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Book Review: The Hornet’s Sting: The Amazing Untold Story of World War II Spy Thomas Sneum (Skyhorse

Discussion in 'ETO, MTO and the Eastern Front' started by dgmitchell, Apr 24, 2009.

  1. dgmitchell

    dgmitchell Ace

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    Thomas Sneum was a 22 year old flight lieutenant in Denmark’s Fleet Air Arm on April 9, 1940. On that date, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Denmark following the Danish capitulation. Sneum had been outraged by his countries passive acceptance of Nazi occupation and spent much of the next two years fighting his own war against Denmark’s German occupiers. In that time, Sneum would hatch a plot to assassinate Heinrich Himmler using a crossbow, escape from Denmark to England with a friend flying a battered Hornet bi-plane that he had assembled from parts and which he had to refuel –mid-flight – by crawling out on to the wing, and then parachute back into Denmark as an agent for the English intelligence organization SIS (Secret Intelligence Service).

    As Sneum said late in his life, “People talk so much of what they will do, I prefer to do it.” That is certainly how he wanted to be remembered and his record during the Second World War certainly supports his philosophy. While living life to the fullest, Sneum secured and delivered to SIS invaluable information regarding Germany’s radar program, its development of a secret weapon which we now know to have been Germany’s atomic bomb program and other information that Sneum and the organization that he established in Denmark compiled.

    Unfortunately, while Sneum was spying on behalf of SIS in Denmark, he also fraternized with German officers and, when faced with a long term imprisonment, or possibly execution, even shared confidential information with the enemy. Although Sneum denied that any of the data that he provided to the Germans was unknown to them, and eventually was exonerated by English authorities, his activities with the Germans resulted in his English handlers fearing that he had been turned into a double agent and he was imprisoned in London’s Brixton prison upon his return to England in 1942. He would spend much of the rest of the War either imprisoned or trying to cast off the shadow of doubt that had been cast on his loyalty.

    In his enjoyable new biography of Thomas Sneum, The Hornet’s Sting: The Amazing Untold Story of World War II Spy Thomas Sneum (Skyhorse Publishing 2009; 386 pages), Mark Ryan draws on hundreds of hours of interviews that he conducted with Thomas Sneum, right up until a few months before Sneum’s death in February 2007. Ryan argues passionately that Sneum is an underappreciated hero of World War II whose legacy has been tainted by internal squabbles involving England’s competing war-time intelligence organizations and Denmark’s own intelligence organization. In doing so, Ryan offers us a very intimate study of Sneum’s dramatic battle of wits with his countries German occupiers and the sympathizers who supported them.

    Sneum’s exploits, although documented, could almost be found in a work of fiction. Early after the German occupation of Denmark, Sneum cultivated a relationship with a starlet whose home was also frequented by German officers. He then concocted the strategy of learning to use a heavy crossbow to kill a German officer by hiding in the starlet’s home when she was out and shooting the German officer as he drove by. When tipped off that a high ranking official might be driving by, Sneum hid in the starlet’s home, ready to release a crossbow bolt into the officer’s body as it passed by him. Sadly, the officer changed his plans and the attempt had to be called off. The German officer who would have been Sneum’s target was Heinrich Himmler and one can only wonder how World War II might have been different if Sneum’s attempt had been successful.

    There is no denying that Sneum’s story makes for compelling and entertaining reading. Unfortunately, however, the reader does not necessarily get to know Sneum by reading The Hornet’s Sting. Rather, the reader is introduced to the character that Thomas Sneum wanted us to remember. Most of the dialog and story is based entirely on interviews that Mark Ryan recorded with Sneum from 1998 to 2006 – effectively when Sneum was ages 80 to 88, and it is clear that Sneum wanted to be remembered as a man of action and a ladies’ man. Mr. Ryan would have better served his cause of enhancing Sneum’s memory if he had relied less on Sneum’s own interpretation of the events in which he was involved, or if he had at least tried to better present the perspectives of Sneum’s adversaries.

    Also, a common theme throughout The Hornet’s Sting is Sneum’s virility. Sneum was proud of his sexual conquests and many of them made their way into The Hornet’s Nest, which is unfortunate since Sneum’s sexual activity does not really tell us anything we need to know in order to understand his espionage activities. Yet sex remains a common theme throughout the book. Admittedly, Sneum’s marital infidelity and ultimately his abandonment of his wife and child do tell us a great deal about his character, but Mr. Ryan goes somewhat overboard with his descriptiveness.

    Despite certain criticism of The Hornet’s Sting, the book is still very much worth reading, even if it is not essential reading. It is a light and entertaining personal account by one of the more colorful characters of the Second World War and, even if it may be exaggerated at times, it is nonetheless as close as the modern reader can come to actually speaking with Tommy Sneum.
     
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