Monday, 16 April 2018

'The Four Worst Mistakes Of The Axis Powers During WWII': A Response

This blog is in response to the 'War History Online' article The Four Worst Mistakes Of The Axis Powers During WWII.
1. The Nazis did not ally themselves with Italy; although Italy had signed a prewar military alliance with Germany, the latter did not enter the war with a partner in mind. Italy only declared war 9 June 1940, 10 months after the commencement of hostilities; during the evacuation from Dunkirk, when it seemed likely the war would soon be over. A suspicious mind might suggest they only did so to share in the spoils.
2. They were not ideologically similar, albeit Mussolini did want an Italian empire, hence his invasion of British held territories in North Africa when he thought they were beaten. There is evidence that Italians openly defied German laws regarding Jews for instance, so there was no racial element to their goals.
0 for 2 in the first sentence.
The ill-fated Italian invasion of Greece was indeed a bad move for Germany. Its failure put the Ploesti oilfields in Romania within range of RAF bombers, the British having honoured their commitment to aid Greece if invaded. With Barbarossa so close Germany could not afford to have a major source of fuel disrupted – they would be operating thousands of miles from home at the end of very long supply lines. It was therefore not merely helping an ally – in fact that probably figured very little in the justification – but securing their fuel supplies for the impending invasion which was the German reason for counter-attacking in the Balkans. Hitler had previously advised Mussolini he required his forces in place by the beginning of May; they were only returned to launch Barbarossa on 22 June.
The advance of Barbarossa faltering due to bad weather just short of Moscow ultimately sealed the fate of the Russia invasion, albeit the nadir of German fortunes occurred at Stalingrad, and later Kursk. With this proving the turning point all the way back to Berlin in 1945 it must be wondered what that seven week delay ultimately cost Germany. It may be argued that it was not the German decision to launch Barbarossa that was in error, but to do so following a significant delay caused by Italy.
The rout of the Italian forces in North Africa similarly put Germany at risk – had the British advanced all the way through and also taken German territories in North Africa. Therefore Rommel and the - later famed - Afrika Korps were despatched to resolve the issue. However Rommel was again at the end of very long supply lines – across the Mediterranean before supplies even started to be moved to the troop locations. Yet another reason they could not afford to allow the Balkans to remain in British / Greek hands. Magnifying this was an abject failure by Italy to assist the ally who had come to their aid, not once but twice. Italian shipping had a capacity of just under two million tonnes in 1942, yet delivered less than 200,000 tonnes in the July / August period to Libyan ports with a capacity of 120,000 tonnes per month.
The above illustrates that an argument can be made for Italian misadventures being responsible, at least in part, for failure in North Africa and in Eastern Europe. In both cases Italian failure to support German forces, or cause them to be unavailable when required, had serious consequences for success in both theatres. Therefore, Italian misadventures caused problems – arguably lost the war if you take the Barbarossa argument to its logical conclusion – for Germany.
However there was even more. Just by entering the war Italy caused Germany problems before they even did anything.
The rules of war proscribed all combatants from overflying neutral territory. Had Italy remained neutral Germany’s southern border would have remained secure and the Allies could not even have flown over it. Subsequent to the invasion of Italy in 1943, Allied bombers were able to target southern Germany, and again the Romanian oil fields. Also Germany were of course obliged to garrison Italy not to defend the country itself, but their own southern border. That drew troops away from other theatres where they were required.
The role of Italy then was far more complex and deleterious to both sides than the article suggests, and although Nazi Germany did not declare war jointly with Italy perhaps the error lies with the earlier signed military alliance.
Finally, brief mention of the lack of an alliance between the Nazis, Spain and Turkey. Whilst this is technically true, it is also known that the Abwehr (German intelligence) operated relatively openly in Spain despite the officially neutral status of the country. Operation Mincemeat (the Allied deception of the Axis prior to invading Sardinia) was founded on the knowledge that secret documents found in Spain would end up in German hands.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Portraying History; Popular v Academic

I think there is more than enough room for both popular and academic history in literature and television, and the grey area in between the two.
To explain. In both literature and broadcast documentaries there are sub-genres, of academic history and popular history.
The former as indicated by its name is what is taught in academia - schools, universities etc. - and is written by academics – those who teach its content. It is the active side of history, in that it is populated by those who actively research the original source material, and who debate the relevance and import of their discoveries with others to discern what their findings tell them. Their interest is not merely the facts – although if they contradict previous studies they are of course important. Further than that interest is in the context, how and importantly why events occurred as they did.
Popular history is not as focused on research, in fact is not engaged in research or debate at all. In that sense it is the passive side of history. It takes the content of academic history and repackages it in a form that is more accessible to non-academics. For this reason the why is usually omitted often replaced with a human element such as identifying individuals to engage the reader in the narrative whilst still educating them on the historical topic.
Why is this important? Why indeed am I writing this blog? Simply put, even among consumers of popular history literature there seems to be a resistance to popular history documentaries. Those with greater knowledge bemoan the fact that parts of the whole may have been omitted or abbreviated.
A friend commented the other day that the average reading age in the UK is eight years old. How accurate that is I don’t know, and the specific is not relevant. The point is that more people are liable to watch a TV documentary on a subject than read a book on it. In the context of this blog it takes passive history one step further; not only are viewers consuming the content but – as many documentaries are based on books and presented by the author – they are having the book read to them in language they understand.
As with all television people will gravitate towards programmes presented by people they know. Popular culture personalities [PCPs] such as Dermot O’Leary and Chris Evans (both BBC radio DJs) who presented programmes for the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Jeremy Clarkson (Top Gear) presented a documentary on the Arctic convoy PQ17. The actor Ewan MacGregor and his brother Colin have presented documentaries on military aviation history. Similarly the actor Sir Tony Robinson has presented several history related series’ and documentaries. These are just a few examples.
Unlike author-presenters [APs] such as James Holland, Sir Max Hastings, Ben Macintyre and others, none of the above PCPs are experts on the subject, but that, I think, is their strength. They make the subject accessible to those with an initial passing interest – or possibly no interest who just watched because of the presenter. They provide an entry point into history as they take the viewer along their journey of discovery and education with them. That is not to suggest that APs do not do this too, but in the case of PCPs the viewer is likely to have been drawn in first by their involvement.
I recently saw a trailer for a forthcoming history series where the presenter asked a historian ‘How did Sir Walter Raleigh invent the potato?’ My initial reaction was ‘Err.. what?’ In the context of this blog though it is an important question. Not because of the answer – although I would love to know his response! It is important because she is asking what I can almost guarantee some people have wondered and would like to know. She is taking the viewer with baby steps into the world of history, and every journey starts with those first steps.
All the above provide a pathway to learning. From the simplicity of learning that ‘No Sir Walter Raleigh didn’t invent the potato, he brought it back from a journey of discovery to America’, to Ewan and Colin Macgregor taking the viewer enthusiastically through their exploration of military aviation, to – for example – James Holland presenting a documentary based on his book Dam Busters, and academics such as David Starkey on subjects such as the Tudor dynasty. Every stage increases the viewer’s knowledge of the subject, and it is likely - particularly when based on a book - that the viewer will read the book to delve deeper into the detail which was – inevitably – omitted from the documentary. It is only a small step then to academic history texts.
Opposing any of the steps in learning halts the process of learning, and itself is to be opposed.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Maigret: A Review

Having watched Maigret last night with Rowan Atkinson in the starring role I have seen various comments on the production so I thought I would write a review. Bear in mind I am not a professional critic, and the below are just my opinions. There again a professional critic only gives their opinion so..
Atmosphere: The locations/sets I felt did give a good atmosphere of post WWII France. We know it's post-war as Maigret says that Paris has seen enough Gestapo tactics not to want anymore. I am not expert in fashion but the clothing seemed to me appropriate to the era.
Acting: I will come back to this later in the review but overall I felt the acting of all parties was of a good if not outstanding quality. One black mark I personally feel, although opinions vary, is in the total absence of accents. While noting as above that the physical atmosphere was achieved I felt drama had taken a huge step backwards to the 1930s when everyone spoke in an English accent regardless of their character's nationality. The only nods to the location not being in Britain were the place and character names. Even Maigret was referred to on occasion as 'Mister' and not 'M'sieur'.
Maigret himself has been described as a grey character without much to him, and I think this comes to the crux of the issue. I personally disagree with this characterisation as he shows his character not in the more overt manner of modern detectives but in his single-minded pursuit of the villain. We see he is not an automaton through his reaction to the widower of the latest victim and his young family. Maigret to be sure cares deeply about what he does. For him the victims are not just names, as they are for his masters. they are people with real lives, and they are those left behind when loved ones are killed.
So why the approbation to the drama? In my opinion we have been spoilt as a viewing audience. Modern murder mysteries have convoluted plots with the guilty party only exposed in the last five minutes of the hour or two hour investigation. The investigators be they police or private plough their way unerringly through a pile of false flags arresting and releasing suspects until they eventually get the right person. We have been spoilt by the deducting gymnastics of Holmes, Poirot and their ilk, the sudden 'lightbulb' moments out of the blue accorded to Barnaby, Lewis etc. The closest we have come to normality is in Brenda Blethyn's portrayal of Vera.
Then we have Maigret. Here we are presented with a normal policeman charged with the capture of a serial killer. A killer who thus far has killed five times in six months and left no clue. Maigret is a man with the weight of the world bearing down heavily on his shoulders. His immediate superior keeps demanding results. His political master keeps demanding results – in actuality more interested in the damage to his reputation than the victims. Both threatening to replace Maigret if he doesn't produce results. The constant hounding by the press demanding results. To his credit refusing to be bullied into an arrest – as we have seen many times in reality – of the wrong man. He is persistent to the point of relentlessness – if he asks a question he will keep asking it over and over wearing the suspect down until it is answered. After a masterstroke Maigret is gifted with what he craves. A rough description of the suspect and a physical clue. He proceeds to follow where the clue leads him, now unlike previously aimlessly searching he becomes a bloodhound following a scent. When he finds his quarry up a metaphorical tree he doesn't give up, but keeps barking until the quarry comes to ground and is captured.
Maigret is not a Poirot, Holmes, Lewis or Barnaby, nor even a Vera. He is Maigret and deserves to be treated as such.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Independence for Wales?

This blog isn't written because I crave independence for Wales. Frankly I don't think we are ready, for many reasons. It is written to highlight , in the main, the second reason below which nobody ever mentions.
Around the time of the Scottish Independence Referendum there was chatter about whether Wales could be independent. With my head finally ruling my heart I have to say my opinion is no, for two reasons, one of which is often discussed, but one which I have never heard discussed.
To begin with the often discussed reason, the economy. Currently Wales depends heavily on income from Westminster via the Barnett Formula, which even Joel Barnett himself has discredited as only intended to be a short term measure and no longer fit for purpose. The secondary means of income is from EU subsidies and grants. Finally businesses in Wales do actually produce some wealth for the country, and now we are apparently going to have tax raising powers we shall see what happens there. However, the fact remains that Wales does not currently have a sufficiently robust independent economy that could survive without external input. To achieve that I think we need to find something at which we can be world leaders and make it work for us. Without that any attempts at independence will fail.
However, the second reason is, I feel even more fundamental. It took Scotland decades to achieve a position where they were confident enough, and able, to call a referendum on independence. I believe the bedrock of that confidence is that as a nation they believed in the Scottish Nationalist Party. They believed that Scotland should be governed by the Scottish for the Scottish.
I am not a nationalist per se, but I do recognise the sense in the logic that you cannot be truly independent whilst allowing, indeed voting for, the country to be governed by a party whose roots are in what would be a different country. In Wales, ever since devolution in 1999, we have been governed by the Labour Party. Every election for the last 16 years. A party with its roots in London. To me it is farcical to think that Wales, with its capital city of Cardiff, could be independent whilst the governing party is based in London.
In a nutshell, until Plaid Cymru demonstrate an ability to govern, and until we as a nation recognise that ability and vote them into power, Wales will remain part of the United Kingdom.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Lost And Given Lives

'He lost/gave his life [for his country].'

I have issues with these concepts.

Lost. There are several definitions of the word lost, all relating to a belonging no longer in one's possession however in this context lost implies fault on the part of the individual, as in 'he lost his car keys' due to carelessness.

Gave. This has as one of its many definitions 'to relinquish or sacrifice' as in giving one's life for a cause, however the vast majority of definitions relate to deliberately passing possession of an item to another person. Either way, giving is a deliberate act. Even in the case where sacrifice is the intended meaning it infers an intent on the individual which cannot be proven.

I admit that of the two perhaps Lost is the weaker of the arguments, but I feel is does have merit.

Most often these phrases are used, notably by the news media, to describe deaths of military personnel in combat, or to describe the victims of an accident or disaster. This is where I have an issue with them. Someone killed in combat or as the result of an accident in the vast majority of cases is not at fault when they are killed. Therefore they cannot have lost their life in the context of carelessness. Yes they have lost it in the sense it is irrecoverable, but the fault is not theirs.

Equally, only the person in combat who acts knowing that what they are about to do will, or is very likely to, kill them can be said to have given their life. Otherwise their death is the result not of their action but of the enemy who killed them. There is a reason the military use the acronym KIA. It means Killed In Action and is precisely what happened. It is not LHL – Lost His/Her Life – or GHL – Gave His/Her Life. It is KIA. When I last mentioned this to a friend who is a retired Army officer, his response regarding 'gave their life' was 'KIA would seem to be apposite'. I mention this simply so that the reader will be aware that these are not simply the ramblings of an armchair warrior.

Responsibility for the death of a person from an accident lies not always with them unless they made an error, but equally as likely from the action of a third party. Only in the case of a natural disaster is no third party to blame.

My second issue, particular to deaths of the military is the phrase '.. for his/her country.' Unless all troops attack the enemy in a Kenneth Branaghesque 'Cry God for Harry, England and St George' manner I think it is highly unlikely that the immediate motivation at the time is for their country. While I know that many do join the armed forces to serve their country, and you could therefore technically say they died for their country, I think at best it is more accurate to say they died while in the service of their country. More often than not, whilst actually in combat, in all the accounts I have read and heard of over the years, what binds troops together and the comradeship of fighting for their mates is what compels them to act. The monarch may be thousands of miles away but your best mate at your shoulder is who I think you most likely fight for.

I however have never served in the Armed Forces, so if anyone who has or is currently serving, reads this and feels my conclusions are way off I would be more than happy to discuss any of this blog.

As a final point, going back to the news media. I feel there is an element of political correctness in the reporting, particularly of war zones. It seems it is far more acceptable to use phrases like lost/gave their life instead of the brutal truth that for example 30 soldiers did not lose their lives, '30 soldiers were killed in combat'. They are quite willing to show us graphic images of wounded civilians, with the warning that it 'might upset' us, but seem to want to mollycoddle us when talking of the deaths of our armed forces.

Incidentally, the habit of warning us of graphic images, what's that about? It's not a soccer result so we can leave the room and not have it spoilt if we haven't seen the game. We should not be shielded from it, and given the chance to think 'I don't want to see that'. Unless we are subjected to the horrors of war we will not as a society, indeed as a species, work towards the ultimate goal of eradicating war as a means of settling our differences.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Science Fiction; How To View It?

Science Fiction as a genre has, I think, three main strands;

1) Near Future.  Taking what is possible today, looking at what is planned and pushing the boundaries just beyond that point.
2) Future.  Taking concepts that are not possible with current knowledge of science and making them possible by inventing a method which seems plausible if you don't look too closely.
3) Make It Up.  Invent a concept and ignore how it's done just run with it as long as it's a well crafted story.

Secondly, there are, I think, broadly speaking two types of consumer of science fiction;

a) Purist.  Wants the science that is presented to be as accurate as possible within the confines of the story.
b) Doesn't care as long as they are entertained.

Combining the above you get the Purist who will like type 1 stories, be OK with type 2 as long as they don't push it, and not like type 3.  The type b consumer on the other hand may not like type 1 stories if they get bogged down too much in the accuracy, will like type 2, and will definitely like type 3 for the story.

Having said that, I class myself as somewhere between the two.  I will happily sit down and nitpick the likes of Prometheus to death, but I will also happily sit down and watch an episode of Doctor Who and not bat an eyelid.  Why is that?

I think it is because broadly speaking there are two types of lie told in science fiction, Big and LittleBig Lies are things such as teleportation, faster than light travel, laser weaponry that shoots 'bolts', lightsabres, time travel.. I could go on.. and on.. and on.  The point is, all the above are known by the average viewer/reader to be physically impossible, certainly in modern science, and in the case of some permanently due to that bloke Einstein and his mate Heisenberg.  Little Lies I class as things that the purist knows are wrong and will catch and be irritated by, such as a vehicle that uses antigravity that doesn't crush anything it flies over due to the downward force physics tells us it must be applying to stay airborne; I was therefore absurdly pleased when, in the remake of Total Recall (not as good as the original but had Kate Beckinsale, so swings and roundabouts :)), the car that was plummeting to the ground having lost antigrav drive had it restored and the car parked underneath it was crushed by the force.

We then come to a point where I sit down and watch Doctor Who and ignore the fact that time travel is impossible, and you can't have an object bigger on the inside than on the outside, because they are just a vehicle for the story and it's not worth worrying about the obviously impossible.  However, I watch Independence Day and yes they have the Big Lies such as anti-gravity and a mothership that would seriously mess with the earth's gravity just by orbiting due to its mass being a quarter of the size of the moon.  What irritates me though is the small stuff, when a programme/film gets their own science wrong.  All the smaller spaceships would have had to do was fly over their target and the force of the anti-grav drive pushing down would have squashed anything under it flatter than a beer can after being stomped on.  And don't even get me started on a Mac laptop that was somehow able to seamlessly interface with alien technology.. half the time it's a *bleep* to get them to interface with other human technology, and that's not even mentioning the fact the aliens had a handy USB port to plug into, that or Jeff Goldblum carried a USB-Alien adaptor in his back pocket.  And it all worked on the same frequency, power; even the language the alien computer was programmed with was somehow compatible with earth computers.

On that basis maybe there is a third type of viewer, the purist who will watch science fiction and ignore the Big Lies because, let's face it, it would take way too much time to nitpick it all, and besides the Big Lies are often the foundation of the story; Doctor Who and the TARDIS; Star Trek and faster than light travel, teleportation etc; Star Wars and lightsabres.  What I think upsets people is when science fiction gets what they know wrong, when they step out of their Big Lie science and start tinkering with ordinary science.

For example, in a particularly heinous (my view) episode of Star Trek: Voyager called 'The 37s' they detected a trail of petrol (gasoline to US readers) in space and followed it to a 1937 pickup truck floating in space.  Not only were the tyres still inflated, but there was manure in the flatbed, and when they got it onboard the engine started first time!  Apparently all the petrol hadn't leaked out.. and there was still enough acid in the battery to create electricity.. yesss...  Later on they had a Blue Alert and landed a 750,000 tonne spaceship on a planet on three spindly looking legs.  By that point I was well beyond having equated the script with the truck's cargo.

In the final analysis though, everyone has different tastes; if you don't like it don't watch it / buy the book, but don't watch/read it - especially if it's a series with a known pedigree - and then profess surprise and/or complain about it when it does what it says on the tin.  That just annoys people.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Doctor Who - Deep Breath 8.1

Do NOT Read If You Haven't Seen Last Night's Episode Yet.

If You Have, Read On.

Right.. if you've read this far you've seen it; if you haven't why are you still reading?  Oh well, I did try to warn you..

I've seen mixed reviews for the opener of series 8 and Peter Capaldi's first outing as The Doctor, inevitable really as he is the first doctor to break the 50 year old tradition of every successive actor to be younger than the last.  Some who may have liked the eye candy of Eccleston, Tennant and Smith might baulk at an older actor, but frankly that's hard luck. Deal with it.  It's the character that is important not what he looks like.

Capaldi brought a gravitas and depth to the role which I think has been missing.  That's not in any way to denigrate the above named, but he brought his experience and, yes, age to bear in an extremely powerful performance, giving in my view a superb performance as someone who - unaccountably for someone to whom it had happened 11 times before - was struggling to cope with the new face and person he had transformed into, a kind of multiple personality disorder as his brain seemed to think he was the previous incarnation, but the evidence of his eyes told him something different.

Jenna Coleman was superb as Clara, and her reaction to the change in the Doctor was extremely well portrayed.  In her own way Clara too seemed to be conflicted but in her case with her mind telling her he was the same inside but another part of her believing her eyes that he was a different person.

Neither seemed able to reconcile the conflicting evidence before them.

Neve McIntosh as Madame Vastra played the part in this episode very much in the mould of Irene Adler as portrayed in the Carole Nelson Douglas books, that of essentially a female Sherlock Holmes, complete with companion, Jenny Flint played by Catrin Stewart.  With respect to their portrayals I am going to stick my neck out and say I don't see what people are whining about with Moffat's alleged attitude to women. What attitude? IMHO he is to be commended for not sticking to the tired old 'acceptable to polite society' conventions.  Not only that Clara was a well rounded complex character with depths yet to be plumbed.

Strax.. now I have read complaints about Strax and again I am going to stick my neck out and disagree absolutely with them.  Peter Capaldi brought, as detailed above, a dark gravitas to the role and if the episode had concentrated solely on that it could in my view have become too dark.  Any successful drama needs variation, 'light and dark' is I think the term the industry uses.  Strax for me sat in the same role as Dobby the House Elf in the Harry Potter series.  While having his own serious side, he provided the occasional much needed light relief, both by himself and with his behaviour giving other characters the opportunity to react in, what for the viewer was, a humorous manner.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable and well crafted episode.  The ending scene was superbly well done, even if the plot device of a character calling from the past was not new - I saw it a week or so ago rewatching Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure on DVD.  The fact of a plot device not being new does not detract in any way from its implementation, it's a tool in the script writer's box, and it's how it's used that is important, and in this case it was extremely well done.

I'm definitely looking forward to the next episode!