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.
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.
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.
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.
When one mentions the Normans, people think of William the Conqueror, Hastings, and the Domesday Book. However, the Normans attacked Italy, Sicily, the Balkans, Scotland, the Middle East, and even the Canary Islands. The ex-Scandinavians are remembered for their victory at Hastings, but the Battle of Dyrrachium in 1081 is an influential engagement too. Fought in present-day Durres, Albania, Dyrrachium was the culmination of the Norman’s first conquest into the Balkans, later ending in 1085.
So why were the Normans in the Adriatic? In 999, Norman pilgrims to the Holy Land settled in Salerno. When Saracens attacked the city, Normans fought back viciously an eventually decided to stay in what is known as the “Salerno Tradition.” There are more modern hypothesis but this particular one was a contemporary Italian account., whether it is true or not. What we do know for sure is that Normans aided Lombardy in their war against the Byzantines and many became mercenaries. Normans soon gained control of Southern Italy, and repelled attacks on Sicily by Arabs. They then set their sights on the Byzantine-controlled Balkans.
Robert Guiscard was born to Normans parents who had fought with the Lombards against Byzantium. He became Count of Apulia and turned his Norman troops towards Byzantium and prepared for war. He had experience in Sicily against the Arabs and quickly invaded with his son, Bohemund. In May, a fleet arrived on the shores of the Balkans with 30,000 soldiers. A small force attacked and captured the island of Corfu and then Guiscard’s forces marched on the capital of Illyria- Dyracchium. Alexios I of Byzantium rushed a messenger to Venice to ask the Doge for support. He sent the Venetian fleet who crushed the Normans in the Strait of Otranto with Greek Fire.
Guiscard continued his siege and prepared to face Alexios I’s army of 20,000 men. On October 16th, Alexios snuck his army to the high ground behind the Norman lines at night in order to swiftly attack next morning. Norman scouts alerted Guiscard who shifted his forces to meet the Byzantine assault. The Norman cavalry feint failed and a counterattack by the Byzantine left routed the Normans. Allegedly, Guiscard’s wife rallied them back into action. The legendary Varangian Guard, made up of Vikings and Saxons, sliced their way through Norman lines but Alexios’ center collapsed. Guiscard exploited this with his heavy cavalry and stranded the Varangians who were picked off by crossbowmen. The Byzantines routed in small pockets which were attacked. Even Alexios himself was attacked and wounded, but managed to escape.
The Byzantines lost 5,000 men and the Normans are estimated to have lost about the same. This was an important study, as it shows how important cavalry really were to the Normans. They did not play a huge role at Hastings, but at Dyracchium, the Normans would have been butchered without them. Venetian troops lost the city a few months later and much of Greece was captured. However, revolts and a Holy Roman Imperial threat forces Guiscard back to Italy where he died in 1085, bringing an end to the first Norman invasion of the Balkans.
Russia’s Imperial Guard is overlooked by many Napoleonic historians, as the Imperial guard of Napoleon is concentrated upon. Yet the personal guard of Alexander I (Paul I before his death in 1801) is still a massive part of the history, as Russia and Austria held against the French invaders. Russia’s common infantryman wore a dark green coat with white pants and a plumed shako, but the guards wore more elaborate and complex uniforms that rivaled any ornate French uniforms. Grand Duke Constantin Pavlovich’s Imperial Guard became an integral part of the Eastern Napoleonic Wars and helped the Russians all the way to Paris in 1814.
The Imperial Guard in 1800 was four regiments strong: Preobazhensky, Semenovsky, Ismailovksy, and Guard Jagers. Two more regiments – Lithuanian Life Guard and Finnish Life Guard – were added in 1812 in time for the Battle of Borodino. Finally, two grenadier regiments joined as the “Young Guard” in 1813. What made these units different from regular Russian infantry. First of all, their height was drastically different. The minimum height of a guardsman was 1.71 m (5’6 ft) compared to the diminutive 1.56 (5’1 ft) of a regular. Prior to the Napoleonic Wars, the guards served mostly in St. Petersburg as guards of the Czar and sent officers to regular units. Many of the guards came from Russian nobility rather than the basic origins of regular soldiers. The guards outranked regular privates in the Russian Army and were also given Prussian drilling- arguably the best in contemporary Europe.
Russian guards wore the same coat and pants as the regular infantryman, except with different facings and cuffs. For example, the Semeonvksy Regiment had blue collars, red facings, and blue cuffs. They each had specific colour restrictions on drumsticks and in 1800, Imperial Guard Infantry even had mustache restrictions. Their shakos were the main difference than regular troops. A guard had white cord on their shako as well as a much more elaborate badge than the standard Russian eagle or grenade symbol.
Napoleonic cavalry is always associated with vivid colours, and the Guard Cavalry is no exception. The cavalry consisted of dragoons, hussars, cossacks, lancers, the Lifeguard Horse, and the Guard Cavalry Regiment. Each unit wore a different coloured coat:
Lancers (Uhlans)- Blue
Veterans were moved into both guard units and the cuirassiers after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. The cavalry set restrictions on horse colour between certain squadrons of each regiment as well. The oldest of the seven guard cavalry regiments was the Lifeguard Horse, founded in 1721.
Guard Cuirassiers wore the traditional breastplate and a tall, plumed helmet which was blackened like the cuirasse. Saddle pads reflected a regiment’s facings and each had a star of St. Andrew stitched into the side. Dragoons were the same except they did not wear a breastplate. The hussars wore a white-plumed shako with a red coat and pelisse, each braided in gold. Uhlans wore a blue czapka and a white sash over their waists.
The Guard Artillery were a small branch, but were still important. Their branch colour, red, adorned their shako cord and shoulder straps. Their collar was black, and they wore the traditional Russian dark green coats. White breeches completed their uniform. Guard Horse Artillery wore the same except their shako had a tall white plume and they wore green pants with two red stripes.
O’Higgins was born on August 20, 1778 to an Irish father and a Spanish mother. His father, Ambrose, was elected Prime Minister of Chile in 1788, paving the way for his son to become an important figure in Chile’s history. Bernardo left for Peru to attend college, later travelling to England and Spain. By 1801, he returned to Chile after his father’s death. When he returned, he became involved in politics and was a key member of the nationalist movement.
In 1808, Spain was in turmoil as French armies swept through the country. Seeing their opportunity, many South Americans rose up against imperial rule. Two years later, politicians in Santiago announced independence and elected new leaders of the rebelling nation. The initial process was peaceful, as Chilean nationalists did not bother with relations to the Viceroyalty of Peru (one of Spain’s two American colonial regions). However, Spain returned with force in 1814 and attempted to reclaim Chile and other rebellious nations. At the Battle of Rancagua on Oct 1-2, Bernardo O’Higgins led Chilean troops against veteran Spanish forces of the Napoleonic Wars. O’Higgins was crushed. Without reinforcements from Santiago, the Chileans suffered some 1,000 casualties out of an initial force of 2,000. This battle marked the beginning of the Reconquista of America.
O’Higgins fled to neighbouring Argentina where he and Argentine nationalist, Jose de San Martin, began forming a new army. In January 1817, the two returned to Chile with their new force, the Army of the Andes. San Martin’s tactical genius and O’Higgins’ decisiveness won the Battle of Chacabuco. The Battle of Maipu was on April 5, 1818 near Santiago. The 5,000-strong Army of the Andes attacked Manuel Osorio’s Spanish force. Using his grenadiers and cazadores to his advantage, O’Higgins countered Spanish attacks while San Martin attacked with the main force and artillery. The victory at Maipu is viewed as the decisive battle for Chile’s independence.
O’Higgins went on to create the Chilean Navy later that year, as well as becoming the leader of Chile itself. While in power, he tried removing power of the oligarchy, but failed to do so. Regular attacks on Spanish Royalists and other supporters tainted his reign, as his campaigns became known as the Guerra de Muerte. O’Higgins abdicated in 1823 after losing popular support, and was exiled to Argentina. Years later, O’Higgins and his family were allowed to return but cardiac issues caused him many problems. He became an avid supporter of the navy and colonization before his death in 1842. His last words were “Magallanes…magallanes” which showed his pro-colonisation ideals. Chile did control the Strait of Magellan later on after his death.
O’Higgins is revered in Chile to this day. Massive celebrations occurred on the bicentenary of his birth in 1978, and a Chilean football team is named in his honour. While not as remembered as Bolivar, O’Higgins was an advocat of Latin American independence, one of Chile’s most important founding fathers, and a bold general to be remembered.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.