This is a October 1987 interview done with Siegfried Wiskow, a veteran of the battleship 'Gneisenau', and his wife, Liselotte

[Above: Siegfried and Liselotte]

Can you tell me why you were interested in joining the Kriegsmarine?

Siegfried: I came from a long line of men who served our nation in the navy so I naturally joined in 1936 when Germany announced the English/German naval agreement where England allowed us to build a very small navy. It was only to be 1/10 the size of England’s, but all Germans felt it was proper to have a fleet to guard our coast, considering what we went through in the post war years with Poland. I applied for admittance in Stettin, my hometown, and was accepted starting my military career, in a branch that was new but steeped in long traditions of my ancestors.

What was life like in Germany for you?

Siegfried: We lived in an area of Germany that saw a lot of fighting after WW1, Poland tried to take more land from Germany than what the Allies agreed to give them. When I was young, I heard many stories of the fighting happening on our borders and it left many people feeling uneasy. When Hitler was elected things changed almost overnight. 1933 had an air of stability and hope for peace that would be lasting as he was trying to fix the things about Versailles that were wrong for Germany.

Prior to 1933 many were out of work and hungry, crime was bad, people lost their morals, and there was a gloom in the air all over Germany. Hitler brought a renewal that started in the churches, they were remodeled and attendance picked back up. The RAD was created to renew the German landscape and for the first time conservation was practiced on a national level. Friends who had mediocre jobs, now had high paying, important work that was fulfilling.

By the time I went to the Kriegsmarine Germany had been transformed into a new nation, one that showed lots of confidence, faith, and hope for the future. In Stettin, the border crisis with Poland was gone and there was talk of working out a solution to either rejoin the Reich with East Prussia with an open railroad or complete reunification granting Poland a free railway.

Liselotte: I will add that for German women life improved greatly as well. I always felt like I was treated as a less important person in the Reich of old. It was a man’s society that encouraged women to stay quiet and not bother anyone. It was the old European aristocratic way of thinking that unless you were wealthy; you could only be a humble worker who had no voice. Young women turned to poor choices for themselves during the Weimar era, I saw many friends turning to the black market, and heard of the prostitution that was rampant in the big cities, often involving young children.

This all went away from us in 1933, women’s organizations were ordered to be formed by the National Socialist’s and I joined the BDM, although I was older than most girls I had a great time. It taught us things our parents perhaps forgot or did not have time to refine. I felt like I was in a finishing school. We learned to make clothes, cook gourmet dishes, conduct ourselves around the opposite sex, and how to get along with our peers. Basic life skills that were so very important to our future happiness, and the health of our nation.

What ships were you assigned to?

Siegfried: Training took a whole year and I was on the Gorch Foch, which was a training ship most all sailors served on to learn the basics of sailing and seamanship. I was sent to the Karlsruhe as my first duty assignment and was proud to be on a ship that had long service and was modern. She was damaged in the pacific, and was repaired in America where comrades said how much fun they had and liked the American people, sent back to Germany for refitting, and that is when I joined her. We saw service off the coast of Spain and I worked as a ship engineer on my own for the first time.

I earned a promotion and an accommodation from our Capitan for keeping my station ready for combat at a moment’s notice. In 1938, we returned to Germany for upgrades and I received another promotion, and a dream chance to join a large battleship: The Gneisenau, which had just joined the fleet.

I remember the ship smelling brand new and it took a while to learn where everything was on such a large ship, but I thought this was the best ship in the world.

What do you remember about the start of the war?

Siegfried: I had just returned home from lengthy sea trials in the Atlantic, we had just had a daughter and I wanted to see her. All Germans were fearful something was going to happen in 1939, Poland again had been a thorn in our side. Hitler wanted a return of the large areas of land that were taken from Germany by Versailles, this was his main goal. Lands had peacefully returned to the Reich with the blessing of England and France, but Poland was different. We read in the newspapers that the Führer was trying, in every peaceful way, to work out a solution. Germany wanted to have a way to connect with our territory in Prussia but Poland would not agree. This crisis was all the talk on the ship in 1939.

Liselotte: There also were problems on the border again; people would talk about how farmers were having crops and animals stolen by Polish people sneaking across the border. There was even stories of people murdered by armed gangs coming over and attacking farmers to steal from them. I noticed a larger police presence along with military patrols further south. I had a friend who lived in Konigsberg, who was on a flight back home and her plane was fired on by the Polish flak. Imagine, a civil plane being attacked during peacetime, yet you are told we were the ones threatening Poland.

Siegfried: I was recalled back to the ship in late August of 39; it was there on 1 September that we heard that we attacked Poland. We were shocked, but we also knew this was coming. The war declaration of England and France put fear in our minds, but we were determined to right the wrongs of the first war, and defend our Fatherland.

What was the first action you saw on the Gneisenau?

Siegfried: It was only the fourth day of war; the British attacked us in port with heavy bombers, but missed the ship completely. They did very little damage, but killed a few civilians, which to us was a big deal. We spent the next few weeks doing drills, and making the ship ready for war. In November our Capitan was ordered to take us out into the North Sea to try to relieve pressure on the Graf Spee who was alone in the south Atlantic and being pursued by Royal Navy ships, it was thought we could pull them away and engage them one by one. We did attack a British ship, and our modern guns made quick work of it, I believe she was the Rawalpindi. (I confirmed it was) The ship sunk and our sister ship, the Scharnhorst was sent in to pick up her survivor’s.

I remember that as they were rescuing them, another British ship showed up on the horizon and began firing on the Scharnhorst. We sent out an open message that we were aiding British sailors but the ship kept up its closure and fire. Our radar indicated more ships coming so our Admiral ordered us to disengage and move to homeport. We encountered terrific heavy seas, which made the return trip miserable. Both our ships were damaged which required significant repairs. I able to go home for leave, which was a welcome relief.

How was the mood in Germany and was faith lost in Hitler?

Siegfried: The mood was one of determination because we knew we were in the right in this fight, there was no disappointment in the Führer, and we knew he was doing the right thing. The Allies were the instigators in this war from our point of view. To me it appeared there was no war, life went on as in peacetime. Amusement parks were open, the zoo was busy, restaurants were busy, and people were still traveling. We called this time the sitzkrieg or non-war. We did suffer air attacks on some cities and port facilities by the Allies, which concerned us as this was first time Germany had ever been bombed.

Liselotte: I remember a great sense of relief that Poland had been defeated and the threat to our border gone. Life seemed to return to normal, I was raising a child, and taking care of the home we just purchased. I prayed that we could return to peace as life was very blessed, but I feared for my man, as he already had been in engagements with the enemy. I felt for the women in Stettin who already had received telegrams and visits from pastors, telling them their man had fallen. It was a fear that I never wish on anyone. Our memories were too fresh of the losses suffered by our parents in the first war; we prayed it would not repeat itself in this new one. Stettin was a border area; many of the army regiments from this part of the Reich were the first to fight the Poles, and to take the first casualties. We trusted our leaders and hoped for a good outcome.

Did you ever receive any wounds on the ship?

Siegfried: Yes, I did, but let me tell you what led up to my wounding. All of March and April of 1940, we fought the British in the North Sea. We attacked their invasion convoys just as our own invasion force was landing. Tommy wanted Norway just as we did, they wanted to cut off our trade from Swedish iron ore, and occupy the ports close to Germany. We sunk the carrier Glorious with her destroyer escort. Then we turned our attention to the convoys getting supplies from Canada and America. We sunk a few merchant ships and tried to lure heavier British ships into battle, but the weather was miserable. We tried to do to England what they did to us, blockade into submission. This is something our small U-boat fleet was trying to do with good success. After all the action we saw for the past few months we were tired and in need of supplies and repairs. We put into port and I again was able to go home on leave.

When I returned we had new orders to again move up to Norway and try to attack Allied convoys. We stayed up North until being damaged again and returned to Kiel in late July. I was able to go home again and enjoy the fruits of our victories. France was beaten, and life was good for us. We had money to buy things to make us comfortable and happy, though threats of air raids were constant in every German city. Luckily, Stettin was too far away for British bombers to hit us. When I returned we had a new Captain, who was well liked and we prepared for a new year and new missions. Gneisenau was sent with Scharnhorst back into the North Sea to attack the convoys yet again. After having success-sinking ships, we now captured some. I remember we got tankers that we desperately needed, Germans were put on board and they were sent to the Reich.

Things were going well for us. However, being in the North Sea was trying on men and ships due to the weather. Our ship was ordered to go to a new port, Brest, France, which we looked forward to seeing. No sooner did we dock, that the British attacked us, almost on a daily basis. They bombed pretty high to avoid our fighters. During one of these bombing attacks in April, I was down in the engine room, when alarms went off, and I heard a terrific explosion. I was blown across to the opposite hull, sustaining severe injuries, and seeing many of my comrades dead.

I was taken to a hospital in Brest, there were many men being cared for by both French and German nurses. I had my wedding ring stolen along with my watch, which my wife had just bought me. Admiral Lutjens, who commanded our squadron, and was often on the Gneisenau, came to the hospital to award us our wound badges.

He came to my bed and laid on my chest the silver wound badge and Iron Cross second class. I already wore the Fleet badge for the sorties in the North Sea so I now felt well decorated. I able to go home for a two-month convalescent leave and moved to a hospital in Stettin where my wife came to visit. I recovered, however I was left with a limp to my leg, which I still carry to this very day.

Liselotte: I remember him coming home and I was glad his wounds would heal; I prayed every day God would watch out for him and keep him safe. My father was in the Kriegsmarine too, as my family also had a navy tradition since we lived by the sea. He came home due to the awarded the German Cross in Gold by the Führer, and I remember many towns’ people and our Gauleiter and Mayor came to wish him well. He was one of the very few minesweeper officers who won the German Cross. He was given the award for actions against British submarines. He was very proud of being only a handful of vorpostenboot men to wear such a high award.

What happened after you were better?

Siegfried: I returned to my ship, which was being overhauled and I helped with some of the repairs. We were free to roam about Brest on our off time, which we liked to do. The British attacked Brest on numerous occasions, killing several French civilians, but doing little damage to us as we moved in strong flak that made the bombers go higher, therefore being less accurate.

How did the French people treat you?

Siegfried: They treated us well considering we were unwelcome invaders. I never saw any instances of resistance and always felt welcomed wherever I went. Many comrades met French girlfriends that they stayed in touch with even after the war. I spoke with French people who could speak German, often learning that many younger French had gone to Germany to work to help fill the void left by the men who had to serve the nation. They were well paid and the families liked getting the money they were sending back. On more than one occasion, French farmers would come and set up stands by the port to sell us food, which we enjoyed.

We always behaved, as there were very strict rules against stealing from or harassing any civilians in the occupied countries. After one of the bombing attacks on Brest, we were sent to help the civilians, and clear rubble. It struck me as odd that the British were fighting us, yet dropping bombs that were killing their supposed allies. I thought what a strange war this was, and hoped it to be over soon. The French were very grateful we aided them in every way we could.

Liselotte: In Stettin, there were many foreign workers from all over Europe. Many came for the high paying factory jobs that were offered and some came to aid in the fight against communism. Our neighbors had a nanny from Norway who went on to work on rocket construction in Peenemunde. All over town, we would see Spanish, French, Polish, and even Russian workers for the shipyards and factories. They were not forced labor and were free to roam Germany, which is not what is said today.

Were you present during the channel dash?

Siegfried: Yes, we were yearning to get back into the fight again and felt like a sitting duck at Brest. It was decided to send us back to the North Sea to halt some of the vast amount of supplies the Allies were sending Russia via their convoys. The Führer wanted a strong presence up north to deter England from attacking Norway.

Operation Cerberus started and we were all alert and on guard, some of us believed a great battle was about to commence between our fleet and the British home fleet. We had U-boat cover and a large Luftwaffe presence, day and night there were ME110 fighters protecting us. As we moved into the channel torpedo boats tried to attack but were beaten back with losses, our guns were trained and ready to let loose on the enemy. Aircraft, boats, and shore battery fire greeted us as we moved through. I left my station to go on deck to see air battles raging in the sky, but had to return quickly as mine warnings were announced.

We detonated a mine in the aft section, which caused minor damage but we had to stop dead in the water, making us a sitting duck. We managed to make it close to port, when all of a sudden we heard loud banging and creaking. We thought we had hit a mine or been torpedoed. We hit a sunken ship and took bad damage that would send us to port again for repairs. We reached Kiel finally, where we put into dry dock for repairs.

It did not take long for repairs to be completed, I was able to go home and this time I started to see some bomb damage in Kiel, Lubeck, and Berlin. I worried that the Allies would find a way to reach Stettin. I was hearing from friends who came home on leave about how terrible the Russian winter had been for 41/42. The home front had to come to their aid to provide enough winter clothing, and Russia launched a strong attack against our smaller forces throwing them back, My best friend was a panzer driver and was killed before Moscow, I was told he was hit in his panzer and died instantly.

The look our people wore on their faces started to show a fear of what this war might bring them, despite the best efforts of our leaders to help the population cope with the stress. I was still surprised that life went on in the Reich just like peacetime. We saw many foreigners in the stores, movies, and walking down the street. It did make us feel like we were not in this alone, that we had allies who were sending us help. It is not true that Germany forced people to come and work in factories. I never saw or heard anything of the sort, until today. The people we talked to were happy to be in Germany.

[Above: Liselotte's parents]

What was it like after the dash?

Siegfried: Well, I returned to the ship, which was made ready for action again in the North Sea. In one of the twists of fate you sometimes experience, I ended up promoted to a senior NCO and awarded my portepee for my navy dagger. I went into town to buy new uniform rank and to show off my status. My men took me out for dinner and drinks that went well into the night. We heard air raid sirens go off and knew the Allies were after our ship again as she was a big prize. As our flak thundered we heard a huge explosion which shook the air and ground around us. We feared for the worse and were unprepared for what came.

When we arrived at the dock, the ship was aflame, and dead could be seen everywhere. The Allies had gotten lucky; they hit Gneisenau and set off fresh charges for the guns. We ferried on board and quickly went to work. The crew already flooded parts of the ship to prevent further explosions. There were dead and wounded all over the ship that needed attention. I could hear sirens wail as ambulances and fire engines came to help us. The next day we saw in detail that this time they got us good.

A large number of the crew wounded or dead, the ship half sunk, and the dock damaged. After we buried our fallen and started putting the ship back together, another twist of fate happened.

It was announced that a full refit and repair would be made in Gotenhafen and I was thrilled; I would be close to home and family for the first time during the war, it felt like a huge blessing. I had a great feeling as we navigated the ship close to the home that I had missed.

What was the end of the war like for both of you?

Siegfried: By 1943, the Gneisenau was decommissioned, as it was using too much vital labor and supplies for a sea war that was being lost due to the overwhelming power the Allies could bring against us. The remaining crew had the choice of transferring to the U-boat arm, or move to another branch of the Wehrmacht. Some of my men were encouraged by a fanatic Waffen SS recruiter to go and join the SS, which they did but with reservations. We looked upon ground units as beneath Navy men.

I was a senior NCO and was offered administrative duties on shore, which thrilled me as I had seen enough fighting and had no desire to serve on a U-boat. I was often asked to brief officers and officials on our exploits and victories against the British. Sinking an aircraft carrier was apparently a big deal. I was able to visit home every week and watch our daughter grow.

News from the fronts started to worry me. We left Africa, lost at Stalingrad, and our cities were now main targets for enemy bombers. Friends would tell me their spirits were high, and they believed we would prevail, but the look on their faces did not hide their fear. I had to write letters to the families of the fallen of our ship telling how they fell. It was very hard to do, as I knew it could have easily been me if I had been on the ship.

By 1944, the east front was in full retreat, the Allies landed in Normandy and had taken Paris, our cities were all now within reach of bombers. We knew the end was coming for our great nation, we could not hope to stand up to all the might the Allies possessed. By the end of 1944, the Red army was advancing toward our town. In 1945, I moved to Kiel and informed my wife to leave and come to Kiel with me. We started to hear rumors of the atrocities the Russians were committing, so I was very afraid for my family. We had a son born and I knew it would be hard for my wife to make it, but I left it to God. We faced heavy attacks while I was in Kiel, the Allies were trying to destroy everything they could, and the city was a shell of its former self.

We were reunited in 1945 at Oldenburg and so happy to have survived, for us the war was over. I was a decorated NCO and served my nation and leader with honor. I was given family leave to care for my family that would last 2 months, but by then Kiel had fallen to the British and there was no point in returning. The local Volkstrum wanted men to aid in defending the town and I went with them helping to build anti-tank ditches, but luckily, their leader saw that any further loss of life was pointless so when the British came we surrendered.

They were frontline combat soldiers and respected the decision not to fight them so they kept us for a few days to see who was who. I was released, as I was a desk person as they called me. Given a pass for POW’s, I was able to return to Oldenburg to retrieve my family. Luckily, this pass kept me from further capture again and sent to a prisoner of war camp. The officer, who gave me the pass made a mistake, he gave me one that declared I was vital to the allied war effort. Therefore, all I needed to do was show this and we were given all manner of help from allied soldiers. I did not expect that.

Liselotte: My experience at wars end was not so comfortable. My husband urged me to leave Stettin as we heard terrible stories in the press and from those who had come west, about the behavior of the Russians. I knew I had to get out, but with a baby and toddler, it would be hard. The town mayor ordered everyone out, police went around helping people pack necessities. Helped by a NSDAP leader to a train, I first thought this would be easier than I imagined, but due to allied air attacks we stopped often, had to leave and hide, then start over. We came close to Berlin, which looked smoky from a recent raid, and we were detoured up north, where due to a destroyed bridge, we had to get out and walk.

We walked and came to a concentration camp where many people were stopped, and I can tell you the people I saw looked very healthy, and even had children with them, some even had babies that had been born in the camp. A large group of us stopped to ask the guards if they could spare any food. I saw Red Cross women tending to some of the people in the camp.

We were brought bread and some soup that the prisoners had made so we ate outside the camp. Prisoners would come up to ask about the war, and if the Russians were coming. A woman in our group was Polish and she spoke to an inmate in their language, then looked over to us and said she told her not to be happy the Russians are coming, as they are raping any women they see. She looked at me and told me to get away as fast as I can with my children, and she had a look of fear in her eyes. This scared me.

There was a small town not far away and I was able to stay with a couple who had a son fighting in the east so they were curious if I knew anything. I stayed with them a few days hoping both the weather and long columns of refugees would improve, so I could make it on another train. It was on the Führer's Birthday that I set off again and the weather was warm and sunny. I joined a group who were walking to a town called Herzberg, which still had working trains. It was with this group I witnessed a war crime.

There were many hundreds of us, and I was worried as we had not seen any military presence but I could hear rumbles to the east and to the west in the far distance. We were a dirty, tired, forlorn group I was thinking while I pushed the pram with my sleeping son and daughter by my side. Suddenly planes appeared overhead; they swooped down and started shooting at us. I saw a man wave a Red Cross flag at them, but it did not matter.

When they were finished, they had shot the wheel off the pram, missing my son by inches, killing several people and wounding many more. I was in tears and shock. A NSDAP officer was going through checking on us, and offered my daughter a piece of chocolate to calm her. I man in the group sarcasticly said this was for the Führer's birthday, a woman who was bleeding yelled at him so loud the pilots could have heard her, telling him the Führer did not cause this and to show respect.

I had to carry my son now; another woman helped me with my daughter. We made it to the train station and I was able to reach Travemunde where my husband met me, but the train had to stop many times due to air attacks. We were lucky to have made it in the bullet-ridden cars.

What was it like for you after the war?

Siegfried: We were able to find a house to stay in and my pass kept us fed, every time an allied soldier stopped me to ask for papers, I showed him the pass and asked where I can find food, they gladly assisted us. I was put to work for the British, working in an office with Americans. They would always compliment how pretty my wife was and advised us to move to the US, where many Germans lived. Friends went back to Stettin to retrieve some items that we left, but our home was damaged beyond repair so we knew we would not go back. After meeting up with our parents and family, we decided that Germany was too unstable to raise a family and the threat of communism was too great, so we took the advice of the Americans and came to Ohio.

Our son Ingo Wiskow became a Special Forces soldier under Col. Bo Gritz in Vietnam; he won many medals, but fell in action in 1968 while leading a charge against the enemy. He won the Silver Star, and I was advised he was nominated for higher awards too but the requests never were approved. He was a true war hero who gave all for our new home. We have a very good life in America and are thankful we survived the war, but I wish we did not have to fight the US. Our nation was left in ruins due to a war we did not want and did not start.

Back to Interviews