“The vast majority of men receiving the Medal of Honor in World War II belonged to the infantry but the American public was fixated on marines and the glamour boys in the air corps with their nice blue uniforms”, writes acclaimed author and historian Alex Kershaw in his recent book Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II (Caliber).
Undoubtedly, Alex Kershaw is the master of the battle narrative. His books always remind me of Sir John Keegan’s classic The Face of Battle, in detailing the reality and sacrifices of fighting soldiers. Between the covers, he details the courageous and selfless feats of Maurice “Footsie” Britt, Michael Daly, Audie Murphy and Keith Ware. All these men were part of the “[…] 3rd Division, the legendary “Rock of the Marne” outfit that had saved Paris in July 1918 by blocking the last great German offensive of World War I.” The men of that Division were sent on the first line to absorb a strong German attack along the Marne River in April 1918. The stubbornness of their defense earned them the famous nickname. Their successors in World War II would be no different.
With sometimes painful details and poignant vignettes, the reader can follow these men through the olive orchards of Sicily, the muddy grounds of Italy, “the fields of sunflowers and lavender” of Provence and the atrocious weather of early 1945 in Germany. You can almost share the feeling of pure joy these warriors must have felt when where they were finally offered a hot meal and hamburgers after endless days braving adversity, hunger, trench foot, frostbite, lack of sleep and almost inevitable death.
Apart from the exceptional writing skills of the Alex Keshaw, the main quality of the book is to share the exceptional and out of the ordinary bravery of the men who fought Mussolini and Hitler. “Wars are won by men who risk their necks”, said one solider quoted in the book. And risk their neck they did. Writing about Captain Arlo Olson who fought under Britt on the Gustav Line, the author writes that the infantryman’s “[…] luck ran out and he was hit badly. Although in excruciating pain, he refused medical aid and made sure his men could defend themselves from further counterattacks. Only then was he placed on a stretcher and carried down the mountain. He didn’t live to see the bottom.”
The men of the 3rd Division gave the Germans as good as they received. To the point where “German veterans swore the fighting [during the fight following the landings at Anzio] was fiercer even than at Stalingrad.” General Lucian Truscott’s men nevertheless faced enemies who were also fanatically determined to fight for every inch of ground. Fighting on German soil in the last stretch of the war, “[…] the Marne men were stunned by the ferocity of the SS defense. “It was not unusual to see a German standing completely exposed in the center of the street,” remembered one soldier, “firing a bazooka or sometimes only a rifle at our tanks as the armor relentlessly mowed him down or the doughboys took pot shots at him.”” On another occasion, “One SS soldier that morning kept firing his machine gun even though one of his buttocks had been shot off.” Gruesome, will you tell me, but one can’t understand the true nature of war if one doesn’t grasp those details.
I’m also grateful to the author for permitting me to fully grasp qualities of General Lucian Truscott, “the greatest US fighting general of World War II”. Truscott was forces to step aside to let both General George S. Patton enter Palermo and Messina as a liberator. He later had to do the same to permit General Mark Clark to roll “to his coronation” in Rome. Truscott was “a stickler for fitness” and he loved his men. When Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered him to take command of the Fifteenth Army, “Truscott did not hide his tears as he bade his beloved Marne men goodbye. He knew he might not see them again, soldiers he’d led for two years, from Algeria to within striking distance of the Third Reich.” I will most certainly want to read more about this warlord about whom I knew so little.
“One single soldier’s actions could change the course of an entire battle”, writes the author evoking Audie Murphy’s “Wild Man Stand” while fighting the Germans alone on a burning tank destroyer. One should never say or think that men and women accomplishing such feats are ordinary. Their bravery comes from the rarest and mettle. “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men”, said General Patton. Nowhere can you find a better illustration of that than in a book written under the vibrant pen of Alex Kershaw.
Bring it with you to the beach or on the patio reading chair this summer. Impossible to regret it.
Alex Kershaw, Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II, New York, Caliber, 2022, 368 pages.
I would like to express my utmost gratitude to Supipi Weerasooriya of the Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with a review copy of this enthralling book and to Emily Canders for her continued and much appreciated collaboration with this blog.