Wednesday 30 April 2014

April Book Roundup

Its been a bumper book months for me with a large pile arriving in the form of Birthday presents in the middle of the month. It'll take me a while to get through them all but unlike March which was a complete write-off as far as reading (or anything else) was concerned, this month I have had time to relax with some great books. 

Churchill Tank: Owners Workshop Manual
Author/s:  Nigel Montgomery 
Format:    Hardback, 168 pages
Publisher: Haynes
Rating:     ★★★★★

Another of the incredibly popular (and incredibly good) Haynes guides to iconic tanks. I already have the Tiger and Sherman guides and the Churchill book is of the same high calibre as the earlier books. I love this sort of work, part history book, part technical manual and supported with an excellent and detailed set of period photo's. The pictures and diagrams in particular provide the reader with an intricate inside look at every inch of this vehicle so that by the end the reader feels like they really 'know' this tank inside out.

The Author is probably the foremost Churchill expert in the world. Nigel Montgomery runs the Churchill Tank Project which is dedicated to the restoration and exhibition of a troop of three Churchill Tanks. Currently being restored are two Churchill III's and a IV and much of the material for this book appears to have been gathered during the strip down and rebuild of these incredible machines. The result is a book that looks at all the details and little pieces of equipment that go into making the tank. I particularly enjoyed the way that the book showed how the tank was turned from an underperforming white elephant into one of the best British tanks of the war. The deficiencies of a rushed into service vehicle were recognised from the very beginning and the early versions were quickly evaluated in the field. The lessons learnt were promptly acted upon resulting in a quick succession of upgrades and a rework programme that turned this into a versatile, reliable and tough weapon of war.

This book should be of interest to military historians, vehicle enthusiasts, model builders and wargamers alike.

The Valentine in North Africa: 1942-43
Author/s:  Bryan Perrett
Format:    Hardback
Publisher:  Littlehampton Book Services Ltd
Rating:     ★★★★

I bought this from David Lanchester Military Books when I was at Skirmish last month and its a cracker of a little book. It focuses on the 23rd Armoured Brigade but comes packed with superb detail of how this modest but important tank worked and fought in the toughest of environments.

One of the things that immediately attracted me when I discovered this book was the large number of photographs in it. Each is well annotated and very informative. Some pictures are taken from training photo's taken at the time and some were shot by tank crew out in the field. The result is a mix of practical and historical photo's that give a really clear impression of what it was like to fight in a Valentine.

The book also includes several diagrammatic maps that give an uncluttered overview of how certain actions unfolded. I can see these being of great value to wargamers and indeed one such illustration has piqued my interest. Now I just need to buy a load of Valentine Mk II's!

The Desert War : Then and Now
Author's:   Jean-Paul Pallud
Format:     Hardback (592 pages)
Publisher:  After the Battle (2013)
Rating:      ★★★★★ 

I have been patiently waiting to buy this book since it came out last year and now that I have it (a special Birthday present from my wonderful wife) I can honestly recommend it as an absolutely essential volume for anyone interested in the North Africa Campaign of WWII.

Lets start by reviewing what the book includes. The massive 592 pages are divided into seven sections which explore the campaign chronologically from beginning through to the bitter end. The North African Battlefield - This is a general overview of the campaign and why this theatre of the war was so important to both sides; First Rounds in the Desert - Covering the period from June 1940 to Feb 1941 during which the Italians make their first moves ending in almost complete annihilation at the hands of "Wavell's 30,000" ; The Germans Move in - The period Feb 1941 to September 1941. With the Italians on the verge of collapse Hitler is forced to react to support his ally and General Rommel is given the Africa expeditionary Force to bolster the defences of the Italians in Libya and Tunisia. But Rommel has other plans and immediately goes on the offencive; The Winter Battles - During Oct to Dec 1941 the front ebbs and flows across the desert of Libya ; British Fortunes Reach their Lowest Ebb - Between Jan and July of 1942 the British are forced back towards their last line of defence in Egypt ; Turn of the Tide - August to November 1942 and a new commander brings renewed confidence to the British and while Montgomery's forces grow and strengthen the Rommel's forces are stretched to the limit. Second Alamein marks the beginning of the end for the Axis in North Africa ; Battle on Two Fronts - Operation Torch sees the Americans joining the fight in North Africa and the Africa Corp is relentlessly squeezed between two advancing armies. This final chapter covers the period Nov 1942 to May 1943 in the rocky terrain of Tunisia.

One of the things that make the Then and Now series of books so good is the huge number of previously unpublished photo's that fill their pages. This book is no exception with over 2000 black and white and colour illustrations filling its pages. Many pictures are taken from the authors own collection and show how little (and in some cases how much) has changed in the last 70 years. The period pictures, gathered from official archives and private collections, are amazing and cover every aspect of the conflict in this seemingly barren and worthless wasteland. There is something distinctly evocative about photographs of the desert war and this book has more than most within its pages.  Empty, barren and unforgiving this battelfield may have been, but this was a vitally important theatre of the war and this book makes it amply clear that this was no mere sideshow or prelude to the 'real' fighting in Europe.

The North African Campaign was of course only part of the broader conflict but there is something uniquely special about it that I think still resonates in the British psyche, because this was our victory. After Operation Torch American involvement in the war would grow and grow until we inevitably became the junior partner in the war, but we would always have Alamein to remind us that we had played pur part and played it well.

I've given this book a special six star rating because I really can't recommend it enough. Buy it, simple as that really, you will not be disappointed. As with all the Then and Now books it is printed on very high quality paper and heavily bound so this is a hefty volume and is so thick it should come with its own Armour rating!

Tuesday 29 April 2014

8th Army Reinforcements

The painting front has been a bit 'subdued' for a few weeks due to work issues, holidays and 'stuff' but I'm determined to change that this week. I have some big plans for my 6mm North Africa 1942 forces and a lot of models and terrain to paint. The first stage is to get as much based up and ready to work on as I can, then I'll break the project down into manageable chunks and start painting in earnest. So whats on the table.... lots of Crusaders mostly. 

British Reinforcements! 
Currently being prepped are 16 Crusader II's, 6 Churchill's, and six 40mm Bofor's guns with accompanying tractors. These are all from Heroics and Ros. I also have three 6pdr Anti-Tank Gun Portees by GHQ that I bought a while back. These actually came with an etched brass frame for the canvas cover but I somehow managed to break one during construction and eventually I decided to leave them off the models entirely. I don't think they would have survived rough handling on the games table anyway. I also have a dozen Universal Carriers which can be used as reconnaissance but I haven't based them up yet. Also un-based but waiting in the wings are more Sherman's. I have a load of these (painted for the European theatre) that are in a very sorry state and need to be stripped and cleaned ready for repainting in desert colours. I'm not sure yet how many I need but I have plenty in my bits-box so I could easily throw together an entire company of these. 

Friday 25 April 2014

Stocks and Shares

I have one last set of pictures from my recent Dorset Holiday to share and then I promise to shut up about it. These were taken on probably the best day (for weather) we had during the week at Corfe near Swanage. One of our many stops that day was the village of Corfe and its Model Village before walking up the mound to the real castle.

I see a set of Stocks and I just have to pose for a photo (this is for you Fran!). Now throw the key away...
The model Village includes a scale model of Corfe Castle as it would have looked around the time of the English Civil War  before the Parliamentary forces systematically destroyed it to deny its use to the Royalists.
The Model village is a detailed reproduction of the town of Corfe itself, complete with a miniature version of the miniature village....
...and if you look carefully (extreme left of the model about half way up) there is even another Miniature version of the Miniature Village, within the Miniature version of the miniature village.!
Corfe castle as it looks today is a shattered but picturesque ruin. 
The Parliamentarian Sappers did a good job of ensuring the castle could never be used as a defencive structure again. 
I did my best to repair the mess but I was never very good at D.I.Y. 
OK, that's the last pictures from Dorset. I haven't done any painting since the end of the Challenge last month, but that will change over the weekend when I get my brushes out. Unfortunately this probably won't include anything made with Kalinsky Sable because the wife wants me to decorate the bathroom!

Monday 21 April 2014

Fort Henry

This is the last post of the many Museums and Historical sites that I was lucky enough to visit on my recent holiday to Dorset. Fort Henry is a secluded and very poorly signposted National Trust property overlooking Studland Bay near Swanage. It has a huge historical significance because it was here that the final 'live fire' exercises were conducted in preperation for the D-Day landings in Normandy. A full scale mock invasion was conducted on the beach across the bay and Fort Henry was an excellent observation position for the organisers and dignatories to watch the unfolding operation. 

Indeed the greatest figures in goverment and the military were gathered here for the test just six weeks before D-Day and included Winston Churchill, King George VI, the Supreme Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery and Acting Admiral Louis Mountbatten. 

The massive concrete structure that is Fort henry is very well preserved and accessible to the public...if you can find it! There are no road signs or other markers and I had to guess where I thought it might be and then ramble through some woods until I found it. One wonders if the National Trust are hoping nobody will visit! 
The view from the Fort is clear acorss the bay towards the beaches upon which the mock invasion would take place.
Inside there are four compartments allowing a relatively safe position from which to watch the live fire exercise
The structure is massive and of course built from reinforced concrete.
A view of one of the blast partitions seperating the four sections of the bunker from each other.
The operation included the first operational use of the Duplex Drive system fitted to Valentine tanks so they could 'swim' inshore with the landing troops. The tanks were launched too far out in rough water and several tanks sank with the loss of six crew members. Lessons learned during Operation Smash were put in place for the real invasion, although some of the DD Shermans were still laucnhed too far out and in rough seas during the actual invasion. 
A memorial to the six Valentine Crewmen that lost their lives during this Exercise. 

This site is incredibly hard to find. There are no road signs indicating its presence and no signage even in the nearest car park just 250 yards away. I only found it because I had seen pictures of it before and had a reasonable idea where it should have been sighted. I then left the car and headed in what I hoped was the right direction, finally finding one small stome marker on a footpath indicating the fort was ahead. This meant that I had the site to myself and could happily get some great pictures without other people in the way but its a terrible waste of what should be a much better celebrated site, especially given its illustrious combo of visiors during the Exercise. 

If you want to visit Fort Henry you need to park in the South Beach Car Park and walk south (right when looking out to sea) until you find a waymarked coast path. Fort henry is just a few hundred metres along this route at OS Map ref SZ037828. 

Friday 18 April 2014

Bovington : Warhorse to Horsepower

Another post of pictures from my Dorset Holiday. This time my all time favourite place to visit, the Tank Museum in Dorset. My pulse always starts racing as I drive towards this world class collection of armoured vehicles and no matter how many times I come here I always find something new to enthral and excite poor wife thinks I'm slightly crackers! Funnily enough I recently bought a copy of the magazine Military Machines International and the editor Ian Young described the exact same feelings of anticipation and excitement whenever he visits 'Bovi', so I'm not alone!

The Museum has just opened a new exhibit, Warhorse to Horsepower which explores the transition towards mechanisation that the British army underwent during the first world war. This only opened a few days earlier so we were amongst the first to visit and I have to say we all enjoyed it thoroughly (even the wife!). New displays and swapping around some of the exhibits like this really freshens up the museum and lets the regular visitor looks at the collection from a new perspective. If you've been before, this is well worth a return trip! 

The new exhibition is in half of the space formerly occupied by the WWI Collection, and sits nicely next to the Mark I and other original early tanks on display. Some of the armoured cars that were here have been moved but the Vickers Independent is still here, just moved to a new position. (See this you Tube video Moving the Independent)
How military thinkers before the war thought it would be conducted. The mobility and manoeuvre of past European conflicts would soon be replaced by the mud and blood of static trench warfare and Cavalry would become largely irrelevant. 
The new exhibition has a contemporary feel to it but remains respectful of the period it looks at. It also has a very 'family' oriented feel to the way the display tells its story... when you stand by the horses they 'tell' you their story. 
For many horses their story ended here in the mud of Belgium and France. 
There are also exhibits showing the uniforms and kit of the Cavalry men themselves including this troopers basic uniform.
An original Service Dress Cap and Regimental Badge from 1914
Some of the exhibits are clearly inspired by the film Warhorse.
Another scene inspired by the film
Also on display is the new limited edition Armortek Mk IV. The basic kit will cost a mere £3995 with extras like RC, noises and smoke setting you back several hundred pounds more. Mind you it is an all metal kit and the detailing is absolutely superb.... maybe when I win the Lottery! 
The display boards throughout the new exhibit are excellent and very family friendly. 
I have to say that I felt this was a really excellent display and the museum should get 10/10 for family friendliness and inclusivity without dumbing down or skimming over the grim subject matter.

Once we had done this part of the museum we had just enough time to get round to the arena for one of the daily 'Tank Action Displays'. This is like a min version of Tankfest with a small but interesting selection of vehicles running around the arena. While the others enjoyed the display from up on the back overlooking the arena I got as close as I could to the action in my favourite spot for pictures. Here a selection of what I took. 

Museum Curator David Willey provides the commentary throughout the display.
The 'Warhourse' Mk IV Replica looks incredibly realistic and was a popular start to the display. 
The ferret Scout Car showing off its speed and agility in all conditions
An FV432 Armoured Personnel Carrier
This converted M548 gives rides around the arena for just £3 each and is specially fitted with 'bus seats' for visitors. 
The Chieftain Mark 11C Main Battle Tank
The Chieftain brings its gun round on the spectators!
The Chieftain is impressively fast and agile for such a huge machine.
As is this post war German Leopard I

With the Display over I quickly crossed the site to get a view inside the new Vehicle Conservation Centre. This had been completed but not filled when I was here last year for Tankfest. Then I had a quick glance inside the vast hanger like building and now I was eager to see the building full and in in use. The Museums huge collection has always outstripped the space available to display it so a significant number of vehicles have been stored in damp and unsuitable buildings elsewhere on the site. Some were also stored outside and even a tank is not impervious to the ravages of time and the weather. The new building finally brings all these vehicles into a dry and suitable environment to better preserve them and allow for ease of access for restoration. Here's a few pictures...

The museums collection is vast and growing. 
There are some superb examples of rare and important AFV's out in the Conservation Centre and at last you can view them. The only pity is that access to the vehicles is restricted to a viewing gallery only. 
Regularly used vehicles are at the front and I guess many of these were out in the arena a few days earlier for Tiger Day. Given how horrible the weather was on the Saturday I'm glad we decided to come later in the week!
Another wide shot of the VCC. Seriously, for a tread head like me this was a truly exciting place!
BigLee in his new favourite building of all time... now, how do I get down to the ground floor without being seen!

This was a great day out and with all the Easter activities it was also a very family friendly environment (much more so than our last group visit). My daughter, wife and in-laws also enjoyed the day which made the whole experience even more enjoyable for me. If you have a chance to get down to the Tank Museum this weekend then it is well worth it. At just £12.50 entry it is by far one of the best value days out you are likely to have and there is plnety to see and do that will keep you busy all day. 

Thursday 17 April 2014

The Keep Military Museum

Continuing with a selection of pictures from the various military museums I visited while on holiday in Dorset, next up is The Keep in Dorchester. I've been to this museum before, several years ago, and its a real gem. I love Dorchester and its a popular tourist destination because it has four other museums that bring visitors to the town but for me The Keep is the best of the lot. It was originally the gatehouse for the Depot Barracks of the Dorsetshire Regiment and has now been converted into the regimental museum of The Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, The Dorset Yeomanry, The Queen's Own Dorset Yeomanry, The Dorset Militia, The Royal Devon Yeomanry and 94 Field Regiment RA.

Inside it has some amazing exhibits all of which are very well illustrated and identified. There is a lot of information for visitors and because the the regiments long history there is material here from a long list of conflicts around the world over several centuries. This is definitely one of the best Regimental Museums I have ever been too and if you are in the area it is well worth a visit.

A Selection of mannequins representing troops through the ages. 

The Keep Military Museum in Dorchester
25pdr Field Gun
Officer of the Dorset Yeomanry
The Marabout Gun
11th Regiment of Foot Grenadier 18thC
More uniforms - Unfortunately my picture of the identifying label was too blurred to read so I don't know anything about them. 
VC of LCpl Onions - for capture of 200 enemy on 22nd Aug 1918 at Achiet-le-Petit
A surprise exhibit, Hitlers desk from the Reich Chancellery! Taken by the Russians, given to the regiment as a trophy of war and then donated to the regimental museum as one if its more unusual exhibits!
A selection of WWII German kit including a man-packed 2 inch Mortar
The glass case made this a challenge to photograph but there was a nice display of equipment from the 12th Airborne Battalion. 
A selection of medals, models and other items from the regiments deployment to Iraq for the first Gulf War.
The Museum has probably the biggest collection of medals I have ever seen in one place, including several VC's
There are also many reproduced cartoons on display including this rather grim assessment of Hitlers armies 
Many Toy Soldiers (such as these by Britons) are used in the display cabinets
The displays were well laid out with excellent information on every exhibit on 'paddle boards' hanging from every case. Although photography is allowed (even with a Flash) the glass cases and low lighting make it a challenge to get good pictures. 
The ceremonial Drums of the Devonshire and Dorsetshire Regiment
A leather and chain mail face mask to protect early tank crews from splinters or "metal splash" caused by non penetrating impacts on the outside of the vehicles. 
This cartoon perfectly captures the image of the 'old soldier'

Dorchester is also within sight of the massive Maiden Castle, one of Europe's largest Hill Fort's. Unfortunately the weather was grotty the day we were in Dorchester and low cloud obscured most of the site when we went to have a look. I would have suggested walking up and across the site but it was cold wet and miserable and there was no way I was going to get my family out of the nice warm car at this point!