In our latest interview, I had the pleasure of catching up with German Military Historian, Battlefield Guide and Historical Consultant, Rob Schäfer. Focusing on the Second World War, we discussed how he first became interested in this period of history, his research into Germany’s 1st Infanterie-Division and his grandfather’s experiences within one of its Regiments during the conflict.
Where and how did your interest in the Second World War first begin?
I suppose it all started with my grandfather. As a child I spent about 2 weekends each month in my grandparent’s house. In the nights I often saw my grandfather stumbling through the corridor in his pyjamas, sweating and shivering. In some nights I could hear him screaming in the bedroom. When I asked my father and grandmother about it they told me that he is dreaming about his war experiences. I wanted to understand what had happened to him and what he experienced so I started reading about the war when I was 12 or 13 years old.
You have done a lot of research over the last ten years on the history of Germany’s 1st Infanterie-Division during WW2. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about the role they played in this conflict and in particular on the Eastern Front?
With the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the 1st Infantry Division advanced toward Warsaw as a component of the XXVI Army Corps in 3rd Army. It engaged Polish forces near the heavily-defended town of Mława for several days, before crossing the Bug and Narew Rivers. It fought again near Węgrów and Garwolin and ended the campaign east of Warsaw. It played only a minor role in the invasion of France. With the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Division entered the Soviet Union as part of the 18th Army with Army Group North, advancing on Leningrad. It remained and fought in the area of Leningrad and Lake Ladoga up until December 1943. Transferred to the 1st Panzer Army, the division then fought as part of Army Group South at Krivoy Rog in Ukraine where it broke out of encirclement in March 1944. Returning to its native East Prussia in summer 1944 it participated in Unternehmen Doppelkopf, the link-up with the now isolated Army Group North in Lithuania. From then on the 1. Infanterie-Division continued to defend their homeland, the easternmost German province from against the Red Army. By the end of January 1945 it was encircled by the Soviets in the area of Königsberg/Samland.
On 19 February 1945 the division attacked westwards from Königsberg trying to link up with the German forces that held the vital naval port of Pillau. While doing so it captured the town of Metgethen, an action which re-opened the land route from Königsberg to Pillau allowing thousands of German refugees to evacuate via the city’s port.
When Königsberg finally fell on 9 April 1945 the remains of the Division retreated to Pillau where it continued to fight ferociously against the Soviets up until the very last day of the war.
It was an elite division with old traditions and an exceptional moral.
Your grandfather served in one of the Division’s regiments during WW2, the 22nd Infanterie-Regiment. Did he talk much about his experiences?
My grandfather rarely talked about the war, he hated everything that had to do with it. Sometimes I talked him into showing me his scars and he told me how a bomb splinter had pierced both of his hips or his injured ear, parts of which ripped off when the ear froze to his steel helmet in the winter of 1942/43. He hated everything about Russia, including the Russian people up to when he died in 1986. If there was anything on Russia on TV he would switch off the Television.
After his basic training he volunteered to become a Paratrooper and actually was part of a Fallschirm Training unit for a few days before being transferred to IR22 as a machine-gunner. Losses during the first months of the Russian campaign had been severe and the Army needed trained infantryman not paratroopers. Training lasted slightly more than 6 months as most German males already knew basic military drill from their service in the Reichs Labour Service and the Hitler Youth. He was trained as a machine gunner and also as a wireless operator. In 1941 my grandfather was trained on the MG26 (t) before being sent to the front where up to late 1943 the most common machine gun was the MG34.
He served in one of machine-gun companies of IR22 (later named Fusilier Regiment 22) from September 1941 to January 1943. There he was wounded during the 1st Battle of Ladoga Lake and after a period in hospital was transferred to a Landesschützen unit in the vincinity of Warsaw where he guarded French prisoners of war who were forced to work on the farm estates of the area. In November 44 he was transferred to a units of “fortress” infantry (Festungs-Infanterie), again as a machine-gunner. From December 1944 onwards this units was part of the Fortress Warsaw. When the Russians started their offensive in January 1945 and defenders of Warsaw retreated he participated in the chaotic battles and skirmishes that followed and ended up in the Schneidemühl Pocket in late January 1945.
Schneidemühl, today Piła in Poland, had been declared to be a fortress and as such had to be held at all costs. Encircled by the Russian 46th Army the city was defended by about 12.000 men and a handful of artillery pieces, anti-tank and assault guns. The defending units consisted mainly of so-called “alarm” units, ad-hoc units, hastily nailed together and made up by stray soldiers and the remains of units that had been wiped out in previous fighting. By 2 February the defenders had run out of ammunition for their heavy weapons and eight days later the first Russian units managed to pierce the outer defensive perimeters and to enter the city. Three days of brutal house-to-house fighting followed before the commander of Schneidemühl (General Remlinger) ordered a break-out attempt (defying Himmler’s orders to defend the city to the last man). By then about 5000-6000 of the defenders had been killed and wounded. Another 5000 had been taken prisoner.
Only about a 1000 men actually managed to break out, among them my grandfather. Moving in small groups and as individuals and mostly at night these men had long been overtaken by the Russian Army and thus had to sneak and fight their way back through the Russian lines. My grandfather moved north and ended up in Kolberg. If he had had any hopes of being evacuated from there, these were smashed to pieces when he was drafted into another Alarm-Battalion (Battalion von Schack) which was trying to stem the Russian advance in the area of Falkenburg. The unit eventually became the assault battalion (Sturmbatallion) of the newly created 11th SS Panzer Army (SS-Panzer-Armeeoberkommando 11 / AOK11) which in March 1945, under command of SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner, was moved to the western theatre of operations to fight the Allies in the Harz Mountains. A Sturmbatallion was a kind of a fire-brigade, under direct command of the Army that was usually sent to where the fighting was thickest. After taking part in Operation Solstice (Unternehmen Sonnenwende – a counter-attack) east of the Oder River during February 1945, 11th Arm was assigned to OB West and reorganized in March 1945. Many of the units formerly subordinated to the 11th SS Panzer Army were transferred to the 3rd Panzer Army and other units were assigned to the 11th Army for operations against the Western Allies. After defending the Weser River and the Harz Mountains, the 11th Army (and my grandfather) surrendered to the Americans on 21 April.
During his research into his Grandfather’s unit, Rob uncovered a strip of archival film footage taken by members of the Propaganda-Kompanie 621 in January / February 1943. The strip of film shows men of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Fusilier Regiment during the Battle of Lake Ladoga and was shot a day before Rob’s grandfather was wounded.
With the ferocity and harsh nature of the fighting on the Eastern Front, what sort of conditions did German POWs have to endure?
Of about 3.15 million German prisoners held in the Soviet Union between 1.1 to 1.3 million died in captivity. Of the early prisoners taken in 1941/42 only about 10% survived. Conditions were harsh indeed.
You recently posted a couple of fascinating photos of your Grandfather’s pay-book, which had been shot-through as well as his POW discharge papers. What are the stories behind these incredible documents and how did one come to have a bullet hole in it?
In September 1941 a bomb dropped by a Soviet aircraft exploded close to my grandfather. It killed a number of his comrades and he was hit by a number of splinters. One punched through both of hips while the other hit him on the left breast pocket where it went through the pay-book before being stopped by the tobacco tin he carried behind it. My grandmother threw the tin away in the 60s, but they kept the pay-book. Both that and the tin saved my grandfather’s life.
Did any of your other relatives serve in the war?
My mother’s father served as an infantryman in the Polish campaign in 1939. Due to a stomach illness he later transferred to Norway and spent the rest of the war there. My grandmother’s three brothers served and were all killed in action. The two elder brothers were professional soldiers who had already joined up long before the war. One, a Feldwebel in Pionier-Battalion 291 was killed in March 1942. The other an Unteroffizier in Grenadier-Regiment 474 fell in March 1945. The youngest, 18 years old when he was killed in summer 1944, only a week after arriving at the front. He served in the anti-tank company of Grenadier-Regiment 585. None of the three has a known grave. The eldest was buried on an army cemetery which has been lost after having been overrun by the Red Army in 1943. His brothers still lie where they were killed. Their bodies have never been found. My great-grandparents never really recovered from that blow. Not only did the war take their three sons, they also never had a grave to go to.
Having toured many of the WW2 battlefields as a historian and as a tour guide, is there any particular spot that is particularly special or poignant to you?
Most special was the chance visit the area around St. Petersburg, and the remote battlefields along the river Volkhov and the Ladoga Lake in 2004. It was only a short visit, but we had some excellent local guides. Standing where my grandfather and one of my granduncles fought was a very moving experience. These places have hardly changed since the end of the war. There is hardly anyone living there and the area is still littered with memorials and the debris of war.
It must be a real pleasure and privilege to have had the opportunity to speak with so many veterans that fought in the Second World War. I know only this month you were speaking with a former artilleryman that fought in Russia from August 1941 to April 1945. You must hear some incredible tales of their experiences, are there any in particular that have specifically stuck with you?
Every interview is special for me, but there is a few that stand out. In the 1990s I had the chance to visit a veteran of the 5. SS-Panzer-Division a number of times. He served as one of the divisions war correspondents from 1941 to 1945. In his garage there were at least 20 huge photo albums filled to the brim with the best war photographs I have ever seen. He usually was where the action was thickest so there was a full album with images taken during the Battle of Kursk, another one with hundreds of images taken inside the Cherkassy Cauldron. I have never seen anything like it again. When he had to move into an old people’s home all those albums were stolen. In 2012 I had the luck to find a veteran who had served in IR22 and who was for a while part of the same company my grandfather had fought in, in 1942. He did not remember my grandfather by name, but talking to this man who had been fighting side by side with him was a special moment that I will never forget.
With the copyright of Mein Kampf due to expire at the end of this year and a new heavily annotated and commented edition of the book due to be published in Germany in January 2016. This will mark the first time in 70 years that the book will be found in German bookstores. What are your thoughts on this and its historical significance?
To be honest with you I do not see any historical significance. The annotated and commented 2 volume edition will be something made by academics for academics, while the publication and sale of the un-commented original text will stay prohibited. Nothing has changed.
Thank you to Rob for talking with us in what I am sure you will agree, has been a fascinating insight into his research on Germany’s 1st Infanterie-Division during WW2.
Rob’s interest and research though is not purely confined to the Second World War, his latest book co-authored with Professor Peter Doyle, ‘Fritz & Tommy – Across the Barbed Wire’ which is out in Autumn and examines the events of the First World War through the eyes of those who fought in it. I am sure it will be a gripping read.
If you wish to find out any more about Rob, his research or any of the other projects he is currently working on this year, you can visit his website, or you can follow him on Twitter @GERArmyResearch.
Ever visited the Lake Ladoga Battlefields?
We would love to hear about it in the comments below.
Photo Credits: All images in this post of the 1st Infanterie-Division have kindly been provided by Rob.