War Books

Reading here and there on the web I bumped into Commando Comics; and that got my mind working again. Many years ago, when I was a lad in short pants, I was an avid reader of “War Picture Library” and “Battle Picture Library”. In fact most of my friends were too, and we used to horde vast collections of them, often swopping at the local book shop (1 for 1 and 5 cents). 

I hate to admit it though but some of those stereotypes must have remained in our psyche. Germans troops running around shouting “Die Engelander Schwein” and Japanese soldiers shouting “Banzai!’ and reporting to “Captain San” before one last suicidal dash across the jungle straight into gunfire from the platoon’s Bren, fixed bayonets and all! It was a very simplistic view of warfare that we lapped up because frankly there wasn’t much else in the way of entertainment for blood thirsty young boys, apart from the wireless. I hate to say this but Enid Blyton and her ilk did not quite compare.

Of course the reality of war is a different thing altogether. Many of  our fathers and grandfathers were ex-soldiers from both World Wars, and I suspect they looked on at our antics with amusement, knowing that the things they faced were very different from the black and white drawings that fascinated us so much. When we went into national service ourselves,  we soon discovered how different the military was compared to our idealised vision of it. I can safely say I had a whole new view of the Bren so beloved of Private Smith as he fought off the Germans and Japanese.  I trained with the Bren in Platoon Weapons during my National service, and frankly found it heavy, unreliable, and very prone to stoppages. We had 1942 vintage 7.62mm chambered versions, which were slightly different to the 303 version below.

I also was able to handle a Sten Gun when I was in Southampton in 2013, and speaking to the person at the stand her showed me how to hold it properly, and how easily things went wrong with it. Now why did they not tell me this in War Picture Library?

My own particular “genre” was the war at sea. Naval versions of these books were reasonably rare, but I collected and horded them the most.  Not for me the glamorous existence of Battler Britton and his squadron “somewhere over England”, I was too busy reading about “Korvettenkapitän Schmidt” and the U12345 in the North Atlantic, torpedoing hapless merchant vessels while being pursued by an outdated destroyer with a crew of has-beens and a commander with a death wish/personality quirk/drink problem.  Again the reality of the war at sea was light years apart from how I envisioned it. My first trip “out to sea” happened in 1986 and I remember waking up to seeing nothing around me except sea.  The deep sea is a big and often scarey place and the convoys must have been a nightmarish existence.

Eventually I would grow out of my war book phase, and move onwards to other things. War Picture Library ceased publication in 1984, and the genre seemed to disappear completely in South Africa, apart from the occasional appearance at a book sale. I suspect many wives and mothers can be blamed for destroying vast amounts in their quest to throw away little boys collections. I also expect that war books eventually gave way to pornography or “men’s magazines” or even “Scope”.

Because of my interest in  the past I have always tried to find copies of war books, and when I do I always read them and shake my head at the often atrocious stereotypical stories in them. Did I really read this stuff? The problem is, you need to look at the era that we were living in. In my case we were roughly 15-20 years out of World War 2, and the memory of the war was still relatively recent. Neither did we have the internet to feed our fascinations;  television only came to South Africa in 1976, and before that heaps of Eurocentric radio shows or American comics were all we really had. 
Today children have a wealth of different ways to keep themselves amused, although often the tactile experience of a book/magazine is missing. The Germans and Japanese are no longer the bad guys, and the Japanese have spawned a whole new industry with Anime and Manga.  Even the much loved comic died, and moved into the collector or enthusiast realm. Maybe that was a good thing? I do however think that much of the stuff available today is much more dangerous and influential on young minds than anything we were reading when I was young.
I guess the reason behind this somewhat disjointed diatribe is that those books are part of my past, and my present too.  I have 13 in my current collection and prices ranged from 13c to 21c, 37c and finally 45c.  I look back at the many hours laying on my bed reading them with affection, and that is a part of me I cannot give up and I kind of miss it.  Given our odd weather today I am tempted to haul out the few war books I have  and head towards the bedroom to refight a few battles. Now where did I put my Bren?
A postscript.

In 2013 while in the UK I was fortunate enough to find this heavy beaut on sale at my local charity bookstore. I agonised over it for a long time because of its link to my past. Finally, I bought it for the princely sum of £9.99. (usual price £14.99 (about R225.00 way back in 2013))

And, as the blurb says “12 of the best War Picture Library comic books ever”. Yes, I did read it, and yes I will probably reread it. I know it is cheesy, and I know that it is not politically correct, however, this is “quality literature”, all 776 pages of it!  I know there is a volume 2 out there as well, but I will not pursue it because if I look at it rationally, this monster book may just take up half of my baggage allowance on a possible flight back to South Africa!  I have since passed on my war book collection to the son of a friend of mine. I hope he enjoys them. Now where did I leave the Spitfire?
© DRW 2012-2021. Images recreated 25/03/2016, enemy tanks destroyed: 7, U-boats sunk: 3. 15 ME109’s destroyed for the loss of 1 Hurricane, Private Smith last “seen in the bag” heading for a POW camp controlled by the SS! 
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