Monday, July 15, 2013

Veteran interview - Fritz Bartelmann

In 2003 Noah Tietze and I interviewed a German veteran named Fritz Bartelmann at his home in Worcester, Massachusetts. Mr. Bartelmann had served in the Panzer branch of the Heer in 1940-45 and had been flown out of the encirclement at Stalingrad. An article he wrote, "Besieged Outside Stalingrad," was published in the Winter 2003 issue of Military History Quarterly. I tape-recorded the interview and made a transcript of it that was published a little bit at a time in our reenactment unit newsletter. I have often thought back on some of the things he said, his memory of those long-ago days was still clear. Fritz Bartelmann died in May 2011 at his home at the age of 90.

Interview with Fritz Bartelmann, by Noah Tietze and Chris Pittman

Q: What kind of stuff did you do in the Hitler Jugend? What was it like?

A: Well, this was basically education of the idea of the new German philosophy of government. Also we were having pre-military physical training. Learning how to march, and visiting military units to see what they were doing and how they were doing it.

Q: Did you have to buy all your own stuff you used while you were in the Hitler Jugend, like your field equipment and your uniform?

A: We had to buy it all ourselves, yes.

Q: Where did you buy that stuff?

A: At some clothing stores. There were about 80 million Germans, and how many were joining these organizations? So those uniforms were readily available.

Q: Do you remember what songs you used to sing when you were in the Hitler Jugend?

A: Yeah, we would sing these German folk songs. They were very popular anyway. And also, to be proud of your heritage.

Q: When you visited the military units while in the HJ, what kind of units were you visiting?

A: Well before I could join the Panzers, I had to have basic military training as Infanterie. So I was sent to the Infanterie for 3 months.

Q: Do you remember what unit it was?

A: I don't remember the exact name but it was in the town of Lueneburg. A beautiful town, very old.

Q: So how old were you when you entered?

A: I was 19 years old when I joined.

Q: When you enlisted, where did they send you?

A: Lueneburg. That was in Infanterie, basic training. Not that different from the American army.

Q: Report to kaserne...

A: Yeah, that was in the kaserne. In the morning, mostly doing the exercise field, getting used to Infanterie warfare.

Q: What kind of weapons did they train you on?

A: We were trained on the Karabiner, a German rifle.

Q: What else?

A: Pistols, maschinegewehr. What they call the Luger now, and machine gun, I don't know the model number, because, who cares?

Q: What was a typical day like in your training?

A: You have to get up early, 6 o'clock I think. After breakfast you get ready to march into the field. That was a march for maybe, at least 5 miles. And the company commander was riding on a horse, and he would explain to the drill sergeant what to do, then we went into how to behave in the field. During combat time.

Q: What was your drill sergeant like?

A: They were different. Some nice ones, some bad ones. Mostly old soldiers which had been going through the same type of training as we were going through right now.

Q: What did you eat for breakfast, and for your meals while you were in basic training?

A: We had one meal at noontime that was prepared in the kitchen, in the company's kitchen. And it all depends on what is available at that time. Potatoes, meatballs and cabbage. That was a good meal. Or some other vegetable and meat. And there was one cold ration in the afternoon for the evening and the morning. That was mostly, we called it Kommissbrot. That bread, and a slice of butter and some salami or cheese.

Q: How was that Kommisbrot?

A: The bread is... We eat it now! It was good for you. Rye bread, whole rye.

Q: What was the Kaserne like on the inside? What did it look like?

A: The buildings were three story buildings, and we had rooms on every floor and bathrooms on the same floor.

Q: Were you arranged by Stube?

A: Yes. At that time we had probably up to 18 guys in one room.

Q: Were you allowed to put posters and things like that on the walls? What did the rooms look like?

A: Well the room was very simple. In the rooms there were no posters. Just wallpaper, and just beds. Bunk beds. And a Spind, they called it.

Q: So you had three months infantry training?

A: Three months infantry training, yeah. Then we were transferred to the reserve in Molochin (?), not far away from Berlin.

Q: When you were in your training, even when you were being trained as Infanterie, did you know that eventually you would be in the Panzer forces?

A: Yes, because I signed up, I volunteered for the Panzer forces. So when I was going, they told me that of course I would have to have basic Infanterie training.

Q: In training did you wear the black Panzer uniform as your dress uniform?

A: No you had the field gray Army uniform. Feldgrau.

Q: What was it like the first time you were able to go out into Lueneburg wearing your uniform?

A: It was something, something to be proud of. Looking right, sharp looking.

Q: What did your family think about this?

A: Well, my father was a soldier when he was younger and he knew all about the military. At that time it was war for almost a year now. Everybody had to go. It was not a big deal.

Q: Where did you go when you had time off during your training? Did you have like a 24-hour pass?

A: You didn't need any pass. You could just go wherever you want in the town where you are stationed, mostly you would go out, and there were some restaurants and beer joints where you could go, and you had to be back by 10 o'clock at night.

Q: For Zapfenstreich?

A: Yeah, one minute over, and you get three days arrest!

Q: When you got sent to that place near Berlin where you were going to be trained on the tanks...

A: We were trained, yes, on the tanks.

Q: What was that like?

A: Well, it's like driving a car. It was a little bit different because it's on tracks. Probably a small tank for the first one. The turret was taken off. Basic.

Q: You were a driver?

A: Yeah.

Q: How did that come to be? Were you looking to become a driver?

A: No it was because I was trained already before the war. Obviously they could use me as a driver.

Q: How long was your Panzer training?

A: Again, three months. We learned all about it. First you got the driver's license, then you were assigned to a crew.

Q: You knew every man on your crew even when you were in training?

A: Well we did not have a tank ourselves, there were three units assigned to a tank.

Q: Did the people you trained with in your panzer training become your crew later on in the war?

A: No, we were split up. I was sent out to occupation forces in France. There I started completely new.

Q: So you didn't necessarily train with the people you eventually served with.

A: No, I wasn't, no. Start completely new. Then you got assigned to a tank, then you got a crew.

Q: What were your occupation duties in France like?

A: We had French tanks taken from the French military and we trained on these French tanks. And as a driver assigned to that tank, you had to take care of it. Technically wise. And you have the crew, the crew is used not to help you but to maintain their own duties. The driver was responsible for the mechanics of the tank. The others had their duties. The gunner, the commander, the communications... They all had their separate duties.

Q: You had a weapon? A K-98?

A: The driver had a pistol, the crew had a pistol.

Q: When was it that you were in France?

A: 1941

Q: How did the French people treat you?

A: They were nice people. They had endured almost 2 years of occupation anyways at the time that I went there. But there were some German military personnel who were pushed under the subway while they were waiting at the station. And when the subway was coming, they just pushed some German soldiers or some German female military helpers. That was not very often because the Germans retaliated by taking hostages and killing them. For each German killed, 10 French. So that was not very often done anyways.

Q: When did you get to start wearing the black Panzer uniform?

A: After basic training.

Q: It must have been a proud day for you.

A: Yeah, it was alright.

Q: How long were you in France?

A: Probably about a year.

At this point Mr. Bartelmann brought out a photo album from the war. The first photo was of a Kamerad in a black uniform wearing a Panzer beret.

Q: Is that you?

A: No, that is a Kamerad.

Q: Did you take that picture?

A: That one I took myself, yes.

Q: He's wearing a panzer beret.

A: Yeah that is upholstered on the inside, to have some protection for your head.

Q: When was that picture taken?

A: That was 1942. (The hat) really was very often used only when you were in the tank.

Q: You had one of those hats?

A: Yeah.

(Moving on to the next photo, of panzer troops in sidecaps)

A: This was the Kompanie here. We would be wearing these hats normally. That other one was only used in the tank.

Q: The Schiffchen, you called those hats?

A: Yes, that was Schiffchen.

Q: What did you call that thing (the beret)?

A: I don't remember! (laughs)

Mr. Bartelmann showed us some items he kept from the war, including the War Merit Cross with Swords, second class.

Q: What did you do to get this?

A: I don't remember. It was not a big deal. You did a good job in wartime, in combat, and you would mostly get this a year after the incident when it happened!

Q: Did you get any other medals?

A: Just the Panzersturmabzeichen. For combat. Here is the Krim shield, for combat on the Crimea. It was a very very hard battle to get the Russians off the Crimea. And Hitler ordered this for the participants in this battle. It was worn here (points to the sleeve), on the left side here.

Q: Was this something you were awarded?

A: Yes, this is my own personal one.

Q: How was it that you were able to prevent souvenir people from stealing these items from you at the end of the war?

A: I didn't have any contact with them at that time. That's another story. I was in between the Russians and the Americans, 1945. South of Poland, not too far away from Berlin. Suddenly we saw American tanks in the town. They were tied up in the town, I don't know what they were doing. Some spectators were out looking at them. And our commander said to us, I have talked with the American commander, and he told us just to keep our weapons and go march west. They are going with the Germans together against the Russians. And I was responsible at that time, I was an Unteroffizier responsible for the vehicles of a brigade. It was a special brigade which had officer cadets used as special units to hunt Russian tanks. And I was responsible for the vehicles of that brigade, so I was very close to that commander because I had to report every day to him, about whatever was technically related to the brigade.

Q: Do you remember the name of that brigade?

A: Panzerbrigade Marine. And so I was in contact with him every day. So we confirmed and talked about the American tanks with him, and he told us that this would happen, that the Americans were going together with us. And as we were going west, the streets were very clogged with military and refugees coming from the East, away from the Russians. Suddenly we found ourselves behind the Russian lines, because the Americans had retreated to their lines and we were overtaken. And we made it out of Russian hands. We made it, three days and three nights it took us to get away from the Russians, to the American lines again.

Q: Still in vehicles? Or on foot?

A: Both of them. Vehicles as long as we could find streets to go on, and when this was not possible any more, we would go into the fields looking for the American lines. And the Americans collected prisoners, they just made them assemble in a big field as well. They just said, you go there and stay there, that's all. And the story went I was home in my home town June 5th. Actually driven a block away from my Father's house! That's how I came home from the war.

Q: Were you dropped off in an American truck?

A: British actually. We were transferred from the Americans to the British.

Q: Was your captivity fair, would you say?

A: Yeah, but not much to eat there.

Q: So going back in time to when you were in France... When did you get told that your time doing occupation duty was over, and that you would be sent to the Eastern Front?

A: Yes, we were, we got new equipment. German equipment. The French tanks were old, and French! (laughs) We got new equipment, trained on those. I got a driver's license, and a license to teach driving German tanks. And then we were trained a short time with those German tanks, and then sent to Russia.

Q: Where were you trained?

A: France.

Q: What model Panzer?

A: Three and four. If you can drive a two you can drive a three, and if you can drive a three you can drive a four. All the others, the next one, the Panther you need an extra license, train for that.

Q: So you knew by this time the crew that you would be going into Russia with?

A: Yeah.

Q: What did you think of the commander?

A: Well he was young, I knew him from France.

Q: When you got sent to Russia, you were put on trains?

A: Yeah. The tanks were put on the open wagons and the people, just like the railroad, on carriages. Sure.

Q: Was this 1942?

A: It was 1942.

Q: What month?

A: I don't know, it was early spring. No more snow.

Q: Were you encountering while in France much Allied air activity?

A: It was only, the Renault automobile factory was bombarded.

Q: How long did it take to get to Russia from France?

A: Two weeks.

Q: What was it like being on the train?

A: Well we had our own food. It was not much different than living in the Kaserne, except in a compartment. We had stops, we would sleep, really it was congested. And the Russians had a different track size than the Germans, so we had a conversion, unloaded.

Q: How did you feel knowing that you were going into Russia and might be going into combat? Frightened or excited...?

A: Well, we didn't have fright. Excited, waiting to do something, no scariness, everyone just waiting to do your thing! As a soldier, you were used to orders and what's coming, is coming. Hitler was the leader, we owed allegiance to him. We were loyal. Our military owed allegiance to the Fuehrer! We were morally bound to our commander and duty. What he said, that's what's going to be going.

Q: Did you ever hear Hitler make speeches on the radio?

A: Yeah every day. Everyone was excited. He was a good speaker.

Q: Did you know what part of Russia you were going to, or where you were going?

A: Yeah, we were going to the Crimea. Sevastopol (?), there we were unloaded.

Q: Do you remember any of the names of the songs you used to sing with the Wehrmacht in Russia?

A: The same what we had before, we didn't have any special songs against the Russians.

Q: Did you sing the Panzerlied?

A: Yeah, that one we were singing to.

Q: Did you have a particular favorite?

A: Not really. In basic training we would sing all the time. So you don't find this necessary to be a better soldier by singing songs! For me, at least. What we have to do, we have to do, and you don't have to be excited, to sing some songs.

Q: Do you remember the first time you went into combat? What was that like?

A: It was exciting, but there was no... I wasn't scared. The training had prepared us for this. We felt technically superior, with all our equipment, to the Russians.

Q: Did you come to a time when you felt that some of the advances the Russians made with their T-34 tanks suddenly presented a challenge to the German panzers?

A: The T-34 was probably the only one which we considered equivalent to us.

Q: When you first went into combat on the Crimea, what were you doing? Armored attacks, helping the infantry, or...?

A: First we had to establish the front lines for our whole unit. And we had to get through this and liberate the peninsula. The eastern side of the Crimea. And then we had to break through and go into a tank battle.

Q: Did your tank ever score any hits on any Russian tanks?

A: I don't remember.

Q: Anti-tank guns?

A: No, I don't... you don't see this directly.

Q: What were your rations like?

A: It depends where you were. In combat you would get better than if you were in the reserve. Normally, at least that bread. Most of the time, three guys to a bread. When you were in combat, we always had rations. Except when we were on the Don, there we had to use rations from the Russian population, the peasants.

Q: What kind of meals did you eat that came out of the field kitchen?

A: It was vegetables and meat, some kind of stew. One day it was barley with beef, the next day, beef with barley! (laughs)

Q: Was that typically a nighttime meal?

A: No, that was at noontime. At nighttime you got extra rations, you got no hot meal at night, that was only once a day. At night we got the rations that had to be sufficient for that night and for the next morning, until at noontime we would get food again.

Q: When you were setting up a position at night with the tank, would food be brought up to your crew?

A: No you have enough food with you until you get supplied again. Like, you had to have gasoline, or whatever. Munitions, and food too. You don't get any warm food when you're in combat.

Q: Do you remember drinking ersatz coffee?

A: We drank that our whole lives.

Q: What did that taste like?

A: The flavor? Like coffee, except with the smell of the beans. But, I don't drink any coffee now either! Nothing special. I was drinking ersatz coffee from childhood on.

Q: What was that stuff made of?

A: It was made from barley.

Q: Do you remember vitamin sausages?

A: We didn't even know what vitamins were! In that time, I don't remember anything about vitamins. Never heard of them!

Q: What about energy pills, stuff like that to keep you awake?

A: No, we never had that. We had an emergency ration of chocolate with kola, Scho-ka-kola. Just for emergencies, we couldn't touch it otherwise.

Q: How long were you in action in the Crimea?

A: It was only three weeks, and it was done. And we were sent into some other battle in Russia. Sent back into the south of Russia.

Q: Why did you get moved? Did they tell you?

A: Well, the job was finished. The Crimea was completely free of Russians, and they didn't need any tanks anymore, because this can be done by infantry.

Q: So this was in 1942?

A: Yeah.

Q: What regiment of the 22. Panzer-Division were you in?

A: I don't remember.

Q: So after that you were sent to southern Russia? Where exactly were you sent?

A: Southern Russia, near the big bow of the Don River.

Q: What was the scenery like in Russia?

A: Big fields. Big fields, with sunflowers.

Q: What were the Russian civilians like?

A: They were nice to me; they were friendly to us.

Q: What rank were you at this time?

A: Private, First Class. A Gefreiter.

Q: Had you ever been an Oberschutze?

A: Oberschutze, yeah. After you finish your basic training, you get your star for Oberschutze.

Q: How long were you an Oberschutze for?

A: It was probably, because I was two times in basic training it was probably half a year.

Q: When you graduated from Panzer training, you became a Gefreiter? When you were in France, you were already a Gefreiter?

A: Yeah. In France, yeah.

Q: So when you were near the Don, were you getting ready to go to Stalingrad?

A: In the late fall we were stationed, because the front was moving, we were stationed near the Crimea, preparing for the winter. That was near Stalingrad, yeah.

Q: How close to the city did you get?

A: I couldn't tell you exact miles. We were discussing this with the editor of the magazine [Mr. Bartelmann had written an article for Military History Quarterly about his Stalingrad experience] and he sent me some maps, and I figured out the position where I was last and it couldn't have been too far away from Stalingrad. I don't know how much directly, but it couldn't have been too much directly.

Q: What were you doing at that time? What was your day-to-day life like in fall 1942?

A: Just take care of your equipment, and... well, it was to take care of your equipment! The tank.

Q: Were you near the front lines?

A: No, not so near that we could hear anything or see anything because we were kept in reserve.

Q: Was the idea of a Russian encirclement even a possibility?

A: Well, we didn't think about this. Mostly we weren't thinking about these political things anyway, because as a soldier you have to do your duty, that's all.

Q: How were you armed when you were asked to take out Russian bunkers in Stalingrad?

A: I was using just a pistol! I was not in contact at that time, we got encircled. As a tank crew you don't have any Karabiner, you just use pistols. [Mr. Bartelmann was fighting as infantry at this time.]

Q: Did you carry a Brotbeutel with you? What did you keep in that bag?

A: Yeah. When you are on the outside [of the tank] you wear it on your side and inside you have it somewhere stowed in the tank. Some bread, and... whatever they gave you.

Q: Did you carry your personal items, like your shaving kit, in that bag?

A: Yeah, we had that too, in the same bag.

Q: Shoe polish?

A: I don't remember any shoe polish. When you are in combat, you don't think about polishing your shoes!

Q: The article you wrote ends with you being evacuated from Stalingrad...

A: Yeah, I was flown out west, to Charkov. That was the last town; I was let out of the plane, and came out of the encirclement.

Q: Did you carry your Soldbuch with you all the time? What other kinds of documents did you carry?

A: Yeah. That's all you need, the Soldbuch.

Q: Who made entries in it?

A: That was filled out when you joined the military. Only when you get promoted, was when they would write in it.

Q: Were you an Unteroffizier in Stalingrad?

A: No, I wasn't. After I was finished with training tank drivers, I was promoted to Unteroffizier.

Q: Was that all you did for the rest of the war? Train tank drivers in Germany?

A: No, I was in different units, that I don't remember anymore.

Q: Did you go into combat again?

A: Yes, with Panzerbrigade Marine.

Q: Still fighting against the Russians?

A: No, I was only on the Eastern front. I was never fighting the western allies.

Q: Did you have any contact with Russian tankers?

A: I had very little contact. We considered their equipment inferior. We considered the whole Russian military inferior! Only because they had more, bigger... that's the only reason. We never had any inferior feeling against the Russians.

Q: Did you have a gas mask in your tank?

A: Yeah. Inside.

Q: You carried it when you were marching? You carried the gas mask in the container?

A: Yeah.

Q: I heard that some people removed the mask from the container and put other stuff in there.

A: I don't know, I never did that because you needed it!

Q: How often did you receive Feldpost?

A: It depends on how often they write to you!

Q: Was writing letters something that was important to you?

A: I don't remember ever writing anything. Another thing, I don't think we would write about political events or military events.

Q: Did you have anything to read?

A: We had our hands full doing the equipment and other duties.

Q: Did you play cards?

A: Cards, yes, everybody had cards. That's the only thing to do, when you don't have anything else to do.

Q: Did you play skat?

A: I didn't play it. I only played canasta.

Q: How often did you receive new uniforms and equipment when the old stuff wore out?

A: Well it depends on the time, where you were, and how much supply was available.

Q: How many uniforms did you have at a time?

A: Just one uniform.

[At this point Mrs. Bartelmann came into the room and started telling us about life in Germany during the Third Reich, and the subject of the Holocaust comes up.]

Q: What do you think about this Fritz?

A: Well, I have heard about concentration camps before I was in the Army. There was a friend of the family who came to our house and was talking about concentration camps. He told us about this concentration camp he was assigned to as an SS man. There was never talk about Jewish being burned, or... He was a friend of the family, he would have said something! If they were burning, gassing people.

Q: How did you apply camouflage paint to your tank?

A: There were different paints. They were painted different colors when we came to different areas.

Q: Did the tank crew apply the paint themselves?

A: No there was a crew for that. A crew from the Werkstatt, that was the place where they did the major repairs. We had a repair crew for every Kompanie following us for if something happened, and then the next higher up was the Werkstatt where the big repairs are done.

Q: What were Christmas celebrations like during the war? Do you remember Christmas 1942?

A: Yeah, we were sitting in a ditch because the Russians were trying to overrun us. I was sitting in the Schuetzengraben, sitting next to a Kamerad who was cleaning his rifle, and he shot himself by mistake in the nose. And then the last one, I remember, in the garage we had set up a big table and everybody got a dish with cookies and this and that for Christmas, and we had something to drink, and I was sitting next to the Lieutenant and on the other side, another one, and the Lieutenant kept drinking and drinking, and the Kamerad to my left was pushing him slowly over the table, and he took his streusel and ate it!

Q: Did you ever get lice?

A: Oh, lice! We were in Russia and we were sleeping outside under the tank or in the tank for 6 months in the summertime, but then it was getting cold and we had to sleep in the Russian houses. And yeah, we got lice.

Q: What did you do to get rid of them?

A: We had powder, a special kind. We were using lice powder against this. We were encircled by the Russians and the first flight by plane into the encirclement was a plane load full of lice powder.

Q: How often did you have to clean your weapon? Your pistol, in your case?

A: They would put you in jail if you cleaned it once a month. You had to clean it every day. I will give you a story on that one. I was in Unteroffiziers Lehrgang and we were shooting with the rifle and cleaned the rifle at night, and the next morning was inspection. And I cleaned it thoroughly, cleaned it and cleaned it until the last dry thing, whatever it was, and now it was clean. So the next inspection is tomorrow morning and they are coming for the inspection, and he looks, "Oh, four flakes!" and they almost threw me out of that special Lehrgang! I almost had to forfeit being promoted! I said, "It was clean last night, overnight this is sitting out, they are small dust flakes from remnants of the powder, the gunpowder." So you had to clean them very thoroughly every day at least before you go to bed, and before you go out for inspection in the morning you had to clean it again. 

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