Book Reviews, II: 1919 – 1945

 Content of each firsthand/eyewitness account is briefly described, then evaluated in terms of  human characterization, atmospherics, and realism of combat-action sequences. Secondary studies (narratives, unit histories, etc.) are also reviewed, these in terms of content, accuracy, detail, etc.  Finally, an overall rating on a 10-scale.

Books Reviewed (master list):

  • Adamczyk, Werner: Feuer
  • Arbon, Joseph: The Bismarck Sea Ran Red
  • Barnham, Denis: One Man’s Window
  • Bell, Frederick: Condition Red
  • Bertram, James: Unconquered
  • Blythe, John: Soldiering On
  • Brown, James Ambrose: Retreat to Victory, A Springbok’s Diary
  • Buckley, Christopher: Greece and Crete, 1941
  • Cowles, Virginia: Looking for Trouble
  • Davis, Russell: Marine at War
  • Donahue, Arthur: Last Flight From Singapore
  • Easton, Alan: 50 North – An Atlantic Battleground
  • Gregory-Smith, Frank: Red Tobruk – Memoirs…Destroyer…
  • von Luck, Hans: Panzer Commander
  • Miller, Webb: I Found No Peace
  • Novey, Jack: Cold Blue Sky
  • Pabst, Helmut: The Outermost Frontier
  • Rolls, W.T.: Spitfire Attack
  • Sclater, William: Haida
  • Settle, Mary Lee: All the Brave Promises
  • Sherrod, Robert: Tarawa – Story of a Battle
  • Spears, Edward: Assignment to Catastrophe
  • Steinhilper, Ulrich: Spitfire On My Tail
  • Williamson, John A.: AntiSubmarine Warrior in the Pacific

 (others in process)

 

  • Arbon, Joseph, and Chris Christensen: The Bismarck Sea Ran Red (Marceline, 1979; 314 pp.)

 American kid just out of high school joins Army Air Force, 1940. Assigned to 7th Bombardment Group, a B-17 unit, and aboard convoy bound for Phillipines when Japanese hit Pearl Harbor. Diverted to Australia, arrival in January, 1942. Confusion reigns, as Arbon joins an improvised group of Army A-17 and A-24 “Banshee” dive-bombers which hurriedly stage north from Brisbane to meet the Japanese onslaught. Arrives at Port Moresby in mid-April, and begins a series of mostly-unescorted, high-loss missions – flying as an A-24 rear-seat gunner – against Japanese airfields at Lae on the north coast of New Guinea. An inaccurate, perhaps mendacious Official Version will later describe these operations as a piece of cake; in fact, it appears that U.S. Army Air Force brass, bucking hard for separate service designation based on a “unique strategic mission” using Big Bombers, had little interest in tactical, single-engine ground attack and, in essence, sacrificed c. 100 dive-bombers and crews. During a typical, Homeric mission, 5 out 6 A-24s, every plane but Arbon’s, are shot down by Jap AA fire and Zeros, with all 10 pilots and gunners killed. Later in 1942 he transferred to the 3rd Bombardment Group, a B-25 unit flying out of Moresby, and as a top turret gunner took part in strikes against Buna and other enemy New Guinea strongholds; anti-shipping ops including the March, 1943, Bismarck Sea battle; and missions against Rabaul. This book is raw and rustic in style, and almost entirely lacking in human characterization; even the author’s persona remains undeveloped. But strong atmospherics and intense combat descriptions make it a vital read for anyone interested in the desperate, early months of the Pacific War. Rated: *7*

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  • Adamczyk, Werner: Feuer! (Wilmington, 1992; 403pp.)

Author born 1920, and gives a fairly extended description of growing up in Weimar and Hitler Germany. Drafted in September 1939 and joins a north German division, 20th Motorized Infantry. Extensive combat on Eastern Front, 22 June 1941 ff., first as part of Army Group Center spearhead which breaks through to Smolensk by early August. Astonishment seeps down even to author’s mud soldier level as Hitler seizes defeat from the jaws of victory via the infamous Halt Order, and his unit is among those diverted northward in the failed attempt to seize Leningrad. Static but ferocious fighting near Cholm during the winter of 1941-42, and more of the same during 1942-43. Adamcyzk got brief home leave during mid-1943, and so missed the Kursk inferno, which killed most of the original members of his artillery battery. But home was Hamburg, where he saw most of his family massacred during the early July Allied incendiary bombing and firestorm. Returns to Russia and doggedly fights on during the long retreat to ultimate defeat. This is an epic, tragic story, told in plenty of detail, comparable in scope to Guy Sajer’s great Waffen-SS memoir, The Forgotten Soldier, but not nearly so well written. Characterization weak,  atmospherics weak, all-in-all a dull monochrome. Rated: *7*

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  • Barnham, Denis: One Man’s Window (London, 1956; 201 pp.)

Journeyman Spitfire pilot flys off  U.S. carrier Wasp during April, 1942, effort to reinforce Malta’s air defense. Mission fails, as an Italo-German airstrike destroys most of the planes as soon as they land. But Flight-Lt. Barnham goes on to fly and fight through the next ten desperate weeks of the air battle over Malta, scores 6 victories, as Empire pilots claw their way back to air superiority over the besieged island. Author mixes terse diary entries with a luminous prose-poetry that at times approaches stream-of-consciousness. Not just a fine fighter pilot’s book, One Man’s Window is one of the great human documents to come out of the entire 1914-45 WorldWar. Rated: *10*

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  • Bell, Frederick: Condition Red (NY, 1944; 274 pp.)

Author’s war experience begins as an officer aboard American light cruiser Boise, mid-November 1941, escorting a reinforcement convoy to the Phillipines. December 8th – 7 December in Hawaii – finds Boise still in far eastern waters, and Bell’s diary entries through March, 1942, tell the story of her adventures as Japanese pierce Malay Barrier and annihilate local U.S. and Allied Fleets. Eventually she returns damaged to American west coast, where Bell takes command of destroyer Grayson, which is soon escorting carriers and troopships headed for Guadalcanal assault landing. After covering the landings, Bell and his ship take part in late August, 1942, Eastern Solomons carrier battle as part of carrier Enterprise anti-aircraft screen. September ’42 through March ’43: Grayson covers 13 New Caledonia-to-Guadalcanal reinforcement convoys, along the way battles Jap submarines, torpedo-bombers, rescues survivors of ships that don’t make it, and carries out shore bombardment missions. Condition Red is somewhat chaotically organized, many flashbacks and forwards, plus much haphazardly-interpellated material on routine destroyer operations and shipboard life. Well-written, though, excellent atmospherics, and first-hand combat descriptions live up to great title. Rated: *8*

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  • Bertram, James: Unconquered (NY, 1939; 340 pp.)

Crypto-communist New Zealand journalist describes his travels through north China in aftermath of Japanese seizure of Beijing, spring 1937-38. Of a piece with contemporary works by comsymp Edgar Snow and covert Soviet agent Agnes Smedley, but more obviously Red. Ideology aside, some useful descriptive material on early Chinese communist exploitation of “united front” with Nationalists to build party and military organization behind Jap lines and in former Nationalist areas. Strong atmospherics throughout, interesting interviews with various Red leaders, Mao among them, though always misportraying these Asiatic totalitarians as “liberal democrats” and “people like us”. Rated: *7*

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  • Blythe, John: Soldiering On…War in North Africa and Italy (London, 1989; 185 pp.)

The author, a New Zealander involved 1939-40 in government diplomatic signals reception and decoding, joins regular Army in 1941; then assigned to radio communications section of 1st NZ Infantry Division. Longish sojourn in Syria and Palestine before becoming part of post-Crusader rebuilding of the badly-bloodied division. To the front in July, 1942, just in time to take part in desperate blocking action at Mersa Matruh, that slows Afrika Korps breakthrough towards Cairo, Suez, the oilfields. Fights on through the El Alemain battles, then pursuit of Rommel’s forces westward into Tunisia and their eventual destruction. With the NZ Division in Italy, 1943-44, first during fighting northward along the Adriatic coast, then switchover to Cassino front. Blythe’s war expires in northern Italy, 1945, one of the less than 1/3 fraction of his draft to survive the entire adventure. His book features above-average characterizations, as his own quirky, idiosyncratic persona comes through particularly well. Like every New Zealander’s firsthand account that I’ve read, a peculiar psychocultural detestation of Americans is evident: something like Brits+NZ’rs vs. Americans+Aussies. Atmospherics also good, and occasional action sequences – he was somewhat behind-the-lines much of the time – are effective enough. Rated: *7* 

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  • Brown, James Ambrose: Retreat to Victory, A Springbok’s Diary in North Africa: Gazala to El Alemain, 1942 (Johannesburg, 1991; 301 pp.)

Author a non-commissioned officer with a mortar platoon, 1st Transvaal Scottish Battalion, 1st South African Division. Fought against Italians in East Africa, early 1941, but first-hand description begins with November-December “Crusader” offensive against Italo-Germans in Libya. Still more extensive diary entries cover static fighting along Gazala battleline, west of Tobruk, during January-May 1942; Rommel’s sudden attack and rout of the Empire’s Desert Army during June; and the confused retreat onto and fighting along the El Alemain stop-line, near Alexandria, Egypt, during July. In hospital, Brown missed the late July-early August Battle of Alam Halfa, Rommels’ last effort to break through to Suez, but returned in time to take part in the Third Battle of El Alemain, as a much reinforced and re-invigorated Desert Army ground down and drove back the supply-starved Italo-German forces and began the long march to Tunis. Certainly one of the better first-hand accounts to come out of the North African war. Fairly effective characterizations, rich atmospherics on and behind the battlelines, and much well-described, sharp-end combat experience. Rated: *8*

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  • Buckley, Christopher: Greece and Crete, 1941 (London, 1952; 311 pp.)

This early study of Churchill’s spring-summer 1941 Balkan debacle is one of a number of His Majesty’s Stationary Office-published “popular histories” of the World War, Round II, that preceded the more detailed and somewhat more objective series of HMSO Official Histories. Although Buckley himself was an Athens-based journalist during 1941, his account of the Empire defeat in Greece and Crete is lacking in eyewitness accounts, consisting mostly of rather dry detailings of small unit actions during the long retreat southward. Dry, but not objective. Always and everywhere, whenever “our boys” are allowed to “get to grips with the Hun”, they send him scuttling…though of course it is the Germans who somehow win this phase of the war. When German pilots and paratroops fight with self-evident, death-defying courage, this is merely (p. 218) a “madness that counts not at all the cost in mens’ lives…”; when Empire troops do the same, it’s the usual sacred heroism. Worse, Buckley’s description of the 1940-41 Churchill/Eden behind-the-scenes political machinations that preceeded the fighting consists of flimsy stage-sets, claiming that Greece “requested” British intervention, and portraying the Anglo-Russian instigated, April, 1941, Serb Generals’ coup in Belgrade as a “popular revolution”. In fact, the pre-coup coalition government strove valiantly to keep the war out of the Balkans, and the Greeks neither needed nor wanted any of Mr. Churchill’s disasterous “aid”, having already whipped the Italians on their own, still enjoying good relations with Germany, and knowing full well that British military intervention in the Balkans would force a German riposte that would only bring disaster to the Greek people. When the Greek leader Metaxas finally balked at an outright Empire invasion of his country (see also Iceland, Iran, Finland, Baltic states, Poland, Rumania, among other Encirclement Power aggressions) he was…eliminated, and another puppet regime set up. Overall, though technically well-written, this compendium of lies and nonsense is an aching example of Victors’ History at its worst. Rated: *4*

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  • Cowles, Virginia: Looking For trouble (NY, 1941; 447 pp.)

Author an American working as foreign affairs reporter for Londay Sunday Times. Her book begins with a visit to Spain, March, 1937. Has the usual liberal, pro (Red) Republic bias, but in Madrid Cowles gets a close-up of communist political machinations, secret police terror and massacres of “counter-revolutionaries”, and omnispresent Russians. Barely escaping arrest by Reds, she manges to visit Nationalist-held areas as well. Somewhat exaggerates role of Germans and Italians aiding Franco’s advance in northern Spain, then provides a stupendous vignette of the Nationalist seizure of Santandar. Good account of atrocities commited by both sides and general conditions of life during the civil war. In London from December 1937 through April ’38, Cowles describes escalating conflict between Chamberlain and “appeasers” vs. Churchill’s warmonger faction, that culminates in Munich deal with Hitler; then an eyewitness as Germans liberate Sudetenland. She goes from there to France and Germany, finding the French divided and bewildered, Germans united and confident. During the fall of 1938 Cowles also visits the Red Empire, describing a Moscow cold, dank, doom-laden and depressive, stunned by the Yezhov Terror, and a two-tiered society of privilaged party and police apparatchiks lording it over a cowed population. Even manages a quick visit to the Ukraine, pursued by the NKVD, and a spontaneous encounter with a peasant family…not realizing that she has handed them a death-sentence. In March, 1939, as the fake-state of “Czechoslovakia” disintegrates with the Slovak secession, Hitler seizes the remnant provinces of Bohemia-Moravia, Chamberlain “guarantees” Poland, and Cowles visits Rome and North Africa – where Italo Balbo attempts to seduce her. Later that year she is in Berlin on the brink, hours before the German attack on Poland; observes the Polish defeat from Rumania; and provides some intense local atmospherics as Stalin draws a bead on the eastern districts of Poland and Rumania. January-March 1940 finds the author in Finland reporting the Russian attack on that nation, and two months later in Paris covering the French collapse. She joins the retreat southward and eventually escapes by ship to England. The last pages of LFT describe the air Battle of Britain, German bombing attacks, and implore Americans to abandon “pacifism and isolationism” and get into the war. This work is strong in all respects and, moving from the particular to the general and back again, Cowles has a great talent for the telling anecdote, the significant detail. Maybe the best of the mid-to-late 1930s European press correspondents’ books. Rated: *10*  

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  • Davis, Russell:  Marine at War (Boston, 1961; republ. 1988; 176 pp.)

Rifleman in 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Without any background or preliminaries, Davis begins his account with 15 September 1944 Peleliu amphibious landing. Fights for 18 days in a coral cauldron of oppressive heat and ubiquitous death and then, with his regiment’s rifle companies nearly wiped out, pulled off the island. To Pavuvu, then Guadalcanal for several months R and R, assimilation of replacements, and training for next operation: Okinawa. Goes ashore on first day of the April, 1945 landing and an easy first month in the center of the island, as other units tackle Japanese main line of resistence in the south. Ist Marine Division then replaces a decimated 27th Army Division in sustained assault on the Naha-Shuri line. Davis, now part of HQ Company, is in and out of action, eventually wounded. Despite lack of context, author establishes a convincing persona, and his close combat descriptions are searing. Rated: *8*

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  • Donahue, Arthur: Last Flight From Singapore (NY, 1943; 169 pp.)

Second, posthumously-published volume of this (American) Royal Air Force fighter pilot’s memoir of the World War, 1939-1942. Picks up where Yankee In a Spitfire leaves off, late fall of 1941, as Donahue voluntarily transfers to a squadron soon to be sent overseas. The new unit is 258 Squadron (see Terrance Kelly’s parallel memoir, Hurricane Over the Jungle) and the destination Singapore, part of the sagging Brit Empire’s too little, too late reinforcement of its Asian provinces. Donahue’s description of his ground and air combat experiences over Malaya and in Sumatran skies is colorful and competently-written, but tends to skate along the surface of events and round off edges. He states at one point that he did indeed see many “dismal things” at Singapore, where 100,000 Empire troops  were crushed by a Japanese force 1/2 the size, but could not write about them for reasons of security and morale. Wounded in his last sortie, author escaped to Ceylon in a hospital ship, arriving there in March of ’42, then returned to England and another squadron. In September, during a fighter sweep over western France, Arthur Donahue was killed in action. Rated: *7*

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  • Easton, Alan: 50 North – An Atlantic Battleground (London, 1963; 287 pp.)

Easton took command of Canadian navy corvette Baddeck in August, 1941. Ship aptly named, with major mechanical flaws, and several unhappy months follow on coastal convoy duties plus a Caribbean stint. First transatlantic run in October, SC48 (see also: Williamson), under sustained U-boat attack. In early 1942 Easton gets a better ship, corvette Sackville. More convoy battles follow, as part of 3rd Escort Group. An unscathed May-June crossing, followed by the savage ONS115 battle in August: Sackville goes one-on-one with  German subs, sinking/damaging several. December 1943 sees Easton take command of a larger escort vessel, frigate Matane, for more routine crossings as the Atlantic battle turns against the U-boats. Destroyer Saskatchewan is his final command, covering the Normandy invasion force, attacking subs in the English Channel, and battling German surface units along the French coast. A good, detailed account, fair characterizations plus salty atmospherics, with as much emphasis on the drudgery and frustrations of war as on the occasional terror and exaltation of combat. Rated: *8*

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  • Gregory-Smith, Frank: Red Tobruk – Memoirs of a WW II Destroyer Commander (Barnsley, 2008; 200 pp.)

As a 12-year-old officer-cadet, author joined RN in 1922. Formative years, 1922-38, glossed over. Serves as 1st Lieutenant on new fleet destroyer HMS Jaguar, 1938 through late 1940, including channel and trans-Atlantic convoy escort duty, operations during the battle for Norway, and the Dunkirk evacuation; the latter desribed in considerable detail. Gregory-Smith takes command of new, smaller, Hunt-class destroyer Eridge in late 1940. To Gibralter in spring of 1941. First major operation as part of heavy – 20 destroyers, 6 cruisers, etc. – escort to “Substance” convoy, which fights its way through to Malta under heavy Italo-German air attack. After a tense adventure towing a damaged ship back to Gibralter, Eridge operates from Alexandria through August of 1942, taking part in numerous convoy battles – on both the Tobruk and Malta runs – as well as anti-submarine operations, during one of which she depth-charges and sinks U-658. Highlight is First Air-Sea Battle of the Mediterranean, aka operation Harpoon/Vigorous, during June ’42; days and nights of nearly-continuous fighting against waves of German dive-bombers, as well as Italian torpedo planes and heavy naval units, in a desperate, failed attampt to get a merchant convoy through to Malta. On 27/28 August, during a shore bombardment operation off El Daba on the Egyptian coast, G-S’s destroyer is fatally hit by an Italian torpedo-boat. Though towed back to Alexandria, Eridge will fight no more and the author rusticates on shore for almost two years. His last combat is as naval beachmaster on Gold Beach, 4 June 1944, during the Normandy Invasion. This book features strong atmospherics, middling charcterization, with the author’s persona occasionally shining through, and viscerally-effective action sequences. Rated: *8*

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  • von Luck, Hans: Panzer Commander  (NY, 19189; 319 pp.)

Author born 1911, into a military family. Joined Army in 1939. Commands a motorcycle company in 7th Armored Recon Regiment, 2nd Light Division, during fall, 1939, invasion of Poland. Same with Rommel’s 7th Armored Division in 1940 blitzkrieg vs. France. Attached to divisional HQ, now under v. Funk, for June 1941 assault on Red Empire; describes advance on Moscow, freeze-in just north of the city, and December recoil in face of Russian counterblast. Per Rommel request, v. Luck transferred to North Africa and takes command of 3rd Recon Battalion, 21st Panzer Division, for May-June 1942 Tobruk-Gazela battles. Wounded, he spends several months in hospital before rejoining his command at Siwa Oasis, south of El Alemain position, in September. Describes retreat from El Alemain, Tunisia fighting, and a failed mission to Hitler’s HQ in an effort to get evacuation of Italo-German forces. Instead, 250,000 Axis troops go into the bag, while v. Luck spends August 1943 through May 1944 instructing at an armored warfare school near Paris. Then commands a tank regiment with reconstituted 21st Pz Division during Normandy fighting, vicinity of Caen. Retreat toward south German border for see-saw fighting against advancing Americans during winter, 1944-45. His division is finally destroyed near Berlin in May, and the author spends 5 years in a Soviet POW camp. Author cool toward Nazi regime throughout but, as a soldier and nationalist, gave all for his country. This book is short on characterization and atmosphere, but long, detailed combat sequences, both narrative and firsthand, are excellent. Rated: *8* 

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  • Miller, Webb: I Found No Peace  (NY, 1936; 332 pp)

Newspaper correspondant’s book, partly cantankerous autobio, partly colorful, idiosyncratic reportage. Much material on hardscrabble, rural Michigan early life, as son of impoverished tenent-farmer family during early years of the 20th century. Then describes an equally harsh apprenticeship as cub crime reporter for a newspaper in pre-WorldWar Chicago. After some 1916 freelance work covering Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa along the U.S.-Mexican border, Miller joined the AEF as a military correspondant, but got mostly behind-the-lines PR work that he did not like. During the two decades’ False Peace – which Miller recognized as such, after the Anglo-French Witches’ Sabbath at Versailles – he covers French machinations in the occupied Rhineland; interviews Clemanceau, Poincare, and other architects of disaster; observes the Riff War, Spain’s bloody seizure of Morocco during 1925-26; air travels through the Middle East, getting direct experience of nationalist ferment in early 1930s India; gets a close-up of the opening phase of the Italo-Ethiopian War; and much else. Not an obviously profound book, but often the “who, what, where, when, why” of professional journalism is so well done that the inner dynamics of history stand exposed like the skeleton of a monster. Atmospherics and character-portraits frequently brilliant as well. Rated: *9*

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  • Novey, Jack: Cold Blue Sky (Charlottesville, 1997; 183 pp.)

Novey flew as a B-17 waist-gunner, with 96th Bomb Group out of Snetterton Heath, during bloodiest period of 8th Air force operations over Germany. During this post “Memphis Belle” phase, July – December, 1943, about one crew in seven survived a full 25-mission tour. His book begins with some interesting material on childhood and family years in Chicago, then quickly on to 1942-43 AF recruitement and training. About half the remaining 100 pages concern off-base escapades in England, including much close combat with the opposite sex. Less over-claiming aloft where, unlike some other 8th Air Force deadeyes, N. says he shot down “only” two German fighters. Great title, for sure; otherwise not the best B-17 ETO memoir and far from the worst. Good if uneven action sequences, some successful characterization, OK atmospherics. Rated: *7* 

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  • Pabst, Helmut: The Outermost Frontier (London, 1957; 204 pp.)

Author born 1911. Father served in Round One of the World War, on eastern front, 1914-17. Pabst a law student when mobilized for Round II; apparently not greatly affected by Nazi ideology but, trapped in the universal nightmare called history, willing to fight and die for his tribe. Began as an NCO with an artillery unit, part of Army Group Center’s 22 June 1941 invasion of the Red Empire. Fights through to Smolensk and, after Hitler’s fatal August ’41 “halt order”, onward to the gates of Moscow in December. Then two winters and summers of semi-static, brutal trench warfare at various points on the north-central portion of the Eastern front, near Bryansk, Kalinin, Rzhev. Other characters not well defined, but Pabst own shines through: a strong, sensitive individual trapped in collective catastrophe. Tremedous atmospherics, graphic physical landscapes, all conveyed with an economy of words. Text consists mainly of his letters home, the last sent on 17 September, 1943, two days before his death in combat. Original versions of some of his letters may be found in Walter Baehr, ed., Kriegsbriefe Gefallener Studenten, pp. 245-262. Rated: *9*

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  • Rolls, W.T.: Spitfire Attack (London, 1987; 232 pp.)

Sergeant-Pilot Rolls, a working-class hero, flew a Spitfire with 72 Squadron out of Biggen Hill during the Battle of Britain and shot down several German aircraft. After a long stint as combat flying instructor, did fighter sweeps over western France with 122 Squadron during spring of 1942, during which he narrowly survived the attentions of JG-26’s FW-190 pilots. Commissioned Flight-Lieutenant and posted to Malta, Rolls lifted his fighter off the deck of carrier HMS Furious during decisive, August ’42 Second Air-Sea Battle of the Mediterranean, aka the “Pedestal” convoy. Flying out of Luqa airfield with 126 Squadron, he went on to rack up 17 aerial victories. Here there is none of the shimmering prose-poetry posted by some of the public-school products like Barnham (see review); just good, matter-of-fact description of a lethal environment. Action sequences quite dry, characterization and atmospherics almost nil. Rated: *7*

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  • Sclater, William: Haida (Toronto, 1947; 221 pp.) 

Title-ship a powerful, British-built tribal-class destroyer, commissioned into the Canadian Navy in 1943 with an all-Canadian crew. Sclater in command through several Murmansk convoy runs during the winter of 1943-44 and spring-summer 1944 battles against German E-boats and destroyers in the English Channel. Evidently a fine officer, but unfortunately self-effacing when it came to writing about his experiences. Instead of an intense first-hand account, Sclater wrote in the 2nd and 3rd person, all vague “We”‘s and “They”‘s, while the crew appears as an archetypal “Canadian sailor”. Result a colorless, dull read which the author tries to relieve with frequent, long, cornball invented conversations between fictive crewmen. Which in turn often lapse into drawn-out didactic passages; page upon page, for instance, on “What is A Starshell”. A few of the narratives do work, those describing nighttime close-encounters with German destroyers off the French coast, but the real sweat, blood, and grime of the Atlantic battleground is mostly supressed and replaced with recruiting-poster material. Rated: *6*

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  • Settle, Mary Lee: All the Brave Promises – Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391  (NY, 1966; 176 pp.)

Settle, a successful postwar author of several novels and plays, shows her mettle in an outstanding and profound memoir. As a young American woman wanting to “do something” in the Big War, she went to Washington in 1942 and volunteered for the distaff arm of the RAF, eventually becoming a radio operator at a bomber training base in England. Vital descriptions of trans-Atlantic convoy experience, semi-brutal initiation into the RAF Womens’  Auxiliary, day-to-day operational happenings, London under V1 attack, gender issues, and much else. Settle’s own persona and characterizations of others are strong throughout, greyish-but-graphic atmospherics leavened by occasional levity, and the action sequences – for instance, she’s introduced to flightline dangers by way of a propeller-severed head bouncing down the runway – are powerful indeed. Read this book. Rated: *10* 

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  •  Sherrod, Robert: Tarawa – Story of a Battle (NY, 1944; 183 pp.)

Well-known, several times reprinted account by a front-line newsman. Sherrod went in with the 5th element of U.S. Marine first-wave assault on ferociously-defended coral islet Betio, Tarawa Atoll, central Pacific, 20 November 1943: “entirely based on notes scribbled down with my back to the seawall, while men were being killed all around me.” Early chapters are an able desription of the invasion approach, aboard battleship Maryland and on a troop transport, including personality sketches of Julian Smith, Merrit Edson, David Shoup, Evans Carlson, and other dramatis personae. Then a gut-wrenching, minute-by-minute account of the shock and chaos of an assault landing, as boats hang up on the coral reef,  Betio’s Japanese defenders lay down carpets of artillery and automatic weapons fire, and hundreds of Marines are cut down in the water. Next three days of fighting are defined via intense, knotted anecdotes of death and narrow survival. Post-battle miseries, collecting and burying the bodies of 5,00o dead American and Japanese soldiers, also well-described. Sherrod concludes with an early fix on tactical lessons of the battle, and contrasts Marine morale and heroism with home-front veniality and corruption. This is one of the best press correspondant’s books to come out of the Pacific War. Rated: *9* 

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  • Spears, Edward: Assignment to Catastrophe (London, 1956; 638 pp.)

This volume combines the author’s Prelude to Dunkirk and The Fall of France, both published in 1954. Spears worked as Churchill’s personal military liason officer with the French Government – Paul Reynaud and Co. – during 1939-40, and the bulk of this book is a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, eyewitness/participant account on the collapse of France under German assault during the first 17 days of June, 1940. Naive and sychophantic on some issues involving British moves and the ever slippery Mr. Churchill, but also includes many intelligent, sharp-etched personal observations, vignettes, and experiences at the highest levels of a crumbling regime. Well-written throughout, and a vital source for those interested in the May-June 1940 Anglo-French debacle. Rated: *9*

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  • Steinhilper, Ulrich: Spitfire On My Tail (Keston, 1989; 331 pp.)

Author born 1918, and describes his Weimar Republic early years and adolescent Nazi socialization in considerable detail. Joined Luftwaffe in 1937, and further details training experiences under Galland and other Condor Legion veterans. Steinhilper’s unit, I/JG-52, posted to French-German front during 1939 Polish-German War, flying ME-109E’s in defensive patrols against occasional incursions by French planes. Escorts bomber and Stuka missions follow during Battle of France, May-June 1940, but sees little of allied fighters. After a brief period of Ruhr defence, S. and his unit are in the thick of the air battle over Britain, from early August onward. He flies 150 cross-channel missions, including bomber escort, fighter sweeps, and ground attack, claims 5 kills, and is shot down over England on 27 October. Spends the rest of the war as a POW, an experience detailed in two susequent also privately-published volumes. This first volume of the Steinhilper trilogy has no substantial weaknesses, thanks in large part to the labors of co-author Peter Osborne. Character established via a dense weave of personal and collective experience, atmospherics well-done, and combat sequences first rate. Rated: *8*

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  • Williamson, John A.: AntiSubmarine Warrior in the Pacific (Tuscaloosa, 2005; 232 pp.)

The author, born in small town Alabama in 1918, gives a clipped, anecdotal account of his childhood before moving on to a more detailed recounting of his college education, majoring in math and studying physics…subjects which were to profoundly influence his later wartime career. During April-September, 1940, Williamson passed thru the US Navy’s V7 Program and, in March of 1941, received his commission as Ensign aboard the new Destroyer USS Livermore; a ship soon directly involved in Roosevelt’s “undeclared” summer-fall ’41 naval war against German submarines in the North Atlantic. Here Williamson engages in some uncharacteristic tub-thumping, claiming, among other absurdities, that the American destroyer Greer torpedoed while running supplies to U.S. troops then forcibly occupying Iceland (replacing British aggressors) – was on a “peaceful mission”. His description of Livermore’s desperate, unsuccessful effort to fend off  U-boats attacking convoy SC-48 during the night of 17 October, ’41, however, is searing and accurate. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Williamson does a brief stint as commander of the Naval guncrew aboard an oil tanker along the U.S. East coast<——–>Caribbean convoy route, and in March 1942 is posted to the new subchaser/patrol craft training facility at Miami Fla. Which he and a few other officers create from scratch and then instruct at. January 1943 finds Williamson commnding the new PC1196 during various Caribbean convoy runs where he sharpens his anti-sub attack skills but gets no kills. In October Williamson is promoted to Executive Officer aboard the new Destroyer Escort USS England, a much more powerful 309′ killing machine that features three 3″ guns,  20 and 40mm AA guns, torpedo tubes, stern depth charge racks and Y-gun DC throwers and, most lethal, forward-firing “hedgehog” anti-submarine bombs which explode only on direct contact. After working up exercises along the California coast, England and her crew arrive at Pearl in late February, then spend a couple of months doing convoy duty along the Solomon Islands chain in the South Pacific. England‘s Captain W.B. Pendelton, it so happens, is a somewhat weary, career Navy man who administers the ship capably but, recognizing genius and superior leadership capacity, lets Williamson have his way with actual combat operations. And Williamson, with his anti-sub skills now well honed and capable, via his math background, of quickly assembling complex sonar and other data into a deadly firing solution, is about to cut a bloody swath through the Imperial Japanese Navy’s submarine force. On May 19th, ably supported by DE’s George and Raby, England intercepts (via ULTRA decrypts) and destroys I-19 off Bouganville in the northern Solomons. Williamson’s ship then moves westward and, again acting on intel, finds a patrol line of 7 smaller, RO-class Jap submarines running southwestward between Truk and Manus Island. Over the next 10 days, with Williamson taking tactical control during each engagement, England destroys 5 of the 7 by hedgehog attack…the other 2 survive only because, sensing that an epic disaster is taking place, they are pulled out of the area by Tokyo command. During the summer of 1944, the author and his ship do convoy duty during the American invasion of the Phillipines, and get their first dose of heavy Japanese air and kamikaze attacks. More of the same follows during the Okinawa operation and, on 9 May 1945, England is hit by a kamikaze, taking heavy structural damage, along with 37 crewmen dead and 40 wounded. Williamson concludes AntiSubmarine Warrior with an account of England‘s troubled voyage back to America for repair and eventual scrapping. This book is strong in every respect. No surprise since – in addition to his hard science major – the author minored in english: well written overall, with rich atmospherics, sharp, memorable characterization, and vivid combat sequences. Rated: *9*.

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5 Responses to Book Reviews, II: 1919 – 1945

  1. Jim says:

    Will you be reviewing “Guns of August”? I just finished it, and while an engaging read, the objectivity was over-praised by reviews I read prior to purchase, as it was quite anti-German (of course the author was a Jewess). Can you recommend a better view of the German war aims (in English)? Thanks!

    • Yes, eventually. I think GOA is a useful/fun introductory read, tho it is as you say. And for precisely the reason you specify; though she writes seductively, Tuchman seems to have difficulty distinguishing between Wilhelmine Germany and Nazi Germany. For more honest appraisals of the long-term genesis of the 20th Century World War (Round I, 1914-18), the diplomatic run-in after the Sarajevo Hit, and the events of the first few weeks of the catastrophe, you could look at:

      Herwig, Holger: THE FIRST WORLD WAR – GERMANY AND AUSTRIA-HUNGARY, 1914-1918 (1997), and his
      THE MARNE, 1914 – THE OPENING OF WORLD WAR I AND THE BATTLE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (2009)
      Ferguson, Nial: THE PITY OF WAR – EXPLAINING WORLD WAR I (1999)
      Kennen, George: THE FATEFUL ALLIANCE – FRANCE, RUSSIA, AND THE COMING OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR (1984)
      Barnes, Harry Elmer: THE GENESIS OF THE WORLD WAR – AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PROBLEM OF WAR GUILT (1927)

      Perhaps the most effective demolition of Tuchman and all the other proponents of the Victors’ Version is Edward MccCullogh’s HOW THE FIRST WORLD WAR BEGAN – THE TRIPLE ENTENTE AND THE COMING OF THE GREAT WAR OF 1914-1918 (1999)

      In essence, post-1871 Revanchist France spun a tightening web of encirclement around Germany and Austria-Hungary, then sparked off the War via an act of state terrorism by a Russo-French catspaw, Serbia. The Germans, understanding that it was fight now or submit to certain defeat once Russia (financed by France) completed its military industrialization, then lashed out at the Encirclement Powers…and ultimately (1918, 1945) lost. As usual, the victors’ wrote most of the history books and the defeated got blamed; though from Barnes onward, as above, there have been dissenters. This does not, incidentally, completely exculpate the Central Powers: Wilhelm II’s post-Bismarck foreign policy was a succession of blunders that played right into the hands of the French spider…and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was rotten to the core.

      • Jim says:

        Thanks very much! The McCullogh (1999) book looks very promising- it is going to the top of my “read” list.

  2. Jim says:

    Here is a website/diary done by much-vilified author David Irving…he’s apparently at work on a book about Himmler…I’ve been wanting to read a good (i.e., by a non-holocaust hysteric) bio on H.H. for awhile. What is the best extant book on him?

    Here’s the link mentioned above:
    http://www.fpp.co.uk/online/indices/Radicals_Diary.html

    • Off the top of my head, can’t say….tho there’s a recent one which details Himmler’s wartime contacts with Brit Intel which sounds interesting. At work right now; I’ll check my bookshelf when I get home, see if there’s anything good on Himmler. Thanks for link.

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