I Want to Write a Book

I have been studying the history of the British Army in WWII for about 20 years. I have also been participating in living history for nearly that long; in other words, I spend my weekends dressing in a reproduction uniform and trying to experience life as a British soldier.

Several months ago – perhaps longer – a friend suggested that I write a book based on what I have learned. It sounded like an interesting project, but it also sounded rather daunting.

I looked at a number of challenges that I knew would face me:

  1. I am not a professional historian. Is my background and experience enough for me to write a history book?
  2. The market is flooded with books on WWII. Could I find a subject unique enough to attract a publisher’s interest?
  3. What resources are available for my research?
  4. How would I go through the process of getting published?

 1.  Personal Background

I am not a professional historian, but I am an enthusiastic amateur. I want to write about a  subject that has fascinated me for 20 years.  I have probably read a hundred or more books on the subject.

I do have some training and experience in history and conducting research.  My Bachelor’s degree is in Music Humanities, that is, music from a liberal arts perspective rather than fine arts.  The degree program required classes, not only in music, but in history and literature.  Along the way, I wrote numerous term papers.

Professionally, I work in regulatory compliance.  One of my main functions is to conduct regulatory research and write summary memoranda of my findings.

Finally, my reenacting experience may be a help, but it may be a hindrance. I have already discovered that some things I thought I knew were incorrect.  As part of researching my book, I also intend to confirm everything I do as a living historian to eliminate any possible assumptions or short cuts I may have picked up over the years.

2. Book Subject

There are a number of general overviews of WWII, as well as studies of specific battles and campaigns. There are also histories of specific units and their activities.  Additionally, there are social histories of the war, based on interviews with veterans or civilian participants.  A rather recent trend has been examinations of uniforms and equipment.

My plan is to write about the daily life of the British soldier.

  • How was enlistment handled?
  • What was it like to live in the barracks?
  • What did the soldier eat and drink?
  • How did he sleep?
  • How was he trained?
  • How was leave handled?
  • What did the soldier do for entertainment?

While there are several books that have included elements of the above, I have not seen any single book that ties it all together and examines the day-to-day existence of the common soldier.  This is a subject in which I am very interested, but to my knowledge, would be new and unique in the marketplace.

3. Research

My personal library contains over 100 books on the British Army in WWII, and is constantly expanding.  In addition to my collection of history books, I also own several official publications from the period, such as the King’s Regulations and numerous training pamphlets, which will be extremely helpful for my chosen subject.

While I would like to conduct veteran interviews, that may not be possible. The WWII generation is getting quite old; sadly, we are losing them at a tremendous rate.  Additionally, being an American writing about the British Army makes it even more difficult to meet the veterans and talk to them in person.

However, the internet is a tremendous resource.  The BBC has an online archive of memoirs and narratives by both veterans and civilians.  The Imperial War Museum has thousands of documents and photographs available for review online.  Both websites have information on how to obtain commercial licensure for use of the materials.

A resource that I believe to be under-utilized by historians is film. I have a number of DVDs of wartime newsreels and official training films.  Even movies made for entertainment have their value, particularly the propaganda films that were made in cooperation with the Army.  Film can also provide insight into the attitudes of the period.

4. Publication

If I go to the effort needed to write the book the way I want to do it, I would also like to have it published; however, I have no experience in this matter. Fortunately, again, the internet is a valuable resource.  One of my favorite publishers, Pen and Sword Press, specializes in military history.  They have an online book proposal and submission process.  The IWM also has an online proposal system, although they don’t publish as many books.

If I am unable to go through a traditional publishing house, there are now online resources for obtaining an ISBN number and self-publishing, or even publishing on-demand.


I’m confident I have the ability to conduct the research and write the book that I want to create.  My real concern is having the time and energy to put into the project.  My job is demanding and often leaves me feeling exhausted.  I love attending living history events, but that too takes time and energy away from the book.

I will never have the opportunity to sit down over several months and read and write as much as I want.  The only way I will be able to achieve my goal is to take it on in small pieces.  I have read (or re-read) several books over the past several months with the intent of gleaning as much useful information as I can find, and have taken careful notes.  I have started the process of transcribing those notes into computer files to be more easily referenced in the future.

The main reason I started this blog was to help me with the book.  As much as I have been reading, I have done little writing.  This blog is intended to remind me to write more frequently, and to help me collect my thoughts and present historical snippets.  I have already found it valuable for me; I hope this is also entertaining, or at least somewhat interesting, to the reader.


Thoughts on Market Garden

I wrote this a few years ago for a club newsletter.  Now that I have a blog, I wanted to share it again.

Operation Market Garden began on 17 September, 1944. It was a combined operation, Market being the largest airborne operation attempted to that point, and Garden the ground operation to reinforce the airborne component.

The German forces who had survived the slaughter of the Falaise Gap were retreating back to Germany, and the Allies were eager to take advantage of the German retreat. General Montgomery devised Market Garden, a plan to outflank the heavily-defended Siegfried Line and break into Germany. It was hoped to end the war by Christmas.

An “Airborne Carpet” was laid down, utilizing the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the British 1st Airborne (with the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade attached). Each Airborne Division was assigned to capture key bridges over the rivers and canals of Holland, with the British 1st the farthest north at Arnhem, near the German border. British XXX Corps was to drive north, linking up with each Airborne division in turn. At Arnhem, XXX Corps was to cross the Lower Rhine, then turn east and head into the Ruhr, the center of German industry.

Despite the size and complexity of the operation, the plans were hurriedly thrown together in only a week. Prior to the launch of the operation, the front had been moving north several miles a day; the Allies were eager to exploit the German withdrawal. As the operation was thrown together so quickly, mistakes were made in the planning. Nobody was too concerned, as the Germans had been retreating like mad; surely they would not stand and fight, or so it was thought.

Optimised by Greg Smith

It was an extremely bold and ambitious plan. Sadly, it failed. Just as the operation was launched, the Germans decided to stop retreating, and instead dug in and prepared to defend themselves against the Allied onslaught.

The American Divisions took their objectives and held them. But the northward drive of XXX Corps was constantly harassed by the enemy and suffered terrible delays. They were forced to use a single road on top of the Dutch dykes. Any tanks that went off the road found themselves mired in mud. The Germans set ambush after ambush, and destroyed tank after tank.

The British 1st Airborne had been told the German defense would be rear echelon troops made up of poorly-equipped old men and boys. Instead, Arnhem was held by the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, elite troops with numerous tanks and self-propelled artillery.

1st Airborne had been told they would be relieved after only two days’ fighting. 2nd Parachute Battalion took and held the north end of Arnhem Bridge for four days. After those four days, most of 2 Para were wounded, and they had no more food or ammunition. The wounded surrendered and the others attempted to return to Divisional headquarters. After the Germans re-took Arnhem Bridge, they concentrated on shrinking the perimeter held by the rest of 1st Airborne in Oosterbeek (a suburb of Arnhem). Still XXX Corps did not arrive.

Finally, after eight days of constant fighting, the remnants of 1st Airborne were ordered to escape, under cover of night, and cross back over the Rhine. Market Garden had failed. However, the bravery and tenacity of the British Airborne has become a legend. The fact that they held on as long as they did, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, was an amazing feat of arms.

The 1st Airborne fought against fascism to make a better world. We are all in their debt. Please remember them.

I participate in living history events with the British 1st Airborne Division Living History Association.  The Association’s mission is to remember the bravery and dedication to duty of those men who fought at Arnhem.  Please visit our website or follow us on Facebook.

British 1st Airborne Living History Association: website

British 1st Airborne Living History Association: Facebook page



ENSA Radio: Epilogue

I transcribed a couple of jokes from one of the episodes of “Break for Music” on the ENSA:  Complete Concerts twin-CD (see previous entry).

Michael Howard:  I must inflict a story on you about a private soldier who was walking in the blackout one night, and he wanted to light a cigarette, but he didn’t have a match.  Hearing someone passing in the dark, he called out in a polished Oxford accent, “Oi, oi, mate!  Give us a light?”  The fellow who was passing said, “Certainly”, and struck a match.  Then the private saw to his horror it was a red-tabbed General.  He sprang to attention and said, “I’m terribly sorry, sir, I didn’t know it was you, sir.”  The General said, “Well, that’s all right, I don’t mind.  But you ought to be more careful, you know.  I might have been a Second Lieutenant”.

Eric Speare: Michael, there’s a telegram for you.
Michael Howard: Oh, no, not those corny gags.
Eric Speare: You take this telegram!
Michael Howard: Oh, all right.  [Reads telegram.]
“The BBC like you.
The BBC want you.
The BBC can have you.
Signed, ENSA.”

ENSA Radio Broadcasts

A few years ago, I bought a CD called ENSA:  Complete Concerts.  When I listened to the CD for the first time, I was surprised that it contained recordings of radio broadcasts.  I was already familiar with ENSA, and I knew they had put on live stage shows for the troops.  But I was intrigued by these radio programs, as I had thought such things had solely been the purview of the BBC.  I then bought a book called Greasepaint and Cordite:  How ENSA Entertained the Troops During World War II, and found the answers I had been looking for.

ENSA was the Entertainments National Service Association.  ENSA was part of the NAAFI (Navy, Army, Air Force Institute), which was the organization responsible for the recreation, welfare and morale of the men and women of Britain’s armed forces.  ENSA was the brainchild of London theater producer Basil Dean.  With his experience and connections, Dean was able to recruit many of Britain’s top entertainers to put on shows for the troops.  Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, George Formby, and many others were involved.  However, with hundreds of thousands of servicemen (and women) serving all over the world, the demands on ENSA were enormous.  Many second- and third-rate entertainers were also recruited, leading the troops to say that ENSA stood for “Every Night, Something Awful”.

Most military installations built their own garrison theaters, either for traveling ENSA shows, or for their own “concert parties”, that is, troops volunteering to put on shows for their comrades.  Of course, the British Army, and I expect the other services as well, had varying degrees of volunteerism.

All this I had known for some time.  Again, the ENSA radio broadcasts were new to me.  Unfortunately, the liner notes for the CD were not very helpful.  However, as noted, further research shed some light.

ENSA created its own Broadcast and Recording Section.  Greasepaint and Cordite includes a photograph of ENSA’s mobile broadcasting station, built into a stylish and streamlined automobile.  Stephen Williams was appointed ENSA’s liaison with the BBC, and he was able to persuade them to allow ENSA to broadcast a weekly live program on the BBC’s frequency band.  This was “Break for Music”, a 30-minute variety show produced entirely by ENSA and frequently hosted by Williams.  The early episodes were broadcast from garrison theaters and were intended for the armed forces.  However, they became equally popular with civilian audiences, and later episodes were broadcast from war factories.

ENSA also made studio recordings and turned them into radio programs.  These were not typically broadcast in Britain; rather, the recordings were shipped to British-controlled cities that housed major headquarters, such as Cairo, then played on local radio.  Examples of these programs included “Top of the List” and “Journey into Melody”.

ENSA:  Complete Concerts contains two CDs.  The first has two episodes of “Break for Music” and one episode of “Top of the List”.  The second disc has one episode each of “Journey into Melody”, “Break for Music”, and “Top of the List”.  “Journey into Melody” has a few songs, but is primarily slow, rather sappy instrumentals; I often fast forward through the entire program.  However, I greatly enjoy the other shows, as they have a nice variety of dance tunes, ballads and some light comedy.  More importantly, I had been looking for WWII radio shows to play at living history events.  I have plenty of recordings of period music and even BBC news, but these ENSA radio shows were exactly what I had wanted.  I recently used iTunes to burn new CD’s with the programs in a different order.

One aspect I find oddly amusing is the influence of American popular culture on these British performances.  A Welsh girl sings “Paducah”, about small-town Kentucky, followed by an ensemble singing “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”.  Hearing these British performers try to emulate American accents is unintentionally funny.

Of course, the title ENSA:  Complete Concerts is a bit misleading.  If all of the ENSA performances throughout the war had been recorded, and those recordings preserved, they would take up many, many CD’s.  Perhaps these are all that have survived, but if so, that would be a shame.

ENSA:  Complete Concerts and Greasepaint and Cordite are both available through Amazon.

ENSA: Complete Concerts

Greasepaint and Cordite