Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Behind Hitler's Lines: The True Story of the Only Soldier to Fight for Both America and the Soviet Union in World War II

Behind Hitler's Lines: The True Story of the Only Soldier to Fight for Both America and the Soviet Union in World War II by Thomas H. Taylor (2002) is about the wartime experience of paratrooper Joseph Beyrle of the 101st. Beyrle parachuted into Normandy twice before the invasion, carrying gold for the French Resistance. He parachuted again on D-Day, but eventually was captured. He was reported killed in action since the Germans stole his dog tags and placed them on a dead soldier's body. He spent time in a POW camp, escaping twice only to be recaptured. The brutal treatment he received by the Germans was quite different than the Geneva Conventions specified. Eventually he escaped again and headed toward the advancing Russian troops. Upon reaching the Russians, he insisted on joining a Russian tank brigade. He was injured during a Luftwaffe attack during the advance toward Berlin and had to return to Russia to make his way to the US embassy in Moscow where he was suspected of being a Nazi assassin. Joe Beyrle was "the only vet on either side to have fought against the Germans on both the Western and Eastern Fronts" (p. 281).

Parallel to Beyrle's story, the author follows the action of the 101st throughout the war. This book is a good companion to Band of Brothers since both cover much of the same campaign. The author is a Viet Nam veteran and former member of the 101st. His father was General Maxwell Taylor, commanding officer of the 101st during World War II. Therefore, some of his report of the story may be biased from the perspective of hearing about the war from a general.

My Rating: Very Good (****). A fascinating story. The book was well-written and quite readable.

Some interesting items stated in the book include:
  • A member of the French resistance said to Joe: "We are called the resistance, but our countrymen's resistance is weakening. There has been too much time for them to adjust to life under the Germans. Too many of us are adjusting to it." (p. 51) And that "Churchill sacrificed the French-speaking Canadians in a cold-blooded experiment [at Dieppe]" (p. 52).
  • While getting ready for D-Day, "Unauthorized weapons proliferated because officers were taking along plenty of extra firepower themselves." (p. 66) These included everything from German burp guns, sawed-off shot guns, six-shooters, and .45's.
  • "The [air sickness] pills were so strong that a medical investigation revealed some troopers were half asleep when shot by the Germans." (p. 73)
  • "The Gestapo's extensive experience with torture as a means of extracting worthwhile information had proven that insufferable pain was most often counterproductive; that is, that the victim would say anything for relief, whether truth or lies, and the two were nearly impossible to distinguish even by subsequent interrogation." (p. 119)
  • The Germans paraded the POWs through the streets of Paris. "French collaborators took up a chorus of hisses and jeers, then began to throw garbage at POWs shuffling by, some of whom were so hungry they caught and ate it. ... He had crossed the ocean to rid France of [the Germans], but there were the French spitting on him." (p. 140-141)
  • During Operation Market-Garden, the Dutch impressed the 101st. As soon as they landed, "the Dutch underground surfaced like dragon's teeth." (p. 185) The Dutch steered the 101st around German strong points, and pointed out the number of Germans hidden at each of their positions. "Aided immeasurably by the Dutch, within fifteen minutes the Currahees destroyed both 88s, killed thirteen Germans, [and] captured forty-one" (p. 186). When mortars were falling near a squad, "Suddenly men with orange armbands tackled [them] and covered them with their bodies." Their explanation was that the 101st was fighting the Germans, and protecting them was the best way to help get rid of the Germans. (p. 187) "The Luftwaffe had slipped through, to kill thousands of civilians in a raid of terror and retaliation for Dutch joy." (p. 189)

    The cooperation of the Dutch underground and the 101st willingness to use them, was a stark difference than the British 1st Airborne that landed further inland to take Arnhem Bridge. They refused the Dutch help, and were severely beaten as a result. With incorrect radio frequencies, they could not communicate, however, the Dutch underground had no problem communicating through the civilian telephone system that was still working. That alone, besides the intelligence regarding German troops, would have made the First Airborne and the British tanks trying to reach them more successful.

  • After being released the former 101st POWs were being "served chow in April 1945 at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, by German POWs, some of whom had SS tattoos. The result was an international melee in which several Germans were killed with steak knives and cafeteria trays." Apparently, some soldiers went back for seconds and the Germans refused to serve them, starting the confrontation. (p. 190-13 and p. 340)
  • "If ten thousand Russians starved to death at Stalag III-C, it wasn't because there was nothing to eat but because the Krauts wouldn't feed them." (p. 202)
  • "I read that right after the war the U.S. government asked Hollywood to reconstruct the Germans. Please don't make any more movies about nasty Nazis; don't always make the Germans the villains. We need American public opinion to support the new Germany as an ally against the USSR." (p. 202)
  • "Colonel Harper of the 327th in his after-action report: 'All we commanders at Bastogne could do was put our men on what we considered the critical ground. When that was done the battle was delivered into their hands. Whether we were to win, even survive, was then up to the individual soldier. ... He stayed, and froze, where he was put and often died rather than give an inch." (p. 241)
  • After the breakthrough to Bastogne by Patton, "General Taylor received the situation report from McAuliffe. 'Sir, we're ready to attack' was the first sentence." Eisenhower ordered an attack and Patton was eager for it, but the only division near was the 101st which was at less that 50% strength and those soldiers were completely worn from the siege. They "needed relief and rest. What they got instead was fighting so vicious and unremitting that they would look back on the siege as their easier days in the Bulge." (p. 246).

    This was poor use of 101st. An immediate attack accomplished little since the snow was so deep and without proper winter equipment (such as snow shoes and winter clothing), their advance was limited. Also, the good weather now allowed resupply and the troops could have fully been reequipped. They even could have been replaced by fresh troops. Better air support could have been coordinated and a later attack would have been more successful. Yet, because McAuliffe and Taylor wanted to look good with Eisenhower (who was safe in the rear and didn't understand what troops went through in extended combat), they further pushed the 101st.

  • "As secrets of World War II have come out, one was that Stalin told the Allies that if they wanted their own POWs back, they'd have to turn over Vlasov's army (Russians who volunteered to fight on the Western front rather than starve in POW camps), which had surrendered in the west. Eisenhower acquiesced in what must have been his most terrible choice." (p. 302) Eisenhower showed a lack of courage to send these POWs to their death. Even if it took months, Eisenhower should not have relented although he did have good reason. "No more than one in ten POWs of the Russians ever got back to Germany, and that wasn't until the 1950s." (p. 327) However, it should be noted the Russian hatred of the Germans was much different than their relationship with their Allies. Possibly, the failure of the US to call Stalin's bluff on the return of the US POWs was ingrained in Stalin's head and became part of his bold strategy in Cold War when opposing the US by aiding Communists in Korea, Cuba, and Viet Nam.

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