50th At Bay, The Years of Defeat...

...A History of the 50th Northumbrian Division 1939 to September 1942, Helion & Company, via Casemate Books

Title:  50th At Bay, The Years of Defeat

Author: B S Barnes

Publisher:  Helion and Company

ISBN:  978-1-912174-82-9

A 276-page paperback format book from Helion Books. As indicated by the title, it covers the period from the start of the war in 1939, through to the battles in North Africa just prior to the Battle of El Alamein. Spread across 15 chapters, it explains the story of the 50th Division from their pre-war organisation as a Territorial Division, and how during a time of economic downturn it became a welcome source of extra income for many.  This meant it was at least part ready when war broke out.  They went to France in the winter of 1939 and were part of the BEF which faced the German Blitzkrieg in 1940.  This was the first time they came up against Rommel.   This ended up with the retreat to Dunkirk and the evacuation from the port and the beaches, leaving much of their heavy equipment behind, along with many casualties and POWs.  Once home, they were part of the limited defences Britain had to face a potential German invasion.

With replacements and re-equipped, the division went to North Africa where once again they were to suffer at the hands of Rommel and his Africa Korps.  We see the destruction of the 150th Brigade and many casualties in other units of the division along with once again a substantial loss of equipment that was lost in the 'Cauldron'.

All of this is told with the use of hundreds of extracts from veterans memories which the author collected either on tape or in manuscript form over the period of the 1980s and 90s.  Add a selection of archive photos, which include portraits of many of the veterans whose memories contribute to the book, along with some useful maps for context.  We get to hear many experiences of individual soldiers and officers, even a few accounts from German veterans as well.  When you read these experiences you get to appreciate some of the horrors they saw and heard.  Little wonder I think that many veterans chose not to talk about their experiences.  It is also a good indication of how soldiers during WW2 knew little about what was going on other than what they could see from their own particular position.

Add to all this there are 16 Appendices with Orders of Battle and other supporting detail.  It is however the mass of personal/individual accounts which make this a really fascinating book to read.  Definitely, and highly, recommended.  

Distributed by Casemate Books, who kindly provided my review copy.

Robin