Book Review: Twelve Desperate Miles

“Twelve Desperate Miles: The Epic WWII Voyage of the SS Contessa” by Tim Brady

It’s been a while since I read a book with a military theme, but my curiosity was piqued by the following blurb on the book’s jacket cover:

The Dirty Dozen meets Band of Brothers in this true story of how a rusty old New Orleans banana boat and an unlikely crew of international merchant seamen, a gang of inmates from a local jail, and a French harbor pilot spirited out of Morocco in the trunk of a Chevy by OSS agents were drafted into service in WWII — and heroically succeeded in setting the stage for Patton’s epic invasion of North Africa.

After spending a relaxing weekend enjoying this story, I came away feeling that my review should be a “tale of two books”: the one that Tim Brady wrote, and the one the Crown Publishing marketing department sold. Both are good books, but they aren’t the same.

First of all, the book that is written is excellent. Brady is a great story-teller, and weaves a fascinating tale of America’s first World War II battle in the European theater centered on some of the more obscure characters and events involved. At times he may go into more detail than some readers will prefer, but I appreciated the immersion into the world of 1940’s Morocco, as I shared in the anxiety of ordinary soldiers and civilians on the brink of imminent war.

While the SS Contessa does figure prominently in the story, the scope of Brady’s book is much larger. He takes readers through the politics and preparations behind Operation Torch (the Allied assault on Northern Africa) as well as the logistical nightmares and insufficient training that made the attack such a risky proposition. We learn why it was necessary for the U.S. Armed Forces to draft a “banana boat” from the Standard Fruit Company into military service, and fill it with crewmen from the Norfolk County Jail — there simply weren’t enough resources and personnel available (with the United States already heavily engaged in the Pacific Theater) for the largest naval mission ever launched to that point in history.

To me, though, the ending seemed anti-climactic. The Contessa’s journey of “twelve desperate miles” up the Sebou River ended up lasting only a few pages at the end of the book, and I guess I’d expected more. That said, I don’t think Brady needed to change anything he wrote. The space designated for the Contessa’s role in the invasion is probably roughly proportional to her importance in the scope of Operation Torch, which is to say, not much.

But, like I’ve said, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. The “problem” with the ending has nothing to do with the way it was written, and everything to do with my expectations leading into this book… which brings up the “second book” — the one advertised by the marketing department.

When I read of comparisons to The Dirty Dozen and Band of Brothers, I expected the book’s focus to be relatively narrow, something of a human interest story. Inmates from a local jail chosen to serve in a special mission? Great! What were they like? How did they go about their work? What happened to them afterward?

We never really learn the answers to these questions because  the “gang of ex-cons” mentioned on the front cover simply don’t figure prominently into the story. The crew members taken from the jail weren’t hardened criminals, but sailors serving time for partying a little too hard on shore leave, and by all accounts, they performed their duties admirably and without incident. So while the fact that they were needed at all is an interesting historical tidbit, they aren’t the story here.

With all due respect to Hollywood, real life often provides better drama than fiction. This book didn’t need to tell the story of these men to be a page-turner. And while credit goes to the marketing department for getting the book in my hands (after all, I might not have bought it in the first place without the intriguing subtitle and jacket blurbs), the story works better as the book Brady wrote than the one I thought I was buying.

If you’re into military history, I think you’ll appreciate this one. If you’re looking for something that really is a real-life version of The Dirty Dozen, you’ll probably be disappointed. Buy it here.

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