Moving, intriguing war stories

Stories about World War 2's the Richie boys deserve to be known, says Jim Sullivan.

Who Escaped the Nazis and
Returned for Retribution
Bruce Henderson
William Collins/HarperCollins


World War 2 is still throwing up the most unlikely scenarios and Sons and Soldiers describes one of them.

During the 1930s many Jewish families in Germany, fearing obliteration under Nazism, sent their sons to America where, when war broke out, they became enemy aliens. But by 1942 the authorities realised this group of anti-Nazis who spoke German fluently and knew the nuances of German life were a valuable asset.

Almost 2000 of them were trained at Fort Ritchie (they were called "the Ritchie boys'') and then attached in small groups to front-line units. They interrogated prisoners and used their local knowledge to supply high-grade intelligence to the forces fighting their way to Germany after D-Day. One report suggested 60% of the credible intelligence gathered in Europe came from these young Jews.

Dark days came for the Ritchie boys as they crossed the Rhine and found family members missing. Many were found to have perished in the Holocaust and for their sons hopes of reunion and taking parents back to America were dashed. In spite of their non-combatant role the Ritchie boys were in the thick of the fighting and 50 were killed in action, some executed by Germans who were unwilling to regard "German Jews'' as prisoners of war.

Bruce Henderson has handled the telling of the stories of so many men by selecting six men whose experiences he relates in detail. No story is ordinary.

Martin Selling had experienced Dachau concentration camp as a child before the war and then managed to get to England when Jews were still able to leave Germany. In 1940 he emigrated to the United States but suffered the ignominy of being an enemy alien until becoming a Ritchie boy.

He is at his most reflective when he describes how at the front his fantasies of exacting revenge on Germans for his Dachau experience came to nothing. "I could not work myself up to become mean and angry at individual Germans without provocation. At Dachau I had seen brutality used by the cruellest against the most hopeless and it had accomplished nothing.''

The stories are moving and the details intriguing. Only a handful of the Ritchie boys are still living and their stories should be read.

Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.


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