The History Place - Personal Histories

From Hitler Youth to U.S. Air Force
by Hubert Schmidt

Section Three of Ten

The War Escalates

At the end of 1939, despite the war situation, my sister and her short-term fiancé, Guenter Sievert, married in a hastily arranged civil ceremony. Guenter, a little older and a quiet man, occupied a classified position within the German Post Office communication department. His expertise immersed him into sending and receiving secret Morse Code messages. Most incoming messages required sorting by separating the one tone he was supposed to listen to from a number of other messages coming over the air simultaneously. He said every sender had a certain signature in sending, and that helped in sorting out the right message. It sounded very confusing to me and still is. This job however, saved him from having to serve in the military.

My sister was not disappointed that her soon father-to-be husband was not a soldier candidate. In addition, with his job connection, the newlyweds found a beautiful apartment on the second floor of a dingy looking tenement building. However, once inside the apartment the dinginess disappeared completely. The 12-14 foot-high ceilings and massive rooms were very impressive. The apartment had a large formal dining room, three bedrooms, a large living room, a kitchen and 1-½ bathrooms. It also had a small room, destined for a live-in maid. Each room had a tile oven, requiring the burning of wood or coal during the winter months. The kitchen was equipped with a gas range in addition to the traditional wood burning range. The bathroom had a bathtub and a water heater, also needing wood or coal. A cold-water faucet over a cast iron sink was the only water source in the kitchen.

On September 5, 1940, my sister had her first girl, Dorothea, my niece. At the age of 12 years, I was an uncle.

It was not surprising that the government would ask school children to help in the war effort. At the end of September 1940, the government asked our entire class of 24 boys to help the farmers harvesting potatoes. They could not have found a more enthusiastic bunch of boys. Our parents received the word that we were to assist a landowner-farmer. He must have had political connections to get that kind of help for approximately three weeks. Our parents had to pack clothing to last us one week, with the promise from the farmer that he would provide everything else needed. Summer vacation had schooling on hold for that period anyway, avoiding a conflict.

We assembled at a railroad station and boarded a train for the two-hour ride, with the accompaniment of one teacher as chaperone. The chaperone returned to Berlin as soon as we arrived at our destination. Twenty-four youngsters, ages 12 to 13, were now let loose on their own. The farmer's foreman received us cordially and showed us to our quarters, a barn with some straw on the ground covered with a blanket for each boy. We looked at the sleeping arrangement, and really thought at first that they were kidding. They were not. The barn itself was downwind from the pigs' sties; very efficient sties with swill fermenting constantly. That was our second distressing news. None of us was accustomed to this kind of smell, causing two boys to throw-up. Our first dinner consisted of mashed potatoes and buttermilk. Nothing else was on the menu, making it our third bad news.

Things had to get better next morning. A thick slice of farmer's bread with a small amount of jelly and a cup of tea was our breakfast. Soon we were on our way to the field. Our job consisted of following a plow, which loosened the potatoes. After collecting the potatoes in a basket, we emptied the basket into a trailer. For each filled basket, we received a token for some future monetary reward.

For lunch, we earned a bowl of potato soup. It appeared that the farmer had lots of potatoes but nothing much else. Dinner was again mashed potatoes and buttermilk.

After the first day, I noticed some red spots on my legs, which developed into blisters by the next morning. Similar symptoms happened to several other boys. Washing facilities consisted of a pump in front of the barn, with one bar of homemade soap and two towels for all. This meager setup appeared to be all the farmer thought we needed. The second day, the situation did not improve.

That evening, we collectively decided that someone had to notify our parents to inform them of the intolerable situation. Two boys were to leave during the night and ride home on the train, after we collected enough money for the fare. They disappeared into the night with our hopeful wishes.

The next morning started out the same as the first two mornings, bread, jelly and tea. No one missed the two absent boys. My blisters multiplied and we worked until noon, and then for lunch, we consumed our potato soup.

Just then, all hell broke loose. Two police cars with uniformed and civilian policemen arrived. A bus with two Red Cross nurses accompanied them. They told us to collect our belongings and board the bus. "We are going home," was the word, "not tomorrow, but right now." The nurses treated our blisters. I assumed they were the bites of some little critters crawling among the straw.

We found out what happened overnight. Our two scouts had boarded the train, telling the conductor that they did not have enough money for the trip, but that they had to get home. He quizzed them and got enough of the story so that he called the police and they apparently called the Gestapo. Two detectives heard the horror story and they acted immediately. A few hours later, we were home. We do not know what happened to the farmer. My parents could hardly believe the story, but my blistered legs were enough to convince them. Thus ended one of Hitler's little helper's first excursions.

In the meantime, my niece had grown a few inches and I proudly paraded Dorothea in her carriage around the neighborhood. A few weeks later, my sister arranged to have her first born baptized in a church. As much as our Führer hoped to be our only savior, he did not forbid us to worship Christ. The whole family and a great number of friends showed up for the Christening. The preacher thought it appropriate that my sister and her husband also exchange wedding vows in church, since they only had a civil ceremony about a year earlier. When the preacher, in his ceremony, acted as if the two lovebirds had not been married at all, my mother thought it to be hilarious. She started to laugh a little and to disguise the laughter she pulled her handkerchief out of her purse. The hanky had a big hole in the middle. When she stuck her finger through the hole and showed that to her sister who was sitting next to her, she too started to giggle. They tried to conceal their laughter. Later, someone mentioned that they saw Mrs. Schmidt overwhelmed by emotions in church.

Relocated for Safekeeping

Near the end of 1940, and just a little more than a year after World War II began, our government worried about potential air attacks on Berlin and the children's safety. They planned to ship all students from our high school, including many teachers, to occupied Poland for safekeeping. Another trip away from home sounded quite exciting. It was now the second time in a short period that we would be away from home, trusting that this would be a nicer experience than the last trip.

My parents had to pack clothing again, including my Hitler Youth uniform. We had to bring our school paraphernalia, while everything else, the state would supposedly supply. We had heard similar promises before, when we had gone to the farm, and our parents were concerned.

My father took me to the railroad station. When we assembled at the station, the atmosphere surrounding our evacuation changed as if we were going on a vacation. All pupils and teachers boarded the train and soon we were on our way east. A few miles short of Warsaw, the train stopped at a small town and a truck transported our class to our new home. We were housed in a converted school building and to our surprise, Polish ladies would do all the housekeeping and would cook all our meals. Our sleeping accommodations consisted of two large rooms filled with wooden double bunk-beds. The mattress consisted of an oversized gunnysack stuffed with straw resting on wooden slats, covered with a blanket. Each bed had two sheets, two blankets and a pillow.

Our first impression was very positive. Within an hour of our arrival we were served lunch, seated at a long table with approximately 36 table settings. After the large bowls of soup and plates with bread arrived, we held each other�s hands and gave thanks to our country and our Führer before eating. Two of our regular teachers joined us at the table, the only two teachers assigned to our class, as we found out later. A number of young fellows in Hitler Youth uniforms, not part of our school, were also at the table. They were about 16 to 17 years old, and were expected to be our guardians. An adult wearing a Brown Shirt Hitler uniform, sitting at one end of the long table was in charge overall.

The daily routine became a highly regimented affair, likely to prepare us for future military service. We received three meals and a fresh orange daily, served at our communal table. Making our beds correctly and inspection for cleanliness escalated slowly over the next weeks. Our dress code gradually changed into Hitler Youth uniforms.

Every weekday morning our teachers held classes. Afternoons were set aside for school homework. We occupied our evenings with communal meetings. Story telling and singing were always consistent with words about honor and Fatherland. During one of our evening meetings, I received the honor to hold our flag, the German swastika. Standing on the platform and at attention while holding the pole, I started to feel light-headed. I believe that I was close to passing out. One of our guardians must have sensed my situation and he assigned a flag holding replacement without creating an embarrassment for me.

Considering the unusual whereabouts, we enjoyed our stay in Poland reasonably well. The only fly in the ointment and making my adventure partly unpleasant rested with the attendance of Mr. Lustig, my not-so-favorite teacher. Luckily, reading and writing replaced the Latin and history classes. Furthermore, Mr. Lustig did not have his bamboo stick either. He could not understand how I could have an A+ in Mathematics and Physics, and be so lousy in Latin. My report card had his handwritten note, "Hubertus is lazy," a not too erroneous statement. I thought studying was boring.

Having a toothache one day, a nurse suggested that I see a dentist, with the nearest doctor located in Warsaw. An hour later, I was on the way to the city of Warsaw, sitting in a horse-drawn wagon next to a Polish driver. The wagon ride was a new experience for me. After a while, I motioned to the driver, indicating my desire to hold the reins. I could see the narrow leather strap attached to a bit in the horse's mouth, and I had seen the driver pulling on the reins to change the horse's direction. The dirt road had a rut, created by many wagons, requiring no steering. The horse just marched along, his tail swishing, and its head bobbing up and down. It was a pleasant experience. Two older Hitler Youth fellow-comrades came along on the trip to get supplies, while I went to the dentist. They also took care of the dentist bill.

The city of Warsaw was nothing special. Except when we drove by a long fenced-off area, one of the older fellows explained that a part of the city was a Jewish sector. I know now, what I saw was the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto. Through the wire fence, I saw an open-air market, buildings and streets, teaming with people wearing mostly black clothing. Except for the people behind the fence, everything else appeared to resemble the other parts of Warsaw. It did not stand out as something extraordinary. I had no idea that all of them would end up in concentration camps for extermination. If someone had told me so, I would not have believed it. It was only after the war that I found out some of the truth.

It was quite late by the time we got back to our quarters, but surprisingly someone had saved a dinner for me.

One sunny weekend day, during leisure time, three of us school chums wandered through the nearby village. We encountered a man wearing a yellow Star of David on his jacket. He was walking on the sidewalk, coming toward us. We also were on the sidewalk. My friend and I stepped off the sidewalk, because the sidewalk was too narrow for all of us to pass. However, our third fellow, known as the class bully, stayed on the sidewalk, deliberately walking in the middle, forcing the older man off the sidewalk. Our bully laughed at us, and made a statement like, "It�s only a Jew." My friend and I did not say anything, but I know I felt uncomfortable. My upbringing prepared me to be respectful to my elders. This bully even spoke of having this Jewish man shine his shoes. My other companion and I stopped him before it went any further. Most likely, our frequent indoctrination about the bad Jews fell on young people's ears differently. Remembering such an incident after the war, however, allowed me to believe the atrocities performed by some of my fellow comrades.

Me at age 14 in my first pair of long pants.Winter came soon enough, and we found entertainment by ice skating without skates on frozen peat bogs. The ice was black and had an eerie look. In this part of Poland, the smell of burning peat permeated the countryside. The scent was atypical, not unpleasant, but different, and once smelled, you know it was peat burning, even 50 years later. The ice was mirror smooth, so sleek that on a windy day it would propel a person without effort. Opening our jackets to simulate sails enhanced the speed and we made the most of it.

It must have been about April 1941 when we noticed a large number of German troop movements. The strange thing about it was that they all were moving in an easterly direction, and mostly at night. That indicated they were going toward Russia. Germany and Russia had a non-aggression pact in effect, after both powers had each occupied half of Poland. A couple of months later, our leaders told us we had to pack and return to Berlin. In June, the German Army invaded Russia.

I had just barely returned from Poland, when my mother insisted that I be confirmed, a customary procedure for 14-year-old Protestant boys. My mother bought a suit for me, my first pair of long pants. She thought that Confirmation would be very meaningful for me, though she herself said, when asked what she believed in, "I believe a pound of beef makes a good soup." I hated to miss two Sunday Hitler Youth meetings in order to attend two Sunday-school classes.

In the mean time, the British Royal Air Force started their night air raids, and soon our high school class would receive another surprise.

Nightly Air Raids

The British Air Force night bombing raids moved ever so closer to Berlin, causing frequent air raid warnings and interrupting our life greatly. Now, when it counted, our government had run out of safe places to send us, the future soldiers of Germany. In spite of the nearly nightly interruptions, our high school education proceeded almost normally. My parents and I, would, at the first wail of the sirens, get dressed and hurry to the bomb shelter. A basement under our apartment building with reinforced wood beams was large enough to hold a number of families and became our underground home. A steel door, when closed, protected us from the outside.

My friend Siegfried and I would sneak out as often as we could during the raids, to make sure we did not miss anything. Occasionally, we heard anti-aircraft fire. As one would assume, exploding anti-aircraft projectiles spray shrapnel in all directions. As the shrapnel fell it created a distinct sound in flight just before hitting the ground with a thud. We listened for that, and the next day we would find a few raggedy-edged pieces of metal on the sidewalk.

I began questioning the need to get up from bed when nothing dangerous or even interesting transpired during the alarms, besides a few searchlights piercing the night sky. My parents would have nothing of it. Although it appeared that our neighborhood was of no strategic importance to be bombed, since our sector was a bedroom community. We were sure that only industrial complexes would become bombing targets. An all clear signal was always welcome, allowing us to return to bed. Occasionally, more than one alarm per night would occur. The best part about returning to bed after an alert, sometimes an hour or two later, was that our feather beds were still cozily warm. Those raids surely were annoying, making us victims of the war of nerves.

My sister had her second daughter, Vera, in July of 1942. The nearly daily air raids created quite a hardship on her. Shortly after Vera�s birth, an edict by Hitler required the relocation of all pregnant women living in Berlin. At this time, with the Russian invasion proceeding well, occupied Poland became the primary region, considered a safer area for the evacuation.

Notwithstanding the hardship, our daily activities continued without much disruption, although when we had lost too much precious sleep, they curtailed our school time. For me, the air raids were just a nuisance. My mother on the other hand was always anxious, from the moment she heard the fire department vehicles drive by our home. Their alert usually proceeded the wailing of sirens.

I believe it was a night in November 1942 that the sirens sent us to the shelter again. The anti-aircraft canons were especially busy. As occurred sometimes, a projectile would not explode in the sky, but continue to fly until it hit the ground. One such dud hit the street opposite our apartment and exploded. Our wood roulades were down, and the whole bedroom window, frame and all, separated from the brick frame, and flew onto my parent's double bed. Like a miracle, not one pane of the double window was broken. It was strange that we had no evidence of shrapnel damage. I guess shock waves must have pushed the window into the room.

Meanwhile, our radio kept us up to date about the invasion of Russia. It usually started with the first notes of some classical piece of music. We would listen to hear about all the victorious advances our brave troops made. Only a few times our troops made strategic retreats. At this time, we still believed that Germany would win the war. It became tantamount to destroy the Communist empire. Eliminate Mother Russia.

The radio also informed us about some sinister effort by the British Air Force to burn Berlin to the ground. The broadcast claimed that some planes dropped incendiary devices, small items, and difficult to see. They did not reveal what these devices looked like, only that minor heat, like sunshine, could ignite them. Apparently, with the roofs of most Berlin buildings sloped severely, the enemy hoped that the devices would slide off the roof and collect in the gutter. Once in the gutter, the sunshine would warm the substance, and the roofs would start to burn. Since Berlin�s buildings are mostly about 5 to 6 stories high, fighting such fires would be very difficult. For Siegfried and I, it meant we were on constant lookout for smoking roof gutters. We saw once, in one gutter, some smoke. But it never developed into more than just a few smoke puffs.

At Christmas in 1942, my parents presented me with a pair of skis. I was able to try them out about two times, before my Führer asked that all skis be donated to the army. They needed them for the Russian Front. Good-bye skis, I thought. I tried the skis in Grunewald, the largest forest in Berlin. Going down a small hill with only one tree on the slope, I assumed that I would be safe. When I started downhill, my speed increased and sure enough, I headed straight for the tree. By a whisker, I missed the tree. On my way up the hill, I fell backwards and ended on my backside covering my skis. I felt pretty silly, laying there and not knowing what to do next. I guess a turtle on its back must feel the same way.

Supporting the war effort was my duty. But when I arrived at the collection station, they informed me that my skis were not suited for our soldiers. Naturally, I would feel uncomfortable if I had continued to use the skis, while others had donated theirs. Therefore, they remained in the basement to avoid an unpatriotic appearance.

We believed, or were made to believe, that we had to fight the evil or lose our autonomy. We gave our loyalty to our leader, without questioning his actions. Looking back now, our Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels did a marvelous job hiding the atrocities perpetrated against people they called enemies. Mr. Goebbels also convinced us that upon successful conclusion of the war, we would have corrected the harm done to us by the Versailles Treaty after World War I and we would live happily ever after.

Hitler's Little Helpers

On July 15, 1943, our patriotism was tested. Changes to come would alter our family life again. The government informed my parents that our high school class, 24 boys, had all "volunteered" to help the German Air Force as anti-aircraft helpers.

My Luftwaffe helper ID.Fifteen or sixteen-year-old youngsters had to augment military personnel on a 105-mm anti-aircraft battery, known as Flak. The assigned battery was located in the northern part of Berlin, not far from our homes. We now could help in protecting our homes. The battery consisted of four guns, one radar unit, and some oversized binoculars with a built-in computer. We would wear Air Force blue uniforms with a swastika armband, indicating that we were Hitler Youths and not soldiers. We were Hitler�s little helpers.

Assurance was given to my parents that we would only have light duty. This time we did not have to bring any extra clothing, only toiletries and our schoolbooks. We all gathered at the schoolyard where a bus was ready to transport us to the anti-aircraft battery. Two drafted schoolteachers, one had to be Herr Lustig, were assigned to continue our education at the battery. It seemed like it was my destiny to have to live with this teacher. As it turned out however, Latin and history courses were on the backburner, creating a more satisfactory situation. Either he mellowed or my knowledge of the subjects was more to his liking. The schedule called for only one hour of Latin per week and I was able to handle the few Latin words much better. Fortunately, he did not have his cane with him, which alone relieved my anxiety.

Once we arrived at the battery, everything moved right along in military fashion. First, I found out that the battery had three soldiers already with the surname Schmidt, producing an identity problem. Therefore, I became "Schmidt number four." I had to endure "Schmidt 4 reporting" for one and a half years. Having two sergeants (non commissioned officers) assigned to us, gave us our first taste of "I�m in the Army now." At 15, my pint-sized stature and my soprano voice did not reflect to be that of a fighting man. They issued all necessary clothing, from skin out to the overcoat, including a helmet and gas mask. Carrying the new clothes, the NCO herded us to our assigned rooms. Our barracks were wooden structures with rooms accommodating two sets of double bunk-beds; a small table, four chairs, four footlockers and a small pantry. The pantry stored our food for breakfast and evening meals. A lamp over the table allowed us to read and study any school assignments given.

Shortly after we had moved in, a sergeant entered our room, insisting we had a girl in our room. Only when I spoke up to deny it, was he satisfied. "Oh, you" was his response and he left. That "girl" episode naturally made the rounds for good laughs, except I was not laughing.

Our parents received permission to visit us every other Sunday. Mother packed up cookies and marmalade, and father would visit and bring the goodies. Every day we received one main hot meal and one half a loaf of bread for the evening meal and breakfast. Varied cold cuts, cheese, butter and some marmalade would accompany the bread. We took turns obtaining liquid refreshments from the canteen. Occasionally, we received milk, however tea was the norm.

We had to keep a neat footlocker, and make our bed so that a coin bounced on the blanket when dropped on the bed. The beds were sacks stuffed with straw, supported on wooden slats. We received two blankets, two white bed sheets and a pillow with case. The bed sheet had to show 25 centimeters, folded over at the head end and topped with the pillow. The rules we had to follow were quite extensive.

Our young lives would receive more culture shock. They expected us to shower once a day. Can you imagine, after having to take a bath just once a week, now we had to do it daily. That is not all, a sergeant would actually check to see if you were clean. He seemed to have a foot fetish. He would rub his thumb against the back of the foot, as if he was checking for an Achilles heel. If he found stuff, it meant back to the showers. The rooms had to be clean. I mean clean. He would come in the room with white gloves and ask, "Where do you guys want me to find dust?" He would always find a place where we did not clean. Quite frustrating, but talking back, or making an inappropriate comment, resulted in an instant, "hit the dirt and give me twenty, with applause." That required twenty push-ups with intermittent hand clapping while in the upper position. My big mouth, called Berliner Schnauze (Schnauze is German for a pigs snout) kept me busy doing push-ups.

A point of order: our superiors could not physically punish us by touching us. Should the sergeant, for instance, wanted to straighten your belt, the sergeant had to ask, "May I touch you?" "Yes sir!" Only then, could he straighten your belt.

Our first duty as helpers was digging ditches, or trenches. Had I known how handy those trenches would become, I would have felt better while nursing the blisters on my hands. Our training consisted of marching, proper use of the gas masks, and then finally airplane recognition instructions. Detailed instruction on the function and use of the optics and guns was yet to come. Our duty would eventually be the same as the duty of a full-fledged Flak soldier. (Flak is the abbreviation for Flugzeugabwehrkanone or translated it means "anti-aircraft gun"). It was apparent that our leaders planned to replace all Flak soldiers with helpers, except activity requiring physical strength. For instance, one round for a 105-mm anti-aircraft gun weighs about 75 lbs.

My high-pitched voice created another problem. Our microphone attached around the neck and it picked up our throat vibration. The receiving end had a tough time understanding me, responding with words such as, "Get the girl off the line." A special throat mike and some training on how to place the mike fixed the problem.

Apparently, my good eyesight made me a candidate for the optical instrument. War soon became reality. I had to fight for my Fatherland. I truly was to become Hitler�s little helper.

Training as an active anti-aircraft helper began in earnest and my assignment to the optical instrument became official. At first, we had to learn airplane recognition by identifying silhouettes printed on posters. That included British, American and German airplanes. Next, they explained the basic functions of the optical instrument and how this instrument interfaced with the guns and with the radar. The training was quite extensive and I considered myself prepared for the real thing. I was ready to operate the optics.

Theory then gave way to hands-on training. This was fun, although at times it was humiliating. We were not quite as good as we thought we were. Our first objective was to see the target. Then two of us helpers would each turn a hand wheel to move the optics. While looking over the sight, we would try to bring the glasses in line with the target. As soon as the center operator could see the target in his glasses, we, the two helpers, would also look into our glasses and then adjust the speed of the movement so that it became a smooth rotating motion. We had to accomplish this in the shortest possible time. Our commander, Herr Oberleutnant Lachmund, would constantly time our action, and he was not easily satisfied.

After hours and hours of training we were getting pretty good, I thought. However, it would be an eternity before I would see any real action.

In the meantime, the night air-raids on Berlin by the British bombers became more frequent. We, the young helpers, were made available as volunteer firemen since we still had no official assignment at the battery.

When the air-raid sirens howled, our orders were to enter the trenches, the ones I had helped to excavate. From this so-called secure place, we could observe the bombing. In many instances, a lead plane would drop flares over the planned target area. When these flares descended, they formed a shape similar to a big Christmas tree with all its candles lit. It looked pretty, while at the same time creating an eerie reflection on the cloud cover. That Christmas tree apparently provided the signal for the bombers to drop their load into this illuminated zone. Watching from afar made it seem more like a show rather than the tragedy it was for the people under the Christmas tree. We could see and faintly hear the bombs exploding, knowing that maybe someone we knew was under that blanket of bombs.

One time, some incendiary bombs fell on a nearby group of apartment buildings, providing our initiation as firemen. The buildings were five stories high and the upper floors were on fire. We rushed to the buildings, carrying two buckets with water and a hand pump attached to a garden hose. After we went up to stop a raging fire on the fifth floor we quickly realized the futility of our efforts. The whole building complex inevitably burned to the ground, leaving only the ghostlike outer walls standing.

The following nights, we observed several Christmas tree bombings, fortunately always at some distance, without any danger to us, until the night of September 3, 1943.

The night started out as usual. As expected, the sirens wailed and we meandered to the trenches. We saw many searchlights and it became apparent that German fighter planes were in the sky. As we had learned already, when fighters were busy, the guns would be silent within a certain ceiling.

We had just arrived at the trenches when I heard the roar of a great number of airplane engines. They appeared to be closer than I ever had heard before. Sure enough, what we always feared now happened. Directly above us, the sky lit up, certain to be a Christmas tree. Although it looked completely different when it was right straight up, but we knew what would take place next, and we did not have to wait long. Apprehension set in and we jumped into the trench. The noise of falling bombs, a wail, unlike we experienced before, was all around us. We crouched in the trench, as low as we could. I had a comrade on both sides close to me, their heads resting on my thighs. I had my arms over their backs and holding on. The sounds of exploding bombs became deafening, while sand crumbled down the trench walls. We knew the bombs had exploded close, very close, and the only comfort to me was actually hearing the bombs explode. Hearing them meant we were still alive, and not even noticing that considerable dirt had partially covered us.

We were just about to breathe easy when a sergeant appeared at the edge of the trench and ordered us to inspect the barracks for incendiary bomb damage and to extinguish any fires. Moments later, we could hear the roar of more airplanes. Apparently, we had experienced only the first wave of bombs. Nevertheless, orders are orders, and we proceeded to the barracks to inspect for fires. We found out in a hurry what he meant. The incoming bombs included not only concussion bombs, but were linked with bombs designed to start fires. These incendiary bombs, when released in large clusters, would separate and expand on their way down, covering almost a whole street block by the time they reached the ground. The incendiary bombs were about three foot-long hexagon sticks.

We had not even reached the barracks when we heard the sound of more falling bombs. This time we were not in a trench, but in the open carrying shovel and axes. The noise of falling incendiary bombs was entirely different from the sound of concussion bombs. The fire sticks would not explode on impact, but they would burst open, exposing the contents to oxygen which created immediate combustion. Now we had to protect ourselves from two types of bombs. When we heard the sticks come down, we stood upright to provide the least target area. When the incoming concussion bomb howled, we determined which direction it might hit, then fell against any handy embankment for some protection from that direction. At times we could hear both sounds and had to choose. The concussion bombs got the greatest attention.

Our barracks received considerable damage. Ceilings and some walls were down. An incendiary stick, hitting soft sand, would not always burst open and ignite. Our problem, however, was when a stick hit the barracks it pierced the roof and in most occurrences penetrated the wooden floor. The stick was doing its job under the floor, burning. Darkness helped us find a burning stick under the floor. With an ax, we quickly expanded the hole, allowing us to pour sand over the bomb. Each room had a number of sand buckets sitting against the wall. Cutting off the oxygen to the incendiary stopped the burning, but not always prevented an explosion. Removing the sand renewed access to oxygen and the burning continued. Some of the sticks had a delayed explosive device at the end, helping to spread the flammable material again. Nasty things in a nasty war.

Amazingly, we had no serious injuries among our troops. One of the fire sticks came hauling down very close to one of our helpers, so close that it nicked the front edge of his steel helmet and penetrated the ground in front of his feet. The rim of the helmet broke his nose but the stick remained inactive in the sand. One sergeant, from our orderly room, who should have known better, panicked when an incendiary stick hit some steps leading to the command center, located under the optical instrument. He took a bucket of water and poured it onto the burning bomb. The response was fireworks. He received some minor burns, luckily nothing serious. Others used sand to smother the flames.

We had survived the first direct air attack. But getting our quarters back into living condition was not an easy task. The barracks ceiling had glass wool insulation and we handled it with our bare hands. The result was uncomfortable skin irritations, here and there, especially there. After straightening a few barracks walls and placing cardboard over broken windows, we inspected our room for damage. More glass wool, and right on top of the upper bunk beds. Window panes were scattered around the entire room. It took us the rest of the night to cover the windows and clean the room. Our little pantries had spilled their contents all around our room, mixed with glass from the broken windows. In short, it was a mess. The next morning we received extra rations, and they canceled school for the day. Our guns and instruments were undamaged, and reducing our training time gave us extra time for sleep.

Following that night of bombing, we soon normalized our activities. The training on the optical instrument continued, with training completion scheduled for Christmas. The optics had five helpers assigned, while each gun received four helpers, with a couple of helpers as standbys or plane spotters. The training progressed well and we now had to report to the guns and the optics every time we had an alert. We experienced something new. One hardly noticed falling bombs when one is busy. Older soldiers manned all positions on the guns and the optics, while we helpers waited in the wings, like understudies, soon to replace them.

Between air raids, events proceeded like normal military life, easily mastered, except one function was hard to get used to. We had no flush toilets, only a six-hole latrine. Not only did the smell bother us, but also the loss of privacy was difficult to accept. Taking care of our uniforms created a few new experiences. We learned that carefully placing dampened pants under the straw mattress and sleeping on them created a nice crease in our pants. The most difficult part in making the bed with a straw mattress was to create a smooth looking blanket. Daily inspection of our rooms by a sergeant kept us on our toes. Speaking of toes, our hobnailed boots had to be spit-shined and all nails in each sole fully accounted for. A missing nail left a hole in the sole. Before replacing the nail, we inserted a matchstick into the empty hole. Even today, I have flashback memories about those nails whenever I play golf. Walking on concrete cart-paths on a golf course with steel spikes protruding from the golf shoes creates a similar sound. It is hard to explain, but somehow, when we as a unit of soldiers marched down the street, the sound of boots created a feeling of belonging.

Our chow, such as the main dinner, consisted mostly of a one-dish meal, served around one o'clock in the afternoon. In the evening, each of us would get a half loaf of farmer's bread, some cheese, butter, and sausages. That ration was not only for the evening meal but also for breakfast. Hot beverages were available mornings and afternoons.

Our optical instrument, the heart of our battery, was comprised of two main parts. The base had 360 degrees of rotational freedom and housed the computer. The computer, an intricacy of wheels, gears, and planetary gadgets, was not very different from what we call now a Rube Goldberg machine. That computer calculated the advance required for the gun and calculated the time needed for the projectile to explode, once it left the gun. The input to the computer came from the optics mounted on top of the computer. The optics looked like a 10-foot-long cylinder with four 32-power prism glasses attached perpendicular to the cylinder. Three of us operators standing elbow to elbow would focus on a selected target. Turning a wheel moved the instrument. It required a very smooth rotation of the wheel to allow the proper determination of the flight path of the target airplane. Once the flight path was calculated, the computer then converted this data and sent the signal to the guns. Each operator had only one wheel with a handle. The handle had a built-in switch. This switch, when activated, allowed rapid movement of the optics, until we had the targeted airplane captured. The rapid movement of the optics was necessary when the target was moving straight overhead, requiring a 180-degree rotation. The operator had to shout, "Heads!" before turning. More than once, "Heads," when ignored, resulted in a collision of the instrument with somebody's head, hopefully a helmeted head. The operator in the middle, responsible for adjusting the instrument for distance, would speak up when he sighted the target. Then the other two operators would disengage the switch to create the slow operating mode. Once the targeted airplane was in the crosshair, only slight adjustments were required to keep up with changes required.

The commander used the fourth pair of glasses to observe the target and to determine our proficiency. The gun operators would follow the input data from the computer, and point the gun to the target with its calculated advance. My training focused on operating the height or side control in this very smooth mode, while keeping the target's nose in the cross hair.

During the next three months, we had no more than four or five occasions to see any target, since all bombing raids happened at night. When we did see an airplane, the searchlights illuminated it. However, the optical instrument still played an important part for the operation of firing the guns towards a target, even when we did not see anything. The computer in our unit received electronic data from the radar instrument. We, all three positions, would copy the movement of the radar unit; the computer then converted this data and sent it to the guns. The guns when operating properly fired a salvo every five seconds. A perfect salvo required all four guns to fire at the same time, an infrequent occasion.

By Christmas, we had received credit for assisting in shooting down two planes, but it did not stop the night air raids over Berlin. Our radar was out of commission for a few days when the British lead plane dropped aluminum foil in strips creating severe radar interference.

About one month after my 16th birthday, we received some important news. Our entire battery, guns, optics and radar were about to relocate. Apparently, the plan was to transfer the whole battery, kit and caboodle to an out-of-town secret location.

We packed our belongings. The guns, radar and optics were loaded onto trucks and departed. All boys, except one from our class, were on the transfer list. The comrade to stay behind was what we would call today a nerd. He was the smartest in the entire class. He was a bookworm. We believed that the commander had made the right decision to leave him behind. We received two days vacation to say goodbye to our parents, with orders to report in three days to a nearby railroad station.

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