Interview with Knight's Cross winner and SS-Oberscharführer Balthasar 'Bobby' Woll, veteran of the SS-Totenkopf-Division and Tiger tank gunner extraordinaire in 1. SS-Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS-Adolf Hitler and later Panzer instructor, Sennestadt, 1989.

Thank you for letting me speak with you, I will keep it brief. I would like to just start by asking what brought you to the Waffen-SS?

Bobby: Okay, count this a lucky day, I usually don't talk about this part of the past, but I am always willing to help out a close friend. Hilde knows you, so it is okay that we speak. So why the SS? I was never interested in politics, I just wanted to live a good life and have fun doing what I liked to do. The war would find my class soon and it all seemed to be going very well, but all of us wanted it to end. We did not like war, and the many fallen notices of friends were sombre. More and more were being drafted and I wanted a say where I would end up. You could either freely enlist and have your choice or wait to be called and then be told where you would be placed. I knew classmates who had went into both the Heer [army] and SS, but the SS seemed to offer more in the way of choice and they seemed happier and with more comradeship. I had made up my mind to volunteer and by 1941 was assigned to the 'Totenkopf' training battalion; I was assigned to the MG [machine gun] section and trained on the MG 34 and 42 [German machine guns]. When I went to the front, I had an old French weapon, and others had former Czech weapons; so there you have it.

Frau Helmke [Hilde] said we should speak as you were with 'Totenkopf' at Demjansk? Can I ask what it was like?

Bobby: Yes, I was in the Demjansk Pocket. It was cold and miserable, that is what it was like. It made me question whether the Infantry was for me; we had been surprised by the Russian attacks. [Theodor] Eicke had us very well organized which helped in the defence. The Russians were very disjointed in their attacks; I do not think they expected to have so much success in their counter-attacks, so they failed to use the initiative correctly. We suffered through the coldest winter in years, which made it extra hard. The cold made movement almost impossible, the few vehicles we had would not start. We did have our winter clothing however, Eicke made sure our trains handed them out when it got cold. It is a big exaggeration that the German forces were left with no winter clothes. Some units, more to inept leadership and supply, did get stuck with summer tunics, but they were the minority. The home front rushed to help get them the clothing they needed.

The Luftwaffe was a daily sight for us; they kept us well supplied in spite of heavy flak fire. We always had food, medicine, ammunition, and reinforcements. We also had many Russians who were trapped with us, the civilians we could not get to leave, as they did not want to answer to the commissars. We had prisoners who our Hiwis [the German abbreviation of the word Hilfswilliger or 'auxiliary volunteer'] would help take care of. We did release some of them who were wounded, and the Russians were grateful for this humane treatment. The war in the east was not fought with hatred by us. After a few months of this, we were freed by the start of new offensives.

[Above: Bobby Woll with his Panzer comrades, Woll is 2nd from the left, the only one wearing a Knight's Cross. Look at all the kills painted on the barrel of that tank!]

How did you come to the Panzer arm?

Bobby: After Demjansk I had enough of infantry life, and the opportunity came up to join the now expanding Panzer arm of the Waffen-SS. I was recruited to go into the assault artillery which was not what I had in mind but at least I got to get out of the war for a bit. Then the chance came to go to Panzer school and I volunteered to do gunner training. While I enjoyed this immensely, I was still a little immature you could say, the ladies are what I wanted to attend to. I was a decorated SS soldier and wanted to attend dances and parties. I had a good NCO instructor who understood how to reach my interests, he helped pull me through gunner training, and I think he was responsible for getting me into the LAH [Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler].

This is where you met Michael Wittmann, was he a good leader? [Wittmann became a cult figure in his time and a legend till this day when on June 13, 1944 he destroyed up to 14 British tanks, 15 personnel carriers and two anti-tank guns within 15 minutes with his Tiger tank!-Ed.]

Bobby: Yes, after much training I was assigned to the 1. SS Panzer Regiment and Michael was my commander, I was assigned to his tank, a new Tiger. These were fickle machines in the beginning and even in Panzer school there were problems with them. In combat, these problems because amplified. Electric fans would not work, gears would go out, fuel pumps would fail; it was trying. I knew electric work [after the war he would become an electrician-Ed.], so once I had to re-route fan wires to stay on all the time. The Tiger is talked about today as a super weapon and superior to everything on the battlefield, but I can assure you it could be knocked out, it only took a skilful gunner with an armor round. With that said, I did feel very protected by the frontal armor, and we always showed our front. One of the first things Michael did with me was take me for practice; I was very nervous and did not do well. I remember he spoke as a father, friend, and comrade. He said, "You have a job unique to a Panzer, it is all of us who make the Panzer live, but it is you who make it successful. You must not let us down, we all want to go home, and we can only do that by knocking out the enemy."

This did something to me, and it motivated me to be patient, yet fast, to find the puncture point and fire with precision [Bobby Woll was renowned for his ability to precisely hit enemy tanks while they were moving, a difficult feat!-Ed.]. He brought out the best in my talents, we practiced day after day. Then we were called to action to stop a tank attack. One positive I can say about German Panzers is that we had excellent optics, and we could take on enemy tanks from long range. Sometimes they had no idea where it came from. We could hit them where they could not see us and did not expect us to be. Michael had no fear however of moving close. He was known to charge right into enemy starting points and disrupting attacks before they even could start. Some called this reckless, but it worked, and he always showed the front, so enemy shells would just bounced off with little fuss. Of course, on the inside it made a racket, but at least we lived to keep fighting. Michael formed us into a tight team, we knew exactly what we were to do and how to do it, he even had us trained to take over for another position if we needed to. My loader and I could put a round on target in split seconds, which was all the difference in taking on multiple enemies. As a team, we had excellent success and racked up a good kill tally, the best in the regiment. [Credited with a total of 80 tanks destroyed plus many armored vehicles and assault guns.] We became best friends to the point I was his best man in 1944 when he married Hilde, that was the best time of his life. He was allowed to have her in our billets, she helped take care of the place and brightened it up. She got along well with the French neighbors and we shared good dishes with each other. She even tried to play matchmaker for some comrades, with French girls.

[Above: Michael Wittmann sitting atop his armored beast in Normandy, where he would become a legend and Wittmann with his wife Hildegard (Burmester) on their wedding day. After the war she remarried and took the name mentioned in this interview 'Helmke'.]

Can I ask you about the crimes that the Waffen-SS is accused of; did you see any evidence of these? I know it's not polite to ask but I am curious what your take is.

Bobby: I do not do politics, and it is only because of who you know that I will even indulge you. The SS was a military force with strict laws and enforcement. I will never believe that any of our comrades willingly committed crimes against soldiers or civilians. I read today report after report of supposed crimes by Peiper, Eicke, Dietrich, and many more. I pay no attention to them as the occupiers get to tell and enforce their view of history. I will give you some examples I did see, I fought on the Eastern Front, against Russians who we were supposed to be killing and exterminating. I saw our medics from the both Totenkopf and the LAH treat not only civilians, but Russian soldiers as well. Sometimes using up vital supplies they could have saved for comrades, but they viewed the enemy as a soldier first and foremost. Our divisional doctor was killed while coming back after helping a Russian woman give birth to a healthy baby.

We once shot up a Russian tank, and the crew jumped out on fire, Michael didn't even have to order us out to go help them. We hated Bolshevism, yes, but we had no animosity towards the people. We would expect them to do the same for us. Later in the war, propaganda made acts like this less likely, as hatred had turned our enemies into something evil who would shoot medics and aid personnel without any distinction. We were made into bugs that needed squashed. At no time did I ever see mistreatment or abuse of prisoners, civilians, or wounded by German personnel. If so, we would have revolted and disobeyed those orders if given. I know some partisans were executed but this is a different topic, partisan warfare is a war crime in itself. We comrades are very proud of our service to our nation, even though today it is occupied and forced to turn on us.

[Above: Bobby Woll has become famous for his wondrous feats against the forces of darkness. Here is a figure of him you can buy.]

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