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How a wounded boy-soldier managed to

Escape from the Russian Front

Gottfried Gerwinat

June, 2019

Edited by Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons

The causes of the war
When World War 1 ended, Germany, a defeated nation, was in the aftermath of this horrendous war, in utter turmoil and economically unsound. Revolutionary elements were raising their ugly heads after the harsh treatment dished out by the Treaty of Versailles. This, consequently in later years caused great divisions within Germany. An unsound economy, hyper-inflation caused my father to move to the Netherlands where he found work in the town of Heerlerneide near the German border.

Happier days for the Gerwinat family during Christmas in the early 1930s. Gottfried is the little boy playing, ironically, with a toy gun.

When I was born in 1927, I already had one sister and four brothers and I was bilingual by the time I was 3 years old as all my playmates were Dutch. I spoke Dutch at school and we as a family spoke German at home. I and my brothers attended Dutch schools, but when a German school was founded by the German community living in the area, my mother decided that the time had come for at least one of her children should be educated in his mother tongue; consequently I switched schools in 1937.

War breaks out
When eventually the war broke out in 1939, one of my brothers was already serving in the German forces on the Siegfried Line, which we were told was impregnable. All this upheaval did not affect us in Holland because we were living as Germans in a neutral country. My closest friends were Dutch and not very interested in propaganda which was put out by German, English and French press and radio.

All this changed on May 10, 1940! On that particular morning, we were woken up very early at about 2am by the noise of aircraft flying above. Curious as to what was going on, we got dressed and went into the garden. We were surprised by the large number and types of aircraft; there were squadrons of German bombers, which we recognised as Heinkels, and a lot of Junkers, which were transport planes escorted by Messerschmitt 109 and 110 fighters. We later learned that the transport planes were carrying paratroopers which had never been used before in any major conflict.

The Gerwinat (pronounced Gavinatt) family originated in Lithuania. At some stage they migrated the short distance over the border to East Prussia, eventually becoming naturalised German citizens. Gottfried's father was obliged to flee to the Netherlands in the early 1900s because of his work with trade unions. Incidentally, Gottfried's cousin, Manfred Gerwinat, became a senior member of the German diplomatic corps and served as consul in Poland and other countries.

All this was very exciting for us children as we never saw more than one or two planes together, but some of the excitement faded when we heard machine gun fire and one of the transport planes came tumbling out of the sky, bursting into flames on impact with the ground. We realised then that war had come to Holland and after five days the Dutch army capitulated and the Netherlands was completely under German control. It did not take long for the Belgian Army to follow suit, which made it difficult for the British Army which was trapped at Dunkirk.

The Gerwinat family home in the Netherlands, about 1910, with Gottfried's parents and an elder brother.

As the British and French troops were still fighting in northern France, some of the men taken prisoner by the Germans were marched through our town to Germany and captivity. Our school was chosen as a Red Cross station which helped some of these prisoners with food, drink and bandages for their wounds. Quite suddenly war did not seem very glamorous anymore, especially when we heard that one of my former teachers had been killed.

British bombers in action
After the German victory in France in 1940, little did I realise that I would participate in any conflict later on. My elder brother was called up when he was 18, joined the infantry and commenced his training in Munich. My first experience of a bombing raid was late in 1940 when one night the British bombed a nearby village. The sirens had sounded the alarm and I was just about to get up from bed when I heard a whistling sound which I thought was a train whistle. There was a tremendous flash and bang, the whole house shook and I was downstairs quicker than a rabbit.

Called up to the Wehrmacht
When I was 15, I went to technical college in Haarlem as a boarder and then in August 1944 when I was 17 I was called up. I joined the army and did my training in Czechoslovakia and Berlin. War was definitely not very pleasant. We were bombed daily by the American Air Force and each night by the British. The destruction and loss of life was terrible. Going on leave to Dortmund one day, the British had bombed the town the night before and the main railway station had been destroyed. I had to get off the train outside the town and find my way home. There was nothing left to recognise. All the fine old buildings that I had known as landmarks had all disappeared; there was not a street that was not blocked by rubble and debris.

Dortmund's damage from aerial bombardment.

Finally I arrived home; home being where my sister had temporary accommodation as she had lost her home in Holland. Her husband was in the armed forces and she was about to be evacuated to Czechoslovakia to be safe from the incessant air raids. I was glad to rejoin my unit as the day and night bombing was nearly as bad as being on the front line. By now, all my brothers were in the armed forces, the youngest of them fighting in Russia and the others on the Western Front. The one fighting in Russia was lucky to survive the worst winter there, 1941-42, they had experienced for centuries. The casualties from frostbite and other cold-related illnesses were worse than those suffered in combat.

I knew by November 1944 that I too would have to fight on the Russian Front as the training inflicted on me pointed to that fact. No square bashing or run-of-the-mill army training for us; just intensive field training day and night. All of our instructors were Russian Front veterans and specialists in close combat and anti-tank weaponry. The glamour of wearing a nice uniform soon wore off as we were constantly under pressure to perform miracles and discipline was the most hard that one can imagine.

Sent to the Russian Front
Finally, one night we were aroused from our beds and ordered to pack everything into our rucksacks. We were issued with iron rations and as much ammunition as we could carry. Trucks were waiting outside to take us to a very long transport train and then we were off on our way to the Russian Front. We arrived eventually in Poland not far from the front line. It was very cold with deep snow everywhere.

We were then herded into a massive building and issued with fur-lined coats and felt boots, special three-fingered mittens for firing a gun, snow shirts and white trousers for camouflage. The average age of the non-commissioned soldiers in our battalion was 17 years. We were split into different companies and once again put on transport trains to take us to the front line.

Our aim was to breach a gap in the encirclement of a town called Poznan, which was still in German hands but completely surrounded by Russian troops. When we got to our destination we had the biggest shock of our lives. Russian tanks were waiting for us and opened fire as soon as we began to alight. We climbed back on the trains, which then retreated under heavy Russian fire, but luckily we did not suffer many casualties. Redirected to our new destination, we were once again briefed by our company commanders and told that the Russians had broken through our main defences and that our communications were not as they should be, so we would have to march back to our new position.

The cold was intense, so cold that one could not touch a steel object or it would stick to the skin. When in the open and urinating, the flow would freeze before hitting the ground. In such conditions, one does not think of defending one’s country or ideals, only of survival and a warm bed to lie in. So in these terrible conditions we spent many days marching westwards in retreat. The Russians were always trying to catch up with us with their T-34 tanks and outflank us in pincer attacks, which occurred mostly at night, depriving us of much-needed sleep. If we were lucky enough to get an undisturbed night, the only place to sleep was a hole dug in the snow in which we would crouch to gain shelter from the fierce easterly winds.

On the march
After marching for approximately seven days and nights, with intermittent fighting and rear-guard action, we finally crossed a river bridge, which was then blown up to prevent the Russians from following. We were the assured by our battalion commander that we were able to rest there and set up a defensive position. The following day we were allocated a large barn which housed pigs and sheep. We were given fresh straw for our bedding and some food and at least being with animals it was warm. However, later that night all hell broke loose when a barrage of shells started raining on us, forcing us out in the open with considerable loss of life.

The next day we heard that the Russian tanks had managed to get across the river and were moving towards our positions. We had no armoured support at all. All we could do was resist with mortar panzerfausts and machine guns. This uneven battle did not last for long. Those able to retreat left swiftly and the Russians showed no mercy and used their superior fir power most effectively, wiping out most of our battalion. Fortunately for me, I managed to hitch a lift on a supply lorry and reached the nearest town, whose inhabitants did not realise that the front line was now only several miles away. This was because the official German news service had announced that the Eastern Front was still in Poland, whereas we were now fighting on German soil. Eventually I reached Kustrin on the River Oder with some more stragglers from my former battalion. Out of 800 young men, there were only 35 left.

Joining a tank battalion
We were rounded up and detailed to a Panzer [tank] company which was on its way to Frankfurt on the Oder River. Once again we were all loaded into a train consisting of cattle wagons. This time all I wanted to do was sleep. I slept for 24 hours and when I woke up I could not open my eyelids. They were stuck together and I had to pull them apart and the whites of my eyes were completely bloodshot. I was not a very pretty sight when we reached our destination, a large goods yard where tanks were awaiting collection.

I was relieved that my marching days were over for the time being and overjoyed to join this new outfit, which consisted of Jagdpanther (tank hunters) and a single Panzer 4. These were armed with 7.5cm guns. We were soon sorted into two platoons of Panzer Grenadiers, which meant that four of us would sit on top each tank when these went into action. We trained for a weak or two and learned how to mount and dismount at speed. Our main task was, when in action, to leap off and kill any Russians approaching the tanks.

When our tanks retreated for refuelling and rearming, we went back with them. This type of warfare suited me as at least there was not much marching except when we were sent in as patrols to find out what the Russians were up to. While out on one of these, we must have been spotted and a mortar shell exploded, wounding me and several others. It was only a small piece of shrapnel that had lodged under my jaw bone. A small operation was required to remove it and I rejoined my unit.

The Russians are coming
In the meantime, the Russians had crossed the River Oder near Frankfurt and built up a sizable bridgehead which we were obliged to attack, sometimes gaining ground, sometimes losing it. Our High Command kept promising more help and equipment and even a non-existent Sixth Army. Propaganda was at the highest premium. Everything was done to restore morale, which was by then at a very low ebb. Our losses were constant, replacements were few. Hygiene was non-existent. We never undressed. When able to sleep, the only item removed was our boots.

A Russian T-34 tank.

Consequently, little beings called lice began to invade us. These little creatures could make life very miserable and sometimes, if we were lucky enough to get into a billet, we used to take off our shirts and look for them. If someone was fortunate enough to have a candle, we would light it and run the flame along the seams of our shirts to kill the little blighters.

Back to the front
Eventually, we were pulled back from the front line and billeted at a nearby village. Our company commander arranged a treat for us: a visit to a delousing station at Frankfurt. We were able to take off all our clothing, which was collected and dusted and subjected to extreme heat. This killed all the lice. We, in the meantime, had our first shower in 6 weeks and felt the better for it. We returned to our billet to enjoy some peace and quiet, but our peace was short-lived as we heard that the Russians had entered a town called Guben on the River Neisse and back to the front we went.

All the civilians had been evacuated overnight, except for the old people, who would not move. All the shops were full of goods for sale, but there were no assistants and no customers, only us and the Russians, so a good time was had by all. Eventually, we managed to secure most of the town, once again our losses were heavy. Many of my fiends were wounded or killed. Our promised reinforcements finally arrived and the Russians retreated into their even stronger bridgehead.

My company was pulled back yet again and we were billeted in a small farming community, which provided us with much needed food, especially eggs. From there, we were moved northwards into a beautiful pine forest and were ordered to dig in. We felled pine trees and made underground bunkers with them, making sure our camouflage on top was invisible from the air. All our tanks were hidden and well concealed. Ammo dumps were dug, which to our surprise despite shortages were kept well supplied.

The Russians attack
In the middle of April 1945, there appeared to be a lot of activity on the Russian side. Their air attacks increased and we heard that their reinforcements behind the Oder Line were absolutely brimming with artillery, Stalin Organs (which were multiple rocket launchers) very deadly weapons and tanks galore. On the night of 15/16 April, they launched their big offensive which was unbelievable in ferocity. The noise was deafening as barrage after barrage rained on German positions on the Oder Line.

We were on full alert and at about 5 o clock the orders came for us to move up front. While sitting on my tank and rumbling towards the line, I thought this would be my last journey. What we saw when we reached the first dugouts, or what was left of them, was absolute carnage. Dead and dying men lay everywhere. The wounded who could walk and ambulances brought us to a standstill. No further progress was possible. We did not know the Russians’ exact position, but we soon discovered it when our tanks came under heavy fire.

Close combat
We jumped off and tried to take cover. Russian infantry were sniping and machine gunning from all angles. It was difficult to get a target in one’s sights as they were well camouflaged. Our tanks spread out in attack formation. We the platoon moved up under cover of the ditches running either side of the road on which the main group of our tanks was advancing. Shells were exploding near to us but their artillery had not yet found the correct range. I was ordered into the ditch with the lance corporal to find out where the incessant machine gun fire was coming from.

As we crept along peering across the flat fields that bordered our position, our first tank came under fire from a Russian bazooka, the projectile exploding next to its tracks and the tank came to a halt. The tank commander started throwing grenades into the ditch 50m in front of us and asked us to attack. Not knowing what to expect, we changed magazines, primed and threw two hand grenades and jumped up running forward and firing at the same time. Our fire was returned by well-hidden Russian infantry. The lance corporal veered off the the left and I fell to the ground.

Wounded in action
I could not get up and thought that something had hit my left buttock, so I crawled back and managed to sit up, feeling my leg I found blood on my hand. This incident must have been observed by our Panzer 4 tank, which came towards me and lowering its gun fired into the ditch. In the meantime, two men had dashed across the road to help me pull my trousers down and apply a makeshift bandage. A machine gun bullet had entered my groin, passed through and came out of the buttock.

These two men carried me across the road into the ditch where the remainder of my platoon was. The lance corporal was there too. He had been shot through the head and was dead. The Russian artillery had finally found the correct range, shells were raining down on us and my company commander suggested that I should crawl back as we were about to retreat from this position. Slowly the tanks reversed, sheltering our infantry from the crossfire. As the second tank was about to pass, someone gave me an arm up and I was able to hang on as the damaged tank limped back to safety.

Our company had established a base near a railway embankment, which afforded some cover from sudden attack. Our medical orderlies attended the wounded, issuing each with a tie-on label, stating date, time and type of wound, which was duly signed by an officer. This was to make sure that no-one could feign an injury and get away from the fighting. We handed in our weapons and ammunition.

Our losses in approximately 5 hours of engagement were 2 dead and 12 wounded. We were then helped onto a lorry and driven to a first-aid hospital which originally had been a large hotel. The lounge and reception areas were converted into operating theatres where doctors and surgeons were working flat out. Everyone received a tetanus injection and was re-bandaged.

Getting treatment
My leg by now was quite stiff and exceedingly painful. While we were waiting for transport to a field hospital, the artillery bombardment started again. Later that afternoon I was moved to an aircraft hangar which was huge and there must have been about 500 double bunk beds in there full of soldiers waiting for transport to a proper hospital. I was given a pain-killing injection and must have dozed off when someone shook my shoulder and two stretcher-bearers carried me out to a waiting ambulance.

After a short journey, we ended up at a goods station and we were put into wagons with a layer of straw for bedding. Among us of course were some very serious cases, some unconscious. Finally the train moved off and travelled for several hours. At dawn they opened the doors and started to unload the survivors. Many of the injured had died during the journey.

To my joy we were carried in a proper Red Cross hospital train with double bunk beds, nice white linen sheets and pillows. We even had female nurses attending to us. The final destination of this train was to be Hamburg, but the trouble was we had to by-pass Berlin first, which was besieged by the Russians. The train made very slow progress, sometimes travelling only 20 or 30 miles each day. Because of the Russian advance, the senior doctor, a lieutenant-colonel, would halt the train from time to time and assess reports received regarding the whereabouts of the enemy.

Goebbels' infamous speech
I remember still being on the train on April 20th when Dr Goebbels made his infamous speech congratulating Hitler on his birthday and assuring the German people that we would win the war. We all knew how ridiculous these statements were because the Americans had advanced as far as the River Elbe, Vienna had fallen, the French had taken Stuttgart and the army defending Italy had surrendered.

The only hope we had was not to fall into Russian hands, because their reputation regarding wounded prisoners was brutal to say the least. If you were injured and could not walk, you were shot. After travelling on this train for 6 days, we had only covered about 200 miles and we reached a town called Ludwigslust, which was a town declared "Open for injured personnel only". Every large building had been turned into a hospital and red crosses were painted on the roofs to make sure that all enemy aircraft were aware of the fact.

Escape to the American sector
All the wounded capable of walking were asked to leave the train to enable more serious stretcher cases to be transported to Hamburg. I stayed there until April 28 or 29 when American troops arrived advising our doctors to tell all those men able to walk to leave and head for the River Elbe near Celle where they had bridged the river with pontoons. This was so we could be taken prisoner by American forces as the Russians were rapidly approaching where we were. It did not take me long to make up my mind to go and I was very lucky to get a seat in a truck with red crosses painted on its sides. We were given preferential treatment and once across the Elbe, we were once again asked to report to a military hospital.

Gottfried Gerwinat as a prisoner of war.

Now that the threat of being taken prisoner by the Russians had evaporated and that the war as such was over, we began to feel confident. We had crossed the river and at last there were no immediate American guards in sight, so we decided on an alternative plan. Instead of reporting to the military hospital, we thought we would try our luck and make our individual way home. I and two of the soldiers that I had got to know escaped as far as Hanover, which was 50 or 60 miles, by hiding in the daytime and walking only at night.

Captured by the Americans
It was here alas to our horror that we ran into an American military police outfit that captured us and took us to our first prisoner of war camp. On my way there I noticed that what had been a fine Old World town was an absolute ruin. The incessant bombing had flattened it completely. How anyone could have survived such horror was beyond my comprehension. This was the result of the ‘Total War’ policy that our leaders had time and again advocated and now the people were paying the price.

Gottfried, still a prisoner of war, with his English fiancée, Elizabeth Juanita Hodgkins.

My stay in the camp was short-lived and I was then moved to Paderborn. I went out daily with working parties unloading coal from railway wagons onto Studebaker trucks which were used by American and British force. In the meantime, I managed to get word home that I had survived and received confirmation that my brothers were alright. My eldest was a prisoner in France, my youngest in Holland. My sister and her two sons had managed to get back to Westfalia. Theirs had been a hazardous journey walking back from Czechoslovakia which was made worse for her knowing that her husband had been taken prisoner in Italy. My other two brothers had been severely wounded and had been invalided out of the army. They were once more with their families.

Sent to England
In January 1946, I was once again on the move and finished up in a large POW camp in Brussels. Since it was mid-winter and our accommodation was only tents, life was not very pleasant. In June of that year, we were sent to Antwerp where ships were waiting to take us to England. We landed at Tilbury and from there sent to Sheffield, which was a large transit camp.

Gottfried outside the family's former home in the Netherlands in more recent times.

After several weeks there, we were sorted out and dispatched to small camps. Mine was near Atherstone in Warwickshire where we spent most of our time working on farms. After several more camp changes, I finally finished up in a camp near Wolverhampton. I received my discharge papers in May 1948 and settled down to a normal life with my wife, Juanita, whom I had met while still a POW. In May 1957, we moved to Stonnall and spent many happy years raising our daughter, Linda, in the North Manor house. I worked at Marsh and Baxter at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham.

Nita passed away on 11 Septemeber, 2011 and Gottfried on 1 April, 2016.

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© Linda Gerwinat

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