To many of us who grew up in the 1950s Anthony Quayle was to become one of a celebrated group of theatrical knights, along with Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson and Redgrave. Until recently I had no idea that he was also wrote two novels based on his experiences in WW2. The first of these, Eight Hours From England was first published in 1945 and is the fourth and final reprint in the impressive series from the Imperial War Museum.
Major John Overton, stoically unlucky in love, combines a rather self-sacrificial gesture with a genuine desire to be at ‘the sharp end’ of the war. He chases up casual acquaintances working in the chaotic bureaucracy of London military administration and, rather randomly, finds himself sent out to Albania in the final days of December 1943. The chaotic country – ruled until 1939 by the improbably-named King Zog – had then been annexed by Mussolini’s Italy but after Italy’s surrender to the Allies in the autumn of 1943, German forces had moved in and had a tenuous grip of the country.
The brief of Britain’s SOE – the Special Operations Executive – was to fan the flames of behind-the-lines resistance in occupied countries. Admirer’s of Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy will recall that in Unconditional Surrender Guy Crouchback is sent to co-ordinate similar activities in nearby Yugoslavia but, like Crouchback, Overton finds that the situation on the ground is far from straightforward. On the one hand are the Communist partisans, but on the other are the Balli Kombëtar, a fiercely nationalist group who hate the Communists just as much as they hate the Nazis.
New Year’s day 1944 brings little physical comfort to Overton, but he is determined to make a difference and, above all, wants to take the war to the Germans. In the following weeks and months he meets unexpected obstacles, chief among them being the Albanians themselves. Their character baffles him. He remarks, ruefully.
“The misfortunes of others were the only jokes at which Albanians laughed, the height of comedy being when another man was killed.”
His courage, tenacity and sheer physical resilience are immense, but are sorely tried. Overton’s private thoughts are never far from England:
“I stayed a while longer looking out over the grey Adriatic where in the distance, the island of Corfu was dimly visible between the rain squalls. It was an afternoon on which to recall the hissing of logs in the hearth of an English home and the sound of the muffin-man’s bell in the street outside.”
Of the three classic reprints which feature overseas action Eight Hours From England is the bleakest by far. The books by Alexander Baron and David Piper bear solemn witness to the deaths of brave men, sometimes heroic but often simply tragic: the irony is that Overton and his men do not, as far as I can recall, actually fire a shot in anger. No Germans are killed as a result of their efforts; the Allied cause is not advanced by the tiniest fraction; their heartbreaking struggle is not against the swastika and all it stands for, but against a brutally inhospitable terrain, bitter weather and, above all, the distrust, treachery and embedded criminality of many of the Albanians they encounter.
Overton survives, after a fashion, but is close to physical and spiritual breakdown. The heartache which prompted his original gesture is not eased, and the method of his dismissal by the young woman provides a cruel final metaphor:
“I put my hand into my pocket and pulled out what I thought was my handkerchief. But it was not: it was Ann’s letter. The blue writing paper had gone pulpy; the writing had smeared and wriggled across the page. Not a word was now legible.”
Quite early in the book, when Overton reaches Albania to replace the badly wounded former senior officer, the sick man makes a prophetic statement as he is stretchered aboard the boat to take him to safety:
“For a moment Keith did not speak and I thought he had not heard me, then the lips moved and he said slowly, and very clearly:
‘I wish you joy of the damned place.’”
Click on the covers below to read my reviews of the other three IWM classic reprints.