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Soldier of the Press: Covering the Front in Europe and North Africa, 1936-1943
Henry T. Gorrell
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Henry Gorrell was an American war correspondent for United Press before and during WW2. He was born in Florence, Italy, in 1911, the child of an American father and an English mother. His fluency in Italian stood him in good stead later in life, as he was posted to Italy, Spain and North Africa, among other places. He saw a lot of action, had several close calls, and wrote down his experiences in 1943. Gorrell suffered a stroke in 1958, and died shortly afterwards, aged just 47. The unpublished manuscript was found decades later by a distant relative, Kenneth Gorrell, who saw the significance of the work, and set to editing it so it could be published. There were more famous war correspondents during WW2, like Ernie Pyle and Ernest Hemingway, but Henry Gorrell was rather well-known in his day, and the decision to publish his recollections has provided us with a very interesting perspective from lesser known fronts, as well as the fighting in North Africa.

The book starts in 1943, when Gorrell meets the very Italian officer who oversaw his expulsion from Italy in 1936. He then backtracks to the events that lead to the expulsion, and then his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. I think this was my favourite part of the book. Gorrell writes about the confused situation, where he is accused of being a spy for the Facists, and snatched from the sights of the firing squad just in the nick of time, only to be taken prisoner by the Facists and almost shot for being a Communist. The cloak-and-dagger intrigues in Madrid read almost like a movie script. Gorrell meets with Hemingway, and he endures the harrowing siege of Madrid before returning to America. After an interlude in the US, he returns to Europe and the Balkans, where he witnesses the German invasion. He tangles with spies and all sorts of intrigues before leaving together with the evacuating British forces. Gorrell is present when Allied and Vichy French forces clash in Lebanon, a sideshow of a sideshow I didn’t know about, and then he goes to Iran to cover the uncertain situation when the Germans tried to destabilize the region. The second half of the book is spent in the Mediterranian and North African theatres of operations, which is more well-known territory for many readers. The account is exciting enough, as Gorrell was an adventurous reporter, not content with sitting out the war in hotel bars and press conference rooms. He joined a convoy to Malta, sought out front-line units, and participated in a couple of bomb raids aboard Liberator bombers. During one of the raids, he provided first aid to a wounded crew member, earning him the USAAF Air Medal for gallantry. He wasn’t one to bang his own drum, though, and he doesn’t mention the award in the book. The constant proximity to combat took its toll, though, and he had to be away from the front for some months on a couple of occasions due to the stress. The author marries while recuperating in South Africa, but this receives only the briefest of mention, and the birth of his first child is mentioned in passing. While his text is relatively personal, it is a bit strange that such events only get a line each.

The text is accompanied by 15 photos and four maps. The book could have used a bit more editing. On several occasions, Gorrell refers to the Wehrmacht as the Reichswehr. While the mistake is authentic, it could confuse some readers, and should have been edited out. Also, in North Africa, he makes references to “Tela mines”, which is most likely “Teller mines” misheard. On page 72, Denmark and Norway are referred to as being invaded by Germany in May, 1940, when it was in fact April (I’ve seen a similar error in supposedly better researched book, though). There were a few more things that made me raise my eyebrows, but nothing major. Considering the number of events he describes, a single glitch here or there is understandable. As with most books and articles written during the fighting, over-claims and other inaccuracies are reported as facts, which is also understandable as the author didn’t have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Still, a single British anti-tank unit is credited with the destruction of 37 enemy tanks during the First Battle of El Alamein, which is a bit funny, as the total Axis losses during the whole battle numbered some 49 tanks. There are other instances of this kind of reporting, and the book cannot be used as a source for facts like casualty figures.

The most serious drawback is the omission of the one and a half years of reporting from May, 1943, to late 1944, when Gorrell called it quits after years at the front (the Battle for Hürtgen Forest was the last battle he covered). While the book was finished in April, 1943, I think it would’ve been a great boon if the editor could’ve included Gorrell’s articles as an extended appendix. As it is, the reader is left hanging, no doubt missing a number of interesting accounts. There might be copyright issues with the current owners of UPI, which might explain why the articles weren’t available for inclusion in the book.

What the book does do is to provide us with a detailed account of fronts and events that are almost forgotten, reminding us that there was a war going on in other places, and not just the well-trod areas that get the attention in the general histories of WW2. That alone makes the book worthy of purchase, and Gorrell’s flowing writing style ensures that the reader is engaged from page one. While not essential reading, “Soldier of the Press” offers a welcome and refreshing perspective on WW2.

(Reviewed by B Hellqvist)
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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