5 November 2017

Dunkirk: From Disaster to Deliverance - Testimonies of the Last Survivors

When Churchill made one of the most inspiring speeches of the 20th century - 'we will fight them on the beaches' – some thought that it was his way of preparing the public for the fall of France. Others heard it as a direct appeal to the Americans. The Prime Minister was speaking in the Commons in June 4 1940, giving thanks for the miracle of deliverance, the harrowing and breathless evacuation of over 338,000 troops - British and French and Belgian - from the beaches and harbour at Dunkirk in the teeth of nightmarish German onslaught. Churchill was determined it shouldn’t be labelled a victory. He was already too late. Hours later, broadcaster JB Priestley was to call it ‘an absurd English epic’.

The last of the boatloads had returned to Dover in the small hours of June 4th. And the mythologizing had already begun – from euphoric American journalists to the thousands of women who lined up on railway platforms, crowding round exhausted soldiers as if they were movie stars. But was Churchill privately convinced that the Germans were about to successfully invade England?

Those days of Dunkirk, and the spirit, and the image of the indefatigable little ships, are still invoked now whenever the nation finds itself in any kind of crisis. But there is a wider story too that involves a very large number of civilians - from nurses to racing enthusiasts, trades union leaders to dance hall managers, novelists to seaside café owners.

And even wider yet, a story that starts in September 1939: of young civilian men being trained for a war that was already 25 years out of date; and the increasing suspense – and occasional surrealism - of the Phoney War. The ‘absurd epic’ of Dunkirk – told here through fresh interviews with veterans, plus unseen letters and archival material – is the story of how an old-fashioned island was brutally forced into the modernity of World War Two.

Available from:
Aurum Press

The Sailors Behind the Medals - Waging War At Sea 1939 - 1945

The story of the Royal Navy in the Second World War is an epic, consisting both of dramatic battles such as the River Plate and Matapan, and drawn-out campaigns such as the escort of convoys to Malta and northern Russia. The author examines the careers of twenty-three sailors who took part in these actions which resulted in the award of their medals. Each man's story is presented in context, including details of the ships that he served on, and the reason for the awarding of the medal under consideration. He illustrates a cross-section of the war-time Navy long-service regulars, volunteers, recalled veterans of the Great War, Hostilities Only ratings. They served in nearly every kind of warship and in all the main theatres of the war and their individual acts of gallantry under extreme conditions make for inspiring reading. The author also examines the medals that were awarded for gallantry.

Table of contents: 

Chapter 1 - Death of a Pocket Battleship
Chapter 2 - 'The Navy's Here!'
Chapter 3 - Sole Survivor
Chapter 4 - Dunkirk
Chapter 5 - A Forlorn Hope
Chapter 6 - Rescue in the North Atlantic
Chapter 7 - Massacre at Matapan
Chapter 8 - Kiwi at Crete
Chapter 9 - Orion under the Stukas
Chapter 10 - One of Ark Royal's Engineers
Chapter 11 - Born Survivor
Chapter 12 - Dido in the Med
Chapter 13 - Operation Mincemeat
Chapter 14 - Operation Pedestal
Chapter 15 - Desert Water Rats
Chapter 16 - The Ship that Torpedoed Herself
Chapter 17 - Russian Gold
Chapter 18 - Convoy Rescue Ship Commander
Chapter 19 - Arctic Convoys
Chapter 20 - The Battle of the North Cape
Chapter 21 - Landing Craft Assault
Chapter 22 - The Divine Wind
Chapter 23 - The Fighting Schoolmaster

Available from:
Pen and Sword

Last of the Kriegies: The Extraordinary True Life Experiences of Five Bomber Command Prisoners of War

‘Last of the Kriegies' tells the extraordinary stories of five of the last remaining Second World War RAF Bomber Command Prisoners-of-War: pilot Reg Barker, bomb aimer Charles Clarke, air gunner David Fraser, air gunner Albert Gunn and navigator Henry Wagner. Each veteran shares the journey they went through joining up with the Royal Air Force, their training and crewing up, and operational duties with RAF Bomber Command. We accompany them on raids over enemy territory as they fight to survive against the relentless flak, searchlights, and deadly enemy nightfighters. Eventually each airmen's next of kin receives a knock on the door and the dreaded ‘regret to inform' you telegram.

Reg, Charles, David, Albert and Henry describe the circumstances in which they are shot from the sky, descending by parachute in to hostile territory, and their subsequent failed attempt to avoid capture. Interrogation follows and we hear how the downed airmen negotiate the aggressive and devious tactics employed by their captors as they try and extract secret information. Our ‘Kriegsgefangener' soon find themselves behind the barb wire of a German prison camp facing the trials and tribulations of daily life as a ‘kriegie'; the battle with hunger and frustration, the baiting and harassing of prison guards, friendships made, and attempts to break out and escape their captivity. In the final months of the war some of our POWs endure the gruelling and harsh conditions of the forced ‘Long March'. Despite frustrating delays, as the Nazi regime enters its final death throes, our airmen eventually taste the sweetness of liberation and journey home to loved ones and family.

Fighting High Publishing and Bomber Command historian Steve Darlow present the extraordinary testimony of five veterans who endured and survived being shot down, captivity, degradation, and suffering. Illustrated with previously unpublished photographs and with a foreword from former Gulf War POW Squadron Leader Bob Ankerson RAF (Ret'd) ‘Last of the Kriegie's' reveals the extraordinary strength and resilience of the human spirit struggling with incarceration and the loss of freedom.

Available from:
Fighting High Publishing

The Devil's Own Luck - Pegasus Bridge to the Baltic 1944-45

Early in the morning of 6 June 1944, Denis Edwards landed by glider at Pegasus Bridge in the daring operation that opened the Allied invasion of Nazi occupied Europe. Over the coming nine months he kept a detailed record of the dramatic events that he experienced as a member of the indomitable Major John Howard's Company of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. These included the near disastrous Rhine crossing and finally linking up with the Russians in Spring 1945.

Denis Edward's book also includes useful sections which relate to the POW experiences of his friend Bob Ambrose - who was captured in Normandy; Harry Clarke's story of the landing at Hamminkeln Railway Station; and a full list of the load and crews of the six gliders in the 'Coup de main' force 5th June 1944.

The full table of contents is:

Part 1 - The Hand of Destiny
Chapter 1 - Early Days
Chapter 2 - Training
Chapter 3 - Into the Fray

Part 2 - A Normandy Diary
Chapter 4 - The Longest Day
Chapter 5 - Herouvillette and Escoville
Chapter 6 - The Chateau St Come and Breville
Chapter 7 - Mostly Hellfire Corner
Chapter 8 - The Advance to the Seine

Part 3 - Belgium and Germany
Chapter 9 - The Ardennes
Chapter 10 - Across the Rhine


From my perspective, if you have any interest in the 2nd Bn. Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and their participation in the action at Pegasus Bridge, the battle for Normandy and the Rhine Crossings, you can do no better than to refer to The Devil's Own Luck. There are very few personal memoirs from this unit but this is an exceptional book. Indeed, when I met a veteran of the 2nd Bn. in 2016, he said he refers to this book when trying to recollect details of his experiences - so that sounds like a good recommendation to me.

Available from:
Pen and Sword