I have always been fascinated by the Second World War, from visits to the Normandy landing beaches as a schoolboy and hearing my grandfather tell me about his experiences in the Navy to using the royalist Yugoslav resistance as a dissertation subject, diving to the wreck of a British destroyer off the coast of Malta and undertaking a solo excursion to El Alamein when I was backpacking in Egypt.
Oh, and reading a lot of books.
Recently, I’ve read three more books that have shed further light on different aspects of the war.
I’d seen the TV series, of course, so I reckoned I knew what to expect when I found a copy of Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose in a local charity shop. It follows the officers and men of an American paratroop company – Easy Company, part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division – from their training in Georgia to the capture of Berchtesgaden, via the horrors of D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.
It turns out I did not know the whole story, because as is the case with many books that are the inspiration for a film or TV adaptation you get so much more from the book. Ambrose succeeds in taking the reader into the minds of a group of seemingly ordinary men who became extraordinary soldiers (the book is based on extensive interviews with the veterans themselves). One feels with them the fear, the pain and above all the intense cold. In addition, Ambrose does a good job of providing the context for each of the battles before taking us into said battles from the soldiers’ perspective.
I have one quibble. Obviously this is a book about the men in one (American) unit and their war experiences, but I find myself shaking my head every time they find themselves working with British troops as these are invariably portrayed as bunch of poorly-trained bunglers. In this context, I note that Ambrose has also written a book about the British capture of Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of D-Day. Having visited Pegasus Bridge myself, I’d like to give this one a go but I wonder how the men of the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry will fare at the hands of this author.
Towards the end of the war, Easy Company and the rest of the 101st Airborne captured Hitler’s mountain stronghold of Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, which contained (among other things) more Nazi souvenirs that you could shake a swagger-stick at, several staff cars that the soldiers were understandably quick to take for test-drives and enough booze to sink several battleships. That’s where my next war book begins.
The book starts at the end of the war, when one Sergeant de Nonencourt of the French Army found himself in Berchtesgaden alongside the Americans. There, he and his men helped to ‘liberate’ many bottles of the finest champagne that the Nazis had been hoarding. Quite incredibly, Sergeant de Nonencourt was not only from the Champagne region, but his family was (and still is) in the champagne business and he had witnessed the Germans carrying away those same bottles back in 1940.
Thus begins Wine and War by Donald and Petie Kladstrup, a book which tells the wartime story of ‘France’s greatest treasure’ – her wine.It’s an unusual angle, but the Kladstrups succeed in presenting an informative, poignant and highly readable account of how France, with particular emphasis on the French wine industry, coped with the German occupation. Hitler’s teetotalism notwithstanding, many Germans from ordinary soldiers to high-ranking Nazi officials regarded the wine as the best of the spoils of war, and the Wehrmacht requisitioned tens of thousands of bottles to be sent back to Germany. This book is the story of how the vintners of France reacted to this.
There are tales of heroism, ingenuity, black humour, resistance and (it has to be said) a few actions which verge on collaboration – be it with either the Vichy regime or with the Germans. Some vintners, like the owners of Moët & Chandon, engaged in acts of outright resistance whenever they could, while others resisted in more passive ways, such as lying about yields and relabeling inferior vintages to fool the Germans into thinking they were being given the best bottles (which were hidden in walled-up parts of the cellars). Ultimately, it is the extraordinary stories of individuals that shine through, as ordinary people risked their lives and the lives of their families to save something that they believed, with considerable justification, to be worth saving. As such, the wine at times almost becomes a metaphor for France itself.
If you are interested in the war, or interested in wine, I would recommend that you read this book.
The final war book is Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre, which describes the adventures of a lone, rogue Englishman – wartime spy Eddie Chapman.
A hardened if rather unsuccessful criminal, Chapman found himself in a Jersey prison cell when the Germans invaded the Channel Islands. He saw volunteering to spy for Germany as a way of getting back to Britain, where he planned to turn himself in and offer to send false information to German intelligence.
What follows is a cloak-and-dagger escapade that would’ve been denounced as far-fetched if it were the plot of a novel as this unlikeliest of heroes is trained (and wined and dined) by the Germans, survives a parachute drop into East Anglia, turns himself in and, with the full backing of MI5 (who already knew about his mission thanks to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park), embarks on a life of double-cross and deception as he passes false information to German intelligence. MI5 even fakes a sabotage attack on the De Havilland factory in Hatfield at one point to convince the Germans that Chapman is still loyal to the Third Reich.
Although as suspicious of Chapman as his MI5 handlers were (rightly so, given that the man himself even admitted that ordinary people shouldn’t trust men like him), Macintyre has written a highly enjoyable biography which shines a light onto both a fascinating if very disreputable man who for all his faults must’ve had nerves and other body parts of solid steel, and the murky world of wartime intelligence.
It so happens that I was working in Hendon when I read this book, and I noted with interest that Chapman lived there with his MI5 handlers while he was transmitting false information to Germany. A quick perusal of the A-Z told me where the road in question could be found, and naturally I went to take a look. Well, let me tell you that there’s no evidence that the house where he lived was ever an MI5 safe-house. Not that I was really expecting any, of course. But, such is my interest in the war, I couldn’t resist going along to take a look and make sure.