Is This Book For Real?

tiger_tracks_faustWe’ve been reading Tiger Tracks: The Classic Panzer Memoir by Wolfgang Faust. Republished by Sprech Media, which publishes and republishes English translations of German combat memoirs of WWII (mostly), this is a 1947 memoir by a Panzer VI Tiger driver who fought on the Eastern Front, it says here. Its German title was the Wagnerian Panzerdämmerung. 

But there are a few details that give us pause. In the first place, it’s graphic to the point of gaudy. Here’s a taste:

One such tank shot at us with a maniacal speed, its tracer rounds flashing past us as we manoeuvred around it to put a shell in from its side. Our 88mm round went exactly centre, just above the snow-covered tracks. The turret hatch lifted up and detonating ammunition spiralled out into the red-tinged sky, adding to the smoke pouring across the stained, rutted snow. Even then, the driver’s hatch opened and a crew man emerged, still in his protective headgear, holding a machine pistol. He fired on us with the little gun, the bullets pattering on our front armour, until our hull MG man brought him down with a single shot. Every round had to count now, had to find its mark; while every manoeuvre and evasion used up our dwindling fuel.

I lost track of time in that fight, with my head spinning from the amphetamines and my body unaware of pain. I noticed, with a strange detachment, that the sky was whitening, and the sun was now looming over the ridge above us. It was a fierce, crimson sun, casting jagged shadows from the peaks, and lighting the scattered wrecks of panzers that burned around us. In its light, the Stalins withdrew up the slope, reversing rapidly, firing as they left. Our 75mm PAK in the bunkers caught one of them with repeated hits as it lurched backwards in the snow, smashing off the very tip of its pointed hull. The Red tank kept on reversing, with two crewmen visible inside the hull through the split-open front. Wilf was unable to resist the temptation: he fired directly into the exposed compartment. Cool as always, he had selected high-explosive, and the detonation of the shell deep inside the confined steel box blew out the driver and machine-gunner from the fractured hull, sending them cartwheeling across the snow, trailing smoke. The Stalin’s ruptured compartment became an inferno of orange flames, in which other men were visible, struggling and writhing, until the vehicle was enveloped in its own smoke.1

Driver station of the Tiger in running condition at Bovington. Note vision block (all images embiggen with a click).

Driver station of the Tiger in running condition at Bovington. Note vision block (all images embiggen with a click).

There’s a lot of writhing in flames in this book. Hits on tanks frequently let Faust (through his single vision block!) observe the deaths of the Russian or German crew inside. Hits on half-tracks (which he calls “Hanomags,” after the original manufacturer) do likewise, when they don’t blow vividly-described body parts in the air, launch vehicles in the air to land on screaming Panzer Grenadiers, or scythe heads off.

It’s all very Hollywood. One scene has German infantry struggling in neck-deep snow until an artillery shell neatly beheads them, leaving their “red spurting necks” as the only parts visible. It all seems rather over-the-top, even for the eastern front.

No doubt there was unimaginable carnage, we don’t question that. We question whether one guy could see all that carnage, although one guy could certainly see lots of carnage and imagine the details.

And there are a few oddities. He claims to be fighting JS- (or IS-)3 Stalin tanks in 1943. He just calls them “Stalins,” but its clear from the way he describes the vehicles — domed turret, and a precise description of the arrangement of the glacis armor — that he’s talking about a JS-3, not the earlier Stalin I or II tanks. (The JS-1 resembled the Tiger and other prewar and early-war tanks in its armor layout, and had a roughly square turret. The JS-2 had a turret resembling a T-34-85). Yet every reference we’ve seen suggests that Chelyabinsk Tractor Works, the Soviets’ go-to tank shop, didn’t start on the Objekt 702 project until the fall of 1944 at the earliest, and the JS-3s first showed up in combat in the Battle of Berlin, and were unknown to the Western Allies until the first Soviet victory parades.

Finally, there is an entirely implausible subplot with a captured Russian female lieutenant. Ripped right out of the movie script, that!

And yet… there are parts that ring true. There’s Faust hastily cannibalizing a vision block from a knocked-out Tiger, and detailed descriptions of the running gear and its limitations. He never drives his Tiger at an unreasonable speed — it was a slow tank, and he’s typically grinding along at  a plausible 10 or 20 km/h. For example, these sound plausible to us:

Inside our panzer, it was humid now, as the groaning transmission became hot and warmed the sealed-in air. Condensation collected on my dials, scalding oil from the transmission spat on my face, the reek of carbon monoxide made my head throb, and I almost envied our commander up in the turret, still with his head up in the morning air – despite the risk he ran of losing that clever brain to a shell or a sniper.2

This running gear layout is a Tiger II, but it gives you a sense of German practice.

This running gear layout is a Tiger II, but it gives you a sense of German practice.

Driveshafts and transmissions crowded the driver in his position in the left bow of a Tiger. And this should ring true to any former tank or mech guy:

Our Tigers were never designed to drive sustained journeys, not even on smooth city roads. The stress and wear to the running gear was too great, and the entire engine and transmission itself only lasted for 1,000 kilometres before being completely replaced. Several of our panzers were at that point now , and their crew muttered gloomily about the prospects of them finishing the journey at all without burning out or seizing up. Even the track links – those great chunks of steel weighing ten kilos each – wear quickly under the duress, and the tracks must be tightened and adjusted if the track is not to snap or become tangled on the drive wheels. The pins that hold the links together are thick metal rods, like your grandmother’s biggest knitting needle – but if one breaks, the sixty tonne panzer can be lost.3

One is left with the impression that perhaps the author is a trained Tiger driver, or at least has read his Tigerfibel closely, but has embellished his combat experience to make for a more vivid (and horrifying, and salable) book. Some years ago we reviewed very positively a book by a Soviet TC who fought on this same front in a T-34; Vassily Bryukhov’s descriptions of combat were no less vivid, but were much more credible than Faust’s.

We suspect we are not the first to have doubts about this work, and wonder if it was equally controversial when it was first published in war-wracked Germany.

UPDATES

A small note at the end of the book’s text says that “Wolfgang Faust” is a pseudonym, and the names of all others in the book have also been changed.

At book’s end, Faust is very nearly a sole survivor (his TC, a unit XO turned commander, is another). While there certainly have been sole survivors of crews, units, etc. in history, “sole survivor” is a very common claim in wannabe war stories, perhaps to explain plausibly the lack of corroborating witnesses.

A reader in Germany  tells us that there is absolutely no reference to this “classic Panzer memoir” discoverable on the German-language internet; he reminds us of the stirring Boy’s Own type tales that were printed in the pulp mag Der Landser (something like a German equivalent of The GI) during the magazine’s 1954-2013 run. (It has resurfaced as Weltkrieg, “World War”, and seems to have its roots in a wartime propaganda pulp for Hitlerjugend boys. They also were apocryphal stories, with brave heroes, minimal Nazi politics, accurate technical details and lurid combat scenes.

NOTES

  1. Faust, Wolfgang (2015-03-04). Tiger Tracks – Classic Panzer Memoir (Kindle Locations 1769-1782). Bayern Classic Publications. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ibid., Kindle Locations 59-62.
  3. Ibid., Kindle Locations 718-724.

28 thoughts on “Is This Book For Real?

  1. Dan F

    I have also read this book and I don’t think it is real. I agree that the author was a Tiger tank driver but I doubt any battle happened in the way it was described. It is a short war story at least written by a veteran.

    Amazon has a few of these stories from the same publisher for the Kindle under the history category if anyone wants to check them out.

  2. Kirk

    I’ve read a lot of these German memoirs, over the years. You have to be careful when you read them, because all too many of them have been embellished for the credulous. And, not necessarily by the purported author, either. Sometimes the translator is the lying shit, sometimes the publisher, and in a lot of recent cases, the family member who “discovered” Opa’s memoirs in the closet.

    A lot of this stuff is hard to evaluate, especially in translation. If the details don’t make sense, or seem like bullshit, it could have come from any of the above sources. And, it’s like Allied tanker memoirs–Every tank was a Tiger, even if it wasn’t.

        1. Hognose Post author

          I’ve only read one of Scalzi’s works (“Old Man’s War,” on the blogbrother’s recommendation (he’s the big SF reader in the whole family, but has got me into some of it, and meeting Jerry Pournelle was a big thrill. Not that that was at all hard at that time — 2004).

          Anyway, I thought Old Man’s War was a high concept (that’s been done, I think, before) somewhat spoilt by a man writing about a subject he was confident he knew too well to bother researching, to wit, combat.

          A whole generation of authors have formed their conception of combat from David Grossman. Who formed his conception of combat from previous generations of writers. It’s turtles all the way down!

          1. Kirk

            Do NOT get me started on Grossman. I met the man when he was first starting out, hawking his book at the PX when he was over supporting Advanced Camp for ROTC at Lewis.

            He’s a nice enough guy, but he’s also a.) Never been there or done that, and b.) ‘Effing delusional. When I talked to him, for about 30 minutes because nobody else was paying attention to him where he’d set up his table by the bookstore, he never once really answered the questions I had about the “research” he did. I’d already read his book, months before he showed up, and I kept wanting to know what actual studies and so forth he’d done. It was pretty much all scholarly academic research in existing literature, at that point: Not a damn thing he was saying about “propensity to kill” was based on reality. Hell, he didn’t even know that most of what S.L.A. Marshall was saying was bullshit, either. He also couldn’t answer me when I asked him if he’d ever gone beyond the anecdotal stories of multiply-loaded muzzle loaders from Civil War battlefields, to try to isolate that from other possible causes, like the effect of piss-poor training and inexperienced troops.

            I still can’t quite get how someone with half a brain and a little real-world experience with how fire teams and squads work would ever buy the idea that somehow, 80% of the troops weren’t firing their weapons in a combat action. Uh, hello… Do I not lead these guy? Do I not issue them their ammo? Cross-level, after a firefight? Would I tolerate having the majority of my fire team or squad not doing a damn thing as I run and gun with the minority that are? Would that minority put up with being the only guys actually, y’know, fighting?

            Grossman also couldn’t explain how so many American troops managed to survive Banzai charges by the Japanese, in the Pacific theater, if only a small minority was actually firing at them. In Europe, cowering ineffectively in a foxhole might well have been somewhat survivable, in that the nice Germans might take your sorry ass prisoner. In the Pacific? Yeah, right… The Japanese loved nothing better than sticking a bayonet into people who were laid out in hospital wards–I’m supposed to believe that 80% of the front line troops weren’t shooting at the ones coming for them in their front-line positions?

            I do have to say that Grossman does have a rather glib presentation going, after also sitting through a class he was paid big money to give to a bunch of us getting ready for OIF. What was really amazing, however, is how little he’d done to fill in the holes with his whole thesis. I’m still waiting for an answer for why there’s no mention of extensive post-traumatic stress in the Mongol Army, after slaughtering all the civilians in Samarkand, though. If Grossman was right, most of the Mongol troopers should have been fucking catatonic in the aftermath of putting the population to the sword and digging through their intestines for swallowed valuables…

          2. Keith

            I am very glad to see that you guys are not drinking the Grossman kool-aid here. I just started taking some criminal justice classes this semester and the guy is cropping up here and there. It won’t happen this semester but if I get the opportunity I’ll write a paper about him and his “facts”.

          3. Hognose Post author

            He is a favorite of 300 lb. cops. Like I said (maybe not in this thread, but I’ve told the story before), we offered him a chance to debrief a bunch of JSOC and SF guys if he’d like… he was freakin’ terrified of us. Ran away.

          4. Kirk

            Grossman is a perfect example of what happens when you put a mediocre mind into a position way past the level of its competence. He’s been trading on the fact that he was an instructor at West Point like it means something, which in a lot of cases, it doesn’t. I’ve actually heard a couple of other West Point cadre-types pointing at him and making fun of him, over that.

            For the sort of claims he’s been making, he ought to have specialization in psychology and a few other fields. He doesn’t. He’s got no real research, backing him up, and what little he has doesn’t say what he thinks it does. I think he’s a nice guy, but a little warped by the view of human nature he’s taken, based on his (apparently) devout Christianity. The man simply does not believe that humans are capable of evil. This whole idea he has about some “human reluctance to kill other humans” is just… Ludicrous. Even if you’ve never met someone who is like that, even a casual relationship with a newspaper or a history book would tell you that such a thing simply doesn’t exist. I agree that it would be nice if it did, but it doesn’t.

            If he’d stuck to the idea that “Well-socialized Westerners don’t like killing other Westerners”, I’d be OK. But, when you start looking at the alacrity and joy that many of those “reluctant killers” in the Civil War era displayed when the opportunity to kill Indians arose, I’m kinda dubious. There wasn’t a hell of a lot of “socialization” required for the loggers in the area of Oregon my great-grandfather ran his sawmill in to collect the bounties they were offered for Indians. It wasn’t even frowned on, in polite society. I’ve seen letters written where people were casually mentioning how much money they’d earned doing it, on top of their salaries in the logging camps.

            Getting humans to kill other humans isn’t that hard. What’s hard is getting them to stop, or at all restrain themselves. Look at how easy it was for those idiots in 5/2 to lose their path and kill Afghani civilians, and that’s with the dubious benefit of having been raised and educated in a “modern society”.

          5. Y.

            People who fail to even have a clue about basic science concepts should be banned from writing SF.

            Scalzi also wrote how the soldiers have green photosynthesizing skins, to help cut down on food requirements.

            ….

  3. Tim, '80s Mech Guy

    The original story was probably edited and ghostwritten to spice it up, hours and days keeping that pig rolling got replaced buy minutes of pink mist.

  4. 2000£ of Education

    While we’re on the topic of German Eastern Front memoirs, what’s the group consensus on “Forgotten Soldier”? I read it before I was aware of the controversy surrounding its authenticity and the book, overall, struck me as believable, given its focus on the horrors of war. When on the Eastern Front, I tend to believe in the horrors of war. Plus, the author mentions several times how much MPs suck. True fact, can confirm!

    1. Kirk

      I think “Guy Sajer”, whoever the hell he is, has had his ups and downs. When I first read that book back in the 1980s, it was acclaimed as gospel. Then, someone came in about ten years later, and decried it as “faked”. Consensus shifted. Then, someone did some more research, and validated it again…

      At this point, I really don’t know. Most of it seems to be fairly realistic, and in keeping with what I know of the German Army of the period, and supposedly they’ve vetted him again as being truthful.

      Honestly, there’s a lot of bullshit out there. You have to be careful, educated yourself, and then try to verify details. I’ve done what amounted to semi-formal interviews with former German soldiers, and then gone back to the maps and history books to find corroborating details. If I can find them, then I accept what I’m told. Can’t find them? Welllllll… That doesn’t always mean they’re full of crap–Place names in Eastern Europe between the ’40s and now are highly problematic, and what was called one thing is now something else. Plus, the German Army name for a location doesn’t always jibe with what the Russians were calling the city, either.

      There’s a huge market for this stuff, and people are cashing in on it. Caveat emptor, and all that.

      1. Hognose Post author

        There was a popular book in the 1980s that was supposedly all true, or at least a roman à clef, called The Five Fingers by Gayle Rivers, supposedly about some kind of multinational or ANZAC team in Vietnam. It was patently bullshit, but it had a lot of details that suggested the author was a light infantry or SOF soldier, possibly NZ SAS, or was well connected to same.

        I removed a post here about an American author whose credibility was in question, at his request, as a personal favor. He wants his privacy, and so I don’t mention his name, and neither should any of you, OK?

        1. Tim, '80s Mech Guy

          Was wondering when/who would bring up “The Five Fingers” it set off my BS detector when I read it at fifteen but I did find it entertaining BS. And as Mr. Nemoy said “It’s Crap but it’s entertainig Crap and isn’t that what’s really important ?”

          Speaking of tanks and last weeks Sci-Fi post, did “Hammers Slammers” ever come up?

  5. Ryan

    It’s always disheartening to find out the book you’re reading isn’t a true account. First time it happened to me was a book called “Thirty-One Years on the Plains” by William F. Drannan. Got about half way through before realizing it.

    In regards to Panzers in WW2, my favorite (and only) one so far must be “Panzer Commander” by von Luck. Audible has an excellent audio book rendition which I highly recommend.

  6. Keith

    I recently finished Tigers in the Mud. It’s a good book, though it gets really rather wehraboo at the end. The author describes American forces and basically being blitheringly incompetent, despite the fact that they managed to defeat his vaunted Wermacht.

    1. Hognose Post author

      It’s possible for a guy to think his own army/unit is superior even after they’ve been handed their ass. I recall Akio Morita (famous head of Walkman-era Sony) who was a Japanese engineer during the war, thought Japanese and US technology were basically at peer level. Then he examined a crash-landed B-29, which shook him. The A-bomb finally convinced him. It wasn’t until the US had an effective IR Air-to-Air Missile, the project he’d been working on at war end (circa late 50s), that he realized that the one he was working on had been a technical dead end and his peers weren’t far enough along to see that. (The key would be a cooled sensor). Now, that’s a tech example, but for a tactical example, it’s likely that many German tankers won all their tactical fights only to wind up in captivity due to their tanks breaking down or their rear areas being overrun.

      Those guys are less likely to feel beaten, than guys who woke up in a wrecked tank, being taken into captivity by enemy medics.

      1. Kirk

        That’s not a bad way to sum it up. In a lot of ways, German leg infantry was better than our guys. However, when you start totting up the ways our whole system was superior, there’s really no way in hell the Germans were going to come out on top.

        One German I talked to was pretty blunt about it all. He was a guy who’d pretty much wound up on a walking tour of Europe, being in a unit that went in on the initial wave in Poland, France and the Soviet Union. The only train rides he got were the ones where he was being evacuated to the hospital and returning therefrom. His comment was that he knew the war was lost when the US Army put his ass on the back of a truck to haul off to a POW camp in France, and he realized that there were no American troops making foot marches for normal rear-area movements the way he had been forced to.

  7. Theo

    A key point that you brought up is how much could he actually see? I am an armor guy and fighting buttoned up means you can’t see much. The driver would depend on his tank commander for directions because the only thing can see is the small slice of the world thanks to his vision port. The German Tiger only had one direct vision port and one fixed periscope in the hatch (more detail: http://tiger1.info/EN/Drivers-vision-port.html ) that pointed to the side. I find it hard to believe unless he was riding head out of his hatch (unlikely if he survived…) that he could have physically seen what he describes (not even getting into the graphic detail he captured during a fast moving battle).

    And Grossman, don’t even get me started on him. I can’t believe anyone reads his books anymore.

  8. MtTopPatriot

    WM, have you read Battle Leadership by Cpt. Adolph Von Schell?
    Von Schell was a small unit infantry leader during WWl, he wrote a riveting accounts and observations on combat and the tactics he and his men employed.
    Got my copy from the Marine Corps Association, http://www.mca-Marines.org

    Copyright is 1933 by Major Edwin F. Harding
    Printed by The Benning Herald

    The battle accounts are sublime in my amateur opinion, Schell goes into great detail about administrating to his men’s welfare, and the uncertainties, aka, fog of war. They are true foot solders too, and those accounts are worth it alone. In one account he finds himself and his men brutally pinned down on a slope where the only thing keeping them alive is the tiniest terrain features, where even moving their heads an inch or so to get an eye on the enemy gets you killed. They manage to get out, but its a pickle for sure. Quite a piece of writing, no question this dude is the real deal.

  9. Y.

    >>At book’s end, Faust is very nearly a sole survivor (his TC, a unit XO turned commander, is another). While there certainly have been sole survivors of crews, units, etc. in history, “sole survivor” is a very common claim in wannabe war stories, perhaps to explain plausibly the lack of corroborating witnesses.<<

    I wonder about this. Some time ago I read a memoir by a Luftwaffe bomber pilot, who mentioned that by 1944 his unit has suffered so many casualties there were only three air crew left of those who started out in '39. 330% casualties.

    The book wasn't too fantastic and my BS meter barely even twigged.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I think British and US air units had similarly high casualties, in general. In the Luftwaffe the grind started earlier… still there are entire 1939 and 1940 classes of pilots in the RAF OCTUs who learned to fly Spits or Hurricanes and didn’t see 1941.

      1. Kirk

        The Luftwaffe was far, far worse than any of the allies, just like the Japanese. Both Germany and Japan ran their pilots like they were machines, leaving them in service long after they should have been sent back to the training pipeline to pass on what they’d learned. If you were a German pilot, you were never going to see a break–You’d fly until you were either wounded or dead. Same-same Japanese policies.

        We had mediocre pilots that were trained by seasoned veterans. The Germans and Japanese had a few superstar aces, and a host of poorly trained replacements that didn’t get any expert tutelage until they were out in the units, where they usually died before they got any good at combat flying.

        There’s some German pilot out there who commented something about this, and I really wish I could remember who it was and precisely what he said–It was incredibly bitter and to the point. I think he was very, very tired of trying to keep the young replacement pilots alive, like some sort of demented mother duck whose ducklings kept walking up to the predators.

        So, yeah… There were a lot of “sole survivors” out there in the German aviation world. And, a lot elsewhere, on the German side. There wasn’t a formal system for taking people back out of the line units for training slots, as there should have been. I remember one guy I talked to bitterly talking about how some of the NCOs wound up spending the entire war working in the Ersatzheer, or replacement army. It wasn’t whether or not you’d been at the front, it was who you knew and whether you could keep your nose clean in the rear.

        1. Hognose Post author

          One of the true wonders of the war is the excellence and throughput of the British and American training base (and, although it’s less well known, the Soviet one) compared to the Axis practice of eating their seed corn. This reached its apogee in the making-hope-a-method tactic of tai-atari or Kamikaze attack. (The Germans also encouraged ramming attacks late in the war, and went beyond the Japanese practice of sending half-trained 16 year olds up in warplanes, by actually planning to put children trained only in gliders into rocket interceptors). Compared to that we had the Empire Training Scheme and Air Training Command, and, as you note, a policy of crew rotation (which, at first, was somewhat theoretical as few survived to the rotation point)..

          I’m reading a much more credible Axis book right now… a series of reminisces of Japanese survivors of Iwo Jima, who were, of course, very few in number. The racial War of Identity nature of the war, Japan’s own well-publicized atrocities, and Japanese beliefs (moral and physical) about surrender all produced an army (and a lot of ground-bound Naval personnel) all conspired to make survival nearly impossible.

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