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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cracking war story with a few slight weaknesses, 30 Jan. 2011
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This review is from: Seelöwe Nord: The Germans Are Coming (Paperback)
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".
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 May 2011 10:58:56 BDT
Good review and its just persuaded me to buy the book. A couple of comments though: Hood was a battlecruiser, not a battleship (going off on a tangent one of my many great uncles transferred off it a few days before her last voyage and into the submarine service..he survived the war because of that). She was heavily armed but relatively poorly armoured. 11" shells could have killed her. Renown was similar in that she was a battlecruiser (and a lot lighter than Hood) and Valiant not a lot better. They're big capable ships but very old designs & not a patch on something like Rodney or King George V. Scharnhorst was a similar weight to both Renown and Valiant (all ~30,000 ton)

The smart thing for a light cruiser to do is avoid taking on much bigger ships but Ajax, Exeter & Achilles did rather well against Graf Spee! A ballsy captain with a lot of luck can take on bigger ships. I don't think its a terrible plot flaw. In reality the Germans were so scared of losing their capital ships that they might have well never built them at all, but in an alternative world fighting them hard seems a good plot idea.

I'm glad you mentioned Arras... Rommels after battle report is hilarious: he believed he was attacked by 50,000 British troops and hundred of tanks. In reality it was about 2000 British soldiers and about 30 tanks. Its one of the many reasons they didn't attack the Dunkirk beaches. I think its part of our 'finest hour' myth that we overplay Germany's strength and downplay our own. The sad reality is that if the French had held rather than endlessly pulling back to new defensive lines and we'd hit Germany hard early on we could probably have ended the war before it really started. The plans for the real 'Operation Sealion' were so poor its maybe a shame the Germans didn't try it.

In reply to an earlier post on 6 May 2011 13:55:04 BDT
T. D. Welsh says:
Glad you liked my review! I do realise that Hood and Renown were battlecruisers: I have whole books on the subject! I just didn't want to clutter up the review with facts that weren't directly relevant. My thinking was that, whatever their armour, Hood and Renown represented 14 barrels firing 15-inch shells; and of course they are in company with Valiant, a genuine battleship. When Ssharnhorst and Gneisenau ran into Renown off Norway, they were the ones that ran away (although admittedly they may have taken some of Renown's extensive destroyer escort for larger ships in the very bad weather). On that occasion Renown scored several hits, while none of the German 11-inch shells hit her. It's also worth noting that. when KGV was instrumental in destroying Scharnhorst, the latter scored no hits on KGV - so it made no difference that KGV was heavily armoured.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, like the pocket battleships, were very odd ships whose design can only be attributed to political compromises. They were the opposite of battlecruisers - armoured like battleships but with relatively light guns. This turned out to suit them for few realistic roles. I still maintain that they were not designed to fight proper battleships, nor really capable of doing so. Thus for Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Hipper to stand up and trade punches with Valiant, Renown, and Hood would have been foolhardy and probably disastrous.

In reply to an earlier post on 6 May 2011 16:14:11 BDT
Last edited by the author on 6 May 2011 16:15:10 BDT
I've bought it a few hours ago but (obviously!) haven't read it.... put that way trading punches does seem dumb. Taking a calculated risk that a first opening salvo could cripple the British ships (as happened several times when the Royal Navy took on the Germans - first salvo's taking out fire control radars, gunnery laying stations etc) would be a gutsy move (And certainly permissible in fiction). The way Hood's armour was laid out its at least plausible that a salvo of 11" shells could do some terrible damage, especially if a magazine door was open etc. Trading blow for blow DOES seem dumb though... 15" v 11" and more or less equal armour should have only one outcome.

I'm more an armoured expert than a Naval one. Most of my family were either RN or merchant in WW2 (and most didn't survive the U-boats) but I puke just thinking of the sea. However I'm well aware that on paper a Sherman tank should have no chance against a Panther or Tiger. In practice the Shermans did pretty well..... good training and good tactics offset a lot of material weaknesses (too many people think war is top trumps: my 88 beats your 75 every time etc) but the one thing you can't accuse the RN of in 1939 was poor training. Our guys were every bit as good as the Germans and the balance of our fleet made for generally better tactics.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were certainly weird. Mind you at least the Germans did use them. Tirpitz (a far better ship) would have been better melted down and turned into U-boats! Then again for 'very odd ship whose design can only be attributed to political compromise' nothing beats HMS Rodney for oddness. Hell of a ship though!

In reply to an earlier post on 6 May 2011 16:47:49 BDT
T. D. Welsh says:
The whole battlecruiser thing was absurd - the result of Jackie Fisher's desperate desire to go down in history as a great innovator. I strongly recommend V.E. Tarrant's classic little book "Battlecruiser Invincible" (ISBN: 0853687919) which explains the whole grisly story. Among other intriguing details, you can read how the Battle of the Falkland Islands nearly had a very different outcome: after the battle, it was found that an 8-inch shell (presumably from Scharnhorst) had penetrated Invincible's paper-thin side plating and missed the forward magazine by a couple of feet. Had it hit the magazine, Invincible would have suffered the same fate she eventually met at Jutland; Inflexible would have been faced by two German armoured cruisers, and might well have had to run away. Fisher's career would have been in ashes, and no one would ever have thought of building another battlecruiser ever. Of course the cream of the jest is that the ultimate battlecruisers were the Iowas, which were far faster than any of Fisher's ships.

As for Panthers and Tigers, any well-designed tank is vulnerable if outflanked. Take a look at "T-34 In Action" (ISBN: 9780811734837) and, if you have the patience, my review and the comments on that. On the steppes, when the Germans could see the Russian tanks coming 2-3 km off, they slaughtered them. But in Normandy, or in the forests of Eastern Europe, a T34 or a Sherman was just as good as a Panther or Tiger because the first shot usually won at such close range. It's easy to get too carried away with technology and forget the human factor.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 May 2011 11:44:52 BDT
Nice to meet someone who agrees with me about the merits of allied medium tanks! I genuinely think the Sherman was the best tank of WW2 (although the T34 is such a strong contender I wouldn't argue against it). As you say except in fantasy one on one duels there's always a tank on your flank and Panther side armour was very thin. The sheer mechanical reliability of the Sherman is its best factor. Better to have a working 30 ton tank than a broken 60 ton tank anyday. We needed something that could be offloaded onto a beach and drive from Normandy to Berlin on its own tracks. With King Tigers we'd still be outside Paris waiting for the bridges to be strengthened! A Panther's transmission was kaput after 1000kms... most of the Shermans we landed on D-day had done more mileage in training by then.

Also agreed about the 'battlecruiser' concept. I suppose they had their merits in that they could get big guns halfway round the world quickly and for a sort of 'commerce raiding' role like the Graf Spee carried out Hood would be deadly but the idea of a 'ship of the line' that can't survive a handful of large shells is ridiculous.

Posted on 7 Jun 2011 11:34:40 BDT
Jared M says:
Great review!

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Apr 2012 15:08:40 BDT
Manzikert says:
"Ajax, Exeter & Achilles did rather well against Graf Spee! A ballsy captain with a lot of luck can take on bigger ships." That was a unique tradition of the Royal Navy 'to engage the enemy more closely': risking unequal engagements in the hope of inflicting enough damage to slow down and weaken a more powerful opponent that could be destroyed later. The classic examples were Coronel that led to the Falklands, and of course the sinking of the Bismarck. Continental navies did not have the same daring and favoured the 'fleet in being' i.e. keeping your capital ships safely in harbour where they could tie down opponents a strategy for which the German surface navy in WWI and II were a prime example. Effectively ceding control of the seas to Britain - with disastrous consequences.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Apr 2012 15:21:53 BDT
Manzikert says:
Hmm, Fisher's concept was that BCs would be used as high speed battle ships that could catch smaller vessels and engage them at a range at which they were effectively invulnerable. It was only the dreadfully poor handling of the ships by Sturdee and poor gunnery that allowed the German squadron at the Falkland to get within range - for which Fisher bitterly criticised him. The ships should never been used as a vanguard for the fleet at Jutland, but that was Jellicoe's, not Fisher's mistake. Easy to criticise Fisher but he had to build a fleet that met Britain's colonial commitments as well as the threat to home waters, hence the need for fast long-range, powerful ships to protect the trade lanes from fast-moving raiders. It wasn't his fault that his invention ended being used for tasks it wasn't designed to meet. Also, the explosions at Jutland were as much down to faulty handling of unstable munition as it was to thin armour.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 May 2013 08:52:29 BDT
"good training and good tactics offset a lot of material weaknesses (too many people think war is top trumps: my 88 beats your 75 every time etc)"

Excellent point well made!
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