Wednesday, 4 June 2014


The influences of the second world war were all around in the fifties and early sixties. It took a long time for a bomb damaged London to re-build; rationing was still around and simple things like oranges and bananas were something completely new to us - born during and after the war.

Both Westerns and war films dominated in the cinema while books of both genres crowded the bookshelves.

The factual books of the time like Guy Gibson's 'Enemy Coast Ahead'; Willi Frischauer and Robert Jackson's 'The Navy's Here' and Richard Collier's 'Eagle Day' brought a narrative to war books. The writing styles not only maintained interest but read like a novel. These books were far removed from the stiff and formal histories available at the time.

Authors like C.E.Lucas Phillips brought Alamein, Kohima, the raid on St.Nazaire and the exploits of the Cockleshell Heroes to life while Ralph Barker took to the skies and down into the drink with his real life stories of the R.A.F.

In turn many of the war novelists drew on their own experiences. John Harris (ex-air force) had a successful debut with 'The Sea Shall Not Have Them' about the air sea rescue team battling to find a downed bomber crew that is, unknowingly, drifting towards a minefield. This book was turned into a movie and it proved successful for John Harris was to continue writing war books. Amongst these and written in the sixties was 'Covenant With Death' about the young conscripts who answered Lord Kitchener's call during the First World War. It follows their lives and their training through the march to the front - from romanticism through to the harsh reality of the Somme 1916.

At secondary school the books to read were Derek Lambert's 'The Twenty Thousand Thieves' and the sequel 'Glory Thrown In'. The Australian Army on the march in the North African desert - Benghazi and Tobruk in the heat and dust. Officers who lived a class apart still living in a colonial past and despised by the men some of whom had worked for them. First World War attitudes clashing on the field of battle with Second World War reality.

Many others turned their wartime experiences into novels. Alexander Baron's (I have written more about this author in an earlier blog) army days are recalled in the accounts of the Scicily and Italy campaigns while Nicholas Monserrat wrote about his naval career in 'Three Corvettes' and 'The Cruel Sea'. Peter Elstob showed what life was like in a tank with the excellent 'Warriors For The Working Day'.

Another British airman was the author Elleston Trevor who wrote about the Battle Of Britain in 'Squadron Airborne'; Dunkirk with 'The Big Pick Up' and Falaise with 'The Killing Ground'. Elleston Trevor went on to more fame as 'Adam Hall' creator of the Quiller series.

The list goes on but there were two American authors who wrote about war in a completely different way. One was Irwin Shaw who wrote that brick of a book 'The Young Lions'. Of the three characters only two stand out. Christian Diestl is a pretty decent character - he's not a bad guy it is just the times and the need to survive in Nazi Germany that makes him become the way he is. Noah Ackerman, on the other hand, is a nice guy - but being Jewish doesn't work in his favour. Here Shaw cleverly shows a parallel with the Nazi way and bullying anti-Semitism of his peers. Michael Whitacre is a middle-class, fence sitter who tries to do as little as possible while handing out unwanted advice - only Noah Ackerman just will not lie down nor stay down.

The other American author, who should be better known, is ex-USAAF pilot James Salter who used his experiences during the Korean war to the fore in 'The Hunters'. Sabres vs MIGs - this wasn't anything like the 'Blackhawk' comics. The hero of 'The Hunters' is Cleve Connell who has one ambition - to be an ace pilot with five kills - but does he have what it takes? Even he has doubts about his own abilities.

These are just a few of the war novellists that I read in the late fifties and early sixties. Some may be remembered while others have been forgotten. Every book that I write about, though, is still on my bookshelf.


Oscar Case said...

Two great American novels about war and soldiers were From Here to Eternity by James Jones and The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer. As you say, Nicholas Monserrat's sea stories are fine reading, too.

Ray said...

And Herman Wouk's 'The Caine Mutiny'; David Westheimer's 'Von Ryan's Express'. A neverending list.