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A jaw-dropping tale of soldiering and leadership. It follows the military career of one Felix Sparks. Born in Arizona to a family of modest means, at the depths of the Great Depression, Felix Sparks was effectively sent on the road by his parents to find his fortune. That he did not find, but, stumbling into the Army out of bare economic necessity, he came upon his metier by accident.
The meat of the narrative starts with Sparks’ arrival on the beaches of Sicily as the adjutant of his regiment, the 157th Infantry Regt of the 45th Division, aka the Thunderbirds. British readers will find General Patton’s intense rivalry with Montgomery (“that little fart” in Pattonese) of interest. Patton of course won the race to Messina, after some full-on confrontations with his British counterpart; but this was at a cost – Allied casualties exceeded those of the Axis. Sparks noted the contrasting levels of resistance put up by the German and Italian defenders.
The reader follows the Thunderbirds’ progress Northwards through Italy, with the landings at Salerno and Anzio. Spark’s great leadership skills are swiftly recognised, and his rapid promotion allows Kershaw to weave the strategic developments more closely into his narrative. However Sparks is such a great officer his men are always in his thoughts, and he is often in the thick of the action. Indeed by war’s end Sparks has evidently been promoted as far as possible for a man who speaks so frankly to his generals. I suspect Sparks subconsciously precipitated a lack of further promotion because he did not want to be distanced from his men. But this is to jump ahead.
Sparks laments the scorched earth policy of the retreating Germans – he is a sufficiently sensitive soul to have some enjoyment of the Italian landscapes through which he fights. High level divisions in decision making are laid bare, with Sparks not sparing criticism for the poor tactical thinking of General Mark Clark, or the timid Maj-Gen John Lucas. The former earns Sparks’ disgust by diverting to Rome vainly to satisfy his need for a role as liberator.
By the time the Thunderbirds reached Naples, the locals had refined their knavery to such a degree that the proportion of Allied materiel being offered back to Sparks’ men was astonishing. A man of relatively pure morals by military standards, Sparks was also upset by the extent to which Naples had become a clap trap for his soldiers.
Sparks is made a battalion commander by the age of 26. But the sustained intensity of the fighting endured by his troops spreads PTSD like the mange. With little respite the Thunderbirds are dropped or landed on the South coast of France, and are soon fighting one of their fiercest battles in the Vosges. The pressure on the young officer is almost unbearable. According to the US Surgeon General “all men in rifle battalions become psychiatric cases after 200 days in combat.” Sparks’ luck runs out and he is wounded, but extricates himself from hospital to be with his beloved troops.
Sparks is a front line witness to the failure of Eisenhower’s strategy and so we are treated to grandstand seats of the Battle of the Bulge. Once into Germany, Kershaw conveys the sad fate of the civilian population with the same skill as Beevor’s Berlin. He is detailed to take the town of Dachau, and knows not what that implies. The resulting episode is extremely harrowing, and its aftermath haunts Sparks for years, in more ways than one.
By VE Day 135,576 young Americans have died, and Sparks, like his men is desperate to return home to his wife, and to his 2 year old son, whom he has never met. The Army does its best to prevaricate. The Yorkshire born author now lives in the USA, and was able to meet Sparks before his death in 2007; his work was aided by Sparks’ son. Felix’s post war career is full of interest and tragedy. By the final page the reader can be in no doubt that Kershaw has related the story of not necessarily one of the nation’s best field soldiers, but certainly a great leader and a fine member of the human race. Highly recommended.
The Liberator One World War II Soldier’s 500-day Odyssey
Alex Kershaw Hutchison, 8 November 2012