cover“I’m over it” has been a common comment after recent events, but how did people cope when the disasters kept on coming, sometimes for years?

Having a bit of an obsession with fiction featuring World War II does make me something of an expert on the subject, but it must be possible to learn more about the Blitz than can be gleaned from The night watch.  Fiction is all very well, but how did people really get on under the threat of  bombs dropping out of the sky with little or no warning? What did a diet of Spam and powdered egg and one inch-square cubes of cheese do to them?

The world’s first pictorial weekly newspaper, The Illustrated London News,  gives a tremendous account of what life was like for Londoners from 1939-1945, using the actual words and pictures published at the time.

So how did they cope? One thing they did was build a ‘blitz farm’ on bomb sites in Bethnal Green. When Queen Elizabeth, Queen consort, come to visit she was told that every inch of soil  had been reclaimed from under four feet of rubble.  Her Majesty then observed: “It’s amazing what hard working people can do”.

Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction versions of history? What’s your favourite World War II tale? And what survival stories will we share with our grandchildren?

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.

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.

Tears in the darkness : the story of the Bataan Death march by Elizabeth & Michael Norman
This book’s title came from a Japanese kanji for “the loneliest despair” imaginable. So be warned, it is as heart-wrenching as it is compelling a read as you will ever find on the Second World War. The book recounts the desperate fighting in 1942 in which the American and Filipino force fought the Japanese until near starvation in the worst military defeat ever incurred by the United States. This was but a foretaste of the horrors which the 76,000 allied POWs faced on the notorious 70 mile long “death march” to the POW camps after surrender to the Japanese. During the march and their subsequent two and a half year long incarceration thousands of POWs were literally starved, worked and/or beaten to death.

Tears gives us a dimension that other recent books of ‘wartime voices’ (which tend to give excerpts of accounts from one side) often don’t – a biographical account of Ben Steele (one of the American soldiers) and accounts of his American comrades are juxtapsed with Filipino and Japanese accounts of the same events. So we get powerful insights into what this hell did to the bodies and minds of the POWs. It also lifts the veil on the psyche of the Japanese soldier. Certainly callous indifference through to deliberate cruelty typified many a Japanese soldier but some quite startling insights emerge as well. A film The Beast of Bataan about the post-war trial of the Japanese commander has been slated but appears to have stalled for the time being. If you would like this as an audio book it is available for download at Christchurch City Library’s Overdrive.

Slavery by Another Name : The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War 2 by Douglas A. Blackmon
The history of race relations in the U.S. has for long told of how slavery was abolished with Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in 1863. Black Americans endeavouring to merge into mainstream American Society met fierce resistance from mainly white Southerners who waged a campaign of violence and enacted many laws that deprived Black Americans of their social and political entitlements. The Federal government’s resolve to help Blacks or to even roll back the so called ‘Jim Crow’ laws of the South quickly waned after the Civil War ended. But there was always more to the picture than this because it never fully answered the question of why the integration of Blacks into mainstream American economic and political life is still far from complete and why Black America is still littered with families and communities torn apart by violence, delinquency, drug addiction, crime and low self-esteem. At last, this book reveals the missing chapter. A chapter in U.S. history far more sinister than segregation ever was.

Blackmon’s book documents a little known but widespread and systemic exploitation and appalling mistreatment of large numbers of black American men by several Southern states between the Civil War and the Second World War. After it’s defeat in the Civil War, the South resolved it’s desperate shortage of labour through a very peculiar means which Blackmon reveals was often more barbaric, cynical and deadly than slavery ever was. He also shows how Federal officials investigating abuses were often meek or ignored in the interests of rebuilding relations with the South.

Ironically, it was the U.S. entry into the Second World War that quickly brought an end to this neo-slavery because President Roosevelt knew that his country’s own dirty little secrets could compromise its efforts to fight a moral crusade against regimes that brutalised their subject minorities. Reading Tears in the darkness soon after Slavery by another name certainly put the undeniable suffering of the American POWs and Black Americans into a jarring perspective. The POWs suffered and died for their country. Many Black Americans suffered and died because of their country.

A new book has arrived on our shelves, with the tongue-twisting title Wirtschaftswunder. It’s a documentary photo book published by Taschen about the ‘economic miracle’ that took place in West Germany after the World War II, covering everything from street scenes to posters, factories, farms, doctor’s offices – everything.

It got me thinking about some of the stories we don’t tend to hear or read in our media or our daily web crawl. With the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II all over our news, it doesn’t hurt to walk in some other people’s shoes, so I hunted down a couple of examples.

German newspaper Der Spiegel has a range of articles, features and photographs on its website, which give an insight into contemporary thoughts about the war. The Voice of Russia also commemorates what Russians know as the Great Patriotic War on its pages written in 2000.There are also some stunning photos of the Russian experience in the online Borodulin Collection. And of course NZHistory.net has its usual high standard of coverage of the New Zealand experience.

We have a lot to be thankful for in this country – the shoe could so easily have been on a different foot.

Seeing the amazingly youthful Dame Vera Lynn on television last night triggered a discussion about the best World War Two song.  For me,  Blue Smoke trumps We’ll Meet Again by far. It just captures that whole wistfulness and sadness of families and lovers separated by war and thousands of miles of ocean. It was written by Ruru Karaitiana on the troopship Aquitania in 1940. Ruru said “We were on the troopship Aquitania in 1940 off the coast of Africa when a friend drew my attention to some passing smoke. He put the song in my lap”  Other  contenders include Lili Marlene and The White Cliffs of Dover.

The library has an interesting selection of music from World War Two including (on vinyl) The Songs We Sang featuring Les Cleveland and the D Day Dodgers and Ake Ake Kia Kaha E; songs of the Maori Battalion

September 3 is the 70th anniversary of New Zealand’s declaration of war against Germany.

I’m a big fan of the war histories of Antony Beevor, have read about the fall of Berlin and the battle for Stalingrad, and Paris after the Liberation. Another way into the history of World War II is to read diaries or memoirs of the time.  They provide a unique and personal record … and during a war they acquire an extra layer of meaning and emotion.  It’s not just a backdrop, it is life.

Many generations of kids (and adults) have read the diaries of Anne Frank and been swept up in her story of a hidden life. If you want to read another perspective, The journal of Hélène Berr was published for the first time last year:

 In 1942, Hélène Berr, a 21-year-old Jewish student at the Sorbonne, started to keep a journal, writing with verve and style about her everyday life in Paris … about the effect of the growing restrictions imposed by France’s Nazi occupiers. Humiliations were to follow, which she records, now with a view to posterity. She wants the journal to go to her fiancé, who has enrolled with the Free French Forces, as she knows she may not live much longer. She was right. The final entry is dated February 15, 1944, and we now know she died in Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, within a month of Anne Frank and just days before the liberation of the camp.

The  anonymous diary  A woman in Berlin : eight weeks in the conquered city gives a German perspective – as the Russian Army swarms into Berlin, the writer copes with deprivation, rape, and coming to terms with a new Germany:

Fending off the boredom and deprivation of hiding, the author records her experiences, observations and meditations in this stark and vivid diary. Accounts of the bombing, the rapes, the rationing of food and the overwhelming terror of death are rendered in the dispassionate, though determinedly optimistic prose of a woman fighting for survival amidst the horror and inhumanity of war.

But the war diaries that punctuated my teenage years were of a different mould – and the writer was comedian Spike Milligan. The series began with the niftily titled Adolf Hitler : my part in his downfall. The tragic and the comic are inextricably entwined, and I remember being all excited when the next installment of his memoirs hit library shelves. If you haven’t read them, get in amongst it. If you have, why not revisit … I think they might have to be on my 09 reading list.

Try searching World War II – personal narratives for more war diaries and stories.

CoverIt can be surprising what catches your eye looking through our weekly Just Ordered list (available as a RSS feed from our website). A couple of months ago I spotted the title Spitfire Women of World War II by Giles Whittell, the brief description told me that it was about the women who ferried military aircraft from the factories in Britain to the bases. Some time ago I had read about American women performing the same task on a website A People At War.

Spitfire Women tells the stories of the remarkable women who came from all over the world to fly a variety of aircraft, often with no more preparation than an hour with a handbook, in all kinds of weather and without any instrument training. They came from a variety of backgrounds, from aristocratic European families to South American farmers – some didn’t even speak English and only two (from Poland) were considered part of the military. While they all started out on the older and slower craft, it was the Spitfire that they all wanted to fly as they felt that its graceful lines and fine controls were designed just for them.

CoverShortly after returning this fascinating book I spotted another, similar looking book, Spitfire: portrait of a legend by Leo McKinstry. This one tells the story of how the Spitfire came to be the fighter plane that every pilot, male and female, wanted to fly. As in the Spitfire women book, the personalities loom large and in many cases seem to threaten the project, and Britain’s defence, from the start. It’s more history than biography, however, and sometimes gets a bit bogged down in the politics, but nevertheless its engaging reading.

Two things have come out of this reading for me – one is a renewed interest in the second world war – and there’s no limit to the reading and watching that the library has available on that topic. The second is a renewed interest in flying and I’ve been on my first training flight at the Christchurch Flying school. Its a great thing to have a go at, and a fabulous gift – if you want to give it a go there are a number of places that you can go to: see our listing of flight schools in CINCH.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 690 other followers