A Panzerkampfwagen IV, probably an Ausf. E or F1, the crew getting some air. Their packs are stacked on the turret roof, which might indicate the absence of a storage bin on the back of the turret. Now, if I were to claim that the crew members were some of the characters in the late author Sven Hassel’s war novels, there would be some who would believe that.
Many of us with an interest in World War 2 (especially the German side) have read a Sven Hassel novel or three (or all 14). For some, it opened up the world of real memoirs, and for others they are a guilty pleasure, but some believe they are relating Hassel’s real war experience – or at least some of it. Well, they are dead wrong.
Who was Sven Hassel? It was the pen name of Danish author Børge Willy Redsted Pedersen, also known as Børge Willy Redsted Arbing, Børge Arbing, Willy Arbing, and (finally) Sven Willy Hasse Arbing (yes, no “l” in “Hasse”). He was born on this day in 1917, and died on 21 September 2012 in Barcelona, where he had lived since 1964. According to his own claims, he had moved to Germany in the 1930’s in search of a job, enlisted in the German Army, and served in the 6. Panzer-Division. After the war, he served a prison sentence for having been in the Wehrmacht. In 1953, his supposedly autobiographical novel “Legion of the Damned” was published in Danish, an English translation following in 1957. It made quite an impression, and won critical acclaim in several reviews. More books followed, like “Wheels of Terror”, “March Battalion”, Liquidate Paris”, etc, totaling 14 published novels translated to 15 languages and selling 53 million copies (and counting; new editions are published 65 years after the first book). If it’s successful, it must be true, right?
I must admit that I gobbled up Hassel’s books when I was in my late teens/early 20s. The drama, the action, the grim images from the many battles made the books page-turners. They are quite funny in places, too. The cast of characters is colorful: “Tiny”, the Legionnaire, “the Old man”, Heide, and not least Porta. They have all ended up in the 27th Penal Panzer Regiment, and see action on all fronts except North Africa. There’s just one teensy problem: it’s all made up.
To the casual reader, the force of the narrative, especially in “Legion of the Damned”, and the seemingly precise mention of military units and weapons, seems convincing. It is when one begins to look Hassel’s horse in the mouth that it all unravels. Several years ago, I revisited “Legion of the Damned” (published in Sweden in 1968 as “De fördömdas legion”), and took extensive notes, checking almost every fact and claim, noting dates, locations, etc. The book is the most interesting to check, as it is claimed to be Hassel’s “truest” book. One has to remember that when it was originally published in 1953, there were no unit histories and similar resources available to aid the memory of veterans. That being said, almost all references to other units don’t hold water – they are in other army groups, on other fronts, or entirely fictional. The 27th Penal Panzer Regiment is hogwash, of course, but the Feldpost number Hassel refers to a couple of times was used by one of the companies in the Panzer-Regiment 11, 6. Panzer-Division (which he claims to have served in originally), and many locations and times where the “27th” fights correspond to those of the 6. PzDiv.
I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility that Hassel actually served on the Eastern Front, but hardly in a tank – his descriptions of the tanks (flamethrowers, 105 mm-gunned Panthers, and so on) are often pure fantasy. My list of errors and exaggerations grew as I read the book. Many events are jumbled, occurring after an event described in a following chapter, and some are just unlikely, like his involvement in the 20 July plot (meeting Rommel) or him meeting Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. So, “Legion of the Damned” is a mix of fantasy and some events that might be true, perhaps even experienced by Hassel himself if one is very charitable. Just don’t believe it.
What about the rest of his books? This is were it all starts to fall apart big time. Sven and his friends must have been cloned. They sure needed to… According to “Legion of the Damned”, Sven was wounded in the battle of Kiev in November 1943, and was a convalescent in a military hospital for a while. At about the same time, he was fighting in Italy (“Monte Cassino”, autumn – winter 1943-44), but busy as always, Sven & Co were also in Berlin and northern Finland (“Court Martial”, autumn – winter 1943-44), and simultaneously involved in actions leading up to the battle of Cherkassy (“Wheels of Terror”, taking place in late autumn – winter 1943-44). Small wonder the stories are so action-packed, with Sven and friends zooming around on several fronts. Another blatant example is when he is both in and outside of Stalingrad; see “SS General” and “March Battalion”, respectively. Anyone still believe that the books are true?
Sven Hassel got into a controversy in 1963 when a Danish journalist made the claim that he hadn’t served at all, but was just a simple thief and informant for the German occupation authorities during WW2, and who had been sentenced to ten years in prison for treason. A Danish author, Erik Haaest, spent years campaigning against Hassel, building on the 1963 revelation. There are no service records to back Hassel’s claims, and there appears to have been at least five people involved in the writing of his books (Georg Gjedde touched up and edited Hassel’s script for “Legion of the Damned”, and Hassel’s wife is thought to have been involved, too).
If anyone still wants to read his books, then by all means do so. Better yet, spend your money and time on better books, which lets you share the experiences of people who actually were there.
PS: Despite the success of the books, only one of them has been made into a movie, and then only sharing the title and cast of characters. “Wheels of Terror” (AKA “The Misfit Brigade”) is a 1987 adaptation that didn’t do well in the theaters, to put it mildly..