on 5 December 2000
Das Reich chronicles the journey of the infamous 2nd SS panzer division (Das Reich) on it's journey through France to help bolster the defences against the allied landings in Normandy in June 1944. Their route North ran with the blood of many brave French men and women who attempted to delay them, most notably Violet Zsabo whose life was immortalised in "Carve Her Name With Pride". Many a roadside memorial in the Dordogne and Loire to this day bear testament to the indiscriminate murders that took place. On 10th June 1944 the "Der Fuhrer" regiment of the 2nd SS panzer division reached Oradour-sur-Glane in the Limousin. The massacre of 642 men women and children will go down in history as one of the most evil and barbaric acts that man has ever inflicted on human kind. The ruins of the village remain today as it was left on that fatal day in June 1944 and stands as monument to the memory of all who died there.
In his book Max Hastings has brought to life a part of recent French history with his flowing narrative style. He has brought to light many unsung heroes of the French Resistance who deserve their story to be told. For me personally he has awoken a new understanding of my surroundings and a desire to learn more of its history. Anyone who may drive along the leafy lanes of the Dordogne or Limousin after reading this book will know what I mean.
on 4 March 2011
This was originally published in 1981 via the Military Book Society. Judging by some of the typos in this version I suspect it is a scanned reprint with some obvious errors allowed to remain after scanning.
The book covers the activities of Allied forces and French resistance which delayed the ability of the division to approach and engaged the allied forces in Normandy. Whilst this information is good, it does not supply anything worthwhile from the German perspective be it personal or documentary which I consider to be an opportunity lost.
A good read but if you're looking for teh German perspective this book is a miss. For Allied and resistance activity against the movement of the division it is very good.
on 31 October 2009
This is a superb book by one of Britain's foremost military historians. The author expressly states that he assumes the reader has a certain level of knowledge of Vichy, the Nazi empire and the SS and this enables him to concentrate on the events he describes rather than rehashing material available elsewhere. The title does scant justice to the scope of the book. While Das Reich itself is, of course, central to the narrative, the author deals in depth with the maquis and the other factions of the French Resistance, their politics, their bravery and their stupidity. His descriptions are not always flattering although he is always scrupulously objective. The SOE, the SAS and the OSS are similarly treated. The two seminal events, the massacres at Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane, are described and discussed at some length. The former may have had some slight justification; the latter - much the better known outside France - had none whatever. My blood ran cold when the the author quoted without comment a father's description of finding the partially charred body of one of his children in the smoking, burnt out church, and searching unsuccessfully for his other son among bullet-riddled prams and the bodies of at least twenty small children who had unsuccessfully sought safety behind the altar.
The paperback edition which I read suffers from sloppy proof-reading and irritating typographical errors: the surname of Major Kampfe (whose abduction was the catalyst for the events at Oradour) is rendered as "Kampie" in a couple of places, "farmers" is given as "fanners" and so on. It is this alone which stops me giving the book five stars.
on 30 June 2013
Das Reich (2nd SS Panzer)
The focus of the book is on delays to the move to Normandy of Das Reich. But Hastings covers a lot of ground. A number of issues caught my eye. The best I can do here is to list some of these in the hope that they give something of the character of the book.
Hastings gives good insight into the mentality of the SS. This is central to an understanding of what took place.
The SOE (Special Operations) had the job of providing resources for and motivation of the Resistance. Sceptics of the work of the SOE included Monty, MI6, and SHAEF. But SOE had powerful friends including the PM. In 1940-41 various 'private armies' were tolerated by service hierarchies as playthings of the Prime Minister and some irregularly minded generals. These criticisms carried some weight: the contribution of Special Forces of all kinds was always marginal. SHAEF had little time or enthusiasm for any force that threatened to divert attention or resources.
For SHAEF any dividend from the work of the Resistance was a seen as windfall but SHAEF did not plan on it. The organisation of the Resistance was always confused. There was no overall plan. Also SS retaliation on local populations for any attacks on their forces was so severe that this limited scope. When the Resistance did some damage (for example to railways) there was not enough emphasis on repetition - quick repairs were often possible.
The German decision to counterattack the Resistance in the south rather than immediately move north to support the forces in Normandy was profoundly foolish. No other major battlefield formation was permitted to waste as much time upon the Resistance as the 2nd SS Panzer. Das Reich (SS 2nd Panzer) was certainly slowed in its eventual journey north. The march to Normandy took 2 to 3 times as long as it should. It was Allied air forces that inflicted the most important delays on German forces approaching Normandy.
It is impossible to divide precisely the credit for the Allied victory in Normandy between Allied deception plans, the quality of the Allied troops and their commanders, the blunders of German High Command, the air forces, and the Resistance. French historians and former resistants have wildly exaggerated their material damage inflicted on Das Reich. It is probable that no more than 35 were killed in all out of some 15000 men. But material damage was not the key issue.
The highest ambition of the Allied commanders was that the Resistance might unbalance the German forces and divert strength from the Normandy battle and this was achieved. After Liberation General Eisenhower paid fulsome tribute to the contribution of the Resistance (though Montgomery never displayed interest or respect for them).
A thought-provoking read.
on 11 January 2016
This is book which deserves to be read widely. The movement of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich from Montauban to Normandy is one of the more harrowing stories of the second world war. Whilst the events of that movement would not be considered unusual if they'd occurred on the Eatern Front the Tulle and Oradour-Sur-Glane massacres were exceptionally brutal in the West.
The book is perhaps slightly mistitled as the subject of the story is as much the French resistance and the various SOE, OSS and SAS elements that operated behind the lines as it is about the Das Reich Division. Max Hastings delves into the still controversial subjects of the relative contributions of the Communist and non-Communist resistance groups, the level of support for the resistance in wider French society and their military effectiveness. Hastings is I think balanced and fair, he recognises the courage of the resistance and those Allied agents that operated in France but is also honest in his assessment of their military effectiveness. This is not polemical revisionism but an objective assessment and whilst Hastings questions certain myths and exaggerations he also perhaps more sober and as a result credible in his ultimate recognition that the resistance did in fact make a valuable contribution to the Allied victory in Normandy be effectively delaying the movement of the Das Reich. The story of the SAS contribution is less than flattering in some respects yet also makes clear that their identification of sidings containing a series of oil trains followed by calling in air strikes to destroy this fuel made a crucial contribution to delaying German armoured movements. The decision to deploy a unit of the SAS deep behind enemy lines equipped with machine gun armed jeeps but no other guns beyond personal side arms struck me as inexplicable.
The story of the Waffen SS troopers of the Das Reich is told in a non judgemental way. Hastings walks a tight rope in recognising the martial qualities and courage of these troops whilst making no effort to hide their brutality and penchant for acting in ways which violated all accepted codes of behaviour even in time of war. Hastings interviewed some of the survivors and the testimonies offered here are a valuable part of the historical record. The story of the Oradour-Sur-Glane massacre is shocking, Hastings refrains from some of the more gruesome tales told of that massacre but what he provides is horrific enough and in some ways Hastings restrained tone is actually more damning than some of the emotive versions of the story told elsewhere.
Where the book is a bit weak is in its summary where Hastings considers why the Waffen SS could have perpetrated such outrages. His view is that the units had been brutalised in Russia (and certainly massacres like Oradour-Sur-Glane would not have been considered as being outside the norm there) and that peer pressure and conformity to the unit explained the behaviours. This argument is rather weak, it is not incorrect, but equally it is very light. The war in the East was very brutal but that brutality was a part of the Eastern front from it's inception with German orders for very harsh treatment of civilians and POWs in addition to the infamous commissar and Jew orders being in place at the outset of the German invasion. This brutality was an extension of German policy in occupied Poland and it is apparent that such institutionalised brutality was not limited to the Allgemeine SS and that both the Waffen SS and the German Army were a part of this brutality. I'd recommend the books "Ordinary Men - Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland" by Christopher Browning and "The Origins of the Final Solution:The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939 - March 1942" by Christopher Browning and Jurgen Matthaus for a more in depth analysis of the dehumanising effects of the war in the East and Nazi racial politics on the German Army and Waffen SS. Despite these books primary focus being related to the eradication of the Jewish people they provide much detail of German policy in the East in general. There is a tendency in some books to try and de-couple the Waffen SS from the atrocities committed against people such as the Jews, Soviet POWs and those unfortunate enough to live in the occupied territories yet I believe that it is now generally recognised that this is a separation that cannot be made, nor for the German Army. Perhaps where Hastings may offend some sensibilities is his acceptance that the German's had every right to execute captured resistants and SOE/OSS agents and also his recognition that irregular warfare has generated brutality and very harsh repression wherever it has been found. Yet he is undoubtedly correct in these assertions.
Max Hastings is a very fine historian and writes in a very engaging style. For all that this book is now quite old it remains one of the best works available on the subject. Very highly recommended.
on 10 December 2012
I won't go into the quality or accuracy of the research as it seems clear here that almost every participant has an agenda to follow and inevitably that makes untangling the actual events and motivations quite a difficult task. I was a little disappointed with this book overall though because I felt it firstly failed to put Das Reich into perspective - what had it been involved with pre-June 1944 - and moreover why was it so important to delay its march to Normandy. It seems overall that theoretically the Das Reich could have been in Normandy in 4-5 days(ish) but it took so much longer but the book only covers what seem to be fairly short lived and minor engagements by the French Resistance and Allied agents, most of which seemed to last a few hours and can't explain the overall delay. The book does cover SS atrocities and Resistance politics and activities but overall I felt the narrative wasn't strong.
on 17 January 2006
A great account of a Chapter in WW2. Max has researched this period at the end of the war with his usual professionalism and has written a great account of the the history of the 2nd Panzer Division's last days and the Resistance's efforts to impede their advance.
A great read as usual from Mr Hastings.
Max Hastings writes history in a very readable way.
I must admit the title makes this sound a rather dry history of an SS Division, but in reality, it's much more about the French Resistance, OSS and SOE operations around D-Day than the Germans, although it doesn't pull punches on the atrocities that the SS inflicted on the French for the resistant activities (usually far out of proportion).
There's no attempt to justify the SS behaviour, but there is an attempt to explain them and he does this well without falling into the trap of being sympathetic towards the Nazis. Interesting, too, that so many of the terrible actions were carried out by 'conscripted' Alsace Frenchman upon other Frenchman.
A salutory tale to the dangers of following insane cults... Lots to learn for today here...
on 8 August 2015
An even handed review of a dark chapter of WW2
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. So said somebody in that great John Ford film - 'The man who shot Liberty Valence.'
Almost as soon as the last shot of WW2 had been fired, a mythology had sprung up about the French resistance. Given that their country was occupied for four years, it is understandable that the French would respond to tales of the underdog facing down the Nazi war machine.
Accounts vary widely, and Hasting's addition to the extensive canon of literature surrounding the resistance, is welcome.
Rather than focusing on the movement as a whole, Hastings details the account of the 2nd SS Panzer Division, Das Reich. The story of this juggernaut heading from the south of France to the Normandy beaches, is a story of great courage, infamy, and war crimes perpetrated against French civilians. Hastings never condones the actions of the SS, but nor is he fully supportive of Allied planning, and the naivety (brave, though misguided) of the various resistance groups that stood in the way of this armoured juggernaut.
Heroes, villains, and fools. This book has them all and is a welcome addition to the subject.
Das Reich is a look at wartime France, the SS, and the horror and cruelty of war. It is a consideration of the French resistance, supported by the British and Americans, and the role they played in disrupting and slowing the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich in its journey from Toulouse to the bocage of Normandy. A journey that should have taken only a few days instead took over 15, due to the efforts of the resistance and of Allied air cover.
That this journey was slowed is not vital to the outcome of WWII, but it did have a significant impact on the second battle of France.
One of the things that Das Reich makes clear is the fractured and fragmented nature of the French resistance - some little better than criminals, some communists seeking political power, and many simply young men who thought running off to the forests was a better option than being forcibly shipped to Germany to work in German factories. Most Frenchmen seemed not to mind working for the Germans, so long as it was in France, but being sent to Germany was a different matter altogether. It is also clear that being anti- a particular resistance group - especially the more political ones - was not the same as being pro-German. Basically, France was a horrible place to live in 1944, although probably better than being in Russia in 1941.
Of course, the Das Reich division was in Russia at that time, fighting a brutal war on the Eastern Front. In early 1944 it was moved to southern France to reform and rearm. Hastings points out why the SS were as fiercely loyal to Hitler as they were: generally, they were working class men who would not be fully accepted in the blue blooded Wehrmacht. They Nazi party gave them a chance, and they took it and gave unfailing loyalty in return.
The author seeks to be as evenhanded as it possible to be when discussing war crimes, and it is pretty clear that those occurred on both sides during the events covered Das Reich. It is spelled out repeatedly that simply shooting a maquis resistance member was not a war crime, as they were not in uniform and not covered by the Geneva convention. The problem was, in Tulle 99 men were hanged from lampposts on mere suspician, and that in Oradour-sur-Glane 642 men, women and children were brutally murdered, shot and burned to death. These acts were horrific and can never be excused or explained.
The role of the Allied forces in guiding the resistance is discussed - the liaison officers and spies, from Violette Szabo to radio operators in the UK.
Hastings finishes the book with a chilling quote from a former SS officer, to the effect of "compared to the Eastern Front, the massacres were nothing".
This book is an excellent companion to any WWII history of D-day and the liberation of France. It serves to bring out the true horror of war, which is that real evil lurks in the hearts of men.