Review: Ardennes 1944 by Antony Beevor

9780670918645Antony Beevor’s latest book completes his histories of the Eastern and Western Fronts of the Second World War. Beginning with the award winning Stalingrad then Berlin and concluding with D-Day and now Ardennes, Beevor takes his comprehensive eye for detail to Hitler’s last ditch gamble of the war in what became known as The Battle of the Bulge.

I was really interested to read Beevor’s take of this battle having previously only read American accounts of specific engagements of the conflict, most notably Bastogne in Band of Brothers and The Hurtgen Forest, which directly preceded the German offensive. Beevor begins with Hurtgen Forest where American troops literally marched from the streets of Paris into what became know as “the meat-grinder” as a combination of over-the-top optimism about finishing the war before Christmas and new “green” troops resulted in massive casualties as the Allies met German forces on home soil for the first time. (If you are a fan of Band of Brothers then the HBO film When Trumpets Fade, which preceded it by three years, is worth seeing). Troops from The Hurtgen Forest were then redeployed  to the “quieter” area of The Ardennes just as Hitler launched his last offensive of the war.

Antony Beevor shows how the Allies were literally taken by surprise, not just by the offensive but also it size and scope. This was Hitler’s last throw of the dice and his plan was dependent on surprise but also a slow Allied reaction. Beevor shows, through extensive research, how the Allies’ ability to react quickly to the offensive was what won the battle. And although the Germans made great advances, inflicted massive casualties and cause wide spread panic, through infiltrations behind American lines, the quick response from Allied High Command meant reinforcements were deployed in time, supplies withdrawn before the Germans were able to capture them and key cross road towns defended in spite of encirclement. Even without air superiority, thanks to terrible winter conditions, the Allies were able to hold the Offensive back in time for supplies to be brought in and for support to breakthrough from the south.

As with Beevor’s previous books he also shows the full cost to the civilian population inside the battle zones. He also shows how the Battle of the Bulge was the closest the Allies came to the ferocity of the Eastern Front as they came up against veterans of those harsh campaigns. A series of prisoner atrocities on both sides also led to some of the most vicious fighting of the Western Front. Then there was the battle of the egos as Generals Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley and Montgomery (promoted to Field Marshall) all fought for control and press coverage, almost jeopardising the campaign in some instances. But nothing on the scale of what occurred on the German side as Hitler’s fully delusional command tried for one last push to salvage Germany from inevitable and total defeat.

Antony Beevor delivers a fascinating account of the decisive battle of the Western Front.

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The twists and turns come as thick and fast as the action and keep you guessing right up to the last page.

9780099552581Review – Ratlines by Stuart Neville

I love a good World War Two thriller and am a sucker for Irish crime so to get both in one was something I was never expecting. Ireland’s role in the Second World War is rarely mentioned in history books. Ireland officially remained neutral during what they called ‘The Emergency’ but there was a high amount of anti-British feeling amongst stout republicans. This meant that there was even a pro-German sentiment during the war which led to Ireland being a place of refuge for Nazis and Axis collaborators after the war. One Nazi that settled in Ireland was Otto Skorzeny, an SS Colonel who famously rescued Mussolini in 1943. Stuart Neville takes these facts and weaves an impressive historical thriller.

Set in 1963, John F. Kennedy’s historical visit of Ireland is only weeks away. Ireland’s politicians are determined that his visit will be without incident. So when three foreign nationals with shady pasts are found murdered the mess needs to be cleaned up as quickly as possible. Lieutenant Albert Ryan, who fought for the British during the Second World War and has been shunned for doing so, is tasked with protecting Otto Skorzeny who has been singled out as the next target.

Ryan must choose between his country, which has treated him poorly, and his own moral code as he must protect a man whose ideals he fought against in the war. At the same time as dealing with this internal struggle Ryan must discover who is targeting ex-Nazis and why. He also needs to workout who he can really trust because everyone has their own motives and are prepared to do whatever it takes to get what they want.

This is a superb read. The twists and turns come as thick and fast as the action and keep you guessing right up to the last page. I found the historical stuff as fascinating and gripping as the fiction in between and hope we see more of Lieutenant Albert Ryan in the future.

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A masterwork by one of Australia’s best writers

Review- The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

9781741666700Richard Flanagan has been working on this novel for over 12 years, writing other novels in between. He’d gone through countless drafts, reworked the story, started completely over. The reason it troubled him so much was because central to the story are the Australian POWs who worked on the Thai-Burma death railway. An experience shared by his father. He didn’t just want to get the story right, he had to get the story right. And I believe, deep down in my guts, in my heart and with every fibre of my being that he has got the story right.

Richard Flanagan has written a tragic love story, a deconstruction of heroism and mateship, and captured a side of humanity I’ve never read before. Wars, according to our history books, have beginnings and ends but for those who take part in wars, who are swept up in it’s maelstrom, there is no beginning or end. There is only life. And the damage war causes must be endured by those lucky or unlucky enough to survive it.

Dorrigo Evans is a Weary Dunlop type character. Revered by his fellow soldiers/prisoners and mythologized by his country’s media, politicians and people. But Dorrigo’s experience of War and being a POW doesn’t equate to the image his men needed during their imprisonment nor the one thrust upon him later. He battled his role in the POW camp and tried to hide from the one at home. At the expense of family, friends and love. It is not that these images are based on lies, they just don’t ring true to himself. And after surviving the horror of internment he can no longer make sense of the emotions of the life he must now grapple with.

Flanagan structures this novel uniquely. I think he was trying to base his story on a Japanese style but am not 100% sure. We start with Dorrigo’s early years growing up in rural Tasmania and his journey to becoming a surgeon but in between we start to get snippets of his time in the POW camp. We jump to Dorrigo’s later years before jumping back to his time just before the war and an affair that will change Dorrigo irrevocably. When we get to his time at the POW camp the story is contracted around one day, one 24 hour period, but it doesn’t feel like just one day, it feels like many lifetimes. We barely follow Dorrigo through this day as we have already glimpsed bits and pieces and will re-live yet more. Instead we get everyone else’s story. The other prisoners, the guards, the Japanese officers in charge. Flanagan clearly shows us each characters’ motivations, desires, inner turmoil and demons. As the day unfolds we experience the terror, the devastation, the depredation, the hope, the loyalty, the betrayal, the choices of life on the Thai-Burma death railway.

But Flanagan’s novel is not just about what happened on the death railway but also what happened after. How it was explained and justified. How it was hidden and run away from. How justice can be escaped but is also used as revenge. And how it never really ended for anyone involved.

We often talk about the Anzac spirit in Australia but we rarely confront it. War is never altruistic, no matter which side you are on. Survival brings out the best and worst in people as does victory, as does love. Flanagan explores this warts and all. Dorrigo is not a hero, nor is he a bad man, father, husband. He is all of theses things and he is neither. This is a masterwork by one of Australia’s best writers.

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