Friday, July 14, 2017

Take These Men by Cyril Joly

It was uncanny that out of the silent, motionless wastes of desert there should be coming so much noise.  Interspersed with the duller, heavier explosions of the field-guns I could hear the sharper, vicious cracks of the high-velocity guns and the frenzied chatter of machine-guns and rifles.  Gradually over the edge of the horizon there rose a pall of black, billowing smoke, touched here and there with a long tongue of flame. 
Spine of copy
I read
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.

The term "batman" brings up class issues, and those interested in such issues may find much to chew on in Take These Men.  The way Joly, an officer and an educated man who is writing in the voice of a man much like himself, describes the men who serve under Tony and his efforts to portray working class men (trying to reproduce their accents via phonetic spellings, for example) are worthy of scrutiny. This early description of some enlisted men, one of Tony's first crews, hints at Tony's background and the author's experiences and perspectives back in England:
My crew were all old soldiers with a keenness and sense of humour which amused and encouraged me.  They reminded me of my father's workers at home: men who knew their jobs and who were as capable of deciding what was to be done as my father was himself, but who nevertheless never resented the show of authority inherent in each instruction that was given. 
This passage foreshadows how, again and again in tight spots, Tony, who at times is at a loss how to proceed, seriously considers the advice and suggestions of his crewmen, and often seizes upon their solutions.

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 Men work 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!

It is not all horror, though.  Our narrator and Kinnaird, who is a sort of role model and father figure to Tony, grow as people over the course of the book, learning to manage the weighty responsibilities and face the dreadful challenges presented to them by the war.  "Through it all I had gained a degree of self-confidence which I could not have acquired in any other way.  I had had responsibilities thrust upon me which before the war I would never have dreamnt of."  In the nightmare of war, Tony (and Joly?) found what the shrinks call self-actualization.

At the end of Part Four, on Christmas Eve, 1941, Tony suffers a head wound and is sent back to Cairo to recuperate for two months.  When he is done convalescing his squadron is equipped with American-built Grant tanks armed with a 75mm gun that can fire the kind of high explosive shells needed to deal with the famously effective German anti-tank guns.  (The A9 carried a 40mm gun, and the Stuart a 37mm.)  Part Five covers famous events like the fall of Tobruk and the Battles of Gazala and Alam Halfa, and is the least interesting and entertaining part of the book because much of it reads like a conventional military history--this division went here and fought that division and took this point after suffering so many hundred casualties and then the next day was reinforced by this other division zzzzzzzzzzzz--with fewer of the adventurous capers and intimate details about daily life of front line soldiers that made the earlier chapters so interesting and entertaining.  (Though there are still some good scenes about fighting in the Grant tanks and Tony's relationships with his fellow officers, including a working class noncom who gets a commission.)  The theme of Part Five is that under Auchinleck the Allied forces face setbacks because of a lack of a coherent plan and because the British armored units are dispersed throughout the Allied army-- in contrast, Rommel concentrates the Afrika Korps' tanks and thus achieves local superiorities which enable him to defeat the British tanks piecemeal.  As Joly tells it, the arrival of Montgomery, of whom Joly apparently heartily approves, vastly improves morale and paves the way for victory. as the Allied forces "were now controlled by a strong hand...there was no vacillation or indefiniteness in our plans."  (Joly doesn't actually name Auchinleck or Montgomery, just says things like "...the commander of the Army was changed...." but looking at the dates involved makes it clear who he is talking about.)

The comparatively brief Part Six sees Kinnaird promoted to brigadier (commander of three regiments), and Tony accompanies him as his right-hand man.  From this relatively lofty perch Tony observes the climactic (Second) Battle of El Alamein in October of 1942 and the British pursuit of the defeated Axis forces through Egypt, Libya, and into Tunisia where they finally surrender in May 1943.  Of interest in this section is the comparison of Tony's veteran force, the British Eighth Army, with the fresh British force which landed with the Americans in French North Africa, the British First Army.

A few years ago I read novels about World War II naval warfare by Royal Navy combat veterans Alistair Maclean and Nicholas Monsarrat, and these books were in my mind as I read Joly's Take These Men.  MacLean's novel, H.M.S. Ulysses, was an extravagant tragedy, portraying the Germans as superior to the Allies and the sailors of the Royal Navy as victims of an incompetent British government and high command, while Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea was full of criticism of British civilians, suggesting that unionized workers, unfaithful wives and smothering mothers were failing to do their part in the war effort and undeserving of the sacrifices and heroism of the Royal Navy's servicemen.

Epigraph from the title page
Joly's project, signaled by his choice of title page epigraph, a quote from Pericles which suggests the people of the British Commonwealth deserve freedom and prosperity because their men have had the courage to fight for them, is a different one from MacLean's or Monsarrat's.  In his intro Joly provides two reasons for writing his book: firstly, as a response to the incessant talk about the Afrika Korps ("...we have heard and read so much of Rommel and the Germans that we may perhaps forget that they originally learnt the foundations of their armoured doctrine from us and that we beat them soundly in the end.")  Reflecting this aim of the author's, Joly's characters, during Part Five, insist that German success is a result not of any peculiar genius on Rommel's part, but because the Germans have superior equipment.  Secondly, Joly tells us that most writing about the Desert War has been focused on the movements of entire armies and divisions, and Joly believes the "gallantry" of the ordinary Allied soldiers, the ways they lived, fought and died in North Africa, has not been but deserves to be recorded. While Joly talks at length about the psychological stresses suffered by the Allied servicemen, and almost all of the many characters we meet get maimed or killed, in contrast to MacLean, Joly is not cynical or bitter, and the soldiers he writes about are not the pitiful victims of higher powers but heroes who are fighting for freedom and justice.
When all was done and still no orders had come, I asked and obtained permission to visit the grave.  The burial party had long since gone, so that I was alone as I stood, beret in hand, in silent homage to the dead.  I felt no sorrow.  I knew that Peters had died in a just cause, as many more would die.  Rather, his death had steeled my determination for ever.     
Even though the whole novel takes place in Africa, in contrast to Monsarrat's criticisms of people on the home front, Joly finds a way to shoehorn in some mentions of the bravery of English civilians, and the officer's wives Tony meets in Cairo are all devoted to their husbands and the war effort.

When you read books from the past you gain insight into the thinking of an earlier age, thinking which, perhaps, is anathema to today's moral arbiters, an offense to our sensibilities.  Is there anything in this 60-year-old book that might stand out to readers in our politically correct age?  Reading Bill Mauldin's very interesting 1945 book Up Front a few weeks ago (I paid two bucks for a copy of the fourth printing at the Upper Arlington Library's huge book sale, where I got a stack of books and which I recommend to all in Central Ohio) I was surprised at how low an opinion Mauldin expressed of Italian civilians--the women and children are all entitled beggars and the men are all thieves, apparently--and in Take These Men I was a bit taken aback by Joly's harsh commentary on the Egyptians and Arabs native to the region where the Allies and Axis powers fought the titanic struggle he describes.
We saw the Egyptians as a craven and crooked nation, hiding behind the shield of our protection.  To us all it seemed natural that a race who would not move in self-defence even when the enemy had actually crossed their borders should be reviled in word and deed whenever need or opportunity arose.  We could have no respect for them, no sympathy with their sufferings, no hesitation in thinking of them as "Wogs" or "Gyppos" or "Gyppies."  The only words of their language which we bothered to learn were the more offensive and shorter epithets to summon or dismiss them.
In a scene late in the book the British tank crews and their vehicles are riding a train from Cairo to the front lines, and Tony and his comrades cannot sleep while en route, because the train must stop frequently and when it does "we had immediately to guard the whole length against a swarm of thieves and pilferers who emerged mysteriously from the shadows...." Later, when the narrator arrives at a battlefield in Tunisia he finds that the bodies of the German dead have "been denuded during the night by swarms of thieving Arabs."

(No doubt the people of North Africa would have equally choice words for the European interlopers who highhandedly dominated their region for ages, and as for looting German bodies, Joly makes no secret of the fact that individual Allied soldiers and the formal military apparatus are constantly appropriating the supplies and equipment of defeated Axis troops.)

Also noteworthy (to me at least), is what Joly's characters say about the Soviet Union. It is normal when people talk about World War II to hear a lot about the great sacrifices of the Russian people and how such and such high percentage of German divisions or casualties suffered were on the Eastern Front, but we don't get any of that from Tony and his subordinates.  When the British troops in Africa hear of the German invasion of Russia, Joly relates: "There was no sympathy with Russia, after her dealings in the summer of 1939 and the rape of Poland.  Indeed, I felt the situation could not have been better put than by my driver, who remarked tersely, 'Thieves always fall out.'"  When the United States is dragged directly into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a lorry driver cheerily announces "We've got friends besides them twisty Ruskies now."  It seems likely that Joly had the same attitude about revolutionary communism expressed so memorably by Bertie Wooster in that immortal classic of literature, "Comrade Bingo": " far as I can make out, the whole hub of the scheme seems to be to massacre coves like me; and I don't mind owning I'm not frightfully keen on the idea."

Though it has flaws when taken as a whole and considered solely as a work of modern fiction, Take These Men is full of very entertaining battle and adventure anecdotes and is a great source of knowledge about the lives of British soldiers serving in North Africa in the Second World War.  Highly recommended for WWII buffs and for fans of realistic adventure fiction.

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