Agent Zigzag Audio Book Review

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

Authored by Ben MacIntyre, Narrated by John Lee

Audiobook, 10 hours and 53 minutes

Published by RANDOM House Audio, September 2007

Language: English

ASIN: B000WM9UHU

Eddie Chapman was an English criminal and con man.  Before the Second World War he made a career out of extortion and petty theft, and then moved on to bigger things by blowing safes with an explosive called gelignite, which is similar to dynamite.  Universally described as charming and a smooth talker, he was romantically involved with several women at the same time.  At the beginning of the war, he was vacationing with one of his love interests on the Channel Island of Jersey when the police caught up with him and he wound up in prison.  When the Germans seized the island, they found Chapman in jail.

Chapman eventually was released from prison but could not leave the island.  He volunteered to spy for the Germans, but was eventually arrested by the Gestapo (ironically for a crime he didn’t commit) and sent to prison in France.  The prisoners there also served as hostages, several being executed in reprisals for sabotage carried out by the Resistance.  Chapman was pulled out by German military intelligence, the Abwehr, and trained as a spy and saboteur.  He was parachuted into England whereupon he immediately turned himself in and offered to work as a double agent for MI5.

Author Ben MacIntyre has conducted extensive research using declassified MI5 files to reconstruct the complicated story of Eddie Chapman, known as Agent Zig Zag by his British handlers.  Chapman undoubtedly operated in his own self-interest at all times, yet was trusted by both the Abwehr and MI5.  He never betrayed Britain, but was never exposed by his German handlers.  MI5 expunged his criminal record, Germany awarded him the Iron Cross.  MacIntyre does an excellent job of telling Chapman’s story, which reads like a spy novel only much more compelling because it is true.  Highly recommended, particularly if you have an interest in the inner workings of military intelligence organizations.

Book Review Fiat G.55 Centauro

Fiat G.55 Centauro

Series:  Kagero in Combat Number 6

By Eduardo Manuel Gil Martínez

Softcover, 84 pages, bibliography, drawings, and color profiles

Published by Kagero, March 2021

Language: English

ISBN-10: ‎ 83-66673-25-1

ISBN-13: ‎ 978-83-66673-25-0

Dimensions: ‎ 8.2 x 0.3 x 11.6 inches

The Fiat G.55 Centauro (Centaur) was an Italian fighter built around the Daimler-Benz DB 605 engine.  It was arguably the best Italian fighter of the Second World War, and evaluations conducted by the Luftwaffe found it superior to the Bf 109 and Fw 190 then in service.  It was even considered for mass production in Germany, but it was estimated to take three times the man-hours to produce than the comparable Luftwaffe types.  It first flew in 1943, but due to the chaotic war situation in Italy it was only produced in small numbers and those that did enter service fought with the fascist Aeronautica Nazionale Republicana (ANR).  After the war production resumed for the Italian Air Force as well as exports to Argentina and Syria.

There are few modeling references available on the Centauro, so this recent work is appreciated.  The text covers the development and operational history of the type.  The book is well illustrated with black and white photos and/or technical drawings on every page.  There are beautiful color profiles of six different aircraft, two of which include multiple views.  There are also eight pages of line drawings, seven of which are nominally rendered in 1/48 scale.  There is also a print of the cover artwork inserted loose which is suitable for framing.

On the down side, the translation could have used one more edit from a native English speaker familiar with aviation terminology.  The text is still comprehensible but just doesn’t flow well.  Of more relevance to modelers, the scale drawings are not reproduced to scale, the editors have chosen to expand the drawings to fit the page.  This results in the drawings being slightly overscale and prevents them from being used directly by modelers, but being close in scale constitutes a trap for the unwary.  In the photo below I have posed a 1/72 scale Sword fuselage half (which is the correct size) on the page for comparison, the same error is present on the 1/48 scale drawings. There are volumes in the Osprey aviation series and Anatomy of the Ship which share this error so it is always prudent to check the scale on drawings regardless of the source.  An odd omission is the drawings do not cover the torpedo bomber variant which is popular with modelers.

Despite the problems there are few good references available on the G.55, and I feel the positives of this work outweigh the negatives.  Recommended, just correct the size of the drawings before they get to the bench!

Hunt-class Destroyers in Polish Navy Service Book Review

Hunt-class Destroyers in Polish Navy Service

By Mariusz Borowiak, 3D renders by Waldemar Góralski

Hardcover, 240 pages, bibliography, 3D color renders, drawings

Published by Kagero, February 2019

Language: English, Polish

ISBN-10: ‎8366148106

ISBN-13: ‎978-8366148109

Dimensions: ‎8.3 x 0.8 x 11.7 inches

After the fall of France, England stood alone against Nazi Germany.  Refugees from all across Europe fled to England, several of which formed governments in exile.  Remnants of military units were evacuated as well, and others soon fled occupied Europe and joined them.  This resulted in significant numbers of available trained military personnel, willing and eager to get back into the fight, who only lacked equipment and reorganization.

As a solution, the British absorbed and equipped several of these veterans into their own units.  Many were organized as independent commands, fighting under their own Colors and led by their own Officers.  Arguably the most enthusiastic contingents were Polish, whose military continued to serve from British bases throughout the war.  The Polish Navy had managed to evacuate several ships to England, and these were augmented by additional ships leased from the British as they became available.

Three of these were destroyers of the Hunt class.  The design was intended for escort work, featuring a heavy gun armament for their displacement but no torpedo tubes.  Three of these were leased to the Poles, ORP Krakowiak (L115), ORP Ślązak (L26), and ORP Kujawiak (L72).

This book details the service history of each of these vessels, which were quite active.  Kujawiak was sunk by a mine off Malta, one of the chapters is devoted to efforts to locate and survey her wreck.  Almost one third of the book is devoted to 3D full-color renders of the three ships for which Kagero is known.  Included with these are renders of HMS Badsworth (L03), a British Hunt-class which was mined at the same time as Kujawiak.  As a bonus, separate line drawings of each ship in 1:350 and 1:200 scale are inserted loose.  On the negative side, the English translations are a little rough in spots, with several typos and spelling errors, and some of the photographs could be sharper.  Overall these problems did not interfere with my enjoyment of the book, and this is a valuable reference for anyone interested in the Polish Navy in WWII or the Hunt class destroyers in general.  Recommended.

The Great Halifax Explosion Audio Book Review

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism

By John U. Bacon, Narrated by Johnny Heller

Audiobook, 10 hours and 38 minutes

Published by Harper Audio, November 2017

Language: English

ASIN: B0742MBJ82

Prior to the detonation of the first atomic bomb, the largest man-made explosion ever recorded happened in Halifax, Nova Scotia on December 6th, 1917.  It occurred when two ships, the French freighter SS Mont-Blanc, and the Norwegian relief ship SS Imo, collided in the harbor.  The collision occurred in daylight and good visibility (as is surprisingly often the case in ship collisions) and at low speed.  It caused little damage to either vessel, but started a small fire on Mont-Blanc.  The problem was her cargo – picric acid, TNT, and barrels of benzol on her deck, were all highly explosive.

When the fire reached the hold of the Mont-Blanc her cargo detonated with the force of almost three kilotons of TNT.  The ship disintegrated, part of her anchor was thrown three miles away, her deck gun four.  Every building within 1.6 miles of the ship was destroyed by the pressure wave or the ensuing wall of water, the bottom of the harbor was briefly exposed.  An estimated 1,600 people were killed instantly with more subsequently dying of their injuries.  Many of the survivors were watching the ship burn from their homes and were injured as the blast shattered the windows in front of them.

This is a very well-researched book.  The author not only describes the events leading up to the explosion and the rescue efforts in great detail, he gives a great deal of information on the history of Halifax and the relationship between Canada and the United States.  He describes the daily lives of several protagonists before and after the explosion, and follows one Haligonian, Joseph Barss, who fought in the trenches of France and was recovering from wounds in Halifax at the time of the explosion.

Despite the magnitude of the blast, it is not well known today.  It is a tragedy of the recent past, and an inspiring story of surrounding communities from Canada and the United States rallying to the aid of their neighbors.  Highly recommended.

At All Costs Audio Book Review

At All Costs

Authored by Sam Moses, Narrated by Michael Prichard

Audiobook, 11 hours and 13 minutes

Published by Tantor Audio, December 2006

Language: English

ASIN: B000LXHF9U

Malta is a rather small island located in the Mediterranean approximately fifty miles south of the Sicilian coast.  During the Second World War it was a British colony, and was a considerable thorn in the side of the Axis.  From Malta, British submarines and aircraft could attack Axis shipping attempting to supply Rommel’s Afrika Corps.  Obviously, the Axis could not let this threat stand.  The German and Italian strategy was to lay siege to the British base, bombing the island daily and cutting off resupply to starve the island into submission.

By the summer of 1942 the situation on Malta was critical, without resupply of food and fuel the island would be forced to surrender, a humiliating defeat for the British and a great strategic victory for the Axis.  The British organized a convoy named Operation Pedestal consisting of thirteen merchantmen including the tanker Ohio, which alone carried enough fuel and heating oil necessary for Malta’s survival.  As if to underscore the convoy’s importance, the escort was extremely strong, consisting of over fifty warships which included two battleships and five aircraft carriers.  Opposing this force were over five hundred Italian and German aircraft, the Italian surface fleet, several submarines, and a flotilla of torpedo boats.

The story of the Pedestal convoy is told through one of the Merchant Marine Officers, a Norwegian named Fredrick Larsen.  Larsen left his wife and child behind when Norway was occupied.  Larson was assigned to one of the ships in the convoy, the freighter Santa Elise.  When the Santa Elisa was sunk Larson and another Officer, Francis Dales, were rescued by a British destroyer.  The tanker Ohio was also hit several times and abandoned, but still afloat.  Several sailors including Larsen and Dales volunteered to re-board the Ohio, and the Royal Navy attempted to tow her into Malta.

I was impressed by the level of research which went into this book, which included log entries and reports from senior officers and crewmen from several ships.  Larsen is a good lens through which to tell the story as it gives some perspective of what types of men made up the Merchant Marine during WWII.  This is an epic tale of the war at sea and a book I can recommend without hesitation.

11 Days in December Audio Book Review

11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944

Authored by Stanley Weintraub, Narrated by Patrick Cullen

Audiobook, 5 hours and 28 minutes

Published by Blackstone Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B000NA6M72

11 Days in December is set in the Battle of the Bulge, starting in the days immediately before the Germans launched their Ardennes offensive and ending at Christmas.  This book is not the history of an individual unit nor a description of the overall campaign, instead it is a series of individual anecdotes set within the context of the battle.

Many of these are from Generals and senior staff, likely due to the preservation of their correspondence.  It was surprising how many senior Allied officers (and their extensive staffs) were planning on taking extended Christmas holidays in Paris.  Many of their letters center around political intrigue and preserving or enhancing their reputations.  For their part, the Allied leadership was caught completely unaware by the German offensive.

At the level of the common soldier the period was characterized by the cold and lack of logistical support.  Allied airpower was grounded by the weather, and the troops lacked basics such as ammunition and food, many lacked proper winter clothing.  Often it proved impossible to evacuate the wounded and medical supplies were scarce.

By telling the story of the Battle of the Bulge through individual anecdotes the author has sacrificed any semblance of continuity.  The narrative jumps around from place to place, unit to unit.  Loose ends are not tied up.  This makes it hard to put all the little snippets into context.  If the reader is not already familiar with the progress of the battle it would be helpful to have the Osprey Campaign 115 & 145 books handy.  However, if you are looking for personal perspectives this book can provide them.

Dornier Do 217 Units of World War 2 Book Review

Dornier Do 217 Units of World War 2

Series:  Osprey Combat Aircraft 139

By Chris Gross, Illustrated by Januz Swiatlon and Mark Postlewaite

Softcover, 96 pages, index, 30 color profiles

Published by Osprey Publishing, September 2021

ISBN-10: ‎1472846176

ISBN-13: 978-1472846174

Dimensions: 7.4 x 0.2 x 9.8 inches

The Do 217 was a development of the Do 17, generally more powerful and more capable.  It used a wide variety of engine and airframe configurations, and was used for several types of missions including both level and dive bombing, reconnaissance, night fighting, and as a glide bomb carrier.  Still, the basic design was nearing obsolescence as the war began, and was soon superseded by more modern designs such as the Ju 88.

In many ways the Do 217 is the forgotten bomber of the Luftwaffe, with contemporary designs such as the He 111 and Ju 88 receiving far more coverage than the Dornier.  Perhaps the most notable successes of the type were achieved by III/KG 100 aircraft carrying the Hs 292 and Fritz-X wire-guided glide bombs, which were responsible for sinking the Italian battleship Roma, as well as damaging the Italia, USS Savannah (CL-42), HMS Uganda and HMS Warspite, among others.

This is volume 139 in the Osprey Combat Aircraft series and the text follows the standard format of a developmental history of the type with and operations history of the aircraft in service, interspersed with anecdotes from the crews.  30 full color profiles grace the center of the book.  These are beautifully rendered and will provide much inspiration to modelers.  Oddly, aircraft from KG 100 which successfully attacked Allied warships in the Mediterranean are not represented.

Author Chris Gross has also produced an upcoming volume in the Luftwaffe Classics series, many previous editions of which are considered the definitive works on their subjects.  While awaiting that volume, this book constitutes an excellent addition to Osprey’s Combat Aircraft series, and is well worth purchasing for the profile artwork alone.  A valuable reference for an under-documented Luftwaffe type, and a recommended addition to your library.

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy Audio Book Review

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961

Authored by Nicholas Reynolds, Narrated by Fred Sanders

Audiobook, 9 hours and 14 minutes

Published by Harper Audio, March 2017

Language: English

ASIN: B01MTXS9R4

Ernest Hemmingway gained the most fame for his literary works, but underlying the author was a man who craved adventure.  He is probably most famous for his work during the Spanish Civil War, where he filed reports as a newspaper correspondent and assisted making the film The Spanish Earth.  Politically he ardently opposed Fascism and had strong Communist sympathies.  Hemmingway strove to be in the heat of the action and was inclined to participate in events himself whenever possible, especially on his own terms.  The settings and characters he encountered during his time in Spain were incorporated into his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. 

During the Second World War Hemmingway maintained residences in Idaho and Cuba.  Eager to participate in the war, he was able to persuade the Government to allow him to operate his private boat Pilar as a privateer of sorts.  He brought aboard various infantry weapons, grenades, and demolition charges and went out to sea patrolling for U-boats and secret German bases on the islands.  His intention was to come alongside a surfaced submarine, overpower the crew on deck, and sink her with explosives.  Perhaps it is best his sole contribution to the naval war was reporting a single submarine sighting.

He was later able to cover the Normandy landings as a War Correspondent, and soon became close friends with Colonel Charles “Buck” Lanham, commanding the 22nd Infantry Regiment.  Lanham gave Hemmingway a Jeep and a driver.  He acted as an unofficial scout of sorts, and briefly commanded a French resistance group.  On another occasion he helped defend the 22nd’s Headquarters with a Thompson during a German counterattack.  These actions resulted in him being brought up on charges as a Correspondent was not to participate in military actions.  Hemmingway was acquitted, and was later awarded a Bronze Star.

Author Nicholas Reynolds is a former CIA officer and curator of the CIA museum, and this is where the “spy” portion of the title comes into play.  Supposedly Hemmingway was recruited by the NKVD due to his Communist leanings, but there does not appear to be any evidence that he actually supplied the NKVD with any information.  For that matter, it is unclear what information he would have had access to which would have been of value to the Soviets.  Throughout the book Reynolds postulates possible scenarios without much evidence.  I found these to be a distraction, and remain unconvinced.

There are several wartime anecdotes and details of Hemmingway’s life of which I was not aware.  This book is interesting in many ways but the author’s fixation on pushing the spy narrative detracts from the story.

Tribe Audio Book Review

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Authored and Narrated by Sebastian Junger

Audiobook, 2 hours and 59 minutes

Published by Hachette Audio, May 2016

Language: English

ASIN: B01D57FNZG

Sebastian Junger’s Tribe is a natural sequel to his War.  Soldiers in combat develop a communal bond in which each puts the welfare of the group above his own, often resulting in what we would commonly refer to as bravery.  Throughout human history people have naturally formed themselves into communities with an upper number of approximately 160 individuals (not coincidentally, a historically Company-sized unit many armies).  Above that number, the community divides into two groups which are often allied, but separate.  All the members of the group are known to the others, and conduct themselves broadly for the benefit of the group as a whole.  Withholding resources from the group, or taking more than one’s share of the resources are considered among the most serious of offences, punishable by banishment or even death.

Contrast the natural inherent instinct for humans to form small tribal groups with the structure of modern societies.  Nations are huge, neighbors do not know neighbors.  Those who take from the community through manipulating Government programs, theft, or outright fraud go unpunished or are even applauded far more often than not.  There is little opportunity for an individual to feel he or she has done something important, or even belongs to a community where a sense of brotherhood exists, with the one notable exception often being military service.

The yearning for a sense of belonging is intrinsic and strong, its absence is a primary driver in PTSD among veterans.  Benjamin Franklin noted that European settles captured by Indian tribes assimilated into Indian culture, and even when ”rescued” would slip away to re-join their tribes, while the reverse was not true.  Junger cites several examples of groups forming tight bonds when faced with life-threatening adversity, and individuals missing the bonds they formed after the crisis had passed.  Humans appear to need the shared adversity at some level, mental health facilities in Paris during both World Wars were nearly empty, and in the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks both violent crime and suicide rates dropped sharply.

It appears Junger became interested in the topic of PTSD among returning veterans after writing War, and some of the statistical background for Tribe appears in his earlier work explaining the bonds of small units in the military.  The implications for broader society are thought-provoking.  This is a short work, but a natural follow on after reading War, highly recommended.

War Audio Book Review

War

Authored and Narrated by Sebastian Junger

Audiobook, 7 hours and 21 minutes

Published by Hachette Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B003LTOIIC

Author Sebastion Junger was a journalist and documentarian who was embedded with a detachment from the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment.  In 2010 the men were assigned to an outpost in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley named Restrepo after a Medic from the unit who was killed.  Junger’s job there was to observe and record.  He lived alongside the soldiers from the unit, went where they went, slept where they slept, and ate what they ate.  He did everything everybody else there did except engage the enemy.

Some military units perform better than others, and the reasons for this have been studied and debated for centuries.  Often units which outperform others are said to have “esprit de corps” or better “unit cohesion” or even the nebulous “right stuff”.  Trying to pin down what these terms mean (and how to duplicate their requisite virtues) is like trying to squeeze water.

Junger comes closer than any other author I have read in identifying what makes soldiers tick.  Shared experiences (the more arduous the better) develop into a sense of brotherhood within the unit, until each soldier identifies more as a part of the unit than as an individual.  At that point the soldier fears failing his comrades more than death or injury to himself.  Throughout the book the soldiers are introspective about any events which have gone wrong, or even could have gone wrong, and what they might have done differently to prevent it.  Everything in that environment is important, any mistake, however small, could potentially result in injury or death to someone.  Each soldier’s greatest fear is letting their comrades down, their greatest security is knowing everyone has their back.  The feeling of belonging to something bigger than themselves is what they miss when returning to the civilian world, and one reason so many have trouble adjusting.

This is a seminal work and one of the top-tier books on what makes a combat unit effective.  Junger just nails it.  I will read this book again to see what I’ve missed.  My highest recommendation.