Interview with Willi, veteran of the 44.Infanterie-Division Reichsgrenadier Division 'Hoch-und Deutschmeister', an anti-tank unit, and who fought on many fronts. Himberg, Austria, 1990

Thanks for allowing me to visit with you, as I mentioned, I would like to write down some questions and answers so that I have them for study. May I start by asking you how you came to be in the German armed forces?

Willi: Absolutely my history friend, it starts with Austria being absorbed into the Reich under Hitler. I was 18 in 1937 and had to enlist to do my duty to the nation. I was in Infantry Regiment 4 as a simple soldier. I was not really a fan of Hitler or his party then, but I knew they had done good things in Germany. In Austria they were seen more as revolutionaries, as they killed our chancellor, Dollfuss [Engelbert Dollfuss (October 4, 1892 – July 25, 1934)], in 1934. Because of this, concentration camps were set up to hold Nazis. I remember I had schoolmates whose parents were caught up in all this. They went away to the camps and left the children to go it alone.

We had a very liberal government back then who did not allow any forms of criticism from the right wing parties after all this. I noticed it turned the people more towards Hitler, however, as he promised freedom, and would speak about how repressive Austria was back then. As we saw Germany grow stronger and more influential the mood changed and more people came to see Hitler as good for us. So in 1938 it was announced by popular decree that Germany and Austria would unite as one Reich. My regiment was invited to Germany as German troops were welcomed by us. Most argued that we share the same language, culture, and customs so we were one people. It just made sense for us to join them. When the Anschluss happened we were then moved into the Wehrmacht and went from infantry regiment 134 to the 44th infantry division. This happened in December of 1938 and I was given the choice to go to the tank hunters. This was new to me and I dove right in, and it was a plus that we had trucks, so not much marching. I remember we drilled the rest of the year of 1939 and became organized. We were one of the first divisions into Poland in September of 1939. That was not so much fun as it meant war for us.

Can I ask what you remember about Poland, how did the people see you and how were they treated?

Willi: Yes, I remember we started in the south, close to Kattowitz [Poles call this city ‘Katowice’, today it is in southern Poland, but it was part of Prussia for a century. After WWI, during an Allied theft of German territories, under the Treaty of Versailles, Kattowitz proper voted 22,774 to remain in Germany and 3,900 for Poland, but that didn’t matter, it was still given to Poland. Such is the 'Democracy' of the Allies.-Ed.] and immediately were met by German civilians who were rushing to get away from the Poles. Many were telling stories of abuses. I must address this with you as it is meaningful. You have been told we invaded Poland to gain more land in the east, they say Hitler warned everyone he was going to take the lands of the east, and so he started a war for it. This is not true and misunderstood. Hitler was referring to peacefully settling in the east, much like early Germans did, they moved in and brought great culture to a land devoid of it.

After the first war many hundreds of thousands of former Germans were forced to give allegiance to the Poles, two peoples traditionally opposed to each other. The Germans resisted the calls to become Poles and swear loyalty to a nation not their own. Because of this refusal, and the mandates put forth by the Allies, the Poles became very brazen in their demands, and their bad treatment of the Germans. The same thing happened in Czechoslovakia in 1938, Germans were abused and crying for help from a now powerful nation. I heard many reports and rumors of civilians being attacked, some murdered, in both these countries. I guess Hitler has seen enough and called the Allies' bluff, attacking a nation who was antagonizing him with chest thumping and attacks on German civilians.

It would maybe be hard to believe if I had not seen this myself. When we entered the nation the guards fled or surrendered and we crossed the border. No sooner had we moved out then civilians came out of woods where they had been hiding all night, saying they fled from soldiers and civilians who were trying to arrest them. I remember one woman who had a small child, weeping heavily saying her man had been taken away by a mob while trying to reach Reich territory. It appeared the Poles were out rounding up any Germans they could find. Further on we did see a couple of men killed and I wondered if one was her man. This soured us on the Poles, and orders were given that any civilians attacking Germans would be shot on sight. We encountered slight resistance a few km into Poland, but the soldiers all surrendered and acted like we were best friends. They shared smokes, told jokes, and wanted to trade with us like gypsies. We joked that if this is how the war was going to be we would be finished and back home in a week. We moved on into a city called Krakau and here was another strange incident, Jews came to us begging for help to stop attacks on them. Because many Jews spoke Yiddish, which is sometimes linked to German, the Poles turned on them and accused them of aiding us. We saw some who had been beaten badly. I heard later that to compound their misery, the police units made them help clean up war damage. While in the city infantry regiment 134 sent men to stand as honor guards and I was pulled into this by being in the regiment HQ. I was ordered to post as a guard of honor for the late Marshal Pilsudski.

He was a Polish leader who understood Germany was not his enemy and sought very good relations with Hitler. I remember when he died Germany staged a large ceremony and Hitler attended it. We wanted to show the Poles we were not their enemy as well. We wanted justice for Germans and a safe border, not a war. When we left the city we started to come under attack by the Polish Army; they had a very large, well organized force. Fortunately for us the Luftwaffe had cleared the skies and brought devastating attacks on their forces. They put up small stands but were routed and then surrendered. I will tell you about another funny time, I was again at the HQ for the 134th and got put into a march formation. The commander said to us, "you boys will get to march before the Führer." We marched past with full weapons and bullets, no leader would dare allow that today would he? Hitler was in his overcoat and gave us his greeting while looking over all of us. My eyes met his and I saw in him a look of leadership and bravery. Back then it was a very proud moment for me.

By now the campaign was mostly over, Russia invaded as well, and the prisoners came in long lines. I must say here that in spite of how we saw Germans treated, and Polish tricks that were dirty, we treated them with respect as soldiers. We understood that not all of them were bad, and most were quite brave with honor. Many would get to go home, and some even came to us later to fight. The ones who were accused of crimes were sent away, some, it is said, where shot. I saw none of the shootings if it is true. Oh, you asked about the Polish civilians, well yes, they did not want us in their nation, but once the fighting was done they were very well behaved. In our final spot we even helped the farmers with the harvest. I have old photos showing me by the large haystacks we made with them. We helped repair any damage the fighting caused, even the scorched earth the Polish army did. As they retreated they destroyed homes, farms and fields which I can say I helped repair. It was important to us that the Poles saw us not as conquerors, but as friends who needed them to join us.

[Above: Adolf Hitler and others attending a memorial in Berlin's St. Hedwig's Cathedral on May 18, 1935 to the great Polish leader Józef Pilsudski. In the background is the honorary cenotaph for Pilsudski. This showing of deep respect was organized with the Polish Embassy. Click to enlarge.]

Were you in the battle for France?

Willi: No, that is another strange twist of war. We were sent west to prepare for France, and we did drills in the snow. However, I was sent for training in the tank hunters and given a long leave. This lasted until June of 1940, then I rejoined the unit for occupation duty. You can say I was involved in the occupation of France, but did not see any of the fighting. I was sent to an area we had to help the French rebuild, just like in Poland. The French were even nicer to us than the Poles, and that's saying something. The French women are known for their natural beauty and our boys were smitten by them. Orders had to be made to keep the women out of our dorms, off our bases, and out of officers clubs. Men risked getting into lots of trouble by sneaking around with them. A comrade was sentenced to a month of arrest as he had one lovely lady naked in his barracks bed when there was a surprise inspection of the rooms.

We had a new officer who was punished after being seen kissing the breasts of his new found girl while in uniform and on duty. I could tell the old ones did not like seeing all this, to them we were their sworn enemy, but love is love and can't be stopped. I had a special girl I met in a park, where we liked reading about ancient Greece and we would spend hours talking. I had my girl back home who I pledged to be true to but this girl made it hard for me for sure. She denied me that first kiss, saying I must stay true to my word, as she would be mad if I belonged to her and I broke my word on someone else. I remember being mad that night, but she was correct. Always keep your word, young man, never let temptation win. She would often tempt me, I suspected, as she would wear a dress with stockings and would remove her shoes to play with her feet. We had a very strange friendship and it lasted even after the war. I took my wife to meet her in 1954 and she was now a wife and mother. She survived the war, thank goodness, and married in 1950, saying I was her one that got away. She was a defender of German honor after the war, as she saw how we really were and meant no harm to her nation. That was my time in France, I am afraid, no brave war stories to tell you.

Did I hear you say before that you saw service in Russia and at Stalingrad?

Willi: Yes indeed, I was with the 132 by the time Russia started, I was in a gun crew with a 3.7 Pak [3.7 cm Pak 36, or Panzerabwehrkanone 36], we called it the door knocker. It was a small caliber that could not defeat the Russian tanks, it only let them know we were there, it knocked on their door. We learned to be very good shots to hit them where it would at least disable them. It wasn't until later we received much better guns; the 7.5 Pak 40 could knock out anything. This was mounted later on as a mobile tank hunter. We had to fight Russia, you see, because Stalin was clever, he knew that he wanted to take the west and make it part of the Soviet system. He knew Germany was strong, but due to fighting the war, would be weakened, as would Britain. He believed if he struck out, no one would be able to stop him.

He had an ally in Roosevelt [Franklin Roosevelt (January 30, 1882 – April 12, 1945) was the 32nd president of the United States and president during WWII], Eleanor [Roosevelt, the president's wife] being an avowed Marxist and ally. Hitler knew this and in spite of what all the history teachers tell you, he hit Russia before they hit us. It was a preemptive attack in order to stop an attack whether it came that month or next year. I saw the vast amount of war material the Russians were stockpiling; this was for offensive moves, not defensive like they claim today. We found maps of German positions, roads and rails lines. Even prisoners said they were being trained to move west, they just did not know when. We took so many prisoners in those early months of the fighting that we thought we caught the entire Russian army. Little did we know this was just the beginning of the colossus. We moved into the south and fought in the Ukraine making it all the way to a town called Charkov [better known today as Kharkiv] before it got cold. The weather saved the Russians as we were spent, we had little food and fuel. We fought against a much larger army, routing them over and over, until we were exhausted. Then Stalin sent the east divisions at us, Japan refused to join the fight and freed up these divisions. I remember that cold, it was bitter, the coldest in Europe in a hundred years. Many compared us to Napoleon and his failed invasion; we hoped it would not turn out like his. The civilians suffered as bad as we did, the Soviets burned everything they could to deny us food and shelter.

We not only had to take care of ourselves, but the populations as well, our medical staff was kept very busy. To add insult, the Soviets counter-attacked in many spots and threw the lines back. The east soldiers were full of courage made with vodka, they came at us in waves, and many times our heavy weapons failed. We had to use special grease to keep our guns ready, the Soviet tanks moved very slowly in the snow so it was easy to fire several rounds at them, finally disabling them, or setting them on fire. I remember seeing the burning hulks of many that winter. We took many crews prisoner, and the dead would give up warm clothing. Many of the civilians provided us with shelter and what little food they had, we would have what we called 'eating parties' to bring whatever we could gather to a home and then combine it all into a meal. We freely shared with our hosts; we never mistreated them or deprived them. I want to state that.

That spring we renewed our offensive and again routed the much larger Soviet army in many encirclement battles. This brought us all the way to Stalingrad in the fall; we held the line to the north of the city. Here is another funny story to tell you. We held the line and attacked Soviet units in the north sector of the south front. They launched a massive encirclement attack in November, and I just happened to be at a collective farm trading for eggs and supplies with friendly farmers. The harvest was done for that year and there was finally more food for everyone. We could trade cigarettes or anything we had for what they had. On my way back I was stopped by my regimental commander who wanted some men to go back to Charkov, which earlier was a big battle. We were to go retrieve some replacements and vehicles. I was given a leave in the city for a few days to wait for everything, and this saved me. During this time the attack happened and it cut off the Sixth Army in Stalingrad. The 44th was forced back into the city to help defend it. I was put into alarm units to fight off Soviet advances, but the weather was on their side. I was also later in group Hoth [Generaloberst Hermann Hoth (April 12, 1885 – January 25, 1971)] who was tasked with punching through to relieve the city.

The dammed weather and our small force could not make it to the city for lack of supplies and movement. I saw some men freeze to death that winter; it was a very bad time for us for sure. When the city fell we were shocked and dismayed. We had all worked so hard to achieve victory, and now it was over. For me it meant being sent back to France to help rebuild a new division, this time we bore the name 'Hoch-und Deutschmeister' [an honorary title]. We stayed on invasion duty for a few months, and it was like being on vacation for me. I went to visit old friends, and heal from the mind-numbing cold. I would go to the beach often to read history books and relax. Again the relations with the French were very good; I saw no resistance efforts or anti-German sentiment. The French and the Belgians got along with us famously. You would not know this today because of the post-war stories. We stayed in France until the call came to bolster Italy, so we went back to Austria for a while and secured the Brenner Pass until Italy asked us to come in.

You fought in Italy against the Americans, what was it like for you?

Willi: Yes indeed, I fought against all the Allied nations in the war. In Italy we had to secure the positions around Monte Cassino and Liri Valley. I once took 5 prisoners from the 45th Infantry Division during an attack we broke up. We knocked out a few Shermans [American tanks]; I got out to look at the damage and stumbled on troops hiding. I must tell you this in regards to prisoners; I fought on many fronts all through the war. At no time were there ever any orders given saying that no prisoners would be taken. Even in Russia we would go out of our way to take prisoners due to the intelligence they gave. Our enemies, especially the Russians, Americans, and partisans, often times would not take prisoners. We took them prisoner to understand what happened to make them not take German prisoners. Often it was false propaganda claiming some type of massacre or crime.

For taking the Americans prisoner I was given the Iron Cross due to the intelligence they gave us. It went well with the assault badge I won in Russia. I was lucky up to this point in the war; I had not been wounded in action yet. I had only gotten sick once and sent to a small hospital in Russia to heal up. During the assaults on the Cassino area in February I was hit in the thigh by shrapnel from long range artillery. It was a wound that nearly ended me; the doctor said it narrowly missed my artery. If that would have been severed I would have bled out in minutes and I would not be here talking to you today. It made it so I could not walk for a long time as bone was shattered. I was sent to a hospital close to Vienna, and it was here I was able to wed my sweetheart, who stood by my side the whole war. We had a nice ceremony attended by many new friends I had made. By August of 1944 I was able to stand and walk again, but I needed help with a cane. So after nice weather in Italy, and a long stay back home I was again sent to the division in time to fight the Soviets again.

[Above: A tired soldier of the 44.Infanterie-Division Reichsgrenadier Division 'Hoch-und Deutschmeister'.]

In Italy did you have any problems with partisans? Did you see any war crimes?

Willi: Yes, when we were told to move across the border, the whole of north Italy was friendly to us, they welcomed us and showered us with flowers and kisses as we went through towns. The problems were in the east, Tito created a large army that spread into the east of Italy and they organized units in the hills around us. This whole partisan war was nasty business and hard to explain. These people were also called terrorists because they attacked targets that could not defend themselves. They would target anyone friendly to us, often killing them, or believe it or not, taking their family hostage. There were many Italian SS and police units that hunted these terrorists down and when caught they were sent to concentration camps or special prisons. They could be executed as well, since the rules of war forbade anyone to wage war in civilian clothes or the uniforms of your enemy. These terrorists did both.

They were well supplied by the Allies, sometimes with better weapons than we had, and often put up good fights. Where we get into trouble is how we dealt with them when captured. We all received training in espionage and understood it was against international law for civilians to take up arms. Of course our enemies ignored this and tried many men for executing these criminals, which was the law back then. I will say that my understanding was when German forces captured them they were not killed but kept as hostages where they could be executed if a German was likewise executed. Some SS officer is in trouble now I see for killing many in a cave; I believe if the truth comes out he was correct. The ones held as prisoners were usually already convicted and sentenced to death. Of course today the winners can make anyone out to be a victim, no matter how guilty they may be. In our sector I remember having to deal with downed trees and sabotage to lines. If caught, these terrorists were turned over to the police or Italians to deal with. The army rarely got involved with punishments or labor allocations. The only time I saw our men take any action was when a comrade was killed by a partisan.

He was shot down as soon as it happened, and a search found another man hiding who was armed and he was shot as well. It was a hard duty to do and a senseless loss of lives, but when they picked up weapons to use on us they knew what they were doing. After the war these terrorists were able to play on sympathy and lies to appear to be heroic freedom fighters.

What was the end of the war like for you?

Willi: I was placed in a support company of the tank hunter unit as we went into action in Hungary. I was again wounded, this time in my arm, so I was put out of action again and sent back into Austria. This was in March and by now all was kaput for us. We heard the Americans were coming from the west and Soviets from the east. I was released from the hospital in late April, and by then the division had been scattered and some surrendered to the Soviets and were never heard from again, I and most others surrendered to Americans. At first we were treated very well, our leaders were able to organize us into groups and give out the small amount of supplies they allowed. Later on we were moved into larger camps where food was not given, and we had to rely on rain water to drink. I remember that summer was hot and we baked in the open with no shelter. They did not allow any help to come in at all.

It is funny to say now, but we honestly believed back then that America was coming to help us fight Stalin, of course this is silly now, but we believed it. Life did improve in the camps, as we were moved into smaller camps for labor work. Many comrades died in these early camps from not getting care or food. When people saw what was happening there were cries to get us help and finally they relented. I remember my first tin of stew I ate; I took a long time to finish as I savored every bite. The camp we were in held us loosely for one and a half years and by the end we could get visitors and packages. They pushed heavy propaganda on us though, showing movies about the camps and crimes of the regime. We could just say we were Austrians and did not take part in it. That was the easy way out but we only wanted to see home again. My Anne-Marie and I then decided to move to the mountains in 1950 and then settled back here later on around 1965.

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