'Heroes' by James Holland (2006)

Heroes: The Greatest Generation and the Second World War - James Holland

James Holland, Heroes: The Greatest Generation and the Second World War (London: Harper Perennial, 2007), 348pp


Popular history is now a major genre these days, and one of the most well-trodden paths in that genre are compendiums of veterans' stories from the Second World War. James Holland's Heroes rises above the average works in this genre by not resorting to cliché. Aside from the somewhat unimaginative title, Holland treats his subjects as human beings: ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Whilst that in itself is somewhat of a cliché, it is much truer and more appealing than those who mythologise the 'Greatest Generation' in wistful and nostalgic tones and implying that we shall never see their like again. As Holland indirectly demonstrates, the heroism displayed by those who fought in the Second World War were human qualities found in all mankind, rather than superhuman qualities found only in that one generation. For example, as fighter pilot Roland Beamont tells Holland in his chapter, "I'm sure it's [the famous British stiff upper lip] still there. If our country was ever in danger again, we'd see that reaction. I'm absolutely certain." (pg. 177).

What also makes this book a refreshing read is its diversity. Rather than focus on the veterans of one's own country or one theatre of warfare, Holland draws his subjects from different theatres and countries, including chapters on an Italian partisan, a Polish soldier and a German paratrooper. The chapter on the Italian partisan was particularly rewarding and, in my opinion, the finest of the many fine stories presented here. The tales of the impressive feats of heroism are strengthened even further by Holland's easy readability and extensive knowledge of the wider war, and his skill in meshing this strategic view with the personal stories.