RAMPAGE: MacARTHUR, YAMASHITA, AND THE BATTLE OF MANILA by James M. Scott

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(Massacre at the Battle of Manila, February, 1945)

One of the most iconic statements in American military history was uttered by General Douglas MacArthur as he fled the Philippine Island of Corregidor on March 11, 1942 and reached Australia.  Upon his arrival, MacArthur remarked that “I came through and I shall return,” a promise he would keep in February 1945, a promise that was kept because of MacArthur’s enormous ego and refusal to accept existing American intelligence estimates concerning Japanese capabilities, particularly as it effected Manila.  The result was the brutal slaughter; rape, and murderous behavior reigned upon civilian and POWs by Japanese marines, while MacArthur was planning his victory parade.   What the Japanese engaged in was a rampage against anything or person that opposed them.  Japanese behavior, policies, their rationale, and results of their barbarity are the subject of James M. Scott’s new book, MacARTHUR, YAMASHITA AND THE BATTLE OF MANILA.

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Scott’s approach to his topic is a careful and insightful presentation of events that rely on numerous interviews of survivors of the Japanese rampage, immersion into trial transcripts, official military reports, individual diaries, to create and an exacting reportage of what transpired.  Two decades ago I read THE RAPE OF NANKING by Iris Chang, and I thought I had been exposed to the depths of humanity in her description of Japanese behavior, but Scott reinforces Chang’s descriptions and takes them to a new level of inhumanity and disgust.

Scott begins his narrative by focusing on the role the Philippines played in MacArthur’s family from 1898 onward as his father became military governor and oversaw “stitching the nation back together again” after years of bloody guerilla warfare.  MacArthur himself would experience four assignments in the Philippines and would develop many important relationships, and to his credit he was unaffected by the racial bias of the day and considered the Philippines as his home.

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(Manila, February, 1945)

Scott does a nice job developing MacArthur’s relationship with his mother, Pinky who smothered her son with attention and her opinions throughout her life, and his oversized ego stems from his socialization at the feet of his mother.  By 1935 he became the father of the Filipino army and helped to westernize the area.  This would be shattered on December 7, 1941 as he had a front row seat as 43,000 Japanese troops came ashore forcing MacArthur to flee under the cover of darkness.  Scott does a similar job conveying the upbringing and education of Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the victor over the British at the Battle of Singapore, in addition to the challenges he faced in dealing with the internal politics that existed within the Japanese military hierarchy.  In comparing the two Scott points out that both men had similar difficulties.  MacArthur was destined to fight in a Pacific backwater, while others earned glory in Europe, while Yamashita had been exiled to military oblivion in Manchuria because of the hatred and jealousy of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

In part, RAMPAGE concentrates on the background and clash between MacArthur and Yamashita, a battle over the last major roadblock that stood between American forces and the Japanese homeland.  Yamashita’s goal was to devastate the Philippines, and bog down MacArthur’s forces to allow Japan to dig shelters and prepare for the eventual American invasion. Yamashita was a realist and was cognizant of the fact that his task was somewhat hopeless, but he would do his best, and accepted that the result would be his own death.

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(M4 Sherman Tank at the gate of Ft. Santiago)

Aside from MacArthur and Yamashita, Scott develops the role of Japanese Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi whose job was to do everything in his power to stop MacArthur’s forces, including the destruction of Manila.  Eventually Yamashita would withdraw his forces from the city, but Iwabuschi had no plans to leave, and instructed his troops to fortify the city and fight to the last man.  Scott presents an accurate description of the fighting in the Philippines as he leads up to what transpired in Manila.

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(Tomoyuki Yamashita)

Scott’s focus is on the suffering of the men, women, and children that were occupied and imprisoned by the Japanese.  The emotions of people run the gamut from joy upon being liberated by US soldiers at Santo Tomas, to other sites were the inmates were not as lucky.  Scott bases his narrative on interviews of survivors who were victimized by the brutality heaped on them by Japanese soldiers and how they suffered.  Hague and Geneva Conventions meant little to the Japanese military hierarchy and their soldiers carried out the most outrageous behavior that can be imagined.  Scott devotes what seems like more than half the narrative to descriptions of Japanese behavior which was mind boggling; severing of heads, slicing off body parts, dousing individuals with gasoline and setting them on fire, direct shootings, rape, and other forms of torture that are described in detail.  Family histories are presented in addition to their plight at the hands of the Japanese that numbered in the thousands.  At times the descriptions become overwhelming for the reader, particularly the minutia presented in the chapters dealing with the rape of women and teenagers by Japanese marines; and what survivors found once they were liberated from Japanese imprisonment.

The question must be raised whether some of what the Japanese perpetrated could have been offset, at least, in part with a different strategy.  President Roosevelt and his advisers wanted to focus on Formosa as a stepping stone to Japan, but MacArthur insisted on a Filipino centric approach.  MacArthur badgered Roosevelt until he gave in, allowing MacArthur to assuage his ego by returning to the site of his greatest defeat.  Once plans were made for the retaking of the Philippines, MacArthur refused to believe his own intelligence concerning the level of Japanese forces and their plans to level Manila, and the lies that were told to the press, i.e.; that Manila was liberated at a time it was being destroyed by the Japanese, and civilians were being slaughtered.  At times plans were made for parades to make MacArthur look like the conquering hero in American newsreels, at a time when death and destruction reigned on Manila and other areas. When the general finally sloshed ashore at Lingayen Gulf, he was convinced that the battle for the Philippines had already been won on Leyte, one of many errors in judgement that had grave consequences. As Scott correctly points out, liberating Manila was an obsession and “would serve as the redemptive final chapter to his earlier story of defeat.”

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(General Douglas MacArthur)

In his description of the 29 days of Japanese rape, pillage, and mutilation, Scott relies on the commentary of reporters like Frank Hewlett and Life magazine reporter Carl Mydans to describe the agony of liberation and recapture.  The diaries of people like Tressa Roka, an army nurse, poet and teacher; Robert Kentner, Robert Wygle, and CBS reporter Bill Dunn, among others presents a window into what prisoners experienced.  Further, the reaction of American soldiers to the condition of prisoners who had been unmercifully starved to half their body weight, suffered from unescapable malnutrition, along with other medical conditions is heart rendering.  The descriptions are appalling as Japanese shelling and shrapnel tore apart people’s bodies and as they conducted a block to block destruction of the city it would erase four centuries of history almost in one afternoon!

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(Liberation of Santo Thomas Prison, February, 1945)

For US forces the recapture of Manila was a street by street affair.  MacArthur had forbidden the use of aerial bombing to retake the city and would reluctantly allow the use of artillery as he sought to preserve as much of the city and save as many inhabitants as possible.  Despite MacArthur’s desires US forces would resort to massive artillery and bombing of parts of the city where Japanese forces refused to surrender resulting in civilian casualties and contributing to the destruction of the city.  By March 3, 1945, the last of the Japanese forces in Manila were killed or surrendered. The Battle of Manila was over. U.S. forces suffered 1,010 killed and 5,565 wounded retaking the capital. Japan lost 16,665 soldiers killed. More than 100,000 civilians lost their lives to Japanese butchery and the inevitable collateral damage of war. (422)

Following the war General Yamashita was tried and convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by hanging, even though he had not directly ordered the atrocities that the troops under his command committed. Scott describes Yamashita’s trial and fairly presents the evidence and arguments of both the prosecution and the defense.  The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case and let the sentence stand.  Yamashita’s claim that he was unaware of what was transpiring in Manila is belied by the fact that his headquarters was in wireless contact with Admiral Iwabuchi throughout the period of atrocities. What transpired in Manila was part of a pattern of Japanese atrocities begun in Manchuria against the Chinese in the 1930s, that continued in all areas that they occupied or engaged with civilian areas, POWs, or in general battlefield behavior throughout the war in the Pacific.

The author reminds us once again that man’s depravity takes exception to the idea of human progress. Scott’s description of Japanese behavior in the Philippines, and Manila in particular reflects a warlike society that committed, along with the Nazi Holocaust crimes against humanity, actions that could hardly have been imagined before the 1930s.  We know of other examples of atrocities throughout history, but never on the scale of WWII, especially with the application of advanced technology integrated into the war machine to reduce the civilian population of one’s enemies.

Scott’s narrative description of the 29 days that brought about the destruction of Manila and the death of over 100,000 people is gripping and scary as the reader is carried off into a world where death and sadism seems to be the norm.  War leads to this type of behavior, and one can only wish mankind never experiences this again-but I doubt it.

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(Japanese murder of civilians)

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THE LONGEST DAY by Cornelius Ryan

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(June 6, 1944….D-Day landing at Normandy)

On June 6, 2019 thousands will descend onto the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the allied landing that would eventually bring an end to Nazi domination of Europe during World War II.  Since my wife and I plan on traveling to Normandy at that time I felt it was important to read the latest works on the topic.  It made sense to me to reread Cornelius Ryan’s THE LONGEST DAY, first published in 1959, a book that has not lost its resonance to this day. As I began to familiarize myself with the history of the events that led up to the invasion, the invasion itself, and its historical ramifications I felt that Ryan’s work was a good place to begin.

Ryan’s work, along with A BRIDGE TO FAR and THE LAST BATTLE are well written accounts of the war that in most cases have stood the test of time.  In THE LONGEST DAY, Ryan recounts the horrors of war that took place the night of the invasion, and what followed the day after.  His research consisted of hundreds of interviews of the participants including Americans, Canadians, British, French, and German soldiers and civilian, along with primary documents that were available.  In his account we can discern the difficulties in planning the invasion, carrying it out, and its emotional and physical impact on those who approached the Normandy beaches, and what transpired once they landed.  In the end roughly 12,000 allied soldiers perished in the attack, with the Americans bearing half the number of casualties.

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(German obstacles on the beaches)

Ryan possesses an almost intimate knowledge of what transpired, particularly the thoughts of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who believed an allied invasion would coincide with a Russian move in the east.  Since a Russian attack was delayed because of a late thaw in Poland, Rommel decided to travel home on June 5th.  Rommel firmly believed that he had left the beaches protected with the numerous underwater obstacles he created as well as the 60 million mines that were buried on the beaches.  For Rommel, the key was to destroy invasion forces in the water before they could reach land.

At times, Ryan’s account reads like a novel as he describes the various aspects of the invasion.  Whether he is describing the actions of allied midget submarines X20 and X23 off the shore of Normandy, the inability of the German command to obtain permission to release the 12th SS and Panzer Lehr divisions to combat the invasion, the experiences of individuals as they tried to cope with what was occurring around them, Ryan places the reader in the middle of the action, and one can visualize what is happening very clearly from his descriptions.

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(Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Ryan is correct in his account of how the German High Command reacted to reports of the allied landings.  They could not accept the magnitude of the assault and those who were witnessing it, like Major Werner Pluskot could not seem to convey to higher ups that “a ghostly armada somehow appeared from nowhere.”  Ryan presents a realistic portrayal as the allied landing forces begin to approach the beaches as he describes the many accidents, drownings, explosions, and deaths that occurred before the fighting even commenced.  Ryan’s reporting of certain incidents is chilling; for example, when soldiers saw their compatriots drowning or injured, they were ordered not to assist them and stick to the tight schedule that planners wanted implemented.

Ryan’s descriptive approach is on full display as he describes the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne units and their plight as they parachuted behind German lines as the first component of the invasion.  Ryan provides individual stories of the participants ranging from Lt. Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort who fought for 40 days on a broken ankle, General Dwight Eisenhower’s agonizing decision making in dealing with weather issues as he tries to determine whether to unleash allied forces, to members of the French underground and their work, to civilians in England, Germany, and France and how they dealt with loss and anxiety about their loved ones.

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There are several interesting aspects dealing with the technological ingenuity of the allies, particularly the creation of two floating harbors that were towed across the channel, each harbor amazingly replicating the size of Dover, England.  The invasion was a logistical nightmare and Ryan does a wonderful job providing insights into how certain problems were dealt with.

Ryan’s work was published in 1959 after years of research and the final product was exemplary when written and remains a classic account of D-Day seventy-five years later.

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A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY by Ken Cuthbertson

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(Shirer reports from Nazi Germany)

Today we are exposed to the repetitive 24 hour news cycle on cable television.  It seems that each hour the same information is reprogrammed creating a staleness for the viewer.  Further exacerbating this reporting is the concept of “fake news” and the new reality that it has created in lieu of real journalism.  This being the case it would be useful to think back seventy to eighty years to the type of reportage that existed in the 1930s and 40s.  Instead of dealing with talking heads sitting around a table supposedly providing analysis and context, the public would gather around the family radio listening to reporters from the capitols of Europe and the battlefields of World War II.  At that time a group of reporters worked for CBS news and were known as the “Murrow’s Boys,” men hired by Edward R. Murrow reporting war related events on site.  One of those reporters, William L. Shirer, along with Murrow created the prototype of broadcast news that dominated the airwaves before cable television.  It is through his biography of Shirer, A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY that Ken Cuthbertson traces the development of broadcast journalism through most of the twentieth century.  Cuthbertson, also the author of the remarkable book, THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION: CANADA’S WORST EXPLOSION has written a remarkable study that encompasses Shirer’s life by integrating the main events of the pre- and post-World War II period and the dominant currents of print and non-print journalism at that time.

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(Edward R. Murrow and Shirer)

Shirer originally made a name for himself reporting from Vienna and Berlin throughout the 1930s and through his publication of his BERLIN DIARY in 1936, perhaps providing the most informative insights into Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement up until that time.  He would return to the United States in 1940 as a broadcast journalist for CBS until 1947 as he was fired for his supposed liberal views.  Shirer would be blacklisted from radio and television until 1960 because of the paranoia of the time period, particularly on the part of media executives.  Shirer would climb out of the poverty that his banning had caused and restore his reputation with the publication of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, then a bestseller, and today remains one of the most important examples of narrative history ever written.

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According to the author, Shirer was a very complex individual who lost his father and grandfather at a young age and went through life searching for a meaningful existence which always seemed to be beyond reach.  Shirer’s complexity was in part due to his own self-perceived shortcomings as he often seemed to be at loss in trying to make sense of his own life.  Shirer would grow up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and would possess a certain Midwest naiveté that would be dashed later covering unimaginable events in Europe.  Cuthbertson has written a detailed narrative that does a nice job placing Shirer’s life story in the context of the events occurring around him.  Shirer is drawn to Europe and achieves his first break by hooking up with the conservative Chicago Tribune in 1925 and through his life we experience the “lost generation” that had migrated to Paris in the 1920s meeting Hemingway, Fitzgerald, along with the likes of James Thurber.  His first major story covered Lindbergh’s crossing the Atlantic providing him with the opportunity for making a name for himself.

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For much of Shirer’s career he seems to have been in the shadow of Edwin R. Murrow who hired him in 1934 as CBS was expanding its overseas news outlets in response to events.  The two would become friends, only to suffer a disastrous falling out after World War II.  The biographer must always be careful to avoid placing their subject on a pedestal, but it seems that Cuthbertson is bent on rewriting history with Shirer emerging from Murrow’s shadow.  In his approach Cuthbertson has an engaging writing style and seems to cover all aspects of their friendship, competition, and falling out, integrating the history of radio journalism and the role of CBS, and other participants in the story.  Analysis is clear and concise as it is with other aspects of the book and very thorough.  My only question is sourcing employed.  Cuthbertson relies too much on certain secondary sources, particularly THE MURROW BOYS by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.  The author does a fine job culling Shirer’s diaries and notes and should try and cite more primary materials as he makes his way through Shirer’s life story.

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Cuthbertson has not written a hagiography of his subject and his description of Shirer’s private life and thoughts are dealt with in full.  His pride which knew no bounds, his inability to know went to “hold his cards” and fight another day, the inability after self-reflection to rectify errors that he admitted he had made, his tenaciousness, his obsessiveness, and his belief in himself to a fault are all on display.  Further, the author delves into Shirer’s private life; his marriages, affairs, socializing, years of travel and the effect on his family, and living beyond his means after his income was drastically reduced to the point he could not repair the furnace in his Connecticut farmhouse are explored in full.

Cuthbertson does an excellent job providing a feel for each city in which Shirer lives, and reports.  Whether it is Paris in the 1920s, Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s, or London or New York, the reader will feel the vibe and seriousness of the events being covered.  Shirer’s views, intellectual and emotional are clear be, it his distaste for England and France as they respond to the Anschluss with Austria, the Munich Crisis, or other events.  Perhaps one of the most interesting sections of the book describes the relationships that Shirer developed with historical figures, especially Mahatmas Gandhi.  In 1931 Shirer is dispatched to India by Colonel Robert McCormack, the owner of the Chicago Tribune and soon will meet and develop a friendship with Gandhi.  The Indian revolutionary would assume the role of teacher and spiritual counselor to Shirer as they read and studied the holy books of the world’s great religions.  This relationship softened Shirer as he learned about Asian culture and the developing world, witnessing the effects of English colonization first hand.

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(David Moyers interviewing Shirer in his later years)

The history of radio journalism permeates the narrative throughout, even as it is threatened by the new medium of television.  Numerous characters emerge, many of which were household names well into the twenty first century.  Shirer’s interaction with the likes of William Paley, Eric Sevareid, Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Edward R. Murrow, Frank Stanton and others are fully explored.  For Cuthbertson, in covering the history of radio journalism, Shirer stands out as a dedicated, incisive newsman who strove to relay as much of the truth as he saw it, be it coverage of the Nuremburg Trials, travels to New Delhi and Kabul, or commentary comparing life in Europe and America.  To Cuthbertson’s credit, he pulled no punches when he points out the errors in Shirer’s opinions.

Shirer was a firm believer in the strength of America and its values.  He felt the United States was strong so engagement and dialogue with America’s foes after World War II was preferable to confrontation when countering Soviet expansionism.  Shirer spoke against aid to Greece in 1947 and was critical of Chiang Kai-Shek, opinions that would eventually would bring about his termination at CBS.  Shirer’s firing led to a crisis in his relationship with Murrow and Cuthbertson interestingly conjectures that Murrow’s guilt in not supporting his friend finally pushed him to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy and help bring him down in 1954.

There is so much material and detail that in certain areas Cuthbertson could have been a little more concise, a little less repetitious, but overall his work is important because it is the only full length biography of one of the most significant journalists of the twentieth century.  Shirer, for all of his faults is a shining example of what freedom of the press means to a democracy, an example that the current occupant of the White House should consider as he rambles on with his seemingly daily diatribes about the press being the enemy of the American people.

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(Shirer gaining approval for broadcast from Nazi censor)

ARCHITECTS OF DEATH: THE FAMILY WHO ENGINEERED THE DEATH CAMPS by Karen Bartlett

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Karen Bartlett’s new Holocaust work, ARCHITECTS OF DEATH: THE FAMILY WHO ENGINEERED THE DEATH CAMPS possesses a powerful narrative as it examines the German manufacturing firm J. A. Topf and Sons and its role during World War II.  The problem for the firm is that a few of its manufacturing products centered on ovens, crematoria, and the parts necessary to build them.  These products made up only 1.85% of Topf and Sons actual products, but these items were linked to Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Dachau, and Mauthausen concentration/extermination camps.

The monograph begins with Hartmut Topf, the great grandson of the firm’s founder trying to come to grips with his family’s past.  After the war, Hartmut wanted nothing to do with the family business as his true loves were theater, puppetry, and journalism.  When he was a boy during the war his best friend Hans Laessing, was Jewish and he would disappear into the Nazi abyss.  With questions about his family and his friend, Hartmut set out to learn the truth leading him to learn things he could not believe.  Bartlett’s approach rests on interviews with former workers, American and Russian investigators, and Topf family members.  She also relies on the works of historian Annegret Schule, the author of two books that encompass her topic.  The first, BETWEEN PERSECUTION AND PARTICIPATION: BIOGRAPHY OF A BOOKEEPER AT J.A. TOPF AND SOHNE; the second, INDUSTRIE UND HOLOCAUST.

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(Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig Topf)

What is clear is that “company directors Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig Topf, along with their managers, engineers, oven fitters, and ventilation experts, were not ignorant paper pushers or frightened collaborators – instead they willingly engaged with the Nazis, reaping the benefits, taking advantage they could, and pushing their designs for mass murder and body disposal further and further until they could truly be described as the engineers of the Holocaust.”   By the end of the war men like Kurt Prufer, an engineer who pushed his designs and came up with plans that were so outlandish that even the SS had to turn them down.

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Bartlett provides a history of the firm, but the core of the book rests on the growth of Topf and Sons as a manufacturer of numerous products that would enhance the Nazi war effort.  There are numerous character portraits reflected the internecine conflict within the Topf family over control and which products should be made available to the Nazis.  Ludwig and Ernst Wolfgang would take over the company in July, 1933, coinciding with Hitler’s rise to power and they immediately went down the road that would result in a loss of any moral decency or humanity they might have possessed.

In addition to building the ovens the firm employed thousands of slave laborers during the war.  Roughly 40% of their labor force was made up of POWs which contributed to their deal with the devil.  Perhaps the most important person in this process was Kurt Prufer who would distinguish himself as “the true pioneer of annihilation.”  His own experiences during W.W.I. allowed him to develop a low level of concern for human life.  He would take his engineering talents to become an expert on cremation sales and fixtures.  Beginning with manufacturing crematoria for civil use in Erfurt and other towns it was feasible to change nomenclature and develop new incinerators and ventilation to fit the needs of the Final Solution.  They would go so far as changing the name from crematoria in their catalogue to “incineration chamber.” The key innovation was the development in October, 1939 was the three single muffin ovens that would be used to build permanent crematoria at Buchenwald under the sadistic SS Gruppenfuhrer Oswald Pohl as opposed to temporary ovens that were mobile.  As the war progressed after 1942 and the Russians moved west, these ovens could not accommodate the number of bodies the Nazis wanted to cremate leading to mechanical breakdowns and rancid smells surrounding the countryside where the camps were located.

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(Museum and Memorial for those who perished because of the work of J.A. Hopf and Sons)

The author provides a brief history of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, but her most important contribution is going through the documentation that the Russians and Americans uncovered as they liberated the camps and seized the Topf and Sons facilities.  Bartlett takes the reader through interrogations of workers and others, most importantly Prufer and three other important engineers.  There excuse was that they delivered the same products to the Nazis as they had to municipalities in the form of civil crematoria, and if they hadn’t sold the products, the SS had other firms that would provide them.  Ludwig Topf would commit suicide at the end of the war, but his brother Ernst Wolfgang continued to make his case and eventually was able to avoid any punishment for his actions.

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(Kurt Prufer)

The only suggestions I have for the author is that there seems to be too much replication of war crimes documentation in the text.  Perhaps they could have been placed as an appendix at the end of the book.  Secondly, there seems to be an overreliance on certain sources.  Otherwise, Bartlett has done Harmut justice in that she has produced the entire story of his family, a family that he admittedly feels ashamed of.  To his credit, Harmut has spent a great deal of his time and resources on restitution and remembrance that have culminated in the Topf and Sons Memorial in Erfurt for those who have perished.   Hopefully by educating visitors and publicizing its work the Memorial Museum will make another genocidal tragedy less likely to occur in the future.

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INDIANAPOLIS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORST SEA DISASTER IN U.S. NAVAL HISTORY AND THE FIFTY-YEAR FIGHT TO EXONERATE AN INNOCENT MAN by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic

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(The USS Indianapolis)

In 1932 the USS Indianapolis was christened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the flagship of the US Pacific Fleet.  In the summer of 1945 it was chosen to complete the most highly classified naval mission of the war by delivering two large cannisters of material that was needed to assemble the Atomic bomb that was to be dropped in Hiroshima to the Tinian Islands.  Four days after completing its mission it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk resulting in over 1193 men either going down with the ship or being thrown overboard with only 316 surviving.  The result was a national scandal as the government pursued its investigation and reached a conclusion that was both unfair and completely wrong.

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(Captain William McVay III of the USS Indianapolis)

Vincent and Vladic’s incremental approach in developing the story is very important as it allows the reader to understand the scope of the tragedy, the individuals involved, and the conclusions reached.  The authors delve into the background history of the ship’s actions during the war, mini-biographies of the personnel aboard the ship, and the military bureaucracy that was responsible of the ship’s manifest and orders that consume the first third of the book.

After getting to know the important characters in the drama Vincent and Vladic transition to the actual delivery of the weapon components and follows the Indianapolis as she transverses through the Philippine Sea.  Capt. McVay asked for a destroyer escort which was standard for this type of operation but was denied, in part because of availability, and in part because he was informed by Admiral Nimitz’s assistant chief of staff and operations officer James Carter that “things were very quiet…. [and] the Japs are on their last legs and there’s nothing to worry about.”  What Carter did not mention was that ULTRA intelligence came across the deployment of four Japanese submarines on offensive missions to the Philippine Sea.”  Later, Acting Commander of the Philippine Sea Front, Commodore Norman Gillette would characterize the same intelligence as a “recognized threat.”  In addition to presenting the American side of events, the authors follow Japanese preparations for the defense of the home islands, and zeroes in on Mochitsura Hashimoto, the Commander of the Japanese submarine I-58 which would sink the Indianapolis.

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(Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto of the Japanese submarine I58 that sank the Indianapolis)

The authors follow the movements of the Indianapolis and Hashimoto’s submarine the days and hours leading up to the attack.  Five minutes before midnight on July 30, six torpedoes were fired at the Indianapolis and three hit the ship. Parts of the book read as an adventure story as the authors review calculations dealing with location and speed as the possible target begins to become clearer and clearer.  After taking the reader through the attack and resulting sinking of the ship, the reader is presented with at times a quite graphic description of the plight of the sailors who died during the attack, those who jumped off the ship, and the others who abandoned ship under Capt. McVay’s orders.  This section of the monograph can be heart wrenching as the men fight for their survival.  The carnage and psychological impact of the attack is very disconcerting.  After enduring shark attacks, living with no water and little food they resorted to cannibalism, theft, murder, and suicide.  The conditions were appalling but others formed groups employing whatever could be salvaged from the ship to create islands of men linked together by netting, rafts, life jackets, or anything else that would float.  Apart from men who became delirious and suffered from hallucinations, others found their main enemies to be hunger, dehydration, and sharks who seemed to circle everywhere, and sadly, when it seemed that an individual might be saved a shark attack would take another life.

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The most chilling part of the narrative is the description of rescue operations that began on August 2nd.  At 11:18 am Lt. Wilbur Gwinn flying a routine patrol in a PBM Mariner noticed a huge oil slick below, and after careful observation noticed a 25-mile oil slick.  The spotting of the men below sends chills down the spine of readers as the authors details of the rescue as word spread that there were hundreds of men over an 80-mile area.  Sadly, many men would die even as rescue operations commenced as they had little reserve after four days in the water.  The question must be asked, when the Indianapolis went missing from July 30 onward no one was tracking the ship carefully to report that she had not arrived at her destination?  The navy would investigate and reach a conclusion that the authors would totally discredit.

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The last third of the book is devoted to the legal battle that surrounded who was responsible for the sinking of the Indianapolis and once the decision was reached the authors spend their time describing how a wrongful conviction was finally overturned.  The authors follow the investigation and different hearings and the final court martial and analyze the testimony, conclusions, and final reports that were issued.  They point out the inconsistencies and outright lies offered by certain naval officers as they tried to rest all the blame on Capt. McVay to cover their own “asses.”  In describing the conclusions reached by the navy Vincent and Vladic point out “what was not discussed was the string of intelligence and communication failures that led to something being amiss in the first place—failures of Carter, Gillette, and Naquin, as well as Vice Admiral Murray, a member of the court, were well aware.” (317)

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The authors dissect the report that called for McVay to be court martialed, especially the information that was left out.  For the navy brass that had two ships sunk in the waning moments of the war resulting in over 1000 casualties, someone had to be found responsible.  The materials presented reflect where the real blame should have fallen.  At Guam, failure to provide an escort for the Indianapolis.  Further, Guam took no action when Fleet Radio Unit Pacific intelligence indicated a Japanese submarine had sunk a vessel in the area that the Indianapolis was known to be present.  At Leyte, the Philippine Sea Frontier Organization failed to keep track of the Indianapolis and take action when the vessel failed to appear at its scheduled time when a Japanese submarine was located near its line of course.

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(70th reunion of USS Indianapolis survivors)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the weak defense put up by Navy Captain John Parmelee Cady who by this time had little interest in being a lawyer and was given little time to prepare a defense.  Cady’s approach is highlighted by the testimony submarine combat expert Captain Glynn Robert Donaho whose statement should have helped exonerate McVay, but did not.  The entire transcript of witness testimony is interesting particularly that of the man whose ship sank the Indianapolis, Mochitsura Hashimoto.  Other fascinating components of the book are some of the heroes involved in publicizing and working behind the scenes to bring about justice for the McVay family and those of the survivors and men lost at sea.  Chief among them was Commander William Toti who stood at the helm of the namesake submarine the Indianapolis.  Another is Hunter Scott, an eleven year old boy who worked assiduously on the history of the disaster and in the end testified before a Senate Committee.  Without their efforts and numerous others, one wonders if the degree of closure that was finally achieved would have come about.

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(Captain William Toti)

As one reads the narrative, you grow angrier and angrier at the US Navy for its malfeasance and outright culpability in ruining a man’s life and providing false information for the families of the victims of the disaster.  As the authors press on with their account the redemption that is finally earned it does not reduce the uncalled for actions of so many in the Navy and the US government. The authors do a nice job ferreting out those responsible, but that does not detract from the fact that the lies were seen as truth for decades.

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(The USS Indianapolis)

THE SABOTEUR: THE ARISTOCRAT WHO BECAME FRANCE’S MOST DARING ANTI-NAZI COMMANDO by Paul Kix

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It is very rare when a work of non-fiction approaches a work of fiction.  For a book to tell a story that is true, but keeps you riveted as if it were a spy novel, is special.  Such is the case with Paul Kix’s first book, THE SABOTEUR: THE ARISTOCRAT WHO BECAME FRANCE’S MOST DARING ANTI-NAZI COMMANDO which tells the story and exploits of Robert de Rochefoucauld, the scion of a rich French family who at the age of sixteen escaped to England, to be educated as a soldier, spy, and safe cracker in the service of British intelligence during World War II.  He would return to France to organize Resistance cells to harass, bomb, and kill Germans, and at the same time save as many of his countrymen that was possible.

Rochefoucauld, henceforth Robert’s life lends itself to an amazing biography of a man who joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) at the age of seventeen, underwent extensive training, and worked with the French Resistance from 1943 to the end of the war.  He was part of a group that parachuted behind German lines to assist the allied landing at Normandy by sabotaging German railroads, munitions dumps, and the harassment of German soldiers.  For those who question the role of the SOE and the Resistance, General Dwight D. Eisenhower summarized their effectiveness as he later estimated that “after D-Day it was the equivalent of fifteen extra divisions, or up to 375,000 soldiers.”

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The shame and humiliation felt by the La Rochefoucauld family after the French capitulation to the Germans in June, 1940 became a burden as the family had to escape south to their grandmother’s Maille estate, at the same time as their father, Olivier was taken to a German POW camp.  Kix provides the reader with just enough of the historical material to place Robert and his compatriot’s actions in their historical context, particularly stressing the motivations for their decision making.  Robert’s first major decision was to leave the family and try and make his way to London after listening for months to radio broadcasts by General Charles de Gaulle.  Robert felt that family honor rested upon his shoulders and grew angrier by the day when faced with the capitulation of his countrymen.  By the time he turned nineteen he was anonymously denounced as a supporter of de Gaulle and against collaboration.  He left his family immediately from their estate in Saissons taking with him a false identity to try and get to Paris and on to London to join the Free French.  Kix will describe in detail Robert’s harrowing journey across the Pyrenes assisted by the fact that he had a French-Canadian passport as he traveled through Vichy France.

If there is a theme to Kix’s biography apart from Robert’s bravery in the face of capture and torture, it would be how he led a charmed existence throughout the war.  Whether it was the assistance of British officials, French farmers, Resistance members, local merchants, and others or just plain luck, Robert was able to usually be successful in his operations.  Upon arriving in London and meeting with de Gaulle who suggested his decision was correct in joining the SOE, Robert’s career as a saboteur begins.  Kix takes the reader through the vigorous and often dangerous training that included how to deal with torture, safe cracking, parachuting, killing with one’s hands, explosives, as well as physical preparation.  Perhaps one of Kix’s best chapters is his description of how the British developed asymmetrical warfare, a strategy that was implemented by Neville Chamberlain right before he was replaced by Winston Churchill as Prime Minister.  Churchill’s own life story as a guerilla fighter and observer of asymmetrical strategy played into his increasing support and equipping the SOE with weapons, planes, and money despite opposition from the British air force.  This would be the first time the British engaged in subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas, and Winston “loved it.”

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(British SOE fighters)

Kix describes in detail many of Robert’s important missions.  During his first mission he parachuted into central France behind German lines as a nineteen year old and set up a training cell for the French Resistance who were surprised by his age and ability to equip them.  Soon his bravery and tenacity would gain their respect.  Kix details of these experiences are so exact, much of which is based on Robert’s memoirs and interviews with family members that the reader can feel as if they are alongside of him during his experiences. The success of the Resistance prods the Germans to bring in the SD/Gestapo and the Abwehr resulting in numerous arrests and executions in the winter of 1943 (over 500 by the war’s end).  Robert will be captured and sentenced to death on March 20, 1944 after months of torture by Dr. Karl Haas in the notorious Auxerre prison.  Robert’s application of his training as explained by Kix reflects his resolve and ability to escape.  Kix provides an effective approach in highlighting what it was like to be a Resistance fighter during the war, in fact over 75,000 were killed by 1945.

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(French Resistance fighters)

Kix describes the progression of Resistance successes through 1944 and another wonderful chapter narrating how Robert organized another SOE cell and with his men were dropped behind enemy lines on June 7, 1944.  The cell coordinated its rebellious acts with the Resistance and inflicted tremendous damage against the Nazis.  Unfortunately, Robert was captured again, but was rescued in a hail of bullets.  Perhaps Robert’s greatest escape took place when he was recaptured and sent to the notorious prison at Ft. Du Ha with its reputation for torture under the aegis of Frederick Dohse a member of SD-IV that cleared the Resistance from southwest France.  After contemplating suicide he devised a plan that resulted in walking right out of the prison’s front gate!

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(General Charles de Gaulle)

Robert’s last mission perhaps was his most dangerous.  After Paris was liberated the haughty de Gaulle refused to give the Resistance fighters credit for their effort.  He demanded they be dispersed, and if they wanted to continue to fight they had to join the Free French Army, which 200,000 did, including Robert.  His final operation was to blow up a German artillery casement on a beach in southern France.   His superiors reluctantly approved his plan which in the end was successful.  Robert’s war came to an end when he stepped on a mine and injured his knee which resulted in a slight limp for the remainder of his life.

Kix explores the contentiousness in French society in the decades that followed the war.  In fact, only 2% of Frenchmen actually fought, and about 20% were collaborationist.  These figures reflect the fissures in French society as postwar trials and some executions resulted.  Though Kix has not written a long narrative, it covers a great deal of material and presented with an eye for what is most historically important.  If you want to gain a sense of what it was like to resist the Germans during the war and its impact on family and the larger French society it is worth consulting.

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(de Rochefoucauld training French Resistance soldiers)

LAST HOPE ISLAND: BRITAIN, OCCUPIED EUROPE AND THE BROTHERHOOD THAT HELPED TURN THE TIDE OF WAR by Lynne Olson

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(Queen Wilhelmina of Holland broadcasting over the BBC from London to her country during WWII)

England has had a long and tortured history as she related to the European continent – always asking the question: should we become involved or not?  We can see it after World War II and the developing Common Market, and of course with the recent Brexit vote.  The dark days during the spring of 1940 when the Nazis rolled over France and the Low countries presented the problem anew, but this time after sitting back in the late 1930s allowing Hitler carte blanche it decided to support a “community of nations” as London was made available as a sanctuary for governments overrun by the Nazis.  London would become the home for the exiled governments of Poland, Norway, France, Belgium, Holland, and Czechoslovakia.  These governments would band together with England to defeat Nazism and lay the basis for European cooperation after the war.  One of Olson’s major themes rests with the exile communities.  She affirms without the exiles work as pilots, mathematicians, intelligence operators, scientists, physicists, and soldiers who knows how the war might have turned out.  Today, with the European Union under attack on the continent by certain right wing parties it is useful to explore Lynne Olson’s latest work dealing with World War II entitled, LAST HOPE ISLAND: BRITAIN, OCCUPIED EUROPE AND THE BROTHERHOOD THAT HELPED TURN THE TIDE OF WAR.

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(Charles de Gaulle, leader of Free French forces during WWII)

Olson covers a great deal of material in her book, much is new, but some of it has appeared in past books.  For example, the chapter dealing with the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz has a similar narrative that appears in  A QUESTION OF HONOR: THE KOSCIUSZKO SQUADRON: THE FORGOTTEN HEROES OF WORLD WAR II as she writes about Squadron 303 made up of Polish airmen who accomplished remarkable things at a time of England’s greatest need.  Other examples can be found in TROUBLESOME YOUNG MEN: THE REBELS WHO BROUGHT CHURCHILL TO POWER AND HELPED SAVE ENGLAND and CITIZENS OF LONDON: THE AMERICANS WHO STOOD WITH BRITAIN IN ITS DARKEST, FINEST HOUR. The integration of past research enhances her current effort particularly when she writes about the early part of the war.  To her credit she has an amazing knowledge of the leading secondary works and historians dealing with her topic which just enhances the narrative.

Olson employs a wonderful wit as part of her approach to writing.  For example she quotes the novelist and former MI6 member, John le Carre as he noted how devoted MI6 had been to “the conspiracies of self-protection, of using the skirts of official secrecy in order to protect incompetence, of gross class privilege, of amazing credulity,” then remarks that “the years immediately preceding the war MI6, as it happened, had a considerable amount of incompetence to protect.”

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(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill)

The author breaks the narrative into two separate parts. The first being the prewar period through the end of 1941 as the Germans rolled through France and the Low countries and we find a number of governments in exile stationed in London. In that section of the book Olson successfully narrates the relationship of these governments in exile first with the Chamberlain government, then that of Churchill.  She explores the important personalities that include King Haakon of Norway, Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, Charles de Gaulle of the Free French, and Edvard Benes of Czechoslovakia.  The problems of each are explained as well as how the British responded to their needs.  Olson accurately points out the humiliation and frustration experienced by Benes who was forced not to fight during the Munich conference, then was pilloried for not fighting when Hitler seized Czechoslovakia in March, 1939.  Further she explores the difficult relationship between the British and the French particularly during the evacuation from Dunkirk, as well as with de Gaulle once France fell.  For the British de Gaulle could be described as the self-appointed French leader who exhibited “extreme weakness that required extreme intransigence.”  King Haakon and Queen Wilhelmina got along much better with the British as each had merchant marine fleets that English needed, as well as natural resources.  Olson points out the complexity of the relationship with the Polish government in exile.  Of all these governments it was the Poles who fought, wanted to continue to fight, and developed the Home Army to do so.  They made tremendous contributions as pilots, intelligence sources, and creating a resistance against Nazi Germany.

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(Exiled Polish pilots from Squadron 303 who assisted England during the Battle of Britain)

Olson does a commendable job explaining the incompetence of the British and French military leadership who instead of accepting responsibility for events that led to Dunkirk used Belgium as their scapegoat for their own failures and defeat.  Showering King Leopold as a “Quisling” was blasphemy for the king whose army fought as well as possible based on the resources at his command, and further, refused to surrender to the Germans.  Olson also argues that the myth that the French just gave up was unfair based on the lack of support the British provided as the Germans goose-stepped into Paris.

The importance of the BBC is given its own chapter which is important because the radio broadcasts had an important role to play.  First, it allowed exiled leaders the opportunity to broadcast their own message to their people.  Second, it provided the various resistance movements accurate information as to the course of the war. Third, they broadcasted in over forty languages.   Lastly, it gave hope to demoralized population, particularly in France as they told the truth.

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(King Haakon VII of Norway)

By December 1941 the governments in exile came to the realization that with the entrance of the United States and the Soviet Union the entire diplomatic formula was dramatically altered.  With the Americans and Russians now in the war, their early closeness with Great Britain was about to give way to power politics, and perhaps a European Union might be in the offering.  From this point on Olson’s focus begins to change.

Olson spends a great deal of time taking apart the reputations of British MI6 and their Special Operations Executive.  She delves into the lack of competence exhibited by MI6 head Stewart Menzies and his battle with SOE leadership whose task was to foment sabotage, subversion and resistance in Europe.  In chapters dealing with Holland and France, Olson points out the errors that SOE leaders engaged in including a lack of security and simplistic coding, and foolish field decisions involving their agents.  London’s poor decision making would prove disastrous for Dutch agents who were easily rounded up by the Germans as they parachuted into Holland.  Olson is meticulous as she undermines the myth of the excellence of British secret services and the negative impact on events in Holland and France.  Two men stand out in her narrative, Leo Marks and Frances Cammaerts who were “passionate, skeptical, and [possessed] fiercely independent traits unappreciated by the SOE brass.”  The problem was this weak intelligence infrastructure created issues for the French resistance that was to play a major role in D Day planning and the early stages of the invasion as many suffered horrendous death at the hands of the SS.  Further complicating things was the split between the French resistance and de Gaulle, and the British and de Gaulle.  In both cases endangering the overall invasion.

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(Czechoslovakia’s leader Edvard Benes)

Olson is at her best when she integrates stories about certain figures who seem to be on the periphery of the main narrative, but are involved in important actions.  For example Andree de Vongh, an independent woman who decided to ignore SOE objections and developed the “Comet Line” an escape route for British airmen and paratroopers that began in Brussels, snaked its way through France, and crossed the Pyrenees into Spain.  She organized safe houses along the route and when MI9 refused to give her funds she raised them on her own.  She personally escorted 118 servicemen to freedom out of 7000 total for all networks during the war.  If reading about de Vongh is not interesting enough, Audrey Kathleen Ruston, a thirteen year old aspiring dancer and Dutch resistance member emerges, a.k.a Audrey Hepburn.

One of the major debates that historians seem to engage in is how valuable were resistance movements in winning the war.  Though some argue not as much as one might think, Olson makes the case throughout that they were very consequential.  The Poles in particular who contributed to breaking the Enigma code and intelligence collected by their spies throughout Europe were of great importance to the Allied victory.  The Poles who seemed to have given so much received very little as the war wound to a close, and in the postwar world.  It was unfortunate that they became pawns between Stalin’s strategic view of Soviet national security in Eastern Europe, and Roosevelt’s desire not to upset the Russian dictator whose army suffered an inordinate number of casualties compared to England and the United States.  When Polish exile leaders appealed to Churchill, no matter what the English Prime Minister believed, he could do little to convince his allies to assist the Poles as the Nazis were about to destroy what remained of Warsaw in May, 1944.  As far as the French are concerned General Eisenhower argues that the resistance was “of inestimable value…without their great assistance, the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves.”  Olson summarizes her view nicely as she quotes historian Julian Jackson, “there was indeed a Resistance myth which needed to be punctured, but that does not mean that the Resistance was a myth.”

(British General Bernard Montgomery, 1943)

When evaluating the Dutch contribution Olson correctly takes General Bernard Montgomery to task.   Montgomery had a large sense of self, arrogant and stubborn as he refused to take into account Dutch intelligence concerning the retaking of the port of Antwerp.  Rather than securing the Scheldt River estuary before moving on to Operation Market Basket, Montgomery had his eye on racing to Berlin before the Americans or Russians arrived.  As a result the Germans lay in wait, and Arnhem would become a trap leading to a fiasco which Montgomery’s over-sized ego caused..  “As a result, many more people would die, soldiers, and civilians alike.  For the Netherlands, the consequences would be dire” as the Allies controlled southern Holland, but the Nazis the northern cities and they took out their retribution on the populations of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, the Hague, Utrecht, and others.

The latter part of the book evolves into a narrative of the last year of the war.  Olson covers the salient facts and personalities as she tries to maintain to her “exile” theme.  If one were to pick which character she was most impressed with it would be Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch people.  Olson points out the errors that politicians made and how their decisions impacted the post war world particularly Czechoslovakia as Patton’s Third Army stood outside Prague and waited to allow the Soviet army march in.  This along with Poland plight reflects Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower’s desire not to allow political implications affect how they decided to deploy American soldiers.  Olson’s new book is an excellent read, a combination of straight narrative, interpretive, and empathetic history that all can enjoy.

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(Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina returning to her country after WWII)

THE MIRACLE OF DUNKIRK by Walter Lord

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(the evacuation from Dunkirk)

A few days ago I saw the film “Dunkirk” which attempted to convey the importance of the rescue of 338,000 men off the coast of France across the English Channel in late May and early June, 1940.  The film does an excellent job presenting the plight of British and French troops as they lined up on the beaches to be extracted from the threat of German tanks, artillery, soldiers and bombers.  What the historian, Walter Lord refers to in his classic study, THE MIRACLE OF DUNKIRK is a series of crises that allowed many components of British society to take part in the rescue of these men.  Though originally published in 1982, Lord’s book has lost none of its punch and command of events that led to the evacuation, the evacuation itself, and its implication for the overall war effort.  When reading Lord’s work today it still reflects a historian who had mastered the craft of narrative history and allowed the reader to take part in the action being described.

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The approach taken in the film is reflected in Lord’s work.  It presents three important elements of the rescue; the outnumbered  brave British pilots who met and tried to neutralize German Stukas, the employment of anything that would float represented by a family fishing boat, and the men stuck on the French beaches trying to survive German bombing.  All aspects help capture the bravery, spirit, audacity of the British people that allowed them to save their army – an achievement that would go a long way in finally defeating the Nazis five years later.

Having seen the film I decided to read Lord’s highly readable study of what occurred.  Events in France shocked many, particularly Prime Minister Winston Churchill who was informed early on the morning of May 15, 1940 by French Premier Paul Reynaud that the French had been defeated after the Germans surprised them by attacking through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest.  German Panzer Divisions poured through the French countryside trapping the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), two French armies, and all Belgium soldiers, nearly one million men pinned against the sea at Flanders.

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Lord does a superb job describing British resiliency as they tried to block the German advance at the same time they instituted a massive withdrawal to save the BEF.  Lord points out French arrogance in dealing with the British, how quickly their troops and leadership became demoralized, and how the British were confronted with French “invisibleness” as they tried to cope with the German advance.  British policy seemed to always have to take in to account the French state of mind.  Once the French had given up, the BEF command had to prod them to hold certain areas so an escape route could be protected.  Further, the French felt they were not being treated equally once the evacuation began to gather steam.  They wanted the use of British ships and equal extraction of soldiers.  Churchill was very cognizant of French sensitivities as he was afraid of losing an ally at a time when things were becoming desperate.

Once the Germans realized what was occurring as the BEF and its allies began retreating north they worked to close off any access to French ports, be it Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk.  The Germans were spreads very thin and were stunned the allies did not attack their flanks as they raced for the beaches.  Luftwaffe head, Herman Goring grew jealous of Heinz Guderian’s Panzer unit and pleaded with Hitler to halt the German advance and allow his air force to complete the job of wiping out the BEF.  Hitler was concerned about his armor and viewed Paris as his main target so he went along with Goring.  This decision was very telling as it gave the BEF three days to organize its retreat before Hitler changed his mind – probably creating the opportunity for the “miracle” at Dunkirk.

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Perhaps Lord’s best chapter, “Operation Dynamo” deals with how the Admiralty bureaucracy organized the diversified types of ships and crafts that would take part in the rescue of the BEF.  On May 14, 1940 the BBC called for “all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30 and 100 feet in length to send all their particulars to the Admiralty within fourteen days.”  Lord provides intricate details how this miracle at sea was organized under the leadership of Vice Admiral Betrum Ramsay who was located deep in the White Cliffs of Dover.  The result was a “strange fleet of ferries, hoppers, dredges, barges, coasters, and skoots.”  Once Boulogne and Calais fell, Dunkirk was the only option.

What sets Lord’s work a part from others is how he integrates the private stories and individual experiences of the soldiers and civilians who came to their rescue during the evacuation.  The harrowing trip across the channel and back avoiding German mines and bombers, placing the reader with the heroic individuals Lord describes.  Lord presents a number of important personages in his narrative that include King Leopold III of Belgium who quickly surrendered to the Germans, General Bernard Montgomery who organized his troops to fill the gap in the BEF escape route, and General Gort (Viscount Lord) who was in charge of BEF at Dunkirk, among others.  In addition, Lord has interviewed numerous survivors, civilians, and officers whose personal experiences helped create a fascinating narrative that began with a disorganized movement of troops onto the beaches, the need to create a pier to allow ships to pick the men up, and organizing the men into small units that would make for an efficient extraction.  What resulted at times was “bewildered waiting” and trying to avoid being hit by German bombers.

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The British command also had to make important choices as a number of destroyers dispatched to evacuate men began to be sunk.  Churchill and company were concerned that the losses were too much in light of what they thought would be a long war.  At one point a number of destroyers were withdrawn.  What facilitated the evacuation was low cloud cover and smoke for a good part of the end of May, 1940.  As the Admiralty withdrew the destroyers the void was filled by car ferry’s, fishing boats, open motor launches, barges, cabin cruisers, trawlers, and rusted scows – ships/boats of every conceivable type.  By the end of May, it became a deluge of “little ships.”  These craft were mostly unarmed and many were piloted by everyday civilians, a number of which were on their maiden voyage with little knowledge of nautical equipment.  The ingenuity of the British was seen as troops cannibalized materials from wherever they could, be it partially sunken destroyers, damaged buildings etc. all to create a temporary pier or mole so rescue boats could come astride and extract as many men as possible.

By the end of the evacuation 224,686 of the BEF and 123,095 French soldiers were evacuated.  This would be a problem for Churchill for the remainder of the war as the French believed that the British did not do their utmost to save French soldiers. Lord also does a marvelous job detailing the intricate and frosty relationship between England and France, especially as the Germans began to turn their attention away from Dunkirk and moved their panzer divisions to conquer Paris.

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The significance of the evacuation lay in the large number of British troops that were saved.  Guns and vehicles could be replaced, but not the only trained troops that Britain had left.  It would form a nucleus of the great allied army that would win back the continent.  Further, leaders such as Lt. General Alan Brook, Major-General Harold Alexander, and Major-General Bernard Montgomery “all cut their teeth at Dunkirk.”  In addition, the evacuation electrified the British people and gave them a sense of purpose that the war previously lacked.  It was an opportunity for ordinary citizens to feel they had made a direct contribution to the war effort.

Lord has written a highly readable account of the rescue of allied forces from Dunkirk.  An accomplishment many historians credit for saving Britain from being forced out of the war with Germany.  Though written and researched over thirty five years ago it still stands as the best narrative of the rescue and provides numerous insights into the mindset of the hundreds of thousands who survived the Nazi onslaught in the late spring of 1940.

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(the evacuation from Dunkirk)

SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER by Bruce Henderson.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

During World War II there was a little known group of men who were trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.  Their extensive classwork and field training was designed to prepare them to interrogate German prisoners of war and gather intelligence to be used against Nazi forces.  What became known as the “Ritchie Boys” was formed in mid-1942 and was made up of 1985 German born Jews who had immigrated to the United States in response to Nazi persecution particularly after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933,  Kristallnacht in November, 1938, and the events of 1941.  Most of these German-Jewish boys arrived without parents and siblings and had to adapt to their new homeland on their own.  Part of the reason was due to the racist/anti-sematic attitude on the part of a number of important State Department officials like Breckenridge Long who as Assistant Secretary of State helped set American immigration policy.  The journey of the Ritchie Boys and their impact on the Second World War is aptly told by Bruce Henderson with compassion and insight in his latest book, SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER.  The story of the Ritchie Boys takes them through their wartime experiences in gathering important intelligence from German POWs, their participation in a number of important battles, including the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Basket, the Battle of the Bulge, liberation of extermination camps, and their efforts after the war to locate family members.

In the first part of the book Henderson focuses on the early plight and immigration of a number of men who would become Ritchie Boys.  They include Martin Selling, who was rounded up after Kristallnacht, separated from his family, imprisoned in Dachau and after his release made it to the United Kingdom due to the work of a Jewish relief agency that eventually provided a visa to enter the United States.  Gunter Stern, who would change his name to Guy grew up in a middle class family in Northern Germany and as the situation for Jews deteriorated in 1937 he was sent by himself to the United States to live with an uncle in St. Louis because the State Department refused to allow the rest of his family to immigrate.  Stephan Lewy was placed in an orphanage after his mother died and the economic fortunes of his father collapsed.  After his father was released from a concentration camp and they experienced Kristallnacht he left Germany for Paris leaving his father and step mother behind.  Werner Angress was not a very good student and he was sent to an agricultural farm in Poland where he found success.  Once things deteriorated in Berlin his father developed a successful plan for the entire family to escape and go to Amsterdam.  In 1939 Angress escaped from Holland and left for America.  Lastly, Victor Brombert, another teenage boy was smuggled out of Germany in 1933 and moved to Paris, however, during the Vichy regime he left France to experience a harrowing voyage to New York and safety in 1941.

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(Guy Stern)

All of the boys experienced the emergence of Hitler, their removal from schools, harassment by Hitler Youth, and the collapse of their families as parents were arrested, businesses confiscated, and the eventual separation.  All witnessed and were affected by the 1935 Nuremberg “Blood” Laws, Kristallnacht, and the difficulty of emigrating in part because the Nazis seized their assets and only allowed them to take a pittance of their wealth out of the country.  Henderson further explores the difficulties as they had to navigate the exclusionary immigration laws of the United States and their enforcement by elements in the State Department.  Jews were required to provide affidavits from American citizens that they would take care of their relatives financially, along with other documentation that took a great deal of time to obtain.  The work of David Wyman provides an inside look into the “old boys club” of the State Department and their arcane views when it came to race and Jews.  Henderson describes the heroic efforts of the families as they realized that only one family member would be allowed to leave and in most cases it was the eldest son with the hope they could reunite later.

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(American soldier and survivors of the Wobbelin concentration camp)

The boys that are the center of the story would become naturalized American citizens before they were sent overseas to fight the Nazis.  Henderson describes their training and dispatch to England to participate in the Normandy landing.  Since native Germans would have knowledge of Nazi/German culture and colloquial language the Ritchie Boys were in high demand to interrogate POWs.  The individual stories Henderson presents reflects the importance of the Ritchie Boys to the allied war effort.  Particularly interesting is Werner Angress who was attached to the 82nd Airborne and with little training parachuted behind German lines.  His later intelligence gathering leading up to and during the Battle of the Bulge was very important.  Another insightful segment deals with Victor Brombert’s participation in the 28th Infantry Division as he experienced combat in Belgium and Northern France and predicted the Battle of the Bulge which was ignored by hire ups.  Perhaps one of the most ingenious of the Ritchie Boys was Guy Stern who after Normandy was made Head of Survey and his reports were distributed to all allied commanders including General Eisenhower.  Along with another Ritchie Boy named Manfred Ehrlich, who changed his name to Fred Howard, he developed a number of unusual schemes in order to extract information from POWs.

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(Werner Angress, his mother and two brothers after the war)

Henderson tells a number of wonderful stories including the visit of Marlene Dietrich as part of the USO, the capture of Hauptmann Kurt Bruns who ordered the death of two captured Ritchie Boys, how the Ritchie Boys had to overcome the skepticism of some officers who accused them of being German spies, and at times the guilt they felt when they had to use unorthodox methods to extract information from POWs.  Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is when the Ritchie Boys confronted the Holocaust when they witnessed the concentration camps.  Stephan Lewy arrived at Buchenwald with the Sixth Armored Division, Guy Stern arrived at Buchenwald three days after its liberation, Werner Angress witnessed the Wobbelin concentration camp, and when Manny Steinfeld arrived there he could not escape the possibility that his sister and mother were murdered there.

Overall, Henderson tells a remarkable story.  It is told clearly integrating numerous interviews with the Ritchie Boys and accompanying research.  My main criticism involves the method of sourcing which is very ineffective and difficult to attribute information.  As a historian I would love to have been able to match materials to citations so I might have pursued certain aspects of the book further.  However, the topic is fascinating and Henderson has done these men a great service by telling their story.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

BENEATH A SCARLET SKY by Mark Sullivan

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(Italian Resistance in Milan during WWII)

Northern Italy, Milan in particular is the setting for Mark Sullivan’s new novel, BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY.  Sullivan tells us that he has written a historical recreation as opposed to a history of the 1944-1945 period.  For the reader the book is considered a novel, but what makes it unique it is also a biography of Pino Lella, who at the age of seventeen, unbeknownst to him was about to become an Italian hero.  Since there is a paucity of primary materials Sullivan has created a work of fiction that reads like a historical monograph, as at times he is forced to employ his imagination to fill the void when the historical record does not exist.  Sullivan came across the story of Lella’s life quite by accident and once he learned of it he spent years conducting research, and was able to interview his subject and his relatives.  The author follows Lella’s life throughout the war, when it suddenly changes as the allies begin to bomb Milan and his family’s home is destroyed.  From that point on a young man growing up at seventeen, grows old by the age of eighteen.

Sullivan’s portrayal is detailed and describes an amazing life story.  Lella’s existence before the allied bombing in June, 1943 consisted of fantasies about girls, listening to jazz on the BBC, and wondering when the Americans would liberate Milan.  After the bombing began Lella is recruited by Cardinal Shuster and Father Re to help bring refugees to freedom across the Alps to Switzerland.  Despite his age, Lella was an experienced mountain climber and Father Re physically prepared him for the demanding task.  After explaining the plight of Jews in Italy Father Re convinced Lella of the importance of his mission.  Lella’s treks across the mountains coincided with allied advances up the Italian boot, as Sullivan does an excellent job transcribing military events in Italy throughout the novel.  The author effectively conveys the danger of Lella’s mountain crossings in a realistic manner describing the many obstacles he faced, i.e., snow, ice, avalanches, steep cliffs, a part from dodging the SS, Italian partisans and bandits.  These experiences help explain how he grew into manhood so quickly.

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(Mussolini’s Black Shirts marching through Milan)

Conveying hundreds of refugees across the mountain to safety would be enough to make Lella a hero.  But, after seven months his parents ordered him to join the German army as a way of avoiding being sent to the Russian front.  As luck would have it he is spotted by General Hans Leyers, the number two Nazi figure in Italy and is drafted to be his driver.  Lella is again recruited this time by the Italian resistance to become an allied spy because of his access to the most powerful man in Italy.  Lella was quite successful as a translator and driver for Leyers and was able to provide important information to the Italian resistance who forwarded that information to the Allied High Command.  Lella grew to hate Leyers as he witnessed the forced labor, more accurately use of slaves to assist the Wehrmacht.  Lella nicknames Leyers the “Pharaoh’s Slave Master.”  He also was exposed to numerous killings of innocent people, particularly Jews, with many women and children as victims.

Within this story of heroism Sullivan integrates the love story between Lella and a women named Anna.  Their relationship is comingled with Lella’s spy craft as she is the maid to Leyers’ mistress.  It is a wonderful time for Lella and Anna as their relationship blossoms in the midst of war.  Sullivan’s description reads like a fictional love story, but in reality it is an obsession by two people for each other as a fantasy and diversion from the war.  The reality of war is that Leyers, in addition to the murder of innocent people by the thousands, is stealing food and supplies from the Italian people for his troops and leaving Italy to starve.  Events in Italy grew worse as the Allied High Command kept withdrawing men and supplies and sending them to France in preparation for the Normandy invasion.

Lella’s difficulties with Leyers was important, but even more so that he was torn as Italian was set against Italian as Partisans and Fascists had their own civil war that grew more intense as the conflict began to come to a conclusion.  There are a number of poignant scenes as Lella’s own brother Mimo, a resistance fighter accuses him of being a Nazi.  As the war comes to an end Lella must defend himself as many thought he had cooperated with the Germans.  Few knew he was a spy.

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(The body of Benito Mussolini and his mistress hung by Partisans in April, 1945)

Sullivan uses the liberation of Auschwitz as affirmation for what Lella believes he has witnessed.  More and more he felt revulsion for working with Leyers even though his work was so important to the allies.  As the war comes to an end it becomes difficult to determine who was a partisan fighter and who was a traitor.  Sullivan vividly portrays the consequences of this difficulty which will have disastrous implications for Lella.

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Sullivan presents the entire Lella family and what they went through during the war.  Michele, Lella’s father, Aunt Greta, and Uncle Albert play important roles in the resistance and find their personal lives are impacted greatly by their work.  Let me reiterate the book is fiction, but not really.  It is written in a simple and conversational style but we get the full effect of Lella’s bravery and heroism.  He will pay an enormous price for his work and it will take him a number of years following the war to heal his emotional scars.

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(Liberation of Milan)

Sullivan offers a useful epilogue to his story that follows the main characters throughout the post war era.  What is most disturbing is how the United States will coopt Nazis like Leyers and use them during the Cold War allowing them to escape punishment for their deeds.  BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY is a well-conceived novel that has the ring of truth throughout, and an amazing story of heroism that had been buried for many years after the war.

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(The Italian Resistance in Milan during WWII)