The War Below

The War Below: The Story of Three Submarines that Battled Japan, by Chris Scott

Simon & Schuster (2013), Hardcover, 448 pages


One of the least remembered but most effective campaigns of World War II was the American submarine campaign against Japan. In fact, it was arguably more successful than the much more-heralded German U-boat campaign against Allied shipping because it did actually succeed in bringing Japan to its knees and shortening the war considerably. Scott makes the point that while US submarines sank few Japanese warships, they wreaked havoc on Japan’s merchant shipping, taking advantage of the fact that Japan’s lack of resources in its homeland forced it to rely almost entirely on imports shipped from its conquests in Asia and the Pacific, playing right in the US submariners’ hands. Scott recounts the stories of three of the most successful US submarines, USS Drum, Silversides and Tang, in intimate detail, going into the nuts & bolts of every attack the subs carried out, as well as anecdotes about the submariners’ lives aboard their cramped vessels. He concentrates in particular on the skippers, their background, their differing command styles and the decisions they had to take, frequently putting themselves and their crews in great danger, in order to sheet home the attack to Japanese ships. He carries on the narrative to the very end of the war, where Drum and Silversides completed their missions safely, however, Tang was not so fortunate. Unbelievably sunk by one of her own misfiring torpedoes, only nine of her crew survived, to be captured by the Japanese and spending the last months of the war being subjected to the misery and brutality of captivity in Japan. This emotional tailpiece forms an effective swansong to the book, once again reminding the reader how these brave men put their lives on the line to bring peace to the world. This is an exceptional piece of nautical and warfare reading, full of interesting technical details about submarine life and warfare, but amply balanced with the human side of the story. Great stuff.


Give Me a Fast Ship

Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea, by Tim McGrath

NAL (2014), Hardcover, 560 pages


This is no dry history of names, dates and copious footnotes. Rather, you should expect to get a lash of seaspray when you open its pages. McGrath writes non-fiction with the inspiration of Forester, O’Brian and Pope, concentrating on the men who created the Continental navy, their ships, their derring-do and their passions both on and off the waves. John Paul Jones, Gustavus Conyngham and John Barry feature prominently, painted as larger than life characters who took on the world’s most powerful navy in a fleet of motley ships and won. However, it’s also a warts and all depiction of the Continental Navy’s troubled history both on and off the shore, with backroom shenanigans in Congress, mutinies, duelling egos, the never-ending fight to prise the crew’s hard-earned wages out of a skinflint government and the monumental clashes between the captains themselves, most of whom seem to have loathed each other. One of the more amusing moments in the book is when McGrath provides an actual list of which captains simply could not stand each other. That the infant navy, faced with these hurdles, managed to outfight the world’s most professional navy on on one many more times than not seems quite miraculous. McGrath’s contention is that the Continental Navy played a material, perhaps even a decisive role in winning the Revolutionary War. That is up for debate, as there seem to be evidence to the contrary. While the Navy certainly took a huge toll of British shipping, and by raiding the British coastline, put the fear of God into the homeland, as McGrath himself acknowledges, the mere 57 ships with which the Continental Navy fought the war could not make an appreciable dent in the Royal Navy’s vast strength of 600 or more vessels. The fact that at the end of the war, most of America’s coast was still strongly blockaded by British ships, is testimony to that.  McGrath also notes that American privateers took a far larger toll of British merchant shipping then the Navy did. That aside, their bravery, their skill and their elan cannot be denied. Much of the book concentrates on the one on one ship actions the Americans excelled in,centering on the showpiece fight between John Paul Jones’ Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis off the Yorkshire coast, one of the hardest fought single ship actions in naval history. This is an exciting a piece of reading as you’re ever likely to find in a non-fiction book, it is absolutely thrilling, and the whole book is much the same. The book’s only unpalatable aspect is the author’s palpable anti-British attitude. He plays up examples of British arrogance and poor treatment of American prisoners, while ignoring the fact that as many if not more British prisoners died under American control. Both sides had issues with the treatment of prisoners, but McGrath chooses to accentuate British culpability. It is somewhat disturbing to find a professional historian, dealing with events more than 200 years in the past, letting these type of feelings escape into his work. However, it does not detract from the book’s sheer readability. This is one of the more exciting and dramatic pieces of non-fiction you will ever read. Highly recommended.


The Spy Who Changed the World

The Spy Who Changed the World, by Mike Rossiter

Headline (2014), Paperback, 352 pages


The fascinating and largely untold story of Klaus Fuchs, a talented scientist and committed Communist who escaped Nazi Germany to Britain and managed to work his way into the very centre of the Allies’ efforts to develop the atom bomb, whereupon he passed the secrets of atomic warfare to Stalinist Russia. His treachery enabled the Soviets to develop the bomb years ahead of time and precipitated the arms race, yet reading this book, Fuchs comes across less as a traitor and more as a dedicated believer who chose one side in the Cold War and stuck to that belief no matter what. Having earlier reviewed a book about Kim Philby, the contrast between Fuchs and Philby is very stark. Philby was an amoral, conscienceless individual who sold out the country and the establishment he had been born into seemingly more for the thrill of betrayal than any ideological belief. Fuchs was a man dedicated to science and to his Communist belief, a man of strong moral principle, who worked exceedingly hard at both his science and his treachery, in the genuine belief what he was doing was right, refusing any payment for his services from the Soviets.  His crimes cannot be excused, but once the reader learns about how Fuchs’ research substantially advanced the Allies’ progress towards the development of atomic power, he is obviously more than just a common traitor. The book is detailed, thoroughly absorbing and filled with moments of espionage derring-do, including clandestine meetings, dead-mail drops, pursuits through the streets of London and tense encounters between Fuchs and MI5 investigators. And even then the full story of Fuchs is apparently yet to be told. Rossiter hints at more secrets about Fuchs that are still buried in Whitehall files, including the explosive possibility that Fuchs spied for the British against the Americans while working at Los Alamos, making him a effectively a triple-agent.  Wonderful, highly readable piece of work, as compelling as any fictional spy story


Last Woman Hanged

Last Woman Hanged, by Carol Overington

HarperCollins (2014), Hardcover, 352 pages


A hard-hitting piece of writing with a strong feminist vibe. Its the story of Louisa Collins, a mother of 10, who in 1889 became the last woman hanged in NSW. She had been tried an incredible 4 times for the murders of her two husbands. The evidence against her was purely circumstantial, relying mainly on the testimony of her young daughter, yet the state was so insistent on hanging her, they kept trying her until the jury came up with the “right” verdict. On the simple basis of “beyond reasonable doubt”, Collins should never have been convicted, let alone hanged. On top of this travesty of justice, was added the horror of Collins’ hanging, bungled so badly by the incompetent hangman that her head was almost ripped off. Overington lets her rage and disgust with the verdict and execution overflow into the book, pointing out repeatedly that a woman was convicted and hanged under a system where women had absolutely no say in government and the judiciary. She counterbalances this by concentrating on the activity of early womens’ rights campaigners who led the fight against Collins’ conviction and execution, and who then went on to be instrumental in getting women the vote. This is a powerful book. Whether or not you agree, after seeing the evidence presented, with the verdict (surely no-one will claim support for the grotesque horror of the hanging), there is no doubt that Overington presents a strong case. Not a light read, but a great absorbing life and death drama.


Operation Paperclip

Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program to bring Nazi Scientists to America, by Annie Jacobsen

Little, Brown (2014), Paperback, 576 pages


I expect this fascinating book to polarise its readership. The majority of readers will be, as I was, horrified that Nazi scientists, many accused of terrible war crimes, were covertly brought to the USA by the American military to work on projects designed to fight the new war, the Cold War. However, I am sure others will cite realpolitik and argue it was justifiable given that the Soviets also had their bevy of Nazi scientists working for them. Whatever your viewpoint, this is a fascinating story, wonderfully researched given that many of the relevant documents were either still classified or proved very difficult to prise out of the reluctant grip of the US government. Jacobsen pulls no punches in describing the horrific crimes for which the scientists either committed or stood by and watched. I wonder how many, for instance, were aware that Wernher Von Braun, the darling of the American space program, built his career on work that involved the death of thousands of concentration camp victims, worked into their graves building Von Braun’s treasured V2 rockets, not to mention the thousands who died in Western Europe and Britain from the use of those rockets. Lover of space exploration that I am, I certainly wasn’t aware of many of the crimes with which Von Braun was associated. I shall certainly never look at those wonderful recordings of the Apollo missions in quite the same way again. However, that said, this is an enthralling book, worth reading in its own right even if you have no interest in 70 year old war crimes, as well as a timely revelation about a part of American military history which has preferred to remain  in the dark for as long as possible.



Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson.

Granta (2014), Hardcover, 336 pages


A book that will cater to two distinct audiences – those who crave the morbid and gruesome, and those interested in a moderately deep philosophical discussion of our reactions to death, to disembodied body parts, and to how other cultures treat said disembodied pieces of human being. Larson has gone out of her way to make this a serious book, while keeping enough gory stuff, including plenty of photographs and drawings, to satisfy the morbidly curious. She treads a fine line between discussion and sensationalism, and in general does it very well. She covers the historical gamut of decapitated people, from the peregrinations of Oliver Cromwell’s head in its 300 year history above ground to the delights of the guillotine to South American shrunken heads, from native skulls ripped from ancient graves by anthropologists to souvenir Japanese heads collected by Allied troops during WWII. I will say I found it entertaining and interesting, others may well find the subject matter too intense for light reading. Well worth reading, if you like this sort of thing.


Empire of the Deep

Empire of the Deep: the Rise and Fall of the British Navy, by Ben Wilson

Phoenix (2014), Paperback, 720 pages


A comprehensive one volume history of the British navy (well, English navy, at least up until 1707, disappointingly, it gives short shrift to Scotland, which at various periods in its history had a substantial navy) from the Anglo-Saxon era up until the 21st century. Covering this much history in one volume  naturally means that detail must take second place to the swift-moving narrative. However, this is actually in the reader’s favour, as the book never gets bogged down and generally moves at a breakneck pace, sweeping the reader along with it. Only at a few key moments does Wilson slow down to examine particularly significant moments at length. It would be no surprise to anyone acquainted with British naval history to discover that those vital moments, given a couple of chapters each, are the Spanish Armada, Trafalgar and Jutland. This is a great read for anyone with the remotest interest in ships and the sea, in fact it is simply a great read, history at its most entertaining. Naval purists and serious historians will no doubt grumble about the lack of detail, they should be referred to something like N.A.M. Rodger’s epic 3 volume work, which has all the minutiae you could want. This is a book for the dilettante, the amateur historian and those who just want a rollicking non-fiction read. Great stuff.



Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class, by Adam Nicolson

HarperPress (2012), Paperback, 320 pages


Less a work of history than a series of potted vignettes detailing the lives of a series of landed families from various periods between the 15th and 21st centuries. Despite careful attention in the introduction, I don’t feel Nicolson arrives at a clear definition of “gentry” as compared to “aristocracy”, at least one suitable for readers who may not have a grasp of the subtle nuances of  the English peerage system. Nevertheless, this problem aside, Nicolson has written a lively and entertaining work, which draws the reader into the lives and travails of several generations of each family, struggles to keep the land, to add to it, scheming to achieve the advantageous marriage, dealing with war and political upheaval, and quite frequently, tragedy. Nicolson makes very good use of the retained letters and papers of each family so we hear their story largely through their own words, which really brings them to life as people rather than just words on a page. This work is all the more important, for as Nicolson details in the closing chapter, the “gentry” as he defines them, are the fastest disappearing class in English society, making the point that where they once owned more than half of England’s land, they now own less than 1%. This book, therefore, as well as its considerable enjoyment value, is a worthwhile exercise in recording a part of society that is vanishing just as much as any Indian tribe in the Amazon or pygmy tribe in the Congo. Highly recommended.