Bringing history to life



As you, my faithful readers know, I recently published the third book in my Eastern Front trilogy about the experiences of my father-in-law, Maurice Bury, during the Second World War. Writing those three slim books took me more than 10 years. Not only because the story itself is dark and difficult, but also because it required a lot of research to get the details right.

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While there must be thousands of books and other sources about the Second World War, most of it, at least those in English, focus on the western part of it, with a British, American or, sometimes, Canadian perspective. There is relatively little in English about the Eastern Front, where Maurice was drafted by the Soviet Red Army.

My research for the books began with the subject, my father-in-law himself. While he had occasionally mentioned something about his time in the army, at one point in the 1990s I decided I would write a book about his story. So we sat down in his kitchen, and I took notes.

But before I could complete writing the book, Maurice passed away. Which meant that any information I still needed, I would have to find in other sources.

Trusting memory

When I began writing the story, I realized I would have to turn to history books for essential background information about the war, the politics, weapons, organization of the armies and so much more.

Maurice’s memory of his own experiences was excellent, but he did not remember the exact dates, nor the number of his unit. When he told me how he sustained his wound, he remembered the weather, the German fighter planes arcing in the sky. But he did not remember the exact date. I had to do some research to work out when the Germans got to Kyiv, and the extent of the fighting there in 1941.

I also had to research the weapons used. Maurice told me as a Third Lieutenant, he commanded eleven men in an anti-tank unit. When he described fighting against the German tanks, the Panzers, it seemed to me to require some precision. The shell had to hit the tank at just the right angle to penetrate the armour and detonate inside. The challenge was that the modern Panzers had sloping armour to deflect anti-tank shells. The Soviet tanks in the early part of the war, on the other hand, had straight armour, making it easier for an armour-piercing shell to strike at the right angle.

But I neglected to ask him to describe the Soviet anti-tank gun. When I came to write about it, I realized I had no idea what it looked like. The answer surprised me. I had thought of a kind of cannon, but the PTRS-41 and the similar PTRD were strangely delicate-looking. They looked more like long rifles with extended, slender barrels. My first thought was “That little thing can knock out a tank?”

Image source: 13thguardspoltavaskaya.com

It turns out, it didn’t manage to do that very often. The shells could not penetrate the Panzers’ front armour, so the Soviet anti-tank gunners would try to shoot at the sides or back of the tanks, where the armour was thinner. That was an extremely risky tactic, requiring the gunners to allow the Panzers to pass them before shooting.

Finding this information in historical sources brought me back to the notes I took when interviewing Maurice before he passed away. He once told me that his men destroyed a Panzer by shooting at the back, hitting the exposed fuel tank.

As a writer, this was a satisfying—to find confirmation of Maurice’s memories and stories in the history books and websites.

What’s your experience?

Have you ever found that kind of confirmation of a relative’s or friend’s memory or story in an official or historical reference? Share that in the Comments.

Secrets in an old wallet



mauriceI have been stuck for quite a long time in the writing of the third installment of the trilogy based on my father-in-law’s life, Walking Out of War.

Until I pulled a little slip of paper out of a tattered, old wallet and broke the logjam by putting the subject of my story, Maurice Bury, into a real time and place.

Writing this trilogy that began with has taken a lot of research. I don’t want to begin estimating the number of hours, but literally, the effort has spanned more than
10 years.

It began with Maurice’s stories about the war. Then, we sat down to serious interviews, where I took extensive notes.

His wartime experience fell into three phases, the first two of which I have already published in Army of Worn Soles and Under the Nazi Heel.

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The third part, Walking Out of War, covers Maurice’s experience as a private in the Red Army from 1944 to 1945. And while I still had those interview notes, Maurice passed away 12 years ago, so I cannot ask him about questions that come up only when you try to write a story like this.

So I had to turn to historical records. Thank you, Wikipedia and Professor Orest Subtelny.

Bringing the story to life

Anyone who has tried to tell an accurate story about the Second World War can tell you how confusing it can be, with many different forces acting in several
different theatres of war at the same time.

I used a range of sources, including some of Maurice’s personal effects. They included a tattered, battered old wallet containing some fascinating documents:

  • alliedtravelpass-tovienna-inside Allied Expeditionary Force D.P. Index cards, signed by Maurice in Cyrillic script
  • a notarized affidavit from Maurice’s aunt in Montreal, mentioning Maurice as a Canadian citizen living in a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration Displaced Persons camp in Landeck, Austria
  • Allied Travel permits authorizing Maurice to go from Landeck to Vienna in early 1947.

These and other documents supported Maurice’s story and my notes about going from Berlin to Ingolstadt, Bavaria, and then Landeck, Innsbruck and finally Vienna before coming home to Canada.

But I was still having trouble getting Maurice’s journey clear in my own mind.

 

The final clue

tdbnletterMonths later, I saw a thin pocket in the old wallet that I had never noticed before. From it, I pulled out a thin slip of yellowed paper. Typed with an uneven manual
typewriter was the following:

 

Recen. Co. 692 T.D.Bn.

July 7, 1945.

To whom it may concerns:

 

     The following two men, Maurice Bury, and Tkacz

Bazyli , have been working for us as K. P.s for the last

xxxxx month, and we have found there  work to be very

satisfactory.

We recommend them very highly.

signed,

John Gardner

1st Lt. W.A.

commanding

 

I was very excited. I showed it to a retired Canadian Armed Forces general, who explained some of the abbreviations at the top. “T.D.Bn” stands for “tank destroyer battalion.” And the reference to “K.P.” indicated an American unit.

Maurice had told me that, following the war, he had worked for the American Army, first helping out in the kitchen and then as a translator—he spoke English, German and Russian as well as Ukrainian.

A Google search for the 692nd Tank Destroyer Battalion told me that it indeed had been formed in 1942, arriving in France in September 1944. It was attached to the 104th Infantry Division, and then to the First Canadian Army, which it supported in its attack on Antwerp, Belgium and the crossing of the Maas River.  The 692nd repelled the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, and in February 1945 its accurate artillery fire preserved the Regamen Bridge over the Rhine, allowing the Canadian troops to cross, saving lives. It was also the only unit called upon to break the Siegfried line more than once.

This was the unit that liberated the Dachau concentration camp.

At the end of the war, the 692nd took on occupation duties in an area around the Bavarian-Austrian border.

At last, I had corroborating evidence putting Maurice Bury in southern Germany on a specific date shortly after the end of the war: July 7, 1945. It gave me two other names, as well: Lt. John Gardner, commanding officer of the 692nd on that day; and “Tkacz Bazyli.”

That’s just one of the mistakes in the letter. You’ll notice the other typos, too. “Tkacz” is a Ukrainian surname, and Maurice was friends with a man named Basil Tkacz in Montreal.

Why is this important?

This little slip of paper helped me put the end of Maurice journey out of the war into order.

This little slip of paper makes an anchor. He was in southern Germany, or maybe norther Austria, on July 7, 1945.

It gave me a timeline.

And that has allowed me to finish writing the story.

I know that I promised to release Walking Out of War before the end of 2016, and I’m sad to say that I won’t be able to do that.

I have written the draft and completed the re-write, adding all the little details. But now the manuscript has to go to an editor, a proofreader and some beta readers. It will also need a cover design before I format it and publish it as an e-book and a print book.

But know that it is imminent. All the pieces are in place, anchored with historical detail. So don’t despair, readers. The final installment of the trilogy will be in your hands soon.