When Stanley Christopherson wrote in his diary in late November 1945, he proclaimed, ‘So many outstanding things were done during this war, which so thoroughly deserved an award, but were never witnessed.’ The truism is appropriate.
Recalling the battle conducted by his tank-crews of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, Christopherson had described the breakthrough into Germany. Within the British story of the Second World War, this event falls outside popular memory. Readers may recall the siege of Tobruk or the victory at El Alamein. After this came D-Day and the accompanying campaign through northern France, and the debacle of Operation Market Garden.
Here, though, the story tends to run out, only to be picked up again months later when Montgomery accepted the German surrender on Lüneberg Heath. What happened in between Market Garden and the surrender?
A Professor of War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton explained why this gap exists: publishers will not commission academic books on this period of the war. It is fortunate, therefore, that the accomplished historian James Holland has prepared Stanley Christopherson’s diaries for publication.
The content of this paperback edition does not differ from the already existing hardback, but is lighter to pack into your bag, which should appeal to those hoping to walk a few battlefields.
What makes Christopherson’s diaries fascinating is that every event mentioned above was a battle honour for the Sherwood Rangers. Equipped with horses, then artillery pieces, and finally tanks, the Regiment fought continuously, in the Middle East, in North Africa, and in north-west Europe. In trying to understand the reality of fighting the conflict, especially the overlooked battle in Holland and Germany, this book is indispensable.
As the title suggests, Holland has only included Christopherson’s military service. A short biography will satisfy the reader without distracting from what makes this book important. With such a wide breadth of locations, campaigns, and units to cover, Holland has still managed to lay bare the key themes.
Most important is the positive portrayal of British soldiers. Despite starting the war as amateurs, the Regiment matured signficantly. This professionalism ensured the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry ended the war with more battle honours than any other British unit, while commanders frequently asked them to act as a spearhead; such was the high regard in which they were held.
This book follows one officer and the men of his Regiment, so there is little of the wider war here. However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of the British way of war, relations with civilians, and the experience of battle.
As a guide on the period, it is best enjoyed along with campaign histories; as a way of infusing academic texts with a human dimension.
I began this review lamenting the shortage of books that cover the British Army in Europe at the end of the war. This book has made a start on filling that gap, which Holland’s upcoming book on the Sherwood Rangers in the Second World War will hopefully augment.
Review by Tobias Clark.
An Englishman at War: the wartime diaries of Stanley Christopherson, DSO, MC, TD, 1939-1945, James Holland (ed.), Penguin Random House, £12.99 (pbk), ISBN 978-0552165655.