Thursday 30 November 2017

The Roman Emperor Aurelian Restorer of the World (Revised edition) By John F White

JJ Note: Well how about this for a fast turn round following our experiment in 'blogmocracy', and thank you to all those who expressed an opinion.
Just for the record, I had this one as my first choice closely followed by the Barons War. I think after Augustus and Trajan, Aurelian has to be right up there among the great Roman Emperors. Over to Mr Steve's review.

Aurelian, a forgotten Roman emperor in a forgotten century.

Be honest, how many of you have heard of him? You’re probably pretty confident with all the Early Imperial guys from Augustus until you arrive at Trajan or Hadrian and after that it all gets a little fuzzy until Constantine turns up and yet Aurelian was probably one of Rome’s better emperors.

To help explain where we are in the timeline let me show you how I mentally split up the Imperial Roman era:

27BC-217AD: Early period from Augustus to Septimus Severus ( look him up, he died in York) . Rome at its peak, with a strong army and pushing outwards.

217-337. Caracalla to Constantine the Great, the middle years when things start to go bad, the army is still mainly infantry but the quality has dropped and recruitment is getting difficult, there are frequent revolts, invasions, plagues and usurpers and the life of an emperor is normally short. Its one crisis after another.

337-476: The barbarian years, Constantine II to Romulus Augustulus. The army is mainly made up from non-Romans and lead by non-Romans, taxation is virtually non existent and the empire slowly breaks up into separate sections as invaders settle. Western Rome is in effect run by a succession of Warlords such as Aetius, Stilicho and Ricimer.

Aurelian falls into my middle section and is probably best remembered as the emperor who defeated the Palmyrene’s under Queen Zenobia.

So on with the review, now most books on Roman personalities have one big problem, there is only a tiny amount of period material available for the author to use. You could pad out the pages by trying to back up your pet theories on what might have happened or you can instead add in additional material related to your topic person, in this case I was pleased to see it was the later.

It starts with a brief explanation of what ancient sources were available to the author and he also raises the topic of the contentious “Augustan History’s” and how much of it can be used. (I am not going to expand on this here, look it up ) .

Chapters 2 to 4 cover the four preceding emperors, mainly Gallienus and his father Valerian (the first Persian footstool) probably because they managed to reign the longest and it was also during their time that Aurelian grow up and rose to prominence. Usurpers and Barbarian invasions are common place, add in a strong Persian King on the rampage and it was busy time.

Gaul, Britain and Spain broke away under their own emperor and had to be left alone. This was bad news as it meant no taxes or troops that could be re-located to trouble spots elsewhere and no silver
from Spain. The coinage was already debased and now, with nothing coming out of the Spanish mines, it only got worse. 

Silver coins were for everyday use and is why we have found so many of them, whilst Augustus’ coins had a 95% silver content, silver coins from this period contained 2% with nothing but a silver wash across the face which very soon wore away and this resulted in a dramatic collapse in confidence and of course caused inflation. 

If you did get your hands on older coins then they tended to be horded somewhere safe for us to find later with metal detectors plus your army isn't that happy about being paid in worthless coins and you don’t want to upset them. Oddly gold coins more or less kept their same high gold content but this wasn't of much use to the poor who never saw any.

In Chapter 5 Aurelian is proclaimed emperor by the army upon the untimely death from plague of Claudius II who had been doing quite a good job until that moment. Aurelian’s first task was to stop another wave of Barbarian invasions, this time by the Goths, the Vandals and the Germans who all saw a possible opportunity in the usual chaos that occurs by the change in Emperors. Normally this would have been a good bet but this time it wasn't as Aurelian was not only on the spot with the main army but he was currently unchallenged by rivals and was also a very competent general.

Afterwards he went on to Rome to make sure that the Senate was onside and whilst there he started the construction of new city walls which are still present to this day. He was also the Emperor who pulled out of Dacia and made the Danube the new border.

Chapter 6: The East ; The eastern half of the empire was in a bit of a mess due to Shapur the Sassanid Persian King, he had taken advantage of Rome’s weakness and conquered or pillaged huge areas even going deep into modern Turkey rather than just pottering around the middle east as was normal. Fortunately for Rome the Palmyrenes stepped forward and not only held Shapur in check until his death but they also took the opportunity to make sure the rest of the eastern part of the empire was nice and safe as well, which was nice of them, even going so far as to control Egypt. 

Coins issued at the time (I want to talk more about coins at the end) showed both their King and whoever the current Roman Emperor was as joint rulers. This changed when he was assassinated and Zenobia ruled as queen regent for her son, now it was only their heads that appeared on the coins with no mention of Rome. This chapter deals with Aurelian’s campaign in the East and the war against Palmyra. One side note for those who remember WRG 5th/6th edition, the Blemmyes’ get a mention.

Chapter 7 is quite long as it covers the rest of his short reign such as the bloodless recovery of the breakaway West, improvement to the debased coinage, various new laws on taxation plus other changes he introduced once he was back in Rome including trying to help the poor (Free Pork for all!) With the Empire restored it was time to head back east and do what all emperors did when bored and that was to pick on the Persians, on the way out he was assassinated.

Chapter 8 briefly covers the next six emperors until Diocletian takes over.

Chapter 9: Legacy of the Danubian Emperors, despite the title what this chapter does is allow the author to give a quite good analysis of what damage the chaos of the 3rd century did to the Roman Empire.

There are then the usual key dates, notes and an index.

I liked this book ,there’s enough content to make it worthwhile and the adding in of the Emperors fore and aft helps to give you a better feel to the 3rd Century which is often rushed over so that we can get to Diocletian and Constantine who we know so much more about.

It is now extremely unlikely that we will ever discover any more ancient texts to shed further light on Rome apart from the odd papyrus dug up in a Roman desert fort asking a soldiers mum back home to send out more underpants, so the study of coins has become much more important and prominent. 

Let me explain, Most of the texts we have for the 3rd C are either fragmentary or dubious however all Roman Emperors would constantly issue new coins as a means of spreading news to the masses and we have a huge amount of coins which can all be accurately dated.

Aurelian was given many titles due to his victories such as Gothicus Max or Germanicus Max, these we have found on coins and confirm that the wars mentioned in the surviving texts actually took place, also we can be sure that various usurpers mentioned are real as they too minted coins as soon as possible, once you find the last dated one then we know more or less when they were crushed.

I have even read some recently published books where virtually the entire timeline of events has been worked out just by coinage, but normally coins are now used to confirm what was previously known only by surviving texts.

Finally as wargamers we tend to only play the Early Imperial period and then jump to the Early Byzantines, however the 3rd century has just as many invasions and just as many different nationality’s that we could be playing, with maybe a little more chance of the Barbarians winning for once.

Hardback and Kindle

Readable pages 222 out of 240

RRP of £19.99 , Best price 25th Nov 2017 = £13.91 Wordery

This has been a Mr Steve presentation.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Museumpark Bevrijdende Vleugels - Holland 2017

No finer pair of liberating wings than those carried by the workhorse of the Allied airborne divisions, the Douglas C 47 Skytrain or RAF Dakota.

As well as looking at the Roman collections in the area where we were staying in Holland this summer I was keen to explore the history of WWII in the area particularly with regard to my own father's involvement in the battle to reach Arnhem covered in my previous posts.

Of course any look at the events surrounding the Arnhem campaign would have to include the airborne troops who were dropped along the route that XXX Corps needed to move up to reach the last bridge held by 1st British Airborne Division.

The area we were staying in near Eindhoven fell into the remit of 101st US Airborne, with the 82nd ABD further along at and near Nijmegan.

As well as visiting battle sites along the route up to Nijmegan I was keen to see what museum collections their were in our area dedicated to the Airborne troops, in particular, as well as the campaign to liberate Holland as a whole.

The Museumpark Bevrijdende Vleugels  or Liberating Wings Museum in English, seemed to be among the best collections and fortuitously within a short bike ride from where we were staying.

Bevrijdende Vleugels

The museum started as an exhibition of items for the 40th anniversary of Operation Market Garden and was established by Mr Jan Driessen in Veghel in 1984, staying there until 1996 when the growing size of the collection forced a move to its present location in 1997 in Best where the new museum was opened in the presence of His Royal Highness, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.

The current collection is housed, in the main, in a group of new halls opened for the purpose in 2009, allowing the most important items to be housed under cover and protected from the elements, but as you will see not all the items are afforded this level of preservation.

A case in point was seeing the remains of this Opel Blitz truck in what would seem to be original camouflage paintwork and markings for 1st SS Panzer Division Liebstandarte with their famous key motif linking them to their original commander Sepp Dietrich, dietrich translating to 'key' in English.

The entrance to the museum has a nice reference to their founder Jan Driessen who died in 2010, and have his original airborne coat on display together with his campaign medals.

It is easy to see how this collection has grown from a tribute to the Allied forces involved in Operation Market Garden to a much wider inclusion of exhibits that help tell the story of WWII in this part of Holland, covering the invasion and occupation in 1940, the liberation by Allied forces and a look at the air war that was fought over Holland where many of its victims lie as mute testament to the battle that raged overhead.

On entering the linked halls the visitor is lead on a journey that covers the history of WWII in Holland following that time-line with a Dutch sentry box and illustrations showing the Dutch forces who fought to resist the German invasion.

With occupation came the realisation of what being occupied by the Nazis meant to the civilian population and the bravery of those who decided to resist and the misery of those caught up in the systematic murder of those deemed unfit to be able to live at all.

Resistance fighter, Hannie Schaft arrested 21st March 1944 and shot on the 17th April 1945, aged 24

The horror of the concentration camps was visited on this part of Holland and, as well as being represented here in the museum, Carolyn and I saw the monument of old railway lines heading off into woodland that marks the access to what was the Vught Concentration Camp whilst cycling in the area.

The railway line is the monument to Vught camp

My own father was well aware of this brutality during his service with Guards Armoured Division when the GAD were involved in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 where, due to the appalling conditions of their camp, 14,000 prisoners died, even after liberation.

The next part of the museum focuses on the Market Garden campaign with exhibits that capture that particular moment in history when the Allied forces attempted to drive into Germany along the narrow corridor of airborne troops.

The skeletal remains of a WACO glider

The Guards Armoured Division were illustrated with vehicles and manikins displaying the various arms of service within the division, with a column of vehicles from the Irish Guards suitably scrawled over in chalk by recently liberated Dutch civilians.

Storm boats played an important role in this operation that entailed multiple crossings of the many waterways in this part of the world.

I can remember paddling one of these on a gravel lake in Surrey many years ago as a member of the Air Training Corps and they are not pleasant or comfortable to paddle whatsoever.

The Allies received invaluable intelligence about German activities from PAN the Dutch Resistance organisation very often able to use the telephone network to dial up from one town to the next to find out what the enemy troops were up to.

Nice to see the 55th Field Regiment, West Somerset Yeomanry, represented as they were the towed 25lbr regiment in the Division.

On leaving the Guards Armoured hall one is led via pictures and photos of the Allied air drop into the airborne hall with the massive C47 dominating the display alongside other aircraft and vehicles that were involved in the air operations.

The RAF 2nd Tactical Airforce played a major part in the operation to secure air superiority over the battlefield and the replica Spitfire in the markings of No. 322 (Dutch) Squadron illustrated the kind of fighter planes they would have been using. That said I am not sure they were operating a clipped wing Mk IX as this replica seems to suggest.

I hadn't come across one of these glass-fibre replicas before and from a distance they are very effective.

On leaving the airborne display there are several glass cabinets with displays of equipment and pictures that would have been very familiar to the infantrymen that fought Market-Garden.

The next hall focused on the airborne soldiers and their German enemies as the battles were fought to secure the key crossing points at Eindhoven, Nijmegan and Arnhem.

The WACO glider seen in this display is one of the very convincing replicas constructed for the film 'Saving Private Ryan' but serves equally well to show a similar scene that would have been common in the landing zones of the 82nd and 101st Airborne in the Market Garden corridor.

Where we were staying was quite close to the famous Son Bridge shown blowing up in the face of Elliot Gould in the film 'A Bridge too Far' later having to request the use of 'that Bailey Crap' from a crisply clipped Colonel Joe Vandeleur played by Michael Caine, when looking to get a new bridge put in place.

The film took a few liberties with the actual events but is one of the best scenes from it and beautifully displays the saying, "two nations separated by a common language".

Also close by the Son Bridge is where two Congressional Medals of Honour were awarded to the members of the 101st Airborne during their battle to secure the route through Eindhoven and the Son Bridge.

One of the key points of the battle was sparked when the US paratroops bumped a German blocking position close to the city held by German troops supported by the ubiquitous 88mm guns. This type of blocking position was well shown with the display of German troops of the period together with that formidable gun.

The German Military Police otherwise known as 'Chain Dogs' referring to their distinctive chain and gorget as seen on the manikin below were often a hazard to German troops retreating in the face of Allied breakthroughs.

Any German troops not being able explain their presence or lack of equipment, especially weapons, could expect to be summarily executed as an example to prevent similar unauthorised retreats or desertion and it became more common for allied troops to see German soldiers hanging from trees and lamp posts after encountering their own military police.

The final hall is dedicated to looking at the air-war over Holland with the equipment used by both sides and some very interesting and moving displays of some of the many aircraft wrecks in the area.

This amazing vehicle is a mobile German sound-direction locator

The V1 or Doodlebug as it became known to the Allies was the precursor to the modern equivalent of pilot-less flying bombs.

These weapons became a menace to the civilian population in and around London in the last two years of the war and indeed my own paternal grand parents moved to Devon to escape the threat of them leading them to settle there in post war years.

In 2012 before I started this blog, Carolyn and I had a cycling holiday near Dieppe in France and cycled out to a wooded VI rocket launch site restored to show its layout hidden among the trees.

In the end a combination of Allied air response, proximity anti-aircraft shells and intelligence deception on the Germans vastly neutralised the VI campaign, but the effect of one of these bombs landing could cause terrible casualties and damage as evidenced in the picture below.

Perhaps some of the poignant artefacts on display in this part of the museum were the recovered parts from aircraft wrecks.

It is important to remember when looking at these that they were and are often parts from a grave site for the unfortunate crew members killed when their aircraft was destroyed.

However they play an important reminder by being displayed, of the waste and futility of war, and the stories lying behind how these aircraft came to be found crumpled and destroyed within a Dutch field or polder are an important way of remembering and honouring those killed in action.

Short Stirling LJ916 was serving with 190 Squadron RAF as a glider tug and supply aircraft and was part of the force detailed to support the airborne forces during the Market Garden campaign.

These aircraft, the first of the RAF four engine bomber force, had been withdrawn from bombing operations by 1944 as their poor service ceiling and smaller bomb pay load compared to the Halifax and Lancaster made them obsolete in comparison and an easier target for the German night-fighter force.

Short Stirling Mk4 of 190 Squadron RAF 

This particular Stirling was shot down, thankfully without crew casualties whilst on a supply drop mission to Arnhem on September 21st 1944.

This small part, the crew ladder seen deployed in the picture above, is all that remains of this aircraft and is all the more important as there is now no complete Stirling anywhere, which hopefully might be remedied by the rescue of a complete wreck sometime in the future.

When aircrew were shot down and had managed to successfully bail out, their chances of escape and evasion from German troops on the ground required them to be able to work out where they had landed and to quickly make contact with Dutch civilians willing and able to help smuggle them away back to the UK.

Of course escaping from a badly shot up aircraft especially one that had made a crash landing that might have rendered the normal access routes unserviceable left crews often to have to resort to brute force to smash their way out and the implement seen below would come in very handy.

Another very interesting display featured the remains of a Boulton Paul Defiant, one of six aircraft from 264 Squadron operating over the Hague against German Stuka dive bombers on May 13th 1940 during the German invasion.

These aircraft had early success against the German Me 109 when mistaken for a Hurricane and stalked from the rear only to be rudely acquainted with the four Browning machine-guns in that rear turret.

However once the German pilots realised what they were contending with in the very unwieldy Defiant with no forward armament, the aircraft soon became a liability as a daylight fighter.

Pilot Officer Samuel Thomas circled with other members of 264 Squadron next to one of their Defiants on May 29th 1940

This aircraft was flown by Pilot Officer Samuel Thomas on the day it was shot down when the Defiants were 'bounced" by Me 109's seeing five of them shot down for the loss of four Stukas and an Me 109.

The rear gunner LAC J.S.M. Bromley was killed but P.O Thomas managed to bail out before the aircraft crashed south of Rotterdam, with Thomas managing to be back in England within two days of the combat.

The remnants of the aircraft, seen below, were recovered in 1994.

Lancaster LM 508 code SR-P of RAF 101 Squadron was operating with a force of one-hundred and thirty two Lancasters and six Mosquitos raiding Wesseling, just south of Cologne, on the night of 21st-22nd June 1944.

The aircraft took off from Ludford Magna at 23.17 and was operating as an ABC (Airborne Cigar) aircraft attempting to jam and confuse German radio communications and having an extra German speaking crewman aboard together with a reduced bomb load. Unknown to RAF commanders at the time, these jamming emissions also enabled German night-fighters to home in on the broadcasting aircraft. LM 508 was hit several times on the way to the target which caused two engines to stop, however the crew continued on to the target, a synthetic oil plant, and dropped their bombs.

On the return journey, LM508's luck finally ran out when it was shot down by a Ju-88 night-fighter piloted by Ltn. Hans Schafer of 7/NJG2, who has claims for two Lancasters that night, surviving the war with 14 victories.

A Ju88 G6 of 7/NJG2, the type flown by Hans Shafer

The Lancaster went down in flames crashing in polder land at 01.50 south east of Werkendam, not however before six of the eight crew had managed to bail out.

Sadly two of the crew went down with the aircraft, bomb-aimer, Flight Sergeant Thomas Duff and the rear gunner Sergeant John Keogh; and it was during the recovery of the wreck in 2014 that Sergeant Keogh's remains were recovered and he was finally laid to rest with his fellow crew member Flt.Sgt. Duff in Werkendam cemetery.

A Lancaster, B-Beer of 101 Squadron dropping bombs including a rather large 'cookie' over Duisburg - Note the two ABC radio antenna on the fuselage 

Rear-gunner, Sergeant John Keogh

The remains of Sgt Keogh's rear turret

Any school-boy of my age will have memories of watching black and white WWII films made in the 50's that depicted the great British achievements during the Second World War.

Probably one of the best of them was "The Dam Busters" with its stirring sound track as Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron, braving German flak, were shown skimming in at low level to launch their bouncing bombs at the Ruhr Valley dams; they really don't make em like that any more.

These memories are even more vivid when I remember that Sir Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the bomb and the Wellington bomber, lived in Effingham, Surrey just up the road from one of the schools I attended and was a well known character in the area during the late 70's.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC second left with King George VI

Needless to say it was a great thrill to see the following items associated with the great Wing Commander Guy Gibson who lead 617 Squadron on that raid among others and was awarded the Victoria Cross as it is so 'matter of fact' recorded in his flying log book shown below.

Wing Commander Gibson's battledress jacket

The Museumpark Bevrijdende Vleugels has a great and varied collection of items some of which are quite unique and very interesting to see close up.

On leaving the last hall and coming out into the sunlight among the vehicles and equipment parked up, some it seems awaiting some much needed tender loving care, it seems likely that this collection may still continue to grow and is well worth visiting if in the area.

Still a few other posts to come from our trip to Holland this year with some of the interesting places we visited associated with the Market-Garden campaign and those two Congressional Medals of Honour I referred to.