The narrative is set in a remote valley in the Welsh borders and tells of the gentle relationships formed between a small, isolated farming community of Welsh women and the six war-hardened members of a German special patrol, scarred and bonded by endless months of combat on the Russian front and in the Normandy counterattack and the battle for Kent. Their assignment is to recover a historic art treasure, greatly desired by Heinrich Himmler, from its nearby hiding place in some abandoned mine workings. They are cut off in the valley for months by harsh winter weather and gradually take over where the men of the valley had abruptly left off when they disappeared one night early in the autumn of 1944. Their women did not know that they had enlisted in the local resistance, the top-secret Auxiliary Units, and, that night, been mobilised. The Germans find peace and rediscover their humanity, and the women, who will never see their men again, find companionship and comfort, and practical assistance in the tough winter work of smallholding and hillfarming. In the meantime the fighting goes on, London eventually falls and the war finally catches up with them all again.
This is a tensely moving story, poetically told, that does not duck the hard questions of duty, surrender, occupation, fraternisation and collaboration, or underplay the ambiguities, though there is no ambiguity about “Private Jonathan Stevens of the newly formed SS Albion division” who makes his appearance on the final page.
Owen Sheers was inspired to write this novel, set in a countryside and amongst folk he clearly loves, by the reminiscences of Auxiliary Units veterans, committed countrymen who happily never had to put their training into practice but who well understood why their stay-behind observation posts were only stocked with supplies for two weeks. The Auxiliary Units now have a dedicated museum and a fascinating website which includes an extensive extract from Arthur Ward\'s Resisting the Nazi Invader (click on How It All Started link). This fleshes out the tantalising glimpses Owen Sheers gives us of the real-world doctrine and training of the Auxiliary Units, and of their operations in a believable alternate history.