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Karl Wegner


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.

The following excellent interview was conducted by Vince Milano in June of 1993.  The veteran, a remarkable gentleman named Karl Wegner, is a former member of Grenadier Regiment 914 of the 352nd Division.  Mr. Wegner is one of the few vets who has managed to answer all of the infamous "102 questions for German Vets", and his answers comprise a veritable gold mine of information.

Did you ever wear your HBT uniform in combat? 
In Normandy we wore it all the time, though at night it was very cold until the end of June. I had a pair of baggy HBT trousers that were quite comfortable and a tunic that was cut the same as my service one, with the same insignia on it.

Why did some dogtags lack the blood type letter? Was it tattooed on?  
I'm not sure, but my blood type was stamped on my tag when I was inducted, I do remember that.  I never had a tattoo like the SS but I did meet a fellow who came in about a year after me who had his blood type stamped on his tag and tattooed on his foot.  He said that they gave him the tattoo in training and no one could walk for a couple of days and infections were rampart.  It could have been an experiment, but if your foot was blown off it was useless.

Did you carry your Soldbuch in the field?  
When we went on alert that first week of June they took them away from us and gave us little KennKarten (ID Cards) but within 2 days after the fighting began we got them back because the clerks in the rear just didn't have the time or gas to cart them around and a lot of them were being pressed into the infantry.

What songs did you sing?  
Well, we sang Lili Marlene, Westerwald, Argonnerwald, Der Jager aus Kurplatz, and many others. My favorite was Erika. We learned many dirty songs in both German & French.

Describe how a squad was organized.  
Our Gruppe were always of 9 men, Unteroffizier or Obergefreiter in command, a MG team, and the rest of the men. In combat you dwindled down to about 4 or 5 centered around the MG. If you lost your Gruppe's MG, you would be used more in attacks & counter attacks while those with the MGs were in support. We never lost ours, I know because I was the number 1!

Describe Marketenderwäre.  
Well we could buy stuff from the Kantine or Krammer (unit stores) but chose to buy stuff from the locals in Normandy because we could trade or get better deals and food.  Since I didn't smoke I sent my issue tobacco and what I could buy cheaply home to my father but I kept some for use as money with the French and I lived very nicely for just about nothing.

Describe the wear of Fußlappen vs. Socks.  
I never got Fußlappen, just socks. Some of the older men had these but I never could bother with the time it took to put on a pair of boots when wearing them. 

What did you have: Rucksack, Tornister, or A-Frame?  
I had both a Rucksack and an A-Frame. The Rucksack was a very nice large pack in which I could fit everything. The A-Frame I wore all through the fighting; it was comfortable and carried just what I needed strapped to it or in the little pouch on it.

Did you put your name on any pieces of uniform or equipment?
Yes, I did.  We had to do it in accordance to regulations, with pen or pencil & paint I marked everything I was issued.

Did you throw away your gasmask?  
Not until June 7, 1944. No one ever checked us for them in the entire time of the fighting. (Note: it is unclear if he meant just the gas mask or the canister as well. For our impression we will assume he just meant the mask itself, so please wear the canister if you have one)

Describe basic training. 
Well, that was a long time ago and has faded somewhat in my memory unlike memories of the time of the fighting.  I seem to remember that we awoke about 5AM then they ran us ragged all day, with training inspections and cleaning this or that.  And in Slany CSSR we still had to do occupation duties like patrolling and guard duty in the town.

How did you get along with the other branches: Navy, Luft, SS? 
We never had a problem with any of the other services except those in the SS.  They acted aloof, even the damn privates sure they may have been better trained & equipped and all, but that is no excuse to push other soldiers aside because of your cocky attitude.

Describe your field rations. 
That is simple: whatever we could scrounge up or whatever the cooks found dead on the road to feed us, ha ha ha. But the food was bad, that's one of the reasons we ate at night so we didn't have to look at it!

What decorations did you receive?  
I was told that I qualified for the Infantry Assault Badge & the Close Combat Clasp.  I never got them, but Mr. Milano has directed me to the proper authorities to get them now.

Where did you put your field cap when you were not wearing it?  
We tucked them into our belts, lower tunic pockets, breadbag, and anywhere else that was convenient at the moment.

What was the "Putz und Flickstunde"?  
That was cleaning the barracks.  I had the honor of cleaning the latrines.

What did they check during an Appell (Inspection)?  
Naturally that everyone was present and accounted for.  Also, our uniforms had to be in proper shape, no loose buttons or dirt, that our gear was aligned properly, like the center of the belt buckle in line with the line of tunic buttons, etc...

Were there differences between troops from the various regions of Germany?
Well, dialect for one thing.  Sometimes I couldn't understand those guys from Hunsruck & they didn't understand me either.  Berliners were aloof, Bavarians loud and fun-loving, city men were not as nice as country people and so on.  But pretty much, we got along.

How were you paid?  What kind of currency?
About every 14 days we got Gestalt, which was spending money paid in occupation money and not just French, but Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian, and so on.  It was all good to the troops, but the people would only take French or Belgain.  The rest of our pay either went home to dependants or into a government account for single men.

What types of camouflage did you use in the field?  
Our Zeltbahns, and then rubber bands and leather straps to hold nets and foliage onto our helmets. Some men painted them in nice patterns, these were very effective too.

Describe a typical roll-call.
This all depended on where you were.  While manning the coastal positions, we were accounted for only by our Zugfeldwebel. While in garrison status we were liable to company Appell by the Spieß was pretty mad.  And these varied in timing while in Normandie but in Germany we had them in the morning and evening.

Describe the worst place you were in.
Again, that's hard to say, but I would have to choose the attempt we made to get through St. Lo at the very end.  I lost my closest friend that day.

Do you remember any Army slang?  
You mean stuff like Warmer Bruder (Gay man), Offizierdecke (prostitute), Barrackepferde (barrack stallions), and so on. We had many of these.

Do you have any funny stories?
Well, I remember that while in training we had this Feldwebel who treated us really bad.  Not in the Army training way, but just because he was sadistic.  Some of us decided to get even and snuck into his room.  We cut every button off from his uniforms, tunic and trousers, and then we...well...we relieved ourselves into his boots.  When he didn't show up for Appell with us the Spieß was pretty mad.  I don't know whatever happened to him because we were shipping out to France that very morning.  this was one of the reasons we did it then!

Describe your cold-weather clothing.  
Never having to fight in the winter (Wegner was captured in Normandy), all I ever got was a greatcoat and wool gloves.

Did you ever get a Führer Geschenk?
I never got one because I never left the front, except as a prisoner, and for the leave after basic training we didn't rate one.

Describe a Biwak (Bivouac).
I guess you mean Zeltbahn tents lined up in rows of three by three or four by each platoon.  It wasn't so bad because the close quarters helped keep us warm.

Was card playing popular?  
We played Skat a lot and won and lost many a Mark. Some real gamblers would bet watches and rings and so on.

Do you have any memories regarding Chaplains?
Yes, we did have them and they came up to the front during the fighting.  They had a lot of ground to cover and we didn't see them that often, but they did minister to us and the captured Amis too.  Often they stayed and helped the doctors at the Hauptverbandplatz.

Do you have any memories regarding your Medics?
Our Sannis were real dedicated guys, I'm talking about the ones who were right up front with you.  They crawled out under fire and got guys.  They put their lives on the line every day.  But back at the Verbandplatz and Feldlazerett you were just hunks of meat to those guys and they would rob you blind if they could!

What kind of Troop-entertainment did you receive?

We got movie passes for the local theaters and the army provided us with entertainment of every form you could imagine.  But always there was never enough of it or sufficient time at it.

What were your relationships with the local civilians?
They were pretty good to us, but some did keep there distance, more afraid of their own people's retribution than they were of us kids.

How were your weapons stored in barracks?
We had rifle racks and so on.  In training the Waffenmeister kept them in an armoury because these were just weapons we trained with.

What were your feelings at the end of the war?

I didn't care who won, after what I had been through I was just glad it was over.

What were hair styles like? Do you remember any mustaches? 
Our hair was sort of long, able to be combed on the top but the sides were short in the Prussian fashion. Some men had short hair all around, like a crew cut. The guys used a lot of hair oil to keep the longer stuff in place. The older guys had mustaches but this was not common until later in the war.

Did anyone in your unit ever have lice?
No, absolutely never!

How were your uniforms laundered in the field?
In France we had them cleaned by by the local families for extra pay.  It was cheap and they did a good job, plus you got to meet their daughters.  It was better than doing it ourselves.

Did you ever use captured equipment?  
Yes. We used grenades and flares from the Amis, really anything useful, especially vehicles and food, not so much for souvenirs.

What were your feelings toward your enemies?  
The Americans were good fighters and good men. Their treatment of us was fair most of the time. I have no real complaint except against those Jabo pilots!

Did you have contact with non-German soldiers in the Wehrmacht? 
Sure, lots of them. We had Poles and Alsatians and many Russians. Basically, by themselves they were good troops and followed orders but when in groups they became useless!

Did you regularly send and receive mail?  
Before the invasion we got it and sent it regularly. But afterwards I did not get any mail until I was a POW.

Did you have any special celebration on Christmas?
We had some sort of party for the guys not going home.  The cooks made us something special and so on.  A lot of drinking and a lot of hangovers the next day.

What were the regulations and requirements to get a local pass?
Well, if you ever got one, you reported to the UvD (Unteroffizier von Dienst, or duty NCO).  He inspected you and made sure all was in proper order basically so the Kettenhund (German MPs) wouldn't bother you.  Then when he said you looked OK he gave you the pass and you could go for the time specified on the pass.

Did you have an Esbit cooker?  
No, I never had one.

Were rules for personal appearance enforced in the field?  
No, not generally after the first day or so, but when a rest from combat was given, all had to be cleaned and repaired as best as you could. However, personal hygiene in regards to lice and so on was enforced. We washed when we were near a stream or river.

What type of combat course did you get in basic training?
For me, during the period of the war in which I was inducted, we had only a general reference for combat.  We had a rifle course, bayonet course, a basic tactics course: you know, how to crawl, dig a hole, and so on.  I got nothing in detail until I got to the 352.  Detailed combat training was to be done by the unit we would be assigned to.

What do you remember about train transport?
Well this is interesting!  An enlisted man while on official leave or pass traveled in coach with the normal passengers, but while being transported in groups while on duty it was the boxcars and cattle cars.  This was so the Bahnhof Kommandateuer could easily distinguish between the two.  They would take the ones on duty first in case of emergencies.

Did you ever get a leave?
Just after my initial training.  I went home to see my family, nothing very exciting.

Were you ever issued web gear? 
The stuff from Africa? Oh sure, we had lots of it! My frog for the bayonet was (webbing), like my canteen strap. Many men had whole outfits of the stuff, you know, belts, Y-straps, and all!

Where were your packs kept when you went into combat? 
These were kept at battalion in our platoon's wagon. Each unit had a wagon in the baggage train, you know.

Did you get reading material in the field?  
Yes, stuff like "Signal," "Die Wehrmacht," and newspapers, but the best stuff was the French magazines which we were not supposed to have. Some of them were real raunch. Nevertheless, the Amis always took them from us for themselves.

What were your defenses against Jabos?  
If we had sufficient ammunition, we could set a trap as I once explained to you. Otherwise, we had to get into the best cover possible when they came and we were on the move. Sometimes if we could, we would set off the same color smoke grenades as the Amis. This marked their lines and the Jabos wouldn't shoot at them. If we had the same smoke, they wouldn't shoot us, either!

How & when were you reissued clothing in the field?  
Before the invasion, you had to prove that your stuff was unrepairable by the company craftsman and only then could you get it replaced. After the invasion, we had to strip the dead and wounded because supplies were just not getting to us, only a trickle of munitions and food.

Were you issued candles for the field (sparlampe)?
Yes, little kerosene soaked ones.  They burned pretty well, too!

Where did you carry your overcoat when you weren't wearing it?  
Rolled and strapped to my rucksack back on the platoon wagon.

What are your memories of the Zapfenstreich?
This was like what the Americans would call retreat at night, from what my sons tell me, and only really occurred while in the Kaserne for us.  I don't remember it while on the coast.

What are your memories of your Haupfeldwebel: der Spieß
Our company Spieß was named Thiessen.  When this guy spoke, even your hair stood at attention.  He was tough as nails and always at the front with us.  I don't think he liked all that clerk stuff.  He was wounded just before St. Lo fell.

Do you remember seeing the rifle grenade launcher?

Sure, every Gruppe had one.  I wasn't very good at hitting things with it.  But when a guy mastered it, he could put a grenade down the chimney of a house!

Did you have cleaning brushes and a sewing kit?
I had a clothes brush and a shoe brush, both very stiff and well made.  My sewing kit was a little leather folder filled with thread, needles, and extra buttons.  It tied closed.  My father gave that to me.

Did you train with anti-tank weapons: magnetic mines, smoke grenades, Panzerfausts?
When we got to France we were trained with those weapons, and were those Panzerfausts ever effective!  I saw a lot of that stuff used but as an MG Nr. 1, I never had to use them in combat because I was giving support fire.

How were German barracks laid out?
I recall it as a block of four barracks, each a company arranged around a barrack parade ground like a square.

Did you ever have a trench knife?
No, just a bayonet.  Those knives were issued so many to a company and then you had to be lucky enough to get one or you could buy one at the Kantine.

Were you trained in night combat?
Yes, again, when we got to Normandie.

Were you issued Iron rations?  
Only in the beginning. The meat was this ground pork, it was seasoned and tasted pretty good and we had what you would call "Hardtack" crackers. We ate them all the time when we had them.

What do you remember of the Feldgenarmerie: the Kettenhund?
Those bastards delighted in giving us a hard time, no matter what we were doing!  But when the first shots rang out, I never saw them again.

What do you remember as pastimes? 
I just read and slept when I could. When we did have spare time to do anything, we went to a show and tried to go to the Field Brothel or pick up the local girls. 

Describe your first days in the Army.
This was a time of rushing all over the place to get all of the needed things done.  We got our Soldbuch and Erkennungsmarke (dogtag) first, then were issued our equipment and then got our medical shots.  All very fast and confusing when I look back at it.

Did you have a watch?  
I had a wristwatch, from my father.

Did you wear suspenders?  
Of course, if I didn't, those trousers would have been down to my ankles every other step!

How did you answer a telephone?
I just remember that when we answered the phone we had to say something like this: "W.N.77, Hier Wegner."

What sort of punishments do you remember?
Most of the time it was fairly harsh extra duty but if you really screwed up, you went east with a Penal Battalion.  I was always a good soldier and never had any trouble.

Did you have a soldier's handbook?
Yes I did, we had to buy it.  It was only a few Marks.  I don't know what happened to it.

Did you have a camera?
No

Memories regarding "HIWIS":
These guys were so eager to help and lick our boots clean, it made one disgusted sometimes, but they tried and we had lots of them in various jobs.

Did you ever see female HIWIS?
Why yes, we had these Russian women in the field kitchens!  Many of the units in our division had them.  I never knew their fate after the fighting began.

Did you ever have a pocket torch?  
Yes, I did. Great little thing, buttoned right to your tunic and left your hands free to work or write.

What were your feelings toward your commanders?  
General Kraiss and Oberst Heyna were good leaders. They did their best for us and they came up to the front a lot. I still remember Kraiss, he was very small, with his helmet and MP40. He would even send some shots off against the AMis. But as for GROFAZ (Hitler) and the rest, I hope they are rotting in HELL.

Who were you required to salute? 
We saluted officers and "Unteroffizer mit Portepee", that is above the rank of Unterfeldwebel.

What was the correct form of address for the various ranks? 
Anybody Unteroffizer or above was always "Herr," but Gefreiters and Obergefreiters rated this in parade formations. Most of the time, we just used a Gefreiter's name; we were all close at that level.

Memories regarding the NSFO (Nazi commisar):
Once a week during training before the invasion we got a lecture from those guys.  It was pretty boring but you had to go.  When the fighting started, we never saw those Barrackepferde and if we did I'm sure the men on our side would have shot at them.

Where did you carry your wallet?
In my trouser pocket.

What do you see as the biggest mistakes in Hollywood's portrayal of German soldiers?
Other than the uniforms and the way they are worn, the German is always an unthinking dummy who runs out and dies under a hail of GI machine gun fire.  NOT TRUE.  We were good soldiers and fought well.  Just once I would like to see this in a Hollywood production.

What was the call-up and induction process?
In my time, you reported for duty the day after your 17th birthday, then were given a medical examination and sent to the replacement unit.  My replacement unit was the 171st in Hannover.

What were the common things you kept in your pockets?  
Wallet, pocketknife, crust of bread, little books like the bible and my French dictionary. All this sort of useful stuff.

Did you have a pocketknife?
Yes, a gift from my father.  It wasn't an army one but much better.  I hope the Ami who took it from me got good use from it.

Did you ever get beer?
This would come up with the food rations, but in Normandie we hardly ever got any.

Did you wear the Gamaschen?
First I had those damn things and the ankle boots.  I wasn't happy.  Then my older brother, an artillery Feldwebel, sent me an old pair of his Marschstiefel.  All well kept and resoled.  Those were the best boots I ever had, of course I had to keep my ankle boots but never wore them again.

Describe a field latrine.
In actual fighting, it was just go find somewhere to go and do it.  We never really had time to make a proper one.  On the coast we had very good ones in the underground bunkers.

Memories regarding bicycles. 
A lot of them were around with our units. I just remember the sight of hundreds of them strewn about the road when this Jabo attacked a bicycle unit. (Int. note: this was the 30th Schnell Brigade).

How uniform was your unit? Did everyone look the same?  
Interesting! When we left the Ausbildungs Abt. (training unit), we were all the same but after dispersion into the 352 with the older men and volksdeutch there was a wide disparity among uniforms, the color, type, and so on.

Memories regarding Urban warfare:
Nasty business and very deadly in defense or attacking.  The worst thing was that even in the building you were a bigger target for the artillery or jabos.  I prefered my hole in the hedgerows.

What enemy weapons did you fear the most?  
The Jabos!

How did you wear your dogtag?  
In a leather pouch around my neck.

Describe your field cap and how you wore it. 
I had the kind like the mountain troopers. It was stylish. We put the regulation pinch in the front and wore it to one side. In the field we put it on our heads any old way!

Memories regarding Essenträger:
That all came up at night and it was just extra duty for us so we hated to do it.  It did mean a little extra food, though.

How were you treated by your own people after the war?
It wasn't bad by those who had sons that had fought or died but the new government treated you terrible; repayment for their treatment during the Hitler times.

Final comments from Wegner: 
I also want to say I am glad to be able to speak of my Service time after so many years of silence. I began to believe that I had been some sort of monster thanks to television and Hollywood. Even my children were ashamed of my service. I now know that there are good people like yourselves that understand that we were young men fighting for our country. Yes, it was an evil government, but we had known no other. I am again proud to say that I was a Grenadier. I will not go to my grave a "monster" from Hollywood. Thank you for letting an old man speak of his youth and thump his chest like a warrior once again.

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