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

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

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’