Tag Archives: World War II

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 Breedand 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.

black schneider 1

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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Walking the Line [2018]

Walking the Line cover

Published: Commando #5147

Art: Morhain & Rezzonico (story), Neil Roberts (cover)

Story: Andrew Knighton

Here is another recently published Commando in its new trend of featuring a female protagonist.

Plot

In July 1943 Flight Lieutenant Alan Freeman leads a bombing squadron against Germany. Unfortunately Freeman has an obsession about winning back his ex, Sarah, whose photograph he carries on every mission, by impressing her with a huge scorecard of daring, heroic war deeds. Freeman does not realise that his drive to make his missions as daring as possible to impress Sarah is clouding his judgement and causing him to take ever-increasing risks with his squadron.

One night the inevitable happens – Freeman takes one risk too many to impress Sarah. This has the Luftwaffe bearing down on the plane fast and Freeman and his comrades get shot down. Knowing the situation is partly his fault, Freeman tries to rectify it by flying his plane for as long as possible and be the last to bail out. He takes care to retain Sarah’s photograph as he jumps. As he watches his burning plane go down, he tells Sarah it’s all been for her.

Walking the Line 1

Right – so putting your squadron in a position to get shot down, losing planes and possibly lives that way, and bailing out over occupied territory, which could mean capture, have all been for impressing Sarah, Alan Freeman? You tell that to your superiors when you get home.

Well, back to the story now.

Freeman parachutes into occupied France, which is of course very dangerous for him. Moreover, the crash his plane made was heard for miles, so the Germans are bound to come running. At least Freeman paid attention in French class and also had training in evading capture. As per training, Freeman hides all trace of his parachute and military uniform. Well, nearly all – he forgets his boots, which are clearly military issue. Fortunately the Frenchman (Henri Chaput) who spots this oversight is friendly and hides him from the searching Germans.

Walking the Line 2

Henri’s daughter, Juliette, runs an underground escape line for Allied soldiers, which runs through the Pyrenees and Spain. However, Juliette warns Freeman there is a risk in taking it: she suspects the Gestapo have compromised it somehow because some of their people have gone missing recently. Freeman gladly accepts that risk, just because it will be another thing for him to impress Sarah. That night he takes a moment to think of Sarah and how going through an underground route will impress her.

Escapee reports are vital to the war effort. So next evening they radio London to inform them of what Freeman had seen during the bombing run. Unfortunately the Germans trace the signal of the illegal radio (the Achilles heel of the Resistance) and soon have the place surrounded. Freeman and Juliette are the only ones to escape when the Germans open fire – and kill Henri.

They make it to a town in search of a safe house. There they spot a Gestapo agent, and he is looking at them in a way that indicates he has realised Juliette is on their wanted list. They take advantage of this to lure him into a trap and capture him. At the safe house Juliette interrogates the agent to find out what happened to their missing numbers and why they have gone missing. The agent sneers that those missing people are all dead of course. And in reply to her other question, one of their number is a traitor but he does not know which one. Juliette now gags him and leaves him for the local Resistance to pick up.

Freeman comes up with an idea to flush the traitor out: use him as bait by taking him down the escape line and spread the word through it that he carries vital British intelligence. And for the first time, Freeman is not taking a risk to impress Sarah. He’s taking it to help Juliette and the war effort.

Two days later Juliette and Freeman are at a café waiting for their contact, Claude the forger. Juliette suspects Claude is the traitor because he is in the perfect position to be. But Claude is soon eliminated as a suspect when another contact, Celine arrives, and tells them the Germans have arrested Claude, along with several more members of the Narbonne cell. Freeman and Juliette head for Narbonne and the remaining cell members.

On the way Juliette tells Freeman that the Germans killed her sister, Lucile, who was not even a Resistance member, along with nine others, in revenge for a Resistance attack. Lucile is the reason why Juliette fights the Germans. Now that sure is a far more worthy reason to fight than trying to win back an ex who keeps trying to tell you she’s moved on.

In Narbonne they meet Louis, leader of the Narbonne cell, and Julio, the guide through the Pyrenees. A fight breaks out when Louis says that before they helped Juliette’s escape line they lost nobody and now the Germans are picking them off, and Juliette angrily accuses him of being the traitor. Freeman breaks up the fight and is not convinced Louis is the traitor.

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Whoever the traitor is, he soon strikes again; that night the Germans arrive and arrest Freeman and Juliette, who had no chance to flee or fight. They are taken to an Abwehr (Army) run prison, and are soon joined by other Resistance fighters. Louis joins Freeman and Juliette in their cell. This convinces Freeman that Louis is not the traitor, but not Juliette.

Freeman is first to be interrogated. His interrogator, Colonel Weber, makes a remark that will be of major plot significance later: “Some of your predecessors may have got away, but you would not like to end up like Lieutenant Davies, would you?”

A Gestapo agent interrupts the interrogation. An argument erupts between him and Weber, and this makes them careless in how they are guarding Freeman. Freeman takes advantage to seize Weber’s gun and shoots both Germans dead. He makes a dash for it, taking the cell keys that were attached to Weber’s belt. He frees the others and a mass prison breakout ensues, but the Germans are gathering forces with gunfire. Louis bravely covers for them while they make their escape until he is finally mown down. To Freeman, this is the ultimate proof that Louis is not the traitor and he convinces Juliette of it.

They head for Julio’s hideout and persuade him to take them over the Pyrenees. It’s a hard journey, made all the harder by having to avoid border guards on both sides, and no short cuts or easy routes. As they go on, Freeman realises he has no further taste for daring adventures to impress his ex and will just be glad when it is all over. And it’s only the first day of their escape through the Pyrenees.

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After the first day, Julio goes ahead to check the trail while Juliette and Freeman settle down by the fire. Recalling what Weber said about Lieutenant Davies, Freeman asks Juliette if she knew him. Juliette says Davies was the first pilot she helped, before she had even started her escape line. She took him to Julio and Julio got him to Spain – Julio said so himself! But that’s not what Weber said…unless…

All of a sudden, everything falls into place.

When Julio returns, Juliette and Freeman have an ambush prepared for him. He puts up a terrific fight, but once he is overpowered he does not deny being the traitor at all. His motive was self-preservation by making himself useful to the Germans, but no doubt the rewards must have been an additional motive.

The problem is, what to do with Julio? Where they are right now, they can’t leave him for the Resistance to pick up as they did the Gestapo agent. But Juliette can’t kill a man in cold blood and Julio takes advantage to plead for his life. Juliette agrees to hand him over for trial and execution but Julio is not having that. He lunges at Juliette, and in the ensuing struggle Juliette is forced to make her first kill. Juliette is deeply upset at this, and realises it has not given her the satisfaction of vengeance that she thought it would.

But Juliette can’t dwell on that – they still have to get across the Pyrenees. This is now even harder because they have lost their guide. Juliette has a fair knowledge of the Pyrenees, but it is not as extensive as Julio’s. The further they go, the less Juliette knows the terrain, until Freeman remembers he has a compass hidden in his boots. And there are still those pesky border patrols they have to dodge all the time.

Eventually they reach Juliette’s contacts in Spain. From there, the British embassy smuggles Freeman to Gibraltar and a waiting ship to Britain. Juliette will go back to continue her work. It would not be surprising if Juliette takes Julio’s place at the Pyrenees end of her escape line as there has been a strong buildup towards it. Besides, there is nobody else on her escape line with enough knowledge of the Pyrenees to navigate that route. In any case, Juliette can’t go back to her hometown with her family gone and the Gestapo looking for her.

Before Freeman boards his ship he discards Sarah’s photograph, saying she’s not worth it. He now realises that he has long since stopped thinking about Sarah and fighting just to impress her. As he sails home he thinks about more important things and far better reasons to fight. Among them is the inspiration Juliette has given him.

Thoughts

This story is another in a growing trend in female protagonists in Commando. They have ranged from partners to the male protagonist to the star of the show. The cover of this issue indicates that the male and female protagonist will be pretty much equal in how they are developed.

The thrust of the story is still on the male protagonist, Alan Freeman, as he battles to escape from occupied France through an escape line. It’s not only a struggle for survival and escape through the underground and past the difficulties of Pyrenees and enemy patrols. There is also the added worry of an unknown traitor compromising the escape route, whose treachery could get them captured and killed if they don’t get to him first. So there is a mystery to this story as well that needs to be unravelled. But until they do, paranoia and suspicion run through the escape line and are setting the cell members against each other, as shown in the near-fight between Louis and Juliette.

It could have been a pure adventure/mystery story for Alan Freeman. Instead, it develops his character by taking him on an emotional journey where he has to stop dwelling on his ex and trying to win her back with heroics because it’s affecting his performance. It’s causing him to take thoughtless risks that are putting missions, his comrades’ lives and his own in jeopardy, and he does not even seem to care. And his reasons for it are not only selfish but also pathetic, and they may not even succeed in getting her back. After all, will Sarah even be there to impress when he returns – if he returns – with all his tales of heroics? For all he knows, she could now be married to a medal-laden war general or died aboard a ship sunk by some U-boat. He’s just got to move on, as Sarah has done.

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As Freeman’s journey through the Underground progresses, we see him changing from taking risks to win back his ex to taking risks for the war effort and the Underground. After his first night in Juliette’s house he stops thinking about Sarah pretty quickly, because once the Germans strike he has more pressing things to think about. He stops looking at Sarah’s photo all the time. The next risk he takes is for unselfish reasons that have nothing to do with impressing Sarah. Furthermore, as Freeman hears the horrors Juliette and the French people are going through under Nazism and sees some of them first hand, he begins to discover the real reasons why he should fight. By the time Freeman is finally reminded of Sarah, he has grown mature enough to let her go and realise there are more important things than getting back your ex when you’re in the middle of a war.

Freeman also goes from cavalierly going through adventures to impress Sarah to understanding it’s not a bravo adventure of risk and daring. He has to learn things like keeping cool when he’s in disguise when Germans are prowling close by, and persistence when he has to go through the Pyrenees the hard way to avoid capture. All the while he is fighting for his life and his freedom.

Although we never see Juliette’s thought bubbles, she’s clearly going through an intense emotional journey too. It shows through her words and her actions. As we learn more about Juliette’s escape line, we realise that while she is brave and competent, it sounds like she is still pretty new to this game and there are some hard lessons she still has to learn. One is learning to kill when she has to, because this is war. And when it’s war, sometimes you have to kill or be killed. This lesson Juliette is forced to learn when at first she tries to avoid killing Julio but eventually she has to make her first kill with him.

Another lesson Juliette has to learn is not get emotions cloud her judgement, as her handling of Louis proved. She had no real reason to suspect Louis is the traitor and there was no proof. All he did was make a very pointed observation that suggests the traitor is connected to her escape line, but she went too much on the defensive over it. For his part, Louis acted with too much emotion in handling his suspicions about Juliette’s line. In so doing, Louis and Juliette both missed a vital clue to the identity of the traitor – he was someone linked to both Juliette’s escape line and the Narbonne cell.

Walking the Line 6

Juliette’s reason to fight – to avenge the sister the Nazis killed – is better than Freeman’s selfish reason to fight. But it sounds like Juliette is dwelling on it too much as her reason to fight. Like Freeman, she has to get beyond it and realise that there are other reasons why she should fight. And Juliette does when she realises that when she finally gets her revenge for the death of her sister, she gets no satisfaction over it. But she has to go on and get Freeman to safety. In so doing, Juliette has to grow as she develops her own experience and knowledge of the Pyrenees.

At the end of it, Juliette has a whole new reason to continue with her work – keeping downed pilots like Alan Freeman out of Gestapo clutches. Moreover, she will do it even better, and it’s not just because she has removed the traitor who had been sabotaging her escape line before it had even started. Rooting him out has also helped to develop her experience, competence, and also shown her that you really can’t afford squeamishness in a job like this. After all, enemies like the Gestapo agent or the dirty rat Julio won’t have any compunction in killing you.

Blood Hostage [1993]

Blood Hostage cover

Published: Commando #2721 (1993)

Reprinted: Commando #5086 (2018)

Artist: Richardo Garijo (story); Ian Kennedy (cover)

Writer: Alan Hebden

Plot

Aboard a warship at Gibraltar, senior British officers are holding a top secret meeting. They are unaware a German spy is taking photographs of them doing it, so Berlin is alerted to the Allies planning something there, but they don’t know the details. Commodore Henry Dorning is one of the privileged few to know the officers were discussing plans for Operation Torch, the upcoming Allied invasion of North Africa.

Dorning has two additional problems, both of which have direct bearing on the story. The first is his nephew Ralph, who is trapped in the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands. The second is just being diagnosed with a heart murmur. Unfortunately the doctor cannot determine the severity of the murmur and advises a heart specialist. But there is no heart specialist in Gibraltar available for Dorning to consult.

Blood Hostage 1

While Dorning is being flown home aboard a Mosquito a German plane shoots it down. Dorning manages to bail out, but unfortunately he unwittingly parachutes into the Channel Islands. By the time he realises this, he has been captured by German naval officers.

The shock turns Dorning’s heart murmur into a full-scale heart attack. His condition is so serious that the usual Gestapo interrogation methods are out of the question, much to the chagrin of Gestapo rep Joachim Stoltz. After exchanging notes with Berlin, Stoltz knows Dorning is carrying vital information about what was discussed aboard that warship, but has to find another way of getting it out of Dorning. Then, while sifting through Dorning’s belongings, Stoltz finds out about Ralph. Immediately he hits on the idea of using Ralph as a hostage to blackmail Dorning into giving the information.

Meanwhile, Ralph has been using his catapult to help Dimitri Solkhov, a Russian prisoner, escape Nazi slavery. The Nazis give Dimitri up for dead after he goes over a cliff, but arrest Ralph for helping him. Ralph is sentenced to death, but is rescued from the firing squad in the nick of time by Stoltz’s order to turn Ralph over to his custody.

Elsewhere, Dimitri survived long enough to be rescued by Flyn MacCreedy. Flyn is wheelchair-bound after being wounded in action, but despite this he is as strong as a bull. Flyn has managed to hide a boat, “Beauty”, from the Nazis. Unfortunately Beauty has no fuel and Flyn, being paraplegic, can’t go out and steal any from the Nazis. Dimitri enthusiastically offers to do the job.

Flyn directs Dimitri to a local airstrip as the best place to steal fuel. Dimitri is aided by the fact that the guards have grown slack with security because they find the Channel Islands Occupation one great big bore. (Even for Stoltz, it was Dullsville before Dorning came along!)

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After loading several stolen loads of fuel for Beauty, Dimitri sees Ralph being flown in to be delivered to Stoltz. Dimitri immediately recognises the boy who helped him escape and naturally wants to help him. Fortunately one of the escort guards stays behind because his just-about-had-it motorbike is acting up. Dimitri clobbers the guard and takes his uniform and motorbike.

At the hospital, Stoltz shows Dorning he has Ralph in his clutches. He informs him of the death sentence that hangs over Ralph and how it will be carried out if Dorning does not tell him what he wants to know by next morning.

But as Stoltz and Ralph come out of the hospital, Dimitri catches up. He bowls down the Gestapo and tells Ralph to get on. It’s then a matter of fleeing through town while keeping ahead of the Gestapo with a double load and a sub-standard motorbike. They make it back to Flyn’s, but don’t realise the defective motorbike has left an oil trail, which the Nazis soon find.

After comparing notes they realise the Gestapo is trying to force vital information out of Dorning. As they can’t make their escape until dark anyway, they fill in time by hatching a plan to rescue Dorning. Ralph and Flyn put together their combined knowledge of the hospital for Dimitri and Ralph to get into Dorning’s ward and rescue him (they are further helped by carelessness from yet another bored guard).

Meanwhile, the oil trail has led Stoltz straight to Flyn. Despite his wheelchair, Flyn puts up quite a fight, including breaking Stoltz’s wrist. He then sends himself over the cliff, and Stoltz assumes he’s dead. In fact, Flyn had swum his way to Beauty.

However, Stoltz guesses what Ralph and Dimitri are up to. He arrives at the hospital just as they are about to make their getaway with Dorning in an ambulance. They put up enough fight to stall Stoltz and get in the ambulance. They head back to the wharf where Flyn and Beauty are waiting, but Stoltz is right behind.

Blood Hostage 3

Stoltz commandeers the whole German flotilla on the island to go after the fugitives. The naval commander is furious at this because Stoltz is non-military, but knows it is no use protesting. Knowing the fugitives are heading north, Stoltz has the flotilla drive them west, where they will run out of fuel and be sitting ducks for recapture.

After being informed what the date is, Dorning persuades Flyn to play into their hands and do exactly what they want. When Beauty does run out of fuel in the western approaches it looks like Stoltz has won – but then he runs right smack into the first wave of Operation Torch crossing the Channel. Of course this was Dorning’s plan all along. The German flotilla disappears into the mist. Stoltz’s vessel turns the wrong way and gets dashed to bits against the approaching convoys. The convoys rescue the fugitives. They don’t yet know the fugitives saved them from “a hot reception” at the hands of the Germans (though it’s not clear on whether it was because they actually diverted the German flotilla at a critical moment or stopped Stoltz from forcing Operation Torch out of Dorning).

Thoughts

One of the most striking things is how the artwork makes Stoltz the star of the show in every panel he appears. In his first panel he looks like a dapper old man that could be taken for a clerk. But as his character develops he looks more like a weasel while the artwork still gives his face a dash of humour. And then there are brilliant panels where he looks truly sinister, such as where he stares down at where Flyn went over the cliff.

The Channel Islands occupation holds a particular horror about Nazi rule because it was the only British territory occupied by the Nazis and therefore a microcosm of what would have been if Hitler had conquered Britain. We certainly see horrors in the slave labour of the Russians and the Ralph, the meagre rations the islanders get, and Ralph, a mere boy, almost getting executed by firing squad.

Yet there is humour too, in the way the Germans are so bored stiff with an unexciting occupation that they have grown sloppy in their security. This has the bonus in that it is so easy to take advantage of. And so we get to see some of the resistance activity on the island. It begins with Ralph and then Flyn who by turns help Dimitri to escape. Both Ralph and Flyn show real courage in the face of their physical deficiencies against the Germans (Ralph being so young still and Flyn being wheelchair-bound). These acts of resistance turn into full-scale action when Dimitri rescues Ralph and then all three set out to rescue Dorning. The motorcycle and ambulance chases are real highlights. They would look really exciting on a movie screen, perhaps even more so than a battle scene. Putting the motorcycle chase on the cover is a master stroke. It immediately catches the reader’s eye and the angry German in the background is a hoot.

Blood Hostage 4

The action scenes make a nice change from the battlefield scenes that appear in so many Commandos. In fact there are no battlefield scenes at all until where the flight on Beauty ends up. The escape on Beauty is not just a mere chase; Dorning actually turns it into part of Operation Torch itself and helping the operation to succeed. It is also turned into an ironic punishment for Stoltz where Dorning actually gives him what he wants to know – Operation Torch – but in a manner that causes Stoltz’s downfall.

Fatherland [2017]

Fatherland cover

Published: Commando #5053

Art: Ian Kennedy (cover); Rodriguez and Morhain (story)

Writer: Iain McLaughlin

In the previous Commando entry on this blog we profiled Operation Nachthexen, the first Commando to have a female protagonist after over 50 years of exclusively male protagonists. All the same, the main protagonist was still male and the female protagonist was more in a supporting if major role.

This Commando is the first to have a female protagonist who is the star of the show in her own right. It is also the first Commando to have a female antagonist.

Plot

In March 1933 Hitler and his Nazi Party gain absolute control over Germany (and absolute is the word). For Hans Fischer, a German diplomat and Nazi living in London, this means benefits and promotion, but his Nazism is tearing his family apart. Hans’ wife Elizabeth is British born and therefore does not support “that funny little man Hitler” (say what?). She is appalled at how her husband has changed for the worse ever since he embraced Nazism, and with fanatical zeal. When Hans says they are all moving to Berlin so their children, Kurt and Lisa, can be brought up as proper Germans (Nazis, he means!), Elizabeth tries to do a runner with the children. Unfortunately she only succeeds in getting Lisa away. Kurt remains in the clutches of his fanatical Nazi father, which does not bode well for him.

Fatherland 2

Ten years later World War II is on, and Lisa (now Fisher) joins the fight against Hitler. As Lisa can speak German, she is chosen for a special assignment. After two months of intense special training, she is sent to the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands, where she goes undercover as Greta Kruger, a German auxiliary the Resistance intercepted. Her task is to work at one Colonel Schaudi’s office to gather information on the shipping. The German supply shipping has the infuriating habit of arriving at different times, which makes it difficult for the Allies to know when to intercept and destroy them. So they need information on the times those ships are coming.

As per training, Lisa also spends a great deal of time observing the routines of the German guards and patrols – with particular attention to the gaps and blind spots that she can take advantage of in order to move around without being caught.

Lisa also has to tread carefully around her roommate, Hannah Muller, who is a committed Nazi and a callous cold fish. Hannah looks upon the islanders as scum who are beneath the superior Germans and badly need German discipline to turn them around. She does not approve of Lisa saving a local boy from being run over by a German motorcyclist (and taking some injury herself) or Lisa going to church.

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Hannah has no idea that the real reason for Lisa going to church is that the minister, Reverend Letts, is Lisa’s contact. Lisa gets the E.T.A. of one German supply ship, the HSK Wagner. However Lisa nearly gets unstuck at the rendezvous on a cliff to pass the information to Rev. Letts when a sentry catches her. She ends up slugging him and he falls to his death at the bottom of the cliff. As predicted, Schaudi puts the sentry’s death down to an accident (and orders it to be hushed up because he does not want the islanders to hear about such embarrassments). But Lisa and Rev. Letts are not going to use that cliff for a rendezvous again.

Lisa’s information enables the Allies to succeed in intercepting and destroying the Wagner. But when word reaches Berlin they (correctly) suspect their security has been compromised and send in one of their leading and most ruthless SS Oberfuehrers to investigate the matter. And guess who it is? Yep – Lisa’s father! What’s more, Lisa’s brother Kurt is in tow too, as an SS Hauptsturmfuehrer on Dad’s staff.

Lisa is unaware of this complication as she gathers evidence that the Germans are going to use the Channel Islands as a stockpile for German weapons. Rev. Letts tells Lisa the RAF is going to bomb the munitions store that night and she is required to light flares for them to see by.

Finding pretexts to get away from Hannah for night missions has been another problem for Lisa. The first time, Lisa said she was laid up because she was injured from the motorcycle incident, which worked. But the second trick – giving Hannah drugged coffee – does not. By the time Lisa is at the rendezvous lighting the flares, she finds Hannah has followed her; obviously she smelt a rat and has now discovered everything. A fight breaks out, and Hannah ends up out cold due to Lisa’s superior fighting training. The ensuing bomb raid does the rest in finishing off Hannah. Lisa then proceeds to frame Hannah for everything in order to cover her tracks.

The frame-up of Hannah works, but Lisa is in for a shock at the debriefing over Hannah – her SS father and brother. Fortunately they do not see through her disguise, but she realises their presence is now making things too risky for her. Things get even more risky when Schaudi wants to plant Lisa on the church as a choir member because he suspects it is linked to the Resistance.

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Orders come for Lisa to be withdrawn because of the increased risk. A plane will come for her in two days and the Germans will discover her ‘fall over a cliff’ later. During those two days, Lisa is appalled to see what a pair of vicious bullies her father and brother have become, as shown in the way they treat the islanders.

Lisa has one final task on the night she is to go: steal detailed orders of naval schedules from Schaudi’s office. Unfortunately Kurt has picked that night to start changing the guard routines, which impedes Lisa’s progress in getting away to meet the plane after stealing the papers. At one point she has no choice but to slug a guard, and she barely makes it in time for her plane. Unfortunately, Hans and Kurt discovered the guard, which alerted them, and now they arrive on the scene.

Still thinking she is Greta Kruger, Hans confronts her about her treason to the Fatherland. A moment later, Hans is quite taken aback and confused when she suddenly starts calling him “[Daddy]” and confronts him on the way he ripped his own family apart in the name of Nazism. Kurt, however, immediately understands what it’s about.

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As the family squabble unfolds, it becomes clear that years of abuse and bullying from Dad are responsible for Kurt being a bully himself. However, unlike the merciless Nazi fanatic father, there is still good in Kurt, and now it comes to the surface. He cannot bring himself to send his own sister to the firing squad and finds the courage to say this to his bully father. Dad’s response is more bullying of Kurt: he lashes out at his son and knocks him to the ground. He then points his gun at Lisa, telling her that she’ll be interrogated until she talks and all the rest of it. Moments pass as they just stare down each other. However, those moments give Kurt time to recover and he shoots his father dead to save Lisa: “Your cruelty and obsession has hurt me on many occasions. You will not do this to my sister.”

Kurt helps Lisa to escape and cover it up afterwards. He declines to go with her as he is still loyal to Germany, but promises to find her after the war ends. As Lisa flies to safety, Kurt silently wishes her luck.

Thoughts

It is not surprising that the first Commando to have a female lead as the main protagonist puts her into undercover work and espionage rather than into combat as the male protagonists most often are in Commando. It also makes a change from making her a Resistance fighter, as girls’ comics so often did. Lisa is working with the Resistance, but she is in the role of the specially trained operative sent in by Intelligence, so we get insights into how the British Intelligence and special operatives worked from that meticulous military Commando research. We also see several of the techniques and tips Lisa provides from her special training, such as familiarising herself with the guards’ routines in order to get around them and how to handle interrogation. And the scene where she beats up that callous Hannah is absolutely priceless! Though Hannah does not get the chance to do anything that’s actually horrible as the Fischer men do, her unfeeling, arrogant remarks and her Nazi devotion make us all yearn for her to get her comeuppance.

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Lisa’s mother Elizabeth is of course the other female protagonist in the story. We really feel for the mother as we have seen so many similar situations in stories of domestic violence and parental abductions. She is faced with an increasing shadow of domestic violence from a husband who is turning bad, and then it’s compounded by the threat of being dragged off to a grim life under the jackboot of Nazi Germany. She attempts a desperate flight from that life and tries to save her children, but it’s heartbreaking to see she is only half successful. She failed to save Kurt because of his childlike naivety in hopping out of the car and asking Dad where they are going. This of course tipped Dad off at once and he threatened to take the kids away to Nazi Germany without her and she would never see them again. Mums and Dads who have lost their children to international custody disputes and parental abductions would really feel for her there and applaud when she at least manages to save her daughter. But we can imagine her heart must have been bleeding at being forced to leave her son behind and imagining what his upbringing will be like in Nazi Germany under his increasingly tyrannical father and without any motherly love. When we see how Kurt turned out because of this, Mum had every right to be concerned and how Lisa had such a lucky escape in not being dragged off to Nazi Germany as well.

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Kurt Fischer is another first in Commando: he is the very first sympathetic SS Officer to appear in Commando. Up until this point, whenever Commando used stories with sympathetic German WW2 soldiers, it made a strong point of never, ever using sympathetic SS or Gestapo officers. The sympathetic German soldiers always came from the forces and were portrayed as fighting for their country rather than Nazism and disliking the SS and Gestapo for their brutality. Sergeant Oskar Dietrich in Entry Forbidden! is one such case. SS and Gestapo officers in Commando were always just like Hans Fischer: cruel, brutal fanatical Nazis with no mercy or redeeming qualities whatsoever. They are shown to be bad because they have always been bad, such as Max Rudel, also from Entry Forbidden!

But this is not the case with Kurt Fischer. When we first see him as a kid, he looks such a sweet kid (unlike Max Rudel in childhood), and we are really worried about him when he gets left behind with his fanatical Nazi father. Sure enough, he’s the mirror image of his bullying father years later, but that’s because he’s an abused child. After the separation he was dragged off to Nazi Germany where he suffered a miserable, terrifying life under his bullying father and without even his mother to give him love. If Dad had married again, we imagine it would have been someone like Hannah Muller.

Yet Dad had not destroyed all the good in Kurt with his bullying. And we imagine that deep down, long-standing resentment from years of abuse is yearning to break out and take revenge. Both come to the surface when he is confronted with his sister and the fate she will face if Dad arrests her. When Dad shows utter lack of mercy towards his daughter, it turns out to be the last straw for Kurt. For all the bullying Kurt did earlier, we really cheer for him when he strikes back at his bully father by shooting him, and he redeems himself.

Even Hans Fischer may be a tad more tragic than SS officers in Commando usually are. Usually they are just simply bad, irredeemable characters like Max Rudel. However, the line “Elizabeth was shocked by the changes in her husband since he became involved in Chancellor Hitler’s party” hints that Hans may have been once a better man. However, becoming a fanatical Nazi destroyed all that. His fanaticism led him to destroy the family he probably once loved very much, and ultimately that same family destroyed him.

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The ending was crafted in a manner that left scope for sequels. So we might see Lisa again in a future Commando. Or we might even see Kurt in the first-ever Commando to use a sympathetic SS officer as the main protagonist. Certainly there have been serious questions raised about the consequences of that night for Kurt, which could be developed further. It’s all very well for Kurt to say he can’t go against his country, but he will find it’s not going to be that simple and he can’t really carry on with the SS the way he did before. The good in him has awakened now, and he will have to work on it if he is to keep his promise to his sister to reunite with her. After all, she’s not going to be very impressed with him if he continues to shove the islanders around or run up a list of war crimes a mile long. Besides, he now has a terrible secret that could have him executed, blackmailed or going on the run if someone finds out, and that worry is going to be a huge shadow over him. And now that Dad’s bullying dominance is gone, Kurt is more of a free man to make his own decisions. We do have to wonder if the SS was Kurt’s choice of career in the first place or if bully Dad forced him into it. It would not be surprising to see a future Commando where Lisa goes to the rescue of her brother. We shall just have to wait and see.

Operation Nachthexen [2013]

Operation Nachthexen cover

Published: Commando #4599

Artist: (cover and story) Carlos Pino

Writer: Mac MacDonald

Plot

In 1940, a dogfight with superior German Me109s goes badly for Pilot Officer Drew Granger and his unit. He is the only survivor, but his left arm is disabled from enemy fire, and the psychological damage over losing his entire unit makes him lose his nerve for flying. So he is deemed unfit to return to active service.

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So when Hitler launches Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union, Drew is dispatched there to help the Russians because he has some background in the Russian language. However, Drew is still affected by his shattered nerve, and his command of Russian is not as good as the Allies think. The Russian commissioners are quick to realise this, so they are not impressed with him. Among them is Captain Gleb Revnik, who has a dark secret: he ran during a fight with the Germans. And Major Zubov, who has a knack for hearing tales about lack of will to fight, has men shot for running. Zubov is another commissioner who does not think much of Drew.

Then Drew is further injured during a German air raid on a Russian airfield. While recovering he is visited by a female Soviet fighter pilot, Yana Belinky, who fortunately can speak English, and they strike a friendship. When Drew recovers, he discovers the entire unit consists of women (whom the Germans call Nachthexen [Night Witches]), which he finds strange. He is concerned that their aircraft are nothing but dated PO2s (nicknamed “corn cutters” by the Russians and “sewing machines” by the Germans). All the same, they are still a vital part of the Soviet airforce. The Nachthexen pound the Germans during the night, and have worked their way up to become an effective fighting force against the Germans. Their ageing aircraft have the advantage of flying slow and low, which makes them a difficult target for the faster Me109s, which stall if throttled back too much. Another advantage of the PO2s is that they are invisible on enemy radar because their construct is canvas and wood rather than metal.

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Revnik realises that Drew still hasn’t regained his nerve, and his arm, which was reinjured in the airfield attack, is troubling him as well. Drew feels useless and is ashamed to see Yana seems more resilient than he is to losing comrades and getting injured in dogfights. Revnik decides to write to Zubov about it when the time comes. In the meantime, he is pleased that Zubov’s focus on Drew and Yana is diverting him from any potential rumours about his secret.

Meanwhile, Drew begins to suspect Revnik is up to no good. Indeed, Revnik wants to bring Yana down because of her aristocratic family background during the days of the tsars. Zubov also has his doubts about her loyalty.

Then Yana says she is not flying because there is nobody to team up with. Drew volunteers to fly with her on a raid on a German communications post, and he will handle the PO2 machine gun. Drew finds that even going through the instrument panels and controls scares him when he once found them second nature, but there is no backing out. Revnik is delighted at the prospect of getting rid of them both, and suspects will be too.

As the flight unfolds, Drew finds his nerves are doing better than expected; even his disabled arm is. The advantages of the PO2 enable Yana and Drew to reach their target with little trouble, and they soon destroy it despite a strong attack from the Germans. Then they strike serious trouble from a ferocious Me109, and Drew manages to clip it. Later it is revealed that the clipped Me109 crashes on top of Zubov’s vehicle, which kills him.

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However, during the dogfight Yana gets shot and the plane develops a fuel leak. Yana manages to land the plane so Drew can fix the leak, but it becomes apparent her condition is extremely serious. It’s up to Drew to get her back for medical treatment. But this means flying a plane he has never flown before and facing up to his nerve difficulties and problematic arm. At least he gets unwitting help with this from approaching German soldiers, who are out for revenge against one of those hated PO2’s. He has to take off fast or get mown down by their vindictive gunfire.

Drew manages to get the plane back to the airfield, though he too had taken a shot. Both he and Yana need extensive medical care, but he has regained his nerve. Revnik acquires a whole new respect for Yana and Drew and is confident they will both return to the skies. He is also relieved his secret is safe due to Zubov’s death.

Thoughts

This Commando holds a special place in the history of girls’ comics because it is the very first Commando to feature a female protagonist. Commando protagonists (and antagonists) have been exclusively male ever since its launch; appearances of any female characters were fleeting and peripheral, such as mothers seeing their sons off to war.

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The protagonists in this Commando are atypical for another reason: they become recurring characters. Commando protagonists are generally one-offs, but Drew and Yana return in Witch Hunt (Commando #4616) and Warrior’s Return (Commando #4635), with the same creative team.

Although this Commando is the first one to use a female protagonist, the focus of the story remains firmly on the male protagonist, Drew Granger, and his fight to regain his nerve and resume flying combat. In the meantime, he is the fish out of water at the Russian airfield. His Russian is not good enough, he can’t join the fight because of his shattered nerves, he feels useless and out of sorts, he is a target of personal and political agendas of two commissioners, and he is handicapped by an impaired arm. Drew also feels shame at how Yana is such a contrast to him. While he can’t regain his nerve she always jumps back on the horse after it throws her, never gets the loss of comrades get her down, and can face down injuries with such utter stoicism.

How Drew regains his nerve is well handled. It does not come all at once, which would feel trite. It comes in stages during the flight with Yana, but it takes a real life-or-death situation to really force Drew to face up to his problems – fly the plane and get back to base, regardless of them all – because their lives depend on it.

As the focus of the story is on Drew, we get little feel of Yana’s character. Sure, she is stoic, courageous, quick-witted, resourceful, and has nerves of steel, but that’s about it. She does not get much development, and gets no thought bubbles for us to see how she thinks or show the human side of her. The only glimpse of it is when we get a hint that Yana is more affected by the loss of her comrades than she admits: she responds abruptly to Drew when he tries to sympathise, and apologises later.

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Revnik is perhaps more developed than Yana because he gets thought bubbles for us to read, and these help to round out his character. When we learn his terrible secret and the fate he dreads, we may either develop some sympathy for him or we may hope he gets found out and shot because of his plotting against Drew and Yana. However, the respect he eventually gains for both Drew and Yana in the end turns him into a sympathetic and more likeable character. We end up feeling relief that Revnik’s secret is safe, with Drew’s unknowing help.

Unfortunately I do not have the sequels to comment on how the relationship and characters of Drew and Yana developed, or whether Revnik went on to become a good friend to them. Nor can I say whether any romance between Drew and Yana blossoms in the sequels, which is something readers might expect. For their first story there is none.

Nobody Loves a Genius! [1974]

Genius cover

Published: Commando #824, 1974

Reprinted: Commando #2084, 1987

Artist: Ian Kennedy (cover); Pat Wright (story)

Writer: R.A. Montague

Special thanks to Colcool007 for credits

Plot

Sergeant Jim Bates is in a platoon in the 8th army led by Commander Paul Rowland in the North African campaign against General Rommel “The Desert Fox”. But for them, a more aggravating problem than Rommel is Private Hubert Wellington, “the most gormless, useless lump Jim had ever come across”. Hubert is a walking disaster area, which is due to gawkiness and nervousness rather than stupidity. He is arguably the worst soldier in the platoon and seems quite oblivious to it.

However, Hubert has a good nature, and he does have his uses. For example, he has a magic touch with anything mechanical and can repair vehicles. All the same, only Jim has any patience for Hubert and tries to turn him into a soldier; the others all think Hubert’s efforts help Rommel more than them. When Hubert’s gormlessness blows up the lieutenant’s jeep with a Panzerschrecker (the German version of a bazooka), the lieutenant decides he has to go, and puts him into an explosives course in Cairo.

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After North Africa, the platoon goes on to fight in the Italian campaign. However, they keep running into booby traps set by a German explosives expert nicknamed “Wehrmacht Willi”. His nickname comes from the signature he always leaves with his work: “Ein Geschenk von Willi” [a present from Willi]. Willi’s booby traps are soon their biggest dread.

Then they run into someone else – Hubert Wellington, who had requested permission to rejoin the platoon. Hubert came out top in his explosives course, and is soon put in charge of setting booby traps for advancing Germans. Unfortunately Hubert overthinks things and does not set the explosives directly on the path but on the sides of it as he thinks the Germans would not take the direct route in case of a trap. They should have, but they take the direct route, bypassing the explosives completely. At least the platoon manages to fend off the Germans.

Next, the platoon approaches an old ruin that they suspect the Germans are using as an observation post. When they investigate the window they set off a booby trap, which alerts the Germans to open fire. After the barrage ends they send in Hubert to check for more booby traps. Jim is amazed at Hubert’s new calmness as he deactivates three more booby traps, which have Willi’s trademark signature.

After this, Hubert is appointed platoon explosives expert, and he gives the impression he is coming into his own at last. Hubert is soon setting up his own booby traps for the Germans and leaving his own signature a la Wehrmacht Willi. The thinking behind his traps is very ingenious and is getting into the heads of what the enemy will think when they approach the traps. Hubert’s nervousness is not a problem when he is busy, such as setting or deactivating traps.

But when Hubert has a lapse into nervousness because he’s not busy, it gives the platoon’s position away to the Germans, and they open up a ferocious barrage. The commander has serious thoughts about throwing Hubert out again, but Jim persuades the commander to give him more time to boost Hubert’s confidence.

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The advance starts again. The platoon has the job of keeping a bridge secure, but first they have to reach it. Their advance on the bridge grows fretful because of Hubert getting nervous again, which is what makes him such a problem. But things change when they advance the bridge and Hubert is quick to check the track for booby traps. Sure enough, it’s been rigged with Wehrmacht Willi’s handiwork, and very skilful handiwork it is too. The commander thinks Willi moves around quite a bit and wonders why.

The Germans arrive and prepare to destroy the bridge because of the advance. The platoon soon deals with them. Then evidence emerges that Willi has been setting up charges to destroy the bridge by remote control, so it’s Hubert’s job to deactivate them all. He does so in the very nick of time – the remote control is triggered just as the last charge is defused.

But just as they finish with the explosives, the Germans open fire again. As the advance guard has not arrived, the platoon has to fend off the Germans alone, but they manage to do so. Hubert’s own booby traps repel any returning Germans, and he also gets the final triumph, with another Panzerschreck. The platoon has the bridge clear and secure by the time the advance guard finally arrives.

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They then stumble across another building the Germans could be using as an observation post. So they need to check it, but they sense a trap. The German soldiers fire shots from the building and then flee. Nonetheless, they feel this is where the remote control was activated, which means Willi and his booby traps could be around. So it’s a job for Hubert, who makes fast work of deactivating Willi’s traps. But there is someone upstairs, so Jim and Hubert go to investigate. Hubert says he is no longer scared, and from then on his nerves cause no more trouble.

Upstairs they capture Wehrmacht Willi himself, just as he is signing his last-ever booby trap. Jim is astonished to see that Willi is almost a twin for Hubert Wellington, only he looks even more of a nerd. The platoon can’t stop laughing when they see what the dreaded booby trapper actually looks like, but Hubert doesn’t get the joke at all.

Thoughts

Commando definitely meets “Revenge of the Nerds” in this issue. Although Hubert’s nerves and gawkiness gets on everyone’s nerves, the most irritating thing about him is that he is, in modern parlance, a nerd. Even after he overcomes his soldiering problems and becomes a model soldier, the others still find him a bit annoying because he’s “a bit of a genius”.

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The same could be said for Willi. When Willi is finally revealed to be a nerd too, and presumably got left behind by the other German soldiers because of it, you can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for Willi. We have to wonder if Willi’s platoon ridiculed him a bit for being a nerd, despite his genius in setting booby traps. Could Willi have even had similar problems to Hubert and given his platoon aggravation before he discovered his own genius for explosives? Willi and Hubert are such peas in a pod in terms of genius, talent, appearance, and even in the way they think that you sure suspect this was the case.

Many Commandos go for grim and dark stories, but this one goes for more humour with the Gomer Pyle-type. Eyebrows are raised when Hubert is put on the explosives course. It sounds about as prudent as putting the Jinx from St Jonah’s on one. So it’s quite a twist when the explosives course proves the making of the kluzty Hubert Wellington. It doesn’t come all at once though; Hubert still has to overcome the nerves that made him such a disaster area to begin with and he still has lapses into his old jinxing. It’s quite realistic and credible for the making of Hubert Wellington not to come all at once but to develop through the fight against Willi.

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Even more humour comes from the final twist in the story and the joke that the irony has pulled on everyone. During the course of the story the commander comments that “Maybe [the Germans] haven’t any Hubert Wellingtons on their side. I wonder if they’d like one – free.” Little does he know that the Germans do in fact have a Hubert Wellington, in the form of the “Wehrmacht Willi” they dread so much. When this is finally revealed, the platoon realises that “even Hitler’s got ‘em!”. So it seems that even Hitler gets his share of nerds.

To Kill a Rat… [1976]

1066_to_kill_a_rat

Published: Commando #1066

Artist: Cortiella (cover); Cecil T Rigby (story)

Writer: Bernard Gregg

Reprints: None, but the story has been reused. The difference is that the uncle lied about killing the soldiers after the nephew talked.

Special thanks to Colcool007 for the information

Plot

Doug Watson is subjected to bullying and psychological abuse at the hands of his cruel, bullying pro-Nazi Uncle Hermann Braugen during his six-month stays with his German relatives (the other six with an English aunt). During one stay Braugen develops his favourite torture of Doug: lock him in the rat-infested cellar to be terrorised by the rats. As a result, Doug develops an extreme fear of rats (musophobia, also known as murophobia and suriphobia), which Braugen just loves to play upon.

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After this particular stay, Doug vows never to go back to his German relatives again, though Uncle Braugen and the rat torture continue to give him nightmares. Fortunately the trauma fades in time, and Doug grows strong enough to join the army when World War II breaks out. He rises fast to corporal rank. He is among the British forces that try in vain to stem the Nazi invasion of France and end up being evacuated from Dunkirk. Doug then moves up to second lieutenant, and he leads his men to a sweep forward against the German forces in North Africa.

But what Doug does not realise is that the man in charge of the German forces against him is none other than his Uncle Braugen, now a colonel. Doug’s forces are successful in driving Braugen’s back. They get cut off and soon Braugen is the last man standing, but he isn’t giving up that easily.

Braugen pretends to surrender when Doug’s forces arrive. Doug is shocked to recognise his Uncle, but Uncle Braugen does not recognise his nephew because Doug has changed quite a bit over the years. Braugen is quite surprised to realise it is Doug when Doug speaks to him alone. Braugen pretends to have reformed, repents the past and asks to bury it. Doug falls for it and foolishly allows Braugen to escape.

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Doug then continues to press against Rommel in North Africa and eventually the front into Sicily and then Italy, by which time he is a lieutenant. Then they plan to assault the German forces in Italy. But Doug does not realise Uncle Braugen is up ahead with the German forces in the German-held Castle of Monte Lucia. They consider their position impregnable, but they do not have the much-needed information about the strength of the Allied forces.

The carelessness of one of the British soldiers (lighting up a cigarette) betrays the position of Doug’s forces to the German forces, who surround them and force them to surrender. They are taken to Monte Lucia, but none of them yields the information the Germans want.

Then Braugen walks in, and Doug instantly realises how Braugen had tricked him in North Africa. Braugen takes Doug over for interrogation. Beating him up doesn’t work, but then Braugen recalls the musophobia he had instilled into Doug. He locks Doug into a rat-infested cellar where the sewers are, and tells Doug he will not release him until he is ready to talk. In the cellar the phobia is doing its work. Doug can see there is a sewer in the cellar that could be an escape route, but he is too terrified to use it because of the rats. Eventually the phobia makes Doug tell Braugen everything he needs to know.

Braugen shoots all the other Allied prisoners as he has no further need for them. Doug, having recovered sufficiently from the rat ordeal, manages to break free from Braugen’s goons and escape from Monte Lucia. Braugen does not search for him because he thinks Doug is not worth bothering about.

Rat 3Doug makes it back to his lines, where he reports everything in shame at H.Q. The colonel is not at all understanding about Doug talking under torture and has him arrested for court-martial. However, en route to face the court-martial, Doug just snaps, seizes a gun from his guards, and makes a run for it.

He returns to Monte Lucia to avenge his soldiers, get even with Braugen, and make amends for talking under torture. However, the only way in is through the rat-infested sewer pipe Doug saw earlier. He forces his way into it and the rats. This time hatred helps Doug to overcome his fear when it makes him lash out at the biting rats. By the time Doug is back in the cellar, his musophobia has dissipated and he hardly notices the rats now.

Fortunately the trap door into the cellar is not locked, so Doug is free to make his way into the castle. He finds Braugen’s ammunition stores and uses them to rig the castle to blow from petrol trails and improvised rope fuses, which are to dangle through the sewer pipe. When everything is ready, Doug ignites the petrol with his gun and the Germans’ impregnable fortress goes up in flames.

At a distance, Doug waits for Braugen – the biggest rat of them all in his opinion – to show up among the fleeing Germans. When Braugen does, he is scared for the first time his life, and his shots at Doug are wide. By contrast, Doug is calm and quick to shoot his uncle dead.

The British forces have been approaching Monte Lucia with speed. They are surprised to find its impregnable defences broken and burning, and it is deserted except for one British soldier sitting beside a dead German. Doug goes back to H.Q., confident that everything will be cleared up in view of his heroic action in blowing up the impregnable Monte Lucia single-handled.

Thoughts

Historically, the climax at Monte Lucia is based on the Battle of Monte Cassino. Very loosely, mind you, and it has little bearing on the actual battle.

The issue of child abuse in the story feels ahead of its time (1976) when read today. Abusive guardians were a common feature in girls’ comics, but the abusers were, in essence, doing it to exploit and take advantage of the protagonist one way or other. Uncle Braugen, on the other hand, is not bullying his nephew in order to exploit him. This is deliberate, intentional torture inflicted for sadistic purposes. For this reason, Uncle Braugen could well be the most evil child abuser ever to appear in comics. In any case, he deserves to appear near or even at the top of a list of the top ten child abusers in British comics.

Rat 4

It’s a wonder Uncle Braugen didn’t go into the Gestapo or SS. He has everything it takes to rise quickly there and he would love every minute on the job. He likes nothing better than cruelty, bullying, torture, and showing off his arrogance and huge muscles whenever he gets the chance. He torments his nephew because he is British and he also regards his nephew as a weakling because he is not physically strong. There are no redeeming qualities about Braugen whatsoever, unlike his wife Meg. Aunt Meg is kind and tries to protect her nephew, but there is little she can do against her hefty, bullying husband. Thank goodness the Braugens don’t have children of their own. Why the heck did Meg marry Hermann in the first place? Talk about a mismatch.

There is some stereotyping of Uncle Braugen’s nationality with the line: “The German, like many of his kind, was a bully”. Uncle Braugen is a bully because of his nationality rather than his personality and Nazi sympathies? That comes across as a bit offensive. To add to the stereotyping, Uncle Berman has a scar on his right cheek, presumably from World War I, and is also portrayed as your typical arrogant German, with extra-nasty qualities that make him the ideal Nazi.

Rat 5

It is surprising that Doug Watson makes it into the army, much less rise to the status of lieutenant, considering what a physically weak and emotionally abused boy he was in his childhood. But it is a delightful surprise, an ultimate triumph for the abused boy, and it would be one in the eye for Uncle Braugen. Indeed it takes Uncle Braugen himself by surprise when he first meets his nephew as an adult. By the time Uncle Braugen is actually holding Doug prisoner, Doug himself declares that he is not the frightened little boy anymore. Now he has become a man who can stand up to his uncle and the physical torture Uncle Braugen inflicts on him. He does not even call Braugen “Uncle” anymore; it’s just “Braugen”. But all it takes is the rat phobia to undo all that and turn Doug Watson back into the frightened little boy again, for all the confidence, courage and strength he has gained through the army.

It is fortunate that Doug gets a chance to redeem himself and overcome his rat phobia into the bargain. However, it takes more than determination to succeed and shame over breaking down and talking to overcome the phobia. Although Doug tries, it takes another extremely strong emotion – hatred – to counter the extreme terror because it was the stronger of the two. And the rat torture ultimately backfired on Uncle Braugen because it unwittingly exposed the chink in the armour of the supposedly impenetrable fortress.

When Uncle Braugen initially tortured and terrorised his nephew, he never in his wildest dreams ever thought that the boy he considered a weakling would be the one to cause his death. And on the battlefield too! But that is indeed the case, and it is a most fitting and ironic twist. Mind you, what Aunt Meg would say about her own nephew killing her husband in action we can’t imagine.

 

 

 

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”.

Prisoner 5

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.

Prisoner 6

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.

Daddy’s Darling (1975)

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Published: 8 March 1975 – 16 August 1975

Episodes: 24

Artist: Phil Townsend

Writer: Alison Christie

Translations/reprints: None known

Plot

Lee Simons is the daughter of a wealthy businessman, though not all is smooth sailing in their lives: her elder brother Peter was knocked over and killed while riding his bike and a year later, Lee’s mother dies of an illness that presumably she was not strong enough to fight off due to sadness. Lee and her father only have each other now – well, actually, Mr Simons has got the munitions factory and the large house too, not that Lee is all that bothered about those things. She would rather make her own life and choose her own friends – at least, this is the case by the time she is thirteen and has had five years of stifling over-protectiveness to cope with.

At the beginning of the story, though, the war gives her unexpected hope. First her governess resigns in order to join the land army, meaning that Lee has to go to the local village school; and then she pulls a fast one by volunteering to host an evacuee (something that her father was very against). She gets more than she bargained for – evacuee Maggie Hope is billeted on them but so is Maggie’s little brother, Joe – the family he had been going to were unable to take him after all. Lee is over the moon to have friends staying, but her father keeps them apart at every opportunity. He sends Lee to school in a chauffeur-driven car and makes Maggie and Joe walk behind even when it is raining; the other school kids taunt and despise Lee for that, even though Maggie sticks up for her. Mr Simons is susceptible to public opinion though, and when he eventually realizes it will look bad for him to keep doing that, he sends Maggie and Joe to school by car as well – but a different one, so that Lee is still kept away from the two ‘guttersnipes’ as he thinks of them.

And so the tussle goes – Lee intervenes with her father to protect and help the two Hope kids, Mr Simons protects and coddles his daughter but in a narrow, stifling way that keeps her isolated from other experiences and emotions, and Maggie and Joe bring more and more excitement into Lee’s life, willy-nilly. Even sending a food parcel to Maggie’s mum in London is a struggle, and it only happens because Mr Simons doesn’t want to look bad in front of others when a newspaper reporter sees Lee trying to post it.

Some fights are won by the kids and some by the father, at least initially. Allsorts, Maggie and Joe’s dog, is sent from London and the kids hide it in the air-raid shelter but of course it is not long before it is found – luckily before he is sent back, he saves Lee from a falling brick wall and so Mr Simons agrees to let the dog stay. Maggie and Lee both write an essay in class about their mothers – Maggie’s is chosen for a class prize because it is so emotionally written. The prize is a tour of a local factory – specifically, Mr Simons’ factory – and he ignores Maggie and only talks to Lee, as if she had won the prize herself. But the factory workers chat to Maggie and take to her, even choosing her as their social club queen.

They have a whip-round too, and Maggie wants to spend the resulting windfall on getting Joe a train set – but with the war on, there is none to be had in the shops for any money. Finally, a moment for Mr Simons to show a different side – out of the blue, he gives Joe the train set that Lee’s dead brother never got to use. Not that he’s softening towards them, mind you!

One incident causes her father to harden further rather than the reverse. Lee is tasked with opening an event – a sale of work – but on the way there , an RAF plane is downed and her clothes are all ruined, either by using them to aid the RAF pilot directly or because she is running across rough land and they are scratched and torn. Despite her heroism the result is that Lee is taken out from the village school and made to have lessons at home again – taken by a snobby maid who has been working at their house but who is a qualified teacher. Miss Johnson (former maid Daisy) is a nasty piece of work, but Lee is not left alone with her for long, because air raid damage conveniently closes the local school and so Maggie and Joe need to join the lessons, much to the disgruntlement of Miss Johnson and of Mr Simons. Young Joe proves to be quite a terror, teasing Miss Johnson with their dog, with a mouse, and with scurrilous caricatures, so quite soon Daisy heads off in a temper. Lee is delighted and although Mr Simons is cross, he is more upset by it being the anniversary of his wife’s death, leading him to snap even more nastily at the two evacuees.

It’s the anniversary of Joe’s father’s death too though, and they find him crying in the village graveyard. Maybe Mr Simons is softening after all – he puts his arm around Joe and even gives some money for the kids to go to the cinema – but it is only temporary and he very quickly turns up at the cinema and separates the two groups so that he has Lee all to himself. Nor will he invite Ma Hope over to visit the two kids, despite Lee’s pleas – but new maid ‘Mrs Watkins’ turns out to be Mrs Hope under an assumed name, come to be with her children. Lee takes to her instantly but they have to make sure that Mr Simons doesn’t find out and send her packing. Of course it is not long before the inevitable happens (a comic set-piece has Ma Hope soaking her feet in a warm bowl in front of the fire when she thinks the master is out for the evening, only to be interrupted by Mr Simons and posh guest).

So Mrs Hope is back in London when further air raids hit the East End, and of course her children are distraught with fear for her. Mr Simons bows to public pressure and has his chauffeur drive them back to their old area to check, but doesn’t allow Lee to go along with them and is not particularly upset when the two run away from the chauffeur to go on looking for their Ma. Lee of course is the next to run away, to find her dear friends – and although it looks like their mother is dead, she vows to stay and look after them so that they are not alone. Fat chance that Daddy will let her alone though: he drags her out and gives the Hopes the ultimatum that they can come to the hotel that the Simons will be at for the subsequent 24 hours, or they can stay and be left to their own devices.

It wouldn’t be a girls’ picture-story without a dramatic ending, of course – so as soon as that ultimatum delivered, Lee finds herself looking with horror at the house that the Hopes are in, as it burns down! Lee runs into the burning building and of course is immediately struck down – while she struggles for her life, Mr Simons has time to realize what a caring and unselfish child he has raised despite himself. And when she comes round, a week later, her new room mate turns out to be Mrs Hope, who is not dead – a wall fell on her and she was injured but not killed by the air raid that Maggie and Joe heard about. In turn, Mrs Hope hears about Maggie and Joe’s deaths in the penultimate episode. The final episode, however, has all being well – Lee and Mrs Hope are both discharged from hospital, Mr Simons continues with his change of heart and invites Mrs Hope to stay with them in the country, and although she says no (most vehemently) once Maggie and Joe are found, safe and sound after all, the grand house is turned in to a Convalescent Home with Mrs Hope as the House Mother. It is no longer only Lee who is Daddy’s Darling, but a wider group including Joe and Maggie and the other kids who will come to escape the war.

Thoughts

This is a long-running serial – not quite one of Jinty‘s longest (see more discussion on this post about story length) but nearly half a year’s worth of story. I don’t remember reading it when it first came out as I was a bit too young, but it must have been a successful product of the Alison Christie – Phil Townsend creative team to have run to that length. Some elements are a little repetitive, as is the danger with something of this length – Daddy’s single-minded attention to only his daughter’s comfort changes only towards the end of the serial and there are perhaps a little too many cases where Lee mourns his lack of caring towards others in similar wording to the earlier examples. But of course this is something that is more obvious on a re-read after the fact than at the time of original publication.

There were only relatively few stories in Jinty that feature the Second World War: “Daddy’s Darling”, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, and “Song of the Fir Tree“. (The first two are known to be written by Alison Christie and drawn by Phil Townsend, so of course it raises questions whether “Song of the Fir Tree” might also be, but it was not listed as such by Alison Christie in her earlier interview.) It feels to me as if in the case of this story it is more of a backdrop than a theme – the other two stories are about war, or about things that wouldn’t have happened without the war, whereas this story is really about a stifling over-protective parent. So this makes it more similar to another Christie story, “The Four-Footed Friends“.

In “The Four-Footed Friends”, the protagonist struggles with her stifling mother, who lost a child to illness and wraps her daughter in cotton-wool as a result; in “Daddy’s Darling” it is the father who is the antagonist that the daughter has to struggle against. This feels unusual: I know of a similar story, Tammy’s “My Father – My Enemy!”, where the socially-conscious daughter saves the workers at the mine owed by her Victorian father (thanks to Mistyfan, in the comments, for supplying further details) but not many others where the father is the blocker. “Dracula’s Daughter” is the obvious exception to that, but it is generally mothers or other women / girls who are the villains and antagonists in girls’ stories. There are a couple of examples of mystery stories where the villain is eventually revealed to be the father (photo-story “Slaves of the Nightmare Factory” is one such) or where a husband and wife team are equally to blame, but other than that, the antagonists are more typically headmistresses, female teachers, bully girls, mothers / step-mothers, grandmothers, aunts.

Mr Simons is not particularly evil but he is spectacularly clueless throughout. He does soften towards the two evacuees before the end, but his change of heart is depicted as somewhat out of the blue as it only really comes to pass in the last couple of episodes. In other ways the story develops quite nicely over its length: Maggie Hope is drawn as scrawny and plain to start with, and she becomes much more well-favoured by the end. Is that supposed to be as a result of better feeding than she’d get in the East End of London, or because Phil Townsend forgets to draw her quite as plain as at the start? Either way it works pretty well and matches the growing friendship of the two girls.

Focke-Wulf Hi-jack [2012]

FW Hijack cover

Published: Commando #4543

Art: (story) Rezzonico; (cover) Janek Matysiak

Writer: Alan Hebden

Everyone seemed to like our last dip into Commando, so now we are having another. This Commando comes from when Commando was running credits.

Plot

Ever since 1941 the much-improved MkV Spitfire has given the RAF superiority over the skies and their confidence is running high. But then the Germans unleash their new addition to the Luftwaffe fleet: the Focke-Wulf 190 (Fw 190 for short). It is soon obvious that even the much-improved Spitfires are no match for the Fw 190, and it makes short work of them. By 1942 the Fw 190 is giving the Germans the superiority in the skies. Now it is the turn of squadron commander Major Armin von Richter to feel confident and triumphant from all the shot-down Spitfires he is chalking up with his Fw 190.

FW Hijack 1

The British have to find a way to counter the Fw 190 threat fast. But to do that they need to capture one so they can learn all about its design, strengths, and above all, its weaknesses. They barely know anything about it from the Fw 190 debris at crash sites. So they hatch a plan for a commando mission to raid an airfield in German-occupied France, hijack an Fw 190 and bring it to Britain. Even they realise it is a crazy idea, full of difficulties and has no guarantee of success, but they approve it anyway.

The pilot to fly the Fw 190 to Britain is one Tam McDermott. But first, Tam is sent to a commando camp for CO training. Tam is in for a shock when he discovers who is in charge of his CO training: Laurie Crawford. Laurie and Tam knew each other at school but never liked each other: Laurie looked down on Tam as a “swot” because he liked to read books, and pushed Tam into the school sports teams instead. Laurie was school captain, and a slave-driving fitness fanatic who showed no mercy with his team, no matter what the weather. He tolerated nothing that he regarded as shirking, especially in “Swot”. He kept driving Swot on and on until Swot was ready to collapse, and even then still keep pushing him.

Laurie still has the same old contempt for “Swot”, and he makes Tam’s commando training just as gruelling and relentless. Tam is pushed until he is ready to drop and then some. But then Tam notices the training is beginning to pay off for him and he is starting to earn respect from Laurie for the first time.

FW Hijack 2

Then Laurie makes a sarcastic comment that he thinks the pilot will have the easiest job in the mission in flying the plane to Britain. Tam is so angry that he has Laurie drive them to an airfield full of captured aircraft – at gunpoint. Actually, Laurie is really impressed with this because he now realises CO training has turned the diminutive swot he used to deride into a whole new tough and confident man. Tam realises that Laurie is right about that.

At the airfield, Tam shows Laurie just what will go into flying the Fw 190 to Britain. First, he will be flying a plane he barely knows anything about, and nobody on the Allied side has ever flown an Fw 190 before. Moreover, it is not just a matter of jumping into the cockpit and taking off. There are all the checks, fuelling, arming and so many other things that go into preparing a plane for takeoff, which they will have to allow the Germans to do for them. Plus there’s donning a flying suit, waiting for the engine to warm up, have a path cleared to taxi for takeoff, commandos to cover fire in case the Germans try to stop them…and so many other things he cuts down to bare essentials for the benefit of non-pilot Laurie. Once Laurie has a better understanding of the pilot’s point of view, he apologises to Tam. He now realises that Tam will be the one man they simply cannot afford to lose on the mission. Both men agree to forget the past and work together as friends. Laurie still calls Tam “Swot”, but now it’s a friendly nickname.

FW Hijack 3

The mission is set for late May and an airfield in Normandy is selected for the raid. It is going to be a double mission: a raid on a major radar installation as well as the airfield, and the former will also serve as a diversion for the latter. Tam also packs some indelible ink to mark the enemy plane as “friendly” and hopefully avoid another problem: being mistakenly shot down by his own side. A.A. Batteries on the coast have been ordered not to shoot at Fw 190s until further notice because of the mission, but there is the matter of fighter command.

Unfortunately, landing in occupied territory does not go smoothly because of those huge hedges the French call blocage. One of the two Allied gliders crashes into the hedge and there are several casualties. Laurie says this is why they bring twice as many men as they need (spares!). Resistance takes care of the casualties until they can be picked up. The remaining Commandos, including Laurie and Tam, set off for the airfield. The journey makes Tam realise the benefits of his CO training and why it had to be so gruelling. Tam’s training pays off further dividends when they run into a German patrol and there is a fight, though the skirmish shows Tam the full reality of combat and kill or be killed.

Further along, they see evidence that the radar mission is starting. Laurie is pleased to see it is indeed drawing the German forces from the airfield, so its security will be much reduced now. Silencers (a new invention at the time) enable them to shoot guards without raising the alarm, and help delay raising it being raised (it is a case of the later the better). They make their way to a hangar, where Tam selects Von Richter’s Fw 190 as the one to take: the Germans have it ready, and it will be the newest and best one in the squadron. They make their way in, and force the Germans to start the Fw 190 while Tam changes into a flying suit. Tam is relieved to see the controls and instruments are pretty much how the British experts have figured. The COs splash the ink on the wingtips.

But there is a delay because the engine has to warm up, which loses time for the COs. Now they have to deal with a lorry and car full of newly arrived pilots. The car gets away, so Laurie knows reinforcements will now be on the way. Von Richter happened to be in that car and, using his binoculars, realises what they are trying to do.

Laurie directs the COs to start blowing up the other planes. The plane is finally ready for Tam to take off. While he does so, he sees Laurie take a bullet in the arm. Moreover, an Fw 190 in another hangar is ready for immediate takeoff, so Von Richter is soon in hot pursuit of Tam, along with every other German fighter available. Tam manages to confuse the German fighters by waggling his wings to give the impression he is friendly. The fighters, having not been given the registration number of the stolen Fw 190, are fooled long enough for Tam to open fire on them. Tam encounters Spitfires too, and some also open fire until they recognise the friendly markings. Von Richter is still on Tam’s tail, and the gap is closing fast because Von Richter has far more experience than Tam in flying an Fw 190. Von Richter is getting close enough to open fire. To throw him off, Tam pulls a difficult manoeuvre called an Immelmann turn, which takes Von Richter completely by surprise. As Tam planned, this trick makes Von Richter to use up so much fuel that he has to turn back.

FW Hijack 4

It looks like Tam is home and dry now, with an Fw 190 for Britain. Unfortunately, although higher command told the coastal AA Batteries not to open fire on Fw 190s until the mission is concluded, they forgot to do so with the training units. So now a training unit opens fire on the Fw 190. Tam manages to eject, but the Fw 190 they worked so hard to steal for Britain is lost. Von Richter sees this, and he leaves with a parting remark to Tam that he won’t get another chance to steal an Fw 190 and their airfields will be made impregnable in future. Moreover, Tam later learns the COs were not able to retrieve Laurie and he is now MIA.

A few weeks later, Von Richter and his new Fw 190 are in another dogfight. This time he is having a hard time of it. So he pulls the trick he learned from Tam: the Immelmann turn. This turns the tables for Von Richter, but it also causes him to lose his bearings. Instead of flying south to German-occupied France, he unwittingly flies north and lands in Wales. By the time he realises his mistake, he and his Fw 190 have been captured. So the British get an Fw 190 after all. Tam is dispatched to collect the Fw 190 and bring it to the airfield for captured German planes. While doing so, he takes the opportunity to actually come face to face with Von Richter.

Laurie also returns. He had managed to elude capture despite his wound. The Resistance picked him up and made arrangements for him to be smuggled back to Britain. Laurie is delighted to hear that Tam has been assigned to the first squadron of the new Mark Nines. The Mark Nines have just been developed to match the Fw 190 after the British acquired Von Richter’s for comparison.

Thoughts

The details in this story sounded so authentic and well researched that I wondered if the story itself is based on true events. So I googled, and found this was indeed the case. The characters in the story are fictional of course, but the Fw 190 was such a threat for the RAF that they actually conceived a dangerous plan to capture one by hijacking one from German-occupied France. The operation was codenamed Operation Airthief, and it was inspired by an earlier Commando operation to steal a German radar installation (which succeeded). But on the very day Operation Airthief was to be submitted for approval, it suddenly became unnecessary and was never attempted. The reason? An Fw 190 pilot really did lose his bearings after a dogfight and landed in Wales by mistake. After the Fw 190 had been analysed and dissected, the British began to overcome the threat it posed. More information can be found here.

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Naturally, the question “What if Operation Airthief had gone ahead?” has caught popular imagination and spawned works of fiction such as Operation Airthief by Jerry Shively. Such is the case with this Commando, though it never actually uses the name “Operation Airthief”. Having it being a nearly successful operation, only to be whipped away at the last minute, is far more effective and compelling than having the operation beat the odds and being a complete success. But even though the operation itself fails, in an ironic way it does help to capture an Fw 190 in the end, so it was not a total loss.

Exciting and dangerous though the mission might be, the true power of the story comes from the incredible development of Tam McDermott, Laurie Crawford, and the relationship between them. Laurie is initially set up as the character you love to hate: a cruel slave driver and a bully as school captain, and not much nicer as captain of a CO training camp. (To be fair, CO training really was so dangerous that some people actually died on training.) But as Tam discovers, if you can earn Laurie’s respect, he’s pretty much all right. Once this is established, Laurie becomes a sympathetic character and he’s a hero, not an anti-hero.

The way in which Tam earns Laurie’s respect is absolutely priceless – pulling a gun on him to get him to listen! Tam taking Laurie on a tour of the captured enemy aircraft is an extremely clever way to incorporate essential information about what will be required for piloting the hijacked plane in a manner that informs not only Laurie but the reader as well. And it’s done in a manner that is showing, not telling with dry dialogue and text boxes. It also engages and delights the reader because it is teaching that hard case Laurie a lesson into the bargain. When the actual hijack comes, the reader is already well informed about what will be required in regard to preparing the plane for the hijack and what could go wrong, so the hijack scenes are even more intense.

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As for Tam, he would never have expected that old bullying, slave-driving school captain to be the one to teach him confidence. But once Laurie tells him that CO training has given him a whole new confidence, Tam realises Laurie is right, and for the first time in his life he feels he can move mountains. But it’s not just the CO training that’s done it – it’s also being stung by Laurie’s remark and still feeling the old resentments towards Laurie from their school days. Putting his CO training into practice gives Tam further confidence and toughens him further as he realises the benefits of the training, and then learning to confront the brutal realities of combat – something he never quite encountered as an RAF pilot although he must have shot down his share of enemy planes.

Even before the hijack, Von Richter is established as the nemesis of Tam McDermott, though the men do not know each other personally, and they do not even meet until the end of the story. For example, at the beginning of the story Von Richter leads the Fw 190 squadron against a Spitfire squadron that Tam is part of. Unlike Laurie, Von Richter is never developed as a character. He is not a cruel Nazi, but he is not portrayed as a sympathetic character either. He is a smug, arrogant enemy pilot whom we hope will get his comeuppance, which he does by becoming the disoriented Fw 190 pilot who mistakenly lands in Wales and unwittingly providing the much-needed Fw 190. Plus, it’s a really nasty twist for Von Richter that the man who comes to collect his new Fw 190 is none other than the man who stole his previous one! It’s no wonder he’s a bit upset (above) when he hears, but there is no doubt his threats of vengeance are in vain.