Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review: PANZER PLATOON #1 - BLITZKRIEG by Gunther Lutz

Sorry, Tiger tank - wrong year!
The PANZER PLATOON series is a six-book run of WW2 stories told from the perspective of a German tank commander. The series was written through the late '70s and published by Sphere Books, a UK paperback publisher. The author, "Gunther Lutz", is probably a pseudonym, and I am following some leads to track down the author's real name.

The first book in the series, BLITZKRIEG, follows Micki Boden, an Unteroffizier commanding a Panzer II light tank. What exactly Boden's rank is gets kind of muddled - sometimes he is referred to as a corporal, but the rank could be higher than that. Boden is in charge of two men, his driver and his loader / radio operator, and we know at least Boden and his driver were in the Polish campaign of 1939. The loader/operator is a Nazi fanatic, always going on with party slogans and ideology, and it is made clear that Boden considers himself a soldier first, but he rolls his eyes and actively makes fun of his loader/operator for the young man's fanaticism. I feel like this is a requirement of every German protagonist in WW2 fiction - he's just doing his duty for his country, not one of Hitler's goose-stepping puppets! At the very least, it lets you sympathize with him more, since you're not just chomping at the bit, waiting for Boden to get vaporized by a howitzer shell.

The story itself is essentially a series of vignettes, as Boden and his crew make the race to the French coast. The French and British forces are collapsing faster than the Germans can advance, and Boden's tank platoon finds itself often just passing by wrecked or abandoned Allied equipment, often destroyed by airstrikes. His first action in the book is to support a company of assault pioneers as they take a French bunker. This assignment separates Boden's tank from the rest of his platoon and the regiment, and most of the book is spent trying to catch up with their unit, which allows for some smaller-scale battles, pitting Boden and whatever band of Germans they come across against some token French or British forces.

The action in this book is pretty well-written, and the author largely knows his technical details, although there are a couple of glitches here or there. A common editing mistake in this book is that the author sometimes mis-types "cm" and "mm" for weapons, so he'll reference a "20cm" anti-aircraft gun which is no doubt the German 20mm AA autocannon, and this sort of thing happens a few more times throughout the book. In my experience, Germans tend to refer to their weapons by centimeter caliber, while the British refer to them by millimeters, so I think the author just never quite figured out which he wanted to use and there was the resulting mixup. There are a couple of other minor details that he gets wrong - for example, the KwK 30 autocannon in his Panzer II can fire both armor-piercing and high explosive ammunition, but the author states in the book on a couple of occasions that it can only fire AP. Whatever - it doesn't really matter, and there's a lot of other good information to make up for a couple of small mistakes.

There are several tank duels between Boden's Panzer II - a very light tank, more equivalent to an armored car than what we'd consider a real frontline tank - and both French and English tanks. Each scene is very tense, and the author does a good job of showing Boden's tactical prowess, maneuvering and picking just the right ground to fight from and the right moment to attack to make best use of his limited firepower. Those not so aware of German panzer history might not know it, but in the first few years of WW2, the majority of Germany's panzer inventory were light tanks, inferior in armor and firepower to the enemies they faced off against. It was their superior tactics, communication, and supporting elements that gave the panzers their victories. This is very well illustrated throughout the course of the novel.

Overall, I really enjoyed BLITZKRIEG. I was concerned going into the book that it was going to be a lot worse than it was, and although there are some cheesy interludes here and there (2 1/2 books into the series now, I see that the author likes having his characters encounter women during their downtime, with the usual "mature content" results), overall these books feel very gritty and unglamorous. A lot of men die very brutal, pointless deaths, and the survivors must carry on and do their duty no matter what.

These books were not particularly cheap to come by (I think I paid $10 for this book, not including shipping), but if you like WW2 fiction written at the height of the British War-Lit era of the 60s through early 80s, I think you'll enjoy the PANZER PLATOON series.


FreeLiverFree said...

I'm not sure how you could do a story from the German side with a genuine Nazi protagonist. The best you could do, I imagine, is have him go through character growth and have him eventually reject his Nazi beliefs. Even then I'm not sure anyone would want to read the book though to the part where he changes.

This reminded me of a storyline in the manga/anime Black Lagoon about a Japanese salaryman who joins a group of smugglers/pirates/mercenaries in the South Sea. One story dealt with them being hired to retrieve a painting from a sunken U-boat. Flashbacks to the last days of the U-boats crew (which borrows a lot from Das Boot) portray the Captain as a loyal soldiers who nevertheless hates the Nazis and his conflict with an SS officer who brought the painting on board.
The odd thing about it I realized later was that the Captain of the U-boat was probably more sympathetic than then most of the main characters since they are hardened criminals. In the manga version, one of them even massacres a group of innocent people for no other reason than she is in a bad mood. (Though she does go through some character growth...)

Jack Badelaire said...

Yeah, I just got the first two Nazi Paratrooper novels by Gunther Lutz, and three paragraphs into the first book, the author makes it clear that the main character has no love for Nazi ideology.

I find it interesting to see various properties where the "protagonist" is really a bad guy. Hannibal Lecter got his own television show, and he's a psychopathic cannibal. The MC members in Sons of Anarchy are all basically scumbags. Same with all the countless gangsters and other criminals in various movies and television shows - all guys who murder, steal, and otherwise cause death and chaos (I've seen some of Black Lagoon and I know what you mean).

And yet, we gobble it all up and beg for more. But the Nazis? 100% contemptible. I'm certainly glad it's that way - I'd be kind of disgusted otherwise - but it does make for an interesting intellectual exercise, to think of how one could write a Nazi protagonist that the readers would become somehow attached to, whether they liked it or not. Thankfully, its not anything I feel up to attempting any time soon...

FreeLiverFree said...

It's an interesting conversation to have here since this was more or less originally about the Death Merchant who was basically a psychopath. The thing about it, I don't think Joseph Rosenberger realized he was writing about a psychopath. In fact, I happen to have an old copy of a Destroyer book with an essay by Rosenberger about the Death Merchant (presumably to get people to buy the Death Merchant) where Rosenberger talks about DM being a moral man.
Donald Westlake knew his thief character Parker was basically amoral, but he knew it. He showed Parker as being pragmatic. He might kill someone to get the loot if he had too, but not if he didn't because why risk a death sentence? He also occasionally put Parker against people who would rape and kill on whim.
I think the Nazi thing is probably because if an otherwise decent person buys into a bad ideology (Nazism, Fascism, Communism really you should be skeptical of anything that ends in ism) can end up committing acts of almost mind-boggling evil.

Jack Badelaire said...

Agreed on all those points.

As an aside, I'm about halfway through the NAZI PARATROOPERS series, written by the same author of PANZER PLATOON, as mentioned in my comment above, we see almost immediately that the author makes it clear the main characters have no love at all for Nazi ideology. In fact, the main antagonist so far has been a paratrooper recruit who comes from an SS unit. I do find it amusing, however, that the publisher decided to go with such a brazen title for the series, complete with a swastika insignia. I suppose "Nazi Paratroopers" is easier for people to "get" than "fallschirmjäger" as a series title.

Ruizinho K said...

"Gunther Lutz" is indeed a pseudonym used by Charles Whiting, a prolific author of WWWII themed novels, and also a military historian.