History is precious, when passed-on from one generation to the next. Subjective and tainted as it may be, sometimes false in detail, it gives a taste of what had happened. Here I'm placing my father's war memories in the context of 'established' history. This way, the balance of what was, and how it felt might be preserved.
My father (holding a baby), Italy 1943/1944, probably Colleferro, south of Rome. (c)Photo Franz L Kessler
1.Childhood, and Years before the war
My father Erwin Kessler was born on May 17th, 1917, during the fourth year of WW I, near Passau, in Lower Bavaria, Germany. He grew up in relative ease - Grandpa earned a stable income as a governmental construction engineer, and Grandma’s family owning farmland and granite quarries in the area.
They were five brothers and sisters. Dad was the eldest, followed by his brothers Rainer, Franz-Philipp, his sister Liselotte, and Gerhard, the youngest. Grandpa was a highly respected man in Passau. Having designed many railway bridges in pre-WWI Ottoman Turkey, he was an authority on underground construction. Also known as an accomplished chess player, he worked nuclear physics challenges in his free time.
Passau in the 1920ies wasn’t a great place for those looking for individual development and freedom. Deeply influenced by a stifling Catholicism, there reigned a climate that challenged democratic ideas as well as those of the upcoming Nazism. Erwin told me:
“My father Franz had a rifle in his wardrobe. Several trusted citizens in town had rifles, if the Republic were to be defended. My father had a high opinion of the Republican Government, and he was convinced Chancellor Bruening, (who carried out a radical austerity budget policy)would put the Weimar Republic back on her feet.”
Unfortunately, Bruening ran out of steam, and whilst an economic silverline appeared on the horizon, ordinary people lost hope. Strongly supported by industry and finance leaders, the Nazi movement was gaining ground, equally attracting voters from an irritated conservative Mittelstand and socialist movements. In Grandpa's family, the Nazi movement was held at low esteem, essentially, so I believe for two reasons: firstly, Grandma came from a Jewish, converted catholic family (name: Stern); secondly, my Grandpa knew Hitler personally. Both had served at the Western Front, WW I, in the 6th Bavarian Reserve Regiment - Hitler being a corporal and messenger along the front line bunkers near Fromelles; Grandpa (a lieutenant) commanded the artillery battery Nr. 1 on a salient called the 'sugar loaf,' site of a horrific loss of ANZAC forces in 1916.
Most citizens in Passau, however, were neither democrats, nor fascists, nor communists but could be called (clerical) royalists, faithful to the House-of-Wittelsbach monarchy, that had ruled Bavaria for more than seven hundred years, bringing a sense of unity and a degree of modernism. The latter, however, didn't penetrate faith-based secondary schooling. Erwin didn’t enjoy school, and mentioned to me:
“Life in school was hell. It was an oppressive environment, where every aspect of modern life was out-rightly rejected. Everything was molded according to 19th century Catholicism. When I have nightmares today, it’s not about Stalingrad or Monte Cassino, but classes, teachers and school exams.”
When Grandpa suddenly died in 1931, the family faced the spectre of poverty for the first time. Grandma moved to Munich, and the family of six survived on Grandpa’s modest pension. These were turbulent years, characterized by unemployment, and the erosion of the republic from both the radical right, and left. For a while, it looked as if another communist revolution was imminent (there had been a communist republic in Munich for a few months, in 1919).
In 1933, however, the Nazis came to power. Grandma’s family had little sympathy for the new government. Dad completed High School in 1937 and was forced to join a ‘voluntary’ workforce called the ‘Arbeitsdienst.’
“It was a back-breaking job that took six month. The supervisors shouted at me all the time. I was assigned to the construction work along the Munich-Berlin autobahn. Every day I rolled hundreds of wheel-barrel loads, but pay was merely symbolic.”
2. In the Army
The half-year service period having elapsed, Erwin solicited for an officer’s career in the armed forces, initially at the Luftwaffe, but was rejected for medical reasons.
“They found out that I was color-blind, and didn’t want to enroll me for this reason. In hindsight, it may have saved my life. Most of our pilots were shot down and died.”
He solicited again and joined the army, ‘Wehrmacht,’ in November 1937. For him, it looked like the only ray of hope to break free.
“I trained my body every day for several hours, to the point that I damaged my heart. In school, I had performed very poorly in sports. Now, I was by far the best.”
He participated (as officer in spe) suppression raids of neighboring Austria, and the western Czechoslovakia (‘Sudetenland’). These operations essentially were carried out without major combat.
“When we marched into Linz (Austria), we were received by huge cheering crowds. The Austrians appeared to be more Nazi than us and drowned as with cigarettes.”
It looked as if war was an easy and simple game. Erwin joined the Military Academy in Potsdam, and was promoted lieutenant on August 1st, 1939. Then, one month later, the war erupted. There was no way back to peace.
3. WWII: The Poland September Campaign, 1939
The Wikipedia encyclopedia wrote:
“The Polish armed forces resisted the German invasion, but their strategic position was hopeless since Germany and German-controlled Czechoslovakia surrounded Poland on three sides. In Poland the Germans first used the tactics known as the Blitzkrieg or "lightning war:" the rapid advance of the Panzer (armored) divisions, the use of dive-bombers to break up troop concentrations and of aerial bombing of undefended cities to weaken civilian morale. The Polish Army and Air Force had little modern equipment to match this onslaught.
The German forces were numerically and technologically superior to those of the Polish armed forces. The Germans threw eighty-five percent of their armed forces at Poland. The Germans had at their disposal 1.6 million troops, 250,000 trucks and other such motor vehicles, 67,000 artillery pieces, 4000 tanks and one cavalry division. The Luftwaffe aircraft were detached from the elite Condor Legion, which had seen action over Spain in 1938. The air force consisted of 1180 fighter aircraft, mainly Me 109s, 290 Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers, 290 conventional bombers, mainly of the He 111 type, and an assortment of 240 naval aircraft. They positioned their old battleship Schleswig-Holstein to attack Gdańsk.
The Polish forces were severely outnumbered and outclassed. They managed to muster 800,000 troops, including eleven cavalry brigades, two motorized brigades, 30,000 artillery pieces, and 120 tanks of the advanced 7-TP type. The Polish airforce consisted of 400 aircraft. 160 of them were PZL P.11c fighter aircraft, 31 PZL P.7a and 20 P.11a fighters, 120 PZL P.23 reconnaissance-bombers, and 45 PZL P.37 medium bombers. The navy consisted of four destroyers, one torpedo boat, one mine layer, two gunboats, six minesweepers, and five submarines.
The Poles believed that the invasion was intended from the beginning as a war of extermination. Hitler allegedly said to his commanders: "I have issued the command — and I'll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad — that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish race and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
The campaign was short, and very bloody. Erwin received the Iron Cross (EK II) for bravery in the Battle of Tomascow. Soldiers were pushed to the limit, and a new amphetamine drug called ‘Pervitin’ was distributed. Dad told me:
“Our troops were not fully mechanized yet, and fought to the point of physical exhaustion. We were still inexperienced soldiers. A great deal of supplies, and even artillery cannons, were pulled along by horses. I received a horse, too, and I learned to ride a horse. The Polish fought with bravery and gallantry, and defying death, but they were no match for our fire power, and the Luftwaffe.”
Dad spent a while in Krakow, where he was amazed by the elegant urban lifestyle. In particular, he was touched by the beauty of Polish women.
“Never in my life before I had seen women of such beauty, good taste, and elegance. Some urban Polish elite really were of the finest, whilst life conditions out on the land appeared rather primitive and dirty.”
4. The French Campaign, 1940
With the invasion of Poland, Hitler had crossed the Rubicon, and any hopes for peace had evaporated. France and England declared war to Germany, but defied Poland the promised help. For a while, little action happened on the western front. Both sides improved their defenses. Then, in 1940, Hitler attacked France by cutting through Belgium. Erwin was assigned to the infantry regiment 63, and commanded a platoon in the battles around the Weygand Line, and Loire.
“We used Blitzkrieg tactics and cut through the Ardennes forest with great speed. We reached the plains of northern France and caused surprise. The French scrambled everything they had to block our advance. But we simply drove around them. At the Marne River, they tried to put up a serious fight. But their tactics and material were obsolete- it was pitiful to see. They came out creeping over a hilltop with their little Renault tanks. One shot, boom, and the thing was burning already. Next shot, boom, and the other one was on fire, too. The last days of the campaign we fought black soldiers from Senegal. The other French infantry troops had surrendered already.”
5. Russia 1941-42
Erwin joined the 17th Armed Motorcycle Battalion, within the 17th Panzer (tank) Division. He got promoted.
“At the onset of the campaign, we received new boots. Often they were too small. One can widen leather boots by urinating into, and walking hard. That’s what we did. We marched every day around fifty miles, and often fell asleep whilst walking. We became so frustrated and tired, that we wished nothing else but to hear the thunder of the front-line. Pushing ahead we didn’t see a lot of fighting. Sometimes we passed cities of miserable condition with miserable people, particularly in Byelorussia. Other places looked brand-new modern, and didn’t even show up on our (hopelessly outdated) maps."
Fighting was erratic, and the Russians pulled back ahead of the relatively light-armed, but highly mobile German troops. Only at times, the Russians were up for a serious fight.
“On one occasion, near Bryansk, we got caught up in a ferocious artillery battle. It went on for hours, and we didn’t make any progress. Our infantry was stuck under fire on the flanks of a gentle hill-slope. That's when I saw a little girl walking along the crest. Whilst grenades and machine gunfire flared over the hilltop, she walked alone through a rain of tracer bullets, stoically carrying cans of milk from the stable to the farmhouse. We tried to call her, and make her turn back but she would not listen. She just kept on walking. It’s the most impressive and courageous thing I ever saw."
I never asked my father if she made it to the farmhouse or not. Perhaps my instinct told me not to ask.
At times, the rapid advance stalled when reaching strongly fortified positions.
“When we had to do with heavily fortified Russian defense lines, we called for reinforcements. Elite units from the Waffen SS would show up, attack and mount charges against the Soviet lines. They attacked the way we were taught in basic infantry training: Jump up, run, fold down, etc. In every attack, they got mowed down with losses of some 50%. These guys were completely nuts, but we respected them because they would fight to the death, something we ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers wouldn’t dare to do.”
My father had little respect for the Russian troops he met in the early battles of the campaign, and their obsolete tactics:
“Infantry soldiers attacked us in several waves, and were driven directly into our gunfire. It was an immense slaughter. Behind the waves of attacking soldiers, one could see the silhouettes of the communist commissars, with their machine guns. You could recognize them by their long coats, and strange old-fashioned helmets. These men were firing onto their own soldiers from behind, to urge them forward and to prevent them from deserting. If we caught commissars we shot them.”
With the approaching (first Russian) winter, the dirt roads (and there were only dirt roads) turned into morass, and the rapid territorial gains came to a standstill:
“We could hardly advance any further. Our trucks got hopelessly stuck in bottomless yellow-brown clay. Go ahead for five meters, then pull-out the truck. Go another five meters etc. Every day we had suspension springs welded, and axles repaired. It was miserable. Only our wheel sidecar 500 cm BMW's performed at their best. It was our only mobile defense, at times.”
The problem eased with hard night freeze. There was, however, a problem- the German soldiers didn't have any warm winter clothing. The freezing temperatures took their toll also on the material, that had to cope with an environment it hadn't be designed for.
"After a cold night, it took hours to get the trucks going, and sometimes we were by lighting a fire below the engine, and flow lines. Otherwise we couldn't start our trucks."
Gradually, the German army pushed the front-line farther East. It was no precise feature, but rather a fleeting zone of a hundred miles deep where sporadic attacks and counter-attacks occurred. Erwin described the effect of surprise attacks:
“It seemed to come out of nowhere. Rockets came down on us everywhere, and everything around me was exploding. In the end, there was not a lot of casualty or damage, but we felt very stressed and demoralized, because we couldn't protect ourselves.”
Surprise attacks often took place in the early morning light. The Russians had found out, that the Germans needed quite a while to get their equipment ready to fight, due to the bitter cold:
“We continuously had trouble with spare parts. Metal like steel suspension and springs broke easily. Every gun had its own set of spare parts, whilst Russian guns were simple, robust, and often had identical spares. More important, our lubricants were by far too sticky at these grim Russian winter temperatures. After a cold night, our machine guns would not simply function properly. They jammed all the time.
“That’s when the kosaks attacked. In a marvelous text-book cavalry attack, they galloped through the fine, several-foot-thick snow, with their sabers drawn and sparkling in the morning sun. It was a view of awesome beauty. Before they got too close, however, we managed to get some of our machine guns going, and they turned off rather quickly.”
The winter was finally over. Erwin spent the early part of 1942 in the middle sector south of Moscow, fighting occasional smaller combat operations only. In fall, the front-line became increasingly thinned-out. Partisans blew up freight trains on the stretched supply lines, and material arrived at irregular intervals. Worse, the sixth German army corps was encircled in Stalingrad.
According to a summary in www.Wikipedia.org:
“On November 21, 1942, during the Battle of Stalingrad, Adolf Hitler appointed Manstein the commander of the newly created Army Group Don (Heeresgruppe Don), comprised of a hastily assembled group of tired men and machines, and ordered him to lead Operation Wintergewitter (Winter Storm), the rescue effort composed of Hermann Hoth's 4th Panzer Army and auxiliary Romanian troops, to relieve the 6th Army of Friedrich Paulus that was encircled inside the city. Wintergewitter, launched on December 12, achieved some initial success and von Manstein got his three panzer divisions and supporting units of the 57th Panzer Corps(comprised of the 23 Panzer Grenadier Division, and the 6 and 17 Panzer Divisions) to within 30 miles of the city by December 20. However, the corps was halted at the River Aksay, and strong Russian forces pushed them back. At this point Manstein pleaded that the 6th Army attempt a break out, but Paulus refused, since Hitler flatly refused to issue such an order, and instead ordered the 6th Army to stay in the besieged city.”
Ahead of departure, my father's diary reads as follows:
November 18th 1942. 'In Topkoje, we got time to rest, and wash ourselves, our uniforms and write letters. At the officer's dinner we got grilled duck and sparkling wine. We got completely drunk.'
November 19th. 'I feel completely miserable.'
November 25th. ' Received a message that our dear brother Franz-Philipp Kessler has fallen. Feeling totally depressed.'
November 27th. 'Officers meeting. Now it looks something big and ominous is coming to us. We will move south, most probably direction of Stalingrad.'
November 29th, 1942. 'Sunday, no work today. blizzard. Our dear Franz-Philipp has been buried in Ardon, 30 km off Ordschonikidze.'
December 1st. 'Starting to load our equipment on train.'
As troops scrambled to breach the gap, my father was promoted commander of a 17th Panzer battalion, and assigned to the task of breaking the ring of Stalingrad. It was almost Christmas time, and the winter was unbelievably cold. Winter equipment arrived, but of lousy quality:
“We got skies, terrible old donated stuff. Then we met our enemy- Siberian elite divisions, perfectly equipped for the fight in snow terrain, such as white-coloured reflective and warm winter clothing. These soldiers proved to be a formidable adversary.
“Out in the Kalmuek Steppe, the wind hurled the whole night. We tried to find shelter, but there wasn’t any. During several nights, we slept in the dry snow. Every morning, we counted the frozen dead. I owe my survival to my officer’s fur coat, and some extra body fat.”
Against all odds, the German troops pushed forward, and my father’s “Panzerspitze” had advanced to a point only some 40 miles away from the encircled army in Stalingrad. But bad luck stroke again when my father’s battalion drove right into an artillery ambush. It was Christmas day, December 25th, in 1942.
“It was a sunny, beautiful day around noon, sparkling snow, and bitter cold. I was sitting on the first tank, next to the turret, with my tank platoon. We were not supposed to do this, but that’s how we drove. You can’t always stay within a tank. Then, an artillery shell landed right in the middle of us, and exploded. It tore apart everybody on the tank, apart from me. In fact, the smashed bodies of my friends saved my life. Grenade splinters were stuck in my skull. It hurt terribly. My depute officer’s brain hang glued on my helmet."
Erwin's diary resumes in January, but notes are very sketchy.
January 1st 1943. 'New year in front hospital in 'Gigant'
January 6th. 'Hospital train rolls in direction Rostow, then Stalino. All hospitals more than occupied.'
January 8th. 'We continue in direction of Dnieprpetrowsk. No vacancy in the hospitals.'
January 9th-12th. ' Heading for Lemberg, Brody, Krakau. Stay in Krakau.'
“In hindsight," my father told me, " I was extremely lucky. I got evacuated with the last available hospital train, as our front-line collapsed during a massive Russian counter-offensive. Later, there were no hospital trains left.”
This incident may have been one of the war’s turning points. The offensive to break the ring around Stalingrad had failed. With the front line collapsing at many points, the final retreat from Russia had begun.
On January 16th, Dad received surgery in Kevelaar, a small town near the Dutch border. My future Mum took the long journey from Munich, Bavaria, to visit Erwin hospitalized in Kevelaar. To farther recovery, he was allowed to spend a few months in Munich doing a quiet army planning job. In early spring he married my mother Margarethe.
After a droplet of happiness, there was more bad news: In Africa, Uncle Rainer, who served with the Afrika Korps, was caught POW and sent to a camp in the Sinai. Erwin’s family house in Nympfenburg (Munich) suffered from a bombshell, and both Grandma, and Auntie Liselotte were killed. From Erwin’s family of six, three had lost their lives and one was POW.
As the war raged on, Erwin was assigned to the next hot spot: Italy.
6. Italy 1943-44
In Italy, the German forces under the command of General Kesselring were preparing for an immediate Allied onslaught. The question was: where would the landing occur? Intelligence (a very clever British counter-intelligence coup) seemed to point to a planned landing on the Island of Sardinia, and Erwin was assigned to a German/Italian task force.
A new army corps was formed in Northern Italy. Erwin fell in love with the country, particularly its soft subdued colors. He learned to speak Italian and spent his free time sketching and painting aquarelles (in false colors). During a drive through the Toscana in a FIAT ‘Topolino’ he witnessed a major allied bombing raid:
“I was extremely lucky. Bombs fell like rain drops. But the area that surrounded the road was formed by swamp lands, and the bombs disappeared with huge ‘blob’ sounds in the wet ground, mostly even without detonating.”
In those spring days, Dad employed a Jewish-Italian translator for the administrative/liaison work. Suddenly he received order to suspend the lady from service. He protested energetically to his Wehrmacht superiors:
“They were very sympatic to my protest, but told me that there was nothing they could do. The lady cried the whole day. I tried to calm her, but she shook her head. We didn’t know yet, in those days, that the persecution of Jews had commenced in Italy, too, and that she would be handed over to ‘Einsatztruppen’ that had the task to round up and kill Jews in Italy.”
New marching orders were received. Erwin’s troops moved by train to Livorno, and were shipped to Sardinia. They landed in Olbia, crossed the island and took defensive position in the south-western corner of the island:
“The spring of 1944 was quite hot, sometimes above 100 deg F. We had orders to observe siesta (rest) between noon and 3 p.m. Malaria was rampant, and I became sick from it. After taking Paludrin we got cured. One day, our Italian allies gave a huge banquette dinner party, and all the German officers were invited. I felt somewhat suspicious, and reminded the other officers to refrain from excessive drinking. Indeed, at midnight, it became clear most Italian troops had switched side – the same officers drinking with us were now strafing our positions with machine gun fires.
“Only the Italian ‘Alpini’ remained loyal, and fought side by side with us against the traitorous Badoglio troops. We routed the Badoglio Italians and fought our way through the island, and crossed over the Bonifacio Channel to Italian-occupied Corsica.”
Corsica, another wild and sparsely populated island in the western Mediterranean, was on the point of liberation. (De Gaulle) French forces had landed on the western coast already. Most of the hated Mussolini-Italian troops had vacated the island, and nobody anticipated the arrival of Erwin’s erratic battalion. Dad crossed the island using a small road cutting through the gorges of Ospedale, and reached the port of Bastia short of fuel and ammunition, but in full strength.
“We crossed many dark mountain gorges, surrounded in a landscape of pristine wilderness. Nobody suspected us, and only a few villagers looked with curiosity upon us as we passed. When we reached the Poretta airfield, we were under fire. Probably some partisans were shooting down on us from the Teghime pass. We didn’t muster any losses, though. In Poretta, I was relieved from my command, and flown out with a brand-new fast Messerschmidt fighter. This wasn’t quite straightforward, as we had lost air superiority over Italy quite a while ago.”
By the time he arrived back in Northern Italy, Erwin had obtained a somewhat controversial reputation: for being a gifted, but conservative administrator; for caring extremely well for his staff; for failing his objectives, that, due to unforeseeable reasons, were beyond his control.
Whilst Erwin escaped from the islands, the Allied had landed in Sicily, and were pushing up northwards in direction of Rome. The German command responded by building several rows of defensive positions linking the Adriatic to the Thyrhenic Mediterranean, thus either blocking or slowing the advancing Allied forces. Once a defense line was about to be overrun, troops could be pulled back and regrouped in time at the next perimeter.
Erwin got promoted captain, and headed a training camp of the ‘90th Panzer grenadier division.’
On January 10th, 1944, Erwin commanded an infantry battalion, and took position on the Monte Mayo, overlooking the monastery of Mte Cassino, where heavy battles were fought since the begin of the month. Several waves of allied attacks targeted the central fortress, but were beaten back, with little losses for the Germans. In May, however, the tide turned. The www.Wikipedia.org summary sounded as follows:
“The second assault (May 17–May 19, 1944), carried out at immense cost by the Polish troops and the key outflanking movement in the mountains by skilled Moroccan soldiers of the 4ème Division Marocaine de Montagne (French Expeditionary Corps CEF), pushed the German 1st Parachute Division out of its positions on the hills surrounding the monastery and almost surrounded them. In the early morning of May 18 a reconnaissance group of Polish 12th Podolian Uhlans Regiment occupied the ruins of the monastery after it was evacuated by the Germans.”
As the battle raged, Erwin was shadowed by a SS intelligence officer watchdog, who reported directly to the Nazi headquarters in Berlin bypassing Kesselring’s Wehrmacht command in Italy. There was no trust between my father and the SS man, and operations were carried out in a dense and uneasy atmosphere. Ferocious battles raged at Monte Cassino. German troops held out, despite a complete lack of air support. After several bloody and pointless attacks against the fortress, the Allied Command decided to break the flanks of the Gustaf line, by concentrating the strongest artillery barrage of WWII onto one single point: the Monte Mayo, where Erwin’s battalion was dug in since the winter.
He told me:
“It was terrible. The earth trembled and everything seemed to explode on the bald mountaintop. The artillery originating from American battleships was the worst of all. The shells came in with awful precision. Before firing, they sent tiny observer planes or drones. We tried to shoot them down, but they proved to be out off reach for our guns. We had found a cave to hide-in during the ferocious artillery bombardments. The Allied marine artillery struck right at the entry of our cave. We had no other place to go, and thought our ends were near.
“It was a tiring warfare. The Allied strategy was to grind us down- attrition. With their far superior fire power it was clear that we lived on borrowed time. We had orders to defend the line to the last man. Every day followed the same pattern: air attacks, then artillery bombardment, followed by infantry climbing up from the south. These were Moroccan troops. They could climb much better than us, because they wore sandals, and we wore heavy leather boots. We repelled them for several days, but ran low on ammunition, when supplies stopped reaching us. Behind our back, the circle was gradually closing. Whilst every man of my troops fought on the front line, that evil SS man sat in his cave, and kept sending radio messages to his Nazi command ‘yes, we are holding the line.’
“During one artillery attack this bastard of SS intelligence officer, thanks to God, got killed and I had the full command of my troops. We were almost encircled by then. Only a narrow mule lane was still open, leading out of the battle perimeter, and we had only a few rounds of ammunition and no food left. I decided to disobey the order to hold the line and withdrew my battalion from the battle field immediately.”
The sudden withdrawal was a success. Erwin managed to regroup without further casualties. The Gustaf Line with the central Mte Cassino position had collapsed. Erwin was court-marshaled, degraded and suspended from service. His actions, however, received the tacit approval of the Wehrmacht command in Italy. After all, he had saved his troops from a useless sacrifice. Erwin got his rank and command back. His immediate commander in rank, however, was a convinced Nazi, and wanted him dead. Erwin was assigned to lead tours of duty, and given the unpleasant task of cleansing a large perimeter south of Rome from Italian partisans opposed to the German occupation force.
“The tours of duty were carried out during the night. It was an extremely dangerous business. The partisans knew their territory and attacks came sudden and out of nowhere. We lost many men to sniper attacks. One day, we searched a small village for concealed weapons. We knocked at massive adobe wall, to locate any hollow-sounding spot. Indeed, we found one, and broke the walls open. But what we found wasn’t weaponry, but stacks of (invalid) 19th century Lira notes. The following night we raided the same area using small tanks. It was raining. The road collapsed, and my tank tumbled down into a gorge.”
7. Assassination Plot, Holocaust, Fire storms
Erwin was wounded, broken arms and broken ribs, but survives. He recovered and took up the job of a tank warfare tactics teacher, at the military academies in Krampnitz (near Berlin), and in Koenigsbrueck (near Dresden).
In Berlin, activists within the Wehrmacht were fomenting plans to kill Hitler and to overthrow the Nazi Government. Under the lead of Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, and Henning von Treskow, plans were forged to assassinate Hitler, and to use the ‘Ersatzheer,’ an army reserve unit, to overthrow the SS troops guarding the capital. Erwin was informed about the ‘grandes lignes’ of the complot:
“We (the military academy) were ready to attack the brown mob (the SS). Unfortunately, the signal never came. Later on the day (June 17th of 1944), there was a radio broadcast telling that Hitler had survived the bombing.”
The leaders of the plot were rounded up, and hanged. Others awaited a show trial. They assumed full responsibility, and, even under torture, resisted disclosing the full dimension of the plot.
In this story, there are many shades of gray. Officers like my father grumbled against Hitler, but felt unable to take a firm stand. Only recently I found out that Dad only started teaching in Potsdam in August 1944, hence two months after the coup. In June 1944, he was still in Italy, at least according to his notebook. My conclusion is that he tried, as many others, to make his life story look better as it actually was.
My father continued to teach in Potsdam. On a mission to Breslau (since 1945 called Wroclaw), he witnessed ruthless allied firebombing and the resulting firestorm.
“When the sirens rang, we were sent to an underground bomb shelter that my troops and I had to share with civilians. When we entered the bunker, I looked around, and saw many high pressure/high temperature pipes, that were running suspended along the ceiling. I immediately understood that this was nothing short of a death trap. I moved out with my platoon. When we reached the ground level, the view was terrible. The entire city was ablaze, and an eerie storm hurled incinerating the city. Nobody had ever witnessed such a thing. Then, a bombshell crashed down and hit the bomb shelter, we just had left. Down there, nobody survived. They all got blown to pieces or steam-fried.”
Back in Potsdam Erwin received information about the holocaust.
“Yes, there were rumors, but times were too turbulent and atrocious to concentrate on anything apart from one’s own and one’s family’s immediate survival. Then, one day, my close friend, the Freiherr von Gutenberg, told me: “Erwin, it is so terrible, I cannot describe you how. Our people will never be able to free themselves from this inexcusable crime. It will haunt our country’s future forever.”
With the Russians steadily pushing through Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Erwin got orders to lead a last-ditch-commando of officer adepts in the Silesian borderland. He commanded a motorized brigade formed of the remnants of the military academy. His troops were encircled, but luckily the war had ended, and the order of surrender was received. Erwin disbanded his unit, and escaped walking home (some 300 miles) to Munich:
“During daytime, I was hiding in the forest or in haystacks. Ironically, it was the same area I had spent my honeymoon. I walked during the night, through the densest of Bohemian forests. In the aftermath of the war’s terrifying battles, walking in the nightly forests felt just wonderful. Some friendly farmers gave me bread. After one week I reached eastern Bavaria, were we had family. At my Uncle's farm in Metten I changed my cloth and walked the remainder to Munich.”
8. The Aftermath of War.
Erwin returned to a Munich in rubble, both family houses were either destroyed or heavily damaged by bombs, and half of the family was either dead or POW. Bavaria was already occupied by American troops. The Bavarians, never true Nazis by heart, went on well with the American occupation, but the economy was in a dire condition. Erwin was cleared of war crimes, but, having been an active officer, he was banned from higher education. Made agricultural helper, he cleaned cabbage and potatoes for the following three years. Mum commenced work as a language teacher, and earned a meager income that didn’t suffice the family.
The city lay in ruins, and there was little food available. Mum cycled many miles to obtain a bit of cabbage, salad or bread from some distant family out in the country. The stress for survival took its toll: Mother lost two pregnancies. There was never enough food. Several times Grandma went to the black market, and traded inherited gold watches (which she had concealed from the Nazis in our garden) for a sack full of wheat flower. Mum planted potatoes, salad, and cabbage and also raised rabbits in the garden, but found it difficult to cull them, given they had become family pets. Dad planted and fermented tobacco leaves, just in case the Russians were to attack and cut him off from American tobacco.
Things improved when postal services functioned again: Auntie Louise (my Grandpa’s sister) sent peanut butter and sugar from South Carolina, where she worked as a maid in a Southern family. Then the cold war started. The frontier line between the eastern and western part of Germany tightened. Everybody believed a new war was not a question of if, but when. But somehow, the very uneasy peace prevailed.
With the formation of the new republic in 1949, there was good new money around, and things could be bought and sold again. But the spectre of Communism loomed from the East. Dad was allowed, finally, to study architecture. He graduated in Munich, and found poorly-paid work in several atelier assistant jobs. By the time, however, he was experienced enough to open his own architecture studio, the market was already ring-fenced. He applied for an officer’s career in the new-formed army, but was rejected for unknown reasons. Later Dad pursued a modest career as architect, and retired in 1986, the same year I started my own career as a petroleum geologist.
Throughout his life Erwin seemed to carry his war records on his shoulders, and often talked to me about this crucial period in his life. War memories seemed to haunt him, and throughout his life he felt drawn to the WW II battlefields. In 1966, we travelled through northern France. In 1969, he showed me the (reconstructed) Monte Cassino Basilica, and the soldiers’ graveyards. We drove along the Garigliano and Liri rivers, in the shade of Monte Mayo. Some 25 years after the war, wounds were still open. A country inn owner refused to serve us food when he learned that we were Germans.
Our family travelled to Corsica and Sardinia in 1970/71. Then, in 1974 my father and I visited the Ortchonikidze (Wladi-Kavkas) area in North-Ossetia, where my Uncle Franz-Philipp had been shot by a Russian sniper. Erwin cited lines from his brother’s last letter.
“From the last hill of the mountains, I saw our tanks roll in a cloud of dust toward the city of Wladi-kavkas.”
Franz-Philipp was shot on that very day, succumbed one week later, and was buried on a local cemetery. When Dad requested to visit a local graveyard, his demand was turned down by local Communist authorities. It was a very bitter moment for him, after such a long journey.
Throughout his life, Dad suffered from headaches caused by irremovable grenade splinters stuck in his skull, and back pain originating from Russian winter chill. Though he loved my sister and me a lot, he often proved to be in bad spirits. His life was shadowed by pain, bad humour, negativity, and restlessness- perhaps remnants of post-traumatic disorder. Only whilst doing water-color painting, and smoking his eternal tobacco pipes he showed glimpses of a happy person.
Erwin painfully attempted, with little success, to construct a coherent and proud entity of sense and morality from his life experiences. He refused to see that he had chosen the wrong side, and also only grudgingly acknowledged those who stood right. His many divergent war memories, however, combined with staunchly anti-communist and Catholic convictions, proved to be a cocktail of fairly incompatible ingredients.
Erwin Kessler died on January 17th, 2005.
© 2014 by Franz L. Kessler
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WWI pictures 1914-1918 on my webpage www.flickr.com/photos/matahari. There is also a recent (2008) article about Fromelles in the "Britain at War" magazine.