UNLIKELY SOLDIERS: HOW TWO CANADIANS FOUGHT THE SECRET WAR AGAINST NAZI OCCUPATION by Jonathan F. Vance (HarperCollins), 298 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
Winnipeg's Frank Pickersgill and Guelph's Ken Macalister had the connections they needed to sit out the Second World War or fight it from behind a desk, but instead they joined the British Special Operations Executive, a super-secret spy agency set up by Winston Churchill to organize resistance within Nazi-occupied Europe.
In the fine book Unlikely Soldiers, Pickersgill and Macalister's little-known story is told by Jonathan F. Vance, a University of Western Ontario history professor.
The exploits of these two covert soldiers seem straight out of the movies. Pickersgill, the good-humoured brother of a rising Ottawa civil servant, gets caught behind enemy lines after France falls to the Nazis, only to escape to England to train as a commando. Macalister, a brilliant Rhodes Scholar, leaves Oxford and joins the SOE to hasten the liberation of France, where his wife and child are living under Nazi rule.
It's a heart-pounding and heartbreaking tale. Both men are captured soon after arriving in France, but their fates are sealed even before they leave Britain, their mission badly compromised by their superiors' incompetence. The two are brutally executed in a cellar at Buchenwald concentration camp.
If there is a flaw in the book, it's that names come and go much too quickly so it's hard to figure out who's doing what.
Still, it's good that the heroic story of Pickersgill and Macalister is once again being told.