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"An Appalling Meat Grinder"

James Holland is among the best of what is often referred to as “the next generation of war historians”, following in the footsteps of the likes of Antony Beevor and Max Hastings who helped define the genre in the 90s and early 2000s.


When he first started out he’d been a publicist at Penguin doing the publicity for Antony Beevor and his book Stalingrad, and he got to know Beevor well. And while he loves those books he felt that he and his cohort tended to concentrate on the big headline stories – but when you read them, didn’t really get to know anyone. James is a writer who is interested most in books that have strong characters. So he decided he was going to write real people’s stories but with some academic vigour to it, going from the micro to macro from moment to moment, a technique that enables you to convey a broader picture of what is going on – you don’t get too bogged down with brigades and battalions and platoons etc and you can focus on individuals stories. Back in the day he was going out and meeting with lots of Second World War veterans, and there were still lots of them around. People from around the world. But they were becoming less and less numerous and he knew he had to hoover up it the experience while I could.

He gets to meet some amazing people and it’s endlessly entertaining and humbling: he was talking to a B17 pilot a few weeks back who’s 101 and “in cracking shape”, and there’s also the likes of Colin Bell DFC who’s 102 and has just abseiled down the Shard. But while first-hand accounts are significant, memories can tell tricks and get added to sub-consciously and what is important to people now isn’t necessarily what was important to them back in the day. So he now prefers to uses contemporary sources: diaries, records and memoirs that were written at the time. He’s often amazed by the age of the protagonists - his son has only just left Falmouth University and is 22 and James says it’s impossible to imagine him being in command of a tank regiment.


It’s a real privilege to be able to tell these peoples stories in a new narrative, he explains. You get to hear their inner thoughts and actions and encounters. And as a writer it’s your job to transport the reader to a place and time and take them back to specific moment. Ron Johns from the Falmouth Bookseller was asking the questions and had some great general Second World War queries up his sleeve: Was Chamberlain the weakling that we take him for? Yes, James explained, he’s much maligned. He had made good decisions while chancellor under Stanley Baldwin and helped create the RAF as we know it at a time when it was about to become so significant. And 90% of people supported appeasement in 1939. Churchills’ eulogy for him nails why we should be more appreciative of Chamberlain, he said. When asked about The Battle of Britain he explains that it was a catastrophe for Germany. The air defence system in Britain was the first such thing of its type. The Germans didn’t have the numbers and aircraft production. But it was not the last line of defence that people often talk about: the British Navy would have made toast of any invasion attempt by sea. And onto Italy itself. He talks a little about the beauty of the place but explains that it was hard ground to fight on. On paper it was a good idea to attack Italy – it gave the Allies an opportunity to get closer to the key German airfields and draw troops away from the Western and Eastern fronts. But it soon turned into a slugging match. The allies didn’t have enough landing craft and they didn’t have enough troops. Thera was a limit to the resources they could deploy when the war in the pacific and the build-up to Operation Overlord were the priorities.


And the nature of the terrain meant that it was very easy for the Germans to retreat and blow stuff up. It was, he says, “an appalling meat grinder” and the native Italian population got caught in the crossfire. Naples was bombed by the allies over 170 times in 1943 alone.


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