Saturday, April 30, 2011
Lieutenant Lane’s Lucky and Remarkable Rendezvous with Rommel
When I saw Quentin Tarantino’s recent film Inglorious Basterds, I’m afraid I didn’t like it at all. First, and some people might find this ironic, it contained a great deal of what I found to be gratuitous violence (I found myself thinking, “Whoever fights monsters should take care in the process not to become a monster himself”), and while I understand that it works as a Jewish revenge fantasy, I know enough WWII history to know what would actually happen if there was a unit operating behind German lines doing the sort of things Brad Pitt’s outfit does. German occupation authorities would round up 10 leading citizens for every man Pitt’s Basterds shot and machine gun the bunch of them. Finally, it has been my experience that for every outlandish Hollywood fantasy, there is a true story that is a whole lot better.
During WWII, the British army actually did put together a small unit of Jewish refugees who served as commandos. As I recall, there were about 88 of them. A fourth of them were killed, a fourth were wounded, and a fourth were given officers’ commissions. One of the best was a young man from Hungary who anglicized his name to be George Lane. He was an extraordinarily, smart, athletic fellow (he had represented Hungary in the 1936 Olympics).
Contrary to what you’ve seen in Hollywood B movies, commandos concentrated far more on reconnaissance and intelligence gathering than trying to take on the entire German army by themselves. In early 1944, Lieutenant Lane had the bad luck to be captured by German troops. They blindfolded him, put him in a car, and took him for a long drive. Lt Lane was fully aware that Hitler had personally ordered that all captured commandos were to be summarily executed. Since he was Jewish, I wonder if he was thinking “What are they going to do, execute me twice?” At the end of the drive he was shown into a luxurious French chateau and ushered into a large study where he found himself face to face with none other than commander of Army Group B, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (I have already written about Rommel here for those who care to read). Rommel’s first words to him were “So, are you one of those gangster commandos?” Lt Lane replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m a soldier and commandos are the best soldiers.”
Rommel laughed out loud and told Lt Lane to sit down. He then asked the lieutenant “Don’t you think it’s a shame that Germany and Britain are fighting against each other instead of the common enemy of all mankind?” Lt Lane asked, “Who do you mean?” Rommel responded, “Why the Soviets of course.” (and there can be no doubt in the mind of anybody who knows anything about Rommel that that was exactly what he believed in his heart of hearts.)
Lt Lane said, “I’m sorry, Field Marshall, but I don’t think there’s any chance our countries can become allies” When Rommel asked him what he meant, Lt Lane said, “For example, the way your government treats Jews.” Rommel cut him off by saying, “Now you are talking politics. We are soldiers, we don’t concern ourselves with politics.” They spoke for a few minutes more, and when Rommel dismissed Lt Lane, he told his aide that the lieutenant was a prisoner of the Wehrmacht and was not to be harmed. Some of my readers might not fully appreciate the risk Rommel was running in disobeying a direct order from Hitler. Ironically enough, in 1944 the safest place for a Jew to be in Germany was in a Wehrmacht POW camp. After the war, when Lt Lane was debriefed on his experiences as a POW, his superiors initially found his story too strange to be believed until they happened upon a German interrogator’s report that told exactly the same story.
Before the end of the year, Rommel was dead, forced to commit suicide because of his role in the July 20 plot against Hitler. As best as I can determine, Lt Lane was still alive as of 2 years ago, living in London in his early 90s. He’s lived more than 60 years due to Erwin Rommel’s gallantry.