Pauline Hayton, |
A Corporal's War:
World War II Adventures of a Royal Engineer
A Corporal's War: World War II Adventures of a Royal Engineer is not only a deeply personal and wonderful account of one young British soldier's wartime experience, it is also an illuminating look at an overlooked theatre of the war.
According to author Pauline Hayton, this book began as a family memoir based on the memories of her father, Cpl. Norman Wickman. Then, in addition to information from personal interviews, she began researching the historical events of the war. Despite the fact that she, by her own admission, did not know the difference between bombing and shelling when she started this project, she has succeeded in writing an illuminating account steeped in both the history and personal recollections of her father's experience.
Technically, A Corporal's War is biographical fiction, but the events and experiences recounted in these pages really is her father's story.
Norman Wickman was an ordinary young man who, in 1940, signed up for a six-month stint in the army in order to better provide for his family -- his wife Ivy and little girl Joan. At the time, Chamberlain had supposedly achieved "peace in our time" with the Germans, but it was only a few months later that Hitler invaded Poland and Britain declared war. Norman (and, having read this account, I feel as if I know the man well enough to call him by his first name) was a royal engineer, but he experienced the frightful bombing raids on England before shipping out to France. He saw his first enemy action during the British retreat to the shores of Dunkirk. In the chaos of those days, he played an integral part in blowing up bridges to slow the German advance, and he got his first combat experience (and killed his first enemy soldier) defending a strategic hill while thousands more of his comrades in arms found the time they needed to make it to the beaches. We are all familiar with the significance of Dunkirk, but the story of Norman's Dunkirk experience brings the drama to life in a way few history books could. Not only did Norman make it to the beaches and survive to fight another day, he was instrumental in maintaining the harbor's eastern mole, the primary pickup point for his comrades.
The rest of the story paints a vivid portrait of a part of the war virtually ignored in the history books. Norman and his buddies were sent to India, and they would remain in the southwest Asian theater for four long years. As a royal engineer, a lot of Norman's duty involved transporting water and other supplies, and parts of the stay were somewhat idyllic -- pictures shows in Bombay, time spent enjoying the sands and sea, and even -- for Norman -- the forging of a personal friendship with a wealthy Indian citizen. Of course, life was no bed of roses -- there was unbearable heat, pests and snakes to deal with, tensions revolving around the efforts of India to win its freedom from Britain, and the miseries resulting from the totality of the war. A vast explosion aboard a vessel docked in Bombay virtually destroyed the entire harbor, and we learn how Norman and other soldiers like him dealt with the cleanup and began rebuilding what had been lost.
One of the more poignant parts of Norman's experience revolves around a local hospital. One can certainly understand the development of Norman's hatred for the Japanese soldiers after reading about the sadistic crimes they perpetrated on the nurses there.
Military service didn't get any easier, as Norman and his company ended up serving in Burma under some of the worst conditions imaginable: unbearable heat, thick jungles, monsoons that turned roads into muddy quagmires and, of course, the enemy. The men played an important role in retaking Burmese territory from the Japanese and building the all-important Ledo Road, over which necessary supplies were transported to the Chinese army. Here, Wickman saw combat action against the Japanese, and he witnessed many atrocities committed by the enemy. He also proved himself a true hero on numerous occasions -- as humble as he was brave. I was fascinated by the description of the India and Burma campaign, largely because I basically knew nothing about this aspect of the war. Norman's observations and opinions about foreign soldiers such as the Americans and the Gurkhins were also of great interest to me.
Hayton has a very effective writing style. Her descriptions of military actions and strategies, complemented by maps and photographs, paint a vivid picture anyone can understand, she never gets bogged down in minutiae, and the narrative flows like a swift yet peaceful river, never wandering too far afield from Norman's personal experiences. In some ways, Norman is a wide-eyed tourist soaking in the sights of these exotic lands and transferring his wonder into our own hearts and minds. His stories about the different kinds of people he interacted with are insightful and informative; his ideas, fears and emotional reactions to the realities of war gives you a vivid picture of the complete soldier experience; his bitter feelings for the Japanese soldiers become completely understandable after we see the things he saw; and his descriptions of actual combat are invaluable to one's understanding of the bravery and heroism of young men who left their families behind and accomplished almost unbelievable things on behalf of their countries.
This may be a fictionalized biography, but it is definitely one of the best wartime accounts I've read in a long time. This isn't what you would call a gritty wartime memoir, though. The focus here is truly on the men who served, their mental and emotional reactions to the horrors they encountered, the emotional pain and homesickness of men who just wanted to do their duty, win the bloody war and get home to their families. I was totally captivated by Norman's story, and his homecoming, after four years of separation from his wife and little girl, left me with a lump in my throat and a renewed admiration for all brave yet unheralded young soldiers then and now.