Officers and Gentlemen by Evelyn Waugh (1955)

Tommy Blackhouse declared: ‘It’s going to be a long war. The great thing is to spend it among friends.’
(Officers and Gentlemen, page 47)

Officers and Gentleman is the second novel in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. As its predecessor, Men at Arms was divided into three parts with a prologue and epilogue, so Officers and Gentlemen is divided into two halves, ‘Happy Warriors’ (London and Scotland) and ‘In The Picture’ (Egypt and Crete), with a small interlude and an epilogue.

Like Men at ArmsOfficers and Gentlemen is entirely about the army and the adventures in it of the trilogy’s dour, self-conscious, 35-year-old, divorced, Catholic ‘hero’, Guy Crouchback – and yet the majority of the book features no fighting. Instead, like its predecessor, it is overwhelmingly about the absurdities of army bureaucracy, politicking and infighting, with a fair admixture describing the absurdities of civilian life during war.

Indeed, the larger presence of scenes of civilian life, in the form of the social circle of Guy’s former wife, Virginia, in London, and of the legendary Mrs Julia Stitch in Alexandria (when the action moves, in the second half, to Egypt)shifts the style and feel of the book noticeably back towards the more obviously silly social satire of Waugh’s 1930s comedies.

Book One – Happy Warriors

The previous novel ended with Guy aboard a flying boat carrying him back from Sierra Leone to England. Officers and Gentlemen opens on the evening of the same day. Guy arrives in the afternoon and makes his way straight to London in time for a big air raid during the Blitz. The novel opens with Guy standing on the steps of his London club, Bellamy’s, admiring the night sky over London lit up by German bombers, explosions, searchlights and anti-aircraft flak, quite a show of fireworks.

Stiff upper lip

Part of the humour derives from the stiff upper lip detachment of most of the characters and the narrator. This sense of ironic detachment is apparent from the opening scene. For many Londoners the Blitz was a time of terror and tragedy. Waugh completely transmutes it into a festival of fun. It’s there in individual sentences:

Everywhere the shells sparkled like Christmas baubles.

In sardonic satire:

On the pavement opposite Turtle’s a group of progressive novelists in firemen’s uniform were squirting a little jet of water into the morning-room.

Or in the extended comic tone of the opening scene when members of Bellamys watch the rival club, Turtles, down the road, burning merrily, and then confront a bedlam of rumours that wine and brandy are flowing in the gutters, the comic spectacle of the night porter, Job, having drink far too much and attempting to keep a straight face and voice, and the farcical spectacle of Ian Kilbannock’s superior officer, an Air Vice Marshall in the RAF, hiding from German bombs under the club billiard table.

At the end of the Evelyn Waugh Wikipedia article, his lifelong friend Nancy Mitford is quoted as saying: ‘What nobody remembers about Evelyn is that everything with him was jokes. Everything.’

Apthorpe’s last request

A central figure of Men at Arms was the often absurd figure of Apthorpe. In hospital and knowing he was dying, Apthorpe made Guy promise to carry out his dying wish and take his legendary collection of kit and equipment to a chap called ‘Chatty’ Corner (real name, James Pendennis). Apthorpe had brought this chap to a drunken dinner given by the regiment he and Guy are both members of, the Royal Corps of Halberdiers. Waugh expresses it with characteristic levity:

A spirit was to be placated. Apthorpe’s gear must be retrieved and delivered before Guy was free to follow his fortunes in the King’s service. His road lay backward for the next few days, to Southsand and Cornwall. ‘Chatty’ Corner, man of the trees, must be found, somewhere in the trackless forests of wartime England.

This is the rather slender pretext for the first half of the book which is Guy’s quest to track down this ‘Chatty’ fellow and hand over Apthorpe’s huge pile of clobber.

Recurring characters

In the first novel there was quite an array of characters, who kept changing with the changing configuration of Guy’s regiment. In this novel the focus is a bit more on civilian life and so it feels like there’s a smaller number of characters who keep recurring up. These include:

  • Ian Kilbannock – early in the war wangled himself a job in the RAF and, during the course of this book, gets himself a cosy niche as information officer
  • Tommy Blackhouse – the man Guy’s wife, Virginia, left him for, but they’ve both gotten over this, Tommy is a member of Guy’s club, Bellamy’s, so they keep bumping into each other and the central event of part one is when Guy finds himself seconded to the commando group Tommy is commanding in Scotland
  • Virginia aka Mrs Troy, shallow-minded socialite ex-wife of Guy’s (‘It was the present moment and the next five minutes which counted with Virginia’, p.78)
  • Arthur Box-Bender – Conservative MP married to Guy’s sister, Angela, successful if often obtuse older man in his 50s
  • Miss Vavasour – the concerned old lady who resides in the same hotel as Guy’s father in the seaside resort of Matchet (his daughter, Angela, has dropped hints that she might be in love with him)

Guy spends that night in a hotel then next day Guy takes a train from Charing Cross and reports at the Royal Halberdier barracks. No one is expecting him or knows what to do with him. Guy explains his quest to find Chatty Corner to the Adjutant who promptly gives him some leave, so Guy turns right round, gets a taxi to the station and back to London.

Guy’s father and the Cuthberts

There is a prolonged storyline concerning Guy’s father. Years ago he had been forced to quit the old family home at Broome, let it to a convent, and settled as a long-term resident in a hotel in the coast town of Matchet. The storyline concerns the narrow-minded, uncharitable and profiteering attempts of the owners of the hotel, the Cuthberts, to eject Mr Crouchback from his room and make a lot more money charging it out by the week at the new higher wartime rates.

The general purpose of this recurring storyline is to emphasise what a jolly decent old buffer Guy’s father is (‘He was a man of regular habit and settled opinion. Doubt was a stranger to him.’) and what a thoroughly mean-spirited and greedy lot the horrid working class Cuthberts are.

His daughter, Guy’s sister, Angela, has three daughters by her husband, Box-Bender. All three have been evacuated to the safety of New England. From there they have sent a package containing American products which Mr Crouchback can’t make head or tail of.

He receives a letter from Angela enclosing a message they’ve had from Tony, her only son, who surrendered along with his regiment at Dunkirk and is now in a German prisoner of war camp.

Meanwhile wheels are moving. The Prime Minister, no less, orders that Brigadier Ritchie-Hook be rehabilitated. Along the complex hierarchy of bureaucracy this urge to find something for him to do spins off to affect Guy. Orders are drawn up for him to attend HOO HQ. These are top secret and must be delivered by hand. Who is there to deliver them? Well, old ‘Jumbo’ Trotter, a superannuated retired Colonel who returned to the barracks as soon as war broke out and has been hanging round under-employed ever since. He’s only too happy to be given something to do, namely sit in a car driven by an army driver all the way to the Marine Hotel Matchet where Guy is known to be taking his leave.

And thus Jumbo Trotter enters the lives of not only Guy but his father. For when he arrives in Matchet it rather inevitably turns out that he knows Mrs Tickeridge, wife of the colonel who resides at the hotel along with Guy’s father and was, in fact the man who wangled him a post in the Halberdiers.

The arrival of Jumbo overlaps with the storyline about the Cuthberts wanting to oust Mr Crouchback from the hotel because they have progressed as far as getting a Quartering Commandant, a Major Grigshawe, to force him to leave so his rooms can be taken by more ‘important’ (and higher paying) guests. But Jumbo knows this man Grigshawe, spots him in the bar, calls his name, Grigshawe jumps to attention, and Jumbo has a few words with him which result in Mr Crouchback’s future at the hotel being assured. All without Mr Crouchback knowing it even happened. Why? Because as soon as Mrs Tickeridge introduces Jumbo to Guy’s father, Jumbo recognises him as  ‘a good type’; not only the father of a Halberdier but a man fit to be a Halberdier himself. Contacts.

Anyway, you can see why describing this as a ‘war novel’ would be very misleading. For long stretches it’s more of a comic novel about civilian life during wartime.

Guy’s quest

Meanwhile Guy’s quest takes him to some of the barracks the Halberdiers were posted to in the first book. At Brook Park he collects a stash Apthorpe had left, before moving on to Southsand where the Commodore of the Yacht Club is only too glad to be relieved of three taxis’ worth of clutter Apthorpe had left there. And here Guy finds himself becalmed because military orders had it that no soldier should carry more than a haversack. He had assembled all Apthorpe’s gear alright, but isn’t allowed to move it. All Souls Day, 2 November 1940, comes and goes and, ‘ever prone to despond’, Guy broods.

Finally Jumbo Trotter arrives, having tracked him down, and delivers his secret message ‘by hand’. It is instructions to report to HOO HQ at Marchmain House, London. Now this is a tiny but significant detail because readers of Brideshead Revisited will remember that the family title was Marchmain, that their London house was called Marchmain House, and that old Lord Marchmain had been obliged to sell the house to developers who knocked it down and built a block of modern flats. Well, this is the same place, the top floors having been commandeered by Hazardous Offensive Operations (HOO) Headquarters. It’s not only an example of the way all of Waugh’s fictional oeuvre inhabits the same ‘universe’ with multiple cross-references and recurring characters, but also an indication of the way Officers and Gentlemen is a bit more tied into his pre-war comedies than Men at Arms.

Anyway, here occurs one of the many comic misunderstandings which litter Waugh’s stories. Guy tells him that the secret message instructed him to report to London, but he has a devil of a lot of kit. He takes Jumbo to see the kit and Jumbo is suitably impressed:

Together they visited the baggage store and stood in silence before the heap of steel trunks, leather cases, brass-bound chests, shapeless canvas sacks, buffalo-hide bags. Jumbo was visibly awed. He himself believed in ample provision for the emergencies of travel. Here was something quite beyond his ambition. (p.42)

Because Guy doesn’t explain about Apthorpe, Jumbo thinks all this kit is part of a top secret mission Guy is on. Therefore he pulls strings and secures the services of a five ton truck and driver and next morning all this kit is loaded into it and they are driven to London.

When Guy finally reports to a functionary of HOO HQ in Marchmain House, he is told he is being sent  on temporary attachment for training purposes to X Commando on the (fictional) Scottish Isle of Mugg, where he will report to Colonel Tommy Blackhouse who, by huge coincidence, the reader will remember, is the man who took Guy’s wife away from him.

When he hears the news Jumbo is thrilled and offers to come with him, extending the use of the three-ton lorry and RASC driver has found him. So they head north.

The Isle of Mugg

After several overnight stops, they arrive at Inverness, where the ferry for Mugg departs. Jumbo volunteers to stay on the mainland with the lorry and Apthorpe’s gear, while Guy takes the ferry to the island.

Once on the little island, Guy makes his way to the only hotel where he’s told the commando is posted. Here he finds Ivor Claire, the famous international horserider (who won medals with his mount, Thimble). After chat with him, Trimmer enters. We know him from the first book, where he was an unpopular officer. Here again he is much disliked, but is masquerading as a Scotsman and (indicative of his slipperiness) is calling himself McTavish. Trimmer is not actually as part of the commando, his regiment were sent to Iceland but he’d sprained a wrist and stayed on here.

Trimmer tells him it’s a small world because a chap’s there who was at the Halberdiers’ guest night the night Guy sprained his knee and, by a massive and implausible coincidence, Chatty Corner is there. Up here his nickname is Kong, short for King Kong. Trimmer offers to take Guy across to his digs, which turn out to be the ‘Old Castle’ a walk away through freezing night along a sheet ice path. And indeed James Pendennis Corner is inside, nursing a heavy cold, wrapped in blankets, with his feet in a mustard bath. He explains he was an old Africa expert, that’s he got to know Apthorpe, and came back as soon as war broke out and began to give Africa training but after Dunkirk somehow the army got it into its head that he knew about mountaineering so they sent him here to teach it. He’s a big hairy man who likes climbing up things, and that’s the reason for the nickname King Kong.

With delight in his heart, Guy gets Corner/Kong to sign a document officially taking ownership of Apthorpe’s stuff. His legal and moral debt is paid. It is, in the chronology of the novels, 7 December 1940.

Back at the hotel Tommy invites Guy to dinner with the old laird, Mugg, who lives in the new castle. It is a spectacular comic passage as they make their way through to the snow and ice to the impressive pile, where the door is opened to the deafening sound of bagpipes. The laird is obsessed with dynamite, he thinks the way to transform the island’s economy is to blast away the tons of rock covering what was once a lovely sandy beach pipes at dinner (later the laird takes Guy on tour of the island and explains it was he who dynamited the old stables and caused the rockfall which has buried the beach). Over the very tough and indigestible venison, he is introduced to the laird’s great-niece Katie Carmichael who is an ardent Scottish nationalist and so a vehement supporter of Hitler.

Next day Tommy finds the letter sending Guy to Mugg but sadly says he isn’t to become one of them, he is assigned to Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook, once he’s better. Meanwhile what Tommy really needs is an old hand who knows his way round the system. Guy describes Jumbo, and Tommy leaps at the opportunity of nabbing him for his commando, and dispatches Guy back to the mainland to fetch him.

Trimmer gets leave and goes to Glasgow. Waugh doesn’t like Trimmer. Here he is among the crowds at the station hotel:

He passed on with all the panache of a mongrel among the dustbins, tail waving, ears cocked, nose a-quiver. (p.73)

In an upmarket place, the Restaurant de Madrid, with another tremendous coincidence, Trimmer bumps into Virginia, Mrs Troy, Guy’s ex-wife. At one point in his career slippery Trimmer was the hairdresser on an ocean liner, the Aquitania, going under the name of Gustave, and used to regularly do her hair and give her a massage. They get talking and Virginia is perfectly prepared to leave behind the crowded, sordid world of the current war in memories of happier times aboard luxury cruise liners. They have dinner then go back to her hotel room.

Colonel Grace-Groundling-Marchpole

There is a comic running thread, which kicked off in the first book and runs through this one, about a top secret intelligence unit based in London, led by this Colonel Grace-Groundling-Marchpole, which gathers intelligence from all over. It gained stray information about Guy and Apthorpe to open a file on him, completely misinterpreting the various events that happen to him, and interpreting them in a sinister light as if Guy is involved in some kind of sinister conspiracy.

In a way it is a distillation or exaggeration of the misinterpreting, distancing effect of gossip which I have identified as a key element in Waugh’s fiction. It is also a satire on the conspiracy theory mindset:

Somewhere in the ultimate curlicues of his mind, there was a Plan. Given time, given enough confidential material, he would succeed in knitting the entire quarrelsome world into a single net of conspiracy in which there were no antagonists, merely millions of men working, unknown to one another, for the same end; and there would be no more war. (p.79)

After four days of sensual bliss, Trimmer runs into the commanding officer he thought was far away in Iceland in the hotel bar. The man is incredulous and inclined to be angry, Trimmer makes up a cock and bull story about having been co-opted into the commando, manages to get away, and tells a not very surprised Virginia that he has to leave straightaway. He hastily writes a letter to Tommy actually requesting to join the commando. Jumbo and Guy see this, and advise against it.

The commando begin training in earnest for a landing on a Mediterranean island. Claire cheats in a night-time exercise to travel to a spot 12 miles distant, by commandeering a civilian bus and getting there before any other squad. This irks all the other officers involved in the exercise and, in his isolation, pushes Claire towards deeper friendship with Guy. They both feel like outsiders.

Trimmer returns and Tommy finds a place for him with a group loosely called ‘Specialists’. The head of this, Major Graves, says Trimmer can have charge of his sappers. A few days later Guy calls in on the laird and realises he’s been chatting to Trimmer. Thinks him an awful fake but he is in charge of the sappers and so has access to the laird’s obsession, explosives, so they are becoming matey. The laird takes him out to the cliffs to show him the spot where he dynamited the old cliffs onto the beach.

Guy has a surreal encounter with a tall, wild hatless man on the beach who turns out to be an expert in dietetics, Dr Glendening-Rees, a forager avant la lettre who’s been sent there by HOO HQ and is going to recommend to the troop that they abandon their usual diet and try to survive on limpets, seaweed and heather roots. It is decided that Trimmer and his little troop of sappers will be the victims of this experiment so they are dispatched into the wilds under the direction of Dr Glendening-Rees.

Improbably, surreally, a luxury yacht appears off the island, the Cleopatra. It used to belong to the famed socialite Mrs Julia Stitch (who played a pivotal role in the earlier novel, Scoop), but she is nowhere in sight. Instead it has been commandeered by a troop of top brass, consisting of Tommy Blackhouse, an admiral, General Whale, Brigadier Ritchie-Hook. Even Ian Kilbannock is included. He comes ashore, Guy takes him for lunch and he explains he finally escaped his dreaded Air Marshall and has got a new job as press liaison.

Navy ships arrive. For several days there is speculation. Tommy is told they are embarking on a ship-borne exercise and makes detailed plans. But this is a decoy. Once all the men from the various troops of the commando are aboard ship it is announced there will be no exercise. Instead they are sailing for real combat. They are to be collectively titled ‘Hookforce’.

Before embarking Tommy had an uncomfortable interview with Jumbo where he told him he wouldn’t be wanted. Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke had specifically said no, too old. Instead he is to report to HOO HQ in London. Ritchie-Hooke has personal command over Guy who has been given a role as Intelligence Officer.

The ships sail before trimmer and his little squad of sappers stagger back into Mugg town, haggard and unshaven after their seven-day experiment living wild in heather.

Interlude in South Africa

February 1941. Nine weeks after embarking, the three ships carrying the commando battalions have docked at Cape Town which, with its blazing lights at night and shops full of nice products is the opposite of blackout rationed Britain. It’s nine weeks since they left Mugg but four of them were spent ashore on Scapa Flow while Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke put them through training, up ‘biffing’ the surrounding hills day and night. The ships are taking the long way round Africa to the Suez Canal and the Middle East.

Guy has become even more friendly and confidential with Ivor Claire. They have a leisurely conversation in the hotel bar, then wandering round the streets, then back at the hotel, and then in the garden under the southern stars, which is actually a stylish way for Waugh to drop in the backstory of what happened in the intervening weeks.

Colonel Tommy turns up with the bad news that Ritchie-Hooke and the Brigade Major took off by plane from Brazzaville and haven’t been heard of since, presumed crashed, presumed dead.

A couple of fellow officers, Eddie and Bertie, spent the afternoon getting drunk, then trying to sober up again in order to take out a couple of young ladies, then they turn up back on the ship at the end of the evening, walking round the deck trying to sober up while, paradoxically, swigging from a bottle of powerful local liquor they’ve bought because it was named ‘Kommando’.

Book Two: In the Picture

Waugh shows how at a meeting of the top brass in Easter 1941, several further incidents involving the commandos (referred to as Special Service Forces) were reviewed, all of them unfortunate, such as the way that a) they lost their brigadier, Ritchie-Hooke b) when they arrived at the Suez Canal it was closed and c) when the canal was cleared their ships were commandeered to ferry Australian troops to Greece.

Major-General Whale, Director of Land Forces and nicknamed ‘Sprat’, defends his boys and manages to avoid getting them broken up. But he returns to his office aware they need to achieve a success of some kind, preferably one which can be promoted by the Ministry of Information in the press. He calls together his senior planners and asks them to recommend something which can achieve a quick win. Someone digs up ‘Operation Popgun’, a small assault on an unmanned island near Jersey.

Sprat approves it and tells Ian Kilbannock (who is now his chief information officer) it will be led by this MacTavish chap (who we also know as Trimmer) who’s in charge of the sappers unit (we saw how casual his appointment was back on Mugg.

Then the narrative cuts back to our hero, Guy, as he wakes in the commando’s temporary base in Sidi Bishr, then in the desert just outside the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Guy is still Intelligence Officer, Tommy Blackhouse is Deputy Commander with the acting rank of full colonel, and a new character is introduced, a small, bald, youngish man named Hound who is the Brigade Major. Major Hound does not like the irregular setup and behaviour of the commandos:

They had no transport, they had no cooks, they had far too many officers and sergeants, they wore a variety of uniforms and followed a multitude of conflicting regimental customs, they bore strange arms, daggers and toggle-ropes and tommy-guns.

Reading this little sequence about official disapproval of the commandos suddenly made me realise why Waugh was drawn to make them central to his big war trilogy – because they are unconventional, because there’s more scope for mischief, anarchy and comedy.

After some business establishing the fractious relations between Guy, Hound (who disapproves of the entire commando), Major Graves (who thinks he ought to be in command of X commando) and a new member of the commando, pale-eyed, journal-keeping Corporal-Major Ludovic, Tommy sends Guy into Alexandria to check up on Ivor Claire who managed to trip over a tent rope and twist his knee and chosen to instal himself in a private nursing home.

En route he drops into a Catholic church to make confession to a French priest who seems to ask rather too many questions about Guy’s brigade. Guy thinks he’s a spy and tries to track him down to the local clergy-house but gets no joy from the Arab doorman.

When he visits Ivor in his private hospital the latter informs him that the egregious Mrs Julia Stitch is in town, a one-woman dynamo of high socialising and bravado behaviour. She once visited the Castello Crouchback on her yacht with some very posh friends. Now, nearly 10 years later, she remembers it perfectly. She remembers everything perfectly. She is a comic prodigy.

Kissing Claire goodbye, she dragoons Guy into her car and for a mad drive across Alexandria, stopping at random moments and blocking all the traffic in order to point out to Guy ancient sites mentioned in the rare copy of E.M. Foster’s guide to Alexandria which she is reading. (Readers of Scoop will remember that, in that book, she drives a kind of baby motor car which she manages to drive into a downstairs men’s public lavatory.) Here she upsets all the local drivers and, in quest of a shoe shop she’s been told about, drives down an alleyway which becomes too narrow her car becomes wedged fast in it.

She obtains the shoes, or rather carpet slippers, she wants then forces Guy to hurry to catch a taxi back to the villa she and her husband have been assigned a little outside of town. It is a typical Stitch luncheon party, featuring a the Commander-in-Chief, a young Maharaja in the uniform of the Red Cross, a roving English cabinet minister, and an urbane pasha, and two little local millionairesses, sisters, who hang on Mrs Julia Stitch’s every word, comically misinterpreting them. They think Guy must be her lover, only reason such a lowly undistinguished officer could be there.

This leads to the comic incident whereby, when lunch is over, the Commander-in-Chief (presumably of the entire army in North Africa) offers Guy a lift back to his base and even directs his driver to go right into the base and drop him at his barracks – to the initial disbelief of captious Major Hound.

It is Holy Saturday, 12 April 1941. We know this because there is a brief description of Guy’s father, venerable old Mr Crouchback, breaking his lenten fast with lunch, a pint of burgundy and a luxurious pipe.

Kerstie Kilbannock

The scene suddenly cuts back to London, to describe the life of Kerstie Kilbannock, dutiful wife of Ian Kilbannock who we’ve met as information officer to Special Service Forces. Kerstie has taken two friends named Brenda and Zita into her house in (very smart) Eaton Terrace as paying guests, and to work alongside her, unpaid, in the canteen at No. 6 Transit Camp, London District. When she meets Virginia Troy at the Dorchester Hotel during an air raid, visibly hard up, she invites her to come and join the female menage.

Kerstie tells Virginia about a regular customer, a quite frightfully awful man they’ve nicknamed ‘Scottie’ and the reader is not altogether surprised when, a week or so later, this ‘Scottie’ saunters into the busy canteen at No. 6 Transit Camp, London District and turns out to be none other than Trimmer. He is momentarily taken aback, but nothing daunts Virginia and she says hello. She is obviously going to keep silent about their four days of passion in a Glasgow hotel in November, but that’s no reason not to be civil.

Trimmer is back in the frame because he is called in by General Whale and told he is to carry out a little operation, which will involve a journey by submarine. He is to take his squad and report to Portsmouth. Ian Kilbannock will be, as we’ve seen, accompanying him. Trimmer is taken as the epitome of a bad officer since he has mislaid his ‘section’, never calls them together, never inspects them, is only really semi-attached to the army at all.

In yet another coincidence, Kilbannock says he’ll need to prepare a bit of a profile for the press about Trimmer and asks him to pop into his place for a drink before going onto Portsmouth and, of course, when Trimmer thus pops in, it is to discover Kerstie and Virginia. There is a passage of social comedy, not least the way Ian Kilbannock realises from Trimmer, Kerstie and Virginia’s conversation that something is going on but can’t work out what.

Back in Egypt the small incident of the priest Guy thought was asking too many questions comes back to haunt him. Tommy calls him in to say the priest has definitely been identified as a spy and he has been reported talking to him. Guy says yes, he thought he was a spy, and he reported it to Major Hound. Major Hound who had, until that moment been quietly gloating in a corner of the room is now put on the spot and has to admit to Tommy that, yes, Guy did mention something about it. Tommy tells Hound to write a formal letter to HQ exonerating Guy. Eventually a copy of this letter finds its way to Colonel Grace-Groundling-Marchpole who adds it to his ever-expanding file on Guy Crouchback.

Operation Popgun

Trimmer and his little squad of eight men is kept hanging around at Portsmouth for weeks. Finally they are sent aboard a submarine, along with Ian Kilbannock and a lot of explosives. His description of a journey by submarine is interesting. Basically, boring with no sense of movement. After quite a few hours they surface at night but can’t find the island which is the objective. It is very foggy. An atmosphere of farcical amateurishness. Ian has had quite a few whiskeys to fortify himself i.e. is tipsy during this military operation.

‘I don’t like this at all,’ said Trimmer. ‘What the hell are we going to do?’
‘You’re in command, old boy. In your place I’d just push on.’
‘Would you?’
‘Certainly.’
‘But you’re drunk.’
‘Exactly. If I was in your place I’d be drunk too.’

They are fired on from her window by an old lady with a shotgun who swears at them in French. Turns out they are not on a little Channel island at all but have landed on mainland France. They run and tumble down a slope into a railway cutting. A slow train passes as they hide. It takes them 25 minutes to make it back to the beach. Trimmer is revealed as a catastrophically bad officer, with no idea what to do, lets the soldiers smoke once they’re ashore, runs away at the first shot etc. What Jumbo Trotter would call a ‘wrong ‘un’.

In his absence his sergeant led the men a little way inland and blew up the railway line then calmly returned to the beach where Trimmer was waiting impatiently, and embarked in the dinghies back to the submarine. The submarine signals ahead that the mission was a great success, and on arriving in Portsmouth McTavish / Trimmer and his men are hailed as heroes by Major Albright, GSO II (Planning), HOO HQ, and the General tells Ian to a) write it up and b) write citations for medals for the sergeant and Trimmer. Farce. Absurdity.

This is then wonderfully embellished by Kilbannock in the press release he gives to the papers (shades of Scoop and its satire on the fabulous lies routinely told by newspapers, shades crystallised when one of the characters mentions the Daily Beast and its proprietor Lord Copper). Then, in a sweet piece of plotting, is read by none other than Mr Crouchback in distant Matchet, who tells his friend Mrs Tickeridge what a fine fellow this Captain McTavish must be. Then it is relayed to the commando in Egypt where the colonel who suggested McTavish be included swanks himself on his ability to spot men and ridicules Guy’s scepticism about Trimmer’s abilities.

In fact the Trimmer affair becomes a stick to beat all Waugh’s enemies with. Head of the commando emphasises that news of the operation must be passed to the Spanish veterans who’ve been assigned to the unit. And the Labour members in the House of Commons get wind of the fact that Trimmer was rejected from the Halberdiers because of his working class background as a hairdresser i.e. snobbery and the old school tie.

He becomes so popular that a very senior meeting is convened to find him an appropriate post and General Whale is appalled to find himself being ordered to give him a senior command, maybe of an entire commando battalion. Ian Kilbannock helps his boss out with a wizard wheeze: Trimmer has a certain confident breezy style: how about sending him to America to promote Anglo-American friendship.

In Waugh’s hands the war is a kind of Engine of Absurdity; it takes ordinary peacetime absurdity and cranks it up to completely new levels.

The fall of Crete

Out in the real world Greece quickly falls to a well planned and executed German invasion 6 to 30 April 1941. 7,000 British and Australian troops are captured. There’s a panic-stricken evacuation of the rest. Guy’s commando is put in charge of defending Alexandria as the war in North Africa turns in the Germans’ favour.

Quite suddenly X commando are told they are to be embarked and sail to the relief of Crete which the Germans, following the total capture of Greece, are now attacking. The complicated business of embarking the entire commando and setting sail, but next morning Guy wakes to find they’re sailing back to Egypt, the ship’s engines have become faulty. Tommy and Guy go for a splendid meal.

Next morning, rather hungover, they embark on a new ship and steam in a heavy swell to the waters round Crete. Here Colonel Tommy slips off a ladder and breaks his leg. Guy finds a haggard senior officer, a Lieutenant-Commander from Crete, in conversation with the captain, saying it’s all a shambles. A motor launch comes alongside their ship, they think it’s for them to embark in but in fact it’s full of walking wounded who painfully come aboard, overfilling the ship. Its skipper says he has another run to make then has orders to scuttle the launch. He tells Guy it’s all over: Crete has fallen.

Nonetheless X commando’s orders are to embark so they climb down and in and are ferried to the wrecked quay which is packed with wounded men clamouring to get on the boat and away. Hound and Guy shout for any representatives of B commando and a battered weary man replies who tells them its commanding officer Prentice is dead, killed during an attack on an airfield. It is 26 May 1941.

The disintegration of Major Hound

In Tommy Blackhouse’s absence Major Hound is in charge of X commando and the core of this long complex account of the collapse and evacuation of Crete is a painful description of the mental and moral collapse of Major Hound. Very early on he tries to cultivate a friendship with Guy by asking if he can address him by his first name (fine) and telling guy his own nickname is Fido. From that first misplaced confidence, it is steadily downhill (p.175).

Under the stress of the chaos and confusion, and huge columns of men marching to the sea, and the constant attacks of Stuka dive bombers, the lack of sleep and, very quickly, the hunger and the thirst, all Major Hound’s book training goes out of the window, he makes foolish decisions, he makes wild decisions, stabbing randomly at a map to indicate where they’ll set up their HQ, then hunger drives him to muck in with the ordinary soldiers and lose all authority.

And then he abandons his post, abandons his men, and begins a wild hallucinatory march to the sea and escape. At one point he slips off a path and falls through the branches of a tree into a deep gully, and I expected him to die. He is thoroughly looted by a huge Cretan peasant and then, to my surprise, is discovered by Corporal-Major Ludovic.

Ludovic has already impressed everyone he meets as an odd fish, a sense confirmed by the philosophical journal he keeps and which Waugh quotes for the reader. When Major Hound insists on driving his men in a lorry up to a location he has almost arbitrarily chosen will be the commando’s HQ, Ludovic begins to display his skills at scrounging and at talking to the common soldiers in their own ‘plebeian’ tongue, or to Australian or New Zealand troops, as easily as talking posh to the officers.

Anyway, Ludovic discovers Major Hound lying bruised in this valley and helps him back to what turns out to be a very cosy cave Ludovic and half the rest of the Major’s troop have assembled up the hill. Seeing which way the land lay, they set about looting and scrounging within a day of arriving and have built up an impressive supply of food. His ulterior motivation emerges when Ludovic frankly tells him that they’ve tried to get aboard one of the launches evacuating men, but there are thousands waiting on the quays and the guards are only letting through troops of men accompanied by an officer. Aha.

Guy among the Halberdiers on Crete

Meanwhile Guy very much does not go to pieces. After Major Hound disappears, Guy makes his own way back towards the sea in the three-ton lorry they’d set out in, having a series of chaotic encounters,  for example picking up a venerable old Greek general and giving him and his ADC a lift, running into a German motor cyclist, both sides eyeballing each for a moment before turning round and retreating. He stumbles into an abandoned Greek village and finds two brown-eyed girls guarding the body of a dead soldier. Guy notices he is a Catholic and say a prayer over his body. In some ways he likes travelling alone and travelling light.

But eventually he finds himself at the headquarters of his old regiment, the Halberdiers. Just to be clear, Guy was a proud member of the Halberdiers until he blotted his copybook at the end of Men at Arms, and was then seconded to the commandos, X commando in particular, the one led by Tommy Blackhouse up in the Isle of Mugg. The overall title given the commandos is ‘Hookforce’, even after it becomes known that Ritchie-Hooke has gone missing presumed dead in Africa.

So Guy is delighted to be suddenly among friends again when he discovers the Halberdiers HQ at a place called Babali Hani, men like Colonel Tickeridge and number of the men, including some from his own D company. But when he asks to take part in a forward movement against the enemy he is turned down. He is not part of the regiment any more and the middle of a battle is no place to start swapping units. And he feels the familiar Guy Crouchback of being an outsider, an alien, with no family, that has dogged him all his life:

A few hours earlier he had exulted in his loneliness. Now the case was altered. He was a ‘guest from the higher formation’, a ‘Hookforce body’, without place or function, a spectator. And all the deep sense of desolation which he had sought to cure, which from time to time momentarily seemed to be cured, overwhelmed him as of old. His heart sank. It seemed to him as though literally an organ of his body were displaced, subsiding, falling heavily like a feather in a vacuum jar; Philoctetes set apart from his fellows by an old festering wound; Philoctetes without his bow. (p.210)

At least Tickeridge allows him to accompany him in a visit to the front line, Halberdier units spread across a shallow valley, coming under mortar fire from the Germans opposite. Guy observes the Halberdiers withdraw their line a little. The plan is for the Halberdiers to withdraw through Hookforce who will provide a last line of defence. Guy returns to his own troop to begin to organise them. The absence of Major Hound is not mentioned as he briefs reliable Sergeant Smiley.

Trimmer the PR phenomenon

Cut to London. Ian Kilbannock is touting Trimmer the war hero round the press, and has a date to meet three hard-bitten American journalists at the Savoy. Trimmer has become infatuated with Virginia who says he disgusts her. This is the opportunity for some pretty crude satire of American journalists, who Waugh has named Scab Dunz, Bum Schlum, and Joe Mulligan and who Ian is trying to persuade that Trimmer is the heroic face of a new classless Britain. The ramshackle journalists get drunk and sentimental, a crude caricature of belligerent, ignorant Yanks.

But Trimmer is genuinely haunted by his four days of love with Virginia in Glasgow. He can’t concentrate and Ian is worried because Trimmer is about the only good news propaganda coup he and his department have had all year. All this he explains to Virginia when he gets back to his HOO HQ office in Marchmain House for he has got her a job working as his secretary. She did it precisely to get away from the bloody canteen and avoid Trimmer, but now Ian tells her she has to do her patriotic duty and see him, cheer him up, gee him up to perform better in his visits to munitions factories and so on. the war effort depends on it!

Guy at Sphakia

It is 31 May 1941. Guy has kept in touch with moving HQ and followed orders to march his men down to this hill overlooking the sea. Their task is to hold up the enemy while the last stragglers leave the beach and then surrender.

He has a last chat with Ivor Claire, both speculating what it will be like in a prisoner of war camp, then he falls exhausted, like everyone else, shattered.

Dawn finds Guy in the wrecked harbour with thousands of other abandoned and exhausted soldiers, foraging for food and water, smashing their weapons and any other smashable equipment so the Germans don’t get it, the enormous litter of war.

After gazing at the twinkling Med for a while he decides on a whim to go for a swim, luxuriating in the clear water of a cove round the corner from the filthy harbour, floating on his back looking up at the cloudless blue sky. Beautiful evocative description. Eventually he swims over to a spur of rock sheltering the cove and is just pulling himself out onto a rocky shelf when to his amazement a hand is stretched out to help him and it is…Corporal-Major Ludovic.

Up and out he gets and they talk. The subject of Major Hound is raised and discussed in a sentence, the reader getting the strong impression Ludovic used him to get to the beach and then… dumped him…or murdered him? Guy asks him what the devil he’s doing here and Ludovic, in that unnerving way of his, replies that he was contemplating suicide, diving into the sea and swimming south till he drowns. He asks Tony whether that would count as suicide, theologically speaking.

Tony doesn’t know and moves the conversation onto swapping survival stories, then Guy fills him in on the final orders i.e. surrender to the Germans. They both sit surveying the scene of hundreds of men engaged in various pointless activities, including some soldiers fixing a local fishing boat. After a while he notices they’ve manhandled it down the beach and into the sea and are fiddling with the engine. It kicks into life with a puff of black smoke. The little sapper who’s been leading the team and shouts at the beach that they’re taking the boat to freedom, anyone want to come?

Guy consults his men who all prefer to take their chances on dry land then wades out and hauls himself over the side of the boat. Only then does he realise Ludovic has followed him having heard something, but both men are drowned out by the enormous racket of the diesel outboard motor. They start to chug away from the beach and then Guy sees what suddenly motivated Ludovic. Out of the sky appears a wing of Stukas which proceed to systematically dive bomb the beach and harbour, massacring the men waiting there, mangled bits of body thrown into the air. One Stuka makes a strafe over the little boat but then returns to the richer picking onshore. And so, having narrowly escaped annihilation, the little local fishing boat puts out of the picture, one of the last survivors of the ghastly fiasco and failure which was the defence of Crete.

Hospital in Alexandria

Part two chapter seven opens with an absolutely brilliant description of Guy coming round in the hospital in Egypt, of the world of silence and great distance which he inhabits as he recovers from shock and exposure.

Confused memories drift through his mind – he refuses to talk. Then one day Mrs Stitch breezes into his room, repeating the famous quote from the incident on the Italian island and without thinking Guy replies. It is one of the most wonderful moments in a wonderful book – now he can talk again he pops down the hall to see Tommy Blackhouse who’s still laid up with his broken leg. Tony tells him he was carried ashore by Ludovic when their ship finally reached shore in Egypt. Of the four or five other chaps on the boat there was no sign. In the third book in the trilogy it is darkly hinted that Ludovic did away with them, though we never find out for sure.

The Ivor Claire affair

Tommy and Guy discuss the case of Ivor. There is a great scandal because Ivor’s troop were unambiguously ordered to wait till the last minute and then surrender to the Germans. Mrs Stitch tells Guy that Ivor made his way to the beach for last orders and there found a launch leaving whose captain ordered him to get aboard and be saved, claiming another launch was on its way to collect his men. Of course the second launch never arrived and so Ivor stands accused of disobeying a direct order and abandoning his men.

Guy is appalled and disillusioned. He considered Ivor a flower of English gentlemanliness, but turns out to be a sneak and cad. To be honest, I spent the last pages confused because I couldn’t see the difference between Guy who left his men on the beach (to be bombed to death) and made it back to Alex, and Ivor who left his men in the hills and made it back to Alex. What would Ivor letting himself be captured have done for the war effort? This is the common sense view taken by Mrs Stitch who appears to have been involved in spiriting Ivor away to distant India on some secondment, where he can sit out the war among people who know nothing of the story and don’t care.

Staying with Mrs Stitch

Mrs Stitch insists Guy comes and stays with her at the swish villa assigned to her or, more accurately, her very well connected husband Algernon (Algie). It is a comic conceit that Julia has inherited from her strict Victorian grandparents a belief that bachelors should not be pampered and so awards him a squalid concrete bunker of a room, down at basement level, liberally populated by cockroaches.

But he gets to lie on their chaise longue, be waited on hand and foot and to attend some truly swanky parties. One day Julia returns from town with the staggering news that Germany has invaded Russia, 22 June 1941 (p.239).

Mrs Stitch asks Guy if there’s anyone he’s like to see and he says old Major Tickeredge – so he comes to lunch and is awed by the VIPs around him, but after lunch stuns Guy by saying Ben Ritchie-Hook is alive after all!

With the wiping out of X commando Guy is looking forward to being returned to the Halberdiers so is very upset to receive a letter delivered by motorcycle courier ordering him to join a ship the following morning which is to take him back to Blighty. He drives into town to see the officer who signed the order, who tells him it comes from the very top. He begs Mrs Stitch to fix it but she can’t. Very upset. There is a whiff of implication that Mrs Stitch in fact arranged it in order to get Guy completely out of circulation while she spirited her favourite, Ivor Claire, off to safe obscurity out in India.

Epilogue

It takes eight long weeks sailing in a rusty old hulk, Canary Castle, right round Africa with a long stopover in Durban to be refitted. But eventually Guy arrives back in England, back in London and back in his club, Bellamy’s.

This brief epilogue opens with no narratorial introduction, just dialogue. We have got to know the so well we can identify the speakers. It recalls the liberal use of the same technique in Vile Bodies, the early 1930s novel this shares a surprising amount with.

And of course there is a simpler pattern going on here, which is that Bellamy’s is where the novel opens and where it closes. Symmetry.

Thus the epilogue opens with Guy being accosted by the usual suspects, not least the humorous press man Ian Kilbannock and his earnest MP brother-in-law, Box-Bender. The former wants to know more about the Ivor Claire affair, then informs him Virginia is doing her patriotic duty and accompanying Trimmer on a tour of munitions factories in Scunthorpe, Hull, Huddersfield, Halifax…

Box-Bender informs Guy that his nephew Tony has written from his German prisoner of war camp asking for works of religious devotion, which troubles him. Why should it? asks Guy.

All the conversation is about help for Russia, Tanks for Russia Week, his allying with Russia has, at least, motivated the working classes to work harder in those factories. And bloody good thing, too!

Guy never wanted to come back, he wanted to join the Halberdiers in the Middle East but when he reports at Halberdiers barracks the C-in-C tells him it was the doctors at Alexandria’s hospital who reported that Guy needed a complete change of scene. (Or is that all part of Mrs Stitch’s ruse?)

And so the novel ends with Guy back where he began, practising drill on the barracks parade ground, waiting to find his place in the big world around him. Except that things are now no longer so clear and (childishly) simple as they were two years earlier. The performance of British services have been lamentable, the man he considered ‘the flower of English chivalry’ Ivor Claire, turns out to let the side down; but overarching everything, the alliance with barbaric Bolshevik Russia hugely compromises the claim of the war to be any kind of moral crusade. And so the novel ends with Guy back at square one, looking for a role and repossessed by his characteristic gloom and pessimism:

It was just such a sunny, breezy Mediterranean day two years before when he read of the Russo-German alliance, when a decade of shame seemed to be ending in light and reason, when the Enemy was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off; the modern age in arms. Now that hallucination was dissolved, like the whales and turtles on the voyage from Crete, and he was back after less than two years’ pilgrimage in a Holy Land of illusion in the old ambiguous world, where priests were spies and gallant friends proved traitors and his country was led blundering into dishonour.


Themes and images

Public school

As pointed out so many times, when Waugh (or his characters) reach for a comparison, almost always the first ones that come to mind are taken from their experiences at prep school or private school. Thus, for Guy, in the middle of an air raid:

Guy was momentarily reminded of Holy Saturday at Downside; early gusty March mornings of boyhood; the doors wide open in the unfinished butt of the Abbey; half the school coughing; fluttering linen; the glowing brazier and the priest with his hyssop, paradoxically blessing fire with water.

Snobbery

Waugh’s belief in a class system can be deduced from comments he makes about being an officer in the army:

In all his military service Guy never ceased to marvel at the effortless transitions of intercourse between equality and superiority. It was a figure which no temporary officer ever learned to cut. Some of them were better than the regulars with their men. None ever achieved the art of displaying authority over junior officers without self-consciousness and consequent offence. Regular soldiers were survivals of a happy civilization where differences of rank were exactly defined and frankly accepted.

‘Where differences of rank were exactly defined and frankly accepted.’ That is his ideal world, a medieval world of precise rankings, accompanied, ideally, by sumptuary laws.

The working classes rarely appear in his narratives except as servants, waiters, valets, drivers, cooks and so on. They rarely if ever speak, they are nameless serfs at the beck and call of the only people who have agency, Waugh and his class.

If they do speak it is either to reveal they are solid chaps – like some of the brave soldiers Guy meets in Crete whose dialogue is entirely restricted to either ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘No, sir’ – or it is to reveal their coarse, petty money-mindedness, as is the case with the scheming Cuthberts who try and evict nice old Mr Crouchback from their hotel, and are indicted either by their dropped h’s and plebeian idioms or, more subtly, by their complete failure to understand the superior moral standards of their lords and masters:

‘He’s a deep one and no mistake. I never have understood him, not properly. Somehow his mind seems to work different than yours and mine.’

Amateurism

I appreciate from everything I’ve ever read about them that lots of plans and arrangements in times of war are shambolic, but Waugh goes out of his way to emphasise the shambolic nature of pretty much everything his hero encounters, from office politics and rivalries, the loss and misplacement of paperwork, errors over train or shipping times and so on.

These litanies of relatively minor incompetence are then reflected in actual military operations – on a small scale by Operation Popgun, on a massive scale in the fiasco of Crete (which itself followed the fiasco of Norway [described in Put Out More Flags] and the fiasco of Dakar [described in Men at Arms]).

The breezy incompetence displayed by almost every aspect of the military is connected to the cult of upper-class nonchalance, of displaying your upper class credentials by refusing to be seen to be trying too hard, and refusing be fazed or perturbed by anything.

This is exemplified by the elephantine imperturbability of old Jumbo Trotter or, in a different way, by the administrative officer of HOO HQ who gets used to hearing the most preposterous stories. ‘My entire platoon has just been ambushed and massacred.’ ‘Oh, I say, bad show, old boy.’

Drunkenness

At luncheon Mr Crouchback drank a pint of burgundy.

Everyone gets drunk. ‘Have a drink?’ remains the watchword among these people, as it had been in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. ‘Tight’ is the word they use for ‘drunk’. The narrative describes what this or that individual is like ‘when they’re tight’ because it is just taken for granted that everyone will gets tight at some point or another, sometimes every night.

These posh characters’ haunt is their London club, where they drink prodigious amounts of booze, indeed the novel opens with the image of fine wine and brandy flowing in the gutters of Blitzed London. Evening drinks and evening dinner are always accompanied by plentiful booze. On Mugg they get drunk and in Cape Town they get drunk and in Alexandria they get drunk.

They ate lobster pilaff and a great dish of quail cooked with Muscat grapes…They ate six birds each and drank a bottle of champagne. Then they had green artichokes and another bottle. (p.163)

The character who dominates the first book, Apthorpe, literally drinks himself to death (and is thus a spiritual cousin of pretty boy Sebastian Flyte who drinks himself into impoverished middle age in Brideshead Revited).

And Waugh venerates this drunkenness, finds it admirable, stylish, amusing. I was really struck by the ending of the short South Africa interlude, where we have witnessed Eddie and Bertie getting drunk all day long before going off to a club to drink some more, while Guy admires Ivor Claire do a kind of sub-Noel Coward impersonation of nonchalance and airy superiority. Guy delivers quite a pompous reflection on these three fellow officers:

Guy thought instead with deep affection of X Commando. ‘The Flower of the Nation’, Ian Kilbannock had ironically called them. He was not far wrong. There was heroic simplicity in Eddie and Bertie. Ivor Claire was another pair of boots entirely, salty, withdrawn, incorrigible. Guy remembered Claire as he first saw him in the Roman spring in the afternoon sunlight amid the embosoming cypresses of the Borghese Gardens, putting his horse faultlessly over the jumps, concentrated as a man in prayer. Ivor Claire, Guy thought, was the fine flower of them all. He was quintessential England, the man Hitler had not taken into account, Guy thought.

This strikes me as a ludicrous thing to write. Hitler had accurately counted on the decadence of the class which ran the British Empire, which had appeased him throughout the mid-1930s and which, for a year or so after the declaration of war, continued to seek some kind of accommodation with him, led in the cabinet by Lord Halifax. Hitler, of course, had many sympathisers among the British upper classes, even among Waugh’s own friends, even the abdicated king.

The thought that two drunks and a camp horserider represented the spirit which defeated Hitler is absurd. The brute fact of the English Channel and the heroic efforts of the RAF during the Battle of Britain stymied Hitler’s ambitions but didn’t defeat him, just led to a stalemate. Where Hitler did badly miscalculate was in thinking Soviet Russia would collapse like a pack of cards in the autumn of 1941 and then thinking he could take on Russia and America after Pearl Harbour (December 1941). Set against the enormity of these vast mistakes, the antics of Guy and his drunken shambolic friends seem risible, almost shameful.

‘What say we all have a drink?’ said Bum. (p.215)

(Then again, I suppose you could argue this pompous passage reflects badly on Guy not his author; that it has an artistic purpose which is to set Guy’s childish patriotism up for the fall it receives when Ivor Claire betrays his high calling and lets the side down. Maybe it’s there to set up this further step in Guy’s slow disillusionment with the war and the values it’s supposedly being fought for.)

Childishness

Arguably the amateurishness and the drunkenness are related to the prep school obsession in that they are all childish. These people live in a state of permanently retarded development. The most praised characters, Mr Crouchback and Jumbo Trotter are, in effect, schoolboys protected by their prep schoolboy innocence. The comedy of a character like Mrs Stitch is that she’s a childish cartoon.  Ditto the comic figure who dominates the first book, Apthorpe. Occasionally he writes phrases which bring the implicit childishness of the entire worldview into the open:

Guy set his intelligence section to make a map of the camp, for Major Hound had returned from one of his trips to Cairo with a case labelled ‘intelligence stores’ which proved to contain a kindergarten outfit of coloured inks and drawing materials.

Mental illness

The exception which proves the rule to the dominating sense of childishness is Waugh’s odd fictional relationship with mental illness and states of extremity. They tend to come at the end of the books as a climax to the narrative, hence the description of Tony Last’s delirium then despair at the end of A Handful of Dust.

And so the final passages of this brilliant novel include a) a prolonged passage describing the moral and mental collapse of Major Hound and b) the wonderful, luminous description of Guy’s detached mental state and mutism in the hospital in Alexandria, as he recovers from the terrible effects of prolonged exposure at sea, but for a long time is incapable of responding to anyone, even friends, doctors, nurses.

But there is a wide array of odd mental states throughout the book: for example, the laird of Mugg with his potty obsession with explosives; the laird’s great-niece Katie Carmichael with her outrageous support of the Nazis; remember that Guy’s elder brother, Ivo, went mad and starved himself to death. Guy himself suffers from recurrent feelings of emptiness and depression. Waugh’s books are weirder and deeper than you first realise.


Credit

Officers and Gentlemen by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1955. All references are to the 1984 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Munich by Robert Harris (2017)

Both men fell silent, watching him, and Legat had a peculiar sense of – what was it, he wondered afterwards? – not of déjà vu exactly, but of inevitability: that he had always known Munich was not done with him; that however far he might travel from that place and time he was forever caught in its gravitational pull and would be dragged back towards it eventually. (p.188)

This is another Robert Harris historical thriller, set during the four nailbiting days of the Munich Crisis of September 1938.

In the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book Harris discloses that the crisis had been an obsession with him even before he collaborated on a BBC documentary about it, to mark the 50th anniversary, in 1988, and he hasn’t stopped being obsessed by it. The acknowledgements go on to list no fewer than 54 volumes of history, diaries and memoirs which were consulted in the writing of this book.

And this depth of research certainly shines out from every page right from the start. Even before the text proper begins, the book has an architect’s plan of the Führerbau in Munich where the climactic scenes of the book take place, because it was here that the four key European leaders – Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Britain, Daladier, Premier of France, Mussolini, the Duce of Italy and Adolf Hitler, the Führer of Germany – met to resolve the crisis and here that the various backstairs shenanigans of Harris’s thriller take place.

The Munich Crisis

Hitler came to power in 1933 with promises to end reparations to the Allies (France, Britain, America) for Germany’s responsibility for World War One, and to repeal or turn back the provisions of the Versailles Treaty which had stripped Germany of some of her territory and people.

True to his word, Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland (until then a neutral zone) in March 1936. Two years later in March 1938, he sent German troops to annex Austria, thus creating a Greater Germany.

Next on the list were the ethnic Germans who lived in a strip of territory along the periphery of Czechoslovakia, a ‘new’ country which had only been created by Versailles in 1918. Hitler created a mounting sense of crisis through the summer of 1938 by making evermore feverish claims to the land, and then arranging incidents which ‘proved’ that the Czechs were attacking and victimising the ethnic Germans, blaming the Czechs for their aggression and bullying.

Now France had made formal legal obligations to guarantee Czechoslovakia’s safety, and Britain had pledged to come to France’s aid if she was attacked, so everyone in Europe could see how an assault in Czechoslovakia might lead France to mobilise, Britain to mobilise to defend here, the Poles and Russians to pile in, and it would be exactly how the Great War started – with a series of toppling dominoes plunging the continent into armageddon.

Determined to avoid this outcome at any cost, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew twice to Germany to meet Hitler, on the 15th and 22nd of September. On the second occasion he conceded that Hitler could have the Sudetenland with the full agreement of Britain and France – but Hitler moved the goalposts, now demanding the full dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the redivision of its territory among Germany and Hungary and Poland (who also shared borders with Czechoslovakia and had mobilised their armies to seize what territory they could.)

On 26 September Hitler made a speech to a vast crowd at the Sportspalast in Berlin setting Czechoslovakia the deadline of 2pm on 28 September to cede the Sudetenland to Germany or face war. In secret, Hitler and the Wehrmacht had a fully-worked-out plan of invasion and expected to carry it out.

However, in a fast-moving sequence of events, Chamberlain sent a message via diplomatic channels to the Fascist leader of Italy, Mussolini, asking him to enter the negotiations and use his moderating influence on the Führer. Mussolini agreed, and sent a message to Hitler saying he was totally on his side but suggesting a 24 hour delay in the deadline in order to further study the problem.

Thus it came about that a conference was arranged in Munich, to be hosted by Hitler and attended by Mussolini, Chamberlain and the increasingly sidelined French premiere, Daladier.

And thus Chamberlain and his staff flew for a third time to Germany, this time to Munich, destination the Führerbau building, and here it was that over a series of closed-door meetings the four leaders and their staffs thrashed out an agreement.

It was signed by the four leaders the next day at 1.30pm. As one of Harris’s characters makes clear, the final agreement, although ostensibly submitted by the Italians, was in fact a German creation which they had given the Italians to present. The main terms were that the German army was to peacefully complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by 10 October, and an international commission would decide the future of other disputed areas.

One of the most famous aspects of the summit meeting was that the Czech leaders were physically there, but were prevented by Hitler’s orders from attending any of the actual negotiations. They were simply forced by France and Britain to accept all the terms and hand over their border area to Germany. Since this was where all their fortifications were built it left the rest of the country defenceless and, sure enough, the German army invaded and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia just six months later, in March 1939.

Map of Czechoslovakia showing the Sudeten territory given to Germany in September 1938 in dark brown

Map of Czechoslovakia showing the Sudeten territory given to Germany in September 1938 in dark brown

All of Europe had held its breath in case the incident sparked the outbreak of another European war. Chamberlain is quoted in the book, in private and then in a famous speech to the House of Commons, saying how unbelievable it is that they all seemed to be galloping towards the apocalyptic disaster so many of them could still remember (the Great War). It was this attitude – avoiding war at all costs – that underpinned Chamberlain’s strategy. And so when he flew to Munich, and even more when he emerged with a face-saving treaty, scores of millions of people all across Europe greeted the avoidance of war with enormous relief, and Chamberlain was feted as a hero.

Of course, in hindsight, we can see that nothing was going to stop Hitler and his maniacal dreams of European domination, and Chamberlain’s policy of ‘appeasement’ grew to have an entirely negative connotation of weakness and cowardice, a policy failure which only ended up encouraging the dictator. And there were plenty of politicians and intellectuals at the time who thought Hitler needed to be stood up to, instead of cravenly given in to, and that Chamberlain had made a great mistake.

That said, there are other historians who point out that neither Britain nor France were militarily prepared for war in September 1938 and that the deal, whatever its precise morality, and despite the unforgiveable abandoning of the Czechs, did give both France but particularly Britain a crucial further year in which to re-arm and, in particular, build up an air force, the air force which went on to win the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. It was only by a sliver that we won the Battle of Britain, thus maintaining the island of Britain as a launchpad for what eventually came the D-Day invasions.

If war had broken out in 1938, Britain might have lost and been invaded (doubtful but possible), America would never have entered the war, and Europe might have become an impenetrable Nazi fortress. Chamberlain certainly didn’t achieve the ‘peace in our time’ which he so hoped for; but maybe he did secure a vital breathing space for democracy. Historians will discuss these and other possible variations for generations…

The thriller

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the real-life, historical diplomacy, it is these hectic days leading up to 30 September, which Harris describes in minute and fascinating detail, and from both sides.

Because the book is made up of alternating chapters, following the parallel experiences of two well-placed if junior civil service figures, one on the Nazi side, one in Chamberlain’s staff.

In London we follow the working routine and then increasingly hectic preparations for flying to the conference of Hugh Legat, Oxford-educated Third Secretary in Chamberlain’s staff, very much the bottom of an elaborate hierarchy of civil servants. Through his eyes we see the bureaucracy of Number Ten Downing Street in action, as Legat interacts with his civil service bosses and Chamberlain himself (and his wife), fetching and carrying papers, writing up notes to meetings and so on.

In all these passages you can sense the intense research Harris has put in to document with meticulous accurately the layout of the buildings, the furnishing of each room, who attended which meeting, what they looked like, their personal quirks and nicknames, what was said, etc, in immense detail.

On the German side, we meet Paul von Hartmann, a junior official in the Foreign Ministry, as he, too, goes about various bureaucratic tasks, again gradually giving us insider knowledge of every personage in the German government, with pen portraits of senior civil servants, military figures as well as glimpses of the Führer himself.

Why these two protagonists? Because Harris places them at the heart of the thriller plot he has woven into the real historical events. We now know that during the Munich Crisis a group of senior figures in the Nazi regime and army met to discuss overthrowing Hitler, if the crisis blew up into full-scale war. Hartmann is one of these conspirators and so, through his eyes, we witness one of their meetings and are party to various panic-stricken phone calls among them as the crisis escalates.

None of the conspirators were western liberals. They hated reparations just as much as Hitler, they wanted to unravel the Versailles treaty, they wanted a strong Greater Germany and they were in favour of annexing the Sudetenland. They just disagreed with Hitler’s approach. They thought his brinkmanship would plunge Germany into a war it wasn’t yet militarily ready to win. And so, if the talks failed and war was declared, they were prepared to overthrow the Nazi regime and assassinate Hitler.

To this end they steal secret documents which show that Hitler had planned not only the Sudeten Crisis, and the full-blown invasion of all Czechoslovakia, but has a deeper plan to invade eastwards in order to expand Germany’s Lebensraum. This ‘incriminating’ document is a memo of a meeting Hitler held with his chiefs of staff back in November 1937. It conclusively shows that the Sudetenland is not the end, but only the start of Hitler’s territorial ambitions.

The documents are handed to Hartmann by his lover in the Ministry, Frau Winter, who is part of the plot and stole it from a Ministry safe. At a meeting of the conspirators Hartmann realises he must pass this document on to the British delegation at the conference, and his fellow conspirators agree.

Thriller tropes

It’s at this point that you enter what could be called ‘thrillerland’ i.e a whole series of familiar thriller plotlines and tropes.

  • First tension is raised as Hartmann takes a train out to a Berlin suburb for the meeting of conspirators, convinced he is being followed or watched.
  • Later he makes a copy of a top secret Nazi document and then bumps into people who, he thinks, are watching him too closely, asking too many questions. Do they suspect?

It is, after all, Nazi Germany, which comes with a ready-made atmosphere of guilt and paranoia.

Hartmann then has to wangle his way into the delegation travelling with Hitler by train from Berlin to Munich for the conference. He manages to do this but at the price of raising the suspicions of his superior, an SS Sturmbahnfūhrer, Sauer, a senior figure in the delegation who from that point onwards keeps a very close watch on Hartmann. When Hartmann takes advantage of a short stop he phones his office in Berlin to make sure that Legat is on the British delegation. His paranoia forces him to find hiding places for both the document and the pistol he has brought with him, leading to heart-thumping moments when he returns to check his hiding places and see if they’re still there.

Why is Hartmann so concerned that Legat be on the British delegation. Because they had been friends once, when Hartmann was on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where Legat was a student. Now he hopes to use Legat as a conduit to the British Prime Minister.

To this end, back in London and a few days earlier, Hartmann had used contacts in England to anonymously drop off less important but still secret Nazi documents at Legat’s flat in Westminster. Legat hears something coming through his letterbox but by the time he’s gone into the hall, the car with the deliverymen is long gone.

When Legat hands these documents into the authorities, he is called to the office of Foreign Office mandarin Sir Alexander Cadogan where he is introduced to a secret service colonel, Menzies. Menzies questions him and Legat reveals his friendship with Hartmann from their carefree Oxford days back at Balliol College in 1932. They had been very close friends and Legat had gone over to Munich that summer to go on a walking holiday with Hartmann in the mountains.

Menzies judges that Hartmann is obviously a member of the German ‘opposition’ (which British security have heard rumours about) and may wish to communicate with Legat in Munich. Therefore he gets Legat’s immediate superior, Cecil Syers (Chamberlain’s Private Secretary) bumped off the British delegation – much to his anger – and Legat replaces him. But with a mission – to be professional and discreet and do nothing to undermine this vital diplomatic mission – but to be alert to an approach from his old friend and to report back on its contents and intentions. Without wishing to, he has in effect been recruited as a spy.

Legat’s presence enables Harris to give the reader a first-hand account of the Chamberlain entire trip, from packing bags at Number 10, the taxi to Heston airport, the flight, the landing, the official greeting, taxis to the hotel, and then on to the Führerbau for the official reception and then meetings with Il Duce and Der Führer.

The descriptions of all these scenes reek of decades of in-depth research. Which kind of plane, the layout inside it, the sound of take-off, what refreshments were served – all of it is utterly believable but also smells a bit of the study, of the careful poring over dry old memoirs and diaries to recreate every aspect of the scene.

Those 54 books listed in the acknowledgments underpin the detailed descriptions of who was wearing what at the diplomatic reception party which precedes the actual talks, who Mussolini was talking to, what Goering was wearing, even down to the expression on Hitler’s face as he first walks down the grand staircase into the assembled diplomats.

All of it reeks of authenticity and former journalist who has done his research to a T, and all of it makes the book a fascinating account of events – right down to the way that Legat literally stumbles upon the Czech delegation (Foreign Office official Masarik and Czech Minister to Berlin Mastny) being kept in virtual house arrest by SS guards directly under Hitler’s orders – a fact he passes on to his own superiors who filter it up to the PM.

So all these descriptions make it feel like you are there. But as to the thriller plot… for once a Harris thriller failed to really catch light for me. It contains umpteen thriller tropes and moments – we share Hartmann’s stress and anxiety as he hides the incriminating document from the SS man who suspects him – and then tries to give this man the slip once everyone is at the Führerbau, the anonymous men who drop the document through Legat’s letterbox and make off in a car in the dark.

Similarly, from the moment Legat is given his spying mission by Colonel Menzies he certainly feels stiff and self-conscious. A big stumbling block comes when his superiors (not knowing about the mission Menzies has given him) instruct him to stay at the British delegations’s hotel and keep the phone line open to London to report developments, thus stymying his intention of going to the Führerbau and searching for Hartmann. Another uptick in the sense of tension.

But in the end Legat evades this order on a pretext, gets to the big Nazi building, almost immediately sees Hartmann, follows him down backstairs to the basement, out into the car park and then through local streets to a busy Bierkeller and out into the garden where they can talk in secret and that talk… is strangely inconsequential. As in, it doesn’t reveal any really big or new facts.

The crux of their conversation is this: Hartmann and his people want war to break out, so that they can recruit as many high-level German officials as possible to their plan to mount a coup and overthrow the irresponsible warmonger Hitler. This is why Hartmann hands Legat the Nazi memo dating from November 1937 which clearly states that Czechoslovakia is only the beginning of Hitler’s plans. It must be given to Chamberlain in order to make him realise that Hitler is a mad warmonger, and the final invasion of Czechoslovakia and much more will happen regardless of agreement in Munich. Chamberlain must see the memo in order to stiffen his resolve to stand up to Hitler, even if it prompts a crisis, even if it prompts war. Good. That is what the conspirators want. Or, as Hartmann puts it:

‘If Chamberlain refuses tonight to continue to negotiate under duress, then Hitler will invade Czechoslovakia tomorrow. And the moment he issues that order, everything will change, and we in the opposition, in the Army and elsewhere, will take care of Hitler.’

Chamberlain mustn’t sign a peace. If he signs a peace treaty then Hitler will be immensely popular inside Germany as the man who created a Greater Germany without firing a shot: all the waverers Hartmann and the conspirators hope to recruit will fall in line behind him. Hitler will become unstoppable. But, Legat points out, this is all hugely speculative:

Legat folded his arms and shook his head. ‘It is at this point that I’m afraid you lose me. You want my country to go to war to prevent three million Germans joining Germany, on the off chance that you and your friends can then get rid of Hitler?’ (p.297-98)

Which Hartmann has to concede, does sum up his position. And when it is stated like that, not only Hartmann and Legat realise how unlikely the position is… but so does the reader. This could never happen, the reader thinks, with the added dampener that the reader of course knows that it did not happen. At the heart of the book is a little cloak and dagger adventure among a handful of men, boiling down to these two old friends, which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans and doesn’t change anything.

So the old ‘friends’ have met, exchanged the document, and Hartmann has laid his proposition on the line. What happens in the final hundred pages?

Chamberlain refuses the Nazi memo

Both men return to their delegations and tasks which are described with documentary accuracy. But overnight Hartmann sees no sign of change in the British position and he suddenly decides to abandon diplomacy and care for his cover. He shoulders his way into the British delegation, confronts Legat and forces him to take him to Chamberlain’s room.

There Hartmann begs five minutes of Chamberlain’s time and presents him with the 1937 Nazi war plan. Chamberlain reads it and his reaction is interesting, in a way the most interesting part of the book. Chamberlain says it is entirely inappropriate for Hartmann to have pushed in like this; it breaks the chain of command on both sides, and it undermines the present negotiations; because Chamberlain is interested in the present, not what Hitler may or may not have said 6 months, or a year or five years ago. From the point of view of the professional negotiator, all that matters is what your opposite number says in the room, now. What he says and signs up to now supersedes all previous declarations. I thought that was an interesting insight into negotiating tactics as a whole.

Chamberlain reads the stolen memo but rejects it and its contents and asks Hartmann to leave, and then instructs Legat to burn it. It has no bearing on the present.

This is a very interesting scene in terms of being an education in how actual diplomacy and negotiation works, but it militates the entire basis of the thriller. the Big Secret is out. The Key Document has been shown to the Prime Minister. The Secret men and women risked their lives for, cloak and dagger letter drops in London took place for, which Legat was subbed onto the British Legation for and Hartmann played sweaty cat and mouse with his SS boss for – has finally been delivered and… nothing happens. Chamberlain says: I am ignoring it. Burn it.

Oh. OK. Hard not to feel the tension Harris has built up with all the backstairs meetings and SS searches suddenly leak away like the air from a punctured balloon.

Leyna

Throughout the narrative Legat has dropped occasional hints about a woman named Leyna, who made up the third element in his friendship with Hartmann. Only now, towards the end of the book, do we find out more.

A few hours after they’ve both been turfed out of Chamberlain’s office, Legat is fast asleep in his room at the hotel being used by the British, when there’s a knock and it’s Hartmann who tells him to get dressed. Hartmann takes him outside to car he’s (conveniently) borrowed and then drives Legat out of Munich into the countryside, to a village called Dachau and stops outside the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp there.

To my surprise, Legat is not impressed, and says officials in Britain know all about these camps, Stalin has as many if not more but they have to deal with him, too. Hartmann points out that within weeks, if the Nazis annex the Sudetenland, some Sudeten Germans, now free – communists and Jews and homosexuals – will be behind the wire being worked to death at Dachau. Yes, replies Legat, but then how many would survive the aerial bombing and street fighting which will occur if Chamberlain refuses a settlement and prompts war, which will end up with Czechoslovakia still being occupied and victims still being carted off by the SS.

This is an interesting debate but it has now lost the element of being a thriller. For me this felt like a purely cerebral, intellectual debate about what was at stake at Munich.

Anyway, it turns out this isn’t what Hartmann wanted to show him. Some Dachau guards notice the pair bickering in the car and turn the floodlights on them, so our guys beat a hasty retreat and Hartmann then drives Legat on for a further hour until they arrive at a remote mansion in the country with, Legat notices, the windows barred, no notices on the noticeboard in the cold hallway which smells of antiseptic.

Now we learn two things. Harris gives us a flashback to that summer of 1932, when, after walking in the woods, the three friends drove back into Munich and Leyna insisted on going to the apartment block where Hitler lived, surrounded by Nazi bodyguards.

As the would-be Führer (he was famous but had still not been made German Chancellor) leaves the building Leyna shouts loudly ‘NIECE-FUCKER’ at him. This was based on the rumours that Hitler had had an affair with his niece, Geli Raubel, who he forced to live with him in this apartment block and kept a maniacal watch over. In his absence, on 18 September 1931, Gaubl apparently shot herself dead with Hitler’s pistol. Was he having an affair with her? Was she pregnant with his child? Did she kill herself, or was it a put-up job by party apparatchiks who realised her existence threatened the Führer’s career. Whatever the truth (and historians argue about it to this day) there were enough lurid rumours around to allow Leyna to shout this insult at the future Führer as he emerged from his apartment, and to anger his SA guards, some of whom turn from protecting their boss and give chase to Leyna, Hartmann and Legat. The SA guards chase after our threesome who split up in a warren of alleyways.

Legat finds his way back to Hartmann and Leyna’s apartment. In the melee outside the apartment, someone had punched him in the eye and now it is swollen closed. Layna leans over Legat to apply a poultice, and he pulls her head down and kisses her. They make love. It wasn’t crystal clear to me earlier but now the text makes clear that Leyna was Hartmann’s girlfriend. So she has ‘betrayed’ him, and so has his best friend. Thus there is an emotional and sexual ‘betrayal’ at the heart of this plot which is about numerous betrayals, or betrayal on many levels: Hartmann betraying his Führer; Chamberlain betraying the Czechs, and now friend betraying friend. And so on.

This, frankly, felt a lot too ‘pat’ and convenient to me. Formulaic. It had the thumping inevitability of a cheap made-for-TV movie (which is how the book might well end up, since it has none of the really big action scenes required by a modern movie).

Now, in another development which seemed to me equally clichéd, it turns out that Leyna has ended up here in this mournful, isolated care home for the mentally defective. We now learn that: a) Hartmann found out about Leyna’s ‘betrayal’ and they split up b) she got more heavily into communist politics and married a communist who was subsequently killed in the Spanish Civil War, but c) she continued being an organiser of an underground communist newspaper till she was arrested by the Gestapo and badly beaten. Hartmann points out that Leyna was of Jewish heritage (which I don’t think anybody had mentioned earlier). With the result that the SS beat her unconscious, before or after carving a star of David into her back, and then threw her out of a third floor window. She survived in body, but was permanently brain damaged. Hartmann found out, and used his contacts to get her a place here in this out-of-the-way hospice.

This plot development, coming late on in the story, did three things for me:

1. It is a gross and characteristic example of the brutality of the Third Reich i.e. it has the effect of undermining all the diplomats fussing about precedence back in Munich. I think that is its intention, to show you the brutality behind the diplomatic veneer. But it has the unintended consequence, fictionally, imaginatively of making all the rest of the text, with its precise observations of diplomatic procedure, seem pale and irrelevant.

2. Indeed Hartmann picks up this idea, and makes an impassioned speech explaining that this is what he and Legat didn’t realise when they airily debated national Socialism back at Oxford, what their lofty Oxford education didn’t at all prepare them for: for the sheer bestial irrationality of the regime, its violence, which no diplomatic niceties can contain (‘This is what I have learned these past six years, as opposed to what is taught at Oxford: the power of unreason.’ p.374)

3. But I also couldn’t help the feminist in me rising up a bit and thinking – why does this point have to be made over the mute, unspeaking body of a tortured and disfigured woman – for Leyna is brain-damaged and recognises neither Hartmann nor Legat (p.373)?

Why is the central woman in their menage reduced to silence? Is it, in itself, a sort of feminist point, that the entire diplomatic circus, Hitler’s blusterings and Chamberlain’s prissy precisionism and French cowardice, all this describes the world of men, the men who would soon plunge the entire world into a war in which millions more totally innocent women and children would be murdered?

Back in Munich

Hartmann drives Legat back to his hotel in Munich as the last day of the Munich conference, and the novel, dawns.

Legat is shaving when he hears a noise in his bedroom and gets in just in time to see a man exiting by the door into the corridor. This scene reminded me of numerous Tintin books where the hero gives chase to the ‘strange man’ who turns a corner and disappears, leaving our hero to trudge back to his room half-dressed, bumping into a startled member of the delegation on the way.

Back in his room, Legat discovers that he has, of course, been burgled and that the incriminating Nazi memorandum from November 1937, the one which had been stolen and given to Hartmann to show to Chamberlain, who rejected it and told Legat to destroy – well, Legat like a fool hadn’t destroyed it, and he now discovers that whoever was searching his room found it. What an idiot he’s been. He has jeopardised his friend’s life – and all for nothing!

So Legat finishes dressing and goes along to the Prime Minister’s room where he just about persuades Chamberlain to let him (Legat) accompany Chamberlain to his last meeting with Hitler.

Chamberlain has had the bright idea of requesting a one-on-one meeting with Hitler in order to present him with the text of a speech he (Hitler) made a week earlier, in which he had pledged eternal friendship between Germany and Britain. Chamberlain has had his officials convert this speech into a pledge, a declaration, a binding document. He hopes to persuade Hitler to sign it and thus secure ‘peace in our time’.

And now, thanks to Harris’s clever interleaving of historical fact with spy fiction, Legat gets to witness this meeting at first hand, and so do we. We are given the entire scene in which a translator translates into German the couple of paragraphs in which Chamberlain has recast Hitler’s pledge of friendship between Britain and Germany and, to his slight surprise, Hitler signs it.

And now the delegation packs up, catches its taxis to the airport and flies home. It is only as they land that one of the pair of female typists who have accompanied the delegation, to type up the various notes and memos, corners Legat.

As Chamberlain gets out of the plane and holds an impromptu press conference, waving the little piece of paper with Hitler’s signature on it, this secretary tells Legat that she is also a recruit of British Security, tasked with keeping an eye on Legat. And that she had earlier broken into Legat’s bedroom, professionally searched it, found the incriminating memo and removed it; so that the burglar who Legat disturbed, and who ran off down the corridor, did not have the incriminating memo after all. Hartmann is in the clear.

And indeed in the last couple of pages we learn that Hartmann was not arrested by his hyper-suspicious boss, Sauer, and continued to serve the Nazi regime until he was involved in the 20 July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, at which point he was arrested, interrogated and hanged.

Comment

This is a fascinating and deeply researched description of the Munich Crisis which opened my eyes about the details of the actual negotiations and the issues at stake. But despite early promise, the thriller element never caught fire for me. If you come to the book with the mindset that the whole future of Europe is at stake, then maybe you can make every one of the small tense incidents (secret documents, secret meetings) have a vast world-shattering importance.

But I came to it knowing what came afterwards (i.e. the entire conspiracy fails, is completely inconsequential) which continually poured cold water on attempts to get me excited. Even if both the protagonists had been arrested, tortured and bumped off, it wouldn’t ultimately have made any difference, not if you bear in mind what was about to follow i.e. the deaths of tens of millions of people.

For a thriller to work you have to believe the fate of the protagonists is of total, nailbiting importance. But nice enough though these two young chaps seemed to be, the book failed to make me care very much about them.

Shit and fuck

Part of this was because the characters just seemed too modern to me. They seemed contemporary, not creatures from what is becoming a remote past. Legat and Hartmann and many of the other characters completely lacked, for me, the old trappings, the genuinely old and remote mindset of that period – not only its embedded sexism and racism, but the entire imperial and class assumptions of their time and class. When you read fiction written at that time (late 1930s) you are continually pulled up sort by all kinds of period assumptions, about race and sex and class, not to mention that actual vocabulary and phraseology and turns of speech. The ruling class really did say ‘Top hole’, and ‘I say’, and ‘old chap’, and was drenched in expectations of privilege and deference.

None of this really came over in Harris’s book. Instead the characters came over as entirely up-to-date modern thriller protagonists. They think logically and clearly, with no emotion, like computers, uninfluenced by ideology or the beliefs of their era. Hartmann says he is a German nationalist, but nowhere in his conversations with Legat, or in his thoughts which we are privy to throughout the book, does any of that come across. He is a good German nationalist and yet his attitude to the Nazis’ anti-Semitism could come from a Guardian editorial.

There is little sense that these people belonged to a different time, with its own, now long-lost values and assumptions.

A small but symptomatic indication of this was Harris’s use of the words shit and fuck. His characters think ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ in a way you would never find in, say Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh writing in 1938. Hartmann sees roadsweepers and thinks not that they are shovelling up horse droppings, but cleaning horse ‘shit’.

When Hartmann is lying in the bed of his mistress, Frau Winter, he notes the photo of her husband on her cabinet and wonder if she fantasises, when they make love, that she is ‘still fucking Captain Winter’.

The half a dozen times Harris uses the word ‘fuck’ completed the process of making his characters sound like post-1960s, brutally explicit, modern-day thriller protagonists. The use of ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’, for me, not only upset the register of the narrative but begged the bigger question of whether he was at all inhabiting the minds of the people of the day – or simply ventriloquising them from an irredeemably 21st century perspective.

Without a doubt the book is a fascinating account of the nitty-gritty of the Munich meeting, of the nuts and bolts of key events and main players – but it failed for me a) as a thriller, because the Big Secret which is meant to underpin a thriller in fact is revealed a hundred pages before the end and turns out not to matter at all – and b) as a fictional attempt to enter the minds and mindsets of these long-dead people.

All the people felt like they were just waiting to be turned into the characters of another film adaptation, an adaptation in which all the good guys will have impeccably #metoo and politically correct attitudes about everything, who will be fighting for decency as we define it in 2019 – instead of being the much more difficult and potentially unlikeable characters you’d expect to meet from that period.

Munich is an effectively written account of the events, with a clever but ultimately disappointing thriller plot slipped in – but not a very good fictional guide or insight into the lost values and psychology of that remote and ever-more-distant era.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

Real to Reel @ The Imperial War Museum

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ (Dr Johnson)

This is a small but densely-packed, moving and very thought-provoking exhibition. It would only take a about a minute to walk straight through the half dozen or so small rooms, created using an interesting setting of metal warehouse shelving and wooden packing crates – maybe only 15 minutes or so to stroll past the display cases and the dozen or so screens giving the looped movie clips a cursory glance – but stopping to watch every clip and read all the display case labels took me an absorbing hour and 40 minutes, longer than I’ve spent at many art exhibitions, time enough to form all kinds of thoughts and impressions – about individual films, about war, about films as a medium for history.

The exhibition

The show opens with a welter of classic war movie posters – Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca – and then about thirty display cases contain costumes and props, screenplays and set designs and storyboards, publicity stills, movie magazine articles and scale models of machines used in classic movies (a model of the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, and of the U-boat used in the German movie Das Boot).

The exhibition mostly features American and British movies. Of the 40 or so films referenced, there are none from France, Spain, Italy or Russia, all of which have or had pretty thriving film industries. The only non-Anglo country represented is Germany, with the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of The Will, the TV-epic-turned movie Das Boot, and Downfall, the harrowing account of Hitler’s last days in the Berlin bunker.

v

Film still of Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead (2005). A pair of the Santa hats worn in the movie are on display. © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Francois Duhamel

Limitations

The exhibition’s sub-title is ‘A Century of War Movies’, which makes sense on one level, since ‘moving pictures’ were invented only a little over a century ago. But it is also taken to mean that the subject matter of the films themselves is limited to the last hundred years. Thus there are no movie representations of the countless wars from earlier in history – none of the Hollywood epics about ancient Rome (Cleopatra), the Greeks (The 300 Spartans, Troy), medieval wars (Henry VBraveheart), the Spanish conquest of America (The Royal Hunt of The Sun), the English Civil Wars (Cromwell), the Seven Years War (The Last of The Mohicans), the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, The Duellists), or the countless wars of the British Empire (The Four FeathersThe Charge of the Light BrigadeKhartoum, Zulu, Breaker Morant) let alone the Americans’ very own Civil War (Birth of a NationThe Red Badge of CourageGone With The Wind).

Even within its 20th century framework, there are surprising omissions – nothing about the Russian Revolution (Dr ZhivagoReds), the Spanish Civil War (For Whom The Bell Tolls, Land and Freedom), the Korean War (Hell In Korea, Pork Chop HillM*A*S*H), Algeria (Battle for Algiers), the many wars of independence in European colonies, or the bloody post-independence conflicts in places like Biafra, Bangladesh, Angola, Mozambique, and so on.

No, only Anglo wars feature – the Great War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and, in the last decade or so, Iraq-Afghanistan (the one possible exception, Yann Demange’s 2014 movie about Northern Ireland, ’71, is still firmly from the Anglosphere).

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Clips

If you wait and watch every clip on every screen you will see excerpts from the following films (ones in bold are factual films):

  • Battle of the Somme (1916) Fascinating explanation of how the British government commission and distributed one of the first real depictions of warfare to bring home to the civilian population the reality of the trenches.
  • Triumph of the Will (1934) Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, which begs the fundamental question whether films always glamorise, no matter how evil their subject matter. (My answer is, Yes)
  • The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin’s comic masterpiece, with production notes and stills, part of a larger section on the depiction of Hitler in films.
  • Dig for Victory (1941) Fascinating clip from an all-too-rare example of the British factual films produced during the war.
  • Hoch Der Lambeth Walk (1941) Short comedy setting Nazi goose-stepping troops to the popular Cockney tune.
  • Mrs Miniver (1942) Clip from the film’s moving patriotic climax.
  • Went The Day Well (1942) Scene where the vicar of a little English village stands up to the German invaders in Cavalcanti’s immensely moving British film, adapted from the Graham Greene short story.
  • Listen To Britain (1942) Fascinating depiction of Britain at war by the experimental documentary maker, Humphrey Jennings.
  • Donald Gets Drafted (1942) Comedy cartoon example of Disney supporting the war effort.
  • Victory Through Air Power (1943) An extended animated propaganda film from Disney – a display panel explains the surprising extent of the Disney studio’s involvement in war work.
  • The Cruel Sea (1953) A tearful Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) remembers his decision to depth charge a German submarine, thus killing the British sailors in the sea above it.
  • The Colditz Story (1955) Pukka chaps plan escape, led by John Mills.
  • The Dam Busters (1955) Pukka chaps pull off a cunning stunt, led by Richard Todd.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) the finale where the dying Alec Guinness falls on the detonator which blows up the bridge.
  • Paths of Glory (1957) A display case gives plenty of background to this early work by Stanley Kubrick, a powerful anti-war film based on the true case of a mutiny in the French army during the Great War.
  • Ice Cold In Alex (1958) Pukka chaps escape through the desert, led by John Mills.
  • Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) A big display case gives a thorough background to the heroic feats of Violette Szabo, who volunteered to work for the SOE in occupied France, until caught, tortured and executed.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Fascinating display case on how the Lawrence cult was carefully created by an American journalist.
  • The Longest Day (1962) All-star cast depiction of D-Day.
  • Hell In The Pacific (1968) One of the new breed of unglamorous anti-war films, starring Lee Marvin.
  • Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) Poster and clips from the archetypal anti-war film, satirising the First World War through music hall songs.
  • Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) Alec Guinness stars in what now seems a very dated, made-for-TV style.
  • Overlord (1975) an experimental black and white British film, which failed to get released in the States.
  • Das Boot (1981) The epic German TV series, edited down into a movie – a rare showing for a non-Anglo production. The show features one of the scale models of the German U-boat used in filming.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick’s shiny Vietnam film, complete with predictable ‘shocking’ scenes.
  • Memphis Belle (1990) Happy ending for an all-star cast. The exhibition features one of the scale models of the Flying Fortress used in filming.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg’s masterpiece. A display case shows the suit that Liam Neeson wears in the tear-jerking final scene.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) An extended sequence from the famous beach landing scene runs next to several display cases showing memorabilia from officers who landed that day, photos, maps, letters and uniforms, including from men who were killed in the landings.
  • Downfall (2005) Another rare non-Anglo production, with German actor Bruno Ganz giving a harrowing portrayal of the Fuhrer’s last days.
  • Atonement (2007) An extended display case includes production notes from the Dunkirk sequence of this love story gone wrong, and interview clips with the director and production designer which give insights into its creation.
  • The Hurt Locker (2008) The story of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Clips and interview with the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow.
  • Kajaki (2014) Clip and interviews with the film’s director, Paul Katis, and writer, Tom Williams.
  • ’71 (2014) British troops in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clip and interview with the director, Yann Demange.
  • Eye In the Sky (2016) Clip of a drone targeting ‘terrorists’ in Kenya, and an interview with the director, Gavin Hood.

The extensive interviews with writers and directors of the more recent films gives the last parts of the exhibition the feel of a bumper edition of ‘Film 2016’, and the suspicion that we are learning more and more about films we care less and less about.

Costumes

The show features a strong V&Aish, costume & design element. In various display cases we get to see:

  • the dress and shoes Marlene Dietrich used for her USO shows she gave to American troops during WW2
  • the RAF jacket worn by David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
  • as mentioned, the tailored suit worn by Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List
  • the costume uniform worn by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
  • the very robe given to Lawrence of Arabia by Emir Faisal
  • the costume uniform worn by the lead character in Warhorse
  • the cap and jacket worn by Clint Eastwood as Lieutenant Schaffer in Where Eagles Dare
  • the costume uniform worn by McAvoy in Atonement
  • the very helmet worn by the hero of Black Hawk Down
James McAvoy starring in Atonement - this uniform is on display © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

James McAvoy starring in Atonement (2007). This uniform is on display in the exhibition © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

Props

As well as the scale models of the U-boat used in Das Boot and the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, there’s a cane chair from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, the mandolin played by Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and a reconstructed version of the Triumph motorbike ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape!

There is a host of other memorabilia, such as the clapperboard used in Full Metal Jacket, Alec Guinness’s diary when filming Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a storyboard for the classic dogfight sequence in Battle of Britain, design sketches for the set of Dr Strangelove, production notes and models for Hope and Glory, a script for The Third Man, as well as publicity stills and movie magazine articles for numerous other war films, and much more in the same vein.

There’s even a genuine Hollywood Oscar – in case anybody doesn’t know what they look like.

Movie buff stuff

There’s a section about the wartime career of British actor David Niven, who dropped acting to serve in the RAF (though he found time to appear in several training films). He’s here mainly because of his starring role in the wonderful Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The background information about Marlene Dietrich i.e. her flight from Germany just before the war and the wholehearted way she threw herself into Allied propaganda efforts is very enlightening. Similarly, there is no clip of him but there’s a display case devoted to the wartime career of Clark Gable, at the peak of his career when the war began, having just starred in Gone With The Wind (itself, of course, a war film and, apparently, much enjoyed by Chancellor Hitler).

The section devoted to Lawrence of Arabia explains how his legend was fostered by an American journalist and broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, who shot footage of Lawrence in the desert and then went on tour with a show which included dancing girls and exotic props before a showing of the main film itself, which Thomas narrated. The film made Lawrence a household name (and Thomas lots of money). The exhibition explains all this with stills and a programme from the show.

There’s a moving section about Violette Szabo, a young shop girl from Brixton who volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive, was trained and then dropped into occupied France, where she performed several missions before being captured by the Germans, tortured and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp – a true-life story which inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE in occupied France inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training, mission, then arrest and execution by the Nazis © IWM

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training and mission, including photos of her war hero husband and small daughter © IWM

Themes

The exhibition labels point out that war films provide an excellent vehicle for drama, for depictions of bravery, cowardice, love and passion etc.

Another label remarks that music provides an important element of war films, many war songs and themes going on to become patriotic and iconic tunes, or to be sung by soldiers in subsequent conflicts.

Another display comments that some war films were subject to censorship, citing Churchill’s exasperation at Powell and Pressburger’s classic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) which portrayed the British officer class as ageing buffoons and which he tried – but failed – to get suppressed.

The exhibition mentions questions and ideas like these, but it doesn’t really address or explore them, not in any depth. They tend to be overshadowed by the sheer brainless pleasure of movie-watching which, I’m the first to admit, I am also prone to. A discussion of wartime censorship? Look, here’s a chair from Rick’s Bar! Exploring the role of music in shaping emotional responses? Who cares, here’s Steve McQueen’s motorbike!!

It’s a little like putting a few sentences about cholesterol and heart disease into a massive exhibition about ice cream with forty free samples. And that, for me, is the problem with film. Although I enjoyed seeing so many clips from so many beloved old war movies, and finding out a wealth of movie trivia and behind-the-scenes stories about their making, I couldn’t suppress a growing feeling that – no matter how realistic, harrowing or moving – there is something inescapably shallow about film as a medium. In films, thought is always trumped by emotional manipulation.

The weakness of film

Films are shallow entertainment Films by their nature are intense but shallow. Customers pay to go into a darkened auditorium, where they stuff their faces with popcorn and Coca Cola, or to watch at home on a big Entertainment Centre while scoffing a Dominos pizza or takeaway curry. Films are crafted to be consumed in a deliberately infantilising and indulgent environment, designed to relax your rational mind and bring emotions to the surface. Who doesn’t cry when Humphrey Bogart makes his big speech at the end of Casablanca or when the survivors’ families get the letters that their loved ones have survived in In Which We Serve? But plenty of evil men have sent thousands to their deaths and then burst into tears at a Hollywood weepie. I always find it telling that both Hitler and Stalin were not just movie fans, they were massive movie fans, with their own private projection rooms in which they watched films again and again, and then shared their critical insights with their terrified associates. Being moved by a film doesn’t, ultimately, change anything.

Films are commercial products All Hollywood films are designed to make money. It may employ many craftsmen, and plenty of people who want to think of themselves as ‘artists’, but cinema is a commercial business. Many of the movies featured here are shameless blockbusters – from The Battle of Britain to Saving Private Ryan (which made a stunning $481.8 million worldwide in 1998, the highest-grossing US film of the year). They are products designed and honed, whatever the actual content, to make a profit.

Films use stereotyped plots, characters and gestures Film students are taught that their screenplays must have a structure in three acts. They have to have an inciting incident, a confrontation and resolution in a way that history, let alone real life, doesn’t.

As Virginia Woolf pointed out 100 years ago, movies don’t have much time to play with – generally between 1.5 and 3 hours – so they have to boil human behaviour, motivation and psychology down into stereotyped characters, plots and dialogue, all of which must be easy to grasp at one fleeting viewing. Each generation’s actors have used stylised gestures, attitudes and poses appropriate for their times. (Because I don’t like modern films, I particularly dislike the non-stop shouting which passes for acting with most modern American actors. One way to view the clips on show here is to note the way the amount of shouting and swearing steadily increases from the restrained 1940s through to the ‘fuck you asshole’ Noughties.)

Films are vehicles for films stars Then there is the simple fact that movies are vehicles for movie stars. Right from the start a star-struck audience has gone ga-ga for gossip about Errol and Clark and Bette and Jean – nowadays, about Leonardo and Brad and Angelina and Scarlett. The studio ‘system’ of the 1930s and 40s was a machine to find profitable vehicles for bankable stars. Though the situation is more complex nowadays, it’s still about money, the money which buys the stars which drive the promotion and publicity machine. ‘Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before’, ‘Leonardo gives the performance of his career’, etc etc in thousands of variations.

The exhibition brings out the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s to cram as many stars into a movie as possible – creating an ‘all-star cast’ – to try and ensure profitability: think of The Great Escape (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Cartoon characters War films up to about 1970 featured generally clean-cut heroes – classic movie stars from the 40s and 50s like Clark Gable (b.1901), Gary Cooper (b.1901), John Wayne (b.1907) David Niven (b.1910) and Gregory Peck (b.1916), John Mills (b.1908), Jack Hawkins (b.1910) and Kenneth More (b.1914). These were followed by the generation of movie stars I grew up watching in the 1960s – Richard Burton (b.1925), Clint Eastwood (b.1930), Steve McQueen (b.1930), Peter O’Toole (b.1932), Michael Caine (b.1933), David McCallum (b.1933). So many times, watching these clips, you realise it’s the star, the lines they’re given, the scenes they’re placed in, the way they’re made up, lit and filmed, which give the viewer deep pleasure.

The 1960s was a transition decade in so many ways but watching the war movies you realise they had a distinctive style of Swinging ’60s heroism – 633 Squadron (1964) or The Battle of Britain (1969), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) or Where Eagles Dare (1968). The ‘characters’ in films like this are really animated versions of schoolboy comics, like the ‘Commando Action Comics’ which I devoured as a kid, target audience – 10-year-old boys. The 1960s movies in particular are somehow not really serious. The Great Escape is more memorable for its comic than its ‘tragic’ moments – and although 50 Allied officers are murdered by the Nazis at the conclusion, the very end of the film features the imperishably supercool Steve McQueen returning to his solitary cell in undimmed triumph.

Cool, stylish, glamorous, ironic, smiling – unreal.

Since Private Ryan

A lot of war films from the 1970s and 80s are just too bad to be included (think Escape To Victory) so that this is the most under-represented period in the exhibition.

This is odd because the late ’70s saw a rash of major films about Vietnam which brought a new brutality and cynicism to the genre, led by The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). A later wave of Vietnam films try but, in my opinion, fail to capture the shocking freshness of those 70s Vietnam movies – Stanley Kubrick’s over-studied Full Metal Jacket (1987), Oliver Stone’s over-schematic Platoon (1987) and unwieldy Born on the Fourth of July (1989), let alone the eccentric Good Morning Vietnam (1987). By this stage we all knew that war is hell and that US Marine training sergeants can be really mean.

Jacket and Platoon are referenced in the exhibition, but the general under-representation of war films from the 70s and 80s makes something else all the more obvious – which is the decisive change in tone and style which came over war films after the epoch-making Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998.

That film’s extended sequence of American troops landing on Omaha Beach (shown here on the only really big screen in the exhibition, so that you can sit and watch it with the sound on headphones) was a game changer. It pioneered new computer-generated special effects to give the viewer a much more visceral sense of the devastating impact of bullets and ordinance on the human body. All war films since Ryan have had to match its hyper-realism, so that cinema goers now see soldiers being eviscerated, dismembered, punctured and disintegrated in unprecedented detail.

Think of the scene in the cave in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, not included here) which unflinchingly shows a group of Japanese soldiers committing harakiri with grenades, leaving them with half-removed faces and handless stumps of arms spouting arterial blood. Yuk.

This body-parts-in-your-face style is apparent in all the subsequent works in the genre. Similarly, the harrowing scene in Saving Private Ryan where the troop’s medic, Private Irwin Wade, takes a long time to bleed to death from a stomach wound which his comrades are unable to staunch, has also been replicated in the post-1998 depiction of war wounds, which are much more unflinchingly realistic.

Whether this anatomical hyper-realism which has been mandatory for all war films since Ryan has elevated any of them as ‘works of art’ is an open question, but it’s certainly the style of our time, the set of conventions – of gesture and sound and special effects – which we all take to be ‘true’ – at any rate, until the next stylistic revolution comes along…

Factual films

Seeing all these clips from classic movies is without doubt entertaining and the movie trivia in the display cases is often very interesting and informative. But it’s a shame that, in among all the Hollywood and Pinewood glamour, there isn’t more of an investigation of wartime factual films. There are some:

Nazi propaganda films On the Nazi side there is a clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s classic propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will, a stunningly directed Modernist masterpiece celebrating the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally of 1934. The Nazis’ masterful use of propaganda films like this, and the steady output of Nazi-controlled film studios during the war, are a huge and fascinating topic, something I’d love to know more about – with relevant clips demonstrating Goebbels’ personal intervention in scripts and direction to bring out their Aryan values – but it was only referenced with this one clip and few panels about Triumph.

British propaganda films Presumably the Imperial War Museum owns a significant archive of British newsreel and propaganda films from the war. In fact the show opens with several clips from the information film about the Battle of the Somme which was commissioned by the War Office in 1916, and shown widely in cinemas throughout Britain to publicise the reality of the trenches. I was hoping there’d be much more like this explaining how governments used the new medium to promote or justify their wars.

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

But, disappointingly, there were clips from only three other British factual war films in the exhibition. Obviously the tone, the subject matter and treatment, the look and duration of these films is completely different from the commercial products, and a world away from airbrushed Hollywood.

Maybe one comedy short was enough, but I’d like to have learned much more about the relationship between government-sponsored films and shorts and the output of commercial news organisations like Pathe. This is a vast subject only fleetingly touched on.

US propaganda films A nearby case was devoted to the wartime output of the Disney studios. I’m not surprised that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were dragooned into short comedy films about the silly side of becoming a soldier…

but it was fascinating to learn that the Disney studio also made some 170 factual information films during the war. And that it produced a feature-length animation, Victory Through Air Power, from which we see a powerful clip.

Either of these three – Nazi, British or American propaganda films – treated in depth, would make for a fascinating exhibition in their own right, and one well suited to the IMW’s archives and experts. Having them in the show gave us a sense of what we were missing, and tended to highlight the glossy shallowness of the commercial movies.

Conclusion

Shatteringly realistic, brutal and bloody though many are, commercial movies are not real and are of only limited use in understanding the past. The past wasn’t like this. All that films show us is what films from the past were like -subject to all the limitations of their era, to its visual styles and technical capacity, audience expectations and fashions. They offer insights into their times, not the times they depict and even then, severely hampered by commercial concerns.

Above all films are hamstrung by the fundamental requirement to give emotional closure: with a rousing comic ending (Kelly’s Heroes), an uplifting finale looking to a better future (like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), or as a hard-bitten meditation on the futility of war (any war movie of the past 20 years).

The narrative limitations, the psychological stereotyping, the simplification of the complex, the lack of time or space to explain anything in depth, all of these make movies the complete opposite of books. A history book, of course, also has a structure and an ending – but it will also be packed with references, notes and bibliography which encourage further exploration and further understanding, which move you forward and deeper, and will present you with conflicting points of view and opinions which you have to exercise judgement about. And books require mental alertness and mental effort – precisely the opposite of films.

Movies shut down the mind. Books open the mind.

This is a very enjoyable, stimulating, and thought-provoking exhibition. These are the thoughts it provoked in me, but I’m sure every visitor will take away something different.


Related links

  • Real to Reel continues at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January 2017

Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

Avenger by Frederick Forsyth (2003)

I found this an absorbing and entertaining read for the following reasons:

1. The narrative interweaves the stories of a number of different characters, which start out in different countries, times and places. Their stories are interesting in themselves, but it is also entertaining to try and figure out how they will eventually all be tied together. It has a very wide variety of location, setting, narrative, and a large number of protagonists, in contrast to some of Forsyth’s other, more monothematic fictions focused on one hero.

2. One of Forsyth’s strengths is his snappy, journalistic summary of conflicts. His early experience was in the Biafran Civil War (1967-70), which laid the basis of his ability to not only grasp the essentials of a conflict but to convey it in clear, emphatic prose. Thus, in successive chapters, Forsyth gives us brisk, journalistic summaries of the Battle of Britain, the Vietnam War, the Yugoslav Civil War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and then Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s various terrorist attacks.

3. Forsyth’s other characteristic trait as a novelist is his fascination with bureaucratic procedure and his ability to make it not only readable, but compelling. The character Cal Dexter eventually becomes a Legal Aid lawyer in New York and in the two cases of his which are important to the plot – the defence of a poor black boy accused of computer fraud, and the case of two Cambodian refugees seeking asylum – Forsyth explains the bureaucratic processes and introduces all the official personnel involved in the cases in what ought to be mind-numbing detail, but which I enjoyed, because I found the explanations so lucid and logical. I myself work in a government agency – if only our explanations of processes and procedures were so clear and authoritative!

4. So Forsyth’s ‘characters’ may be types and stereotypes – and anyone looking for the kind of depth of character or character development associated with the ‘literary’ novel, will be pretty scornful of Forsyth’s shallowness – but I am less interested in character than situation, and I find Forsyth’s swift, confident depiction of a number of modern conflict situations fascinating and thrilling. Early in my career I worked in international current affairs ie wars and conflicts, and I produced news items about the first Gulf War (August 2, 1990 – February 28, 1991). I find Forsyth’s use of contemporary conflicts make for a fascinating read, and his quick powerful summaries of events are enjoyably muscular and virile.

How many novels do you know set in the Yugoslav civil wars or against either of the Gulf Wars? Why aren’t there more? Why are more contemporary British novels set in the court of Henry VIII or in ancient Rome than in the recent conflicts where British troops have fought and died?

Maybe because the historical settings are so long ago and far away that you can pretty much make it up. Whereas there have been lots of factual accounts of our recent wars and so weaving fiction in among its well-known intricacies is trickier. So I find Forsyth’s confident, almost reckless ability to set his stories amid recent conflicts not just fascinating but admirable.

Plot strands

American Calvin Dexter comes from a tough background, child of an itinerant builder, who volunteers to fight in Vietnam and becomes one of only a handful of ‘Tunnel Rats’. These are the US special forces trained to go down into the Viet Cong’s vast network of underground tunnels, overcome a legion of gruesome booby traps, and kill the enemy. Forsyth’s chapters describing this in documentary detail are riveting and terrifying. Calvin and his partner tunnel rat (nicknamed the Badger and the Mole, respectively) may be clichéd Hollywood heroes, but it doesn’t matter: their role is not to explore the human psyche, but to be tokens, like the pieces in Monopoly or Risk – meaningless in themselves, but important because of the matrix of situations and places they give us imaginative entry into.

In fact having given the novel another of his short abstract titles (cf The Negotiator, The Deceiver) Forsyth goes whole hog and gives every one of the thirty-three chapters an abstract name eg The Lawyer, The Killer, The Geek, and so on. In a novel like this it is the very anonymity of the characters, precisely the way they play powerful types and predictable roles, which gives the narrative its force.

Cal returns to the States and uses his GI Bill money to study as a lawyer. Practicing as a Legal Aid lawyer in the mean streets of Manhattan, he covers thousands of hard luck cases, but two are singled out – he not only gets a poor black boy from the slums off a charge of hacking into a major bank and stealing a million dollars, he hassles the bank’s CEO into hiring the boy as a security adviser. And he takes pity on a middle-aged couple fleeing Cambodia, who stowed away on a ship to New York, persuading the immigration judge to take a kindly view and let them stay in the States – even though Calvin discovers they’re not Cambodian at all, but Vietnamese, and that the husband in fact fought against Cal’s own unit! With typical Forsythian manliness, Cal says, ‘It was long ago and far away and we were both soldiers’ and moves on.

The spring of the plot occurs early on, when an idealistic young American, Ricky Colenzo, who’s volunteered to go work for a small NGO in Yugoslavia during the brutal civil wars there, kindly agrees to drive one of the Muslim staff up into the mountains to his old village to check on his family. They run into a pack of Serbian psychopaths who have already massacred everyone in the village and who now kill Ricky and his companion, by forcing them into the village cesspit and pushing them under with staves and poles, ignoring their pleas for mercy, drowning them in liquid effluent.

Ricky’s grandfather is an influential Canadian billionaire of a type familiar with Forsyth’s fiction, one Stephen Edmonds, from Windsor Ontario, a man with high level contacts in the Senate and US Administration. (It is here that the early chapter featuring two fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain finally makes sense – one of them was Edmonds, the other a senior official in the Administration who he now asks a favour from). This contact has contacts who have contacts which eventually lead Edmonds to a British firm of mercenaries, in particular an ex-Paratrooper named Phil Gracey, who specialises in finding and retrieving people, for money. In line with Forsyth’s typological approach it is easy to forget Gracey’s name because he is referred to throughout the text as The Tracker.

There is then a long and persuasive account of how The Tracker travels to the Balkans to investigate Ricky’s disappearance. There is a lot of plausible detail about false identities, fake passports, maps and travelling through the wartorn landscape. Forsyth factually but powerfully conveys the topography of warzones, and the pitifulness of its survivors. He is blunt and no-nonsense when describing the gangsters and psychopaths who made up the so-called ‘paramilitaries’ and matter of fact about the way they murder, rape and torture their victims.

The Tracker establishes when Ricky went missing and that he was probably murdered, but the trail goes cold up in the mountains and he is forced to abandon the search, sending Edmonds a full report. The focus then switches to an account of the naive Serbian young man, Milan Rajak, raised in a nice middle-class Belgrade household. He is contacted out of the blue by a friend of a friend who’s in a Serbian paramilitary which needs a radio operator. Naively believing he is doing his patriotic duty, Rajak goes off and joins the gang of a dozen hard men who he soon realises are extremely hardened psychopaths and killers. He is an eye-witness to the sadistic killing of the young American aid worker and, after throwing up and crying, asks to leave the gang. Its psychopath leader, Zoran Zilic, agrees but says if he ever breathes a word of what he’s seen and been involved in, Zoran will find him, cut off his penis with a broken wineglass and stuff it down his throat.

Back home Rajak goes into a long depression marked by anxiety attacks and sweating nightmares. He eventually shocks his parents by asking to go into the (Serbian Orthodox) church. We are introduced to monastery life and a sympathetic abbot, but the point of this plotline is that, eventually, years later, Rajak writes a full confession of the events surrounding Ricky’s murder. It comes to the attention of the authorities and, eventually, to security services who tip off The Tracker. He returns to Serbia, interviews the boy, and establishes the name of the leader of the paramilitary – Zoran Zilic.

As usual with Forsyth, there is some interesting background on the leaders of different gangs, the Serbian warlords, as well as insight into the rise and fall of Slobodan Milosevic’s ugly regime. Through this we learn that Zilic, after acquiring a fortune as thug-in-chief to the regime, realised the end was nigh when the US started bombing Belgrade (March to June 1999), and disappeared. The Tracker establishes all this and, using Rajak’s account, is able to take doctors, police and forensic scientists to the ruined village in the mountains and to the septic tank, and to recover the remains of poor Ricky Colenso. These are cleaned, put in a casket and flown back to the States for burial. The Tracker has finished his task and is paid.

Going after Zoran Zilic

It is now that Edmonds launches part two of the novel by commissioning a different man to track down Zoran Zilic. He uses his contacts to discover the existence of a freelance American fixer, codenamed The Avenger, who specialises in ‘rendition’ ie illegally kidnapping and transporting wrongdoers to the States. The way to contact him is to leave details in an obscure magazine devoted to antique aircraft. Only now do we realise the significance of the opening scene where we were introduced to ex-Vietnam vet, Cal Dexter, jogging round the neighbourhood of his house in the country. Because when he got home, had a shower and squeezed some fresh orange juice, Cal opened a copy of this magazine and saw the ad.

Through a series of front companies, secret drops, fake names etc, The Avenger takes his instructions from Edmonds. Not to eliminate Zilic – that would be too easy, too merciful. To bring him back to the US to stand trial and be locked up forever. Now begins a long sequence where we observe Cal call in favours from the miscellaneous characters we met early in the story: for example, the black kid he got off the computer hacking charge, Washington Lee, is now a successful computer security consultant and Cal asks him to break into certain databases to help his search. It turns out the wife in the Vietnamese couple is an expert forger: Cal gets her to make various passports.

Cal tracks Zilic to the United Arab Emirates where he is seen consorting with various unsavoury types including, to his astonishment, a representative of the CIA. Puzzled but undeterred, Cal makes the breakthrough in his investigation, which is to establish that Zilic has spent his ill-gotten fortune building a James Bond-style impenetrable fortress-cum-farm, a self-sufficient colony almost, on the Caribbean coast of the fictional South American country of San Martin.

This section is both tense and meticulous as Forsyth characteristically devotes a great deal of attention to the multiple identities, fake passports and backup stories which The Avenger constructs in preparation for, flying to Amsterdam to create one. But Cal’s blood goes cold when he receives an anonymous phone call tipping him off that the authorities are on to his plans; the CIA knows he’s coming.

Project Peregrine

Because unknown to Edmonds or The Avenger, Zilic is at the centre of an extremely secret CIA plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden, Project Peregrine. We now have some more lengthy backstory describing the intelligence career of Paul Devereux III. Unlike his intelligence colleagues, he wasn’t deceived that the war was over when the Soviet Union collapsed and communist regimes around the world disappeared. He was an Arabist, familiar with the thoughts and rhetoric of the Islamic world and realised a new threat was arising in that area. Forsyth, once again, gives a useful, brisk and authoritative overview of the slowly rising tide of Islamic terrorism and, in particular, a potted biography of bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

This is the plausible historical background to the rather far-fetched plot. For in the ruins of Belgrade amid the chaos after Milosevic’s fall, was some weapons grade uranium. For years Al Qaeda have been trying to get their hands on some to fulfil their aim of striking a blow against the West. The plan is this: Zilic will play the part of a murderous Serbian warlord (easy enough), rich but greedy, who stole some of the uranium before he fled Belgrade. Now he is willing to sell it to the highest bidder. Through underworld contacts he will establish contact with Al Qaeda. Negotiations will lead to a meeting with senior AQ staff. At this meeting Zilic will suddenly and unreasonably double his price. Almost certainly this will prompt the AQ VIPs to make a phone call to their boss, bin Laden, who never leaves his Afghan hideout. High overhead US spy satellites will be primed to intercept the call and establish the location of the recipient. The split second it is established a Tomahawk cruise missile will be fired from a US warship stationed in the Gulf. Three minutes later the location which took the phone call and everything and everyone around it will be obliterated.

This elaborate (and pretty flaky) plan has been two years in the making, and now we see the whole thing from Devereaux’s point of view. All the chatter, all the word on the street, is that Al Qaeda are about to launch some major attack, a big one, against the US. Devereaux sees his mission as absolutely vital, to cut off the head of the organisation before some dreadful atrocity is carried out. So: Avenger or Devereaux: who are we rooting for?

Throughout the book Forsyth makes us constantly aware of the timeline of events: as the murder of young Ricky in 1995 led onto the Tracker’s return visit to Serbia in 1999, and then the commissioning of The Avenger. Now it is August 2001, just turning into September. Devereaux is frantic that Project Peregrine is not disrupted. For if Zilic feels he is being threatened in any way, he will abort his role for the CIA and the entire anti-AQ plot will collapse.

It is this which informs his panic-stricken orders to stop at nothing to prevent The Avenger finding or even spooking Zilic. But someone in his own organisation is leaking: hence the anonymous tip-off to Cal before he leaves the States.

Final act

Like a Jacobean tragedy, a set of players or tokens or ‘characters’, enmeshed in a whole matrix of plans and intentions, are now launched on collision course, and it makes for a gripping and thrilling read. The Tracker makes his way to San Martin – itself portrayed as a typical banana republic with a very evil head of secret police, well used to torture and, of course, friendly with the CIA. Devereaux sends his number two to work with this loathesome man to try and catch The Tracker, a decorated war hero.

Thus the final chapters pit Devereaux, his man on the spot and the San Martin police, against the solo mission of Cal Dexter: who will get to Zilic first? Will The Tracker even be able to smuggle himself into the country now all its border guards are alerted? Will he make it to Zilic’s coastal fortress and stand a chance of penetrating the awesome defences built for Zilic by his South African architect, with all its razor wire, Afrikaans security guards, Doberman guard dogs and so on? Will Devereaux be able to warn Zilic and so carry through his long-planned operation Peregrine, or will the Tracker bring the whole thing down in flames?

9/11

And all this is set against something the reader knows but the characters do not: for The Tracker’s entry into San Martin and final attempt on the fortress happens in the first days of September 2001. Ie Devereaux is correct, Al Qaeda are planning a terrorist ‘spectacular’ against the US, and it will occur on 9/11.

At moments I wondered whether it was kind of ‘blasphemous’ for Forsyth to use the grotesque tragedy of 9/11 as backdrop to a novel. But plenty of novels (and movies) use the Holocaust the same way, and all aspects of the Second World War, and 9/11 has itself been the setting for novels and movies so, logically, no…

Maybe it’s the bloodless, nerveless way Forsyth uses it as just another backdrop which rankled slightly, illogically. It isn’t given any special resonance or depth of horror. It is another in Forsyth’s gallery of atrocities.

Which prompts the thought that Forsyth’s fictions exist in a world of permanent war. In this world there is only conflict between cunning enemies and bonds forged between tough professional men. There are hardly any women in Forsyth’s novels and no romance (Cal’s teenage daughter is abducted and murdered by Hispanic sex slavers, who he pursues and executes, in a vivid sub-plot. When he returns some weeks later it is to find his wife has committed suicide. The net result, though is to make him, once again, a Man Alone.)

With no women or love interest, with no civilising or restraining forces, in Forsyth’s world there is just endless conflict, driven by evil men, causing appalling civilian casualties, which the intrinsically moral & decent Western nations struggle to combat and contain. The lack of psychology, the lack of women, the lack of realistic characters, the often preposterous plots, have led Forsyth to be widely ridiculed in literary circles. But three points:

1. Forsyth would always have said that we do live in a world of constant conflict and threat; it’s just that most people in the comfy West refuse to acknowledge or admit it. And – from my days in international affairs – I couldn’t agree more with him. Our way of life is faced with serious existential threats. Events of the past year or two have finally brought this to a lot more people’s attention, whether it’s the machine gun attacks in Paris or the escalating refugee crisis.

2. Forsyth used to be ridiculed for being an alarmist right-winger. Ironically, he has lived to see a lot of Western opinion move in his direction. When terrorists are massacring civilians in Paris or London, when a million refugees, terrorists and criminals among them, threaten to swamp European countries ie when push comes to shove, it turns out that many citizens of the comfy West are forced to make decisions about the actual world, the larger world beyond their comfortable lives, and those choices are the ones Forsyth was way ahead of us about. Yes, we do want strong security services; Yes, we do want increased funding for intelligence and surveillance work; Yes, we do want hard men from the Army and armed police to patrol the streets, if it is the only way to guarantee our security. It turns out that we do live in a world of permanent conflict which Forsyth has been portraying.

3. In a narrowly literary sense, Forsyth’s novels are so flat, so lacking in psychology or nuance, as almost to be avant-garde. In fact reading the next novel, The Afghan, I find many of the wars covered in this book also feature in that one. Of course this is because the same wars have occurred in the last 25 years, but within Forsyth’s fiction, they are used like familiar settings or landscapes, like the topographical features of, say, Hardy’s Wessex. A familiar and recurring and even repetitive backdrop against which the minutely detailed, carefully worked-out and somehow totally improbable narratives are set.


Credit

Avenger by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2003. All quotes and references are from the 2003 Bantam paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

Attack Alarm by Hammond Innes (1941)

‘I have to get to a certain farm tonight,’ I said. ‘I’m playing a lone hand against a gang of fifth columnists. They’ve got a plan that will enable the Germans to capture our fighter aerodromes. I aim to stop them.’…
A sudden gleam came into his small, close-set eyes. ‘Cor lumme!’ he said. ‘Wot a break! Like a book I bin reading all about gangsters in America. Will they have guns?’ (p.158)

This is a cracking good adventure yarn in the spirit of John Buchan or, at moments, Biggles. It’s a first-person narrative by Barry Hanson, formerly a journalist on the Globe newspaper, who is now, in the Battle of Britain summer of 1940, one of a platoon or squad manning a 3-inch anti-aircraft gun at ‘Thorby’, a fighter airfield near the North Downs, south of London.

Set-up

We meet the dozen or so men of Hanson’s detachment, their officers, some of the WAAFs, watch them man the gun, rest and sleep and feed at the NAAFI, thus establishing the workaday background.

Rumour has been going round that a Nazi agent was found with detailed plans of Thorby airfield. The crew watch one night as the nearby airfield of Mitchet is heavily bombed by German planes. A few nights later our chaps hit a German bomber and watch it fall to earth and explode. The crew parachute down to land near the field and Hanson is among those who are close enough to talk to the captain. He is a surly Nazi who insists on seeing an officer. When Hanson (who picked up German while working in his paper’s Berlin office before the war) questions him a bit more, the German arrogantly says, ‘The Invasion is coming, the Luftwaffe will defeat the RAF, this airfield at Thorby will be flattened on Friday.’ He is in mid-flow when he suddenly shuts up. Looking behind him Hanson sees the camp librarian, a Mr Vayle, has appeared. Was it his presence which made the pilot go quiet?

Later Hanson hears the pilot was much more circumspect when hauled before the airfield CO and Intelligence officer, downplaying the Friday bombing claim – and  Hanson learns that Vayle was in attendance, chatting to the pilot in German while he was being attended to the Medical Officer and before that interrogation. Can Vayle possibly be a German spy?

Hanson asks a WAAF he’s got friendly with, Marion, to send a telegram to the Globe’s crime correspondent, but the message is suspicious enough for the village Post Office to report it to the camp commandant, and Hanson finds himself hauled over the coals: he is in the Army now, it is forbidden to go off freelancing like this, if he has suspicions he reports them to his CO and goes through proper channels. It is ludicrous to think Vayle is a Nazi spy, the man is Jewish and fled the Nazis in 1934. — Hanson is confined to camp for 28 days.

One man who knows the truth

The result is a classic early thriller situation: one man who is convinced he knows a secret the authorities won’t admit; who is convinced he knows about a spy; is convinced there will be a devastating raid on his airfield; but the Authorities won’t believe him. And even his colleagues turn suspicious of him, since they all saw him having a chatty conversation in German with the downed pilot. They think he‘s the fishy one. Like the protagonist of a Hitchcock film, he is surrounded by suspicion and fear.

I sat there in a numbed state of fear at the thought of what it meant. For it meant, of course, that I was a marked man. (p.78)

In quick succession Hanson finds a folded-up map of the base hidden in his pass, then finds one of the camp workman has reported him to the authorities for asking lots of suspicious questions about the new rewiring of the airfield. The workman suggests the authorities search Hanson, which they do, not finding the map which Hanson burned immediately after finding it – but now he realises that Vayle has this man as an accomplice; there’s at least two of them.

And then he discovers there’s a woman, too: Elaine, a pretty, flirtatious WAAF. Hanson breaks into Vayle’s office and finds a photo of Vayle and Elaine together, with ‘Berlin 1934’ written on it. Are they a husband-and-wife spy team? Will the big attack the German pilot promised for Friday actually materialise? Hanson’s girlfriend, Marion, overhears Elaine talking in her sleep about Cold Harbour Farm: does that place have some significance in Nazi invasion plans?

The pace doesn’t let up, and the setting, in an airfield where everyone is tense with anticipation of the next air raid and overwrought through lack of sleep, adds to the increasingly feverish atmosphere, until Hanson realises he is going to have to go AWOL and nip out of the camp to go in person to this Cold Harbour Farm to find out if it really is the base for some kind of invasion plan. It’s lucky for him that the squadron’s pint-sized cockney, Mickey, picks the same time and place to do a runner, so that they end up forming an unlikely alliance to combat the fiendish Nazi conspiracy.

Historical accuracy

Innes served as a Royal Artillery anti-aircraft gunner at RAF Kenley during the Battle of Britain. We can assume that the description of the geography and layout of RAF ‘Thorby’, along with the officers and men, and the tense and draining life of constant worry, are accurate. And, as with most of Innes’ other novels, you experience the strange sensation of buying into a totally mundane, ordinary, workaday setting, and then slowly getting sucked into the mounting hysteria of an ever-more unlikely plot.

How to create tension

Part of the technique is to put the ordinary bloke protagonist through a succession of scary or tense situations; then to have him mull over at frequent intervals, the nature of fear, of feeling your guts turn to water or becoming aware of your heart beating fast on your chest etc. It helps that the hero only has one other person he can rely on, ideally a dishy, plucky, loyal woman – at least she believes me – in this case the WAAF Marion, who runs up to hug Hansom at the very satisfying happy end of this gripping entertainment.

Innes’ delaying tactics

This early novel also hints at a technique he will really on more and more as the years pass, the tendency for all Innes characters to never quite express their thoughts, never tell each other what’s happening, to bottle up, or not express, or not spit it out. So many Innes conversations feature pregnant pauses, shrugging of shoulders, hesitations or plain silence… Used in moderation, this is a way of increasing tension, but even in this early novel the plot only really exists because Hanson refuses to go to his CO and lay all the evidence before him – at which point things would be taken completely out of his hands and we’d have no solo heroics. Similarly, if protagonists of later novels just said ‘We scuttled the ship’ (The Wreck of The Mary Deare) or ‘We’re looking for diamonds’ (Target Antarctica) the narratives would stop dead in their tracks. Instead Innes concocts two hundred pages from his tactics of delay and non-communication.

Sensations not thoughts

It also reveals the rather low intellectual content of his books. The narrator has a few sentences feeling sorry for the poor buggers in the planes they’re trying to shoot down and which are blown up in the book’s spectacular conclusion, a few trite reflections on the beastliness of war – but these are shallow gestures, clichés, the kind of nostrums you’re expected to utter as ‘a Writer’.

In fact, the text shows no reflectiveness or thought. Its focus is on convincingly describing the boredom and irritations of Army living, interspersed with vivid descriptions of terrifying air attacks, before settling down to shock, thrill and excite the reader with its breathlessly melodramatic plot.


Credit

Attack Alarm by Hammond Innes was published by William Collins in 1941. All references are to the 1980 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

%d bloggers like this: