Tuesday 17 December 2019

Book Review: MI6 British Secret Service Operations 1909-1945 by Nigel West

Pen and Sword Books very kindly sent me a copy of MI6 British Secret Intelligence Service Operations 1909 - 1945. I have been interested in the history of espionage for many years and, although that interest has mainly focused on the Cold War, I was intrigued to see how things had evolved before that.

This is a very thorough book and goes into great detail about the personnel that were a part of SIS (MI6) in it's earlier days, an amazing achievement considering much of the information has never been officially released. It has all been gleaned from interviews with former officers and employees and once the book was finished it was cleared by the current security services before it was released.

Covering much of the day to day running of the service, as well as going into some detail of the more interesting operations, the book can be a little dry in places, but this only shows the depth of detail that Nigel West has gone into. The book will certainly be an important source for anyone interested in specific details about the early years of MI6.

In the days before and during the Second World War, there were several different security services that, to some extent crossed over in their remit, and in many instances, MI6 was not the most successful, but it was quite a small service and had limited staff and budgets as compared to organisations such as the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), or even MI5 (which covered UK mainland and other British Empire counter-espionage and counter-sabotage).
In fact, MI6 suffered some major catastrophes that, in the early part of the Second World War, actually jeopardised it's existence, however, it's saving grace and it's most successful section was the Government Code and Cypher School (which eventually evolved into GCHQ).

Obviously, with several different organisations (SIS, MI5, NID and SOE - Special Operations Executive, which co-ordinated and planned sabotage and rescue missions in occupied Europe)  having similar operational areas there were lots of opportunities for co-operation between them and also rivalries.

As well as the day to day running of the Secret Intelligence Service, examples of some of the more interesting operations and networks are covered at some length. Such characters as the White Russian Sidney Reilly who was something of a super-spy, but turned out to be less than reliable. There are also many examples of both successful and unsuccessful operations throughout the Second World War.

The book does have a photo section, but obviously, with the nature of the subject matter, there are, I am sure, a limited and often poor selection of photos, so, to be honest, this could quite easily have been skipped. The photos that are included are interesting enough, but I don't think that they add that much to the book, overall.

To try to get things a little more on topic for this blog, looking at the wargaming possibilities, frankly, there are not that many. Some of the wartime operations could be used as a basis for scenarios in games like Osprey Publishing's Black Ops or possibly Crooked Dice's 7TV Pulp rules. It might also be possible to organise a game that has a small team infiltrating a base to acquire information or rescue an asset, but these would be more in tune with the SOE rather than SIS, which tended to use subtler methods.

In conclusion, a very interesting book that gives an excellent background to the British Secret Intelligence Service's early years. I will certainly be on the lookout for some of Nigel Wests other books on the other intelligence services.

Pick up a copy HERE.

Monday 14 October 2019

Book Review: The Golden Age of Science Fiction by John Wade

As a wargamer, I have always been attracted to the idea of putting on a retro sci-fi game. Whenever I see retro sci-fi figures or rules I am compelled to pick them up. I assume that this is in a wide part down to nostalgia. Growing up in the 1970s in the UK we got our first expose to Star Trek and also I fondly remember watching classic sci-fi movies on BBC2 in the early evenings on Wednesdays. Films that were invariably made in the 1950s, mainly black and white (that might just have been because we still had a black and white TV at that point), and I suppose even by then, fairly dated. "Them", "The Incredible Shrinking Man", "This Island Earth", "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and two of my favourite films, "The Day The Earth Stood Still" and "Forbidden Planet".

So when I saw the book The Golden Age of Science Fiction - A journey into Space with 1950s Radio, TV, Films, Comics and Books by John Wade I knew I had to read it.

Although never promising to be a complete look at science fiction in the 1950s (this is a personal memoir to the author's discovery and love of the genre during the 50s), the book does however look at so much more than just movies, covering radio (a far bigger thing back then than it is now), TV, films, books, comics and magazines, all in great depth.

Each different form of media is covered in a separate chapter, starting with radio. Now, I should also point out that the book is very much written from a British point of view, therefore it may well miss the odd American and international productions, although where foreign media made it to the UK they do also feature.

The section on television reviews several TV plays as well as going into some depth on the three Quatermass series. I have had an abiding love of the Quatermass quartet for many years, although missed the original three series, seeing the films and the later series only. I have, however, read the three script books that were released with the original TV scripts. The depth of information in this book is excellent and if nothing else it has inspired me to track down and watch the original TV shows if I can find them.

The section on movies is obviously mainly focused on the amazing US output of Sci-Fi movies in the 1950s. With such classics as those already mentioned at the beginning of this review. First, we have a general overview of the ci-fi movie genre in the 1950s with descriptions of the most common plot elements, then a brief review of the lurid nature of a lot of 50s movie posters, that didn't always reflect the content of the actual films. Then we get an in-depth review of the authors select choice of movies followed by some brief resumes of his choice of "also-rans". Finally, there is a reasonably exhaustive list of all of the sci-fi movies released in the 1950s. I found the movie section to be an invaluable resource for anybody who is interested in classic (and not so classic) sci-fi movies. As someone who has loved sci-fi for as long as I can remember, I will generally watch anything that has a hint of sci-fi about it. Many just to be able to tick them off as having seen them. So this list gives me a lot to work with.

The next chapter of the book proved to be just as interesting as it moved on to books. I devoured a lot of science fiction books in my teens working my way through many of the most well-known authors, to see which ones I enjoyed and which I was not so interested in. On reflection, I feel that I missed a lot that I really should have read, for example, I read several of Issac Asimov's Robot books but none of his Foundation series. I can say the same for many of the other top authors.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction by John Wade mainly concentrates on four authors John Wyndham, Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark and Ray Bradbury. going into some depth on their careers, both pre- and post- 1950s, but with the main focus on that decade. Now if the golden age of Sci-Fi was the 1950s, the 1970s was the golden age of mass-market paperbacks, and many of those books that I picked up were first in print in the 1950s, which was something of a revelation for me.

As a teen back then I picked up most of my reading material either browsing the local newsagents or more likely local second-hand book shops. So there was no real system and no investigation into the correct chronologies or bibliographies of particular authors. The Golden Age of Science Fiction has very much filled that gap and now I have decided to track down several books that I feel that I really should have read. For example, I have not read any of John Wyndham's work, although I am very familiar with the various adaptions of his Day of the Triffids. Now I am planning to read both The Kraken Wakes and The Chrysalids.

Towards the end of the Books chapter, Wade does go through a brief rundown of some other authors (that some might consider more important) that published works in the 50s. So don't be disappointed if your favourite author didn't get a mention.

The final section of the book covers magazines and comics. The 1950s was effectively the last real shout out for the survival of the pulp magazines and a lot of the magazines featured in this book can be seen to have moved to the digest size and away from the traditional pulp-style magazine. Once again the focus is on the magazines and comics that were available in the UK, whether they are British produced or just UK editions of US magazines.

The chapter finishes with a list of magazines that were around during the 1950s. Which once again will prove a useful resource for anyone interested in the history of Science Fiction. Now really, before I got on to the magazines I should have discussed the comics. My introduction to sci-fi in comics came with the Uk Starlord and then 2000AD titles. So it was interesting to see what had been available before that. Obviously, I was aware of Dan Dare, although I hadn't really spent much time looking into those stories from the Eagle comic. The book looks at Dan Dare in-depth, from its initial inception right through to its demise (and its brief resurrection in the 1980s).

Other comics that are mentioned certainly pale into insignificant compared to Dan Dare, but it is good to know the history of British Sci-fi in comics, along with the huge market of US superhero titles that tend to flood the market now.

The book is lavishly illustrated throughout and I found no spelling errors or grammar problems.

As I am sure you can already guess, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be referring back to it often in future. I received the book from Pen and Sword Publishing as a review copy, but I would gladly have bought it. It would actually be very nice if they followed it up with further volumes looking at the science fiction that came out of other decades and the impact that had.

The book can be purchased directly from Pen and Sword HERE.

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Book Review: Painting Wargaming Figures - WWII In The Desert by Andy Singleton

My last book review was quite critical, so I am pleased to say that I am a lot happier with this one.

WWII in the Desert by Andy Singleton appears to be the first in a new series of books from Pen and Sword called Painting Wargaming Figures.

The subject of the book should need little explanation, covering the four major forces in the desert campaign of World War Two. British and Commonwealth (including Canadian, Australian, Indian, South African, as well as Poles, some French and others), Italian, United States, and German.

The layout of the book has been well thought through. The book is split into two sections, Basics, and the actual Painting Guides. The Basics section covers the various tools, paints and varnishes that will be needed and then goes on to explain how to prepare and assemble figures before the painting begins. This covers metal, plastic and resin miniatures and so all bases have been covered (well actually, basing the figures is covered at the end of the painting guides, but you know what I mean...).

The painting guides themselves are well laid out with a brief introduction and history of the various forces and their involvement in the campaign. This is a nice touch, as it would have been very easy to skip this and dive straight into the guides, but as the book is probably going to be read by wargamers just getting into this period it gives that extra level of information that will help build a wargames army. In each guide, Andy takes us through the painting process at three different levels. A simple basic paint scheme, a more advanced scheme that will give a good tabletop standard, and then the truly advanced scheme, which would probably be best kept purely for command figures or special characters.

Each guide shows the full process of painting the same figure at each level. Although there are four different factions, there are five guides as the fifth guide shows the painting of camouflage for the later part of the Desert campaign, when the German paratroopers arrived in theatre. Now, clearly, there is a fair bit of repetition as you read through each of the painting guides, if not exactly in colour, but in the technique used. However, the reader is likely to be following only one of the guides and is unlikely to be painting all the forces, at all the different levels in quick succession, so the repetition only gets boring for a reviewer reading the entire book, without actually using it to paint their army.

The author also points out that a lot of the uniforms faded in the dust and sun of the desert campaign and many of the soldiers chopped and changed items of uniform so it would be rare to have a standard scheme across an entire squad, let alone larger forces. Therefore, the painting guides are just that, guides, they can be mixed and matched, within reason, to achieve a more realistic look.

After the painting guides, there is a nice guide to basing figures in desert schemes. It goes into quite a bit of detail and is far from simply glueing sand onto the bases ( although it does involve a bit of this).

The final pages of the book are given over to a reasonably thorough list of manufacturers who produce ranges of wargames figures for the Desert Campaign, at various scales.

It would have been nice to see more than one figure for each force, as clearly the uniforms varied a lot over the campaign, and we just get one (except the Germans who also get the camouflage scheme). It would also have been good to have seen one or two reference pictures for each of the uniforms, whether that be illustrations like those found in the Osprey Men At Arms series of books or photos of re-enactors etc. Also, obviously these guides are all written by one (very capable) author and, as any experienced painters knows, there are endless numbers of different ways to paint a figure, so it might be nice to see a book like this written by several different painters, offering different ways to paint similar figures.

Still, these are minor quibbles and overall, I would highly recommend this book.

So, in conclusion, this is an excellent beginners guide to painting figures for the Desert Campaign. It covers everything that someone just venturing into this area would need to get going with a new army.

You can check out the book for yourself HERE.

Friday 7 June 2019

Book Review: Wargames Terrain & Buildings - The Napoleonic Wars by Tony Harwood

Tony Harwood has quite a reputation for building attractive wargames scenery so I was very keen to get hold of Pen & Sword Books The Napoleonic Wars, which appears to be the first in a series of books on constructing scenery and buildings for the wargames table.

As expected, after a quick flick through the book, Tony has managed to produce a series of interesting buildings that could grace any wargames table. Although it is squarely aimed at the Napoleonic period, I feel that there is plenty here to interest gamers of other periods too as many of the buildings would suit earlier or later periods.

A brief skim through will give you a right old treat for the eyes, and even that is enough to inspire terrain ideas.

After giving it a thorough read through, I do have a few issues with the book. Firstly, I would like to point out that I am a professional model maker and have been for over 30 years (I have been running an architectural model making workshop at a school of architecture for the past 15 or so years). I do understand that this gives me access to techniques and materials that are probably beyond most hobbyists, however, I am perfectly happy building models in the same way as any hobbyist would, so it shouldn't affect my review.

As I have already said, a quick flick through the book and you can see that it is lavishly illustrated with plenty of photos. When you start to read the book you actually find that there are possibly too many photos of the models. Some double-page spreads have 8 or 10 photos on them, with the text squeezed in between. A lot of these photos are extremely similar, just showing the model building from a slightly different angle. It is often fairly tricky to work out which photo relates to which bit of text.

Also, virtually all of the photos are pulled back, showing the entire model, even when the relevant text is discussing small details. On flicking through the book again, as I write this review, I find no close-up detail shots at all. This makes working out the fine detail modelling fairly difficult. Makes you want to pull out a magnifying glass at times, just to see what's in the photos.

Anyway. that's my first gripe out of the way. Let's look at the positives. Tony tackles 9 different projects throughout the book, ranging from a simple stone well right up to a 2 building diorama/farm and a chapel. He has picked buildings from different regions, to reflect the different Napoleonic campaigns, covering the Peninsular War, France, Germany, Russia and the chapel is Hungarian. The book doesn't give any background on the different styles of buildings from the different regions, although it does mention where Tony got his ideas from. I would have liked to see some reference pictures, either some photos of appropriate buildings or illustrations of period structures. Anyone approaching this type of project really does need to do the research before throwing these things together.

Tony has tried to build each of the 9 projects using different techniques and to a certain extent different materials. One is a laser cut kit, another is built entirely from foam and a third is built almost entirely from card and foamboard.

His basing for nearly all the models is a piece of scavenged plastic sheet. His insistence on the use of recycled/reclaimed materials is laudable, but may not always be practical for every modeller. Personally, I much prefer to use a sanded and sealed piece of MDF sheet for my bases, as I find it much more stable and it sits on the table better.

While we are on the subject of materials, I don't think that the book covers a very diverse selection of materials. Yes, we have foam, card, DAS modelling clay (which Tony seems to like to clart over everything) and some plastic sheet. However, there are certainly other materials that are often used by model makers when doing buildings. There is very little wood in the book, other than some scrap strips of timber used for the Russian windmill. I feel a more realistic way to guide other model makers, would have been to build that model with balsa wood strips, they are readily available from model and craft shops, and it is unlikely that everyone reading the book will have some scrap strips of timber lying around.

The other material that Tony seems to favour he refers to as "green foam". Unfortunately, at no point in the book does he explain what this material actually is. One of the buildings is built from blue insulation foam, that gets a mention in the glossary at the back of the book (and I use it regularly anyway, so that was fine). But what is this "green foam" that he uses in virtually every project, to a greater or lesser extent? The only green foam that I know of is florists foam, which is very soft and crumbly and doesn't make very good model making material, as it is too fragile. I found this to be possibly the most frustrating part of the book.

I could go on nitpicking ( the almost evangelical use of superglue rather than other more suitable adhesives for example), but I don't want to condemn the book completely. It is certainly inspirational and Tony does make beautiful model buildings.

As a whole, I think the book feels more like a series of blog posts chronicling Tony's builds, rather than a guide on how to build these buildings yourself. A lot of the information is repeated from one project to the next, such as basing techniques, use of scenic grass (sawdust) materials etc. The book feels like it could have done with a good going over by a knowledgeable editor, to tighten up a lot of these problems. I would be a lot more prepared to let these things slide if this was a self-published book (which I know Tony Harwood has done in the past), but I feel that Pen & Sword should have spent a bit more time refining this one.

Anyway, rant over, if you have never built any buildings for a wargames table before, and you really don't know where to start, this book will certainly give you a few pointers in the right direction.

Here is the LINK to the Pen & Sword page for the book.

Thursday 28 March 2019

Book Review: The Professional Creature Design Handbook by Jordu Schell

The Professional Creature Design Handbook (Part One) by Jordu Schell, $5

In an effort to re-invigorate my sculpting work I picked up this ebook the other day. It has just been released and I am really glad I spotted it.

The focus of the book is on creature design for the film industry, however, after having a quick scan through it, it will prove invaluable to anyone who plans to design fantasy, alien or supernatural creatures, whether they be for film, illustration, kit collectors/painters, or the wargaming table.

Jordu Schell has worked on a huge list of movies over the years ranging from Avatar and Hellboy through AvP: Requiem and Evolution to Babylon 5, Batman Returns and Alien: Resurrection. He has amassed a great deal of experience in designing and sculpting fantastic creatures.

This book is the first instalment in a series (as the "Part One" in the title suggests) of ebooks that will eventually cover every aspect of creature design.

It gives a little bit of insight into the author's career and motivations that drove him into creature design before going on to go over some basics of the design process. What works and what doesn't, where to draw inspiration (no secrets there, it is mainly Nature), and then gives some examples of good movie creatures.

As the first part of a series, this is an excellent beginning. Well worth the $5. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in creature design.

To order the book you will need to PayPal $5 to jordu2011@gmail.com. I received the download link within a few hours, although I believe he has been rather swamped, so it may take a little longer to receive it.

You can also visit his website:-

By the Way, the book also touches on choosing colour schemes for the creatures. This may not have any relevance for sculptors but it is quite useful for miniatures painters as the theories involved are spot on!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...