Tag Archives: warfare

Black Schneider [1967]

black schneider cover

 

Published: Commando #273 (July 1967)

Reprinted: Commando #5168 (November 2018)

Artists: Gordon C. Livingstone (story); Rafael Lopez Espi (cover)

Writer: E. Hebden

On the Jinty blog we love to collect information on writers and artists in comics, whether Jinty or otherwise. The reprint gives some titbits of information about Rafael Lopez Espi, the cover artist.

Espi began his career as a comic book artist in 1953. He worked extensively for war comics, beginning with drawing covers for war stories published by Simbolo, moved on to Commando, and even worked for Commando’s rival, Fleetway. His Commando covers included Black Schneider, Break Through!, Pirate Breed and Dangerous Dawn. As well as war comics, Espi worked on Western and romance comics.

More information on Espi can be found at https://www.lambiek.net/artists/l/lopez-espi_rafael.htm and https://www.comicartfans.com/comic-artists/lopez_espi.asp

Plot

In 1938, traveller and explorer Stanilaus Schneider is dispatched to a German archaeological dig in Libya to help search for prehistoric cliff paintings. After the paintings are found he disappears for a month in the desert on a secret military mission for the Nazis, and tells the archaeological professor to cover for him.

During World War II Schneider re-emerges in the desert as Army Major Sonderkommando (Sand Commander), and self-styled King of the Desert, which he boasts is his friend, and he gives the impression he is in confident, total command of it. He dresses himself up in black leather (despite the desert heat), which gives him a sinister Gestapo-like appearance, hence his nickname of Black Schneider. He has developed a military style that enables him to somehow sneak up on Allied platoons and take them down from the rear and completely unawares. There is a real mystery as to how he is able to emerge out of nowhere from the desert sands and catch them napping from behind, and he’s giving the impression he must be a magician or something.

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Schneider pulls this stunt several times on Sergeant Bill Kane and his 3rd platoon of the 2nd North Loamshires, which always causes them to fail in their mission and take heavy casualties and loss of equipment. As a result, the platoon develops a reputation as a bad luck platoon that is jinxed, and the jinx is dubbed “the Mark of Kane”. Nobody wants to join that platoon, and one soldier dubs Kane “Mr Suicide”. Lieutenant Colonel Stacey at Battalion HQ won’t listen to Kane’s protests that Schneider and his desert tactics are responsible for their failures. Nor does he listen to Kane’s suspicions that Schneider is making clever use of little-known desert paths, a discovery he made when investigating how Schneider and his platoon managed to escape from one of their attacks so readily. When it reaches the point where Kane loses his entire platoon through Schneider’s tactics and Stacey won’t listen to the reason why, he is transferred to a store job at base camp.

En route to base camp, a mine field gives Kane an idea on how to get back at Schneider. He extracts two mines and uses them to mine the pathway he discovered before and blow up Schneider next time he uses it.

Then a desert Arab appears out of nowhere and starts to use the path, and Kane has to warn him about the mines. But when Schneider and his army show up, they are well prepared to deal with the mines, and Kane realises the Arab must have been an informer. Schneider confirms this as he takes Kane prisoner.

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En route to and during his time in Schneider’s POW camp at the Oasis of Sitra Kane discovers how Schneider does it. He used that month in 1938 to trace a desert road constructed in ancient times and mapped it with compass bearings. The road is concealed by desert sand, so he cunningly uses his map to navigate it without sinking into the sands as so many convoys have done. He is also keeping Arab guides well paid with old Spanish gold (treasure to them) to guide him along the caravan routes and ancient wells, which enables them to keep themselves supplied with water as well. And the secret to his success is that very few outsiders know about the ancient road, which is also concealed by desert sand, the caravan routes or the Oasis of Sitra, so the Allied Intelligence knows nothing about it. This is how he is able “to hold a gun in the back of the British all the time. They never expect the enemy to come from the sea of sand”.

Schneider’s POW camp at Sitra has the deadly desert itself acting as the bars and barbed wire. So there is no need for them, only plenty of guards. The prisoners are forced to fill up cans with either water or petrol, and keep the water and petrol cans apart, don’t mix them up (hmm, do we sense something crafty could be pulled here?). Most of the prisoners are resigned to staying until the war ends because the camp is surrounded by desert that only Schneider seems able to cross, and the British know nothing about the camp’s existence. But not Kane once he has the full picture of how Schneider is doing it – with the ancient concealed road he plotted and the Arab guides. He is going to orchestrate a mass breakout by beating Schneider at his own game.

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The Battle of El Alamein is now on and Schneider wants to be part of the action. He departs, leaving the prisoners only lightly guarded. He does not realise his water tanks are really filled with petrol and the prisoners have taken water tanks for themselves (yes, we thought something like that was coming). The soldiers quickly overcome the few remaining guards and seize vehicles, ammunition and weapons. Kane also seizes the Arab who betrayed him and forces him at gunpoint to take them along the caravan route. Before departing, he paints the captured vehicles with “3 Platoon” and tells his fellow escapees this is what they are now. He is forming a new 3rd platoon with his escapees, to salvage the reputation of the old one and settle old scores with Schneider.

Kane directs the Arab to take them to the wells Schneider showed him at Bir Quara, figuring that Schneider must be stopping there for water and discovering the trick with the cans. Upon arrival they surround Schneider, but he is not one to surrender, so “the Skirmish at Bir Quara” begins. Soon Schneider is the last man standing. Kane takes him prisoner to El Alamein and seizes his map of the concealed desert road.

Stacey is very surprised to see this new 3rd platoon arriving at the Battle of El Alamein, with Kane himself in command. He will soon learn that the new 3rd platoon is much luckier than its predecessor, much of which is due to consisting of toughened desert fighters who have ironically learned to navigate the desert through their enemy Schneider.

Thoughts

This Commando certainly had a very long wait for a reprint – 51 years. That sure is a very long wait for a reprint and it’s surprising the issue did not get a reprint earlier.

The first thing you see with this issue is that it is the villain on the cover, and his presence monopolises it entirely. None of the heroes appear anywhere. His resplendent, strident, confident appearance hits you right in the eye and makes it an eye-catching cover. It’s an unusual step for Commando to take, having the villain star on the cover rather than the hero, but it’s a very sensible one, and makes a far more striking cover, rendered brilliantly by Espi.

Schneider’s nickname is also the title of the story. It has you thinking that maybe the whole story is going to be about him. Maybe he will be the anti-hero or even hero of the story, which Commando has done before with non-Gestapo German soldiers.

But once you open the issue (or read the blurb on the back) you know that’s not the case. Black Schneider is set up to be the bane of Bill Kane and his 3rd platoon.

Schneider and his desert tactics are clearly based on General Rommel, “The Desert Fox”. There is also a dash of the Red Baron in the way he unconventionally dresses in black leathers rather than army uniform. There is a hint of the Gestapo as well, both in his dress and in his icy demeanour. He is an extremely clever villain, styling himself as master of the desert and giving the impression his control of the desert is seeming miraculous and strikes awe and confusion into the enemy. As well as his seeming uncanny ability to sneak up on the enemy from behind out of nowhere, he further dumbfounds them with tactics such as destroying their supply of water, the most precious commodity of the desert, saying he has no need for it himself. Why the hell should he not need water when he’s out in the desert? His bragging that the desert is his friend appears to be no idle boasting and he almost appears to be a magician.

But once Schneider’s secret is uncovered, Kane discovers there was nothing miraculous about it – just learn how others before you have tamed the desert – and it was all a simple yet ingenious trick. And it’s a trick that his enemies take over themselves and start to use against him.

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Schneider’s seeming magic is further enhanced by the fact that he is always bumping into the same platoon and pulling the same trick over and over on them, and giving them a bad luck reputation. If Schneider had done it on several platoons, British HQ would have had to take these reports about Schneider more seriously. But as only one platoon seemed to get picked on it is poor old Sergeant Bill Kane who gets the blame and has to clear his name and reputation of his platoon.

Kane is reduced to the point where he has to take on Schneider and clear his reputation single-handed. It is ironic that it happens through being taken prisoner by Schneider, but Kane soon finds out that this is the only way he could learn Schneider’s secrets and start to use them himself. So we get some elements of the slave story of the protagonist being the only one who refuses to be broken by his captivity, which the other prisoners are resigned to, and find a way to escape. He not only does so but also gets his fellow prisoners back into action. And as this is the Battle of El Alamein, it would have been a stunning victory for them all and restore the name of the 3rd Platoon, and Black Schneider finally met his match in Sergeant Bill Kane.

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Always a Prisoner [1981]

Commando cover

Published: Commando #1502, 1981

Artist: Ian Kennedy (cover), Alejandro Martinez Ruiz (story)

Writer: Bill Fear

Reprint: Commando #2828, 1995

Plot

Harry Dane’s lot always seems to be brutal imprisonment, with him shoving his fist at it whenever he can. Harry begins to go this way in 1935, when desperation makes his friend Ted Taplow steal £15 from work to pay off a gambling debt while knocking out the elderly cashier in the process. But when the alarm is raised and police are searching all the men, Taplow panics and plants the money on Harry to save himself. Harry and his protests of innocence do not have a chance in court, not least because he cannot understand how it happened.

Prisoner

Harry spends five years in “one of the hardest, grimmest prisons in England”, and the prisoners’ lot is harsh, backbreaking quarry work. While in prison, Harry’s cellmate, “The Prof”, helps him to figure out Taplow framed him. From then on Harry is fuelled by a near-monomaniacal determination to make Taplow pay, which helps him to survive. However, it also drives him into an escape bid that fails, and because of it he has to serve his full sentence before he can confront Taplow.

When Harry is released in 1940, it is World War II. He finds Taplow has gone into the army and his battalion is stationed at Hong Kong. He joins Taplow’s regiment in the hope of tracking down Taplow, and his brutal prison experiences help him adapt quickly to basic training and army discipline. He also fends off bullies who pick on a weedy cadet, Archie Duckfield, and he and Archie become friends. Harry’s battalion does meet up with Taplow’s in Hong Kong, and he finally finds Taplow (now an NCO). He then proceeds to give Taplow a revenge punch in the face.

Inevitably, this gets Harry court martialled, and he is sentenced to 12 months. The guards hate Harry for striking out at an NCO, so they go out of their way to break him, with little regard as to how they do it. Harry responds with thoughts and threats of punching them, and he has plenty of experience in handling prison brutality. Fortunately for Harry, Japan begins to attack Hong Kong, and all the soldiers in the detention barracks are released to join the fight.

Prisoner 2

So now it is Archie and Harry’s first action, which goes badly, and Hong Kong falls. They are forced to retreat, and in the end the Japanese capture them. Now Harry faces a whole new brutal imprisonment, in the form of a Japanese POW camp and all the conditions Japanese POW camps are infamous for. But this time there is a consolation: Taplow has been captured too and is now a fellow prisoner, right alongside Harry!

When Archie hears about Taplow’s frameup of Harry, he points out something Harry had not thought of: get a confession out of Taplow to clear him. But although Taplow’s guilt is obvious from his body language, Taplow makes it obvious that he will not be easily persuaded to confess. Rather, Taplow is desperate to get away from Harry as much as the prison camp. He breaks out with several others, but the Japanese guards catch up and slaughter all but Taplow. He is brought back to the camp and sentenced to death. Archie and Harry save Taplow because they want that confession, but the ungracious Taplow refuses to give it. All they can do is hide Taplow in the roll call under the alias of Dyson and keep a close eye on him.

Prisoner 3

Then the commandant is ordered to send the most able-bodied prisoners to Japan for slave labour. Harry, Archie and Taplow/Dyson are among those selected. They are locked into the sweltering hold of a rusty tramp steamer for the journey, which soon leads to an increasing mortality rate. Fortunately, fate intervenes in the form of a US submarine that torpedoes the steamer, which enables the prisoners to make a break for it. Harry and Archie find a raft, and pick up another prisoner in the water, Claude, which will prove very fortunate for Harry. Claude tells them they are not far from the Chinese coast. If they can make it, they stand a chance of escape.

Then they find Taplow about to be eaten by sharks and rescue him. Taplow’s water/shark ordeal has broken him down enough for them to finally succeed in getting a verbal confession out of him. Now all they have to do is get Taplow somewhere to make a written one.

When they reach the coast, Japanese soldiers arrive on a motor launch, looking for survivors from the prison ship. But Harry is not having another round in a Japanese POW camp; he says he has had enough of prisons. After getting a rifle off one of the Japanese soldiers, Harry uses it to take out all his long-standing anger against his brutal imprisonments straight out on the Japanese soldiers.

Unfortunately Taplow panics and gets shot dead when he tries to run. With Taplow gone, there can be no written confession and Harry is despondent. Archie consoles him with the thought that at least he and Claude know the truth.

Prisoner 4

They make their way to the Japanese motor launch, and nobody seems to be there. But Archie discovers otherwise when a solitary guard on board shoots him dead. Harry and Claude are so enraged that they pump all their magazines into the soldier. After burying Archie, they make their way to China on the motor launch, where they meet up with Chinese forces and safety. Soon they are back in England.

Claude testifies on Harry’s behalf about the verbal confession Taplow made. As he is Lieutenant-General Sir Claude Trelawney, V.C., his word carries weight, and Harry is cleared of his wrongful conviction. Harry is promoted to sergeant, gets a medal and leads the regiment on D-Day.

Thoughts

This was the first-ever Commando I bought because it had themes that appealed to me: wrongful convictions, imprisonments, and struggles to survive and escape. It also has slave story elements, so it may have drawn some inspiration from girls’ comics. Yet there is still plenty of action in it – mainly from Harry Dane’s angry fist or his rifle when he has one – to keep the boys happy. The story clearly draws inspiration from “The Count of Monte Cristo” as well, which has always been a popular story.

Indeed, we see echoes of the Count (Edmond Dantes) in Harry himself with his early reactions to his false imprisonment. Like Edmond Dantes, Harry cannot understand the circumstances of his false imprisonment. He is still a good-natured naïve, trusting fellow who does not realise the one he trusted most is the one who is responsible. Like Dantes, it is not until he talks it over with another prisoner who can provide the right insights that he works out the truth. And like Dantes, it is from that point on that Harry becomes the angry, embittered man who is out for revenge.

Unlike Dantes, however, Harry never quite gets to the point where he fears things have gone too far and whether he really is in the right to pursue revenge. This could be due to Harry’s change of tactics towards Taplow. At first he is merely out for revenge against Taplow, which he expresses by beating him up. But when Archie points out that only Taplow can clear him by making a confession, Harry becomes more restrained towards Taplow and does not abandon him to his fate when his life is threatened. The only time Harry’s lust for revenge really gets out of hand is when he lashes out against the Japanese soldiers towards the end and pumps them full of lead. And it’s not even personal – he’s just taking out all his rage against all the prison guards in his life out on them. At least it sounds like Harry begins to find peace once he gives vent towards his anger. And he certainly does once his name is cleared: the story tells us he is a “changed man”.

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The story certainly makes a strong statement about the evils of prison brutality and human rights abuse. Still, it would be foolish to expect much from the Japanese guards of the POW camps. They had a different way of thinking that made them particularly cruel to their POWs during World War II. Perhaps we should not expect much of the HMS prison guards either. This story was set in the 1930s, and harsh prison conditions and treatment were considered more the norm than they are now. It is the guards of the army prison who come across as the most repugnant out of the assorted prison guards that Harry encountered. While the other guards are pretty much the same in how they treat Harry and their other prisoners, these guards deliberately go out their way to break Harry in any way they can out of pure viciousness.

As for Ted Taplow, the man responsible for all of Harry’s troubles, the only point in his favour was that he was driven into stealing the money out of desperation. The bookkeeper’s goons were leaning on him and making threats that he would end up in the river if he did not pay. He did not intend to slug the cashier, an elderly man. He only did so because the cashier had caught him by surprise and he felt he had come too far to turn back. Otherwise, Ted Taplow comes across as a despicable, cowardly, unsympathetic character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He shows no remorse or guilt over what he did, or what Harry went through because of him. And he was supposed to a good friend of Harry’s, the two having been mates since school. He refuses to confess at all, not even when Harry and Archie save him from the death sentence. He only confesses because his defences have broken down, but we don’t trust him to keep his word to make a written confession once they return home. Getting shot while running away is a fitting end to a man who is at heart a coward and a weasel, and we are not sorry he died. Yet Taplow’s death is shattering because Harry’s chance of that written confession died with him, so it is one of the powerful dramatic points in the story.

The death of Archie Duckfield is even more powerful. Archie’s death is absolutely gutting for everyone because he is such a likeable, sympathetic character and had a somewhat nerdy look. Initially this made him a target for bullying, but Harry helped him there and we sense he grows into a more confident character, though there is little room in the story to develop this more. He also provides light relief against the grimness of the story, as does Harry’s cellmate, The Prof. The Prof comes across as a father figure. Although he is in for counterfeiting, we warm to him immediately because he is a likeable, sympathetic character. He likes to help prisoners out with their problems, which makes him even more sympathetic. He is definitely the equivalent of the Abbe Faria from the Count of Monte Cristo in the way he helps Harry to work out Taplow committed the crime he was convicted of.

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When Claude is introduced, his level head and his quiet modesty (not revealing himself as a senior officer and a knight to boot) are a welcome, calming contrast to the rage of Harry Dane. And when we see Claude’s leadership qualities and resourcefulness as they fight for survival against the Japanese soldiers, we can see why Claude has risen so far in the army.

The Prof, Archie and Claude don’t just provide light relief and offset the anger and bitterness of Harry Dane. All three of them, in their own respective ways, help Harry to clear his name. The first helps Harry work out the truth, the second points out a confession from Taplow is more in order than mere revenge, and the third provides the vital testimony to clear Harry.

It is ironic that Harry owes many of his qualities as a soldier and a survivor to Ted Taplow. If Taplow had not framed him, Harry would never have gone through the experiences that toughened him up physically and mentally to endure the rigors of basic training, the horrors of POW captivity, survival on the run, and ultimately to lead the regiment on D-Day as a sergeant. Had Harry simply carried on as a factory worker until World War II broke out, it is less likely that he would have cut it so well in the army. And he naturally comes to appreciate freedom and there are things far worse than being in combat. As he takes his regiment up Normandy Beach, his words of encouragement are: “Come on lads. There’s far worse places to be than this one. I know – I’ve been there!” One can only hope he was not captured again and found himself in a German POW camp.