World War II

A Friendly Enemy

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It is easy to fight an opponent that we think is stupid, brutal or duped into supporting a bad government. But that image is seldom accurate, as was the case with a World War II German officer named Hans von Luck. 

Colonel Hans von Luck was always interested in other cultures and studied the classics, including learning Latin and Greek. He traveled extensively around Europe in the 1930’s and became fluent in French, Italian, English and Russian. He also had a knack for making friends wherever he went. 

Luck followed family tradition by becoming a soldier. His officer training included infantry tactics taught by Erwin Rommel. (The textbook Infantry Attacks by Rommel is still in print). He later served under Rommel in North Africa and in France as an officer with the 21st Panzer Division.

In 1943, Luck was sent on a special mission to plead with Hitler to withdraw the Africa Corps from North Africa before it was trapped between the British and American forces. Hitler refused and 130,000 German and Italian troops surrendered to the Allies soon after. (Most of them were shipped to POW camps in the U.S.). Luck was transferred to Northern France with the re-constituted 21st Panzer Division to prepare for the expected Allied invasion. 

Old Pegagus Bridge   (Courtesy of Wiki Images)

Old Pegagus Bridge

(Courtesy of Wiki Images)

On June 6, 1944, Luck commanded forces defending the Pegasus Bridge, the only bridge over the Orne River north of Caen. British airborne troops led by Major John Howard attacked the bridge in order to protect the British flank attacking toward Caen. For most of the battle, British and German soldiers held opposite ends of the bridge and fought at point-blank range. Eventually, Luck’s troops withdrew.

88mm Gun  (World War Photos)

88mm Gun

(World War Photos)

On another occasion, Luck desperately needed artillery support when he found an anti-aircraft battery with its 8.8cm gun pointing at the sky. Luck asked the battery commander to lower the barrel and fire at the advancing enemy. The commander refused; his 88 was intended for use against aircraft, not ground troops. Luck won the argument when he drew his Luger, shoved it in the commander’s face and invited the crew to lower the gun barrel and begin firing.  

Luck ended the war on the Eastern Front. He spent five years in Russian POW camps before being released in 1949. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Luck was a guest of the British Staff College’s “battlefield tours” used for teaching young officers tactics by touring the Operation Overlord battle sites. He often toured with his friend John Howard so that they could tell both sides of the story of Pegasus Bridge.

His memoirs are available in English as Panzer Commander (1989).

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A Flawed Hero

Welcome to the first installment of my new history blog. This blog, which will range over centuries and continents, looks at people and events that fascinate me. I’m beginning with a 20th-century soldier who was also a lawyer.

© IWM

© IWM

Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne was born in 1915 in Northern Ireland. In the late 1930’s, he was a professional rugby player, legendary for his ferocity on and off the playing field. He would often sneak out of the team’s hotel to go drinking. The night usually ended in a brawl with other patrons of the pub.

Mayne might be remembered only as the bad boy of Irish rugby if not for World War II. He immediately enlisted in the Royal Ulster Rifles, a conventional military unit. Not surprisingly, he didn’t fit in well. Fortunately for Mayne, the Special Air Service (SAS) was created in 1941 and he immediately transferred to it.

The SAS was the brainchild of David Stirling, another misfit serving in a conventional British unit. His idea was to take a small mobile force behind enemy lines in the North African desert to attack enemy supply lines and Luftwaffe airfields. His idea was accepted because in 1941 the British were losing more often than winning.

SAS recruits were trained as paratroopers. They did most of their training on the ground due to a lack of aircraft for training missions. How do you train a paratrooper without jumping out of an airplane? Paddy Mayne is credited with the solution: recruits jumped out of a jeep or truck moving at 30 mph while wearing full-kit (120 pounds).

After training, SAS personnel disappeared into the desert to begin attacking German airfields. A typical attack began with a few men infiltrating the enemy airfield and planting explosives on the planes. In the next phase of the attack, a larger unit would drive on to the airfield in jeeps to strafe the enemy troops responding to the bombs.

© IWM

© IWM

When not in combat, Mayne continued his drinking and brawling habits. His insubordinate, hard-living behavior is believed to be the reason he was never awarded the Victoria Cross (the British equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor). After the war, he returned to his career as a solicitor.

Paddy Mayne is a fascinating man because of his contradictions. He was almost superhumanly brave in combat. But he never overcame the demons that triggered his drinking and brawling. He died in a road accident at the age of 40.

His exploits with the SAS are covered in Rogue Heroes (seen above) by Ben Macintyre (2016).

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