Book Reviews

 

A Rancher and a Warrior: The life of Dale Robinson in Wyoming and WWII

— by Jessica Robinson

In her book A Rancher and a Warrior: The life of Dale Robinson in Wyoming and WWII, Jessica Robinson describes the life of her grandfather-in-law, as a cattle rancher in Wyoming and as a soldier during World War II. Photographs, both of Dale and of the early days of ranching in Wyoming, abound throughout the book.

Born on 4 June 1925 on a ranch in Wyoming, Dale was raised in the rural way of life. It was the only way of life he believed to be worth living. Wyoming, at the time, was the least populated state in the USA.

Lance Dale Robinson, circa 1942 [ Courtesy of the American Heritage Center, ah12622_1_1]

By the time he was 10, he was working as a cook’s assistant at a local pig farm. By the time he was 16, the United States was plunged into war by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Dale’s brother was already in the navy but Dale had to bide his time before he could enlist. To complicate matters, he was employed in agriculture and hence his services were valuable at home. Dale removed the complication by training as a welder.

He was barely 18 when he joined the US Army: 313th Infantry, Company H. A Rancher and a Warrior describes basic training in Oklahoma, from handling haircuts to handling the Browning M2HB. Dale trained as a heavy machine gunner.

Dale had been transferred to the 79th Reconnaissance Troop by the time he left for New York City and boarded the British luxury liner, RMS Strathmore, for the voyage to Greenock, Scotland. More training, then France. Crammed with his fellow soldiers in a landing craft, Dale landed on Utah Beach in Normandy a few days after D-Day and was in action a few days later. He took part in the recapturing the French city of Cherbourg, which would become an important port for supplying the Allied Expeditionary Force.

Dale with his heavy machine gun [Courtesy of the American Heritage Center, ah12622_1_1]

Readers wanting to know more about the Normandy landings will find the section on the hedgerow countryside of Normandy and digging foxholes for the night quite fascinating, as well as the reaction of French civilians, greeting their liberators with cider and aprons full of apples. As expected, casualties among the troops were heavy and new replacements arrived each night. “Sadly, most of them were gone before he [Dale] even learned their first names.”

During Hitler’s Ardennes offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, Dale found himself fighting in the middle of winter, using his raincoat as a blanket and a tent, and enduring ice and frost when he woke each morning. A shell wound left him with pieces of shrapnel in his thigh that were never taken out.

After VE-Day, he was posted to Czechoslovakia rather than the Pacific. After that, and after three years in the army, Dale was posted home.

Marriage with childhood friend Jayne, then children and the fulfillment of Dale’s dream of ranching fill the remaining pages. Anyone interested in a window into the life of a country boy who became a soldier and a soldier who became a rancher and a family man will find this biography enlightening and enjoyable; the personal details and the copious illustrations—old photographs and drawing from World War II—make it so. Dale received the Silver Star and also the British Military Medal, the latter being presented in person by Field Marshal Montgomery. The start of the citation reads:

For gallantry in action against the enemy on 23 October 1944, in France. During a strong enemy counter-attack, Sergeant Robinson and his heavy machine gun crew were in a concealed position, helping to defend friendly territory. Noting an enemy armored vehicle approaching from the flank, Sergeant Robinson ordered the remainder of the squad to remain in place while he and his gunner (who volunteered) left their concealed position to take up one completely exposed to the enemy. Here they engaged the enemy vehicle in a point-blank duel . . .

Shadows in a Photograph --- by David McMichael (Austin Macauley, London, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Shadows in a Photograph — by David McMichael (Austin Macauley, London, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Shadows in a Photograph — by David McMichael

The novel Shadows in a Photograph by David McMichael (Austin Macauley Publishers, 2016) describes life from the viewpoint of Peter Waring. The story begins not too long after the Great War ends and focuses at first on Peter’s boyhood exile to Cumberland. He and his mother must leave London to live, fatherless and husbandless, with relatives in the north of England. McMichael is a master of setting. His description of Peter’s departure from the railway station and the locomotive, “A black monster, it stood there, wisps of steam escaping with a faint hiss from around its pistons” evokes Harry Potter’s departure for Hogwarts.

In Cumberland, Peter meets two girls: the tomboy, Jamie, and the pretty and somewhat older, Jordan. They resurface later as young women as the story follows Peter into medical school and into the Royal Air Force as an RAF doctor attached to Bomber Command.

Second World War afficionados will appreciate how McMichael lays out the familiar milestones of those early years of war: the removal of signposts throughout the British Isles, the Blackout, Dunkirk, London’s Windmill Theatre (famous for never closing), the fifty destroyers that Roosevelt sent in answer to Churchill’s plea, Churchill himself, his speeches, the importance of radar (‘RDF,’ so-called), the ‘Famous Few,’ including Douglas Bader—the pilot who had lost both legs, the controversy of Leigh-Mallory’s ‘Big Wing,’ and then how, at the crucial stage of the Battle of Britain, Hitler ordered his Luftwaffe to switch from attacking Fighter Command airfields to bombing London.

Back then, everyone in Britain would likely have been a fan of ‘ITMA’—‘It’s That Man Again,’ the hugely popular radio (wireless!) show starring comedian Tommy Handley and his gang of characters. Their catchphrases were famous throughout the war years and McMichael refers on more than one occasion to ITMA’s memorable Mrs Mopp: “It’s being so cheerful what keeps me going;” Also: “Can I do you now, Sir?” And let’s not forget: “TTFN,” which, as everyone should know, stands for “Ta ta for now.”

On a more tragic vein, McMichael’s novel dwells, from time to time, on the horrible burn injuries that can be sustained by aircrew when their planes catch fire. The achievements of the East Grinstead burns unit plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, feature prominently in the book. Of course, the novel’s lead character, Peter Waring, becomes a doctor himself, and readers will expect some in-depth details of the doctoring life. They will not be disappointed by the amputation scene or by the delivery of a baby.

McMichael’s novel is a compendium of compelling scenes, rendered with astonishing care: A WAAF nurse gives Peter his first experience of sex (“Here, let me show you what a woman likes. This woman at least.”); a close call with an exploding bomb (“He could see nothing other than a blood-red curtain, hear nothing but a ringing as if all the bells in the world had been set in motion, . . .”); Peter and Jordan kiss each other (“. . . frantically, violently, almost brutally, open-mouthed, . . .”).

Later in the novel, Peter’s flight in a Wellington bomber on a mission over Stuttgart ends with a crash landing in northern France. Peter and the Wellington’s pilot, Beal, are taken in by Marie-Louise who works for the French Resistance. The chapters that follow are among my favorites and remind me, in some ways, of Flying Colours, one of the Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester. In Forester’s novel, the Royal Navy’s Captain Horatio Hornblower is in France with wounded fellow officer, Lieutenant Bush, and they are hiding from Napoleon’s troops—just as in McMichael’s novel, RAF Flight Lieutenant Peter Waring and wounded fellow officer, Squadron Leader Beal, are hiding from the Nazis. Both heroes find themselves houseguests of beautiful women: Marie in Hornblower’s case, and in Waring’s case, her name is Marie-Louise. The similarities soon end, but the comparison is interesting and entertaining, as is McMichael’s entire novel, from start to end: Rich in detail, Shadows in a Photograph by David McMichael is a fascinating and moving novel that embraces the gamut of emotions.

 

Le Vol du Corbeau (The Flight of the Raven)-----by Jean-Pierre Gibrat (Aire Libre Dupuis, 2002) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Le Vol du Corbeau (The Flight of the Raven)—–by Jean-Pierre Gibrat (Aire Libre Dupuis, 2002) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

‘Le Vol du Corbeau’ (‘The Flight of the Raven’) by Jean-Pierre Gibrat

One day, if I write a spy story in Nazi-occupied Paris, with a bright young heroine named . . . maybe her name doesn’t matter, but I would definitely write a scene where she escapes over the rooftops exactly as Jean-Pierre Gibrat’s heroine, Jeanne Cadrieux, does in Gibrat’s two-volume bande dessinnée titled Le Vol du Corbeau (The Flight of the Raven) [Aire Libre Dupuis, 2002]. By the way, Le Vol du Corbeau is a sequel to Gibrat’s, Le Sursis, which tells the story of Jeanne’s sister, Cécile.

Jeanne is shown on the cover of Volume 1 of Le Vol du Corbeau, clinging perilously to the side of a building, high above Paris. (Those white gloves will get awfully dirty, Jeanne!)

Gibrat is the unquestioned master of setting. Volume 1 of Le Vol du Corbeau takes place mostly on the rooftops, among the chimney breasts of Paris’s ubiquitous Mansard roofs. Volume 2 is set largely on the river, aboard one of the Parisian barges that sail up and down the Seine.

The story in a nutshell:

Volume 1 of Le Vol du Corbeau begins with Jeanne in jail. She has been reported for black market (marché noir) activities and the police have searched her apartment and have discovered a cache of weapons. Jeanne is working for the French Resistance.

While the local police chief ponders whether or not to hand her over to the Gestapo, a burglar named François Michaud is tossed into Jeanne’s cell. François helps her to escape and the two of them flee over the rooftops.

François then takes her to his friends, who own a barge. They sail away from Paris.

Complication of Volume 2: A German soldier is stationed on board the barge. Further complication: Jeanne shoots him when he tries to force himself upon her. What to do with the body?

It is never good to tell an ending. Please read the book. It is well worth it. [Only available in French, I believe.] Those who would like to see Jeanne and her sister, Cécile, reunited will not be disappointed, neither will those who would like to see Jeanne and François become lovers.

 

And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot, A Fictional Memoir by Leslie Mann (Icon Books in Association with Imperial War Museums, 2014) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot, A Fictional Memoir by Leslie Mann (Icon Books in Association with Imperial War Museums, 2014) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

‘And Some Fell on Stony Ground’ by Leslie Mann

Their country was likely doomed and within the month, or several months at most, they would almost certainly be dead. And still they volunteered. In the early days of the Second World War, the young men of Britain’s RAF Bomber Command took to the skies in obsolete aircraft and, night after night, flew out over Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. The damage they inflicted was insignificant. They message they delivered was monumental: It told the enemy and the neutral countries of the world and also those countries of Europe that had succumbed to Hitler’s Blitzkrieg that Britain was still in the fight and was striking back.

In 1941, Flight Sergeant Leslie Mann was such a young man. He was a tail gunner in an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley twin-engine bomber. The Whitleys were awkward-looking planes that were out-of-date before the war had even started. They had none of the caché of the later Wellingtons or the fame of the Lancasters, Halifaxes, and Stirlings that were to put in solid service nearer to the end of World War II. Leslie Mann’s plane was shot down over Dusseldorf and, after the war ended, he described his experiences in a fictional memoir that remained unpublished until 2014: And Some Fell on Stony Ground:A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot—A Fictional Memoir by Leslie Mann (Icon Books in Association with Imperial War Museums, 2014). British historian Richard Overy has written a masterful introduction.

A series of striking photographs add value to the book and reveal that author was an eye-catchingly handsome man, even Clark-Gable handsome. His text dispels, in the first few pages, the fiction of the glamour of war. Leslie Mann’s book is about the everydayness of war, the drudgery of war, the routine, the cold, the exhaustion, the moments of terror, the fear of disfigurement. ‘The sky could kill him whenever it wanted to,’ muses Pilot Officer Mason, who is Mann’s fictional hero (or anti-hero, as Richard Overy shrewdly puts it).

The book has its touching moments: the scene at the shop where the woman behind the counter takes pity on Mason and sells him a pack of ‘under-the-counter’ cigarettes, or at the dance when Mason notices the ‘girl in green’ but sees no point in pursuing her, realizing that he does not have the luxury of a future.

Descriptions are sometimes whimsical, like that of Mason’s buddy, Simpson: ‘He had those funny shaped eyebrows that made him look perpetually worried. And enormous feet.’ When a ‘first-tripper’ asks Mason what it will be like to fly on a mission, words such as ‘sickening,’ ‘bloody awful,’ and ‘fatal’ flash through Mason’s brain. Eventually, he just says, “Oh, not so bad. A bit shaky sometimes.”

Above all, the book is marked by its realism, the fiery crash that kills Mason’s friend, Ken, the nightmarish take-off and engine trouble that caused Mason’s plane to turn back and crash-land near the Pennines, the attack on the German oil refinery ‘…the aircraft stalled and hung in mid-air, then lurched horribly…’—all authentically described by a man who was actually there.

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