British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Discussions on books and other reference material on the WW1, Inter-War or WW2 as well as the authors. Hosted by Andy H.
Forum rules
You can support AHF when buying books etc from Amazon, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de by using these links.
It costs you nothing extra but it helps keep the forum up and running.
Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 17 Nov 2012 11:56

Fighting through to Kohima by Michael Lowry

Subtitled ‘A memoir of war in India and Burma’
Pen & Sword, 2003, 2008. Paperback 276 pages.

Born of a decorated WW1 veteran, Lowry led an idyllic inter-war life. He was fortunate to attend good quality schools and live in some wonderful English settings. He played cricket and tennis and holidayed with his family in France. As was often the British way, in time of war he repaid his life of privilege by becoming an officer in the army. By the Declaration he had been posted to serve with 2nd Queens Battalion in India on the Northwest Frontier.

I hadn’t realized that this was still, even in 1939, a dangerous posting. The tribes frequently caused trouble and the army had only tenuous control of this vast area. In addition German and Italian agents promoted further trouble and Lowry sees a number of skirmishes. It is a remarkable story altogether.

By the time his unit is transferred to Arakan (33rd Bde, 7th Indian Div), Lowry is a company commander and serves in this role in action against the Japanese. One of the standout elements of this book is the revelation of what it meant to conduct patrols in the jungle. The extensive planning is incredible. It is also fascinating to read of the author’s thoughts as he positions his men for battle. Several times his unit is cut off by major Japanese offensives and has to survive as best it can. There are both lengthy offensive and defensive phases and as such this book offers something different to the many US accounts (post-Guadalcanal at least) of the war.

One thing that also stood out was the remarkable quality of the British regular army. It seems the Queens were a particularly impressive regiment too and Lowry reveals what made it so. Again, it is fascinating to compare the differences in the national armies, for instance how the British were fed and supplied compared to that usually experienced by US soldiers. There are also some interesting observations of the Japanese.

While Lowry certainly participates in combat, his role was to command and most of the fighting he writes about is of the men following his orders. While casualties seem to have been generally less than the norm for North/West Europe, Burma was certainly no soft option and Lowry loses many men and friends (some of these die terribly, so this is no sanitized account). Indeed, it was fascinating reading him question whether any of his decisions were responsible. So the whole gamut of command is covered.

There is a real quality to this memoir. It deals with a theatre that receives little attention and it does so through the eyes of a very professional officer. Highly Recommended. 4 stars

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 15 Dec 2012 12:24

'The Devils Own Luck' by Denis Edwards

Subtitled : Pegasus Bridge to the Baltic 1944-45
Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley, 2005. Paperback, 246 pages.

This is a cracking read by a member of the glider group that assaulted the famous Pegasus Bridge to protect the D-day beaches from German counter-attack. Edwards enlisted while still 16 and volunteered to be a glider trooper to escape boredom. He is assigned to 2nd Ox & Bucks Regt, part of the 6th Airlanding Bde of the 6th Airborne Division. He fights with this formation throughout its Normandy campaign, in the Ardennes and following Operation Varsity, into Germany.

The author came from an interesting family of independent thinkers. A life of privilege was lost due to the Stock Market Crash and with circumstances awkward he entered the army at his own time of choosing. This is one of the few accounts by a glider-born soldier and the author writes in some detail of the crafts and the training. His company commander insisted on the highest of efforts and they were subsequently chosen to attack the important bridges. This is quite an exciting passage in the book. The take-off and flight and then the descent to contact are fascinating, and while they did not face severe German reaction that night, they are soon involved in desperate combat in the surrounding area. This was a stage when German force was at its peak and was capable of launching very strong combined arms attacks. Interestingly, given the general view that the Germans enjoyed many advantages (and were considered by many to be superior soldiers) Edwards generally sees more German casualties than British. Indeed, he sees a lot altogether and much of it was incredibly awful. It is mostly a defensive effort though, protecting the British flank but it allows Edwards as a sniper to inflict considerable harm on the enemy.

Following 90 days in Normandy, the 6th Airborne Division is withdrawn to Britain. Upon the German’s Ardennes offensive, it is quickly returned and committed, mainly to holding and scouting actions but Edwards recalls fighting Tiger tanks in a swirling street battle. After the Germans are thwarted, the 6th attacks Germany in Operation Varsity. While this is a fairly glossed over battle, Edwards makes it clear that the opposition was formidable. The gliders were vulnerable and suffered heavily and the battalion’s losses are very high. He does not cover these later battles in the same detailed manner as he does Normandy though. That was based on a diary he kept and that part, which comprises the bulk of his memoir, is presented in a day-to-day format.

This is a very interesting account of combat in the ETO. Edwards is an intriguing character and his perspective is different to the predominately American accounts this battle offers. His role as a sniper allows him to see (and shoot) the enemy and he makes some interesting observations. At times the action is quite frantic and he sees more than he wants of famous German tanks. There are atrocities, chance deaths and lucky escapes. Overall, this is an engrossing account of warfare, in particular regarding the epic battle for Normandy. Highly recommended!

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 19 Jan 2013 12:01

Armoured Odyssey by Stuart Hamilton MC

Tom Donovan publishing, London, 1995. Hardcover 161 pages.

Hamilton served with 8th RTR in the Western Desert in 1941-42, Palestine and Syria 1943-44 and Italy in 1944-45. He was a troop commander operating Valentine tanks in Africa but had graduated to Squadron leader and Sherman tanks for Italy.

The author’s role in the desert was primarily infantry support. Unfortunately the Valentine’s main weapon was the 2 Pounder which was inadequate for confrontations with German tanks. It was very interesting to read how the crews managed to make do though. Manoever, a high rate of fire and guts went a long way – until the overwhelming odds caught up with you at least. One of the most remarkable aspects of Hamilton’s account is the relentless nature of the desert campaign. Aside from the intense battles, the travel was exhausting and the desert itself imposed serious difficulties. Hamilton writes in exasperation of units being continually spilt up and sent racing all over the desert. As such they were quickly reduced to ‘penny-packets’ and had great difficulty achieving battlefield success. In combat, Hamilton experiences air-attack and finds armoured warfare to be very harsh. Death meant gore and burns were a constant fear. Actions could erupt out of nowhere and the Italians were not always push-overs. The author gets a partial spell for Alamein but he otherwise seems to be in every other fight there was.

Italy is a less fluid campaign. There are different challenges with the terrain, ridges, cliffs, mud and it is a long hard slog. The Germans are impressive fighters and always maintain their determination and deadliness. There are also many casualties, including many accidental ones and command failures that exacerbate all the other problems. This is the only tanker account I know of that address this campaign.

As with it seems all war memoirs written by British officers, this is a very well written book. The author writes in great detail on the actions he fought in, including on killing, his friends, his men and the tragedies that occurred to them. The author was very, very lucky to survive to the end. In many ways, fighting in the desert and Italy was different to the battles of Normandy and beyond but even though there are excellent accounts from those, I think this book has the edge in terms of the overall experience of being a British tanker in WW2. Highly recommended 4 ½ stars

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 18 May 2013 12:28

Brazen Chariots by Robert Crisp

Bantam, 1978 (first published 1959), paperback, 233 pages.

Crisp, a South African, served with 3rd Battalion RTR in Greece, the desert and briefly in Normandy. This book covers just four weeks of his experiences in the Crusader battles in late 1941. (He writes of his Greek experiences in ‘The Gods were Neutral’ but doesn’t appear to have written at all of his time in Normandy). It must be said though, that these four weeks – for those who didn’t become casualties, were extremely intense and Crisp is a good enough writer to convey it all in a very powerful fashion.

The most astonishing thing is the incredible tempo of the operations. Crisp’s brigade is shuttled all over the place and his regiment and often, just his understrength squadron, seem to be continually operating in isolation against well concentrated Axis forces. Also, long, hot drives, and nights spent prepping the tanks for the next day’s actions, meant that the men were in a constant state of exhaustion.

The Crusader battles were meant to break Rommel’s siege of Tobruk and ultimately they achieved this but there were many twists in the proceedings which led to swirling advances across the desert, frequently interrupted by bitter combat. Crisp was a troop commander of Honey (Stuart) tanks, a weapon that was heavily outgunned by the German panzers. Crisp goes into great detail about the efforts he went to, to compensate for the imbalances. Dash was often his only option and his account is full of very dramatic armour battles. The deadliness of which he spells out, particularly so during his own traumatic journey as a casualty at the conclusion of his account.

There are about a dozen memoirs by British tank men and though it is hard to compare desert accounts with those of Normandy and beyond, this is certainly the most action packed of all of them. Crisp was a post-war journalist and his writing is vivid and detailed. He conveys very well the fear and gore of unrelenting armoured warfare, as well as the absolute ignorance the actual fighting men were left in of what was happening. There are deadly mistakes and amazing incompetence too. The author comes across as very ‘British’ in terms of his understated, almost humble tone. This is particularly intriguing when considered with the way he actually lived his life. Besides being a test cricketer and some amazing developments in his military career, he was a rake who would make rock-stars blush! A very interesting article on the man is here -
http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2013/ma ... azing-life

This aside, his account of desert warfare is compelling. 4.75 stars

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 17 Jul 2013 05:21

Storm from the Sea by Peter Young

Young was an officer in the regular army who, following action in France in 1940, volunteered for the Commandoes. He then had an extraordinary war thereafter, being part of several raids on Norway, then Dieppe, Sicily, Italy, Normandy and finally a brigade command in Burma. He is the only person I’ve come across who was entitled to wear the African, Italian, Burma and France & Germany stars!

All ranks in the commandoes were volunteers, so they were highly motivated and keen fighters. It is remarkable that so many men came forward to undertake the arduous training and a leading role in major battles. While mainly trained to operate as a sea assault force aimed at crucial targets, they often spent considerable time in the front line as well (85 days in Normandy for instance). With so much demanded of them, many volunteers did not make the cut and it was also common for men to be returned to their original units if they didn’t measure up on an operation.

Young served almost entirely with 3rd Commando. He had a lead part in the formation and then refinement of the organization. While junior officers were expected to take a lead in any fighting, it was even more the case in the commandoes. Young fires on and is fired on by the enemy. While there were direct assaults in the normal sense, there was much made of surprise and operating at night. Small groups were expected to do a lot and it was remarkable how often they prevailed against larger German forces. Young reveals that the quality of the German soldier was almost universally high and despite their daring, the commandoes suffer many casualties. This was hard as the small size of the unit led to a strong sense of camaraderie.

This book was first published in 1958 and it has a tone typical of its time. Young’s stiff upper lip style reminded me of several other memoirs by British veterans. It is also humorous, crisp and informative. It does not have strong language or gore, more typical of later examples but it is very clearly a combat account. When Young went into action it was serious stuff. He aimed to achieve his objectives and killing Germans was a part of this. His men are stoic and even excited at the prospect of action. He himself seems to have enjoyed every minute of it! Such men win your wars for you. This is a very interesting and exceptionally broad account of life in the commandoes in WW2. You see the development of the arm into an extremely deadly and valuable tool and it’s told through the eyes of a brave man who saw it all. Highly recommended 4 stars.

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 16 Aug 2013 12:59

For the Duration by Gordon Nisbett

Subtitled : The Journal of a Conscript 1941-46
Pentland Press, 1996. Hardcover, 175 pages.

Nisbett was quite surprised when the army called him up. He was bespeckeled and short but the army deemed him suitable for combat duties and he duly fought in Tunisia and Italy. While Nisbett served with a Recon regiment he found that his job was pretty much the same as a standard infantryman.

Nisbett writes a bit more on training than most British memoirists. It was jarringly cold and dangerous. It seemed more spartan than that experienced by US troops but also more practical, with less of the endless drill. Nisbett is then assigned to 1st Recon Regt (of 1st Infantry Division) and more training before they are all shipped overseas for action in Tunisia. The Recon regts were war-time creations, raised to allow the historic cavalry regiments to convert to tanks. They were equipped with armoured cars and Bren carriers which were markedly inferior to German weapons. This is sheeted home in Tunisia where the regiment has some grim days. Nisbett conveys well the tragedy of this, especially as the land fought over was of so little actual importance to anyone.

While there are some notable encounters early, the highlight of NIsbett’s account is his lengthy stint at Anzio. Despite the high hopes for a drive to Rome, the Allies are contained and forced to endure trench warfare for months. Nisbett’s unit largely for-goes its recon duties and serves in the frontline next to the infantry. There are many night patrols and endless shelling. There are German attacks and Nisbett is fortunate to miss the destruction of his troop.

Following Anzio the division slogs its way up Italy. There is a little more recon action but due to the terrain it is mostly done on foot. The mountain winter is very difficult. The action is mostly in the form of patrols and setting ambushes, though the Germans are not encountered too often. When the division is finally given a break it is assigned to Palestine, which was welcome in many ways. Nisbett loves the Biblical history and is almost a pilgrim. This changes for the worse with the end of the war and the discontent that breaks out in the Holy Land. It also signals the end of the regiment and Nisbett returns a vastly different person to an England he doesn’t recognize.

Nisbett is a likeable fellow and his writing is quite engaging. Though he is in the front line continually and sees lots of violence it is not a ‘blood-n-guts’ account. Friends are killed but Nisbett’s personal contribution to returning fire is subdued. Nominally a radio man, he is assigned a variety of weapons (Bren, Piat) but he doesn’t write of firing them to any real degree. Still, it is a far ranging account of an ordinary man at war. It is also the only account I am aware of by a member of a standard recon regt (though there are a couple by men who served in tank recon regts), so it has some different elements to other wartime memoirs. All up an enjoyable and informative account. 3 ½ stars

User avatar
Marcus
Member
Posts: 33931
Joined: 08 Mar 2002 22:35
Location: Europe

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Marcus » 16 Aug 2013 13:02

Thanks for your continued efforts in these threads!

/Marcus

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 16 Aug 2013 22:41

My pleasure! Thanks to you for providing such an excellent place to share such things!

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 24 Sep 2013 12:53

The Little Men by K. W. Cooper

Subtitled: One platoon’s epic fight in the Burma Campaign
Robert Hale, London, 1973 (Paperback 1992), 186 pages.

Cooper is a former RAF man, who following an accident becomes an infantryman! While he does not write of this, or any other combat service, his book is very full of action in the drive to recapture Burma in 1945. For this he is principally a platoon leader in the 2nd Battalion the Border Regt, the British element of the 100th Brigade of 20th Indian Division.

This is very much a combat account. Cooper is prominently involved in all the usual light infantry actions. He patrols, sets defences and leads attacks. At this point in the campaign the Japanese were still a formidable force. Many of the actions described are very willing affairs indeed. There is to me, something particularly oppressive about jungle fighting. The thick foliage makes identification of enemy positions extremely difficult and Japanese tactics accentuated this. Supply is haphazard, with no scope for any comforts and there is a complete lack of recreation options. The only thing to do is to advance on the enemy. In this book, this happens a lot.

Sometimes the Japanese in Burma are described as disorganized and clumsy. This is not the case here. Positions are defended with grim determination and attacks launched, often predictably but with absolute ferocity. There are some very horrible fates for soldiers on both sides and Cooper doesn’t spare too many details. The crash of battle, with smoke and fire and hellish noises could stun the senses. The night fighting seemed to me the worst. The tension of manning a foxhole while the Japanese searched for you in the dark must have been nigh on unbearable. Not all made it through. But there were many ways to die, including drowning during river crossings.

The Fourteenth Army is often referred to as the Forgotten Army. Cooper’s story explains the ordinary soldier’s experience of being on the end of a very long supply chain. Indeed, the demands on the troops in this extreme theatre are hard to believe. Men were unable to go on, NCOs refused orders but still the advance continued relentlessly. Cooper’s perspective as a commander is compelling. He details his plans and actions and writes painfully of men lost. I did read once that elements of his account are slightly exaggerated, but be that as it may, it is at face value a very hard fighting account. I think this memoir is a must read if you want to see what jungle fighting was about. Highly recommended 4 ½ stars

Ken S.
Member
Posts: 1049
Joined: 14 Feb 2006 09:30
Location: Kanada

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Ken S. » 26 Sep 2013 16:29

Leo Heaps - The Grey Goose Of Arnhem

* Author was a Canadian serving with the British - a great read.

Ronald A. Tee - A British Soldier Remembers

* I got my copy at a thrift store; there are several inscriptions on the titlepage: "To Ron: Well we finally did it!" - "Congratulations Mate!! [name unclear]" - "Congratulations Dad! Love Robyn" ...

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 02 Oct 2013 09:03

Thanks Ken. The first one is news to me and will go on my list. Annoyingly the day after I posted that Nisbett's memoir was the only one by a Recon soldier I came across Tee's, who was with 56th Recce, 78th Div in Tunisia, Sicily, Italy inc Mt Cassino. I think he moved to Canada after the war. No copies seem to be available anywhere though!

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 19 Oct 2013 02:35

The Only Way Out by R. M. Wingfield

Anchor Press, 1956. Hardcover, 190 pages.

Wingfield is a particularly educated young fellow, who nonetheless is assigned to infantry duty and becomes a reinforcement just after Normandy. He is posted to 1st/6th Queens, a lorried infantry battalion of the 131st Bde, attached to the 7th Armoured Division. He is quite proud of this too. Later though, the battalion is broken up to supply drafts to other formations and he joins 159th Bde of the 11th Armoured Division.

Wingfield is very fortunate to join a disciplined unit. He receives a careful initiation to frontline life, including extensive tuition by veteran soldiers. Given lorries aren’t much good against cannons, most of his active service sees him on foot patrol or advancing with divisional armour. Sometimes they even ride on top of the tanks panzergrenadier style, though they’re not keen on this exposed position. Even so, there is not a lot of combat to speak of and most of the action seems to be in being smothered in gifts and kisses from liberated towns.

Initially he is an intelligence officer in his new unit and he is privy to some interesting material. Particularly, relating to the German buildup to the Ardennes offensive, where the British cannot understand the US failure to take appropriate action. The author does though give Monty considerable credit for saving the day, so it appears he has a fairly parochial view of the Alliance. Soon however he is back in the front line commanding a section and he does recount several sharp actions. The most notable is the final one where he is wounded. The confusion he feels and the see-saw of the battlefield are quite interesting to read of.

While a combat soldier, Wingfield doesn’t generally write of visceral fighting. Indeed, there is almost an adventourous attitude about him. He was very young though. I was interested in his appraisal of his battalion. Every man worked for the benefit of the frontline soldiers. I guess this supports the belief in the strength of Britain’s regimental system. There are also some interesting thoughts on premonitions, Dear John letters and other things of note to soldiers. I was fascinated by some stories which I can only think are apocryphal, particularly the relating to the new recruits the story of an SS massacre. It steeled them to show no mercy in turn. Unfortunately I can find no supporting evidence! I guess though this is the nature of combat. The bitterness and fog of war mean that stories grow a life of their own. So there are certainly some interesting things to read and reflect on here. Overall though, I think it is a 3 ¼ star book.

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 15 Dec 2013 11:57

A Tankie’s Travels by Jock Watt

Woodfield Publishing, 2006. Paperback, 205 pages.

Jock grew up in a small Scottish beach-side town. He left home to pursue his interest in mechanics and on his 18th Birthday in 1937 joined the 3rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment. When war came he served with his regiment at the disasters in Calais in 1940 and Greece in 1941, before taking part in the see-sawing African battles against Rommel.

Watt’s entry into the army was fascinating. There is quite a bit on the ways of the professional army, the training and the relationships between ranks. By the time war came he had progressed to corporal and the CO’s driver. Their shift to France came only after the German breakthrough and the regiment’s deployment is quite confused. Watt doesn’t see much apart from Calais and German bombers. He is very lucky to get a ship away.

Following the rebuilding of the unit, they are sent to Africa. They are then part of the token force sent to Greece. The disorganization is colossal. Their new and familiar A13 Cruisers are exchanged for worn out A10s and the Greek roads and conditions are diabolical. Once the Germans attack it is pretty much one long retreat. Incredibly, the tank replacement parts they are issued are all for their former A13s and more tanks are lost to breakdown than enemy action. Watt finds himself virtually alone conducting a rearguard. He sees plenty of action. At one point he has Bob Crisp (of ‘Brazen Chariots’ and ‘The God’s were Neutral’ his own account of the Greek campaign) alongside and it is interesting to read his brief, mixed, appraisal of him. This is a very underreported campaign and there is much that is informative. Watt is particularly impressed with the MPs who stolidly kept their posts, giving directions and trying to keep order in the chaos. Watt is then even luckier than previously in getting to Crete, and then Egypt by sea. It is an extraordinary adventure by itself.

In Egypt the regiment rebuilds for the second time. This time Watt is commanding a Stuart tank and he writes quite a bit on operating these machines. They are now part of 4th Armd Bde and he is in many actions; the relief of Tobruk, Sidi Rezegh airfield, Gazala Line, the Cauldron, Alamein and the pursuit across Libya. He has many near misses. The scale of the fighting is sometimes incredible, with vehicles as far as the eye can see. There are constant casualties. German tanks are superior but there seems a surprising amount of success against them. There is the occasional break in Cairo and at the end in Tunis before they are shipped home for Normandy. Watt is by now an officer and commands the regt’s Sherman Firefly troop. Fortunately he suffers a severe illness and then receives a training post and ends up missing combat altogether in the European campaign. Frankly, he’d done his share by then.

There is a real charm to Watt’s account. The breadth of his experience is amazing, as is his survival. There is plenty of combat and it is quite detailed at times, though it is less visceral than some of the other British tankers. It is always informative, about excellent commanders like Pip Roberts and others not so talented, as well as the machinations of the army. Watt sees a lot in his journey from Trooper to RSM, to officer of the Queen. It was quite sad to see the camaraderie of the battlefield fade as the professionals retook control of it all. At the end though, you are left with a clear picture of the relentless nature of the war. The regiment was constantly re-equipping and absorbing replacements. Watt writes openly of his struggles to maintain his courage, especially after a near miss. Mistakes were made and death or terrible wounds were sometimes just an unlucky step away. It's an extraordinary story and I highly recommend this account.

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 18 Jan 2014 22:56

Rifleman by Victor Greg

Co-author Rick Stroud. Bloomsbury, London, 2011. Paperback, 273 pages.

Greg grew up in difficult circumstances in London. His father walked out, money was very tight and the streets were tough places. He developed self-reliance and luck but was still all but tricked into joining the Rifle Brigade. He served with its 2nd Battalion in pre-war India and Palestine before extensive combat in the Western Desert. After some unusual adventures he then joined 10th Parachute Bn and fought in Italy and Holland, where with the bulk of 1st Airborne Division he was captured. He was then very lucky to survive as a POW, being in Dresden during the infamous Fire-bombing. Then he became a spy!

Greg’s childhood was fascinating. Things were difficult and he often had to fend for himself. These were good life lessons though for the years ahead and he was a suitably tough regular soldier by the time the war started. His earlier postings to India and Palestine were very interesting and very dangerous respectively. His battalion was one of the first to be mechanised and accordingly they were involved in many actions, including Beda Fromm and the truly epic stand at position Snipe at Second Alamein. In between he found himself as a driver for behind the lines outfits like the Long Range Desert Patrol. He joined the paratroops for a bit of a change but still found battle in Italy and of course too much of it at Arnhem. The POW days were very tough and he was very lucky to survive. Ironically the Dresden bombing was a blessing for him, though it otherwise embittered and haunted him.

Following the war, there was marriage and children and a large variety of jobs. Greg found adjusting from the war difficult and he frequently got bored with his lot and rolled the dice for a new challenge. He found this in spades when he found himself working as a courier for British Intelligence. He visited Eastern Europe and backed his wits to get him through. He also backed his personal assessment of missions and drove a hard bargain. He is amazed at the process of it all.

The war takes up half the book and the author can lay claim to one of the most varied experiences a soldier could have. He was lucky to survive as he fought in several extremely savage battles. There is quite a bit of detail about the lot of a soldier, the scams, the frustrations, the entertainment but I have to say, not so much on the fighting. Greg was a machine gunner and was in the thick of the fighting but his accounts of these are generally brief and general. Given the specifics he gives regarding his other adventures I have to say this was disappointing. Beda Fromm for instance was ‘two days of hand-to-hand fighting’. Maybe so, but here was a an opportunity to flesh out what that cliché really meant. The man is entitled to tell his story his way but I feel, given the absorbing way he wrote of so much else, that fuller battle details would’ve made this book absolutely amazing. As it is, it is very much worth reading. The author led such a varied life. He made mistakes and suffered from the war but he always picked himself up and moved on through his own efforts and will. There are some surprises too and a few things that will jar. It is a 4 ½ star book overall but deduct a star if your focus is battle.

Larso
Member
Posts: 1888
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 12 Apr 2014 12:58

Leakey’s Luck by Rea Leakey

With George Forty. Subtitled – A Tank Commander with Nine Lives.
Sutton Publishing, 1999. Hardcover, 158 pages.

The author has possibly the most far ranging career of any memoirist I have come across. He starts the war as a young regular army officer in 1RTR serving in the Western Desert. As the campaign continues he finds himself serving in a wide range of roles, including as an infantry corporal in Tobruk! He fights in Tunisia and Sicily and then from Normandy to Germany, as commander of 5th and 7th RTR. In between he is a staff officer with the Australian Airforce and 10th Army in Persia! There are indeed many close calls. It is astonishing that he survived and his story is one of the most fascinating I have read!

Leakey grew up in Kenya and spent some of his youth watching lions attack game from the front porch! Bad times see him sent to England where relatives go to remarkable lengths to support him. It is incredible how life could hinge on the sacrifice and good will of virtual strangers. Leakey does well in officer training and is fortunate to get in some extensive pre-war service in the desert. The close calls weren’t confined to the war either, something his later stint in Persia confirms.

The desert war begins against the Italians and Leakey is in support of mainly Australian infantry. There is quite a spirit of adventure in his writing and it is a jolt when he recounts the first of the horrific events that leave him with lifelong nightmares. Another, worse instance, occurs when he is besieged in Tobruk. So this is no ‘Tally Ho chaps’ cartoon version of war. Leakey shares the stories that you can’t tell the children. Tobruk is also the venue for an absolutely astonishing foray into front-line artillery spotting. Except he puts himself in, well behind, the German front line! Again, this is no sanitised account of battle. Leakey kills and does his best to keep killing enemies. Some of the things he has to do, to keep doing it, are bracing.

The stint in Persia probably saves his life (at least from battle). He continually sought front line roles and it’s hard to keep track of who he fights with at times. It was that type of campaign. Leakey has considerable run-ins with difficult commanders and army bureaucracy. The bulk of his story here though is of tank battles and the extent and tempo is amazing. After missing Alamein while in Persia, Leakey is assigned to 3RTR for Tunisia and then 44RTR for Sicily. This gets him back to England for Normandy.

The campaigns from France to Germany are markedly different to those of the desert. There is little room for manoeuvre and the concentration of German troops and resources is much greater. Leakey still tries to lead from the front but there are many difficulties. His first command, that of 5RTR is very different in that (after a horrific baptism) they spend a lot of time in an infantry role besieging Dunkirk! Then he commands 7RTR in the final drive through Germany. These campaigns are related in a briefer way than those desert battles but there are still some astonishing stories. By VE-day Leakey has done and seen an extraordinary amount but he is still slated to go to the East to invade Japan!

This is a remarkable combat memoir. Aside from the breadth of experience, the revelations of battle confusion and horror are compelling. There is also some fascinating notes on the differences between regiments and what had to be done as a commander. Forty’s contribution is to introduce each chapter with a few paragraphs of context, which help nicely to explain what is going on. He also writes the concluding chapter which recounts Leakey’s post-war career and life, which was welcome as Leakey’s finish was somewhat abrupt. For the rest, Leakey is unsparing of the realities of battle and command. This is an engrossing book. The range of experiences is incredible. Very highly recommended! 5 Stars.

Return to “Books & other Reference Material”