BOOK REViEW: Finest Hour, Clayton/Craig

This is another book gifted to me on my recent birthday, by friend and neighbour, Chris. Thanks, mate!

The first I read from this new batch of books was Waiting For Hitler (read my review of it here). That was about the 1940 invasion scare, and there’s a significant amount of overlap with this book, which is mainly about the 1940 Battle of Britain.

I say mainly because this really quite epic and yet very homely account starts with the collapse and retreat of the BEF, in France, and is therefore initially more land and sea based, rather than aerial.

Authors and historians – and, I guess, TV presenters; this is the book companion to a BBC TV series (which I haven’t seen) – Clayton and Craig expertly weave together accounts from every level of British society (plus a few others, mostly Americans). There are sailors, pilots, soldiers, child evacuees, WAAFs, secretaries, journalists and even the big guns, like Churchill and FDR.

I found this a thrilling and very gripping read. And I was glued to it from start to finish. Starting out in France, with an ignominious retreat in the face of the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht, via the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, to the Luftwaffe’s battles to first destroy the RAF, and then bring terror and ‘revenge’ to London and Britain’s cities.

I’ve knocked off half a star, about which I feel a bit conflicted, for the slightly ‘tally-ho, chaps’ populist tone the books slips into occasionally. It is in truth a very broad ranging and nuanced account. But just every now and then it tips a little too far towards the ‘celebratory patriotic myths of WWII’ vibe.

But in conclusion, Clayton and Craig very deftly weave together a highly exciting and often quite moving tapestry of accounts of this incredible period in British and World history. One is drawn into the very real moments, and even the feelings, from the mundane to hugely significant, from personal sorrow, to national hope.

A superb book that I’d highly recommend.

BOOK REViEW: Waiting For Hitler, Midge Gillies

This was a fun and easy read.

Using several strands of private historical narrative – from ordinary British folk, such as two sisters in Norfolk, or Scots artillery man Frank O’Brien, and members of the Home Guard, etc, to resident ‘aliens’, such as Italian Decio Anzani, or the German Jewish Baruchs – Midge Gillies weaves a tapestry of warmly human firsthand accounts around the theme of ‘Waiting For Hitler’, or the invasion scare of 1940.

It was rather nice that there were quite a few stories relating to areas I know, mostly in East Anglia (and even London), such as Snettisham, and Hauxton. It turns out that Gillies is local – she lives in Ely! – so that might account for the unusual number of Anglian anecdotes!

A lot of what one reads here makes Dad’s Army look worryingly like documentary history, as opposed to loving satire. England, esp. after the ‘heroic’ debacle of Dunkirk, was not well prepared! And the way we treated ‘enemy aliens’ is revealed to be shockingly heavy-handed and unjust.

It’s hard to credit the impact an imminent Nazi invasion really must have had. Though this book does an admirable job of trying to convey the range of feelings, from ennui to all out panic, and from the unifying ‘we’re all in it together’ to the divisive paranoia around fifth columnists.

Perhaps because we know the feared invasion never came, even when one does read these accounts, it can all seem to partake of that ‘cosy rosy memories of WWII’ nostalgia Britain seems so obsesssed with!

Still, all told I found this an enjoyable and compelling read, and can definitely recommend it.

PS – Thanks, Chris, for gifting me this on my recent b’day. T’was a good read!

MEDiA: Book Review – Das Reich, Max Hastings

First published way back in 1981, the title of this book is, I feel, a trifle misleading, inasmuch as a good deal of it is as much about SOE, British/Allied special forces, and French Resistance, operating behind the lines, as it is about northward march of the infamous Das Reich!

One criticism I have, which has several interconnected strands, has to do with the class to which Max Hastings himself and a good number of the public school educated British ‘cast’ of his subject belong. The slightly dewy-eyed self-love of all such elites is both rather unctuous and not a little odious. When Hastings rhapsodises over numerous rugger loving toffs, playing at war, even when it’s very real and may well cost their own and others lives, it’s hard not to wince a bit.

A secondary point arising from all this is the possible overstatement of British/Allied efforts, and a concurrent downplaying of the French natives’ own efforts. But rather than going over all this here, I’d urge the interested reader to simply get hold of Das Reich, and decide for themselves. Hastings summarises the complexity of such things very well.

The titular or headline story traces how Das Reich, pulled out of their role on the Ostfront, start out resting and refitting deep in Southwestern France, at Montauban. Initially, and rather inappropriately, they are tasked with fighting insurgents – with dire consequences – before finally heading for Normandy, in the aftermath of D-Day, to fulfil their proper role.

As already alluded to above, Das Reich also relates how the aforementioned insurgents, with help from Allied agents, seeks to impede the 2nd SS Pz Div’s northward journey. Thanks in particular to allegedly anti-maquis actions Das Reich carried out at Tulle and Oradour Sur Glane (with which latter subject The World At War TV series so memorably commences), there’s a frisson of horror in the story. Although, as Hastings points out, such barbarity was routine in Russia, where Das Reich learned the Nazi ways of war. Nor, indeed, are the Allies blameless; Hastings asks, rhetorically, can the area-bombers of Dresden really claim moral superiority over the SS butchers?

I found Das Reich a fascinating and exciting, well-researched and well-written, and – despite Hastings slightly patrician establishment vibes – pretty well-balanced account, of a very interesting episode in the campaigns of Normandy and beyond. Definitely recommended reading.