War and life in Hitler’s Germany through the eyes of an eight-year-old.
“You, my youth, are our nation’s most precious guarantee for a great future,” Hitler exhorted a crowd of 80,000 children assembled in Nuremberg on September 10, 1938. “And you are destined to be the leaders of a glorious new order under the supremacy of National Socialism. Never forget that one day you will rule the world.” This long-standing belief of the führer’s was the driving force behind the formation of the Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth, by the Nazi Party in 1926. More than just a military organization, the Hitler Youth indoctrinated boys aged 10 to 18 in all aspects of Nazi ideology. They were trained not only in aircraft identification and weapons handling, but also in anti-Semitism and racial purity. In 1930, the organization was expanded to include a female division called the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or League of German Girls. A law passed in 1936 made Hitler Youth membership compulsory for all German children.
At first, the Hitler Youth took part mostly in parades and rallies, in fundraising efforts, and in propaganda campaigns. But as the war continued and German victory became more and more unlikely, members of all ages were called upon to complete increasingly dangerous tasks. By the time the Allies invaded Germany in early 1945, Hitler Youth were loading and operating antiaircraft guns, committing acts of sabotage behind enemy lines, and leading regiments of the German civilian army, the Volkssturm, into battle.
And yet, for Wilhelm Gehlen—who grew up in the small German town of Munchengladbach and who, as a young boy, fetched ammunition for his local Luftwaffe flak battery during air raids—it was not until long after the war that he realized the unique and dangerous role that he and his peers played in the Nazi war effort. “To a boy of my age,” he writes, “the war was, most of the time, an adventure. The adventure was interrupted often, however, by the realities of what was happening all around us and the losses we experienced.” Now 75 and living in America, Gehlen has committed his wartime memories to print in Jungvolk: The Story of a Boy Defending Hitler’s Third Reich (Casemate, 2008), from which the following excerpt is taken:
April 20, 1941, was Adolf Hitler’s 51st birthday and according to tradition, we anticipated special celebrations and glittering parades. School was off for the day, but we were asked to go into town where a high-ranking Hitler Youth official was going to speak to us. I had meanwhile joined the Jungvolk, a younger division of the Hitler Youth. We were as proud of the unit as our older compatriots: our uniform was the same, minus the traditional dagger. realizing that we were not yet old enough for daggers. Meanwhile, we sure had a nice flag, with a single black rune stitched in the center forming sort of a half-SS banner. Well, you can’t have everything, we thought, not
The visit we were expecting was postponed until late evening so we could have a traditional torch-light parade, but some other uninvited visitors came instead. I went home when it got dark and soon my brother Len came in as well. We had grown tired of waiting for the visitor. We sat by the radio and stared at the magic eye blinking at us. Then a voice came over the speaker: “Achtung! Achtung, Drahtfunk! Enemy planes approaching PQ 161!” We knew of course that PQ 161 was the code for our area, but whether the planes meant to do business in PQ 161, nobody knew. They were just entering the area, so their target was anybody’s guess.
Night turned nearly to daylight as the two searchlights switched on and probed the sky. Other searchlights from farther away joined in. Then we heard the drone of aircraft engines coming at us from a westerly direction, getting louder with every second. A distant 88mm flak battery fired a few star shells to further illuminate the sky. A searchlight from the northern part of the Ruhr finally got a plane in its strong beam about five miles from us.
Mom was shouting at us to get into the cellar we used as an air raid shelter, but the cellar door, a flat contraption level with the floor, had 10 sacks of potatoes stacked on top of it. We decided the doorway lintel at the front of the house was as good a shelter as any, and better than none at all. The searchlight meanwhile had lost the plane. Somehow, the enemy had made a crash dive and got out of the deadly grip of the 100,000-watt beam.
Soon enough, the crews found another aircraft in their search, much nearer to us. More beams got into the fray, and there was no escape for the plane. Now the 88s across the field opened up, this time for real. This was no harmless sausage balloon—it was an enemy plane with a deadly load of explosives in the bomb bay.
The plane in the beams was about 7,000 feet up. A shell from the 88s exploded close to the plane. Now the 88s had found the range. The flak crew knew their business. Shell after shell left the gun, exploding with short plops nearer and nearer the intruder. Then a little flicker of flame could be seen from one of the wings. The flicker got bigger, and a whoosh of fire set one of the wing tanks ablaze. The plane started a lazy dive toward the ground, no doubt bound for destruction. The searchlights let go and probed the sky for the next victim. The plane was well on fire, gliding in at a 45-degree angle toward the center of town.
We lived on top of a hill about two miles from town, so we had a first-row seat for the spectacle unfolding before our eyes. Lower and lower the plane went. There was no sight of any parachutes. We lost sight of it momentarily as it went low behind some high-rise buildings, and then we caught it again, but seconds later we heard a tremendous explosion. Sheets of flames went skyward, and more explosions followed as bombs went off in the blazing inferno. We watched speechless—we had just witnessed the destruction of one of our enemies.
“Heil Hitler!” Brother Len said with a deep breath.
“He had nothing to do with it. Our flak crew got him,” I replied.
Len had no answer to that. Firing went on for several more minutes, and in the east, searchlights were still probing the sky for more intruders. Finally it was all over, except that downtown a big fire was raging, somewhere near the cinema we thought.
Back in the 88mm gun pits, there was a great commotion and other happy noises—not without reason. It was they who had downed the enemy plane, a Bristol Blenheim twin-engine bomber, we were later told. The next morning, the first white ring appeared on the barrels of the two guns. Liberty for the crew was reinstated. All were happy. Even the two party girls we had recommended to the crew before the balloon fiasco had a share of the good time.
We, of course, were eager to get into town the next morning to survey the damage or find souvenirs from the plane crash. It was school in the morning for us and there was no way out until one o’clock in the afternoon, but news often travels by mouth faster than by telephone or telegraph.
During the ten o’clock break at school, we heard that the town center was a disaster. Over 1,000 people had been killed, and 6 crewmembers of the plane had vanished. By eleven o’clock, the list had shrunk to 100 killed, one block of houses demolished, and 6 crewmembers dead.
After school ended, we made our way home as fast as we could in anticipation of getting into town to see for ourselves. Mom told us to be careful, and not to get too near the site and hinder the fire or rescue operations. Len was instructed to keep a wary eye on me. We knew more or less where the plane had come down, but when we got near the site of the crash, the road was blocked by police. All we could see was a smoldering heap of debris 200 yards away. Brother Len, he who knew everything, knew a way over a fence behind the cinema. We climbed over and onto a lean-to shed roof, from which we had a grandstand view of the site. From bystanders we heard that the other wing of the plane had scraped the wall of the cinema before hitting a lady doctor’s house where it exploded. As luck would have it, the lady doctor was not at home, but a next-door neighbor lost a hand. Later, the rescue crew found a 10-year-old girl dead among the ruins. The five 100-pound bombs aboard the plane had demolished the doctor’s house and severely damaged another four dwellings.
Results were a bit of a disappointment for us. No blocks flattened, no deaths in the hundreds, and as the score stood, just one girl killed, one man with a lost hand, six crewmembers dead, and a few houses more or less destroyed or damaged. On the way home we mused over the result again and we came to the conclusion that, after all, it wasn’t a bad score: 1.5 to 6 in our favor, plus a Blenheim bomber. What are a few demolished homes against a Blenheim? Houses can be rebuilt, wrecked Blenheims cannot (or so we thought); and besides, our 88 crew had its first white ring now for all to see. Before the war ended, the barrels would have 15 more rings. Right now it was one ring; good old Deutsches Reich, we thought. Eagerly we awaited the arrival of the next lot of Blenheims or Vickers Wellingtons, but something else arrived first.
Since the early days of the war, two hours per week of school time had been devoted to military matters by order of the Nazi Party, which, after all, had a say in all school matters. From maps we learned where the glorious Wehrmacht now stood and the places we had occupied, and from pictures we learned to identify different calibers of cannons and tanks. Aircraft charts showed the silhouettes of all aircraft involved in the war, and these were constantly updated as new planes took to the skies and flew their first mission. I guess we were better updated in that respect than the common soldier sitting in his trench somewhere along the Siegfried Line.
One day, a fast twin-engine fighter-bomber made a low-level run on our 88s. There was no time for the crew to lower the elevation of their pieces sufficiently to get in a shot; the plane came too low. It was British—it did not drop any bombs, but the guys in the plane did let loose at the 88s with the cannons in the wings and fuselage, although they did not do any real damage. When the plane gained altitude after its low-level run, we could see the silhouette and knew it was the newest Bristol Beaufighter, a fast and well-armed fighter-bomber. Only two days previously, we had been shown this type of plane on our school chart. At the time, even the 88 crew did not know what had nearly hit them.
The end result of this episode was the conclusion that no 88mm battery was safe against low-level attack. The elevation of the gun was limited because of the protective embankment around the pit, but the main limitation was that the gun, although electrically operated, was unable to fire a constant stream of shells. To overcome this handicap, several batteries of quad 20mms were brought in and installed around the outskirts of town. These were deadly, quick-firing guns with four barrels each, which theoretically could throw up 6,000 rounds per minute. Practically speaking, it was more around 800 rounds, because magazines had to be changed out. Those 16 guns around our area mustered 64 barrels between them—enough, we thought, to deter any would-be flyers from coming too near the 88s or the town. That was wishful thinking, as we soon found out.
No more Tommy [British] bombers came that April. Instead, the might of the German Wehrmacht arrived. Half-tracks, guns of all calibers, trucks, and tanks rolled into the area, from the puny Mk II tank to the latest Mk VI. There were also tank destroyers and assault guns mounted on Mk VI chassis minus the turret. Horse-drawn wagons arrived with immensely large artillery pieces of 210mm and above. Troops arrived by the divisions, all setting up camp wherever there was a square yard of free space to be found. Field kitchens were lit and stew was cooked on hundreds of so-called goulash cannons to feed the hungry army. Most armor was camouflaged with netting; overhead flew a constant patrol of Me 109s and Me 110s to deter any enemy plane from coming too near the armada.
We asked our teacher at school what this was all about, but he knew no more than we did—or if he did, he wasn’t telling. Our teacher was not what you might call a “good” Nazi patriot. He had fought in the Great War, had been wounded at Ypres in Belgium, gassed at Vimy Ridge, and had had his bellyful of glorious wars. Apart from the ritual “Heil Hitler” each morning, he never said much about the Nazi Party or our Wehrmacht. He never praised the führer either. If we met him on the road after school hours, our duty was to greet him with a “Heil Hitler,” but he just used to smile and say “Good day.” We didn’t mind. He was a good teacher. He never punished us too much. Besides, we were going to win this war with or without his blessings.
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.