The seventieth anniversary of the end the Second World War in Europe will be commemorated in May. Whether it will be like D-Day with politicians and royalty
backslapping history with the red carpet treatment, I do not know. But as the generation who won the war steadily fade away, we have been more or less assured these will virtually be the last of these major events. So, is it a celebration or a commemoration? I actually think it is a bit of both and I don’t see any harm in recalling the defeat of an evil dictatorship as long as we encompass this with commemoration for the millions who died as a result.
There are some Germans who insist we Brits are obsessed with the war and they tell us it is time to move on. We have. Millions of people in the UK have no interest in history or any sense of connection with what Americans term the ‘Greatest Generation’. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and we found that out with veterans of the Great War who just vanished before our eyes leaving so many questions unanswered. So whether it’s a celebration or commemoration, I think we have a duty to keep faith with the people who secured our freedom, even if we spend far too much time bickering over what to do with it.
Perhaps it is easer for people like me whose parents lived through the war. My father was an infantryman and my mother lived through the brief experience of evacuation, then the Blitz and the vengeance weapons. She worked in a factory making officers shirts. My dad’s father was killed at sea in ’41 and his brother won the George Medal for gallantry in 1940. My dad took me along a path of reading up on the war at a young age and I was directed to The Longest Day while my mates were reading Narnia or stuff like that and I never looked back.
The Longest Day remains iconic because Cornelius Ryan found a way of making the history accessible. Methods have progressed immeasurably since his untimely death but the events of D-Day have become an entry point into the history of the war for millions and it is apt that it was where After The Battle first came to my attention way back in 1973 when I was a spotty fourteen year old kid eager to get out on the battlefields. For now they have a new book following events from D-Day to victory in 1945. The Defeat of Germany Then and Now is not just a commemoration of that victory it is a celebration of decades of achievement for Winston Ramsey and his team.
The book uses the simple device of republishing the daily communiqués issued by SHAEF to tell the world how the war progressed from D-Day to victory. With this we get the tried and tested blend of historic photographs and detailed captions alongside modern views of the locations shown. I am not going to labour the point I have made many times of how inspirational I find this format. You should all know how it works by now.
So why is it a celebration? Simple. There was a sitcom about a couple of tailors called Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width running when I was a lad. The point being, I see a lot of big glossy books that often don’t have an iota of the substance ATB’s publications achieve. That isn’t to say they are all bad, far from it, but so many guides and histories borrow from ATB methods in some form or other and, I’ll be honest, I do it myself. Imitation is the best form of flattery.
True depth is best found in the ‘now’ photos where you can see how long they have been at it by looking at the cars in some of the images. Renault 5s and Ford Escorts have, themselves, faded away but the quality of work produced today is, if anything, even better in my opinion, as time has marched on.
This book is brimming with stunning archive photographs and I am very impressed that they have been reproduced with the intention of showing censors marks and a good number of the backs have been used to reveal contemporary captions and other really interesting information. In my trade we always turn immediately to the back however good an image is because what is written there is crucial. I have noticed something of a Pantherfest in this book, because we all know what a photogenic beast the tank was. Who needs Tigers when you have a Panther? As usual the book is carefully balanced to show all the protagonists, along with their successes and failures. While you would expect to see something of the horrors of the death camps and the despicable murders of Allied prisoners of war, the book doesn’t evade the realities of Allied bombing and what it did in the course of liberating some towns and villages in France and the Netherlands.
The SHAEF communiqués are fascinating because, thanks to the additional captions, you can easily follow events with added slices of the grim realities the writers omitted and the censors often barred. This book takes me back to where I came in with Battle of Britain Then and Now in 1980, where you can follow events on a day by day basis and get a feel for the gathering drama as it ebbed and flowed. You can do the same here through the bland prose of the SHAEF PR team. It was a broad front war and events flit about in line with the communiqués as we follow armies racing across France and onwards into the Low Countries before invading Germany.
The book concludes with a look at the people who ran SHAEF’s public relations and who wrote the texts we can read day by day. Happily the book also credits the people who have been the mainstay of After The Battle for so long and this adds to the celebratory feel of this magnificent book. Please indulge me when I also pay tribute to Harold Tetlow and Bill Warhurst, newspaper photographers whose work graces some of the pages. They were giants.
I drove through a hale storm to visit the offices of After The Battle where I was
given tea and cake to go with a wave of reflections and stories (plus a bit about the pitfalls of dog ownership) while I ate. We enjoy these simple pleasures because of the freedoms won for us by my father’s generation seventy years ago and while I’m aware that schmaltzy lines like this sail close to the sort of rolling news blandishments I detest, it is a perpetual truth that however cheesy it may seem, we owe them everything.
Upon the defeat of Germany, Dwight D Eisenhower sent a brief message to the Allied Chiefs of Staff in London and Washington DC. “The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945.” The campaign he led took less time to achieve than the creation of this stunning book. Think about that. The ATB team can take pride in what they have achieved here and in the decades before it. Mission fulfilled, onward to the next one.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
THE DEFEAT OF GERMANY THEN AND NOW
Edited by Winston Ramsey
After The Battle
ISBN: 9 781870 067843