We first discovered author Alex Kershaw
at a Friends of the World War II Memorial event in Washington, D.C. It didn’t take long for my husband and me to become huge fans of his World War II histories.
Mr. Kershaw’s narratives flow like David McCullough’s, telling hard stories in relatable ways.
First I read, The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau
Two amateur historians have held history nights the last four winters (until Covid-19 arrived). Learning about Sparks’s feats from Sicily onward meant I had to read about this understated World War II hero.
The first part of the book is heavily concentrated on the battles that the Thunderbirds undertook. If you enjoy this type of strategy, you’ll like it. I was frequently lost because I constantly seek the people side of war books. It’s my brain that has a difficult time following how battles were fought, not Mr. Kershaw’s writing.
The Thunderbirds launched a massive amphibious assault on Sicily (lost to the public due to the D-Day invasion). They moved to the Italian mainland, traveled through France, and into Germany. They battled for 511 days. Can you imagine the exhaustion of these men?
We learn more about Felix Sparks as the “Liberator” with the freeing of the Dachau Concentration camp internees. Mr. Sparks commanded the 3rd Battalion of the 157th Regiment of the 45th Division as they reached the camp.
The story becomes more involved with Felix and the reader comes to realize what an unsung hero he was. During a lull in one battle, multiple men lay wounded on the hillside. Sparks got so frustrated and angry that he went to retrieve them. The Germans were astounded at his bravery to the extent that their leader forbade them to shoot him.
Mr. Sparks’s story took a terrible turn when he was 76. His 15-year-old grandson was accidentally shot in a drive-by. Putting his grief to work, Sparks set out to change Colorado gun laws, taking on the NRA and winning. Sparks lived until 2007, thereby witnessing the 1999 Columbine shootings—using weapons more powerful than he used in the war.
*Netflix is releasing an animated short series in 2020.
Next on my reading list, The First Wave, The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II
Mr. Kershaw’s emphasis is on five men who participated in the D-Day landings and the immediately ensuing battles. Though this book is difficult to read, the unique perspective on the invasion is speedily devoured—you want to know. These are highly emotional stories of the admirable feats of men and units during the invasion. Astounding is how Mr. Kershaw’s writing paints vivid individual portraits of a cast of many. The reader does not have to flip back to remind themselves who is who.
My great uncle Lloyd Naugle died as a result of injuries sustained in France following his D-Day landing. Reading about D-Day, like watching that sequence in Saving Private Ryan, is difficult. I find myself searching for his handsome face in every photo. Just as I found myself searching for a mention as I read this book. That’s family.
Read next was, The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of WWII’s Most Decorated Platoon
This is a gripping tale of stoic heroism in the face of daunting odds. The I&R platoon at the front of the Battle of the Bulge were stalwart, committed. People who have never been to war think battles are one huge, massive duel happening over a stretch of land. Sometimes, like the Normandy landings, that is the case. Chaos occurring at one time. At other times there is a small group of 18 men who defy logic. They fight against a flood of German soliders, thereby enabling the larger battle to take place, to be won.
Again, Mr. Kershaw does a brilliant job portraying the individual personalities of the men involved in war.
We purchased this book at a D-Day event. Mr. Kershaw as an excellent speaker, combining humor and humility with a strong scope of understanding of his topic. If you have any opportunity to see him in person, grab it. You will laugh, learn, and come away with a stronger knowledge of at least one aspect of WWII.
My next WWII book was, The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-day Sacrifice
Here’s another hard-hitting Alex Kershaw work. Knowing the ending of this story makes it doubly difficult to read. The town of Bedford, Virginia with only 3k inhabitants, lost 22 of 35 men who landed on D-Day. You’ll find yourself getting angry, easily done hindsight. I can’t imagine being the strategist behind such a landing force.
As with Mr. Kershaw’s other books, something he does exceptionally well is bring the individual men fully to life. You recognize them by a characterization, a brief word, a nickname. If you are interested in WWII and what sacrifice and patriotism are, please read this book.
None of these stories are easy to read because of the subject matter. But none was as hard hitting as the one I just finished.
The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II
This is, so far, the most grueling Alex Kershaw book I have read. It was a continual shock to read the devastation the Nazi unleashed on Budapest and the surrounding areas.
What struck me about Raoul Wallenberg saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust is that I had never heard of him. I did not realize the extent of European Jews fleeing to Hungary, only to find persecution there. Learning about the Arrow Cross militia thugs was shocking.
I did not know this is where the diabolical Adolf Eichmann served his last years of the war. Reading about Eichmann’s participation in designing the, “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was horrifying. The brutality of the Nazis and the Arrow Cross is still beyond my comprehension. There were multiple times I had to put the book down and walk away, digesting the inhumanity of the SS. This book depicts the contrast of pure evilness to kindness and generosity, of people who fought to save Jewish lives. Like Wallenberg and his vast team of helpers.
The next big question: Which remaining book to read next?
And this was the next book:
The Few: The American “Knights of the Air” Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain
The same as when in The Envoy: Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II, I learned something new in reading about the American pilots who fought for England during WWII, before America joined the Allies. This is a great story following several pilots who decide, for personal reasons, that they have to engage in the battle against fascism and Nazis that Hitler is unleashing against Britain and their Allies.
From the beginning, “A few days later, they pledged their allegiance to Britain’s sovereign, King George VI, no easy thing for any patriotic American to do given that Americans had won their independence from King George III.” (Mr. Kershaw is British by birth.)
I’ve noted in other reviews that an aspect of Mr. Kershaw’s books that I appreciate is that although there is usually a broad group of featured individuals, he describes them so vividly that the reader has no problem keeping track of them. The men of this book, and their unique narratives will keep you reading with bated breath—do they get to battle? Do they survive those battles? Do they get to go home again?
The research done to create such complete stories must take years! Not only do we learn about the Allies pilots, but also of some German ones. Again, a perspective I never had before—the pilots fought with honor. Although, of course, I hated every time they shot down an Allied plane.
Don’t miss reading this thrilling, page-turner about a segment of American history that will make you smile, cry, and feel pride in our veterans.
Visit Alex Kershaw’s site.
Read, About The First Wave
War stories are not usually something I read, but these sound interesting.
“Enjoy” always seems the wrong word to use, Ken, because the writing is enjoyable, but the topics are harsh. I might say to read, “Liberator,” first because in the scheme of stories to bring me to tears, this one might have done that the least. He is simply an elegant story teller who brings real people back to life for the reader. Let me know.