Military history


I WRITE FOR A LIVING, which means I spend much of my time reading, whether books or documents or memoirs or whatever, to provide material for my writing. I seldom read novels but I do read stories of men caught in unusual circumstances or doing things that are remarkable. My research gives me wonderful books to read, including such favorites as The Journals of Lewis and Clark or Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe or Richard Nixon’s Presidential Memoirs or Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs. Reading for pleasure, on the other hand, usually gives me an escape from work and on the rarest of occasions something to remember and on a very few occasions—I can count them on less than the fingers of one hand—a book that I absolutely cannot put down until I’ve finished it and one that I can never forget. These are Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk, and now David Howarth’s We Die Alone.

We Die Alone is set in 1943 and is about World War II. Yet it is a very unusual story of war, for in it fewer than a dozen men get killed by enemy fire, and it is an account of a failed mission. Looking back, the mission might seem foolhardy. But the men who planned it worked as carefully as they could, and the men who went to carry it out did so knowing that the risks were great and the stakes were high.

Simply put, a small boat sailed from the Shetland Islands—the most northerly part of Britain—to Nazi-occupied Norway. The boat contained a dozen Norwegian commandos who wanted to help free their country. Trained in Britain, they were being sent to organize some resistance to the German occupiers and to gather information about German attacks on the convoys sailing to the Soviet Union. But in their own homeland, they were betrayed, and all but one were killed.

The survivor was Jan Baalsrud, and this is his story. There is almost no “action” in it; instead it is a story of perseverance such as the world has seldom, if ever, seen before or since—the perseverance of Jan and the villagers of the far north of Norway. The men and women who helped Jan, who ceaselessly risked their own lives to save his, even when he was apparently a hopeless cripple with nothing whatsoever to offer anyone, and managed impossible-to-believe feats in keeping him alive. But though he did not know it himself, Jan did have something to offer them. He offered them, the people of an occupied nation, the chance to strike back. Outwitting the Nazis, they eventually got him to neutral Sweden with help from the Lapps, who are themselves about as memorable as it is possible to be.

Jan astonishes us with his bravery and endurance. So do the villagers. His actions came because of his will to live, and because of his hatred of Hitler and his Nazis. Hitler had sown a lot of hate around the world. He got it in return. The Jews hated him and his Nazis, as did the Russians, the Poles, the Yugoslavs, the French, the Americans, the Danes, the Norwegians, and many others. The young men from these groups signed up to fight against the Germans. Jan was one of them. What he did—what all the Norwegians and Lapps did—must be admired. In Jan’s case, we are all of us struck dumb by his bravery and endurance, which astonish everyone.

—Stephen E. Ambrose



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