British author’s book gathers true stories of the bloodshed of Latvia’s Kurzemes katls

Press launch: Monday June 19, 1600 at Occupation Museum, Riga. Raina bulvaris 7. Contact Liga Strazda.

A multi award-winning British documentary journalist will launch a remarkable book about the carnage of the Second World War in Latvia at the Occupation Museum in Riga on Monday June 19 at 1600.

Former BBC documentary journalist turned university lecturer Vincent Hunt crossed Kurzeme several times gathering stories from veterans, survivors and experts for his new book Blood in the Forest. The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocketpublished by Helion & Company.

The book tells in vivid detail what the six battles between October 1944 and May 1945 in Western Latvia were actually like, as the battle between Fascism and Communism reached its bloody endgame.

“The fighting in the Kurzemes katls was relentless and brutal, on an unimaginable scale,” says Hunt – a former BBC World Service producer who lives in Manchester, UK, with his Latvian wife, Daiga. “It was a turning point for the Latvian nation, with Latvians fighting on both sides – often press-ganged into both armies. Sometimes brothers faced each other across the battlefield.

The author travelled to Latvia several times to meet veterans from the Latvian Legion who fought in the Courland Pocket. Here he interviews two former soldiers and a former partisan living in the town of Kuldiga

‘With the help of historians and military enthusiasts, I crossed western Latvia, finding people who had been there and listened to their accounts of what happened not only then, but also afterwards.”

Hunt’s book begins in Riga and crosses the battlefields west to Liepaja via Pilsblidene, Dzukste, the cemetery of national remembrance at Lestene and the remarkable Courland Pocket museum in Zante, returning via Jurkalne, Ventspils, Kuldiga and Tukums – charting the resistance of the Rubenis battalion, the massacre at Zlekas and the exodus to Gotland. He also visits the Soviet war cemeteries in Priekule and Dobele and the German cemetery at Saldus and explores the difficulty Latvia has had honouring its own war dead.

Among his interviewees are the former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga whose family fled as refugees, eminent Holocaust historian Margers Vestermanis, who escaped into the forests from a concentration camp death march and became a partisan, Lestene bralu kapi commemorative statue sculptor Arta Dumpe, who was rescued from the front line by Legionnaires, and several veterans who won Iron Crosses in the fighting.

Taken from ‘The Latvian Crocodile Hunter in Australia’, published by Sauleskrasts (Brisbane, 1957)

“Every Latvian family has its war stories, but one of those who escaped was Arvīds Blūmentāls – the real-life Crocodile Dundee,” adds Hunt. “His fate symbolises a generation of Latvians cast to the winds by the war. Vast numbers were killed and the choices for survivors were stark: many fled to the West to avoid Soviet captivity, which meant years in Siberian labour camps. Those who stayed accepted life under the new regime.”

Duncan Rogers, Publisher at Helion & Company said: “What happened in the Kurzemes katls – known in the West as the Courland Pocket – was on the same level and at the same intensity as on the Western Front. The military onslaught and scale of force used is mind-blowing, with breathtaking casualty figures, yet Vince is one of only a handful of authors to have taken on the monumental task of researching this period.

Blood in the Forest is also a fantastic travelogue through a country readers may never have thought of visiting, uncovering the 70-year-old hidden secrets behind the beautiful countryside and charming villages.”

Blood in the Forest is Hunt’s second historical travelogue. His first, Fire and Ice (History Press, 2014) is a journey across Arctic Norway gathering accounts of the Nazi’s scorched earth destruction and forced evacuation of the north of the country in 1944.

Blood in the Forest. The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket is available for purchase from

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Entries invited: Bill Braham Memorial Essay Competition

The Pike and Shot Society, in conjunction with Helion and Company, are very pleased to announce the inauguration of the annual Bill Braham Memorial Essay Writing Competition.

The Pike and Shot Society is an international organisation promoting the study of the military history of the Renaissance and Early Modern world. For the Society, these are the years 1400 to 1721 (approximately from the introduction of early firearms to the abandonment of the pike as a front-line weapon). The Society is run entirely by, and for the benefit of, its members.

Bill Braham was the Society‘s Librarian who sadly passed away in July 2016. To many who knew Bill, he can be described in every sense of the word as a true polymath, a Renaissance man – truly a Gentleman – and a stalwart friend. A big part of Bill’s life was his passion for history, of which he had an extensive knowledge, and particularly the English Civil War. He read books on every aspect and detail.

A visit to a battle site with Bill was a revelation; a history lesson that brought a muddy field to life. This passion for history also led to a house so full of books that you could hardly move (we won’t mention the storage unit!). Beneficiaries for part of his collection have been the National Army Museum, which received his outstanding collection of American War of Independence books, and the Pike and Shot Society – thus fulfilling his role as the Society’s Librarian to the end.

For us, Bill will be particularly remembered for his generosity of spirit (especially obvious when he represented the Society on the recruiting stand at shows around the country) and his dry sense of humour, sense of the absurd and encouragement of outrageous conversations.

Prizes (Supplied by the Sponsors)

First prize – £100’s worth of Helion publications and a one-year subscription to the Pike and Shot Society.

Second prize – A one-year subscription to the Pike and Shot Society.

Competition Rules

  1. All essays should be on a military topic within the defined boundaries of the Society’s research period, which is 1400 to 1721.
  2. Any essays outside this period will be rejected.
  3. The closing date for submissions will be 31 December 2017 and any entries received after this date will be entered into the next year’s competition.
  4. The result will be announced on 31 March 2018.
  5. The essay must be written and submitted on Microsoft Word.
  6. The essay must be written in English.
  7. All essays must be between 2,500 and 3,000 words long excluding references, bibliography and notes. A word count must be provided with each entry. All pages should be numbered.
  8. Any essay longer than 3,000 words will be rejected for the competition.
  9. Where a quotation is used, or author referenced, it should be marked in the text by a superscript number. These can either be referenced in end page notes or a full set of notes at the end of the essay. Notes are excluded from the word count.
  10. A list of all reference sources (book, article or online) must be provided at the end of the essay.
  11. Any evidence of plagiarism will result in the essay being disqualified from the competition.
  12. The decision of the judges will be final.
  13. The judges will not be allowed to submit any essay.
  14. On submitting the essay, the writer automatically gives permission to the Pike and Shot Society to publish the essay in the Society’s magazine (first publication rights only).
  15. On submitting the essay, the writer automatically gives permission for their contact details to be passed to Helion and Company.

In judging the competition, weight will be given to primary research and originality. Other judging criteria will include a structured approach, good grammar and syntax, as well as fluency and the ability to engage the reader.

How to Enter

Entries and full contact details for the author should be sent to the following email address:

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Did ‘dirty war’ tactics kill more guerrillas in Rhodesia than conventional military units?

Glenn Cross investigates Chemical Biological Warfare in Southern Africa

Although some nations have developed or acquired chemical or biological agents, few have ever used these weapons against their adversaries. One of the few countries ever thought to have used chemical or biological agents was Rhodesia. This small, landlocked breakaway British colony in Southern Africa used chemical and biological agents during its protracted struggle against an increasingly numerous African nationalist insurgency in the years following Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain in November 1965.

The genesis of the Rhodesian Chemical Biological Warfare (CBW) effort was to be found in the deteriorating security situation that developed following Mozambique’s Independence from Portuguese colonial rule after the 25 April military coup d’état in Lisbon and the subsequent ‘Carnation’ revolution. The rise of the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) in Mozambique effectively forced the overstretched and under-resourced Rhodesians to defend their long land border with Mozambique – effectively a second front.

During the Rhodesian war, Rhodesian Security Forces were far better trained and equipped than their guerrilla adversaries. In a pitched battle between the Rhodesian Security Forces and guerrillas, the guerrillas usually lost. For that reason, guerrillas typically avoided contact with Rhodesia military or police units – seeking instead to ambush soft, largely civilian targets (i.e. isolated farmhouses, rural schools, district commissioners, veterinary workers and civilians travelling on the roads).

Later in the struggle, the Rhodesians (facing severe manpower and materiel shortages) adopted unconventional tactics or techniques against a foe that fled rather than fight – including the use of recruited agents to insert CBW-contaminated food, beverages, medicines and clothing into guerrilla supplies. Some of these supplies were provided to guerrilla groups inside Rhodesia; some were transported to guerrilla camps in Mozambique. In all, deaths attributed to CBW agents often exceeded the monthly guerrilla body count claimed by conventional Rhodesian military units – demonstrating the utility of CBW agents in a counterinsurgency campaign against an elusive enemy.

Although few details are known about Rhodesia’s clandestine CBW efforts, a broad-brush picture is clear. The project was born out of desperation as the conflict intensified in the mid-1970s, and was the brainchild of a professor, Robert Symington, at the University of Rhodesia’s medical school. He reportedly put forward the idea to the then-Minister of Defense, who advocated it to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister – almost certainly in consultation with his War Cabinet – delegated responsibility to the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), and implementation was assigned to the Special Branch liaison component in the Selous Scouts. Although they were aware of the CBW program’s existence, the full extent to which the Rhodesian political and military leadership was involved in the effort is obscure, due to the lack of documentary material or living witnesses.

Prime Minister Ian Smith publicly denied any knowledge of the program, but almost certainly approved the program’s creation – even if he was not aware of the details of its daily operations. In December 1998, a Zimbabwe newspaper quoted Ian Smith as saying: ‘It’s a lot of rubbish. I know nothing about [such germ warfare]. They [the Rhodesian Security Forces] could have done so without my knowledge… Those saying that are giving us credit for being more creative and brilliant than what we were’.

Chief of Rhodesia’s CIO, Ken Flower, was very aware of the CBW activities, having received bi-weekly status reports on the effort from McGuinness. The police (BSAP) commissioners – first Sherren, and later, Allum – were briefed on the CBW efforts, and at least Sherren took steps to ensure that the program remained concealed. In 1977, McGuinness briefed the Combined Operations (COMOPS) – headed by Lieutenant General Peter Walls – about the CBW effort.

Rhodesian Special Forces (Selous Scout) commander Lieutenant Colonel Ron Reid-Daly also knew of the CBW effort, and many of his men were likely involved in disseminating the tainted materials. Most readily available information about the program is based on the half-truths, rumors, conjectures, anecdotes and myths that circulated around the officers’ messes and pubs frequented by members of the Rhodesian Security Forces, however.

Although little specific information remains available about the Rhodesian CBW effort, what is indisputable is that its primary purpose was to kill guerrillas – whether they were recruits transiting to camps in Mozambique, or guerrillas operating inside Rhodesia. The CBW effort took on the guerrilla threat from three fronts: first, the effort aimed to eliminate guerrillas operating inside Rhodesia through contaminated supplies, either provided by contact men, recovered from hidden caches or stolen from rural stores; a second-order effect was to disrupt the relations between village supporters and the guerrillas. Secondly, the effort worked to contaminate water supplies along guerrilla infiltration routes into Rhodesia – forcing the guerrillas either to travel through arid regions and to carry more water and less ammunition, or travel with more ammunition but move through areas patrolled by Rhodesian Security Forces.

The CBW effort was made up of a rag-tag band of amateurs, working with makeshift equipment and readily available commercial materials. They developed the means to inflict casualties on insurgent forces beyond the capabilities of Rhodesia’s professional conventional military.

The chemical and biological agents developed by this small, rudimentary program were based almost exclusively on readily available toxic agricultural and industrial chemicals including warfarin (rodenticide), thallium (rodenticide), methyl parathion (an active ingredient in several organophosphate pesticides used in Rhodesia), Vibrio cholera (the causative agent of cholera), Bacillus anthracis (the causative agent of anthrax) and botulinum toxin. The Rhodesians may also have experimented with several other agents – including ricin,13 abrin, amanita toxin, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), sodium fluoroacetate (compound 1080), cyanide, arsenic and tetra colchicine [sic] – but information on those experimental agents has proven hard to substantiate.

Of those knowledgeable insiders willing to talk, all share a consistent story about Rhodesia’s development and use of chemical and biological agents during the Bush War; they even chillingly admit that chemical and biological agents were used in experiments on captured insurgents. In short, the story centres on an element of the BSAP Special Branch (attached to the Rhodesian Army’s Selous Scouts), which implemented and oversaw the Rhodesian CBW effort from mid-to-late 1976 until late 1979.

The daily operation of this limited effort fell to a small Special Branch counterterrorist unit (sometimes referred to as ‘Z Desk’ or ‘Counterterrorist Operations’) under the command of Chief Superintendent Michael ‘Mac’ McGuinness. The Rhodesian CBW program was staffed with a small number of scientists and technicians working as ‘consultants’ to the Special Branch and co-located at the Special Branch/Selous Scout ‘fort’ outside Bindura (80 km north of Salisbury). The description of these insiders is instructive; it is one of a small band of scientists and students who served their ‘call-ups’ (often as long as three months) at the Bindura ‘fort’.

The effectiveness of the Rhodesian poisons effort was constrained by its limited scope and application; the nature of the raw materials employed; and the crude dissemination methods. Nevertheless, participants in the poisons program saw it as hugely successful – at least early on. As mentioned earlier, CIO Director-General Ken Flower claimed in his autobiography that many hundreds of guerrillas were killed as a result of the poisons program; also mentioned earlier, the leadership saw the CBW effort – at least in its early days – as more effective than the conventional military. Symington echoed that sentiment. South African policeman Eugene de Kock stated: ‘This [fact] confirmed that they [killed] a lot more of the enemy by means of the food and the clothing, than what they did in [daily] operations’. Most importantly, the 1977 Special Branch briefing to COMOPS opened by stating: ‘… The true extent of our success may never be known…’ The report went on to claim 809 guerrilla deaths due to poisoning.

The most serious detriment to the project’s continuing success was the guerrillas’ eventual discovery of the program’s activities, which made dissemination of poisoned items more difficult, as guerrillas became less trusting. Although the Special Branch continually devised new dissemination techniques, the growing guerrilla awareness of the poisoning effort did reduce the program’s effectiveness. On this subject, the 28 June report stated: ‘Our methods of operations are changing continually in order to keep the enemy guessing and [illegible] improved methods have recently come to light that bode well for the future’.

According to the scientific head of the CBW effort, Robert Symington, the Rhodesian poisoning program was very successful; some months it resulted in a greater number of guerrilla fatalities than the conventional military operations of the elite Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI). This claim is plausible, given the reluctance of most guerrilla groups to engage conventional Rhodesian Security Forces in head-on battle; guerrilla bands preferred hit-and-run tactics against soft targets.

The only official Rhodesian assessment of the program’s effectiveness is the estimate prepared for COMOPS. That paper estimates that, as of 28 June 1977, the poisoning program had resulted in the deaths of 809 individuals. Within SB circles at the time, it was widely believed that more guerrillas were dying from poison than from conventional Fireforce ‘contacts’. Uncertainty remains whether the numbers briefed to COMOPS included estimates of deaths due to cholera. If not, the total for the CBW effort (including use of cholera) could be doubled.

Dirty War. Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare 1975-1980 by Glenn Cross can be purchased here.

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Birmingham publisher sweeps the board at British military history ‘Oscars’

Randall Nicol

A BIRMINGHAM-based publisher has won the top two accolades at the ‘Oscars’ of British military history publishing – the Templer Awards.

Helion and Company, which has also celebrated its 20th anniversary, published both the best book on British military history and the best first book for 2016, selected by The Society for Army Historical Research (SAHR).

Publisher Duncan Rogers accepted the Templer Medal on author Stewart Stansfield’s behalf as he was unable to attend the London-based ceremony.

“Stewart’s book Early Modern Systems of Command: Queen Anne’s Generals, Staff Officers and the Direction of Allied Warfare in the Low Countries and Germany, 1702-1711 took the night’s top prize, while Randall Nicol’s Till the Trumpet Sounds Again: The Scots Guards 1914-19 in Their Own Words was declared best first book,” says Duncan – a graduate of Warwick University.

“This recognition is much deserved for both authors, whose works have contributed immensely to our understanding of British military history. It also reflects the overall standard and quality of books we are producing, working with exciting emerging talents as well as established authors at the very top of their game.”

“I would like to congratulate Stewart and Randall wholeheartedly as well as to thank the SAHR and the judges. The prizes evidence that Helion and Company is one of the world’s leading publishers of military history.”

A total of 49 books were submitted to the Templer Award panel for consideration by publishers on three different continents including Bloomsbury Studies in Military History, the Cambridge University Press and Yale University Press.

Just two prizes were handed out to authors whose works covered conflicts from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century.

Helion’s First World War Commissioning Editor Michael Lo Cicero (pictured right) – a graduate of Birmingham University – delivered the keynote speech at the SAHR’s annual general meeting held prior to the award ceremony.

He spoke about his research into the last days of fighting around Passchendaele, which resulted in his acclaimed book: A Moonlight Massacre. The Night Operation on the Passchendaele Ridge, 2 December 1917.

“Michael is among a large number of university graduates now writing for Helion,” adds Duncan. “The fact that he was selected to deliver the keynote speech at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall demonstrates our increasing reach into the academic market, and that we have much to offer those studying and writing military history.”

Speaking on behalf of the Department of History, Politics and War Studies of the University of Wolverhampton, Stephen Badsey – Editor of Helion’s Wolverhampton Military Studies Series – added: “The award of the 2016 Templer Medal by the Society for Army Historical Research to Stewart Stanfield’s ’s Early Modern Systems of Command, Number 14 in the Wolverhampton Military Studies Series, is a great honour for the author himself, for Helion Publishing, and also for the Series and all of us associated with it.

‘We created the Wolverhampton Military Studies Series four years ago, with the intent that its books would be academically rigorous and based on a high standard of research, but also well written and accessible to all; books that anybody interested in military history, not least my own students, would want to read.

‘When the first book in the series, Spencer Jones (ed.) Stemming the Tide, was judged runner up for the 2013 Templer Medal, we felt that we were on the right track. Since then, the Series has produced books recognised as being of a very high quality, to both critical and popular acclaim. This includes books already published or awaiting publication by members of my department, or by our former students based on their research.”

To purchase the Templer Medal-winning titles, visit

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WW1 historian calls for PTSD pledge

A prize-winning First World War historian and psychiatrist has called for a cross-party commitment to deliver improved services for armed forces veterans battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) this Mental Health Awareness Week.

Dr Stefanie Linden’s proposal for a book examining the psychological effect of trench warfare on First World War soldiers won The Western Front Association’s Edmonds Prize; entitled They Called It Shellshock it was published by Helion and Company in 2016.

She now calls upon all parties gearing up for the General Election to “learn the lessons of history” and to pledge a commitment to increased investment in mental health care for veterans.

Combat Stress reported 2,472 referrals in the financial year 2015-16, which amounts to a 71 per cent increase in the number of veterans seeking the charity’s help for mental illness in the last five years,” says Stefanie – a Clinical Research Fellow from the Division of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences at Cardiff University.

“At a time of mounting global tensions, I think it’s timely – especially during this First World War centenary year – to remind ourselves of the lasting psychological trauma war inflicts on combatants.

‘Charities like Combat Stress are doing a fantastic job, but – as Britain prepares to go to the polls on 8 June – we need a commitment from all parties to invest in lasting support for those who have served and continue to serve this country.”

Stefanie’s research uncovered hundreds of shellshock cases – soldiers who had been psychologically scarred by their war experiences – as she examined the First World War medical case records of the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic (today the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery) and the Charité Psychiatric Department in Berlin.

“It is estimated that more than 80,000 British servicemen suffered a breakdown on the Western Front,” says Stefanie.

“Unable to get away physically from enemy fire, some entered a dissociative state. Others lost all contact with the real world, experiencing psychotic episodes which became epidemic – spreading from one soldier to the next. The ‘Angels of Mons’ – a cloud of angelic warriors that appeared at Mons and halted the German advance against a vastly outnumbered British force – were the most famous occurrence.

‘Others experienced breakdowns while home on leave. Symptoms include paralyses, shaking, stuttering, deafness and fits, but also depression, anxiety and nightmares which veterans of Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan also present to this day.

‘Psychological therapies developed for shellshock symptoms were promising in the early part of the 20th century and we have added to our learning since then. However, it is vital that investment into research and treatment continues so we can properly safeguard the mental health of returning veterans.”

They Called It Shellshock is available for purchase here.

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South Africa’s conflicts along the Angolan Frontier – a contrasting view

Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and the Middle East have tended to hug the headlights for decades. In contrast, South Africa’s efforts to combat insurgency in what is today northern Namibia and Southern Angola received sparse attention beyond our own frontiers. That has begun to change and Al Venter offers us his view, linked to his latest book from Helion: Battle for Angola. The End of the Cold War in Africa c1975-89

There are several long-standing misapprehensions relating to the Border War that still need to be clarified almost 30 years after that conflict ended. The first involves SWAPO guerrillas who managed to keep what many regard as a minor or low intensity conflict on the boil for almost a quarter century.

For decades the consensus – almost throughout the SADF and among politicians back home – was that the average enemy fighter in the region was little more than an ill-trained, modestly-equipped subversive, acting almost solely on the whims of his Soviet-trained commissars.

In truth, they were anything but. While the majority of fighters attached to the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) were ordinarily-rated soldiers you are likely to encounter in any army, there were specialist SWAPO combatants who managed to give the SADF a right runabout and, now and again, a bloody nose.

Some of these small strike forces would enter from Angola and it would sometimes take weeks to flush them out. And that in spite of them having no air cover, very little logistical back-up, almost no medical facilities for their wounded and an adversary that was eventually rated as one of the most competent counter-insurgency forces on the globe.

Matters were compounded by the fact that, unlike forested Vietnam with its jungles and guerrilla tunnel links, the region in which the fighting was taking place was sparse: in most areas, the terrain is as flat as the proverbial pancake with little ground cover, coupled to the reality that with all the disadvantages facing SWAPO, its cadres went on to became masters of the arcane disciplines of landmine warfare.

Many of the former guerrillas who were captured were given the option of serving in Koevoet, the SA Police counter-insurgency unit and almost to a man they distinguished themselves – even though they were battling their old comrades.

Koevoet’s ‘kill rate’ during the course of the war was significantly higher than any comparable SA Army unit, in large part because its components, black and white, were efficient and committed…

Take one example: Frans Conradie, with a modest force of half a dozen Casspirs and perhaps 20 men, was Koevoet’s top scorer in combat for three years before he was killed in a vehicle accident. He and his group notched up 98 kills in 1981, more than 80 in 1982 and by August the following year when he died, it had already topped the 60-mark. I was on ops with Frans several times and he always credited his black troops – some of whom he had had himself taken prisoner – with remarkable fighting prowess.

In reality, had this enemy been anywhere as inferior as many of our senior commanders suggested, the Border War – and linked Angolan misadventures – would never have lasted 23 years…

And yet, much of what took place in this remote region of Africa remained in the shadows, in large part because of an extremely effective program on Pretoria’s part of non-disclosures of what was taking place – rigorous press censorship coupled to a skilful program of disinformation.

Which begs the question: Were the South African and SWA/Namibian soldiers better than the SWAPO insurgents? The answer is an unqualified ‘yes’ and one must understand why this was so.

It was not about courage or cowardice, but about better organisation, better planning, better utilisation of resources and, above all, superb basic training. These attributes went all the way through to the most advanced military-related disciplines that involved fieldwork, retaliation, transport, armour, close-air support, the always-urgent evacuation of casualties and the kind of clandestine work that involved South Africa’s Special Forces.

Most important, the South Africans understood something that seems to elude some Western military thinkers: time is not automatically on the insurgent’s side – it can be on the insurgent’s if he accepts that he is in for the long haul and tailors his tactics accordingly. The South Africans did exactly that and eventually the war ended in successful negotiations for a future democratic Namibia.

If the war proved anything, it was that although most insurgencies end in political solutions, he who has lost the penultimate military phase has no right to say anything when the armed struggle concludes, not with a bang, but with the rustle of papers being shuffled around the conference-table.

American military historian Robert Goldich phrased it well in a recent assessment widely circulated in US and European military circles and easily accessed on Google.

Writing in the prestigious American magazine Foreign Policy, Goldich – who retired from the United States Congressional Research Service as their senior military manpower analyst in 2005 – declared that South Africa enjoyed immense superiority in several areas.

It had advantages in its ability to manoeuvre operationally, combined arms operations, and command and control growing out of the standard Western types of doctrinal development, military training centres, as well as a highly professional military education structure.

So much for the dismissive comments of a few of our commentators who maintained, in print, that some of our senior military commanders were not properly educated in the art of war. That might have been true early on when some senior men were politically appointed, but as the threat grew, only the best got to the top.

There are numerous examples of some of these men reaching senior positions in subsequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and Chris du Toit runs the military affairs in a large part of South Sudan – a country bigger than Botswana. His role is that of principal military advisor to the UN.

Another example is former deputy head of the South African Army Major General Roland de Vries – dubbed ‘South Africa’s Rommel’ by his fellow commanders – who successfully nurtured the concept of ‘mobile warfare’ where, in a succession of armoured onslaughts, his modest ranks of ‘thin-skinned’ Ratel Infantry Fighting Vehicles tackled Soviet main battle tanks and thrashed them. These days he is linked to the Australian Command and Staff Collage in the Australian capital.

Goldich goes on: ‘To make things far worse for South Africa, and potentially the West in general, the Soviet Union committed huge amounts of military hardware, and military advisers/trainers for FAPLA (the acronym for the Angolan army).

‘Cuba made an even more massive military investment. It ultimately dispatched an expeditionary force to Angola which reached a maximum strength of about 55,000 (more recent evidence out of Havana points to a figure of 80,000) with a total of almost 380,000 Cuban military personnel serving in the country from 1975 through 1991. If SWAPO took over, or destabilized SWA, whether or not Angolan or Cuban troops moved into SWA, the frontline would shift all the way to the border with South Africa proper.’

A notable element in South Africa’s success in being able to counter a hugely disproportionate enemy force thrusting southwards from Angola was the arms and equipment used to counter these efforts.

With South Africa under a United Nations arms embargo, most of our needs came ‘home made’ and what an impressive array it eventually became. Items produced locally ranged from the basic R4 and R5 infantry rifles, basic heavy calibre weapons all the way through to multiple rocket launchers, advanced anti-aircraft missiles and trackers and, under licence from the Israelis, our own naval strike craft.

We even managed to upgrade the French-built Puma helicopter into the Oryx, still in service in the SAAF today.

It was in anti-landmine technology that South Africa became a world beater, so much so that a few of the machines developed during the war years are still performing good service in many of the world’s trouble spots, with the Casspir – designed for the SAP police unit Koevoet by Pretoria scientist Dr Vernon Joint (who subsequently became an advisor to the US Department of Defence in counter-mining techniques) – taking the lead.

What has never been properly acknowledged is the enormous role played by Special Forces units like the Reconnaissance Regiment or 32 Battalion – the latter a comparatively small unit which drew most of its manpower resources from former enemy units including the Angolan FNLA. Like the Recces, 32’s tasks often ranged well beyond enemy lines. Considering its modest numbers, the unit ended with a better average success rate per operation than any equivalent American military unit deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

South Africa is also the only relatively small nation to have beaten the Soviet Union at its own game. With all the resources at its disposal, Moscow and its allies never once managed to penetrate the defences of South African ports long enough to cause damage.

4 Recce in contrast, headed by a still-youthful Colonel Douw Steyn trained for underwater warfare at Langebaan on the west coast and he ended up taking a group of his frogmen on several raids into Angolan ports. There, in June 1986 his men blew up two Soviet freighters, the Kapitan Chirkon (16,000 tons) and the Kapitan Vislobokov (12,000 tons) as well as the Habana, a 6,000-ton Cuban ship loaded with arms; the entire strike completed in a single night raid on Namibe harbour.

Prior to that, they sank two cargo ships in Luanda harbour and crippled one of the largest oil refineries in West Africa, in spite of the presence of a huge Soviet naval presence that included a 3,500-ton Soviet Kashin-class guided missile destroyer.

In truth, South Africa emerged from the Border War with more unsung honours than most other countries facing conflagrations. And while our casualties were modest, the troops and the civilian population took some heavy knocks.

Take one example: Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’. In 30 years of hostilities there were more than 3,600 people killed and thousands more injured in Northern Ireland.

We lost an estimated 700 security force personnel as well as 1,000-plus SWA/Namibian civilians. Add to that several thousand guerrillas killed while fighting for SWAPO and who knows how many thousands more Cubans, Angolan Army and UNITA troops.

The fact is that we were faced with an expansive unconventional conflict that steadily escalated into a full-blown series of military confrontations and several times, conventional war. Had it not been halted by the joint efforts of US Under-Secretary of State for Africa, Chester Crocker, and his Soviet counterpart, it might well have gone nuclear after the Angolan Army had misfired (failed to detonate) the first of their chemical weapon projectiles.

When that happened, Pretoria decided it was time to act. The SAAF was ordered to prepare for a strike – possibly on Luanda – that would almost certainly have involved the deployment of one of the six atom bombs that were being held in storage at the Circle facility on Pretoria’s outskirts. It was that close…

Interestingly, those involved with South Africa’s nuclear weapons program have always declared that they never had any intention of actually using that weapon of mass destruction. But then that kind of comment is hardly borne out when contrasted with original intent.

Article originally published in the South African Sunday newspaper Rapport.

Battle for Angola. The End of the Cold War in Africa c1975-89 by Al Venter can be purchased from Helion here.

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Two Wheels to War – Volunteer motorcycle despatch riders and the British Expeditionary Force 1914

Two Wheels to War is the story of the first motorcycle despatch riders – the talented volunteers who served alongside the Regular Army in 1914.

With no military training, they served on the retreat from Mons, at the Marne and the Aisne, and they endured the First Battle of Ypres before winter 1914 brought stalemate to the early days of the Western Front. The book follows them into 1915, when despatch riding became routine and the group gradually dispersed as they were commissioned into other units.

Our book project started from our interest in how new technology is developed – in this case, motorcycles. My brother, Martin, restores early motor vehicles – particularly those made before the First World War, and up to the early 1930s. As well as using his engineering skills, he studies the stories of these vehicles and, as an amateur genealogist, I’ve often worked with him to trace the people who made them and used them, and their descendants.

At the time, we were researching the story of Cecil and Alick Burney – a pair of brothers who designed an innovative motorcycle in 1912. They were among the very first to volunteer as motorcycle despatch riders and we found their medals and 1914 photograph albums in an auction.

The Burneys’ captioned group photographs helped us to connect the Burney brothers with W.H.L. Watson


W.H.L. Watson was an Oxford undergraduate who volunteered at the same time as the Burneys. Riding their own motorcycles, they were sent to the Fifth Division – and when they landed at Le Havre, Watson, the Burneys and nine others quickly bonded into a highly effective unit.

From Mons to Ypres, these amateurs had a hectic and character-building experience. The despatch riders won praise from the Regulars for their work in keeping the army together when it threatened to disintegrate during the retreat. Many also won gallantry medals.

After that first phase of the war, Watson collected his letters home and turned them into a book, Adventures of a Despatch Rider, which showed the character of the first despatch riders. They were an elite who adapted well into army life. Many were university-educated and others were professional motorcycle engineers. Nearly all of the 1914 despatch riders were later commissioned – either as infantry officers or in specialist units like the Royal Flying Corps or Army Service Corps.

We uncovered the real identities of the original 12, which was concealed by Watson under nicknames such as ‘Pollers’ or ‘Fatters’, and then we turned to tracing their families. To our amazement, we found five children of these 12 men – all with living memories of their fathers, as well as many other relatives. We met their wider families and searched museums and archives. All the while, we were building a detailed picture of their lives from service records, the men’s own letters and diaries, and family photographs.

The tidal wave of patriotism which followed the declaration of war is well known. The volunteers of the new armies have been celebrated many times over – in print, in photographs and in film. They were the courageous men of the battalions which suffered such horrendous losses going over the top in 1916. Less well known is the story of the old Regular Army – the original ‘Expeditionary Force’. By Christmas 1914, their losses – though less than the later disasters – had robbed the army of military skills and leadership, and made the creation of the new armies longer and more arduous than it might have been.

In reading about the 1914 campaign, we were struck by the courage and aggression shown by all sides – British, French and German – when there was a ‘firing line’, but no ‘frontline trenches’. Many units – infantry, artillery and cavalry – used fighting tactics which would have been recognised by the soldiers who fought at Waterloo a hundred years earlier. Many officers went into action with newly sharpened swords, and there were even a few cavalry charges.

Several new accounts of the 1914 campaign were published about the time we began our research, but few challenged the conventional wisdom that only a handful of motorcyclists reached France in 1914 and that they had a limited impact on the campaign. Some studies even omitted the Divisional Signal Companies, to which the motorcyclists belonged, from their ‘order of battle’ pages.

Our examination of service records showed that there were many more motorcyclists than previously thought. We concluded that at least 400 motorcycle despatch riders served in France in 1914.Whilst the contribution of a handful of motorcyclists could be overlooked, the fact that so many were deployed so early forced us to reconsider their role and achievements – particularly when we realised what a carefully selected group they were.

German airmen prisoners at 5th Division Headquarters

Letters and diaries kept by individuals are still turning up and being published for the first time. Two Wheels to War stands out because it includes material from more than half the members of a small group. It contains the full text of Watson’s Adventures of a Despatch Rider, together with words and pictures from more than half of his colleagues. The photographs portray many men who can be identified; sometimes, we can identify the exact date when the picture was taken. We have added notes on units and people, and explanatory comments on unfamiliar terms.

Two Wheels to War will be showcased to vintage motorcycle enthusiasts on our stand at the International Classic Motorcycle Show at Stafford Showground on 22-23 April, along with a Douglas despatch rider motorcycle and – a work in progress – Martin’s restoration of a Blackburne of the type designed and used by the Burney brothers. There will then be a family event at Milestones Museum in Basingstoke, to which we’ve invited members of nine of the original 12 families. Lastly, we have a good relationship with the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford Forum, who want to add our working papers to their archives.

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The Polish Brigade at Arnhem

Released in 1946, Brian Desmond Hurst’s film Theirs Is The Glory recounts the part played by the British 1st Airborne Division, in concert with the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, during operation MARKET GARDEN in September 1944…

At least that was the intention of Irish born film director Brian Desmond Hurst.  Sadly, the final cut of the film, premiered on 17 September 1946, fails to show any Polish paratroopers on screen; their involvement was reduced to a line of commentary some nine minutes into the showing.

Evidence exists that Hurst did include the actions of the Polish Brigade; the 1990 publication De Polen Van Driel by George F Cholewczynski has photographs of Polish soldiers in action.  While the authors of Theirs Is The Glory. Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film were able to uncover and interview several past members of the 1st Airborne Division who took part in the making of the film, it proved impossible to find any surviving Polish members; nor was there reference in the surviving paperwork available.  It is entirely possible that British members played the part, as they did in some ‘German’ roles.

As to why the role of the Polish Brigade was virtually ignored, the answer must lie in politics. During the making of the film in August 1945, Poland was still a staunch and valuable ally in the fight against Nazi Germany. By the time of the film’s release, the world had changed (the situation clearly summed up in a recent review of Theirs is the Glory, Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film by Professor Eunan O’Halpin of Trinity Centre for Contemporary Irish History, Dublin).

The British government, who had already turned away from the Polish government-in-exile by recognising the Soviet-backed administration installed in Warsaw, did not want the film to highlight free Polish military achievements and sacrifice fighting alongside the Western allies.

While Theirs Is The Glory gave little credit to the role of the Polish Brigade at Arnhem, a slightly more detailed story was told in A Bridge Too Far, released in 1977 and starring American actor Gene Hackman as General Sosabowski – one of the few actors to receive glowing plaudits for his role.

An examination of the customer comments on Amazon regarding the DVD of Theirs Is The Glory shows plainly how modern audiences fail to understand what the director was attempting to show in 1946.  Hopefully, Theirs Is The Glory. Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film will help to explain why it was made and enshrine the pedigree of the men we see on screen paying their tribute to their comrades that did not return from battle.

The role of the Polish Parachute Brigade and those other Polish units that served in the Allied armies during the Second World War, deserves to be more widely known.  The accompanying photograph is of a mural unveiled in 2016 in East Belfast as a tribute to both the Polish Brigade and the Polish airmen who joined the RAF.  Interestingly, the latter were the central story line in Brian Desmond Hurst’s Battle of Britain film Dangerous Moonlight (1941).

Theirs Is The Glory. Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film by David Truesdale and Allan Esler Smith can be purchased here

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Britain’s Forgotten War With the Soviets

By Damien Wright

Why should such a remarkable event as the two-year campaign by the British Government to militarily defeat the Bolsheviks (later known as the ‘Soviets’) on Russian soil be virtually forgotten today?

From August 1918-July 1920 – initially in an attempt to restore a ‘White Russian’ Government to power, which would recommence hostilities on the Eastern Front after Lenin’s Revolutionary Bolsheviks signed a peace agreement with the Central Powers (considered a great betrayal by Britain and France) – the British Government sent troops, ships and the most modern planes and tanks in the British arsenal to fight the Red Army on the ground in Russia.

When I first developed an interest in the campaign some years ago, asking around British military history circles, few knew anything at all about the British campaign in Russia after the First World War, which seemed bizarre, given the significance of the Secretary of State for War – Winston Churchill – pursuing an undeclared war against the first leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. The ultimate victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War – and the establishment of the Soviet Union – would shape most of the 20th century, so why should this fascinating and important period of British military history be so neglected and forgotten?

Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin: British and Commonwealth Military Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-20 is the culmination of more than 15 years of research, including trawling through many thousands of pages from National Archives in the UK, Australia and Canada, as well as many diaries, photographs, letters and unpublished private papers generously donated by families of servicemen from across the Commonwealth (particularly the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand). Without the generous contributions of family members whose relatives served in Russia, the book would not have been possible.

The highlight of my research into the campaign was meeting with Mrs Victoria Christen (née Pearse) – the daughter of Sergeant Samuel George Pearse VC MM, an Australian ‘North Russia Relief Force’ volunteer killed in action in August 1919 and awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Victoria was born after her father’s death and, at the private presentation of the VC to Pearse’s widow in 1920, Queen Mary nursed baby Victoria – remarking how sad it was that the little girl should have to grow up without her father.

Readers of Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin may be surprised to learn that the last British servicemen to be killed by the German Army during the First World War met their fate in the Baltic in October 1919 – almost a year after the Armistice. In fact they were not soldiers at all, but nine Royal Navy sailors of the cruiser HMS Dragon struck by shells fired by German ‘Iron Division’ troops ashore in Latvia, who considered the Armistice to apply to the Western Front only and not themselves in the Baltic.

British and Commonwealth servicemen held as POW’s of the Soviets in Moscow, winter 1919-20

Readers may also be surprised to learn that the first Soviet submarine kill in history was a Royal Navy destroyer – HMS Vittoria – which was sunk by torpedoes fired from the Soviet submarine Pantera in the Baltic Sea in 1919, or that the RAF and Red Air Force fought each other in the skies over Russia, or that the last Canadian and Australian soldiers to be killed in action in the First World War met their fate in North Russia in 1919 (many months after the Armistice). It is likely that readers will never have heard that the first tanks to capture Stalingrad were British crewed Tank Corps Mark V’s albeit it was June 1919 and the city was still named ‘Tsaritsyn’ or of the more than a hundred British and Commonwealth servicemen from all three services (including a VC recipient) who were held as POWs by the Soviets in Moscow. It is also a little-known fact that the bodies of nearly a thousand British and Commonwealth servicemen who died fighting the Soviets remain buried in Russian soil.

Immediately after withdrawal in mid-1920, the British Government attempted to cover up their involvement in Russia by classifying all official documents relating to the campaign under the ‘50 year’ rule. By the time the files were quietly released decades later, there was very little public interest.

Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin fills a huge gap in the knowledge of modern British and Commonwealth military history. Imagine if the British attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks had been successful and there had never been a Soviet Union… the ramifications would have been enormous, and the world we live in today would be very different indeed.

Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin: British and Commonwealth Military Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-20 by Damien Wright is available for purchase here.


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Paper Soldiers: Hamburg Tactica Show 2017

By Peter Dennis

Every year, a small group of the Perry mafia goes over to the Hamburg Tactica Show as guests of the organisers. I like to repay their hospitality with a piece of artwork for whatever purpose, and last year Frank Becker of the Hamburgers, who has taken to paper soldiers bigly (as we say nowadays), asked me to do a camp scene for the magazine in the style of the Zinnfiguren flats. This page is the result and is, I hope, an attractive addition to the Battle for Britain. Wargame the English Civil War book.

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