Category Archives: Books

Hitler’s Warrior

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The definitive biography of the fearsome and controversial German SS tank commander of “Hitler’s Own” Panzer Division.

by Danny S. Parker

Joachim Peiper, generally referred to at the time and after the war as Jochen Peiper, was a key figure in the German SS and police organization from 1935 to the end of Nazi rule in Germany as well as in postwar trials and connections between former higher SS officers. He had both a professional and a personally close tie to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the German police apparatus. The professional tie was that Himmler’s attention had been drawn to Peiper who was assigned to Himmler’s headquarters as a result. The personal tie was that of the two key secretaries of Himmler, one became Himmler’s mistress and the other Peiper’s wife. The two women were close friends and remained so, and thus Peiper learned about events in headquarters after he left it. In this book, therefore, the reader can obtain a realistic sense of how the top of the German police apparatus operated before and during World War II and also the extent to which Himmler seriously believed some of the weirder notions he acted on like the connection of so-called Aryans to Tibet.

What distinguishes this book is that the author combines an extraordinarily careful search for new sources as well as the existing literature with a general fairness in his judgments about the individuals and events in Peiper’s life. After leaving Himmler’s headquarters, Peiper participates in the fighting on the Eastern Front, in Italy, and in the West. It is in connection with the Battle of the Bulge and the murder of a substantial number of surrendered American soldiers near Malmédy in Belgium that Peiper has come to appear in American literature on the war. He was captured and tried by the Americans in the famous or notorious Dachau trial. Anyone accused of killing lots of Jews and surrendered American soldiers was of great interest to Senator Joseph McCarthy who saw to it that the Dachau cases were redone, and all defendants, including Peiper, got off easy.

The author explains in this very well-written book how Peiper was involved in several later trials and interacted with other former SS officers from his new home. That was a house he purchased in the village of Traves in eastern France. His death there in 1976 remains an open case, but this reviewer finds the author’s explanation that he died while fighting a fire in that house set by local youngsters a most likely one. From the special ceremony when Peiper is sworn into the SS to the arguments over the burial of his charred remains, the book offers a full and thoughtful account of an important figure in the Nazi political and military system.

Aces Of The Luftwaffe

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Charts the most dramatic campaigns of the Luftwaffe and the amazing feats of some of its highest-scoring aces.

by Peter Jacobs

The fighter pilots of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe regularly outscored their Allied counterparts and were some of the highest scoring fighter pilots of all time. In the end, the vast effort required by the Luftwaffe to maintain the air war on so many fronts proved too much, and few of the pilots survived—but their courage and ability was beyond question, and the names of many will live on in the annals of air warfare.

Luftwaffe Fighter Aces charts the campaigns fought by this remarkable force—and the exploits of such aces as Erich Hartmann, the highest scoring fighter pilot of all time, Hans-Joachim Marseille, the Star of Africa, Werner Mölders, the first recipient of the Diamonds, and Adolf Galland, perhaps the most famous of all.

The Ardennes, 1944-1945

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The Ardennes, 1944-1945

Draws on a wealth of unpublished material to offer the most accurate picture yet of what really transpired at the Bulge.

In December 1944, just as World War II appeared to be winding down, Hitler launched a powerful German counteroffensive through the Ardennes forest and forged a 50-mile “bulge” into the Allied front. In one small town, Bastogne, the Americans offered dogged resistance. Yet it would take an epic, six-week-long winter battle, the bloodiest in the history of the U.S. Army, before the Germans were finally pushed back.

In The Ardennes, Christer Bergström draws on interviews, archives, and on-the-ground research to offer a powerful reevaluation of the battle—one that devotes equal attention to the perspectives of both sides. Replete with new findings, it is the most accurate picture yet of what really transpired during that fateful clash.

Captured Eagles

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Captured Eagles

The American effort to seize and exploit the technologies of the Luftwaffe before, during, and after World War II.

Even before World War II, the U.S. Army Air Force was concerned about the technological lead that German aviation seemed to hold. Once America entered the war, they were desperate to learn the secrets and capabilities of the Luftwaffe. In Captured Eagles, Frederick A. Johnsen lays bare this once secret history.

The wartime race to understand the Luftwaffe took on heroic proportions. And after the war, American intelligence teams scoured Europe to bring home the jewels of German aviation, from the Me 262 jet to the V2 ballistic missile—technologies that would become the foundation of U.S. air power during the Cold War and beyond.

Captured Eagles recounts one of the most thrilling periods in American and German aviation history.

Hitler’s Last Witness

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Hitler’s Last Witness

A key member of Hitler’s SS bodyguard takes us from the outset of World War II to the desperate last days in the bunker.

After being seriously wounded in the 1939 Polish campaign, Rochus Misch was invited to join Hitler’s SS-bodyguard. There he served until the war’s end as Hitler’s bodyguard, courier, orderly and finally as Chief of Communications.

On the Berghof terrace he watched Eva Braun organize parties; observed Heinrich Himmler and Albert Speer; and monitored telephone conversations from Berlin to the East Prussian FHQ on 20 July 1944 after the attempt on Hitler’s life. Towards the end Misch was drawn into the Führerbunker with the last of the ‘faithful.’ As defeat approached, he remained in charge of the bunker switchboard as his duty required, even after Hitler committed suicide.

Misch knew Hitler as the private man and his position was one of unconditional loyalty. His memoirs offer an intimate view of life in close attendance to Hitler and of the endless hours deep inside the bunker; and provide new insights into military events such as Hitler’s initial feelings that the 6th Army should pull out of Stalingrad. Shortly before he died Misch wrote a new introduction for this first-ever English-language edition. The book also contains a foreword by the Jewish author Ralph Giordano and a new introduction by Roger Moorhouse.

Sturmtruppen

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Sturmtruppen

The history, combat methods, uniforms, equipment, and weaponry of Germany’s Shock and Assault troops during World War I.

We associate “Stormtroopers” with the Nazi era, but these types of troops date back to World War I. In Sturmtruppen, Ricardo Recio Cardona charts the history and combat methods of these shock and assault forces.

During the winter of 1914-1915, Shock troops (Stosstruppen) greatly improved the offensive capabilities of the German infantry. Building on this concept in the spring and summer of 1916, the first assault units were formed, with the mission of spreading the Stosstrupptaktik, a new tactic that decisively transformed the fighting methods of the German Army.

Complemented by detailed descriptions of uniforms, equipment, and weaponry, Cardona’s comprehensive history looks at Germany’s World War I forces from a new angle.

World War II’s Strangest Battle: When Americans and Germans Fought Together

‘The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe’ By Stephen Harding. 256 pages. Da Capo. $25.99.
‘The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe’ By Stephen Harding. 256 pages. Da Capo. $25.99.

Days after Hitler’s suicide a group of American soldiers, French prisoners, and, yes, German soldiers defended an Austrian castle against an SS division—the only time Germans and Allies fought together in World War II. Andrew Roberts on a story so wild that it has to be made into a movie.

The most extraordinary things about Stephen Harding’s The Last Battle, a truly incredible tale of World War II, are that it hasn’t been told before in English, and that it hasn’t already been made into a blockbuster Hollywood movie. Here are the basic facts: on 5 May 1945—five days after Hitler’s suicide—three Sherman tanks from the 23rd Tank Battalion of the U.S. 12th Armored Division under the command of Capt. John C. ‘Jack’ Lee Jr., liberated an Austrian castle called Schloss Itter in the Tyrol, a special prison that housed various French VIPs, including the ex-prime ministers Paul Reynaud and Eduard Daladier and former commanders-in-chief Generals Maxime Weygand and Paul Gamelin, amongst several others. Yet when the units of the veteran 17th Waffen-SS Panzer Grenadier Division arrived to recapture the castle and execute the prisoners, Lee’s beleaguered and outnumbered men were joined by anti-Nazi German soldiers of the Wehrmacht, as well as some of the extremely feisty wives and girlfriends of the (needless-to-say hitherto bickering) French VIPs, and together they fought off some of the best crack troops of the Third Reich. Steven Spielberg, how did you miss this story?

The battle for the fairytale, 13th century Castle Itter was the only time in WWII that American and German troops joined forces in combat, and it was also the only time in American history that U.S. troops defended a medieval castle against sustained attack by enemy forces. To make it even more film worthy, two of the women imprisoned at Schloss Itter—Augusta Bruchlen, who was the mistress of the labour leader Leon Jouhaux, and Madame Weygand, the wife General Maxime Weygand—were there because they chose to stand by their men. They, along with Paul Reynaud’s mistress Christiane Mabire, were incredibly strong, capable, and determined women made for portrayal on the silver screen.

There are two primary heroes of this—as I must reiterate, entirely factual—story, both of them straight out of central casting. Jack Lee was the quintessential warrior: smart, aggressive, innovative—and, of course, a cigar-chewing, hard-drinking man who watched out for his troops and was willing to think way, way outside the box when the tactical situation demanded it, as it certainly did once the Waffen-SS started to assault the castle. The other was the much-decorated Wehrmacht officer Major Josef ‘Sepp’ Gangl, who died helping the Americans protect the VIPs. This is the first time that Gangl’s story has been told in English, though he is rightly honored in present-day Austria and Germany as a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance.

Harding, is a respected military affairs expert who has written seven books and long specialized in World War II, and his writing style carries immediacy as well as authority. “Just after 4am Jack Lee was jolted awake by the sudden banging of M1 Garands,” he writes of the SS’s initial assault on the castle, “the sharper crack of Kar-98s, and the mechanical chatter of a .30-caliber spitting out rounds in short, controlled bursts. Knowing instinctively that the rising crescendo of outgoing fire was coming from the gatehouse, Lee rolled off the bed, grabbed his helmet and M3, and ran from the room. As he reached the arched schlosshof gate leading from the terrace to the first courtyard, an MG-42 machine gun opened up from somewhere along the parallel ridgeway east of the castle, the weapon’s characteristic ripping sound clearly audible above the outgoing fire and its tracers looking like an unbroken red stream as they arced across the ravine and ricocheted off the castle’s lower walls.” Everything that Harding reports in this exciting but also historically accurate narrative is backed up with meticulous scholarship. This book proves that history can be new and nail-bitingly exciting all at once.

Despite their personal enmities and long-held political grudges, when it came to a fight the French VIPs finally put aside their political differences and picked up weapons to join in the fight against the attacking SS troops. We get to know Reynaud, Daladier, and the rest as real people, not merely the political legends that they’ve morphed into over the intervening decades. Furthermore, Jean Borotra (a former tennis pro) and Francois de La Rocque, who were both members of Marshal Philippe Petain’s Vichy government and long regarded by many historians as simply pro-fascist German puppets, are presented in the book as they really were: complex men who supported the Allied cause in their own ways. In de La Rocque’s case, by running an effective pro-Allied resistance movement at the same time that he worked for Vichy. If they were merely pro-Fascist puppets, after all, they would not have wound up as Ehrenhäflinge—honor prisoners—of the Fuhrer.

While the book concentrates on the fight for Castle Itter, it also sets that battle in the wider strategic contexts of the Allied push into Germany and Austria in the final months of the war, and the Third Reich’s increasingly desperate preparations to respond to that advance. This book is thus a fascinating microcosm of a nation and society in collapse, with some Germans making their peace with the future, while others—such as the Waffen-SS unit attacking the castle—fighting to the bitter end. (Some of the fighting actually took place after the Doenitz government’s formal surrender.)

The book also takes pain to honor the lives of the “number prisoners” who worked at Castle Itter—faceless inmates from Dachau and other concentration camps whose stories have never before been told in this much detail. Whatever their political leanings or personal animosities toward each other, the French VIPs did what they could to help the so-called “number prisoners”—i.e. the ones stripped of their names—in any way they could.

One of the honored prisoners was Michel Clemenceau, the son of the Great War statesman Georges Clemenceau, who had become an outspoken critic of Marshal Petain and who was arrested by the Gestapo in May 1943. At Castle Itter he showed “unshakeable confidence” in rescue, and had clearly inherited the courage of his father, who’d been nicknamed “The Tiger.” During the attack, with ammunition running dangerously low—they got down to the last magazines of their MP-40s—their tanks destroyed, and the enemy advancing from the north, west and east, this septuagenarian kept blasting away. His father would have been proud of him.

The story has an ending that Hollywood would love too: just as the SS had settled into position to fire a panzerfaust at the front gate, “the sound of automatic weapons and tank guns behind them in the village signaled a radical change in the tactical situation.” Advancing American units and Austrian resistance fighters had arrived to relieve the castle. In keeping with the immense cool that he had shown throughout the siege, Lee feigned irritation as he went up to one of the rescuing tank commanders, looked him in the eye and said simply: “What kept you?” Part Where Eagles Dare, part Guns of Navarone, this story is as exciting as it is far-fetched, but unlike in those iconic war movies, every word of The Last Battle is true.