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Comprehensive but spoiled by author's 'style'
on 1 July 2003
If you're looking for a book on one of the most audacious, successful, bravely fought and quintessential commando missions of WWII then Saint Nazaire is almost certainly a leading contender. By all accounts, Lucas's book on the raid is as comprehensive as any but, having read it, if I was looking for a book on Saint Nazaire I'd look elsewhere first.
The raid itself was an immeasurable tonic for the British forces and the occupied French as it was the first and most perfect example of the policy of 'aggressive' defence. Great Britain has taken a good hiding during the Blitzkrieg and after Dunkirk was meakly licking her wounds and preparing defences to repel the German invasion which must come. The French were subdued, occupied and divided. Commando raids like Saint Nazaire were aimed at disrupting crucial strategic military facilities upon which the Germans relied and also just showing the world that, though we were on the back foot, Britain was still full of fight and not beaten yet. No objectives were more crucial (to the North Atlantic campaign) than the sub pens and, more so, the docks at Saint Nazaire.
The commando raid was 'saucy' in that it aimed to take the fight right to the heart of a German stronghold. It was also courageous to the point of suicidal, the commandos assaulting in flimsy wooden underarmed boats a port which was bristling on all sides with heavy weapons and infested with thousands of Germans. The raid was almost a complete success, though at an expectedly heavy toll.
With this kind of material, you'd think it would be hard to screw up a story like this. Somehow Lucas manages it though by being possibly the most irritating author I've ever had to endure. He tells the story in great detail and accuracy, but in an extremely irritating 'confidential', conversational and precious style. He continually introduces new characters or tantalizingly jumps ahead and mentions something that happens later and then says, "but we shall meet him/visit there in due course" or "but we meet see him later, when he will be manning the Lewis guns we've just seen being fitted to the quartedeck" or "You will recall the last time we saw so-and-so he was setting fuses in the pump house".
Lucas obviously has great respect for the people involved in the raid and wants to communicate the story of the raid accurately. But it just ends of slightly sycophantic and you just wish he'd quit with the stupid 'engaging' asides and get on with the story.
His descriptions of the men involved are banal and formulaic too, you get a brief physical description followed by some weird meaningless 'manly' attributes which gets extremely repetitive, "he was tall, gangly and had a firm jaw and determined brow", "he was stocky, broad and had an uncompromising gait and a stentorian voice which put men at ease".
The story behind this book is indeed great, but I'd hate to have to reads this particular book again.