The time has come again to face an impossible task of narrowing the 117 books I have read into a top ten list. As always it was difficult to do but I have managed and I will list them in no particular order. Apart from my favourite book of the year which I will reveal at the end. You can see my review for each book by clicking on the title.
Autumn 1943. Realising that his feelings for his sweetheart are not reciprocated, Major John Overton accepts a posting behind enemy lines in Nazi-Occupied Albania. Arriving to find the situation in disarray, he attempts to overcome geographical challenges and political intrigues to set up a new camp in the mountains overlooking the Adriatic.
As he struggles to complete his mission amidst a chaotic backdrop, Overton is left to ruminate on loyalty, comradeship and his own future.
Based on Anthony Quayle s own wartime experience with the Special Operations Executive (SOE), this new edition of a 1945 classic includes a contextual introduction from IWM which sheds new light on the fascinating true events that inspired its author.
With thanks to the publisher for the copy received. Eight Hours From England was originally published in 1945 and has been republished by The Imperial War Museum to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the onset of WW2. It differs to other books that I have read that are set during the war, the characters who feature don’t see any fighting with regards to the war but they do see the unsettlement and grievances between the Albanians. Something that still has repercussions now.
Anthony Quayle was not an actor I was aware of. I have seen reviews that mention the reader being unaware of his role during the war. I searched for him on the internet and was unsurprised to find that he was reticent about his experience. Whilst he wasn’t on the front line it was obvious that his character Overton was deeply affected by what he witnessed.
I did find some of the political unrest confusing, no fault of the author, just with my complete lack of knowledge about how the war affected this part of Europe. What did hit home in a discussion between Overton and a village leader was that both the Allied and German armies were demanding help from the local people, putting their own lives at risk, but would forget all about their troubles after the war.
Humbling, an overwhelming sense of loneliness and brutally honest.
Spring 1944, the south coast of England. The Fifth Battalion, Wessex Regiment, wait patiently and nervously for the order to embark. There is boredom and fear, comedy and pathos as the men all drawn from different walks of life await the order to move.
With an economy of language that belies its emotional impact, From the City, From the Plough is a vivid and moving account of the fate of these men as they embark for the beaches of Normandy and advance into France, where the battalion suffers devastating casualties.
Based on Alexander Baron s own wartime experience, From the City, From the Plough was originally published to wide acclaim and reportedly sold over one million copies. This new edition of the 1948 classic includes a contextual introduction from IWM which sheds new light on the dramatic true events that so inspired its author.
With thanks to the publisher for the copy received. I have read fiction concerning WW2 before but never anything that has felt so real as this book. I felt many times like I was reading non-fiction and this can only be down to the author reliving his own experience.
The first half concerned the training, the building of friendships, finding out who could be relied on, life in the local area, especially with the local women. And mainly pointing out the obvious to the reader. That this group of men were not soldiers. They were farmers, industrial and city workers who were prepared to do their duty but scared of what they faced. Just like any soldier though, they were husbands, fathers and sons whose loved ones had little idea of what they really faced.
The second half, mainly set in Normandy was where the narrative really hit home. Yes, there are accounts of the men marching through the villages with flowers in their helmets, singing and making the local children a little happier but there are also increasingly upsetting accounts of death, fear and exhaustion. Two things hit me. How chilling and ironic to read of soldiers fighting a war sheltering behind a war memorial for the last one and the strange acceptance of death. Where the loss of a food lorry had more significance than the loss of a friend. It demonstrated what these young men faced each and every day.
The ending was one that I thought about long after finishing. It was one which gave no hope for the men going into their next battle and left me thinking that the ones who’re injured early on were the lucky ones.
I feel honoured to have taken part in this blog tour. For information about the other books that have been republished to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the start of WW2 please read below.
About The Series
IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUMS LAUNCH FIRST WARTIME CLASSICS SERIES
Alexander Baron, David Piper, Anthony Quayle, Kathleen Hewitt
Published on 26 September 2019
“If poetry was the supreme literary form of the First World War then, as if in riposte, in the Second World War, the English novel came of age. This wonderful series is an exemplary reminder of that fact. Great novels were written about the Second World War and we should not forget them.”
‘It’s wonderful to see these four books given a new lease of life because all of them are classic novels from the Second World War written by those who were there, experienced the fear, anguish, pain and excitement first-hand and whose writings really do shine an incredibly vivid light onto what it was like to live and fight through that terrible conflict.’
JAMES HOLLAND, Historian, author and TV Presenter
‘The Imperial War Museum has performed a valuable public service by reissuing these four absolutely superb novels covering four very different aspects ofthe Second WorldWar.‘ ANDREWROBERTS
In September 2019, to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, IWM will launch a wonderful new series with four novels from their archives all set during the Second World War – Imperial War Museums Wartime Classics.
Originally published to considerable acclaim, these titles were written either during or just after the Second World War and are currently out of print. Each novel is written directly from the author’s own experience and takes the reader right into the heart of the conflict. They all capture the awful absurdity of war and the trauma and chaos of battle as well as some of the fierce loyalties and black humour that can emerge in extraordinary circumstances.
Living through a time of great upheaval, as we are today, each wartime story brings the reality of war alive in a vivid and profoundly moving way and is a timely reminder of what the previous generations experienced.
The remarkable IWM Library has an outstanding literary collection and was an integral part of Imperial War Museums from its very beginnings. Alan Jeffreys, (Senior Curator, Second World War, Imperial War Museums) searched the library collection to come up with these four launch titles, all of which deserve a new and wider audience. He has written an introduction to each novel that sets them in context and gives the wider historical background and says, ‘Researching the Wartime Classics has been one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve worked on in my years at IWM. It’s been very exciting rediscovering these fantastic novels and helping to bring them to the wider readership they so deserve’.
Each story speaks strongly to IWM’s remit to tell the stories of those who experienced conflict first hand. They cover diverse fronts and topics – preparations for D-Day and the advance into Normandy; the war in Malaya; London during the Blitz and SOE operations in occupied Europe and each author – three men and a woman – all have fascinating back stories. These are Second World War novels about the truth of war written by those who were actually there.
The Four titles are:
From the City, From the Plough by Alexander Baron – A vivid and moving account of preparations for D- Day and the advance into Normandy. Published in the 75thanniversary year of the D-Day landings, this is based on the author’s first-hand experience of D-Day and has been described by Antony Beevor as ‘undoubtedly one of the very greatest British novels of the Second World War.’
Alexander Baron was a widely acclaimed author and screenwriter and his London novels have a wide following. This was his first novel.
Trial by Battle by David Piper – A quietly shattering and searingly authentic depiction of the claustrophobia of jungle warfare in Malaya described by William Boyd as ‘A tremendous rediscovery of a brilliant novel.
Extremely well-written, its effects are both sophisticated and visceral. Remarkable’, andVS Naipaul as ‘one of the most absorbing and painful books about jungle warfare that I have read’ and by Frank Kermode as
‘probably the best English novel to come out of the Second World War.’
David Piper was best known as director of the National Portrait Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The novel is based on his time serving with the Indian Army in Malaya where he was captured by the Japanese and spent three years as a POW. His son, Tom Piper, was the designer of the hugely successful Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London to commemorate the First World War Centenary.
Eight Hours from England by Anthony Quayle – A candid account of SOE operations in occupied Europe described by Andrew Roberts as ‘As well as being one of our greatest actors, Anthony Quayle was an intrepid war hero and his autobiographical novel is one of the greatest adventure stories of the Second World War.
Beautifully written and full of pathos and authenticity, it brings alive the terrible moral decisions that have to be taken by soldiers under unimaginable pressures in wartime.’
Anthony Quayle was a renowned Shakespearean actor, director and film star and during the Second World War was a Special Operations Executive behind enemy lines in Albania.
Plenty Under the Counter by Kathleen Hewitt – a murder mystery about opportunism and the black marketsetagainst thebackdropofLondonduring the Blitz.‘Withadeadbodyonthefirstpageand adebonair
RAF pilot as the sleuth, this stylish whodunit takes you straight back to Blitzed London and murder most foul. Several plausible suspects, a femme fatale, witty dialogue, memorable scenes and unexpected twists – it boasts everything a great whodunit should have, and more. Andrew Roberts.
Kathleen Hewitt was a British author and playwright who wrote more than 20 novels in her lifetime. She was part of an artistic set in 1930’s London which included Olga Lehman and the poet Roy Campbell.
IWM (Imperial War Museums) tells the story of people who have lived, fought and died in conflicts involving Britain and the Commonwealth since the First World War.
Our unique collections, made up of the everyday and the exceptional, reveal stories of people, places, ideas and events. Using these, we tell vivid personal stories and create powerful physical experiences across our five museums that reflect the realities of war as both a destructive and creative force. We challenge people to look at conflict from different perspectives, enriching their understanding of the causes, course and consequences of war and its impact on people’s lives.
IWM’s five branches which attract over 2.5 million visitors each year are IWM London, IWM’s flagship branch that recently transformed with new, permanent and free First World War Galleries alongside new displays across the iconic Atrium to mark the Centenary of the First World War; IWM North, housed in an iconic award-winning building designed by Daniel Libeskind; IWM Duxford, a world renowned aviation museum and Britain’s best preserved wartime airfield; Churchill War Rooms, housed in Churchill’s secret headquarters below Whitehall; and the Second World War cruiser HMS Belfast.