29 April 2008

Book review of Craig B. Cameron's Born Lucky: RSM Harry Fox, MBE: One D-Day Dodger's Story

This review, my latest of a recent (in this case, relatively recent) Vanwell Publishing Limited release, is of Craig B. Cameron's Born Lucky: RSM Harry Fox, MBE: One D-Day Dodger's Story (Vanwell, 2005). This book - recorded as a memoir by Harry Fox and rewritten for publication by Craig Cameron - consists mostly of stories of Fox's service during the Second World War spread out over a timeline of Fox's wartime military career.

Harry Fox was a member of the pre-war The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada in Toronto and deployed overseas with that regiment, ultimately serving as regimental sergeant-major of the unit in the United Kingdom. He was then transferred as regimental sergeant-major of The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, seeing combat in Italy and North-West Europe from 1944 through to the end of the war. Although his fighting career was solely with the Hasty P's, it is clear from the memoirs that Fox's heart lay with the Queen's Own, whom he served with again following the war.

Possibly the greatest aspect of this book - there are, after all, many memoirs from serving Canadian soldiers out there (and there should be) - is that Fox was regimental sergeant-major (the senior non-commissioned rank) of infantry units during the training years in the UK and in combat. That makes his "take" on the war a little different than most and goes a long way toward presenting the view of the fighting from the man typically responsible for supplying ammunition, evacuating casualties, enforcing discipline and generally providing a sounding board for officers and men of all ranks. In that sense, this is not really a book about combat operations - although they are discussed - as Fox was not typically at the forefront of regimental attacks. That was not his job, although that's not to say he didn't face his share of dangers. He did, and willingly recounts his close calls throughout the text.

The book, first and foremost, contains a multitude of snippets about army life - information well known to the troops at the time, but often less-discussed sixty years later. What are puttees and why did the soldiers wear them? What was with all the inoculations? How does one interpret an individual soldier's disciplinary record? What are the different kinds of infantry patrols? What was the proper way to use a flare pistol? How exactly were the troops fed and what was a compo ration anyway? What was German barbed wire really like?

Fox and Cameron recount interesting stories such as the work of the Queen's Own on "overseas" duty in Newfoundland in 1940 and amphibious landing craft training in the UK in 1943. The latter subject lead to the following story:
We were at Inverary, on the west coast of Scotland, in the fall of 1943, to do advanced amphibious-landing training for the upcoming invasion of France. One concern was how to keep the vehicles afloat once they hit the water. The answer was to make them waterproof, and a paste-like substance was invented for this purpose. The men in the Mad Four (Carrier) Platoon applied it to a jeep and once they had finished, it needed to be tested. Rifleman Harry Baxter volunteered for the trial and drove the jeep into the water. Marvel of marvels, it worked! But once again, inspiration went ahead of practicality in Mad Four: someone had forgotten to take the tide into consideration (they were definitely not Maritimers). It was going outy, and Harry and the jeep were being taken out to sea. Fortunately there was a small Royal Navy vessel nearby, and some of the sailors spotted Harry in the water in his jeep. What a sight that must have been!
Stories on numerous other subjects - many of them readily laced with a soldier's sense of humour - find their way into the book, including several discussions on the duties of a wartime regimental sergeant-major; the difficulties, frustrations and triumphs of casualty evacuation; dealing with the deaths of soldiers; opinions of Zombies, the lack of reinforcements and life on the forgotten front; and the Thompson versus Sten gun debate.

This is not an operational history of the Hasty P's at war in 1944-45. There are certainly discussions of some battles, some in detail, but Fox's role did not place him front and centre in most of the fighting. Any reader looking to get a clearer grasp of what the Canadian infantry was up to in terms of operations in the Italian campaign would best start with an overview of the campaign such as Daniel Dancock's The D-Day Dodgers. On the other hand, books like Born Lucky put the meat on the flesh, as it were, providing the human element to the operational story, telling us how Canadian officers and men lived (and died) in the nightmare that was the Italian campaign.

In terms of less than desirable aspects of the book, they are certainly few. Sometimes the book seems scattered, but it is a collection of stories after all, the central thread being Fox himself. The handdrawn maps are helpful, but don't always provide enough information in my view to assist in the geographical placement of the stories.

These, however, are very minor points and certainly don't distract from the overall presentation of the book. Born Lucky is an interesting and educational collection of tales from a wartime Canadian soldier in a less-than-typical role in the fighting. I highly recommend it.

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