I enjoy going to rummage sales, antique stores and second-hand book stores in the hopes of finding that rare jewel of a book that fits my interests and is a bargain.
Such was the case a week ago on a trip to Half-Price Books when I turned in three boxes of books for the princely sum of $36.00.
While the clerk was evaluating my three boxes of books I did what I always do and calculate what I might buy with my reward. By the time the clerk was finished I had my eye on three books published by Pen and Sword a British publisher.
The three books I found under the Images of War heading are:
1. Blitzkrieg Poland, caption text by Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell
2. Retreat to Berlin, caption text by Ian Baxter
3. Final Days of the Reich, caption text by Ian Baxter
All three new sell for approximately $21.00 US dollars each. I got them for $8.00 each and thought them a bargain.
The idea behind the books is to use rare photographs and give a brief history of the larger scale of events surrounding the photo topic. The main text is the captions that are given under each picture.
I was especially anxious to read Retreat to Berlin and Final Days of the Reich because both dealt with the German-Russian War of 1941-45, a particular area of interest to me but I exercised good self-control and started with Blitzkrieg Poland.
The strength of Blitzkrieg Poland is that all three sections contain rare pictures from private albums. In all three cases the pictures are from rear echelon type units, units that do not get a lot of attention in mainstream books about World War 2.
The first section in Blitzkrieg Poland comes from an unknown officer in the Signals Battalion ( Nachrichtenabteilung) of the German 1st Infantry Division. The pictures are truly unique featuring a vast array of soft-skin vehicles used by a Signals unit. But the pictures taken by this unknown officer were not limited to his own unit and the volume contains pictures of captured Polish soldiers, German engineers (called pioneers in the Wehrmacht) as well as a few Panzers and Armored Cars.
The second section is from an unknown medical officer’s album. Again, the pictures are unique featuring what a German medical unit looked like as well as well as pictures from the areas where the unit traveled. The text in this section is very interesting as it documents the German system of treating the wounded. The unit in question is motorized so the authors surmise it was attached to a panzer or mechanized infantry division.
The author’s cannot identify the unit and surmise the photographer belonged to SS Motorized Infantry Regiment Der Fuhrer or SS Motorized Infantry Regiment Germania the only two SS units to take part in the campaign. One interesting picture shows the majority of the men wearing goggles and two of them wear the distinctive motorcyclist waterproof coat. It’s possible the unit was part of the motorcycle battalion of either of the two mentioned motorized infantry regiments.
The author’s further surmise that the pictures were taken after hostilities ceased given how many pictures feature destroyed or captured Polish equipment.
One interesting thing I noticed is the absence of the distinctive SS runes on the collars of the soldier’s pictures. If the authors had not said they were SS I would assumed they were Wehrmacht.
Blitzkrieg Poland was a good find and enjoyable read but I cannot say that about the other two books.
As I noted previously the other two volumes I found deal with the German-Russian War on the Eastern Front, a particular area of interest to me so I would be more inclined to spot error or a wrong identification.
I should have had a clue right off the bat with Retreat to Berlin. The cover of that volume features a Tiger I tank parked on a German street. A signpost in the foreground points to the German city of Aachen 28k away (see above picture).
I imagine the Tiger I is on the cover because Tiger tanks sell publications but this picture is misleading. Aachen was taken by the American Army in late 1944 and not by the Russians on the way to Berlin as the cover title implies. Perhaps it is a small thing but it’s indicative of what would follow.
The previous owner of the volumes must have belonged to some sort of club because in the book I found a notification that corrected two captions. It was glaring correction frankly but to their credit they issued the correction but it also pointed to the rather poor editing in the volume.
Before I critique it further I do want to point out that the pictures are for the most part interesting and unique at least in my experience. I’ve seen many a picture of the German-Russian War and few of them I’ve seen before. From the point of view of collecting rare pictures the book is worth the price.
What bothered me is the grammar used in the background text and for the captions. At best the grammar is clunky and at worst nonsensical and almost always does not provide much information.
Here are some examples:
The caption under a Sd.Kfz.10 ( a modified half-track mounting a 2cm flak gun) reads “This vehicle mounts a shielded Flak crew.” It should read, “the flak crew is shielded by the shield of the 2cm gun” or something like that. As it is, it appears as if the author translated from the German and missed the differences between the two languages. An editor should have caught that and much more!
Here’s another example of what I call the clunky language used in a caption beneath the picture of a knocked out Stug III:
“Throughout the period of the war the StugG continued to prove its worth as an invaluable anti-tank weapon. Yet, in spite of huge losses, in a number of last ditch battles it showed it’s capabilities as a tank killer.”
How those two sentences got past an editor I don’t know.
How about this?
During the later part of the war the Stug IIIG proved itself as an anti-tank weapon. End of story.
And as if that’s not enough the picture is not of a Stug III! It appears to be a Pz. IVh with turret ring armor and side skirts. On the other side of the page there is a Stug III correctly captioned and it seems the author just got lazy and assumed the two pictures were one and the same.
And if that’s not enough the caption says a German grenadier is using the knocked out vehicle for cover. The soldier in question appears to be Russian in winter camo complete with a PPSH submachine gun slung over his back.
One further complaint I have is using the same caption text for multiple pictures of the same thing. An example of this is how many times the author notes that the German halftrack developed into a fighting vehicle apart from being a mere transport. If you are going to say the same thing about similar pictures then why not group them and use a single caption. It just comes across as lazy and contributes little.
The third book, Final Days of the Reich by the same author is not any better than Retreat to Berlin although once again the pictures are very good in my opinion.
A final criticism of Final Days of the Reich has to do with the appendix on German organization. In the case of the Panzer Division the author states that a Panzer Division was supposed to have 90 Pz. IVh and another 90 Pz. V’s (Panthers). I have to assume that is a misprint or another case of the author not knowing what he is talking about. Pre-war German Panzer Divisions might have that number of tanks but no Panzer Division 1944-45 would even come close. Rather, a full strength Panzer Regiment of 1944-45 would have 80-100 tanks divided into two battalions. The irony of this mistake is the author notes time and time again how badly depleted the German forces were but then gives a fantastical paper strength for their forces in an appendix. Yikes!
When I first purchased the books I had thought I’d investigate Pen and Sword, Images of War more thoroughly and consider finding volumes I was interested in and paying full price for them. But having read through the three used book store finds I think I will limit myself to finding them at a bargain and simply use them for the pictures and ignore the text.
After writing my review I went to Amazon to see the reviews for Retreat to Berlin and everyone says the same thing. The pictures are good to very good, but the text and caption texts are terrible. I can only conclude that the editor let it all pass or did not know the subject.