What It Was Like to Serve on in the German Army on the Eastern Front
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After serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army air defense artillery in the early 1970s, Ward Carr decided to stay in Germany and live in Frankfurt. He has worked as a language trainer, freelance journalist and translator. In 2001, Carr and a German colleague began to write a book with the crew of the famous battleship Bismarck. Carr, in search of survivors and family members of Bismarck sailors, often encountered veterans or family members of veterans who had served with the German armed forces during World War II. Although they may not have been associated with Bismarck, many of their stories have been fascinating.
In the course of his research, Carr placed an advertisement in a national veteran magazine. Joachim Benz was one of those who answered. Over a period of several years, the two often communicated by phone and visited each other. Benz contributed oral passages, comments and photographs for publications, and in 2003 a German-language book of his memoirs was published.
The photos in this article were all taken by Joachim Benz with a Kodak junior camera that he had received as a confirmation gift.
As a student at the Virginia Military Institute in the 1960s, Carr had learned German from Peter Fyfe. The two renewed their acquaintance in the 1990s and Fyfe contributed his translation skills to numerous projects, including the interview with Benz, which formed the basis for this article.
Benz tells an interesting story of the battle with an air force field division. After the war he worked on a farm for two years before opening a grocery and deli in Bad Arolsen, Hesse. He often met with friends from his former anti-aircraft regiment, many of whom were prisoners of war in the United States after being captured by the African Corps. Although he has tried repeatedly, he has never been able to contact anyone from the 3rd or 4th Air Force Field Division.
The story of Joachim Benz in his own word
On the Eastern Front
I was born in Hamburg on November 13, 1922. I had a happy childhood with my older brother and two sisters. I was not very enthusiastic about it [the Hitler Youth]. I preferred to play football or go to the cinema. Once a policeman and the Hitler Youth leader picked me up because I hadn't reported that I should drill.
In November 1940 I was called to the colors in Hamburg. Then I was drafted into the RAD (National Labor Service) on February 2, 1941. Our basic training took place in Cammin / Ticino, Mecklenburg, and then we were sent to a small village in Poland about 50 kilometers east of Warsaw. It was right on the line of demarcation [between Germany and the Soviet Union]. We built an ammunition depot for bombs and built roads to the depot. At the beginning of June 1941 we were transferred to Lyck in East Prussia, where they armed and trained us with old French rifles. Since these rifles were very long, the 4th train got Dutch carbines, which were very imprecise because they were so short!
Later in Russia we exchanged these useless weapons for captured Russian weapons. The Russian carabiners were similar to our 98K, but had no safety locks. A Russian machine gun was also issued to every train. They were extremely heavy and we called them "The Gramophone" because the magazine was round, lay flat on the barrel and turned.
Immediately after the war with Russia broke out, we were deployed to guard a forward airfield east of Vilnius [Lithuania]. After Minsk's fall we were relocated to where we had nice quarters in a large, multi-story building of a former uniform factory. We were assigned to guard captured material and an airfield. Our unit was assigned to the Air Force Central Command. Material of German origin was found under the captured prey. The uniform production facility was equipped with German Singer sewing machines. At the Russian airport, we found fresh BMW aircraft engines with rear-wheel drive in the original packaging. There was a German grand piano in a room of the uniform factory. We used this room as a cinema to show films, a very welcome change for us. I should also mention the magnificent opera house in Minsk, which was richly decorated with marble. There were many other large, magnificent buildings on Leninplatz.
The winter of 1941 came very early; On October 6th we had the first snow and our equipment was not suitable for this climate. In mid-December we were brought back to a city in Mecklenburg by train and released from the RAD two days before Christmas.
The service at RAD was actually pretty good. We were all the same age and almost everyone knew each other from school, the Hitler Youth or from sports clubs. However, our guides were not the choice of the litter. Our commander was a gnome, and not just physically. He was an extremely corrupt man and diverted some of our rations. Whenever he was annoyed with us, he didn't greet us at the morning formation and said we weren't worth being greeted with the leader's name!
On January 15, 1942, after a four-week vacation, we were inducted into the headquarters battery of the Reserve Antiaircraft Division 62 in Oldenburg. Here we met almost all of our old friends from RAD again. We were a bunch of old Russian rabbits, which you couldn't say about our coaches. After a test that I passed with the help of my friends from RAD, we were all trained as radio operators. I was actually a bad signal man. I was okay up to a certain speed. After that I couldn't distinguish the dots from the lines. You had to have a pretty good musical ear and I didn't.
After basic training, we were appointed to Air Force Communications School 5 in Erfurt. After eight weeks, we passed our radio operator's exam and went back to the reallocation center. Unfortunately our old group was dissolved. I was sent to Rostock and assigned as a radio operator to the 88's heavy anti-aircraft battery. We protected Heinkel Airfield, where the new jet fighter was tested in August 1942.
Reallocation to the Mediterranean
In October 1942, our unit, the 9th Air Defense Regiment (motorized), was assigned to the Africa Corps. At that point, however, I was in hospital with severe pleurisy. After my release and relaxing vacation, I reported to the air defense department in Rosenheim to rejoin my unit, which was already fighting in Africa. But I only came to Caserta / Naples in Italy. It turns out that my friends who made it to North Africa later had a major war as prisoners of war in the United States. You could go to class there and so on.
It had gotten so bad because of Stalingrad that the Air Force had to deploy its ground divisions to support the army. So I was transferred to the Luftwaffe Ground Division at the end of January 1943 and went from Italy to the Münsterlager reassignment center in northern Germany. [Münsterlager was a reception, troop distribution and training center. It also served as a reception center for German prisoners of war who returned home after the war.] This reassignment was a real shock as it returned to Russia. It was like spring in Italy - over 60 degrees. It was zero in Russia.
Our divisional commander was Lieutenant General [Robert] Pistorius. I didn't know him personally, but on the other hand, I never saw a general at the front. He signed the certificate for my Iron Cross, 2nd class. He later assumed overall command when the 3rd and 4th field divisions were merged in 1944. He later fell into the Vitebsk pocket.
Our regimental commander, Colonel Windesch, whom I knew personally, was an extremely courageous and upright superior. Forester by profession, he was an older, fatherly figure. He often visited the line of fire and the front watchers in front of the door. Once during a visit to the weapons storage facility, he asked me if the rations were satisfactory. I said no. He was amazed when he found out that as a soldier under the age of 21 I should get the extra rations. I told him that our battery commander said he had given these "kids" rations to everyone. The colonel made sure that the additional rations were distributed directly to the beneficiaries. A short time later, my battery commander rewarded me for this by lending him to the front observation posts from the gun emplacements.
Our battalion commander was Major Meyerkort, who had been an importer of tropical fruits in Hamburg before the war. He was a beloved leader among us soldiers with a lot of courage. He was wearing a leather uniform without a badge of rank, which is why we called him "leather stockings". Major Meyerkort often visited us at our forward watch post. He also inquired regularly about our wishes and concerns. Major Meyerkort fell into the hands of the Russians in June 1944 and died of dysentery in Baku. It is interesting that the major had a Russian mother and was born in Baku and spoke Russian. His imprisonment in Baku was certainly not an accident, and I therefore doubt that he really died of dysentery there!
We had several battery commanders in a short time, and all of them seemed to have only one thing in mind: to be transferred to Germany or France as quickly as possible. Number one was Lieutenant Sauer. He was our commander for about five months; then he was probably transferred home. I was with him at the battery headquarters for several weeks and we often played chess together. After I hit him once, he stopped playing me. He was really a very vain man. Number two was a 1st Lieutenant Werner. I think he came from Hamburg. We played football together twice in battery 11. He was also transferred after a short time, probably back home. Number three was 1st Lieutenant Lohse. He was probably lost with the battery in June 1944. We have hardly ever seen these three gentlemen in the front observer positions.
Our other officers were 2nd Lieutenant Müller, deputy battery commander, and 2nd Lieutenant Streib, a law student from Saarland. Our train driver was Master Sergeant Hermann. We had a private man, Gerhard Schubert, whose father was a general. Gerhard was later killed in action.
Disadvantage in equipment
When we arrived at the reallocation center in Münsterlager in early February 1943, we were taking a three-week orientation course as artillery men. My new unit was now the 5th battery, the 2nd battalion and the 3rd artillery regiment.
I was assigned to the calculation area as a tab. The head of the department was Corporal Setz, a teacher from Austria. We should use log tables to calculate the weather and other influences four times a day. We received the figures for the evaluation four times a day from the weather office. Our battery was equipped with four 75 mm parts. These weapons were captured from the First World War as French spoils of war. The date "1916" was engraved on the barrels. Since we were a motorized unit, the gun barrel was mounted on a 50mm anti-tank gun. The 50mm anti-tank gun had been taken out of service in Russia because its projectiles were unable to penetrate the Russian T-34 tank. We called the 50mm anti-tank gun "door knocker". The car wasn't very useful either.
The 75 mm cannon had a range of about 12 kilometers. If we shot over nine kilometers, we had to be careful not to break the crossbar, because the recoil at this height was directly on the weak crossbar. The alternative was to dig a hole under the back of the car. From the beginning we were clearly at a disadvantage with this weapon and with all our equipment.
"Direct hit! Take cover!"
In mid-February our convoy went to Russia. After a seven-day trip through East Prussia and Lithuania, we reached Newel. Then we were unloaded and headed east to our assigned position through bitter cold and a blizzard. We soon found that our equipment was unsuitable. The streets were as smooth as glass and the tractors were completely worthless. The iron tracks slid on the slick streets. The screws on the treads loosened and the tractors remained on the road without treads. Our “Lanz” tractor, which was supposed to help us in difficult situations, was also useless. It had iron wheels and couldn't stick to the streets. We had to leave these brand new tractors in the trenches. It was only thanks to our four-wheel drive trucks from Opel, which performed excellently in all weather conditions, that we were able to reach our destination south of Welicke-Luki.
We had just arrived at the front when the weapons were immediately positioned and aimed and we had to start shooting. The Russians greeted our forward observers through a megaphone and said: "You half-trained Air Force soldiers straight from the repo depot of the Münster camp, we will whip your asses in no time!" This showed how well Ivan was informed!
Our computer department was in a farmhouse just a few meters behind the cannons. During the first volley, the window pane on our chart table blew out, and the battery commander lay on the floor and shouted: “Direct hit! Then we found that the damage was caused by the reverberation of our own weapons' recoil. After a few days, our battery was reloaded east of Newel, about 10 kilometers from Uswaty. We were on the line of fire near the village. We were there for half a year.
First, we supported troops that were housed in "Finnish huts", large round structures made of plywood. About 20 people could live in these things. Since the Russians spotted us quickly, we soon received disruptive fire from a 172mm battery. The shard from the grenades penetrated one of our cabins, but thankfully there were no victims.
We called the 172mm cannons "black sows" because the grenades formed a large black cloud when they exploded. Another Russian artillery piece was the 76 mm cannon, which we called the "creaking bang". Because of its high muzzle velocity, you heard the sound of the explosion before the sound of the shot. This extremely effective weapon was developed by Krupp in Germany. Army artillery experts had rejected this weapon because the muzzle velocity was too high and the cannons were therefore sold to Russia.
At the end of March 1943 we revised the artillery position in order to be able to defend it in all directions. Each weapon force and the battery headquarters were given individual bunkers. Building bunkers at this time of the year was very difficult because the ground was frozen solid. We often had to blow up and because of the lack of suitable explosives, we used mines. There was a trench around the entire artillery position with a 15mm anti-aircraft machine gun position that was supposed to protect us from all sides. At that time the front was extremely quiet. Only the partisans made themselves harmful behind the lines.
The propaganda war
Now we had the time to learn more about our weapons and equipment. We also shot in our restricted areas. Apart from reconnaissance flights, air activity on both sides was minimal. The Russians tried to reconstruct our lines with a captured balloon until one of our fighters shot it down. Once we saw Russian fighters shooting down a two-body German Focke-Wulf reconnaissance plane. The very next day, a communiqué from the German army announced: "Yesterday, the X number of Russian aircraft was shot down without loss for us!"
At the top of the front, Ivan used megaphones to announce almost every day, "Stalingrad is a mass grave," or he invited us into the desert. "German soldiers - desert! The most beautiful women in Leningrad await you. You will have regular sex. Bring two measuring kits, one for pudding. “I don't know a single German deserter, but the Russians have often left us. These announcements were made by Seydlitzers, members of the National Committee for a Free Germany, Stalingrad prisoner.
[Lieutenant General Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach, captured in Stalingrad, together with several other officers formed the Association of German Officers and the National Committee for a Free Germany. In contrast to Hitler's war management, they hoped to gain some influence on the Soviets for Germany after the expected defeat. The organizations have launched and supported propaganda efforts to persuade German soldiers to surrender to the Soviets.]
A calm front
In the middle of 1943 I became a forward observer. Our arithmetic unit was broken, so I lost my convenient position as a calculator. They found that taking unusual and climatic factors into account is unnecessary for light artillery. I was assigned to the forward watchers because our forward watchers, despite the general calm at the front, had suffered serious losses from Russian snipers. The artillery position occasionally had to provide a weapon to fight the partisans. We also had losses here. So-called "sewing machines", old Russian biplanes, flew over us almost every night and threw rations and ammunition at the partisans, especially in the reverse region.
The supply was difficult due to the partisan activity. Many supplies were lost - mail, food and ammunition. Only when our supply trucks drove in convoys that were protected by armored reconnaissance vehicles did the supply situation improve. Since the summer of 1943 was very nice and the front was calm, we built a soccer field and planned games against other batteries. The area around Uswaty was very flat. We could see a big white house through our artillery rangefinder - maybe it was a palace. And there was a lake in front of Uswaty.
During the breaks, action and theater came close to the lines, so the boys had a little distraction. There was a barn that they used for these performances. Each unit could release a certain number of men to take part in these performances. Of course, the positions had to be ready to fight at all times. The Russians quickly learned about these shows and shot us with a 172mm cannon during a performance. We immediately ran out of the barn and took cover so there were no victims. The grenades hit right next to the barn. A dancer became hysterical, and our doctor, famous for his rough manner, treated the poor girl with a slap in the face and the words: "Get behind the barn and piss yourself dry!"
An attack on Christmas Eve
In the fall, the front became livelier. The Russians made major breakthroughs to the left and right of our sector, so at the end of October we had to give up our beautifully built position without direct contact with the enemy. The time to raise the front began. New fronts had nice names like Panther, Tiger or Bear Position. But now these positions were just strengths. There were no firm, unbroken front lines anymore. In addition, these bases were sparsely populated. The enemy could attack us from all sides.
Shortly before Christmas 1943, we commented east of the Vitebsk-Nevel road. The Russians attacked on Christmas Eve. It was very cold and an icy blizzard was raging. Ivan broke through to the left and right of our position and our battery was instructed to give up its position as soon as possible and return to our new lines so as not to be cut off.
We were looking forward to a nice Christmas evening in a warm bunker! We hurriedly loaded our equipment, the range finder, the radio equipment, and the machine gun onto our snowmobile, which looked like a small boat, and raced westward. Around midnight the four of us sat under the open sky and sang the Christmas carol "O du Froehliche ...!". We reached our lines on Christmas Day and - what a miracle - we even got a bunker that we shared with six infantrymen. We artillery watchers were very welcome guests because we all had our Tommy guns and a 15mm machine gun. We also had hand grenades and armor-piercing anti-tank grenades. We should hold this position - I think it was called the Panther position - at all costs because it protected the Nevel-Gorodok-Vitebsk road.
Push back Russian attacks
At the beginning of January 1944, the Russians attacked almost every day without any significant success. Our battery and forward observer line was moved northeast of Vitebsk in the bend of the Dvina. Our front observation post was on a bare hill, an ideal place for defense. The hill was about six meters high and very steep, hardly accessible for tanks. The limestone was so hard that our trenches were only one and a half meters deep.
During the day we could only move in them, almost bent over. The enemy positions were only 150 meters away, and the Russian snipers were pretty darn good; Three men were killed in a few days. We used mirrors in the trenches to see what was going on. If you put a helmet on a pole and put it in sight - pow - a Russian sniper would poke a hole in minutes. The duty was tough because such an observation post only had a crew of four, and since we had double guards at night, we had to keep watch every two hours. It was better during the day because we only guard one security guard at a time, so you only had to be absent every six hours. Several attempts by the Russians to storm our position failed. We kept up with our forward observers with the help of 10 infantrymen. On April 4, 1944, a Russian shock troop unit succeeded in entering our position. Of course it was when I was there alone!
However, I was able to fend off the Russian attack with hand grenades and a light machine gun. The infantrymen of a Brandenburg unit and my three comrades struggled through and got me out. An accurate fire from our battery caused additional heavy losses to the Russians. In our position alone, three men were killed. We all received the Second Class Iron Cross and received a day of close combat in our records. Our battalion commander, Major Meyerkort, visited us a few days later and gave us a large bottle of vodka and cigarettes. In general, vodka played an important role at that time. We were given a cup of vodka with a quarter liter of schnapps every day. The rations were better this winter when the supplies reached us. One of the infantryman was a hairdresser from the same city in Brandenburg as my father and actually knew him. A little world.
Iron cross training
I remember seeing the Stuka pilot pack at work. [Hans Rudel, a colonel in the Luftwaffe, was the most decorated soldier of the Third Reich. He piloted a Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber and flew 2,530 missions during the war and destroyed 532 tanks. In September 1941, he sank a cruiser and the battleship Marat.] Whenever it got tight, we called for the Stukas because we couldn't stop the Russian tanks with our 75s. They were too well armored. We could use a special armor piercing charge placed on the muzzle, but they weren't accurate. So we called for the Stukas.
Rudel approached the tanks from behind because the armor is weakest there and is located above the engine. Then he blew them up with the cannons. Since Stukas were very slow, he was always protected by two ME-109 [fighter planes]. It was always a great relief for us to see the plane with long cannon barrels protruding from the approaching wings. The cannons looked like broomsticks.
Another thing I remember are the flags - candidate candidates - on the front. You had to spend some time in a combat zone. We called it "Iron Cross Training". Since the Russians were always shooting at us or sending out raid patrols, the flags had to come to us to make contact with the enemy. If they went through an attack, they were given an iron cross and could go back to any school or course they attended.
Once there was a raid and a midshipman was with us. He wanted to report the action to the colonel, but he was so excited and nervous that the colonel simply said, "Just give me Private Benz." And I made the report; It was nothing new to us.
R&R in Hamburg
At the end of January I got three weeks of R&R. It was a difficult and dangerous journey through the back area, and many soldiers died on the way home. The partisans bombarded the railroad lines with gunfire and explosives. There were wrecked cars up and down the rails. Our train was protected by a 20mm cannon and several machine guns. We were happy when we reached the border at Wirballen, where we were de-louse and got a "Führer’s Food Pack". [This was a special package given to front-line soldiers for their home leave. It contained items such as butter or margarine, sugar, coffee, chocolate, etc. that were almost impossible to get for ordinary people.]
I was hoping for a new uniform because mine was torn and really dirty and my underwear hadn't been washed in four months. But because the Air Force's ground division was now under the command of the Army, neither the Air Force nor the Army felt responsible for me. So they let me go back to Hamburg in this condition. My parents had been bombed in Hamburg and I had no clothes back there. It was only thanks to my clever sister that I was able to spend my vacation in a clean uniform. She got me the new uniform and underwear in an anti-aircraft personnel shop. I had a wonderful vacation in Hamburg. My family was housed in a Hitler youth home. But I was angry about the destruction of my hometown.
A forward observer course
Back at the front we were still in our old position on the Dvina northeast of Vitebsk. At the gates of the city, the train was bombarded by Russian artillery from both sides. The Vitebsk corridor was getting narrower and it would only be a matter of time before the Russians closed the trap. When I arrived, I didn't hear any happy news. We had suffered significant losses, particularly in the forward observation items. Since we could no longer count on reinforcements from home, we started to bleed to death. The third and fourth ground divisions of the Air Force had meanwhile been merged and were now referred to as the fourth ground division of the Air Force. General Pistorius was in command.
The old routine started again - the occupation of the station at our front observation post. The Russians always had new ideas to make life difficult for us.
It was April 1944 and the Dwina was still high at that time of the year. I had just come on duty one day when a fairly large, unmanned barge was floating down the river. I started shooting at it with the machine gun when it passed our position, but I couldn't damage it. So I reported it to our battery commander and he ordered a gun on the Dvina that was being positioned. When the barge reached the cannon, it was shot at. It exploded after a direct hit. It had been loaded with explosives and was supposed to blow up the Dvina bridge in Vitebsk. An artillery man was wounded by the massive explosion.
Russian awareness-raising activities increased in May. It was clear that Ivan was planning an attack. Although we were able to observe Russian activities, we were not allowed to shoot. We had to save our ammunition. Our vulnerable position worried us because the Russians would quickly tie the noose around Vitebsk in an attack. I was overjoyed when I received the order at the end of May to take part in the forward artillery observation course in Lepel.
This order didn't make sense to me. They officially wanted to make me a forward observer. But I had been artillery fire for several months as a deputy observer, and especially when our forward observer, Corporal Ditmann, had been killed. But it turned out that these absurd orders saved my life.
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