Book review: Dad’s war

This is a book of love and loss and of a son literally walking in his father’s footsteps. Howard Reid’s father, a regular officer with the Black Watch until his capture in 1943 was an incorrigible escaper and later a journalist. He looks me straight in the eyes as I write this, from the cover of Dad’s War, an account of a son following in the footsteps of his father and rediscovering the spontaneous hospitality rural Italians extend to friends and strangers alike. The cover shot is taken from a photo that showed the elder Reid in full dress uniform with three other Black Watch officers, circa 1938. He was the only one to live through the war.
Dad’s War is a book in a book. Long extracts of Capt. Ian Reid’s Prisoners at Large: The Story of Five Escapes appear, usually alongside Reid the Younger’s own adventures in the same area. Both had their reasons for writing their books — Howard Reid wanted to solve the contradiction between his father’s nightmares in the years after the war and his claims that being on the run from the Germans in rural Italy was an idyllic lark.

Reid the Elder “wrote his book with a very clear objective — to praise and to thank those incredibly kind, brave people who constantly sheltered and protected him and his pals in extremely tough times.” The German occupation of Italy was by no means pleasant, nor was the fighting and destruction preceding their liberation.

Escaping may have been the right thing to do as a PoW and recapture did not carry much punishment — other than the real risk of being killed during the actual event. But assisting PoWs DID carry a death sentence and the Germans were often meticulous in executing — by firing squad — entire families against the nearest wall. Escaping was by no means a low risk activity for those involved.   

A number of asides can be made about the book. The escapers on two occasions come across South Africans on their meandering south from their former Italian PoW camp at Modena to the Rome area. Sadly they come across as shifty and ill-informed.

One also wonders why a Reid, a regular officers since Palestine in 1936, is still just a captain at the time of his capture in Tunisia. The answer comes late in the book. Reid was a reluctant soldier – his stepfather, a retired major, gave him a choice between Sandhurst and the stock market. Reid wanted to be a journalist and thought he would have more time to write in the military. His junior status, we later learn, was the result of his life-long socialist leanings, an unforgivable vice in regular officers of the time: not sufficient to lose a commission but enough to place a glass ceiling between his captaincy and majority. Another interesting point is the elder Reid`s lack of intestinal fortitude.

It is something the younger Reid only recalls when raised by an Italian woman – that his father had a weak stomach. It was not mentioned in the book, but the woman recalled the elder Reid constantly drank milk. His son attributes the condition to the strain of escaping and recapture – which Reid the Elder described as much worse than waiting for an attack to “go in.”   

The book is not without military merit. In passing, Reid the Younger makes an important discovery many others have made when attempting to reconcile memories with actual events: they do not always match. At least twice the son has to doubt the word of his father. This is often the case with memoirs and other first hand accounts. A similar problem exists with maps – they often show places that may have been important at the time but, to the reader, perhaps familiar with the modern lie of the land, is a complete nonsense. So we find a remote picturesque valley of 1943 transformed into part of the Autostrada today.
In the end, Dad`s War is a charming work, an easy read. It tells a tale that should have been more often told and highlights an aspect we are no longer very familiar with in the early years of the 21st Century, life as an escapee behind enemy lines. It is part travelogue and part history – and all interesting. I highly recommend it.

Howard Reid
Dad`s War
Bantam Books