Eight Hours From England

Eight Hours From England

Anthony Quayle
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Review by Untallguy

Eight Hours From England is part of the Imperial War Museum’s new Classic Wartime Fiction series (the others in the series are Plenty Under The Counter, Trial By Battle and From the City, From the Plough. First published in 1945, Eight Hours From England was written by Anthony Quayle and is a fictionalised account of his exploits in Albania working for SOE during the Second World War.

I’ll be honest; I had no idea that Anthony Quayle had been part of the SOE. I guessed that he had fought in the war as had many actors of his generation (such as David Niven, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Alec Guinness) but my memories of him are Ice Cold In Alex and The Guns Of Navarone.

Quayle writes as the character ‘Overton’ who realises that his love for a woman is unrequited (although she is fond of him) and so he volunteers for the SOE and flies to Egypt as ordered only to discover that no-one has heard of him or why he has been sent. Options are bandied around casually and Greece, Hungary, Romania and the Far East (which Overton is honest enough to admit that he doesn’t fancy) before it is settled that he will go to Albania.

He is then pitched into the middle of a confused and confusing situation. The experienced team that he joins is extracted and he finds himself in charge of a disparate group with no clear aims.

Primarily, he is there to fight the Germans yet he is in the middle of a civil war where the Communist partisans are fighting the Germans but are opposed by anti-Communists who are fighting with the Germans until they start leaving; at this point, they will turn on them and fight the Communists concurrently. Throw in local village people whose sole aim is to survive and will do whatever it takes to achieve this, be it helping or hindering Overton as required, and the situation becomes more confused. A fragile and tenuous supply chain, intermittent communications with his chain of command and other team members, having to evacuate Italians who had been the enemy and are now friendly forces, atrocious weather and the steep, unremitting mountains all contribute to Overton’s problems and his sometime sense of helplessness.

There’s no two ways about it. Quayle, as well as being a superb actor (nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe no less) was also an outstanding writer who brought to life both the big picture (such as the Allies’ failure to understand the Albanian situation) and the micro-tactical events (his description of extracting across snow-covered mountains whilst carrying a rucksack full of gold sovereigns made me wince).

Eight Hours From England can be read on a number of levels: as a description of a failed intervention; an epic war novel; and the autobiographical story of a man who was intelligent, tough, resourceful and braver than he would have his readers believe.

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