INDIANAPOLIS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORST SEA DISASTER IN U.S. NAVAL HISTORY AND THE FIFTY-YEAR FIGHT TO EXONERATE AN INNOCENT MAN by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic

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(The USS Indianapolis)

In 1932 the USS Indianapolis was christened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the flagship of the US Pacific Fleet.  In the summer of 1945 it was chosen to complete the most highly classified naval mission of the war by delivering two large cannisters of material that was needed to assemble the Atomic bomb that was to be dropped in Hiroshima to the Tinian Islands.  Four days after completing its mission it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk resulting in over 1193 men either going down with the ship or being thrown overboard with only 316 surviving.  The result was a national scandal as the government pursued its investigation and reached a conclusion that was both unfair and completely wrong.

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(Captain William McVay III of the USS Indianapolis)

Vincent and Vladic’s incremental approach in developing the story is very important as it allows the reader to understand the scope of the tragedy, the individuals involved, and the conclusions reached.  The authors delve into the background history of the ship’s actions during the war, mini-biographies of the personnel aboard the ship, and the military bureaucracy that was responsible of the ship’s manifest and orders that consume the first third of the book.

After getting to know the important characters in the drama Vincent and Vladic transition to the actual delivery of the weapon components and follows the Indianapolis as she transverses through the Philippine Sea.  Capt. McVay asked for a destroyer escort which was standard for this type of operation but was denied, in part because of availability, and in part because he was informed by Admiral Nimitz’s assistant chief of staff and operations officer James Carter that “things were very quiet…. [and] the Japs are on their last legs and there’s nothing to worry about.”  What Carter did not mention was that ULTRA intelligence came across the deployment of four Japanese submarines on offensive missions to the Philippine Sea.”  Later, Acting Commander of the Philippine Sea Front, Commodore Norman Gillette would characterize the same intelligence as a “recognized threat.”  In addition to presenting the American side of events, the authors follow Japanese preparations for the defense of the home islands, and zeroes in on Mochitsura Hashimoto, the Commander of the Japanese submarine I-58 which would sink the Indianapolis.

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(Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto of the Japanese submarine I58 that sank the Indianapolis)

The authors follow the movements of the Indianapolis and Hashimoto’s submarine the days and hours leading up to the attack.  Five minutes before midnight on July 30, six torpedoes were fired at the Indianapolis and three hit the ship. Parts of the book read as an adventure story as the authors review calculations dealing with location and speed as the possible target begins to become clearer and clearer.  After taking the reader through the attack and resulting sinking of the ship, the reader is presented with at times a quite graphic description of the plight of the sailors who died during the attack, those who jumped off the ship, and the others who abandoned ship under Capt. McVay’s orders.  This section of the monograph can be heart wrenching as the men fight for their survival.  The carnage and psychological impact of the attack is very disconcerting.  After enduring shark attacks, living with no water and little food they resorted to cannibalism, theft, murder, and suicide.  The conditions were appalling but others formed groups employing whatever could be salvaged from the ship to create islands of men linked together by netting, rafts, life jackets, or anything else that would float.  Apart from men who became delirious and suffered from hallucinations, others found their main enemies to be hunger, dehydration, and sharks who seemed to circle everywhere, and sadly, when it seemed that an individual might be saved a shark attack would take another life.

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The most chilling part of the narrative is the description of rescue operations that began on August 2nd.  At 11:18 am Lt. Wilbur Gwinn flying a routine patrol in a PBM Mariner noticed a huge oil slick below, and after careful observation noticed a 25-mile oil slick.  The spotting of the men below sends chills down the spine of readers as the authors details of the rescue as word spread that there were hundreds of men over an 80-mile area.  Sadly, many men would die even as rescue operations commenced as they had little reserve after four days in the water.  The question must be asked, when the Indianapolis went missing from July 30 onward no one was tracking the ship carefully to report that she had not arrived at her destination?  The navy would investigate and reach a conclusion that the authors would totally discredit.

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The last third of the book is devoted to the legal battle that surrounded who was responsible for the sinking of the Indianapolis and once the decision was reached the authors spend their time describing how a wrongful conviction was finally overturned.  The authors follow the investigation and different hearings and the final court martial and analyze the testimony, conclusions, and final reports that were issued.  They point out the inconsistencies and outright lies offered by certain naval officers as they tried to rest all the blame on Capt. McVay to cover their own “asses.”  In describing the conclusions reached by the navy Vincent and Vladic point out “what was not discussed was the string of intelligence and communication failures that led to something being amiss in the first place—failures of Carter, Gillette, and Naquin, as well as Vice Admiral Murray, a member of the court, were well aware.” (317)

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The authors dissect the report that called for McVay to be court martialed, especially the information that was left out.  For the navy brass that had two ships sunk in the waning moments of the war resulting in over 1000 casualties, someone had to be found responsible.  The materials presented reflect where the real blame should have fallen.  At Guam, failure to provide an escort for the Indianapolis.  Further, Guam took no action when Fleet Radio Unit Pacific intelligence indicated a Japanese submarine had sunk a vessel in the area that the Indianapolis was known to be present.  At Leyte, the Philippine Sea Frontier Organization failed to keep track of the Indianapolis and take action when the vessel failed to appear at its scheduled time when a Japanese submarine was located near its line of course.

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(70th reunion of USS Indianapolis survivors)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the weak defense put up by Navy Captain John Parmelee Cady who by this time had little interest in being a lawyer and was given little time to prepare a defense.  Cady’s approach is highlighted by the testimony submarine combat expert Captain Glynn Robert Donaho whose statement should have helped exonerate McVay, but did not.  The entire transcript of witness testimony is interesting particularly that of the man whose ship sank the Indianapolis, Mochitsura Hashimoto.  Other fascinating components of the book are some of the heroes involved in publicizing and working behind the scenes to bring about justice for the McVay family and those of the survivors and men lost at sea.  Chief among them was Commander William Toti who stood at the helm of the namesake submarine the Indianapolis.  Another is Hunter Scott, an eleven year old boy who worked assiduously on the history of the disaster and in the end testified before a Senate Committee.  Without their efforts and numerous others, one wonders if the degree of closure that was finally achieved would have come about.

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(Captain William Toti)

As one reads the narrative, you grow angrier and angrier at the US Navy for its malfeasance and outright culpability in ruining a man’s life and providing false information for the families of the victims of the disaster.  As the authors press on with their account the redemption that is finally earned it does not reduce the uncalled for actions of so many in the Navy and the US government. The authors do a nice job ferreting out those responsible, but that does not detract from the fact that the lies were seen as truth for decades.

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(The USS Indianapolis)

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THE SABOTEUR: THE ARISTOCRAT WHO BECAME FRANCE’S MOST DARING ANTI-NAZI COMMANDO by Paul Kix

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It is very rare when a work of non-fiction approaches a work of fiction.  For a book to tell a story that is true, but keeps you riveted as if it were a spy novel, is special.  Such is the case with Paul Kix’s first book, THE SABOTEUR: THE ARISTOCRAT WHO BECAME FRANCE’S MOST DARING ANTI-NAZI COMMANDO which tells the story and exploits of Robert de Rochefoucauld, the scion of a rich French family who at the age of sixteen escaped to England, to be educated as a soldier, spy, and safe cracker in the service of British intelligence during World War II.  He would return to France to organize Resistance cells to harass, bomb, and kill Germans, and at the same time save as many of his countrymen that was possible.

Rochefoucauld, henceforth Robert’s life lends itself to an amazing biography of a man who joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) at the age of seventeen, underwent extensive training, and worked with the French Resistance from 1943 to the end of the war.  He was part of a group that parachuted behind German lines to assist the allied landing at Normandy by sabotaging German railroads, munitions dumps, and the harassment of German soldiers.  For those who question the role of the SOE and the Resistance, General Dwight D. Eisenhower summarized their effectiveness as he later estimated that “after D-Day it was the equivalent of fifteen extra divisions, or up to 375,000 soldiers.”

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The shame and humiliation felt by the La Rochefoucauld family after the French capitulation to the Germans in June, 1940 became a burden as the family had to escape south to their grandmother’s Maille estate, at the same time as their father, Olivier was taken to a German POW camp.  Kix provides the reader with just enough of the historical material to place Robert and his compatriot’s actions in their historical context, particularly stressing the motivations for their decision making.  Robert’s first major decision was to leave the family and try and make his way to London after listening for months to radio broadcasts by General Charles de Gaulle.  Robert felt that family honor rested upon his shoulders and grew angrier by the day when faced with the capitulation of his countrymen.  By the time he turned nineteen he was anonymously denounced as a supporter of de Gaulle and against collaboration.  He left his family immediately from their estate in Saissons taking with him a false identity to try and get to Paris and on to London to join the Free French.  Kix will describe in detail Robert’s harrowing journey across the Pyrenes assisted by the fact that he had a French-Canadian passport as he traveled through Vichy France.

If there is a theme to Kix’s biography apart from Robert’s bravery in the face of capture and torture, it would be how he led a charmed existence throughout the war.  Whether it was the assistance of British officials, French farmers, Resistance members, local merchants, and others or just plain luck, Robert was able to usually be successful in his operations.  Upon arriving in London and meeting with de Gaulle who suggested his decision was correct in joining the SOE, Robert’s career as a saboteur begins.  Kix takes the reader through the vigorous and often dangerous training that included how to deal with torture, safe cracking, parachuting, killing with one’s hands, explosives, as well as physical preparation.  Perhaps one of Kix’s best chapters is his description of how the British developed asymmetrical warfare, a strategy that was implemented by Neville Chamberlain right before he was replaced by Winston Churchill as Prime Minister.  Churchill’s own life story as a guerilla fighter and observer of asymmetrical strategy played into his increasing support and equipping the SOE with weapons, planes, and money despite opposition from the British air force.  This would be the first time the British engaged in subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas, and Winston “loved it.”

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(British SOE fighters)

Kix describes in detail many of Robert’s important missions.  During his first mission he parachuted into central France behind German lines as a nineteen year old and set up a training cell for the French Resistance who were surprised by his age and ability to equip them.  Soon his bravery and tenacity would gain their respect.  Kix details of these experiences are so exact, much of which is based on Robert’s memoirs and interviews with family members that the reader can feel as if they are alongside of him during his experiences. The success of the Resistance prods the Germans to bring in the SD/Gestapo and the Abwehr resulting in numerous arrests and executions in the winter of 1943 (over 500 by the war’s end).  Robert will be captured and sentenced to death on March 20, 1944 after months of torture by Dr. Karl Haas in the notorious Auxerre prison.  Robert’s application of his training as explained by Kix reflects his resolve and ability to escape.  Kix provides an effective approach in highlighting what it was like to be a Resistance fighter during the war, in fact over 75,000 were killed by 1945.

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(French Resistance fighters)

Kix describes the progression of Resistance successes through 1944 and another wonderful chapter narrating how Robert organized another SOE cell and with his men were dropped behind enemy lines on June 7, 1944.  The cell coordinated its rebellious acts with the Resistance and inflicted tremendous damage against the Nazis.  Unfortunately, Robert was captured again, but was rescued in a hail of bullets.  Perhaps Robert’s greatest escape took place when he was recaptured and sent to the notorious prison at Ft. Du Ha with its reputation for torture under the aegis of Frederick Dohse a member of SD-IV that cleared the Resistance from southwest France.  After contemplating suicide he devised a plan that resulted in walking right out of the prison’s front gate!

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(General Charles de Gaulle)

Robert’s last mission perhaps was his most dangerous.  After Paris was liberated the haughty de Gaulle refused to give the Resistance fighters credit for their effort.  He demanded they be dispersed, and if they wanted to continue to fight they had to join the Free French Army, which 200,000 did, including Robert.  His final operation was to blow up a German artillery casement on a beach in southern France.   His superiors reluctantly approved his plan which in the end was successful.  Robert’s war came to an end when he stepped on a mine and injured his knee which resulted in a slight limp for the remainder of his life.

Kix explores the contentiousness in French society in the decades that followed the war.  In fact, only 2% of Frenchmen actually fought, and about 20% were collaborationist.  These figures reflect the fissures in French society as postwar trials and some executions resulted.  Though Kix has not written a long narrative, it covers a great deal of material and presented with an eye for what is most historically important.  If you want to gain a sense of what it was like to resist the Germans during the war and its impact on family and the larger French society it is worth consulting.

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(de Rochefoucauld training French Resistance soldiers)

LAST HOPE ISLAND: BRITAIN, OCCUPIED EUROPE AND THE BROTHERHOOD THAT HELPED TURN THE TIDE OF WAR by Lynne Olson

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(Queen Wilhelmina of Holland broadcasting over the BBC from London to her country during WWII)

England has had a long and tortured history as she related to the European continent – always asking the question: should we become involved or not?  We can see it after World War II and the developing Common Market, and of course with the recent Brexit vote.  The dark days during the spring of 1940 when the Nazis rolled over France and the Low countries presented the problem anew, but this time after sitting back in the late 1930s allowing Hitler carte blanche it decided to support a “community of nations” as London was made available as a sanctuary for governments overrun by the Nazis.  London would become the home for the exiled governments of Poland, Norway, France, Belgium, Holland, and Czechoslovakia.  These governments would band together with England to defeat Nazism and lay the basis for European cooperation after the war.  One of Olson’s major themes rests with the exile communities.  She affirms without the exiles work as pilots, mathematicians, intelligence operators, scientists, physicists, and soldiers who knows how the war might have turned out.  Today, with the European Union under attack on the continent by certain right wing parties it is useful to explore Lynne Olson’s latest work dealing with World War II entitled, LAST HOPE ISLAND: BRITAIN, OCCUPIED EUROPE AND THE BROTHERHOOD THAT HELPED TURN THE TIDE OF WAR.

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(Charles de Gaulle, leader of Free French forces during WWII)

Olson covers a great deal of material in her book, much is new, but some of it has appeared in past books.  For example, the chapter dealing with the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz has a similar narrative that appears in  A QUESTION OF HONOR: THE KOSCIUSZKO SQUADRON: THE FORGOTTEN HEROES OF WORLD WAR II as she writes about Squadron 303 made up of Polish airmen who accomplished remarkable things at a time of England’s greatest need.  Other examples can be found in TROUBLESOME YOUNG MEN: THE REBELS WHO BROUGHT CHURCHILL TO POWER AND HELPED SAVE ENGLAND and CITIZENS OF LONDON: THE AMERICANS WHO STOOD WITH BRITAIN IN ITS DARKEST, FINEST HOUR. The integration of past research enhances her current effort particularly when she writes about the early part of the war.  To her credit she has an amazing knowledge of the leading secondary works and historians dealing with her topic which just enhances the narrative.

Olson employs a wonderful wit as part of her approach to writing.  For example she quotes the novelist and former MI6 member, John le Carre as he noted how devoted MI6 had been to “the conspiracies of self-protection, of using the skirts of official secrecy in order to protect incompetence, of gross class privilege, of amazing credulity,” then remarks that “the years immediately preceding the war MI6, as it happened, had a considerable amount of incompetence to protect.”

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(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill)

The author breaks the narrative into two separate parts. The first being the prewar period through the end of 1941 as the Germans rolled through France and the Low countries and we find a number of governments in exile stationed in London. In that section of the book Olson successfully narrates the relationship of these governments in exile first with the Chamberlain government, then that of Churchill.  She explores the important personalities that include King Haakon of Norway, Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, Charles de Gaulle of the Free French, and Edvard Benes of Czechoslovakia.  The problems of each are explained as well as how the British responded to their needs.  Olson accurately points out the humiliation and frustration experienced by Benes who was forced not to fight during the Munich conference, then was pilloried for not fighting when Hitler seized Czechoslovakia in March, 1939.  Further she explores the difficult relationship between the British and the French particularly during the evacuation from Dunkirk, as well as with de Gaulle once France fell.  For the British de Gaulle could be described as the self-appointed French leader who exhibited “extreme weakness that required extreme intransigence.”  King Haakon and Queen Wilhelmina got along much better with the British as each had merchant marine fleets that English needed, as well as natural resources.  Olson points out the complexity of the relationship with the Polish government in exile.  Of all these governments it was the Poles who fought, wanted to continue to fight, and developed the Home Army to do so.  They made tremendous contributions as pilots, intelligence sources, and creating a resistance against Nazi Germany.

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(Exiled Polish pilots from Squadron 303 who assisted England during the Battle of Britain)

Olson does a commendable job explaining the incompetence of the British and French military leadership who instead of accepting responsibility for events that led to Dunkirk used Belgium as their scapegoat for their own failures and defeat.  Showering King Leopold as a “Quisling” was blasphemy for the king whose army fought as well as possible based on the resources at his command, and further, refused to surrender to the Germans.  Olson also argues that the myth that the French just gave up was unfair based on the lack of support the British provided as the Germans goose-stepped into Paris.

The importance of the BBC is given its own chapter which is important because the radio broadcasts had an important role to play.  First, it allowed exiled leaders the opportunity to broadcast their own message to their people.  Second, it provided the various resistance movements accurate information as to the course of the war. Third, they broadcasted in over forty languages.   Lastly, it gave hope to demoralized population, particularly in France as they told the truth.

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(King Haakon VII of Norway)

By December 1941 the governments in exile came to the realization that with the entrance of the United States and the Soviet Union the entire diplomatic formula was dramatically altered.  With the Americans and Russians now in the war, their early closeness with Great Britain was about to give way to power politics, and perhaps a European Union might be in the offering.  From this point on Olson’s focus begins to change.

Olson spends a great deal of time taking apart the reputations of British MI6 and their Special Operations Executive.  She delves into the lack of competence exhibited by MI6 head Stewart Menzies and his battle with SOE leadership whose task was to foment sabotage, subversion and resistance in Europe.  In chapters dealing with Holland and France, Olson points out the errors that SOE leaders engaged in including a lack of security and simplistic coding, and foolish field decisions involving their agents.  London’s poor decision making would prove disastrous for Dutch agents who were easily rounded up by the Germans as they parachuted into Holland.  Olson is meticulous as she undermines the myth of the excellence of British secret services and the negative impact on events in Holland and France.  Two men stand out in her narrative, Leo Marks and Frances Cammaerts who were “passionate, skeptical, and [possessed] fiercely independent traits unappreciated by the SOE brass.”  The problem was this weak intelligence infrastructure created issues for the French resistance that was to play a major role in D Day planning and the early stages of the invasion as many suffered horrendous death at the hands of the SS.  Further complicating things was the split between the French resistance and de Gaulle, and the British and de Gaulle.  In both cases endangering the overall invasion.

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(Czechoslovakia’s leader Edvard Benes)

Olson is at her best when she integrates stories about certain figures who seem to be on the periphery of the main narrative, but are involved in important actions.  For example Andree de Vongh, an independent woman who decided to ignore SOE objections and developed the “Comet Line” an escape route for British airmen and paratroopers that began in Brussels, snaked its way through France, and crossed the Pyrenees into Spain.  She organized safe houses along the route and when MI9 refused to give her funds she raised them on her own.  She personally escorted 118 servicemen to freedom out of 7000 total for all networks during the war.  If reading about de Vongh is not interesting enough, Audrey Kathleen Ruston, a thirteen year old aspiring dancer and Dutch resistance member emerges, a.k.a Audrey Hepburn.

One of the major debates that historians seem to engage in is how valuable were resistance movements in winning the war.  Though some argue not as much as one might think, Olson makes the case throughout that they were very consequential.  The Poles in particular who contributed to breaking the Enigma code and intelligence collected by their spies throughout Europe were of great importance to the Allied victory.  The Poles who seemed to have given so much received very little as the war wound to a close, and in the postwar world.  It was unfortunate that they became pawns between Stalin’s strategic view of Soviet national security in Eastern Europe, and Roosevelt’s desire not to upset the Russian dictator whose army suffered an inordinate number of casualties compared to England and the United States.  When Polish exile leaders appealed to Churchill, no matter what the English Prime Minister believed, he could do little to convince his allies to assist the Poles as the Nazis were about to destroy what remained of Warsaw in May, 1944.  As far as the French are concerned General Eisenhower argues that the resistance was “of inestimable value…without their great assistance, the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves.”  Olson summarizes her view nicely as she quotes historian Julian Jackson, “there was indeed a Resistance myth which needed to be punctured, but that does not mean that the Resistance was a myth.”

(British General Bernard Montgomery, 1943)

When evaluating the Dutch contribution Olson correctly takes General Bernard Montgomery to task.   Montgomery had a large sense of self, arrogant and stubborn as he refused to take into account Dutch intelligence concerning the retaking of the port of Antwerp.  Rather than securing the Scheldt River estuary before moving on to Operation Market Basket, Montgomery had his eye on racing to Berlin before the Americans or Russians arrived.  As a result the Germans lay in wait, and Arnhem would become a trap leading to a fiasco which Montgomery’s over-sized ego caused..  “As a result, many more people would die, soldiers, and civilians alike.  For the Netherlands, the consequences would be dire” as the Allies controlled southern Holland, but the Nazis the northern cities and they took out their retribution on the populations of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, the Hague, Utrecht, and others.

The latter part of the book evolves into a narrative of the last year of the war.  Olson covers the salient facts and personalities as she tries to maintain to her “exile” theme.  If one were to pick which character she was most impressed with it would be Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch people.  Olson points out the errors that politicians made and how their decisions impacted the post war world particularly Czechoslovakia as Patton’s Third Army stood outside Prague and waited to allow the Soviet army march in.  This along with Poland plight reflects Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower’s desire not to allow political implications affect how they decided to deploy American soldiers.  Olson’s new book is an excellent read, a combination of straight narrative, interpretive, and empathetic history that all can enjoy.

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(Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina returning to her country after WWII)

THE MIRACLE OF DUNKIRK by Walter Lord

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(the evacuation from Dunkirk)

A few days ago I saw the film “Dunkirk” which attempted to convey the importance of the rescue of 338,000 men off the coast of France across the English Channel in late May and early June, 1940.  The film does an excellent job presenting the plight of British and French troops as they lined up on the beaches to be extracted from the threat of German tanks, artillery, soldiers and bombers.  What the historian, Walter Lord refers to in his classic study, THE MIRACLE OF DUNKIRK is a series of crises that allowed many components of British society to take part in the rescue of these men.  Though originally published in 1982, Lord’s book has lost none of its punch and command of events that led to the evacuation, the evacuation itself, and its implication for the overall war effort.  When reading Lord’s work today it still reflects a historian who had mastered the craft of narrative history and allowed the reader to take part in the action being described.

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The approach taken in the film is reflected in Lord’s work.  It presents three important elements of the rescue; the outnumbered  brave British pilots who met and tried to neutralize German Stukas, the employment of anything that would float represented by a family fishing boat, and the men stuck on the French beaches trying to survive German bombing.  All aspects help capture the bravery, spirit, audacity of the British people that allowed them to save their army – an achievement that would go a long way in finally defeating the Nazis five years later.

Having seen the film I decided to read Lord’s highly readable study of what occurred.  Events in France shocked many, particularly Prime Minister Winston Churchill who was informed early on the morning of May 15, 1940 by French Premier Paul Reynaud that the French had been defeated after the Germans surprised them by attacking through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest.  German Panzer Divisions poured through the French countryside trapping the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), two French armies, and all Belgium soldiers, nearly one million men pinned against the sea at Flanders.

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Lord does a superb job describing British resiliency as they tried to block the German advance at the same time they instituted a massive withdrawal to save the BEF.  Lord points out French arrogance in dealing with the British, how quickly their troops and leadership became demoralized, and how the British were confronted with French “invisibleness” as they tried to cope with the German advance.  British policy seemed to always have to take in to account the French state of mind.  Once the French had given up, the BEF command had to prod them to hold certain areas so an escape route could be protected.  Further, the French felt they were not being treated equally once the evacuation began to gather steam.  They wanted the use of British ships and equal extraction of soldiers.  Churchill was very cognizant of French sensitivities as he was afraid of losing an ally at a time when things were becoming desperate.

Once the Germans realized what was occurring as the BEF and its allies began retreating north they worked to close off any access to French ports, be it Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk.  The Germans were spreads very thin and were stunned the allies did not attack their flanks as they raced for the beaches.  Luftwaffe head, Herman Goring grew jealous of Heinz Guderian’s Panzer unit and pleaded with Hitler to halt the German advance and allow his air force to complete the job of wiping out the BEF.  Hitler was concerned about his armor and viewed Paris as his main target so he went along with Goring.  This decision was very telling as it gave the BEF three days to organize its retreat before Hitler changed his mind – probably creating the opportunity for the “miracle” at Dunkirk.

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Perhaps Lord’s best chapter, “Operation Dynamo” deals with how the Admiralty bureaucracy organized the diversified types of ships and crafts that would take part in the rescue of the BEF.  On May 14, 1940 the BBC called for “all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30 and 100 feet in length to send all their particulars to the Admiralty within fourteen days.”  Lord provides intricate details how this miracle at sea was organized under the leadership of Vice Admiral Betrum Ramsay who was located deep in the White Cliffs of Dover.  The result was a “strange fleet of ferries, hoppers, dredges, barges, coasters, and skoots.”  Once Boulogne and Calais fell, Dunkirk was the only option.

What sets Lord’s work a part from others is how he integrates the private stories and individual experiences of the soldiers and civilians who came to their rescue during the evacuation.  The harrowing trip across the channel and back avoiding German mines and bombers, placing the reader with the heroic individuals Lord describes.  Lord presents a number of important personages in his narrative that include King Leopold III of Belgium who quickly surrendered to the Germans, General Bernard Montgomery who organized his troops to fill the gap in the BEF escape route, and General Gort (Viscount Lord) who was in charge of BEF at Dunkirk, among others.  In addition, Lord has interviewed numerous survivors, civilians, and officers whose personal experiences helped create a fascinating narrative that began with a disorganized movement of troops onto the beaches, the need to create a pier to allow ships to pick the men up, and organizing the men into small units that would make for an efficient extraction.  What resulted at times was “bewildered waiting” and trying to avoid being hit by German bombers.

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The British command also had to make important choices as a number of destroyers dispatched to evacuate men began to be sunk.  Churchill and company were concerned that the losses were too much in light of what they thought would be a long war.  At one point a number of destroyers were withdrawn.  What facilitated the evacuation was low cloud cover and smoke for a good part of the end of May, 1940.  As the Admiralty withdrew the destroyers the void was filled by car ferry’s, fishing boats, open motor launches, barges, cabin cruisers, trawlers, and rusted scows – ships/boats of every conceivable type.  By the end of May, it became a deluge of “little ships.”  These craft were mostly unarmed and many were piloted by everyday civilians, a number of which were on their maiden voyage with little knowledge of nautical equipment.  The ingenuity of the British was seen as troops cannibalized materials from wherever they could, be it partially sunken destroyers, damaged buildings etc. all to create a temporary pier or mole so rescue boats could come astride and extract as many men as possible.

By the end of the evacuation 224,686 of the BEF and 123,095 French soldiers were evacuated.  This would be a problem for Churchill for the remainder of the war as the French believed that the British did not do their utmost to save French soldiers. Lord also does a marvelous job detailing the intricate and frosty relationship between England and France, especially as the Germans began to turn their attention away from Dunkirk and moved their panzer divisions to conquer Paris.

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The significance of the evacuation lay in the large number of British troops that were saved.  Guns and vehicles could be replaced, but not the only trained troops that Britain had left.  It would form a nucleus of the great allied army that would win back the continent.  Further, leaders such as Lt. General Alan Brook, Major-General Harold Alexander, and Major-General Bernard Montgomery “all cut their teeth at Dunkirk.”  In addition, the evacuation electrified the British people and gave them a sense of purpose that the war previously lacked.  It was an opportunity for ordinary citizens to feel they had made a direct contribution to the war effort.

Lord has written a highly readable account of the rescue of allied forces from Dunkirk.  An accomplishment many historians credit for saving Britain from being forced out of the war with Germany.  Though written and researched over thirty five years ago it still stands as the best narrative of the rescue and provides numerous insights into the mindset of the hundreds of thousands who survived the Nazi onslaught in the late spring of 1940.

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(the evacuation from Dunkirk)

SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER by Bruce Henderson.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

During World War II there was a little known group of men who were trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.  Their extensive classwork and field training was designed to prepare them to interrogate German prisoners of war and gather intelligence to be used against Nazi forces.  What became known as the “Ritchie Boys” was formed in mid-1942 and was made up of 1985 German born Jews who had immigrated to the United States in response to Nazi persecution particularly after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933,  Kristallnacht in November, 1938, and the events of 1941.  Most of these German-Jewish boys arrived without parents and siblings and had to adapt to their new homeland on their own.  Part of the reason was due to the racist/anti-sematic attitude on the part of a number of important State Department officials like Breckenridge Long who as Assistant Secretary of State helped set American immigration policy.  The journey of the Ritchie Boys and their impact on the Second World War is aptly told by Bruce Henderson with compassion and insight in his latest book, SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER.  The story of the Ritchie Boys takes them through their wartime experiences in gathering important intelligence from German POWs, their participation in a number of important battles, including the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Basket, the Battle of the Bulge, liberation of extermination camps, and their efforts after the war to locate family members.

In the first part of the book Henderson focuses on the early plight and immigration of a number of men who would become Ritchie Boys.  They include Martin Selling, who was rounded up after Kristallnacht, separated from his family, imprisoned in Dachau and after his release made it to the United Kingdom due to the work of a Jewish relief agency that eventually provided a visa to enter the United States.  Gunter Stern, who would change his name to Guy grew up in a middle class family in Northern Germany and as the situation for Jews deteriorated in 1937 he was sent by himself to the United States to live with an uncle in St. Louis because the State Department refused to allow the rest of his family to immigrate.  Stephan Lewy was placed in an orphanage after his mother died and the economic fortunes of his father collapsed.  After his father was released from a concentration camp and they experienced Kristallnacht he left Germany for Paris leaving his father and step mother behind.  Werner Angress was not a very good student and he was sent to an agricultural farm in Poland where he found success.  Once things deteriorated in Berlin his father developed a successful plan for the entire family to escape and go to Amsterdam.  In 1939 Angress escaped from Holland and left for America.  Lastly, Victor Brombert, another teenage boy was smuggled out of Germany in 1933 and moved to Paris, however, during the Vichy regime he left France to experience a harrowing voyage to New York and safety in 1941.

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(Guy Stern)

All of the boys experienced the emergence of Hitler, their removal from schools, harassment by Hitler Youth, and the collapse of their families as parents were arrested, businesses confiscated, and the eventual separation.  All witnessed and were affected by the 1935 Nuremberg “Blood” Laws, Kristallnacht, and the difficulty of emigrating in part because the Nazis seized their assets and only allowed them to take a pittance of their wealth out of the country.  Henderson further explores the difficulties as they had to navigate the exclusionary immigration laws of the United States and their enforcement by elements in the State Department.  Jews were required to provide affidavits from American citizens that they would take care of their relatives financially, along with other documentation that took a great deal of time to obtain.  The work of David Wyman provides an inside look into the “old boys club” of the State Department and their arcane views when it came to race and Jews.  Henderson describes the heroic efforts of the families as they realized that only one family member would be allowed to leave and in most cases it was the eldest son with the hope they could reunite later.

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(American soldier and survivors of the Wobbelin concentration camp)

The boys that are the center of the story would become naturalized American citizens before they were sent overseas to fight the Nazis.  Henderson describes their training and dispatch to England to participate in the Normandy landing.  Since native Germans would have knowledge of Nazi/German culture and colloquial language the Ritchie Boys were in high demand to interrogate POWs.  The individual stories Henderson presents reflects the importance of the Ritchie Boys to the allied war effort.  Particularly interesting is Werner Angress who was attached to the 82nd Airborne and with little training parachuted behind German lines.  His later intelligence gathering leading up to and during the Battle of the Bulge was very important.  Another insightful segment deals with Victor Brombert’s participation in the 28th Infantry Division as he experienced combat in Belgium and Northern France and predicted the Battle of the Bulge which was ignored by hire ups.  Perhaps one of the most ingenious of the Ritchie Boys was Guy Stern who after Normandy was made Head of Survey and his reports were distributed to all allied commanders including General Eisenhower.  Along with another Ritchie Boy named Manfred Ehrlich, who changed his name to Fred Howard, he developed a number of unusual schemes in order to extract information from POWs.

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(Werner Angress, his mother and two brothers after the war)

Henderson tells a number of wonderful stories including the visit of Marlene Dietrich as part of the USO, the capture of Hauptmann Kurt Bruns who ordered the death of two captured Ritchie Boys, how the Ritchie Boys had to overcome the skepticism of some officers who accused them of being German spies, and at times the guilt they felt when they had to use unorthodox methods to extract information from POWs.  Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is when the Ritchie Boys confronted the Holocaust when they witnessed the concentration camps.  Stephan Lewy arrived at Buchenwald with the Sixth Armored Division, Guy Stern arrived at Buchenwald three days after its liberation, Werner Angress witnessed the Wobbelin concentration camp, and when Manny Steinfeld arrived there he could not escape the possibility that his sister and mother were murdered there.

Overall, Henderson tells a remarkable story.  It is told clearly integrating numerous interviews with the Ritchie Boys and accompanying research.  My main criticism involves the method of sourcing which is very ineffective and difficult to attribute information.  As a historian I would love to have been able to match materials to citations so I might have pursued certain aspects of the book further.  However, the topic is fascinating and Henderson has done these men a great service by telling their story.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

BENEATH A SCARLET SKY by Mark Sullivan

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(Italian Resistance in Milan during WWII)

Northern Italy, Milan in particular is the setting for Mark Sullivan’s new novel, BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY.  Sullivan tells us that he has written a historical recreation as opposed to a history of the 1944-1945 period.  For the reader the book is considered a novel, but what makes it unique it is also a biography of Pino Lella, who at the age of seventeen, unbeknownst to him was about to become an Italian hero.  Since there is a paucity of primary materials Sullivan has created a work of fiction that reads like a historical monograph, as at times he is forced to employ his imagination to fill the void when the historical record does not exist.  Sullivan came across the story of Lella’s life quite by accident and once he learned of it he spent years conducting research, and was able to interview his subject and his relatives.  The author follows Lella’s life throughout the war, when it suddenly changes as the allies begin to bomb Milan and his family’s home is destroyed.  From that point on a young man growing up at seventeen, grows old by the age of eighteen.

Sullivan’s portrayal is detailed and describes an amazing life story.  Lella’s existence before the allied bombing in June, 1943 consisted of fantasies about girls, listening to jazz on the BBC, and wondering when the Americans would liberate Milan.  After the bombing began Lella is recruited by Cardinal Shuster and Father Re to help bring refugees to freedom across the Alps to Switzerland.  Despite his age, Lella was an experienced mountain climber and Father Re physically prepared him for the demanding task.  After explaining the plight of Jews in Italy Father Re convinced Lella of the importance of his mission.  Lella’s treks across the mountains coincided with allied advances up the Italian boot, as Sullivan does an excellent job transcribing military events in Italy throughout the novel.  The author effectively conveys the danger of Lella’s mountain crossings in a realistic manner describing the many obstacles he faced, i.e., snow, ice, avalanches, steep cliffs, a part from dodging the SS, Italian partisans and bandits.  These experiences help explain how he grew into manhood so quickly.

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(Mussolini’s Black Shirts marching through Milan)

Conveying hundreds of refugees across the mountain to safety would be enough to make Lella a hero.  But, after seven months his parents ordered him to join the German army as a way of avoiding being sent to the Russian front.  As luck would have it he is spotted by General Hans Leyers, the number two Nazi figure in Italy and is drafted to be his driver.  Lella is again recruited this time by the Italian resistance to become an allied spy because of his access to the most powerful man in Italy.  Lella was quite successful as a translator and driver for Leyers and was able to provide important information to the Italian resistance who forwarded that information to the Allied High Command.  Lella grew to hate Leyers as he witnessed the forced labor, more accurately use of slaves to assist the Wehrmacht.  Lella nicknames Leyers the “Pharaoh’s Slave Master.”  He also was exposed to numerous killings of innocent people, particularly Jews, with many women and children as victims.

Within this story of heroism Sullivan integrates the love story between Lella and a women named Anna.  Their relationship is comingled with Lella’s spy craft as she is the maid to Leyers’ mistress.  It is a wonderful time for Lella and Anna as their relationship blossoms in the midst of war.  Sullivan’s description reads like a fictional love story, but in reality it is an obsession by two people for each other as a fantasy and diversion from the war.  The reality of war is that Leyers, in addition to the murder of innocent people by the thousands, is stealing food and supplies from the Italian people for his troops and leaving Italy to starve.  Events in Italy grew worse as the Allied High Command kept withdrawing men and supplies and sending them to France in preparation for the Normandy invasion.

Lella’s difficulties with Leyers was important, but even more so that he was torn as Italian was set against Italian as Partisans and Fascists had their own civil war that grew more intense as the conflict began to come to a conclusion.  There are a number of poignant scenes as Lella’s own brother Mimo, a resistance fighter accuses him of being a Nazi.  As the war comes to an end Lella must defend himself as many thought he had cooperated with the Germans.  Few knew he was a spy.

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(The body of Benito Mussolini and his mistress hung by Partisans in April, 1945)

Sullivan uses the liberation of Auschwitz as affirmation for what Lella believes he has witnessed.  More and more he felt revulsion for working with Leyers even though his work was so important to the allies.  As the war comes to an end it becomes difficult to determine who was a partisan fighter and who was a traitor.  Sullivan vividly portrays the consequences of this difficulty which will have disastrous implications for Lella.

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Sullivan presents the entire Lella family and what they went through during the war.  Michele, Lella’s father, Aunt Greta, and Uncle Albert play important roles in the resistance and find their personal lives are impacted greatly by their work.  Let me reiterate the book is fiction, but not really.  It is written in a simple and conversational style but we get the full effect of Lella’s bravery and heroism.  He will pay an enormous price for his work and it will take him a number of years following the war to heal his emotional scars.

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(Liberation of Milan)

Sullivan offers a useful epilogue to his story that follows the main characters throughout the post war era.  What is most disturbing is how the United States will coopt Nazis like Leyers and use them during the Cold War allowing them to escape punishment for their deeds.  BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY is a well-conceived novel that has the ring of truth throughout, and an amazing story of heroism that had been buried for many years after the war.

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(The Italian Resistance in Milan during WWII)

 

 

THE JERSEY BROTHERS: A MISSING NAVAL OFFICER IN THE PACIFIC AND HIS FAMILY’S QUEST TO BRING HIM HOME by Sally Mott Freeman

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(US soldiers after liberation from Japanese POW camp outside Manila)

Sally Mott Freeman’s first book, THE JERSEY BROTHERS: A MISSING NAVAL OFFICER IN THE PACIFIC AND HIS FAMILY’S QUEST TO BRING HIM HOME is an interesting study in family dynamics and how military strategy and policy was implemented during World War II.  The somewhat dysfunctional family is made up of its matriarch Helen Cross, her second husband Arthur, and their three sons and one daughter.  The story revolves around the experiences of the sons, the first two of which are children of Helen and her first husband.  The sons are Benny Mott, an officer on the USS Enterprise, a graduate of Annapolis, who witnessed a great deal of action during four years of combat duty in the Pacific; William (Bill) Mott, also a graduate of Annapolis, plagued by weak eye sight who winds up as the head of the White House Map Room where he observes and distributes war information to the Franklin D. Roosevelt and military leaders; lastly, Barton Cross, the son of Helen and Arthur who does not measure up to the Annapolis type, enlists and becomes a prisoner of war taken by the Japanese in the Philippines.

By carefully examining the Mott/Cross family, Freeman is able to analyze its dynamic, in addition to the strategy pursued in the Pacific War.  Her approach is unique and provides an alternative means of studying the plight of American POWs in the Pacific, the politics in Washington and General Douglas MacArthur’s command, how military decisions were reached, and the Anglo-American relationship.  However important the war is, it is the family that dominates the story.  Helen is an overprotective mother who obsesses over her third son, Barton who she views as evidence of a strong marriage after her first was a failure.  Barton is the favorite, and the pressure from his mother at times is overbearing.  Her other sons seek her love and attention and make do with how she parses it out.  What is fascinating is that the two elder brothers do not seem to resent their younger brother and will do anything to support him. The key element in the narrative is how family members react to the seizure of Barton by the Japanese and how they go about coping with wartime information that is directly related to his situation.  The entire family is concerned with what Barton is going through and how they can assist him, and perhaps facilitate his quest for freedom.

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Helen’s psyche is on everyone’s mind throughout the book.  Helen is the type of “helicopter” parent who will write the commandant of Annapolis as Barton withdraws from that institution, she will also write President Roosevelt, and military commanders.  Further, when Bill learns of the treatment of the POWs from a number of escapees, he withholds the information from his mother as long as he can, not to upset her.

The strength of the book is how Freeman alternates chapters taking the reader back and forth from the USS Enterprise through the experiences of Benny as it leaves Pearl Harbor, participates on the “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo, finds itself in the midst of the Battle of Midway,  the Battle of Guadalcanal, and the taking of Saipan.  Next, we are taken inside the White House as Bill witnesses the decisions being made that effect the conduct of the war, or later when he becomes the Flag Officer aboard the USS Rocky Mount.  The plight of American POWs is described in detail including the Bataan Death March, and a number of other forced marches as American soldiers are moved from one prison cite to the next.   What is particularly disturbing is how unmarked Japanese ships transporting US POWs were sunk by American planes during the last year of the war.  In addition, Freeman focuses on the inhuman treatment of the POWs and how they reacted, and why some survived.  Another strength is her discussion of the planning and actual invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two battles that did not go the way military authorities had hoped.  Heavy casualties were predicted, but not to the level that eventually resulted.  In part the problem was the Japanese use of Kamikaze pilots that invasion planners could find no solution to counteract.

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(The Jersey Brothers left to right; Barton Cross, Benny Mott, Bill Mott)

The major wartime personalities are integrated throughout.  MacArthur is dealt with in detail. Admiral “Bull” Halsey, a man who was beloved by his men and was a strategic genius.  President Roosevelt is presented as at times a warm and sympathetic leader, but also a harsh decision maker dealing with the realities of war.  Other important characters include Admiral Richmond Kelley Turner who commanded the Joint Expeditionary Task Force, known as Operation Forager designed to defeat Japan in 1944, a command and strategy larger than and as complex as the Normandy invasion; Steve Mellnick and William Dyees who escaped the Davao Penal Colony and along with Filipino guerillas sought to launch a rescue mission of the 2000 POWs left behind, as well as a host of other major historical figures.

Importantly, Freeman goes into depth in presenting the jurisdictional battles between the army and navy for control of the Pacific Theater which was rooted in the struggle between Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur.  MacArthur does not fare well in the narrative as Freeman portrays the Pacific Army Commander as a self-serving egoist who only cared about his own place in history.  This characterization is quite accurate especially when discussing the strategy to invade the Japanese home islands, which MacArthur favored, or employ a blockade and massive bombing to save the lives of American GIs.  It seemed whenever anything did not go as planned, instead of accepting any responsibility, MacArthur blamed the Navy.

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(Later in his career William Mott’s promotion!)

What is clear throughout the book is that Bill did his utmost to try and learn the plight of his brother.  He traveled, wrote letters, and pressed friends, all in an attempt to learn the truth.  The author, Bill’s daughter makes excellent use of the memories of family members, in addition to diaries and other documents.  She has mined a tremendous amount of material and it is reflected in her strong narrative.  Her investigation into what happened to her uncle provides insights into how families were forced to deal with their missing sons, and for far too many the grief that followed.  Overall the book paints a fascinating portrait of a family’s plight during World War II.  It may get bogged down in family details at the outset, but once Freeman takes up the wartime experiences of Helen’s three sons the reader will become immersed in the detail and the heroic nature of what they experience and the actions they take.  The Cross/Mott brothers, were truly “a band of brothers,” and Freeman’s efforts reflect a strong effort for a first book!

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(American GIs after liberation from a Japanese POW camp near Manila)

THE ZOOKEEPERS WIFE: A WAR STORY by Diane Ackerman

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(The Warsaw Zoo used in WWII to hide Jews, Polish resistance fighters, and others)

Recently I went see the film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” and I was taken by the story and the quality of the production.  The film was based on a book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, which was published in 2007.  Ackerman’s narrative history tells the story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski, who married in 1931, and shortly thereafter became the heads of the Warsaw Zoo located in the Praga district of the city.  The Zabinski’s were Christians who were horrified by the rise of Nazism in Germany, particularly the racial theories they expounded as they related to animals and humans.  The book replicated by the film tells the story of how the Zabinskis responded to the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and their final seizure of the entire country when they invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941.  What makes the book somewhat different from the standard historical narrative is that Ackerman, a prolific nature writer by trade is able to apply her expertise in her field to a story that is horrific as well as heroic.

Jan Zabinski was a member of the Polish Underground (Home Army) and throughout the book he tries to maintain the remnants of the zoo, while Antonia sought to help her animals as best she could, while shielding their son Rys from the carnage that surrounded them.  The Zabinski’s role in rescuing over 300 individuals, Polish resistance activists and Jews during the course of the Nazi occupation is the core of the book as Ackerman explores how this was accomplished and their commitment to saving “humans” as well as animals.  The author’s narrative describes how the couple lived before the war in a world where their lives revolved around the internal clocks of their animals as well as humans.  Their daily routines were never quite the same because of the needs of the animals which made each day a novelty with welcome moments especially when the animals seemed to visit and live inside their dacha.  It appears that Jan and Antonia lived in synchrony with the animals and did their best to view the world and align their senses with how their “animal guests” as they were called, might view and experience their world.  As Jan points out, “its’ by living beside animals that you learn their behavior and psychology.”

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(Antonia and Jan Zabinski)

The story is described through the daily rhythms and scents of the zoo’s resident animals.  The cacophony of sounds reflected animal life and the environment and care they were afforded by Jan and Antonia.  As war approached the matriarchal Antonia worried what would be the fate of her “animal republic,” since the zoo was located in Poland’s most populous city.  Her fears were justified as once the war began the German military slowly pinched off Warsaw from the rest of Poland, and the Nazis indiscriminately, whether through sport or just vengefulness, killed the animals.  Another character that looms large in the narrative is Lutz Heck, Director of the Berlin Zoo and a man obsessed with animal bloodlines whose research was designed to restore certain “pure blooded and extinct species.”  He was a powerful and ardent Nazi who supposedly arrived to borrow some of Jan and Antonia’s best animals and send them to Berlin, to be returned to them after the war.  Hermann Goring was Heck’s patron who also aspired to recasting Germany’s natural world, “cleansing it, polishing it, perfecting it.”

In order to try and save as many animals and people as possible Jan and Antonia came up with a proposal to feed Nazi troops by creating a “pig farm” at the zoo.  Heck approved and this provided Jan access to the Warsaw ghetto to obtain scraps to feed the pigs and fatten them up for slaughter. According to the Jewish Institute in Warsaw, Jan’s access to the ghetto allowed him to “bring out notes, bacon, and butter, and carry messages to friends.” It was an ingenious and dangerous plan, but it allowed Jan to use the zoo as a vehicle for the Polish Underground whose foothold in the Praga District helped protect 6,000 soldiers, the largest pool of saboteurs in the city.  Antonia was in a difficult position because Heck had designs on her apart from animals and she tried her best to play him to her advantage in order to protect her animals and her “human guests.”

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Ackerman’s narrative is historically accurate and insightful.  Her discussion of natural history is enlightening, particularly as she describes the Zabinski’s zoo management as animals were not just housed in cages, but in “habitats meant to recreate their native wetlands, deserts, and woods.”  Once the zoo is destroyed by German bombing Ackerman examines Jan and Antonia’s survival strategies, in addition to saving the lives of as many people as possible.  Her story reflects the empathy and care the Zabinski’s had for their animals and the people that were hidden in closets, rooms, and even animal cages during the Nazi occupation.  Throughout this process, Antonia tried her best to maintain a “normal festive” atmosphere so her “guests” could feel at home despite the ever present threat that at any time the Nazis would bang on their door.  Signals and other strategies were implemented to make people as safe as possible.

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(Cecylia Teodorowicz, the Zabinski housekeeper in the kitchen with an otter)

Jan’s plan was a simple one, hide Jews and ammunition in plain sight in the middle of the zoo.  He created a halfway house for Jews in hiding and in transit, “nomads, not settlers, they stopped briefly to rest and refuel in route to unnamed destinations.”  Like animals, these guests would blend into their surroundings.  Antonia was unaware of some of Jan’s Underground activities until after the war.  She did not know that he hid C13F, a water soluble explosive in a barrel, she was in the dark when it came to Jan as a leader of an Underground cell that specialized in sabotaging German trains by jamming explosives into wheel bearings, she did not know that he infected some pigs with worms, butchered them and slipped them into German soldier’s sandwiches.  These are the types of things along with details of how Jan smuggled people out of the ghetto to safety, and the overall danger he faced that Ackerman brings out in her narrative that is of the utmost importance.

Ackerman has the ability to blend her knowledge of the natural world with the historical tide.  Daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Himmler’s determination to destroy the ghetto to provide a birthday present for Hitler, the Polish Army’s rebellion against the Nazis as Stalin waited in the wings for its destruction, and numerous other events receive full consideration.  Integrating her “guests” into these events provides an even greater meaning to their intensity and importance.

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(The Warsaw Ghetto)

Antonia maintained a diary throughout the war that Ackerman heavily relies upon and integrates into her narrative.  It is an excellent source as Antonia did her best to prevent more Holocaust victims, but also shows that the animal world was not to be romanticized as she felt it was very violent, and that one had to tread carefully when caring for animals.  As far as citations are concerned it appears much of the book is based on a few sources and it would have assisted the reader if detailed footnotes could have been provided, not just a sentence or two.  In addition, I would have liked further information about the postwar experience of the Zabinskis both of whom did extraordinary work during World War II.

As far as a comparison to the film is concerned, the story is segmented and the parts that are produced seem fairly accurate.  In the movie Jan comes across as a softer figure, in the book he has an extreme edge at times in dealing with Antonia.  Lutz Heck’s role in the film is somewhat crucial to the story, but less so in the book.  Events are accurate, but the book relies more on Antonia’s natural world of animals than is presented in the film.  Overall, the book is worth the read, and the film should be viewed.

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(The Warsaw Zoo used in WWII to hide Jews, Polish resistance fighters, and others)

WRITER, SAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY: ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S SECRET ADVENTURES, 1936-1961 by Nicholas Reynolds

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(Ernest Hemingway in Spain during the Civil War)

In Nicholas Reynolds new book, WRITER, SAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY: ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S SECRET ADVENTURES, 1935-1961, the author, the CIA Museum’s historian poses the question as to why Hemingway, who tried all forms of spying, before and during World War II would sign on with Stalin’s henchmen at the NKVD.  Reynolds relates that he had been working on an OSS (Office of Strategic Services) exhibit at the museum when he came across the links between Soviet intelligence and Hemingway and wondered how this could have happened, and what it means for Hemingway’s legacy.  Reynolds thesis is clear; Hemingway’s relationship with the NKVD was impactful, and this chapter in his life has often been overlooked.  According to the author it influenced Hemingway’s decision making the last fifteen years of his life and played a role in his eventual suicide in 1961.  With the Cold War/Red Scare all around him, it is Reynolds contention that Hemingway felt he was losing control of his life, something that he could not tolerate, so he ended it as a means of self-control.

The thesis that Reynolds lays out is not really dealt with in a substantive manner until the latter stages of the narrative.  Before the onset of the Cold War we are exposed to Hemingway’s contacts with various Soviet operatives in Washington, Spain, Cuba and Europe which did not seem to amount to a great deal except it put the author on the NKVD’s radar for the future.  Soviet spymasters liked Hemingway’s public condemnations of the New Deal, England and France before World War II, particularly in relationship to allied neutrality during the Spanish Civil War.  Hemingway was a firm believer in small government and resented Roosevelt’s domestic policy, especially when he sent so many “poor bonus marchers” (American veterans of World War I) to work in the Florida Keys during the 1935 hurricane season, resulting in many of their deaths.  Hemingway’s life is a testament to controlling his environment to do the things he wanted to do whether it was in the Keys, Cuba, Spain, or the battlefields of Europe.  This theme is dominant as Hemingway needed the stimulus of adventure and danger to get the most out of his life.

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(Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, his mistress then his second wife)

The first few chapters concentrate on Hemingway’s experiences in Spain between 1937 and 1939, the heart of the civil war.  Reynolds describes Hemingway’s transformation to support the Republican cause with almost a religious enthusiasm.  The author makes a number of interesting observations as to why Hemingway became so obsessed with Spain. Hemingway wanted to be the dominant “war writer” of his generation, and viewed the civil war as a dress rehearsal for the coming European conflict, therefore his participation was an imperative.  At this point Hemingway had a low opinion of the Soviet Union and felt that Joseph Stalin with his “show trials” (particularly the trial and execution of his friend Lev Kamenev) and collectivization policies was no better that Nazi Germany.  Hemingway’s experience in Spain was impactful as he was his own “commissar,” as he ignored Comintern attempts to recruit him and saw himself as a humanitarian, military advisor, and most of all a writer in support of the Republican cause.  If he had any affinity for the Soviet Union it was because they were the only ones who provided weapons and financial support for Republican forces against Franco.  Even though he respected what Moscow was doing he realized the split in “communist” forces and the bloody purges and executions they carried out under orders from Stalin.  Hemingway would come into contact with a number of important links to the NKVD in Spain including German Communist Gustav Regler, who would turn against “the stink of Moscow,” Jacob Golos, an NKVD operative in New York who recruited Hemingway in late 1940, and Alexander Orlov, the NKVD Station Chief in Spain (who is the subject of a new biography that just was published, STALIN’S AGENT: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ALEXANDER ORLOV) who would give Hemingway carte blanche to carry out operations against Franco’s forces as he viewed Hemingway as a true believer in the Republican cause, not a man under Soviet control.  Hemingway’s experiences in Spain would form the basis of his classic novel, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS.

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(Ernest Hemingway and his army driver outside Paris in 1944)

After Franco’s victory and the outbreak of World War II Hemingway was given the NKVD codename of “Argo.”  For Hemingway, any cooperation with Soviet intelligence would be based on his abhorrence of fascism, and by the summer of 1941 he believed that Russia was the bulwark against Nazi Germany as France surrendered and the British were rescued at Dunkirk.  Hemingway viewed Russia through that lens, and since his own country had ignored his warnings about what was about to take place, he would act in secret.  “Hemingway was looking for that leeway in politics and war.  He loved things military and being around soldiers, but did not want to join any man’s army.  His preference was a lose affiliation with other irregulars, especially guerillas, which made him feel like he was part of the action but left him free to come and go as he pleased.  He was not a communist, or even a fellow traveler.” There is no evidence that he was a Russian spy during the war, just a general commitment to fight fascism. (88-89)

Reynolds does a workman like job following Hemingway’s journey throughout World War II.  From his August, 1942 offer to spy for the United States in Havana and employ his boat, the Pilar to search for German U-Boats; his witnessing of the D-Day landing; gathering intelligence for the safest route to liberate Paris; almost being court martialed for exercising command, stockpiling weapons, and fighting to liberate the French capital; to his attachment to the US Army 22nd Infantry Regiment as it slogged through Belgium into Germany. Throughout the war Hemingway did prove to be an American asset, despite a number of controversies.   Hemingway’s last hurrah was during the Battle of the Bulge, but by March, 1945 he was spent and returned to Havana to write down his wartime experiences in a new novel.

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(Ernest Hemingway’s visa as a journalist to cover World War II)

Hemingway formed many important relationships in Spain and Europe, but none are more important than his friendship with Colonel Charles T. “Buck” Lanham who he fought with in France and Belgium, a relationship that would last a lifetime.  Reynolds zeroes in on Hemingway’s persona in explaining that the thing Hemingway loved the best was “when he was risking his life, all of his senses fulling engaged, putting his well-developed field and military experiences to good use…..he also relished the comradeship that jelled in combat.” (183)  The friendships he formed on the battlefield be it the patrician spy David Bruce, or Lanham, the thoughtful soldier were more important to him than anything.  No one in the NKVD ever connected with Hemingway in this manner, and to this point Reynolds has not really laid the basis for his thesis which he finally delves into as the Cold War evolves after World War II.

Finally, in the last fifty pages of the book the author returns to his thesis and reargues that Hemingway’s experiences in Spain and Havana would greatly affect his behavior for the last fifteen years of his life.  Hemingway grew very concerned with the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations, McCarthy hearings, Rosenberg Trials and the entire domestic paranoid atmosphere in American politics after the Second World War.  He grew increasingly anxious that his contacts with the NKVD in the 1930s and during the war might one day place him in front of a congressional committee.  Hemingway swore off “causes” of any kind, including helping with an International Brigade Parade in New York City.  Hemingway kept his distance from anything that could create difficulties for him.  He reached the conclusion that it was more important to write books than be an activist, that could result in being blacklisted from publishing his works.  As far as any contact with the NKVD after the war, Reynolds examines internal NKVD documents about re-contacting with Hemingway, but by 1950 this was never done, and for the remainder of his life he had no contact with Soviet intelligence.  No matter what the reality was after the war, Hemingway realized that he had agreed to work with the NKVD in its war against fascism in Spain in the 1930s, and after the winter of 1940-41, even though he was clear he would not betray his country and only cared about defeating the Nazis.

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(Ernest Hemingway at his home outside Havana during the unrest that brought Castro to power)

Reynolds brings his narrative to a close as he explores Hemingway’s relationship to the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s until his death.  For Hemingway the Cuban Revolution could be the unrealized hope of the 1930s Spanish Republic.  For him “supporting Castro was the equivalent to fighting Franco and Hitler in Spain.” (250)  However, the United States was pressuring him to make a choice, his country or his home, particularly when Castro ramped up his invective against Washington, and singled out Hemingway for praise.  By this time Hemingway was a man in decline, with depression and paranoia resulting in “shock treatments” at the Mayo Clinic.  With the failure of the Bay of Pigs, increasing fear of FBI surveillance and the loss of his home outside Havana, Hemingway would take his own life.  Reynolds theory pertaining to Hemingway is well argued and researched, but I believe that Paul Hendrickson’s HEMINGWAY’S BOAT: EVERYTHING HE LOVED IN LIFE, AND LOST, 1934-1961 is a better study of the same period and is a bit more nuanced with a smoother narrative flow than Reynolds’ effort.

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(Ernest Hemingway in Spain during the Civil War)

BLITZED: DRUGS IN THE THIRD REICH by Norman Ohler translated by Shaun Whiteside

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(Adolf Hitler in March, 1945)

With thousands upon thousands of books written about Nazi Germany and its “Fuhrer,” Adolf Hitler, one wonders if there is a relevant area of research that has not been mined thoroughly.  The appearance of Norman Ohler’s BLITZED: DRUGS IN THE THIRD REICH provides an affirmative answer.  A regime that prided itself on its anti-drug mantra was led by a man usually pumped full of drugs by his personal physician Dr. Theodor Morell.  The premise of Ohler’s work, first published in Germany in 2015, is that the Nazis provided the world with a chemical legacy that remains a major problem today – opioid – methamphetamine addiction.  The Nazis allowed the use of Volksdroge, “the people’s drug” unencumbered until the passage of the Reich Opium Law in 1941.  Today, the substance is known as “crystal meth,” and is consumed by over 100 million people worldwide, though in most places it is illegal or strictly regulated.

Ohler’s thesis presents the Nazi dichotomy.  It publicized and demanded that all should possess a constitution pure of drugs that could affect the mind and body.  Hitler, was portrayed as a vegetarian teetotaler who would not allow any foreign bodies to enter his system.  On the other hand, the Furhrer would become dependent on a series of short-term stimulants from 1936 on that would progress to an intravenous diet of animal extracts, and after 1943 hard drugs like Eukodal, whose active ingredient is oxycodone.  These pseudo medications were administered by Dr. Theodor Morell, a specialist in skin conditions and sexually transmitted diseases who would pollute the Nazi leadership with his concoctions and use Hitler’s dependency on his treatment to try and construct a “hormonal” industry called the Ukrainian Pharma-Works” in areas seized by the Wehrmacht.

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(Dr. Theodor Morell, Hitler’s private physician)

According to Ohler, the original rise of crystal meth took place in Nazi Germany.  The German chemical industry received a major boost in the 1930s under the direction of Dr. Fritz Hauscheld, the head of pharmacology at the Temmler Chemical Works who job was to discover a “performance enhancing drug” for the Third Reich.  The discovery of morphine made a different scale of war possible as men too injured to fight could now return to the battlefield. Temmler’s research would patent the drug Pervitin (“speed”), Germany’s first methamphetamine that produced feelings of euphoria, energy, self-confidence, and strength.  Temmler’s successful marketing campaign would result in the drug as a panacea for a number of issues from fatigue to a low sex drive.  The drug became a fixture in German society in the late 1930s.

The drug was a perfect match for the spirit of the age.  By 1936 Hitler had successfully overcome many of the limitations placed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty.  Unemployment was a thing of the past and by 1938 Germany had seized the Rhineland, achieved Anschluss with Austria, and stolen the Sudetenland from the Czechs at Munich.  For Hitler his burgeoning popularity was like a drug addict who could not give up his expansionist drug and by mid-1939 had moved on to Danzig.  The German people had to maintain this pace of change.  Fresh demands were made on the labor force and the military – the slogan “Germany Awake” needed methamphetamines for the country to “stay awake.”  According to Ohler, “spurred on by a disastrous cocktail of propaganda and pharmaceutical substances people became more and more dependent….Pervitin allowed the individual to function in the dictatorship.  National Socialism in pill form.” (39)

Ohler raises a number of questions; did civilian use of Pervitin carry over to the military?  Did German soldiers need the drug to fight effectively?  Did the addictive drug influence the course of World War II?  The answer in all cases seems to be yes.  Relying on a significant amount of research, particularly Dr. Morell’s patient notes Ohler traces the development, production, and dissemination of Pervitin as World War II approached.  He describes how it was employed in achieving the Blitzkrieg against France and the Low Countries in April and May, 1940.  The speed of the German military was key, and commanders would not tolerate rest or fatigue. Pervitin, is at a minimum partly responsible for the German success.  Dr. Otto F. Ranke, the Director of the Research Institute of Defense Physiology was completely on board with making these pills available to commanders and their soldiers.  With no real guidelines as to how Pervitin was to be used they were distributed in the millions to German soldiers.

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(Hitler with Dr. and Mrs. Theodor Morell)

Ohler weaves the course of the war effectively as he traces drug use as it related to Germany’s progress on the battlefield, and how, after 1942, mounting German problems affected Hitler.  Ohler weaves the Holocaust and the Nazi ideology of blaming Jews for the lack of purity of the German population that he had described in Mein Kampf, major battles and military decisions, and Hitler’s interaction with people throughout the narrative.  Further he describes the chemical changes in the nervous system of German soldiers through the ingestion of the drug as they went into battle.  What was clear is that the energy and euphoria could last only so long before fatigue set in and German advances were hindered by the need to rest their soldiers.  The same can be said of Hitler, as Morell developed a vitamin concoction called Vitamultin which he injected the Fuhrer with daily, resulting in similar after effects that German soldiers suffered from.  Morell was able to convince the General Staff of its benefits and a number of them would soon become his patients, as did many other Nazi officials.

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Hitler’s medical decline began in the autumn of 1941 as the war began to turn against the Reich.  Germany had invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 and it was supposed to take three months to complete the action.  “As soon as he encountered genuine Russian resistance that couldn’t be removed with a sweep of the hand, ‘the greatest commander of all time’ retreated further and further into his world of make believe.  The microcosm of the Wolf’s Lair (Hitler’s eastern command center) was nothing more than a hubble made of concrete and steel.” (111)  For the first time in the war Germans suffered great losses in a very short period of time – even the doping that had been deployed for Operation Barbarossa was ineffective as once the Pervitin wore off, troops had to rest.  Hitler fell ill for the first time in years in August, 1941 and when Morell’s concoctions of vitamins and glucose failed to work he raised the ante by injecting steroids and other opiates.  He did prevent another illness, but in the future Morell resorted to prophylactic injections of new hormonal substances.  “From autumn 1941 onward, more and more concentrated animal substances began to circulate in his bloodstream” in order to reinforce his body’s defenses.  The result was that “Hitler’s natural immune system was soon replaced by an artificial protective shield.” (114)  From then on Hitler’s military directives parted company from reality as he would not accept rational arguments from his generals.

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As the war continued to go against Hitler’s “alternative reality” he became more and more dependent on opioid drugs.  Hitler was dependent on Dr. Morell, who was dubbed the “Reich Injection Minister” by Hermann Goring.  “The medication kept the supreme commander stable in his delusion….Any doubts were swept away by his chemically induced confidence.  The world could sink into rubble and ashes around him, and his actions cost millions of people their lives – but the Fuhrer felt more than justified when his artificial euphoria set in.” (163)

Ohler describes the period after 1943, as Hitler’s heavy opiate phase.   As the war turned increasingly bad for Germany, the Merck and Company facility in Darmstadt was destroyed in December, 1944, so Merck could no longer produce Eukodal.  Hitler’s health would deteriorate and to survive he took strong narcotics which erected a pharmacological barricade around himself.  The delusional system that Hitler created for himself, would not allow him to remain clear of drugs.  “Under no circumstance did Hitler want to come down from his megalomaniac Fuhrer trip, in spite of the disastrous military situation.” (174)  By the spring of 1945, Morell no longer had any potent substances to administer as he had done in the past.  As time evolved the Fuhrer most certainly went through a period of withdrawal.  Some historians believe he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but in retrospect it is hard to determine a definitive diagnosis.

A part from Hitler the drug crutch influenced German naval policy.  Admiral Hellmuth Heye argued for one man torpedoes and two man submarines to inflict damage on allied shipping.  To accomplish this task drugged men were required as these were kamikaze missions.  Ohler describes the drug mixtures created that would have been fine for an addict like Hitler, but could not be tolerated by the average soldier.  Medical experiments to prepare Germans to carry out their weapons pipe dreams were carried out in Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz concentrations camps resulting in the death of numerous victims.  Ohler describes in detail Hitler’s deterioration once drugs were not available and he would succumb to a nasty withdrawal like most drug addicts.

A number of important historians support what Ohler’s research has unveiled.  The late Hans Mommsen, one of the leading German historians of the Nazi era, Ian Kershaw, the foremost Hitler biographer, and Anthony Beevor, the well-known military historian all recognize that Ohler, a German journalist, novelist, and filmmaker has written “a serious piece of scholarship,” and one that is very well researched.” (“The Very Drugged Nazis,” by Anthony Beevor, New York Review of Books, March 9, 2017)

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(Hitler in early 1945)