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Oswald Maier


Interview by Richard M. Clement, Jr.
 

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.

Mr. Maier was one of those veterans who is a master of understatement.  In fact, I had already known him for a number of years before one day he casually mentioned to me that he "took part in that nasty business".  After months of gentle prodding he off-handedly stated that he spent almost two years on the Eastern Front, including that first winter.  Then he mentioned that he was in Normandy!  At any rate, the following interview is a compilation of perhaps a dozen casual conversations and one 30-minute taped interview.

How did you get into the Wehrmacht?
I was drafted into the Heer, or German Army.  The Heer was part of the Wehrmacht.  I was raised in a place called Brüx in what is Czechoslovakia.  The Czechs call that town Most.  I was in the Czech Army from the spring of 1932 until the spring of 1934, I was in the Czech veterinary school for most of 1933.  My last rank was Korporal, or a sergeant, equivalent to a German Unteroffizier.  The Germans drafted me in 1941.  I was put in the veterinary corps.

You were sent to the Eastern Front?
Yes, I got there in the late fall of 1941, I was assigned to the Veterinärkompanie of the 35th Infantry Division.  Most of these men were Schwabisch, or from the southwest corner of Germany where they speak that language.  I could barely understand some of their blabber, they have their own dialect.  That winter near Moscow was terrible.  I went to Poland then I was transferred to the 305th Division.

The horses suffered greatly on the Eastern Front, and their suffering seems to have been forgotten.  We were treating more horses for pneumonia and frostbite that for battle injuries.  Horses could also suffer from exhaustion.

We had many problems in Russia.  Our equipment was not designed for the rough usage it got.  Even simple items like feedbags became a problem.  Our Army feedbags were made of canvas and were worn out by that winter.  The Army had set higher supply priorities on items like food and ammunition so they were not replaced.  We were forced to build wooden feed troughs like you see in farms today.  The only problem with this was that it made it easier for the horses to contract disease.

We were fortunate that our horses were fairly disease-free.  That first winter, we had horses get pneumonia, and these almost always died if we couldn't send them back that first winter.  Horses need long rest periods to recover.  There was another disease we called the Rotzkrankheit, it affects the horse's breathing, and it was a lucky thing it was rare because there was nothing we could do for it; the horse died.  Some of the local Russian horses had this disease and we were always very careful to disinfect the stalls we occupied because it was a contagious disease.  Another disease that we did have to treat is called mange in English.  We did have problems with this disease, but luckily it was easily treated, it is caused by ticks.  We had special chambers to treat the horses in at our mobile horse hospital.  The main problem was with the pig-headed officers who insisted on using sick or recovering horses.  If you keep a sick horse at the front he will infect others.  Horses are actually very delicate creatures, despite their large size.

Did the German Army really use that many horses?
(Laughs)  Yes, they did.  You see, Hitler expanded the army in the 1930's quicker than he could build modern vehicles for transport.  Hitler hated horses, he wanted a modern, completely motorized army like Britain had, but the army grew too fast.  Horses were readily available and the people of Europe were more accustomed to them than they were automobiles, so the horses took up the slack.

What kind of horses did the Army use?
There were two main types: Kaltblüter, and Warmblüter (cold-, and warm-bloods).  Warmblüter are quick and agile; they are used for riding horses.  Kaltblüter are huge and slow and gentle; they are draft animals, we used them for heavy labor like hauling artillery pieces.  We used a great many breeds, also.  The East Prussian warm-bloods were much tougher and resistant to the cold and feed shortages than the Hannover warm-bloods.  As funny as it sounds, the real large cold-bloods like Rhinelanders and Belgian draft horses were the most fragile.  In Russia we would use some of the small native horses called Panje horses.  They were actually a large, shaggy pony.  They were incredibly hardy, they could eat the bark off the logs in a Russian log hut and be happy.  The biggest problem was that they were too small to drag heavy loads like artillery guns or the German supply wagons.  They were normally used with the small wooden wagons and sleds they were raised for.  You would see these horses and wagons all over in the German Army.

You also went to Normandy?
Yes, after I attended the Army veterinary school at Hannover I went to Normandy in the Fall of 1943.  I was attached to 7th Army, General Doctor Leitner was the chief veterinary officer.  It was interesting in Normandy because the Allies completely controlled the air; our Army was restricted to moving by night to escape the strafers.  The only problem is, that horses would prefer to sleep at night, just like people.  The drivers would try and wake them up and the horses would get cranky, they wanted to sleep!  After a while they got used to it.

Units that came back to France from the Russian Front would bring all of their horses with them, of course some of them were almost done in.  We would sell them to the French civilians and buy new ones in special horse markets.  We generally wanted four-year-olds, of course you had to be careful with what you bought; it was a lot like buying used cars, I suppose.  Buyer beware.

In general, though, France was wonderful country for horses.  You would see these units getting off the train, and the only way they could get their poor horses off was literally dragging them off the ramps.  Within a few days of being in France, you could really see a difference in those animals to keep until a week or so after getting them in.

I remember this one young man in our unit in France, he was a farmer's son from Pommerania, I think his name was Weckenmann or Weckmann, or something like that.  He was a real nice kid who absolutely loved the horses.  He came to us from Russia, and his nerves were shot.  We were responsible for evacuating wounded horses, and when these animals would come through wounded, he would break down and cry.  He became absolutely useless.  We decided to send him back to Germany and he was killed by strafers just as the train left the station.  He was going back with a load of horses, and rather than jumping off the train like everyone else he went to the horses.

What were horses fed?
Many people do not know that a horse needs a lot of food to keep going.  A Kaltblüter needs about 10 kilos (20 lbs) of food a day!  Why is this so important, you may ask; why not just let them eat grass from the fields?  If a horse is going to eat grass for energy, he must eat grass for between 6 and 8 hours a day.  This does not leave any time for work, does it?

The standard meal consisted of a pressed cake of hay, straw, potato shavings, bread yeast, but mostly oats.  This was the issue food, we often got the horses feed from the local farms.  In Russia this was a problem because there was nothing to be had.  In France, there was plenty, but we had to inspect the fodder carefully for the French would add stuff to the fodder and give our horses colic.

Didn't you say that you were in Stalingrad?
No, I said my unit, the 305th Division, was in Stalingrad.  Most of the divisional horses and veterinary units were pulled out before the place was cut off.  I wasn't there, Gott sei Dank!

What about your uniform, what was it like?
We got the same uniform as everyone else.  The color on our shoulder straps and caps was carmine red, that was the color of the veterinary service.  It was also the color for General Staff officers.  The joke was that this was done on purpose, that they had to match for parades, since when the officer rode his horse, the vet would be right behind picking up PferdekartoffeinI.  Actually, my uniform was quite pretty, I was an Unterveterinär.  I had almost as much silver as an officer as an officer.  I could wear an officer's hat, also.

Were you issued a weapon?
I had a Belgian pistol that I bought in Stuttgart before I went to the Russian Front.  And I was expected to know how to use a rifle.  Everyone in the German Army were expected to be a fighting soldier, even the bakers.  In Russia, you never knew when the Red Army would appear and to them it did not matter whether you were a paratrooper, veterinarian, or chaplain; they shot at anyone in a German uniform.

Describe your equipment.
I had the same gear that everyone else had: a canteen called a Feldflasche, a mess kit, and a haversack for rations called a Brotbeutel.  You were supposed to wear all this stuff on your belt but I did not; I hung mine from the back of the wagon that carried our veterinary instruments.  We also had a knapsack that we called a "monkey", it was covered with brown fur and was supposed to ride on your shoulders, so we called them monkeys.  I didn't wear mine, though, I put it on the wagon, too.

How did you get along with the other services?
Not too bad, except with the SS and the Party clowns.  Some of the cops gave us a hard time, but because they thought I was an officer, normally they left me alone.  The SS would strut around and bump you right out of the way if you did not move aside, they called us Hilfsvölker, which means something like "helper tribe."  That is, until they needed us.  Once, I sat with an SS officer on a train from Hannover to Magdeburg, he was stationed at the SS training unit at Goslar, which was not too far from where I was stationed.  He was arrogant and condescending, I remember thinking: "when will this trip be over?"  He would ask me a question and then use my answer to insult me.  We exchanged names and stations, and I threw his away when I got off the train.  Then, a few months later, he calls me up, he wants a favor.  He wanted special shoes put on his horse, and wanted me to have it done for him.  Now he was so friendly, the veterinarian service was wonderful, and the SS farriers were clods, they didn't know anything about horses.  Imagine that.  The SS was always short on technical specialists.  I think there was a big SS school at Göttingen, I wonder why he didn't call them.

Occasionally we would be asked to work on a dog, but the veterinary corps was for horses.  There were some peacetime vets in the army, and they would sometimes work on dogs.  It wasn't something that I knew about.

Did you win any decorations?
The medal for the Eastern Front, everyone who was there in that winter of 1941-1942 got one.  Also, I got the Kriegsverdienstkreuz for service during that winter.  These were both very common awards, I was no hero.  My only concern was for the horses.

Were you ever in combat?
Oh yes, but for me it was a rare event, I was normally behind the lines.  Once a Russian tank drove into our horse collection station, that was terrible.  It got stuck in the creek we were set up near, and the crew just jumped out and tried to run away.  They ran over into a truck repair park where the mechanics killed them with their rifles.  The resistance attacked us once in France, too, but that was over before I had time to get afraid.

What happened to you at the end of the war?
After the collapse in France, I went to Remonteamt near Hannover.  This place supplied horses for the Army.  I was there until the allies came.  I didn't want to go to a prisoner camp, so I put on civilian clothes and tried to get through the lines.  I pretended to be a Czech laborer who did not speak much German, I almost got home.  The Americans picked me up near Hof Germany, I told them my papers were lost.  They did not believe me.  Then this real Czech in an American uniform comes in and talks to me for a little while.  Then he says... "You are Nemek (German).  Who are you? Are you SS?"  He knew my accent and I still had my army shoes on.  I went to a POW camp near Nuremberg, then to Alsace.  I got out in 1947, but did not go back to Czechoslovakia.  The Czechs kicked my family out.  But that is another story.

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