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Reviewed by:
  • Ian van der Waag
A Year in Italy: An Account of a Year as Military Historian with the South African 6th Armoured Division in Italy, 1944–1945. By Eric Axelson (transcribed by Leycester Walton). Port Elizabeth, South Africa: E. H. Walton Packaging Pty (Ltd), no date. No ISBN. Appendix. Photographs. Index. Pp. 254. R95.00.

During the Second World War, the South African supreme command, breaking with the pattern of the Great War, deployed military historians with the operational forces. Eric Axelson, well-known historian of Portuguese Africa, joined the 6th SA Armour Division in February 1944, as its Historical Recording Officer. Allotted a photographer to take 16mm and 35mm shots of Divisional activities, and a driver-clerk to assist in administrative work, he had to ensure that each unit in the Division maintained, and submitted to Divisional Headquarters on a monthly basis, a credible war diary. This he supplemented with "a running record of the activities of the Division," including, where possible, interviews with participants. He also kept a log of activities of his Recording Section, which, as he notes in the preface, was a true diary, containing his daily jottings and the casual comments of his driver, the remarkably versatile Ivor Language, as well as those of his photographer. This log, together with extracts from twenty-two letters (pp. 229- 43), received chiefly from Capt J. A. I. Agar-Hamilton, of the Union War Histories Section at GHQ, constitute this book.

Axelson's account, written without affectation, was an immediate success, providing both entertainment at GHQ—"its usual quota of official delight" (p. 233)—as well as the first real news of the division. The "log," normally interpolated with charming vignettes, provides a lively image that both captures the life of the Division and presents a window through which to study all sorts of conditions, from the tensions at the "sharp end" and allied rivalry to the more comfortable living conditions in the rear and the interactions with the Italian people. Axelson drove around the countryside, sometimes drawing fire. He spoke to men in all allied uniforms, co-operated with the Historical Officers of other formations and picnicked with the local nobility.

Yet his seemingly idyllic posting was not without its problems. The men of the Division, acquainted chiefly with the tactical level, did not always understand the often-strategic implications of Axelson's duties. These they thought superfluous, a soft job; and he waged a constant battle to obtain material of historical value. Axelson also encountered bureaucratic obstacles and tribal jealousies, both in Italy and South Africa, and he faced extreme difficulty in scrounging equipment, from a jeep to a camera and reels of film. His frequent brushes with the public relations people also highlighted the difference between record and PR work. Axelson wanted to place a photographer at the front to capture the action and images of the terrain over which the battles were fought. The PR people, sensitive to the South African public having "no desire to be told that war is a nasty thing," fabricated and posed shots, which were largely confined "to cooks and girls from the UDF [End Page 1004] Entertainment Units" (p. 233). Axelson, egged on by Agar-Hamilton and his mentors in Pretoria, wished to capture something of the war as it was. Yet he always had to proceed carefully. "The PR set-up," as Agar-Hamilton cautioned, "is the apple of DMI's eye, and any criticism is apt to be resented" (p. 235). Nonetheless, Axelson's product was deemed valuable and accounts from his log were already used during the war, most notably for officer tuition at the SA Military College. Today the wealth of material, both paper and photographic, on the 6th Division in the custody of the military archives in Pretoria, provides ample record of exactly how much Axelson and his small, yet very capable, staff achieved.

Agar-Hamilton, writing to Axelson in 1944, described the log as "all first rate stuff." His only regret was "that for the present . . . its circulation must be limited by security considerations" (p. 234). These of course no longer apply and at small cost military historians have full...


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