Title: Straf Battalion
Author: Walter S. Zapotoczny Jr.
Publisher: Fonthill Media
This new hardback book from Fonthill Media gives a fine explanation of the German use of their penal battalions in WW2. Helpfully, it starts with a bit of background history to the culture of honour and the operation of penal units by the different German states prior to the National Socialists, the Nazis, coming to power. A penal system independent to the state. That however was to change after 1933.
There are details of the various prisons and camps, where prisoners had a chance to redeem themselves if they behaved themselves and carried out the missions they were given successfully. The reasons behind their sentences could be relatively serious or in some cases apparently quite trivial (hitting a superior officer, to 'waking up late'!). Conditions were harsh and rations poor but they had to withstand the punishment.
Not just a prison system, but one for soldiers and civilians who found themselves on the wrong side of the state authorities for whatever reason. The units that were formed were often put into the most dangerous positions on the front, conducting reconnaissance or mine clearance missions among others, and suffering high casualty rates. The important thing was that the German military saw them a valuable resource for replacements as the number of casualties rose through the years of the war. Having said that, a number were used on duties behind the front lines, such as anti-partisan sweeps, and their atrocities and behaviours were often quite brutal. It also explains the differences between the numerical designations applied to the various units. The individual units also have details of where and when they were formed, where they were used and what happened to them at the end of the war.
The book gives a good background and I thought an 'honest' explanation of what they did. There are 10 chapters in all, from The Nazi Penal System; Creation of Penal Units; the Classification and Organisation of Penal Units (sub-divided into the various types); SS Parachute Battalions; 36th Waffen SS Grenadier Division (the Dirlewanger Brigade); Storm and Infantry Units; 999th Light Africa Division; The German Replacement Army; Kreigsmarine and Luftwaffe Units; and finally Guilt by Association before you get to an Epilogue and 7 appendices packed with more detail.
This is a book packed with detail, covering a subject that I had never understood in such detail before and it makes for some interesting reading.
Thanks to Fonthill Media for our review copy.