The Brenner Assignment: The Untold Story of the Most Daring Spy Mission of World War II
Patrick K. O'Donnell

After the fall of Mussolini in 1943, Italy saw an increase in partisan warfare against the Germans. While Allied troops were slowly pressing north, partisan bands of almost every political stripe were formed, disrupting the German rear areas and tying down troops needed for the front. Seeing an opportunity to make life harder for the Germans, the newly-created OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of CIA) parachuted agents behind enemy lines, tasked with the mission to aid the partisans and to conduct commando operations. Few missions were more daring than the plan to block the main German supply route through the Brenner Pass on the Italo-Austrian border. It was the brain-child of Captain Stephen Hall, an OSS agent with an adventurous streak. Parachuted into northern Italy, his exploits could have been the subject for an action movie, had he succeeded. A fellow OSS agent, Captain Howard Chappell, entered the area the same way together with his team, and with one of his objectives to link up with Hall. His colleague had disappeared, though, and was in the clutches of the Gestapo…

The blurb for the book likens it to movies like “Where Eagles Dare”, and isn’t far off the mark. Daring American agents, sadistic Gestapo officers, brave (and not-so-brave) partisans, double agents, traitors, mysterious countesses, sabotage, capture, escapes, and missions that could alter the course of the war (or so it was believed) – “The Brenner Assignment” has it all. Now, this might sound like a cheap thriller, if it wasn’t for O’Donnell’s research, which is based on original documents and interviews with people directly involved in the story. For those of you who like a (mostly) well-written, exciting and true (as far as can be told) story from WW2, the book is bound to be a great read. You can stop reading now, as some major spoilers will follow in the second part of my review.

For all his thorough research, the author fall victim to a few inaccuracies and generalizations. One of the main antagonists, Major Otto Schröder, is said to have commanded a Waffen-SS battalion, when it appears like he commanded the 2nd Battalion of the SS-Polizei-Regiment “Bozen”; to some, this might be a minor mistake, but considering the brutality of the anti-partisan warfare, the blame should be laid at the right door. Another of the bad guys, the local Gestapo chief August Schiffer is said to have joined the Kriminalpolizei in 1933, “(…) the criminal police branch of the Nazi Party. At the time, the secret state police, or Gestapo, had yet to be formed” (page 68). First off, the KriPo became a branch of the SS in 1936, and not of the NSDAP in 1933. Besides, the Gestapo was founded in 1933. On page 113, he mentions a couple of deserters from “the 20th Luftwaffe Division”; there was no such unit, and the closest candidate, the 20. Luftwaffe Feld-Division, wasn’t in Italy at all. Some members of Chappell’s team ended up in the Gries concentration camp, where “Jews [had] a temporary home for them on their way to the hell of death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau”. This takes place in mid-March, 1945, but the only remaining death camp, Auschwitz, had been liberated six weeks earlier. Chappell claims that the April 14 blowing of the Busche bridge created a huge traffic jam, where retreating German troops were caught next night by fighter-bombers, “killing several thousand Germans”. Strangely enough, I’ve been unable to find any mention of such attacks; 12th Air Force attacks at that time appear to have been made against targets near Bologna further to the south.

While I didn’t read the book with the intent to ferret out every error, I couldn’t help checking up on a few minor mistakes. The author writes – twice – that the required number of jumps for the Parachutist Badge (“Jump Wings”) was four, when it was five. A mid-March (1945) night is described as one with “bright moonlight”, when it was dark (the Moon was new, and not up at night anyway). The surrendering Germans of the schwere Panzer-Abteilung 504 are said to have had a single Tiger I tank left, when other sources claim that it lost its last Tiger the day before. Perhaps it was a PzKpfw IV. Then there’s the question of style. O’Donnell writes in a mostly straightforward style, but he occasional lapses into purple prose like: “A bony finger depressed the gunmetal trigger of an Italian Breda machine gun. With a maximum cyclic rate of over 450 rounds per minute, the weapon spat bursts of flying lead with deadly fury (…) cutting down Germans like a scythe through a wheat field”. He refers to the Germans alternately as “Germans” and “Nazis”, which perhaps suits his style, but which sounds rather tired in the 21st century. As a side note, most of the SS Police troops in the area where from South Tirol, and not German at all.

There are some interesting insights in the book, like the descriptions of the diverse partisan groups and the problems leading them, and the improvised nature of the OSS operations, with poor communications and lofty plans that came for naught. Some of the OSS agents were real mavericks, like the Spaniard Fabrega, and fun to read about. The goal of the whole operation, to block the Brenner Pass, failed in all crucial aspects, and it is hard to judge what impact the presence of OSS agents had on the partisan warfare in the area. A few bridges were blown, and rear-area security units were tied down, but I find it hard to believe that the operation had other than a marginal effect on the fighting in the region.

There are some maps that illuminate some of the operations, and the photos are mostly relevant. The book is a pretty exciting read, and throws light on a little-known aspect of WW2. It will appeal to those who like to read about secret missions and behind-enemy-lines stories, but the subject is still just a foot-note in the history of the war. While the story is quite well documented, there are some errors and omissions that I couldn’t ignore. I give the book three strong stars.

(Reviewed by B Hellqvist)
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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