This is a hardback book, newly-published, running to over 430 pages (though some 85 pages are notes, index and acknowledgements), subtitled From the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau. The back cover tells us:
“No World War II infantry unit in Europe saw more action or endured worse than the
one commanded by Felix Sparks. A maverick officer – and the only man to survive his
company’s wartime odyssey from bitter beginning to victorious end – Sparks’s remarkable
story has never before been told.”
I have to point out this the story is of an American officer and I have not bothered to check whether the claims made in the previous paragraph hold true for all allies (somehow when we include Germany and Russia, I doubt it). For a start, the mathematicians will have noticed that 500 days is well short of two years. However this does not detract from the book as it stands once allowances are made.
Sparks comes of age during the Depression and the Dustbowl. He must leave his family home because his parents can not feed him; he lives as a hobo, crossing America by stowing away on freight trains. Stopped on the street in San Francisco, he is invited to join the army, which keeps him fed, then goes to university but before he can graduate, he finds himself called up to the National Guard in 1940 as a second lieutenant in 157 Infantry Regiment of 45 Division, “The Thunderbirds”.
In June 1943 the regiment sails for North Africa and trains for an amphibious landing in Sicily. Spotted by the Commanding Officer, Sparks is seen as a thinker, removed as company commander and appointed Adjutant. Having cleared Sicily (and seen Patton truly pissed off by Montgomery claiming right of way up the direct route to the Italy-facing coast of Sicily), the division is selected to land at Salerno. (Patton becomes a recurring theme through the book and becomes a vital personal link in Sparks’s story at the war’s end. Throughout the book, Patton’s loathing of the British is clear to see, but I believe this is more down to a certain amount of American Anglophobia common at the time rather than the author’s bias. To be fair to the author, he lays criticism where it is due, against the British, the Germans and especially the Americans when criticism is due. Mark Clark’s self-serving attitude to choosing between helping to beat the Germans in Italy or to enter Rome in triumph earns him both barrels of the author’s shotgun/pen.)
From Salerno, the division is landed at Anzio where, as company commander, his company is wiped out.
By August 1944 Sparks is in command of 157th’s 2nd Battalion and preparing for yet another beach landing, east of Toulon on Operation Dragoon. They manage to more or less swan through southern France until they reach the Vosges Mountains in Alsace. The thick forests are all but impenetrable and the German defence, stiffening as they fall back on their homeland, all but wipe out the 157th again .
While Patton is turning his army through 90 degrees to support and relieve Bastogne in the Ardennes, Thunderbirds are spread dangerously thin covering the gap left behind.
Sparks is by now commanding 3rd Battalion and is sent to walk into Aschaffenburg, reported clear by an American reconnaissance unit and secured by Patton’s Third Army. Crossing a bridge over the river Main on the city’s outskirts, Sparks learns that Aschaffenburg has not been cleared: the garrison of 5000 Germans have planned to defend the city to the last man and one infantry battalion is not going to get into the city. It transpires that Patton has sent his men on a personal mission beyond Aschaffenburg. Task Force Baum, its defenders, are ready and waiting for a scrap. The battle for Aschaffenburg becomes a full-scale divisional set piece assault.
With just weeks of the war left to run, Sparks finds his force ordered to relieve Dachau and his troops are not prepared for what they see. Atrocities are committed and senior officers from outside of area arrive to try and claim Sparks’s moment of glory which is rapidly turning sour. Sparks’s maverick attitude toward his seniors finds him on the brink of court martial for war crimes. His divisional commander, knowing that the war is over, sends Sparks home before any action can be taken, but Sparks is dragged back to face trial, ending up in the office of Patton himself.
This is the end of the Second World War for Felix Sparks but the story is not over. Under the GI Bill, he finally completes his law degree and finds himself elected to the Supreme Court, but cuts his time short, sick by the corruption rampant in high office. He finds himself invited by the State of Colorado to build the state’s National Guard into a viable military machine and gets a general’s star.
Sparks’s last battle breaks out in 1993 when his teenage grandson is gunned down and killed on the street. Sick beyond words of all the mindless death he has seen down the years, he takes on the State of Colorado and the National Rifle Association and its blind, manic determination to hold on the the full words of the Second Amendment to the Constitution at all costs regardless of the cost in innocent lives of the Second Amendment.
There is a hell of a lot of story in this book, which is well-written and a very easy (if often harrowing) read. It was not a book I asked to review and probably not one that I would have chosen, but by the end of it, I was pleased to have read it and it had left its mark.
The war in Italy, southern France and southern Germany is not often told. For this reason, I do not feel that four and a half Mushroonheads could do the book the justice it deserves and I award it five.
The Liberator: From the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau by Alex Kershaw published by Hutchinson
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