A Wehrmacht Gunner’s Return to Guernsey..!

It is now approaching some 70 years since the dark cloud of Nazi occupation was lifted from the beautiful British Channel Island of Guernsey and its wonderful islanders, (many of whom came so close to starvation along with most of the former German garrison back in that terrible winter of 1944/45), could begin to rebuild their lives and savour real freedom for the first time in nearly six long years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in the immediate post-war years all things German were regarded at best, with complete indifference and at worst, with barely suppressed loathing; however as the long shadows of the war and the hardships of that World War Two occupation now soften and bathe the stunning seven islands of the Bailiwick in a more gentle light, Guernsey has come to welcome back a number of German soldiers, sailors and airmen from the former garrison. Many of these veteran soldiers now return year after year to visit their previous billets and batteries, striking up new friendships with islanders & tourists alike and in some cases rekindling special and very treasured old ones……

During my much-enjoyed 5-year tenure as media consultant to ‘Fortress Guernsey’, amongst the many wonderful people I continued to meet in the Bailiwick was one such veteran: former German army Oberkanonier Helmut Zimmermann. A most delightful, kindly & very funny ex-Wehrmacht soldier who has made several unannounced return trips to Guernsey, (the first in 1990), quietly and without fuss touring the island with his lovely English wife Geraldine, seeking out his old stomping grounds.

His visits would have gone completely unnoticed, but for Peter & Paul Balshaw, owners & curators of the stunning Underground Military Museum at La Valette in St Peter Port, who by chance got talking to him on an early visit as he inspected their wonderful perdonal collection of German occupation artefacts, preserved and displayed in the incredible U-boat refuelling depot hidden away deep under the rocks overlooking the harbour and Castle Cornet!

A good friendship developed between the two born-and-bred Guernseymen and the former German occupier, which all three generously allowed the directors of Fortress Guernsey, ( the Tourist Board’s initiative to promote and preserve the  incredible story of the WW-II German Occupation of Guernsey), to tap into one summer in the late 90s when Helmut once again flew to the Bailiwick from his home in Lincolnshire to be interviewed for an American documentary about his duty on Guernsey between the years 1943 and 1945:

Born in Neundorf in Eastern Germany, Helmut left school in 1939 to become an apprentice blacksmith and thence from April 1942 worked in the Junkers aircraft factory at Reppen until January 1943 when called up for service with the Reichs Arbeits Dienst (German Labour Service). Three months later he reported for military service and was sworn into the army at Frankfurt an der Oder and he entered the artillery branch, undergoing training in Poland and Russia in the Summer of ‘43.

In September 1943 a group of young soldiers including Helmut found themselves travelling westwards by train, arriving at St Malo then, after a short sea crossing he and his comrades found themselves in the harbour at St Peter Port where, upon seeing a palm-tree, was convinced they had arrived in the Med! Joining Artillery Regiment 319, the new intake marched from the harbour with full-kit and rifles up to their new billet at Catel, where Helmut was to serve with an army coastal defence unit operating one of four 10cm Czech-made Skoda guns in open emplacements at Batterie Wolf.

Not speaking English, Helmut and his comrades had no real contact with the Guernsey people, seeing only the farmer on whose land their battery was sited though occasionally they ventured into St Peter Port clutching their prized army permit to visit the cinema. They had little money, (their weekly wages in Guernsey Occupation Marks being deducted by a contribution to the German war effort back home), but he recalled there was little to buy anyhow!

Helmut’s battery had a fairly uneventful war; life was routine and pretty regular and early on rations from France were good and he learnt to drive and gained his army driving licence, but there was no petrol available so he couldn’t try out his new skill!  Nominated number one gun-layer, as a former blacksmith, Helmut was also put to work repairing anything from military hard-ware to buckets & locks and later in the war, as supplies from France dwindled, he turned his hand to making wooden sabots, (sandals), for his unit. He also remembers his hardy woollen uniform surviving the lack of replacement materials but not so his socks, so he became something of an expert in darning!

During his time on Guernsey, Helmut had just one spell of home-leave, but remembers spending most of his time dreaming of going home for good. Initially unaware of the way the war was going for the Reich, Helmut was able to listen into a nearby Funker, (signal unit), and was surprised to hear of the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6th June 1944 even though he knew something was up by the number of aircraft visible in the early dawn-sky heading towards France. However even when he realised it was the long-awaited invasion and opening up of the Second Front in Europe, he still thought Germany would ultimately win the war!

As the Allies broke out from the Normandy bridgehead in late Summer 1944, German garrisons on the Islands found themselves cut off from France. Unable to take advantage of life-saving supplies delivered by the Red Cross ship SS Vega to Guernsey’s suffering civilian population, Helmut and his comrades faced a very tough winter as their army rations dwindled to a point that the young soldiers were reduced to boiling nettles for food.

Tragically one of Helmut’s pals ate a poisonous plant & died and he quietly recalled his sadness at acting as pall bearer at his military funeral.

In the wake of D-Day, and increased Allied air activity in the skies over the Channel Islands, guard & sentry duties increased and Helmut remembers a tiring life of 4-to-5 night guard duties per week, plus gun-laying drills each day, eventually becoming so exhausted that one night he  fell asleep leaning on his rifle. Luckily he escaped punishment, which could have come in the terrifying shape of an immediate transfer to the dreaded Russian Front…

In fact Helmut escaped a second time when he was caught trying to knock apples out of a tree, being given just 3 days on bread and water. however a fellow gunner was not so lucky, and caught stealing cigarettes, was sentenced to 3 months hard labour on the island, though when he was returned to his unit, his Hauptmann gave strict instructions that no reference be made to the punishment.

The Third Reich finally crumbled and the surrender of the Islands’ German garrisons came on May 9th 1945, the day after the official surrender of all German forces across Europe. Now a Prisoner-of-War Helmut spent 2 weeks working in the kitchen of the British army cook-house of the liberating Force 135, before being marched down to the harbour and onto a US troopship bound for Southampton; an onward trip to the German prisoner stockade at Kempton racecourse followed, thence to the P.o.W. camp at Driffield in Yorkshire. A prisoner until 1948, Helmut was put to work again as a blacksmith on a local farm where the first English word he learnt was ‘brush’ as in “Helmut!… brush the yard!!”

One of the estimated 100,000 German P.o.W.’s who stayed on in the UK upon release, Helmut met his future wife Geraldine in Skegness in 1949, married her in 1951, raised two sons Nigel and Paul, (both of whom grew up to become submariners with the Royal Navy), and continued to work as a blacksmith until 1990, having become a British National in 1960.

Now living happily in retirement in Stamford, Lincolnshire in the United Kingdom where he enjoys playing bowls and going dancing with his beloved Geraldine, Helmut’s personal army Wehrpasse, Soldbuch and driving licence can be seen today proudly displayed in Peter and Paul’s Military Museum at La Valette in St Peter Port on Guernsey, CI.

A confirmed lover of the Bailiwick and a most welcome guest, Helmut firmly believes that his lucky posting to Guernsey in 1943…actually saved his life!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

Comments are closed.