BOOK REVIEW: ‘Railway Guns: British and German Guns at War’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title:  Railway Guns: British and German Guns at War

Author: John Goodwin

Total Number of Pages: 122

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 6

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Until aircraft could be used to damage an enemy’s distant infrastructure, long-range artillery was the only option available for land-based armies to complete that task, This book chronicles the development and uses of such weapons; paying particular attention to the use of  rail-mounted super-heavy artillery in Western Europe during both World Wars.

This volume details the invention of very long-distance, ultra-heavy artillery, with particular (but not exclusive) emphasis on the railway-transportable sub-variant of that type of gun. While British use of railway guns forms the main focus of the book, American, French and German guns and experiences are also related and chronicled. Although they were fixed-position units, the German-built Cross-Channel Bombardment Batteries are also described in a separate chapter, as are the railway guns which operated alongside them.

An Acknowledgements section which appears at the front of this book thanks those who contributed to its creation. This is preceded by a Dedication page, which, curiously, is placed on the reverse side of a page instead of the more-usual page-front. The Dedication, after stating that it was ‘Written as a tribute to happy memories of my railway family in wartime…’ then proceeds to list both military and railway service by the author’s family, and five books evidently written by another family member. The Dedication is not listed on the Contents page. The largest section of the volume consists of 10 Chapters. These cover the invention of very long-distance, ultra-heavy artillery, with particular (but not exclusive) emphasis on the railway-transportable sub-genre of these weapons  Within each Chapter, subsections cover specific topics relevant to that chapter. A Bibliography at the back of the book lists sources used while writing this volume. A three page Index completes the volume. Numerous captioned Photographs, Maps, Technical Diagrams and Plans appear within the book, as do two Tables, three Pen and Ink drawings and a halftone illustration. The cover of an Official Training Manual for Siege Artillery is also reproduced, as is a page illustrating Water Cranes copied from a manufacturer’s catalogue. Although nominally placed at the end of each chapter, the locations of the photographs etc. can vary. There is no reference to these items on either the Contents page or within the Index.

Despite being very informative, this reviewer did not find this volume an enjoyable read.  This was due to a variety of factors, including the previously mentioned Dedication, the use of colloquialisms and a lack of interpretive information on maps.

The use of long sentences and a lack of commas within some sentences was also frustrating, The lack of any reference to the existence of photographs, maps etc. in either the Index or on the Contents page made searching for specific items difficult. The misidentification of several of the steam locomotives within the volume was also disappointing.

This volume may appeal to several potential purchasing groups. These could include Military Historians with an interest in both World Wars I and II or the defences and fortifications used during those conflicts. Students of British Army practices, siege weapons or extra-heavy artillery may also find this book of interest, as could military modellers or war gamers. Railway enthusiasts and modellers with an interest in ‘Things military’ may also find it to be useful for reference purposes.

Because of its specialisation, and despite the previously-mentioned limitations, this book is likely to become a standard work on its subject, On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it a 6.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Railway Guns: British and German Guns at War’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘ British Armoured Car Operations In World War One’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title:  British Armoured Car Operations In World War One

Author: Bryan Perrett

Total Number of Pages: 157

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 9

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It easy to focus on the ‘Big Picture’ and ignore the small things; those details which, contribute-to and ultimately comprise the larger image. World War I is no exception, there being a tendency to focus on events in Europe to the exclusion of the smaller alarums and excursions which played a part in the larger conflict. This book, in the course of the narrative about its specific subject, deals with the ‘smaller things’, and does it well.

This is a well-written and very readable volume. It details the origins, development and operations of armoured cars used by British forces during World War I. A detailed background gives insight into the origins of the armoured-car genre. The majority of British armoured car operations during World War I occurred in obscure locations far removed from Europe and the Western Front.  As a result, the reader is taken into Russia, the Balkans, Iran, the Levant and Africa; into small places and small wars. The relevant details are well-narrated. This reviewer found the chapters relating to the Russian / Balkan experiences of the British armoured car units particularly interesting, but was left with the impression that many of the non-British participants viewed the World War as being totally irrelevant to their own particular machinations. By their free-roaming, almost piratical nature, armoured cars attracted some interesting ‘personalities’. When these individuals make their appearance within the volume, they are treated with sympathy, although their foibles are not overlooked. The volume contains a selection of contemporary and informative photographs.  Disappointingly, one of these (No.15) although notated as being ‘A rare coloured photograph…’, appears only in a monochrome format.

The book consists of 11 Chapters. Maps are provided. Photographic captions are placed alongside their respective images and also appear in a separate List of Plates section in the front of the volume.  A Foreword relates the volume to a previously-published work by the author.  A Bibliography and Index are provided. No Source Notes are provided for the various quotations appearing within the work.

This book is likely to appeal to a variety of readers. These could include military historians and those with a particular interest in land-based warfare and military vehicles. Military modellers specialising in World War I would probably find the photographs of use. It may also appeal to those who simply like an enjoyable read about an unusual subject.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent: I would give it a 9.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘ British Armoured Car Operations In World War One’

Book Review: ‘Above the Battle: An Air Observation Post Pilot At War’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title:  Above the Battle: An Air Observation Post Pilot At War

Author: Roland, Lyell, Munro

Total Number of Pages: 276

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 9

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In war, necessity is frequently the mother of invention, a fact attested-to by this volume. It records the origins of that arm of aviation now commonly-known as ‘Battlefield support’ and the author’s role in applying the concept while in Europe during World War II.

At its most basic, this volume is a family’s homage to a now-deceased soldier (the author having died in 2002). However, it is much more than that.  The introduction to the narrative notes that the author ‘…First wrote about his experiences… partly for his children and partly … to make sure that what he and his comrades… achieved would not be forgotten’. As such it is both autobiographical, and a reminiscence, the manuscript being finally published through the joint efforts of the author’s children, a nephew and an unnamed editor. As the work covers a largely unknown area of military endeavour, historians have cause to be thankful for their efforts. There is however even more, as the work is also a history of the development of the Air Observation Post concept of artillery support for the British Army. In that context, it details the evolutionary steps which ultimately led to the establishment of the Army Air Corps as a separate and stand-alone part of the British Defence Forces.

The main part of this book consists of nine Chapters, together with four Appendices. Maps, a Bibliography and an Index are also provided.  An introduction and Forward to the Original Manuscript give background and provide detail of the some-what convoluted path that the volume followed to its eventual publication. Where relevant to the narrative, parts of romantic correspondence between the author, and the lady whom he subsequently married appears within the volume. The work is well-illustrated, and includes two of the author’s ‘in-field’ sketches. Numerous photographs are provided, although these are small in size. Several of the photographs are noted as being from the Imperial War Museum, but the majority appear to have been from the authors own collection, although this cannot be stated with certainty.  No mention of either photographs or sketches appears on the Contents page. Where necessary, Source Notes appear within each chapter. These are of the Endnote variety, are numbered sequentially, with the appropriate reference appearing at the end of each chapter. Curiously, asterisks are used on several pages to provide additional detail; this information appearing as footnotes on the relevant page.

The author has an understated sense of humour and tells his tale well, with the various sketches and images contributing to the over-all enjoyment. The insertion of additional detail by the volume’s editor provides background information, and adds to the reader’s understanding.

This reviewer enjoyed reading this work, and believes that it is likely to appeal to a variety of interests. These could include military historians; and those with a specific interest in British Army history. Aviation enthusiasts are also likely to find the information it contains of interest, while ‘generalist’ students of World War II, and especially the D-Day landings and the Invasion of Europe will probably find it informative. Military and aviation modellers may also find it useful.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it a 9.

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Book Review: ‘Above the Battle: An Air Observation Post Pilot At War’

Book Review: ‘Armoured Trains: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia 1825-2016’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: Armoured Trains: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia 1825-2016

Author: Paul Malmassari

Total Number of Printed Pages: 528

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

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To the general public, the idea that trains could be weapons of war is preposterous. Trains carry freight, they do not carry and use guns, and they definitely do not engage in hostile actions against an enemy, especially not in the Twenty-first Century.  This volume proves otherwise.

It is very evident that the author of this volume knows and loves his subject.  Originally published in France in 1989, this revised and upgraded English-language version is well researched and, due to the depth of information, is likely to become the authoritative work on armoured trains.  The book covers the development and use of the armoured train as a military device.  In most of the instances described within this volume, the armoured train was essentially a very mobile ‘fortress on railway tracks’. As such it could carry the battle to the enemy and cause havoc as a result.  It was not as mobile as aircraft (which were invented later), but was a definite improvement over its horse-based contemporaries. The major European and Asian powers were inevitably the largest users of armoured trains and as such their trains form the largest section of the volume. It does not however ignore smaller conflicts and combatants, and includes and describes all and any situations where vehicles running on railway tracks were involved in aggressive military activities.

The volume describes itself as an “encyclopaedia’ and as a result is  more suited to ‘dipping into’ rather than a straight ‘cover-to-cover’ read.  An Introduction provides general background details, and precedes the largest section of the work. This consists of 72 sections (aka ‘Chapters’) arranged by country and appearing in alphabetical order. Within each section information is given concerning the armoured railway vehicles that operated in or were owned by, that specific state. To this reviewer however, some of the inclusions are at best tenuous, and he considers the inclusion of New Zealand as the owner of an ‘armoured train’ while part of British Forces in the Middle East during World War II to be drawing  a very long bow.  At least one image (frequently more) appears within each section, while numerous line drawings are included.  Drawn to HO scale (1:87) these are of both rolling stock and locomotives.  Two Appendices are included; one containing numerous art-works of armoured trains, the other ‘… Original Factory Drawings of Armoured Trains and Trolleys’.  An Index and an Acknowledgements section are also provided. Sequentially-numbered Footnotes are used within each section while a Sources sub-section replaces a designated Bibliography. No maps of any sort are provided.

Unfortunately, this reviewer has two major concerns with this volume. One is with the complete lack of maps within the work, a situation which means that, unless they are geo-politically aware, a reader will have absolutely no idea as to where the trains actually operated. As several of the nations within the volume have also changed their names, this puts the reader at a major disadvantage. The other concern relates to the Index. Although the names of specific countries (for example, France, Russia, United States of America, South Korea, Georgia) are listed as Section (Chapter) Headings on the work’s Contents page, a random search within the Index found no evidence of  either these or any other ‘country’ names within that section. While it could be argued that a Contents-page listing is sufficient for the purpose, and that most readers will turn to the Contents before the Index, observation indicates that although purchasers of such a volume will initially only peruse the Contents page, they will eventually seek additional information within the Index section.  The absence of specific ‘country’ names makes such searching at best very difficult.  To this reviewer, this is a major failing as in his opinion, the seeker of specific information  needs to be able to quickly and positively identify that train X belongs to country Y (or vice versa). For this reviewer, being unable to do so, considerably-reduced the value of both the Index, and the volume.

The limitations outlined above notwithstanding. this volume is likely to appeal to several different groups.  Railway historians and enthusiasts will probably find it of interest, especially if they are interested in military railways, while both general and military historians could also find it informative.  Irrespective of the scale they work in, model-railway enthusiasts could also find it useful, especially if their interest is in military railways.

Due to its specialisation, this volume is likely to become the authoritative one on its subject. The lack of both maps and an incomplete Index do however reduce its value considerably.  On that basis, and on a Rating Scale, where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I would give this volume a 7. It should have been higher.

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Book Review: ‘Armoured Trains: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia 1825-2016’

BOOK REVIEW ‘The Fatal Fortress: The Guns and Fortifications of Singapore 1819-1956’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: The Fatal Fortress: The Guns and Fortifications of Singapore 1819-1956

Author: Bill Clements

Total Number of Printed Pages: 199

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

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According to well-held popular opinion, the fall of the British possession of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 was largely the result of ‘The guns facing the wrong way; out to sea, when thy should have faced ‘inland’; towards the (then) British colony of Malaya (now Malaysia)’. But was this in fact the case?

In this well-written and exhaustively-researched volume, Bill Clements seeks to clarify the situation. His narrative consists of two parallel themes; ‘Political’ and ‘Military’; the former providing ‘the reasons why’, the latter, the military response.. The tale that results is one of conflicting orders, evolving and changing international policies, self-important experts, technological development and unnecessary expense. An inability to think beyond very fixed perceptions, also contributed to what eventuated.  The miracle is that despite all the foregoing, some of the heavy artillery on Singapore was in fact able to contribute to its defence. The unfortunate aspect is that these guns could have done so much more. The facts are presented objectively and in impressive detail. The post-World War II era is also covered. A subsection in the final chapter lists what remains of the fortifications in 2016 and would be a useful guide for any visitor wishing to view what little is left.

The main part of this work consists of 11 Chapters, and three Appendices.  Several chapters contain subsections which relate to specific topics within the larger chapter. End-notes are used throughout the book and these are listed in a separate Notes section at the back of the book.  A  Glossary, Bibliography and Index are also provided. Although Maps and Photographs appear throughout the volume, the Contents page carries no indication of their existence.

For this reviewer, this volume was something of a mixed bag. As already noted, it is well written and researched, the author’s enthusiasm for his subject being very evident. The facts are presented in an objective way and the technical details are both comprehensive and informative. There are however some serious omissions in respect of the volume’s format. Several chapters contain subsections intended to provide additional information not covered within the main body of that chapter. Their existence (and that of both maps and photographs) is not noted in the Contents section. As a result, should a specific subsection, map or photograph be required, frustrating and time-consuming searching has to be undertaken. As this Reviewer expects the Contents page of a work to accurately reflect what is within its pages, such omissions are unacceptable.

There can be no doubt that this work is authoritative, the quality of the information it contains being such that it may become the standard reference on the subject of Singapore’s defences between 1819 and 1956.  Purchasers seeking details about the ordnance used during this period will no doubt find it very useful. Military historians seeking a more generalist overview of the island and the battle which resulted in its surrender, are also find likely to find it helpful. Students of World War II, Japanese military history and the history of British South East Asia are also likely to find it informative.

In precis, this work is a well-researched and written history of both Singapore Island and the guns that were intended to defend it when it formed part of the British Empire. As such, it is of high historical value.  Unfortunately, the omission of important information from the Contents page, together with the existence of unrecorded maps and photographs within the work itself, serves to reduce the volume’s value. Were that it was not so.

On a Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent), I would give it a 7.

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BOOK REVIEW ‘The Fatal Fortress: The Guns and Fortifications of Singapore 1819-1956’