Werner Kurkowski already knew the war was lost when he was dropped into the maelstrom of Monte Cassino. Nevertheless, the young German paratrooper fought on with grim determination in a battle of attrition that ground his unit into dust.
Werner Kurkowski family in the city of Danzig (what is today Gdansk, Poland). In 1933 he joined the Hitler was born to a German Youth, where he was first exposed to gliders and the joy of flying. He attended a trade school and completed an apprenticeship as an electrician at about the time Adolf Hitler was commencing his dreams of empire. Following mandatory labor service, Kurkowski joined the Luftwaffe in late 1942, just as the Allied strategic bombing campaign was picking up momentum. Much to his chagrin, as German cities were suffering under the constant rain of Allied bombs, Cadet Kurkowski discovered he was spending most of his time digging rubble and shaking his fists in vain at the bombers flying overhead. Frustrated and impatient, he volunteered for the Fallschirmjäger and embarked on an odyssey in which he would take part in some of the renowned Green Devils’ most memorable battles.
WWII: What was your training like, and how did you wind up as a paratrooper rather than a pilot?
Kurkowski: I entered the air force at the end of 1942. I was first trained in France. They put us on the Atlantic Wall in June 1943 to get some combat experience before we entered flight school. We spent three or four months waiting and watching for the Allies to come. We never saw any action, and after that they sent us back to Germany and the flight school. The military training was nothing for us because we were wild young guys. We had been trained militarily from school on and through our organizations. We marched from school to our sports field and we sang songs. That was practically bred in us. It was the same thing in the air force. When we were trained, we never heard any complaining. We were 100 percent ready to die for our country. We sang this in our songs. They trained us to believe that if you die, then you die. That’s it. Around November or December 1943, we were already halfway through with our flight training. We flew a few hours a day, and then we went with our shovels to build big walls around our planes. We had to protect them from the Allied air forces which came over Stuttgart more and more every day. They bombed everything. Every night we had to get on a truck which would bring us to Stuttgart. We had to help people out of their cellars after the bombing. That was sick. I thought we should get to the front line so we could fight. I finally said: “The heck with this! I don’t want to shovel here anymore. We should become soldiers and join the paratroopers. At least we will see some action there.”
WWII: It seemed certain that you would see action in the Fallschirmjäger, which had carried off a series of brilliant but costly engagements early in the war. Were you at all concerned about joining an organization where high casualties were always expected?
Kurkowski: My commander gave us three days off to make up our minds about joining the paratroopers. I think he did this to save us. He probably thought we were crazy, but he didn’t say that to us directly. But as young men, we were enthusiastic about our decision to fight. Our commander couldn’t stop us. They sent us to Stendal, which was the main training facility for paratroopers. The training was tough, but that was necessary. The jump training lasted a couple of months.
WWII: And then what?
Kurkowski: After I was trained, they sent me to Italy and asked me where I wanted to go. I was in Italy with a pioneer outfit and arrived at Monte Cassino in April 1944.
Editor’s note: A key part of the German Gustav Line blocking the Allies’ path to Rome was the Italian hill town of Cassino and nearby Monastery Hill. Monte Cassino was the site of a series of battles beginning in January 1944 that marked some of the most desperate and brutal fighting of the Italian campaign. Against overwhelming odds, German paratroopers commanded by Lt. Gen. Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin held the area surrounding the 6th-century Benedictine abbey for five months. Their stand within the rubble delayed the Allies for months and drained manpower and supplies badly needed for the planned invasions in France. Kurkowski, at the center of the Green Devils’ defense of the abbey, was only beginning his time on the front line.
WWII: The fighting around Cassino had been going on for almost four months when you arrived. What sort of conditions greeted you when you finally arrived at the front?
Kurkowski: We didn’t see anything most of the time. We were always in caves or dugouts, and if the Allies attacked us, we would shoot at them. There was just rubble there. A lot of men got wounded, because the ground was just granite and stone. You might not get hurt by the shells, but you often got hurt by the rocks which were flying around. If an 8- or 12- centimeter mortar shell hit a wall, a stone might hit you in the face. There were lots of eye injuries and stuff like that at Monte Cassino. Mortars were the main weapon, and they fired artillery at us almost constantly. We were the defenders, so if they bombed us, we would shoot at them. We dug good holes in the ground where we could survive, or we waited in cellars until the shelling was over. We smoked one cigarette after another. Then if they attacked us, we would get out of our foxholes and shoot at them. There was real close combat; sometimes they got within about 20 feet of my position. They fought hard. I think there were more dead soldiers on both sides of that battlefield than there was on any other.
WWII: It sounds like the fighting was constant. What was a typical day like?
Kurkowski: We watched and waited until we became casualties. We counted the days and our casualties. One day you would lose two buddies, and then you would feel lucky you made it to the next day. The Allies constantly attacked us. Three or four times a day they tried to get through us. We mainly guarded and watched. Maybe we would get some food and eat a little bit while we lay in our foxholes. We might go forward of our front line and do some observation duty to see what was going on. The front line at Monte Cassino often moved. Groups would fight on different hills, and at night the English might try to pass through them. There was lots of fighting, but you would only see what was happening with your unit. You did not see the whole battlefield. Sometimes there might be a few quiet days, but then they might have one attack after the other for a few days. We just tried to hold our ground. We never tried to attack them unless it was to regain land we had lost. The fighting went up and down the hills, and we lost more and more men. A company might be the size of a platoon, and later just a group. At the end, the Allies found only a few German troops left. Those who could walk retreated out of there earlier.
WWII: You said that mortars were the big killers, but you also describe a series of close battles. Did you have to contend with Allied infantry during the fighting?
Kurkowski: Oh, yes. They charged us. They used regular battle techniques that you could find in the books. They would first fire their artillery for many hours; the fire would get more intensive. Then they would fire some smoke shells at us to provide a smoke screen so we could not see their men advancing. Finally, they would send their troops forward and try to break through our lines, but they couldn’t do it. The fighting went on there for five months.
WWII: The odds were certainly against you. Why did you hold on for so long?
Kurkowski: We were ordered to hold the line under any circumstances—that was why they put us paratroopers in there. There were also Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops) there. We had a strict order not to take one step back from the front line. There was intensive, heavy fighting. They had artillery, but those damn mortars were the worst. I didn’t like those things. Everybody had them on the front line. We could hear them coming at us. We got most of our casualties when we were out in the open and the mortars hit us. But we did get casualties from their artillery and rifles, too. If you were in a foxhole at the front line, the enemy did not come at you too fast. The guys on the other side were scared, too. Our best weapon against them was hand grenades. We always had a bunch of them. We would be on top of a hill, and they would come during the night. We would let them get close to us, then we would throw our hand grenades at them.
WWII: The battle was also known for a certain amount of chivalry. Did you find this to be true?
Kurkowski: We would have little truces if there were too many casualties. We would stop shooting then. We also had truces later on at Normandy. We would have half an hour and they would give us three hours because they would pull all their troops out. The Americans would pull back and then give us another hour or two to pick up our dead and wounded. They always kept their truces. If you think about it today, the war was such a waste of life. There is a different attitude today than we had at that time; we were programmed at that time to be soldiers.
WWII: Did you have a mortar?
Kurkowski: I had a K98 carbine. We also got new weapons while I was there: semiautomatic rifles, but they were tin anyway. The old K98 carbine was the best weapon we had. It was a very dependable rifle, and it was solidly made compared to what we had later on. The carbines were bolt-action rifles and could be loaded with about seven bullets. This made us fire more accurately. The semiautomatic rifles held about 15 bullets and you had to carry more ammunition because you tended to waste ammunition, too. Maybe five out of 25 shots would hit the target. Sometimes we carried American machine pistols if we could get ammunition for them. The German MP40s were pretty good if you did not use them too often, because the magazine springs would get too soft. The machine pistol would fire five or six shots, then all of a sudden the magazine would not feed any more bullets and it would stop shooting. The spring would be too damaged from overuse.
WWII: The odds against you were pretty bad. Given the intensity of the fighting, did you really believe you would emerge victorious?
Kurkowski: No, we were not sure anymore. We just held on and held on, and hoped we would get relieved soon. We were just waiting for our relief so we could get out of there. When I got hit [by artillery shrapnel], I thought: “Thank heavens. Now I will go to a hospital and that would be it.” But after awhile the hospital was boring and got on my nerves.
WWII: Were there cases of your comrades cracking under the strain?
Kurkowski: There was never a point where we got battle fatigue. That was unknown in our army. You fought or you died. We could not say, “I can’t stand it anymore.” If someone said that, they would put him in a more dangerous outfit. It never happened in my unit. We were all volunteers anyway. If a guy shot himself in the leg to get out of the fighting, he would be executed. A lot of German soldiers [were executed] during the war.
WWII: In the end, what do you think caused your defeat at Cassino?
Kurkowski: We ran out of time. The Allies practically destroyed us one by one. It was like a grindstone, making our numbers smaller and smaller. We never received any replacements. At first each man had to watch five, then 20, and then 50 yards of ground as our men became casualties. Finally we gave up. We also got little ammunition and supplies, which [were] carried in at night. We fought until the end, and then we had to leave. It was better to save your skin and run off.
WWII: It is remarkable that you were able to hold on for as long as you did. Were your officers helpful in maintaining your morale?
Kurkowski: Oh, yes! They were good in the German army and especially in elite units like the paratroopers. Our NCOs were also very good, and we could look up to them. We were always in contact with our NCOs, but our officers were more distant. Paratroopers were trained to take over the whole unit if the higher-ranking men got killed. Our privates were trained to take command if necessary and do just as well as the higher ranks. In the beginning of the war, in some armies if the leader was killed, then it was too bad for the rest of the men. The German paratroopers had a different principle in our training. The men in the elite units were trained to be leaders from the very beginning. I don’t know how it was in the infantry or other units.
WWII: You said you were relieved that you had been wounded. How did that “good fortune” occur?
Kurkowski: I was hanging around when all of a sudden an artillery shell exploded. I didn’t even notice my wound until I was wet with blood. When artillery came, it was usually so unexpected that sometimes you didn’t even know if you got wounded. One of the guys said: “Oh, my God! You have a hole in your shoulder!” Then they told me to walk back to the first-aid station.
WWII: Monte Cassino was a terrible introduction to combat. Did the battle change your mind about Germany’s chances for victory?
Kurkowski: No, I realized this when I entered the air force at the end of 1942. There were no big victories anymore. All the fronts were retreating, but we always hoped. We held our positions and slowly retreated. In Russia we slowly went back. Stalingrad was the beginning of the end. They went one mile forward and then two miles back. It went like that in Italy and Africa, and so on. We said, “The more dogs there are, the more rabbits they will kill.” Our chances were fewer and fewer. 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.
It would be a long time, however, before Werner Kurkowski would get home. Wounded in the fighting for Cassino, he was sent to a hospital to recover and thereby avoided the eventual defeat of what remained of his comrades on May 18. Ironically, the first Allied soldiers to reach the monastery and raise their flag over its ruins were Poles—some from Danzig—who had escaped the clutches of the Nazis in 1939. After recovering from his wounds, Kurkowski was assigned to a unit in France, where he would face his opposite numbers as they landed in Normandy early on June 6, 1944.
This is the first of a two-part interview with Werner Kurkowski, who died in 2002. In the second installment, the now-veteran paratrooper recalls his terrifying fight for survival during the Normandy campaign. Robert Mulcahy is a U.S. Air Force historian. This interview appears courtesy of the Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton. For further reading, see Cassino: The Hollow Victory, by John Ellis.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.