Review: THE DESERT WAR THEN AND NOW & THE BATTLES FOR MONTE CASSINO THEN AND NOW. By Mark Barnes

ATB

THE DESERT WAR THEN AND NOW
By Jean Paul Pallud
ISBN: 978 1 870067 77 5
£44.95

THE BATTLES FOR MONTE CASSINO THEN AND NOW
By Jeffrey Plowman and Perry Rowe
ISBN: 978 1 870076 73 7
£44.95
Published by Battle of Britain International Ltd

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

My brother in law Roger had been really looking forward to this book and we simply had to get it for him. In 1939 his dad Bert was driving a crane in the London Dock when he got an invitation from His Majesty King George VI to come and join the party that was World War II and so off he went and didn’t come home again until 1946. Bert drove lorries for the Royal Army Service Corps and was soon out in North Africa where he stayed, going back and forth on the tactical tide until the eventual collapse of Axis ambitions there in 1943. He was, it is fair to say, a bit of a reluctant soldier, and even spent some time in the glasshouse. But he did his bit and went from Africa to Italy up into Austria and finally home. He sent home snaps of himself and his mates and his bride to be stuck them in an album accompanied by lugubrious captions – “Bert with lorry” or “Bert with camel” – you get the idea. These unremarkable photos are, nonetheless, special. He came back to a life of work, marriage and parenthood and lived with as little fuss as possible and did what they all do – he passed away quietly and left a million memories. He was, in that London way a bit of a character and I retain an image of him as the kind of bloke who, in cheekier moments, would think anything was fair game if it wasn’t screwed down. I have a number of tools inherited from Bert and I treasure them and smile when I think of his no nonsense one liners. He was one of Monty’s men in the 8th Army. The little field marshal’s reputation is not as copper plated as it was. But in the hearts of the men who served under him and in the generation of Britons who venerate him, still, he is legend. The lustre attaches to the men who did the fighting and dying, did the driving, cleaned the drains and sorted the mail. They all count. There were a lot of men like Bert.

The desert war remains special in British hearts because it was “our” victory secured before the Yanks took over the driving seat and our star diminished. Mr Churchill could retain his swagger and order church bells rung. But after it things began to take a realistic shape and we all know the reality and have no complaints if we are honest. There is something about the photography of the conflict – it is pinned to the place in a dichotomy of styles and technologies. Things overlap and collide as the belligerents re-armed for an increasingly sophisticated and brutal conflict. There is something of a pantomime about bits of it and not a little farce. But it was a lot more vicious and scary than any game of charades as the cemeteries and casualty rolls confirm. If you take the influential documentary series World at War,  there is something about that desert episode, concentrating initially on the harsh cruelty of the barren landscape that sets the tone. It makes you wonder, then, what could possibly be left to see of battles big and small from 1940-43? The answer is here in Jean Paul Pallud’s superb exploration of the war zone as it looks today. A surprising number of locations are recognisable.

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The Long Range Desert Group Chevrolet WB ‘Waikaha’ pictured on display in the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth in London in 2004. The Chevy was discovered in the Egyptian desert in the 1980s.

Historic comparisons and the story of the war we are looking at are tried and tested ingredients and the quality of this format needs no critique from me. But, as always, there is so much more. Personal accounts – the diaries of soldiers – punctuate the book bringing us closer to pivotal moments, revealing the conflict through the eyes of men who were actors in the drama. I’ve spent a lifetime working in photographic archives and this book, like its predecessors is filled to the brim with wonderful images of the war in the desert. It might be the vistas of the world they fought in or the architecture of Italian colonial grandeur. It certainly resides in the hardware – the ensemble of tanks and trucks and impedimenta of metal grinding across the blue. Most of all it is the men, looking out in fixed monochrome glory. They’re all there – the great, the good and the ordinary, the Berts of all nations getting on with their business, some calm, some happy, a fair number in the bag. Many of them just there – as that old adage goes “We’re here because we’re here.” There are the inevitable images of those men who stepped up and gave their all to win the highest gallantry awards a nation can bestow. They continue to elicit a degree of awe, don’t they?

What fascinates me is the amount of history that remains. North Africa has had more than it’s share of unhappiness in the Post War era as hard won independence has led to internal strife and all the pain we have seen in recent times afflicting the countries that form the desert war battlefield. Regimes come and go. Somehow the remaining relics of the old conflict have come through. Landmines are a scary prospect as the unwary have discovered and they proliferate in places. The desert, like the sea, occasionally gives up its long lost treasure, as a recently rediscovered RAF P-40 reveals. There will be more, but we learn from Jean Paul that so much of the heavy stuff was taken for scrap by canny locals. I’ll leave the dreams of further discoveries to the romantics but be happy as and when we get good news. I have a connection to this book. Some of the images we see of Monty on his return to the battlefield in the 1970s come from the archive where I work and although I wasn’t directly involved in sorting them out for the project, this little touch makes me feel good.

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The author took this photo in 1975. Unlike so many bits of weaponry on display around Normandy this landing craft took part in the landings. This didn’t stop it from being scrapped to make way for something else!

Editor-in-Chief Winston Ramsey paid a visit to my house recently and I had the slightly surreal experience of him standing in my kitchen while we chatted. He didn’t want any tea. I spent the time worrying he would get some of the previous night’s lasagne on his trousers while he leaned on the cooker. I learned a bit about how he got started and the difficulties of getting the Then and Now concept to work on an early trip to Normandy. I described what an inspiration After the Battle had been to me as a youngster and related my first visit to Arromanches in 1975 and how I treasured my snaps of the relics on display outside the museum back in those days. We lamented the ludicrous decision to scrap the genuine D-Day veteran landing craft which had been there and I wish my snaps of it were of a better quality now, but what can you expect from a lad with a Kodak Instamatic? Normandy means so much for so many people and I associate the ATB of those days especially with the Vimoutiers Tiger and remember it featured in the magazine for the first time and saying I have to see that!  It took me a heck of a long time to fulfil that wish – “Donkeys years” as my Dad would say.

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The famous Vimoutiers Tiger photographed on an indifferent summers day. Whatever your feelings on how it is displayed it remains a potent piece of history of the Normandy campaign and we should be grateful it survives at all.

It wasn’t until 2003 that I made my second visit to Normandy, all this in the post Band of Brothers glow and I have to say how glad I was to have my copies of D-Day Then and Now with me to go with the Holt guide everyone seems to have nowadays.  I’ve learned so much from it and often reflect on the changes to the locations even in the time since I’ve made repeated visits and I finally got to see the Vimoutiers Tiger and it was really worth the wait. Watching my kids climb on it had a special feeling and it remains a treasured moment. For me, Winston’s books hit the high note from the start with Battle of Britain Then and Now. I got my copy in 1980 after seeing it featured in The Observer newspaper and my mates were stunned that I would spend a not inconsiderable sum on it. The investment has paid off because I am still using it as a reference and it only recently came in handy when I visited the grave of Sergeant Glendon Bulmar Booth in Beckenham Cemetery.

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Sergeant Glendon Bulmar Booth flew Hurricanes with 85 Squadron and had two victories to his credit but was shot down on the 1st of September, 1940. His parachute had been damaged and he descended too quickly, hitting a telegraph pole before landing. He suffered severe spinal injuries and was paralysed. He was just twenty years old when he succumbed to kidney failure on the 7th of February, 1941.

I’m going to Sicily soon and Winston rued the lack of things to see there from the Allied invasion of 1943. Operation Husky was not liberation and so much has been swept away. There are no guide books and although Mike Peters’ recent book on the British glider and parachute element is a stunner, his job is to tell the story, not produce a battlefield guide. I’ll get to the cemeteries and hope to work a few things out. I’ve found there is a Great War sailor from Southend buried in Syracuse and I have to pay my respects to him.  There is much more to do and to be fair my wife isn’t planning on a battlefield tour! I faced a similar problem with my Dad back in 1975 when we visited Anzio where his battalion were obliterated in the horrific fighting there. There was nothing in the place he could register and we even failed to find the British cemetery. It was a disaster for my father and he never went back.

The nightmare is compounded by the suffering of the Allies to get that far in the first place. Anzio is a horror in itself but the spectre of Monte Cassino hangs over everything. It remains one of the iconic battlefields of the Second World War and is synonymous with the entire Italian campaign. In The Battles for Monte Cassino Then and Now the classic formula is followed in exemplary style by Jeffrey Plowman and Perry Rowe and I have to say this is one of the most meticulous books I have seen in the entire series and there are memorials and vistas shown in both colour and traditional mono that I really feel the need to see. I repeat the line I exclaimed as a teenager during the 1970s – the only problem is working out when I might get there. The archive photography in this book is especially brilliant. I love the images by the German photographers and, to be fair, this is true of their work throughout my exposure (forgive the pun!) to their output in these books. These were genuinely gifted men and I can look at their work for hours and would love to know more about the men themselves, where they ended up, etc. I often tell my kids that photography is the only thing I’m good at. I’ve had a good few years on the circuit snapping military vehicles and living history enthusiasts and my work has appeared here and there to my general satisfaction. It was never going to make me rich, but I have had some fantastic times. Inspiration from the wartime press and military photographers is something I take onboard almost every day. They were a special breed and some of them were geniuses. One thing I love about ATB is how these men receive credit for their bravery and skills regardless of nationality.

Italy was a truly multinational battlefield and to bypass Cassino the Allies used virtually all the flags in their locker. The place doesn’t belong to one nation. It was a joint effort to bludgeon their way through to join up with the hard pressed army reaching out from Anzio. But in the end after a heroic defence by the Germans and untold destruction of the monastery and surrounding communities, the breakthrough was made. My father held a lifelong loathing for General Mark Clark whose publicity seeking knew no bounds in Italy to the point that he let an entire German army escape for the glory of capturing Rome. It was a shining moment he enjoyed for less than a day because it was the 5th of June, 1944, and the eyes of the world were elsewhere within hours. Clark’s vanity would claim the lives of thousands when that same German army met the Allies again. The sacrifice at Cassino and Anzio are set against the photo opportunities of a general who ought have been reined in by his boss, Harold Alexander. The “D-Day Dodgers” as the soldiers of the Italian campaign are often known had a long way to go and among them, driving and sometimes skiving, was Bert.

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Flers, with Albert Tofts’ 41st Division Memorial standing proudly, gazing along the street. It might be considered a timeless view because not much has changed since Rose Coombs photographed it for the cover of the first edition of Before Endeavours Fade.

I’m left with the impression that the Italian campaign doesn’t offer much scope for more books in the Then and Now format, but we’ll have to wait and see. The next offering will be Gail Ramsey’s look at the aerial photography of the Western Front and how those images compare with the modern landscape. I can’t wait. I’ve been on The Trail now for many happy years in the footsteps of the soldiers themselves, like my own Uncle Les, buried near Ypres. I’m ever grateful to the pioneers who gave us the battlefield guides we find indispensible. In my group we use printed maps, old books and stuff from the internet. We have Linesman, that fantastic piece of technology showing trench maps which you can overlay onto modern cartography. But one of my old friends remains Rose Coombs’ Before Endeavours Fade a book that continues to grow after her death. I can honestly say her image of the 41st Division memorial in Flers which adorns the cover is one of the few snaps I have set out to recreate. All these tools are there to help you get out there and see things for yourself. The battlefields are ever changing with many made into tourism sites. For all this there are places you can walk and feel a strong link to the past. We’re not all photographers and not everything has to be kept as a snap, but if you are a snapper then record it, because on each visit you make to a place you will see changes. Take your own images home with you as often as you can, but there will always be some you have to copy from the classic views of wartime photographers or even from the great battlefield guides. The problem with these Then and Now books is there are so many – where do you start?

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Here’s our very own Joris Nieuwint at Grave in April, 2013 using Operation ‘Market-Garden’ Then and Now for some of his references.

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