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

The concluding part to Günter’s Second World War experiences which have so far seen him battle British Tanks in Africa and receive the Knight’s Cross for bravery. But now he finds himself in France, facing the might of the Allied invasion.

View CHAPTER ONE

View CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

After months spent in various hospitals throughout occupied Europe Günter finally found himself back home in Germany. Fully recovered, he was enrolled on an officer training course in Berlin which he completed and left a Lieutenant in early 1944. Not one to shirk what he considered to be his duty he immediately requested to be transferred into an active service unit in his beloved 21 Panzer Division.

At this time the Division was in France awaiting the expected allied invasion, though at this time it was not known where the landings would take place. Between his posting to the Division and June he was a staff officer where he frequently acted as a runner, passing messages to and from headquarters.

Weymouth
Marching to War; US soldiers march through Weymouth en route to board landing ships for the invasion of France

The role that Günter played during the allied invasion of Europe was very regrettably left out of the talk as time was very short. The battles around Normandy on and after 6th June 1944 were ferocious and brutal in their intensity. Allied forces trying to move in land made very slow progress, fighting the dug in German defenders who waited behind every hedgerow. This often led to terrifying hand to hand combat with units becoming cut off from one another in the confusion. This close quarters combat was the polar opposite of what Günter had experienced in Africa where the fighting took place on vast open desserts where one could see for hundreds of miles.

Normandie, Fallschirmj‰ger mit MG 42
A German machine gun crew wait in a hedgerow to ambush an Allied patrol

After three months of relentless fighting the success of the Allied invasion was clear and the German position in France became less and less tenable with each passing day. The British and Canadians in the North had secured their beachheads and were pushing the Germans inland to a town called Falaise, about 30 miles south of Caen. To the South and East the American 3rd and 1st Armies pressed the Germans from the West. By early August the allies had hemmed the Germans in around Falaise which prevented them from reaching the safety of the German border to the East. There were breakout attempts that met with varying degrees of success but on the whole, the fate of thousands of Germans trapped inside the Falaise pocket was sealed.

map

With an entire German army encircled the allies were free to unleash their full military might to destroy their enemy in detail. Relentless airstrikes, probing armoured and infantry attacks and devastatingly accurate artillery strikes brought death and destruction upon the helpless German defenders on an almost unprecedented scale. The area in which the pocket had formed was unrecognisable. Entire villages had been destroyed and derelict equipment laid scattered everywhere. But what horrified the approaching Allied soldiers the most was what lay sprawled all around them; the corpses of soldiers and civilians which littered the area along with thousands of dead cattle and horses. Some accounts tell how it was impossible to take a step without standing on a body and pilots were reported to be able to smell the stench of the battlefield 100s of feet above. Commander in Chief of all allied forces in Europe, General Dwight D Eisenhower commented:

“The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest “killing fields” of any of the war areas. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.”

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General Eisenhower inspecting a damaged tank in the Falaise Pocket

The ‘Battle’ of Falaise was a decisive and crushing defeat for the Germans, who suffered up to 60,000 casualties. Günter found himself caught up in this terrible place where he was captured by advancing Allied forces. Again, due to the lack of time he was not able to talk about his experiences of the Falaise pocket, but suffice to say they are not something he is likely to want to recall.

This is where Günter’s Military career ends. After spending some time in POW camps in France and England he was shipped to a camp in the USA on board a transport which to his astonishment carried civilian tourists! Towards the end of the talk I switched on my recorder and I would like to share some words from the man himself;

‘We treated the wounded enemy as [our] friend. A most memorable experience was on the ship which brought [me] from Liverpool to New York as a prisoner. There were 200 POWs on board, as well as tourists. [We] were allowed two hours on deck each day. A German Colonel told [me] that an English captain wished to speak to [me], he was in Africa. While talking with the Englishman [we] realised that he was in command of one of the tanks [I] had destroyed on the 21st June. The Englishman lost his foot. When [we] had finished talking [we] shook hands, and [I] said to him “Comrade, it was a pity that we were born in different Fatherlands.”’

‘What [I] learnt during the war was that wars are waged by a few people who do not know each other, soldiers are just tools. We didn’t know our enemy, the human beings on the other side. We only fought to survive; it was either him or me. But after the war we turned human again, we had wives and children, with all our hopes and all our fears.’

‘One more thing. All soldiers, no matter what side, fought for their Fatherlands. We shared the same fears, the same misery, but also the same glory. And that is why we soldiers became friends immediately after the war, we shook hands, because we knew that we shared the same experiences.’

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Surrendering German soldiers in the Falaise Pocket
German prisoners
German POWs being served tea

Although he doesn’t speak English and his words were translated, the emotional connection between himself and the audience was tangible, and I’m not afraid to admit that I found the experience deeply moving and something which I will never forget. He was and is a great man, and exemplifies the traits of a brave, honourable and extremely kind and sensitive person. His motivation to travel the continent and preach to the younger generations the horrors that he experienced in order to try to prevent it ever happening again is inspirational. Finding him struggling through the mud in the arms of his with and translator after the talk, my Brother and I were honoured to approach him and shake his hand in and expression of our appreciation and thanks.

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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.

 

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