BOOK REVIEW: ‘The History of the Port of London: A Vast Emporium of All Nations’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: The History of the Port of London: A Vast Emporium of All Nations

Author: Peter Stone

Total No. of Pages: 250

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

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At the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, London was described as being ‘The workshop of the world’. It was, according to the author of this volume, ‘…The [British] Empire’s economic capital… and at the heart of the vast emporium was the Port of London’. This book is that port’s story.

To state that this book is comprehensive is to be given to understatement. It is well researched, well-written and quite readable, with the qualification that it is more thesis than light romance. Because of its subject, it is also very wide-ranging in its narrative. When reading it the reader is taken from the Ice Age and the formation of both the British Isles and the River Thames, to the Twenty-first Century (specifically 2017), and the problems attendant to redeveloping a port system which technology and commerce have now passed-by. In the course of this perambulation through time, the reader partakes in the social and maritime histories which moulded and influenced the port and its surrounds, together with the occasional dose of warfare and politics for good measure. The result, as previously noted, is comprehensive and readable. It is also extremely interesting.

The bulk of this volume consists of eight Chapters preceded by an Acknowledgements section where tribute is paid to those who assisted the author in creating the book. That is in turn followed by a Preface This is six pages in length and summarises what is to follow. The Chapters are divided into sequential blocks, with each covering a specific time period. Subheadings within each Chapter provide additional detail about a specific topic appearing within that section. Reproductions of five lithographs appear within the volume to illustrate relevant points of the narrative.  They are supplemented by sixteen photographs placed within a small section in the book’s centre. The images are informatively captioned, although several give no indication of their source. There is no reference to the existence of the images (or even of the ‘Photographic’ section per se’) on the Contents page or within the Index. The volume also contains several Maps. These show both the development of the port itself over the centuries and its relationship to Great Britain, Europe and the larger world. As with the previously-mentioned images, neither the Contents page nor the Index contains any reference to the existence of Maps within the volume. A Selective Bibliography is placed after the last chapter, the author noting that the titles it contains ‘…Have been consulted to varying degrees’. An Index completes the volume. While comprehensive, this reviewer found the presence of unexplained italicised words within the Index puzzling.

While some were evidently the names of ships, others appeared to be Latin in origin. Unsourced quotations also appear within the volume. The discovery that HMS Belfast (p. 222) was a ‘Battle cruiser’ instead of her designated class of ‘Light Cruiser’ was also of interest. This reviewer hopes that this misclassification was only an isolated aberration and not indicative of other, similar, errors. There is no way to know.

Because it covers a multitude of topics under the broad umbrella of being a ‘History’ of the specific Port of London area, this book it is likely to have a wider audience than just those interested in ‘ships and the sea’. By default it is also a ‘Social’ history; its descriptions of social behaviour and micro-societies associated with the Port of London being possibly useful to social historians as a result. Political Researchers investigating British politics and their effect on the Port of London and international trade may also find it interesting. Those with an interest Twentieth Century warfare in general and the World War II London ‘Blitzes’ in particular,  may also find it worth perusing.

On a Rating Scale where 1: very poor; 10: excellent), I have given it an 8½.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The History of the Port of London: A Vast Emporium of All Nations’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Duel Under The Stars: The Memoir of a Luftwaffe Night Pilot in World War II’

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BOOK REVIEW

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Duel Under The Stars: The Memoir of a Luftwaffe Night Pilot in World War II

Author: Wilhelm Johnen

Total Number of Printed Pages: 320

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

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In his Foreword to this volume, James Holland (According to the book’s dust-jacket fly-leaf; ‘…An award-winning and internationally acclaimed historian, writer and broadcaster’), states ‘The best war memoirs are those that feel honest and appear to be written as a cathartic process rather than for a specific audience. They are not so obviously self-conscious and the writer and his voice emerge as a clearly-defined and real character’. This is one of those memoirs. Holland continues ‘ This…book  paints a…picture of what it was like to be at the coalface of the Allied bomber onslaught and reminds us of the unquestioned courage of the Luftwaffe crew sent to meet this menace’. It is an excellent summation.

This volume is a reprint of an English-language edition first published in 1957. It is prefaced by the previously-mentioned Foreword and is followed by 19 Chapters of varying length. While Chapter One (The First Kill By Night) provides historical background for German night-fighting operations, it simultaneously introduces the author to the reader and recounts his first ‘adventures’ in night flying. In the Chapters that follow, the author takes the reader from his first aerial combat to his final operations and the end of World War II in Europe. In between these events (and to again quote Holland), what emerges is ‘Fascinating…and perhaps surprisingly humane…’ It is indeed both of those things. Although The Contents page contains no mention of their existence, the volume contains four ‘blocks’ of unsourced black and white photographs. Three of these are of aircraft-types, personnel and technologies relevant to the narrative, the fourth being of the author’s contemporary night-fighter pilots and commanders.  No Maps or Index are provided and the volume contains no Technical Specifications or Three-view drawings of the aircraft-types the author flew.

For this reviewer, the volume was let down by its lack of both Index and Maps. An Index would have simplified searching for places, personnel, aircraft-types and events within the narrative. As there are many of these, the absence of an Index means that searching for a specific object (with no guarantee of success) becomes analogous to seeking the proverbial needle within a haystack. It is unfortunate that the opportunity was not taken to create such an entity (an Index) prior to republication. In addition (and as many of the locations mentioned within the volume underwent name changes in the Post-World War II period), Maps showing where the author served (with appropriate post-war modifications) would have been helpful. The volume’s narrative ends abruptly on 28 April 1945 with the cessation of hostilities in Europe. Not-unreasonably, a reader might wonder ‘What happened next; what became of the author’? Despite there being no indication of Herr Johnen’s fate within the book itself, the dust jacket flyleaf indicates that he did in fact have a ‘Life after the War’. As dustjackets can frequently become lost, it is regrettable that this ‘fly-leaf’ information was not printed as an Addendum to the larger narrative. Specifications and Three-view drawings of the aircraft-types flown by the author would have been both useful additions to the volume and helpful to the narrative, although it is appreciated that this information may not have been available at the time of original publication.

It is probable that this volume will have wide appeal. Readers with an interest in the World war II-era Luftwaffe (especially in night operations against the Royal Air Force), military aviation or World War II in general may find it of interest. Aircraft modellers may also find the photographs a useful resource, while those seeking an undemanding, well-written and easily-read ‘War Book’ may also find it an enjoyable read.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Duel Under The Stars: The Memoir of a Luftwaffe Night Pilot in World War II’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Air Battle of Malta: Aircraft Crashes and Crash Sites 1940-1942’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title:  Air Battle of Malta: Aircraft Crashes and Crash Sites 1940-1942

Author: Anthony Rogers

Total Number of Printed Pages: 220

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

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Before the advent of nuclear weapons negated its importance and relevance, the small Mediterranean island of Malta was of vital military importance to whomever would exercise military control over the eastern Mediterranean Sea.  Because whomever controlled Malta controlled the region, it was frequently fought-over by prevailing and would-be empires. The last (and arguably the most fierce) of these conflicts occurred during World War II. Within that conflict Malta was the centre of concerted attacks between Italian and German forces. These attacks were almost exclusively from the air, and Great Britain, Malta’s ‘owner’ responded in kind. The results were aerial combats between the opposing forces; combats which invariably resulted in the destruction of the aircraft involved. Many of these landed or crash-landed on Malta itself or in the sea nearby. This volume records the locations of such sites (where known) and the combats in which they were involved.

The main part of this book consists of 10 Chapters. Each of these records the air combats that occurred over a specific period. Although some of these are for a single month, the majority cover a time frame of between two and eight months. Within the volume the author ‘…Describes the circumstances of some 200 final sorties flown during 1940-42 by those who served in and with the Royal Air Force and also by their opponents…’. The result is an impressive list which is both well-researched and readable.. A two page Contents section is followed in turn by an Illustrations section which is also two pages in length. This reproduces the captions of the images which appear within a 16-page photographic section placed in the centre of the book. Curiously, the Illustrations section is actually titled List of Illustrations on the Contents page, An Acknowledgements section then thanks those who contributed to the book and is in turn followed by the Introduction. While this section provides an overview to the volume’s content it also details both the author’s relationship with Malta and the current (2017) state of aviation-related preservation efforts on the island. The 10 Chapters which comprise the main body of the book then follow. Five Appendices appear behind the Chapters. These cover such topics as aircraft losses (in which the losses are presented in a Table format numerically-keyed to maps placed at the front of that Appendix); the abbreviations used within the book and the equivalent ranks of the combatant air arms.

Within each Chapter, the individual dates on which combat occurred appear as highlighted subsections. These contain details relating to that day’s events and their outcomes. Endnotes are used to provide additional information. These are numeric in format and sequential within each chapter. The appropriate citations appear in a separate Notes section following the Appendices. A Bibliography then lists the resources which contributed to the volume. The final section of the book consists of two Indexes. These are titled an Index of Personnel and an Index of Places respectively and relate directly to Malta itself. There is however no ‘General’ Index to cover such things as convoys, warships, army units etc. As a result, readers seeking such information are forced to search through the volume with no certainty of finding what they are seeking. The lack of such a section limits the volume’s usefulness to a wider audience. Within the volume itself, an apparent printing fault has meant that the page numbers between pages 133 and 191 of have been omitted, while page 211 suffers the same fate. Curiously however, the ‘omitted’ numbers appear alongside entries in both the Index of Personnel and the Index of Places. Five Maps are provided, but instead of being listed on the Contents page, they have been placed within and under the Illustrations section. A ‘technical’ section providing the specifications of the aircraft involved would have been useful to enable comparisons to be made between the equipment used by each combatant air arm.

As already noted, this is a well-researched and readable volume. It is likely to appeal to those with a general interest in WW II and those with a particular interest in military operations in the Mediterranean section theatre of that conflict. Aviation enthusiasts with a particular interest in the Battle of Malta are likely to find it of interest, while the photographs could be useful to aero-modellers.

This reviewer found this volume is a pleasure to read, It is a credit to the author’s penmanship, and it will probably become an ‘authoritative’ text on its subject. However, the absence of a ‘General’ Index and the small ‘detail’ errors concerning page numbers etc. have served to both reduce its value and limit its potential audience.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it an 8. It should have been higher.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Air Battle of Malta: Aircraft Crashes and Crash Sites 1940-1942’

Book Review: ‘The Spitfire: An Icon of the Skies’

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Reviewer:  Michael Keith

Title: The Spitfire: An Icon of the Skies

Editor: Philip Kaplan

No. of Pages: 234

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

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According to its author, this volume: ‘…Looks at both the magnificent restoration of a AR213 [A specific aircraft], and at the Spitfire generally. It considers the mystique and charisma associated with the type, its principle designer R.J. Mitchell, the Spitfires of the pre-war years, the Spitfire in the battle of Britain, flying the aeroplane, the roles of the Spitfire in the Second World War, the amazing career of Alex Henshaw as Chief Test Pilot…the famous Rolls Royce Merlin engine…some of the motion picture and television performances of the Spitfire, and the phenomenal evolution of the warbird movement’. It is an excellent precis.

The volume consists of 12 Chapters. These cover the subjects described above and are accompanied by numerous monochrome and colour photographs. These are of both aircraft and individuals; all are relevant to the narrative. However, the image sources are not included with the images, but are instead listed in a separate Picture Credits section placed at the back of the book (of which more anon). Art works, along with images from both print media and philately, also appear, together with numerous personal reminiscences.

Regrettably, for this reviewer, this volume has several significant faults. Of these (and the most curious and serious; at least for this reviewer),  concerns the Contents page. On it there is a complete absence of reference to the volume’s ‘support services’. That the Acknowledgements. Bibliography, Picture Credits and Index sections appear within the book is easily verifiable, yet the Contents page contains no reference to their existence. Why this is so is unknown. In addition, an un-named (but two-page) section has been placed immediately after the Contents page. Exactly what it is, and why it has been placed where it is, is unexplained. To this reviewer, that section appears to be a ‘grab-bag’ of the material that will later appear within the body of the volume, but in the absence of a title, its function is uncertain. Regrettably, the authority of the Index is also doubtful, with a random search for ‘Park, Keith within it indicating that an entry to Park Keith would be found on page 99. No such entry was found. Have other, similar, omissions occurred? There is no way to know. As previously-noted, this book contains numerous personal reminiscences and quotes from those personally involved with the aircraft. Regrettably, little effort has been made to indicate when one individual’s quotes end and another’s starts, or of their sources (whether published, personal documents, or conversations). Page 35 is but one example, with the absence of quotation marks and citations making it initially difficult for this reviewer to determine where the ‘Beurling’ section ended and the ‘Lacy’ one commenced. Similar examples appear elsewhere. Readers seeking further information about the origins of such quotes will also have no idea where to look as no citations are provided to indicate their sources. The author certainly uses the Acknowledgements section to thank those who helped him by providing ‘…Quoted and other material’.

However, this is a ‘blanket’ thanks and in the absence of specific sources for specific quotes it likely to be of little use to a researcher.  A list of the abbreviations used throughout the volume would also have been useful. No maps appear within the volume.

The volume can be considered a ‘Potted History’ of the Spitfire and its military and civilian service, with particular emphasis being placed on the restoration of AR213. On that basis it will probably appeal to Spitfire aficionados in particular and to aviation and war-bird enthusiasts in general. Aviation historians may find it worthy of their perusal, while ‘generalist’ military historians may also find it of interest. Pilots and ‘Aviation buffs’ of all persuasions may also find it worth a look. Aeromodellers specifically interested in the Spitfire (especially the early marks as exemplified by AR213) are also likely to find the colour images useful.

On a Rating Scale where 1: very poor, 10: excellent: I have given this volume a 7.

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Book Review: ‘The Spitfire: An Icon of the Skies’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Maginot Line: History and Guide’

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BOOK REVIEW

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title:  The Maginot Line: History and Guide

Author:  J.E. Kaufmann, H.W. Kaufmann, Aleksander Jankovič-Potočnik and Patrice Lang

Total Number of Pages: 308

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

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This volume narrates the story of the Maginot Line; a series of fortifications constructed along the Franco-German border after World War I. In concept, the ‘Line was well-thought-out and constructed. It was built on the premise that should hostilities ever resume between France and Germany recommence, the German invader would be contained by the supposedly-impregnable fortifications and would be unable to enter La Belle Francoise. Unfortunately for the French, when the Germans did eventually re-enter (during World War II), they did so through an area of the border which the French considered to be impenetrable and through which the ‘Line did not extend.  The much-vaunted and highly-expensive Maginot Line was thus neutralised and ineffective. Despite this, the Maginot Line did subsequently see combat, although this was between German and American forces and did not occur until the latter period of World War II,  The  Maginot Line continued to play an ever-decreasing  role in French defence plans, although it had been overtaken by technology (especially with the development of nuclear weapons). In 1968 it was deemed surplus to French military requirements, with such structures as remained being sold-off to non-military organisations and individuals. This well-written and researched book is the Maginot Line’s story, and is a reprint of a volume originally published in 2011.

A two page Contents section appears at the front of the volume. Unusually, this is followed by a single-sentence Dedication. Why this should be placed where it is, instead of in the more-usual front of the book (and ahead of the Contents pages) is not explained. An Acknowledgements page then thanks those who contributed to the volume. A Glossary of Terms section is next. It provides English-language interpretation for the numerous French-language terms that the book contains, The Glossary is followed by the eight Chapters which form the main part of the book. These are divided into two sections, The first (titled ‘Part I : the Maginot Line) consists of Chapters 1-5 and provides historical and technical ‘background. The second (titled Part II: The Maginot Line and Other Sites Today), consists of Chapters 6-8 and is intended as a ‘guide book’ for use by interested visitors. Where necessary, sub-headings appear within each chapter. Additional information is provided within each chapter by chapter-specific end-notes. These are arranged sequentially within each chapter; the citations being placed at chapter-end. To assist visitors to what remains of the Maginot defences, the second section (titled Part II: The Maginot Line and Other Sites Today) contains ‘… A list of sites that can be visited today and that we recommend’ [Author’s italics]. Associated with this is a star-based system that ‘… Indicates accessibility in the main tourist season’. Six Appendices are placed after Chapter 8. They information they contain supplements that appearing within the main part of the volume. A Bibliography then details the printed and electronic sources which were used when the volume was being written. A six-page Index completes the book. In addition to the above, this volume contains numerous Photographs, Half-tone drawings, Maps, Plans and Tables from a variety of sources. There is no mention of their existence on either the Contents pages or within the Index.

Military historians with a specific interest in either static fortifications or the Maginot Line itself, are likely to find this volume of interest. It may also appeal to both military and ‘civilian’ historians with a more generalist perspective. Readers interested in World War II’s European Theatre may also find it worthy of inspection Part II of the volume may also be useful to holiday-makers with an interest in the Maginot Line, while war-gamers and military modellers could find the volume’s diagrams and photographs of use.

This volume is impressively well-researched and full of information. As previously noted however, there is no mention of the existence of Photographs, Half-tone drawings, Maps, Plans and Tables on either the Contents pages or within the Index. This absence makes searching for specific information time-consuming, with no guarantee that the information being sought will even be found. Although this reviewer found such omissions frustrating, how important they are will depend on the individual reader.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Maginot Line: History and Guide’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Wartime Standard Ships’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Wartime Standard Ships

Author: Nick Robins

Total Number of Printed Pages: 177

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

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In wartime, the impossible tends to become commonplace, with previously-insurmountable obstacles suddenly being overcome. Such was the case with the merchant vessels of all shapes, sizes and varieties used by the combatants during both the First and Second World Wars. Large numbers of such craft were needed, quickly and at low cost. This is their story. As it was the Allies who had the greatest need for such ships (to carry all sorts of materials essential to the war effort), the main focus of this volume is inevitably on vessels produced to meet their need. Axis merchant-vessel production is not however ignored. Although primarily concerned with the ships themselves, the volume also provides the ‘…Political and military background’ that resulted in the creation of these vessels; something not previously attempted’. The result is a well-written, exhaustively researched and very readable volume about a hitherto-neglected area of maritime history.

A Preface opens the volume. It briefly summarises what follows, while also relating the reasons that this book was written. A Foreword elaborates on what has gone before, and is in turn followed by the 16 Chapters which form the main part of the book. Within these, the reader is taken in logical steps through the history and development of mass-produced wartime merchant vessels. As they epitomise the success of wartime shipbuilding (at least by the Allies) specific reference is made to the Liberty and Victory ships; arguably the best known of all the many types that were produced by any side. Chapters devoted to German and Japanese efforts to build similar cargo vessels are also included. The volume includes numerous clear, informatively-captioned and clearly-sourced monochrome photographs,. However, the Contents page carries no acknowledgment of their existence, while the Index states that ‘Page numbers in italic refer to illustrations’. Tables and half-tone illustrations also appear where necessary, but again, neither the Contents page nor the Index, acknowledge that they exist. Within some Chapters, clearly-delineated subsections contain reprinted articles that provide additional information relevant to that specific Chapter. A single-page References section is placed after Chapter 16. This acts a Bibliography and is in turn followed by the Index; the volume’s final section. Despite mentioning many shipbuilding locations, the volume provides no maps to show where these might be.

For this reviewer this volume was let down in two areas: article sources and the explanation of freely-used technical terms. Of these, the most important was the absence of source citations and, (specifically) page numbers, for the numerous articles that are quoted within the text.  Although when quoting an article, the author refers the reader to its source volume, when the latter is many pages in length, the futility of searching for a small paragraph within it becomes evident.  Provision of specific page numbers within the source volume would have been of considerable assistance. The absence of any Glossary of the nautical terms used within the volume was also surprising, the author evidently believing that he was writing to an already technically-familiar audience. Unfortunately, not all potential purchasers will be so-equipped. What, (for example), is a ‘Scantling’ (p.68) or ‘Deadweight’ (p.102)? In the absence of any definition and without recourse to a dictionary, a reader with no maritime knowledge can but guess, and, baffled by jargon, could well decline to purchase.

Although aimed primarily at those interested in wartime shipping, this book could well be of value to any merchant-shipping enthusiast. Modellers of ‘Emergency’ cargo ships could also find it of use. Finally (and despite the previously-mentioned ‘limitations’), for this reviewer it is in his (very rare), ‘Must have’ category.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.


 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Wartime Standard Ships’