Deserter: The Second World War’s untold story

Al Whitehead, front second right, at Omaha Beach. Picture: Getty
Al Whitehead, front second right, at Omaha Beach. Picture: Getty
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150,000 Allied soldiers deserted in the Second World War. Now the stories of three of them are told for the first time in a fascinating new book.

Steve Weiss is talking about the moment when he became a deserter from the Second World War. It was 1944 and the 19-year-old Jewish- American soldier had already seen battle in Italy – where he was posted after the Salerno and Anzio landings – and the south of France, where he arrived just after D-Day – both of them notoriously brutal and sustained campaigns. He had been separated from his company during a terrifying night attack and rescued from a farmer’s barn by the French Resistance, which he ended up joining for several weeks. He was physically ill, distressed, and depressed. And now he found himself hitching rides into the Vosges mountains of eastern France at the beginning of winter. He was on his way back to the front.

Author Charles Glass

Author Charles Glass

“I was suffering from combat fatigue,” he tells me in a rich and chewy Brooklyn accent. Now a charismatic 87-year-old veteran with the red rosette of the Légion d’honneur pinned to his lapel, Weiss has a memory as sharp as his suit. “I was young, inexperienced, and having bad dreams and déja vu experiences. My dearest friend had been killed while I was missing in action. I was told this quickly and cruelly when I returned. In fact out of the men I had originally fought with, only two were left. I received no consideration or rest. I was asked to take over as squad leader of 11 men, which I turned down because I didn’t feel qualified. Also I felt so distracted and strange. I couldn’t depend on myself, let alone let other men depend on me.”

Weiss and his company moved up to a woodland clearing in the mountains. He knew almost no-one. One soldier had gone mute. The others were astonished that he had returned and told him he would be dead in a month. “Unit cohesion was falling apart in front of my eyes,” he continues. “And so was I. The constant shelling, machine gunning, freezing weather and high altitudes added to this terrible state. I could not get warm. The stress cannot be compared to anything in civilian life. There is no correlation whatsoever.”

He watched as 30 men were pulverised in their tents by German artillery. They had been too exhausted to dig foxholes. He led a patrol of trembling scouts through the forest. A 38-year-old replacement asked Weiss, a teenager in the midst of a nervous breakdown, what to do to stay alive. Finally, as German artillery continued to rain down and GIs fell all around him, Weiss wandered into the forest. He had no idea what he was doing.

“I just walked away,” he says, still sounding surprised all these decades later. “I was so disillusioned. My feeling – and it remains as strong today as it was then – was that if they took me out and shot me, it would have been a relief. Imagine a teenager with his whole life ahead of him thinking like that … I should have had everything to live for…” A long pause, and then Weiss begins again. “I’m tearful now,” he admits and his voice cracks. “All I was seeking was some understanding, some rest, maybe some retraining or reassignment. But the army would not release me. They wanted me back but when I got there they didn’t even recognise me. I felt more like a Fed-Ex package than a human being.”

Steve Weiss

Steve Weiss

Weiss’s story is relayed in a fascinating book by veteran American war reporter and historian Charles Glass. Deserter explores “the last untold story of the Second World War” through the individual histories of three combat soldiers who deserted: Steve Weiss, John Vernon Bain, who fought with the Gordon Highland Regiment in North Africa and Normandy, and Al Whitehead, who survived Omaha Beach.

This is the first book written about desertion from the Second World War, in which 150,000 British and American soldiers deserted. Eighty per cent of these were frontline troops. None of Glass’s three subjects left the front when fighting began. Yet the notion of soldiers walking away from war remains taboo and is still viewed simplistically by some as plain old cowardice. General George Patton famously wanted to shoot the “cowards”, though the death penalty for desertion was abolished in Britain in 1930. His response to a shell-shocked soldier was to slap him. Glass, however, reveals the infinitely more complex reasons for desertion in his compassionate book. The psychological strain of battle, an inhuman rotation system that meant 10 per cent of troops did all the fighting and 90 per cent “never heard a shot fired in anger”, and a lack of support were the real reasons for deserting. As he writes in the introduction, “the astounding fact is not that so many men deserted but that the deserters were so few.”

“I was surprised that it hadn’t been discussed,” Glass tells me. “The First World War was more controversial because 306 British soldiers were executed for desertion. But only one soldier, an American called Eddie Slovik, was executed for it during the Second World War. Today, in America, men are still wanted for deserting whereas in Britain Churchill granted an 
amnesty in 1953.”

How is desertion amongst Allied troops viewed now? “You can’t desert in theatre in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Glass says. “Desertions take place when people return. They refuse to go back. And they tend to be supported by people who are against the war and criticised by those in favour of it.” There is still a huge amount of stigma attached to desertion. “Second World War veterans have always been held up as symbols of courage, as a generation of men who never cracked compared to, say, the Vietnam generation,” he continues. “This book shows that every generation has people who break down because the circumstances of war cause it.”

John Bain

John Bain

We talk about John Bain, an Englishman who fought in Scottish regiments, and who after the war reinvented himself as a boxer and brilliant poet called Vernon Scannell. He rubbed shoulders with Lucian Freud, appeared on Desert Island Discs, and ended up on the Queen’s civil list. But before that, he was a principled and courageous combat soldier who deserted three times.

“He was an extremely complex and fascinating man,” says Glass, who uncovered his story through his poetry, writings, and interviews with his son and daughter. “He came from the British lower- middle class and had a tough childhood in Buckinghamshire. He had an extremely brutal father, a war veteran himself, who beat him mercilessly.” Bain suppressed his artistic leanings and instead learned how to box. When war was announced, he and his brother saw an escape route from their sadistic father.

“The army was one service I had sworn I would never join,” Bain wrote, “but, I told myself, a Scottish regiment would be different, more glamorous.”

He ended up running away from his regimental base at Fort George for three weeks. “He was a tough guy who knew his own mind and he just didn’t like the army at all,” says Glass. When Bain returned, it was to the B Company of 5/7th Gordon Highlanders, and from there to the theatre of war, where pipers played as the Highland Division fell to German fire. He fought bravely at El Alamein – after which the pipers were silenced as virtually all of them had been killed – and across the desert in Egypt and Libya, becoming close friends with a small, foul-mouthed working-class Glaswegian called Hughie Black.

After an assault at Wadi Akarit Bain saw something that changed him forever. “He saw his comrades looting the bodies of their own dead,” Glass says “He became so sickened, he just wandered off. It wasn’t a calculated desertion. And that’s why he got caught and ended up spending months in what was probably the most brutal military prison in the world at the time: Mustafa Barracks.”

Bain was eventually told he could leave if he returned to his regiment. It was an option given to thousands of deserters, out of necessity more than anything else. And so Bain landed in Normandy just after D-Day. “He was there for three weeks of extreme combat during which he showed no inclination to desert,” Glass says. “But then he was badly wounded in both legs and taken to Britain for treatment. While he was in hospital, victory was declared. John felt he had no reason to serve and so he got dressed and walked out of hospital.”

The fates of the three men differed wildly. Bain disappeared into the underground movement of deserters in London and Leeds. Whitehead wound up as a gangster in liberated Paris. And Weiss, who eventually found his unit again, was court martialled and sentenced to life imprisonment.

“They didn’t give a damn at the trial,” he tells me. “The officer representing me wasn’t a lawyer, none of the men had seen combat, and one of them was continually doodling. The questions I was asked were ludicrous.”

How did he feel when he heard the verdict? “I was so lost in myself that it made no difference,” he says. “The whole thing was a farce. I just wanted them to kill me, get it over with. ”

Instead Weiss got out. After a psychologist interviewed him in prison and confirmed that a terrible mistake had been made, Weiss walked free albeit “with post-traumatic stress coming out of my ears”. After many years of psychoanalysis, he retrained as a psychologist and continues, in his eighties, to give lectures and lead battlefield tours.

“I remember waking up one morning in southern California, married with three children, and having this overwhelming feeling that I wanted to kill someone,” Weiss says, and this time his voice shows no sign of cracking. “It turns out that the person I wanted to kill was the boy in me. The soldier. I tried to ignore him for years because of all these memories. I wanted to eliminate him but I could only do that by killing myself. Or else I could get in touch with this kid, listen to him.”

Of the three men in Deserter, Weiss is the only one still alive. Recently he returned to the south of France, visited places he stayed, foxholes he dug, and the graves of so many of his old comrades. “I stood on the beach and thought, ‘I could be the last survivor of all the men who landed here in 1944.’ That is an existentially lonely feeling. I have one foot in the grave myself. My generation is disappearing.” Weiss sighs and then perks up. “But I have had a rich life and done everything that a man could want to do,” he says. “I was given a second chance. And in fulfilling it, I feel I’ve honoured all those who didn’t make it.”

• Deserter by Charles Glass, Harper Press, £25 hardback