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Interview with an Afrikakorps Infantry Veteran

by Martin Schenkel

This interview was done on January 23rd, 1999 by Martin Schenkel with a German Veteran known as Oberschütze Siebenbrot. He served in North Africa during WWII in the Wehrmacht Heer. In this interview, Siebenbrot first explains his wartime experiences and then responds to a number of questions asked by Martin.

I was drafted in February, 1941, at the age of 19, and did my basic training in Göttingen. In July, we were sent to the Truppenübungslager Munster, to complete the training. They then asked me if I was interested in going to Africa, to serve in the Afrika Korps. I agreed, and was sent to Potsdam, where (although we didn't know it at the time) we would be assembled in a Sonderverband (special unit). The unit was originally named Sonderverband 288. We later found out, that we would be going to Iraq, to occupy the oil fields. The Sonderverband, was not organized like a typical battalion which usually had 3 or 4 companies. We had 7 companies. The first company was composed of foreigners, who had grown up in the middle east, and in total, were able to speak 20 different Arab dialects. The second company were GebirgsJäger. The third, which I was in, was infantry. The fourth was reconnaissance. The fifth was an assalut gun company, with light and heavy mortar elements. The sixth was a FlaK company, and the seventh, was an AT-rifle company. There was also a water-testing unit, as well as a printing troop, we had everything, and we were also motorised.

My task was to be a runner, who sent orders and notices back and forth, but I was also used in the infantryman role. Because it was a small unit, and heavy casualties were predicted, we were trained in all the roles of the companies, so that when there were casualties, any man could fill the spot. For example, I as an infantryman, was only trained in the use of rifles, machinguns, and other small arms unique to the infantry. In this unit, we were also trained to use the light and heavy mortars, anti-tank rifles, and the FlaK guns. By the end of the training in September, every man in the Sonderverband was trained in the use of all the hand-held weapons, and sometimes more. We were then loaded on trains, and sent on our way. The trains were now and then held up by partisans in Yugoslavia, and when it got to Belgrad, we heard over the radio, that the British had occupied the southern parts of Iraq, namely Basra, which is where the Sonderverband was headed. We continued to Greece, and ended up south of athens, in the Atika peninsula. Quarters were quickly arranged, as the command no longer knew what to do with us. We stayed there for most of the winter, and continued to train. Because the unit was equiped and trained for the tropics, it was decided to send us to Africa. We re-embarked on trains, and headed back through Yugoslavia, to Trieste and then Naples. We were then ordered to Letche, on the Adriatic, to get ready to go to North-Africa, either by ship, or airplane.

In March, 1942, our company was loaded into small aircraft to fly to Africa. They were old primitve Italian aircraft, with canvas covering which already had several holes. The entrances were open, and had machineguns for air defense. The poor airplane was overlaoded, and couldn't get off the ground. We were moved to the front of the aircraft, and the plane finally made into the air. To avoid British fighters, the plane flew 200 feet above the sea, and arrived safely in Derna. We were very quickly unloaded, as the pilot was getting very anxious to get going, because British airplanes would soon arrive. The plane was loaded with wounded, and a few minutes later, the fighters arrived. British intelligence and recon was very good, and they knew when planes or ships were arriving. The unit then spent some time re-organizing, and getting ready to participate in the offensive. At the same time, the unit was renamed Kampfgruppe Menton.

It was in early June, that we had our first contact with the enemy. The engineers first had to clear a path in the minefields. The path was very small, just barely wide enough for two way traffic. We were then sent to El Adem. The British couldn't hold, they retreated, and the town was quickly caputred. The unit then moved towards Bir Hacheim, but stiff resistance from French Legionaires, commanded by general Koenig, held up the advance. The French were very well entreched just outside Bir Hacheim, and wouldn't budge. After 10 or 12 days, the French finally gave way. Our company though, wasn't involved untill the last few days. On the last day, the French were encircled, but during the night, they managed to break-out and escape. After Bir Hacheim was captured, the British launched a counter-attack. We were hit pretty hard, had to quickly retreat, and somehow managed to avoid being cut-off and captured. The British counter-attacks then failed, and Rommel was able to push them back to the Egyptian border. The Sonderverband ended up near Bardia-Sollum. By that time, Tobruk had been surrounded, and was under siege. We were sent back to south of Tobruk, and watched the battle while in reserve. Then it was back to Egypt, and we arrived south of Mersa Matruh, while the British were still more than 100km behind us. On one perticular night, after we had dug our foxholes and were resting, we heard engine noises, and realized that it was the British, who were drinving past our positions. It was night, so nothing could be done, nor was our strength enough to take on so many British.

It was at this time, in September, that I started to suffer from arthritis. I was sent back to Tobruk, which had in the meantime been captured. On the way, we were attacked by planes. We quickly jumped out of the trucks, and scrambled for cover. During this attack, I narrowly escaped injury. The truck was only lightly damaged, so we could continue. I arrived in Tobruk at about noon, and it was very busy and a lot of traffic, as many wounded were being brought from the front, and there were many amputations. At around 8 that evening, a doctor finally got around to examaning me, and decided that because the arthritis wouldn't heal properly in the heat, I was to be sent back to Naples, from Derna, via hospital ship. Next to me on the ship, was an east indian, who was trying to talk to me, I didn't understand much enlish yet, but figured out the the indian had been injured while being attacked by tanks. Even if you were the enemy, you were taken care of if you were injured. I spent a month in Naples, and when I was able to walk properly, he was sent back to Germany for rehablilitation. After another month in southern-Germany (near the Bodensee), I reported back to my unit's HQ/collection point, in Küstrin. I then got two weeks leave, and went home, and when I reported again, I was sent to work on a potato farm for a few weeks. After that, in December, we were sent to Grafenwöhr, were there was a big training facility. There we joined the GebirgsJäger Regiment 756, and this time, I was attached to a rifle platoon, as an infantryman. On christmas eve, the unit was loaded on trains, and went throught the Brenner pass to Italy, and then on to Palermo, in Sicily.

In early January 1943, we boarded a small liner, and arrived in Bizerta. The regiment re-organized in Mateur, and then was sent to the front. We were then ordered to capture a hill. We captured it, and there, for the first time, I was close enough, in combat, to be able to see the whites of their eyes. In North-Africa, hand-to-hand combat very rarely took place, and I never once experienced it. During this attack on the hill, it was the only time I used a hand-granade. Each man was issued one hand-granade. The Morrocan troops, whom we were attacking, were very well camouflaged, and by the time I tossed my granade, they had already retreated. The combat in the days following, went back and forth, and after a while, we were sent to a quiet part of the front, on the coast, and rested, and laid booby traps. We then went on a 60 km night march, to attack French positions in a valley the next morning. With about 30 men left in our platoon, we ran down the hill, screaming and shouting. The French were totally surprised and surrendered immediately. The platoon took about 120 prisoners. The fighting in Africa, I would like to say, was always fair, and both sides respected each other, unlike in Russia. No prisoners were shot or badly mistreated. In one particular case, after heavy fighting, many wounded were lying around the battlefield, so a temorary cease-fire was arranged. Both sides went out to collect their wounded. Neither side ever violated the cease-fire. In another instance, close to the end in Tunisia (April), on a beautifull day, our company which was down to ten men, was dug in a hill. Two men were in each hole, and the holes were about 10 feet apart. Suddenly a British tank came along. We had absolutley no anti-tank weapons of any kind. Apparently, one of the men in the foxhole next to us, caught the attention of the tank, and it fired into the foxhole, and the men were injured, and shouting for help. A medic came with a streatcher to our foxhole, and tied a white band around my arm. We leaped out of the foxhole towards the wounded men, in full view of the tank, which wasn't more than 25 m away. One of the men was dead, and we took the other one away. Throughout this, the tank never fired on us.

But the end was inevitable. Outnumbered 5 or 6 to 1, and with very few heavy weapons left, the Axis suurendered on 8 May to the Allies in Tunisia. We marched over a hill to some British tanks, who gave us cigarettes, and we gave them choclate, and they were very friendly. We were sent to a makeshift POW camp near Bone. In the camps we didn't get too much to eat, so we had to try to get an egg, or some cous-cous from the locals. We then took a ship to Oran. By that time many men had lice, so we were disinfected. The same day, we were loaded onto a couple American ships that were heading back to the US. We arrived in New York on 30 May, 1943. On the voyage though, many had gotten lice again, so we were then disinfected once more.

On June 3, we arrived, via train, in the POW camp in Hunstville, Texas. The camp was divide into 3 areas, and each area held 1200 men. Next to the camp, a sports field had been built. Each prisoner was entideld to eat what a regular soldier eats. We were given enough food, and there were few complaints. At first, there wasn't any real work for us, so we just did small jobs in the camp, like mowing lawns etc., and a few volunteered for the camp fire brigade. We were also allowed to learn several languages (english, french, and spanish), and to read and write, and to study many different topics like math and so on, all organized by the prisoners. There was also a monthly newspaper, put together by the prisoners. There was a chapel, an orchestra, a theater, and once a month there would be a big show, with the band playing, some would sing, and there would be a play or two. In this camp, we ate corn for the first time, as in Germany it was used for feeding chickens. One prisoner came up with the following poem:

Mais fürdert in allen lendern
Bei Hünern die legerei.
Bei uns braucht's nicht zu versuchen,
Wir legen ja doch kein Ei.

Corn furthers in all countries
With chickens the laying of eggs.
Don't bother to try that with us,
We never will lay an egg.

Finally they figured that we should work a little. So they put to work in the cotton fields. Through our stuborness, we decided to stick together, and picked only up to a certain amount of cotton in a day. When you are a POW, you're not supposed to be put to work in an industry. We were used to getting two days holiday for Pfingsten, so on the first of those two days, we decided not to work. The Americans closed much of the camp down, including the kitchen. On the second day, the POW's decided to go back to work. Next, a local rice farm needed help for the harvest, so some of us were sent to work there. Each morning, the farmer would come to pick us up, and drive us home at the end of the day. I had learned quite a bit of english, so I was the interpreter for our group of ten or so men. This particular farmer was really nice. The camp food wasn't always the best, and each day the farmer's wife would serve us a different dish of rice. We really enjoyed that.

Early in 1944, I was sent to another camp, Huntsville, Alabama. Here I saw a bit of injustice. The Americans were trying to force non-comissioned officers to work. By the Geneva convention, officers are not supposed to work. The officers refused, and as a result, got little food, so we threw them some food over the fence. Then, after a quick stay in Georgia, some of us were sent to Florida, south of Miami. At first I worked at a big army depot. There was a big repair shop, where old army trucks were being repaired, and then sent to Russia. POW's weren't supposed to work in industry, so we maintained buildings, cut grass etc. Eventually, we loaded trucks on railcars. Next I moved on to a maintenance shop at Miami airport, and I started working in the paint shop, which prior to the war had been my trade. At this camp, I met some guys who had somehow put together a radio, and we could listen to news coming out of Havana (one of the guys spoke spanish), as well as local stations. At that time, Cuba was some what friendly to the Germans, so the German news we heard from Havana, was much different than from the American stations. I think that the American news was much closer to the truth. I stayed in Miami untill the end of the war.

In April 1946, we were sent back to New York, were we boarded a ship to Antwerp. Now under British control, we then ended up in a camp south of Brussels. In this camp, the food was extremly bad, and many POW's died. However, those of us who had come from the USA, had been well fed, so we were able to survive. The camps were exactly like described in a book by James Bach, The Other Losses. There was a high barbed-wire fence. You were lucky if you were able to get a tent, there were few blankets, and the food was hardly believable. We were there only for 6 weeks, but you could see that the guys had lost a lot of weight. Then, for some reason, instead of being sent home, we were shipped to England. There we were greeted by an English major or colonel, who was really impressive; he said straight out "...you are here to help rebuild the country, in retaliation for destroying much of it..." At least that guy was fair, he told us straight out what was going on. We spent a year in England. At first we worked on a farm, then we dug ditches for water, gas, sewer lines for new houses, and we were also a while in a brickworks. It was then 1947, and we were about to go home, But first, we had to be de-nazified. There were three classes: Nazi, mitläufer (just going along with it), and anti-nazi. The anti-nazis were sent home first. I was a mitlaufer. Last to leave were the supposed nazis. They were considered Nazis, because mabye they were nasty to the interogators. I arrived home, with an old British army uniform, with patches on it indicating that I was a POW.

Now the question and answer part:

Martin: What enemy units were you in contact with?

Siebenbrot: In Africa, we were at first in contact with French troops, but then after that, primarily British troops. The war in Africa was a war of movement, so you were never in the same position long, nor did you face the same enemy unit for long either.

Martin: What kind of an inpact did the Britsh Long Range Desert Force have?

Siebenbrot: They had success, but not all the time. They did a commando raid on Rommel's HQ, but they fared pretty badly. They operated far behind our lines, and they usually came up from the south, and acted mostly as recon. But sometimes, against small units, they would attack, or feign attacks, and quickly disapear. They didn't have much effect on morale, we were not afraid of them. I have also never heard of them doing any significant damage, as they were usually just used for recon. You knew about them, but we didn't hear about them much.

Martin: Have you ever met an interpreter by the name of Trefz?

Siebenbrot: No.

Martin: Have you ever had personal contact with Rommel?

Siebenbrot: Yes. We were in a rest position, in the desert, and it was my turn to be the look-out. In the distance, I could see a group of cars coming, and as they got closer, I could see that they were German. I had my rifle with me, and was wearing nothing except a cap, and shorts. I waved, and ran up to them, and I could see that it was Rommel himself, along with his entourage. I had to report the situation, what unit we were, and I pointed out to them where there was a minefield nearby, as they were going in that direction., and Rommel replies "Ja, we know, we know.". Then he asked me: "Wo kommst du her?" (Where do you come from?) I told him " Ich komme aus Niedersachen, Lüneburg." "Oooooooh... Lüneburg," he says, "Ja, ich war mal in Goslar..." (I was once in Goslar). He didn't have much time, and they drove on.

Martin: What was your CO like?

Siebenbrot: Our company commander was Oberleutnant Schröder. Our company had three platoons. The first platoon was commanded by Leutnant Buchholz. The second platoon was Leutnant Krusendorf, and the third was Leutnant Bronandt. This was while I was with the Sonderverband. I will be frank, we didn't like the company CO very much. He was too much by the book. If you can imagine it: You've been fighting, with little sleep, and then when you're in rest position, they come along and want you to clean your rifle. Then they make you feel bad if you have one spec of dust on it, but in those types of conditions, you can't help it. I understand that while in rest status, the troops need to be kept busy. But after being in combat, and when your on the move, you go 2 or 3 days without sleep, why not just let the troops sleep?

Martin: What do you think about the quality of the enemy soldiers and their equipment?

Siebenbrot: The English tanks, were inferior. They weren't quite as fast, and their firepower wasn't sufficient. The English though, were superior in the artillery. First of all they had more. But overall, in Africa, we were always outnumbered. Also, our supply was low, and approximately 40% of the supply ships were sunk. The British airforce was also superior. They had more planes, and more fuel. We had very few bombers, mostly just fighters. But, we had the 88. It was far superior to anything the British had. I think it could fire nine kilometers away. The british tanks couldn't fire that far, so we could destroy many before they were even able to shoot. As for the troops, I say they (the British) were equal. There may have been a few units that weren't so good, but in general, they were equal. And they were well equiped. But their commanders were somewhat hesitant to attack, and it seems sometimes they didn't know what was going on.

Martin: What was it like being under Rommel's command?

Siebenbrot: It was great. I think that every man in the Afrika Korps, admired Rommel. And if he would come around and say: "Ok guys, we want to take Bardia" everybody was willing to go. He would always ask more from the soldiers than was expected of them. He was very demanding, but we would give it to him gladly. We respected him because he was fair. No prisoners were mistreated. Also, he kept the SS out of Africa. He refused to have any SS units under his command. He was also admired very much by the 8th Army.

Martin: What did Rommel think of the troops he was commanding?

Siebenbrot: He was very satisfied with his troops. He had some misgivings about the Italians, however in hindsight, they had a lot of tough luck. They didn't have the armour, they weren't properly fed either. An Italian friend of mine, who was in the Italian army, said the food was atrocious. Their army was also classed, unlike the German army (at least in Africa), where an officer would basically get the same food as a private. Not so in the Italian army. And consequently, the Italian moral was not as good as in the German army, which is understandable. One should not always put the Italians down, in my opinion.

Martin: (almost redundant now but...) What did you think about the Italians?

Siebenbrot: Like I talked about before, but they were good guys. On one occasion we ran out of water. Our canteens could only hold 3/4 of a liter, while the Italian had big ones, at least 2 or 3 liters. So a group of Italians happened to come by, and offered us some water. We were extremly gratefull. But their equipment wasn't very good, their tanks were horrible, so they couldn't stand up to anything. And they had no trucks. You try marching aroung in the desert, and fighting. So they usually only moved at night. We also at times had no trucks, but very few Italian units were motorized. You have to keep that in consideration.

Martin: Have you ever heard of Hans von Luck?

Siebenbrot: No.

Martin: What was your basic training like?

Siebenbrot: The training was not too bad. Personally, I didn't like the army. The treatment was pretty rough. When you get punished for something you haven't done, it's tough to take. The actual training wasn't bad, I could take it. But when the officers treat you unfairly, then it's not very good. But this is just my opinion.

Martin: Have you ever been back to Africa after the war?

Siebenbrot: No. When we immigrated to Canada, it was a little far off. But I did attend two meetings of the Afrika Korps, after the war. Once in Iserlohn, and once near Hannover. At each occasion, Rommel's widow and son visited. In Hannover, I met a German general, General von Letto-Vorbeck, that had served in Africa during WWI (WWII??)

Martin: What do you think of your experiences from the war?

Siebenbrot: Well, I lost 8 or 9 of the best years of my life. When you went back home, you did all the things that you would've done at 17 or 18 or 19, six or so years later. Especially now, since we lost the war, you feel cheated out of those years, and many wonder what the use was. What did we fight for?

Martin: What was life like in the desert?

Siebenbrot: The desert is just sand. Some deserts, like in North-America, have bushes or shrubs, but in northern Lybia and Egypt, there are almost none. Those that do exist, are small, and most are brown. During the day, the temperature goes up to 40 degrees Celcius. Throughout my stay in Africa, I experienced only one time that it rained. But when it rains, boy oh boy, does it rain. The water runs off in what are called wadis. They're like a canyon, buy only a few meters deep. They were very usefull for cover, even for vehicles. In the desert, you wouldn't carry too much, just your equipment, one change of socks and underwear, and thats it. When I was wounded the first time and sent back to Italy, I didn't have a stich of clothing that was German, except for my cap. In Africa, you would scrounge or loot captured or abandoned trucks, get clothes from there. So hardly anybody wore an official uniform. Even some of our equipment wasn't German. Many trucks we had were captured ones that could be fixed up. In general, our supply was poor. You had to make do with what you had.

Martin: What was a typical day like?

Siebenbrot: If it was a rest day, you would do nothing. If possible, you would wash your cloths. The nights are very cold in the desert. You need at least 3 or 4 blankets. If your not resting, your constantly on the move. Here and there, wherever your needed. And every now and then, you'd come upon an enemy column. I remenber one occasion, we ran into a small group of British trucks. We weren't a big group either, but we managed to get the uper hand, and shot up the trucks. We ran up to the trucks, and we took what we could. Food, water, anything you could use. I remember for one particular week, we lived entirely on english food. Our field kitchen wasn't able to keep up with us. Each soldier carried a 'Eiserne Reserve' (hard biscuit) with them, and it was only to be eaten on orders, if there was no more food. The British had a choclate version, and they were very good. On another occasion, we were driving along, and we could see enemy tanks coming in the distance. The lieutenant ordered to get the machinegun ready, and get into positions. The tanks come closer, and closer, and finally they started shooting. Then the lieutenant yelled to get the hell out of here. So we ran like crazy, and saw some of our trucks that had stayed behind. They seemed to have the same orders to retreat, and I was just barely able to jump onto one of them, when it took off. In the desert, a unit is rarely in action together. elements are spread around, and used were they are needed.

Martin: Under what higher HQ was your unit in?

Siebenbrot: We were attached to the 90th Light Division. We weren't a generic unit, but an independant unit attached to the division for most of the war in the desert.