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
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.
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 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
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.
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
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
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
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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