German Special Forces of WWII: Osprey Publishing
I have to start by saying that this book holds the dubious distinction of being the first book from Osprey that I’ve found quite disappointing. And that’s a shame for 2 reasons: firstly because Osprey’s “Elite” series is usually very interesting and well-researched, and secondly because these books are usually well worth recommending. In this case, the book is still interesting but I wouldn’t be able to recommend it, despite there being some interesting stories and illustrations.
But before we get in to the good stuff, let’s clear up what is disappointing about the book. First and foremost it is the section about Otto Skorzeny and his Waffen-SS “commandos” – with 20 of the books 62 ½ pages devoted to this topic. For a book that purports to examine “the full range of Germany’s wartime elite units” – including the Heer, the Kriegsmarine, the Luftwaffe and the Waffen-SS – this is a disproportionate amount of coverage for one unit. On the other hand, this amount of coverage could have been justified nonetheless if Skorzeny and his band had been the longest serving or most active of Germany’s special operations forces, or if they had even been the most successful – he/they were however most definitely none of the above. Most unforgiveable however is that the story presented in this book is very much the same self-aggrandizing propaganda version of Skorzeny and his command that has been repeated ad nauseum. So, skip over this section entirely and read the real story about Skorzeny that is presented in Osprey’s excellent “Rescuing Mussolini – Gran Sasso 1943: Raid 9“.
The second disappointing aspect of this book is that because of the over-coverage of Skorzeny there isn’t enough space left to provide more in-depth coverage of the other, more interesting and more successful units of Germany’s wartime special operations forces. Related to that point, the front and back covers of the book feature photographs of the Fallschirmjaeger who were the real heroes of Gran Sasso – yet there is absolutely zero coverage given within the book to raids or other special operations carried out by the Fallschirmjaeger during the war.
The third disappointment for me was the section on the naval special operations forces. Again, because of the over-exposure provided to Skorzeny the coverage of these forces stopped just as it was beginning to get really interesting. Specifically, the author does a pretty good job of providing a comprehensive summary of the German Navy’s midget submarine/submersible “fleet” and its operational successes and failures. He then goes on to describe the Kriegsmarine’s frogmen (Kampfschwimmer) as being probably the most elite of Germany’s wartime special forces – equivalent to today’s US Navy SEALs or British SBS – but then summarises their operational use in the briefest of fashions and doesn’t explain anything about their training that would justify the comparisons. It also goes without saying that the debt owed by the Kriegsmarine Kampfschwimmer to the Italian Navy’s successful Decima MAS and COMSUBIN forces (see below) is not even acknowledged.
Finally, the section on the Luftwaffe’s special operations squadron(s) is so scant that it might as well have been left out – as I pointed out earlier, it doesn’t include any coverage of the Fallschirmjaeger or their special operations capabilities or missions – and some of the scant amount of information which is included, is wrong.
To be fair, I did find the introduction to be quite interesting and useful, as it clarified the highly politicised tug-of-war between Germany’s military intelligence service (the Abwehr) and the Reichsicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) of the SS over control of special operations forces. The history of the Brandenburgers clearly illustrated the consequences of this high-level political battle, and the subsequent “star” status ascribed to Skorzeny was the inevitable outcome.
Speaking of the Brandenburgers, the section about them and their affiliated units deserves a special mention as one of the best sections of the book. But even this section – about the longest-serving, largest, most successful, and most diverse unit among the WWII German special operations forces – suffers the fate of seeming curtailed in order to leave room for the 20 pages of Skorzeny propaganda.
Lastly, the section on the Waffen-SS paratroopers, Fallschirmjaeger-Battaillon 500 (later reconstituted and renumbered “600”), is the best section of the book – both in terms of text and of colour artwork plates and descriptions.
Adding to the specific gripes I have already mentioned, this book disappoints because there are some truly intriguing stories of German special operations in WWII that deserve more in-depth coverage and analysis. Even though they were the bad guys in the war, Germany’s special operations forces were an interesting, and largely successful, bunch that never numbered as many as their Allied counter-parts. Despite this, or maybe even because of this, they were pioneers in many ways and achieved some truly remarkable feats – even in the latter stages of the war when it was clear that they were on the losing side – and they also no doubt had an influence on the way that Allied special forces units were developed and deployed, both during the war and afterwards.
It’s a shame that Osprey have squandered the opportunity to tell those stories better with this volume. I guess we’ll just have to hope that they will commission other books in the future that will tell the stories of the individual units with more depth, detail and diligence. Specifically, I’d like to see something on the subject of naval special forces, as this is an area noticably missing from Osprey’s portfolio.
In the meantime, other Osprey books that I DO recommend are:
Rescuing Mussolini – Gran Sasso 1943: Raid 9
Fallschirmjaeger – German Paratrooper 1935-1945: Warrior 38
Fort Eben Emael – The key to Hitler’s victory in the West: Fortress 30
Desert Raiders – Allied and Axis Special Forces 1940-43: Battle Orders 23
German Airborne Divisions – Mediterranean Theatre 1942-45: Battle Orders 15
All of these other books are available from www.ospreypublishing.com – and good bookstores.