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Gustav Rewwer

Interview by Jeff Johannes; additional information provided by Chris Pittman & edited by Douglas E. Nash

The author/interviewer of this article would like to extend his gratitude and appreciation to Chris Pittman and members of the recreated 3rd Panzergrenadier Division who introduced Gustav Rewwer to the author and provided additional details about Mr. Rewwer and his military service during WWII.

“War is nothing but misery and boredom”

The following article is about Gustav Rewwer, a Luftwaffe veteran who initially volunteered for flight service but was later transferred to Fallschirm-Panzergrenadier Division 2 Herman Göring.  It was derived from an actual interview with Gustav Rewwer that took place in January 2010, supplemented by additional written information he provided the author.

Gustav Rewwer was born in 1924 in Osnabrück, a town in northern Germany. In 1942, after finishing high school in Freiburg, 18-year old Gustav was faced with having to perform mandatory military service in one of the service arms of the Wehrmacht.  Gustav chose the Luftwaffe, with the hope of becoming a pilot. He was then sent to carry out his basic training at a base located in Nancy, France.

Following initial training, Gustav was then assigned to an airbase in Holland from March to mid-1943. He stated at the time he felt very proud to be a part of the German military, especially during his guard duty shifts when he had the opportunity to admire the base’s Focke-Wulf Fw-190 fighter planes up close. During the summer Allied attacks on the airfield left bomb craters 15 to 40 feet deep which Gustav and his comrades had to fill with dirt and rock in order to repair the runway. Gustav recalled that they were also ordered to extend the runaways amid rumors that it was for a new type of airplane that did not use propellers. They thought that rumors of such an airplane were merely a joke; however, it turned out that the rumors later proved to be true; the runways actually were being upgraded to accommodate the Me-262 jet fighter; unfortunately, Gustav was reassigned before he was able to witness their arrival.

In the spring of 1944, Gustav was sent to southern Germany for glider school, which was the initial introduction to flight training. He also received classes in flight navigation, meteorology, etc. Gustav then transitioned to small single-engined planes with a Luftwaffe flight instructor riding along to provide him in-flight instruction.

However, in May or June of 1944, the situation dramatically changed for Gustav and many other Luftwaffe flight candidates.  Due to the drastic shortage of aircraft fuel, due primarily to the Allied bombing of the Romanian oilfields in Ploesti, he and his fellow trainees were told that they were now going to become foot soldiers instead, probably as infantry in one of the several Luftwaffe Feldivisionen or Field Divisions then serving on the front lines.  During his interview, Gustav added that even experienced bomber crews, including some who were highly decorated, were also being transferred to the infantry.  These bomber crews, many of whom wore Luftwaffe air combat decorations, had to take them off upon being involuntarily transferred to the Heer or Waffen-SS (for example, 15,000 Luftwaffe personnel were transferred to the IV. SS-Panzer Korps in September 1944 alone).

Without further ado, in the mid-summer of 1944 Gustav and his other flight school classmates were transferred to the Eastern Front to assist in stabilizing the situation after the massive Russian offense earlier that summer had destroyed Army Group Center.  Gustav stated he and his comrades had hoped to be assigned to the front in Italy (which wasn’t so bad), but that he and some his friends were instead assigned to the Fallschirm-Panzergrenadier Division 2 Herman Göring, then occupying defensive positions along the Vistula River south of Warsaw.  Gustav himself was posted to Fallschirm-Panzergrenadier Regiment 3, where he was further assigned as a machinegunner in one of the infantry companies. Issued an MG-42, even though he had little infantry or machinegun training, he was thrown into the line anyway to help stem the tide of the Russian onslaught.

(Note: Fallschirm-Panzergrenadier Division 2 Herman Göring was formed on 24 September 1944 in the area of Radom, Poland in order to create Fallschirm-Panzerkorps Herman Göring along with Fallschirm-Panzer-Division 1 Herman Göring. Not to be confused with the original Herman Göring Division, this second division was formed using cadres from Fallschirmjäger Regiment 16 and Göring’s personal escort or Begleit regiment.)

Combat Experience
Gustav described his combat experience as being constantly “scared to death” all of the time.  He added that when he arrived at the front lines in October of 1944, he spent the first few weeks (well into November, he later recalled), digging trenches and dugouts, mostly during nighttime.  Gustav recalled that their initial positions were set up 20 yards apart from each other.  He added that the late fall and winter nights in Poland and in East Prussia were long; he said it seemed like the nights lasted 14 hours or longer, due to having to be on the alert all night for Russian patrols.   The Russians would launch flares all night that seemed to be brighter and burn longer than the German ones.  Gustav also learned how to identify Russian fighting positions at night, because they used green tracer ammunition, while the Germans used red.

Since Gustav was an MG-42 gunner, he experienced some combat situations that were unique to those who operated that weapon in the last year of the war.  For example, Gustav was very frustrated with late war 7.92mm ammunition, because its steel cartridges had to be lacquered to prevent rust, a compensation for the shortage of brass and copper alloy cartridges used earlier in the war.  However, ammunition made from this material tended to jam inside the machinegun’s breech because the lacquer tended to melt inside the hot firing chamber, causing lacquer to build up and jam subsequent rounds.  Gustav stated that if a machinegun experienced this type of a jam during a Russian attack, you might as well considered yourself dead or captured, because it would be nearly impossible to clear the weapon and place it back into operation before you were overwhelmed.

Another problem with the MG-42 was its high rate of fire, which, when fired too frequently, caused the gun’s barrel to overheat with a resulting lack of accuracy and frequent jamming.   To compensate for this shortcoming (if there wasn't time for a barrel change), the assistant gunner would scoop snow onto the machinegun’s barrel casing to cool it down and prolong the rate of fire at an acceptable level.  Gustav's assistant gunner, also known as MG Schütze 2 or Gunner Number 2, was armed with an MP-44 Assault Rifle that could be used to keep any Russians at bay while the machinegun was being reloaded or the barrel changed.

Whenever the Russians were preparing an attack, they habitually bombarded the German defensive positions with mortar fire prior to launching their assault; Gustav added that the Russian mortars were, in his opinion, their most heavily used weapons on the Eastern Front. The Russians would also fire smoke rounds for a duration of ten minutes or so, which cut down the German’s visibility to 10 yards or less.

The Russians also used an artillery piece that he and his comrades called the Ratsch-Bum (Crash-Boom), which fired a direct-fire airburst round that exploded just above ground level.  Gustav stated this type of round made it difficult to find adequate shelter whenever troops were occupying uncovered trenches or foxholes.  He believed that this type of round, as well as certain types of mortar rounds, was made by the Russians not to kill a soldier, but to disable him, thus causing his comrades to evacuate him to a first aid shelter, bringing about the temporary absence of two or three soldiers from the line at a critical phase of the attack. (Note: Gustav here is probably referring to the 76.2mm antitank gun, nicknamed the Ratsch-Bum due to the high muzzle velocity wherein the impact of the round would be heard nearly simultaneously as the weapon was fired.  This multi-purpose weapon fired a high-explosive round in addition to the standard antitank round).

Gustav's unit was not always able to set up barbed wire entanglements in front of their trenches to slow a Russian attack due to shortages of materials, but was frequently able to set up anti-personnel that had the same effect.  Gustav added they usually constructed a reserve or secondary trench 200 yards behind their main one, which they used whenever their first-line positions were overrun or when they were ordered to retreat to their secondary trenches.  He remembered that these trenches were always full of snow when they jumped into them, which made an uncomfortable situation even more unbearable, since they would then have to scoop the snow out in order to be able to take advantage of the trench’s cover and concealment.

Gustav recalled another Russian weapon common to the Eastern Front that usually made its appearance at night:  the Russian biplane, which they called the Nähmaschine or “flying sewing machine.”  Gustav remembered that these primitive and slow-flying planes would fly at night and attack whatever targets they could see in the darkness.  On one occasions, one of these plane mistook its own Russian positions for those of the Germans, attacking and killing its own troops by accident, one of the few humorous occasions the Gustav could recall while fighting in East Prussia.  These planes would also drop propaganda leaflets asking him and his comrades to surrender because Germany had already lost the war.    

Gustav recalled an incident that occurred one morning when a Russian patrol got lost in no-man’s land and unknowingly approached the German lines thinking they were their own.  Gustav remembered that if they simply had paid attention to where they were going, they would have easily had seen the German lines and would have been able to retreat back the way they had come.  Instead, they were ambushed and driven off, discarding weapons and other field gear as they fled in haste.

Snipers were also a constant threat during the daylight hours.  No one dared to stick their head over the trenches, lest they be picked off by Soviet marksmen who were notoriously good shots.

Uniforms & Equipment
Gustav’s uniform and equipment at the time consisted of a woolen Luftwaffe blue Flieger blouse with woolen Luftwaffe blue Keilhosen-type trousers.  The one item that was not Luftwaffe blue was his Feldmutze (field cap), made out of the usual Heer Feldgrau or field gray material.  Over this, Gustav wore a tan/marsh pattern reversible camouflage parka and winter trousers.  He added that he never took this outfit off during the winter months; since he was on the line for most of his tenure as a combat infantryman, he never had the time or opportunity to do so. In addition, he was not issued a blanket, so he had to sleep with all of his clothing on to keep from freezing to death.

However, Gustav was fortunate in the footwear he was issued, which was a pair of Fallschirmjäger jump boots, which kept the wet and cold out better than any other type of German issue footwear.  Gustav added that he did not take them off for four straight months, due to continuously being in the front lines where the Russians might attack at any minute.  Instead of socks, he wore foot wraps, known as Fusslappen, which kept his feet somewhat drier in the adverse conditions prevailing in the muddy trenches of the frontline.

He wore standard leather equipment and retained his gasmask container; however, he discarded the gas mask it contained and used the carrier instead to hold extra rations.  He considered his canteen, or Feldflasche, to be useless, since the water inside always froze anyway.  Gustav eventually threw it away, though he added that from time to time he had used it to hold hot coffee whenever that was issued out.

Gustav recalled that he wore the standard Stalhelm helmet, as did most of his fellow Luftwaffe infantryman.  However, his platoon leader, a Leutnant, wore a Fallschirmjäger helmet instead, but he could not recall if his platoon leader was a former paratrooper or not.  (Note: he possibly could have been, since Gustav’s regiment was formed from Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 16 Schirmer-Ost).

Gustav remembered that one item of field equipment he wore that was not German Army issue was a Red Army belt.  Gustav had stumbled across the frozen body of a Russian soldier, and after searching the corpse for food and other valuable items, he relieved the dead Russian of his Red Army-issue belt and used it for himself as a souvenir.

Life on the Line
Gustav added that the real enemy to him and his comrades was not the Soviets but the harsh environment, which seemed to consist of eternal rain, mud, and more mud along with the cold, snow, and brisk winds.  Gustav estimated he spent five months straight in the trenches of Poland and East Prussia.  He remembered that during the fall of 1944, his feet were always cold and wet and that when winter finally came, the snow was accompanied by a freezing wind.  He frequently lived in uncovered fighting positions in cold and wet conditions.

As previously mentioned, when Gustav first arrived at the front lines in October 1944, he spent the first few weeks digging trenches and dugouts. He recalled that their initial positions were set up 20 yards apart from each other.   One of the defensive positions they constructed in East Prussia consisted of three levels of defense – an anti-personnel minefield to their front, the main defensive position consisting of fighting positions/strong points connected by a trench line dug in a zigzag pattern, and a secondary defensive line that consisted of another series of fighting positions/strong points connected by a more trench lines dug in a rectangular pattern. 

Gustav remembered that near one of these defensive positions a farmhouse was located about 200 yards behind the secondary defensive line, where the company’s field kitchen wagon or Gulaschkanone would drive up and unload the daily or evening rations.  He remembered that his daily ration usually consisted of bread.  Once in a while, Gustav stated they would receive warm food, usually consisting of soup made mostly from potatoes and vegetables, since very little fresh meat was available even for frontline field kitchens by this stage of the war. 

He recalled that at least on one occasion, he was issued a special ration box that had the words Nur für Frontkämpfer im Infanterieverband (For the Front Line Infantryman Only) written on it.  Gustav could only recall that the box contained cookies, though such special frontline rations usually had other items, such as fruit drops, cigarettes, instant coffee, and glucose tablets.  He stated that another standard issue item he received was crisp bread or Knäckebrot (Note: During the interview, Gustav noticed a piece of Swedish Wasa® brand crisp bread lying on a dish and recalled that the Knäckebrot he was issued during the war looked very similar in appearance). 

In respect to food, Gustav remembers always being hungry, so much so that the first thing he always did when he came upon a fallen soldier was to search the body for food.  He went through the pockets and equipment of both friends, including recently killed comrades, and foe looking for any food.  Gustav stated that when a friend was killed in action, he was dead and there was nothing more to do but help yourself as best you can and move on.

As for comforts of life or basic soldier items, such as foot powder, a sewing kit, or other necessities, Gustav jokingly remarked that these were for those “fancy soldiers” stationed in Norway and Denmark who had time to sew on buttons and such things.   He stated that the time to do such things such as sewing buttons and keeping his uniform and kit clean was a rarity while on the front lines, where most soldiers had more pressing needs to attend to, such as staying alive.

Maintaining disciplining, even amongst the famous Herman Göring units (of which Göring boasted of their combat prowess and superb discipline), could be at times brutal.   Gustav recalled an incident in which an officer stopped and questioned three men on a road who were walking away from the front.   The officer immediately accused them of desertion and shot them down with an MP-44 where they stood.  After witnessing this, Gustav admitted that he and his comrades coldly went over to the bodies and searched them for food immediately after the officer departed the area.

When not in the trenches or in the immediate vicinity of the front lines, Gustav said that he and his comrades avoided sleeping in buildings or in towns.  These structures were almost always targeted by Russian artillery, so he preferred to sleep or take shelter in a nearby wooded area.

As shortages of every type became more prevalent among the German forces at this late stage of the war, one device he noticed increasingly in use in his Division’s area was the Holzkocher.  Gustav described this as a wood-burning stove-like device mounted on trucks behind the driver’s cab.  It burned wood cubes that were 4cm square that were supposed give the vehicle enough power to operate in order to conserve gasoline.  He added that these devices were messy, unreliable, and inefficient and never provided the same performance as a normal gasoline engine could.  A truck equipped with this device had to burn 10 sacks of wood cubes to move 30 to 50 kilometers, the normal daily distance trucks had to drive to and from the front.   A common joke that made the rounds among Gustav and his fellow frontline Soldaten was that Germany has developed a new super tank:  one that weighed 70 tons that had a heavy gun, could take out any Allied tank, had thick armor plates, but perched on the tank’s rear deck were 20 Panzermänner sawing wood to power its Holzkocher.

Wounded and Post-War Life
On March 15, 1945 when his division was fighting near Heiligenbeil, Gustav was wounded in the left leg by a shell fragment.  He did not even know he had been wounded until he felt the warm blood trickle down into his boot. The shard of metal had ripped through the three layers of clothing he was wearing, slicing through his thick camouflaged winter trousers, the quilted winter liner for the trousers and the Keilhosen under them.  It had hit him behind his left knee but fortunately did not penetrate his kneecap or artery, thus narrowly avoiding losing his leg; he estimated that the shrapnel hit him at angle that missed his leg and knee bones by half an inch.  Despite his wound, Gustav was able to walk all the way back to his battalion aid station.  He was motivated by the knowledge of what he had seen happen to his fellow Jägers who had been wounded and left to their fate at the hands of the Russians. 

He managed to make it to a dressing station set up in a large barn, where he was forced to wait in line with other wounded soldiers, some of whom were bleeding from more serious wounds, so he could be questioned by a medical orderly.  Gustav vividly recalled the man standing in line in front of him was an artillery officer who was in such a state of shell shock and exhaustion that he could not answer any questions posed by the orderly.  He described the field hospital as scene of horrors as the surgeons operated on soldiers while they were still conscious without the aide of anesthesia.  

After being treated, he and several other wounded Soldaten were taken by truck to a small harbor where there were placed on a boat and ferried to the port of Pillau.  He recalled that Russian planes and bombers attacked the area constantly and on one occasion, one of the bombers flew so low that he could see the face of the tail gunner.  Finally, one evening he and the other wounded were taken to a larger ship, which sailed to the port of Copenhagen in Denmark.  By this time, Gustav’s wound had become so infected that he had lost all feeling in his left leg and thought he would lose it.  His boat was also attacked by Russian fighter-bombers as it sailed through the Baltic Sea, but the ship’s antiaircraft gunners were able to fend them off.  While on board, the surgeons continued to treat his leg, but due to the numbness caused by the infection, he mercifully could not feel anything they were doing.

After arriving in Denmark, he briefly recuperated at the German military hospital in Copenhagen, where he lay when the end of the war found him on May 8, 1945.  Gustav was finally returned to Kiel in August 1945 as a convalescent.  When he arrived, he found that the area was under the control of the British Army.  After disembarking, Gustav and his wounded comrades had all their personal items taken by British soldiers, such as pocketknives, watches, pens, etc. However, the British let them keep their medals as a sign of respect.   Gustav recalled that despite the theft of their personal belongings, the British treated them very well and provided ample rations, a welcome change from having to scrounge for something to eat when they were fighting in East Prussia.  Before being discharged from the hospital, Gustav and his fellow POWs were given documents that described how Germany had started the war and that millions of people were killed due to the actions of Adolf Hitler.  They were told that German industry was going to be dismantled completely so they would never be able to start another war. 

In September 1945, Gustav was allowed to return home and found that 73% of Osnabrück had been destroyed during the war by Allied bombing.  His parents were fortunately still alive but they were surprised to see him again, since they had not received a letter or any news about Gustav for eight months and did not know whether he was alive or dead.  They all had to live in his Aunt’s house for nearly a year until their own home could be rebuilt. 

Eventually, Gustav was able to put his life back together and begin to build a career.  In 1957 he met his future wife, a United States citizen, while they were both vacationing in the mountains of Yugoslavia.  After being married, he immigrated to the United States and moved to Indianapolis where he worked for the US Navy as a civilian employee.   Gustav and his wife had two daughters and he eventually retired with a full pension from the Department of Defense, settling in Chambersburg, PA.

At the conclusion of the interview, Gustav said that before he goes to bed at night, he still reflects back to this his time on the Eastern Front.  Nearly 70 years later, he still has difficulty accepting the fact that no one is going to rush into his bedroom at night to warn him that the Russians are attacking and that he needed to immediately dash to his position in the trenches to clear his trusty MG-42 for action!




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