Dr Robert Lyman is an elected fellow of the Royal Historical Society. The primary focus of his research is the British and Commonwealth armies in the Second World War, where he has published extensively on the Pacific and Far East, North Africa and North West Europe. He was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1982 into the Light Infantry and spent 20 years in the British Army. His PhD was on Field Marshal Bill Slim. In 2010 he helped General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, write his memoirs, Leading from the Front.
In 2011 he won the National Army Museum’s debate for ‘Britain’s Greatest General’ on Bill Slim and in 2013 the debate for ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’ on Kohima and Imphal. He lives in Berkshire, England.
His book Slim, Master of War continues to be listed as a ‘must read’ for officer cadets at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and The Jail Busters was on the Chief of the Air Staff’s Reading List for 2016.
He is currently writing a new account of the entire Burma campaign for Bloomsbury to be published in 2022, the first full account of the campaign since Jon Latimer (The Forgotten War, 2004) and Louis Allen (The Longest War, 1984). In this book he argues that this campaign was a victory for India and the Indian Army, and served as a key validation for a newly independent India.
In 1956 a military biography became a publishing sensation in the United Kingdom with the first edition of 20,000 selling out almost immediately. This was unusual, as only nine years after the war the public appetite for books on the recent war remained limited. It was even more unusual given ...
Even the most sketchily educated Briton today will nevertheless recognise in the murky depths of their consciousness the name of that great British general of World War Two, Montgomery of Alamein. To an older generation perhaps another name resonates equally and perhaps more strongly, the name
Operation Pedestal, by Max Hastings. Review by Robert Lyman.Just when you thought that nothing more could ever be said of a subject, especially the supposedly over-written Second World War, along comes Max Hastings to put you right. Whatever else one might say about this veritable writing machine, one cannot fault his ability to pick a new angle to tell an old story well. A glance at the shelves of my library shows at least 12 books on the fleet operations to relieve the besieged island of Malta in August 1942. Do we need another? With this latest Hastings’ tome (at 336 pages it’s actually half the size of his normal fare) my answer is ‘yes’. This is a superb retelling of the remarkable story of a desperate effort to prevent the island of Malta falling into Axis hands, and thus becoming another Singapore at a time (this was months before either El Alamien or Operation Torch) when the fate of North Africa remained in the balance and British morale was at an all-time low. It is his first self-confessed foray into naval history, and is a triumph. Hastings acknowledges that he owes much to his historic precursors, and pays them tribute for giving him the nuts and bolts of his story. But it remains nevertheless a classic Hastings story: a discursive account of the ships, the men, the changing nature of maritime warfare (especially the vulnerability of big ships to submarine, torpedo-bomber and Stuka: he quotes Paul Kennedy’s observation that ‘Air power had chased the battlefleet from the ocean, and now posed a threat to every surface ship’) and the action that had me hooked from the beginning.
HMS Eagle listing as it is hit by Italian torpedoes.
The struggle for Malta in 1941 and 1942 was one of epic and strategic proportions. A short flying time from Italy, the island sustained far more attacks than the London blitz. The combined Governor/ C-in-C, Lord Gort, warned London in early summer spring that the starvation rations just about keeping the island’s population of 300,000 alive would be exhausted by September, his unwritten warning being that without relief the keys to the island would then have to be handed over to the triumphant Axis. Hastings’ captures the terrible drama of this predicament, stepping through the strategic logic to demonstrate the imperative for London of keeping Malta out of Axis hands, almost at any cost. The pulling together of this mighty maritime armada – which made early Axis observers think that it was the invasion of North Africa – is deftly described, as too are the measures taken by the Italians and Germans to send it to the bottom of the Mediterranean. They very nearly succeeded, the vast aircraft carrier HMS Eagle going down in only 8-minutes following multiple strikes from Italian torpedoes. Hastings has the knack of presenting complexity with ease. We are blessed with a surfeit of modern historians who can do this but, if I can use a painting analogy, Hastings remains one of the Old Masters. He is, perhaps, the Titian of military history. When you buy one of his books you know exactly what you are getting. Clear writing. Detailed investigation of published sources. Helpful vignettes about individuals and the roles they played in the drama. The exposure of confusion, idiocy, jealousy, infighting and bumbling. The excoriation of ineptitude. But more than anything else the remarkable sacrifice, bravery and courage of ordinary people is emphasised. In other words, he presents the entire drama – political, military and human – with a flair that few others can match. The great sadness of history is the voices that remain known only to God’, the people who died in battle, on land, in the air or at sea, whose voices we have lost. Hastings brings them to life again.That is what we are treated to in his latest offering, Operation Pedestal: The Fleet That Battled to Malta, 1942. It’s not just the story of a maritime or naval operation, of course, but one that ranges from decision-making in London, Washington and Cairo to the humbling sacrifice of civilians on a battered Malta, to the labour of merchant seamen battling U-boat and Stuka and bringing their half-sunk vessels into Valetta Harbour, to pilots fighting lack of a fuel, ammunition and sleep in their efforts to fight-off the swarms of enemy aircraft flying from bases a short hop away in Italy. He doesn’t disappoint. I always enjoy the numerical summaries he inserts along the way. He tells us, incidentally, that in the course of the war Italy produced a mere 13,252 aircraft against Germany’s 72,030, Britain’s 92,034 and America’s 163,049. Or that seventeen out of twenty British wartime convoys never encountered air or submarine attack. Or that of the 42,000 German submariners in the Second World War 33,000 became casualties. Or that more than 80% of Italian aircrew who went to war in 1940 were dead by the end. This is another Christmas cake of a book from Hastings, full or every kind of juicy richness, and we are all the better for it.Sir Max Hastings is interviewed by Saul David in the June issue of Aspects of History.Robert Lyman is a historian and author of books such as The Jail Busters: The Secret Story of MI6, the French Resistance and Operation Jerichoand Operation Suicide: The Remarkable Story of the Cockleshell Raid. Robert’s A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma and Britain 1941-45 is being published by Osprey in November 2021.
Robert Lyman, what first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?I have been a voracious devourer of history since a child, reading everything I could from an early age, before studying history at O and A level and at university. I am not exclusively a military historian, in that my interests range widely. I studied Australian, Chinese and European History at school and the Medieval Church for my first degree. The Reformation and the theological arguments that framed the debate between the medieval church and Protestantism retain an enduring interest for me. My first manuscript (fortunately, never published, because it was, in retrospect, not very good), written whilst I was an undergraduate, was on the English church between c.400 and the death of Elizabeth in 1603. This was undoubtedly influenced by my tutors at York in the 1980s, who included Claire Cross and John Bossy. The positive influences of excellent teachers run deep! I am also intensely interested in international affairs – the subject of my second degree – but also in military technology and war studies (the subjects of my third and fourth degrees). The military history dimension comes from my twenty-years in uniform in the British Army, and being immersed in this stuff every day. I need to mention the quality of some of the teaching I received in the army, beginning with men like John Keegan, David Chandler, Ian Beckett, Richard Holmes and other such luminaries at Sandhurst, Cranfield and Staff College, which encouraged me to dive deeper into the subject. My PhD – on Field Marshal Bill Slim, began at Staff College in 1996. Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?I study in concentric circles, beginning with the widest possible reading around my subject area. A feature of my books is the extensive context about the period and subject, to ensure that the events I end up describing and analysing can be understood properly. I then start homing in my subject, refining and questioning as I go. Talking to friends and colleagues and debating issues as the research develops is also a good way of working out what is important and what is not: the challenge is to avoid going down into rabbit warrens and studying aspects of a subject that doesn’t contribute much to the final story. The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?Yes, it’s true, but we mustn’t forget that the further we get from an event in history the more objective analysts like me (for that is what historians are) can be, unconstrained by the baggage of victory or victimhood. The curse of modern history telling, however, is the prevalence of the preachers among us, who use the platform they have to engage in ahistorical victimhood. These people, and there are far too many of them, are not in my view proper historians, as they use history as a means of presenting a modern political or ideological perspective quite alien to the people of the time about which they write.Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?The book that first got me interested in the modern history of the British Army was General Sir David Fraser’s And We Shall Shock Them, which I read when it was pressed into my hands on first publication in 1983. It tells the story of the transformation of the British Army during the Second World War. That led me to Field Marshal Bill Slim’s stupendous Defeat into Victory, undoubtedly the best general’s book of the Second World War. Another book I read as a young officer was Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin, influencing me profoundly as an historian. These three books – which I heartily recommend – have led me to a writing career that straddles fascism in Europe and the war against Japan in the Far East.If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?I would love to have met Oliver Cromwell, a much maligned and misunderstood leader, but of course I’d love to sit down and chat with Bill Slim. One event in history? There are lots. I’d have loved to have watched the Light Brigade undertake its bloody charge at Balaclava in October 1854. As General Bosquet observed, C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c'est de la folie.’ It would have been fabulous to observe the coronation of Elizabeth 1 in 1558, the execution of Charles I and the ramming of the Normandie Gates at St Nazaire by HMS Campbelltown in 1942.If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?I don’t think that any particular time or period of history is necessarily important, although I am a firm believer in understanding our own national history. Human beings are tied to time and place, and our origins are an important component of who we are, and who we consider ourselves to be. I am not an exponent of exceptionalism, but I do believe in the importance of identity. What is important is understanding how to interpret what history tells us about who we are, and where we come from. To do that we need the tools to analyse history, as well as knowing the events of the past. The two are inseparable.If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?The advice to myself would be to always evaluate every side of an argument. I have gone off half cock before, and always regretted it. I’m now very careful to evaluate all aspects of an issue before coming to judgement.Can I extend the question to suggest advice for others? That’s simple. Read more. There is no substitute for reading as extensively as you can manage. Read widely, and don’t stop reading. Don’t read one book on a subject, but several, to get different perspectives and perhaps conflicting analysis. I have read over 100 books a year since I was 10 or 11, and apart from the problem of over-accumulation, its one vice that shouldn’t have too many negative consequences. As a writer, reading also allows me to observe through first hand experience, what good (and bad) writing can look like. Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?I’m busy with a range of projects at the moment. My ‘big book on Burma’ is being published in November. A War of Empires is a military history of the Burma Campaign that tells the story of the Far East between December 1941 and August 1942. I attempt to weave the strategic, operational and tactical stories together, to try to answer the question as to why the Allied forces involved did so badly in 1942, and yet managed to turn the tide against the Japanese in 1945. Its been a subject that has intrigued me for many years.I’m also writing a short account of Operation Jericho, to tighten some of the arguments I made about MI6 and the RAF about the Mosquito raid on Amiens Jail in 1944 in my 2014 book The Jail Busters.