Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty


An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin's Master Agent -- Richard Sorge was born in Baku, the capital of present-day Azerbaijan, of a German father and a Russian mother. Even his mother spoke to him in German, and it was for the German Empire that he fought in the First World War. Nevertheless, Sorge would devote his life to the post-1971 Russia of Lenin, Stalin, and the Communist International. Indeed, it sometimes seemed that he loved the Soviet Union more than its own representatives, the spy handlers for whom he worked, and who too often ignored his findings. Or perhaps he just loved the life! He was a born betrayer: of countries, of organizations, of men and women. In one sublime porridge of deceit, he became the trusted advisor of a German embassy official in Tokyo, stole Germany's secrets from the man, seduced the man's wife, and in time seduced his mistress as well.

In the spring of 1941, Sorge picked up unmistakable signs that Germany planned to invade the Soviet Union. But the spy chiefs he worked for were being purged, one after another, and they were too frightened to tell Stalin that his bet on Adolf Hitler was about to come back and bite him. Then too, Sorge's radioman had become less interested in espionage than in the business enterprise that financed it, and he sometimes failed to send a message, or sent only a portion of it. So it came about that the most productive spy ring of all time failed to change the course of history. It's a breathtaking yarn, told masterfully by one of those Englishmen who "read" history at Oxford, become war correspondents in scary places, and finally turn to writing history, and all with admirable skill. "The self-selected champions of the proletariat pose stern and unsmiling in group photographs of the period," Mr Matthews writes of Sorge's schooling in Moscow. "Soberly dressed, peering through angry little glasses, they resemble indignant librarians more than tough street fighters. In a world of physically diminutive Jewish intellectuals, the tall, Aryan, war-wounded Sorge literally stood out from the crowd." Indignant librarians! I would love to have written those lines.

Retreat from Moscow: A New History of Germany's Winter Campaign, 1941-1942 -- Another splendid piece of historical writing, this one by a New Zealander who was educated in Melbourne, London, and Berlin, and who now is teaching in Canberra. (The Commonwealth still livs!) Dr Stahel makes an intriguing story out of Germany's withdrawal from gates of the Soviet capital by arguing that it wasn't the catastrophe usually presented to us, but a successful campaign and a victory of sorts. Yes, the Ostheer (Eastern Army) was regularly overwhelmed by masses of Red Army soldiery, and yes, it was unprepared to fight at temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero. (The one temperature at which Celsius and Fahrenheit agree.) These were the same factors that had defeated Napoleon in 1812, but the Heer did not collapse as the Grande Armée had done. The following year, in Italy, the Anglo-American-Indian-Polish armies would discover how costly it was to confront a "defeated" German army, whose principles of Augfragtaktik (leading from the front) and "offensive defense" (continually counterattacking) made it a deadly foe. In the winter of 1941-1942, it was the Red Army that paid the blood price, losing half a million men each month to the German defenders. A book worth reading, preferably in print with an atlas close at hand.

In the 1990s, I was addicted to a public-television show in which Michael Palin promised to travel the world "so YOU won't have to!" (I'm pretty sure it was Full Circle, in which he bumbles his way around the Pacific Ocean.) I loved that line, and I often think of this monthly review as my version of Mr Palin's quest, in which I read three books so YOU don't have to. I had no shortage of candidates, and I did a whole lot of reading, but I utterly failed to come up with a third book that I wouldn't be embarrassed to present to you. They ranged from a history of the Olivetti typewriter company in Italy, which supposedly developed the world's first computer, through a biography of Joseph Grew, US ambassador to Japan in December 1941, but I wasn't able to slog through either one. So I decided to review a thriller I'd received for my birthday, only to change my mind when it transpired that the whole awful mess stemmed from the "fact" that in 1918 the US Army had developed a virus to wage biological warfare against those pesky Bolsheviks in Russia, but -- whoops! -- caused the flu epidemic that infected a third of the world's population and killed more people than the First World War. Yeah, right. So I'm left with the suggestion that you go to YouTube and catch a few episodes of Full Circle. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Flying Tigers
revised and updated

Daniel Ford's books:

Cowboy: Interpreter, Soldier, Warlord, and One More Casualty of Our War in Vietnam
The Only War We've Got: Early Days in South Vietnam
Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault & His American Volunteers, 1941-1942
Tales of the Flying Tigers (think of it as a lengthy appendix to the history)
The Lady and the Tigers (Olga Greenlaw)
Poland's Daughter: How I Learned About Love, War, and Exile
Glen Edwards: Diary of a Bomber Pilot
A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America's War on Terror
The Country Northward: A Hiker's Journal
The Greater America: An Epic Journey Through a Vibrant New Country (Ralph Paine)
~ ~ ~ ~
Michael's War: A Story of the Irish Republican Army
Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers
Incident at Muc Wa: A Story of the Vietnam War
The High Country Illuminator: A Tale of Light and Darkness and the Ski Bums of Avalon

Sign up for the newsletter

Once or twice a month, I send out an email newsletter about my books and the subjects covered in them, most often about military aviation and the wars of the past hundred years. You can unsubscribe at any time. (If your browser spits out a Cookie warning, it's not my doing! It's Mailchimp's cookie, and I never see it.)

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Poland's Daughter

On this website: Front page | Flying Tigers | Chinese Air Force | Japan at War | Brewster Buffalo | Glen Edwards & the Flying Wing | Vietnam | War in the Modern World | Bluie West One | Poland 1939-1948 | Book Club | Book reviews | Question? | Google us | Website & webmaster | Site map

Other sites: Flying Tigers: the book | Daniel Ford's blog | Daniel Ford's books | Facebook | Piper Cub Forum | Raintree County | Reading Proust | Expedition Yacht Seal

Posted December 2019. Websites © 1997-2019 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved. This site sets no cookies, but the Mailchimp sign-up service does, and so does Amazon if you click through to their store.