HELMUTH ORTSCHIEDT SERVED IN THE WEHRMACHT ARTILLERY IN NORTH AFRICA AND AS A MEDIC IN ITALY.
Could I ask you about your childhood and growing up?
Orschiedt is a very queer name; a very unique name and all the people with it are related. It goes back to the Huguenots who came from northern France. In the expulsion of 1696 I believe they emigrated and found offers from German dukes; the Duke of Damstadt (?), and they got lands because Germany at that time was very depleted of people due to the 30 years war. Our first record in Germany is from 1702. Originally the name wasn’t written like this. The registrar in the old days they were funny and rough people and they wrote out what they heard. The family remained in this area in southern Essen (?) west of Damstadt and that’s just across the border from France. And now there’s one here in Munich. My son lives in Berlin; he’s the only one in Berlin. My daughter lives near Damstadt. There are 46 entries in the telephone book. I was born in May 1923. I have a younger brother born in 1925. My father worked for a steel company. In 1935 he re-joined the Wehrmacht; he was an officer in the first war, mainly serving in France. He wanted to become an officer again and rejoined the Wehrmacht in 35 or 36.
Where was the family living then?
We lived in Ludwigshaven.
Was that a nice place to grow up?
I don’t knowit was a happy childhood.
Germany was going through difficult times then.
I can well remember in our street many people standing around being unemployed.
Your family was ok though?
Yes; my father was never unemployed; we always had a good living.
You went to the local school?
Yes from 1929 to 1933. In 1933 when I was 10 I went to the Gymnasium; the high school.
Am I right in thinking that you could go to a school that pushed you in the direction of becoming an apprentice or you could go to the Gymnasium which prepared you for university?
So academically you were bright?
Yes; I started Latin at 10 and had 8 years of Latin, 5 years of English and 2 years of French besides biology, physics, maths and German.
Did your father ever talk about his experiences during the First World War?
He talked about it, yes. He had old war buddies who he sometimes met up with and we heard their exchanges.
Would you say you were proud of what he’d done?
Neither, nor..it was immaterial. It was just curiosity to learn what had happened in the past because we were not born. I liked to listen to the stories that my grandfather told too.
Do you know what made him want to rejoin the army?
I can only guess because there wasn’t much talk about it. He was motivatedhe was a nationalistic German; not a Nazi; he didn’t like Hitler. This I knew because my mother often said â€˜Sshhh..don’t talk about this!’ Because he was often offering his opinion within the family. We were in the Hitler Youth; we were indoctrinated.
The impression I have is that the Hitler Youth must have been good fun; camping and all that stuff.
In my retrospect, it was pure fun, like Boy scouts; nothing else. But there was political indoctrination that we didn’t know; didn’t realise.
You were teenagers and impressionable; that’s only to be expected. Did your father mind you being in the Hitler Youth?
No; we were all in the Hitler Youth.
It was compulsory wasn’t it?
No; the Boy scouts were absorbed by it and the Catholic Youth groups had been absorbed by it. We had the same uniforms; same shirts but different badges.
Can you remember going to camp and things like that?
You were saying that your father was an understandably proud German, and you think that was why he re-joined? I can understand why he was upset about Versailles.
I can understand it. There were many people who disappointed and disgusted by the Versailles Treaty. The stupidity of the politicians at that time on all sides, not only under the Kaiser, but on all sides, to come up with a treaty like that – it was the route for the Second World War.
I am convinced of it; it was a great tragedy. Can you remember the Anschluss of Austria and Sudetenland?
Yes, I remember. My memory goes back to when the French troops moved out of the Rhineland. The rumble of the horse drawn cannons and so on. We saw them go; we were happy to see them go. France didn’t make a good impression on Germany. They were pretty tough.
In what sort of way?
For instance, if there was a French officer going down the sidewalk and people didn’t move away, he’d use his riding whip on the people.
Was there any stealing or anything like that?
I don’t think so. The troops were in the barracks most of the time, but this is what I heard. They did this on purpose; they wanted to display their majority. I don’t think that a German officer has done that in Paris when Germany occupied the northern part of France.
I think for the most part, German troops behaved pretty well. But presumably the reaction to the Anschluss in Austria was much the same; everyone was happy about it.
That’s right. So I think this was the reason why he wanted to become a member of the Wehrmacht again.
To put right some of the wrongs that he felt had happened?
Yes. I remember a discussion between him and my uncle and my cousin; she’s the only one surviving the family of my uncle. He was a year and a half older than my father. He was also an officer in the first war and the second war, but in the reserves; not a professional officer.
You father quit the steel business and went full time in the army?
And can you remember what unit he was in?
He was in the artillery. The first years he was in administration then later, in â€˜41/’42, he was in organising supplies to the south because he was in Italy. In ’42 he was stationed for a certain time in Naples. While he was there, I think he got the idea that this was not the right place for him; he wanted to be on the front. He went to staff officers training for a few months or weeks, I’m not sure and he went to Russia and he was in Russia for a few weeks and he was killed; killed while I was in Africa. At the end of ’43, he ran into an ambush.
Did you hear what had happened to him when you were in North Africa?
No; I was on my way by hospital ship – I was evacuated in about the middle of March because I was wounded, to Naples. I was put on a hospital train and ended in Rosenheim in Bavaria in a hospital. Two days later the doctor came and told me the news because I had a chance to leave a message from my mother and a week later my brother came and told me more details. My brother at that time was still at school, but he travelled to Munich to an institute where they test your ability to become a pilot and he already had 3 pilot badges and knew how to fly a glider. He was trained in Berlin and in Saxony to become a fighter pilot. That was in ’44. They dismantled the training units because of a lack of gasoline and didn’t replace shot down fighters and he was put into the Waffen SS. One half was put with the parachutists and the other half with the Waffen SS. He didn’t want to be that.
Did he see action?
Oh yes; he was very badly wounded in Hungary. He has a hole in his head like this.
You were saying that you heard a conversation between your uncle and your father.
Yes, when they talked about the importance of rejoining. But my uncle was a priest and he stayed in the Ministry.
You said that your father didn’t like Hitler. Do you know why?
There were quite a few reasons. Firstly, as far as I remember, he didn’t like the strutting around in the brown uniforms with golden epaulets and such like.
The Storm Troopers?
Yes; and he didn’t like the rulings that he instituted and the abandoning of democratic laws. That was against his nature and didn’t like that they pulled out the Jews. He was working with Jews all his life.
Presumably he’d fought alongside Jews on the Western Front?
Yes. I remember him telling me and I can tell you there’s one standard of Jews ????????(sorry I can’t make that sentence out. I don’t think the bit in italics is right either). We had Jews in our class. We weren’t offended.
Presumably you were of the same opinion as your father?
But your father’s motivation was one of pride in Germany?
Yes; he always said we must regain our honour; that’s the point.
Can you remember the war starting?
Yes, I can. We knew that the German army had invaded Poland and we were highly embarrassed that war was declared by Britain and France.
Were you surprised?
We were surprised yes. We all had long faces. And we started to barricade our estates and houses because we were afraid that the bombers would come the next morning.
In Britain in the 1930’s there was endless talk about the threat of bombers and the level of destruction they would cause and one of our prime ministers very famously said â€˜The bomber will always get through.’ In certain quarters there was a sense of hysteria about the apocalypse that was going to happen and because air war fare was so new, no one really knew what to expect and I wonder if you remember any similar anxieties?
We expected bombers the next day and nothing happened; nothing happened til the spring of ’41. We were taken up to the French lines at the front, to a German artillery observer to look through his scissor scope to see the fence and that was spring’41.
When you were in the Hitler Youth, was there a military emphasis?
No, not much. We shot air rifles.
But you didn’t become a glider pilot or anything like that?
No. I was in the regular. I was a group leader in the younger section, between 10 and 14.
Did you volunteer?
Yes; we all volunteered. It was shame not to volunteer.
Presumably there must have been a sense of excitement?
Oh yes and we worried that we were too late. I volunteered for the artillery like my father, in October ’40. That’s what my father told me: â€˜If you go to the army, you go into the artillery like me.’ My 18th birthday was spent on the ship to Africa.
So they accepted you before you were 18? Was that unusual?
No, you could volunteer at 17.
In the first part of the war, did you know what was going on? Did you follow events in the newspapers and on the radio?
Not too much. They didn’t tell us too much.
Were you aware of the air battle over southern England?
No, not really. We knew they were going on but not too much about it.
Were you expecting Britain to be invaded?
Not really; I think we would have been very surprised if this had happened.
How to get across the channel? Germany was not a seafaring nation, you know?
You volunteered in October ’40 and you were accepted immediately were you?
Your mother accepted your decision?
I think she didn’t like it. I volunteered as an officer’s aspirant. I was put through training. There was a training school in Weisbaden where they out you through the mill for 3 days, whether you were fit or not, mentally, physically, whatever. And I was accepted and I was drafted to Damstadt where there was the research unit for basic training. I was there from October to about Christmas time. In December our group was transferred to Landau, about 25km southwest of Ludwigshaven. It’s a very old garrison town. I ended up in the very same barracks my father was in, in the first war. We underwent further training on the latest equipment.
What sort of guns?
SH18 (?) it was a split carriage modern gun. We didn’t like it; it was very heavy; very awkward. It was 105mm field gun; about the same as the British 25 pounder.
Was the training tough?
Yes; at that time, the regiment was still horse drawn and we were in a state of being reorganised.
What was the name of the regiment?
Artillery regiment 33; part of the 23rd infantry division and we were transformed into motorised artillery. They changed the gun wheels to rubber covered wheels; before they were steel. The horses were taken away and drivers were trained to drive the trackless vehicles. In January I was transferred to another battalion in ? a resort place with the baths further south; a very nice place.
Were you enjoying it? Did you find it interesting? Challenging?
In a way I enjoyed it. It was fun for young people.
You were happy with the way you were progressing?
Yes, we did our job; we learned how to operate a gun.
And you made friends?
Oh yes, I made friends and I’m still correspond with some; 4 in Germany and 1 in Australia. We had meetings until 5 years ago but then we stopped. It was too strenuous for everybody.
So you changed battalions?
Yes, on the 10 January we moved up to Mamoula (?) which is a training camp; a huge training area where you could shoot live ammunition. In the meantime, we had become part of the 15th Panzer division and we trained together with the 8th (?) Panzer regiment; with the pioneers and the infantry and the tanks.
That was what was missing from a lot of the British training at that time. There was no concept of all arms training. So in the desert, some of the blokes in the infantry, it was the first time they’d seen a tank almost. Whereas you chaps had learnt.
We were trained to operate in a compound of artillery; infantry; tanks and we did this for 3 months. In April, we got the news that we’d be transferred to Africa. We got tropical uniforms.
Were you excited to be going to Africa?
Oh yes; there was something exotic about it. We were examined physically. We could take certain pills
But you were still in artillery regiment 33?
Oh yes; always, til the end of Africa. In April we went on a long freight train and we travelled down to Naples. I don’t know how many days we were on that train. Maybe a week. We were in Naples for about 2 weeks before we boarded the ship. Everything was loaded up..we started out from Naples twice because the first time, we put out to sea and sailed til about Sicily which was not very far, but in the night we turned around and went back to Naples because there was a British submarine waiting for us! We stayed in Naples for another 2 days I think and then we started out again. This time we went around Sicily and along the coast of Tunisia to Tripoli. One night we were attacked but not hit.
You were obviously aware of the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean?
Oh yes; we had life jackets.
It must have been a relief to reach Tripoli wasn’t it?
Yes! It was an Italian ship called the Ernesto and it had an Italian crew and a gun emplacement on the back. We didn’t trust them too much; they looked kind of funny!
You had an escort?
We had one or two destroyers with us and aeroplanes; JU88’s I think. They were always flying around us.
What were your first impressions of Tripoli?
Well, very strange; yellow sand, white houses. It was very exotic; different language – Arab. We arrived in the morning and by that night we were finished unloading. We drove out to a camp which we called Kilometre 5; it was 5km from the port. We assembled in the barracks area and overhauled our stuff and got ready. We stayed there maybe 2 weeks and then we went east, east, east for days. I thought it would never end. To Tobruk and then around Tobruk on a very dusty trail, up to the Egyptian border in the middle of May. Our position was right at what was called the Garibaldi Steps, about 5km south of the Okaputzo (?). There was an elevation 206 and 206 was defended by a group from our division, motor cycle battalion 33 or 15, I don’t remember. It was about 2km away from us. So there we were in the Egyptian desert and nothing happened. We couldn’t dig in because it was rock, so we set up stone walls around us.
How did you adjust to life in the desert?
Oh pretty well. The only thing we lacked was water and that was the biggest problem. And the food we got; the food we got was European food. It was not food for the hot areas and quite a few of us got sick in the stomach, but I was feeling pretty good. Not as good as I was feeling in ’42; in ’42 I was feeling much better.
Did you harden to it?
I don’t know why. I was very ill in ’41. I left Africa in August ’41 to back to Germany for further training at the artillery school in Uiderkoch (?) which is south of Berlin.
Was that for officer training?
Yes and then I went back to Africa in July ’42. I arrived at the first battle of Alamein. I was not in Kasala.
Were you then an officer when you went back in ’42?
No, I was an officer aspirant still. I was the rank of a sergeant. We had a silver lining around our epaulettes. A silver lining open at the end was a corporal and the end closed was a sergeant; that was first class; second class was one star and third class with two stars.
Was that what was called an unterofficer?
An unterofficer is a corporal.
And a veldvabel (?)
That’s a sergeant; in the artillery we didn’t call it veldvabel; we called it wachtmeister. We were called abteilung, like in the tank regiments. Today they call it battalions.
You commanded your own gun by the time you came back?
Yes; I became artillery observer. There was one in each battery and a battery was 4 guns. In ? I became very ill; I had jaundice. I was feeling lousy; tired and I couldn’t care less if a plane came or they were shooting at me; I was just ready to die! They took me back to Dairna (?) and I must have been there for more than 4 weeks; maybe 6 weeks til the battle of Allam Halfa was over; the middle of September. You know what we called Allam Halfa? Six days rage.
What did you think of Rommel?
We liked him; we respected him.
Did you ever see him?
I saw him several times. We liked him because he was always up front but he also was a pretty tough guy. If something didn’t work as he wanted it to work, he could be very furious and he could yell down officers in front of the troops; he didn’t care. The officers didn’t like him too much; they respected him more than they liked him.
So you were there for the second battle of Alamein?
Oh yes; 23 October. I don’t forget this date. We were sitting in a half truck playing cards with a candle and it was about 9pm. I said â€˜I’m tired; I’m going to my tent,’ and off I went with my driver and on the way to my tent, it started; flashing all over the horizon as far as you could see; it was quite a spectacle.
Terrifying as well I should think.
Yeah; they didn’t shoot at us. They shot at the mind fields in the beginning, for hours and hours. They were shooting like hell. We though it would never stop.
As an artillery man, what did you think of it?
That an attack was imminent.
Were you impressed by the scale of the barrage or did you think they could have done it a different way?
We were afraid (??); we got ready to defend ourselves. We didn’t have too much to shoot. There was always a supply problem.
You had a long way to bring it up. So you survived the battle ok?
Yes; we moved around quite a bit; a position here; a position there but it was difficult because of the constant bombing; Blenheim’s coming over all the time and dropping bombs on us.
So the RAF was a big nuisance?
Oh yes; the air majority which became serious in August/September..
I said in my book that the 8th army would have been annihilated at Tobruk and on the retreat had it not been for the RAF.
Yes and the same was the case in Italy; you couldn’t move during the day. All movement had to be done at night.
But you survived Alamein ok and can you remember the journey back across to the north coast?
Oh yes; we moved little by little; we didn’t really flee, but we gave way and the 8th army didn’t move on too fast; they took their time. As they came on, we moved and with us it was always the problem – do we have enough petrol in the tank? 2 or 3 times I was nearly taken prisoner and then in the last moment we got a jerry can full of gas. We had captured British vehicles; ours were no good; not so good. We had Canadian Chevrolets and Fords and they were of very good construction; big tyres.
So you’d paint out the insignia?
Yes, that’s all. We also used British artillery and British tanks. We had one 25 pounder in our position. We had more ammunition for that gun than for the whole of the rest of the battery. I had a short stop near Benghazi and another stop at Boura where we built a defence line which was never used because the 8th army was going around the south. Then into Tripoli; the west side of Tripoli into Kapish (?) & we thought we’d arrived in paradise. There was life going on.
You must have been wounded around that time?
Yes, I was wounded on the way to Tripoli. There was a fighter with a bomb on his belly and then he dropped it and a splinter hit the radiator of the car I was standing in front of and I was hit in the right index finger which became infected. I came to a first aid station and my finger was so swollen. They opened it and all the stuff came out and they bandaged me and then my old wound from 1941 in my leg .
What was that wound?
I was wounded 15th June in Battleaxe. That started to hurt on account of the infection in my finger and that’s why I was evacuated from Africa.
So were you in a hospital first in Gabez?
No I was still with the troop.
Were you evacuated from Gabez?
No, first of all I was put in hospital in Sous and then transferred to Sphax & I was evacuated from Sphax back to Naples.
Where was your finger amputated?
In Germany; they x rayed it and found the first bone was gone; it was eaten up.
Were you upset?
Not really. As a soldier you become somewhat nihilistic; you don’t care too much. All of a sudden you realise that everything’s in God’s hands, whether you are hit or not hit, so we didn’t duck too much when they were shooting at us any more. The more you become a soldier, the soldier’s mentality you know?
Did you find that you got used to being in action? The more you find yourself under fire, do you think it becomes easier?
I guess so, yes. You don’t worry so much about life and death any more; you go.
Would you say that your attitude was â€˜it won’t happen to me?’
You were very young and at that age you think you’re invincible.
No this is not what I thought, no. It hurt me personally when I saw some of my comrades being hit. One day we were in an alley through a minefield, in Africa. The British cavalry had zeroed in on that alley and when we started through, they started to shoot at us and 2 of our guys were wounded by splinters. We were laying flat and praying. One time, the whole night through, they started shooting at maybe 10pm and it ended at sunrise. You hear that noise and you think will it hit me or not?
It must grate on your nerves.
Of course; you get sick; you can’t sleep..
Did you ever see anyone lose their mind because of all this?
You must have been very upset to hear about your father.
I was in hospital and I was very upset.
How did your mother cope?
She had to overcome it. I was not there at the time but I know that she was very sad. I spoke to her about it and said â€˜maybe you’ll find another husband’ and she â€˜no, never.’ He was the only one and that was it.
Tragic. By that time, had your feelings about the war changed at all?
I knew the war was lost in ’42.
I knew on the way to Tripoli it was finished.
What made you think that?
The overwhelming power on the other side and realising that we couldn’t do better because we had no supplies. Everything or three quarters of it was down in the Mediterranean because we couldn’t hold up the supply line and the American position in Morocco, and we had Stalingrad.
And you’d heard about that?
Yes; in June ’41 when Barbarossa started, the invasion of Russia, we looked at each other and said â€˜we might not get out of here.’
Did that realisation make you think any differently about your own involvement?
Yes, on account of the fact that I was wounded and was no longer fit for front service, because of my finger. I reported to be discharged from my status as officers aspirant and I wanted to go into the medical corps. My idea was that I’d become a medical doctor. I wanted to study medicine at Rosenheim University. But they wouldn’t let me go. They put me through some medical training and as a medical sergeant when I was more or less fit, which I wasn’t, but they thought I was, they put me back into Italy in April ’44.
So you got back to Germany in March ’43?
Yes and then I was in hospital until September; a long time; my finger and my leg.
What had happened to your leg?
In that avalanche operation, I was thrown onto a firing gun. When the gun fired, I was trying to hold it down so it wouldn’t jump too much, but it jumped like hell and I was swung round and my leg was smashed on the carriage and it was swollen like this. But it healed quick; I was young.
So you didn’t go to hospital?
Not really, no. I rested a few days and had cold compresses and that was it. Only in Tunisia did it start to hurt me. They x rayed it and found my bone had become thick like a spindle in the middle of it. They guessed it was an inflammation of the marrow. They wanted to operate but they didn’t dare to do it there. They immobilised my leg by putting it in a splint. It subsided then. They sent me back to Italy and in the spring of ’45 it started to bother me again. They took me to hospital and they didn’t know what it was. Then it opened by itself and started to lose liquid. In July, a bone splinter about this length came out. The wound closed and I could move my leg back again like this and the next week I was climbing a 2,000m mountain. The swelling on the bone is still there to this day.
When did you leave hospital?
September 1943 and then you did your medical training?
Yes, I started medical training.
What did that involve?
First aid; bandaging; everything.
You were to be a front line medic; that was your intention?
Yes; it also included surgical assessments. I was in Tria, (?) near the Moselle training and after that training was finished, they put me back at the front.
Were you attached to a particular division?
They put me with my old division, the 15th Panzer. Well. It wasn’t called Panzer during that time; it was called Panzer Carabineer (?). A little more infantry; a little less tanks.
Partly petrol and partly mountainous terrain and you joined them at Cassino?
Yes; our position was between Aquino and Ponte Corvo, straddling Highway 6. Our HQ was at Steppano – I have a map here. I was going up there taking down wounded during the night with a donkey. We were not allowed to go into Rome. We would have liked to but..(I can’t make out these names I’m afraid) ??? San Giovanni; San Lorenzo through the pass; down to Bologna and into here for the assault on the Gothic Line and we came up to here to Morciano. We erected a front line here; the Green Line. When the Green Line was taken we retreated here to ? and here to Poliserra. ?? we stayed from December to February and then our battalion was transferred to Fiuma and we were then in Croatia to fight partisans. While we were here, my leg started to bother me again and I was transferred back to Fiumo hospital; then back to Udina. From Udina back to Talissio and there the war ended for me; quite a journey. I’ve been back to these places a few times. It took a long time; half a year; a slow journey through Italy.
Your first time back at the front, at Cassino, it must have felt very different.
It was all different and what scared me most was air of superiority. We were fighting against Americans. I think the British were on the other side and what scared me was the multitude of fighters they had; the Mustang fighter which was a much better fighter than the Messerschmitt; it was a later development anyway and it could carry bombs and they had 6 machine guns.
Your day time base was at divisional HQ?
Yeah; we were with the division hospital. It was a building in Cipprano (?).
So every night you’d have to go up to the front to collect the wounded?
Yeah; we had ambulances and where the ambulances couldn’t go, we had to walk to get them out. We requested donkeys which we got from the Italians and put stretchers on the donkeys, or laid the wounded over the donkeys like the old cowboys did.
The journey up to the mountain every night with the donkeys must have taken a good few hours, in the dark.
Oh yes and under fire; shooting down these mountain paths.
Did you ever have any close calls?
I think so.
The level of destruction must have been..
Yes; you could see the monastery up in front of you. There was only a ruin.
There’s a road that goes pretty well all the way up now. It must have taken half an hour in a car. How long would it have taken you? A couple of hours?
Would you administer first aid to people up there?
Mostly the wounded were taken care of by medics in the front line. They had emergency dressing and then we collected them. They were assembled in a spot, but sometimes they’d be dead having lost so much blood and those that survived, we took them to the hospital for the doctors to see what they could do. It’s been the most awkward part of my military life I can assure you.
Presumably they are often in a very bad way.
Yes; sometimes there was no more arm – just ripped off, or guts coming out. Uughh.
You must have had to have had a strong stomach?
I don’t like the sight of blood.
You lose your emotions.
You become hardened to it?
Yes, yes, but the emotions come back afterwards.
During the day, it was a case of trying not to get shot up by aeroplanes?
Was there work for you to do during the day?
During the day, you couldn’t move. They were shooting every man.
Even though it was a hospital?
Not in the hospital area; they respected the red cross. The roof was painted with a big red cross. The didn’t strafe the hospitals.
Having been up all night, were you expected to work during the day as well?
Yes; if your ambulance is in a column of cars; of artillery and infantry and pioneers and whatever, there’s no discrimination.
But most of your work was at night. During the day were there other things that you had to do?
Yes we had to take care of the wounded in the hospital; ready them for transportation; assist in surgeryyes, work to be done. It was very exhausting. Sometimes you didn’t have any sleep for 24 hours. It’s hard for me to remember many details because it was such a rush every day and every night. It was constant. If I sat down for a little, I fell asleep.
Did you have somewhere you could go to sleep?
We had rooms; mess quarters; 6 in one room.
Were you part of an ambulance team? Were you grouped?
No, we received our instructions from the hospital chief. He said you go here; you go there.
Can you remember when the allied offensive began in May 1944?
Yes, I was one of the last to leave the hospital because we had a dozen or so ambulances to take away the wounded and then the hospital personnel followed. I was one of the last to leave and I left on foot; there were no more vehicles for me to take. The first 10 or 12 miles, I walked across the mountains with another guy until I got hold of a VW and he took us. At Frosinona I think we caught up.
Once the line finally broke, the retreat north of Rome happened quite quickly didn’t it?
Like a 2 week period or something.
Yes, within 2 weeks we were way north of Rome.
How did you keep the hospital going in that time?
(Looking at map) Up to about this line it was going pretty quick. I remember we stayed in the area (?) a few days. Perugia we stayed longer.
What was the process of establishing a new hospital every time? You had your hospital at Cipprano; you must have had hundreds of wounded there? What happened to them?
They got transported back as quickly as possible and then hospitals were set up in schools or public buildings; not in tents. I remember one thing – I don’t know exactly where it was. It must have been on a mountain – about here in this area. We were not quick enough to get off the road in the morning, before the sun came up. There was a group of Mustangs and they saw a pile of cars and maybe a 100m in front of us, we entered a small village; only a few houses. There was a big tank lorry which you could see very easily from the air and they came down on this tank and hit it and it caught fire and exploded. This was a stunning event. I went into a drainage tube, in a very narrow tube. When the bomb hit the street I was shaken about in the tube.
Was anything else damaged? Any ambulances?
We had no ambulances there. I was travelling on a VW but I can still picture them coming down; the machine guns opening fire. It was terrifying; you had to run out of the way as quickly as you can.
Did you ever have any problems with the partisans?
No, no; in Vittorio Veneto we were sent out one morning to find partisans but we didn’t find any.
Did you have much to do with the Italian civilians?
I always tried to keep in touch with the Italians because it was my objective to pick up some of the language and I learnt Italian pretty well by talking to people. When we had time to rest up, for example, in Vittoria Venito, I bought an Italian grammar book and I learnt the grammar, which is not too difficult because it’s the same as Latin. It became a hobby for me to pick up as much Italian as I could.
And you did that by talking to Italians presumably?
Generally speaking, what was their attitude?
They were glad it was over for them.
No obvious resentment?
No, no resentment; I wouldn’t say so. They’d rather liked to see us go rather than stay though, believe me, but real resentment, I wouldn’t say so; no offence. It wouldn’t have been wise for them, occupied by armed troops and martial law. It was being dead or alive.
You found that most Italians were happy to talk to you?
Oh they talked to us, yes.
The impression I’m getting is that the Germans were more respectful of the Italian civilians than the allies; less looting and all that sort of thing. Is that your experience too?
We didn’t loot much. Sometimes we had too because we were forced too because our food supplies didn’t come and then we had to loot. But I don’t think loot is the right word. It’s more or less to organise foodstuffs and such like.
Did you pay for it?
We paid for it, yes. We had to take their last cow – they got rewarded.
Were you struggling with all supplies? Medical supplies as well as food and
Sometimes we were a bit short but not really out.
Did you ever go hungry?
We were hungry sometimes, yes. I remember sometimes when I ate raw food from the fields; like raw string beans. They’re very good when you’re hungry!
Did you ever have any leave when you were in Italy?
No; we pulled out to backward positions sometimes, but not very much.
Can you recall anything about being in Perugia?
I remember we liked the city; it was the candy town and you could order chocolate. I remember we had many sweets when we stayed in that area. The supply units organised it from the factories.
What about cigarettes? Were you a smoker?
I was a smoker, but I didn’t care if I didn’t have any. I was smoking quite a bit until I was about 40. I smoked about 20 a day and then I quit, just like that.
Then I think you were up towards the Foota (?) Pass?
We only passed over it. We went up to the fighting there.
Then you went to the Adriatic?
We were pretty quickly pulling back to the area of Forli. We stayed there during the winter. November – December. It was very bad weather; rain, rain, rain. The rivers were overflowing and we reinforced the dykes.
Can you remember the 8th army’s offensive at Pisarro, pushing and trying to break the Gothic Line in late August.
It’s quite different countryside over there.
Hilly and mountainous. I was detailed to a division which was called Panther Mark V tank; the one below the Tiger; the heaviest. Because there was no fuel, they thought to put the ? of the Panther on steel cases and the steel cases were sunk into the earth and around about half a meter to a meter of concrete and they were installed in the Green Line to help defend it, but those positions were known to the allied forces I believe and they were bombed individually. From that company I was attached to, I think no more than 5 or 6 people came out.
Out of how many?
No more than 120.
Again, it was a question of going up at night was it?
Presumably it must have been a bit confusing because at least at Cassino you’d been there a while and knew the tracks up the mountain but when you were on the Adriatic coast, the front was moving a bit – did you ever get lost?
I was never lost, no. I personally have a very good sense of orientation and that helps a lot. In the desert I never used a compass. I always found my way; I don’t know why. Even today I don’t get lost. If I make a mistake, I know after 200m that I’ve made a mistake.
Can you remember any particular instances when you were on that side of Italy?
Not much; after Forli – after retreating from the Green Line we more or less spent our time in changing orders, from here to there. There were only a few people left of that company until we were back in Vittorio Veneto. Then we were reorganised and became part of another troop, but what troop I don’t remember. I was so fed up with that war.
I sensed that from what you were saying about your decision to become a medical man.
From that time on, I knew I’d have to go back to the front and they put me in Monte Cassino. My greatest effort was to survive; just to get through; this way or the other.
But as a medic, did you find yourself constantly under fire?
No always, no. That was the benefit of it. I knew I had to go to places that were being fired on to take out my comrades. It was my will to help them but it was also my will to survive.
Do you think your father’s death played a part in that or was it your own personal experiences?
Maybe, subconsciously and not knowing where my brother was.
Did you get news from home?
Then would you get a rush of several letters at one time?
Yes, and then 4 weeks nothing.
Were you good at writing yourself?
Oh yes and it was the same for my mother. She got several letters coming in a basket and then for weeks nothing and she wouldn’t know what happened.
Do you think Germany should have pulled out of the war a lot earlier?
Definitely, or not started it at all. The war shouldn’t have started at all. Everybody with a little brain in his head soon knew that Germany was being taken for a ride by Mr Hitler.
I think it must have been so hard. You were in Italy with hardly any supplies – it must have been so demoralising.
It was; absolutely.
Did you notice a change in attitude in the troops you were alongside in Italy?
Yes, the morale was not very high and they wouldn’t care much if they had to retreat. I had the feeling that everybody tried to save his life, to get through; to get home. We knew it was finished. The only kick we got was after the war at the end of May – because the rumour got through to us that General Patten wanted to go on and fight the Russians but Eisenhower wouldn’t let him go. That’s true! We told the English units where we were attached in ’45 â€˜We’ll come with you!’ Because we wouldn’t like the Bolshevism and that almost happened.
I think everyone had had enough by then, apart from Patten. So at the end of the war you were in hospital. Can you remember it all ending; hearing that it was over?
I can tell you pretty exactly what happened. We saw from our windows – we were up on a hill overlooking the village of Tariggio. We could look down on the main street in the valley and across the village there was a beautiful mountain. We could see the last German soldiers retreating towing a machine gun on a baby carriage and walking along the street like old men walk, dragging their feet; really sad and down. Then there was nothing; there was an empty space and 2 medical officers from our hospital got in a car and went down the valley to get the British and they came with scout cars. They surrounded the hospital with their cars and counted us because the Yugoslav partisans were only maybe 5km away and we were afraid they’d come and cut our throats, so we go the 8th army to guard us and the soldiers of this reconnaissance company they pulled guard with our soldiers sub machine guns on the shoulder, side by side.
Do you know which British troops they were?
No, but we knew it was the 8th army and then a day or so later, there were fresh, clean cars; clean uniforms – like peacetime.
When did you hear that the war was over?
On the 8th May; immediately.
Presumably you were very relieved?
And very glad that your family was in the west and not the east?
Yes; my family – my mother and my grandparents had been evacuated from Ludwigshaven because it was bombed; almost 90% wiped out and our house was hot by incendiary bombs but it remained. I was at home during the first raid; on hospital leave, with my brother. We went up to the (?) and there was a hexagonal thing that got stuck in the beams and we tried to extinguish it but couldn’t. We had to use axes and cut out the beam and throw it down to the yard and in the yard it extinguished by itself; it was spent. Anyway, back to the hospital – about 4 weeks later we were organised to Lenz in Austria and I stayed in hospital – that’s where my bone split.
So you weren’t made a prisoner of war?
No, only interned. There was barbed wire around the hospital, but you could go through and after my leg had healed, I was attached to a labour company and transferred to ?? on the ?? river, north of Granfort (?) and we were in a camp together with a British engineer company and we repaired bridges and roads and streets and cut trees, all year round. We got the same food as they did; we got some money. We could go out to movies.
Did you get on with them ok?
Yeah, no problem. A little language barrier..
The fact that you got on so well must have underlined the futility of the war?
Absolutely – we asked each other why could such a nonsense happen?
A South African I interviewed who was badly injured on a mountain pass and was taken prisoner and then sent to a hospital near Bologna, he got the impression that people were making more of a fuss about their wounds than was necessary in order to get sent home.
That’s true, absolutely.
In our room in the Tariggio hospital we had 4 allied wounded; 2 American and 2 British airmen. We were 8 in that room; 4 German and 4 allied and they were treated the same way we were. They had the same food – everything.
Did you talk to them at all?
Oh yes; we played cards together and whatever. I tried to carry on a conversation.
Were you aware at the time that other German troops were having problems with partisans and the tough reprisals that were taking place?
We were taken one time to a street crossing where there was a gallows and they were hanging 4 partisans. I don’t know why they took us there just to show us what happens to partisans. I don’t remember where that was.
What was you reaction to that?
What could I say? What could I do?
Nothing; a lot of that went on.
It was martial law and when the partisans attacked troops or killed soldiers, they captured partisans and hanged them period. That’s what happens, on each side.
What was you opinion of people like Kesselring and the commanders?
I think they did the best they could under the circumstances.
Was Kesselring popular?
I guess as popular as the others.
Respected, yes. He didn’t have the aura that Rommel had.
But as well as collecting wounded, you were helping surgeons with operations and so on?
I can’t get over how hard you had to work.
Yes it was hard. I wasn’t alone of course; there were other there but as a medical sergeant I was in charge of a group; 4 or 5 – up to 10 people and I gave instructions and I helped, but I had to lead this group.
Were they also feeling a little demoralised?
Same as me.
Did you ever talk about the situation?
Amongst us, we didn’t really talk about what was moving us; you had to keep your mouth shut. If you talked to someone who was of a different opinion and he tells your superior â€˜he thinks the war is lost’ then you’ve had it; very dangerous.
What would have happened?
Court martialled and shot; executed.
This was a 15cm Howitzer. We had 2 light battalions and 1 heavy battalion and that’s called the heavy battalion.
And Abteilung is a battalion?
Yes; here’s one group of officers aspirants but I’m not in this; I was in the other group. This one was killed at Alamein; this one at Battleaxe; he’s still living and this one I’m still in contact with.
So you had a camera with you?
I had a little camera with me but unfortunately not too much film and a lot of film also got lost.
You didn’t wear helmets much, just the field caps?
The field caps mainly.
As a medic what was your uniform in Italy?
Just army uniform and a red band around the arm.
Did you have a problem keeping your glasses intact during the war?
No; they were dirty all the time. That’s the hospital in Udina and it was hit by a bomb in a night raid and ? and I hid in here but by that time the raid was going on, the hospital was evacuated and everyone was in the cellar underground. I was standing here in the doorway on the stair leading down to the cellar and the blast threw me across the whole cellar, 5 meters wide, and this was in March ’45.
You said that in Italy the allied air power was a constant problem but presumably you witnessed some of the allied artillery barrages and fire power on the ground didn’t you?
There was not much anti-aircraft artillery there.
I meant more when the allies were attacking, their fire power was greater than yours by that time?
Of course; the fire was much heavier than we could answer. The barrages that came over were terrible..here using the artillery as anti-tank guns.
Were they effective as that?
They could be effective until I’d say 500 or 600 meters. Further away less so.
.? In the rear positions ?? and they attacked.
And they were a nuisance were they?
They were a nuisance yes, because you never knew when they would come but they had a system; they only came at new moon because of the darkness.
Were there any amusing, lighter instances you recall in Italy?
Oh sure, we had some fun, especially with the help of some red wine!
You managed to get some of that?
Yes, we tried to make the best of it with whatever we could.
And you got on well with the other guys you were working with?
Was there a worst moment for you? One that stands out above others?
The worst moments were definitely at Monte Cassino, and on the Green Line – they had come up with new bombing tactics. I had experienced dive bombers and being bombed by squadrons – 18 planes very close together and laying a carpet. But on the Green Line they flew 2 or 3 planes together and pin point bombings which were very effective and you didn’t know where they would throw their bombs because they were flying at a high altitude and it was very difficult to avoid this kind of bombing. These were new tactics I’d never seen before and very unpleasant.
And when the bombers are coming over, is it just a case of taking cover, lying flat on the ground and hoping form the best?
Yes, you cannot do anything else.
Does it seem like a long time ago to you now?
It used to be long, long, long time ago, but exchanging views and talking to others at my age, it seems you begin to remember more and more what happened then, when we were young. The time between is like one day or one month, but this is a common phenomenon.
What did you do after the war?
I was in the import/export business. When I came home after the war in ’46, I went to university in Mainz and studied languages; English was my first; French and Italian and in ’49 I took my Masters degree. I didn’t make money with my languages but with my importing/exporting but my languages were a big help. First it was in the photographic industry and later I moved into electronics – entertainment electronics – radios, tape recorders and things like that. Very much later, I co-operated with cousins of mine in America who were in the sanitary business and I sold the showers and hose and things like that.
You travelled quite a bit?
And you enjoyed it?
I loved it. Then when I retired in Frankfurt I moved back to Munich.