Eight Hours From England by Anthony Quayle
This is a contemporary book of the Second World War, which never forgets the humanity of those who were fighting. For much of this well written book there is very little actual fighting; survival is much more important in a challenging landscape. Written by a man who had undoubtedly been there, the actor Anthony Quayle exceeds all expectations in his moving and often painfully realistic record of life in Albania in late 1943. Having been disappointed in love by Ann, who he continues to idolise throughout the novel, Major John Overton offers to go on a mission to create trouble in Nazi occupied Albania. Finding a complex situation of near civil war between the Albanians themselves, this is far from a straightforward disruption of German forces. As shifting loyalties and opposing interest mean that few people, if any, can be trusted, diplomacy is the order of the day as tribal leaders must be placated and bribed with gold, weapons and essential supplies. While establishing a foothold in the unfriendly and largely inaccessible countryside is a priority, difficult decisions must be made when any connection with headquarters is tenuous. There are very few forces to command, as British officers are sent sparingly and relations with those from America and the retreating Italians can be difficult. This is a fascinating account of the humans involved in a complex and changeable situation; the local warlords, the interpreters and guides, the shepherds and the locals trying to survive and preserve their territory. The soldiers who have to survive literally on the edge of mountains with tiny amounts of basic supplies are well drawn. The ever present menace of the German forces threads throughout this war novel which is far more about people than battle. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this reprinted novel in the series of Wartime Classics produced by the Imperial War Museum.
The novel begins with the confusion of a war declared and emerging on so many fronts. Desperate to leave London and an admiration of the seemingly unattainable Ann, John Overton travels to a large British base in Cario. The administration are unsure what to do with this technically trained but inexperienced officer, so he is dispatched to Albania, “the least developed of all the Balkan sections”. In an exciting transfer to the coast of the country, a base rejoicing in the name of “Sea View”, Overton soon discovers that leading a small group of men who are not all under his command will be a delicate matter. As defeated Italian troops defect to Allied protection, their physical presence complicates the situation. Despite his expectations and training, simply blowing up roads and disrupting German forces proves to be far from straightforward, as a factional and fierce situation is revealed, with betrayal and self protection being the dominating motivation, made more complicated by language differences.
This book is far from the traditional military account of an ex soldier. It is fictionalised autobiography of the most intimate kind, full of the telling details of sights, sounds and even tastes of someone who experienced them first hand. Quayle was a memorable actor especially in films depicting small groups of people in war. On the evidence of this book he was also an acute and inspiring writer. I recommend this book as an immensely readable account of a confusing yet life changing experience in a lost world, but recognisable for its people full of fear, loyalty and sheer determination to survive.
This is my final review of the set of four books produced by the Imperial War Museum in its Wartime Classics series. With a wide range of novels even in these few books, I would love to know if they are proposing to reprint any more difficult to find novels of the Second World War period. If they are as good as these four, they will be worth collecting!