FREIDRICH BUCHNER SERVED WITH THE 98th INFANTRY DIVISION IN ITALY IN 1945.
I was born on 29th April 1926 in Jena in the Turingen, not far from where I live now. My family lived here, in Ludwigsstadt. This house was built in 1927, the year after I was born. My father and grandfather had a business making slates – slates for schools, like blackboards, and which were used by pupils instead of exercise books. But the factory finally closed in 1989. I have one brother – he’s an art director in a museum. I was the oldest. I had a little sister too, but she died when I was very young.
It was a good childhood. Ludwigsstadt is part of the Turingen – we have our own accent here. There are a lot of local industries; there always has been: dolls, teddy-bears and so on. In our old slate factory there is now a factory that makes hospital equipment, but this town is famous for its slate. The material here is now almost exhausted but it was big business before the war. The slate industry was the biggest employer around here in the 1920s and thirties. There were three slate companies in Ludwisstadt alone, with one quarry here in the town and another 6kms away. What is left now is used for roofing.
I went to the local school here for four years and then to the secondary school in Grafenthal and Saalfeld. I went to Saalfeld every day by train. Saalfeld is actually on the Munich-Berlin line, but a branch line came down here to Ludwigsstadt. I was seven when I went to school in Grafental and fifteen when I went to Saalfeld. Then I lived with a family in Saalfeld. The frau was the widow of a teacher and her eldest was in the same class as me. Actually, I could have gone to school in Kuonach, which is closer, but Kuonach is Bavaria, while Saalfeld is in the Turingen, and it was important not to go to school in Bavaria! It was quite common to go and live with another family like this. I enjoyed it. And I came back to Ludwigsstadt at weekends and during school holidays. Turingen had a good reputation for schools and the one I went to was a Gymnasium, a school that prepared students for university rather than for apprenticeships.
I went to war aged eighteen and came home again when I was twenty-one. When I got back, my father had become ill and worn out. There weren’t many men left and his father had had to work much harder than he might otherwise have done. It had taken its toll. I was sat down by my mother and told that I had to help my father and the family business. My path had already been decided. I worked on the family business for forty years. I’m not complaining, though. It was interesting, and although it was hard work, I enjoyed it and was happy to do it. My father died in 1951, when he was 72. He hadn’t been a soldier in the First World War – he’d had bad ears, which had exempted him. We were one of the more well-off families in Ludwigsstadt. Everyone knew my father and the factory.
Like everyone else, I was in the Hitler Youth. I enjoyed the sports. Lidwigsstadt wasn’t a big enough place to have specialist branches of the Hitler Youth. In some you could decide to learn to fly or focus on a specific part of the armed forces, but there was not that choice here. Mind you, there was one group that made model aeroplanes – but not me. I’m afraid I wasn’t very practical! But we would have our meetings and we would be taught history and we’d go camping and so on.
When Hitler came to power there were six million unemployed but within four or five years there was zero unemployment. He managed to get everything to work – it’s important to realise that unemployment was reduced by civil projects rather than just military build-up.
I had very little idea that war was coming – generally, I would say that there was no real concern or awareness of what was going on. Only just before war broke out did we start to realise what was round the corner. Certainly everyone was happy to be working, though. Economic prosperity was what everyone was bothered about . I remember the Olympic Games only vaguely. Of course, I read about them in the papers or heard about them on the radio. I wanted to go, but we didn’t.
Everyone was very happy about the Anchluss of Austria. After the First World War and the creation of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria, the Allies forbade Germans from going to these countries – places where many people had family. So we were all happy when these borders were relaxed in 1938 and 1939.
I was thirteen in 1939 when war broke out. I remember it well, as I was on the North Sea with a group of people from Coburg – we were on the coast near Hamburg and had been to an island with some friends. On the way back we were in a Youth Hostel which on a boat in the harbour. We woke up and heard a great commotion going on and excitement and on the radio we heard the news of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement of August 1939. Most people felt that Danzig – as a German city – should be linked to East Prussia. So when the Poles said no, the situation escalated. When we invaded Poland, I don’t remember feeling any jubilation but there was a sense that it was an important job that had to be done.
I followed what was happening in the war, just like anyone else. I read newspapers, heard news on the radio. The Hitler Youth also kept us informed. A lot of the older boys in the town were also going off to war, so we were all very aware of the impact it was having.
With all the young men going off to war, it made my father’s job a bit harder. First the workers went, but the war affected the business in other ways too. For example, we needed wooden palates for the slates, but all the wood available was being used in the war and so palates became very hard to get hold of. It was also hard to get enough slate. Even before 1900 we used to import slate from Italy and Switzerland. When war was declared these sources of slate dried up. My father got his slate partly from the local quarry and partly from elsewhere. After the war there was no local slate at all. During the war it was very difficult for my father because of this shortage of labour and slate and other supplies. Even so, he kept going. But these difficulties were definitely reflected in my father’s health. I think he managed to keep going by making other things – war material and so on. One of the things he made was wooden ammunition boxes, as we were able to work with wood in the factory. In school holidays I had to help in the factory – everyone did. Everyone pitched in, both in the factories and on local farms. There’s mainly cereals, potatoes and dairy round here. But I should also say that the farming is very poor in this area. First, it’s always cold, and second, the soil is poor. It’s quite mountainous.
Rationing started at the beginning of the war. To start with it was just a few things, but as the war progressed, it increased. Life was hard and everyone was worried about the â€˜children’ who’d been called up.
When I turned eighteen I was expecting my call-up papers. When you’re six you go off to school and when you’re eighteen you go off and become a soldier.
Actually, I had volunteered when I was seventeen. At least, I registered then, but I wasn’t called up until I was eighteen. I volunteered in Wurzburg and I did so because I wanted to join a particular regiment and to do the training to be a reserve officer. If you volunteered, you had a bit more choice. Everyone knew they would be called up so by volunteering you had more choice and could do officer reserve training. So I volunteered for pragmatic reasons rather than any gung-ho desire to go off and fight.
I started my training on 31st May 1944 at Wurzburg. I did three months basic infantry training, then a special course for reserve officers for a further three months. Then I was sent to a different company to teach the new recruits – teaching them basic training: marching, drill, rifle shooting and so on. I was an assistant instructor. This was because of a lack of officers but also because teaching other people was considered good training for future officers.
I finished training in March 1945. When I heard I was going to Italy it was a big surprise. At the end of my time in Wurzburg there were forty people on the course, spread between many different regiments and you didn’t know where you were being sent. You were then given a Field Post number. This number corresponded to a location. I was sent to Verona in Italy. There were three of us from my group who were sent to Verona. The rest went either to the Western or Eastern fronts. I travelled to Verona by train and truck. I knew the other two as they were also from the Turingen.
I was given one Field Post number, but the other two were given different ones. I wanted to stick with them as they were from the Turingen and managed to swap my Field Post number. I though that that way, we could all keep in touch with each other’s families more easily. If we wrote letters home we could mention the other two and news of us could be passed around. That was our thinking at any rate.
I got to Verona and went to a posting position. All three of us joined the 98th Infantry Division, but Ijoined the Panzer Jaegar Abteilung, which was an anti-tank unit. The 3rd Company had 20mm flak guns, which I’d trained on at Wurzburg.
It’s difficult to say what the state of morale was exactly, but I’d say fairly normal. That is, I wasn’t aware of any great sense of gloom and doom. The war was not over yet – so we had to make war. That was the attitude. I think we all felt that we had a job to do and that we were simply getting on with it.
When I joined we were waiting for the final Allied offensive. The 3rd Company was outside a village next to a railway. In front of the railway embankment in a meadow we dug out our foxholes and gun positions. There were four cannons – one â€˜zug’ or battery of the company, which had three or four batteries in all. There were five men per cannon, so there were about 24 people at our position. I was an unteroffizier – a corporal, and I was in charge of one of the cannons. The rest of the 3rd Company was not far away. The HQ of the 98th was also fairly close by. A field telephone was the link between us and the rest of the company and also the division. I would say that each cannon was probably about 20 metres apart.
The Italian farmers were still living in the neighbouring houses. Despite the fact that the fighting might start again at any moment, the locals stayed where they were. They lived in rectangular farmhouses with a hay-cart entrance in the middle. The Italians lived on one side of the house and we slept on the other, sleeping on hay. This was different from the British, who kicked the Italians out and requisitioned their houses. Our relations with the Italians was always good. I’ll give you the soup, you do my washing for me – that was the attitude. The farmhouse my crew was in was probably about 100-200 metres from our cannon. The Italian family stayed together. I was not aware of any sense of resentment from the Italians. They didn’t talk about the war at all. There was nothing about the war to be discussed. We rarely socialised with the Italians. Perhaps occasionally we did – there might be the odd exchange during the day, but during the evening they kept to themselves.
Someone was on guard duty all the time. We didn’t really get enough food. Mostly, the food we had would be soup with potatoes or soup with pasta – and ersatz coffee. We also smoked ersatz cigarettes, although I didn’t smoke myself. We used to get red wine from the Italians, which we paid for with either money or cigarettes.
I didn’t witness any looting. It was something the Wehrmacht was really, really strict about. Even if you took a refill for your ink pen you could get in serious trouble. I remember one example. We heard about some soldiers who stole a cow and were on the point of being executed for it. They were only saved because then the offensive began, otherwise it would have ended stupidly. The attitude was the same with regard to Italian women. If you raped an Italian, you would be sentenced to death. But I certainly don’t know of anyone raping Italians. No-one did it. It was too dangerous. But there were friendships with Italian women and that was something different – although not in my company. There was neither the time nor opportunity.
The offensive began on 9 April 1945. Early in the morning about 1000 bombers came over and bombed our positions. I was terrified and took cover in the wine cellars under the railway embankment. When it was over we went back out to our guns. The noise of the bombing was deafening. Some Italians came and joined us in the cellars. The Italians are so impulsive and they began shouting and screaming with fear. Our farmhouse was OK but others houses were completely destroyed. But I have to say that despite the noise and so on, the bombing didn’t achieve very much in my opinion. The raid was not a big success. I suppose they could hardly bomb right over the front line in case they hit their own troops.
I’m not sure who was opposite us but they were British troops and colonial troops as well. The front went along the River Santerno. There were troops both sides of the river, about 100 metres apart. Our positions were about a further kilometre back. We were between Lugo and Sant’Agata – near Imola on the River Santerno.
When I arrived in Italy, I and my two friends passed over a bridge at Sant’Agata. When I reached my unit, the others were amazed. â€˜You did this during the day?’ they asked, incredulously. â€˜Are you mad?’ We’d been pestered by fighter planes – who also shot at Italian farmers in their fields – but we hadn’t realised quite how dangerous it was to travel on roads by day.
After the bombers left on 9 April, the fighters came over and then the enemy artillery started shelling our positions. That was Day One. Then during the night we were ordered to pack up and move with our gun back about 12kms, where we dug another position. This went on pretty much every day. The front was moving back bit by bit. We were constantly under fire, but we were shooting back. We tried to shoot down fighters as well, but we didn’t have the range to hit the bombers. I wasn’t aware that we managed to actually shoot down any fighters.
Nearly every day we moved back 6-12kms, until April 21st. That was when we reached the River Po. At this point I realised it was all over. There were no bridges left and very few boats. Most of our division managed to cross over the course of three nights on a boat bridge across the Po. By day we had to dismantle the boat bridge, then start all over again at night. My company arrived at a small village on the Po one evening, I think the 21st or 22nd. But because there was such a mound of men, horses and equipment, there was an order that only guns mounted on half-tracks could cross. All the others had to be destroyed – including the horses. [Gets upset]. But we didn’t destroy our horses. Everyone was now on foot and our cannons were destroyed and we let the horses go.
We then crossed on the boat bridge. The troops were from the 98th and the 21st Infantry Divisions and were taking it in turns to cross. We waited in a long queue with bombs still coming in. Strangely, there was no panic. There wasn’t any more feeling.
After we’d reached the Po, I spent 2-5 hours in the village market place without guns, which we had destroyed the day before. Gradually our group from the market place moved towards the bridge. We got across that same night, although the first aid people and medics had gone over the day before with the wounded.
Once over the other side, it was simply a case of fleeing north. I would say it was calm but pretty disorganised. In the chaos we found two trucks and we already had a half track. So one Zug was in the half-track and the other two zugs piled into the trucks. There were about 10-15 people in each.
Our aim was to get to the Brenner Pass. We reached Belluno on the 28th April. We had driven on past Padova and on to Rovigo, then up the Piave Valley then east towards Belluno. Just before we reached Belluno, we stopped for the night. It was 28th April, and evening. We stopped by a farmhouse and asked for a room. The Italian women said, â€˜You’re tired. Have a bed,’ but we said, â€˜No, the floor will be fine.’ But the Italians insisted and we did then have a good night’s sleep. Then early in the morning, the room was suddenly full of partisans with guns. They then led us up into the mountains to a sheep hut. It was full of sheep droppings. I don’t know what happened to the two guards we had posted outside the farmhouse, but I think they must have been killed. I don’t know what happened to the Italians who houses us.
I was nervous and worried that no-one knew where we’d gone – we were now separated from the other two zugs, so there were just 12-15 of us. When we reached the mountain hut we saw there were a further sixty or so German troops already gathered there.
On 1st May we were taken out of the shed and lined up in front of it with the partisans around us. The leader of the partisans turned up wearing a red scarves around his head and neck. It was one day after my 19th birthday. I wasn’t at all sure what was happening but I was worried. Then the partisan leader gave a long speech which none of us understood. There were three Russians in the group who had volunteered for the Wehrmacht in Russia. They’d been with the 98th since the division had arrived in Italy in May 1944. Those three Russians then had to stand out in front of the others. The partisans took a gun and began shooting the Russians but the first gun jammed. Then so did the second. Then the partisans produced a machine pistol but they made a terrible job of the execution and the three men lay there screaming. [Gets upset again]. A few of the other Germans were ordered to take them away. After about ten minutes of these men screaming they were finally put out of their misery. It was terrible.
The next day, the Partisans took us back down the mountain to Belluno and we were put in prison there. The Americans arrived and after one night in the prison the Americans freed us. We were marched out of the town to the meadows by a small river. It then started to snow, even though it was now May. It’s quite high up there. One or two days later, cars and lorries arrived with German officers and troops. We were reunited with the rest of the battalion and taken to a school. At that time we still had rifles and machineguns and actually guarded ourselves. Soon after we heard that the war with Russia was over too. Eventually we were taken to Rimini to a large British camp. I stayed at Rimini until August with about 10,000 others.
I eventually got home on 17 March 1947. After Rimini I was moved to Capua near Naples. I worked for the British in the Army Ordnance Corps – the 89th German Maintenance Corps.
I don’t have anything to hide about what I did. What I did was only natural and obvious – every sensible person would have done the same.
Lots of people didn’t make it across the Po. Thousands tried to swim and were drowned. 7,000 dead were found, and it is estimated that as many as 10,000 were killed trying to cross. It says something about the German troops that they preferred to risk drowning than surrender even though the war was already lost. We didn’t want to be prisoners. Both the other two I joined with made it back home. Later we met up.