Book Review: Soviet Paratrooper vs Mujahideen Fighter

Osprey Publishing continues its “Combat” series with a study on the Soviet Afghan War (1979-89). A Soviet invasion intended to simply pacify the nation ended ten years later with thousands of dead on both sides and an overlooked war which shaped the modern situation in the Middle East. Soviet operations were widely led by their paratroopers, whom were mostly 18 year old conscripts far from home. The Mujahideen, Afghanistan’s anti-communist rebels, fought to reclaim their home and both sides committed atrocious crimes upon one another’s troops in battles through valleys, snowy mountains, and rocky outcrops for years.

Soviet Paratrooper vs Mujahideen Fighter
Osprey Publishing’s recent book

Praise:

The “Combat” series is one of my favourites because it covers so much information. The book is full of photographs of both armies and is accompanied by plates of two soldiers, a split-screen picture, and an excellent illustration of the battle for Hill 3234 by 9th company. The book contains a helpful map of Afghanistan in the introduction with each of the provinces labelled. There are plenty of explanations on the Soviet paras which are very interesting. Lots of quotes reveal the attitude of these young men and illustrates the fear of going to Afghanistan. One of the most harrowing is of Vladislav Tarasov- “when I was in my second year of college they changed the law and took me. ‘Anywhere but Afghanistan’ my mother said.” The book has plenty of descriptions of the brutality on both sides. From Russian hazing of their own recruits, to the Mujahideen human puppets they made out of captured soldiers. There are plenty of photos covering both sides of the war, which is surprising but also quite interesting.

Criticism:

My first and primary concern is a lack of background information on the Mujahideen. The author, David Campbell, has written another book about the Soviets in this series (Soviet vs Finnish Soldier in the Winter War, which is a great read), so it’s clear he prefers writing about the Soviets more. I still could have used some more information on the Afghanis. Major leaders, international support, and certain strongholds would have been very welcome. Yes, it is an introductory book to the subject, but I like balance in books, and compared to other “Combat” books, this one was not as such. The map for Hill 3234 is missing the unit numbers which bothered me. The commanding officers are all present, but I would have liked the unit designation. My last minor concern is the shoes in the Russian plate. I would have loved them to be in sneakers because many soldiers used them instead of boots on the mountains.

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‘Moskva’ Shoes- the USSR’s version of adidas sneakers, commonly worn in the war

This book is a really interesting idea, but in practice, it fell short of expectations. The artwork, photos, and quotes are superb; but a lot feels as if it is missing. This definitely expands horizons and makes me want to explore the Soviet-Afghan War in depth, and I hope you do too.

Rating:

3/5

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Brief History of the Croatian War of Independence

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1990- SAO Krajina formed

July 1991- Independence

August 1991- Vukovar

Sept. 1991- Battle of the Barracks

Oct. 1991- Dubrovnik

Oct. 1991- Zagreb TV bombed

Nov. 1991- Vukovar massacre

1992- UN intervenes

Jan 1993- Operation Maslenica

Sept 1993- Operation Medak Pocket

1994- Siege of Bihać

1995- Operation Flash

1995- Zagreb attacked

Aug. 1995- Operation Storm

Nov. 1995- Erdut Agreement

Kiwis in Combat: New Zealand in WWII

While New Zealand sits some 11,000 miles (18,000 km) away from London, they gave their heart and soul for the Empire during the Second World War. Many people have heard of the contributions of Australia or Canada in the war, but never New Zealand. The NZ Division underwent tests of strength in numerous battles, most notably the Battle of Crete in 1941 as Blitzkrieg swept through the Mediterranean. New Zealand also produced an air force which would play an important role in the Pacific. From the deserts of North Africa to the chilly shores of Normandy, the Kiwis would stamp their mark on the war.

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A wartime poster for the New Zealanders

New Zealanders beared the brunt of the German Fallschirmjager attacks on Crete in May of 1941. With German and Italian troops in Greece, New Zealanders and other Commonwealth forces travelled to help protect the Balkans. Greece had been ultimately captures by Hitler’s forces and an airborne assault on Crete was imminent. Over 7,000 men of the New Zealand Division were stationed on the Mediterranean Island. Fallschirmjager landed in Crete on the 20th of May, fighting for the airfields around Malerne. A counterattack was launched three days later, but failed after their battalions became pinned around the airfields. Capt. Charles Upham, however, was awarded with a Victoria Cross for his bravery under fire. A new defensive line was organised, but German attacks on Galatas pushed them back and forced many supply issues. Another counterattack was launched, failing once more to defeat the Germans. The New Zealanders fell back once more and a new line was created at “42nd Street” named for the engineers who built it. A massive German attack on AZNAC positions was held, but the Allies retreated in the night. Many troops were sent to Egypt at night by ship once the Royal Navy arrived. By the 30th, most troops had retreated from Crete.

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Fallschirmjager at Crete

With NZ and British troops in Egypt, the battles for the desert began. In Operation Crusader, New Zealanders captured important coastal towns from the Germans while main British attacks by the 8th Army were underway. At Point 175, the New Zealanders suffered their heaviest casualties of the war, but they still pressed on towards Tobruk. Unfortunately, they were smashed back into Egypt, suffering 2,500 casualties total. At Second El Alamein, the NZ Division broke through German lines and forced them to retreat. They captured hundreds of German prisoners before pressing on towards Tunisia in late 1942. The New Zealanders would be sent to Italy in 1943, fighting through the country. New Zealanders were present at the disaster at Monte Cassino in 1944, eventually pressing onto Trieste. The Kiwis even had a minor presence at D-Day, protecting the fleet from the air and at sea.

In the Pacific, New Zealand felt threatened by Japan’s growing presence, especially after the 1942 attack on Darwin, Australia. Thousands of New Zealanders joined the ranks and were sent to Africa, but a fair few remained on their hemisphere. They fought in the Dutch East Indies and also provided airbases to the United States for attacks on Japan. Kiwis arrived on Guadalcanal after the battle as an occupying force and proceeded to capture more of the Solomon Islands in 1943. The 4th Division later returned home in 1944.

New Zealand’s navy, the RNZN, provided needed support to British operations in the South Pacific. HMS Achilles and HMS Leander were sent to fight at the Battle of River Plate in 1939. These ships were named HMS since the title HMZNS wasn’t created until October 1941. Some 7,000 sailors would join the Royal Navy as they helped in the Normandy Operations of 1944. The RNZN also fought in the naval battles for the Solomon Islands.

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The Maori Battalion preforming the Haka in Egypt  

Another component of New Zealand’s forces, the RNZAF, numbered a mere 102 planes at the outbreak of war in 1939. Immediately, their efforts greatly increased as they formed new pilot schools in Taieri, New Plymouth, and other locations. Some Kiwis formed a part of the RAF, becoming No. 75 squadron. More RAF squadrons were formed of New Zealanders and they managed seven squadrons total in the RAF. With Japan’s entry to the war in 1941, the NZ airmen became involved in the battle for Malaya and Singapore. Worries about an Axis invasion of the nation prompted a massive anti-invasion campaign. Kittyhawks arrived in 1942 to reinforce the RNZAF and in November, the NZ pilots engaged Japanese pilots for the first time above Guadalcanal. Over the next few years, they received better equipment and supplies. In 1945, the RNZAF mostly aided US air assaults on Japan as escorts. By the end of the war, they numbered some 42,000 personnel. Three pilots received the VC for their gallantry in the war: Lloyd Trigg, Leonard Trent, and James Ward.

One important New Zealander in the war was the aforementioned Charles Upham, who won two Victoria Crosses. Only three people, including Capt. Upham, have won multiple VCs. The Christchurch native won his first VC in Crete as he single handedly charged a machine gun nest with grenades in hand. Upham destroyed the bunker and quickly destroyed another, before finally finishing off a German Bofors gun. He soon grabbed a wounded comrade and ran back to his line. The next year, Upham won his second VC at the Battle of El Alamein. He commandeered a Jeep, driving it into the German line and firing his machine gun wildly. Despite his wounds, the captain spotted German units for the Commonwealth troops who had become separated from the main force. He was wounded again and continued to fight before his capture. He was even transferred to Colditz, one of the most notorious German prisons of the war. Upham was later quoted to have said “I don’t want to be treated differently from any other bastard,” showing how humble the soldier really was.

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Capt. Charles Upham after being awarded his first Victoria Cross in 1941

While New Zealand is not as noticeable as the USSR or Britain, they still provided much needed aid for the Allies in the war. Without contributions from minor nations, the world may have fallen to fascism and not been the way it is today. Thanks to the bravery of men like Charles Upham and other Kiwis, the world was made a safe place for all of us to live to this day.

“We Shall Enter it With Soil Saturated In Blood” : The Six Day War

Israel and the surrounding Arab nations had major tensions since its founding in 1948. The small Jewish state constantly clashed with the other surrounding nations and especially the Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip. After two previous wars, Israel and the surrounding nations were on the brink of yet another armed conflict.

While tensions rose, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered his military to mobilise to attack neighbouring Israel on May 14th, 1967. Egypt’s ally, Jordan, mobilised around the same time at the order of King Hussein. Syria committed itself to the Arabic triumvirate, and so, Israel was surrounded by enemies.

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Israeli Centurion tanks

After a vote by the Israeli government, the IDFl quickly attacked an off-guard Egypt in a massive preemptive strike in the Sinai, named Operation Moked. On June 5, Israeli pilots destroyed a massive amount of Egyptian fighter jets before they could take off from the runways of air bases. Some 300 Egyptian fighters were destroyed and the IDF struck at Syrian and Jordanian air bases in a similar manner The Sinai front was opened, and the Egyptian army panicked without any air support. Israeli Centurions rolled into the Sinai and at the Battle of Abu-Aelia, wiped out any enemy resistance. The IDF reached the banks of the Suez canal in a mere four days.

With the Sinai secured, Israel turned its attention quickly to news from the Syrian front, as enemy troops were pressing onto Jerusalem. Col. Motta Gur’s 55th Parachute Brigade was ordered to defend the city while more troops could be sent to aid them. Early on June 6th, the paratroopers slashed their way through Jordanian positions at Ammunition Hill, suffering over 200 casualties. Another battalions fought their way in and around the Rockefeller Museum, suffering greatly at the hands of Jordanian machine guns. Moshe Dayan, the Israeli commander planned to take the Jordanian positions the next day. Uzi Narkiss, and IDF officer, said that Jerusalem hadn’t been taken from the east since King David. Dayan cooly replied “then this will be the second and last time.” On the 7th, Gur charged the Temple Mount and captured it quickly. An Israeli soldier raised his flag on top of the Dome of the Rock, but was ordered to remove it. Israeli troops celebrated. Jerusalem was theirs.

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Israeli Paratroopers in Jerusalem

IDF reinforcements quickly attacked the West Bank of the Jordan, catching King Hussein’s weary army off-guard. North of that, Israeli troops tried holding off against a massive attacking force of Syrian troops streaming up the Golan Heights. After days of brutal fighting, the Israelis emerged victorious on June 9th with the help of their air superiority. Israel took staggering losses, with 115 confirmed dead on the Golan Heights. Overall, they had suffered some 3,000 casualties.

Israel could have easily pressed on, crippling the three Arab nations , but decided to broker for peace. On June 19th, the nations met to discuss peace, and Israel retained the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. In August, the Arab nations met in Khartoum, Sudan, and decided that they would no longer agree to any peace terms with Israel and would be aggressive in future endeavours towards the nation.

The Rif War: Prelude to Spain’s Civil War

Morocco’s horrible political dealings had ended poorly and European nations prayed on the weakened country. In 1912, Spain and France agreed on the creation of a Spanish colony in northern Morocco along the Rif Valley on the Mediterranean. With Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War, they were eager to create a new colony. The Rif was occupied by a large, fiercely independent Berber population.

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Berber guerillas in the Rif Mountains

Spanish troops attempted to pacify the Berbers, but Abd El-Krim, a member of the Beni Urriaguel, decided to unite the Berbers against the Spanish. Establishing the Rif Republic in 1920, El-Krim banded together guerillas to resist the Spanish troops in the area. The Berber tribesmen were not numerous at all, but were great at skirmishing against their enemies. They had traditionally repelled Arab invasions of their home in the Rif Mountains. The Spanish would be one of their toughest challenges yet. General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre commanded the Spanish troops at the front, but quick attacks by El-Krim forced him to abandon his position at Anwal on July 22, 1921. The Spaniards were hit quickly and were not prepared whatsoever, suffering staggering casualties. Silvestre was killed along with some 10,000 Spaniards and Spain was smashed back to the coast.

Things stayed the same until 1924 when the Spanish government snapped into action. Miguel Primo de Rivera recalled Spanish troops to form a defensive line at Tetuan and came under major scrutiny. Abd El-Krim and his Muslim Berber army took control of the land the Spanish evacuated and established a law code, built roads, and created trade agreements. He turned towards the French colony in Morocco and decided to unite his Republic with the other Berbers. Attacking Fes, the Berbers caused heavy French casualties in a quick ambush. The French made the decision to ally with the Spanish in order to combat the Berber threats to their colonies. Philippe Petain took control of the French in Morocco and in a collaboration with the Spanish, the French marched 20,000 troops to deal with the threat. Spain landed 18,000 soldiers at Alhucemas Bay in September 1925 and the two sides joined to fight the 10,000 Berbers. Abd El-Krim’s guerillas couldn’t withstand such force and began to be pushed back from the coast. The Spanish captured Ajdir on October 2 and dealt a huge blow to the Riffians.

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Spanish Foreign Legionnaires defending Alhucemas

By March the next year, El-Krim had been so badly defeated that he asked for peace talks with the Europeans. The Spanish refused and continued to hammer Berber troops out of their lands. El-Krim was captured by the French in April and he was forced to unconditionally surrender. He and his family were sent to Reunion in exile and Morocco was reclaimed by Spain and France. The Rif War sparked thoughts of independence in the area and would later spring to life after World War Two. This also marked the beginning of the Spanish problems. Soon, the Spanish Civil War would tear the country in two and serve as the training ground for the European nations before World War Two.

Book Review: The Odyssey of Echo Company

The Odyssey of Echo Company by Doug Stanton describes a company of the 101st Airborne Division who are sent to Vietnam in 1968, right at the beginning of the Tet Offensive. Stan Parker, a 19 year old from Indiana, goes against his mother and joins the military. He finds his way into a tight group of young mates united in pain through wounds, loss, and grief. Stan’s rocky relationships with his family and girlfriend affect him and when he returns to America, he is still faced with intense problems and discrimination from those against the war.

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Praise:

One of the more interesting parts of the book is how Stan deals with being home and how cruel the American public was to Vietnam veterans at the time and how emotionally complex it was, and still is, for veterans. The book does draw you in during combat and makes you want to keep reading on. It’s very interesting to see how much emotion is involved in the Vietnam War, and the book definitely captures that.

Criticism:

It was very easy to tell that Doug Stanton is not a historian by some of the ways he describes things. He calls nearly every weapon a gun and it rolls the eyes of historians who don’t want to hear about the “M60 Gun.” The book’s maps are a little child-like and cartoonish as well, and they illustrate things he has already spoken about in the book: they don’t really serve much of a purpose. There is a lot of stereotyping in this book and cliches you hear in nearly every Vietnam story. They’re all just kids, they don’t know where they are, they’re there to kill communists. This is in pretty much every single Vietnam story out there. One of the things that particularly bothered me was a part of the book in which Stan Parker, as a young boy, has to wear metal knee braces. he is chased by some school bullies and he just takes the braces off and runs in an absolute miracle. Allegedly, Stanton heard all of this from Parker himself and that the book is as historically accurate as possible. The scene is exactly the same in the classic movie, Forrest Gump, which makes me really wonder about the book’s authenticity. In another scene, Stan calls the President and speaks to both Robert McNamara and Lyndon B. Johnson. That just seems insanely unlikely. The fact that the book is based around one person doesn’t give as much freedom as I thought. The book is about Stan, not about Echo Company. He knows and interacts with his company, but there is no real story development about them. The writing style of this book also feels really choppy and clumsy. There’s a huge amount of repetition and it just gets to be tiring after a certain point.

The book just doesn’t live up to the comments on the back. Compared to The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, this book is dwarfed. The writing style isn’t as good, and O’Brien has a first hand experience of death and hell in Vietnam. He knows the feeling to kill. It’s hard to live up to some of the Vietnam greats. This book just seems tacky and not really what I expected.

Rating: 1.5/5