BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War

Author: Christopher Knowles

Total Number of Printed Pages: 220

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


In the introductory voice-over text of the television series Star Trek, viewers were told that the spacecraft’s mission was ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’. This is a reasonable summation of this volume, with the only real difference being that the author had a party of paying tourists with him when he ‘boldly went’ into what was at that time, a completely foreign world; one that lurked all-unknown, behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains.

This book is part autobiography and part travelogue, and, while narrating events that occurred enroute, inevitably contains the author’s personal views concerning those he was travelling with, the countries being travelled through and the people and systems he encountered while doing so. Ostensibly it narrates the author’s experiences while taking a party of tourists from London to Hong Kong during 1981; a time when the Cold War was at its height and Westerners were a novelty east of the Berlin Wall, In fact, however, it is not. Despite being  presented as a single event, this volume is in reality a compendium of several journeys made over an indeterminate period. It is a narrative that is held together with what is ultimately a fictional thread. Although not evident from the title, the author makes this clear in the Preface. Within that section (and when referring to the narrative that is being presented), he states that ‘What follows, combined into a single imaginary journey, is a selection of events that occurred over the years’. He also notes that ‘All the events are true and with the exception of the incarceration in Ulan Bator, which was the unfortunate fate of another, most happened to me’. The author concludes ‘…I have taken the liberty of occasionally taking them [the events] out of their original content in order to preserve the narrative flow’. The end result is what can best be described as a work of ‘faction’; a narrative that is part fact and part fiction. There is no way of knowing which is which. That this should be the case in a volume promoting itself as a ‘truthful’ narration of a single event, raises questions concerning the veracity of the information it contains.

The bulk of the book consists of 12 Chapters, which take the reader on a train journey from London to Hong Kong. Each Chapter covers a specific section of the over-all journey and relates events that occurred while travelling over it. The section is preceded by a Preface which provides a synopsis of what the book contains. An Acknowledgements section follows; within it the author thanks those who assisted him in the volume’s creation. Unsourced colour photographs appear randomly throughout the work, and are possibly from the author’s own collection. Their captions are informative, but there is no reference to their existence on the Contents Page. A single Map traces the journey that the narrative describes. There is no Index.

Because of its subject, this volume is likely to appeal to both those who made similar journeys and to ‘armchair travellers’ in search of a good story. Those who are interested in life in Eastern Europe and Communist China during the ‘Cold War’ may also find it informative. Sociologists seeking information about life in micro-communities (train passengers on long journeys) or of everyday life under Communist rule might also find it of interest. Although it is more concerned with the journey rather than the ‘technical details’, railway enthusiasts might also find the descriptions of trains interesting.

This book is well-written and engages the reader with its narrative. However, the fact that (in this reviewer’s opinion) it is a volume of ‘faction’ reduces its usefulness considerably. This is reflected in its Rating. It was potentially worthy of a much higher rating than it received.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it a 6.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fighters over the Fleet: Naval Air Defence from Biplanes to the Cold War’.

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: Fighters over the Fleet: Naval Air Defence from Biplanes to the Cold War

Author: Norman Friedman

Total Number of Printed Pages: 460

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


Aircraft carriers are essentially sea-going military airfields, tasked with both protecting the naval vessels they are associated with, and, if possible, undertaking offensive actions against an enemy. The task of protection requires the use of fighters; small, highly manoeuvrable (and usually single-seat) aircraft, designed for the specific task of protecting the ships of the fleet to which they are attached, and flown with the intention of destroying any enemy aircraft they encounter . This is their story.

As the subtitle indicates, this well-written and researched volume chronicles the development of naval fighter aircraft ‘…From Biplanes to the Cold War’. It concentrates on the activities of what the author calls the ‘Three major carrier navies’, defining these as being of Great Britain, the United States of America and ‘Pre-1941 and Second World War Imperial Japan’.  When describing these entities, the author provides detailed analysis of their individual naval histories, the technologies, ships and aircraft that were employed and the tactics developed by each navy in response to specific situations. The result is a book which is likely to be become a standard reference work on its subject. Due to the amount of information it contains, this is not however a book which can be read in one sitting, but is rather encyclopaedic in coverage and well-suited to ’dipping into’ in pursuit of specific information.

Four separate sections precede the 13 Chapters which comprise the main part of this book. They are titled Abbreviations; A Note on Sources; Acknowledgements and Introduction. The Abbreviations section provides ‘Plain English’ interpretations of the numerous military–type abbreviations appearing within the work, while the Sources section indicates the origins of much of the information it contains. Those who have contributed to the work are thanked within the Acknowledgements section, while a general overview of the place of naval aviation as part of a larger defence system is presented in the Introduction. The volume’s first two Chapters chronicle both the development of the aircraft carrier and carrier-based aircraft, the latter being largely United States focused. The remaining chapters are devoted to the technical evolution of naval aviation. These focus on technical responses to perceived crises, whether political or technological.  Where necessary, sub-sections within each chapter provide additional information on specific topics. An Epilogue discusses the political, military and technological situation as the author perceives they exist in 2016. Within each chapter, sequentially-numbered and chapter-specific citations are provided. These are endnote in format, the relevant information appearing in a Notes section placed after the Epilogue.  A Bibliography follows the Epilogue. An Aircraft Data section following the Bibliography provides technical information relating to many of the aircraft-types appearing within the volume. Curiously and although arranged in column format, the Aircraft Data section uses a modified form of footnotes to provide additional sources. As a result, citations appear at the end of an ‘individual’ section rather than at the foot of the page. An Index completes the volume. The book contains numerous photographs, half-tone illustrations and plans (the two latter termed ‘Diagrams’ in the index) from a variety of sources. Although well-captioned, there is no reference to their existence on the Contents page.

This reviewer could find little to fault with this work. He would however question the placing of the Aircraft Data section behind the Bibliography as in his view, by containing additional information, the former should have been an Appendix rather than ‘merely ‘just another section at the back of the book’. The section deserves better.

In addition, and despite their notation within the Index, the Contents page contains no reference to any of the numerous photographs, half-tone illustrations and plans (aka ‘Diagrams’) appearing within the volume. As many readers will not peruse an Index to find such information, an indication of their existence (preferably an actual list) would have been helpful and avoided unnecessary searching in pursuit of a single item. How important these ‘faults’ may be, will depend on the individual reader.

In the opinion of this reviewer, this volume is likely to have wide appeal and could be of interest to both Naval and Aviation historians and to hobbyists with an interest in ‘matters naval’ in general, naval fighter aircraft, aircraft carriers and aerial combat. Those with a specific interest in United States Navy tactics and aircraft carrier operations are especially fortunate in this regard. In addition, by providing a ‘naval’ perspective on political events, those with an interest in international affairs (such as the ‘Korean War’) could also find it worth perusing.

As previously-noted, this volume bids fair to become an authoritative work on its subject; ‘Naval Fighters’ although it does have its flaws. Despite these, and on a Rating Scale 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it a 9.


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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fighters over the Fleet: Naval Air Defence from Biplanes to the Cold War’.



Reviewer:  NZ Crown Mines

Title: Navies in the 21st Century

Editor: Conrad Waters

No. of Pages: 256

Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent): 7


A ‘Compendium’ is defined as being ‘…A collection of concise but detailed information about a particular subject, especially in a book or other publication’. Navies in the 21st Century, fits this definition well.

In the military world, it is always useful to know what the opposition is doing, and if one is unable to make personal acquaintance with the foe, a variety of alternative sources can provide at least a measure of information.  Navies in the 21st Century seeks to be one of these sources.

The volume consists of nine Chapters (termed ‘Sections’), and within each of these are a varying number of subsections covering specific topics.  As it is a compendium, these subsections have been contributed by a variety of authors (14 in total) who are evidently experts in their fields. The Editor also contributes various pieces and a Foreword.

The subjects covered are wide. They include a Strategic Overview; a Fleet Analysis; 21st Century Warship Design; Aircraft, and Personnel. The resultant work is both comprehensive and informed. Photographs (from a variety of sources, both civil and military), graphs, tables and well-executed line and half-tone drawings are also included.

In addition to the previously-noted Forward, the volume has nine Chapters (termed ‘Sections’), and 25 ‘Subsections’. The latter are chiefly concentrated in Section 4 (Fleet Analysis), where they provide well-researched and detailed information on both major and minor naval strengths and capabilities. A Glossary and List of Contributors are also included, together with an Index. Where additional information is necessary, notes are provided at the end of the individual chapters. These are keyed to sequentially-occurring-numbers within the text.

For this reviewer however, the work does have some limitations. Of these the most serious concerns the Index. During random searching, it was noticed that although an entry for New Zealand appeared within Section [Chapter] 4.3 (Asian Fleet Strengths -2015) on page 91, there was no reference to this entry (or indeed to ‘New Zealand’ per se’) within the Index.

As this was found during a random search, there is no way of knowing what other omissions exist. However, the discovery inevitably raises questions concerning the veracity and authority of the Index section and, by implication, the whole volume. In addition, no Bibliography exists, while the Contents section makes no reference to the photographs and drawings appearing within the book. The use of numbers (for example, 4.2.3) to delineate the subsections may also be initially-disconcerting for some readers.

These limitations notwithstanding, this reviewer believes that this volume provides a comprehensive coverage of the contemporary international naval scene. While doing-so, it easily earns the ‘Compendium’ appellation previously given. It is a relatively small and easily carried book and easy to refer-to (the previously-alluded-to Index ‘problem’ notwithstanding). As such it should find a ready home in wardrooms, airbase libraries and on military intelligence files. Defence specialists, and researchers in the geo-political field will also find this work of use, while students of 21st-Century warships and naval design could find it informative. The naval modeller may also find that this volume provides invaluable information in respect of both sea-going armaments and general naval technology. Those with a more general interest in naval and military matters, international relations, or ships in general, are also likely to find this work useful.

In precis, this is an excellent, comprehensive and well-written book. For this reviewer however, it was let down by small but important details, especially in respect of the Index, Had this not been the case, it would have received a higher rating.

On a rating scale of 1-10 where 1: very poor, 10: excellent, I would give this volume a 7.


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