Friday 30 May 2014

May Book Roundup

I'm very aware that I keep giving out five stars to many of the books I read but rather than being a reflection of my own low standards of marking I think its a reflection of the vast wealth of excellent military history books available these days. I only have two to review this month, but both are excellent in different ways and I think both are well worth seeking out and reading.

Destiny in the Desert : The Road to El Alamein
Author/s:  Johnathan Dimbleby
Format:    Hardback, 544 pages
Publisher: Profile Books (2012)
Rating:     ★★★★★

I very much enjoyed the two part TV documentary on the build up to El Alamein presented by Johnathon Dimbleby a few years ago, so when I saw this book I decided it would be worthwhile buying. There has been a growing trend in recent years for BBC correspondents to reinvent themselves as TV presenters with varying degrees of success. Johnathon Dimbleby's venture into this field however works very well, mainly I think because he brings his many years as an experienced front line political correspondent to this subject. He also has a personal connection to the events as his father Richard Dimbleby was also a correspondent for the BBC and was posted to the middle east for the duration of much of the time covered by the book. The result is no mere retelling of the Desert Campaign but an in depth analysis of the personalities, decisions, conflicts, mistakes and realities of war that lead to the turning point at El Alamein.

Johnathon Dimbleby has managed to look at the events of 1941-42 in a way that shows the 'big picture' while maintaining the freshness of a news report. From a military history perspective this book is more about politics than martial events but reading it helps one to understand the context of the Western Desert Campaign in a way that few other books manage to achieve. The political machinations of Churchill - both his great insights and personal drive and his appalling interference in military affairs - are discussed in great detail. I felt I knew the conflict in Egypt and Lybia very well but found myself discovering new perspectives and shocking details with almost every turn of the page.

One such revelation has entirely changed my estimation of the supposedly great Desert Fox's ability to out-think his British counterparts. In 1940 a new military attache to the U.S. embassy in Egypt was tasked with the duty of monitoring and reporting on British military operations in the region. He dutifully reported everything he learnt about British “strengths, positions, losses, reinforcements, supply, situation, plans, morale etc” to his superiors in American intelligence. But the code being used to encrypt the reports had been compromised and Axis intelligence were able to read the reports and within a matter of hours copies were in the hands of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and more importantly, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. This massive security blunder handed Rommel an Ace card in a high stakes poker game in which he was already a daring and dangerous gambler. British generals were often amazed at Rommel's 'instictive' ability to read the battlefield and exploit turns out there was nothing instinctive about it and this was more often than not intelligence lead opportunism.

This German intelligence bonanza came to an end when British cryptologists at Bletchley Park discovered the security leak sometime around the middle of 1942. The Americans were mortified at the realisation that their intelligence gathering had landed in the hands of the Axis leaders and quickly changed to a newer tougher code for all communications. At the same time Bletchley were feeding their 'Ultra' decrypts of German signals to the British high command and by the end of 1942 - in time for the Battle of Alam Halfa and 2nd Alamein - the tables had been completely and decisively turned on the Axis forces.

This is a really good book which I found to be very easy to read and all the more enjoyable for it. As a political correspondent Dimbleby brings a clarity and perspective to the subject matter that avoids the dry and sometimes clinical approach that other authors often fall into. He presents the North African campaign in context and clearly shows that this was no mere side show to the bigger conflict but was actually a vital stepping stone in the destruction of the Axis war machine.

D-Day To Victory: The Diaries of a British Tank Commander
Author/s: Sgt Trevor Greenwood (Edited by S.V.Partington)
Format: Hardback, 396 pages
Publisher: Simon and Schuster (2012)
Rating: ★★★★☆

There are quite a few wartime diaries and recollections now in print and more are being discovered all and published all the time. Many are interesting but poorly written and in dire need a good editor and or a ghost writer! This isn't the case with this book as Trevor Greenwood was both a prolific and quite talented writer and this comes across immediately on reading the first entries in his own war diary. Officially keeping such a diary was banned so the author was taking quite a risk writing down his daily adventures but he did so for the entire duration of his active service, right up until he was demobbed in later 1945.

Greenwood writes with a touching humility and humanity despite the horrors he witnesses and although he is clearly under extreme stress at different times, he never looses his sense of humour and wit. Just prior to his departure for France he writes anxiously to his wife and alternately frets about the delays in embarkation and nervously about what the next few days will bring.
"...issue of 'Mae Wests' this morning, plus two 24-hour ration packs per man. Also vomit bags: found I had been given three of the latter. Do I look like a good vomiter?"

In some places in the book where it feels like there is a lack of pace in the writing, but one has to remind oneself that this is a day to day account of his time in Europe and most of a soldiers time is spent waiting around interspersed with brief and terrifying periods of activity. Trevor describes it all; the boredom and monotony of waiting; the impossibly huge air raids and deafening artillery that shock the very ground; the confusion and chaos of battle; the lice, mosquitoes and occasionally moles that disturbed his sleep; the weather that seemed to make life in the field so much harder; letters from home that raised his spirits and the deaths and injuries within the Regiment that reminded him of his mortality. Throughout it all though you never once feel that he feels sorry for himself. True, he talks a lot about missing his wife and baby son (writing to them almost on a daily basis) but he is clearly resigned to his duty and determined to see it through to the end, one way or another. 

If you enjoy reading the book (and I think you will) then you will also enjoy the excellent collection of associated material that has been gathered together in a dedicated website One Day at a Time: The War Archive of Trevor Greenwood. Here you will find many of the letters he wrote home, photos from his service years and other documents from his time in the army.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Essex Regimental Museum

Monday was a Public Holiday here in the UK and we (the family and I) made good use of the time to visit Chelmsford Museum. We have been making a point of visiting smaller 'local' museums in the Essex area and have found that many are really very good and often include little bits of  interesting militaria. The Chelmsford Museum includes the Essex Regimental Museum and so while the rest of the family were looking at local history exhibits and cases full of stuffed animals (!?), I nipped off to indulge in some military history. 

The Museum actually has two rooms set aside for regimental exhibits, the smaller one had a special exhibit on the Essex Yeomanry and the larger display area was dedicated to the Essex Regiment.

Steel Helmet, 147 Regiment 1939-46 bearing a Regimental transfer badge in Royal Artillery colours
Essex Yeomanry Poster
The Essex Regiment exhibition tells the story of the county Regiment from its origins in 1741 through its major deployments and conflicts in the British Empire, both World Wars and the Korean War. There are some really excellent exhibits on display from personal items such as Medals (including several VC's) through to the famous Salamanca Eagle, a Napoleonic standard captured from the French in 1812. 

Private Soldier, Longs Regiment 1741 armed with a Brown Bess musket
Private, C Company 1st Bn Royal Anglian Regt - Kitted for Afghanistan 2007 wearing Desert Combat Dress
The museum boasts an impressive medal collection, including several VC's
Posthumous VC of Francis Parsons
A 'Crown and Anchor' game board and dice. This illegal gambling game is painted on canvas board so it could be easily and quickly concealed. The game is played between a player and a banker. The player places bets on one or more symbols. He then throws the three dice. If there is a bet on any symbol which comes up on one or more of the dice, the banker pays the player the amount of his stake for each die showing that symbol: even money if one, 2:1 if two, and 3:1 if three. If the symbol doesn't come up, the player loses his bet. The odds are naturally stacked in favour of the banker!
1914 Star, British War Medal & Allied Victory Medal 1914-20
The false arm worn by Russel Walter Byford who was wounded in Oct 1916. Russell later went on to play football for Colchester Town FC
Private, 1/4th Bn Essex Regt, at El Alamein 1942 with the SMLE Rifle
Africa Star 1943-45
A stone from Gold Beach - Pte Cliff Stone put this in his pocket after slipping leaving the landing craft
A 'Machine Gun Simulator (1942) made from a corned beef tin and a handle turning a clapper - Actually used on exercise by the Home Guard on the Hertfordshire border
The Salamanca Eagle - Captured from the French by Lieutenant William Pearce on 22 July 1812
Although this is a relatively small Regimental Museum it has some really interesting and exciting exhibits on display making this a very interesting place to visit if your are interested in Military History. 

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Scammell Recovery Vehicle

The latest addition to my 6mm North Africa project is a trio of Scammell recovery vehicles. These aren't actually in any of the army lists as far as I know, and I haven't a clue why I bought them! I'm sure I'll find a use, even if only as 'set dressing' for a supply depot or some other objective.

The "Tractor Heavy Breakdown 6 x 4" was one of many variants of the of the earlier gun tractor chassis. These early models were designed to tow upgraded WWI artillery pieces which were not suitable to fast cross country movement. The Breakdown Tractor was developed in 1939 and featured a 2.5t tonne crane and an 8 tonne winch suitable for recovery of most soft skinned and lightly armoured APV's. Many of those made were abandoned when the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940 and as the war progressed - and loads increased - the remaining examples utility reduced.

Having said all that these were very robust and reliable machines and many saw service throughout the war and beyond as farm tractors well into the 80's. Quite a few have been restored and they often turn up at living history events looking as good as new.

A Scammell Pioneer I photographed at the Military and Flying Machines living history event in 2012

I found this short film on YouTube and it really shows the power and utility of one of these 'small' recovery tractors in action; in this case winching a Churchill tank sideways out of a ditch.

As I said at the start of this post, I'm not sure how to fit these vehicles into my army lists just yet, but after watching that demonstration of their usefulness I'm sure I'll find a way! 

Sunday 25 May 2014

A day with some Veterans

Yesterday I was privileged to be able to help out at a special D-Day Veterans event being held in Basildon. The Normandy Veterans Association were collecting money to help send some of their members to Normandy for the 70th Anniversary commemorations taking place in Northern France next month. My Brother-in-Law Raymond was also there selling his new book with money from the sales also going to the NVA fund raising collection. Several of the veterans featured in the book were at the event and despite their advancing years (all are in their 90's) they were as sprightly and energetic as ever.

The event was held inside the Basildon EastGate Shopping Centre and was ideally placed to attract lots of visitors. There was a lot of activity around the stand all morning and Ray sold out of his book by lunchtime. It was a huge honour and privilege to spend the morning with the veterans, all of which were only too eager to tell their stories.

Ray spent the entire morning signing his book and talking to visitors. 
All the Veterans were more than happy to sign books and chat about their experiences.
Ray with W Whiteman who was at Arnhem and Don Sheppard who landed at Juno Beach. Don's unit were reinforcements for the troops holding Pegasus bridge. 
W. Whiteman had already served in Egypt, took part in the landings in Sicily and in Italy before his unit, the 181st Air Landing Field Ambulance (1st Airborne Div), went to Arnhem. He's a very modest man and when asked how he found the courage to do it he just shrugged his shoulders and said "it just had to be done"
The stall was busy all day and was ideally placed to attract passing shoppers, many of which bought Rays book and chatted with the veterans. 
Ray still signing copies of his book.
Walter 'Nobby' Clark shows off a picture of himself at 18, just a year or so before he took part in Operation Overlord. His ship HMS Halsted was supporting the landing but just three days later was torpedoed. Nobby was badly injured and was picked up by the crew of HMS Fernie.   
I'm not sure how much was raised but I would be surprised if it didn't add up to several hundred pounds at least... the public were putting ten and twenty pound notes in the collection buckets and Ray sold over 50 books with money going to the collection as well. All in all a very good day and a great honour for me to be able to help in a small way.

UPDATE 3-Jun-2014
I've just recieved some feedback on the results of our days activity. The Vaterans collected over £700 from the public and recieved an additional £200 from Ray from sales of his book. This money will go a long way towards paying the costs of those Veterans able to make the trip to Normandy this week. 

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Kingforce - Churchill Mk III's

I've been plodding away working on a lot of new support platoons for my 6mm North Africa 1942 project. First off the production line are two platoons of Churchill Mk III's which were deployed to Egypt in late 1942 for operational evaluation as part of what became known as Kingforce.

Just a few weeks before the launch of Operation Lightfoot (the 2nd Battle of Alamein) in October 1942 the 8th Army in Egypt received a special delivery of a 'new' tank. Six Churchill Mk III's under the command of Major Norris King MC were to be deployed for a limited period to see how they stood up to the rigours of desert warfare. The Churchill Tank had already debuted rather disappointingly at Dieppe in August but lessons were quickly learnt and improvements were already being implemented. The six tanks sent to North Africa were reworked tanks (as indicated by their serial numbers having the suffix R) but it was unclear if the cooling systems of the tank were sufficient for the desert theatre. 

After their arrival in Egypt the tanks were quickly serviced, painted in desert camouflage and almost immediately shipped towards the front. Surprisingly none of the officers and NCO's had previous experience with this tank but all of the crews had shipped from the UK with their vehicles and knew their jobs well.

One of the 'Kingforce' Churchill Mk III's at Alamein - Note the canvas dust shield across the front and the serial number ending in 'R' painted on the side armour. [IWM]

Kingforce was attached to the 1st Motor Brigade and arrived in time to take part in the Second Battle of Alamein. The Churchill Mk III's acquitted themselves well and their tough reputation was quickly established with all the tanks being hit multiple times with only one loss. The destroyed tank had been hit no less than 50 times with only three penetrations which unfortunately killed the commander Cpl Kelly Appleby and three crew. Despite this setback the reputation of the Churchill was beginning to be established. A few days later Kingforce was back in action again in the vicinity of Kidney Ridge. They encountered very heavy fire but despite numerous hits none were destroyed. One tank was hit over 30 times with little more than a broken track to show for it.

Churchill III tanks of 'Kingforce',  1st Armoured Division,
in the Western Desert, 5th November 1942. [IWM]
Many lessons were learnt from this operational experience and several changes were implemented as a result. Canvas dust shields were initially used on all the tanks to improve driver visibility but it was later realised that removing the front track guards helped with visibility. Fortunately the models I bought (from H&R) are early versions with the track guards in place, so are ideal for representing these Mk III's on the tabletop. There are quite a few excellent black and white pictures of these tanks on the Internet and plenty of other material on which to base the colour scheme. However there is a lot of variety between the colour schemes and markings described on various sites so I have gone with something that I think accurately reflects the historical vehicles and is in keeping with my existing tank forces.

One thing I have added to some of the models is an RAF roundel which I have seen painted on the turret roof as an aircraft recognition symbol. I haven't found anything in writing that corroborates this but several modellers online have included it so I decided to as well. I have only put the roundels on two tanks though and these can represent the two platoon HQ Tanks. I've also painted a small white line on the side armour where the tank serial number would have been - at this scale it would be far too small to read but some sort of 'representation' of this marking seemed appropriate.

Kingforce can be selected as part of a Motorised Company from the FOW North Africa book for use in mid war games. I'm bending the rules (and history) a little to allow me to use two platoons of three Churchill's with my existing tank companies, but only for battles set during Oct/Nov 1942. Each platoon costs 410 points so they are not cheep, but they are tough vehicles and add a little variety to my existing companies.

The Platoon HQ tanks have an RAF Roundel on the turret roof. 
I have used my new style base labels (which feature the nationality flag) on these. The font of the text is also slightly lerger and therefore easier to read on these new labels. 
Kingforce is a Divisional Support platoon. 
I've been trying out a new technique for basing these models. Previous tanks were glued direct to the mdf base and when the sand was added this made tanks and trucks look like they were axel deep in the dirt. I have mounted these vehicles on small sections of 'coffee stirer' sticks glued in the centre of the base. This raises the model up by about 1mm and when the sand is added around the vehicle it puts the tank at just the right height to look like it's on rather than in the sand. 

Tuesday 20 May 2014

I've been Liebstered!

Toady's long overdue post has to start with a big thank you to Brendon (aka The Kiwi) at The Gamers Table for nominating my humble Blog for a Liebster Award. For those that are unaware of this award its sort of like a chain letter but without the veiled threats of dire consequences if you don't pass it on. The central premise of the award is to give Bloggers a chance to give other bloggers a shout out and say 'thank you' for all their effort. 

The rules are relatively straight forward and therefore easy to bend!
  1. Copy and paste the award on your blog linking it to the blogger who has given it you.
  2. Pass the award to your top 11 blogs with less than 200 followers by leaving a comment on one of their posts to notify them that they have won the award and listing them on your own blog.
  3. Sit back and bask in the warm fuzzy feeling that comes with knowing you have made someones day!
  4. There is no obligation to pass this onto someone else but it's nice if you take the time to do so.
Its hard to pick a top 11, especially as many of my all time favourites already have over 200 followers. OK, I have given this a bit of thought and I nominate these blogs for a Liebster. I think they all have some excellent content, great writing and each has a uniquely enjoyable take on the big wide and wonderful world of wargaming. 

  • Bloggers for Charity - I don't know how many followers this site has (not listed on the front page) but it is definitely a Blog of Note. Based on a fantastic idea, in support of a great cause it has brought many gamers and painters together (myself included) to give something back and make a difference. 
  • Norseygamer - A great blog that always features some excellent photo's and is well worth checking out, especially if you like Napoleonics. 
  • Solo Napoleon - A cartoon strip starring Leo, a fanatical solo (war)gamer with a BIG imagination.
  • Anything but a One - Excellent writing, excellent photo's and an excellent fellow!
  • Diary of a Gaming Magpie -  Variety and lots of great pictures. 
  • Sgt Steiner's Wargaming Blog - Every post is interesting to read and the Sgt is a good commenter as well. 
  • Legatus Wargames Armies - Always a pleasure to read
  • Life in Miniature - Excellent writing and an insiders view of the history of Wargaming
  • Mad Padre's Wargames - Variety, quality and the occasional 6mm stuff (plus lots more)
  • Covering Fire - A good Flames of War oriented blog with nice photo's and good writing.
  • Kages Flames of War - Another FoW blog with lost of rules discussion, tutorials and resources. 

There are of course many other great blogs that I follow that have only missed out on a Liebster because they already have in excess of 200 followers. So an honourable mention should go to The Blog with No Name, Johns Toy Soldiers, Analogue Hobbies, The Angry Lurker, Don't throw a one, BigRedBatCave, BleaseworldDampf's Modelling Page, Roundwoods World, The Wargaming Site, Wargaming Girl, Loki's Great Hall, Monty's Caravan, Model Dads, O'Leary Miniatures

This years round of awards includes some rather strange questions, which I have tried to answer as succinctly and sincerely as possible. 
  • Why did you start blogging? Officially the reason was that I wanted to showcase my painting, but this quickly changed into a general gaming blog about my corner of this great and varied hobby called 'gaming'. Unofficially I'm as a insecure and lonely as the next guy and I just crave attention...writing a blog and throwing my opinions out there makes me feel like I'm not completely wasting my life. 
  • If you could change one thing about the wargaming hobby, what would it be? I have no idea. Honestly I love this hobby and cannot think of a single downside, let along something so bad I'd like to change it. Perhaps the question should be 'How would you enhance the Wargaming Hobby' in which case I'd like to invent a hover chair so that I can float around the wargames table in comfort. Eight hour games are murder on the feet when you weigh half a tonne...
  • What is best in life? Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentation of their dices. As far as wargaming is concerned the best thing is the companionship and bonhomie that comes with being part of a like minded social circle. 
  • Do you want to live forever? Duh! Of course. 
  • Fame or fortune? Fortune. I couldn't tolerate all that attention, intrusion and the constant fight to stay famous once you've made it. Fortune can buy you freedom, fame just puts you in chains. 
  • What miniatures are you most proud of having painted? I have to say my recent contribution to the Bloggers of Charity game (French La Sarre infantry) gave me great satisfaction to paint. As well as being interesting and challenging they have gone to a good cause so I feel good about myself at the same time. Win Win. 
  • How do you deal with burn out? Sleep. Sweet sweet sleep. Seriously though, I don't get very stressed in general. I'm annoyingly laid back most of the time and I try not to bring my work stresses home with me. But when things get too much I do like to retreat into my hobby in some way (read a book, watch a documentary, paint, play a game etc) and I can block it all out - if only for a while. 
  • Why is a raven like a writing desk? Fish
  • Star Wars or Star Trek? Oh man....I have a nerdgasm for both of these, I couldn't possibly choose a favourite. 
  • If you could only buy from one miniature company from now on, which one would it be? This is almost as bad as the last question! Right now if I had to pick one company it would be GHQ. Their 1:285 WWII models are expensive but the detail and quality of their figures is mindbogglingly good. 
  • What is your favourite takeaway? One of my favourites is a Lamb Shish Kebab from my local Turkish takeaway. Yummy. 

Thursday 8 May 2014

Horsing Around

I got a lot of painting done last night mainly because I managed to remain focused on my work and didn't allow myself to become distracted by silly things. Mind you, I didn't feel quite myself towards the end.

Ahem...on a more serious note, I did actually get a lot done last night. I've prepped a load of new vehicles and finished basecoating 40+ others. I also indulged in some retail therapy, purchasing some very expensive, but very nice, models direct from GHQ in the States. Postage costs from the US are frankly extortionate (20% the order value in this case!!!) so I'm not sure I'll do this again unless its a significantly large order. This isn't unique to this company, I've encountered high postage costs with several retailers and manufacturers from across the pond. .. its almost as if the US of A doesn't want to sell to anyone outside of North Amarica?!? Surely not!

Wednesday 7 May 2014

A Busy Weekend

Back to work today after a very busy weekend. I actually blew out two games - one with the Rejects and one with the Delvers - for a bank holiday weekend of family activities. Saturday we visited a local City Farm and had a relatively slow paced and relaxed day taking in the good weather. Sunday we were at the Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey for their VE Day celebrations and yesterday we visited the market and Promenade Park in Malden in Essex. I was also treated to a quick visit to the Combined Military Services Museum, so all in all a pretty good weekend. 

Part of a large private collection of historical weapons held at the Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey
Willy's Jeep next to a German MG42
A replica SdKfz 222 built on a Land Rover chassis
A WWII German Motorbike & Sidecar (I think its a BMW)
Equipment of an Airborne field medic
A British PIAT ( Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank).
Chatting to the guys displaying this PIAT was an education, they really knew their stuff. The PIAT was based on the Spigot Mortar and actually used a large industrial sprint housed in the tube to launch the shaped charge at the target. The advantage was that it didn't leave a trail of smoke pointing back to the guy firing it and it could be fired from an enclosed space like a bunker or a house (the American Bazooka couldn't be used in these locations because of the backwash from the rocket which launched the projectile). It wasn't particularly liked by troops using it partly because it had a relatively short effective range of only about 100m but it was deadly none-the-less.

A selection of bombs and bomb disposal equipment
Highlight of the day was an excellent aerial display by a Supermarine Spitfire Mk XI - PL965 from the Hanger 11 Collection based at North Weald
There was also a WWII reenactment battle at the end of the day - Reject 'Smiffy' checks his weapon.
The next day we went to Malden in Essex for the Bank Holiday Market. After spending a few hours shopping, and letting the young padawan have a few hours in the Park we went to to the Combined Military Services Museum. This is their Chieftain Mk 10 in 'Berlin' Urban camouflage pattern. It could do with a repaint but its still an impressive vehicle. 
Me standing in front of an ex Iraqi T69 captured during the First Gulf War.
Unfortunately pictures are not allowed inside the museum but its still a great collection and well worth a visit. 

Sunday 4 May 2014

Star Wars Day!

Be with you, May the Fourth is. Hmmmm.

This appeals to my immature sense of humour [Chuckle]
Ahem, sorry, couldn't resist. So today is Star Wars Day and it seems somehow a little more relevent this year, especially as the cast of the next installment, Star Wars VII, have been confirmed this week. I'm excited and scared in equal measure about this next film, along it seems with the entire interweb which has been frothing with speculation and debate all week. 

[Please don't be naff, please don't be naff...]
Have a good weekend folks.