Newest Review: ... that war to preserve. In one of the most moving sections of the book, there is a graphic description of a bombing raid on a city duri... more
Member Name: CarolineR-D
Horrible Histories: The Woeful Second World War - Terry Deary
Advantages: Interesting, balanced, respectful
Disadvantages: Can only really scratch the surface of this vast subject
In keeping with other Horrible Histories, this book is less concerned with dates and statistics and more with capturing the mood of the period in question. A 12-page timeline at the start of the book familiarises readers with the chronology of events from the end of World War 1 in 1918 to the dropping of the atom bomb in 1945, which ended World War 2. However, in the rest of the book Terry Deary focusses less on individual battles and key events, but on what it was like to have lived during the war years, how people felt and behaved, how they changed as a result of their experiences. He invites the reader to reflect on how they might have acted if faced with the kind of situations and dilemmas many people in war time were forced to confront. My daughter appreciated this book. She had learned a lot about the factual events of the Second World War at school but never tired of the 'human' information behind the bare facts. She enjoyed the 'what would you have done?' sections of this book because they encouraged her to look at things as they would have been perceived at the time, rather than from a modern perspective, making her realise that the principles and beliefs she can freely express now are exactly what so many people were fighting that war to preserve.
In one of the most moving sections of the book, there is a graphic description of a bombing raid on a city during the war. It is described as being a raid on London, taking place on a carnival day, Shrove Tuesday on 13th February 1945 and resulting in the deaths of possibly up to 135,000 people. Readers are told there is a deliberate mistake in the account given and are asked to try to spot it. Of course, the mistake is that it was not London but Dresden, bombed by the RAF at night and the U.S. Air Force by day. It's an excellent way to illustrate the point that war is horrific, whichever side you happen to be on. Does the description of children's bodies stacked in huge mounds, still dressed in their carnival clothes and circus horses huddled in fear, their glittering costumes on fire seem more or less shocking in the knowledge that this atrocity was committed by the Allies rather than the Nazis? Or does it make no difference at all?
The movies, of course, have fed us with glamorous, romanticised images of war, which this book is keen to dispel. If you want to know how disgusting and unglamorous fighting wars really is, there is an interesting and characteristically gory quiz to enlighten you. For example, you can learn why American paratroopers were safer than British ones, what gruesome thing the British used as shields when fighting the Japanese in Kohima in India and why a Nazi torturer in Paris worked dressed in just his underpants.
In one of the most interesting and fun parts of the book, children have the opportunity to decipher a code that the British Secret Service used to send messages from prisoner of war camps and they can even learn how to write their own secret messages in invisible ink. For this experiment lemon juice is used but children are reminded that people in concentration camps would not have had access to lemons and were more likely to have used sweat, saliva or pee. I was also intrigued to learn how secret supplies were smuggled in to prisoners of war, such as radio valves concealed in chess pieces and a pack of cards that was really a map in 52 pieces.
Those children who, like my daughter, are already familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank will no doubt be interested to read translated extracts from the diary of a Dutch boy called Robert de Hoey who lived in Java when the Japanese invaded in 1942. He and his parents were sent to prison camps. The diary entries make powerful reading. In addition to diary extracts, the book also presents information in the form of newspaper articles, which makes it accessible to the reader and dramatic in style.
The mainly dark, depressing subject matter of this book is balanced by more uplifting stories. My daughter enjoyed the section of the book devoted to animal stories from the war. She learned about Faye, a white cat from St Augustine's church in London, who not only survived a direct hit on the church but managed to get all her kittens to safety, and about a German duck called Freda that had an uncanny ability to warn the townsfolk of air raids. There are lots of stories of individual courage. We learn about the heroes and heroines of the Resistance, for example, and about a Polish policeman who had been ordered to round up the Jews so that they could be sent to their deaths. When he discovered twenty terrified women and children hiding in the loft of a house, what do you think he did? Readers are asked to consider what they would have done in that situation. It's a salient reminder that war brings out both the best and worst in people.
There is an interesting section on propaganda with a quiz to see if you can spot which war time rumours were actually true. Terry Deary puts it very succinctly when he says - "The first victim in war is the truth. It is killed stone dead." He shows how lies can be used to discredit the enemy and justify war. Some of the daftest stories that did the rounds include the belief that a dog in Hawaii was barking messages to a Japanese submarine in Morse code and that Scottish soldiers would be going home after the war in ships with tartan funnels! We were also amused by some of the rumours that circulated after the war as to Hitler's whereabouts, with many believing that he had not killed himself in a bunker at all but was perhaps working in a casino in France, or was still at sea after escaping on a U-boat or perhaps living underground in Sweden with sufficient tinned food to last him for years.
This book conveys very well just how different this war was to previous wars, showing how civilians were affected, not just soldiers. To illustrate that you weren't safe anywhere, there is a cartoon in which one man says to another, "We decided to put up a memorial just where it happened," and there is a sign saying 'RIP Jane' - next to the toilet! (It wouldn't be a Horrible History without a few toilet references, would it?)
As usual, fascinating facts abound. Children who like Coca Cola will be interested to learn that it owes much of its success to World War 2. Army water tasted disgusting, as did the coffee and fruit juice, so Coke was a big hit. During the war U.S. soldiers drank ten billion bottles of it. You can also read the U.S. Army's survival guide on what to eat if food is scarce. "Maggots make good food," it tells us. However, it also warns us: "Do not eat caterpillars." If you find this strange, just wait until you read what they ate on the Bataan Hunger March.
This is a very interesting book. Its familiar, conversational tone makes it an engaging read and, although it is not without its amusing references, the overall tone is respectful, raising serious and important questions. It doesn't just bombard children with facts, but encourages them to look at the human stories, the emotional cost of war, recognising that it cannot be looked at purely in terms of good = allies and bad = Germans, or even in terms of winners and losers. I like the way the book looks at the experience of war from people in different countries, rather than focussing on the British experience of war. I would certainly recommend this book. New copies are available from Amazon from £4.50.
Summary: Thought-provoking and insightful