Ep. 51 Gerhard moves up in the ranks


Interpreter at work.

Gerhard was not present for the demise of the 134th Infantry Division. He wintered in the Zhizdra region in 1943 but two months before the division was decimated he was released to attend interpreter school at Wehrmacht headquarters in Berlin.

GERHARD I read a report that men who wished to study the Russian language were needed and that the studies would take place in Berlin, so I volunteered. For six months I was spared the misery of the Front, plus I received a further two weeks of special leave. Each day away from the Front was precious.

 At the interpreter school we had to learn the proper Russian language and were drilled repeatedly.

Gerhard was released from the 134th ID military police squad “C” on April 10, 1944 to join Interpreter Training Unit 21 at the interpreter training unit in Wehrmacht headquarters in Berlin[1]. He had already been serving the Division as an interpreter and now he was to receive the required training to teach his Hiwi (volunteer) countrymen to be interpreters.

Interrogation of captured Soviet

Captured Russian interrogated in the field.

Little has been written about the roles of interpreters in the Wehrmacht during World War Two but it is clear interpreters served in many aspects of the war. Interpreters listened in on enemy broadcasts, intercepted radio transmissions, arranged troop accommodations, interrogated prisoners, directed slave labourers, and conducted negotiations at the highest and lowest levels. While interpreters had no authority of their own, they were the vehicle through which authority flowed. According to Miriam Winter in Das Dolmetscherwesen im Dritten Reich, even the death squads of the Einsatzgruppen used interpreters “conceivably from the German-speaking minorities encountered” but little is known of their roles.[2]

The requirements of warfare, however, are such that the use of many millions of foreign workers of various ethnicities in the Reich today place the interpreter and translator in one of the most important and decisive wartime positions.[3]

It must have felt good for Gerhard to be in the center of things, at the right hand of officers and in an important position with the Wehrmacht. Because of his language skills Gerhard was in a temporarily powerful position. A superior officer may have chosen the questions, but he was first to know the answers.

German interrogation of a Soviet partisan, 1942.

Interpreter taking notes.

Germany expected a high demand for interpreters even before invading Russia and developed an intensive five-year training program.[4] By the time German tanks first crossed into Soviet Union, 50,000 qualified interpreters were on the job.[5] However the five-year program was suspended during the war[6] and, as in Gerhard’s case, training shortened and focussed on typical military situations faced by interpreters. Most interpreters served in propaganda companies and in signal corps; but Gerhard’s retrievable military record ends with his transfer to the interpreter unit, so we don’t know what unit he served after his training.

Professor G. Werkhaupt of Leipzig Commerce School produced an interpreter’s manual for soldiers in the field and undoubtedly Gerhard would have used this book. It poses typical questions interpreters would ask during their duties in both German and Russian, and also gives the Russian pronunciation of the questions. Here is a sampling:

Dolmetscher book cover. jpgWhere are you coming from, where are you going, how tall is the church tower, where is the artillery, how many guns do they have, where is their munitions dump, where are their machine guns, are the streets barricaded, is the river fordable, where are the bridges.

I am the billeting officer, I need accommodations for 10 officers, 100 men and 20 horses, give me the name of the mayor of this city, I arrest you as a hostage, I seize your city coffers.

Are you a deserter, from which army corps, division, brigade, regiment, are you a negotiator, who sent you, where are your credentials, I’ll take you to the colonel under a hood, let me blindfold you.

Are you a spy, don’t lie or you’ll be shot, what is your occupation, take off your shoes, take off your clothes, empty your pockets, cut open the lining of your coat.

Lieutenant - tanker Wehrmacht interrogating Soviet POWAre there any partisans here, the village will be destroyed if there are partisans, the village will be spared if it shows good will, we will burn houses that protect partisans, you will be shot and your village destroyed, I will hold you personally responsible, you are liable to pay with your head.


Germans interrogating villagers.

Don’t lie or you’ll be arrested, don’t lie or you’ll be severely punished, you absolutely must obey, betray us and you’ll be shot, hurry up.

Russian prisoner interrogated by a German interpreter.

Hurry up, show me, read it, write it down, get ready, come with me, halt or I’ll shoot, put your weapon down.[7]

To be the vessel through which these highly consequential questions, demands, orders and threats flow, cannot leave a person unaffected. For Gerhard who was fluent in German, Russian and Ukrainian the linguistic task was easy, and to once again be in a position of respect and trust must have driven his commitment to the Nazi cause.

The Wehrmacht demanded a high level of trust of its interpreters, especially among native Russian speakers in conquered lands. As an interpreter he was entrusted to faithfully and accurately interpret what was said or written, and equally required to represent National Socialism and its concept of Gleichschaltung (synchronization) during the course of his work.[8] Gerhard doesn’t say how conscientious he was about convincing prisoners of war to become Nazis, but then, why would he? His memoirs were not a baring of the soul, they were a statement of only those things he wished others to know. Sometimes the silence also becomes part of the narrative.

GERHARD After six months of study, I was promoted to Sonderführer “G”. After my promotion I received a two-week leave and then it was off to work with the Russian volunteers [Hiwis] who were helping the Germans against the Russians. We were sent to the front in Silesia [southwestern Poland]. We had to explain everything to the Russians in Russian and then to the commanders in German.

In the Wehrmacht, Sonderführers were soldiers with specific skills needed by the military but without the full military training or the authority of regular officers. As a Sonderführer G, Gerhard’s rank was equal to a non-commissioned officer such as sergeant, known in the German army as feldwebels.  Some Sonderführers took military training so they could transfer to the reserve officer corps but Gerhard doesn’t mention it.

* * * * *


Bombed out Berlin 1945

Gerhard’s time in Berlin coincided with the carpet-bombing campaigns of Britain and US. In a total war, little thought is given to the morality of bombing non-military targets. The justification given is that by bombing civilians in their work places, homes and hospitals, the people will prevail upon the military leaders to give up the fight. However, as both sides were keenly aware, in total war neither side gives up.

Frampol before and after
Frampol before and after.

Having crossed the moral divide from killing soldiers to murdering civilians, all participants set about improving tactics and the effectiveness of incendiary bombing. The Luftwaffe used the small Polish town of Frampol to test the effectiveness of its carpet bombing techniques. Within hours half of the 3,000 inhabitants were dead and 90 per cent of the community obliterated. Frampol was just a trial run, the village had no military significance. Historian Norman Davies writes in Europe at War 1939–1945: No Simple Victory: “Frampol was chosen partly because it was completely defenceless, and partly because its baroque street plan presented a perfect geometric grid.”[9] The British upgraded their “de-housing” tactics by sending in first a small flight of planes which dropped red and green marker bombs, the next flight, much larger, dropped incendiary bombs which set fire to whatever it hit  and then the third flight dropped the explosives.[10]

Berlin, Opfer eines Luftangriffes

Civilian victims of blanket bombing Berlin.

On Valentine’s Day, 1945, British and American bombers dropped 650,000 explosive and incendiary bombs in one day and night over Dresden killing more people than the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki or Hiroshima.[12]

GERHARD One could never imagine the things I saw and experienced there. Often there were alarms in Berlin where the Americans attacked without pity and destroyed anything possible including hospitals. Then after the attacks we soldiers had to clear the streets to make them passable again.

There were large houses built of bricks where we took our shelter when the alarms signaled another bombing, under those houses. There was a passage from one house to the other and that’s where we often sought shelter. After a bombing attack of hundreds of planes, very little of those houses remained standing. When the attack ended we had to dig out women and old men from the houses that were destroyed. Only a few survived.

One day around noon, we were studying and the alarms rang again. Suddenly the bombs fell and everything was burning as if the world was coming to an end.

Our whole quarter was on fire and we had to clear the streets. Both sides of the street were burning and we went out in masks to clean up. It was so hot when the houses on both sides of the street were burning and it took quite a while before the fire department could get through.

The sky over Berlin during a raid by British bombers.Berlin was under constant bombing attack from August 1943 until the end of the war in 1945. The Americans hit Berlin with 700-bomber waves on March 4, 6 and 8, 1944. “The awesome procession was 70 miles long with planes at various altitudes over a span of 4,000 feet.”[13] When Gerhard saw the arriving bombers, he said there were so many the sky darkened.

When Gerhard joined his Hiwi unit in the south, they were transferred to the Western Front. Gerhard’s superiors believed Russian volunteers would fight harder against American, British and Canadian soldiers than against Russian soldiers. In transit they passed by the city of Ulm.

GERHARD It was already near the end of the war and the Americans came with so many planes they hardly knew where to throw all their bombs. As we watched there must have been 700 or 800 bombers over the city of Ulm.
Ulm before

Ulm before …

Ulm after

Ulm after.

In Ulm, Gerhard experienced one of the heaviest bombings in Britain’s carpet bombing campaign. On December 17, 1944 in a 27 minute period nearly a hundred thousand explosive and incendiary bombs fell, all but levelling the entire city. Under the rubble lay 707 dead and 613 injured and 25,000 survivors were homeless. Gerhard thought there were “700 or 800” bombers, but in fact it was 317 heavy Lancaster bombers and 13 twin-engine Mosquitos that 43-year-old Friedrich Glauninger heard above the fog enveloping the city. Glauninger was a lookout perched in the tower of the great church of Ulm 200 feet above the medieval city square and he gave the air raid warning. He watched as people scurried for shelter. Air raid warnings were a frequent occurrence, there had already been two warnings in the morning, but this time the engines did not recede into the distance. He could see the red and green flares and knew the bombers weren’t far behind. In the morning all the buildings around the church were destroyed but the church was hardly damaged.[14],[15]



[1] According to military records received from Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt) Berlin.

[2] Winter, Miriam, Das Dolmetscherwesen im Dritten Reich Gleichschaltung und Indoktrinierung, Peter Lang, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, Frankfurt am Main, 2012, page 28. [all translations by author]

[3] Winter,Miriam, op. Cit., page 28-29

[4] Winter, op. Cit., page 25.

[5] BArch R43II/ 1257e, fol. 28 quoted in Winter,op. Cit., page 28.

[6] Winter, op cit., page 25.

[7] Werkhaupt, G., Deutsch-russischer Kriegs-Dolmetscher für Soldaten, Helios Verlag Franz A. Wolfson, Leipzig, no date.

[8] Winter,op. cit., page 48.

[9] Davies, Norman, Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory, p. 297, 2006 quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Bombing_of_Frampol accessed April 5, 2017.

[10] Vansant, Wayne, Bombing Nazi Germany, The Graphic History of the Allied Air Campaign That Defeated Hitler in World War II, Zenith Press, 2013, page 16.

[11] http://ww2db.com/photo.php?list=sp&sp=series&image_id=17716 accessed April 5, 2017

[12] Lefever, Ernest W., Why Agonize Over Hiroshima, Not Dresden?, Los Angeles Times, August 30, 2000, http://articles.latimes.com/2000/aug/30/local/me-12456, accessed April 6, 2017.

[13] Vansant, op. cit., page 18.

[14] Storytelling: Die Multimedia-Reportagen der SÜDWEST PRESSE, Die Nacht der 100,000 Bomben, http://storytelling.swp.de/bombennacht/ , accessed April 26, 2018.

[15] For a lovely streetcar journey through the city of Ulm in 1922 go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGSQYh3M0zE, accessed April 26, 2018.

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