HANDE hoch! The average Scottish boy in the 1970s had a beginner’s grasp of German courtesy of DC Thomson.

Its Commando comics inspired us to imagine bus shelters as Colditz Castle. We’d storm them with invisible Sten guns and lob grenades cunningly disguised as pockets of air – boom! Our fake deaths were lurid affairs, characterised by stuttering steps and much yelling. We saw ourselves as Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express. Enemies from other schools were the Nazis.

This is Luke Turner’s territory, his childhood high on Airfix adhesive, and his book is, among other concerns, a meditation on the relationship of boys and war: how some grow into conscientious objectors, how others can’t wait to get stuck in.

Turner wants us to reconsider the men who fought for us in the Second World War. He’s keen to paint a nuanced, more sensitive picture of their experiences, one that avoids the jingoistic japery of Johnson’s Brexit Britain with its fetishisation of Churchill. His book features stories about several men whose lives challenge the standard cliched narratives featured in British war movies and war comics.

Like the young JG Ballard, Turner is obsessed with the glamour of flight, the glory of Lancaster bombers. He’s great at capturing their pilots’ knight-like appeal and their lunatic daring, given the ridiculously high attrition rate. We learn that Bomber Command lost 55,573 crew out of a total 125,000.

He’s clear, too, that many conscripts in 1939 had – initially – little in the way of ideological reasoning for combat – that came later, after the Blitz. The memories of the trenches meant that Chamberlain’s attempts to stop the war were not unpopular. In time, the horrors of the Holocaust would give combat a true moral force but for many the initial decision to fight had more to do with proving oneself as a man.

In Turner’s grandfather’s words: “But for the war, my life would have been infinitely easier and happier. No parting from my kin – but on the other hand, no chance to prove my worth – if any.”

Men At War does not perpetuate romantic myths. Turner notes how “post-war struggles with mental health and PTSD impacted the generations on”. Britain’s victory had a high psychological price many would argue we’re still paying.

We’re reminded that the threat of death had “an aphrodisiac quality”. Sex as the big yes to life meant that norms were broken “for better and for worse”. Turner doesn’t shirk from talking about masturbation as succour, indeed he’s gloriously irreverent when he asks if contemporary Britain could bear the idea of veteran hero Captain Tom “cracking one off under itchy blankets”.

More seriously, the “leering boasting braggadocio” of some soldiers led to rape. We learn Berliners are known to refer to the Soviet memorial at Treptower Park as “the tomb of the unknown rapist”. As many as 1.4 million German women are thought to have been raped by the Russians.

Prudery about sex led to misinformation about venereal disease that often implied its spread was a deliberate tactic by the enemy. Prostitutes were demonised. Watching remembrance parades in our own time, Turner assumed that the men “couldn’t be anything other than heterosexual Brits”. Why? Because “they all looked so normal”. Researching his book, he realises he “couldn’t have been more wrong”.

We hear stories about the wartime bravery of a transgender RAF pilot, a bisexual commando, a gay soldier forced to work on the Burma railroads by the Japanese. But ultimately, Turner relegates his own fantasies of himself in war “behind the controls of a Mosquito or Lancaster bomber”. He realises his childhood games were just that – games, dreams of glory that could not be sustained.

Reading Turner’s accounts of the men who served, I’m reminded of John Cale’s song The Soul Of Carmen Miranda with its poignant line about men “consigned to the sideshows of history”. Those we have forgotten at the going down of the sun, no matter how many times we have heard Laurence Binyon’s poem. Turner’s book reclaims these witnesses from the shadows, rescues them from abandonment. He refuses their dismissal from memory and offers their testimonies as evidence that many were true innocents abroad. He asks us simply to remember them.