Interview with Heinz-Peter Wack, winner of the German Cross in Gold, officer in the Pioneer Battalion 132, Dudweiler, 1988.

*I met Mr. Wack at an art fair near Saarbrücken after picking up a brochure he dropped. I asked if he had served during the war and he replied he did.
When I asked about any awards and he mentioned the German Cross in Gold, I wanted to ask him more questions. He agreed to meet me a week later.

[Above: Hauptmann Heinz-Peter Wack (second from left) reports to Romanian Marshal Ion Antonescu regarding the storming of the fortress in Sevastopol, 1942.]

You were in a pioneer unit during the early parts of the war. Can I ask how you how you came to be in the military?

Heinz: You see, I had a family history where the men had fought for Germany. I loved this land, it was our homeland, and I wanted to defend it. I wanted to join the army, and I had a leaning to the pioneer service so I ended up going into this field craft. There was much training I remember, we had to be trained on crossing water, building fortifications, and destroying them. We wore the color black on our shoulder boards and visor caps to show what branch we belonged to. We had to be trained in explosives and special tools of our trade, a pioneer had a very dangerous job I will say. We often times had to assault a fortification while the enemy was still inside shooting at us.

How did you feel when war was declared in 1939?

Heinz: I was not surprised at all; our propaganda had talked about Poland for months and the excesses that were happening. We knew Hitler wanted to return Danzig, and even the other lost territory. You see, they do not talk of this today, but Poland was given large areas of Germany after the first war. Naturally Germany wished to have the land back, and Hitler made it a promise that he would seek the return of these lands. Be careful when they say we wanted living space, because the space was already ours, and we wanted it back after it was taken. Maybe some Germans were angry at Hitler for the war, or indifferent, but we soldiers followed our orders. I do not recall being happy but at the same time I felt we were justified due to what was happening on the border. It was said Poland was planning on fortifying the land against the laws of the treaty. The Germans who were left inside told of abuse and discrimination. I have heard that many died before we attacked. I remember seeing German civilians who had been killed by Poles, Polish soldiers and civilians did it. After the German victory many of those caught were shot. There were attacks on Jews as well by the Poles, which the army had to stop. Can you imagine? You would not believe that today but we protected Jews.

Were you afraid the Allies would beat Germany in 1939/40?

Heinz: The thought crossed our minds naturally, not too far from here the French attacked in 1939. They seized some parts of Reich territory. Of course our propaganda did not want to mention it, as it was an embarrassment. They beat back small units and seized some smaller towns. They were finally stopped by reserves moving in and moreso their overall fear of the unknown. They started flying over the western cities as well, at first dropping propaganda flyers, then bombs. A school nearby was hit with shrapnel by an errant bomb the French dropped. I have heard many people in this area of Germany were terrified that Hitler had bitten off more than he could chew. There was a real fear we would be invaded by the might of France, Belgium, Britain, and Holland. May 10, 1940 put those fears to bed [Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France].

[Above: The German soldier. Loyal, brave and superior to his enemies. But as the famous British historian A.J.P. Taylor said: 'The god of the battlefield loves numbers...' And those numbers outnumbered him, sometimes by 10-1, and only then he lost.]

I have been interested in meeting soldiers who served on the eastern front. You said you were there, how did you view the Russian soldier?

Heinz: Ivan was a worthy opponent; I saw them make great stands against our forces. He was well-organized and trained. This mush about them being backwards people was simply not accurate. We had no love for communism, and it is interesting that many of the soldiers did not either. We captured many who hated Stalin and wanted to free Russia of the communists. You must also know that we treated them well, although Stalin refused to agree with the conventions. My men treated enemy wounded just as we expected them to treat us. I must say the fighting was very brutal as they fought until death to hold positions.

My generation saw things that no person should ever see. The weapons used in that war were terrible inventions and a scourge on mankind. For the first time there were weapons that could destroy whole blocks, and cities. They did not care who the victims were, they did not discriminate. I saw in Russia how the towns and cities became the front, Stalin ordered everything destroyed in 1941 during the retreats. I saw whole cities on fire, which showed their will to fight; they destroyed their own homes to deprive us. Farm fields full of crops were poisoned, wells blown up, roads and tracks destroyed. We stayed very busy trying to repair the damage. Ivan had that same tenacity when he was on the attack or on the defensive. The sons of Russia made life very hard for us in the east. They even used their women to fight us, and some units had to engage them in combat. I spoke to another officer in war college who spoke of his men getting killed because at first they saw women soldiers as not real, and refused to shoot at them.

What do you remember about the civilians in Russia, how were the relationships?

Heinz: The people were good with us, we had good relations. I remember the children always came to us to sell us things or to shine boots for money. During the winter we had to take over huts to give us shelter from the cold. These usually still had inhabitants, and we had to live with them. It was good for us, as they often cooked meals for us. We had many hunters in my unit and we would bring in rabbit, fowl, or pigs. The women would make good dishes which we all enjoyed. It is said they soured on us when the SS came in and started fighting with the partisans but I never saw that during my time. My commander once remarked he was tired of hearing about the men wanting relationships with the girls. One soldier went absent because of a very big girl who he liked. He was placed under arrest for a week and forbidden to see her. In some quiet spots, life went on as in peacetime and relationships flourished. Do not get me wrong, that war was bad and being at the front came with many bad things, especially for the civilians. They could be caught up in the fighting, or be part of the partisans. We trusted them, but also had to watch out.

[Above: Destitute Soviet children earn some coins shining German soldiers' boots.]

Can I ask how you came to be awarded with the German Cross in Gold?

Heinz: Yes, I was part of Pioneer Battalion 132, and we were in the Crimea to take Sevastopol. It was a large city, with a big port, taking it would help with supplies. Ivan knew how important a city like this was so they ringed the heights with many forts to stop an attack. The forts all bore names of communist heroes. Ivan had a very strong force, some of their best soldiers, to defend the Crimea. At first we had it very hard until more units were brought in. They had massed artillery that stopped many of our attacks, and their air force harassed our forces. Each battalion was assigned forts or strong points to attack. My unit was assigned a fort battery on a hill and we had an awful time with it. Ivan was well-supplied and led, with plenty of ammo. We had to have the Luftwaffe clear the skies. [Erich von] Manstein was able to get a squadron of fighters and Stukas to help us. They attacked the forts and made it possible for us to knock them out. My German Cross came from leading successful assaults that took the key fort. Knocking it out opened the way for others to fall. This came at a high price, but we did prevail. However young man, war is nothing to be proud of, do not take this as a sign of my support for the war. I did not wish for it to happen and wish for you to never see war.

Can I ask one final question regarding your thoughts on the Allied claims regarding German war crimes?

Heinz: War is a crime in itself. Every nation who engages in war is going to break some rules, it is inevitable. Germany is no different, we had bad people and we also had very good people. There were bad soldiers who broke rules, and there were good ones who did not. I only wish the Allies would have acknowledged that they also broke rules. To blame Germans as the sole perpetrators is unjust and only leads to more hate. It is true we were uninvited into Poland but why did Britain not declare war on Stalin when he went in? Why was it bad when our Luftwaffe bombed fortress cities that refused to surrender, but not bad when the Allies did it? Why are we criminals for shooting partisans in retaliation for their crimes, but they are not for killing unarmed civilians? I must stop; you will get me angry at myself.

[Above: The mighty roar of the German guns. This is a German super heavy mortar called 'Karl'.]

[Above: German soldiers resting in a ditch during the Siege of Sevastopol, Crimea, 1941.]

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