In Review

Brothers in Arms by James Holland – what the critics have said

Holland’s latest is war history as it should be written – ‘painful to read, but impossible to put down’

Brothers in Arms book cover

Military history can feel lacking in humanity, obsessed with “regiment numbers and calibre sizes”, said Katja Hoyer in The Spectator. But James Holland’s approach is different: in his acclaimed books about the Second World War, his focus has been on the “men behind the faceless facts”.

His latest, Brothers in Arms, follows a single British tank regiment – the Sherwood Rangers – as it makes its way from the Normandy beaches to Germany during the final year of the War. Drawing on a wide range of sources – diaries, letters, interviews with veterans – Holland paints a “vivid picture of what his subjects endured and achieved”. He takes us into the tanks with the men, breathing the same “hot, fume-filled air”, and smelling the same stench of “food, sweat and piss”.

“Going to war in a vehicle might seem an improvement on the trenches,” said Patrick Bishop in The Daily Telegraph. But Holland’s account shows that “those who served in armoured units had merely exchanged one form of hell for another”. Quite apart from the claustrophobia, there was the constant fear: death could arrive in many forms. A bomb might blow your tank to pieces; you might be “picked off by a sniper as you poked your head out of the hatch”; or a shell might ignite the tank’s fuel, incinerating those inside (a horror known as “brewing up”).

What is remarkable is the intimacy he creates with his subjects: we start to feel we know these men personally, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times – men such as the war poet Keith Douglas, who was killed by an explosion in June 1944; or Denis Elmore, the last officer in the Sherwood Rangers to die, who perished less than three weeks before VE Day. This is war history as it should be written – “painful to read, but impossible to put down”.

Bantam 592pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

Brothers in Arms book cover
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