The History Place - Personal Histories

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

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. Hitler´┐Żs 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.

Me and a comrade at our FLAK gun.One 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 90-degree turn.

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 remark.

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 it said.

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 Allied troops.

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 store.

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.

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