Tag Archives: World War II

‘Sword of Honor,’ by Evelyn Waugh

Sword of Honor

Some of Mr. Churchill’s broadcasts had been played on the mess wireless-set. Guy had found them painfully boastful and they had, most of them, been immediately followed by the news of some disaster, as though in retribution from the God of Kipling’s Recessional.

For Evelyn Waugh, World War II was not a great crusade, or the triumph of western democracies over tyranny. It was the moment (subsequent to the alliance with Stalin) when the West gave up its purpose entirely, and submitted to the whims of totalitarianism.

The hero of Sword of Honor is Guy Crouchback, scion of an ancient, noble Catholic family in England. As the last of his line, he has failed in his duties of succession through marrying a frivolous Protestant who divorced him and has since moved on to a couple other marriages. Now he can’t marry again under church law. World-weary, he is living in a villa in Italy when the war begins, and he goes home to England to volunteer for service. Eventually he finds a commission in the (fictional) Royal Halbardiers, and later transfers to a Commando unit. An official misapprehension of his status as a security risk generally keeps him out of action, and when he gets into it he gets involved in disasters. Gradually he grows disillusioned with the Great Cause, but he persists in quietly attempting to do his duty, in the midst of increasing absurdity.

I was reminded of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, in the sense that this is a darkly comic book about the insanity of war. Only Waugh’s presuppositions are very different from Heller’s. His hero longs for a reason to fight – even to die – but is denied it. There were also similarities to Graham Greene, another Catholic writer. But Greene admired the Communists and hated Americans, while Waugh loathes the Communists, and find Americans merely vulgar.

Sword of Honor can be very funny, but it’s also rather depressing. The writing, needless to say, is top drawer, with many memorable passages and a full cast of farcical characters.

Recommended, if you’re looking for this sort of thing.

The strenuous life

It was quite a weekend. By an old bachelor’s standards, anyway. I take some pride in having got through it with my natural force unabated.

Saturday was the big event at Camp Ripley (believe it or not), Little Falls, Minn., for the 75th anniversary of the activation of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), the US Army’s Norwegian “foreign legion” in World War II. The festivities actually began the day before and continued through the evening, but I was only there Saturday afternoon. (That doesn’t mean I wasn’t invited to do more; I was. But I had to get home and unload my car for the following day’s exertions.)

Saturday afternoon was the public event. Besides us Vikings, there was an informational booth explaining about the unit’s history. There was also a small encampment of World War II reenactors:

[A photo belongs here, but our account doesn’t seem to allow posting from Photobucket anymore.]

Nice guys. Had some interesting conversations. These are history people, and Vikings were not outside their range of interest. Continue reading The strenuous life

‘The Viking Battalion’

Viking Battalion

Last week I was contacted on Facebook by a fellow who’s involved in a Viking commemoration a tad different from the kind I’m used to. But I was honored to be asked to assist him, and I want to publicize his effort. He’s the president of a group devoted to memorializing a remarkable World War II US Army unit.

The 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), also known as the Viking Battalion, was organized in 1942 at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. Its purpose was (originally) a specific, specialized one (that’s what the word “Separate” means). It was intended for the invasion of Norway – an option for the European invasion that remained under consideration long into the war. The bulk of its manpower came from Norwegian merchant sailors who’d been stranded overseas by the German invasion in 1940, plus Norwegian-American young men, many of whom had grown up speaking Norwegian. They trained for mountain warfare in Colorado, and later as commandos in Scotland.

As it worked out, of course, the invasion happened in Normandy. The 99th participated in that action and its aftermath, and fought with distinction in the Battle of the Bulge. Finally they were sent to Norway after the surrender, in order to help establish order and evacuate the German occupation troops in an orderly manner.

There’s going to be a special commemoration event on Saturday, August 12, at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, Minnesota. I’ve been asked to be there in Viking costume (just to confuse the visitors, I imagine) and I may bring some other Vikings along. If you’re interested in the event, let me know in comments, or just watch this space. I’ll be keeping you posted.

Netflix review: ‘The Heavy Water War’


Photo credit: Robert Holand Dreier

In 1965 a film was made in Britain about the WWII Norwegian Resistance sabotage of the German heavy water project at Rjukan, Norway. It was called Heroes of Telemark, it starred Kirk Douglas, and it was essentially an upbeat and rather frivolous production. Norwegians complained that, in the movie, Kirk personally achieved in about two weeks what it took a whole unit of real saboteurs two years to do.

The 2015 Norwegian/Danish/English production, The Heavy Water War, available for streaming on Netflix, hews closer to the facts. It is artistically superior and far darker.

We follow the main character, Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner; in this production, unlike the Douglas movie, the characters go under their real names, except for several fictionalized characters), a Norwegian scientist who escapes to England and joins the British-trained saboteur company there. Leif becomes their leader and gets emotionally involved with British intelligence officer Julie Smith (Anna Freil; a fictional character), but not so far as to actually commit adultery (they’re both married). We follow Leif and his company through the disastrous initial glider operation meant to destroy the Rjukan plant. Then follows the famous raid, where they succeed in blowing up the equipment, housed in the cellar of the factory. And after that, the hard decision to blow up the passenger ferry carrying the remaining heavy water out of the country, at the cost of civilian lives.

But there are actually three main threads in the narrative. We follow the manager of the heavy water plant (another fictionalized character) as he self-justifies his collaboration, and his troubled wife, who diverts her fears by mothering the daughter of her house maid. We also follow scientist Werner Heisenberg in Germany, singlemindedly focused on the scientific aspects of the atomic bomb project, refusing to think in moral categories. Each of these characters is treated as a full, complex human being. The viewer is left to make judgments.

My complaints are few. I wish the actors had looked more like the people they portray. The producers made the decision to suggest strongly that the explosion of the ferry was probably unnecessary (this, I believe, is a matter of dispute among historians).

The Heavy Water War is challenging, and sometimes tragic, but definitely worth watching. Recommended, for grownups.

Not a spy, but a cool story

There was big news in the world of C. S. Lewis studies today. Christianity Today released an article by Harry Lee Poe about the discovery of a previously unknown recording of a radio talk by C. S. Lewis. Not a talk for the BBC, but for Iceland, on Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so to speak:

Until now, the general public and the world of scholarship had no idea that C. S. Lewis began his wartime service by undertaking a mission for MI6. Long before James Bond, Lewis rendered service to this clandestine branch of British Intelligence, which was so secret for so long that few people knew of its existence, and few of those knew its actual name. Alternatively known as Military Intelligence, the Secret Service, and MI6, its actual name may be the Secret Intelligence Service. Ian Fleming gave the head of this spy network the code name of M, but in real life he is simply known as the Chief. When Lewis came on board at the beginning of World War II, it was still a fledgling group of amateurs desperately working to save their island home from disaster.

The story is interesting, not only for the revelation of Lewis’ work for British Intelligence, but because it involves one of his all too rare explications of his passion for Norse literature and myth.

I think the title’s a bit misleading, since Jack Lewis was nothing like a spy, but the story’s a big deal nonetheless. Kudos to Harry Lee Poe for his discovery.