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WWII

TRIAL BY BATTLE . . . Between the covers

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Alan Mart is a bookish, completely unmiitary young man who, fresh from Cadet College, is posted as a Second Lieutenant to an Indian Army Battalion in the autumn of 1941. The Japanese army is on the move, but are still believed to be just swarms of little yellow men who will melt away when faced with troops led by decent British officers. Mart is taken under the wing of Acting Captain Sam Holl:

“Holl rose from his chair. He seemed to go on rising for an interminable time, lurching from one side to the other, before he found his stature. He was a large-boned man, corded with muscle unsoftened by any spare flesh; his khaki bush shirt and slacks looked flimsy on him, and his rather small squarish head inadequate as a terminal for his torso. He had pale grey eyes, a thin mouth, and a thin pale feathering of hair, delicate and shallow as seedlings. His teeth were yellowish, with an exclamation of pure gold on the left hand side, and he sucked a great deal at them.”

Trial coverThe figure of Sam Holl struck an immediate chord with me, and I wondered momentarily where I had met him before. He is a more warlike version of Guy Crouchback’s brother in arms, Apthorpe. In Men At Arms (1951) and Officers And Gentlemen (1955) Evelyn Waugh gives us a pompous and priggish chap with completely bogus military and social airs and graces. He invites us to scorn Apthorpe and his pretensions while slyly revealing the pathos of Apthorpe’s real identity; probably an orphan, brought up by an elderly aunt; sent to a very minor public school, and packed of, virtually penniless, to serve in some down at heel colonial service. When Apthorpe dies in hospital as a result of Crouchback having smuggled him a bottle of whisky, the comedy turns to tragedy, and our mockery turns to shame-faced guilt.

Despite Alan Mart being our eyes and ears as the real war gets nearer and nearer to the battalion, Holl is, literally and metaphorically, a towering figure. He has the worst aspects of the blinkered British imperialist, but he displays immense physical courage. His bluster, near alcoholism and debased view of native women contrast poignantly with moments of extreme social vulnerability:

“They stood in the moonlight. There was nothing left except to go to bed, but they hesitated.
‘Good night, Holl,’ said Alan.
‘Good night,’ and Holl turned. But after a few steps, he stopped.
‘Alan.’
‘Yes.’
‘You might call me Sam.’
‘Oh. Of course. I’m sorry. Good night, Sam.’
‘Good night, Alan.'”

Mart goes off to train as a Signals Officer, and treads in the footsteps of his Victorian forbears as he becomes an expert operator of the Heliograph. When he returns to Battalion, however, he finds he has a stack of boxes containing brand new shiny radio sets. In a stroke worthy of Joseph Heller, we learn that all the battalion vehicles have been painted out in wonderful desert camouflage designed to baffle Rommel and his men in the deserts of North Africa – the unit’s undoubted destination. Africa or Iraq here we come? Not a bit of it. The Battalion embarks in a shabby tramp steamer. Destination? The dense rubber plantations and jungle of Malaya.

When Mart and Holl reach Malaya they learn many things, few if any of them to their advantage. The sparkling new radio sets abjectly refuse to work over any distance further than the line of sight and, more disturbing still, the despised little yellow men are resolutely disinclined to scatter at the bark of a British military command. Quite the reverse; they are numerous, well trained, superbly equipped, utterly remorseless and, seemingly, irresistible.

PiperDavid Piper’s biography is covered comprehensively in the publicity for this series, so suffice it to say he writes of what he knows. I am reminded of the lines from the old hymn;

“We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains he had to bear.”

Unlike so many of his comrades, he did survive the brutality of Japan’s POW camps which, although well documented, still take the breath away for their unrivalled sadism and absence of the tiniest evidence of humanity. Trial By Battle is a beautifully written account of men and war; there is no sweeping narrative, no epic battle scenes (but those described are terrifyingly vivid) and no broad historical context. Instead Piper zooms in on the fascinating anthill of conflict until we can see every detail, hear the snap of every bullet and squirm at the awkward pause in every conversation.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Out Of Mecklenburg by James Remmer

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RemmerThe full title of this debut novel from former intelligence operative James Remmer is Out of Mecklenburg – The Unwilling Spy. All the elements of a good WWII thriller are in place, including the usual staples of fanatical Nazis, spies, U-Boats, love, lust – and gold bullion. What gives this novel a boost is the injection of an usual element – the early days of the soon-to-be-famous Argentine army officer, Juan Domingo Peron. Remmer (left) brings a distinctive authenticity to his story, having practiced the dark arts of intelligence gathering – and the spreading of disinformation – in a long and distinguished career in the service of this country.

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Out Of Mecklenburg is published by Matador, which is an imprint of Troubador Books. It is out now and available from all good bookshops – and online.

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THE YEAR OF THE GUN … Between the covers

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Charlotte ‘Lottie’ Armstrong would not be everyone’s choice as a crime-fighting heroine. She is a widow, not in the first flush of youth, and a promising career as a woman police officer was terminated as a result of her own bloody-mindedness and the misogynistic jealousy of senior officers. But needs must when the devil drives, and in 1944, like all other cities across Britain, Leeds has been drained of men. As in previous centuries, Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier, and the local police force is struggling. Crime doesn’t stop because there’s a war on. Quite the reverse in fact, as the blackout, shortages of almost any consumer goods worth having and a thinning of police ranks have combined to create numerous temptations which are proving irresistible to the criminals of West Yorkshire.

TYOTGSo, Lottie is back in uniform again, but this time as a lowly member of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps. Her main job is to drive her boss, Detective Superintendent McMillan, to wherever he needs to go. McMillan, a veteran of The Great War, certainly needs his transport as a killer seems to be stalking vulnerable young women across the city. Kate Patterson, a Private in The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) is found dead in the sombre ruins of the medieval Kirkstall Abbey. She is the first victim, but others follow, and Lottie and McMillan are soon convinced that the killer is a member of the American forces based in the city.

Nickson paints a vivid contrast between the drabness and general sense of privation in the lives of ordinary British people with the freshness, optimism and overflowing abundance of consumer items prevalent among the Americans. As part of the investigation, Lottie comes across a typically clean-cut and bright-eyed American officer, Captain Cliff Ellison of the US Army CID. He is divorced – and available – and, despite herself, Lottie is entranced and flattered by his attention.

Romance may be in the air for Lottie and “her American” – as her mates call him – but the murders continue and blind alleys become even blinder for McMillan who, begrudgingly, becomes more reliant on the insights provided by his driver. Eventually, a suspect is identified and he is, as suspected, one of the visitors. He is, however, apparently untouchable because of his links with the Intelligence Agencies, and his importance in forthcoming vital operations.

 NicksonmaxresdefaultYou will note the date – spring 1944 – and will not need a degree in military history to work out what those ‘vital operations’ might be. Invasion or no invasion, McMillan still has a job to do, and the murderer is eventually cornered. Don’t anticipate a comfortable outcome, however. Nickson (right)  doesn’t do cosy, and the conclusion of this fine novel is as dark as a blacked out city street.

The story ends on a sombre note, but one of the many qualities of Chris Nickson’s Leeds novels is that he has established a quartet of characters who walk the same streets, breathe the same air and gaze at the same distant hills – but centuries apart. If the ghosts of Richard Nottingham, Tom Harper, Lottie Armstrong and Dan Markham were all to meet, they would walk together along streets which would be mutually familiar. Millgarth, Kirkstall Road, The Headrow, Castle Grove, Kirkgate, Lower Briggate – all witness to countless decades of life, death, loss, salvation and hope and, of course, generations of murderers, fraudsters, thieves and deceivers. There is a lovely poem by Geoffrey Winthrop Young which sums up the brilliant sense of history and continuity which Chris Nickson creates:

“There will be voices whispering down these ways,
The while one wanderer is left to hear,
And the young life and laughter of old days,
Shall make undying echoes”

Chris Nickson’s Amazon page is here.
You can read our review of a Tom Harper novel, On Copper Street, by clicking the link.
Click the link to learn more about real life murders by American servicemen in wartime Britain.

 

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Hanna, McNab & Nickson

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Hanna074HIRAMIC BROTHERHOOD, Ezekiel’s Temple Prophecy – written by William Hanna
An earlier novel by Hanna, (left) also called Hiramic Brotherhood, but with the subtitle Of The Third Temple was published in 2014. Hanna’s theme is that the modern state of Israel is guilty of a massive cover-up of racism and ethnic cleansing. His character, a journalist and documentary maker called Conrad Banner, is determined to expose what he sees as Israel’s successful attempts to hoodwink the world over its attitudes towards the Palestinian people, and to foster the negative portrayal of Arabs across the Middle East.
HIRAMIC BROTHERHOOD, Ezekiel’s Temple Prophecy is published by Matador, and you can find further information by following this link.

In Cold BloodCOLD BLOOD – written by Andy McNab
The much decorated former SAS sergeant ( CBE, DCM & MM) has yet to emerge from the shadows which have shrouded him since his earlier publications. Wikipedia says his real name is Steven Billy Mitchell, but he denies this. Bravo Two Zero was published in 1993 and is still the best-selling military history book of all time. With the help of his wife – who was in publishing when they married 17 years ago – McNab moved on from memoirs to fiction, and Cold Blood is the 18th in the series featuring former soldier Nick Stone. Stone is recruited to act as minder and mentor to a group of traumatised former soldiers who are making a therapeutic (yes, really!) trip to The North Pole in an effort to rediscover their self-belief and rebuild their shattered minds. Inevitably, things go wrong, and Stone realises that the bitter cold, and predatory polar bears are the least of his problems. Cold Blood is published by Bantam Press, and will be out in October.

NicksonmaxresdefaultTHE YEAR OF THE GUN – written by Chris Nickson
I have to declare an interest here. Chris Nickson (left) is one of my favourite authors. Not only is he a connoisseur of the magical effect that good popular music can have on our humdrum lives, he is a bloody good writer. There. I’ve said it. I am addicted to his ongoing series featuring Tom Harper, a copper in Victorian Leeds. and I reviewed On Copper Street, but have yet to branch out and sample his other two characters. Richard Nottingham is another Leeds copper, but this time in the early 18th century. Showing his historical virtuosity, Nickson has also created a 20th century policewoman. Lottie Armstrong was a former Leeds copper, but she was sacked. We pick up her story in 1944, and with tens of thousands of men away fighting Hitler, the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps has been formed to fill the vacuum, and Lottie has joined. With a brutal murderer taking advantage of the city blackout, Lottie must swallow her bitterness at being sacked as a policewoman, and help Detective Chief Superintendent McMillan catch the killer. The Year Of The Gun is published by The History Press and will be out in September.

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