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Posted on Jan 5, 2005 in Books and Movies

Forgotten Voices of World War II – Book Review

By Richard N Story

Forgotten Voices of World War II: A New History of World War II in the Words of the Men and Women Who Were There
Max Arthur
The Lyons Press, 2004; Hardcover

Many people, myself included, consider the World War II generation to be one of the best and brightest generations of humanity to have ever existed. They watched and drove the technology change that saw humanity go from biplanes to jets to space travel. They created the modern medical marvels that have helped calm a raging planet. This generation stood up and said that evil under any guise would not be tolerated. Sadly, as it has been 66 years since the invasion of Poland, many of the World War II generation have passed on and their numbers grow less daily. While names, dates and places are remembered as if yesterday, the living history of WWII is being lost and with it the individual perspectives of this momentous conflict.


Max Arthur used the audio library of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) to create a sequel to his World War One book: Forgotten Voices of the Great War. Forgotten Voices of World War II is a history of the war as told by the people who lived it. The book is divided chronologically by year from 1939 through 1945, with key campaigns or battles highlighted by the transcripts of the interviews that shed light on the section being illustrated. Max Arthur introduces each year with an overview, and a smaller introduction to each campaign or battle. Inside each subsection to the chapters, the author introduces the players with title and name and then organization or occupation, if a civilian. Max Arthur makes skillful use of the transcripts to weave the history of the period in question, so that it flows from the beginning of the period to the end.

The year 1939 is probably the shortest of the chapters, being only 30 pages long, and covers the outbreak of the war, the Phoney War and the sinking of the Graf Spee at the River Platte. One of the narratives that was poignant to me was from a Captain in the Royal Norfolk Regiment who stated that when his unit was digging in near Arras; they discovered the remains of a German soldier and a Canadian soldier from World War One (WWI) who were taken and buried in the WWI cemetery. Most of the transcripts from this chapter deal with the transition from peace-time to war. One of the major surprises from this period was seeing a small transcript from Gunther Rall, the Luftwaffe fighter ace who would score 275 kills during the war. This impressed me and I hoped to see more enemy and allied points of views deeper into the book.

1940 marked an up-and-down year for the British Commonwealth, and it is reflected in the chapter and seems to represent the war in microcosm. It opens on a down-note, and ends with an up-note with the Raid on Taranto. I honestly don’t know if Max Arthur meant to replicate the war in micro with the year of 1940, but he did, and one could argue that in 1940 the seeds of Germany’s defeat had already begun to germinate. The rest of the book builds on these two key chapters and expands the narratives as the war eventually grows into an Allied victory. As the Allied juggernaut grows, so do the chapters as more detailed accounts of the war are added. Finally, the year that saw the massive assault on Occupied France by the Allies also sees the largest chapter with over 130 pages devoted to that 1944 alone. Finally the book winds down with the inevitable victory and the wars aftermath.

The author is well qualified to write the book. He has written best selling histories, and is a newspaper man. He is perhaps most famous for his book on the Falklands War: Above All, Courage. In this case, the author is less an author than an editor, and must bind personal narratives together seamlessly in place to form a coherent picture of the times and places being discussed in the book. It is a daunting job and Max Arthur does a good job of it.

Forgotten Voices of World War II occupies a strange place in the pantheon of books on the Second World War. On one hand, a reviewer can’t truly scrutinize the book to the most rigid academic standards, because it’s not really an academic book. Yet by the same token, the book can not be forgiven as readily as a true first-person account of the war. This makes it hard to review because so many key questions are left unanswered. How were the various interviews selected for transcription? When and where were the audio tapes made? What safeguards were in place to ensure the validity of accurate transcriptions? Yet because they are first-person reminiscences, one expects some leeway in relaxing the rules on academic standards. It is felt that many of the above questions would have been answered in the preceding book dealing with World War I.

This book should NOT be considered a true history of the war. The reader looking for hard dates and numbers and names would be better served by purchasing one of the main histories of the war readily available at any booksellers. There are a few other negatives that must be mentioned. The first is the lack of more non-British or Commonwealth narratives. One would expect an institution like the Imperial War Museum to have a larger representative collection, yet the author was limited by the material on-hand. The author also misses a chance to explore some of the more fascinating aspects of the war such as the British Pacific Fleet at Okinawa or more readily available and widely known topics such as the Battle of the Ardennes. Finally the “excerpts” from the back cover made a fascinating read, only to discover the excerpts are not in the book!

Despite these flaws the book is still worth reading. The sections that deal with Burma and India alone make the book worth the pruchase price. If one reads the book with the mindset that the ‘history’ of the war is a backdrop for the personal reminiscences, then the book is a very enjoyable read despite the flaws mentioned above. It is full of poignant stories such as Bob Tillburn’s account of the sinking of HMS Hood. Bob Tillburn was one of the three survivors of the ill-fated battle cruiser. At $24.95 cover price, the cost should not bar any person from being able to afford the book and it is recommended for anybody who wants to go inside the minds of the people who lived through World War II.