Click here to read reviewer Br. Benet Exton's take on The Brenner Assignment.
Modern spy novels don't really do much for me, though I do like those taking place during World War II for some reason. One thing I haven't read much about, however, is *real* World War II spy missions. That's why I was excited to pick up Patrick K. O'Donnell's new book, The Brenner Assignment, about a mission to close the Brenner Pass between Austria and Italy that allowed the Germans to bring their troops and supplies down into the Italian boot. Taking place in 1944-45, this mission has everything: derring-do, romance, battles against tough odds, and lots of intrigue. O'Donnell tells it in an interesting fashion, and it would look good on any World War II history fan's bookshelf.
O'Donnell uses a combination of sources, mostly interviews with the surviving participants in the mission. The main "character," Howard Chappell, was still alive but very reluctant to talk about what had happened. O'Donnell spends the Preface telling us how he came up with the idea to research this assignment and the difficulties he had in getting Chappell to speak. It took having a mutual friend, Albert Materazzi (who was the operations officer in charge of Chappell's mission and his best friend), to finally get him to open up.
Along with Chappell, O'Donnell spoke to survivors of the other mission to Brenner, Stephen Hall's (the book tells both Chappell and Hall's stories as they overlap toward the end when Chappell starts looking for Hall), as well as going to Italy to speak to surviving partisans and their families. Finally, O'Donnell was able to examine numerous declassified OSS files to supplement his research. All of this brings immediacy to O'Donnell's storytelling, adding to the cinematic scope of the narrative. They could make a movie out of this, detailing the heroism of Chappell, Hall, and all of others, and I'd bet it would make a lot of money.
O'Donnell tells the story in alternating fashion, both Hall's attempts to blow the pass and aid the Italian partisans against the might of Hitler's army as well as Chappell's attempts to follow up and do the same thing. Hall's story is tragic from the beginning: O'Donnell opens with Chappell finding Hall's written notes in bottles hidden in the snow outside a mountain villa. You know going in that Hall's not going to survive, adding an air of inevitability to the whole thing. This makes Hall's story even more gripping, and the fact that it's all told from either Hall's notes or from the people who knew him and interacted with him creates a poignant air.
As with any great story, there has to be a nasty villain; The Brenner Assignment has two: Gestapo officer Major Otto Schroder and SS Major August Schiffer, two brutal Germans on the trail of our heroes. They lead horrible retaliations on Italian villages who shelter the partisans, sadistically torture those they capture, and basically wear the black hats. Since they were executed shortly after the war or shot trying to escape, O'Donnell uses their notes and the notes of other German officers who were involved in the ongoing battle between the Germans and the partisans.
O'Donnell rarely uses footnotes, and the notes section at the back of the book is fairly sparse (as an aside, it also uses my least-favorite notation system, where the page number is listed and a small snippet is quoted, meaning there is no indication in the text that there is actually a note attached). However, this is understandable. Entire chapters are made up of information from interviews, so O’Donnell can get away with just saying that and moving on. Funnily enough, this also magnifies the cinematic feel of the story since the reader is rarely drawn out of the story to go read a note about what was just said. Another helpful inclusion is a cast of characters in the back of the book, so the reader can keep them straight.
The Brenner Assignment is a wonderful read, an intriguing story of clandestine operations in World War II, of heroism, sacrifice, tenacity, and romance (Hall is sheltered by an Italian Countess at times during his operations, and they have an affair). O'Donnell doesn't go into detail concerning the romance part, but it’s definitely there. The rest is told in great detail, a thrilling story that will keep the reader captivated from beginning to end. I wouldn't want all of my history books told this way, but it definitely works here.