The Nazi Hunters by Damien Lewis [Book Review]
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A very well researched account, with a lot of detail on the SAS operations in the Vosges. While it does cover the post-war war crimes investigations most of the book is actually about the period leading to the war crimes. This is very interesting, and shows how they were operating and why so many SAS soldiers ended up in enemy hands. It also sort of explains the personal nature of the SAS War Crimes Unit’s all consuming involvement in hunting down the perpetrators.
The Nazi Hunters
The Nazi Hunters is well researched, but it’s wrapped in a little hyperbole about it being a previously untold and largely unknown story. During WW2 Hitler issued an infamous ‘Commando Order’ that instructed his troops to execute captured commandos and airborne raiders. The allies only became aware of this towards the end of the war, and didn’t quite grasp it’s significance until it was too late for those operating ahead of the allied armies.
The SAS spent the summer and autumn of 1944 ranging behind the German lines. Their mission was to sow chaos and hit senior commanders and logistics routes. Operation Lowton was one of several, and forms the subject for most of the Nazi Hunters. Lowton went wrong, as things in war are wont to. It worked on a strategic level, but at a terrible cost. By the time the 2 SAS squadron withdrew they’d lost 30 men missing, and over a thousand locals had been rounded up. Most of those concerned were murdered by the Nazis.
A consequence of this was that the CO of 2 SAS, Brian Franks, set up a war crimes investigation unit. Franks had been on the mission himself, joining it with reinforcements. The Vosges was good terrain for the SAS. The locals were helpful, even when the Gestapo started a crackdown on the Maquis and SAS.
Lewis gives us chapter and verse on the SAS operation in the Vosges. He draws on an official war diary and also interviews with survivors, both SAS and locals from Moussey. The narrative is crisp and readable. You can relate to those involved, which makes their murder seem even more of a crime.
The second part of the book is the about the 2 SAS War Crimes Unit. They’ve been documented before, but Lewis has given us more context, so we can see why the WCU people cared. Some of them were on Lowton too, and they all knew the people that had been murdered.
It’s an incredible story. The SAS, aided by a Russian Prince commissioned in the British Army, hunted down Nazis and ensured that they stood trial. In parallel there was an official stance that it was more important to get Europe back on its feet than to punish war criminals.
I was so intrigued by how the SAS War Crimes Unit worked, and how it was saved from the disbandment of the SAS that I went back into Lewis’s sources to read more. There was a TV series about it in the early 1980s that carried more detail. I’ll review Secret Hunters by Anthony Kemp shortly (NB no relation).
Overall, if you have an interest in war crimes, special forces or the darker side of WW2 then this book is worth reading.