by Aaron Heft, edited by Jonathan Bocek
following interview is a compilation of two
meetings that took place in March of 2007, between Gerhard Hennes, a veteran of the German Army during the Second World War, and Aaron Heft, Gettysburg College Class of
2009. Below are excerpts from the completed
Oral History Project. We would like to
thank Aaron for allowing us to share his
work here on this website.
Okay, so just for the record for the tape this is an interview with Gerhard Hennes, on the Twelfth of March 2007, you were a Lieutenant in the German Army in the
Wehrmacht during the Second World War, is that correct?
Yes I reached the rank of First Lieutenant, yes.
You were born in the
Rhineland, so could you describe your hometown prior to the war, was it a farming community, was it rural, was it more urban?
The community was about, and you take notes as you please, the community was a - parish of some five- six hundred people east of Cologne, C-O-L-O-G-N-E, which was founded in, around eight hundred by Charlemagne. And it was a village of factory workers and farmers. Most of them had some chickens and pigs or goats, a cow or two, the biggest farmer had probably something like twenty acres. In the village, the Church hamlet, the Manse where we were born and grew up, was about one hundred and fifty years old…but the church was built in 1154 - and is still used every Sunday…
So the first important fact is that history is so much older in Germany, or in Europe then it is here, ours is a young country.
Now, So your father worked as a minister in the community, did you do any work growing up, like did you work on any of the local farms, or in a factory?
It was very rare in Germany that high school students worked, their job was to learn, and the common practice in this country did not apply to Germany at that time, I went through elementary school, high school, languages was my preference, and I started out with French, then English, then stupidly Latin. But I am a linguist, and that is part of the very intense education in Germany that people have languages, only the English speaking believe that English is enough. For me it’s the best language, I think and write in English. It’s wonderful.
So now the other question I was curious about personally is the use of vehicles in Pre-war Germany, like cars, were they used that often or was it, I think most -
I think the first cars came into our village around 1927, and the baker had one, to get his bread and rolls around in the community, and my father I think was the second getting a small British license by the name of Dixi, D-I-X-I, Dixi, it was an Austin license I think around 1927. There were few cars except that one administrator in the village had a bicycle, had a motor bike, one of these early British Triumph motor bikes with the elongated tank and it had a leather belt, and when it was wet, when it was wet and rained, the belt slipped and so the guy pushed it most of the time, he also had a limpy leg so he and his bike were one of the early features in the village.
Now was there a lot of foreign influence in your town, did you meet a lot of non-Germans, or anyone from outside.
None, period. It’s like Bath, Pennsylvania.
Now the depression that existed in Germany following the treaty after the First World War, did that affect your community in any great way?
I think it affected the community but indirectly as I remember in the late twenties when the depression was beginning, I believe that most of the factories in the near by town and down in the valley manufacturing heavy cloth stayed in business. But we read in the papers or were told by our parents, that in the larger cities there was not only a lot of poverty and unemployment as severely as it was in this country [the US] at the same time which also contributed to political controversies in the larger cities.
The village itself, we didn’t feel that. The factory workers continued to work, the few intellectuals that were in the village like my father had their jobs, and the only severe period was probably in the late 1922 early ‘23 because of the inflation, that the money wasn’t worth anything, and my father received his salary at the peak of that inflation on a daily basis, so he quickly bought some food bread and vittles before the money had deteriorated further. But we in the village did not feel the misery and the tension and the action, actually the armed struggle that the late twenties and early thirties brought in the cities. But we heard of it, and of course there were some thirty parties before 1933 when Hitler came to power on January the 30th 1933 and all the parties were abolished and so forth eventually. It was called, he took power and the laws passed were laws of “empowerment.” Not unlike the laws that were passed recently here in the Patriot act, that is exception laws, because of exceptional circumstances. At the time the matter of employment, unemployment, economic factors, just as today in our imagination, or in reality through the attacks of the terrorists.
Now you said you studied languages, you’re a linguist, you mentioned in your book that you made a trip to England?
Yes, I was an exchange student in England I think three times in the second half of the thirties, and the exchange was with students from a high school in Canterbury England, and the first visit was in the form of a camp, with these English boys, and later visits with teachers and people I had gotten to know in Canterbury, England.
I was much impressed by the free atmosphere in that school between teacher and student, pupil, it was free in the sense that the teachers were not only people of knowledge and authority, especially authority as in Germany, but they were more like older comrades. The British Democratic system is much freer than the stratified system where the authority rests with the teacher, and the father, and the pastor; than it was in Germany at the time, and so this experience of being an exchange student in England and getting to look at my own country from the outside, when it was closing up, has been a favorable element in my whole life, not only that I would speak good English, or have good grades, but it would open me up to other view points less nationalistic then they all was in Germany, were in Germany. It was a very whole wholesome experience, both then, and in retrospect.
You didn’t know it was the eve of war?
We didn’t know it was the eve of war.
You mentioned that, in your book that you were a member of the Jungvolk?
Jungvolk. Hitler youth is a more common known term, but the ten to fourteen year old were organized in the Jungvolk, literally meaning young people. And when we moved to
Koblenz in early 1935 and I was much smaller than my classmates, and maybe more childlike, I was not attracted to the ways of the Hitler Youth, the fourteen to eighteen year old fellows. Who were rambunctious with showmanship, they way they are here, you know.
So I stayed in the Jungvolk and eventually worked my way up in
Koblenz to being company commander. That meant I was responsible for though I was [laughs] for about one hundred and twenty youngsters my age.
what type of activities did the Jungvolk
It was mostly marching, singing, gathering on Saturdays, there was no school on Saturday so Saturday mornings belonged to the Jungvolk. We had a room for our company, in an old fortress above
Koblenz, where we would gather, we would march, sing, or we would do such useful things as go into the woods and pick beech nuts, and the beech nuts were then collected and bagged and all of that, and then they became part of the oil production. For cooking oil.
Or we would go on a long hike in the woods and take our sandwiches along a lot of singing and marching a kind of regulated activity besides school, and what little time was left for religion, and Sunday school, for which my father was responsible. So our time was spent between sports, mostly soccer of course, Jungvolk, a little bit of Sunday school, and the real effort as we transferred from this village to the big city of
Koblenz, to catch up with the different school system in the school that I attended in
Koblenz for almost four years, high school.
Did you attend and schooling after high school or was that -
That was after the war. Remember I served in the German Army for almost, labor service and German Army for almost seven years, so what further education I had was after the war, beginning in ‘46 in modern languages, but I have no degree, I quit.
Now you didn’t experience any rationing before the war, at all?
I believe milk and butter were rationed, possibly cigarettes, but I do not know the last because I never smoked. But the rationing was mild, the rationing after the war was very severe and millions of people were chronically hungry.
Now with your participation in the Jungvolk and organizations such as that, did you come into any contact with the SA or SS, at all?
My father was a company commander in the, what could best be translated as the “motor brigade” which was a service organization of the National Socialist Party. An important comment, the word Nazi was not used in Germany, and you saw that from my book. That is something that foreigners and Churchill and others defined, Nazi. And of course a very important question during that time was who was a Nazi, say like here, who is a Republican, well you don’t know, in Germany if you were a quote “Nazi” you were probably a member of the National Socialist party. But only about five million out of seventy were party members. A rather small minority, but if you would have talked to a German like me at the time I would not have been able to describe to you what a Nazi is, we had other names. We called them “party-hacks” or when they had these brown uniforms we would call them “gold pheasants” we had other derogatory terms for these party leaders or professional party functionaries.
Now I’m kind of surprised, your father was a member of the motor brigade, which was part of the National Socialist party, but he was not in the SS during the war, he was Wehrmacht.
My father was a soldier.
Yes yes, okay, I’m curious within your community you said it was primarily Protestant, was there any other religions present there…
Catholics, no other faiths.
Let’s see here, are there any additional memories of your town that would be very standout to you as something that would define it, as different from maybe a community here, or traditions that were greatly different than here.
The main difference between a rural community there and Bath, Pennsylvania or Whitehall, Pennsylvania would be in the social stratification as between the people who worked with their hands and had gone through elementary school only, the quote “semi-educated” who had a few years of high school, those that had high school and especially those that went on to university study like my father and became a professional. The major difference is in that social stratification, here too we talk about classes and in America classes only refer to the amount of money you have or earn. In Germany that was a matter of social stratification that you would consort with people of your kind, say educated folk, or people who have profession, or other marks of leadership. So breeding, breeding is a word that Americans don’t know, what kind of breeding has this person, meaning family values, in history, all of that. Ever so important over there, then, and still today to an extent. Here the only distinction is how rich is the guy, or how poor.
So your lineage was quite important.
Lineage was important, upbringing, breeding, you married into your own. You know. With National Socialism that changed, because remember Adolf himself was an unemployed, probably unemployable painter in Vienna before the first
war & with him, and he becoming the leader these things changed, someone who did not have his high school diploma could become an officer, but it was still the exception.
Now your community, were there a lot of veterans of the first war, in your community. I know you had said you father had been in the first war as a signal officer -
I believe that just about everyone who could still walk, and see, and hear among the young men had been a soldier in World War One. Everyone who could still walk, and see, and hear would have been a soldier in the second - [laughs]
I can understand that. So, an on that note I think the best thing to move into next would be your entering into the German military. What exactly convinced you to do so, was there mandatory service at that time?
Every young man and young woman had to serve in the military forces. And that in Germany is age old, so when I was getting close to leaving high school, to getting my diploma in high school, you would register for the military service for two years, to which half a year was added for the labor service, that is, you were made to work with your hands. For these two and a half years that made a lot of sense, because if you wanted to go on to university study after you were finished with the military and the labor service why you did not need to interrupt your university study because your military service was behind you. But then of course the war overtook us and I stayed in it. So you began with six months of labor service, and then you had to serve two years, and if you had the stuff you would stay in the army for a third year, and become an officer in the reserves, which is what I did other than the war came about.
So you entered not as an officer and then eventually they promoted you to that rank?
No it took me two years and 5 months to move from a recruit to a second lieutenant. Promotion was not as fast as it is here.
Now you moved form the labor service into service with the Wehrmacht as an enlisted man first in the Signal Corps, and then you were promoted to Second Lieutenant after officer’s school, what exactly did that entail, officers training.
Well I was a corporal in April 1941 at age nineteen, and three of our signal corps battalions in France were selected for officers training at the officer’s school for signal corps, in what later became East Germany, in the city of Leipzig. L-E-I-P-Z-I-G. And the four months at officers school as a corporal, and most were corporals, a few sergeants, consisted of tactics, led by a Bavarian infantryman, tactics from the platoon to at least the regiment, the tactics of deploying and attacking on one hand, or defending on the other, but mostly attacking that was the time for the Germans attacking [laughs].
Signal Corps techniques, and technical things like equipment, which for us wire stringers included some knowledge of, or experience with, the enigma. Enigma was a coding machine, an ingenious typewriter like thing for which we wire stringers never cared, and I never really understood it, but it was ahead of its time for coding messages. So it was the tactic, the techniques, the technical stuff, it included marching and singing, it included very little political indoctrination, but it included the preparation of these young
corporals, as young as nineteen in my case to twenty five or twenty seven, some of them had served in campaigns in France and in Norway. Everything an officer had to know to lead his men, so there were courses on leadership and the ingredients for military leadership, there were also courses that had to do with polishing the behavior of an officer. I remember a very funny session that we had, there was a fellow corporal, and all of us had to go by and kiss his hand, because it was customary for an officer, and I do it to this day, to kiss a lady’s hand as a sign of respect of that lady especially if I do not know her. I would kiss the hand of a commanding officer’s wife, he would kiss the hand of my wife, this was part of the social grooming that officers underwent. It was very funny because the guy whose hand I had to kiss was a guy and not a woman. [laughs]
And then there was sports, and I mean rigorous, and goose stepping, and parade drill, and all of that belonged to the ways of the officer. And the very very sharp, older commandant of our particular course, number seven, we were the seventh course of shaping officers, a major with Iron Crosses first class from the First and Second World War, and nothing escaped him, and he would up upbraid the officers as much as the corporals, it was a very intense, tough, competitive four months, after which maybe one, two in ten failed. Eight of ten were promoted to be Second Lieutenants.
Why did you choose the
I think my father had some indirect influence on that, I’m not technically inclined, I’m not handy, he was. But I think his service as a signal corps man in the first and the second war probably had something to do with that atmospherically, intrinsically. He never asked me really “where do you want to serve?” It seemed a natural thing so I became a Signal Corps man. But that was my decision when I went into the labor service in March 1939, and later into the military in December 1939. So I am a signal corps man, who in the war then after time in Poland and France was sent to Africa.
Now what exactly was your job?
Laying wires, and they came in different forms or different distances or so on, but I was a wire stringer.
You said you were in Poland, France and then -
North Africa, Italy and North Africa.
So your initial service in Poland and France, what did that entail.
Wire stringing, drilling, goose stepping, rifle drilling, and in the labor service, spade drilling. I had a spade and that was your best friend, and in the army a rifle was your best friend.
Now as an officer did you have several men under your command.
Yes, most of the time in Africa I was platoon commander, shortly before the capitulation in Tunisia I became acting company chief. I make friends easily, and allow myself to be made friends easily, so many of my fellow officers, certainly men in my platoon, we made a very good and effective team, and the war in North Africa especially was influenced by the way the commanding general, Field Marshall Rommel led his troops. He was not a strategist, he had not come up through the ranks of the Staff Officers, he was an infantry man at heart, and a tank man. And the war in North Africa also being so special, being so different in terms of terrain, the enemy, the constant movement and so on, turned I believe the Africa Corps into an elite military unit which was imbued by his ways, and his tactics. He was a good tactician, he knew how to design mine fields, he had a special knack for finding and exploiting advantages. He was quick on the draw, a very courageous man, and good to stay away from.
So your first assignment was before the military, was the -
Labor Service is the official title, Labor service. Six months.
You did six months with that, and what exactly did that entail.
Marching, singing, very brutal boot camp, to the point of superiors, squad leaders and platoon leaders to destroy the character of younger [men], and I had only just turned seventeen. And to build from the shards of that destroyed character the perfect serviceman, the perfect soldier. Who snapped his spade, or his rifle later on, to perfection. Who goose stepped, the perfect soldier or perfect civilian while he was still young. Stay away from it.
you explain to me a little bit more, you entered the labor service first for half a year?
That was mandatory, it preceded the mandatory military service. The draft was preceded by at least six months of labor service, the principle was that each man should be made to work with his hands.
So after the labor service you entered the Signal Corps and worked your way to Lieutenant, and you laid wire through out Poland, France, then traveled to North Africa where you were under Rommel.
Where I laid some more wires, except in the desert the wires were always on the ground. And therefore much more exposed to being interrupted when the tanks moved forwards or backwards or whatever was the case, so much of our time as a Signal Corps man was spent fixing wires.
Did you encounter a lot of the local civilians and the populations?
There were none in Africa, where I was. Fraternization between Poles and Germans in 1939-1940 was forbidden. I remember only that once in the farmhouse way of the hinterland we stopped , it was brutally cold, we stopped and warmed ourselves and the lady of the house, very primitive, served us some bread and liverwurst. No contact with the Poles. Fraternization in France in 1940 was permitted, except that decent French people, and decent French women did not consort with German soldiers. So we had to rely on the women who were less decent.
So exactly how were you received coming into France?
We occupied France. And the French are proud people. Imagine that the Mexicans and the Canadians would gang up and occupy Maine and Texas, how the Texans and the people from Maine would feel.
Did you encounter and resistance from the French or was it -
No, no not in 1940 it built up later in the war against the
I’m also curious as to you mentioned in your book that you purchased, I believe they were some sort of slippers?
Yeah, you must see the slippers.
[Hennes in his book: The Barbed Wire, mentions that his most prized possession during his time in service and captivity was a pair of Moroccan leather slippers which he purchased in Africa, and carried with him till the later stages of the war. He had in his possession during our interview a near exact replica of them, and retrieved them for me to observe.]
Alright, just took a look at the pair of slippers you had brought back from Tripoli, interesting, how exactly did you go about purchasing them originally the pair that you had during the war.
I believe we had Italian money, and Libya was of course an Italian colony, and I think we paid with Italian money in Tripoli, but I’m not quite sure.
So did you have contact with a lot of civilian merchants then?
Hell no! No but I mean Tripoli is a big city, and you know how these marketplaces are in the middle east and North Africa, you have these little stands with spices and you have slippers and all kinds of things. So you would walk around like the soldiers now do in Iraq and in other places and buy what you needed or wanted, and I bought this armband for my wrist watch which I discarded in the first POW camp because the French were reported to take the watches, and I didn’t want that to happen. No, no contact with the civilian population and Libya was an Italian colony at the time.
So you moved into North Africa and you were involved in several engagements there, several fights -
Yes I would say, that began with the battle for Tobruk, T-O-B-R-U-K, in which the Germans were successful and captured some 30,000 troops.
Now I can’t imagine that you laid wire during the fighting, so what exactly would your role have been.
Exactly that. Well I’ll give you an indication. I got my Iron Cross 1st class in July ’42 when a couple of men and I laid a wire connection to a German battalion about 6 miles away that was pinned down by constant artillery, the English artillery being much more numerous than ours. But they needed to have a connection, so we skirted the mine fields, we knew where the mine were, and the mine fields were marked. This was El Alamain. We laid the wire and we ran for our lives because as soon as the artillery saw that something was moving they would take aim. Then we ran out of cable, had to go back to where we had seen some British cable rolls, strung them out and got the connection made, and as dusk was falling we made it back around the mine fields into our old positions. So it was exactly during the battle, advancing, or retreating, or on a static front as in El Alamain that the wires were strung. And our switch board was in an Army regiment way up, but the war in Africa was so strange that our switchboard was at the level of the infantry regiments and battalions. So all the time we laid wires or where there existed a wire connection on poles, we would then repair that connection, with our own cables so that the line would stay open. And most of our time then we had such assignments as to connect with a battalion or a unit and string the wires.
You did this by vehicle then?
Yes they were spun off from rolls on the back of the vehicle, or in the case that I just described we carried a length on our backs.
So a typical day?
A typical day for the soldiers would be that they had say four hours at the switchboard where the connections were made to the different units, and then as lines were interrupted, they were out repairing them. Or as a new unit moved in they were out making a connection. We had maybe twelve or eighteen lines on that switchboard right near the railroad in El Alamein.
Your speaking English, did you act as a translator at all with the troops.
No, but I remember a British Sergeant snapped to attention outside my tent at Tobruk and he asked whether we could spare some water for his colleagues, and I replied in English, “but of course” so he said, “thank you sir.”
Excellent, now I believe you mentioned in your book that you had seen prisoners of war in Germany prior to…
Russians! The war in Russia was a political war, no pardon was given. Officers were generally killed, even when they were still alive. Of the hundred thousand who capitulated at Stalingrad, only five thousand made it home. It was a brutal war, and no pardon was
Did you get much coverage of the war in Russia through the media while you were in the German military?
I think we got occasional military bulletins so that we were in general terms “in the know” mother might write so and so, father might write, although he was in Russia most of the time, and I was in North Africa. There were no newspapers in North Africa at the time, so what information we had might be from new soldiers that might be coming in and had a little more knowledge about what was going on than the rest of the military theatre in Europe, our knowledge was limited. And we did not have, I do not remember, ever hearing
radio. We were not wireless, we had a couple of companies in our regiment that were wireless, and they may have been able to hear radio or did it for fun, you know, I do not remember that anyone in my platoon had a radio, news was limited.
Now you mentioned your father was fighting in Russia at the time, you had two brothers in the service, where were they stationed?
My elder brother became a soldier in 1938, Fritz, he also went to officer’s school but did not become a second lieutenant. In 1943 as a lieutenant after all he was sent to Russia and fairly soon, in the middle sector was presumed to have been killed. My mother had him never declared dead, she couldn’t bring herself to that. But his platoon of engineers who were laying mines in the middle sector of the Russian front was overrun at night, his buddy, a private, saw him collapse. The next day the German troops re-took this no man’s land, all were accounted for, dead or wounded, but Fritz was never found. My younger brother was into a medical career early, and had both medical training at universities in Prague and Germany, and infantry deployment, and he was a machine gunner.
Was there a lot of trouble with receiving mail, or supplies like that within the German army?
Not really, other than that in the desert, the distances were great food was poor, I don’t remember how often we got mail, but I believe that when we were at this battalion level in El Alamein, about twice a week we got mail, I got some packages with nice cake and stuff like that and it was all shared among the men.
Now well you were in the labor service and the military afterwards, other than when you were and combat and in North Africa, how well supplied were the different branches of the -
Well supplied, I was not aware of any lack of supplies in cable, telephones, all the equipment you needed for the signal corps. Arms, the army military, the navy were all in the process of being built up in the late thirties. Ships were built, u-boats were built, bunkers were built on the Siegfried line, but I was not aware of any lack of supplies.
I bet you were very popular after receiving
No, not really [laughs] we all worked together.
Did you have any contact with the SS or Gestapo type forces?
Rommel had insisted that there be no what he called, and you can put this down, no Praetorian Guards, Praetorian Guards are a Roman Military unit, Rommel did not want to have any political soldiers as he called them, in Africa. So there were none. Except towards the end, one Luftwaffe, air force unit with the 88’s, and they were a different kettle of fish, in that they were more imbued with a sense of the party, and all of us thought that Air Force men were not soldiers. The usual difference between the tank people and infantry on one end and the air force people or the sailors on the other. Different kettle of fish.
Now you mentioned the Luftwaffe units arrived with the 88’s, did you have much contact with the air forces of the Allies?
Yes, every night. We were trembling in our holes, both bomber and strafing. And one bullet went through my officer’s chest and tore up my underwear.
Now you mentioned previously that your mother had to move from her original home in
Koblenz to a second place, after the bombings that took place by allied forces, what type of destruction was occurring?
Well Koblenz was destroyed for all practical purposes, the bridges were out, there was no street cars, a few trains were running, train stations were a grave yard of tracks, the rails were like shaving brushes, they all stood up, because of the bombs and the craters, because the rails were blown up
the lines were all interrupted. So it was not until late ‘45 early ‘46 that any kind of traffic would move in
Koblenz, and that was only traffic by the French because by then
Koblenz had become part of the French Sector.
Koblenz was a mess.
Now you mentioned earlier that the troops with the Afrika Corps included Italian troops?
Did you ever have contact with them?
Yes the Number of Italians was greater than the number of Germans all together. Oh yes, I had good relationships, I love Italy I have always felt at home in Italy I speak some Italian. We learned Italian before we got to Africa, the soldiers had a difficult time because of the caste system in the Italian Army, The officers had different food than the soldiers, and the Generals had food different from the other officers, and so on. The foot soldiers were good soldiers, obedient, especially when German units were in charge or German officers were in charge. The Italians had good and heavy artillery, their equipment was antiquated, their tanks were no good, the fighting spirit was no good compared to the élan, the way in which the Germans fought, and so the Germans looked down their noses at the Italians. Not I, I thought it was wonderful for people who could sing and drink wine and were humorous when the Germans were so stiff and so hard, and such terrible fighters. I kind of liked that, and in fact when I got a special assignment to maintain a long line in no man’s land I stopped an Italian Company from retreating further, and put them in their holes, and they dug themselves in, in this no man’s land had a wonderful relationship with about two or three officers and sixty to seventy men we had their baggage come and so on, no other troops around within ten miles, they were very willing soldiers. Not in any danger, they had gotten away from the Americans at the end of the day, and were retreating but still had their carbines and rifles and so on. I was asked to command their position.
Now were Italian soldiers subordinate to German soldiers?
No, the whole matter of subordination and co-ordination was really a problem. Because Libya was an Italian colony and the highest commander in Africa for most of the time was an Italian, to whom Rommel was answerable, but at the same time he was answerable to the high command in Germany and the high command in Rome. So that made for very unclear relationships of subordination and co-ordination and command. Not unlike what we see in Afghanistan at this time between the United States doing their own thing largely and at the same time being united with the representatives of NATO. And it is exactly in these difficult command relationships, that the Taliban are getting their feet wet, so it was at the time, and the political leader for the Italians in Libya was Mussolini, and he would give direct orders when we were beginning to retreat, that certain positions were to be held. Well who in the hell was Mussolini to tell German soldiers what lines to hold. The Italians were willing, and loyal troops, until the fall of forty three when the occupied Italy joined hands with the allies, and Mussolini formed a rump state subordinate to Hitler, and he was captured and kept in a hotel in the mountains in Italy, and was rescued by SS commandos.
They were Air Force, Luftwaffe, did you have any contact with SS troops in your time in the military not even in the prison camps?
No, not during the whole war. You see the SS was expanded, multiplied divisions regiments and so forth, during the war, on the assumption that they were more loyal and tougher fighters, which many of them were, and some of the best units in the German Army in ‘44, ‘45 were SS units, or in the Battle of the Bulge.
Now you mentioned decorations, of the American soldiers, you also mentioned the other day that you received the Iron Cross First Class?
Well I have a picture of that right here, I just found that the other day.
[Mr. Hennes retrieved a picture of himself, wearing full length body long underwear with his medals of valor and service pinned to them, to show his disdain for military service and heroics, despite what he accomplished as a soldier]
Alright, in the photo you have here you have six different decorations and you are wearing them on long johns rather than a uniform, now what exactly are those decorations?
The two iron crosses, the iron cross second class is worn on a ribbon on the dress uniform like that, this is the Service badge for the labor service on the west wall, it’s a badge for service, you would have a badge for serving in the winter of forty one in Russia, or in the campaign in Norway, and the next one is the German Italian Commemoration Badge for the campaigns in North Africa, and the Blue one here is a Italian War cross for bravery, I got an Italian medal, and this is the Sports Badge in bronze, which we had to achieve while I was at officers school, it came in three classes, depending on your age group, it was not depending on better results but on your age group. If you were over forty and were still able to get that hundred meters in 12.8 or five [tape break] um then you got that badge, and then the Iron Cross First Class was worn on your left tunic pocket, it was worn low, and Hitler had that from the First War. Then you had later on if you, not in the Signal Corps for sure [laughs], but in others with the tanks and so on you had the higher medals that hung around you neck, like Rommel had several of those. All of them lives. So those were my medals, my grandson has them now in a nice case with blue velvet.
Yes. Now you served with many different types of soldiers in the Afrika Corps, from many different branches of the German Army. What types of soldiers, armored troops, infantry what else did you see?
Well, the army such was Panzer, tank army, became the first Italian Army, but with tanks. So you had tanks, all the way from the obsolete Italian tanks, little things, all the way to Tiger tanks, and 60 ton, and I had an encounter with Tiger tanks in that assignment in no mans land because Tiger tanks were coming across to the objective 5 miles away, and they were monsters, they had an 88 cannon at that time, and our [unintelligible] treads most naturally. Artillery the heaviest was fifteen centimeter, and the normal artillery was ten point five centimeter. I did not meet any artillery personnel, you had loads of infantry, especially sent into battle without equipment, like the 164th infantry division in our sector, they were flown in, and the brigade Ramcke, they were paratroopers used as infantry, and used up as infantry. The paratroopers were never the same after the landings in Crete when so many were killed. Some of the units in the Africa Corps were used for reconnaissance, or a light infantry division like the 9th Infantry Light. There were two armored divisions, the 15th and the [tape skip] the number of tanks maximum ever in North Africa was not more than 400 and probably three times that many or so on the British side. In the beginning until 1942, the German tanks were superior to the British, but in the end the numbers were beginning to count and the Matilda and some British tanks were of equal value, but did not have the heavy armor nor the cannon of the Tiger. But there were only maybe thirty Tigers in Africa.
Now you mentioned a bunch of different unit designations there, what was you specific signal group, what was the unit?
It was a signal corps regiment at the Army level, at the highest level, and it had something like eight companies, two of which were wireless, four of which were signal corps,
I am summarizing it, one of which was logistics and supplies, and one of which was intelligence, counter-intelligence. It was a regiment. At the Corps level, the signal corps had a battalion, and there was one such in Africa, an armored signal corps battalion, and in Russia my father commanded a battalion as a major. The signal corps company that we had in North Africa used a cable that was this thick [holds a pencil], with a black rubber insulation with copper wires on the inside and steel wires to make it more sturdy, and steel wires to make it more sturdy, and that came in lengths of about six hundred meters, and they came on big spools, and they spooled off from the rear of a truck and laid flat, and then there were couplings between the wires. But these connections could only be laid for about eight or ten miles because then the damping would not permit any conversation. While in the Infantry divisions while I was in France and Poland we had a thinner cable that was like this [lifts up lanyard to tape recorder] like so, again with an insulation, and two copper wires and three or four steel wires, and that was light, and that had a kilometer on a drum, and the drum was carried by rucksack, and then spooled off, and it was normally laid along houses, or on trees. Because you had nonesuch in Africa, and so when we had to repair a wire line on poles as I had to on some assignments, we would repair it with the thin cable and bridge it, and for the reverse row of the current the ground was used because you stuck a metal thing into the ground and connected it with the system. So you could have lines that were as long as forty to fifty kilometers. So you the thin wire and you had the heavier wire with couplets. And that was our job to connect a division with a regiment, and a regiment with a battalion, and the way at least in my experience, was even though we were an army signal corps regiment I was at the level at the front line of battalions, and that had to do with the peculiarity of the desert war in North Africa. So my assignment was right near the front even though I belonged to a regiment that was way near the back.
I think next I’d like to move on to you time as a prisoner of war. You were captured, as you said you drove into captivity of the British as the last groups of the Germans were surrendering in I believe it was Tunisia. Your initial captivity in the camps I read about in your book. You were treated rather well by the Allied forces when you were in captivity.
We were treated well by the British, good British tea in the morning, reasonable food, the British can’t cook but that’s another story. The French were more hostile, and with reason, you remember the story of the French First Lieutenant who wanted to return that piece of bread so that he wouldn’t owe us anything. I went through five or six, or seven interrogation camp and treatment there was rough. Rough in the sense that you had solitary confinement and that you were exposed to these very rough, tough interrogations and you were by yourself, you didn’t have any comrades with whom you could share. In fact, in London, you had to wonder if the British were not planting someone in your room as to extract intelligence, and the British were after me, after officers in our regiment, because the counterintelligence company had broken the British code, and the intelligence officers wanted to know all kinds of things I didn’t know.
Now you were captured during which fight?
The Germans and the Italians surrendered on the thirteenth of May 1942, in what was these reduced pockets in northern Tunisia. The pressure from the British, and increasingly the Americans, and the Free French had shrunk the bridgehead in Tunisia, and we were in the last cauldron in a string of hills in Northern Tunisia, and on the Twelfth of May 1943, an armistice was declared between the British the French and the Americans on one side and the Germans and the Italians. An orderly, actually my driver and I, we drove into captivity.
Now did you have any contact with American troops prior to you surrender?
No, I wanted to go for this last campaign that Rommel started against the Americans with initial success, followed by failure. I wanted to be part of that, but my regiment commander wanted me to listen to him when he mused and smoked cigarettes.