Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: "Seelöwe Nord" by Andy Johnson

Review - Seelöwe Nord

Yes, I have done it: I have finally read a novelization of the fictional invasion of Great Britain by Germany: Seelöwe Nord.

There is a bit of a controversy about how serious the historical preparations and the desire of the German leadership to actually stage an invasion of the British Isles actually were, however, most historians and military men seem to agree on the fact that no branch of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, was exactly keen on giving it a try. The Army had no experience with amphibious landings. The Kriegsmarine was more than aware of its inferiority compared to the Royal Navy, a fact compounded by the complete lack of actual landing gear in the German naval arsenal. And the Luftwaffe went into the Battle of Britain without a plan it stuck to, and without an appreciation for the excellent British air defense network Hugh Dowding presided over.


The historical plan for Operation Sealion.
The landings - in reality as well as in Johnson's Seelöwe Nord, are conducted using hastily converted river barges, but that is were the similarities stop.
Instead of landing in Kent and Sussex, where the distance to cross is shortest and the most easy (in relative terms) to defend, Johnson's Germans land in central eastern England, having crossed 250 miles of the North Sea after the Kriegsmarine expended a good number of its already not exactly substantial transport capacity in a maskirovka, a faint against Folkestone and Dover. Why? Apparently because Göring and Himmler have been planting strange ideas in the Führer's head, supporting the already existing desire to defeat Britain with a knock-out blow, and the whole OKW just goes along with it, albeit grudgingly. To cut matters short, the end result is even more predictable than that of the wargames staged on the actual invasion plans.

Hint: Germany loses. Badly.

Now, I do have to commend Johnson for stating right away that he does not claim his scenario to be possible. Rather, he simply postulates that within the confines of the story he wrote that simply was the case. But simply saying so does not make the inherent problems go away. In fact, Johnson himself falls back on these problems over the course of the novel: the superiority of the Royal Navy & the immense problems of supplying an invasion force across the open sea. The force the Germans are able to land amounts to roughly four divisions worth of personnel in fighting shape after they have established a beach head.

Seelöwe Nord suffers greatly from this change of location, even though it undeniably offers a gust of fresh air by not repeating the work of half a dozen other authors. Johnson knows the territory featured in the book in great detail, and this intimate knowledge shapes the narrative and combat depicted in it. Still, there never is any sense of urgency of danger to Great Britain itself involved; the reader knows from the start that the Germans will fail. In Johnson's book, this collapse takes a measly but somewhat adequate (given the whole setup) four days. This invasion story sadly offers the reader no suspense.

What it does offer us, though, is a haystack of problems. And for the sake of this review, I will not comment on the inherent infeasibility and madness of the whole operation as it is.

No, what Seelöwe Nord offers us are British supermen reminiscent of bad US 1960s war movies. Scores of German elite mountaineers and paratroopers with automatic weapons are mowed down by hodge-podge groups of ill-equipped and ill-supplied, green Home Guard troops. Pillboxes and machinegun trenches go through the German troops like scythes. The same German troops who would be hardened combat veterans who - going by the very insightful plans and recon photographs reproduced in William Foot's The Anti-Invasion Landscapes of England, 1940 - actually had a very good idea of what they would have been faced with, defense-wise. I'm not complaining because I have a German bias; I'm complaining because it further takes away any sense of dread or urgency of your story when your ad hoc groups of ill-equipped old men and young boys can so easily inflict heavy casualties on a trained and prepared enemy. If the last months of WW2 showed us one thing, it is that the Volkssturm and the Hitler Youth were not able to do anything remotely like that in the defense of Germany.

Aside from the story concerns, Seelöwe Nord is riddled with editing problems, and I'm saying that as someone whose own novel has been criticized with the words "needs editing" (a problem that has been solved, by the way). But at least I had an editor! Mr. Johnson, apparently, did not, and it shows, much to the novel's detriment. Seelöwe Nord is a self-published novel, using the Spiderwize print-on-demand service. Now, an increasing number of authors is self-pubbed, and I'm the last person on Earth to have problems with that. But - but! - one thing that has been clear from the very beginning when going the self-pub route is that, well, you have to things yourself. Nobody is going to get you an editor: you have to search one on your own.

In Seelöwe Nord, full stops are missing, names are constantly misspelled ("Kreigsmarine" & "Gunther Prein

Verdict: C-. It's no masterpiece, but it's no Kaiserfront either.

Having ranted about the book for a while now, it is not all bad. It has problems - obvious problems - in its setting and execution, but it also has some high water marks. Johnson writes extremely vivid combat scenes, be they on land or at sea. The man has seen combat himself, and he knows how to portray it. The battles are fast, hard, chaotic and brutal - and hugely entertaining. Johnson is no great word smith, but then I did not really go into this with Shakespearean expectations. I feel had he used his strengths to write a novel with a more plausible and balanced approach - and be that a new take on Sealion in the south, for all I care - this could have been at least a good novel. The way it is - massive editing problems, lack of tension, lack of balance - makes it impossible for me to recommend it in good faith. Nonetheless, Johnson has potential. I hope he gets himself a good editor. I'll be keeping an eye on him.

And one more point: why no ebook? If parts of the money made from Seelöwe Nord really do go to military charities, Mr. Johnson could do far better, financially, if he also published it as an ebook in the $2.99-3.99 range!

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