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Author, film researcher and member of the Swedish Military History Commission.

Monday, February 22, 2021



You may have read several books about the Special Air Service, but what about the soldiers that are instantly recognized worldwide by a single word, commando? Leaving aside the Boer origin, it was the British WWII adoption of the term that eventually led to global recognition of the word. A great place to start reading up on the early Commandos is a book from 1953 (!) that is now again available. 


The first reason to pick up this book is its charming personal style, secondly because it provides good details of events like the raids on Guernsey and the Lofoten Islands. The name of the book is simply Commando and it was written by Brigadier John Durnford-Slater DSO and bar, the man credited with establishing the first British Army Commando unit.


I just loved reading how Durnford-Slater went about to find his “troops of the hunter class” to create a “self-contained, thoroughly equipped raiding unit” (quoting Winston Churchill). Here is an excerpt from the author: “I wanted cheerful officers, not groaners. A good physique was important, but size was not. I looked for intelligence and keenness.” You may have read something similar to that before, but then he goes on to describe accommodations and I was surprised to learn how, according to the first “Commando system”, there simply were no barracks. Instead, Durnford-Slater gave every officer and man of No. 3 Commando, established on 5 July 1940, a subsistence allowance and the man was then required to find his own accommodation and food. To directly quote the author about this idea: “It increased a man´s self-reliance and self-respect, developed his initiative and made him available for training at any time of the day or night.”


There was only one punishment, the order “RTU” meaning a man had to Return To his (previous) Unit. But as the selected personnel were all keen volunteers this was a very dreaded punishment. Reading about the characters that passed through the training is in itself a pleasure and then we get to the first operation, Guernsey. As I do not wish to spoil your reading, suffice to say that Guernsey was a lesson how not to do things.


The Lofoten Islands chapter provides what none of the previous books I have read on the subject have been able to do. It very clearly explains the motives for the raid and then paints a lively portrait of it. Of special interest for us Scandinavians is how Martin Linge, founder of the Norwegian Linge (SOE) Company, comes to life thanks to John Durnford-Slater. Also splendid to get confirmation from the author that one of his officers while on Lofoten visited a post office and sent off a telegram addressed to A. Hitler. However, I still have read no report of how it was received at the highest level. I suppose it was never delivered to him


It was just after Lofoten that the American Embassy in London sent forty US Marines to live and train with the Commandos. I had heard of this episode before but not read any details. Good to get some from Durnford-Slater, as well as his memories of Vaagso (the actual name is Vågsøy). I learnt that the Germans even had a tank there, an older type but it could still have wreaked havoc among the Commandos. It was blown up while still in its garage. Perhaps some Norwegian reader of this blog could inform what type it was and exactly what became of it. This incident is pretty unusual plus, being a former tanker, I am extremely interested in tank-related actions here in Scandinavia.  


For me the 1942 Dieppe raid chapter provided another insight into early, and largely unknown, US involvement in European WWII combat. A party from the 1stUS Rangers were made an integral part of No. 3 Commando for the period of the Dieppe operation. Three of these Americans were killed during the raid.


Simply put, this book is both a nice read and an important source for understanding the early Commandos and their fighting methods. It was great idea of Greenhill Books to again print Commando. I only wish the final operations in Germany had been covered a bit more. 

Friday, February 05, 2021

Marching From Defeat

A lot of people have seen “As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me”, a 2001 WWII movie based on a book by Josef Martin Bauer. Both can be summed up as an exciting escape story: a German soldier, Clemens Forell, is sent to a very remote Soviet camp and walks to freedom against all odds. However, it has turned out that very little in that film/book can have come from the actual life of the real Forell, Cornelius Rost. Well, is the new book Marching From Defeat by Claus Neuber better than Bauer´s book?

Marching From Defeat is a book from 2020 in English but was published in German seven years ago, as Marsch aus dem Untergang. Simply put it is an autobiographical escape account by Claus Neuber, who was a German Army artillery lieutenant on the 1944 Eastern Front, serving in the 18th Panzergrenadier Division. Like thousands of other German soldiers he finds himself caught up in Operation Bagration, the huge Red Army offensive in the summer of 1944. He is then on the run behind Soviet lines for more than two months and during that time he is captured by the Soviets but manages to escape from his first camp.

Neuber recorded his experiences of escaping from Soviet captivity in a report soon afterwards, and later expanded his account. But it was not published in Germany until 2014. To tell you what I think of his book I will start with the credibility and then what it was like reading it.

Basically I wish Claus Neuber had met a more objective and professional German publisher/editor. Because his account has many signs of being authentic and therefore it should have been “left alone”, i.e. not been mixed with a lot of postwar thoughts. Of course the book could still have included postwar insights and comments. Actually, it could well have had some more postwar comments – from different historians of the Eastern Front. But the postwar insights and comments should have been in chapters separate from the wartime experiences. So, I object to how Neuber´s 1944 memories have been “developed”, because that process has not improved the book.

Still, especially once you get to the start of the long trek towards the new German lines, Marching From Defeat is often an amazing read. One gets the feeling that these are indeed the thoughts, experiences and conversations of German soldiers on the run. Surprisingly often they are helped by locals and some of the most moving scenes in the book are the encounters between the author´s group and villagers that often had no reason to help Germans - but still did so because they recognized the human beings behind the remains of German uniform.

I do not wish to spoil your reading experience but think the following quote from the author gives an idea of the challenges he encountered, without revealing too much: “Had I known about the ordeal that lay ahead of me, I would have given up all hope, but luckily I didn´t know and none of us knew because it was unimaginable.”

Neuber encountered countless setbacks of all kinds but also learnt repeatedly how a setback can turn out to be for the best. Sometimes it is almost beyond belief how he could carry on walking.

So, if you are into WWII escape & survival stories and/or have been intrigued by As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, then Marching From Defeat should interest you. Hopefully some future book will examine Claus Neuber´s account in more detail, comparing it with wartime documents and also with similar fates.