Hans Klein, born in 1921, was a journeyman cabinetmaker before he entered the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Division in 1942. Klein served in Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in 1942-43, where he obtained the rank of Gefreiter (private first class) and earned the Iron Cross Second Class. He was held prisoner of war by the French in Africa for several months, during which time he nearly died of starvation. Klein then became a prisoner of the Americans, who kept him in the United States until his release. I spoke with Hans Klein in 1992 and 1993 about his time with the Afrika Korps. His experiences and observations about combat in North Africa reveal much about the fighting qualities of one of the Third Reich’s most famous fighting formations.
Early in 1942 I was drafted into the air force’s Hermann Göring Division. I have just read in a book published after the war that the Hermann Göring Division used only volunteers. This is not true — I was drafted directly into it, and I didn’t know any volunteers in my company. The Hermann Göring Division was a fantastic unit, and it was an honor to serve in it. The division had a very good training program. It was a good unit to be in, and the soldiers were very proud. I was sent to Utrecht, Holland, to be trained as a dispatcher.
I’m sorry to say this, but most of the men in my division thought Hermann Göring was a laughingstock by 1942. In the beginning of the war he made the stupid remark that if an Allied airplane ever reached Berlin he would change his name to ‘Meier.’ So his name was Hermann Meier in our conversations, and there was not much respect for him in our division.The first campaign I was involved in was the operation to occupy Vichy France in November 1942. We didn’t receive any opposition at all. They apparently realized that they couldn’t fight us, so we just drove right through. We ended up in Cognac, which is one of the nicest towns in France that you can imagine.
By the end of 1942 the situation in Africa became critical, so it was decided to transfer the Hermann Göring Division over there. We flew from the area of Naples, Italy, and went to Africa in Junker Ju-52s that were rather slow but very rugged airplanes. We were low-level flying, about five or six yards above the waves, all the way from Italy, so we couldn’t be attacked from the ground. We had a fighter escort and were fortunate that there were no incidents during the trip. We eventually arrived in Tunis. I was a messenger. It was my job to carry messages three or four times a week on a motorcycle from the headquarters in Tunis to various Afrika Korps army staffs. I participated in the battles there for half a year until the fighting in Africa ended.
On a typical day in Africa there was constant exchange of gunfire back and forth most of the time, but not more than 50 to 60 shots in either direction. It was just enough to keep the other side off balance. We continually protected ourselves because we were always close to the front lines. We would be right behind the forward observers who weren’t more than a quarter mile in front of the British lines. About half the time we would have patrols into no man’s land, but our activities were constantly changing. If we weren’t patrolling, we were usually sitting in our foxholes to get protection from the low-flying Allied aircraft. We usually received hot meals every day.
Most of our activity was at night. We might lay mines or go out on patrols. If we were on the front line, which was most of the time, every 15 minutes there would be a barrage of 20 to 30 shots fired at us from enemy cannons. We would try to get protection from their fire. We would usually sleep at the most convenient opportunities, between about 1 and 8 in the morning.
Our supplies of food, water and ammunition were not adequate. Most always there was a shortage of things. We were to get four liters of water a day but usually were issued only two. We rarely washed unless we were on the Mediterranean coastline. Two liters isn’t very much.
One night my motorcycle was blown to pieces. We were in our foxholes and under a bombardment when my motorcycle got a full blast. There was nothing much left of it. The Hermann Göring Division was supposed to be motorized, and we were expecting some more vehicles, but the ship got sunk in the Mediterranean Sea. We never got the equipment we needed.
Flies were a problem, and we had no control over them. Nets that we wore over our faces at all times protected us from the flies and allowed us to enjoy eating. To eat some bread with jelly, first you had to get all the flies off the bread and then quickly slip it under your net — hoping not to bring them all inside the net with you. Then there was the tremendous heat in Africa. It was maybe 110 degrees in the sun during the day. It was a terrible strain, but I never saw anyone fall unconscious from the heat. We always welcomed the cooling relief of night, but it was almost as cold at night as it was hot during the day. The African climate was strange. We had to be prepared for night duty, and we couldn’t live without a big heavy coat.
Next to my father, Erwin Rommel was the most important man that I have ever known. He was almost legendary to the soldiers who fought in Africa. We had a natural love for him. I saw him a couple of times when I was doing my duties as a dispatcher. He never spoke to me, but I was in his neighborhood and that alone was a delight for me. We knew that all the decisions he made were kept with the safety of his men in mind. He tricked the enemy, and found devious ways to maneuver around them to protect his soldiers. That’s why we fought so gallantly in Africa. The next commander we had in Africa was General Jrgen von Arnim. He was very intelligent and strong, but he was never able to form a special bond with his men. He was never with us, so we felt separate from him.
There was a great camaraderie among the men in the Afrika Korps. I don’t think there was ever an army that had better morale than we did in Africa. The Italian officers wouldn’t dream of sleeping in the same ditch as their enlisted men. In contrast, German officers were always with us. We were a unit. It was something that gave us a lot of pride. This lasted even when we were prisoners of war in America. The admiration we received from the American newspapers was even part of it. They admired us, and that made us even more proud. Our morale was very high. But I felt sorry for the Italian soldiers I saw. The Italians had a very strong camaraderie with us, but their leadership was just terrible. Our supplies may have been short, but theirs were totally inadequate. Their leadership made no attempts to provide them with the proper food or ammunition. The Italians didn’t stand up and fight, because they had nothing to defend themselves with. The Italian tanks weren’t second but third rate. The Allies had new types of tanks delivered to the front by the hundreds. The Italians were fighting with stuff that was built in 1928, so they couldn’t possibly have won. If the pressure was on them in battle they turned around and walked away. The Italians would much rather be captured than give their lives to a system that could never offer them anything. In contrast, the German army had better supplies, leadership, fairness and camaraderie. It was totally different. Benito Mussolini was not very respected in Germany.
One day we were facing three or four American tanks that went into our minefields. One of them was firing at us and I was able to sneak up to the tank and throw a hand grenade between the tracks. The noise of the grenade made them come out of the tank and surrender to us. That was one of the battles I was involved in where there was immediate danger. I was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for my actions that day.
Our retreat in Africa was almost constant after the battle of El Alamein. The retreat was very organized on the German side, but the Italians were very disorganized. Their officers wanted to take everything with them in their trucks, including their nice double beds, kitchen equipment, beautiful bathroom outfits and all the luxuries they could carry. That was not the case in the German army. We took only the necessities — so Rommel saved most of his soldiers.
At one point we were encircled for three days in the south of Tunisia near the city of Pond du Fahs. We were under a heavy bombardment, and we were told that we might not be able to break out. There was very little chance of us escaping, so we were told to destroy any of our secret documents or equipment. We were given permission to eat our iron ration, which was a special emergency package that every German soldier had. You were permitted to eat it only as a last, desperate resort. It contained some real good energy-giving dried food and some chocolate. We expected to get killed in the next 15 or 20 minutes. Luckily, the 10th Panzer Division broke the encirclement in five or six hours and got us out.
We then continued the retreat through Tunisia. I rode in a truck, and we were in an area of about 50 to 80 miles long and about 15 to 20 miles wide. That was where all the movement was, and that wasn’t very much. We headed toward the town of Zaghouan where about 25,000 German soldiers from different units were drawing together. The units were pretty much mixed up. Normally there wasn’t much fighting going on. We were usually retreating.
On May 11, 1943, I was with about 5,000 German soldiers in Zaghouan. It was on a mountain about 500 to 600 feet high. The Americans were firing a heavy bombardment on the city. They also dropped leaflets from planes that said if we didn’t surrender in the morning they would bombard and destroy the town. Of course we didn’t surrender. ‘This is our last day anyhow,’ we said. ‘Let’s show them what we can still do!’
We had about 20 88mm antitank guns, and those were the most effective guns in Africa. The Americans attacked us with about 25 to 30 tanks from one direction, and about 15 to 20 tanks from the other. I still remember there were only 15 shots for every gun, so our men waited until the last moment. The tanks were only 300 to 400 feet away, and then we opened up with a barrage that was just unbelievable. It was quite a spectacle. I saw about 12 to 14 American tanks burning over the next two days, but I couldn’t see the whole battlefield. We were ordered to retrieve some of their tanks, but we didn’t have our mechanics on hand who could really do anything with them. The whole situation had deteriorated by that time.
After it got dark we asked for orders from headquarters, but there was no answer from them. In Tunis, General Arnim had already given up. We now had no more connections. We were the last ones holding out. Our position was on the southern end of the front, but there really wasn’t a front anymore, just pockets of German troops.
The bombardment the Americans threatened for the next morning never happened. We then broke our small arms over a tree. My company was singing as we threw the stocks and bolts of our weapons in all directions. Our commander told us to go to a certain section of the city where we would surrender. We hadn’t had anything to eat for a couple of days since there was nothing coming through. The water supply was good, but there was no ammunition to continue the fight.
At around 8:30 that morning, on May 12, we came out of the town and surrendered. I was a Gefreiter at the time, and it wasn’t a very dramatic ending. As we marched out of Zaghouan, the American tanks stopped near us. The Americans brought us into a field where we had to assemble. We didn’t get any food or water there for a couple of days. They didn’t care, and it was pretty hot outside.
At Zaghouan we were in American hands for only a day or two, then they turned all of us over to the French Foreign Legion. We were apprehensive about this situation. The French guards were all pretty hostile toward us. We were searched and stripped of everything we had. The treatment we received as prisoners of war was horrible.
For about two days the Foreign Legion marched us a little farther north to Pond du Fahs. A number of us were maliciously injured on our way to the prisoner of war camp. We marched with four or five guys in each row, and we heard a disturbance behind us. Five or six legionnaires drove up behind us with a tow truck that had a big roll of barbed wire, about a foot in diameter and 6 feet wide, hanging over the side of the truck. The roll of barbed wire was about five feet off of the ground as they drove right past us. Nearly all of us were injured when we were struck from behind by the barbed wire. Only the ones who heard the commotion had time to duck before it hit them. I was one of the lucky ones who looked back and ducked in time to avoid being struck.
The camp at Pond du Fahs was just a large 300- or 400-acre area, surrounded by barbed wire. You could hardly see the end of it. There were about 12,000 to 14,000 prisoners in the camp, and it was pretty cramped. It was just a boiling mess. The French didn’t give us any tents or shovels to dig holes with for protection from the wind. We were never provided with any kind of wood or material to make shelters with while we were there. They didn’t give us water on a daily basis. We were just waiting and dozing. We looked for a way to escape, but this didn’t make much sense because, wherever we might go, there would be no food or water available. I don’t know of any German prisoner in Africa who ever escaped. We were tired and pretty depressed.
Several hundred of the prisoners died of starvation and thirst while I was here. I dug a number of their graves. We had about 12,000 men there, and nobody was informed about us, not even the Red Cross. Normally, prisoners are counted and reported under international law, but not with the Foreign Legion. They played games with us. I was in this camp for about six to eight weeks.
After a few weeks, some of us were forced to clear minefields for the French. Nobody even considered refusing because we were sure the French would shoot you if you didn’t obey them. About 100 prisoners walked into this field with grass that was about a foot high. They were about half a mile outside the camp. I saw three or four detonations when they first went in there. It didn’t take long for the explosions to start. The French didn’t give them any information or tell them where or how the mines were in there. They also didn’t give the prisoners any tools or equipment to help find the mines.
This mine-clearing detail went out every day for two to three weeks. The guards would just grab some prisoners and give them orders. The mines had been there for four or five months, and the sand had blown over them. This made it awfully difficult. The French didn’t even offer any maps for the minefield, which we knew they must have had because every German division headquarters kept a specific strongbox with information about our minefields. All they had to do was pull those maps out and see where the mines were. Three or four dozen of the prisoners were killed when they were forced to look for those mines.
Around July 1943, we were marched for about three or four days to a smaller camp near Tunis. The march to the camp was very slow moving due to our weakened condition. We helped anyone along who dropped out. While some of us probably died during the march, I didn’t see anyone die.
During the march, we were given water only once after a couple of days. The French just brought in a big tank of water and turned on the valves. Thousands of us swarmed over it to get some water. We didn’t have any containers so we had to use our hands and drink whatever we could, if you got to it at all. Most of the water splashed into the sand and it tasted like gasoline. They intentionally organized the water distribution poorly. It was no accident.
The camp was located near Tunis, about 40 to 50 miles south of Pond du Fahs in the Sahara Desert. There weren’t any nearby villages or anything. I think about 3,000 to 4,000 prisoners were in the camp. Several hundred prisoners died during our captivity there — mainly from starvation and dysentery. The French would give 10 to 12 of us a loaf of bread per day. The guy who divided the bread was the last one to get his piece, so there was a very specific way to cut it accurately. The water was also very restricted. In good times we received about a quart or a quart and a half a day. All of our minds were just on food and water.
We were provided with tents to live in, and we were told to construct some solid buildings. We had to dig a big pit about 6 to 8 feet deep, and the dimensions were about 150 by 150 feet. We had to make steps so we could get in and out of that thing. Then they put straw, clay and undrinkable water in the hole. Fifty to 60 of us had to go in there and stomp on the mud. This went on constantly, both day and night, for about two weeks. If the water we used to make the mud would have been drinkable, we would have drunk it right out of the pit.
There were no medical provisions at all in the camp. We had a German doctor there, but he was not allowed to openly help us. He would sneak into our tents and holes and treat us as best he could. The doctor had no medicine, so there was little he could do. My friends and I were called out several times to dig graves. We don’t know how many of us died, but it was a tremendous number. The French didn’t care if we died. They really wanted to push us as far as possible.
After we were established in the camp, the French said we would be moving. We had to turn in the tent covers, and thousands of tent poles and stakes were put in a big pile and burned. When we were ready to march away they called it off. We then lived in holes and did without tents or anything else to protect us from the sun. It was all just a game the French played with us.
At one point, I was in and out of a coma for two weeks. Often, I could not even get up to use the toilet. If I did get up and walk to the latrine, I had to concentrate very hard because of my extreme hunger. We had no hospital, so I just lay on the ground or in a foxhole. I was captured on May 12, 1943, and by September I was down to 92 pounds, which was half my normal weight. I was unconscious from hunger most of the time.
I was told an American major came to our camp by accident, and he saved my life. He was on some kind of hunting trip, and he was surprised to see our prison camp out there. He had something to do with the Red Cross and the accountability of prisoners of war. The major decided to take a closer look, and he saw how there were starving prisoners lying around inside the compound. Maybe 60 to 70 prisoners were unconscious out of the 1,200 to 1,500 that were still left alive. I didn’t see the major, of course; I was told that this was how it happened.
The major came back the next day with 20 to 25 ambulances. He then forced his way into the French camp with about 100 American soldiers. The major selected about 100 to 120 of the most serious cases for hospitalization. Fortunately I was among them. They put me into an ambulance and gave me something to eat. They then took us to Tunis where we were placed in a German Red Cross hospital. When they saw us they said that we had the ‘French disease’ [starvation]. We didn’t know what they meant at the time. All the prisoners they picked up from the French Foreign Legion camps were starving. They had to be fed so that they could recover. The Americans helped us, and the French didn’t get any of us back.
I was brought to Casablanca to be shipped to America. They then brought us back to Oran to transport us over the Mediterranean. They put together a convoy to take us to the United States. There were six or seven ships carrying German prisoners. I was on a merchant ship.
We were among the first German prisoners to be taken to America. We landed near New York City at Ellis Island. We were then transported by train in a very luxurious manner that we had never experienced in the German army. In the army we were usually transported in boxcars; soldiers never traveled in passenger cars. Here in the United States we rode in a fantastic Pullman train that had beautifully upholstered seats, and we were asked to sit down! Unbelievable!
We traveled constantly for four days and three nights to our destination: Tonkawa, Okla. There we were put in a prison camp. The camps in America were all alike. They were all built for us. The barracks held 50 men each, and 250 men were in each company, which was surrounded by barbed wire. I was later placed in several different camps: Pine Bluff, Ark.; Dermott, Ark.; Baton Rouge, La.; and Newport News, Va.
There was a very dramatic incident in Tonkawa that I would like to mention. One day in November 1943 we were asked by our camp spokesman to go to the mess hall at 11:30 p.m. The mess hall was always closed by 8. It was very unusual, but it was a hush-hush order to meet there.
About 150 to 200 of us were in the mess hall, and they brought in a report from an American officer. Our camp spokesman was a German soldier we elected to represent us. He said, ‘An American officer gave me a map of the Hamburg Harbor and its defense installations!’ A German soldier had given him the map that afternoon. The American officer returned it to our spokesman and said it was incomplete. It wasn’t adequate for the Allied needs. The distances between the defensive installations, such as the flak bunkers, needed to be filled in. Our spokesman who called for this meeting said: ‘Can you imagine? This is what I received today, and here is the drawing!’
So we passed this map around, and I was in the back row. In the first row, some guy recognized the paper it was drawn on, and he said he gave it to Corporal Johann Kunze. Kunze was in the mess hall, so he was immediately confronted where everybody could see him. He blushed and quickly admitted that he had drawn the map.
We formed a Femegericht [kangaroo court] — a sergeant, a corporal, two or three men and our spokesman. It took 15 to 20 minutes for the court to sentence Kunze to die. Some of the prisoners started hitting and shoving him, and then one guy, I guess, shoved a box of potatoes onto Kunze’s head and killed him. It was 5 in the morning and they put a rope around his body and pulled him up a lamppost. They made a sign that said, ‘This is the way a traitor dies!’ While they were making a commotion, the guards came in and found the body.
Then the American interrogation started. The whole company was interrogated. We were all put into confinement. It then took a couple of weeks before they released the guys they thought had nothing to do with Kunze’s death. Our clothes were investigated for blood spots and everything. They kept five of us for good.
The five prisoners were sent to Fort Bragg, and they held a court-martial against them. On May 20, 1945, about two weeks after Germany capitulated, we read on our blackboard, ‘The five German soldiers of Tonkawa, Oklahoma, who were involved with Corporal Kunze’s death were executed after the German capitulation on May 8, 1945.’ Totally innocent men, who weren’t even involved in the shoving and pushing, were put to death. It’s the most disturbing story that I remember from my imprisonment in America. Forty-five years later [November 30, 1990], there was an article in the Los Angeles Times about it. I was fortunate to return home four weeks after Easter in 1946. After 1946 the other prisoners weren’t sent directly back to Germany. They spent a year or more working in England and France.
German prisoners heard about the Holocaust relatively early, around July 1945, and were shown films about it. I personally thought it was exaggerated propaganda. We prisoners were forced to watch those films. We didn’t want to see them, because we didn’t want to believe it. They made us watch those horror films three or four times, and then they came back later on and interviewed us. We felt it was just a big bunch of lies, because we couldn’t imagine that it was possible for people to do that. But, obviously, there was a group so fanatical that those atrocities did happen. I think it’s a historical fact that the Holocaust did occur.
Hans Klein died in 1998. Robert Mulcahy is a U.S. Air Force historian. He has interviewed several German veterans of World War II and is a frequent contributor to World War II Magazine. This account is provided courtesy of the Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton. For further reading, see Rommel’s Desert War: The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps, by Samuel Mitcham.
This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!