Wednesday, March 25, 2015

“We old monkeys are the Führer’s newest weapon.”

The steady drumbeat of announcements calling elderly men, young boys, and women for military duties, as well as urging them to contribute their antiquated weapons to the final struggle, surely shook the confidence of the typical citizen. As a refrain in south Germany went, mocking the promise of new miracle weapons, “Dear Fatherland, rest secure, Granny’s been drafted to the war; Could that be our new weapon?” Characteristic as well was the sardonic slogan of those overage men conscripted into the Volkssturm, “We old monkeys are the Führer’s newest weapon.” Yet another popular witticism had it that the Volkssturm was “the most valuable part of the Wehrmacht: silver hair, gold in their mouth, and lead in their bones.” Finally, the regular appearance of somber death notices, peculiar to German newspapers, announcing the loss at the front of a family member must have disheartened even the stoutest advocate of resistance. Revealingly, virtually none of the death notices, even those of SS members, now proclaimed that their sons, fathers, or brothers had died a glorious death in service for the Führer. They might speak of “God’s will,” or a “hero’s death,” or “fulfillment of duty,” or that the loved one died in service to the Fatherland, but in this region that had so early and consistently given its support to Hitler and the National Socialists, hardly anyone could now find solace in a death for Hitler or National Socialist Germany.


Sherman Lans observed, “We had some trouble with the civilians. We caught one sniper who had taken a pot shot at an FO, and shot at several more who attempted to take off across an open field.” A blurring of the distinction between soldiers and civilians, in fact, seemed a chronic problem in this area, as reports from the Twenty-third Tank Battalion mentioned numerous encounters with soldiers dressed in civilian clothing. Most likely, these were not SS men, as the GIs claimed, but local members of the Volkssturm, who, given the prevailing shortage of uniforms, would often wear civilian clothing with military armbands. In any case, at the sight of Germans beginning to withdraw, the tank company also opened up, resulting in at least two dozen Germans killed and an equal number taken prisoner.


Throughout the region sporadic resistance inspired by fanaticism, a misplaced sense of duty, or youthful ardor often had tragic consequences. In one representative village just north of Bad Windsheim, the Herbolzheim Volkssturm unit, with its customary composition of elderly men and young boys under the influence of a few regular army soldiers, foolishly declared the town a fortress and laid mines in the streets. As American troops approached in midmorning on April 12, shots from the village rang out. Angered, the Americans commenced a two-hour artillery barrage complemented by aerial attacks that gutted the town with incendiary and high-explosive bombs. With their village engulfed in flames, the civilian inhabitants, mostly the elderly, women, and children, fled in search of shelter to the surrounding fields, all the while under American fire. Although the German defenders departed that evening, not until the next morning did GIs enter the shattered, smoldering village. Of forty-four farmhouses, only three remained intact; sixty-eight of the one hundred large barns lay in ruins; and of eighty-six cattle stalls, sixty-three were completely destroyed and six were burnt out. Both churches fell victim to the flames, so funeral services took place at the cemetery for the seven German civilians killed, victims of a cruel and senseless decision to resist when resistance was futile. And so it went. That same day, April 12, Dornheim, Hemmersheim, Ulsenheim, Nenzenheim, and Hellmitzheim, all small farm villages virtually indistinguishable from one another, suffered the same fate as Herbolzheim. The tiny village of Langenfeld, just northwest of Neustadt an der Aisch, disappeared under a storm of American steel, the result of a single Panzerfaust shot at an approaching American tank. None of these actions affected the outcome of the war, and most would be regarded as insignificant operations, except to the twenty-four civilians who lay dead, and to their brethren who saw their ancient villages, many a millennium old, destroyed as a result of the actions of fanatic defenders of Hitler’s would-be thousand-year Reich.

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