I first interviewed Herr Maassen for my book on the war in Italy back in 2004, but he is still alive and well and of sound mind. This interview focussed more on his training and life in the Wehrmacht, and particularly his role as a machine-gunner.
Interview on 21 November 2012 in Düsseldorf with Franz Maassen (born 1920)
First machine gunner in the 236th Battalion, 579th Regiment, 306th Infantry Division
I was taken prisoner down in Rimini, and I tried to escape from there. They put me on a ship immediately and sent me to Africa.
You were a baker in Tobruk?
In Tobruk, in a British bakery.
In an English bakery. [Maassen shows a woodcarving made by a friend, a fellow WWII veteran.] And is he still alive, your friend?
No, he unfortunately died five years ago. He was also in Düsseldorf. He used to visit me and gave me those things up there [pointing at carvings]. He was someone I knew who carved a lot while we were POWs. He gave those [carvings] to the British, which is why he was released earlier, although it wasn’t his turn. The older ones were released first. He was a young fellow and got special treatment and was released in 46. I was still there until 48.
Oh, that’s what all those carvings were…
Would it be alright with you to talk about your training today, your training as a soldier?
I can talk about anything. You wanted to know something about France?
Mainly about your training as a soldier.
Because I don’t remember much about France. I was in Belgium for quite a while, and Russia. I was everywhere. Also in Poland, and then in Africa as a prisoner. I did my training in Detmold, in Germany.
Detmold, where is that?
It’s in the Weser Hills, past Minden thereabouts. In the western part.
Did you join up? Did you volunteer? Were you conscripted?
It was like this: My family was very Catholic, very devout. And people said that we were fighting against Bolshevism. And so I volunteered. It wasn’t really about going up against Bolshevism. They [the Bolshevists] weren’t popular in Germany at the time. The Nazis were in control here. The communists were all imprisoned in concentration camps or had been murdered. It was terrible you know, with the communists.
So, you did volunteer?
In 1940, yes. In 1944, I became a British POW. I don’t understand English well anymore. I was a prisoner in Tobruk. That’s when I learned English. I didn’t speak any English, and then I was an interpreter. Because the Germans, they couldn’t speak English. So I always went to the chief and then I… and I haven’t spoken English for 60 years, and I can’t understand it very well now.
So there was a fear of the westward spread of the Soviets and communism?
That was not just your family, though?
In general. It was Nazi Germany at the time. There was a lot of hateful agitation against the communists from the start. And we were told that in the paper every day, and other stuff as well. And we believed it. We said, “We’re fighting against the communists.” We had our bakery here, and I went to my father in the baking room. I said, “Father, I am going to volunteer, we’re fighting against the [Bolshevists]…” My father had experienced World War I. He said, “You’re stupid, boy.” I said, “Doesn’t matter, I’m going.”
But what was it that made you, as a young man in 1940, feel that strong about it? I was wondering, what drove you to volunteer? Was it because you were young and enthusiastic?
Well, [it was] the Catholic Church. We were very Catholic you know. And people said we were fighting against Bolshevism. But it wasn’t against Bolshevism, it was for the Nazis. But we only learned that after the war, you know.
Okay, but you very much bought into that at the time?
The pastor gave us his blessing: “You’re fighting against Bolshevism and for Christianity.” And I was stupid enough to believe it.
To be fair, actually, I don’t know that that was not just Nazi propaganda, I mean if Germany hadn’t invaded Soviet Union first, Soviet Union would have invaded Germany that was absolutely no doubt.
That’s what they said back then, but I don’t believe it. It was in the paper.
There’s records now, where Stalin is planning the invasion of Germany as early as 1941/42.
We were also told that. And so we said, “Before the Bolshevists come here, we’ll fight for Catholic Christianity.” I was so dumb, you know. I believed it.
When you volunteered, how do you do that? Do you go to a recruiting office or what?
“Volunteered”… [that’s] “freiwillig”. I still understand a little English, just a little. It’s been 60 years. Well, here in Düsseldorf, there was an office [army recruiting office] and you could volunteer there. I went there and I went through the army physical. I was perfectly healthy, and then off I went. And then I was classified for the armoured corps [Panzertruppe]. And I thought, “Great, tanks!” But tanks were good – tanks were all shot down! I had no idea. I wanted to go there, and it was just my luck because they sent me to the infantry [laughs]. I became an infantryman. We weren’t asked or anything.
You didn’t really have any choice in that?
No. And then I met three [two] friends whom I knew from before. And we volunteered as machine gunners. And we three took over as the three machine gunners 1, 2, 3. I didn’t know that was the most dangerous assignment. Because later in Russia, when we attacked, we first attacked the machine guns, and then we broke through. The Russians fought our machine guns. And I survived this because I had good training. The instructor told me – those were still the instructors of the 100,000-man army, and he had survived the First World War – and he told me during training, “Franz, after shooting, roll to the side right away, because the Russians will shoot there.” That saved my life at least 20 times.
That’s just genius.
We were in a regiment with 11 machine gunners, and they were all killed in action.
Going back to the training. This is a chance of getting really in detail with someone who has got such a memory of that. So you go to the recruiting office, you sign on the dotted line, then what happens?
No. [I didn’t sign anything.] They noted it down and then I was given a call-up order, and then I had to report for duty. We only had a medical check to see whether or not we were healthy, and then I received a written notice.
So, you went home again?
Right. And then I received written notice that I had to be in Detmold by a certain time and then I had to report for duty.
So, I understood that, broadly speaking, recruits went to quite a local division. So the recruiting base was, would be, in this area. Is that correct?
Right, that…we messed around. We had to report to duty and there were about 30 bakers who had volunteered…They thought they would get something to eat…
So, when you joined up, when you arrived in Detmold, were there lots of people there you knew?
So it was local? So where is Detmold compared to here?
Oh, how far [is it] to Detmold? About 300 km, I think. Or 400.
But it’s 300 km away, and yet there’s lots of people from Düsseldorf in your intake?
Yes, there was a whole train full, all the compartments. I saw two [men] who seemed sympathetic. I had boarded with them. They were from Solingen. We got along well, and we three were machine gunners. We stayed together until they were killed you know. I mean one was killed, the other…
That means you did know them from before?
No, no. I thought they were sympathetic, and we stuck together and volunteered and were machine gunners. One of them died two years ago. I visited him in Solingen. He lost a leg in Russia. The other, he was killed in action.
Okay…So you just met them on the train and they became your mates?
I got to know them in the train. I thought they were sympathetic. There were about 100 people.
So were you grouped with a batch? Was there a sort of a course? So like 200 people arrive on this day for this training course, and then another 200 arrive a week later? I mean, how does it work? Did people arrive and were divided into different groups?
Yes, yes. But we messed around. There were a couple hundred of us and we were positioned [as such]: one here and the other there. We messed around. We three positioned ourselves together in another company and stayed there. We had become friends on the train. So I said, “Let’s stay together, we three.” And they didn’t even notice. They were stupid.
But were you machine gunners at that point?
Yes, we wanted to [be]. We were dumb.
But did you know… did it say in your notice that you would be a machine gunner?
No. We were called up to the infantry, and we volunteered as machine gunners. They did a medical check-up. We were athletic, we three. Good, so they said, “Sure, okay.”
And were you at this stage already attached to a division?
Yes, we were already assigned.
So it was the 306th, was it?
In the 306th division.
So, the training is done within the division?
It’s by regiment, battalion, company and so on. And we stayed together, you know.
So, you’re going to a training battalion, do you?
Companies of course.
So, how many were in your group, just a company’s worth? It was like a training company?
A company was supposed to be 200, but there were usually 80 to 100 men. Everyone was killed in action in my company, including the officers.
So, you get there and you are immediately put in a training battalion and then a company within that training battalion? Cause the structure is, Gruppe, platoon, company, battalion. That’s the order of size, the smallest is a Gruppe, about ten men. Then you have the platoon, then you have the company, then you have the battalion. My understanding is that, when you join up, you join a division. You immediately get put into a training battalion, then split into your particular company. But I just want to make sure that I am correct in that. Because there is no evidence in this.
First the group. Then platoon (Zug), that was usually 20, 30 or 40 men, depending on how many we had. And then the company, that was 100 to 200 men, or supposed to be, but it was usually 120. And then came the battalion, then the regiment.
So, your first company is a training company?
Do you know which company it was?
Wait a minute. I just lent out a scrapbook. I have everything in there. I could have shown you everything. In these scrapbooks here [fetches several scrapbooks]. I wrote notes when I was a POW, and after the war, I wrote everything down. The first book has all the pictures from Detmold. I’ve lent that out [to someone], so it’s not here. I called him yesterday, but he’s not in Düsseldorf you know. [Pointing at a picture.] Here we were on the train. We went to Russia from Herfurth. We were to go to Herfurth for training then we were put in a train and sent to Russia without being asked. After the war, I always met up with my mates, then I always gave my speech. You can look at it [the book] if you want. There are all sorts of things in there. I have a lot here. You’re welcome to look. But I lent the first scrapbook to someone. This is the second one. I have four more.
And the number of the company was in the first scrapbook?
It was the ninth company, second battalion, regiment 306. Wait, division 306, regiment 579.
579th regiment and that’s in the 306th division? And in the 9th company, there were a lot of…these local guys you met on the train?
There were men from the Rheinland area, from Solingen, Düsseldorf and so forth.
Most of the guys in the company were from Düsseldorf and this area, were they?
From Rheinland. Men from Cologne, they were all there…from Rheinland, you know. North Rhine-Westphalia.
All of them?
[Looking at list of mates killed in action.] These are all my friends that were killed in action. I was lucky to have survived. Only one shot – I got shot only once. Here [points to left hip]. But that was my own fault. I was trained to be an infantryman. So we essentially did everything lying down. We also attacked lying down, you know. And a mate was wounded, and we were only four men from our company. We only had four men, and we two were the only ones who [could reach] the forest road. And we were surrounded by the Russians, and he was wounded. And I stood up for the first time in my life and bandaged him, and then I was shot.
Did you think it was a good idea to form divisions on a sort of fairly local basis?
Oh, it wasn’t [fairly local]. They were men from Germany, let’s say – not from the region. We had East Prussians, people from Rheinland, from the Palatinate [Pfalz]. It was completely mixed. There were men from Düsseldorf, Cologne, Saarland and Saarbrucken in the company too. All mixed. It was mainly men of the same age, born in 1920, who were 19 or 21, who were in the company. But we from Rheinland always found each other quickly, you know.
But the main point is that you do join the division right from when you get off the train and you start and train up right from the bottom. [Shows him several pictures of German soldiers.] Is this a kind of training kit? I think it is.
This white kind of fatigue.
I also have one here, I think. I’m not sure. [Looks for his own picture.] A Drillich coat, it was called. The white ones, Drillichjacke.
So you were kitted with this kind of slightly white uniforms to start off with?
These were mainly worn during exercises, the Drillich uniform. The Drillich training uniform, you could say. I have pictures too.
And how is training split up? Is it sort of initial training? And, you know, you do marching and basic drill and that sort of thing and then move on? How does it work?
It was very hard. It was brutal. Yes, learning to march, marching in review, chop, chop. Yes, learning to salute, saluting with headgear, saluting without headgear. That’s how it was then. Training was very hard.
So, the first thing they do is they want discipline absolutely.
Oh yes. Oh yes.
Was this quite a shock, I wonder?
I knew about it from my brother. He was older and was already a soldier. He told me everything. I didn’t believe it. I [thought it was] all rubbish.
I fought for my son. He was supposed to be a soldier. And then I went over there [to the recruiting office] and said: “I was a soldier for eight years, [my time] as a POW included.” And I said, “Add it all up.” “Not a bit of it, your son’s going to be a soldier.” And then I – he was a baker in my bakery, but I didn’t have this bakery here yet – I registered him as a baker. He trained to become a baker. So he didn’t need to become a soldier. I fought for that. He didn’t become a soldier. Unfortunately he died 10 years ago, my only son. My son, he smoked like a chimney. When I was a soldier, I smoked. We didn’t have anything else on the front, so you smoked. And that was great. I was the commander of a platoon, and if someone was killed in action and I had to report them to the back, then the jerks in the kitchen bagged their food and cigarettes, you know. And those kitchen jerks were always getting fatter. And if one of my men was killed in combat, then I would leave them in the hole for two days and I’d bag the front packages. They always got cigarettes with those. I bagged the cigarettes and then I reported them to the back. So I always at least got the cigarettes from them. Listen, I smoked a lot on the front. I smoked 40 cigarettes a night. And then I became a POW, and the Tommies took my last cigarette and I didn’t get anything else to smoke. But do you know what I did? There were [non-]smokers, and one that I knew from Düsseldorf who was a medic. And the medics, they got three to five cigarettes a day from the Tommies. And there was one who got five, and I knew him, but he didn’t smoke. So I went to him and I gave him [a day’s ration] for 24 hours – the little bit of rations we got – I gave to him for three cigarettes.
But let’s get back to training. It starts off with root marching and drill and all that sort of stuff. And was there much of indoctrination as well? Was there much about, ethos? Were you lectured on ideas?
No, we were trained [in the] practical [stuff]. Practical, yes, theory too, but mainly practical. Training was hard, very hard. It was brutal.
So, not sort of lectures on the marvels of Hitler or anything like that?
We had that, too. There was also some of that. We knew all that from the paper. The paper that we got back then was only pro-Hitler. No one wrote anything against Hitler. Hitler was a hero. He was the best man, and whatever else, and whatever they told us, us fools.
Yes, but the training was pretty thorough, was it?
Thorough and brutal, yes. It was very good. I have to say so, yes. That’s the way it was. We were still well trained back then. In Russia, we got young people as replacements for my mates who were killed in action. They arrived and they weren’t well trained. They didn’t have a clue. They came to me on the front, on the front line – right up next to the Russians. They could give a snappy salute, and they could stand still, but they couldn’t handle a gun, certainly not a machine gun, and not a hand grenade. They dropped like flies. I got 14 people as replacements, within 10 days they were all gone, either killed in action or seriously wounded. I always told them, “Boys stay with me. When I lie down, then you guys lie down too. And when I run through the artillery fire, then I know there’s a pause in the fire, then you follow me.” They were scared, they stayed down on the ground, they were dead. That’s the way it was.
How long was your training in 1940?
And then you were trained?
And did you have one particular instructor who did most of the instructing, one man? Or was there lots of different instructors?
There were several. First, there was our group leader, a sergeant, then the platoon, then there were four groups, that was a technical sergeant, and then there were the officers. They were also all killed in action, you know.
And the instructors, once you were trained, did they stay with you?
They stayed in the training centre. It was in Detmold, the training, you know.
I mean, once that you were finished training, did they then go with you? Because I think you were involved in training for the invasion of Britain. Did they then stay with you and then go to Russia with you? Was it organically formed? Here’s your officers, here’s your senior NCOs and stick together and go all the way through, is what I am saying?
Right, we sent to the front corps from training first, then the other officers came. They [the instructors in Detmold] were happy that they didn’t have to come with us. And they tormented us, those mean bastards. In order to be able to keep their positions in Germany they were brutal to us. Then they had a better reputation higher up: “He’s hard, he’s brutal.” On the front they were different, they were better. I knew officers, for example [one in Obasbouche], a few years ago he… He visited me often in Düsseldorf. He had the oak leaves, the Knight’s Cross with oak leaves. When the Russians attacked, he would – me with my machine gun – he would take over the machine gun. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to be on the front line at all, he’s an officer. That also happened. And I stood next to him, I only had to feed him ammunition. Things like that happened, too. He was a very brave officer. He was unfortunately killed in action. I had really accomplished officers on the front I have to say. They were all killed in action.
And did you ever train with other parts of the army? Did you ever train with the artillery, with panzers, what we would call all arms training?
No, no. We were only infantry. But [about the artillery] we were in the occupational forces in Belgium after the battle in 1941. We were the occupiers. And I used to ride my bicycle to the artillery and get food there. They got three times better food there than we infantrymen. We got a bowl of pea soup, with peas and the rest was water. There I got meat, everything.
So, you did some training with the artillery afterwards?
No, no. Well, to put it this way, once a year we had a battalion exercise, and the artillery took part in that. Everyone did. With the armoured corps and all sorts of groups.
And these were live exercises with live ammunition?
With live ammunition.
And that was with the artillery and panzers and whatnot…
Not so much artillery, no. Once a year we did such an exercise with all sorts of groups.
Because one of the things the German army was famous for early in the part of the war was its ability to put in coordinated attacks with the various arms of the army. So I am wondering how you managed to do that when you didn’t train very often together?
Poorly. Well, to put it this way, we were trained in Belgium and we got along very well. And then we got to Russia and then most of them died in action and then we got young replacements and they hadn’t a clue. They weren’t capable of anything. Those young boys, they were 19-20 years old and they were so enthusiastic, they were stupid. I had to first tell them, “Boy, pay attention. When I run through the artillery […] then you have to follow me. And when I get down, you also have to get down.” But they were all killed in action. They had no idea about the front. They could do a snappy salute and stand still, nothing else. That was a crime against youth back then. It was a crime. I was really sorry for those boys. Here they all are [points to list]. All killed in action.
But about training, for example, this training once a year. Did you also train for the invasion of England?
Yes, of course. We were once put on a ship and were supposed to go to England. We were excited about it, but it didn’t work out. We were already mentally in London. We were stupid.
So, when was the first time you saw a tank, you know a panzer?
On the front?
Was it on the front? Or was it during training?
German tanks, yes. They showed them to us. We had to learn how to destroy tanks.
It was a real tank that you had to explode during training?
Uh-huh. Once I did something crazy. I was in Russia, and after being injured I was in Germany and was supposed to train recruits, train young soldiers. I was supposed to… A former head of the company said, “Franz, you do it.” We said “Du” to one another. “You show those boys how to fight a tank.” So I showed them. There was a small hill, and then tank came rolling toward it and then I threw a smoke candle, and no one could see anything. And then in the tank barrel, up I went … and the tank exploded. And the officer who was standing there, he didn’t see anything. The officer was standing in the smoke. They told me how great I was afterward. I was the best. But I think they were fools. Well, it was like this. The Russians always attacked in columns of tanks, you know, with three or four. That was difficult. Once, [there was] a single tank, and my company commander jumped on the tank and threw a hand grenade up there in the canon. Then he yelled to me, I was in hiding, then he yelled to me, “Franz, bring hand grenades.” And I had to hand him hand grenades up there. And he put a hand grenade in the barrel, then we two ran for it. That was only because there was a single tank. If there had been more, we would never have dared.
But, when you got to Russia and saw action for the first time, you know an attack, you would go in, artillery behind you, mortars, you know, there might be tanks. How would you know what to do if you never trained with artillery and tanks before that?
It went automatically. We were deployed. That meant the 9th company got into position, to attack, and then we attacked. And as a machine gunner, I was always at the very front.
And you did not need to know? You just concentrated on what the company was doing?
Just doing what you had to do. Just going to the machine guns…
But [as to] tanks, I have to tell another story. We were down in a foxhole [once]. We had dug holes, and we were in one. And then a Russian tank came toward us. And the Russian tank… most of them went over the hole and surrounded our mates, and they stayed dead you know. And there were two of us in there, deep in the hole, and the Russian tank came toward us. And in front of us was a big puddle. And the Russian didn’t dare [drive through] and stood there. Don’t ask how scared we two were. And then he drove by us, and behind us he shot up the whole town, with lots of casualties. And we two survived. We were lucky. If he had rolled through, then he would have had us you know. You see, I’ve been pretty lucky in life.
Just go back to machine gun training. You would have one machine gun per Gruppe, this ten men…group of men. Let’s say you have three Gruppen per Zug and one machine gun per Gruppe and others would have rifles and supporting…. When you trained, were you training right from the get-go as a machine gunner and not other weapons?
Yes, yes. Rifles of course, and hand grenades too. We were trained in everything you know.
Did everyone get some training on the machine gun?
No, only the machine gunners. Not the others. They didn’t have a clue. We had a very good training. But brutal. [Pointing at a picture.] That’s a machine gun. He’s a machine gunner, of course.
Those are MG 34.
That was in training, the training outfit, the white one, you know. Training on the machine gun here. Yes, I did that too. I was on the machine gun. I think I have a picture actually. [Looks for picture.] I should still have a picture of the machine gun. It’s in the other scrapbook that I lent out. He was a fine officer, he was killed in action, but he was a really nice guy. These are machine gunners, these are machine gunners of course. And this is my group. I’m the third one here, standing with the machine gun, you know. We were three machine gunners, first, second and third gunner. We were three machine gunners. That was our group, you bet. That was the MG 34. Later we got the MG 42, but I threw it away. The MG 42, we got that later. It had a rate of fire of 300 rounds per second. I couldn’t carry so much ammunition. And this [the 34] was exact. In the forest near Kiev we had to attack. And I threw the 42 away. That thing didn’t shoot. This [the 34] shot well. Here I was trained as a machine gunner.
And when did you get the 42?
Already in Belgium, we were still in training there. That was 1941, before we went to Russia. And then we went to Russia in 41. And that was my group, and here you see: killed in action, killed in action, killed in action, killed in action, all killed in action.
And how long did you have the 34?
I kept it until I was wounded. I always made sure to get an old machine gun. The new machine [gun], it didn’t sit well. It fired too quickly. It had a huge firepower. I preferred to shoot with the old one.
The MG 42 had a range of fire between 1400 and 1500 rounds per minute, 12 a second…The MG 34 has about 900, so…They had a practical rate of fire between 250 and 300 rounds per minute, because you can’t fire, because it gets too hot. If you just kept firing it for a minute that’s what you got.
That’s why I always try to throw away the new one and used an old one again, the old machine gun. It was steadier.
So, what was it about the 42 that you didn’t like?
I had to carry too much ammunition, and I had to use too much ammunition. And it wasn’t so steady, the 34 was steadier. The 42 moved more, and I couldn’t hit the target well.
The actual barrel would sort of flicker?
Yes, because of the high rate of fire, logically, you know. No, I would rather use the 34. I threw away the 42 later. In Russia they gave me a 42. A mate was killed in action, and he still had one [a 34], so I threw it [the 42] away and took it. And then there was the ammunition used. With the other one [the 42] I had to carry an incredible amount of ammunition. And it was steadier, the other one [the 34]. The high rate of fire meant that it [the 42] was too erratic, it wasn’t steady enough. It was more like warning shots, I used to say.
Would you agree that a large rate of fire is not necessarily a good thing?
Of course, it was a good thing [in general]. The machine gun [in general] was a clear case. With the machine gun, I could cover a big area. It [the 42] didn’t shoot exactly and it used up a lot of ammunition. I couldn’t carry so much ammunition. [It was] maybe better for morale. I didn’t like it.
But presumable it’s better to shoot 20 people once then one person 20 times?
Well, but the Russians weren’t so close to each other. They weren’t so concentrated. We always had distances: three men here, and then 50 meters and another three men. In Russia, there were so few of us that the next ones were 200 meters away. There weren’t so many of us anymore there.
So the 42 wasn’t so effective? But why not? Because of the inaccuracy of it?
Yes. For one, the rate of fire was too high. For another, I couldn’t carry so much ammunition. I didn’t use it at all, I always used the 34. It was steady.
But, why weren’t they so effective in Russia? Because they spread too many bullets apart?
It’s my opinion [as a machine gunner] that they weren’t very effective. I tossed it, that thing. It used up too much in ammunition, and I couldn’t carry that much ammunition.
Because the more bullets you’re using the more you have to carry.
The new one may have been modern, but it wasn’t for me.
Did most of your colleagues think the same?
I’ve no idea – basically yes. In Belgium we were given equipment, including the 42, and most of them were like me and said, “It [the 34] is steady, and we don’t need to carry so much and ammunition.” That was in training. Like me they said that the 34 is better. We got orders from the top that we had to use the 42, that it’s the newest and whatever else. That’s what propaganda was trying to [do] with us. It was propaganda. They were sitting in Germany, had never been on the front, had never fired, those bastards. Then they made a regulation to tell us that this is better.
This is what I was going to say. It’s the inventor who might say the machine gun is absolutely brilliant, but the people who really know are the people who are actually using it in action. And also there is that problem that the higher the rate of fire, the quicker the barrel heats up.
Yes. We had to change the barrel often. I had to do the training you know, I had to practice with it for a while, and then I threw it away in Russia. And the barrel got hot due to the high rate of fire, always. [And] we had to change the barrel, and we were experts at it, my mate and I. The others needed four times as long, but we had lots of practice. 2 seconds is all we needed to change a barrel. The others needed 20, or a minute to change a barrel. Well, we were trained as machine gunners. Those who came to the front later, they hadn’t a clue.
[Looking at a picture.] And there was, as I understand it, a lock on the breech, which unclips. It folds out and you pull the barrel out, because this is a bit rounded, this is perforated steel. The barrel is a thinner tube that’s within that. So what you would get is open this up, pull it out, put another one in…
You could take out, bend it here, and then change the barrel, slide in a new one. And I scarcely had to do that with the 34. But the 42 got hot right away, because it was firing so fast.
I’ve got a war time training manual that says it is verboten to fire more than 250 rounds of continuous fire without changing the barrel.
It got hot, the barrel. Then it didn’t fire anymore.
Of course, but if you are firing at a on paper rate of 1500 rounds per minute, 250 doesn’t take very long. So if you constantly change the barrel all the time, so the way to do it presumably is to fire very short bursts of a kind of second or two at time. So, in order to avoid this problem you fired for a second then stopped, then started again? Or were there any tricks?
Well, I had to take a break from firing to change the barrel. That happened occasionally. When it was necessary, you fired continually until the belt was empty. Or until it was hot. Then my second machine gunner came and gave me the replacement thing, and then we put in a new one right away, you know.
But even on a MG 34, you’re getting through bullets really, really quickly, you know. How would you just know when to change a barrel? Or would you be just thinking, “Oh God, I fired 250 rounds.” Clearly not. You just get a sense when its time to change presumably?
You noticed. The barrel got hot and the shots were no longer steady. When the drum was empty then the barrel was usually hot, too. Then I did a barrel change. And [for] the barrel change, in training back in Detmold, we needed a minute. Later with my war comrades, we did a barrel change in 2-3 seconds. We’d practiced that already during training in Belgium.
You could tell the aim was going off. I’ve got an account of a German on Omaha Beach on D-Day who actually set fire to the grass around him. Because the barrel was so hot.
I don’t know…
This was on a 42.
I don’t know. I don’t have any practical experience with the 42. Thank goodness not.
Once you change the barrel, what happens to the barrel? Can you use it again, or you have to throw it away?
Yes, you could use it again. The second machine gunner, he had a thing to carry them in, and they were in there. I gave him the old one and slid on the new one. We learned that thoroughly in training. It was done in seconds. And [once] with the Russians, I did an attack,…and it got so hot that I tossed it. So I grabbed a Russian machine pistol. Never again. It got hot, [and] my finger – the magazine went in circles, and I didn’t know that. And my finger got stuck, so I tossed it.
But how did you handle these hot barrels. I mean, as I understood it, you had a huge great asbestos mitt, but because obviously it is really hot getting rid of it…
No no no. [We] just took it off [quickly]. We didn’t have gloves. We didn’t have gloves even when it was so cold in Russia. Most had frostbite.
But how did you not burn yourself?
Or did I have gloves? It’s too long ago. I really don’t remember. I didn’t get burned, I remember that.
Did the war change your attitude to the church? Or do you carry on going?
Not so much the war, after the war. There was…how was it? When my mother died in the 50s, we had to receive communion. We’re a Catholic family here. We had to do a confession. The pastor here, I didn’t go to him. He played Skat [a card game] with my father. I thought, “He’ll blab everything.” So I went to the monastery, a small monastery. There are padres in there. And there was an older padre. I went in and said, “My last confession was 8 years ago. Read me the sins, and I’ll say yes or no.” “Where were you for 8 years?” I said, “I was a soldier.” He said, “Where were you?” I said, “I was in Belgium, France for a while.” “Then you were in a brothel.” “No, I wasn’t.” He didn’t believe me. He was about 50 years old. He said, “I was also in France. Every soldier was in a brothel.” I went out. I yelled at him. I yelled so loud, the whole church gave a start. I haven’t been in church since then, you know.
Just going back to when you were in Russland. The Gruppe of ten men that was operating around a machine gun…and the machine gun team was the most important part of that unit, I think. Is that correct?
Sure, it was. The riflemen, they had ammunition, they had enough. But they always had to reload the rifle, reload. That was too inconvenient. And, if they had a high rate of fire, then the rifle wasn’t steady. So the riflemen, I didn’t think much of them. But the machine gunners, I could count on them. But, like I said, most of them were killed in action. I had more luck than judgement.
Was their main job, I know they had rifles, to carry the ammunition for the machine gun?
They had to carry their own, the riflemen. They carried their own. We were three machine gunners, gunner 1, 2, and 3. I was gunner 1. I always fired. Gunners 2 and 3 always had to lug around the ammunition.
So the riflemen wouldn’t carry MG ammunition?
No, no. Gunners 2 and 3, they lugged around the ammunition. And when gunner 1 was killed in action, then one of them – they were also trained on the machine gun, and they also…We had hard training in Belgium, you know. It was brutal. We cursed the instructors, how they hounded, tortured us. But in Russia, I was happy that they had trained us well. As I mentioned before, when we attacked, we always fought the machine gun first, then we broke through their lines. And the Russians did the same with us. They first fought our machine gun, and the riflemen. They can forget about them, you know.
But what happens, you’re in a position and you’re waiting, you’re either going to attack, or defending, and you got a certain amount of ammunition, what happens when you run out? Do then you go back and get some more, or do you anticipate that you’re going to run out and send someone to get back? Or does it depend on what different stages of the war?
We always had three men on the machine gun, and they always had reserve ammunition with them. We always had reserve ammunition. I had a belt, with 50 reserve rounds. I had this in my bag, carried it myself, so, [for] when I got in a dilemma. … I always made sure to have enough ammunition. I would have rather throw away food and keep ammunition. It was more important to me.
Right. So you would always carry a reserve of 50 rounds on you?
That’s why I survived.
And, this whole process of changing a barrel, so you could do that really quickly, but if you’re in the heat of battle and you got lots of Ivans coming towards you. That whole process of having to change barrels, having to change belts, that presumably could prove fatal if you weren’t really quick, because there is a point where you’re stopping. You have to stop to change a barrel if it’s overheated, or you’ve got to change belts, whatever.
Well, I always hung on till then. When doing a barrel change – but that didn’t happen often – during the time when I had to change the barrel, that took only a few seconds, I’d learned how to do that. Even if I burned my fingers, it didn’t matter. Then the riflemen had to take over and keep shooting at the targets I had been shooting at, so that the Russians couldn’t attack. [It] didn’t always work. The Russians also got through our lines where we were cut off.
Or, would you make sure that you weren’t changing barrels when another machine gun was changing barrels. I mean, would you shout out “changing barrels!” so that people knew, or would you just…
No, we were [too] spread out. They weren’t so close to each other. They were sometimes several hundred meters away from us, the next machine gun, you know. We were gunners 1, 2 and 3, and gunner 2 had to shoot with a rifle until I was done. [That] didn’t happen often to me.
So, I wonder if you had any criticism at all of the MG 34? Or do you feel that was the best, you know, complete machine gun?
The 34 was without fault. The 42, I’ve criticized that often, and I threw it away. I didn’t like it, no. The rate of fire was too high, the barrel got hot too quickly and it wasn’t so steady. When I thought I’d taken aim, there was a huge fluctuation. And I had to carry so much ammunition.
I’ll tell you, one of the things I been thinking of: you know on the British Bren gun, it had a wooden handle on the barrel and obviously wood doesn’t heat up in the same way as metal does, so when you change barrel you just go click, click, put it out, one in one out. You don’t have any of these issues with mitts and heating and all that.
I’ve never had a British machine gun in my hands. …[But as to the British] In Italy, we were also lucky in that respect. It was raining [one day], and the British couldn’t fight us with planes. It was terrible when they raked us with airplanes, you know. They also couldn’t use artillery, so we just did attacks, infantry against infantry, in the pouring rain. So we were lucky, or say the British were unlucky. They had young recruits who were near the front for the first time. They hadn’t a clue. I took 90 prisoners. I was applauded for that, got the iron cross for it. But those boys, I felt sorry for them. One of them, he’d been caught in a strong exchange of fire, and his arms were wounded. And the British wounded were lying in a row, the most seriously wounded. And his arms were shot through. I went to him and wanted to give him a little water from my canteen. I took it and opened his mouth, he [threw] away the canteen: “Fucking German!” In two minutes he was dead. He didn’t take any water from a German, no. I was thinking, I wanted to be nice. I was thinking, the man is seriously wounded. And we treated wounded well, basically, you know. Honestly. At least we did on the front. How the others dealt with them, I don’t want to say. There were swine among the Germans, without doubt. They did nasty things to the British prisoners, you know. I just read about that. But these British soldiers, I thought, “They can’t defend themselves. Those boys were brave. We attacked, he’s wounded.” You know. “And now you have to give him a sip of water.” Threw it away, you know. “Fucking German.”
Ninety British guys? Right, but generally speaking, you fought against Russians, you fought against Americans, you fought against British, you know, what…how did you rate the standard of soldiering that you came up against? Did you feel that opposite varied on who you were up against? Did you think the quality of American troops were better than British and Russian, or British better than American and Russian, or British and American about the same, and Russians the worst? You know, you came up against so many different types…
The Russians were the most fanatic. They were killed one after the other. I always admired that. For example, I remember an attack in Russia. They didn’t even have a weapon. They took machine pistols from killed Russian comrades, or a rifle, or a hand grenade, and attacked us. I felt sorry for them. They linked arms and with high […] attacked, without weapons! They dropped like flies, and it didn’t bother them. I always admired that. They knew that they had to die. They went into it with bravery. I couldn’t understand it. The Russians were brought up differently than we were. I was never so fanatic. I would never have attacked without a weapon. I admired that. After the war, I read that they were applauded very much. That they had died so bravely, and that they were very honoured in Russia. Not so much today. It used to be that they were highly honoured in Stalingrad, but not so much today, unfortunately. They gave their lives, or their health, for the state. I don’t think that’s so good about the Russian state, that they treat old soldiers so badly. I thought they would be honoured.
What about the Americans and British?
Well, the British, they were so clever. They usually sent the Arabs, the blacks, ahead, and the British were in the background. The Africans usually attacked us. And the British were in the background, …and they sent the blacks forward. They attacked and were fanatic, but they were sympathetic toward the Germans, the blacks. Later in Tobruk, when I was a prisoner and a baker, we were taken to the bakery in the morning, about 150 meters away from our camp. We were in a tent camp in the desert. They had to send guards to watch over us: first British, then things got tougher and then came the blacks, and they were very sympathetic toward the Germans. It was hot, 40 degrees, the blacks, they were freezing with the heat of 40 degrees in Africa. They wrapped themselves up in a wool blanket. And one…gave me a cigarette, he could do that, or a piece of bread. The British weren’t allowed to do that. Yes, the blacks were more sympathetic toward the Germans than the British. I have to honestly say. And we also, I talked to a sergeant, who, by the way, spoke seven languages, also perfect German. And he led and guarded us. We were brought to the bakery in the morning. And I talked to him. I said, “How did you get to become a British soldier?” “The Tommies came.” He said, “The Tommies came and surrounded the camp and took the men out – away, handcuffs, soldier. That’s how I became a soldier.” That was the British in Africa. They surrounded the village, separated the women from the men, took out all the men, put them all in handcuffs, away in a truck, and “that’s how I became a soldier.” “I thought you volunteered?” “None of us volunteered,” he said. I held it against the British, pardon me if you’re British, that they sent the blacks to the front line, into the fire. And the British were behind them. They had the greatest losses, the blacks. I felt sorry for them sometimes.
And the Americans?
I didn’t have anything to do with the Americans. Except that they bombed us out…
Just to stick on to kit and weapons and things. Did you ever come across, you know, other weapons? I image that you picked up a British Bren, you know. Did you think that the kit you had, the uniforms, were pretty good?
Certainly, I’d have to say so. We were better equipped than the blacks. They were sent to the front line by the Tommies to die. And they knew it.
And in Russia?
They sent us to Russia with laced up shoes, and the first officer that was killed by the Germans, you took his boots as quick as you could. We had laced-up shoes. And then I had boots on. I put them on already in the train. I only went home with boots. “Laced-up-shoes comrade” is what we said to the Austrian soldiers. They were still fighting on the German side, at the beginning. And strangely enough, as soon as they were prisoners, then they were against the Germans, the Austrians. Well, later we were in camp and in the morning when we had to line up, and there were all the Austrians. I knew many of them. They had been sympathetic toward the Germans. They were happy that Hitler had made Austria a German country, so they always told me during the war. Then all of a sudden the Austrians were all standing outside, were standing apart. I got into a fight with them. I said, “Listen up, you guys are…?” “No, we aren’t Germans,” they said. “We had to.” I said, “But you volunteered.” I knew that. “Most of you volunteered. You were enthusiastic, just like us.” Everyone says that now. But back then, they were let out earlier by the Tommies. In general I don’t want to say anything bad about the Austrians, for goodness sake. I was in the military hospital in Vienna. They really took excellent care of me, the Austrians.
Going back to when you were going to and from the front. Did you get to Russia by train and then truck, or by foot, or how would you get there?
From Belgium, right. We went with the train to Rostov, and then further on with a truck.
And when you were retreating back of the Kursk, would you retreat on foot or also by truck?
Everything by foot. I walked 600 km on the retreat from Stalingrad. We walked from Stalingrad to Kiev. There were constantly German trucks driving by, and those with foot sores were loaded on them, those who couldn’t walk any more. Who didn’t have feet anymore. We were three men: “No, we’re walking. We’re walking.” We were so foolish, you know. We walked. And then in, where was it Tanitza?, we came into a German camp. And we were so foolish, we three men, my war mates, they … you know, we … [did] a pass in review. Ridiculous. Yes, just plain silliness, you know. The Oberfeldwebel, who was sleeping next-door, we woke him up. Then we had to do disciplinary exercises because we’d disrupted [his] sleep. After 60 km of marching, we were showing that we were still in good health. So, I also did some horsing around. [It] wasn’t all good, what I did.
But were you conscious of supplies and equipment getting sort of less and less as the war progressed?
Yes, it was very bad. Supplies were still better in Italy. But they went to the front line quickly in the evening, in the dark. They brought us something to eat, ammunition, and got out quickly. Got away as fast as they could. Yes, it was better in the back after all, you know.
Yes, but did things like postal did come through? Did you have enough to eat? Or was sort of food rationing difficult around the year? Did that get worse?
[Referring to mail.] Not when I was a POW. My wife always wrote me, and I always wrote my wife, everyday. It didn’t matter how things were, no matter how cold it was at night, I always wrote my wife. She always got mail from me. She always told me that after the war, too. And she always wrote too. And the Red Cross had registered me as a prisoner in Naples. So she wrote there, but the post didn’t arrive. And then she, when after one and a half years an Englishman was released, his name was Mr. Jolly, no not Jolly, Jumbo…, he was released. And he took my first letter to Germany. We weren’t allowed to write letters then. After one and a half years, he took my first letter to my wife. She got the first letter from the Englishman, who was stationed in Düsseldorf. [He] was in the English occupied forces. He brought my wife the letter. Then my wife found out after one and a half years that I was even still alive. I wrote him a thank you letter after the war.
And during the war, the mail was always delivered regularly
Not after the war, but during the war, yes.
And the food, was there always enough throughout the entire war?
No, [it] got less and less [in the course of the war]. The jerks in the kitchen didn’t dare go to the front lines. At the end, when there were less and less of our people on the front, more casualties, then the jerks in the kitchen who were sitting in the back, they had to go to the front lines. They tried to avoid it, in the back, you know. [They] had fun with the Italian ladies back there, and we were on the front lines, you know. As the mater[ial] was getting less for us. [There] had more and more casualties, then they also had to go to the front lines. Oh, they were hungry, those boys. Oh, oh, oh. They were so fat. They got skinnier and skinnier. Most of them were deserters. When the Tommies attacked, they were the first to do that. I met them when I was a prisoner, and they had such fat faces. I said, “You kids.” They were all of a sudden antifascists. When we were prisoners, he [one of them] was the biggest of them all. I didn’t like him anyway. He was an antifascist all of a sudden. They were in the anti-fascist camp. I said, “You were always in the Hitler Youth.” “Well, I had to join.” “You can tell that nonsense to a Tommy, but not to a German soldier.” The antifascists and Austrians, they complained to the Tommies about me. I said [to myself], “Ok. The Tommies respect me more than them.” I noticed that about the Tommies. I have to say, the Tommies valued honesty more. I always stood in the first row in the front, [I] stood in the front. And the first thing the Tommies took away was all my medals. I talked to the British. I couldn’t speak English then, but I got along with them better. With the front soldiers, I have to say. Until the recruits came. They were filled with hatred, those young men. They came and replaced the front soldiers. The front soldiers, they weren’t always directly sympathetic toward the Germans, but decent. They didn’t harass us. They guarded us, and otherwise they did nothing. I learned English then from one of them. He got me an English book. And then the young soldiers came from England. They hated the Germans. To them, all Germans were Nazi criminals, murderers, child abusers, rapists. And when they told me that, I went to Mr Joddy, the top English fellow, a sergeant, in Tobruk. I went to Mr Joddy and said, this and that, and I said, “We have a complaint.” And he had the boy brought in, and I wanted to go out. He gave him an earful and told him that he should show German soldiers respect. They’d fought just like the British. I wanted to leave, “Come on, stand and listen,” he said to me. And he gave him an earful. After that, they were better. Those young British, they were full of hate. Those young boys, around 18, 19, they were full of hate. The Germans were all criminals and rapists and whatever else they were, they hated the Jews, and all that, they said. I made a complaint about that. Mr Jolly, Mr Jolly, I have to say, he wasn’t [friendly toward the] Germans, but he was decent. He was the highest officer in Tobruk, the highest officer. I could talk to Jolly. He looked at me and said straight out, “Come on, stay and listen,” he said. He told them what he thought, that he should show some respect. We were doing our work here. We were hardworking and diligent and weren’t criminals or Nazi abusers. He gave him an earful.
In your experience, were most of the people you fought with, I mean obviously to start off with they were into it all and along with the victories and all, would you say that most people were there because they had to be rather than they passionately believed in it?
On the front?
Yes, on the front.
They all had to. I’m sure there were a few who’d volunteered. But they also had to go there, like me. No one was asked anymore if they were there voluntarily or not. No one asked anymore. They had to go there. They got the orders, and they had to go there. Most of them were killed, unfortunately.
But out of conviction, right?
On the front?
Some of them, yes. It was…we were so ideologically “clouded” by the Nazis. Communists are criminals, etc. They were the worst criminals for us, communists, back then, you know. They were women-abusers and whatever else, robbers, and whatever else they were supposed to be in the Nazi propaganda. We believed it, you know. Then the pastor here in our church came and said, “You’re fighting against Bolshevism. You’re fighting for the Christian Western world.” And I was a fool and believed it, “I’m fighting for Christianity.” And what were we fighting for? We fought for Hitler. Honestly, I believed it back then. I thought, “You’re fighting communism.” We believed. When the first Russian POWs, [I] talked to them, we knew we were not fighting communism. They were fighting against the Nazis, had to. That’s the nonsense, as a soldier, you did the greatest foolishness, you know.
It’s just that it is the case that Stalin would have invaded Germany, if Germany had not invaded Russia. I mean, who knows…when and in what form is not clear. But it would have happened. The fact there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever.
I don’t think so, not anymore.
Do you have to become a soldier in England, or can you say no? Do they have to become soldiers in England, or can they say, “No I don’t want to?”
No, no more since 1958.
I spent a lot of time with the military, but I haven’t actually ever been a soldier. Is there still a national service here?
In Germany [no longer] as well. It’s voluntary now.
Would you agree, that although you had excellent training, that the best training of all is experience?
Both. I had very good training, hard, brutal training. But in Russia, I was happy that I had good training. We didn’t believe that in Belgium. They harassed us and whatever else. Wow. But in Russia, it saved my life often, the good training. I have to say that. It was hard. In Germany, it was hard and brutal, the training.
But otherwise all the kit you used, you were very happy with all that? The webbing, I don’t know, what you call webbing in German, like the belts, pouches. It was a lot of leather, British and American for example had canvas. Canvas dries quicker, it’s cheaper to make…
The straps were leather, yes, but the suit was fabric.
And there were many pockets, and do you think you had a good experience with the uniform and equipment?
You always had to have your pay book in your pocket. I still have it. Have I shown it to you already?
Soldbuch? What kind of material was it [the uniform]? Was it wool?
Cloth, it was just simple cloth…
Yes I know, it was wool. Well, that is the main tunic is, later on you may have…
…There it is, amazing, your Soldbuch…
I saved it. This is what happened. As a POW, you had to hand it in, the pay book. And the German soldiers, they stood in line. I said, “Listen. The British, they’re getting some agents to go against us. In German uniforms with the pay books, they’ll come to Germany and do sabotage.” I said, “Destroy those things, burn them instead.” How I managed to get it [mine] through? We were […] naked during the check-up. I only had a hat on. I put it under my cap. I put it in there, with a kerchief on top. I had a prayer book and rosary beads from my mother. I put that on top of it. The Tommies just looked up and said, “You can …” Go ahead and look [at the pay book]. I’ve kept it all these years, and I’m still proud of it today. Most don’t have a pay book anymore. I can prove everything. There are my medals in there, the ones that most [people] were supposed to have gotten. I had them documented here extra, you know. Medals, injuries, everything’s in there, you know. And I’m still proud today that I have it. No one has one anymore. I still have it.
These were all…I got several of these at home.
All my battles are in there, that I did. And my medals.
And this was really not wool [the uniform]?
No, it was simple cloth. The socks, those were wool. The jacket, that was simple cloth. We had a sweater underneath. A sweater made of wool. You couldn’t make demands back then. You couldn’t complain. That just wasn’t done at all in the German Wehrmacht. Criticizing and complaining. We could do that among ourselves, but…
No one did?
That wasn’t done, no, no. Well, I survived it. Without merit, by chance. Or rather, I should say, through very hard and brutal training. Out of our 11 machine gunners, I had a picture here, no one [but me] survived.
And in your company, do you know any soldiers who are still alive?
We were, after the war, we were three men. That was our former machine gun unit. One of them lived in Solingen, the other also close by. We met often after the war. One had lost his leg, the other had been shot in the back. Afterward, …we still met after the war. [We] met often. We always really looked forward to that.
Everyone in the war would use sort of endless training manuals. The Americans did it, the British did it, everyone did it, the Germans did it as well. And one of the most famous infantry manuals was produced by a company called Reibert. And I just wonder whether anyone would ever pay any attention to those, or would you sort of avidly read them in training and throw them away and forget about them? Or were they, these training manuals, adhered to?
Regulations manuals, yes. We had to follow them closely.
If you didn’t, you were sent to the calaboose. You were punished.
And did…can you remember there was a quite famous manual at the time called the Reibert. It had a much longer, official title, but it was known as the Reibert.
Reibert? Yes, I know the Reibert. But we didn’t get it. We only got a booklet. I don’t have it any more.
Yeah, but I mean, when you’re in Russia would you still have your training manual in your backpack, or would you have thrown it away…
We always had to have it with us. The pay book always had to be in your pocket…
And the booklet?
We tossed that. We read it and said, “That’s something for huts.”
So you didn’t take it to Russia?
Nonsense. No, no, I only took what was necessary to Russia.
So, when you were training, you were following it pretty closely?
Certainly. [I] had to learn everything by heart in the morning and was tested. I’m good at learning by heart. I read [it] in the evening and then I could recite it in the morning. And the others were still studying a quarter of an hour before, and they still didn’t know it. I could always learn well by heart, you know. I still can today. That’s not a merit, it’s genetic.
Because the language in the manual is, if you don’t do this and don’t do that you are in big trouble…It is verboten to do that, you know absolutely forbidden to fire more than 250 rounds without changing the barrel etc, etc. And so it goes on. The tone is very…this is what you do, honour to give your life in battle and you know, and it’s all that kind of stuff and I just wonder whether you just used it to go through training and then not only threw it away, but you know forgot about it…Whether there is a difference between…it is a bit like learning to drive, isn’t it? Closely checking mirrors, doing everything absolutely to the letter, but then you kind of practically are, you sort of evolve and I wonder if it is the same sort of thing. How often did you referred to it? Apparently only in training and then it was internalized?
Then you had it memorized. But after that, always…If you did something that you weren’t allowed to do, then you were always strictly punished. That was common in the Wehrmacht, you know. We were also raised that way. We, at least I, tried to live that way and to do my duty. We didn’t dare to do something that wasn’t allowed.
I mean, from my point of view it is interesting because for me it’s a reference point, but if it is a false reference point, because no one ever paid any attention then it’s not worth, you know, you can only rely on it to a certain extent, but if they are following it what it’s saying once you get to the front, then it’s really, really interesting.
Everyone had them. You had to follow it strictly, too.
So, even once at the front, I am not talking about combat, but general discipline was always pretty tight, was it?
Discipline in general was very strict in the Wehrmacht, oh yes.
And, in your view presumably you thought that was important?
I’ll say this: it was certainly important for order, yes. Everyone knew how he had to conduct himself. When he didn’t do that, then he was punished. It was brutal in the Wehrmacht, you know.
So you never used…Oh, the one thing, I was going to ask about the MG 34 was, whenever you got an MG 42, you threw it away. But I mean, how did you keep getting supplies of MG 34s, I mean, was there a point, where you know it would break, or began to get to worn out you know. I mean how did you get a new one?
[I] kept it always. The barrel went kaput, if anything. You always had a second gunner with you with the barrel. And I always had a barrel in my pocket.
But always the same 34 from the beginning to the end?
Kept it always. Still had it till the end, you know. But most had a 42. Because it was more modern. Most who became soldiers after me took the 42. I always said, “Boys, take the 34. It’s better.” “No, no, it’s more modern. That’s good. It’s lighter.” Ok, it was two pounds lighter maybe, you know. I always worked with the 34.
But it was always the same, or did you have several 34s?
Everyone had one, each machine gunner got one. We had twelve in the company. You know, twelve in the battalion. In the company were four. And in the regiment, it was 12, there were 3 regiments.
Right, and did you have to exchange the 34 for another 34 at some point? Because it was kaput?
Once I had a platoon leader – I like to talk about this – he didn’t like me. And when we had walked 60 km, then we machine gunners took turns carrying the machine gun. And if a cart and horses went by, we could sit on it once in a while. I was the only one. I didn’t get along with the platoon leader. I don’t know why. He didn’t like me from the beginning. I wasn’t allowed to take a break. I walked the 60 km. With the machine gun on my back. I got to the military hospital, my entire shoulder was chaffed. No one was allowed to take over for me. He hated me. But, fortunately, that swine was also killed in action. I heard that afterward, you know. I was pleased. He always sent me wherever there was mortal danger. I told my mate from Solingen, “Here’s my wife’s address. Write them that this swine will soon [kill] me.” I had to go about 100m close the Russians, had to be a listening sentry, which was completely unusual. But he [sent] me there. But when the other company, he sent me to another company a few days before…he would have liked it if I’d been killed, but I didn’t do him the favour. Limburg [this leader] said, “Franz, Maassen, before we reach Djenpr” – that was about 60 km to march – “you’ll be dead.” I thought, “We’ll see about that. Not with me.” That was the only superior that I didn’t get along with. I don’t know why. He didn’t like me somehow. I couldn’t do anything about it.
I was wondering how you actually managed to still get one [an MG 34] when you were in Italy?
I was a platoon leader there. I always took over the machine gun, [although] I didn’t have to. There was a machine gunner on it.
Right, you were a sergeant, weren’t you?
[Yes, I was] a rank higher. I wasn’t supposed to, [but] I always took the machine gun. When the boys were lugging it, I said, “Come on, give me the gun.” “You don’t need to…don’t need to…” I said, “Come on, shut your trap…”
But, did you ever try a Russian machine gun? Or anything like that? You know, did you ever had a chance to see what the enemy had?
I didn’t like them. Once, then never again.
The Russian one?
Yes. It had a kick and the clamping lever always came back. I always got bruises. But not from a German machine gun. I tossed it.
But, when you were in Italy and you were coming up against the British, were you…I mean did you respect the fact that British small arms were pretty good? Or did you think that’s alright because you know because they were firing high, you know, certain things, you know you get to learn certain characteristics of enemy weapons that you come up against, I wonder if you ever noticed that?
We used artillery to fight the British. After the artillery was done with their show we’d settle down. You’re going to laugh, but…the Russians, they shot, even when their own Russians were in danger. That didn’t bother the Russians. The British, they always shot far enough so that it went over their own. And that’s why…I was celebrated as a hero afterward. I dug myself a hole only 30m away from the Tommies and wasn’t touched by all the grenades. Behind, they got them all. That was the advantage with the British. They never endangered their own troops. They always shot further: 50m, 60m, where the Germans were. Afterward they said, “Hero.” I’m not a hero. My life depended on it. They always celebrated me as a hero, because I was so close to the Tommies. I dug a hole, 30m away from the Tommies. Everything went right over me. [I] was never wounded, or killed. That wouldn’t have worked with the Russians, you know.
But I mean, because there are lots and lots of references in British and American memoirs to being pinned down by Spandau fire, which was the allied nick name for German machine guns. It just comes up time and time again. But you never hear Germans talking about being pinned down by allied machine guns fire. It’s always being attacked by tanks you know or Jabos or whatever it might be or by artillery. I wonder if you would sort of, you know, could you recognize the sound of a Bren gun, you know when it came? Did you say “oh, that’s a British machine gun” in the same way that a British guy as soon as he heard a MG 42, he knew it was an MG 42? Cause of the “Brrrt.” You know, very, very quick kind of rapid fire.
Well, “it was frightening” – one wouldn’t say exactly that. Let’s just say, “We have the British [machine gun], and what can you do about that? How can you attack when there’s a British machine gun? Against the machine gun, you can’t…” I never attacked… That would have been reckless. We tried to break through next to it, you know. Yes, fight our way through. Tried to break through. Clear-cut case, you know. But let’s just say, in Italy, later on, the British put a, how do you call it, a stake with a kind of light…They lit up the frontline. [I] don’t know if you’ve seen it in pictures. There was a tall pole and a lamp on top…
A light attack, yes.
About 50m in front of the position…And then they…I was over there one night with my company commander, but in civilian clothing. We had to put civilian clothing on. We were masquerading as Italian partisans and were planning to scout out the British. And my company commander said to me, “Hey Franz” – we said “Du” to one another – “you have to put on civilian clothes.” They gave me some old Italian clothes. He said, “You don’t speak any German. You only speak Italian,” he said. “And no English. Not at all, ok.” I said, “I’ll be quiet.” He spoke both English and French. And then I was behind the British lines for two days. But…
But about the machine gun, did you…was it very characteristic, the sound of British machine guns?
Sure, but…it was a different sound. They had a faster rate of fire than we did, you know.
I suppose what I am driving at is that if I asked a British war veteran, what their opinion was of German small arms…you know, I am talking about rifles, pistols, machine guns, submachine guns, they would have an opinion. They were very attuned to what German small arms was and what they sounded like and where they were coming from and you know they all had opinions about that. Their accuracy their speed of fire, whatever it might be. But it seems to be less the other way around. You don’t seem to have an opinion about the British ones. It sort of suggests that British small arms were not really your concern. Your concern was artillery, air and all the rest of it?
Not so much on the front, but after the war I realized that they had better, you know. Actually, yes, you know…
Did they have better?
I think after the war, or…The German machine gun was unparalleled. I always had a high opinion of it.
I thought you said just now that the British were better?
Let’s just say they were good, but not better…I think that the German machine gun was better, it was unparalleled. That was well-known.
How did you hear that, because British people told you?
Oh, I don’t know about that. [I] probably read about it. I read a lot about it. But I’m sure I didn’t talk to the British about it. I have to put my leg up, I forgot.
Does your old war wound still play up?
Yes, that’s the mistake [I made]. I got shot here [pointing at hip]. I told that story. My mate was wounded, then I, and then I got shot here. I did everything lying down on the front. And I got shot here. And then I had to…Funny, I wanted to become an officer, with a middle-school education. That was a rare thing then. I had to go to officer candidate school. I did well, got a good grade. I still have it in there [pointing to other room]. And then, despite that, I still had to…I had been in Russia for a long time, but I still had to go to Italy. They said, “You have to go to the front once more.” Yes. So I went to the front another time, despite being wounded. I thought, “You have to get 3 full months.” I had to stay on the front in Italy for three months. Then I could go to Döbritz to the officer candidate school and become an officer. Now I had 14 days up there and had one week left on the front. And then I had to sign in the field hospital…the doctor…I said, “I have to be on the front 8 more days. I have to get three full weeks.” “Then you have to sign that you’re going of your own free will.” So I signed, “I left the military hospital and went to the front of my own free will.” That’s why I don’t get a pension today, because I went back to the front of my own free will. They told me that here in Germany. Ok, they hated the Germans, the doctors here. “You went to the front of your own free will. Then it isn’t true about being wounded.” “Just take a look.” “I don’t have to look, I know.” He didn’t even look. I don’t get a pension because I went of my own free will. That was in the 50s. I applied. I would have gotten 10 deutschmarks a month. I don’t know how much they get today, you know. [I] don’t get a cent, not a cent. That’s service for the fatherland.
Well that’s absolutely fantastic, thank you!
I went back to the front. But I had to fill three whole months. Although I’d been on the front a few times, had all sorts of medals from Russia, had been wounded. But no, I had to go back to the front again. Well, I thought, “You go back there.” I wanted to become an officer. You could then, without an Abitur [secondary school degree]. You can’t do that anymore today, you know. Back then, under Hitler, you could do it without a degree. If you’d graduated from the officer candidate school with good grades. I had all the preparatory training. Had done everything well. Had done everything well at the school for non-commissioned officers. Now I had to go to Döberitz to Berlin to the officer candidate school. I thought, “Thank goodness. When it’s behind you, you’re done with the war.” I thought…[Then I was] taken prisoner. [That] was my bad luck. Or perhaps it was good, I don’t know. Because my mates who were in the East afterward, none of them came back. Here they all are, you know [points to the list of those killed in action]. I don’t know if I’d have survived that in Russia.
A bit harsh.
Today I’m thankful for it. I think it was for the best.
Thank you that was amazing!
Not at all. Thank you.
[Looking again at his pay book.] And that’s the personal details? You know, height and…
I was still strapping and stupid then.
So, this is your unit? Battalion 236.
Yes, 236 [infantry], I was assigned there. That was in Detmold.
And what’s this here, this is when you’re born and where…the 10th of the 4th 1920. In Düsseldorf…
Yes, yes. Yes, 10th of April.
Religion: Catholic. And then, that’s you signature obviously…and blood type… Size of the gas mask… So, what is this here? What is going on here?
These are all the combats. They weren’t written in. I requested that later. It was sent to me. They weren’t all written in there, all the combats I was in. But I have documentation for them, you know. After the war, I had that…in Düren, here, in Germany. They were all stored [there].
So these were the different units you were in?
On the front, no one had time to write in anything. The clerks in the records office who wrote in such things were removed. They came to us on the front and dropped like flies. Everyone at the back they later sent forward. It’s a waste. I don’t read this. I have other documents…
And all this? On the third page?
Yes, those are the units I was in, you know. Where we were lying around in the rain…but the front units aren’t actually properly written in.
And here we have your mother’s maiden name and kit: uniforms received, field tunic, steel helmet, garrison cap and all the dates. Wow, you got a lot!
So, in one of the inventory manuals it’s got a sort of picture of a closet. With the kit you’re given and it’s got at least three jackets per man. Well you know, you have a smart one, one you fight in and another one, you know you just seemed to have been issued them willy-nillies, is the impression is given. But you were never issued with three then?
No, not in the Wehrmacht, ho, ho, ho. One uniform for going out, one white Drillich jacket, and nothing else. The white Drillich jacket – when we did sports, or played soccer, then we had to wear it, you know. Or when we were being punished. That occurred often with me, being punished, because I was so foolish.
And otherwise you had a, let’s say the everyday [uniform], the dark one, and the Drillich…
Dark green, or olive green, I don’t know how you call it. Otherwise, nothing, you know. The British were better equipped then, you know.
And so you got something, then a few years later a new shirt? So, at different times, in the military hospital a new shirt or so…?
Yes, in the military hospital we were completely undressed, you know. They said they had to de-lice them [the clothes], you know. In the military hospital in Gera, in Germany, [we] had to hand in all the uniforms. And the medics, they were criminals, you know, in my eyes. I also told them that to their faces, you know. First they took all the medals, then [they] sold the uniforms, then they said they’d been stolen afterwards.
And then you had to start over again and get a new lot?
Not in that hospital. I was transferred from that hospital to a reserve hospital in Vienna, and there I got new uniforms. My wife visited me there for the first time. She came to Vienna. And I thought that was good. Visiting hours were in the evening. Then the hospital in Vienna had to be cleared out. All the wounded were coming from Stalingrad, so the hospital had to be cleared out. And everyone who could walk was released. My wife was visiting at the time. And the doctor [a first lieutenant] said…The others were lying in bed and I was the only one standing outside, although my leg was injured. And I did a snappy salute and he said, “You’re the first one to give a snappy salute.” I said, “That’s what I’m used to, Herr Hauptmann.” He was an Oberst. He said, “Where do you live?” I said, “In Düsseldorf.” “You know what…” And I had my wife, she…“A nurse will accompany you and take you home. Then you’re home.” I said, “Fantastic.” I said. And he wanted to send a nurse along with me. I said, “You don’t have to do that. My wife is with me. I’ll take my wife with me.” And after the war, I went to Vienna twice with my wife. But they didn’t know anything there. I was in the hospital, where I’d been before. I said, “I was here….” “Oh, so long ago,” he said. And I said, “So long, boy.” I found the hospital again. I said to my wife, “Come on, I’ll show you the hospital where I stayed.” Normally, medics are very friendly there. But he was a jerk. “I stayed here.” “What business is that of mine? You need to go now, there’s nothing to look at here.” I said, “I don’t need to…I know it better than you.” You meet different people. Some are friendly, some are strange, you know. I was in Vienna twice.
So, what’s going on here? These are weapons and equipment?
That’s red decontaminant here, first aid kit, red decontaminant. This is the captured British pistol, I had my company commander write it in extra. Because when we came [back] to Germany with such things, there were these guys who had done well for themselves in Germany, who had gotten out of the war. They all stole our things. I told myself, “Come on, you have…” This strange lieutenant, he was a…
As long as it’s in the Soldbuch, everything is fine…
He was a coward, Lieutenant Jansen. I got him as a superior. He had already… I had already been warned, “If you get Jansen, you’re a goner.” In Italy, he had a hole dug under the cellar and was in it. When we needed something up front, I would crawl back. I would say he should come to the front line. He didn’t go to the front line, he was too cowardly for that. Afterward, he voluntarily became a POW. He had a big mouth. But then I chewed him out. I said, “An asshole like you…” That was my superior. With a mate, I hit him in the face….But I didn’t injure him.
And that? This is Lazarett…this is hospital, yes, here we are, this is hospital.
That’s the injury. And now for something interesting in the end!
I was wondering if there are any awards in here….These are leaves that were over five days. And…its still leaves over five days…and this…
And now something interesting in the end! Listen up, this is what happened. I was in the hospital in Vienna and was transferred to Düsseldorf. And then, if you didn’t have a leave for a long time, then you could request a leave. I tore the page out and went to the commandant, you know. There was this stupid corporal, who shirked things at home, you know. “You were already on leave?” “Of course I was on leave.” “Well, where’s the page?” “I tore it out.” Then he taped it back in. “You don’t get a leave.” I didn’t get a leave because the page had been taped back in. Otherwise, he could have proven that I had been on leave then and then…not earned a leave … Such idiots were in the orderly rooms in Germany. Supposedly soldiers, who didn’t have a clue. I tore out the page, taped it back in. What difference would it have made to him? After I hadn’t been on leave for years, you know. What difference would it have made to him, that home soldier, that corporal. What difference would it have made to him? I went to Düsseldorf again…
You must have been furious…
That’s the way Germans treated each other. He was a Heimatloser… I almost said…, but he was a big…They did everything they could just to stay in Germany. They did everything for their commanders, which wasn’t good for us. Just to be their pets. That’s how they kept their position here in Germany. I hated them, those jerks. Hated, man! In Vienna, in the hospital, my wife came to visit me. And I didn’t have a notice to go out. I didn’t need one. I thought, “You don’t need one. Just go out, out to…Vienna.” In the hospital, I went up front, and there was a corporal as a guard. “Do you have,” he says to me – ok, I was a NCO – “Do you have a notice of leave?” I said, “I don’t need one.” “Eh, eh, eh.” He complained and complained. I said to my wife, “Come on, girl, let’s go.” But he had someone follow me and … My pay book, [he was] supposed to take my pay book. And I hit him in the face. I had no inhibitions, no inhibitions. When a soldier has his pay book taken from him, he’s no longer fit for the military. If he’s picked up by a patrol somewhere and doesn’t have a pay book, then off to the pen he went. He took it from me, you know. I got it back. You bet I did.
What would happen if you lost your Soldbuch?
Big trouble. Then you couldn’t identify yourself, who you were, where you were, with whom…
What happens if you, for whatever reason you lost it, I mean it’s in your top pocket…
Then off to the calaboose with you. Right to the calaboose. I tore out a page, so you couldn’t see that I’d already been on leave. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been given any more leave. And the orderly room jerk noticed that I’d torn it out, and then…
But if you lost it? What would you do then?
Then you had to report it quickly. And then you had to prove when and where you’d lost it. It was mandatory. You always had to carry it here, up inside here [pointing to chest]. And if we were checked by a military police patrol, that was the first thing they grabbed up there, the pay book. And if you didn’t have a pay book, you were no longer fit for the military. Off to the calaboose with you, or the pen we said back then. It’s called a calaboose now, you know. But I saved it. I’m one of the few who still has it. Yes sir. He tore a page in mine out…
You never lost it…
Even now after 70 years…
Under my cap, with the rosary beads on top…The Tommies… Ok. That’s why I’m one of the few who still has one in the first place. When we were POWs, they all lined up to hand in their pay books. I said, “Boys, you’re crazy. Throw it in the shithouse.” “Why?” I said, “The Tommies have agents, they’ll come over in German uniforms and do espionage.” That was the truth. I knew it.
Hm, very interesting…
And I had different decorations. I threw them in the toilet…,when we were POWs. “You can forget ….” They tore all those off. I had a few in my pocket…threw them in the toilet. I said, “You’re not getting anything from me.” That’s how it was. I knew it, I had been to officer candidate school. I knew that the British were coming in German uniforms, as spies, I knew it. And I said, if they have a pay book, have a German uniform, and many of them spoke German. Yes, it’s true. I knew it. Your average guy, he didn’t know that. They tore that out, but I taped it back in [points to page in Soldbuch].
I came first into contact with you, Herr Maassen, by putting an advert in Kamerad, but do you know of any other veterans?
No, none of them are alive anymore. I’m the last survivor everywhere. After the war, you see, I, we still had two: Kubiak from Solingen and the other from Remscheid. We would still get together, we three, you know. The one had lost his leg…And the other was seriously injured. He was seriously injured and had been captured by the Americans…by the British. [He] was a POW, you know. I think he was a POW with the Americans, seriously injured. We three were something special. A machine gun crew, they usually didn’t survive. Normally, all of them were killed, because we were the first to be fired at. But we three were still lucky enough to have a, I should say, a civilian military training. We knew how to conduct ourselves, you know. He’d been shot, and they’d shot his leg, shot off… But he died by choice two years ago. We visited one another often. He lived in Solingen and visited me often. Then his wife died. And he was such a staunch Catholic, he couldn’t commit suicide. He didn’t eat for a few days. He was in the hospital and he had a stick, and he chased the nurses out with the stick. And he didn’t eat anything until he died, you know. I rang him, and he said, “Franz, I can’t die. I’m Catholic. I can’t commit suicide. Then I won’t go to heaven.” He thought he would go to heaven, is maybe up there now. But I’d rather go to hell. There’s more going on there. That’s where all the…I’m kidding…That’s always been a joke of mine, in heaven with the saints…And with the pious…with the innocent, the poor. I say, “I’d rather go to hell. There’s more going on” Fiddlesticks! There’s neither a heaven nor a hell, that’s clear. That’s the way I used to talk. He was just convinced. He didn’t commit suicide. He just starved until he died, you know. In the hospital in Solingen. When the nurses brought food, he had a cane, and he swung at them with a cane. “I would die”…I rang him and said, “Anton, if you want to die, there are easy ways.” “No, I’m a Catholic. I won’t commit suicide.” You know, he starved himself to death. But so ridiculous …I know how hunger hurts. Hunger is worst than thirst. Wait, the other way round, thirst is worse than hunger. But hunger is also…I’ve also suffered that.