RogerBW's Blog

Darkest Hour, James Holland 10 October 2015

2009 war story, second in Holland's Sergeant Jack Tanner series. In May of 1940, Tanner is in a training company on the south coast, but will soon be going to France with the BEF. But an old nemesis from his days in India has shown up again.

That second story, of the old nemesis, is quite well-handled. Company Sergeant-Major Blackstone is the sort of soldier who's happy to encourage disrespect for the officers, and lax discipline in general, to boost his own status as the squaddies' friend, but there's some serious criminality going on and Tanner can't be sure that he's involved with it, especially once it escalates to blatant attempts to get Tanner killed or imprisoned. After all, he knows he doesn't like Blackstone, and he's trying to be fair to the man. It's a pleasant mystery, right until n frpgvba sebz Oynpxfgbar'f bja crefcrpgvir va juvpu ur pbagrzcyngrf uvf pbzcyrgr erfcbafvovyvgl sbe nyy gur rivy qrrqf va gur obbx gung jrera'g gur Treznaf' snhyg. I'd hoped that might be developed further, but in the end it's all rather anticlimactic.

The main story is, well, pretty much the exact same story as in The Odin Mission. Tanner's company is isolated from the rest of the army, trying to get back to an ever-moving point of safety while the Germans relentlessly advance behind them, while also dealing with incompetent officers. There's a Girl who is threatened with rape by supposed allies. We occasionally cut away to high command to get the big picture, and to an enemy officer who repeatedly comes into contact with Tanner's unit. Eventually things culminate in a big battle, with Tanner's unit on the defensive. All of these are true of the first book too.

This time the enemy viewpoint is a Waffen-SS Sturmbannf├╝hrer. The Girl is an Anglo-French nurse. High Command is General Lord Gort. There's a competent British officer as well as the usual shower of hopeless cases. The final defensive battle is as part of the perimeter of the Dunkirk evacuation. But none of this really changes the nature of the story.

As before Holland is determined that you should know he's done his research, with lots more detail than is really needed. (I know what a "housewife" is in the context of a soldier's gear, but I'm surprised he didn't explain it in the text rather than in the glossary at the end.) However, there's an incident involving the theft of some German lorries which strongly implies they have something like ignition locks:

"On the dashboard beside the steering-wheel is the ignition - there's a small metal plate underneath it. If there's no key, put the reamer into the ignition, then bend it upwards slightly to hold it in place."

Really? Are you sure about that? I've found no mention of ignition locks, as distinct from car door locks, anything like this early.

Characterisation, as before, is flimsy: there's Sykes the former safeblower who knows explosives, Hepworth the nervous one, and that's about it really. Nobody has more than one personality trait. Once again, Tanner can kill eight or ten men from a single sniping position without ever encountering return fire. There's plenty of action, if that's your thing, but it seems rather dreary, and it's all on a very small scale: the SS officer knows that Hitler has called a halt to the advance, but he doesn't speculate about why that might have been. The French collapse, and all anyone can think is that their generals seem to be quite old.

Followed by Blood of Honour, which deals with the invasion of Crete in 1941, but I'm unlikely to bother.

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