Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2015 18: Stukas (German, 1941)

Stukas DVDIt’s a propaganda film, but it works — not just as propaganda, but as entertainment. Even after almost three-quarters of a century. Even knowing what most of the people in its theater audiences did not learn until later: that they, and the filmmaker, were working for one of the most evil regimes in the long history of human depravity. Even knowing that, we enjoyed the movie.

Stukas tells the story of a Stuka squadron in the early days of World War II. They tend to be on the winning side, whether they’re fighting the Poles, the Belgians, or the French, but that doesn’t mean they have it all their way. They suffer losses; they have adventures. One poor bastard even becomes a psychological casualty, although he snaps out of it by the credits.

Along with the combat story, there are many human interest sub-plots and interesting period pilot behavior and language. The subtitles can’t be turned off, apparently, but at least they’re generally well and idiomatically translated.



It’s an unusual insight, from 1941, into the German mind as the Nazi empire advanced, seemingly unstoppably, on all fronts. At least until they decided to one-up Napoleon and invade Russia.

A happy warrior, off to bomb Liège.

A happy warrior, off to bomb Liège.

War films that have been made postwar have been made in the knowledge that the invincible German war machine was far from invincible, and in less than four years from their pre-Barbarossa high point, they’d be driven back, crushed, defeated in detail, occupied, and partitioned; over half the prewar land mass of the German Reich would be forfeit for decades, if not forever, in the case of a dozen or more provinces that became part of foreign nations and were ethnically cleansed of Germans in the postwar years.

All postwar movies are freighted with the knowledge of defeat, and can’t reproduce the (somewhat creepy, in retrospect) enthusiasm in victory that suffuses this movie.

Acting and Production

The actors are unknown to us, but they are apparently a who’s who of German cinema at the time, and the production spared no expense; it’s technically brilliant. For example, in the Dark Ages before the Gaudy Age of CGI, combat aircraft were usually shown by using rear projection.

stukas_cockpitThe crew of interest was in a mockup in the foreground, and other aircraft or scenery were projected in the background. It can be well done, but in most American films it’s really rather crude by today’s standards. In most films, the cockpit mockups often don’t resemble the actual aircraft much, and the motion of the foreground stuff versus the rear projection is unnatural and just plain weird. That is not the case here — this is, in effect, a 1940 master class in how to do rear projection effects right.


Director Karl Ritter was a World War I combat pilot who maintained a Reserve commission in the Luftwaffe. and was acquainted with Göring and Udet.

The DVD was produced by American Historical Films, an outfit that has reissued so much Nazi propaganda we can’t help but wonder if they’re really in it for the art… but regardless of their motivations, they’ve done a good job on remastering an old print and including some informative extras on the disc.

Accuracy and Weapons

Naturally, a nation that had a Propaganda Minister made the Luftwaffe available to the director who was a Luftwaffe officer — it didn’t hurt that Karl Ritter was an old-time Nazi Party member himself.


The key weapon in the movie is, of course, the Ju87B Stuka dive-bomber, and these are represented with a great deal of accuracy. As noted above, the flying scenes are generally much better than the usual run of 1940s war movies. Where the effects masters use models, realism suffers. One fanciful “dogfight” has Stukas emerging victorious from combat with Spitfires during the Battle of France, which is not only historically wrong (the only modern fighters deployed to France were Hurricanes), but also aeronautically implausible. It’s one of three places where the propagandistic nature of the film detracts from its entertainment objective.

The next propaganda coup is the degree to which the pilots are Nazi-saluting one another. Perhaps Ritter is right and we are wrong, but we understood the Nazi salute (stiff arm and “Heil Hitler”) was only imposed on the Luftwaffe after the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt.

One advantage to a black-and-white film, of course, is that they could and did intersperse combat camera footage. It’s quite hard to be sure what formation and dive-attack scenes were staged (with real aircraft) for the film, and which were combat camera footage. As long as they stay away from the models the images are logical and believable.

French tanks about to be bombed.

French tanks about to be bombed. Rare in a wartime film, they’re really French tanks. (all images in this post do embiggen),

One of the impressive “gets” of the production is the French uniforms, vehicles and equipment. These are generally quite correct.

The sounds of weapons seem to be generic studio SFX, but the sounds of the Stukas, especially the ropey idle of the Mercedes-Benz DB601 engine, appear to have been captured perfectly for the movie. The score is generally good — unobtrusive, but emotion-stirring, as Ritter no doubt wanted.

Finally, the close of the movie is the third and most implausible propaganda insert in the film. Having beaten Poland, Belgium and France, our intrepid dive-bombers are off to England with the rising sun behind them… as they all sing “The Stuka Song” over the radio. That’s a very hard sell to anyone who’s ever been a combat warrior in any military. An ironic, or even sarcastic rendition, maybe, but seriously? Poof goes suspension of disbelief. The ending is by far the worst of the film’s transgressions.

The bottom line

Stukas is fun, although it’s creepy seeing such a humanization of a one-time national enemy. If you can make it through an hour and a half or so of black and white with subtitles (and unfortunately, it does not seem possible to turn off the subtitles), you will find it interesting. For the Luftwaffe buff it’s a treasure trove of period uniforms, aircraft, and ground equipment .

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film. DVD page:

IMDB page:

IMFDB page (none):

Rotten Tomatoes review page :(none)

Wikipedia page:

Is This Book For Real?

tiger_tracks_faustWe’ve been reading Tiger Tracks: The Classic Panzer Memoir by Wolfgang Faust. Republished by Sprech Media, which publishes and republishes English translations of German combat memoirs of WWII (mostly), this is a 1947 memoir by a Panzer VI Tiger driver who fought on the Eastern Front, it says here. Its German title was the Wagnerian Panzerdämmerung. 

But there are a few details that give us pause. In the first place, it’s graphic to the point of gaudy. Here’s a taste:

One such tank shot at us with a maniacal speed, its tracer rounds flashing past us as we manoeuvred around it to put a shell in from its side. Our 88mm round went exactly centre, just above the snow-covered tracks. The turret hatch lifted up and detonating ammunition spiralled out into the red-tinged sky, adding to the smoke pouring across the stained, rutted snow. Even then, the driver’s hatch opened and a crew man emerged, still in his protective headgear, holding a machine pistol. He fired on us with the little gun, the bullets pattering on our front armour, until our hull MG man brought him down with a single shot. Every round had to count now, had to find its mark; while every manoeuvre and evasion used up our dwindling fuel.

I lost track of time in that fight, with my head spinning from the amphetamines and my body unaware of pain. I noticed, with a strange detachment, that the sky was whitening, and the sun was now looming over the ridge above us. It was a fierce, crimson sun, casting jagged shadows from the peaks, and lighting the scattered wrecks of panzers that burned around us. In its light, the Stalins withdrew up the slope, reversing rapidly, firing as they left. Our 75mm PAK in the bunkers caught one of them with repeated hits as it lurched backwards in the snow, smashing off the very tip of its pointed hull. The Red tank kept on reversing, with two crewmen visible inside the hull through the split-open front. Wilf was unable to resist the temptation: he fired directly into the exposed compartment. Cool as always, he had selected high-explosive, and the detonation of the shell deep inside the confined steel box blew out the driver and machine-gunner from the fractured hull, sending them cartwheeling across the snow, trailing smoke. The Stalin’s ruptured compartment became an inferno of orange flames, in which other men were visible, struggling and writhing, until the vehicle was enveloped in its own smoke.1

Driver station of the Tiger in running condition at Bovington. Note vision block (all images embiggen with a click).

Driver station of the Tiger in running condition at Bovington. Note vision block (all images embiggen with a click).

There’s a lot of writhing in flames in this book. Hits on tanks frequently let Faust (through his single vision block!) observe the deaths of the Russian or German crew inside. Hits on half-tracks (which he calls “Hanomags,” after the original manufacturer) do likewise, when they don’t blow vividly-described body parts in the air, launch vehicles in the air to land on screaming Panzer Grenadiers, or scythe heads off.

It’s all very Hollywood. One scene has German infantry struggling in neck-deep snow until an artillery shell neatly beheads them, leaving their “red spurting necks” as the only parts visible. It all seems rather over-the-top, even for the eastern front.

No doubt there was unimaginable carnage, we don’t question that. We question whether one guy could see all that carnage, although one guy could certainly see lots of carnage and imagine the details.

And there are a few oddities. He claims to be fighting JS- (or IS-)3 Stalin tanks in 1943. He just calls them “Stalins,” but its clear from the way he describes the vehicles — domed turret, and a precise description of the arrangement of the glacis armor — that he’s talking about a JS-3, not the earlier Stalin I or II tanks. (The JS-1 resembled the Tiger and other prewar and early-war tanks in its armor layout, and had a roughly square turret. The JS-2 had a turret resembling a T-34-85). Yet every reference we’ve seen suggests that Chelyabinsk Tractor Works, the Soviets’ go-to tank shop, didn’t start on the Objekt 702 project until the fall of 1944 at the earliest, and the JS-3s first showed up in combat in the Battle of Berlin, and were unknown to the Western Allies until the first Soviet victory parades.

Finally, there is an entirely implausible subplot with a captured Russian female lieutenant. Ripped right out of the movie script, that!

And yet… there are parts that ring true. There’s Faust hastily cannibalizing a vision block from a knocked-out Tiger, and detailed descriptions of the running gear and its limitations. He never drives his Tiger at an unreasonable speed — it was a slow tank, and he’s typically grinding along at  a plausible 10 or 20 km/h. For example, these sound plausible to us:

Inside our panzer, it was humid now, as the groaning transmission became hot and warmed the sealed-in air. Condensation collected on my dials, scalding oil from the transmission spat on my face, the reek of carbon monoxide made my head throb, and I almost envied our commander up in the turret, still with his head up in the morning air – despite the risk he ran of losing that clever brain to a shell or a sniper.2

This running gear layout is a Tiger II, but it gives you a sense of German practice.

This running gear layout is a Tiger II, but it gives you a sense of German practice.

Driveshafts and transmissions crowded the driver in his position in the left bow of a Tiger. And this should ring true to any former tank or mech guy:

Our Tigers were never designed to drive sustained journeys, not even on smooth city roads. The stress and wear to the running gear was too great, and the entire engine and transmission itself only lasted for 1,000 kilometres before being completely replaced. Several of our panzers were at that point now , and their crew muttered gloomily about the prospects of them finishing the journey at all without burning out or seizing up. Even the track links – those great chunks of steel weighing ten kilos each – wear quickly under the duress, and the tracks must be tightened and adjusted if the track is not to snap or become tangled on the drive wheels. The pins that hold the links together are thick metal rods, like your grandmother’s biggest knitting needle – but if one breaks, the sixty tonne panzer can be lost.3

One is left with the impression that perhaps the author is a trained Tiger driver, or at least has read his Tigerfibel closely, but has embellished his combat experience to make for a more vivid (and horrifying, and salable) book. Some years ago we reviewed very positively a book by a Soviet TC who fought on this same front in a T-34; Vassily Bryukhov’s descriptions of combat were no less vivid, but were much more credible than Faust’s.

We suspect we are not the first to have doubts about this work, and wonder if it was equally controversial when it was first published in war-wracked Germany.


A small note at the end of the book’s text says that “Wolfgang Faust” is a pseudonym, and the names of all others in the book have also been changed.

At book’s end, Faust is very nearly a sole survivor (his TC, a unit XO turned commander, is another). While there certainly have been sole survivors of crews, units, etc. in history, “sole survivor” is a very common claim in wannabe war stories, perhaps to explain plausibly the lack of corroborating witnesses.

A reader in Germany  tells us that there is absolutely no reference to this “classic Panzer memoir” discoverable on the German-language internet; he reminds us of the stirring Boy’s Own type tales that were printed in the pulp mag Der Landser (something like a German equivalent of The GI) during the magazine’s 1954-2013 run. (It has resurfaced as Weltkrieg, “World War”, and seems to have its roots in a wartime propaganda pulp for Hitlerjugend boys. They also were apocryphal stories, with brave heroes, minimal Nazi politics, accurate technical details and lurid combat scenes.


  1. Faust, Wolfgang (2015-03-04). Tiger Tracks – Classic Panzer Memoir (Kindle Locations 1769-1782). Bayern Classic Publications. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ibid., Kindle Locations 59-62.
  3. Ibid., Kindle Locations 718-724.

Cooper’s Scout Rifle: Two Instances

In the 1980s, famed gunwriter Col. Jeff Cooper proposed what he called the Gunsite Scout Rifle. Essentially, it was a small, light, compact bolt action rifle, minimally scoped, with as much attention given to totability as to accuracy, and with firepower defined as a strong first shot rather than rapid-fire capability.

Here are two takes on that concept, one newer and one quite old:


Now, let’s look at Cooper’s definition, from the original American Rifleman article circa 1984:

It is much easier to specialize than to generalize, and the definition of a general-purpose rifle is a complex task. Let us attempt it by declaring that: a general-purpose rifle is a conveniently portable, individually operated firearm, capable of striking a single decisive blow, on a live target of up to 200 kilos in weight, at any distance at which the operator can shoot with the precision necessary to place a shot in a vital area of the target. This involved statement will not meet with everyone’s approval, but certain elements of it must be accepted before we proceed. Convenience is important. Power is important. Practical accuracy, as opposed to intrinsic accuracy, is important. If we add the desirability of ruggedness, versatility and speed of operation, and finally throw in a touch of aesthetics, we complete a workable set of parameters. Such a piece is eminently suited for taking the vast predominance of four-footed game, and equally so for men.

While Cooper is credited with the Scout Rifle concept, he spread the credit around by holding conferences where he solicited others’ opinions — and then gave them to ’em. (He was a forceful guy).

In 1983 a conference was convened at the Gunsite Training Center in Arizona to examine the subject of the modernization of rifle design. The members of the conference included gunsmiths, stocksmiths, journalists, marksmanship instructors, inventors and hunters. It was called the First Scout Rifle Conference (“scout” being the term settled upon for the definition of the new concept), and it adjourned with the objective of exploring all elements of design during 1984 and meeting again in October. When the second meeting was held much progress had been made. The project is not complete and at this point certain technical innovations remain to be perfected.

This idea has, of course, been somewhat supplanted by advances in gas guns, which are miles ahead of where they were in the 1980s when Cooper popularized this rifle, let alone in 1966 when he claims to have first gotten the idea, from the short-lived lightweight Remington 600.

But, of course, a small carbine is nothing new. Let’s check out the two in that picture. (The pic is on the dark side, but it does embiggen with a click.

Rifle No. 1: Ishapore Enfield 7.62 NATO

This rifle is an Indian-made Enfield Mk 4 modified to very nearly  Gunsite Scout requirements. It is converted to 7.62mm NATO, has detachable 10-shot magazines because the Enfield strippers for the rimmed .303 British round no longer work with the rimless 7.62 x 51.

It has most of Cooper’s preferred attachments, such as a long-eye-relief scope, a lightweight synthetic stock, and a muzzle brake that, according to the owner, “makes the guys on either side of you at the range really hate you.” One violation of Cooper’s principles is the complete absence of iron sights. In defense of the decisions by whoever modified this rifle, scope reliability has made Bunyan strides since Cooper first formulated his Scout Rifle ideas in 1966 or formalized them in 1983-84.

One of the most interesting features of this rifle is the apparent manufacture of some parts (including the entire bolt) from stainless steel. That’s not something one sees often on an Enfield.

Rifle No. 2: Spanish FR-8 Carbine

The FR-8 is a Spanish Mauser modified by Spain’s La Coruna arsenal into a 7.62 NATO carbine. This was an attempt to extend the utility of old Modelo 43 Mausers (a companion piece, the FR-7, was made from Modelo 1916 “small ring” Mausers). This happened as a backup, even as Spain adopted the select-fire CETME rifle. The FR’s iron sights resemble those of a CETME (or, to an extent, an HK), as does its flash hider and bayonet attachments. It loads only from strippers. This particular example has been modified in the interests of scope mounting, with both the safety and bolt handle having been altered in the interests of making this military rifle better suited to its post-retirement life.

The two rifles compared

Without shooting them, only a few notes can be taken of these rifles, but some distances do emerge. The Enfield has the legendary speed and smoothness of bolt operation for which the type is justly renowned. The Mauser has the legendary Mauser strength.

But then, the similarities: both are 7.62mm rifles with about 18-19″ barrels barely tamed by flash suppressors. Both were made by modifying full-size infantry rifles, and yielding a much handier firearm. Both of these rifles have been modified, sacrificing some of their collector value, in quest of some other value proposition.

Would they please Cooper? And is that even a good idea any more? Reader and sometimes commenter Nathaniel F. of The FireArm Blog posted a good roundup of some Cooper primary sources, along with some more recent and critical thinking about the bolt-action Scout Rifle’s remaining relevance.

Congratulations to Tom Kratman

tom_kratman_big_boys_don_t_cryTom’s novella Big Boys Don’t Cry received a nomination — indeed, was the category-leading nomination — for a Hugo award, which is apparently a very big frog in the Science Fiction fandom award pond. Tom, a retired Army officer who writes science fiction with plausible near-future military themes, is a sometime reader and commenter here, and his nominated work is a read that may be of interest to many of you.

The best of Tom’s works make you think, and may even shake your assumptions. This was the first Kratman work we actually read. In it, an artificially-intelligent, no, sentient, tank of the plausible future, tells her story as she runs through history in depot, while she awaits the latest in many cycles of overhaul, or… decommissioning and end of life.

Through the concept of the machine brain being trained for combat in virtual-reality scenarios, Tom is able to indulge his thorough knowledge of the history of war, and, not incidentally, deliver stirring combat scenes:

The enemy ranks are struck . They fall into disorder but they do not stop. Again comes the command and again we fire. Still they come at us. A chance arrow from the Hittites hits my driver in the throat. He turns to look at me. I believe he does not understand what has happened to him. His hands clutch at me and prevent me from firing. He screams, I think, though it comes out as more of an agonized gurgle , spraying red liquid across my chest and the chariot.

The horses begin to run . My driver falls off the open back of my chariot, almost pulling me with him. Oh, no! My chariot is heading directly for the enemy and I am alone.

I feel… I enquire. I feel fear. I do not want to happen to me what has happened to my driver. I do not want an arrow to sprout from my throat and make red pour from my mouth. I do not want to feel more pain. I drop the bow, grab the reins and try to turn my chariot. The horses will not turn.

The enemy closes. The horses turn on their own now. They must not want to feel pain either. I am thrown over the side as the horses twist my chariot out from under me.

I roll on the ground. Momentum overcomes control of my body. I come to rest and look up. The enemy is upon me. I scream. And then the pain comes.

I feel the horses of the enemy trample my body with their hard hooves. I hear crunching sounds coming from inside me. Chariot wheels pass over my legs and one of my arms . They break. I scream again… and scream and scream. But the pain does not stop.

The chariots are past me now. I see them through the dust of their passage. They are closing with my fellows. I do not hear the sounds of crashing over my own shrieking. My throat tires. I can scream no more. I begin to weep. “Oh, please, please, my creators, make the pain stop…. Please… oh, please.” I weep. I am alone and the pain will not stop. I cannot make it stop. Nothing makes it stop.

There is the same you-are-there feeling whether the machine brain is recalling training exercises that emulated 20th Century tank warfare, or brutal combat with nasty alien species — which is not always what it seems.


It is science fiction, so those who love or loathe that genre be forewarned. It is imaginative science fiction, in the best possible way, in that the imagination is applied to characters and to story.

There is, from time to time, political commentary in it. It is not partisan so much as it is a soldier’s view. For example:

Those early battle tanks should have been fielded sooner. But centuries of bureaucratic inertia, historically unequalled nepotism, academia-instilled pacifism, and corruption on an heroic scale, along with some even less savory factors, all contributed to a speed of deployment next to which a snail would have seemed a thoroughbred.

Still, with our planets falling to the enemy at the rate of six to eight a terrestrial year— a baker’s dozen in one particularly harsh year— even the low-grade morons of the General Staff and the moral lepers of the political branches eventually came around to the realization that bureaucratic procedures had to give way by our will, or the Nighean Ruadh would do away with them altogether. It probably didn’t hurt matters when, one Friday afternoon, following the fall of Beauharnais and the presumed deaths of almost half a billion human beings, a Washyorkston mob stormed the offices of the United Planets Organization, trampled the security guards into bloody jam and dragged to the lampposts some one hundred and twenty-seven members of the Assembly of Man. There would have been more had most of the members not signed out earlier that morning on a long paid weekend. Among the lynched were several hundred time-serving bureaucrats, sixty or seventy of whom were, at least in theory, members of the military.

If you spent even a year in uniform, that impulse (to decorate lampposts with dangling bureaucrats) surely must not be strange to you.

But the most remarkable thing is the development of the Ratha Maggie’s character, from her her first blast of innocent, joyous self-consciousness to the leaden burden of doing the bidding of her gods — humans — in war after war, in which the humans do not always act in ways one expects of gods.

To try it yourself in Kindle edition is a whopping $2.99 (actually, you might be able to borrow it for free, but we dunno how that thing works). When was the last time you blew three bucks?

A Tradition Upheld, Good Books Acquired

This post will be slightly more personal than usual, and it will be written in the first person. You see, my mother was a remarkable and curious person who lived nearly 80 years and spent all of them trying to slake an insatiable curiosity, a fortunate malady that was among the inheritances she passed to her sons. This insatiable curiosity is manifested, among other things, as reading and love for books that falls somewhere along the scale where passion and obsession are found.

Today would have been her 79th birthday.

She was buying books, in hopes of reading them, short days before her death after a long and physically arduous complex of illnesses.

We had a sort of mother-son tradition, when I used to visit the folks in Florida: the Friends of the Martin County Library operate a large used book store on the grounds of a large flea market in Stuart, Florida, and we would go there one day every weekend (the store, which is staffed by volunteers, is only open on weekends when the market is open). We would each buy a stack of books. They would be different books, of course: she read fiction and loved taut, sophisticated mysteries, especially 20th Century British writers; I sought out military non-fiction, although she did urge some novels on me, and I was always a better man for each of them.

Two Sundays ago, I went without her, for the first time. It was, perhaps, a tribute. The image is my stack of books (minus a couple already distributed among the bathrooms down south at Hogney World). You may see some ideas from some of these books emerge in the blog. Most of them await my next visit and return, at the wheel of a car; this trip was in the human mailing tube we call an airliner.


An interesting set:

  1. Landfall by Nevil Shute, a novel of Bomber Command in the early years of the British bomber offensive. Nobody really understands the staggering casualties the bomber boys (British and American alike) took. Shute captures well the “live for today” ethos that resulted, and the fragile, flickering flame of hope that gave them hope for survival, and for life beyond the war. Some of them would even get that. Shute’s most-read novel, On the Beach, isn’t close to being his strongest.
  2. Warday by Whitley Streiber and James SomebodyIcan’tread [ETA: Kunetka] is one of those 1980s novels of nuclear devastation that served Soviet propaganda aims. Some of them were Soviet-sponsored, some were by independent fellow-travelers, and some were by people who weren’t on the Soviet side so much as they, too had been scared by all the nuclear propaganda. If I remember, Warday is not a good novel, and it’s a tossup whether it’s of the first or of the second set. Streiber was a writer for hire, and it’s not like the KGB paid its agents of influence in unconvertible rubles. But I got it as a period piece, kind of like Mein Kampf or an argument for the divine right of kings.
  3. The Grim Reaper by Roger Ford is pretty much straight in WeaponsMan’s wheelhouse: a history of the machine gun. It’s more of a social history than a technical one, and it’s pretty interesting so far. Ever hear of the Ager gun?
  4. The Rogue Aviator by Ace Abbott. Somehow we think “Ace” was not on his birth certificate. A personal memoir of military and airline aviation in the F-4 Phantom and 727 era; a quick read.
  5. Days of Infamy: Military Blunders of the 20th Century by Michael Coffey. As God is my witness, I opened this three times and read some of it, and can’t retain what it’s about. That’s not an especially good sign. Indeed, I only recovered the subtitle by googling the sucker. My impression was that there was nothing new or rare in there and that it had a snide Hollywood tone, and looking online, I see it is a companion book for a TV show. You might wonder how something so shallow gets published — well, the author is the editor of Publishers Weekly.
  6. The History of LandminesI’ve already treated you to a detail or two from that. Good, slim, quality book by Mike Croll, a former British soldier and civilian mine removal expert. It turns out that ten years later, Mike rewrote and republished the book, now called Landmines in War and Peace.
  7. Declassified by Thomas B. Allen purports to be full of explosive declassified secrets, but a quick skim revealed nothing that hasn’t been covered in more depth elsewhere. This is an exploitation book to go with a TV series, which probably accounts for its superficial nature.
  8. Women in War by Shelley Saywell appears to be a 1980s propaganda tract by a feminist writer. Expect no humor whatsoever. Stories are selected for their Sisterhood Appeal and some are exaggerated; others apocryphal.
  9. Hunt the Wolf is a novel by former SEAL Don Mann; the protagonist is essentially a better Don Mann, but the book is a fun, fast read. One hopes that SEALs don’t “wing it” to the extent they do in this book.
  10. Tuxedo Park by Jennet Conant is the story of a wartime scientific lab sponsored by a secretive Wall Street potentate, told by his granddaughter and bearing on the “wizard war” of radars and sonars and passive detection systems.

In addition to those, there’s the bathroom books, including a photo history of SAAB and a couple others we can’t remember.

I have my receipt around here somewhere, but the total came to $28.

Saturday Matinee 2015 13: Generation War (German, 2013, TV)

(DVD image) Berlin. 1940. Five 20-year-old friends enjoy a last time together before the currents of the century separate them: solid, practical Wilhelm is a 2nd lieutenant in the army, and leaves in the morning for his duty station in the East. Charlotte, “Charly,” is a freshly qualified nurse, and she can’t bring herself to tell Wilhelm she has fallen for him. Wilhelm, for his part, doesn’t want to make any promises — there’s a war on, and it wouldn’t be fair. Wilhelm’s younger btother Friedhelm is completely unpractical: he’s lost in words and poetry, and is dead-set against the war but he’s now a draftee, and their parents have made Wilhelm promise to keep him alive. Greta dreams of being a successful singer, but she has a problem: her boyfriend, Viktor, the fifth of the friends, and a son of a World War I soldier, is a Jew.

GW five friends

L-R: Greta, Wilhelm, Charlotte, Friedhelm, Viktor

We viewers, watching this scene and knowing the history of Germany, know what these characters do not: horrors lie ahead.

There has probably never been a movie or TV series that has shown the horrors, the misfortunes and misdeeds of the ordinary German in what Germans now call “the NS-time,” as thoroughly and as well as Generation War (its German title is Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter; “Our mothers, our fathers.”) It is unstinting, unsparing, and unsentimental. In places it is hard to watch.

Acting and Production

The actors are apparently household names in Germany; Volker Bruch as Wilhelm may be the largest star of them (we don’t really follow Teutonic showbiz), and Tom Schilling as Friedhelm gets, perhaps, the widest-ranging character. They are all good and deliver powerhouse performances, as do a large cast of secondary players, bit players, and extras.

Acting works when you can't see that it's "Acting" and fully believe in the characters.

Acting works when you can’t see that it’s “Acting” and fully believe in the characters.

The villains — to the extent that anybody’s a villain here, where almost everyone does something horrible sooner or later — are well played, Mark Waschke as a self-serving Gestapo functionary and Sylvester Groth as a cheerful mass murdering SS officer.

Sets and locations are extremely well thought out, and very often provide a visual contrast. In that sense, we mean that the sets are often places that were once beautiful grand houses, now ruined by war; and the outdoor locations are often places of great natural beauty, despoiled by the violence of warfare. This occurred so frequently in the hours of the series, that we came to think it was a deliberate decision on the part of the director and producers.

Each two-hour segment of the miniseries feels long (perhaps because the subject matter is so uncomfortable) and builds to a climactic last-minute reveal — and cliffhanger. (ETA: IMDB says the segments are 90 minutes. They felt like two hours, but not because they dragged, because they’re packed with intensity).

A score can make or break a show, and the score here was truly magnificent. Themes, motives from classical music, and  the melody of a beautiful song that Greta sings all recur, sometimes seriously, and sometimes ironically or mockingly. The main theme is as beautiful and as tragic as the entire production is.

Accuracy and Weapons

You can’t have a war without guns, and they put a great deal of effort into getting the right guns, or ones that are very near to correct. We could quibble about a couple of anachronisms in firearms and equipment, in which the Germans have gear on screen before their historical ancestors had it in the real world (MG42 before 1942; Kubelwagen at the start of the invasion of Russia).

Explosions are largely realistic. CGI, when it is used, is used skillfully and artfully. For example, both prewar and ruined postwar Berlin were re-created for different scenes; characters watch a train pass with Tiger tanks on flatcars at one point. (They know they nailed that bit of CGI: they put it into the trailer).

The Polish Home Army (Armij Krajova) is shown warts and all -- here with an MG42 and other captured German arms.

The Polish Home Army (Armija Krajova) partisans are shown warts and all — here with an MG42 and other captured German arms. Note that the gun looks new-ish, and not 70-years-of-beaten-up, as is sometimes the case with movie guns.

In one scene, which is featured in the trailer and that bookends the first episode, Wilhelm is firing an MP.40 and the casings fall on his copy of the “five friends” picture. They have made the casings wartime, unfinished steel. Give them +1 for that. But with the single flash hole of Boxer priming — give them -1 for that, and us -1 for being nerds enough to notice.

In another, there’s a continuity error where a P.38 pistol turns to a P.08. That this is a classic Hollywood error that they’ve been making since the war doesn’t, it seems, keep new producers from making it.

One important plot point is served by a Russian with a clutch of Panzerfaust grenade-launchers, although the Germans never seem to have this German weapon.

As a German production, it focuses primarily on German issues, but there are accurate if unflattering scenes of Russians, Poles, and American occupiers as well.

The bottom line

Some reviewers have described Generation War as “The German Band of Brothers.” It isn’t really; in some ways, it’s more ambitious, trying to show the whole grand sweep of a great war in about five or six hours. The war actually slew some 12 million Germans, while the Nazi regime slew millions of others, not only the famous, doomed Jews; and no survivor was left untainted by the events of 1939-1945. At one point, one of the characters shouts that there were no choices any more, just the choice of death or lying. At the end, the survivors among the friends can barely interact when they meet in the ruins of the location of the prewar party.

A very high level of the filmmaker’s art is here deployed in the service of a bleak, dark and depressing story, and we found it best taken in installments. The individual episodes are long, but they tend to draw one in and we did watch each in one sitting. Watch it yourself and use your best judgment before you let a family member or friend who is struggling to process war experiences see it; for some such sufferers it will be cathartic, and for others it may exacerbate depression.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page: (none yet)
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page (note that the Wikipedia entry is bursting with errors):

Saturday Matinee 2015 10: Air Cadet (1951)

Air_Cadet_filmIt’s 1951, in the first hard years of the Cold War, and for a select group of American young men, the sky is calling. The Air Cadet program was created in the throes of the runup to World War II when the US needed to produce lots of airmen, fast. A systematized training scheme put men through a boot-camp-like military indoctrination, followed by Primary, Basic and Advanced flight training. (Would-be airmen who couldn’t keep up or lacked pilot aptitude joined other cadets in training for other aircrew positions). By 1951 this relatively baroque system had been greatly simplified. Pilots were trained ab initio in T-6 piston planes (which had been the Advanced single-engine trainers in the wartime system). Then, pilots selected for multi-engine training would move on to the TB-25; pilots with fighter aspirations would move to the then-new T-33, a trainer version of the then-current Lockheed F-80 fighter.

The military bildungsroman is a common enough film type, or was at the time, and the conflicts in the movie are the will-he-pass-the-checkride variety, along with who-gets-the-girl and the ever-popular why-does-the-major-have-it-in-for-me?

Acting and Production

It’s a midcentury B-movie from Hollywood, so it’s going to be corny. If you’re expecting gallic ennui or New York nihilism-in-a-cynic’s-mask, you’ve come to the wrong show. The biggest name actor in it is the then unknown Rock Hudson, but he has a small role as an upperclassman at Randolph Field who hazes our four cadet roommates, all played by Hollywood journeymen. The four are types: the cynical infantry vet Joe Czanoczek, Everyman Russ Coulter who’s representing his dead pilot brother, plane-crazy Jerry Connell, and spoiled-rich-kid Walt Carver.  It doesn’t take a jet pilot to know that under Hollywood rules Joe will find something to believe it, Russ will grow out of his brother’s shadow, Jerry will find limits to his love affair with aviation, and Walt will accomplish something without a nanny for a change.

Air Cadet engine

The movie was made with a limited budget and a lot of assistance from the Air Force, and combines studio interiors and airplane models and mockups with exteriors shot on real bases, and with real aircraft in the background. Supposedly, one of the extras in the movie was future Mercury and Gemini astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, who was in line to command Apollo 1 and also the first lunar landing. He would, instead, perish with his crewmates in a launch-pad rehearsal flash fire in 1967.

Accuracy and Weapons

Guns don’t figure in the story at all, and, in fact, neither do many combat planes: the men have their hands full trying to master the T-6 and the T-33, although they peak with a solo in the F-80. These vintage training planes are one reason to enjoy the movie, and there are a lot of little cues to vintage ground equipment, like a mobile control tower on the back of a 2½ ton truck.

Air Cadet F-80

Many aspects of cadet training are depicted realistically, while others are fanciful. The challenges of academics and hazing are dismissed rapidly in montage fashion. There are many such films, but none that realistically shows the tension created as one good man after another fails to meet the cut and is washed out; Air Cadet may be doing its best, but in the end it only hints at it.

The flying is to some degree nonsense, with both formation flying and instrument flying hammered into plot inflection points rather than being treated realistically. On the other hand, depiction of the macho pilot culture and its limitations is ahead of its time, including a plot point that hinges on a suicide (off-screen, by a character we never see). They explicitly make the point that the burden of flying risky missions was a factor, and suggest that the squadron leader blamed himself.

In these days before CGI and green screen, effects shots are either done with rear-projection sets or with models. One scene, of a T-33 belly landing, is barely recognizable as a model, and that only because of the non-scale flames. For 1951, it’s not bad.

The bottom line

Air Cadet is a blast from the past — a very distant 64 years ago; it wasn’t Oscar bait then and it isn’t a “classic” now. But it is a little bit of a forgotten era in national defense, preserved for the benefit of us all.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page: (not available).
  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page: (none)
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page: (none)
  • Wikipedia  page:

Saturday Matinee 2015 09: 49th Parallel (1941)

49th ParallelSome of the sites describing this video describe it as a propaganda film. It is that, in the sense that it was produced by a wartime combatant (Britain) and meant to stir emotions in the citizens of a noncombatant (the USA, at that time). Accordingly, the movie shows some of the things you’d expect an American to believe about Canada and Canadians — the happy Inuit, the voluble French trappers.

But it’s more than just propaganda. Because “propaganda film” brings to mind the mindless paeans to various dictators over the years, and has a connotation (often deserved) of dreadful quality. This movie does not deserve to be tarred with that same brush.

Fortunately, you do not need to take our word for it; you can decide for yourself, because the copyright for  has lapsed. Therefore, we have the opportunity to embed the whole movie for you here.

The story is essentially this: a German submarine, U-37, is operating off Newfoundland. Hunted by Canadian planes and ships after sinking a merchantman, the Germans choose to take refuge in Hudson’s Bay, where they are found and sunk by Canadian planes that are Lockheed Hudsons in some shots and ancient Douglas types in others (the RCAF did operate these aircraft during the war). But before U-37 went the way of all flesh, her skipper landed a foraging party of two officers and four men, who were supposed to raid a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post for food and fuel. Now, they must survive, a situation for which their preparation is inadequate. And they must try to evade their way from the Canadian near-arctic to neutral territory — presumably, across the border into the neutral USA.


In true Hollywood Nazi fashion, the Germans blow every chance to make friends and influence people.

Johnny, a trapper (played with verve and over-the-top Acadian diction by a young Laurence Olivier), doesn’t believe a word of the stories he’s told — after a year running his trapline, unaware there was a war on — about Germans having strafed Polish civilians.

“The German, he’s an ordinary man like us. I wouldn’t do that. You wouldn’t do that. So I’m not going to believe they would do that.” The Germans, of course, make him a believer before they’re done.

But the Germans move on, their ranks thinned by mishap and enemy action, trying to get to the United States, from which they may be able to get back home and back into the war.

Acting and Production

While it absolutely was made as a propaganda film, the movie was made by screen professionals and production values were not compromised for didactic value. 49th Parallel is well-shot and well-acted, and the cast is chockablock with British pros: Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey (actually a Canadian; this is the only movie in which he ever played a Canadian character!). The Hutterite leader Peter is played by Anton Walbrook; Walbrook donated half his fee to the IRC, and the three big-name stars simply worked for half pay, because they believed in the movie’s message — and the creatives’ ability to deliver it.

Arguably the best performance is the forgotten Irish actor Niall MacGinnis as the baker-turned Engine Room Artificer, Vogel.

The director, Michael Powell and the writer Emeric Pressburger would later be known as “The Archers” and make a series of memorable wartime and postwar films.

Pressburger’s Oscar-winning script is devilishly clever, with the Germans, a mixed bag of regular Joes and committed National Socialists, initially seeming a ruck of indistinguishable Nazi uniforms and gradually emerging as individuals, with individual motivations, beliefs — and fates. At one point, a Nazi officer regales a Christian religious community with parables of praise for his Savior — Adolf Hitler. The blasphemous parallel is done, but done subtly; it would have been much easier to overdo it, and neither Pressburger nor Eric Portman as the German lieutenant fall into that trap. Still, as you might imagine, the political harangue lays an Operation Barbarossa-size egg.

The Germans get their share of clever lines. At one point, one tells an expert on Indian tribes that the Nazis “choose to rely on ‘primitive, savage folkways,'” or words to that effect, mocking a passage in the author’s own manuscript — which the Nazis then destroy, along with his modern art. In case the message was lost on you, then they burn a Thomas Mann novel (Mann was proscribed in the Third Reich).

One thing that deserves some notice is the orchestral score, which is magnificent. The composer Ralph Vaughn Williams is responsible. The rest of the sound effects are variable in quality — one scene in a plummeting airplane is all wrong, but the sound of a plane running a fuel tank dry is all too correct (don’t ask us how we know that).

Accuracy and Weapons

For a wartime picture, guns are not as emphasized as you might think. The sailors go ashore with WWI vintage long Mausers with long bayonets, not entirely unbelievable for 1940 or so. By the time they go clandestine, the Mausers are a memory. The officers have Lugers (although in one scene, we swore we saw a Lahti!) in wrong holsters, but one assumes British prop houses weren’t flush with German WWII kit by that time. The Kriegsmarine uniforms are all wrong.


Conversely, the Canadians are armed with sporting arms and dressed in the outdoor clothing of the mid-20th Century. While the Canadians normally have their guns put away, the Nazis are very quick to use theirs.


One Eskimo gives the plot a nudge with a Savage Model 99, one of the most beautiful lever actions ever made:


And later, another lever action falls into the hands of the Nazi evaders — another classic, a Winchester Model 1895.


The German sub features one prominent anti-aircraft gun — a water-cooled Vickers. Nice try, but… it’s almost as funny as the bombing attack on the sub, in which all bombs either hit or strike within a couple of feet of the sub. Had Allied bombing been that good, the U-boats would have been out of business by January 1940.

The understanding of Nazi beliefs and politics is uneven, compared to that developed by postwar scholarship.

In one extremely effective scene, the gunshot you know is coming takes place off screen. What you see is, instead, the heartless German officer making the Nazi salute as bloody murder is done off stage.

The bottom line

49th Parallel is a period piece, a fossil from the mid-20th Century preserved in amber and now available to everyone through the magic of the Internet and the good fortune (albeit perhaps not for the Archers’ heirs) of the film’s copyright lapsing. Yes, it was made to sway minds, but it was made with a light hand by people who were very, very good at their job. It does not conform to the Save The Cat! template perfectly, and it runs just about 2 hours long — a modern audience wouldn’t sit still for it, perhaps. But if you sit still for it, you will be glad you did. It has the abovementioned great script, with a truly fiendish (and satisfying) twist at the end.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page (also on Prime instant video for free for Prime members. However, the YouTube version above is probably less compressed than the Prime version):

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

(Doesn’t exist).

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (88% fresh):

  • Wikipedia  page:

Today Only Book Deal – Free

SF A TeamsLadies and Gents, here’s a freebie for you if you act fast, thanks to author (and retired Colonel) Tom Davis. Special Forces A Teams is a carve-out from Tom’s longer autobiography, The Most Fun I Ever Had with My Clothes On: A March from Private to Colonel. It includes his memories of service as a junior officer on a Special Forces ODA in the United States and Europe (Tom’s Vietnam service was in conventional forces, IIRC).

In the book, Tom Davis tells stories of SF Combat Diver (SCUBA) school; walking the Appalachian Trail with an ODA whose leader he was sent to relieve, but wasn’t just taking a relief lying down; of being trained as a Green Light team; and of the lieutenant who had to learn for himself that what the teams did with cryptographic material wasn’t what doctrine said to do with it:

On one such Flintlock we deployed from RAF Greenham Common, England, into Germany. My new, XO, LT Tuffs, decided that he would do as he was taught in the SF Course and maintain control of the one-time pads (OTP). One-time pads were crypto pads about the size of a small notebook. They consisted of pages and pages of letters in five groups each. Once they were filled out , they were destroyed.

An officer on the Team was supposed to maintain control of them and write and encrypt each message then give it to the commo guy who would send out the encrypted five-letter groups via Morse code over the radio. In reality, the senior commo guy, in this case SFC Taylor, would carry the pads and encrypt the message that I gave him. I didn’t feel good about it, but I couldn’t tell Tuffs that he couldn’t do it as he was taught. Anyway, what could go wrong?

We were three days into the operation. I was sitting by the fire when Tuffs walked over, his face colorless. I knew instantly something had really gotten screwed up. “What?” I said expecting the worse.

“Sir, I can’t find the one-time pads.” He looked down and shook his head.

This was a BIG deal. Not only had we lost a sensitive real world crypto document, we had lost it in a foreign country! “Are you sure?” I said, seeing my career, what little there was of it, flash before my eyes. All he could do was nod his head and gulp shallow breaths.

We went over to his field gear, and I emptied his rucksack and turned his sleeping bag inside out. No pads. If we couldn’t find them within the next hour, I would send a flash message, in the clear no less, back to our battalion headquarters (called a FOB or Forward Operations Base) to let them know we had really screwed up. There was no question the commander would have administratively yanked us all out of the field and started a 15-6 investigation into the matter. I stomped back over to my gear and was about to call [team sergeant Thompson over to tell him to get everybody together so we could backtrack where we had come from. Just then Thompson and Taylor walked up. Taylor was smiling. Thompson wasn’t.

“Taylor has something to show you.” Thompson motioned Taylor forward. “Look what I found on the ground back at our last stop.” Taylor produced the pads.

“You found these back at our RON (Rest Over Night) and are just now telling me?” I knew exactly what he was doing. He was making the point that the commo guy should be the one to control the pads as we, and every other Team, had always done.

Tuffs was right and Taylor was wrong but also right. I called Tuffs over and showed him the pads. His reaction was just like when you’ve lost your billfold then find it, but multiplied by ten! I allowed as how even though doctrine dictated that an officer control the pads, we’d let SFC Taylor control ours from then on. Tuffs was good with that.

Most every team, during the days of 2LT team Executive Officers, had a story like that, and frankly, most of the former XOs can tell one, too. It was part of learning the tribal knowledge of how to lead SF soldiers, things that weren’t in the book, and that sometimes, like in this case, conflicted with doctrine.

There are a number of reasons team leaders shouldn’t have been the ones encrypting messages, but the biggest ones are 1. the TL’s time is precious, and 2. anyone who encrypts a lot of messages, as every communicator (SFC Taylor would have been a 05B4S, today he’d be an 18E4) has done in his MOS phase of SFQC and subsequent service, is going to be much, much faster than anyone who has little experience of it. The one-time pads still exist as a backup, and have the signal (no pun intended) advantage of being proven unbreakable, so long as the keystream or key generation is truly random.

Anyway, the stories are entertaining. This sub-book ends with an offer of a discount on Tom’s full-length book in trade paperback format, something that fixes one real problem with the Kindle format, the tiny fixed-size pictures.

You want real SF stories from a real SF guy, Davis has got ’em. Get ’em yourself here. After today, the price goes up to $3!


This post has been corrected. The commo man’s MOS has been repaired, per the note in the comments from Mike Hill (himself a former commo man! He would know).

Saturday Matinee 2015 08: Field of Lost Shoes (2013)

Field of Lost ShoesThis was recommended to us by a commenter months, maybe years ago. But we finally got around to watching it. And you should, too. It’s a serious attempt to tell a true story of the Civil War, a remarkable human interest story. The story is that of the Battle of Newmarket in Virginia in 1864, and one of the most unusual units to as ever turn the tide of the battle: the Corps of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute . These were young men and boys from about age 15 to about age 21.

While this story has risen to the level of legend among the graduates of the Institute, it’s a story of the Civil War worth learning, whether you have any connection at all to either side of that conflict.

Acting and Production


The young unknowns who play the cadets do perfectly well, and they’re supported by a cast that includes a wide range of talents: Civil War reenactors, actual VMI cadets, two seasoned professionals. In the latter category , Keith David has the institute’s slave baker, “Old Judge”; Tom Skerritt, as US Grant; and Jason Isaacs, as Confederate Gen. Breckenridge, stand out. Isaacs gets the line of the movie: “Send in the boys… and may God have mercy on my soul.”

They apparently extended their budget by a trick that we’ve seen war-film makers use in several other independent films, using reenactors. That said, the film seldom feels budget-cramped; perhaps when very similar locations and sets are used for various Confederate and Union field camps (indeed, it feels like one location and set, superficially re-dressed for each scene). Where a lot of money needs to be put on the screen for the viewer to see, it has been done.


The command position’s difficulty of observation during a Civil War battle was made quite clear.

Any costume, period drama is a hard thing for filmmakers to plan and shoot, the Civil War being a particular bear. There is some anachronistic language and mores, but not overwhelmingly so; by and large they hold to the language and attitudes you would expect from martial caste Americans of the mid-19th Century.

One prelude scene shows a young son of a privileged gentleman getting himself a bit of an education about slavery, by watching a slave auction. He had just been telling his father that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly nonsense, because he didn’t know anyone that

The scene rings true, despite the unlikelihood of the situation they try to sell later, in which a group of young Virginians of 1863-4 are all morally opposed to slavery. If a character in a modern movie were to express the attitude of the average denizen of the 1860s towards black men, viewers would be outraged. On the other hand, the simple faith of many of the rank and file as well as the leaders does get a fair showing.


The DVD includes a making-of featurette and one on the way the Institute and its Cadets memorialize the heroes of New Market.  The sound levels on the featurettes are much higher than that on the movie itself.

Accuracy and Weapons

The use of weapons seems about right, and the weapons used by both the Union and Rebel troops seem about right. They do not downplay the smoke of the field much, compared to other Civil War films.

In one incredible scene that we’re guessing was CGI or superimposition, you can see the cannonball exit a Union cannon. Amazing! The actual assault is done, as you might expect in an era of slow-loading rifle-muskets, with empty rifles merely serving as handles for cold steel.


The bottom line

The Field of Lost Shoes is a must for former VMI grads and Civil War buffs, the best-informed of whom can probably find nits to pick with it. We enjoyed it, and thought it a good balance of realism and plot. The stories of cadets like Thomas G. Jefferson, John Wise, Moses Ezekiel and their friends deserve wider respect, beyond the VMI alum network. This movie tells the story with art and without artifice; it is endearing in its earnestness.


We respect heroism around here, whether it’s in service of a good cause or ill, it deserves recognition of its own right. History would write that the Rebel cause was both wrong, and doomed; let history also record that the Rebels (and the Yanks) fought their hearts out, in a cause that they believed was right, and that they wouldn’t admit was doomed, even to themselves. Ave atque vale. 

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

Also available in Instant Video:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page: (none)
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (40%, rotten):

  • Wikipedia  page: