26 September 2009

The Royal Navy's Home Port: Review of Scapa Flow

Scapa Flow in War and Peace by W.S. Hewison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This an abridged version of Hewiston's larger work, This Great Harbour: Scapa Flow. It's a slim little volume of history of the sheltered anchorage in the middle of the Orkney Islands off the northern shore of Scotland.

The body of the book covers the First and Second World Wars when the relatively isolated harbor served as the primary port for Great Britain's main fleet (the Grand Fleet in WWI and the Home Fleet in WWII). The position of Scapa Flow gave the fleet the best staging ground for intercepting any German warships attempting to break out into the Atlantic or shipping attempting to break the British naval blockade applied in both wars.

The book does not cover the various missions and encounters that the Royal Navy engaged in with much detail. Instead, the focus is on activities in the harbor itself. The two most dramatic incidents both involved German warships in the Flow. First, Scapa Flow hosted the German High Seas Fleet when it was interred after the end of WWI. On the summer solstice in 1919, two days before the Versailles Treaty would have ordered the ships of the German fleet distributed to the various victorious allies, the German admiral in charge ordered the whole fleet scuttled.

The next dramatic moment came in the early days of WWII when a German U-Boat penetrated the insufficient defenses of the harbor to sink the British battleship Royal Oak. This incident lead to a major build-up of defenses and forces in the Orkneys, and listing these defenses and emplacements is where this little volume shows its greatest value.

Hewison assumes that his reader already knows a fair deal about the two world wars, the Royal Navy, and the general geography of Great Britain and the Orkneys. The strength of the volume is in the details and the point of view of a native Orkadian.

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19 September 2009

Surviving the Purges: Review of "Dark Star"

Dark StarDark Star by Alan Furst

My rating:
3 of 5 stars

I am beginning to become a serious fan of Furst's work. Dark Star is definitely a darker work than the last Furst I read The Polish Officer, and that really is saying something. I'm really not sure how accurately Furst portrays the thinking of a Soviet citizen living through Stalin's purges, but it is certainly believable. Furst proposes several theories for the purges as his main character, Andre Szara, tries to navigate the pitfalls of pre-war Europe. I wish I could measure the believability of these theories that Furst puts in the mouths of his characters. Unfortunately, when I tried to read the the seminal history of the Purges, Robert Conquest's The Great Terror, I just couldn't drag myself through it.

The most interesting contrast in the book was between the terror regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. In both countries, a knock on the door in the middle of the night usually meant a visit from the secret police and the disappearance of at least one family member, usually forever. However, in Germany, you had a pretty good idea of why you being arrested and on whose authority that arrest was happening. In Russia, the Terror was much less predictable. The state apparatus turned on minorities, dissidents, rivals, and even itself. Sometimes it seems clear that Stalin was targeting those he felt were a threat to him; at other times he seemed to be terrorizing the whole country into submission. Furst surmises that some portions of the purge were factional infighting within the government, with no clear hand from above.

All of this is buffered in the book by having Szara, spend most of his time in Paris, Berlin, or Poland, working as a semi-reluctant spy-master for the
NKVD under the cover of his previous life as a journalist from Pravda. This plethora of settings hurts the pacing a bit. Dark Star is over twice as long as The Polish Officer, and it certainly felt it. Still, this novel felt a bit more solid than the very impressionistic and almost ethereal detachment of The Polish Officer. View all my reviews >>

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