Where new writing finds its voice

The Broken Plume & My First War

Simon Goodall

The Broken Plume: A Platoon Commander’s Story, 1940–45
Norman Craig
Imperial War Museum, 1982

My First War: An Army Officer’s Journal for May 1940
Captain Sir Basil Bartlett
Chatto & Windus, 1941


There is nothing like a first-hand account for bringing history alive and personalising otherwise distant events. These two wartime chronicles re-enlivened the Second World War for me once again: the first was a recommendation – Norman Craig is my ex-boss’s father – the other I picked up at random in Oxfam.

They are both mild-mannered accounts of far from exceptional wartime adventures and there are lots of common and unsurprising themes: the immense confusion and incomprehension experienced in the middle of a huge army on the march; the individual attitudes and decisions to the exceptional and uncertain; boredom, privation (here, fairly limited in the grander scheme of the war); and of course the inevitable near-misses, the lost friends and the proximity of death and potential glory. Above all the randomness of where you end up and in what state. 

One of the most striking episodes is Norman Craig’s account of a lost companion at El Alamein. Previously in Craig’s narrative, the victim has already proved himself a good friend ‘gentle in manner and refined in speech … who had been an art student in Chelsea’. After a stint as traffic controllers (literally pointing the tanks towards the Germans), the pair opt to join a front line infantry regiment, rather than return to their base on the Nile. They jump off the lorry, report and are posted to a new unit, rest by the road and in a split second one is torn apart by a shell exploding nearby. The other, Norman Craig, goes on to play an active part in the battle and war, fulfil a distinguished career in the civil service, have a family, and live to a ripe old age.

Shortly afterwards Craig’s war takes a turn for the more banal and he is posted for several years to Persia and Iraq where the most pressing threat seems to be obnoxious Americans. When challenged by one such drunken Yank who was losing his place in a bar to the higher rank, Craig bristles, ‘All this brassy equalitarianism was too much! When I thought of the easy relationship between the platoon and myself at Mersa Matruh, and compared it with this shoddy slogan democracy I was furious.’

However, such cultural difficulties are forgotten when in 1944 he suddenly gets the opportunity to volunteer for the front line once again. This time it was Italy that was the theatre of war, where after a couple of months fighting along the Adriatic coast he is wounded and stretchered out of the war for good. On the road to his final battle, he relates the envy of his unit as they marched past ‘a battery of field gunners … grinning and working industriously and clearly relished the prospect of pumping twenty-five-pound shells into the enemy. Who wouldn’t – from four miles away?’

Sir Basil’s is the more polished literary performance, but then he was a playwright by trade. It is a journal of a fairly ineffectual month in France prior to being chased back across the Channel, full of humour, anecdotes and gung-ho spirit, ‘We found my batman up a lamp-post. He’d taken to heart a statement of mine that bombs burst flat along the ground and seldom blast more then five feet off it.’ (A batman is the guy who irons your shirt before you go off to battle: a butler with a gun). 

His journal and tour as a field security officer with the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) starts on 1st May and ends on the 30th. For most of the time everything seems very jolly and high-spirited, and then suddenly somebody’s telling him it’s all over and he’s hiding from Stukas in sand dunes. Sir Basil is left wondering where on earth it all went so terribly wrong and suspecting the French have let the side down rather. (The book was published during the war, but this comment, like many others in the book, is unlikely to be a patriotic edit, as Sir Basil seems quite as capable of mildly abusing the French, Jews or Belgians, as he is the Germans). Actually, on the whole he seems to get on rather well with his various well-to-do hosts and benefits from the generosity of several well-stocked chateaux.

It is a lack of single command or purpose that is a constant problem in Sir Basil’s month in France and Belgium, and it is interesting how the chaos has a certain order in the Broken Plume, whereas in My First War uncertainties are not resolved and jurisdiction is constantly blurred. This is perhaps typified when, advancing towards Brussels, lost as usual, Sir Basil stops to ask the way and ‘everyone – including Belgian soldiers – said: “We’re getting out as quickly as possible. The Germans are coming.” This attitude rather took us aback!’ However, sure enough after one night in the capital they too get the order to fall back, though the true extent of the German success is only confirmed in Sir Basil’s news-starved unit when they realise they have had no supplies for three days. 

These snapshots of the Second World War both captured my imagination far more than the second-hand historical accounts I have read of the same events. They have prompted me to further reading and research of the period, and to constantly scan bookshelves in search of more forgotten gems from the minor characters of history.