Book Review: Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, by Anthony Beevor

Available in bookshops nationwide.

arnhem_battle_for_the_bridges.jpgEven those with the slightest knowledge of the major events of the Second World War, would have heard of the September 1944 battle for Arnhem,  in the Netherlands on the lower reaches of the Rhine.

Under Field Marshall Montgomery, airborne and ground British, American and Polish forces, attempted to push into Germany across the lower Rhine and head for Berlin. A key bridge was at Arnhem, and it proved to be a disastrous defeat of the British-led forces, which gave rise to a metaphor for achieving failure by being too ambitious – “a bridge too far”, originating from the film of that name.

The film was dramatic enough, but superficial. By contrast, Anthony Beevor’s book, Arnhem, is another example of this author’s famous mastery of detail in-depth and  wide context.

Beevor studies the lead up to the battle following the successes of the battle of Falaise Gap in Normandy and the ragged retreat of German forces across northern France, Belgium and into Holland which raised considerable expectation that victory was close. And Montgomery wanted to claim victory in Germany before the Americans – he was jealous of US General Paton’s success in the south. Thus he did not listen to good council, even managing to have the final planning meeting at a time when General Eisenhower, the overall Allied commander, was sick. Montgomery pushed his plan through even against RAF advice.

‘In fact,’ Beevor writes ‘the fundamental concept of Operation Market Garden defied military logic, because it made no allowance for anything to go wrong or for the enemy’s likely reactions’.  A lot did go wrong and the Germans were in much greater strength in the area – in itself a failure of intelligence. Too few troops were landed initially and battalions lost contact with each other, sometimes because radios didn’t work properly – some even with the wrong crystal sets. Other troops, particularly the Polish were critically delayed in flying to the battle by bad weather.

The basic idea was for the airborne troops to capture the bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen and hold it until British and American ground troops could reach them. After many delays much bitter fighting the land column reached Nijmegen, but stopped.  The situation had become hopeless at Arnhem, the Germans were winning and would be able to move against the land column.  There is much dispute about the halting of the ground column and there are probably still many unanswered questions.

However, Beevor penetrates much of the fog of war with access to post war records of all the armies and the Dutch involved, but also by using personal accounts from all ranks.

Aside from the skilful narrative describing the battle, Beevor also opens the curtains on the terrible suffering of the Dutch civilian population. Dutch resistance groups joined the allied troops which later lead to savage reprisals against the civilian population. The city of Arnhem was more or less razed to the ground and 250,000 were evacuated. Many civilians were shot because they had sheltered British wounded. The town was a haven for ghosts when Canadian soldiers finally liberated it in April 1945. But between September 1944 and final Liberation in 1945, the Dutch were treated even more cruelly than they had before the battle of the Bridges, with thousands starving to death. Beevor exposes the tragedy.

Market Garden was not a total failure: part of the southern Holland was freed and some bridges were held. But the price was high. There were more than four thousand one hundred military and civilian casualties. German retribution against Dutch railway workers who went on strike to aid the assault led to a famine that killed over 20,000.

This book recalls a few days of the Second World War that had a major impact on the total history of the war which is still debated today. There are many tragic moments recounted in the book and interestingly, not all the atrocities were perpetuated by the Nazis.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges
by Anthony Beevor
Penguin Viking
ISBN: 9780241326763

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Book Review: Wairaka Point – An African-New Zealand Journal, by Trevor Watkin

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_wairaka_pointThe first thing most people do when picking up a new book is to automatically go to the front flap of the dust cover to get an outline of the story, but in this case no information was on offer. The second thing I know I do, is to read the back flap of the dust cover to read the biography of the author, but again nothing was there, so I did what any good reader does – I just got on and read the book. And what a book!

The story starts in Pukerua Bay, in Wellington, New Zealand 1961 with Nick James going off with his gun (a present from his father on his fifteenth birthday) to shoot a few rabbits. It had been raining so the cliff face was muddy and loose. While walking along the coast, near Wairaka Point, he came across a massive slip which had pulled down boulders, soil, trees and sand. He decided to go around the debris and at that moment he saw a skeleton, with a military-type jacket made of leather now green with mould. He raced home to get his Father. His Father gets the local policeman involved who sends the body off to the mortuary for a post mortem. Nick learns that the coroner has determined that it was probably the remains of an old hunter from before the war who fell and cracked his head on a rock. Case closed, no more is thought of the incident.

In another part of the world, Stella Rees was home in Umtali, some hundred miles north of Melsetter where her grandparents Oom (Pieter) and Sissy Viljoen, tobacco and dairy farmers live. The Viljoens were descendants from one of the original Afrikaans families.

How Nick James and Stella Rees meet and their connection to each other evolves into one of the best stories I’ve read for a very long time. This is a story based around true events in world history – WWII, Afrikaans history all interwoven into a “can’t put it down book”. A love story, with adventure, criminal activity, and a mystery finally solved. Lots of footnotes with explanations of Kiwi slang, Māori words, Afrikaans and historical events make this a very enjoyable read.

Trevor Watkin was born in Cornwall, educated in Zimbabwe and graduated from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, so a well- travelled man with an obvious interest in New Zealand and African history. He has worked in agriculture as a trader, company director and publisher, and lives in Melbourne.

A great read and I would certainly read anything else Trevor Watkin wrote.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Wairaka Point: An African-New Zealand Journal
by Trevor Watkin
Published by Product Research Pty Ltd
ISBN 9780648214212

Book Review: The Secret War, Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945, by Max Hastings

I accidentally left this book out in the rain. It survived, but I was disappointed that no secret messages were revealed by the water.  It would not have been surprising: every secret messaging system, code cracking device, manner of ‘trade craft’ and espionage device used in the Second World War is revealed in Max Hastings The Secret War, Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-45.

As you would expect, Max Hastings has done his research and produced non-fiction in a deeply woven narrative style that makes it as fascinating as any Le Carre novel. Within 558 pages, plus notes, Hastings  covers a very wide canvas of wartime espionage, from the mostly successful, like the Bletchley Park operation, to the “incompetence and myopia of German intelligence”.  The intelligence operations of all the major participants in the war, America, Germany,  Japan, Russia and Britain are analysed in depth.  A lot of it is grim reading.

The struggles of people in occupied territories were all part of the darkest depths of war, with government secret service agencies providing money, weapons and expertise from behind the German lines in Russia as well as in Yugoslavia and France – even via resistance  groups in Germany. The Soviets were particularly active in Germany, with groups such as the Red Orchestra. The Russian-supported partisans behind German lines were largely,  but savagely successful in tying up many divisions of German troops, who were equally savage in their  reprisals, burning whole villages, deporting whole communities (as did the Soviets).  Meanwhile, Churchill demanded violent but less savage action from resistance groups in Western Europe which among other things, provided good intelligence. This book of course also tells about the huge failure of intelligence related to the Dutch hesitance. The British intelligence in this case was wholly infiltrated by the Germans, with many British and Dutch agents being captured and shot. The British had no idea that their operation there had been utterly compromised.

The treachery of a swag of British agents recruited by Moscow, including Caincross, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and others is chronicled in depth and also interwoven into the whole context of wartime espionage. Clearly, Hastings has benefited from many of the records of what went on during the war years that have been declassified by governments including Russia (although it is understood the rich pickings of Soviet archives are being curtailed to a large extent).

For anyone interested in the history of the Second World War, this is a volume which exposes the underbelly of the conflict with its heroism, technical brilliance, bizarre and often comical behaviour, of many mistakes and many deaths in the shadows of the war.

Don’t bother leaving it in the rain, the pages stick together and you might miss out on a secret.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945
by Max Hastings
Published by William Collins
ISBN 978000750399

Book Review: The Red Suitcase, by Jill Harris

cv_the_red_suitcaseAvailable in bookstores nationwide. This is a finalist in the Children’s Choice segment of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Click on the button below to vote now.

The Red Suitcase is a cross-over novel, combining the modern world with snippets from WWII. Our heroine, Ruth, is having to adapt to being back in New Zealand, after a suicide bomber tore her family’s life in Indonesia apart. Returning to Takapuna beach proves something of a social challenge, and to make matters worse, she begins to have random flashbacks. Unexpectedly, she finds herself like a ghost, haunting the presence of a young man, Jonah, the piloting of a bomber during the second World War.

What connection does he have with the red suitcase, stored in her Grandmother’s closet? Not willing to confide in her friend, Sally, or her family, fearing they might think her deluded, Ruth instead confides in physics geek, Thomas. Can he hold the answer to the mystery? But he too, has issues of his own, as the constant target of the gang of local bullies.

makaro_red_suitcase_CCFor a short novel, The Red Suitcase deals with a wide range of modern topics that teenagers will  identify with: from Ruth adapting to the new school, the confusion and pleasure of reuniting with a childhood friend (then finding out that she has some uncomfortable family secrets too), the joys of fitting in and finding her voice with the school choir. We also see Thomas dealing with the bullies, (in what is perhaps not the most appropriate manner) and the distressing consequences.

The World War II flashbacks are widely interspersed, well researched and quite informative – in a not-realising-you’re-learning kind of way – and prove a dramatic counterpoint to the life of the modern youth. It does move at a fairly languid pace, although the character interactions and the eloquence of certain details, such as the choir practices, kept my interest focused. The climax, when it came, was with a dramatic rush and somewhat unexpected.

A light, relatively easy read, with facts interspersed amongst the fiction and some well-developed characters.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Red Suitcase
by Jill Harris
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994106902

Book Review: The Bletchley Girls, by Tessa Dunlop

cv_the_bletchley_girls

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Bletchley Park – and the stories of the women who worked there during World War Two – is of keen personal interest to me. My Gran, Irene, was one of those women. She took the Official Secrets Act very seriously, and never told me much about it. So I jumped at the chance to read Tessa Dunlop’s book The Bletchley Girls and learn more.

Bletchley Park has undergone an extraordinary conversion over the past decades, from top-secret code-breaking factory to globally acknowledged key player in both the second world war and the development of the computer. Nowadays we all know about Enigma, the genius of Alan Turing, and how the German codes were broken and the war won: Bletchley Park has taken its rightful place in history.

What is still less well known is that a large proportion of those who worked at Bletchley were women. Dunlop sets out to explore this in her new book, The Bletchley Girls: War, Secrecy, Love and Loss: The Women of Bletchley Park Tell Their Story. In it, she interviews 13 women who worked at Bletchley during the war, and combines their stories together, working chronologically from the late thirties to the mid forties, and beyond.

My Gran – born Irene Rose Mary Roblou in London in 1920 – was a decoder at Bletchley Park from May 1942 to September 1943. When she joined, she was a young woman with an incomplete secondary school education, already a war widow, and away from home for the first time. Her name then was then Irene MacDonald. She had met Alec MacDonald (Mac) before the war at The Shipbuilding Conference (the professional association of shipbuilders), where they both worked. It was on Grosvenor Place, overlooking Buckingham Palace garden, and Gran claimed she occasionally saw Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret there.

MacLookingPhotoGran

Mac looking at a photo of Elizabeth’s gran, Irene.

Irene and Mac fell in love as teenagers, and were married on 17 January 1942. Ten days later, Mac was shipped out as part of the Fleet Air Arm. On 12 February, his ship was attacked by German aircraft in the Mediterranean and a piece of shrapnel went into his head. He was the only one on the ship to die. He was 21.

I only learned about Mac’s existence a few years ago, when my Gran was still alive, and I was living in England. If he hadn’t died, Gran wouldn’t have married my grandfather, Leslie Victor Heritage (Bill); she wouldn’t have given birth to my father, and I wouldn’t exist. It is a strange and uneasy debt. Seeking to better understand this, I made a special trip to Malta in 2007, to visit his gravestone. I found it in a tiny cemetery not far from Mdina, dusty white stone warmed by the sun. I sat there, sweating uncomfortably in the jaw-dropping Maltese heat, and tried to wrap my head around the fact that I lived in part because he was killed.

Most of what I know about Mac I have learned from a “A Wartime Love Story”, a brief memoir Gran typed out to accompany the deposit of her first wedding dress into the collections of the Imperial War Museum. He was born in Trinidad in 1920, elder of two sons of a Scottish father and Irish mother. He was sent to school in England when he was a boy, during which time his father died. He doesn’t seem to have seen his mother and brother again until, by chance, he was sent to Trinidad for flying training by the Fleet Air Arm in 1941. Mac’s relationship with his mother was very strained. He and my Gran became engaged when they were 19, but Gran writes: “Mac was a proud man and said he wasn’t going to ask his mother’s permission to get married, so we would have to wait until we were 21.” I can’t help but wonder why he felt that way – and think, if they had married earlier, would they have had children? How different our family would have been.

Mac was very much on my mind as I read The Bletchley Girls, as well as Gran. I like to think he would have been proud of her, doing important war work – except that he probably wouldn’t have known. One of the extraordinary legacies of Bletchley Park is how well the secrets were kept, and by just how many people, for decades. Don’t be misled by the recent film The Imitation Game: Bletchley was staffed by thousands (rather than an elite team of a few), and housed dozens or even hundreds of enormous, clunky decoding machines (not just one) – which, incidentally, were not built by Alan Turing, but were instead designed and engineered by another British genius, Tommy Flowers. (If you want to watch something about Bletchley, I recommend the British TV series The Bletchley Circle, about a group of ex-coders who get together after the war to solve crimes.)

Gran said there were all sorts at Bletchley, “from a gypsy to a duke’s daughter”. And nobody talked about what they did, they just got on with it. In an account of her life during the war, Gran wrote “We worked shifts [at Bletchley Park], 7 day weeks and then 1 day off, until Sat/Sun – a weekend off, and 1 week every 3 months. We were not involved with Enigma.” This terseness – perhaps a result of the secrecy combined with the stringent compartmentalisation of work – is shared by Dunlop’s interviewees. Although based on long, in-depth interviews, The Bletchley Girls is remarkably light on technical detail. Dunlop seems more interested in fashion than computing.

One of the strengths of Dunlop’s book is that you get a real sense of the drudgery, stress, privations and sheer boredom of working life at Bletchley Park. A lot of the work was mechanical data entry, or staying up all night with uncomfortable headphones on, twiddling a radio dial and hoping to pick up signals. As to the detail of her own work, all Gran ever said was (quoting again from writing she left behind): “I was taught to code and we dealt with the correspondence of agents and others.”

So I understand why, when given the chance, Gran wanted to leave her life as a decoder at Bletchley Park. She wrote: “In August 1943 I was approached to become PA to Sir Amos Ayre, who was … giving his services to the Admiralty during the war as Director of Shipbuilding. My boss [at Bletchley], who was a retired General, said he was reluctant to agree, but when I explained that the job would continue after the war and I would need a job, he consented. So once again I was back in London, and now involved in preparations for D-Day. The flying bombs started just after D-Day and later the V-2s – no warning because they flew faster than sound – beastly things.” A couple of years after the war ended, it was one of Gran’s Bletchley friends who introduced her to my grandfather.

I found The Bletchley Girls to be a useful resource in seeking to understand both my own personal history and the history of women in the second world war. I wish, though, that it had had a different author. I found Dunlop’s writing breathless and cliched (“Pat’s bright bird-like expression clouds briefly”) and her tone condescending. An academic herself, she throws up her hands at the revelation that hardly any of her interviewees had been to university (and yet they were so capable! and good at learning! without formal education? but how?!). I don’t think Gran would have approved.

Despite Dunlop, though, these women’s stories are a treasure, and the good news is that other people are writing them too. Don’t depend on Dunlop or The Imitation Game; use the opportunity to ask your family about their war experience. And then write it down.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

The Bletchley Girls
by Tessa Dunlop
Published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
ISBN 9781444795721