Book Review: Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation POSTMASTER by Brian Lett (four stars)

Book Review: Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation POSTMASTER: the Top Secret Story behind 007 by Brian Lett (four stars)

Rather than going through the lengthy and tiresome process of obtaining permission to requisition such a craft, March-Phillipps simply went out and bought one a few days before Christmas of 1940. (Bond would no doubt have done exactly the same.)

Excellent history of a daring and successful British special operation in western Africa. Two problems: it was an unnecessary and potentially ruinous mission, and for the purposes of titling this history Ian Fleming had little to do with the conception or execution of Postmaster. Fleming’s place in the title and text is presumably a marketing ploy.

Perhaps it would not be out of place to observe that one of the chief reasons for the creation of SOE was the desirability of an organization whose actions could be disowned by His Majesty’s Government.

A sad consequence of Special Operations Executive’s flagrant disregard for international norms and neutrality were the cavalier and even more destruction actions of America’s Central Intelligence Agency, itself something of a SOE spinoff, in the decades after World War Two.

Many commandos were trained to kill in ‘Bond’ fashion, but very few indeed had the ability so expertly to deceive.

Despite constant references to Fleming and his later literary creations, he was more observer than actor. Apparently, Fleming recognized the literary potential of this type of mission, which remained classified until after his death. Lett has it backward. Bond wasn’t the inspiration of Postmaster as he knows better but implies; Postmaster inspired Fleming to create Bond, but that is typical for the convoluted logic.

One of March-Phillipps’ pencilled standing orders to his crew reads: ‘Avoid a fight if humanly possible, but resist capture to the last.’

Book Review: X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II by Leah Garrett (four stars)

Book Review: X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II by Leah Garrett (four stars)

‘Although he had escaped internment, as he said later, the impact of being classified as an enemy alien had a profound effect on [Colin Anson]. It made him feel, as he said later, as if he had to “apologize for every breath of English air.”’

Well-documented history of a unique unit of the British army in World War Two consisting almost exclusively of young German and Austrian Jews who had barely escaped the wrath of Hitler only to be mistrusted by the British. Wherever and whatever the mission, if it was important one or two X Troopers probably led the way.

“We were reborn in Aberdovey [training site]. As far as I was concerned, five years living as a pariah and four years of being an enemy alien were behind us, and we were somebody new now.” Manfred Gans

Garrett writes a clear and compelling story of courage and heroism. She deserves credit for assuring this tale is documented and recorded. The text begs proofing and tightening.

‘Of the forty-five X Troopers who had landed in Normandy on D-Day, more than half, twenty-seven, had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.’

The sad epilogue to these men’s service was that the country for which they sacrificed, and many died, begrudged them recognition. They were patched up, promoted, and sent back into the fight. When it was over, they were again classified as enemy aliens and barred from further service. They were eventually granted citizenship, but to this day their Jewishness is obscured.

Oft I listened to the chime, To the dulcet, ringing rhyme,

Of the bells of Aberdovey. I first hear them years ago

When, careless and light-hearted, I thought not of coming woe,

Nor of bright days departed; Now those hours are past and gone,

And when the strife of life is done, Peace is found in heaven alone,

Says the bells of Aberdovey.

Book Review: Munich: A Novel by Robert Harris (four stars)

Book Review: Munich: A Novel by Robert Harris (four stars)

‘In his ostentatiously modest way, [redacted] thought, Chamberlain was as egocentric as Hitler: he always conflated the national interest with himself.’

Reads as much as a life and times story as history of a critical week in 1938 when World War Two didn’t start. Exhaustively researched details of architecture, dress, food, and technology.

‘Truth was like any other material necessary for the making of war: it had to be beaten and bent and cut into the required shape.’

Timely parallel to current eastern European history. When writing it, Harris may have had an entirely different ax to grind. No shortage of megalomaniacs in this world.

‘In that moment, in a flash of clarity, he saw that nobody—not him, not the Army, not a lone assassin—that no German would disrupt their common destiny until it was fulfilled.’

 Complex intertwined narratives of two former colleagues from university days, now high in their respective government. The fictitious observers act as catalyst and recorder of what seemed like a daring, last ditch effort to avoid a second world war. Serious students are directed to William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

“Whereas if he keeps his word—and I happen to believe he will—we will avoid war.” “But what if he breaks his word?” “If he breaks it—well, then the world will see him for what he is.”

Book Review: Ike the Soldier by Merle Miller (three stars)

Book Review: Ike the Soldier by Merle Miller (three stars)

‘He went to a lot of trouble to appear average, to seem ordinary, to appear guileless. And he fooled most people most of the time, including most of his biographers.’

Published posthumously in 1987, Miller squeezed 600 pages squeezed into 1200. Pages of trivia, gossip, and speculation. Lots of quotable epigrams and original source material. Enough intimate insights to give the reader a deep understanding of Ike. However, given Miller’s Plain Speaking controversy and all the questionable quotes from impossible-to-trace sources, how are readers to separate be fact and fiction?

‘Omar Bradley later said, “Ike liked people and it is awfully hard for them not to like him in return.”’

Starts smartly with Ike’s years at West Point, then backtracks to a detailed biography of his entire family almost back to the Flood. No bit of trivia or controversy is too minute to earn a place, including advertising taglines from businesses cited.

‘He did not do much to interfere with the freewheeling reign of Joseph R. McCarthy.’

Miller gets verifiable facts wrong. For example, David A NicholsIke and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy, reveals that Ike covertly torpedoed McCarthy while never mentioning his name. (Miller had his own very public issues with McCarthy.)

“I want every American unit not actually in the front line to see this [Nazi concentration camp, Ohrdruf]. We are told that the American soldier does not know what at he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.” (D. D. Eisenhower)

Presumably, most of Miller’s material in meticulously researched and documented. His style was “warts and all” minutia, but even a one percent fabrication rate becomes tens of pages of error. How is the reader to known what to believe?

Eisenhower was “the wistful exponent of a simpler and lost America.”

Book Review: The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forster (Five Stars)

Book Review: The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forster (Five Stars)

“This is the captain.” Long training and long-practiced self-control kept his voice even; no one could guess from that flat voice the excitement which boiled inside him, which could master him if he relaxed that self-control for an instant. “We’re running down a U-boat. Every man must be ready for instant action.”

The best Forster ever. Better than Hornblower. Out techno-babbles Clancy. The reader feels Krause’s pain. Immediate and real.

“A U-boat for certain, and Keeling was rushing down upon her at twenty-two knots. We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement.”

Krause’s entire life comes into focus during two days in 1942 in the North Atlantic. His Christian upbringing, his being “passed over”* for promotion, his failed marriage, but most of all his rigid sense of duty before self all animate the inner dialogue which is the heart of this amazing story.

“Every man shall bear his own burden, and this was his—that was a text from Galatians; he could remember learning it, so many years ago—and all he had to do was his duty; no one needed an audience for that. He was alone with his responsibility in this crowded pilothouse, at the head of the crowded convoy. God setteth the solitary in families.”

Cannot imagine how this could be made into a movie. How does the camera capture the inner conflict. That the name change to Greyhound suggests some dilution. Regardless, read the book first.

“Krause found himself in the position of a man whose casual remark turns out to be true. Now that he had announced that he wanted to go to the head he was in a state of overwhelming anxiety to do so. It was shockingly urgent. He could not wait another minute.”

*Military idiom for officer considered for but not being promoted.

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer (Five Stars)

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer (Five Stars)

“Once we have the power we will never give it up. They will have to carry our dead bodies out of the ministries.” Joseph Goebbels

I should have read this book fifty years ago. You should read this book now. Shirer dug deep into the public and private and secret words of Hitler and his cronies documenting who said and did what during the two-decade advent and destruction of Nazism.

“Never in my life have I been so well disposed and inwardly contented as in these days. For hard reality has opened the eyes of millions of Germans to the unprecedented swindles, lies and betrayals of the Marxist deceivers of the people.” AH on the Great Depression

Shirer was a reporter in Germany during the 30s and again after World War Two. He accessed the unprecedented written records the Allies won from the Axis powers in Europe. His not being an academic improves the book’s readability. Footnotes aren’t to the opinions of other academics.

“This burning hatred, which was to infect so many Germans in that empire, would lead ultimately to a massacre so horrible and on such a scale as to leave an ugly scar on civilization that will surely last as long as man on earth.” (Yet only sixty years later some deny the Holocaust happened.)

Twenty-first century American Republicans and Democrats will see parallels in the opposite party but will be blind to those within their own. They’re there. Our unwillingness to see ourselves in this mirror suggests our vulnerability to repeating this horror. Is it a paradox that the totalitarian left which America saved from the totalitarian right in the 1940s bedeviled us the rest of that century as do now the totalitarians (right and left) from within?

“In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” Neville Chamberlain. (How many American politicians delude themselves into thinking they can “work with” international liars and bullies?)

Serious reading for a serious time. I recorded seventeen pages of notes; your mileage may vary. Quotations abound which echo into the twenty-first century.

“As an American citizen of German birth I finally testify that I am painfully familiar with certain political trends. Spiritual intolerance, political inquisitions, and declining legal security, and all this in the name of an alleged ‘state of emergency.’ … That is how it started in Germany.” Thomas Mann

Book Review: Every Man a Hero: A Memoir of D-Day … by Ray Lambert and Jim DeFelice (Five Stars)

Book Review: Every Man a Hero: A Memoir of D-Day by Ray Lambert and Jim DeFelice (Five Stars)

“Always for us the war was an immediate affair; the only strategy that counted was the one that kept you and your buddies alive.”

Extraordinary memoir of one of the last survivors of D-Day. The story summarizes growing up in Alabama in the 20s and 30s, and his decision to escape poverty by joining the US Army in 1940. He thought he knew what was coming, but had no idea what was ahead for him.

“I guess they figured if a man can take care of dogs, soldiers would be a cinch.”

Though Lambert had no medical training, he had assisted the county vet giving rabies shots to dogs.

“The 2nd Battalion medics never retreated; we just found a better location.”

Excellent voice and sense of the times. Lambert was older than many recruits and a natural leader. He survived landings in Algeria, Sicily, and Normandy. My father was a WW2 vet, and many of Lambert’s expressions and slang resonated with me. And reminded me of my father, dead over twenty years.

“Your mind plays tricks when you look back. Things that should be sharp and crisp blur. Odd events, people you barely knew and places you rarely visited, suddenly become sharp.”

DeFelice undoubtedly facilitated producing a modern text for the 90-year-old Lambert but did so without losing the sense of the original.

“No mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great—Duty First” First Division motto.

We cannot imagine what it was like: Lambert’s First Division “The Big Red One” went through. It is estimated that fully 30% of everyone who landed on Omaha beach was killed or wounded during his first hour ashore … or, in many cases, not quite ashore. Lambert was wounded three times that morning, the last took him out of the fight. His team rescued him and started him back to England.

“And that’s all right. In a way, it’s better. Every medic who did his job that day was a savior; every man a hero.”

Book Review: Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941 – 1945 by John C. McManus (Four Stars)

Book Review: Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941 – 1943 by John C. McManus (Four Stars)

“And on the American side, the land war was fought primarily by the Army, though popular memory has focused almost exclusively on the comparatively smaller Marine effort.”

A corrective for the incomplete and Marine Corp-centric detailing of the other half of World War Two. Based on original sources from dairies of dead Japanese and American soldiers to those of the three-stars. Excellent context for American involvement in subsequent Southeast and Southwest Asia conflicts.

The Death March was not an organized, calculated atrocity, in the manner of the gas chambers at Auschwitz or the cold-blooded executions in Katyn Forest. Instead, it was the product of chaos, poor planning, command confusion, inertia, disorganization, and dismissive cruelty. The ubiquitous cruelty of many Japanese guards and their propensity toward mindless violence was another matter altogether.

Probably more than the average reader wishes of the brutality of war, especially of the inhuman treatment of the survivors Bataan. Repetitious and slow moving. McManus repeats whole paragraphs and pages of previous material.

“He was . . . the only commander I recall who used the heading bearing his own name for official messages and communiqués,” Eisenhower later said. Of 142 communiqués dispatched by USAFFE headquarters during this period, 109 mentioned only MacArthur.

Exhaustive detailing of the leadership foibles which helped and hindered the Allied effort in the Pacific and Asia. Probably only needed to be told once what an egomaniac MacArthur was. He was not alone. That the Army, Navy and Marines fought their own intercollegiate war is not news either.

One soldier, writing to his mother late in 1943, expressed a fairly typical sentiment. “I guess everyone back home thinks MacArthur is some swell fellow. But the boys in the Southwest Pacific have another idea. He doesn’t do anything but ride around in his big car and live in a Hotel. He doesn’t know how it is up here in the jungle.”

Much has been written, then and now, about the huge materiel advantage of the United States, but having all that stuff and getting it to the soldiers at the front are two different things. Over and over the United States flunks logistics. In Vietnam, in the Gulf War and (I suspect) since we ship piles of stuff to the warfighters, the medics, the cooks, and much of it ends up rotting on some beach. (I was at Dhahran in 1990; the desert next to the cargo ramp was filled with hundreds on pallets (big, modern pallets) of stuff and nobody knew where it was or who it was for. My aircraft maintainers searched it for pallets for other maintainers throughout Arabia, but the war was practically over before that backlog got cleared away.

“The true determining factor in this conflict’s outcome, as with nearly all wars, was human will. In the Pacific, the Americans would be determined to fight to the finish with all weapons at their disposal, while observing only the rules that led to survival and victory. This has not been true in the decades since.”

This book ends with Tarawa in November 1943.

Though none of the soldiers could have known that the reversal at Moresby foretold the future pattern of the war, when the Japanese would seldom again advance strategically, at least on land, they did sense that a terrible moment had come. “We never knew how to retreat because we had never done it before,” one [Japanese] NCO later said.

Book Review: Hitler’s War by Harry Turtledove (Four Stars)

Book Review: Hitler’s War (The War That Came Early #1) by Harry Turtledove (Four Stars)

“‘We already had one war this century. Wasn’t that enough to teach the whole world we don’t need another one?’ Well…no.”

Classic alternative history from the master of the genre. Retelling World War Two without (so far) any supernatural twists. Things kick off a year earlier and don’t turn out the way they did in our universe. The action spreads across the whole world; most of it disjointed in this volume. The more readers know about World War Two, the more they will enjoy this volume; but even non-scholars will appreciate the story.

“People couldn’t have screwed up the treaties at the end of the war much worse than they did, could they?” “Never imagine things can’t be screwed up worse than they are already. But, that said, in this particular case I have trouble imagining how they could be.”

Turtledove creates believable characters who are archetypes as much as stereotypes. A few, based on actual historical people, are as unique as those he imagined. He seems to go out of his way envisioning Jews in non-stereotypical settings.

“Sergei ended up keeping quiet. Mouradian was bound to be right. If the authorities told lies and you pointed it out, who would get in trouble? The authorities? Or you? Asking the question was the same as answering it.”

Much repetition among episodic experiences of a large, dispersed cast. Some of it establishes the universal experiences of soldier regardless of country or creed; some is merely sloppy writing.

“If we were fighting the Kaiser’s army, we’d wallop the snot out of it. It’s the curse of winning—you get ready to do the same damn thing over again. The Germans lost, so they figured they’d better try something new. Now we’re on the receiving end.” “Lucky us.”

Book Review: Faith of My Fathers by John McCain and Mark Salter (Four Stars)

Book Review: Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir by John McCain and Mark Salter (Four Stars)

“If you valued them, and held them strongly, love and honor would endure undiminished by the passing of time and the most determined assault on your dignity.”

An engaging family history by the deceased senator and POW. Written presumably as a presidential propaganda piece for McCain’s first run for the Oval Office. Despite that it is well-written and absent the vitriol expected from politicians.

“Some officers get it backwards. They don’t understand that we are responsible for our men, not the other way around. That’s what forges trust and loyalty.” John S. McCain Jr. (his father)

McCain credits his grandfather and father with both his dedication to service to his country and the strength of character which saw him through six years of isolation and torture as a prisoner of war.

“Like other senior commanders, [my father] believed the United States had squandered its best opportunity to win the war in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, ‘when we had destroyed the back of the Viet Cong…. And when we had finally drawn North Vietnamese troops out into the open.’”

McCain’s criticism of how LBJ and McNamara mishandled the Vietnam War is shared by almost every participant. I was one of them. It was a stupid waste of humanity and resources and accomplished nothing. That Nixon did little better during his first term indicates what a Gordian Knot a land war in Asia can become. Apparently, we unlearned that lesson in one generation.

“A lot of men died who shouldn’t have, the victims of genuine war crimes.”

Never a classic conservative or Republican, he was a man of integrity who followed his inner compass even when those around him urged him not to.

“This is the faith that my commanders affirmed, that my brothers-in-arms encouraged my allegiance to. It was the faith I had unknowingly embraced at the Naval Academy. It was my father’s and grandfather’s faith. A filthy, crippled, broken man, all I had left of my dignity was the faith of my fathers. It was enough.”