The superb Wartime Classics series from the Imperial War Museum includes stories from the home front, such as Plenty Under The Counter, To All The Living, and Mr Bunting at War. Eight Hours From England took us to the undercover war in Albania, Patrol was set in the North Africa campaign, and in Trial by Battle, we sweated along with the men fighting in the Malayan jungle. The battle in the air was covered by Pathfinders and Squadron Airborne. Now, in the twelfth of the series, Mailed Fist joins Warriors For The Working Day and Sword of Bone with an account of the fighting in mainland Europe.
Cedric John Foley MBE (7 March 1917 – 8 November 1974) was a British Army officer, author, broadcaster, and public relations specialist. A regular soldier between 1936 and 1954, he was made MBE for his services to the Royal Armoured Corps during WW2. A man of wide interests, he was also known as a broadcaster and scriptwriter, and was military advisor to the popular ITV comedy show, The Army Game.
This is perhaps the least fictionalised of all the books in the series. Foley faithfully records his own experience after being commissioned into the Royal Armoured Corps in 1943. He was to command Five Troop – a trio of Churchill tanks named Avenger, Alert, and Angler. Foley follows the progress of the Allied forces through Normandy, the Ardennes and eventually – after bitter and brutal fighting against German forces – across the Rhine into Germany itself.
Earlier editions of the book had a very gung-ho blurb on the front but it is worth pointing out that although Foley is, as one might expect, intensely loyal to the Churchill tank, it was widely regarded as being something of a lame duck in the tank world. The massed-produced American Shermans, the devastating Panthers and Tigers of the Panzerkorps, and the Russian T34s were all probably superior in overall performance.
The book is markedly different from Warriors For The Working Day, another account which included a description of a tank regiment advancing through Normandy. Peter Elstob’s writing is much more, for want of a better word, poetic, while Foley’s words have more the feel of a diary. He also concentrates more on the mechanics of the war, rather than the emotions of the men fighting it. That isn’t to say that Mailed Fist isn’t well written, and there are some memorable passages, such as this description of a column of German prisoners:
“One cheerful imp-faced man – obviously the platoon jester – gave a Nazi salute grinned broadly as he turned it into a mime of pulling a lavatory chain. At the end of the column came a boy, he looked about thirteen years old and as he stumbled past he used the sleeve of his greatcoat to wipe the tears from his eyes.”
If you hadn’t worked it out from the featured illustration, the book’s title refers to the cap badge of the Royal Armoured Corps. Mailed Fist is a highly readable and authentic account of a crucial stage during WW2. It is published by the Imperial War Museum, and will be available on 21st April.
GLOSSARY OF SOME MILITARY TERMS USED IN THE BOOK
BESA British version of a Czech machine gun, frequently mounted in WW2 British tanks. Fired 7.92 Mauser rounds.
BOCAGE Countryside in Normandy typified by small fields, dense hedgerows and sunken roads. Difficult country for offensive warfare but ideal for defenders.
CHURCHILL British tank, well armoured, but lacking the firepower of its German adversaries. Still in use in the 1950s.
ENSA Entertainments National Service Organisation – dedicated to bringing light entertainment to serving military units.
LST Landing Ship, Tank. American boat used to transport tankson D-Day
PANTHER German tank considered one of the best of the war in terms of fire power, protection and mobility.
SHERMAN The ubiquitous Allied tank of WW2. American designed and built, easy to run and maintain, produced in huge numbers.
SPANDAU German machine gun, firing up to 1200 rounds a minute/Known to the Allies as ‘Hitler’s Buzzsaw’.
TELLERMINE Literally ‘Plate Mine’ – German anti-tank mine.
TIGER Probably the supreme tank of WW2, at least in theory. Fast, manoeuvrable, with a powerful gun and formidable armour, it was, difficult to repair and too highly engineered to be produced in sufficient numbers.
TO ALL THE LIVING . . . Between the covers
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.
Author 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.
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.