Tag Archives: Book
At last month’s Edinburgh book Festival I attended a presentation by Charles Glass on his latest book, which is called Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War in the UK and The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War in the USA.
He began by apologising for the sub-title of the UK edition of his book, which he blamed on his publisher. He does not think that it is ‘the last untold story of the Second World War’, as his next book is also about that conflict.
His website describes the book as follows:
The extraordinary story of the deserters of the Second World War. What made them run? And what happened after they fled?
During the Second World War, the British lost 100,000 troops to desertion, and the Americans 40,000. Commonwealth forces from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Britain’s colonial empire also left the ranks in their thousands. The overwhelming majority of deserters from all armies were front-line infantry troops; without them, the war was harder to win. Many of these men were captured and court-martialled, while others were never apprehended. Some remain wanted to this day. Why did these men decide to flee their ranks?
The website says 40,000 US deserters, but Glass stated that there were 50,000 in his talk.
The book concentrates on three of the deserters: two American, Steve Weiss and Alfred Whitehead, and one British, John Bain. As he was in the UK, he talked mainly about Bain.
Most of the deserters were front line combat troops. A policy of just replacing casualties rather than rotating units out of the front line meant that some Allied soldiers fought throughout the war, whilst others did not see combat, causing great resentment amongst the former group.
John Bain was an Englishman who joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders after he and his brother ran away from their brutal father. His first choice had been the Merchant Navy, but it rejected him. He was a poet and boxer who disliked the army. He deserted, was caught, demoted from corporal to private and transferred to the Gordon Highlanders.
He fought at El Alamein and in Libya and Tunisia. He adopted a persona of a hard drinking boxer, forgetting about literature. He wandered off in a daze after seeing members of his unit looting the corpses of dead Seaforth Highlanders. An officer gave him a life to the rear area, where he had no idea what to do. He was arrested and sentenced to nine months in the British Army’s toughest prison, which was the model for the prison in the Sean Connery film The Hill.
After six months he accepted an offer of an honourable discharge after the war if he volunteered to train for D-Day. He was wounded in Normandy, and sent back to the UK. He deserted on VE Day instead of waiting for his discharge, and became part of an underground of 20,000 deserters in London. He met a Leeds University student, and moved and studied there. He was eventually arrested and court-martialled, but discharged after psychiatric evaluation.
He changed his name to Vernon Scannell, and became a poet and teacher, but still boxed and drank heavily. He deserted three times but never from combat.
Most deserters were brave men who eventually cracked. Their treatment depended on their officers. After the fall of Tobruk 20,000 British troops deserted, but most came back after General Bernard Montgomery took command. Glass claimed that some of those who had been most adept at surviving on the run in the Nile Delta took those skills to the SAS or the LRDG. Montgomery’s predecessor, Claude Auchinleck, had asked the War Cabinet to restore the death penalty for desertion. It refused, as doing so would reveal the scale of desertion to the British public and the Germans.
The USA did retain the death penalty for desertion, and sentenced 49 soldiers to death for desertion. Only one, Eddie Slovik, was actually executed, during the Battle of the Bulge. He was supposed to have been shot as an example, but his execution was kept secret at the time, meaning that it could hardly serve as an example.
The German executed about 15,000 of their own men during the war; most of them were summarily executed, with barely a court martial.
American and British treatment of soldiers who have cracked under the strain of combat is now better than in WWII, but more needs to be done to deal with PTSD. There is no possibility of deserting in Afghanistan or Iraq. Modern deserters are those who refuse to be sent to the operational theatre for political reasons.
A British Normandy veteran in the audience took exception to the numbers quoted by Glass, arguing that desertion on such a scale would have been more visible to him than it actually was. The discussion did not progress beyond Glass saying that he had seen the numbers in archives, and the veteran refusing to accept them because of his personal experiences.
A good presentation. I am not sure that the story was unknown: I certainly knew about the large number of British troops who deserted after Tobruk and returned before El Alamein. However, it is subject that is mentioned briefly in other books and has not, as far as I know, had a work dedicated solely to it before.
This is the first of a number of rather belated posts on talks by military historians that I attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2012.
Antony Beevor talked about his recent book on The Second World War on 21 August 2012. He began by pointing out that every country has its own perspective on the war, as memories and experiences of different countries are so different. It was an agglomeration of many conflicts. The German and Japanese did not co-ordinate their strategies.
Beevor related a number of stories from his book. It follows his usual format of combining analysis of strategy with stories of the experience of ordinary soldiers and civilians.
He begins in January 1939 with the Khalkin Gol conflict between Japan and the USSR. It was small but influenced the war. The victory of the Red Army under Georgi Zhukov discouraged the Japanese from later attacking north.
As an example of the global nature of the conflict, Beevor described the story of a Korean called Yang Kyoungjong who was captured by US paratroopers in 1944. He had been conscripted by the Japanese at the age of 18 in 1938, captured by the Red Army in 1939, conscripted into the Red Army in 1941, captured by the Germans in 1943 and conscripted into Normandy as part of an Ost Battalion composed of men from the USSR. He lived out the rest of his life in Illinois in the USA, so had a better fate than many.
Beevor was surprised to see that a memorial to French Jews murdered in the Holocaust described them as having ‘Died for the Glory of France.’ A local explained to him that the French Jews had insisted that their memorial should have the same wording as that on other French war memorials.
The fighting on the Eastern Front was brutal. The Germans carried out mass killings and the Soviets retaliated. Soviet snipers shot starving children who were taking bread from Germans at Stalingrad. Zhukov was ruthless, even threatening to execute the families of PoWs. This measure, which was not implemented, would theoretically have included Josef Stalin, whose son was captured by the Germans.
In November 1942 the Red army launched two major operations; Operation Uranus to encircle the Axis forces attacking Stalingrad and Operation Mars near Moscow. Beevor disagrees with David Glantz’s opinion that Mars was the main operation.
Glantz argues that the Soviets subsequently claimed that Mars was only a diversion for Uranus because Uranus succeeded and Mars failed. Beevor points out that far more artillery was allocated to Uranus. He argues that an NKVD double agent betrayed Mars to the Germans as part of the Soviet plan to distract them from Uranus, which he believes to have been the main operation.
Much has been said about the differences between armies, especially comparing those of democracies with those of dictatorships. Much less has been said about the similarities of the majority of soldiers. Most men did little fighting. A few always fight, a few always run and most follow the majority.
In Asia the Japanese benefitted from the complacency of European colonists, who failed to learn from the Sino-Japanese War. It was also ignored by Adolf Hitler, who failed to recognise that an army could withdraw into the interior when faced by a superior but smaller opponent.
The war in Asia was vicious. Japanese society was militaristic. Soldiers feared disgracing their family and village. They were treated brutally by their officers, leading to them treating the enemy brutally.
The Japanese claimed to be liberators, but Beevor argues that their racial arrogance made the British colonial administration look like a model of liberal tolerance. Japanese officers not only condoned but actively encouraged cannibalism.
The US Marines were more aggressive and faster moving than the US Army in the Pacific. Hatred of the Japanese was reinforced by their suicidal resistance and brutal treatment of PoWs.
Beevor concluded his talk by stating that the Second World War defies generalisation, before taking questions. Some points that came out from these were that:
The pivotal moments were:
May 1940: Winston Churchill rejected Lord Halifax’s proposal to request peace terms from Germany via Italy.
June 1941: German invasion of the USSR.
December 1941: The geopolitical turning point. The Allies could no longer lose, but might have taken much longer than they actually did to win.
November 1942: The Axis lost the initiative.
The British were not good at prioritisation.
Hitler’s main weakness was pride. He would not retreat or give up capital cities.
The best commanders were Erich von Manstein, who was not an admirable man, Bill Slim, who was the most admirable commander and Chester Nimitz. In the Pacific Nimitz’s island hopping strategy was superior to MacArthur’s plan to invade the Philippines. MacArthur was a political threat to President Franklin Roosevelt, making it hard to reject his ideas, and the USA had the resources to do both.
The Allied bombing campaign continued for too long, but a lot of effort was invested in it, making it hard to stop. It did have a military effect. The Germans had to withdraw fighters and anti-aircraft guns from the Eastern Front to the homeland, leaving them with no aerial reconnaissance on the Eastern Front. German bombing raids killed 500,000 Soviet civilians.
Dunkirk was appalling ground for tanks. Hitler was convinced by Hermann Göring that the Luftwaffe could prevent the Allied evacuation, but he underestimated the RAF. Hitler, who wanted to save the tanks for operations against the French, was unfairly criticised by the army.
Alan Brooke was an excellent Chief of the Imperial General Staff, but his strategic ideas were not original. He supported the move throught Italy to save Eastern Europe, which Beevor called ‘mad’ because of the mountains. He opposed the US landings in the south of France, which were an excellent idea.
He described the atomic bombs as being the ‘best thing that could happen to Japan’. Only the shock of the second one led to Emperor Hirohito insisting on surrender. The Japanese military proposed forcing civilians to fight to the last armed only with sharpened sticks.
Arnhem and the Allied failure to secure the Scheldt Estuary in 1944 were big Allied mistakes.
An excellent presentation about what seems to be an excellent book, but the market for single volume histories of the Second World War is quite crowded.
Later the same day Beevor chaired a presentation by Anna Reid on her book about the siege of Leningrad. See this blog entry on her talk at the Aye Write book festival in Glasgow in March 2012.