This week I heard the sad news that Heinz Puschmann had died at his home in Auckland. He was a lovely fellow – a gentle soul with a great sense of humour who had settled in New Zealand in the late 1940s. During the war, he had been in the 6th Fallschirmjager Regiment and had served in Normandy on D-Day, had been badly wounded, and then, after recovering had been sent to Italy via Dresden. I wrote about him in my book, Heroes. Here is his remarkable story:
Heinz Puschmann remembers the evening of 5 June 1944 very well. ‘The sun went down dark blood red’ he says. ‘It was a nice sunset.’ Sitting in his tent on the edge of Carentan, he turned to one of his comrades and wondered whether it would be one of the last sunsets they would ever see. ‘Here the conversation came to an abrupt stop,’ he says. ‘Each of us followed our own thoughts.’
They knew the Allied invasion was coming. Indeed, the 6th Fallschirmjäger – Paratroop – Regiment had been sent to the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy a little over a month before for precisely that reason, part of the German defences along the Atlantic Wall. The only paratroop regiment in the area, the three battalions had been split up – the 1st Battalion to St Marie du Mont, the 2nd to Ste Mère Eglise, and the 3rd, to which Heinz was attached, to Carentan. They had spent several weeks making a thorough investigation of the surrounding countryside, which was largely reclaimed marshland criss-crossed with a close network of hedgerows, or bocages. These, they realised, were often high earthen walls, thickly woven with tree and dense bush roots. And so they trained hard, carrying out regular exercises that made the most of these natural defences, and waiting for the day the Allied armada arrived off the coast of France – as they knew it surely would.
Heinz was in the Signals Unit. Their teams had been divided amongst the various companies, but Heinz had remained based at Battalion Headquarters – it was their job to make sure the battalion companies remained in touch with one another, and for his battalion to be communicating with the other battalions in the regiment. No-one knew when the Allies would come or even where, but rapid and co-ordinated response would be essential if they were to have any chance of repulsing the invaders.
By the 5th of June, however, Heinz was pretty sure the Allies would be landing somewhere in Normandy. For the past few days, they had been bombed both heavily and regularly. And once the bombers disappeared, before the dust had hardly begun to settle, fighter planes had roared over, especially, Heinz had noted, American Mustangs and Thunderbolts. On the 5th, these fighters had been over the Carentan area continually since before dawn, dropping bombs, strafing, and patrolling. Not surprisingly, everyone at Battalion HQ felt tense, sensing the invasion must surely now arrive at any moment.
The night of June 5th/6th June was initially, Heinz clearly recalls, ‘bright, clear and moonlit.’ In the early hours of the morning, they heard the sound of large formations of aircraft flying over and to begin with thought it must be another bombing raid. But then at around 2.30am, the alarm was raised – thousands of enemy paratroopers were raining down from the skies around Carentan. As a signaller, Heinz was busy. Reports were coming in from the Company Commanders, while orders were being sent out from Battalion HQ. So this was it, Heinz realised: the invasion had begun. He could hear single shots being fired but not much more. There was an air of confusion – no-one quite knew where the enemy were or what would happen next.
The invaders landing in 6th Fallschirmjäger’s section were the American 101st Airborne Division, and as the grey dawn crept over Carentan, Heinz and his comrades saw the land round about covered in parachutes of different coloured silk. The Germans wondered whether these varying colours represented different units, but certainly the mass of silk was put to good use. ‘We went and cut them and used them as scarves,’ says Heinz.
The American drop had not been particularly successful and the 101st Airborne, especially, were spread far and wide. It took them a while to regroup, but eventually they began heading towards the coast to secure the exit routes off ‘Utah’ and ‘Omaha,’ the beaches, where American ground troops had already begun landing. Pushed northwards to battle against their American counter-parts were the 1st and 2nd Battalions who soon found themselves in the thick of heavy fighting. At Carentan, Heinz saw his first American prisoners later in the day. ‘They were tall and heavily built,’ he says. ‘We joked that they looked as though they were from Sing Sing, the famous prison in America.’
There was little opportunity for further levity, however. Although the German paratroopers fought tenaciously, they could not match the massive fire-power of the Allies. During the first two days of the invasion, the 1st Battalion was annihilated – almost entirely wiped. Falling back to Carentan, the regiment established a new defence line around the town, but they were now almost surrounded and were cut off from their neighbouring German units. Allied fighter aircraft seemed to be constantly buzzing overhead. ‘We wondered where our fighter planes were,’ says Heinz. But the Luftwaffe were almost entirely absent from the air; the Allies had learn their lessons during five long years of war. Victory on the ground, they had discovered, could only be achieved once command of the skies had been secured.
The intensity of the fighting grew with every passing day and with every passing hour. Casualties were mounting further, including Heinz’s best friend, Theo Keilholz. They had got to know one another back in February, when the 6th Regiment had been formed in Cologne. Until May, when they were posted to Normandy, they had trained hard, and during that time Heinz and Theo had not only been in the same battalion, but had also shared a room together. ‘My friend died,’ says Heinz. ‘At least, I assume he died. I was talking to him on the radio then heard him scream and then there was silence. I never heard from him again.’
On Sunday 11th June, the Allied Navy began bombarding Carentan, an assault that lasted for twelve hours. Shells screamed through the air constantly, exploding and causing the ground the shake. ‘When the bombardment stopped,’ says Heinz, ‘the fighters were in the air again.’ Soon after, the Americans launched their final attack on the town. Major von der Heydte, commander of the 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, asked for urgent reinforcements from their command division, the 17th Panzer Grenadier, but his request was confused. With their situation now hopeless, Major von der Heydte ordered the paratroopers to begin withdrawing south towards Périers.
Carentan fell the following day and it was during their retreat that Heinz was badly wounded. ‘I was on patrol and lying on the ground,’ he says, ‘when all of a sudden I was hit.’ He had been shot below the ear, and the bullet had gone through the lower part of his head, through his mouth and had become lodged in his neck. ‘Blood was pouring out of my mouth,’ he says. ‘That was pretty alarming, and when I touched my forehead, it was ice cold. I thought of my mother and father and sister. It was very frightening.’ He wasn’t sure if he would die, but knew his wound was very serious. A medic hurried over to him and helped get him back to regimental dressing station, and from there he was taken to Paris, where the bullet was removed. ‘I couldn’t eat,’ he says, ‘because a bullet had gone through my nose and they had to pin my jaw so I couldn’t move it sideways.’
As the Allies advanced out of Normandy and began to push through France, Heinz was transferred to several different hospitals in Germany, until finally ending up at a hospital in Hanau, near Frankfurt, where they specialised in dealing with such injuries. ‘I was out of the war for several months,’ he says matter-of-factly. He was lucky to be alive at all. In the fighting around Carentan, the 6th Fallschirmjäger were almost entirely wiped out. ‘Before D-Day, we had 1,800 men in the regiment,’ says Heinz, ‘and when they assembled again after Carentan, there were only forty men left.’
Heinz had known from an early age that he wanted to join the Luftwaffe. As a boy, he enjoyed the outdoor life and had a taste for adventure. At ten he had joined the Boy Scouts and greatly enjoyed the camps they would go on; at thirteen, he was in the Hitler Youth. ‘It was good fun,’ he says, and points out that at the time, Hitler seemed to have dragged Germany out of the Depression and brought prosperity and a return of national pride – and the Hitler Youth was part of that. Although the organisation was, to a certain degree a glorified version of Boy Scouts, there was also a military emphasis, and boys could decide what area of the military they were interested in and gain some experience in that field. Heinz chose the Luftwaffe and learned to fly gliders. He was also given tuition in how to build and repair his own plane. ‘But I wasn’t very good with my hands, so I switched to signals instead,’ he says. ‘I learnt Morse code and how to read signals. I had to do about two hours a week evening signal duty, and then I could fly at the weekend. We didn’t have to pay for it.’ Little wonder, then, that boys like Heinz enjoyed it so much.
Little wonder, too, that when his father asked him what he would like to do in life, Heinz told him he wanted a career in the Air Force. Just fourteen at the time, Heinz had been due to start high school. “All right,” his father told his son, “there’s no high school for you, boy. You go and learn a trade.” Heinz became an apprentice fitter and turner.
Born and brought up in Hindenburg, in Silesia, they were just six miles from the Polish border. Still only fifteen when the war began, Heinz remembers the German Army massing along the border before the invasion in September 1939. ‘The police needed runners because there were troops up in church towers watching for Polish troops and aircraft,’ he says. Heinz was one of the boys chosen for such a task and spent the opening days of the war sleeping at the Police HQ and taking messages to the church towers and other look-out posts. ‘One night the sky was lit up with flares,’ he says. ‘A Polish plane came over we thought it had been shot down but a few minutes later it came back again and dropped bombs.’
His apprenticeship should have lasted three-and-half years, but he never completed it because when he was seventeen-and-a-half, he applied to become an officer cadet in the Luftwaffe’s paratroop wing. ‘To begin,’ he says, ‘I really wanted to be a pilot. But then they started the Paratroopers, and it seemed more adventurous and I liked the idea of doing jumps.’
From the outset, the Fallschirmjäger were intended to be an elite body, set apart from the rest of the German armed forces, even the Luftwaffe, of which they were a part. Their role was to be shock assault troops – Fallschirmjäger literally means ‘paratrooper hunter’ – and as they proved when they almost single-handedly took Rotterdam during the Blitzkreig in May 1940, and again in Crete a year later, they could be very effective. Most, like Heinz, were volunteers. Enormous emphasis was placed on physical and mental training and the would-be paratroopers faced increasingly difficult tests throughout their training. If at any point they failed one of these tests, they would be thrown off the course. ‘For example,’ says Heinz, ‘you had to jump off a five metre high tower. If you didn’t jump, they saw you didn’t have the will or courage to be a paratrooper.’ Even when they were finally taken for their first jump from an aeroplane, they were given no more than ten seconds at the hatch in which take the leap.
But Heinz had no such problems. He found that jumping from aeroplanes was every bit as exciting as he’d hoped, and having completed his six day jumps and one night jump, was awarded his paratrooper wings. It was a proud moment, and it was only then that he confessed to his parents that he had joined the Fallschirmjäger. Heinz smiles. ‘My father believed I had gone into the Air Force.’
Having completed his parachute training he was sent to Officer Training School. ‘I had to do a course for three months and then I was accepted and promoted and had to go to the front to prove myself.’ He was posted to Italy, still as an ordinary paratrooper, and then after a stint in the front line, where he volunteered for as many patrols as he possibly could, he was sent back to Officer Training School to complete the second part of the course. Even then, cadet officers were not promoted – not until they had proved themselves in front line duty a second time. Ability in training was one thing; proving it in battle, with men being killed and wounded, bullets whizzing past, and shells exploding all around, was quite another. ‘I was sent back to Italy – to Cassino,’ says Heinz. ‘It was horrendous.’ He fought with the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division through much of the Second Battle of Cassino, witness to particularly brutal fighting on and around Monastery Hill. ‘We were fighting against the New Zealanders,’ he says. With many veteran troops from North Africa and Crete, the New Zealanders were among the most tenacious and experienced troops the Allies had.
It was after this experience that Heinz was finally promoted and sent to Cologne for the formation of the 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment. There were certainly strong reasons for making officer training in the Fallschirmjäger so tough – after all, they were elite troops and needed to be led by highly trained, battle-experienced officers. Heinz was proud to be a part of such a force and enjoyed the intense camaraderie and sense of honour and discipline that came with it. ‘We were taught to fight fairly and squarely,’ he says, ‘and to treat our enemies properly when taken as POWs. Never harm the defenceless. We fought hard but fair.’ Most who fought opposite the German paratroopers at Cassino, for example, would vouch for this. Heinz cites examples: they were not allowed to open fire on an enemy paratrooper until he had touched the ground. To do otherwise was a court-martial offence. Nor were they allowed to loot or steal, no matter how hungry they might have been. ‘If we had stolen something and were caught, we would be finished. Court-martialled and kicked out,’ he says, then adds, ‘I’m talking about paratroopers – I’m not speaking for any other units.’
After his horrific wound in Normandy, Heinz spent six months in hospital and was finally released from Hanau in December 1944. ‘The doctor told me I could go home and have some leave, but I asked if he could postpone it for a week – it was the beginning of December and I really wanted to have one last Christmas at home with my parents.’ The doctor agreed. As Heinz was well aware, Germany was losing the war and when he finally made it home to Hindenburg, his worst fears were confirmed. ‘I could hear the rumble of the cannons,’ he says, ‘and when you stood outside at night, you could see the flashing lights from the explosions. The Russians were coming.’ The town was also busy with refugees. Heinz saw their worried faces as they pulled carts piled high with their belongings. Often there were small children sitting on top, too cold and too weary to walk. ‘Those people did not care if it was Christmas,’ says Heinz. ‘Their only thoughts were to get away from the Russians. It was very sad to see.’
A Home Defence Unit was being formed in Hindenburg and Heinz asked if he could join and help. ‘I wanted to defend my home town,’ he explains, but his request was turned down: he was an experienced paratrooper and the Fallschirmjäger still needed him. And so, his leave over, he left home on 30th December with a heavy heart. ‘My father didn’t want to move from Hindenburg,’ says Heinz. Nor did he try to persuade him otherwise. ‘I never talked to my father about politics, and never about the Third Reich because I knew he was not in favour of it. He was not happy about what had happened.’
With his father at work, his mother accompanied him to the train station to see him off. She was understandably upset. Sending a son away to war must be horrendous for any parent, but many times worse when both mother and son know they will probably never see each other again, and that the home they love will soon be swept aside by the juggernaut of war.
Heinz reported back to the Fallschirmjäger garrison town of Stendal, where he met up with a number of former comrades and together they were sent on a month-long ‘tank distraction’ course. Once the course was completed, they were given orders to journey by train to Italy, where they were to join the 4th Division. On 13th February, their train reached Dresden, and overnight was standing on some sidings in the marshalling yard when the air raids sirens began wailing. Next to them was a train full of Russian prisoners, so Heinz agreed to stay and guard their own train while the others took shelter in case the Russians managed to escape. ‘Our train was full of gear and equipment,’ Heinz explains. ‘We couldn’t just leave it.’
Around ten o’clock that evening, the first bombs began falling. ‘The Russian prisoners started screaming,’ says Heinz. ‘It was just about the worst thing I heard in the entire war. If the bombs had started coming too close, we could have jumped off and run for cover. But those Russians couldn’t jump. It was cruel.’ Locked in their cattle wagons, they became increasingly hysterical. ‘I have to say,’ he adds, ‘that really upset me. I can still hear them now.’
But fortune was with them. Although less than half a mile from the centre of the attack, few bombs hit the railway. Even so, once the raiders had passed, they could see Dresden had taken a terrible pounding. ‘After the raid we went to the Station Master and ordered him to move our transport train out of Dresden immediately,’ says Heinz. ‘We didn’t want our equipment destroyed by another raid.’ The Station Master promised to do his best, but finding an engine driver on such a night was no easy task. As they feared, the bombers returned. Three hours later, the air raid sounded again and this time it was Heinz’s turn to take shelter in a nearby cellar. By this time a fire storm had developed and was sweeping through the heart of the city. ‘The change of air pressure from the fire storm was so intense,’ says Heinz, ‘that suddenly the cellar door blew open.’
They were still stuck on the marshalling yards the following morning when a third attack arrived. Rather than shelter in the cellar, they ran into fields instead, taking cover in a small wooden hut. Bombs started falling again, this time uncomfortably close. ‘I said, “I’m not staying here,”’ says Heinz, and they ran a short way and took shelter in a bomb crater. Suddenly they heard the whistling of falling bombs, followed by an enormous explosion. Earth clattered down onto their helmets. ‘When we looked up,’ says Heinz, ‘the hut was gone – completely vanished.’
Finally leaving the burning city behind, they continued their journey to Italy, through the Brenner Pass and down onto the plains of the north. Just before they reached Verona they stopped. Once more they heard the sound of air raid sirens droning. Another Allied bombing raid was soon in progress. When they later passed through, the town was still burning.
Soon after joining the 4th Division near Bologna, Heinz found himself retreating back northwards towards the River Po. Free of the mountains at last, the Allies were now able to make the most of the enormous advantage in fire-power. As at Normandy, fighter planes dogged their every move. ‘And when the planes were not in the air,’ he says, ‘the tanks and flame-thrower tanks arrived.’ These, he adds, had a demoralising effect; they wished they could call on their own air forces, but the Luftwaffe as a fighting force had already been destroyed. ‘The anger and frustration grew,’ he admits.
When they reached the River Po, there was no bridge left, and so they were given the order to destroy most of their equipment. Heinz was fortunate to get a ride on one of the last ferries going across before the Allies caught up with them, but others, in their desperation not to be captured, tried swimming to safety. ‘But the Po is dangerous,’ says Heinz. ‘Many of our boys lost their lives trying to swim across.’
After regrouping, they headed north, passing lines of burnt-out cars and guns, dead soldiers and mules. They had little equipment left, but as Heinz explains, ‘the enemy infantry was no longer in close combat with us – it was now more a war from the air.’ Fighter planes, bombing and machinegunning them, harassed them all the way to Ala, in the foothills of the Alps, where they took over positions from the SS. Here, they prepared for the final showdown. But strangely, for several days it was quiet; there was no sign of the American troops they were expecting.
They were still there on 1st May, when their commander assembled them in a cave above Ala. ‘I can remember like it was yesterday,’ says Heinz. ‘He told us that Hitler had been killed in the fighting for Berlin. We didn’t know then that he had shot himself.’ They held a few minutes’ silence then moved on again, ten miles north to Rovoreto. The next day, having reached Rovoreto, they heard that the war in Italy was over.
A surreal atmosphere hung over the band of paratroopers. Most were agreed that they should try and get over the Alps. ‘We wanted to get into Austria and fight the Russians,’ Heinz explains, ‘but every time we set off, we were fired upon by the partisans.’ A few days later, after some tense moments with the local partisans in Rovoreto, the Americans arrived; there would be no fighting the Russians. Instead, they were told they were now officially prisoners of war.
Heinz remained a prisoner of war in Italy until December 1946, and although he moved camp several times, he spent some time helping to rebuild Cassino. ‘They said, “You destroyed the monastery, you rebuild it,” he says. ‘We had to shift a lot of heavy stones. It was quite dangerous work because there were still a lot of unexploded bombs and mines about.’
Even once he was freed he could still not return home, however. Hindenburg was no longer in Germany. Renamed Zabrze, it had been ceded into the new Polish boundaries and now lay behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His mother, he knew, was dead, just as he had feared. Not long after Heinz had departed for Italy the Soviet troops had reached Hindenburg. Their house had been ransacked, and the Russians had stolen anything of value, both actual and sentimental. His father, an engineer working in Hindenburg, had been out at work at the time. On his way home, the Russians had been transporting a number of German POWs and swept him up too. Heinz’s mother had only later found out what had happened to him. ‘They took him to Siberia to work in the mines,’ says Heinz, ‘and six months later my mother was dead.’ She had died of a broken heart.
With neither home nor family to turn to, he made his way to Alzenau, near Frankfurt. He had met Lydia, his future wife, in Cologne before being posted to Normandy. At the time she had been working at a Luftwaffe night-fighter base. A few months before being released as a POW, Heinz had written to her. ‘I had lost contact with her,’ he says, ‘and wasn’t sure if she was even still alive.’ But to his great relief, Lydia replied, and told him to come and see her as soon as he was freed. Ten months after his release, in September 1947, they were married.
He had hoped to study engineering, but could not afford to and so was considering entering the priesthood instead. His father-in-law came to the rescue, however, agreeing to pay for him to go through university. ‘So I majored in engineering at Frankfurt University,’ says Heinz, ‘and it was while I was there that we decided to go to New Zealand.’ During his time as a POW, Heinz had become friends with New Zealand Army major. ‘He came to visit us in Alzenau,’ recalls Heinz, ‘and he said, “Why don’t you come and see New Zealand for yourself?”’ Heinz had always had great respect for the New Zealanders as soldiers and had liked the ones he had met after the war, and so after graduating in 1952, he and his wife emigrated to Auckland.
By that time his father had been released from prison and was living back in Hindenburg – or rather, Zabrze – as was his sister. But Heinz still couldn’t go there because of the political situation and later the Iron Curtain. ‘We wrote to each other,’ says Heinz, ‘but what is a letter when you can’t have personal contact?’ Not until 1972 did he finally manage to get a visa to visit them both. It was the first time he had returned home since that December night in the last winter of the war, and the first time his wife had ever met his family. His father died three years later.
Looking back on his war years, he says, ‘You forget the bad times and remember the good.’ He was glad he had been a paratrooper, and is still proud to have been part of such an elite force. But the bad times have not gone from his memory entirely. He mentions, for example, that after his friend Theo Keilholz was killed in Normandy, he made a point of not becoming good friends with any more of his comrades. ‘My attitude was this,’ he says: ‘be friendly, and rely on them because they’ll reply on you, but don’t get too close because you never know when it will end. Otherwise you get too upset.’ Nor can he stand the sight of blood. ‘I can’t bear it,’ he admits. ‘I can’t even look at raw meat.’
And there is also the trauma of defeat. ‘The hopes of victory faded away at Carentan,’ he admits. ‘When Carentan was attacked and there only about forty of us left around our commander – well, when you’re put in that position as a soldier, it is devastating.’
But still he fought on, even after recovering from a life-threatening wound. ‘I always felt that what I was doing was right because I wasn’t doing for myself,’ he explains. ‘I was doing it for the Fatherland. I was protecting my home, my family, and many other families because it is my duty. I am not glorifying war, and please don’t think I am – war is terrible. It should be outlawed.’
Heinz mentions a time after the war, when he was clearing Cassino as a prisoner of war. There were still plenty of corpses about the place and so he would pick up medals and ID tags and other bits and pieces and put them in an empty ammunition box, and then hand them over to the authorities to give back the families of the dead. ‘It was,’ he says, ‘the last thing I could do for my fallen comrades.’