In 2008 military historian and author of acclaimed books such as Beyond Valor (winner of the William E. Colby award) Patrick K. O’Donnell gave us The Brenner Assignment, a superb narrative of a covert OSS operation in World War II Italy. In his latest book, They Dared Return, O’Donnell treats us to another riveting history of the planning and the execution of the behind-enemy-lines covert action codenamed Operation Greenup.
One of the striking things about They Dared Return is that reads like so much like a thriller. It opens smack in the middle gut-wrenching action. Then jumps back in time to relate the story of the men who dared return, raising the ominous question — who of the heroes will be unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of the dreaded Gestapo?
Throughout the dangerous mission there are close calls, moments of dramatic irony, as when Mayer and his men come within hair’s breath away from being discovered by a random Gestapo papers check on a train, as well as stupendous reversals, as when arguably the most blended-in agent is undone by the simplest of mistakes imaginable. History’s twists and turns come alive thanks to O’Donnell’s feel for the dramatic.
If character is destiny, as the old adage goes, then the reason for the extraordinary events described in the book are the men at its center. They Dared Return is the story of five extraordinary men, European Jews all, who managed to escape the grasp of Nazi Germany and make their way to America, where they became part of the Office of Strategic Services’ German Operational Group: George Gerbner, Alfred Rosenthal, Hans Wynberg, Bernie Stelnitz, and Fred Mayer.
But after intensive training, including challenging parachute training, ironically they end up victims of Army bureaucracy: shipped over to Africa by mistake, they are slated as replacements for regular infantry units. They must, not for the first time or the last, improvise and cut through layers of red tape before they can put their skills to use. And these guys want to fight because they have, as Jews, deeply personal reasons for seeking to harm the Nazi state. They get their chance in Lt. Alfred C. Ulmer’s German-Austrian Section in Bari.
The mission that they will ultimately go on, and the subject of the book, is Operation Greenup. The goal of Greenup was to infiltrate the Alpine Redoubt — an area around Innsbruck, Austria, where Hitler was rumored to have been planning a final stand — and gather intelligence. The picture painted by various information leaks about the Nazi activity in the Redoubt was indeed disturbing: it appeared that Hitler was building a small mountain kingdom from which he could prolong the war for many months. There were, for instance, suggestions of fortifications, tens of thousand of elite troops, vast food and weapons stores, and even underground factories. The Allies feared that Hitler would even be able to force them into a peace. It was imperative to obtain intelligence about what was happening in the area. But any mission into what was quickly becoming a key strategic center of the dying Reich would also be very dangerous.
While covert missions into the Nazi police state were, in general, always dangerous, the Greenup operatives faced a unique level of danger. For one thing, as Jews, they could bank on especially brutal treatment if captured: Nazi torturers took particular pride in their work. If it was hard to infiltrate agents into Nazi homeland before, after the failed 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler, operating inside Nazi Germany became even more difficult. Gestapo and the SS were given broader authority to round up suspected enemies of the state after the failed coup and often these security services used aggressive sting tactics by sending fake Allied agents in order to test loyalty of Germans. Nor did the past failures of the German-Austrian Section at infiltrating spies into Reich bode well for Greenup.
And then there was the fact that Mayer and his men would be going into a hostile population — most OSS agents sent into other parts of occupied Europe could rely on local resistance movements to help them hide and operate. But in the Redoubt area, no such resistance network was in place, making the very basic survival of Mayer and his team questionable. What also added to the danger and the irony of the mission and made its outcome unpredictable would be the solution to the hostile environment: the OSS decided to send in — along with Mayer and his men Nazi “volunteers” recruited from Allied POW camps — turncoats who would go back to their homeland along with the Jewish agents to help them operate.
One particularly interesting of these “volunteer” characters was Hermann Matull, a world-class hustler with a talent for making up the most intricate stories on the fly. There was another reason that made Matull such a perfect candidate. He had already managed to evade the Gestapo as a deserter before ending up in an Allied POW camp thanks to his web of contacts in the black market underground, contacts on which, the OSS hoped, he could rely again. But Matull’s mission encountered a complication from the most pedestrian source, proving that the successful covert intelligence operations succeed or fail based on how careful or sloppy the agents and the planners are about the most seemingly insignificant details.
They Dared Return is first-rate reading that captures the action and the drama of war in the shadows. Unlike film and spy novel fantasies, this is the real deal, popular history at its best.