The full title of the book The Liberator: one World War II soldier’s 500-day odyssey from the beaches of Sicily to the gates of Dachau gives you the gist of the story already. It recounts the experience of Felix Sparks who served in the US Army in World War II, landed in Sicily in July 1943, fought several other campaigns in Italy, landed in the south of France in August 1944, fought his way through France and Germany until he and his unit were the first to liberate the concentration camp at Dachau close to Munich.
With so many battles in one man’s two years of war, it is a wonder that Felix Sparks survived at all. Many of the men serving with him didn’t. In some battles, more than half of the people in his unit get killed in one day. Getting to know the replacements almost didn’t make sense anymore because he knew many of them would die in their first week in Europe.
The book is no simple heroic depiction of one man or his unit, but clearly addresses the carnage, the senselessness of some of the killing, the criticism of their own officers who made decisions with lethal consequences sometimes based on vanity or ignorance. It mentions that some of the US soldiers desert and that they had figured out how to shoot yourself in the foot in a way that it would get you a ticket home (stick a loaf of bread around your shoe before you shoot yourself to avoid traces of gunpowder).
Having lived in Sicily myself, I was eager to read a book about Operation Husky which gets shamelessly little attention compared with the landing in Normandy in June 1944, even though it was in July 1943 that Allied troops first set foot on European soil. Following a solider who fought in almost all the battles of southern and central Europe and ultimately liberated a concentration camp should make for a wealth of stories. And maybe it could. But Alex Kershaw’s The Liberator sadly falls short of the expectations.
The facts of the described battle scenes are shocking, but the writing doesn’t catch on emotionally, possibly because it moves from one battle to the next too quickly. 340 pages for 500 days of war, that’s a tough feat. At one point they are on a boat, then they suddenly are in Sicily, then in Anzio, and so on. Too many of these tidbits are too disjointed.
Of course I learned a few more details about World War II, but without the historical knowledge that I already have, I am not sure I could have made sense of the information strewn among the action scenes. If you are looking for a primer on the Italy campaign, you are probably better off with the Wikipedia article. Or maybe one of my readers can recommend another book.
Annoyingly, the writing is riddled with clichés. On 19 February 1944, “in a large map room, surrounded by sycophantic generals, Adolf Hitler seethed with frustration and thumped the briefing table, his face reddening with rage.” How does the author know this? I bet he doesn’t, but from his writing I am sure he watched the movie Downfall. Even more annoyingly, the publisher doesn’t seem to employ proofreaders or fact checkers. When you read that the battle of Anzio was in January 1943, you wonder how it could have been before the landing in Sicily. It wasn’t, of course, because it happened in 1944.
In the final chapters, as Felix Sparks and his men liberate the Dachau Concentration Camp, it became more interesting again, but even then there are much better books by authors who survived concentration camps themselves.
The Liberator at times reads like a collection of facts that haven’t yet been properly put together into a finished book. You will learn more from watching The Big Red One or of course Band of Brothers and even from reading Catch-22. But one lesson I certainly did take away from this book: if you join the military, try to avoid the infantry!
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This is what the author had to say about my review:
That explains how the positive reviews get into the papers: journalists are simply trying to avoid being insulted by Mr Kershaw.