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Customer Review

on 27 July 2011
I bought this book because the author, an artist and sculptor, designed a cast concrete sculptured lintel at my church in London, and I wanted to find out more about him when I was preparing a talk about it. As far as I know Sykes (1914-99) wrote no other autobiographical work.

Like many artists, during the Second World War he served in the Royal Engineers as a camouflage officer. I am interested in the Second World War, but I found this book hard going at first, despite an interesting description of the author's sea journey to the Middle East in 1941. His account of his time in the Western Desert, working on dummy railheads and other forms of deception, is sketchy and lacking in detailed attention to his work as a camoufleur. There is a bit too much padding in the form of anecdotes about people, journeys, and social life.

I am glad I persevered, though, since the second half of the book, describing Sykes's preparations for D-Day, his participation in the landings on Sword beach on 6 June 1944, and his subsequent advance to the German frontier, is much more interesting: the pace and detail pick up considerably, the quotations from his diaries are unpacked with fuller descriptions, and the methods and experiences of D-Day and of combat in Normandy are much better evoked and expressed than the account of his time in Africa. There are also many more photographs, though, as Sykes explains, these are poorly developed because of lack of proper facilities at the time. And there are reproductions of official plans and documents which, along with the narrative, are a good illustration of the minute detail in which the D-Day landings were planned. (There are also some sketches and paintings, though Sykes was never an official war artist, and most of his paintings were done from memory and not in situ.)

The book concludes with an epilogue describing his return visits to Normandy in 1962 and 1984, the latter when he visited in company with a Sunday Times reporter to retrace his steps as part of the fortieth anniversary of D-Day commemorations.

Despite my positive reaction to the second half of this book, I still wish more space had been given to the details of the author's actual work on camouflage and deception. The diagram of a V-2 rocket impact crater (p. 202), which Sykes had to simulate in order to deceive German intelligence about the impact-points of the weapons, is an example of the sort of thing that might have been more clearly highlighted.
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