Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/October 2011/Book reviews

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Many people interested in military history will have come across books published by the very prolific British company Osprey Publishing. These works are organised into several series and provide brief (40-100 page) summaries of a very wide range of military history topics ranging from ancient warfare to contemporary conflicts. Most of the books are heavily illustrated and many are aimed at modelers. As anyone who has read Osprey books will know, their quality varies considerably - some are excellent works carefully written by experts and others are badly edited rubbish pulled together by an author with little knowledge of the topic. In the following reviews I look at three recent Osprey books from the company's Campaign, Raid and New Vanguard series.

Walcheren 1944 - Richard Brooks

By Nick-D
LVT Buffalo amphibians during the invasion of Walcheren island

3.5/5 stars
Walcheren 1944 is the 235th book in Osprey Publishing's Campaign series, and covers the Allied invasion of Walcheren island in November 1944. It follows the standard format for this series, and provides a short (96 page) and heavily illustrated summary of the battle and its aftermath which is aimed at a non-specialist audience.

Overall, Walcheren 1944 is a success. Brooks' account of the battle is clearly written and interesting, and the maps and photographs are very useful. While I'm generally not a fan of the full page colour drawings included in many Osprey books, those in this volume are excellent and add a lot of value by clearly showing the difficult conditions the Allied forces operated in. My only quibble with the book's presentation is that all of the drawings depict Allied units, and there are none showing German defensive positions.

The analysis in Walcheren 1944 is a bit of a mixed bag. I felt that the book would have benefited from greater coverage of the background of the campaign, including how the Allied and German units involved prepared for it. However, Brooks' successfully conveys the poor condition of the island's German garrison (a third-rate coastal division mainly made up of soldiers suffering digestive problems) and the good condition of the Allied units, and this goes a long way in explaining why many of the Germans gave up without much of a fight once the Allies landed. While the book's narrative is clear, it's unfortunately heavily focused on the experiences of the Allied units involved and there's not much material on how the Germans responded to the invasion (though this was greatly constrained by the Allied success in flooding the island). The book would have also benefited from a clearer order of battle of the forces involved in the battle, as this is unclear at times.

The Last Boarding Party - Clayton K.S. Chun

By Nick-D
Marines run from a HH-53C helicopter during the Mayaguez incident

2/5 stars
The Last Boarding Party covers the fairly obscure Mayaguez incident in which the United States Military attempted to rescue the crew of a merchant vessel which had been seized by the Khmer Rouge off the Cambodian coast. The book is the 24th volume in Osprey's Raid series and was written by an academic on the staff of the US Army War College.

I was really disappointed by this book. Everything I'd read about the Mayaguez incident previously was over-long and confusing and I was hoping that Osprey's format would provide a clear summary of this interesting operation. Instead, this is another confusing and badly organised account. One of the book's major problems, and something which is unusual for Osprey, is that the maps are poor. Despite it being about an obscure battle in a region which few readers will be familiar with, the book does not include general map of the area, and readers are left in the dark about the relative locations of the island where this operation took place and the whereabouts of the US bases in Thailand and aircraft carriers from which it was conducted. There's an OK map of the general area in which the battle was fought, but as it's located on page 68 of this 80 page book readers will be confused by the time they finally reach it. I also found The Last Boarding Party's narrative to be unclear as it abruptly jumps between locations and doesn't clearly explain the organisation of the American forces or what their goals were. To make matters worse, the book is very US-centric and there are few details on the Cambodian units involved. The book would have also benefited from tighter editing as its prose is at times repetitive and contains excessive military jargon and, inexcusably, some obvious typos.

The Last Boarding Party does have some positive features. Chun's account of the decision making at the highest levels of the US Government and military in relation to this operation is good and contains some interesting analysis. His summary of the confused diplomatic maneuverings which led to the crew of the Mayaguez being released is also useful, though it remained unclear to me why the military operation went ahead given that the sailors had been freed by the Cambodians shortly before the mission to rescue them began. The book's photographs and colour illustrations are also generally good and the page and half bibliography will be useful to people interested in this topic.

All up, The Last Boarding Party is a missed opportunity, and I think that Wikipedia's article on the Mayaguez Incident provides a greatly superior account of this battle.

  • Articles this book will be useful for: some details may be useful in the Mayaguez incident article and articles on the units involved
  • Publishing details: Chun, Clayton K.S. (2011). The Last Boarding Party: The USMC and the SS Mayaguez 1975. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781849084253. 

Special Operations Patrol Vehicles: Afghanistan and Iraq - Leigh Neville

By Nick-D
US special operations personnel with a special forces Humvee in Afghanistan during 2003

4.5/5 stars
This book is the 179th volume in Osprey's New Vanguard series and discusses the customised vehicles used by special operations units during the Iraq War and War in Afghanistan. Like the other works in this series, the book is only 48 pages long but contains many photos and colour drawings of the vehicles it covers.

Special Operations Patrol Vehicles is an example of the best kind of Osprey books. While it's short and covers a relatively obscure topic, the author clearly knows his stuff and has packed in a huge amount of detail. The book covers dozens of different vehicles ranging from motorbikes to armoured personnel carriers though its focus is on the four and six wheel drive patrol vehicles used by different units. The allocation of space in the book seems to have been made on the size of the special forces units contributions and the variety of vehicles they've deployed. Accordingly, it's focused on vehicles used by the United States Military and a shorter, but appropriate, amount of space is accorded to the vehicles used by the other national special operations units which have served in the two wars the book covers - this includes a good level of detail on the vehicles used the Australian, British and New Zealand special air service units and brief accounts of the vehicles used by the various European special forces units deployed to Afghanistan. While some of this material seems sensitive at first glance, Neville states in an author's note at the start of the book that it has been sourced from previously published reports. However, I was concerned that in this note he also admits to altering the names of some units and characteristics of some vehicles for security reasons - it seems to me that it would have been preferable to have omitted these details rather than publish inaccuracies. The book is illustrated by many colour photos, including some of very obscure vehicles, and good quality colour drawings. My only quibble with its presentation is that the single two page cutaway drawing depicts a fairly lightly modified Humvee - it would have been more interesting if a specialised special forces vehicle had been depicted instead.

Neville has used the 48 pages he was allocated well, and doesn't waste space on describing the technical specifications of the vehicles in detail. Instead, he describes the general characteristics of each of the vehicles and the roles they have been used for. This was a good decision as the technical specifications should be available on the internet (to the extent they're unclassified) and it allowed Neville to 'value add' by providing interesting analysis. The analysis is pretty frank about the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of vehicles, and Neville's conclusion that the wars have illustrated a need for special forces units to have a large pool of vehicles to choose from to meet different goals seems sensible. Given that most of the nations which have been involved in Afghanistan seem to have completely replaced their fleets of special operations vehicles during the war I would have liked to have seen a discussion of the problems with the initial fleets which the war revealed and some figures for the number of vehicles which have been lost in the fighting, but this might be premature given that the war is still ongoing.

  • Articles this book will be useful for: The articles on the vehicles and special operations units described in the book
  • Publishing details: Neville, Leigh (2011). Special Operations Patrol Vehicles: Afghanistan and Iraq. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781849081870. 

Recent external book reviews

  • Englund, Peter (2011). The Beauty and the Sorrow : An Intimate History of the First World War. Profile Books Ltd. ISBN 1846683424.