This month I got the urge for World War Two books. I went through two, one non-fiction and one fiction, in quick succession. Normally I don’t read multiple books on the same subject too close together, but this pairing worked.
The first was Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, written and read by Giles Milton. Most of the non-fiction I’ve read about the World War Two focuses on great battles, daring spies, and political manoeuvring. All interesting, but after a while they blend together.
This book, however, looks at a different part of the war: sabotage. A small number of men, in the lead-up to WWII, realized that there was other, possibly safer, ways of fighting. They started designing limpet mines and other instruments of sabotage. When the war is declared, they advocated training small numbers of men to sneak in and destroy targets instead of using bombers. The main part of the military object to this as being improper, uncouth.. ungentlemanly. (in one operation, the head of the RAF refused to let his planes be used to parachute a team into enemy territory because he disapproved of their mission).
This book covers the political maneuvering and Churchill’s approval that let this department operate. It also covers a handful of their missions: destroying an isolated plant in Norway that was producing heavy water for atomic weapon development, blowing up equipment a Porsche plant that is producing tank parts, destroying train bridges in Greece carrying critical supplies for Rommell’s war in North Africa.
And while the UK military brass disapproved of these actions as being not cricket, the US military borrowed heavily. For example, if you’ve ever seen the tv series X Company, the characters are trained at Camp X, which was the US adoption of the ministry.
It also covers the period at the end of the war when there is a debate over whether the weapons and training should be maintained going into the cold war, or discarded as no longer needed. We also get a view of some of the people involved and what happened to them after peace (including the secretary who dated Ian Fleming and is believed to be a model for Miss Moneypenny)
The author reads the book for the audiobook, and is one of those rare authors who does an excellent job of it.
After listening to this one, I had the urge to go for the next book in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (read by Orlagh Cassidy). I’ve only ‘read’ the previous book in this series, even through the series has more than ten books. I don’t really have much interest in going back and reading (or listening to) the earlier books, but I think I’ll continue with the series going forward.
In the series, Maisie Dobbs is a widow, a war veteran (as a nurse), a private detective, and in at least the previous book, a government agent. In that book, she is asked to travel to Munich in Nazi Germany to impersonate the daughter of an inventor who has been tossed in a concentration camp. The Nazis will release him, but only to a family member, and his daughter (the only living family member) is too ill to travel. At the end of that book, Maisie has come out of mourning and reopens her detective agency.
The newest book in the series picks up about a year later, with her and her dearest friend’s family listening as the Prime Minister announces that war has been declared. This touches off a lot of changes as children are evacuated to the countryside, and young adults start signing up for armed services, while the previous generation frets, remembering the last war.
During this, Maisie takes on two cases. In the first, a woman who appeared in the previous book — a former Belgian freedom fighter who works in the Belgian Embassy — hires her to investigate the killing of a man who came to England as a refugee in the First World War. The police, swamped by the results of declaring war, believe it to be a simple robbery turned deadly. But then another former refugee dies, and as Maisie investigates, it appears that the deaths are related to events in the previous war.
The other case is more personal. A child evacuated from London goes to live with Maisie’s former in-laws. Her father and stepmother are helping out, and the child, Anna, is refusing to speak to anyone, and the people in charge of the evacuation turn out not to know who she is. She just turned up at the evacuation, although she isn’t part of the school group. Maisie finds herself drawn to the silent child, even though she knows how foolish that is, and works to both help the girl, and find out where she came from. Having lost her own child in miscarriage when her husband died, the child pulls on all her maternal instincts.
The story here is well written, very emotional, and slightly maudlin in places. As I said, I don’t feel any urge to go an read the other books (which start right after the end of the first World War), but I do look forward to seeing what happens next.
After finishing these two books, both of which I thoroughly recommend, both on their own and as audiobooks, I think I am done with World War Two for a while. Next up, I head into horror and science fiction.