Interview with Johann Weber, veteran of the Pioneer Battalion of the 319th Infantry Division of the Wehrmacht, who served on multiple fronts, eventually moved to occupation duty of the Channel Islands. Trier, Germany, 1990.

[Above: Definitely one of the rarest postal pieces from the Third Reich, this 1940 overprint of a British Jersey stamp was produced in tiny numbers and never released. They were prepared by 'Bigwoods' printery on the order of the German Commandant (Colonel Graf von Schmettow), but due to objections from the civilian leader of Jersey (Alexander Coutanche) and after consultation with Berlin, they were never issued and the stocks destroyed. However, like so often in history, not all of them were destroyed. Three sheets are known to have survived. One sheet of 30 are in a museum, another is in a private collection (of which the cut-out single shown here is from) and the last one is recorded to be in 'poor condition'. Click to see the original example.]

Thanks for letting me speak to you about your life during the war and your experiences. Can I start off by asking how you came to be in the Wehrmacht?

Jo: Yes, I was taken into the Wehrmacht since I was in construction and engineering. It was a skill they needed and I was taken in when war broke out in September of 1939. We attacked Poland and then England and France declared war on Hitler. We were put into this without our permission I want to say. I started my service time in Pioneer Battalion 52 and was part of the fight against France. From there I was sent on to Russia, and then sent to the invasion front on Jersey and Guernsey Islands. That was it for me; I was taken prisoner at war's end.

You saw action against France, can I ask what you remember of the French people, and what did you think of the French Army?

Jo: Let me tell you something, we thought Hitler was crazy for going up against France. They were a nation who did not have to disarm after the first war, they had a large military. Their army was one of the largest in the world, with a fleet to match it. Their air force was large and modern. We knew we were going to fight them, and I remember many thinking about how it would be a long protracted fight like in the first war. [Paul von] Kleist surprised them all and broke through where no one was expecting, and it routed the French. German units trapped the bulk of the army up in Belgium and they could not swing around fast enough to catch us. We were able to break their back and force a retreat to Dunkirk. Hitler let them go which cost us the war, you know. If only we could have taken them prisoners, they would have been open for peace talks. As for my impressions, I found the French to be lovely people, but Germans and French had been enemies for a long time. It goes back to Napoleon when he invaded the east. He caused a lot of friction between the two peoples. It still lingers on till this day I am afraid. I lived by the French all my life and had no reason to hate them.

When we went into France they were scared of us, and cold. They did not like us coming in uninvited, even though they declared the war. They would often give us bad looks of disgust and distrust. Some Germans harbored the same feelings as well. I saw the better side where I was. The people were hungry, and we helped feed them. Our Red Cross came and offered aid to the masses of refugees who clogged the roads. I was happy to see that, as it was not our intention to bring hardship and hate to the people who had nothing to do with the war. We kept that in mind, we were fighting soldiers not civilians. Our medical staff unit treated many French who were wounded. I can recall one accident where a German pilot strafed a column of refugees mixed in with military and hit an old man in the back. He was brought in to them and we all wanted him to live as we could see firsthand the faces of the people. He was sent on for further treatment, and we never knew what happened to him. War is sad business that has far-reaching consequences. As we moved deeper into France I saw the destruction that the battles brought. After the surrender we had to stay to help the French rebuild.

I can say we were very good to them, as we should have been. Many military and civilian units were brought in to help restore life's necessities. France was in chaos in June of 1940, and by December we had put things right with them. The people made a big change where they started liking and accepting us. The French soldiers I have no complaints against either, they were fair and good soldiers. They did not want to fight the war any more than we did. I spoke to many after the surrender, as I speak French. We got along well, and we shared items from home. During down time we would play cards with them, and have a smoke. The civilians saw this too, and surely had to be puzzled as we came as invaders but were friendly with our enemies. They even came over to ask what was going on. It was a sight to see, right after the surrender. It was like a big party, and we were all happy the fighting was done. At least that's what we thought; little did I know of what was to come. However at the time, we showed photos, traded, and ate with each other. Some prisoners were released after just a few days as they were key people in society and could help put France back on its feet. There was a new leader, [Philippe] Pétain, and we released almost all French prisoners to him to help rebuild and reestablish relations with Germany. It made a good impression on the people.

[Above: German soldiers at the Maginot Monument. This memorial to André Maginot is located on the Verdun battlefield, France. Click to enlarge.]

You served on the East Front; can I ask the same questions? What did you think about the Russian people and soldiers?

Jo: Yes indeed, the East Front was a place I will never forget, and I did not like my time there. We went into Russian in 1941 to fight Stalin; Hitler told us that Russia was planning on attacking Germany. My unit was part of the attack in the south, into Ukraine. The people here we found to be very opposed to Stalin, they welcomed us in many places as liberators. I remember seeing the ladies bring flowers and waving kisses to us as we would pass by villages and towns. Many men went into hiding from the red army to avoid being taken away. Many came back and we later used them in the fight against Stalin. We had helpers come to us; some were prisoners we learned to trust. In that summer everything was good for us, we moved fast, building bridges and repairing structures the reds destroyed. Stalin had his troops try to destroy the entire infrastructure such as bridges, water plants, electric plants, towns, crops and animals as examples. Anything that could be used to feed or shelter his enemy was destroyed. This caused us much work as the populations in the newly liberated areas required three things, food, shelter, and water. Stalin wanted to create absolute chaos in the wake of the red army's retreat. We had to help dig new wells, repair roads and bridges, and build new shelter as best as we could. All of this while fending off Russian attacks, and pressing forward with our own.

I would say we had very good relationships with the people in Ukraine, and even into Russia I heard good things. The civilians did not look upon us as vicious invaders, in spite of what Stalinist propaganda said. We would oftentimes move into a village or town for a couple weeks rest and it was a good time. We would eat well with the people, the men would ask for help in building shelters, the women would offer to sew and cook, in which we paid them or traded for our labor. As for the Russian soldiers we had a love-hate relationship I believe. At times we admired them for their tenacity and courage. They could be seen giving aid to our wounded and decent treatment was reported by men who escaped after being captured. However the partisans they used and some of the more eastern Mongols were savages. They routinely shot prisoners and wounded and could be quite cruel. I would say if you ask any ex-soldier of the Eastern Front they will have very bad things to say about these two groups. They did not leave a good feeling for me. I saw a few instances where they committed crimes against both German soldiers and their own civilians who they accused of working with us. Even the young were not spared if they were part of any helper groups or political units.

How did you end up in the Channel Islands after the east?

Jo: Yes, after my time on the East Front I was given time to return to the homeland and attend training classes for new types of pioneer equipment. I was then sent to school for leaders who were NCOs that may become officers. I did not do well here. I must say I at this time had no respect for those men who had no combat experience who tried to tell those who did how to do the job. After this time I was transferred to the 319th Infantry Division, and sent to the Pioneer Battalion. I was assigned to the island of Jersey, but would travel often to Guernsey as well. I remember before the invasion one could travel between the islands and France fairly easily.

What do you remember about life on the islands? How were the civilians treated? How did they interact and view Germans?

Jo: I can say life there was fairly well off. It did not become bad until after Normandy. There were restrictions placed on the civilians. I remember there being a curfew for us all, no one could be out late as there was fear of raids and we did not want civilians getting shot by mistake from a fearful soldier. There were bars and restaurants open, celebrations and fairs were common I remember. The people seemed to accept and ignore us for the most part. Some indeed became friendly and would invite officers or others over for dinner parties. In a time of war these little parties meant a lot to home sick soldiers. The churches were open for soldiers of any faith and we would send men to help clean the grounds one Sunday per month. That was something I remember, we had unit groups who went around and cleaned areas, helping the old and sick. They would trim bushes, grass, weeds, and plant flowers.

I remember it being a much laid back and peaceful existence at that time. The war seemed to be a distant memory. We did have defenses and fortifications but they were never used. I believe it was for propaganda value more than anything else. It would not be an uncommon site to see the women out in the summer enjoying book clubs, and the men playing football or cricket. There was even leagues formed between the civilians, Germans, and Russian prisoners who were there on the island to work. There was an SS officer who was in charge of them and allowed them much free time to enjoy themselves, which seemed odd to us. They had it very good and I do not recall any attempts to escape or desert. Due to food rationing and shortages the people were encouraged to grow food in big gardens and we helped with this as well. I helped build wooden boxes to be used as planters. We enjoyed taking care of these gardens and watching them produce.

[Above: A German soldier getting an ice cream cone in Jersey. Click to enlarge.]

Do you remember seeing any acts of resistance, sabotage, or attacks on Germans?

Jo: I only remember one sad episode, I believe it was on Guernsey. There had been instances of missing army goods and equipment. The commander brought in the security men and they set up a truck that detected radio signals coming from the area. After searches they found a nest of bandits. They were stealing our equipment and also reporting back to England about our strengths and positions. I remember hearing they were caught with weapons as well. They gave up a few of their cohorts and I remember seeing them being sent to France for punishment. That was big news back then; I was new to the area when all this happened. That was the only time I saw anything like that, the people did not do anything to impede us, and we did not bother them. The bandits caught, I learned after the war, were put there by British agents. They posed as refugees I believe, yet their task was to spy. There also was a theft ring now that I remember.

The bobbies [British police] broke up a ring of people who were stealing from the people and trying to sell items to us or to the other islands. They were arrested and punished by prison I believe. There were attacks in places by the commando soldiers who looked for weak places, but they never amounted to anything. Overall life, as I said was very peaceful there. We had a lot of time to ourselves to fish or enjoy the beaches. We would often go out with the locals on fishing boats to catch food. Food was a problem I remember after the invasion. All supplies were stopped and refused. The British did not care that there were civilians needing food and medicine. Our Luftwaffe dropped a few medical supplies and so forth, but this was rare. It took a lot of negotiating for something to be allowed in. It was the Red Cross who brought in a ship full of food. We sent some of the ill back with them, strangely most all of the civilians wanted to stay put. That is how well we got along. We celebrated when the ship came and held a party with what seemed the whole island present. The Allies told our commander we should surrender as Normandy was lost, or they would leave us alone to wither.

Did you know of any relations with the local girls between Germans?

Jo: Oh yes indeed. They would never mention it today, as it is a well-kept secret. There were thousands of young ladies who stayed and love will always find a way, even in war. The official policy was that there was to be no fraternization between German men and the women. That was an impossible order, it was meant to show the people that we were not there to steal or seduce their women. Many times I had to discipline a few of my men for allowing the young girls to get them into trouble. They would invite them out and keep them longer than they realized. Such is love. I remember one who was a young mother whose husband had died, she would always ask for help from my men who were skilled. It was a drain, the roof, the heating, or a bug, my men would leave disappointed as she only used them. They would bring toys for the children or a gift for her but she would not give in.

She was set as a prize for them but I do not believe anyone ever got that close to her, it was a running bet, who would get her hand. The joke was on us, I believe she just used men for free labor so as not to pay repair bills. A comrade went back to see her in the '50s and was received very well, but she was now married to an Englishmen. As I understand it, when we surrendered there was investigations regarding who collaborated with us, and it was quickly shut down for fear of what would come out [in fact, those files are still sealed to this day! - Ed.]. During my internment I was asked about the conduct of the civilians, and I told the truth. They were an occupied people and we had no bad intentions with them, what were they going to do, live life in a bubble?

[Above: An envelope from German occupied Jersey showing the six stamps that were issued for the island. This is obviously philatelic, done by a stamp collector. 'First Day Cover' means that this was canceled by the post office on the first day the stamps were issued; cover means envelope in stamp collector lingo. The only other Channel Island that got their own stamps was Guernsey. The other islands like Sark and Alderney used Guernsey stamps. Click to enlarge.]

[Above: German occupied Jersey currency. These look so odd, almost like play money. Guernsey also got its own currency under German occupation. Click to enlarge.]

It seems like life was somewhat boring on the Channel Islands, did anything exciting ever happen?

Jo: I have to say to you, no. Life there was boring, and in war that was welcome relief. It felt as if we were at peace. The exciting times might be a flyover of an Allied plane, where flak fired, or a stray warship sighting. Of course our commander made sure we were ready to repel an attack, but none came. The only action I can recall was in the last months of the war, there was a raid on Cherbourg [France] in which the last drops of petrol and coal for military use was used. The attack was meant to secure more supplies, and to find out what the real situation was in France. French allies would come over at night avoiding American boats bringing what little they could. The news was not good, but the commanders did not fully trust them and wanted to see for themselves if France was indeed lost.

I was ill at this time and was not able to go, but men in my unit went to help with a mission to destroy the pier. It was a success for us, and they brought back supplies, prisoners, and news of the situation. By now we had a clear picture the war was lost. I remember feeling sad, but also glad that we would soon be home again. That war had gone on far too long and cost so much. We heard about the bombing of the cities all over Europe, but especially our homeland. We received letters through the Red Cross, but it was sporadic. We were ready to be done with it all.

Can I ask you about the claims that are being made today that German soldiers acted in a brutal way against their enemies? Often times I am reading accusations of genocide, rape, and overall bad behavior. Do you believe any of this?

Jo: Yes indeed, this is the prevailing attitude of many. Here in my own homeland the young were taught early on that we followed an evil man. They want the people to believe that we acted out of hate and racial supremacy. I can speak for myself and I believe many of the fine soldiers I was with, we are not guilty. I was in the East; I know how the war was fought. We were kind when could be, and hard when we were made to be by the enemy. We faced a very determined foe, who was led by ideology. Do not get me wrong, we were as well; we believed we were freeing the world of an evil plague. The Soviet soldier believed the same principle. I can tell you we fought to save Europe from them. I like studying history and I know and saw what they had done to their own people during the Bolshevik civil war. There was a slogan they used back then "the world revolution goes first through the Reich" that was their belief. Hitler sent us to stop any threat to our homeland and people.

I saw in the beginning all the supplies they had amassed, it helped keep our attacks going when we captured so many supplies. Because of the way they saw this war; they fought it very brutally, even on their own people. I saw examples of their crimes that we had to deal with. I see the old eyewitnesses these shows and papers use, and there is no shortage of them. I think personally they were coached on their stories, and have told lies so many times that in their eyes it's all true. I saw a TV show where a Russian woman is saying she saw German soldiers shoot all the children in her town. She had tears, and a very good memory. I think she was coached, a liar, or saw something that that was not by Germans. The partisan bandits were a creation of the Soviets, and were very cruel. They encouraged, funded, and sent soldiers in to help. Of course the security units and police had to deal with all these people. The bad stories I see on TV and in the magazines often deal with how these bandits were treated. They make them out to be heroes today, if it was any other nation dealing with them they would be seen as the simple thieves, spies, terrorists, and traitors that they were. They have what seems like powerful allies who work hard to cover up their crimes and to use any of our reprisals as an act of hate and genocide.

As I look back on my life, I know we did nothing that any other army would not have done, or did. We had situations where civilians raised a hand against us, and they were punished for it, some being executed. I am sorry, but I just can not feel sorry for such people who knew what the consequences of their actions could be. Look at the Channel Islands as a prime example. Sure there were small pockets of resistance, and criminals that were taken away, but the vast majority of the people acted very well with us. They were not harassed, assaulted, or unreasonably inconvenienced unless it was some odd war time temporary measure. If the occupied areas acted like this they were left alone, if they had bandits who attacked Germans or our allies, they were then made to live with more intrusive rules. I am sorry I am long winded; I just do not believe these stories that have been promoted by communists, and our former enemies. They for some reason want to keep Germany and our honor constantly under mental attack.

They want us to feel shame for the war, and we are sad it happened. However we did not declare war, the British and French did. They were able to escalate the fighting and draw other nations into it. Hitler, I believe, was forced into bad decisions, like declaring war on America. Although I was not on Crete; it is a good example of civilians deciding to join in the fighting. As I understand it the British trained and armed small groups, who later attacked German forces. Some of the attacks were nothing short of cold-blooded murder, and investigations were launched. When the guilty were found, they were tried, convicted, and executed. Today, Spiegel [German weekly news magazine] and others speak about a war crime, just short of genocide. They use a supposed German eyewitness who vehemently attacks his comrades as criminals. This happens all to often today. The civilians who encouraged, carried out, and hid the attackers were all guilty of unlawful battlefield murders. They were punished for it, and the rest warned that any future acts would be met with swift justice. It was the same in the East, France, Balkans, and Crete. We had people the Allies trained and armed attack us, then we were forced to retaliate. Only the guilty were executed, sure some innocents were arrested and detained for awhile I am sure, but they were let go after investigations. I can tell you with full certainty that we did not conduct the war in a way that was shameful or genocidal. Our enemies did at times, and it caused us to respond with harsh measures, that's how I see it.

What was the surrender like for you?

Jo: It was very ceremonial I remember. We received word that the war was over and the British sent over agents to work out how surrender would happen. We were ordered to turn over all weapons and to assemble. We were greeted by British soldiers, and a high officer gave a speech thanking us for the fair treatment of the islands. That is important, as there were no accusations, even against the SS, that wrong doing had been done. We turned over all weapons, and helped remove mines and other arms from militarized areas. Then we went to holding camps in France, and then to Britain where most all were processed and released in a few months. I can not complain, as we were all glad to have survived, and to have good food again. The British were not perfect, but they did care for any sick, and made sure we had good meals to eat. I was used to help clear damage and worked with their bomb disposal teams for my time there.

Are there any myths about the Wehrmacht you would like to dispel?

Jo: Yes, there are many myths I see today that need to be corrected. For one there was never any police or Gestapo in our ranks hunting down soldiers. Many shows today portray the noble dissenter being hunted down, while his comrades cover for him. These types of acts never happened. If one became involved in espionage or some other misdeed then the commander got involved to investigate. If the soldier was believed to be guilty then a court martial could be brought. The police had no jurisdiction over military matters.

In a sister division in the east, I know of a man who sought to defect to Russia and he was caught by the secret police, they had to turn him over to his military unit. Also, they accuse us of rapes in the occupied areas, this is false. If a German soldier ever forced sex on a woman or attacked her then he was dealt with by a firing squad. It's just that simple. I see the media portray us as thieves who could randomly steal from civilians. This is false as well, and could bring a serious punishment if it was bad enough. There are many accounts of soldiers who received arrest, fines, or were sent to penal units for stealing. One truth I must say, there were indeed incidents where soldiers tried to evade their duty, most all were conscripts seeking to go home. There were cases of self-mutilation or inflicted shootings. These were treated on a case-by-case basis as some were the results of a loss of a loved one etc. If it was a shirker or coward then there was severe punishment, otherwise they were let go.

[Above: Jersey driver's license. Click to enlarge.]

[Above: Office of the German commandant, located at the Pomme d'Or Hotel, St. Helier, Jersey. Click to enlarge.]

[Above: Burton's at King Street and Halkett Place, St. Helier, Jersey. Click to enlarge.]

[Above: Those left behind. The German cemetery at St. Brelade's Bay in Jersey, 1945. In 1961 the bodies were exhumed and reburied at Mont-des-Huisnes in Normandy. Click to enlarge.]

[Above: A lonely bunker as seen today. This is a naval-direction-finding tower at Mannez Garenne, near the lighthouse on Guernsey. This peculiar building design was used no where else on the Atlantic Wall. Click to enlarge.]

~ Read hundreds of WWII era Guernsey newspapers here ~

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