Review by John Higgins
The plot of Green Battlefield can be summarised as follows:
Bomber pilot Patrick Orleigh parachutes to ground when his plane is shot down over Normandy, where he is befriended by Arlenne Resant and her elderly servants, the Bonparts. A German officer arrives to billet six soldiers in her house. In the evening Bonpart returns from a bar and shoots five of them dead in a drunken fury, setting the house on fire as he does. Arlenne and Patrick have to flee. They head for the coast, occasionally seeking shelter but never sure if the people who help them may choose to hand them over to the Germans.
Green Battlefield was fairly successful on its first appearance. There was a generous first print run of 12,500 copies, but in spite of that it had to be reprinted in 1944. There was a Four Square paperback in 1959 and a new hardback in the Heinemann Uniform Edition in 1973. However, Canning himself was dismissive about it, saying in a 1974 interview:
“I didn’t write thrillers at all. Then the war broke out and I went into the army as a gunner. I wrote one book during the war, Green Battlefield. That was just a war story about an RAF chap who gets shot down in France and finds his way back home. It was a topical book. I spun it off to cash in on the war story thing. It was quite a competent story, but nothing I’d want in the canon of works! That was the only work I did.” (Writer’s Review, October 1974, pages 7 – 14. “Victor canning—an interview with Peter Linnett”)
The “war story thing” that Canning was most likely to have had in mind was Nevil Shute’s Pied Piper, which appeared in 1942. Canning’s book, though efficiently narrated and with some striking descriptive passages, is not on a par with Shute’s. There is a good deal of violent death in it, with the hero despatching two Germans summarily. The hero and heroine fall in love rather too readily and conveniently. The France they pass through is largely fictional, Cherbourg being the only real place involved. However, Canning had spent several months in France in 1937 and taught himself good French, though there is no evidence that he had ever visited Normandy. The book has more to say about Britain than about France, about regimental loyalty and aspects of British life that the soldiers remember and dream of when they are overseas.