About Hellman of Hammer Force
Hellman of Hammer Force told the story of Kurt Hellman, a German Panzer commander who was not a member of the Nazi Party and offered no affiliation to Hitler or his minions. Hellman wanted to fight a clean war for Germany, and so avoided the excesses of his Nazi SS and Gestapo comrades. He fought fairly and avoided taking life wherever possible, preferring to take prisoners instead. Hellman was the first story in a comic to see the war from a German point of view.
This didn’t suit every reader, some wrote in to complain. “How is it that a German can be a hero?” they asked, when their grandfathers had fought the Germans in the war? Obviously they couldn’t, please stop it at once. Unfortunately, Action itself wasn’t above perpetuating a few jingoistic traits. “More from your favourite squarehead next week”, “Hellman may be a Kraut but…” and similar lines, usually topped and tailed the episodes. However, the 1970s were a different time, and “Hellman of Hammer Force” offered us a different perspective.
The quality of the art fluctuated over time, particularly after Mike Dorey was moved off the strip after the 6th June issue, to be replaced by Alex Henderson and an as yet unidentified artist. Later issues, published after the ban featured contributions from many artists including Alex Henderson, Jim Watson and Pat Wright. However, the definitive Hellman was always the work of Mike Dorey, who returned to the strip from time to time, and was on hand to draw its conclusion.
Comment has been made in many quarters about the writing skills of Gerry Finley-Day, and a few later episodes were handled by Alan Hebden, but “Hellman” remains a popular choice with Action readers.
The strip was partially reprinted in the 1981 Annual, following original Annual material between 1977 and 1980, and again in 1987′s All-Action Monthly.
In the early episodes, Hammer Force is assigned a Gestapo Officer, Gauleiter Kastner, a Nazi fanatic, who views Hellman’s decency as treason against the party and Hitler. Kastner tries to use Hammer Force to his own ends, over-ruling Hellman in combat situations, always with disastrous results. Kastner kills Tommies in cold blood, and is representative of all the evils of Nazi Germany. Initially, Hammer Force are powerful and attacking, through Europe and later with the Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel. In these stories, most of the friction comes from Hellman’s relationship with Kastner, but as the course of the war turns, so does the focus. Hammer Force are assigned to the Russian Front, and instead of comprising enlisted man, Hammer Force becomes a penal battalion, made up of convicted deserters, thieves and killers.
As a plot device this owes much to the work of Sven Hassell. Hellman must now face enemies on two fronts, the Russians outside and the treachery within. Hellman gradually begins to win the respect of his new men, but not all of them. A traitor lurks within Hammer Force and tries to kill the Major. He is eventually uncovered to be the rat-like Schwarz, who is dealt with by Hellman and the other convicts who manage to survive his betrayals, after Schwarz allies himself with the Russians. By this time the war is not going so well for Germany, and the focus of the story has turned again. The remains of a severely depleted Hammer Force struggle to survive the Russian Front, eventually forced into retreat as a lone Panzer flees from the might of Stalin.
It was at this point that the ban occurred. Hellman’s battle against Stalin and his forces was cut, and once the few weeks of story remaining had been neatly edited for inclusion in the new Action, the story suddenly jumped to Italy. The change was jarring: Hellman, Max and Dekker are watching the last panzer in Hammer Force disappear beneath the waters of a frozen lake with Brenner at the controls, sacrificing himself to save his comrades. Alone in the frozen wastes, they face a slog across open ground to find the retreating Wermacht. In the next panel, which began the next issue, they arrive in sunny Italy. The bounty placed on Hellman’s head by Stalin is never mentioned again, this ongoing storyline dropped entirely, in favour of new, less controversial content.
“Hellman of Hammer Force” remained in Action until the very end. It changed very little, although some of the overtly political content was removed. In Battle Action, the story began by telling the early adventures of Hellman over some eighteen issues, before returning to the Russian Front to tie up the story at the end of the war. Hellman defends Berlin against invasion, fighting off his supposed allies, who have been sent to kill him at the behest of Kastner. He foils a Nazi plot to wipe out the Allied leaders and finally takes his revenge upon Kastner as the Nazi attempts to flee from justice. Hellman and his two remaining comrades are eventually captured by the Russians and imprisoned. The Panzers ceased rolling on the 8th of July 1978.
Major Kurt Hellman
Hellman was not a Nazi, had no love of Hitler, and wasn’t keen on the S.S., the Third Reich or the war in general. However, Hellman was a professional soldier and an experienced commander who wanted to fight a clean war, and believed that killing is something best avoided unless it proved a necessity. This attitude won the admiration of his man, the respect of his enemies and the undying hatred of the Nazi Party. Men like Gauleiter Kastner saw Hellman as a traitor to the Fuhrer and the Reich. This caused Hellman much peril as the war progressed. He had to face enemies on all sides, particularly when he was given command of a penal battalion on the Russian Front. Throughout, Hellman remained true to his ideals right up to the end of the war.
Kastner was everything Hellman despised, a zealot, a Nazi and a self serving coward. Kastner tried to have Hellman shot for treason on many occasions and often left him in the lurch to save his own skin. He left Hellman for dead after the failure of the Afrika Korps, only to see him alive in Berlin. It was Kastner who had Hellman sent to the Russian Front, but even this could not defeat his nemesis and ultimately, Kastner met the fate so richly deserved of all Nazis at Hellman’s hand as he attempted to flee Berlin.
Max was assigned to Hammer Force as the Russian campaign reached its height. Hellman’s new command were convicts, but also experienced tank men. Max had to overcame his initial hatred of the panzer commander as he soon owed his life to his new Major. A mutual trust and eventually a friendship formed between the two men and the only other survivor, Dekker, which lasted through the Russian campaign. In the final episode, they faced imprisonment together at the end of the war, but Hellman knew he will always be safe as long as he had Max and Dekker beside him.
“The Rat” was everything that Max wasn’t. A verminous, conniving, treacherous and literally back-stabbing individual. Whilst the other convicts grew to respect Hellman, Schwarz despised him, and sold his loyalty to the Russians to betray and murder Hellman. He very nearly succeeded, but the Major outsmarted his vengeful enemy, and sent Schwarz back to his new paymasters. Schwarz survived for a short time working with his new ‘allies’ but soon met a deserved fate.
The men of Hammer Force were often named for just a single issue, normally the one in which they died. Several times we saw Hellman’s entire regiment wiped out, until the arrival of the penal battalion in Russia. This added a new dimension of intrigue and desperation to Hammer Force and to the depth of characters we saw. Of note were Dekker and Brenner. Brenner gave his life to save his comrades from a Russian attack. Dekker survived the war and the imprisonment which followed by stealing the uniform of a dead officer.
The penal regiment, or rather the survivors of it, were to remain in the story until its conclusion in July 1978.
Text © Moose Harris
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