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An occasional article on a noteworthy book read by a CWA Club member

 

 

 

Panzer Gunner by Bruno Friesen

Sometimes a brain, befuddled by a renowned expert's all-enveloping epic history of a military campaign, longs for something a bit more basic. A hair-of-the-dog pint of scrumpy after last night's bottle of Chateau Lafite.

 

A personal memoir written from actual experience usually does the job, so I picked up Panzer Gunner by Bruno Friesen with its intriguing sub-title;

 

FROM MY NATIVE CANADA TO THE GERMAN OSTFRONT AND BACK

IN ACTION WITH 25TH PANZER REGIMENT, 7th PANZER DIVISION 1944-45

 

The author was born in Canada to ethnic German Ukrainians. Just before the outbreak of war his father decided to emigrate from Canada to Germany, though none of the family had ever been there and his children spoke very little German. No real explanation is given but one can only surmise that even from a distance of several thousand miles Friesen senior had became an ardent admirer of Hitler and the Nazis. The consequence of his delusion was the eventual death of one of his sons in combat and a miserable existence for his family, though none of this is described. At 14 Bruno and his brother were sent in advance to Germany where after a series of not particularly enlightening adventures Bruno finds himself conscripted into the army at aged 17.

 

Training was interrupted by an interesting diversion to Italy were the author takes great delight in describing how off-duty soldiers entertained themselves in the local brothels. He's eventually posted to a Panzer IV regiment. As a gunner he has some fascinating details on command and control within a tank and ranges for AP and HE shells. He describes the method and science involved in hitting the target. A task it would appear he was pretty good at.

 

What follows is a series of surprisingly small scale engagements in Romania and Lithuania. He never really knows the big picture, I suspect that is pretty universal for the man at the sharp end.

 

The usual course of events was for his little platoon of three or so Panzer IVs, sometimes supported by around a dozen infantrymen, to lie in wait  -  usually covering a road. A platoon or two of T35/85s appear and get shot up. The panzers withdraw worried that the Shturmoviks will come a-knocking (they never do). These vignette sized scenarios look tailor-made for the wargames table.

 

At the start of 1945 his unit was re-equipped with the Jagdpanzer IV, an up-gunned tank destroyer version of the Panzer IV. There followed another bout of sparing with the Russians, this time in West Prussia. A favourite tactic for the panzers was hiding amongst, or even within, buildings with just the long 75mm gun barrel pointing out. The long barrel eventually ended the authors career in panzers when it knocked against a building, a common enough experience we're told. Taken back to the rear-area workshop facilities it was deemed too badly damaged to repair. Bruno found out later that the mechanics only declared it such so that they could use the panzer as armoured transport home.

 

The general style of these anecdotes is invariably jaunty, such as this passage when his platoon withdrew in a hurry with their Panzer Grenadier supports riding on the back of the tank destroyers;

 

"Our only requests to our passengers were that, if possible, they say clear of the periscopes, that none of them get their trousers sucked off their asses by cooling air rushing through the air intake louvers and that others not get their balls cooked by the hot air expelled through the exhaust louver."

 

There is none of the appalling blood, sweat and tears described so relentlessly in Robert Kershaw's Tank Men.

 

In general I don't mind if such personal memoirs are lacking in literary merit. I suspect that Bruno fancies himself as a bit of a writer and I feel he would have been better off keeping it simple. It's written in what could best be described as a somewhat eclectic style, stuffed with scrapbook filler and rather obvious quotes pilfered from Shakespeare and Goethe that do little to enlighten the reader. At best it's a poor cousin to that other gunner's memoirs (this time playing for the right team) Ken Tout. A lot is down to the editors not doing their job, there isn't an index for example and the maps are virtually useless.

 

One very odd appendix entitled Copy of a memorandum regarding the number of Canadians who saw the Panther tank in Italy in World War II doesn't actually tell you anything of the sort. And anyway, what relevance does it have to a German panzer IV gunner's experience of life and death on the Eastern Front.

 

In wargames terms there is value in this book, and it does have a sort of quirky charm. However, there is no sense of the dirt and horror of war, nothing of what attracted non-Germans to fight for Hitler and the Nazis. It's all a bit of a lark. But then, I suppose he was still a very young man.

 

CR

 Panzer Gunner

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