Notes from underground

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The winds of war: book review

The Winds Of WarThe Winds Of War by Herman Wouk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading The winds of war for the second time, about 25 years after reading it the first time. I had never thought that I would re-read it — it just seemed too long. It was not that I hadn’t enjoyed reading it, but it seemed that once in a lifetime was enough.

And then my wife bought the DVDs of the TV series based on the book, and we began watching it.

In the first episode I was struck by the trouble that had gone into making it. It was not all shot on location, of course, and some of the locations no longer exist. But setting up a 20-second scene of someone entering a building and taking care to avoid anachronisms was quite impressive.

The Second World War is history, and there are plenty of history books about it. What most of them fail to show, however, is how it affected ordinary families, and this is what author Herman Wouk tries to show. Of course it is contrived. While almost everything that happens in the book has some parallel in actual events, having all these things happen to one family is a bit too much.

The protagonist, and paterfamilias is Victor “Pug” Henry, a somewhat dour and taciturn US navy officer, who is stationed in Berlin as naval attache about six months before the war begins. His wife Rhoda, who is something of a social butterfly, whose horizon does not extend much beyond clothes and shopping and hobnobbing with celebrities, enjoys the parties and invitations to spend weekends with Nazi officials and businessmen who have profited by their rule. Her husband finds these difficult to stomach, but attends out of a sense of duty, for the opportunities for intelligence that they provide.

When the war begins the Henrys’ younger son Byron is trapped in Poland in front of the advancing German army, with a girl, Natalie Jastrow who decided on a whim that she wanted to visit her Polish cousins in the village from which her parents had emigrated. By such devices of giving very different people family ties, Wouk manages to show quite a range of the effects of the war on one family — from Polish peasants to an isolationist US senator. While one of Pug Henry’s daughters-in-law witnesses the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbout, on the other side of the world, the other daughter-in-law is trapped with her baby as an enemy alien in Italy when Mussolini declares war on the US. Pug Henry himself manages to meet Hitler, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in person, and to fly in a British bomber on a raid over Berlin, and later to visit the Russian front linhe when the Germans are trying to encircle Moscow. While on one level it seems improbable that all this could hapen to one man, or to one family, it does help to show how many ordinary people were affected by the war.

When I remarked to a friend that I thought that it did seem a bit improbable, and he pointed out that nobody complains about the many and varied adventures experienced by the characters in Homer’s Odyssey. And by stretching relationships a bit, there are similar things in our own family. My father-in-law, Keith Greene, fought for the Allies and was captured in Tobruk, and was a prisoner of war in Italy. His 3rd cousin, Rudolf Schrader, was part of the German army that invaded Poland, and was killed there in the first month of the war.

Such things happened, and they happened to many families, and it is something of this that Wouk manages to convey in his book, while maintaining a high level of historical accuracy.

One of the things that seemed quite strange to me was the degree to which civilian airlines seemed to operate in war time. On checking up on it, I discovered that it was so, and that BOAC (the British Overseas Airways Corporation), for example, maintained flights to neutral Sweden, even though it would have meant flying over German-occupied Norway.

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