Tag Archives: Peter Hart

The 2nd Norfolk Regiment from Le Paradis to Kohima by Peter Hart

This is yet another book in Pen and Sword‘s ‘Voices from the Front Series’, and this one again is authored by the Imperial War Museum‘s Oral History expert Peter Hart. The 2nd Norfolks began the war as a regular Battalion, and went to Northern France in 1939. During a tour on the Maginot Line the Norfolks won some of the British Army’s first gallantry medals of the war. Back with the BEF in May 1940, the Norfolks found themselves in the thick of the fighting back towards Dunkirk.

As interesting as Dunkirk was, it’s the chapters about the British Army in Britain in late 1940 and 1941 that really interested me. How a shattered Army rebuilt itself, and how regular Battalions found themselves diluted with territorials and conscripts, and how county regiments found themselves taking in recruits from all over the country and the Army abandoned its local recruiting policy. The Army – and its officers and men – had a lot of learning to do in a very short space of time, and the memories of ordinary soldiers during this period that I find fascinating. Much of this period was spent firstly guarding the coast against invasion, and secondly exercising and familiarising with new equipment.

After the threat of invasion subsided with Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Britain found herself facing a second theatre of war in the Far East. Accordingly the 2nd Norfolks were sent to the Far East. They landed first in India, and there are some fascinating stories about the passage East and the period spent acclimatising in the sub-continent. The Norfolks spent some time quelling civil distubance in India too, with the rise of Gandhi’s national congress beginning to pose problems for the Raj.

After acclimatising to the Far East – a difficult process for western constitutions – the Norfolks went up to Kohima, in time for the pivotal battles around the Indian-Burmese Border there and at Imphal. What follows is a most insightful account of a Battalion fighting in extremely trying circumstances, at a critical point of the war. One account tells of how a Norfolk soldier hid with his section in the jungle and observed hundreds of Japanese pass by, only yards away – such was the intensity of the war in Burma.

I am a great fan of these Oral Histories, and particularly those that focus on the experiences of ordinary soldiers and junior officers – so often the people at the point of the sword, but for so long the people we have heard the least from. Thank god for projects like this that finally give them a voice. And the experiences of this ‘ordinary’ Battalion, from the BEF to Burma, encapsulates the British Army’s journey from 1939 to 1945 perfectly.

The 2nd Norfolk Regiment – from Le Paradis to Kohima is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

Voices From the Front: The 16th Durham Light Infantry in Italy, 1943 – 1945 by Peter Hart

This is the first book I’ve read in the Voices from the Front series. It’s based on an Oral History project that recorded the memories of many old Durham veterans. Peter Hart has been the Oral History specialist at the Imperial War Museum for many years, so is probably better placed to write a book like this than anyone else.

I’m glad that such a prominent book has been written about this Battalion for two reasons. Firstly, the 16th Durham Light Infantry were a service Battalion, and hence largely made up of soldiers who were conscripted into the Army during the wartime. Secondly, the Battalion served in Italy rather than in North West Europe, and the Italian campaign has received a chronic lack of attention from Historians over the years.

Excerpts from oral history interviews are interwoven with commentary on the overall history of the war, which provides good context. The interviews with junior officers and other ranks are particularly welcome, as these are two sections of the Army whose experiences are often maligned. And the experiences of the 16th Durhams were quite remarkable – unusually for a conscript Battalion, the unit seems to have developed a very strong espirit-du-corps, forged through tought fighting up the spine of Italy.

What I really find interesting are the little human stories that really give us an idea of what it was like to fight as a foot soldier in the Second World War, and not necessarily the stories about fighting. Its thoughts about uniforms and rations, officer-men relations, the locals and even fireworks displays on VE Day that really make a book like this stand out.

I cannot help but think how blessed we historians would be if a book like this was written about every Army unit during the Second World War. Oral History is a fantastic way of capturing not only the memories of an important generation, but also the essence and tone of their life experiences. The Voices from the Front series is very commendably indeed.

Voices from the Front: The 16th Durham Light Infantry in Italy 1943-1945 is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two