S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

Archive for the tag “world war ii”

BOOK REVIEW: A Box of Sand: The Italo-Ottoman War 1911-1912 by Charles Stephenson

a box of sandI’m conflicted reviewing this book. Stephenson reports the chronologic events of this war in exceptional detail. Unfortunately, it’s dull, and tedious—lacks an empathetic milieu. It’s hard reading for the ordinary citizen. Perhaps it is best as a reference book for the military historian.

This war between the Kingdom of Italy and the Ottoman Empire early in the twentieth-century (1911-1912) for control of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (now Libya) mostly is lost to history nor is its raison d’être much understood. Stephenson has superbly researched the war’s particulars and has penned about as historically accurate a scenario as one could reckon. He relates in excruciating detail the chronology of the war—laced with interminable quotes from journalists, diary entries, diplomatic and military messages, after-action reports, etc. He spends considerable text discussing the reactions of the Triple Entente to Italy’s (a member) participation in the war, Ottoman politics, and details and implications of the Balkan Wars. Such background is related to the conflict but is tangential and diverts our attention from the main theme.

I’m overwhelmed with ancillary information. The war’s key points are buried in this comprehensive blather. On completion of his text, I do not have a clear picture of the events of this war nor of its origins.

I have three more complaints: the text of this 296-page book is in a small font (size and type not given on the copyright page)—far too small for comfortable reading. And, the Appendices are in an even smaller font. Often times, he mentions locations in the text that are not plotted on his maps. The Index contains only the names of people mentioned in the text. A more comprehensive Index would contain geographic locations, ship’s names, and etc.

Lastly, though the war ended officially in 1912 it morphed into a protracted war with the indigenous Senussi that lasted until 1934. The Senussi are a Muslim political-religious Sufi order and tribe of (now) Libya and Sudan.

Book Review: Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris

five_came_backMark Harris weaves an intriguing story of five top-notch motion-picture directors that abandoned their careers in Hollywood and joined the military to help win World War II by producing documentary, propaganda, and information films.  He has integrated numerous moving parts into a coherent tale with keen interest. It’s a heavy book that deserves a careful read. Loaded with key information, and a comprehensive index, Five Came Back is essential for the cineaste, WWII aficionados, and those of my generation who recall the great films of these five directors and the details of the war.  After the read, this book goes into one’s library as a great reference book re Hollywood and the War effort.  The directors are:

Director Spreadsheet

I have two concerns.  First Harris changes gears all too often without a transition.  For instance, in one paragraph he writes about one director and in the following chapter he talks about another director and there is no apparent relationship between these two chapters.  Nonetheless, a linear structure where he would discuss one director a time would be a disaster.  Often times there were relationships between two of the directors.  Secondly, I’ve spotted eight technical errors.  The list is at the end of this review—some significant, others nit picks.

The Office of War Information and General George C. Washington tasked Major Frank Capra to produce a series of film to inform our soldiers and civilians about the righteous of our involvement in the war.  He fought army bureaucracy for most of the war to produce and distribute the Why We Fight series of seven films.  The first picture in this series of documentary films, Prelude to War earned the Academy Award in 1942.  By the war’s end, all seven films were released.



The army tasked (then) Lieutenant Colonel Frank Capra, to coordinate all army combat photographic efforts.  Accordingly, he commuted between Washington, DC and London through the War.

In discussing the power of propaganda films and the value of realism Capra said, “No war documentary can be made with absolute integrity and truth.”  Capra supporting John Houston’s staging and restaging the battle scenes in the The Battle of San Pietro. Capra’s comments reflected his understanding of the documentary film movement.  John Grierson, father of the documentary film, averred that the documentary film is a restaging of reality.  Eric Ambler (English novelist) commented on the staged battle scenes of San Pietro, “That nothing but falsification would be of any use, or even possible.” He reinforced his countryman’s philosophy re the documentary film.

In May 1945 the war in Europe was over: Capra was discharged, and General George C. Marshall pinned the Distinguished Service Medal on his blouse.

John Huston had conceived, staged, and restaged almost the entire film The Battle of San Pietro.  Houston, perhaps overprotective of his cameramen, was reluctant to have them in danger on the front lines.  Accordingly, he convinced the Army to supply the men and equipment he needed to produce this film.  It was a reasonably faithful reproduction of the actual battle.  Harris says that, “Houston would do most anything that would fit the army’s propaganda needs.”  Several years later, Houston would haggle with the Army to release his film Let There be Light.  This film dealt with the psychological problems of the returning serviceman.  The Army thought it to be too negative and reflect poorly on the soldier,


san pietro

Lieutenant Commander John Ford, a naval reservist, was called to active duty shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Tipped about the coming battle at Midway, he and his combat cameramen (mostly from Hollywood) deployed to the island.  During the battle, Ford documented some of the fiercest action with his handheld, 16mm camera.  His footage of the battle was captured totally impromptu.  Ford was filming the battle while standing near the Midway power house. He was wounded slightly in the arm when a Japanese bomb exploded near power house.  He assembled the raw footage and with keen filmic design techniques  produced the Academy award-wining film (1942), Battle of Midway.


Ford was present at Omaha Beach on D-Day (6 June 1944) directing Coast Guard cameramen. No motion picture was made of the footage.  In a 1964 interview, Ford explained that the U.S. Government was “afraid to show so many American casualties on the screen.” At war’s end the navy awarded John Ford the Legion of Merit.  He remained in the Naval Reserve and the Navy promoted him to Rear Admiral in 1952 when he retired.

Ford’s relationship with the Office of Strategic Services (Forerunner of the CIA) and the Navy is unclear.  He seemed to be serving two masters.  What was the purpose of this dual chain-of-command?  Early on he said, “I am in command of the field photographic branch of the Office of Strategic Services.”  And, why was the OSS producing documentary film?

John Ford had contempt for actor John Wayne because Wayne had broken one vague comment after another to join the Armed Forces.  Wayne never joined.  I reckon they reconciled after the war:  they collaborated on a number of films, such as The Searchers.

Harris weaves an intriguing tale of William Wyler’s producing and directing the groundbreaking film The Memphis Belle—probably the “best” documentary film for the war.  Actually, it is a composite of several Eight Air Force, Boeing B-17 missions over Germany.  It’s suffused with real-time combat photography that is thrilling, chilling, and engrossing—much shot by Wyler.  It’s the story of the crews twenty-fifth mission—this time over the submarine pens at Wilhelmshaven.  On return, the Queen of England greets the crew, medals awarded, and their commanding officer reads their orders to return to homeland to train bomber crews for future raids on Germany.  What the film fails to discuss is the appalling loss rate of our B-17 and B-24 bombers: German interceptor aircraft, anti-aircraft “flack,” and foul weather took a terrible toll.  On average, the loss rate per raid was about fifteen percent.  Over Schweinfurt, the loss rate was fifty-percent.


George Stevens joined the Army Signal Corps. His personal use of film cameras to document the historic event in Europe is one of the most interesting tales in this book.  For example, the scenes that Harris that tells about Stevens shooting film and directing his combat cameramen at Omaha Beach on “D Day,” the push through the hedge rows of Normandy, the Liberation of Paris, Stevens’ using a film camera to documented the army’s advance through France and Germany; and the liberation of the notorious concentration camp Dachau.  The horror of the scene at Dachau, affected Stevens deeply for the rest of his life.   On his discharge from the Army he was awarded he Legion of Merit.


The five directors resumed their careers after the war: some more successful than others.  Their experiences in the war inscribed deep emotional scars that were harder for some to overcome than others were.  Nonetheless, all resumed successful careers in the fast-changing Hollywood environment.

Here are the errors I’ve spotted.

  • Calls the USSR “Russia” in Frank Capra’s trip in 1935.
  • Incorrectly refers to the 1935-1936 Second Italian-Ethiopian War as starting in 1933.
  • States that Newfoundland in 1943 was part of Canada.  No so.  At that time, Newfoundland was a Dominion of the British Empire—not a part of Canada.
  • He says, “The Navy was still putting the crew (of the Boeing B-17 bomber dubbed “Memphis Bell”) through its paces…”  The crew of the “Memphis Bell” were in the Army Air Corps—not the Navy.
  • Notes that “The Americans, who were then pouring all of their manpower into the war in the Pacific.”  Not so.  President Roosevelt and Five-star General George Marshall, General of the Army, had decided that their first priority was to defeat Nazi Germany in EuropeThe Pacific war was clearly secondary.
  • Discussing the film The Negro Soldier–the telling of the black soldiers’ participation in the war—he notes that the army soldiers were dancing with the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Emergency Service).  I suspect that he meant to write “WAC” (Woman’s Army Corps).
  • In the scene in which Harris discusses the capture of the Ludendorff, single-track railroad bridge across the Rhine River, he states, “…the allies captured three bridges (across the Rhine).  Actually, Hitler ordered all bridges across the Rhine destroyed and all were except the bridge at Remagen.  It was the lone bridge still standing across the Rhine. Elements of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion captured this bridge intact on the 8th of March 1945, and soon General George Patton’s tanks were on the east side of the river and Berlin was his target.
  • Discussing William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, Harris pens that the character Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews) walks among “…an airfield of now useless fighter planes.”  Actually, Fred is in the aircraft bone-yard for the Boeing B-17 bombers.


BOOK REVIEW: The Guns of Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944 to 1945 Volume III by Rick Atkinson

The Gun9780805062908_custom-1a6726df45b0775da6809e6dd65977262d795539-s6-c30s of Last Light, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2013, 877 pp.  Contents,            29 maps, photographs, Notes, 167 pp.; Selected Sources, 28 pp,; Acknowledgements, 6 pp.; Index, 26 pp.
Volume Three of Atkinson’s liberation trilogy details the exploits of the United States Army in North Africa, Italy, and Western Europe during World War II.

The other books in this trilogy are:

  • Volume I, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943
  • Volume II, The Day of the Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944.

Sixty-million people died in the six years of World War II, 1939 to 1945.  

The Guns of Last Light compels the reader to join the “dog faces” as they land at Normandy, slug through the hedge rows, liberate Paris, kill Germans in the Falaise Pocket, leak blood in the Hutgen Forest, are massacred in Malmédy, become a “Battling Bastard” of Bastogne, die at Arnhem, crack the Siegfried Line, capture the bridge at Remagen, liberate the death camp at Dachau, assassinate extra judicially the SS guards at Buchenwald, and witness General Alfred Jodl sign the unconditional surrender document on 7 May 1945—VE Day.

This is not a “West Point” type book.   Rather, Atkinson takes our hand and leads us through the key battles in central Europe as the typical GI or Tommy experienced it.  The empathy is intense.  The “gouts of blood” is appalling. The horrors of Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbruck, Buchenwald, and Dacau roil the soul.  On top, he details the Allied General’s strategies,  incompetence, bravado, contempt’s, and narcissisms.

Book Review: Engineers of Victory: The Problelm Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War

Engineers of Victory:
The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War 




Paul Kennedy, Random House, New York, 2013, 438 pp., with maps and Tables, photographs, Notes, Bibliography, and Index.



Kenny posits that there were five key tactics to the Allied victory in World War II.

  1. How to Get Convoys Safely Across the Atlantic
  2. How to Win Command of the Air
  3. How to Stop a Blitzkrieg
  4. How to Seize an EnemyShore
  5. How to Defeat the “Tyranny of Distance.”

Kennedy discusses, at great length, the singular elements in each item: intelligence, technology, tactical and long-term strategies, planning, and the civilian and military scientist and engineers who fashioned new weapons to counter the enemy’s initial advantage, and the verve of military leaders.

In item one, for example, Kennedy avers that victory over the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats—the scourge of the North Atlantic—sinking  merchantmen at an alarming rate and practically serving the life line to an isolated and embattled Great Brittan was a combination of several factors: long-range aircraft with new anti-submarine weapons, cryptographers at Bletchley Park who broke the German Navy’s Enigma code, the Hedgehogs multiple mortar weapon system, advanced and more powerful dept-charges, introduction of  Jeep aircraft carriers with their anti-submarine aircraft, and other items all combined to defeat the U-boat menace in the North Atlantic.

In item two, Kennedy details the appalling loses of the Eight Air Force’s B-17 and B-24 bombers in their 1943 daylight raids on the Third Reich—each aircraft with a ten-man crew.  For example, on the raids on the ball-bearing factories in Schweinfurt in October 1943, on just one day the Luftwaffe’s experienced pilots shot down sixty of our bombers—a staggering loss rate of twenty percent.  Dozens of other aircraft were badly damaged and limped home to their airfields in England—almost all with severely wounded airmen. For the experienced Luftwaffe pilots the Schweinfurt raids were a “turkey shoot”—some aces had over one-hundred kills at war’s end.   Simply, the United States Army Air Corps did not have a long-range fighter aircraft that could escort our bombers to their targets and return and to fend the Luftwaffe.

Meantime, the North American Company produced the P-51 fighter, powered by the Alison V1710 engine.  At best, the Allison-powered P-51 was marginally satisfactory as a low-altitude interceptor.  A Royal Air Force test pilot flew the P-51 and recognized its superior aerodynamics and very low drag.  He recommended that the Rolls Royce Merlin V-12, in-line, liquid cooled 1,500 horsepower engine be installed in the aircraft. Viola!  History was made.  Now the high-altitude P-51, fitted with two, 108 gallon drop tanks, escorted our bombers all the way to Berlin.  The slaughter of the B-17s ceased and the Luftwaffe fighter pilots suffered appalling loses.

For a comprehensive understanding of this excellent book, the reader must have an in-depth knowledge of World War II, a worldwide atlas stored in the mind, and a compelling appetite to ferret the myriad details of the five key battles of the last world war.  Clearly, Engineers of Victory is not for the average reader.  This book is more appropriate as a textbook for the military academies or a war college, or for academic researchers.


Beretta 32 Caliber Semi-Automatic Pistol

The Beretta is a magazine-fed, semi-automatic pistol that fires the 32 ACP* caliber bullet.  Beretta first introduced this pistol in 1935, and produced approximately 500,000 copies in various models.  The Italian armed forced adopted the Beretta 32 ACP as the standard service firearm in 1937.  The German Wehrmact used the pistol in 1944 and 1945.





This pistol has the capacity for eight rounds: seven in the magazine and one in the chamber.  Its semi-automatic function is a single-action, blowback process. It has a manual safety, and when the last round is expended, the empty magazine keeps the slide open. The Beretta M1935 model is made of carbon steel and the grip is plastic.

  • Muzzle velocity is 925 feet per second.
  • Weight is about 22 ounces
  • Length is six inches.

Intended for military use, Beretta designed the model 1935 with minimal parts for maximum reliability and ease of maintenance.  In particular, the feeding and extraction cycle is very dependable.  Its robust construction insures a long service life if properly maintained.

In my historical novel St. Catherine’s Crown, the female protagonist, Black Orchid, uses the Beretta 32 with deft skills.

  • ACP = Automatic Colt Pistol

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