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This is something that not only the politicians of Fast and West are called upon to do, but all of us. One wish would be fulfilled for me if I could meet that blond eutenant again who protected me from the Mongolians Russian li when I was captured; or if I could shake the hand of my "breakfast colonel," who displayed such humanity toward a captured former opponent. I would even be prepared to down a full gla.s.s of vodka on an empty stomach with that Russian tank colonel, who greeted me with respect after my capture.
I have often felt that in the first half of my life I was, in a double sense, a prisoner of my time: trapped on the one hand in the Prussian tradition and bound by the oath of allegiance, which made it all too easy for the n.a.z.i regime to misuse the military leadership; then forced to pay my country's tribute, along with so many thousand others, with five years of captivity in Russian camps.
As a professional soldier I cannot escape my share of the collective guilt; but as a human being I feel none.
I hope that nowhere in the world will young people ever again, allow themselves to be so misused.
January 1989. My telephone rings: "Gerhard Bandomir here. You remember me? I was CO of 3 Company, I Battalion, of your Regiment 125, 21st Panzer Division. It took me so long to find you but now I am happy and I would like to tell you my story."
"Bandomir! My G.o.d, how fascinating! A fter 45 yearst But your battalion was completely lost during"Operation Goodwood'! You are the first who can tell me what really happened. We must meet!" Bandomir came to Hamburg and told me of his fate on that sunny July morning in Normandy. He accepted at once my invitation to come to Normandy in June 1989, where I had to lecture to the Swedish War School about that operation. It was the first time Bandomir had visited all the places where the chaos had engulfed his company.
Here is Bandomir's story.
After D-Day and before 18 July 1944 we were located in the area of Le Mesnil Frementel. Our division was Corps reserve but, nevertheless, we prepared defense positions north of this small farm village.
We could work only by night because of the 100 percent air superiority and the lack of cover. My HQ was in a ditch just east of a farm. This ditch, deepened considerably, and covered with bars, straw, and earth, lay behind the wall that surrounded the farm. My 3 Company and 2 Company were dispersed north of the farm, well dug in. I can't remember the locations of the other Companies. We worked at night and rested by day, always improving our positions. That was the situation during the night of 17 to 18 July Shortly before dawn of 18 July I was back in our HQ trench. We had just prepared our breakfast when, around 6 A.M. we heard aircraft approaching from the sea. We saw outlined against the sky squadrons upon squadrons of bombers flying very high. They seemed unending and flying straight over our positions. We thought it was another attack on German towns and we were very sorry for our people and our homes. But suddenly the first wave released its bombs, followed by other waves, on the area of Emi6ville. Our air defense around Caen opened antiaircraft fire immediately, bringing down a bomber. And then the Inferno began.
Formations of wedge-shaped squadrons became wider and wider and the bombardment lasted almost two hours. The initiative of each of us withered, and we just sat and waited to die, unable to do anything. The aim of the air attack seemed to be to destroy our heavy equipment. I remember seeing a 10.5cm ant.i.tank gun, well dug in, put out of action by a direct hit, Thanks to our well built trenches, our casualties were relatively low. The psychological effect, however, of such a demonstration of air superiority was very strong, for it showed how vulnerable we were.
The bombardment was followed for several hours by a barrage of heavy artillery from both offsh.o.r.e and land-based positions. It plowed up every square meter of the ground in our sector. I think my HQ was. .h.i.t two or three times but it held. Even a'wild rabbit fled into our bunker, jumped into my arms, and drank quite petrified out of my coffee cup! He also chewed a hole in my sleeve.
Later I came to the conclusion that a new era of war had begun on this 18 July: a preview of the nuclear age.
When the artillery fire suddenly ceased, after,so many hours, we were surprised to find ourselves still alive. Carefully we looked out of our trenches and saw the ground north of us covered with tanks slowly advancing through the bombarded area toward Cagny. They were, much to our surprise, not accompanied by infantry. With our rifles and machine guns we were powerless. In spite of heavy machine-gun fire from the tanks, we managed to reach the wall around the farmhouses, hoping to find some men of my company. But n.o.body got back from our forward positions. Jumping over the wall in order to join the HQ of I Battalion, I had to withdraw imniediately because a tank was already on top of the command post. We decided to leave the farm by running south to reach the HQ of our regiment. Pa.s.sing a sunken road bordered with trees, we saw many dead and wounded men. The wounded who could still fight joined us as we left the farmhouses. We took cover in a cornfield to wait for darkness.
But here again advancing tanks Cost us even more of our men. I finally released the survivors to surrender.
It was around noon when the cursed war ended for me and the remainder of my 3 Company. The situation did not offer any chance of escape. No ant.i.tank weapons were left. My men were dispersed. All communications were destroyed.
In the afternoon, as a prisoner, I saw the first British infantrymen of I I Armored Division advancing toward Le Mesnil Frementel and Cagny. The freshness of the British soldiers made a great impression on me. I was impr also, by the widespread use of communications as a command tool. It seemed every vehicle had its own radio set.
The I gth July was a hot and sunny day in Normandy. However, for all of us it was a most dismal and depressing day. We were powerless to do anything. To this day I have been unable to find out the exact losses of my company.
As a POW I was transferred to the UK first and then to the United States, where I was released on 11 May 1946. During my captivity I was well treated and I am happy to shake hands with our former enemies after 45 years.
About the Author.
HANS VON LUCK was born in 1911, in Flensburg, Germany, the son of a naval officer. His family, however, came from Silesia, with a long tradition of military service and roots going back to the thirteenth century.
Although he would have pre rred to study he followed the path of duty and in 1929 entered the Reichswehr as a cadet officer. During the next ten years, while training hard in the expanding German army, he indulged his taste for foreign travel and enjoyed an agreeable social life.
Like many Germans, he viewed the rise of Hitler with hope at first, but then with growing misgivings as the n.a.z.is tightened their grip.
In 1939 his motorized unit was one of the first to cross the frontier into Poland, marking the start of World War II. Thereafter he was constantly in action in every major theatre of war; in France under the inspired leadership of Rommel; in Russia, where he reached the outskirts of Moscow; in North Africa, again in close a.s.sociation with Rommel; then back to Europe for the D-Day landings and the bitter defense of his native soil.
In the very last days of the war he was captured by the Russians outside Berlin and sent to a labor camp in the Caucasus for five years.
He was wounded twice and received two of his country's highest awards for gallantry, the German Cross in Gold and the Knight's Cross. He ended the war a full colonel, one of the youngest in the German army.
After his release from Russia in 1950, he worked for a while as a hotel receptionist before settling in a new career in the coffee business. He is married, for the second time, and has three sons.