No boy’s journey through adolescence is complete without reading a few Sven Hassel novels about the exploits of a German penal regiment during World War II.

Penal regiments consisted of regular army conscripts convicted of various crimes. They were given the choice of lengthy sentences in military jail or service in penal units often sent to fight in the most dangerous areas.

The most infamous of these was the Dirlewanger Brigade, which was initially a unit of convicted poachers whose ranks were later swelled by criminals with convictions for rape, assault and theft along with patients from psychiatric hospitals.

Hassel wrote more than 15 novels about the adventures of the fictional 27th Panzer Regiment (penal) and its various miscreants including Porta, Tiny, the Legionnaire, Barcelona Blom and Julius Heide.

Hassel is in the books himself claiming they are based on his real life exploits as a Danish conscript sent to the regiment for desertion.

This has been challenged by several sources including Danish writer Erik Haaest who claims Hassel gathered his material from former soldiers while in jail and was, in fact, a member of a special Danish police unit established by the Gestapo.

Others say that Hassel was indeed a serving member who was heavily decorated during his military career.

Regardless, they are a cracking read and sold millions of copies during their heyday in the late 1970s/early 80s.

There are several films based on Hassels’s novels.  None have translated well to the big screen although the highlighted clip does capture the classic face-off between Tiny and the Legionnaire when they first meet.

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