Guns of Normandy:
A Soldier's Eye View, France, 1944

by George G. Blackburn,
ISBN: 0771015003

V-Bombs & Weathermaps:
Reminiscences of World War II

by Brock McElheran,
199 pages,
ISBN: 0773513302

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FOOs and Doodlebugs
by Robert Stamp

The Second World War may well be over, even its fiftieth anniversary celebrations now a thing of the past, but the memories linger on, and on, and on. Personal memoirs of land, sea, and air battles from half a century ago promise (threaten?) to delight military history fans for many years to come.

What should we expect from memoirs published in the 1990s? Authors who experienced battle as young men in their twenties and early thirties are now seventy- and eighty-year-old seniors. Has time sharpened their senses or dulled their minds? Will they take us into new territory, or at least offer novel perspectives on familiar campaigns? Can they write with authority on military tactics and with insight into man's character under battlefield stress? Are they writing for the 1940s or the 1990s?

George Blackburn's The Guns of Normandy is the more successful of these two memoirs. Through July and August 1944, Blackburn served as a junior officer with the 4th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, as it fought through Normandy with other units of the 1st Canadian Army to help entrap German forces.

He skips quickly over the regiment's mobilization and years of training, then takes us through the details of embarkation for France less than a month after D-Day. Soon, the officers and men of the 4th Field move their 25-pounders into place in the Normandy countryside. From his vantage point as a forward observation officer (a "FOO"), he provides details so graphic that even the most unmilitary reader can appreciate artillery warfare.

The Guns of Normandy is no glorious adventure story. Once into the front lines, war is hell. Officers and men experience days without food and nights without sleep; enemy shelling and dysentery compete to knock units out of action; dead bodies (both Canadian and German) rot in the fields and along the roadsides. Tension overlays every minute of every hour of every day for weeks on end. And Blackburn proves as skilled in revealing personal fears and insecurities as he is in describing how 25-pounders work.

Blackburn's book grew out of a detailed diary he kept during the eventful summer of 1944, supplemented by personal notes and diaries of others, official war diaries, and dozens of interviews. The author is no stranger to good writing; he was a journalist before the war, and a communications professional and playwright in later years. By using the second person and the present tense ("you edge along the trench as explosions come closer and closer"), Blackburn puts the reader in the thick of the battle, creating a sense of what it was like to be there.

V-Bombs and Weathermaps is a much less intense memoir. As a Canadian naval officer on course at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, in 1944, McElheran was seriously injured when his rooming house was hit by a V-1 flying bomb (popularly known as "buzz bombs" or "doodlebugs"). Taken to the Queen Victoria Hospital, famous for its pioneering work in plastic surgery, he underwent several operations and months of treatment. Back in Canada, he worked as a meteorological officer in Ottawa and Halifax. He too used the journal that he kept at the time as his primary source, then combined personal experience, anecdote, and historical fact in this account.

McElheran's perspective seems detached, more that of an observer than a participant. From rooming houses in Greenwich and naval operations rooms in Canada, he spends most of his time cheering others on. Still, he does it in such a charming manner, and in such melodic prose (he went on to a career in music after the war!) that readers will stay with him to the end.

Both authors have private agendas. Blackburn criticizes historical records that slight the training and fighting qualities of Canadian troops in Normandy; he wants Canadian courage to be remembered. McElheran is appalled at the lack of recognition given to heroes of the buzz-bomb attacks: firefighters, block wardens, even householders who gave temporary shelter to neighbours whose homes were destroyed.

Neither author need despair. Both tell important stories in interesting ways, thus helping to make sure that future generations will not forget either the gunners of Normandy or the civilian heroes of Greenwich.

Robert M. Stamp teaches at the University of Calgary


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