Saturday, 11 September 2010

Seelowe Nord

Apart from earning a living, the other thing that keeps me from painting is reading. I commute for about an hour and fifteen minutes each morning and evening on the Tube so I have plenty of time for reading and can knock off most books in less than a week (roughly seventy pages each way per day). I have the same issues with books that I do with my soldiers - my purchasing outweighs my consumption and I have a "slush pile" in my bedroom of epic proportions. And these are real books - "E Readers" or whatever you call them just don't do it for me, I have to have the smell of a new book and the feel of turning a page.

Anyway, this last couple of weeks I've been reading a couple of novels set in WWII. One, called The Kindly Ones: A Novel by Jonathan Littell won the Prix D'Goncourt (sort of French Booker Prize) about three years ago - this caused a bit of a fuss for two reasons. First, it was a 976 page novel written in fluent French by an American (and it was his first novel), and second because it was a fictional memoir of an unreconstructed SS officer who had served with the Einsatzgruppen in the East and then became a kind of management consultant (for wont of a better term) for the labour camps. I'm about two thirds of the way through this and it is a super book (in the sense of being well written and accurate) but obviously it is about a serious and grim subject - how apparently normal everyday people can commit mass murder. This is the first book I've read on the Tube where I've been very conscious of who is sitting next to me - there is quite a big Jewish community that live in Finchley and I am well aware that anyone who peeked over my shoulder and read some pages of this book out of context might well be shocked and upset at what they see - and I really wouldn't want to upset anyone. It's a pretty disturbing and heavy novel.

Anyway, this has nothing to do with wargaming - but after six hundred pages of The Kindly Ones I needed something a bit lighter and Amazon came to my rescue. If you are a regular user of the site I'm sure you are aware of the "recommendations" function where if you buy a book the site recommends books that other people bought that you might like. This has the unfortunate side effect that after buying some books you get some recommendations that are bizarre (not rude but I was a bit surprised to be recommended the game KerPlunk after buying a book on Gettysburg). Anyway, I was in need of an Amazon fix after a very boring morning in the office (what do you mean, you never log on to non-work related sites during the day?) and decided to get some books that had just come out. To make up the order to the point where I got free postage I added a volume of short stories on the theme of "alternate histories" - at which point I got the "if you like that you might like this" - and there was Seelowe Nord: The Germans are Coming by Andy Johnson.

So I thought I would give it a spin, and I'm glad I did. The basic premise of the book is that Admiral Raeder began to look into amphibious warfare rather earlier and more seriously than he did in reality, enabling landings to take place. However the Operation Sea Lion that was picked apart after the war (landings on the South Coast) is revealed to be a deception plan to enable the Wehrmacht to throw their forces ashore between Scarborough and Bridlington (hence "Seelowe Nord"). While Andy Johnson doesn't ignore the problems this causes the Germans in terms of air cover and logistics it is perfectly apparent that what he wants to do is write about WWII land combat in East Yorkshire - and on those terms it is a very good first novel. The story follows characters on both sides at all levels of command (think Red Storm Rising and you'll have the idea) and generally it is very well done. The Home Guard are very plucky, the Germans aren't ogres and the combat scenes aren't too Boys Ownish - Andy Johnson was a career soldier serving in the Coldstream Guards so he certainly knows about men under fire.

So, if you can suspend your disbelief, it is a good first thriller. I had a couple of whinges though - there are no maps in the book so I would definately recommend that you have access to Google maps while reading the book so you can follow the actions. Secondly, there were a number of typos in the book (not a huge number but enough to irritate me - in this day and age there is no excuse for this). Thirdly, the wargamer in me would have liked to see OOBs for both sides included.

There were a couple of areas where I'd need to read more to see if Andy Johnson had it "right" - there were a few scenes where General Alan Brooke was briefing Churchill that sounded "modern" to my ears. I'm not sure if WWII generals spoke about "shaping the battlefield" in 1940 - but this is a minor niggle and I may very well be wrong and that is exactly the kind of language used. I'd also like to read more about 1940 British Army defence doctrine (which presumably was undergoing huge changes based upon the experience gained in France) - I can't help feeling that the tactics used in the book were more 1980's BAOR than 1940, but again, I may well be talking utter rubbish. Either way the book is a jolly good read and I'd recommend it.

The book has lots of actions that could be the basis for wargames and with Battlefront pushing early war gaming I could see modellers moving their Vickers tanks to defend Driffield over the next few months.

Perhaps not so co-incidentally I've continued to work through my half painted pile to finish off a Battlefront MG platoon (four HMG teams and some command) this week. Pictures later this weekend.