Kinder Sculpture

 

May 2011 Journal

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Setting Europe ablaze (review)

‘ARE YOU PREPARED TO DO A DANGEROUS JOB?’ AUF DEN SPUREN ÖSTERREICHISCHER UND DEUTSCHER EXILANTEN IM BRITISCHEN GEHEIMDIENST SOE (On the Track of Austrian and German Refugees in the British Secret Service SOE)
by Elisabeth Lebensaft and Christoph Mentschl
Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2010, 296 pp.

This interesting book – which may be of particular interest to AJR members – tells the story of eight Austrian and German refugees who volunteered to serve with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) – which Churchill had famously ordered to ‘set Europe ablaze’. The authors’ research began with the chance discovery in the National Archives of two reports on an SOE operation, which led them to other SOE documents, including the participants’ debriefing reports. The protagonists were six Austrians and two Germans: Georg Breuer/George Bryant, Anton Walter Freud (a grandson of Sigmund Freud), Karl/Charles Kaiser, Franz König/Frank Kelley, Erich Rohde/Eric Rhodes, Hans Schweiger/Harry Stevens, Manfred Werner/Fred Warner and Harry Wunder/Harry Williams. Another invaluable source was AJR member Eric Sanders, whose own memoir of his experience as an SOE agent, Emigration ins Leben, appeared in 2008.

The authors’ account of a brief SOE mission in April 1945 is placed in the context of the protagonists’ life stories. The book successively records their early life, their flight from racial persecution, and their early experiences in Britain (four of the eight were interned as ‘enemy aliens’, two of whom were deported – one to Canada and one to Australia) before recounting their training and service in the SOE. The book also traces their post-war experience: most of them were transferred to the War Crimes Group of BAOR, working to bring Nazi war criminals to justice in post-war Germany.

The year 1943, the turning point of the war, also marked a change in British attitudes to refugees. Hitherto permitted to serve only in the Pioneer Corps, they were now allowed to join active service units. Most of the eight protagonists joined the SOE during 1943. They were recruited in melodramatic circumstances, being approached by a mysterious individual, who claimed to be Swiss, asking if they wanted to do a more dangerous job.

In preparation for their mission, the men were sent to one of the Special Training Schools run by the SOE. Training was intense and could last up to a year, comprising weapons handling, unarmed combat, sabotage, parachuting and, for potential radio operators, wireless telegraphy.

The book’s biographical approach deliberately avoids undue concentration on the mission they carried out. Of 245 pages of text, only 45 are devoted to it. Towards the end of April 1945, they were parachuted behind enemy lines in to the Obersteiermark, where the military situation was one of great confusion; their mission was to make contact with local resistance groups and help disrupt the German retreat. They made a ‘blind drop’, landing in the wrong place and losing vital equipment, yet, with a mixture of skill and improvisation, they achieved a measure of success, notably in securing the air base at Zeltweg. Three of them (Warner, Kelley and Freud) were still alive when research began and all were interviewed. They were somewhat sceptical of the results of their mission. Warner wrote, on hearing of the imminent German surrender, ‘I can’t say that I was sorry! I had not played a very glorious part in it but I can’t be blamed for that.’ His feelings were shared by his two surviving comrades. Sadly, all three died before the book was published.

Richard Dove

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