America’s 79th Infantry Division…

Utah, Omaha, Fort du Roule, La Haye du Puits, the Seine River, Parroy Forest, Haguenau, Hatten, Rittershoffen… names forever etched in the minds of the veterans, widows & families of America’s 79th Infantry Division, known by their High Command as ‘the fastest in the U.S. Army’..!

Names that would also become familiar to me as, in the company of the real heroes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’, I was invited by military tour director Patrick Hinchy of libertyroad.com to cover the ‘Friendly Convoy’, the return to Normandy & Alsace-Lorraine by the Division’s veterans in the Summer of 2000.

Across France, from the haunting loneliness of the invasion beaches of Normandy to the nightlife of Paris, from the architectural grandeur of Nancy to the cosmopolitan Le Mans, from the parliamentary splendour of the City of Strasbourg to the champagne city of Reims, and through all of the tiny hamlets in between, seemingly all of France had prepared a welcome for the American liberators of the 79th Infantry Division of General Patton’s famous Third Army.

Our party comprised a wonderful cross-section of  all that is good about America; from veterans aged 84 to grandchildren aged 14, sons accompanying fathers, daughters whose fathers were sadly no longer with us and veterans’ widows who had made the huge emotional decision to come to France and each with a special reason for making this pilgrimage; and of course the combat veterans themselves who have longed to revisit places of their youth, where great friendships were forged in the heat of battle and where boys were turned into men so far away from home. The film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ with its opening sequence of combat on the invasion beaches of Normandy on June 6th 1944 comes the ever closest to illustrating just how horrific real war is and perhaps not surprisingly, the forthcoming 12 days would prove a defining moment for many of my fellow passengers…..

The D-Day museum at Caen, would give the younger members of our tour party a graphic illustration of what this important trip would be about and from the museum we drove to the coast heading for one of the most infamous names of June 6th 1944…Pointe du Hoc, the heavy German gun position high on the cliffs overlooking the invasion beach of Utah in the distance. The awesome destruction on this beautiful cliff- top gave way to the quiet solitude of Omaha Beach below and with a high tide it was hard to imagine this entire beachfront had been the focus of one of the biggest land assaults in the history of human warfare.

Then, met by an American official at the US cemetery above, a heavy silence settled over us and, in what I can only describe as one of the most emotional moments of my entire life, our party stood to attention as the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ was played. As the strains of this evocative anthem carried over the heads of our group and died slowly on the gentle breeze, the sad notes of ‘Taps’ were sounded…

All along the invasion coast, other cemeteries containing British & Commonwealth soldiers told the same story but here, overlooking Omaha Beach, the look in the eyes of those left behind was a defining moment. Never in my history of writing on World War Two had I ever felt such an overpowering sense of loss and sadness, standing on my own in that seemingly endless cemetery, my own tears rolling silently down my cheeks…!

Next in the path of the American advance in that late summer of ’44 was La Haye du Puits, and our tour bus drove into the centre of town on the morning of July 9th, exactly 56 years to the day that the 79th Division had liberated it..!

A Vin d’Honneur, a  very simple, but deeply meaningful act of welcome, had been organized and as we slowly walked the town hall in the pouring rain I came up alongside former 315th Inf. Regt PFC, Earl Hammontree  a wonderful, mischievous ‘ole devil’ with a twinkle in his eye and a lovely, slow Southern accent, who saw out his war as a radio operator at the Nuremberg Nazi War Trials in 1946.

Obviously overcome by the preceding events, but the only evidence of the viciousness of his war was his admission that as the combat continued, his “bitterness towards an enemy who wouldn’t give up, increased”!

All around us the stunningly beautiful French countryside was giving up its history: almost every lane down which we travelled offered a tiny D-Day museum, over every hedge was the scene of a once important fire-fight all those years ago; and our day was not yet over, for we still had the other American famous invasion beach of ‘Utah’ but a few miles drive away from us.

With the tide well out by the time we arrived, one could imagine with closed eyes the scene of organized chaos, deadly enemy fire and a horizon full of ships, assault landing craft & olive-drab uniforms in every direction. Now an  almost deserted sandy beach, the shoreline still seems to radiate a powerful echo of what went before.

Some of our party were determined to quietly breathe in the atmosphere, whilst others wandered through the sand dunes, looking at the massive iron anti-tank tetrahedra that still litter the brow of the beach, marvelling at the array of US military monuments & armour that stand guard over this evocative place that will forever be American soil.

As I stood looking at a heavily up-gunned Sherman Tank, ‘Doc’, a former Corporal in the 315th Inf. Regt, (and better known as William H. Long), quietly moved beside me and from his pocket brought out a damaged  copy of a little New Testament. I asked its significance and he gently fingered a large piece of shrapnel lodged through the outer cover into the pages, “this, boy” he drawled in his wonderful deep accent, “is what saved my life!”

The little book, he explained, had been in his breast pocket when enemy fire sought him out and was the only thing that protected his heart at that very moment. I had heard of such stories of wallets and cigarette cases taking a bullet and saving the life of its owner, but this was the first time that I had ever seen it at close hand; it was truly a moment to stop and think!

So ended another emotional day but the morrow would see us back on the road travelling through the rebuilt St Lo and southwards towards Avranches with its imposing site of the Patton Memorial, marking the beginning of his Third Army’s ‘Big Push’.

Across northern France, seemingly every town wanted to pay homage to its former American liberators and just down the road it was the turns of Loue and Neufchateau then it was back onto the road and to another of the 29 United States military cemeteries on French soil. The Epinal Cemetery honours amongst its 5,255 graves, 377 members of the 79th Division including that of Captain Alexander Patch III, ‘C’ Company Commander of the 315th Infantry Regiment, who was killed by German heavy artillery at Embermenil October 22nd 1944.

The following day saw us in a wooded countryside that was the fox-holed home to many in the 315th Infantry Regiment during its drive to Strasbourg. then it was ever onwards still following the fighting path of the 79th Division on the eve of the great French holiday ‘Bastille Day’. Our party was further feted in the beautiful town of Hatten before returning to Strasbourg in readiness for the spectacle that was to be our party’s involvement in a full military parade in the garrison town of Haguenau, another of the names inextricably linked with the 79th’s advance across the continent of Europe.

Now into our last week-end of this roller-coaster of emotions, our little ‘Band of Brothers’ was on the road from Ritterhofen  heading to the citadel town of Metz, scene of more fierce fighting in the final months of the war, via the American Military Cemetery at St Avold for a final act of remembrance, before heading through the Argonne to beautiful Reims, capital of France’s ‘champagne country’.

Our last day and the earlier waves of emotion were to be revisited as we reached the small town of Epone near Paris, which was liberated by the 79th Infantry Division on Saturday August 19th 1944. Welcomed by the American Legion in Paris, citations were exchanged and  Les Brantingham presented the town with its very own ‘Stars & Stripes’ flag that had flown over the Capitol in Washington DC on May 8th 2000, on the 56th anniversary that the German surrender was signed in Reims in 1945.

Then there was just one final important act of pilgrimage as a marvellous line up of US Army jeeps & trucks carried the veterans in convoy to the site of one of the 79th Division’s greatest triumphs, the crossing of the River Seine.

In August 1944, 14,000 men and vehicles made the water-borne crossing from Rosny-sur- Seine to Guernes to establish thebridgehead and begin the final push into the Reich and it seemed fitting that our final day of the tour should be spent on the banks of this impressive river and it set the scene for our last evening together. At a most emotional final farewell, tears and laughter once again flowed in equal quantity, with friendships pledged & plans for our next meeting made.

As a military journalist I had been very privileged to follow this tour, (as the only writer so invited), and I was deeply moved that so many of the veterans and their families often sought me out to quietly share their most private of thoughts and the often deeply personal feelings that were triggered as our tour unfolded… of which many more are written in my complete and unexpurgated e-Book, ‘The Friendly Convoy 2000′ which is available as a free down-load on-line via the Tomahawk Films archival website…

I am also very touched at the trust shown to me that, as an Englishman, I would honour their American story; in fact for as long as I live I will never forget the experiences I underwent on that incredible pilgrimage and the life-long friends that I made on the ‘Friendly Convoy’… a truly wonderful cross-section of American veterans who had seen real combat…

Warm, witty, utterly modest men all and I salute the veterans, the widows and indeed all of the families of America’s 79th Infantry Division of World War Two…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

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

 

The Best of Enemies..!

Staying at the home of the enemy that tried to kill you in the war-time skies over Europe would seem to many people to be a fanciful story that could never happen; but that is exactly what did happen to a former Lancaster flight engineer from Hampshire, who survived his encounter with  Luftwaffe night-fighter ace, Knight’s Cross holder Heinz Rokker, over the French town of Neufchateau in July 1944.

One of only two air-crew to escape from their blazing bomber that fateful night, Thomas Harvell from Southampton parachuted to safety and was rescued by a local Frenchman, to later join forces with Resistance fighters, the Maquis, whom he fought alongside  in the Autumn of 1944 as they harassed German supply lines.

Known today by former members of the Maquis as ‘notre Anglais’, Mr Harvell, was on his way from a 5-day stay at Mr Rokker’s home in Oldenburg in Germany to France’s national monument to their war-time Resistance fighters at Sicon in the Franche-Comte region, when I caught up with him in Neufchateau whist I was travelling with Combat Veterans of America’s 79th Infantry Division on their pilrimage back to the D-Day Beaches of Normandy and thence onto Alsace-Lorraine.

Mr Harvell was to be presented with a medal of appreciation by the Federation Nationale Andre Maginot, and a certificate bearing the name of his war-time alias ‘Charles Hautier’ in recognition of his daring war-time exploits alongside his French comrades; however such acts of derring-do would not have happened, but for Heinz Rokkers’ dramatic & deadly intervention that July night.

An officer in the CID branch of British Transport Police at Southampton Docks, back in 1944 Mr Harvell was flying to Stuttgart on the night of July 28/29th with 514 Squadron’s Lancasters from Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, when he first came face-to-face with Hauptmann Rokker…literally!

Born on October 20th 1920 in Oldenburg, Heinz Rokker volunteered for the Luftwaffe in 1939, having just sat his German ‘A’ Levels, (Kriegsabitur), early because of the outbreak of war. Upon acceptance in to the Third Reich’s air arm, he immediately undertook officer and initial pilot training at the Luftkriegschule (Air Warfare School) at Berlin-Gatow before being posted to Magdeburg to complete his training. Following night-fighter conversion at the Nachtjagdschule (Night-fighter School), at Neubiberg-Ingolstadt, he was posted to 1/NJG 2  in Sicily, scoring his first 4 night kills over North Africa.

In August 1941 the Squadron was sent to Brussels-Melsbroek for a rest, during which he undertook two long night flights over England, before transferring back to Sicily in January 1943 where he added a further kill to his mounting tally. July 1943 saw Rokker’s night-fighter squadron posted back to Germany as part of the Reich’s air defence umbrella around Kassel-Rothwesten and after the June 6th Allied Invasion of Normandy was posted to Chateaudun. In early 1944 Rokker was promoted to Hauptmann and made a Staffelkapitan, (Squadron Leader), and was now flying from the Rotenburg/Twente/Kassel-Rothwesten sector once again when scrambled against Thomas Harvell’s second incoming Lancaster raid on Stuttgart of the week.

Flying his radar-equipped Junkers Ju88 with its twin cannons mounted on top of the fuselage, known as Schrage-musik (slanting music) Rokker, who was to amass 64 kills before war’s end, lay in wait for the RAF ‘blind bomber’ formations and having already shot down one Lancaster that night, finally pounced as Mr Harvell’s aircraft flew wide of the bomber stream, his navigator having locked onto the British aircraft’s H2S radar waves.

Rokker flew under Harvell’s lone aircraft and using a ‘pull-down’ visor which magnified the target, let loose his Schrage-musik cannons, firing up at the underside of the Lancaster into the bomber’s port inner engine. For reasons that Thomas Harvell still cannot not fathom, pilot Flt Lt Jones continued to fly straight & level, taking no evasive action whatsoever.

One 39 Allied aircraft shot down in that single, the German ace could not believe his luck and having circled around to watch the bomber continuing in its level flight, swung back in on the starboard side and raked the Lancaster with heavy nose-canon fire… this time the doomed heavy four-engined aircraft blew up in the night-sky over Neufchateau.

Thrown clear of the exploding Lancaster as cannon fire hit its fuel tanks and rescued by a local Frenchman after a hair-raising parachute landing, Mr Harvell found his way into the hands of the Resistance. After several aborted attempts to reach Allied lines, he opted to stay and help the French underground in their clandestine war against the Germans. During a 6 week period he fought alongside the Maquis, helping to liberate the town of Pierrefontaine in 1944, before being ‘liberated’ himself by advancing American Forces.

Eventually making his way back to Britain, via Italy, in November 1944, Mr Harvell rejoined his squadron, but was told that downed air-crew fighting with the Resistance was deemed to be against the terms of the Geneva Convention. He would therefore no longer be able to fly on ‘Ops’ and was assigned to aircrew  training until the end of the war, returning to ‘civvy street’ in 1947.

Back in Germany, Hauptmann Rokker as a night-fighter pilot, amassing a further 59 kills with the ’Wilde Sau-Zahme Sau’ Geschwader, (Savage Hog-Tame Hog Squadron), from his final air-base in Schleswig. His war-time medals included a Black Wound badge on July 14th 1942, the Iron Cross 1st Class on August 14th 1942, the Knight’s Cross from the hands of Adolf Hitler on July 27th 1944 and the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross on March 12th 1945 from Head of the Luftwaffe, Herman Goering.

At war’s end Heinz Rokker was briefly interned by the Allies and on his release in late 1945 qualified as a teacher, retiring from his post as a deputy head-teacher of a primary school in his native Germany in 1982.

Meanwhile the ‘Aviateur Anglais’ Thomas Harvell is a regular guest of his war-time Resistance comrades in the beautiful French town of Neufchateau…

But how did they feel coming face-to-face after their deadly duel in the night skies of Europe so many years before? Mr Harvell explained: “Heinz was very proud to be an ace and before meeting me, he’d been a guest at the RAF’s Air Gunners Association where he met a Halifax rear gunner and a Mosquito pilot he’d shot down and both were very surprised to meet the German pilot who’d been their Nemesis.

But when I met him, it was as if we’d known each other all of our lives, though it had been so personal back then as he was actually trying to kill me..!  As an ace he had obviously been a ruthless man and though he later became a quiet primary school teacher, whenever he talks about his wartime exploits you can see that old streak of ruthlessness emerge once again..! 

As for meeting Heinz in person, it was very emotional and as we are both tall men his first words to me were that we were ‘both a matching pair’’… furthermore he could certainly well remember that night, telling me that he had to give us two bursts to despatch us as we continued to fly straight and level”

Today the two adversaries are friends, their deadly duel but a distant memory and whilst Heinz Rokker lives in peaceful retirement in Germany, still with his Knights Cross with Oakleaves on display at his home, Thomas Harvell is home in Hampshire, a hero of the French Resistance… with both medal and citation to prove it..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013