Well-researched, sprawling account of unforgiving combat in World War II, told with pulpy immediacy.
Kershaw (The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II, 2010, etc.) crafts a dramatic historical narrative from lesser-known aspects of the European campaign by simultaneously focusing on the larger sweep of events and the experiences of one officer, Felix Sparks, whom the author interviewed prior to Sparks’ death in 2007. Sparks joined the Army as a way out of the Depression and was a lieutenant in the 45th “Thunderbird” Division of the National Guard when war broke out; the intensity of his combat experience was indicated by his rank of colonel at the war’s end. Sparks and his unit had a grueling wartime record: a year and a half of nearly constant combat, starting with the 1943 invasion of Sicily. Fortunately, Sparks “loved being a rifle company commander”; as the war intensified, he was seen as an officer with the rare combination of combat experience and esprit de corps. Yet multiple calamities befell Sparks and his unit, including the loss of his entire command during Anzio. Later, Sparks faced elite SS troops in harsh winter combat and was among the first American officers to liberate a concentration camp. Kershaw emphasizes the lethal, grinding absurdity of the European theater, which ultimately drove ordinary Americans like Sparks toward feats of bravery and endurance. Although the gruff dialogue and broad canvas of supporting characters can give the book the dramatized feel of a miniseries, it is an appealing addition to the literature of World War II.
This engrossing wartime narrative offers a fresh look at the European campaign and an intimate sense of the war’s toll on individual participants.