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Hugo Scharnowski


Interview by Eric Tobey
 

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

Hugo Scharnowski was born in 1927 in Brandenburg.  Although his name is decidedly non-German, he insisted that he was as German as Bismarck; his family originated in Russia but moved to the Berlin area before Napoleonic times.  His father died in Sweden in 1929 and his mother was a house cleaner.  Drafted in the fall of 1944 when he was still only 17, he was housed in a Spandau  barracks for about a week or so before being put on a train bound for a training camp somewhere to the southeast.  The train was attacked by aircraft and he was seriously wounded, thus putting him hors de combat for the rest of the war.  He was on a hospital train at war's end, captured by the British.  This is his interview, conducted at his home in 1983:

Tell me about the Army.
We should start at the beginning.  I got my draft notice in the mail, I was only 17, it was in October or November of 1944, I think it was November.  It wasn't any big surprise, they announced earlier that they were calling up the class of 1927, that meant the boys born in 1927.  I was supposed to report to the Kaserne (barracks) by 16 Uhr.  That's the way we Germans told time at home, you call it military time, but we always used it.  16 Uhr was 4 PM.  We had...

How did you get to the barracks?  On a train, a bus?
No, it wasn't that far.  We didn't own a car, not many people did back then.  I would have taken my bicycle, but what would I have done with it when I got there?  I walked.  I had my little carboard suitcase, and I walked.  I showed my papers to the guard at the Tor (gate) and he directed me to an office where...

You showed him your papers?  Your ID?  Your Wehrpaß?
Ah yes, I remember the Wehrpaß, it was a little book that they gave you when you went for your physical for your (draft classification and registration).  No, I showed him my orders that I got in the mail.  He directed me to an office where a non-commissioned officer checked me in and gave me a room number and a locker key...

What rank non-com?  Was he the Spieß?
I don't remember, I know he was a non-com because he had the lace here (on the collar) and here (on the shoulder boards) and the Spieß would have lace here (on the cuffs) too.  All of us boys knew the ranks!  But I don't remember what he was, anyway, I went to my room, number 19.  There was another boy in there, he was a Prussian named Willi something or other, no he was from Pommern, another one was Prussian.  Then we...

How many were in the room?
When they all got there, maybe a half-dozen, no there was at least eight.  Double-decker beds, each of us had a wooden locker and a chair with no back so we had to sit up straight on it.  We cleaned the hell out of that room.  We were all boys, one night we had a broom fight, you know how boys are.  Somebody hit the wall with his broom handle and a chunk of plaster fell off, my God, we thought we were all dead.  (Laughter)  We filled the hole with soap, they never noticed.  (Laughs)

Who was the Stubenalteste?
Ah ha, I remember that.  But what did we call him... Stuben... Stubendiener (room servant), or something like that.  One person would be responsible for fetching the linens, making sure that the lights were turned off, beds made, shutters closed, all that.  It was a real pain in the ass, we had the same thing in the HJ.  I don't remember who was the Stubenalteste, I know it wasn't me.  You know, we had these big wooden shutters over the windows that had to be closed against aircraft seeing the light from the barracks.  You could actually get a court martial if you didn't shut these shutters.

When did you get your uniform and equipment?
I don't remember, maybe that first day, or was it the next day?  We went into this dark room, they gave us a tent strip and told us to spread it out.  Then they came and threw all this stuff on it.  Clothes and everything.  We didn't try anything on at all, and it was so dark that I don't know how they knew what size we were.  Anyway, after some trading around back in our room, we managed to get suited up pretty well.  Except for Willi, who was sort of stout, we told him he looked like a boiled sausage about to pop its skin.  (Laughs)  I think that...

How about equipment?  Rifle, pack, canteen, ammo pouches...
No, no rifle.  A lot of other stuff, I can't remember everything.  A pack like that (pointing at the WWII US Army musette bag that I carried my books and papers in)...

I didn't know that the Germans used packs like this.
Not exactly like that, but not the fur covered ones like most soldiers got.  Ours was all cloth, a cloth bag with straps, like the Russian Knapsack.  We got the tent strip, like I told you.  It was a triangle with (camouflage) on it, you could wear it like a coat, wrap it around you and button it up.  We had something like it in the HJ, except it wasn't (camouflaged).

How about an Erkennungsmarke, or a Soldbuch?
Yes, I must have had one, but I don't remember anything about them.

What do you remember about your instructors?
I don't remember much about them, but I remember this one guy, he was also some sort of non-com, he only had one eye and some very bad scars on his face.  I don't believe they should have thrown somebody like that in with us.  It made us think about what could happen to us.'

How did you feel about the situation?  I mean, about the way the war was going.
You have to remember, that we were constantly being prepared for going to war, since we were little boys.  We knew we were going to be soldiers since we were ten years old, and we knew that there was bound to be a war, so we were prepared in our minds at least.  The Hitler Youth was much like the army, they taught us how to shoot, throw grenades, make a red Indian ambush, how to crawl through barbed wire, all that.  We really didn't need much more training to be real soldiers.  And we didn't think at all about politics.  What boy does?  Show me a boy your age that cares about politics and I'll call him either a genius or a (nerd).  We saw the Americans, the Tommies, and the Russians as our enemies, but we didn't know or care anything about why they were our enemies.  Believe it or not, we didn't even think about the war situation, I mean, Germany was clearly losing the war by the end of 1944, but that didn't bother us a bit.  When I was home, we would listen to the news reports and realize that it did not look good, but I was still prepared to be a soldier... even if it wasn't going to do any good.  Maybe if I was older I would have felt different...  And as far as Hitler and the Nazis go, well, we never heard anything except good things about them, so how were we supposed to feel?  When our cities were being bombed, we blamed the bombers, not Hitler.  That reminds me of a joke we used to tell.  A Hitler Youth in Berlin lies about his age and gets into the Army and goes to the front.  He is caught and sent to prison.  Not for lying about his age, but because he was a coward and went to the front where it was safer!

Anyway, people have to remember that boys my age grew up with Hitler; we never knew anything else, and of course they would never say anything bad about themselves.  Most of our parents just kept quiet, too.  My mother barely made it through the depression we had in Germany, anything was better to her than that.  And the only Jews I knew moved to America when I was a little boy.  The thought that boys could be held responsible for believing what they did is ridiculous.  Here in the US, you can actually kill someone if your parents beat you as a child, but we Germans...

What about your Army training?
I didn't get any.  Well, yes, they marched us around some, but we were running around most of the time, getting shots, collecting papers, you know, we didn't have time for anything else.  I never got any training.

No training?  What did you do at the front?
I was never there.

But you got the Verwundetenabzeichen (wound badge).
Yes, I was wounded before I got to the front.

What?
Patience!  Wait a minute!  One day, they gave us a boxed lunch to put in our packs and we marched down to the rail station.  About a hundred of us.  Got on the train.  Open cars and boxcars.  We headed off towards Frankfurt on the Oder, I think we were going to another base for further training.  I was in a boxcar and we could hear the whistles blowing but did not know what it meant.  I remember how confused we all were, we did not know what was happening.  Some airplanes strafed our train, a bullet took off this muscle on top of my leg.  What a huge hole, my God, I was terrified.  There was blood everywhere, mine and others'.  The floor of the boxcar had a solid (quarter of an inch) of it on the floor.  The large shells shot from airplanes do terrible damage to a human being.  The train was on fire.  I passed out, next thing I know, I'm in a hospital outside Frankfurt.  I asked the orderly if my leg was gone, I couldn't lift it up.  He answered me in a very heavy accent, something like, "No, not gone.  Soon rot off, you die."  He laughed at me.  What a guy like that was doing in a hospital, I'll never know.  I told the doctor, I hope he got in trouble.  Anyway, I didn't die, eventually they put me on a hospital train headed west, the Russians were coming, it was spring of 1945.  I was hobbling around by then.  But going on another train terrified me, you know!  But the train stopped and stood still for a whole week, we wandered around looking for food.  Then the British came.  I had a high fever, they put me in one of their own hospitals, I got out in August of 1945.  I found my mother in a small town near Magdeburg, we went to England in 1947.  My mom stayed in England, I came to America.  Here you have...

You got your medal after the war?
No, I got it in the hospital.  I don't know what happened to it, it wasn't very valuable.  It was just a little piece of black-painted tin.  It didn't make my leg feel any better.  I probably gave it to some Tommy.

So how long were you in the Army?
Until the end of the war, because I was still a soldier when I was in the hospital.  But before I was wounded, perhaps two weeks, I can't remember exactly.  So I wouldn't even say I was in the Army, I didn't even see the plane that shot me.  Never saw any enemy.  Actually, I got off pretty lucky.  Another boy from my block that went in when I did was killed that spring by the Russians.  I made it out with just a limp.

What about the food you got in the barracks, what did they give you?
I don't remember what... I ate oatmeal for the first time.  My mother never made it, said oats were for horses.  I ate it for the first time in the barracks.  I can't remember what else.  And I'm hungry now, Louise, can we have some more coffee... get out those things you made the other day... 

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