German WW2 Reviews

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Larso
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German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 20 Jul 2016 12:07

I've read a few of these over the years and thought it was about time I put some reviews up. I see there's quite a number of new releases on this topic but the providence of many seem questionable. I do though appreciate the growing availability of memoirs on Kindle - that's made getting them very affordable and rejuvinated my interest in reading them. Anyway, here's the start of a new thread.

Panzer Gunner by Bruno Friesen

This German WW2 memoir has the highly unusual feature of being written by a Canadian born man of Ukrainian Menonite immigrants, of German origin. Due to the economic recovery in Germany and their debt laden Canadian existence, the family migrates to Germany just prior to WW2. Bruno goes first and becomes an unpaid farm hand which is pretty tough. He and the family find that the Nazi officials controlled everything – you had to apply for work opportunities through them and you were beholden to them. So they did what they had to do. Bruno and his brother are also required to serve in the army.

Bruno finds most of his training is based on bastardisation. He has fairly bitter memories of this. In some ways the training was remarkably sparse but there was great value in having veterans imparting hard won ‘turret wisdom’ to recruits. Following the Italian surrender he is despatched there as part of the occupation force. On his return Bruno does an apprenticeship as a gun loader and ultimately serves as a gunner in Pz IVs and Jagdpanzers with the 7th Panzer Division on the Eastern Front in 1944.

There is quite a bit of detail on the several missions he undertook. There is also considerable variety in what happens. He is part of a tank group facing off against T34s, he conducts ambushes using the JgPz and there is a remarkable sequence of actions in conjunction with halftrack infantry and AA. He has considerable success in his role and it was quite astonishing how accurate a tank gunner could be! Also surprising was the number of times tanks and in particular the JgPzs, could be put out of action by minor hits or accidents.

The pages on the combat are some of the most fascinating I have read. Perhaps this is due to Mr Friesen’s North American raising (and post-war life) and the cultural directness inherit in that? So on this score, this is a more detailed memoir than most written by German veterans who lean towards being reticient in combat matters. Friesen is also focused on technical issues, so there is a lot on the process of aiming guns, allowing for the usual variables (enemy speed, distance etc) and achieving hits. It was deadly stuff and Bruno himself is ultimately wounded. Note, there is some ribald language and observations, so this really has a soldier’s flavour to it. Highly recommended!

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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 05 Aug 2016 11:20

Five Years, Four Fronts by Georg Grossjohann

This is a remarkable account of service in the German Army in WW2. The author served in action from the invasion of Poland in 1939 to the final defense of Germany in 1945. He advanced from platoon commander to regimental commander and wore quite a variety of medals and wounds by the end.

The title points to the scale of service possible, even probable in the German army. This applied to service in a number of major formations too. For the author, this started with an engineering role with the 21st Infantry in the Polish campaign and then assaulting the Maginot line with the 161st Division in 1940. While these were quite minor in nature, he is then with the 198th Division for the invasion of Russia and sees extensive combat there. This included the severe battle of the Cherkassy pocket. Most of this was with the 2/308th Regiment. In 1944 the division is based in Southern France and Georg sees action there and all the way back to Germany. He is in the Colmar pocket and involved in attacks in support of Nordwind.

The majority of Grossjohann’s career was as an infantry leader. He is involved in numerous actions, especially in Russia. Many of these are not described though. Several times he will write a position was held for weeks or months against repeated assaults. Clearly not everything can be remembered or included but I felt the relentless nature of such combat was not strongly conveyed. There are certainly stories of action. Artillery bombardments were frequent and George had several strokes of luck. He was cut off at times and had to lead men back to the German lines. The winter was a challenge too. Several experiences that stood out were a desperate river crossing and being a bridge commander.

In terms of actual combat, Georg is, like many German memorists, fairly reticent when writing of killing. When he does, it is pretty sobering but this is not a ‘blood and guts’ account. There is though a lot of other material of great interest. Georg joined the army in 1928! He saw a lot of the training system and encountered some bizarre characters. Elsewhere he gives his views on his enemies and allies but also civilians and partisans. He encountered Ramcke and has some interesting things to say about Rommel. There is also his reflections on the tragic fate of the ethnic Germans, which of course got little publicity or sympathy at the time.

Each chapter begins with very good general context by Keith E. Bonn and Wolf T. Zoepf. There are also good maps and very useful summaries of Grossjohann’s career, awards, divisional histories, notes and index. It is all very informative and I wish it had been longer. I enjoyed this book. It is a very extensive account of service in standard line formations of the German army in WW2. 3.5 stars

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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 05 Sep 2016 11:48

Black Edelweiss by Johann Voss

Voss, apparently a pseudonym, joins the SS for idealistic reasons. He is young, partly influenced by role models but he is also taken with the idea of European brotherhood in the face of Communism. He undergoes mountain warfare training and is posted to the 6th SS Mountain Division ‘Nord’ in Finland. He experiences combat, the extreme weather and the long retreat to Norway. Following this he is in action on the Western Front before being captured by the Americans in 1945. He wrote his memoir up while he was in captivity.

There is quite a bit on Voss’ youth and his fascinating family. They were quite privileged but also saw themselves as obliged to serve Germany in the conflict. There are a range of political attitudes in the family, though mostly they have no particular attachment to Hitler. The mountain training phase is quite interesting. They are pushed hard but being young and fit helps. There is also the elite nature of their work and charismatic leaders. Voss arrives at the Finnish front late in 1943 and assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 11th SS Mountain Regt.

The front is fairly static when Voss arrives. There are though constant probes and mortar and artillery attacks. Voss recounts the first instance of these in quite some detail, complete with conversations with comrades. There is also a clear account of the terrain, trench and living quarters. A major patrol is also recounted in depth, so this is a very good look at the work of a mountain or ski soldier. There follows a major action at Sennozero Lake, during a big Soviet offensive in July 44. Voss commands a MG section and there is a lot done trying to stem the attack and break through to cut-off German troops. I think the sense of confusion in the forests and the extreme exertion required is conveyed well. Then there is the long retreat, which sadly for the Germans sees them obliged to engage their erstwhile Allies, the Finns. This whole episode is very little known, so this was all quite informative.

After arriving back in Germany, the 6th SS Division is committed to fighting the Americans. The extent of American artillery fire astonishes the Germans. Voss’ major action is at Reipertswiller, during the Nordwind offensive in January 45. They entrap and capture a battalion of the US 157th Regt and Voss, again commanding a MG section, writes quite clearly on his part in this. His final action is the attack on Lampaden in March. The battalion conducts a night march but is not able to deploy itself properly. US tanks then overwhelm Voss’ section and he is captured. This action was against the 3/302nd of the US 94th Division. Interestingly, an article by Edward Morris (2000) claims the 6th SS shot American prisoners in this action. There is very little about war crimes by the 6th SS, so this may have just been ‘run-of-the-mill’ activity that both sides engaged in, particularly in the Bulge. In any case, Voss is probably lucky to have survived.

This though points to the notoriety of the SS. While separate to the odious Concentration camp branch, the Waffen SS was involved in many atrocities, both on and off the battlefield. Voss is very lucky I think to have been posted to the 6th Division, which spent the great bulk of its career on friendly soil. It was not therefore used to suppress partisans or punish foreign populations. Even its brief phase in action against the Finns, following that countries switching sides, was as limited as both nations could manage. Voss’ service in the SS though is his reason for writing. Having volunteered and served in an organisation, subsequently deemed to be criminal, Voss is conflicted. He sees his own motives and those of his comrades as honourable. The horrors of the Death Camps and other SS crimes were indisputable but he nevertheless feels his reasons need to be stated. He is also partly speaking on behalf of his dead comrades. It is, I think, a perspective worth hearing and it probably represents that held by a sizeable number of SS and Wehrmacht volunteers. It is also the case, that there are many memoirs by Allied troops who fought the SS and had nothing but contempt and loathing for them.

With that in mind, this is a very interesting book. Voss writes a lot about his comrades and their discussions. His experiences are fairly unique and his writing conveys things clearly. There is quite a bit of combat action and sufficient specifics to make it hit home. His reflections on his sacrifices and service in a very controversial organisation are a fascinating point of view, though probably not best taken in isolation. Highly recommended.

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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 09 Oct 2016 11:49

Devil on My Shoulder by Hans Becker

This review is based on my memories of reading this book when I was fifteen.

Becker joined the artillery branch of the German army, primarily because it had the best uniform and he thought it would help him impress girls. With this training behind him he was assigned to the 13th Panzer Division as a tank gunner. He writes of his tank crew and several of the actions they fought in. I remember very clearly that prior to their final battle, they’re own tank was unavailable but they begged to take out a replacement one. They did not have time though to paint their ‘score’ on the gun barrel and they thought this might be unlucky. So it proved and they are hit. I can’t recall precisely whether this is where Becker is captured but at one point his earlier good-will to a Russian soldier is repaid. In any case the second and larger part of the book covers Becker’s time as a POW.

I can’t recall the treatment he encountered while the war still continued but Becker ends up spending quite a few years in a Soviet mine. He seemed to be treated reasonably decently and there always seemed to be many more Russian prisoners than German. A quota system operated where-by each inmate was to mine a particular amount of ore. To give himself something to do, Becker perversely often mined more, one time managing to produce four times his quota. The Russians thought him mad but it was, ironically a way to keep himself sane. It was interesting reading of the various ways that the Germans (and others) filled in time. In the end he is freed, I think during the major 1950 release.

Given I can remember these things from 30 years ago, I’m inclined to think it was a well written and interesting book. I hope the elements that I’ve outlined might be useful to future readers.

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B Hellqvist
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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by B Hellqvist » 12 Oct 2016 20:00

I was in contact with "Johann Voss" a few years ago, after figuring out his real name. He still felt resentment that his and his comrades' idealism was perverted by Himmler. I asked him about their small arms, and he told me that while in the Vosges, they would come across StG44's dropped by Volksgrenadier soldiers. Considering that they carried Mausers and had just recently been equipped with MG42's, he felt some contempt for the VG. As for the "Nord" division and war crimes, it was one of the few that wasn't involved in any massacres. The torching of Rovaniemi is a contested issue, but considering the atrocities by other SS units, it was a minor one.

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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by stg 44 » 12 Oct 2016 21:34

Larso wrote: I can’t recall the treatment he encountered while the war still continued but Becker ends up spending quite a few years in a Soviet mine. He seemed to be treated reasonably decently and there always seemed to be many more Russian prisoners than German. A quota system operated where-by each inmate was to mine a particular amount of ore. To give himself something to do, Becker perversely often mined more, one time managing to produce four times his quota. The Russians thought him mad but it was, ironically a way to keep himself sane. It was interesting reading of the various ways that the Germans (and others) filled in time. In the end he is freed, I think during the major 1950 release.
Sounds very similar to the Hans von Luck memoir about his time in Soviet mines.

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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 15 Oct 2016 13:23

It's funny, I read Von Luck's book 'only' fifteen years ago but I can barely remember what he said about his POW time? Indeed, the only stories I can think of involve his final 'interview' with the Russians and what happened as he returned. Becker was an enlisted man but officers like Von Luck didn't generally get better treatment. Co-incidentially I recently read Soldat by Knappe and he had a different experience again. He wrote quite a bit about his POW stint. Here's my review for his book -

'Soldat' by Siegfried Knappe

Knappe entered the army young, liked it and opted to undertake officer training. This started in late 1937 at Potsdam, where Rommel was one of the teachers! While Knappe was an artilleryman, everyone learned to become infantry battalion leaders. They covered a lot in nine months, including learning social skills. His active career started with the Sudetenland crisis, France in 1940, several stints in Russia, Italy and finally the defense of the Seelowe Heights and Berlin in 1945. There was then five years as a POW in Russia.

The author’s early years as an artilleryman in the 24th Regt are fascinating. There is a very detailed look at the training. Knappe was initially very disappointed to find the mechanised artillery of the rearmament newsreels were not to be the case for him. There was instead constant use and care of horses. As an officer he was obliged to learn to ride and was even subsidised by the army to train and keep horses himself. It was remarkable to read of the vital role of blacksmiths in a horse drawn unit. When harvest came, the soldiers helped the local farmers.

Knappe’s active service began with occupation of the Sudetenland. During the attack on Poland, his division, the 87th, was guarding the French border. It then participated in the attack on France, with Knappe battalion adjunct. Following the victory here, they are switched to the east and take part in the attack on Russia. Even with all this, action was not too intense. This changes closer to Moscow, when they are assigned a front line role and incur vicious attacks and the horrific winter weather. There follows wounds, reassigning to France to help reform the 94th Division (3rd Bn 194th Arty), disarming the Italians in Italy, staff courses and more service in the East.

This is particularly harrowing in its final phase. Knappe is with 56th Pz Corps, which is given charge of the defence of the Seeloew Heights and then Berlin. His role now is co-ordinating divisional movements and relocating HQ – always backwards, until they reach Berlin. Here he has frequent, dangerous trips to the Fuhrer Bunker for reports and orders. When the end comes, he is denied a chance to break out and obliged to surrender. These last months exposes him to incompetence and worse. He also sees the misery of the civilians as the city becomes a battlefield.

Due to his rank and key involvement in the Battle of Berlin he is imprisoned in Nr 27 Krasnogorsk for senior officers. This meant he was fortunate to avoid the labor camps but still suffered much from deprivation. There was acute boredom, but also ongoing interrogations and the activities of German collaborators. It was all a virtual brainwashing process to create spies and informers in later years. Knappe recounts it all and names names, sometimes quite negatively. There were also quite a number of prominent fellow inmates. Later he is in Morshansk and Mikhailovka before his release and a very emotional return home.

This is quite simply one of the best accounts of a German soldier of the war years and their context. Knappe is very honest about being taken in by the Nazi propaganda and then his growing disillusionment with Hitler. It is clear to him that Germany is being lied to and lead on a path to complete destruction. As a staff officer and an artilleryman he is not often in the front line, so those sort of combat stories are mostly absent. What he does see and take part in is still extraordinary though. Probably due to living in America from the early 1950s and his co-author Ted Brusaw, Knappe is revealed more fully than is usually found in German memoirs. The tragedy of war casualties is clearer than usual, as well as the impact on families and relationships. This is professionally written and compelling account of the war from a German’s perspective. Very highly recommended 4 ½ stars.

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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 08 Dec 2016 13:27

Heaven & Hell by Martin Poppel

This is Martin Poppel’s memoir of service in WW2. He joined the newly forming para-troop branch because he’d only be required to serve two years rather than four in one of other services. As it turned out he was he was to be in uniform for over six years and fight in some of the most famous actions of the war.

Poppel’s early enrolment saw him receive all the proper training and he was mobilised for the alarms of 1939. He was in Poland as a reserve but saw no action. He jumped though into Holland, where he found minor but deadly action. Then it was off to Narvik, where his force faced internment in Sweden until a fortuitous British withdrawal. Then, still outfitted for the North, they fly to Greece and he participates in the infamous parachute attack on Crete. He is part of the Machine Gun battalion and has a safe enough landing but in attacking their objective, heavy losses are suffered and they are forced back. There are some details about subsequent minor actions but he is fortunate to miss the battles that almost annihilated parts of his division. There are many casualties and Poppel names quite a few of his comrades who fell. The exact total KIA figure is hard to pin down but the book states 3,764 dead airborne troops out of 6,000 killed. At the end Poppel finds himself virtually the most decorated man in his unit.

Poppel’s battalion is then sent to Russia and hold a line about 80km from Moscow. There is a steady run of casualties and he himself is wounded. There is an astonishing journey back to Germany but it ends in great fortune in terms of his recovery. After some time in France, the unit and Poppel, now an officer, return to Russia for the 1942/43 winter. They are in Central Sector and man defensive positions which grates with the offensive minded paratroopers. There are a few actions but lots of shelling and a steady stream of casualties. Again, many of these are named by Poppel. He also names those who fell asleep on guard duty too. As well as those best at obtaining booze and the extent of his hangovers. They seemed to have more access to alcohol than I usually read about. It is here that the 1st Fallschirmjager Division is formed. After a time recovering in France again, they are swung South to fight the Allies in Sicily.

The Luftwaffe is able to assemble quite an airfleet to shift the 1st Para to Sicily. Poppel is now commander of 1st Platoon, 1st Company of the MG Bn. He is landed there and is promptly on the receiving end of Operation Fustian, the British 1st Abn Bde’s attempt to capture the Primasole Bridge. Poppel’s unit captures quite a few British and he is not impressed with what he sees of them. This part is in diary format but the narrative mostly flows like normal. This is less so regarding Southern Italy but the process of being rear-guard, blowing bridges & laying mines doesn’t allow much variety. Poppel is iInjured in an accident and misses Monte Cassino, which probably saved his life.

Even with his storied resume of service, Poppel has another highlight coming in Normandy. Though he wants to return to his comrades in the 1st Division, he is selected by Heydrich to lead a weapons company (the 12th) in the 6th Fjr regt. Though formally part of the 2nd Para Div, here it served attached to other formations, most notably in combat around Carentan against the 101st Airborne Division. It was fascinating reading his perspective as an opponent of the famous men (and memorists) of Easy ‘Band of Brothers’ Company, 506th Regt and the other US troops. It was also engrossing to read Poppel’s experiences in battle against them and about serving alongside 17th SS. In the end, he is wounded again and ultimately he is back in Germany training the Assault Battalion. He narrowly misses a last parachute drop in the Ardennes Offensive and is finally run to ground in Rees leading a company in Wessel battles. It has been one hell of a journey!

Captivity is explored in much more detail than normal. As a long serving member and officer of the fallshirmjaegars Poppel is basically kept under watch, to give him time to disconnect from his Nazi attachments. It is fascinating to read about the many other men in his camp and where they are on this spectrum. Some were so committed, they still dressed up formally, white gloves and all to commemorate Hitler's birthday in the POW camp! Others lost hope, most, like Poppel, just wanted to get home and start to rebuild. Indeed, some of his most vivid, thoughtful writing occurs in this period.

There is a lot to commend this book. The translation is mostly fine. There are a few errors in expression but the text flows well enough, if a little woodenly. I think this makes it a little hard to really feel as if you know the author. Sure he writes of grief at lost comrades and joy in receiving letters from his fiancé but there’s little depth to this. This does get better though in the concluding chapters. Poppel also writes a little on killing his enemies, which is not common in German memoirs. The majority of this involves the actions of his men. Given the extent of his service there was more he probably could have said about his personal actions but it’s all still more evident than in most. It is by no means one way and Poppel names many of his comrades who fell. Quite a few of these are pictured. It is also good to see that Poppel doesn’t revise or sanitise his opinions of the time. He reveals the attitudes of his youth, his faith in Hitler and commitment to duty. He was proud to be in an elite force and serve with other highly motivated soldiers. He thought that the Italians were cowards and was not always impressed by his leaders. Towards the end he was becoming very disenchanted. It is a story that I’m sure many others of that time would recognise.

I would rate this as the best German memoir I have read behind Sajer’s ‘Forgotten Soldier’. I am aware that Sajer’s account is controversial due to the inability to confirm the details. That is not a problem here. There are many pictures and Poppel is shown as commander on official documents, so credibility is not a concern. It is a remarkably informative combat journey through some of most epic actions of WW2. Poppel is fortunate to survive and in this very aptly named memoir, we are fortunate to read his story. 4 1/2 stars

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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by B Hellqvist » 15 Dec 2016 01:58

Great review! I agree - Poppel's book is highly readable, as are so many of those by veterans who saw action from 1939/40 to 1944/45.

"Though he wants to return to his comrades in the 1st Division, he is selected by Heydrich to lead a weapons company (the 12th) in the 6th Fjr regt." I think you mean "von der Heydte".

An Eastern Front memoir I can recommend is "In Deadly Combat" by Gottlob Bidermann, with his career from private in 1941 to lieutenant in 1945.

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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 16 Dec 2016 12:08

Thanks Bjorn - I remember double-checking that name but I think I actually ended up changing it back to the wrong one in the end.

I've got Bidermann's book and I was looking at doing it next - but then I realised I'd left it at my office, which I won't return to for about five weeks....

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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 05 Jan 2017 13:48

Flakhelfer to Grenadier by Karl Heinz Schlesier (Kindle)

This is an incredible memoir! It opens with one of the most captivating vignettes I’ve encountered and you are then drawn completely in by the compelling account of a teenage boy forced to fight and watch his homeland burn around him. Karl Schlesier should be, and wants to be in school. Yet the military setbacks encountered by Nazi Germany by 1943 see him instead posted to a Flak unit where he, virtually on a daily basis, confronts the Allied bomber streams that are destroying German cities.

Schlesier is part of a militarized system. While never a member of the Hitler Youth itself, he automatically becomes a Flakhelfer with his school cohort. This involves extended service on an 88mm anti-aircraft gun. He serves in a number of roles and explains quite clearly what these involved. The boys and their Russian loaders spend most nights on watch, with constant alerts and frequent calls to engage the British and American bomber fleets. It is hard, yet often monotonous work. Bizarrely the German authorities, despite putting boys into battle, recognizes their youth by continuing some school lessons and issuing a milk sweets ration!

In a sense, the author’s recounting of these events, based on his diary, is repetitive. For example, he recorded the details of every raid. There is also the exhaustion and fear. The awful part of it is, that despite success in shooting down some attackers, the bombers always strike a city and they are horrified at the fiery glow they see from their positions. Yet though the boys know their cities are largely destroyed, time and again, the bombers return. It is crushing for them. The worst part is their fear for their families. Again, as youths they are allowed extra leave. This often only serves to demonstrate the extent of the destruction. Schlesier seems to spend much of his leave sitting in an air-raid bunker. Each time he attends Mass he must listen to the priest update the parish casualties then pray for the Nazi leadership. It is relentless, yet there is no way out.

Following his 88mm duties, he is sent to guard a chemical factory. Here he is trained to use the various 20mm flak guns. Again there is interesting detail on these weapons. The process next sees him join the RAD, the Reich Labor Service, where he is essentially trained as an infantryman. Here NCOs who have never seen the front line, inflict ever more brutal treatment the worse the war situation becomes. It has to be endured in silence as Hitler Youth ‘believers’ stand ready to inform on any defeatism.

Finally Schlesier is sent to join a reinforcement battalion, mostly boys like himself but with a handful of experienced officers and NCOs. The boys know full well the war is lost and also that they will be committed regardless. This disillusionment causes desertions, with the usual harsh German army response. Finally, the boys, clear in the knowledge they have been betrayed by their leaders and their lives will be sacrificed, take their place in the line in March 1945, reinforcing 116th Pz Div at Kirchhellen. The brief battle that follows has a couple of astonishing elements. Schlesier just survives to become a POW, which he also barely survives. He learns about the shame of the holocaust here before his Eighteenth birthday.

It is an astonishing account. It is in some ways more of a war memoir than the others I have read. Schlesier is a boy on the receiving end of total war. His country is on fire and all hope is lost. It is a relentless, completely shattering experience. What fighting he does, is of no consequence. He knows it, the Americans know it and the bitterness produced by this almost sees him killed. Yet the horrors he and many other Germans endured are silenced by the greater horrors committed in their name.

Schlesier moved to the US after the war and became an academic. In an extraordinary way he repaid a battlefield debt. This societal change also allowed him to write so wrenchingly of his awful experiences. While this is the strongest theme in the book, it is also very informative about the operation of German AA weaponry. Also, while Schlesier’s account comprises 90% of the book, there are several interesting essays on his recollections. These are useful additions but overwhelmingly, this book is an astonishing insight into the time of an insane war.

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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 07 Apr 2017 11:07

I deserted Rommel by Gunther Bahnemann

Oh dear, I don’t think this even qualifies as a memoir. The author writes that he entered the army in 1939, was a transport driver in Poland, parachuted (!) into Norway, served in Holland, Belgium and France, won the Iron Cross first and second class, was ‘promoted to lieutenant and demoted to private’ before going to Africa and deserting in June 1941. He wrote the book in Australia eighteen years later.

Strangely, given such a varied and adventurous early war, Bahnemann writes nothing of it. He opens with an action filled armoured car journey to the HQ of the 21st Panzer Division. Here he learns that his section has been decimated and worse, his WW1 hero father has been executed for anti-Nazi activities. He promptly chooses to desert and does so by simulating a British attack, grenading the communications vehicle and stealing a pay-roll. He then spends the bulk of the book escaping with ever increasing use of his weapons, German MPs and Italian soldiers. He takes refuge with Arab guerrillas due to his saving of one of their members earlier, before being captured by the British in a strangely abrupt conclusion.

Frankly, everything is very hard to credit. The narrow escapes and fortuitous developments read more like a Boys Own adventure or a pulp Western. Almost nothing appears to ring true and some statements are wrong altogether. Firstly, his whole reason for deserting is false. His father did not win the Pour le Merit as claimed here and wasn’t executed by the Nazis. In fact he wasn’t even dead at this point. Bahnemann’s career to this point also doesn’t gel. He gives no unit details pre-Africa at all, so it’s impossible to verify any of it and even where there is something, it’s shaky. That enormous initial falsehood just brings everything else into question.

Bahnemann’s subsequent life in Australia further reduces his creditability. He settled here after serving his time as a POW but tellingly a 1947 report by the Commonwealth Investigation Service stated he had ‘a very unsavoury history’ and was ‘totally unscrupulous and not to be trusted’. In 1953 his first wife fled from him and he was allegedly found armed with an intention to kill her. A Queensland police report stated that he forced his next wife into prostitution and lived off her earnings. In 1959 he apparently threatened to kill her and was arrested by policeman Terry Lewis, who received a bravery award for his actions in disarming Bahnemann. For his altercation with Lewis, Bahnemann served four years in jail. He used the time to write this and other books. Ironically Lewis, who became the state’s Police Commissioner was later jailed for a decade for corruption. This information comes from a couple of sources, mostly ‘Three Kings’ by Matthew Condon about crime and corruption from this time period.

I see that Bahnemann’s son has conceded elsewhere on Amazon that his grandfather was not executed as claimed by Gunther. He further writes that ‘‘the true reason for his defection is even more fantastic but can't be told here…. At the time he wrote this book the truth may have affected his immigration status; again the book is part fiction.’’ Interestingly, at one point Marlon Brando considered playing Gunther’s part in a movie of his story but this fell through. Perhaps because it was all rubbish?

So there we have it, this is an extremely unlikely story with major falsehoods at its core. There are certainly passages which are authentic regarding operating in the desert and regarding other practices in the theatre but it’s too little. There are other clear errors, the Owen gun for instance was never used by Australians in the desert. This though points to an attempt by Bahnemann to ingratiate himself with his ‘local’ readership, as he often mentions the ‘Aussies’ in a praiseworthy way. Indeed, this just adds to the case against him. He has written an adventure story, probably to reinvent himself, after some very sorry life choices. Not a book for a serious reader. 1 star.

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Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 18 Jul 2017 21:25

In the Fire of the Eastern Front by Hendrik C. Verton

The author was a Dutch youth, who grew up witnessing the prelude to WW2. Despite the Germans invading his country, he was impressed by them. He was also interested in the idea of a united Europe. His older brother joined the SS and was full of praise for it. Hendrik followed in his steps and also joined. After tough training he is posted to the Westland Battalion, which contained men from Scandinavia and other European countries. Ostensibly part of Wiking, they are sent to Russia during the crisis in front of Moscow. He later serves in Breslau before being captured and then enduring life as a Displaced Person.

Hendrik arrives at the front in December 1941. The winter weather is extreme. It seems to be killing more Germans than the Russians – and they were constantly on the attack. Hendrik is part of the 4th Company and the fighting is intense. He has some interesting things to say about the nationalities of his comrades and while he does write of personal experiences and casualties, overall he covers this time in general terms. Following illness he returns west and almost inexplicably is involved in courses and training until the end of 1944? Then, as part of 11 Company of the Besslein Regt, he fights at Breslau. He is in action for months, being wounded only a few days before the surrender in May. The combat is intense but Hendrik tends to write generally again. There are some vivid things related though, including the distressing deaths of civilians and sexual assaults on German women.

These crimes bring me to a major issue with this book. There is no doubt that the German people experienced incredible destruction and brutality in WW2 but this was almost entirely in response to initial German aggression and astonishing war crimes. My disquiet started with the Forward, where the writer bemoaned Germany being blamed for the Katyn Massacre, but without a single mention of any of the many crimes that the Germans did commit! In starting his account, Hendrik describes the post-WW1 victimisation of Germany and the additional effects of the economic catastrophe before Hitler arrived and started to put things right. However to write of his coming to power through election, while ignoring the thuggery and murder that accompanied it, is an astonishing omission. Later, in reviewing the lead up to war with Poland, he writes of Polish ‘pig-headedness’ and British ‘hypocrisy’, while merely noting Hitler’s ‘impatience’, is an extraordinarily selective view. Then he explores the various provocations and atrocities committed by the Poles! Incredibly, as a Dutchman, Hendrik qualifies the Rotterdam bombing as being a string of mistakes – including by the Dutch authorities, and concludes here by noting that the Allies bombed it far worse later!

There’s more of the same as the book continues. Now, no doubt there were many Germans and others who saw things this way either because of Nazi propaganda or because of nationalism, and wanted to believe it. But to see events detailed like this with NOT ONE mention of the monstrous German conduct towards subjugated people all over Europe is dumbfounding! In fact, as he continues to excuse (and praise) German actions, it began to make my stomach turn. Again, I can accept that ignorance could excuse some of these things at the time but to be writing in this selective way at the start of the 21st century is deceitful in the extreme. Hendrik writes quite a bit about opposing Communism, being on crusade and honour but there is nothing honourable about the way he has presented the past here.

I had really hoped to read a book about a man in the 5th SS. That wasn’t to be. There is certainly some material of interest in fighting the Russians and the killer winter. The account of the fall of Breslau particularly spells out that war is hell. But these elements aside, this is an incredibly misleading text. Setting the record straight can’t be done properly or truthfully by ignoring the full story. It goes beyond denialism. Goebbels himself would applaud. For a sincere account of an idealistic SS man confronting the evils of Nazism, see Black Edelweiss by Johann Voss. I’ll conclude by observing that the best part of freedom of speech is that it allows people to reveal who they truly are. 2 ½ stars Often unpalatable.

Larso
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Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 16 Aug 2017 07:57

'For Volk and Fuhrer' by Erwin Bartman

This is one of the most interesting German WW2 memoirs. The author grew up in Berlin and with his family was enormously impressed with the economic prosperity which came with the rise of Hitler. Furthermore, the associated pageantry of the parades and the rallies made a big impression on him as a boy. This was capped by the Berlin Olympics which Bartman watched on communal TV. The technology and the theatre made the Opening Ceremony the best day of his life. He reflects, that ‘Without realising it, I had surrendered to the Zeitgeist cultivated by the Fuhrer.'

As a youth, Bartman happily went through the DR and fixed his sight on joining the SS. Though tall, he was quite young and initially his application was rejected. On going down to the office to appeal, he has the first of his remarkable encounters with a senior Nazi figure and he successfully enlists. There follows training, with a great focus on spit and polish. There is also lots of hard physical training and he becomes a member of the Leibstandarte.

Bartman is sent to the front in 1942 and joins the 4th Company of his regiment. He is initially given communications duties, running wires but still sees plenty of front-line combat in Rostov. There are quite a few fascinating stories here. The division is then sent to rebuild in France, where Bartman encounters an official SS brothel. There is some remarkable German thoroughness regarding the whole procedure!

The Leibstandarte returns to Russia in January 1943 and is soon involved in the retaking of Kharkov. There is street fighting here and again, some interesting stories. Then Bartman fights at Kursk, this time commanding an MG section. He is wounded, seriously enough to have him in hospital and light duties until early 1945. He is involved in training youths and is also witness to the increased bombing of Berlin. Where previously his Regt insignia attracted all the girls he wanted, now the crowds looked at him with bitterness. Conditions everywhere are much harsher, as discipline is ever more forcibly applied. Finally he is sent to Regt Falke, formed from training and replacement units, on the Oder Front. There is very heavy fighting and then fleeing to the West. Bartman sees the disintegration of the Reich and the horror of the Soviet advance. Bartman has some remarkable encounters. Some chilling ones too. For me, this was the best part of an already excellent book.

Of the German memoirs I have read, this is the one I feel is closest to Guy Sajer’s ‘Forgotten Soldier’. The scale of events and experiences is incredible. Bartman also writes about combat with more openness than normally found in German accounts too. That he was a keen Leibstandarte member makes it even more fascinating. There’s a point or two he wants to make about criticism of his unit but he is no Hendrik Verton (In the Fires of the Eastern Front) who was blind to any German misdeed. Indeed, he grows disillusioned with much of what he sees. His focus though is the striking camaraderie and prowess of the Leibstandarte. The relationship between men and officers and NCOs was very good. So there is a lot to learn here. After the war, Bartman immigrated to Scotland and like many other Germans with strong English skills this has helped produce a more open tone than German accounts otherwise have, including about sex. For those concerned about authenticity, there seem to be plenty of checkable reference points that point to the veracity of the story. Very highly recommended! 4 ½ Stars

Larso
Member
Posts: 1907
Joined: 27 Apr 2003 02:18
Location: Brisbane, Australia

Re: German WW2 Reviews

Post by Larso » 30 Mar 2018 07:33

Panzer Leader by Otto Henning

Henning has the ultimate resume for a German soldier: service in the Africa Corps and from 1944, with Panzer Lehr. Unfortunately this English edition of his memoir does not include his African service. The book starts with his stint of leave in Berlin, where he enjoyed wearing his AK uniform everywhere. A lot of his wanderings involved seeing what had been bombed overnight. There is also real concern about attention from MPs.

He has a major stroke of luck when he avoids transfer to infantry service on the Eastern Front. Instead he does a panzer NCO course, which features intense training. Following this he is assigned to Panzer Lehr’s recon battalion in January 1944. He is in the 2nd Co, which operates a mix of 250/3 and 9 half-tracks. He commands the radio vehicle in his troop.

Operations in Normandy are extensive, though conducted without combat as far as possible. It is informative how important the recon troops were in establishing both American and German positions. Henning is very lucky to get through as his first commander often leads them near to disaster. There is also the constant concern of air attack, they are always on the lookout for cover. Casualties are quite heavy in the company but Henning’s patrol is comparably fortunate. For a while. A particularly interesting passage concerns their patrol of the aftermath of Wittman’s epic Villers-Bocage attack. For his own part, Henning has some success against US jeep patrols. There follows the retreat through France and the defence of Germany.

Henning is involved in many actions but surprisingly not in ambushing which is usually a key job of recon forces. They have increasing problems obtaining equipment and fuel and diminishing operational space as the allies close in. He is often in contact with other German troops: SS, paras, even Naval Infantry. His observations on their actions and competence are interesting. Indeed, his assessments of German positions and strengths are almost as important to his commanders as what he sees of the Allies. As the end nears, they often have Allied forces behind them and stealth is vital.

In terms of battle action, Henning fires infrequently but the cut and thrust of recon patrols is fascinating. Also highly interesting, is his assessments of his three main commanders. There are some remarkable stories about their vastly different styles. This is a very interesting account of reconnaissance warfare in Europe. Highly recommended! 4 ¼ stars

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