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The Siege of Leningrad by David M. Glantz: a review

The Siege of Leningrad by David M. Glantz

Cassell 2004, 334 pages

This book outlines the campaigns around Leningrad, from the beginning of Operation Barbarossa through to roughly the middle of 1944, when the last German units were pushed out of the region.

It is predominantly a detailed account of the thrusts and counterthrusts by the opponents. There is much talk of left flanks and slow progress and lack of command and control.

The numbers are probably the most impactful thing about it. Around 2 million Russians (roughly half civilians and half soldiers) perished around the Leningrad region, which made up only a relatively small fraction of the front. For comparison, the USA lost about 300,000 soldiers on all fronts combined for the whole war. WWII has been described as ‘the eastern front plus sideshows’, and in terms of men and machinery, this is not too far from the truth. Of course, other campaigns were of enormous strategic significance — a quick victory over Britain in 1940 could well have been the catalyst that made everything else turn out differently — but none ranged over such vast areas or cost so much blood and iron. Russia was always Hitler’s primary enemy. His actions elsewhere were more about securing his back before he plunged east. He would happily have left western Europe alone had it promised him a free hand in the east. As such, the battle between Germany and Russia was existential. Hitler conceived of it as Aryan versus Slav. There could be no peace.

The book does not look at those issues. Its focus is narrow. It evaluates the military decisions made, critiques them, looks at lessons learned and at what ramifications the Leningrad fight had for the rest for the front.

There is relatively little about life in the blockaded city. It is not clear from the cover or the blurb, but this is really a book for fans of military strategy and, particularly, tactics.

As such, it has one glaring flaw.

The maps and the text do not mesh well. Repeatedly, pages would be expended describing offensives; the methods, the commanders, the cities and regions they were to fight for. Yet the places mentioned can often not be found on the corresponding maps. I was sometimes able to find them on a map elsewhere in the book, but some locations were just missing and I had to guess or look in an atlas or a map from the interwebs. Or just skip it. It was very frustrating hunting through the various maps looking for one that showed me where somewhere — where a very important action happened — was.

Perhaps it was just about limited space on the page, but it was a distinct annoyance.

Apart from that, I think I am perhaps just not enough interested in the arrows showing the marches of the troops and the details of how many miles they advanced and where. My eyes started to glaze over and in a few places I started to skip ahead.

The proofreading is not great, either.

In short, this is probably very interesting to the fan of military tactics who wants to see a whole major campaign laid out and critiqued. Such a reader would see how the Red Army’s techniques and tactics evolved over the years and how the tide was stopped and then turned by a combination of persistence, weight of numbers and, eventually, tactical skill. For the rest of us, the book lacks context and the human story. But, I suspect the rest of us is not the audience it is aiming at. At times it sounds like a lecture to officer cadets.

Verdict: Good, but for the aficionados.


A tragedy

Fall of Fortresses by Elmer Bendiner — a high-quality WWII memoir

This is a very fine book. Bendiner was not a famous pilot like Guy Gibson (Enemy Coast Ahead) — he was a navigator who managed to complete a tour of 25 operations over occupied Europe in B-17 Fly Fortresses that steadfastly continued to attack during daylight hours, and suffered horrendous losses as a result. When 10% per mission was considered an acceptable loss rate, not many can have made it through 25.

Image of the cover of the Pan edition from the early 80s.

The cover of the edition I read.

But what makes the memoir interesting is not Bendiner’s achievements — not that they are negligible — but the honesty and insight that he brings. The book was published 35 years after the war ended, and that critical distance allows Bendiner to be autobiographer and biographer at the same time, something made possible I suspect by the intensity and otherness of war. There is a point in the book, near the end, when he has finished his tour but not yet been allowed to leave the aerodrome:

How stupid, how cruel to let me stay alive and safe among those who are still hostages to death. No surgeon would leave an amputated limb near the living patient.

This captures his ability to look upon the events from inside and outside at the same time, and to come up with a striking metaphor to capture it. Few war memoirs are as notable for the prose as this one, though it is worn lightly.

A few examples:

The cottage had a fine, dishevelled look, like a girl fresh from tumbling about in the hay.

I cannot take seriously those who adopt the pose of the disenchanted without having experienced the prerequisite enchantment.

It could be J. G. Ballard:

The earth was no longer tilled land. The cities were empty and staring. One imagined a world of grotesque fungi. The only signs of animation appeared in the yellow flicker of burning B-17s.

Or, speaking about a General after a raid that cost many men and machines:

He was in the position of a man who does not know precisely what he has bought but is certain that it was very expensive.

On keeping notes while flying:

I would have noted by heart’s blood dripped to the floor — the time, place, altitude.

Or, showing how we get the inside and the outside at once, he talks about watching a formation of planes heading out on a mission:

I exulted in that parade. I confess this is an act of treason against the intellect, because I have seen dead men washed out of their turrets with a hose. But if one wants an intellectual view of war one must ask someone who has not seen it.

And a little bon mot, yet hardly free of irony:

Navigators must exude self-confidence or abdicate.

I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is written with the wit and artistry of a top-line novelist, tackles some of the greatest topics in art, literature and life — war, death, life — and is a page-turner as much as any thriller.

It is interesting to compare it to one of the most famous war memoirs ever written, <i>If this is a man</i> by Primo Levi. Both authors are Jewish, and Bendiner reflects on his war and the experiences of the prisoners in Dachau, and shakes his head and knows that what he saw tells him nothing about that — but the similarities run deeper than happenstances of religion. Both books combine intellect and artistry to deal with the unexplainable. They show how human beings somehow survive, and how important it is that they fool themselves.

Bediner picked a poppy before every mission. He knew it was pointless, but he also knew that without it he was doomed.



The Balloon Factory — a travel book

The Balloon Factory by Alexander Frater

The cover says ‘the story of the men who built Britain’s first flying machines’ but what it really is is ‘The story of the author’s journey to go to places related to the men who built Britain’s first flying machines’. There is a lot of the author in this book. Now, if you like the author to take centre stage and tell us about his own flying lessons and about how he went to Africa (or whatever) and the interesting chap he had lunch with while researching this book, then that suits fine. It’s a bit like those nature documentaries where we mostly see the presenter talking about their efforts to find the animal, rather than the animal itself.

Cover of <i>The Balloon Factory</i> by Alexander Frater.

Cover of The Balloon Factory by Alexander Frater.

The book contains some stuff about Sam Cody, De Havilland and Sir George Cayley, and J. W. Dunne who made strange but effective aeroplanes and An Experiment with Time. It is written with great fluency and charm, and does indeed contain some interesting information. Perhaps because written by a travel writer, it does not spend too much time on the technical aspects but tells the human stories of its protagonists, and they are an interesting bunch. On the other hand, it is far from comprehensive — there were many significant figures (the Short brothers, for example) who get very little attention. The author has been captured by a couple of personalities, mainly Cody who seems to occupy fully half the book, and so the picture is skewed and highly personal.

Despite the title, there is very little in it on balloons. Just FYI.

Conclusion: If you like a congenial host getting between you and the material and telling you his story as well as the story of his subject, this is a very pleasant read. If you prefer a book to focus on the subject rather than the teller, this may not suit. It is not a bad book, but it may not be what you expect.


What you expect.


The battle between the Monitor and the Virginia appears with monotonous regularity in books about ships, particularly fighting ships. It was the first battle between iron ships, the first involving a ship with a turret, the first involving ships that did not rely on sail, nor even have masts as backup to the engines.

Cover of <i>Monitor</i>, the book about the boat.

Cover of Monitor, the book about the boat.

One thing this book brings home is how small it was. No great fleet action like Jutland or Lepanto or Trafalgar — it was really just a skirmish, though one with great repercussions.

deKay does a nice job of bringing these repercussions to light. They were strategic, technological and even geopolitical.

Strategic: The Confederate states needed access to weapons and materiel from Europe, and the Virginia‘s job was to break the blockade set up by the North. Hampton Roads was a vital nexus for bringing cargo from the Atlantic to inland waterways, and it was here that Virginia sallied out and caused pandemonium amongst the wooden ships. Though she was slow and hard to control, she was also impervious to their shots and could stand off and pound the Union ships into pieces. Had the Monitor not been flanged together in about 3 months and thrown into battle against the _Virginia_ almost as soon as completed, the civil was could have looked very different. Had the Confederates gained mastery of the east coast the marked superiority of the North in terms of industrial capacity would have been at least partially mitigated by better access to imports. Further, it is supposed that had the South been able to maintain this kind of sovereignty over its borders, which would promote interchange with Europe, it might have been granted diplomatic recognition by more potential trading partners. So the book pitches the one-on-one battle as a kind of ‘for want of a nail’ situation. Of course, it’s natural for an author to point out the significance of their topic — they’ve bothered to write about it after all — but there is some substance to this. Had the South been closer in stature to the North, the likelihood of a genuine fissioning of the USA would have to have been greater. We shall never know. Most likely, the war would have gone on even longer, caused even more suffering, and had the same outcome.

Technological: At a stroke, Monitor ushered in a new age in warship design. Though it low freeboard and raft-like construction limited it to coastal waters, it’s general concept — an iron hulled ship, powered by steam, dispensing with sail altogether and armed with turreted guns — was to dominate naval thinking until the rise of the aircraft carrier during WWII. Previous ironclads had looked like modified sailing ships, still arranging their guns in broadsides and still carrying a full complement of sails. Monitor must have looked like something from another world. Just as the Dreadnought reset the benchmarks in 1905, the Monitor forced a reappraisal of what made for a power navy. What value was a hundred ships of the line if a handful of ironclads could pick them off at leisure? So influential was the design of the Monitor that it leant it’s name to a style of ship. Shipyards around the world started building ‘monitors’, and would continue to turn them out for fifty years to come.

Geopolitical: It could be argued that the Monitor is the first significant example of the USA gaining technical, military leadership over Europe. It can be thought of as the very beginning of the process that led the USA to gain military and technological leadership during the 20th century. Ericsson, the man behind the Monitor, was a migrant who had been unable to sell his design in Europe. The strength of the US coming from its inclusiveness is a very modern idea, and the Monitor is an early and potent example.

Anyway, the book follows the politics and the military sides of the story. How the ship got built, how the battles were fought, and what it all meant. I would have liked more technical details — we do not even get a table summarising the capacities of the two combatants. Some more diagrams, perhaps cutaway, and clearer illustrations of how the two ships were laid out and so on, would have buttressed the work nicely and made it more rounded in its coverage. As it is, it is a nice little read.



Quite a big deal

The Age of Napoleon by Alistair Horne.

This book does a very readable job of looking at the influence of Napoleon. The famous battles — Austerlitz, Trafalgar, Wagram and all — are mentioned but not discussed in detail. They provide context, they chart the rise and fall of his empire, but they are not the focus of the book. In many ways Bonaparte reminds more of Alexander the Great than other modern conquerors. His time in charge was brief, he founded no long-lasting, united empire. Yet his influence was enormous and did persist. His was an epoch when the work of centuries seemed to happen in years. Much of what the revolution started was finished (or at least advanced far enough to make turning back impossible) by the dictator. From the metric system to reorganisation of schools and the redesigning of Paris itself.

Paris. In many ways this is a book of two stars. Paris and Napoleon, for in this book France and Paris are synonymous. We get the occasional sentence pointing out how desperate things were in the provinces, but we never visit there. That is the only real weakness of the book (aside from some odd editing — there is considerable repetition that might have been excised). Yes, it takes us away from the political histories that focus on battles and borders and the struggle for leadership, but only as far as the salons and streets of Paris. How did Paris react to the rise and fall of Bonaparte? What monuments did he build there? How were the Prussians and the English received after the fall(s)? It’s all here — if it happened in Paris.

The book does cover the age of Napoleon in Paris. His influence on the rest of the continent is alluded to (he is credited with releasing the ‘genie of German nationalism’, thus triggering the events of the next 130 years, events that would end in another conquering dictator whose efforts ended in ignominy). Hitler is explicitly compared with Napoleon, and reasonably enough comes off poorly, since Napoleon does not seem to have engaged in genocide, slavery or rampant anti-Semitism. He did run a police state, though, and was rather keen on monumental architecture.

The book is a quick, easy read. It does a nice job of outlining the times and the man’s role in them.


Russian revolution: Hell on Earth

A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes.

Russia 120 years ago was, for most of its in habitants, a horrible place to live. But that’s the view from here. From inside, it was just how things were. This is the story of how that inevitability was challenged, and how it fell. The central, though hollow, figure is the Tsar. Every opportunity for compromise was rejected by a man incapable of being an autocrat. He would have made an ideal constitutional monarch, since he was an indolent vacillator, but instead he demanded absolute obedience and then failed to lead.

Great events are, I’ve often thought, like a bomb and a fuse. Even when great historical forces have created the situation where change is looming, still a fuse needs to be lit. With a firmer Tsar on the throne the revolution would still have come, but later. With a Tsar who was wise enough to compromise because he could see that the telegraph and the written word and the advances occurring elsewhere in the world meant that the old way could not survive, it may not have had to happen at all. The bomb could have been defused. Instead a decade of fighting lead to 70 years of Soviet Russia and its tens of millions of victims and eye-watering brutality. I’ve read several times, though I can’t recall where, that even Russians will admit it takes a dictator to run the country, be it the Tsar, Stalin or Putin.

The book talks about a kind of ‘darkness’ in the peasant. A will to anarchy, and an intergenerational brutality handed down by husbands to brutalised wives and children. Here’s some advice:

Hit your wife with the butt of the axe, get down and see if she’s breathing. If she is, she’s shamming and wants some more.

The more you beat the old woman, the tastier the soup will be.

Life was cheap, and the only rewards came in heaven.

This book is a remarkable achievement. Deep, wide, beginning many years before 1917 — which, though venerated, is only one part of the story — and ending with the death of Lenin, it covers society, polity, military aspects of the many struggles that went on.

The title is apt. One gets the impression the revolution was a tragedy for everybody except Stalin (who shows up quite late in proceedings). So many opportunities to relieve the suffering pass because of vested interests, pig-headedness or greed for power. That is the tragedy of all peoples throughout history; some more, some less.

The book makes a few things clear; Russia under Lenin, had he lived another 20 years, would not have been very different from Russia under Stalin. Lenin is only less reviled because he died before committing his large-scale atrocities. If Hitler had died in 1939 he’d be remembered as a flawed genius who put Germany on the road to recovery but had some pretty unfortunate policies, rather than evil personified. Lenin is the other side of the calculation. Indeed, one quote in there says something like: He did not take power to bring the revolution, he brought the revolution because it gave him a chance to take power.

At 900 pages, it’s a big book; but not a word is wasted.

Highly recommended.



The incomplete Pete: Tragically, I was an only Twin by Peter Cook

Why this is subtitled ‘The Complete Peter Cook’ I don’t know. Unless it’s like an epithet, as in ‘you’re a complete twit’; I mean, Peter Cook was clearly a complete Peter Cook, but this book is not the complete Peter Cook, not even close. It admits as much itself. Anyway. If you don’t know, Peter Cook was the funniest man alive until he died, after which he became the funniest man dead, an even greater achievement. By the age of 30 he had had successful reviews in the West End and on Broadway, had starred in movies, started a nightclub and was owner of Private Eye, the satirical newspaper. By the time he was 40 we was kind of over it, and seemed to only bother to exert his still-remarkable talents when there was a point to prove or some pompous public figure to deflate. That his powers remained undimmed until his untimely, alcohol-fuelled death in 1995 is apparent. Perhaps the flood slowed to a meander, but even a cursory look (for example here, at Alan Latchley) shows that the brilliance was still there. John Cleese has come in second on lists of (Brit) ‘comedians’ comedian’ type polls, always to Cook, and he said that whereas it took he and his contemporaries six hours to produce a three minute sketch, it took Cook precisely three minutes, or so it seemed. More than one person has said he seemed to turn on a tap, tune in to some amazing stream of logical absurdity, and just let it flow.

<i>Tragically I was an Only Twin</i> by Peter Cook.

Tragically I was an Only Twin by Peter Cook.

This book samples most of the more significant corners of Cook’s career. From before Beyond the Fringe (he was writing West End shows for Kenneth Williams while still an undergraduate, sharing the writing duties with Harold Pinter and others), through the Fringe, through Not Only…  But Also… and Private Eye, on to the depths of Derek and Clive and the last flashes of genius. The book is… amusing. Very funny in a few places. Would it have been as funny were I not familiar with his work? I don’t know. I’ve heard or seen quite a few of these pieces, especially the Pete and Dud and Beyond the Fringe stuff, so I hear the words in my mind’s version of his voice. Most of what he wrote was not written to be read. Indeed, there are often no ‘standard’ written versions at all. Some of the sketches reproduced here were taken from scripts but many were transcribed, because he would improvise and invent. He got bored with fixed material and would change it every night during a run on stage, though there were ‘bits’ that tended to stay.

The book is uneven, of course, because it is a book of bits, (though not bits of a book). Often the funniest stuff is the stuff that works least well on paper. Pete and Dud in the Art Gallery needs to be seen — or at least heard. Even though there are relatively few visual gags and the sketch is essentially a conversation, the gleam in Peter’s eye as he tries to make Dudley corpse, the little smile when he says, “you didn’t spit sandwich at him, did you?” or whatever it is; only when you can see those things does the relationship really come alive and then the lines come to life. The brilliance can be seen on the page, but not fully appreciated without the video. You tube, it’s all there these days.

The Private Eye stuff I did not much like. That and Derek and Clive are probably the low points. I know Cook and Moore busted boundaries and pushed back the borders of the possible with Derek and Clive. I know some people think it’s great. I don’t. The rudeness does not bother me, but the nastiness and the lack of actual humour does. This book does a decent job of selecting the few bits of Derek and Clive that are actually (mildly) witty. It always seems to me that if an artist is going to throw off strictures, if they are not going to be bound, then they need to be better than usual. Just busting limits is not funny of itself. Shocked people might titter nervously, but a good comic is, I think, not aiming for that laugh. Broaching topics and images that have been taboo is all well and good, but that needs to be a path to something. It needs to say something that is worth saying that could not be said otherwise, or at least make a joke that could not be made otherwise. It needs to be more than ‘aren’t we shocking! Tee hee hee!’ Derek and Clive fails as comedy for the simple reason that it is not funny; there were some jokes and as I said this does a decent job of picking them out. That work was the end of Cook’s partnership with Moore. He was relentlessly nasty to Moore during the taping of the last album, and drove him away. Moore was breaking into Hollywood at that time and was soon to star in 10 and Arthur, and he never worked with Cook again, apart from bringing out some old material for Galas and the like.

The work does noticeably thin out after 1980. Cook was only in his early 40s at that stage, but decided to slow down lest he fulfil his potential. You might know him as the ‘Impressive Clergyman’ in The Princess Bride, who talks endlessly about ‘twoo wuv’, as Nigel in Supergirl (unlikely — no one likes that movie. I’ve not seen it) or … no, he’s pretty much invisible these days if you don’t go looking for him.

This book is not the place to start. But for the Cook fan it’s a nice little compendium.


Inessential, but funny.

Richard W. Richards: An amazing forgotten story.

This scrappy webpage has been posted in various places over the years (like here, though the link will go dead soon I suspect); I like to keep it with me! Here it is dumped onto this blog. Sorry if the formatting is a bit ropey.

The Beginning

R. W. ‘Dick’ Richards was 21 years old in 1914, and had freshly completed a Physics degree at the School of Mines in Ballarat, Australia, and taken a position as Lecturer, when he answered a call for a Physicist to join the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition under the leadership of Ernest Shackleton.

Shackleton intended tomake the first crossing of the Antarctic continent, starting at the Weddell Sea and crossing to the Ross Sea. To do this, he divided the expedition into two parties. The main party, the Weddell Sea party, sailed in the Endurance, a ship constructed specifically for the voyage, to the Weddell Sea. From there six men, including Shackleton, were to sledge across Antractica to the Ross Sea using motorised sledges, a distance of 1700 miles.

The task of the Ross Sea Shore party was to sledge inland along the Beardmore Glacier and lay fuel and food depots for Shackleton’s sledging party. The Ross Sea party included Richards and another Australian Physicist, A. K. Jack, who were to make meterological measurements and any other observations they could. For example, a home-made cloud chamber was constructed to measure the air’s dust content. They sailed in the Aurora, a ship previously used by Mawson, and refit in Sydney for the new expedition. The ship was under the command of A. L. A. Mackintosh,while E. E. M. Joyce, a well known polar explorer in his own right, was to lead the shore party, which would set up a base from which to sledge out to the depot sites. The Aurora left Sydney on 15 December 1914. From the 21st to the 24th they stopped in Hobart, and after visiting the Australian meteorological station on Macquarie Island, they sailed for the Ross Sea on the last day of 1914. By January 16 they had anchored off Cape Evans, and later went further south,close to Hut Point. The sledging soon got underway, with Joyce and, unexpectedly, Mackintosh leading the team to place the first depot at 80 deg. south.

An example of the Richards Medal.

An example of the Richards Medal.



On May the 6th (or the 10th), disaster struck. A blizzard caught the Aurora and drove it beyond sight of land. And then the ice caught the ship, making it unable to return to the Shore Party. Worst of all, the ship had been expedition headquarters, and only minimal supplies had been landed – ten men were stranded on the ice with little food and the Antarctic winter close at hand. Fortunately, Hut Point was named for the hut erected there by Scott on an expedition in 1911, and so they at least had shelter, and they found a useful quantity of food and other goods left by Scott. These things included an acetylene stove, while they had themselves brought a gramophone and a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. With these things, they survied their first winter.

On the other side of the continent, the Endurance had been trapped in ice for ten months – and on October 27th, 1915, crushed. Shackleton had made his way to Elephant Island in the South Hebrides, and then to South Georgia – in nothing more than a modified whaleboat. He then set about relieving the remainder of the Weddell sea party; but the Ross Sea party would have to wait.

As the winter passed, the Ross Sea party began the main effort of putting out the depots, not knowing that they would never be used, and refraining from using the potentially life-saving food and fuel themselves. As their packaged food ran out, their diet more and more consisted of seal meat and penguin meat. Three men died of scurvy, including Mackintosh. Still they put out the depots. At times they sledged for 100 days without ceasing, often hauling the sledges by hand, since the dogs had been overworked early on and many had died. All the men suffered from scurvy in one way or another, and their lives came to depend on the killing of seals, as the creatures provided food and, just as importantly, blubber which could be burned for heating and melting ice for water.



Through the winter of 1916 they carried on, making expeditions to Shackleton’s old hut on Cape Royd and searching the snow around the huts for forgotten, frozen foodstuffs. All the while, they wondered about rescue. It had not come in the summer of 1915-16, and they could only assume that the Aurora had sunk or been crushed in the Antarctic ice. January 1917 came. It had been almost two years since they had departed Australian waters and heard any news of the world at large. On 10th January, Richards, who was recovering from an illness brought on by endless weeks of sledging followed by physically carrying an injured companion to safety, left the Hut Point hut after breakfast to find, to his astonishment, the Aurora holding fast off the ice-edge. The ship had made its way slowly to safety, and after a refit had come south again to find the shore party.Shackleton was on the ship, having insisted on sailing south. He described them as ‘…just about the wildest looking gang of men I had ever seen…’

And while the crew of the Aurora were overwhelmed by the appearance, manner and smell of Richards and the others, the survivors where even more dazed by news of the war in Europe. Before they left, they raised memorials to their own dead. Then they sailed away from Antarctica.

Richards and three others were awarded the Albert Medal in 1923 for their devotion to duty. He was also presented with the George Cross, the highest award a subject of the British Empire could earn without being at war. There is also now an inlet, relatively close to the Beardmore Glacier, known as Richards Inlet.

Richards returned to Ballarat, where he resumed his position as Lecturer in science at the School of Mines and Industries. From 1946-58 he was Principal of the school. He died in 1985. Before his death, he recorded an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Verbatim programme, which can be ordered by mail. In his honour, the award for the best science graduate (all disciplines) from the Ballarat School of Mines and Industries and then the University of Ballarat (now both rolled into Federation Uni) is known as the Richard W. Richards medal. It is a pewter medal about 7 cm in diameter. Accompanying it is a slim volume called The Ross Sea Shore Party, 1914-17, which is Richards’ own record of the expedition of 1914-17. It is a fascinating document.


References and Links

R. W. Richards, The Ross Sea Shore Party, 1914-17, The Scott Polar Institute, Cambridge 1962.

L. B. Quartermain, South to the Pole: The Early History of the Ross Sea Sector, Antarctica, Oxford University Press, London 1967.

R. Huntford, Shackleton, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1985.

There are also some good Antarctic websites. Here are a couple just on principle: (Especially this page.)

…and here…

Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC.

Scott Polar Research Institute.

Photos of some of the huts and things can be found here.

And the University of Ballarat (now Federation University, FU) has a page on the subject here.

Some comments that accompanied the medal, plus the front cover of his monograph are shown here:

<i>The Ross Sea Shore Party</i> by Dick Richards.

The Ross Sea Shore Party by Dick Richards.


History, eh?

Survival in the Hold: The Raider “Wolf” by Roy Alexander.

The Raider Wolf by Roy Alexander

Angus & Robertson 1968, 177 pages, plus a map.

How many stories of bravery, survival and resourcefulness will never get told? How many have already been forgotten? This is one that is recorded, but it must stand for so many more.

Cover of <i>The Raider "Wolf"</i> by Roy Alexander.

Cover of The Raider “Wolf” by Roy Alexander.


The commerce raider Wolf left Germany on 30th November 1916. She returned 24th Feb, 1918, having sailed a distance equal to three times around the world and and sunk over 100 thousand tonnes of enemy shipping. It was a remarkable feat of seamanship, endurance, cunning and improvisation. This book tells that story, but, more remarkably, it does so from the point of view of one of the sailors interned aboard the Wolf. For the Wolf relied above all things on secrecy. So — what to do about the sailors from the defeated ships? If allowed free, Wolf’s existence and identification would be revealed. Kill them? Not Captain Nerger, a man of stern but human principles. So take them prisoner, keep them in the hold once allocated to mines … and take them, after a year at sea, to prison in Germany.

And for what, in the end? Always with war stories that is the question I cannot avoid. All the great and terrible qualities shown by both sides, and all for killing and destruction. It is a pity the myth of Glory is not yet disposed of.

Scurvy, death, madness. All these befell the prisoners. Yet though they were held under discipline, they were treated as men, not animals. But there is never an infinite supply of food…

The scenes below deck made me think of a Samuel Beckett novel, How It Is, with its endless crawling across an empty space, presumably simply because the alternative is stasis. At times I imagined a Lord of the Flies situation, or a kind of dissection of human behaviour under pressure like in If This is a Man. We have prisoners, bent on doing any little thing they can for the war effort, sneaking messages in bottles overboard, we have the captured ‘neutrals’ being given the chance to work for the German captain and being reviled by the prisoners — the opportunities for incident, for personal politics, and for bravery would make this a great setting for a novel. It has the dramatic unity of a curtailed space, limited resources, hierarchy, diverse sailors from multiple backgrounds being lumped together, people under pressure who simply cannot get out of each others’ way.

The map of the <i>Wolf</i>'s voyage. The only German ship to sail into Australian waters in World War I.

The map of the Wolf‘s voyage. The only German ship to sail into Australian waters in World War I.

Anyone who likes war fiction or fact, or who likes the kind of stories that cut to the heart of what humans can do when pushed — both for good and ill — could get something out of this book. Great literature it is not (the prose is workmanlike and serviceable) but the story is remarkable, some of the characters are astonishing, and the setting is evoked effectively and with authority. If you see it, consider picking it up.


Under the sea.