British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

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Larso
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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 10 May 2014 11:10

Achtung! Minen! By Ian C. Hammerton

Subtitled: The Making of a Flail Tank Troop Commander
The Book Guild Limited, Lewes, 1991. Hardcover, 176 pages

Hammerton was a very young man who joined the Territorial Army in 1938. When war came he was promptly called up and spent quite a bit of time patrolling quaint English villages without much in the way of weapons or equipment. There was a strange charm to these days. He was initially a member of the 43rd Royal Tank Regiment and there were some interesting stories of the outdated tanks they eventually received and later the idiosyncrasies of the Churchill. By this time he had progressed through officer training and had conducted numerous courses, so he put himself forward for a more active role and was accepted into the 22nd Dragoons.

This regiment was shortly after equipped with Shermans but redesignated a flail tank unit, much to the horror of the cavalrymen. The flail equipped Shermans, called Crabs, were part of the 79th Armored Division and were assigned as infantry support. Hammerton’s first action is D-day where he is a troop commander in ‘B’ Squadron and lands with 3rd Canadian Division. This follows a very difficult Channel crossing. The men are almost glad to get onto the beach. Indeed, there is much of interest on the preparation phase for the invasion. Hammerton finds the sheer volume of supplies and the sight of so much armed power astonishing.

Hammerton’s battle on the beach is brief but the tanks do very important work. Thereafter they are in virtually constant support throughout the Normandy battle. It was interesting to read that many commanders had little understanding of the Crab’s capabilities and they were called on less than they might have been. While most of the action is clearing mine lanes, there are some shootouts with other tanks. This is not an account of extreme combat though. Casualties are certainly suffered, in the usual awful ways but Hammerton’s troop is luckier than others. Amazingly they only suffered fatal casualties on two days in the whole campaign, including Holland and Germany. There were still many near misses and the sights and smells of battle were distressing. A rare feature is actual photos of the tanks lost, including the German SP guns that had done the damage. Armoured confrontations were generally deadly all round. Hammerton notes wryly that good tank country was also good anti-tank country. This, combined with the mines and the mud, especially in Holland, made for an exhausting time. At the conclusion of the war the author is involved in some local war crimes trials.

The author is a decent man and his story is an informative and worthwhile one. As far as I know, he is the only tanker to write of battle from the point of view of flail tank. There is much to learn of the specialised equipment and the tactics employed. It was often hard to see anything and as they operated at less than walking pace, they were great targets. Remarkably, they inflicted more losses than they suffered, though Hammerton himself does this by direction rather than by his own hand. Hammerton writes well and though he spells out the awfulness of battle, he chose to gloss over the most disagreeable aspects of the fighting. Even so, I found that it compared well to the other accounts by British tankers. Recommended 3 1/2 stars.

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 07 Jun 2014 23:19

An Image of War by Mark Henniker

Leo Cooper, London, 1987. Hardcover, 266 pages.

Henniker was a regular army officer who had served in India prior to the war and would go on to brigade command in Malaya after it. His WW2 service started in France as Adjunct of the 2nd Division engineers. Following the start of the German offensive he is transferred to command 253rd Field Company in Montgomery’s 3rd Division. After Dunkirk he is assigned to put together and command the engineer component of the newly forming 1st Parachute division. His war concludes with command of the 43rd Division’s engineers from Holland to Germany. By the end he has a lot of campaigns under his belt!

The German assault on France finds Henniker in England on leave. It is fascinating to read of the efforts to get men back to the front. Unfortunately the situation is unredeemable and Henniker spends most of his time organising the destruction of bridges to hold the Germans up. He is under artillery fire and at quite some risk but he surmounts the biggest challenge, which is crossing the channel back to England.

Unusually he is then posted to the otherwise all volunteer Parachute force. It is absorbing to read of his thoughts on preparing the structure of the airborne engineers. There is specialised equipment to arrange and specific to plan. He is also intimately involved in planning the successful raid on Bruneval and the disastrous attack on Germany’s Heavy Water plant in Norway. His insights on the process; the risks and legalities are fascinating. He then precedes the parachute troops sent to Africa, where again he has a lot of organising to do. He participates in the glider assault on Sicily, where he engages briefly in infantry action against the Italians. Italy follows before he returns To England. The 1st Airborne is not called on for Normandy and doesn’t go back into action till Arnhem. Henniker participates here but ironically with the 43rd Division following his re-assignment. This last posting sees some of his most arduous service in commanding the division’s engineer assets in the advance to and through Germany.

This is the first memoir I have read by an engineer officer and it is, not surprisingly, quite different to those by infantry and tank men. Being a company and then essentially a regimental commander also brings in a very different perspective. Blowing bridges, crossing rivers, dealing with obstacles - always heavily mined, and planning efficiently for it all is very complex. Henniker does an excellent job explaining it all and makes it interesting! He also gives his thoughts on promoting subordinates, evaluating successes and failures, including his own. There is also his candid appraisal of his divisional commanders, which is absorbing given these included Montgomery, Browning, Hopkinson and Thomas.

While this account has a lot less combat than most war memoirs, it is still an extremely interesting read. The author is a very literate man, he and his father even communicate in Latin at times. Surely you will come across no other war book where knowledge of the Battle of Cannae and the doings of Hereward the Wake provide help on the battlefields of the 1940s. This points also to the remarkable nature of the times. Well born men like Henniker competed in rowing and participated in fox-hunts. They served with and socialised with like-minded fellows in various army postings and all these connections often assisted communication and co-operation during the war. There is nothing pretentious though, it is simply how British society worked at the time, much to its benefit in this context at least. Simply put, this is a very informative memoir of a specialised role in WW2 by an intelligent man from a by-gone time. 5 stars

PS – His books ‘Memoirs of a Junior Officer’, featuring his six years in India (he won an MC) and ‘Red Shadow over Malaya’ are also likely to be very worthwhile reading.

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by fourtoe » 22 Jun 2014 01:21

Arnhem Spearhead, a Private Soldier's Story

3¼ stars. Short but compelling, recommended for the casual war memoir reader.

James Sims was 19 when he transferred from his artillery unit to the British 1st Airborne Division. He undergoes further paratrooper training and finds himself in the mortar platoon for his unit and making his first and only jump into Holland in September of 1944 as a part of the doomed Operation Market Garden.

Sims sees roughly 4-5 days of combat involving a mad rush to a strategic bridge and occupying positions in the surrounding village with the rest of his unit. They dig in and turn the civilian dwellings into makeshift fortresses - hunkering down and waiting for the hopeful break through by Allied armored forces.

Sims is a very likeable soldier. His writing is straight forward and descriptive, if a bit stunted/simplistic. Throughout his combat experience he makes interesting insights and observations that could only be made by an amiable, if slightly naive, teenager caught in a horrific modern war setting.

The entire account is only around 160 pages and the print is slightly bigger than usual. It isn't until around a third into the book when Sims jumps into combat and though interesting, this first third of the book doesn't present anything novel in terms of training descriptions. Also, as a member of the mortar platoon, Sims is often just behind the pointy end of the battle for most of this account. He never speaks of firing a personal weapon but speaks interestingly and vividly of undergoing artillery barrages and being shot at countless times. Several times throughout he is making dashes from house to house - cover to cover to get water for fellow troopers or to perform other errands and Sims conveys these experiences with intense though slightly light-hearted detail.

An on-going theme throughout Sims' memoir is the positive outlook held by the British paratrooper. There are a lot of funny instances and their good sense of humor is always apparent, even after Sims joins a group of wounded paratroopers who later become POWs. The last 20 pages or so recounts his journey to a POW camp and the poor conditions they underwent while waiting out the remainder of the war.

There are many compelling paratrooper accounts from WW2 available, though not so much in terms of British accounts. So I haven't read too many making this one recommendable - hence, the positive, 3¼-star review.

Another British paratrooper account that I have read comes from a glider infantryman, Denis Edwards entitled Devil's Own Luck: Pegasus Bridge to the Baltic 1944-45. That book is much more extensive and I highly recommend it if you enjoyed this one but found it limited.

AND

Fear is the Foe: A Footslogger from Normandy to the Rhine

5 stars. This is probably the best British memoir I have read so far. Stan Whitehouse was a bren gunner and later a piat operator. He served in the Black Watch and saw action from D-Day to the final days of the war into Germany.

"Whitey" sees lots of frontline action and as the title implies grapples with the growing strain and fear that proliferates as the months of combat he sees build up. He also starts off in the military as a 16 year old.

I have only started to read British memoirs of WW2 and look forward to many others but I have a feeling that this one will be hard to beat. Whitey tells a lot about the hardships of the frontline soldier and about the intense environment that was the setting for the first few months of the Normandy invasion. He discusses the high amounts of casualties, fighting the SS, friendly fire, deserters, the punishment of deserters and even having rear squads set up behind the soldiers who were ordered to shoot anyone who retreats to avoid "another Dunkirk".

Whitey even sees hand-to-hand combat and does Military Medal worthy actions throughout his combat run. He never gets full of himself and only praises his comrades, many of whom do not make it out of the war. He also frequently discusses the growing instability of his state of mind which leads him to almost shoot himself in order to get out of combat and to almost kill POWs! One refreshing thing I haven't seen in other memoirs is Whitey's loss of faith, he details how he was a Sunday school teacher before the war but ended up feeling that a god that would allow such a horrible war happen was not worth knowing.

The only flaw is that I wish the book was longer. It has a great happy ending, don't get me wrong, but the last paragraph of the book only makes you want to yell "hey keep writing!" but alas. This book deserves to see a much larger audience!

ETA: This is not only my favorite British WW2 memoirs but one of my favorite war memoirs period! I Whitey went on to tell us more about his time in Malaysia but oh well.

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by hucks216 » 22 Jun 2014 12:10

Battle Of The Narrow Seas by Peter Scott (ISBN: 978-1848320352)
The History of the Light Coastal Forces in the Channel and North Sea 1939-1945

This excellent story is told by a participating officer and is written immediately after the war when censorship was still in place. Despite this handicap, if it can be called that, Scott has written a history of the numerous combats - and tedious uneventful patrols - that the coastal forces of MGB's & MTB's conducted on a nightly basis. When writing of the fast paced combats between the British forces and the German E-Boats and convoy escorts you get a real sense of just how fast paced these actions must of been.
Rather than a memoir of the author he has covered the actions of other officers, crews & flotillas as well as himself and so has provided a good narrative of the coastal forces including their participation at Dieppe, St.Nazaire and D-Day.
Despite writing this so close to the end of the war when the memories of combat and loss of friends was still fresh, he does give the German crews their due.
Not having access to the German records to compare with what he experienced and was able to find from Admiralty records there is a tendency to over-exaggerate German losses but he wrote of what he believed happened in the aggressive combat engagements so this doesn't detract from 'the whole'.

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by fourtoe » 23 Jun 2014 07:00

hucks216 wrote: Review of The battle of the narrow seas...
Thanks for the review Hucks! I usually don't check out naval memoirs (unless they're SF or corpsmen in the US Navy). I think Larso likes to stick to ground troop memoirs too, so it's nice to add some different memoirs to the list!

I have a few questions about the book and some recommendations you might wanna check out based on your review:

1. How was the book still subject to censorship? I think of a few reasons (tactics still classified, maybe?), but since it was published in 1946 I would like to think that censoring accounts usually was limited to those published during the war.

2. How is he on describing his own personal actions in battle?

3. If you can remember, what was his official rank?

Recommendations:

I think you might enjoy Rough Road to Rome by Sir David Cole. It's not a naval memoir but it's from a British commanding officer and has a broader scope (IIRC) akin to Scott's account. It was printed in 1983, though, so it's not an early account. The only early accounts I can think of are from US, NZ or German soldiers...or they're from the wars in Afghanistan and/or Iraq.

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hucks216
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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by hucks216 » 23 Jun 2014 12:49

fourtoe wrote:
hucks216 wrote: Review of The battle of the narrow seas...
I have a few questions about the book and some recommendations you might wanna check out based on your review:

1. How was the book still subject to censorship? I think of a few reasons (tactics still classified, maybe?), but since it was published in 1946 I would like to think that censoring accounts usually was limited to those published during the war.

2. How is he on describing his own personal actions in battle?

3. If you can remember, what was his official rank?
It has been a few months since I read the book and it has since been passed on to another family member to read so I can't remember how censorship affected it but I seem to recall he does mention such restrictions in the opening paragarphs.

In terms of his own actions he is very much one to show that everyone was deserving of credit, that no boat depended on just one man. He doesn't talk up his actions in such a way that would give an impression that the world revolves around him. Basically, very modest and very balanced. I seem to recall he does own up to mistakes but again, without having the book to hand I can not be 100% certain of that.

His official rank during the scope of the book went from Lieutenant to Lieutenant-Commander. The 'story' takes him from his days upon joining his first boat/flotilla to eventually commanding a Flotilla.

The book does include some good photos and colour artworks. Here is a page taken from a Coastal Forces website that has some extracts from the book...
http://www.mikekemble.com/ww2/ml150.html

An interesting aside, Peter Scott was one of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund and designed the Panda logo.

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 16 Aug 2014 13:36

In at the Finish by J. G. Smith

Minerva Press, London, 1995. Paperback, 340 pages.

Smith trained as a Cromwell driver and was sent to France in July 1944 as a replacement for 141st RAC. This was an armoured battalion raised from The Buffs and it operated Churchill Crocodiles. At first he is given various support duties but he agitates for a tank crew role and shortly after becomes a radio man. This is at a time or reorganisation. The regiment’s Recce and AA troops are disbanded to constitute a fourth squadron of crocodiles. These are assigned where needed. Smith’s first major action takes place with C Sqn supporting infantry reducing various channel ports (eg Le Harve) after the breakout from Normandy. Following this he proceeds to Holland and then into Germany.

Over the next nine months Smith is present at many battles. He is on the receiving end of extensive shelling and his tank engages in duels with anti-tank guns. They support both infantry and armour and are often teamed with Flail tanks and other specialised equipment from 79th Armoured Division for operations. He has quite an eye for battle-field detritus and often comments on the wrecks of tanks and other vehicles. Detailed notes are also included on all weapons he encounters. Remarkably though his particular tank never uses its flame-thrower! There are a variety of reasons for this but the main one was breakdown. It seems his tank was forever bogged or in the hands of the fitters. There was an extraordinary number of ways a tank could be unable to operate. Smith details them all!

This points to the strength of this book. Smith has given a very detailed account of life in an armoured regiment. Actual combat was relatively brief but there was heaps of time spent on looting, scavenging, living/sleeping, relating to civilians, frisking prisoners, preparing meals and coping with miserable winter weather. It is also an eye opening look at the roles of the members of a tank crew. This is a virtual day to day account of everything. This didn’t become monotonous though, in fact it was almost engrossing.

This is an important addition to the literature of British armoured forces. It offers less about combat, though again, Smith has an eye for the impact of war on soldiers and their weapons, it does lay bare the miniature of day to day life in combat operations. There are certainly things of interest, for instance the dim view held of Guards Armd Division but the horror of flame-throwers specifically and armoured warfare generally are to be found elsewhere. 4 stars for the close up on army life but 3 stars overall.

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 21 Sep 2014 02:21

One Young Soldier by Tim Bishop

Bishop was the son of a WW1 battalion commander. He grew up in prosperous circumstances that allowed him to play sport and ride horses. He always intended to be a soldier and was able to combine these interests by joining the Life Guards as a trooper in 1934. Following his commission he joined the 12th Lancers and served with these in France and throughout the desert campaign.

The opening chapters about life in the Life Guards was almost mesmerising. They were a ceremonial regiment and much daily activity was given to keeping the horses and equipment in super shiny condition. The efforts Bishop has to go to are amazing. Often he had to miss a meal. The arcane ways of the army and the eccentricities of many of his superiors were a jolt. Training was almost as constant as grooming and cleaning. It was almost the life of an indentured servant. It was austere and often forbidding. Even the shaving water was always cold! Yet at the end of it Bishop is a very smart young man and there were some compensations. Riding in parade in full uniform was one. When the British did pageantry, they did it very, very well!

In 1940 Bishop, now a troop commander in 12th Lancers, deploys to France. They are a recon unit and operate Morris armoured cars. They are full of confidence, so the power of the German attack comes as a great shock. The most notable element is the Luftwaffe. The British seem to always be under air-attack. Indeed, for the main part of his war, Bishop seems to be under a Luftwaffe carpet, so rarely does he see a British plane. There are also sharp encounters with German troops and tanks. There are narrow escapes and then especial providence at Dunkirk. The spirit of the 12th Lancers through it all is remarkable. Especially so given its casualties. This is one of the clearer accounts of this campaign.

Following its rebuild it goes to the desert, operating with both 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions. Initially Bishop continues as a troop commander and again has a series of adventures in the swirling desert battles. Prior to Alamein he is made regimental adjutant and there is quite a lot to this role, though it generally keeps him out of direct fire situations. He is still shelled and subject to frequent Luftwaffe attack. These and the standard interruptions to his day, given his job, see him get remarkably little sleep. He continues in this role to the end in Tunisia, where the regiment operates with 1st Army. He is promoted to command ‘A’ squadron but returns to England before it deploys to Italy. He is then involved in training duties until the war ends.

Bishop died in 1986 and Bruce Shand (also of the 12th Lancers, whose own memoir is titled ‘Previous Engagements’) compiled this book from Bishop’s extensive diaries. It is all written in the first person and you really get a sense of the drama of mechanized recon work. There are casualties, though Bishop is not specific about his own contributions to those of the enemy. While the tone is remarkably upbeat, there are some very dark days, especially in 1940. Bishop loves writing of anything horse related and there are dozens of references to the other cavalry regiments he encounters during his service. He is the quintessential regular British officer. Optimistic and unperturbed and very, very brave.

This is why we read books. They can take you away to a time long lost, through the perils of a world war and do it with a charm that sees you home for tea. The author conveys the times and his times wonderfully. Being dropped off by his father on his first day at the Life Guards mortified him! He faced far worse on the battlefield but he kept an air of unflappability and wrote it all up in great detail. This is less visceral than others (3.5 stars) but highly readable for its perspective and tone (4.5 stars). Highly recommended. 4 stars

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 18 Oct 2014 13:01

Fighting Mad: One man’s guerrilla war by Michael Calvert

Calvert was a professional soldier whose first overseas posting was to Hong Kong in 1936. He was a Sapper and he trained the Chinese members of the Hong Kong Engineers and learned their language. Later in Shanghai he spent several months observing Chinese forces in battle with the Japanese. This helped him enormously in his own battles in Burma. Prior to that he was a member of the British force being despatched to fight with the Fins against the Russians. Though this mission was cancelled, he stayed in the Special Forces, seeing action in Norway, training of Commandoes in Australia and then extensive action in Burma, primarily as a commander of Chindits. He concludes the war as commander of SAS forces in Europe.

The Norwegian episode was fairly brief. Calvert does demolitions and is lucky to get away. He is involved in the early days of the Special Forces and his experiences as a trainer in Australia sees him allotted the covert job of training men to fight with the Chinese National army. With the Japanese attack on Burma he leads a scratch force into action there and is again lucky, surviving the long jungle retreat. Happily for him he meets Orde Wingate and assists in the organisation of the Chindit guerrilla force, participating in both the first, and as commander of the 77th Bde, second raids into Burma. There is quite a lot of action. Also, the complexities of operating in the jungle behind Japanese lines is spelled out. This is all quite interesting.

As for combat, Calvert sees a lot. He is in some incredible actions, including an astonishing battle on the second Chindit raid. To retrieve a perilous situation, he leads a desperate bayonet charge, only to be met mid-field by a Japanese counter charge, leading to a swirling bayonet and sword battle. While he recounts the epic doings of Lt. Cairns (awarded a posthumous VC) he doesn’t go into specifics of his own actions. This is quite frustrating as these type of actions are extremely rare and a clear first person account would be absolutely fascinating. It was an epic fight; half of his officers became casualties. He does note that press accounts of the time declared him to be the most deadly allied soldier. Yet, aside from an extraordinary mid-stream hand-to-hand grapple with a Japanese officer, he is generally reticent on these sort of specifics. A better writer could have made more of such events but it is still a very readable account, with some remarkable stories.

Another element is dealing with the bureaucracy of the army. Calvert is a rebel and following Wingate’s death he encounters ever more opposition. While the army had numerous jobs for his skills in wartime, it viewed him as an outsider and he was forced out of the service in 1951. This book doesn’t deal with this, finishing with Calvert’s stint in Malaya. Sadly, Calvert fell into alcoholism, lived as a down-and-out at times and was reduced to selling his medals the year before he died. This was poor reward for a man who served his country so valiantly. The story here at least focuses on the days of battle when Calvert’s dash and obstinacy were gold to a country fighting on every front. This is an informative and stirring account of Britain’s soldiers at war.

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 13 Dec 2014 23:51

Up the Blue by Roger Smith

Subtitled – A Kiwi Private’s view of the Second World War
Ngaio Press, Wellington, 2000.

Smith served with the 24th Battalion of the 2nd New Zealand Division. He served extensively in Africa and then Italy, including in the epic battle of Mt. Cassino. It is an extraordinarily detailed book and gives an amazing look at some of the key actions fought in the Mediterranean. It is also a very rare example of a New Zealander recording his experiences of the war in this theatre.

Smith joins the 2nd New Zealand Division in 1942, fortuitously after its disaster at Sidi Rezegh. He is able to engage in the extended break the division received as it rebuilt itself. Even so when he is posted to the 24th Battalion it is to a company Signals platoon. He comes to spend a lot of time as despatch rider and the CO’s driver. This role does keep him out of the battalion’s decimation in the El Mreir depression (Alamain) in July. The New Zealander’s had pretty tough going wherever they went it seems. Certainly there are additional bitter battles all the way to Tunisia. There was constant shelling and frequent air attacks. Smith reveals the horror of it all, especially the ripping feeling of losing friends horribly.

For Italy, Smith is reassigned to an infantry platoon. This sees him involved in night patrols and bitter river crossings and an extended time in the early Cassino battles. The most vivid material is of the fighting in the town of Cassino. The street fighting amongst the rubble, sometimes able to hear the screams of trapped men going mad, is incredible. It truly was possible to be a mere wall away from significant enemy forces. The German’s are masters of counter-infilltration and the New Zealanders are constantly having to retake posts lost in the night. There are a few very jarring stories, one in particular involving German misuse of stretcher-bearers and their subsequent shooting.

While Smith fires on the enemy, it is clear that most of the fighting was by manoever and hanging on to mountain ledges by the fingertips. The German’s were very proficient and attacking forces suffered heavily. Indeed, Smith is a witness of the carnage inflicted on the US 36th Division at the Rapido. It is also astonishing to read of the effects of mines and direct fire on human bodies. So this is a clear eyed account of what war was truly like.

Out of battle there is much on the camaraderie of the men. There is drinking and smoking and the scams and escapades of young men far away from home. There was some very interesting observations of the Maori battalion and other Allied troops. The level of exhaustion is also very clear. There were too few men and much was asked of the few who survived. At the end, Smith is a sergeant and leaves for officer training and perhaps a posting to a Guards regiment? The events either side of Africa and Italy are not really covered in the book. That which is covered, is done in great detail. This is an extremely impressive war memoir. There is a lot of clarity about what fighting in these battles entailed. It is also a valuable insight into the epic contribution of the New Zealand Division to the war. 4 ½ stars

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 17 Jan 2015 22:47

From Horses to Chieftains by Richard Napier

Subtitled: My life with the 8th Hussars 1935-59
Woodfield Publishing, 2002. Paperback 292 pages.

Napier was born the illegitimate son of British nurse and a quickly absent Australian soldier 1n 1919. He was fostered out and sent to a school for similarily ‘unfortunate’ children. In these he was very fortunate. His foster family became his family and his school did a remarkable job in educating and developing him. It was safe and well run. The music program was first class and the school was regularly perused by British regiments looking for bandsmen. Well band ‘boys’ and he became a boy soldier of the 8th Hussars in 1935.

The recruiting of boys into the army was unknown to me, yet it was officially done and widespread. Napier joins his regiment in Egypt, aged fifteen. There were enough boys in the other regiments for there to be a decent sporting competition just for them. The rest of the time they trained hard in the band. It was truly an eye opening account. They were subject to many rules and paid a pittance but they were fed and equipped and most, like Napier, leapt at the chance to go straight into a military career. This is all covered at length, indeed to page 100.

With becoming a ‘man’ soldier, also came WW2. The 8th Hussars had recently been mechanised and operated trucks and armoured cars. Napier is now a driver of a transport truck and sees most of the desert war in this role. He still seems to be in the thick of things, being present at Sidi Rezegh and the virtual destruction of the fighting elements of the regiment several times. He is shelled and bombed but his descriptions of battle are scant.

He takes the chance to return to England in 1943 and is posted to 13th/18th Hussars for the invasion of France. They operate Sherman DDs and land early on D-day. Napier is a gunner and fights all the way through Normandy, Belgium and to the end in Germany. He is involved in several epic battles. He fires a lot of rounds in this time and seems to have achieved many hits. Unfortunately, this is again covered in a fairly scant way. There are casualties and adventures but it’s all too brief. There was an incredible story here if he had been more forthcoming.

It is a somewhat similar story for his time in Korea, though his experiences as a tank commander at Imjim are covered more fully and are the combat highlight of the book. At other times though he has a variety of admin roles. There are then more courses, sports and duties before the 8th Hussars are amalgamated with the 4th Hussars and Napier leaves the army.

This is a curious book. Despite seeing what must have been some extraordinary combat, the author has written of it almost in passing. This can be understood of course but to a reader interested in the drama of armoured warfare it was disappointing. It is certainly one of the slighter entries in the list of British armoured corps accounts in this regard. I do however have praise for the lengthy section on the life of a boy soldier. It is not necessarily exciting but it is very informative and is very much worth a read if this aspect of the British army is of interest. It must be said that the author is only a steady writer at best. He doesn’t generally write vividly or in a way that creates tension. So bear that in mind. Of some interest 2 ½ stars.

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 19 Feb 2015 23:13

Commando: Memoirs of a fighting commando in WW2 by John Durnford-Slater

The author was from a military family. His father was killed in 1914 but strongly prompted by his mother he nonetheless entered the army too. He served 6 years in India and was an officer in an artillery training regiment when war came. Following the disaster in France Churchill instituted commando formations in order to hit back at the Germans. Slater volunteered and was made commander of 3 Commando Regt. It was the first such unit to be raised and it was Slater's job to recruit appropriate men and train them for specialised operations.

As a prototype unit, many of the necessary skills had to be learned from scratch. There was a heavy emphasis on using boats and rock climbing to enable seaborn assaults. The standards were very high and numerous officers and men failed aspects of the course and were rejected. Slater relates a number of stories regarding this. There are also interactions with superiors, some supportive and some absolutely not.

The first action was an abortive raid on Guernsey. Slater made a great point of learning from mistakes and the following actions in Norway at the Lofoten Islands and Vaagso were highly successful. Unfortunately an unlucky encounter with the German navy ruined the unit's participation at Dieppe. There were then several significant battles in Sicily. Slater is promoted to Brigadier and commands a Commando brigade in Italy, with a particularly severe action at Termoli. He concludes his war as second in command of Commando forces in the invasion of Normandy and continues in this role to VE-Day.

There is quite a bit of action in Slater's account. Despite his rank he takes a leading role in actions and is decorated accordingly. It is quite clear that when the commandoes attacked, they did so with every intention to kill their enemies. The battles were quite bitter affairs as they frequently encountered first-class German units. Slater has some personal luck but loses many good men along the way. While he does write of his personal deeds, most of these concern command matters. Indeed, the key value of this book, is Slater's perspective on forming a commando unit and refining its techniques. He also discusses things like the differences between army and Royal Marine commando units. The book was first published in 1953 and reflects the styles of the time. There is no shying away from the reality of deaths in battle but his tone is slightly distant. His focus is his unit and its achievements and it is a pretty interesting read on that basis. 3 3/4 stars

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by rossmcpharter » 19 Apr 2015 12:27

Got to second Fourtoe's review and recommendation for 'Fear is the foe' written by Stanley Whitehouse and George B. Bennett, it's easily the best NW Europe memoir by an infantry junior soldier that I've read, and contrasts well with books such as '18 Platoon'. I'm amazed this book is not more well known than it is.

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Pips
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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Pips » 16 Jun 2016 01:47

Wonderful summary of books available from the British side. I am surprised though that almost all seem to deal with the latter half of the war ie mid '43 onwards.

I'm really fascinated by the early years. Especially those dealing with France in 1940, the Desert War from 1940 to El Alamein and the defeat of the British in Malaya and Burma. Anyone have any book recommendations for those periods?

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Re: British WW2 Memoirs - Reviews

Post by Larso » 29 Jun 2016 12:52

Yes, that is a bit strange. Perhaps it's because those who were in from an early stage were often casualties or POWs and were less likely to be able to write a book?

Anyway, I've gotten back into things and here is Farley Mowat's 'And No Birds Sang'. He's Canadian but it fits here.

This is the story of Mowat’s journey from idealistic junior officer to combat breakdown. As was possible in the British and in this case, Canadian military, Mowat joined his father’s unit The Hastings and Prince Edward’s regiment. The elder Mowat had fought in the first war and he was keen for Farley to follow in his boot-steps. For his part, Farley was enthusiastic and overcame the doubts of some to gain a command in time to embark with the 1st Canadian division for the invasion of Sicily.

The subsequent seaborne assault is almost comical, except for the violent reception they receive. Even so, there is confused wandering around and a near blue-on-blue exchange. The untried Canadians gradually find their feet, fortunate to mostly encounter Italians initially. Things get a lot more serious when the Germans put in their appearance. Mowat and his fellows have some luck marching through the Sicilian mountains but casualties begin to mount. There are several bitter battles and the reality of war becomes clear. The joy of wartime friendships has a sour after-taste.

For Italy, Mowat leaves command of Seven platoon to become the battalion’s intelligence officer. There are some more less than deadly encounters with the Italian army, which are quite amusing. Soon enough though it’s the Herman Goering division and the paratroopers opposing them and everything changes. The advance becomes a slog fest, something foreshadowed by a paratrooper’s letter, where it’s declared they’ll make the Allies ‘chew’ their way up Italy. The latter parts of the book reveal the truth of this. Every ridge, river or mountain is defended fiercely. Every advance is costly. The incoming fire is always intense. The terrain and the weather appalling. Step by step Mowat feels his fear grow and the unceasing orders that place him in harm’s way become almost impossible to obey.

The book ends fairly abruptly with Mowat appearing to succumb to combat exhaustion. I see he served in other roles later though, including in Northern Europe. He was also responsible at the end for shipping home captured material for Canadian museums. It seems some of Mowat’s other books deal with these latter phases of his career. Following the war he became an author on environmental issues, though it seems he was a controversial (read disliked) figure. His combat exploits and experiences though are the grist of this volume. Mowat is a fine writer. He conveys well the journey from enthusiast to war shattered survivor. It is not sanitised but is still very accessible to a wide readership.

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