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British Armoured Corps Memoirs

Discussion in 'WWII Books & Publications' started by larso, Feb 8, 2014.

  1. larso

    larso Member

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    I still can't believe I'd never heard a thing about it for so long. It makes me wonder what else might still be out there?

    Seroster mentioned 'Take these men' by Cyril Joly. It's a novel by a veteran who lived much of what he writes about. I found a wonderful review online, which I've copied here -


    Followers of this here blog and of my thrilling twitter feed (have you heard I am collecting glow-in-the-dark dinosaur bones made in China and marketed to cranky seven-year-olds who have been dragged against their will to the supermarket?) may recall that I admire Robert Crisp's memoir of his service in tanks in North Africa, Brazen Chariots, first published in 1959. In Brazen Chariots Crisp mentions Cyril Joly, a fellow tank officer, and praises Joly's novel, Take These Men. Via interlibrary loan I borrowed a dilapidated copy of the 357-page novel, published in Great Britain in 1955 and currently owned by the University of Baltimore, and over the last week or so I read it.

    Take These Men, which Wikipedia tells us is a "lightly fictionalized" account of Joly's own experiences serving with the 7th Armored Division in North Africa, has six parts. As the novel begins in Part One it is 1940 as our narrator, a Regular Army officer and veteran of the fighting in France whom other officers call "Tony," arrives in Egypt to take command of a troop (three vehicles) of A9 tanks. An Italian attack across the Libyan border is expected, and Tony fights in skirmishes on patrol before the attack and major battles after it comes, as well as during the British counterattack which makes up Part Two of the novel and routs the Italian forces. The British conquest of eastern Libya is short-lived, however, as the Germans arrive in 1941 with their superior equipment (at this point the British Army in Africa is so short of tanks that Tony's regiment is manning captured Italian M13 tanks) and push the Allies back towards the Egyptian border in Part Three. Tony's M13 is damaged, and he switches to an A9, but this tank is knocked out while Tony is bringing up the rear of the British retreat and he and his crew have to sneak back to Allied lines on foot over a series of days; they hide by day, move at night and steal food and water from poorly guarded Italian camps. After further fighting in British tanks, at the end of Part Three the commander of Tony's squadron, Kinnaird, is promoted to command of an entire regiment, and brings Tony with him to Cairo as his adjutant. In Part Four, after helping organize the new regiment, Tony is given command of one of its four squadrons (a squadron is made up of four troops plus a command troop) and heads back into battle, this time in American-built Stuart tanks, called by the British troops "Honeys" due to their superior reliability.

    Joly does a terrific job of describing both the routines of daily life of the tankers in the desert and their harrowing experiences of battle. There are vivid descriptions of varied types of engagements, and the author also touches upon the roles played in the campaign by armored cars, anti-tank guns, infantry, supply units, artillery, etc. We learn all about the physical conditions and psychological stresses endured by the fighting men, and about their relationships with each other; those between officers, and between officers and enlisted men. Deep friendships can quickly grow among personnel who spend their time crammed together, travelling in, maintaining and fighting in the same tank.
    The links of discipline, though strong, were tempered as nowhere else by a degree of tolerance, compassion or mutual esteem which bound the crew together as a small but complete family. There were liberties which I expected and accepted from my crew which I would not have countenanced from any other man, except perhaps my batman. Just as quickly these deep relationships can dissolve when the crew is split up after the tank commander is promoted or transferred, or each crew member is of sent to a different tank after their own is incapacitated. Tony commands many different crews over the course of the three-year war, as his tanks are often damaged or knocked out, in which event he commandeers the tank of some inferior officer and leaves behind his former mates. There is also the fact that people are getting killed left and right, and Tony learns not to become too closely attached to fellow officers because they have a tendency to get blown to pieces.

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    Presumably the copy I read
    once had a charming jacket like this
    Take These Men is a valuable record of the fighting in North Africa prior to El Alamein; I feel like I know much more about the experiences of the participating soldiers in than I did before. But does Take These Menwork as a novel? The book is definitely vulnerable to the charge that it reads more like a war memoir than a conventional piece of fiction. Obviously, there is not a lot of suspense or surprise about big issues--we know ahead of time that Tony doesn't get killed and that the Allies win the war, and Joly exacerbates this issue by giving the chapters titles that spoil the fates of many of the characters, titles like "Templeton Dies," "Peters is Killed" and "Posted to Brigade Headquarters." However, individual scenes do achieve suspense of the "how will he get out of this one?" sort, and there are many exciting adventure-type episodes whose ending I could not predict. In one such episode, during a withdrawal as the sun is setting, Tony's tank is immobilized and its radio knocked out. Will Tony and crew bale out and sneak back to Allied lines on foot, or try to repair the track under cover of darkness? Will the noise of using sledgehammers to fix the track attract a German patrol, or a British patrol which might shoot them down before identifying them? In another scene Tony acts in the finest Nelsonian tradition, pretending to not have heard a radio signal from Kinnaird ordering him to withdraw so he can instead strike out on his own to wipe out two dozen defenseless German trucks ("lorries") and a battery of anti-tank guns which is hooked up behind the trucks for transport. Will our narrator be punished for his insubordination? Will his refusal to return to his commander when ordered to do so put some other plan in jeopardy or some of his comrades in danger?

    Joly's emphasis on the characters' psychologies, I think, also has some literary merit and provides compelling reading for those not fascinated by military equipment and battle tactics. As the novel and the war wear on, Tony, and those around him, are changed by their terrible experiences. In one memorably horrible episode in late 1941 fourteen hapless Italian soldiers surrender to Tony's tank, and to the shock of all concerned Tony's gunner massacres them with the Stuart's machine gun. When upbraided by our appalled narrator, the gunner explains, "They killed me Mum and Dad with a bomb. They deserved it....Ities or Jerries, it's just the same--they're as bad as each other."

    Another such scene of horror grounded in psychology and human relationships is the final monologue of a troop commander who didn't get along well with his fellow officers. When he and his troop are outflanked by the Germans and his tank is destroyed in a hail of fire, the misfit suffers an agonizing and lingering death, and his bitter and pathetic dying words, in which he curses the other members of the squadron ("Oh God, if they've deserted us, we haven't a hope in hell....the bastards have deserted me....They all hated me, and now they have left me....") are heard over the radio by the rest of the squadron, who have been ordered to escape without him. The sensitive reader will have difficulty avoiding imagining himself in the place of the dying man, and in the shoes of the officers who do nothing to save him--chilling!


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    Posted by MPorcius at 2:09 PM

    There was too much to fit in the end but the link is below if you want to read the lot.
    MPorcius Fiction Log: Take These Men by Cyril Joly
     
  2. midge15

    midge15 New Member

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    Looking for everything to do with this regiment. My late father Mark Porteus served from 1942 to 1945 in the 8th so I would love to hear from all who can add to my scant recollections and knowledge so far. I have seen the war diary as its in Eastbourne at the Redoubt museum and posted online too.
    Thanks in anticipation
    Barry
     

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