By Alex Jones
DEATH, despair and deception: the fascinating memoirs of one of Hitler’s elite soldiers shows what life was really like for soldiers of the Third Reich fighting the Allied Forces.
Retrieving dead bodies after a fierce shootout, burying and mourning lost brothers in arms, and exploded vehicles in front of a conquered bridge.
These remarkable photos are included in Sepp de Giampietro’s Blood and Soil: The Memoirs of a Third Reich Brandenburger – a bloody account of his time as a soldier in one of the Nazi’s most feared units, translated into English for the first time.
The Brandenburgers were Hitler’s Special Forces, a band of mainly foreign German nationals who used disguise and fluency in other languages to complete daring spy missions into enemy territory. Overshadowed by stories of their Allied equivalents, their history has largely been ignored.
The Brandenburgers lived by a ‘win at all costs’ mantra, as stated here in speech to de Giampietro by Nazi war hero lieutenant Grabert, when the young soldier raised questions about the ‘honour’ of wearing an enemy uniform during war.
Grabert said: “No, there is nothing dishonourable in what we are doing, if, well, if we are successful!
“As for me, I couldn’t give a shit about how I fall, quite frankly.
“But what I do care about is whether or not I fall. I too love life, I’m not one to commit suicide. I love my profession, and I want to continue my studies and become a good doctor.
“But now, in these times, in this war, we first have to win. How we achieve that doesn’t matter.
“Everyone is put where he is of most use, where he can achieve the most.”
First published in German in 1984, de Giampietro’s highly-personal memoir is a vivid account of his experiences. In gruesome detail, he delves into the reality of life in the unit from everyday concerns and politics to training and involvement in Brandenburg missions.
He details the often foolhardy missions undertaken including the June 1941 seizure of the Duna bridges in Dunaburg and the attempted capture of the bridge at Bataisk where half of his unit were killed.
In one scintillating passage de Giampietro is tasked with ensuring the British forces can’t blow up a bridge to halt the German advance into Greece. Wearing Serbian uniforms, the Brandenburgers have just snuck on a bridge controlled by Allied Forces in a daring mission under the noses of the Allied defenders. The fighting started in earnest after a Greek soldier was shot.
“At this point, just about everything was chaos,” recalled de Giampietro.
“Everyone was running back and forth, away from everything and in all directions. Nobody knew what game was being played there. Civilians had vanished from the face of the earth. It was only we who acted, and we did so with purpose and skill. We actually welcomed the panic that had erupted.
“I ran up to the bridge. With wire cutters, we cut every wire we came across. While still running, we pulled our Serbian greatcoats off and chucked away the headgear. We grabbed hold of our own mountain caps from our belts and put them on so that we wouldn’t kill each other. Once again, we were German soldiers.
“I waded through the shallow waters, climbed up the dock, and ripped out all the cables and explosives that had been attached to the linkages. Everything happened at lightning speed, no orders were necessary, there was no room for hesitation, nor any attention given to the bullets whistling past our ears and ricocheting off the dock. We were on automatic, that was how we had been drilled. And we succeeded. Thanks to us, it was impossible for anyone to blow up the bridge.
“We threw ourselves into the roadside ditch to take cover. Not a minute too soon, as bullets came raining down on us. It looked like the firing was coming from an incline some 300 metres high. Bullets splashed into the water behind us, some ricocheting, swishing through the air, a line of tiny dust clouds whirled along the road. With my heart pounding, I lay flat on my stomach in the mud, expecting to be hit. Then our machine guns started firing, which allowed us some breathing space.”
Another harrowing tale is when the young soldier remembers how he lost half his unit in a brutal assault of a Russian bridge.
“As was our practice, we stormed the enemy without uttering a sound,” he wrote.
“The panting of our comrades was drowned out by the firing around us. Barely an order was issued – each of us knew exactly what he was meant to do. We stumbled across dead bodies – were they Russians or comrades? There was no time to check.
“Fast as lightning, we dashed across the bridge and reached the other end.
“Hand grenades were already dropping to either side of the road. Shooting from the hip and swinging a spade, we penetrated the Russian posts and wiped out their crews. Comrades followed us at short intervals, widening the bridgehead on both sides. By then both groups had reached the other side.
“It was crucial that we dug ourselves in before daybreak to be prepared for the Russian counter-attack which was sure to follow. We threw out the dead Soviets from their holes, jumped in and – with our spades and our bleeding hands, buried ourselves in the mud. Sweat was pouring from us, but nobody paid any attention.
“It soon became light, and the Russian defence had become heavier and more accurate when targeting us.
“Our target was only 300 metres away, but for us an impossible stretch to overcome, seeing that the terrain was completely flat and marshy and offered us no protection whatsoever. The comrades out there stood no chance at all. The lucky ones were those who had found a hole in which they could lie flat. If anyone had raised his head, he would have become an inevitable target, and the Russian snipers were superb at their job.
“‘Medic!’ Medic!’ men were moaning, groaning and sobbing. The call of the wounded was urgent and demanded our immediate attention – these men were hurt but they were also angry. Finally, we had them all in one spot – that is, as many as we could manage to assemble into one spot. Our dead comrades were also here, stored away under the bridge and covered as best we could.”
The Brandenburger’s memoirs follow the young soldier through the deadliest conflicts on the Eastern Front and the Balkans. Eventually de Giampietro was severely injured in an assault in Montenegro in December 1943 and his war as a soldier ended. Some forty years later he would chronicle what happened to him.
History, it is often said, is written by the victors. So it is interesting to read an account of a self-confessed ‘unremarkable’ Brandenburg soldier and his thoughts on the politics and realities of the Second World War.
Military historian Lawrence Paterson, who writes the book’s foreword, explains: “Of all the special forces that saw action during the Second World War, few are as misunderstood as Germany’s Brandenburgers.
“A personal account such as this written by Sepp de Giampietro is invaluable to increasing our understanding of the Brandenburgers as a whole.
“This is an extraordinary book that has not been fictionalised to enhance its readability. Such an extravagance is not required. The pages turn willingly as the author takes us on his journey through the inferno of the Second World War as part of one of the most enigmatic special forces units of that time.”
But from idealistic youth to war-weary soldier, de Giampietro comes to the same conclusion regarding the war as many of his peers.
“The war bore no justification,” he writes in the book’s postscript.
“As a soldier, I suddenly realised this truth, and all its implications, and I was filled with profound sadness.
“All those involved, Germans and Italians, must draw lessons from our tragic past, one caused by confusion, fanatic nationalism and their disastrous developments.
“It must not be that violence, hate and terror inform our lives. Instead it is a duty for us all to ensure that our shared homeland is grounded in civil and human rights, and this can only come about if we are committed to mutual tolerance, mutual respect and a willingness to strive for it.”
Sepp de Giampietro’s translated Blood and Soil: The Memoirs of a Third Reich Brandenburger, published by Pen and Sword Books, is due for the release at the end of the month. Pre-order here.