Top critical review
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on 9 February 2010
Ray Mears is justly famous for his expertise in survival and associated themes such as trekking and wildlife. His TV programmes are sold worldwide and (despite never having been on a major expedition nor served in the Special Forces of any army) he runs his own survival school. He has been imitated, though never surpasssed, by others, such as the (for me) tries-too-hard Bear Grylls. Though I retain the utmost respect for Mears' work overall, I have to say that I was slightly disappointed by this book.
Many will have seen the Hollywood film about The Heroes of Telemark, the SOE attempt, eventually successful, to sabotage the transport of heavy water (a factor in the early atomic bombs) to Germany from Norway. Mears makes the point that the later Kirk Douglas film is a typical faction, closer to fiction than fact. True, but the story is still basically accurate. There have been better expositions by Channel Four and BBC2 TV.
Mears himself tends to a rather unthinking view of SOE and, indeed, other forces hostile to the German Reich. One of his TV programmes lauded the cruel and indeed merciless Jewish partisans operating in WW2 Belorussia (now Belarus). These people were terrible! They made Al Qaeda look merciful! Yet Mears thought them worthy of praise. I dispute that view. In this book, his opinion of SOE is that it had become, by 1942, a thoroughly professional and efficient organization, which is not at all my view, though I concede that it is far more true of SOE in Norway than in its totally negligent French and Low Countries sections (which were under the control of the bumbling amateurs "Colonel" Buckmaster and a Romanian Jewish woman calling herself "Vera Atkins"). SOE in Norway was far more a straight military operational section and the better for that.
I also feel that Mears takes a biased and one-sided view of the political situation in Norway at that time. The puppet ruler, Quisling, was famous for humanitarian work before WW2 (helping the Arctic explorer, Nansen, in his work assisting refugees frim Soviet rule) and, though certainly not particularly popular, did have a considerable public support. Mears says that his NS party had "only 20,000 members out of a population of three million". True, but that would equate to 400,000 in contemporary UK, which would be more than all the Lib Lab Con parties (one political cartel, really) put together; many of the leading cultural figures in Norway were pro-National Socialist, including the leading writer of stories (who though over 80 was cruelly treated in his last years by Norwegian nurses after WW2); also Geir Tveitt, the leading norwegian composer. Mears fails to see that life is not all black and white. One has to remember that if Mears' views were not as presented, the BBC would suddenly drop him. The BBC co-published this book.
Mears does use his survival expertise to explain some aspects of the life of the commando force in the snowy wastes before and after various operations.
Overall, just about worth reading but derivative and rather pedestrian, frankly.