Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Requiem for a German Past III

A Boyhood among the Nazis by Jurgen Herbst
We reached the southern outskirts of Loningen on the morning of April 11 at about the same time that the first British units arrived at the city's western side. In The 43rd Wessex Division at War 1944-1945 Major-General Hubert Essame writes that the British units there

struck determined resistance, particularly in the wood to the south. They were faced in fact by a composite battalion of the Grossdeutschland Brigade, mostly boys of from 16 to 18 years of age, but including a company of potential officers... [who] fought with the utmost ferocity. However, before midnight they had been overwhelmed.

Flattering as General Essame's description is, it does not quite match my recollections of the engagement. Our company was to take over from the 8th Parachute Division the rear-guard defense of our retreating troops. We were asked to dig in along the Hase Canal and River. The day and the night passed with frequent changes in our positions, forcing us to dig new foxholes again and again. This repeated itself on the morning of the April 12 until in the afternoon when we were dug in facing south along the river. We were unnerved by a sudden burst of machine-gun fire at our backs to the north of us where the main road led from Loningen to Lastrup. Obviously, the British were moving along the road and were about to overtake us and cut us off. We left our positions and, in single file, ran and stumbled through the swampy meadows toward the sound of the gunfire.

It was then that, for the first time, my platoon came under enemy fire. Artillery shells hurled toward us with unnerving shrieks, thunderously splashing in the ponds and watery pastures, their explosions splintering the willow trees along the ditches. Dirt, stones, tree branches, and shrapnel whirled through the air. I tasted sulphur between my teeth. Again and again the rumble, the whistling rush, and the ear-splitting crash. My stomach turned, my knees trembled. This, then, was what they called the Feuertaufe, the baptism by fire, I thought. I felt an unstoppable urge rising in my esophagus. Scream. Scream. I wanted to get rid of that pressure in me. I wanted to shout into the air: Stop, stop, no more, no more. But my mouth remained silent. All I could do was to stare across the flat pasture from where, in the distance, the terrible thundering, whistling, and crashing had come.

The "lame duck," a British artillery observation plane, circled lazily above us, directing the fire. We crouched and pressed ourselves into the ditches to avoid being spotted by the plane and hit by the shell fragments that tore into the ground around us. I continued to tremble and sweat. My stomach demanded that I relieve myself. This is madness, I silently cried out, stop, for God's sake, stop. But the shells kept coming. After each burst our sergeant shouted: "Get up, get up, rim." When the distant rumble announced the coming of another shell: "Take cover, take cover, hit the dirt." And so it went. We got up and raced along and we threw ourselves down. We hastened onward again, sweat running in our eyes and obscuring our vision, until finally the spotter plane flew off, the firing stopped, and our sergeant, announcing that none of us had been hurt, ordered us to resume our march.

The firing to our north had by now ceased and we followed a path through the pastures that led to a deserted farmhouse. A group of ten of my comrades was ordered to dig in a few hundred feet north of us along the wood's edge to secure us against surprise attacks from the highway. The rest of the platoon gathered in the farm yard. It had become obvious by now: We had been cut off, surrounded on all sides by British troops. Our best chance to evade detection was to keep quiet until nightfall. Then we could resume our march and break out of the pocket.

But renewed shooting broke out along the highway. Our sergeant ordered me to reconnoiter and make contact with our security guards. I grabbed a bicycle and took off for the woods. Dusk had set in. It was hard to see clearly among the trees. I put my bicycle down and crawled toward the foxholes my comrades were to have dug. There I saw shadowy figures moving around, rifles pointed downward, and pulling other, equally shadowy, figures from the ground. I had seen enough. The British had taken possession of our guard position. My comrades were being taken prisoners.

I got up and raced back to my bicycle. As I jumped on it I heard shouts and rifle shots; bullets whistled past my head. But now the darkness protected me and I escaped and arrived back at the farmhouse unharmed. As I reported to my sergeant he replied: "That's it, boys. You are on your own. You have two options: Surrender or, under the cover of darkness, make your way out of the pocket and join the battalion. I'll see you there." With that he disappeared into the farmhouse.

A debate began in the yard among the thirty or so soldiers of our company and other stragglers who had joined us. To my great horror, most of them decided to send a civilian with a white flag to the British near the highway. He was to say that here was a group of German soldiers ready to lay down their arms and surrender. I could not believe it. This could not be true. If I were to join those willing to surrender without having fired a single shot, I thought to myself, how could I ever face Etzel or Dieter again? How could I ever look in the eyes of my boys of Fahnlein Blūcher? It was not for such ignominious surrender that I had volunteered as an officer's candidate in the Division Grofideutschland. Such action violated everything I had learned from Bodo Wacker and from my father. Worst of all, it was treason: Treason against any concept of honor and loyalty I believed in; treason against myself. I could not possibly do that.

I decided to try to break out of the pocket. I was joined in that decision by Jochen, the closest friend I had found in my brief time with the company. Jochen, a barber's apprentice from Silesia and, like me, an officer's candidate, pulled me aside and pointed to a platoon of soldiers from another division that just then marched past the farm yard. We two attached ourselves to it. The platoon stayed well south of the main road from Loningen to Cloppenburg, its commanding officer judging our position by the light of a half moon and by British searchlights that plied the night sky. Despite the warmth of the spring night, our progress was anything but pleasant. As we stumbled along in single file, silent and full of anxious, unvoiced questions, we climbed over innumerable barbed-wire fences separating the various cow pastures until my trouser legs hung down in shreds. We sought to stay out of the swampy lowlands but could not avoid the drainage ditches and creeks that filled our boots with water and mud. The British, too, did their part to make our advance miserable. Every ten minutes or so an artillery salvo fired at random sought us out in the darkness. We trudged on and on until the dawn lit up the sky, the British artillery ceased its cat-and-mouse game with us, and we made our way through the outskirts of Cloppenburg.

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