Following up on a very positive review of Operation Basalt in the Wall Street Journal last month, ten days ago the WSJ decided to publish this letter:
I write in reference Martin Rubin’s review of “Operation Basalt” by Eric Lee (Books, Aug. 13). Sybil Hathaway, my great aunt, was a far braver and better person than the pseudohistorian who wrote this book. As her letters to family indicate, her dogs were what got her through the minefield to a shack where her radio was hidden. No one on Sark would ever call this lady, who struggled daily with her occupiers to reduce their stealing of islander food or secured them German medical service, a Quisling. She treated the Germans with the respect necessary to maintain her position and her influence for the benefit of all on Sark. Her working relationship with the enemy might leave room for fools’ comments, but the respect of every person on Sark, including the German commanders, was won by hard service and firm leadership for the sake of others.
This review appeared in yesterday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. From the review:
It was a minor incident in a long war. In a raid on the night of Oct. 3, 1942, about a dozen British commandos landed on the tiny Channel Island of Sark, capturing one German soldier and shooting others when they tried to raise an alarm or escape. Operation Basalt, as the raid was called, yielded some military intelligence, but its main purpose was to remind local residents, abandoned by British forces two years before, that they were not forgotten in London.
But well after the raid, Operation Basalt resonated with importance, not just for the islanders living under German occupation but for British commandos elsewhere who, less fortunate than their counterparts on Sark, found themselves in German hands. Eric Lee’s riveting account, “Operation Basalt,” conveys the details of the operation as well as its disturbing repercussions.
“I’m usually not a fan of ‘micro-histories’ or local history nor of military history in general, but I had a lovely time with this one. On the local history side it helped that it the events set out in this book are connected to larger, broader developments in WW 2. What happened one night on a tiny island off the coast of France involving less than 20 people did have wider implications and those implications do say something about the Nazi regime and about the German military. Also helping me past my usual prejudices are that Basalt is very well written, an easy but not dumbed-down read. If I have a negative comment to make it’s a pretty positive one: I wish this small book were a fair bit larger and told the story of the occupation of Sark through to the end of the war and perhaps after. There are some tantalizing hints of interesting stories of the island during the later years of the war of of its population’s construction of its wartime history once the war was over. Probably no different than the myth-making seen in France and elsewhere, but more comprehensible and personal given the much smaller scale of Sark.I guess that makes me a convert to ‘micro-histories’. Highly recommended.“
Many thanks to Eric for inviting me to speak this evening at the launch of his excellent book, Operation Basalt.
It’s a great pleasure for me to be here because, as Eric has said, my dad, Tim Robinson, was one of the Commandos involved in the raid.
However, what I would like to say is a bit about dad and who he was rather than talk about the operation itself.
What attracted dad to the Commandos in the first place? A number of things I’m sure but not least a youthful spirit of adventure – remember he was just about 21 when war broke out. Whilst perhaps it feels more than inappropriate to speak about adventure and excitement in the same breath as talking about a bloody and violent war, I’m sure that this will have been one of the factors that drew him to the Commandos and subsequently 2 SAS.
Dad was very much his own man with a lot of confidence in himself – he was athletic, loved football and was extremely competitive. The suggestion that he should volunteer for special operations would, I know, have been irresistible to him.
He hated the spit and polish of the regular soldier and all the bull that went with it. What he saw in the Commandos was an opportunity to get away from all that and to stand on his own two feet – to be in control of his own destiny as much as possible. When I asked him why he left the Berkshire Yeomanry to join something as dangerous as the Commandos he replied that he thought that if he stayed with the Yeomanry they would end up getting him killed – whereas in the Commandos he would have more say in how he did what he was ordered to do. Mind you, as he laughingly added, the Berkshire Yeomanry spent the whole of the war in Northern Ireland and saw no action at all! (more…)
On 21 May 2016, the book launch for Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler’s Commando Order had a surprise guest: the last surviving member of the team of British commandos who participated in the raid.
Cpl. James Edgar, who turned 96 on the same day, sent us this extraordinary video greeting:
I have learned new details about Operation Basalt and will be incorporating these changes in future editions of the book, including the forthcoming paperback version.
The most important of these concerns the role of Cpl. James Edgar on the raid. Mr Edgar, who currently lives in Australia and is the last surviving commando from Operation Basalt, states categorically that he was the commando ordered by Major Appleyard to return to the cliff-top and signal to Motor Torpedo Boat 344 to wait for the delayed return of the men. As a result, he was not present during the firefight at the Dixcart Hotel.
In the current hardback version of the book, Mr Edgar’s account (as told to Tom Keene) is cited, but this is followed by contradictory accounts from two other historians which have no merit. These will be deleted in all future editions of the book.
The following is the text of the speech given by Eric Lee on Saturday, 21 May 2016, in the Island Hall on Sark at the launch of the book, Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler’s Commando Order.
Good evening, and welcome.
I want to thank all of you who have come here today, both those who live on this beautiful island and those who have come from the US, Israel and England to join us here today.
We are celebrating the launch of Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler’s Commando Order, my new book published in March this year by The History Press.
Before I talk about the book, I want to acknowledge the help of some people here in this room, without whom the book would not have been possible. Here in Sark I had the help of a number of people, but above all want to acknowledge the support of Dr Richard Axton, who served as my guide through the archives and was a wonderful host during my visit in February 2015, as well as Jeremy LaTrobe-Bateman who took me on the commando route which we explored earlier today.
Graham Robinson, whose father Sergeant Henry ‘Tim’ Robinson participated in the raid, shared his memories including photos.
Some of those who read early versions of the manuscript are here today as well — Roger Darlington, Marty Lee, and Doerte Letzmann.
Cindy Berman visited Sark with me in July 2012 and again in 2014, and it was during those visits, walking the length and breadth of the island, that we discussed the possibility of this book. Her support throughout the many months of research and writing, having an entire wall of the house taken up with with maps and photos of the raiders, is greatly appreciated. (more…)
Yesterday’s edition of Guernsey’s daily newspaper featured a full page about Operation Basalt — both the raid itself and my new book.