Book Review – Anatomy of a Campaign

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The title of John Kiszely’s book, Anatomy of a Campaign, the British Fiasco in Norway, holds promise. Fiascoes: ‘ludicrous and humiliating failures’, make good reading. The anatomical approach is also welcome, accurately describing Kiszely’s analysis of the Allies’ 1940 Norway campaign.  His method is not a surprise given his previous role as the Director of the United Kingdom Defence Academy and his understanding of strategy developed over a 40-year career in the British Army.

The idea of military action in Norway arose from Allied objectives articulated in late 1939 to prevent the movement of iron ore from Sweden to Germany and support Finland in the Winter War against Russia. Kiszely’s exploration of this context is a key point of difference between Anatomy of a Campaign and other works with a narrower tactical focus such as The German Northern Theater of Operations, 1940-1945 by Earl Ziemke or Joseph Kynoch’s Forgotten Fiasco.  The emphasis on context is fundamental to Kiszely’s analysis: it both allows the reader to understand the uncertainty and rate of change characterising the period, and avoids exaggerating perceptions of the “vacillation, indecision and inconsistency of policy makers and strategists.” The challenge of recounting a fiasco in a structured way is that the events appear haphazard in hindsight. Actions unfold in unexpected sequences, cause and effect are obscured, and actors motives are unclear. Kiszely strives to overcome this by thematically exploring strategic tempo, competitive preparedness, and military partnerships through the lens of a small scale, short notice, amphibious operation in the half-light of undeclared war. Anatomy of a Campaign avoids being distracted by the “amateur and feeble” Allied efforts and reinforces the fundamental lessons and themes that underpin the campaign’s failure. As a result of this method, the book orients on national strategic decision-making and the deploying and sustaining of military forces in Norway and devotes fewer pages to the fighting conducted by British, French, Norwegian and German troops. The book is better for this approach and it brings operational and strategic issues into sharp relief. 

Professional readers will also value Kiszely’s ability to describe the disconnect between the Allies’ goals and the methods and resources available to achieve them. He highlights the degree to which small-scale amphibious operations rely on precision and velocity. Emphasising the importance of these two factors exposes the limitations of the British General Staff who confused a desire to be fast and precise with the ability to be so. Kiszely’s interrogation also lays bare the inter-service rivalries that undermined the Allied capacity to effectively prepare and deploy forces against a competent and fast-moving enemy. Readers not solely interested in the military-technical aspects of the campaign are also be rewarded with Kiszely’s analysis of government decision making in 1940 focused on Chamberlain, Churchill, and Ironside. Kiszely’s depiction of Churchill as a decision-maker driven by “instinct, impulse, and emotion rather than rationality,” is a welcome relief from the generous portraits typically afforded Churchill by popular culture. Anatomy of a Campaign also faithfully renders the geopolitical dilemmas of the Scandinavian States in the prelude to military operations. Kiszely highlights how these dilemmas undermined effective national partnerships and led to hamstrung logistic arrangements and poor relationships between British and Norwegian Commanders.

Anatomy of a Campaign is a testimony to the challenge of executing military operations abroad. It provides a potent antidote to ideas that the efficiency and global reach of communications and commerce applies equally to the projection of force. In exploring the themes of strategic tempo,  competitive preparedness, and international military partnerships, Kiszely artfully balances descriptions of the fighting in Norway, the deliberations of committees, boards and leaders in the United Kingdom, and the outlines of the broader context. Anatomy of a Campaign belongs on your bookshelf.