11-19-2005, 06:43 AM
An article in the (UK) "The Times" today (Sat 19 Nov 2005).......

The Times November 19, 2005

Secret diary that survived to tell a real soldier’s tale

EXACTLY 61 years ago to the day, my great-uncle Jack Swaab was soaked to the skin, face down in a Dutch pine forest with shells exploding all about him, convinced that he was about to die.
He can be so sure about this because, strictly against orders, he kept a journal in which he recorded everything that happened to him and his comrades as they fought their way across North Africa, Sicily and northern Europe.

The first time I heard that my great-uncle had been a Desert Rat was shortly after I “borrowed” a pair of beautiful black fur-lined ex-Luftwaffe flying gloves from my grandmother’s hall cupboard.
After wearing them on my motorbike a few times, I had to tell her that I had lost them. “Oh dear, Jack will be upset,” she said. “He got them from a crashed plane in the desert during the war.” She didn’t tell him and neither did I. They were the reason I tactfully avoided raising the subject of the war for the next 25 years.
When I finally “confessed”, two years ago, I found out that he had won the Military Cross and seen action in Sicily, Italy and Normandy as well as the desert. He had no recollection of the gloves, but said that he might have mentioned them in the diary he had kept throughout his military service.
Until I read it, pretty much all I knew of my elderly relative was that he was married to a delightful Canadian lady called Zena, was obsessed with horse racing and had told the only slightly risqué anecdote at my grandmother’s 80th birthday party when he reminded her that, as a teenager at a dance, the music had stopped and her voice could be heard inquiring: “But Harold, why do you have a torch in your pocket?”
Jack’s diary tells the story of a young man who found himself caught up in the greatest upheaval of the 20th century. Reading a diary is not like reading a memoir, written with hindsight, by a survivor. Jack didn’t know whether the next shell would have his name on it, whether he would live, or die, as so many of his friends had. He kept his diary meticulously, recording everything from toothache to petty rivalries in the mess, to his relationships with a succession of girlfriends, as well as great battles and near brushes with death.
Because it was against orders for a frontline officer to keep a diary in case it fell into enemy hands, a girlfriend had notebooks made for him from extra-thin paper that would be easy to destroy. Fortunately, like my great-uncle, they survived. After the war, Jack married and enjoyed a successful career in advertising. The diaries — in six handwritten notebooks — were stashed away in an ammunition box in his loft.
They were too fascinating, too well written, to be returned to his attic so I sent the manuscript to Sutton Publishing, which specialises in military subjects. They are now being published. The military historian Hew Strachan, who has written the introduction, hails them as “one of the great personal narratives of the experience of war in the years 1939-45”.
Jack, now 87 and living in Wimbledon, says that it all seems like something that happened to someone “I once used to know rather well”. Some of his observations, he feels, were rather commonplace. But he says: “Yet, dammit, I feel a sneaking admiration for this chap who seems to have done battle for 110 hours without getting his boots off and who apparently coped variously with temperatures ranging from 118F in the shade to 40 degrees of frost, with sandstorms, snow, mud and rain, with lack of food and lack of sleep, not to mention toothache, malaria and love.”
He served with the 51st Highland Division as a forward observation officer until appointed the regimental adjutant after the fall of Germany. The final entry in his diary reads: “At close of play in the 5th Victory Test at Old Trafford on Saturday Australia were all out for 173 and England 162 for 5.”
He had nothing left to say.
Field of Fire, by Jack Swaab, is published by Sutton on November 24. £19.99


North Africa
February 13, 1943

Jock [Jack’s commanding officer and old friend] is dead.
I am absolutely stunned by the news; he was such a grand chap. He stepped on a Teller mine and was killed outright. What makes it worse is that his wife has just had a daughter . . . Oh damn, why is it the best people and the bravest who always go?

North Africa
March 10, 1943

A “V” ration today . . . The possession of many cigarettes seems to drive up the desire to consume them, and thus run out as quickly as possible. The gunners seem to have no notion of conservatism. All they ask, as they say frequently in letters home, is “a chance to smoke themselves to death”.

Night, November 18, 1944

As we did the last open stretch to the canal (I was still on foot) we got caught in a rain of about 50 shells which were so close one had to lie down and wait and hope for the best as they screamed towards you and crashed — some about ten yards away — hitting the eardrums and sending the fragments whizzing inches overhead as you pressed to the soft earth, tin hat close to the floor, body straining to press lower, nerve shrinking, hopes fading. Several times in those few minutes I thought “this one is it, this time it'll hit me”.


Coming back over the sunny green pinewoods and grass near the canal, it was hard to re-visualise the hours of fear in the darkness, when each hundred yards semed a mile, and the newly dead turned their waxen faces to the unreal moon, and the wounded sobbed as the stretcher bearers plodded back with them through the mud.
I hope my son, if I ever have one, won’t have to do the things I’ve done; before I knew I used to think it was “exciting” this thing they call battle but it isn’t, it's achingly tiring, and heartbreaking.

11-19-2005, 07:12 AM
Looks like that book may be well worth the read.