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Monday, December 3, 2012

Bolt Action - Review: The Mareth Line

Another great Osprey title.
Steve, don't read the following statement: Before this book, I'd never been much of a desert fan. Sure, I appreciated its importance, and the icons that made names for themselves there, but my favorite WWII moments were generally formed by Hollywood. "The Mareth Line 1943", by Ken Ford and illustrated by Steve Moon, changed all that.

I feel like I'm repeating myself, but the production quality of this 96-page title is top notch. I mean, really, at this point, what do you expect me to say negatively about an Osprey Publishing book from a physical standpoint? I'm not sure how many of these Osprey books I've reviewed up to this point, but they're consistently of the highest standard.

I'll be the first one to let you know when another publisher trumps Osprey when it comes to physical quality. For now, they set the bar. "The Mareth Line 1943" is a high quality title filled with great maps, photos, illustrations, and information; and it's all presented in a magnificent way.

I dunno' about its bite, but the Dingo's bark looked pretty bad.

Ken Ford's work covers the time period immediately following Alamein and the last exodus of Axis forces from Africa. If your knowledge of history is anything like mine (embarassingly weak), then the history of fighting in Africa goes a little like this:

British and German forces advanced and retreated over the same stretches of North African sand for a while immediately following the British Army's retreat from Dunkirk. Rommel shows up and revolutionizes things. Montgomery later shows up with an overwhelming force and, supported by the American landing during Torch, kicks Rommel out in fighting at Alamein.

I'm sure many of you know many more details about the period between Alamein and the final surrender of Axis forces, but I sure didn't; and I know I'm not the only one. This book delves into the six months immediately following Alamein.

Taking it to the next level with topographical strategic maps.
Again, I apologize for the repetition, but the images in this book are just as amazing as the information itself. Axis and Allied formations, as well as their routes, are clearly explained in several strategic map illustrations. The ever-important topographical information is included, for those history buffs that care to know what the terrain was like - and count me among them, as a historical gamer!

Unlike other books I've reviewed, "The Mareth Line 1943" takes a different view of the six months following Alamein. It is, of course, written from a higher level than the equipment-specific book reviews I've done before. It requires, given it's nature, a wider scope of narrative than a book about, say, the MG-42.

I don't think those holes are supposed to be there...

That being said, I still found this title engaging. I am, generally, a fan of battle anecdotes. I prefer the first-hand account of the guy scoring a tank kill with a PIAT to the story of how some general officer decided to allocate PIATs. "The Mareth Line 1943" somehow managed to skirt the two narrative styles.

A book covering an entire theater of war would seem to require a certain distance from the subjects - a sterile, omnipotent narrative approach. A book covering first hand accounts is, obviously, in first person; very gritty and visceral. This book really found the happy medium between these two styles.

I don't even know what they're doing, but wow, it's scary.
Here's an example:

"Rommel tried to watch the battle from the high ground to the south, but for a long while could see little through the mist. When it finally cleared he could observe the futility of the assault. He could plainly see that Montgomery was aware of the attack and its objectives. Messe urged attacks to go in again and again, each suffering the same result. By late afternoon Rommel had seen enough and told Messe to call of the attack. 'A pincer attack would have been much more successful,' he bitterly commented. The battle of Medenine had been costly to the Axis forces for they lost around 50 of their 142 tanks and took 635 casualties. In contrast, the British official history of the campaign called their losses 'trifling'." (Ford, p.55)

Many great maps in this book.

As you can see from the quote, Ford's artful style manages to blend the feeling and grit of a first-person account with the all-knowing omnipotence of a historical theater overview. I was really pleased when I noticed this style, as I am absolutely not the kind of guy that can sit and digest an encyclopedic regurgitation of where each company went, mile by mile, and how many sand dunes they encountered along the way.

"Hey, nice tank. I'm stuck on a Stuart, wearing embarassing shorts."

Of course, this book includes the amazing art we've all come to expect from Osprey titles. Mentioning it feels like overkill, but to ignore or discount the spectacular art and production quality would be a disservice.

Seriously. Look at that two-pager. Simply amazing.

Some shots of the battlefields, then and now.

Like any good history book, "The Mareth Line 1943" ends with some great shots of setting, present-day, along with a summary of the long-ranging repercussions of the fighting.

While this book was a great read, and immensely informative, I did find it to be on the dry side, at times. The material, however, can be very dry, and I feel the author did an outstanding job making army-level manuevers both relatable on a personal level, and interesting. I will absolutely not hesitate to pick up and read another Ford-penned title, as I feel the measure of a great historical author is not whether he can recite dry information, but if he can present dried-out and dull historical accountings in an engaging and exciting way.

Ford did this, throughout the book. (Steve can read this part:) He's created another fan of the North African theater.

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