by Eric Tobey
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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...
was much later. Maybe they were dead.
Don't know. Yes, I stayed in that
billet for half a year.
was 1940, right?
It was 1940, Ja.
was then sent to the Eastern Front, where he
continues his account...)
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
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
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.
left wheel, where I was crouching, ... the
cannon weighed 30 Zentner... it had a solid
rubber tire... it lay a hundred meters away.
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...
right. Nerve shock. Probably
I don't know.
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.
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.
described how a PAK was fired:)
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. 10 seconds, you said that
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.
divisional order was received which
described the actions to be taken during a
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
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.
drove to safety?
The others? They went to the rear!
And left me standing there. That could
have meant a court martial for me.
Yeah, right, how so! I could not
let my people leave. I had to keep
them under control!
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
you didn't actually see them?
No, no, just this Russian brush-land: Kusselgelände
we called it.
Yes, yes, this Kusselgelände.
I veered left because the tanks were right
beside me. About 15 paces away.
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.
We were. We didn't want our own
people to shoot us.
talks about his decorations:
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...
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.
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.
they get out, the people inside?
One of them got out. A huge guy,
and incredibly huge guy.
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...
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.
Gerlach talks about "Kriegsspielen",
which in this context can be loosely
translated as "the finer art of
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.
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...
you always managed to hide yourself
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.
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
was field-promoted to Unteroffizier as he
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."
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.
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!
What was he, a deserter, or what?
No, he was a Russian officer, who was
being taken to our General for questioning.
was still in Russia.
On Russian soil.
he die from his slashed throat?
No, no. Pay attention! He
had been taken prisoner. He was
already a prisoner.
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...
wanted to help him, right?
We should have wanted to help him.
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
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.
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
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
he came through, right?
I would like to think so.
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
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.
mean, he certainly died.
Yes, I believe so... his whole chin hung
straight down! And so he marched among
the other prisoners.
Yes, it... oh, I can tell you, they are
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:
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,