Posted by foxburg on 12/11/2010
In the closing days of the Second World War, men from 113 LAA Battalion RA, originally the 7th Battalion DLI, part of the British 8th Corp, were tasked with taking over an ‘internment camp’ from the German Military. This ‘Internment camp’ turned out to be Bergen-Belsen, a name many British readers will be familiar with, for, as the author states, ‘Belsen was at once both an atrocity and a humanitarian disaster.’ For the men of the DLI, Belsen had no precedent, it was a unique, dramatic event in their wartime experience, the foremost dramatic event amongst the many that the DLI played a part in during the conflict, John Sadler is the narrator for these dramatic events.
The sub-title for this wonderful book is ‘The soldier’s own dramatic stories’, and many stories the author presents are certainly dramatic. I would argue that the subject matter of this book, and the author, are a perfect match. John Sadler is an outstanding Military Historian, and here he is writing about his (and my) local regiment; The Durham Light Infantry, but in reality, John is not telling the story of the DLI in the Second World War, he allows the soldiers’ testimony to guide us through the regimental history for this extraordinary period, whilst he places the testimony in context. I say, “a perfect match”, because John has a dramatic, and distinctive writing style, also, as I have been lucky enough to experience, a dramatic presentational style when lecturing. This style is well suited to the telling of stories of battle, but it is not the only style John demonstrates in this fine account, he explains and describes exactly, allowing the men’s testimony quoted to colour the pictures he creates of events.
I have been reading Military History for over thirty years, inspired at first by memoirs of Napoleonic soldiers; two especially stand out, Kinkaid and Simmons of the 95th Rifles, for these men of the Rifle Brigade, unlike many at the time, were literate, and articulate. This is relevant as I feel that the testimony of the DLI men the author presents here shows that this tradition has been maintained within the Light Infantry Regiments. The testimony is impeccably selected and wonderfully placed in context, giving this book a unique feel, it is more than the sum of it parts, the testimony is rich, but when placed in context it takes on an extra richness and complexity. The book does have some weakness’, foremost is the maps, they are black and white, and therefore clear, but are not referred to in the text, thus I found them superfluous, I would have liked to see them within the relevant chapter, or referred to in the text, making them part of the narrative. This is also a fault with the photographic plates, but this is more understandable, as the publisher needs to place the photographic sections together, they have decided to follow convention and put these in the centre of the book.
The book has a broad chronological structure, with short, precise chapters. The opening chapter, taking in ‘The Phoney War’, sets the scene, as well as explaining the regimental structure of the DLI, is neat and specific, giving the reader and the book a clear direction. The next chapter is one of the strongest, dealing firstly with the ‘Arras atrocity’, then onto the retreat to Dunkirk. I was surprised to see the ‘Arras atrocity’ dealt with, as this story is not based upon rigorous historical evidence. The hearsay was promoted by the journalist Nicholas Hardman in order to gain publicity for a book he published about Dunkirk, it was quickly dismissed by historians, but re-appears now and again, usually on revisionists websites. Like all myths, the accusation that soldiers of the 151 Brigade murdered German POWs in 1940 is difficult to disprove, it is the nature of myths that the lack of substance means that the myth can evolve and change. John Sadler has used his Historical skill to investigate Hardman’s claim, he has managed to uncover evidence that shows there is no substance to this claim, Hardman fails to substantiate his claims, thus, although John does not say so, he demonstrates that Hardman has put forward unconfirmed and invented gossip as Historical fact. The chapter moves onto the Fall of France, where the nature of the three DLI Battalions is truly shown, one of strength and endurance, after all, for at this time Richard
Annand of 2nd Battalion DLI became the first soldier in the Second World War to win a VC. John’s gift for narrative stands out clearly in this chapter, he explains the reasons for the dramatic events, then sets the pace for some powerful testimony. The narrative accelerates towards the climax at Dunkirk, taking the reader into the chaos and muddle of the British retreat, the testimony allows us to view the retreat from the perspective of the individual, whilst still allowing us to see the broader picture.
The 2nd Battalions’ experiences in France are even more dramatic than those of the 151 Brigade, again we find John’s writing style complementing the stirring story, as quoted the DLI “ . . had Jerry beat to a frazzle.” The narrative reads like something from ‘Eagle’ comic, at it most dramatic, perfectly complemented by the testimony. I feel that most readers would be familiar with the African campaign, but here we have unique perspective, we are focussing on the impact of one unit. I must admit that I was familiar with the DLI contribution in the desert, but John has brought a fresh approach, which refreshed and expanded my recollections. I also feel that John’s account highlights the magnificence of the campaign, showing how close the outcome was, and how the DLI contributed to the victory, as John says, “. . the Durhams in that terrible fight became the stuff of legend and, like most legends came at a fearful price.” (page 117) The Durham Battalions were reduced to less than a fifth of their strength, testimony to the severity of the desert campaign.
The Sicily and Italian campaigns were just as hard-fought, and the DLI were in the vanguard at significant times. One of the most significant is the Primosole Bridge, where the Durhams again carved their name in military legend. As a flavour we find: “At 07:30 hours the Durhams advanced; two full field regiments of British guns sending a wailing chorus of shells. The ground was open and horribly exposed, German machine-gun fire raked their files, bullets swarming thick as angry hornets from the tangled groves and sunken road. The crossing was a nightmare and a savage, confuse melee erupted on the broken slopes.” (page 130) Although less dramatic than the previous chapters, the brutality of the fighting is clearly shown, the hard slog of the Italian campaign is clearly demonstrated by the narrative, and emphasised by the chosen testimony, giving a magnificent account of this relatively unfamiliar campaign.
The Normandy campaign is much more familiar, once again John sheds new light on this campaign, the narrative brings forward the complexity of the bocage fighting, as well as highlighting the bravery of units and individuals. The strength of this book is that it covers familiar material in a new way, I found that this chapter reveals Montgomery’s tactic of probing for weakness’ superbly. We can see how the DLI was used to create and exploit weak points in the German defences, this allows us to contrast this with the U.S. Military tactics usually shown in histories of this campaign.
In terms of allocated pages, the ‘Liberation of Belsen’ does not dominate this book, it is give a chapter to itself, but not an overly long chapter. I like John have spent some time publicizing the DLI’s role in the Belsen disaster, thus the material was very familiar. I may be biased, but I feel that John account is the finest I have read since Shephard’s After Daybreak. John, like in his account of the ‘Arras atrocity’, brings new and unusual evidence to his account of Bergen-Belsen, to go alongside very familiar accounts. The chapter has a dynamic all of its own, highly dramatic, it contrasts with the battlefield accounts in everything but horror. John has made it clear that the men of the DLI were able to match their battlefield strengths of determination and tenacity, with those of compassion and care. I think that this chapter could stand alone, it is testimony to the strength of this book that this brilliant chapter does not dominate.
Usually V.E. Day marks the end of accounts of the Second World War, or we find a concluding chapter summarising the peripheral events. It is to John’s credit that this event come three-quarters the way through the book, for we also find a detailed account of ‘The Forgotten Army’. Recently there has been a growing interest in the Burma campaign, as Historians exhaust the different way of telling the story of the Western European campaign, again John brings something special to his account, we feel as if we are battling alongside Slim’s warriors, battling against the enemy, as well as the climate and environment. I found this to be another strong chapter, detailing the obstacles the men faced day by day, as well as narrating some of the most brutal battles of the age.
I believe the chapter on Prisoners of War is inspired, as this subject is usually the preserve of specialist accounts, not of general histories of the war. As you would expect, this is far from a Hollywood portrayal of Prisoners experiences, but there are a number of ‘stars’ mentioned here. It is the personal experiences that give this chapter so much depth and resonance, highlighting some unusual incidents and re-enforcing preconceptions. The final chapter is also a gem, bringing depth and significance to the Home Guard, again an aspect of the war usually reserved for specialists. The addition in this volume of this chapter brings a wonderful symmetry to the book, for one feels that all aspects have been covered, that we have a complete picture of the contribution the men of Durham made.
I cannot recommend this book too highly, but as I have a interest in Military History and the DLI in particular you would expect this. From a purely academic perspective this is a valuable book, it breaks new ground, it provides a fitting tribute to the men of the DLI. The testimony alone, gathered together here would be a valuable addition to our understanding of this significant period, but John’s narrative, by setting the testimony in context, produces an especially valuable contribution to our understanding, for he has used the testimony to show us how human beings act under exceptional circumstances. This is not just a regimental history, it brings regimental history to a new, higher level. The standards have been raised and changed, in this book John has set a standard, many will find difficult to match, for the dramatic events narrated are matched by the dramatic testimony of the men of this special regiment. The book was easy to read, as the sub-chaptering meant that one can read the book at ones own pace, putting it down after a few pages or a few chapters. I found that as the narrative pace increased I found it more and more difficult to put down, at the end I was reading full chapters at a time. This book is a fitting tribute to the brave men of the DLI, and a signal of John Sadler’s command of Historical literature.