A couple of weeks ago I met Nick Stone on Twitter (@typejunky). He is a “Designerer & Photomatographer” from Norwich in the UK who was so kind as to offer me to digitally restore and colorize some WW2 family photographs. I have decided to send him three portrait photographs showing my granduncles during WW2. All three of them were killed on the Eastern Front. One of them was Alois Gilgenbach.
Alois was born on the 21st of March 1915, in a tiny village within the deep forests of the Volcanic Eifel. He had joined the Army in 1938 and was a Reservist when the war broke out in 1939. Still he was only called to take up arms in 1940, when he joined the ranks of Infanterie-Regiment 158 with which he took part in the Battle of France in 1940 (in which the Regiment fought as part of 82. Infanterie-Division). Returning to Germany in December 1940, the Division redeployed into the Netherlands the following month. In May 1941, the division was separated – elements of the 82nd were to remain as an occupational force in the Netherlands, while the rest were to invade the Soviet Union.
Alois stayed in the Netherlands and seemed to have lived a quiet life up until June 1942 when his Regiment (IR 158), and the occupational elements of the 82. Infanterie-Division were also shifted to the Eastern Front. During the ferocious battles near Kasternoye (Cauldron of Kasternoye)/Voronezh in late December 1942-January 1943 Alois was wounded and got transported to France.
Once his wound was mending, he was transferred to Reserve-Grenadier-Bataillon 88 which was part of 189. Reserve-Division.
In May 1943 North Africa had been taken by the Allies. As a direct reaction Germany raised to new Infantry-Divisions (355. and 356. Infanterie-Division) which were supposed to guard the coasts of southern France and the Mediterranean. The nucleus of the new Divisions was formed from personnel of 189. Reserve-Division and so Alois was transferred to the new Grenadier-Regiment 871 (356 ID) which was based in Toulon.
In November 1943 Alois was transferred back to his old Regiment at the Eastern Front, which by now had been redesignated Grenadier-Regiment 158 fighting as part of Army Group South in the area of Kiev (Plessezkoje-Kopatschi-Trostinka).
After ferocious defensive battles which lasted up to Summer 1944 Alois Regiment and most of 82. Infanterie-Division was wiped out during the Battle of the Kamenets-Podolsky Pocket, also known as Hube’s Pocket.
Alois was one of the lucky survivors. His Regiment, now down to the strength of a weak Battalion, was redesignated Regimentsgruppe 158 which now fought as part of Divisionsgruppe 82 (the remains of 82. Infanterie-Division, which now had shrunken to the size of a Regiment). Now a part of 254. Infanterie-Division (1. Panzer-Armee).
With this Division Alois fought in the defensive and retreating battles that took part in the Carpatians, Galicia and finally Silesia. In July 1944 Divisiongruppe 82 had been renamed Grenadier-Regiment 474.
On the 19th March 1945, 254. Division was encircled by Soviet forces near Deutsch-Rasselwitz. Using their last strength and leaving their remaining heavy equipment behind the soldiers of the Division managed to force a breakout and to reach the german lines near the small village of Hotzenplotz (Osoblaha). Setting up defensive lines around the village, the Division fought off one Soviet attack after the other. It was then, in close vicinity of the village, that Alois was killed. At the time of death he held the rank of Unteroffizier and had been awarded with the Westwall Medal, Iron Cross 2nd Class, Infantry Assault Badge in silver and the Close Combat Clasp in bronze
His mortal remains have never been found. His body still rests in the soil of Silesia.
Nick Stone is a graphic designer and photographer, with an obsession with the past in general and both world wars specifically, in particular the impact on landscapes and the effect on society and memory. He has recently completed a social history installation that collected 10,000 photos from the public in Norwich and assembled them into a mosaic.