Horace Greasley Remembers the War
As we get further and further removed from the Second World War, the amount of people who have witnessed it keeps on ticking down to the point where today very few survivors actually remain. Pretty soon, we’ll only have the history books to tell us about arguably the most brutal and devastating war to ever befall mankind. Joseph Horace Greasley was but a 21-year-old young man when he was captured by the Wehrmacht and taken as a prisoner of war, an experience he ultimately survived. Though he may have passed away in 2010, Greasley’s memories were set to paper in his autobiography titled Do the Birds Still Sing in Hell?
Though it was ghost-written by Ken Scott, he stated he literally only acted as Greasley’s fingers and typing out the book for the latter, aged 89 at the time, was heavily afflicted with arthritis. While Greasley does begin by providing some context for himself and the political climate he was facing at the time, it doesn’t take long for him to begin discussing the rushed preparations he was forced to undertake to join the army. After seven weeks of training, we see him joining with the 2nd/5th Battalion Leicester, and his capture when he found himself facing the might of the German army with nothing but a few rounds in his pouch.
This is where the focus of the autobiography really starts to become apparent, as the author takes us with him on the ten-week march across France and Belgium to be ultimately put in a prison camp in Poland. There, he makes an acquaintance which would change his life forever: a beautiful German girl serving as a translator for her captors. A love blossomed between them, and on more than two hundred occasions Greasley sneaked out of the camp to meet with her, successfully making his way back in on time, and often bringing some provisions for the rest of his camp-mates. This is where we spend the brunt of the book, from 1940 to 1945, as we follow the author’s journey of defiance in the face of a nation.
An Inhuman Suffering
In the world of literature, I think it’s safe to say we’ve gone pretty deep in terms of memoirs from the Second World War, in the sense we got many different approaches and outlooks on various aspects of this historical period. For instance, while some people describe all which happens in a very matter-of-fact way without pulling any punches or embellishing anything, there are others who pull more towards the emotional side, in hopes of making us feel rather than simply see. In my opinion, Do the Birds Still Sing in Hell? falls into the latter category.
From the moment we are taken on the ten-week death march to the prison camp in Poland, Greasley assaults our senses with vivid descriptions of all the inhuman suffering he and his fellow prisoners had to endure every day, every hour, and every minute of their trip. This definitely isn’t a read for the faint of heart, discussing not only the pitiful conditions they had to survive in (lack of anything to qualify as real food or shelter), but also how death assailed them from every corner. Bloodthirsty guards, rape, dysentery, rats, lice infestations, exhaustion, gangrene.
In short, Greasley tries his best to make us understand the conditions under which he and his comrades had to make due, and the effect is quite powerful, even if you’ve read this about this subject matter already. There is definitely a whole lot of darkness to trudge through in this book before we see any light, and in my opinion, despite not being an author, Greasley made good use of his limited wordsmithing abilities to accurately convey how he perceived the unfolding events.
The Light of Love
Now, coming along to the more notorious part of this book, we have the love affair Greasley develops with Rose, a translator for the prisoners. There are a few things to discuss on this matter, so we’ll start with what captured my attention first, and it’s Greasley’s two hundred and plus successful attempts at sneaking out of the camp and then coming back in. Now, I certainly don’t want to undermine the author’s daring exploits, but if you were looking for something to rival The Great Escape I may have to disappoint you. It wasn’t an entirely uncommon practice to bunk out of prisoner camps the way he did, and for the most part they weren’t the tightly-guarded fortresses depicted in movies.
Nevertheless, it was rather interesting to see him explain the inner workings of the camp and exactly how this whole process of sneaking out and coming back in actually worked. There was still a very real danger to what he was doing, and it was inspiring to learn how he would always try to bring something back for his fellow prisoners to alleviate their suffering just a little bit. I have to admit, I really loved how he ended up assembling a functioning radio towards the end of the war, a testament to the ingenuity of the author and many others like him.
Now, the parts which I didn’t exactly enjoy were the heavily detailed sex scenes with Rose. They weren’t exactly well-written, had a lot of unnecessary details, and in my opinion, felt like they belonged in a cheap romance novel. With this being said, I do understand why Greasley gave them so much attention: they were his sole escape from living in a seemingly-interminable hell, and as such I imagine every second spent with Rose meant the world to him. In other words, I feel this is the sort of flaw in this memoir which can be totally forgiven, especially since you can simply skip through those parts without missing any important information.
The Final Verdict
Do the Birds Sing in Hell? by Horace Greasley is yet another fascination World War II memoir, detailing a young British man’s journey into the hell of the Wehrmacht and the bits of solace he found along the way. The author is very candid about the things he endured, as well as the things he has done himself, making this into a sometimes-difficult but always-educative insight into some of the lesser-known aspects of WWII. If you are interested in this historical period, especially in the fates suffered by prisoners of war, then I highly recommend you give this book a read.
Joseph Horace Greasley
(December 25th, 1918 – February 4th, 2010)
Joseph Horace Greasley was a British soldier during the Second World War who was captured by the Wehrmacht and became famous later for having escaped from his camp over 200 times to meet with his love interest. His life was the subject of an autobiography titled Do the Birds Still Sing in Hell?