LA STORIA DI UN PARACADUTISTA
Data: 12-04-2006Autore: VARIListe: ARTICLES IN ENGLISHCategorie: TestimonianzeTag: #febbraio 1944, #marzo 1944, germania, paracadutisti, veterani-reduci

A PARATROOPER’S HISTORY

by Hans Jurgen Kumberg

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First I’d like to give you a brief account of my life before becoming a Paratrooper in Italy. I was born Aug 6, 1925 in Ventspils, Latvia of German parents. My father was a teacher at the German Gymnasium. The arrival of Germans in that part of Eastern Europe dates back to 1197 when Crusaders, not being able to go to the Holy Land anymore, were sent by the Pope to Christianize that part of the world.
In 1939, after the start of World War II and the occupation of Poland, the Germans in Latvia, of whom there were about 90,000, had the choice of being repatriated to Germany.

Giving Poland access to Baltic Sea, this corridor separated the Province of East Prussia from the rest of Germany, making it an island. My parents settled in the City of Posen (Poznan) where in June 1943 I finished Grade 12 High School. Since I was to join the army at that time I received my matriculation without having to finish the last grade. After returning in 1947 I had to go back to High School for one more year because post war Germany did not recognize the former rule.
At the age of 17, still in school, I volunteered to become a Paratrooper after having watched a movie on how the island of Crete had been conquered by them. But first I had to join the Arbeitsdienst (work service conscription). Every boy and girl, after finishing school, had to serve there for a one year term. The boys learned how to dig ditches, build roads, and all kinds of hard manual work while the girls worked in farm kitchens or old age homes. Needless to say our term was cut short due to the need for us to go to war. At 18 years of age we were sent away.

Our unit was stationed in the Province of Holstein, north of Hamburg, where nearly a week of nightly air raids destroyed a large part of the City of Hamburg. It was July 1943 and you could see the flames and the smoke of the burning city for miles. After a short train trip we had to march for more than thirty miles to get to Hamburg. The nights were spent in the bomb shelters at the airport and we helped to clear the streets of debris during the day.
My call to the army came in August and, after a six week training period in Southern France, we boarded a train that travelled along the Riviera past Genoa to the Adriatic coast near Pescara.

We, the young Greenhorns, were not sent to the front lines right away but to get acclimatized were put to dig foxholes under the Olive trees. After Christmas we fìnally joined our comrades at the front lines. An 800 foot wide gully separated our foxholes from those of the Canadians. Relief was possible only during darkness. So the two men in their foxhole had to usually spend 8-10 hours there.
It was raining constantly for about 6 weeks in January and February 1944 and we bailed the water out of the foxholes all the time. We were wet and miserable and so were the Canadians across from us.

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Our Quarters were about a mile back in a cave that the Italians had dug for their own safety. But by now all civilians had left since the front lines were stationary. There was only spontaneous Artillery and Mortar fire. Here I experienced my first brush with death. My comrade and I were sitting in the cave, not far from the entrance, when a mortar shell having risen over the hill came down and exploded right in front of the entrance. A fragment of the shell had entered the chest of my friend who died instantly after having spoken just seconds before. I was in total shock. You hear only a brief hissing noise before a mortar shell explodes.
In the meantime, the first battle at Cassino had taken place 17th January - 18th February, 1944 and the lst Paratroop Division was being transported from the quiet Adriatic Sector, along the "Gustav Line", to the all important Cassino battlefront. Our Division was self-sufficient consisting of 4 Regiments each supposedly having 90 officers and 3,250 men, one armoured car Battalion, and one anti-Tank Battalion. The first Regiment had suffered heavy casualties in the first Battle (only 660 men had survived). We of the 4th Regiment arrived at Cassino at the end of February 1944, 1160 men strong.
We had been transported in trucks and arrived on Route 6 in darkness at the foot of the Monastery Mountain where we disembarked and had to climb up, through a gully, with all our equipment towards the north of the Monastery.
This route was used every night to bring food and ammunition, not to forget water, to the soldiers at the top. It was constantly being shelled.
On February 15th the Monastery had been destroyed by more than 500 Allied bombers. The ruins of it were in a constant mist created by Artillery fired fog canisters. The positions we look over from the lst Regiment were about 1 mile north of the Monastery.

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They had to climb a steep hill littered with big stones, reaching the top they were cut down by the machinegun fire of the 1st Regiment. There were countless dead lying in front of our positions as I found out myself. One day I left our machinegun position and crawled forward through the dense shrubbery. After about 100 feet I saw a dead British Officer lying on his back with many dead Gurkhas around him. Beside him was a German Machine Pistol in a holster (a small German Mauser handgun) which I took back to our position still crawling, since I had heard somebody cough not far away. Our positions must not have been more than 400 feet apart. You were unable to see for any distance because of all the rocks and shrubs. There was not much action during the first two weeks of March around the Monastery except a few Artillery shells exploding now and then. The nights were quiet sometimes one heard a scream, a Gurkha had chopped the head off an unsuspecting comrade of ours on watch by using their kukri (curved knife). Tired as we were, we would not close our eyes for fear this could happen to us. One day I decided to climb up to the ruins of the Monastery.

A lonely figure at the top, I heard something dropping down beside me. It was a shell somebody had fired from far away at me, it having lost all power just dropped down. Up there you did not know which hill was occupied by whom. There were Indians, Gurkhas, a "gangster" battalion from Texas we were told (Sharpshooters), Maoris and many more. I did not see a living soul up there in the Monastery. I remember bags of flour and possessions of the civilians who had fled from there, before and after the bombardment. March 14th we were told that the Allies planned an air raid to destroy the City of Cassino and we were to move as close as possible to the enemy positions to avoid being hit. Then March 15th it was a clear, sunny morning then we heard the noise of approaching bombers. It was 8:30 a.m. The sky was filled with planes. They came like flocks of geese, one wave after the other to unload their bombs onto the town. There were 750 in all I was told later on. The detonations could be heard for three hours, but no bombs fell onto our positions around the Monastery. It is amazing that some of the Paratroopers stationed in Cassino survived the bombardment and were able to repel the ground attacks of the New Zealanders.
About 3 weeks after the bombardment our Regiment was relieved by a Mountain Brigade and moved down the mountain into the ruins of Cassino, where so many of our Comrades had perished.

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From our positions halfway up the slopes of Monastery Hill, we had a great view to the west. The night sky was ablaze from the explosions of the big ship guns pounding the German positions around the beachhead of Anzio. One day in early May we saw down below columns and columns of Allied Tanks moving along Route 6 unhindered. This was the start of the last battle and we were in danger of being cut off. So on May 17th we heard rumors that we would be withdrawing during the night. We prepared ourselves all day long; we were going to take with us even the empty ammunition cases. At 10 p.m. it was pitch dark, we started moving up Monastery Hill on a narrow path one behind the other. We had to avoid any noise as much as possible. The Poles were already on the hill to the Monastery. They were calling to us in German

[...] come here this is the right road.

Thinking back I am surprised that not a single shot was fired. But since it was so dark, one could have hit his own men. We struggled all night, carrying all the heavy equipment with us but some pieces were gradually just dropped to the ground. In the morning we finally reached Pontecorvo where we were to put up a new line of resistance. Now in the valley north-west of Monastery Hill the artillery started pounding us for hours. Then we saw soldiers moving towards us through the Orchards. Obviously they were surprised to meet resistance and disappeared again. Then we saw a tank approaching firing at us. There was an Anti-tank gun just close to me from a different unit, the gunner apparently being in shock. I had to order him at gun point to load it and aiming as well as possible I fired, the rebounding cannon cracking my wrist. In the excitement of the moment I did not even feel any pain. Anyway the tank stopped firing, but in minutes, two planes appeared firing at anything that would move. Finally nightfall came and saved us. From here on we started withdrawing steadily, but always orderly to previously prepared positions. The Luftwaffe was non existent, and our tanks were pulled at night by oxen to other positions to save fuel. There was not too much pressure anymore from the enemy, sometimes remaining for weeks in the same positions. We lost many men by artillery fire before another attack.

Excluding my cracked wrist, twice I had been wounded by Artillery fragments. Both times occurring when I had to relieve myself. The first time I was just about to sit down when a heavy shell exploded just beside me bursting one of my eardrums and covering me with mud. A fragment of the shell lodged itself in my right buttock where it still remains today. I was bleeding only a little bit, but since we were retreating there was no time to look after something so trivial. The second time was more serious. We were in a farm house on a hill. It was dark and we had just had our rations consisting of rice and sweet plums. My stomach was full of rice. I had to go outside, opened the door quickly, but for a brief moment the candlelight had been visible outside. Returning and closing the door behind me, a mortar shell exploded in front of the door. A fragment going through the wooden door entered my stomach and got stuck in the rice, fortunately that saved my life. At that time a stomach injury usually meant death, since we did not have Penicillin and fluid from the stomach entering the stomach cavity causing inflammation which could usually not be prevented. They had to carry me on a stretcher down the hill during heavy artillery fire to the ambulance a good mile away. It was about 3 hours until we reached the Hospital. At the field Hospital they immediately operated and it being only a flesh wound I recovered in 10 days. As the doctor explained to me, lying on my back all the time had prevented any fluid escape, that and the rice had saved my life.

From here I was sent for 10 days to the Recovery home of the Division in a resort in the Dolomites where I went skiing and had a marvellous time. But before all this had happened I had taken a 10 day course at the school in Gardelegen near Berlin where, after 5 jumps, I got my certificate as a Paratrooper.

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About 30 of us reached the Po Valley, marching at night and resting during the day in some farm houses keeping the occupants from notifying the outside world of our presence. But one morning our farmhouse was surrounded by British soldiers and we surrendered peacefully having no more reason to fight on.
Before going outside I tore the page identifying my unit out of my Soldbuch.
Our pants were tied at the bottom so I dropped my Iron Cross and the Mauser handgun which I had taken from the dead offìcer into the bottom of my pants. Searching me the soldier did not notice my gun, but he took my camera, which had served me so well all through the war. This gun I kept with me for 2 years as a P.O.W. and buried it always under the tent until I was released in June 1947.

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