Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Of impeccable American pedigree, being able to trace both sides of his family back to those first Englishmen to set foot on Massachusetts shores, Johnny Bigelow Dodge was born not with a silver spoon in his mouth but a golden one. With that patrician background Dodge lacked for nothing in his youth, and had connections that spurred his adult career. That background also gave him not just self-assurance, but an easy wit, and concern for his fellow humans that shines from every page.
Two putative biographers had died before they could complete their books on Dodge. That is Carroll’s gain and our resulting delight. Within the first few pages the reader can be in no doubt of the fascination of the subject, and the fluidity of the author’s writing style. Dodge’s sister received amorous advances from their step-father, before marrying a German-born banker a week before the outbreak of WW1. There are many events in this book which would stretch credulity in a novel. So part of The Dodger’s delight is that he is terribly well-connected. His uncle was an old friend of Prince Wilhelm, the last German Kaiser. His step-father was Churchill’s cousin, and the great leader managed to smooth the Dodger’s commission into the Royal Naval Division, which saw him wounded in the catastrophic landings at Gallipoli. After having been in the burial party for his colleague and friend, Rupert Brooke – of course. The ceremony is movingly described.
Dodge’s British patriotism knows no bounds, and he again uses his connections to ensure he is transferred into the Army proper in time to participate in the first battle of the Somme; wounded again he is mentioned in despatches in early 1918. There is a rare description of the state of Flanders immediately after the Armistice, as both his parents join him for a battlefield tour.
Post war his career takes an unlikely turn: round the world ramblings end in Russia. Ostensibly investigating trading opportunities, Dodge appears to have been doing some spying for HMG (reminiscent of Greville Wynne in a later age, I thought), but Carroll unfortunately cannot find positive proof of this employment. Certainly the Cheka seem to believe he is up to no good for Dodge is imprisoned more than once, sometimes again needing to pull family connections to aid his liberation. The Russian sojourn quashes his previous regard for communism.
Once back in the UK he has several attempts to become Conservative MP for Mile End in East London. If Carroll is to be believed, Dodge’s charm and innate good nature won over many hearts there, but he never quite made it to parliament.
Turning to a more overt career, Dodge becomes a stockbroker, progressing from clerk to partner within a year! He marries a fellow American in England, Minerva, who (the reader no longer surprised by such things) turns out to be a friend of Wallis Simpson. His newly acquired stepson, who can be presumed therefore to be dispassionate, provides a touching description of Johnny –
“…such a dominant presence, such a wonderful strong face, carrying himself like an emperor…”
Dodge enlists with the Middlesex at the outbreak of WW2, aged 43, downgraded from Lt-Colonel to Major. Like all his colleagues, Dodge’s experience with the BEF in France was very trying. The retreat from Dunkirk takes him to Normandy before capture – the ensuing march to the German border is the beginning of his travails. But by great good fortune he ends up being processed with downed RAF airmen and arrives at the Dulag Luft – the processing camp for captured Allied airmen. Here the reader learns more about prison conditions in a few pages than in the whole of Behind the Wire. The Senior British Officer there was the infamous Wings Day. Carroll betrays a rare lack of grip of his subject when he describes Day as a “stunt flyer” – the RAF is clearly not his forte. But the benign conditions there, and the kindly attitude of the Kommandant will be a revelation to most readers (particularly those who have read Behind the Wire, and the RAF’s official history).
Dodge displays a few flaws – an adoration of Neville Chamberlain for one; a pre-disposition to cod philosophy for another. A keenness to put himself forward to be exchanged (back to the UK on health grounds) also seems at odds with the more heroic parts of his career. Not a flaw, but for a mature married man to have such devotion to his (admittedly domineering) mother is quite odd. Carroll’s narrative pace drops mid-volume when he quotes at length from Dodge’s numerous letters from his PoW camps to his mother.
One of the book’s hooks is Dodge’s involvement in the Great Escape (because he did not manage to remain in the Dulag Luft indefinitely). Given the inherent drama of that story, Carroll’s build-up to it is strangely brief and matter-of-fact. Hitler’s hideous post escape retribution is well documented elsewhere, and there is a little repetition in Carroll’s coverage. Only 3 of the 76 successful escapers made a “home run”. The Gestapo executed 50 of the remaining 73.
Dodge is too blithely optimistic and careless to make a good escaper. An inability to learn German is another part of his undoing. He ends up in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, but luckily - due to his Churchill connection - in the VIP section, where conditions are relatively pleasant. Coincidentally a fellow prisoner is Peter Churchill (no relation) whose SOE adventures are wonderfully described in his Duel of Wits (Hodder, 1953).
The final section of the book deals with Dodge’s peregrinations around Germany in the hands of the Germans as they try to preserve their VIP prisoners as bargaining tools.
Relations between him and his guards become increasingly close – particularly once the less Nazi of them realise the war is lost. Near the book’s close is an absorbing discussion of the politics of escaping – a subject rarely discussed. Given the man, it is unsurprising that Dodge remained very friendly with many of his captors after VE Day – that some required his help to rescind or reduce prison sentences further spurred their friendship.
An utterly absorbing subject, and confidently written, The Dodger also merits a read for its coverage of often overlooked topics. Even those only marginally interested in war will be intrigued by its coverage of how patricians make it to the battle front.
The Dodger The extraordinary story of Churchill’s cousin and the Great Escape
Tim Carroll Mainstream, 2012
Johnny Dodge in WW1