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[Book Review] Warriors for the Working Day - Normandy Tank Novel

julianj

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I visited the IWM recently now lockdown is lifting in old Blighty. In the shop I came across this novel, published in 1960, about a British Sherman tank crew from Normandy to near the end of WW2. I hadn't heard of it, apparently been out of print for many years. Glad I bought it: it is excellent.

Given that I've read a lot of memoirs about Normandy, I have decided that fiction gives more leeway for "realism" that conventional non-fiction has difficulty with. Tank by Ken Tout and this are both lightly fictionalised versions of the writers' experiences in combat but allow them more scope, I think. To give you an example from Elstob's book, when the crew arrive in Normandy on about D+7 they have to wait around as the whole battalion debarks so "Brookie" (the loader/wireless op character - obviously Elstob) goes off with 'Smudger' Smith - a notorious looter, and in a horrible sequence, robs a some dead French people. Smith is a good tank commander and his constant looting is overlooked by the officers. The fiction format allows the writer to put in scenes and events that would be frowned on, or even libellous, in a factual memoir.

Brookie is lucky enough to serve under the legendary tank commander Sgt Paddy Donovan, who has been fighting since 1940 and won two MMs in the Western Desert. Only fellow desert rats are allowed to call him "Paddy" and that clues you in about subtle distinctions in the unit. Unfortunately, under the surface, Donovan is near his breaking point. He has what we would say is PTSD.

There's a lot of interesting stuff about how it was inside the tank in battle, and the difficulties of command as young Brook is promoted to Lance Corporal and eventually takes over from the wounded Donovan as tank commander, where he wonders whether he can ever be good enough. There's also light as well as shade: bizarre revels, some background to the home lives of the five crew, letters home, etc, which make up for the grisly events.

The attrition of fighting in takes its toll in casualties and an officer who takes over is a danger to all. I found myself seething, as the rankers can't tell anyone about this, they are too low in the hierarchy; perhaps Donovan would have had the credibility to have a quiet word with a senior officer, but he's been evacuated. I was on tenterhooks worrying that the officer's terrible decisions would get everyone brewed up.

There's a lot of the usual 88s and Tigers mythology. I'm assuming that stuff like "We passed the burning 88mm SP that had caused all the havoc" really means a Marder type thing and most of the 'Tigers' are really Pz IVs.

I hope I haven't given away too many spoilers - I highly recommend this book. I found it really evocative.
 

julianj

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BTW - those of you who think we Limeys are obsessed with brewing tea will definitely have your suspicions confirmed. Tea gets mentioned a lot, and there is even a serious disciplinary incident over it! :ROFLMAO:.
 

julianj

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After tea time - strictly speaking it's about doing the washing up/packing away. It's perfectly understandable in context but has a bit of a Spike Milligan feel to it of crazed military behaviour.
 
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