Monthly Archives: February 2018

How the Brits stymied SA troops ‘up north’ in WW2

Safricans vs rommelReview: Archie Henderson

South Africans versus Rommel, by David Brock Katz (Stackpole)

Almost 80 years after the events, it is still easy to get angry with the British military commanders under whom our troops served in North Africa during World War 2.

When our soldiers went “up north” in 1940, they were subjected to British military doctrine, which did not suit the South African way of making war. Explaining this difference of approach is one of the strong points of David Brock Katz’s book, an extension of a thesis for his masters, which he attained cum laude from the South African Military Academy.

Katz’s book has a subtitle, “The Untold Story of the Desert War in World War 2”. If that seems a publisher’s exaggeration, it is a story that has seldom been told and never as forcefully as this.

On the question of doctrine, Katz writes: “Had the British shown greater foresight and availed themselves of the South African mobile capability, the disaster (the destruction of an entire infantry brigade at Sidi Rezegh, Libya, in 1941) may have been avoided.”

South Africa’s soldiers showed their prowess at manoeuvre during the campaign, and victory, in East Africa. But once they moved north, into Egypt, that freedom to apply their national military doctrine was subverted and submerged into the British one. The South African divisions came under the supervision of British corps and army commanders.

And those commanders didn’t have a clue, to paraphrase Katz. While the Germans, and their unfairly maligned Italian allies, had perfected the art of combined arms (a balanced approach using armour, artillery, infantry and, where possible, air) in concentrated attacks, the British fragmented their forces.

The British also had almost childlike faith in tanks being the ultimate weapon, forgetting that the Germans had formidable anti-tank weapons, especially the famous 88 guns.

It is not only Katz who believes the South Africans were hard done by; one of the most astute British military minds thought so too. Eric Dorman-Smith, a controversial British general who was regarded as one of the brightest military minds, served for a while as General Claude Auckinleck’s deputy chief of staff when Auckinleck was Middle East commander. He wanted Auckinleck to fight the German way, with “a couple of armoured divisions wedded to two tactically mechanised unarmoured divisions”.

“The proper people for this sort of work, to my mind, were the descendants of the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) riders who had so often run rings around the slow-moving slow-witted British,” wrote Dorman-Smith.

Alas, it was not to be. When Bernard Montgomery became Eighth Army commander in 1942, he sacked Dorman-Smith, whom he loathed because of some disagreements earlier in their careers. If South African troops had been used more effectively, and earlier, in a role such as Dorman-Smith envisaged, who knows how better they might have performed in the desert. Perhaps the disaster of Sidi Rezegh and the capitulation of an entire South African division at Tobruk, due mainly to British confusion and indecision, may have been averted.

Most books on the war in the North African desert deal with the big picture, involving British and Commonwealth forces and, from November 1942, the Americans. Katz has focused on our soldiers in great detail and it is the first book to do so in 60 years, so it’s long overdue. And it’s not only about doctrine; he has a good story to tell about South Africa’s forgotten war.

Nonetheless, there are a few minor irritations. But with so much detail, footnotes and conscientious research, writing the perfect book is as impossible as trying to stop a tank with a Webley revolver. So it was the South African 2nd Division that surrendered at Tobruk, not the 1st, as mentioned in the introduction – a clear typographical error because the mistake is not repeated.  Katz slips up, however, by still having the Aussies in the fortress when it is first relieved in late November 1941. By then the Australians had been evacuated and replaced by the British 70th Division. These are mere quibbles and should not detract from what is not only an assembling of facts – many of them new – but also contextualising, interpreting and explaining what is often a complex series of battles.

Great Bookclub reads for March


great aloneThe Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

There is the most superficial similarity between The Great Alone and Queen of Bloody Everything: both are about lonely children who come from dysfunctional families and who find another family to cherish them.

But the great alone describes a life almost unimaginable to South Africans – in the beautiful but punishing state of Alaska. Leni’s father is a Vietnam war veteran and former POW who has come back to the US a damaged man. He can’t settle at anything, and his wife, who adores him, keeps telling their daughter how different, how much fun he was before.

Then he inherits a piece of land in Alaska from a Vietnam buddy, and the family move up north. Leni’s dad Ernt is capable and clever with his hands, but the people in the town where they end up fear for them as they are utterly unprepared for the harshness of an Alaskan winter.

Ernt has always been more difficult when the days are short and the nights long and dark and freezing. In many ways the family couldn’t have chosen a worse place to settle. Ernt becomes increasingly erratic and violent, and joins a group of right-wingers preparing for the end of the world.

But through it all, Leni, 13 at the start of the book in 1974,  tries to have a normal teenagerhood, deeply in love with a classmate. This is something of an epic about survival, of love and fortitude, and living under a brooding cloud.

Kristin Hannah is best known for her novel The Nightingale, which has sold almost four million copies and which, having devoured The Great Alone, I now want to read.

queen of bloody everythingThe Queen of Bloody Everything, by Joanna Nadin (Mantle/ Pan Macmillan)

This is a delicious piece of fiction: interesting, warm and often very funny.

Dido is around six when her mother Edie, both feckless and fierce, inherits a house in Essex and moves in. Dido loves fairy tales, and almost immediately finds herself in one. At the bottom of the garden there is a gate in a wall, which she discovers leads into the house behind – a grand house complete with two proper parents and two lovely children of about her own age.

Dido falls in love with her neighbours’ home, lifestyle and the kids. The children’s mother is not so sure about Dido, though.  When she asks Dido about her absent father, the guileless six-year-old says she doesn’t have one. “I thought it was Denzil, but Edie said don’t be daft because he’s black.”

The three children become inseparable, finding in each other’s homes what is lacking in their own. And then there is a night when Edie, drunk, arrives at a party given by the neighbours and tells everyone the secrets she has been keeping.

Forty years later a grim Dido is at Edie’s hospital bedside, looking back on what may have sometimes seemed like a fairy tale, complete with locked garden gate, a widower, and a wicked stepmother. But there was no enchantment, says Dido, “no fairy godmother, no genie, no amulet or grail. There is just us. You and me.”

I loved it.


Noakes book: all you wanted to know about nutrition? Not so much


Lore of Nutrition – challenging conventional dietary beliefs, by Tim Noakes & Marika Sboros (Penguin)

This is a curious book and its title is something of a misnomer. While Noakes’s first book, Lore of Running, is described by reviewers as covering “everything runners, trainers and coaches need to know about running”, Lore of Nutrition is less about nutrition and more about Noakes’s “trial” by the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

Of the 365 pages of the book proper – excluding a forward, two prefaces, a closing chapter, bibliography, notes and an index – 304 pages deal with Noakes and the furious controversy he engendered with the Continue reading

Eating family style food the Banting way

delicious low carbReview: Myrna Robins

DELICIOUS LOW CARB by Sally-Ann Creed, published by Human & Rousseau, 2017.

The writer first leapt into prominence as a co-author of The Real Meal Revolution which started the Banting diet craze and the hullabaloo between Professor Tim Noakes and his detractors.

This new collection of low-carb, gluten-free, sugar-free recipes offer those already on a low-carb, high-fat diet further culinary choices, It combines eye appeal with all the dishes that most families cook, including sauces and  trendy pestos from ingredients like nasturtium leaves. Pizza  and quiche bases from coconut flour resemble traditional wheat flour ones. There’s a baby potato salad – surprise! – as she says our gut flora need resistant starch now and then. Continue reading

Snack fare if you’re Banting

Review: Myrna Robins

JUMP ON THE BANT WAGON by Nick Charlie Key (Human & Rousseau)  

A self-explanatory title and one  on which first-time cookbook writer,  regular blogger and Banting devotee  Nick Charlie Key expands as he shares 90 recipes that are low in carbs, gluten- and sugar-free and aimed at those on a budget.  

He lost 22kg on this diet after getting a wake-up call from his doctor reporting hbant wagongh insulin levels. He was 29. He also reports other health benefits,

The recipes will appeal to those who enjoy snack fare and fast food as Key has spent time creating equivalents that follow Banting principles. Think onion rings with sour cream dip, garlic butter prawns, sweet potato nachos, cauliflower “pizza” bases, “burgers”, tacos and crustless quiches. He uses xylitol extensively in his desserts and bakes, and almond and coconut flour instead of wheat flour.

The subtitle proclaims “Quick and easy on a tight budget“. I find little evidence of low-cost ingredients in his recipes – just the opposite in most cases.

*Also available in Afrikaans

Dido and her thoroughly modern fairy tale

queen of everythingReview: Vivien Horler

The Queen of Bloody Everything, by Joanna Nadin (Mantle/ Pan Macmillan)

Dido’s life gets off to a somewhat rocky start. It is the early 70s and her mother rejects her middle-class parents’s values, gets pregnant, has the baby, and moves into a London squat, sharing space with a transient group of people.

Edie rejects any help offered by her parents but when, during the long hot summer of 1976, a great-aunt leaves her a cottage in the Essex town of Saffron Walden and money to live on, Edie and Dido move in. Continue reading

Rip-roaring view of recent history from a journalist with a front-row seat

breaking newsReview: Archie Henderson

Breaking News: An Autobiography by Jeremy Thompson (Biteback Publishing)

For some years the British TV newsman Jeremy Thompson was a welcome guest in our lounge. You knew that when he was there, he always had a good story to tell – and one that was especially relevant.

No matter how complex the story might be or how remote, Jeremy could be relied on to marshal the facts, unravel its twists and turns, and tell it in such a coherent and interesting way that it immediately made sense. Of all the personalities on our TV, Jeremy was the most recognisable – and the most liked. Continue reading

When the Donald trumped decency

joe biden book

Review: Vivien Horler

Promise Me, Dad, by Joe Biden (Macmillan)

The name Joe Biden on the cover of this book seemed familiar – wasn’t he an American politician? But with its title of Promise Me, Dad, it didn’t seem that kind of book. Maybe a different Biden.

But no. Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president, at the charismatic US president’s side for the two terms they served, and privy to the highest power in the land – like Obama he too had control of the codes that could launch a nuclear strike. He had a Security Service detail, flew in Air Force Two, and lived in an official residence not far from the White House. He was also considering running for president after Obama.

biden obama

Joe Biden with former president Barack Obama

But Joe Biden was – and is – a devoted family man and devout Catholic, who has had more than his share of personal tragedy. Promise Me, Dad, is the story of a year “of hope, hardship and Continue reading

Tour de force may leave you wanting a little lie-down

utmost happinessReview: Beverley Roos-Muller

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin)

The tiny, Indian-born activist writer Arundhati Roy is now in her mid-50s, so can hardly still be considered an enfant terrible of the literary scene, as she was when she burst onto it in 1997 by bagging the Big One – the Booker, for The God of Small Things.

Yet she certainly has lost nothing of her “go for it” approach: there is nothing “small”  about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her first novel in two decades.

On the contrary, this is a big, busy and at times overwhelming book, sprawling across the layers of politics, gender, culture, caste, identity and other crises in India today. It is bold and at times meant to unnerve, which it successfully does. It also demands quite a lot from the reader both in concentration, and in patience. Continue reading

The right stuff for wrinklies

Here is another in our series of reviews of cookbooks by veteran food and wine writer MYRNA ROBINS.

midlife kitchenTHE MIDLIFE KITCHEN by Mimi Spencer and Sam Rice (Mitchell Beazley)

I approached this book with some scepticism partly because the two authors, featured on the front cover, look far too young to know what those from 50 to 70-plus want from the kitchen.

But I’m happy to admit that this is an intriguing  collection of recipes for senior readers ready to change culinary direction and eat fare that helps meet the changing needs of ageing bodies. I learnt a new word from the introduction: “nutri-epigenetics” which has become a major focus of scientific inquiry, as certain vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals have been found to be powerful potentials for reducing the risk of age-related disease. Continue reading