Thursday, January 09, 2014

"No Ordinary Life" by Peter Stokes

From the Amazon blurb.
"The true story of a father who, on his death bed, handed his son a dusty journal containing details of his secret past as a Second World War hero and founding member of the 2nd SAS. Just weeks prior to his death Horace Stokes asked his son Peter to return home as he had 'something important' to leave him, and presented him with a battered diary.

"Peter, himself a decorated military officer, said: "He wanted me to come home so that he could talk to me about his life growing up in the shadow of war and also about his part in some of the most famous raids during the Second World War; throughout his life he'd never revealed these secrets”. His secret journal, published now as a book, recalls daring missions behind enemy lines in France, the Mediterranean and Italy. It also documents his capture, escape and recapture in Italy and Germany.

"Stokey, as he was known to his war-time comrades, served with 12 Commando, the Small Scale Raiding Force and the SAS. This book tells the story of a modest man who epitomised a generation now nearly all gone, someone who lived no ordinary life."

Sometimes a personality-type leaps off the page. I have read several books by special forces people and they uniformly come across as practical, no-nonsense, self-starting, mission-oriented and lacking empathy. Touchy-feely folk they are not.

Ho-hum: no surprise. You would expect low openness, high conscientiousness, high extraversion, low agreeableness and very low neuroticism. And that's what you get.

This short book itself is a real page turner. Young Horace grew up in the 1920s, dirt-poor, in a flea-ridden Birmingham tenement. Bright enough to go to grammar school, he's soon working as a greengrocer's assistant to help make ends meet. The war rescues him and makes him a commando. Epic deeds follow as our hero raids France, invades North Africa and parachutes into Italy, causing mayhem wherever he goes.

At one point in northern Italy, having sustained a rupture after a parachute landing gone wrong, he ends up with "really bad boils in my groin which were going septic and I had also developed scabies." He continues, "It was clear to all of us that I was struggling."


He is so bad that his comrades have to leave him, miles inside German-occupied Italy. So he steals a bike and cycles by himself 230 km to the Vatican City in Rome (4-5 days) - which of course he succeeds in reaching - where just in time he gets life-saving medical treatment. After some months fomenting local subversion he is captured and tortured by the Gestapo.

Post-war and demobbed, Stokes drifts from one job to another: a confirmed socialist, he appears to have had a problem with mediocre authority. Eventually he becomes a publican and that seems to work for him - he later became chair of the Birmingham licencees union. 

Stokes senior died in 1986.

Thanks to Adrian for this gift.