Book Review – John Stieber, Against the Odds (Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 2016)

John Stieber’s account covers his time as a private in the Herman Goring Division, fighting on the Eastern Front July in late 1944 and 1945. He was born in 1926 of Czech-Austrian parents and grew up in England and Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s as his father ran various sugar refineries. In 1939, aged 14, he was sent to boarding school in Germany and was drafted into the German army in 1944. He served in a Flak battery while still at school and then saw service in the German Labour Service. In early 1944, he volunteered for the Herman Goring Division and underwent training in Holland and ended up serving on self-propelled mobile flak units. He was trapped twice behind Russian lines and twice made successful treks back to German forces. His service ended working on an ammunition supply column. Once the war was over, he cycled to western Germany to avoid capture by the Russians and get back to his parents in Ireland. After the war, Stieber settled in Ireland and died in 2010. His memoir was first published in 1995 and reprinted in 2016.

Fallschirm-Panzer-Division 1. Hermann Göring Divisional insignia

His memoir suggests that the soldiers in the Herman Goring Division (HGD) were a well-ordered and controlled soldiery. He said ‘I must say in all honesty that I never experienced any lack of discipline in any German unit or individual soldier during my time in the Russian Front. No prisoners were shot, there were no reprisals and I never heard of anyone who had been raped’.[1] He remembered some cases of minor theft and looting and he himself was almost arrested for taking apples from a farm.[2] .He believed that the few cases of ‘looting or pilfering were the only breeches that I ever encountered. I certainly remember distinctly how different was the tone of instructions given to army units compared to the invariably belligerent and inflammatory Nazi propaganda’.[3]  

While Stieber may have experienced this in his service the HGD was involved in a series of atrocities conducted against Italian civilians while it fought in Italy in 1944.  Carlo Gentile argues that the division, during its service in Italy, was involved in a number of war crimes, and, together with the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division Reichsführer-SS, killed one-third of all civilians in Italy murdered in ‘war crimes’.[4] It is also known that the soldiers of the Hermann Göring Division used civilians as human shields in front of its tanks while clearing barricades during the Warsaw Uprising in October 1944.[5]

Nevertheless, this account is a fascinating first-hand narrative of service on the Eastern Front late in the war. Stieber is reflective on his time in uniform and the impact that it had on him.

[1] John Stieber, Against the Odds (Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 2016), p.111.

[2] Ibid., pp.108-110.

[3] Ibid., p.111.

[4]  Carlo Gentile. Politische Soldaten. Die 16. SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division „Reichsführer-SS“ in Italien 1944 [Political soldiers. The 16th SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division „Reichsführer-SS“ in Italy 1944] (in German). Cologne.

[5] Accessed 20 June 2020.