Prince Philip at Matapan

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (source: Town & Country Magazine)

During my interview with him about the Battle of Matapan, renowned author and professor Craig L. Symonds suggested that I get in touch with Dr. Richard Porter to get a better sense of what the Duke of Edinburgh accomplished during this fateful day on the sea. Dr. Porter is Curator of The Britannia Museum at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.

Being fascinated with Prince Philip in general and his role during World War II in particular, I was extremely happy to get in touch with Dr. Porter, who kindly replied to me despite a demanding schedule. Even though the Duke of Edinburgh is no longer front and center in the news media, I’m sure all the enthusiasts of military history will appreciate this text.

Without further introduction, here is the full content of his response.

A Midshipman was the lowest form of naval life.

Prince Philip was appointed to the WW1 Battleship HMS Valiant in January 1940. He was one of 20 Midshipmen out of a crew of 1200. As he put it, a Midshipman was the lowest form of naval life. He also makes the point that with a crew of 1200 information was not easily relayed to all crew members, even so even the Midshipmen were aware that the Italian Fleet was thought to be at sea. Prince Philip thought that there was definitely a ‘special atmosphere of anticipation as the Fleet put to sea from Alexandria during the night of 27 March’. The Prince’s Action Station was on the Bridge and at night he had control of the port searchlight. From that position he managed to gather roughly what was going on.

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Xi Jinping: micro-manager

Deng Xiaoping (left) and Xi Jinping (right). (sources: Wikipedia and CNN)

I have always been fascinated with anything related to Deng Xiaoping. It is thus not surprising that an article from the Journal of Contemporary China caught my attention a few days ago.

In the scope of a few pages, the late Ezra Vogel compares the stewardship of Deng to the one of the current leader of China, Xi Jinping. The Harvard University academic, who passed away a few days before last Christmas, was also the acclaimed biographer of Deng, who was at the helm of the People’s Republic of China between 1978 and 1989.

Xiaoping, in the author’s words, established “[…] the foundations for the most successful four decades in China’s history”. He rose to power at the age of 74, cumulating decades of experience, notably collaborating with Zhou Enlai and 13 years spent in the inner sanctum of power. This enviable track record prepared him well for supreme responsibility. Well versed in the discipline of power and most probably surrounded by people who were well acquainted with his methods and thinking, Deng could afford to be a macro-manager. To that end, the following anecdote told by Ezra Vogel is illuminating:

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“Write me a victory”

“Wellington cuts an unattractive personal figure”, writes G. E. Jaycock in his groundbreaking book Wellington’s Command: A Reappraisal of his Generalship in the Peninsula and at Waterloo (Pen & Sword). For the huge fan of the Iron Duke in me, such a conclusion came as a shocker. Full disclosure, this book challenged my conceptions of Wellington’s grandeur and I found myself labouring through it more than once. But I am grateful for the opportunity it gave me to nuance my understanding.

Mr. Jaycock, who completed a MA degree in history about the Duke of Wellington at Buckingham University, argues that “the existing historiography has largely downplayed or ignored” the fact that Wellington’s command was characterized by “poor inter-personal relationships within the army [which] undermined effectiveness.” And his demonstration doesn’t fail to disappoint.

In short, the idolized figure depicted between the covers is one of an autocratic and aristocratic micro-manager who was unable to accept any kind of blame or responsibility. There was also a vituperate – not to say frankly despicable – side to the British icon that could be resumed in the following anecdote brought forward by the author:

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Prince Philip and the Gurkhas

Sir Peter Duffell (left) introducing HRH the Duke of Edinburgh to the two Queen’s Gurkha Orderly Officers at the annual Field of Remembrance on the grounds of Westminster Abbey in November 2012. (source: courtesy of Sir Peter Duffell)

I have always been a huge fan of the Gurkhas, who are among the best soldiers who have served and are still serving for Queen and Country. In that regard, I have the privilege of being in touch with Sir Peter Duffell, author of Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword), a former commanding officer of the Gurkhas, who later went on to commanding British Forces in Hong Kong between 1989 and 1992. This impressive and generous military figure also served as British Army’s Inspector General.

Upon learning of Prince Philips’s passing two weeks ago, I wrote Sir Peter to ask him about the relationship between the consort and the Gurkhas. Here’s what he mentioned:

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11 Minutes to Recognize Israel

Harry S. Truman always ranked among my favorite presidents of the United States, if only because he made sure America was the first country to recognize the birth of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. In his new book Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization (HarperCollins), bestselling author and renowned TV personality (MSNBC) Joe Scarborough reiterates that the 34th president faced stern opposition from his Secretary of State George C. Marshall and his deputies, which “[…] led to an open conflict between the State Department and the White House.”  Although such a conflict is to be expected, I was surprised and amazed to read that it only took 11 minutes for the president to make his decision, against all odds.

Not much is written about Truman. Not enough in my humble opinion. After all, there is much more to the 34th President than the decision to use the bomb to end World War II. In Joe Scarborough’s words, he was “the most consequential foreign policy president of the past seventy-five years.”

Apart from showing tremendous courage in facing headwinds about Israel, he had previously been instrumental in blocking the Soviet Union’s advance in the Mediterranean area. Upon learning in February 1947 that Great Britain could no longer shoulder its global role because “[…] Hitler’s war machine wreathed that nation in everlasting glory, but exhausted its resources and its people”, the Truman administration had a choice to make. Revert to isolationism or espouse a leadership role in the world. Great Britain would pass the torch to the United States and Washington would undertake the mission of developing and implementing a policy to prevent Greece and Turkey from falling under the hammer and sickle.

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“Prince Philip was a serious and accomplished naval officer before he was a member of the Royal Family” – Naval Historian Craig L. Symonds

Prince Philip during in service in the Royal Navy (source: The Independent).

In my humble opinion, one of the aspects that deserves the most interest about the Duke of Edinburgh was his military service in the Royal Navy during World War II. As I’m right into reading the French edition of Professor Craig L. Symonds excellent book World War II at Sea (Oxford University Press, 2008, published in French under the title Histoire navale de la Seconde Guerre mondiale and published by Éditions Perrin at the beginning of this year), I submitted a few questions to this internationally renowned specialist about maritime warfare and the significance of Prince Philip’s service in the Royal Navy. Professor Symonds generously accepted to respond to my questions and I am extremely pleased, on this very day when we bid a final farewell to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, to share this exchange here.

Anyone interested in learning more about the naval dimension of World War II should definitely get a copy of his insightful and well-written book.

The strategic significance of the battle of Cape Matapan was that it dissuaded Italian naval authorities from attempting to exert influence in the eastern Mediterranean afterward.

In your book, you explain that the Battle of Cape Matapan – in which the late Duke of Edinburgh took part – clipped the wings of Mussolini’s Navy in the Mediterranean Sea. In the larger context of the war, could you tell us more about the significance / importance of the battle?

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The Iron Prince

Much has been written in the last couple of days about the late Duke of Edinburgh being a rock for his wife, Her Majesty the Queen, and the Crown. But it is rather as “the man of the house” of Windsor that we can realize the extent of the centrality of his role. Thanks to Ingrid Seward’s amazing biography Prince Philip Revealed (Atria Books – Simon & Schuster), anyone can understand why this consort was so instrumental in the success of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

A “product of a broken home”, Prince Philip understood, from a very young age that life is difficult and that you need to prepare for its challenges. Private school gave him the structure and discipline he couldn’t find in his own family. Later in life, his insistence on ensuring that his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, follow the same path would leave scars in the soul of the future king. But that’s another story.

In a nutshell, Philip ensured that his family would live in a relative environment of normalcy. From his drive to modernize the kitchens of Buckingham Palace to his designing of “[…] a portable barbecue that would fit into the back of a Range Rover so he could take it out onto the moors at Balmoral”, or his insistence for the adoption of television as a medium to reach out to people, the author succeeds in making you feel that Philip was a down-to-heart man. He was keener to “[…] adapt a range of clothing that would keep him warm during the winter months” than to succumb to pump and circumstances and obsequiousness.

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“Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China” – Exclusive interview with Prof. Kerry Brown

Dr. Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Studies (source: China Daily).

After the publication of my recent review of his insightful book about the history of China (Polity Books), Professor Kerry Brown kindly accepted to answer my questions about the relationship between the United States and China – an extremely timely subject. Without further introduction, here is the content of our exchange.

Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.

On page 71 of your compelling book, you write that President Nixon was impressed “[…] witnessing Zhou Enlai redo the front page of the People’s Daily.” I often ask myself if any figure has a comparable influence in Xi Jinping’s entourage?

I imagine the figures from the outside world that most impress Chinese leaders today are more our business or technology leaders than our political ones. The excitement of new acquaintance from the Nixon era has long gone. Now, figures like Warren Buffett probably arouse more interest in China, or Bill Gates. I guess this is simply a sign that Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.

I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around the issue of the relationship between China and the US.

In the case where there would be no such influential figure, do you think it would help, notably in the relations with the US, and why?

Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China, and indeed, till recently, went there. I don’t know however whether intermediary figures are of much help now. This is not an issue of individual people being able to sort this out – the disagreements between China and the US are structurally too deep. There are maybe groups of people who might, over time, help – academics, perhaps, in trying to at least maintain some middle space. But I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around this issue.

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How Deng Xiaoping shaped China

“Ideology doesn’t attract Chinese people – Marxism-Leninism barely registers with them”, writes Professor Kerry Brown in his succinct excellent new book whose title is soberly China (Polity Books). That notion comes as a surprise to anyone following international politics and assuming that communism is the glue of the régime. But the key to understand the rising superpower can rather be found in two other aspects. First, nationalism, which is frequently evoked between the covers.

And pragmatism. The author, who is also Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, credits Deng Xiaoping with ensuring the rise of his country on the world scene. “It was the less dramatic Deng who finally found a balance, trying to work with the world, gain from relations internationally, but always with an eye to China’s benefit.”

Those who assume that those who work at Zhongnanhai (the seat of Chinese power in the Forbidden City) are just a bunch of ideologues should think twice. Of course, the ruling party still advances under the red banner, but its strategists have a cunning vision of history. Hence, the shift from being simply concerned with influence on land to developing capacities to also emerge as a sea power.

While Mao Zedong is pictured as a vengeful and petty figure who encouraged open criticism to expose his enemies, Deng Xiaoping emerges as a more balanced personality and the real power broker behind the current positioning of China. The future leader of the country survived Maoist’s purges because of his “administrative abilities”. Along the way, he was also “[…] one of the many who had noticed that for all the rhetoric of Maoism, something was amiss.” His approach would not be about big speeches and slogans, but concrete actions.

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Compassion Marched With Patton

Frank Sisson never personally met with General George S. Patton, albeit seeing him fleetingly in his car, twice. Nevertheless, the legendary American warlord left a lifelong impression on the boy from Weleetka, Oklahoma who came to see him as a father figure. “He had been an invisible force that guided me through the days of danger and struggle. General Patton had embodied what our ideals of Americanism were”, writes the author of I Marched With Patton: A Firsthand Account of World War II Alongside One of the U.S. Army’s Greatest Generals.

This touching memoir recounts the harrowing days of war of an ordinary soldier who demonstrated extraordinary values of loyalty, generosity and benevolence. After his father died from appendicitis when he was fifteen and a half, Frank left home to work as a welder in a shipyard in Oakland California in order to support his family. Upon turning 18 years old, he enlisted in the US Army in 1943 and was destined to be part of George S. Patton’s Third Army in the 667th Field Artillery. “From everything I heard, this was the general to serve under.” He would not be disappointed.

On Christmas Day 1944, he crossed the Channel with his comrades and fought in the hedgerows of Normandy before taking part in the Battle of the Bulge and heading to Germany. He would end his military service as a military police inspector in Berlin in the spring of 1946. One of the most poignant episodes of the book is the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. “We were walking through hell itself”, says Sisson, who was assigned to help prisoners eating “[…] slowly and in small amount”, because the lack of nutrition for an extended period could damage their digestive system and even cause death.

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