Book Review: French Tanks of the Great War

With all the attention recently on the 100th anniversary of the first tanks used in battle by the British in 1916, it may seem easy to forget that the French also had a tank program during the First World War.  While much ink has been spilled describing the British First World War tank program, comparatively little has been written about the French tank program in English.  Fortunately, French Tanks of the Great War: Development, Tactics and Operations by Tim Gale fills that void, presenting a detailed history of efforts by the French to develop tanks as well as describing the major actions where early French tanks saw combat.

This book is a 260 page hardcover volume.  While containing a few pages of photos and maps, this book will not be of much interest to modelers, at least as far as providing specific details of particular tank types.  However, it will be of great interest to those interested in the history of tank and AFV development of the First World War.  Important battles are described, including first-hand accounts from French tank crews.  Quite a bit of detail is included in these battle descriptions, often times reporting on the activities of specific tanks.  Battles described include the Nivelle Offensive, the Battles of Malmaison, The Matz, St Mihiel, Soissons and Champagne.  Also described are the actions of the French tanks operating with the US Army.

The first chapter deals with the development of the first French tanks, describing the individuals and governmental departments involved.  The figure of Jean Baptiste Eugene Estienne stands out in this section, a figure of great importance.  While most readers will be familiar with his name, this book makes it clear that Estienne was a figure of central importance of early French tank design, far more important than any single individual in the development of British WWI armor.

The following chapters are broken up by battle.  Each battle is well explained, combining an overview of the strategic situation followed by a description of the actual combat.  Tactics are explained, each battle being in some ways an experiment for the French forces, testing out tactical ideas for the deployment of their “Artillerie Speciale.”  The limitations of these early machines come sharply into focus for the reader in the battle descriptions.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the primary cause of tank causalities in these engagements is not enemy action but rather mechanical breakdown and getting bogged down in crater holes.  When enemy action is noted as destroying French tanks, the most common culprit seems to be German 77mm field guns moved into forward positions.  The short operating range of these early vehicles becomes quite apparent from the battle descriptions, as do the issues of lack of tank to tank communications and communications with supporting infantry.

While the British beat the French in introducing the first tanks to the battlefield, the importance of the French contribution to early armor development, both technical and doctrinal, should not be forgotten.  In particular, the contributions of Estienne should probably be given more emphasis in English language accounts then they generally receive.  In terms of technical achievements, the French FT-17 is likely the most important tank design of the war, heralding the transition from sponson carrying armored boxes to the more modern turreted tank concept.  Of course, all this is known to French tank enthusiasts who have French language histories of their armored vehicle heritage.  Up to now, early French tank history has been covered in English in smaller works such as the Osprey New Vanguard volume on French Tanks of World War I or within books covering a wider topic.  Now, English reading audiences finally have an in-depth account of French World War I tank history thanks to the efforts of Tim Gale.


Book Review: Images of War: The Panther Tank

Images of War is a long running series by Pen and Sword books, primarily focused on WW2.  While most of the titles in the series focus on either a particular campaign or a military unit, they also include titles on different WW2 era tanks.  The latest tank themed entry in the series is The Panther Tank: Hitler’s T-34 Killer (Images of War) by Anthony Tucker-Jones.

The book is a softcover volume of 120 pages and contains over 100 photographs as well as a selection of color drawings.  The book is roughly the same dimensions as an Osprey New Vanguard or Duel book, although considerably thicker.  The paper quality is good, as is the quality of the images.  While the title of the series might make one assume this book is strictly a photo collection, there is actually a good deal of text included in the book.  A quick count reveals that roughly one of out every three pages is text, typically divided in two or three page sections addressing different models of the tank or different campaigns the Panther was involved in.

Tucker-Jones does a good job in presenting the history of the vehicle in the relatively limited number of pages available.  The book does not go in depth into the technical features of the Panther, rather focusing on the reasons for its development and combat history.  The author gives a well-balanced history of the Panther, noting that while the vehicle had some significant technical advantages over its Allied foes, it ultimately was not well suited to the needs of the German war machine in the later stages of the war.  The descriptions of various combat actions involving Panthers illustrate quite well the frustrations German crews and commanders had with these vehicles due to their size, fuel consumption and mechanical unreliability.  Our only nitpick would be that while the title of the book references the Panther as “Hitler’s T-34 Killer”, little attention is given to the Panther on the Eastern Front beyond the vehicles introduction at the battle of Kursk in 1943.  Given the limited size of this book, this omission is probably excusable.

As to the photographs, some are ones that have been reprinted in other books, some were unfamiliar to this reviewer.  The color plates are attractive and may be of use to modelers, although there are only ten pages of these.

For those looking for an introductory level book on the Panther, this book will do nicely. For those already familiar with the topic, most of the content of this book will be familiar.  That said, it’s a handsome volume with a reasonable price tag.  Currently, quite a few copies are available through third party vendors on Amazon at nearly half off the cover price, making this book a veritable bargain.

Book Review: Patton Versus the Panzers

Patton Versus the Panzers: The Battle of Arracourt, September 1944

Author: Steven Zaloga

Publisher: Stackpole Books, August 2016

Hardcover: 288 pages

This book is a good antidote to the popular media conception of the M4 tank as a “Death Trap” as stated in films such as “Fury” or numerous cable TV documentaries. Zaloga first addressed this theme in his 2008 book on the history of the Sherman tank, “Armored Thunderbolt” as well as in the Osprey Duel books “Sherman vs Panther” and “Sherman Vs Panzer IV.”  In this book he further makes his case by examining in detail the battle of Arracourt, clearly showing that the outcome of the battle was decided far more by the quality and training of the tank crews involved than by the technical advantages or disadvantages of the Sherman and Panther tanks. It also becomes apparent in this book just how desperate the situation was for German Panzer forces in this period and how poorly thought out was the conception of the late war “Panzer Brigades.” At the other end of the spectrum is the US 4th Armored Division, one of the best armored units in the US army at the time, well trained, well equipped and well led.

While popular media fixate on the heavy armor and powerful gun of the Panther tank, in every other regard the German Panzer Brigades came up short against US Armor, lacking artillery, reconnaissance units, air support, recovery and repair capability, logistical support, trained crew, fuel and other basic supplies. And of course, the Panzer Brigades were also handicapped by being assigned unrealistic mission orders from the Fuhrer himself. This all becomes abundantly clear as the German attacks detailed in the book consistently fail to achieve even their initial goals, let alone the audacious goals assigned to them by Hitler.

The book contains a rather sizable appendices, containing some interesting essays. There is a section with short biographies of the various officers involved in the battle, as well as a chapter on Patton’s various command vehicles. An essay from 1946 by 4th Armored Division veteran Albin Irzyk in defense of the Sherman tank makes for interesting reading. Irzyk is featured in several of the TV documentaries on the battle of Arracourt and the Sherman tank, his thoughts on the topic usually limited to short clips. Getting to read his thoughts on the matter in a longer, uninterrupted format gives some valuable context to his TV documentary appearances. Also featured in the appendices is a short essay on the role (or more accurately, the lack of a role) that the infamous Tiger I tank played against the US forces in the ETO. This is included in response to the popular conception that Tiger tanks were regularly encountered by US forces. The reality was that the US Army in Western Europe very seldom encountered the famous Tiger I tank. This is in contrast to the British, who encountered a number of Tiger I tanks during the Normandy campaign.

For those with an interest in WW2 armor and the role it played in the Fall of 1944 in Western Europe, this book will be a welcome addition to your collection.

Book Alert: French Tanks of the Great War

Amazon is showing an August 19 release date for the book French Tanks of the Great War: Development, Tactics and Operations by Tim Gale.  This is a hardcover volume of 256 pages published by Pen & Sword.  For those with an interest in French tank history, this book should prove rather valuable, much of this history has up until now only been available in French language sources.

Publisher’s Description:

The French tank corps was an essential part of the French army from 1917 onwards, yet its history has been strangely neglected in English accounts of the Western Front – and that is why Tim Gale’s meticulously researched history is such a timely addition to the literature on the First World War. Using information derived from the French military archives at Vincennes, he describes the design and development of the tanks, the political and organizational issues that arose between the French military and civilian bureaucracy and the record of these pioneering fighting vehicles in combat. All the major engagements in which French tanks participated are depicted in graphic detail, often quoting directly from recollections left by individual tank commanders of their experience in battle, and each operation is assessed in terms of its impact on French tactics in general and on tank tactics in particular. The story will be fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in the Great War, the French army, military innovation and the history of armored warfare.

About the Author:

Dr Tim Gale was awarded his PhD by the Department of War Studies, King’s College London for his work on French tank development and operations in the First World War and he is now one of the leading experts on this aspect of armoured warfare. He has contributed chapters on the subject to several academic books and he has made a special study of the career of the French First World War general Charles Mangin. His book The French Army’s Tank Force and the Development of Armoured Warfare in the Great War was published in 2013.

Book Review: M60A2 Main Battle Tank, Volume 1

Sabot Publications is a relatively new publisher and M60A2 Main Battle Tank Volume 1 In Detail is their third release.  As the title states, this book examines the M60A2, the most short lived and least successful member of the M60 family of tanks..  The format of the book is pretty simple, this is primary a photo reference book.  Their are a couple pages at the beginning of the book giving a history of the M60A2, followed by 120+ pages of photos.  The layout consists primarily of two black and white pictures per page with text descriptions.  The photo captions are well done and contain a good deal of information.

All in all, there are over 250 pictures in this book, primarily showing the M60A2 out in the field.  There are several different individual tanks shown on exercise in Germany in the 1978-1980 period.  People looking for pictures of the M60A2 being recovered from getting immobilized will find quite a few nice examples between these pages.  There are also sections devoted to close up shots of various components, including multiple pictures of the 152mm gun being removed from the vehicle.  A photo of an M60A2 next to a Soviet T-55 gives a nice example of just how tall the M60 family of tanks were compared to their cold war adversary.

M60A2 bookThe book is roughly magazine sized, with card stock thickness covers, a strong binding and nice quality glossy pages.  Total page count is 128 pages.  This book should serve as a very handy reference for model builders who decide to tackle this rather unusual vehicle.  Sabot Publication is planning a second volume looking at the M60A2 which should be available relatively soon.  Other Sabot titles include volumes on the M1A2 SEP Abrams and the M9ACE, and upcoming titles include those looking at the Stryker MGS, Patriot Mobile Missile Defense System, M1 ABV, and the MLRS.  For more information regarding Sabot Publications, be sure to visit their Facebook page.

Book Review: Valentine Infantry Tank 1938-1945

Valentine Infantry Tank 1938-45 (New Vanguard) is the latest release in the long running New Vanguard series by Osprey Publishing.   Written by Dr. Bruce Newsome, this volume follows the well-established model of the New Vanguard series.  As with other New Vanguard books, it’s 48 pages and features a combination of photos, drawings and charts to accent the text.  As far as we can tell, this is the first New Vanguard title written by Dr. Newsome, most of the previous New Vanguard titles on WW2 British tanks having been authored by David Fletcher.  In examining the Valentine, Dr. Newsome has picked one of the more challenging vehicles due to the large number of variants and types of Valentine built during the war.

The Valentine was produced in greater numbers by the British Commonwealth than any other model of tank and yet it generally receives little attention, as evidenced by the fact that this book is the 233rd in the series.   Compared to its German and American counterparts, relatively little ink has been devoted to this vehicle, being limited to the old AFV Profile series from the 1970’s, the Museum Ordnance Special from the 1990’s and the more recent  books on the Valentine by Dick Taylor.

Given the large number of Valentine variants and the relatively small page count, this book does not give much in-depth detail to any particular Valentine model.  One deviation from previous New Osprey titles is the use of fairly large charts.  These account for roughly seven pages of the book and are quite useful for providing the details of the various Valentine models in a concise manner.  Also addressed in this book are the Bishop and Archer self-propelled guns as well as the ill-fated Valiant “assault” tank.    Given the small page count of the New Vanguard series, it might have been better to address these other vehicles in a separate volume.  Certainly, there is enough to say about the Valentine to fill two volumes of 48 pages.  That said, Dr. Newsome has packed as much information into the book as the New Vanguard format allows.

Valentine Infantry Tank 1938-45 (New Vanguard) is available in both softcover and kindle editions at Amazon.

Book Review: M48 vs Centurion: Indo-Pakistani War 1965

M48 vs Centurion: Indo-Pakistani War 1965 by David R.  Higgins

51LwRVTUmDL._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 featured the largest tank battles seen up to that point since the Second World War.  However, these battles would soon be eclipsed in size and in the popular consciousness by the armored battles of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973.  While much ink has been spilled regarding the tank battle of the Arab-Israeli wars, far less has been written about the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.  Fortunately, author David Higgins seeks to fill the void with his new entry in the Osprey Duel series with M48 Patton vs Centurion: Indo-Pakistani War 1965.

While the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 may have some superficial similarities to the more well-known Arab-Israeli wars, there are some important differences.  While M48 Patton tanks and Centurion tanks were used in both conflicts, in the Arab-Israeli wars both of these tanks were operated by the Israelis against Soviet built Arab operated tanks.  The Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 features U.S. built Patton tanks lined up against British Centurion tanks, making it one of the few examples of a postwar armor conflict featuring Western built tanks on both sides.  The other noticeable difference between the two conflicts was that the difference in crew training and quality was not nearly as pronounced in the Indo-Pakistani war as it was between Arab and Israeli forces.

The format of the book follows the same pattern as earlier Osprey Duel books and is Mr. Higgins fifth book in the series.   A good deal of technical information is presented about both tanks, as is the norm in this series.  While there are considerable differences between the two tanks, it becomes clear that they are fairly well matched adversaries.  The Centurion and the M48 are both well-known and the technical descriptions of the vehicle may be “old hat” for well-read on the topic.  That said, the vehicle descriptions are well written and contain some nice illustrations.  The technical descriptions are followed by a section describing the history and organization of the Indian and Pakistani armored forces, information which will probably be new to many readers.   This section is followed by a description of the events of the campaign, interesting reading of a war which has not been described often in other sources.

The conclusion of the book notes that neither vehicle proved itself as markedly superior to the other, factors such as morale, crew training and leadership being more important in determining the outcome of any particular engagement between the two combatants.  The war was essentially a draw and while crews on both sides often fought bravely, higher level leadership was often tentative and ineffective on both sides.   The book does not really say if Western observers took many lessons from this particular war, either in regards to the performance of the vehicles or the tactics used.

Available through Amazon for under $15, this book is well worth the price.  By our count, Mr. Higgins is second only to Steven Zaloga in the number of tank themed “Duel” series books authored thus far.  Based on this book and his previous entries in the series, we hope to see more “Duel” books from Mr. Higgins in the future.