FRANZ MAASSEN SERVED IN NORTHWEST EUROPE, RUSSIA AND ITALY
I was born here in Dusseldorf, although my mother was Dutch. My father was a baker and had a bakery shop. I went to school here and in the holidays and at weekends I was expected to help in the bakery. I had two older brothers, but one died when he was little. Willy – Wilhelm – was the second, born in 1914. We were really close. We had very different characters but we could not have got on better. He liked to drink a bit and was much more out-going – gregarious – than I was. His wife died because of an English bomber. It was during a raid in 1943. The bomber was shot down and crashed into a street killing 37 people or something like that. I was in Minden at the time back from Russia and went to the funeral. That was the last time I saw my brother for seven years – when we finally saw each other again you can imagine what that was like – we were over the moon. I would say I was closer to Willy than I was my father, although I had a happy childhood. A very happy childhood. We always had enough to eat.
My father was never pro-Hitler or pro-Nazi. We were traditional Catholic stock. I remember one time after the synagogue had been burned some Brown Shirts came into the bakery bragging and celebrating about what they had done. My mother was furious. She told them it was bad what they had done and threw them out of the shop. My father really told her off. â€˜If you talk to them like that you’ll get in real trouble.’
My brother Willy joined the army in 1936. I never joined the Hitler Youth, though. They kept asking me but I was always too busy. I told them, â€˜I’ve got to be up at four in the morning and then I have to work in the evenings and at weekends. I don’t have time for the Hitler Youth.’ They kept asking me but I never joined.
I think the Anchluss was quite right, and the reoccupation of the Rhineland. They were German people there and were only taken from German at the end of the First World War. Everyone was very happy about it. I’m not sure about the Sudetenland, but I also think Poland was justified. There was a corridor that was full of German people; it had been part of Germany before the First World War. Most of the people were German and it was quite right that we took it back.
I didn’t think about the war much, though. I didn’t think war was coming. I was a young boy – what did I know? I joined the army in 1940. I was young and very gung-ho. We had won great victories in Poland, in Belgium, in Holland in France. Next was Britain. I really wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to one of those that invaded Britain. Of course I did? It was an exciting time. When did I join? July? August? Because I was short I was earmarked for the Panzers, but I was sent to the infantry. I don’t know why. I did my basic training which was three months and then I was sent to Belgium. Basic training was rubbish, but afterwards, when I went to Belgium, I learned a lot. Most of the officers were Reichswehr, from the standing army kept on between the wars. They were tough – really tough – but first-class officers. One of the officers was called Leutnant Bopp. He used to tell me to be his fart-catcher. â€˜When I fart, I want you to be close enough to catch it,’ he used to say. He was brilliant. Tough – a real disciplinarian – but he taught me a lot. He got sent to Russia for calling a general an arsehole. We were supposed to march through town to get to the barracks but he commandeered a tram. The general told him off, and so Bopp called him an arsehole. The general couldn’t do anything because Bopp had the Knight’s Cross, but he made sure Bopp was sent to Russia.
We practised for the invasion – in early 1941. We still thought we would be invading Britain at that time. Our paratroopers would be dropped in and we would follow. We didn’t have proper landing craft – they were barges – but we trained and practised amphibious landings. We weren’t particularly worried about the British Navy. We were all so confident. Then, some years after the war, I went to England with a load of bakers. We would get together and go on trips and so on. Anyway, we were crossing on the ferry and I saw the cliffs at Dover and thought, â€˜How on earth would we have ever got up those?’
I met Liesel when I was seventeen – at a dance in Dusseldorf. We were engaged to be married when I went off to war. Sure I missed her, but I didn’t really think about that then. I was young and gung-ho. We married in 1942 before I went to Russia. She never once went out while I was away at war, even when I was listed as missing and she didn’t get any mail from me for six months. Afterwards, when I finally got home in 1947, I made a vow never to leave her on her own again. Whenever the bakers were planning a boys’ trip, I would say, no, I’m not coming. If she stayed at home all that time for me, I was going to do the same. We were married sixty years and we never once argued.
I was sent to Russia with the 360th Infantry Division in the autumn of 1942. October? The first time, I got dysentery. Everyone was wounded, killed or got ill. I had been just a short way from Stalingrad – not in Stalingrad, but we’d reached the Volga. Anyway, I got ill and was sent back to a military hospital. The hospital was in Rostow. I was there for a while and that’s how I escaped the fate of most of my comrades. Only six men out of 12,000 in the division got out of Stalingrad. One day, all the staff simply disappeared – all the doctors and so on. We were retreating by then. I was still ill but getting better and we got up and were told to clear out. There was a train waiting to take everyone back. I walked past all these wounded men – amputees with no arms and legs. Me and another man grabbed two of them and took them to the train and got them on a carriage. We went back again and grabbed some more. There was an eighteen year-old boy with a leg amputated. â€˜Take me with you – please,’ he said. So we went back for him and got him, but he died later. It was freezing cold on that train and we had nothing to eat. When someone died, we just had to throw them out.
When I got better I was sent to Minden and then sent back to Russia. We were properly retreating by then. Often as much as sixty kilometres a day. It was the Battle of Kursk – the big tank battle. We’d dig in, fire our machinegun all day, then during the night we’d load onto lorries and head back again. I was a machinegunner. I trained on MG 34s and MG 42s. MG 42s were known as â€˜Hitler Sprayers’ because they sprayed bullets everywhere. I preferred the MG34 – it was a bit lighter, so although I was supposed to be using an MG42 at this time, I used to try and swap it for an MG 34 whenever I could.
I remember one time we were pinned against a river. The officer was wounded and we hid down by the river. There was quite a high cliff above it and we had to crawl along the edge. The Russians were really close – we could hear them. I had to shove my field cap into the officer’s mouth to stop him screaming.
The Russians were terrible. Although we were retreating, whenever we were in a fight we’d end up with say, fifty dead, and they’d have a thousand killed. I used to see Russians with no weapons at all – no rifles or anything – linking arms and advancing towards us. We’d just mow them down.
I was wounded and that’s how I got out of Russia. We were fighting in the forests. I hated fighting in woods – woods or towns. I preferred it when we were out in the open. Anyway, we were going forward and were massively outnumbered. The officer said, â€˜Come on, keep going forward!’ then he was killed. Everyone seemed to be falling. Me and this other guy fell on the ground. We were about five or ten metres apart when he was shot. I did something that I should never have done – that my experience should have told me not to have done. Instead of crawling over to him, I ran over to him and began putting dressings on him. I picked him and carried him back and as I did so, I was shot in the hip. I didn’t notice at the time and just carried on. I managed to get him to a field dressing station and that was when I realised I’d been hit as well. I was taken to a hospital at Kiev and then back to Germany.
After that I saw the officer whose life I’d saved on the river in Russia. He told me he was going to put me forward for officer training. I said I didn’t want that and so he said, it’s either that or back to Russia. You have til tomorrow to decide. I decided pretty quickly. I did the officer training and out of sixty I was one of three people recommended for a commission but as I was just a baker’s son with no academic qualifications, I was instead made a Feldwebel and posted to Italy. That was July 1944.
I took a train to Verona, and then went by truck to the front to join the 6th Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 994th Regiment, part of the 278th Infantry Division. When I joined them, they were at Momtilgallo. It wasn’t on the Gothic Line; it was just north of that. I had a gruppe – a section – of men. About a dozen. Our machinegun position was in a vineyard. We used to stretch our arms up and take the grapes. On one side were the 1 Parachute Division and on the other were the â€˜Hands Up’ Division – the 71st. We used to call them the â€˜Hands Up’ division because they were always surrendering. It was a bit of a joke.
I remember the Allied bombers and â€˜Jabos’ were coming over all the time. The Jobos would buzz over, drop bombs, and then shoot up anything they saw. They were a real headache. The artillery shelling was also unbelievable – much worse than anything I suffered in Russia. When the battle started we soon found ourselves out on a limb. The Hands Up had gone and so had the Paratroopers. We were out on a limb, but I refused to leave my position without being given the order to do so and so I told my men to stay put. Eventually, a messenger came. He wouldn’t come any closer than fifty metres and from there shouted out, â€˜Maassen – fall back!’ I told my men to leave one at a time. In Russia I’d learnt that you don’t leave together. If you do that, you risk all of you getting killed. And so I sent them back one by one, a good distance apart. I was the last to leave. I headed back and came to a barn in which a number of troops were sheltering. They weren’t from my company but from a different company. I stopped there and had a cigarette, then went back to try and find my way. I came to a kind of gully and there I saw all my men and many more. Shellfire had landed in amongst them. The gully had meant they’d all been caught in there. Not one of the men from my gruppe survived. They were all killed.
I used to smoke a lot then. About seventy a day. The daily ration was five cigarettes but I learnt a lot in Russia. I learned that when a soldier dies you don’t report that he’s dead for five days or so and then you still get all his rations. That’s how I used to smoke up to seventy cigarettes a day.
We had lots of trouble from partisans. I suppose I saw less than most because I was always in the front line. One time in Russia my officer and another man were killed by partisans. When I first got to Italy I was in Verona waiting to head south to the front. I was in a bar having a drink when some partisans threw in a grenade. I knew about partisan attacks from Russia and so grabbed a machine pistol that was hung up on the wall and dived behind the bar. It wasn’t a German grenade – it can’t have been because it wasn’t very effective and although it blew over some tables it only wounded a couple of people. It didn’t kill anyone. I fired the machine pistol after them but, no, I didn’t hit them. I hated the partisans. I wasn’t personally involved in any of the round-ups but I wouldn’t have minded if I was. I’ll tell you about the partisans in Russia. One time during the retreat I was in a fox hole with a theology student called Peter Rogge. On a machinegun, you had one person firing and one person feeding in the ammunition. I’d been firing for about an hour and a half and so it was time to change over. It was difficult to do when under heavy enemy fire, but we managed it and Peter Rogge had been firing for just a few moments when he was hit in the face. Well, he was sent back to a field dressing station and then put in an ambulance to be taken to the military hospital. Soon after, we were retreating back again as usual and as we did so we came across the ambulance. The driver had had his hands tied to the steering wheel and the ambulance had been set on fire. He’d been burned to death. By the side of the road were the wounded men and one of them was Peter Rogge. He’d had his head smashed, had been stripped and his penis cut off. That’s what the partisans did. So I hated the partisans.