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Monday, October 23, 2017
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Book review: From Addis to the Aosta Valley

altFrom Addis to the Aosta Valley: A South African in the North African and Italian Campaigns 1940-1945, was originally titled “One of millions,” because author Keith Ford was one of the many millions who served in the Second World War.

However, Ford may have been a little modest. He served for approximately six years on a number of fronts during the War and took part in several major battles, notably El Alamein, and has plenty of stories to tell about his experiences.

Ford enlisted in 1940 and trained as a gunner at Potchefstroom before being deployed to East Africa. He experienced his first combat while serving with the 1st South African Division during the invasion of Italian Somaliland. After Somaliland he was involved in the Abyssinian campaign and was with the victorious Allies when Addis Ababa was liberated.

After success in East Africa, Ford faced the might of Rommel’s army in North Africa. As a Gun Position Officer’s Assistant on 25-pounders with the 1st South African Brigade, he fought from Taieb el Essem, the defensive box south of Sidi Rezegh, to Bir el Gubi, Bardia, Tobruk and Gazala. After his battery was annihilated by German panzers at Agheila, Ford was retrained as a Bofors anti-aircraft gunner, and he was with the Eighth Army at El Alamein.

On posting to Italy in 1944, his Light Anti-Aircraft Unit 1 became D Company Witwatersrand De la Rey Battalion and dug in on the 1944 Winter Line. Ford saw action during the assault and capture of Caprara, the advance to the river Po and finally, St Bernard’s Pass in the Aosta valley.

Ford began writing notes about his experiences after the war with the aim of giving the human side of the story. “In most war stories usually successful and talented men are praised…we were the death or glory boys. Very little has been written about those ordinary people and their fears, hopes and opinions,” Ford said before his passing in May 2013.

Ford wanted to capture how the ‘many millions’ spent their time, from their ablutions and toilet methods to prayers and even angry criticism of the English high command. “When you read this book you will know the South African soldier,” Ford said.

The author’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness is his penchant for detail. He describes almost every aspect of a soldier’s life, which on the one hand is interesting because the reader gets an idea of all the little things that make up the soldier’s experiences – something that is often left out of other books. On the other hand, it can be excruciatingly boring sometimes as we are fed information that is completely irrelevant.

The majority of From Addis to the Aosta Valley is interesting and readable, especially Ford’s journey from naïve young schoolboy to experienced gunner taking on the Germans in North Africa. However, the latter section of the book lags and dwindles away – it is obvious that it is a re-hash of his journals at the end – while the book does not completely fizzle out, the end of it is lacklustre and tedious compared to the energy and detail he brings to the beginning and middle.

If you’re going to read From Addis to the Aosta Valley, a very detailed account of daily life of a South African soldier in Africa, read it fast, lest ye become bogged down in the finer details.

Keith Ford
From Addis to the Aosta Valley: A South African in the North African and Italian Campaigns 1940-1945
Co-published in 2012 by Helion & Company Limited and 30 Degrees South Publishers Limited
ISBN 978-1-920143-72-5
176 pages, 47 black and white photos
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