The Underground War in Europe 1939-45
Penguin Allen Lane, 2022
Paperback 568pp RRP $34.99
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, June 2023
This book can best be described as a monumental work. The actual text is 849 pages containing an estimated 335,000 words, plus a further 62 pages of foot- and end-notes and a bibliography citing approximately 680 refence sources. But mor e than this, it is a monumental piece of research that memorialises the many thousands of men and women who gave their time, and, for far too many, their lives during the German/Italian Axis military occupation of most of the European continent during World War 2.
Ms Kochanski has given excellent cover of a wide range of Resistance. movements that came into being in at least twenty countries, the numerous quasi-military groups which were engaged in sabotaging the occupiers’ equipment and logistics networks, destroying their supply lines and communications, and killing their troops and the collaborators among residents of the occupied countries.
The structure and general nature of these groups were diverse. Some were led by military officers who had ‘gone underground’ after their units were broken up or disbanded after defeat or surrender. Some were created by individuals or small groups of both civilians and soldiers who refused to accept battlefield defeat. Many went into hiding and joined Resistance groups to avoid being conscripted to labour units in Germany or the commandeered industrial plants in occupied territories. Many groups were formed around a nucleus of people who had escaped to Britain ahead of the occupation of their countries, where they had been trained in espionage and sabotage and then returned to their homelands with the support of Allied liaison service personnel from organisations such as the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), and later, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). These two organisations throughout the war provided advisers and trainers, radio operators and liaison officers to many resistance groups, and also provided arms, explosives and communications equipment, food and medical supplies, usually by parachute drop from British and American or other Air Force squadrons specially formed and trained for this role. This support added to the Resistance groups’ ability to wage war on the occupying forces with something more than weapons that could be obtained from the defeat of Axis troops or raids on their supply depots and logistics systems.
Numerous resistance groups paid for this aid by providing the Allied powers with information on German troop strength and movements, new equipment, supply bases and fortifications. They also aided escaping war prisoners, giving them shelter and succour, and providing secret pathways to safety in neutral countries, from which many returned to continue the fight against the oppressors. Many civilian refugees were also aided to escape to friendly countries, if and when threatened with incarceration in death camps at places such as Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald or Ravensbruk, or in the forced labour camps that were set up to provide slave labourers for Germany’s overstretched industrial plants. Typically in each country there were usually several different resistance groups, each owing allegiance to different political and other movements. Some groups were loyal to the country's government-in-exile, to a deposed monarch or to a particular political party to religious organisation, or, in some cases to a foreign power, often the Moscow-based and pro-Russian Communist party.
This lack of common objectives meant that resistance groups sometimes carried out activities that were not in line with the general strategies of the British or American planners, so that tight controls were exercised on the resistance fighters in so far as this was possible. The problems were particularly noticeable in Greece, Yugoslavia and France, where some partisan groups were loyal to the monarchy - in Greece and Yugoslavia - as well as to groups which preferred to support a post-war republican government while other segments of the Resistance took its orders from supporters of the local Communist Party, or direct from Moscow. These differences created problems for the SOE and OSS liaison officers as it sometimes led to what amounted to civil wars, with a resistance group with a particular orientation sometimes joining up with German or Italian troops in a temporary alliance to put down a different group which supported some alternative leadership or allegiance.
Some Resistance groups were large, well-organised and posed a significant threat to the occupying enemy troops by destroying their equipment, shattering their supply lines, and killing many of the troops sent against them. Others, usually with an excess of zeal, became engaged against larger and better-equipped forces and suffered heavy losses. However there were successes, and the Germans particularly had to maintain large numbers of troops guarding supply lines and installations or in hunting down Resistance forces when they desperately needed troops in combat units in Russia, Italy, and after D-Day, in France and Eastern Europe.
All this activity is covered by Ms Kochanski in a clear and well-structured account which shows the depth and extent to the research that has gone into presenting a wide-ranging picture of the bitter and sometimes bloody fighting that went on between occupying troops and committed Resistance fighters in clashes in which little mercy was shown by either side.
German forces, especially when lead by coordinating their activities with the Waffen-SS and Gestapo, committed many atrocities against Resistance fighters and innocent bystanders. This was especially the case in Czechoslovakia where 199 men of the town of Lidice were massacred and over 180 women and children sent to labour camps as a reprisal for the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich, deputy to the SS leader Heinrich Himmler, and recently appointed Reichsprotekor in Czechoslovakia. Similar brutal retaliations took place in France, Greece, Holland and Russia and almost the entire Jewish population of the Warsaw ghetto was killed or sent to concentration camps from which few came out alive after the war. Detailed accounts of these horrors are given for almost every country in which there was a Resistance throughout the book, and show the depth of the research that has gone into this thorough study of some of the worst aspects of what was the bloodiest and most bitterly fought war of the last two centuries.
The Germans fought it out to the bitter end, sending teenage boys and old men to their deaths in the ruins of Berlin and other major cities, towns, villages and rural hamlets as Russian and Western Alliance troops rolled inexorably across the fields of Germany and surrounding countries. The many Resistance fighters who had survived until the Spring of 1945 rose against the occupying forces until disarmed by the Allied forces moving into the areas of Resistance operation, and gaining control over surrendering German, Italian and other national contingents for whom the war was now over.
Perhaps the saddest part of Ms Kochanski’s book is contained in the latter chapters on the Aftermath. As the Allies moved into Germany and other occupied countries, there were reprisals against German officials and collaborators. Many were tried by quasi-military courts and sentenced to death or long terms of imprisonment, many others died at the hands of Resistance fighters or civilian mobs - frequently without any opportunity to defend themselves. It is probable that similar reprisals took place in Eastern Europe as it came under Soviet control, for the Russians had loyal supporters in part of Eastern Europe and had scores to settle over the reprisal by German and other Axis forces against innocent civilians wrongly blamed for supporting Resistance groups particularly in Belorussia and the Ukraine.
This is not an easy book to read. While it is well written and superbly researched, it is also complex and written from the viewpoint of one who believed that the Resistance fighters were almost always right, and that some Axis personnel were brutal and acted against the Rules of War. As a consequence when Allied forces moved across Europe in 1945, many people in the occupied countries may have acted as brutally and as callously as did the Axis troops and officials, and possibly some miscarriages of justice took place and are glossed over.
For those who want to broaden their knowledge of Europe under Fascist occupation between 1939 and 1945, this is a book that should be read. For those who oppose totalitarian undemocratic forms of governance and civic administration, it is a warning of what could happen during and after a war of conquest. It is also a book that should be read carefully as it contains many messages for those who live under liberal democratic systems of governance as to what could happen if an autocratic totalitarian system of government is imposed as an outcome of war or a political coup. The author has created an excellent account of a horrifying era in our history and signposts the need not to let it happen again.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.