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Alan Callow
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Overweight 50 + bloke with a beard trying desperately to keep death at arm's length by avoiding growing up
Overweight 50 + bloke with a beard trying desperately to keep death at arm's length by avoiding growing up

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My Part of the Sky: A fighter pilot's first-hand experiences 1939-1945 by Roland Beamont; read 24 June 2018

This book was published in 1989 and tells of the wartime combat flying of the author who would go straight from flying training (with around 150 hours total flying) straight to France in November 1939 to join 87 squadron flying the Hurricane as part of the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force. 1500 hours of flying and over 500 combat sorties later and he is the leader of the only 5 squadron strong wing in the RAF flying the RAF’s newest and fastest fighter, the Tempest, from an advanced base in Holland during the Allies’ advance to Germany at which point engine failure over enemy territory brings to an end the author’s war and leads to 6 month’s incarceration as a POW.

The book tells the story of the air battles over France and Britain during 1940 whilst the author was a junior pilot and the conversion of the squadron, still flying Hurricanes, into the night fighter role during the blitz of 1940/41. Some of the night flying tales – night formation and night aerobatics, occasionally after a couple of pints – over a blacked out landscape in pursuit of a mostly elusive enemy are truly eye opening. In 1941 Beamont was posted as a flight commander to another Hurricane unit and at the end of the year to Hawkers as a test pilot on the Typhoon, oddly these 2 postings are left as gaps in the narrative as is a second stint at Hawkers in 1943/4 working on the new Tempest. This is a shame as surely there would be much to tell on operating the, by then, obsolete Hurricane and the troubled development of the Typhoon. This gap also misses out Beamont’s court martial (perhaps the reason it is left out) for taking a WAAF, later his wife, to a dance in the cockpit of his Hurricane.

The introduction of the Typhoon over Dieppe in 1942 and then as a night intruder and on day time standing patrols over the channel to catch FW190 ‘tip and run’ raiders is the next period covered in the book. In reading this section it is chastening to realise that a number of pilots were lost due to engine or structural failures of their aircraft rather than by enemy action and yet uncomplaining continued to fly daily in poor weather at low level over the sea in an aircraft that killed anyone that tried to ditch it and where baling out would rarely lead to survival. Beamont himself would become a victim of the Typhoon’s unreliable engine though he was fortunate to make landfall before forced landing in a field.

By 1944 Beamont was the Wing Leader of the 1st Tempest squadron and he recalls his role in bringing his wing to combat readiness just in time for D Day by training, fighter sweeps over France and attacks on ground targets particularly trains. D Day, for the Tempest wing was something of an anti-climax though they did engage Me109s a few days later, one of which fell victim to Beamont, but soon the squadron was switched to the defence of London against the V1s. Beamont is modest when claiming that tactics against the V1 were established in the 1st morning of the campaign but it is a fact that he would become the leading V1 killer. The V1 threatdealt with and Beamont led his wing to the continent though this is another gap in the book as apart from his telling of his engine failure and capture little is discussed and nothing of his time as a POW other than musings about the evil of the Nazis (written whilst still a prisoner and unaware of the death camps).

Overall, the book is a good read though the big gaps mentioned are a shame and even more of a shame is the omission of Beamont’s marriage and life away from the front line I did find it odd that his wife gets perhaps 3 mentions and her death whilst he was a POW not at all.

For these reasons it doesn’t measure against the best autobiographies of the wartime aces – such as those of Braham and Clostermann but it is still a worthwhile read.
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6/26/18
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The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones, read 31 May 2018

Having watched Dan Jones being interviewed by Dan Snow on History Hit TV, I thought I should put my copy of ‘The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors’ at the top of my reading list. For many their knowledge of the Knights Templar comes from the fiction of the ‘Da Vinci Code’. For me, my schooldays bear more responsibility as our Duke of Edinburgh Bronze expedition was to an overnight camp at Temple Bruer in Lincolnshire, the site of a Templar preceptory which to this day retains the restored remains of the south tower of the Templar church built in the mid 13th century, and which contains graffiti going back until at least the 1600s.

The Knights Templar were the wealthiest and the most powerful of the military orders of the crusading era, though by no means he only one – others included the Knights of St John and the Teutonic Knights as well as several Iberian orders fighting the Moors in Spain and Portugal. For 200 years, from their founding in Jerusalem in 1119 on the principles of chastity, obedience and poverty the order lived according to a regime codified by the great Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux. Reporting to the Pope rather than Kings the Order grew rich and powerful until its spectacular downfall in 1307 at the hands of the capricious King Philip ‘the Fair’ (though ‘Unfair’ might be a better soubriquet) of France and his puppet Pope Clement V. The last of its Masters was burned at the stake as heretic in 1314 on a charge wholly trumped up with Philip intent on grabbing the order’s wealth for himself.
Jones’ book is divided into four sections:
1. ‘Pilgrims’, describes the Templars’ founding in 1119, by Hugh of Payns, as an order to protect pilgrims on their way to and from Jerusalem through the still dangerous, despite the success of the 1st Crusade, lands of the levant where roads were plagued by robbers and bandits and laced with the corpses of those pilgrims who had succumbed.

2. ‘Soldiers’, shows how the Templars transformed themselves from a roadside rescue team into an elite military unit at the forefront of the crusader wars.

3. ‘Bankers’, covers how the Order of the Temple matured from a crusading auxiliary force supported by donations from the west into an institution that combined military capability with a sophisticated network of properties and personnel across Christendom, becoming hugely wealthy and financially sophisticated. In due course managing the treasuries of nations – notably the treasury of France (the seed of the Order’s downfall once Philip’s covetous eye landed upon their wealth. In the 1st hundred years of their existence the Order transformed from ‘indigent shepherds of the pilgrim roads, dependent on the charity of fellow pilgrims for their food and clothes, into a borderless, self-sustaining paramilitary group funded by large-scale estate management’ according to Jones.

4. ‘Heretics’ traces the roots of the Templars’ destruction to events in the 1260s, when the brothers in the east were on the front line of a war against the two most dangerous enemies the crusaders ever faced: Mongol armies under the descendants of Genghis Khan and rising power of Egypt’s caste of Muslim slave soldiers the Mamluks. Defeat at the hands of the Mamluks gave licence for widespread criticism of the Templars as their plentiful resources and close association with the worsening fortunes of the wars against Islam became sticks with which to beat them. The fall of Acre, the last Crusader territory in the Holy Land was to facilitate Philip’s attack on the order.

Dan Jones is a journalist as well as an historian and he has written a fine narrative that tells the story of the Templars with aplomb. The journalist’s eye for political intrigue is well used in highlighting the rise of influence of the Order. He is wonderfully aware of the incongruity of a supposedly Godly order with a mission to kill and maim the enemies of God , pointing out Bernard of Clairvaux’s somewhat sophistic differentiation between homicide – the sin of killing a man – and malicide, the act of killing evil itself, which God would consider a noble deed by which manner the Templars could be allowed to defend the Holy Land, eventually being recognised as the ‘ fiercest fighters of all the Franks,’ according to Ibn al-Athir. Dan Jones tells the true story of the Templars, which turns out to be better than any fiction of Dan Brown’s invention.
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6/22/18
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Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944 by Antony Beevor, read 11 June 2018

Despite living in Lincolnshire and surrounded by Bomber Command airfields, as a 4 year old child my dad’s clearest memory of the 2nd World War was watching an armada of glider -towing transport aircraft overflying him as he stood on Sleaford cricket pitch. He did not know at the time that this was the 1st wave of airborne forces heading towards Arnhem having just taken off from nearby Barkston Heath (incidentally the same airfield I would fly my 1st Jet Solo from almost 40 years later).

Of the 8,969 men of the British 1st Airborne Division who took part in Operation ‘Market Garden’ between 17 and 26 September 1944 only 3,910 escaped to fight again. In early books on the battle Market Garden was treated an heroic ‘near miss’ that with just a bit better luck would have allowed the Allies to cross the Rhine in September 1944 rather than March 1945 and shortened the war by 6 months. Montgomery, at the time claimed it to have been 90% successful, since the troops of XXX Corps got nine-tenths of the way to Arnhem prompting Eisenhower’s deputy, Beddell-Smith to comment “One jumps off a cliff with an even higher success rate, until the last few inches.” Churchill went further, “A decided victory,” was his verdict in Parliament (to be fair he at least was charged with maintaining the nation’s morale and in convincing the loved ones of those lost that the sacrifice had not been in vain). In fact Market Garden was a clear defeat.

Beevor’s central thesis is that Market Garden was a doomed mission before the first transports were airborne. His prime villain is Montgomery, though he does not feature heavily in the narrative once battle is joined, who schemed to get a lead on Bradley’s army to the south and prove that his strategy of a concentrated offensive using all allied power on a narrow front was superior to Eisenhower’s ‘broad front’ approach – in fact it probably was but the place to try it wasn’t Arnhem but the Saar – where Bradley and Patton were located. Montgomery thus set in chain the planning for Market Garden – XXX Corps would attack north from Belgium for 70km through the Netherlands to pass through the position of the 1st Allied Airborne Army dropped ahead of it and charged with the capture of the crossings of the main river obstacle, the 101st US Airborne at Eindhoven, 82nd US Airborne at Nijmegan and the 1st British Airborne at Arnhem. Montgomery’s planning was clearly faulty for many reasons:

1. He failed to liaise effectively with the allied air forces and thus overestimated their ability to deliver sufficient airborne troops to their objectives. In the event several waves had to be delivered over several days due to the range the aircraft had to fly.
2. Insufficient appreciation of the terrain – the pre-war Dutch staff college, according to Beevor, automatically failed any student who came up with a plan to attack Arnhem along XXX Corp’s route – effectively a 70km penetration on a 30m front along a single raised road flanked by polder land and Germans – to be named by the US Airborne forces as ‘Hells Highway’. Montgomery obstinately refused to listen to Dutch warnings about the impossibility of deploying XXX Corps off the single raised road onto the polder land flood plain.
3. Montgomery ignored clear evidence of stiffening German resistance after the charge through Belgium (though it should be noted that whilst elements of II SS Panzer Corps had been identified around Arnhem this consisted of only 6000 troops and 3 Panther tanks on 17 September; most German tanks that engaged 1st Airborne were transferred from Germany during the fighting at Arnhem). It seems that Montgomery as much as anyone else had succumbed to a ‘victory euphoria’ following the rapid Allied advance from Normandy to Belgium which blunted his judgement.

Whilst Montgomery was in overall command, there is plenty of blame to go around for the failure at Arnhem. The vain Lt Gen Browning in taking up 38 gliders for his own, completely pointless, HQ reduced the 82nd’s airlift on day 1 and his misdirection of its commander (Brig Gen Gavin) to prepare a flank defence rather than capture the prime objective of Nijmegan Bridge, despite the latter’s protestations would have doomed the operation completely had not FM Model, the German commander, made the odd decision not to blow up the bridge – a rare German mistake during the battle.

In his own memoir, published in 1958, Maj Gen Urquhart claimed that the communications equipment provided to the 1st airborne severely hampered this ability to execute his task. There is some truth to this, and Beevor acknowledges the limitations of the radios, but the real failure was that neither Urquhart, who was not a paratrooper, nor Browning were willing to insist on their gliders being landed close to the Arnhem bridge as a Coup de Main force. As a result on Col Frosts 2 Para were able to reach the Arnhem Bridge – where they fought magnificently for several days until running out of ammunition, having only expected to hold the position for 2 days and at Brigade rather than battalion strength. The 1st Airborne Drop Zones were not only too far from their objectives, but as the whole division could only be delivered over several days, the forces available to Urquhart were further dissipated by the need to hold the DZs, for reinforcement, as well as the bridge at Arnhem.

Beevor highlights all these and many other failings. He is right to say that Market Garden was planned based on everything going right, when it is an unwritten rule of warfare that no plan survives contact with the enemy. There is a military maxim that states that an operation’s outcome rests 75% on planning and 25% on luck. Even if this plan had been impeccable, it needed improbable good fortune to succeed.

The accounts of the battles fought at Eindhoven, Nijmegan and Arnhem capture equally the horror of the scenes and the valour, and occasional baseness, of the troops. The fortitude of the 1st para division, initially expected to be relieved in 2-3 days by XXX Corps, in holding out for a week despite increasing shortages of supplies of all sorts, is still something to be marvelled at. Five VCs were awarded at Arnhem and for each of these awards there must surely have been an equal or greater number of equally brave acts that went unseen or unreported due to the death of witnesses. Eventually the Airborne forces at Arnhem would be evacuated across the Rhine with the rearguard formed from Sosbowski’s Poles who had arrived on the Southern bank at Driel after many delays caused by poor weather in England – a source of extreme annoyance to the able Polish General.

In all locations, the bravery of the Dutch civilians, whether sheltering helplessly in cellars, nursing the wounded or actively fighting with the Allies (one Dutch youth attached himself to the US Airborne and remained with them until the end of the war) is noteworthy and Beevor records their initial joy at the arrival of the Allied troops in spite of the destruction of their towns – particularly Nijmegan (set alight by the Germans) and Arnhem. The British defeat at Arnhem would lead to the Germans forcibly removing some 200 000 civilians from their home and the looting of the town as well as the deliberate starvation of that part of the Netherlands still under their control until the end of the war as a punishment for Dutch civilian assistance to the Allies in Market Garden. The Dutch suffered not just the 3,600 killed and several thousand wounded in the fighting; in addition some 18 000 Dutch civilians died during the Hunger Winter of 1944/5 as a result of the Allied failure to liberate the country.

Beevor’s account of this epic battle is highly readable and supports his central thesis. I am not sure there’s anything new here, other than perhaps the trials borne by the Dutch civilian population and a well written vindication of the Polish brigade and its leader Gen Sosabowski who was rubbished by Browning at the time in an attempt to deflect criticism from his own performance; I will need to compare with Middlebrook’s “Arnhem ‘44” to confirm this view. There are some minor factual errors for example most reports indicate that Capt ‘Basher’ Brownscombe’s murderer was not a Dutch SS member hanged in 1947 for the murder as Beevor asserts but a German, Karl-Gustav Lerche, who in 1955 was sentenced to 10 years hard labour for the crime. A minor annoyance is the use of the term ‘Traffic Circle’ which appears several times in the telling of the story of the battles around the Nijmegan bridge, I suspect Beevor means a roundabout but the term is never explained
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These niggles aside, the book is a gripping and a fitting tribute to those whose gallantry and sacrifice is commemorated to this day by the Annual Nijmegan marches and the well-tended graves of Allied soldiers in Arnhem, which itself wasn’t rebuilt entirely until 1969.
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6/13/18
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Crusader: By Horse to Jerusalem by Tim Severin; read 22 May 2018

Nine hundred years after the First Crusade, Tim Severin and Sarah Dorman set out on horseback to follow the 2500 mile route of Duke Godfrey of Boullion and other Crusaders, from Belgium to Jerusalem travelling through the modern lands of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia (itself today consigned to history), Bulgaria, Turkey and Syria. The horses chosen were a riding school palfrey (Mystery) and a Heavy Ardennes (Carty), the latter a descendent of the war horses of Crusader cavalry – what Severin calls ‘the Main Battle Tank’ of its day. This Journey, after many years of marine expeditions was a return to long distance land expeditioning by Severin (in 1961, whilst at university he had travelled to China on a motorcycle following Marco Polo’s route).
The book’s dust jacket claims, not unfairly, that it is a ‘dazzling synthesis of adventure, practical history, and exploration’ which is also a claim made on the jacket of the author’s next book ‘In Search of Genghis Khan’* which makes me wonder whether Crusader had sold as well as expected. It did not matter to me as I read the book on publication in 1990 and have just revisited it. Times have changed; when this journey was made, the Iron Curtain was still drawn across Europe; border checks remained even in Western Europe as this was prior to Schengen and the Customs Union; the Lebanon was a no-go zone for Westerners which forced Severin and Dorman to detour through Syria (and Jordan) to reach Jerusalem – today an impossibility.
The book tells the story of sourcing and training suitable horses to recreate the journey as well as of the journey through a now lost Europe - I am sure you can no longer find Bear trainers in Bulgaria - though it was done just over a quarter of a century ago. In communist Hungary they add a 2nd palfrey (Szarcza) to the team as the huge Carty is extremely uncomfortable to ride, this emulates the Crusaders as their heavy horses would have been used as pack animals until they would be mounted battle. After an unpleasant journey through Yugoslavia, the expedition is lauded and extremely well looked after in Bulgaria- a result of Severin’s network of friends and again in Turkey.
The story of reception of Duke Godfrey’s army, and those of the other crusaders by Alexius in Constantinople is recorded as is the decimation of the Peasant’s crusade by the Seljuk forces of Kilij Arslan at Civetot in north-western Anatolia . The main crusader army would gain some recompense by investing Nicea though by subterfuge this city was obtained by Alexius and was not sacked despite a long, and generally incompetent siege of the crusaders. It is just past Nicea (somewhere in the likely locale of the Battle of Dorylaeum) that the expedition is halted for the winter and the horses handed over to the safe keeping of a retired jockey for the winter, a change from the original plan decided upon by the need to rest horses and people (Severin had lost 20lbs in weight and Sarah had broken her foot in a fall the day before the stop). The expedition had travelled at the same speed as the crusaders and it had taken just over 4 months to reach this point.
As it turns out, this is as far as Carty gets, unable to settle in the winter quarters despite the attentions of former jockey Remzi, he is retired to a horse farm in Vienna, he is replaced for the second year’s travels by the diminutive and spirited Zippy. Sadly, Mystery, is destined not to make it to Jerusalem either as she dies, probably as the result of a blocked intestine, by a river on the approach to Syria after the winter break. The Hungarian horse Szarcza would also fail to make it to Jerusalem, breaking own in the Syrian desert and being given over to a horse owner in Jordan just before the journey is completed. The fact that neither of the original horses make the whole journey is perhaps a pointer to the crusaders own problems on their journey 900 years earlier as it’s likely that they too lost many horses through wear as much as war.
This book describes an extraordinary journey made in modern and medieval times. It is well worth a read as both a history and a travelogue if one can still get a copy I would highly recommend. The book is a reminder that history never stops as we see the story of the First Crusade told whilst we see for ourselves the significant geopolitical changes since Severin and Dorman made the journey just 30 years ago.
* ‘A dazzling synthesis of exploration, living history and adventure'
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5/23/18
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Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie by Andrew P. Sykes; read 27 March 2018

Andrew P Sykes was head of Modern Languages at a Reading school. Whilst watching the Beijing Olympics during the long school summer holidays of 2008, he realised that he could be doing something much more rewarding with his time so set about planning this trip, which he undertook 2 summers later from his home to Brindisi in the foot of Italy. Inspired by the medieval pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome, the Via Francigena, first described by Archbishop Sigeric in 990 CE, Sykes decided to use the Eurovelo 5 route, minus the Belgian section (see the screen grab of Andrew’s route below). This book is the story of that Journey, the 1st of Andrew’s European journeys (Andrew has since also written of trips ‘Along the Med’ and from ‘Spain to Norway’ which I have yet to read). Reggie is the Ridgeback Panorama touring bike that Sykes obtained for the journey.

At the time of writing, it seems that the Eurovelo 5 was more of an aspiration than an actuality (for all I know this may still be the case), nevertheless it did provide a framework for the author’s trip though, and he considered this an advantage, there was no turn by turn directions available thus allowing him to follow his nose through northern France, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. The book is a humorous travelogue that doesn’t try too hard and works all the better for it, there are some lovely turns of phrase and many a chuckle to be had along with the visualisation of some great days such as the struggle to the Gotthard Pass. Throughout the summer of 2010 it seemed that the expected boundary line between the grey, rainy skies of Britain and the never-ending sun of the Mediterranean was unusually far south, despite which the author maintains his sense of humour.

We could all envy Syke’s long holidays and language skills in allowing him to make trips like this but we could all do something like this with a bit of effort, the average daily mileage is not huge, rest days are taken every 5 days and as in most of Europe English will get you through. All of which makes this anything but a travelogue of a superhuman – very few of us could do a Chris Bonington but we could all do an Andrew P Sykes.

As I have said, this is the author’s 1st book. It is competently and engagingly written but I suspect his style will improve so I am looking forward to reading his later books.
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5/3/18
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We Chose to Speak of War and Strife: The World of the Foreign Correspondent by John Simpson. Read 6 March 2018

“We Chose to Speak of War and Strife” is in Simpson’s words a ‘guidebook to the origin, development and practice of the foreign correspondent’s profession.’ Calling it a guidebook is perhaps overdoing it as I would suggest it to be an anthology of the writings of some of the finest journalists who have covered foreign affairs, an anthology nevertheless with a coherent narrative moving from William Howard Russell and the Crimea through the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to today. Some passages are truly moving and as such wonderful literature in their own right examples such as Paul Conray’s account of the death of Marie Colvin in Syria or Christina Lamb’s description of the rescue of refugees in the Mediterranean.

As a foreign affairs journalist Simpson has been there and done it and is uniquely qualified to write this book which provides an anthology of foreign reporting from the Crimean war until today. To be fair though most of the writers whose works are quoted, with a few exceptions such as Robert Fisk, William Howard Russell, Martha Gellhorn and a couple of others, are not employed as foreign correspondents when he writes of them. Simpson himself makes the distinction between the true Foreign Correspondent – someone based for many years in a country or region to cover all its goings on – and those reporters variously referred to as firemen or war correspondents: star journalists who are sent out from home to cover the stories with the biggest domestic interest who move on to the next story when public attention has also moved on. Most of those whose work is found in this book come into the latter category.

In addition to those mentioned above one learns of some truly audacious journalists of the last 2 centuries. There are the likes of Hemingway of course – often fast and lose with the facts (and Ms Gellhorn); there is Clare Hollingworth of the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, who reported from the Polish border on the outbreak of the Second World War (she died aged 105 January 2017, having been a regular at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents club until her death) and then going on to cover Algeria, Vietnam and China under Mao. For some reason many of the most courageous and resourceful of reporters seem to have been women, Hollingworth famously answered the door to the Gestapo in the nude to avoid being arrested, and it was often remarked that a good decision “is getting on a plane at an airport where Kate Adie is getting off.”

As an aside the malevolence of the Daily Mail has a long back story. Simpson does not labour the point but he does point out that “Goebbels noted in his diary: ‘Rothermere pays me great compliments. . . Strongly anti-Jewish. . . He is a strong supporter of the Führer.’ On 1 October 1938, he sent Hitler a telegram congratulating him on invading the Sudetenland, and calling him ‘Alfred the Great’. Papers released by MI5 in 2005 revealed that he sent further congratulations in 1939 to Hitler on invading Czechoslovakia, and encouraged him to do the same to Romania.” Of course Beaverbrook was little better but he was never taken in by Hitler and the Nazis, and encouraged Philip Pembroke Stephens to write a series of anti-Nazi articles in 1933.

Times when the reporter has galvanised the world to action are few but it can happen that a report pricks the world conscience. Simpson considers Buerk’s report to be the best piece of television reporting in his lifetime, and who can argue given the effects that it went on to have and even 30 years later it has a legacy that has not allowed the developed world to ignore Africa and its problems even although its responses are all too often inadequate.

Ed O’Loughlin said of this book that ‘in his eagerness to put himself into the story, even other people’s stories, strands Simpson on the wrong side of the line that separates Alan Whicker from Alan Partridge’. I think this is a little harsh though I do see the point being made as invariably Simpson cannot let another writer’s piece stand on its own merits without including his own parallel experience. This is a minor point for me given the selection of excellent writing that has been included stands well and Simpson manages to knit a coherent pattern even if he overplays his own role.

Simpson closes the book with a warning to all who care what is going on in the world as news outlets employ ever fewer journalists, preferring instead to recycle ‘news’ from elsewhere or even just to make stuff up. As late as 1968 thirty-five correspondents were still based around the world for the Daily Express by the 1990s there was 1 and I am not sure if there are any today. I beg to differ with Simpson that whilst the BBC does still employ a global network of correspondents that it is much better value than its peers. Certainly, much of the news reported on its flagship channels seems to be lazy ‘reviews of the headlines’, oddly since its less well known channels still seem capable of pioneering reporting, and it has lost the investigative edge in both foreign and domestic news. This is a problem that Simpson himself points out, though he fails to see it applying to his BBC, when he says:

“the less you tell people about what is happening, the less they’ll know, and the less they’ll be interested in. The downward spiral gets progressively tighter and tighter until it vanishes altogether. The comments which readers leave online under any given newspaper article nowadays show a breathtaking combination of cynicism, spite, ignorance and misspelling; and it sometimes takes an effort to remember that these savage remarks aren’t necessarily a genuine reflection of public opinion, but merely the kind of irreflective dross.”
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Wingless Victory; The story of Sir Basil Embry’s escape from Occupied France in the summer of 1940 by Anthony Richardson; read 21 April 2018

I have written before of Basil Embry and his illustrious career. This book, which has been out of print for at least half a century (my rather mouldy copy came via Amazon Marketplace), recounts the tale of just 10 weeks in Embry’s life. The book recalls the period from 26 May 1940 when, having been told to handover command of 107 Sqn on his promotion to Group Captain, Embry took the opportunity to lead one more mission to attack advancing German forces near St Omer. It was on this mission that he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and began his epic escape from France to Spain.

Arguably these few weeks are among the most famous of his career. Shot down by Flak, shortly after bombing German positions, Embry and his navigator baled out but were both quickly captured, tough neither knew of the other’s fate – the navigator would remain a POW for the duration of the war. Embry was slightly wounded in the leg by Perspex from his aircraft’s canopy. After capture, Embry was brought to the nearest German mobile HQ where he was desultorily interrogated and where he was bundled into the back of Guderian’s staff car before being corralled with other prisoners for a forced march to Germany. On the second day of the march, after taking as a good omen the sighting of a sign for the village Embry, Embry and another airman made a dash for freedom and both managed to hide in ditches along the roadside though they became separated. From here Embry would commence a long trek to the Spanish border.

Embry’s initial plan was to rejoin with British forces on the Somme but found moving through the battle zone without being noticed, even at night, was impossible as the amount of German traffic was enormous. With the help of a local farmer and a scarecrow he dressed as a French peasant and set about walking during the daytime though he was soon to find such flagrant hiding in plain sight unnerving and revert to travelling by night. After swimming across the Somme, and once again travelling by day he was recaptured, despite his protestations that he was a Belgian refugee (to explain his lack of papers) by some thuggish rear echelon troops who locked him in a barn – threatening to shoot him if it turned out he was British. Rather than wait for his fate Embry attacked and killed one of the guards when he was alone and then set about two others, whom he also believed he had killed, with the rifle of the 1st guard. He then hid for 6 hours at the bottom of a manure heap until the Germans moved on. It was the killing of these guards that would lead to him flying later in the war under the pseudonym of ‘Wg Cdr Smith’ – though it is unlikely this would have protected him from a firing squad for long had he been shot down again.

From his captors, Embry had learned of the British evacuation at Dunkirk so changed his escape route. Making his way to the north coast of France, he hoped to obtain a boat to sail or row across the channel but he was thwarted by the Germans who had got there before them and either requisitioned or spiked the available vessels. Embry was again captured and interrogated on his way south – towards Paris – but was able to bluff his way out this time pretending to be an Irishman and former IRA man who claiming to have been in exile in Belgium. He was forced to take on this persona as this time his interrogator, unlike those previously, spoke flawless French so he couldn’t claim to be Belgian but still need to account for a lack of papers. His bluff was successful – his fluent ‘Irish’ - actually Punjabi - being enough for the Germans to send him on his way.

Deciding now to make his way to Paris, as an American, he entered the American consulate and was put in touch with helpful diplomats who provided him cash and a bicycle on which he set out south towards Tours, covering 145 miles on his 1st day on the bike – this as I know is something of a feat for a fit person on a modern road bike so given Embry had not eaten properly for weeks, had a leg injury and was on something of a boneshaker it says something for is determination and drive. The bike would be taken by a German soldier the next day but then he was close enough to the frontline and as the armistice occurred he was given help by French forces to make his way further south by train and eventually to the border with Spain where final frustrations in not being allowed to cross as he did not have an exit visa from France, were eventually overcome. In just under 10 weeks he made his way back to 107 sqn in Norfolk.

Embry’s journey was made at a time when France was still in the war and then around the armistice and is more interesting from that perspective as it is a rare account of escape through a war zone and prior to the setting up of escape routes and assistance from escape lines. At the same time the confusion of battle allowed him to pose and be accepted as a refugee, an option not allowed to later escapers though unlike them bureaucracy would hold him up as the peacetime visa systems in place on the Spanish border attest.

An interesting observation that I made regarding Embry’s outlook was that he claimed to be truly alive in this period as every day his life was in the balance and like early humans his wits were required to keep him alive and free. Having recently listened to Charles Spencer recounting the escape of Charles II after defeat of the battle of Worcester in 1651 he makes a similar observation on his subject that he too looked back to his period on the run as the best times of his life in spite of the danger – I suspect the reasons were the same. A lesson that we can all take from Embry is that he faced and overcame many setbacks and disappointments during his escape, his response was to move forward, not to regret what he could not change. He recognised that to feel sorry for himself could destroy his morale and that would lead to his downfall. It is not that he was advocating ‘positive thinking’ (I am sure the phrase had not been invented) but that whatever happened had happened and could not be changed therefore one need to focus on the eventual outcome and the next step to achieve it.

It is a shame the book is out of print I would recommend anybody to get a copy if they can.
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