Friday, July 25, 2014

Review of Cross of Iron by Willi Heinrich (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1956)

Spring 1943 and the Germans are slowly retreating across the Kuban peninsula, east of Crimea.  Steiner and his platoon are left as a rear-guard whilst the rest of the regiment fall back to take up new positions.  Their job is to try and delay the Russian advance, then rejoin their comrades, sneaking through enemy lines if need be.  It’s pretty much a suicide mission, but if anyone can navigate through the swamps, forests and enemy soldiers it’s Corporal Rolf Steiner.  Since the death of his girlfriend in a mountaineering accident just prior to the war, Steiner has had little regard for his own life or others.  It makes him an excellent soldier, but one that is essentially a loner who doesn’t care about rank, protocol or medals.  His platoon look to him for guidance.  His superiors like his can-do attitude, but not his insubordination.  In general, both are prepared to tolerate his prickly personality because of his inherent leadership, cunning and bravery, especially in difficult and dangerous situations.  And if Steiner succeeds in leading his platoon back to the frontline, they’re still two thousand kilometres from home, facing a Russian army determined to destroy them.

Cross of Iron is considered one of the classic combat novels about the Eastern Front in World War Two.  First published in 1955 (German) and translated in 1956, it is written by Willi Heinrich, who served with the 101st Jäger Division from 1941-45 and was wounded five times.  The 101st Jäger Division took part in the Battle for Kharkov and Caucasus campaign, then after the defeat at Stalingrad retreated along the Kuban peninsula toward Crimea, up into Ukraine, through Slovakia, Hungary and ending the war in Austria, suffering seven hundred per cent casualties.  Heinrich’s intimate knowledge of warfare and the terrain of battle, the personal dynamics between comrades, and the politics and ambitions of military leaders are clearly evident in narrative.  The story follows Corporal Rolf Steiner, a classic anti-hero, and members of his platoon and their immediate superiors.  The setup is very nicely done, tracing Steiner’s personal and collective battles, especially his relationship with his platoon members and Captain Stransky, his aristocratic battalion commander who desires the coveted cross of iron but does not want to earn it.  Rather than glorifying the war action, Heinrich instead delivers gritty social realism -- the daily grind of staying alive, everyday encounters with wounds and death, petty and class politics and personal rivalries, the formation of bonds between men who would never otherwise associate with one another, and the brutality of close quarter fighting.  The result is a compelling, sometimes harrowing, read, with a strong storyline and characterisation.


1 comment:

melhealy said...

The Sam Peckinpah film (James Coburn, James Mason et al) made a lasting impression when I saw it many moons ago - didn't realise that there's an even better book behind it.