Devotees of the literature of modern war will have noted, I’m sure, Faber’s recent publication of Ian Fleming’s Commandos by Nick Rankin: the story of the extraordinary ’30 Assault Unit’ devised and sent out into the theatre of WWII with conspicuous success by Fleming during his pre-Bond military intelligence career. The book was serialized with fanfare in the Daily Mail. William Boyd in the Guardian says it “reads like a Boy’s Own story, so flamboyant are the characters and so vivid Rankin’s accounts of the deadly scrapes and firefights the commandos found themselves involved in.” Douglas Osler in the Scotsman calls it “fascinating background to the Bond stories”.
In the Sunday Times Andrew Lycett said of Nick Rankin:
“He has a vast knowledge of covert operations, scientific innovation and the history of the second world war, which he combines to produce a convincing and entertaining account of a hitherto shadowy but influential commando unit.”
On which note, I’m pleased to say the Navy News has also stated of the book’s worth for posterity, “Be in no doubt of 30 Assault Unit’s importance to history.” And this is where J.A.C. (Tony) Hugill’s The Hazard Mesh enters the picture. Nick Rankin has stressed the merits of this precious primary text (now reissued by Faber Finds, with a new introduction by Nick) in the course of his publicity for the Fleming tome. The following extract from a recent interview gives a good flavour:
NICK RANKIN: Tony Hugill was a scientifically trained technical officer in 30AU who wrote a vividly authentic account of his part in the D-Day landings and the liberation of France. I’ve gone back to his original pencilled diaries, which he wrote in the field, and compared them with the self-censored manuscript that he delivered in 1946. (They’re all in the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge.) I’ve identified the real people and fill in the background to some of the incidents investigating German radar and weapons. Only 500 copies of THE HAZARD MESH were printed then, but history buffs who order it from Faber Finds will see it is the real thing, and Hugill makes you feel you are there with him.
You can find an excellent biographical sketch of Hugill here alongside the listing of his archived private papers. The Hazard Mesh can be ordered from Finds here. And if you still hanker for the glamourised film account of combat heroism (which to a degree we all do?) you may have noticed that the recent film Age of Heroes treated the story of 30AU with a generous sprinkling of movie-dust…