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TO ALL THE LIVING . . . Between the covers

TAOTL

This is the latest in the series of excellent reprints from the Imperial War Museum. They have ‘rediscovered’ novels written about WW2, mostly by people who experienced the conflict either home or away. Previous books can be referenced by clicking this link.

MonicaAuthor Monica Felton (1906 – 1970) was certainly an unusual woman and, to borrow a modern phrase, somewhat to the left of Lenin. In 1951, she visited North Korea as part of the Women’s International Democratic Federation commission and outlined her impressions in the book That’s Why I Went (1954), adhering to an anti-war position. In the same year, she was awarded a dubious and deeply ironic honour – the International Stalin Prize “for peace between peoples”

We are, then, immediately into the dangerous territory of judging creative artists because of their politics, which never ends well, whether it involves the Nazis ‘cancelling’ Mahler because he was Jewish or more recent critics shying away from Wagner because he was anti-semitic and, allegedly, admired by senior figures in the Third Reich. The longer debate is for another time and another place, but it is an inescapable fact that many great creative people, if not downright bastards, were deeply unpleasant and misguided. To name but a few, I don’t think I would have wanted to list Caravaggio, Paul Gauguin, Evelyn Waugh, Eric Gill or Patricia Highsmith among my best friends, but I would be mortified not to be able to experience the art they made.
To All The Living
So, could Monica Felton write a good story, away from hymning the praises of KIm Il Sung and his murderous regime? To All The Living (1945) is a lengthy account of life in a British munitions factory during WW2, and is principally centred around Griselda Green, a well educated young woman who has decided to do her bit for the country. To quickly answer my own question, the answer is a simple, “Yes, she could.”

Another question could be, Does she preach? That, to my mind, is the unforgivable sin of any novelist with strong political convictions. Writers such as Dickens and Hardy had an agenda, certainly, but they subtly inserted this between the lines of great story-telling. Felton is no Dickens or Hardy, but she casts a wry glance at the preposterous bureaucracy that ran through the British war effort like the veins in blue cheese. She highlights the endless paperwork, the countless minions who supervised the completion of the bumf, and the men and women – usually elevated from being section heads in the equivalent of a provincial department store – who ruled over the whole thing in a ruthlessly delineated hierarchy.

Amid the satire and exaggerated portraits of provincial ‘jobsworths’ there are darker moments, such as the descriptions of rampant misogyny, genuine poverty among the working classes, and the very real chance that the women who filled shells and crafted munitions – day in, day out – were in danger of being poisoned by the substances they handled. The determination of the factory managers to keep these problems hidden is chillingly described. These were rotten times for many people in Britain, but if Monica Felton believed that things were being done differently in North Korea or the USSR, then I am afraid she was sadly deluded.

The social observation and political polemic is shot through with several touches or romance, some tragedy, and the mystery of who Griselda Green really is. What is a poised, educated and well-spoken young woman doing among the down-to-earth working class girls filling shells and priming fuzes?

My only major criticism of this book is that it’s perhaps 100 pages too long. The many acerbic, perceptive and quotable passages – mostly Felton’s views on the more nonsensical aspects of British society – tend to fizz around like shooting stars in an otherwise dull grey sky.

Is it worth reading? Yes, of course, but you must be prepared for many pages of Ms Felton being on communist party message interspersed with passages of genuinely fine writing. To All The Living is published by the Imperial War Museum, and is out now.

SWORD OF BONE . . . Between the covers

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Some critics have compared Anthony Rhodes (1916-2004) with his more illustrious near contemporary, Evelyn Waugh. They were both Roman Catholics, although Rhodes converted late in life. Both wrote novels, biographies and travel books. Both – and this is most relevant here – wrote fictionalised accounts of their service in WW2. Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy – Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen & Unconditional Surrender – was a much more substantial achievement, but both wrote from the view of public school educated men who had gone on to higher education, in Waugh’s case Oxford, and in Rhodes’s case Royal Military College Sandhurst. The latter, of course, makes Rhodes a professional soldier, but they both wrote with a certain sardonic detachment about the war and the soldiers who served in it.

Sword of Bone begins in the early autumn of 1939 when Rhodes becomes a liaison officer for his army division. He is a gifted linguist, and he is a member of the advance party sent to France. They assemble in Southampton, then:

At three o’clock that afternoon we embarked on a miserable grimy little cross-channel boat called The Duchess of Atholl, which had been painted a dirty grey and which, except for what appeared to be an inexplicable pair of blue knickers drying on the bridge, had little enough connection with her eponymous aristocrat.”

SOB cover014His party work their way at a leisurely pace from Brittany up to the grim and grey slag heaps and factory chimneys in the region of Lille, Lens and  La Bassée. His role eventually settles into that of commissioning supplies of engineering materials – principally those needed to meet a sudden demand for concrete pill boxes.

It is worth spelling out at this stage what exactly was going on in the war in Western Europe. On 3rd September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany as a result of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. All through that autumn, until the winter became spring, there was little or no military action on the ground. In December, British warships had engaged the German Battleship Graf von Spee, and forced it to seek refuge in the neutral port of Montivideo, where it was eventually scuttled. Back in France, the French had the largest army in Europe, the best tanks, and were convinced that the complex of fortifications known as The Maginot Line made its eastern border with Germany impregnable.

Not so secure, as Rhodes finds when he is billeted near Lille, is the border with Belgium – little more than a few strands of barbed wire and sentry boxes manned by a handful of bored soldiers. The first half of the book is a series of entertaining encounters with village Mayors, profiteering restaurateurs, blimpish Colonels and the complex hierarchies that exist between different parts of the British Army. In Rhodes’s entourage are other officers, of contrasting temperament and character. There is Stimpson, intellectual, effete, almost, and politically rather ‘unsound’.

When the last politician has been strangled with the entrails of the last general, then, and only then, shall we have peace“, he says one evening in the Mess.

The Padre is emphatically different. He is “a man whose views on the treatment of Indians did more credit to Kipling than to his cloth.

Rhodes catches sight of his first German (through binoculars) when he and other officers visit a Maginot fort near Veckering, in the Moselle region. Rhodes’s Major wants action:

Quick, ” said Major Cairns, turning to a Guardsman with a rifle, “Pick him off. Quickly, man.
Please, ” said the subaltern, without moving, “do no such thing. Our business is to obtain information. We want prisoners, not dead men. Besides, if we fire from here, it will only give our own position away. I am afraid I must ask you not to think of firing, sir. It will only mean an immediate reply from the Boche with mortar fire.
Major Cairns sadly put down the rifle which he had taken from the Guardsman, and we all stood by the trees looking out over the valley.”

Of course, the fun has to end sometime, and after a foray into Norway, Hitler’s forces invade Holland Belgium and France on 10th May. The citizens of Louvain and Brussels, remembering the heroics of two decades earlier, are convinced that the ‘Tommies’ will, once again, give the Boche a bloody nose. As we all know, it was not to be. The Germans have ignored the Maginot Line and are storming down through Belgium. Arras falls, and the French army – on paper, numerically and technically superior – are in headlong retreat along with their British allies. It is very much a case of “our revels now are ended” for Rhodes and his colleagues.

Sword of Bone is a little masterpiece. As it follows the fortunes of a small group of British Army officers in the early days of WW2, it records their journey from champagne and lobster lunches and a seemingly absent enemy, to the terrifying and bloodstained beaches of Dunkirk. Rhodes writes with great charm, gentle satire, pinpoint observation but with total authenticity. The book is published by the Imperial War Museum and is out now.

You can read my reviews of the other books in this excellent series by clicking the image below.

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PATHFINDERS . . . Between the covers

Wellington
I can’t think of a publishing event
over the last few years which has been more impressive than the republishing of WW2 novels by the Imperial War Museum. It has become an axiom that The Great War was identified with the poets, but what was the literary legacy of the war against Hitler? This series has confirmed that the dreadful six years of global conflict inspired some superb novels. I was born just after the war ended. My father served in the British Army throughout, and had many a tale to tell but, until recently, I had no idea of the breadth of novels written by men and women who took part in the conflict. Yes, I had read Waugh’s superb Sword of Honour trilogy and Len Deighton’s magisterial Bomber, but beyond those, very little. I have reviewed all the previous books in this series, and you can find my thoughts by clicking this link. The latest in the series is Pathfinders, first published in 1944.

screen-shot-2021-05-10-at-10.46.53Cecil Lewis (left) was a combat pilot in the Great War, but returned to the colours as both an instructor and an active flier in WW2. Pathfinders tells the tale of the crew of a Wellington aircraft. Perhaps unjustly, the Wellington has not captured the public imagination as much as its big sister, the Lancaster, but the Wellington was a durable workhorse that played a vital role in the work of Bomber Command. The six men who flew the aircraft in this novel each have a specific job as the aircraft goes in ahead of a bombing raid to drop incendiary flares on the ground targets so that the following planes can see when and where to unload their bombs.

A Pathfinder crew comprised pilot, co-pilot, navigator, wireless operator, front gunner and rear-gunner. Lewis structures his book around a detailed examination of each of these men, and tells us what kind of people they are. He shows us their backgrounds, their history, their loves, their losses – and their relationship to one another. Relatively little of the text deals with the actual raid the men are involved in. Instead, we have six chapters which deal with, in turn:

Screen Shot 2021-05-10 at 10.45.35Peter Morelli, co-pilot. The American-Italian is suave, debonnaire, but is aware of the struggles and prejudice faced by immigrants in a new country.

Sam Dollar, front gunner. Raised in the brutish and fundamental wilderness of the Canadian forests, Dollar has little to say, but is determined and resolute.

Benjy Lukin, wireless operator. From a Jewish family, Lukin is well-read and erudite, In a former life he was a well-respected theatre critic.

Tom Cookson
, navigator. Born into a disfunctional English family, he was sent to live with relatives in New Zealand. In his late teens he built a sea-going yacht with his best friend, and survived hurricanes while sailing Dolphin from New Zealand to Suva.

‘Nobby’ Bligh, tail gunner. A London lad, he resolve to fight back against the Nazis after a Luftwaffe bomb demolished his father’s bakery, trapping and killing the older man beneath tons of collapsed masonry. At home, his wife is dying of leukemia.

Hugh Thornly, pilot. An Oxbridge man of genteel birth, he was determined to become either a philosopher or a politician, but then the war intervened. His wife Helen – the daughter of a distinguished General, is expecting their second child.

Pathfinders spine

After the biographies, though, Lewis returns – with devastating effect – to the matter in hand. The night raid on Kiel starts well, but then the German defences on the ground and in the air take their toll, and the final stages of the Wellington’s mission are as terrifying a description of the price of war as you will ever read.

Many will have read Lewis’s Sagittarius Rising, his classic account of the war in the air between 1914 and 1918. This wasn’t published until 1936, so there had been a considerable time lapse between his experiences and the book’s publication. Pathfinders is, by contrast, nearly contemporary. How do the two books compare? Does the unusual narrative structure of the later book work? I have to say that for the sheer white knuckle terror of flying flimsy and totally vulnerable aircraft, nothing could beat Sagittarius Rising for its sense of immediacy. As for the structure of Pathfinders, military history buffs may find the central section a rather long diversion from the matter in hand. Personally, I stuck with it, and felt that knowing the six men in person, as it were, made the eventual outcome even more poignant.

In the bitterest of ironies, the military part of Pathfinders begins and ends not in the air or on the runway from which P for Pathfinder took off and landed, but in the sea. To say more would be a spoiler, but I can say that this is a deeply moving and memorable account of brave men having to find a resolution between the horrific carnage their weapons were creating – and the greater long-term good. The only consolation, in human terms, that one can draw from this book, is that in the last few pages, we have a reversal of the solemn words of the Anglican burial sentences:

“In the midst of death we are in life”

Pathfinders is published by the Imperial War Museum and is out now.

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Green Hands is the tale of a young woman – Barbara Whitton – who signs up with a chum, Anne, to work with the Women’s Land Army, replacing male farm hands of fighting age who have been called up into the forces. The action sees them first on a bleak and windswept Scottish farm in the hardest of winters, where they do daily battle trying to make mangold wurzels part company with the frozen soil. The accommodation is Spartan, the rations are meagre, and the social life is non-existent. It is all too much for Anne, however, and she departs for the softer life in The Home Counties.

Anne is replaced by Pauline, who Barbara knew – and hated – at school, but Pauline’s eccentric ways and appealing naivity about the world bring a touch of humour to the narrative. Thankfully for their childblains and frozen limbs, Bee (Barbara) and Pauline are transferred to the slightly less brutal world of a farm in Northumberland.

Readers looking for wartime tragedy, sudden death or other moments of high drama will find nothing here to their taste. Instead, there is the steady rhythm of rural life across the changing seasons, and in describing this visceral connection of the the farming people to the land they live and work on, Barbara Whitton echoes such writers as Thomas Hardy, Flora Thompson and Laurie Lee.

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Green Hands was first published in 1943 and so, unlike most of the other reprints in this IWM series which were published after the war, there was still a war going on, and public morale to be taken into consideration. This accounts for the largely upbeat and positive tone of the story, but should not be taken as a negative criticism.had the book been filmed, it would have been in black and white, but it is to Barbara Whitton’s credit that her landscape is full of colour and nuance.

Barbara Whitton (real name Margaret Watson) was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1921. Due to study Art in Paris, her training was curtailed by the outbreak of the Second World War. Having volunteered for the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in 1939, she worked as a Land Girl for around a year before moving to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and later joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) as a driver, where she remained for the duration of the war. During her time with the ATS she met her husband Pat Chitty and they were married in 1941. After the war, she wrote a number of accounts of her wartime experience and retained an interest in art, literature and horticulture throughout her life. She died in 2016. I found this curiosity on the internet.

Most of the IWM Classics have been stories of men at arms. Plenty Under The Counter by Kathleen Hewitt (click for review) took a quizzical look at some of the less salubrious aspects of life on The Home Front, but Green Hands delivers a tale of hardship, humour and – above all – the humanity of those who kept the country going during the dark years of wartime. It is published by The Imperial War Museums and is out now.

SQUADRON AIRBORNE . . . Between the covers

Elleston Trevor was born Trevor Dudley Smith in 1920, and became a hugely prolific and successful novelist under many other different pen-names, most notably as Adam Hall, writing the Quiller series of spy novels.

He served throughout WW2 as a Flight Engineer, and it is this experience that he drew on to write Squadron Airborne, first published in 1955. It is an intense and sometimes harrowing account of just a few days in the life of a young RAF pilot, Peter Stuykes, in that unforgettable summer and autumn of 1940 that we now call the Battle of Britain.

We are in high summer, and the nineteen year-old Stuykes arrives at the fictional RAF base of Westhill in southern England. He has been taught how to fly, but has never been in combat. A brief training session in the air under the watchful eyes of Squadron Leader Mason passes without major disaster, but it is only a matter of hours before he is in the air again, and makes his first kill.

There are heart-stopping descriptions of aerial combat, vividly imagined because the author was not a pilot himself. He makes us well aware of the unglamorous but vital work of the ground crews who made sure that the aircraft were as fit and functional as they could be. He also hints at a dark reality – aircraft were much harder to replace than young men in their late teens and early twenties.

Perceptions of the past are ever-changing, and the current wisdom, eighty years after the event, has it that the “gallant few” version of the events of 1940 is misleading. Yes, the defeat of the Luftwaffe contributed to Hitler’s disastrous decision to invade Russia. Yes, the bravery and sacrifice of the young pilots was immense, but the reality was that RAF deployment of resources and its mastery of radar meant that the tactic of massed daylight raids by German aircraft was doomed to failure.

Trevor was writing for readers who would have been totally familiar with technical terms, abbreviations and wartime vernacular. I grew up hearing my father use many of these terms, picked up during his wartime service, but younger readers may be interested in clarification. Here are some unfamiliar terms used in the book:

ERKS: low ranking RAF personnel
FLAP: an emergency of some kind
FRUIT SALAD: Medal ribbons
IRONS: as in ‘eating irons’, cutlery
MAG-DROP: a decrease in engine power due to magneto failure
OLEO: a hydraulic shock absorber used in aircraft landing gear
SIDCOT: a standard RAF flying suit
SP: Service Police. The RAF version of Military Police
TANNOY: Public address system
TROLLEY-ACC: a wheeled device containing batteries, used for jump starting aircraft
U/S: Unservicable, broken
WAD: A cake or a bun

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The novel captures the moments of terror and exhilaration of air combat, but also the steady sapping of mental health caused by constant alerts and the ever-present spectre of violent death. Trevor doesn’t ignore the fleeting moments of happiness, whether they be the temporary solace of getting drunk in the local pub, or fleeting love affairs, squeezed in between the dreaded bark of the Tannoy, ordering the young men back into the air. Squadron Airborne has been republished by the Imperial War Museums as part of their Wartime Classics series, and is available now.

For reviews of previous novels
in the Wartime Classics series,
click the image below

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WARRIORS FOR THE WORKING DAY . . . Between the covers (click for full page)

WFTWD header

Shakespeare’s words have an uncanny relevance to this novel. First published by Jonathan Cape in 1960, it is the story of another “band of brothers” who, like Henry V’s army six centuries earlier, were fighting in the fields of France. This time, the “happy few” are the crew of a British tank, fighting their way inland from the beaches of Normandy.

Elstob

Like most of the other novels in this excellent Imperial War Museum series of republications (see the end of this review) Warriors For The Working Day is semi-autobiographical. Peter Elstob (left) was a tank commander as part of the 11th Armoured Division. His own service closely mirrors that of Michael Brook, the central character in the novel.


Elstob
vividly captures the intense claustrophobia of being part of a tank crew, and the awareness that they were sitting inside a potential bomb:

“Uncertainty and a preoccupation with defence ran through the troop like a shiver and reminded them that they were imprisoned in large, slow moving steel boxes full of explosive and gallons of readily inflammable petrol.”

Brook and his comrades are fighting an enemy who is frequently invisible and most probably using a better machine than theirs. An understanding the technology of tank warfare in 1944 is crucial to getting closer to the mindset of the men in the novel.

 

For the greater part of the book, Brook and his crew are in a Sherman tank. These were American, produced in vast numbers, and relatively easy to repair and maintain. The main danger came from the 8.8cm Flak artillery piece, originally designed as an anti-aircraft weapon, but utterly lethal when used as an anti-tank gun, particularly when firing armour-piercing rounds, which would cut into a Sherman like a knife through butter. The enemy tanks – Panzers – would have included the formidable Tiger, with its hugely superior firepower and armour plate. Luckily for the Allies, the German tanks were fewer in number and probably over-engineered, making repairs in the field very difficult.

WFTWD013
The relentless movement
of the narrative follows the tanks as they break out of Normandy and head north-east towards the old battle grounds of the Great War, through the debacle of Operation Market Garden and then, in the depths of winter, to face what was Hitler’s last throw of the dice in what became known as The Battle of The Bulge. The final episode of the saga sees Brook and his weary colleagues crossing The Rhine and fighting the Germans on their own soil.


Along the way
, Brook gains new friends but loses old ones, while learning something about the nature of battle fatigue:

“Most of them were unaware that anything much was wrong with them, for they were uncomplicated men not given to introspection. They knew they were frightened, but they knew that everyone else was frightened too, and had come to realise that wars are fought by a few frightened men facing each other – the sharp end of the sword …’

 

Violent death is ubiquitous and frequent, but has to be dealt with:

“‘I’ve just been talking to the Q – Tim Cadey’s dead.’
He told them because he had to tell them. They said the conventional things for a minute or two and then changed the subject. It was not the time to recall the small details of Tim Cadey, or ‘Tich’ Wilson, his driver, or Owen and his singing. It was best to try and forget them all immediately.”


In their progress into Germany
, Brook and his crew pass a mysterious wired enclosure surrounded by tall watchtowers:

‘They certainly don’t intend to let their prisoners escape,’ said Bentley. ‘What’s the name of this place, Brookie?’
Brook reached for the map on top of the wireless and found their route. ‘That village the Tiger was in front of was called Walle … and the town up ahead is Bergen, so this must be …Belsen. Yes, that’s right, it’s called Belsen.’

‘Never ‘eard of it, ‘ said Geordie, jokingly. ‘But I wouldn’t want to live ‘ere.'”


Warriors For The Working Day
is a deeply compassionate and moving account of men at war, simply told, but without bitterness or rancour; it is the work of a man who was there, and knew the tears, the laughter, the bravery – and the human frailty.

 

Brook journey


To read my reviews of other books in this series, click on the image below.
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