winterbadger: (coffee cup)
The Battle of Midway by Craig L. Symonds (30). I have seen the 1976 Hollywood film about the battle of Midway a number of times, and I've read brief write-ups of the campaign in histories of the war and in wargames. I've even played several games about the battle (out of the nearly two dozen around). But this is the first full history that I think I've read (heard) on the subject. Several things come through as striking, including the importance of radar (duh), the poor operational/process management practices of the opposing fleet air arms, the stunning lack of inter-service coordination, and the willingness of both sides (not just the Japanese) to sacrifice large numbers of men and equipment for very little gain.

I don't mean to to belabour all of these points in detail. But I was struck by how nearly blind naval forces were early in the war, compared to their modern equivalents. Only radio intercepts (if they could be read) and air search (by land-based or ship-borne aircraft) provided any advanced notice of the presence of enemy forces. Only the US Navy had radar, and it was in its infancy and thus very limited in effectiveness, clarity, and range. Both sides tended to employ stringent radio opsec, so it was difficult to locate enemy forces by radio triangulation. And spotters operating from aircraft often missed enemy ships and aircraft through the interference of weather, the limitations of fuel and range, or simply not looking in the right place or interpreting what they saw correctly. Add to all this that few ships had any sort of modern process or facility for analyzing and synthesizing data (like a modern ship's combat information center or CIC) and you have an image of a fleet commander more like Blind Pew feeling his way with a stick than anything else.

The decisions made by American and Japanese officers during this battle, which was fought mostly by aircraft from aircraft carriers and Americna land bases attacking surface ships, about when and how to arm and launch aircraft were pivotal and often seem to have been forced on them by poorly thought out carrier operations practices. Repeatedly carriers lauched strikes that were either uncoordinated, vulnerable, or rendered ineffective due to range because no one had done basic staff work to rationalize launch operations. Aircraft that took a long time to launch were launched last rather than first, meaning other aircraft fromt he strike force had to proceed without them or waste fuel circling while the slow aircraft were armed and brought up on deck. Not enough equipment or space was allowed to quickly change bomb loads suitable for one type of target to those suitable for another. American pilots from different services had no conception of how to operate together. Japanese doctrine made it easy for aircraft units form different ships to cooperate, but almost unthinkable to shift aircraft from one carrier to another to fill in losses or accomodate planes from a damaged ship on an undamged one. No one even seemed to have thought of practical issues when designing aircraft; the American fighters that needed to operate high above the strike planes they escorted used up a large proportion of their fuel just climbing to altitude, thus mismatching their range capability to that of the bombers they protected.

And more than anything, I was rather horrified by the casual way in which air group or air squadron commanders on both sides would send off strike groups to targets at ranges from which there would be no way to return, or decide that--when a strike force reached its maximum range without locating the enemy it had been sent to attack--they should just keep searching, even when it meant that all the aircraft would certainly be lost, possibly without ever having seen the enemy. This goes so comepletely against one of the basic military principles--economy of force--that it astounds me. Sacrificing a plane and pilot, even a group of them, to make an attack on a located enemy that you have reason to think would cripple him is a decision I could understand a commander making. But throwing away the resources represented by a squadron of aircraft--the training and experience (let alone the lives) of the pilots, the expense of producing and arming and fueling the aircraft, the cost of getting it to the theatre of operations and to a place where it might be able to attack the enemy--without any clear notion that you will reap *any* reward at all, tactical, operational, or strategic, is incomprehensible to me.

Symonds provides excellent background on the lead-up to the campaign, introducing the reader to all the personalities involved, the strategic and operational context of the battle. He explains the technical details of naval and air operations without overwhelming the reader. He narrates the battle and shows the critical decision points, explaining the significance of the outcome. And he provides the audience with a quick precis of characters' later lives, both during the war and, in some cases, after it. I'd recommend this book highly to someone looking for a glimpse of military and naval history, whether already an old salt or a rank greenhorn.

How Can Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandhlwana Revealed by Mike Snook (31). I'm going to fudge and write this up now, as I have 16 pages to go and am sure I'll finish this in the next day or so. It's a terrific read (if you're interested in military history, especially of the Victorian era, or military operations in general). This is one of two books on the Zulu War by Dr Mike Snook. This covers the battle of Isandhlwana; the second the subsequent battle of Rorke's Drift. Dr Snook is a retired British Army officer who served in the Royal Regiment of Wales, the modern descendent of the 24th Foot, the principal regular army actors in the Zulu campaign. He has spent a good deal of time in the area of the battles (while serving as UK liaison officer/advisor to the South African Defense Forces) and knows the ground by heart. He has studied all the contemporary accounts, both of British survivors and Zulu victors, as well as the records of those who traversed the battlefield in its immediate aftermath and noted where the bodies of the British dead lay.

Taking all these pieces of evidence together, Snook recreates the events of the campaign leading up to the battle and then describes the stages of the engagement. While a good many books have been written about this famous action, Snook's military experience gives his account a new and interesting perspective, reinforced by his desire to take a fresh look at the sequence of events based on the evidence from the battlefield. I look forward to readin his book on Rorke's Drift.

In progress:
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz

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