Mark Huxtable's review of 'And the Walls Came Tumbling Down' by Jack Fishman
Perhaps the most important chapter in Jack Fishman's And the Walls Came Tumbling Down is one of the final sections of the book: the Author's Notes. It is only at this point that one of the reader's most significant questions - "How much of this is true?" - is actually answered.
The author, we learn, spent four years researching the details of Operation Jericho, the epic raid by Mosquitos of 487, 464 and 21 Squadrons on Amiens prison in early 1944. The aim of the raid was to allow members of the Resistance, scheduled for execution, to make a break for freedom by breaching the prison walls and blowing in the cell doors with the concussion of the bombs.
Jack Fishman's research extends far beyond the mechanics of the raid itself - in fact he spends a relatively small part of the book describing the actual operation and its planning. The majority of the book is spent weaving the threads of individual stories of those associated with the raid - collaborators, resistance members, intelligence figures, prisoners and ordinary citizens of Amiens, as well as the pilots, into the overall fabric of the book.
To a certain extent, the book is caught between being a historical narrative and a thriller - indeed the book reads like a novel, with its "real-time" description of the events and minute personal details. Its for this reason that the Author's Notes section comes in so valuable - we learn precisely how much of the story is in fact real. The author maintains that virtually all of the book's details are true, having interviewed a small army of people and cross checked their recollections of the events.
This involves a certain amount of controversy, as the author seeks to demonstrate from documents and interviews that many more prisoners escaped as a result of the raid than is generally acknowledged, and that the raid itself was conceived as an effort to free one Resistance figure in particular. Naturally, with conversations reported word-for-word, and styled to read like a novel, the author also asks us to make a certain leap of faith in terms of accepting some poetic license in the details.
It is much easier to accept Jack Fishman's view of how many prisoners were freed by the raid than his assertion that liberating one prisoner in particular was the true aim of the operation. At the very least, there are many more objective and solid sources for numbers of prisoners held than for the content of conversations held at the highest levels of the intelligence community.
In any case, this is an exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, account of one of the most famous raids of the war. Indeed, there sometimes appears to be too much happening in the book for it to function well as a novel. There are in fact so many characters involved, that the reader risks losing track of who is who, and of how they fit into the overall narrative. In addition, we spend comparatively little time with the man who, according to the author, the raid was designed to free.
The narrative is almost exactly balanced between events leading up to the raid and the subsequent action, with the raid itself forming a relatively narrow border between the two. The author spends the first chunk of the book setting up the background, both in terms of events but especially in terms of personalities. It is these personalities which we follow in the latter part of the book, as they seek to make good (or, in the case of the Gestapo characters, quash) the opportunity to make a break afforded them by the raid.
For Mosquito fans, this book may be slightly disappointing, simply because the aircraft and their crews form a relatively small part of a much larger overall tapestry. The book does however make plain the complexity and drama that led to this raid being given to the Mosquito, which was clearly the only aircraft which could handle the task. The book also holds something for the fans of thrillers, as it is set up to read like one. Finally, amateur historians will find an interesting and controversial new view of one of the Mosquito's greatest moments.
Mark Huxtable, January 2001
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