Fulfilling MacArthur’s Promise

In a recent interview for this blog, I questioned former Gurkhas commanding officer General Sir Peter Duffell about the reasons why Viscount Slim – the victor of Burma – is less recognized in popular culture than Field Marshal Montgomery for his contribution to victory in World War II. Montgomery, he replied “[…] was much the better-known British Commander because his campaigns were fought much closer to home [North Africa, D-Day, Arnhem].” In a certain way, much the same applies to the fighting of the American forces. Anyone visiting Washington, D.C., can admire the impressive Iwo Jima Memorial, but movies, bookstores and the remembrance rationale are largely dominated by the fight in Europe.

Fortunately, recent years have offered the publication of excellent books about the Pacific theater – for example the contribution of China to the Allied war effort. As we observe and live the geopolitical shift towards Asia, this literature is not only a welcoming phenomenon to better understand the Second World War, but also to navigate the troubled seas of the current world order. Thankfully, the increasing interest generated by the war in the Pacific will be of assistance to further develop our historical conscience in that direction.

I was therefore thrilled to read Rock Force: The American Paratroopers Who Took Back Corregidor and Exacted MacArthur’s Revenge on Japan (Caliber) by Kevin Maurer. Having been forced to evacuate the island on 11 March 1942, General MacArthur only makes his entrance in the story at the very end, after the men of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment neutralized the Japanese troops assigned to defend the strategic sentry island guarding the entrance of Manila Bay.

Continue reading “Fulfilling MacArthur’s Promise”

The Hero Code: “Find what your good at and give it to others”

Ever since I watched his famous speech “Make Your Bed”, I have been captivated by the career and thought of retired Admiral William H. McRaven, the former commander of the Navy SEALs. I was therefore excited to receive a copy of his most recent book The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived (Grand Central Publishing).

While I was reading it, an article from the Journal of Strategic Studies caught my attention. Written by National Security Affairs Professor James J. Wirtz, “The Abbottabad raid [during which Osama bin Laden was permanently neutralized by Navy SEALs] and the theory of special operations” elaborates about the theory of special operations, whose father was none other than Admiral McRaven. He theorized it in his master’s degree thesis in a period when, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, we lived in a “[…] new, unipolar world, [where] U.S. special forces would be relegated to tertiary missions within a Cold-War force structure that appeared bloated, obsolete and ripe for significant reductions.”

McRaven’s work sought “[…] to demonstrate that a tactic and unit deemed largely irrelevant by conventionally-minded officers and civilian strategists could actually achieve strategically and politically important effects, but only if planned and executed by special operators themselves against significant targets in proper ways.” And you can figure that the devil was – and still is – in the details.

Continue reading “The Hero Code: “Find what your good at and give it to others””

Every Man can be a Hero

Back in early September 2015, my family and I rented a car in Paris to spend a day in Normandy. I had always dreamt of visiting Juno Beach, where we fellow Canadians landed 77 years ago today. While strolling on the sand, I kept thinking about the level of bravery and heroism required to conduct such an unusual task. Because running to a possible and likely death is certainly not an ordinary action.

Ever since, I have tried to read as much as I can about the men of June 6, 1944. I reviewed Alex Kershaw’s and Giles Milton’s excellent books here. Late last night, I finished reading The Hero Code by retired Admiral William McRaven and Peter Caddick-Adams’ Sand and Steel is on my summer reading list.

Earlier this week, I finished reading the gripping D-Day memoir Every Man a Hero by Ray Lambert and Jim DeFelice (William Morrow). I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself with Admiral McRaven’s book, which I plan to review soon on this blog, but let’s just say that I found the answer to a lingering question between these covers.

Continue reading “Every Man can be a Hero”

Viscount Slim was the opposite of Field Marshal Montgomery

General Sir Peter Duffell (source: Nepali Times)

After the publication of my review of his excellent book Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & sword), General Sir Peter Duffell generously accepted to answer my questions for this blog. Below is the content of this fascinating exchange.

But before you read any further, let me remind you that if you are a military history aficionado, this book is a must for your bookshelves.

In my time, we certainly adopted items of jungle equipment from the Australians and rifles from the Americans as they were deemed to be more effective and soldier friendly.

Whenever I attend the change of the guard at the Citadel in Quebec City (home of the Royal 22e Régiment, the legendary Vandoos), I am always impressed by the “Bearskin” hat worn by the soldiers, a tradition that comes from the French. At Waterloo, the red coats picked the hats from the dead bodies of their fallen opponents. Throughout its history, the British Army always knew how to integrate the best parts of other traditions. The Gurkhas are no exception, having been integrated to the British Order of Battle after the Nepal War of 1814-1816. Has the British Army kept this capacity for accepting other’s best capacities and features?

Continue reading “Viscount Slim was the opposite of Field Marshal Montgomery”

“When you know you are with the Gurkha, I think there is no safer place to be”

In themselves, these words from His Royal Highness Prince Harry encapsulate the ethos and history of those soldiers who are called the best in the world. Having completed two tours of Afghanistan, notably for two months in Helmand, the Duke of Sussex has seen for himself what those legendary fighters are made of.

In his amazing book, Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword), retired General Sir Peter Duffell took upon himself to explain what kind of mettle these exceptional fighters who first encountered the British red coats as enemies on the battlefield of the war on Nepal between 1814 and 1816 are made of. Few people could know the subject better, since the author was himself commissioned into the 2nd Gurkha Rifles at the beginning of his military career.

Having lived for several months in Edinburgh (Scotland), I visited the National War Museum on a few occasions. I was always impressed to read that, during World War I, Germans used to call Scottish soldiers “the ladies from hell” – a distinct reference to their kilt and warrior prowess.

I don’t know how Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troops (or other battlefield enemies throughout history) called the Gurkhas south of Ypres in the first months of the Great War, but I can easily imagine a similar fright must be instilled in whoever sees one of those Nepali soldiers advancing toward his / her position. Just to give you an idea of the kind of fighter we are talking about, the author recounts that, in the last stages of the Burma campaign:

Continue reading ““When you know you are with the Gurkha, I think there is no safer place to be””

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.

Continue reading “Prince Philip at Matapan”

“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:

Continue reading ““Write me a victory””

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:

Continue reading “Prince Philip and the Gurkhas”

“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?

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

Don’t be afraid of the mud

11 months ago, right into the first wave of the pandemic, I reviewed Admiral (ret.) William H. McRaven’s excellent book, Sea Stories. Devouring this book was one of the most uplifting moments of this somber period. Not only because I’m a big fan of the author, but also because it is extremely well-written, and the content touched a chord.

That was before I put my hands on Make Your Bed, his shorter previous book which is the companion to the famous commencement speech he gave at the University of Texas in May 2014. While Sea Stories inspired me “from the outside”, Make Your Bed is not in the same category. The 10 life lessons it contains make you dive right into your own life and path. And that’s not always easy.

During his training to become a Navy SEAL, Admiral McRaven was told by one of his instructors: “[…] life isn’t fair and the sooner you learn that the better off you will be.” The purpose of this review is not meant to be autobiographical, but I have no choice but to share a bit of my own story to make you understand why this book has had such a powerful impact on me.

As a young adult, I witnessed my parents’ divorce and suffered greatly from it. In a nutshell, everything kept spiraling from bad to worse, with no end in sight. The temptation to “ring the bell” (a Navy SEAL wanting to quit only needs to ring three times the bell that’s located on the courtyard of the SEALs training camp in Coronado, California) was extremely strong. A few months before the family house was sold, I made a crucial decision. In hindsight, that was the best one I could take. I was moving to the University’s student’s residence. I wanted to be close to my classes, to the library where I spent lots of time and to live with other people my age. It was a huge gamble. After I paid the rent for the first month, I found myself with only 50$ in my pockets.

Continue reading “Don’t be afraid of the mud”