“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”

― Frank Herbert

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Forgotten Soldier

I've always been interested in the German Army of the 20th Century.  In the 1970's I had the opportunity to work with them during exercises in Germany,  and that experience reinforced what I'd read in books. Later, when I was stationed in Europe for more than three years, I got to know the Germans better and that only enhanced my respect for them , both as a people and in terms of their military. All the  NATO allies had characteristics that identified them.  The Germans were reliable, methodical, professional.  The British were starkly professional in the ranks and among their NCO's. British officers seemed to put on a facade of cheerful lack of concern but underneath it they knew their business.  The Italians were a strange bunch, with a professional army made up of long service people in elite units, and a much larger army comprised of conscripts who didn't want to be there and showed it.  You could set your watch by the Germans, but the Italians had a more relaxed attitude about commitments and it was an unwary person who relied too heavily on them showing up when they were supposed to, with what they were supposed to.  Unless, of course, it was the Folgore, or the Alpini, or the San Marcos who were as good as anyone.

Guy Sajer.
The Germans, though. They're a separate case.  In World War II, German units could consistently defeat much larger units , whatever nationality of the Allies they were faced with.  They were innovative, particularly in the design of weapons and the development of tactics. German small unit leaders were outstanding, and the company grade German officers had a relationship of respect and trust with their men that only elite units in our own forces ever attained on a large scale.

German aircraft and tanks were the best of the war. They developed the STG 44, the first assault rifle.  Their problem was that while they might produce one Panther or Tiger tank, the allies cranked out 100 Shermans, T-34's, or other lesser but still deadly vehicles. God is on the side of the biggest battalions, as Uncle Joe Stalin liked to quip.

It's hard to get a sense of the individual German soldier, though.  Most of the books you can get were written by German officers, and most of those were written by Generals, or by specialists like fighter pilots, U-boat commanders, or others.  That's where Guy Sajer's book is so valuable.  As a record of infantry combat in the German Army on World War II's Eastern Front, it's the best there is.  Strangely, Sajer wasn't a "real" German by the lights of his time. His mother was German, his father French.  He tried to join the Luftwaffe, washed out, and wound up as a driver in the transport corps. Later on, he volunteered for service in the elite Gross Deutschland  division and that's where the story really begins.

The book has been published in a lot of different languages, and it's an old book, but it can still be found in English, at least in Paperback. I've got a thirty nine year old copy from my time in the Marine Corps, where the book was sold in the Marine Corps Association bookstore at the officers Basic School.  For all I know, (and I hope it is) it's still sold there.

It's not concerned with strategy and as Sajer himself said, writing it many years after the war, he was not trying to write a history of the war.  What he did want to do, and what he succeeded in doing, was recording the experiences of the individual German soldier on the Eastern Front.  It's worth reading ,even if you're not a veteran.  I've just finished reading it again, and every time I do I learn something new.

If you wonder what the association is with the survivalist lifestyle, read the book. You won't wonder then.




13 comments:

  1. Interesting. I will look for that book.

    Since I was stationed in the Graf training area with 7th ATC I got a lot of face time with the various NATO members, although ya know only very rarely any Italians now that I think about it. The ones you had to watch were when the Turks came in. One night the local dependents threw snowballs at a Turk convoy when it wandered into the housing area and the damned Turks actually deployed out of their vehicles to run the kids down. The MP's had to remove several children from the clutches of Turk soldiers. It almost came to shots being fired.

    The French were known for some stupid range stuff too. Still the funniest thing I ever saw was an M-198 towed artillery piece that was dropped in for a training exercise with the 509th. The chute attached to the muzzle end failed to open or something and it landed muzzle down stuck a good four feet into the ground with the tails spread out. Looked like some type of artillery altar or something.

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  2. I spent a good bit of time in Turkey. Their military reminded me of the Koreans. Brutal and no sense of humor. At the same time, one of my best friends there was a Turkish Air Force Major named Mehmet Botan. He was one of the most decent people I ever met anywhere.

    The French were another of that kind of country that has a hand full of really good units, and then a basically separate army of conscripts that just want to do their time as painlessly as possible and get the hell out. I worked with the French paras and the Foreign Legion in Lebanon, and those were both top flight outfits. People think the French are wimps but they aren't.

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  3. Reading my comment it looked like I was throwing off on the Koreans. I wasn't. They were great soldiers and totally reliable. They were just so damned ferocious. I never mixed much with the Korean civilians so I don't know really anything about them.

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  4. Sounds interesting although generally war books aren't my thing.

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    1. I would have said once that military matters were not generally of interest to women, but these days they put young women in the same environment they put the young men in. Strange times. I think it's appalling putting women in combat units myself. A philosopher, whose name I can't remember right now, once said that a society which fails in it's duty to protect young women is doomed to extinction.

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  5. I love reading about Operation Paul Bunyan and how the ROK guys dismounted their trucks, pulled open their uniform blouses, and showed they had claymores strapped to their chests and dared the DPRK troops to come at 'em. I've heard from guys who were in Korea say those ROk guys, esp. the SF ones, were about as hard as you can get.

    Speaking of hardecore, read up on Operation Paul Bunyan...its a delightful example of when the US responded to foreign incidents with overwhelming, impressive, and highly dangerous shows of force.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axe_murder_incident

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    1. I was at a Korean Air Force base in Yechon. There's nothing near there, just mountains. It was winter and dreadfully cold. I mean, freeze you all the way through cold. There was this big pit near our tent line. I walked by it and there were about twelve Korean soldiers, stripped to the waist, kneeling in this pit. It was so cold you could get frost bite on your ears if you didn't cover them. I asked a Korean officer passing by why that was going on, and he said they were being punished for "Minor Infractions" such as inadequately shined belt buckles. And this was their Air Force. I shudder to think of their Army or their Marines. I had a lot of NCO's I worked with (this was 1979 as I recall) who had been in Viet Nam and they said you had to see the ROK's clear a district to believe it. These were some hard bitten characters and even they looked askance at the Koreans.

      I'll have to check on Paul Bunyan. I don't think I've ever heard of it, sounds interesting.

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    2. Succinctly, a couple US soldiers went into the no-mans land to cut down a tree that was obscuring their observation. The DPRK sent some troops in there and brutally killed the US soldiers. The US responded with a *massive* show of force, sending in a few sqauds of men to finish the tree-cutting, backed up by ROK SF, Cobras, F4s, F5s, an aircraft carrier, and B-52 flybys. Ah the good old days when the American response didnt start with an apology for being exceptional.

      I remember reading that during the Rodney King riots, the Korean shopkeepers who had former military experience in the ROK were exceptionally well-motivated (and well-armed) when it came time to respond to the looting and arson.

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    3. I remember that incident well. I didn't realize the aftermath had a name so didn't make the connection. The North Koreans killed them with an axe, didn't they?

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    4. Yup. Wiki says the DPRK has the axe on display somewhere.

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    5. I don't think I'd have gone in between the wire without some serious back up. Somebody trod heavily on their pork when they ordered those guys in there like that. Just looking into the DMZ is enough to shrivel your pod at the thought of going into the land of between.

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  6. It is a great read. I own a hard copy and treasure it.

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    1. I figured you would have read it. It's classic. I've got a hard back too, but it's discolored and worn because I have hauled it all over the planet with me. It's one of the books I used to take on the floats, in my foot locker. It wound up getting lent to just about every other Marine officer on board most of the time, so it has a lot of miles on it.

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