Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Review: Back from Tobruk


By Croswell Bowen
Edited by Betsy Connor Bowen
264 pp. Potomac Books

Reviewed by Gary Presley

Not every hero of the Greatest Generation stormed the beach at Normandy, waded ashore at Tarawa, or braved the gauntlet of U-boats in the North Atlantic. Some, like Croswell Bowen, served in other ways.

Bowen was a devout Catholic, a pacifist. Nevertheless, he volunteered for the American Field Services in 1941 at a time before the U.S. had organized forces on the ground and in combat. The AFS during that period provided ambulances and similar services for the British Commonwealth troops in combat in North Africa. Bowen volunteered in order to chronicle the lives of AFS volunteers, working with a commission from Collier's magazine.

This memoir wasn't published immediately after it was written. In fact, Bowen died in 1971. The editor is his daughter, a woman whose family rediscovered these writings recently. She writes in the foreword that Back from Tobruk can be reduced to one statement: "It's about how one man goes to war seeking romantic adventure and comes back home with his eyes opened."

Romantic adventure seems an odd premise for a peace-loving man to seek out the sound of guns, but Bowen had other motives, even though he too could not help but speak to notion that there is something noble about "organized murder"—one historian's unforgettable description of war. At that time Bowen was, after all, a freelance writer and photographer, and he intended to file stories from the front. "I am going because I want to be a romantic character, to be a glamorous figure like a war correspondent."

Bowen's adventure begins as he takes a train to board a U.S. Navy vessel stopping at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The ship—U.S.S. West Point—is a former ocean liner, and it is to ferry thousands of British troops, and the AFS volunteers, to the mideast via Cape Town, South Africa. 

The best of Bowen's work, written in plain, straightforward reportorial language, is his character descriptions and his intelligent discernment of all that is the same—and different—between the allied troops of Britain and the U.S.  Bowen made friends with several different British officers, generally from the upper classes, during the long voyage, but he also mingled with both American and British troops. Bowen was surprised at the anti-Semitism among the British officers, and the rather casual acceptance of Hitler's genocide by more than one of them.

In the early part of the voyage, the ship receives official word that the U.S. has entered the war after being attacked at Pearl Harbor, but the attitudes and dynamics between U.S. and British personnel change only slightly.

War is anarchical, a reminder of which is related as the ship stops at Bombay, India. The Eighteenth Division of English Territorials—thousands of troops—is off-loaded there and sent to the defense of Singapore, arriving only four days before the British surrendered the colony. It takes only a little knowledge of history to recognize that those thousands of men spent the rest of the war, almost four years, as prisoners.

Bowen and the AFS volunteers continue on to Suez, Egypt. Tobruk, Libya, a point of contention, is the ultimate destination.

Much of the middle part of the book is devoted to Bowen's observations about life in Lebanon and Egypt, especially among the people manning the headquarters units at Cairo. Bowen himself makes acquaintances with the assorted characters lingering at the famous Shepheard Hotel in Cairo, the gathering place for most foreign correspondences.

The author then moves out to Tobruk, arriving there in the months and weeks before German forces reorganize for coming Wehrmacht attacks that push the Allies back toward Cairo. Bowen immerses himself in front-line life, but he soon finds that he has trouble walking. The medical officers offer the opinion that the condition is psychological, but as Bowen is moved back through "war's reverse supply line"—the removal of sick and injured from the front lines to rear echelon hospitals—tests determine that he has been attacked by the poliomyelitis virus. One of his legs is paralyzed. 

One of the more fascinating aspects of the latter part of Tobruk his the author's interactions with German prisoners of war. He passes along the speculation of a British soldier that 60-to-70% of the Germans were indifferent to the National Socialist cause, with the remainder being fervent Nazis. He offers the anecdote of a German POW who preceded each request with "Heil Hitler!" whether it be for water or bedpan, but later he writes of this lesson learned:
I believed I learned that the battle lines are never clearly drawn with the enemy on one side and us on the other. Now the enemy is everywhere ... He is selfishness and lack of consideration for the other fellow. He is money-lust and wanting to have more and better things than his fellows. He is ignorance and unkindness and anger. How strange that we should have to go to war to find out these very obvious things.
The book ends with his return to New York City, and there is an afterword to sum up Bowen's life post-war. The writing is clear, straightforward, and the book will be a worthy addition to any amateur historian's library. It is a book that could profit from a second reading, many of the ideas being more complex than their presentation might suggest. The text is accompanied by several pages of photographs from Bowen's catalog.

Tobruk is a relatively short memoir, and a focused one. There's a preface and introduction, seven chapters, and a list of AFS volunteers who gave their lives in North Africa.

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