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.