Section Five of Ten
Attacked by Twelve B-17s
Happy News. Our commander, recently promoted to major, called us helpers
together and without a big fanfare informed us of the termination of all
school activities. He handed us our high school diplomas, and with that,
ended our need for teachers. When we asked the major for permission to
give our teachers a small going-home party, he enthusiastically agreed.
He thought that a graduation celebration was in order. He called the cook
and told him to bake a cake, and he ordered his staff sergeant to have
some wine available. The wine naturally was for the teachers, so he said,
with a little wink in his eyes. We quickly wrote letters to our families,
which the teachers promised to deliver personally. (They never did.) The
next day, we said goodbye to Herr Lustig and the other teacher and with
that they were on their way back to Berlin.
Our feeling about the war began to change just a little. Hitlerís victory
speeches did not ring quite true anymore. I had started to become a man
and war made less and less sense. One fear among surfaced on and off, the
apprehension of having to join the army at the Russian Front. My voice
had changed and I grew about a foot during the last year. Nevertheless,
the war for us was not over by a long shot, and any expectation of better
things to come became clouded.
early fall morning, we had just cleaned and straightened our barracks room
after breakfast when we heard "A-Eins!" filling the air.
A-Eins stood for Alarmstufe Eins, meaning, "alert status
one." Those words would even wake us from a deep sleep if we heard
them at night. It was the signal for us to man our equipment.
The optical instrument and computer were humming and powered up. We
received reports of approaching B-17 Super Fortresses, coming from the
south and flying north. The same old story. The first group of twelve planes
came very close to firing range, but then turned right and flew around
us in a circle, just out of range, completing 180 degrees. Once they completed
the 180 degrees, they turned back north, on their way toward Vienna. As
usual, when the planes had completed about 90 degrees, the next group of
planes would come into sight from the south. We always waited for the commander
to tell us when to let the target go and turn the optics towards the next
approaching target. The second group did the same maneuver, and again the
captain gave the order to abandon the group after they had completed their
Just as we started to move the instrument, we noticed a small variation
in the flight pattern of the group. "I think they are turning, turning
left!" shouted our center position soldier. The major ordered us to
stay with this group, and he looked through his glasses. Sure enough, we
saw that they had continued to turn until they were coming straight toward
our direction. We focused on the lead plane. Their action left no doubt;
they were after us. All of the planes started to make evasive maneuvers.
Each plane did its own thing, banking a little to the right, then back
and banking a little to the left. We had seen those maneuvers before and
they had succeeded in confusing our computer and us. Luckily, we had trained
for just such a situation and we did not fall for this trick.
Despite of all the maneuvers, however, they remained in close formation.
Nevertheless, we knew if they were going to bomb us, they would have to
stop those maneuvers, and fly straight for the bombing run. We moved our
optics as smoothly as we could as the bombers stopped their side-winding
motions. By now, the planes were in firing distance. One person continuously
called out the distance to the target. The planes were so close now that
we could see only three planes in our glasses. The major naturally looked
through his glasses, and he could see what we saw. We, the three operators,
notched ourselves with our elbows when the bomb bay doors opened, and it
became clear to us that we were the targets. They flew at an altitude of
25,000 feet, and the moment the captain saw the first bomb exiting the
plane, he gave the command to fire.
At his command, one soldier depressed a button to give the guns the
signal to start the firing process. He would continue to press the button
every five seconds. The gun loader, an adult, not a helper, hearing the
signal, would place the cartridge in a cradle. While in the cradle, the
projectile timer received a last second adjustment. After that, a mechanism
pulled the cartridge into the barrel. The closing and firing was then automatic.
To repeat this process within five seconds everything had to work according
to the book.
At this time, I could not help myself. I had to take a quick peek to
see the tilted position of the glasses. Since the rest of the crew could
hear what we said through our throat-mikes, we had orders to talk as little
as possible. We elbowed each other when we saw the bombs exiting. We knew
that shortly, between the firing of the guns, we all would hear the bombs
wailing on their way down. My short look gave me the feeling that the bombs
would fall behind our position. I was right. We were busy keeping the planes
in sight while our guns kept firing as fast as they could. Once the planes
were directly above us, we had to turn the optics 180 degrees as quickly
as possible, without losing precious time. While the guns turned 180 degrees,
they should have stopped firing, but that did not occur. We continued shooting
until the planes were out off range. Our barracks received some window
pane damage, but all of our equipment was still in good shape.
In retrospect, we could not imagine who ordered this suicide mission.
First, only a direct hit inside our dirt fortification could wipe out a
gun or the optics. Secondly, the planes flying at that altitude on a bomb
run were completely vulnerable. We do not know how many planes did not
make it home. It was really a sad day for us youngsters. We were elated
over the fact that we had seen action, like kids today enjoy the video
games, but here we knew that actual lives were at stake. It made a maturing
difference. Later we heard of one plane going down a few miles from us.
We, us helpers, remained uninformed about actual casualties.
On September 3, 1944, I was awarded a medal for bravery under fire.
Strangely, exactly one year earlier in Berlin, we had experienced the bombs
dropped in the Christmas tree flares by British planes.
The attack on our anti-aircraft facilities did not affect the bombing
of Austria. The planes continued pummeling the Vienna surroundings, while
staying out of our shooting range, with the exception of stray, damaged
planes on and off.
Now, that we did not have any schooling, we were reading more of Karl
May's stories. Again, one boy would read aloud to all of us every evening,
until we fell asleep.
We did not talk anymore of our troop victories in the war. We heard
enough, however, and we realized that the word, Führer, crossed our
lips fewer and fewer times. He almost became a non-person. We were in the
war and there was nothing we could do about it. The sad part of it was
that we barely could remember why we were in the war at all. Besides, I
knew that when I turned 17, the Army would draft me. I could only hope
that I would not end up on the Russian Front.
A couple weeks later, close to my 17th birthday, I received a draft
notice to report to the infantry. My comrade Joachim received his notice,
and he too had to report on the same date at the same place. The major
called me into his office to hand me the transfer notice. He mentioned
to me that I now would lose the 'Schmidt four' identification, and that
he remembered when I first joint the battery a year and a half ago. "You
were a child when you arrived, you are leaving it a man," was his
That reminded me of an incident we saw between two young lieutenants
and this major. Herr Hitler had decreed right after the July 1944
assassination attempt that all officers were to salute with the Nazi salute
and not with the typical military salute. At one morning assembly, two
younger lieutenants reported to him with the Nazi salute, but he responded
with the regular military salute.
After being with a small group of boys for a year and a half, it was
not easy to say goodbye, not knowing what lay ahead. Unbeknownst to us,
a few months after Joachim and I left the battery, Allied troops overran
the installation. I never found out exactly how they became prisoners of
war, but it was clear, it had to be better than going to the Russian Front.
In the Army Now
My friend Joachim and I did not know what the Army had in mind for us.
Joachim and I were the oldest in our high school class, causing our selection
for the Army, while the others had stayed behind as Air Force helpers.
Our orders required us to report to Army Headquarters in Vienna. We crossed
our fingers that they would not send us to the Russian Front.
In Vienna, the famous city also known for Straus's Waltz, it took us
a while to find Army Headquarters. Other soldiers were helpful in directing
us, recognizing us as Air Force helpers with our swastika armbands. Great
apprehension set in when we walked up the steps, nothing compared to my
adventures with the operating table. When we arrived at the headquarters,
we handed our orders to a sergeant who was sitting under a "new recruit"
sign. He stamped our orders and placed them on top of a stack of others.
He handed us new orders, with words similar to "you are in the Army
now." He explained that we had to return to the railroad station and
he identified the boxcar train going north. We still did not know our final
destination, until at last he said, "You guys are going via Berlin
to Denmark for army training. Lucky guys." The orders read for immediate
departure to Army Headquarters Alborg, in Denmark. We were all smiles,
and we did not hang around any longer than necessary, worried that they
might change their minds.
A boxcar attached to the end of military train became our quarters for
the next couple of days. We were on our way, still in our helper's uniforms.
We had been assigned to board the last car, the caboose. Since I was susceptible
to motion sickness, the caboose with its crazy motions took a little off
my travel enjoyment. Then during one rest stop, after traveling several
hours, a memorable moment happened. To stretch our legs we had left the
box car, and were milling about, when without warning we heard a high-pitched
sound. This sound, even though unfamiliar, had some similarity to an incoming
bomb. We all hit the deck, just in case. What actually frightened us, was
a new type of German jet engine powered airplane. Maybe this was the secret
weapon our Führer had been heralding.
While we were changing assignments, Germany was attacking England with
Buzz Bombs and rockets. American bombers were bombing a great number of
German cities, and the German Army was preparing for the Battle of the
Bulge. The Russian Army was advancing into Germany and we had no idea that
the situation was so serious. In spite of all this, our train traveled
rapidly and stopped only at assigned stations. We barely knew that we crossed
the Danish border. At Alborg, Denmark, we reported to Army Headquarters.
It was now late October 1944. We received orders to report for infantry
training at an Army company located in a small town outside Alborg.
Our company commander was an Army major and a Berliner. Joachim and
I found out that we were the only two soldiers in the company with a high
school education. It appeared that the German High Command was scraping
the bottom of the barrel for fighting men for the Russian Front. We met
our NCO, a sergeant with an artificial leg, a war injury. He made sure
that we received our new uniforms and necessary equipment. The sergeant
was a pleasant soldier with a sense of humor, but still, I had to do a
great number of push-ups, as the result of my big mouth. It became clear
from his comments that he planned for me to become proficient in handling
the '42 machine-gun, an air-cooled gun and not sensitive to a little dirt.
The sergeant told me that I would be machine gunner number one and Joachim
number two. The encouraging words he gave us: "The enemy will be shooting
at the number one machine gunner first." Something to look forward
to. The gun was not an erector set, but it was not much different to manage.
In a short time, I became proficient in taking the gun apart and in replacing
the firing pin and the spring in the prone position without dropping either.
Then I needed to know how good my aim was. Shortage of ammunition delayed
practice shooting, and as it turned out, I never found out how accurate
the gun was. The only thing I knew about the gun was that it taxed my strength.
Our infantry training included advancing in an open enemy field. The difficulty
was to run with the machine gun, hit the dirt while placing the gun, then
jump up again and so on.
Our training progressed slowly, although we had a relatively moderate
winter. On a few nights, we stood guard at a railroad track, watching for
potential sabotage. Otherwise, it was a peaceful war in Denmark. By February,
our company had lost the paymaster. The major called me into his office
and told me about the paymaster vacancy. He asked if I, a high school graduate,
could handle the paymaster job after his promise that he would show me
the ropes. Naturally I answered in the affirmative. I guess it pays to
have a Berliner commander. This had to be better than training for the
Russian Front. I asked the major for an assistant, and he agreed with my
request for Joachim, my friend. He thought it to be wise to have some one
you can trust at your side when handling large sums of money. My major
made sure that I would receive a side arm, a Luger. It was my first experience
with a Luger. I practiced diligently how to load, unload, and how to clean
the gun. I even went so far as to journey to an empty field with a large
hill as a backstop and tried a few rounds at target shooting. I found out
that I could not hit the side of the barn, less a tin can. I also found
out that the gun had a tendency to jam. It took me several practice rounds
before I could come close to a target. Luckily, I never had to use the
gun in action.
As paymaster, I bicycled every ten days to a sub-station of our Army
headquarters, about 10 miles away, and presented our manpower list. They
in turn gave me Danish Kroner and a manpower roster, listing the names
and payment amounts according to rank. My job was to make sure they gave
me the right amount, matching the list. After my return to the company,
I made the payments with Joachim at my side. I do not remember the amounts
for each individual, only that I had approximately 10,000 Kroner per pay
period to distribute.
One time, I experienced a problem while returning on my bicycle from
headquarters with the money. A Danish fellow sicced a big dog after me.
I do not know why, but I had to do some evasive maneuvers and when I had
no choice I stopped and removed my Luger from my holster while keeping
my bicycle between me and the dog. I heard a whistle and the dog retreated
immediately. That was close.
News about the war came mostly from the Danish newspaper. We had someone
who could interpret some of it, and it would keep us a little abreast of
what was going on. I guessed that the German High Command, being the controlling
force, made sure that they would not print the real truth, but only their
truth. Interpreting the news about glorious retreats by the German Army
from areas in Germany gave us truth enough. It did not look good.
Visiting local stores, I met the proprietor of a small grocery store,
and he sold delicious smoked eel, my favorite snacking food. He was really
the only Danish civilian, with whom I could converse a little in German.
One other delicacy for me was the whipped cream cake sold at the bakery.
It did not come to a great surprise when on May 4, 1945, some Danish
civilians were seen carrying arms. I had just returned from the HQ paymaster,
carrying about 10,000 Kroner in my pocket. Passing a newspaper stand, I
saw the headline and the reason for the armed civilians. It read: "Germany
has capitulated." It was in Danish, but I knew enough to know what
The war was over and Hitler was dead. At this moment, it actually was
anti-climactic. The hope that we would win the war had long passed ever
since the great defeats of our troops in Russia and the invasion of the
When I entered the major's office, he had already received the following
orders from Headquarters: 1. Do not pay the soldiers until further notice.
2. Do not hand over your arms to the Danes. 3. Prepare to march under arms
to the German border. 4. Surrender only to the British High Command. 5.
Do not take any Danish products across the border. That included money.
We had a long walk ahead. Alborg is located as far north you can go in
Denmark and it is about 300 km to the German border.
I looked at my major, and tried to hand over the payroll to him. He
quickly stopped me, and told me that I would have to hang on to it, and
use the money in Denmark for buying food supplies for the troops. When
I told Joachim about the money situation, he agreed with my concern that
I could become a target, having all that cash. Some enterprising bad guy
might conk me over the head and take the money. I stuffed the money into
my uniform pockets, and slept against a wall, while Joachim placed his
bunk bed in front of mine. Our quarters were relatively primitive. All
of us, except the NCOs and the major, slept in a large hall in bunk beds.
The next day, we packed our stuff, ready for the march to the German
border. Transportation was not available and that left the question of
what to carry on our march. The major and I agreed on at least one ledger,
with the names of our troops and with an accounting of the money on hand
and the distribution to purchase goods. We agreed that by the time we reached
the German/Danish border we would have spent all the Danish money.
A long march was ahead of us. I had one advantage being the paymaster;
I did not have to carry a rifle or a machine gun, just my Luger. Somehow,
I thought it to be prudent to keep some of the papers accumulated by my
former paymaster. I packed a whole bunch of ledgers in a footlocker. We
decided that between Joachim and I, we could carry the wooden box by holding
onto its two handles. Only our cook had a vehicle, a truck with supplies,
pulling the large cooking kettle. Carrying the box for just four hours
convinced us that we could not and would not carry the box even one more
mile. We handed the box over to the cook to use it and the content for
heating material. Most of us decided to dump our gas masks, but kept the
container. It became my egg holder.
A few times, I accompanied the cook when he acquired supplies. With
enough money, we thought, we could purchase almost any quantity of food
as a supplement to the provisions provided to us. I figured we would spend
about 2,000 Kroner each day at first. However supplies became harder to
get, the further we marched. The troops ahead of us had bought out the
After the first two days of marching our blistered feet kept our medics
busy. The cook had a hard time making meals from the rations we got. We
did try to supplement the supplies by buying a few pigs and eggs. Soon
we could purchase pigs only, which limited the cook's menu.
It took us six days to march the 180 drudgery miles to the German border.
From what I saw, Denmark had housed a lot of German soldiers. Fortunately,
the weather cooperated, keeping any precipitation away. On our last day
in Denmark, just about 300 Kroner remained in my possession. Shortly before
the border checkpoint, a few elderly ladies were standing at the side of
the road watching our procession. I thought, why give the border police
the money. I walked over to one of the ladies, took the 300 Kroner and
handed it to her. A surprised look, then a smile was a nice finish of my
Denmark experience. The Danish border guards required us to empty our backpacks
and display everything in our possession. If they could have, they probably
would have body-searched us. Any Danish products were confiscated. Some
German soldiers tried to bring Kroners across in their gas mask container.
The border police were not fooled.
As soon as we crossed the border, British soldiers directed us to a
pile of weapons where we discarded ours, including my Luger.
After one more stretch of about 10 miles we arrived at our so-called
POW camp; a farm, with a large barn, and a duck pond. I do not know how
many German soldiers were housed in the general area, but it had to be
tens of thousands. The farmer provided the straw in the barn and straw
for the few tents we brought with us. As paymaster, I could pitch my tent,
giving me separate quarters. My friend Joachim pitched his tent next to
mine. Our major, the cook, and the non-commission officers all had tents
as quarters. By the time we had a few days of prison behind us, it became
clear that if you had to be in a prison camp, let it be a British camp.
Our cook received enough food supplies to provide us with good meals.
The British paymaster paid each prisoner one mark per day. I was still
the company paymaster and I had to collect the money and distribute it.
Speaking of collecting money. Remember the 10,000 Kroner I had to spend
during our march through Denmark? I never had to account for spending the
money. The distribution of the money to POWs came from some kind of headquarters,
and it became clear that we were only one company of many. They paid us
in ten-day intervals. Due to the release of prisoners every day, I had
to produce a list of the remaining manpower at the end of ten days. Making
it even better, we received the pay in military script. Buying cigarettes
from British soldiers required military money. The military script was
specially printed by the Allies and was legal tender in postwar Germany.
Some of the our company soldiers still had the regular German money. Surprisingly,
that money remained legal tender for many years. Since we did not have
access to cigarettes through the normal channel, we would buy them from
the British soldiers. Some wheeling and dealing on my part and I was then
in the business of selling Player's cigarettes. Since I had never smoked,
I was able to resist the temptation for a while, until I finally broke
down and smoked a few.
In the morning, dozens of ducks often marched by, quacking all the way
to the pond, and passing directly by my tent. At times, I could ring their
necks, but they were so lovable. They stopped when I opened the tent, looking
at me with a cocked head, then quack, quack, proceeding to the pond. We
could not complain about our living quarters, had it not been for one unwelcome
visitor. Our straw crawled with lice. After notifying the authorities,
they provided us with fresh straw. I boiled most of my clothing, except
for my uniform which I picked clean by hand.
In the meantime, the release of soldiers continued. Strangely, soldiers
from Eastern Germany and from Berlin were selectively held back. Almost
three months had passed since we arrived. Then the major found out that
by an agreement between the Russians and the Western Allies, they could
not release any prisoner with a home address in Eastern Germany or in Berlin.
In addition, rumor had it that anyone not released by October 1, 1945,
would end up in a Belgian coal mine. The major called me to his tent and
told me that the British military command would not question any change
of address made by any POW. All I had to do was to pick a West German address,
fill out a form, and they would process the release.
The moment I heard that, I told Joachim the news and suggested we both
change our addresses. I remembered that an aunt of my sister's husband
lived in Rosbach, a town in West Germany. I begged Joachim to change his
home address, but I could not budge him. He did not believe in rumors.
I changed my address, without any question from anyone, and within two
days they deloused me and scheduled my release. I did not feel comfortable
seeing Joachim remain in the camp. But I had to look out for number one.
At my release the major was still in charge, and I handed him my paymaster
papers and data. The major had changed his address and was also scheduled
for release. Shortly, the war for me would be over for good.
I did not see my friend Joachim again until about two years later after
his release from the coal mine. He was a walking skeleton and he told me
of seeing hundreds like him. He was not well. We lost contact after he
moved to West Germany and he never contacted me about his new location.