This is one of the largest categories of books about WW2 and the one I happen to find illuminating.
It has often been said that the second world war, unlike the first, failed to produce any great or important literature. In particular, the extraordinary outflowing of poetry from the first war had no real equivalent in the second. This is largely true, but it seems to me that what we had instead were books of personal experiences, written for the most part by people who were not professional writers, which used unpretentious and often artless prose to describe what happened. Most of the men who experienced the first war did so while they were in action, and few of them survived: war poetry was often written in the heat of action. The second war, because of the advances in technology and the more ruthless campaigns, affected many more people. Civilians were in the line of fire and women were actively involved at almost every level. Nearly all these books appeared after the war was over. Some of them, by their very ordinariness and their unsophisticated but vivid language, provide an emotional shock that is not all that different from the impact of poetry.
The word ‘unimportant’ needs to be defined. Most of the participants in a war are of equal status, or at least they start their involvement from a position of general equality. Is a rear-gunner on a Lancaster more or less important than a general, or than the captain of a submarine? Unimportant in my sense of the word means that the writers of these books usually came from an ordinary background and their experience of the war is interesting because of their normality. Even then, you find that several different types of experience, and the circumstances of the book, create several sub-categories.
Some writers used their war books as a springboard to a wider literary career. Russell Braddon’s first book was The Pilkingtons, which grew from a friendship he made while a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese. Material from this was later expanded into his second book, now his best-known, The Naked Island. Braddon went on to a general writing career. (Among many other titles he wrote The Year of the Angry Rabbit, which was filmed as the sometimes derided Night of the Lepus.) Nicholas Monsarrat’s first book was Three Corvettes, which he wrote and published during the war while he was a serving officer in the Royal Navy. After the war he recycled the material into a novel called The Cruel Sea, which became a bestseller and a famous film, and which was the beginning of his long and successful career as a novelist.
Some of the books brought early fame to the writers. Richard Hillary is probably the best example of this: his book The Last Enemy is an autobiographical account of the horrific injuries he suffered when shot down during the Battle of Britain. After the book was published he returned to service in the RAF but was later killed during a training flight. It’s clear from the emotional intensity and the skill of the writing that had he lived he would certainly have become a successful writer (a career he aspired to before the war). The same literary destiny was not likely to be Guy Gibson’s, in spite of his exceptional book. He wrote Enemy Coast Ahead shortly after the events it described and which had made him into a legend: he led the Dam Busters raid in May 1943. For several months after the raid Gibson was almost as well known in Britain and the USA as Churchill. He returned to duty and was killed during a bombing mission in September 1944, before the book was published. The book itself is vivid, ingenuous and as compulsively readable as a boys’ adventure story (which it frequently resembles).
Still others became famous for activities after the war. For example, in 1942, when Leonard Cheshire published Bomber Pilot he was a fairly ordinary serving RAF officer. His distinction as a heroic airman was still to come (he was awarded the VC, not for any one act of courage but for his whole RAF career), as of course was his post-war work setting up care homes for the terminally ill. Spike Milligan’s war writing came about the other way around. His hilarious accounts of his war experiences as a lowly trooper in North Africa and Italy were not written and published until after he became a celebrated comedian.
But most of these ‘unimportant’ books are written by people you’ve never heard of. They were the navigators in bombers, the WAAFs who worked in operations rooms, the Jewish boy who survived Auschwitz, the actor who happened to look like Field-Marshal Montgomery, the radio expert parachuted into Crete, the teacher who took part in the D-Day landings. They served in obscurity, their books made them neither rich nor famous and even today their names mean nothing to most people. Who has heard of Walter Thompson, Miles Tripp, Don Charlwood, ‘Revs’ Rivaz, Pip Beck, Ron Smith? They were unimportant participants in the war, and they are unknown or forgotten writers, but they wrote some of the war’s best books.
After this preamble I won’t dwell too long on each book, but instead give a brief idea of what it is about.
Pip Beck was an RAF R/T operator, communicating with operational aircrew by radio as they departed for and returned from bombing raids. Her story tells of innocent loves in wartime: young airmen from Rhodesia, England, Australia, briefly flirted with, then inevitably lost again and again to the enemy. She worries about becoming a ‘chop’ girl; she finds love at last. The war goes along, a defining experience for all involved.
No Moon Tonight by Don CharlwoodCharlwood was an Australian who volunteered to join the RAF. He served as a navigator on Lancasters. Here he describes an incident he witnessed one night between raids:
I went next night to Cleethorpes to stay at the ‘Rookery’. I had tuned to Breslau, to The Marriage of Figaro, when the Cleethorpes sirens began. In the distance I heard the guns along the Humber, like a roll of drums, moving closer. Then they opened up somewhere behind the house, shaking the walls with each roar. I went to the door and looked out. The Hull searchlights had illumined the garden strangely with a bluish, ever-moving light. High up, I could hear the drone of an aircraft, tortured and afraid. Knowing only the terror of air crew, my heart was with the pilot carrying out his lone task against extreme odds. I saw his aircraft caught by the searchlights. Small as a moth and beautifully silvered, it dived and turned frantically, the flak growing rapidly closer. Though I could not see the end, it came soon. Searchlights were doused, the firing ceased, and the long cry of All Clear came from the sirens. I went inside and resumed listening to Mozart, wondering what manner of man had died.
40. The Face of Victory by Leonard Cheshire (Hutchinson, 1961; first edition).
Written and published in the early part of the war, Bomber Pilot is interesting for two reasons. The style is racy, vivid and full of slang, producing a memorable account of what it was like to fly on the operations. Secondly, it provides an uninhibited glimpse into the mind of a young man who later rose to greatness. The second book, Cheshire’s later volume of autobiography, is no longer quite so uninhibited, but the breezy RAF attitude and style had still quite not left him. His second wife was Sue Ryder, the famous charity worker whose fundraising shops are still seen in most British towns, who was involved with creating the Cheshire homes; there is a photograph of her on the back.
Clare (real name Klaar) was a Jewish boy growing up in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss, and he describes the increasing persecution of Austrian Jews that followed. He escaped in 1942.
Currie’s Lancaster Target and Don Charlbury’s No Moon Tonight have superficial similarities because they both describe the same area of war. But where Charlbury’s memorable story is full of emotion and a sense of all the young lives being lost, Currie is made of harder, less sentimental stuff. Both authors write plainly and compellingly and in their different approaches to similar material they have produced real insights into the lives of the ordinary young men who were sent to bomb Germany. Currie’s willing embrace of warfare and its sacrifices is not without its lyrical moments. Here he describes his feelings as he flies above Lincoln Cathedral one evening:
The stonework of the great cathedral shone softly in the sunlight, and the majestic structure seemed to float upon the city, above the fields of Lindsey and Kesteven. The sight of it, serene and monumental, imbued me with inchoate thoughts of England’s past, and of our little part in working for her future sovereignty.
Young men had come from the far ends of the world to join us on the airfields lying round Lincoln: from Canada and India, Australia and New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa. I didn’t know what moved them; was it a sense of duty, love of the old country, Commonwealth, Empire, democracy? Perhaps a hatred of tyranny or dictatorship, perhaps a zest for danger, who knew? We were subject to the general intake of patriotic exhortations, some stirring, some silly, like everybody else. Actors depicted us as leather-muffled public schoolboys, stiffening our upper lips in studio cockpits among the phoney flak bursts. On the other side, the Nazi propagandist Dr Goebbels called us ‘terror-fliers’ and ‘hired assassins of the King’, terms which chimed more with the latent love of violence in us than did the sentimental soubriquets of song and cinema.
Largely unmoved by exhortation, praise or condemnation, I satisfied what need I had for motivation by the companionship of the men from far-off lands around me, and the sight of the cathedral and the wide, green fields.
This is one of those books that most other people seem to rate highly (e.g., Jan Morris calls it a ‘masterpiece’ on the front cover, and Jeremy Lewis, one of my favourite writers, says that it was this book that made him want to be an author), while I didn’t think much of it at all. It is written ordinarily, the observations are not especially good and the author keeps forgetting bits of his story. It describes a journey by a young Englishman through Germany in 1933, shortly after Hitler took power. For me, it was therefore useful in parts rather than enjoyable as a whole.
For some time it was rumoured that this book had been ghost-written for Gibson by Roald Dahl, but the manuscript has come to light and has been verified as being Gibson’s own work throughout. It is therefore undoubtedly one of the most important and interesting books about WW2, because of the author’s involvement in the events described, because of his personal status and because of the time in his life when he wrote it.
Much of the myth of the Battle of Britain was confirmed by this book. By cooler, more ironic postwar standards, Hillary’s autobiography is overwrought and sentimental, but it is a classic for all that. An early sequence in Part 2 of The Separation was encouraged by some of the material here.
48. I Was Monty’s Double by M.E. Clifton James (Popular Book Club, 1957; first published by Rider).
The fake Monty? The real Monty? A book about an actor who was an almost exact physical double of Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He was hired to impersonate the great man as a way of deceiving German intelligence about where ‘Monty’ was in the weeks leading up to D-Day. How could I resist such a subject?
Although I’m not much interested in the Battle of Britain, and it barely comes into The Separation, ‘Johnnie’ Johnson (the RAF fighter pilot with the most ‘kills’ of enemy aircraft) died in January 2001, while I was still working on the novel. After reading his obituaries I felt I should read his own account of the war. It includes a brief but vivid description of a chance meeting with Guy Gibson.
50. I Married a German by Madeleine Kent (Allen & Unwin, 1938; 1st edition).
A real ‘find’ in a secondhand shop: I loved the confessional, almost guilty, quality of the title, a subliminal reminder that only sixty years ago European countries really were foreign to each other. Kent was a British woman who married a liberal German and lived with him in Saxony throughout the years of Hitler’s rise to power. Because I was planning a long sequence of The Separation set in pre-war Germany, I plundered dozens of notes from this book. Inevitably, by the time I had finished writing most of such research material had been left by the wayside.
I shrink from describing such a book as ‘research material’. As a boy, Levi was rounded up with other Italian Jews and deported to Auschwitz (Monowitz). He survived. Nothing in his book directly bears on the novel I was writing, but I felt I should not presume to write about a war in which I hadn’t been personally involved without learning something of its greatest horror.
Speaking from experience, finding books about WW2 from the German ‘side’, written in English, is comparatively hard. This is the story of a young Luftwaffe pilot who after a long period of training flew on air-raids against London and the South-East of England. He was shot down and taken prisoner in October 1940. Much of the interest in this book was to learn about German attitudes to the war, and various other matters the British know little about. For instance, his squadron took part in a march-past of Hitler during the 1937 Nuremberg Rally, goose-stepping in an exact square, just like you’ve seen in the old newsreels; here is an account of what it was like to take part.
More wartime memoirs. A bit chaotically organized, but written with a sense of conviction and straightforward intent to tell things the way they had been.
A collection of twenty short memoirs of dangerous or exciting Bomber Command experiences, written by Rolfe but obviously based on interviews with the subjects. The attraction of this book is its wide range; it’s a pity it is so badly written, as the dodgy style keeps making you wonder how good are the insights or how reliable the stories.
Nearly all the books I read by participants in the ‘area bombing’ campaign against German cities expressed qualms about the strategic value of what they were doing. Thompson, a Canadian pilot, addresses the subject directly. He describes how little choice he felt he had, was determined at the start of his tour of duty to bomb only military targets, but this meant putting himself and his crew at extra risk by flying lower than normal to be sure of hitting the right targets. Gradually he fell in with the rest, following orders. I have by now read many books on the subject of the Bomber Command campaign and the ambivalence of feelings of the men who took part is always a striking feature of their stories.
The eighth passenger was fear. Tripp was a bomb aimer on a Lancaster. His story covers much of the usual ground of these books, but he is unusually candid about the qualms the aircrews had towards the end of the war, and particularly about their involvement in the destruction of Dresden. He claims – and who can disbelieve him? – that he directed the pilot of his aircraft to the south of the burning city, and jettisoned their bombload in open fields. He also claims that his was not the only aircraft to do this.