Making James Bond Blush

TheForce_SaulDavidFew years ago, while visiting in Italy, I booked a talented guide to visit Monte Cassino and its vicinity. As I left the train, upon arriving in the bucolic town whose name is associated to one of the most famous battles of World War II, I was struck by the breathtaking landscape. Up above a steep mountain, the famous Benedictine Abbey lays towering over the surrounding valley.

I immediately wondered what kind of soldiers could conquer such a hostile environment and dislodge the Germans, ferociously guarding the impregnable summits forming the Winter Line set up to block the Allies on their way up North to the Eternal City, Rome.

Some years later and thanks to renowned military historian Saul David, I finally found the answer between the covers of the book The Force: The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII’s Mission Impossible. Assembled from scratch with Canadian and American soldiers in the summer of 1942 “for a top mission behind enemy lines”, the First Special Service Force was initially trained to operate in winter conditions with a new snow vehicle.

The mission of the unit soon became the object of turf wars and power plays between British and American top brass and politicians. While Churchill – who had a “”particular interest” in the Force” jealously fought toe and nails to reserve these exceptional warriors for an eventual foray in Norway (operation Jupiter), US Army chief of staff George Marshall considered such a venture to be a sideshow. The American warlord was certainly frustrated to exclude such a powerful tool from a vital theater of operations.

Continue reading “Making James Bond Blush”

Les leaders imparfaits sont mieux outillés pour affronter la crise

SaulDavid
L’historien militaire britannique Saul David (source: IMDb)

THE ENGLISH VERSION FOLLOWS

Ces derniers jours, j’ai eu le privilège de questionner l’auteur et historien militaire britannique de renommée internationale Saul David à propos de la crise actuelle liée à la pandémie de la Covid-19. Son éclairage est des plus pertinents et intéressants. Voici le contenu de notre échange.

Professeur Saul David, je tiens tout d’abord à vous féliciter pour la publication de votre nouveau livre – lequel sera assurément un autre succès en librairie.

En tant qu’historien militaire, vous avez réfléchi, effectué des recherches et écrit à propos de la contribution vitale des militaires au fil des âges.

Alors que nous traversons la crise de la Covid-19, à quel moment croyez-vous qu’il sera nécessaire de faire appel aux Forces armées en première ligne de cette bataille? Quels en seront les signes annonciateurs?

En Grande-Bretagne, les Forces armées sont déjà déployées et contribuent au transport du matériel et soutiennent les services médicaux. À mesure que les civils qui occupent des rôles vitaux tombent malades, ils et elles seront remplacés par des militaires.

Les militaires sont une ressource idéale en période de crise puisqu’ils sont en excellente forme et disposent de compétences spécialisées pouvant être utilisées en replacement des employés civils.

En quoi les Forces armées sont-elles mieux préparées et organisées pour répondre à de telles situations?

Parce que ce sont des jeunes, ils sont en excellente forme et disposent de compétences spécialisées pouvant être utilisées en replacement des employés civils.

Les leaders imparfaits sont, à mon avis, moins égoïstes et plus disposés à déléguer et collaborer avec leurs collègues.

Confinées à la maison, plusieurs sont à la recherche de figures inspirantes. Quelles chefs militaires du passé étaient les mieux outillés pour composer avec les crises en période de guerre?

Généralement, les personnalités au passé imparfait, comme par exemple le grand général des forces de l’Union [aux États-Unis, pendant la Guerre de Sécession], qui deviendra ensuite le président Ulysses S. Grant. Les leaders imparfaits sont, à mon avis, moins égoïstes et plus disposés à déléguer et collaborer avec leurs collègues. Parmi ces héros méconnus, mes favoris sont le chef d’État-major américain George C. Marshall et le chef d’État-major britannique Sir Alan Brooke (qui deviendra plus tard Lord Alanbrooke), qui ont tous deux servi pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Ils ont sacrifié leur ambition personnelle qui les aurait normalement conduits à diriger des troupes sur le terrain pour occuper des fonctions beaucoup plus importantes : présider aux destinées de l’effort de guerre avec les politiciens.

Dans la présente crise, nous sommes inspirés par cette formidable génération aux États-Unis qui a été forgée au feu de la Grande Dépression.

SaulDavidOkinawaVotre nouveau livre sur la bataille d’Okinawa est publié aujourd’hui (2 avril). Bien que les circonstances auraient incontestablement pu être meilleures pour une grande célébration en ce grand jour, êtes-vous d’avis qu’il y a un lien entre l’esprit de sacrifice de ces hommes qui ont combattu durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale et les efforts demandés aux professionnels de la santé dans les journées cruciales que nous vivons actuellement? Serait-il justifié de les qualifier de libérateurs des temps modernes face à la tyrannie de la pandémie?

Il y a un lien indéniable. Ce n’est pas une coïncidence si les gens en Grande-Bretagne réfèrent actuellement à l’ « esprit du Blitz » [période durant laquelle les Britanniques encaissaient les bombardements nocturnes par la Luftwaffe allemande pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale] et le fait que nous sommes tous dans le même bateau. La priorité est maintenant de mettre l’emphase sur la communauté et l’importance de prioriser la société et notre pays au lieu des intérêts égoïstes. Nous sommes inspirés par cette formidable génération aux États-Unis qui a été forgée au feu de la Grande Dépression.

Nous sommes aussi inspirés qu’apeurés.

Comment l’histoire militaire est-elle en mesure de nous inspirer durant cette période inquiétante?

L’histoire militaire contient tous les ingrédients de la vie, les bons comme les mauvais. Une recension de Crucible of Hell [son dernier livre à propos de la célèbre bataille d’Okinawa] contient cet extrait : « On y retrouve naturellement un élément d’héroïsme et d’enthousiasme; une fascination pour le danger et le sentiment d’aventure; la gloire et la rédemption personnelles; l’incompétence et la destruction. La guerre englobe tout cela. » Voilà qui résume très bien le phénomène. Nous sommes aussi inspirés qu’apeurés. Il s’agit donc d’une lecture parfaite dans la situation présente.

J’écris mon prochain livre […] et je passe aussi beaucoup de temps avec mon épouse et mes trois filles, dont deux sont de jeunes adultes.

À quoi ressemblent vos journées en confinement?

J’écris mon prochain livre [qui sera consacré aux Forces spéciales britanniques]. Je suis chanceux d’en avoir terminé la recherche, parce que la plupart des fonds d’archives sont maintenant fermés. Je passe aussi beaucoup de temps avec mon épouse et mes trois filles, dont deux sont de jeunes adultes. J’en conserverai de précieux souvenirs dans l’avenir. Nos vies sont généralement très occupées. On pourrait pratiquement dire que la Terre tourne moins rapidement sur son axe.

Je vous remercie infiniment d’avoir pris le temps de répondre à mes questions aujourd’hui et je vous souhaite, ainsi qu’à toute votre famille, de traverser sains et saufs cette période difficile et décisive de nos vies!

Pour ceux et celles que cela peut intéresser, Saul David est également l’auteur de The Force, un excellent livre consacré à la légendaire unité canado-américaine des Forces spéciales ayant servi pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale.

_______

Flawed leaders are better equipped to cope with the crisis

Over the last week, I had the privilege of questioning renowned British author and military historian Saul David about the current Covid-19 crisis we are actually going through. Here is the content of our exchange.

Professor Saul David: first of all, congratulations on the publication of your new book – certainly another blockbuster.

As a military historian, you have reflected, researched and wrote about the vital contribution of military personnel across the ages.

As we are progressing in the Covid-19 crisis, when do you believe the presence of the Armed Forces will be necessary on the front lines of the battle? What telltale signs should we be looking for?

In Britain the armed forces have already been deployed, helping to move supplies and supporting the medical services. As more civilians in vital roles get ill, they will be replaced by service men and women.

Soldiers are ideal to respond to such a crisis because they are young, fit and have specialized skills that can be used to replace civilian workers.

Why are the Armed Forces better prepared and organized to respond to such situations?

Because they are young, fit and have specialized skills that can be used to replace civilian workers.

Flawed leaders are, in my view, less egotistical and better at delegating / cooperating with colleagues.

Many people are looking for great figures to read about as they are confined home. Which military figures from the past were the best equipped to cope with crisis during wars?

Usually figures with a flawed past, like the great Union general and later US President Ulysees S. Grant. Flawed leaders are, in my view, less egotistical and better at delegating / cooperating with colleagues. My personal favourites are unsung heroes like US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall and British Army Chief of Staff Sir Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke), both of World War II. They sacrificed their personal ambition to command field armies to remain in a far more important post: directing the war effort with the politicians.

It’s about community, about putting society and your nation ahead of selfish interests, and the Great Generation in the US – hardened in the white heat of Depression – is all about that.

Your new book about the battle of Okinawa is published today (April 2nd). Although circumstances certainly could have been better for a big bash celebrating this great day, do you think there is a link between the spirit of sacrifice of those men who fought in World War II and what is asked of medical professionals in these crucial days? Could we call them modern liberators against the tyranny of pandemic?

Absolutely there’s a link. It’s no coincidence that people in the UK are referring to the ‘Blitz Spirit’, and the fact that we’re all in this together. It’s about community, about putting society and your nation ahead of selfish interests, and the Great Generation in the US – hardened in the white heat of Depression – is all about that.

How can military history can inspire us during these worrisome days?

Military history contains all the ingredients of life endeavour, good and bad. A review of Crucible of Hell included the words: ‘There is obviously something about heroism and excitement; a fascination with danger and the thrill of adventure; personal glory and redemption; incompetence and destruction. War has it all.’ That sums it up nicely. It inspires and horrifies in equal measure. Perfect reading for our current situation.

I write my new book and I spend a lot of time with my wife and three daughters, two of whom are young adults.

How do you occupy your days in confinement?

Writing my new book [which will be about British Special Forces]. It’s lucky that I’d already completed the research because most archives are now closed. I’m also spending a lot of time with my wife and three daughters, two of whom are young adults, which is something I will treasure in the future. Normally they have such busy lives. It’s as if the world is turning more slowly on its axis.

Many sincere thanks for taking the time to respond to my questions today and all the best to you and your family during this defining, yet difficult, time of our lives.

For those of you who might be interested, Saul David is also the author of The Force, an excellent book about a legendary Special Forces unit regrouping Canadian and American soldiers during World War II.

Highland Warriors

HighlandWarriors
One of the many beautiful paintings on display at the “Highland Warriors” exhibit at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Few years ago, when I visited Scotland for the first time, the legendary National War Museum of Scotland was one of the first places I wanted to visit in Edinburgh.

Walking through this jewel of military history, I came across a description of a 1915 German medal, “representing the figure of Death as a Scottish piper”. Many things come to my mind when I think of a piper, but certainly not death. But I could understand how the Kaiser troops must have felt when facing the gallant sons of Caledonia on the battlefield:

German soldiers developed their own view of highland soldiers and were believed to have nicknamed their kilted enemy ‘the ladies from hell’. This back-handed compliment was rather appreciated in Scotland.”

You may say I’m partial because of my Scottish ancestors and you are right. I am partial, I admit it and I cherish it. Nevertheless, you have to admit that Highland Warriors are among the best in history.

But, please, don’t take my word for it.

Take into account what acclaimed military historian Saul David wrote about them:

HighlandWarriors3“This charge of Fraser’s 78th [during the battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759] and the heroic performance of the 42nd at Ticonderoga, would transform the image of the Highlanders in the popular consciousness from that of dangerous savages who posed a threat to the security of the state to loyal and hardy shock troops of the empire. From this point on, the Highlanders joined the Guardsmen as the elite of the British Army, and both would win laurels in virtually every major conflict they fought, often – as was the case in Waterloo, the Alma, Tel-el-Kebir, Loos and Alamein – fighting almost side by side.” (All the King’s Men, p. 180).

If I got your attention this far on my post, then you will want to visit Canada’s War Museum’ awesome special exhibition on “Highland Warriors” which is on display until January 12th, 2020 in Ottawa.

In 2014-2015, my family and I lived in Scotland for six months. We visited many military museums – unfortunately not all of them. Nonetheless, I can attest that the historians and museologists of the Canadian War Museum have been able to recreate the same subdued ambiance and reverence as the one I experienced in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stirling and Fort George.

The set of lights, the chosen artefacts and the short but eloquent captions and descriptions contribute significantly to a unique experience for whoever truly wants to understand the nature and importance of Scotland’s contribution to military history and heritage for centuries.

Right when we exited the exhibition to make our way to the LeBreton Gallery (a favorite of my sons who can see tanks), my 9 years old daughter came to me and told me sotto voce: “Dad, our ancestors were real badass.”  I could feel the pride and admiration in her voice. And I shamelessly agree with her.

So, many sincere thanks to the Canadian War Museum staff for planning and organizing this fantastic exhibition – probably the best exhibition I ever visited. For a little more than an hour, you made me feel like I was back in Scotland.

So, you can call it a vibrant success. Because it is.

Nemo me impune lacessit