German paratrooper Werner Kurkowski passed through a corridor of death as the Wehrmacht tried in vain to stop the Allied breakout from Normandy in the summer of 1944.
Having survived the devastating five-month Battle of Monte Cassino, Werner Kurkowski was sent to Normandy in May 1944 to help train the hundreds of young soldiers who had joined the promised to be the final showdown between Nazi Germany and the Western Allies. In the second installment of his interview with Kurkowski recounts his role in the final furious battles of the war in Europe. Fallschirmjäger and to prepare for what World War II Magazine.
World War II: You have described Monte Cassino as a gristmill in which men were killed at a shocking rate. Compared to the battles there, which claimed 20,000 of your comrades as casualties, France must have been easy.
Kurkowski: It was at first. By May 1944, I had been sent to France and was there when I was grouped with other wounded veterans returning to the front and replacements. We got more training and then were assigned to the 5th Parachute Division, where we received additional pioneer training such as blasting and mine laying. Each regiment had a company of pioneers.
WWII: The 5th Parachute Division was not directly behind the front on June 6, 1944, but then had to be rushed up to the Allied beachheads. How was your journey to the battle zone?
Kurkowski: The [Allied] air attacks delayed our troops going to Normandy. We practically walked from Decize on the Loire River to northern France. We took a small train, which often had delays. We once went from Decize to Tours, which was about 200 kilometers. I think it took us a week and a half to get there. On the way to Tours, I think we got caught twice by the American air force. They usually came with 40 or 50 bombers: B-17s and B-24s. Then we marched farther and farther into the land of the enemy. We went up to Normandy. The paratroopers operated in the American sector in Isigny. We relieved some infantry units who had been there since the Allied landing, and they were completely devastated. Their nerves were almost finished. There was nowhere they could escape the Allied artillery. They never got any relief until we arrived, and they had been pushed hard. We paratroopers were the only ones to replace them. The Allies had a small landing area at that time. They had been there a month, but they did not gain much land.
WWII: What did you do once you reached the Normandy area?
Kurkowski: In the beginning, we went out on patrols to get us back into the routine. I went on patrols in the middle of July where I could see the English Channel. We went into the bushes when they said we had to go on reconnaissance. Mount Castro was the hill where we were, and the Americans had their front line ready when we got there. We were only 10 or 20 miles from the sea, and we could see the water from the top of the hill. I was looking down there, and I could see cranes and all kinds of stuff on the beach near Isigny, which is between Utah and Omaha beaches. The Americans seemed stuck in the terrain, and we were kept busy laying mines. Every time some battalion commander wanted some mines laid, we had to go up to the front and do it. We had both old and young guys in our outfit, but mainly young guys.
WWII: The Allies quickly bogged down in the Norman bocage country. Were you surprised you didn’t do more to try to throw them back into the sea?
Kurkowski: The question was always: “When are we going to attack them? When are we going to throw them out?” That question never got answered. I went back and forth to the front line, and I thought, “One of these days we will have a big attack and eliminate all the forces the Allies have over there.” We were waiting for this big attack. It never happened.
Kurkowski: The Allies had 100 percent air superiority in Normandy. We had no air support whatsoever. There were so many American fighters, we could hardly walk across a street or walk from one farm to the next without being attacked by them. We couldn’t drive on a road with a truck or any kind of vehicle during the day, unless it was well camouflaged so you could hide it. The Allies were constantly flying during the day.
WWII: You could not attack or retreat. That sounds like the battle of attrition at Monte Cassino.
Kurkowski: The battle [in Normandy] went on and on. The Americans and English thought it would be a piece of cake. They thought they would walk straight through us, but that didn’t happen. The English fought the German army and the SS. We fought as hard as we could with what little we had, and we tried to do everything down in St. Lô and Caen. We lost a lot of men there.
WWII: You already mentioned how effective Allied air power was. Did anything else about your opponents impress you?
Kurkowski: The Allied artillery was also supreme. They had so much. They would fire day and night. They had single-engine [artillery spotting] planes, L-5s; they flew near the front line and guided their artillery. We lost so many men from their artillery. In fact, most of the destruction I saw was by artillery shrapnel, which was the worst. We received more casualties from their artillery than from their air attacks or anything else.
WWII: Did that artillery ever strike you?
Kurkowski: One time in Normandy, I was wounded in the mouth. I got hit with a piece of metal in my lips. I really got mad, and it was bleeding like hell while my lip was hanging down. When I went to the first aid station, they asked me what I was doing there. I said, “Look, I’m bleeding to death!” He looked at my wound and put a piece of tape [band-aid] on it. [Laughing.] Then he told me to go back where I came from.
WWII: How were the combat conditions in Normandy?
Kurkowski: We would stay in one place for a couple of days, and then we would retreat. We retreated one or two miles almost every day. We would get all of our equipment together and pull out during the night. The pioneers were always the last to leave, and we would place mines in the area or on a street. Then we would start walking back. We had some vehicles, but we mainly used horses that pulled farm wagons, and we would put our stuff on them so we would not have to carry it. We would retreat until early in the morning. Then we would regroup again and build a new front line.
WWII: Did Allied control of the skies affect resupply?
Kurkowski: My unit had to live off the land. Most of the units there were in the same situation. There were no food supplies. We had to get our own. Normally when we were on a front line somewhere, there was a staff in the rear who cooked for us. They would bring us food and coffee. We got our food from local farms, and it was enough. The whole three months we were there we never got fed from our kitchen. We were self-sufficient. [Laughing.] It was like camping.
WWII: Much has been made of Normandy’s bocage. How did those centuries-old hedgerows affect you in the battle?
Kurkowski: We dug foxholes by them. They were good cover from the Americans on the other side. To build a hedgerow it took 100 years to collect the stones, pour dirt on them and plant bushes on top. The Americans could not do much with their tanks against the hedgerows, because they were too heavy and could not go through them. They would pass from one side to the other through openings. Each field had one or two openings at the corners. Their tanks would fire their machine guns over the hedgerows if they could. If we got caught in the middle of a field surrounded by hedgerows, they could shoot us like it was an arena. That happened later on when I saw a large number of our troops retreating without their weapons.
WWII: Eventually, the Allies developed a way to force passage through the hedgerows, and by July they had begun the breakout from Normandy. The German Seventh Army was soon trying to escape the British and American entrapment. How was the retreat?
Kurkowski: When I was in Vire [France], I heard that the Americans were west of us in Flers. I was hanging around the staff and one of them said, “We have to get out of here or they will bottle us up!” The Americans had passed us by and were west of us. This news surprised us. We were saying: “The Americans are already bypassing us! What are we going to do? Why are we holding this ground?” The good troops were still in the back. Then in August we finally got the order from Captain Hart to get out of there. They were afraid that the British would break through at Caen any day now, and later it happened. They tried to keep the road open and pull our troops out of there. That afternoon we had a point where we collected everyone from our division and regiment to see who was still there. We had this one lieutenant who was wounded, and he told us to make sure that everyone got as many vehicles as we could. We had to steal the vehicles or find them. We had nothing. We stole jeeps, weapons carriers and gas from the Americans. They had the gas along the roads. We got to the point where everybody gathered. Our lieutenant said I could have his motorcycle with a sidecar, but Sergeant Gaeling needed it to transport some office material. So he took off with the office material in the sidecar, and we started walking.
WWII: Given Allied air superiority and the confused conditions, it must have been a difficult retreat.
Kurkowski: I was retreating east on a road. One after the other the Allied planes came and were shooting at us like crazy, and then we had to run into the fields. In Falaise there were more English planes than American ones. They fired rockets. Finally I got between Falaise and Argentan after about four hours. Our battalion had to get out of there. It was getting dark, so we used a compass to go straight through. We wanted to go north to Rouen, which is on the Seine River. We had a colonel and a lieutenant with us, and we walked straight through the night with our compass.
WWII: Did you run into enemy troops?
Kurkowski: During the retreat we saw some SS troops moving around in the bushes. As we approached them, we told them not to shoot us. One of them said, “You were lucky our machine gun did not work, because we would have laid you flat.” So we went over to them and said we were walking back from the front. They told us that if we wanted to get out of the danger zone that we had it made, but we soon ran into an English outfit and they shot at us like crazy. They had red tracer bullets, and we dispersed like a bunch of ants and ran away. I was lying in some bushes with my buddy, Hans Fitsch, and I said: “Hans, the best thing we can do is go back on the road and see if we can get a ride on a truck. I’m sick and tired of walking.” [Laughing.] So we went to the road and got on a big naval truck. They had some blankets with them and we slept for a while. Then I woke up around sunrise and left the truck because the convoy was just standing there; we could walk faster.
WWII: So it was just the two of you now. Was there any unit cohesion at this point?
Kurkowski: Practically everybody was on his own during the retreat, and we lost almost all of our heavy equipment and our horses at that time. Most of the men had their guns and ammunition, and that was it. We came to a cross point where two roads met and saw a military policeman who was directing the traffic and the horses. It was the only open road to the east, and one side of the road was used by the vehicles and the other side by the horses that pulled our artillery and equipment. As long as the horses and vehicles were moving, they were able to keep the traffic on the road going. But if a horse got hit by enemy fire and was being dragged in the harness, they had to pull over to the side of the road. A tank would come and push them off the road if necessary.
WWII: Didn’t all that traffic attract Allied fighter bombers?
Kurkowski: The weather had turned sour at that time. It was raining and overcast, so the Allied airplanes could not operate very well. If they had had clear weather, they would have come in with their bombers and bombed everything. The MP said the road was open, and then everything started moving ahead. At that time, and it was early in the morning, everything on the road was just standing there. I saw some SS guys in a halftrack with a 37mm gun on it, and I got a ride with them. I rode on the outside of it in the back with Hans. I had one foot on a pail and I held onto the tower. Then we went through the opening of the bottleneck.
WWII: The Americans and British closed the Falaise gap around mid-August 1944, the door finally being slammed shut around Chambois and St. Lambert. It seems you were able to escape only at the very last moment.
Kurkowski: There were about seven or eight American tanks on one side and five or six German tanks on the other, and they were banging away at each other. They were a couple of hundred yards apart. The Americans had Sherman tanks, but I did not see any English ones. The ricochets were howling through the air. The guy sitting in the halftrack’s turret was giving instructions to the driver on which direction to take across the fields. There were dead and half-dead soldiers everywhere, and everybody was running in panic. It was chaos. Many of them were screaming for help or for a Sani. (We called our medics Sanis, which was short for Sanitator.) Everyone was running for cover. A couple of hundred men were trying to escape. We made it to the other side, where it calmed down. Then we slowed down the halftrack.
WWII: Your description explains why they called the last route out the “Corridor of Death.”
Kurkowski: We had some support from our tanks, and there was so much metal flying through the air. We were just lucky. There were guys lying there, guys screaming and wounded. There were horses lying in the road, and some of them were still alive. There were vehicles to the left and right trying to escape. Only the soldiers in the heavy trucks and equipment kept rolling. There were two roads that came together near a big wide field that our men drove through. I think that was the last time we had the bottleneck open that day, but it opened and closed periodically. The Allies kept advancing at that time and had us surrounded again. Then we were fiddling around all night.
WWII: The fighting in Normandy had been relentless. You must have been exhausted by the time you got out.
Kurkowski: The men around the vehicles told us to wait there and that they would not leave. It was in the afternoon and they fell asleep; they badly needed it. Hans and I left the guys with the vehicles and looked for a place to sleep. We went into those big hedgerows that surrounded the big fields. They had a small road from one field to the next, and that was where all the traffic went. It was almost completely covered with trees. We walked around and it was all quiet. Then we came around a hedge and there were a whole bunch of German soldiers lying around there. I still had my bread in my hand and I asked one of them if they had something I could eat, but he wanted my bread. I then said: “This is the wrong place for us, Hans. Let’s go; these guys have no weapons.” There were regiments of them, and they just threw everything away and were waiting to get captured.
WWII: Did you wait with them?
Kurkowski: No. Hans and I left, but we were soon captured for a few hours. We were walking when I heard a few guys talking. I knew it was not English or French they were speaking, and then I realized it was Polish. The English had a Polish division, and they captured us.
WWII: You said you were a prisoner for only a few hours. How did you escape?
Kurkowski: I kept a medical armband with a red cross on it in my pocket, and I put it on before they caught us. They asked me if I was a medic, and I said that both Hans and I were medics. Then they checked me for weapons, but I had thrown my machine pistol in some water before we were captured. A guard then brought us to a farmhouse to help some wounded German soldiers they had captured. It got dark, and then I said to Hans, “Let’s go.” There was always a guard in front of the house, and we went outside and talked with him. We told him everything was clean. We then went to the back room and went out the window. We were lucky we did not get caught.
WWII: What did you do next?
Kurkowski: After I escaped, I saw dead soldiers in the fields. They were killed during the night. It was a horrible sight. They didn’t know where to go and they ran right into the machine gun fire from the limeys, who were fighting all night. The front usually quieted down at night, but not in that area. There were hundreds and hundreds of dead lying between the hedgerows after the Allied attacks. We did not see anybody until we returned to the area where we were before. Those guys were still waiting to be captured, and the halftrack we rode on was gone. We then picked up some weapons that were lying near the road. The area was covered with weapons and equipment that had been abandoned by the retreating German troops.
WWII: So you were back on foot, alone, and still trying to escape?
Kurkowski: We ran into the SS halftrack we rode on earlier. Some officers said, “This is our last chance to escape.” It was August 20, 1944; the Allies had tightly sealed off our escape route. General [Eugen] Meindl still had command of the paratroopers, and he organized us for the breakthrough. Our men on the outside tried to open it up, and on the inside they organized about 5,000 of us to break out. We left the guys behind who were without guns and wanted to surrender. It was all mixed up. There were men from the SS, paratroopers and all the various units and formations there. We then counterattacked and broke through to the Dives River. We were up to our bellies in the water while they were shooting at us. We could see the water splashing up around us from the enemy fire. We were the last large group of soldiers to break out. After that only single troops escaped to the east.
WWII: At some point you must have rejoined your unit. What was its condition after the breakout?
Kurkowski: We made it to the other side with some high-ranking staff officers who were with us, including General Meindl. Only about half of the 5,000 men managed to break out. After Normandy, my platoon had only three or four guys left, and my regiment of 3,000 men was down to a couple of hundred. Each battalion had a platoon of pioneers, and we were down to only a few guys. We never got any replacements during the battle. We went up to the front line until the battle was over, which was about the 20th of August. We wanted to go home. We thought Normandy was it, and that was the end of the war.
WWII: It sounds like you were more despondent than during your time at Cassino. Would you consider the retreat from Falaise a panic?
Kurkowski: The paratroopers were not panicking. We were well organized and informed of the situation, but we kept running because it was better to be 10 miles from the enemy than one mile. But I was surprised at how many of the other troops were running around in a panic. They said, “To hell with it,” and threw everything away. I saw some high-ranking officers with them, and they didn’t know what to do. Some soldiers were just running around in circles. I saw a thousand men running like chickens from one field to the next from American tanks. At night they didn’t know where they were going.
WWII: You had now fought against both the Americans and the British. How would you compare the two?
Kurkowski: That is hard to say. The English were trained more like the Germans. They fought like the dickens during the day or the night. I ran into the English several times. The Americans were more relaxed. They fought with a massive amount of equipment and supplies. If something didn’t work, they brought in many bombers, like at St. Lô. If they couldn’t advance, they would bring in a hundred bombers and bomb the area. If that didn’t work either, they would call in more artillery until our side was reduced to a minimum of resistance. Our morale would also be affected after attacks like that.
WWII: Looking back, one of the most striking things about you and your fellow paratroopers was your resiliency. As early as 1942, you believed the war was lost but yet you kept fighting. Why?
Kurkowski: I think the only thing that kept everything going for so long was the way they always talked about using secret weapons. I traveled across Germany from one side to the other: Berlin, Dresden and Munich. You could see how all the streets in the cities were damaged, and the roofs from the houses were gone. But if you were on the front line, you didn’t see all that stuff. So the soldiers had to do their duty, and that was it. We didn’t ask any questions. If we retreated, then we retreated. The faster we went back, the faster we went home.
Werner Kurkowski died in 2000. Robert Mulcahy is a U.S. Air Force historian whose interviews with German veterans appear frequently in World War II. This interview appears courtesy of the Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton. For further reading, see Hunters From the Sky: The German Parachute Corps, 1940- 1945, by Charles Whiting.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.