People’s War

John Ellis

  • Tomorrow at Dawn by J.G. de Beus
    Norton, 191 pp, £5.75, April 1980, ISBN 0 393 01263 8
  • The Crucible of War by Barrie Pitt
    Cape, 506 pp, £8.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 224 01771 3
  • Chindit by Richard Rhodes James
    Murray, 214 pp, £10.50, August 1980, ISBN 0 7195 3746 0
  • The Chief by Ronald Lewin
    Hutchinson, 282 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 09 142500 X
  • Special Operations Europe: Scenes from the Anti-Nazi War by Basil Davidson
    Gollancz, 288 pp, £8.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 575 02820 3

Soon, no doubt, some statistician of the absurd will tell us that the tonnage of books about the Second World War has finally exceeded the weight of ammunition expended in its course. On the face of it, the scope and variety of this literature is enormous. It ranges across much of the globe, from Normandy to New Guinea, from Tunis to Moscow. It recounts the exploits of the fighting men of dozens of nations and peoples: in Italy, for example, Maoris, Baluchis, Nepalese and Moroccans fought alongside Poles, Boers, Japanese Americans and Brazilians. It covers, moreover, an amazing variety of military activity, from the misery of the ordinary rifleman to the planning of an Army Group offensive, from bomber raids to armoured tactics, from the liquidation of collaborators to the most sophisticated mobile stage of guerrilla warfare.

And yet it is a remarkably hidebound literature, whose methodological immaturity and sparse conceptual framework permits few books that cannot easily be accommodated within even the inelastic dictates of Dewey classification. There are, in short, six main types of Second World War books. Four hardy perennials are the campaign/battle book; the general’s biography or autobiography; the ordinary soldier/sailor/airman’s memoir; the unit/formation history. A relative newcomer is the hardware book, aimed at an audience ranging from those who delight in poring over draughtsmen’s drawings of the innards of a tank or a fighter plane to those who seem to derive an unsavoury pleasure from studying the cleats of an SS Panzer Grenadier’s jackboot. Finally, there is the cloak-and-dagger book, a genre that has been given a new lease of life by the emergence of that most unlikely sub-species, the cryptography book. How I won the war is having to give way to How Ultra won the war and service on the beachheads now pales alongside a spell at Bletchley.

Four of the books dealt with here fall squarely within these categories. Tomorrow at Dawn is a cloak-and-dagger book of the old-fashioned kind. Its setting is the embassies of Berlin during the first eight months of the war. Mr de Beus was attached to the Dutch Legation during this period and gives a convincing picture of the strange mixture of vague anxiety and myopic optimism that characterised the attitudes of West European diplomats and civil servants, neutral and otherwise, as they waited for Hitler to make the next move. Those few who did resolutely refuse to believe that he had no further aggressive intentions were given little credence back home.

One such was the Dutch Military Attaché, Major Gijsbert Sas, whose intuitive fears were greatly heightened when he made contact with a member of Canaris’s counter-intelligence department, Colonel Hans Oster, who was for a time privy to the innermost secrets of Hitler and his military planners. All the information Oster received about German military intentions, including the proposed dates for the invasion of Denmark and Norway and for the offensive against Holland, Belgium and France, he passed on to Sas at numerous secret rendezvous. Sas communicated this information to his superiors, but no one with sufficient authority was prepared to believe him. These are classic ingredients of the cloak-and-dagger book, and Mr de Beus and his publishers have tried to wring the maximum impact out of the story. Their basic ploy is to present Oster as a mystery man, whose name is withheld to the very end. The result, however, is mere anti-climax, as the final unmasking of a ‘mole’ hardly anyone has heard of, and who has not even been mentioned in the story up to that point, is singularly lacking in drama.

Other generic devices are similarly vitiated. The tension aroused by Sas’s and De Beus’s frustration at their inability to convince the authorities back home about the reliability of their information is largely dissipated by Oster’s unfortunate habit of being wrong. Although he correctly predicted the dates for the major offensives in the West in April and May 1940, he had several times cried wolf before that. This was not Oster’s fault – Hitler’s personal whim or unfavourable weather caused the cancellation of several intended attacks – but one can hardly blame the politicians and civil servants who ignored his warnings when he was finally right. Colonel Oster, whom the Nazis garrotted with piano wire in May 1945, certainly deserves an epitaph. But not in an artificial spy story. A sadly ironic consequence of the narrative structure adopted by Mr de Beus is that he is unable to tell us much about Oster himself, his motives, or the terrible doubts that must have assailed a loyal German officer who felt himself forced to commit treason.

Though not as desperately contrived as Tomorrow at Dawn, three of the other books also fall within standard categories. Barrie Pitt’s Crucible of War is a straightforward campaign book, dealing with the war against the Italians and the first battles against Rommel, in North Africa, in 1941. Two further volumes about this theatre are promised and the full set will undoubtedly provide the definitive study. Mr Pitt clearly knows his material and the narrative deftly weaves together the various strands of his story: the political pressures on the generals, the terrible shortcomings of British armoured doctrine, the nadir of British generalship in the ‘Battleaxe’ and ‘Crusader’ operations, as well as the strain of desert warfare for the fighting soldier. The book is well-supplied with clear maps, an increasing rarity in these cost-conscious days, and its remarkably low price makes it almost a loss leader to entice one to buy the subsequent volumes. Yet one is forced to ask whether another book of this kind supplies any great need. Mr Pitt has little to say which is new or which demands the revision of previous judgments on the campaign. For those interested in a general survey, W. G. F. Jackson’s The North African Campaign offers a more compact treatment while the flavour of the fighting at the sharp end has already been superbly conveyed in Keith Douglas’s Alamein to Zem Zem, R. L. Crimp’s Diary of a Desert Rat and N. McCallum’s Journey with a Pistol.

A similar worm’s-eye view of the fighting is vividly presented in Chindit, an account of the author’s experiences in Operation Thursday, in 1943, when Orde Wingate dispatched several battalions of British, Indian and West African troops behind the Japanese lines in northern Burma. The book is a typical example of the ordinary soldier’s memoir and covers a lot of the ground already traversed by John Masters, Bernard Fergusson and Michael Calvert. Yet it is none the less welcome for that. Despite the profusion of fighting soldiers’ memoirs, from all fronts, the appalling severity of their ordeal is still not properly appreciated. This is one genre that still has vital evidence to offer about the physical brutality and mental anguish that characterise modern warfare.

The Chindit experience might be seen as exceptional, and certainly Wingate, a cross between Moses and Brian Clough, drove his men harder than most other commanders would have dared, Mr Rhodes James gets this across splendidly, yet even as one reads his harrowing accounts of the long marches and retreats through dense, humid jungle, or the last-ditch stand at the ‘Blackpool’ stronghold, one should not forget that these experiences are not notably different from ‘normal’ soldiering at Imphal or Kohima, nor even in more ‘civilised’ theatres, at Caen or Cassino, in the Reichswald or the Po Valley. The author has some telling criticisms of the rationale and conduct of Operation Thursday – the lack of heavy weapons and even of sustained contact with the enemy – but his book makes its greatest impact on a more general level, as eloquent proof that combat in World War Two, all combat, anywhere, was a nightmare.

This simple fact is notably absent from most examples of that other trusty genre, the general’s biography. Ronald Lewin’s account of the war years of Field Marshal Lord Wavell, The Chief, is no exception. It would, indeed, be possible to read the book without ever being properly aware that the subject’s decisions involved the killing, maiming or imprisonment of thousands of men. But Mr Lewin’s book also suffers from a more pernicious shortcoming of the genre: the assumption that all top-ranking generals are by definition great men and so must be praised. Some are great, as Mr Lewin showed in his first class biography of Slim, but the abiding impression left by this book is of a military mediocrity lacking both executive charisma and coherent strategic vision.

Wavell did not even want to be a soldier. ‘My trouble is,’ he said to his chief-of-staff in 1942, ‘I am not really interested in war.’ His record certainly gave proof of this, and Mr Lewin, fortunately, does not try to alter it. The central role of O’Connor in Wavell’s only major victory, the destruction of the Italians in Operation Compass in the winter of 1940-41, is duly credited, while Wavell’s more typical inability to pick suitable subordinates is properly criticised, as is his penchant for the futile gesture: the Greek expedition of April 1941, the diversion of 18 Division to the already doomed Singapore in January 1942, the dispatch of the inexperienced 63 Brigade to Rangoon a few weeks later, the disastrous Arakan offensive in January 1943, when a whole division, again ill-equipped and ill-trained, had to be written off as a ‘pschyological casualty’. Even the authorisation of the first Chindit operation, in the following March, must be regarded as a clutching at straws rather than a reasoned commitment to Long-Range Penetration methods.

All these points are dealt with, as the blurb says, with ‘scrupulous fairness’. Yet each of them is treated in isolation, as atypical lapses on the part of a ‘great man’. At no time does the author seem able to stand back from his material and examine Wavell’s record in toto, to admit that even a field marshal – and Wavell himself had to ask for this promotion – could be a very indifferent soldier. Mr Lewin mentions Wavell’s aloofness: but it has been said that in Delhi, especially, his residence was regarded as a haven of relaxed hospitality. One is tempted to suspect that being kicked upstairs, which is what the Indian posting amounted to, was not entirely unwelcome to this reluctant soldier.

At first sight, Special Operations Europe is yet another formula book, belonging this time to the Resistance sub-division of the cloak-and-dagger school. Certainly this is how the publishers try to present it and the title itself suggests the dead hand of marketing men: but the subtitle reveals the true purpose of this marvellously original book, which is to remind us that, for so much of the population of Festung Europa, the Second World War was above all a political, even a revolutionary experience, in which liberation was not simply a matter of driving out the Germans but also involved a radical restructuring of whole societies which, built as they were on economic exploitation and mass apathy, had permitted the growth of appeasement, defeatism and indigenous fascism. In several countries there was fought what is still, to most people in Britain and America, a quite unknown war in which ordinary people, of their own free will, endured hunger, cold, torture and death to rid themselves not just of foreign occupation but of the whole root and branch, the causes and the effects, of fascist ideology. As Mr Davidson says, ‘the true epic of those years lay in the courage and determination with which countless men and women followed the hope and vision of a radical democracy. Vaguely perceived perhaps ... and yet so real and so worthwhile, in the grim conditions of that time, as to be worth everything you had to give.’

For the most part, Mr Davidson’s story remains rooted in individual experience, both his own as an SOE ‘base wallah’ and a liaison officer with the Yugoslav and Italian partisans, and those of the men and women, rarely more than 20 years old, who made up the increasingly effective guerrilla bands and brigades. Such generalised reflections that Mr Davidson does make are always natural extensions of the brisk narrative, backed up by the utterances and actions of his protagonists. And nothing emerges more clearly than that this was indeed an ‘epic’, a political and moral renaissance engendered by the degradations of fascist totalitarianism.

The implications of these movements, the danger, in Smuts’s telling phrase, of ‘politics being let loose among those peoples’, usually led to their speedy suppression at the end of the war. This in turn has led to their disappearance from the accepted literature. Mr Davidson has lifted a corner of the army blanket and reclaimed some of the lost ground of history on behalf of those who tried to shape it. Let us now praise humble men.