This October 1987 interview is with Obergefreiter Irwin Rohers of the 7th Panzer division.

[Above: Marking of the 7th Panzer division.]

What interested you to join the new panzer arm?

Rohers: Our panzers were an improvement from the monsters of ww1 that were somewhat useful in breaking through the enemy lines. After the war, our leaders improved the idea of driving armor into the enemy to break their lines. The black uniforms and the tradition of the Hussars that the panzer men carried on impressed me. In Germany in the 30’s work was plentiful and there were good paying jobs to choose from. In 1935, the Wehrmacht was reformed and it was required that all young men give 2 years’ service to the nation.

I did service with the RAD, working to clean the beaches in north Germany. In 1939 I volunteered for the panzer arm, and was sent to the 2nd light division which became the 7th panzer div. I was in the 25th Panzer Regiment after Poland, under command of Colonel Karl Rothenburg. I was trained on a pz mk II and 38t.

What was it like going to war?

Rohers: Going to war is never easy, and especially for a nation that lost so much from the first world war. We had a bad feeling that something would break loose. Hitler made it clear to everyone that the land that was taken due to Versailles, should be returned to the Reich. To this end, he was committed, as was the people. We heard stories of the plights of German’s who were made minorities in their former land, Because they were now minorities, they were at the mercy of their new masters. Some of whom were very cruel to the Germans.

Regarding Poland, we have always been at odds with them, going back a few hundred years. Most people do not know that after ww1 Poland attacked Germany, trying to claim even more land than what the Allies awarded them. Our Freikorps units stopped the Poles and Communists, who were both trying to dismantle the new Weimar Republic. Germany tried to work out deals with Poland regarding the corridor, but because of English meddling, all our offers were refused. In 1938 and 1939, we followed reports of border incursions by Polish citizens, some of them resulted in violence and even murders on German citizens.

Therefore, when we declared war, it was a sad day, but was not a surprise. What came as a surprise was the Allied declaration against us, but not against the Russians.

[Above: Adelbert Schulz, commander of 25th Panzer Regiment, the main striking force of the 7th Panzer Division, near a Panzer III in June 1943.]

Did you see action in Poland?

Rohers: Yes, my training as a gunner was complete in 1939, and my rgt was sent into Poland at the beginning of hostilities. Right away, we faced superior Polish forces, as Poland had been preparing for war for months. We took heavy causalities as we were fresh, green troops, but we prevailed largely with the help of our Luftwaffe. They were able to knock out artillery positions that were causing us many problems. I saw our first prisoners and I was amazed at how relaxed we were with them, a general was allowed to ride his horse with his men to the rear of our lines, it did not even appear they were beaten or prisoners.

At this point we also started to hear rumors that German civilian’s had been killed by soldiers, wounded soldiers had been mutilated, and LW crews were killed after surrendering, so we were instructed to capture and interrogate all prisoners to find out more information regarding these incidences.

At the 2-week point of the war, we came upon a Polish tank rgt, who had better tanks than we did. Our training seemed to be better, and since we could communicate with each other, we were able to route them, with the help of Stuka’s. I remember going out and looking at the knocked tanks and seeing how much thicker their armor was as opposed to the mk I, II and 38t.

What was your impression of the Polish soldier?

Rohers: It is hard to explain, our two countries had not been on good terms as the Poles felt we owed them for being their former rulers, and we felt they were arrogant and oppressive. My first thoughts were that I did not care for them, as that is just what life was like in Europe, we were one people’s but created so many ways to divide us and create hatred. When the first prisoners were seen, they looked poor and dirty. They did have lots of food, which we soon learned to trade with them. Our supply columns were sometimes a day behind so we would be hungry. One soldier who spoke broken German traded me some sausages and bread for some writing paper. He said he met a very pretty girl in Warsaw and he wanted to write to her. We sat down and rested with this group of prisoners and we got along great. One soldier joked that they were headed to Berlin but not in the way they thought.

The Polish soldier was mostly drafted and not wanting to stay in the fight. We came upon many groups who had deserted and were just trying to return home. One unfortunate incident was a lorry drove into our ranks, we assumed it was ours or full of prisoners, a sgt got out, yelled some orders, then more soldiers jumped down and stated shooting at us. We were unprepared and took causalities, but our response was total, we shot down all of them once we recovered. The sgt was badly wounded, but we were so angry that he would lead his men into this type of sneaky attack that we left him to his fate.

What were the Polish people like?

Rohers: The people surprised me, from the very first day, we encountered people who came out to cheer us, and welcome us as liberators. These were largely people who were German, so that was expected. As we moved deeper into the country, even Poles would come out to see what we were like; they would bring food and water. Many wanted to trade with us cigarettes and chocolate for eggs, meat, and milk. The Polish army confiscated large numbers of animals and many farmers asked us if we could help return their animals if we found them. The rear security men would later help to reunite people with lost possessions. Not all was well though, there were incidences where some civilians attacked our soldiers and when captured they were tried and executed for crimes against the Wehrmacht. One sad incident like this was when our recon unit was entering a small town, and came under fire from a man hiding in a tree, but he was not prepared for the mg34 that responded to him. When they entered the small town, the mayor demanded to know why he was killed and not taken prisoner. Our commander ordered flyers to be made that warned anyone that attacks on German soldiers or civilians will be tried and executed for breaking the rules of war. We had no further issues of acts of sabotage or attacks.

Poland surrendered and we thought our short war was over, with Russia in Poland now, we all wondered why England did not declare war on them. Made us think they only wanted to fight us to settle old scores, they just used Poland to do it. We settled into occupation duties for a few short weeks and held reviews and repaired equipment. We also helped the Polish people rebuild, the small town we were quartered in took some damage so we helped the people rebuild some of their homes. Our engineers stayed very busy. We were sent back to Germany to reorganize into the 7th Panzer and upgrade to new Pz II and III panzer’s. We had gained great confidence but still had angst regarding the overall situation in the west, learning that the French attacked and occupied Reich territory did not help.

What happened next?

Rohers: We reorganized in Germany, trained on our new panzers and prepared for action against France. The Führer made peace requests to the Allies, all of which were turned down. We read that England viewed us as conquerors and invaders, terrorizing Europe. It was ironic that this nation, built by colonizing and terrorizing the whole world, was accusing us of the same. It still bothered me that they declared war on us, but not Russia, for “invading” peaceful Poland.

On May 10th, we were part of the first wave to attack France and race to the Meuse. We were confident, but still scared to death. We were about to attack the 2 largest armies in the world, being outnumbered 10 to 1 we had a horrible sense that they easily could push our small forces all the way to Berlin. We had an unknown General, named Rommel who was leading us, and I noticed right away he liked to lead from the front. Our first action against French tanks came around Arras, the British also joined in. We were being beaten since we were heavily outnumbered; our anti-tank guns were useless against the superior tanks. Enter Rommel, he orders our flak units to deploy their heavy 88 guns in a ground role. The Allied tanks were stopped dead with heavy losses. We captured our first British prisoners who were stunned and shocked. They were still confident that 1918 would happen in 1940. After this action, the Allies looked broken and demoralized. The attack that hit them from the Ardennes came as a complete surprise as they had the bulk of their armies up north. The Führer allowed his generals to put together a great plan.

Shortly after our victory, were we pressing the Allies to the coast, but right when it appeared we trapped them and could swing and capture the bulk of the BEF we were stopped. We had no idea why. We had the enemy beaten, and were ready to deliver the knockout blow. It is claimed today that we stopped because the Führer was afraid we were over extended and under supplied. This is not true. Our flanks were reinforced, our supply lines were greatly improved since Poland, and we had plenty of fuel and ammunition. This caused some anger and frustration among our ranks. Even the LW had to halt attacks on the area around Dunkirk. Rumors were some LW pilots disobeyed orders and still went ahead and attacked the beach’s claiming they were chasing Allied fighters away. We did have complete control of the sky and land. We were ordered to assist French refugees and work with arriving Red Cross personnel, as always, we helped rebuild what we had shared responsibility in destroying.

We found out the BEF and parts of the French army had escaped to England. This was disheartening as we were so close to capturing them all. It is now known that our government was desperately using neutral countries to try to end the war. The Führer, I believe, halted us to allow the Allies to evacuate to show them we were serious about peace. They claimed we could not be trusted, we were sneaky, we violated their treaties, so what better way to demonstrate our commitment to end this, than to allow there army to come home. Since they ended up being the victors, it is easy to turn it around and make us look incompetent with incompetent leaders. I am always amused that the English make it seem like the Führer was a terrible field commander for letting them escape, when he was just being humane. If we had smashed Dunkirk, they would be talking about how cruel we were.

[Above: A photo taken after the war of a Munster Panzer 38 Ausf S of the 7th Panzer division.]

Did you ever meet General Rommel?

Rohers: Yes, he was everywhere among us. One thing I can say that National Socialism did, is it made everyone realize that we are all equal. It stripped away that old aristocratic attitude that money makes the man, and gives him a station. NS says all men are created equal, and should be respected and judged by the contribution they make to help their people. Rommel embodies this belief; he would eat with us, sleep with us, and knew many of us by first names. My best memory was when I was promoted to Gefr, we were in formation receiving awards. I was not feeling well, and probably looked like it. Rommel approached me and I looked forward, saluted, and passed out. I was told he made sure I was quickly taken to the hospital and he ordered me some special healing water. He came to visit me in the hospital, giving me my Iron Cross 2nd class for actions at Arras. He spoke to me for a good while, saying he would arrange for me to go on leave to go home to get better. He made such a good impression on me. Sadly, he left our division for service in Afrika so I never saw him again.

Did you see any war crimes in France?

Rohers: Not from our side. That may seem odd to you, as I am sure you have been taught we rampaged throughout Europe, but the truth is far different. The Allies in France were guilty of shooting their own civilians if they suspected them of sympathy to us. There were many French who turned out to welcome us, as they admired our country. I do not want to give the impression I am saying all the French loved us, because the majority did not, but a few did and if they were found out, they paid a heavy price. The Negro soldiers seemed to be particularly eager to break the rules of war, as any area they had been in, there were many complaints from the civilian population about looting, rape, and murder. When they were captured, special attention was paid to interrogate them to see if they were involved in anything illegal. We also heard rumors that the English used bullets that they reversed to cause more damage, but I never saw this. This is my extent of war crimes knowledge. The French and English always seemed to fight in a way that may have blurred the rules of war, but they never seemed cruel or sadistic, unlike what we came across in the east. The English prisoners I met in France seemed like good guys who were forced to fight a war they really didn’t care for, just like us.

What was your impression of the Waffen SS?

Rohers: I was always impressed with them; they saved us more than once. They were never quite used how they were intended. They were always mixed in with army groups and used as fire brigades, meaning they were sent only to very active parts of the front to stabilize the situation. Being in the panzerwaffe I always viewed us as being elite, just like the SS. Some of my comrades had been in the prewar SS, then drafted. We fought alongside the Totenkopf div in France; I have nothing bad to say about them. They were taught to fight hard and be courageous, and it showed.

What about all the atrocities they are accused of?

Rohers: Those mean nothing to me. There is a saying “The victor rights the history of a war” and WW2 is a prime example of this axiom. I lived through six years of war and the post war years, I can state with a clean conscience that I never saw our side harm any innocents. The German army is now being accused of the same crimes the SS has been accused of, killing civilians, shooting Jews, looting, burning down whole towns for no reason, and just plain being cruel. So we are in the same boat now. I knew two classmates who joined the Waffen SS, and never returned home, they served their nation just like me in an honorable way. I have seen the movies, read the books, and listened to the “eyewitness’s” tell the story of what happened, it’s a one sided story, where the other side is not allowed to speak.

This war was a war where civilians actively involved themselves, either in direct combat, or in acts of resistance, both of which are illegal. When they were encountered, we had to be firm, which to some may seem equally as bad but they didn’t see the results of these acts of “resistance” many on our side saw. We fought all over Europe, and think of all the ethnic peoples involved, each having different views, and goals. The Balkans was a hornet’s nest after we moved on; I had a friend from the RAD who had to deal with a train that derailed from a big bridge in Serbia, bringing soldiers home from Greece. All on board died from this attack from communist partisans. Soldiers were just a few of the people, men, women, and children all died, so our security forces, helped by Croatia, took the job of finding these killers serious. Anyone who helped them was fair game. That is what we were up against all over Europe.

So when you hear all these stories about what we did to the innocent civilians, there is much more to the story that you are not being told. The Waffen SS were excellent soldiers, just like their comrades in the Wehrmacht, we may have had some banter between us, much like the marines and army, but we each respect the other. They paid a heavier price after the war, as they were labeled criminals by the victors.

You served on the Russian Front, what was it like?

Rohers: The 7th Panzer was in the fight from the very first day, I remember it well. We knew we were going to attack Russia as soon as we were sent east into Poland. We had received training that dealt with the T26 tank that was thinly armored, much like out 38t, and we knew from there we would be going to be fighting a colossus of a nation. We had more confidence this time as we had beaten both France and England when both outnumbered us. June 22 started for me very early in the morning. We could hear rumbles that sounded like thunder, it was our artillery. We were ordered to our panzers for marching orders. Our CO told us that Russia had plans to attack the Reich, and so we had to attack first to catch them by surprise. We moved out and into the unknown at dawn.

At first, we saw no Russians; it was like a peacetime parade. We saw destruction on the sides of the roads, enemy trucks, cars, tractors, animals, and some dead soldiers but no enemy in force. The Poles came out to greet us liberators and gave us water. No sooner after I thought this was going to be easy, than we were hit by a massive Soviet attack. Again it was the same story, the enemy tanks were more numerous, and better armed than us. We had the advantage of air support and radios. I was in a 38t which could stand against the T26. My first engagement with the T26 was almost a disaster. We were dealing with a whole Soviet tank company, my panzer had gotten separated from our company and came face to face with 4 T26 tanks, they saw us first and fired. How they all missed, I cannot explain, as they were only 175 meters from us. I sighted the first one and fired, knocking it out, turned the turret, shell loaded, and fired again. The second tank exploded in a ball of flame, shell loaded, target acquired, I was shaking and sweating badly, fired, direct hit. I saw the crew bail out and run away. Last tank was hit and put out of action. No sooner did we destroy these, then another tank appeared and fired, hitting us in the engine section, putting us out of action. I was able to turn the turret, focus, and fire, knocking him out and saving us from destruction. Help arrived in the form of our “lost” company who secured our flanks and fought off Soviet infantry.

We were towed back to our repair area so that we could be made ready again. We were hearing very heavy fighting in front of us, now the Russians seemed everywhere. As we continued our early advance, I was quite surprised at the vast amount of men and material we encountered. We saw endless columns of prisoners and literally hundreds of supply dumps with plenty of equipment. Stalin claimed after the war, that our invasion stunned him, as we had asked him to sign a non-aggression pact, I find that hard to believe since what we saw was a vast army, being supplied for an attack. We caught this vast juggernaut by surprise, and with lightning speed was able to disrupt those plans.

The next months were filled with rapid advances, prisoners, tank on tank fights, and victory. We started having this feeling like we could not be stopped. The Russians outnumbered us, but we bested them in every fight, it wasn’t easy, but we did.

Impressions of the Russian soldier?

Rohers: My impressions are all over the place. I saw some who looked like they crawled out of the depths of hell, others who could have been my brother. We received orders to recruit from the prisoners we took, helpers who were willing to work for us. In exchange, they avoided pow camps and stayed behind the lines. We had several helpers, or HIWI’s, one was a pretty girl who we captured with a large group. She had a look of a Ukrainian and as I tried to have conversations with her, I could tell she hated communism. Many of my company wanted to woo her, our CO gave strict orders she was not to be courted. This was a rule we found hard to obey, as she was very flirtatious and friendly. It turned out she was a very good cook also and ended up very close with our cooks.

Other Russian soldiers we interacted with were not very pleasant, especially the commissars we captured. It has often been cited that they were largely Jewish, and I can personally say I saw this first hand. The commissars were political officers put in the ranks, to make sure soldiers fight and obey orders. They had the power to shoot anyone for any reason they saw fit, all with the blessing of Stalin. Because of the stories being circulated by our allies, the commissars were thought of as murderers and cowards. They were deeply interrogated by all levels of intelligence and police, and if they were found to be in areas where crimes were committed against the Wehrmacht or civilians they were executed as it was reasonable to conclude they had something to do with it. Some higher ranks were sent back to the Reich for our SD to try to learn more information from them.

AS an example, we came into a few Polish and Russian towns where the NKVD had killed civilians or retreating Russian soldiers, we later learned they were mainly killed because they refused or were too slow to retreat with the army. Any political prisoners were taken out and shot as a matter of policy as it could be proven that they ordered the murder of the civilians.

In turn, once the area was free of Soviets, the remaining civilians sometimes turned on anyone who collaborated with the regime, mostly Jews. We came upon a scene where a small town we freed, and all Jews who didn’t escape we found shot in the town square, the mayor telling our General that these people were responsible for the deaths of many by working with and for the NKVD to turn in anyone who opposed them. It was sad seeing whole families shot down, but there were other families who had also suffered due to their hatred. Hate breeds hate. During the war in the East, I also saw many partisans punished by hanging for attacks against our allies and us. We would do public hangings to try to instill a fear in the population, that attacking us had very severe consequences. Which was a catch 22 as it also turned some of the population against us, as they only saw it as us killing their fellow citizens. They did not understand the laws of war, as Russian was not concerned with humanity in wartime it seemed.

We did our best to treat all Russian soldiers and civilians with respect and civility, and for the most part this was successful. Any German’s photo album will always have photos showing a good relationship with the Russian people. The beauty of Ukrainian women smote many of our soldiers, and many had relationships that lasted until the end, as these people hated the Soviet system, which had tried to exterminate them.

I also remember how sneaky some Russian soldiers were, they faked surrender, faked death, then would open fire when our guard was down. Some were quite cruel, lead of course by their commissars, they shot wounded, attacked hospitals and ambulances, Partisans attacked hospital trains, even in the opening days we saw or heard stories regarding their conduct. They had no reason to be this cruel as we acted as professional soldiers and felt sorry for the misery these soldiers came from. It amazes me that they fought so hard, considering so many lived in poverty and misery. The power of propaganda is the only thing that can explain it, for me. They were taught we were the evil beasts coming to kill and rape. Yet it is ironic it was their Jewish propaganda minister, Ehrenburg, who urged them to be the killers and rapists, which they did to all of Eastern Europe.

[Above: An Sd.Kfz. 251 of the 7th Panzer division in southern France, November 1942.]

Where you ever a crewmember on a Tiger?

Rohers: No, I am afraid the biggest panzer I was ever part of was the long barrel Mk IV, which was more than capable of knocking out any Allied tank. I came to love this model. It had great armor, and was easy to work on. It was somewhat cramped as we kept all our belongings in or on the panzer. It was our home more times than not and we made sure we kept it as clean as we could. In this MkIV we knocked out a total of 20 enemy vehicles before we were knocked in late 1944. We were on the former Polish border and being used as a rear guard to hold up the Russians. Our driver was on lookout duty, and went to scout around. We were inside trying to stay warm and catch up on sleep, when suddenly we heard him yell at a distance that tanks were coming. We jumped into action, started the old girl, and no sooner did he jump in, that we received a hit on our drive sprocket, and then a shot hit the transmission and we started to smoke. Our commander ordered us out and to retreat to our lines, which we barely made it to before we had to retreat yet again. We found our way back to our rgt, but now we had no panzer so we were used as infantry for the rest of the war that we hated. I have heard the Panthers and Tigers were very difficult tanks to maintain and drive, so in a way I am glad I did not crew one.

What was the end of the war like?

Rohers: We were in constant combat from 1944 ‘til the end, we fought in Poland, East Prussia, and back to the Reich. It was very trying as we were vastly outnumbered, and under strength. We were trapped in Prussia along with thousands of civilians fleeing the rampaging Soviets. We had ships take us back to the Reich, but we left all equipment behind. We realized in March of 45 that the end was near, and barring some miracle, we would lose this war. Our thoughts were to now save as many people as we could. Old, women, and children were the priorities and did what we could to give them food and shelter. All of the Reich’s infrastructure was destroyed, no gas, water, electric, or medicine. People were dying from even simple wounds and sickness. I even saw a large ship loaded with camp inmates being sent back to the Reich, which I found odd since these were people we wanted out. I later learned after the war, the British attacked this ship, sinking it with a large loss of life. When we landed, we were again organized into fighting units, but we had no panzers, no food, and no hope. I saw a land full of wretched refugees, our political leaders were doing their best to get help to those who needed it, but the Allies were bombing and strafing everything that moved.

I saw a refugee column attacked by US fighters, many were killed and wounded for no reason at all, some were not even German. There were no military vehicles, and the pilots just seemed to want to attack anything moving. We made our way into Schwerin and were told by a political leader that the British were entering the city and that to avoid any other loss of life or damage to the city, he was sadly seeking to surrender. We had many who still wanted to stay in the fight, but we had no weapons to counter the British tanks, even a Waffen SS unit was depleted of all anti tank pieces, only 5 panzerfausts is all we could find. The city was filling more and more with refugees from the east, and it was decided to surrender rather than put these people in a front line city, for all of us, the war was finally over. Our CO ordered a truce party under a white flag to contact the British and arrange for surrender. When the British arrived, I was astounded at the vast amount of vehicle’s and material they had, I wondered how we had been able to last this long knowing that our weakest enemy had the capability to have so much. I couldn’t wait to see what the Americans had.

The first British we encountered were quite cold, doing a lot of yelling and pushing. They ripped off badges and stole personal belongings at rifle point. I was beyond stunned, our company lt. protested, only to be met with a screaming soldier hitting him with a rifle butt. These were not the same British soldiers we saw in France earlier in the war; I could sense 5 years of propaganda had turned their hearts dark. We were then herded off out of town, then were picked up by trucks with much nicer soldiers. They must have sensed we had been through something bad, as they went out of their way to give us food. Out lt complained about our prior treatment and a few British officers came over to hear him. He said they would investigate and punish anyone who acted against the rules of war. One of our comrades had his wedding ring returned to him after this. We were separated and processed into camps to be held as pow’s. We did not understand this, as the war was over, according to the rules we should have been released to go home. I was held until December of 1945. I was one of the lucky ones; I survived and was able to return home when so many could not.

I could not comprehend the destruction I saw in the Reich, nearly every town and city had substantial damage, which would take decades to rebuild. Rebuild we did, we owed it to our countless comrades who fell, to give their descendants a future, albeit one controlled by the victors who had wrought such devastation on us.

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