Recollections of an Old Soldier: Herr Günter Halm (Part one)

Scorching heat, isolated 2km ahead of the German line, one AT gun and its crew, and the enemy are everywhere. This is the incredible story of Herr Günter Halm.

In this series of posts I’m going to tell the story of Herr Günter Halm, a German soldier who fought in both Africa and Europe during the Second World War. His fascinating tail of suffering, endurance and bravery was an inspiration, and I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to be in the presence of such a man. Moreover, it was interesting to hear from the German perspective and it really brought home to me that no matter for what side one fought, the experiences were largely the same; fear, misery, loss,  and mental and physical pain.

Chapter One

On the 7th August 1942, Günter Halm became the Afrika Corps’ youngest ever recipient of the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest honour for bravery in battle. I was lucky enough to hear his story in person and it was an experience that I will never forget.

Günter enlisted into the Wehrmacht in 1941 at the age of 18. He completed his basic training and specialised as a ‘tank hunter’ after being inspired by his cousin who had excelled in the role during the Battle of France.

He was posted to North Africa in 1942 where he was destined to become a driver, but Günter had other plans. After volunteering for combat duties he was posted to the 104th Panzergrenadier-Regiment of the famous 21st Panzer Division as an anti-tank gunner.

Günter couldn’t have entered a combat unit at a more trying and dangerous time. The British had retreated to a line a few miles West of Tobruk after suffering an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Erwin Rommel; The Desert Fox. The Gazala line as it was known stretched from the Mediterranean in the north to the sand sea in the south and was thought by the British high command to be impenetrable. Not so. Rommel discovered that the British southern flank was in the air (not anchored to a strong point) and true to form he sent his armour south and simply bypassed it while pinning the Brits in position with a heavy artillery barrage further north.

Rommel with staff 2
Erwin Rommel, The Desert Fox with some of his staff in North Africa

It was at the southern-most flank of the German advance that Günter received his baptism of fire. Posted 2km ahead of the German lines, he and his crew of four perched over their 76mm anti-tank gun scanning the desert for signs of the enemy. In this position they were totally isolated, without a radio they were unable to contact the second gun in their platoon let alone the main German line.

Just imagine, this was a fluid war, British and German units would often become intertwined and surprise one another leading to ferocious engagement. Günter’s unit was at the forefront of this and was about to find out just how vulnerable he and his men were.

Scanning the dunes to the West in the direction of the German lines Günter saw a dust cloud which signalled the approach of a vehicle. At this point it could well have been an enemy patrol, but to his relief Günter finally managed to perceive a German staff car. To the astonishment of the five anti-tank gunners the man who exited the car was non-other than Erwin Rommel. He had come to inform them that there was a small formation of British tanks heading in their direction and that they had to be stopped. In utter disbelief the men watched as Rommel returned to his car and drove 100m in the direction of the enemy in an effort to observe them. Returning he informed them that there were 14 tanks approaching and that they were to be repulsed at all costs. Bidding them good luck he retired 100m to watch the engagement.

Nordafrika, Rommel im Befehlsfahrzeug "Greif"
Rommel advancing in his Sd.Kfz. 250 armoured half-track staff vehicle

You may expect the approach of 14 tanks to break the nerve of Günter and his men; after all, they only had one gun! But no, with the eagerness of youth and the confidence in their training they relished the opportunity to prove themselves against their foe, inspired by the presence of their beloved commander.

After a wait of seconds but which must have felt like an age, the British armour appeared over the dunes to the East. The men got to work, loading, firing, loading, firing. The first two shots were long and still the enemy roared on. Realising that at this rate they would wind up dead or prisoners Günter took control. Aiming the gun himself the crew found its rhythm; Fire, reload, fire, hit! Suddenly the lead tank erupted in flames, followed by a second. To his amazement Günter looked on as the enemy disappeared back behind the dunes. Victory!

Seconds after the engagements conclusion, Rommel reappeared and congratulated the men on a job well Günter was promoted to Gefreiter (Corporal) and later awarded the Iron Cross Second Class. His first experience of combat was a success, but more trails lay ahead in a War that would last a further three years.

Nordafrika, zerstˆrte britische Panzer
A German soldier inspects an abandoned British Valentine tank

It’s worth mentioning that throughout the talk Günter regularly mentioned how the extreme desert conditions affected him and the men he served with. During the day the temperature could reach 40 degrees centigrade and fall below zero at night. Flies, lice and giant dust storms plagued their existence in an environment where shade was scarce and the enemy were never far away. It was a battle against the desert as well as the armour of the British Army.

P1050847
Gunter braved the mud ‘to pass his lessons on to the younger generation.’ A kind, honest and incredibly humble man, it was an honour to meet him.

View CHAPTER TWO

View CHAPTER THREE (coming soon)

 

 

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