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THE DISTANT DEAD . . . Between the covers

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I was gifted this to review by Head of Zeus, so huge thanks to them. The Distant Dead is the eighth in a series by Lesley Thomson, so I am coming late to the party. What attracted me to the book? Two things, really. Firstly there was a mention of a WW2 element, and I am a sucker for anything war-related. Secondly, some of the action takes place in the Gloucestershire town of Tewksbury. Years ago now, a very dear friend of mine, Miles Amherst – long since gone,sadly – founded a choir school at Tewksbury Abbey. I had taught with him in Ely, but we had gone our separate ways. When the choir school was running, I was teaching in a Shropshire prep school, and I always had a half day on Mondays. It was a bit of a drive, but sometimes I used to motor down to Tewksbury, rehearse with the choir and help them sing Evensong. Afterwards was always beer, food – and an small-hours drive back to Salop.

So, happy memories, but what of the book? I am not the biggest fan of split time narratives, but many authors are, so it is what it is. In this case, at least, the connection between the narratives is clear. In Blitz-torn London, a young woman is found dead – strangled in an abandoned house. The pathologist called to the scene, and who later carries out the post mortem, is a man called Aleck Northcote. He tells the police investigating the case that the woman, Maple Greenhill was a common prostitute.

TDDYears later, Northcote has retired to Tewksbury, but is found dead. His wastrel son is convicted of his murder. Pretty much present day, Stella Darnell, the daughter of a policeman, now working as a contract cleaner in Tewksbury, meets a man named Roddy March who has produced a podcast about the 1963 murder of Northcote. Roddy investigates cases where he thinks the wrong person went to prison – or, in this case, the gallows. When Roddy is found murdered next to an ancient tomb in Tewksbury Abbey, Stella feels connected enough to find out the truth about how past and present have merged – with fatal consequences.

So, what exactly happened in 1940?. We know – from the prologue – that Maple Greenhill has gone into an empty house with a man friend, and that he strangles her. When her body is found, London copper George Cotton is called, but his investigation leads nowhere until a cigarette lighter is found at the scene. It is engraved with the initials AXN. Cotton puts two and two together, and assumes that the pathologist – Aleck Xavier Northcote – must have dropped it when he was called to look at the body. Then, in a separate breakthrough, a garment repair ticket is found in Maple’s coat. When Cotton visits the tailor, he is astonished to be joined by a woman who says she has lost the self-same ticket. The woman is Mrs Aleck Northcote.

Lesley Thomson switches the narratives very cleverly and poses important questions as the book progresses. Was Northcote Maple’s man-friend, and did he kill her? If he did, how then did he avoid prosecution and survive to be murdered in his own house twenty three years later? And if Giles Northcote – who had visited his father on than fateful evening to ask for money to pay off a gambling debt – didn’t kill his father, then who did? And was the killer somehow connected to the death of Maple Greenhill.

Obviously, I am not about to reveal the answer to the conundrum, but you will enjoy – as I did – how Lesley Thomson has Stella Darnell – and her companions –  searching for, and then finding, the truth. The actual solution to what turns out to be multiple murders is breathtakingly complex, but this a clever, literate and totally convincing murder mystery – and thoroughly, thoroughly English. People who follow the news know that Tewksbury is notoriously susceptible to flooding, standing as it does at the confluence of the rivers Severn and Warwickshire Avon, and Lesley Thomson uses the power of the river as it hurtles over weirs and beneath bridges as a very effective metaphor for the violence in human souls. The Distant Dead is available now, and the previous books in the series are pictured below. If you click the image, you will be taken to Lesley Thomson’s website.

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PATHFINDERS . . . Between the covers

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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.

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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.

HARDCASTLE’S SECRET AGENT . . . Between the covers


Before I became a reviewer
, and earned (I hope) the privilege of being sent books and .mobi files by publishers, I had been a lifetime library user. Crime Fiction was my first and last love, and in my regular Saturday afternoon trawl through the shelves, there were certain authors whose names I always sought out. In no particular order, these would include Jim Kelly, Phil Rickman, John Connolly, John Sandford, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Jonathan Kellerman, James Lee Burke, Graham Hurley, Christopher Fowler – and Graham Ison.

The Graham Ison books were slimmish-volumes, usually the Brock and Poole series, but my favourites were always the Hardcastle books. Ernie Hardcastle was a London copper in and around the years of The Great War. He could come over brusque in his dealings, but other might use the word ‘avuncular’. He distrusted innovations such as the telephone, but had a true copper’s nose for villains. A couple of his books are reviewed here, but inevitably, ‘time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away..‘ Thankfully, in Hardcastle’s Secret Agent, Ernie is still with us, but long since retired, and the Hardcastle concerned is his son Walter, now a rising star in the Metropolitan Police.

HSAWe are, as ever, in London, but it is 1940. The Phony War is over, and the Luftwaffe are targetting industrial sites they believe to be involved in making parts for military aircraft. When several important employees of one such factory are burgled – clearly by an expert – but with nothing other than trinkets stolen, Hardcastle believes he may be on the track of a German spy on the look-out for plans, blueprints or important military information. Hardcastle has to deal with The Special Branch, but finds them about as co-operative as they were with his father a couple of decades earlier. This has a certain tinge of irony, as part of the author’s distinguished police career was spent as a Special Branch Operative.

The search for the German spy withers on the branch, but Hardcastle has other fish to fry. A prostitute – or at least, a young woman who was free with her favours –  has been found beaten to death, and the hunt for her killer takes Hardcastle into military quarters.

Eventually, Walter Hardcastle gets both of his men, and on the way we have a vividly recreated world of an England struggling to come to grips with a new world war. Not one that is being fought far away on some foreign field, but one which is brought to people’s very hearths and homes every single night. Hardcastle’s Secret Agent is published by Severn House/Canongate Books and will be out on 1st May.

Sad to relate, Graham Ison died suddenly in late 2020 before he could complete this book. It was finished with the help of his son Roger. Graham Ison was prolific, certainly, and critics might argue that he stuck to a reliable formula in each of his series, and never ventured into unfamiliar territory. Neither was he a darling of the crime fiction festival circuit, but I suspect after decades working as a policeman that never bothered him. What he was, however, was a reliable name for readers who bought his books and – importantly – library borrowers, who knew that they could rely on him for a story well told, and if his words took them into familiar territory, then that was nothing for either reader or writer to be ashamed about.

MURDER AT THE RITZ . . . Between the covers

MATR headerZogAny novel which features – in no particular order – Commander Ian Fleming, King Zog of Albania, a dodgy lawyer called Pentangle Underhill, and a Detective Chief Inspector named The Hon. Edgar Walter Septimus Saxe-Coburg promises to be a great deal of fun, and Murder At The Ritz by Jim Eldridge didn’t disappoint. It is set in London in August 1940, and Ahmet Muhtar Zogolli, better known as King Zog of Albania (left) has been smuggled out of his homeland after its invasion by Mussolini’s Italy, and he has now taken over the entire third floor of London’s Ritz Hotel, complete with various retainers and bodyguards – as well as a tidy sum in gold bullion.

Anyone who has studied the history of Albania will know that it has always been a chaotic place. In the 1920s, while working at the League of Nations, the famous sportsman CB Fry was reputedly offered the throne. For a rather more serious memoir of Albania during WW2, Eight Hours From England (click for the review) by Anthony Quayle is well worth a read, and we all know – thanks to the Taken franchise, starring Liam Neeson, that Albania’s chief export to the rest of the world is organised crome, drug-running, money laundering and people trafficking.

Screen Shot 2021-02-25 at 19.08.38Back to the story, and when a corpse is discovered in one of the King’s suites, Coburg is called in to investigate. The attempt to relieve the Albanian monarch of his treasure sparks off a turf war between two London gangs who, rather like the Krays and the Richardsons in the 1960s, occupy territories ‘norf’ and ‘sarf’ of the river. After several more dead bodies and an entertaining sub-plot featuring Coburg’s romance with Rosa Weeks, a beautiful and talented young singer, there is a dramatic finale involving a shoot-out near the Russian Embassy. This is a highly enjoyable book that occupies the same territory as John Lawton’s Fred Troy novels (click to read more). It is nowhere near as dark and dystopian as those books, but Murder At The Ritz is none the worse for that.

Since 2016 Jim Eldridge has concentrated on writing historical crime fiction for adults. Previously he worked as a scriptwriter and wrote books for children and young adults. As a scriptwriter he had over 250 TV and 250 radio scripts broadcast in the UK and internationally. In 2019 I read, enjoyed and reviewed an earlier book by this writer, and if you click on the title – Murder At The British Museum – you can see what I thought. Murder At The Ritz is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

AMBRIDGE AT WAR . . . Between the covers

Archers001Followers of these pages will know well that my strapline is Crime For The Cogniscenti and might wonder what I am doing reviewing a book about the Archers. I was intrigued to be offered this, written by Catherine Miller, but was prepared to be underwhelmed. It just shows how wrong one can be, and why it is never a good idea to prejudge things.

There may well be some transatlantic readers of my reviews who have never heard of Ambridge or the Archers, but I won’t waste words on the background other than to say that Ambridge is a fictional village in Worcestershire, and the long-running radio serial – it first broadcast on 1st January 1951 – was described as “an everyday story of country folk.”

I have to say at this point that I parted company with BBC Radio 4 in general, and The Archers in particular some time ago. Both have become far too ‘woke’ and socially aware for this curmudgeonly man in his 70s to be bothered with, but this book reminded me of what I used to enjoy about the programme.

It is January 1940, and rural England is having to come to terms with the expression, “don’t you know there’s a war on?Dan Archer and his wife Doris run Brookfield Farm, and Dan is now the Ambridge representative on the ‘War Ag’ – The War Agricultural Executive Committee, whose main job it is to put every available acre of land under the plough to grow food. And that means everything from grazing land to rose gardens. The first evacuees from London have arrived, and Doris is in charge of checking that the newcomers are being looked after.

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Archers fans can find the family tree elsewhere on the internet, but who else would they recognise? That depends on the longevity of their Archers ‘habit’. Walter Gabriel and his son Nelson put in an appearance, as do various members of the disreputable Horobin family. A central figure in the story is the village Squire, Alec Pargetter, who is having an affair with a comely young widow, but not doing too well at concealing it from the nosy villagers – or his aloof wife Pamela. Their rather strange son, Gerald, will go on to be the father of the nice-but-dim Nigel who was, of course, controversially killed off by the producers when he fell off a roof in 2011.

51KaDaIRGaL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Someone is leaving handwritten notes around the village hinting at various moral indiscretions taking place. The notes are, naturally, anonymous, but are the slurs true? Unfortunately, the author of the allegations seems to be uncannily wired into the private lives of the people of Ambridge, and has the unfortunate ability to see through closed doors and curtained windows.

Aside from those we might call canonical characters, whose descendants serious Archer buffs will know and love, Catherine Miller has assembled an intriguing cast; there is the bedridden and pampered Blanche Gilpin –  plump and sweet-smelling, like an apple left to rot.” – who is waited on hand and foot by her downtrodden sister Jane; Kitty Dibden-Rawles is a beautiful young Irish woman, widowed and left in debt by a profligate husband; Dr Morgan Seed, keeper of many a village secret, is long a widower, but has he the chance to love again? And Lisa – poor Lisa Forrest – Doris Archer’s mother, in the terrifying grip of what we now call Alzheimers.

It took just nine words – and these were quoted on the first chapter heading –  to alert me to the possibility that this book might be something special.

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Catherine Miller is clearly – like me – a lifelong devotee of Thomas Hardy. Not only does each chapter heading use a line or two from one of his bitter-sweet poems, she shapes plot resolutions as Hardy-esque ironies, of which the great man would have been proud. Another little in-joke is that when Kitty writes love notes to her lover, they are signed “G.Oak.

Make no mistake. This is not a cosy rural idyll – the war claims more casualties than are caused by bombs or bullets and, despite the bedrock decency of Dan and Doris Archer, the cruelties of fate are explored with raw honesty. The book is billed as Volume 1, so enthusiasts – of which I am one –  will have more joys to come. The Archers – Ambridge At War is published by Simon & Schuster 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)

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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.

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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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PATROL . . . Between the covers (click for full page)

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Fred Majdalany was born in Manchester in 1913. During the war he fought in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, was wounded and was awarded the M.C. In addition to his novels, he also wrote accounts of the battles for Cassino in the Italian campaign, and the pivotal Battle of El Alamein. Patrol was first published in 1953, and has been reprinted many times, selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

Patrol follows the fortunes of a young army officer, Major Tim Sheldon, in the 1943 North Africa campaign. Sheldon is posted with his battalion in a forward outpost somewhere in the vast desert. The disconnect between these soldiers and the planners and analysts hundreds of miles away, is obvious from the start.

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Although the Germans are not far away, the biggest enemy of Sheldon and his men is the ever-present desire of those in comfortable far-off HQs to be seen to be “doing something”. Endless – and pointless – patrols have worn the men down; nerves are shredded; morale is sapped. Sheldon knows the true nature of bravery:

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When it is decided that a patrol is required to investigate White Farm, which may – or may not – be in enemy hands, Sheldon has to gather a patrol together, but he is all too well aware of the futility of what they are being asked to do.

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The novel is beautifully structured. The beginning and end of the story deal with the genesis and outcome of the patrol, while the central section recounts Sheldon’s experiences while being treated for a wound sustained earlier in the campaign. He experiences the complex and often cumbersome machine that clanks away in the background. He reflects on the contrasts between the world of fighting men and that ‘somewhere else’ that seems so distant and unattainable.

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This is almost a novella at just 143 pages, but it is brutal, and shot through with a bitter poetry. Majdalany was no stranger to battle, nor to the concept of unavoidable sacrifice, but the last words of the book make uncomfortable reading:

“In a club in St James’s Street, London, an old man opened his newspaper and querulously read the communique from Algiers. It said, simply,
‘Nothing to report. Patrol activity.’ “

For reviews of the other books in this excellent series, click the image below

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