21 May 2009

Len's War: Ambulance Convoy Despatch Rider in WW2

Len's War is the story of Len Smith, a British Army despatch rider serving with an Ambulance Convoy in North Africa and Italy. The book has been produced by his son-in-law, Dave Hambridge, in an e-book format. It contains personal anecdotes and photographs from the period, and a general account of the combat for the non-specialist reader.

Sadly Len passed away in May 2009, just a month short of his 87th birthday.

The book is available free to read here.

16 May 2009

The Missing Years: A POW's Story from Changi to Hellfire Pass

The Missing Years is the story of Captain Hugh Pilkington's disastrous Malaya campaign in which he was shot by a Japanese sniper, became a PoW while hospitalised in Singapore, then— with only one good arm — was packed off to work on the Thai-Burma Death Railway.

This account has two unique elements which make it standout - Pilkington survived the infamous Alexandra Hospital Massacre of February 1942 and his memoirs were completed in October 1945 while on a POW repatriation ship, hence providing a raw, unfiltered, surprisingly dispassionate voice, undistorted by time.

Travel writer Stu Lloyd (who has spent 13 years in Southeast Asia) retraces the captain's steps with Pilkington's son Paul, to uncover Pilkington's past as a rubber planter and soldier, and find out— with often surprising results— what the locals today make of that period they know largely as 'Japan time'.

Captain Hugh Pilkington was born in India, 1904 and worked as a rubber planter in Malaya from 1922-37 before joining the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1939. His knowledge of the tropics, landscape and language proved invaluable to the Allies. He died in 1982. Paul Pilkington was born in 1941 and was nearly five before he met his father, back from war.

Available from:
Rosenberg Publishing

Into Enemy Arms

Ditha Bruncel's detailed memory of living in Germany during the Second World War provides a rare, first-hand insight into the day-to-day struggle against Nazi oppression, when even small acts of defiance or resistance carried great personal risk.

In 1945, Ditha was living with her parents in the small town of Lossen, in Upper Silesia. Close Jewish friends had vanished, swastikas hung from every building, and neighbours were disappearing in the middle of the night. At the same time, more than one thousand, five hundred British and Commonwealth airmen were being marched out of Stalag Luft VII, a POW camp in Upper Silesia. Twenty three of these prisoners managed to escape from the marching column and by chance hobbled into Lossen. One amongst them, Warrant Officer Gordon Slowey, was the man Ditha was destined to meet and fall in love with.

This book tells the extraordinary story of Ditha and the escaped POWs she helped to save. Together, they embarked on a dangerous and daring flight out of Germany. As they faced exhaustion, hunger, extreme cold and the constant risk of discovery, Ditha and Gordon's love for one another intensified, and so did their determination to survive and escape together.

This book is based on Ditha's vivid recollections recorded by her nephew, Michael Hingston, in over a hundred hours of conversation between the two of them, as well as exhaustive research in archives to verify the facts.

Available from:

An Artilleryman in Stalingrad

In August 1942, Wigand Wüster was a veteran 22-year-old officer leading an artillery battery in Artillerie-Regiment 171 (71. Inf.-Div.) as it approached Stalingrad. The preceding months had been marked by heat, dust, endless marches, and brief skirmishes with the enemy - but mostly by an ongoing battle with his bullying battalion commander.

In this brutally honest account, Wüster provides a glimpse of the war on the Eastern Front rarely seen before. With frankness, humour and perception, Wüster takes us from the heady days of the German 1942 summer offensive to the icy hell of Stalingrad's final hours, and finally into captivity.

Available from:
Leaping Horseman Books

No Better Place To Die - Ste-Mère Eglise, June 1944 - The Battle for La Fière Bridge

In the early hours of D Day, the 505th Regimental Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division was dropped in Normandy. Its task was to seize the vital crossroads of Ste Mère Eglise, and to hold the bridge over the Merderet River at nearby La Fière. Benefiting from dynamic battlefield leadership, the paratroopers reached the bridge, only to be met by wave after wave of German tanks and infantry desperate to force the crossing.

Reinforced by glider troops, who suffered terribly in their landings from the now-alert Germans, the 505th not only held the vital bridge for three days but launched a counterattack to secure their objective once and for all, albeit at heavy cost. In No Better Place to Die, Robert M. Murphy provides an objective narrative of countless acts of heroism, almost breathtaking in its “you are there” detail.

Robert M. Murphy (1925-2008) joined the US Army in October 1942, serving with the 82nd Airborne in Italy, Holland, Africa, and Normandy. He received the Purple Heart (3), Valor (2), Bronze Star, Medal of Honor as well as the highest honor given by France, "The Legion of Honor".

Available from:

Halifax Down!: On the Run from the Gestapo 1944

On the night of 22/23rd April 1944 Tom Wingham was the bomb aimer in the crew of a 76 Squadron Halifax shot down while on the way to bomb Dusseldorf. Coming to in a tangle of parachute and harness straps he realised the precariousness of his situation and so, dazed and aching with a painful concussion and navigating by the stars alone, he quickly set off on his long and difficult journey home through occupied territory, constantly depending on the kindness of others who risked their lives to help keep him hidden. Tom made his way from Holland, at the hands of The Escape and was then passed via L'Armee Secrete, a London run organisation operating in the east of Belgium, but fell right into the path of the Gestapo. In a deadly game of hide and seek Tom evaded his captors long enough to witness the retreat of German soldiers as he stayed at the house of Madame Schoofs, which became a temporary German HQ.

In the 1980s Tom assisted a Dutch air historian with some research and this prompted him to look into the details of his own crash. What he uncovered not only shed more light on his own story but also those of his fellow crew members. He plotted approximately where each person landed that fateful night and slowly their incredible stories emerged. Added to his own experiences their accounts make "Halifax Down!" an extraordinary first hand insight into the experience of a heavy bomber crew shot down in World War Two.

Available from:

An Ordinary Signalman

John Raymond Dawson joined the Royal Navy in Leeds, his home town, in December 1940 aged 19, with his best friend Norman Brooks. He served until early 1946, which was when he wrote up his “diary” setting out his experiences during the War.

His son promised him in 1985 that one day he would write this up for publication. John agreed but only if this was after his death. Sadly this came too soon in the following year when he was aged just 64. In 1999, letters John had written during the War to his elder sister Eileen were found in her attic when she was moving. This provided more valuable material for the book.

Being a signalman in the Royal Navy led John to see parts of the world he would not otherwise have seen. He saw danger even in his training at Devonport from severe German bombing in the week of his arrival. He visited the USA and Canada before a relatively quiet time based in Scotland on HMS Forth, a submarine depot ship. John had to swim for his life in January 1944 when after being involved at Minturno and Anzio, HMS Spartan was sunk. He and most survivors then joined one of the light cruiser HMS Aurora, on which he saw action at the invasion of the South of France at Toulon, and at the liberation of Greek islands and Greece itself.

The diary and letters provide an insight into the adventures of a young man from Leeds,
progressing from Ordinary Signalman to Yeoman of Signals, seeing action from the bridge in his signalman’s role. They also provide an insight into the effects on him being far from home and what was a very close family, with his strong beliefs and views often expressed.

Available from:
Melrose Books

Memoirs of a B-29 Pilot

Charles R. Reyher, Major, U.S. Air Force (Ret.) memoir is of the author’s wartime experiences leading up to and as a B-29 Superfortress Aircraft Commander.. He was participated in the air offensive against Japan from the Marianas Islands in the South Pacific.

After graduation as a pilot cadet, he became a bomb approach pilot at a bombardier training base for one year. Then, rated as a B-17 Flying Fortress 1st Pilot, he spent six months duty as a B-17 instructor pilot at an airbase training new B-17 crews as replacements for the 8th Air Force in England. Many months of training to be a B-29 Aircraft Commander followed.

He arrived at newly constructed Northwest Field, Guam, in early June 1945. 125 factory-new B-29B Superfortresses made up the new 315th Very Heavy Bomb Wing. He and his crew flew 13 missions before the end of the war, all against oil targets.

In addition to covering his wartime service, the author concludes the book with several chapters detailing various aspects of the air war against Japan and how he believes attacking Japan’s oil refineries and supplies could have ended the war even without the use of the atomic bombs.

Available from:
Merriam Press

After the Battle issue 144

The latest issue of the excellent After the Battle magazine has just come out. Issue 144 contains articles on the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia in 1943 between the US 1st Armored, 1st Infantry and 9th Infantry Divisions and seasoned Axis troops; the story of POW Camp No. 13 at Murchison in Australia - home to 2,100 Italian, 1,300 German and 185 Japanese prisoners from April 1941 to January 1947; Putting a Name to a Face - the story of how American researcher Norman S. Lichtenfeld identified an unknown GI featured in photographs of captured POWs in Jean Paul Pallud's book Battle of the Bulge Then and Now, traced him to New Jersey and put a name to his face: George E. Shomo; and lastly the always interesting From the Editor section - Readers' letters and follow-up stories on previous issues. Highly recommended.

Available in some newsagents in the UK and directly from the publishers After the Battle.

12 May 2009

New & Notable - 12th May

Saipan: Oral Histories of the Pacific War
by Bruce M. Petty

The battle for Saipan is remembered as one of the bloodiest battles fought in the Pacific during World War II, and was a turning point on the road to the defeat of Japan. In this work, the survivors—including Pacific Islanders on whose land the Americans and Japanese fought their war—have the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words. The author offers an introduction to the volume and arranges the oral histories by location—Saipan, Yap and Tinian, Rota, Palau Islands, and Guam—in the first half, and by branch of service (Marines, Army, Navy, Airforce & Home Front) in the second half.

Available from:

The Bamboo Cage
The POW Diary of Flight Lieutenant Robert Wyse 1942-43
Edited by Jonathon F. Vance

Robert Wyse enlisted in the RAF in the late 1930s. Too old to be trained as a pilot, he became a flight controller and served throughout the Battle of Britain. In late 1941, his squadron was despatched to the Far East. The Japanese soon invaded, and Robert Wyse, along with tens of thousands of his comrades, became a prisoner of war. Shortly after arriving in his first prison camp, Wyse returned to keeping the diary he had begun en route to the Far East. Although P.O.W.s were forbidden to keep diaries, Wyse persevered and hid his journal, usually in a bamboo pole beside his bed. Over two years, he kept a detailed record of life in various camps in Sumatra, only ending in December of 1943 when it became too dangerous. He buried his notes, intending to return to claim them after the war.

The diary is a remarkably detailed and frank portrayal of life as a prisoner. Wyse was sharply critical of some of his fellow P.O.W.s, either for botching the defence of Java and Sumatra or for failing to provide the proper leadership in captivity. Nor did he hesitate to describe the savage conduct of his captors, although sometimes clearly struggling to find the words to adequately describe the brutalities he had witnessed.

Wyse spent over three years in enemy hands (the first two of which are described in this diary) before being liberated in the late summer of 1945. He was hospitalized for some time and didn’t return home until late 1946, his health ruined by the privations of his imprisonment. He died in 1967 at the age of 67.

Available from:
Goose Lane Editions

3 May 2009

Always Tomorrow - Sempre Domani

Alfred Nisbett's book, Always Tomorrow - Sempre Domani, is his memoir of his wartime experiences in North Africa and Italy. It is not however a tale of combat, as shortly after joining the Royal Engineers in North Africa, Alfred found himself captured by a German panzer unit during the retreat from Benghazi in 1941. Shipped off to Italy, he soon busied himself with attempts to escape. First held at Sulmona (Campo 78), then moved to a smaller camp near L'Aquila (Campo 102). When the Italian Army surrendered in 1943, Alfred took advantage of the chaotic situation to take his leave and slipped away into the surrounding countryside. Unlike Charles Mayhead (see 'Rumours: A Memoir of a British POW'), Alfred was successful in his escape, and by the time the Germans had stepped in to manage the camps, he was hiding out in the mountains, befriended and looked after by Italian villagers. Moving frequently, he managed to avoid recapture due to the care and selflessness of the local people, who were under the constant threat of reprisals from German troops should Alfred, or any of the numerous ex-POWs in the area, be discovered. In July 1944, he encountered an advance party of British soldiers, and his adventure 'on the run' was over.

The story of the escaped Allied POWs in Italy is not particularly well known compared to that of POWs in German and Japanese hands (although I am rapidly discovering a number of books on the subject!). Alfred Nisbett introduces a number of fascinating characters in his story - the Marchetti and Morelli families who hid and fed him and fellow POWs; a Scottish-Italian caught visiting relatives in Italy at the outbreak of the war who ended up being a camp translator; a German deserter who was on the run alongside British POWs; a South African who was carrying out propaganda broadcasts for the Fascists in Rome; and it is the human aspect of his story that is the strongest. Alfred witnessed many acts of kindness and compassion from the people who he'd believed were the enemy - often at great danger to themselves - and through this friendships were made that have lasted over 60 years. While the book would benefit from the addition of some maps to trace Alfred's route and clarification of dates, it is a very well written story which I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone who'd like to learn about this unusual aspect of the war in Italy.

Available from:
Athena Press

Similar title(s):
Rumours: A Memoir of a British POW

Pillar of Fire - Dunkirk 1940

The story of the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk is well known, however Ronald Atkin's book made me question how much I presumed I knew about the campaign in France and Belgium in 1940. Told using first person narratives, reproduced from a large number of sources and utilising interivews carried out by the author, Pillar of Fire provides an excellent account of the experiences of members of the BEF during the retreat to Dunkirk and the beaches of La Panne and Bray Dunes. The stories are, in the most part, from British soldiers, although there are a number of French and German accounts which add further levels of detail. These recollections are intertwined with the story of the historical events of 1940 - told clearly and without too much superfluous information which can sometimes make campaign accounts a bit dry.

While the popular perception of Dunkirk as a heroic withdrawl remains predominantly unchallenged by Atkin, the inclusion of occasional tales of less than honourable behaviour, and an examination of the British attitiude to the French Army, helps to provide a balanced account. The results in an extremely readable book that should be purchased by anyone with an interest in the human experiences of those caught in the chaos of the Dunkirk evacuation.

Available from:
Birlinn Ltd