Monthly Archives: October 2019

Damn… busters! Stripping the myth from truth

Review: Vivien Horler

Chastise, by Max Hastings (William Collins/ Jonathan Ball)

Do you remember the book The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill? The movie of the book, made in 1955, has been described as the most popular British war film of all time.

It celebrated the destruction of two dams in the Ruhr valley in May 1943 by the use of Barnes Wallis’s “bouncing bombs”, a project designed to wreck Nazi Germany’s industrial heartland and hasten the end of World War II.

But Max Hastings, prolific British writer and former editor of the Daily Telegraph, says much of what we think we know about the Dam Busters is wrong.

People who embraced book and film – who included the young Hastings himself – loved the story because the raid seemed victimless, “save for the 53 dead among the gallant young men who carried it out. In truth, however, something approaching 1 400 people – almost all civilians and more than half French, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian mostly female slaves of Hitler – perished… more than in any previous RAF attack on the Reich.”

Many of those who died below the dam walls had heard the Lancaster bombers approaching and were taking shelter in cellars, only to drown as the water from the breached Möhne dam swept through their homes.

The raid on the dams took place on the night of May 16-17 1943. At this stage Britons were war weary, sick of austerity, separation and poor food. The tide of war was turning after the humiliation of Dunkirk, the Blitz, the earlier real threat of a German invasion and the loss of Tobruk. The victory at El Alamein in November 1942 was a major boost, later to be followed by the 8th Army’s landings in Italy (September 1943), but the D-Day landings were still a year away. The dam raid, says Hastings, lifted Britons’ spirits.

But at what cost? Hastings reminds us that most of the air crews of 617 Squadron (motto: Après moi le déluge – after us, the flood) were of the same age as gap-year students today, and most did not survive the war.

“They were unformed in almost everything save having been trained for flight and devastation: many still thought it the best joke in the world to pull off a man’s trousers after dinner.”

But amid 21st century unease about the widespread bombing of civilians, we have to remember that Britain was literally fighting for her life. As an old man, Australian Dave Shannon of 617 Squadron referred to “sanctimonious, hypocritical and grovelling criticism about things that were done in a total war”.

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Not so much a white man’s war

Review: Archie Henderson

The First Campaign Victory of the Great War, by Antonio Garcia (Hellion & Company)

When the centenary of the start of World War I came round a few years back, there was a scramble for heroes. The ANC government recalled there had been a tragedy called the SS Mendi; older English-speaking whites again remembered Delville Wood; and Afrikaners quietly recalled the Rebellion.

I doubt that the Afrikaner Rebellion of 1914 was openly commemorated. Frankly few, if any, give a damn about it today. Even in Memel in the Free State, once the home ground of Christiaan de Wet, a volksheld of the Boer War and the Rebellion, and where there is the country’s only monument to the Volksopstand, there was not a murmur, as far as I am aware. Not even a biddag.

Sadly, no one remembered to remember the 3 000 black soldiers who fought in the invasion of German South West Africa (now Namibia). Even today, and even with an ANC government which is always conscious of a lack of military heroes, are they remembered. But without them, as Antonio Garcia hints at in his book, the South African victory might have been more difficult to achieve. They were used mostly as labourers, but even when they performed acts of heroism, such as when a South African artillery commander was rewarded with the DSO for one action, his black comrades, who had performed crucial support roles, went unacknowledged. Continue reading

Hair is a political issue – even if you’re just eight

Review: Natalie Cavernelis

Wanda, by Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali, illustrated by Chantelle and Burgen Thorne (Jacana)

“Miss Bush! Miss Bush!” the boys on the bus shout at Wanda, pointing and laughing at her thick, kinky hair.

Eight-year-old Wanda is bright, strong and bold, but the relentless teasing she faces daily over her hair is wearing her down and making her miserable.

Parents of kids with hair like Wanda’s, and kids themselves, will easily identify with Wanda’s daily woes.

Wanda daydreams of having long and silky-smooth hair, “like a superhero cape”. She knows if she arrives at school with her hair loose and not tied up, her teacher will call it “a bird’s nest”.

Her natural confidence is taking a battering.

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If it’s not all right, it’s not the end

Review: Vivien Horler

Travel Light, Move Fast, by Alexandra Fuller (Serpent’s Tail)

Alexandra Fuller and her mother, Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, are en route from Budapest to Lusaka when they bump into an old friend at OR Tambo Airport.

It has not been an ordinary journey – father Tim Fuller became mortally ill while on holiday with Nicola in Budapest, and days before his death Fuller flew from Wyoming to be with them.

So there they are, Nicola and Fuller, known to the family as Bobo, at Joburg airport. Bobo’s carry-on luggage includes a small cardboard box marked: “Human remains. Handle with care. This way up.”

The friend, expecting Tim to be there somewhere – as indeed he is – looks around for him. Says Nicola: “I’m afraid Tim’s on Bobo’s hip.” She pauses and adds: “You remember my daughter Bobo? No, of course not. She wasn’t middle aged when you last saw her.”

The friend’s eyes swivel to Bobo’s box and then widen. Fuller writes: “I imagine it’s fair to say that however shocking the change I’d undergone since Harriet had last seen me, it was nowhere near as shocking the change Dad had undergone since she’d last seen him.” Continue reading

Forget Vietnam – the US fought more deadly wars

Review: Archie Henderson

The Earth is Weeping: The epic story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Atlantic Books)

America’s longest war was not Vietnam, Iraq or even Afghanistan, where US troops have been fighting since 2001. The longest war was fought on American soil, virtually from the time Europeans landed in the New World and against a variety of indigenous people, known first as Indians, more pejoratively as Redskins, and only recently as Native Americans. It was a civil war before the Civil War.

Hollywood and Louis L’Amour, among others, would distort that war. Indians were often cast as barbarous villains resisting progress. I should know; I was a victim of cowboy movies and cowboy books that shaped a young mind. Then along came Dee Brown with his book Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1970 that changed perceptions of that war, and turned us into bleeding hearts. Continue reading