Interview by Dan Snow @thehistoryguy on Twitter
How old were you when you went to North Africa?
You were nineteen?
And you went in a tank?
What was North Africa like?
In a way, I considered it as an adventure, maybe, but I knew that this war was going to end there for us so when I was sent there I knew I wouldn’t see any victories anymore but being an officer’s candidate I had to prove myself and I hoped that this war would go on for another 3 months or so which was about the time you would have to be on the front line. It didn’t last that long unfortunately.
So, when you went to North Africa the British and Commonwealth were pushing in from the direction of Egypt and Libya, the Americans were coming from the west so you were surrounded?
Yes, that’s right. Well of course we knew we didn’t have a chance but nevertheless we did our best. It was a clear thing I mean it was a question of honour and pride so we would never give up, we fought to the last moment until we were out of action, until the tank was blown off let’s say.
And what kind of tank were you in?
IV, 75mm long barrel.
And what did you fear most, did you fear other tanks or did you fear Allied air power or artillery?
I didn’t have too many encounters with the tanks only in the first days, the airpower is something else, I mean when I was there on the scene for only 2 or 3 days we already had the first attack run of a Hurricane IID. You know tank busters, 5 meters high and I tried to fight them with a machine gun. They were coming in very low, 5 meters high you know and they used 40mm guns armour penetrating of course, armour piercing and that was my first encounter with these planes. We used to run around the tank to get into the lee but I had decided to fight them, everyone was trying to get around the tank for cover and I went up onto the turret with the machine gun you know and I started firing.
Did you bring any down?
No unfortunately not, only later did I realise that they were armoured underneath. Armour plated so I wouldnt have a chance really.
And so even though you weren’t there for very long you saw quite a lot of fighting.
Yes, a bit I would say, all sorts. Yeah.
And who, mainly against the British or the Americans?
No, against both I would say. Well I started against the British and the New Zealanders and I ended up against the Americans up in the north let’s say about south of Ferryville in the area of Mateur. Hilly, mountainous.
And what did you learn about the different Allied nations?
Well, I’ll say this, there was a gentleman’s agreement between the German Afrika Korps and the British 8th Army and we wouldn’t shoot at crews that were bailing out. Americans didn’t have an agreement like that and they shot like hell when we had to bail out, but I’m not holding it against them because they didn’t have the agreement and in a sense, it makes more sense to kill the enemy because otherwise he will get into the next tank.
Why did you guys fight so bravely you were faced with overwhelming force, you were surrounded…
Because we were brought up like that we were very proud. mind you everybody believed in Hitler because Hitler was going to save us from the Treaty of Versailles you know which was an incredibly bad agreement that no German would have signed really and it was clearly the root of all evil of the next war there was no doubt about and we all believed in Hitler and we were proud that he would fend of this shame and see to it that we would be on equal terms. My father fought against the Russians, my grandfather against the French and both won the equivalent of the Knight’s Cross.
What happened on the day your tank was knocked out and you were captured?
I wasn’t captured immediately we made it back during the night under the crossfire of the Americans and we had been a battle group of 4 tanks, that’s all, so 3 were driving around you know and the German artillery used their last shells on the enemy and I also got a fragment on my back you know and I said “Oh, I’m hit”, “Mich hat’s erwischt!” in German, a slight, skinny wound or whatever but I couldn’t see it but we made it. Our Lieutenant said at about five o’clock or so in the late afternoon “You stay put, I’ll go up and tell them that they won’t shoot at you when you come back during the night”, which he did. He was an excellent soldier, very brave man. I was very proud to be with him and he inspired us with so much confidence and when we were under artillery fire you know they had recognised us, I mean our isolated tank and they were just pouring shells into us you know. But he said “Don’t you worry, keep calm”. I believed in him, I had full confidence. So, it makes a lot of difference if you had a good officer and we had good officers and every one of us was trained to think for himself and to take command if the superior would be killed or out of action, we were all individual fighters, you know, we had the best training in the world and we started when I was in the Hitler Youth, we did everything. We were throwing hand grenades, I mean they were dummies and we were shooting .22 rifles and we were marching on and on and I joined up when I was 9, first time in my home town in Saxony and then I moved to Hamburg and there I think I re-joined at the age of 12 or so.
And even at that age you were preparing for war?
No, not for war. We were proud of getting our sovereignty or our army back. We wanted to be on equal terms.
But, even as a 12, 13, 14-year-old you were training in military skills?
Yes, a bit later but not from the beginning that was just sport. But a bit later we were training military skills too. I would say at the age of 16 I was fully trained. One of these mornings we saw an American truck coming along the road so I just went down the hill and got aboard and it took us to this American camp because the war had ended already. By that time the Afrika Korps had stopped.
And what did you do after that?
After that I was transferred to another camp, to a British camp. From there by boat to Oran and there in Oran I came into another American camp, from there by boat to Hampton Road and then from there by train to Arkansas. Camp Chaffee near Fort Smith. I became an interpreter and after a certain time I was sent to a special camp in Alva because I was not agreeable to certain things you know that they wanted us to do and I was going to win the war for us so I ended up in Alva and Alva was a famous place.
So, you were still trying to win the war, even though you were in Arkansas?
Yes by all means. Oh yes. Africa was just a side…..
What was it like being stuck in Arkansas when your friends and your loved ones were fighting and being bombed and fighting in Europe.
Yes, it was not good but what could I do? Alva of course was a camp for trouble makers, what they considered to be a trouble maker. But we were going to win the war. (laughing)
How did you feel when the war was over?
Oh, what shall I say? After Alva I was transferred to Louisiana and at Louisiana I learnt for the first time over the loud speakers that Rommel had been forced to commit suicide and that is when my youth ended. And my admiration for Hitler turned into the contrary. We couldn’t believe that he would handle a man like Rommel like that and of course a front soldier would never know about any atrocities done to the Jews or so, that was kept under the lid you know and the bitterness came for sure but we had no choice.
It must be very difficult, something you have believed in all of your life to be just overturned.
That was, that was the worst thing that could happen. That’s why I said I lost my youth, I became an adult.
Did you still want Germany to win the war in 1945?
No, in ’45 we knew it was ended. We knew it was ended before that time but we had to remain honourable, proud.
How do you look back on North Africa? Do you look back on it as a terrible experience full of fear or do you look back on it as a team of friendship, excitement and camaraderie?
Friendship, camaraderie, excitement yes but also in the end of hatred because of the behaviour of troops of the 1st Army.
And you felt they were committing crimes on the battlefield?
Yes. That’s right. I’m not going into detail because that spoilt my youth and I kept this hatred for many many years until I decided that not everybody was like that. And then I searched for the people, for the soldiers that I have fought against in the beginning and I found them, Sherwood Rangers, Nottinghamshire Yeomanry and they were an elite troop that was sent to all the places where heavy fighting was going on or was expected and I, one of my dearest and closest friends there, we were like brothers but they are all dead now, I mean those old friends. I’m still a member of the Old Comrades Association, I am very glad that all this happened to me because I consider myself as working for peace and I work for the honour of the German soldier.