First the good news (and there is a lot of it). Andy Johnson is a fine writer with a marvellous knowledge of soldiers and soldiering. As an ex-infantryman he is naturally most at home describing war on land, and that is where the great majority of this book's action takes place. If I say that "Seeloewe Nord" stands comparison with the American authors Tom Clancy, Ralph Peters, and Harold Coyle at their best, I hope you will agree that is high praise; and it's wonderful to see such excellent story-telling from a British writer. Right from the very first sentence, we are plunged into the action as German airmen are briefed for their sorties covering the planned landings on the Yorkshire coast north of the Humber. The scene shifts excitingly between the Luftwaffe fliers, the lead elements of the German ground forces coming in secretly to capture crucial defensive strongpoints, the local Home Guard, and the British top brass in Whitehall as they struggle to understand the unfolding German strategy, and hastily plan a defence in depth and a sledgehammer counterattack.
This is by no means a short book - it runs to nearly 500 pages - yet I found it very hard to put down, and wished it was longer when I reached the end. The tension builds up as we look over the shoulders of the general staffs on both sides, and wonder which of them will prevail. Some of the characters - especially Sergeant Davy Jackson of the Coldstream Guards - engage our sympathies very strongly as their personalities emerge and take shape. After a while you feel you know what Sergeant ("not Sarge!") Jackson would say or do in a given situation.
Unfortunately there are a few flaws as well, and as none of the previous reviewers have mentioned them (as far as I recall) I feel I should. The book's shortcomings are of three main kinds, the first of which is perhaps forgivable if not inevitable: the British are shown in a uniformly good light, and the Germans in a bad one. Now it is certainly true that, as of 1940, well-commanded British troops could hold their own against Germans and even give them a good hiding. Moreover, as was shown at Arras, the Matilda II tank could cut right through the German Army's Panzer IIIs and IVs like a knife through butter: its armour was almost impenetrable except by the 88 mm dual-purpose gun, which was far too heavy to be brought in large numbers by an invasion force, while its gun could destroy all German tanks at medium range. Nevertheless, most German troops were highly disciplined, strongly motivated, and (surprisingly perhaps) able to show a greater degree of initiative than those of other armies. The Waffen-SS, while in its early days, was already shaping up as an elite force capable of the most astonishing feats of attack and defence. So I found it hard to believe some of the episodes of infantry fighting, accurate though the technical details might be.
Things get worse when it comes to naval warfare. The author has either done his research diligently or obtained expert advice, but it goes only so far. We are told that the Home Fleet, led by HMS Hood, Valiant and Renown with the aircraft carrier HMS Furious in company, joins a World War I-type line-of-battle engagement with the German heavy ships "Hipper, Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, Nurnberg and Koln, backed by around five destroyers". Moreover, the German ships actually attack the British! Now Hood, Valiant and Renown all mounted 15-inch guns (over 20 of them in all) a single hit from which could have done severe damage to Scharnhorst or Gneisenau and crippled or destroyed the smaller German ships. Not one of those five was designed (or able) to trade blows with a battleship, let alone three of them. Indeed on the one occasion when they really did meet, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau ran away from Renown on her own! And the light cruisers Nurnberg and Koln would normally have avoided engaging any British cruiser - they were designed for scouting and attacking light ships such as destroyers.
My last objection is that this book desperately needs the attention of a professional editor. I don't want to push this too far, as the author modestly notes that all errors are entirely his own - and moreover, as far as I recall none of the other reviewers has even mentioned this shortcoming, suggesting that it didn't detract from their enjoyment of the book. I'm afraid that poor spelling and other solecisms did rather spoil it for me, but then maybe I'm too pedantic. But judge for yourself: for the first half of the book U-boat captain Prien, famous for sinking the battleship Royal Oak in Scapa Flow, is consistently referred to as "Prein". Then suddenly the author starts to get it right, and does so for the last couple of hundred pages. This is just one of dozens of mistakes that litter the pages of this otherwise admirable book, and which a copy editor would have removed with ease.
Don't let any of my criticisms deter you from reading "Seeloewe Nord", however. It's a cracking good war story, and fills in a mass of details about what a German invasion in 1940 would really have been like. If it seems implausible or impractical, the author makes it perfectly clear in his Foreword that he doesn't claim otherwise; he asks the reader "to take the book for what it is; a story of fighting men".