The Last Battle by Stephen Harding
|The Last Battle by Stephen Harding|
|Reviewer: Margaret Young|
|Summary: A little known story of the most unlikely of alliances which proves the truth really is stranger than fiction.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: May 2013|
|Publisher: Da Capo Press|
|External links: Author's website|
May 4, 1945 saw the unconditional surrender of all German troops in Germany in Northwest Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Bavaria. Berlin had surrendered two days earlier. A few more areas remained officially at war, but even the most diehard supporter must have realised Germany had fallen. The war was over, to most soldiers, although VE day would be delayed for a few more days. But the most implausible battle of the second world war was about to begin. Had The Last Battle been fiction, I would have scoffed at the unlikely alliance featured in this book as too unbelievable. A final battle played out in isolated Austrian castle was to rescue French VIPs held as honour prisoners. They were to be protected by the oddest ensemble of soldiers ever known. A ranking member of the S.S., a decorated Wehrmacht officer and his troops, the Austrian resistance and a few American soldiers against a suicidal S.S. troop bent on carrying as many killings as possible before the inevitable end.
This is very much a history text, and it reads as such. It can be a bit dry at times, especially as Harding lays the background for the drama to come, giving us the history of the castle itself and of the key players in the Battle of Castle Itter. This book appears to be based primarily on official documents and texts, as opposed to eyewitness accounts. This does keep it very factual, but it means lacks in something of the human side of the story. This is not a criticism of the author. Most of the key players have long since passed away and more personal information does not exist. But this is story that simply must be told. It is so dramatic that I find it very odd that I have never come across it before. This is certainly the stuff Hollywood legends are made of. It is surprising that there are no films of this event, and that is not mentioned more frequently in other books on this period. I do appreciate that the author refrained from giving this story the Hollywood treatment though. This book is the facts and very little except for facts. He has not embellished at all for the sake of a better story, and this reads as very honest and factual account.
Schloss Itter is beautiful castle nestled in between tall trees in Austria’s Brixental valley. It has the appearance of a beautiful retreat, but it was anything but a holiday setting for the French VIPs interned as honour prisoners of the Reich. The conditions for the prisoners were very good; they lived in relative luxury with a generous wine ration and personal spending money, but the atmosphere was horrible as they squabbled amongst themselves and there was the fear of execution, should they no longer have any value to the Reich. The prisoners held in the castle included two former French Prime Ministers, a trade union leader, two rival generals, a tennis star, a few relatives of officials, and surprisingly, one of the inmate's wives and a couple of mistresses. Harding refers to the discontented French prisoners as a gaggle and obviously does not hold them in very high esteem. Considering the foolish act of one them near the end, and the consequences for a brave man, I find myself having difficulty disputing his assessment.
The story picks up considerably as the unlikely allies begin to come together for the defence of the VIPs. The final Battle, while not especially dramatic, shows the great courage of a very few men holding out against a vastly superior force. I particularly liked this book because it does not cast everything in black and white. It shows courage and decency on the German side, as well as among the allies, although Harding's preference for the Americans is clear (and understandable). No one can possibly know the motives for these German soldiers for defending the French prisoners. It may have only been self preservation, but I like to think a sense of decency had prevailed as men sought to prevent further unnecessary deaths in a conflict which was obviously drawing to a close.
I did enjoy the book, and I'm very glad to have had the opportunity to read about this little known event. However, I do have a couple of minor quibbles. I felt that the author overdid a bit with telling us while we could not know one fact, we did know something else. I also could not for the life me understand why he included a photo of an all black armoured battalion of the American infantry, but makes a point of telling us the soldiers who participated in the rescue were all white. Who cares? I doubt the French cared if the were white, black, green or purple as long as they kept them from getting shot. Perhaps there is some reason for this I simply do not know, some debate over the issue in historical circles, but if so, it might have been nice to clue the ordinary reader in. These are minor issues though, and did not detract from the overall quality of the book.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Battle by Stephen Harding at Amazon.com.
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