Sven Hassel and Death’s Angels

I know this is a bit late but what the hell! One of the most popular parts of this site has turned out to be the Author’s Notes for each of the stories. Somehow back in the day, I neglected to provide them for Death’s Angels. I am rectifying that omission now.

If you are a British man of a certain age (OK, my age) you probably remember Sven Hassel. He was the author of a series of pulp paperbacks that were passed around under the desks of the classrooms of my youth. They featured the soldiers of a German punishment battalion fighting on the Russian front in World War 2 and were, by the standards of the day (and even today), quite brutal. They followed the adventures of a particularly seedy and unheroic bunch of misfit warriors across the frozen landscapes of Russia and beyond.

Reading a book told from the German point of view was a novelty (my parents’ generation had fought in what was always referred to as THE War as opposed to the Great War and remembered it quite vividly) and any indiscretions committed by this array of shirkers and convicts was partially explained and exonerated by the fact that they were foreigners. (The 70s was a different and more prejudiced world. I am not defending my teenage self’s point of view, merely saying what it was. I grew up on a Council Estate in 60’s and 70’s West Coast Scotland. It was not a hotbed of Guardian-reading, liberal tolerance.)

The characters were funny and realistic in a very dark way and their adventures while grim were certainly enthralling. The books have lived in my memory for near 40 years so you can judge the impact for yourself.

There was something else about them too. For all their flaws, the characters seemed like real people, not square jawed heroes of the variety I was familiar with from the Victor and other comics of my youth.  There was something about Tiny and Porta and the Old Man and the others that rang a bell, a gallows humour that I have since realised is quite common among the real world soldiers of my acquaintance.

At the time I was about to start Death’s Angels I was looking to do something different. I had enjoyed pretty huge success with a tale of two wandering sword and sorcery heroes with Gotrek and Felix but I was a bit burned out after seven books.  I wanted to do something that was not at all a traditional fantasy novel. I knew I definitely did not want to write about a world that was full of elves and dwarves and innocent young swineherds gifted with god-like powers and a mighty destiny.

I had been travelling in South Africa and, for some reason, I kept coming across Sven Hassel books. Something clicked in the murk of my brain. I decided I wanted to write gritty military fantasy with a very dark sense of humour set in a very unconventional fantasy world.

So I began this tale of a group of seedy misfit warriors, fighting for a regime that they don’t agree with in a vast landscape not unlike the Russian Front, only with Lovecraftian Elder Gods and Nazi Elves.

Oh yes, the Nazi Elves! In some ways the Terrarchs are Tolkien’s Elves but they lack the cosmic righteousness that the Eldar of Middle Earth possess. They do speak the language of righteousness. They make all the claims that a Galadriel or an Elrond might, but they live in a world much like our own. They have no conduit to the Undying lands and the supreme creator. It does not stop them from claiming that they do. Indeed such claims are one of the planks on which their mastery of humanity rests.

The Terrarchs are beautiful people gifted with awesome powers and near immortality. Unlike most such people in fantasy novels, they are not an outcast minority persecuted by the mundane majority they secretly protect from great cosmic evil. They are the ones doing the persecuting.

The Terrarchs are a Master Race and they know it.  It is their destiny and their right to rule lesser beings and they feel completely justified in doing so. After all they are smarter, better educated, far more beautiful and gifted with great powers. If God had not meant for them to rule, things would not be this way. It’s an old argument, used by every aristocracy and every winning side in history. Unfortunately for them, in their world things are changing. Gunpowder has altered the way wars are fought and introduced a great equaliser to magic on the battlefield. Ancient powers are stirring again as well.

Yes, these would be the Lovecraft-style Elder Gods. Sven Hassel was not the only 70s pulp that influenced Death’s Angels. Back when I was a lad, sword and sorcery was a lot more common, and, as I have remarked elsewhere, it was as much influenced by H P Lovecraft as it was by the Norse fantasy of Tolkien.  So some siblings of Cthulhu managed to sneak into the story as well. The nightmarish spider people and their daemon god, Uran Ultar would be right at home living next door to sunken R’lyeh and happy to pop in and borrow a cup of sugar.

All this being the case, it was only a matter of time before our heroes found themselves dabbling in forbidden lore. Unlike the doomed heroes of a Lovecraft story, when the soldiers of the Seventh Infantry find a book full of terrifying ancient secrets they don’t read and summon a fate worse than death upon themselves; they try and sell it to the highest bidder, an action which has equally nasty consequences and ends up with them marching into the mouth of a particularly nasty hell.


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