Interview with an Afrikakorps Panzer Veteran

This interview was conducted by Jeff Scott on Tuesday, November 10th, 1998. Jeff interviewed Hans (his real name) who is the father of an internet friend of his. Hans comes to the United States once a year and drives all across the Country. Jeff was able to arrange a meeting when he came through Nashville. They spoke for several hours. Hans speaks good English, but there were a few times when he was at a loss for an English word. Because of this, please excuse any misspelled words below, assometimes Jeff wasn’t sure what Hans was saying, and other times he wasn’t sure of the spelling (such as with locations and certain German words Jeff was unfamiliar with).

Jeff: What year did you join the army?

Hans: 1941

Jeff: How old were you when you entered the army?

Hans: I was seventeen when I volunteered.

Jeff: How did you get into the Panzer arm of the army?

Hans:I wanted to drive a tank. I was part of a replacement panzer unit. I was sent to a Panzer driver’s school, where I got my panzer driver license. I was then sent to a “Tropical” (warfare?) school north of Berlin, to prepare for my being sent to Afrika.

Jeff: Where did you go from there?

Hans: We (crew and tanks) were sent to Naples. Our tanks were to be shipped to Afrika, and we were going to be flying over (He said all previous groups went on ships with tanks). We were to fly over in a flight of JU-52’s (he said they always flew in flights of 21…) The pilots were very nervous, they did not like the run. They basically threw us in the planes and took off. We flew only about 200 feet above the water. On the way, we were “shadowed” by two British fighters. The pilots told us to manthe machine gun. We did and tried to shoot down the fighter, but shooting out of a plane is much different from shooting on the ground. In-flight everything looks much closer then it really is. They harassed us a bit but didn’t shoot down any of us. We were relieved when the airport came into sight. We were in for a nasty shock however as while we were making our landing approach, bombs started going off all around us! The pilot made some crazy maneuvers and aborted the landing. There was flak going off all around us and we thought that we would be killed before we even landed. We circled the airport and eventually landed. All planes landed safely, even though some were damaged. It turns out that there was a flight of 18 British bombers above us when we tried to land. I guess they thought they could kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. We were lucky to be alive.

Jeff: What unit were you attached to?

Hans: 21st Panzer Division. I was a part of Panzer Regiment 5.

Jeff: What type of Panzers were you driving?

Hans: I drove both Panzer Mark III’s and IV’s.

Jeff: Which type did you like better?

Hans: I much preferred the Mark III. It was very fast, having a Maybach 12 Cylinder engine. (He then went on to tell me about how great the Maybach engines were.) I didn’t like that it only had a 5-centimeter gun. We were really outgunned, but speed partially made up for it.

Jeff: What did you think about the Mark IV?

Hans: Well, it had a much better gun, 7.5-centimeter. But it was quite a bit heavier and had the same engine as the Mark III. Therefore it wasn’t nearly as fast. It had a new gearbox system, 10 forward gears and 4reverse. Not everyone could drive it. It was kind of a half-automatic.

Jeff: Did you encounter any Australian troops?

Hans: No, only British. British 8th army.

Jeff: What did you think of them?

Hans: Hard. Good fighters. They had good strong tanks. Very slow, however. We liked their food

Jeff: Did you see a lot of action?

Hans: Yes. Almost continuously. It wasn’t too bad, however. We would fight from sunup to sundown. When it started getting dark, except for afew times, all fighting stopped. Much better than in Russia. (Brother in Russia wrote him about the hell that was going on)

Jeff: Did you have any interactions with Italian troops?

Hans: Yes. I had not known any Italians before and fought with both the Ariete and Trieste units (I don’t know the spelling).

Jeff: What did you think of them?

Hans: The men were good. Their officers were poor, and their equipment was horrible. Their tanks were useless. The men, however, were good fighters.

Jeff: How did your capture come about?

Hans: We had been pushed back to Tunis, where we waited. We were later told of our surrender

Jeff: What did you think of your captors?

Hans: They were fair. They told us that our U-boats had been too successful. There was very little food and no water. We were given tea made from salt water. It was horrible, I can still taste it too this day.An officer told us that there wasn’t enough food for us, they weren’t trying to starve us. He told us to send some men to look at their food supplies, that he wasn’t lying.

Jeff: Why did you escape?

Hans: No food. We wanted to surrender to the Americans. I didn’t want to end up in England. I had always heard about how huge America was and I wanted to see it. Two friends and I escaped one night and made our way to a food cache (emergency food rations in a cave they knew about). When we got there we found nothing but an alcohol drink made from pears (expensive Swiss stuff he told me). That’s all we had to eat or drink for over a week. We were watching the road nearby for any sign of Americans. When we started seeing them driving past we went down and sat beside the road until we were picked up.

Jeff: What did you think of the Americans?

Hans: They were kind. They had everything. After I had been captured, I realized that Germany had lost the war. We saw a train arrive that had carload after carload of toilet paper and tent pegs. I knew that an army that would bring all that, would not forget their guns! They had good cigarettes too! Camels

Jeff: How did you get to America?

Hans: We went on a Liberty ship. It took 5 weeks to get to New York. The captain was kind and let us stay on deck when we went through Gibraltar. They told us not to try and swim for it. We saw 2 Italians on another ship jump overboard and were quickly swept away by the currents.None of us tried it. There were more then 50 ships in our convoy. We later learned that German submarines were sitting underneath us with their torpedo doors open, waiting to fire. The BDU sent message to them not to fire that there were POW’s on the ships. There were tankers in the middle of the convoy. The outer ring was of ships carrying POW’s. We were being used to protect their tankers.

Jeff: Did that make you angry?

Hans: No. I knew that German military would have done same thing.

Jeff: Where did you go from there?

Hans: We docked in New York and were put on Pullman cars after being processed. We were hungry on the train trip. They only brought small amounts of food at mealtime. We were told if they gave us a lot of food that it would make us sick. They promised us more food later.

Jeff: Did your family know where you were?

Hans: No. It was a year before they knew I was alive.

Jeff: What Prisoner of War Camp did you go to?

Hans: First we went to Camp Ruston in Louisiana. There was nothing there. They gave us tools and we made some buildings and sports fields. They had nothing for us to do. We did not work, just played soccer and such. There was lots of food but not much equipment. We had to use flour to line our soccer fields because we had no chalk.

Jeff: I notice in your photo album that the men are still wearing their uniforms, even with badges and medals on them? That is really a surprise!

Hans: Well they didn’t have any clothes for us! So they let us keep our uniforms. That man (pointing to album) was a sergeant in charge of 4 barracks, about 600 men. (Sergeant in photo is wearing Iron Cross 2ndclass ribbon, Iron Cross 1st class, and silver Wound Badge.)

Jeff: What did you think of the camp?

Hans: It was boring, but there was a lot of food. I was there about 6 months. Some of the men still gave the Nazi salute. I thought this very bad taste. We were a guest in this country. I know if a Russian had saluted “Mother Russia” he would have been shot.

Jeff: Where did you go next?

Hans: Next I was sent to Camp Como in Mississippi. It was hot. Most of the men picked cotton, very hard work.

Jeff: What did you do?

Hans: I worked on a Singer (sewing machine). We repaired uniforms and let out pants and such. The officers did not work. They were expected to escape. We would collect American money we found in the clothing we were repairing and give it to anyone that wanted to escape. One man escaped and was caught by a farmer. The officer had been living in farmer’s barn, and drinking milk out of his cow. The farmer knew was something was going on because his cow started being dry when he tried to milk her. Another man was caught crossing a bridge over the Mississippi River. We got tired of such foolishness and stopped saving them money. We were at Como for about 8 months.

Jeff: What next?

Hans: We went to a temporary work camp in Idaho. We picked huge amounts of potatoes, sugar beets, and onions. We lived in tents for 2months.

Jeff: What was your workday like?

Hans: Actually pretty easy. We were only required to pick a certain amount of food a day. We were always done by 2:00. The farmer would then bribe us with cigarettes or chocolate and we would do more work. But sometimes we just sat under the trees. It was good.

Jeff: Then where did you go?

Hans: Next I went to Utah. An airbase named Hillfield in Ogden.They asked me what I had done and I told them panzer driver. They said “Good, now you are a snow plow driver”. I was in charge of cleaning off the runway. Later they made me stop, a new rule had come about saying no German could be on the airway. I had picked up a decent amount of English during my time so far. So they made me an interpreter. It was boring. I told a friend I wanted to work and an American overheard me and said: “I have a job you can do.” “Can you drive?” “I’m your man” I replied. He sent me on a truck to get my eyes checked then to get checked out. I started driving a lunch truck. A woman and I went to parts of the base that was too far away for them to come and eat. I would take their money and she would serve them. I also delivered bakery goods. I liked this because I told the cooks that I was required to test the food to make sure it was acceptable. I ate three chocolate eclairs a day! Later they let me deliver the bakery goods alone. I had to get a regular drivers license.(Which I have seen, real Utah drivers license stating Hans was a Prisoner of War but was allowed to drive on all streets in Utah.)

Jeff: When did you finally get back to Germany?

Hans: 1946. I didn’t want to go home. I loved the United States.(Apparently, the Americanization worked well on him. He still loves the US.)

Jeff: I then asked Hans some various other questions that I had thought up and others had requested me to ask. What did you think of Rommel?

Hans: We loved him. We thought as long as he was our commander we couldn’t lose. We were very discouraged when he left. He also kept the SSout of Afrika! Did you know that? (No, I had never heard that.) Rommel hated Himmler and the SS. He refused to have any under his command. Hitler worked out a deal where every once in a while SS “observers” would come toAfrika, but there were no real units there.

Jeff: Have you seen Private Ryan, do you have any favorite war movies? (I love his answer here!)

Hans: No, I haven’t seen Private Ryan. I don’t really watch war movies. I have no need to. I was there. I did see Bridge at Remagen. I  liked it.

Jeff: What do you think of current day Berlin?

Hans: Very different from my youth. I was born in Berlin you see.It tore me up seeing my home destroyed the way it was.

Jeff: Do you go to Veteran reunions?

Hans: No. I see some of my friends from that time now and again.But I don’t go to reunions. It would take too much time away from mysports. (This was the same answer he gave when I asked him why he didn’t have a computer) I love my tennis and skiing too much. (He also goes windsurfing still. Don’t laugh, I’ve seen photos of that too!)

Jeff: Did you have any idea of all the interest in WWII Germany?

Hans: None. It has been so long since I talked with anyone about the war. I have enjoyed it, however. (I then proceeded to show him Jason’s site and he was very impressed.)

Jeff: What did you learn from all your experiences?

Hans: (Long pause, then speaking very softly) It was a horrible time for me and all of Germany. We (Germans) have no one to blame except ourselves. I lost all three of my brothers. My home was destroyed and invaded. I know that the best place I could have been was in those camps thousands of miles away. I survived. What else can I say? So many did not.I’m simply thankful to be alive.