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Belton Cooper: Death Traps

Death Traps is easily one of the best-known memoirs of any US junior officer during World War II, and certainly so for the US armored forces. Cooper served as an ordnance liaison officer of the US 3rd Armored Division from the invasion of Normandy until the end of the war. It was his job to record all knocked-out tanks of Combat Command B, one of the divisions three combat commands, and provide fresh reinforcements to the outfit. This gives Cooper a unique insight into both the maintenance and employment of US tanks during World War II, well beyond what his rank of 2nd Lieutenant would suggest.

The book focus on the deficiencies of the Medium Tank, M4 in Europe, and how these deficiencies prolonged the war and caused the needless deaths of US tankers. Cooper describes the dangers of travelling by jeep every day from the armored spearhead back to division, only accompanied by his driver, and travelling back to the spearhead with reinforcements. In doing so, the author saw little actual combat, but was nevertheless in the front line in one way or another during most of his service.

Cooper's insight makes this book an interesting read from a historical point of view - Death Traps definitely has a significant amount of historical contents. This information, however interesting, is also the book's Achilles heel. Most memoirs written by the soldiers in the field focus on the anecdotes which can't be found in after-action reports and statistics. Death Traps is not void of these anecdotes, especially in the first half of the book, but they are not plentiful either. What's worse, many of them seem marred by the more than 50 years that passed from the time they happened to the time they were written down: they simply do not seem as fresh as the anecdotes in other memoirs. There are some very good anecdotes in the book, but unfortunately not nearly as many as could have been hoped for.

In several places, the personal anecdotes are replaced with more general unit histories. This has obviously been done to provide the reader with a more thorough timeline of the division. It is probably a matter of taste whether this is suitable for a memoir or not, but in this reviewer's opinion, it makes the book seem disjointed. This is not helped by the almost verbatim repetition of some paragraphs, usually a few pages apart. This might be intentional, as the repeated paragraphs are reflecting in nature. Nevertheless, this practise is more suitable for a textbook than a memoir.

Despite these gripes, Death Traps should not be ignored. It's highly opinionated, but that is the privilege of a war memoir. The insight Cooper provides offsets the literary problems. The reader should not expect a typical soldier's tale, however. Death Traps is as much a history book as it is a memoir, which makes it a fairly heavy read. Someone who merely wish to read an exciting war story is best advised to look elsewhere, but for anyone who has a serious interest in World War II armor, this book is an essential read.

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