The death of “Butcher of Prague” Reinhard Heydrich – one of the most feared men in the Third Reich – meant the Nazis lost a key organizer of terror. Was he an ideological zealot or careerist aiming to be leader one day?
He was described by Adolf Hitler as “the Man with the Iron Heart.” Other names attributed to him include “the Butcher,” “the Hangman” and “Himmler’s Evil Genius.”
Given such epithets, it stands to reason that Reinhard Heydrich’s record is one of reprehensible brutality.
Heydrich, who led the Nazi Protection Squadron, or SS, and the Gestapo, also sent the telegraph giving the orders that precipitated 1938’s Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews in Germany.
As the lead planner of Hitler’s Final Solution, Heydrich chaired the Wannsee Conference – where details about the murder of millions of Jews across Nazi-occupied Europe was debated and toasted with cognac.
Heydrich was also regarded by some as a potential future leader of the Third Reich.
By the time of the assassination attack against Heydrich in May 1942, he was regional governor of the Nazis’ Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia – today’s Czech Republic. He died 75 years ago on June 4, 1942.
Only 11 years earlier, Heydrich had been dismissed from the navy for unbefitting conduct after breaking a marriage engagement. It had been a meteoric rise, as historian Robert Gerwarth points out in his book “Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich.”
“His life is quite unusual – his career trajectory is quite unusual in the sense that he’s a late Nazi,” Gerwarth told DW.
“Most of the people who had comparable careers in the Third Reich were followers of Hitler from the early 1920s onwards,” he said. “In his case, it’s a relatively late conversion to Nazism.”
The largely apolitical Heydrich had broken his engagement after meeting his wife-to-be, Lina von Osten, a Nazi Party follower for some time. It was she who convinced him to apply to join the SS.
Heydrich’s rapid ascent was partly based on chance, a meeting with Heinrich Himmler, who was setting up a counterintelligence division of the service.
“The two men had what you might call complementary talents,” said Gerwarth, a professor of modern history at University College Dublin’s Centre for War Studies. “Himmler was very good at building networks, which was quintessential in Nazi Germany, and Heydrich was a talented organizer.
“The two managed to rise through the ranks so that by the mid-1930s, 1936 to be precise, Himmler controls the entire police in Germany, including the political police, and Heydrich is basically his No. 2.”
Convert or careerist?
Some historians have assumed that Heydrich was a careerist, but Gerwarth thinks not. Instead, he described Heydrich’s radicalism as that of an extremely ambitious late convert.
“I think that by the mid-1930s he is actually quite committed to the cause and he is a very devout follower of both Himmler and Hitler,” Gerwarth said. “They recognize that, and they advance his career steadily over time.”
Heydrich’s newly found political zeal saw him drive much of the anti-Jewish policy in the Third Reich. As well as his role in Kristallnacht, he oversaw the Einsatzgruppen, which murdered intellectuals and clergy in Czechoslovakia and Poland, which at the time were both occupied by the Nazis, then he moved on to Jews and Roma.
“By 1941 it’s become quite clear that Heydrich is the one driving anti-Jewish policies,” Gerwarth said. “He controls not only the political police organizations but also is twice entrusted by Hermann Goering as the kind of intermediary between him and Hitler to find and implement a Final Solution.
“The thing is of course that, in 1942, when he dies, most of the Jews who will die in the Holocaust are still alive,” Gerwarth said, adding that, although Heydrich was a central figure, “even without him the Holocaust continued to unfold.”
A prime target
The attack that would ultimately lead to his death was instigated by Czech intelligence with support from Britain’s Special Operations Executive. It gained approval from Czechoslovakia’s government-in-exile and planning began well in advance.
After two aborted attempts, the attack that killed Heydrich took place on May 27, 1942. Slovak Jozef Gabcik and Czech Jan Kubis – who had been flown to Czechoslovakia the previous December carried it out.
Heydrich was on his daily commute from home. The pair hoped to kill their target at a curve in the road and Gabcik stepped in front of the vehicle with his submachine gun. It jammed, and Heydrich ordered the car to stop, pointing a handgun at his would-be assailant.
It was here that Kubis threw a grenade that fatally injured Heydrich, who did not die until a week later. The Nazi leadership was outraged by what had happened.
“This is a very serious blow, and both Hitler and Himmler were very angry and shocked,” Gerwarth said. “It showed a vulnerability that they didn’t want, but also they’re losing one of the most important organizers of terror. It was a huge blow.”
“The underground movement, the resistance in Bohemia and Moravia, was not informed about this at all,” Gerwarth said. “They only found out by chance just before the assassination, and were horrified because they knew the ramifications would be terrible.”
Indeed, the consequences were horrific for the village of Lidice, which was falsely linked to the assassination. Of its residents, 199 men were killed and 195 women sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. A further 81 children died in gas vans.
The men and women of another village, Lezaky, were also murdered.
The assassination itself has also been retold in several movies. The 75th anniversary itself seems to have created some interest with one film – “Anthropoid” – released less than a year ago and another – “HHhH,” also titled “The Man With The Iron Heart” – slated for release later this month.
Visions of power?
Whether Heydrich had visions of ever becoming leader of the Third Reich is open to speculation.
In his book “Fatherland,” Robert Harris penned a vision of a world where Heydrich survives into the 1960s and is seen as the likely successor to Hitler. It deals with Heydrich’s imagined Machiavellian attempts to cover up the fate of murdered European Jews.
Amazon’s series “The Man in the High Castle,” loosely based on a book of the same name by Philip K. Dick, envisions a world where the Nazi Reich occupies much of the United States, and where Heydrich is vying to replace an ailing Hitler.
Gerwarth, though, said he harbors some doubt that was ever in Heydrich’s plan.
“It’s uncertain exactly what he aspired to. He didn’t really like to be a public figure, and he found that part of the job difficult in Prague,” Gerwarth said. “He’s not really someone for big public speeches. He’s someone who operates in the shadows, so I think his career objective would have been to succeed Himmler, which is a more realistic scenario.”
Hang around aircraft restorers and you’ll inevitably hear tales of priceless historical relics hidden in barns, buried in shrink wrap, or otherwise stuck in time awaiting discovery.
These stories are almost always wild exaggerations or outright fiction. But if you’ve ever heard of the cache of iconic warbirds at Wilson Connell “Connie” Edwards’ west Texas ranch, it’s absolutely real.
The irascible former movie pilot who made a fortune in the oil business has added to his vast inventory of mostly World War II-era fighters, seaplanes, and surplus parts for more than a half century. Now, he’s decided to sell many of them—but only on his own nonnegotiable terms.
“People can either pay my price or go to hell, I really don’t care which,” says Edwards, 80, who is perhaps best known for choreographing and flying many of the aerial scenes in Battle of Britain, a 1969 movie that starred Michael Caine and Sir Lawrence Olivier and featured more than a dozen Messerschmitt Bf 109s (technically Spanish-built HA-1112 Buchons), Heinkel He 111 (CASA 2.111) bombers—and, of course, British Spitfires and Hurricanes. “I know the value of what I’ve got, and I don’t haggle. Pay my price, or don’t waste my time,” Edwards says.
A Spitfire that actually flew in the real Battle of Britain is the jewel of Edwards’ fleet, as well as a half-dozen Buchons (including a rare two-seat model) that he took in partial payment for his work on the film. There’s also a P-51 Mustang that looks exactly as it did when imported from Guatemala in the early 1970s, and two PBY Catalinas. Edwards flew one of the PBYs to England and back in 1986, and a second—known as the Green Turtle—has a Calypso paint scheme and plush yacht-like interior. (There are also two shipping containers full of surplus PBY parts and specialized tools.)
A recently polished Grumman Mallard is tied down outside. So are several Piaggio Gull airframes, and parts for many more.
The impetus for the sale is the tragic 2013 death of Edwards’ son Wilson Connell “Tex” Edwards Jr., an accomplished warbird and agricultural pilot. Tex was killed in a car accident near the family’s ranch about 60 miles east of Midland/Odessa. He’s buried in a family plot on the ranch, which is located in the arid, cotton-growing portion of the state.
“I was going to give it all to Tex,” Edwards says. “He was a fantastic pilot and absolutely excelled at everything he did in aviation. But now that he’s gone, there’s no sense keeping it.”
In the 1980s Edwards donated two highly coveted aircraft to the Experimental Aviation Association—a P-38 Lightning and an F-4U Corsair—and both are on display at the EAA museum in Oshkosh. He also helped found the Commemorative Air Force (then the Confederate Air Force) but has had a bitter split with the Texas-based organization. He has been an AOPA member for more than 50 years.
Edwards says he doesn’t regard his many airplanes as a “collection,” just unrelated objects he bought or traded for because they interested him. Logistically, the ongoing acquisitions required building an ever-expanding hangar complex (more than 100,000 square feet) in which to store them. He’s never offered public tours, and his out-of-the-way runway, hangars, and castle-themed home are strictly private.
“I’m not interested in hearing other pilots’ war stories or telling them mine,” says Edwards, who soloed when he was 16 years old and later flew throughout Central America and the Caribbean in his twenties for a series of shadowy firms he prefers not to discuss. “I’m really not in the airplane business at all. I’m in the oil, ranching, and stone business. I only own airplanes for fun.”
Edwards’ favorite airplane is a blue-and-white Piper Super Cub with an oversized 180-horsepower engine that isn’t part of the sale. He’s unsentimental about the rest. Many of his aircraft haven’t flown in years, and the hangars and their contents are constantly subject to the region’s unrelenting wind, heat, and dust.
Tall shelves are piled with seemingly forgotten tools, parts, hardware, and solvents. The airplanes sit just as they were at the conclusion of their last flights, sometimes with headsets on glareshields, long-expired aeronautical charts unfolded on the seats, and empty cups and drink cans in cabins.
An entire hangar is filled with a treasure trove of warbird engines. Two never-used, right- and left-turning Allisons for a P–38 are bolted on stands; dozens of Rolls-Royce Merlins are in various states; and an overhauled Pratt & Whitney R-985 is wrapped in plastic sheeting.
Aircraft aren’t the only motorized vehicles in the hangars. There are cars, too, including a 1964 Corvette, a 1958 Cadillac El Dorado Brougham, an original VW Thing, a police Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and a half-dozen aged mini-bikes
Edwards says he really doesn’t care what happens to the airplanes after they leave—although he assumes that anyone willing to pay premium prices for them likely will restore them to flying condition. But if not, that’s the new owners’ concern, not his.
“If they can afford to buy them, they probably have enough money to restore them,” he said. “If not, they’re better off not even trying.”
Edwards has been exceptionally successful in business, and he attributes his wins to “dumb luck” and being in the right place at the right time. His family’s vast land holdings sit atop huge amounts of oil and natural gas, and new drilling techniques have dramatically increased their output at a time of high commodity prices. Another mineral discovery here, Texas stone, is in demand among high-end home builders. (Edwards is a self-taught stone carver whose grounds are decorated with elaborate stone artwork of his own creation.)
A fly-in guest to the Edwards ranch in the late 1970s came to hunt quail and became a family friend. That was Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, and Edwards was an early investor in what became the world’s biggest retail chain.
Edwards once owned more than a dozen P–51 Mustangs, many of them bought from military boneyards. He says he never paid more than $15,000 for a Mustang, and now such aircraft sell for $1.5 million or more.
Edwards has long been a controversial figure in historical aircraft circles, and he is full of contradictions. He’s at once flamboyant and reclusive, worldly and profane.
Terry Adams, a T–6 pilot and restorer who was a close friend of Tex, is preparing Edwards’ exotic aircraft for sale. Adams is a retired Snap-On Tools executive, and he lives in San Antonio and comes to the Edwards ranch for days at a time to help get things inventoried and organized.
While Adams is at the hangar complex, Edwards stops by each morning in a Ford pickup with his dog Hunter, a miniature Australian shepherd, to plan the day’s activities. He swings by in the evenings, too, to barbeque and drink Texas-brewed Shiner Bock beer from long-neck bottles.
Edwards speaks in off-color colloquialisms delivered with a flinty drawl. Something conspicuous, he says, “shines like a ruby in a goat’s ass.” A person of low intelligence “doesn’t have the sense to pour piss out of a boot with directions printed on the heel.”
He’s especially scornful of politicians with Democratic presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama drawing venomous ridicule, and not-conservative-enough Republicans don’t fare much better. Provocative bumper stickers; torn-out tabloid covers; photocopied political cartoons; and scrawled, handwritten messages are posted on hangar walls and metal lockers.
Edwards can be charming, engaging, and funny when telling stories of the times he spent flying with English, Spanish, and German pilots in Europe filming Battle of Britain. He also is one of the few pilots on the planet who can authoritatively compare the flight characteristics of some of history’s most renowned aircraft.
These Spanish aircraft were painted in German colors for theBattle of Britainmovie. They are equipped with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.
With many hundreds of hours in both the P–51 and Bf 109/Buchon, for example, he says the German-designed aircraft is far and away the more nimble fighter. “It’s not even a close contest,” he says. “In the hands of a similarly trained and experienced pilot, the 109 wins hands-down.” Edwards recounts a truism by Luftwaffe fighter ace Adolf Galland: “Most pilots expect their airplanes to perform. The Me 109 expects its pilot to perform.”
Among seaplanes, he says the Grumman Albatross is head and shoulders above the Consolidated PBY, although there’s a great deal of variation in quality, performance, and flying characteristics of individual PBYs.
Edwards also inspires lifelong loyalty from some of the people who know him best. A foreman who has worked on the family ranch more than 40 years says the Edwards family’s steadfastness makes him want to stay forever.
And Edwards’ generous actions don’t always align with his incendiary words. For example, Adams recently sought to acquire a rare 1932 Ford Coupe that had been sitting idle in one of the Edwards hangars for decades.
“They said Connie would never sell that car because it belonged to his [late] brother [William Prior “Budo” Edwards],” Adams recalled. “So I asked Connie if he’d ever let it go, and he said he would, for the right price. I told him that I wanted to buy it, and I’d pay anything he asked. I’d write him a check on the spot.”
Then Edwards surprised Adams by turning down what could have been a tidy profit. “Connie just looked at me, smiled, and said ‘Merry Christmas, Terry. The car’s all yours,’” Adams said. “He wouldn’t take a cent for it.”
During WWII, an American pilot defected to Nazi Germany. Despite this, he was allowed to reenlist in the US military.
Martin James Monti was born on October 24, 1921, in St. Louis, Missouri. One of seven children, four of his brothers would go on to serve in the US military. Monti had every reason, therefore, to be a patriotic American. And he was, in a way.
The Coughlin way, that is. It all started in the 1930s with Charles Edward Coughlin – a Canadian-American Roman Catholic priest who ran a very popular radio program from Detroit, Michigan.
By 1934, Father Coughlin had a following of tens of millions throughout the US and Canada – making him the first televangelist, albeit via radio. Though initially supportive of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he had a change of heart and became a hostile critic of the New Deal – a series of liberal social programs.
It didn’t take long for Coughlin to become anti-capitalist, however. From there, he became virulently anti-Semitic, as well as fiercely anti-communist. His views made him very unpopular with the Catholic Church which tried to silence him in 1936.
Not that it made a difference, since it made him even more popular among his followers. This encouraged Coughlin to take things a step further by supporting the Fascist regimes of Germany and Italy. It was only when WWII broke out in 1939 that his broadcasts were finally taken off the air.
By then, however, Coughlin had a devoted fan – Monti, who had been listening to the priest’s broadcasts since childhood. In October 1942, the 21-year-old Monti visited his childhood hero and spiritual guide. Whatever happened during their meeting must have had a major impact on the younger man, according to his later psychologists.
Because the following month, Monti joined the US Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet. He finished flight training in 1944, became a commissioned flight officer qualified to fly the P-39 Airacobra and the P-38 Lighting, and got promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.
In August of that year, he was sent to Karachi (then in India, but now in Pakistan) to join the 126th Replacement Depot as a replacement pilot. Shortly after, he was made a first lieutenant. It’s still unknown if he went to India planning to do what he did next, or if something happened there to push him over the edge.
On October 2, Monti went AWOL and flew to Cairo, Egypt aboard a Curtiss C-46. From there, he made his way to Tripoli, Libya which had just been liberated from Axis control. He then made it to the Foggia Air Base in Italy (also under Allied control) where he became chummy with the 82nd Fighter Group… but not for long.
Monti’s next stop was at the Pomigliano Airfield with the 354th Air Service Squadron. It was there that he found a reconnaissance P-38 that had just been fixed and was in need of a test flight. He volunteered to fly it, of course. Not knowing about his AWOL status, they let him.
He flew toward northern Italy, landing in Milan on October 13 – which was still under German control. That they didn’t shoot him down was amazing.
“I defect,” he said… or something to that effect.
They didn’t believe him, of course, which is why they chucked him into a POW camp. But he was consistent with his story. Like Coughlin, he was virulently anti-capitalist, anti-communist, and anti-Semitic.
What he wasn’t, according to his own later testimony, was anti-American. He did what he did to save his country from its true enemy – Bolshevism. It wasn’t his fault that America couldn’t understand the real threat.
Cautiously impressed, the Germans took him to Berlin. There Monti was brought into the SS-Standarte Kurt Eggers studio – a propaganda arm of the Waffen-SS where many foreign defectors worked. He made his first mike test in December and was deemed good enough to make radio broadcasts.
In January 1945, he was employed by the Reich Broadcasting Corporation (RRG) and given the pseudonym, “Captain Martin Wiethaupt.” His job was to be the equivalent of Coughlin, but over German radio.
It was there that he met another defector – “Axis Sally.” Her real name was Mildred Elizabeth Gillars – an American who had married a German and found herself stuck on German soil when the war broke out. It could have been a match made in heaven, but it wasn’t.
Gillars couldn’t stand Monti and threatened to resign rather than continue working with him. Fortunately for her, Monti was useless as a radio personality, so the RRG sacked him. Fortunately for him, he got a job with the SS – writing propaganda leaflets.
It didn’t last. The war ended, and he surrendered to the US military on May 10, 1945… still in his SS uniform. He claimed to have been caught by the Germans, but had escaped thanks to the Italian underground. The uniform? He stole it for his protection and to gather intelligence for the Allies.
No one bought it, of course. As to his brief stint as “Captain Martin Wiethaupt,” he claimed that it was done at the point of a gun. They didn’t believe that either, but they weren’t exactly sure what he did do. All they could do was charge him with desertion and stealing a plane – for which he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
On February 11, 1946, Monti was given another choice – rejoin the military as a private and all would be forgiven. So he became a sergeant when he was honorably discharged on January 26, 1948… then arrested minutes later by the FBI. Military intelligence had found out about his SS affiliation. A federal grand jury charged him with 21 counts of treason on October 13 – remanding him to 25 years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
Monti pleaded guilty to all charges on January 17, 1949 – surprising everyone who had expected a long, drawn-out trial. He changed his tune in 1951, however, claiming he had been pressured into it.
He tried again in 1958, but failed, serving out his term at the Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. They finally paroled him in 1960.
The golden gun of notorious Nazi Hermann Göring is up for auction.
Rock Island Auction Company in Illinois is putting the gold-plated semiautomatic pistol of Göringup for bid in September. The gun, a Walther PPK, has an estimated price of $250,000 to $400,000.
Rock Island Auction said the gun once owned by Hitler’s right hand man, whose name is sometimes Anglicized as Goering, is “possibly the most historic Walther factory engraved pistol that we ever offered for sale.” It’s one of nearly 3,000 items, mostly antique guns, up for auction from September 9 through 11.
The engraving on the gun, which was made in 1939, is a traditional Germanic oak leaf and acorn pattern, according to Rock Island Auction, with Göring’s initials in gold letters as well as his family crest of a fist holding a ring.
Göring was an ace fighter pilot for Germany during World War I who became one of the most powerful Nazi leaders in World War II and a close friend of Hitler. He was in charge of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, which pummeled London during the Blitz and other European cities throughout the war.
The man with the golden gun liked to surround himself with the trappings of wealth and luxury and was infamous for looting the treasures of Jews during the Holocaust.
Göring was convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg but committed suicide before his scheduled execution.
Berlin was a stout place for a fight. It was large, modern and well-planned, which had allowed it to remain less damaged than other German cities, even though it had been heavily bombed. Still, by 1945, approximately 25 percent of Berlin had been destroyed by air raids, but its essential services had never been overwhelmed. Because of its sturdy construction, a great effort would be required to capture the capital city.
The same factors that made Berlin so bomb-resistant also helped it resist ground attack. Throughout the city, large apartment buildings stood on strong, deep cellars. Wide boulevards and avenues at regular intervals served as firebreaks and would also serve as killing zones against Soviet tanks and infantry. Natural obstacles within the city made it even more defensible. The Spree River cut from the northwest part of the city through its center to the southeast. Berlin’s southern approaches were guarded by the Teltow Canal. The center of the city, the heart of the capital, lay in a ‘V’ surrounded by the Spree River and the Landwehr Canal.
Many of the city’s defenders were fighting for survival in the hope that they could delay the Soviets long enough for the Western armies to occupy more of Germany and, hopefully, Berlin. That was a hope that would never be realized, however. Berlin was defended by the LVI Panzer Corps under General Karl Weidling. At the start of the Soviet offensive, the LVI Panzer Corps was still not fully manned and consisted of only two divisions, the recently formed Muncheberg Division and the 20th SS Panzer Division, whose strength had been severely depleted during futile counterattacks at Kustrin. Eventually, the corps would consist of five divisions. When it fell back into Berlin, it lost contact with one division, so the last battle was fought with four divisions, as well as those forces already in the city–a total of 60,000 men and 50 to 60 tanks.
The Soviet armies were well-trained and well-equipped. Their plan was to surround and capture the city on the sixth day of the offensive. By the 11th day, the Red Army was at the Elbe River. Contrary to the Soviet plan, Berlin did not surrender until May 2, a full 17 days after the offensive began. The American and Soviet troops first met on April 25 at the Elbe River, 10 days after the offensive began.
While it is difficult to say exactly how many Soviet soldiers actually participated in the assault on Berlin, the Berlin Medal was awarded to nearly 1,082,000 troops. That means the Soviet forces had more than 10 times the men the Germans had during the fight for the city itself. Even so, it took the Red Army from April 21, when it first reached the city, until May 2 to capture Berlin–a total of 12 days.
The length of time required to capture the city can be explained by the desperate German resistance, the difficulties involved in street combat and the Soviet soldiers’ knowledge that the war was all but over. Soldiers have no desire to die, and it is difficult to motivate them to take extra chances if they feel that their deaths would be meaningless. The Soviet soldier had nothing to gain or prove by dying for the motherland so late in the war. Even so, losses among the three Red Army fronts involved in the operation from April 16 to May 8 totaled more than 300,000 men–over 10 percent of their total strength.
One German soldier who fought during the battle for Berlin was Siegfried Knappe. At the time of the battle, he was a major and the operations officer of the LVI Panzer Corps. Knappe, along with Ted Brusaw, has recently written Soldat, a book on his experiences in the German army from 1936 to 1949.
WWII: How were the defenses of Berlin laid out?
Knappe: The defenses of the city consisted of three rings with nine sectors. The outer ring was about 60 miles in circumference and ran around the outskirts of the city. It mainly consisted of partially dug trenches and hastily emplaced roadblocks. The middle ring was about 25 miles in circumference and made use of already existing obstacles such as the S-Bahn [surface railway] and solidly built houses. The inner ring was the center of the city and consisted of massive government buildings. In addition, there were six bombproof flak towers. Eight of the sectors, labeled A through H, radiated in a pie shape through all three defensive rings. The ninth, Z, was located in the center of the city. Sector Z had its own defensive force consisting of Hitler’s SS guard units. Beyond the flak units there were no regular army units to speak of in Berlin until we arrived.
WWII: How many experienced soldiers did you have in the LVI Corps?
Knappe: I have a report here that gives a good answer to that question. It says that the fighting power when we had all five divisions was the equivalent of two divisions.
WWII: How many men would that be?
Knappe: About 40,000 men if both divisions had their full peacetime complement. The report also says that other units in Berlin were the equivalent of two to three divisions and that the Waffen SS was the equivalent of half a division. All together it says about four to five divisions consisting of 60,000 men with 50 to 60 tanks.
WWII: How good were the other units?
Knappe: Their fighting ability was limited. Some were Volkssturm [Home Guard] and Hitler Youth, and their equipment was very limited. Others, such as the anti-aircraft units, were limited in their mobility. They all tried but were not trained or equipped for infantry fighting. The Russians say in their literature [that we had] 180,000 men.
WWII: That would make it seem like a bigger victory.
Knappe: Yes. They may have come up with that number by taking the number of divisions and using their peacetime complement. But we were not even close to that.
WWII: Did you ever think that you had a chance to win the battle?
Knappe: No. It was clear from the beginning that we had no chance. We were only delaying until the Western powers could get to Berlin.
WWII: Did you ever talk among yourselves and say, ‘We can hold the Russians for a week,’ or some other time period?
Knappe: No, we didn’t put anything in time limits like that. We knew that we could hold out long enough for the Western powers to get to Berlin.
WWII: How did you, as a major, become a corps operations officer? In addition, you mention that the 20th Division was commanded by a colonel, but that is normally a major general’s position. Was that fairly normal during that time of the war–to have a much lower ranking officer in those positions?
Knappe: Yes, during that time of the war crazy things were happening. As I mention in my book, I almost became the commander of a division as a major!
WWII: In Berlin, how did you communicate with and control the troops?
Knappe: We started out with the Berlin civilian telephone system. As quickly as we could, we got our own net, but we did not have all of the communications equipment that we needed. So, we were glad to have the civilian telephone system available.
WWII: How much control did you really have over the troops?
Knappe: We had good control over the troops in Berlin. We lost control over the 20th during the fierce fighting outside of the city, just like the Ninth Army lost control over us. We just didn’t have all of the wireless that we should have had. All of our communications was with makeshift stuff, but we still could manage.
WWII: During World War II, the German army had a lot of ad hoc units. The Muncheberg Division was one of those, and they seemed to have done a very good job from the Seelow Heights, when they first entered combat, until the very end in Berlin. How was the German army able to do that?
Knappe: It was our training. There were still enough well-trained officers and noncommissioned officers that it could work, even at the end of the war. All of them had gone through the same training.
WWII: How could they develop unit cohesion when they were thrown together and then almost immediately sent into combat?
Knappe: That was a function of the officers and noncommissioned officers. Until Stalingrad we didn’t have to do that, but after it became a regular occurrence with all of the losses and retreats. Everyone knew that if they kept together and fought together they could evade captivity or being killed.
WWII: How was the Muncheberg Division formed? Did they take individual soldiers or did they try to keep them in groups?
Knappe: Everyone knew that there would be a big fight for Berlin, and the home units got orders to send everybody to the city of Muncheberg, which is where the name came from. The general staff decided what would be needed to start a new division there. The materiel, artillery, communication equipment and anything else that would be needed was identified and arranged to be sent to Muncheberg. A division staff had already been appointed, and they were there to receive the equipment. So, when the men arrived, the equipment was organized and waiting for them. I did this in France when the Sixth Army was lost at Stalingrad. I went to France, and the people that I needed of all ranks came for a battalion of artillery plus 250 horses and the guns.
WWII: You mention in your book that the Soviets lost an opportunity to seize Berlin sooner than they actually did. Could you expand on that?
Knappe: The time that I was talking about, when they could have had Berlin much earlier than they did, was after the initial breakthroughs in our outer defenses. There was a period of time where our defenses looked like a dumbbell. One end was circling the [Adolf Hitler’s] bunker and one end was circling the Olympic Stadium, which included the Pichelsdorf Bridge, where we were going to break out from, with a very long, narrow strip between the two on either side of Heerstrasse. They could have very easily attacked the bunker area by driving east, straight down Heerstrasse. In fact, they had individual tanks crossing Heerstrasse all the time. We were able to keep in contact with the units around the Olympic Stadium by the subway tunnel that ran under Heerstrasse. Every time I updated the situation map I always wondered why they didn’t realize what they could do. We just didn’t have enough troops to defend everywhere. The Russians just kept attacking where we were the strongest. They kept trying to get to the center of the city by the shortest way when the longer way would have been a lot easier.
WWII: You went into Hitler’s bunker a number of times during the battle. Initially, the guards took away your pistol, but toward the end they stopped searching you and you were able to take your pistol in. You say in your book that you had the opportunity to shoot Hitler, and while you thought about it you decided not to. Could you elaborate on that?
Knappe: If I had shot him it would not have changed anything because the fighting was all but over.
WWII: After all of those years of Hitler being Fuhrer, what caused you to change your mind about him? Did the change occur in a day or two, or was it something that you had been thinking about for some time?
Knappe: It was not a sudden change. It was something that had started right after Stalingrad. It was not just me but a general feeling among the front-line officers. We could see what was really happening.
WWII: What made you think about killing Hitler when the opportunity was presented?
Knappe: Probably his statement to General Weidling when Weidling was asking him for permission to break out and for him to go with us. General Weidling told me that Hitler had said that he did not want to die in the street like a ‘Landstreicher.’ Landstreicher does not have an exact translation into English, that is why my book uses the word ‘dog,’ but a Landstreicher is someone like a hobo or panhandler. Both of us had seen hundreds of German soldiers die in the streets during the war, and now Hitler was saying that he did not want to die like they died. My brother died from his wounds that he received in Russia. So, both of us were very upset by Hitler’s use of this word. It was just such an unbelievable comment, especially to make that type of comment to a soldier. It wasn’t until this time that I finally began to realize what sort of man we had been fighting for.
WWII: So, it was that one statement?
Knappe: Yes. I just had this impulse to shoot him. I wasn’t worried about being executed afterwards, for I thought that I was a dead man anyway. We had recaptured some places from the Russians during the war and whenever we did, we almost always found that the German officers had been executed. So, I thought that the Russians would execute me after I was captured. Unconsciously, I realized that I couldn’t afford to make Hitler into a martyr. This would have created another Dolchstosslegende or’stabbed-in-the-back legend.’ [Joseph] Goebbels [Hitler’s propaganda chief] would have made the most out of it. I’m sure that he probably would have said that if the Fhrer had not been killed by a general staff officer he would have found some way to save the German people.
WWII: You mention in your book that you ate in the bunker when everyone was eating their last meal, before they were going to try to break out, and that you sat at the same table as Martin Bormann, Hitler’s personal secretary. There have been stories for years that Bormann survived the war and has been seen. What do you think happened to him?
Knappe: He is dead. He was fat and untrained. If you are in a battle situation you have to be trained. You need to know what to do when someone is shooting at you. He would not have known what to do when the shooting started. I am sure that he was shot somewhere in the city. There have been several reports from people in that group that he was shot after crossing a bridge. But of course no one in the group checked on him. Everyone was just interested in themselves, and besides, no one had any love for him anyway.
WWII: You were the one who typed the order from General Weidling directing any German soldiers who were still fighting to stop after the surrender?
Knappe: That’s correct. A Russian writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, incorrectly reported that a blond female secretary typed the order. I was blond at the time, but that was the only similarity. [Ilya Ehrenburg was one of the Soviet Union’s top propagandists during the war.]
WWII: After the surrender, you went into a prison camp in Berlin and were transferred to a prison camp in Russia for five years?
Into the White, was a 2012 Norwegian film quite loosely based on real events from World War II’s Norwegian Campaign, when the Allies tried to keep the German’s from engulfing Norway in their quickly spreading military conquests.
The film is a fun and captivating dramatization of how the crews of a German Heinkel He 111 bomber and a British Blackburn Skua (which had shot down the German bomber and crash-landed soon after) survived in the remote Norwegian wilderness in late April 1940.
There are, needless to say, many discrepancies between the movie and the actual events, but both the true story and the fictionalized one are fascinating tales during a tumultuous time.
After Germany had invaded Poland and the British and French were officially at war with the Third Reich, very little conflict ensued between these countries. All had begun to shore up their defenses against each other and naval combat was beginning to break out in the Baltic and North Seas. This is mostly due to the German’s attempts to keep their supply of desperately needed Swedish iron ore flowing into their war machine.
Much of this iron came via Norway. The northern port of Narvik was of special importance because of the iron that could be shipped from there when the Baltic Sea was frozen and treacherous during the winter.
As Europe descended into war, Norway began mobilizing its army, navy, and air force to guard against any parties violating its neutrality. The British and Germans grew more and more bold in doing just that to take hits at each other with navy and aircraft. By early 1940, Hitler was resolved to invade Norway to secure its strategic importance for their war effort against the Allies.
The entire Norwegian Campaign lasted from April 9th til June 10th 1940 until the German invasion of France shifted the bulk of the Allied forces South and Norway was captured, their government went into exile in London.
Despite all the horrors of war, some cooperation between enemies happened way out in the wilderness, if only for survival.
The Heinkel bomber flown by Lieutenant Horst Schopis was shot down by Captain R.T. Partridge and his radio operator R.S. Bostock in their Skua. Schopis’ tail gunner Hans Hauck was dead on impact, but Schopis, along with Unteroffizier Josef Auchtor and Feldwebel Karl-Heinz Strunk, the remaining survivors of his crew, now faced the vast, cold unknown.
They weren’t alone, however. Partridge and Bostock had crash-landed on a frozen lake not too far away after engine failure.
The two crews were nearest to Grotli, Norway, but surrounded by mountains and lakes, and miles from any road.
While trying to bring his sputtering plane into a safe landing, Partridge spotted an old reindeer hunter’s cabin not too far away. They hiked there through the snow, only to soon be set upon by the German crew with pistols and knives at the ready.Thinking quickly and trying to break down the language barrier in a mix of German and English, Partridge convinced the Germans that he and Bostock were survivors of a downed Vickers Wellington Bomber (and not the aces that had brought their plane down).The film adaptation of these events goes quite off course from this point. It portrays both crews staying in the cabin together, the British indignantly sitting as POWs while starting to warm up to their roommates and all cooperating more together over a series of many stormy nights while the food quickly runs out.
In truth, according to Schopis’ memoirs, Partridge had suggested on the first day they met, that the German’s stay in the cabin and the Brits look elsewhere for shelter. That night, the British stumbled upon the Grotli Hotel, closed for the winter, but offering shelter from the harsh weather.The Germans arrived the next morning, and all shared breakfast together.
Partridge and Strunk left that day to search for people and, hopefully, save both crews from dying before they would be eventually found dead after the seasons had finally changed.
They quickly found a Norwegian ski patrol, close enough to the hotel that Bostock could hear the shot being fired which he assumed was FeldwebelStrunk killing his captain. But it was Strunk who lay dead, reportedly shot by the ski patrol as he reached for his pistol
Schopis and Auchtor were taken into custody by the Norwegians, turned over to the British, and eventually sent to a POW camp in Canada where they spent the remainder of the war.
Partridge and Bostock, quite under suspicion for their cooperation with Germans, managed to convince the Norwegians they were, at least, English by showing them their uniforms’ tailor labels and a half crown coin. And through a huge stroke of luck, the commander of the ski patrol happened to have some mutual acquaintances with Partridge.
The two British flyers were set free and hiked to Alesund, a town on the Norwegian coast, many miles away and under heavy German attack. The ship that was supposed to evacuate them and other British soldiers never arrived, so they boosted a car and drove to Andelsnes, to the Northeast, where they managed to secure passage back to England.
In June 1940, while assaulting the German battleship Scharnhorst, Partridge was shot down and captured by the Germans, spending the rest of the war as a POW. Bostock, flying again in a Blackburn Skua, was killed in the same battle.
Many years later, in 1977, Schopis received a phone call from Partridge, and the two met as friends in their hometowns of Munich and London.
Partridge’s Skua was recovered and sits on display at the Fleet Air Museum in Yeovilton, Somerset England. Schopis’s wrecked Heinkel still waits, lonely atop the mountains near Grotli, Norway.
German Military History with a focus on World War 2 History including other areas of German History