Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book Review: SS Panzer Battalion (Dogs of War #1) by Leo Kessler

I've hemmed and hawed over how to write this review for a couple of days now.

"Leo Kessler", aka Charles Whiting, was an extremely prolific author who, according to Wikipedia, wrote 350 books - fiction or otherwise - over the course of his career. Although he clearly had a keen interest in World War Two, I've seen nothing to indicate he was any kind of closet Nazi or Nazi sympathizer, so I don't believe in any way that his SS-centric storyline in the Dogs of War series should be - or could be - taken as Whiting trying to make the SS the "heroes of the story". And within a few chapters of reading SS Panzer Battalion, well before they kick off the invasion of Belgium, it is clear that every main character in the book is pretty much a detestable scumbag. At best, the characters are completely self-serving pricks who'll screw each other over at a moment's notice. At worst, they're fanatical Nazis who worship Hitler as some kind of demigod, leading their country on a path to dominate the world and crush all other, lesser races underfoot.

So the reader is put in the unenviable position of having no one to actually like while reading the book. Yeah, you might get a chuckle when one of the soldiers seduces the wife of his sergeant because the sergeant caused him to botch breaking a marksmanship record, but then you learn he's now given the wife a venereal disease. And once the soldiers get out into the field, the "chuckle factor" quickly goes away. They use civilians as human shields. They shoot unarmed men out of hand. One character, who is secretly Jewish, murders a defenseless Jewish man because the man recognizes him from some temple service (a weird and rather unnecessary plot point). One character gets busted in rank for bedding a lascivious village idiot, then blackmails his superior into getting his old rank back because he discovers the officer is secretly a homosexual (and also a vaguely suggested pedophile, since he seems most interested in "boys", although that might simply refer to young men).

As to the "gritty, realistic depiction of war"? Sure, Whiting's prose is filled with the worst that total war has to offer. An SS assault battalion is no parade of boy scouts, and the horrors of modern war are seen aplenty. People are blown to bits by land mines, incinerated by flamethrowers, torn to pieces by machine gun fire, stabbed by bayonets, hacked by entrenching tools - the list goes on. Soldiers fight dirty, casualties pile high, and there is no room for moral quibbling on the battlefield. On the other hand, I think this sort of novel could have just as easily been written with a cast of Wehrmacht characters performing their patriotic duty sans the thick veneer of rabid Nazism.

So, what was Whiting looking to achieve with this series? That it was popular, there is little doubt. According to this website, the series went on for forty-two novels. That's quite a run, and clearly shows that people were more than willing to keep reading the series. And of course, that at least a portion of the series is now available on Amazon in ebook form only furthers this belief. Was Whiting trying to convey the horror - and diabolical allure - of war by, in some way, forcing us to relate to, and sympathize with, WW2's most villainous combatants? Not a bad way to counterpoint the "War - it's FAN-tastic!" vibe you might get from other books. But again, you can show how terrible and awful war can be without making your main characters completely vile.

Ultimately, I find myself on the fence with this series. I can't condemn Whiting out of hand, because he was clearly writing with a purpose in mind, and that purpose wasn't one of pro-Nazi sentiment. On the flip side, I don't think I can really recommend this series to anyone but the most cast-iron stomached war pulp enthusiasts, because everyone in the books is a heartless Nazi. And when it comes to Nazis, I defer to Doctor Indiana Jones:

"Nazis. I hate these guys."

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

New Killer Instincts Review: Badelaire 1, Patterson 0

Ever since my mega-promotion back in April, the reviews for Killer Instincts have been steadily trickling in, and this morning I saw my 30th review, a 5-star from Amazon reviewer Doris Nester. The review is short but very positive, and I'll quote it here:
I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who likes James Patterson books. It was just as good if not better than any of Patterson's books. So well written and exciting. Thank you Jack Badelaire for a great book.
 Given all the recent discussion over James Patterson's appeal to the federal government to "bail out" Traditional Publishing, I can't help but feel a sense of vindication while reading this review. That an unknown reader who has no stake in my success or failure would take the time to leave me a review, where she states she enjoyed my book as much or more than those "written" by a guy who makes tens of millions of dollars a year off his books, is amazing.

I'll also take the opportunity to point out that Doris is only one of many female readers who has either written a review of Killer Instincts or added it to their Goodreads listings. For a novel filled with a lot of pretty shocking violence, lengthy and detailed passages of "gun talk", and female characters appearing in only 4 out of 24 chapters, you might this this book falls outside the normal range of what would appeal to female readers. Clearly, however, that is not the case, and I think it is further evidence that an author should never write off a demographic as uninterested in their work because of preconceived notions of their target audience.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: The Sergeant #3 - Bloody Bush by Len Levinson

Now that I've read this most elusive of Sergeant titles, I think I know why it's hard to find and expensive when you find it. I've read the two before this, as well as #'s 6 and 9, and I think this is my favorite so far. While the first two books are good, they're really just set-up for this point in the story, and show Levinson getting his legs steady in terms of the characters and setting. In this volume, I think the author really hits his stride, and we see just how violent, crazy, and completely enjoyable this series can be.

The book starts off with Hitler and his senior staff trying to decide how to stem the Allied breakout in Normandy. Rommel, probably one of the few men there with a real understanding of the danger the Allies pose, makes the mistake of opening his mouth when he shouldn't and gets slapped down by Hitler. This becomes a running point throughout the book - Rommel repeatedly having to deal with "no retreat" orders that make no sense, and just result in the wasteful destruction of seasoned fighting men who could make a better contribution to the defense elsewhere.

After the war room scene, we find ourselves with Mahoney and Cranepool once again. The two have transferred out of the Rangers in order to avoid constantly being assigned high-risk missions, and get placed within the 33rd "Hammerhead" Division, a fictional division that landed at the Normandy beachhead. The two (former) Rangers quickly realize one of the down sides to joining a line infantry unit - you get stuck with a bunch of grunts who don't know the first thing about surviving combat. And of course, Mahoney and Cranepool's new company CO and First Sergeant are a couple of jackasses who take an immediate dislike to their newest additions, because of their impressive war records and "know-it-all" attitudes. And, of course, because Mahoney immediately insults them both and earns their enmity. The duo are split up into two different platoons and sent on their way.

Mahoney and Cranepool both discover that their platoons are filled with guys who would never survive a day in a Ranger unit, and bemoan their decision to transfer, fearing that the incompetents will get them killed once they make contact with the Germans. Unfortunately, that happens right away; the push into the French bocage begins, and Captain Tugwell, Mahoney's latest nemesis, decides that the company with his two newcomers is going to lead the way (in the hopes of getting them both killed in action). Unfortunately for Tugwell, Mahoney is just too good a combat leader to let that happen, and he gets his new platoon CO to do what it takes to survive contact with the Germans.

This is where the Sergeant series really begins to take off. Levinson has a great gift for writing combat from the front-line grunt's perspective, and although it is pulpy and gratuitous and messy, the action is also pretty raw and exciting. Men on both sides are slaughtered in the clash of armies, with death coming from bullets, bayonets, grenades, artillery, mortars, and hand-to-hand combat. The chapters cut back and forth, between Mahoney and Cranepool as they fight to survive the horrors of front-line combat, and the Germans commanding the defending forces as they try to hold back the Allied onslaught, maneuvering what little resources they have to plug an ever-growing number of holes in their defensive lines, all while trying (at least on the surface) to obey Hitler's insane "to the last man" orders.

One of Levinson's other great strengths is showing the human side of the dogfaces. There's a whole sequence involving Mahoney, Cranepool, and a hopeful chicken dinner that made me laugh, as well as the moment when Mahoney receives a care package from his mother from back home. The line soldier's constant struggle to find chow, a decent foxhole to catch a few hours of sleep, and the joy from an occasional front-line luxury - like a good cigar or a bit of local booze - is handled deftly in this series, and the way it is juxtaposed with the combat sequences is nicely done as well.

As mentioned above, this book really seems to find the correct footing for the rest of the series, and I am curious as to why the series suddenly switches publishers in the next volume. I'll get to #4, The Liberation of Paris, soon - stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Movie Review - Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

I picked this poster for a reason...
I've been a fan of J.J. Abrams ever since Alias. I own all five seasons of that show, and have re-watched my favorite episodes numerous times. While I passed on Lost, I also watched and very much enjoyed Fringe, his latest television series. Overall, I think he's got a lot of talent and possesses a knack for coming up with ideas that fire the imagination of the viewers.

That having been said, I think Abrams' greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. He's an "Idea Man", but I feel he lacks the attention to detail and the ability or willingness to follow those ideas through to their logical or possible conclusions. In the same way that a CEO is supposed to be the grand visionary for a company, steering it along a course towards greatness, Abrams is the visionary of his stories, pushing them towards what he believes to be a great finished product.

But at the end of the day, I think this kind of storytelling relies heavily on the WOW factor. It's Vegas, baby. You dive in, bathe in the glitz and glamor, become awed by the sensory overload and feel like you're having the time of your life. Then you wake up around three in the afternoon the next day with a raging hangover, carpet mouth, and you're about five grand in the hole. When I watch an Abrams story, I admit to being caught up in the stirring visuals, the powerful score, the drama and excitement. But about an hour after I walk out of the theater, I'm already angry with myself for falling prey to what I feel to be sub-par writing, especially when it comes to building a story that makes sense.

(Very minor spoiler ahead that you see in the trailers, so it's not even really a spoiler.)

I feel like Abrams must walk up to a big white-board and scribble down a handful of "moments" he wants to see happen, and then finds a way, come hell or high water, to make those moments connect with each other over the course of the film, whether those connections make sense or not. I think this holds especially true to the opening sequence of the film, on the planet of Nibiru. Why is the Enterprise, a gigantic space ship, studying a primitive planet by sitting submerged in the ocean? If you want to hide a space ship, how about you hide it in space? Clearly, Abrams had in his mind the vision of the Enterprise rising majestically out of the water as primitive natives look up at it in awe, water pouring off the saucer section in a brilliant cascade while Michael Giacchino's score trumpets all around us. Was the moment impressively stirring? Sure. Did it make any sense? None whatsoever. Even to the point where Abrams had the gall to allow Scotty to rant and rave about how stupid it was to hide a space ship in the ocean. And of course, being in the ocean, in order for them to have to do what they do next, they need to emerge from the water and get seen by the natives, while if they'd just remained in orbit, according to the logic of the film, they'd have been all set.

It's these sorts of fragile premises that appear all throughout the film. I wonder if any of Abrams' writers or other coworkers ever question the logic of these scenarios, giving a little pushback or trying to poke holes in the logic? It makes me feel like all writers, but especially those who write fantasy or science fiction stories, should participate in some tabletop role-playing games. As one who's been gaming for going on 20 years now, I can tell you that nothing picks apart your "grand vision" faster than a handful of players who excel at out of the box thinking. If nothing else, you will become much better at defending your own ideas, and building ideas that make sense. If the Chief Engineer of your starship - one of the most senior crew members aboard - can't figure out why you decided to plonk your gigantic space-faring vessel in the ocean, maybe it's a stupid idea for your movie.

Just a thought.

Monday, May 20, 2013

New WW2 Short Story - Our Turn to Shoot by Dan Eldredge

My friend and fellow author Dan Eldredge has released a new military short story, entitled Our Turn to Shoot (click for the Amazon page). The story revolves around a US Navy carrier attack by Dauntless dive bombers against a Japanese base in the Marshall Islands, the first action of our battle for the Pacific during the war. Although a small raid, the attack showed the American people that its armed forces were responding to Pearl Harbor and capable of going on the offensive.

Here's the product description from the Amazon page:

In early 1942, while the Imperial Japanese Navy rampaged in the western Pacific and the East Indies, the US Navy was desperately attempting to recover from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. A raid by US Navy aircraft carriers on the Japanese-held Marshall Islands was a small but important step in showing the world that America was still in the fight.

Ensign Jim Novak is a dive bomber pilot on board USS Enterprise, eager for a chance to take the fight to the enemy. This will be his first mission to strike a blow against the Japanese, but it could also be his last...

Our Turn to Shoot is a short story of approximately 6,300 words.

 If you have an interest in WW2 fiction, especially anything pertaining to the battle for the Pacific, I encourage you to give Our Turn to Shoot a read. At $0.99, it is a quick, entertaining story that touches on an important moment in our military history.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Digital Media - Owners vs Renters

Over at the excellent blog Do Some Damage, there is an article today discussing the way in which ebooks and other digital media are separating the content creator further from the content consumer. While I think the article did make some points I agree with, some of them I think are viewed through a false perspective. I posted a comment there and I'll repeat it here, since it's fairly lengthy...

With regards to "owners" vs. "renters", I think it's more and less pervasive than one thinks. Every piece of software you probably use right now is merely licensed to you - you don't "own" it, you pay for the access to use it as long as you don't violate the EULA. Everyone who wets their pants over Amazon's proprietary file format, or subscription-based services and so forth should sit down one day and read the End User Licensing Agreements on the software they rely on every day.

Does the digitization of information change the relationship between owner and provider? Sure. Data on a hard drive or in the cloud is different than a paperback sitting on your shelf. But I can't take that paperback and make unlimited copies of it and back it up to a cloud server or put it on a USB key in case of flood or fire. I can't forget it at home and yet instantly start reading it where I left off on my cell phone. I can't lend it to a friend on the other side of the world with a couple of mouse clicks and a few taps on a keyboard.

And the best part is, paper isn't going away. I have no doubt that a hundred years from now, if someone really wanted a paperback (or "synth-paper-back") copy of one of my books, they could buy one.

I feel like people fear the shift to digital media because they think the content only exists in these supposedly intangible, magical will-o'-wisps of ones and zeros that float away and disappear as soon as you try to hold them. I actually blame this on the obfuscation of how our modern technology works by the change in the nature of how we use that technology. Thirty years ago most people who used a computer every day had to have a fundamental understanding of file paths, processes, data types, and so forth. Today, an iPhone is practically a magic mirror - you "talk" to it, and it does things for you, but most people haven't the slightest concept of how it works. I work in higher education technology management, and the degree to which people have lost the understanding of how computers work is outright shocking. It's no wonder these same people fear digital data - it's essentially sorcery to them, and with magic comes superstition.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Book Review: The Sergeant #2 - Hell's Harbor by Len Levinson

The second volume in The Sergeant series finds Master Sergeant C.J. Mahoney and his loyal sidekick, Corporal Cranepool, attempting to make it to the Allied lines, three days after the events of the first book. Mahoney, wounded in the leg by a German bullet, decides to hijack a German motorcycle with sidecar, since Cranepool is familiar with motorcycles and claims he can operate one. What follows is a crazed, full-throttle ride through the enemy lines, zipping through the contested town of Carentan, and then through no-man's land and finally into the Allied lines. This is definitely an action-packed opening to the book, with Cranepool dodging artillery, mortar fire, and machine gun bullets, as well as jumping trenches, foxholes, and craters. Eventually the pair find themselves back inside the Allied lines, and once their bona fides are cleared (they're dressed in the German uniforms they "borrowed" from the motorcycle's previous crew), Mahoney is sent back to England to have his leg wound treated, while Cranepool returns to his Ranger battalion. A pretty solid start to the second book in this series.

At this point, things slow down a lot, and we spend the next fifty pages with Mahoney, as he recuperates back in London. Mahoney spends these chapters grumbling and grousing in the hospital, eventually sneaking out while wearing a stolen Captain's uniform with $1,800 in his pocket, earned from gambling with other patients. Mahoney is going to find a whorehouse and get himself laid, reasoning that he'll be sent to the front lines soon, where he'll not be able to chase any tail. Although I thought this was going to be an extremely dull section of the book, Levinson is able to make it almost poignant; Mahoney's wooing of a young American nurse comes off as heavy-handed and corny at times, but their reflections on the way the war torments everyone's emotions, not knowing from one minute to the next whether you'll live or die, even as far behind the lines as London, means people's priorities become seriously confused. Although Shirley - the nurse in question - has a fiance who is a Navy pilot in the Pacific, she has no idea whether he's alive or dead, and whether he is faithful or not. This all leads to several pages of raunchy sex, of course, but the character interaction plays out better than you'd expect.

Eventually Mahoney is returned to his unit, and he and Cranepool are reunited just in time to go and take out a German pillbox. This attack is an appetizer for the battles to come in later books, and showcases Levinson's ability to effectively show us the chaos and insanity of frontline combat. Guys have their faces shot off, get blown to pieces, cooked to death in the bellies of dying tanks, and killed in brutal hand-to-hand fighting. We also see that, although Mahoney and Cranepool were effective behind-the-lines soldiers, they really come into their own in a straight-up fight.

Finally, after a day's hard fighting, Mahoney is called back to HQ and given another behind-enemy lines mission (wah wah wahhhhhh); he is to sneak into the French city of Cherbourg and destroy the mechanism by which the Germans can detonate a huge number of jury-rigged torpedoes and other explosives, placed to utterly annihilate the city's harbor. Since the harbor is going to be one of the Allies' main pipelines of troops and supplies once the city is inevitably taken, losing the ability to use the harbor will be disastrous for future plans to push into France. As the back cover states, "If the Sergeant doesn't save the harbor, the Allied armies strangle to death...". I won't give away the rest of the plot, but Levinson has Mahoney, Cranepool, their Captain, and a number of other Rangers sneak into Cherbourg and meet up with the Resistance to carry out their mission.

To some degree in Death Train, but even more so in Hell's Harbor, Levinson cuts back and forth between the main character's point of view and that of several high-ranking Germans. It is made clear to us that the Wehrmacht generals and other officers find the orders of Hitler and his cronies to be utterly ludicrous. Time and time again they are ordered to "fight to the last man" and "not retreat one inch" against the Allied invaders. The more clear-headed officers try to argue that standing firm and losing men in unwinnable battles does nothing but waste resources of men and material that the Germans can't afford to replace, while the Aliies land more men and supplies all the time. On many occasions I found myself gritting my teeth and cursing Hitler and his cronies for their stupidity, and actually rooting for the beleaguered Wehrmacht officers, several of whom are just waiting for the time to be right so they can peaceably surrender to the Allies, fearing only that this will be discovered and cause their families back home to suffer the wrath of the SS. Levinson does a great job of showing us that not only did Hitler carry out an insane and atrocious war, but he allowed it to go on far past the point when it was clearly obvious to any sane person with an understanding of the realities of strategic warfare that the Germans could not help but lose.

All in all, a fun, fast read. As I type this, I'm about 50 pages into book #3, Bloody Bush, and enjoying it immensely.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Book Review: The Sergeant #1 - Death Train by Len Levinson

I'm a big fan of Len Levinson's two great WW2 Men's Adventure series, THE SERGEANT and THE RAT BASTARDS. The Sergeant is the first of the two written, and the shorter of the two series, with only 9 volumes to RB's 16. Still, since it covers the war on the Western Front, from the invasion on D-Day forward, It actually takes place later than the second series, which starts off during the US Army's landing on Guadalcanal.

Master Sergeant C.J. Mahoney, a "gorilla" of a man over six feet tall and weighing 240 pounds, is a hulking, brutish brawler who joined the army in the early 30's because it provided a steady paycheck and easy access to the whorehouses that existed near every Army base. Mahoney only really likes two things; fighting and screwing, and when he's bored he's going to do one or the other, come hell or high water. His sexual exploits throughout the series are cringe-worthy and entertaining in equal measures, because his standard courtship tactic is to almost immediately begin pawing and kissing the target of his affections despite her protests, until they inevitably give in to his fierce sexual magnetism. It doesn't hurt that Mahoney has an almost preternatural ability to find women who seem "proper" on the outside, but who are secretly sex-crazed banshees desperate for the embrace of a "real man". As unlikely as some of these dalliances might be, at least the Western Front gave Allied soldiers semi-regular exposure to women, either locals or female Army personnel, as opposed to the Pacific campaign (we'll focus on that more when we review the Rat Bastards).

Death Train is substantially different from the later books in the series.Mahoney and his sidekick, Corporal Cranepool, are a pair of Army Rangers who've been assigned the job of working with the French Resistance behind enemy lines in preparation for the D-Day invasion. We start the novel as Mahoney, Cranepool, and several partisans blow up a radio tower, then flee the Germans while being shot at and attacked by war dogs. This is actually the only time in the book that we have any bayonet combat, with Mahoney and Cranepool sticking a couple of mutts. Later on, incredibly vicious bayonet and close combat becomes a staple of the series and the source of much delightful carnage.

Eventually Mahoney and Cranepool make it back to their resistance HQ, and they're assigned the task of blowing up a railway bridge, in order to prevent the Germans from moving reinforcements toward the beachhead when the invasion takes place, less than two days away. Mahoney and Co. quickly realize they don't have the resources to blow up the bridge, but they eventually figure out that they can block the use of the railroad by blowing up a German train in a tunnel, preventing repairs long enough to neutralize the threat of reinforcements by rail.

I won't go into the plot much more than that, but suffice to say that the rest of the book involves a number of battle scenes as Mahoney and his band try to stay alive with an insane SS major on their tail. Major Richter, the officer in question, becomes Mahoney's nemesis for the rest of the series, the Ahab to Mahoney's Moby Dick. The action comes fast and furious through the last third of the book, which is one massive dust-up between Richter and his cohort of Waffen SS, versus Mahoney, Cranepool, and a bunch of fierce, desperate Resistance fighters. Even though the action is almost non-stop, Mahoney still gives you a chuckle as he keeps complaining to himself about his lack of cigars, booze, food, and of course, sex. He's a walking, talking, killing personification of a soldier's Id, and there's really nothing wrong with that in a full-bore wartime Men's Adventure series.

In later books, Mahoney and Cranepool find themselves part of the Hammerhead Division, a fictitious US Army infantry division battling across France as part of the invasion force. According to Levinson, his editor at the time was a veteran himself, and told Levinson that G.I.s such as Mahoney wouldn't be operating behind enemy lines like this. I suppose this could have been rectified by making Mahoney and Cranepool former Rangers who'd been recruited by the OSS, but frankly I prefer the series as it remained, going from an OSS / special ops series to a more straight-up grunt's eye view of the war. I feel this point of view is - despite the series' gratuitous nature - one of the strong suits in both The Sergeant and The Rat Bastards. Levinson is great at writing about grunts, whether they're fighting, trying to scrounge some hot chow, taking bets on fights, chasing tail, or generally causing a ruckus.

For more information about Levinson and his writing, please check out this essay written by Levinson, up on Joe Kenney's Glorious Trash blog.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

An Interview With Yours Truly

My friend Justin Aucoin, co-owner of the award-winning Boston Bruins blog Days of Y'Orr, is also a long-time fan and writer of swashbuckling historical adventure fiction. He's recently finished the draft of a novel set in 17th century France, and has a number of short stories under his belt. Over on his personal writing blog, Justin was kind enough to hit me up with a pretty hefty Q&A session.

You can read the interview here.

Never having done an interview before, I discovered you really do find yourself examining your writing, your likes and dislikes, and what it is that drives you as a creative person. Being able to put all of that into words that (hopefully) doesn't make you look like a complete idiot is harder that it seems.

If you have some time (It's 3,500 words...) check it out. Also, stay tuned for more updates on Justin's fiction, and if you like hockey, be sure to check out Days of Y'Orr.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Book Review: Brazen Chariots, by Major Robert Crisp

Aside from a few hurried skirmishes and the Defense of Arras in May, 1940, the first major clashes between Allied and Axis armor took place in North Africa, between 1940 and 1943. These battles back and forth across the top of an entire continent carry with them a great deal of grandly romantic mythology; the stalwart "Desert Rats" of the 8th army, defending the besieged Tobruk. The gallant 7th Armoured battling the Panzer divisions of the Afrika Corps in sweeping engagements across windswept desert plains. Taking place relatively early in the overall course of the war and all its horrors, many have labelled the North African campaign the "War Without Hatred" - that the two sides obeyed a kind of gentleman's code of conduct with respect to each other, and oh, if only the entire war could have been fought that way.

Of course, this is cold comfort for the thousands of Allied and Axis troops who burned to death in the red-hot cauldrons of dying tanks, their bodies turned to ash, their fat drizzling out in molten streams to cool like some kind of pudding in the sand beneath their metal coffins. Or all the men who'd been blown to bits by artillery duels, or turned to offal by the impact of fantastically powerful armor-piercing shells, weapons capable of punching through centimeters of armor plate. And let us not forget all the more mundane ways to die: cut down by machine gun or rifle fire, torn by mortar or artillery shrapnel, killed by infection or disease, or perhaps even slowly finished off by dehydration and exposure, lost and alone miles from friend or foe.

Brazen Chariots is Major Robert Crisp's first-person account of the days leading up to and during Operation Crusader, the great push by the Allied 8th Army in November-December of 1941 to drive Rommel and his Afrika Corps away from the besieged port city of Tobruk, among other objectives. Crisp was a lieutenant at the start of the operation, but was field-promoted to captain and given "C" squadron of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment. Rather than the already-obsolete British cruiser tanks built to play the role of mounted cavalry in British armored doctrine, Crisp's regiment was issued American-made M3 Stuart light tanks, the famous "Honeys" so nicknamed because of their reliability and performance, which were legendary compared to the older British cruisers of the time. Although outclassed in battle by the bigger Panzer MK IVs of the Afrika Corps, Crisp states the Honey Stuart could take on the Italian tanks in service at that time, as well as the Panzer MK IIs and (arguably) even the MK IIIs if the Honeys could get the right angle and range.

The book is short - a little over 200 pages of crisp, easy to read text. I was able to get through it in two afternoons, and it is quick to read and a definite page-turner. Crisp has a good eye for detail and his writing is "crisp" and enjoyable. You feel his fear at going into battle against superior German armor and numbers, horror at seeing his fellow tanks "brew up" and burn all about him, comrades blown to pieces by powerful 88s or cut down after bailing out of their perforated tanks before fire or subsequent hits killed the crew. Crisp maintains again and again that the most important thing for light tanks such as the Honey Stuarts was mobility - if your tank was immobile, your life was measured in seconds, not minutes.

Along with the terror of going toe-to-toe against Panzers, Crisp recalls battling against Axis anti-tank guns (which seemed far more dangerous and difficult to kill than I'd at first expect), being strafed by the Luftwaffe, suffering through artillery barrages, and even more boring dangers such as running out of petrol or breaking down in the desert, miles from friendly forces, as well as the anxiety of spotting an unknown vehicle approaching, and constantly having to make the determination of friend or foe...and knowing that you weren't always going to be correct.

All in all, if you have an interest in the North African campaign, of armored combat, or of the life of the British soldiers during the early days of WW2, I highly recommend Brazen Chariots. It is clearly a work that has withstood the test of decades of reading and examination, and deserves a home on the bookshelves of every WW2 enthusiast.