By Hans Von Der Heide for Renegade Tribune
I spent most of my time as P.O.W. in Great Britain (from 1944 to 1948), so I cannot say very much about American P.O.W. camps, except for a period of roughly seven weeks, most of which time I spent in a camp several kilometers outside of Cherbourg in northwest France.
This was not the first time that I had come into “close contact” with G.I.’s. On returning from the eastern front, the unit I was in at the time was posted right into the “Hauptkampflinie” (main front-line) alongside the Albert Canal, not too far from Lüttich (Liège). The “Yanks” and the 51st Highlanders (a Scottish regiment) were on the other side of the canal, and gave us a very hard time for about two weeks, literally plowing the ground with artillery shells and bombs on our side, until they threw a pontoon bridge across the canal and overran us.
Of 160 comrades of our No. 4 machine gun company, only 16 survived, including myself.
Together with a few “stragglers” from other units, we “survivors” were picked up by Feldgendarmerie (Military Police) and later ended up in Arnhem (9th and 10th [SS] Panzer Divisions).
Somewhere on the road to Arnhem, not too far from the city of Maastricht, we were ordered to cross the Maas (Meuse) river. Since all the bridges had been blown up, we crossed the river on a make-shift cat-walk consisting of a few lengths of wooden planks tied to metal barrels. Each of us carried two boxes of ammunition, one in each hand, walking single file over this rather treacherous “bridge.” We moved waist-deep through the water on our way to the opposite bank, only to find ourselves on a strip of land about 1.5 kilometers wide between the river Maas and another canal (the Juliane Canal). We were ordered “get into the ground by all means.” Since not everybody could still boast of being in possession of a spade, we used steel helmets and even jam cans to dig in.
While we were still digging away like maniacs, the Americans on the other side of the Juliane Canal had quickly thrown a pontoon bridge over the canal, unseen by us, and the next thing we knew they were right among us, so it was high time to make it back to the river and get across it into provisional safety. The Americans seemed to work according to a regular working schedule, like in Civvy Street, and around 1800 hours it was “finish time” for them.
I said before that there was no bridge left intact. There was a small number of rubber dinghies available but they were being used to get as many badly wounded as possible across the river, under heavy shell fire from our “Kameraden mit der anderen Feldpost-Nummer.” For most of us, including myself, there was no other option but to get the hell out of that strip of land by swimming across the river. Unfortunately, those who either could not swim or were wounded or too exhausted to swim had to stay behind.
Now, the river is not very wide at this point. It was nearly “finish-time” for the Yanks, but from what we experienced while still on that strip of land, and from what was observed from the other side of the river, the Yanks took no prisoners at all. Instead my unfortunate comrades who could not make it to the river to get across were machine-gunned down on sight by the “sugar-daddies”!
It is therefore not very surprising that we had great reservations from that day on against being captured by the Yanks, although we had no reason to believe that it was general practice in the U.S. Army not to take prisoners. I was finally captured on October 7, 1944, after Arnhem, where we had been engaged in house-to-house combat with Brits and Yanks and Poles and where we had P.O.W.’s in our basements, some of them badly wounded.
Our medics attended to all the wounded as best as they could under the circumstances, and no preference was given to German soldiers. The choice of who was to be taken care of first was according to the seriousness of his wounds, not according to his nationality.
The British were even granted a cease-fire of one or two hours on a certain day to get their wounded over to our side to be hospitalized in our military hospitals
From the spot at which we were captured, not too far from Aachen, the Yanks hurriedly marched us across the Belgian border. We had to march quickly, with our hands folded behind our necks, because we were already coming under heavy artillery fire from our own side. It was not until we had arrived in a village across the border that the Yanks had their first opportunity to search us and take us away to a make-shift prison cage. On this occasion we were deprived of our watches and other valuables, including wedding rings! But it was on this very first day of my captivity that I was offered a Lucky Strike, the first American cigarette I ever had in my life. These G.I.’s were front-line soldiers and treated us decently, regardless of our SS uniforms.
From Belgium we were taken all the way to Compiègne, France, in cattle cars. We spent a day or two in a stable in Compiègne, with little or no food, depending on who still had something to “bribe” the Yanks with, before we were even moved to Cherbourg camp. Prior to boarding the train, we received K-rations and C-rations, which the Yanks had just unloaded from a car right behind the engine. This food was not distributed in a proper manner, but flung at us by the soldiers, most likely because it was absolutely insufficient in quantity. Whoever was close to the railroad car could perhaps catch one or two or even three packages, while others got nothing. However, our guards reassured us by saying: “Don’t worry, the trip to your next location will take only about four hours, and then you will be fed again.”
Well, it being wartime, the train was shunted around many times, with long halts in between, and the “journey” to Cherbourg lasted not four hours, but four days! Needless to say, quite a number of my Kameraden did not make it to Cherbourg alive. Most of us had already been half-starved prior to being captured. I have no precise idea about how many died on the way. We had four dead in the car I was in, there were more in others, but I really could not say with any amount of certainty how many were dead and buried somewhere in Normandy without any ceremonies. We were a mixed crowd from different units – Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and what have you – so that most of us did not know one another at all.
In the car I was in there were five or six members of Strafbataillon 999, which was a unit consisting of either convicts or former concentration camp inmates. These guys told us frankly that they had been in Dachau until shortly before they joined the Strafbataillon and were sent to the front to fight the Yanks. I can still hear their typical southern dialect, since they came from Styria (Steiermark) and Carinthia (Karnten), Austria. They were happy to be alive, and singing away most of the time.
They had heard rumors about: Dachau, about “mountains of dead bodies” (in 1944!), but they laughed at this “B.S. propaganda,” and said that the treatment they were getting from the Yanks was far worse than in Dachau. “At least we did not starve there,” they said.
On the way to Cherbourg, during an exceptionally long involuntary stop somewhere in Normandy, our guards collected in their steel helmets some bitter wild apples, unfit for human consumption, which were growing on nearby trees.
By that time there was no food on the trains, so the G.I’s “sold” those bitter apples to us for wedding rings or such other valuables as had escaped their attention during previous searches. God only knows how some of my fellow-sufferers had been able to hide these items, but now hunger forced them to surrender whatever possessions they still had.
No one was allowed to leave the train for any reason. “Toilet facilities” consisted of jam cans that were emptied once in a while. Even our dead comrades had to stay with us until we arrived at our destination, Cherbourg railroad station.
To “tease” us a little, the guards would eat sandwiches with thick layers of cheese or corned beef, right in front of us for everybody to see, finish half or three quarters and throw them carelessly away, out of reach of their hungry captives. From what we could see from their nicely pressed pants and polished boots, these were no front-line soldiers.
On our arrival in Cherbourg, we were marched six to eight kilometers to the camp. In the streets of the town we were cursed, spat upon and even physically attacked by the French population, especially the women. (I bitterly recalled scenes from the spring of 1943, when we marched American P.O.W.’s through the streets of Paris. They were threatened and insulted no differently by the French mob. Apparently, at times, French people tend to be very emotional and easily excited.) To the honor of our guards in Cherbourg, I must say that they protected us as best as they could from this violent crowd, even using their guns to keep them at bay.
Cherbourg “camp” consisted of various compounds of mud surrounded by barbed wire. There was no accommodation or shelter whatsoever for the first two weeks or so. Then a few wooden shacks were put up, in which we had to sleep on the ground, packed together like sardines in a can.
There was so little space to turn around in one’s sleep that one’s neighbor to the left and right was bothered each time. So we agreed to turn around every half hour or so on “command.” It sounds funny to speak about this today, but it certainly was not very funny in those days.
This was to be our “abode” for roughly six weeks.
They kept us alive with a daily tin can of watered soup and a slice of bread, plus the occasional C-ration or K-ration. It was not enough to live and stay healthy on for any length of time, and just a little bit too much to die outright. I can assure you that by the end of November, when about 3,000 of us were moved away, most of us looked like walking skeletons.
“Sanitary facilities” in Cherbourg camp consisted of square or rectangular dugouts flush with the ground, 5 x 5 or 4 x 6 meters large, on the edges of which we had to sit down and hold our hands to support one another so we would not fall into the 6 foot deep pits right away, weak and unsteady on our feet as we were. A number of my comrades were too weak to hold themselves in position until they had relieved themselves, and actually fell into the latrine (the ground being very slippery most of the time).
This was the moment certain photographers from the U.S. Army newspaper Stars & Stripes had waited for. They shot pictures of “Hitler’s soldiers in deep s—t!”
I should mention in this connection that the Americans sporadically issued whole cans of corned beef per person, or one can for two (not everybody at the same time), so it was no surprise that diarrhea was rampant and many of us had to “go to the bathroom” for hours on end, day and night.
As we had been registered during the first days, every “activity” in the camp, including the grabbing of food, went according to the alphabet. They had put my name von der Heide under the letter “V,” so my turn for “Breakfast” (a euphemism) would come around noon, and for “lunch” (another euphemism) at about 1800 hours every day. When I tried to protest at the Orderly Room, explaining to the clerks that my name came under “H” and not under “V,” they told me in no uncertain terms to “shut my dirty ‘Nazi’ trap.”
Once in a while the Yanks would amuse themselves a little by leafing us run the gauntlet between two rows of G.I.’s armed with clubs.
If one was still quick enough on one’s feet, one would receive one or two blows on the head or on the shoulders, if not, three or four blows. It was nothing very serious, nobody died from these blows, it was just something to humiliate us and make us realize that we were no longer soldiers but prisoners.
Verbal injuries did not hurt us any more. Such were conditions in Cherbourg camp, but I must say in all fairness that although prisoners died from starvation and other diseases, the number of dead was nowhere near the figures from Bad Kreuznach, Rheinwiesen or Sinzig later on. We were all very weak and undernourished, there was no doubt about that, but we survived somehow, mostly by helping one another as best we could. Nights were cold and it rained for long hours, so it was not very comfortable to “sleep” in deep mud or later on the ground barely covered with straw.
As I mentioned before, 3,000 of us were transferred to another camp by the end of November. Two of those Liberty ships were to take us across the Channel to Southampton where the Queen Mary (or was it Queen Elizabeth?) was supposed to be waiting to take us to America. The first attempt to get these ships close enough to the beach to enable us to board failed, however. The harbor facilities were all but destroyed and there was a strong gale blowing on this particular day, so we were marched back to the camp. A day or two later we tried again. This time the ships were ashore, so we finally went on board, 1,500 in one boat flying the Union Jack and 1,500 in the other one flying the Stars & Stripes. Since everything went by the alphabet here, too, I boarded the second ship (letters I to Z), while the others boarded the first one (A to H).
Why do I mention this seemingly insignificant detail? Because it was not exactly insignificant for me: the first boat was sunk by a German submarine on the way to England. (The guy who told me to shut up in Cherbourg camp inadvertently saved my life!) This was my second “close shave,” the first being my escape from that strip of land in Holland. This time I had American assistance. I never complained about anything else for the rest of my time in captivity.
On arrival in Southampton we were informed that the big ship had departed on schedule, and that 3,000 other prisoners had been taken out of a nearby camp and shipped to America instead of us. So I stayed in Great Britain until 1948.
To a certain extent we went from the fire right into the frying pan, for Devizes in Wiltshire was a horrible camp, too, especially during the winter months. A transit camp, it comprised roughly 7,000 prisoners. We were housed in large structures built of corrugated sheets, similar to Nissen huts, but much larger. They had served as garages for Canadian units. Although there was a large stove in each shack, there was no heat, for there was no fuel. A candle standing on the stove served to warm our fingers.
In winter time the icicles would hang down from the “ceiling,” and in summer time the tar in the joints between the metal sheets would melt and drip down on our heads.
Food was not too bad in quality but insufficient in quantity, and sanitary facilities were beyond description, although not quite as bad as in Cherbourg.
There was a U.S. convalescents’ hospital not too far away from Devizes camp, and working parties used to be marched there to work in and around the hospital. Due to my knowledge of English, I would often be sent as an interpreter. The Yanks asked us how conditions were in the camp and we told them. So it became normal practice for them to give us sandwiches and other items of food “to take home” at night, sometimes even extras for distribution to other comrades who had no chance to get out of the camp. The first day we were searched by the Brits before re-entering the camp, and they took everything away from us. We complained to the cook sergeant the next day, and – wonder over wonder – from that day on the U.S. guards would march us right into the camp, past the dumfounded British sentries at the gate, so they had no chance to search us.
It was in the U.S. military hospital where I found a copy of Reader’s Digest dated May 1943, containing the article “The Inside Story of the Hess Flight” (see The Journal of Historical Review, Fall 1982). I translated it into German and read it out loud to about 1,200 prisoners in January, 1945. Naturally, the Brits took the book away from me and my name was entered in their black book. In 1981 – with the aid of my learned friend Mark Weber – I was able to retrieve not only a copy of Reader’s Digest (May 1943), but also a copy of the American Mercury, dated April 1943, which contained the unabridged story.
It is only fair to mention, by way of conclusion, that Devizes camp was an exception to the rule in Great Britain, so far as I have been able to learn. I also put it down to general conditions in Britain during the war that food was short. Corruption was also involved, for the “comrades” in the so-called “administration camps” (not only in Devizes) – all of them hand-picked by the Brits for “political reasons” – were actually professed or self-professed anti-“Nazis” (who could tell the difference?): former concentration camp inmates, Communists, but also turncoats from the ranks of the former NSDAP and Hitler Youth. (I met some of them who were born in Dortmund, where I come from, and whom I had known before). They had no complaints whatsoever and jeered at us across the barbed wire separating their compound from ours. As in the German concentration and relocation camps, the administration in P.O.W. camps was in German hands, and it was generally the German Lagerführers and their stooges who gave us a hard time, not the Brits.
But the British camp commander also had a great influence on the way we were treated. If a commander hated the Germans, then God help you. In January 1945, in Devizes camp, a British interrogator attempted to make me sign a declaration to the effect that I would “distance myself from the present regime in Germany and help in building up a new democratic Europe.” It being wartime, this was a cheeky summons on the part of the Brits to commit high treason. Naturally, I refused to sign.
General conditions varied all across the country, and we were certainly not “pampered” anywhere, but Devizes did not occur again.
Now I had better stop moaning and groaning about my time in captivity. I survived, that’s the main thing, and conditions were horrible in all of Germany at that time, too, particularly in the Ruhr district – I was moved “all over the shop” as the British used to say – for ten months as far as the north of Scotland, John O’Groats, with a commanding officer who was like a father to us – and in due course I really picked up the English language in various dialects, including the Army lingo. This greatly facilitated my start in Civvy Street later on.
I became a Revisionist in August 1945 in a camp in Cumnock, Ayrshire, Scotland.
We were forced to watch the infamous Hollywood propaganda film about “gas chambers” in Buchenwald and Dachau. We saw huge piles of dead bodies being cremated on pyres, allegedly at Buchenwald. Comrades from Dresden recognized the area and loudly protested that this was certainly not Buchenwald, but the city of Dresden!
(It is well known that many bodies were disposed of in the streets of Dresden after the disastrous air-raid.) The protesters were quickly whisked away and put into close custody for a while. Did this banish my doubts? The answer is “no.” I never was even near a concentration camp, so I could not say very much to my interrogators. It was no use to spend most of the time in the “calaboose,” so it was better to shut up about the subject. I waited until I got back home in 1948 to start studying contemporary history all by myself, starting with Harry Elmer Barnes, Austin App, Peter J. Kleist, to name only a few Revisionist pioneers.
In 1985, I saw the same film once again, on a televised documentary while at Ernst Zundel’s house in Canada, but I waited in vain for the Dresden scene. It had been cut out. As you all know I have now been a confirmed Revisionist ever since 1948-49.
[The above text was taken from a letter written to the IHR by the author, in Kamen, northern Germany. – Ed.].