Wacht Am Tyne

Military History for the Terminally Obsessed

Archive for November 2008

The Devil’s Whore: A Semi-Impartial Critique

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Although The Devil’s Whore is neither that much of a military-history programme nor within my area of expertise, I feel an obligation to give some commentary for three reasons:

1) I watched it, and I rarely watch television so that’s an event in itself.

2) I know for a fact that Rich at Chronologi Cogitationes refuses to even watch the show, so I feel a need to provide something where a superior authority on the period won’t. And mock him gently for not doing so.

3) I managed to catch, once again, the Harris/Guinness epic Cromwell on ITV3 a few nights ago, which provided even more food for analytical thought and eventually made my mind up for me about writing about the show.

But anyway, I did watch it. I wasn’t expecting a lot, given my corroborating evidence for such a low outcome was a knowledge (and subsequent distrust) of what sex-and-swordplay ‘historical dramas’ do in the way of shunting history out of the way and plonking a few dubious facts in its place for the cast to congregate around, not to mention the closest thing I have to a 17th-Century authority point-blank refusing to even watch the thing. The hallmarks of TV historical drama are there: Underlying contemporary concepts pared down brutally for elucidation in a single scene; historical figures who have their name declared in full after several minutes on-screen to fully identify them to the viewer as Someone What Was Real; very important historical figures playing second-fiddle to characters important to the actual plot, forcing them to pop in and out of scenes like a bad episode of Happy Days; and, of course, a minimum of three sex scenes per every 45 minutes of script.

The cast was solid enough and featured a few faces I recognised, including Peter Capaldi (Local Hero and one episode of Peep Show), Michael Fassbander (Band of Brothers and the upcoming IRA film Hunger) and John Simm (from popular-show-I-never-actually-watched Life On Mars) – the latter playing Edward Sexby, portrayed as a crazy-eyed veteran soldier-of-fortune who undoubtedly has been set as the One That Just Won’t Die And So Will Last Until The FInal Episode that all historical dramas with a bit of killing seems to have to have (given that TDW spans a timeframe upto 1660, and that Sexby died in 1658, I really hope this isn’t the case). The most striking characterisation was that of Oliver Cromwell, who is played with an accuracy-befitting East Anglian accent, giving him more of that potato-farmer air that Richard Harris raved upon in his famous “Oliver the First, King of England!” speech at the end of the aforementioned film – you come to expect not so much “I tell you we will cut off his head with the crown upon it”, rather a straightforward “GERROF MOI LAND!” in later episodes.

The battle scenes, though impressively shot in my opinion, are a let-down. The recreation of Edgehill appears to have soaked up most of the project’s budget for outdoor shots, meaning that later battle sequences are carried out by only about half-a-dozen extras – you’d think, rather than try and get away with what I call ‘the Sharpe Effect’ (making big battles seem big while only actually employing about fifteen extras), you’d expect them to have at least paid some more people to be in the day’s filming and do it properly – because, unlike Sharpe, you really do notice the lack of volume to the forces involved (I draw the four-man ‘pike block’ as my first piece of evidence to this…)

I reckon the real cause is in fact the titular gimmick (no, not the sex): the CGI devil that turns up now and again to the protagonist, to hammer home the point of her pre-credits renouncing of God. It’s pitiful, it really is – they don’t even seem to have blown the battle-scene budget on a good graphic-designer either. I kept expecting the protracted tongue-flailing trademark to be followed by a husky ‘Yarrrrrr!’ like the pirate-ghost out of Scooby-Doo. Needless to say, I provided that sound-effect myself in order to make the drawn-out ‘Oooh no it’s the Devil again‘ shots seem less like theme-hammering filler.

I don’t want to sound nasty about this show, not just because it’s only been one episode of a four-part story so far; I just have an ingrained hatred of television Doing History Wrong and Doing Drama Wrong. It might turn out good but for the fact that it’s already proven itself to be taking major liberties with such ‘trivial’ matters as Viewers’ Intelligence and Historical Fact. For that, I’m afraid I will hold a prejudice throughout the run that I fear the remaining three episodes won’t be able to dissuade me of. The Beatles said that ‘Living is easy with eyes closed’ – but I think in order for me to live through this show, I’ll have to close my ears and mind and keep my eyes fully open, as I’m a sucker for good cinematography and that might be the only carrot the show has to coax me forward to the conclusion. Try it for yourself, and come to your own decisions.

Written by nikkiwilliams

26 November, 2008 at 5:46 pm

Cruel Sea, Cruel Mistress: Silent Hunter III

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I have this morbid fear that this post will descend into outright porn. As bizarre as that may sound, it really is a genuine fear: Silent Hunter III is, dare I say it to the blank stranger that is the Intarweb, the only wargame to have ever got to me to the point of obsession – and we’re talking far beyond 12-hour-binges obsession.

Long story short: It’s (as the title suggests) the third in the Silent Hunter series, which started Back In The Day pitting US boats against the Japanese, then in the sequel it was U-Boats fighting it out in the ETO. SH3 went back to the U-Boat theme, this time with a graphics system that was far richer than the promo material was letting on (the tease), a new dynamic-campaign structure, and overhauled the interface and control systems so that suddenly you found yourself with, in hindsight, only a few more additions to what was there in SH2 but now so intuitive and fluid that it all seemed brand-new. The campaign starts with you selecting a starting-year and a Flotilla (all historically accurate to availability and base-of-ops), and you have at your disposal individual crew members to be boosted with trade qualifications and awards that increase their efficiency and use aboard your boat – which can be one of a few dozen variants through the war, from the dinky Type-IIs, the ubiquitous Type-VIIs and IXs, right up (if you’re lucky) to the Type-XXI, which is as much as a beast in-game as it could have been in reality. The man/machine ‘upgrading’ takes place via the accumulation and spending of ‘Renown’ – a straightforward points-system based on tonnage sunk and not getting shot at in turn, the points from which are then spent on more experienced crew and certain (factually accurate) torpedo types, through to U-Boat equipment and the boats themselves. It sounds a bit arcadey but in practice it does work out quite well; I like to see it as High Command seeing fit to entrust the Gucci gear to someone who knows what they’re doing – symbolised by a big wodge of Renown points – and not the clot who blew off his own rudder with an acoustic torpedo (that’s a true gaming story, and I’m certain he will read this…)

In SH2 (and I assume the original, as I haven’t played it) the main campaign was about three-dozen pre-set missions in a fairly action-packed storyline, cramming in as many historical actions as was possible. For instance, I remember the first mission was to prevent the flight of several Polish capital ships to safety in British anchourage, and later on you’d recreate Prien’s raid into Scapa Flow, take part in Operation Drumbeat, and so on. In SH3 you are given a grid-square to patrol, and that’s it – you have free rein to go as far and as full-on as fuel and torpedoes allow; actually patrolling the grid-square will net you some Renown, but you lose nothing by buggering off on your own little adventure if you know a good convoy-route to prey upon. And convoys are all accurately charted, so by setting off into the Barents in ’42-’43 you can actually find yourself in a true-to-life – and entirely unscripted by the game – assault upon the Arctic Convoys, or your own Scapa Flow raid… or Loch Ewe, or Gibraltar, or New York…

So, it’s a game of seemingly endless inadvertant set-pieces to fall into: I’ve been chased almost Benny Hill-style around the Solent by destroyers; have mauled a convoy in a surface attack and then evaded its escort by crash-diving right under the stricken hull of a sinking tanker, popping up on the other side to slam a salvo into another brace of ships; have duelled with MTBs in the Thames Estuary while shore batteries threw heavy ordnance overhead – and, most astonishingly, have never got bored of the game. In addition, there are additional single-mission scenarios enabling the player to recreate famous set-pieces such as the actual Scapa Flow infiltration, change history and sink HMS Warspite in the Norway campaign, and re-enact the destruction of HMS Barham. There’s also a strong mod community (even after almost four years) that has provided countless additions from Das Boot-themed icons to full-on overhauls of graphics, physics and options.

I’d continue, but I feel that I’ve given enough meat for any naval-warfare enthusiasts with a PC to inquire further. Plus, I’ve worked myself up into a bit of a stir – I’m off to prowl the Azores.

Written by nikkiwilliams

26 November, 2008 at 4:20 pm

Book Review: ‘Sniper On The Eastern Front: The Memoirs of Sepp Allerberger, Knights Cross’

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I’ve decided to kick off my Book Reviews section (let’s be honest, the other ‘review’ was just me trying to cover up for my own idiocy) with this title – German Sniper on the Eastern Front by Albrecht Wacker – for two reasons: the first is that I’ve only just come into contact with this book and so it’s the most recent ‘new’ book I’ve read – in between re-reading a load of sci-fi I probably shouldn’t be – and secondly because, frankly, I thought it was so good that I had to have a book that left such a mark on me to have the dubious honour of being my first reviewed work.

The book places us at the point of Allerberger’s enlistment in the Gebirgsjäger in 1943, and the narrative rushes into his first taste of battle as quickly as Allerberger himself felt suddenly thrown into the war. Straightaway it is established that the depiction of the carnage of the Eastern Front is to be, from my experience with the genre, unusually brusque; I mean that in the sense that, while the blood-and-guts detail pulls no punches (and this book is unrelenting with its capture of the witnessed horror), the narrative never seems to dwell upon any of it or attempt to slam any inferences into the reader. Here’s what happened, in all the ghastly detail, but let’s move on. To me, it’s as though it does capture the train-of-thought of Allerberger in these situations, viewing something of utter repulsion and terror for a brief moment before the images being lost in the continuing flurry of combat. It augments the placing of the reader into situations excellently.

Albrecht Wacker, the editor/biographer, does point out that he has had to reconstruct the story using secondary research, owing to Allerberger’s natural memory-loss on certain points or simply a lack of knowledge of certain contextual matters relevant to the ‘narrative whole’ (in Wacker’s words). I felt that the extent to which the narrative was based on Wacker’s work was undetectable, the patching-up work added seamlessly into Allerberger’s input. The whole piece reads as one coherent account, and in addition to this it manages to feel like the sniper himself is personally sitting you down and letting you into his own personal Hell – the long journey of bullets, shells, chaos, fear and death that formed his long journey from the edge of the Crimea back into the Reich itself, with the Red Army behind them every step of the way.

The book provides a wealth of information for enthusiasts on several topics, most notably of the trade of the German sniper and to a lesser extent on the mountain-troop units’ taste of battle on the Eastern Front. Allerberger dismisses some of the popularly-perceived craftsmanship of the sniper such as camouflage technique and the more elaborate mechanisms showcased in newsreels (some of which can be found on Google Video) – his straightforward methods of clever cover and sternly self-imposed professionalism are his personal trade tools; not to mention devising a safe place to hide his sniper’s rifle if need be, for snipers were killed out of hand (and often tortured before that, as Allerberger himself describes in horrendous – but yet sparing – detail).

This book came very close in terms of first-read enjoyment to being comparable to Heinz Knocke’s I Flew For The Führer (a book I must definitely must review for this site in the near future), for I simply could not stop reading for trivial matters such as work, sustenence or meeting friends (one of whom found me at the train station when they arrived, sat under a lamppost desperately trying to finish the last chapter) – it’s graphic and it’s grim, but as you finish the epilogue that remains as to-the-point as the brutalities you will find yourself feeling – alongside that “Thank f**k it wasn’t me” thought – that emotion that all great war memoirs should evoke: Respect.

Written by nikkiwilliams

15 November, 2008 at 4:43 am