Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Book Review: TIGER TRACKS and THE LAST PANTHER by Wolfgang Faust

A very common phenomenon in the vague, sweeping genre of "war memoirs" is the false memoir, especially the false World War Two memoir, purported to be written by (most often, I've found) German soldiers and either lost or "published now for the first time" decades after the war. WW2 fiction and/or greatly embellished memoirs of wartime sold rather well among certain demographics, and even today - as I myself can attest - new WW2 fiction is popular among readers. So it is natural that, even now, false or at least dubious memoirs of the war are being "re-published" as ebooks. The "StuG Command" book I reviewed about a year ago was a perfect example of this, a story I am entirely certain is a complete fabrication (and not really that great a book, either).

I found TIGER TRACKS and THE LAST PANTHER a couple of months ago, and bought both for my Kindle. I recently read the two of them back to back - they're both fairly short reads, probably around 25-30,000 words apiece - and I have to say, they were pretty enjoyable. I don't believe for a second that Wolfgang Faust is a real person, or that the name is even a pseudonym of a real person, but I have to admit that the story reads well, albeit rather over-the-top in terms of the lurid violence and misery. The two stories cover different periods of time during Faust's career; TIGER TRACKS takes place in 1943, while THE LAST PANTHER takes place in April of 1945, right at the very end of the war.

Of the two, TIGER TRACKS (available here on Amazon) is probably the weaker story. Faust's unit of twenty Tiger heavy tanks is assigned to take some hill from the Soviets. The fight is bloody and several Tigers are immediately taken out of the fight, but in the end, the Germans defeat the Soviets and take the enemy position. However, the reinforcements that were originally promised never arrive, and they are forced to retreat, after capturing a Soviet female radio operator. The Tiger force is constantly harassed by Soviet attacks, encountering enemy armor, infantry, air attack, artillery, and even a particularly terrifying ambush by a flamethrower team. Whoever Wolfgang Faust really is, the writer is quite good at depicting the absolute horror of mechanized warfare. In particular, Faust is good at showing how the Tiger might be a very tough tank, but it is far from indestructible. Tigers are destroyed by hits from enemy anti-tank guns and other tanks, cracked open by air attacks, set ablaze by flamethrowers or Molotov cocktails - the list goes on and on. He also points out that a tank is not designed to drive everywhere under its own power - it requires tank carriers or rail transports, and must receive constant maintenance. Faust, as the Tiger's driver, is in charge of the mechanical care of the tank, and he is constantly worrying about the bogie wheels, the track links, the transmission and all other aspects of the fighting vehicle, because he knows that no matter how strong their armor, or powerful their gun, all it takes is one broken track link pin to immobilize the panzer and doom them.

On the other hand, the story kind of rambles. After their mission, Faust's tank commander (who is now in charge of what's left of the force) decides they need to bring the Soviet radio operator back for interrogation. So they set off for the rear lines, and the story just becomes a series of harrowing vignettes, until they reach their destination. There's no real drama, other than the need to get back to the rear echelon area, and even when that happens, the ending is a bit flat. I'm willing to forgive that, though, because the action throughout the story is still, in my opinion, rather top notch. As fun as the PANZER PLATOON series is (and I'll write more reviews of it later on), the combat scenes in these two books are far superior.

THE LAST PANTHER (available here on Amazon) is the better story of the two, mostly because it has a clear end-goal, and works to ratchet up the tension in getting you there, and the end of the story carries a lot more weight and pathos. In addition, the story revolves around an actual historical event, the "Halbe Kessel" or Battle of Halbe, a week-long retreat by German forces attempting to flee West and surrender to the Americans, rather than be captured (and probably killed or sent to a gulag) by the Soviets. Faust is, by 1945, a Panther panzer commander, and is tank is one of the few remaining in good condition within the group of German soldiers and civilians fleeing the oncoming Soviet army. They know they have to cross the Elbe river, where on the other side the US Army is waiting, but the Soviets are not only to the East, but essentially all around them, slowly closing in and crushing them.

THE LAST PANTHER is definitely more intense than Faust's first story. The inclusion of German civilians, who all know their fate in the hands of the Soviets pretty much involves rape, murder, or (likely) both, definitely makes for much stronger tension over the course of the novel. Women and children die in great numbers as the Soviets attack their column over and over again. The Germans, especially the panzer forces, do what they can to protect the civilians, but they can only do so much, especially as their vehicles keep breaking down, getting stuck, or destroyed by the enemy. Faust is constantly terrified that his Panther's engine will die, because he knows the engine is only good for about 800 kilometers, and at the start of the novel, they're already pushing 900. Fuel is also a big concern, and they're constantly on the lookout for more gasoline, usually taken from broken-down vehicles.

But the story also involves a lot more in-fighting and social tension, between the regular Wehrmacht troops, the Waffen-SS forces, and the civilians. Some of the SS are fanatics, to the point of killing Germans who do not stand and fight, while others are cowards who shed their uniforms and try to hide as civilians because they know the Soviets will give SS men no mercy. The worst-fated of all are the Soviets who are prisoners of the Germans and serve as laborers, because they know their own countrymen will kill them - and probably their families back home - if they're ever captured, but they're the Germans' lowest priority in terms of ensuring those in the Kessel escape the encirclement. Historically, only about 30,000 people - a mere fifth of those attempting the breakout - successfully escaped, so you can imagine the scale of slaughter that takes place in this book. There's on scene in particular, as the column tries to punch through a German village as they're being savaged by a Soviet bombardment, which is particularly awful, but by no means is it the only scene of massed slaughter.

Like TIGER TRACKS, this second book features some really solid, tensely-written combat scenes, and Faust is very good at portraying the various fighting vehicles in something approximating their historical strengths. The Panther was an excellent tank, with a main gun capable of defeating any tank in the world at that time, and very thick, sloped frontal armor that was probably the equivalent, if not superior to, the Tiger's frontal protection. However, the Panther was a smaller, lighter, faster tank, making it more maneuverable and not quite so mechanically fragile (although like all the late-war Panzers, it did break down in great numbers). There are also some good scenes involving King Tigers, Hetzer tank destroyers, and other German vehicles which added to the flavor of the combats.

All in all, these two books are relatively inexpensive ebook reads, fairly short by novel standards but fast-moving and filled with action. They both get relatively good reviews on Amazon (although a fair number of low reviews, mostly complaining about them being "false memoirs"), and they both seem to be selling quite well. If you're a fan of WW2 action-adventure fiction, I highly recommend reading both of them - I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Movie Review: BLACK MASS (2015)

I was able to attend an advance screening of the film BLACK MASS this past Thursday, followed by a question and answer period with Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, the two reporters who wrote the book the movie is based on, and who broke the original story behind the FBI's illegal ties with organized crime in Boston.

Long story short, BLACK MASS follows the twenty-year collusion between James "Whitey" Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly, Bulger and Connolly knew each other growing up in South Boston, and when they find each other on opposite sides of the law, Connolly enlists Bulger's assistance in getting information that'd be used in taking down the Mafia in Boston, and in return Connolly would work to prevent legal obstruction or investigation into Bulger's criminal enterprises.

As can be expected, nothing good comes from any of this.

As a film, BLACK MASS does an effective job of telling the basic bones of this story. Bulger and Connolly make this "devil's deal" and both profit from it, but eventually it becomes too well-known, and it falls apart. As with any historical drama like this, a lot of things get altered, cut, or combined in order to fit a dramatic two-hour cinematic narrative. This got discussed to some degree during the Q&A, where Lehr pointed out that Connolly's supervisor, played by Kevin Bacon in the film, is an amalgam of many supervisors over that twenty-year timeframe, but since constantly changing the characters would be confusing, a decision was made. There are a number of other places where this takes place, of course, and that's of course what happens with any movie of this type, and some of the changes are going to be more contentious than others.

When experiencing the film, the atmosphere throughout is creepy, dark, and highly disturbing. I don't feel it has that same sort of typical gangster movie "rise and fall" story that you see in GOODFELLAS or CASINO, where the crooks make it big, spend spend spend, get sloppy and squabble among each other, and finally cause their own downfall. You see Bulger buy one pair of "nice" shoes and give the shoemaker a generous wad of cash, and that's about it. They all still dress the same, drive the same boring cars, live in the same rather dumpy places, and in general, do not flaunt their wealth or status with parties, drugs, or girls (there is only one "party" scene, and that is a prelude to a murder). In fact, the only character that really conforms to this classic model is Connolly, who begins to "dress fancy" in tailored suits, wears a nice gold watch, and starts acting cocky and sloppy as he becomes more and more entangled with Bulger and his criminal enterprises.

Speaking of Bulger, he comes off more as some kind of slasher movie villain, rather than your average movie gangster. He is utterly cold, diabolical, and ruthless. While he cares for his mother, his brother Billy, and his son, he is more than capable of killing anyone else without any remorse and with only the slightest provocation. He is in no way a flashy, glorified "anti-hero" in any sense, because he displays almost zero human traits and very little of any qualities which one might want to emulate or aspire towards. There is also little indication of *why* Bulger does what he does - he just does it and keeps doing it. There is no goal or endgame, no troubled origin story driving his actions. He's a shark swimming through schools of fish, devouring and moving on without any qualms.

Bulger's portrayal, as well as the lack of any humor or levity whatsoever, works to make this movie emotionally draining. No one cracks a joke, there are no Joe Pesci moments, and the bleak, grimy backdrop of Boston's rather unflattering neighborhoods during some particularly bleak and grimy-looking periods of this city's history make it all the worse. Seriously, Boston isn't exactly a glamorous city, and this is before any of the work done in the last 20 years to make it look nicer and more visually appealing. Even City Hall and the other government buildings downtown add to this, with their miserably institutional appearances. I've been in City Hall several times over the years - it is an *ugly* building - a perfect backdrop for the ugly deals made within its walls during the film.

After the movie, there were more interesting points brought up during the Q&A. For example, when the Boston Globe story was being researched by Lehr and O'Neill, the focus wasn't on Bulger - it was on the corruption within the FBI, particularly as it tied into how the Bureau handled its Confidential Informants. Bulger just happened to be the biggest and boldest example of that corruption, and Connolly the Bureau's most flagrant bad boy. The film doesn't really touch on this at all, and the investigation of the problem seems almost entirely limited to the Bulger-Connolly situation. I don't know if this was done to help limit the scope of the film to something more tightly-focused, or if the filmmakers didn't want to paint the FBI with such a broad brush. Also, the authors, Lehr in particular (he handled most of the Q&A questions, since they were being asked by Boston University students and faculty and Lehr is a BU professor), were greatly concerned/worried that this story *would* go the "Goodfellas" route, and give it an air of glamour and anti-hero-ness, which they both wanted to avoid. But Lehr said after seeing a cut of the film back in May, he was happy to say the "darkness" of the subject matter was left intact.

Overall, I think this movie does a good job of portraying organized crime in the ugly, violent, horrible light it deserves. This isn't a stereotypical crime movie filled with flashy suits, fancy cars, piles of drugs, and lots of loose women. And, almost without exception, the violence isn't "action", but just sudden moments of brutality that make you glance away, feeling unclean for having witnessed the act. Frankly, I don't think it was a "bad" movie, but I am in no rush at all to see it again, if ever.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Movie Review: FLIGHT WORLD WAR II (2015)

Note: Not actually based on true events...
There are a lot of cheesy, low-budget World War Two movies out there, especially in the last few years. IRON SKY is one of my particular favorites, a "Nazis on the Moon" film full of good, dorky fun. A few days ago, I happened to notice another low-budget WW2 movie pop up on Netflix, FLIGHT WORLD WAR II, about a modern passenger airliner that time-travels back to the beginning of the Second World War and "must change the course of history" in order to return.

Okay, this sounds kinda dumb, but for a lazy Sunday morning, I'm intrigued. So I gave it a view, and like most movies put out by The Asylum, it was pretty corny. The only actor of any note at all is Faran Tahir, who plays the airliner's captain, and is the same actor who played the captain in the first few minutes of 2009's STAR TREK reboot. Aside from him, it is the usual cast of C-grade direct-to-video/streaming talent, some of whom do a decent job with what they have to work with, while others are just cringe-worthy. The SFX were actually pretty good, which says something about a "shoestring budget" movie studio being able to put German fighter planes into dogfights, or depict an entire city being bombed to rubble.

Plot-wise...well...things get rough. A 757 en route from Dulles to Heathrow flies through an "anomaly" and winds up in June 17th, 1940. They overfly a city being bombed, and a couple of history professors (WW2 buffs, of course) identify some German bombers, and that the city is on the coast, but we also see an Me262 do a fly-by of the airliner. The history nerds surmise that the city is St. Nazaire (thus the date), but are boggled that the German jet fighters are operational in 1940, about four years before they'd take to the air in force. And, after contacting a British radio operator, they find out that the Dunkirk evacuation was a complete disaster, resulting in the loss of half a million people (in reality, it was the exact opposite). In addition, they learn that the British don't even have working radar systems - they're still in development (again, not true to actual history).

After some confused head-scratching, the nerds postulate that they've fallen into an alternate timeline, where the Germans are much more technologically advanced at this point in the war, having operational jet fighters while the British don't even have radar. The Germans attack the airliner several times in the hopes of shooting it down, but the pilot manages to avoid death (the 757 somehow survives dozens of 30mm cannon shell hits, but hey...Hollywood, am I right?). The British are worried that, if the airliner *does* have radar (the way in which all this gets concluded is very odd), they must shoot the plane down to prevent the Germans from possessing it and getting even more of an advantage. Eventually, the airliner crew cut the radar free from the nose of the plane, drop it down to the British, who then use it (!!!) to direct Spitfires out to defend the airliner just before the plane flies through another anomaly and back into our normal timeline.

I'd like to point out that, as ridiculous as this plot is, a half-decent film could have been salvaged from this wreckage. The 1980 film THE FINAL COUNTDOWN postulates what might happen if a 1980s era aircraft carrier wound up in the Pacific just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With the premise of FLIGHT WORLD WAR II, a story of how a modern airliner (with its far superior air radar), as well as two nerds who know everything about the war, could turn history around in an alternate past where the Germans are clearly dominating even more than they were in our own 1940.

EDIT: Apparently modern airliners don't carry any kind of radar, relying on their transponders and Air Traffic Control systems to guide them around potential hazards. So, basically, this movie is pointless when it comes to the whole radar angle.

But instead, things are just bungled. My biggest complaint is that the plane flies across the Atlantic and winds up over the French coast. Fine - no big deal. They even claim at one point to have (I think), just under half of a full fuel load. I just looked it up, and Dulles to Heathrow is a little under 3,700 miles, while the 757 has a range of around 4,500 miles. So, this jet winds up over St. Nazaire with about 800 miles of fuel left - certainly a lot less than "just under half a tank". However, any pilot will know that if you're somewhere near the coast of France, just pointing your plane north and flying for (in this case) about half an hour will put you over England, at a 757's cruising speed of a bit over 500 miles an hour.

Instead, somehow, this plane spends the entire movie flying *east*. At one point they even figure out they're near (IIRC) Reims, which is to the north-east of St. Nazaire by several hundred miles, and at another point they're near Metz, *four hundred* miles from St. Nazaire. Hey, guys! You're going the wrong way! And, what makes things weirder, by the time they are near Metz and drop the radar system, it is picked up by British forces after a brief firefight against some Germans, and within a couple of minutes, it is in the hands of the radio operator they've been talking to the entire time. So, apparently, despite Dunkirk being a total slaughter, this radio operator is *hundreds of miles* behind what are now the enemy lines? How does this even make any sense? Even if the radio operator was behind enemy lines and the salvation of the war effort was to get radar into the hands of the British, the operator should have just said "Fly north for half an hour and get to Blighty, you bloody fools!". The British are even trying to shoot the airliner down "to keep the radar from the Germans". You know how you could also do that? Tell them to fly to England. Shooting down a great big, obviously not the usual 1940s prop plane, over enemy territory is probably the worst thing they could do!

At one point, one of the passengers tries to take over the plane, insisting that, with the help of the history nerds and their books, they could find and kill Hitler and re-write history. An Army sergeant flying aboard the plane talks sense into him and the rest of the passengers, pointing out that pulling something like that off is highly unlikely, and the most likely scenario is them letting both the airplane, the history nerds, and all their history books fall into the hands of the Nazis, making everything worse. This was probably the moment of the film that made the most sense.

To conclude, this movie was more disappointing as a story than it was as a technical production. I'll always give The Asylum a pass on production values and acting - all that requires a lot of money and time, which they don't really have - but a good script and a plot that makes sense just requires a competent storyteller and a modicum of research. This movie *could* have been made on the same budget, with the same cast and production values, and made a lot more sense.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book Review: PANZER PLATOON #2 - INVADE RUSSIA! by Gunther Lutz

The second in this six-volume series kicks off a short time after the invasion of Russia by the German army in the summer of 1941. Rather than their lightweight Panzer II, this time Micki Boden and his crew are operating a Panzer III, one of the mid-war models with a short-barreled 50mm anti-tank gun. The extra crew members are characters we were introduced to in the first book, as coming from one of the other Panzer IIs in Boden's platoon.

Like the first book in the series (and most of the books, as I've now read the first four of the six as of this review), there is no real overarching plot to each book. Rather, the novels are a series of vignettes tightly tied together, providing a good representation of whatever is occurring in that theater of operation at the time. In this case, Boden and his crew are involved in Operation Barbarossa, during the operation's heyday from summer to fall of 1941, before the brutal winter sets in and the German advance is stopped.

For the most part, Boden and his panzer crew encounter relatively little resistance from the Russians, and their biggest problems are the over-stretched supply lines, coupled with a new platoon commander who proves to be a constant nuisance to Boden and the rest of the platoon. This new commander isn't a veteran of the '39 or '40 campaigns, and so lacks the necessary combat experience to lead a platoon, especially as the panzers wander further and further afield. This becomes especially problematic when one of Boden's crew is injured, and they have to seek medical aid from a local Russian doctor. Food also becomes an issue, as they've ranged so far ahead that the "goulash cannon" (field food service units) are nowhere to be found and they must forage locally for their rations.

Throughout the book, there are many hints as to how the entire Russian campaign is a bad, bad idea. Early on, Boden's crew discovers an intact panzer...but the five-man crew is dead, each man decapitated, their bodies left in their proper positions inside the tank, their heads put on display outside the hamlet where they parked, probably to also forage or rest for the night. This gruesome display puts Boden's men on edge, because it hints at the savagery the Russians are capable of, and how tenacious a foe they can be if given a chance. Later on in the book, Boden joins in defending a position against a Russian counter-attack, one that is bolstered by the deadly Russian T-34 medium tank. The T-34 outclasses the Panzer III of the time in almost every respect - main gun, armor, and mobility - and they're the boogeymen of the Russian battlefield. The climax of the book is a tank duel between Boden and the rest of his platoon against several T-34s in an abandoned factory, and it is a tense, exciting scene where clever tactics and luck face off against far superior Russian tank design.

This book is definitely an excellent sequel to BLITZKRIEG, and gives the reader what they really wanted from a series called "Panzer Platoon" - battles between tanks which are roughly equivalent to each other. The action is well-written and shows how careful and analytical a panzer commander needs to be in order to survive on the battlefield, and as mentioned, this book does a great job at hinting towards the horrors of the "Ostfront" (which we see in full force in the next volume, BLOOD & ICE).

Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review: PANZER PLATOON #1 - BLITZKRIEG by Gunther Lutz

Sorry, Tiger tank - wrong year!
The PANZER PLATOON series is a six-book run of WW2 stories told from the perspective of a German tank commander. The series was written through the late '70s and published by Sphere Books, a UK paperback publisher. The author, "Gunther Lutz", is probably a pseudonym, and I am following some leads to track down the author's real name.

The first book in the series, BLITZKRIEG, follows Micki Boden, an Unteroffizier commanding a Panzer II light tank. What exactly Boden's rank is gets kind of muddled - sometimes he is referred to as a corporal, but the rank could be higher than that. Boden is in charge of two men, his driver and his loader / radio operator, and we know at least Boden and his driver were in the Polish campaign of 1939. The loader/operator is a Nazi fanatic, always going on with party slogans and ideology, and it is made clear that Boden considers himself a soldier first, but he rolls his eyes and actively makes fun of his loader/operator for the young man's fanaticism. I feel like this is a requirement of every German protagonist in WW2 fiction - he's just doing his duty for his country, not one of Hitler's goose-stepping puppets! At the very least, it lets you sympathize with him more, since you're not just chomping at the bit, waiting for Boden to get vaporized by a howitzer shell.

The story itself is essentially a series of vignettes, as Boden and his crew make the race to the French coast. The French and British forces are collapsing faster than the Germans can advance, and Boden's tank platoon finds itself often just passing by wrecked or abandoned Allied equipment, often destroyed by airstrikes. His first action in the book is to support a company of assault pioneers as they take a French bunker. This assignment separates Boden's tank from the rest of his platoon and the regiment, and most of the book is spent trying to catch up with their unit, which allows for some smaller-scale battles, pitting Boden and whatever band of Germans they come across against some token French or British forces.

The action in this book is pretty well-written, and the author largely knows his technical details, although there are a couple of glitches here or there. A common editing mistake in this book is that the author sometimes mis-types "cm" and "mm" for weapons, so he'll reference a "20cm" anti-aircraft gun which is no doubt the German 20mm AA autocannon, and this sort of thing happens a few more times throughout the book. In my experience, Germans tend to refer to their weapons by centimeter caliber, while the British refer to them by millimeters, so I think the author just never quite figured out which he wanted to use and there was the resulting mixup. There are a couple of other minor details that he gets wrong - for example, the KwK 30 autocannon in his Panzer II can fire both armor-piercing and high explosive ammunition, but the author states in the book on a couple of occasions that it can only fire AP. Whatever - it doesn't really matter, and there's a lot of other good information to make up for a couple of small mistakes.

There are several tank duels between Boden's Panzer II - a very light tank, more equivalent to an armored car than what we'd consider a real frontline tank - and both French and English tanks. Each scene is very tense, and the author does a good job of showing Boden's tactical prowess, maneuvering and picking just the right ground to fight from and the right moment to attack to make best use of his limited firepower. Those not so aware of German panzer history might not know it, but in the first few years of WW2, the majority of Germany's panzer inventory were light tanks, inferior in armor and firepower to the enemies they faced off against. It was their superior tactics, communication, and supporting elements that gave the panzers their victories. This is very well illustrated throughout the course of the novel.

Overall, I really enjoyed BLITZKRIEG. I was concerned going into the book that it was going to be a lot worse than it was, and although there are some cheesy interludes here and there (2 1/2 books into the series now, I see that the author likes having his characters encounter women during their downtime, with the usual "mature content" results), overall these books feel very gritty and unglamorous. A lot of men die very brutal, pointless deaths, and the survivors must carry on and do their duty no matter what.

These books were not particularly cheap to come by (I think I paid $10 for this book, not including shipping), but if you like WW2 fiction written at the height of the British War-Lit era of the 60s through early 80s, I think you'll enjoy the PANZER PLATOON series.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Book Review: THE GLASSHOUSE GANG by Gordon Landsborough

When I first became interested in this series, I assumed it was another Dirty Dozen ripoff - a team of convicts who are recruited by some semi-mysterious Intelligence Officer and offered the chance of a clean slate in order to take on some (no doubt near-suicidal) Commando-esque mission. This was the basic plot of the Destroyers/Dirty Devils series (see previous reviews of books 1 and 4 below), and there is of course no reason multiple series using the same basic plot premise couldn't be written (see also: every ripoff of The Executioner...).

However, Gordon Landsborough's THE GLASSHOUSE GANG is quite different from the expected plot-line. The story instead revolves around a band of British military prisoners, who've been busted for a variety of crimes - some minor, some completely reprehensible - and are serving time in the notorious (but as best as I can tell, completely fictional) Sharafim Prison in Egypt. The prison is run by officers and staff sergeants who are, at best, criminally lax in maintaining humane conditions at the prison, and are, at worst, vicious sadists who take great pleasure in beating and torturing their charges to within an inch of their lives - and occasionally beyond.

The first scene of the book is just such an example of two "staffs" brutally tormenting John Offer, the main character. Offer was formerly a Territorial Army quartermaster's sergeant, whose black-market dealings caused him to go on the run. He joins the Regular Army under an assumed name and becomes a lieutenant, but gets recognized by someone from his TA days, and Offer eventually gets busted because of it, demoted to private and sent to the "Glasshouse", slang for prison. Being a former officer (even a false one), Offer is constantly beaten and tormented by the staff sergeants who work there, and when he is finally released, Offer decides that something needs to be done to settle the score against the non-coms and officers who run the prison system.

One interesting aspect of Offer's background is that he was originally a stage actor, and once released from prison, Offer puts this background into good use. He gets a local tailor to make him a Captain's uniform, "requisitions" a lorry for his own use, and begins to find and recruit men from the Glasshouse he can trust as they are eventually let out after their sentences are over. Using the power of his assumed role and a cadre of men around him to reinforce the legitimacy of his ruse, Offer and his "Glasshouse Gang" spend the first third of the book slowly building up their numbers, acquiring resources, and taking revenge on a few of the "Screws" (prison guards) who were especially vicious to them.

The second third of the book involves Offer and his G.G.C.U. (Glasshouse Gang Commando Unit) executing a prison break, where they free a couple dozen prisoners from Sharafim, and then set up their temporary camp on the edge of the city, where they feast on stolen food and get drunk off of stolen liquor. Eventually these good times end, and the G.G.C.U. flees the law, taking off into the deep desert and eventually arriving at the Siwa Oasis...just as the Germans are attacking and driving the LRDG (the Long Range Desert Group, a unit of deep desert recon men in the British army) out of Siwa. Offer's gang holes up in a grove on the edge of the Oasis for a few weeks, until they discover some of their men (who they thought dead) as well as some LRDG men, in an outdoor prison encampment in Siwa. The last third of the book involves Offer and his men planning and executing the rescue of these prisoners.

All in all, this was actually a very entertaining read. John Offer reminds me a lot of Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith from the A-Team - a leader who thinks unconventionally and fights dirty when he's forced to fight at all. There's not a lot of action in the book in the traditional military sense, but what there is, is written well and maintains a brisk, exciting pace. The rest of the characters are amusing and flesh out the story nicely, especially the conflict between Offer and McTone, one of the more dastardly prisoners who joins the G.G.C.U. during the Sharafim jailbreak.

I can understand why the series only went four books - it's not really the sort of story that lends itself to a long run without becoming repetitive - but I quite enjoyed the first novel, and as I have acquired the other four books, plan on reading them and reviewing the titles here. If you want British WW2 adventure fare that's a little different, do your best to find and read THE GLASSHOUSE GANG.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Book Review: OPERATION AFRIKA by Charles Whiting

This here is the first book of the series, which I received shortly after reading and reviewing the fourth book in the series, OPERATION KILL IKE. Now, of course, things make a little more sense!

In short, Lieutenant (er, Leftenant?) Crooke, VC, is given the task of tracking down a Brandenburger agent who is loose in Cairo, tasked with freeing a German-sympathizing Egyptian general and getting him into Axis-controlled Libya, where his presence on the side of the Axis forces will cause a schism in the Egyptian army and throw the British war effort into chaos.

Crooke is picked for this mission because he is intimately familiar with the North African desert. Crooke was a LRDG (Long Range Desert Group) Lieutenant-Colonel until the disaster of Operation Flipper, where his LRDG men, tasked with guiding in the Commandos sent to kill Rommel, are caught and killed. Crooke was the only man in his unit to make it back to friendly lines, wounded in the left eye and nearly dead. Crooke punched out a superior officer when he was denied assignment back to the front, and busted back down to Second Lieutenant, where he languished until Mallory, a Naval Intelligence officer, picks him for this mission. Mallory believes that the Brandenburger agent is going to smuggle the Egyptian general out through the deep desert, and so Crooke is the natural choice for the mission.

This is where, of course, things get a little silly. The author makes it clear that Crooke and the "glasshouse men" (read: soldiers in a military prison) he picks for the mission are the only manpower available to Mallory because all the other active-duty men are needed at the front. Of course, this is a mission of vital importance to the war effort as well. So really, while the need for a squad or two of highly trained and motivated men to assist Crooke on a mission which could alter the course of the war is clear, Crooke is forced to find, essentially, the worst of the worst. The men he picks are proficient, to be sure, but they're rogues and criminals, thieves and cowards. In no form of reality would such an important mission be assigned to this goon squad - rather, they'd just pull a squad from the front, since ten men here or there would make little difference in the overall health of the front.

Regardless, this series was clearly written with the idea of piggy-backing on the success of The Dirty Dozen. The series was named "The Destroyers" in the UK, where it originated, but when published in the US, it was renamed "The Dirty Devils", and all references to the Destroyers in the text itself were altered for the American edition. And, of course, having a half-dozen scoundrels running amok in the deep desert is more interesting than a squad of bland, chipper fellows who're just doing their part for king and country.

Overall, this was definitely an interesting read. The plot is a bit over-complicated, as the Brandenburger turns out to be a former German desert explorer now past his prime, who has a personal connection to the Egyptian general, and there's some oddball plot hooks that could probably have been left to the side in order to move the story along. However, there's a good deal of action throughout the book, and the desert adventure scenes - including a very memorable sandstorm - are very engaging.

If you get a chance to pick up OPERATION AFRIKA for a few bucks from a used bookseller, and you enjoy pulpy British WW2 adventure fiction, this is a good series for you, especially since there's six books in the series, so it has some legs to it. The books may be a little hard to find, but with some digging, you should be able to land a copy.