Interview with Erich Schmidt, Wehrmacht veteran of the Norway campaign who was on board the doomed ship 'Blücher' and also fought on the Eastern Front and in Normandy. Hamburg, 1990.

[Above: Men of the mighty German war machine. Almost always outnumbered and outgunned, not since Alexander the Great had an army staggered and conquered so many enemies.]

Thanks for meeting with me and allowing me to speak with you. Can I ask you what prompted you to enlist in the Wehrmacht? You mentioned you were going to be part of the Church.

Erich: Yes young man, I was 20 years old in 1938 and had a desire to be a servant in the Protestant Church here. It seems strange now but I was eagerly awaiting my chance to attend schooling in ecclesiastical training which was paid for. I was not interested in politics at all so I never paid much attention to Hitler and his party. My life back then was dedicated to the Church and that was all I wanted to do. I was not in the Hitler Youth, and found them to be too subservient to the state. I was not opposed to the idea but it was all too new. There was some friction between the churches and Hitler.

I have read that the churches in Germany opposed Hitler from the beginning and many clergy were put in concentration camps and killed. Did you see any of this?

Erich: Well sir, I believe some of the history may not be accurate. While I was separate from politics, and many in the Church were, we did not oppose Hitler openly, if that is what you are asking. Indeed there were some who did speak out against Hitler but they were quickly embarrassed and removed. The Church at that time had turned somewhat liberal in many areas and I am sad to say there were cases of child abuse that I remember and the state came down very hard on the clergymen who were involved. They were also usually opponents of Hitler. Some men had infiltrated the Church who were not Christian at all, their aim was to subvert the Church. Hitler understood this, to his credit. It was a big scandal for us in 1934 when it broke. Alter boys had been abused, as well as other children in a few different parishes and denominations it appeared. I was a teenager back then and did not understand it all but I remember my parents speaking about it often. It caused many to leave the Church as the papers exposed many who were openly homosexual and liked children. I can tell you it was with a sense of relief that bad apples were removed and after this the Church actually thanked Hitler for forcing some bad people out who it was felt had wormed their way in to advance their own agenda. Yes, some clergy did not like Hitler's ideas on race, or his view on the Jews, and they spoke out until the war, then they were arrested.

There was international criticism of Hitler I remember reading. Many in the Party countered that if the world really cared about how priests and clergy were treated, then they would have spoken up for all those killed by the Bolsheviks in Russia and other parts of Europe in revolutions. I remember thinking that was true, the Bolsheviks in Russia and Spain attempted to eradicate the Church. I met an exiled Russian priest while in Finland and he confirmed that during the revolution of 1919 the Bolsheviks rounded up all christians they could find who opposed them, and killed them. I knew Hitler's party was not lying about this after speaking to him. We had soldiers in the Spanish Civil War and I had a comrade who was there in 1937 and he spoke of seeing nuns who were tied up and shot in the back of the head. One, he recalled, had her rosary stuffed in her mouth. The behavior of the communists was disgusting and alarming. I saw some of this in the east as well while I was a soldier.

Oh okay, I never knew that. So how did you come to enlist in the Wehrmacht since you were so close to the Church?

Erich: Well, I will tell you, I admired the soldiers I would see, we had many who attended our services on Sunday. It was seen back then as a good thing to serve in the Wehrmacht, as it was an obligation. Church servants could oftentimes be given a deferral as our work was considered important. I received a letter in 1938 saying I could either choose to enlist or use my deferral for church service. My friend at the time, he later fell in Africa, had gone in and would write glowing letters about what a good time he was having. This sparked my interest, plus I knew I would have to do it sooner or later, so I decided to do it and be done. I was taken in and assigned to Infantry Regiment 307, which would be the 163rd Infantry Division. I was marched through the gates at Jüterbog to begin my service time. My father was not too happy with this decision I might add, he wanted me to stay in the Church and continue my education. My mother was worried what the military life would do to me, but I already served in the Labor Service [Reichsarbeitsdienst, or Reich Labor Service, RAD] with no problems.

[Above: Symbol of the 163rd Infantry Division. This brave group of men were annihilated in March 1945 by the communist juggernaut in Pomerania, Germany.]

Can I ask what life was like in the RAD and what did you do?

Erich: Yes, life in the RAD was nothing special; it was a labor corps that all young men had to spend time in, no matter who you were. I was in with a famous artist and also an actor. It was funny seeing us try to do heavy work when we never had that experience before. To be honest at the time I hated it. As I have matured since that time, I understand the concept and it would not be a bad thing for it to come back. It was designed to teach everyone the value of work, and to help the Reich with special projects. My troop worked on reforestation and repairing trees that were failing. We had special powder we would use to give new life to the soil and to help get nutrients to the tree roots. We would spend days walking around forests doing this. We had to dig trenches to help with water control and drainage in some areas. The service time in the RAD was 6 months of your time and it was noted down as service to the Reich. It counted highly when applying for any job or training, so it was important to finish out your time with no complaints. If you were a hot head who did not approve of this you were dismissed and it was noted you failed in your obligation.

I understand you served on board the Blücher when it was sunk in Norway, can you tell me about it?

Erich: Oh heavens no my young one, I was not in the Kriegsmarine so I was not on a ship. I was only on the Blücher as my regiment was tasked with securing the areas around Oslo. The Blücher was our transport ship, and let me tell you she was crowded as far as sleeping space went. I was a lowly private in 1940, even after all my training, so I had to sleep on the floor with a mat and my backpack as my pillow. I remember the ship being damp and cold, and many of us were seasick as the sea was rough during the trip. The ship smelled brand new, as she had just been commissioned. So I was not serving on the ship, but I was on it right before the Norwegians opened fire and sunk her. I was very lucky that we disembarked onto another smaller ship that would land us where we were going. I remember that night we went into Norway, it was cold and very wet, it was hard to stay warm. There was action on our way where an enemy U-boat was nearby and sent everyone scrambling. Then a coastal boat was engaged and sunk. Rumors were being started that we had orders to not fire on the Norwegians, to show them we came as friends. Some were angry that we fired at them, but they fired first and caused casualties.

After we left the Blücher, she steamed up the fjord and held fire to see what would transpire. Sadly the Norwegians opened fire on her with everything they had and caused such damage that she soon sunk. She still never fired back, which is a mystery as to why. Was the captain showing we meant no harm? Later I was recruited to bury some of the dead that washed up on the shore. We gave them all last kind words and asked God to watch over them in the Kingdom. I remember that vividly, as the sun shown down that day in a special way. The commander of the fort who opened fire on the Blücher was treated as a war hero by his people. We certainly did not see him as that, but he was left alone and was very friendly to us. I saw him once, as he came out of our general's headquarters. He seemed to be shown a great respect, and apologized for causing the deaths of many young men.

[Above: The Blücher (top photo), 1940, and the doomed ship in the process of being claimed by the sea, via Norwegian guns on April 9, 1940. It is not known how many men died, naval historians give figures anywhere from 200 - 1,000 men.]

What was the fighting in Norway like?

Erich: Well, luckily there wasn't much fighting for us at all. We came across many army units who simply surrendered. You know I was with Oberleutnant [Kurt] Budäus when he won his Knight's Cross. We went into a harbor area called Horten [a town and municipality in Vestfold, Norway] and were able to capture the whole garrison. We were a small force, as the others were lost, and up against a much larger enemy. They started shooting at us but we quickly overcame them and outwitted them. We made them think we were much larger and due to well-placed fire they believed this. They wanted no part of a heavy fight and laid down their arms with honor. We allowed them to all return home to their families. Some, I learned later on, sided with us and joined the Waffen-SS which was the armed SS that guarded Hitler. Budäus went in with them as a sign of respect to former enemies who were now comrades in arms. He was a Party man and felt more at home in the SS I suppose.

We settled into occupation duty and wondered how we would be treated by the people. Their government fled and vowed to keep fighting, but [Vidkun] Quisling took over and they seemed to settle into life with us very well. We got on well with the people and after awhile life returned as in peacetime. They did fight longer up in Narvik, and we were going to be moved up there to help, but the Allies retreated once France fell. They made a special arm badge for the fighters who held off a large enemy force with little reinforcements. While in Russia I read a book about Narvik that had come out shortly after. I had no idea it was so bad and wondered why we were not sent up there to fight, but I enjoyed my time in Oslo. I went to the church near our base to ask if I could offer any help or time and the minister was very kind. The people certainly did not like us there as invaders, however friendships did develop. I have nothing bad I can say about the people of Norway.

[Above: The Narvik Shield was awarded to all German forces that took part in the battles of Narvik between April 9 and June 8, 1940. It was instituted on August 19, 1940 by Adolf Hitler. Click to enlarge.]

You fought on the Eastern Front, what was it like? What did you think of the Russian soldiers and civilians?

Erich: Yes, we were sent to the northern part of the east front. My unit stayed in Norway, largely to prevent a British invasion. We landed in Norway just as the British were going to also, and stayed so they could not come back. They wanted to stop the flow of iron and supplies from Sweden. When Hitler attacked Stalin we were sent into Finland to help protect them from any Russian attacks. That is where I met the Russian priest. We went into action against strong points and pushed them back but the terrain was all forests and water and hard to maneuver through. We built small villages behind the lines for us and the Fins to use as supply bases and rest areas. Here I met a young nurse after getting sick who was active in her church, as her father was a pastor. She knew German well and we would read the Bible when we could and discuss the meaning of the verses. She was very fearful of the Soviets due to the treatment of civilians she had heard about. The Soviet soldiers I did not care for, they seemed dark and vile to me. I know many were no doubt good soldiers, but they seemed godless to me. In the prisoners that were brought in, I never saw them hold any religious artifacts or talismans. For German soldiers we always carried either the bible, cross, or a saint on our person.

I saw their behavior towards the civilians; many were killed in cold blood by the partisans who moved with the Soviet army. They would attack behind the lines and target farms with animals or lone farmers out in the fields. A Finnish soldier came and told my unit that 2 km behind us a small village was hit and all the people had been killed. We had to send men to scour the land to try to find the bandits doing this. At the time we all used soldier's humor saying it was a rabbit hunt we were doing, but we knew the seriousness of what they had done. It was shameful to attack civilians. They even had the nerve to say we did these things. They dropped flyers from the air accusing Finland's German allies of secretly hunting the women and civilians of Finland. My unit was in the north to try to stop the flow of supplies from Murmansk for a good year, but in late 1942 I was forced to come back home. I say this as I had adapted well to the army life, I wore the Iron Cross, and was promoted to corporal. I was being assigned to more training that ended up placing me in another division being built that was on occupation duty in France.

What was life like in Germany at that stage of the war?

Erich: It had changed little, which might surprise you. Life in Germany did not change until the Total War speech by Goebbels where he closed down a lot of the entertainment side of society and made everyone gear up for a hard duty. This didn't happen until 1943, after Stalingrad fell. When I came home you could still see life going on as if there was no war. The bombings had started, but it was very little at the time. Lights were on, restaurants and shops were open, and little had changed from peacetime. You would see windows taped up and curtains were dark to hide any lights at night. I saw many foreigners in the Reich at this time; they came for the high paying factory work, as German men were away doing their service. I saw my first prisoners as well, they were soviet POWs and they were being used to help in the fields for the harvest. I was told it was done in Russia as well as a way to feed the people.

A comrade who was in Russia told me they could not understand why we gave them something for their work. They were used to the state taking all the fruits of labor. Germans showed them how to work smarter and get done faster. They could keep flour and such for food. The people were very thankful for the kind help they received. The prisoners in the Reich likewise were seen smiling and joking with each other while working. They did not seem distressed or scared. When I was a prisoner in Britain, I was used in this same way, to help the farmers with the harvest. When I came home after the war the destruction I saw was something you can only imagine if you actually saw it with your own eyes. If only I knew what was around the corner for me. This last leave before training was the last time I saw home until 1946.

[Above: Joseph Goebbels, at the Berlin Sportpalast arena, giving his famous 'Total War' speech, on February 18, 1943. After the treachery and loss of Stalingrad Germany knew it was now or never, and to be defeated meant enslavement and racial genocide. Their prescience was correct, just look at Germany and the world today. Goebbel's words cut through the arena like a dark sword: 'Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?']

How was life in France when you were there? What were the people like?

Erich: Oh the people in France I have no complaints about, they were good to us. I do not know where all of this talk comes from about there being a resistance to us; I never saw any of it. I was transferred to the 931st Regiment as a new unteroffizier of the grenadiers. We set up quarters in Brittany and did training in preparation for invasion. This new division consisted of a mix of everything; we had former Soviet prisoners if you can believe that, Hungarians of German decent, and others. I was assigned to a Captain Vogel to help build them into an effective fighting unit. We were able to do this for the most part as they later gave a good account of themselves. I was able to meet some of the eastern soldiers and they told of horror stories at what the Bolsheviks, and later the Soviets, had done to the people. We were all free to roam around the area on days off, and never did we have to worry about resistance, the Britons hated the English and saw us as friends. I remember life in France being very simple then; we would help out the farmers with their cows and animals. We would go to the coast to enjoy the beaches in areas where we could. One comrade got in trouble for borrowing a boat without permission once and I had to dress him down.

We took any complaints against our men seriously and wanted to make sure the people knew we were not there to harm them. Another soldier got in a lot of trouble for not paying a prostitute. I had to deal with that one as well. It stands out to me to this day. He agreed to pay for sex, and then told the mistress of the house he lost his wallet. She agreed to let him leave and return with payment, which he did not, and she tracked him down. His pay was docked and he was made to apologize to her, and confined to barracks under arrest. He was so embarrassed at this that he even made a threat against the mistress and the police became involved. He was transferred out to the east front to serve as an example that you can't cheat people. We never had any more problems with our men and for the most part, aside from rare drunken brawls, they behaved. We also had prisoners of war there I remember, they were brought there to work on farms or fortifications.

I would see them out working many times with only an old guard watching them, and no weapons. It was a strange sight to see for us, I felt sorry for them but they did not look abused. My platoon had to help them once with chasing down cows that got out due to a truck crashing into a fence. Some of the Russians in our unit spoke to them and actually got many to volunteer to join in the fight. They were sent for training and came back in May, being placed in Normandy right where the Allies landed. They didn't fight too well of course, but it was odd to see former enemies being allowed to bear arms.

Did you see many of the fortifications of the Atlantic Wall? Did it seem as formidable as the Allies tell today?

Erich: I did see some of the bunkers and gun positions but I have to say they were far and few between. The Atlantic Wall was a myth of the propaganda ministry. There was no wall, and there were very few units manning that "wall". I would never hear any drills or firing as they had to save their ammunition for the invasion. When the Allies landed I do not believe there were very many units in Normandy to oppose them. There were coastal artillery batteries yes, and the eastern troops made up of largely former prisoners who really wanted to fight Stalin. There were a few regiments spread out, but none made any difference. One man, [Franz] Gockel I believe, was responsible for almost half of the American casualties on one landing area. Hitler's idea was to let the enemy land, and then rush up the forces to throw them back. Maybe on paper this looked like it would work, but in reality the Allies had too much of a superiority in every category. Having control of the air was pivotal, we could not move safely during the daytime. My unit was released to action well after the landings happened, and we were harassed along the way. We had many flak batteries that were moved up after the invasion, and they took a terrible toll on the Allied planes. However they still had immense numbers and we could not contend with the odds.

Can I ask you about the action you saw in the battle, what was it like?

Erich: Oh it is not pleasant to speak of young one; youth has no knowledge of what real war is thank God. I fought in a time of total war, the enemies of Germany were numerous and fully able to fight. While we grew weaker they grew stronger, and we all could see that by 1944. You know, Normandy was our last hope. We would all speak of the coming fight; we all knew the Allies were coming. Many even guessed correctly it would be Normandy; Hitler predicted that one too I hear. We were prepared as best we could be considering the situation we were in with low fuel and supplies. By this stage of the war our Luftwaffe could not stay in the air, and they were rarely seen in our area. We felt this right in the beginning, the Allies would come over and bomb cities and important points, and our only defense was flak guns. In Brittany, I remember this, in April of '44 they started coming every day.

They would attack the ports, towns, bunkers, and sadly anything moving on the roads at times. They seemed to have little regard if it was civilian or military. I witnessed a bus that was marked as civilian come under attack, but the pilot must have figured out his mistake as he veered away after one burst. We had to stay hidden in the woods and we camouflaged all vehicles and equipment so they could not be seen by these planes. The morning of the landings I remember well. I had stayed up late finishing up a drawing I had done of the church in the town we were in. I was very proud of it. It had been raided by the Vikings long ago, and had quite a history I was told. I went to sleep and was jolted awake by sirens and shouting outside. I could hear French and German voices yelling, and I thought one of my men was in trouble. I ran outside and was told that something was happening in Normandy with paratroopers dropping. This Frenchman had come to warn us that there was shooting. The alarms went off putting us all on high alert. I was ordered to report to our command post to receive orders which only ended up keeping us on alert. It took what seemed like a long time to get us released to move to Normandy, it was feared the Allies may land in other areas too. When we finally moved into the main battle lines the battle had turned into a defensive one, where we just tried to hold on keeping the Allies pinned.

Later in the month an SS division moved in with us here, with heavy Panzers. I saw the Tiger and Panther for the first time. They gave us hope for a good outcome as they could shoot down any Allied tank. The Allies kept attacking and attacking, and they had the benefit of the heavy naval guns, and aircraft. I believe many of the towns in Brittany were damaged in the fighting, even where we had no stronghold. It was a shame, many had no military importance. I will add the French suffered as a result, the hospitals were full with wounded who were caught out during the fighting. I saw some French who had been killed in the bombings, and felt bad war had visited this pristine area and its good people. We fought the Americans from June until late August, at which time the line east had broken as was our west line. The Allies tried to spring a trap on us, which our leaders saw and began to order fighting withdrawals. I was part of this action called the Falaise Pocket, and we came under constant artillery, air, and ground attacks. So many good soldiers fell there, it was a terrible battle. We had to fight Polish soldiers to keep a route open for us to get out. It was here that I saw a war crime by the Polish where they were on a hill and they opened fire on marked Red Cross trucks carrying both soldier and civilian.

It was a scene of evil, they shot up the trucks and then when comrades went to check on survivors they fired mortars at them. We were ordered to assault their positions with SS soldiers who were just mere kids. At this point I must tell you I lost all hope that we could win this war. We had little ammunition, water, food, and supplies. The civilians who were hiding in their cellars or farms were kind enough to offer us a small morsel or drink to keep us going but we knew we were cooked. We gathered ourselves and had a briefing from an SS officer and we attacked a large area, with both Americans and Poles. The amount of fire power they had was truly daunting; I was with our leutnant when a round from a mortar went off by us and I was hit in my shoulder and began bleeding badly. We patched each other up and no sooner stood up to get back into it, when I was hit in the thigh. For me that was it, I was moved to a fallen tree as cover and was told to wait for aid. It seemed like hours and I was feeling quite weak by now. I no longer heard my men, and shooting was distant. As I lay there I heard small shots here and there and was able to look up over the log to see the field belonged to the enemy. They were shooting our wounded it appeared. I remember panicking and then I passed out. I came to lying out in the open with other wounded soldiers. I was taken to a dressing station behind the lines, and told I was now a prisoner. They had German doctors and helpers who had surrendered and were allowed to help the wounded.

I was bandaged up with stitches and told I would be going to Britain as a prisoner. And so for me the war was over from that moment on. Let me say that before I was sent there I was kept in Normandy for a month, until September helping to bury and identify the dead. That was terrible but necessary work. I remember we had to be very careful as a few of the civilians who were helping had been killed when they went to pull an American away and put him on cart, a live grenade he had pulled the pin on before dying was dropped out of his hand. This happened at times when during fighting a soldier might arm a grenade, and then die. The grenade stays live until the soldier is moved. This happened to Germans as well, and has led to a myth that we booby trapped our dead to kill medical personnel. This is not true and we never would do something like that, it would be a crime to kill someone coming to help a wounded man. These stories no doubt arose because of situations like this where a soldier armed a grenade, and then it stayed with him until moved. I saw this once, where an American held that common fragmented grenade in his hand after dying and the Americans had to bring in a specialist to remove it safely. His dead fingers were rigid and could not be moved.

[Above: An iconic photo of the German soldier in WWII, who never slackened, never tired, facing death with a bravery and courage seldom seen in the cowardly Allied world. Click to enlarge.]

Can I ask you about how you feel regarding the current beliefs that German soldiers committed crimes on the fronts they fought? In the East and Normandy is what I have heard the most.

Erich: Well now, I do not like talking about these things as they are unpleasant. I must also tell you I can not speak for all German soldiers. You know we had many nationalities that agreed to join us, and they had ethnic rivalries that at times played out in the fighting while they wore German uniforms. I can tell you I will stand before God's eternal judgment with a clean conscience. I never saw a German soldier do anything to a civilian or prisoner that was acting against our honor. War is a sin in itself, yet we must also serve our nation which is of our people. There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your people. Most all German soldiers lived by this verse. Yes, we had some men who turned into cowards, others who knew it was over, and others who were fatalists who wanted to go down fighting. Of these types it is possible they had hate in their hearts and killed civilians or prisoners who they blamed for the loss.

So to answer your question I can say I never saw any of the crimes our former enemies lay at our feet. I will add that in the postwar period thousands of Germans and our allies were put on trial at different times and many were found guilty and executed. I was against that as it is ungodly and I believe they were not given a fair trial. The cases I read about have scant evidence, and testimony coming from people who had only hate in their hearts, and no mercy. The circumstances under which some of the killings of terrorists were carried out were omitted. That is a separate topic altogether which is very bad, but I feel is very misunderstood. I will end this with saying again, that at the feet of Christ I will fall and be absolved of any sin. I have a clean conscience that as a soldier I did the right thing and have nothing to be ashamed of.

[Above: The German soldier represented more than just his country -- the country who dared rebel against an evil world. He was a force of good, a cleansing fire nearly absent in the decayed world of today. But that old flame still burns, ready to set this rotting world ablaze.]

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