Book Review: With the Old Breed

“With the Old Breed” by E. B. SledgeWhen the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the author was enrolled at the Marion Military Institute in Alabama preparing for an officer’s commission in the U.S. Army. Worried that the war might end before he was able to do his part, in December, 1942, still a freshman at Marion, he enrolled in a Marine Corps officer training program. The following May, after the end of his freshman year, he was ordered to report for Marine training at Georgia Tech on July 1, 1943. The 180 man detachment was scheduled to take courses year-round then, after two years, report to Quantico to complete their officers’ training prior to commission.

This still didn’t seem fast enough (and, indeed, had he stayed with the program as envisioned, he would have missed the war), so he and around half of his fellow trainees neglected their studies, flunked out, and immediately joined the Marine Corps as enlisted men. Following boot camp at a base near San Diego, he was assigned to infantry and sent to nearby Camp Elliott for advanced infantry training. Although all Marines are riflemen (Sledge had qualified at the sharpshooter level during basic training), newly-minted Marine infantrymen were, after introduction to all of the infantry weapons, allowed to choose the one in which they would specialise. In most cases, they’d get their first or second choice. Sledge got his first: the 60 mm M2 mortar which he, as part of a crew of three, would operate in combat in the Pacific. Mortarmen carried the M1 carbine, and this weapon, which fired a less powerful round than the M1 Garand main battle rifle used by riflemen, would be his personal weapon throughout the war.

With the Pacific island-hopping war raging, everything was accelerated, and on February 28th, 1944, Sledge’s 46th Replacement Battalion (the name didn’t inspire confidence—they would replace Marines killed or injured in combat, or the lucky few rotated back to the U.S. after surviving multiple campaigns) shipped out, landing first at New Caledonia, where they received additional training, including practice amphibious landings and instruction in Japanese weapons and tactics. At the start of June, Sledge’s battalion was sent to Pavuvu island, base of the 1st Marine Division, which had just concluded the bloody battle of Cape Gloucester.

On arrival, Sledge was assigned as a replacement to the 1st Marine Division, 5th Regiment, 3rd Battalion. This unit had a distinguished combat record dating back to the First World War, and would have been his first choice if he’d been given one, which he hadn’t. He says, “I felt as though I had rolled the dice and won.” This was his first contact with what he calls the “Old Breed”: Marines, some of whom had been in the Corps before Pearl Harbor, who had imbibed the traditions of the “Old Corps” and survived some of the most intense combat of the present conflict, including Guadalcanal. Many of these veterans had, in the argot of the time, “gone Asiatic”: developed the eccentricities of who had seen and lived things those just arriving in theatre never imagined, and become marinated in deep hatred for the enemy based upon personal experience. A glance was all it took to tell the veterans from the replacements.

After additional training, in late August the Marines embarked for the assault on the island of Peleliu in the Palau Islands. The tiny island, just 13 square kilometres, was held by a Japanese garrison of 10,900, and was home to an airfield. Capturing the island was considered essential to protect the right flank of MacArthur’s forces during the upcoming invasion of the Philippines, and to secure the airfield which could support the invasion. The attack on Peleliu was fixed for 15 September 1944, and it would be Sledge’s first combat experience.

From the moment of landing, resistance was fierce. Despite an extended naval bombardment, well-dug-in Japanese defenders engaged the Marines as they hit the beaches, and continued as they progressed into the interior. In previous engagements with the Japanese, they had adopted foolhardy and suicidal tactics such as mass frontal “banzai” charges into well-defended Marine positions. By Peleliu, however, they had learned that this did not work, and shifted their strategy to defence in depth, turning the entire island into a network of defensive positions, covering one another, and linked by tunnels for resupply and redeploying forces. They were prepared to defend every square metre of territory to the death, even after their supplies were cut off and there was no hope of relief. Further, Marines were impressed by the excellent fire discipline of the Japanese—they did not expend ammunition firing blindly but chose their shots carefully, and would expend scarce supplies such as mortar rounds only on concentrations of troops or high value targets such as tanks and artillery.

This, combined with the oppressive heat and humidity, lack of water and food, and terror from incessant shelling by artillery by day and attacks by Japanese infiltrators by night, made the life of the infantry a living Hell. Sledge chronicles this from the viewpoint of a Private First Class, not an officer or historian after the fact. He and his comrades rarely knew precisely where they were, where the enemy was located, how other U.S. forces on the island were faring, or what the overall objectives of the campaign were. There was simply a job to be done, day by day, with their best hope being to somehow survive it. Prior to the invasion, Marine commanders estimated the island could be taken in four days. Rarely in the Pacific war was a forecast so wrong. In fact, it was not until November 27th that the island was declared secured. The Japanese demonstrated their willingness to defend to the last man. Of the initial force of 10,900 defending the island, 10,695 were killed. Of the 220 taken prisoner, 183 were foreign labourers, and only 19 were Japanese soldiers and sailors. Of the Marine and Army attackers, 2,336 were killed and 8,450 wounded. The rate of U.S. casualties exceeded those of all other amphibious landings in the Pacific, and the Battle of Peleliu is considered among the most difficult ever fought by the Marine Corps.

Despite this, the engagement is little-known. In retrospect, it was probably unnecessary. The garrison could have done little to threaten MacArthur’s forces and the airfield was not required to support the Philippine campaign. There were doubts about the necessity and wisdom of the attack before it was launched, but momentum carried it forward. None of these matters concerned Sledge and the other Marines in the line—they had their orders, and they did their job, at enormous cost. Sledge’s company K landed on Peleliu with 235 men. It left with only 85 unhurt—a 64% casualty rate. Only two of its original seven officers survived the campaign. Sledge was now a combat veteran. He may not have considered himself one of the “Old Breed”, but he was on the way to becoming one of them to the replacements who arrived to replace casualties in his unit.

But for the survivors of Peleliu, the war was far from over. While some old-timers for whom Peleliu was their third campaign were being rotated Stateside, for the rest it was recuperation, refitting, and preparation for the next amphibious assault: the Japanese island of Okinawa. Unlike Peleliu, which was a tiny dot on the map, Okinawa was a large island with an area of 1207 square kilometres and a pre-war population of around 300,000. The island was defended by 76,000 Japanese troops and 20,000 Okinawan conscripts fighting under their orders. The invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945 was the largest amphibious landing in the Pacific war.

As before, Sledge does not present the big picture, but an infantryman’s eye view. To the astonishment of all involved, including commanders who expected 80–85% casualties on the beaches, the landing was essentially unopposed. The Japanese were dug in awaiting the attack from prepared defensive positions inland, ready to repeat the strategy at Peleliu on a much grander scale.

After the tropical heat and horrors of Peleliu, temperate Okinawa at first seemed a pastoral paradise afflicted with the disease of war, but as combat was joined and the weather worsened, troops found themselves confronted with the infantryman’s implacable, unsleeping enemy: mud. Once again, the Japanese defended every position to the last man. Almost all of the Japanese defenders were killed, with the 7000 prisoners made up mostly of Okinawan conscripts. Estimates of U.S. casualties range from 14,000 to 20,000 killed and 38,000 to 55,000 wounded. Civilian casualties were heavy: of the original population of around 300,000 estimates of civilian deaths are from 40,000 to 150,000.

The Battle of Okinawa was declared won on June 22, 1945. What was envisioned as the jumping-off point for the conquest of the Japanese home islands became, in retrospect, almost an afterthought, as Japan surrendered less than two months after the conclusion of the battle. The impact of the Okinawa campaign on the war is debated to this day. Viewed as a preview of what an invasion of the home islands would have been, it strengthened the argument for using the atomic bomb against Japan (or, if it didn’t work, burning Japan to the ground with round the clock raids from Okinawa airbases by B-17s transferred from the European theatre). But none of these strategic considerations were on the mind of Sledge and his fellow Marines. They were glad to have survived Okinawa and elated when, not long thereafter, the war ended and they could look forward to going home.

This is a uniquely authentic first-hand narrative of World War II combat by somebody who lived it. After the war, E. B. Sledge pursued his education, eventually earning a doctorate in biology and becoming a professor at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, where he taught zoology, ornithology, and comparative anatomy until his retirement in 1990. He began the memoir which became this book in 1944. He continued to work on it after the war and, at the urging of family, finally prepared it for publication in 1981. The present edition includes an introduction by Victor Davis Hanson.

Sledge, E[ugene] B[ondurant]. With the Old Breed. New York: Presidio Press, [1981] 2007. ISBN 978-0-89141-906-8.

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This Week’s Book Review – Seven at Santa Cruz

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Biography offers intimate look at WWII fighter pilot

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 1, 2018

”Seven at Santa Cruz: The Life of Fighter Ace Stanley ‘Swede’ Vejtasa,” by Ted Edwards, Naval Institute Press, 2018, 304 pages, $29.95

Living World War II veterans are fewer each day. First person accounts or histories written using personal interviews of surviving veterans are shrinking.

“Seven at Santa Cruz: The Life of Fighter Ace Stanley ‘Swede’ Vejtasa,” by Ted Edwards is a new biography of Vejtasa that bucks this trend. Edwards used extended interviews with Vejtasa and other World War II veterans researching it.

Nicknamed “Swede” for reasons comprehensible to only mid-20th century naval aviators, Stanley Vejtasa was of Bohemian and Norwegian stock, the first generation born in the United States after his father came here from what today is the Czech Republic and mother from Norway.

He grew up in rural Montana when most children, including him, were fascinated by all things aircraft. He joined the Navy to learn to fly.

He flew a lot and in combat, graduating from flight school just before the United States entered World War II. He flew dive bombers from the aircraft carrier Yorktown as part of the Atlantic “Neutrality Patrol” before Pearl Harbor. After Dec. 7, 1941, he accompanied Yorktown into the Pacific. There, in the action leading up to and including the Battle of the Coral Sea, he hit a Japanese transport off Tulagi, helped sink the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho, and shot down three Japanese Zero fighters flying combat air patrol over Yorktown. He shot down the Zeros using a Dauntless dive bomber.

That earned him a Navy Cross and a transfer to fighters. Flying an F4F Wildcat from the carrier Enterprise at the battle of Santa Cruz, he shot down seven Japanese aircraft in one day. He saved the Enterprise and got a Navy Cross for that, too.

Edwards’ book follows these battles, but also looks at the totality of Vejtasa’s life, including life growing up in Montana, through Vejtasa’s later career in the Navy, which reached an apex with command of the aircraft carrier Constellation in 1962-63.

Vejtasa died in 2014, but Edwards interviewed him extensively before his death. “Seven at Santa Cruz” provides an intimate look at a man who played a small yet critical role in the Pacific War.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – Persian Gulf Command

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Persian Gulf Command’ shows WWII roots of state turmoil

By MARK LARDAS

July 3, 2018

“Persian Gulf Command: A History of the Second World War in Iran and Iraq,” by Ashley Jackson, Yale University Press, 2018, 432 pages, $30

The 1990 Gulf War was not the first time the United States and Great Britain intervened militarily in the Persian Gulf region. Both fought there during World War II.

“Persian Gulf Command: A History of the Second World War in Iran and Iraq,” by Ashley Jackson, tells the story of that often overlooked and frequently forgotten intervention.

Iran and Iraq were one of Britain’s most important sources of petroleum during World War II. They were also strategically located, linking Britain to India (then the jewel of Britain’s imperial crown), and providinga route to the Soviet Union. Iraq was a British protectorate; Iran independent.

Although neutral when World War II began, both were also, as Jackson shows, pro-Nazi. Persia took the name Iran to highlight their Aryan roots. Jackson shows the consequences of this combination the indigenous populations’ fascist sympathies with their nations’ significance to the Allies.

Jackson covers the entire war, from 1939 through 1945. Despite its strategic significance, in the opening stages of World War II, Britain could devote few military resources to Iran and Iraq. After British reverses in 1940, it had few reinforcements available. What few spare military forces Britain had were needed elsewhere.

The opening chapters show the results. A civil war erupted in Iraq, with pro-Nazi forces attempting to overthrow the British-friendly government. Britain and Germany both assembled scratch forces to support their side in that war. Germany sent aircraft. Britain rushed troops and aircraft from Africa and India. Jackson describes how Britain won that race.

He goes on to show how Germany’s invasion of Russia changed the Soviets from a threat to an ally, albeit one dangerous to Britain’s Persian Gulf interests. He shows how Britain and Russia took over the Iranian oilfields, and later, after the United States entered the war, turned Iran into a major conduit to bring supplies to the Soviet Union.

This book is filled with delicate diplomacy and tantalizing “what-ifs.” “Persian Gulf Command” shows how the roots of the turmoil in the Persian Gulf region in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries had its roots in World War II.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – Otto Kretschmer

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Seawriter

Book Review

Kretschmer a record-breaking World War II U-boat captain

By MARK LARDAS

June 5, 2018

“Otto Kretschmer: The Life of the Third Reich’s Highest Scoring U-Boat Commander,” by Lawrence Patterson, Naval Institute Press, 2018, 288 pages, $39.95

Every wartime activity has its ace-of-aces. In submarine warfare it is Otto Kretschmer, the U-boat commander who sank more tonnage than any other submarine commander in any Navy, during World War II.

“Otto Kretschmer: The Life of the Third Reich’s Highest Scoring U-Boat Commander,” by Lawrence Patterson, is a biography of Kretschmer.

During his career, Kretschmer sank 47 merchant ships totaling 272,043 tons. He accomplished this over a remarkable 20 months, between the start of the war in September 1939 and his capture in May 1941.

Kretschmer also became Great Britain’s “favorite German.” As Patterson shows, he was an honorable foe, assisting the crews of the ships he sank when possible. A firm German patriot, he was apolitical, serving his country rather than a party. He was also a daring and worthwhile enemy, something the British rarely resist. After the war he became good friends with Capt. Donald Macintyre, the Royal Navy captain who sank Kretschmer’s U-99.

“Otto Kretschmer” is the first major biography of Kretschmer written since Terrance Robinson’s “The Golden Horseshoe,” in 1955. Patterson’s biography is a more comprehensive and accurate account than was possible when Robinson wrote his in 1955. Patterson had access to files that were still secret in 1955. All the major participants have died, allowing greater frankness.

Greater honesty does not reflect badly on Kretschmer. Rather it allows him to be seen in greater clarity. Regardless of his cause, he is shown as a remarkable war leader. His men called him “Silent Otto” because of his reserve, but greatly respected him.

Patterson was able to accurately re-create Kretschmer’s career, including his early years in the pre-war Kriegsmarine and his wartime service. Patterson reconstructs each of Kretschmer’s war patrols in U-23 and U-99. He also follows Kretschmer’s years as a prisoner of war in Scotland and Canada. (Kretschmer very much believed resistance within the limitation of the laws of war was an officer’s duty as a POW.)

“Otto Kretschmer” is a revealing look at the career of a consummately professional naval officer. For those interested in the Battle of the Atlantic it should not be missed.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Book Review: The Second World Wars

“The Second World Wars” by Victor Davis HansonThis may be the best single-volume history of World War II ever written. While it does not get into the low-level details of the war or its individual battles (don’t expect to see maps with boxes, front lines, and arrows), it provides an encyclopedic view of the first truly global conflict with a novel and stunning insight every few pages.

Nothing like World War II had ever happened before and, thankfully, has not happened since. While earlier wars may have seemed to those involved in them as involving all of the powers known to them, they were at most regional conflicts. By contrast, in 1945, there were only eleven countries in the entire world which were neutral—not engaged on one side or the other. (There were, of course, far fewer countries then than now—most of Africa and South Asia were involved as colonies of belligerent powers in Europe.) And while war had traditionally been a matter for kings, generals, and soldiers, in this total war the casualties were overwhelmingly (70–80%) civilian. Far from being confined to battlefields, many of the world’s great cities, from Amsterdam to Yokohama, were bombed, shelled, or besieged, often with disastrous consequences for their inhabitants.

“Wars” in the title refers to Hanson’s observation that what we call World War II was, in reality, a collection of often unrelated conflicts which happened to occur at the same time. The settling of ethnic and territorial scores across borders in Europe had nothing to do with Japan’s imperial ambitions in China, or Italy’s in Africa and Greece. It was sometimes difficult even to draw a line dividing the two sides in the war. Japan occupied colonies in Indochina under the administration of Vichy France, notwithstanding Japan and Vichy both being nominal allies of Germany. The Soviet Union, while making a massive effort to defeat Nazi Germany on the land, maintained a non-aggression pact with Axis power Japan until days before its surrender and denied use of air bases in Siberia to Allied air forces for bombing campaigns against the home islands.

Combatants in different theatres might have well have been fighting in entirely different wars, and sometimes in different centuries. Air crews on long-range bombing missions above Germany and Japan had nothing in common with Japanese and British forces slugging it out in the jungles of Burma, nor with attackers and defenders fighting building to building in the streets of Stalingrad, or armoured combat in North Africa, or the duel of submarines and convoys to keep the Atlantic lifeline between the U.S. and Britain open, or naval battles in the Pacific, or the amphibious landings on islands they supported.

World War II did not start as a global war, and did not become one until the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the Japanese attack on U.S., British, and Dutch territories in the Pacific. Prior to those events, it was a collection of border wars, launched by surprise by Axis powers against weaker neighbours which were, for the most part, successful. Once what Churchill called the Grand Alliance (Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) was forged, the outcome was inevitable, yet the road to victory was long and costly, and its length impossible to foresee at the outset.

The entire war was unnecessary, and its horrific cost can be attributed to a failure of deterrence. From the outset, there was no way the Axis could have won. If, as seemed inevitable, the U.S. were to become involved, none of the Axis powers possessed the naval or air resources to strike the U.S. mainland, no less contemplate invading and occupying it. While all of Germany and Japan’s industrial base and population were, as the war progressed, open to bombardment day and night by long-range, four engine, heavy bombers escorted by long-range fighters, the Axis possessed no aircraft which could reach the cities of the U.S. east coast, the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma, or the industrial base of the midwest. While the U.S. and Britain fielded aircraft carriers which allowed them to project power worldwide, Germany and Italy had no effective carrier forces and Japan’s were reduced by constant attacks by U.S. aviation.

This correlation of forces was known before the outbreak of the war. Why did Japan and then Germany launch wars which were almost certain to result in forces ranged against them which they could not possibly defeat? Hanson attributes it to a mistaken belief that, to use Hitler’s terminology, the will would prevail. The West had shown itself unwilling to effectively respond to aggression by Japan in China, Italy in Ethiopia, and Germany in Czechoslovakia, and Axis leaders concluded from this, catastrophically for their populations, that despite their industrial, demographic, and strategic military weakness, there would be no serious military response to further aggression (the “bore war” which followed the German invasion of Poland and the declarations of war on Germany by France and Britain had to reinforce this conclusion). Hanson observes, writing of Hitler, “Not even Napoleon had declared war in succession on so many great powers without any idea how to destroy their ability to make war, or, worse yet, in delusion that tactical victories would depress stronger enemies into submission.” Of the Japanese, who attacked the U.S. with no credible capability or plan for invading and occupying the U.S. homeland, he writes, “Tojo was apparently unaware or did not care that there was no historical record of any American administration either losing or quitting a war—not the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, or World War I—much less one that Americans had not started.” (Maybe they should have waited a few decades….)

Compounding the problems of the Axis was that it was essentially an alliance in name only. There was little or no co-ordination among its parties. Hitler provided Mussolini no advance notice of the attack on the Soviet Union. Mussolini did not warn Hitler of his attacks on Albania and Greece. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was as much a surprise to Germany as to the United States. Japanese naval and air assets played no part in the conflict in Europe, nor did German technology and manpower contribute to Japan’s war in the Pacific. By contrast, the Allies rapidly settled on a division of labour: the Soviet Union would concentrate on infantry and armoured warfare (indeed, four out of five German soldiers who died in the war were killed by the Red Army), while Britain and the U.S. would deploy their naval assets to blockade the Axis, keep the supply lines open, and deliver supplies to the far-flung theatres of the war.  U.S. and British bomber fleets attacked strategic targets and cities in Germany day and night.  The U.S. became the untouchable armoury of the alliance, delivering weapons, ammunition, vehicles, ships, aircraft, and fuel in quantities which eventually surpassed those all other combatants on both sides combined. Britain and the U.S. shared technology and cooperated in its development in areas such as radar, antisubmarine warfare, aircraft engines (including jet propulsion), and nuclear weapons, and shared intelligence gleaned from British codebreaking efforts.

As a classicist, Hanson examines the war in its incarnations in each of the elements of antiquity: Earth (infantry), Air (strategic and tactical air power), Water (naval and amphibious warfare), and Fire (artillery and armour), and adds People (supreme commanders, generals, workers, and the dead). He concludes by analysing why the Allies won and what they ended up winning—and losing. Britain lost its empire and position as a great power (although due to internal and external trends, that might have happened anyway). The Soviet Union ended up keeping almost everything it had hoped to obtain through its initial partnership with Hitler. The United States emerged as the supreme economic, industrial, technological, and military power in the world and promptly entangled itself in a web of alliances which would cause it to underwrite the defence of countries around the world and involve it in foreign conflicts far from its shores.

Hanson concludes,

The tragedy of World War II—a preventable conflict—was that sixty million people had perished to confirm that the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain were far stronger than the fascist powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy after all—a fact that should have been self-evident and in no need of such a bloody laboratory, if not for prior British appeasement, American isolationism, and Russian collaboration.

At 720 pages, this is not a short book (the main text is 590 pages; the rest are sources and end notes), but there is so much wisdom and startling insights among those pages that you will be amply rewarded for the time you spend reading them.

Hanson, Victor Davis. The Second World Wars. New York: Basic Books, 2017. ISBN 978-0-465-06698-8.

Here is a two-part Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about the war and the book.

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Book Review: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” by Damien LewisAfter becoming prime minister in May 1940, one of Winston Churchill’s first acts was to establish the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was intended to conduct raids, sabotage, reconnaissance, and support resistance movements in Axis-occupied countries. The SOE was not part of the military: it was a branch of the Ministry of Economic Warfare and its very existence was a state secret, camouflaged under the name “Inter-Service Research Bureau”. Its charter was, as Churchill described it, to “set Europe ablaze”.

The SOE consisted, from its chief, Brigadier Colin McVean Gubbins, who went by the designation “M”, to its recruits, of people who did not fit well with the regimentation, hierarchy, and constraints of life in the conventional military branches. They could, in many cases, be easily mistaken for blackguards, desperadoes, and pirates, and that’s precisely what they were in the eyes of the enemy—unconstrained by the rules of warfare, striking by stealth, and sowing chaos, mayhem, and terror among occupation troops who thought they were far from the front.

Leading some of the SOE’s early exploits was Gustavus “Gus” March-Phillipps, founder of the British Army’s Small Scale Raiding Force, and given the SOE designation “Agent W.01”, meaning the first agent assigned to the west Africa territory with the leading zero identifying him as “trained and licensed to use all means to liquidate the enemy”—a license to kill. The SOE’s liaison with the British Navy, tasked with obtaining support for its operations and providing cover stories for them, was a fellow named Ian Fleming.

One of the SOE’s first and most daring exploits was Operation Postmaster, with the goal of seizing German and Italian ships anchored in the port of Santa Isabel on the Spanish island colony of Fernando Po off the coast of west Africa. Given the green light by Churchill over the strenuous objections of the Foreign Office and Admiralty, who were concerned about the repercussions if British involvement in what amounted to an act of piracy in a neutral country were to be disclosed, the operation was mounted under the strictest secrecy and deniability, with a cover story prepared by Ian Fleming. Despite harrowing misadventures along the way, the plan was a brilliant success, capturing three ships and their crews and delivering them to the British-controlled port of Lagos without any casualties. Vindicated by the success, Churchill gave the SOE the green light to raid Nazi occupation forces on the Channel Islands and the coast of France.

On his first mission in Operation Postmaster was Anders Lassen, an aristocratic Dane who enlisted as a private in the British Commandos after his country was occupied by the Nazis. With his silver-blond hair, blue eyes, and accent easily mistaken for German, Lassen was apprehended by the Home Guard on several occasions while on training missions in Britain and held as a suspected German spy until his commanders intervened. Lassen was given a field commission, direct from private to second lieutenant, immediately after Operation Postmaster, and went on to become one of the most successful leaders of special operations raids in the war. As long as Nazis occupied his Danish homeland, he was possessed with a desire to kill as many Nazis as possible, wherever and however he could, and when in combat was animated by a berserker drive and ability to improvise that caused those who served with him to call him the “Danish Viking”.

This book provides a look into the operations of the SOE and its successor organisations, the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service, seen through the career of Anders Lassen. So numerous were special operations, conducted in many theatres around the world, that this kind of focus is necessary. Also, attrition in these high-risk raids, often far behind enemy lines, was so high there are few individuals one can follow throughout the war. As the war approached its conclusion, Lassen was the only surviving participant in Operation Postmaster, the SOE’s first raid.

Lassen went on to lead raids against Nazi occupation troops in the Channel Islands, leading Churchill to remark, “There comes from the sea from time to time a hand of steel which plucks the German sentries from their posts with growing efficiency.” While these “butcher-and-bolt” raids could not liberate territory, they yielded prisoners, code books, and radio contact information valuable to military intelligence and, more importantly, forced the Germans to strengthen their garrisons in these previously thought secure posts, tying down forces which could otherwise be sent to active combat fronts. Churchill believed that the enemy should be attacked wherever possible, and SOE was a precision weapon which could be deployed where conventional military forces could not be used.

As the SOE was absorbed into the military Special Air Service, Lassen would go on to fight in North Africa, Crete, the Aegean islands, then occupied by Italian and German troops, and mainland Greece. His raid on a German airbase on occupied Crete took out fighters and bombers which could have opposed the Allied landings in Sicily. Later, his small group of raiders, unsupported by any other force, liberated the Greek city of Salonika, bluffing the German commander into believing Lassen’s forty raiders and two fishing boats were actually a British corps of thirty thousand men, with armour, artillery, and naval support.

After years of raiding in peripheral theatres, Lassen hungered to get into the “big war”, and ended up in Italy, where his irregular form of warfare and disdain for military discipline created friction with his superiors. But he got results, and his unit was tasked with reconnaissance and pathfinding for an Allied crossing of Lake Comacchio (actually, more of a swamp) in Operation Roast in the final days of the war. It was there he was to meet his end, in a fierce engagement against Nazi troops defending the north shore. For this, he posthumously received the Victoria Cross, becoming the only non-Commonwealth citizen so honoured in World War II.

It is a cliché to say that a work of history “reads like a thriller”, but in this case it is completely accurate. The description of the raid on the Kastelli airbase on Crete would, if made into a movie, probably cause many viewers to suspect it to be fictionalised, but that’s what really happened, based upon after action reports by multiple participants and aerial reconnaissance after the fact.

World War II was a global conflict, and while histories often focus on grand battles such as D-day, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima, and the fall of Berlin, there was heroism in obscure places such as the Greek islands which also contributed to the victory, and combatants operating in the shadows behind enemy lines who did their part and often paid the price for the risks they willingly undertook. This is a stirring story of this shadow war, told through the short life of one of its heroes.

Lewis, Damien. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. New York: Quercus, 2015. ISBN 978-1-68144-392-8.

Here is a video review of this book by Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons.

 


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