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The Brenner Assignment: The Untold Story of the Most Daring Spy Mission of World War II

The Brenner Assignment: The Untold Story of the Most Daring Spy Mission of World War II by Patrick K. O’Donnell. Da Capo Press, 2009, 320 pp.

On 2 August 1944, in the dark, silent skies over the jagged Alps of northern Italy, Capt Stephen Hall, a daring young American special forces operative, parachutes into Nazi territory. Hall’s mission: to seek and destroy targets of opportunity and degrade or disable key routes of transportation that the German army would soon rely on for its pending retreat from Allied forces steadily advancing northward from Rome. Capt Howard Chappell and his team of demolition and espionage experts would follow in his path just weeks later. Their dramatic efforts to rendezvous with Hall resulted in one of the most fascinating real-life adventure stories to come out of World War II. This is an intriguing tale of the intertwining destinies and ultimate fates, both tragic and heroic, of two young officers as they attempt to seal the Germans’ escape route through the Brenner Pass.

Skilled author Patrick O’Donnell masterfully tells the story of the brief and adventurous military careers of Hall and Chappell, energetically weaving historical fact into an exciting, page-turning drama that reads like the best of adventure fiction. In 1944 both officers are recruited by the clandestine Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II precursor to the current US Central Intelligence Agency. Hall, a creatively energetic and possibly somewhat introverted young officer, submits to the OSS his novel idea of using US secret operatives to demolish key railroad tunnels in the Italian Alps, essentially bottlenecking the German army into the mountain valleys as easy targets for Allied airpower. Intrigued by his proposal, the OSS recruits and trains Hall for this very mission, and within months he is covertly roaming the Italian Alps, evading the ruthless searches of thousands of German troops, and systematically destroying targets of opportunity as he postures for the ultimate mission of closing the Brenner Pass.

Of a distinctly different cut is Captain Chappell, a daring, almost reckless, self-sacrificing warrior and a naturally charismatic leader. As commander of a small band of special operations troops, Chappell and his team are covertly inserted into northern Italy to join Hall in his mission to bring German troop movements to a halt. The fighters of various Italian resistance factions who facilitate Chappell’s team challenge his diplomatic skills as well as his patience as he seeks to meet up with Hall amidst a maze of some of the world’s most tortuous mountain terrain while eluding the gaze of the ever-vigilant German soldiers.

The fast-paced action and serial combat engagements experienced by these men almost obscure the underlying strategies and counterstrategies of insurgency warfare at play. Hall and Chappell’s nemesis, Nazi major August Schiffer, whose area of responsibility coincides with the Americans’ primary target, the Brenner Pass, employs ruthless and persistent means to capture both Italian partisans and any foreign operatives who might be assisting them. Schiffer and his Nazi forces rely on intimidation and torture in their efforts to coerce the Italian civilians not only to abandon their support of the partisans and Allied agents known to be operating in the area, but also to turn them over to the German forces. Schiffer also conducts persistent and highly effective counterinsurgent sweeps, called rastrellamentos, through the mountainous wilderness, netting several of Chappell’s men—and Chappell himself.

Filled with firefights, captures and escapes, close calls, dangerous liaisons, stealthy airdrops, and coded radio communications, The Brenner Assignment is a thrilling read. The intricate depiction of the converging fates of Hall and Chappell, the immensity of the wilderness setting, the complexities of the political and military interactions, and the tenacity of the German antagonists, all make this book highly entertaining. Although some of the subtle concepts and themes throughout could serve as intriguing, perhaps unsettling, parallels between the Nazi counterinsurgent efforts in the desperate, waning days of World War II and the US efforts against enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, O’Donnell in no way attempts to present or propose strategies or tactics for current operations.

The Brenner Assignment reads like an adventure novel. The fact that one is reading about the lives, heroics, and tragic deaths of real soldiers can sometimes be overlooked amidst the heart-pounding action of rapid-fire gunfights, middle-of-the-night bridge demolitions, and edge-of-your-seat escapes under the enemies’ very noses. Thoroughly researched, the book is rich in fact and soundly credible. I most definitely recommend The Brenner Assignment to readers interested in the early days of US special operations, especially from the perspective of the individual operator, and to anyone looking for a great action story. This true tale of parallel lives, both tragic and heroic, contending with intense combat and the demands of extreme physical exertion in a harsh environment is a solid read and worth the time.

Lt Col Thomas Swaim, USAF

US Air Force Academy, Colorado

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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