Thursday, January 15, 2009

Book Review: Devil's Guard by George Robert Elford

This book is popular amongst US troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Published in 1971, it’s supposedly a non-fictional account of an ex-Waffen SS officer who joined the French Foreign Legion and was sent to fight the Viet Minh guerrillas in the jungles of Indochina in the late 1940’s and early 50’s.

It’s clear when reading it that it is not a true account, but fiction. I speculate that the book was written specifically for the US combat trooper, then still in Vietnam fighting the Vietcong guerrillas. The American author recognizes that what made it so difficult to fight that war for the GI was that you were hampered by rules of engagement:

1. Forbidden to engage civilians as they harbor or openly support the guerillas.

2. Forbidden to cross the border to enemy safe havens and supply depots in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Fictionally, to solve those problems, enter Hans Wagmeuller, an SS officer, fighting in the first Vietnam War, not bound by any rules of decency and commanding a specially formed German battalion (The Devil’s Guard) for the Légion étrangère. The French, desperate to fight for their colonies, turned a blind eye to the pasts of these former enemy soldiers and possible war criminals; set loose in the jungle and with experience fighting Russian “partisan” fighters, these men weren't going to flinch:

I was resolved to show the enemy that terror, brutality, and cold blooded murder were not their monopoly, a Communist privilege, and that at least my battalion was ready to pay them tit for tat. They understood no other language.

“The French are great fort builders,” the Germans laugh. Wagmeuller observes the result of French garrison mentality - supply convoys getting ambushed, outposts being overrun - and fashions his own unit to fight like guerillas. They move fast and quietly in the jungles and hills and unleash carnage and death on countless communist camps, fighters and hostile villages. If you are squeamish about such things, don’t read it because this is full-on ‘war porn’. (To use the term from “Jarhead” about troops watching combat movies to see the action, not for the anti-war moral message.)

The 900 man brigade view all civilians, even in French controlled areas, as potential enemies. Never get fooled by the peasants in the rice patties because they’re more than likely to report your position or even directly engage you when your guard is down.

It shows the futility of fighting these kinds of engagements. If you leave them alone, you could get killed - there were plenty of grenade lobbying grannys, mothers and children. But alternatively what are you going to do, kill off the whole population? The villagers themselves might not like the communists, but opposition is sure death. Ho Chi Minh and his communists seized power by force and aggressively indoctrinated the people.
Back then, the north was technically still controlled by the French and headquarters was in Hanoi, not Saigon. Newly victorious Mao Tse Tung in China was a vital ally for the Viet Minh. They provided border area safe havens, as well as money, arms and military advisors.

After a devastating hit to a French garrison, courtesy of a well known Chinese in command of a Viet Minh division, Wagmeuller decides he’s going to covertly cross the Chinese border to destroy two enemy bases. French high command are aware of it, but pretend not to be and certainly would never approve it (wink). The key is that not a single prisoner or body can be left behind as proof of the incursion, or it would cause an international incident. The Chinese and Viet Minh, comfortable in their sanctuary are caught off guard, and the Germans manage to inflict major casualties, and destroy bases, trucks and supplies, on their commando mission.

You can see why the book was as popular back then with US troops, as it is now. In 2009, it’s a different time and place (the Middle East) but they’re fighting against guerrillas with, as the saying went in Vietnam, “One hand tied behind their backs” - fighting an enemy that mixes in with civilian populations, and who are supplied from over borders that they themselves aren’t allowed to cross. It's hard to win a war that way and Wagmeuller himself admits in his day, in the long term, the situation was unwinnable.

The Viet Minh don’t destroy the Devil’s Guard but the liberal western press does. The communists were master media manipulators. Here’s an interesting observation by Wagmeuller (that is very relevant to today’s news):

When the Viet Minh was unable to claim any success by force of arms, the commissars always secured at least a political victory. Their formula was a simple one. Had their peasant -cum-guerrillas managed to rout a French garrison, the Communist victory was widely publicized. But when the Legion squashed them somewhere, the fallen terrorists were stripped of military equipment, their corpses were rearranged (often with arms and legs bound with ropes), then photographed and displayed to friend and foe alike as the” innocent victims of a French massacre.

The war ends for them before the disaster at Dien Bien Phu, and the absolute loss of Indochina for the French.

Overall the book is very interesting but the comic book fiction elements are irksome: They always have plenty of ammo, even on weeks long jungle marches, hence plenty of shooting and explosions for actions scenes; The plans, except for a few minor contingencies always work. (Which in combat is highly unlikely. As Mike Tyson said: “Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth.”); The enemy always fall into traps and are generally stupid. It’s a more sophisticated version of Sgt. Rock.

It’s a cool idea. I think of the 60’s and 70’s motorcycle gang books, like “Chopper” that they produced in Britain. That too was under the guise of non-fiction but had the action/adventure and criminality/rebelliousness that readers were looking for. I think the writer "George Robert Elford" tapped into a great idea: The ultimate combat book, set in a theatre that the Americans were then fighting in, and dealing with real issues and tactics that were involved.


  1. I recently found out the French Foreign Legion was loaded with former WW2 German soldiers in the 1950s. I was quite surprised to find this out.
    Sounds like a good book.

  2. I heard the same, it seems very interesting.

  3. I read this book when I was a kid back in the mid 1970s. Accidentally came accross it at the local public library. No longer there.

    A Great Read!

  4. Also read "The Black March" by Peter Neumann.

    This and "Devil's Guard" should be required reading for young white men.

  5. I've read the Devil's Guard book in mid 1990s and found it to be true then. Untill the introduction of the internet age where I began reading negative commets about this book.
    To confirm if this book is non fiction check if there ever was a press confererce between French Journalists and Wagmeuller. Because in the book Wagmeuller had press conferce with French Journalists. If there was a press conference , then its likely thsi book is non fiction.

  6. I read the book 40 years ago when I was a young paratrooper and thought it was a good piece of fiction, and that is all it is.

  7. Never read the book but comment on the liberal western press was interesting. Done more damage to western values and governance than anything else in the Cold War and now. Destroyed Rhodesia, turning it from a state of responsible government with controlled change, to a brutal Marxist dictatorship. Left wing liberalism, has always and is now, winning the propaganda war hands down.