Top critical review
At Times More Technical Manual Than Autobiography
Reviewed in the United States on November 24, 2018
This is an interesting memoir by a former volksdeutsche soldier, Canadian by birth, whose parents, believing Hitler's tales of a a wondrous new society, naively ship him off to Germany from Ontario in 1939 at the age of 14, though he had never lived anywhere but the True North. It is written 50 years or so after his being sent to there, and thus like most memoirs probably suffers from some inaccuracies in recall. But by in large it seems credible and for certain readers may hold their interest.
It is not a stylistic masterpiece - to the contrary - despite the fact that he has been an English teacher for many years. It also lacks a clear narrative thread. Events are recounted as they happen, but he spends far more time on the technical aspects of the vehicles he fought in or the panzer driver's fart than on the human experiences he went through.
Nonetheless, for readers such as I, who read a fair amount about World War Two and German armor, it is one of the best examples of what AFV (armored fighting vehicle) warfare on the Eastern front was really like. He goes into great detail on his training as a gunner, and gives excellent examples of how, by and large, they never tried to fight head to head with their Russian opponents. He frequently refers to his Jagdpanther IV platoon as "snipers," who took up camouflaged positions and fired in ambush at opponents' weak spots whenever possible - which seems to be nearly all the time. This is entirely the opposite of the typical naive civilian view that armored vehicles faced each other "mano a mano," like Medieval knights in the lists. As the expert historian Steven Zaloga makes clear, the best armored killers were "bushwhackers." With few exceptions, no tanker with a brain on either side ever fought head to head if he could help it. Friesen takes great pride in his and his crews' skills as assassins.
Interestingly, he also spares little time on the Russian soldiers he is killing. He doesn't seem to hate them, but also doesn't seem to see them as much more than targets, to be blown to bits if possible, or machine gunned as they flee their burning vehicles. It is a curiously unemotional account.
Even his description of being suddenly taken out of school in the middle of the day and shipped off to a country he had never even visited seems devoid of much affect. Things happen to him, he reacts. That's about it.
He does go on to talk about meeting a young German woman whom he marries after the war, and being reunited with his parents' Mennonite Canadian community in Ontario. Yet there seems little emotional looking back, at least not to human beings. What he does look back on with real excitement are the weapons themselves. After retirement he gets a job as a volunteer at the Canadian War Museum, where his knowledge of German AFVs makes him in demand as a guide and expert.
All in all this is a useful book for those interested in what panzer crews and gunners did. You won't find out much about how they felt about it, and this is nothing like Guy Sajer's haunting memoir of his time in the volksdeutche, "The Forgotten Solider," let alone Kaisergruber's pathetically self serving account of being in the Belgian legion of the Waffen SS. And to be fair, even Friesen's accounts of other aspects of his life have some merit. But don't expect a clear emotional perspective or overarching theme here. I was shipped off, conscripted, trained, fought, was repatriated, married, worked, taught school, and now I volunteer. It's a matter of fact account of an interesting life. But at times it's like reading a technical manual rather than a flesh and blood autobiography.