by Adrian Gilbert
The author of this book was a New Zealander who left his home country in 1933 to study at Oxford. Considered to be a rising star in New Zealand literature, he was working at the Oxford University Press when war broke out. He joined his local country regiment, the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, but any hope of seeing combat was dashed by a long, tedious stint in Northern Ireland. Transferring to the Queen’s Own Regiment, he finally saw active service as a major in the Western Desert, although his battalion was almost immediately cut to pieces in the disastrous attack of Operation Braganza (29 September 1942) that preceded the main battle of Alamein.
Never a team player, Mulgan was openly critical of the military ability of his CO; he not only told him so to his face but forwarded his criticisms to higher authority. Almost inevitably he resigned from the battalion, after which he joined SOE – for which he much better suited – and was parachuted into occupied Greece. There he attempted to inspire and co-ordinate resistance against the Italians and then the Germans. After the departure of the Germans, his war concluded with him organising compensation to those Greeks who had suffered at the hands of the Axis while aiding British forces – a doleful business.
Report on Experience opens with some general observations on his life in pre-war England, complete with sweeping generalisations on the national characters of New Zealanders and the British. Although critically honest and sharp-eyed, Mulgan writes in a distanced, highly literary style that can irritate at times. Fortunately, the focus of the book becomes sharper when it moves from peace in England to the war in the desert, especially in the destruction of his battalion, his view on the failings of his superior officers and an analysis of courage and battlefield comradeship.
He is typically modest about his role in Greece, although he won an MC and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He writes well of his time in the Greek mountains, and makes the good point that for those engaged in partisan activities the risks were relatively small: the Germans rarely ventured into the mountains, and when they did the highly mobile partisans had time to slip away to safer areas. It was the local peasants who suffered. In reprisal for any partisan attack, the Germans would burn the nearby villages to the ground, thereby condemning the old, young and the weak to winter starvation, as well as murdering their quota of those they had already taken as hostages. Mulgan became an admirer of the impoverished Greek civilians who bore the sufferings of the war with quiet fortitude, yet all the while continuing to provide food and shelter to the partisans.
This is a quiet yet important book that reveals how one individual – capable but thoughtful – reacted to the coming of war and to the war itself. Mulgan’s story has a poignant after note: having posted the manuscript of the book to his wife in New Zealand in March 1945, he committed suicide in his Cairo hotel room for reasons unknown. This new, revised edition of the book includes an illuminating foreword by Professor M. R. D. Foot, the official historian of SOE.
Frontline Books, 204 pages