It was 1944, the invasion of France by the Allied powers had taken place and the armies were driving across the continent toward Germany, pushing the German forces in front of them.
- Damien Lewis
A plan was concieved, a small force of Special Air Service troops would be parachuted into a lightly held and poorly garrisoned area close to the Franco-German border. These troops would raise up, train and equip the French resistance, the maquis, in the area and raise havoc amongst the remnants of the German army there, a force believed to be old men, some Hitler youth and second or third line troops. The area was ideal for the operation - Op Leyton - being mountains and deeply forested areas with small villages in the valleys.A small group of SAS would parachute in and prepare a headquarters, recce a series of drop zones and organise meetings with the maquisards prior to the main force arriving and the massive drops of equipment and arms. The only problem was; the intelligence was wrong. Instead of poorly trained and equipped troops the advance party arrived in the midst of several German army divisions, including armour and SS.
This operation has been described as the Arnhem of the S.A.s and so it seems it was. The troopers, led by fiercely brave ( and ever so slightly eccentric) commanders fought gallantly and brilliantly, raising havoc and forcing the enemy to commit more and more troops to counter the attacks and, inevitably to commit more and more atrocities toward the local population who supported them Inevitably the operation failed, but only to the degree that through starvation, fatigue and huge loss of life the S.A.S had to withdraw. The promised relief by Patton and his army failed to materialise because of many factors, and a number of troops were captured or went missing.
The second half of this book deals with the aftermath. It's fact that in 1945 the War Department decided that maverick units such as the S.A.S should be disbanded. The generals had little use for 'private armys' and with Churchill - the most ardent supporter of Special Forces - now out of office there was little appetite in the austere post-war years amongst the government who had other more urgent priorities. However, there were a very small but influential number who did support the Special Forces ethos, amongst them Randolph Churchill, who with his father managed to keep a small band afloat. This band became the Nazi Hunters, and working with S.O.E set out to determine what had happened to the troops who had been lost. The results were startling.
This is a book that tells a little known story, an episode that barely merits a mention in the official records, yet it is a hugely important story. One of dedication, determination and courage.
Of the many acts of bravery that are told in this book, the overwhelming sense that I felt was that of the tremendous courage shown by both the local maquis and more importantly, the local population. The villagers showed incredible bravery and kindness to the British troops, especially at enormous risk to themselves. Indeed one village,Moussey, had 731 people taken to the nearby concentration camp and only 53 returned, of which several died shortly afterward.The scale of torture and death is hard to comprehend and the sheer bravery of those who helped is impossible to understand.
Damien Lewis always tells a good story and this is one of his best. It reads like a thriller and captures the reader, always urging one to read on, to find out what happened. A cracking book and a superb read. But more importantly, a salutary lesson on loyalty and love.