Joseph ‘Joop’ Klein [Josef ‘Jupp’ Klein] interview by James Holland @James1940 on Twitter
I was born in Bochum, Wattenscheid and my parents came from the Moselle area. My father worked in a coal mine in the Saar area. He was a manager. Then he went to the Ruhr area to another coal mine and so I was born there in 1921. My father had wounds from the First World War and he died when I was 8. We went back to the Moselle area where we had a lot of family. I had one brother and 2 sisters all older than me. I learnt to be a carpenter and furniture maker and we had 2 factories there.
When I was 18, the war broke out. I volunteered for the paratroopers but they didn’t take me because I had a flying licence and they said I must go to the Luftwaffe. I was in the Hitler Youth and I was very fond of flying and I got my licence in the Hitler Youth. Started on gliders and progressed. When I was old enough I was taken into the flying corps which was part of Hitler Youth. I wasn’t interested in the party; I was interested in flying! So I got my licence and was sent to the Luftwaffe. But I wasn’t happy there. I was in Ghent and Calais and our machines were being used to rescue pilots who were shot down in the channel. It wasn’t bombers and fighter pilots; it was only for rescuing and I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Then I volunteered for the paratroopers. I was here in Brunswick at Paraschool 3.
This was in late 1941; September/October I think. Then I passed the training to become a fallschirmjager. Because I had been a carpenter, they ordered me to the Engineers. I went to ? near Stendal and was a paratrooper/Engineer and I liked it very much. We trained for the jumps at Wittstock (?). You are trained highly and you don’t think of anything else; you are trained to go out as fast as possible.
So I didn’t think about being nervous. Altogether I did about 200 jumps. When you’re young, you think you’re indestructible. The commander ? wanted to take the whole company to Africa and I wanted to go with him and I asked him and he said he couldn’t do anything; I’d have to talk to my captain. The captain said to me I had to be an instructor and I said I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to fight the enemy. He told me I’d see the enemy sooner than I would think. My comrades went and I was alone there. I was very unhappy about this. I went into the paratroopers to be a fighter, not an instructor. Then suddenly, the new director of recruits – this was the battle before Moscow – and suddenly we went to Russia.
It was the 1st Paratroop Division; the 7th flieger division. It was very, very hard. The Russian war was much more difficult than all the others. There were thousands of men coming at you at once and you had to shoot them of course. It was terrible and a deep shock. This was my first time in action on the front line. I said to myself ‘If I had Stalin, Hitler, all the 4 in front of me, I’d shoot them.’ It was just terrible. There were trenches full of corpses. Out of our whole company only 20 were left; the rest wounded or killed. In the end, I came through with just one comrade. All my life I wonder why I came through that alive. I had so much luck, it was impossible. We hid in small foxholes. They all had shoulder mounted mortars that they shot at us; also heavier mortars. Our company went to take this hill and the paras came after to relieve us and we were supposed to leave but we couldn’t because no-one could get through, so we had to stay there for 2 days and 2 nights. All of our comrades killed until it was just the 2 of us. A company is 150. These 2 paras came and sat one on each side of me and I had a fast firing weapon like a machine pistol. It wasn’t normal army issue; I was testing it. A heavy mortar landed in the trench by us and I lost consciousness and when I came too, both paratroopers were (dead?). My gun was destroyed. Another time, I was in a foxhole with a comrade. It was ice below us and my hand gradually melted the ice and suddenly I realised that my hand was in the mouth of a corpse. You cannot imagine it.
The war in Italy was paradise compared to that. The Russians took no prisoners from the paratroopers; if they got one, they shot him.
A great many young men were keen to get to the front and fight and I am interested in why that was.
But afterwards, that was gone. It was only duty for your Fatherland and the comradeship for your comrades was the next one. The division, the company, the battalion, the regiment – it was a family and if anything was wrong, you all had to take it and that is the point; even the army. We had our code of honour; a corps spirit; great pride; everything that is ideal in a man comes together. The Air Force ??? and paratroopers were fighting men. You can’t say it is the same; it is totally different. I was very happy to be a paratrooper. It was very, very hard; at Cassino for instance.
How did you get out of Russia in the end?
The division was finished so we withdrew and I went to France (?)
Did you see much devastation as you withdrew?
Yes, of course, but it was war. It was also the second winter. New people came to the division. Because I was an instructor, my captain gave me a group, but I wasn’t an officer, I was a lance corporal. In France I did training to become a corporal and then we went from Normandy to the south of France and then we went to Sicily on 14 July. We jumped there. The British held the bridge but we took it from them. We wanted to destroy this very large bridge so the British couldn’t come over it. It was about 60m and steel construction. But the river was very small as it was summer time and there was a dam as well. Our commander died there. It was a stalemate situation. We destroyed some tanks. Montgomery ordered his people to another place on the island. Italy was totally another war. Then we went to Messina. British commandoes tried to land and take us but the day before at the coastline, there was a railway and then a street. On the railway the Italians had left all the things and gone home. We never saw a fighting Italian. We had a saying ?? they liked to look very fine, not to fight. I liked the country and I liked some Italians. I had friends there. We also had Italian paratroopers and they fought well. They were good at taking things but not to hold them and then we had to go after them and ……they didn’t have enough study ?? my English……I don’t use it any more, so……
You liked the Italians as people?
Yes; I liked the country; I liked the people. Look…..I was in Russia in the war. A lot of the people are very good. War changes a man completely; everybody. Not only us, the Germans, but the others too. I remember in Italy, we shot 2 armoured cars and the other 2 had to turn round and the street was too small and one went into the ditch and the other, we took the commander out and took it over. In Cassino it was very worth while because we could take our food and ammunition and everything in it. There wasn’t much shooting in Cassino. In ? near Foggia we shot them and the drivers were dead. They were 2 men vehicles and the commanders we took as prisoners. Afterwards we were sitting and we gave them wine and something to eat; the same as we had. They were in shock of course – you could see and suddenly one of them said “For heaven’s sake, you all have English faces!” and I said “What should we look like? Should we have horns?” and he was a teacher. I didn’t understand that. Of course we looked the same. Afterwards, I was a prisoner in Egypt and later on I went with the British army to Greece. I was there for a year and a half together with the British army. The people I met couldn’t believe I was a German! They said “You have the face of an Englishman!” I was young and I had blue eyes and blond hair. Mostly we had English clothes. In Catania ?????? a 42; 2,000 shots per minute. One group of us had 2 of these 42 machine guns. There was a begging for a ceasefire and of course they did it ???? in Russia, commissars, I could see and hear them. It was completely another war in Italy.
Did you question why Germany had gone into Russia in the first place?
I was young; 18/19. Hitler told us what to do and we did it. I accepted Russia. It was my first battle and you can’t imagine that thing happening. Thousands of men dead in an hour. There they were; men without heads; without legs; like packs of blue meat. You can’t imagine how a man can look like when he’s shot. War can’t be. I am very upset about this war in Iraq. Bush is a cowboy. He is stupid. Today I can’t even kill a fly; it’s alive and I can’t destroy a life any more.
War de-humanises you and changes you completely, as you said.
I’ve seen men in war, and afterwards they changed completely. They are very good comrades; do anything for you; give their life for you. In the middle of battle they are like something else; something so ….. at Cassino I shot a young British soldier and I see him today, it was over 60 years ago, but it’s like it’s today. I had to shoot him. I was looking in through a small window and suddenly he stood before me. He came from the side and stood there and we looked at each other and I had my machine pistol – Beretta. All the time in Italy, I had a Beretta, like a rifle. We looked at each other – it was like…….suddenly he went with his hand ????? I shot him and the next moment he was dead. He was a very, very young man – 18 or so. For me, it was a reflex. But he was inexperienced……
This was right at the end of your time at Cassino?
During the 4th battle.
By this time, were you an officer?
I was a lieutenant.
So did you get a commission in the field so to speak?
Yes; in the German army it is possible to become an officer; to volunteer for it and go to officer training school or the other way is to be an officer through bravery. Then you are a Famenjunker (?) that’s a name from the Middle Ages; the men who carried the standard. Then you go to the school and came back as an officer.
So after Sicily you were….
Before Ortona, in Abruzzi. Termoli, that was a very black thing for my company commander. They had a platoon and we fought and did everything we could against the British paratroopers. I took 60 or more as prisoners and I think that was the point where they said……I spoke English better than today. I spoke it in Greece after the war.
After you became a Famenjunker, did you go back to Germany to complete the officer training?
No, I applied but I came only to Als (?). There was the Gothic Line and I was in a training centre with a teacher for high mountain engineering. It was too late; they had gone through the line. I was an officer for the engineers in the Bruner Brigade (?). That was the man who defended the monastery. I was the commander of the engineer company and we tried to roll this ??? but the Americans came from the north.
Can you remember the massive artillery barrage on 11 May?
Yes I can, at 11 o’clock. I stood with one of my men…..
You were in the 1st division engineer battalion and you were a lieutenant of a company?
Yes, but only a small company; it was called the 2nd. The whole company was about 38 men. I was never in a true platoon before Cassino. At the end of Cassino, 38 was the whole company. During the battle of Cassino, Heidrich our division commander gave ????? to another division.
In what we call the 4th battle and you call the 3rd battle, were you aware that a new allied offensive was coming?
No, for us it was the 3rd battle. At that time, my company were experienced fighters. They had been in Russia the first and second winters; had been in Crete. One of them had been in the Greek war before Crete. I was very young and I took over this group. I thought I’m too young but my commander said “You’re very good; make it!” In the battle I was very upset. I said “You have to do something!” and then they said “It’s ok, be quiet!” But in the moment when it was needed, they were fully there. One of them went in a Junkers from Germany to these big mountains – the Carpathian Mountains – and a storm came. The parachutes weren’t ready. He was thrown out of the plane and the ground was about 3,000m. He landed in a stony place and he’d got broken legs and arms and was carried to a hospital and then he came back to the company! Amazing.
So the men you had with you, they were really tough?
Oh yes but this one wasn’t a good character.
What was his name?
Neemann; he was a very experienced engineer but as a man…….he wasn’t a leader. I had another corporal who was leading the group. I didn’t need any more, but Heinrich didn’t care about that; he was so impressed by the story that he said to me, “I have heard about it but I have never seen the man!” That’s real parachute life and all this together makes the story – esprit de corps. In a battle, they were like machines and I’ve never seen a machine like that. Like robots and they worked like that and I couldn’t even reach them when they were in action; very channelled; very focussed. This night when we went overland and came through in the night, before that, a Polish company tried to kill us and we could see when they came…..the front line was 5 or more km behind us. We had an eagle…..
So, the front line had moved forward but you were still…..you were encircled?
Yes, encircled. The Polish came – we could see them coming. I was very nervous. They had the 42 machine gun. There were 350 on one string and ??????? double the string or 3 times, increasing the length….they had all the time in the world. I said “They’re coming!” They were so near but they didn’t attack us. I could see the moment the Polish went off to storm this….we were there in a house which was rotten. This was outside Cassino town in the Liri Valley, just on the border of the division. I could the moment they went up to make the charge and at that moment, 4 men opened up with machine guns – my men – and one man was left from the Polish company and one of my men was a sniper and he shot him in various places and he was in pain and I told him to stop it; to let him go. Other companies had men like that; men from Crete and……
They’d seen it all before; they weren’t rushed; they calmly stood up and ……
Yeah, but I said to myself, “You can’t put yourself where these men are, with their experience…..where are you to be the leader of this man? I must have other qualities.” My commander could see it but I couldn’t see it myself. When I see old pictures, my best time was when the war was over and I was in Egypt. I was a pure athlete (?). The only thing was that I was shot towards the end of the war. Germany, at that time, we didn’t know about the things that had been going on in Germany – all the Jewish people and so on. We didn’t know that. I had never heard about that and we were not a political division. After the war, they took us to Egypt. They thought we were a political force. Stupid! Even the SS was not political…..
Not the Waffen SS certainly…..
No; I had 3 cousins who had to got to the Waffen SS and they were shot at the end of the war by American troops. Today they are called war criminals. I have a friend who is 93 in an old peoples home and they are talking to him about being a war criminal. He was in Italy. I saw what the Italian partisans did. In Italy, they are heroes. I was on my way back to the ? line and they ordered me back to the Alps to go to this company of Engineers. I have seen in Piacenza – they had caught some German infantrymen and in the slaughterhouse they had hung them on meat hooks and we soldiers had never done those things – never. Always when we had captured some enemies, we took them like ourselves. I had a company of Engineers in the Alps. I had 50 men; what could I do with 50 men? Nothing. There was a panzer turret, in Alverito, in the Ech (?) the river, where a very small entrance from the mountains was and there we put about 10 bunkers and we had to make trenches behind them. I said to my commander “What can I do with 50 men? I need men who make the ditches.” So another day he came with 2 companies of prisoners. One company was only British prisoners and one was only Americans, from Hawaii…..
This was in the summer of ’44?
This was some days before the end of the war; May ’45. The British company was like an intact British company. They had a company chief; platoon leaders; group leaders….very, very good. They had discipline and all this stuff. We had nothing really to eat; it was nearly the end of the war; you had to take stuff from the land but the Italians had nothing either. The British and Americans, they made the ditches and I said to this English captain, “You have to look after the Americans too.” ???? He laughed about it, but I said “There’s nothing to laugh about.” But I thought about that. One day, he came to me and said “We can’t do this work any more.” I said “Why not?” He said “We have nothing to eat; we are hungry.” I said “We Germans are the same; we are hungry like you.” He said “We should go to the Italians and tell them they should give us some food.” I laughed at him and said “They have nothing; they are as hungry as we are.” He said he thought they might have something. I said “If you like – talk to them if you think they will give you some food.” This was first thing in the morning. At noon they brought a big wagon with 2 wheels full of food. The captain said “Mr Klein, would you like to take some food?” I said “I cannot take food from prisoners.” He said “I understand.” But I am sure my men took some, but I couldn’t do that. That was 2 days before the end of the war and we worked very good together; us and the British. The Americans I didn’t care for. But the British looked after the Americans. The last day, one American went off and I was very upset. I had to get the 2 whole companies back to the SS and I said “For God’s sake find him or I don’t know what will happen.” They didn’t catch him. I went off myself and searched some houses. I knew there were some partisans there but I didn’t care about them. I went to a house and I was sure they had hidden this American. There were old women and children and a very old man. I was upset and I was saying there is a man; have you seen this man? And they said “There is no man!” I went next door. I kicked the door open and went in with my beretta. There was a young man inside and he was shivering. I said “Where’s the American?” He said to me “Hitler is dead! It came through the radio!” I said “This is nonsense.” He said “It’s true; it’s true.” I was shocked then and I left and went back to the convent where we were based. I told the English captain what had happened and I asked him was it true that Hitler was dead and he told me it was true. The Italians had told him! After an hour on this same day there came a detachment that was going to take the prisoners to Trento. They gave me a sheet of paper. I signed it. They didn’t notice the missing American. In the evening, I got orders that the next morning we were to march to Bolzano and there we were captured and put on trucks with the prisoners. It was over. I was good to them but you don’t know what’s going on in the mind of a prisoner. They embraced us crying “The war is over! The war is over!” They had American food packages…..
These were the same prisoners as the ones you’d just been looking after?
Yes! And they gave us food packages!
How did you feel? Were you relieved or upset or what?
At the moment I heard Hitler was dead, then I thought what will come over us? I knew what the Russians were like; I had seen it. I thought that was it for Germany and the Russians will come and we will cease to exist. I had in my mind only the Russians. In my childhood it was a paradise in Germany from the arrival of the National Socialists. In Egypt I was with all these colonels and majors and so on and they all tried to make me the man I was before but……these 3 months were a terrible time.
You were depressed?
Yes, very depressed.
But you got over it?
Yes, I had to.
You said earlier that you were shot near the end of the war.
In Russia ??????? covered in mud and went to the doctor. I had shrapnel in my backside. I didn’t care about that. Then we came to Normandy and one day the commander came. He was giving out medals including the wounded medals. He said my name and I thought I am not wounded. The staff sergeant yelled at me to go forward. The chief said “Where were you wounded?” I said “I don’t know; I’ve not been wounded.” But I got it. I went to the doctor and asked him why I got the medal. He said “Of course you were wounded; you had this shrapnel splinter in your backside and a Russian soldier broke your nose with his rifle.” I remembered then that one morning there was some shouting and I was looking out of the ? that’s the furthest point of the ditch to the enemy. There was a slope going up and then came some Russians and they were driven towards us by a commissar. I don’t know if they’d done something but they were maybe 50 or 60 and they were covered in filth. They looked so primitive with their animal skin boots. They came up the hill. We did nothing. Then we saw they had no weapons. One came to me. I saw he was wounded. But then I realised he had a rifle behind him; he was going to use it as a club and he hit me here on the nose; broke my nose. I was a group leader and I had a pistol and a flare gun which could also fire small tank grenades. Fortunately at that time it had a flare in it. I fell backwards into the ditch and he fell after me. I had this pistol in my battledress and I took it and shot him in the stomach. He lived about half an hour. Terrible things happened. I have written a book about the war in Italy. I’ve finished it but it is not published. When it’s published it will go into the foundation and will help to keep Cassino alive for the young people. I have done it together with the son of a fallen soldier at Cassino who is in the cemetery there. We have the Monte Cassino Association. Every country that was involved has a branch. Monte Cassino Remembrance and Reconciliation. What I’d like to tell you is – now I am old but more and more all this comes back and of course the book has something to do with that. More and more memories come back from a long time ago. I have been writing this book for 5 years, just when I have time. The more I think about it, the more comes back.
Has it been good for you to write it do you think?
I don’t know. Maybe I think about it too much.
A lot has been written by British and American writers about Cassino and usually it’s purely from the allied point of view. I am writing about all sides.
I’ll tell you another terrible thing. The Monte Cassino Veterans Union had a president, Brian Clarke (?) an Irish man. His division was the Irish Fusiliers XX. He told me one day that there was something he couldn’t bear. I said “You can tell me.” He said “I was a division commander as the war finished and then Attlee became prime minister instead of Churchill and Attlee ordered this division to take over to the Russians all the soldiers who fought on the German side; the ? army. Not only the soldiers but also their wives; their children; their old people. The order was to make sure we took all the people to the Russians and if they tried to escape, you were to use your weapons to make sure that the Russians get all of them. They all ended up being shot in ? and I can’t bear it; it’s so terrible when I think of what I have done. We put the women and children….some tried to flee into the forest…….what do think about that?” I said “Brian, I can’t do anything about this. I am not a priest; not God. I can’t take it away from you. You have done it and you have to…..I was in that prison camp in Tarent (?) and there all the Russell Army (?) was captured and I played chess with them, and the children and all were murdered. He died of it; I know. Another story – we had a new man come in from the training camp – Sleemann (?) in Italy. We were behind the lines and we had wine and cigarettes and chocolate and all these special things in a chest. These 3 men broke open the chest and drank the spirits. My old soldiers cam back (from the front??) and found it broken open and they took these 3 and beat them up. My corporals came to me and asked me what they should do. I said they should stop it. I ordered the 3 men to come to me and I talked to them and they admitted they had done it. I had a special ability – I could speak to the men to bring these things out of them; things they wouldn’t say to others. I think that was what my commander saw in me.
You had empathy.
With Brian, I couldn’t help him. What could I do? I couldn’t say “Your sins are forgiven.” A few days before his death, he phoned me and said “Joop, come over and we’ll talk together.” I said “Brian, I can’t help you. I know what you want but I can’t do anything.” He said “It’ll help me very much if I can talk to you. You understand…..” I promised to go and went to Ireland but the night before I got there he died, very suddenly. All these struggles, they brought him down. You do things when you are young that when you are old you can’t understand. When I was learning carpentry from my meister, like a master craftsman, this house here was where I was quartered and they had 3 little girls and used to look after them and all through the war, we kept in touch. They sent me packages and so on. I wrote also from Egypt. I came back in 1949. I was one of the last POW’s to come out but I had a very good time in Greece. I went back to the Moselle area to take over the carpentry and furniture shop and we still kept in touch. One day, he wrote and told me “I am very ill and have to go to hospital. Please would you come and take over my business here as long as I am in hospital.” I said “Of course I’ll come,” because they had been so good to me. One weekend, his youngest daughter came. The elder daughters were now married. She was a teacher of gymnastics and we liked each other and we were married and just before he died he said “Please take over my business; keep it or sell it as you wish.” I sold it and made a very big shop selling furniture. My wife died 40 years ago, very suddenly; cancer of the spine. That’s life; you can do nothing. We had 3 children; girls. After my wife died, the eldest one said “Father I want to change my life.” She was in charge of the finances and she went back to school. Now she’s ???? geology for Lower Saxony. My youngest daughter met a man who was half French, half Belgian on holiday and they married and he is professor at Toulouse University. She’s very happy in France. She has 2 children and they speak German, English, French and Spanish – very clever. The middle daughter lives next door and has a part of the firm and it is very good as well.
So, you’re lucky.
No, not lucky because there are no boys who will take over and I wonder what will become of it. I have given my word to my father in law that I would bring it forward and make it bigger and I don’t know what will happen when I die.
Earlier we were talking about 11 May 1944. You said you were standing on the road when the barrage began…..
The Italians….whole divisions gave up without firing one shot. In Italy I was an engineer and the whole time I had to blow up bridges and lay mines or something else and I remember a large bridge near ? near Messina. They put a big Italian gun on it. We were out of our planes and were infantry so we couldn’t carry with us all these things, so we put this big gun in the middle of the bridge and there came a day when we had to go back further. Just before we had taken fire suddenly round the corner came 2 Italian soldiers. We shouted “Go away!” But in Italian this means come on! And they were running towards the British; we have seen it. They were gunned down; both dead. Things happen; you can’t do anything. We’d only been in Italy a few days and we didn’t know any Italian.
Can you remember that last battle at Cassino?
Did you know it was a bigger attack……
We’d been in Cassino town then you know where the Hotel de Rose (?) is? That was our quarter. It was 4 storeys and the cellar was for wine. It was a vaulted ceiling. The bombs fell on and all the 4 storeys fell down; it was all rubble. But the cellar was made even stronger and we were in there. The main battle was the other side. The town was on a slope. Our line was from Hotel de Rose to the Baron’s Palace. We had the order to build 5 heavy machine gun bunkers but you couldn’t make this in the slope on our part of the line. You had to go down and under the street in columns so that all the men who went to the bunkers wouldn’t be seen. I was the lieutenant and we’d been in action since the very beginning and we needed a break. All the time, the artillery was firing smoke grenades to hide what they were doing. Our commander came in the night and I said “My men must have a break.” He said “I understand; I’ll think about that.” A few days later a runner came and gave me the order to go to the general at his HQ in a small hamlet in the hills behind the lines. I marched through the night and got there in the morning. The general said to me “Your commander tells me you are a carpenter and you are an engineer too; part of my HQ is in a cave and when the bombardment was going on the whole mountain was shaking. I think everything will come down in the next bombardment. Can you build me some supports?” I said “Of course General, I can do that.” So with my company, we did it. Field Marshall Kesselring was there and he told something to me and I met him again after the war. I told him he should have left the bloody Italians down there and to go to the Alps. I was trained in high mountain engineering. I told him you would have only needed 3 divisions to hold it – all the Alps and then all the other divisions could go to the east and west and it would have been better.
What did he say?
He laughed about it; I was only a lieutenant.
Did you think highly of him as a commander?
He was very good; a very good man. I met Student as well but I didn’t think well of him because of this disaster of Crete which was mostly his fault. 4,000 paratroopers died there.
Originally Rommel was in charge of Army Group B in northern Italy and Kesselring was in the south and Rommel wanted to retreat to the Alps, as you suggested….
No, no; Rommel said where the Gothic Line was, there was his line. He never could stay against all the allied tanks, never. He could have taken guns to the Alps as well, but he wouldn’t. The Gothic Line was his line and both of them were wrong but afterwards, it’s easy to say what was wrong and what was right. Then suddenly the general came to me and said “There’s something going on. Take your company back to the Heidrich (?) Line. The border between the 2 divisions, something big is going on there. You go with your company on this border line to take over a strong point. Take the heavy things from the Hotel de Rose and go over to the strong point. Then the gun fire on the 11th…..
So you’d just got back?
Yes; I was just at the entrance of the Hotel de Rose and I was talking to this observer from our company and suddenly the whole English background became bathed in daylight. 1,600 guns;
Could you hear the shells passing over you?
Of course, it was like an organ.
You knew this was the beginning of the battle?
Of course; the same night I went over to the strong point and there were tanks and we had nothing against tanks and there was a line of 40 or 50 tanks opposite us but they were very short of ammunition; they shot once and then they were done. The next morning……
Where was the strong point?
It was near to the Rapido and Vecha; the Vecha came down Monte Cheiro (?) (I don’t know which river he means; I can’t find any that sound like this).
Just south of Cassino?
Just before they come together. We could see the connection between the Rapido and the Vecha. They say always the Rapido, but it isn’t, it’s the Garigliano – the Gari for short. At the top of the not very steep slope was a house and they had taken the upper floor ?? with poles and underneath was a bunker. But we had no anti tank weapons. In the morning came an abteilung of our self propelled guns. They were there for an hour and then they left…….
Had the tanks crossed the river at that point?
No, not yet and our self propelled guns were behind the house, and then they went off after an hour and we had 3 bazookas. The method is when one is shooting, the other 2 are giving covering fire. The paratrooper in charge of this bazooka team was very nervous and I said “This is nothing; when the tanks come will you run away?” Then in the evening at 1900 hours they came – 20 tanks or more came up the hill. Then they did nothing and we did nothing. There was infantry right behind the tanks; about 100 metres behind. My bazooka team let them come until they were in line with the house and then they began to shoot. 13 tanks were shot and the rest turned and went back. They continued to shoot as they ran away and so they took the last one with a grenade into the ??? Then they shot at the infantry but it was only a quarter of an hour.
So that was on 12 May?
Yes and then the tanks went to their position and you could see new ones. I radioed HQ and the General (he was the first to make an attack on the British at the Primorola Bridge) said “Sorry I have to take the bazookas from you because we need them somewhere else, but I’ll give you a battalion of infantryjager” and so then we had nothing. But we had the burning tanks in a semi circle around our house and no tanks would come again, we were sure. The infantryjager had no experience. They came from Yugoslavia and they were hunting partisans; Tito and his men, but they had no combat experience. This was when I got my first grey hairs. I was only a lieutenant and their leader was a major. He said “We’ll put a heavy machine gun in front of your casa.” I said “Before the battle begins.” “Nonsense” he said. He didn’t take any notice of me at all. This poor man – there is nowhere for him to go.
How many men had he brought?
A whole battalion – 380 men. The next evening at 1900 we were all chatting – it was a nice evening and suddenly there was a shot and we just had time to get in the bunker before it all collapsed.
Could you get out again?
Yes; all the tanks had come back and shot into the casa and it was rubble. The door out was blocked by rubble. It was dark and I said “Be quiet so your oxygen isn’t used up. I’ll say some names and they will start to move the rubble away from the entrance. Someone asked for candles and I said no candles. It took some time to clear the entrance. The first out was our medic and he was captured. We were overrun. I went out next and there was a group of infantrymen marching in line. I had my beretta and I shot some (???) It was about 8pm or so when we got out, so still light because it was summer. Then the Poles came around the mountain.
So this was 13 May?
I think it was later, maybe 18 or 19 May; I can’t remember.
How did you get out of there?
After we had stopped the Poles, (?) we waited in the dark. At 11pm or so, I took my sergeant and said “We’ll go and see what’s happening.” I had a plan that we could go to the railway line and march back and I thought there wouldn’t be any allied troops around. It was dark and they tended to stick together. We were standing in a trench and suddenly there came a line marching. I had my beretta. They didn’t know what was going on and so they went away. At midnight, the whole battalion was gone, we went between the railway and the road.
How many men did you have now?
37 because the medic was captured. It was pitch dark and we heard talking. We were nearly at the German lines and we heard talking and there were lights. The British lights had more phosphorous so they were more red and the German lights had more magnesium and so were more white, so the German ones were lighter and suddenly we heard shooting and someone called “Who’s there?” I called back “Polish soldiers!” What could I do? They shouted back “Okay!” and we got away with it! Then we got back and my commander said “You’re here very late but there are 5,000 mines to lay!” He was my former company chief in ?
Which battalion were you?
First battalion, first division. I had a very good regard for him and he was very fond of me, but I knew a lot of what he did wrong, for instance Termoli. It was his fault that the landing had ?? it was British, otherwise we would have driven them back into the sea. It was easy. We had captured about 150 from the Pathfinders and without them the landing had not happened. Then he said “We go.” It was dark and then day came and we saw the landing ships and as he saw these landing ships, he thought it was easy. I myself thought if these are Pathfinders…….he gave no order land, they will not come; they will stay outside, and he said “We’re leaving; we leave it to the British.” The whole town! I was then a corporal and there was a sergeant who was later made an officer, and he didn’t say “No, we must stop the landing.” He could do that; every paratrooper had the order – if an officer was not doing the right things, he could take his place. Even a private – I have seen a lance corporal take over command. A battalion of infantry were been driven back by the Russians. The engineers were building a wooden wall against tanks and he took over with his machine pistol and we not only stopped the Russians but drove them back! Later on he was an officer and I knew him well. I was with him in Egypt…….
So, your C in C told you that you had to lay 5,000 mines……
Yes, we had to lay mines to stop the allies – the tanks for instance. In the front line, we had no cars and so on….
So you were just walking?
Walking, yes and then I was ordered to be the last one out and then I was ordered by my commander…..
What was his name?
Colonel Ernst Fremmaeng (?) – of all the commanders, he was the worst one.
But you liked him?
No, I didn’t like him; he liked me. I got orders to make contact with a regiment which was to make sure that the allies were not over us. He said to me “Take the ?? (like an open jeep – like a small staff car) and come behind us and we’ll come together down there.” He ordered me to meet him at a certain point – a village in the north. I had a driver. I made sure that this regiment kept in touch with us and went to the mountains. The 1st Parachute Regiment was more in the mountains, not in the Liri Valley. There was a street that went up a hillside and there was like an avenue of Yew trees. Suddenly behind us we heard firing and it was a plane; a Lightening with a gun on the back as well. It flew over us and suddenly it shot from the back. I fell out of the jeep and went down the slope. The car went into the trees. I fell about 20 or so meters. My collar bone was broken when I hit a tree. I found my driver. He’d been thrown out of the car. He had injuries to his head and chest; dead. I sat on the road thinking what to do and then a lorry came with mountain infantry in. We couldn’t bury my driver because we had to go. They took me to the next field hospital. They nailed me with 2 long nails. A month later I came out of hospital. It was a field hospital that was constantly on the move. Then I came to Florence to a special hospital where they did nothing. I got orders from a staff commander in Florence. He had a phone conversation with my battalion and was told I should go home for some leave. I went back to Germany.
This was around July ‘44?
August; then I came back and the front line was at Oretto (?).
So you were back with the 1st of the 1st?
I was back with my same company.
Had they grown in size at all? Still 38?
We went from Oretto to the Adriatic after a fortnight or so and then we got new soldiers from paratroop school and the company was then about 80 or 90 men – big! They were so anxious to be in the front line; they wanted to fight. I said “Be quiet; you are lucky that you are behind and that you are engineers who destroy bridges and streets; be happy and don’t talk about the front line. You’ll see it; it will come.” After 2 or 3 weeks, it came in Termoli Pesaro. Again it was the commander’s fault. We had from Termoli Pesaro to the coast; that was our front line. Next to us I think we had the 305th infantry division and we should have been relieved by the 26th panzer division. It was like the Hitler Line at Cassino – a built out line with bunkers and all the things and they went off before the 26th went in and the Canadians were against us. We had heavy losses. I lost there a very good comrade, Harald Quandt – Goebbels step son. He never made any attempt to be more than the others. He never thought about the possibility of taking over the Reich. Our battalion commander, Heidrich, ordered that he should not go into battle, but he made the decision on his own. I think he was the finest man I ever met.
He was killed on the Gothic Line?
No, no. He was a big man in Germany – the Quandt Group. He was the second richest man in Germany. He was living near Hamburg (?) I was on the way to my homeland and I had to go through his town and I met him there several times. One time his doorman asked me “Who are you?” I said “Tell Harald it’s Joop Klein.” Sometimes he had very big parties at his house; he was the chairman of the aero group, but when I came, he’d take me into his study and we’d talk about earlier times even while the party went on! In Russia, we could see the towers of Moscow, and Quandt made his own reconnaissance to see what was going on, on the Russian side! In Italy, our commander – our company chief – was upset because the day before British commandoes had captured a destroying team of ours. He said “Your group will go to the beach and will see that this sort of thing will not happen again.” Then he forgot us; he left us. It was the last night and in the morning when the last ferry went over the strait, we were still in Monasteri (?) 10km from Catania. Then at night, we heard a boat coming and Harald, who was battalion adjutant at that time, he had ordered a fisherman in his boat to take him to Monasteri in order to get the platoon out. The boat was too small for the whole platoon. Harald went and found a lorry to take us to Messina which was extraordinary as we thought they’d all gone. He was incredible; he had more than a 6th sense. Many of us had a 6th sense. When I went back to Oretto, my 6th sense had gone. At Cassino, suddenly I fell to the ground to take cover and my neighbours did the same and suddenly came a salvo. If you hear the canon, it’s too late. But I had the 6th sense; I lay down and everyone followed and we were ok that time. I noticed it in Russia the first time. When there was danger, I could smell it; not hear it. In the whole war I just had the nose in Russia and the shoulder in Italy; that was all. In fact when they went to take out the pins from my shoulder, one broke and it’s still in there. When I go through metal detectors at airports, it sets them off. They tried to take it out again after the war but the bone has grown round it.
Back to the Gothic Line; you were on the Termoli Pesaro side and you said the Canadians attacked you?
Yes; I had these young soldiers who said they wanted to fight man against man. They had no experience. The older men were left and the younger men died; the older ones with the 6th sense; they smelt it coming. It’s more than experience. So often I have thought about that. How could it be? Even now, I have it sometimes. We had a motor bike and sidecar and the connecting cog between was damaged and so they took the side car off. I took this motor bike to the line – our HQ was in this little village and I went down to the Sangro River to go to my group. It was very steep and I went into a spin and landed in a T mine field. I had to crawl out. My platoon had laid the T mines. I got out ok. Wartime! I experienced things that others need 10 lives for. Even after the war, I had no serious accidents. I think it had something to do with wartime.
Your instincts must be sharper.
I married again 2 years after my first wife died; a lady 20 years younger. She works in my firm………………….loads of stuff about wife, kids and company………my commander Fremmaeng, he was something like a coward. First, he was an officer by bravery and that happened as he was flown to Crete. He was in the aeroplane with his commander, Heidrich and suddenly his parachute opened and at that time it was very difficult to jump with an open parachute. Heidrich ordered him to fly back to Athens and come back with another plane, but he didn’t; he jumped and the chute was ok. He had very good luck. That was the only thing he did that was brave. We had 2 commanders; one fell on the Primasole Bridge as he tried to secure it and the second one – he was a mountain man from Innsbruck and he was very good. As this thing happened in Termoli, he suddenly got ill; he had malaria. He had to go to hospital at once, and that was good luck for Fremmaeng, because he took over. He tried sometimes to say things….for instance he said “In Termoli, you went off instead of fighting.” I said “Every time, I was right behind you, Sir.” He always blamed others. Then there came an officer from the school who took over. I was a sergeant then. Our company chief was injured and so I took over and we had to lay a great long line of mines, one field after another, about 10km. They were buried 5 meters apart, and this 1st lieutenant said they should be 2.5 meters and I said “No, that’s against orders; I will not do that and you will not find it in any manual. It’s too near. One goes up and it takes the next one and then there’s a chain reaction……this bit is difficult to decipher properly….I think he’s saying that that bloke forced him to lay them closer. That seems to tie in with what follows……. I heard someone choking and crying and there was a sergeant, a very good friend of mine. He’d been with me in school and in Russia and everywhere. He was crying “Joop, shoot me!” To put him out of his misery, and you can’t. He had no legs; no arms; hundreds of splinters; blind. He was nearly dead but……it was very unusual because mostly you black out or you feel nothing because of the shock but he was clear in his mind. He noticed everything that was happening. I ran because I knew there was a field medical post about 300 meters away. The mines had all gone off because there were holes left. Then there came a motor bike and sidecar with this 1st lieutenant. I shouted at him “Now you see what you have done?” I had my pistol in my hand and I was close to shooting him, but suddenly I put it back. There were about 28 men dead. He had noticed that I’d had the pistol pointing at him and that evening I got the order to go to Fremmaeng. He said “Klein, what have you done now?” I said “What have I done?” Fremmaeng was a very, very good engineer and teacher. I told him the story and he changed his colour. He said “You go back to your company and you take over the company at once.” I never saw that other man again. Terrible.
If we can just go back to your time on the Gothic Line, Autumn 1944. You were on the Adriatic coast. Were you still on the front line?
We had this intermezzo with a Polish division. The New Zelanders were there I think and then we went back. It was a built up line and so we had to go back as far as Rimini. It took a long time. I never did understand the stupidity of the allies to take Italians from the south. Nobody before did that in the whole of history. The big problem was that you couldn’t land without air cover, so Salerno was the furthest limit of their air cover so they couldn’t land any further north and after that the ships were taken away for Normandy and for the east so they didn’t have enough ships; that was the problem. I think they wanted to keep as many German divisions as they could in Italy but Churchill was right. He tried to say we will land in the Balkans. DeGaulle said once that the time will come when the Germans who died at Stalingrad will in history be the retter (?) of Germany; they kept Germany out of communication (?). The worst thing in all this has been the Italians.
When you were retreating back to Rimini, was there vicious fighting for you?
Also, you had the rain and the mud.
In Rimini, there is an old bridge, 2,000 years old; a Roman bridge. We were ordered to destroy that – not mine, but another company. It was a sergeant who said no. He said “Why should we destroy such an old bridge?” And it wasn’t necessary anyway; I saw it myself and so it was left. Some paratroopers had been captured but they were able to flee and they came back to the division and told Heidrich that the bridge was still standing. He was upset and he said to Fremmaeng, “This object will be destroyed; I gave orders!” They went off to the bridge, but they did nothing and other stupid things. Fortunately, the next day, an order came from Kesselring that all the ancient objects in Rimini were not to be destroyed. I was ordered with my company to destroy the artillery positions on the coast. I went with a motor bike and sidecar to look at what we needed to do. We met a man from the Russell Army (?). I said “You are not in a bunker with a gun. Have you no ammunition?” “Oh yes, 30,000 grenades.” I said “What are you doing with them?” “Nothing, we have our machine gun.” “When a landing boat comes, what will you do with your machine gun? You can only run. I’ll show you what to do with the gun.” We trained as engineers to do all these things. I showed them what to do, to sharpen the grenades and put them in the gun and fire them out to sea and see where it explodes and then go ever nearer to the coast line and then suddenly you are at the enemy lines and you can use the gun to shoot at them.” I did it first and stayed half an hour with them and then they did it very well. But there was a destroyer and it hit the bunker and many of the Russell Army men were injured; not killed. (??) said “Klein, you have done an evil thing, but it’s war. How do you defend a coast line with a machine gun?
How long was it between Rimini and going up to the Alps?
The Americans had attacked the line near Bologna.
You became part of the parachute corps didn’t you?
Yes; it was Casa San Pietro (?). The 1st division and the 4th division was more towards Bologna. I went to the Alps to train to become a high mountain engineer teacher.
That was in 1945? Where did you have Christmas ’44?
No, there was nothing. The Americans were put away and the whole front stood there for the whole winter, until April and then I had high mountain training and then afterwards to the Burmler (?) brigade and a short time later I came back – I don’t know why – I was back in my battalion. Then I went again to the north. I think Fremmaeng ordered this but Burmler needed someone who knew what to do, in the Alps.
When was it you saw the Germans that had been murdered by the partisans?
Maybe a whole platoon, we went south to build a convoy to take as many as possible back to the Alps. Mostly they had lost their weapons at the Po.
That was when you saw these guys at Piacenza?
Yes; I didn’t go down to the Po. I was only in the northern area of Italy.
But these guys you saw murdered in Piacenza….
Yes, and many more besides.
But you were never attacked by partisans yourself?
One time I was with my company south of Termoli. One man who drove the ammunition to our points of destroying bridges and so on, he told me he’d been shot at in Termoli when they were loading mines at the railway station. I said he was to have a machine gun mounted on the top of the truck so that if there was shooting out of the houses, he could shoot back at the windows and then it would cease at once. The Italians, they are all cowards you know. If you go against them, they stop it at once. But what they did – I read it afterwards in a British history – the landing in Termoli was directed by Italian partisans. They were in touch with the British paratroopers. It was very helpful for the allies. I think it would have been better if they hadn’t done this shooting. When I was in command there, the landing hadn’t happened, I’m sure. You had to stop it at the very beginning, otherwise it’s too late. In Ortona, the same parachute command tried to land in Pescara, but there they watched the coast and they destroyed them before they got to the coast in small craft. In the very beginning, it is very easy and ??? and even later on as we made the next attack against them it was time enough, but then it stopped, but that wasn’t our fault. It was the fault of the 16th division; stupid. I told them. They stood the whole night and the next day until 11 o’clock of a plane without colouring and we saw it coming and the landing – they came with 50 tanks. They covered their tanks very, very well and in the morning at 11am – whoomph! All the German tanks were destroyed and burning. We were told to make a second line and I laughed at him. I said “Have you seen how many tanks and how many people there are? Two divisions and 50 or more tanks and we are a platoon. How do you think we can do this? I am a corporal but I should take over command. Where are the officers?” “You need no officers; you are a paratrooper; a paratrooper is a leader” he said. We had 25 men. We made the line and we had our machine guns. We had no bazookas or anything more. Suddenly, I saw him running. Either he was seeking death or capture I think. Fremmaeng was a very bad commander. The whole battalion was very good. The division commander was ordered to do things by others. When I think about Russia, especially Leningrad, Lieber the commander was a man who was a leader of tactics; very experienced. In war time, so many good men die. For me all our commanders were heroes; only Fremmaeng was a bad man and that’s not just my opinion.