#122 – Reign Of Hell, Sven Hassel BOOK REVIEW

December 17, 2018
krauserpua

Reign of Hell

Personally, I preferred the Corgi covers

“Fucking get in there, my son!” is an expression of enthusiastic support that I rarely shout aloud. I’m a very rational, circumspect kind of man who likes to keep his opinions to himself. I dare say few of my regular readers could even suspect my political affiliations, so inscrutably do I hide my thoughts. But when reading Sven Hassel’s Reign Of Hell I kind of gave the game away.

“Fucking get in there, my son! Kill the commie bastards, you fantastic Nazi hero, you!”

Dunno, not really the best thing to say in a Belgrade cafe. Yugoslavia got the shit end of the stick in WWII and due to Tito’s partisans, they suffered Nazi reprisals on a scale exceeded only by Ukraine, Belarus and maybe Poland. The thing is, I’m not even pro-Nazi [1]. While I’m reading a book, I tend to take whoever’s side is doing the narration [2] as that aids immersion in the story. Thus had I been reading a Dennis Wheatley WWII Gregory Sallust story I’d side with the Allies, and if reading a Russian memoir, I temporarily side with the Reds.

It’s odd really, wanting the Germans to kill the Russians one minute and then the Russians kill the Germans the next. I suppose I’d make a natural Jew. If there’s an opening in The Cabal for a shameless propagandist, I’ll take the one Jordan Peterson vacates, thanks. Ply me with speaking tours, loose women, and lots of good food and I’ll serve your Satanic ends. Sign me up.

Wait. Where was I?

Okay, Reign Of Hell. So, I read all fourteen of Sven Hassel’s WWII pseudo-memoirs a coon’s age ago, when I lived in Japan. I absolutely loved them and for a while he was my favourite writer. As a rule I never re-read books so I put them on my shelf and that was the end of it. So when the WWII pseudo-memoir itch needed a scratching in 2018 I sought out many of the Hassel-a-like knock-offs such as Heinz Konsalik, Leo Kessler, Wolf Kruger and that Panzer Faust guy. I even enjoyed them. For a while, I began to think they were almost as good as the original Hassel novels.

Section 7

Section 7

Oh how wrong I was. It’s like comparing Michael Avallone to Raymond Chandler. Yeah, they are competent but that sprinkle of magic dust isn’t in the hack books. Oh no, going back to Hassel after a decade away was like dusting off Daygame Mastery again after years spent street hustling. Reign of Hell was fucking awesome, and so much better second time around now I know more about writing.

Look, it’s still a schlocky gruesome war story. It’s not winning any prizes for literature. But I had such a good time reading it. It concerns Section 7 of the 27th Tank Regiment, a penal battalion populated by coerced “volunteers” from prisons and officers busted down to ranks in courts martial. Sven narrates first person with his friends of Section 7: Tiny the huge potty-mouthed Berliner with a dog’s hearing and a skill at placing T-mines on T-34 tanks; Porta the skinny gap-toothed rogue who wears a yellow felt top hat into battle and goads officers constantly; Legionnaire the small wiry veteran of the French Foreign Legion and the Section’s silent assassin. This is what is missing from all the other hack WWII stories. Hassel’s books are full of character. You get to know these soldiers and they are very interesting.

Reign Of Hell hits the usual Hassel topics. It begins in the Sennelager military prison where raw recruits are abused and murdered before the survivors are press-ganged into Dirlewanger’s desperate pioneer battalion operating behind enemy lines. Section 7 is soon on the Eastern Front holding the front in a marsh against an amphibious Russian attack. Later they are tasked to hold a narrow pass atop a hill in a rearguard action but the Army never signals their retreat, so they tumble down a mountain side with the Reds hot in pursuit. Finally they end up brawling with military police in a Polish brothel during R&R. Standard Hassel fare, then.

Eastern Front

Getting stuck in, yesterday

It’s only now, in 2018, that appreciate why I loved Hassel’s stories so much. It’s the vividness with which he sets scenes, the Bottom World depravity of trench and parade ground life, and the pulsating combat scenes. You won’t find any of Leo Tolstoy’s grand philosophy on human action like the Battle of Borodino scene in War & Peace [3]. These are desperate men huddled together and dragging their comrades through hell and back.
There’s one chapter that really leapt out in how ghoulishly immersive it was. Section 7 has been evading capture in a huge forest, heading towards a river they must cross to get back to German lines. Approaching this, they spy a large farmhouse garrisoned by advancing Russians who are all blind drunk. They’ve roasted boars on an open spit outside and the Polish civilian Section 7 has leading them suspects his wife and daughters are prisoners inside.

We crept forward, crouching low in the long grass. The farm was in darkness, not a light shone in any of the windows. The horses in the stables had caught wind of us and were rearing and whinnying, stamping on the floor and kicking at the doors in an effort to be set free. They were good military beasts, and they sensed instinctively that we represented danger. But their masters lay in a drunken stupor and did not respond to their calls of alarm. The warm, sweet smell of hay and horse mingled with the acrid stench of stale vomit and spilt vodka. The smoke from the dying fire drifted towards us, bringing with it the fragrant delights of roast meat, and Porta ripped off a chunk with his bayonet as we passed. The flesh fell easily from the bones. Porta crammed a piece in his mouth, and the juice dribbled down his chin and on to his collar. His eyes clouded over in sheer ecstasy, and as if in a trance he reached out his hand for more.
“Oh no, you don’t!” said the Legionnaire smartly. He prodded him towards the farmhouse with the nozzle of the flame-thrower he was carrying. “You can come back for the rest of it when we’ve cleaned this place up.

You see, Section 7 are predators. While in pitched battles in tanks or ducking into trenches under artillery bombardment, Hassel presents his men as tiny, fragile figures swept up in the tides of destruction. But when they are in small teams, they are something entirely different. They are tigers on the hunt. Even when infiltrating a farmhouse stacked with Russians, the small section have time to squabble and stuff their faces. It gets ghoulish fast.

We stepped forward over the bodies and made our way down the hall. At the bend in the stairs were two enormous Cossack sergeants. They were seated side by side on the same step, wedged together by the width of their shoulders and sleeping with their heads drooping forward on to their chests. They had machine-guns in their laps. We took no chances. Tiny strangled them both with his bare hands.

As I carefully skirted the two dead sergeants, there was a sudden noise and a vodka bottle came hurtling towards me, followed at full speed by Tiny, who had trodden on it in the semi-darkness and missed his footing. They both crashed on to the stone floor. One of the sleeping Russians opened his eyes and sat up in panic, but Heide slit his throat before he had time to take in what was happening.

I’m telling you, it’s a vivid, spine-chilling scene and it really pulls you in. Hassel has really mastered the art of casual savagery. Often, dead strikes in an instant and is immediately forgotten. It reminded me of the first time I played Operation Flashpoint, years back. I was used to Call Of Duty and Medal Of Honour, games full of explosion and drama, with tightly scripted battle scenes. In Operation Flashpoint‘s first mission I had to drive a jeep out to a forest and run a patrol. My squad encountered a Russian patrol and a very brief firefight ensued. Most bullets missed but I shot down a Red and…. he just fell, and the corpse stayed there. We moved on. Somehow the randomness of the skirmish and the meaninglessness of the computer character’s death was far more impactful than the scripted bombast of other games.

Sven Hassel battle scenes often feel like that. Other times, he’ll make a really big deal out of it and let you get to know the unlucky soldier / partisan / civilian first. The sweep of his narrative from high-level down to the mud-between-the-fingernails of trench warfare can be thrilling in it’s fast pace. Don’t take these books as serious – I’m sure actual soldiers would consider them an insult on the integrity of most armies – but as schlocky war entertainment you can’t do any better.

It would be rather nice if some of you would buy my textbooks Daygame Mastery and Daygame Infinite, or possibly Daygame Overkill, so I can buy myself a few new video games this Christmas. Check out my products here.

[1] Not much, anyway.
[2] Unless they are gay, feminist, black, tranny, Jewish, Paki, Arab, Turk, Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Canadian, French, or a PUA.
[3] Haven’t actually got that far through Tolstoy yet. But then again, few have. Tolstoy’s take on “Great Man” theory of history as expressed in the Battle Of Borodino is clearly explained in the Wordsworth Classics introduction. Thus any time I hear someone show off making this point, I always think they just read the introduction and are faking it. I mean, a 650,000 word book and you all pick exactly the same chapter and interpretation thereof?

One Comment

  1. <>

    “A Classic is a book people praise and don’t read” — Mark Twain

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