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From Wehrmacht To Captivity
N SEPTEMBER 1, 1939, Germany plunged the world into the Second World War with its invasion of Poland. By October 6, Poland had fallen. During the next seven months, French and British forces kept watch for the second phase of the German onslaught expected to hit the Western Front. But except for occasional border incursions, an uneasy stillness had settled over the front.
The silence ended abruptly on May 10, 1940, with airborne and mechanized German forces smashing through the Netherlands, Belgium, and into France. The defenders were quickly overwhelmed and within weeks had capitulated. France, the last to fall, signed an armistice on June 22. Pushed back to the channel port at Dunkirk, the British evacuated some 338,000 Allied soldiers to Great Britain. The battle for France was over.
Confident of victory in the west, Adolf Hitler turned his attention toward North Africa, where his faltering ally, Italy, was losing to the British. In February 1941, Hitler sent his Afrika Korps to Tunisia, under the command of General Erwin Rommel. Then, ignoring the Russo-German Non-Aggression Treaty signed in 1939, Germany invaded Russia on June 22, 1941. At first, the attack proceeded as planned. But by the end of the year, with the harsh winter setting in and the Russian counteroffensive beginning, German troops were fighting for their very lives. The only bright spot in the Nazi battle plan was in North Africa where the Germans and British were continuing a seesaw battle across the Egyptian-Libyan desert.
For the United States, World War II was already two years old in Europe when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Slow at first to respond, the United States eventually struck back with a vengeance first at the Imperial Navy and the occupied islands, and later at the Japanese homeland with bombing raids that culminated in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by two atomic bombs in August 1945. But until that time, the bulk of America's industrial might was directed against Nazi Germany. As early as 1942, the United States began planning with its Allies, Operation Torch, an amphibious assault against Axis forces in North Africa. This operation would net the first massive wave of German prisoners of war and would be followed by similar landings in Europe.
The opening assault came on November 8, 1942, when American and British forces began a series of landings in French North Africa from Casablanca to Oran and Algiers. Despite stubborn resistance, the force moved eastward, ending with the capture of more than 250,000 Axis soldiers in Tunisia on May 13, 1943. The prisoners were put into temporary collection camps before being moved to one of two embarkation points — Casablanca in Morocco, or Oran in Algeria. There they waited in reception centers for the returning Liberty and cargo ships that would take them to America, Canada, or Great Britain.
I joined the Luftwaffe on November 1, 1938, and was assigned to the 841st Regiment, 2nd Battery, Light Antiaircraft Unit (Leichte Flakabteilung). I remained with this unit for my entire military service and was trained in range-finding and motor vehicle driving. When the campaign in the west began on May 10, 1940, I was sent to the Netherlands and then to Belgium. I remember that when we entered Belgium, we were under heavy artillery fire. We discovered that someone using a blinking signal light in a nearby church steeple was revealing our position. We immediately destroyed the signal system and turned the priest over to our military police. Later, my unit was transferred to Dieppe, France, for occupation duty.
On February 2, 1941, we embarked on a twelve-day journey that first took us to Sicily, Italy, by train, and then by airplane to Tripoli, Libya. In North Africa, the battles were always fought fairly and with a certain amount of chivalry. For instance, between the fronts the wounded were cared for and the dead were buried. When we buried our best fighter pilot, Hans-Joachim Marseille, the English asked for and received a three-hour truce so they could send three Blenheim bombers overhead to drop a wreath on the grave. The cease-fire ended a half hour later.
While in North Africa, I was stationed at Tripoli, Derna, Tobruk, and El Alamein. When the war turned badly for us, we gradually retired to Cape Bone, Tunisia, and surrendered to the English on May 11, 1943. While in British custody, a group of Moroccan troops attempted to massacre us. Fortunately for us, the British were determined to spare the lives of their prisoners and fired their weapons to disperse the angry crowd that had formed. Probably in part for our own safety, we were taken to Constantine, Algeria, and handed over to the Americans in June 1943.
I was born in the small Silesian village of Komeise on April 12, 1913. I was just under a year old when my mother became a widow at age twenty-six with two small children, my brother who was two years old, and me. We lived on a small working farm, and sometimes visited with cousins, uncles, aunts, and our grandmother who lived on a beautiful farm estate nearby.
It was a wonderful idyllic life that ended in December 1939 when I was drafted into the Wehrmacht and assigned to the 257th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion. A short time later, I was sent to Normandy, France, and billeted on a farm with six other soldiers in Saint-Germain-des-Vaux, about twenty-five miles from Cherbourg. I developed a good relationship with the farmer who often invited me to dine with his family. In return, I would bring food from our field kitchen including sweets for the children. We had become very fond of each other, and when it was time for me to leave for the Russian Front in December 1941, the whole family had tears in their eyes.
Early in January 1942, we arrived by rail at a town called Vitebsk in Belorussia. We were assigned to barracks formerly used by Russian troops and had neither heat nor hot water. Everything was frozen solid, including the toilets filled with human excrement. Shortly thereafter we were trucked about fifty miles east to the town of Velizh, which at that time was still untouched by the war. We stayed in a clean, well-managed soldiers' home and were served tea by beautiful Russian women. We reveled in the warm waters of a sauna followed by massages given by young men using bundles of birch twigs.
Orders directing us to the front line cut short our respite at Velizh. Partially by truck, but mostly by very long foot marches, we advanced to Velikiye Luki. Along the way, we were sometimes quartered in farmhouses. Without being ordered to do so, the residents of these dwellings always gave us the warm sleeping place on top of the gigantic tile stove. In addition, they frequently gave us honey. They were simple and generous people who usually had in the corner of their living rooms a crucifix and religious icons. Indeed, this was proof that [Joseph] Stalin with all his oppressive Communism never overcame the influences of religion in Russia. It is awful to think how much these people suffered when the German troops, retreating in 1944, exercised the scorched earth policy.
At Velikiye Luki we replaced a unit of troops that had been at the front since the start of the Russian campaign in June 1941. Those poor men had absolutely no winter clothing to keep them warm and suffered through temperatures as low as 30 degrees Celsius below zero [or minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit].
Within a short time, we were engaging Russian troops who still occupied part of the town. Without tank or artillery support, we fought in pitched battles that seesawed back and forth. When the pressure from the Russians became too great, we reluctantly pulled back to Velizh and fortified our front by digging foxholes in the snow. The Russians continued to press the attack and encircled our unit. In places where they broke through our defense, bitter hand-to-hand combat ensued. During this time, we had almost nothing to eat. To satiate our hunger, we shot and ate our horses after they had exhausted their food. Although we occasionally received supplies air dropped to us from Ju 52s, everything collected had to be turned in and redistributed. Anyone caught stealing these provisions was ordered shot on the spot.
In February 1942, shrapnel from a Russian grenade ripped into my back. I was taken to a frontline aid station located in the cellar of a building that reeked from the stench of stale air and blood. To escape the pain and misery all around me, I fantasized about peaceful Velizh with its lovely tea-serving Russian women and the sauna.
Later, after our panzers had broken through at Velizh and captured the runway, I was airlifted to Germany. While recovering in the hospital I found out that the Russians later encircled the airstrip and cut my unit to pieces. For my service in Russia, I received the "Cold Cuts Order" (Medaille Winterschlacht) and the Infantry Assault Badge (Infanterie Sturmabzeichen) in silver.
By early 1943, I had recovered fully from my wound and was sent to Palermo, Italy, and then by plane to Tunis, Tunisia, in North Africa. I was assigned to Assault Battalion A27 (Sturmbataillon A27) and remained with this outfit until the Afrika Korps capitulated in May 1943.
Our captors were French Moroccan Berbers, the so-called "Goums" in Tunisia. They confiscated everything, leaving me with only one shirt, shorts, and shoes. I was sent to a triage camp at Constantine, Algeria, and later to a camp at Foum Defla, Morocco, that we POWs dubbed as "Camp Hunger." The guards were again these cruel Berbers, but also black Senegalese troops who in contrast were fair and warm people. Life in the French camps was extremely difficult. Hunger, typhus, dysentery, and jaundice decimated our ranks.
I enlisted in the German army on November 1, 1939, and was assigned to the 605th Flak Battalion. We participated in the campaign against France in 1940 and were redeployed to the Eastern Front when the war against Russia began in June 1941. During this time, I drove a truck delivering food from our depot to various field kitchens.
The Russian winter of 1941–42 was especially harsh. I tried everything to get away from Russia and to join the Afrika Korps. Happily, for me, my transfer request was approved and in the summer of 1942, I left Naples, Italy, for Tripoli, Libya. Halfway to Libya, British aircraft torpedoed our ship. Fortunately, we transferred from our sinking ship to an escort vessel, an Italian destroyer, without getting wet. We returned to Italy and back to Germany for rest and recuperation before making a second attempt to reach the Afrika Korps. This time we went by airplane and succeeded. We started with a Ju 52 from Athens via Crete and landed at Tobruk in October 1942. To evade enemy planes and radar, our plane skimmed the sea a few feet above the waves.
In North Africa, I was assigned to the 612th Flak Battalion at El Alamein, Egypt. I now drove a half-track with a 20mm antiaircraft gun on top. After an abortive attempt to break through British lines to Alexandria, the Afrika Korps began its retreat on November 3, 1942. In the ensuing months we were pushed back to Tunisia, where I was captured by British troops in May 1943. Along with many other German prisoners, I was taken to Oran, Algeria. After a few weeks, we sailed to Liverpool, England, where we changed ships and went to Halifax, Canada.
My job as a commerce clerk at the harbor in Bremen ended with my induction into the Wehrmacht on October 4, 1940. I was sent to Denmark on October 25 for basic training and service as an infantryman. I remember the constant drilling and the long marches that sometimes dragged far into the night.
On June 22, 1941, the war against Russia began. My unit, the 490th Infantry Regiment [269th Infantry Division], was mobilized and sent to the Russian Front as part of the initial strike force. We were assigned to the northern sector and reached the outskirts of Leningrad by the end of September 1941. Throughout this time we were continuously in combat with Russian troops. Most of our fighting occurred in open fields and forest regions as opposed to villages. In one particular instance, we encountered strong enemy resistance and sustained heavy casualties when we crossed the Luga River near Tolmachevo on August 27, 1941.
Just in front of Leningrad, we built solid underground bunkers and lived a relatively quiet life until December 6, 1941, when we were ordered into theS
forest south of Lake Ladoga. Here we experienced brutally cold weather with absolutely no shelter. Adding to the misery were constant attacks from Russian partisans who disrupted our supply lines. It was not long before the combination of partisans and weather were inflicting tremendous losses among our troops.
Suffering from frostbitten feet, I was evacuated to Germany for hospitalization on January 10, 1942. In March, I was sent to Heide, the hometown of my regiment, and placed in a convalescent company for light duty. In January 1943, I was transferred to Hamburg and assigned to the newly formed March Battalion for Special Details (Marschbataillon z.b.V. zur besonderen Verfü-gung]) which became an element of the Afrika Korps. On January 17, we shipped out to Tunisia. While in North Africa, we came under the command of various outfits, depending on where we happened to be at the time. Our unit was designated March Battalion 27.
When our North African campaign ended, I was taken prisoner by French troops thirty miles south of Tunis, near Pont du Fahs, on May 12, 1943. Our treatment was extremely harsh. We were crowded together in unsanitary conditions and received inadequate food and medicine. Soon malnourishment and dis- ease spread rapidly through the camp and claimed the lives of many German POWs. Our deliverance came in June 1944, when we were turned over to American troops at Djelfa, Algeria. The Americans treated us well and always provided sufficient food and drink.
As a result of the Munich Agreement of September 1938, my homeland of Sudetenland [today part of the Czech Republic] was annexed to the Third Reich. Although I was eligible for conscription into the Czech army as a Sudeten German, I volunteered instead for the German army. By joining, I was shortening my military commitment by nine months. I intended to get this soldiering time behind me as quickly as possible so I could return to the family farm in Mokrau, near Carlsbad.
At the military exam center, I filled out an eight-page questionnaire that asked everything about me, including my birthday, education level, and past illnesses. I heard here for the first time about my "Aryan status." Since it was standard practice for volunteers to have their pick of the service branches, I chose the artillery.
Stark naked, I stood in front of the inspection commission consisting of staff doctors and other officials. They examined me from head to toe and peered at me as if I were a young bull to be used for stud. I became very self-conscious and irritated by the whole affair. Suddenly there came a unanimous decision from the board: "You are not going to the artillery, but to the Waffen SS." Not knowing the type of unit this was, I declined the offer. They tried to convince me that physically I was the type of individual wanted by the Führer for his elite troops. I realized then the nature of this unit. Despite all their entreaties, I remained committed to the artillery. I even threatened to withdraw my volunteer application.
I was still standing naked in front of the entire recruitment board when a new decision was announced: "You're perfect for the Luftwaffe!" Now I was totally distraught. They wanted to make a pilot out of me. They again flattered me and commented on my nice handwriting. Finally, they offered me the Communications Service (Nachrichtendienst) and a promise to be garrisoned in Heidelberg. Since I had always dreamed about visiting that city, it was a heartfelt wish come true. I accepted their offer.
On January 9, 1939, I was assigned to the 33rd Armored Communications Unit (Panzernachrichten Abteilung 33) in Heidelberg. Our unit was part of the 33rd Infantry Division and was composed mostly of university candidate students and those with technical trades. When war broke out in September 1939, we were sent to the Western Front. In May 1940, we marched through Belgium and into France. Shortly after the French campaign had ended, our division was pulled back into Germany and sent to army camp Baumholder/Pfalz. It was then reorganized into the 33rd Panzer Division.
Excerpted from "German Prisoners of War at Camp Cooke, California"
Copyright © 2017 Jeffrey E. Geiger.
Excerpted by permission of Sunbury Press Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction to Second Edition, 1,
1. From Wehrmacht to Captivity, 8,
2. Journey to America, 32,
3. The First Weeks as POWs, 44,
4. Organization and Management at Camp Cooke, 62,
5. Prisoner of War Labor Program, 83,
6. Everyday Life in the Camp, 108,
7. The Branch Camps, 176,
8. Auf Wiedersehen, 201,
9. The Aftermath: The Camps and the Men, 222,
A. Biographical Data, 228,
B. Survey, 229,
Abbreviations and Glossary, 255,
About the Author, TBD,