Ep. 41 Gerhard, Hero and the Hiwis

People who knew Gerhard before I did say he never spoke of the war. In his memoirs the details are few as you will see. They say that’s how it is with people who have been to war. It causes pain to relive the misery. He wasn’t being evasive, he wrote only what he wanted me to know. Which arouses my curiosity. What actually happened there? He makes only a single reference to the military unit that “captured” him; the 134th Infantry Division. Among his papers he left a single clue in the form of a few notes scribbled on the back page of an old address book under the heading “places of importance:”

We will visit those places in due course.

134th ID symbol

Emblems of the 134th Infantry Division. They look nice.

The 134th Infantry Division of the Second Army of the Wehrmacht had been steamrolling across Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia for more than a year when Gerhard encountered it. It was an integral unit in the centre of the German attack on Russia, having ranged 2,000 kilometres cross country since its inception in Regensburg, Germany in 1940. Its battle-hardened veterans fought in France and Poland and formed the core of the division. From the highest ranking generals to the regular soldiers, the division was brimming with confidence. Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt declared the war in Ukraine was won. Lieutenant General Erich von Cochenhausen told the troops that Russia was on the ropes, and the decisive blow would be struck before winter.

The 134th Infantry Division was gathering prisoners of war at a staggering rate. Daily reports[1] show on September 18, 1941  the division captured 1,148 prisoners of war, on September 19, 3,113, and on September 20, 1,823. Was Gerhard one of them? We’ll never know but during the month of September the division captured over 16,000 Soviet prisoners.

By the time the first Battle of Kiev was over 616,308 Russians were dead[2] along the southwestern front. Of the 750,000 Soviet soldiers captured when the Germans took Kiev in September 1941, just 22,000 lived to see Germany defeated.[3]

GERHARD After a few days we ethnic Germans were asked if anyone could work with horses. We were all farmer’s sons and we were all good with horses. Naturally we all could and so we were established as a transport column and brought supplies and munitions to the front. We became horse-drawn Supply Column 11 as part of the 134th Infantry Division.

To understand Gerhard’s role in things, here is a sidebar on military organization. A division in military terms is a unit of 10,000 – 15,000 people capable of independent operation: this means it brings its own infrastructure with it. Gerhard’s division comprised three infantry regiments: Infanterie-Regiment 439, 445, and 446; an artillery regiment: Artillerie-Regiment 134;  a signal corps battalion: Divisions-Nachrichten-Abteilung 134; an engineer battalion: Pionier-Bataillon 134; an anti-tank battalion: Panzerjäger-Abteilung 134 and a supply battalion: Divisions-Nachschubführer 134 (400-1,000 each). Gerhard found work in the supply battalion. The infantry regiments themselves were subdivided into three battalions each containing 14 companies (100-250 each). The division also contained other specialized companies: doctors and veterinarians for people and horses, ambulance companies carried the wounded to safety, ordnance companies provided the ammunition for the weapons, mechanics companies kept the machinery rolling and postal companies delivered letters from home. And there was a brass band.

Infantry division schematic

This is what an infantry division looks like to a general. If you want to know what the symbols mean visit http://www.niehorster.org/011_germany/symbols/_symbols_41.html. Gerhard found work in the bottom right rectangle, the supply units.

In the big picture a division is a small unit: two or more divisions under the same command forms an army corps. An army consists of two or more army corps under the same command. Two or more armies make up an army group. Germany’s eastern front was organized into three army groups: north, centre and south.

Gerhard’s division was under the command of Army Group Centre.

It had only been a couple of weeks since the division had decided to cream off some of the “better” prisoners of war who spoke German to work in the supply battalion. Gerhard’s company was designated as Fahrkollone 11. German supply columns consisted of six separate types:

  • Fahrkollone – horse drawn wagons carried up to 29.5 tons
  • Leichte Fahrkollone – horse-drawn wagons carried up to 16.7 tons
  • Leichte Kraftwagon Kollone – motorized unit carried up to 29.5 tons
  • Schwere Kraftwagon Kollone – motorized unit carried up to 59 tons
  • Leichte Kraftwagon fur Betriebstoff – motorized unit carried 5,500 gallons of fuel
  • Schwere Kraftwagon fur Betriebstoff – motorized unit carried 11,000 gallons of fuel
Supply column4

Supply train

Gerhard’s initial duties on Fahrkollone 11 led to other duties such as riding ahead of the columns, which could stretch for 70 miles, to find accommodations for the men and horses.

GERHARD Then I was selected as an interpreter to ride out with a non-commissioned officer to find feed for the animals and accommodation for the troops. I also delivered the mail to our unit and so they gave me a huge chestnut stallion to ride – his name was Hero. There was no stopping Hero, no trench was too wide and no fence too high for him to leap over. These were often dangerous journeys because the partisans in the forests attacked small groups of soldiers.

Hannoverian war horse

A common perception of the German military in Second World War is that of a mechanized fighting force – Panzers racing across the steppes of Ukraine or crashing through the forests of the Ardennes. Yet 80 per cent of all German transport was by the use of horses. Of the 322 Wehrmacht and SS divisions, only 52 did not include horses. A typical German infantry division had 10,000 men, 5,000 horses and a 1,000 horse drawn vehicles. German infantry marched into battle on foot, with supporting weapons and supply trains propelled almost entirely by horses or mules. Much of the field artillery in infantry divisions was horse-drawn, at least eight horses per gun, plus spare teams.

The horses used in the German military came from the state stud farms that today supply the world’s greatest show jumpers and dressage horses: Oldenburg, Hannoverian, Trakehner, Holsteiner and other state controlled breeds. Each stud had precise training and breeding requirements for military horses and stringent riding requirements for officers who must be horsemen.

German war horseAt any one time during the war, the German military had a million horses in its service – more than the entire horse population of Canada today. For Operation Barbarossa 750,000 horses served alongside 600,000 vehicles, 3,350 tanks and 2,000 aircraft and three million men.

With all those horses the German military employed 37,000 farriers and 262 companies of veterinarians who treated 100,000 horses a day and returned 75 per cent of their patients back into battle.[4]

horse really stuck in mud

Things were different in Russia

German war horses were sturdy animals between 15 – 17 hands high at the withers and were bred for specific uses. During times of war, breeding reflected the characteristics of military horses, during peace time breeding reflected farming uses. Holsteiner was the oldest of these ancient breeds having been bred by the monks of Uetersen since the 13th century. The Trakehnen horse was almost extinguished by the Soviet invasion of East Prussia in 1944. In the 1930’s there were 10,000 Trakehnen breeders and 18,000 registered mares. By 1944 there were less than 700 of the breed left to escape across the frozen Vistula delta along with the refugees of Königsberg.

While they were elegant, sturdy military horses, the German war horses were not meant for the hostile winters of the Russian steppes. Many soldiers came to rely on panje horses indigenous to eastern Europe and Russia. Panje horses are 12-13 hands high at the withers and weigh about 800 pounds. They are shaggy and short and withstood the Russian winter better than the German breeds.


Soviet First Guards Calvary Corps

Russians on panje horses ca. November-December, 1941, USSR — Soviet First Guards Calvary Corps, November/December 1941. — Image by © The Dmitri Baltermants Collection/CORBIS

Horses presented their own challenges and became essential as British and American bombs reduced the number of motorized vehicles which could be produced. Horses need to be fed between 12-20 pounds of feed per day or they need to feed on grass for eight hours a day. They need to rest; after ten days of medium load they begin to break down and they are limited to travelling 30 kilometres per day. Horses are susceptible to diseases such as mange or pneumonia, and in combat conditions on the eastern front, frost bite. From December 1941-January 1942, 179,000 German horses perished.

dead warhorse

Hero did not perish that January, but suffered the fate of many German horses – he was placed in the harness.

GERHARD By 1943 the horses had become tired and feeble, after all that time on the Russian steppe, the snow and the cold, and then the rain and the frost. We lost many horses, and in time Hero too was harnessed in a team for pulling. He too was broken. He wasn’t bred to pull.

You can feel the empathy Gerhard had for his horse. He saw his beloved Hero break down, and other horses also beloved by their riders broke down, he saw men break down, suffer and die. Gerhard did not break down, he survived.

* * * * *

If Gerhard had any pangs of conscience over joining the German military, he doesn’t mention it: in fact he wrote it was the fulfillment of a great wish. Any Mennonite revulsion against non-violence was whittled away by years of humiliation and persecution. What can you do when you are swimming against the stream? In any case, his options were few. He exercised his best chance of immediate survival and would deal with his conscience later.

He was one of a million Soviet citizens who joined the German forces. During  the D-Day  invasion in June 1944, British and American military authorities on the western front estimated that one out of every ten German soldiers captured was in reality a Soviet citizen.

German soldier with Hiwi

The unarmed one is the Hiwi.

The German name for them is the Hilfswillige,[5] abbreviated to Hiwi. When Germany attacked Soviet Union on June 21, 1941, Wehrmacht soldiers were surprised to find that many local populations welcomed them and were eager to help them overthrow Stalin. Life in the Soviet Union was shrouded in fear. Who will be next? As an enemy of the people Gerhard would always be a target but there were other reasons Russian citizens wanted to help the Germans. Landowners had been deprived of their land and of their ability to farm it. Perhaps they would get their land back. Personal property was nationalized and became public property. Within its borders USSR contained over 100 distinct peoples, many of them saw the Germans as a means to create their own national homelands. Finally, the Russian military leadership had been gutted by Stalin and many generals carried their grudges to the German side. Some, such as General Andrey Vlasov, formed divisions of the Russian Liberation Army composed of Russian citizens.

In late 1942, Hiwis comprised 50 percent of the 2nd Panzer Army’s 134th Infantry Division, while the 6th Army at the Battle of Stalingrad was composed of 25 percent Hiwis. By 1944, their numbers have grown to 600,000 men and women of the Soviet Union serving Nazi Germany. Veteran Hiwis were practically indistinguishable from the regular German troops, and often served in entire company strengths.[6]

Not only were ethnic Germans predisposed to joining with the Germans, the “quiet in the land” Mennonites were also eager to jump on the bandwagon. Gerhard was not so different from other Mennonites, after years of perceived abuse, revenge was on the menu. Gerhard’s options were few but his inclination was clear: he was German.


Hitler opposed using Hiwi’s, fearing attack from the rear, but for the leadership in the field, this help was too good to pass up. In fact, the Wehrmacht was soon using starvation and torture to convince captured Russians to “volunteer.”[7] Whether they knew it or not, crossing the line carried severe consequences: Hiwi’s who surrendered or were caught by the Russians were executed on the spot. At the end of the war many committed suicide rather than return home. Those who survived the war were sent to the gulag, and were deprived of their civil rights, including the right to vote, until 1995.

Cossack hiwis

Cossack hiwis

Why did so many Soviet citizens fight against their own government alongside a foreign invading army? Lt. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, Polish war hero, provides this opinion:

In my opinion there is one reason which explains everything: the general hatred of the Soviet system, a hatred greater than inborn patriotism and loyalty to one’s own government. Those who have not seen the limitless degradation of man in what was the Soviet hell cannot understand that a moment may come when a man out of sheer desperation will take up arms against the hateful system even at the side of an enemy. The responsibility for his mutiny falls on the system and not him. Here the notions of loyalty and treason lose their meaning. If, in the eyes of many people, Germans who fought against Hitler were not traitors, why should the Russians who fought against the Soviet system be traitors?[8]

Most of Gerhard’s personal war-time experiences remained known only to him. Reading his memoirs, it is as if  the war happened to somebody else. Yet his division engaged in lengthy periods of continuous combat, and also periods of occupation. Did Gerhard do things he later regretted? It’s too late to find those answers. But it is not too late to find witnesses who lived under the occupation of the German army and who lived in the battle zone as the front swept back and forth.

In the next episodes we find the witnesses and hear their stories.




[1] Available through http://www.wwii-photos-maps.com/index.html. You need to use the FTP server.

[2] Erickson, John, ed., Barbarossa: The Axis and the Allies. Table 12.4 quoted in http://necrometrics.com/battles.htm#Leningrad, Death Tolls for the Man-made Megadeaths of the 20th Century, Pieces of Wars, Matthew White, 2004

[3] Judt, Tony, Post War A History of Europe Since 1945, http://erenow.com/modern/postwarahistoryofeuropesince1945, accessed April 10, 2017.

[4] Paul Louis Johnson, Horses of the German Army in World War II, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., Atglen, Pa. (2006).

[5] Literally “volunteers.”

[6] Thomas, Nigel (2015). “Eastern Troops. Hilfswillige”. Hitler’s Russian & Cossack Allies 1941–45. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 13–15, 57. ISBN 1472806891 cited in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Hiwi_(volunteer), accessed Feb 28, 2018.

[7] Antony Beevor, Fall of Berlin 1945, Penguin Books, New York, 2002.

[8] Feldgrau.com, Research on the German Armed Forces 1918-1945, Russian Volunteers in the German Wehrmacht in WWII, by Lt. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders and Antonio Munoz http://www.feldgrau.com/WW2-German-Wehrmacht-Russian-Volunteers, accessed April 6, 2017

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