I live in New York and until this month I had never heard of Victor Gregg, the World War II veteran whose 2011 memoir, Rifleman, was hailed as possibly the most honest and outspoken ever written by an enlisted soldier and 'an outstanding book that deserves to become a classic'.
Gregg is 93, which is an achievement in itself, but bright as a button. When I heard an interview he gave recently to the Today Programme replayed on National Public Radio, I was reminded of Stanley Holloway playing Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady. In fact, the only role Gregg ever played was that of a working man who, through no fault of his own, found himself in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.
His account of a life in conflict is a small masterpiece which only confirmed me in my view that we should probably stop obsessing over all the new books that come out until we’ve had a chance to read the good ones that have already appeared. Written with the director and documentary film-maker Rick Stroud, who sensibly keeps himself in the background, it is the clear, unadorned recollection of an old soldier who not only remembers every bullet he ever fired and every comrade he ever saw killed but, uniquely, as a prisoner-of-war, witnessed the destruction of Dresden from the ground up, not the other way round, and for the first time in his life was ashamed to be British.
Gregg had fought in the desert war, including El Alamein, and, after being seconded to the Parachute Regiment, was captured during the Battle of Arnhem and transported to Germany, where he was sentenced to death for sabotage. But on the morning of his intended execution, as he and another condemned prisoner, known as Mad Harry, were about to enjoy their last breakfast, the sirens began to wail. It was February 13, 1945 and the Dresden Raids, which would continue for the next three days, were about to begin.
The young Londoner, still only 25 after six years of war, survived the initial firebombing. Mad Harry did not. Stumbling into the chaos, surrounded by bodies, many of them melted by the yard-long incendiaries, Gregg found himself inducted into an impromptu rescue and recovery squad organised by the local fire chief.
For the next week, he witnessed horrors infinitely worse than anything he had previous experienced – bodies glued to the road, corpses shrivelled to a quarter of their normal size, people who had tried to save themselves by diving into tanks of water and were then boiled alive – and he was sickened by it.
'A terrible death was being inflicted on thousands of families as they huddled in their Luftschutzkellers below the burning remains of their houses, all helpless civilians with not a fighting man among them …This was genocide, ordered by high-ranking politicians, not by the armed forces. For myself, I will never forgive them. Never.'
Gregg escaped in the end into the embrace of the advancing Red Army, thus beginning the next chapter of a life story that saw him become a driver for Bank Moscow Narodny, a bag man for MI6 in Eastern Europe and, at the age of 70, an eye witness to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Journalists like to call themselves witnesses to history, and it is true that the best of them can on occasion be just that. But there is a key difference between a war correspondent and a participant in the events he or she recalls. The correspondent is there by choice and can opt to leave when something more compelling, or less hazardous, turns up. The soldier does not have the luxury of choice. Gregg describes the life he was forced to live with the subjectivity of a man who, while acting under orders, never failed to distinguish between what was right in his eyes and what was demonstrably wrong.
He gives credit where credit is due – for example to the officers who led his battalion in North Africa. He regrets the death and destruction he helped mete out, most obviously to badly led and ill-equipped Italian conscripts, but makes no apology for the agony that he knows he caused. He was a soldier doing his job, and the enemy had it coming to them.
It is this robust thinking that gives edge to the distress he still feels about Dresden. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t how it ought to be. 'We were supposed to be the good buys, but we’d ended up worse than them.'
Rifleman is not a leftist text. Nor is it remotely pacifist. It is an account of war by someone who if you’d come at him out of the desert in 1942 would have fixed his 'sword' and, unlike Orwell, run you through without a second’s thought. What marks the author out is that he would have remembered afterwards what he did and weighed it up in the years to come.
Most accounts of World War II are written by generals, statesmen and historians, and we have had a lot of these in recent years, some of them brilliant. Gregg’s story is a valuable corrective to the larger narrative, illustrating that war is something that happens to people who never asked for it but are the most likely to be its victims.
It is important in another way, too. Gregg was an inner city boy – a member of the Bloomsbury Set only in the sense that he grew up in the slums of WC1. His schooling was surprisingly thorough, but ended at 14. After that, he didn’t know what to do. It was the 1930s and work was scarce. Just getting enough to eat was a problem. One day – the day of his eighteenth birthday – he chanced to be walking past Horse Guards Parade, where troops were drilling, when it struck him that he might do better to take the King’s Shilling.
The rest, in his case, was history.
For all his lack of provenance, Gregg ended up respected by his regiment, including its one-armed colonel, “Wingy” Renton; by the Germans who took him prisoner; by the survivors of Dresden; by the Russians; and – ironically – by the Bloomsbury Press, who published Rifleman and were presumably gratified to see it receive near-universal acclaim.
The publishers got it right. Next time you go out to buy the latest bestseller, buy this instead.
Rifleman by Victor Gregg is published by Bloomsbury (£16.19)