The myths and truths behind the Special Air Service Regiment have filled a forest’s worth of books down the years and there is no sign of that trend easing off anytime soon.
This second book on the subject by Damien Lewis delves into some of the darkest days of the regiment’s history to tell a story of tragedy, valour and revenge. The best and worst of humanity fill its four hundred odd pages, and it is impossible not to marvel a little at the two extremes.
Even as Operation Market Garden was taking place, a group of British special forces soldiers were dropping into the Vosges intent on causing chaos in advance of the arrival of Patton’s 3rd Army. They were in for a nasty surprise. Although the unit managed to give the Germans a run for their money, the Nazis were determined to crush the SAS unit and once captured any members of the group faced a brutal death.
Mr. Lewis explains the twists and turns of two operations as the Germans set out to destroy the SAS men while they, in turn, were out and about shooting up convoys and mining roads in classic style. The sheer weight of numbers gave the Germans total advantage and their ruthless, if not savage, treatment of local civilians caught up in the drama was the beginning of a period of murder and deceit that would last well after the war.
I cannot dwell on the details for the simple reason it is pointless. Captured SAS men were tortured and murdered in horrific circumstances and their bodies dumped, intending that they never to be found. The sheer brutality of the Nazis in this story confirms the horrible truth that for all the honourable soldiers in Hitler’s armed forces, his security apparatus was filled with the dregs of society. These were men, who, with the power of a uniform; could bring terror and murder down on whoever they liked. But they faced incredible men and women who did not buckle in the face of so much brutality; people who held their dignity to the last. At the scene where several SAS men were stripped naked and executed the last of the group turned to his killers and said “We are good men.”
No other words are required.
After the war, the SAS was the target of establishment hostility and jealousy within the British Army as the institution returned to some of the worst of it’s petty introspection. The author relates that without the power of Churchill in their corner, the SAS were doomed and so it came to be. But out in Germany a group of determined men from the regiment supported by friends at home set out to catch the murderers of their comrades and bring them to justice. The story of this series of events provides the fulcrum to this book.
No spoilers here – it is obvious that a good story needs the swings and roundabouts of a saga to make it work. There will be winners and losers, successes and failures. Whether there was enough justice in those difficult years after World War II when attentions turned to new enemies is something you will have to decide for yourself. My personal feeling is that the justice these horrible Nazis should have received would have been rough and immediate. But the democracies didn’t and don’t tend to work that way. To me, it is all grossly unfair, but demanding vengeance before justice is a very slippery slope to be on.
Damien Lewis has written a good book here. He is obviously working a piece of fascinating history into the kind of airport lounge read that publishers love. His book crosses over the barriers of being purely a World War II book into something much more. It is worth pointing out that while I haven’t read his earlier book on that most ferocious of Danes, Anders Lassen VC; the author was aware his story was movie material. I would suggest the same applies to this remarkable story.
The SAS men sought justice for their comrades, for the Maquis and hundreds of local civilians from the Vosges and beyond. They found the murderers of their mates and many unfortunate Allied airmen the Nazis enjoyed killing. They stopped brutal crimes from being covered up or forgotten by a war-weary world. We owe them a great deal. They carried on with their mission even while their own countrymen, their own arm of service, sought to stop them. They are heroes.
You may have difficulties with elements of Mr. Lewis’ book, but he has told an important story you will not forget.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
THE NAZI HUNTERS
The Ultra Secret SAS Unit and the Quest for Hitler’s War Criminals
By Damien Lewis
ISBN: 978 1 78429 387 1