Edinburgh at War 1939-45

Edinburgh at War 1939-45

Craig Armstrong
ARRSE Rating
3 Mushroom Heads
Craig Armstong's 'Edinburgh at War 1939-45' forms part of the Pen & Sword series 'Your Towns & Cities in World War Two'.

Its 216 densely-packed pages represent quite an achievement, covering Edinburgh's seven years of war in a fair amount of detail over seven chapters of varying lengths, one for each year of the war. These are complemented by useful endnotes and a fairly comprehensive index. The book is illustrated by a selection of black and white photographs, some of which are excellent. However others, presumably those reproduced directly from old newsprint, are poor. The one noticeable omission is a map of city to help locate the events described.

Chapter one, of 41 pages, covers 1939 and preparations for war quite interestingly, whilst chapter two (44 pages) relates the events of 1940 with a good eye to the events of the wider war. 1941 is dealt with fairly summarily in 17 pages, with some interesting detail about the air war, rationing and scrap and salvage. The fourth chapter, on 1942, is similarly brief at 16 pages but has some good information on daily life in Edinburgh as the effect of the war began to bite, and a strong focus on criminality. The narrative for 1943 features a heavy focus on the RAF again, but also touches on the city's generous fund-raising for various purposes, one writer's experience of Christmas, 1943 and returned prisoners-of-war. Chapter six, on 1944, unsurprisingly features D-Day, with significant mentions of Edinburgh's own Flying Officer John Cruickshank VC and the standing down of the Home Guard. Finally, chapter seven concludes the book with reflections on how Edinburgh marked VE and VJ Days, the Royal visit and the Scottish Victory Parade before some concluding observations on how the war had affected the city and its inhabitants.

Whilst as a book it broadly works, the weaker parts read like a compendium of period reporting, rather than a narrative account. There is some informed commentary, and some critical distance shown, but this is quite limited in scope. The limitations of a year by year approach come through in some parts of the book, where there is a suggestion of recounting a series of fairly disconnected events in sequence rather than telling a connected story. The book is at is best in the brief sections when it takes and runs with a theme, like the anti-Italian riots or the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers.

Positively, the flow of narrative is overall good and there is a good balance of 'war' and home news, with reference to Edinburgh men caught up in the greater events. The author makes good use of Commonwealth War Graves Commission and other records to fill in details of those casualties mentioned in the narrative, although - perhaps reflecting the bias of the newspapers on which the accounts are evidently based - coverage is much better of RAF and Army casualties than those of the Royal or Merchant Navy.

One thing that grows noticeable moving through the book is the almost complete absence of reported speech. The focus on reports of setpiece speeches, visits of the great and the good, court proceedings, etc, means that the voice of the average working man or woman, or indeed child, is either absent or sanitised and filtered. This is perhaps the book's main weakness, which can make it seem flat in places.

3 stars - overall, a good effort, but not gripping enough to make me want to dip into the rest of the series.
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