BOOK REViEW: The War For All The Oceans, Adkins

This is a fantastic book. Worthy of the rare but coveted six stars.

In some respects it’s quite surprising that there’s so much interesting naval history to be told, when one remembers that Nelson’s 1805 victory at Trafalgar meant there wasn’t another major maritime engagement ‘twixt then and the end of the era, at Waterloo, in 1815.

The book commences with three chapters that culminate in the ill-starred fate of Napoleon’s Eastern adventure. Once again it’s Nelson who puts the kibosh on ‘Little Boney’s’ plans, at the Battle of Aboukir.

Remarkably, despite the period that Trafalgar indubitably represents, there is still much of great interest to be told, as Britain and France carry out global economic warfare, Bonaparte with his Continental System, and England with her blockading and her growing global hegemony at sea.

It’s quite revealing and surprising, given how The Napoleonic Wars as a whole have come down to us as a vastly oversimplified tale of the British David vanquishing the ‘Corsican Upstart’s’ Franco-European Goliath, to learn how often we bungled things.

And the British Royal Navy, as much as it formed the oaken walls protecting Fortress Albion, was complicit in some of these disasters. (?)’s Buenos Aires fiasco is dwarfed by the almost D-Day like (in size) but also Dunkirk like (in losses) Walcheren affair.

Add to all this Britain’s nautical rise to ascendancy in both the East and West Indies, and eventual supremacy in the Med and Adriatic, and even accounting for such mishaps as the 1811 Baltic convoy disaster (the biggest loss of life of the period being attributable to Nature, not war!), and a brewing stand-off that develops into war with the US (again!), and it’s apparent that it’s only natural that this era is so ripe for vivid storytelling in the age sail.

The colour and drama leant to the overall narrative, excellent as that is in itself, by the supremely well chosen and deployed firsthand testimonies, can’t be overstated. This is a rollicking good read. History at its dramatic finest.

BOOK REViEW: Finest Hour, Clayton/Craig

This is another book gifted to me on my recent birthday, by friend and neighbour, Chris. Thanks, mate!

The first I read from this new batch of books was Waiting For Hitler (read my review of it here). That was about the 1940 invasion scare, and there’s a significant amount of overlap with this book, which is mainly about the 1940 Battle of Britain.

I say mainly because this really quite epic and yet very homely account starts with the collapse and retreat of the BEF, in France, and is therefore initially more land and sea based, rather than aerial.

Authors and historians – and, I guess, TV presenters; this is the book companion to a BBC TV series (which I haven’t seen) – Clayton and Craig expertly weave together accounts from every level of British society (plus a few others, mostly Americans). There are sailors, pilots, soldiers, child evacuees, WAAFs, secretaries, journalists and even the big guns, like Churchill and FDR.

I found this a thrilling and very gripping read. And I was glued to it from start to finish. Starting out in France, with an ignominious retreat in the face of the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht, via the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, to the Luftwaffe’s battles to first destroy the RAF, and then bring terror and ‘revenge’ to London and Britain’s cities.

I’ve knocked off half a star, about which I feel a bit conflicted, for the slightly ‘tally-ho, chaps’ populist tone the books slips into occasionally. It is in truth a very broad ranging and nuanced account. But just every now and then it tips a little too far towards the ‘celebratory patriotic myths of WWII’ vibe.

But in conclusion, Clayton and Craig very deftly weave together a highly exciting and often quite moving tapestry of accounts of this incredible period in British and World history. One is drawn into the very real moments, and even the feelings, from the mundane to hugely significant, from personal sorrow, to national hope.

A superb book that I’d highly recommend.

MEDiA: Gene Deitch, RIP

Gene, with sons Kim and Simon.
We’ve all been here, right?
What has come to be known more recently as ‘crate digging’.

Oh no! I just posted about cataloguing my CD collection on FB. I thought I’d illustrate that post with an image by Gene Deitch, whose character The Cat was an avid record collecting jazz buff.

Deitch did some amusingly prophetic cartoons.
Haha… love this!

In finding an apt image, I discovered that Gene passed, aged 95, in 2020. I have a nice book, Cat On A Hot Thin Groove, about his illustrations for Record Changer magazine.

I bought this book about him years ago.

He also created characters like Nudnik, as well as animating such famous cartoons as Tom and Jerry and Popeye, and doing all sorts of other artistic/illustrative work. I’ve peppered this post with a few images by him I either love for their visual artistry, or their comic wit, or, frequently, both.

I got the image at the top of this post from an excellent obit’ from the NY Times, which you can read in full here.

Deitch in his Prague home/studio, in later life.
I pinched this for an Xmas card one year.
Bold abstraction meets jazzy figuration.
His Record Changer covers alone would be a great legacy.

I’ve not watched Munro (1960) – see below – yet, but as soon as time allows, I’ll be doing so (tomorrow, perhaps?*) * aka later today!

I find Deitch’s art, by which I’m mainly referring to his Record Changer and jazz related cartoons, design and illustration work, really inspiring. His mainstream animation stuff I’m much less familiar with or aware of.

But, rather madly, I’ve discovered that Deitch was also involved with one of the earliest screen adaptations of Tolkien’s writings. I love Tolkien, and I was really quite surprised to find yet another point of connection here with Gene Deitch!

As with Munro, I’ve yet to watch this Hobbit based animation. I glanced at a minute or so of it, whilst drafting this post. It seems quite a loose adaptation! But I look forward to watching it in full.

MEDiA: Book Review – Das Reich, Max Hastings

First published way back in 1981, the title of this book is, I feel, a trifle misleading, inasmuch as a good deal of it is as much about SOE, British/Allied special forces, and French Resistance, operating behind the lines, as it is about northward march of the infamous Das Reich!

One criticism I have, which has several interconnected strands, has to do with the class to which Max Hastings himself and a good number of the public school educated British ‘cast’ of his subject belong. The slightly dewy-eyed self-love of all such elites is both rather unctuous and not a little odious. When Hastings rhapsodises over numerous rugger loving toffs, playing at war, even when it’s very real and may well cost their own and others lives, it’s hard not to wince a bit.

A secondary point arising from all this is the possible overstatement of British/Allied efforts, and a concurrent downplaying of the French natives’ own efforts. But rather than going over all this here, I’d urge the interested reader to simply get hold of Das Reich, and decide for themselves. Hastings summarises the complexity of such things very well.

The titular or headline story traces how Das Reich, pulled out of their role on the Ostfront, start out resting and refitting deep in Southwestern France, at Montauban. Initially, and rather inappropriately, they are tasked with fighting insurgents – with dire consequences – before finally heading for Normandy, in the aftermath of D-Day, to fulfil their proper role.

As already alluded to above, Das Reich also relates how the aforementioned insurgents, with help from Allied agents, seeks to impede the 2nd SS Pz Div’s northward journey. Thanks in particular to allegedly anti-maquis actions Das Reich carried out at Tulle and Oradour Sur Glane (with which latter subject The World At War TV series so memorably commences), there’s a frisson of horror in the story. Although, as Hastings points out, such barbarity was routine in Russia, where Das Reich learned the Nazi ways of war. Nor, indeed, are the Allies blameless; Hastings asks, rhetorically, can the area-bombers of Dresden really claim moral superiority over the SS butchers?

I found Das Reich a fascinating and exciting, well-researched and well-written, and – despite Hastings slightly patrician establishment vibes – pretty well-balanced account, of a very interesting episode in the campaigns of Normandy and beyond. Definitely recommended reading.

FiLM REViEW: Custer of the West, 1967

Despite the rather ludicrous liberties taken with the real historical Custer, and a few set pieces that seem a bit odd and gratuitous – Sgt. Buckley’s lengthy but ultimately pointless log-flume escape for example – there’s enough here to enjoy. 

Robert Shaw has sufficient charisma to play the part, even if it’s a part as muddled as the movie itself. Show’s Custer, a humourless puritanical martinet, who’s dedication to military duty makes his Washington episode rather odd, esp’ when contrasted with his later career fighting the ‘Injuns’. 

The production is pretty epic, with large numbers of extras and the landscapes (Spain, or so I’ve read!) playing their parts in evoking the grand spectacles of the ol’ West. Such scenes as the attack on the gold-miners train, featuring a model of a high wooden rail bridge, are valiantly done, but, from a modern post CGI perspective can occasionally look rather clunky. 

Numerous actors – Robert Ryan as the doomed Sgt. Mulligan, Ty Hardin, Jeffrey Hunter and Lawrence Tierney as Reno, Bentine and Sheridan (all suitably manly, but otherwise rather one-dimensional) – acquit themselves reasonably enough. But Custer’s wife, played by Mary Ure, and his Nemesis, Kieron Moore in ‘red-face’ as Chief Dull Knife, lack presence. 

The film also tries to bighorn (titter!), er… sorry, shoe-horn numerous disparate threads into one overall narrative, with mixed success. These range from facing up to the guilt of American crimes against the indigenous ’Indians’, to the changing culture of that era, from the theatre (where Custer sees himself depicted) to armoured railroads, harbingers of a machine age which threatens Custer’s ideas of equine war with honour!

But nonetheless, for all this, I have dim recollections of the powerful impact portions of this movie had on me as a kid. An even now there are moments when it is either moving, exciting, or both. And some of the various sundry sub-plots alluded to above are also actually interesting. 

Still, all told, and despite the occasional flashes of interest or excitement, it’s a bit of a muddled mess. Not quite a massacre, perhaps. But confused, disjointed, and fluctuating wildly, even in its entertainment value. A long way off being a classic. But still worth watching.