41 Followers
28 Following
KOMET

KOMET

Currently reading

Gabriela, Cravo e Canela
Jorge Amado
Progress: 157/358 pages
Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (The Authorized Doubleday/Doran Edition)
T.E. Lawrence
Progress: 189/672 pages
The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve
G. Edward Griffin
Progress: 41/608 pages
Peter the Great
Robert K. Massie
Progress: 472/934 pages
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
Bradley K. Martin
A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge
Charles B. MacDonald
Progress: 191/712 pages
The German Army 1933-1945
Matthew Cooper
Progress: 198/598 pages
Corporal Hitler and the Great War 1914-1918: The List Regiment
John F Williams
Progress: 22/238 pages

DEFYING THE ODDS: PADDY FINUCANE & THE KENLEY WING (1941)

’Paddy’ Finucane and the legend of the Kenley Wing: No.452 (Australian), 485 (New Zealand) and 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadrons, 1941 - Anthony Cooper

1941 was a critical year in the Second World War for both the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Allies. RAF Fighter Command, which had helped to keep Britain afloat throughout the summer and autumn of 1940 following the fall of France, represented one of Britain's few effective blunt instruments to keep Germany off balance. As early as December 1940, it had begun engaging in 'lean-to' or shallow penetration missions over Occupied France where small units of RAF fighters attacked German airbases and military installations. By the following summer, this undertaking had been expanded into 'Circuses', which entailed the use of bombers escorted by, on average, 16 squadrons of fighters on both shallow and deep penetration missions (at least 50 miles inland) into France. Missions of this magnitude the Luftwaffe could hardly ignore. With the majority of the Luftwaffe now engaged in military operations in support of the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union, 2 fighter wings (Jagdgeschwadern 2 & 26) were tasked with defending the airspace above France against the RAF.

 

Here is where the experiences of the Kenley Wing of RAF Fighter Command, who came to play a significant role in the RAF Non-Stop Offensive of 1941, are described in "PADDY FINUCANE AND THE LEGEND OF THE KENLEY WING." The Wing, one among 6 in the RAF, was made up of 452 (made up mostly of Australian fighter pilots), 485, (mostly New Zealanders), and 602 Squadrons. It was representative of the RAF itself, which contained in its ranks, many airmen from the farthest reaches of the British Empire and Commonwealth. There were also a few Irishmen like Finucane, a veteran of the Battle of Britain, who, during the summer and autumn of 1941, was making a name for himself as one of the RAF best known and top-scoring aces while serving as one of 452 Squadron's flight leaders. Indeed, 452 Squadron, of all the squadrons in the Kenley Wing, would develop a reputation with pilots of the caliber of Finucane and Keith 'Bluey' Truscott (Australian) as one of the top-scoring units in RAF Fighter Command. It seemed that whenever the Kenley Wing took part in sweeps over France that 452 Squadron would find itself involved in many a scrap with German fighters while the other 2 squadrons in the Wing encountered fewer or no enemy air opposition.

 

The book describes in considerable detail the intensity of the air combat the Kenley Wing experienced over France, as well as the standards the RAF had for assessing victory claims by its fighter pilots. What became increasingly evident is that there was a lot of overclaiming on the part of RAF Fighter Command during 1941. Much more so than had been the case during the Battle of Britain. This couldn't always be helped because air combat is a life-and-death affair, carried out by fast moving fighters --- requiring constant alertness on the part of the individual fighter pilot --- fought in three dimensions. One wrong move --- sometimes measured in seconds --- could mean nursing a badly crippled Spitfire across the Channel to Britain, riding a flaming aircraft to either a watery death in the Channel or a fiery crash inland, or being shot down and forced to bail out over France. The latter for an RAF fighter pilot usually meant becoming a prisoner of war or evading capture and - with the help of the Resistance - getting to Southern France and across the Pyrenees Mountains to neutral Spain and a sure passage back to Britain and the war.

 

It also became clear from reading this book that while the RAF was able to provide a widening pool of trained fighter pilots (the EATS or Empire Air Training Scheme was crucial in this regard in which large numbers of RAF aviation cadets received their training in Canada) to replace its losses in France during 1941, it had not given most of its pilots much (if any) gunnery training. Lacking this vital skill was, along with aircraft mis-identication, another key reason behind overclaiming kills in air combat. Indeed, "... the root of the overclaiming problem seems to have lain in the tendency of some pilots to make forced links between purported cause and effect, in the context of an overstimulated combat environment where in fact no-one could see it all, and where many pilots did not see much at all - or anything at all. Despite this uncertainty principle, some pilots repeatedly drew definite causal links between, on the one hand, their gunnery attacks upon fleeting targets' and on the other, subsequent fleeting impressions of flashes, smoke, splashes, hunts, and dives. These putative causative connections were too often accepted by the intelligence officers at squadron, wing, and group level who assessed and confirmed the claims, and too often by the squadron COs, wing leaders, station commanders, senior air staff officers, and air officers commanding who signed off on the paperwork before sending it up to the next level of command. Moreover, all of these officers permitted such claims to be confirmed despite the lack of corroboration --- sometimes pilot claims were supported by reported sightings from other pilots, but they were also routinely accepted on the claimant's testimony alone."

 

I developed a deeper appreciation for the pilots of RAF Fighter Command from reading "PADDY FINUCANE AND THE LEGEND OF THE KENLEY WING."  It's an inspiring account into how these men, through sheer determination, skill, guts, and dedication to duty, helped pave the way to eventual Allied victory in May 1945.

East West Street: On the Origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes Against Humanity" - Philippe Sands

Of all the books I've read thus far this year, "EAST WEST STREET: On the Origins of 'Genocide' and 'Crimes Against Humanity' " is perhaps the most powerfully affecting and well-written. At times, as I read deeply into this book, it felt as if I was reading a family history, mystery novel, and story of the development of 2 key legal concepts from 2 remarkable men from Poland (Hersh Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin) which revolutionized the study and practice of international law - with respect to human rights - in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

 

This book gets its impetus from a visit the author (a British law professor and international lawyer) made in 2010 to Lviv, a city in the Ukraine that over the past century changed hands and names several times. Prior to November 1918, Lviv was known as Lemberg within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had a rich, diverse Jewish culture and distinguished university and law school in Lemberg University (now Lviv University). Then with the dissolution of the Dual Monarchy, Lemberg became Lwów within a newly independent, re-established Poland. But with the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Lwów fell under Soviet control as a result of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, which carved up Poland between Berlin and Moscow. This control proved to be shortlived, for once Germany invaded Soviet Russia in June 1941, Lwów became German and its Jewish population between 1941 and 1944 (when the Soviets retook the city, renaming it Lviv) was ghettoized and largely wiped out in the Holocaust.

 

What makes Lviv significant in this book is the connection the author's family and both Hersh Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin have to it. Sands' maternal grandfather Leon Buchholz and the families of both Lauterpacht and Lemkin lived in or near Lviv. Through sheer determination and lots of what can be likened to detective work, Sands shares with the reader the histories of his family through Leon's long, challenging and varied life (which took him from Poland to Vienna to Paris in January 1939) and that of Lauterpacht and Lemkin. Lauterpacht made a life for himself in Britain, where he achieved renown as a law professor and legal mind whose development of the concept of 'crimes against humanity' became widely adopted within international law during the Nuremberg war crimes trials of 1945-46. Lemkin, who was slightly younger than Lauterpacht, was a polyglot who spent most of his working years in Poland as a successful lawyer til he was forced to leave the country shortly after the beginning of the German occupation. In contrast to Lauterpacht who asserted that "the individual human being ... is the ultimate unit of all law", Lemkin developed during the Second World War the concept of "genocide", a deliberative action by a state to exterminate a people (along religious, racial, national, or ethnic lines). Indeed, Lemkin coined the word and tried throughout the war crimes trials in Nuremberg to have "genocide" formally adopted and accepted as a part of international law.

 

"Lauterpacht never embraced the idea of genocide. To the end of his life, he was dismissive, both of the subject and, perhaps more politely, of the man who concocted it, even if he recognized the aspirational quality. Lemkin feared that the separate projects of protecting individual human rights, on the one hand, and protecting groups and preventing genocide, on the other, were in contradiction."

 

Sands also sheds light on Hans Frank, Hitler's former personal lawyer who later was named Governor-General of Occupied Poland, where he figured prominently in the disenfrachisement and murder of Jews. In this capacity, Frank made a stop in Lemberg in August 1942, where he made a speech promoting his anti-Jewish policies. Frank later was tried for war crimes along with a number of top surviving members of the Third Reich (e.g., Hermann Göring, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Rudolf Hess, Wilhelm Keitel, Ernst Kaltenbrunner of the SS, and Alfred Jodl who had been Chief of the Operations Staff of the Armed Forces) at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin watched him testify.

 

This was a book I enjoyed reading from start to finish. It embodied all the attributes of a novel and mystery thriller. And yet the fact that "East West Street" is a true story made my reading experience even more rewarding.

Aces of the Legion Condor - Robert Forsyth, Jim Laurier

Here is a concise, comprehensive, well-told story of the establishment and combat history of Germany's Legion Condor's fighter squadron component (Jagdgruppe 88) during the Spanish Civil War. Jagdgruppe 88 was the fighter element within the Legion (4 squadrons), which along with its bomber, anti-aircraft, and reconnaissance/transport units, had been sent to Spain in 1936 by Hitler to assist the rebel forces (i.e. Nationalists) fighting against the leftist Republican government in Madrid. Indeed, the war itself was to be a proving ground for Jagdgruppe 88, which had entered combat flying what was at the time Germany's standard fighter plane, the Heinkel 51, a biplane not far removed from its First World War antecedents. 

Within a few months, the Heinkel 51 was found to be inferior to the Republican fighters (i.e., the I-15 'Chato' biplane fighter and the I-16 'Rata' monoplane fighter - both of which were supplied by the Soviet Union to the Republican forces) it encountered in combat. Consequently, the decision was made to send the new Messerschmitt 109 monoplane fighter (which represented in 1936 a revolutionary leap in aircraft design) to Spain for wartime evaluation and testing. This would be done in stages over the length of the conflict. (The numbers of Heinkel 51 fighters in the Legion would be reduced, til by war's end in 1939, only one squadron would be flying it as a ground attack fighter.) Indeed, as was pointed out in the book: "The Legion Condor had played a significant role in winning Spain for Franco, and the importance of the Civil War had demonstrated the importance of air power to battlefield victory. The success of every major Nationalist offensive and defensive operation was dependent upon clear air superiority." 

Like similar books in the Osprey Aircraft Series, "ACES OF THE LEGION CONDOR" is chockful of photos and richly rendered illustrations. It will make a welcome addition to any aviation enthusiast's library.

LIVING WITH A 600 YEAR OLD SECRET

Curse of the Wolf - Rebecca Thrasher

Here, in her own words, a woman at least 600 years old shares with the reader how it was that she was cursed to be a werewolf because she had spurned the advances of the mayor's son in the village in which she lived with her family in what is now Eastern Germany. The reader also learns a bit about the people of her village, her family, the challenges of daily life in a medieval society, and the woman's own experiences of hunting in the forests at night as a wolf.

Red Year - Jan Shapin

Rayna Prohme is a woman with a mission. Together with her husband Bill, a journalist, the couple travels to China, which is in the throes of a great, internal struggle between the Kuomintang (led by General Chiang Kai-shek) and a group of regional warlords. The nascent Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is allied with the Kuomintang - and together, their goal is to crush the warlords and unify China under one government.

 

The time is 1927. Both Rayna and Bill are committed leftists. Rayna sees the revolution in China as a struggle for freedom that can both unify and strengthen it, much in the same way that the 1917 October Revolution (and the subsequent Russian Civil War) culminated in the creation of the Soviet Union. Rayna is in her early 30s, a redhead from Chicago, and at times rather headstrong. But that is only because she believes in the freedom struggle and in Russia's role in China. That is how she manages to make the acquaintance of Mikhail Borodin, the head of the Soviet mission. Rayna ingratiates herself with Borodin and develops a deep attachment to him. Their relationship is a rather understated one - at least that is the impression I formed about it. Rayna also strikes up a friendship and working relationship with Madame Sun, the widow of the great Chinese democrat and revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen.

 

All the while, Chiang gathers up his forces and brutally breaks the power of the warlords. In the process, the Kuomintang and Communist alliance shatters. Stalin orders the Soviet mission out of China. Rayna at this point is set on going to the Soviet Union to learn to be a fully pledged Bolshevik, which she feels will make her more useful to Borodin and to China. What next ensues in the novel makes for an interesting set of events that are both bewildering and momentous. For that reason, I would strongly urge any reader of this review to take up "RED YEAR" to get the full story, elements of which reminded me of André Malraux's novel, "Man's Fate", which was also set in China during the 1920s and has the same philosophical, revolutionary themes.

A STORY OF LIFE UNDER THE TIGHTENING YOKE OF NAZI OPPRESSION (France, 1941)

A Hero in France - Alan Furst

A HERO IN FRANCE” is a story set during the early months of the German Occupation of France during the Second World War.     It is centered around a Frenchman with the nom de guerre “Mathieu” who has cast off the trappings of his previous life in Paris to join the ranks of the Resistance.   Mathieu is in his early 40s, fairly fit, resourceful, tough, determined, yet not without charm and a knack for making friends in the most interesting places.     Unlike most French people, who at this stage of the war (the novel begins in a wintry, melancholic Paris in March 1941) were largely resigned to the defeat France had suffered at the hands of the Third Reich in June 1940, Mathieu is determined to fight the Germans any way he can.   To this end, he has been part of a network that has formed a pipeline between the Occupied Zone and Vichy France, spiriting downed RAF (Royal Air Force) flyers out of France into Spain, where they would be repatriated back to the UK.  

 

Resistance activities had started off on a very small scale from late 1940.   But as the months wore on, the Germans began to show their impatience and frustration from their efforts to discourage random acts of vandalism, the occasional murder of a German officer, and sabotage.   Thus, a police inspector from Hamburg was enlisted by Berlin to go to Paris (as a temporary major in the Feldgendarmerie, the German Army Military Police) and see what he could do to break up the Resistance pipeline of which Mathieu is an instrumental part.  

 

What I like about an Alan Furst novel is his knack for evoking the atmosphere of German-occupied Europe and creating a set of characters who struggle to survive, endure, and fight the Nazi yoke.   Anyone who wants to lose him/herself in a taut, well-told story rich with cinematic overtones, look no further.   “A HERO IN FRANCE” is the novel for you.

HOORAY for LITTLE TOOT!

— feeling amazing
Little Toot - Hardie Gramatky
Yesterday marked my reacquaintance with "Little Toot", a story I first read decades ago as a child. It's a wonderful, heartwarming story - complete with colorful illustrations - of a little tugboat long used to frolicking on the river among the other, bigger tugboats, who finds himself put to the test one night and discovers much more about himself than he had thought possible.
There Your Heart Lies: A Novel - Mary Gordon

"THERE YOUR LIFE LIES" is a generational story that seeks to bind the past with the present. As a novel, it is well-written and easily readable. But I found it difficult to make meaningful, emotional connections to Marian Taylor, a 92 year old woman living in 2009 Rhode Island with her granddaughter, Amelia, an especially sensitive 20-something, a recent UCLA graduate living amid the ebb and flow of everyday life. 

Marian had kept her past as a secret from her granddaughter, her son (deceased), and daughter-in-law (a successful architect living in Los Angeles). She had grown up in a world of wealth and privilege in a very smug, prejudiced, complacent, and snobbish Irish American Catholic family. Marian never felt a real part of that family, except with the 2 Argentinian servants her family had hired during their sojourn in Argentina and brought back to the U.S. (from them, Marian learned to speak Spanish fluently); Luigi, the family chauffeur; and her brother Johnny, a gifted musician whose homosexuality made him a pariah in the Taylor family. Tragedy ensues and Marian leaves Vassar and goes off to Spain in 1937 to serve as a nurse on the Republican side in the bloody civil war there. Spain comes to represent a complete break for Marian from her family and ultimately her past. 

Years later, in Rhode Island, Marian is compelled to come to terms with her mortality and, at the same time, with her past when Amelia one day demands to know about her beloved grandmother's origins. This revelation has long-reaching effects for both of them. In a larger sense, "THERE YOUR HEART LIES" represents a bringing together of the idealism and sacrifices made by the generation that came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War with the angst-ridden and digitally/technologically conversant present-day millennial generation. A good premise for a novel, yes. But it didn't fully resonate with me.   And so, to the neighborhood used bookstore this novel goes.

My Twelve Years with John F. Kennedy - Evelyn Lincoln

MY TWELVE YEARS WITH JOHN F. KENNEDY” is Evelyn Lincoln’s account of the time she served John F. Kennedy as his secretary. The book begins in 1952 when Mrs. Lincoln was working on the clerical staff of a Georgia Congressman. The U.S. was on the cusp of a major sea change, for after 20 years of Democratic presidential administrations in the White House, a Republican tide in November of that year would bring in the war hero Dwight Eisenhower as President. What’s more, on his coattails, many Republicans would win election to Congress. Mrs. Lincoln had read earlier in the year about a young Massachusetts 3-term Congressman (John F. Kennedy) who had decided to challenge a powerful Senator (Henry Cabot Lodge) for his seat. Kennedy, a Catholic, was not expected to win. But Mrs. Lincoln was impressed with him and sensed he had potential. She told her husband that she believed that Kennedy could someday be President. Indeed, she asserted that he would be elected President in 1960! And for that reason, she wanted to go and work for him. That took some doing, for Kennedy, at the time, was often away in Massachusetts campaigning. What’s more: he already had a secretary. So, in addition to her normal job on Capitol Hill, Mrs. Lincoln got a job as a volunteer in Congressman Kennedy’s office.

Kennedy would defy the odds and win election to the Senate in 1952. Within a year, his regular secretary had left and Mrs. Lincoln, by dint of hard work and having learned to cope with the demands Kennedy would place on his staff (Kennedy challenged his staff much as he challenged himself), had earned the position as his secretary. The book then takes the reader into the life and times of John F. Kennedy as Evelyn Lincoln experienced them between 1953 and his assassination in November 1963. She writes in a way that will make the reader feel that he/she is not only a witness to history, but also to the life of a singularly remarkable politician and human being. I loved this book and will cherish it always.

The Jagged Edge of Duty: A Fighter Pilot's World War II - Robert L. Richardson

"THE JAGGED EDGE OF DUTY: A Fighter Pilot's World War II" resulted from the extensive efforts made by the author (Robert Richardson) to tell the story of Lt. Allan Knepper of Lewiston, Idaho, along with his friend Herman Kocour, a fellow flight school classmate with whom he later served in the same combat unit overseas. Knepper, a university graduate and schoolteacher, had joined the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) as an Aviation Cadet shortly after the U.S. had entered the Second World War. He was already a licensed pilot through having received his training via the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. Both he and Kocour successfully completed their training as fighter pilots, and after receiving transition training in handling the sleek and powerful twin-engined P-38 Lightning fighter, were sent overseas to North Africa in the Spring of 1943. There, both men were assigned to the 14th Fighter Group, a P-38 unit that had recently been withdrawn from combat owing to heavy losses it had sustained in action. Within a short time, both men would be flying long-range missions against the Axis over the Mediterranean in preparation for the Allied invasion of the island of Sicily, which took place on July 10, 1943.

Richardson provides information about the types of missions flown by the 14th Fighter Group at the time Knepper and Kocour served with it, USAAF tactics and strategy as they were evolving during 1942-43 in North Africa and the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO), some aspects of the war itself, as well as descriptions of the day-to-day stresses experienced by several other pilots in the unit.

Sadly, Knepper's war proved to be short one. His P-38 was downed by ground fire while flying a low-level strafing mission over Sicily against a German Army unit on July 10, 1943. Neither his body nor any wreckage of his plane was ever found.

Richardson also goes on to describe postwar efforts that have been made - and continue to be made - to find Knepper's remains.

While I cannot recommend "The Jagged Edge of Duty" to the general reader, I think anyone with an interest in World War II and combat aviation would enjoy reading it. He/she will learn something of what the average P-38 fighter pilot in the MTO experienced while on active duty during the spring and summer of 1943 as the Allies began their push from North Africa into Europe - with Sicily as the vital stepping-stone.

JFK & LBJ: 1960-1963

Kennedy & Johnson - Evelyn Lincoln

For anyone with a keen interest in either John F. Kennedy or the Kennedy White House years, this book is a MUST READ.  

 

Originally published in 1968, “KENNEDY AND JOHNSON” provides the reader with a unique inside view into the personalities of both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson from the latter stages of the 1960 Democratic primary season (when Johnson, then Senate Majority Leader, decided to enter the race and use his considerable stock as one of the most powerful politicians on Capitol Hill to upset the momentum Kennedy had built up during the primaries and claim the presidential nomination for himself), thru the hurly-burly of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, onward to the final weeks of the 1960 campaign against Nixon, and into the Kennedy White House.  

 

Evelyn Lincoln, the author, served as John F. Kennedy’s secretary from the time he entered the Senate in January 1953 until his assassination in Dallas 10 years later.   Much of her observations of the Kennedy-Johnson relationship as it developed between 1960 and 1963 provide most of the book’s content.   Indeed, Mrs. Lincoln kept a daily diary from 1955 and used it as a primary source for “Kennedy and Johnson.” There are lots of dialogue and snatches of conversations and comments from various politicians and presidential aides that give this book a compelling immediacy.     Sometimes I felt in reading “Kennedy and Johnson” that I was watching history unfold before me.  

 

As a way of illustrating this sense of immediacy I got from reading this book, I want to cite Mrs. Lincoln’s description of a very revealing conversation that she had with President Kennedy in the White House sometime in 1963:

 

One day Senator Dirksen [Everett Dirksen, the then Senate Minority Leader] called on Mr. Kennedy.   After he left, Mr. Kennedy came out to my desk and said, “Do you know what the Senator told me today? Dirksen told me, ‘Let’s face it, Eisenhower did not know much about what was going on during his Administration. He would call a group in --- let the others do most of the talking --- he used to sit and doodle for about two hours and then he would say, “Okay, boys, who is going to carry the ball?” The Senator said that it was frightening --- Eisenhower’s lack of knowledge of what was taking place and the things he didn’t know about the United States Government.   Nixon used to call on Dirksen and ask him to speak to Eisenhower, particularly about firing Sherman Adams [Eisenhower’s press secretary]. But the Senator said that he told Nixon he should talk to Eisenhower, he was the Vice President, but Nixon was scared of Eisenhower.”

 

“Well,” I said to Mr. Kennedy, “you and Mr. Johnson are certainly different than those two men. You certainly know what you are doing and Mr. Johnson is not afraid of you.”  

 

“No,” said Mr. Kennedy, “the only thing Mr. Johnson is afraid of is that I will not put him on the ticket in 1964.”

 

And the following comes from a conversation Mrs. Lincoln had with President Kennedy in the White House on November 19, 1963 ---

 

“ As Mr. Kennedy sat in the rocker in my office, his head resting on its back he placed his left leg across his right knee. He rocked slightly as he talked. In a slow pensive voice he said to me, 'You know if I am re-elected in sixty-four, I am going to spend more and more time toward making government service an honorable career. I would like to tailor the executive and legislative branches of government so that they can keep up with the tremendous strides and progress being made in other fields.'  'I am going to advocate changing some of the outmoded rules and regulations in the Congress, such as the seniority rule. To do this I will need as a running mate in sixty-four a man who believes as I do.' Mrs. Lincoln went on to write  "I was fascinated by this conversation and wrote it down verbatim in my diary. Now I asked, 'Who is your choice as a running-mate?'  'He looked straight ahead, and without hesitating he replied, 'at this time I am thinking about Governor Terry Sanford of North Carolina. But it will not be Lyndon.' “

The Midnight Swimmer - Edward Wilson

Edward Wilson has again crafted an engaging, well-paced, and thrilling novel that brings back William Catesby, a sentimental yet coldly efficient agent in Britain's MI-6. Shuttling from West Germany to London, to Havana, and onward to Washington between October 1960 and the final week of October 1962 (when the world was on the brink of nuclear war), Catesby is given a thankless, yet vital task. That is, to make clandestine contacts and "offer Moscow a secret deal to break the deadlock" between it and Washington. One of the observations he makes during his service in Havana is the following: "The most interesting aspect of international relations wasn’t the conflict between enemies, but the conflicts between allies. You only had to go to an embassy cocktail party to see those conflicts in the flesh. It was easier for Western diplos to talk to the Russians than to talk to each other."

 

Cross, double-cross, love, the clear and present threat of war balanced against the preciousness of peace . Taken together, all these elements faithfully evoke the spirit of the early 1960s. Wilson has this uncanny skill for blending in fiction with history that will have the reader wondering how much more there may have been to the Cold War beyond what is the common narrative surrounding it today. Read "THE MIDNIGHT SWIMMER" and be amazed.

He 111 Kampfgeschwader on the Russian Front - John Weal

This book examines the uses to which the Heinkel 111 bomber was put by the various bomber units (Kampfgeschwadern) on the Russian Front between June 22, 1941 (Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union) and the end of the war in May 1945. On almost every page are numerous eyewitness accounts by aircrews, as well as illustrations and photos of Heinkel 111s in their varied roles as bomber, torpedo bomber, ground attack and air supply/transport aircraft.

I highly recommend "He 111 Kampfgeschwader on the Russian Front" to anyone with an interest in aviation and the Second World War.

JFK's EPOCHAL 5-YEAR QUEST FOR THE PRESIDENCY

The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign - Thomas Oliphant, Curtis Wilkie

This magisterial, ambitious book traces, in considerable detail, the path John F. Kennedy undertook in his quest for the Presidency between 1955 and 1960.

From the time Kennedy first ran for Congress in 1946, he faced many challenges - both professionally and personally (given the periodic precariousness of his health, which remained largely a secret during his lifetime) - in forging a career in public service. "THE ROAD TO CAMELOT" shows the reader how it was that Kennedy in 1955 (by then a freshman Senator) with the assistance of one of his top aides (Ted Sorenson), a dedicated 'band of brothers' who had played a significant and invaluable role in helping Kennedy further his career (i.e. the 'Irish Mafia', which consisted of Kenny O'Donnell, Lawrence O'Brien, Dave Powers, and Dick Donahue), his brother Robert, and several key Democrats (many of them on the state level) who recognized Kennedy's potential and devoted themselves to him - began the long and laborious task of capitalizing on the national prominence he received from his failed attempt to win the vice presidential slot on the Adlai Stevenson ticket at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

What is significant is that Kennedy started campaigning across the country in a rather understated way considerably earlier than any of his potential rivals in the Democratic Party. Indeed, the party leadership underestimated Kennedy as did many others. His youth, Catholicism, and his lack of any significant, legislative achievements were regarded as factors that would discount him as a viable presidential candidate. What also struck me as truly remarkable and incredible is the organization that Kennedy and his supporters were able to develop in many of the states (often as a way of bypassing some of the state Democratic Party machines that were either mildly non-receptive or openly opposed to his candidacy) between 1957 and 1960. In the process, future presidential campaigns would never be the same again. For that reason, "THE ROAD TO CAMELOT" is a book that everyone should read who wants to learn how it was that John F. Kennedy overcame many obstacles and defied the odds to secure the Democratic presidential nomination and be elected President in 1960.

MADAME NHU: SOUTH VIETNAM'S MARIE ANTOINETTE?

Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu - Monique Brinson Demery

I came to this book in a rather indirect way. Some years ago, I heard a radio interview with the author, Monique Brinson Demery, in which she described her ongoing efforts to meet the mysterious Madame Nhu (1924-2011) and earn her trust. It was a fascinating story. One that stimulated some part of my memory that contained a scrap of knowledge as to whom Madame Nhu was and her role in the leadership of South Vietnam between 1954 and 1963.

The Vietnam War, though the American phase of it largely took place within my lifetime, I knew little about. Nor did I for many years have an interest in trying to understand that war. I was but an infant when LBJ first committed U.S. military forces to South Vietnam in March 1965. And by the time our POWs had been repatriated from North Vietnam and the U.S. had washed its hands of Vietnam, I was in elementary school. Another couple of decades would pass before I began to look into the factors, personalities, and events that led to Vietnam being engulfed in what was a civil war between 1945 (when the French - the former colonial master - returned, intent on reasserting its authority in Indochina) and 1975, when the Communists triumphed and reunified the country. Reading "The Best and the Brightest" by David Halberstam in the mid 1990s was my starting point.

Demery tells a story that gives the reader access into the life of Madame Nhu, her family (who had long figured prominently in Vietnamese history), Demery's own relationship with Madame Nhu (who could be both kind and intransigent when it suited her), and the history of Vietnam from the late 19th century to November 1, 1963 (when both Madame Nhu's husband and her brother-in-law the President of the Republic of Vietnam were murdered in a coup).

For anyone curious to know why Vietnam continues to impact itself upon the American psyche, this is a book well worth reading.

Me 262 Bomber and Reconnaissance Units - Robert Forsyth,  Jim Laurier (Illustrator)
I finished this book a few minutes ago. It read like a daily diary, detailing the combat activities of the various Luftwaffe units which flew the ME 262 jet as a bomber/ground attack aircraft and in the reconnaissance role on the Western Front during 1944 and 1945. On the whole, a very good book. Fascinating stuff.