©2005, 2009 Bruno Ehlich
Dad's Capture (as told by my father)
My father's days as a fighting man in his Tiger tank came to an end in Hungary. They were retreating from the advancing Russians and finally in winter 1945 had to abandon their tanks as the supply of petrol and ammunition came to an abrupt halt. Part of Dad's 13th Division was cut off. His order was to disband, everyone for himself. The tanks were scuttled and blown up. So Dad and four of his crew traveled only by night and from farm to farm, hiding during the day. Capture by the now advancing Russians meant instant execution or exile to Siberia. So they limited contact with civilians altogether, for fear someone may dob them in, as happened to many Germans who asked civilians for help.
After many days traveling and living from handouts given by friendly farmers, they reached the Czech border. Their motto -- "little as possible contact with the civilian population." For days they traveled by night along the border towards Germany, as Dad knew Mum and us kids were there. But one of his mates left them, crossing into eastern Austria, which saved his life. One night they crawled into an abandoned saw mill to have a few hours of sleep. The sawdust was so inviting they just dropped onto the heaps and fell asleep. Early in the morning noises from an approaching troop of men woke them up, but as those men were so close escape was fruitless. So they dug themselves into the mountains of sawdust and covered themselves completely.
Unfortunately, one of them had his boot sticking out of the sawdust and that was his death sentence. Those timber workers started up the band saw to do a day's work. One of them discovered the unfortunate German soldier's boot sticking out of the sawdust. He grabbed him and dragged the German, screaming, towards the band saw. That's when my father's self-preservation instinct cut in. Yelling to his other two mates, they made a dash out of the sawdust towards the open door, past the stunned workers and out of the sawmill towards the river, running along the sawmill. Dad told me the last thing he saw was his comrade being sliced in two by the band saw. A horror which in later years cost my Dad many nightmares and sleepless nights. I will describe this in the following chapters.
Running towards the river and followed by an angry mob of Czech mill workers, they started to wade across the thankfully low running stream of water. Then, in the hail of bullets, one of his mates was hit in the back and tumbled head first into the stream. The remaining comrade received a hit in the buttocks. With my father's help he made it across, thankful to be alive. Incredibly, the mill workers did not follow them across the river.
At that time, my father did not know that this river was the border between western Austria and Czechoslovakia. Safely across and hopeful for a now safe journey, this idea was short cut as, out of the morning mist and out of nowhere, Dad and his mate found themselves surrounded by dozens of American GIs who, of course, took them as prisoners, but gently looked after Dad's wounded comrade. Relieved by the Americans' kindness, Dad's war was over. The 90th Division took care of them. They were transported to a holding camp not far from the Czech border in eastern Bavaria, somewhere near Weiden or Cham. Incidentally, the 90th Division was the same Division which captured me.
Arriving at the U.S. Army holding camp, Dad was interrogated and happily they accepted Dad's story, and being a mechanical engineer, he was given a job in the repair shop fixing damaged military vehicles, especially tanks, which of course gave him a better style of everyday life in the camp. Most German prisoners never experienced this. He worked hard and it had its rewards; extra smokes, extra food and extra medicines which he shared with his comrades.
Hundreds of German soldiers were living in that camp from May to June of 1945. The U.S. military had nothing for them to do, so they invented this time-absorbing job -- the German prisoners had to sit by tables and everyone received two house bricks and one hammer; then they passed boxes of four-inch nails around. To the sound of Mozart and Beethoven blaring out of huge loudspeakers hanging from a post, they had to bend one nail between two bricks, then pass that bent nail to the next prisoner who had to straighten it out. That nail was then passed on to the next for bending again, and so on.
In later years when Dad told me this story, everybody laughed themselves sick, but at that time in the camp, no one was allowed to laugh. It was a deadly serious affair.
One day in May 1945, the U.S. camp commander opened the gate of the prison. Everybody was issued a box of supplies and five American dollars. They said everybody in the camp was to go home to wherever they came from, as by then they had separated the Germans who had committed war crimes and shipped them to prisons in Berlin or Nuremberg to be tried. Astonishingly, before leaving, Dad was asked by his superior U.S. officer if he would like to stay with them in the U.S. Army and was even invited to take the whole family to the United States in the later months. Unfortunately, Dad declined but many German technicians and academics took up this invitation just as the rocket scientist Werner von Braun did. So, like the other hundreds of prisoners, he decided to go home.
Dad was thankful to the U.S. military and especially to the 90th Division for treating him so well. Had he been captured by the Russians or Czech or Polish partisans, his life would not have been worth a nickel. So the doors opened, the camp was vacated, and they all thanked the U.S. commander and his troops, the 90th Division, and they went home. Very sadly, some to a very disappointing ending.