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Klaus Gerlach


Translated by Eric Tobey
 

This interview was taken from the Die Neue Feldpost newsletter & was done so with permission of the publisher.  We would like to thank him for his generosity as well as thank all those who have contributed to this article.  It is with their efforts, we are able to share this valuable research with the rest of you.

The following interview was assembled from passages used in a German Social Science textbook called "Studien und Text zur Sozialgeschichte der Literatur (Band 37)", from which we also extracted the August Weber interview.  The interviews had to be "reconstructed" because they are found only as fragments in the book -- a particular passage from an interview would be used in the section of the book where it applies.  For example, all of the different veterans' reminisces of barracks life are collected into a specific section of the book.  Our "interviews" are collected from the various passages from a specific veteran.

This particular vet was named Klaus Gerlach and he was born in Pommerania as the son of a butcher.  He had 8 years of Volksschule after which he was a Hütejunge and a farm hand.  He spent a short time in the Hitler Youth, and 6 months in the RAD before being inducted in 1939.  The interview picks up as he and his unit is transferred to Czechoslovakia after the 1940 French Campaign:

...we went to the Sudetenland, near Neutitschein, or was it Kunwald... no, it was Neutitschein, but Kunwald was also a pretty town.  And then we received billets in civilian homes.  I lived with a woman, very pretty.  And... yes, how she laughed.  It was real nice.  I had really lucked out there.  I didn't need to eat from the field kitchen, because the woman cooked the nicest and best meals for me.  She was married and her husband was also a soldier.  He came home one day.  They both liked me.  And... they had a house on a life-annuity, a little cottage.  And an old woman lived there, a real grandma, an old lady.  And... it was very small.  And I was to stay with this old Oma, in the same room.  She slept right here, me right there, yes indeed.

That's terrible!
And then the Spieß came when I moved in.  On another day, it wasn't the Spieß, it was our commander.  He came to inspect our quarters.  Yes, I reported to him that I lived here.  "Yes.  Two beds, so who sleeps in this one?"  he says.  I said "The granny sleeps there."  (Laughs)  You should have seen his eyes.  He was an estate owner, we called him the "Rosenkavalier".  Yes, our commander was a real prude.  "We cannot have that, Gerlach, no!"  he said.  "I cannot allow it.  You have to give up these quarters."  "Oh, that's too bad," I said, "it's very nice here."  Well, then my friends, these Herr and Frau Jung say to me, "Saag dem Cheef (tell your commander)... they spoke this dialect.  I was supposed to tell my CO that they had cleared out a room for me.  It had a closet and they wanted me to have it.  Well, I went to the CO and said "Herr Hauptmann," his name was Hauptmann von Muchau - "those folks want to make a room available to me, and they would it if I stayed with them."  He said, "Yes, then everything would be in order.  But not with the old lady!"  So I could stay.  And the husband was there for 14 days.  He said, "You should feel like you were at home."  The woman had a pig that she was fattening up.  It was slaughtered at Christmas.  We feasted, God knows how we feasted.  My billet was not far from our drill field, and I always went back to the house between times.  And the woman worked at Hippel... a hat factory Hippel in Neutitschein, a well-known firm.

Never heard of it.
It was well known.  She worked there, left for work early every day.  Was a strong catholic, always ran early to confession.  Yeah, she certainly always had something to confess.

She did?
Yes, had to have, yes.  And... well, it was a wonderful time anyhow.  That was the Sudetenland: a wonderful time.  Totally superb.  I tried to reach them after the war through a Suchdienst (office for finding people separated by the war), but unfortunately I failed...

This was much later.  Maybe they were dead.
Don't know.  Yes, I stayed in that billet for half a year.

That was 1940, right?
It was 1940, Ja.

(Gerlach was then sent to the Eastern Front, where he continues his account...)

We were near Orel.  We had three towed anti-tank guns.  It was COLD I tell you.  You couldn't build a bunker because you couldn't dig in the frozen ground.  It was hard as ice.  So we build snow bunkers.  Ooch, God, 20 or 30 degrees below zero.  I was out there, no kidding.  This is the gun barrel, right here... under like this (hand motions).  I built a snow wall.  Well not just me, we all built it.  And only the gun barrel poked out over the top of the wall.  And I put down pine boughs and a rubber coat over the pine boughs.  And on top of this, the Feldwebel and I always slept under a blanket, under the gun barrel.  We always slept out there, it was 20 below, if not colder.

It's hard to imagine.
And then... no kidding, he asks me, "Klaus are you freezing?"  "No, not entirely," I say.  We had this rubberized coat, a motorcyclist coat, one below us and one above us.  And we had additional blankets which we "organized" from the Russians.  But the tip of your nose was still sticking out.

I will also say, that I have seen a lot.  I have seen joy, I have seen misery.  I know what hunger is, I know what death is.  I have lain unconscious next to the gun after a direct hit.  I haven't told you about that.  I lay there, I thought, "So now I am dead." I am ... I was the gun commander that day, I should put that in here... I was made commander of the gun.  Before this I was on an MG.  The old gun commander was wounded and passed the gun on to me.  I had to go from MG to cannon, just that quick.  Well, then I had the "guard assignment".  I said to my men, "from 6 AM to 8 AM, none of you will stand guard.  I will stand guard myself."  I stood guard myself, as a gun commander.  I stood guard and the Russians started to shoot.  A mortar here, a mortar there, some artillery here, then a mortar again, then artillery again.  It started to come in.  "Oha," I thought, More and more.  And then Stalin's Organs started in.  "Oha," I thought, "I better make myself small."  I got behind the gun shield... here is the left wheel, right, (hand motions), and the trails run here... I crouched down here behind the shield.  And hunkered down because I didn't want to catch a fragment.  And in a split second, I was down.

The left wheel, where I was crouching, ... the cannon weighed 30 Zentner... it had a solid rubber tire... it lay a hundred meters away.

You were lucky.
I lay for a long time between the trails, and was covered with sand and undergrowth that was all over.  And I thought, "ach, so this is what it is like when you are dead."  Honest.  I remember perfectly.  And then I regained total consciousness.  I didn't know how long I was out.  I lay there and slowly came to.  I don't know anymore, whether I moved my neck or feet first.  But my eyes were open, and I - but I was trembling all over.  Not from fear, but from...

Yes, right.  Nerve shock.  Probably shock.
I don't know.

Then the shock went away, right?
Possible.  Totally shaking.  Not from fear!  Then I looked to see if I was bleeding.  I wanted to touch my hands, my arms, to see if they were still there.  I couldn't.

Yes, that was shock.
And then, I can't remember if it was my neck or my legs that I could move properly.  Then slowly everything came back.  I didn't lose a drop of blood.

(Gerlach described how a PAK was fired:)

It's like this: when the enemy tank is 600 meters away, going from left to right, OK, then we use this turn-handle.  At 400 meters you turn it a little bit, at 600 meters you turn it farther to the left, this moves the whole telescopic sight over.  This is the lead-measure.  The tank had to drive into the path of the shell.  It takes a certain amount of time until the shell... it takes a while for the shell, I mean, it doesn't travel that fast...

Yes, yes.  10 seconds, you said that already.
Yes, yes.  It depends on the range, yes.  Well, it depended on other things too.  Our gun had a flat trajectory, so the shell traveled faster.  But you have to realize, that in three seconds the tank has traveled 2 lengths ahead, right?  It always depended on how fast he was traveling, so you also had to be able to judge that.  And for our lead-distance, right - he is 600 meters always, going 40 kph, it all adds a little bit.  Then I aimed precisely at his snout, and he drives into it... catches it right in the middle, if you squeeze at the right moment, yeah.  So it always came down to flesh and blood.  I practiced this over and over.  That's the way we did it.

(A divisional order was received which described the actions to be taken during a sudden withdrawal:)

When we had to leave the cannon behind, we had to destroy the optical sight no matter what.  Or take it with us.  The optics had the cross-hairs, deflection compensation, and all that.

(It was 1943, and) the enemy tank was coming.  My friend Hermann and the rest of the crew were in the prime mover and took off, and I'm left standing there alone.  I had run back, I wanted to retrieve the optical sight... I had to.  And the others took off with my Hermann, and I was left behind.

They drove to safety?
The others?  They went to the rear!  And left me standing there.  That could have meant a court martial for me.

How so?
Yeah, right, how so!  I could not let my people leave.  I had to keep them under control!

But you couldn't do anything about it.
I couldn't do anything, true, but the higher-ups saw it another way.  Anyway, the tanks were coming.  Yeah, I took the optics and took off.  What could I have done all by myself?  I took off too.  I ran!  And the tank soon overtook me.  It was right alongside and I thought, "Man, now it's going to turn."  I ran to the left.  I thought that our troops were in that direction.

But you didn't actually see them?
No, no, just this Russian brush-land: Kusselgelände we called it.

Yeah, cover...
Yes, yes, this Kusselgelände.  I veered left because the tanks were right beside me.  About 15 paces away.

And they are faster than a human.
Yes!  So I ran left.  And I ran.  I could hardly catch my breath.  Then an officer comes up with a gun.  I looked up - I yelled; for a moment I thought he was a Russian.  I said "It's full of tanks back there, we aren't going to get through there."  "Yes," he said, "their infantry is coming through here, so we aren't getting through here either!"  I'm thinking that he can keep talking, he can go off towards the tanks, I'm getting out of here!  So I ran off, and he turns around and yells "Man," he says, "what do we do?"  And he looked over the top.  He had only a pistol: "I have only 3 rounds."  And I had my pistol.  As a gun commander or platoon leader you had a pistol.  But I had more ammunition.  We crawled up behind this bush and could observe everything.  But we couldn't run, that would have been the end of us.  We could not run.  We had to wait until it was dark, or something.  And then suddenly, a bang - the third tank in line - I can't remember exactly anymore.  I think, the third tank in line started to burn.  And pretty quick, the tank near us gets hit.  And the crew jumps out and runs for our bush - for real!  But they didn't choose our bush, they dove behind the one to our right.  No shooting.  Then one of them ran, or rather crawled, back to the tank.  The tank was not burning, but was hit and knocked out.  One of the crew crawled back and slid into the tank, and threw out a carbine.  We had camouflaged ourselves, and they never saw us.  They now had a carbine.  Meanwhile, I guess it lasted about 15 minutes, 5 tanks were knocked out around us, including the one near us.  Then we ran off, waving.  that was some day, I tell you.

You were waving?
We were.  We didn't want our own people to shoot us.

Gerlach talks about his decorations:

I got the Panzervernichtungsabzeichen (tank destruction badge).  I destroyed three tanks in close combat.  Without an anti-tank weapon, too.  One tank I destroyed with close-combat weapons, yeah.  But I used gasoline on that one, I threw it into the motor compartment.  Stuck my handkerchief in the top - I also got a special leave for this.  Only, I think, that... I think I can tell you stuff, and you think that I am rambling...

Oh no!  This is very interesting!
...but it is all really the truth.  And these I did together with someone else, this close combat.  Otherwise I would have had three badges on my arm.  Or one silver one, I can't remember anymore, I think you got one gold badge for three tanks, or something like that. But I got a single silver one, because I did it with someone else.  Willi Korsch and I.  He was a farmer, real rough dude, but very handy in war.  He was really good.  We both had this tank - ach, we were also surprised by it.  We found ourselves out in front, we wanted to see who was yelling out there, all of the sudden there was a tank in front of us.  Then Willi ran back and got a gas can, then ran in back of... you see, they had gotten themselves stuck.  Then we came up from behind... we took the last one in line first.

You didn't see the people inside the tanks?
Nah, it was still dark.  It was... in the dawn, yeah... and I said to Willi Korsch, I said, "Willi, come over here, we want to see what is over there."  High grass, and then alder bushes, and these small birch trees that are all over the Russian countryside, and yes, willow bushes.  We made ourselves as small as possible... suddenly we saw the tank in front of us.  Afterwards we could hear coming from the interior, as it... his exit must have been blocked, or something, I don't know.

Did they get out, the people inside?
One of them got out.  A huge guy, and incredibly huge guy.

He was on fire?
No, he lay outside the tank and looked around, then we... we... what else were we supposed to do?  He would have done it to us, anyway.  After that we... ach...

Tough.
Yeah.  I mean, it was war!  But I tell you, with this badge (the tank destruction strip), at that time, a person really was somebody.  I believe it was an officer who often said, "I envy anyone who wears that badge" he said to me.  "Thunderation!  How did you get that?"  and so on.  You were always hearing it.

Now Gerlach talks about "Kriegsspielen", which in this context can be loosely translated as "the finer art of war":

Ja, Kriegsspielen.  I am of the opinion, that a person must also understand them.  You have to keep your ears open.  And I was so... I should say that I wasn't any more afraid than anyone else.  Everyone was afraid.  It can't be said that a person didn't feel in fear for his life.  It just can't be said.  Sometimes they trembled all over, more than me.  But you had to understand the Kriegsspielen, that's my opinion.  You had to be able to tell the difference between the discharge of a weapon and the detonation of its projectile.  Or the difference between a mortar firing and a cannon - there is a difference.

A difference in speed?
Well, yes, but an amateur wouldn't notice the difference between the report of a mortar and the report of an artillery piece.  And then there are large and small mortars, and infantry howitzers too.  The mortars go blubb... blubb... blubb.  But then you'd have more than one together.  The Russians would have 20 or 50 in a bunch.  It would be scattered all over, blubb... blubb blubb blubb... blubb blubb.  "You all hear that?  They've stopped firing!"  And mortar shells take a long time to arrive.  You would first hear them when they land on your head, yeah.  Really.  The shell goes up at a steep angle, then tips over and comes down, while artillery shells come over in a big arc.  With a mortar you can control the range with the charge you use.  It all depended on the charge you used.  And I would say "...you all hear that?  They've stopped.  Look out!"  Then we had a few seconds because I was always alert.  Where is the first one coming down?  And then you would hear something real close, right on top of your head it would seem: tsch... tsch... tsch... tsch... that's all you heard, very little: tsch... tsch... tsch... tsch... then you had to lay flat.  And I always did that real fast.  Because they landed so close.  I can say that a hundred times they landed within 10 meters of me...

So you always managed to hide yourself somewhere?
I... yes, but that is not from fear!  That was simply a self-protection measure.  There did not need to be fear.  I didn't throw myself down for every incoming round, not at all.  I was really a soldier who could see things as they were I think.  And you have to know the artillery, too.  The artillery, you hear it going off, yes a dull report: ...boom.  "You all hear that?"  And again, one can tell by the direction whether it is ours or theirs, you could hear that, too.  I always waited for the first impact, "Where is it going?"  Sometimes they scattered, so you had to be on your guard in every case.  So I was alert despite it all, I didn't tempt fate.  It wasn't out of fear.  And I think that it served me quite well.

The Russians also had explosive bullets.  It was supposed to sound as if a Russian was there, shooting, where the bullet struck.  That's what it sounded like to me the first time before I knew what they were.  "Man," I thought, "here's one by the side of the road... and another one over there... and another over there!"  Butt butt butt.  Kind of weird, yeah.  Until you found out that were only explosive bullets.  If one hit you, though, it destroyed the whole... it would blow your thigh right off.  I saw this myself.  Real dangerous brutes.  This Feldwebel Großkopf did not know what they were and thought that there was a Russian behind every exploding bullet.  He told me later: "Klaus, when we were out there scouting a site to emplace our gun, I was sweating blood when those things were going off.  If you knew how scared I was... I would have crawled into a mouse hole!"  He said this to me later.  One has to experience Kriegsspielen.  When you learn about the various reports and explosives then you are not terrified.  Certainly not.  But I know, what fear this guy had!  He described it so well later one.

Gerlach was field-promoted to Unteroffizier as he describes here...

So now came my big hour.  Yes, it came suddenly in the form of a messenger: "Obergefreiter Gerlach is to report to the Spieß"  To our Spieß.  Yes, then somebody drove me there.  I don't know who anymore.  "Yes," he said, "Gerlach, you are now an Unteroffizier.  Go to the tailor and have some tress sewn on, then report to the CO."

The CO, he was a Hauptmann?
Our Hauptmann, yeah: Hauptmann von Windisch.  "He is over there."  Ach, for the love of God.  Unteroffizer!  Such a great responsibility, what shall it be, I thought (Laughs), well yes... And so, that evening it was off to the CO, not our CO, but our CO was there, too.  The Major was there, our battalion CO, who was a Major.  Then I went looking for them.  I ran through a forest somewhere.  I imagined myself more in the Russian lines than not.  What a time!  And then through a creek in my new uniform... well, not new uniform, but with my new tress (NCO lace).  Totally alone.  I could only continue when a flare went up.  To be honest... I was getting cold feet, anyhow.  There was firing all over.  I don't remember anymore where it was that I finally made it to.  I went to the commander, yes.  The trip out was not so bad, but the trip back was!  I got myself lost.  That was the worst.  I can tell you, I was quite a sight there in the mud.  Yes, I was an Unteroffizier.

One day were getting our food in the afternoon, everyone with their mess kit in their hands.  Suddenly we heard, "Hold him fast, hold him fast!"  some others of our division yelled.  Then a Russian came running up.  He ran in all directions, and wanted to go through us... we quickly formed a human chain.  They guy threw himself down in front of us, pulled a pocket knife out of his shirt, and cut his own throat.  Right before our eyes!

Ooh.  What was he, a deserter, or what?
No, he was a Russian officer, who was being taken to our General for questioning.

He was still in Russia.
On Russian soil.

Did he die from his slashed throat?
No, no.  Pay attention!  He had been taken prisoner.  He was already a prisoner.

Ach... he was going to a German General?
Yes, he was supposed to go to our General for interrogation.  To our General, at the time his name was Wessel, General Wessel.  Well, he ducked and ran straight for us, where we were getting our dinner, he ran right into our hands.  He threw himself down and cut himself with a small knife.  Then he reached into the wound with two fingers and ripped.  He wanted to bleed to death quickly.  He asked us if he had cut the carotid artery.  And we stood there like imbeciles.  When you think about it today, how that could be... So we certainly...

You wanted to help him, right?
We should have wanted to help him.

Then he died?
Now pay attention!  And while this was going on, suddenly a great tumult, and a translator came from the General who spoke Russian.  "Tu durak!  Shto tu sdyelish?"

You know Russian too?
Well since I stayed in Russia for 8 years, I learned Russian.  I mean, 8 years in Russia, 3 years at the front and 5 years as a prisoner.

Ah yes, we haven't come to that yet.
And so, "shto tu sdyelish... what are you doing you idiot." he said.  "You will have it good with the Germans!"  he scolded him.  But the officer kept looking around, kept tearing at his throat.  Well, then the medic came.

Was the interpreter Russian?
Yeah, he was a Russian, yes.  But he was half German, who was already fighting on our side.  Yes, later I saw the officer, they were taking him off to the aid station or hospital.  He was laying on a stretcher, smoking a cigarette.  I saw this.  What happened to him, I don't know.

Hopefully he came through, right?
I would like to think so.

You think.
I would certainly like to say that he came through it.  The Russians are tough.  I saw one Russian, this whole, his whole, it hangs here on the side (hand motion)...

The lower jaw.
Yeah and... I don't want to exaggerate... it was 15 or 20 degrees below zero, and his (hand motion) here was hanging down.  I don't believe he could have come through.  This other one (the officer), it was in the summer when he cut his throat.  But that one was in winter.  I don't believe he could have made it.  I saw it myself.

You mean, he certainly died.
Yes, I believe so... his whole chin hung straight down!  And so he marched among the other prisoners.

Ach, frightful.
Yes, it... oh, I can tell you, they are (mental) pictures.

Gerlach was captured by the Soviets during the summer of 1944.  When asked about his captivity, Gerlach did not answer directly.  He was captured near Bobruisk in the central sector of the Eastern Front:

I have to think this over... that was... where this tank was destroyed, yes, that was with the towed PAK.  Suddenly the Russians attacked with their tanks.  Suddenly, 15 tanks appeared in front of us and came at us shooting.  And while this shooting... we had already shot.  We had already fired and had to make a change of position.  And my friend Hermann who was a Mecklenberger, looked down the barrel and said, "oh, we have to the clear barrel first."  I said, "Man, push a hat through it!"  We didn't have a brush, it was already lost.  He had to get out of there in a hurry.  So we took a stick and pushed our caps through.  Imagine how that looked.  But otherwise we could have burst the barrel.  I already had one of those, burst barrels.  While we were cleaning the barrel, the tanks were coming, and I say, "Make it quick!  Hurry up!" and then, "Do you have an armor-piercing round ready?"  I had already called out the range.  Then the Russians were shooting, they had seen us although we were camouflaged behind a garden fence.  Suddenly a round landed in front of us, and the gunner, Hermann Wengerlin, fell down.  He had a hole here and here... oh God!  I don't know... where was I?  He was laying there, and he called, "Klaus, come quick, come quick!"  "Yeah, what's the matter?"  The others were standing around helpless, they had not bandaged him.  I got my bandage out quickly... "Just wait," and bandaged him quickly.  I said, "Oh," his intestines were coming out.  I said, "Hermann, pull yourself together and run to the prime mover!"  And Hermann said, "Ach, I have a hardy nature, I will manage."  He also saw what was wrong, that it was pretty bad.  "But I have a hardy nature, I'll manage," he said.  But he died, Hermann Wengerlin.

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