Monday, July 27, 2015

Rommel and Schirach

In 1937, Rommel was given the duties of liaison officer with the Hitler Jugend, under the charming but arrogant Baldur von Schirach. The two men did not like each other. Schirach, who was American-educated, disliked the ramrod-stiff Rommel whom he saw as a caricature of the Prussian officer. He was surprised when Rommel opened his mouth and spoke with a broad Swabian accent, and proved far less stiff than he had expected.-  Christer Jorgensen, "Rommel's Panzers," page 20


In 1937, Rommel conducted a tour of Hitler Youth (HJ) meetings and encampments, and delivered lectures on German soldiering while inspecting facilities and exercises. Simultaneously, he was pressuring Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, to accept an agreement expanding the army's involvement in Hitler Youth training. Schirach interpreted this as a bid to turn the Hitler Jugend into an army auxiliary, a "junior army" in his words. He refused, and Rommel, whom he had come to dislike personally, was denied access to the Hitler Jugend.  An agreement between the Army and the Hitler Youth was concluded, but on a far more limited scope than Rommel had sought. Cooperation was restricted to the army providing personnel to the Rifle School, much to the army's chagrin. By 1939, the Hitler Jugend had 20,000 rifle instructors. Rommel retained his place at Potsdam and was awarded the highest war ribbons for excellent performance.


Rommel first came to Hitler's attention in 1934 during his visit to review the troops at Goslar. In 1935 he was posted as the War Ministry's special liaison officer to Baldur von Schirach's Hitler Youth Organization. He soon realized that he had no use for the young von Schirach's methods and Rommel's heavy Swabian accent did not sit well with the Hitler Youth leader's expectations. They soon parted ways, but while in Potsdam Rommel had managed to complete his brilliant book on infantry tactics "Infantry Attacks" and get it published. This book obviously came to Hitler's attention and apparently he was impressed by it. In 1938 when Hitler decided to visit his newly acquired Sudetenland he chose Rommel as the commandant for his Escort Battalion. This single appointment immediately propelled Rommel into the spotlight, where he would remain for many years to come. In November of that same year he was posted as Commandant of the officer cadet school at Wiener-Nuestadt, near Vienna. These would be some of their happiest years, and his family would live in comfortable surroundings. Again in March 1939 Hitler chose Rommel to command his mobile HQ during the occupation of Prague. With the invasion plans for Poland well under way, Rommel learned that he was promoted to Major General, and was subsequently made responsible for Hitler's safety during his numerous visits to the front.

Last Ditch Defenders

Often the most determined resistance encountered by Commonwealth and US troops in the last months of the war came from groups of Hitler Youth. These 14-15-year-olds were captured near Munster at the beginning of April 1945. According to the original caption, they only surrendered after using up their ammunition, and remained 'arrogant'.

Hitlerjugend Panzerjagdkommandos (Hitler Youth tank destroyers) captured by British tankers, 7 April 1945

Ernst In January 1945 Ernst was in a Wehrertuchtigungslager outside Berlin. At the completion of his training, Ernst was drafted into the Volkssturm with the rest of his Schar of about 40 boys. Most of February was spent in labour work, digging fortifications around Berlin for up to 15 hours a day. In March, Ernst and his comrades were overjoyed to learn that they would at last have the opportunity to fight. The boys of his Schar were to become specialist anti-tank troops attached to the HJ-Regiment 'Berlin', officially to be used behind the front lines in the case of a breakthrough by Soviet armour.

Ernst's Kameradschaft of ten boys was now redesignated as a Panzernahbekampfungstrupp der HJ ('close-quarter anti-tank squad of the HJ'). The boys were equipped with bicycles, with eight of the boys (including Ernst) using Panzerfauste and two operating an MG34 light machine gun. They also received captured foreign carbines, which made them better equipped than many similar units thrown into action in the last months of the war. It was not unusual for a group of ten or so boys to have nothing but a couple of Panzerfausts and some grenades between them.

In early April 1943. Ernst's unit was ordered to report to the Olympic Stadium in West Berlin with hundreds of other Hitler Youth for deployment. While they waited for orders, Ernst even helped train boys from the DJV as young as ten in the use of the Panzerfaust. The children at the Sports Stadium received many visits from Artur Axmann, who regaled them with the story of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, who had sacrificed themselves heroically against the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. Axmann undertook the training and organization of Hitler Youth units largely on his own authority. On 18 April he visited the harassed General Weidling, whom Hitler would appoint as commander of Berlin on the 24th, and offered him the use of 'his' Hitler Youth detachments. Flying into a rage, Weidling refused to use the children, and demanded that Axmann remove them from danger. Despite assurances, he did not do so.

Soviet assault troops began pushing into the suburbs of Berlin on Hitler's birthday, 20 April. Ernst's Kameradschaft was sent with other HJ anti-tank units to Neukolln, south-east of the city centre, under the command of a one-armed former army Leutnant. Many other Hitler Youth who had assembled at the Stadium were sent north to hold the bridges over the Havel River in the futile hope that a relief army would reach Berlin. As it turned out, the sacrifice of young German boys at the Havel bridges mainly served the purpose of allowing a number of high Nazi officials to escape Berlin by that route. Ernst and his comrades were ordered to act as a 'mobile anti-tank reserve' to bolster the defence of Volkssturm and SS units. With them went a group of girls from the BDM to act as support for the HJ 'soldiers'.

Ernst's first experience of battle came on 23 April. A group of Soviet tanks were making a determined effort to push towards the city centre from the district of Kopenick, and Ernst's unit was called on by a hard-pressed group of Volkssturm for support. The Soviet T34s were attacking without infantry support, and Ernst and two other boys were able to find a good position inside a ruined shop. When the first tank had passed their position, Ernst and his companions ran out into the street and fired their Panzerfauste, knocking out the first and second tank in line, before ducking back into the shelter of the buildings. An officer of the Volkssturm who had witnessed their attack clapped the boys on the back when they returned, promising he would recommend them for a medal.

Ernst was elated by his success, but it wasn't to last. On 24 April, a devastating strike by Soviet rockets killed four of Ernst's friends. Two more were killed the following day while attacking Soviet tanks, and Ernst began to realize that it was only a matter of time before his body was reduced to one of the bloody heaps of rags that had become all too familiar to him. He longed to go home, he longed to sleep. Although the idea of deserting occurred to him, he did not want to end his young life hanged from a lamppost by one of the roving groups of military police out looking for 'cowards'. As well as the fear of punishment, Ernst was motivated by a strong desire to defend his home, and especially his family. All the boys with whom he fought had been bombarded with propaganda calling on them to defend their mothers and sisters from the Soviets. The sound of women's screams coming from city blocks captured by Russian troops at night convinced Ernst that this was a dim-he had to perform. Surely relief forces were on their way. He only had to hold out a little longer.

By 30 April, only one other boy from Ernst's anti-tank squad was still fighting with him. Any notion that they belonged to a 'mobile anti-tank reserve' had long since vanished. For several days they had been part of an assorted group of Volkssturm, HJ, BDM and a few SS troops, under the command of an SS officer. All of them were weary beyond measure, hungry and short of ammunition. Nevertheless, Ernst had witnessed acts of amazing courage. Using their knowledge of the area, some local boys from the HJ specialized in weaving their way across rooftops to attack Russian troops with grenades. One had even crept up on a sniper and pushed him down into the street. Ernst had also seen girls from the BDM take up arms. One 16-year-old girl had deliberately allowed a tank to roll right over her foxhole before she fired a Panzerfaust vertically into it. The explosion had destroyed the tank, but killed her in the process. The Russian tank crews had learned that even Hitler Youths apparently lying dead on the street or in trenches could suddenly come to life and attack them. Ernst watched them driving over positions held by his friends and turning their tanks on the spot, crushing any survivors. Finally, late in the afternoon on 30 April, Ernst was struck by a fragment of a mortar bomb and bled to death in a Berlin street while the battle continued to rage around him. He had no way of knowing that about two hours earlier Hitler had taken his own life.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Excerpts from the Memoirs of Werner Mork

Volkssturm (Home Guard) in Prussia


…In addition to these gruesome pictures came the harrowing impressions I got of the Volkssturm Battalions [The Civilian Home Guard]. It was a pitiful conglomeration of very old men and very young men, that is to say, children. They had no uniforms, just an armband identifying them as Volkssturm. They were outfitted with discarded carbines and a small amount of ammunition along with Panzerfäusten [anti-tank weapons]. With these scanty armaments they were supposed to halt the Russian army in its tracks and destroy all the Soviet tanks that stumbled into their tanktraps, which in point of fact were only poor jokes. If their outward appearance wasn't upsetting enough, even worse was the conviction of these old men and boys as to the necessity and importance of the task they were given to do.

The German people were still a long way from being cured of the national delusion. In many people's heads thoughts and opinions were still circulating that actually predated the arrival of the Nazis on the scene. Many were still haunted by ideas that came from the time of the battles against Napoleon that freed the Germanic principalities from his rule. From this line of thought came the idĂ©e fixe among many of the members of the Volkssturm that they would be the ones to rescue the Eastern Front, and that the Wehrmacht was no longer up to the task of dealing with the Russians. They did not think that the Wehrmacht was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to face down the enemy and that the Volkssturm were the only ones who could truly protect the homeland. Only the local inhabitants had the will to fight for every centimeter of their home ground as opposed to the Wehrmacht which was made up of men from all over Germany most of whom did not come from the East. The Volkssturm did not feel themselves merely called to duty, but called above all others to duty as the true defenders of their lands which simply could not be allowed to fall into the hands of the Russians. They wanted to save their Homeland from the Soviets and they labored under the fatal misapprehension that their pitiful little weapons and shallow tank traps would suffice. They were heartened by the invocations and proclamations of Goebbels, Himmler and other local party leaders and functionaries…