Review: Wartime Courage

The Prime Minister’s Remembrance Day tribute to British heroes of the Second World War is a compelling read.


By Jeremy Isaacs, November 6, 2008
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Gordon Brown: commendable collection of memories

Gordon Brown: commendable collection of memories

By Gordon Brown
Bloomsbury, £16.99

Vividly, as a boy in Kirkcaldy after the Second World War, he recalls standing in the cold at Remembrance Day ceremonies, and the sense a community shared of respect and gratitude for those who gave their lives for our freedoms.

Now, as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown pays tribute to brave men and women who risked all and sacrificed much in combat, on the home front, behind enemy lines, and at the heart of the Holocaust. Here are a dozen short accounts of personal heroism, feats that won battles, acts that saved lives.

The book was researched, edited and finished, the author tells us, "with some assistance, particularly in the past 12 months". It is published in time for this year's Remembrance Day when, some distance from Kirkcaldy, Gordon Brown will represent us at the Cenotaph; royalties go to the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.

Some of these stories are familiar; all are well told, and make compelling reading. Bravery is shown in context, and resonates today. Flying Officer Leslie Manser, for instance, 21 years old, flies a Manchester bomber in Bomber Harris's first-ever thousand-bomber raid, on Cologne. But the Manchester was wholly unsuitable for its task; it could not fly high enough to escape anti-aircraft fire. Its load of incendiaries was delivered, but the plane could not make it back to base. Manser enabled his crew to escape by parachute - they survived the war - but crashed and was himself killed (55,000 men of Bomber Command died in action). No coroner excoriated the Air Ministry for the evident weaknesses of the aircraft; no tabloid outcry was provoked. This was wartime; servicemen and women simply got on with the job.

Harry Errington, master-cutter for a tailor in Savile Row, was on duty with the Auxiliary Fire Service in Soho - Rathbone Street - on 17 September 1940, at the height of the blitz on London. A direct hit by a high explosive shattered the building. Twenty people, seven of them firemen, were killed. Errington, knocked out by the blast, went back into the flaming ruins, and pulled out two trapped comrades, carrying them up from the basement, burned but saved.

Reading this, I realised I knew one of the men he rescued; John Terry, a solicitor, later managing director of the National Film Finance Corporation. Under the bombing, only the fortunate survived.

Gordon Brown includes three examples of heroism that saved Jewish lives. Charles Coward - a misnomer, he was anything but - saved 400 Jews at Buna, Auschwitz's slave labour camp, by providing them with false documentation taken from non-Jewish corpses. He is honoured at Yad Vashem. Then there are the ten Tommies, prisoners of war, who sheltered and saved Sara Matuson. And we meet Jane Haining, of the Church of Scotland's Mission to the Jews in Hungary, who cared for handicapped and abandoned children there, came back to Britain, but insisted, as war broke out, on returning to Budapest.

She died in Auschwitz in 1944.

Brown chooses one leader, whom some think was Britain's greatest general in that war; Bill Slim, who led the Fourteenth "Forgotten" Army from defeat to victory, in Burma. He understood, Brown tells us, "that the duties of leaders included that of communicating... realistically the nature of the challenges faced, as well as that of ensuring all necessary material support to overcome those challenges". Here, surely, we are back in Downing Street. Finding time to write this book does the Prime Minister credit.

Sir Jeremy Isaacs's book, "Cold War", co-written with Taylor Downing, is available as an Abacus paperback

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011