Where the Hell Are the Guns?: A book review by Bob Morris

Where the Hell Are the Guns?: A Soldier’s View of the Anxious Years, 1939-44
George Blackburn
McClelland & Stewart (1999)

Although the last of Blackburn’s three volumes about World War Two have been published (The Guns of Normandy and The Guns of Victory), this one focuses on the “anxious years” beginning in 1939 when the Allies scrambled to respond to the rapid and extensive initiatives of the German army (e.g. the invasion of Poland) which nearly achieved victory both in continental Europe and then in Great Britain.

What if there had been no Lend-Lease program? What if all of the British troops had been trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk? In that event, what if an invasion of England had then succeeded? What if Hitler had not invaded Russia? Blackburn never directly addresses questions such as these but they are nonetheless relevant to his core thesis that the Allies were ill-prepared in 1939 to fight what became World War Two.

The question “Where the hell are the guns?” could well be re-phrased “Where the hell is everything and everyone we need to defeat the German army?” As in the other two volumes, Blackburn’s focus is on his own experience with the Canadian 4th Field Regiment. The circumstances in which he and his comrades found themselves in 1939 are representative of virtually all other Allied forces at that time: Not having anywhere near enough of the materiel they needed…and most of what they did have was obsolete.

Nonetheless, by the time of the Normandy Invasion in June of 1944, the Canadian 4th Field Regiment had become among the most highly effective of all Allied fighting units as, by then, an Allied victory was assured. This volume carefully traces that difficult process of preparation and subsequent achievement from May of 1939 through July of 1944.

In his Divine Comedy, Dante reserves the last and worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserved their neutrality. I was reminded of that as I read and then re-read the three volumes. Although each was written from Blackburn’s perspective with the material anchored in his personal experience with the Canadian 4th Field Regiment, he fully understands and appreciates difficulties concerning logistics throughout the Allied military forces.

My previous use of the word “scrambled” correctly describes Allied efforts (1939-1942) to assemble the men and (yes) women needed to train, equip them, and then deploy to greatest military advantage. Errors of judgment were obviously inevitable. However, Blackburn never hesitates to criticize certain military leaders who, in a moral crisis, preserved their neutrality. Throughout World War Two, so many courageous Allied troops were needlessly killed or wounded because of their leaders’ timidity and indecision or concern for their own image.

Churchill once referred to then prime minister Neville Chamberlain as being “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” At best, war is messy and often brutal. Casualties are inevitable. Nonetheless, Blackburn correctly asserts that much of the anxiety during 1939-1944 could have been alleviated by more efficient and more effective leadership at all levels of Allied military operations.

In the concluding chapter, Blackburn includes a brief excerpt from James Hilton’s Good-bye, Mr. Chips when the dying schoolmaster recalls happier times long ago: “What a host of little incidents, all deep-buried in the past — problems that had once been urgent, arguments that had once been keen, anecdotes that were funny only because one remembered the fun. Did any emotion really matter when the last trace of it vanished from human memory; and if that were so, what a crowd of emotions clung to him as their last home before annihilation! He must be kind to them, must treasure them in his mind before their long sleep.”

More than 60 years ago, Blackburn and his comrades in the Canadian 4th Field Regiment began a process of preparation, together with millions of other Allied forces, to face arguably one of the greatest military opponents throughout history. In the three volumes, Blackburn (like Charles Chipping) reflects back on his experiences, recalling persons and events with respect, appreciation, and affection. By sharing his wartime reminiscences and reflections, his joys and irritations, as well as the lessons he learned and the values which prevailed throughout those “anxious years” long ago, the significant “little incidents” will remain vivid for generations to come, rather than “deep-buried in the past.”

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