Then And Now, edited by Winston Ramsey, published by Battle of Britain Prints International, Ltd., London. Available to U.S. readers via the worldwide web at www.afterthebattle.mcmail.com.

Ancient wisdom has it that when you find a pearl of great price, you should not hesitate to sell everything you have, if necessary, in order to acquire it. The THEN AND NOW series of historical gems, published by the editors of After the Battle magazine, is just such a case. For enthusiasts of Second World War history, nothing else comes close; these books are very simply the best there is. If you don’t have room for them on your bookshelves, throw away whatever volumes you must in order to free up the needed space.

The series is an outgrowth of the passion of Winston Ramsey, editor of After the Battle, to rediscover the sites captured in wartime photographs and learn what they look like today. In 1973, this enthusiasm for returning to Second World War battlefields spawned After the Battle, a magazine describing history’s greatest conflict through exquisitely researched articles, maps, and photos.

“I have to admit,” Ramsey reminisced in the magazine’s 100th number 25 years on, “to achieving much personal satisfaction in tracing historically significant locations in our recent history. The feeling of actually standing on some piece of ground where long-forgotten photographers once recorded battle scenes can be imagined, be it the exact spot in Belgium where some of [Otto] Skorzeny’s Commandos were executed…; or where Montgomery signed the surrender…or Himmler committed suicide….”

When Ramsey says “exact spot” he means it in the most literal sense. After the Battle’s “Now” pictures aren’t just general shots of the same battlefield, village, or building; he and his staff do their level best to determine the precise location where the original photographer stood during the war years. “Sometimes,” Ramsey admits, “one is no longer able to stand on the same spot from where the wartime photo was taken. Too many times, the building used as a vantage point has been demolished or a new building has replaced a ruin. Trees and [billboards] often mar the view, and sometimes new developments completely expunge the old location. Nevertheless, as I have said to many people who tell me that a site no longer exists, it is still there but it just takes more care to determine the correct spot.”

This same exactitude has gone into After the Battle’s series of massive books, which documents English war sites with a level of comprehensiveness that falls only slightly short of omniscience. The Battle of Britain Then and Now, for example, includes a list of every RAF air crewman who participated in the campaign. Likewise, The Blitz contains a day-by-day description of German air operations (including the times of sunrise and sunset for the day, the phase of the moon, and the evening’s weather conditions over both England and the Continent), and a list of every German bomber downed on British soil, along with the RAF fighter pilot credited with the kill. Every volume also contains eyewitness accounts that bring the grand scope of the world-wide conflict down to a human, personal level.

This wealth of information makes each book in the series more than just another account of a battle or campaign; it gives readers the feel of having access to official after-action reports, but in an entertaining format that makes for a pulse-quickening read. For this reason, the “Then and Now” books have been described as monuments in their own right to the people and events they document, and indeed, it’s hard to imagine that any memento could better preserve a veteran’s memories of those days, or better honour those who gave their lives in defence of Britain.

Bruce Heydt