First published back in October of 2012, British WWII novelist Alex Kershaw’s book ‘The Liberator’ followed on from seven previous books on similar true-life stories from WWII.

DLS Synopsis:
It’s 1931 and the Great Depression has hit the citizens of the US hard.  In Arizona, Felix Sparks spends much of his time out in the wilderness hunting.  After bordering a train due east toward El Paso, Sparks eventually finds himself penniless and walking the streets of San Francisco where he agrees with a street recruiter to join the army.

But then in 1936 Sparks is called up for active duty and put on a troopship set for Honolulu and the barracks at Pearl Harbour.  Here Sparks at last finds that he has regular and good money coming in and is able to devote some additional time to studying to become a lawyer.  With a keen business sense, Sparks soon realises that money can be made from developing the photos taken by his fellow soldiers and so sets up a developing lab whereupon all of a sudden the money comes flooding in.

And it’s amidst this reasonably trouble-free life that Sparks meets eighteen-year-old Mary Blair and the two start courting.  However, on the 11th December 1941, Adolf Hitler announces that the Third Reich was going to wage war on the US.  All of a sudden Felix Sparks was going to war.

In July of 1943, after promising to return once the war was over, and leaving behind his then pregnant wife, twenty-five-year-old Sparks (now the platoon leader for the 45th Infantry Division) arrives at Sicily to commence their ambitious invasion.  From arriving on the beaches of Sicily with relatively little retaliation, the troops move northwards into mainland Italy where Sparks, now Captain of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Division (affectionately known as the Thunderbirds) advance into Anzio.  Here Sparks and his Regiment of US National Guard were involved in one of the bloodiest and most devastating battles that was to be fought.

Pinned down and surrounded by their attackers, Sparks’ regiment held their position within the surrounding caves until they were finally able to break out of their deadly predicament.  However, the slaughter and mass carnage that had taken place over their time under constant enemy fire had wiped out Sparks’ entire company – to be replenished with fresh-faced infantry as they courageously broke out from their trapped position of what they had come to refer to as the ‘Bitch-Head’.

From here it was on through Italy to Rome and then on to another beach landing in Southern France for the 15th August 1944 D-Day.  Again pushing northwards, Hitler’s forces were now feeling the tides turning – with Eisenhower’s armies advancing towards Paris – with Berlin already in their sights.

By now Sparks and much of his regiment had been fighting for well over a year.  He already had a son, Kirk, back at home in the US who he hadn’t even met.  Not to mention a wife and family who he desperately missed.  But the war raged on, and so Felix found that he and his men were to continue advancing onwards into the homeland of their enemy whereupon they finally crossed the border into a war-torn Germany.

And it’s here that they moved through Germany towards where the Third Reich’s Führer – Hitler himself - had made his last stand at his headquarters in Berchtesgaden.  However, en route Spark’s is ordered to take a detour to KZ Dachau where they are told to take control of the concentration camp and not let anyone in or out until aid can arrive.  Not knowing what a concentration camp is at this stage, Sparks and his men have no idea what to expect of the place or the inhabitants.  And what they witness with their own eyes on that fateful day on the 29th April 1945 will stay with them for the rest of their lives.  But finally seeing first-hand what they had been fighting against within the horrifying brick enclosure of Dachau would make them all know that what they had been fighting for was worth all the pain and suffering.  And to finally be there to set all those dying prisoners free was reward unto itself.  To be the liberators of such injustice.  Such despicable cruelty.  To be there to see the evil empire come crashing down and the war finally ended for good.

Felix Sparks had spent a total of 551 days at war, seen 1449 of his loved and trusted Thunderbirds killed, and collected over 28 US and 6 foreign medals.  Felix Sparks had left as a twenty-four-year-old second lieutenant and finally come back to his wife and son as a lieutenant colonel.  But more so, he had come back alive.  And a true war hero who was still willing to grasp life by the collar and shake it for all it’s worth…

DLS Review:
From when you first embark upon Kershaw’s remarkable true story following Officer Felix Sparks through his key role in WWII, the sheer volume of research, man hours and the amount of first-hand interviews that Kershaw has put into the book becomes instantly obvious.  Indeed, after finishing the story, Kershaw details within his lengthy acknowledgements how it took him five years to write the book.  And there’s certainly no doubting this.  The sheer wealth of factual details that encase every aspect of this incredible story shows the length at which Kershaw has gone to document the exact story of Felix Sparks and his heroic part in WWII.

However, it must be said that at first the book does fall somewhat into the trap of engulfing the reader in far too much factual information to get any real momentum going.  Amongst the dates, names, ranks and destinations, a truly harrowing war is going on.  However, the result of so much attention to factual details is a true life story that feels fairly detached from the events it is trying to portray – hiding away from the nitty-gritty emotion and viewing what happened from much farther away.  However, all of a sudden this begins to change when the Thunderbirds are fighting in Anzio at the battle at Bitch-Head.

From this key moment in the book, when the story is suddenly drenched in loss and bloodshed, Kershaw zeros in on the men, the true close-quartered nature of the fighting and Felix Sparks as he makes his first truly heroic stance.   And suddenly you’re gripped.  There’s momentum and there’s pace.  And good god is there now more than enough to keep every reader engrossed in this monumental story of courage, strength and compassion for over 500 days of warfare.

Reading about the part that these National Guard Thunderbirds from the US played in the latter stages of WWII is quite frankly an incredible read.  Admittedly it all feels incredibly pro-America.  But that’s to be expected really (even with Kershaw himself being British).  Although the British are often painted in a not-so-favourable light, which at times can feel a little unfair.

What has to be said about ‘The Liberator’ is how the story just keeps on picking up momentum throughout its length.  It’s a true story – yes – but it reads like a totally engrossing novel from the fighting in Anzio (which is around a quarter of the way through) and onwards.  And when Sparks and his men finally reach the concentration camp of KZ Dachau, the following chapters are full of so much raw and bitter emotion that it becomes nigh on impossible to take a break from what you’re reading.

The book closes with a handful of chapters on Felix Sparks’ life following the end of WWII and how he went on to become a lawyer, a judge, to campaign for tighter control on guns in Colorado and how he kept in touch with as many of his regiment as he could.

Kershaw tells a fitting and deeply respectful story of this remarkable man’s life.  The admiration that is felt for Sparks and his actions is infectious.  It’s a story bursting with passion and pride.  And it’s one that tells of a man who you’re unlikely to forget about.  A truly moving and powerful read.

The book runs for a total of 433 pages of which 358 pages are Kershaw’s story of Felix Sparks.  The book also contains fourteen glossy black-and-white pages in its middle section showing a variety of photographs of Sparks, his men and related pictures from the time.

© DLS Reviews

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