"Hello! Oh, I see you came with my photograph! Ochen khorosho [Carius periodically injects Russian phrases into the interview]! This is a dinosaur's photograph!
For your age, you look very good, not a dinosaur at all.
Are you recording at all times? I will have to behave myself!
Questions we ask are not only our questions, but questions of Russian military history enthusiasts that read your book and want to clarify some details, specifically about the first period of the war. I wanted to start the interview with a question on that battle at Malinovo...
That day, two Heroes of the Soviet Union died there, battalion commanders. I have their photographs. I would like you to look at them. One burned in his tank, the other...
I can tell you right away, I did not see them.
Did you see the one that shot himself?
No. The soldiers did, they told me later. I did not see myself.
Your book says that you saw the medal?
Not personally. Those that did say they left it there. No one took it off! We never did that. The Americans did later, they took off everything.
I did fight the dead or prisoners. Furthermore, I did not shoot if the enemy was defeated and the crew was leaving the tank. We were shocked when we found out that in modern Bundswehr, the young tankers practice shooting at the crew that left the tank. My company did not do this.
In Dunaburg (Daugavpils) I remember one prisoner that lost his foot. I offered him a cigarette. he did not take it, and rolled himself a cigarette with one hand. I never understood how they do this. Makhorka! They were a bit primitive. Infantry, of course. You cannot call their technical forces primitive.
Many hundreds of Russians died pointlessly when they were thrown into battle without thinking. For instance, at Narva. 500-600 died per night. They were just lying there, on the ice. It was madness.
For us this happened more rarely, we could not allow ourselves such luxury, we had much less people. But there were cases when after an attack, there were only ten men left in the battalion. From a whole battalion!
Let's go back to 1940, Schleswig-Holstein. You trained to be a loader?
Yes, I was a recruit. We practiced everything a tank loader needs to know. On top of that, there was regular army training: marching, salutes, etc. We also had survival training. I am alive thanks to that.
How did the commander give you commands: hand signals, voice, or did you have a communication device?
We had a radio. Our enemies had more difficulty with communications, both the technology and staff. If it was otherwise, we would have lost the war in 1942. And, of course, the Russians had a problem with individual crewmen, I've never once seen a Russian commander open his hatch to look out in battle. This was fortunate for us and unfortunate for our enemy.
What did the loader do on marches?
The loader must make sure the gun is loaded on time, and the machinegun does not jam. If there is a jam, he must fix it. The loader is a poor man, he sees nothing and has no idea what is happening. The loader in a Pz38(t) Czech tank is completely blind, and in a Tiger as well.
Did you remove grease from shells?
Nothing of the sort was done. We loaded the shells as they were shipped to us.
You were supposed to load the shell into the tank?
Yes, I loaded them into the tank. 98 shells in a Tiger, the Czech tank had more.
How many armour piercing and how many high explosive shells did you carry in a Pz38(t)?
The Czech tank only had two kinds of shells, AP and HE. We usually had 50:50. Each crew decided how many they brought, it was up to the commander.
How good was the Pz38(t) for war in Russia?
Completely unsuitable! The tank crew consisted of four. The commander had to command, shoot, and observe. It's too much for the commander. If he is the commander of a platoon or a company, it was impossible, we only have one head! The Czech tank was only good for marches. The part "below the belt" is good, half-automatic planetary drives, good suspension. Wonderful! But only for driving.
The steel was bad. The gun, 3.7 cm, was too weak against a T-34. If the Russians weren't re-arming and had a T-34 earlier or if they used them correctly, the war would end in 1941, winter at the latest.
Do you remember your first battle with a T-34? Did you examine it after battle, climb inside?
We were not a front line unit. The front line units fought T-34s, we only heard of them. Frightening stories. It was impossible to understand why these tanks were a surprise for our commanders. We knew that the Russians developed tanks with Germans at Kazan. We knew nothing about the T-34.
Were your crewmen interchangeable?
Depends. We were lucky if we could always fight as one crew. If you are a commander of a company or platoon, you have to keep swapping. Whoever was displaced was damn furious, but you can't do anything about it, the commander needs a tank.
In one tank, could the driver shoot and the gunner drive, for example?
It's possible. Personally, I never had it happen. Sometimes I, the loader, would drive on a march instead of the driver. This happened because we were always driving and driving.
How were targets indicated?
The commander marked targets. A good gunner also observes the battlefield. The commander usually decides where to shoot.
During training, there were formats for orders, but usually we talked normally, just like we are now. We did not talk much. We had to be careful and observe. Especially the commander. For instance, I would put my hand on the gunner's left shoulder and he turned his gun to the left, his right shoulder, and he turned it to the right. All calmly in silence.
In modern tanks, the commander can take control, we did not have that yet. It is unnecessary, as the commander doesn't have time to interfere, he has other tasks.
Did you shoot while moving or when still?
Only when still. Shooting from the move was too imprecise and unnecessary.
What command did you give to the driver to stop?
Stop or Halt. Sometimes like that. There was no special command. The driver, I think, is the most important member of the crew. If he is a good driver, he knows how to stop, put the tank in a good position, hide the side and show his front if possible.
The Russians dug their tanks in. Did you?
Yes, sometimes, especially in that first winter when we were defending. There were not enough AT guns.
As a commander, did you clean the tank with your crew?
An interesting question. For instance, my tank commander...it was impossible to imagine that he would ever touch a shell or a gas canister. But I, I would always help load ammunition, fuel up, etc.
This did wonder for morale, a small trick with a huge effect. I also did this out of necessity, my comrades got tired.
The one that got shot, his name is in the book.
In 1941, you were recalled to officer school. Did you return with winter uniforms?
We did not get winter uniforms yet. The Russians had it already. Many died trying to pull valenki off corpses.
If you ask me how I survived the first winter, I can only answer that I did, but I don't know how. We spent the winter in the open, in -50 degree colds. No supplies, everything froze. For food, only horse meat and frozen bread. We had to chop it with an axe. No hot food. The word "hygiene" disappeared from our vocabulary. Snow, ice storms, no winter clothing. No tanks, only black uniforms. It's great with it in the snow! You sit there and you wait until you are shot by a Russian skier, with camouflage, perfectly trained to fight in the snow. And yet, I'm alive.
Did you have fleas?
Many! If someone claims they did not have fleas, they did not fight on the front in Russia. 100%!
Did you live in houses?
You probably know that Stalin ordered everything burned to leave nothing. That first winter, forget about it. Then we got tanks, and it was at least dry in there. But it was still cold, they were not heated.
It was worse for infantry. Hygiene was very poor. I do not know how we survived. Fleas! And no clean underwear!
My crew lived only in their tank from January 20th to April 20th, aside from two or three days when the tank broke and we had to fix it. We were completely unshaven. It was better for me, I periodically returned to the HQ and could at least wash my hands.
Once I managed to shave there, and my crew did not recognize me. They thought they were sent a fresh commander. Now you understand what we looked like?
The Russians would dig a trench, have the tank drive over it, and slept in it. Did you do that?
Sometimes, during short stops. It was forbidden when a bomb hit a tank and the whole crew underneath died. We did not do this anymore, and tried to hide in structures, cemeteries, and anywhere with some kind of depression.
When you returned from officer school, what tank did you get?
None, at first! I had to command a platoon of engineers, even though I knew nothing about mines and such. I had to learn as I went. This came in handy later. And then I was promoted to a tank platoon commander, a Feldwebel. We still fought with Czech tanks. Then I was promoted, and I was the commander of a platoon with PzIV tanks with 7.5 cm guns.
How did you start up tanks in the cold?
If the battery was ok, no problem. If it was too cold, the engine had to be heated up periodically. The infantry did not like it, as our "friends" would start shooting when they heard the engines, thinking we were up to something.
Did you start a fire under the tank to heat it up?
I never did it or seen it done.
Did you hear about anti-tank dogs?
Heard, but never saw them.
How effective were Russian anti-tank rifles?
They easily penetrated the PzIII and PzIV in the side. Then we had skirt armour, and they had to come closer. They were not guaranteed to work then. They were useless against a Tiger. They could do some damage, break a track, but I mean for the crew.
About the Tiger. How reliable was it?
Initially, there were growing pains. The first company with Tigers was used at Ladoga, near Volkhov. The terrain is nearly impassable for tanks, and it was winter. All Tigers broke down! This happens always, with every new technology.
A significant factor in a Tiger's reliability was the training of the driver. An experienced driver can reduce technical issues. At first, thank god, I had experienced drivers. Then we had young drivers for Jagdtigers, and it was a catastrophe. My personal tank #217 had to be blown up at Danzig, and it held out until almost the end of the war.
Did you have many losses from artillery, aircraft, or mines?
We had few losses from aircraft. Artillery is only dangerous when it shoots with an observer. Without an observer, they rarely hit, it was not dangerous. But when an observer sees you and corrects fire, then you have to move. Overall, long range artillery hits tanks rarely, the deviation is too large.
Were you more afraid of Russian AT guns or Russian tanks?
Artillery is more dangerous. I can see a tank, but an AT gun can be hidden so it cannot be seen. The Russians could hide so well that the gun could only be noticed when it shoots. This is bad.
You were an engineer. How difficult were the minefields, how hard to clear?
I was not there for very long. Mostly, we had anti-tank groups that fought tanks in close quarters. This was helpful as a tank commander, as I knew how dangerous mines were. If I was not an engineer, I would be afraid, but now I knew that nothing can happen.
In October of 1942, your division commander, Duvert, was removed. Was this fair, from your point of view?
1942...I was still in the 20th division. I wasn't very important then, I only knew my battalion commander, von Gest.
The Russians got SPGs in 1943 with 152 mm guns. How do you evaluate them?
Ah, yes, 15.2 SPGs! They were worse than tanks because their turrets did not turn. They were too slow, from a command point of view. We had some experience with them. They were slow, and shot slowly. If they do not hit on the first shot, they are a corpse! The enemy will not wait for them to reload.
And then the Germans were smart enough to build a Jagdtiger. Madness!
SPGs are good for support, with low calibers. 15.2 is huge, you can shoot the gunner through the barrel with a rifle.
They did not do us much harm. If you hit them from the side, they are an easy prey. However, I was knocked out by an SPG once. This happened at Narva. Suddenly, I am turning left, and an SPG shoots me from the right. My tank was completely destroyed. When you are hit with a 15.2 shell, that is very bad!
Could Sturmoviks destroy tanks?
Yes, with rockets. Honestly, they were imprecise. We had no losses from them, but they looked menacing. It was scary, but they did not hit.
You fought at Vyazma in the spring of 1942. Describe it.
It is an unpleasant memory, we had no rest, day or night. I was a communications officer, responsible for communications with the battalion HQ, and had to deliver messages by foot. I thought it was unpleasant.
The Russians were always attacking, especially at night. Day and night, we stood in defense, did not sleep, had poor supplies. The food was bad.
We kept hoping that the Russians would be ordered same as us. We had a tactic of tasks, they had a tactic of orders. If a Russian junior officer had an order to go somewhere, he would go there and light a cigarette, wait. If a German junior officer had an order to go somewhere and saw that the enemy was retreating, he would keep going. Big difference! The enemy learned this in 1944, and did this until Berlin.
Can you tell us about your first victory as a platoon commander?
I can tell you nothing about victory, but I can tell you my first mishap. The platoon was dining, and I stayed to guard. When the platoon finished, I wanted to leave, but then I turned around and saw that the infantry we were supporting rose up for an attack. This was evaluated very negatively.
You remember your first tank kill though, right?
First tank? Where did this happen...well, first, it was not me, it was my gunner. First tank...I remember, at Ladoga, Sinyavino.
This was already in a Tiger?
Yes, yes. On a Pz38(t) or a PzIV, I could not knock out anything. When we fought in a Pz38(t), a T-34's crew could calmly play cards.
Did you see Russian soldiers put a tank in first gear, jumped out, and the tank drove all the way to German lines?
I saw this at Nevel. I have photographs! It is definitely an exception.
If you release the gas pedal, the tank stops. They pressed it down with something, jumped out, the tank kept going. You can do this with a car. This confused us, it took us a long time to figure out what was happening.
As for how common this was, I cannot say. It definitely happened at Nevel.
This was a singular case?
Yes, this is what confused us. I never saw it again.
They say that the main quality of a tank is reliability?
I would say that they main qualities are mobility and armament.
What position would you give reliability?
I can only talk about my company. You mean Tigers, right? They say that it was unreliable often. In my company, barely any Tigers were lost in battle due to technical reasons. They mostly broke down on marches. I did not have a single Tiger breakdown in combat!
It depends on the driver. It's a 60 ton vehicle with 700-800 horse power. You cannot treat it lightly, you have to drive with feeling. Otherwise something breaks. I repeat, I have never had a Tiger break down in combat for technical reasons!
What can you say about the muzzle brake?
It reduced recoil.
Did it raise dust?
What a question! Well...you can say that. We got used to it.
Did you use Russian gasoline?
We never had problems with gasoline, there was always enough.
You had a stock of schnapps in your tank, where did you get it and how did it refill?
You read my book, I see. I added that as flavour.
We had a block of explosives in the tank, which we should use to blow it up if it could be captured by the enemy. We did not like it, and that is why I wrote that we had schnapps in that case. Our crew barely drank, but the company had crews that drank eagerly.
Our enemies...well, Russians drink vodka a lot. Unfortunately, the drank often. The Russians heat themselves up unnecessarily. This could not be changed, and their leadership did not try.
In the big game, Stalin was the most clever, even though his plans didn't work out. There was the pact with Hitler and the additional agreements, with a border at the Bug. I think he thought Hitler would get stuck in France and he would have time.
We finished up in time, and that was his mistake. We are making that same mistake now, the same one Hitler made. I hope it will not lead to the same results.
Even Bismarck said, we should support Russia, not America or Israel. In DDR, the slogan of our Chancellor in one speech was "learning from Moscow means learning to win!"
Now we have America and Israel. I'm not afraid that something serious will happen here, but it might in Africa or somewhere else.
In Afghanistan, when we leave, everything will stay the same. The Russians tried fighting there before us. It took us 11 years to see that nothing will change. And then Iraq. American CIA is everywhere!
Did you have a personal weapon?
I had a small 7.62 mm pistol, but I never used it. The 8 mm was too heavy.
Was there a submachinegun in the tank?
Yes, but I can't remember ever using it.
Did you notice the T-34 with a long gun right away?
When we saw one, it was not a surprise. We knew about them and waited. It was even more dangerous than its predecessor.
And the IS-2, I think, was more or less unnecessary. With its two piece shell...very heavy, likely. I never saw one move.
The T-34...that was a great tank!
During the war, did you know about Wittmann?
Yes, Wittmann was always in newspapers, spoke at some factory or a school, at party meetings. He was a notable propaganda figure.
Did you know that his victories were not as they seemed?
The propaganda was revealed after the war. We did not know anything.
I think I earned as many awards as Wittmann because I was very young! [laughs] I was also in newspapers. The photo I signed for you was in every newspaper.
But agree, it is suspicious when a whole crew had a Knight's Cross. A condition for receiving a Knight's Cross is making your own decision in combat, personal participation, and tactical success. I must ask, how is a radio operator capable of making tactical decisions? A driver? A loader? How can a radio operator or driver or loader earn a Knight's Cross? Even the gunner cannot, since he takes orders from the commander. And yet, they all had one.
Is it true that the officers had a "sore throat", and strived for a Knight's Cross?
Yes. My company commander, my predecessor, had this. First the battalion commander had one. He honestly earned it, in attacks. Then my platoon commander got one, and then me.
No one else in the battalion had a Knight's Cross!
After a battle, my commander was almost court-martialled for cowardice. He was pulled out of his tank, I had to take command. You can read about it in the book. He avoided trial because Strachwitz was transferred. Otherwise things would have gone poorly. He even told the fusilier-grenadier battalion commander "I will get a Knight's Cross today!", but it turned into a catastrophe. Yes, that happened...
You know me, you've read in my book how I got my Knight's Cross. The battalion lined up, I stood with a picture in front of the hut. I feel ill, I caught something...
I would have never worn medals in peacetime. But in wartime, medals give a small but noticeable benefit, at least for my company.
Khorosho, I remembered this. Imagine: a young Lieutenant, no medals. His Captain comes up to him, orders something. Of course, the Lieutenant must say "Jawohl!"
But if the Lieutenant has a Knight's Cross, he can say "Great idea, come back tomorrow". I could even refuse an order. This was good for my company.
When we were resting, the Knight's Cross was hanging on the wall in the company office. Awesome for morale!
Why would you not wear it in peace time?
I carried it only for my company. In peace time, it is unnecessary. I will try to explain it simply: if you score three goals and everyone only talks about you, the team looks bad! Plokhoy! Same with the company. Right now, in these meetings, I think wearing my medals is not appropriate. It was only important to me because of my company! We wore our medals to represent it. That is my opinion that I still hold to this day. I think if I had other opinions, I would not have survived the war.
You read Tigers in the Mud, how I was lying in the trench. Then the loader jumped out of the tank...that cannot be understood. And that medic...he volunteered. He would not have left me there. [Carius is referring to the chapter "Between life and death", where an episode is described in which Carius suffers several bullet wounds]
How did you leadership treat you, as a cavalier of the Knight's Cross? Did they await new heroisms?
No no, nothing like that. I don't even want to talk about it. You only have to fight your fear. The ones that thought they were heroes died. You have to fight fear, fear is a pre-requisite for bravery!
Sorry, what was the question?
How did you leadership treat you, as a cavalier of the Knight's Cross? Did they await new heroisms?
We were more trusted. We could get our way. Like I said, we could say "no" once in a while.
I want to give an example. When I was wounded, it was a bad time for my company. My replacement was always ready to go into battle. A nice boy, highly motivated, but a newbie. He did not have an Iron Cross, nothing at all!
The grenadiers would walk all over him. An infantry captain or major would come and told him to do something, and he replied "Jawohl!" at everything, even if it was utter nonsense.
I couldn't do anything. I was helplessly lying in the Kubelwagen and knew nothing.
These medals also had a downside. I had to command a Jagdtiger company, and they were completely unfamiliar to me. Imagine, you are some driver, and you get a new commander, with Oak Leaves on his Knight's Cross. What will you think? He'll kill us all, but he'll earn some medals with our bones!
This is what happened in 1945, before the very end. The company Haupt-Feldwebel told me. In my first announcement, I tried to explain that my goal was to minimize losses before the end of the war, as it was already lost. Only then did they start to trust me.
Did the Knight's Cross play a role in your life after the war?
Negatively. First, I had to run, as the French were looking for me. I still had friends among them after the war, they warned me that I had to run or end up in a camp. Then I received permission to study at Mainz, and lost it a week before starting. Then I took the refusal and sent my brother to Freiburg with it, to a pharmacy boss, so he could find a place for me. He was a real good German from Koenigsberg. He told my brother he'll take me, even though the lab had no places left. I was a little lucky.
Today, at meetings of cavaliers, they throw eggs at us. Foreigners respect us, but locals treat us like criminals. That's how it is in Germany. In Munster, where my mother is from, they took down all memorial boards except for Bundswehr ones. No traditions!
People would put "murderer" stickers on our cars. You can do this because of democracy. Abroad, in Russia, they say we have freedom of opinion. Here, if someone who had served his country has something to say, he'll get his mouth shut.
I remember in the DDR there was a slogan: "learning from Moscow is learning to win". They say that Merkel studied in Moscow, in her time. I was always fascinated with Russian culture. Even in the smallest of villages, oh how they danced! I still see it. And the music! Fascinating.
The Russians in villages always said "Stalin is good, war is bad". They did not know what Stalin had in mind.
I am a soldier, I can't say anything bad about the civilians. We helped to gather the crops when advancing. Stalin though up "scorched earth".
When did the word "untermensch" appear, before the war or during?
Yes, in propaganda, it was used all the time, and now everyone thinks that's what we believed, but we were as critical as today. We laughed at propaganda, although we should have cried. Understand? There could have been nothing like that in the front, no "untermenschen"!
Russian prisoners starved. That's normal. We were hungry too. It was too demanding. Understand that if you get 50 or 100 thousand prisoners, you cannot feed them, no logistics will manage.
And these kind Western Allies...they burned what supplies we had. In Rheingau, and other places. I have no complaints about the Russians or Eastern Europe. It is the Western Allies that were the most horrible. They had everything, and destroyed what little some people had.
Did you hear about the Commissar Order?
Everyone heard about the order, but I never seen it executed. I even have a photo where a captured commissar sits on my tank. In the worst case, it was carried out in the rear. Nothing like that could happen at the front lines, but anything could happen in the rear.
And your Ilya Erenburg? Too much, even for nazis, just impossible.
When did you learn about Erenburg?
From leaflets, thrown from airplanes, "sewing machines".
The leaflets were in German?
Of course, we did not speak Russian.
Was there hatred? When you shot, was it at a target or a person?
I had a will to live. It was a self preservation instinct. Any soldier had it. The best evidence of what I said is that we did not shoot anyone who could not defend themselves. For instance, the crew of a knocked out tank. We only shot when we were in danger.
Was there hatred?
I cannot say. There was compassion. Compassion!
Russian veterans dreamt of what would be after the war. Is that what you talked about with your comrades?
We always said that after the war we'll kick the ass of everyone that stayed home, propagandists and party members. Our motivation was "keeping the enemy away from the borders of the Reich". It is hard to positively evaluate the Russian army, but the French, for instance, fought much worse. The German army is at the top, regarding discipline, humanity, combat readiness. Many of the things the Allies allowed themselves were unthinkable for us at the front.
Did you learn anything from the Russians?
I did not need to learn anything, I knew everything already. What can I say about Russians? Their positives are loyalty to their country, selflessness, even for villagers. If I had to choose where to live, it would not be in the West, only the East. Chaikovskiy and Dostoyevskiy are much closer to me than Western composers and authors. Tolstoy! I have all of Chaikovskiy's symphonies. I also like Rakhmanin.
Is war the most important event in your life?
War hammers at your character. Some broke, some became stronger. We were humble and not as demanding as modern youth. Now they want too much, they are egotistical and materialistic. Now, the most important thing for me is health, and then peace.
War is the worst alternative in politics, but the world learns nothing. Now there are more wars than there were then. I don't understand it, I think sometimes that we are going back to the middle ages.
What makes a good soldiers?
Discipline. Carrying out that what is written in his soldier's book. Proper behaviour towards civilians and prisoners. Humane behaviour, normal!
If you want to know how serious our punishments were, read the military codex. If they were caught. Rapists were executed, if they were caught, of course.
What makes a good officer?
Humility, and concern for his soldiers. Lead by example! Conscience and loyalty. Self-assuredness, but also humility. Do more, advertise little. Be bigger than you claim. I think that is very important for an officer.
We are sure that you succeeded.
I hope. I think that otherwise I would not have a stream of visitors since I returned from imprisonment. Petra is my witness.
One of my feldwebels is in Vienna. His wife called and said that he was in the hospital. There were 20 other men in his room, and he had poor care. I drove to Vienna, went to the chief doctor. He was transferred to a room for two! That's camaraderie! Or Feldwebel Kerche! He lived in the Bavarian forest like in the furthest Russian village. Mud, no roads! I wanted to surprise him with a visit, I drove to see him in 1952 when he returned home. I went to see everyone who came back. His mother slept in the hallway, chickens walked around her, very primitive. They had four children. Such poverty! I told him "You will have nothing! If you want to raise your children, go to the Bundswehr!" Two officers served in Bohn, one was my inspector, and another a reserve battalion commander. I tried to convince them to take Kerche. They said "yes, yes, we need drill sergeants". Then another officer came to me and asked if he was clean, if he did any crimes. I vouched for him. As a result, one of his children became a doctor in Freiburg, another was in the BMW Observation Council, his daughter has three stores and three houses in Ingolstadt. Another daughter is a director of a mall. We dragged them up, raised them!
Another comrade was a general in the Bundswehr. He also dragged everyone up. He was a devoted tanker, and became a general. Now he is in a retirement home. And he did not even want to go to the Bundswehr! But he could not go to university because he was too old when he came back.
But my greatest achievement? My greatest achievement is dismissing my company on April 18th so they could return home and avoid capture.
Interview: A. Drabkin
Translation to Russian: A. Pupynina
Transcription: V. Seleznev
Editing: S. Smolyakov