Saka Light Cavalry

Saka Light Cavalry

Friday, 15 June 2012

Liberation, Book Review

Liberation: The Bitter Road To Freedom, Europe 1944-1945 by William I. Hitchcock. (Bold added by me). This is a book not about the military actions themselves but what is left behind afterwards and as such was of a fair bit of interest for me. We all have read about the campaigns and battles themselves and of course the often used pictures of smiling civilians draping themselves on the victors etc. In fact the only ugly side you get close up is the shaving of the Women's heads if they had German boyfriends! Very little is written about collaboration at any level below Vichy Government so I had high hopes.
I bought this book in a small clearence book store for the princely sum of 99p yep less than a pound so it did not have to try hard to deliver value, but how about depth? First of all the reading of Hitchcock's military commentary left me a little concerned. He comes across as having a dislike of the military, possibly this is to show empathy with the civilian (the hero of his work) but it smacks of someone not well read on the subject. This is reinforced by a stunningly bad error in his coverage of Stalingrad. He covers the German Armies break out from Stalingrad where they torched the buildings and operated scorched earth tactics. Really? How many readers of this who have a slightly greater than moderate interest in WWII don't know that the Germans NEVER either broke out nor actually attempted to as a organised force? Sure the relief force was sent to them and if it connected then it was possible such an order was to be given but NO SUCH ORDER OR ACTION TOOK PLACE! This is such a major flaw, ignoring totally that the Russians were the first to operate scorched earth tactics that it brings into question his validity to use military doctrine and actions to back up his views. In fact the book has a number of other smaller errors and others I would have questioned if I could be bothered. All these errors did make me question his work in the area's I did not have knowledge, but by the time I finished the book I would say that he had a good knowledge of the civilian aspect but the suspect military accuracy is probably down to what seems to be a personal dislike of all things military. I did my usual guess his Nationality and did sway a bit during the book but when it came to late in the book it became obvious he was American (I was right he, is) due to his view on British Colonial policies and whilst he admits that the British made far greater progress at Belsen in the first 6 weeks than the Americans managed at any camp in their sector, he continued to use the Jewish propaganda that it was as bad under the British as under the Germans (only once did he dismiss this as the tactic to get the British to change stance on Palestine), in each other opportunity he let it stand. In fact he seemed to go out of the way to quote such comments even when it was not in direct need.

The book itself is split into sections, first we have Normandy where as many French civilians died as Allied Troops died in the landing itself. Which obviously was horrendous but lets take a closer look. So the number of allied troops who died in one day was the same as the French lost in over three months! That's like saying the Germans lost 50 times more planes than the British in the Battle of Briton then throwing in somewhere later in the text total German losers during the war. Yes it was a high number and yes it needs highlighting but and intelligent reader will separate the two and reduce the value of what he is trying to get across. What he does a good job of is getting across the material damage. Whole villages were destroyed and well we all know what happened to Caen. In balance he went on to mention that for the most part the rest of France was spared the worst of the war as the Germans were in full retreat over much of France. What is obvious though is that Normandy got the lions share of destruction but aid both foreign and French were slow to come as much of France was wrapped up in the idea that their war was as bad as anywhere else and the Allies were busy fighting a war. He moved swiftly on to Holland and Belgium, both of which suffered in different ways to France. Belgium due to repercussions from the Germans when they recovered ground and Holland through starvation. The problem with Holland was that it became a strategical backwater after the failure to bounce the Rhine and the troops garrisoned in Holland almost became guards of their own prison camp. The issue was that Holland was not self sufficient in food before the war, requiring a large import to feed it's people, but what with the effects of the war and the virtual stopping of food imports the people of Holland were literally on the point of starvation and many thousands died in the last months of the war. Firstly Hitchcock felt that some form of military action should have been taken, even though he admits that would slow down the assault on Germany (he fails to consider the amount of Europe that would then be under control of the Russians by wars end!) and when this did not happen the slow speed that food aid was supplied into what was enemy territory and much of this aid would reach few of the civilians and much of the occupying forces. The fact that any aid was given was a small miracle (not a small amount was supplied once it started) and make no mistake war making was effected by these acts, such as the bombers that dropped food over Holland instead of bombs over Germany, ships carrying foodstuffs to civilians instead of supplies to the front, medicines etc etc.  The prostitution and spread of VD also gets a close look (as each Country is covered) and this again is quite interesting in how the military dealt (or mis-dealt) with the effects. Mostly the problem was either unlicensed brothels or women so desperate for basic day to day items that the only sure way to gain them was trade sex for goods. Also rape and other violent crimes are covered but either through poor research, political correctness or a disgusting wish to protect the Russians he played down the rape by the Russians and even made excuses for them. Not once did he mention that women were rapped over and over till they died (and often well after!) nor the age range that was acceptable (pre teen to 90+). Yes he said that some women killed themselves afterwards but it is clear his agenda is to focus on American and Commonwealth troops and such barbarity would get in the way of his real target. Not disappointing, it was sickening! That covers the first 122 pages and if the book ended there I would have been disgusted with this book, how ever it also covers the conquest of Germany and liberation of the camps. The first 100 pages covers the reaction to Tommie and the GI's reaction to coming face to face with German civilians and Ivan's blood lust. I recommend Hitchcock to read Last Laurels by Georg Gunter for a taste of Russian blood lust, it rather makes his view insipid. What is striking is first that especially the GI's the Germans are seen as rather polite, well dressed and clean people who stack up much better than the dirty French, the ungratefully Belgians and against all orders and attempts freely fraternised with the Germans. Good explanations for this and it made interesting reading. What comes next though for me was the best part of the book and I would say is Hitchcock's real interest and knowledge. That is the work of UNRRA, from formation to the end of it's work in Europe (it mentions but does not cover the work elsewhere). So have you even heard of it? If not then your not on your own. United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was a world wide (but principaly funded by America and a lesser degree Commonwealth) organisation that through Government Grants and private donations was founded in November 1943 with the aim to help the people of conquered countries , help with displaced persons and the high goal of helping stop the need for future wars. The members of this organisation were mostly American, often professional and in so many cases unprepared or unskilled for the work they were to do. The fact that they did so much with so little is amazing enough in itself. Truly this would make a book in itself and was worth reading the book in itself. Mixed in with this we also have the discovery of the work and extermination camps as well as an explanation of the death marches away from on coming armies. Again some of this was new territory for me and was  an eye opener in a few cases. I always assumed that once the camps were found that help was swift and all got what they needed, this was not the case and whilst I mentioned about Belson above it needs pointing out that whilst the best treatment was dished out by the Brits (they had the least Deposed People (DP's)) that the British were slow to realise the special needs of the Jewish DP's. In fact it's fair to say they refused to acknowledge this need. Hitchcock even belittles the good the British did saying rather childishly that they did it to show that the Brits were made of the proper stuff and wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing. I have a different theory, embarrassed by the fact that within days the British had specialist Doctors in their camp, proper food and had forced Germans to hand over clothing and forced a local bakery to supply the camp the Americans failed to do ANY of this within two months in any major camp. Hitchcock comes across really badly in this chapter and a line could be drawn through anything he writes about the British in the final chapters. A shame as it is useful, the official line and treatment of the Jews in British territory was ill conceived and was wrong, though events of today show that their reasoning was correct. The Jewish acts in the British sector get approval from Hitchcock and I think this especially the rough handling of Cpl Cooper when he ordered the removal of placards. I also found it interesting that had a guard been attacked in a German ran camp so many would have paid with their lives. Nothing was done in return, indeed many acts that would have caused the death of many and suffering of all got no more than a meaning less arrest or two and yet that was not mentioned by Hitchcock despite the consistent analogy that you could not tell the difference between SS guards and British.

So I was glad I read it, disagree with a number of points and question his qualifications to quote military actions or ability to understand them. Even taking this into account the book has a lot to offer and has given me some interest in UNRRA and what was the direct result of 100,000 Jews being allowed to migrate to Palestine and if it was all they had hoped for after such suffering. Now for a change of pace!


  1. Thanks for a very good review. The area interests me, but I will probably stay away from this book. A very good read about something similar is Die Gefangenen (Prisoners of War) by Guido Knopp. I don't know if there is an English translation yet. A real eye-opener on what happened to German prisoners of war during and after the war. A must read and one of the best books I read last year.

  2. I just checked and it's not been translated yet but a number of his books have so I am hopeful. I have never been comfortable with the good V evil way WWII has been portrayed. Too many modern writters replace German with Nazi at every oppertuniity. Also the idea that wrongs were only done by The Axis and the Russians is both niave and dangerous