[Above: A beautiful eagle taken from an SS funerary pillow. Click to enlarge.]

      Interview with Knight's Cross winner SS-Obersturmführer Erwin Bachmann, who served in 'Germania', 'Wiking' and lastly 10. SS-Panzer 'Frundsberg', where he was given his own command and served as Battalion Adjutant. Bovenden (Lower Saxony), Germany, 1989.

Thanks for meeting with me, I would like to start by asking what brought you to join the SS?

Erwin: You could say the time I lived in. I studied to be in business, I studied long and hard to learn about the ways of big business and to help run an office. I had no real skill or desire to be a soldier. By 1939 it was becoming clear to most Germans that the former enemies of the first war were plotting a second, even with the numerous peace treaties Germany signed, they still sought war to stop our reunification. To elaborate on this, France took large areas of Germany, Poland was created out of a larger area of Germany, Czechoslovakia was created out of German lands, and a few other nations partook in taking land from a weakened Germany. Adolf Hitler came to power mainly on the promise of returning these lands and people back to their rightful nation. In this he met much resistance, as it showed the errors of the Allies, who would never admit they were wrong in singling Germany out as the sole culprit in starting the first war. Hitler was very successful in bringing most of the land back, but we could see Poland was different; according to the British press, Hitler had to be stopped, and they threw all sorts of lies at us. One that stands out was we wanted to take over the world. This is still popular today. Nothing is as far from the truth, we only wanted a return of all Germans who had been torn away. With regards to Poland, for the first time, masses of Germans fled that nation, as they were targeted for violence, some even killed.

I could tell this was not going to end well. We had a family that was settled into Göttingen, and who told of very brutal treatment at the hands of roving Polish bands who smashed their windows and assaulted the man and wife in front of their children. We were hearing of numerous instances of border crossings, fights, and thefts. Hitler offered concession after concession but the British egged-on Poland to refuse all offers. This only served to inflame the Poles with more bravado and violence against Germans. Talk of war was starting by August, and a comrade suggested I volunteer instead of being drafted. I had always admired the SS men with their elite black uniforms and a strong sense of order and precision. In late August I visited a recruitment office for the SS-Standarte Germania and was impressed. I signed the papers and was selected to go through the acceptance process.

What was the acceptance process like?

Erwin: At that time the SS was very elite, only the most physically fit could join. You also had to prove you were of unmixed blood, meaning you were of the Germanic tribes who made up the peoples of northern Europe. This was Himmler's idea and based on the old type of racial science that was popular in the world at that time. An SS candidate had to go through many tests to look for genetic defects and any health issues. Once passed through I was sent to the SS-VT [SS-Verfügungstruppe (Combat Support Force), formed in 1934 as combat troops for the NSDAP] and then on to the Germania Regiment. I was in training when war broke out on the 1st of September. We assembled in our barracks and our commander said we were in a state of war, therefore sentries were to be armed and had to patrol. For the first time it dawned on me that war meant shooting, but I was told by the recruiter that I could serve in administration. I brought this up to my training NCO, and he rebuffed me, saying Germany needed warriors, not pencil sharpeners. Therefore, I was trained in the infantry, and in particular on the MG34.

You were in the French campaign, what do you remember about this?

Erwin: I was, it was uneventful for me however. Many men had been in Poland and were combat veterans, so they got all the tough jobs and were in the front units. The new recruits were sheltered, if you will; I call it 'on the job training'. We marched a lot and got to see the aftermath of the battles. Germania had very few motor vehicles, so we marched many kilometers. My main job during this time was to learn the ropes as a machine gunner, but I ended up keeping track of the weapons and prisoners we captured more than anything else. It was my first taste of administration duties. I did such a good job with this and with assisting comrades with lost equipment that my leader told me I had leadership potential. I paid attention to how the adjutants worked and how the command structure was set up, with the goal of being a leader someday. Our march into France was fast moving, and we achieved victory over a superior enemy in a very short time. It was a proud moment for us to have achieved in a few weeks what our fathers could not in 4 years. Everywhere we went, we saw demoralized French and countless prisoners. One of the first things we did once the fighting stopped was to care for the refugees. The roads were so clogged with them they often made movement hard. They had to be helped off the roads many times, with carts being stuck, and breaking. Many of us carried chocolate that the children liked, and we provided food if the Red Cross was not close. We spent the later part of the campaign helping the French organize and rebuild what was lost. You will not hear about this in the history books you read.

[Above: A Frundsberg Panther tank. Note the division's 'F' symbol painted on the tank.]

The British often made accusations that the Germans shot and strafed French civilians, did you see any of this?

Erwin: I only saw this once, and it was a German column that had been attacked by Allied planes, killing several civilians who had been mixed in. You have to understand these are not war crimes, I am sure the Allied pilots did not know civilians were on the road too. Most of the time, in any army, the civilians are kept away, or told to straggle at their own risk. I am sure we attacked Allied columns with the same results too. There is never the intention of directly hurting civilians, but war can be cruel, and this is something that all sides attempted to avoid, Russia being the exception in many cases. War propaganda is dangerous in this area, as it attempts to portray the other side as reckless and inhuman, encouraging people to seek justice for a wrong. We Germans never deliberately attacked civilians; anyone doing so would be severely punished. However, the Allies took these accusations to heart and exacted revenge for things that never happened, especially at the war's end.

What do you remember about Russia and the war in the east?

Erwin: Barbarossa was hard, it was on such an enormous front that there would be several kilometers distance between units. My unit, which was still Germania, but now part of the Wiking Division, attacked into Galicia and met very stiff resistance. We attacked a very strong and well-prepared enemy, who held vast stockpiles of supplies, ready to strike the west. We came upon many of these dumps, and took what we could, but turned most of the foodstuff over to the civilians. You have heard this was a war of extermination, the SS killing all within our path. This is war propaganda, and false. I have spoken to many comrades of the Eastern Front, and I have never heard stories of Russians being mistreated. We went out of our way to treat them well, and many aided us as best they could. It is true that in many towns we were hailed as liberators from the ungodly Bolsheviks. Once we stopped in a small village and were treated to a nice chicken and dumplings meal, our goulash cannon [or 'gulaschkanone', a battle field kitchen, its furnace tube is reminiscent of a cannon barrel] helped also with German sausages, which the people found quite good. The early months of the war were good, we advanced quickly, only getting into a few battles with determined Soviets, most of the time they surrendered without much fight. I remember we started to see incidences of Soviet war crimes very early on and did our best to document them, but we had to have police to help and that was not always possible. Something you should know is that German army units, even SS, could not execute anyone without police presence. Any criminals had to be turned over to police units for investigation to determine their guilt or innocence.

Some units, in very limited numbers, did execute partisans on the spot, but this was against regulations and perhaps there were special circumstances that warranted this. I say this because I want it known we could not just grab someone and execute them, military law had to be adhered to without question. The Russian soldier was mostly uneducated and lacked any discipline. We saw many who were shot by their own political officers for cowardice.

[Above: Erwin Bachmann before earning his Knight's Cross.]

You won the Knight's Cross, can you tell me what happened for this to be awarded?

Erwin: I am a good example of how fate sometimes thrusts you into a situation you did not expect. To begin, this happened on the German/French border in 1945. I was now a part of the Frundsberg Panzer Division and was in a Sturmgeschütz [assault gun] battalion. I had also by now been promoted to a command position in a frontline combat unit. I still considered myself a desk officer, and worked doing many administrative duties for my commander, while doing a good job, leading men in combat at the same time. Since we were a combat unit, I became familiar with anti-tank guns, and was thrust into fighting several times, I hated it, but duty is duty. The Americans were halted along the border after the Ardennes failure, and we were very understrength, but still had the will to fight. My unit worked very close with our Panzers so I was very familiar with Panthers and the Panzer IV long barrel in addition to the Stugs [Sturmgeschütz, an assault gun]. I was in a briefing when news came that Allied armor was in the next town, which I was very familiar with. Two Panthers outside had just been refueled and armed. I ordered them to follow me, I got on a motorcycle and headed toward the town. I was stopped by soldiers who advised that the Amis [slang for Americans] had many tanks close by. I stopped the Panthers and arranged them for a quick attack if the situation presented itself.

I went away to scout, and as soon as I came into the town I saw a tank, just as it fired at me. I ran back to the bike and grabbed a Panzerfaust, which was very effective. I hit a Sherman and the Panther hit another. This stunned the Amis, and as the other Panther came into the town, I saw a white flag. The Amis asked to surrender, which stunned me, they outnumbered us by a large margin. I accepted, and then they presented German soldiers whom they captured. We gave them weapons and ordered all the intact tanks brought to our lines. I radioed that I had a surprise for the regiment. My comrades were shocked at this exploit, and so was I. The Amis were well-treated, and I was thanked by their commander for the fair treatment. I told him this is how the SS fights, always with toughness, but with honor. He seemed very happy to be out of the war and wished me well. My commander was in disbelief that we captured so many tanks. It gave us much needed supplies plus the tanks. For this, my commander put in a request for the award of the Knight's Cross; I felt I did not deserve such a high award, but this twist of luck really impressed my superiors.

The SS stands accused of terrible crimes, and was labeled a criminal organization, do you agree with this assessment?

Erwin: I say a resounding NO! We were non-political and only serving our nation in time of war. I understand historians to this day poke around looking for crimes, and since the study of the war has turned political, they have no shortage of accusers. Save for very isolated incidents of combat stress, the SS man behaved exemplary on the battlefield, showing an adherence to the laws of war. Our enemies cannot say the same thing, though many units I faced in the west behaved well. Many of the crimes committed against Germans came at the war's end when we were already beaten, comrades tell of mass shootings of surrendered soldiers, starvation, and torture. I do not wish to speak about the concentration camps, as these fueled Allied vengeance, fed by propaganda. Many paid a terrible price for their loyalty at war's end, especially the foreign volunteers forced to go to Russia.

[Above: PzKpfw IV Ausf H of the 10th SS Panzer Division 'Frundsberg'.]

Bachmann's Knight's Cross recommendation document dated February 15, 1945.

'On the 17.01.1945 the I./SS-Panzer-Regiment 10 had the task of holding the bridgehead that had been created in the Offendorf area. The 3./SS-Pz.Rgt. 10 was subordinated to Kampfgruppe von Lüttichau and received the mission to eject the enemy forces that had entered into the southwestern part of Herrlisheim.

Radio contact had been broken off since 13:30 on this day. Thus, at 16:15, the Abteilung adjutant was sent to establish contact with the 3./SS-Pz.Rgt. 10 and confirm the situation with the Kompanie.

SS-Obersturmführer Bachmann reached the Kompanie and learned that the Kompanie commander had fallen out due to severe wounds.

Bachmann immediately took over command of the Kompanie and launched a surprise thrust into Herrlisheim with a Panzer-Zug. By skillfully employing his own 4 Panzers he was able to launch a very successful surprise attack against the group of enemy tanks in the village (consisting of some 20 tanks altogether). 8 tanks were destroyed in quick succession, and the crews of another 12 tanks gave themselves up without a fight. Their tanks thus fell into our hands in an undamaged and drivable state. One of the 8 destroyed tanks was personally set afire by SS-Obersturmführer Bachmann via a Panzerfaust.

20 German soldiers (including 2 officers) were freed from captivity in the process.

SS-Obersturmführer Bachmann thereby secured the village on his own initiative in a display of extraordinary bravery and decisiveness. The occupation of Herrlisheim laid the groundwork for the Division's continued operations.

SS-Obersturmführer Bachmann is a man of great character, and he is completely worthy of being awarded the Knight's Cross.'

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