1944 Italy. Joe Beccione is serving in the American Army. Born to Italian immigrant parents in Hell’s Kitchen the tough guy is a good brave soldier but has a problem with discipline. One day a MP jeep hits the young brother of the girl he wants to marry. In his anger he shoots the MP and soon is about to face a firing squad. He escapes and makes his way to a group of renegades. Lead by a German named Franz Kessler the group survives by raiding both Allied and German supply convoys. It is a hodgepodge of deserters and criminals from every nationality. Beccione fits right in with this group. Yet he wonders about Kessler an obviously educated man. A man who can one minute shoot down soldiers but have a sad look in his eyes. A man who is worshiped by the local peasants and he reciprocates in kind. In fact he goes out of his way to help them.
Then they finally find out Kessler’s true purpose. On a mission to liberate stolen valuables in a complex of caves held by the Germans as an artillery position. Soon this village will be the site of a major battle and will destroy the village of Valderosa. Kessler convinces his men to protect the village by fighting off both sides so they can’t occupy it. Now they battle both the Allies and Germans in a big epic battle.
It is hard to write an anti-war war novel but Fredrick Smith manages to do that. Kessler is a pacifist who served in the First World War and lost his brother and father. Later he loses his Jewish wife to a concentration camp. His son in the army and daughter killed in an Allied bombing raid. Stationed in Yugoslavia he witnesses atrocities and is forced to kill to survive. He deserts and forms his own army. One that will exist to protect the civilians that are caught between the armies that are fighting. That he believes foreign armies care little for the civilians and they are the true victims in the war. That all soldiers are in some way to blame. Of course he sees that an Allied victory is the only good outcome. Yet he will fight them to save his beloved peasants. His personality gets his men to fight and die to protect a village. A village at the end that manages to come to the rescue and pay back the survivors. A fascinating book that makes you think.
Fredrick Smith was a RAF gunner on a bomber during WWII. He wrote a successful series called 633 Squadron and some other books. He writes characters that have an interesting backstory and did a lot of research on the war in Italy. Might give some of his other books a try.