The books written by Sven Hassel feature the ragged bunch of misfits, looters and murderers who fight in the ranks of Hitler’s SS Panzer Division. The only exception is that these particular chaps aren’t sticking their necks out in front of Russian artillery for the sake of fanatical devotion to the Reich. There are all fighting to stay alive in the ranks of the Penal Panzer Battalions. Its line up and fight or line up for a firing squad.
Wheels of Terror is probably the most complete of his war novels, encompassing all of the irony, horror and mindlessness of war at its most appalling. The dark humour and dry wit of the characters helps maintain sanity and provides the reader will some welcome relief in between the bloody episodes of carnage. The convict regiment is known as the 27th Panzers, and because they are expendable, they are always first to be sent into battle.
Pluto, Moller, Stege, and the outrageous Joseph Porta all contrive to treat the war more as an inconvenience to their lives than an actually overwhelming death sentence looming over them. Sven, himself consigned to the regiment for deserting, provides a fairly even balance of believable narrative and some embellished anecdotes, usually told to the group by the hilarious and quite possibly mad Porta. Tiny, a huge brute of a man terrorizes both friend and foe, and sparks off some ridiculously funny episodes as they thunder across the battle fields of the eastern front.
Although Wheels of Terror is not short of light moments and a few laugh out loud incidents, the reader is never really allowed to relax. An exploding landmine or deafening round from an anti tank gun is never more than a second away.
Life becomes cheaper by the page and the depths to which the penal regiment will sink become bottomless. War is bittersweet in Wheels of Terror, and always a numbing experience.