Book Review – Fight Another Day

J.M. Langley, Fight Another Day. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2013. Foreword. Hbk. 254pp. £15.99.

Reviewed by G.H. Bennett, Plymouth University

die another day

Originally published in 1974, Fight Another Day is Lieutenant-Colonel J.M. Langley’s autobiographical account of his wartime service from 1939 to 1945.  Jimmy Langley’s war consisted of two very different parts. As a junior officer in the Coldstream Guards, Langley served in France and Belgium during the Phoney War. In May 1940, the Phoney War came to a crashing end with the launch of the German offensive through the Low Countries. Langley vividly recounts the bitter process of falling back to successive ‘new positions’ while trying to keep his platoon together, and the process of coming to terms with the mentality of senior officers who considered that rear-guard duty was an honour to be celebrated by the men. Desultory engagements gave way to more intense attacks as his unit fell back towards the sea, and the account is enlivened by vivid imagery of civilian refugees and the shock of battle.

In charge of the defence of a section of the perimeter at Dunkirk, Langley was badly injured by artillery fire. The wound would prevent his evacuation by sea (one stretcher case taking the place on a boat of four soldiers who could stand). The wound would subsequently result in the amputation of one of his arms. Langley was in a makeshift hospital when advanced units of the German Army took him prisoner. Langley recounts the devastation of the area around Dunkirk, and the difficulties of surviving as a wounded prisoner in the chaos and confusion in the aftermath of the fall of France. Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed Langley in the BBC’s 2003 television docudrama Dunkirk.

When he was well enough, Langley used the chaos and confusion to good effect, slipping away from where he was being held prisoner to take his chance at evading through France. That he was able to make it all the way to Gibraltar owed a lot to the support he received along the way, as well as his personal resourcefulness and bravery.

Langley arrived back in England in 1941 with his war seemingly over, but he was rapidly recruited into MI9. Formed in 1939, MI9 was the branch of military intelligence that dealt with escape and evasion. As someone who had successfully escaped and evaded despite serious wounds, and with a father who had worked in intelligence during the First World War, Langley was a good fit for the fledgling organisation. The second half of the book deals with Langley’s work with MI9, developing and maintaining escape networks which would allow around 3,000 Allied aircrew to reach safe territory after being shot down over enemy controlled territory.

It is Langley’s work with MI9 that makes this book especially significant. When it was published in 1974, Britain’s wartime secrets were still jealously guarded. Little had been previously been published on the activities of MI9 and Christopher Clayton Hutton, who had invented many of the gadgets used by the organisation, had experienced considerable difficulty in publishing Official Secret, which was his account of his wartime activities.[1] Langley’s Fight Another Day was part of a series of texts which emerged between 1969 and 1979 that dealt with the activities of MI9. The first of these, Major Airey Neave’s Saturday at MI9 appeared in 1969.[2] In 1974, Neave provided the forward to Langley’s book. Donald Darling’s Sunday at Large would follow in 1977.[3] Finally, in 1979 Langley would collaborate with M.R.D. Foot on what would become the standard ‘un-official’ history of the organisation MI9: Escape and Evasion 1939-1945.[4] Thus, Fight Another Day was part of a decade long spate of publishing on MI9: a decade which would culminate in 1979 with the assassination of Neave as he exited in his car from the House of Commons underground parking garage. The killer, or killers, would never be brought to trial although the Irish National Liberation Army claimed the murder.

Quite why an obscure wartime organisation, wound up in 1945, should be resurrected from the shadows of history in the 1970s remains open to speculation.  There are, perhaps, four reasons:

  1. The increasing age of people like Langley, Neave and Darling who felt compelled to set down some record before it were too late.
  2. A belief that there was insufficient public recognition of the ‘debt owed to those who facilitated escapers in occupied Europe’ (Neave, introduction to Fight Another Day)
  3. Increasing openness about wartime secrets. Both Masterman’s 1972 The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945 and Winterbotham’s 1974 The Ultra Secret revealed details of the penetration of Germany’s spy network and the breaking of the enigma codes.[5]
  4. Increasing dissatisfaction with the performance of the MI5/MI6. The Cambridge Spy ring scandal had left a legacy of mistrust and suspicion of the security services, which later events, and the apparent inability of those services to come to terms with Irish terrorism in the 1970s, served to exacerbate.

Langley, Neave and Darling were intelligence insiders who knew MI6 particularly well.  While Neave in 1969 in Saturday at MI9 had largely pulled his punches, both he and Langley were much more outspoken in Fight Another Day. Sir Claude Dansey of MI6, ‘Uncle Claude’, was singled out for particularly strong attack as a malign influence more interested in fighting ‘turf wars’ on behalf of his department than in fighting the enemy. In the introduction to Langley’s book Neave recounts how his first encounter with Dansey led him to wonder ‘if I had been wise to escape from Colditz’ (Neave’s Saturday at MI9 goes into some detail on the encounter while consciously avoiding naming Dansey as the man laying down the law to Neave). Langley recounts similar troubles with Dansey and suggests that MI6’s attitude cost lives and opportunities:

The results of the failure to grasp the immense potentials of organised escape and evasion are self-evident and it suffices to say that had it been granted the same sinews of war as SOE, and similar status, I am convinced that more would have been achieved and that the lives of many of the major organizers would have been saved. (pp. 252-3)

In Fight Another Day both Langley and Neave return to old wounds to publicly settle accounts with MI6. The story of MI9 becomes a stick with which to further beat the record of MI6. Given Neave’s political prominence in the 1970s, and later conspiracy theories about his murder, the criticisms of MI6 contained in Fight Another Day are interesting on more than one level. Criticism of MI6 was significantly more muted in Darling’s 1977 book and in the collaboration between Foot and Langley. Fight Another Day therefore represents a particularly significant text in terms of wartime British intelligence and the process of revealing that past in the 1970s. Pen and Sword are to be congratulated in reprinting this previously hard to purchase text.

Citation: G.H. Bennett, ‘Review of J.M. Langley, Fight Another Day’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 8 August 2013

You can download a copy of the review here.

[1] Clayton Hutton, Official Secret: The Remarkable Story of Escape Aids, their Invention, Production, and the Sequel (London: M. Parrish, 1960).

[2] Airy Neave, Saturday at MI9: A History of Underground Escape Lines in North-West Europe in 1940-5 by a Leading Organiser at MI9 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1969). This book was republished by Leo Cooper in 2004.

[3] Donald Darling, Sunday at Large: Assignments of a Secret Agent (London: Kimber, 1977).

[4] M.R.D. Foot and J.M. Langley, MI9: Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 (London: The Bodley Head, 1979). For Foot’s recollection of Langley see: M.R.D. Foot, Memories of an S.O.E. Historian (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2008), p. 75, 149, pp. 159-161.

[5] J.C. Masterman, The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972); F.W. Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret (London: HarperCollins, 1974).


One response to “Book Review – Fight Another Day

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