Eric Lee, Night of the Bayonets (Greenhill Books, 2020)
On 5 May 1945, the German forces in the Netherlands surrendered and the war was over. But not for all of them. On the small island of Texel off the coast of Holland, a battle that started on 5 April raged among former allies wearing German uniforms. The instigators were a unit of Georgian Wehrmacht soldiers that prematurely rose up against the German garrison only to find themselves in a fight to the death with German soldiers sent to crush them. Somewhere in this mix was the Dutch Resistance, themselves split along ideological lines, and the island’s civilians who mistakenly thought their war was over too. Eric Lee pulls together the strands of this confusing episode to present a remarkable tale of a little-known event.
Lee begins with Georgia’s ties to Russia and Germany during and after WWI before moving on to Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, capturing millions of soldiers who they treated abysmally. Some Georgians, however, enlisted with the Germans to escape that particular hell. They were formed into units under German officers and served behind the lines on the Eastern Front, hunting Partisans, where they proved unreliable and prone to desertion. In 1944, the Georgian Legion was formed and the 822nd Battalion were posted to Texel in 1945. The island with its artillery defences formed a small but important cog in the German Atlantic Wall. By the time the Georgians arrived, they were riddled with anti-German sentiment and ripe for mutiny. They even helped the Dutch resistance.
When ordered to the mainland to fight the Allies on 6 April, the Georgians pre-empted their move by attacking the Germans. But they did not capture the artillery batteries, and word got out, all the way to Hitler who ordered every Georgian killed. The Dutch Resistance joined in, but they too would get caught in the backlash. On 6 April, the German shelling began, then reinforcements arrived. The Georgians held out, hoping for the Allies to arrive, even sending a lifeboat for help, but none came. A guerrilla war broke out with no mercy given on either side, or to the Dutch civilians by the Germans.
Lee points out that the Allies knew about the mutiny but left it to burn out. The Canadians finally arrived to intervene and evacuate the two contingents. Most of the Georgians ended up in Soviet prison camps for a short while but were not shot as per Stalin’s orders for turncoats. Lee continues with a discussion on the myth that arose around the Texel uprising and particularly the role the Soviet Union played in that propaganda, including a movie that was “a lie from beginning to end”. With renewed Georgian independence in 1991 came new commemorations, but much of the myth remains.
Night of the Bayonets is one of those dramatic local events that casts a light on larger themes, thus it is a story deserving of a book. Eric Lee has therefore performed a valuable service writing what might be the definitive account. His writing is journalistic in style and a bit loose in places, but he holds the narrative together well. The uprising itself is given about one-third of the book, which seems a bit thin, particularly when Lee incorporates a few seemingly unrelated digressions. Lee’s efforts to place the Texel uprising in context are, however, useful for understanding its wider implications. I certainly came away from this book with a deeper knowledge of many facets of World War II that I had not considered before, and you cannot ask for much more than that. 7/10