It has taken me quite a while to sit down and write this review of Andrew Roberts’ remarkable biography of Winston Churchill. There are a few reasons why it has taken me so long. Churchill-Walking with Destiny challenged many of the notions I have had of Churchill since I was a young student of history. It took me a while to come to terms with some of these long-held opinions and evaluate them against the new evidence that Roberts provides. The fact that my reading this book coincided with the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of many of the closing acts of World War II in Europe also delayed my writing this review. Roberts presents evidence and arguments that have led me to re-evaluate not just Churchill’s actions during World War II and the Cold War, but also the roles of Britain, the Commonwealth, and other nations.
Enough excuses! On with the review!
I think the most important aspect of this book is that it draws on materials that have not been available to historians and researchers until very recently. Accessing diaries from notables such as King George VI and parliamentary documents from the House of Commons, Roberts is able to explain many of Churchill’s actions and thoughts with much more certainty than could the historians and biographers of earlier generations. Written evidence, especially that of the King, provides insights into some of Churchill’s more questionable decisions and beliefs. Even if the new evidence does not absolve Churchill of complicity in some events for which he has long been criticized, it does provide greater context and begs consideration of the options that Churchill might have had before him. Roberts carefully reexamines events such as the Tonypandy Riots, the Indian Famine, Churchill’s role in the defense of Antwerp in 1914, and his early opinion of Mussolini. It is the reassessment of Churchill’s roles and actions in these and many other events that really invite readers to reassess Churchill himself. Also explained in several instances is Churchill’s perception of himself and his careful assessment of when to fight for a cause and when to back off. Roberts acknowledges a certain amount of hero-worship for the protagonist, but also criticizes where criticism is due, and asks readers to evaluate certain actions and thoughts within the context of new evidence.
Context, itself, is a critical part of this examination of Churchill’s life. While many biographies present decisions, events, and motivations in a rather matter-of-fact manner, Roberts manages to show that decisions were not always simple and straightforward. In fact, most decisions Churchill made—especially during his middle age and through World War II—were well-considered and based on history and a careful reading of his contemporaries, but we’re far from simple. Roberts points out, as have others, that Churchill was often motivated by his perception of how history would judge him—and Britain. He considered how history would judge him and England when advocating for the Dardanelles campaign, resisting the appeasement movement in the 1930s, and many other critical points in history. His use of history to support political and military arguments, and his awareness that he was writing several chapters of history himself helped him arrive at some decisions that might be seen technically and practically as misguided, but morally correct.
Regarding the man, himself, Roberts paints a great picture of a man who loved his country, his wife, his friends, and his many artistic and scientific passions. Roberts provides ample evidence of Churchill’s work ethic and his demands for loyalty and facts. Churchill’s abilities to absorb mountains of information (especially when he wanted to) and compartmentalize that information is evident. So to is his ability to (usually) organize military and administrative advisors into cohesive u its. The book abounds with humorous anecdotes and sets them in context to allow the reader greater appreciation for his quick and devastating wit. Roberts also shares the moments where Churchill’s pride colored his thoughts and writings, allowing readers to understand the flaws in his histories and other writings.
As the biography wound down, I found myself wanting more. This want is not a reflection on Roberts, but is actually a compliment. While other biographies and histories left me thinking I “knew” Churchill, Roberts provided so much new information and much fuller context, that I now feel like there is much more to know. I am hopeful that others will pick up where Roberts left off and help us all better understand the enigma that was—and is—Winston Churchill.
Over on my Instagram page (@oldmauserman), I am sometimes asked why I have developed such an affinity for the Mauser line of rifles. One might think that there is a simple answer to the question. There isn’t. It hasn’t always been that way. I once preferred the M1903 rifles, and I always thought that the Lee-Enfield family of rifles looked like what military rifles should look like. So, how did the Mauser (and specifically the German-built K98k) push aside all of those other outstanding rifles and end up being my favorite?
Frankly, this story goes back many years. I was in the fifth grade when I started watching old World War II movies. By the end of that school year, I had read whatever World War II books were in our modest school library. I learned a lot about Eisenhower, Churchill, Iwo Jima, the Flying Tigers, and a little about the Sherman tank and the U.S.S. Arizona. From what I can remember, there was not a lot of literature on World War II Germany in our little library. My father, however, had a Reader’s Digest book on World War II that was packed with photographs. I was hooked on any and all aspects of World War II, and I started looking for other information sources.
The high school I attended had a larger library, and it was from the books I found there that I started to learn more about equipment. By the time I was a senior, I could differentiate several models of Messerschmitt 109s, knew the difference between the P-51B and P-51D, could point out differences on the various models of the B-17, and could identify most standard rifles and machine guns fielded by the major powers. Of course, being an all-American youth, I wanted an M1 Rifle, an M1903 Rifle, and any other U.S. equipment that was available.
During college, I was a history major, and had access to a monstrous collection of books, microfilm, newspapers, and magazines. Among the books were several on the history and function of small arms. It was from these books that I learned that the M1903 is widely acknowledged to be the most “beautiful” military bolt action rifle ever produced. It was also from those books that I started to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the Mauser K98k. When I learned that the M1903 largely copied the Mauser action, I found myself starting to lean towards the “original.” Over time, and as I was able to see more photos of the Mausers in historic photos, the Mausers pushed the M1903 aside.
It was in the very early 1990s that I bought my first Mauser. Certainly, once that rifle was in my hands, the bond was strong. While the Mauser was not my first military surplus rifle (I bought a Kropatschek M1886 because it looked cool and was very inexpensive), it was certainly my favorite. Unfortunately, I liquidated almost all of my very modest military surplus collection in 1992 so that I could pursue a career–including that first Mauser.
A few years ago, when it came time to rebuild (and expand) my earlier collection, the Mauser was the first rifle I went after. I came across this 1942 bcd (Gustloff Werke) rifle being sold by a local gentleman on GunBroker. I bid on it and won. Since then, I’ve collected bolt action rifles from every other major power of World War II (though I sold the M1903 to buy the M1 Rifle), and added a couple more Mausers. I’ve also completed a collection of pistols from the World War I and World War II eras. Of all of the pieces currently in my collection, the Mausers are my favorite. Thus, when it came time to choose a name for my Instagram page, I had to find a way to work it in. Just about the time I started that page, I hit the half-century mark. At that point, it made sense that “old” could be a part of the name. As for “man,” well…you’ll just have to take my word for that one!
What is your favorite rifle? Do you have one? How did it come to be your favorite? I’d love to hear the stories!
History is often ugly, and physical pieces of history are sometimes very creepy. To demonstrate this, I offer this article regarding Christmas in Hitler’s Third Reich. In a small antique store, I recently came across a little collection of some of the creepiest pieces of history I’ve ever seen. Hidden away in a dimly-lit cabinet and packed in a musty old box were a tree topper and six glass ornaments. Unlike ornaments that evoke joy and happiness, these ornaments bore–of all things–a swastika. While I had seen a few photos of relics like these, I had never seen any of the actual pieces. My immediate reaction was strong and emotional. A feeling of sadness and bewilderment hit me. Seeing these creepy Christmas ornaments took me back to graduate school and memories of conversations I had with Dr. John Haag about how the Nazi government monitored public support for its initiatives, and how it cultivated support for programs and positions that, today, we find to be completely antithetical to human decency. Those discussions touched on how Nazi Leadership consciously sought to transform German society and how it indoctrinated the population to accept the State as the preeminent moral authority, with citizens as subordinate pieces. Dr. Haag talked about how religions posed a problem for the Nazi authorities since they taught that God was the ultimate authority and that the State and everything else was subordinate to Him. Christmas, the preeminent Christian holiday, posed a number of challenges for the Reich. Beyond the inconvenience of Jesus’s Jewish origins, a population that maintained an allegiance to God and Christ could not wholly give itself over to the Nazi State-first ideology. For the Nazis, this was unacceptable.
While many in the Nazi leadership circle wished to destroy Christianity quickly and outright, pragmatists knew that a direct assault on organized religion would cost the regime dearly in public support. Early actions to eliminate Christmas proved the pragmatists right, as many wives and sweethearts resisted efforts to change their traditional Christmas practices. A nation that had embraced Christianity for centuries would not abandon faith in God and Christ on orders from the State. The population would need to be indoctrinated to accept the Fuhrer as the ultimate authority, and old Christian practices would need to be erased. While attempts to transform a celebration of Jesus’s birth into a celebration of the Winter Solstice (Julfest) gained some traction–especially among the most committed Nazis–most Germans continued to celebrate Christmas and churches were allowed to perform traditional Christmas services. Unable to kill Christmas, the Nazis then sought to appropriate it for their own use. With careful and conscious efforts, the Nazis attempted to change everything about the celebration of Christmas. Discussions of the true meaning of Christmas disappeared from official German media. Lyrics to traditional Christmas songs were amended to remove references to God, Jesus, or familiar Christian themes. In their place, references to pagan figures and mystical themes appeared. In later years, the Nazis introduced new songs that emphasized their despicable racial ideology, the military, and the importance of service to the State. Traditional Christmas ornaments featuring bells, stars, birds, and angels gave way to the Nazi golden eagle, sun-burst symbols and other runes, toy cannon and tanks, and–of course–the swastika. Christmas trees were rebranded as “Light Trees” or “Yule Trees.” All of these moves were deliberately designed to move the German population away from Christ and ever closer to the State and its Führer.
Despite all of these efforts, Christmas endured. Indeed, once the war started, the focus on military and economic demands put the attack on Christianity on the back burner and active Nazi hostility towards Christmas faded away–there simply wasn’t time to devote to killing Christmas. Indeed, during the war, many Germans who had drifted away from traditional Christmas celebrations before the war came to appreciate them again. There is much evidence of troops in the field celebrating Christmas in a spirit of love, family, and a hope for peace. Letters and diaries of soldiers in foxholes and civilians on the home front continued to reflect an understanding of the meaning of Christmas, expressions of hope for peace, and wishes for joy, love, and happiness. Wartime photos of civilian Christmas celebrations and small services in the military include traditional trees with familiar symbols. In the end, for all of the things the Nazis destroyed, they could not kill Christmas. I hope that this post will remind everyone–regardless of your faith–that we should be mindful of and thankful for the gifts that God has given us, and we should all be thankful for those of the Greatest Generation who defended the world from those who would have us replace symbols of peace, love, and joy with this hideous monstrosity.
For more photos and discussion of history, follow me on Instagram at @oldmauserman.
Of all the firearms I own, one has generated more comments and cautious advice than all of the rest of them put together. In itself, it might not have surprised me that one model drew such criticism, but the fact that all of that criticism has been concentrated into a two month period indicates that there is real concern about the old warhorse. The pistol in question? The Nambu Type 14.
You’ve all heard (or maybe even said) the following: “Cases won’t eject.” “The firing pin breaks.” “You can fire it by putting it in a holster.” “I can’t find ammunition for it.” “It is a suicide machine.” On and on, the complaints continue. Every now and then, someone offers some useful criticism, and a few folks have even expressed satisfaction and even admiration for the old firearms, but the majority of the feedback I’ve seen has been markedly negative. So, you can imagine that it was not with a lot of enthusiasm that I purchased this Nambu.
Before I took the Nambu plunge, I did do a little bit of research. Generally, the Nambu
series of pistols dates back to 1902, when Lieutenant General Kijiro Nambu introduced the Type A, followed in 1909 by the Type B (the Baby Nambu). The Type 14, on which this article focuses, was introduced in 1925, and adopted by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1927. The Type 14 utilized an 8x22mm cartridge. The 102gr bullet left the muzzle at around 950 feet per second, making it a weaker round than the 9mm Parabellum and somewhat equal to the 7.65 Browning Short (.32 ACP) rounds. Using a recoil spring action, the Nambu operated very differently than the P-08 Luger, to which it is often mistakenly linked. While outwardly the Nambu and the Luger appear similar, they are quite different designs. Over the course of its production, approximately 400,000 Type 14 pistols were manufactured between 1925 and 1945.
Beyond some of the historical background, one of the first things I learned is that the Nambu Type 14 is not the dangerous and awkward pistol many claim it to be. The Type 94, produced later, featured an exposed sear on the port side that, if pressed with enough pressure, can cause the pistol to fire unexpectedly. The Type 14, however, would need a little more intricate pressure on the rear of the trigger bar to cause an unexpected discharge. I also learned that the “exploding Nambu” is largely a myth. As with any firearm, there are almost sure to be some mishaps–especially in hurriedly-produced pieces such as those produced by Japan in the later stages of the war and especially when
individuals unfamiliar with the operation of the firearm find themselves using it. The Nambu Type 14, however, does not have a track record of catastrophic failure, especially if handled appropriately and when using correct ammunition. Ammunition, of course, is a common theme among those who have chosen to own a Nambu. Finding ammunition, in itself, is a challenge. Finding the right bullet weight and combining it with the right propellant seems to have been a challenge for modern commercial ammunition makers and for reloaders alike. My understanding is that the Japanese military ammunition used a 102gr bullet–something that is not widely available to reloaders. One company, however, offers 8x22mm Nambu with a 100gr bullet, and several individuals who have used that ammunition have reported success. Not so with the small variety of 83gr bullets that are available. I would note, however, that just last week, Steinel Ammunition Co. (@steinel_ammo on Instagram) introduced a new version of the 8x22mm Nambu with an 83gr bullet that reportedly performs as well as the 100gr bullet.
My research also left me with the understanding that original springs on most Nambus have weakened over time and use. Replacing the recoil springs with some modern springs has proven to be helpful to many Nambu owners. Another helpful hint was that a light coating of gun oil on the magazine feed lips helps alleviate some of the feeding issues that many have experienced.
Historically, I learned that–like many Japanese weapons–the pre-war and early-war Nambu pistols were generally of a higher quality than their mid-war and late-war brethren. The war took a particularly heavy toll on Japanese industry, and both production materials and quality control suffered as a result of bombings and resource shortages.
So, armed with all of this information, I set out to find the perfect Nambu. During my search for the Nambu, I focused on just a few key elements: 1) it had to be of pre-war manufacture to ensure quality materials were used and production standards were high, 2) it had to be all-matching to minimize the chance that parts would not work together, and 3) the appearance of the pistol had to be acceptable and not indicate overuse. Price, while certainly a factor, was not a driving concern.
In February, I found this Nambu. It was produced in 1930 at the Tokyo Arsenal. It bears all matching serial numbers, and while there is some wear, it is in very good condition for an eighty-nine year old pistol. With the pistol in hand, I ordered a set (two) of recoil
springs and a replacement firing pin. While there is nothing wrong with the original firing pin, I did not want to take a chance on breaking it, especially as I would be firing it for the first time and I have heard many complaints about broken firing pins. Springs and the firing pin were readily available from the good folks at Numrich Gun Parts (@numrichgunparts). I did have to grind the firing pin guide a bit to allow it to slide freely in the bolt body, but once smoothed out with some 000 steel wool and lightly oiled, it operated fine.
With new springs and a substitute firing pin in place, it was time to look for ammunition. Fortunately, I have been following @forestfirearms on Instagram for some time, and he has been on a quest to bring his old Nambu to life. I watched each of his videos and noted the challenges he faced. I also noted his successes–namely the better performance of the 100gr bullets versus the 83gr. So, I ordered up a small supply of 100gr ammunition. When it arrived, I disassembled the Nambu and slipped a few rounds into the chamber and drove them home with the bolt by hand to check the extractor and ejector. Both seemed to be working just fine. While it was disassembled, I also gave it a very good cleaning from end to end and from top to bottom. While the pistol appeared to be in pretty good shape, this exercise revealed some debris that might have dated back to the Sino-Japanese War. Reassembly was relatively easy (you might want to keep a pair of tweezers and a watchmaker’s screwdriver handy), despite many of the accounts I’ve read.
So, with a clean and shiny Nambu and a degree of hope, but still with expectations of disappointment, I headed off to the range with fifty rounds to see if there was life in this old pistol.
Across the internet, I’ve seen videos and read accounts of Nambu owners experiencing all kinds of feed, cycle, and ejection problems with their pistols. When someone was able to fire four or five shots in a row without incident, they mostly claimed victory. I was hoping to get that kind of performance, but expecting problems. Applying a very small amount of gun oil to the feed lips, and loading five rounds in the magazine, I chambered the first round and held my breath. Bang! I glanced at the top of the pistol. It had fully cycled and chambered another round. I repeated this four more times. On
the ejection of the last shot, the bolt remained open, just as it was supposed to. I loaded five more shots and ran through them without incident…then five more…and five more. I checked the target, hoping that at seven yards, I at least managed to hit the paper. Not only were all shots on the paper, they were in a reasonably tight group for a first outing. After fifty shots without any malfunctions, I contacted @forestfirearms to report my success. I also relayed some information to the good folks at Steinel Ammunition hoping that it would help in development of their new 83gr rounds.
I am hopeful that my experiences, coupled with the input that @forestfirearms and others are providing to the Steinel Ammunition folks will result in a high-quality and reliable cartridge. Used in a Type 14 that has sufficiently-strong springs and is otherwise in good working order, it is my hope that these cartridges will give Nambu owners good reason to look forward to taking their old pistol to the range. If you have been inspired to pull that old Nambu out and take it to the range, let us know how it goes. There is a small, but growing group of us who are rethinking our opinions of the Nambu, and finding that our appreciation for their simplicity is growing. So, what do you think?
Take a look at the picture below. Take a nice long look. Does it offend you? Does it make you feel unsafe? What offends you or makes you uncomfortable? I ask, because what I see in this photograph are two classic pieces of military equipment from World War II. Both of these rifles were produced in the critical year of 1942. The one on the left is a Mauser Karabiner Model 98 kurz (Kar98k). The one on the right is a U.S. Rifle, Cal. 30 M1–also known as the M1 Garand. One was likely carried by a German soldier serving an evil regime. The other was likely carried by a United States soldier who helped free the world from that evil regime. Both are collector’s items these days. Both were purchased legally and are stored safely. Neither of them are used to commit crimes and neither of them are used in terrorist activities. These rifles are a part of history. Holding these old warhorses helps take you to a different time–a time when these battle implements were the standard-issue rifles for German and American troops. The feel of the wood and steel, the smell of the leather and oil, and bearing the weight of these substantial pieces of equipment help those of us in later generations understand a little bit about the burdens our ancestors bore.
Recently, I posted this photograph on Instagram (check me out at @oldmauserman). The caption read something like this: “I’ll take ‘Things Built in 1942’ for $1,000, Alex.” The photo generated positive feedback for a few days. There were no negative comments, and no complaints. I did not receive any direct messages expressing concern or offense. Yet, just after the photo received its 4,000th “Like,” I received a message from Instagram.
My post had been deleted. No real explanation was given, despite me asking for one. I posted a similar photo and asked that whoever had reported me let me know what I had done to frighten or offend them. It has now been over one month, and I’ve not received any messages from anyone about what is wrong with this photograph. Two things bother me about this.
First, of all of the offensive and frightening things on Instagram, two historic rifles lying quietly on an old stump seem to be a little low on the scale. On any given day, I can scroll through videos and photos on Instagram that are–to me–quite a lot more offensive, suggestive, or frightening than two old pieces of history. These are not “assault rifles” and nobody is dancing around with them firing indiscriminately into the air or blindly into the woods. They are simply lying there, having their picture taken. They are not loaded, and they were not fired in the making of the pictures. Yet, someone must have reported the photo.
Yet, more importantly than pointing out the hypocritical action of removing one photo while leaving millions of others that are more threatening, offensive, or suggestive is the fact that in removing photos like this, Instagram is removing an opportunity to discuss history. I won’t pretend that all of my posts are deep, scholarly discussions of historical importance. In fact, most of my posts are introduced by a sentence or two, sometimes a joke or a reference to a holiday, an upcoming weekend, or some significant historical date. Sometimes, I post photos of a firearm or other military equipment with a cup of coffee. Yet, regardless of the caption, many of the photos generate discussion about strategy, tactics, personalities, regimes, campaigns, equipment, or other aspects of the Second World War and the generation that fought it.
I do not have the largest Instagram following, but I have learned that there are a lot of people who want to learn about and discuss the world’s greatest conflict. In response to my posts, I have had people ask about veterans I have met, places I’ve been, and campaigns I’ve studied. This has given me an opportunity to do on Instagram what I once planned to do as a career–teach. Photos of M1 Rifles have generated conversations about General Patton (who deemed the rifle “…the greatest battlefield implement ever devised.” In response to posts of Mosin rifles, I have gotten into conversations about Operation Taifun (Typhoon), and Hitler’s interference in the battles before Moscow. A photo of a vintage German rifle cleaning kit once started a conversation about how to care for the old pieces of history that some of us collect. These are just three examples of the many conversations that started with a photo of a rifle or other piece of military equipment. I have been told that I’ve inspired some of the younger generation to learn more about history–especially World War II history, and at least three young gentlemen have started their own collections of artifacts.
I suppose I am a bit hypocritical, too, in that I remove extremist comments. I am not averse to discussing the dictatorships of the first half of the twentieth century, but I do not feel a need to tolerate inflammatory or threatening statements. Questions such as, “How did a nation that produced Beethoven and Brahms also produce a Himmler and support a Hitler?” deserve to be discussed. In fact, I would urge that they MUST be discussed. Having read hundreds of books on World War II, I can often offer some insight on how things evolved the way they did, and what factors shaped the events of the interwar and war years. Indeed, I often find myself commenting on the similarities between certain leadership styles of that period and traits of certain world leaders today. Of course, with these kinds of observations, I inevitably warn that those who are ignorant of history are susceptible to making the same kinds of mistakes that enabled dictators in the not-too-distant past. These conversations do not have to be vicious political arguments (though they sometimes work in that direction). They do offer many people a chance to stop and seriously think about the times we live in, the factors that shape our world, and the dangers that hate, intolerance, greed, political correctness, and ignorance pose to us all.
Reality dictates that I address the gun violence aspect of my post. It is true that this nation–and others around the world–continue to experience unacceptable levels of violence. I have a hard time, however, understanding the connection between photos of World War II rifles and deranged individuals who commit acts of violence. All of my firearms are similar to museum pieces (with one exception, which is a reproduction of a World War II rifle). Nowhere on any of my posts do I advocate violence, criminal activity, riots, overthrow of any government, or any other such acts. I have seen many posts on Instagram that are racist and insensitive. I have seen others that are hostile to religion. Of course, there are thousands that are sexually suggestive, and millions that include foul language. You’ll find none of that in my posts. You also won’t find me reporting every post that offends me or makes me angry.
I am hopeful that the deletion of my post of the M1 Rifle and the Mauser was based on a report made by someone who didn’t take time to look at what I post, or someone who just had a bad day and didn’t really care. I expect, though, that someone saw something in the photo that triggered them. I would like to know–truly. I have continued posting photos–photos of guns, military equipment, puppies, tanks, clouds, flowers, trees, airplanes, plates of barbecue, the United States Capitol, and all sorts of other things that catch my attention. I hope that anyone offended or threatened by my photos do one of two things: Post a comment and let me know what you are thinking and how it is affecting you, or stop looking at the photos and don’t follow me.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I would welcome any comments that treat this subject respectfully.
For Sale: One pre-war MAS-36 rifle. Mint Condition. Never fired. Only dropped once.
So goes one of many snarky remarks aimed at the French soldier of World War II. Since joining some online discussions regarding France’s conduct of war during the 1940 campaign, I’ve seen plenty of disparaging remarks regarding the French military, often general and rarely identifying which particular policies or practices deserved criticism. Sometimes, and after a challenge, the critic will provide some semblance of an argument or concede that their comment was a joke. After several weeks of trying to present individual counter arguments, I am now resorting to this space.
The end of the Great War found France victorious, despite having been bled white by four years of brutal combat. The northeast French countryside was devastated, the army was exhausted, equipment was worn out, and while morale had recovered from the near-disaster of 1917, it was not exceptionally high. As a nation, France reflected the state of the military–exhausted. Politically, France staggered through the interwar period bitterly divided. This environment did not encourage great innovations or investments in the military.
After the war, French military planning evolved without much imagination–largely depending on the massive fortifications of the Maginot Line and a concentrated and massive advance into Belgium were Germany’s armies to advance that way. Despite successful French innovations in the use of light tanks in the Great War, military doctrine still centered on infantry as the key to success. Tanks were viewed more as a novelty that future enemies would be able to counter with new weapons or their own tanks. While armor still figured in French planning, they were mostly relegated to infantry support or reconnaissance roles. In the air, France could boast a very large, but obsolete fleet of aircraft. Modern designs were just starting to come off of the assembly lines when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.
Thrust into this environment was the French soldier. On mobilization, France gathered five million soldiers into the ranks of the army. Front line troops were armed with modern rifles and equipment. Armored units were fitted out with tanks that were for the most part superior to German tanks. In terms of numbers, France outnumbered the Germans in almost every significant category, from aircraft to tanks to soldiers to anti-
tank weapons. Training was thorough, even if tactical doctrines did not prepare most soldiers for the type of warfare that was about to fall on them. Unit cohesion, at the time of the German attack in May 1940, seems to have been reasonable. So, how did it happen that the performance of the French soldier came to be criticized so greatly? As is often the case, there isn’t a single answer. I am not going to pretend that I know all of them. I am not even going to discuss all of the reasons that I think may apply. I will, however, try to make a quick and convincing case that the French soldier of 1940 was not the ineffective figure that many post-war critics have dismissed as cowardly and incompetent and encourage discussion as to whether we need to revisit our collective assessment.
Strategy and Tactics: As mentioned above, French strategic doctrine focused on infantry and infantry support as the centerpiece of military strategy. Lessons that should have been learned regarding the concentrated employment of tanks seem to have been lost on most French military minds. Fortifications, ever stronger and deeper, protected the valuable infantryman. Maneuver units, including armor, were expected to engage in the same way as their Great War predecessors–frontally. Infantry units were minimally motorized, and unable to redeploy quickly. The German attack, when it came, was not something that had been envisioned by French military planners. The attack, relied on a fast-moving armored and motorized force, which quickly swept past the immobile frontier troops and seized vital road junctions and bridges. Taking these points not only allowed the Germans to continue moving troops and supplies forward, it also prevented French countermoves. The French soldiers, unable to keep up with the German advance, continued to fight in pockets–often tenaciously. German field commanders, including Guderian and Rommel, remarked at how ferociously the French solder fought–even when hopelessly outmaneuvered and outgunned. Eventually, without hope for resupply, troops ran out of ammunition and other critical supplies and had few options other than to surrender.
Leadership: While French army equipment was generally of a high quality, field leadership was not. Likely because of post-war doctrine and the incessant political infighting, French military field leadership did not demonstrate a high degree of either initiative or imagination. Plans were rigid and contingencies were not contemplated, or they insufficiently accounted for the tactics that the Germans had developed. The fluid nature of the war being fought required imaginative responses and flexibility in command. With few exceptions, the French command structure simply did not foster these qualities. For the average French soldier, this meant that he received orders that did not make sense given the tactical reality he could see. It also meant that his confidence in leadership was undermined. Finally, it meant that he likely entered battles feeling like he was already beaten–knowing that his leadership had put him in the wrong place and with unrealistic expectations.
Post-War Analysis: After World War II, not a lot was written about the French veteran of the 1940 campaign. French historians tended to concentrate on the glorious exploits of Charles De Gaulle, the French resistance, and the Free French operations in North Africa, Italy, and France. The French soldier of 1940 was a part of a story that very few French citizens wanted to tell or hear. A defeat on the scale of the French collapse in 1940 had to be laid at someone’s feet, and while theFrench soldier was not directly accused, he had few defenders. Lost in the spectacular German victory was the fact that the Germans lost hundreds of tanks
and aircraft, and over 150,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) during May and June of 1940. These numbers are significant, especially when one considers what Germany might have done with more aircraft in the summer of 1940 and with more tanks and troops in North Africa the following year. Even if one considers that British, Belgian, and Dutch troops inflicted their share of casualties, the numbers testify to the effectiveness of the individual French soldier. Certainly, they do not support the idea that the French solder was a coward who threw away his weapon or waved a white flag at the first opportunity.
Recognizing that a single short blog entry is not likely to change many opinions on the quality of individual French soldiers in the 1940 campaign, I hope that it will at least make some thoughtful people think a little longer before they continue to heap criticism on the millions of troops who fought for their country, and for the tens of thousands to died doing so. Courage is not a word that is often heard when discussing the French soldier of 1940, but it is one that I am coming to more closely associate with him.
I need to preface this post by saying that I am far from being an expert in World War II era small arms. That being said, I own a few of them and enjoy the history associated with them. I have tried to obtain a representative bolt action rifle from all major powers during the war, and have gotten seven-eights of the way there; I am still missing a decent quality Chiang Kai-Shek Mauser. Owning pieces of history, even when you don’t know the full story behind them, is interesting for old history majors like me. Being able to put those pieces of history to actual use, however, is nothing short of exciting. This evening, I offer a very unscientific ranking of bolt action rifles from World War II.
Representatives of the major nations that currently reside in my gun cabinet are: 1) an Italian Carcano 91/24, built in 1917 and refurbished in 1924; 2) for the United Kingdom, a Lee-Enfield No.4 Mk.1 rifle manufactured in 1942 by Royal Ordnance Factory Maltby; 3) a Japanese Arisaka Type 99 manufactured by Toyo Kogyo in 1944; 4) a Springfield M1903
manufactured in the United States in 1908 by the Springfield Armory; 5) a Soviet Russian Mosin 91/30 built in 1943 at the Izhevsk Mechanical Plant; 6) a Manufacture d’Armes de Saint-Étienne (MAS) 36, manufactured in 1938; and 7) the famous German Mauser Kar.98k, built in 1942 at the Mauser AG Oberndorf. I have fired rounds through all of these firearms (or in the case of the M1903, another rifle of the same model) over the course of the last year–but not all on the same day. The rifles were fired at different ranges, all indoors, at a range of fifty yards, while standing. Other variables that might affect pure ratings include the time of day and the amount of coffee I consumed before shooting, the quality and type of ammunition used, and how well I cleaned the rifle after the last time I shot it. In other words, this will not be a very objective ranking. With all of this out of the way, it is time to get on with the list.
7. Carcano 91/24: It really isn’t fair to rate the little Carcano. It is the oldest rifle, has had extensive post World War I work done on it, and I do not have the correct round-nose ammunition to put through it. At fifty yards and with Spitzer bullets, I am able to put all of the shots on paper, but just where they passed through is…well…all over the place. The bullets key holed well over half the time and the sights seemed to be adjusting themselves between shots. Truth be known, I fired twenty shots through the Carcano after putting twenty through the Mosin and drinking a few cups of coffee, so fatigue or caffeine might have had some effect on my aim, but I don’t think I am that weak. While the performance of the Carcano leaves a lot to be desired, it is a delightful little weapon, being rather light for an early 20th Century firearm, with en-bloc loading, a very strong action, and a very interesting history. The rifle might well have served in two World Wars, and it has the scars to show it.
6. Arisaka Type 99: I really should have tried to get an early war Type 99. The example I have saw some service and was manufactured at a time when Japanese fortunes were fading and quality was being sacrificed for efficiency and volume. This is a very basic rifle, with some parts simply unfinished and others showing signs of the haste with which it was built. The rifle shoots straight enough; all twenty shots through this one were within about a ten-inch radius circle. The action is strong, but a little loose for my taste, and the whole unit just feels a little wonky. Another negative for me is that it just doesn’t look all that great. I suppose the Japanese designed the rifle for function and not for aesthetics, but next to a Mauser or an Enfield, this one pales in comparison. All-in-all, this rifle gets the job done, but it is not what I would pick up if I had to go to war with a bolt action rifle.
5. Mosin 91/30: Ok, there are thousands–maybe millions–of Mosin fans out there who may want to shoot me with a 7.62×54 round after ranking the venerable 91/30 as fifth out of seven rifles. In terms of accuracy, it is near the top. Twenty shots through my 91/30 landed (with one exception which was wildly off target) in a six-inch group. That is fine,
except that the group was six inches above where I was aiming. Part of that, I am sure, is that I wasn’t properly accounting for the sights being calibrated to 100 meters. Part of it might be that I just can’t shoot. The main problem I have with the Mosin, though, has nothing to do with accuracy. The bolt on this monster is just too difficult to work. It is solid…very solid…probably the most solid of all of these rifles. In essence, it is a solid piece of hardened steel shaved down to serve as a bolt. It is heavy, resists rapid cycling, and sometimes picks up a cartridge more than it should. Another negative, for me, is that the rifle is just plain heavy. My admiration for the line rifleman of the Red Army has grown greatly since I started really playing with the Mosin. Imagine lugging this monster around over the Steppes of Europe and having to actually use it in combat. On the other hand, the Mosin is a very nice looking and imposing rifle, the history is wonderful, and it was one of the major contributors to winning the Great Patriotic War.
4. Lee Enfield No.4 Mk.1: I surprised myself ranking this rifle this low. I have spent hours looking over this piece from end to end. I have taken numerous photos of it and posted them on Instagram (look me up @oldmauserman). It is a nice looking and solid rifle. I love how the Enfield feels and I enjoy cycling the bolt. It is also a joy to shoot. I suppose this one fell to fourth because the remaining three rifles just perform better and have some other factors that make me prefer them. The Enfield is accurate. I can regularly hit the inner circles of a standard target at fifty yards. The weight balance is natural, and aiming is easy. The ten-round magazine means you don’t have to stop and reload as often as with any of the other rifles listed here. The history behind the Enfield family is interesting, and the potential for this rifle being a combat veteran is great. I really don’t have very much at all to say negatively about this rifle.
3. MAS-36: If ranking the Enfield at number four surprised me, ranking the MAS-36 at number three surprised me even more. I bought this unit, mostly, because I wanted to have a representative of France in my collection. When I picked her up, she needed a good cleaning, the barrel was dirty with grease and dust, and the action was sticky. I initially believed I made a mistake and that I should have waited for a better specimen. Once I got the rifle cleaned up, however, my opinion changed…quickly. The action, once free of years of grease and grime, is surprisingly smooth and easy to work. Still, it closes up tightly. Absent a safety, the rear end of this rifle is simple and surprisingly pleasant. The sights,
adjusted at the factory, are a little difficult to work for range (though that is not a problem at fifty yards), and the bolt handle is oddly bent forward. There is a story behind that, which I will share in a later post, but the forward-bent bolt is very functional and makes it very easy to cycle. I’ve heard the MAS-36 described as ugly and several other words that are even less complimentary. Having played around with her for a while, I don’t think the derogatory terms are fair. In terms of performance, the MAS-36 puts bullets right where you want them. Purely in terms of my non-scientific tests, this rifle shot the tightest group of all. As I explained in the intro, however, there may be circumstances that affected accuracy that cannot be attributed to the rifle. If I had to go to war tomorrow with a bolt action rifle, I would not be afraid to grab this one.
2. Mauser Kar.98k: Moving past the surprises, I was not in the least surprised that the Mauser ended up in the top two. If you are a rifle collector, a historian, a gun nut, an artist, an engineer, a soldier, or someone who just enjoys fine things, how can you not like the Mauser. The history behind this and all other wartime Mausers is the single negative factor that I could attach to this rifle. In terms of performance, it is hard to beat these old warhorses. The Mauser is, all at the same time, accurate, balanced, dependable, easy to
maintain, a delight to shoot, deadly, and even aesthetically pleasing to look at and hold. I can regularly shoot tight groups with this rifle (when I use decent ammunition). The action is as smooth as silk and the sound of the bolt cycling is one of the greatest of manmade sounds. Even little details like the brass tear down disc on the butt add to the desirability of this piece. The rifle pictured above is the first World War II military surplus rifle I bought, and it is one that I’ll not part with.
1. Choosing between the Mauser and the Springfield M1903 was difficult. When applying the “what do I want to grab on my way out the house” test, I would be happy to have the Mauser and the Springfield next to the door. This rifle has, easily, the smoothest action of all of the rifles I own. It is solid, but not too heavy. Once you get used to the sights (for old folks like me, that means
being able to FIND the rear sight), it is dead-on accurate. If I had to find a negative with this rifle, it would be those sights. This rifle is the only one in this collection to feature a magazine cut-off switch, which is interesting if not exactly useful. I have heard and read, from several sources, that the M1903 is the most beautiful rifle ever produced. I’d be hard pressed to offer an argument against that, though the Mauser family would be a pretty close competitor in the firearm beauty pageant. With this rifle, and with a little practice with aiming, I can put twenty shots into a space not much bigger than an iPad. The 30-06 cartridge puts out a lot of bang at the range, and carrying an M1903 around in the local gun shows always invites favorable comments and several cash offers. I don’t think I’ll be parting with this old lady for a long, long time.
So, there you have it. I am thinking about covering each of these rifles in more detail in separate future posts if there is any interest. Each of them have unique and very interesting histories, both in terms of development and combat. I enjoy having these functional relics in my collection, and suggest to anyone who enjoys World War II history–or military history in general–to purchase an old military surplus rifle and take it to the range (following a good inspection to ensure safety). You’re sure to make new friends and you’re likely to end up in a great debate about how to rank bolt action rifles from World War II!Bol