The first snowfall of the winter came hurtling in sheets to the ground. In the office coffee mess I poured my cup, glanced outside again and headed down the hall. After a few steps I saw Franz, a distinctive professorial figure in his customary tweed jacket, standing with an empty cup, leaning on his cane. He was staring pensively out the window at the snow, gazing at some distant spot, and he failed to notice me. ‘Franz, my friend,’ I said, ‘Guten Morgen.’ He did not reply. ‘Ah, the snow, you are looking at the snow,’ I continued. ‘This must remind you of your home in Austria, the winter sports. Did you like the winter sports when you were young?’
‘No,’ he replied, never moving.
Feeling drawn to him for some reason, and not offended by the reticence of this usually personable old man, I asked, ‘Well then, what does this remind you of?’ A moment passed, and, still motionless and transfixed, he answered, ‘Russia — Russia.’
Dr. Franz A.P. Frisch and I (Wilbur D. Jones, Jr.) had been faculty members at the Defense Systems Management College at Fort Belvoir, Va., since 1987. However, Franz, as low-key as he is methodical, shared none of his background with colleagues. I knew only what the faculty biographical sketchbook said about his vast experience in the shipbuilding industry and prestigious teaching positions. But on that day in December 1992, I realized there was much more to learn about him.
As we talked in the ensuing weeks, he began to open up. Yes, he had served in the German army in World War II, a matter he had not discussed for many years. He had been drafted in 1938 from his native Vienna and was finally discharged in 1947 after two years in an American prisoner-of-war camp in Italy — nine years of service to the Wehrmacht, and all the time but a private. An artillery soldier, he fought in the campaigns in Poland, France, Russia, Sicily and Italy, the latter two against the United States, and he was captured near the end of the war within miles of Austria. His weapon was a 10cm cannon towed by a halftrack. A motorized soldier, he rode in a staff car as he accompanied the blitzkrieg assaults that propelled Germany toward domination of the European continent. His memories of combat in the Soviet Union are still vivid today:
Following completion of high school and the forced unification, Anschluss, of Austria with Germany, I (Franz Frisch) was then ‘volunteered to participate’ for seven years in the ‘Thousand Year Empire’ of Adolf Hitler. I was drafted into the army at age 19 along with many school and neighborhood friends. We entered service in the all-Viennese Haus (home) Artillerie Regiment 109. I have some photographs to prove I was there. I would have taken more, but we simple soldiers could not get film after mid-1943, and I was often diverted from sightseeing by calls to action, particularly as we were retreating. Besides, I lost the American Kodak box camera I used. I sent the film home to my mother to be developed and saw the photographs when I was home on leave.
I was Der Einfache Deutsche Soldat, the simple German soldier. Sometime toward the end of March 1943, I returned to my unit, the 1st Battery of Artillery Battalion 557. The 1st Battery was all that was left from unit 557 and was then located near the airport at Palermo, Sicily. The 2nd Battery made it to Tunis, North Africa, and after the landing went right into an American POW camp — its personnel in perfect formation. And the 3rd Battery rests somewhere on the bottom of the Mediterranean after being torpedoed on the transport from Tunis to Sicily. Only the 1st Battery survived — and was again the core for a new 557, employed first in Sicily and then in Italy to the bitter end. I might consider myself very lucky to have missed assignment to the 2nd or 3rd batteries, but instead I felt strongly from this time on that my place in the German army was simply as one condemned to die yet condemned to live.
The rank-and-file private simple soldier in the German army was approximately the same as the ‘GI Joe’ American common soldier. I always stayed a private. I had certain political baggage. Before army service, I was a member of the International Boy Scouts, much engaged with the Catholics, fascism and Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. I entered the army with a bad political record, and I was not very eager to repair it.
It was in March 1938 that the German troops came to take over Austria. We watched. I often spoke out about things. My mother warned me: ‘Franz, please keep your big mouth shut. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for me.’ I then became more inclined to watch what I wanted to say. At first our unit members were all Austrians. But the German army was a melting pot that included different social and economic classes, and during the war my unit became mixed with replacement soldiers. In the end no two Haus regiments were left in the army. My original battery was approximately 200 officers and enlisted men. The regiment had 800. When we got reconstituted after the Russian winter of 1941, we were broken up into two parts. Mine was headed for the Afrika Korps; the other went back to Russia as a new unit. But we never got to North Africa.
My unit was never permanently assigned to another organization. We were called Heeres Artillerie, or army artillery, and were shifted periodically to a corps or division requiring immediate artillery help, like a fire engine. Our gun most of the time was the 10cm Kanone (cannon), with a maximum range of 21 kilometers. Sometimes we had the 15cm Hauitze, or howitzer, which could reach 15 kilometers. Both used the same chassis and the same tractor. Our guns were towed by halftrack. We rode either in the trucks or in Steyr staff cars. I got along very well with my enlisted comrades. We seldom had time to go into local towns for recreation. We wrote letters daily and drank a lot. Beer and wine were usually available, especially in France. Russia was so different. If you are never completely sober, even a war can be fun.
The German army was very eager to establish entertainment centers, which in plain English are called whorehouses. A man had to get a certificate for an injection afterward. If somebody got sick or something, like with venereal disease, and had no certificate, he went to jail. If he had a certificate, of course, it was not his fault. Me? I played chess. We had a junior master chess player from Yugoslavia. His German was not very good, but his chess game was fantastic. Slowly and surely we put together a little group that often played chess, and in this group rank didn’t matter. We just enjoyed the chess games.
My relationships with my officers and noncommissioned officers were mostly careful and depended upon their personalties. But overall I was confident in them personally. Discipline got more and more relaxed as the war went along. When it comes to military leadership, like everywhere, I found all types of people. In Italy, I was assigned as cartographer to the artillery battalion command post and could make good observations of our leaders. They were: The Activist — left every day early in the morning to ‘inspect’ the batteries. Found everything okay because he forgot that the telephone announcing his visit was much faster than his car. The Big Mouth — never, never left his command post or bunker. Always talked on the phone with the battery commanders. Knew everything they wanted to tell him. A human zero. The Human Being — a most marvelous man. Whenever the situation got serious, he showed up and calmed the nerves down. Everybody trusted him and respected him. He accidentally got shot by a sentry in a rest area when he walked around during the night with his dog. He was a major from the Afrika Korps with the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) medal.
With the exception of hopeless situations, health care was mostly good. In every battalion we had one medical doctor plus sanitary personnel. If I felt bad I had no problem turning myself in for sick call. We tried to take care of ourselves as much as we could and aided each other. I think I smoked too much to get the flu. The only bad breakout of disease was in Russia, where many of us had diarrhea. In Russia in December 1941, I got frostbite in my right leg while driving a motorcycle during the retreat. Thousands of German soldiers were incapacitated by the cold.
Then I got my first Urlaub (leave) to go one semester to the Technical University in Vienna. It was my first time at the university where I ultimately got my degree. While in Naples, Italy, in 1942, I got jaundice and was sent home to recover. Afterward, I attended my second semester at the university in the winter of 194243. Then I joined my unit in Sicily.
I was home on leave twice in 1942, and once in February 1945 for two weeks, to get married. We normally had a two-week vacation once a year. The army paid our way home. From France, we went on vacation between campaigns. After leave we either went back to the unit or stayed at home. The decision to stay home and try to hide meant that if we got caught, we were dead. Going back at least gave us a chance for survival. We remembered the old saying: ‘You have more to fear from your superior than from your enemy.’ The superiors were afraid to get shot, too, right up the line.
My mother was a widow, lived alone, and the radio news from the front was, so I thought, enough for her. I prayed for her and tried to keep her spirits up. After about three weeks in the Yelnya salient defense area near Smolensk, in Russia, I got a letter from her: ‘What happened at this particular time? I could not sleep and went almost crazy. And suddenly at such and such a time, I was again completely calm. What happened?’ It turns out that she missed the critical time in our withdrawal from Yelnya not by a single hour. A premonition I suppose.
On my level, we were not told much about the progress of the war, and we never knew what to expect. Only at the end did we know anything about what happened. Our incoming information was controlled, and our outgoing was monitored and censored. The daily radio news of the front came over the Wehrmacht Bericht. This was selective, and sometimes it took a long time to get through. In the end the best news came when some of our radio operators could reach Allied stations. In Italy we had enough people who understood English to listen to the news and get a few messages beyond what we heard on our own. I know that when we had a good radio at home we made sure the door was closed, the shades were down, and the volume very low before we listened to the foreign news.
Religion was purely personal. I and other German soldiers prayed privately but never openly. We had services at Christmas and Easter, but usually not at any other time. If somebody went regularly to Christmas and Easter we could slowly and surely begin to talk politics, a sign of trust. Ultimately we go back to the old saying, also true in the German army: ‘There are no atheists in the trenches.’
I got paid regularly, and most of the money was transferred to my home address. We carried as many personal articles as we could hide. Officially we had a Turnister, carried on the back as a knapsack. In our motorized unit we always had some space to carry a few private things, not many, mostly books. We took writing paper but did not use stamps because postage was free. We could always find paper. On campaign we had toothpaste, a toothbrush, shaving cream, razor blades, and soap of very poor quality. We also got a daily cigarette ration. We always had a few friends who did not smoke and would share theirs. For rolling tobacco into cigarettes we often used newspapers.
The quality of food in general, like the clothing and accouterments, was bearable to sufficient. We had something called the Feldküche, a field kitchen. Motorized units put the Feldküche on a truck. We had hot meals in Poland, France and Italy. We had no prepared field rations like the U.S. Army’s K rations. We ate from the kitchen or foraged on our own. We could always find a chicken except in Russia in the winter, but I was never hungry enough to eat a horse, even there.
We were given only one set of uniforms, and did not always get the uniform replenished while on a new campaign. In Russia we got nothing. We had no spares and had to clean and maintain our uniforms the best we could. We always got new uniforms when we were in Germany or Czechoslovakia. We had three sets of underwear and one set of boots, which we wore until worn out. Those were replenished on campaign — it was absolutely necessary. Interestingly, we in the artillery wore them out even though we did not march. We were not issued socks. Instead we had Fusslappen, a piece of oversized army-issue handkerchief for the feet. We wrapped it around the foot before putting on the boot. My family sent socks, thank God, for the Fusslappen constantly wore out. Most units had a soldier who did barbering. We dug our latrines and tried to wash ourselves when we could. Sometimes all we had was a container of two liters of water. It was easier to bathe in Poland and France, and sometimes Sicily and Italy, because of the weather and tempo of battle. We tried to maintain a clean appearance. In Russia it was almost impossible to bathe once the temperature began dropping. Behind the front were cleaning stations where occasionally we got sprayed and had a shower bath to get rid of the lice. Entlausungsstellen, delousing organizations, they were called.
In Italy in 1945 we had to keep going north. The idea that something was going bad was clear to everybody after Stalingrad. I do not know if anybody really believed it could be reversed. I doubt it. The American soldier was in a completely different situation. I think he had an idea that he could win the war. But on the German side, survival was the only goal of the individual soldier and the unit. On the Italian Front against the Americans the desired situation to come into was where we could capitulate. In Russia, it was a different story. There, we only gave up if we could not move anymore. I never knew of a German soldier deserting. For God’s sake, where would he go?
My unit and I were never engaged in close-up combat. Miraculously, I was never wounded. I do not have any idea why not. Everybody else was, it seems. I was personally shot at only when serving as a forward observer. I carried a rifle and, in Italy, also a pistol. The quality and reliability of my equipment, including the cannons, were excellent. The exception was the trucks in Russia.
My unit received no medal or award, but I myself did, like every German soldier on the Russian Front in that first winter of 194142. It was the Winterorden, a memory for all who participated. In soldiers’ slang we called it the ‘frozen meat medal.’ Later on I got the Kreigsverdienstkreuz, the lowest rank of service medal.
I could never bring myself to hate the enemy. At the war’s end, I felt 100 percent positive about the Americans. The Germans then looked at them as some kind of liberators. There was absolutely no animosity between the American soldier and the German soldier, but I am describing only the soldiers. The political units, the people who came over after the war, sometimes presented a different attitude. The Americans we fought showed a mutual respect from soldier to soldier.
I saw Adolf Hitler once, in his triumphant march into Vienna after the unification and his oratory at the Hapsburg palace. My feelings about the Nazis were all negative. The army overall, and soldiers individually, always tried to stay at arm’s length from Nazi organizations and the SS in particular. A spy of sorts was in every military unit. He was a political educator we called a Hauswart. There were three rules to stay out of trouble: avoid him; if necessary, be friendly; and keep your mouth shut.
The attack on Russia began June 22, 1941, and our unit was part of the bombardment — the drumfire — along the front. There was a demarcation line between Soviet and German partitions of Poland. Our invasion actually started from the area of the Bug River near Brest-Litovsk into the eastern part of Poland occupied by Russians rather than directly into the Soviet Union itself. My unit was in the middle section of the invasion forces with Army Group Center. We were with the 3rd Panzer Group and the 4th Panzer Group at Smolensk and before Moscow.
Sometimes we would go in front of the infantry as forward observers. I did not like that because we were shot at. How long we stayed always depended on the situation, sometimes one to two weeks. Sometimes we experienced a communications problem. When we talked with our commander in the rear, our language was very simple. We used a single word, ‘bad,’ and went from there. Our commander could not tell his boss that the situation was very bad, so he called it’serious.’ At the next level the commander ‘had it under control.’ Then, when it was finally reported to the top, it had become a ‘victory.’
I remember the retreat from the Yelnya line east of Smolensk. It was pitch-dark, and we tried to make it back to the main line. Every truck, every tractor with its gun, every soldier was on his own. I assume some infantry units covered the retreat. I was driving a motorcycle with a sidecar. Nobody knew where the battery commander was, and I guess he did not know where his guns were. Happily or unhappily, he participated in the retreat like any little soldier — without organization, without communication and without command.
We were in the battles around Minsk and the Minsk-to-Smolensk supply route, and the battles in the woods of Orsha and Baratino and near Bryansk. The fighting around Smolensk was the heaviest I saw during the war. I recall seeing Field Marshal Günther von Kluge near Smolensk, giving orders, but I did not know for what reason. For us little soldiers the appearance of such high officials had little meaning, for we did not have much of an idea what we would be up to next. In the area of Smolensk in the YelnyaDesna river salient, we began our first orderly retreat in September 1941. Officially it was called a planned withdrawal and a ‘correction of the front lines.’ But to me it was so much bull. By the first snowfall in October, we tightened the Yelnya lines again and took another step backward.
Sure enough, maybe a few days later we heard on the radio, in the news from the front, about the successful front correction in the Yelnya line and the enormous losses we had inflicted on the enemy. Not a word was heard about a retreat, about the mental and emotional stagnation and numbness of the soldiers. In short, it was again a victory. This metamorphosis of the truth from ‘very bad’ to ‘victory’ baffled me and those of my comrades who dared to think.
Our problems with weather started before winter, which begins very early in Russia. When the first snow fell in October, I could only think of Napoleon. We had problems with the early snow, and as it started to melt, the so-called roads were nothing less than a swamp. I was driving a motorcycle and sidecar and had to go about 60 kilometers with a message. It took me a week to make it back and forth. I was nearly pushing the motorcycle the whole way. Transport trucks got stuck in the swampy roads, and the emphasis appeared to be on delivery of ammunition and fuel so we could fight. On military maps we compared the Russian roads to our Autobahn, or superhighways, and Strassen, or streets. We were on a Russian Autobahn when we were up to our ankles in dirt or mud. On a Russian Strasse, the mud or dirt would be up to our knees.
The sounds of danger were everywhere — enemy guns, aircraft, artillery shells, and a sound known only in Russia, the Katyusha rocket launcher, which we called ‘the Stalin organ’ — a set of eight rockets shooting at the same time. It was the most shocking and terrifying thing I ever encountered. The only good thing about it was the nice smoke fan behind, so that the enemy’s position was easily recognized, and we could do something if we had enough ammunition.
Another danger came when we were told we were going to capture Moscow by December 1941. The new Russian T-34 led the counteroffensive that drove us away from Moscow. Our men were very afraid of the T-34. It was superior to our tanks or anti-tank guns. We knew we had to move when we saw them.
Our drive in the center front on Moscow began in early October. By late November it had bogged down due to a combination of weather, supply, fatigue and the Russians. We saw the streetcars in the outskirts of Moscow, but got no closer and did not fire any rounds into the city.
At this time, the German army was running erratically. All motorized units were no longer very mobile, thanks to paralyzing temperatures. Because of the extreme cold — often below minus-30 degrees Celsius, or about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit — many trucks, some of our guns and other vehicles developed ‘cold breaks’ in the leaf springs. They just would not run. Thirty percent of the leaf springs in our trucks broke. If one broke in the rear, the truck lost braking capacity. We hurriedly started to put together truck repair shops, but we did not have enough materials or the right quality steel to make reliable springs. We started the offensive on Moscow with dilapidated equipment, and we lost a lot of it.
In our battery, only two out of four guns and about half of the ammunition trucks could move. Of course, being a hopeful engineer, I learned my first lesson about the difference between performance and reliability: ‘The performance is fantastic, provided the mousetrap works.’ There was such confusion that even officers started to ask, ‘What stupidity is this — starting an attack with units whose trucks will not move, and ammunition trucks with cold brakes and no springs?’ The units were not combat ready because of the transportation problems. Hitler believed that Moscow could be taken in the last offensive of 1941, and nobody dared to openly question his determination. He was absolutely crazy, but everybody was saying, ‘Heil Hitler.’
The morale of the troops was also below zero. We never officially received winter clothes and could not understand why they were not given to us. We received pieces from home in the mail, mostly socks. We improvised by wearing newspapers inside shoes and all our shirts and underwear at the same time. We tried making straw and rope boots to cover the shoes. Our clothes became infested with lice, which added to the misery. We dared not sweat too much, if that were possible, because it gave us a nasty chill.
Occasionally, visibility was reduced to zero because of the miserable blowing snow. If we were in the rear, we might be stationed in a village, really a collection of a few farm houses. It was our best means of surviving the cold, because we could not dig or construct shelters in the frozen ground. Each farmhouse usually had two rooms. One room had a big stove with bunks for sleeping above it. The other was for a goat, a cow, a pig and the outhouse. If I was on watch I could not stand outside for longer than 20 minutes. After 20 minutes the next guy came out to relieve me, and he was freezing. It was simply unimaginable. The interesting thing was that all the farmhouses still had an icon, mostly behind a curtain. Occasionally we took one, but most of them were left alone. If a Russian was in the house, no one would touch the icon.
I do not believe Stalin’s scorched earth policy was followed too much. People want to survive, and self-destruction was of little value. I saw lots of Russian peasants, and they did not treat us unkindly. They were unattractive, dirty, and looked like pictures I had seen of ignorant, poor people of the czar’s days. I remember fugitives coming through our lines. We offered them the so-called warmth of our house for a while.
There are certain moments I can never forget or even describe well. They haunt me to this day. One was in Russia, when we put together a reconnaissance in force with one artillery battery of four guns and a motorcycle battalion of infantry. We went through our own infantry lines with the order to go as far as we could before finding resistance. From the moment we went through the lines, we knew we were completely alone. No one spoke. The infantry looked at us like we were crazy. Suddenly I felt I was alive. I wanted to be alive, but at the same time I had the feeling we were going into a death trap. It is awfully hard to describe the feeling I had at that moment when we quietly went through the line into the enemy territory. Another time was in 1939 in Poland, when we heard about the BritishFrench ultimatum over the German invasion and their declaration of war. Everybody had his own ideas. That time also had the quietness of a death trap.
It snowed from October on in Russia, and if I was in a flat area I could hear the wind blowing the snow day and night. It never stopped. I still see pictures of dead people, burning houses, dead horses. There is no difference between the smell of a dead horse and a dead human. In Poland, on the way home from Russia, I saw a multitude of white birch trees and the crosses made from them for German soldiers’ graves. These are not pleasant memories.
When the retreat from Moscow began, I felt it was the beginning of the end. Yet, the moral of our service in Russia was that you had to have a positive attitude. Those of us who made it out alive were happy to have done so.
This article was written by Wilbur D. Jones and Franz A.P. Frisch and originally appeared in the September 1995 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!