Interview with an Afrikakorps Infantry Veteran
|This interview was done on January 23rd, 1999 by Martin Schenkel with aGerman Veteran known as Oberschütze Siebenbrot. He served in North Africaduring WWII in the Wehrmacht Heer. In this interview, Siebenbrot firstexplains his wartime experiences and then responds to a number ofquestions asked by Martin.
I was drafted in February, 1941, at the age of 19, and did my basictraining in Göttingen. In July, we were sent to theTruppenübungslager Munster, to complete the training. They thenasked me if I was interested in going to Africa, to serve in the AfrikaKorps. I agreed, and was sent to Potsdam, where (although we didn’t knowit at the time) we would be assembled in a Sonderverband (special unit).The unit was originally named Sonderverband 288. We later found out, thatwe would be going to Iraq, to occupy the oil fields. The Sonderverband,was not organized like a typical battalion which usually had 3 or 4companies. We had 7 companies. The first company was composed offoreigners, who had grown up in the middle east, and in total, were ableto 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 mortarelements. The sixth was a FlaK company, and the seventh, was an AT-riflecompany. 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 ofthe companies, so that when there were casualties, any man could fill thespot. For example, I as an infantryman, was only trained in the use ofrifles, machinguns, and other small arms unique to the infantry. In thisunit, we were also trained to use the light and heavy mortars, anti-tankrifles, and the FlaK guns. By the end of the training in September, everyman in the Sonderverband was trained in the use of all the hand-heldweapons, and sometimes more. We were then loaded on trains, and sent onour 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 hadoccupied the southern parts of Iraq, namely Basra, which is where theSonderverband was headed. We continued to Greece, and ended up south ofathens, in the Atika peninsula. Quarters were quickly arranged, as thecommand no longer knew what to do with us. We stayed there for most of thewinter, and continued to train. Because the unit was equiped and trainedfor the tropics, it was decided to send us to Africa. We re-embarked ontrains, and headed back through Yugoslavia, to Trieste and then Naples. Wewere then ordered to Letche, on the Adriatic, to get ready to go toNorth-Africa, either by ship, or airplane.
In March, 1942, our company was loaded into small aircraft to fly toAfrica. They were old primitve Italian aircraft, with canvas coveringwhich already had several holes. The entrances were open, and hadmachineguns for air defense. The poor airplane was overlaoded, andcouldn’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, theplane flew 200 feet above the sea, and arrived safely in Derna. We werevery quickly unloaded, as the pilot was getting very anxious to get going,because British airplanes would soon arrive. The plane was loaded withwounded, and a few minutes later, the fighters arrived. Britishintelligence and recon was very good, and they knew when planes or shipswere arriving. The unit then spent some time re-organizing, and gettingready to participate in the offensive. At the same time, the unit wasrenamed Kampfgruppe Menton.
It was in early June, that we had our first contact with the enemy. Theengineers first had to clear a path in the minefields. The path was verysmall, just barely wide enough for two way traffic. We were then sent toEl Adem. The British couldn’t hold, they retreated, and the town wasquickly caputred. The unit then moved towards Bir Hacheim, but stiffresistance from French Legionaires, commanded by general Koenig, held upthe 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. Ourcompany 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-outand escape. After Bir Hacheim was captured, the British launched acounter-attack. We were hit pretty hard, had to quickly retreat, andsomehow managed to avoid being cut-off and captured. The Britishcounter-attacks then failed, and Rommel was able to push them back to theEgyptian border. The Sonderverband ended up near Bardia-Sollum. By thattime, Tobruk had been surrounded, and was under siege. We were sent backto south of Tobruk, and watched the battle while in reserve. Then it wasback to Egypt, and we arrived south of Mersa Matruh, while the Britishwere still more than 100km behind us. On one perticular night, after wehad dug our foxholes and were resting, we heard engine noises, andrealized that it was the British, who were drinving past our positions. Itwas night, so nothing could be done, nor was our strength enough to takeon so many British.
It was at this time, in September, that I started to suffer fromarthritis. I was sent back to Tobruk, which had in the meantime beencaptured. On the way, we were attacked by planes. We quickly jumped out ofthe trucks, and scrambled for cover. During this attack, I narrowlyescaped 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 oftraffic, as many wounded were being brought from the front, and there weremany amputations. At around 8 that evening, a doctor finally got around toexamaning me, and decided that because the arthritis wouldn’t healproperly in the heat, I was to be sent back to Naples, from Derna, viahospital ship. Next to me on the ship, was an east indian, who was tryingto talk to me, I didn’t understand much enlish yet, but figured out thethe indian had been injured while being attacked by tanks. Even if youwere the enemy, you were taken care of if you were injured. I spent amonth in Naples, and when I was able to walk properly, he was sent back toGermany for rehablilitation. After another month in southern-Germany (nearthe Bodensee), I reported back to my unit’s HQ/collection point, inKüstrin. I then got two weeks leave, and went home, and when Ireported again, I was sent to work on a potato farm for a few weeks. Afterthat, in December, we were sent to Grafenwöhr, were there was a bigtraining facility. There we joined the GebirgsJäger Regiment 756, and thistime, I was attached to a rifle platoon, as an infantryman. On christmaseve, the unit was loaded on trains, and went throught the Brenner pass toItaly, 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. Wewere then ordered to capture a hill. We captured it, and there, for thefirst time, I was close enough, in combat, to be able to see the whites oftheir 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 wasthe 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. Thecombat in the days following, went back and forth, and after a while, wewere sent to a quiet part of the front, on the coast, and rested, and laidbooby traps. We then went on a 60 km night march, to attack Frenchpositions in a valley the next morning. With about 30 men left in ourplatoon, we ran down the hill, screaming and shouting. The French weretotally surprised and surrendered immediately. The platoon took about 120prisoners. The fighting in Africa, I would like to say, was always fair,and both sides respected each other, unlike in Russia. No prisoners wereshot or badly mistreated. In one particular case, after heavy fighting,many wounded were lying around the battlefield, so a temorary cease-firewas arranged. Both sides went out to collect their wounded. Neither sideever violated the cease-fire. In another instance, close to the end inTunisia (April), on a beautifull day, our company which was down to tenmen, was dug in a hill. Two men were in each hole, and the holes wereabout 10 feet apart. Suddenly a British tank came along. We had absolutleyno anti-tank weapons of any kind. Apparently, one of the men in thefoxhole next to us, caught the attention of the tank, and it fired intothe foxhole, and the men were injured, and shouting for help. A medic camewith a streatcher to our foxhole, and tied a white band around my arm. Weleaped out of the foxhole towards the wounded men, in full view of thetank, which wasn’t more than 25 m away. One of the men was dead, and wetook 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 fewheavy weapons left, the Axis suurendered on 8 May to the Allies inTunisia. We marched over a hill to some British tanks, who gave uscigarettes, and we gave them choclate, and they were very friendly. Wewere sent to a makeshift POW camp near Bone. In the camps we didn’t gettoo much to eat, so we had to try to get an egg, or some cous-cous fromthe 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 coupleAmerican ships that were heading back to the US. We arrived in New York on30 May, 1943. On the voyage though, many had gotten lice again, so we werethen 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 thecamp, a sports field had been built. Each prisoner was entideld to eatwhat a regular soldier eats. We were given enough food, and there were fewcomplaints. At first, there wasn’t any real work for us, so we just didsmall jobs in the camp, like mowing lawns etc., and a few volunteered forthe camp fire brigade. We were also allowed to learn several languages(english, french, and spanish), and to read and write, and to study manydifferent topics like math and so on, all organized by the prisoners.There was also a monthly newspaper, put together by the prisoners. Therewas a chapel, an orchestra, a theater, and once a month there would be abig show, with the band playing, some would sing, and there would be aplay or two. In this camp, we ate corn for the first time, as in Germanyit was used for feeding chickens. One prisoner came up with the followingpoem:
Finally they figured that we should work a little. So they put towork in the cotton fields. Through our stuborness, we decided to sticktogether, and picked only up to a certain amount of cotton in a day. Whenyou are a POW, you’re not supposed to be put to work in an industry. Wewere used to getting two days holiday for Pfingsten, so on the first ofthose two days, we decided not to work. The Americans closed much of thecamp down, including the kitchen. On the second day, the POW’s decided togo back to work. Next, a local rice farm needed help for the harvest, sosome of us were sent to work there. Each morning, the farmer would come topick us up, and drive us home at the end of the day. I had learned quite abit 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 thebest, and each day the farmer’s wife would serve us a different dish ofrice. We really enjoyed that.
Early in 1944, I was sent to another camp, Huntsville, Alabama. Here I sawa bit of injustice. The Americans were trying to force non-comissionedofficers to work. By the Geneva convention, officers are not supposed towork. The officers refused, and as a result, got little food, so we threwthem some food over the fence. Then, after a quick stay in Georgia, someof us were sent to Florida, south of Miami. At first I worked at a bigarmy depot. There was a big repair shop, where old army trucks were beingrepaired, and then sent to Russia. POW’s weren’t supposed to work inindustry, so we maintained buildings, cut grass etc. Eventually, we loadedtrucks on railcars. Next I moved on to a maintenance shop at Miamiairport, and I started working in the paint shop, which prior to the warhad been my trade. At this camp, I met some guys who had somehow puttogether a radio, and we could listen to news coming out of Havana (one ofthe guys spoke spanish), as well as local stations. At that time, Cuba wassome what friendly to the Germans, so the German news we heard fromHavana, was much different than from the American stations. I think thatthe American news was much closer to the truth. I stayed in Miami untillthe end of the war.
In April 1946, we were sent back to New York, were we boarded a ship toAntwerp. Now under British control, we then ended up in a camp south ofBrussels. 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 wewere able to survive. The camps were exactly like described in a book byJames Bach, The Other Losses. There was a high barbed-wire fence. You werelucky if you were able to get a tent, there were few blankets, and thefood was hardly believable. We were there only for 6 weeks, but you couldsee that the guys had lost a lot of weight. Then, for some reason, insteadof being sent home, we were shipped to England. There we were greeted by anEnglish major or colonel, who was really impressive; he said straight out”…you are here to help rebuild the country, in retaliation fordestroying much of it…” At least that guy was fair, he told us straightout what was going on. We spent a year in England. At first we worked on afarm, then we dug ditches for water, gas, sewer lines for new houses, and we werealso a while in a brickworks. It was then 1947, and we were about to gohome, 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 weresent home first. I was a mitlaufer. Last to leave were the supposed nazis.They were considered Nazis, because mabye they were nasty to theinterogators. I arrived home, with an old British army uniform, withpatches 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 withFrench troops, but then after that, primarily British troops. The war inAfrica 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 RangeDesert Force have?
Siebenbrot: They had success, but not all the time. Theydid a commando raid on Rommel’s HQ, but they fared pretty badly. Theyoperated far behind our lines, and they usually came up from the south,and acted mostly as recon. But sometimes, against small units, they wouldattack, or feign attacks, and quickly disapear. They didn’t have mucheffect on morale, we were not afraid of them. I have also never heard ofthem doing any significant damage, as they were usually just used forrecon. You knew about them, but we didn’t hear about them much.
Martin: Have you ever met an interpreter by the name ofTrefz?
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 agroup of cars coming, and as they got closer, I could see that they wereGerman. I had my rifle with me, and was wearing nothing except a cap, andshorts. I waved, and ran up to them, and I could see that it was Rommelhimself, along with his entourage. I had to report the situation, whatunit we were, and I pointed out to them where there was a minefieldnearby, as they were going in that direction., and Rommel replies “Ja, weknow, we know.”. Then he asked me: “Wo kommst du her?” (Where do you comefrom?) I told him ” Ich komme aus Niedersachen, Lüneburg.””Oooooooh… Lüneburg,” he says, “Ja, ich war mal in Goslar…” (Iwas once in Goslar). He didn’t have much time, and they drove on.
Martin: What was your CO like?
Siebenbrot: Our company commander was OberleutnantSchröder. Our company had three platoons. The first platoon wascommanded by Leutnant Buchholz. The second platoon was LeutnantKrusendorf, and the third was Leutnant Bronandt. This was while I was with theSonderverband. 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 alongand want you to clean your rifle. Then they make you feel bad if you haveone spec of dust on it, but in those types of conditions, you can’t helpit. I understand that while in rest status, the troops need to be keptbusy. But after being in combat, and when your on the move, you go 2 or 3days without sleep, why not just let the troops sleep?
Martin: What do you think about the quality of the enemysoldiers and their equipment?
Siebenbrot: The English tanks, were inferior. They weren’tquite 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, andapproximately 40% of the supply ships were sunk. The British airforce wasalso superior. They had more planes, and more fuel. We had very fewbombers, mostly just fighters. But, we had the 88. It was far superior toanything the British had. I think it could fire nine kilometers away. Thebritish tanks couldn’t fire that far, so we could destroy many before theywere even able to shoot. As for the troops, I say they (the British) wereequal. There may have been a few units that weren’t so good, but ingeneral, they were equal. And they were well equiped. But their commanderswere somewhat hesitant to attack, and it seems sometimes they didn’t knowwhat was going on.
Martin: What was it like being under Rommel’s command?
Siebenbrot: It was great. I think that every man in theAfrika Korps, admired Rommel. And if he would come around and say: “Okguys, we want to take Bardia” everybody was willing to go. He would alwaysask more from the soldiers than was expected of them. He was verydemanding, but we would give it to him gladly. We respected him because hewas fair. No prisoners were mistreated. Also, he kept the SS out ofAfrica. He refused to have any SS units under his command. He was alsoadmired very much by the 8th Army.
Martin: What did Rommel think of the troops he wascommanding?
Siebenbrot: He was very satisfied with his troops. He hadsome misgivings about the Italians, however in hindsight, they had a lotof tough luck. They didn’t have the armour, they weren’t properly fedeither. An Italian friend of mine, who was in the Italian army, said thefood was atrocious. Their army was also classed, unlike the German army(at least in Africa), where an officer would basically get the same food asa private. Not so in the Italian army. And consequently, the Italian moralwas not as good as in the German army, which is understandable. One shouldnot always put the Italians down, in my opinion.
Martin: (almost redundant now but…) What did you thinkabout the Italians?
Siebenbrot: Like I talked about before, but they were goodguys. On one occasion we ran out of water. Our canteens could only hold3/4 of a liter, while the Italian had big ones, at least 2 or 3 liters. Soa group of Italians happened to come by, and offered us some water. Wewere extremly gratefull. But their equipment wasn’t very good, their tankswere horrible, so they couldn’t stand up to anything. And they had notrucks. You try marching aroung in the desert, and fighting. So theyusually only moved at night. We also at times had no trucks, but very fewItalian units were motorized. You have to keep that in consideration.
Martin: Have you ever heard of Hans von Luck?
Martin: What was your basic training like?
Siebenbrot: The training was not too bad. Personally, Ididn’t like the army. The treatment was pretty rough. When you getpunished for something you haven’t done, it’s tough to take. The actualtraining wasn’t bad, I could take it. But when the officers treat youunfairly, 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 alittle far off. But I did attend two meetings of the Afrika Korps, afterthe 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 mylife. When you went back home, you did all the things that you would’vedone at 17 or 18 or 19, six or so years later. Especially now, since welost the war, you feel cheated out of those years, and many wonder whatthe use was. What did we fight for?
Martin: What was life like in the desert?
Siebenbrot: The desert is just sand. Some deserts, like inNorth-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. Throughoutmy stay in Africa, I experienced only one time that it rained. But when itrains, boy oh boy, does it rain. The water runs off in what are calledwadis. They’re like a canyon, buy only a few meters deep. They were veryusefull for cover, even for vehicles. In the desert, you wouldn’t carrytoo much, just your equipment, one change of socks and underwear, andthats it. When I was wounded the first time and sent back to Italy, Ididn’t have a stich of clothing that was German, except for my cap. InAfrica, you would scrounge or loot captured or abandoned trucks, getclothes from there. So hardly anybody wore an official uniform. Even someof our equipment wasn’t German. Many trucks we had were captured ones thatcould be fixed up. In general, our supply was poor. You had to make dowith what you had.
Martin: What was a typical day like?
Siebenbrot: If it was a rest day, you would do nothing. Ifpossible, you would wash your cloths. The nights are very cold in thedesert. You need at least 3 or 4 blankets. If your not resting, yourconstantly on the move. Here and there, wherever your needed. And everynow and then, you’d come upon an enemy column. I remenber one occasion, weran 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 tothe trucks, and we took what we could. Food, water, anything you coulduse. I remember for one particular week, we lived entirely on englishfood. Our field kitchen wasn’t able to keep up with us. Each soldiercarried a ‘Eiserne Reserve’ (hard biscuit) with them, and it was only tobe eaten on orders, if there was no more food. The British had a choclateversion, and they were very good. On another occasion, we were drivingalong, and we could see enemy tanks coming in the distance. The lieutenantordered to get the machinegun ready, and get into positions. The tankscome closer, and closer, and finally they started shooting. Then thelieutenant yelled to get the hell out of here. So we ran like crazy, andsaw some of our trucks that had stayed behind. They seemed to have thesame orders to retreat, and I was just barely able to jump onto one ofthem, when it took off. In the desert, a unit is rarely in actiontogether. 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. Weweren’t a generic unit, but an independant unit attached to the divisionfor most of the war in the desert.