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6 May 2023

Soldiers in love

Men at War, Luke Turner’s tender account of servicemen’s transgressive private lives, transforms our understanding of the Second World War.

By Erica Wagner

Dan Billany was a bestselling author when he was shipped off overseas in the early years of the Second World War. The Opera House Murders had been published by Faber & Faber in 1940 with a striking encomium by none other than TS Eliot: “We introduce Dan Billany as a new writer of thrillers with new thrills… We must leave the reader to discover for himself the connection between grand opera and grand larceny – to say nothing of murder in the first degree.” But the war would make an indelible impression on Billany’s writing. The Trap, published in 1950, takes its protagonist from a Cornish childhood to the battle-scarred deserts of North Africa – Billany had served there as an officer in the East Yorkshire Regiment, before being captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Italy.

Yet as Luke Turner recounts in his beautiful new book, Men at War, The Trap was only one of two books Billany composed at Camp 66 – just north of Naples at the foot of the Apennine Mountains. The second was called The Cage, and it was written in collaboration with David Dowie, a young lieutenant who had been evacuated from Dunkirk, sent to North Africa and captured at Tobruk in Libya. A hybrid memoir, sketch-book and novel, it is a portrait of their life as prisoners – and a portrait of a love affair, for Billany was deeply in love with Dowie, though the love was not requited in the way he would have wished.

When news of the 1943 armistice between Italy and the Allies reached the camp the two men walked towards freedom, sheltering for a while with an Italian family, the Melettis. German forces were hunting down prisoners of war and it was dangerous for the men to stay. They left the manuscripts in the family’s care and walked towards Allied lines, never to be seen again. Their fates remain unknown but, thanks to the Meletti family, these two books survived. HE Bates described The Cage as “perhaps the most extraordinary personal document of the war”.

The stories of Billany and Dowie are only two of many remarkable tales of love and courage that make up Men at War. They are knitted together by Turner’s reflections on the Second World War, our collective memory of that conflict, and his own obsession with the history of that period. It is a reclamation and celebration of same-sex love (mostly between men, because Turner is focusing on those on the front line) but the author is rightly wary of oversimplification and the dangers of a certain kind of recognition. He states that he does not see these lives as living “in some ghetto, to be fussed over by activists and labelled as ‘queer heroes’. Instead, they are men who allow us to see behind the bunting and understand what the Second World War really was.” Turner’s determination to look at personal narratives as part of a larger whole is precisely what makes this book so rewarding.

Turner’s own connection to the war is both distant and intimate. A writer and editor, he is co-founder of the excellent music website the Quietus and his first book, the 2019 memoir Out of the Woods, was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize. As he tells us in the opening pages of Men at War, he was born in 1978 in Bradford. His father was a Methodist minister and his mother the daughter of a conscientious objector. It’s not surprising, then, that neither parent was keen on their son playing with martial toys, but “their efforts were in vain”. He spent his youth hunched over Airfix models, breathing in glue fumes and painting struts and ailerons with tiny brushes. “I would do anything I could to recreate the tools and machines of violence.”

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[See also: What politician’s get wrong about war]

Turner stresses that it was the tools and machines that obsessed him as a youth; he disliked putting the little plastic figures of pilots in his models because the “human aspect” made him uneasy. “Always lurking in my mind was the knowledge that these were machines of metal and wood designed at great expense and with extreme precision to keep a man’s brain alive long enough that it might overwhelm and destroy another brain before it could do the same.” That is as blunt and truthful a description of the weapons of war as any I’ve read, and Turner displays an admirable determination in adulthood to consider fully what he had turned away from as a boy.

The mix of memoir, encounters with veterans and historical research is engaging and surprising. Still half-inhabiting his boyhood self, he goes to Tankfest, an annual knees-up at the Tank Museum at Bovington. He watches men (yes, they’re pretty much all men) circle the only working example of a Tiger tank: “If the Spitfire has become the icon of the Battle of Britain, then the brutish Tiger is the projection of Nazi power and ideology.” It roars across a dirt-tracked arena, captivating and terrifying. I can attest to both since I was once lucky enough to ride in that very tank, Tiger 131, thanks to an unlikely personal connection with the cavalry. I mention this not to show off – OK, to show off just a little – but to say that I began Turner’s book in deep fellow-feeling. I too have a fascination with the glory and horror of these formidable engines of destruction: like Turner, I’ve mostly kept my gaze in the air, towards propellers, wings, jets. Encountering the figures who people this book has deepened my sense of the complexities of the stories that need to be told about the war.

For here is Micky Burn, a bold commando who appeared in a documentary about his life as a bisexual man; Ian Gleed, a Wing Commander whose Mk 1 Hurricane sat in the author’s stash of model kits and whose “surprising private life” Turner only belatedly discovered. Gleed, who would be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his service, invented a girlfriend, “Pam”, for the memoir he published in wartime, Arise to Conquer; readers, he would say, like “a touch of romance”. His own true romance, however, was with a man – which, however heroic he was, could have landed in him in prison or worse. We meet Peter de Rome, who served in the RAF and went on to make gay erotic films on Super 8. Here too is EM Barraud, whose work as a Land Girl in Cambridgeshire transformed her sense of self and whose memoir, Set My Hand Upon the Plough, was praised by Vita Sackville-West on its publication in 1946. In the village where she happily lived and worked, she was not known as Enid, but as John. “People are people, not specifics of a gender,” Barraud wrote in 1942 as a contributor to the government’s Mass Observation report. That is the sense of liberation – found in a time of catastrophe – that one takes away from this book.

[See also: Catherine Lacey’s biography that isn’t]

It is difficult to encapsulate the tender, forthright sensibility of Men at War; it is a loving, important work. It is full of lives which – though they cannot be described as completely unknown, for many of the figures depicted chose to tell their stories in various forms – have been in the shadows. The dominant, not to say overbearing, narrative of the so-called Blitz Spirit, of Britain standing alone against the wretched Hun, of Keep Calm and Carry On, has been as deafening as the roar of any V-2 rocket. Luke Turner has allowed a space of quiet so that these stories may be truly heard.

Erica Wagner’s most recent book is “Mary and Mr Eliot: A Sort of Love Story” (Faber & Faber)

Men at War: Loving, Lusting, Fighting, Remembering, 1939-1945
Luke Turner
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 352pp, £18.99

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[See also: Europe’s false dawn]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?