Book Review – Paul Martelli, On the Devil’s Tail: In Combat With the Waffen-SS on the Eastern Front 1945, and With the French in Indochina 1951–54 (Solihull: Helion & Co, 2015)

On the Devil’s Tail is the memoir of Paul Martelli and covers a decade of his life and military service fighting in the Waffen SS at the end of the Second World War and as a corporal with French forces in Indochina fighting Vietnamese insurgents.

Martelli’s account suggests that he was born in May 1929 as he joined the SS on 15 May 1944 aged 15 years and ten days.[1] He is (or perhaps was) an Italian national and raised in Lorraine by a German father and French mother and consequently, he was trilingual.

His reasons for enlisting in the SS are not clear but he says he was influenced by a recruiting poster to help build a ‘New Europe’.[2]

He then underwent training with the SS and finally saw action in March 1945 in Pomerania where he fought Soviet forces at Korlin and Kolberg. At the end of the war, Martelli finally surrendered to American forces.

After the war, he was imprisoned by the French authorities for fighting for the Germans. Martelli then escaped custody and ended up in Spain where he was imprisoned for entering the country illegally. He was subsequently deported to France and called up for military service in the French Army that took him to Tunisia. In March 1951, Martelli enlisted in French service as a ‘mercenary’ and was sent to French Indochina to support French forces in fighting the Vietminh fighting the French colonial regime there to create an independent communist republic.

In many ways, the memoir is unsatisfying. Martielli does not possess a talent for introspection or self-analysis to consider the implications of his actions in uniform. For example, in Martelli’s telling of his life as a soldier, he comes across as a violent, angry and volatile individual. Throughout his military career, extreme violence marked his interactions with others. For instance, while a recruit, he and his colleagues captured a French resistance spy and started to beat him up. Martelli recalls that ‘I knew this was wrong but my judgment, blinded as it was by my smoldering anger, told me it was also just. I thought of my family, of my parents being tortured then killed by the Maquis [French resistance fighter] because I was a Waffen SS soldier and there was nothing I could do to stop my anger igniting into blind fury’.[3] While imprisoned in Spain, it was noted by a friend of his that ‘you prefer to use the physical solution to problems. You have a talent for this…it bursts out of your body’.[4] However, there is no attempt to explore where this violent streak came from or consider its implications.

Insignia of 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French)

Neither does Martelli have any thought to the fact that many of his countrymen would have regarded him as a traitor for being a Frenchman fighting for the Germans. During his trial by the French authorities for fighting for their enemy, he believed that being a ‘member of the Waffen SS…didn’t mark me as a criminal’. He conceded that members of the SS had committed atrocities and murder but not him and his colleagues. They ‘had risked our lives at Korlin and had at Kolberg; we didn’t kill women and children nor burned churches and homes, on the country, thanks to our efforts civilians were saved by the tens of thousands, I would spell this out to the jury if they couldn’t understand it. I had no part in the senseless and cruel actions of the SS groups’.[5]

Another challenge of the memoir is to ascertain its veracity. Martelli changed many of the names of those with whom he served to ‘protect their privacy’ which makes checking his claims against other historical documents nearly impossible.[6]

The final problem with the memoir is the role of Vittorino dal Cengio. The front jacket says that Martelli wrote the memoir ‘with’ Cengio but there is nothing to suggest what Cengio’s contribution was to the book. He may have written the introductory notes but this is not stated.

However, despite these challenges, the memoir is interesting. It is an account of a very young boy joining up and seeing combat aged around 16. It shows how masculinity and being a ‘man’ was important to Martelli as an adolescent soldier.[7][8] The memoir also suggests that he and his colleagues had some ideological identification with the Nazi project to created a ‘New Europe’. He stated that this was a reason for his enlistment and a shared belief amongst his colleagues at the end of the war.[9][10] [11] He recalled that ‘thinking of these events, which happened only a few years earlier, it seemed natural to find myself wearing a German uniform’.[12] Finally, the leadership of NCOs around him was particularly important to this morale. During his training, he regarded Obersturmbannfuhrer Hersche ‘as a second father’; he ‘admired his calm, surly and almost disdainful way of commanding’.[13] His combat leader, De Ville was also inspirational; ‘to me’ he said, ‘his presence inspired a certain feeling of safety; I trusted him and would have carried out any order he gave, without hesitation’.[14] 



[1] Paul Martelli, On the Devil’s Tail: In Combat With the Waffen-SS on the Eastern Front 1945, and With the French in Indochina 1951–54 (Solihull: Helion & Co, 2015), p.18.

[2] Ibid., p.17.

[3] Ibid., p.65.

[4] Ibid., p.240.

[5] Ibid., p.228.

[6] Ibid., p.x.

[7] Ibid., p.30.

[8] Ibid., p.87.

[9] Ibid., p.16.

[10] Ibid., p.17.

[11] Ibid., p.179.

[12] Ibid., p.47.

[13] Ibid., p.39.

[14] Ibid., pp.80-81.