Sunday, 28 April 2013
Tank: 40 hours of battle, August 1944 - Ken Tout
Author: Ken Tout
Publisher: Robert Hale
Ken Tout has written a poignant and moving book about the psychological and physical challenges of tank combat during the Second World War. His book is set in Normandy shortly after the invasion and is focused on the experiences on one crew during a period of 40 hrs of intense operations and combat against a determined and experienced adversary. While it is historical fiction, it represents an amalgam of the soldiers and comrades that Tout served with during his time as a tanker in the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry.
Tout’s writing style is direct and compassionate. One is drawn into the characters and the sense of ‘being there’ is quite profound. The reader is exposed to the emotional trauma of fighting within the hedgerows of the Normandy countryside, to the stress of waiting for combat, of the drama listening to one’s peers engage and burn and of having to recover their remains. Of particular note is the appreciation one begins to feel of the physical and psychological exhaustion of maintaining constant vigilance in the close confines of a Sherman tank desperately trying to see the enemy before he sees you.
Tout is a magnificent writer in the same class as Guy Sajer (The Forgotten Soldier). He has a profound gift for giving life and depth to his characters. His narrative underscores the coping mechanisms that soldiers everywhere fall back on to overcome the sheer terror and monotony of war; the black humour, intense comradeship and the drawing upon the strength of others to augment when your courage may be flagging. Indeed, Tout’s characters are intensely human, vulnerable and average by the standards of their peers in similar situations but are seen to overcome unimaginable conditions when held up against those who have never experienced combat.
What I also enjoyed about the book was the way in which the reader is given an appreciation of what it takes to run, manage and maintain a tank in operations. Notwithstanding the mental stress of the job, the physical demands are incredible: loading, engine maintenance, track changing and general maintenance on the tank is simply hard and grinding work. Also, the crews personal needs such as eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom require coordination and unique approaches, skills developed only by men in combat.
Tout speaks of the Sherman tank in the language of the tankers that crewed and fought them. A ‘Ronson’ was a famous lighter company of the period and, as the Sherman was gasoline driven as opposed to the German diesel, it had a tendency to burn quickly and intensely thus giving the crew little time to evacuate. Therefore, in the gallows humour of soldiers universally, a burning Sherman was known as a Ronson.
Tout’s book represents a vivid recreation of the life within a Sherman tank during operations in the Normandy countryside. He has a remarkable ability to engage the reader and provide insight into the human condition in an insane environment. This book should be mandatory reading for any aspiring soldier or leader. I highly recommend it.