#BookReview Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes @RandomTTours @I_W_M

Sword of Bone BT Poster

Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes, one of the latest additions to the Imperial War Museum’s fabulous Wartime Classics series of rediscovered wartime classics. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for finding me a place on the tour and to the Imperial War Museum for my advance review copy.

Sword of Bone CoverAbout the Book

It is September 1939. Shortly after war is declared, Anthony Rhodes is sent to France, serving with the British Army. His days are filled with the minutiae and mundanities of army life – friendships, billeting, administration – as the months of the “Phoney War” quickly pass and the conflict seems a distant prospect.

It is only in the spring of 1940 that the true situation becomes clear; the men are ordered to retreat to the coast and the beaches of Dunkirk, where they face a desperate and terrifying wait for evacuation.

Format: Paperback (236 pages)                 Publisher: Imperial War Museum
Publication date: 20th May 2021 [1942]   Genre: Fiction, WW2

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Publisher | Hive | Amazon UK
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My Review

First published in 1942, Sword of Bone is based on the author’s own wartime experiences including the evacuation of Dunkirk which took place between 27th May and 4th June 1940. The evacuation has come to be regarded as a seminal moment in the Second World War; indeed, it is often described as ‘the miracle of Dunkirk’, arguably something of a misnomer since, although hundreds of thousands of men were rescued, thousands more were left behind along with tons of equipment.

As usual, the introduction by Imperial War Museum historian, Alan Jeffreys, provides fascinating background information about the author, the book and its historical context. Describing Sword of Bone as a ‘lightly fictionalised memoir’, he argues the book is very much in the tradition of the war novels published in the 1920s dealing with the First World War, such as Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infrantry Officer.

The first part of the book covers Rhodes’s time in charge of an advance party sent to France with the task of finding quarters and sourcing equipment for the main division of the Royal Engineers which is to follow. Describing his role as ‘buyer, distributor, and journeyman’, he is fortunate to be assigned Georges de Treil as his French liaison officer.  Amongst his many attributes is Georges’s seeming acquaintance with the maître d’hôtel of every restaurant in the area.  As well as enticing Rhodes into some risky escapades, he introduces him to French customs such as the correct way to enjoy cheese and wine.

On 10th May 1940, the ‘Phoney War’ comes to an end as Rhodes learns of the invasion of Belgium and Holland, and the bombing of Arras. Reminding me a little of what has been revealed recently about the UK’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, Rhodes is amazed to discover that no plans exist for destroying the bridges across the strategically important River Dyle.  Shortly afterwards he has his first experience of an early morning air raid which leaves him lying naked on the floor of his billet ‘covered in dust and shaving soap’.  From that point on, the reality of war is vividly evoked, including the ‘double speak’ which sees the retreat of British forces described in news reports as ‘a strategic withdrawal according to plan’.

The book really comes alive in the final chapters which describe the chaos and confusion of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk, by which time ‘the Boche are everywhere’. To experience it in visual form, I recommend the film Dunkirk. The 1958 version would be my preference but then I’m a sucker for war films of the 1940s and 1950s. As it happens, given we’re close to the anniversary of the evacuation, the film was shown yesterday (30th May 2021) on BBC2 and is available via the BBC iPlayer for a limited time. There is also a touching moment in the 1942 film In Which We Serve starring Noel Coward (who also wrote the screenplay) when the crew of the fictional H.M.S. Torrin, having taken part in the evacuation, watch the soldiers they have rescued and returned safely to England leave the ship.

Having been picked up by a trawler, Rhodes arrives back in Dover; the line ‘In this way it ended’ from the final chapter perfectly summing up the reportage style of this fascinating book.

In three words: Authentic, detailed, fascinating

Try something similar: The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord

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About the Author

Anthony Rhodes (1916–2004) served with the British Army in France during the so-called ‘Phoney War’ and was evacuated from Dunkirk in May 1940 – he based Sword of Bone on these experiences. After the conflict, Rhodes enjoyed a long academic and literary career and wrote on various subjects, including covering the 1956 Hungarian Revolution for the Daily Telegraph and producing well-regarded histories of the Vatican. He died in 2004.

Pathfinders Sword of Bone

#BookReview Pathfinders by Cecil Lewis @RandomTTours

Pathfinders BT Posster

Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Pathfinders by Cecil Lewis, another recent addition to the Imperial War Museum’s fabulous Wartime Classics series. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for finding me a place on the tour and to the Imperial War Museum for my advance review copy.

Pathfinders CoverAbout the Book

Over the course of one night in 1942, the crew members of Wellington bomber ‘P for Pathfinder’ each reflect on the path of their own life, as they embark on a fateful mission deep into the heart of Nazi Germany. Cecil Lewis’ novel examines the life of every man in turn, rendering a moving account of each as not merely a nameless crew member, but as an individual with a life lived, ‘a life precious to some, or one… these men with dreams and hopes and plans of things to come’.

Based on its author’s extensive flying experience, this new edition of a 1944 classic includes an introduction from an Imperial War Museum historian which puts the novel in historical context and shines a light on this vital and sometimes contested aspect of Britain’s Second World War.

Format: Paperback (264 pages)                 Publisher: Imperial War Museum
Publication date:  20th May 2021 [1944]  Genre: Fiction

Find Pathfinders on Goodreads

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Disclosure: If you buy a book via the above link, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookshops

Publisher | Hive | Amazon UK
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My Review

Like me, readers may have been expecting the main focus of the book to be on the crew’s mission, leading the way in a bombing raid over the heart of industrial Germany. The chapter in which the crew carry out their meticulous pre-departure checks on the Wellington bomber certainly gives a sense of the tense atmosphere in the hours preceding a mission. However it’s the reflections of pilot and Wing Commander Hugh Thornly that provide a clue to the direction the book will take. ‘He felt he could understand anything they had done, could pardon or console, help or advise, and yet, there it was they were practically strangers to each other. Only the job kept them together.’

The way the book focuses on the stories of the six men who make up the crew of ‘P for Pathfinder’ reminded me a little of the 1953 film The Cruel Sea, based on Nicholas Montserrat’s novel of the same name, in which the viewer gets small but telling glimpses into the personal lives of some of the crew members. In Pathfinders these are much more than glimpses. Instead, the stories illustrate the varied backgrounds of those who served in the Royal Air Force and explore each man’s motivation for doing so, whether that’s a sense of duty, a desire for revenge or the impulse to escape from the struggles of their current life.

Co-pilot Peter Morelli memories are of a chance encounter and the brief but tender romance that followed. In particular, he recalls an idyllic few days spent in the Italian Lakes, a snatched moment of happiness before the war intervened.

Front-gunner Sam Dollar’s solitary life as a trapper in the wilds of northern Canada ends as a result of a blizzard leading him to flee the wilderness he has grown to love in order to join up. I loved the author’s descriptions of the harshly beautiful landscape. It brought to mind the writing of one of my favourite authors, John Buchan who, during his time as Governor-General of Canada, fell in love with the country and whose final novel, Sick Heart River (published posthumously in 1941) contains scenes similar to those in Sam’s story. Coincidentally, one of Buchan’s final acts as Governor- General was to authorise Canada’s declaration of war against Germany.

Wireless operator Benjy Lukin’s ambition to be part of the film industry leads him into an unhappy marriage with an aspiring film actress whose enticing attitude of ‘rustle and froth and languor, was an invitation to break all the Commandments’. By chance he meets a woman who seems the exact opposite of his wife – cultured, intellectual and serious – but with it comes a conflict between love and duty.

Navigator Tom Cookson’s memories are of an eventful voyage from New Zealand through stormy seas with his friend Dick in a yacht they built together. The level of detail about the process of building the boat suggests the author was as knowledgeable about boats and seamanship as he was about aircraft and flying. One of the most memorable scenes is an encounter described as ‘a glimpse of the eternal struggle for existence among the giants of the ocean’.

In what for me was the most touching section of the book, rear-gunner Nobby Bligh’s thoughts are directed towards his wife Sally.  He recalls joyful moments from their courtship, wedding and honeymoon.  However, as he observes, ‘The Valley of the Shadow is narrow: men and women walk that path alone’.  Like many, personal loss becomes the motivation for him to enlist.  When asked why he’s volunteering he responds, ‘To get behind a gun… and the quicker the better’.

Throughout the book, the author makes occasional diversions to ponder on the nature of courage, the ‘Blitz spirit’ of Londoners and the universal desire for freedom.  In the section from the point of view of Hugh Thornly, this becomes more like a lecture (albeit a very cogently argued one) reflecting, I suspect, many of the author’s own views on national identity, the consequences of developments in scientific knowledge and globalisation.  Although this was the least successful part of the book for me, the author could have been writing about the current pandemic when he has Hugh observe, ‘Everybody behaves well in an emergency: the difficulty is to get them to do so when there is no emergency’. Quite.

The disparate stories of the crew come back together in the penultimate chapter as ‘P for Pathfinder’ nears its objective and each man is fully engaged in carrying out their role to the best of their ability. As it turns out, they will need to go far beyond their allotted roles.

Pathfinders is both a glimpse into one eventful night during the Second World and an exploration of the human spirit.

In three words: Intimate, insightful, evocative

Try something similar: There’s No Story There & Other Wartime Writing by Inez Holden

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Cecil Lewis PhotoAbout the Author

Cecil Lewis (1898 – 1997) was a British fighter ace in the First World War and his memoir Sagittarius Rising became a classic of the literature from that war, considered by many to be the definitive account of aerial combat. He was a flying instructor for the RAF during the Second World War where he taught hundreds of pilots to fly, including his own son.

After the war he was one of the founding executives of the BBC and enjoyed friendships with many of the creative figures of the day, including George Bernard Shaw, winning an Academy Award for co-writing the 1938 film adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion. He had a long and varied career but retained a passion for flying all his life. In 1969 he sailed a boat to Corfu where he spent the remainder of his life, dying two months short of his 99th birthday. He was the last surviving British fighter ace of the First World War.

Pathfinders Sword of Bone