GERMAN SOLDIER DESCRIBES TERROR OF SICILY RETREAT
A letter found in an abandoned German gun position near Troina, Sicily, gives a fairly comprehensive picture of what went on in the mind of at least one enemy soldier during the retreat.
Possibly because their training has stressed offensive problems at the expense of defensive problems—the customary proportion has been 10 to 1—many German soldiers seem to lack enthusiasm for the defense. Readers of the Intelligence Bulletin will recall a number of articles in which high-ranking German officers have been quoted as expressing dissatisfaction, not only with the preparation of defensive positions, but with the defensive tactics of small units. This letter indicates that, although a number of factors can contribute to the lowering of the German soldier’s morale while he is on the defensive, U.S. artillery barrages play a substantial part in crippling the enemy’s will to fight.
U.S. soldiers have been conducting a type of “psychological warfare”—perhaps without realizing it. It must be remembered that a German’s mind is as vulnerable as his body. This particular letter reveals a state of uncertainty and depression which might be called the symptom of a contagious mental illness. It is to be hoped that, under the pressure of our attacks and counterattacks, this illness will spread throughout the German Army.
An order issued by the commanding general of the Hermann Goering Division is added, to illustrate how pessimism and fear can be communicated from one German soldier to another.
2. RETREAT IN SICILY
23 July 1943.
I want to send you a report about these past few days, so that in case I never come home, you will know what we are putting up with down here in Sicily.
Two days after the British and the Americans had landed, they had gained so much ground, and had succeeded in bringing so many troops, that it was impossible to anticipate a battle with equal forces. On 14 July we missed being captured by just 1 hour. We took up a new position, which the Americans promptly covered with artillery fire, costing us our first victims. From this position we retreated again—toward the flank—and took up still another position. This move nearly sealed our fate. I am supposed to keep my vehicle near the commander, and serve as a communication trouble-shooter. Whenever the telephone line is damaged by artillery fire, the order is “Get out and repair.” (We are fighting in the central sector, and are opposing crack U.S. and Canadian troops.) Such an order came at 2100 on 20 July, three nights ago. Right after we had left out position, such a terrific barrage started that an infantry sergeant swore he had never experienced anything like it, even in Russia. Many were killed. Several of my comrades and I were right in the thick of it. It is impossible to describe the terror of that experience. We pressed our faces to the ground and waited for a direct hit, or flying fragments, to take our lives.
Meanwhile, people back home in Germany were vacationing, going to cafes and movies, and enjoying themselves. I asked myself “Where is the justice which is supposed to exist?”
At 0400 we got back to our position. At least, we were still alive. We could hear machine-gun and rifle fire. We went to sleep, anyway, although our commander had already departed. Half an hour later, I was awakened suddenly. There were orders for me. The Americans were in the immediate vicinity, and all lines had to be disconnected. We were 10 men altogether. We had a large personnel carrier and a small one. It was necessary to go slowly on the dirt roads, but on the highway we traveled as fast as the vehicles would go. At a junction a car was lying on its side, constituting a road block. It seemed impossible to take the vehicles any distance across country, because of the nature of the ground, but we made it. Then it happened. We rounded a curve and ran into concentrated rifle and machine-gun fire. I felt as if God had suddenly put a wall of flying steel in front of me! At this moment I thought of all of you.
I had to get the car through, and somehow or other I succeeded in doing it. Afterward, the man in the seat beside me looked at me and I looked at him. We were white as chalk. But we had survived. (May God always be with me! I am asking this, and I know you are asking it, too.) A short distance away friends were waiting for us. They had observed everything through field glasses. When we reported that the other car could hardly be expected to come through, our 22-year-old lieutenant, who was already there, gave us a tongue-lashing. He said that he had expected more of us to get through, and that we should be ashamed to say such things. I had to hold myself back in order not to leap at his throat. He didn’t know the whole story, of course, inasmuch as he had left the position an hour earlier. However, some of the missing men eventually got through by foot.
A little town, which by now had been occupied by the Americans, was shelled by our artillery. In return, the American artillery fired on our positions, costing us a number of wounded and forcing us to change our position once again. We had retreated 30 kilometers and had had only a single day of rest. But here “rest” means—air attacks! (I am obliged to admit that while I have been fighting in Sicily, I have seen only two German airplanes.) Hostile enemy air reconnaissance discovered us, and the next day the Americans placed artillery barrages on our newest position. It became a miserable hell, and we had to abandon it that evening.
As a rule, we travel only at night—in pitch dark, without lights, and seldom on a main road. You can imagine what this means—especially when we are forever under fire. At noon of this day, I was ordered to take out a detail and look for our motorcycle runner, who was missing up front. We searched for him until it Was nearly dark, but without success. We returned, hoping to get some sleep after the misery of the past two days, but found that everyone had moved again to a new position, taking advantage of the darkness.
We had a corporal with us who said he knew the route of march, but he gave us faulty directions. A hundred times we had to drop to the ground because of hostile planes. Planes are always around—nothing but American and British ones, unfortunately. We rode through a town, but had to stop 500 yards beyond it, inasmuch as we didn’t know whether this road was still in German hands. Here we experienced a bombing attack. The town was very badly hit. Moreover, our vehicles were being shot at by mortars. We were terribly frightened, but we had to get through. Luckily, every bullet does not kill, and our venture succeeded. We had already been posted as missing and our lieutenant himself had gone out to look for us. Not only were we safe, but our motorcycle runner had returned safely, too!
Our infantry had repulsed two heavy attacks. As a result, our light truck, which was all shot up, could be towed. While we were taking care of this, British planes appeared overhead. A moment later a nearby explosion threw my assistant driver and myself out of the car. I happened to land in the fairly soft earth of a bomb crater, and wasn’t badly hurt. But my assistant driver was thrown onto the hard surface of the road and was still lying there when I found him. I took him to a field hospital. He had suffered head and face injuries. I feel very close to this fellow, since he and I have been through so many sad hours together. He will soon be with us again.
We are always being pursued. Half the time we don’t know what day or date it is. As you can probably guess, I have been writing this letter piecemeal from time to time. I started it a week ago. How many new positions we have retired to since then! This past Sunday we were in still another one, and again the American artillery covered us. You have no idea what it is like to hear shells whizz over your head—all night long—everlastingly. It’s so hard to sleep! At 0500 on Monday I had to go out trouble-shooting. The line was down in seven places. My car passed a field aid station, where there were men who had literally been torn to pieces. A ghastly sight! I couldn’t eat anything that noon. All that day our position was shelled. We kept running and flopping down under the car—up and down, up and down. Suddenly, at 1900 a terrific barrage came at us, and again my detail and I had to take down the communication lines while the others departed. Several times we had to stop, jump out, and take cover. The shells seemed to whistle past, a yard ahead of us or a yard behind us. At 0200 the next morning we were safe again. Unfortunately. I had developed a bad boil on my right knee. This morning they lanced it. It was very painful.
Again we have taken up new positions. For the moment it is still quiet here—but for how long? The whole thing will start all over again.
Today we learned that Mussolini had been kicked out. This means the end of Fascism too. Will Italy turn against us now? Whatever will become of us is debatable. It can hardly be supposed that this event will turn out for the good.
Incidentally, Hans Maier and most of my other friends are all with the Services of Supply, 30 to 40 kilometers to the rear. I don’t suppose anything much will happen to them. My comrade Huebner is in Germany by now, and has probably visited you and told you a small part of what is going on. He has had damn good luck. Do you know that recently were awakened at 0300 because mail had arrived? At that time I received your letters of the 7th and 11th of July, as well as a newspaper and two picture post cards from Schala, who was vacationing in Allgaou. He said, “From a wonderful rest and furlough days, the heartiest greetings.” You can’t imagine what I felt like when I read that. Hourly I fight for my life, and then suddenly I get Schala’s post card. I just haven’t the heart to answer it.
28 July 1943.
Yesterday things were fairly quiet in our new position, although occasionally we could hear artillery in the distance. A tremendous number of planes passed overhead. Flak is constantly being fired, yet I have never seen a plane shot down. Our Luftwaffe must be employed elsewhere, because I still haven’t seen any German planes to speak of. Tonight there is a terrific thunderstorm going on, and our comrades who are further up front must be wretchedly uncomfortable. I can hardly stand listening to the noise any longer. The lightning—coupled with everything that has happened—shatters my nerves. I find it impossible to sleep after a storm like this. All I can manage are little naps, in which I have bad nightmares. Oh, if I could only have a roof over my head again! We’re always sleeping on the ground, and in a different place every night.
29 July 1943.
Last night we moved out without having been fired on. Even in transit, we did not encounter what we call “magic fire” (Feuerzauber). This is the name that we give to the insane artillery barrages that the enemy places on us. Around midnight we arrived at our new position. While sleeping on the ground, we heard reverberations, as if we were sleeping in a basement while somebody upstairs was moving furniture. So even though we weren’t directly under the “magic fire,” we weren’t allowed to forget it. . . .
Our food is good. Every day we also receive a bit of hard candy, half a cake of chocolate, and a box of “Attikah” cigarettes. The cigarettes don’t last long, however. You have no idea how much one smokes, just to distract one’s thoughts. As to myself, I must report that I am having a great deal of trouble with my ears. The artillery fire, together with the clouds of dust that we endure while we are traveling, deprives me more and more of my hearing. I really hear very badly now, and can notice it myself. This gives me a very insecure feeling. Since I was last in the hospital, I haven’t had any pus in my knee—so that seems to be coming along all right. But my sense of hearing is something I’ll never be able to regain entirely. If I live, I’ll always have a certain degree of deafness.
Two of our men remained too long under cover during an artillery barrage, and while they were there, the unit moved out. They didn’t rejoin us until the following day. They were threatened with a court-martial. These fellows may have been a little bit to blame, but such a threat is too severe and very depressing. One can very easily fall into a “bad light” here. Everything is construed as “dereliction of duty,” and the severest punishments are decreed.
1 August 1943.
Sunday again. Will I ever be able to mail this letter? Oh, I wish I could tell you, my beloved ones, what we are going through in this campaign! Our infantry suffers even more. Yesterday I lost a very good comrade. Everything is against us. The hostile artillery fires with its heaviest-caliber guns on our road of retreat. Right now the “Tommy” is attacking. It won’t last long. Our only possible line of retreat is through burning fields and woods and towns subjected to artillery fire.
The future looks terribly dark. . . .
3. A GENERAL WAS BITTER
There were many other German soldiers in Sicily who felt as did the writer of this letter. An order of General Conrath, commanding general of the Hermann Goering Division, testifies eloquently to the fact that the British-American onslaught dealt a sledgehammer blow to the morale of a unit which formerly had been the pride of the German Army.
During the past few days, I have had the bitter experience of watching scenes which are not worthy of a German soldier, particularly not of a soldier of the Hermann Goering Division.
Men came running to the rear, hysterically crying because they had heard the detonation of a single shot fired somewhere in the distance. Others, deceived by false rumors, moved whole columns to the rear. In one instance, supplies were senselessly distributed to soldiers and civilians by a supply unit which had fallen victim to a rumor. I wish to state that not only the younger soldiers, but also noncoms and warrant officers, were guilty of panic-stricken behavior.
Panic, “Panzer fear,” and the spreading of rumors are to be eliminated by the strongest possible measures. Cowardice and withdrawal without orders are to be punished on the spot, and, if necessary, by the use of weapons.
I shall apply the severest measures of court-martial against such saboteurs of the fight to free our nation, and I shall not hesitate to pronounce death sentences in serious cases.
I expect all officers to use their influence in suppressing this undignified attitude throughout the Hermann Goering Division.
Original article: http://www.lonesentry.com/articles/sicilyretreat/