British Steel – Mk IV Tank in Berlin, Germany 1919

This image has been lying on my desk for quite a while. So time for a quick article about it. It is a rare one, showing a british Mk IV tank captured by the german army in WW1 now used by Freikorps units during the supression of the Spartacist uprising in Berlin, in January 1919. 

In January 1919 all remaining armoured cars and vehicles of the german army were regrouped in Berlin under the command of Reichswehrgruppenkommando 1, forming three Abteilungen. One of these Abteilungen was designated Schwere (heavy) Kampfwagenabteilung and consisted of two british Mark IV tanks and one german A7V tank (Heidi) formerly beloning to Freikorps Maerker. They stayed in use until Summer 1919, when all armoured vehicles had to be surrendered to the allies as dictated by the Treaty of Versailles. 

The Spartacist uprising (German: Spartakusaufstand), also known as the January uprising (Januaraufstand), was a general strike (and the armed battles accompanying it) in Germany from January 4 to January 15, 1919.

Its suppression marked the end of the German Revolution. The name “Spartacist uprising” is generally used for the event even though neither the ‘Spartacist League’ of Rosa Luxemburg fame (aka Spartakusbund) nor the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) planned, initiated nor led this uprising; each participated only after popular resistance had begun. This Uprising contributed to German disillusionment with the Weimar Government. Their leaders were Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Several workers spontaneously seized the editorial office of one newspaper in the Kochstraße in Berlin and erected barricades on the streets. This attracted more workers who blocked further streets in the newspaper quarter- including the office of Germany’s Social Democrat SPD organ “Forward” (Vorwärts).

This Social Democrat paper had printed articles hostile to the Spartacists since the beginning of September. The leaders of the USPD and the KPD/Communist Party decided to support this worker-action, appealling for a general strike in Berlin on January 7. The strike garnered about 500,000 participants who surged into downtown Berlin that weekend. In the following two days however the strike leadership (known as the ad-hoc Revolution Committee) failed to resolve the classic dichotomy between militarized revolutionaries committed to genuinedly new societies and reformists advocating deliberations with Ebert. Meanwhile the strikers in the occupied quarter obtained weapons. Within the Communist Party there was further dissent. Karl Liebknecht, unlike Rosa Luxemburg, supported a militant coup over Ebert’s government, else the KPD would be alienated from worker elements planning the coup. At the same time some KPD leaders tried persuading state military regiments in Berlin, especially the Volksmarinedivision, to their side.

Their armed presence was supposed to instigate fighting. This was unsuccessful because most soldiers had either gone home or because their loyalty to the “Rat der Volksbeauftragten” (ie., the flag of the regiment). On January 8, the KPD left the Revolution Committee after USPD representatives had invited Friedrich Ebert for talks. While these took place, the workers found out about a flyer published by Vorwärts titled “Die Stunde der Abrechnung naht!” (The hour of vengeance is coming soon!) and about the Freikorps (anti-Republican paramilitary organizations, who fought the Weimar Republic and the November Revolution), whom the SPD administration had hired to suppress the workers. Ebert had ordered defense minister Gustav Noske, also a member of the SPD, to do so on January 6. Then the Revolution Committee stopped talks with the SPD. The Spartacist League then called for its members to take part in armed combat.

A7V tank at Roye, France 1918 (Bundesarchiv)

On the same day, Ebert ordered the Freikorps to attack the workers. The former soldiers still had weapons and military equipment from World War I, which gave them a formidable advantage. They quickly re-conquered the blocked streets and buildings; many of the workers surrendered. Around 100 civilians and 17 Freikorps soldiers died during the fighting. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were captured by Freikorps soldiers and killed.

Rider of the Apocalypse, 1917

This image is not unknown, I found it in two different albums so far (in different sizes), so I guess it was traded and maybe sold aswell. Still it is unkown to many and it does not need many words as its powerful enough to speak for itself.

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

Apocalypse

Knights Cross holders report on the invasion of Poland 1939 – Oberst de la Chevallerie – 1. Infanterie-Division

Oberst (then Hauptmann) de la Chevallerie left us a unique report on the first 8 days of the invasion of Poland (he was wounded on the 9th of September). The original report is stored in the Bundesarchiv (Militärarchiv) in Freiburg (Germany). Nobody knows exactly why he wrote it. It might have been written for a friend, it might also have been a draft for his memoires. Anyway, his writing style is quite unusual for a “prussian” officer (its not often that you find them telling you of their diarrhoea on campaign).  I have already taken some its passages for two earlier blog posts and thought it might now be time to publish it in full. But first you should know something about the man:

He seemed haughty and eccentric and I always had the impression that he was bored by everything that happened around him, but he took great care of his men and was an exceptional soldier.
(Obergefreiter Adam Rehberg, IR22 – Letter to the author) 

Oberst Botho Hermann Ludwig von La Chevallerie was born on the 1st of August 1898 in Hannover. During World War 1 he fought with Ulanen-Regiment 20, earning the Iron Cross First and Second Class. Not much else is known about his military career in the Great War. On the 6th of September 1918 he was taken prisoner by the british. He was released on the 1st of November 1919 and was discharged about three weeks later. He lived a civilian life up to October 1934 when he rejoined the army, taking over a company of Infanterie-Regiment 22 (1. Infanterie-Division) of the Gumbinnen Garrison.  On the 1st of January 1939 he was commanding the 11th company of the regiment. During the Polish Campaign, on the 9th of September 1939, he was badly wounded (shot into the neck with the round entering the lungs) and was transported to Ortelsburg/Germany for medical treatment. De la Chevallerie took part in the Campaign in the West (commanding 3rd battalion, Infanterie-Regiment 43, 1. Infanterie-Division). When the battalion was transferred to 121. Infanterie-Division and redesignated III./Infanterie-Regiment 408he stayed in command and participated in the campaign against Russia. On the 28th of June he was wounded again (one shot to the head, two into the arm), near Kowno.
Only a day before he had earned himself the Knights Cross, when his battalion attacked russian positions in the forests near Rukla. The enemy there was strong, so originally the attack was supposed to be carried out by the whole division. Having been cut of from artillery support and all other units, de la Chevallerie attacked with a single battalion instead. By the end of the day, III. battalion had taken the soviet positions. Huge amounts of supplies, arms and ammunition were captured.  He was awarded the Knights Cross on the 23. of July 1941.
After recovering from his wounds he took command of Infanterie-Ersatz-Bataillon 22 (regimental reserves) in Gumbinnen. In November 1943 (now a Major) we find him commanding Grenadier-Regiment 585 (320. Infanterie-Division) on the Eastern Front. Being wounded again on the 14th of November 1943, he succumbed to his wounds on the following day. He was promoted to the rank of Oberst posthumously.

Officers of III./Infanterie-Regiment 22 in horseback, Gumbinnen, 1938.

On the 21st of August we left the garrison, prepared as if going to war. I was lucky that only 20 of my men were reservists. Most of my NCOs were active soldiers and most of my reservists had served their two years in my company.
As squadleaders I had Leutnant Neumann, Oberfähnrich Koch (who had just left war academy) and my good, reliable Feldwebel Kudszus, who had just managed to rejoin the company before it marched out. He had been acting as drill sergeant in the reserve batallion and had spent the day before running around like a child waiting for christmas.
It was all very strange. We all had been issued live ammunition and handgrenades, but we still had our paybooks (Soldbücher) stored in a big box and everyone carried a red helmet band for “Autumn excercises”. Blanks had been left in storage, to be send to the “excercise grounds” if needed!
When we had reached the train station we deployed air defences (as if on maneuver), and loaded us and our equipment onto the trains. After we had finished, peace broke out again. Civilians, women and children flooded the platforms and everything looked just like a normal day as we had experienced it lots of times before.
Seven hours later we disembarked at Ortenburg and marched off into the direction of Willenberg. We had our first experiences with bad roads on campaign when our carriages, loaded with every wargear imaginable got stuck in knee deep sand. The wagons weighed up to five tons and with their low profile and rubber tires it was no wonder that only two horses had problems with them. After we had marched for about 30 kilometers we set up camp inside a forsest close to a small lake.

Officers and men of Infanterie-Regiment 43 in Poland (1939)

Tents were camouflaged and soon afterwards everyone was asleep. On the next day we were supposed to march into the regimental assembly areas to begin our excercises. Instead we recieved the information that these had been cancelled. That was good news and we spent the time swimming in the lake, cleaning weapons and caring for the horses. The company had eight vehicles. Three for arms and ammunition, three for luggage and other supplies, one kitchen wagon and one for air defence, mounting two MG34 machineguns. Three of them were drawn by requisitioned horses which were not bad, but a little bit on the weak side and being driven by naive reservists, whose only knowledge about horses consisted of sitting on the wagon, wildly shaking the reins and shouting “Hooah”.

First page of de la Chevalleries report

We spent three days in our bivouac, using the time to train the horses and give driving lessons to the men. We excercised swimming, made endurance runs through the forest.
The lads of the machine gun company had used the money of their “Manure-Fond” (selling of horse manure to farmers) to buy a radioset and every day the batallion assembled around it. From this we heard that we were stationed in a state of readiness, two kilometers away from the border! The truth was that we were about 10 Kilometers away from it, lazy and in our underpants.

On the last day we heard that Scheidies (Batallion commander) was transfered to divisional staff. You have to know Scheidies to understand how hard this was for him. It would have been easier if this had happened before we marched out, but now, when everyone was eagerly expecting action the whole thing was unbearable. The only “good” thing about this buisnenss that I was to take command of the batallion, so at least the men didn’t have to cope with an outsider.

The following night we continued our march. Near Kannwiesen we again set up camp when I was called to the regiment. There I recieved orders to take the batallion to a forest about about two kilometers from the polish border. The border there was lined by the river Orschütz, 5-6 meters wide and about 2 meters deep. There were no bridges, only a couple of fords (where the water had a depth of about half a meter). 
I returned to the battalion, the men equipped themselves with live ammunition and moved out to the target area. I was more than glad when we had reached it at about 0230h in the morning. Deep Masurian Pine forest, sand, sand and more sand, tiny roads and crossings every five minutes, which all looked exactly the same and half of them not being on any map, stuck vehicles and finally a disoriented artillery unit blocking our way with their wagons and guns. At 0300 in the morning I finally got in touch with an adjutant of the reconnaissance, who told as that X-Time was supposed to be at 0430h. That gave us about 90 minutes to lay down on the forest floor to catch some sleep. At 0330h I was woken an armed guard telling me that “Herr Oberstleutnant is coming”. And really, our Scheidies was back, carrying with him the message that all orders had been cancelled. Batallion was to move back and to await further orders. We had been told that the Poles were about to attack Gdansk and we were supposed to counter that by attacking him in return. Alas, the Poles did not do us that favor and, at least for the day, war was cancelled. We moved out again, made camp and spent the following days in a forest near Roggen, frying eggs on our entrenching tools, cleaning guns and waiting for what was to come.

On the 31st of August I was called back to the regiment. It was the same old song all over again. Scheidies (commander of 1st Btn.) was on leave and I had to take over. During the night we got the order to move into our attacking positions. The whole thing reminded me of the fable “The boy who cried wolf”, but an order is an order and we obeyed.

On the 1st of September (at three in the morning) we arrived, quite unenthusiastically, at the same spot where we had spent the nights of the 26th and 27th of August. The only difference being that now it rained cats and dogs. Shortly afterwards we received the order “X-Time 0445h”. As usual, nobody really believed that, but to everyone’s surprise, at precisely 0445h, our artillery fired a few salvos;  loudly announcing the start of the war! I have to mention that this was no proper artillery fire, the first salvos were only fired to find the correct range. Still there was one interlude that needs to mentioned.

Major Domizlaff, commander of I./IR22. also known as “Borante”, who was massively disliked by old and young,  had overzealous as usual,  already crawled over the border and had only just been missed by one of our shells. He took a splinter into his arse! Harmless but painful. This story spread like wildfire throughout the division which was soon roaring with laughter.

We crossed the Orschütz at a ford, leaving some our supply vehicles behind as the ground was much to swampy for them to cross (they rejoined our column some days later, after getting two more horses per wagon). Not one shot was fired from the polish side. We had not expected that, after all we had been told about strong enemy forces in the area.
All we saw were quite a number of small, dirty villages and some old people, who took of their hats when we passed, looking even more afraid than we did. It started with sand and more sand. Also thick dust, sometimes red, sometimes grey.  We could only see an actual road when inside a forest. Where there were no trees, there was the road. This changed when marching on open ground. You could only guess where to go. If we were lucky we could see the marks left by some farmers manure wagon, that was about it. What was marked a proper road on our maps wouldn’t have passed as a beaten track at home. No stones, no trees, no ditches, just dismally drab surroundings. It was terrible and most exhausting for the men. 

Later in the evening we had reached a prominent ridge. The enemy must be there! But again, disappointment. An excellent defensive position and nobody was using it!
18 kilometers futher on, the sounds of battle! Our cavalry scouts had clashed with enemy pickets. The regiment went into the attack. I. Batallion at the front, II. Batallion on the left, III. Batallion on the right flank. The first moves went smooth as if on the exercise ground. Then III. Batallion was ordered to halt and I got called to the regiment again.
I rode over as fast as I could and was told that I. Batallion had met the enemy at the village of Skorupki. It was now being flanked by enemy forces on Hill 188, effectivly pinning the batallion to ground. We were ordered to attack Hill 188 from the north, supported by a section of light infantry guns of 13th coy. An artillery observer was going to contact me soon. 

A nice and clear order. Going north we now saw the first dead poles lying on the roadsides.  The artilleryman had contacted me as promised, I had told him of my plan and he had promised fire support. In the meantime we had spotted three enemy machine guns on the hill. After a march of about 20 minutes we were in the position to assault the hill, just in time to see its defenders fleeing as if in panic. Again no sign of resistance. The enemy just left his most formidable position without even trying to defend. 

Still we were quite happy when we had reached the peak of the hill. Although we were not feeling quite as victorious as we would have liked. From up there we could see I. Batallion leaving Skorupki and in front of it, prominent on his white charger, our Scheidies. Because of Borantes wounded arse, he had been sent back to take charge of III. Batallion. I was delighted, as this meant I could go back to lead the lads of 11th company.

“Without rest we continued our march. Taking a southwesterly direction we crossed valleys and ridges, keeping up a fast pace and always in open order. We must not give the poles a minute of rest. As we had no vehicles we had to carry our heavy weapons aswell. A most exhausting business, even for the best trained men.
The sun set and we dug in. Guards and pickets were set up. It was cold, our coats were still on our baggage train. We were hungry aswell and our field kitchen was nowhere close. At this moment food and coats were about 18 hours behind us. There was no hay to cover ourselves with, so we laid down on open field in shallow pits and ditches. I was lucky to be lying on a flax field as I could use the plants to make myself a small pillow and a partial blanket. The other part of my blanket was provided by the Zeltbahn (tent square) of one of my NCOs (Unteroffizier Zibulski), which we shared like brothers even it was a little small for two grown men. I still slept like a log, up until at half past three in the morning I was woken by Leutnant Götz, once member of my company, now second adjutant to the CO of I. Batallion. “Herr Hauptmann, you are ordered back to the regiment to take over command of I. Batallion”. 

Even the classic Goethe quote* (see below) would not help me, so I got up and stumbled up to the regimental command post, joining I. Batallion shortly afterwards. We had been ordered to act as divisional reserve! I was swearing my head off, but to no avail. Notwithstanding that I also got hit by a fit of diarrhoea. Our Doctor called it a gastric flu, but I call it the worst kind of diarrhoea I have ever experienced! I also had a temperature. I guzzled down a dose of opium, quinine and tanalbin every 15 minutes, but dragged through the whole thing as well as I could. Not that we had much to do. Changing positions into a different wood every 2 or 3 hours, three kilometers away from the frontline. The boring fate of the reserves.
Now and then we could hear the sounds of battle and later we could see a steep ridge, on which trenches and bunkers could be spotted. The Kamienka ridge, which was defended by the Poles until the boys of II., but mainly III. Batallion cleared them out with hand-grenades. My company had been in battle for the first time and put up a good show, loosing four dead and five wounded (including 3 NCOs).

The next day was a good day, as I was finally given the chance to fight. The regiment was attacking, but its left flank was open and unguarded. To cover it I got command of small detachment consisting of 1st coy., one squad of 4th (MG) coy., two light infantry guns of 13th coy. and two AT guns of 14th coy. With this respectable force I defended the regiments flank against an attack that sadly never happened. When shortly afterwards IR43 took over, I took over commanding the reserves again, following the regiment south-east, which at least gave me chance to have a closer look on the fortifications of the Gora-Kamiensk. We only had short rest of about an hour, before continuing our march through the night. This was disturbed by some sporadic and unaimed polish artillery fire, which was quite disturbing for some of the younger soldiers. I had seen far worse on the battlefields of the last war and knew we were not in any danger. I did not even dismount, as it was a lot easier to control the horse from the saddle. When we passed a few burning villages the artillery fire stopped as suddenly as it started. 
The next morning we could see huge columns of enemy soldiers streaming south from the area of Mlawa. They were out of reach of our guns and obviously we had failed to pocket them in. We later heard that this was done on purpose, as the fleeing masses were enlarging the confusion in and around Warsaw.

There was only one thing for us to do. Marching until the feet were bleeding and the lungs burst. Fast pace and open order. 15 kilometers, shouldering heavy machine guns and mortars and carrying twice the normal supply of cartridges and hand grenades. 
In the meantime our kitchen had caught up with us and I made a promise to myself not to let it go again. Then suddenly a road, at least it used to be one 100 years ago, and open ground in front of us. A one hour break to eat and rest. Another stretch of marching till midnight. Another rest, this time in a small hamlet. The men resting in a tiny barn, stacked like herrings in a tin.  We had been marching for four days now. Only short breaks, no one had the time to wash. The stench in the barn was quite unpleasant, but at least it was warm.

8./IR43 on the march, 1939.

At 0200 suddenly alarm! Only two hours of sleep. Everyone was cursing, but to no avail. Off we went again.  The usual crappy roads and never-ending 25 kilometer stretch of marching. It was hot and we were sweating like the pigs. There was no water. The few wells we found were constructed for one goat and a couple of Poles. Not even enough for washing, although the Poles did not seem to take body hygiene to serious anyway. 

For some reason the bandit managing our kitchen always had hot tea and coffee ready for us and we still got food supplies from the divisional baggage train. As I did not want to send our heavy kitchen wagon to fetch supplies we “organized” a small cart drawn by two nimble panje horses. Every day we had another use for that. We lived on the move and off the land. One day it was loaded with an old fusilier plucking dozens of chicken. The next time we were slaughtering a couple of piglets and a lamb on it. One day it was loaded with three Polish civilians peeling potatoes. Every day we took a different collection of Poles to do these jobs. We had run out of bread days ago, but with the supplies found on the way I was able to supply the men with two warm meals a day. 

Later we came up to a proper farm estate. A good place to rest. This was the first proper Polish farm we had seen so far. Clean and large stables. They seemed to have bred pigs there. Lots of sows and piglets around. Not a soul to be seen. All light bulbs had been removed, the water supply had been cut. Again no chance to wash and shave. Most of us looked like a poor version of St. Peter and smelt like the other inhabitants of the farm. The pigs were well fed and even if the horses had been removed there must have been people around. Whoever they were, they managed to stay out of sight.

At dusk another break inside the usual tiny hamlets. Two hours of rest. The next morning after only three kilometers we reach a small jewish village called Makow. We get a surprising rest as there is a big traffic jam. Large parts of our division, including the reconnaissance unit needed to cross our old relation, the river Orschütz, again. This time by using a small makeshift bridge, everything was in chaos.
The city full of jews. The houses were so dirty that I would not have entered them even under threat of death. Most of the shops had been devastated by polish soldiers. Sweets and chocolates had been trampled on the ground. A german soldier would never do things like that. A german soldier would eat as much as he could and take the rest to eat it later.

Again no chance to wash. It was the 6th of September and the day ended like it had started. A small march of 20 kilometers, then a long rest in a forest. The roads had become even worse and again there was no lake or a drop of water to wash with, but at least we finally got a long rest. No enemy in sight and still heading south-east….

* “Tell your captain that for His Imperial Majesty, I have, as always, due respect. But he, tell him that, he can lick me in the arse!” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Götz von Berlichingen”.

“The night was pitch black. Sandy ground everywhere, making marching a pain. A chausee was supposed to be somewhere in front of us. We passed a stuck supply column loaded with ammunition. One of our horses died of pure exhaustion this night. It was the most terrible march of the whole campaign.

Finally we reached the chaussee. Well, it probably had been a chaussee once, in the time of William the Conqueror. But at least we were marching on a road again.
A while later a car came up, which took me, Scheidies and the officer in charge of the machine gun company up to the regiment. We were closing on the river Narew, about 2 kilometers south of the old russian fortress of Rozan and were to look for favourable spots to cross. Pioneers had brought in lots of rubber dingies and when the sun began to rise the battalion crossed the river. The bridges near Rozan had been blown, so we couldn’t take our vehicles with us. Again our payload began to rise. More ammunition, more hand-grenades and heavy weapons. On the other side discarded rifles, ammunition and helmets, but again no sign of enemy resistance, no sign that we were actually fighting a war.

We marched through a forest, companies spread out in open order but with reduced spacing as it was easy to loose one another in the dense trees. Through the forest, up a hill and down again. Loaded like mules with ammunition and equipment, steel helmets on and all under the burning sun. Always heading south-east and no end in sight.
In the evening we made camp and dug into a what we call a “hedgehog” position.
We had taken some dumb polish soldiers prisoner, who had put on civilian clothing, but had forgotten to remove their dog tags. They had been told that it would take three or four days until the first german soldiers showed up. Quite a surprise for them.

We did not win the war in Poland by feats of arms. We won because of the iron will and stubbornness of our infantry and their intensive peacetime training, which had enabled them to continue marching night and day with only minimal rest.

I was very pleased with my men, and I told them that I was. In these early days of September 1939, everything we had trained for since April 1935 had paid out.

It was not the 15 minutes of combat during the attack on the Gora Kamiensk that was hardest for the officers and men. For an officer it is most rewarding that he managed to motivate his worn out and footsore soldiers again and again. Minimal rest, one march after the other, through night and sun, through dust and dirt, each march at least 8 hours long, without loosing a single man. The NCOs did a wonderful job, keeping their lads in a pristine condition, motivating them by setting an example themselves. The best soldiers in the World.

The night was terribly cold, again I shared a Zeltbahn with Zibulski. In the morning the kitchen caught up with us. The Hauptfeldwebel supplied us with cigarettes, cigars, tobacco and sweets that he had “conquered” somewhere. With a big grin he covered me with a warm blanket, supplied me with a steaming pot of coffee, stuck a cigar between my teeth and said “get another 2 hours of sleep, we are to march out at 0500h“. Each single one of these gallant deeds was fantastic and couldn’t be weighed up in gold. For the first time in days I managed to get some proper rest. I smoked half the cigar and finished the rest later on horseback.

On the 8th of September we were told that our division and one cavalry brigade was to be part of the easternmost half of pincer movement designed to encircle Warsaw. The day continued like the others. Endless marches through sand and dirt.
Near a small stream we managed to wash and to shave. Fusilier Rohde, who had been a barber in Essen in his civilian life, professionally removed my beard. A pity, somehow I had become attached to it. When I reported “Company washed and shaved, ready to march out” to Scheidies, he couldn’t keep himself from grinning.

After this rest we continued marching, this time heading south. It seemed that the pincer was now being closed. In the evening we got the message that the first german soldiers had entered Warsaw. I could not believe it, as this would have meant that we had missed all the fun. I was quite happy when it turned out to be a false report. On the next morning myself, the regiments commander, the battalion commander and his adjutant, set out in a car to reconnoiter. Actually a foolish thing to do. We carried our pistols and the driver had a carbine, but that was not a lot of firepower to defend ourselves with.



We soon came to a village called Bojani, which we entered on foot. Civilians only. “Nje soldiers here, Nje soldiers”. The enemy had only just left the night before. Just behind Bojani the river Bug. Now we had to find a good place to cross, which we found later that day in the form of a ford. About a meter deep and sixty meters wide. Our cavalry brigade was supposed to be on the other side already and in contact with the enemy. Not a shot could be heard though. When we were in the process of crossing a brilliantly aimed polish artillery shell fell directly between three fully manned dinghies. By a small miracle no one got hurt. Having reached the other side, we set up a small bridgehead, distributed heavy weapons and marched on. Soon we came up to village inhibited by ethnic germans. Even if they looked poor as church mouses they cheered us and brought up bread, butter and water for the men”

When the largest part of our regiment had crossed the river we finally went into combat. If enemy numbers were small, I was to attack and destroy the opposition. If enemy resistance was strong we were ordered to retreat to defend our bridgehead.
I did not see a single polish soldier. For me that meant that enemy forces were probably not strong. That meant we were going to attack. In front of us a stretch of forest with swampy ground, crossed by ditches and a wide canal. Right in the middle a good road leading south to a small bridge crossing the canal. So far, so good. We moved up the road at fast pace, each squad crossing the bride after the other. When we had crossed that we folded out again. One squad to the right, one squad to the left of the road, third squad at the rear. Heavy machine guns and mortars are shooting suppressive fire and move up slowly behind us. By then we had been targeted by polish artillery.


Open collars, remove neckties! Go! Go! Go!”. Be aggressive, just don’t slacken the pace. The men moved forward by squads, the others providing cover. How often had we trained just that on the exercise ground near the Pissa-Bridge. Only now I was not sitting comfortably on the parapet, criticising the men. I was trotting with them, passing out orders to move with my whistle. I was first over the bridge. German soldiers on the other side. Members of the bicycle company which was part of the cavalry brigade. “How good to see you guys, good have some infantry support over here!” To hear such words from a cavalryman was praise indeed. The cyclists had been pinned down by enemy fire. They also lacked heavy weapons.

As I had what they were lacking, we agreed to attack together. My men leading the assault, the bicycle lads covering our flanks. The ground covered with elder trees and more ditches. The Poles put up a skilful defence, using the ground to their advantage. We could not bring the firepower of the heavy machine guns to bear. It had to be a classic infantry attack, the soldiers using their speed and dexterity, their rifles, bayonets and hand grenades. Now and then one of our light machine guns had a clear field of fire. We get carried forward by the elation of having a fighting enemy in front of us for the first time in eight days! Soon the forest had been cleared. We continued our fighting advance. In front of me Zibulski jumped a ditch and got shot by polish soldier hiding in an underpass which crossed the road diagonally some way further up. The soldier was in an excellent position and was defending like a lion, alone as all of his comrades had run away.



Had there been three men and a machine gun, Neumanns squad would have ceased to exist. With rifle or pistol we could not get him, someone would have had to enter the ditch and the soldier was keeping that under constant, precise fire. We had to attack from the other side of the road with hand-grenades. When I crossed the road I got shot into the neck by a machine gun that was covering from the direction of Sadowne.

It was only luck, that in the heat of battle, I had opened my collar and removed my necktie. Otherwise the bullet would have carried half a pound of dirty linen into the wound. I fell to the ground, could not walk, my lungs began to hurt and I could only whisper. I was just able to see some lads finishing off the polish soldier in the underpass. My friend Zibulski, who had shared his blanket with me every night, had been shot in the thigh. The bullet had injured the main artery. He died on the same day after he had been carried to the main dressing station.

A field medic took care of us and got wounded himself, going down right beside me. We stayed under constant fire until the company finally managed to enter Sadowne. 11th coy had five men wounded, one dead.
Polish fire was badly aimed and frantic. The Polish soldiers were very different. Some fought like lions, with skill and full of courage. Others ran like sheep when the first shot was fired. With german officers they would have made excellent troops.

 



The first german casualty of World War 2 – The case of Oberstleutnant Domizlaff

Last year I got into contact with a militaria collector in the UK who had just bought a collection of military documents that had once belonged to Oberstleutnant Ottomar Domizlaff.

In 1939 Domizlaff was serving in Infanterie-Regiment 22, commanding its first battalion during the Polish campaign. By then he had served as soldier for nearly 21 active years! He was a thorough professional, serving as as Leutnant in World War 1, where he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. Only three years after the end of the Great War, he rejoined the German army as a Leutnant, signing up for 12 years of service in 1921. He served in Schützen-Regiment 2 and Infanterie-Regiment 5 during which he was promoted to the rank of Hauptmann. In 1939, now a Major, he took command of I./IR22.

Leutnant Domizlaff in 1921

In his documents, there is a highly interesting award certificate for the wound badge (Verwundetenabzeichen) in silver. It was awarded in 1940 for a wound received on 1st of September 1939. The date of the Invasion of Poland.

Domizlaff had already been wounded in World War 1, earning the black wound badge in 1917, so it is not unusual that he received the silver grade for a single wound in World War 2.

Unusual was the date the wound was received. There were quite a lot of soldiers who got wounded on the 1st of September 1939, but the number is extremely low compared to all the soldiers who got wounded in the days, months and years after that. Looking from a collectors point of view, finding an award document with this date is very rare. I was intrigued by that and started to dive into the divisional documents available to me to find out more.

The award certificate for the “Verwundetenabzeichen in Silber”.

The war diaries for the Polish campaign had been destroyed during a bombing raid on Berlin in 1942, so finding something in there was impossible. The only remaining material from that period it a war diary of Pionier-Batallion 1, but looking there would be fruitless aswell. It was then, that a friend of mine remembered the letter written by Hauptmann de la Chevallerie on the campaign in Poland.

The report by Hauptmann de la Chevallerie (which is in itself fantastic, as it’s full of sarcastic remarks and written with a grim sense of humour) shed light on what happened to Ottomar Domizlaff, who might indeed be the first german casualty of the Polish campaign and possibly even World War 2!

The regiment, stationed close to the Polish border, had been exercising false alarms for a couple of weeks now. Every night the soldiers were called out in full gear and with orders to move out for an imminent attack.

De la Chevallerie writes that:

“On the 31st of August I was called back to the regiment. It was the same old song all over again. Scheidies (commander of 1st Btn.) was on leave and I had to take over. During the night we got the order to move into our attacking positions. The whole thing reminded me of the fable “The boy who cried wolf”, but an order is an order and we obeyed.

On the 1st of September (at three in the morning) we arrived, quite unenthusiastically, at the same spot where we had spent the nights of the 26th and 27th of August. The only difference being that now it rained cats and dogs.
Shortly afterwards we received the order “X-Time 0445h”. As usual, nobody really believed that, but to everyone’s surprise, at precisely 0445h, our artillery fired a few salvos; loudly announcing the start of the war! I have to mention that this was no proper artillery fire, the first salvos were only fired to find the correct range. Still there was one interlude that needs to mentioned.

Major Domizlaff, commander of I./IR22. also known as “Borante”, who was massively disliked by old and young, had overzealous as usual, already crawled over the border and had only just been missed by one of our shells. He took a splinter into his arse! Harmless but painful. This story spread like wildfire throughout the division which was soon roaring with laughter.”

Two pages of de la Chevalleries report (calligraphy was not one of his strengths)

Even I had to laugh about that. The professional, overzealous and massively unpopular commander Major Domizlaff got wounded only minutes after 0445h. And I think I am on the safe side if I say that he might very well have been the first German casualty of the Polish campaign and maybe even World War 2. Even if he was wounded by friendly fire (he still got the wound badge for it), the wound took him out of action for a couple of weeks.

Far more exiting (and funny) than the usual World War 2 discoveries you see in the media (Hitler had only one testicle, the germans built ufos etc), dont you think? Anyone wants to contact the press? 😉

Oberstleutnant Domizlaff died on the 8th of January 1941.

UPDATE:

According to the statement of Mr. Rehberg a veteran of IR22 (+2012) Major Domizlaff comitted suicide in January 1941, the fact that he did so being a well know fact inside the regiment and the division. As I had nothing to prove this statement I left that part out of this post. This all changed when I recieved this letter written by Vanessa Domizlaff of Bloomington, Indiana. It sheds light on the person of Ottomar Domizlaff, his family and his dark and horrible fate:

“I was doing a random search, when I came across the claim that Oberstleutnant Ottomar Domizlaff may literally have been the first German casualty of the invasion of Poland. Aside from being completely blindsided by this assertion, I was also admittedly amused by the account of his undignified war injury at first– perhaps it was my inherent reservations in humanizing a man of his position or maybe it was simply the sheer incredulousness of this story.

The person Ottomar was known to me. I understood his position in the constellation of my family – he was the younger cousin of my grandfather and died during the war in a vehicular accident in Gumbinnen while on duty – but I knew close to nothing of his doings. I was initially confused to read the name and description of “Borante” that accompanied the original article. This name is, in fact, the proper name of Ottomar’s youngest brother, Borante Georg Standford Domizlaff, who left his own blemish on history as Major SS-Sturmbannführer when was called to trial along with Herbert Kappler for his involvement in the Ardeatine massacre in Rome. He was later acquitted of all charges and to my amazement went on to star in Dino Risi’s Italian comedy Una vita difficile, playing a role that came natural to him – that of a Nazi officer. After more consideration, I suggest that the name Borante must have been a moniker for Ottomar, one that was either given by his family or one he adopted himself. This idea does not seem too far-fetched considering the meaning that this name carries in our family. As was the fashion among the rising middle class, my family sought to establish a lineage to further elevate their status. They claimed Tepitz and Borante, the two infant sons of Lord Domizlav zu Alten-Stettin, who are documented to be the first Christianized Slavs in Stettin in Poland under Bishop Otto von Bamberg, as our ancestors and perhaps in an attempt to add credibility to this allegation, they re-introduced the name “Borante”. If we accept “Borante” to be a moniker, we honor all of the evidence and testaments collected in the original article, which I believe to be very credible.

Before we share our findings with you, allow me to tell you more of Ottomar Domizlaff:

Karl Ottomar Domizlaff (1897-1941) was the fourth of seven children born to Karl Heinrich Franz (1859-1915) and his wife Margarete Ernestine Momsen, whose brother Hart Momsen lived in the United States and was father to Admiral Charles Bowers “Swede” Momsen, inventor of the “Momsen lung”. Karl was the second son of Julius Dumzlaff (1828-1902) from his second marriage to Franziska Lynker. Julius’s only child from his first marriage to Emilie Lorsbach was my great-grandfather Georg (1857-1937), who served as “Präsident der Oberpostdirektion in Leipzig” as well as the “Feld-Oberpostmeister” during World War I.

While in service, Ottomar’s father Karl was promoted to Reserve-Lieutenant of the Infanterieregiment Nr. 74 in 1883 and later advanced to Hauptmann of the Landwehr-Infanterie. Despite of his advanced age, Karl voluntarily reported to the Front at the outbreak of World War I and led the Reserveinfanterieregiment Nr. 74 as Kompanieführer into combat. He fell on February 18th 1915 during an assault nearby Perthes, Champagne, and succumbed to shots suffered to the head and chest. He was posthumously awarded an Iron Cross of the 2nd class in 1919.

Ottomar’s eldest brother Hart Helmuth served as Reserve-Lieutnant in the same Reserveinfanterieregiment as their father and died on September 7th 1917 in a military hospital in Dun, France, from injuries suffered to his lung while in combat in Verdun. He was awarded the Iron Cross of the 2nd class posthumously. Prior to his death, Hart penned a novel titled, Morituri. His cousin Hans, my grandfather, and Ottomar’s eldest sister Natalie saw to its independent publication in 1917.

The family’s extensive involvement in the military is apparent. Yet we know from Ottomar’s American relatives, that Ottomar and his brother Julius were adament in discouraging their youngest brother Borante from entering service under Hitler and pressured him to take over the family insurance business instead. This insight possibly attests to the sincere attitude of Ottomar towards the realities of war and yet we find him committed to a long-term career without ever having taken a wife or entering any other profession. According to the same source, Ottomar died in France on January 8th 1941. The cause remained unexplained and the location of his death contradicts official records.

Within my branch of the family, we have only one official testament pertaining to Ottomar’s fate, which I have translated for you from Mühlrad, Schulbank und Carrière. Geschichte und Familien-überlieferungen der Domizlaff aus Pommern und Preußen, page 451:

“Karl Ottomar, born on July 22nd, 1897, died 1941, entered German military service and was injured in the first days of World War II in Poland, was then at the Western Front and in East Prussia, and died as Oberstleutnant in a car crash while on duty in Gumbinnen, East Prussia,”.

What intrigued both the author and myself, were the circumstances surrounding Ottomar’s death. Any obvious evidence was in direct conflict with the report made by the veteran of IR22, who was a member of Ottomar’s battalion and whose claim that it was rumored that Ottomar took his own life in January of 1941 ought to be entirely believable based on his insight. The longer we considered the evidence, it didn’t seem unlikely that the ordinary accident was merely a cover-up for a suicide, which would surely be marked as dishonorable within the Wehrmacht as well as his family.

Curious to find out what really happened, my father explored all avenues of gaining insight to Ottomar’s death. Rather quickly, through the assistance of family acquaintances, we were able to determine that it was commonly rumored within our family, and expressively confided by an immediate relative, that Ottomar had not perished in a car crash. In reality, he is said to have been a homosexual, who, in light of his high military rank, was summoned to take his own life, in order to keep face and avoid sentencing and certain execution. In regard to the family’s reputation, and most definitely the Wehrmacht, his death was officially documented as an accident.

Although this is certainly only part of his story, the rumors that Ottomar was a homosexual speaks volumes. It may explain why Ottomar was severely unpopular among the soldiers of his battalion or why he opted for a long-term career in the military without taking a wife. We do not know if he was found out, outed, or commonly known to be a homosexual, but certainly, it must have been a dangerous time. In light of this information, we must come to see and understand Ottomar differently.

I will withhold my personal thoughts from this brief account, but I hope in light of these details, we can inject some humanity into the discussion and begin to understand Ottomar as a complex individual. We can not begin to know what circumstances or motivations drive a person, unless we try to understand them like we would a friend, or in my case, a relative.

I am sincerely grateful to the author of 1infanteriedivision for bringing this story to light, calling Ottomar into question, and allowing me the opportunity to elaborate.

In gratitude,

Vanessa Domizlaff (Bloomington, Indiana).”

Sources:

  • Mühlrad, Schulbank und Carrière Geschichte und Familien-überlieferungen der Domizlaff aus Pommern und Preußen. (http://www.hans-domizlaff-archiv.net/index.php?familie)
  • The Ancestors and Descendants of Hart Momsen and Susie Bowers Momsen compiled by Ruth Momsen Quast, 2003.

Ottomar Domizlaff in 1938

Thanks to this information, which matches the rumors inside IR22 and 1.ID this rather funny story took a turn to the dark side. And as Vanessa correctly points out its most probably the explanation why Ottomar Domizlaff was massively unpopular, and if I may take it a step further, it might also be the reason for his overzealousness. A homosexual officer in a highly traditional division and regiment of the German Wehrmacht had no other choice.

I feel ashamed and bow my head to Karl “Borante” Ottomar Domizlaff. May he rest in peace.

Danke Vanessa….

Ottomar as a baby

Karl Otto

Generals of the North – Generaloberst Georg Lindemann

In “Generals of the North“, I will introduce the Generals of Army Group North (Heeresgruppe Nord). Not a lot has been written about them and outside germany most people will not even have heard of them. Everybody has heard of Rommel, Guderian and Manstein, but names like Küchler, Lindemann, von Bock, Frießner, Schörner and von Leeb have largely been forgotten.

I will begin this series with a short biography of Georg Lindemann (1884-1963)

Georg Lindemann – The Knights cross was added to the older photograph in 1940

Georg Lindemann was born on the 8th of March 1884 in Osterburg. On the 26th of February 1903, after finishing grammar school he joined the “Magdeburgische Dragoner-Regiment Nr. 6” (Dragoons) as an ensign. After being promoted to the rank of Leutnant he joined “Jäger Regiment zu Pferde Nr. 13” in Saarlouis on the 1st of October 1913. His stay there was a short one as on the 1st of April 1914 he was transfered again, this time joining the the “Grosser Generalstab” (generals staff) in Berlin. This was unusual as Lindemann never visited the war academy. During his staff service he made the acquaintance of his future superior Georg von Küchler. In the years prior to the Great War he had married Annemarie von der Osten the mother of his three children (Ernst, Rosemarie and Erika). The outbreak of the war in 1914 brought an end to his staff training. When his regiment mobilized he returned to it and got the promotion to the rank of Rittmeister shortly afterwards (November 1914). During World War One he served in the generals staffs of “Korps Posen” (6th of December), “Garde-Reserve-Korps” (February 1915), “Armeeoberkommando 12” on the Eastern Front (June 1915), “Armeeoberkommando 11” on the Balkans (October 1915), “VII. Reserve-Korps” (March 1916) and “Armeeoberkommando 1” on the western front (Juli 1916).

Postcard showing the “Grosser Generalstab” in 1914

On the 12th of January he was made chief of staff of “220. Infanterie-Division” a position he continued to hold for more than a year before being posted to “Heeresgruppe Kronprinz Rupprecht von Bayern” as a liaison officer (Offizier von der Armee).
During World War One he was awarded with the Iron Cross 2nd Class (September 1914), the Iron Cross 1st Class (July 1915) and the Knights Cross of the House of Hohenzollern with Swords (May 1917).

The year 1919 brought drastic changes for Lindemann. He wrote:

“The fall of irrevocable things like national pride and honor, duty and law, tradition and decency destroyed our conception of the world.”

Believing that “Saving the Reich, any kind of Reich, from the fall” should be his first and foremost goal, he joined the Freikorps and took part in suppressing communist risings in Munich, Halle, the area of the Ruhr and Hamburg.

Freikorps soldiers in Munich, 1919

The “Sülze-Unruhen” in Hamburg 1919. Reason for the risings was rotten meat used and sold by Hamburg butchers.

Recruiting poster of the Freikorps Lettow-Vorbeck

On the 10th of March 1919 he joined “Grenadier-Regiment zu Pferde Nr. 3”. Only 13 days later he was transfered to the staff of “Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division” which was part of the “Freiwilligen Division von Lettow-Vorbeck”. With this unit he took part in the suppression of the Munich Räterepublik (council republic) and the so-called “Sülze Unruhen” (“Aspic” risings) in Hamburg (1st of July 1919). Soon afterwards Lindemann left the Freikorps. In August 1919 he got transferred to the Garrison of Hamburg, Altona and Wandsbek as a staff officer before being posted to the Infantry-School Munich as an instructor in November 1919.

When Lindemann was taken over into the Reichswehr in 1921 he stayed in his old position as infantry instructor. On the 15th of September 1922 he took command of the 2nd squadron of “Reiter-Regiment 7” in Breslau. Three years later, in 1925 he was transferred to the staff of 2. Kavallerie-Division and was promoted to the rank of Major, Lindemanns first promotion after 12 years of continuous service!

Reichswehr Cavalry, 1923

After being promoted to the rank of Oberstleutnant on 1st of February 1931 he took command of Reiter-Regiment 13. In 1933 he was promoted again and in the rank of “Oberst” was posted to command the war academy in Hannover. On the 20th of April 1936 Lindemann was promoted to Generalmajor and got command of the new 36. Infanterie-Division in Kaiserslautern. On 1st of April 1938 he was promoted to the rank of Generalleutnant.

Militärwissenschaftliche Rundschau – Military Science Magazine

In these years Lindemann engaged in literary pursuits and in 1936 his first article was published in the “Militärwissenschaftliche Runschau” (Journal of military science). It was titled: “The state-conserving power of german military tradition“. In it he argued that only steadfastness and ethos of its officers could save a country from certain disintegration in times of crisis, drawing examples for his thesis from the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and the prussian defeat of 1806/1807. He wrote that the german officer class had tried to do the same in the years from 1918 to 1923, but that their sacrifices had been in vain and went without appreciation.
He quoted from Hitlers “Mein Kampf” and looking back at the “November Revolution” he wrote about the “menacing ghost of Bolshevism and its immeasurable consequences for our culture“.

Heinz Guderian

In another article he advocated the concept of mobile warfare. He argued that on the modern field of battle, motorized units would be met by the motorized units of the enemy and because of that would bring no innovation to operative warfare. With the advancement of armour-piercing weapons, tanks would not be able to operate independently. He pleaded in favour of using tanks in the support of the infantry and to use them on a tactical level only as he could not envisage them working in large formations on an operative basis.  This attitude was met with emphatic refusal by Generalmajor Heinz Guderian, commander of 2. Panzerdivision and “Father of the german tank force” and the same year Guderian wrote an answer to Lindemanns article (“Der Panzerangriff in Bewegung und Feuer”), which was published in the “Zeitschrift des Reichsverbandes Deutscher Offiziere” in 1937.

Insignia of 36. Infanterie-Division

With the outbreak of World War Two 36. Infanterie-Division was mobilized, put under command of 1. Armee under Generaloberst Erwin von Witzleben and moved to the western border (near Mörsbach). It was the period of the “Sitzkrieg” (play on the word “Blitzkrieg“) known in England as the “Phoney War“.
When the Campaign in the West started in the 10th of May 1940, Lindemanns Division was subordinated to VII. Armeekorps (General Eugen von Schobert), which in turn was subordinated to Armeeoberkommando 16 (Generaloberst Ernst Busch). Schobert and Busch had the same seniority and were both slightly younger than Lindemann. The historian Johannes Hürter wrote that “Georg Lindemann was still only commanding a division and still junior to his younger comrades Busch and Reichenau“.

Lindemann after being awarded the Knights Cross

On the 14th of June 1940 Lindemanns Division took part in the break through the Maginot-Line. For his leadership Lindemann was awarded the Knights-Cross on the 5th of August 1940. On the 1st of October 1940 Lindemann was made General of the newly formed L. Armeekorps and a month later was promoted to the rank of General der Kavallerie (General of Cavalry). L. Armeekorps was transfered to Bulgaria in Spring 1941 and took part in the Campaign on the Balkans from the 6th to 23rd of April. Lindemanns Korps was kept as Army reserve and did not see any action. Following the campaign Lindemanns command was shifted to Eastern Prussia into the controll of Heeresgruppe Nord (Army Group North) under Generalfeldmarschall Ritter von Leeb, to take part in the attack on Soviet Russia. Lindemann had not been involved into the immediate preperations for the attack and only learned about it a couple of days before the 22nd of June 1941.
L. Armeekorps was again put under command of 16. Armee, pressing forward on the Army Groups southern flank into the direction Welikije Luki. On the 28th of July 1941 Lindemanns Korps was subordinated to 9. Armee of Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Centre) for a short period of time. On the 2nd of August, during heavy fighting south-west of Welikije Luki and after running out of ammunition, 251. Infanterie-Division (of L. Armeekorps) suffered massive losses and had to be taken back behind the river Lowat.
Lindemann blamed Generalleutnant Hans Kratzert, the Divisions commanding officer, who was at once relieved of his command. A later investigation acquitted Kratzert and he was reinstated as artillery commander of 18. Armee. The chief of staff of 251. Infanterie-Division and later director of the Military History Research Institute of the Federal Republic of Germany Major Hans Meier-Welcker wrote mentioning Lindemanns style of command. “We are subordinated to a command structure of unfavourable composition. This is spoiling a lot

Georg von Küchler

Under command of Panzergruppen-Kommando 4 Lindemanns Armeekorps took part in the push on Leningrad in September 1941. When Panzergruppe 4 was pulled out to take part in the planned offensive against Moscow in the second half of September, Lindemanns Korps was left behind to uphold the blockade of Leningrad in the area south of Pushkino.
It was subordinated to 18. Armee under Generaloberst Georg von Küchler who knew Lindemann since 1914.
In the Winter 1941/42, during the defensive battles at the Volkhov and south of the Ilmen Lake (Pocket of Demjansk) Heeresgruppe Nord experienced a crisis of leadership. On the 17th of January 1942 Generalfeldmarschall Ritter von Leeb applied for a discharge. On his behalf Generaloberst Küchler took command of the Army Group. As commander for 18. Armee Küchler chose Lindemann.

General Lindemann visiting the frontline, February 1942

Panzer IV of an unknown unit of Army Group North, 1943

Under Lindemanns command 18. Armee managed to encircle the 2nd Soviet Assault Army on the Volkhov and to destroy it by the end of June 1942. For this feat Lindemann was promoted to Generaloberst on the 5th of July 1942. In the following weeks parts of 11. Armee under Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein were moved into the area controlled by Lindemanns troops. When the Soviets started their first offensive to liberate the city of Leningrad at the end of August 1942, Hitler ordered Manstein to organise and command the defences in the area of 18. Armee.

Lindemann studying an aerial photo during the 3rd Battle of Lake Ladoga, 1943

Manstein was embarrassed by the affront to Lindemann who he called “an old acquaintance from the Great War”. In Autumn 1942 AOK11 was pulled out again reinstating Lindemanns command in the blockade of Leningrad.
In January 1943 Lindemann could not hold against the next soviet offensive to relieve Leningrad. The soviet Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts managed to break the ring around the city on the 18th of January 1943. When they tried to enlarge the small corridor they had gained in the fighting they were repelled by Lindemanns troops in Summer 1943 (Third Battle of Lake Ladoga). For this success he was awarded the Oakleaves to the Knights Cross on the 21st of August 1943.

Lindemann wearing his Knights Cross with Oakleaves

In the following months Generalfeldmarschall von Küchler asked for permission to fall back into new defensive positions further west. When Hitler asked for Lindemanns opinion he was certain that he would be able to repel yet another soviet offensive of the Red Army. Maybe he was motivated by the award he just had received, but as a result of Lindemanns statement the Army Group was commanded to hold its old positions.

In January 1944 18. Armee had no means to counter the next soviet offensive (Operation Leningrad-Novgorod). After his Army had been flanked it received the permission to fall back to the river Luga. When Generaloberst Walter Model took command of Heeresgruppe Nord on the 28th of January 1944 he managed to talk Hitler into another fighting retreat. This time the Army Group fell back into the so-called “Panther Stellung” (Panther Defences).
On the 1st of March 1944 the soldiers of Heeresgruppe Nord “made front” there. The destruction of the Heeresgruppe had only just been avoided.

Lindemann awarding the Knights Cross to Major Rebane, commander of a Estonian volunteer batallion, Summer 1944

When Model was put in command of Heeresgruppe Nordukraine, Lindemann took command of Heeresgruppe Nord.
The situation was alarming. Lindemanns command was down to 30 Infantry-Divisions consisting of only 110.248 men, 30 tanks and 206 assault-guns. The superiority of the enemy was overwhelming (8:1). When the expected soviet summer offensive began the connection of Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Centre) was broken. A corridor 40 kilometers wide was now separating both formations. Through it soviet units now pushed towards the Baltic Sea.

Lindemann talking to a soldier at the frontline, Summer 1944

Only the so-called “Fester Platz” (Fortress) of Polozk was still held. Lindemann pleaded to be allowed to leave the town to the enemy and to fall back on the River Düna. By giving the Baltic to the enemy the frontline would have been shortened freeing reserves for a counter offensive.
Hitler turned him down. But not only that, he ordered Lindemann to hold Polozk at all costs and to organise an offensive. Lindemann now asked to be discharged, which was rejected aswell. For his “offensive” Lindeman had two Divisions with only eight (!) full batallions and 44 assault-guns. With this force he was supposed to break through two full strength soviet armies up to a depth of 60 kilometers.
When the offensive started on

Lindemann during a staff meeting with estonian SS volunteers, May 1944

the 2nd of July it met with no success and at the same time the soviet 4th Army managed to achieve a breakthrough south of Polozk. Lindemann was about to be encircled and now ordered a general retreat on his own authority, which was granted by Hitler soon afterwards. Shortly afterwards Lindemann was relieved of his command. His action had saved the Army Group from certain destruction. On the 4th of July 1944 General Johaness Friessner took command of Heeresgruppe Nord.

Lindemann was now part of the leadership reserves. On the 27th of January 1945 he was put in command of the Wehrmacht forces in Denmark (“Wehrmachtsbefehlshaber Dänemark“), where he was tasked to mobilise resources needed for the “Endkampf” (Final Battle). The largest part of german troops in Denmark had already been transferred to the Eastern Front so that in a case of emergency not even a city like Copenhagen could have been defended with success.

Dr. Best, civilian administrator of Denmark

Because of this Lindemann concentrated on erecting blocking-positions on the Great and Little Belt. When the end of the war loomed on the horizon, Lindemann telegraphed a message to Hitlers successor Großadmiral Karl Dönitz, in which he highlighted the hopelessness of a defence of Denmark.
On the 4th of May 1945 german forces in Denmark capitulated. The civilian administrator of Denmark, Werner Best, had put himself under the protection of the Danish Liberty movement. Lindemann himself though wanted to continue the fight. He reported to Dönitz that he had 230.000 men at his disposal and that he would have Best executed as a traitor.
Dönitz ordered Lindemann to take Best prisoner and to cooperate with the British forces.

Field Marshall Montgomery demanded the retreat of all german troops in Denmark. Only fugitives, the wounded and sick and foreign volunteers were allowed to stay.
All german formations were grouped into the so-called “Armeegruppe Lindemann” and put under command of the “Oberbefehlshaber Nordwest” Generaloberst Ernst Busch. The return of the german troops was organized and coordinated by Lindemann and the british General Richard Dewing.

Liberation of Denmark

After the repatriation of his units Lindemann stayed free until being arrested by US Troops on the 4th of June 1945. He was released from captivity in 1947. During this time he acted as witness during the Nuremberg trials. On the 26th of September he was again arrested and extradited to Denmark to be put on trial there. The trial never came and he was released on the 15th of May 1948. He moved to Freudenstadt where he lived a quiet life up until his death in 1963.
According to his own testimony he refrained from passing on the so-called “Kommisarbefehl” (Commissary Order) to the troops under his command. In Nuremberg he claimed that “An order is an order, but we older commanders took the liberty to choose which order was to be obeyed and which was to be ignored”.
He had a similar attitude to the “Kriegsgerichtsbarkeitserlass” of the 13th of May 1941. This order removed Wehrmacht soldiers from the prosecution of the law when they committed a crime against the civilian population. As commander of 18. Armee he confirmed death penalities against german soldiers. In one case an army clerk had killed a russian girl. In another case a german soldier had killed a russian man because he tried to keep the soldier from dating his sister.
The historian Charles Whiting describes Lindemann as a “fervent Nazi”. Personally I think he his wrong. In Summer 1942 Lindemann had a personal conflict with the “Reichssicherheitshauptamt” of the SS, because he complained against the shootings of prisoners by the 2. SS-Infanterie-Brigade.
In 1948 Lindemann claimed that he quite often told leading members of the NSDAP to keep out of his business. “I don’t mess with the political concerns of the party, so keep out of my military business. Otherwise I will turn hostile.
His statements are strengthened by a report of the former General of the Luftwaffe Herbert Riekhoff who wrote in 1945 that “when during the war you were guest at Lindemanns table, you could have classed every word said as high treason.”

Further reading and sources

  • Richard Brett-Smith: Hitler’s Generals. Osprey Publishing, London 1976, ISBN 0-850-45073-X.
  • Various war diaries (Heeresgruppe Nord, 18. Armee, 1. Infanterie-Division)
  • Karl-Heinz Frieser (Hrsg.): Die Ostfront 1943/44 – Der Krieg im Osten und an den Nebenfronten. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, München 2007, ISBN 978-3-421-06235-2, S. 278–339 (= Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg. Bd. 8).
  • Johannes Hürter: Hitlers Heerführer – Die deutschen Oberbefehlshaber im Krieg gegen die Sowjetunion 1941/42. 2. Auflage. R. Oldenbourg Verlag, München 2006, ISBN 978-3-486-58341-0 (=Quellen und Darstellungen zur Zeitgeschichte. Bd. 66).
  • Georg Lindemann: Die staatserhaltende Kraft des deutschen Soldatentums. In: Militärwissenschaftliche Rundschau. Nr. 1, 1936, S. 291–308.
  • Georg Lindemann: Feuer und Bewegung im Landkrieg der Gegenwart. In: Militärwissenschaftliche Rundschau. Nr. 2, 1937, S. 362–377.
  • Samuel W. Mitcham, Gene Mueller: Hitler’s Commanders. Scarborough House, London 1992, ISBN 0-812-84014-3.
  • John Zimmermann: Die deutsche militärische Kriegführung im Westen 1944/45. In: Rolf-Dieter Müller (Hrsg.): Der Zusammenbruch des Deutschen Reiches 1945 und die Folgen des Zweiten Weltkrieges. München 2008, ISBN 3-421-06237-4, S. 277-489 (= Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg. Bd. 10/1).

“Mein Opa” – Tracing the footsteps of a german soldier during the Battle of the Bulge 1944/45

One of the best things about running this blog and the connected twitter account is that they bring me in touch with good and interesting people all over world. One such accquaintance is Thorsten Herbes, a german compatriot living in the USA. He has written a story about his grandfathers experiences in WW2 and not only did he do a wonderful job with the research, its also obvious how much he misses his grandfather (german: Opa). I am honored and very happy that he allowed me to share this story and I am sure you will find it as excellent as I did.

UPDATE 02/08/2013: SOON ON GOTTMITUNS.NET

Scarce and impressive 35mm color slide showing Herr Herbigs grandfather (5th from the right) and members of his platoon (Infanterie-Regiment 545) in Stalingrad. Taken in the vicinity of the Tractor Factory “Red October”. In the background you can see a couple of Assault Guns (StuG III – Probably of Sturmgeschütz Abt. 177, 243, 244 or 245). The detail and atmosphere of this photo is breathakingly good.

Thorstens Grandfather served with Infanterie-Regiment 545 in Stalingrad and was one of the few who got out, being evacuated via Gumrak inside a Heinkel He-111. I do not want to imagine what he must have experienced there. The name of Gumrak alone sends shivers down my spine, but this may be part of a later story. Time for Thomas and his Opa (Grandfather) to take over. 

Foreword

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the Second World War.  When I was old enough to realize that he had been a participant, I began to beg my grandfather to tell me stories about the war, often to the dismay of the rest of the family, who’d grown tired of hearing them.  I was mesmerized by his descriptions of Russia and awestruck when he showed me his surviving pieces of equipment.  Never before had history felt so real, so touchable.  I remember playing with his bayonet and searching every drawer in his house, hoping to find another hidden treasure.

As I got older, I began to look at history from a larger perspective, learning about the cause of war, the strategy and the equipment.  I built a small library of books and devoured them at every opportunity.  I visited every military museum I could find and often dragged many an unwilling participant along with me.  Although my fascination with the technology and tactics of war never faded, an additional question began to form in my head – how did the experience of war affect a human being?  What did the veterans experience on a personal level and how did it influence my grandfather?

When I left Germany in 1992 to move to the United States, I lost the ability to visit Opa and Oma as often as I’d been used to and our conversations and meetings became more infrequent and precious.  The more time passed, the more I realized that we were losing members of the World War II generation daily and with them the personal connection to their past.  I took every opportunity I could to preserve Opa’s history, taping conversations and taking notes.  During a trip to Germany in the fall of 2008, sitting at his kitchen table, listening to his stories, I realized that the end of Opa’s military experience occurred during the Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg, no more that 2 hours’ drive away from his home – but that he’d never been back after the war.  The following day, my wife and I drove to Luxembourg to explore some of the sites Opa had mentioned and to take some pictures for him.  We found villages like Bastendorf and Diekirch, where my wife convinced me to stop at the military museum.  At first I didn’t want to make her spend a day of our honeymoon looking at tanks, but she was insistent.  The museum was amazing and brought back that feeling I had as a kid, when history was real and touchable.  I wondered if any of the thousands of artifacts belonged to Opa and was almost expecting to see his picture hanging on the wall at every turn.  It was at the museum where we met Roland Gaul and the idea for this project began to take shape in my head.  Roland Gaul then gave us directions to Mertzig and asked to stay in touch.  We returned home at the end of the day, exhausted – but with a memory card full of images.  Almost immediately, Opa started recognizing places and memories returned to him.  “I remember it as if it were yesterday,” he’d say, almost incredulous.    I could almost sense a curiosity in him, a desire to reconnect – but accompanied by fear.

After returning home to Chicago, I continued to research Opa’s story, resulting in the following document.  Although initially just a hobby research project, it grew into something larger than I could have ever imagined or intended, involving many kind people and culminating with Opa’s visit to Mertzig on December 22nd of 2008 – the first time he’d faced his war in over 64 years.  He was reluctant to go, seemingly plagued by demons from the past.  He returned, hours later, much more at peace than I’d ever seen.  This is his story.

Thorsten Herbes, January 2009

Erich Michely, Thorstens Opa +2011

The phone call I’d been dreading came in May of 2011. It was late in the day here and calls from Germany at that hour were unusual. It was my father, telling me that my grandfather had beendiagnosed with terminal cancer. Less than three months later, we buried him.

Looking back at his life, he would appear to be a simple man at first. He lived in a small town in the Saarland region of Germany, worked as a Handwerker in construction and painting houses, fathered four children, loved to hunt and fish and passed peacefully, after a long life. Underneath, however, was a man deeply influenced by his experiences as an infantry soldier in World War II.

Born in 1923, he was still in his teens when he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. By the time he was 20, he had survived Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht’s biggest defeat thus far. After recovering from his wounds,he was sent back to the Eastern front, this time to Cherkassy, where he was soon wounded again. The final chapter of “his” war played out in the west, in December of 1944.

I had always been interested in his experiences in the war and only as I got older did I begin tounderstand truly how deeply it had affected his psyche and how profoundly long lasting its effects were on him. After researching the following story and having him talk about his experiences again, he developed nightmares again, so realistic that it felt to him as if the events had happened yesterday.

I put Opa’s story on paper mainly for my family, so that we wouldn’t lose the connection with history after he passed away. I wish I had started sooner and perhaps got him to tell me more about his experience in Russia, but I was too late. It is with some trepidation that I decided to share it with others through Rob’s blog (1infanteriedivision.wordpress.com), but I can’t think of a better way to honor a great man.

There is not a day that goes by where I don’t think about how much I miss him.

Thorsten Herbes
Hoffman Estates, IL
11/1/2012

Michely’s Personal Documents – (No copying or distributing please)

Soldbuch

Copy of POW Notice, received by Michely’s parents in 1945.

Certificate of discharge from POW status

 

Ardennes Offensive, December 1944, 352nd Volksgrenadier Division

Situation, Western Front, December 1944:

By December of 1944, after five long years of war, the Allied Forces had landed in Normandy, successfully broken out, advanced across France and approached the Western borders of Germany.

Hitler’s Reich was being squeezed on two fronts and the Allies were preparing for their final assault into Germany.  In a desperate attempt to drive the Allies back, Hitler devised a last-ditch effort to drive back the Allies, code-named Operation Herbstnebel (Autumn Mist).   Under strict secrecy and radio silence, the Germans assembled two Panzer and two Infantry Armies as part of Army Group B in order to drive a wedge between the British-Canadian forces in the North and US forces in the South while capturing the important supply port of Antwerp, Belgium, after crossing the Meuse River. [2]  Recapturing the port (which had only been opened by the Allies on 28 November) would deal a decisive blow to the Allied supply lines and ability to wage offensive operations against Germany.

Much of the history of what was to become “The Battle of the Bulge” concerns itself with the Northern flank of the German attack and Joachim Peiper’s attack on Bastogne, courageously defended by the 101st Airborne.  The aim of this document is to explore the Southern flank of the German attack in the context of the personal experiences of Erich Michely, a member of the 8th Company, 2nd Battalion, 915th Regiment, 352nd Volksgrenadier Division – grandfather of the author.

The Southern Flank

Nestled between Belgium to the North and West, France to the South and Germany to the East, lays the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.  Founded in 963, it occupies an area slightly smaller than Rhode Island[4] and had a population of approximately 293,000 in 1945.[5]  Luxembourg’s terrain consists of heavily wooded rolling hills with farm land and villages.  By December 1944, Luxembourg had been liberated by the Allies after suffering from German occupation since 1940.  Although the war continued to the east, life in the country was slowly returning to normal.  No one suspected that the Wehrmacht would last much longer and the end of the war seemed imminent.   By winter of 1944, Luxembourg had become a rest area for weary frontline GI’s as well as a quiet area in which to acclimate newly arrived replacements to the front.  The war had become mostly static, with the Siegfried Line on Germany’s western border as the front.  To the north, Field Marshal Montgomery’s troops were preparing for their eventual drive into Germany’s industrial heartland while, to the south, General Patton’s Third Army was also attempting to cross the Rhine into Germany.

The Americans

Headquartered in Bastogne, the US VIII Corps was responsible for the section of the line extending from southern Belgium to the southern end of Luxembourg.    This sector was generally seen as a quiet front, used to recuperate units exhausted from the Huertgen Forest campaign earlier[6].  When Wehrmacht troops crossed the Our on 16 December, VIII Corps consisted of the 9th Armored Division, 11th Armored Division, 17th Airborne Division, 28th Infantry Division and the 87th Infantry Division, along with several AAA and Engineer units.  Opposing the German’s 352nd VGD was the 28th Infantry Division, stretched along a 27 mile line from St. Vith in the north to Vianden in the south, with the 112th Regiment on the left (northern) flank, the 110th in the center and the 109th Regiment on the southern flank.

The Germans

Under the command of Field Marshall Model, German Army Group B was comprised of the 15th Army, 5th and 6th Panzer Armies as well as the 7th Army.  Tasked with conducting the attack, Army Group B covered a front from northern Belgium to southern Luxembourg, with 7th Army, under the command of General Erich Brandenberger responsible for the southern thrust into Luxembourg and toward the river Meuse.[8]  Its main objective was not only to reach the Meuse but also protect the operation’s southern flank while tying up Allied reserve forces in Luxembourg.  Although 7th Army contained several units (4 total divisions – 3 Volksgrenadier and 1 Fallschirmjäger), the focus of this document will remain with the 352nd VGD, of which Michely’s 915th Regiment was a part.

History of the 352nd Volksgrenadier Division

Emblem of 352.ID and 352.VGD

The 352nd Volksgrenadier Division was formed on 21 September 1944 in Flensburg, Germany out of remnants of the 352nd Infantry Division, which was almost completely annihilated in July of 1944 during defensive operations in Normandy, France.  Units of the 352nd Infantry Division were augmented by the 581st Volksgrenadier Division, which was being formed as part of the 32nd wave.[10]  The division consisted of navy and air force troops, veterans of the 352nd as well as veteran NCO’s from the Eastern front (such as Michely).  Most of the NCO cadre was made up from remnants of the 389th Division, which was destroyed on the Eastern Front at Cherkassy (where Michely was wounded).  The 389th also participated in the battle for Stalingrad during the winter of 1942 -1943 (of which Michely was also a part).  By the time it was declared fit for combat,  the352nd Volksgrenadier Division consisted of approximately 13,000 men, reflecting 98% of specified strength.[11]

According to Generalmajor Erich Otto Schmidt, Commander of the 352nd VGD: “I took over the division in October 1944.  We continued to train until 15 November when we were moved to Bitburg, in the Eifel region, where we continued to train and supplement our equipment.  Near the end of November, the division took over a section of the Westwall between Vianden and Echternach.  48 hours prior to the attack on 16 December, the division was led to its jumping off points between Roth and Wallendorf.”[12]  Generalmajor Schmidt continues: “The division was formed and equipped according to standard specifications for Volksgrenadier divisions, with Ersatz troops drawn from navy and air force ranks.”[13]  Prior to the attack, Schmidt rated his troops:[14]

Enlisted Personnel:  Age 23 -30, not enough training, no land or combat experience, not seen action.  Full strength.

Non-commissioned Officers:  Mostly navy troops, most lack front experience.  75% strength.

Officers: Varied front experience.  Full strength.

Infantry:  Good fighting spirit in Regiments 914 and 915.  Lacks training and front experience.

Equipment: Mostly complete. Missing 35% of radios for fire direction, 30% of assault guns, 25% assault rifles.

In general terms, the 352nd VGD was well equipped for 1944 but lacked in experience.  The 352nd was made up of three infantry regiments (914th, 915th and 916th), an artillery regiment, one cavalry battalion, one anti-tank battalion as well as anti-aircraft, engineer and signal battalions.  At full strength, the division made up about 13,000 troops.[15]  Unteroffizier Erich Michely, veteran of two tours of duty on the Eastern Front, was assigned to 8th (Heavy) Company, 2nd Battalion, 915th Volksgrenadier Regiment, as a light infantry gun crew leader.

The 915th Regimental History up to 16 December 1944

After being wounded near Cherkassy, Russia, in March of 1944, Michely was transferred to a hospital in Lebach, Germany, near his home.  After months of recovery and a brief period of leave, Michely received orders to report to the 915th Volksgrenadier Regiment near the town of Flensburg in northern Germany.  It was during exercises in Flensburg that Michely was trained on using the 75mm infantry gun he would later lead during the Ardennes Offensive.  The 75 mm guns were of a brand new variety, likely the 7.5 cm leichtes Infanterie Geschütz 42.  These guns were not mechanized, but drawn by horses and were meant to be used as both light artillery as well as anti-tank weapons.

Each gun had a team of 4 horses and a crew of 7.  “The names of the men on my crew were Otto, Kirnbauer, Abendrot and Kraft.  I don’t recall the rest of them.”  As a gun crew leader, Unteroffizier Michely was responsible for directing the gun’s fire and the welfare of his men and horses.  “After recovering from the gut shot wound at Cherkassy, I was able to convince the doctors that I was no longer suited for service as an infantry soldier, as I had been in Russia.  Personally, I simply didn’t think I’d survive another turn as an infantry man.”  He was given special training and binoculars to locate targets and estimate range.  Leading an artillery gun was an entirely new trade for Michely, who had been a machine gunner in an infantry unit during his time in Russia.  For the first time he was also issued with the Wehrmacht’s new assault rifle, the MP44.

“Our regiment was spread out over several villages near Flensburg and we had little interaction with the other companies.  I only knew the men in my crew as well as the other gun crew leaders, with whom I shared briefings.[18]  When we finished training in November, we assembled on some sort of parade ground and were loaded on trains and began to head east.  I wasn’t excited about the prospect of heading back to Russia and didn’t think I would make it home alive from a third tour”, recalled Michely.  “We had made it to Poland but, sometime during the night, we must have changed direction.  I was sleeping and didn’t notice the change until one of the men screamed ‘Mannheim, we’re in Mannheim!’  I asked him if he’d lost his marbles before we’d even reached the front, but he insisted that we were indeed in western Germany since he was from the area.  Much to my surprise, he turned out to be correct.”  The train continued to the southwest, at one point even coming close to Michely’s home town.  “I asked the chief if I could go and visit my family for a few hours.  He laughed and said ‘Michel[19], if I let you go, you’ll never come back.’” [20]  The train continued its journey to the West, along a route taking the men through the ancient city of Trier to Bitburg until finally disembarking at Densborn, a mere 35 kilometers from the Our river.

By 26 November, the 352nd VGD had arrived in its assigned sector and began to occupy a portion of the Westwall near the Bauler – Echternach security zone, with division headquarters in Bettingen.[21]  Michely’s company, after de-training at Densborn, continued on foot toward its assigned sector, near the town of Seimerich, resting in the small village of Feilsdorf for several days.  The time in the ready area was spent with continued training as well as preparing positions for what appeared to be a defensive winter position along the Our.  Michely’s men were unaware of any looming offensive.  “We began working on a fortified position for ourselves along with the help of some Russian prisoners of war, who were marched in to assist us daily.  Special care was taken to ‘winter-proof’ our dugout as much as possible, since we figured we’d be spending our time here defending the Our over the next few months.”  Michely also recalls assisting a local farmer with his late-fall apple harvest.  “We used our wagons to help him load and move the apples, most of which were on the ground by now.  In return for our assistance, we worked out a deal with the farmer where he was going to give us a share of the apple Schnapps he was going to distill, so we could fortify ourselves for the winter too.”[22]

Although the average soldier in Michely’s unit appeared to have little clue as to their mission, signs were beginning to point to something big.  “There were several occurrences, prior to the Division being informed of the planned offensive, which pointed to an impending large-scale combat action – but it was unclear who would be conducting the attack”, recalls Schmidt.  “It was seemingly a miracle to all those involved that the Americans did not discover the offensive.[23]”  Schmidt himself was informed of the attack in early December.  The division was now tasked with several preparatory actions for the offensive, including the transport and delivery of all ammunition and bridge building materials inside the 5 kilometer restricted area within its assigned sector.  This task was to be conducted at night and by means of horses.[24]  Additionally, pathways were marked for troop movements, artillery positions prepared and supplies were deposited and camouflaged, intended for the first wave of attack.  The troops themselves weren’t told of their mission until 6 hours before the attack was to begin.[25]  The 915th regiment was to cross the river Our near Gentingen, the 916th near Ammeldingen and the 914th was to be in reserve.

The Battle Begins

16 December, 1944

At 0530 HRS, German artillery opened up along the entire 352nd sector, catching the Americans by complete surprise.  Roland Gaul describes the initial barrage in his book: “The actual ‘firestorm’ was to begin at 5:30 AM from all weapons on the whole attack front (Monschau to Echternach) and consist of three waves of 10 minutes each; only after that should the specific firing missions be carried out.”[28]  Generalmajor Schmidt reports: “352nd VGD was ordered to cross the river Our on 16 December at 0530 HRS between Roth and Wallendorf and move to take the (river Sauer, author) crossings at Ettelbruck and Diekirch as quickly as possible…The attacking troops were instructed to bypass enemy strong points and advance to the Sauer quickly.”[29]

On the opposite bank of the Our, American GI’s were dazed by the opening barrage but quickly began to organize a defense.  Captain Embert Fossum, in charge of L Company, 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th US Division, was positioned directly across the river from the 916th VGR.  Years later, Fossum recalled: “Company L, 109th Infantry, was the southernmost unit of the 28th Division when the German attack hit.  Although the front was too wide to be adequately defended – approximately two miles – the ground it occupied was admirably adaptable for a defensive situation…During the [German’s] initial artillery preparation, which aroused the company at 0600 HRS on the 16th, the house where L company’s command post was located received a direct hit from both conventional artillery and Nebelwerfer rockets, which set it afire.” [30]  At dawn, the first waves of German infantry began assaulting L Company’s foxholes on the western shore of the river, but were unsuccessful in dislodging the Americans.

Following its orders to bypass enemy strong points, advance units of the 915th crossed the Our by means of rafts, rubber boats, floats and footbridges.[31]  The troops moved quickly and by nightfall had reached a wooded area near Bastendorf.  Historian Bruce Quarrie describes the 915th’s move: “Screened by the mist which aided all of Seventh Armee’s assault companies, the leading two battalions fortuitously struck at the junction between the US 109th Regiment’s 2nd Battalion, whose Company E was in Fuhren, and the 3rd Battalion’s Company I deployed in front of Bettendorf.  There was a 2,000-yard gap in between the American positions which the Volksgrenadiers exploited, advancing unopposed through Longsdorf and Tandel.”[32]   The town of Bastendorf, as well as Longsdorf and Tandel remained in enemy hands.[33]  When asked about his role during the first few hours of the offensive, Michely struggles to remember specifics, but it is unlikely that his company was part of the first wave across the Our.  At Gentingen, the 352nd Engineer Battalion was working feverishly on completing a makeshift bridge across the river, capable of transporting the division’s heavy weapons, artillery and supplies.

17 December

By the next morning, the 915th still remained strung out, with its advance elements near Bastendorf and its heavy weapons, including Michely’s company, still awaiting the completion of the makeshift bridge across the Our.  The regiment also suffered its first setback, losing its regimental commander, OberstLeutnant Johannes Drawe to a wound near Tandel.  According to his personal diary, Drawe recalls: ”Sunday, 12/16/1944: 0430 HRS: went on duty.  0530: Began to fire.  0900; Personally crossed over and went on to Longsdorf.  In Longsdorf 1300, command post set up.  During the day directed following units; artillery commander and VB had no radio contact with firing batteries until 1800…Sunday, 12/17/1944:  No supplies, no reports; 916 also in town.  Constant medium-caliber harassing fire.  Reconnaissance fails.  0730 commenced to move command post to Tandel.  0830: fighting in Tandel.  Around 0900 wounded.”[34]  The regiment now also faced stiffening resistance and was unable to clear Bastendorf, portions of Tandel and Longsdorf until later in the day, when it was taken by the division’s reserve regiment, the 914th.[35]  By evening, engineers finally completed the bridge at Gentingen and heavy weapons and vehicles were allowed to cross.  Although he does not recall, it is likely that Michely’s unit was among those to use the bridge at this time.

Meanwhile, units of the 109th Infantry continued to resist the attack, but were beginning to feel the effect of their losses.  “…with an abundance of artillery support, L Company managed to beat back every attack [but] all of this was not done without considerable loss, both killed and wounded.  And on the 17th all available manpower, including the company’s kitchen personnel, was brought up and put in the line.”[36]  Reinforced in this manner, Company L continued to hold its position along the heights overlooking the Our, determined to slow the progress of the 916th and direct artillery fire on the river crossings.

Elsewhere, the remainder of the 109th Regiment was engaged in firefights all along its sector, stalling the attack but sustaining heavy losses.

18 December

As the advance troops of the 915th continued to wait near Bastendorf, Michely and his men made steady progress toward them.  “We often moved cross-country, following the infantry and providing fire support where needed.  I think we were also afraid to stay on the roads for too long, for fear of American [P-38] Lightnings.”  Hindered by the rough terrain, the men were often forced to assist the horses in moving the guns.  Many of the details of 8/915 route and events along the way have long left Michely’s memory, but several anecdotal stories remain.  “The infantry at the front of the column needed artillery support and we had to get our guns up the hill to help them.  The hill was so steep that we had to turn the guns around, with their barrels facing forward, hook all the horses to one gun at a time and push it up the slope ourselves.  Eventually, we managed to get all four of them up the hill.”  Michely continues:  “I believe it was near Tandel where we came across two US tanks, unaware of our presence.  We were looking down at them from an elevated position and our guns knocked both of them out.  I don’t recall if any of the crew managed to get out.”[37]  Given the horse-drawn means of transportation, Michely’s company always seemed to lag behind the advance infantry troops and thus avoided much of the combat they faced.  “We maybe fired a dozen rounds or so throughout the entire Ardennes campaign.”

Entering the third day, the German attack was beginning to gain ground and force the American 109th to fall back.  1st and 3rd Battalion (Companies A and K) linked up and organized along the high ground south of Longsdorf, where K Company continued to face heavy attacks, resulting in the loss of an entire platoon to captivity.  Company A, supported by one platoon of armor, attempted to fight its way into Fuhren to relieve Company E, 2nd Battalion, only to find the town empty and void of friendly troops and the command post burned to the ground.[38]

Company L was facing similar setbacks.  “Shortly after noon on the third day, 18 December, the company was ordered, via [radio] to fall back to Bettendorf, the location of 3rd Battalion headquarters.  This was accomplished with considerable difficulty and some casualties, as a limited penetration in I Company’s sector to the north enabled the enemy to cover the road back with automatic weapons fire.”[39]  The company now took up defensive positions around Bettendorf, allowing the rest of the battalion to slip to the rear under cover of darkness to join the rest of the regiment in a newly selected defensive position on the high ground north and east of Diekirch.[40]

19 December

Throughout the night, L Company fell back to Diekirch as well, following the remainder of the battalion along the same route, one platoon at a time.  The last group to leave Bettendorf assisted members of Company A, 103rd Engineer Combat Battalion to blow both bridges over the Sauer after crossing.[42]

Meanwhile, after three days of continued movement, German units finally managed to link up with the 915th near Bastendorf.  “The division regained the ability to operate as a whole after linking with the 915th Regiment,” according to Generalmajor Schmidt.[43]  It is likely that Michely’s unit had now joined the rest of his battalion in Bastendorf., where he had his first close call of the offensive.  “I remember being in front of the church in Bastendorf.  The church had a large wooden entrance door, flanked by two walls on either side.  As a front-soldier, one develops a certain sense, perhaps instinct, and often acts without thinking.  By this time, I was able to tell if incoming artillery fire was going to be close or land at a safe distance.  I heard the round come in and instinctively jumped into the entrance of the church, even though the protection of the flanking walls was closer.  The round detonated behind the wall, where it would have surely killed me, had I been there.  To this day, I don’t know why I chose the door for cover instead.”[44]

Having finally regained its combat-effectiveness, the 915th quickly joined in the attack on the vital town of Diekirch, 2 miles south of Bastendorf.  Company L, 109th Infantry Regiment, along with 1st and 2nd Battalion, had by now formed a defensive perimeter around the town, determined to stop the German advance.  “The new position near Diekirch was held through the next day, 19 December, but was subjected to repeated attacks of both infantry and tanks.  In a limited counter attack, directed toward the German road block which had cut the main road back [from Bettendorf], L Company’s first platoon captured 81 prisoners.  In spite of these successes, by nightfall it was apparent that the regiment’s new mission of covering the flank of CCA, 9th Armored Division, could not be accomplished from this position, and another withdrawal to the south bank of the river [Sauer] at Ettelbruck was ordered.”  This movement began after dark at a cost of 30 casualties from German artillery fire.  When the company finally crossed the river, the bridge was blown and the night was spent digging in along the river bank through the town. [45]

When Michely’s company entered Diekirch, many of the men, poorly equipped for cold weather and hungry from lack of supplies, helped themselves to whatever they could find in the abandoned US positions.  “The Americans threw more food away than we were issued,” recalls Michely.  “We ate like kings from the rations we found in their supply depots and fighting positions.”  Michely always appeared to be on the lookout for food, something perhaps learned from the misery of the Russian front.  “I could smell freshly baked bread as we entered some of the houses and knew that it was unlikely that anyone would bake bread without also having some meat nearby.  Being a farm boy myself, I decided to take a look around, along with my buddy, Obergefreiter Abendrot.”  Contemporary Luxembourg homes often had a large chimney, which would form the centerpiece of the kitchen.  Not only was it used for cooking and heating, but also for storage and slow smoking of cured meats, such as ham and sausages.  “I decided to climb up into the chimney and found it to be ‘loaded’ with meat.  The younger, or ‘green’ meat would typically be lower while the finished product would be higher up.  As I climbed up higher, I must have knocked an entire green ham off its hook, because I heard a loud thump, followed by a scream.  When I looked down, I saw Abendrot holding his head, where the ham had obviously made its impact.  Nonetheless, despite the near loss of a comrade due to a falling piece of meat, we managed to ‘liberate’ an entire ham and some sausages, along with a crate of eggs.”

While Michely’s abilities as a scrounger kept his men well fed, they also exposed the polar opposites of an old-salt front soldier and a newly commissioned officer.  Leutnant Clement was assigned to Michely’s infantry gun platoon as a forward observer and was fresh out of officer’s school.  On several occasions, he and Michely had minor disagreements, typically resulting from Michely’s perceived lax sense of discipline.  Despite being an instinctively proficient combat soldier, Michely never excelled at barracks-style discipline.  After ‘liberating’ the ham and eggs, Michely’s gun and carriage looked more like a butcher shop than a combat weapon, with sausages hanging from the gun barrel.  “Clement noticed our assortment of meats and chewed us out, asking how we expected to fight a war in such conditions.  He ordered us to throw away the food and to make sure we were combat-ready.”  Being the old-salt, Michely instructed one of his men to trail behind as he and the rest of the soldiers unloaded their bounty into the ditch.  Thanks to his plan, the trailing soldier managed to gather much of the loot after the lieutenant had left.  “Later that night, we fried up some eggs and ham to eat.  The delicious smell must have attracted the lieutenant, because he came by and asked what we were doing – and then asked us if he could have some of our meal.”

The quest for a full stomach continues throughout Michely’s anecdotes.  On another occasion, his men pulled into a small patch of woods to rest.  Hungry and tired, Abendrot immediately began to fry up some of his eggs, while Michely and the rest of the men dug foxholes for themselves, in case of enemy artillery fire.  “All of a sudden, incoming rounds started falling around us and I made a leap toward my foxhole – only to find it already occupied by Abendrot, who was also holding his pan of eggs.   I had no choice but to climb in on top of him!”  According to Michely, both men, and more importantly, their eggs, survived the barrage.

Unbeknownst to the Germans, 19 December also marked the day on which the expected US counterattack began to take shape.  Commanded by General Patton, US Third Army, consisting of two Army Corps (III and XII) had managed to change its direction of movement from due east to due north and was beginning to reach its forward assembly areas near Luxembourg city, less than 20 miles away.  The movement was the result of a meeting of General Eisenhower’s senior leadership in Verdun on the morning of the 18th.[46]  On a collision course with the 352nd VGD was the US 80th Division, commanded by General McBride.  At dawn on the 19th, the 80th Infantry Division had started for Luxembourg City.  Company L, 319th Infantry Regiment mounted 2 ½ ton trucks near Hoelling, France at 1400 HRS and marched approximately three miles to a regimental convoy staging area, where serials are formed for the motor march to Luxembourg.  Departure for the “Grand Duchy” commences at 2000 HRS with the entire regiment moving out en masse.[47]  Similar movements are simultaneously occurring across the remainder of the division’s regiments.   T/5 John Balas, member of L Company’s HQ recalls the ride:  “We were told that there was some kind of breakthrough up north, issued a blanket a piece and loaded on trucks.  This turned out to be ‘The Bulge’.  We started from a rainy somewhat autumn [sic] day to a blinding snowstorm at the end of the trip.  As we mounted up we were told not to get off the trucks, period; if we had to go to the bathroom, it was to be off the tailgate of the truck.  No stopping for anything.  That was the most miserable ride I ever had.”[48]

20 December

Unaware of the American reinforcements, the mission of the 352nd VGD was now to take possession of the river crossings at Ettelbruck, having already captured Diekirch.  Upon taking possession of Diekirch, the left flank of the German attacking units discovered its bridge only to be damaged, not destroyed, allowing both infantry and heavy weapons to cross.  It was decided to take advantage of this situation and use the 916th to cross the river Sauer in an effort to attack the strongly defended town of Ettelbruck from behind.[49]

By now, realizing the dangerous nature of its unprotected left flank, the 28th US Division commander ordered the 109th Regiment to roll back with the 9th Armored.  After pivoting to the south, the 109th had formed a line, generally facing north, at right angles to its original position, on the high ground south of Ettelbruck. [50]  3rd Battalion’s task was to cover the left flank of this line and was broken into three units, which were to be positioned at major road junctions to the west of this line.  I Company was reinforced and moved to the village of Feulen.  K Company, also reinforced, moved to Mertzig.  Battalion headquarters was set up at Michelbuch.  L Company was reinforced[51], renamed “Task Force L” and ordered to move 7 miles southwest and occupy the town of Grosbous.[52]

Bypassing Ettelbruck, advance units of the 915th began probing attacks on I Company’s positions near Feulen almost immediately, while the remainder of the regiment, along with Michely’s unit surrounded the town of Ettelbruck.  Michely’s own position at this time is unclear but is likely on the high ground to the north of the town, as his platoon’s mission was to provide artillery support to the units attacking Ettelbruck.

21 December

Continuing its attacks on Ettelbruck, the 352nd VDG was finally able to capture the town, but found the bridge over the Sauer destroyed.  According to Generalmajor Schmidt, the bridge was quickly repaired and the division’s infantry regiments are brought across and order to move out to their next objectives the following morning.  The orders were as follows: 915th to move on Bettborn along the Feulen – Mertzig axis, 914th to move to Usseldingen along Michelbuch – Vichten axis and 916th to move due south. [54] 

At around 1000 HRS, 1st Battalion, while fighting off several probing German attacks, managed to capture a German officer who carried an operational map outlining the mission of the 352nd and providing the Americans with valuable intelligence.[55]

Meanwhile, I Company continued to defend Feulen but was forced to withdraw, opening the road to Mertzig.  The company retreated to the south-west, occupying the wooded heights running parallel to the road, tying in with 1st Battalion on the right and 3rd Battalion’s K Company on the left.  Taking advantage of the open road, elements of the 915th, consisting of infantry and armor, pressed on against Mertzig and forced K Company to retreat to the south, astride the road to Michelbuch.[56]  At 2100 HRS, a scouting patrol from the 915th advanced as far as the outskirts of Grosbous, 2 miles west of Mertzig, where it was met by Task Force L and repulsed, resulting in 31 dead.[57]  By nightfall, the 915th was now firmly in control of Mertzig, but unable to take Grosbous.  Its heavy weapons and trains remained behind, ready to join them the following morning.[58]

Continuing its move to the north, the US 80th Division now began to arrive in the area.  Lieutenant Colonel Elliot Heston, commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, 319th Infantry reported:  “On the morning of the 21st, the battalion received orders to move to Brouch, about 16 kilometers northwest of the city of Luxembourg.  The high ground in the vicinity of Brouch and Buschdorf was occupied, with the battalion defending to the north.  During the night of the 21st orders were received to attack to the north at dawn the next morning until contact was made with the enemy, which was expected to be in the vicinity of Mertzig.”[59]  The 319th would pass through the lines of Colonel Rudder’s 109th Regiment and relieve the tired troops.  CT 319 moved by shuttle to its designated areas and cleared them at 1715 HRS, after which they posted local security and made preparations for the advance.[60]

The pieces were now in place for the American counterattack on the exposed left flank of the 915th Volksgrenadier Regiment.

 Mertzig, 22 December 1944

Rue de Michelbuch runs along the bottom of the image, while Rue Principale stretches from bottom-right to top-left. The first three building along the right side of Rue Prinicpale are Maison Weis, the machine house and the saw mill. Hotel Schammel is on the left side of Rue Principale, first house on bottom-right corner.

The village of Mertzig stretches along its Rue Principale, in a slight south-westerly direction 2 miles west of Niederfeulen and 1.5 miles east of Grosbous, 15 miles north of Luxembourg City.  The road runs along a valley, bordered by fields to the north and wooded hills and the River Wark to the south, set several hundred yards away.  Several buildings, located in the very center of Mertzig in 1944, intersected by roads leading to the north (Rue de Merscheid) and south (Rue de Michelbuch) remain there today, with little change[63].  By the evening of 21 December 1944, 1st and 3rd battalion of 915 VGR had pushed through Feulen, taken Mertzig after a brief fight with K Company, 3/109 and established a HKL[64], facing south and west.  Scouting elements advanced as far as Grosbous but came under fire from Task Force L around 2100 HRS.  Halting for the night, 915 VGR was now preparing to continue its offensive operations, with 1st and 3rd battalions moving toward Grosbous and 2nd battalion preparing to head south, in the direction of Michelbuch.  8th Company, 2/915 was trailing behind, along with the regimental trains, in the general vicinity of Feulen.

After only a few hours of sleep, the company was told to water and feed the horses and move out, heading west in the dark.  Moving quietly, soldiers walking and horses pulling the guns, the men advanced along the Feulen-Mertzig road, unaware of the Americans, who were dug in along the tree line to the south.  By daybreak, and with Mertzig in sight, mortars and artillery began to fall, as I Company, 3/109 became aware of the Germans.  “We came under fire as we entered Mertzig, but managed to reach the village without any casualties”.[65]  Being an experienced front soldier, Michely knew that the threat of artillery would diminish as soon as his men would reach cover and were out of sight of the forward artillery observer who had spotted them.

To the men, Mertzig looked as though it had been deserted in a hurry, both by the civilian population as well as the Americans.  Not having been resupplied in days and feeling relatively safe, the platoon left its guns and horses in the street (in front of Hotel Schammel) and began to explore the surrounding buildings.  Entering the hotel on the south side of the street, the men found the dining room empty but the beer taps full, and immediately began serving themselves.   It was now mid-morning and snow started to fall.  Little did Michely know that 22 December 1944 was to be his last day in combat.

Image shows Hotel Schammel in 2008. Point of view is looking east, along the main road. Michely’s guns were parked facing the viewer, along the front of the building, just prior to the attack.

Earlier that morning, advance liaison officers of the US 80th Division made contact with their counterparts from the 28th and immediately coordinated moving the 317th, 318th and 319th Infantry Regiments through the lines and attack to the north, along the Luxembourg – Ettelbruck highway axis.  Supported by units from the 702nd Tank Battalion and the 610th Tank Destroyer battalion, 3rd Battalion of the 319th Infantry Regiment was given the order to move north from Vichten into the direction of Michelbuch and attack Mertzig from the south.  Moving cautiously, 3/319 had made steady progress and was now arriving at the heights, overlooking the village.

While his men were celebrating in the hotel bar, Michely explored the remainder of the building, liberating copious amounts of beer and wine.  It is unclear why Michely did not take part in the feast but during many conversations with the author, he expressed having developed a sixth sense while on the Eastern Front[67] – a sense which had saved his life on several occasions.  “On one end of the building was a bowling alley, with clear views to the south.  To my horror, I saw American troops descending from the ridgeline only a few hundred yards away.  Our guns were still harnessed to the horses and no defensive positions or security had been established.  The men were completely unaware until artillery began to fall into the street moments later.”  Michely had just seen the beginning of the attack by 3/319, with companies K and L abreast and M (Weapons) in reserve.

“As we rushed into the street, we discovered that several of our horses had already been killed or wounded by artillery and others, cut loose and frightened, were running off into the direction of the attack, trailing behind them the wagons containing our ammunition supplies.  For a moment I thought about using my weapon to shoot the horses and keep them from ‘surrendering’, but I didn’t.”  The men now attempted to make the guns ready to fire, despite the completely exposed positions in the road.  “I was running from gun to gun when a tank appeared next to the dairy building, only a few hundred yards away.  Gefreiter Erich Otto’s  gun and crew were completely exposed in the intersection of Rue Principale and Rue de Merscheid but were determined to knock out the tank.”  The next events happened in a matter of seconds.  “I could see the turret of the tank turning into the direction of the exposed gun and screamed at Otto and his men to take cover as I dove into the front door of a house.  I don’t know if it was the tank or a direct hit by artillery[68], but when I looked at the gun, I saw the flash of an explosion with pieces of the gun and its crew flying through the air.”  The gun and its crew, Gefreiter Otto and Obergefreiter Kirnbauer, were gone in an instant.

Image shows Rue Principale in 1944, looking east. Maison Weis is on the left, the dairy building on the right. Obergefreiter Otto and Gefreiter Kirnbauer died in the intersection immediately past the second building on the right

The attack on Mertzig was conducted by the 3rd battalion of the US 319th Infantry Regiment and documented in its official regimental history.

“The mission of CT 319 was to continue the attack to the north.  The 1st and 3rd battalions jumped off into the attack at 0600.  At 0735 leading elements of the 3rd battalion had reached their first objective meeting little resistance.  At 0800 the 1st battalion had also met no resistance.  At the same hour (0800) the 3rd battalion had placed elements in Vichten where the 109th Infantry of the US 28th Division was stationed.  At 0910 the 3rd battalion entered Michelbuch and gained contact with the enemy.  At 1000 the 1st battalion reported no contact with the enemy.  The 3rd battalion cleared Michelbuch and prepared to move on Mertzig with companies L and K (on the right) abreast at 1010.  At 1040 one platoon of Company C, 702nd Tank Battalion entered Mertzig and at 1100 companies K and L reached the high ground in the vicinity meeting no resistance.  At 1145 1st battalion advanced and met small enemy patrols.  At 1205 the 3rd battalion was in Mertzig receiving considerable enemy small arms fire and light artillery.”[70]

Sgt. Hanright, a platoon sergeant in K Company, 319th, recalls the attack on the village.  “We moved out from our positions overlooking Mertzig from the south at around 1100 HRS.  Our company was on the right flank of the attack and quickly covered the open ground between the tree line and the houses on the edge of the main road.  We reached a house (which I later found out to be the mayor’s house) with a fenced-in yard and three or four concrete steps leading up to the front door (Maison Rausch).  Upon entering the house, we found a set of stairs to the basement and I was about to throw in a grenade when I heard a sound which made me stop.  I eventually took 22 or 23 German prisoners who had been hiding in the basement[71].”  Upon clearing the house, Sgt. Hanright’s platoon turned east and continued clearing houses along Rue Principale, using a captured German officer to encourage more troops to surrender.

Company L experienced similar events.  T/5 Balas recalls: “About 0300 (22 December, author) we were abruptly awakened by the Sarge and had a hot breakfast.  Then, we marched through the snow to the front lines.  This was roughly a 20 mile hike with full equipment…After hours of walking, we came to the last elements of the rear guard (109th Infantry Regiment, author) on a ridge dug in among some trees…Down below in the valley we could see a cluster of buildings with a road leading away…After a friendly barrage of mortars and artillery, we attacked, surprising the Krauts…”[72]

Private Krehbiel, a newly arrived replacement from 2nd Platoon continues: “By early afternoon we arrived on some high ground overlooking a village in a valley, but as I remember, the slope into the town wasn’t really steep.  As we jumped off, I recall our platoon leader, Lieutenant Nauss, double timed us over some open ground to the right of the Company into the cover of some trees[73].  However, the Krauts began firing on us and we sustained a casualty or two on the open ground before we managed to secure a foothold in the first buildings.”[74]

As the Americans continued to attack, the situation in the street became increasingly dangerous and untenable for Unteroffizier Michely and his men.  Having lost their horses, at least one gun and most of their ammunition (except for the 4 or 5 ready-rounds kept with each gun), the men decided what to do next.  “We abandoned all but one of the remaining guns and pushed it up a street to the right of a large farm house (the farmhouse was Maison Weis and the street was likely Rue de Merscheid, author).  By the time we reached the top of the hill, a few hundred yards to the north, we realized that the gun had a flat tire and its sighting mechanism had been damaged.”[75]  It is unclear whether the men managed to push the gun along the road or along a small path behind several farm houses directly to the east of the road.  Given the buildings’ location, both routes offered much needed cover from the enemy fire, which by now also included direct fire from heavy .50 caliber machine guns.  “We reached a small, free-standing house at the top of the hill (25 Rue de Merscheid[76]) and decided to return fire with our remaining gun, as we now had a direct line of sight over the top of the houses along the main road and into the tree line from which the Americans were advancing.  Since the gun sight was destroyed, we bore-sighted the gun and took aim at some of the truck-mounted heavy machine guns.  In order to better direct our fire, I positioned myself under the barrel of the gun, lying prone and using my binoculars to spot the enemy.  Our first shot unleashed a hornet’s nest.  Never in my life had I experienced such intense machine gun fire, not even in Stalingrad!”  Michely continues: “Rounds were impacting all around me, but, luckily, they must have been poor shots, since most of them appeared to be aimed high.  Nonetheless, I was trapped under the gun, unable to move and marveling at the sheer amount of fire power and ammunition they must have had available to them – they had more ammunition per machine gun than we had for our entire regiment!”  Using his experience, Michely waited until the enemy machine gun crew had to change ammunition belts or barrels.  “As soon as there was a lull in the fire, we took the opportunity to fall back.  There was a door to the basement of the house, with two metal flaps parallel to the ground.  We opened the door and found ourselves in a small, perhaps 10’ by 10’ basement room with a vaulted ceiling.  There were 7 or 8 of us in the room.”[77]  The men in the basement were members of the platoon, but not of Michely’s gun crew.  “I can’t say for certain how long we were in the basement, but we could hear the machine gun rounds hitting the walls of the house.  We decided to make our way toward the center of the village.”

Shortly after leaving the basement, the group encountered Leutnant Clement, the platoon’s VB or forward observer, along with his runner.  Clement was young and had only recently graduated from officer school.  “He was 19 or 20 years old and had little or no experience in combat, other than what he had learned in school.  After fighting in Russia, house-to-house combat was something I was quite familiar with.”[78] Michely continues: “I realized the situation was hopeless and told Leutnant Clement that my war was over and that I intended to surrender to the Americans at the earliest and safest opportunity.  I suggested that he and the rest of the men should do the same.”  Leutnant Clement disagreed and ordered that the men attempt a breakout to the northeast in order to join the rest of the battalion.  Michely did not think that a breakout attempt was feasible.  “Where are we going to go?  They’ll shoot us like rabbits!”  Upon hearing Michely’s refusal, Clement warned him that he would report him to the company commander and court-martial him for desertion.[79]  “Before you can do that, you have to survive first,” countered Michely. “Against our advice, Leutnant Clement and his runner then decided to head out, attempting to cross the open meadow east of Rue de Merscheid.    After only about 35 yards, I witnessed Clement get hit and tumble over, dead.  His runner was shot through the collar of his greatcoat while another bullet merely grazed him in the neck – but was otherwise unharmed.”[80]  Leutnant Clement’s death now made Unteroffizier Michely the highest-ranking remaining soldier in the platoon.

The decision was now made to move toward the Americans in an effort to surrender[81].  Michely advised his troops not to shoot, under any circumstances.  Making their way down along Rue de Merscheid, the men found a gate in the wall separating them from the park-like area behind Maison Weis and were soon within the cover of the row of buildings along the Rue Principale, in complete defilade from the fire coming from the tree line along the ridge across the Wark.  In 1944, the terrain was open, with several trees, small ponds and a small brook, the Turelbach.  Facing south, the men were behind three buildings, with the Maison Weis on the left, the saw mill on the right and the machine house in the center.  The machine house was adjacent to the brook and contained the components needed to drive the saw mill.[82]  The men entered the machine house and made their way into the basement.  “There were long concrete corridors and all kinds of machinery, which must have been connected to the saw mill”, Michely recalls.  “We could see logs outside, by looking through windows on the south side of the basement.  Crawling over the logs were ‘Amis’, advancing toward us.  I could clearly see their legs and short rifles (carbines, author).”

The house in the center is the machine house. The background also clearly shows the high ground and tree line from which the 319th attacked.

What happened next is unclear and has likely suffered in detail by the passage of 64 years.  During one conversation with the author, Michely recalls: “There were perhaps 8 or 10[84] of us in the basement.  I knew the men were from my platoon, but none of them were part of my gun’s crew.  We could see the Americans advancing cautiously over the logs.  I don’t think they saw us yet.  I told them (my men, author) not to shoot under any circumstances.  Someone fired a shot at the Americans, dropping one GI.  I couldn’t tell who had fired due to the dim light in the room and no one took responsibility for the shot during my ensuing tirade.”  The remaining Americans took cover and possibly returned fire.  Somehow, according to Michely, “we heard them call for a flame thrower and decided that we needed to surrender immediately.”[85]  Michely told the men that now was the time to surrender and that he wasn’t going to force anyone to hold out.  Each man was free to decide.  Two of the men climbed up the stairs with their hands in the air – only to be fired upon immediately.  Unharmed, the men jumped back into the basement and screamed “Michel, they don’t want to take us prisoner!”  Michely angrily screamed back at the men.  “What do you expect after the asshole shot at them?”  Michely now realized that the responsibility for the men was his, since he was the highest-ranking soldier.  Frightened, he saw no other option but to lead the men up the stairs.  “We would have died in that basement for sure.  I took my MP43 and my binoculars and threw them over a wall behind which I heard the sounds of running water[86].  I assumed it was the small stream we saw on our way and wanted to make sure that the Americans wouldn’t get my weapon and glasses.  Raising my hands over my head, I climbed up a steep set of steps leading to the outside.[87]  At the top of the steps was a US soldier, pointing his rifle at me.  I remember tripping while climbing up the stairs with my hands over my head and falling forward.  Instinctively, I reached out and grabbed the ankles of the soldier to stop my fall.  They must have thought I was trying to pull him into the basement, for I immediately received a blow to the back of my head by an unseen soldier’s rifle butt.  He hit me so hard that I saw stars.”

Despite the fall, Michely and his men managed to climb out of the basement and surrendered.  “I remember seeing tanks and a lot of troops.  We were searched and lined up against a wall.  I had told the men to remove any articles of US clothing they might have on them, as many of them had taken advantage of the warm winter clothing we found in abandoned US supply depots.  One of the men must not have heeded the warning as, all of a sudden, a shot rang out and he was killed.”  It is unclear whether this was due to him wearing a GI’s coat or an act of revenge.  “I thought they were going to kill us all”, Michely remembers, “but then an officer appeared, gesturing wildly.  I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but no more prisoners were killed after that.”

After the lineup, the remaining men were assembled and transported to Mersch.  Michely was elated at being alive and remembers meeting another “old salt” non-commissioned officer from his unit along the way.  “We had both been through combat in Russia and were happy to have survived this one”.  After being processed in Mersch, the POW’s were loaded into railway cars and transported into captivity.  After several months in camps near Normandy, France, Erich Michely would return home to his family on November 13th, 1945 – his 22nd birthday.

By nightfall on 22 December, the Germans held the north end of the town, with the Americans firmly dug in on the south.

While all of this took place, two additional elements of the 915th met unexpected attacks as well.    By 1000 HRS, as the snowfall began to lessen, outposts from Task Force L, who by now had moved to positions on the high ground overlooking the road from Mertzig to Grosbous, observed a large column of enemy infantry and vehicles on the move toward Grosbous.[91]  The column stretched for almost a mile and a half and consisted of several artillery pieces, vehicles, infantry and two light tanks, apparently completely unaware of Task Force L’s presence a mere 1,300 yards away.[92]  The entire column was destroyed with direct and indirect fire from Task Force L and the 108th Field Artillery Battalion.  The result of the 20 minute ambush was the complete destruction of the 915th’s spearhead, at the cost of one wounded soldier for Task Force L.[93]

Just as the advance units were being destroyed, the tail end of the 915th also met its end – at the hands of 1st Battalion, 319th Infantry Regiment.  The heavy weapons and supply trains were moving along the road from Feulen to Mertzig in almost parade-ground-like formation when 1/319 began its attack north across the road.  The result was complete destruction.  Corporal Clement Good remembers driving along the road later that night: “As driver for the division artillery’s HQ battery commander, I often had to drive along the roads at night to deliver messages or look for breaks in our telephone lines.  After the combat at Mertzig, I was driving down the road without any headlights for fear of being detected.  The Dodge Command Car kept going over what appeared to be large bumps in the road.  It wasn’t until daylight that I realized I had been driving over the carcasses of German horses.”[94]

By the end of the day of 23 December, Mertzig had been completely cleared of any German resistance and the German advance had ground to a halt just west of Grosbous.  Cut off from reinforcements, the remaining troops of the 915th were ordered to abandon their heavy equipment and break out, making their way back to Ettelbruck.  Over the course of the next month, the Regiment continued to take part in defensive operations in the Ettelbruck bridgehead, eventually falling back to its original positions across the Our on 21 January, 1945.  Hitler’s final offensive in the west had been stopped, at a cost of 8,000 men to the 352nd VGD alone.[95]

The War Ends

By March of 1945, Germany was defeated and only weeks away from unconditionally surrendering to the Allies.  Ironically, the same unit who took Michely prisoner, would eventually capture and briefly occupy his home town as well, entering Michelbach, Germany on 17 March 1945.[96]

Erich Michely still resides in Michelbach today, along with his wife of 61 years, Loni.  Upon his return from captivity, he started a family which eventually grew to 4 children, 5 grandchildren (with a 6th on the way) and one great-grandchild.  He spent his life as a construction worker and forester and enjoys his garden and apple orchard.  On 22 December 2008, 64 years to the date, he revisited Mertzig, Luxembourg, where he was received with open arms and retraced his steps of his last day as a soldier.                      

Claude Staudt (mayor of Mertzig), Fernand Pletschette, Marcel Michely, Erich Michely, Manfred Michely, Jos Clees, Roland Gaul. Picture taken 22 December 2008, on the steps of Maison Weis.

Acknowledgements

This document is the result of months of research and could not have been made possible without the generous help of the following people, many of whom were sucked into the vortex along with the author:

Marcel and Manfred Michely, sons of Erich Michely, both of whom spent countless hours researching and countless dollars on long-distance phone conversations with the author.  Fernand Pletschette, Erny Kohn and the remaining members of the Mertzig Historical Society.  Fernand answered the author’s e-mail out of the blue and was instrumental in pulling in local information, finding images, composing presentations and coordinating Michely’s visit to Mertzig in 2008.  Claude Staudt, honorable mayor of Mertzig, who welcomed Michely with open arms and open doors. Roland Gaul, curator of the Luxembourg National Military Museum, for his knowledge and willingness to help.  Mr. Gaul’s books are a one-of-a-kind resource and his work is extraordinary.  Robert Hanright, Robert Murrell, Bill Krehbiel and Clement Good for assisting the author in obtaining American eye witness accounts.

Kyla Herbes for being a trooper and encouraging the author’s obsession.

Finally, and most importantly, Erich Michely, the inspiration for this project and to whom it is dedicated..  It is through your experiences that we can hope to remember the past and learn from it.  Opa, thank you for always indulging me with your stories.  Thank you for your example and courage.

The author Thorsten and his Grandparents

 German Order of Battle (352 VGD)

  1. Division Command (HQ)
    1. Command Staff & Field Police
    2. Feldpost Number 29750
    3. Grenadier Regiment 914
      1. Regimental Staff and HQ Company
      2. 13th & 14th Panzerjager Companies
      3. 1st Battalion with Companies 1-4
      4. 2nd Battalion with Companies 5-8
      5. Feldpost Number 16053
      6. Grenadier Regiment 915

        1. Feldpost Number: 40107
        2. Regimental Staff and HQ Company

i.      Regiment Commander: Oberstleutnant Johannes Drawe, wounded at Tandel 12/17/1944

ii.      Regimental Adjutant: Oberleutnant der Reserve Wilhelm Ifang

iii.      1st Ordnance Officer: Leutnant Rudolf Kalberlah

iv.      2nd Ordnance Officer: (rank unknown) Georg Kunze, wounded at Longsdorf, 12/18/1944

v.      Officer z.b.V.: Oberleutnant Sepp Herrmann

  1. Staff Company

i.      CO: Leutnant Eduard Seidl, wounded at Kippenhof (Diekirch) 12/24/1944

ii.      Communications Platoon: Leutnant Karl Dirks, wounded at Oberfeulen 12/22/1944

iii.      Pionier Platoon: Leutnant Reinhard Bennemann, wounded at Tandel 12/17/1944

  1. 13th Company (Infantry Gun)

i.      CO: Leutnant Friese, missing at Mertzig, 12/22/1944

ii.      Platoon Leader: Leutnant Heinrich Brande, missing at Mertzig, 12/22/1944

iii.      Platoon Leader: Leutnant Otto Luhr, missing at Mertzig, 12/22/1944

  1. 14th Company (Panzerjager)

i.      CO: Leutnant Otto Griese, wounded at Longsdorf, 12/16/1944

ii.      Platoon Leader: Leutnant Franz Michaelis, missing at Mertzig, 12/22/1944

  1. Staff, 1st Battalion

i.      Battalion CO: Hauptmann Heinrich Konig

ii.      Adjutant: Gerhard Ihl, wounded 12/21/1944, location unknown

iii.      Ordnance Officer: Karl Heinz Jantschak

  1. 1st Company

i.      CO: Leutnant Alwin Feldhans, KIA 12/21/1944 at Ettelbruck

ii.      Platoon Leader: Leutnant Horst Dietrich, missing 12/22/1944

  1. 2nd Company

i.      CO: Leutnant Rudolf Rothfelder, KIA at “Friedhaff” Diekirch, 12/17/1944

ii.      Platoon Leader: Leutnant Wolfgang Kluth

  1. 3rd Company

i.      CO: Oberleutnant Albrecht Schubert

ii.      Platoon Leader: Leutnant Reinhold Tietje

  1. 4th Company

i.      CO: Oberleutnant Otto Muhlert, wounded at Pratz, 12/22/1944

ii.      Platoon Leader: Leutnant Ludwig Vorst

iii.      Platoon leader: Leutnant Georg Witt, missing at Mertzig, 12/22/1944

  1. Staff, 2nd Battalion:

i.      Battalion CO: Hauptmann Herbert Kruger

ii.      Adjutant: Wilhelm Leimbach, wounded at Tandel 12/16/1944

iii.      1st Ordnance Officer: Leutnant Paul Flocke

  1. 5th Company

i.      CO: Oberleutnant Arthur Schulz, took sick 12/31/1944

ii.      Platoon Leader: Leutnant Bruno Brassel, wounded at Mertzig, 12/22/1944

  1. 6th Company

i.      CO: Leutnant Heinz Jagers, wounded 12/31/1944, location unknown

ii.      Platoon Leader: Leutnant Heinz Ruckert, KIA at Longsdorf, 12/17/1944

  1. 7th Company

i.      CO: Hauptmann Walter Langendorf, missing, date/location unknown

ii.      Platoon Leader: Max Stalke

  1. 8th Company (Schwere)

i.      CO: Oberleutnant Gunter Rolf

ii.      Platoon Leader: Leutnant Werner Perlsberg

iii.      Platoon Leader: Joseph Clement, missing at Mertzig, 12/22/1944

Platoon List:

Michely’s hand-written list of company members.  A “V” after the name denotes vermisst (missing), a cross indicates killed.

                                                          Bibliography

Collins; Keegan John, ed.  Atlas of the Second World War.  Ann Arbor, MI: HarperCollins in association with Borders, 2003.

Fossum, Embert.  The Operations of “Task Force L”, 109th Infantry (28th Division) near Grosbous, Luxembourg 20 -23 December 1944.  Fort Benning, GA: US Army Infantry School, Advanced Infantry Officers Course, 1948.

Gaul, Roland.  The Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg: The Southern Flank, December 1944 – January 1945.  Volume I: The Germans.  Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military, 1995.

Gaul, Roland.  The Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg: The Southern Flank, December 1944 – January 1945.  Volume II: The Americans.  Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military, 1995.

Janes, Terry D.  Patton’s Troubleshooters, Revised Edition. Kansas City, MO: Opinicus Publishing, 2006.

Krehbiel, Bill J.  The Pride of Willing and Able. Published by Krehbiel, 1992.

Murrell, Ed.  319th Infantry History, ETO 80th “Blue Ridge” Infantry Division.  Oakmont, PA: Published by Author, year unknown.

Quarrie, Bruce. Order of Battle 12: The Ardennes Offensive, I Armee & VII Armee.  Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2001.

Quarrie, Bruce. Order of Battle 13: The Ardennes Offensive, US III & XII Corps.  Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2001.

Schmidt, Otto E.  After Action Report, 352nd Volksgrenadier Division.  Location, publisher and date unknown.

Schmidt, Otto E.  “Project 22” Ardennen Offensive.  Location  and publisher unknown, 1950.

US War Department.  Handbook on German Military Forces.  Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Various oral interviews with Michely, Hanright and Good.  Conducted by author, 2008 – 2009

 

 


[2] Collins, Atlas of the Second World War, Page 160

[3] Arnold, p 27

[4] CIA Fact Book

[6] Fossum, page 5

[7] Quarrie, Volume 13, Page 11

[8] Collins, page 161

[9] Quarrie, Volume 12, Page 9

[11] Gaul, Volume I, Page 22

[12] Schmidt, page 2

[13] Infantry Regiments 914 and 915 were formed from navy troops, while 916 was drawn from air force personnel.  See Appendix for detailed listing.

[14] Schmidt, page 4

[15] See Appendix II for detail

[16] Lexikon Der Wehrmacht

[18] Author’s note: There were 4 le. I.G. 42 75 mm infantry guns in the company.  Each gun was led by a non-commissioned officer (Unteroffiziere Grau, Lemke, Mizera and Michely).

[19] Erich Michely’s nickname

[20] Although Michely had thought about deserting, he knew that his family would be punished for his actions – a common practice near war’s end.  He did, however, promise his father to attempt to go into captivity as soon as it was safely possible.

[21] Gaul, Volume I, page 52

[22] Michely’s fondness for apples and Schnapps continues to this day

[23] Schmidt, Project 22, page 6

[24] Schmidt, Project 22, page 7

[25] Schmidt, Project 22, page 7

[26] Gaul, Volume I, page 53

[27] Quarrie, Volume 12, page 19

[28] Gaul, Volume I, page 50

[29] Schmidt, Project 22, page 8

[30] Fossum, page 10

[31] Gaul, Volume !, 55

[32] Quarrie, page 34

[33] Schmidt, Project 22, page 9

[34] Gaul, Volume I, page 77

[35] Schmidt, Project 22, page 10

[36] Fossum, page 11

[37] The author has been unable to confirm the loss of two tanks near Tandel throughout his research, but believes the story to be true.

[38] 109th Infantry Regiment December 1944 AAR, page 5

[39] Fossum, page 11

[40] Fossum, page 11

[42] Fossum, page 12

[43] Schmidt, Project 22, page 11

[44] It was this story which sparked the entire research project for the author.  After hearing it for the first time in September 2008, the author decided to drive to Bastendorf to take pictures of the church and find out if any shell damage remained.  As it turned out, a new church was built in 1948, replacing the old one.

[45] Fossum, page 13

[46] Quarrie, Volume 13, page 16

[47] Krehbiel, page 111

[48] Krehbiel, page 111

[49] Schmidt, page 11

[50] Fossum, page 8

[51] See Appendix III

[52] Fossum, page 13

[53] Fossum

[54] Schmidt, Project 22, page 11

[55] 109th Infantry Regiment, AAR, page 7

[56] Fossum, page 26

[57] Fossum, page 26

[58] See Appendix IV

[59] 319th AAR, pp. 1-2

[60] Murrell, page 43

[61] Fossum

[62] Image courtesy of Fernand Pletschette.  Rue de Michelbuch runs along the bottom of the image, while Rue Principale stretches from bottom-right to top-left.  The first three building along the right side of Rue Prinicpale are Maison Weis, the machine house and the saw mill.  Hotel Schammel is on the left side of Rue Principale, first house on bottom-right corner.

[63] See Appendix V for map

[64] Hauptkampflinie, Main Line of Resistance

[65] Michely

[66] Image courtesy of Fernand Pletschette.  Image shows Hotel Schammel in 2008.  Point of view is looking east, along the main road.  Michely’s guns were parked facing the viewer, along the front of the building, just prior to the attack.

[67] Author’s note: Michely was also quite displeased at having his meal ‘interrupted’ by the attack.

[68] Author’s note: Michely later recalled a second tank, moving west-to-east along Rue Principale.  It is plausible that Gefr.Otto’s gun and crew were killed by a round from this second tank.

[69] Image courtesy of Fernand Pletschette.  Image shows Rue Principale in 1944, looking east.  Maison Weis is on the left, the dairy building on the right.  Obergefreiter Otto and Gefreiter Kirnbauer died in the intersection immediately past the second building on the right.

[70] Murrell, page 45

[71] Hanright

[72] Krehbiel, page 113

[73] Author’s note: Based on research, the open ground may have been the meadow immediately west and south of the dairy building, with trees running parallel to Rue de Michelbuch.

[74] Krehbiel, page 114

[75] Michely

[76] See Appendix

[77] On 22 December 2008, Michely returned to Mertzig and was able to locate the basement room which had once saved his life.  The ceiling had changed, but the metal flap doors covering the entrance were still there and he recognized it immediately.

[78] Michely

[79] Author’s note: An avid opponent to war then and now, Michely always maintained the righteousness of his decision to surrender and does not see his decision as desertion.  To him, the insanity of continuing an already lost war was not worth his own death.  The decision to surrender was made by each individual member of the platoon and of their own free will.

[80] Leutnant Clement is still officially listed as “missing”.  Michely also told the author about being upset that he had been forced to give Clement his “good” compass earlier, which was now also lost.

[81] Author’s note: There appeared to be a lull in the fighting, or at least the amount of incoming fire had decreased substantially.

[82] Author’s note: Neither the machine house nor the saw mill exist today.  The machine house was torn down in the 1970’s and in its place (and the former saw mill) is now the Centre Turelbach, a community center.  Maison Weis still remains and is Mertzig’s village hall today.

[83] Image courtesy of Fernand Pletschette.  The house in the center is the machine house.  The background also clearly shows the high ground and tree line from which the 319th attacked.

[84] Michely’s recollection.  He does not know whether Leutnant Clement’s runner was with them or not.

[85] Author’s note: One of Michely’s men was Polish and claimed to have heard the American troops request a flame thrower.  Whether he spoke English or whether there were Polish-speaking GI’s remains unclear.

[86] The machine house contained a paddle wheel, driven by the Turelbach, which was re-routed through the basement for this purpose.

[87] Authors’ note: According to research, these steps were on the northwest corner of the building.

[88] Image courtesy Fernand Pletschette

[89] Image courtesy of Fernand Pletschette.  German POW’s (likely from the 915th regiment)  await transport into captivity in Mertzig.

[90] Image courtesy of Fernand Pletschette

[91] Fossum, page 31

[92] Fossum, page 32

[93] Fossum, page 33

[94] Interview with the author

[95] Fossum, page 36.  By 24 December, 352nd’s strength was estimated at 5,000 men.

[96] Krehbiel, page 189

[97] Krehbiel, page 315

[98] Image courtesy Fernand Pletschette.  Left to right: Claude Staudt (mayor of Mertzig), Fernand Pletschette, Marcel Michely, Erich Michely, Manfred Michely, Jos Clees, Roland Gaul.  Picture taken 22 December 2008, on the steps of Maison Weis.

[99] Quarrie

[100] Handbook on German Military Forces, page 97

[101] Handbook on German Military Forces, page 116

[102] Handbook on German Military Forces, 119

[103] Gaul, Volume I, Pages 22-23

[104] Gaul, Volume I, Pages 28-30

[105] Courtesy of Erich Michely.  PLEASE DO NOT COPY OR PUBLISH!

[106] Gaul, Volume II, Page 13

[107] Embert Fossum, “Operations of Task Force L near Grosbous, Luxembourg, December 20 – 23, 1944”, Page 4

[108] Murrell

[109] Quarrie

A smoke, a box of creme chocolates and the Daily Mail – German trench near Wieltje, Ypres 1915

Just a quick photo while I have the time. Just preparing the next set of photos taken by a member of I.R.236 (see last post) when I saw this. Amusing, so it needs to be shared 🙂 Enjoy.

In a german trench, 236th Regiment of Infantry (I.R.236) near Wieltje (Ypres) 1915.

Nothing better than a smoke, a box of creme chocolates and the Daily Mail

Broken – British POW, World War One, Western Front

eyes

No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’ —
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Siegfried Sassoon

15194464976469

Thanks Paul (@sommecourt) – for helping with the uniform! Thanks everyone else for offering help. Sadly it is not dated. Mike (@stockotrader) thinks he sees part of an anchor on the button. Caption reads “Somme”

Who was Louis ? – Child POW, Marne / Champagne 1917

Louis1

About half a year ago I posted this photo on Twitter and so far forgot about it. Today it turned up again and I remembered that I had planned to write a small article about it. Its one of my favoured images.

This powerful photo shows two young boys. One is clad in what I think is parts of a military uniform (boots, forage cap, uniform trousers), the other seems to have been supplied with an old pair of german army boots.

The original caption reads “Louis (right), our youngest prisoner, POW “Conscrits” Labour Company 14″ No date or place is given. 

As the other photos of the series show places like Ripont, Manre, Rouvroy Challerange I am quite sure the photo was taken at the Marne, Champagne. Uniforms and equipment of the german soldiers on the photos make a date of mid-end 1917 my closest guess.

In the past there was some discussion that “Louis” is a civilian forced to work for the german army. I am quite sure that he was indeed taken prisoner with adult french soldiers. POW labour companies were made up of military prisoners of war and the other photos show french soldiers, some wearing a mix of civilian and army clothing and fully uniformed french POWs.

Anyway, this image is intriguing. Look at Louis face, his eyes look old don’t you think? Who was he, what became of him? We will probably never know.

Louis2