I have to admit that when I first heard the title I was a little confused. Damien Lewis rarely follows the mainstream, and I doubted that he would be following in the well trodden footsteps of other authors. Damien was true to form, The Nazi Hunters involves a very dark period in WWII for Great Briton’s SAS (Special Air Service) and an operation centered around the French village of Moussey Code named Operation Loyton it quickly turned into a life and death struggle.
I rather like this quote from the introduction. The speaker is an unnamed ex member of the SAS and gives a very precise precis of the problem:
‘You ever heard of Op Loyton? Most haven’t. But to those of us who have it’s known as the SAS’s Arnhem. In late ’44 an SAS force parachuted into the Vosges Mountains to arm and raise the French Resistance and spread havoc behind enemy lines. Unfortunately, they landed amongst an entire German Panzer division. Bad timing, bad intelligence. Ran out of food, ammo, explosives, weaponry, not to mention anywhere to run. Hence: the SAS’s Arnhem.
The Nazi Hunters is really two books in one and both are amazing in the stories they explore. Part one explores what happened in Op Loyton and it makes for some very sad reading. The SAS are used to being outnumbered, but even by their standards the odds were overwhelming and many lost their lives. As many others were, they were swallowed up in the Nacht Und Nebel (night and fog). At least that was the plan by the Nazi’s. It might have worked had it not been for the fact that the SAS never go quietly into the night and fog. They prefer to cause a ruckus!
Leading the teams was Captain Henry Carey Druce. Although I think his parents should have named him Henry Ruckus Druce. If your goal is to conquer Europe and beyond, the last thing you need is Henry and his men nipping at your heels.
A man that it is fair to say did not have the word ‘failure’ in his vocabulary.
The original plan had been to drop the SAS team into the Vosges Mountains on or around D-day. At that time the German presence in the area was light and largely incompetent. This was vital in order to arm and train the Maquis (local French Resistance) before the bulk of the retreating German Army got to the area. Alas bad weather and other issues delayed Op Loyton for 9 weeks, bad Intel, or more properly, the bad dissemination of Intel put Capt Druce in a seemingly losing position before their parachutes could even open.
They found sanctuary of a sort near the village of Moussey. In a huge act of bravery the villagers hid or at least kept secret about their guests. The Nazi response was to round up 1000 Villagers and ship them to concentration camps. But not one ever talked about their guests. Few of the villagers made it home, but what an act of bravery!
Druce, his men, and the Maquis, continued with the mission, create havoc behind enemy lines, and this they did with skill and daring. Crippling the roads and rail system was paramount.
The SAS even developed their own version of an IED. As the book explains:
The SAS used devices euphemistically named ‘tyre-bursters’ by their inventors – the gadget people at the SOE. SOE agents had retrieved samples of rock types from key areas of planned Maquis and SAS activity. Working from those samples, the
SOE boffins had manufactured plastic explosive charges that mimicked the texture, colour and shape of the rocks commonly found in each region. Laid on a road, they appeared to be nothing more than a few scattered stones, until a tyre or track passed over them, detonating the powerful charge.
Reluctant to stop there, the SOE had even produced tyre-bursters that mimicked dog turds and horse droppings, reasoning that no self-respecting German would want to stop their vehicles to remove a pile of poo from the road. But arguably the most infamous such device was the ‘exploding rat’, about which the SOE instruction manual is largely self-explanatory
Transportation became an issue, you can only create so much havoc while on foot. Help came from the sky. In what seems like something out of a James Bond movie, 6 Jeeps were parachuted into the area.
Part two of the book is about the aftermath. WWII was over, the British people, and indeed almost every country had had enough of war. The Brits voted Winston Churchill out of power, a decision that to this day I do not understand, but it is what it is. Adding insult to injury the SAS was disbanded. I suppose the rationale was that with the world at peace there was no need for exploding dog turds any more.
In reality a small cadre of the SAS continued for a further 3 years till 1948. Their budget was hidden, they did not exist on paper, but they certainly were still in business. There were 30 members of the Op Loyton mission unaccounted for, where were these men? There were also 1000 French villagers that deserved justice.
The mission moved from ‘hit and run’ to ‘find and bring justice’.
The ‘finding’ was not easy, but in some cases the ‘justice’ was equally elusive.
The Nazi Hunters is a book that anyone with in interest in WWII will enjoy reading. Yes it is a microcosm of the big picture, yet it is the big picture. The lack of enthusiasm in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice was being tempered by the onslaught of the Cold War.