In the late summer of 1944, eighty British Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers undertook a covert commando raid, parachuting behind enemy lines into the Vosges Mountains in occupied France to sabotage Nazi-held roads, railways, and ammo dumps, and assassinate high-ranking German officers, undermining the final stand of Hitler’s Third Reich. Despite their successes, more than half the men were captured, tortured, and executed.
Although the SAS was officially dissolved when the war ended, a top-secret black ops unit was formed, under Churchill’s personal command, to hunt down the SS commanders who had murdered their special forces comrades, as well as war criminals from concentration camps who had eluded the Nuremberg trials. Under the cover of full deniability, “The Secret Hunters” waged a covert war of justice and retribution—uncovering the full horror of Hitler’s regime as well as dark secrets of Stalin’s Russia and the growing threat of what would become the Cold War.
Finally revealing the fascinating details of the secret postwar mission that became a central part of the SAS’s founding legend, Damien Lewis “delves into some of the darkest days of the regiment’s history to tell a story of tragedy, valor and revenge . . . [a] remarkable story” (War History Online).
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The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber thundered through the inky darkness, her twin propellers clawing at the unseasonable skies. It was 12 August 1944, approaching midnight over northern France, and by rights the continental summer should have rendered the weather warm and balmy, the skies calm and clear.
But the flying conditions that war-torn August had proved challenging, especially for an RAF aircrew tasked with dropping a stick of parachutists into a remote, densely forested chain of mountains 500 miles behind the German lines. Several times now the present mission had been called off at the last moment, and for the men squatting on the cold floor of the aircraft's fuselage it was a relief finally to be going into action. But that didn't make the atmosphere any less tense or electric, not when they were faced with a mission such as this.
The deafening roar of the aircraft's twin Rolls-Royce Merlin engines made conversation all but impossible, and the SAS soldiers were lost in their thoughts. As so often seemed the case, the men of the Regiment had been tasked with a formidable mission, but were saddled with the most outdated equipment the War Office had to offer. One glance down the Whitley's dark and echoing hold revealed how unsuitable she was for a stick of parachutists to jump from.
Designed in the mid 1930s, the Whitley had been obsolete even before the start of the war, and in 1942 she had been withdrawn from front-line operations. A medium-weight bomber, by this point the aircraft was mostly used for towing gliders into action, and she had certainly never been intended as a parachutist's jump platform. Owing to a design quirk she flew with a marked nose-down attitude, which meant the floor of the cramped, slab-sided fuselage sloped at a dizzying angle towards the cockpit. Worse still, the SAS men would be jumping into the night via a coffin-shaped hole in the floor, and it was the process of leaping through the open grave of the Whitley's gaping bomb bay that would make for such a perilous exit.
The men of the SAS had nicknamed it 'ringing the bell'. At the approach to their intended drop zone they would line up on one side of the opening, sitting with their legs dangling over the shadowed abyss. Upon the jump light switching to green-for-go, they would propel themselves forward into the howling darkness. But the bomb doors had been designed for releasing 7,000 pounds of relatively compact munitions, as opposed to a dozen-odd human beings. In jumping through the narrow gap the men risked smacking their heads with an almighty clang: thus, ringing the bell.
Any parachutist who did ring the bell would find himself badly concussed, or even unconscious and plummeting to earth like a stone; hardly an ideal state in which to steer oneself onto a drop zone marked by only a handful of bonfires lit by the French Resistance. Or at least, hopefully lit by the French Resistance. The Gestapo and SS had been known to light signal fires and lie in wait, particularly when they had secured intelligence about the timing and location of an impending Allied airdrop.
The lone aircraft thundered onwards, the moonless night her cloak and her protector.
Armed with only a single machine gun in the nose, and four in the tail gunner's turret, the Whitworth was highly vulnerable from directly below or above, and with a maximum speed of a little over 200 mph she was hardly likely to outrun the Luftwaffe's nimble night fighters. The first the SAS men would know of such an attack was when the bursts of cannon fire lanced through the thin skin of the hold, tracer rounds ripping into the fuel tanks housed in the wings, and punching a dragon's breath of fiery death through the disintegrating fuselage.
The Whitworth's aircrew hoped to flit through the darkness undetected. The parachutists were about to drop into the Reich's last bastion of defence — the rugged Vosges Mountains, which straddle the Franco-German border. It was there that Hitler had ordered the Wehrmacht to make a do-or-die last stand, to prevent at all costs the Allies from achieving the unthinkable and driving east into the Fatherland. Accordingly, the stakes on this mission — code-named Operation Loyton — could hardly have been higher.
The Whitley's bomb aimer crouched in the front turret, directly below the nose gunner. Above him, the pilot and co-pilot/navigator sat side by side in the cockpit. Tonight, of course, the bomb aimer had no steely death to drop from the skies — or at least, not a conventional bomb load. Instead, his task — along with the navigator — was to detect a tiny, match-box- like clearing in the midst of the densely forested mountains, onto which they would unleash those men whose fighting repute had made them the foremost of Hitler's — and the Reich's — adversaries.
If the SAS could be safely delivered, their mission was to raise and arm a French Resistance army of thousands, and to attack the enemy's communication and supply lines, spreading terror and chaos in their rear. This, it was hoped, would convince the front-line troops of the Wehrmacht that their defences were crumbling, and that US General George Patton's 3rd and 7th Armies were punching through their lines. If they could be persuaded to abandon their positions along the Vosges' rugged 'west wall'— a series of heavily fortified trenches and formidable gun emplacements set amongst the natural defences of the foothills — the way into Germany would be wide open.
For Captain Henry Carey Druce, the commander of this mission, the phrase 'sardine can' came to mind as he surveyed the Whitley's cramped hold. He was squeezed shoulder to shoulder with the men of his stick, and burdened down with so much weaponry and kit that he was barely able to move. The five-man RAF crew would be exchanging a constant stream of chat over the intercom as they counted off the landmarks leading into the drop zone, but Druce was cut off from all of that, rendered deaf and almost blind in the darkened hold.
It was a hugely unsettling feeling.
In fact, for reasons way beyond Druce's control the entire genesis of the present mission had been decidedly disconcerting; indeed, even his very recruitment into the SAS had been something of an accident.
Until recently, Druce had been serving with the SOE, a unit born of the iron will of Winston Churchill, and formed wholly in the shadows. In the summer of 1940 Britain's iconic wartime leader had called for the creation of a clandestine force tasked with setting the lands of enemy-occupied Europe ablaze.
The SOE had been formed under the aegis of the Ministry for Economic Warfare, making it totally separate from the military. It became known as the 'fourth armed service' and operated under a series of cover names — including the innocuous-sounding 'Inter-Services Research Bureau' and, perhaps most suitably, 'The Racket'. Officially, the SOE didn't exist, which made it perfect for carrying out the kinds of missions that broke the rules of war, and which the British government could deny if all went wrong.
Druce felt the contents of his stomach lurch into his throat as the Whitley hit a particularly nasty pocket of turbulence. It wasn't the first time that he'd flown into hostile territory. On one of his previous operations for the SOE, Druce had been dropped into enemy-occupied Europe to retrieve escaped prisoners of war. But he was betrayed and taken captive. Held in a Gestapo prison, he'd found himself before a Gestapo officer, facing interrogation.
'Remember, you are my prisoner,' the Gestapo man had warned Druce. 'And so, you must tell me everything.'
'Actually, it is I who should be taking you and your fellows captive,' Druce had calmly replied. 'Your military is all but defeated, so you'd best surrender to me.'
In the momentary confusion caused by the remark, Druce had seized his chance and leapt out of a nearby window. He'd escaped the Gestapo's clutches and, being a fluent French speaker, he had made his way through occupied France to England, disguised as a local. In the process he'd travelled on foot through the very region that he was poised to parachute into now, the Vosges Mountains, but his pending return had come about purely by a stroke of fortune.
Sometime after his epic escape from the enemy, Druce had found himself on a train heading for one of Britain's wartime parachute training schools. Colonel Brian Franks, the Commander of 2 SAS — the SAS Regiment at that time consisting of 1 and 2 SAS Brigades, plus a number of 'foreign' brigades operating alongside them — happened to be sharing the same railway carriage. The two men fell into conversation and Franks asked Druce the obvious question: what he was up to right then?
Druce had shrugged, good-naturedly. 'I'm really at a loose end. No one seems to want to employ me.'
'Well, you'd better come and join us,' Franks had told him.
Thus Druce had been recruited into the SAS. He'd joined A Squadron, 2 SAS, which at the time consisted of some sixty-odd men. As 2 SAS was made up of four squadrons, there were far too many operators for Captain Druce to get to know them all, but he quickly became familiar with the dozen men of his stick. The trouble was, they included few of those presently sharing the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley aircraft with him.
Until that very afternoon the dozen men aboard this warplane had been commanded by another SAS officer, a veteran of operations in North Africa. But just a few hours ago that man had gone to see Colonel Franks and revealed that the almost unthinkable had transpired.
'I really feel I can't go on,' he'd confessed. 'I can't lead the mission. I just have lost my nerve.'
He wasn't the first to fall victim to the acute stress caused by repeated sorties behind enemy lines. Even the most unlikely candidate could find himself at risk of what the men had come to call crapping out'— not being able to take it any more. It was something that they all dreaded, for if a man's nerve cracked during a mission he became a serious liability to his fellow operators.
In Druce's opinion, that officer had proved himself one of the bravest men around. It was hellishly difficult to turn around at the eleventh hour and admit that you couldn't go through with a mission. Even so, when Colonel Franks had telephoned him out of the blue and asked him to take over, he had been somewhat aghast. He'd had a bare few minutes in which to grab his kit, prepare his weapons and race to catch a train to the airfield from which the mission was being mounted. There had been no time to familiarize himself with his new command.
He'd asked Colonel Franks for one thing: he wanted his own sergeant, the redoubtable Scot, David 'Jock' Hay, to accompany him, so he did at least know one man in 'his' stick. But as to the rest of the men, Druce could barely put a name to a face.
Of course, it must have been doubly disconcerting for them, as they had done all their pre-mission training and preparations with their regular stick commander. No reason had been given for the man's sudden withdrawal. It had been judged best to keep his 'crapping out' quiet. But Druce was known only as a recent recruit to the Regiment, and that made him an unknown quantity — a wild card.
It was all the more unsettling because Captain Henry Druce was actually to be known as Captain 'Drake' for the duration of the coming mission. Having been held prisoner by the enemy before, his real identity would be known to the Gestapo, which might increase the risk of him being captured now.
Druce — Drake — had reached RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire with barely an hour to go before L-hour (the allotted time for lift-off). Fairford had been nicknamed 'The Cage', and with good reason. It was a closed-off, high-security facility ringed by searchlights and watchtowers, from which no one slated with a mission was ever allowed to exit. Even going to the loo seemed to require three armed escorts!
Upon arrival at The Cage, Druce was rushed into the ops room to join the others getting the 'griff': the final mission briefing. Two of the Regiment's stalwarts, Major Eric 'Bill' Barkworth and his right-hand man in 2 SAS's Intelligence Section, Sergeant Fred 'Dusty' Rhodes, proceeded to outline what was coming.
With the Allies having broken out of their D-Day beachhead, the German retreat was underway. Allied commanders believed that their version of the Blitzkrieg would prove inexorable, as superior Allied air power and ground forces rolled a demoralized enemy back into Germany. There was even talk of the war being over by Christmas. The natural barrier of the Vosges Mountains would form the Wehrmacht's final defensive line, and Op Loyton was a mission designed to make 'merry hell' for the enemy in those densely forested hills.
Having passed through the area in the not-too-distant past, Druce pointed out that the terrain would prove ideal for guerrilla warfare. But Barkworth — one of the 'old and bold' within the Regiment, and an ice-cool operator par excellence — made it clear what was expected of him. His task wasn't to go about blowing things up, or at least not yet. He was to link up with the French Resistance and establish a secure base and drop zone, so that he could call in the main body of Operation Loyton.
Colonel Franks was in attendance in The Cage, and he made it clear that he intended to put two entire squadrons — approximately 120 men — onto the ground in the Vosges. It was Druce's mission to shepherd in that larger force. Only once that was done could he start blowing everything to kingdom come.
To underline the importance of Operation Loyton, Franks declared that he was keen to deploy; such a senior SAS commander would rarely, if ever, risk heading so far behind enemy lines. One other person was chafing at the bit: Sergeant Dusty Rhodes, Barkworth's right-hand man. Rhodes — a tough and phlegmatic Yorkshireman — was itching for some action, but his present role largely precluded it. As 2 SAS's Intelligence Cell, he and Barkworth were privy to every mission presently underway, so if either were captured and forced to talk, the consequences could prove disastrous.
Barkworth and Rhodes had little option but to remain in the rear with the gear, as the saying goes. Yet, as they delivered their eleventh-hour briefing to Druce, little did they suspect that the coming operation would catapult these two uniquely talented men into the assignment of a lifetime — one of unimaginably high stakes, horror and intrigue. But all of that lay many months in the future.
For now, Colonel Franks seemed to have chosen his replacement mission commander admirably. Captain Druce was of medium height, but a real barnstormer of a man. He would demonstrate a tireless stamina when moving through the plunging valleys of the Vosges, but more to the point, considering what was coming, he was blessed with a rare fearlessness — bordering on the reckless. Druce would prove to be a maverick and a high-spirited trickster par excellence.
Just twenty-three years old, Druce had been schooled first at Cheam, in Surrey, where he was in the same class as the Duke of Edinburgh. From there he went to Sherborne School in Dorset, followed by the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He'd initially volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment, but discovered a more natural home for his talents lay within the SOE. Fluent in French, Dutch and Flemish, and blessed with an insatiable thirst for adventure, Druce was also a natural fit for the SAS.
Druce would earn renown within the SAS as being the 'top hat warrior'. Sporting a black silk top hat and corduroy trousers on operations, he would demonstrate a vital quality amongst those tasked with behind-enemy-lines operations: total unflappability. In one incident he accosted a fleeing German motorcycle trooper, discovering a cured ham secreted within his saddlebag. As the soldier refused to give up his motorbike with suitable alacrity, Druce proceeded to whack him around the face with the ham, unseating him, at which point he passed the meat around his ravenous men.
One of the original Operation Loyton maps — one that Druce doubtless pored over as the Whitley aircraft droned onwards towards its uncertain date with destiny — has been preserved for posterity in the official Operation Loyton war diary. The map is marked with a tiny black circle, with beside it written 'Captain Druce Party 13 Aug DZ'.
The DZ (drop zone) is sandwiched between La Petite Raon and Vieux- Moulin, two tiny French hamlets lying less than 3 miles south-west of a village called Moussey. Otherwise unremarkable, Moussey would come to have a real significance for the SAS. But as Druce studied that map, he must have wondered where in the surrounding forests and mountains — including the aptly named Les Bois Sauvages (the Wild Woods) — the Maquis might have made their base.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Nazi Hunters"
Copyright © 2015 Damien Lewis.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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