Monday, May 23, 2016

The Swiss Military Museum


On Armed Forces Day (21 May), I drove to Switzerland and visited the Swiss Military Museum at Full-Reuenthal  (http://www.militaer-museum.ch/ ).  It was a remarkable experience that exceeded even my most optimistic expectations.

I find Switzerland fascinating.  They are a fiercely independent people and guard their freedom jealously. Their military is based on a small standing Army and a large citizen militia, with universal conscription and reserve service. Each Swiss Reservist keeps his military service rifle at home, along with ammunition and the rest of his equipment, with which he is expected to practice to maintain proficiency. Organized shooting is a national pastime on a far larger scale per capita than in the United States (and you thought *we* were a “gun culture”!)

Our nation’s founders held Switzerland in high regard, looking to its history and institutions as inspiration for our own Republic.  Conversely, the Swiss Constitution of 1848 was influenced by ours. 

More details here:
http://stephenhalbrook.com/law_review_articles/swiss_confederation.pdf

Although Americans seem to be more familiar with Germany (perhaps because so many of our ancestors came from there, and because of generations who have served there during and after WWII), the United States actually has much more in common with Switzerland.

I had visited Switzerland once before, in April 2010. At that time I wanted very much to visit two sites that are central to Swiss history: The Bundesbrief Museum and the Rütli meadow.

The modern Swiss Confederation dates their history to 1291, when the Federal Charter (Bundesbrief) was signed and sealed. The original document is preserved in a museum in the town of Schwyz.  This document is viewed by the Swiss in much the same way that we view our own Declaration of Independence.  I got to visit the Bundesbrief Museum and to see this original document from 1291 on display. No photos were allowed, but it can be viewed here:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Charter_of_1291

The other historic site was the Rütli meadow.  This is the site where the leaders of the Waldstätten (now Cantons) of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden gathered on the shore of Lake Lucerne to take an oath of mutual defense against external aggression (the “Rütlischwur”).  The meadow occupies a similar place in Swiss history as our Lexington and Concord – it is hallowed ground, the site of key events in the story of the Swiss national origin.  The exact date is a matter of some conjecture, but 1307 seems to be generally accepted.  This oath is also part of the story of William Tell, although his role has been romanticized in much the same way that Paul Revere has become symbolic of the events of April 18th- 19th, 1775.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%BCtlischwur
In 1991, for the 700th anniversary of the Bundesbrief, authorities dedicated the “Swiss Way”, a commemorative hiking path around Lake Lucerne, with monuments along the way commemorating each Canton’s entrance into the Swiss Confederation.  I couldn’t help but compare it to the “Battle Road” between Boston, Lexington, and Concord.
Not coincidentally, my visit to Rütli in April 2010 coincided with the Second Amendment March on Washington, which I could not attend.  Instead, I participated by hiking a portion of the Swiss Way around Lake Lucerne to the Rütli meadow.  I wore the Second Amendment March t-shirt and presented a commemorative coin to the curators of the museum at the site.   

The Rütli meadow, viewed from across Lake Lucerne

 

 



One of the markers on the "Swiss Way"

 

The Rütli meadow
                                                                                                                                                                                  (Photo
I am a student of military history, and love to visit museums and battlefields.  Although Switzerland has remained neutral and has not been actively involved as a nation in an armed conflict for generations, maintaining that neutrality has required a substantial investment in military preparedness. 

The most severe test of this neutrality came during WWII, when Switzerland was threatened with invasion by Nazi Germany and incorporation into the Third Reich.  How they prepared to resist such an invasion, ultimately deterring  it, is the subject of two different books by author Stephen Halbrook.  His books “Target Switzerland” and “The Swiss and the Nazis” detail Swiss national preparations during this period, and are very interesting reading. 

The Rütli meadow is important in modern Swiss history as well, in a way very closely related to my more recent visit.  In 1940, under the shadow of a threatened invasion by Nazi Germany, General Henri Guisan gathered the senior commanders of the Swiss Army in the Rütli meadow and outlined his plan for total resistance.  This was a defining moment in the history of Swiss armed neutrality and national identity.  Imagine a modern American leader gathering his commanders at Lexington or Concord for a similar purpose! 

This was the context for my visit to the Swiss Military Museum – a desire for a more complete understanding of Swiss military history, particularly their preparations for resisting a Nazi invasion.  As I said earlier, I was not disappointed!

The museum is located in Full-Reuenthal, just across the Rhine river from Germany.  It is about a two hour drive south from Stuttgart, and I couldn’t have had a more beautiful day for the drive.  Southern Germany is beautiful, and as I approached the Swiss border, I could see how the terrain (and of course the Rhine river) form a natural frontier boundary between the countries.

The museum consists of two separate facilities.  The main museum in the town of Full is located in what looks like an old industrial installation on flat terrain at the level of the river.  The second installation is up the mountain in the village of Reuenthal, and is inside an old border fortification.  I visited the main museum first.

The building is an unlikely-looking facility for a museum.  It looks for all the world like an abandoned factory of some kind, which it probably is. 

















Inside, however, the layout is innovative and unusual, very effectively using the available space.  Platforms on several levels are joined by various stairways and walkways, with thematically-organized collections of military artifacts on each, as well as a variety of vehicles (including aircraft suspended from the ceiling).  I will include just a few photos of things I found particularly interesting, although they in no way capture the extent of the collection).
 
German V-1 "Buzz Bomb" from WWII

 

A display of Swiss military bicycles - these two are modern

 

Older Swiss military bicycles
 


From the other side.  I like the way the rifle is mounted


 

They used a tactical medium girder bridge as a walkway.
 I have built this bridge in the field.
 


There was an entire room dedicated to models of military
vehicles. Most were displayed in cases with labels, but
this enormous diorama of an American military
formation during WWII was quite impressive!























Outside of the main museum, in a neighboring building, is a very impressive collection of military vehicles from several nations and eras.  Again, I could not even begin to capture the entire collection, but a few photos will give a representative sample.



I saw this and thought "M38A1", but was surprised to read that
it is actually a commercial CJ-5 that the Swiss Army bought
and put into service.
 


An overview of the vehicle display. Visible at right center is a
US M3 Stuart (I sure wish the one at Camp Perry was this well
maintained).  At left center are two Soviet T-34's. The one with
the turret markings took part in the invasion of Germany in 1945.

 
 













 
One thing that repeatedly impressed me about this museum was the quality of the signage on the exhibits.  It was very thorough, and generally gave not only the history of the type of vehicle, weapon, or other artifact, but also often gave the history of the specific example on display, such as where it was used and how it came into the museum’s possession.  It may seem trite, but I couldn’t help thinking that such thoroughness and precision are very much in keeping with the Swiss character.

Another thing that impressed me was the quality of the vehicles, weapons, and artifacts themselves.  Nearly everything was in excellent condition.  Many museums will display vehicles that are in various states of decay, with rust, worn tires and tracks, missing components, etc.  But in the large exhibit hall that displayed the vehicles, it smelled mainly of fresh paint.  The vehicles are almost all in running condition, are exceptionally well-preserved, and usually included not only the vehicles themselves, but also many artifacts (such as weapons and personal equipment) stored in them so as to demonstrate how they would have looked when in active service.  I do not remember ever seeing another museum with quite this level of attention to detail.

After I had toured the museum, I visited the museum gift shop and rummaged through a variety of surplus military uniforms and equipment, as well as books and manuals.  I added two books to my library. One is called “Schweizer, Das Musst Du Wissen” (“Swiss [citizen], This You Must Know”), a quite interesting  citizen’s handbook. It is a pretty comprehensive overview of Swiss history as well as civic, political, geographic, and economic information about the country.  It made me wonder if something similar might be in order for Americans.  The other book is called “Bürger und Soldat” (“Citizen and Soldier”).   Published by the Swiss Officer’s Association in 1944, it is a collection of essays by Swiss officers on various aspects of being a citizen-soldier and the attendant responsibilities. Each is written in the language of its author (German, French, or Italian), so I won’t be able to read them all.  But it seemed a good addition to my collection of books on the subject, and should provide some interesting perspective.

















After finishing with the museum, I drove up the mountain to visit the fortification.  I expected a tour something like my tours of Fort Douaumont at Verdun or Fort Schoenenbourg on the Maginot line.  While there were definite similarities, this was, in my view, more interesting and well-presented than either of the others had been.

First a bit more history:  In the 1930’s, Switzerland began constructing extensive border fortifications along its frontier with Germany.  This particular fort was built to watch over and protect a section of the Rhine river that included a dam and hydroelectric plant, as well as a flat area with an island in the river that could have served as an invasion route if the dam were to be blown up and the water level in the river lowered.  The fort consists of a large complex of very thick underground concrete bunkers, with emplacements for artillery pieces overlooking the river valley below as well as machinegun emplacements designed for close-in defense against an attack on the fort itself.
The entrance to the fort


 

















A plan and aerial view of the fort. The entrance
is at upper left. The two outer circles are
observation and machinegun positions.
The two inner circles are the cannon positions.
The various support facilities are on the right.
 






















Terrain model showing the location of the fort (red arrow)
and the portion of the Rhine it covered (left side and beyond)


The museum was manned by volunteers from a historical preservation society.  While not a guided tour per se, they posted themselves at a few strategic spots in the fort and explain its workings.  They all wore quasi-military clothing, and are (or were) undoubtedly reservists in the Swiss Army.  They treated me with great courtesy as an American officer, and called me “their honored guest”. 

First I climbed up into an artillery observation post, from which an observer would have pinpointed enemy movements and called their locations to the gun positions.  This was a really cool setup.  The observation telescope was on a swiveling mount, and was connected to a mechanism that traversed over an engraved graphic representation of the terrain in the valley.  Various pre-plotted firing coordinates were already marked on this metal “map”.  There were elevation and traversing controls, with a moving clear plastic square marked out in a grid.  By simply looking at the desired target through the telescope, the coordinate location was automatically pinpointed on the map, and the coordinates easily read out.    

Steps leading up to the first machinegun post, and a
view of the tunnel leading to the rest of the fort.
 















The artillery observation post. Unfortunately, the glare
from the light makes it hard to see the graphic
plotting mechanism.

















Then I climbed up into one of the machinegun posts that could set up a crossfire in front of the fort to fight off an infantry attack.  It was equipped with a mounted water-cooled MG, set up in a similar manner with pre-plotted target points and a traversing/elevation mechanism so as to be able to place fire on a designated point communicated by an observer, or to fire based on observation through a scope on the machinegun itself.  Unlike water-cooled MG’s set up for field use, this one was hooked up to an integrated plumbing system with a continuous condensation/reclamation mechanism.  Theoretically such a gun could fire almost non-stop until it ran out of ammunition (of which they had Plenty!).    Very cool.
Two of the volunteer guides demonstrating the machinegun.
The blue pipe brings in fresh air.
















Finally, I climbed into one of the two artillery bunkers.  This was equipped with a 75mm cannon with a range of about 10-12 KM.  These cannon were the main reason for the fort’s existence.  The fire-control mechanism was the same as the machineguns, albeit with different pre-planned targets. The guides let me sit down at the controls, and called out coordinates for me to direct fire.  I adjusted the traverse and elevation to their specifications, and they then had me look down the open bore of the gun.  It was pointed directly at a farmhouse across the valley on the other side of the river.  Pretty neat stuff.  I was confused at first because they described the cannon as "halbautomatisch” (semiautomatic), but I saw no magazine.  It turns out that in this context, they meant that it ejects the shell casing automatically upon firing, and that when the new shell is inserted into the breech, it locks automatically.  The shell still has to be picked up and inserted by hand, however.  They told me that a crew of five men operating the cannon at maximum efficiency could get off 20 rounds per minute.  Pretty impressive.
75mm cannon with aiming mechanism.
 


















After this, I walked down the tunnels expecting to see the predictable sort of exhibits – soldier’s quarters, workshops, medical facilities, radio room, kitchens, that sort of thing.  They were there, as expected, and were very well-presented and interesting.  But was I ever in for a surprise!  I had thought that the museum was housed primarily down below, and that the fort would simply be the fort.  But many of the rooms, as well as one of the main tunnels, were set up as museum exhibits in their own right.  There were room after room of exhibits, with a breathtaking array of weapons and equipment.  For me, as a military firearms enthusiast, it was really almost overwhelming. I wished that I had had an entire second day to visit. (I had originally planned to stay overnight, but changed my mind and came on a day trip – if I had it to do over again I’d definitely make this a two-day trip).
The rooms were thematically organized, more or less corresponding to the various major participants in WWII:

 
Swiss Army
 
 


British Army


 
 
A one-shot flamethrower.  Never heard of this before!

Japanese and German Armies
  
 
 
 
 







American and French Armies
















One of the most interesting rooms displayed a variety of documents and artifacts from Swiss Nazis.  There was apparently a fairly strong Nazi movement in Switzerland both before and during WWII, which I had never heard about.  I stayed in this room for quite awhile, reading some of the documents they had on display. There were a variety of movements that had a more-or-less common threat of Nationalism, Socialism, German identity, and “Erneuerung” (renewal).  These movements were eventually all brought under the aegis of the Nazis and assumed Nazi structure and regalia.  They even had Hitler Youth.  Not a side of Swiss history that I had ever seen or read about.  I was impressed that they gave it such a comprehensive exhibit.

A Germanic Unity flag from before WWII, along with a
Swiss Nazi flag and uniform.


 


Nazi propaganda


 
 
 
Nazi propaganda and documents


 
 
 









This hallway had a quite impressive display of weapons, including a really exceptional display of pistols.  I stood and studied many of them for quite some time.  They actually had more varieties of the Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” than the Mauser museum in Oberndorf!  They also had a couple of very interesting P.38’s, one of which was an original “HP” Heeres Pistole (“Army Pistol”), which is what Walther called the pistol before it was officially adopted by the German Army in 1938 and given the P.38 (“Pistole 38”) designation.  I had never seen one of these before, except in books.

A row of Swiss K31's.  I have some friends who shoot these.




 
 
 
 
Quite a collection of Mausers.




 
 
 
 
An interesting comparison of the Mauser C96 and an
Artillery Luger with snail drum magazine.   I could
have purchased one of these Lugers at Fort Bragg for
$3500,but passed on it.  It later sold for $12,000.   Doh!




 
 
 
 
The pistol on the bottom left is a Walther HP ( Heeres Pistol),
precursor to the P.38





 










At one point in the afternoon I stopped in the canteen and had a bowl of Gulaschsuppe and some bread (delicious), along with a beer.  While eating there, I noticed that they had some interesting souvenirs for sale.  The entire museum is supported by volunteers and private donations, plus what they can earn from the gift shops. Apparently the military surplus they sell is all donated.  In the canteen, they sold bottles of wine “Festungswein” or “Fortress Wine”) that is made locally by one of their volunteers from his own home-grown grapes.  They sell these bottles either  individually  or in a package of two, housed in an old Swiss Army mess kit.   I was tempted, but did not buy one of these.
The other possibility, however, was a Swiss Army Feldflasche (Field Flask), complete with fitted aluminum cup.  This is sold full of “Festungsschnapps”, also made locally by a volunteer from home-grown grapes and plums.  I found this irresistible, and so acquired another souvenir of my visit.  The volunteer in the canteen was very generous with free samples of schnapps as he retrieved, cleaned, and filled my flask, so I walked out with a bit of a buzz in addition to my new Feldflasche.  :)

My Feldflasche, filled with Festungsschnapps.





















By this time, the day was nearly over.  The museum was only open from 1000-1700, and fort from 1300-1700.  I wasn’t really finished, and could have spent more time in the various rooms examining the exhibits in detail, but there just wasn’t time.   So I bid my guides farewell and found my way out.

The drive home was just as beautiful as the drive down.  I should probably have made it a bit longer trip and spent some time enjoying that part of Germany and/or Switzerland, but there’s only so much you can do.  Perhaps another time.

Meanwhile I have fond memories and some nice keepsakes, including fresh reading material for my ongoing exploration of what it means to be a citizen-soldier defending a free nation.

Mood: Exhilarated
Music:  Rossini (William Tell)

Friday, May 06, 2016

A Most Dangerous Book

What is Germany, and who are the Germans?  What does it mean to be German? These questions have engaged European thinkers for centuries.  In “A Most Dangerous Book – Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich”, Christopher Krebs illuminates the role of that book as a central element in the struggle of the German people to define themselves, culminating in their descent into the darkness of National Socialism. A remarkable work of historical scholarship, this book deserves a place in the library of any serious student of German history.

From the introduction:  “…the ideology of Nazism did not present itself to Hitler out of nowhere…In the formation of the core concepts of National Socialist ideology – racism, the ideology of Volk and its spirit, and the selfsame Germanic myth – Tacitus’s Germania played a major role.”

He continues: “Ideas resemble viruses: They depend on minds as their hosts, they replicate and mutate in content and form, and they gang up together to form ideologies. They spread vertically through generations as well as horizontally from one social group to another.”  Krebs presents his book as an “intellectual epidemiology”, examining how the ideas in the Germania were passed down and understood through the centuries, eventually informing the ideology of the Nazis.

What is the Germania?  Written by the Roman historian Tacitus in A.D. 98, it is a booklet of about 30 pages that describes the nature, habits, and customs of the tribes that inhabited the region north of the Danube and east of the Rhine, which the Romans called “Germanien”.

Tacitus wrote that “The tribes in Germanien, not tainted by intermarriage with any other nations, exist as a distinct unadulterated people that resembles only itself. Consequently, all of them even share the same physical appearance…fierce blue eyes, tawny hair, huge bodies.”  Nobody, he said, would move to their country, as it is “wild in its scenery, harsh in its climate, and grim to inhabit and behold.”  He described their habits and morals, focusing on the values of freedom, fortitude, morality and simplicity, highlighting their connection to the climate and the soil.  He also discussed their devotion to military valor, writing that “nothing is done without weapons.”

Krebs notes that Tacitus most likely never actually visited the region, instead taking his descriptions from various sources and weaving them into a narrative “written by a Roman in Rome for Romans.” Nonetheless, his Germania would be rediscovered in the 15th century and come to be regarded as an authoritative portrait of the ancient Germans.

It is important to recognize that there was no single German nation-state until Otto von Bismarck unified Germany into the “German Reich” in 1871. During the time of the Holy Roman Empire or “First Reich” (962-1806) the region had been a bewildering checkerboard of kingdoms, duchies, counties, free cities, and other sovereign entities with shifting alliances and little in the way of a unified identity.

The central part of Krebs’s book is devoted to a detailed examination of how the Germania was treated by various writers and thinkers from the 15th through the 19th centuries.  It is a fascinating tour de force through European intellectual history, focusing on the way in which Tacitus’s work was used and abused to serve the purposes of various political and intellectual movements.  This portion of the book provides a rich source of follow-on reading to anyone interested in delving more deeply into the subject.

Successive translators of Tacitus infused their translations with their own ideas and biases. During this period, the understanding of Tacitus’s idea of the ethnological and racial purity of the Germanen evolved to include linguistic purity – the German language came to be identified as a unifying feature of German culture.  In the absence of political unity, this linguistic connection became an important defining characteristic of what constituted a German.  Teutonic mythology and Germanic folklore and literature thus became vehicles for the campaign to define a German “national character”.

Educational and other cultural and civic institutions coalesced around the idea of the Volk (people) as the centerpiece of German identity. The emerging völkisch movement in the late 19th century emphasized racial, linguistic, and cultural purity, and extolled Germanic values such as physical fitness, loyalty, martial prowess and closeness to the soil. In all of this, Tacitus’s Germania loomed large as an authoritative portrait of the ancient Germanen and the virtues they embodied.

The last chapter of the book, “A Bible for National Socialists”, details the myriad ways in which the ideology of National Socialism built on the völkisch movement and on the portrayal of Tacitus’s ancient Germanen as a source of pride in Germanic heritage and faith in their destiny as the master race.  The excesses and evils of German National Socialism and Hitler’s “Third Reich” that sprang from this belief in the superiority of the German race – racial purity laws, aggressive war for world domination, and the holocaust – are well known.

As the author writes in his closing line: “In the end the Roman historian Tacitus did not write a most dangerous book; his readers made it so.”  Modern readers seeking to understand the development of the German national character will find this book an important and rewarding source of information.

Mood: Pensive
Music: Wagner, Die Walküre

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Steinbergen

Steinbergen, Germany,  9 April 2016

I spent a long weekend in Steinbergen, Germany, where my father-in-law, Aarol “Bud” Irish, was ambushed by Nazi SS troopers while on a reconnaissance patrol on April 9th, 1945. Three members of his five-man patrol were killed, his driver was wounded, and he was clubbed over the head and left for dead by the Germans. He later received the Silver Star for his heroism after he insisted on returning to the scene guiding an ambulance to rescue his driver and the wounded tankers who had been sent in after his patrol and had their tanks destroyed.

I spent Friday and Saturday (8-9 April) riding my bicycle all around the area, using Bud's letters and a variety of military history references to understand the battle for the Wesergebirge and to try to find the location where the ambush took place. I learned a lot about what happened here from 8-11 April 1945.

















This trip was important to me for several reasons.  For one, I am very interested in military history.  I also love to hike and bike, and a chance to combine military history, hiking and biking in Germany is irresistible.  This place also has a great significance to my family. The events of that day had a profound effect on Bud Irish, and impacted the way he lived his life after the war:

“I can’t explain it, but when you know that because someone else took all the bullets that might otherwise have gotten you, a person feels he just can never do enough to make up for them.”
– Corporal Bud Irish, April 1945

Before I describe my trip, here is a little background: 

The events I was researching here took place from 8-11 April, 1945, in an area known as the “Wesergebirge”, or Weser Hills.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesergebirge ) This is a long, steep, heavily-wooded chain of hills that runs east-west for about 15 miles or so from the Weser River.  It is steep and impassable except at certain passes or gaps in the hills.  If you look at the satellite view on Google Maps you can see it stands out from the more open country to the north and south, effectively dividing the area in two.  On the Google map below, Steinbergen is to the east of where the pointer defaults to, just northeast of the town of Rinteln, and south of where B83 crosses under A2. 

Google Map of Wesergebirge 



The references I started out with were Bud’s letters (published in the book “A Thousand Letters Home” by Bud’s daughter (my wife), Teresa Irish (www.AThousandLettersHome.com ).  He was a corporal in the 102d Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop of the 102d Infantry Division.  He and his men led the way as the 102d fought their way across Germany.  Bud wrote very detailed descriptions of where he’d been and what he saw, which gave me a good idea where to start.



Bud's recon team in his jeep "Why Worry", April 1944
















I also had excerpts from the book “102d Through Germany”, the divisional history published shortly after the war.  It gave valuable information about the division’s campaigns, including a map of the division’s movements during this time.


Map of the Wesergebirge campaign from "102d Through Germany"














Finally, I had read some local German history on the area that I found on the internet, which made me very optimistic that I could find the spot he wrote about in his letters.  They are in German, but I’ll include the links here just for completeness:

http://www.52gradnord.de/Steinbergen_geschichtl.html

By April, 1945, the Allied armies were driving rapidly through Germany.  German resistance was scattered, but strong in places.  Many thousands of German soldiers were surrendering, but there was still a lot of very tough fighting going on as they hit areas where the Germans had been able to organize a defense. The 102d crossed the Weser River on 9 April 1945 and drove to the east, splitting up and moving on both the north and south sides of the Wesergebirge.  This was some of the toughest country to fight in because of the steep, heavily-wooded hills.

From “102d Through Germany”, 9 April 1945: 

“…a two jeep patrol was ferreting out strong points for CT 406. As Sergeant John H. Davis, Erie Penn, and Corporal Aarol W. Irish, Hemlock, Mich, cautiously headed up the road towards Steinbergen, heavy machine gun fire raked the road from hidden positions…”

From Bud’s letter to his parents dated 12 April 1945:

"It all seems like a bad dream now and the time that went by seemed like years…We had to jump from our jeep when the Germans started shooting with everything they had, and it so happened that right where we stopped were a few rocks to give us protection. The fellows with armored cars did all they could to get us under cover, but no one could move an inch from cover without getting it. My buddy and I laid behind the rocks while bullets hit so close that pieces of stone would hit us and a small piece even hit my cheek. There aren’t words to say how scared we were and how hard we prayed. The only satisfaction I’ve got is to know I hit two of them with bullets from my rifle and saw them fall. Two days later found them still there, dead…”

From Bud’s letter to his fellow veteran Lowell Adelson in 2002: 

“The S.S. must have sighted in on our jeep right away as one of the first bullets hit the front tire and another went thru the steering wheel and Cliff’s right wrist. He jumped out on the left side, I jumped out on the right, and Eldon Case jumped over the back (planned in advance if we were ever hit)… Where I jumped out by the road was a large stone or marker, I’m not sure which, about six inches high and a yard wide. The shooting had stopped and Case crawled over and lay beside me. We hoped Cliff had jumped in the ditch and escaped on the other side. It was all quiet, we had no time to make radio contact. The horror had been over in seconds, and then we looked up over the stone and saw probably 50 - 100 S.S. storm troopers coming down the road toward us. There was an officer in front with a small machine gun. About 25 yards away they spotted us and Eldon Case said, “My God, they’re going to get us” or “they’re going to get me,” I never really knew which. The S.S. officer emptied his machine gun at us and every bullet went into the ground and into Case. We were so close together I could feel them hit. I either buried my face into the dirt, or my guardian angel pushed it there. They slammed Case over the head with a gun butt and then me.”

“From that time on things were a little foggy for me. I sort of remember them searching my pockets and taking the only thing I carried on missions, a folder with the picture of my girl I hoped to marry with my serial number on the back. All was silent. They must have returned to the mountains. Later two 701st buttoned down tanks went by somewhere near. I heard big gunfire in front but didn’t know whose it was, and then all was silent again. Time passed by and I realized the S.S. must have taken my wristwatch. Next that I remember was a sorrowful call for help! I didn’t answer, for sometimes the enemy was known to do that, and when the soldier answered they put a bullet through his head. I finally decided it was real and asked, “Who are you?” He replied, “I’m from the 701st. They blew up our tank, the others are dead and I crawled back here. I’m shot through the belly and bleeding to death.” I told him, “Lie close to the ground, take off your belt, put it over the wound and shut off the blood. Is there anyone else?” Another voice said, “Yes, and I am shot thru the thigh.” I said, “Do what I told the other fellow. I can really run and if I can escape, I promise you, I will come back with an ambulance if I have to steal one.”…

“I don’t know how much time had passed. I started to run, zigzagging like we were taught to do. About half way back to the village and houses, I remember crossing a small bridge over a creek. I jumped from the road landing with a splash. Someone shouted, “Irish.” It was Cliff Vohrer lying in the water with blood flowing from his wrist and coloring the water. I used his belt to stop the blood flow and he wanted to go with me. I told him two of us would never make it, but I would get an ambulance and come back for him and the two other fellows. I had my breath back and took off again on a dead run. Reaching the houses I saw one of our men standing in the doorway. For some reason I didn’t stop running ‘til troops stopped me three or four houses later where we were out of view. Captain Shanks from the 701st listened while I told him all that had happened. Also, more of our recon were there and called up the medics. There was some discussion about sending in an ambulance as it was reported the Germans had killed seven medics in the past 10 days as I recall it. I told them I had made a promise to three wounded men that I would be back with an ambulance if I had to steal one. Some person then asked if I would be willing to go back with them, standing on the running board, waving a medic flag and show them where the wounded men were. I agreed and without a shot being fired by the Germans, we picked up the three men. Then, I don’t remember for sure, but I believe someone shoved a needle in me, loaded me in an ambulance and I woke up sometime at daylight the next morning in the hospital tent…”

“The next days were a blur at best, ‘til I remember Sergeant Erickson telling me I had to get dressed up. He helped me shine my shoes and said the general was coming for inspection the next morning and 100% of the troop had to be there. When they called my name, “Will Corporal Irish please step forward?” I thought they were going to court martial me for something that must have happened that I couldn’t remember. Instead, they pinned a Silver Star on my chest and my living buddies had their picture taken with me.” 



Corporal Aarol "Bud" Irish receiving the Silver Star























“Bill King, Georgia; Aarol Irish, Mich;
Irve Hayes, Mich; Warren Cooley, Mich.
 Buddies throughout WWII. Taken day
Irish received Silver Star for gallantry in action.”
























These letters gave me several clues to finding the location of the ambush.  I needed a place where the road passed by a mountainside headed for Steinbergen.  It needed to be within running/walking distance of another village where the HQ was set up, and should have a little river with a bridge in between. In comparing the descriptions in Bud’s letters with maps of the area, I had narrowed the possibilities down to about three or four places I thought I should look. 

Then I read the German history sites, and my search narrowed dramatically.  They described the defense of Steinbergen in some detail.  To the west of town, the defensive positions were manned by Volksturm troops (Home Guard). According to this account, they were forced to dig fighting positions and were given Panzerfausts (anti-tank rockets), but they all disappeared before the Americans arrived. To the north of the town, the Arensburger pass was defended by “fanatical SS officer candidates from the nearby SS academy at Braunschweig”.  Bingo!  This had to be the place.  The websites even had photos showing the hillside where the defense was set up – a place called the “Hirschkuppe”. B83 runs south past the mountain through the Arensburger Pass  toward the town of Steinbergen.  About 300 meters  south of the Autobahn on B83, on the eastern wide of the mountain, west of the road, is the spot where the SS set up their ambush.

Description in German:

"Die alten Männer Steinbergens, die nicht zur Wehrmacht eingezogen waren, mußten unter Leitung des Steinberger Försters Reinhard, Anfang 1945 am Westhang der Hirschkuppe viele Fichten fällen und diese zu über 2 m langen Stücken zersägen. Daraus wurden drei massive Panzersperren gebaut, eine im Fuchsort an der alten B 238 Richtung Rinteln, eine zweite im Arensburger Paß an der B 83 Richtung Bückeburg (ca. 300 m von der Autobahnbrücke in Richtung Steinbergen der B 83) und eine an der Straße nach Obernkirchen und ins Auetal..."

"...Bei der anderen Panzersperre, die im Arensburger Pass, wurden mehrere amerikanische Panzer durch fanatische junge SS-Soldaten mit Panzerfäusten abgeschossen. Dieser Paß durch das Wesergebirge sollte mit aller Macht verteidigt werden. Dort wurde noch gekämpft, während Bad Eilsen schon längst durch die Amerikaner besetzt war. Am Hang der Hirschkuppe gab es schwere Kämpfe und viele tote deutsche -  25 sind bekannt  -  und eine unbekannte Zahl tote amerikanische Soldaten.“

Translation:  

"At the beginning of 1945, the old men of Steinbergen who hadn't been drafted into the Army had to cut down many trees on the west side of the Hirschkuppe and saw them into pieces over 2 meters long under the direction of Forester Reinhard. From these, three massive roadblocks were built, one in Fuchsort on the old B238 in the direction of Rinteln, a second in the Arensburger Pass on B83 in the direction of Bückeburg (about 300 meters from the Autobahn bridge in the direction of Steinbergen) and one on the road to Obernkirchen and in Auetal..."
 
“...At the other roadblock, the one in Arensburger Pass, several American tanks were destroyed by fanatical young  SS-soldiers with Panzerfausts. This pass through the Wesergebirge was to be defended with all possible strength. There was still fighting there, when Bad Eilsen had already been occupied by American troops.  On the slopes of the Hirschkuppe there was heavy fighting and many dead Germans – 25 are known – and an unknown number of dead American Soldiers.”

Link to the photos:

http://www.52gradnord.de/hirschkuppe.html#Kaempfe1945

That was the extent of my knowledge when I went to go see what it all looked like on the ground.

I drove up on Thursday (it’s about five hours north of Stuttgart).  My route coincidentally took me to the west, so that I approached the Wesergebirge moving west to east, the same way the 102d would have done.  I passed through the Teutoberger Wald (Forest), another historical place I wish I had time to explore. This was the place where three Roman legions had advanced into Germanic territory in AD 9 to chastise the barbarians.  Instead, they were completely destroyed, and Rome more or less left the Germans alone after that.  Passing through there kind of set the stage for my weekend.

I crossed the Weser River and drove east along the Autobahn, turning off on B83 to go south into Steinbergen.  This was exactly the location that my research indicated the ambush had taken place, so it was a really interesting way to drive into the town for the first time!

I stayed in Steinbergen in the hotel “Steinberger Hof”.  It was very conveniently located just down the road from where I wanted to look.  Fortunately, the food is excellent, as it also seems to be the only restaurant in town!  I got up on Friday morning, had breakfast, and headed up the road toward the Arensburger pass and the Hirschkuppe, hoping to find the spot. 

My bike is a hybrid “Trekker” type bike – kind of a cross between a road/commuter bike and a mountain bike.  It has some mountain bike features like a shock absorber in the front fork and 27-speeds with good low gears, but it definitely does not have mountain bike tires.  German bike paths are mostly paved or gravel, but the footpaths can be muddy, and here I even got off of those.  So it wasn’t too long before the bike was locked to a tree and I was climbing around the hillside on foot.

The area I was looking was on the west side of B83, about 300m south of the Autobahn bridge, as described in the German descriptions of where the SS set up their defenses.  The hillside is very steep in that area, and flattens out a little as you go further south towards town.  I got to the area on the hillside where I thought it was likely that the SS had their positions, then I climbed down to the road to see if I could find a “large stone or marker… about six inches high and a yard wide.”  The road has been widened since 1945 into a four-lane highway, so there was very little chance of finding it.  But I thought it was worth a look. 

I didn't find the stone, but examining the road made it clear why.  The east side of the road (on the left heading into town) drops off quite steeply into low, swampy ground with several ponds.  The former two-lane road most likely followed what are now the northbound lanes. When they widened it to create two new southbound lanes, they would have cut into the hill on the west side, changing the lay of the land significantly.  It now slopes up very steeply from the southbound lanes, and the shoulder of the old two-lane road where Bud and Don Case would have jumped out and crawled behind the rocks is completely paved over.

While I was down on the road looking around at all this, I got an unexpected bonus. There was a road crew doing street repairs right across from where I was standing.  As I stood studying the terrain, looking up and down the road, and consulting my map, one of the workers came over and asked me if I was lost and if he could help.  He thought I was a hiker, and wanted to tell me that it was dangerous to walk on that stretch of road.  When I told him what I was doing there, his face lit up.  He told me that he is interested in the military history of the area, knows a lot about the battles, and has several relevant books in his library at home.  We discussed the details some more, until his coworkers called him back to work. We traded phone numbers and agreed to meet later that evening for a beer.

I looked up and down the road some more, then went back to my bike and rode up the other road that goes under the Autobahn bridge (Arensburger Strasse, L442).  It turns out there is a large house/mansion there (a “Schloss”, which can be anything from a large house up to a real palace).  This one looks abandoned or at least unoccupied, and all the property east of B83 between the two roads south of the Autobahn bridge is part of the grounds and posted no trespassing, so I couldn’t go in.  This was a shame, because there are some ponds and streams in there, and I suspect that the bridge that Bud saw his wounded driver Cliff Vohrer sitting under is probably in there – it would be the logical place to run after getting ambushed from the west side of the road.

One aspect of my morning exploration really pointed up the value of walking the terrain.  Studying the maps and written accounts beforehand, I had been confused about how and where Bud could have run back to the village, if this was in fact the place.  This would have required him to cross the Autobahn, which would be difficult anywhere except where the roads crossed it.  But when I saw it in person, I realized that the entire stretch of Autobahn from just west of B83 to just east of Arensburger Strasse (the road to the east that makes a kind of triangle with the Autobahn) is a huge, high bridge with multiple arches. It would have been very easy to run through the swampy woods around the Schloss and cross under the Autobahn anywhere along this stretch.  I had missed this when looking at the map, although the bridge symbols are there when you look very carefully.  The aerial photo below (from the German website) shows the whole area. I just hadn't made the connection until I saw it in person.  This shows the value of direct reconnaissance, and the importance of what Bud's team was doing.  You can look at maps all day long, but until you go there and see it, you don't really know.

The Autobahn bridge, looking south. Schloss Arensburg is at
 left center, with the Hirschkuppe on the right. The lighter
areas are the cliffs and high ground that were defended by the SS.


















All this only took part of the morning, so I decided to wait to look around anymore until after I’d met with my prospective new  friend.  I rode my bike over to Rinteln, a historic old fortess town on the Weser southwest of Steinbergen.  It was really cool – nearly every building in the old town was several hundred years old, with Fachwerk (exposed wood frame) construction.  It’s what every town in Germany probably looked like before they got plastered by bombs and artillery in WWII and had to be rebuilt.  I had a nice afternoon there, and then rode back to my hotel to meet with my new friend.

He came at about 6:00 PM, and we spent a couple of hours talking about the WWII history and a lot of other stuff.  (Of course, to answer the questions Teresa will undoubtedly ask me, I learned his marital status, number of kids, their ages, etc.  Sorry, I didn’t get their names so don’t ask).  ;)   We looked at the books he had brought along, as well as my maps.  He told me a lot of the history of the area and pointed out some things to see, many of which were already on my list.

When it was time for him to go, I offered him the copy of “A Thousand Letters Home” that I had brought along, as a “thank you” for spending the time with me.  He accepted it, but insisted on giving me one of his books in return.  I had already written down the title and author, intending to buy it, but this was even better!  We wrote inside the covers to commemorate the occasion, and he went home to his farm where he collects tractors and works on restoring the Fachwerk house (See, Teresa, I did pay attention to something besides guns and military history!).  J

The book is called “Damals” (“Back Then”), a history of the Second World War between Teutoburger Forest, Weser River, and Leine.  It is perfect – very specific to this area, and to the period in question. 




















I look forward to reading the whole thing, but I zeroed in on those passages that directly relate to my quest, and learned something very interesting that cleared up a point that I had found confusing.  The 102d Division map shows an axis of advance moving eastward directly down the spine of the Wesergebirge.  On 9 April  It stops at the Arensburger pass, then shows further progress east on 10-11 April.  But for the other descriptions to make sense, Bud’s patrol had to be coming in from the north, meaning they’d advanced on the terrain north of the Autobahn or perhaps on the Autobahn itself.  I finally decided that the arrows on the map were not exactly accurate, but showed the general direction of movement.

What the book “Damals” made clear to me was something I didn’t know before – the 102d Infantry was *not* the first U.S. division to fight through this area.  The 84th Division had already passed by on the north, and had then moved on as the 102d moved in.  From pp 137-138:

“Der Arensburger Pass blieb noch weitere Tage uneinnehmbar. Die 84. US-Inf.-Div., war nach Hanover weitergezogen. Einheiten der mit Sauberungen des Hinterlandes bauftragten 102. US-Inf.-Div. sollten sich mit dieser “harten Nuss” weiterbeschaeftigen. In der Nacht von 10. Zum 11. April wurde Artillerie eingesetzt….”

Translation: “The Arensburger pass couldn’t be taken for several more days. The 84th US Infantry Division was ordered on toward Hanover. The 102d US Infantry Division, charged with cleaning out the rear areas, had to take over cracking this “tough nut”. In the night from 10-11 April, artillery was brought into action…”

So - The U.S. 5th Armored Division and 84th Infantry Division had crossed the Weser River on 7 April and begun fighting their way east.  They had moved quickly, bypassing strong points of enemy resistance.  The 102d came in behind and had the unenviable job of finding and clearing these out.  Sometimes euphemistically called “mopping up”, this is actually very dangerous work.  This is exactly what the division history said Bud’s patrol was doing as they approached the still-defended Arensburger pass.  They found the strong point the hard way, and the next couple of days saw heavy combat in the area as American artillery pounded the town and surrounding hills, and the infantry and armor pushed through.

The book has a lot of photos, and these two were especially interesting and relevant:

"This Ami (American) quickly reads a letter from
home, to raise his morale at the last minute. Two
hours later he reached the Weser River with his unit."

















This photo shows vehicles crossing the Weser River
on a pontoon bridge.



















Friday had been a very interesting day!  I went to bed with big plans for Saturday.

On Saturday 9 April (today), I got up and took an ambitious (for me, anyway) bike ride east along the Wesergebirge toward a local castle called the “Schaumburg”.  According to my new German friend, “there is a town in Illinois that was founded by people from this town”.  I confirmed that I knew the town, and told him that my friends and I used to go there and hang out in Woodfield Mall (when it was just about the *only* mall around – Hawthorne hadn’t been built yet and Old Orchard was boring – Woodfield was the place to go).

So I visited the castle at Schaumburg, which was interesting, and then continued on down onto the flat countryside south of the Wesergebirge to the town of Hessisch Oldendorf.  This town was also an older town with a lot of Fachwerk buildings, although substantial numbers of newer buildings told me it probably was heavily damaged in the war.  It was doubly interesting from a military history standpoint.  First, when the 102d Infantry took Hessisch Oldendorf on 11 April, that was considered the end of the battle for the Wesergebirge.  They then moved on to other areas, and eventually to occupation duty.  Oldendorf, like Rinteln, was planned and built as a fortified city by the Counts of Schaumburg in the 13th century.  It holds the distinction of having been the first town in history to have been taken in a battle in which artillery was the deciding factor (28 June, 1633, during the 30 Years War).

I rode back to Steinbergen across the low country by the Weser River, enjoying the beautiful sunny April weather.  It was cool enough to be very comfortable riding, but with plenty of green, lots of buds on the trees, and birds singing, it really felt like Spring.

When I got back to Steinbergen, I decided to visit the cemetery, as I understood that some of the German soldiers who had died defending the pass were buried there.  My friend said he thought maybe there were also Amerians there. There were a number of graves, some with names and several that said “Unbekannte Deutsche Soldat” (Unknown German Soldier).  Most had dates of April 1945. I didn’t see any American graves, though. I sat there for awhile in their silent presence, reflecting.



















After visiting the cemetery, I rode back to the Arensburger Pass and walked the terrain again, partly just to be there on 9 April, and partly because I wasn’t satisfied with the photos I’d taken on Friday.  I took some photos and a video of the area.


 
This the site where I believe the SS had their ambush
position set up.  You can just see the Autobahn bridge
 in the background, looking north on B83.
 
This is the view looking south down the road towards
Steinbergen. There were most likely more defensive
positions further south on the hill on the right side of
the road, creating a defense in depth.




This is a link to a video I made while standing on the site of the photos above:

360 degree panoramic video of the ambush site. (YouTube link)

(Note: In the video narration, I mentioned that I thought I was about 200 meters south of the Autobahn.  Looking at the map and aerial photos afterwards, I believe it was closer to 300).

After making the video, I made a stunning discovery.  On the ground very close to where I was standing, I found a small stone marker about four inches square, with a cross carved in the top.  It is a different type of stone than that which naturally occurs in the area – it actually looks like rough, unpolished marble.  It is also completely immovable – it only sticks up a couple inches above the ground but feels as if it’s very deeply buried.  It is definitely a deliberate marker – almost certainly marking the place where a German soldier (or soldiers) died.





































This confirmed to me beyond a doubt that I had found the spot where the German defenders had set up their positions.  (You can actually see this marker just left of center in the second photo above, but I had not yet noticed it). Who knows – this could even be for the German soldiers that Bud wrote about having killed before he and Don Case ran out of ammunition and were overrun.  In any case, this one simple stone affected me as much or more than anything else I had seen all weekend.

It was a very eerie feeling to stand on that spot and imagine the hell that had taken place there 71 years earlier between the young men of two opposing armies.  It’s one thing to read books and look at maps, but there’s something about actually walking the ground and knowing “this is where it happened” that makes you really pause and think.  It’s one of the reasons I like to visit historic places. 

I’m glad I came here.  I never got to meet Teresa’s dad, but this makes me feel a little closer to him somehow.  RIP, Bud Irish, and thank you to the Greatest Generation.















Mood:  Thoughtful
Music:  Silence