Interview carried out by James Holland – find him on twitter at @James1940
HANS KUMBERG SERVED WITH THE 4TH FALLSCHIRMJAGER REGIMENT AT CASSINO AND THROUGHOUT MUCH OF THE ITALIAN CAMPAIGN.
Can you remember the withdrawal from the Soprano area to the Caesar line? I think you almost did it overnight didn’t you?
I remember those places very well where we stayed for a long time. In Cassino we stayed for over a month..2 months you know. Then we started moving. During the night, we went along the mountains down to this Pontecorvo, northwest of Cassino and that was the Senger Line. They called it also the Hitler Line and there we encountered attacks by the Canadians. That was quite… the lines they were very confusing. We were more or less surrounded by enemies there.
I am amazed you managed to hold them off at all really because you’d had a pretty hard time of it to put it mildly, the past few months. You must have all been absolutely exhausted weren’t you?
Yes, we were exhausted after moving all the night through, down the mountain because it was just a narrow path which was open; the rest was already occupied by the enemy, so I don’t know how the leader of our column knew where to go in the dark but still many of us were captured by the Poles which were above us..
As you were retreating?
It must have been a very tense experience I should think?
It was a very tense experience but we were young at that time and could endure quite a bit. When we came down into Pontecorvo, it was all like an orchard; it was all nice and green and lots of trees and we were so exhausted and the firing started straight away. For about 3 hours the artillery was firing.
How did you find coming under shellfire? Was it a nerve-wracking experience or had you got used to it by then?
We didn’t have time to dig any fox holes because we were just on the move and then the artillery fire started and there were some cars; some houses and we were throwing ourselves to the ground when we heard them approaching.
And I suppose you get quite a bit of warning?
Yes; well, you’re used to this you know? We knew when we could keep standing up because it would pass over you by the sound you know. Or whether it was coming straight towards you and then you threw yourself to the ground.
Each man becomes an expert in judging how far a shell is going to come?
That’s right. There were 2 experiences where I was just sitting down to relieve myself and a huge shell just exploded beside me and threw all the dirt over me and I was just able to just lie down while I was in the process of falling to the ground and a splinter entered my buttock and it’s still in there. It was not bleeding heavily and we were retreating so we didn’t have any time to look after it and it’s still in there; I can feel it. It is completely inside my body and I can feel it when I put my finger on it – how hard it is.
It didn’t disable you too much? You were able to carry on walking?
No not at all. I didn’t even put a Band Aid on because it was just a few drops of blood coming out. Another time, in November, when we’d already gone far north in Italy, then a splinter went through a door where I was standing inside a house and went into my stomach. Then I was more seriously wounded.
And I remember you said you’d just eaten a big bowl of rice or something.
Yes, exactly. My comrades took me down to an ambulance.
So you were based in a town at that point?
We usually moved through the countryside so I don’t remember the names of the towns. We had a history of the Fourth Paratroop Regiment – Wolf has it. He marked all the positions down on a map of Italy. Where we had stayed, at what time, so looking at it, I can remember that I’ve been there.
Can you remember moving back from the Hitler Line? The Senger Line?
Yes – we stayed there 3 or 4 days.
I seem to remember that you said there was such a shortage of petrol, you just had to walk.
Yes, we had to walk and the trucks could only move during the night because during the day we were bombed.
So there were some vehicles but just not many?
Then we had to walk quite a distance until we reached the point where the trucks were waiting for us and we moved on to a different position. I don’t know exactly where on the map Wolf marked it down where we went from there. First we went all in the centre of Italy north, but later we went to the Adriatic Sea.
There was one point where you were near a lake called Lake Trasimene. Do you remember that?
There we were fighting for about 4 or 5 days.
That was quite hard fighting I think – up against the British and alongside the Herman Goering and 15th Panzer Grenadiers.
Was that a different type of fighting to the fighting at Cassino?
Cassino we’d been at for such a long time, we knew all the surroundings and everything, but there, always something new and before the heavy artillery barrage came, we knew they were going to attack. Usually they came walking – they thought nobody was alive any more, then when they got fired on, they retreated usually. Nobody wanted to expose himself to be killed by shellfire and when they saw there was shellfire again, then they retreated and another barrage of artillery came.
What sort of weaponry did you personally have?
A machine pistol. The short barrelled one.
Was it called a Schmeiser?
No, I mentioned a Mauser pistol, but that was just a small handgun, which the officers usually had and I found this with a dead British officer; he must have taken it from a German – maybe a dead officer.
There was no let up for you in all this period. I know you were young, but it seems to me you were being pushed to the extremes of what can be expected.
There were some officers, I think Valentino told you, when they were attacking the castle at Monte Cassino which was occupied by the Indians, that the commanding officer of that battalion, he just commanded his men to go and capture that castle there and he himself wouldn’t go. He thought when they captured it, he would get a high decoration for what his men had been doing. Some of the officers they were very self-conscious – thinking about themselves, but in my company I can remember they were very considerate – thinking about their men and you find this everywhere. Like Clarke wanting to attack Rome and be the first there and this way, they left an escape route for the German armies to escape to the north. They would have encircled them right away and the whole campaign in Italy might have ended.
At the time, did you have any sense of the bigger picture of what was going on? Or was it very much what was happening a few hundred yards either side of you?
Being only a platoon leader, I was not involved in any decisions and only taking orders to be followed. We knew in general what was going on; how the war was proceeding in Russia and then in Europe. We heard on the radio, but what was going on there – we were not informed sometimes I didn’t even know who was joining our company – followed the orders we were given.
And you just had to do what you were told.
Yes, exactly; you’d have to have been an officer to know more about all what was happening around.
You were a platoon leader
Yes, that was like a sergeant.
Did the parachute divisions have different ranks to the normal army?
They were the same ranks; just a different name. I was a Jaeger. The lowest rank was a Jaeger, then you became an Oberjaeger; that was like a sergeant.
In a platoon, how many men would you have had under you?
Usually a platoon consisted of 12 men, the platoon leader plus 11.
Your numbers must have been well down by that stage. Did you have fewer platoons?
I remember we had 6 platoons left and it was quiet so we had a meeting of all the platoon leaders celebrating there. One platoon leader didn’t come so he had to pay a fine because he didn’t appear and all the platoon leaders signed this little letter we gave him. There were 5 or 6 signatures, so 5 or 6 platoons in our company then.
That’s still quite under strength isn’t it?
Because a company is what about 140 or so?
140 men in a company but the companysometimes there were only 40 left or so you know? And then we were getting replacements of young or even old ones; the Luftwaffe – they didn’t have any more planes so they sent many men from the Luftwaffe to our division because older men they weren’t being used in the Luftwaffe any more so they were replacements.
And they weren’t as well trained either presumably?
Not in combat – as infantry they were usually not trained.
How easy was it bringing in new people and new faces to your platoon? Were they easily integrated?
Yes, it took maybe a few weeks until they were integrated but they came and they had to take their positions and they learned quickly.
Were you getting enough food do you think?
One thing I don’t remember about breakfast or lunch, I don’t know mostly we were just supplying ourselves from the country – what we found in houses.some food. We supplied ourselves on the march. Sometimes they couldn’t supply us with food so we got some and cooked our own meals. I remember a few occasions, which stuck in my mind. One day I was lying in a ditch the whole day long and the road was filled with burning trucks and equipment. The planes were attacking constantly. When they had to leave to re-fuel, others replaced them; they were constantly in the air and shooting at an individual person. Nobody dared to get up and walk around. Another occasion, there was a huge army food depot filled with all kinds of goodies like chocolate and champagne and all kinds of good food which we actually never saw; it was more or less for the upper and there was this officer who was in charge of the depot – he was standing there with his pistol drawn and wouldn’t allow anybody to get close or to get anything out of there and the enemy was only about 2 or 3 miles away and a in few hours they would have been there and everything would have fallen into their hands, but this is the typical German you know? They stood there and they had their orders and they wouldn’t compromise at all.
You must have found that very frustrating.
Yes, sometimes very frustrating.
You had to just leave it?
Yes, just leave it or maybe we got rid of them; I can’t remember – maybe we went in and got something.
Wolf gave me something you wrote up – a brief outline of your time in the war. In the summer of 44 you did some parachute jumping as part of a course and got your parachute wings?
Yes, it was a quiet time along the Adriatic in August and I was supposed to get 2 weeks ? and at the same time, for 10 days I went to this parachute school where we had 6 jumps. We had training there before we jumped and then we had to pack our own parachutes – everybody had to pack his own parachute because your life depended on it so we had to do it perfectly. If it wasn’t packed perfectly, it wouldn’t open.
So you hadn’t done any parachute jumps before that point?
You were in the parachute division but you hadn’t done parachute training?
First you had to go to that school and do 6 jumps before you were allowed to jump in action, but after Crete where there were so many losses, actually they were not used so much; mainly it was infantry.
The emphasis seems to have been more on your elite fighting potential rather than your ability to jump out of an aeroplane. Is that correct?
It was urgent to have the men in the front line and it would have taken a long time to send everybody to school you know so when they had time, in between – they sent you to school.
So the training you did was purely infantry training?
You were part of the Luftwaffe weren’t you?
Yes the paratroopers belonged to the Luftwaffe but actually.well, when we had to jump, we would jump from planes you know. We used the Junker 52 – that was the plane for the paratroopers, but at the school, we used the Italian transport plane – a Proni (a big transport plane which could be used for the same purpose).
It must have been a relief to get out of the front line for a couple of weeks?
Oh yes, it was a great one and the jumping was so exciting and every jump was lower. The last jump was from a very low altitude because you can’t be exposed to enemy fire for too long so they lowered the altitude – every jump was 50 meters lower.
Can you remember how low the last one was?
It was maybe 200 meters or something. I came down along the wall of this huge barrack. The parachute was lying on the roof there and I slid down along the wall and my toes just reached the ground and then I was down.
You didn’t hurt yourself?
I didn’t get hurt but once we were sitting in a field watching our comrades jump and all of a sudden there was a loud outcry – 2 parachutes had intermingled and gradually they untangled and they got down safely. My helmet was once torn off my head by the lines you are attached to in the plane. They were hanging out of the door and one of the lines just twisted around my helmet and I felt a terrible tug on my head and I saw something falling down beside me – that was my helmet. Fortunately the leather straps were not strong enough – they broke – and from my weight I guess and they broke – otherwise I would’ve hanged myself. All these lucky circumstances – it could have been so different.
That training was in the Alps somewhere?
It was near Berlin.
Oh so you actually left Italy for that did you?
I left Italy by truck and later by train across the Alps. That was in 1944. Everything was still well organised. Yes that was back in Germany. Then 2 months before the end of the war I was sent to officer school – that was in northern Italy. That was when the front collapsed. We were sent back from the school to find our units but everything was upside down; you didn’t know where your unit was any more and the partisans were all around us and we had to walk at night to proceed. We walked right into the enemy then.
And that was the end of your war basically?
Yes, at the beginning of May – that’s when the armistice was signed in Italy.
You were quite fortunate to miss that last fighting because it was vicious.
When my company was fighting the hardest, I was usually away! Either I had been wounded or I was on vacation it was pure luck that I survived. But usually when I cam back, I saw that only a third of my comrades were left – all the rest had been killed. Really I must say I was fortunate and the men of my platoon, they all felt the same. I don’t want to brag, but my men and I had the finer feelings that nothing would happen to us too you know. Once we were stationed – the company had to move on and my platoon had to stay back as a rear guard. We stayed there for close to 2 hours and then the enemy started advancing and the shells you can see them at night tracer shells, they were coming from all directions. This is something I clearly remember – those tracer shells, just as if you see fireworks – from every direction. So I went from foxhole to fox hole to gather my men. We had to leave to try to join our company and we walked through and nobody was hit and we were so lucky; we got to our company about 2 hours later and they thought we were lost – dead. There was a loud cheer when we appeared again. You had a safe feeling you know that nothing would happen to you that’s how it was. Since we were so young – when we got older replacements, they were all very careful and a little bit scared. They had their families at home; their wife and children at home. We were single and actually very carefree. In Monte Cassino we were relieved by a different unit there and they asked us to give them our helmets because our helmets were different from the army helmets so the enemy wouldn’t notice that we had been relieved by them. They always observed if some new troops had come in. So we had to give them our helmets because they didn’t want the enemy to know that the paratroopers had left there, leaving the mountaineers – a different division – up there. We felt kind of proud of our unit.
Well, you were an elite unit weren’t you?
Yes – you hear it all the time you know from the enemy’s side that the paratroopers were one of the better units in the German army – one of the best more or less.
Pride is important isn’t it? It keeps morale up.
Yes and our morale was always up. When I was captured by the British and I woke up the next morning – we were all in an open field there were so many – 100’s of captured soldiers were sleeping on an open field – I thought it had been a dream; not real that I’m a prisoner. I couldn’t believe that I was a prisoner of war right at the last moment.
Can you remember the moment when you realised you’d become a prisoner?
Yes, very well. It was coming to day break and we went into an Italian farmhouse and there were women and children in there and one of us we were going to lie down and sleep during the day then we intended to go on the next evening. One of us had to stay awake and watch the Italians so they wouldn’t go to the windows, because there were already enemy troops all around us. But somehow, one was able to knock at the window, open the window and inform the other soldiers outside that Germans were in the house and that was a British unit. They surrounded the house and the women and children started crying and we knew it was the end of the war so it was no use to fight any more. We had all our weapons with us. We were I guess 20 men and there was a major with us, a high ranking with decorations and we all went out with our hands above us and surrendered but before we went out, you know where you have your identification – every soldier had an identification book, where his unit is marked down and all his personal identification – we were instructed before when we became soldiers, in case of being taken prisoner, you have to tear out the page where your unit is written, so I tore that page out because it had been an order 2 years ago. Then I took my first class Iron Cross of my tunic – tore it off and let it drop into my pants – at the bottom they were tight so they couldn’t fall off and I still had this little Mauser pistol from the British officer, so I dropped that into my pants too. The British officer was searching me – was feeling all around me on my body but right at the bottom of my pants – he didn’t go this far down, so that pistol was there and they liked to get the German decorations to and that was still there I gave it to Wolf – he likes to keep it for the memory. So I was a prisoner for 2 years and I kept this pistol with me. I never used it; I don’t know why I kept it – just out of just to have something. I would never have used it. I always buried it under the tent in a plastic bag – for 2 years til I left for Germany. Then I left it there.
How did you win the Iron Cross?
I don’t know. I just saw in my book that at that date, my company commander put it on my chest – Iron Cross First Class. Before in Cassino, I’d got Iron Cross Second Class, but that was I guess around this lake you mentioned. There was heavy fighting and afterwards I got the First Class Iron Cross.
So that would have been around June time?
Can you remember the fighting being fierce at that point?
I must say I don’t remember ever firing my gun against the enemy you know. I cannot remember – sure we were shooting and so, but I don’t remember that I saw somebody being hit and falling down. Others had been in hand to hand fighting and it never happened to me. Somehow I was always lucky. I can’t imagine that all through these 2 years in Italy that I was involved in such heavy fighting there.
Can you remember retreating to the Gothic Line? You said you were on the Adriatic – presumably it was still pretty mountainous there?
Yes, that’s where we started out as young 18 year old recruits. We’d come from southern France. We’d had our training there and then came by plane along the Riviera. We went to Marseilles and then along the Riviera and then across Italy, to ? and then to the east side of Italy and down – along the Adriatic Sea to Chieti and Ortona. That was the beginning of the Gustav Line. That was in November and since we were so young and inexperienced, they kept us there about maybe 4 or 5 km’s behind the lines and we were digging the fox holes for later on, in case we had to retreat or something. We were occupied there and we heard there was heavy fighting going on in Ortona; the Canadians were suffering really heavy losses, but they took the town from the Germans on Christmas Eve. Here in Toronto, I met a Canadian who had been there. We were talking about the horrible winter of 1943. It was raining – all the time, rain, rain, rain and cold at the Adriatic Sea and he remembered the same circumstances. He said at Christmas they got their rum ration and the roads were all muddy and you couldn’t use trucks so they used mules there to transport equipment and whatever. This mule had 2 barrels of rum, one on each side, and this mule didn’t want to move so they gave it a big whack with a stick and it started running and it ran across the lines to the Germans and a few hours later, her heard the Germans singing their Christmas songs after consuming the Canadian rum – in a good mood then! We stayed there behind the line until after Christmas and at the beginning of January 1944, we were brought forward. From there, we were loaded on to trucks, at the end of February and we went by road right to Cassino, to the foot of the monastery there and had to climb up the hill there. All the supplies were shipped up there because of the fighting units on the top.
Can you remember ever losing heart or did your morale remain high the whole time?
I don’t remember, apart from the first month in Ortona when it was raining constantly for 4 weeks or more and we were sitting in our fox holes then and had to get the rainwater out with our otherwise we would have been drowning. The morale was really low then. I remember a fellow who drank… we had sardines in tins and they were in oil and he drank this oil and became jaundiced just so he could get to the hospital. He could have really been punished if they’d known that.
Did you know what he was up to?
His morale was so low. You can imagine, rain, rain, day after day and sitting in those fox holes – it was so demoralising you know. Otherwise I must say sure you wanted to go home and so on, but we were just like a big family – we all tried our best to work together and we were not politically motivated. We didn’t have any political officers sent to increase our morale or anything. Politics were out of the picture. We were just fighting for our country, like the others were. They were doing the same thing. The governments were the ones who started all this you know. I went to the cemetery 60 years later and I never realised that they were Canadians who were fighting against us at Pontecorvo. So many died on about the same day – 22/23 May – it was marked on their gravestones and there were 100’s of them. Then I realised they had been Canadians. When you visit those cemeteries the tears are coming when you are stood in front of those graves at what age they died. More than 50% were in their 20’s. There were not many older ones; they were more careful.
The younger ones were more reckless?
More reckless, yes.
When you were quite badly wounded in November 44, you were hurt by a shard of wood from the blown in door?
Yes, this was at night and I remember that night very well of course. We had just had our rations and I had filled my stomach with rice and sweet plums – we got that quite often.
Where were you staying at that time?
That was a farmhouse on top of a hill and we had candlelight inside but the windows were covered so nothing would come out. The enemy artillery they had been there for a few days and knew where to shoot.
Presumably you were south of Bologna?
Faenza – does that sound familiar?
I can’t remember.
Was the whole company or just the platoon in that farmhouse?
Just the platoon and the rest of the company were stretched out along the lines.
You were hit in the stomach and you knew it was pretty bad?
It was the same as before when I went to relieve myself. I had a full stomach and I went out. I closed the door quickly but the light of the candle must have shown for a split second. I went to relieve myself; I came back and closed the door behind me and at the same moment a shell exploded directly in front of the door and a splinter went through the wood and into my stomach and got stuck in the rice. Then we didn’t have penicillin and usually when you had a stomach wound you were practically given up on – you’d die. Your stomach cavity would get inflamed from the liquid of the stomach and nobody thought you’d be able to survive. The rice had held off this fragment of shrapnel – it didn’t go through the back, it got stuck in the stomach and stayed in there and I was lying on my back all the time, so the fluid couldn’t run out into the stomach cavity and that’s what saved my life – the doctor at the hospital told me. I didn’t have a hole at the back of my stomach so the fluid couldn’t run out into the cavity.
So there was medical treatment?
Oh yes, a few miles away, or closer. They took me on a stretcher – we always had stretchers with us. But the artillery was firing constantly and they had to drop me – we had to go down the hill to the road where this ambulance was waiting. They always had an ambulance waiting somewhere a few miles away or closer by. They dropped me a few times – they had to lie down because of the shells. It was a ride of half an hour or so to the field hospital and that’s where they operated right away – during the night and the next morning when I woke up, the doctor showed me the fragment he’d taken out of my stomach and told me that I was so lucky that the fluid didn’t run out and we were not allowed to drink for a week – not a drop of water until it healed again.
You must have been dying of thirst?
It was terrible. The man beside me had had a stomach operation and while the nurse wasn’t looking – she’d brought something to wash ourselves – a basin of soapy water – and he drank that and a few days later he passed away. Nowadays it’s different, but in those days without penicillin it was very hard to cure it.
Were you conscious the whole time?
Yes – it was just a flesh wound actually but it was inside my stomach but it didn’t hurt; there was no bone or anything injured.
But did you know it was a potentially serious wound?
Yes, we knew from other experiences, if somebody had a stomach wound, then it was very, very dangerous.
Can you remember feeling frightened?
At this moment I felt the pain in my stomach and having heard the explosion, I knew I was badly wounded but I don’t remember being frightened. All these sorts of moments, they go on and on and on.
You were back in a couple of weeks?
Well, I stayed about 10 days in the hospital and then I was sent to this recuperation hospital in the Dolomites – a beautiful hotel that was used in peacetime for the skiers. There we were able to ski for about 10 days; we had a great time and good food. It was lovely – lots of snow and the sun was shining and after the 14 days, the doctor said ‘You’re ok now. You can go back to your unit’. And it was ‘Oh, I still feel so much pain’ ‘No, you are ok now – you can go’. I wanted to stay and enjoy it a little longer. In 1989 I took the same route – that was the first time I went back to Europe since I came to Canada in 1951. I was in Canada – I stayed there all the time til 89, building something for my family – a house and so on. I was financially in better shape, so I took the first vacation to Germany in 1989 and I rented a car in Munich and went across the Alps – I wanted to see this hospital where we had been and I found it finally and there I met a medical officer who had been there during the war, treating the wounded. The waiter told me there was another German who came every year skiing – I saluted him and told him I was Hans Kumberg from this unit and he told me he’d been there until the end of the war. He said there were no other doctors there, so he’d delivered all the babies for the Italian women there. At the end of the war, the partisans came and took all the personnel of the hospital prisoner and they were taken away. These women surrounded him and said ‘You’re not going to touch him – he delivers our babies’. So they didn’t take him away. Now, when he comes back, he sees the babies he delivered as grown-ups with children of their own. This was an amazing experience that he told me about. I drove to Cassino, all on my own and I was amazed; I couldn’t believe it. The city was all rebuilt in the valley below the monastery. When we came down from the monastery to relieve the first regiment in the city, we were half on the mountain you know? We could see far away from there. We could see the shells exploding there from the Navy; the Navy was bombarding there and they had landed there in Cuno (?). All night you could see the explosions in the sky where they were bombarding the German positions. All this is a great experience when you look back. For years I hadn’t been thinking about it, but then these memories came up – it’s all back again in my memory.
Do you find yourself thinking about the war much?
No, no – all these years I never talked to my children about it, until lately when I told them all these stories and made this practical because Wolf was always very interested in history and he arranged this trip with the British company. He arranged for me to participate and since then I wrote, for the first time, this short story about my experiences in Italy and that’s when my children more or less what had been going on. They were just as ignorant as some others you know who just the young people they don’t know much about what went on. In Germany, the young people look at their fathers as criminals because they participated in the war – oh you did these horrible things – but they have been indoctrinated by propaganda too you know and don’t accept what their fathers did; how they fought for them more of less.
There is of course a huge difference between people like yourself and ordinary young German men who were called up into the Wehrmacht army and those who were in the SS divisions. There’s a difference there.
They were not all bad. There were those SS who were at home and they were real Nazis you know. Those soldiers, they weren’t politically motivated you know?
The vast majority of the people who fought in it were just doing it because they were fighting for their country and doing what they were told. It’s a tragic period of history.
Like we all had to join the Hitler youth; just 14, 15 when we came from Latvia. We were actually Germans from Latvia; there were pockets of Germans all over Europe – at the Volga river for instance, there was a big community of Germans which had been called in by Katerina the Great; the Russian Czarina. She called the Germans to come and build villages there. Good hard working people and they were beautiful villages in Russia and the same in Hungary and Yugoslavia – pockets of Germans, which lived there for centuries. In 1200 our forefathers came there and we continued for generation after generation. We had our German language and our schools and our churches and so we preserved our language and still felt very much like Germans. After a few hundred years, it became Russia and they took over. In the First World War, the Germans who lived there fought against their own brothers. They were conscripted to the Russian army and they fought against their own brothers in Germany. They had formed an alliance with the Czar and they had to fight for him you know?
Did you enjoy the Hitler Youth? I expect there were some aspects which were quite fun?
Yes; it was strict discipline – twice a week we had our meetings at night – during the day we went to school and had other duties, but at night we had our meetings and I was with a Marine – we had Luftwaffe Hitler Youth and Navy Hitler Youth and I belonged to that Navy unit originally – I wanted to become a U boat sailor. Then I saw this movie about Crete – how they conquered Crete and I was so impressed by this jumping out of aeroplanes – it was a real adventure, so I switched to the paratroopers when I was 17; I went as a volunteer to them. They had these one man U boats – they were practically like a torpedo you were going towards this ship and then you would jump out – like from a plane when you leave it by parachute – you could get out – it wasn’t like you would give your life – you had the chance to escape before you hit that ship. It was only for a short time they had this, then they abandoned the programme. I was so fascinated by that, I wanted to join them, but finally I went to the paratroopers and when you were a volunteer, you could choose your unit. When you were conscripted, they would put you in certain units and you couldn’t do anything about it. They wanted to put me into the SS, but I just didn’t want to go there and I went to the paratroopers because I had volunteered for them. There were 2 SS divisions in Italy. They were good men and fair fighters.
When you look at Italy in the war, the levels of destruction were unbelievable.
Unbelievable – when you look at the monastery. It was destroyed and has been completely rebuilt again. I went there in 1989 and there were still 2 monks there who had survived the bombardment. They sold all these historic books there and there is one with photographs of the destruction – all the rooms and the whole building. It’s just unbelievable when you look at the destruction and then the re-build and they re-built it just the way it had been before.
You look at pictures and see the destruction and you think how did these poor civilians cope, caught up in the middle of this. Did you ever have much to do with the Italian people?
Usually the Italian people had left, like in Ortona they had been living in caves and there were mountains and sandy hills. You could dig into it and make caves. They were living in caves and they were very afraid of what was happening and when the artillery started firing, usually they had left before that for places where they could be safe you know? I didn’t have much contact with the Italians. I remember one night, the enemy was advancing again and it was getting dark and there was a farmhouse about a km south of us and our platoon was sent to the Americans had already advanced at that time and there was a light at the house and we opened the door a bit and the Italians were sitting around the table and when they saw us they shouted and’Oh the Americans are here! and all of a sudden a boy put his finger in front of his mouth and said ‘Quiet! These are Germans!’ The war was over by now but they were disappointed to find we were Germans.
Did you find that funny?
Well, we were kind of laughing but we left again; we left them there and we knew the next day the Americans would be there.
That was during the…
During the retreat. It’s hard to remember all this. If I’d had a diary it would be easy to remember but you never thought of that I’m surprised we got our mail from home, in Cassino. I always had my camera with me and I filmed and sent the film home to my mother and she got it developed and she kept the pictures. The mail came to Cassino. When you were somewhere for a long time, the mail came.
Would you spend much time writing letters, to your parents and so on?
Yes, sure I wrote every 2 weeks or so. I think I told you about the German tank they excavated 2 years after the war ended. They were re-building Cassino and they excavated this tank and found the skeletons of the tank crew. They had been sitting in a doorway somewhere in the city and the bombs came and everything collapsed on top of them so they couldn’t move and they suffocated. This reporter happened to be there and they found a letter from the fiance of the tank commander he’d received just a few days before and she had sent him a 4 leaved clover for luck. He had written a reply letter which he hadn’t sent and he said ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get out of here alive’. Touching moments when you read about it or see it. Even there they got letters, in Cassino, from home.
When you weren’t fighting or on the move, what did you do?
We went into the countryside and we went swimming.I guess we were pulled out of the front line for 10 days and we had a great time there.
So you weren’t in the front line all the time? You were pulled out occasionally?
Not many times – only 2 or 3 times I remember that we’d been pulled out. Then when I became a platoon commander, I had to chase my boys – get up, lie down – you know, it was really harsh. Those sergeants are you but I wasn’t one of them. It was very hard for me to fulfil my duties.
When did you become a sergeant?
That was during the retreat. I got the Iron Cross first class, and then I became a sergeant.
By the end of the war you were an officer?
No, I was still a sergeant by the end of the war but they sent me to this officers’ school to get me to become an officer probably, because I’d been a high school student so I had education. They thought I was officer material. I went before the battalion commander and he said I had to go there and I tried to refuse. I said, â€œI want to stay with my men here. I don’t want to go. But he said, â€œYou’ll have to go there. It was really peaceful; it was nice that we stayed there. There were classes there and at night we went out to Italian families – they invited us for dinner or so. It was a good time to be there. Later when we were taken prisoner in north Italy, we were transported in huge trucks – the British gave us to the Americans – they took us to Pisa – Livorno, where there was a huge prison camp. On the way, we had to go through the Apennine Mountains in the trucks. There were 100 prisoners to a truck – long, open trucks with high walls and when we went round curves we were thrown against the wall of the trucks. Those negro soldiers who were driving the trucks, they were crazy – they drove so fast. One of these trucks with 100 men on board went down an escarpment – they were all dead of course. We came into a small village where they had to stop and the Italians when they saw the German prisoners they drew their finger against their throat – we are going to cut your throat because you stole our bicycles. It was the last days of the war and there was no other transportation so we took the bicycles from the Italians and they screamed Bicycletta, bicicletta and showed they were going to cut our throats
But they never did.
The American soldiers protected us actually.
The moment you stepped out of that barn you were in when you surrendered, you must have been feeling a little apprehensive?
Yes, really down, but as I say, this was just a moment and you didn’t actually
You weren’t worried that they’d open fire on you?
No, it was so peaceful when we surrendered. There was no firing going on or anything. It was just stepping out of the house. To make the decision that we were going to go out there.but the women and children crying and there was no use..it was a moment’s decision – we said ‘Now we are going to go out and surrender’. After 4 nights when we’d been walking, walking and sleeping in the daytime but this moment came
Did you fear what would happen to Germany?
Your family back home – were you worried about them?
Yes – we didn’t realise how much had happened and how much was still going to happen. There’s a book about the refugees from East Prussia terrible stories things that happened during the war and the Germans had to suffer a lot for what they did – like in Russia too. They occupied big parts of Russia and when they retreated they burnt the villages just like when you think back to Napoleon – how the Russians burnt everything so Napoleon wouldn’t have any place to stay. This was what the Germans did in Russia. I remember those pictures in the Youth – showing what things went on there in 43, 44. I remember those pictures and the news very well. There were so many refugees in Dresden when they bombed it and 80,000 at least burned to death there. They dropped phosphate. That was a hard, hard part of the war. My father was a teacher in Berlin and when I visited him during the war, there wasn’t a tree left standing because they used the wood to heat their homes. When I came back to Berlin in 1989, the trees in the Tiergarten were huge as if nothing had happened.