Published: 17 April 2010
Harry Yeide lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Nancy. He works as a foreign affairs analyst for the government. His primary interest in the US armoured forces of World War II. His first book, Steel Victory, about the US seperate tank battalions in the ETO, was published in 2003. He has since published four other books:
* The Tank Killers (2005), about the US tank destroyers in North Africa and Europe.
* The Longest Battle (2005), which covers the battle for Aachen and the Roer River crossings from September 1944 to February 1945.
* Weapons of the Tankers (2006), about the US armour in both Europe and the Pacific.
* First to the Rhine (2007), co-authoered by Mark Stout, about the US 6th Army Group.
He is currently writing his sixth book, Steeds of Steel, which will cover the US armoured cavalry of World War II in both Europe and the Pacific, expected to be out in 2008.
For those who are interested in Harry’s work, visit his website.
Andreas interviewed Harry Yeide from USA, who has just put out his fifth book, First to the Rhine, about his experiences as a World War II author, and his feelings on the Internet.
The interview took place in August 2007.
H. Yeide: Thanks to the Axis History Forum for the opportunity to talk a bit about my books.
AHF: How do you select topics for books?
H. Yeide: The idea for my first book, Steel Victory (the publisher’s title—I had wanted Dirt-Grimed Tankers), arose from doing some research with the aim of basing some wargame scenarios on actual events. I was amazed at what I found in the records of the US separate tank battalions and realized there was a great story waiting to be told. I was equally amazed when I determined that nobody had written such a history before. I had thought World War II was covered in its every nook and cranny.
This experience led to my general approach to picking topics: I try to find good stories that have not been told to the broad audience of popular military history. The men involved deserve to be remembered by posterity for what they accomplished under horrible conditions. While I have a decades-long interest in World War II armor, this approach has led me to a range of places, including the US Tank Destroyer Force (The Tank Killers), the bloody campaign along the Roer River (The Longest Battle), the Franco-American 6th Army Group (First to the Rhine), and US mechanized cavalry (Steeds of Steel, due out in early 2008). Who needs another book on Normandy or the Battle of the Bulge, no matter how good?
AHF: How did you get contact to publishers when starting out?
H. Yeide: I cold-pitched my first book to a publisher and got a rejection letter. Then fate intervened. I offered a copy as a matter of possible interest to “Wild Bill” Wilder, who was writing scenarios for a wargame at the time. I found out about him without really looking via an Internet discussion board. It turned out that he had a contact in the publishing world and offered to see if he was interested in seeing the manuscript. That man, Eric Hammel, has become a great friend and mentor. Eric saw the core of something worthwhile and got me in the door.
AHF: Can you live off the proceeds?
H. Yeide: Absolutely not. The income covers costs, plus a bit. Unless you’re Steven Ambrose, keep your day job.
AHF: Have you got any specific training (history degree, writing courses)?
H. Yeide: I write a lot for my job, which has given me a grasp of things like grammar, organization, and flow. It has also given me a style that tends to sound government-issued, I suspect, but I think it’s usually clear and gets the point across. My education is actually in international affairs, and I am not a trained historian. I think this offers advantages and disadvantages. To me, the main advantage is that I approach a project as a true-life story to tell—indeed, a story that as much as possible will tell itself in the words of those who were there. I do not feel compelled to “interpret” the meaning for the reader at every stage. The down side is that some history readers clearly want that sort of thing.
AHF: Which archives have you used and how do you find working in them?
H. Yeide: I have worked only at the US National Archives and the semi-archival libraries at the Center of Military History in Washington, DC, and the Military History Institute (MHI) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. They are all fairly user-friendly, particularly in comparison with some European archives, says my wife, who uses those across the pond now and then. We are lucky to have at the National Archives microfilm of all of the German military records captured by the Western Allies, the originals of which are now at the Bundesarchiv. The records are incomplete, especially at the division level, but they are extremely useful.
AHF: What in particular needs to be kept in mind in archival research?
H. Yeide: Original accounts of the same incident from different participants often differ substantially. People who wrote AARs could not have seen most—if any—of the events they describe. Even actual participants simply saw and remembered things differently. Some embarrassing developments, perhaps, were left unmentioned, and sometimes those that were mentioned may have been included for the benefit of readers up the chain of command (we reached the objective, but….). I try to be quite up-front with my readers about this problem in the forewords to my books, and I hope people actually read the forewords.
I have learned that the closer you can get to the actual events, the better. If you look at the S-3 or G-3 journal (US), for example, you often find developments recorded as they happened. Some embarrassing developments that may be “forgotten” in the AAR may show up there. More than once, I have found details in a journal that corroborated stories related by veterans. The flip side is that you also step into the fog of war—first reports are not necessarily accurate. But that is the information people had available when they made decisions.
AHF: How do you as an author view the Internet, both as a source and as a competitor to books?
H. Yeide: The Internet is becoming ever more useful as a source of primary materials, thanks to efforts by individuals and institutions such as MHI. There are also excellent pockets of veterans’ accounts on the web, and various lists of veterans organizations help immensely in tracking down people to interview. I have not yet seen the Internet to be a competitor, though there seems to be a negative impact on new book sales from the easy second-hand market. One also has to adopt a zen-like acceptance of the democracy of opinion on the web—a reader review on Amazon, for example, may be factually inaccurate throughout and may affect your sales, but there’s nothing you can do about it.
AHF: Have you tried to contact veterans and interview them – if so, how did this work out?
H. Yeide: I have had generally excellent experiences with American veterans, especially men from units that have been largely ignored by other writers, such as the separate tank battalions, TD battalions, and mechanized cavalry outfits. They justifiably want their story told and remembered. Every infantry division and regiment veterans’ association I have approached has been gracious and accommodating, save one. I tried to contact some German veterans through an alte Kameraden group in connection with The Longest Battle but had no success. I can understand their caution in dealing with an unknown foreigner.
AHF: What is the key bit of advice you would give to those who want to write a book on military history, especially World War 2?
H. Yeide: Find something that really interests you. It is going to be a lot of work.
I can describe my general approach, which might or might not work for others. If there is a report on the subject published by people who study and practice the art of war for a living (such as the “green books” or Ft. Leavenworth papers), I will give it a quick read to see what the professionals think. Then I head straight for the original records without reading the opinions of learned historians, as I do not want to have my views biased by their work. I start at the macro level to find out what the men involved in the war thought was important—that might be, say, the First Army history/AAR or a general board report written at the end of the war. From this, I conceive the skeleton of the book.
Then I dive down to the lowest level possible to get a feel for what aspects of the story I will be able to illustrate with specifics, color, and personal accounts. What was it like for the men? Were they cold and wet or hot and dry? Were they new to combat or old hands? The Army might have conducted combat interviews after a particular action, for example, or a company-grade officer might have published an account in one of the professional journals. I look at memoirs at this stage, and start talking to veterans. Then I fill in the material in between the macro and the micro as required by the specific project, rethinking what I have done as I go and adjusting as necessary.
Only then do I look at books, dissertations, or theses by other historians to learn where I came out relative to them. If there is a big gap on something, I try to figure out why and make sure I am confident in my conclusion, or I rethink it. If someone else has a great realization that I missed, I incorporate it and credit the source. Sometimes I will find that I have partially replicated some research by another author, but I would rather spend that time and know that I looked at the source documents. The exception is material covering the historical period leading up to my story that I usually include in the first chapter, where I am quite willing to use secondary sources.
AHF: What has the greatest challenge for you as a historical researcher been?
H. Yeide: In terms of sheer time, the hardest thing has been tracking down personal accounts of key actions to bring the official records to life. Without the human dimension, military history can be somewhat dry. The US has developed a thriving oral history industry. One has to be careful using memories that are decades old, but such projects offer invaluable material that can be checked against other sources. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is hardly available at all for the Axis side.
The decision by Allen Weinstein, the Archivist of the United States, to eliminate most of the research hours available outside the business day (http://homepage.mac.com/yeide/Allen%20Weinstein%20Excludes%20.htm) is now my greatest challenge. It is difficult to maintain any momentum on a project, and there are days when I consider giving it up until I retire.
AHF: In hindsight, are there any things in your books that you would have done differently?
H. Yeide: I certainly learned a great deal from writing Steel Victory and would have done it differently a second time around. One change I have made is to invest more time in finding accounts from other units involved in the events I describe, at least from those on the same side. The opposing side (if one is writing about US battalion-scale forces) is often a far more difficult proposition in terms of finding analogous tactical-level reports. I am always trying to learn from feedback, such as on-line reviews and discussions on Internet fora. You do what you can as a writer—what one person likes, another dislikes.
AHF: How did you first become interested in military history and what made you choose the topic of your first book?
H. Yeide: I first became interested in military history when my 6th-year teacher in primary school coaxed me into reading some. I became a voracious reader, helped by the fact that my local library had a nearly complete set of the official US Army histories of Worlds War II.
AHF: How did you manage your time between daily life (work and family) and work on the book; do you have a regime in regards to worktime on the book?
H. Yeide: I am able to work a “flex schedule,” which means I work an extra hour every day and get one day free every two weeks. Without that, there would be no hope. I used to spend an evening or two and many Saturdays at the Archives, too, but the change in hours practically ended that. I have no children, and my wife is quite understanding! I only write when I want to, but it’s my main hobby, so I really enjoy working on a manuscript. I never sign a contract until I have finished a book, even though I’ve been told you can earn more money from the promise of a book than a finished manuscript, because I want to be working for myself, not somebody else.
AHF: Who decides on the contents of an index, and how do you decide what’s listed and what’s not?
H. Yeide: I have found that publishers’ policies on indexing vary. Usually you provide a list of entries, and sometimes you have to fill in the page numbers, too. The publisher did most of the index work for The Longest Battle, and it’s a bit of a hash. I did it for First to the Rhine, and it’s two grueling weeks of evening and weekend labor. I index all place and person names, military units (how far down depends on the book), and concepts such as “air support.”
AHF: How did your interest in the second world war begin?
H. Yeide: I read a lot of World War II history as a teenager and built probably hundreds of 1/72-scale models of aircraft and ground equipment. I also played wargames such as Panzerblitz. These things engaged the mind and the hands. So does writing.
AHF: How do the responses from the readers and publishers differ between a book such as “Tank Killers” focusing on a particular branch of the US forces during WW2 compared to “The Longest Battle” that gives equal focus to both sides of the battle?
H. Yeide: I have not discerned any split in the reactions based on the difference between the focus on one side or both. I do find that WW II fans on the Internet talk a great deal more about the tactical-level information from a book like The Tank Killers than they do about the strategic and operational-level story of The Longest Battle. On the other hand, the latter title was nominated for best book of the year in its historical period by the US Army’s historical foundation, so maybe historians have a different perspective.
AHF: What in particular has made you focus on the US tank and anti-tank forces?
H. Yeide: I wanted to become a tanker as a teenager but could not meet the vision requirements for West Point. This is the best I can do.
AHF: What are the particular challenges in branch/battle histories?
H. Yeide: I’m not sure it’s a challenge, but when I write a branch history, I try to capture the war from the viewpoint of the men who actually fought it. This tends to introduce certain elements of nationalism and heroic behavior (who records or retells stories of cowardice and failure?) that are not “neutral.” The biggest challenge in writing a battle book is that there is a huge number of moving parts, and you have to figure out how they fit together. There are also more actions than one can possibly cover in a book, so one must make choices about which ones to explore. This is not only a function of their relative importance, but also of what accounts are available. A key action poorly recorded may escape notice. In my upcoming book First to the Rhine, my co-author Mark Stout and I had to find ways to continually reflect the different views of the campaign from the American and French perspectives—to over-generalize, a pragmatic desire to end the war quickly and go home versus a desire to rebuild French honor and prestige.
AHF: What is your opinion of the recent rise of interest in the second world war in popular culture?
H. Yeide: Thank goodness! I hope people contemplate a day when the United States only fought big wars when it had to.
AHF: What effect might it have on the historical research community?
H. Yeide: My suspicion is that World War II will remain a topic of high interest to anyone interested in military affairs for a long time to come, even when the current wave of interest—generated in part by the gradual passing of what they call in the States “the greatest generation”—subsides. This was the war in which all the pieces of the gradual industrialization of warfare came together in a form and function that generally remains the same today. Air power came into its own, sea power no longer meant big boats with big guns, and machines moved men rapidly and often over long distances in a war of maneuver. Combined-arms warfare became the formula for success. The similarities are strong enough that current battle experience, such as in Iraq, often eerily reflects what happened in World War II. Just one tiny example—the Marines installed “grunt phones” on the backs of their tanks in Iraq, just like their grandpas did in the Big One.
AHF: In Tank Killers you point out obvious errors in the official unit histories (for example when gunners of A/602d Tank Destroyer Battalion claimed 8 destroyed Tiger tanks in an area where no such tanks saw any action), did you discuss this problem with any veterans and if so, what kind of response did you get?
H. Yeide: I have a boring answer. I have talked with veterans about errors in the official accounts, but I don’t recall trying to pin anyone down on specifics like that. Generally, they have been aware of what the AAR or some official history has to say and have called what they view as errors to my attention. I then try to cross-check the stories using, say, the S-3 journal.