2014 – a year of many anniversaries

Cover of The Battle of Monte CassinoWhile the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in August 2014 is set to be one of 2014’s big stories, there are a number of other significant military anniversaries coming up this year. Please note that the listing in this blog is not remotely comprehensive – do feel free to post comments about any military anniversaries I haven’t mentioned.

September will see the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, this year providing a stark reminder that that this war broke out only 25 years after WW1.

6th June is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the allied invasion of north-west Europe. While no New Zealand units landed on D-Day, some New Zealand squadrons in the Royal Air Force took part in aerial support and two New Zealand Merchant Navy vessels ferried personnel and equipment across the English Channel.

September sees the 70th anniversary of the disastrous airborne landings at Arnhem.

It is also 70 years since the battles of Kohima and Imphal, two crucial engagements in the Far East campaign.
New Zealand troops were heavily involved in fighting at Monte Cassino in Italy in the first half of 1944.

Going back 150 years, in April 1864, as part of ongoing the New Zealand Wars,  a humiliating defeat was inflicted on the British at Gate Pā by Ngāi Te Rangi.

Cover of WellingtonLooking back further 2014 is 200 years since the end of the Peninsular War (1807-1814). This phase of the Napoleonic Wars saw Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, leading the campaign to chase the French out of Portugal and Spain. The Peninsula War was memorably brought to life in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, later turned into a television show starring Sean Bean. Following the end of the war Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba. However, the next year he escaped, retook France and lost the Battle of Waterloo – which is going to be the big anniversary for 18 June 2015.

Even further back in 1714 the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) finally came to an end. Most famous for the Battle of Blenheim (1704) and the generalship of the Duke of Marlborough (of the same family as Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales) this war saw much of Europe at odds with France over who should succeed to the throne of Spain.

What other anniversaries are happening in 2014?

True ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ – Jungle Soldier

Unlike the Band of Brothers,  Freddy Spencer-Chapman fought World War 2 mostly on his own in the jungles of Malaya.

A very hardy and undaunted explorer and keen observer of wildlife he volunteered to fight a war of sabotage behind Japanese lines using his expert outdoor survival skills. The lightning victory of the Japanese and surrender of Singapore left him isolated and without any support.

This is a remarkable story for several reasons; survival against a terrifying enemy, tropical diseases, near starvation and evading capture over four years not to mention that for most of this time the Japanese believed they were hunting for hundreds of Australian commandos. Moreover, during his extraordinary ordeals Chapman managed to discover and record new plant and wildlife species which was a significant legacy he left to the catalogue of natural history.

The book is loaded with other equally fascinating ironies. For example it became clear early on that the British could not spare any trained agents or special forces for Malaya so they had to authorise Freddy to train locals to fight their guerilla war. Just which group of locals that was will certainly raise a few eyebrows! This book makes for a real, if gruelling ripping yarn.

Forgotten Battalion of Brothers

The TV series Band of Brothers based on Stephen Ambrose’s book of that name faithfully recreated the stories of the surviving veterans of Easy Company (in full that’s “E company of the Second Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division”). Easy Company’s exploits are now legendary.

Other books soon followed giving further points of view including a couple about the company’s leader Dick Winters (Winters in his war memoirs has some interesting things to say about the television series). ‘The Filthy Thirteen’ jumped on the ‘Band’ band-wagon in 2003 with the story of a pathfinder unit of the 506th known for their ferocity and guts whose mission preceded everyone else’s. Yet Easy Company was just one small unit of the 506th and this well deserved attention makes one wonder where are the stories of the other 17 companies of the 506th Regiment?

Now at last we have a new book about the whole Third battalion of the 506th which hasn’t got the same level of attention until now. ‘Tonight we die as men: the untold story of the Third Battalion 506th parachute Infantry Regiment from Toccoa to D-Day’ by Ian Gardner and Roger Day captures far better than most books what actually happened when this battalion was dropped far from their planned drop zones often in very small, isolated, leaderless pockets.

Without any radio contact for the first three days, the high command assumed the whole battalion had been effectively wiped out and their objectives not gained (it has been called ‘The Forgotten Battalion’ ever since). It even reveals that the paratroopers were under orders not to engage the enemy until daylight.

I like the fact that the veterans interviewed for this book mention and acknowledge the presence and support recieved from and given to other units equally scattered in the drop. Intriguingly, one of the officers in the 3/506th whose account is used here was a Bobbie Rommel. Was he in any way related to the famous German Fieldmarshal Erwin Rommel? Read this book to find out.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

One of my last decisions  before leaving my previous job as an English Head of Department was to buy a class set of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for our less able readers. We had heard it was a gripping read. It was instantly popular; but I never got to teach it myself or read the ending.

I was particularly glad of that last night when I went to see the movie. It is gobsmackingly horrible and wonderful and the impact of the final scenes would move the hardest of hearts. In fact, a man in the back row was crying as I left. I hope John Boyne is pleased with the film version of his book. Everyone should read this book – whatever your age, get it out from your local library today.