Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Hitler’s War in the Alps
Faber & Faber, 5 September, 2013
ISBN 9780 571 282388
Hyperbole enters the scene early: the title is overwrought – many readers will already know that Hitler’s roost at Berchtesgaden was ultimately destroyed not by “storming” in any commando sense but by the bombs of the USAF 8th Air Force (as Jim Ring sets out in his last chapter). Similarly I find the opening sentences of the preface pretentious in the extreme: “Everyone knows the Alps. No one knows how Europe’s playground became its battlefield.” Perhaps this puffery derives from Ring’s background in advertising. This is a shame because he writes with a dry style, and with some authority (a couple of books on the Alps already having been scribed).
This book is at its best when sticking to its knitting – relating events within the Alpine region. Ring however does spend some time in setting out the strategic evolution of WW2 in order to put these events into context. What is most absorbing is the coverage of Switzerland’s wriggling over its neutrality through the conflict. The author comes up with some illuminating analogies to illustrate the Swiss dilemma. It is a nice coincidence that the last book I read and reviewed – SOE’s Balls of Steel – covered the same dilemmas facing the Nordic countries. In Switzerland’s case its political leaders refused to accede to Roosevelt’s request in 1938 to host an international conference on the pending Jewish refugee crisis; in fact later that year they petitioned the German government to stamp the passports of Jews with a ‘J’ to facilitate denying them entry to Switzerland, or to categorise them as prisoners. And in June 1940 the Swiss government chose to align the nation more closely with the Nazi regime.
Luckily in the early years of the war Jewish refugees found greater succour in the French Alps, but the Vichy regime, true to form, soon put an end to that. Ring depicts the Alps as the geo-political crucible of Europe, and makes a reasonable case for that assertion. The narrative illuminates Hitler’s relationship with the spineless (if anyone so obese can be said to be spineless) Mussolini. Similarly, the ruthless treatment of Tito’s partisans showed the Nazis’ concern to keep the Balkans in line, and presaged a scorched earth policy when later the Maquis tried to attack from the Vercors and elsewhere. The difficulties faced by the Allies in controlling the various partisan movements are well described. Ring leans heavily on William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
A book likes this needs some colourful characters, and the murky depths of international political intrigue produces a few. Most notable is Allen Dulles who went on to be the head of the OSS and its successor, the CIA. It was his elder brother, John Foster Dulles, a Secretary of State, after whom Washington’s international airport is named. There is a terrific story (lifted from Leonard Moseley’s biography of Dulles) about his meeting with Lenin. It was Dulles’ philandering that was largely responsible for OSS’s nickname ‘Oh So Social’!
The descriptions of how the Germans used Switzerland for its massive money-laundering with which to fund its war machine, will also interest many. The author makes clear his views on the British Secret Services – in his view MI6 under Sir Stewart Menzies was inept – at least as far as this region was concerned.
The Italians’, shall we say ‘pragmatic’, approach to the war is well set out: they would in effect sell to the higher bidder of the British or German governments the British POWs who were trying to make their way over Alpine passes into Switzerland. The Italian army chose its battles very carefully. By contrast one of the book’s heroes is the six year old son of a Swiss pastor, who led countless Allied POWs to safety over his nearby pass.
On the other hand, Ring makes the case that it was only in the Alps (with its Chasseurs Alpins) that the French Army showed any mettle. The Swiss put their ski resorts to good use in wartime: if not military centres or recuperation centres for injured soldiers, they became internment camps for Allied prisoners and refugees. British POWs that made it Switzerland in this way were treated as ‘evaders’ and lived a relatively carefree existence in these good camps and hotels. Although Ring sets out the appalling regime in a notorious Swiss punishment camp, Wauwilermoos, judging by some of the testimonies of US airmen I have read, I believe he is insufficiently critical of the conditions faced by the average Allied airman who crashed or parachuted into Switzerland.
The Austrian and German Alps became the base for much German defence manufacturing after the Allies had flattened the production facilities of the Ruhr. Ring describes the appalling conditions endured by the slave labour supplied by Himmler to construct and then operate them.
As the Allied armies closed their pincers on Nazi Germany, opportunities opened up for early surrender of some German armies, notably the forces in Northern Italy. The story of how Roosevelt (and then Truman) together with Churchill quashed these in order to appease Stalin makes for depressing reading. But the pincers continued and with each day more senior Nazis switched their focus to saving their own skin, and their booty. Arch kleptocrat Goering (whose costume changes seem to attract Ring’s deft pen) takes the podium. He seemed by 1945 to have acquired a castle round every Alpine corner. The manoeuvring of Wernher von Braun (creator of the V1 and V2), which resulted in his later position at the epicentre of the US space programme, leaves a bitter taste.
As someone who has spent many happy weeks in ski resorts across the Alps it is fascinating to read how places such as Davos, Kitzbuhel, Obergurgl, and even Val d’Isère, endured the war. I would have like to have heard how they were rehabilitated afterwards.
Overall whilst this book is not as revelatory as it claims (there seems little reference to original archives or private memoirs), it is well crafted, and enjoyable.
On page 204 Ring talks of a USAF fighter that had both pilot and a navigator. Unlikely I feel.
One of Goering's (less colourful) uniforms. I think this is the one I have seen on display in the museum at RAF Gatow.