one of the very few big tank battles that the US Army experienced in Europe in the WW2. In Normandy the Germans concentrated their tanks against the British/Canadian forces. Mr Zaloga concentrates on the main tank engagements, rather than providing a complete picture of the campaign. It starts with two disastrous attacks by the Germans on the US 90th Infantry Division and the French 2nd Armoured Division. The main substance is a series of battles against the US 4th Armored Division around the town of Arracourt. The book is topped and tailed by discussions of US v German armoured clashes and the relative merits of the main tanks involved (the US Sherman and the German Panther and Panzer IV). This includes a contemporary article by an American tanker Lt. Col. Albin Irzyk on why the Sherman was a superior tank to the Panther or Tiger tanks.

The quality of the account follows the availability of the evidence. There is a fair amount of detail on the plans and senior command decisions of either side, and tallies of vehicles involved (quite a few tables, not all of wh9chnadd much value), but not all that much on the tactical detail. There are maps (though the topography is a little hard to make out) and photos of the ground now, as well as what photos there are of the fighting in Lorraine. At this stage in the war the Germans didn’t produce after-action reports, so there is only the sketchiest detail from that side, mainly highly exaggerated claims of tanks knocked out. There is more from the US side, but this is very patchy; I wanted much more detail on what happened, but at least the outcomes of each phase are clear.

The whole episode was a disaster for the Germans in terms of losses, though they did stabilise the front, which had been completely open – though this has as much to do with stretched US supply lines as German action. It has received little attention from historians. For the Germans it was doubtless forgettable; the Americans didn’t realise the significance of their success, and for them it was overshadowed by the heroics of the Bulge. At the time was also overshadowed by the Arnhem offensive further north. Mr Zaloga has interesting things to say on this, and on armoured warfare generally. The only fault I would pick is that I would be interested to know how the US experience differed from the British one; we only get some airy references which only invite more questions.

As wargames scenarios there is a big problem with these battles. This is in spite of the fact that they are encounter battles over relatively open ground – the easiest sort of battles to game. The problem is that they are too one-sided. The Americans destroyed large numbers of German tanks while losing very few of their own, and a lot of these were the obsolete M5 Stuart light tanks, even though the Germans generally had a numerical superiority. It’s lambs to the slaughter, if your rules are going to reflect the reality at all. Actually not so different from sending British tanks into the German trap in Normandy, or the US experience in Kasserine.

Of course the interesting question was why were the battles so one-sided? The Germans were mainly equipped with newly manufactured Panthers, and the Americans (and French) with old 75mm Shermans with only a few of the better armed M4A3 76mm. There were quite a few Panzer IVs too, and M10 and M18 tank destroyers on the US side (as well as those Stuarts). Under the war-games rules I was brought up with, the battles would have been one-sided all right, but not in the US’s favour.

There were two main reasons. The most important was that the Germans were mainly fresh recruits with very little training, and mainly in freshly raised units that had only been together for days – whereas the Americans and French were confident, well-led veterans. A lot of the German leadership had been drafted in from the Russian front, so not used to fighting Americans, and besides they were not being given any latitude by the German High Command, who insisted on premature attacks (of course Patton’s constant movement forward made the German command problems even more difficult). In the fighting it is clear that the Americans often got the first shot in, and were able to achieve several shots to every German one. Their leaders often charged in with heavy concentrations of armour but little reconnaissance – an approach that may have worked against the Russians, but were fatal in this theatre. The Americans were often able to counterattack the Germans in the flank. The second reason for the one-sided outcome was that the Americans had vastly superior artillery support, as well as air support. The Germans often didn’t have any of either; even when they did have artillery it often ended up in the wrong place and unable to assist. American artillery in quantity and doctrine was the best of any army in the war. Air support was intermittent because of the weather, and Mr Zaloga suggests that its effect was exaggerated especially by the Germans (as a convent excuse), but its effect on inexperienced tank crews was clearly considerable. They sometimes abandoned their tanks under air attack.

There are specific points that are highly relevant to wargames rules, apart from the importance of troop quality. The 75mm and 76mm guns were effective enough at the ranges used, generally about 800 yards, and often closer. Irzk reckoned that the problem with superior German armour and guns was at ranges in excess of 1,500 yards. A lot of popular rules systems (Battlegroup, Iron Cross, I Ain’ Been Shot Mum and Bolt Action, for example) reflect smaller scale actions at shorter ranges. At 1mm to 1m, for example, 1,500m would be five foot; some of these rules have an even bigger distance scale. The 75mm/76mm weapons should be quite effective at these ranges: I’m not sure how well rules reflect this. On reflection the issue may be the number of shots the US tanks can fire to each German one.

Which brings me to another interesting point, which is the effect of such things as gunsights and turret rotation. The Sherman’s were much superior (the periscopic sight gave the gunner much greater situational awareness; the rapid traverse enabled it to line up on target much quicker, even on the move). This surely allowed the Sherman to get more shots in and quicker, but I haven’t seen it reflected in any rules. One further thing intrigues me. Mr Zaloga isn’t very interested, but the US tank destroyers (M10s and M18s armed with the 3in AT gun) seem to have performed very well, doing more than their fair share of the killing. This is interesting because I had read that the US doctrine that tank destroyers should do the heavy lifting in tank hunting was considered a failure because they were too lightly armoured. Mobility was not a substitute. In war-games the life expectancy of these weapons is pretty short, in my experience, as wargamers use them as if they were tanks. But in the context of these battles, and with correct tactical use, the US doctrine looks sound enough. Interestingly in one engagement later in the battles a unit of M18s refused to get engaged; the tactical context was wrong (in this case charging over a ridge line to engage tanks already in action). Actually it’s quite hard to use a tank destroyer correctly on the confines of a war-games table – you need to move them as soon as they’ve revealed their position. But I’m convinced of a further point too: their open-topped turret gave the crews better situational awareness, so that they could react to battlefield events more quickly than tanks. In wargames rules open-tops are a purely negative characteristic.

And finally, Mr Zaloga mentions some of the tactics developed by Sherman crews – such as firing white phosphorus smoke shells at German tanks, or even HE shells. These served to distract the German crews and give the Sherman time to get out or work round the flank (something that slow German turret traverse wouldn’t have helped them deal with); inexperienced tank crews might even think their tank had been damaged and even abandon it. There was also an incident where a German tank was forced back by small arms fire, after its commander was killed. Modern wargames rules have a useful concept of “suppression” or being “pinned”. This clearly applies to tanks, though these have the option of retreating, and can arise from fire that is very unlikely to do serious damage to the tank.

So a lot to ponder. Do I want to recreate these battles on the tabletop? They would be a good test of wargames rules. My 20mm WW2 armies are 1943 British and German. But I do have a job lot US 6mm miniatures, and some German models that might be used. 6mm armies are quick to build, so I might well give it a go in this scale. Maybe it is a good opportunity try out Battlefront rules, which seem to have been designed with US-German encounters in mind.

The Persian War – William Shepherd

As part of my lockdown reading I have just read William Shepherd’s The Persian War in Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices, on the attempt by Persia to conquer Greece in 479/480 BC. This is a bit off-period for me, but it looked to be a very interesting book. It was.

First a word of caution. The book is published by Osprey Books, and the author has written the Osprey Campaign study on this topic. But an Osprey book it is not. It is heavy with 488 pages of text plus bibliography etc. There are some pictures in two sets of plates, but these aren’t integrated with the text. It is heavy where an Osprey is light. It is a serious study.

The driving structure of this book is the narrative of the campaign by the ancient Greek author and near contemporary Herodotus, which comprises most of what we know of the episode. This is by no means all of the ancient work – Mr Shepherd misses out great chunks not relevant to the military narrative. The quoted passages are interspersed with the author’s own commentary, and fragments of what other ancient authors have said about the events. The result is a narrative of what happened and why, and an exhaustive study of what little evidence there is. The extensive quotation of the sources is a necessity I think for ancient history. In an earlier life I took up the Second Punic War (i.e. Hannibal et al). I found I had to get a copy of Livy, and then Polybius, to get any feel for the history.

The book is interesting on a number of levels. Herodotus’s narrative is the earliest piece of historical writing we still have, certainly in the Western world. He is known, justifiably, as “the father of history”, as it is possible to trace a succession from this all the way from this piece of writing to the modern art of history, but nothing before it. Modern historians don’t count his work as a true history, but more a collection of stories strung into an overall narrative. Herodotus does not attempt to resolve conflicts in the evidence, and his critical faculties are only employed sparingly: the numbers he gives for the size of the Persian army are nonsensically huge. Thucydides, who wrote about the Peloponnesian War, which followed the Persian War, is usually given the accolade of being the first historian. But Thucydides was following Herodotus’s lead. What is so interesting about Herodotus is that he spent so much time gathering stories from all sides. He shows real interest and respect for the Persian side of things. In fact a huge part of his book is about explaining the Persians and their empire to his Greek audience. He was originally from Halicarnassus, on the south cost of what is now Turkey, and a Greek colony that was part of the Persian empire, fighting on the Persian side in the war. Not that you are left with any illusion about whose values he sympathises with. Democracy, as then understood, is equated with freedom, where as the royal Persian system was enslavement. It is the earliest development of this sort of narrative, which still rings out in modern Western thought.

A further reason to be interested is that the events Herodotus describes are of seminal historical importance. It is generally agreed that if the Persians had won this war, then modern Western civilisation would have been a very different thing. It was a pivotal moment in world history. Mr Shepherd treats this as self-evident, as writers from that day to this generally do, though the contrarian in me would like to explore an alternative view. But the events, taking in the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea, form part of our cultural heritage. The war was the making of Athens as a major power, and Athens is second only to Rome as a centre of Western heritage. Strangely enough, from our distant historical perspective the Persians civilisation seems no stranger to us than the Greeks’. The Persian empire looks more like a modern state, and its religion, Zoroastranianism, is much closer to our own. The Greeks thought it was unmanly to wear trousers. We find the importance they placed on oracles and portents a bit baffling; the Persians look a bit more modern on this front, though they had to play the game for the benefit of their Greek allies.

The book is a good read, though on occasion I find that Mr Shepherd comments a bit too much. But he is very knowledgeable and it is clearly a labour of love. I do enjoy the detective work that goes into the working out of ancient history, and there is a lot of it here.

Is there much here for the Wargamer? Not as much as I hoped. The battles are few; most of the drama is around the wider campaign, the diplomacy and the various ructions, especially amongst the Greeks. Little is actually known about the land battles, and not much more about the sea ones, and the climactic battle, Plataea is messy. There was a ten-day stand-off between the two sides, and an accidental quality to the final day’s fighting, with many forces on the field not taking part (apparently on both sides, though the Persian element of this is a bit mysterious). The two sides were highly asymmetric, with the Greek heavy infantry on one side, and the Persian lighter infantry and cavalry on the other. Neither side wanted to fight unless it could play to its own strengths, which meant that it was rare that both sides wanted to fight at the same time. In fact there is an accidental quality to all the main battles. Trying to convey this tactical essence of only engaging by mistake would be something of a challenge. A campaign board game, on the other hand, could be an interesting proposition.

And there are some mysteries about the way they fought, and how this could be represented on the tabletop. Each Greek hoplite took with him one or more servants, who apart from carrying armour and supplies while on the march, and so on, took part in the fighting as psiloi. But how many? Where did they go? What did they do? They seem to have taken cover in the hoplite formations (only much later referred to as “phalanxes” incidentally) when the Persian cavalry attacked – otherwise they would have been massacred. Also the hoplite formations seem to have been a bit more flexible than I had supposed too. Each file (if that is a correct concept) took about a metre frontage – something a later era would call “loose files”. The depth of the formation varied according to need. Representing all this on the tabletop would be a bit of a challenge. The Persian side is relatively less mysterious – though there are complexities too. The heavier infantry had shield bearers to carry and deploy their shields up front while they used their bows; once close quarter fighting was imminent the infantry would take up their shields. The Persians had a lot of hoplites too from allied greek cities, though mostly these fought less hard than the other side, it seems. One thing would be a definite plus for warmers though: visually both armies would be a lot of fun. That goes for the ships too: the naval side was critical (Salamis was a sea battle), but no less challenging to recreate – though at least much more symmetric.

But much as I would enjoy putting together tabletop armies for this era, I will give it a miss!

Waterloo – the Truth at Last by Paul Dawson

This is an utter disaster of a book. I was very critical of Paul Dawson’s companion book on Quatre Bras, but I started this one on the main battle of the campaign more hopefully. But that wasn’t to last. I have gained a few new insights, but I would only recommend this book to Waterloo fanatics who don’t have a blood pressure problem.

Mr Dawson’s claim to have found the truth rests on some new data that he has unearthed in 2016 from the French archives, with unit rolls and casualty reports. The best bit of the book is the Introduction where he explains what these are and what he did with them. If he had confined himself to presenting this material along with some basic interpretation, then this would have been fine. Alas he wanted to write a much bigger book in too short a space of time – a task that would have defeated a more talented writer than Mr Dawson.

What to say? Based on another book I have been reading, it is a very left-brained affair. Right-brained skills of common sense and grounding in context are absent, as is any empathy for the reader, or anybody else. There is a lot of formulaic repetition, and the book is padded out with short biographies of the French participants that really don’t tell you very much at all. A few of these would have provided a bit of colour: repetitive lists should be in an appendix if they are to anywhere, rather than interrupting the main text. A lot of his conclusions look very shaky. For example he rightly puzzles about the high casualties suffered by Donzelot’s division in d’Erlon’s corps. He points out that it was not hit by the cavalry charges which destroyed Marcognet’s division – something that I did not know, but for which he provides compelling evidence. He then assumes it must have come from attacks on the farm of La Haye Sainte. Elsewhere he criticises historians for describing the battle for Hougoumont as a version of Rourke’s Drift. But if he’s right about Donzelot, the battle for La Haye Sainte, was a Rourke’s Drift with muzzle-loading muskets and rifles in place of the Martini-Henrys. In fact the issue is mainly to do with large numbers of men posted as missing – and I suspect this has something to do with being caught by the Prussians at the end of the battle while the French army was disintegrating. That’s just one example of how he makes breathtaking leaps to conclusions, while criticising others for wandering beyond the evidence.

Alas weak analysis and loads of extraneous data are far from the only problems. There appears not to have been an editor. This is not something publishers do these days, so authors have to rely on their own self-criticism and make use of friends. But Mr Dawson doesn’t seem to be a good self critic, and probably was in too much of a hurry to allow friends to do much editing. The book is disorganised (the chapter heads are random), riddled with errors and in places incoherent. There are many quotes, which Mr Dawson mostly leaves uninterpreted (he said something somewhere about letting them speak for themselves). Often these are in the wrong places, sometimes they appear more than once, and frequently  it isn’t clear how he draws the conclusions from them he does. And much of the analysis is contradictory. For example he bangs on quite a bit about how Lobau held off the Prussians for hours near Frischermont, before later concluding that he must have retreated rather rapidly, given his low casualties. There are no maps. Maps are more than just a decoration. They make things much clearer for a reader and force authors to face up to contradictions in the evidence. This failure is evident in his extremely confusing account of the Prussian advance to Plancenoit.  Contrast this with Mark Adkins’s account (which Mr Dawson likes to pick holes in), where maps are central to the narrative, and he presents a clear account of the same episode.  Of course, trying to put together a clear account of this complex battle with its many contradictory sources, with maps, and disciplined editing takes time – and this work was published not much more than a year after its central research. So he should have attempted something much less ambitious.

So what were the useful bits? The new data clearly has value. But it is problematic. The casualty data was compiled in chaotic conditions after large numbers of men had deserted, and others and had been rounded up as prisoners. There are large numbers of missing. So it is very hard to separate the battle from the aftermath. Mr Dawson does try to take this on, but not very successfully. The most useful thing I learned was about d’Erlon’s first attack. I have already mentioned that he shows that Donzelot’s division was not broken by cavalry at this time, which almost every account I have read has suggested. The data also help clarify what happened to the other divisions. This is very helpful. When devising wargames rules, I keep coming back to this episode to see how well any new system copes. That it now appears that the three regiments of the Union Brigade concentrated on just Marcognet’s division (and then moved on to one of Durutte’s brigades) makes much more sense of things. Another valuable insight comes at the end of the book when he looks at the data on the level of experience of the French army. He convincingly shows that it was not composed largely of veterans – but was comparable in experience to the Prussian, Netherlands and Hanoverian contingents (and unlike most of the British, which were in true veteran formations). The Guard seems to have been a shadow of its former self. This is contrary to what many historians have claimed, but does help make sense of both Waterloo and Quatre Bras.  I am also a bit clearer on what happened at Hougoumont, where the involvement of the different French regiments was very variable; not all of them seem to have been fully committed.

That’s about it. I am left with a number of mysteries. First and foremost is the advance of the Prussians. I really can’t make sense of the sequence of events – though Mark Adkins’s version looks entirely plausible. I want to do more work on this, and maybe I will find some nuggets if I trawl back through Mr Dawson’s book. But the absence of evidence from the French side must itself be quite revealing. I haven’t been able to find much from the Prussian side either – and Mr Dawson doesn’t seem to have bothered much with the Prussians, in spite of lecturing us on how important this episode was to the whole battle. This runs alongside the other big mystery of the campaign, which is why the Prussians did so badly at Ligny. One theory, that the French had tougher, more experienced troops is now looking shaky. Back to Waterloo  another mystery is why Bachelu’s attack was beaten back so easily. Mr Dawson makes a big deal on how this episode is overlooked by historians, but doesn’t throw light on how the whole division appears to have been beaten back by four battalions of the KGL in square formation. One theory is that they had been messed up by the fighting in Quatre Bras – but in his other book Mr Dawson suggests that they were not as heavily engaged as many thought. Perhaps they were low on ammunition?

Waterloo is the gift that keeps on giving. You would have thought that after all this time we would be quite clear on what happened. Alas no. This book offers some new evidence, but isn’t worth over 500 pages.