Tales of War Mark Emotive Anniversary; BOOK REVIEWS

Article excerpt

IN 1940 a seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of tanks and troops rolled through Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France leaving Britain to stand alone against the cruel might of Nazi Germany.

In Churchill's memorable phrase it was "our finest hour."

The industrial might of the Americans and the sheer manpower of the Russians might eventually claim victory but it was the courage, defiance and sheer grit of a small island off the coast of Europe that won that first crucial battle.

Those desperate months, from the "Phoney War" of 1939, through the trauma of Dunkirk to the Battle of Britain are the backdrop to Leslie Thomas's terrific new novel Other Times (William Heinemann pounds 15.99).

It was a time defined by Churchill's ringing phrases, promising to fight them on the beaches, pledging never to surrender and paying homage to "The Few."

But the heroes of this wryly funny, warmly affectionate, touching book are the ordinary people who simply carried on regardless.

It is the story of a small Royal Artillery unit on the South Coast manning a pair of Bofors guns. The hero is Captain James Bevan, a lonely, rather tragic figure who has known much heartache in his life, as we learn in flashback, but who is thoroughly decent and craves only love and security.

Then there is Bairnsfather, the gunner who finds true love and the indomitable Sergeant Runciman, a professional among amateurs.

The supporting cast ranges from the jokey locals in the Home Guard to the Jewish refugee children at the school down the road.

I don't suppose that ex-Barnardo's Boy Leslie Thomas, a best seller ever since The Virgin Soldiers, will ever be regarded as one of the posh literary elite. But his books are enormously enjoyable and this one will make you laugh and cry in equal measure as it evokes a time, a place and an indomitable spirit that should make us all so very proud. He is not the only one to be inspired by the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Among the predictable flood of new books is the latest from Worcester policeman and Battle of Britain historian Dilip Sarkar.

Battle of Britain - The Photographic Kaleidoscope (Ramrod Publications pounds 19.95) is much more than an album of snapshots.

These are not the familiar, official pictures but the often slightly fuzzy, intensely personal pictures that aircrews on both sides of the battle took of one another. …