BOOK REVIEW: ‘River Gunboats: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia’

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Reviewer:  Michael Keith

Title: River Gunboats: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia

Author: Roger Branfill-Cook

No. of Pages: 336

Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent):

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In the Introduction to this volume, the author defines a ‘Gunboat’ as being ‘…The smallest type of warship able to project naval power, whether used to protect harbours and coastline…for patrol and policing duties or simply as a ‘presence’ in far-flung parts of the world’. The definition is an accurate one and an effective summary of what is to be found within this volume; small shallow-draft warships of many shapes and sizes, doing both mundane and at times astonishing, things. The author also notes that ‘This is the first work to cover the subject as fully as possible at the time of writing’.

Within the volume, an Introduction placed after the Contents page, after explaining the origins of the author’s interest in these vessels, defines the volume’s scope, while also explaining the absence of maps within it and acknowledging the problems associated with some of the sources used during its creation. A section titled Notes of the Plans and Specifications follows. The title is self-explanatory, and refers to the numerous plans within the book and the definitions used throughout it. An Acknowledgements section follows. Within it, those individuals and organisations which contributed to the volume are thanked. The main part of the volume follows. This is arranged alphabetically, and consists of 76 named ‘Sections’ (somewhat analogous to ‘Chapters’) of varying size, each devoted to lake and river gunboat operations by a nation-state, the term ‘Nation-state’ being used in this instance to include small self-governing countries / territories which, for a variety of reasons, were subsumed into a larger entities after a brief period of independence. Acre (the volume’s first entry) is one of these, existing between 1899 and 1903, in which year it became part of Brazil. There are several similar examples. Within each ‘Section / Chapter’, a brief history at the start provides a broad historical background before subsections within the ‘Chapter’ detail the activities of the various gunboats that that state operated. Where specific military activities require it, additional historical information is given at the start of individual subsections; that titled Lake Nyassa (within the larger ‘Chapter’ titled Great Britain), being but one such example. The vessels themselves are treated in two ways; either as an entire class, or, where applicable, as individual named entities. The military activities of each vessel or class is described in detail with a technical specification (Launched, Dimensions, Power / Speed, Guns / Armour and Fate) appearing at the end of each vessel-specific section. For a variety of reasons it was not possible to provide images of every class or individual vessel described within this volume. Despite that, the author has managed to illustrate the majority of entries with at least one image, some sourced, some not. Although largely photographic in nature, plans, etchings and half-tone drawings have also been used where photographs have not been available. Several ‘Chapters’ contain plans of the weapons carried by specific vessels. The Details of the 90mm De Bange System gun on page 123 is an example of this. A Bibliography follows the ‘Chapters’ section. This lists the written and electronic media used during the writing of the volume. It is in turn followed by two Appendices.  The first (Appendix 1: River and lake Gunboats in Popular Culture) explores how these craft have been portrayed in film, the print media and on stamps. The title of Appendix 2 (River Gunboat Camouflage) is self-explanatory. Unlike the rest of the volume, all images within the Appendices are in colour. An eight-page Index completes the volume. The volume contains no Maps, the author stating (in the Introduction) that ‘…I have preferred to give the space [that Maps would have occupied] over to descriptions of all the…gunboats I have found rather than dedicate many dozens of pages to maps which are freely accessible elsewhere’. Whether such a lack is important would be for the individual reader to decide.

The lack of Maps notwithstanding, this reviewer found this volume to be a most interesting, well-researched and readable volume, its encyclopaedic nature making it ideal for ‘dipping into’ should information about a specific vessel or class of vessel be sought. It was not however faultless, with the Index in particular proving problematical. The Index is ‘vessel-specific’ in its focus, to the extent that, with rare exceptions, the majority of entries are of the individual names / classes of vessels which appear within the volume. There are no references to either geographical locations or the military operations which appear within the book, the previously-mentioned Lake Nyassa being but one example of such a situation. As if this in itself was not enough, within the Index the standard entry consists of a vessel name followed by a country, but without an individual entry for the latter or the military operations within which it participated. The Index entry for Rangiriri proves the point. The entry appears as Rangiriri. GREAT BRITAIN,179,180. In this instance the Index contains no individual ‘Country’ entry for GREAT BRITAIN, potentially making searching difficult if the vessel name was not known. For this reviewer it would have been preferable to include BOTH vessel and ‘Country’ names as separate entities, the latter acting as an ‘umbrella’ under-which which the former could be located. While that is problematic in itself, in Rangiriri’s case there is also no Index-entry for NEW ZEALAND, the country where-in that vessel served exclusively. Without being able to quickly search for it under its country of origin (Great Britain) or its service use (New Zealand) a reader seeking information relating to  Rangiriri (for example) may be unable to do so; the arrangement of the Index simply does not permit it. Unfortunately, the volume contains numerous similar examples, and for a section intended to enable quick location of relevant information, the lack described-above certainly makes searching more difficult. It is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a major failing. Whether these details are important will, of course, depend on the individual reader.

It is rare for this reviewer to describe a volume as being a ‘Labour of love’, yet that is what this volume is, the author having put an incredible amount of effort into writing what should deservedly become a Standard Reference Work on its subject. Despite the previously motioned ‘difficulty’ with the Index, this book is likely to be of interest to Naval Historians, ‘Generalist’ Military Historians with an interest in ‘Small Wars’ and readers with an interest in both naval and general military operations around the world. Warship modellers with an interest in these vessels may also find the volume’s plans and photographs useful. Film and literature buffs seeking further information about gun boat-related movies and books they may have seen or read, may also find useful information within this volume.

On a Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent): I have given this volume an 8½.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘River Gunboats: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Mau Mau Rebellion: The Emergency in Kenya 1952-1956’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: The Mau Mau Rebellion: The Emergency in Kenya 1952-1956

Author: Nick van der Bijl

Total Number of Printed Pages: 250

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8

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The Mau Mau rebellion was a small, nasty conflict that occurred in Kenya (Africa) between 1952 and 1956. It was essentially a clash of cultures. There were two protagonists. One was a people-group who, after being denigrated and humiliated, had lost large amounts of hereditary land through no fault of their own. The second was a governing power which believed that it had absolute authority to do as it wished and was not about to negotiate with those it considered to be its inferiors. This volume narrates the story of the conflict that resulted.

Unlike other works on similar subjects, this volume focusses on ‘… The Regulars and young National Servicemen’, who participated in the conflict. The result is a book which ‘…Is a collation of information from published works, regimental periodicals, the internet and some interviews with and recollections of ‘those who were there’. The volume is a largely objective, eminently readable and well-researched work which gives an immediacy that is unusual. This reviewer found Chapters One (British East Africa) and Two (The Colonization of Kenya), particularly interesting.

A Preface and Acknowledgements section has been placed after the Contents page. Within it the author thanks those who contributed to the volume. It is in turn followed by a two-page Maps section An Introduction then provides an overview of Kenyan geology, fauna and native peoples. This is in turn followed by the 12 Chapters which form the bulk of the volume. A section titled Conclusion follows that section. It summarises what has gone before. Two Appendices are placed next, and are in turn followed by a Glossary. This provides interpretation for the numerous acronyms which occur within the book together with two indigenous words widely used during the conflict.  A  Bibliography then provides sources for the material used within the volume.  Although numerous quotes appear within the volume, there are no accompanying source citations. As a result there is no way of knowing from whence the quotes came. As they were presumably sourced from titles appearing within the Bibliography, for this reviewer this reduced the latter’s value for further research. The Bibliography is in turn followed by the Index. A well-captioned 16-page photographic section appears in the centre of the volume. There is however no reference to its existence on the Contents page.  Although this reviewer could find little to fault in this work, he does have reservations about the authority of the Index. This is occasioned by an entry on p.158 where it is stated that ‘…Four No.8 Squadron twin-boomed NFB-9s detached from Aden provided low-level …ground attack’. Despite a search of the Index under both Aircraft and Royal Air Force Units, no reference to either ‘8 Squadron’ or ‘NFB-9s’ (perhaps De Havilland Venom F.B.9’s?), was found. With two such errors appearing on a single page, it is reasonable to ask if other, similar, omissions have occurred? There is no way to know.  

The ‘difficulty’ with the Index notwithstanding, this is a well-written and researched volume that may be of interest to several different groups of readers.  Former residents and military personnel who were in Kenya at the time of the rebellion will no doubt find it both informative and nostalgic. Military historians interested in ‘brush fire’ conflicts and tactics could also find it useful, while the photographs may be of interest to military modellers and war-gamers. Those with an interest in the politics associated with ‘liberation’ conflicts may also find the narrative informative.

Due to the uncertainty of the Index, and on a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent. I have given this volume an 8.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Mau Mau Rebellion: The Emergency in Kenya 1952-1956’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ghandi, Smuts and Race in the British Empire’

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BOOK REVIEW

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Ghandi, Smuts and Race in the British Empire

Author: Peter Baxter

Total Number of Printed Pages: 280

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7

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The well-known proverb states that ‘Great Oaks from little acorns grow’. This is the story of two such Oaks – Jan Smuts and Mohandas Ghandi and the encounters that they had with each other as they grew; encounters that were at times tests of wills, yet encounters that were, ultimately respectful, if only for the abilities that each possessed.  This is a multi-level tale that moves from South Africa, to Great Britain, to India, and again to South Africa, and does so over several decades and for a variety of reasons.

This book is essentially two biographies running in parallel, and is well-researched and written. Understandably, the narrative is primarily concerned with the main protagonists (Ghandi and Smuts). However, it also acquaints the reader with those who influenced, encouraged and worked with both men, and provides historical background for the countries and events that formed them.  Although at times some of the ‘background narrative’ appears to owe more to the  stream of consciousness writing-style than verifiable-fact (the description of Dadabhai Naoroji’s receiving of Ghandi’s petition being but one of several examples), the overall story is well-written and holds the reader’s attention.

A two-sentence Acknowledgments section follows the two pages comprising the Contents section. In it, the author thanks those who assisted him in the volume’s development and publication. This is in turn followed by a List of Illustrations which replicates the captions applied to the 30 Photographs and single cartoon appearing in a 16-page section near the centre of the volume.  An Introduction follows. This focuses on events in Great Britain that are pertinent to the narrative that follows, and introduces the reader to Mohandas Ghandi and his associates. The 31 Chapters which comprise the bulk of the volume then follow. An Epilogue provides closure to the narrative. It details the protagonist’s actions subsequent to going their separate ways. Endnotes are used throughout the book to provide additional information; their citations appearing in a dedicated Notes section placed after the Epilogue. A Further Reading section follows. This acts as a Bibliography and lists the literature used during the volume’s preparation. An Index completes the work.  No Maps are provided.

Although this volume is well-written and researched, this reviewer believes that it is very badly let down in two key areas; Quotes and the Index. Numerous quotes appear within the book. However, these have not been provided with verifiable source-citations. As a result, (and in the absence of such information), their authority and accuracy must inevitably be questioned, irrespective of their relevance to the narrative being presented. The Index is also disappointing. While examining it, this reviewer randomly looked for references to Australia, New Zealand (p.14) and Canada as well as for the British Aboriginal Protection Society (p.56), and for Hottentots and Ireland. These items appear within the volume’s pages as part of the narrative, yet this reviewer looked in vain for them, eventually giving-up the search. If these items could not be found, then what else may be missing? There is no way to know, and the authority of the Index suffered accordingly. Whether such matters are important will depend on the reader.

This volume may appeal to several groups of readers. Those with a specific interest in the history of ‘White’ South Africa are likely to find it of great interest. As it provides a detailed background to what subsequently occurred in India, readers with an interest in the British Empire, ‘British’ India, Imperialism and Colonialism may also find it of worthy of their attention. Readers specifically interested in either Ghandi or Smuts may also learn more about these individuals. As it covers the various conflicts that occurred within South Africa, the military aspect of the narrative may also be of interest to military historians.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 7.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ghandi, Smuts and Race in the British Empire’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘THE RHODESIAN WAR FIFTY YEARS ON’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title:  The Rhodesian War Fifty Years On

Author:  Paul Moorcroft and Peter McLaughlin

Total Number of Pages: 208

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent)

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It is rare to find an academic work that is readable. It is even rarer to find an academic work that is readable, well-written and objective. By those criteria, The Rhodesian War Fifty Years On is a rare book indeed. It is a delight to read, being well-written and well-researched, and, most importantly, objective in its narrative.

The volume is an upgraded reprint of a title originally published in 1982 as Chimurenga, a fact reflected in the provision of additional preface and analysis sections at the front of the work. It is comprehensive, well-researched and authoritative in its narrative and chronicles the Rhodesian / Zimbabwean conflict from that country’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965, to the cessation of hostilities in 1979. In addition, it also records Zimbabwean history for the period 1980-2015, during-which time this once-prosperous nation gradually acquired ‘failed-state’ status. The ‘Rhodesian’ conflict was a nasty little war with a pre-ordained conclusion and, at one level could be simply seen as European colonialism’s last gasp in Africa. Such was not in fact the situation and the work records the rise and fall of various personalities, the changing allegiances and alliances and the unique military tactics that were developed in response to an increasingly-untenable military situation. The conflict was also one of invasion and counter-invasion and of intrigues and modified ideologies where the protagonists could be simultaneously in conflict while working in harmony.  It was very definitely not a ‘little war within a little country’, but rather one in which a small nation punched high above its weight and in ways un-thought of and considered impossible by larger powers. As a feat of arms it was unique. As a political event it was ultimately, for some of the protagonists, a disaster.

All of these events, and many more besides, are carefully recorded in this work, which has to be worthy of the appellation ‘Classic’. The authors describe the events and the sub-conflicts within the larger war in detail, with care and, most notably, with objectivity and complete impartiality. It is a refreshing change.

The work is arranged in four main sections, with subsections appearing within these. Maps, tactical illustrations and photographs also appear within the work, together with two Prefaces, a Prologue, a Glossary, a Select Bibliography and an Index. Zimbabwean history for the period 1980-2015 is contained in a separate section, as are the authors’ biographical details. The need for anonymity means that quotes and the majority of photographs are unsourced.

In this reviewer’s opinion, this work will appeal to several groups of readers. On one level it will be of use to military personnel interested in tactics and responses to specific military situations and exigencies, while historians and war-gamers will also find the information it contains useful. In addition to these special interest groups (and because it explains ‘the reasons why’), this work could be of immense value to those expatriate- Rhodesians who may still be wondering why events occurred as they did. If only for that reason, this little volume would be invaluable. That it manages to do so much more, clearly, concisely and objectively must inevitably earn it the appellation ‘Classic’. In the opinion of this reviewer, that is a designation well–deserved.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I would give it a 9½.

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nzcrownmines is also available for book reviewing: Contact nzcrownmines@gmail.com

 

BOOK REVIEW: ‘THE RHODESIAN WAR FIFTY YEARS ON’