TO THE GATE OF HELL – The Memoir of a Panzer Crewman

UntitledJust to prove my theory that speed reading a few sections of a book is no way to prepare a review, I tried it with this one and made a complete howler of it. I am so glad I stuck to my system because this excellent book reveals a great deal, and is well worth your consideration.

Having never met the author I may be at liberty to paint a picture of a quiet professor of dentistry, hardly arousing any suspicion of his life as a panzer crewman who served in France, Italy and on the Russian front; where he was badly burnt in August, 1944, when bailing out of a Panzer IV.

Published in Germany back in 2006, this edition has been translated by Geoffrey Brooks and comes with a forward by the ubiquitous Charles Messenger, who seems to be popping up all over the place at the moment. I always think it important to refer to translations, because so many can be stilted and spoil what may have been a good book when read in the author’s mother tongue.  In this case, Mr Brooks has produced the goods and the book flows nicely.

This is a tale of a simple soldier who has all the standard preoccupations you will find since ancient times: food, booze, sleep and the company of women. We meet good and bad officers, tyrannical NCOs and a smattering of shirkers and scumbags. There are men of ambition, heroes and villains. They all paint a picture of any army through history, with a tinge of surprise that it could be so in a German army often painted as being thoroughly indoctrinated in the martial spirit on every level. These men are human after all. I suppose the book bears comparison with Guy Sajer’s well known The Forgotten Soldier; although without any of the controversy attached to it.

You cannot fail to be impressed by the author’s amazing photographs, many in colour. He explains how he carried a Kodak Retina camera which he had with him instead of his pistol when he bailed out of the Panzer IV.  I imagine there would be scope for a whole book of his photos which show the people and places he travelled to. The quality of the photography reveals a man of skill and I would love to see more of his work. There is also a touching collection of letters posted to his mother and some school essays.  All this stuff adds to build a picture of the author, an ordinary soldier in incredible times.

Details of combat are handled with a strong degree of self-censorship. Mr Bottger is no blood thirsty killer and we are left with a picture of a decent man, at best ambivalent to the Nazis, whose war veteran father died before the persecution of freemasons would have affected him. The author became a soldier to avoid difficulties over poor school exam results rather than overt nationalistic feelings. It is difficult not to like him and it seems apt that out of the horrors of war should come a man who devotes his life to a profession to do good for others.

Mark Barnes

The Memoir of a Panzer Crewman
By Armin Bottger
Published in hardback by Frontline Books £19.99
ISBN: 9781 84832 643 9

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.