REVIEW: WITH THE EAST SURREYS IN TUNISIA, SICILY AND ITALY 1942-1945 by Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes
 
 
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Untitled.jpg2This is an unusual book from the outset – the title alone is resonant of books of the past and doesn’t have one of those silly things dreamt up for modernistas. Well done to Pen & Sword for not being tempted into abandoning deep water in preference for the shallow end of the history pool. For when you delve you find the clue is in the strap line “Fighting for every river and mountain”. This is really is the story of river deep, mountain high and blood, sweat and tears. It is one of yeoman battalions of the British Army at war, not fashionable names – no fancy hats, no glorious this or that – but death and defiance. It is a marvellous tale well told.  I love this book – the D Day Dodgers writ large illuminated for you to treasure as they inch painfully up that terrible country Mr Churchill coveted as a soft underbelly while his allies fretted and desired routes to victory more direct and suspected a solid blob of Anglo perfidy.

We all know the truth now of course, or a version acceptable to us; but first we must go to Tunisia and revisit the nightmare of fighting the retreating Panzerarmee. The Huns were far from beat and the Torch landing was advanced but far from solid when things started to go wrong when the Germans began to hit back. They were there in abundance.  For who can forget that in all this tale of valour and hardiness of the British soldier there is always the brilliance of his enemy? In fact it is the treatment of the Germans, the complete respect and care for their dispositions and planning for defence and counter attack both in North Africa and Italy which binds this book so well. Their bravery and utter invincibility, their strength, cunning and die hard will and determination to see things through to the last makes them so splendid and yet so cruel. I think this is a fair picture. They are not foot notes, for without them the book could just breeze along without impact. The Germans, anonymous and implacable as they are, make this story the epic it gradually blossoms into as it dawns upon the reader that this is no sideshow and more than just an adjunct to the other stuff you deem more important about the war. The Rick Atkinson’s of this world do not write trilogies for nothing – the grand finales have their point – but it takes the middle ground and all that pain to lead to the end game.  In it Italy there was plenty of pain.

As much as a war between peoples, the British soldiers also faced a struggle with the elements and the panoramas of battle and weather alike are all up for grabs. Mud and blood combine with snow and rain to merge with rivers and pain on a trail of endless peaks and trails and troughs. We think of Italy as a place of vacations, villas and constant sunshine. The writer brings us something closer to a vision of Hell. This is a powerful story on every level, but it is the people you will keep in your hearts. From the off we are treated to the excellent descriptive writing of Mr Evans who has thoroughly researched his subject and shows a complete love for the men he writes about. They are his and he makes them ours. The reader develops a bond with the lads who plod, fight and die because they are just ordinary blokes doing their bit for King and Country or whatever else that matters to them and what more can they do? Some of them are soldiers sons and are introduced as kids, and it is a beautiful device. Some are professionals – like John Woodhouse, a post war pioneer of the modern SAS. But the majority are here for the duration hoping to survive. Sadly, too few do. They are an everyman.

This book is a wonderful memorial to the East Surreys who fought in North Africa and Italy and to the men of the 78th Battleaxe Division. If your dad or granddad was one of them, put a smile on and be really proud. They were giants on the quiet side of a louder war populated by more famous units. They were Britain’s mountain warfare specialists who conquered Italy going through all those places you know via Cassino to the Argenta Gap and when the going got tough, as it usually did, the call would go out to bring in the Battleaxe. They deserve this book.  Bryn Evans has done them proud.

As a bonus the author goes on little tangents taking us on reflective battlefield visits he makes to the locations where soldiers walked. I love this stuff and so should you.

 Mark Barnes

WITH THE EAST SURREYS IN TUNISIA, SICILY AND ITALY 1942-1945
Fighting For Every River and Mountain
By Bryn Evans
Published by Pen & Sword Military £25.00
ISBN: 978 1 84884 762 0