Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The Nazi Hunters
The ultra-secret SAS unit & the quest for Hitler’s war criminals
Damien Lewis, Quercus, October 2015
Major Eric 'Bill' Barkworth
An unassuming hero
Like hundreds of others, this book was published on October 8th, the industry’s so-called Super Thursday. The reason for this ludicrous peak is that publishers are keen to position their best titles for the Christmas market. The risk is that good stuff is lost in the stampede – I hope that fate does not await Nazi Hunters.
The book neatly divides into two halves: the first comprising the missions of certain SAS and Jedburgh sections inserted into the Vosges in late 1944; the second comprising the (largely post-war) hunt for those guilty of the murder of many of the British soldiers concerned. Lewis has clearly positioned this book for the mass market – it is extremely readable. The downside is that there are no references. If the blurb is to be believed, this book contains some reasonably stunning and important revelations (caveat below). It would have been much easier for other historians and authors to use this book to explore these important issues further if there had been proper referencing. As it is I have a suspicion that Lewis’ vivid style sometimes fills in the gaps in his research. His text from time to time wanders towards the phantasmagorical: “Carpeted in dark and impenetrable forests slashed by deep chasms, brooding lakes and plunging waterfalls, the valleys were perfect for concealing such small, mobile parties.”
One of the joys of writing about special forces operations is that there are so many true characters in the cast. Lewis’ roll call is no exception, and one half expects Patrick Leigh Fermor to stride purposefully onto the page. The levels of bravery are stupendous, none more than with Lt ‘Karl’ Marx, who marches to and fro across the French/German border destroying trains seemingly at will. Of course this activity would have been nigh impossible if the SAS troops had not found succour from some of the indigenous population. The French, as ever, seem to fall into two camps: hero or traitor. The Vosges farming families who supported the SAS were subjected to appalling inhumanity by the increasingly frustrated Gestapo, as they tried to round up these British ‘bandits’. It is little surprise that many of the SAS survivors forged life-long bonds with their French protectors.
Lewis drops into the narrative some telling detail. GB’s Customs & Excise, for example, prohibited the bulk supply (by parachute) of cigarettes and booze to the thirsty troops, since they ‘did not possess an official Army address outside the UK’!
Since the outcome of the first half of the book is known to be grisly, it becomes increasingly doom-laden. The switch to the hunt in the second half is in some sense refreshing. But this too is soon mired in military bureaucracy. Lewis documents how the unit continued to operate despite the disbandment of the SAS as such. It becomes an early example of that British speciality – the deniable undercover activity. With very limited resources, the team under Major Bill Barkworth, fuelled by Benzedrine, work like demons, and achieve remarkable success. Much of the hunt concerns murders at the Natzweiler concentration camp. With the Nazi assassins in the bag, their interrogations stir the critical moral dilemmas of post-War Europe. The sentences passed down to the culprits were depressingly lenient. Even this cannot prepare the reader for the degree to which the most bestial of Nazis ended up on the intelligence payrolls of the US, and to a lesser extent, GB and Germany.
A compelling read, even if it is (typically) less revelatory than one might be led to believe by the blurb; other volumes that would help the reader put the story in context would be Snow & Steel which describes the Ardennes campaign (to the North); Village of Secrets covering resistance in rural French communities of the South; and Human Game which describes a similar hunt for Nazi war criminals, in this case, the Gestapo who murdered most of those who participated in the Great Escape.