Book Review – Peter Bamm, The Invisible Flag (London: Penguin, 1962)

 Peter Bamm’s memoir is a fascinating account of his time as a Wehrmacht combat surgeon fighting on the Eastern Front during the Second World War.

First published in English in 1956, the narrative chronicles Bamm’s experiences caring for wounded soldiers, POWs and civilians from the invasion of Russia in 1941 until he eventually escapes Russian forces in East Prussia in the final months of the war. Most of his service is in southern Ukraine, Crimea and the western Caucasus until 1944 when his unit was redeployed to East Prussia.

As a doctor, Bamm seeks to serve under the ‘invisible flag’ of humanity.[1] Amid the chaos, carnage and killing of war, he seeks, as a medical professional, to heal, cure and mend the sick, ill and wounded, whether they be civilian, comrade or communist. He dedicated his book ‘to the memory of all those who, following the invisible flag, have given their lives in the service of their fellow man.’[2]

Peter Bamm was the pseudonym of Dr Curt Emmrich. Emmrich was born in 1897 and saw service during the Great War.

After the war, he studied medicine and sinology in Munich, Göttingen and Freiburg im Breisgau. He then became a doctor on a ship and travelled the world before settling in Berlin before the Second World War.[3]

During that conflict, he served as a military doctor on the Russian Front, in one of the two divisional medical companies within his formation. The unit in which he served was probably in the 50th Infantry Division (though this is not made clear in his narrative), which was, for much of its existence, part of the 17th Army.[4]

Insignia of the 50th German Infantry Division

After the Second World War, Emmrich travelled extensively and became a journalist and feature writer for a number of Berlin newspapers. He died in 1975 aged 77 and is buried in Hannover, Lower Saxony, Germany.[5]

Emmrich’s account is visceral and blunt. He reports the holocaust. In Nikolaev, Jews were ‘registered, rounded up, murdered and hastily buried in an anti-tank ditch’.[6] In Sevastopol, ‘the Jewish inhabitants…were collected and put to death.’ [7] Emmerich noted reports learned from colleagues about the ill-treatment of Soviet prisoners left to starve in POW camps.[8]

He believed that there was little he or his colleagues could do about the killing; ‘we knew all this. Yet we did nothing. If anyone had protested or undertaken some positive action against the murder squad he would have been arrested…and disappeared.’[9]

As a consequence, Emmrich is deeply opposed to Hitler and the Party. He labels the former the ‘dictator’ and the latter, ‘the Others’.

He noted that ‘[t]he virus of anti-Semitism had already gone too deep…After seven years of domination by the ‘Others’, moral corruption had already made too much progresses even among those who would have denied it vigorously…The maintenance of moral integrity was made even more difficult by the fact that the Russians had considered similar atrocities.’[10]

He believed that the army had become corrupted by the ‘Others’. He noted that there began the preferential promotion of young staff officers who had openly declared themselves in favour of the Party, either out of genuine conviction or out of the calculation.’[11] He felt that army that he had fought with during the Great War was changing. He wrote that ‘in the new Wehrmacht those who had been volunteers in 1914 and thus already had one unsuccessful war behind them, formed part of a fellowship. They greeted each other with an old fashioned and traditional courtesy. They knew that they could depend on each other…These old soldiers, who has…attempted to preserve chivalrous traditions in this war too. The younger soldiers were less skeptical and thus more courageous, but theirs was the courage not of probity but fanaticism. It was only when we began to realise that the rot that during the course of the years had slowly infected the army…had its origin at the very top, that we began to realise, that we were doomed.’[12]

He makes no reference to the Wehrmacht’s or his unit’s role in war crimes. Research done for this review did not find any evidence that members of the 50th Infantry were involved in war crimes. However, Emmrich does comment that ‘after all the atrocities that had occurred we could hardly expect anything better than to finish our lives in some Siberian coal mines’.[13]

Emmrich notes that through his age and service he could have been transferred to the rear away from the frontline. He chose to stay for three reasons. ‘My first motive’, he wrote, ‘was [that]…it was everything to be on the spot. My second…was a taste for the kind of reality which is proved under artillery fire. My third motive was pure inquisitiveness, the scientist’s passion for observing’.[14] In addition to these reasons, he also remained because all his friends were in this unit. While at the opera on leave, he thought about ‘[t]he old gang! While I was sitting here they were probably plodding through the night’.[15] He also believed that at the front ‘I had a sensible and useful occupation’ and could make a positive difference.[16]

This was a very illuminating account. Memoirs of German medical personnel are relatively rare and this is the first one that I have read. It also gives a clear idea of nature, work and conditions that medical personnel had to work under during Operation Barbarossa and the huge number of wounded and ill soldiers they treated. Emmrich estimated that during the four years of war his medical company had marched 7,500 miles, conducted 8,000 operations in 50 different locations where they had established their aid posts.[17] Overall, this narrative is well written, highly descriptive and a pleasure to read.



[1] Peter Bamm, The Invisible Flag (London: Penguin, 1962), p.18.

[2] Ibid., p.271.

[3] Accessed 6.6.21.

[4] Accessed 6.6.21.

[5] Accessed 6.6.21.

[6] Peter Bamm, The Invisible Flag (London: Penguin, 1962), pp.58-59.

[7] Ibid., p.113.

[8] Ibid., p.127.

[9] Ibid., p.113.

[10] Ibid., pp.58-59.

[11] Ibid., p.93.

[12] Ibid., p.47.

[13] Ibid., p.142.

[14] Ibid., pp.147-148.

[15] Ibid., p.143.

[16] Ibid., p.140.

[17] Ibid., p.225.