My Longest Day: How World War II Ended for My Family

One of my daily tasks was to bike to Neustadt, my home town, to collect the meager food and household stuff still available on the monthly ration-coupons.  Meager for sure but quite a lot when you have 24 people in one household.  And that is the number of people accommodated in the small homestead of Tante (aunt) Babett, located in the village of Dettendorf, about 6 kilometers east from Neustadt.

My family of six had moved there due to an American fighter-bomber raid on our town which scared the hell out of us. And there already were other people, most of them relatives and friends bombed-out in the nearby city of Nuremberg (of war criminal trials fame, a bit later). We shared spaces in the small house and the barn, sleeping in the proverbial straw, except when we hid in the nearby beer cellar, a man made cave hewn into the side of a ravine about 25 meters below the village. We deemed it the safest place, and many people without their own bomb shelters spent the nights in it.

So, I am on my way home, early in the afternoon on Saturday, April 14 1945, passing by the Schützenloch (rifle pit) on the road from Obersachsen, a hamlet  between the town and village; it was empty, no soldiers, no weapons, nothing but an empty choco-cola can. Only a “tactical front correction” I would learn from the Wehrmacht (army) report, on the Reichsrundfunk (national radio). This news struck no fear in aunt Babett’s garrison, rather stoic resignation. Especially for the people from Nuremberg it could not get any worse.  And the “poor pigs” in the fox holes on the few roads coming into the village would not have survived an American armored attack anyway.

After having unloaded, Mama had another special order for me, a secret one and delicate at that. And to tell me the details, we went out in the yard and made sure we could not be heard. “You head out immediately for Stübach. Late in the afternoon Mr. Bauereis is scheduled to arrive there (with his wood gas powered truck) with a load of building materials (black market stuff) from Nuremberg. This must be stored and hidden in aunt Lina’s barn. You will assist Mr. Bauereis and exactly mark in your mind the hiding spots.”

“Right now? I’m hungry! ”

“Aunt Lina will have a sandwich for you. Time is running out and Herr Bauereis plans to be there by five o’clock and it is already four thirty.”

“But my bike has a flat tire.”

“Then take aunt Babett’s bike; I will let her know; just do it.”

I’m scared, too, but I do not say it because it would be pointless. So I swing myself on this unloved “Göbbl”, a trestle of a “ladies” bike, and start cycling. Compared to my old Gritzner, this bike is a torture device, due to lousy ergonomics, the handlebar too close to the seat.  I sit totally vertical, stiff as a ramrod on it. Nevertheless, I am getting ahead quickly, the road mainly downhill, to Diespeck and through it, almost to the Bruckenmühle. There I would like to drop in to good Mrs. Hilbinger, who bakes the best black rye bread far and wide, and I’m hungry. But time must not be lost, and biking now is harder because of a headwind coming down the Ehe valley. Next I pass through the hamlet of Ehe and  get a big scare: three American Jabos (fighter-bombers) come flying down the Ehe valley, and in front of me is a horse-drawn  wagon  which I am just about to overtake.  I throw myself in the left side ditch of the road as they already start shooting. I turn around, look up and see the pilot grinning broadly (they flew only about 30 meters above ground). The whole haunting lasted only seconds, and nothing bad happened. Even the farmer and his horses are unhurt. The bullets went all into the meadow to the right of the street. The horse – wagon man, an old farmer from Stübach, and I agreed: they did not want to hit us but had their fun with frightening us. He too saw “de junga Bürschli”  (the young lads) grinning and said, one had even waved at him. Very likely, they had to get rid of their ammunition before flying back to their bases.

Then, after soldiering on for about another 500 meters, at the sharp right turn with the chestnut trees, in front of the hamlet of Hanbach,  I hear “pätsch, pätsch, pätsch” and “päng” and feel a spontaneous “brake action” which almost throws me off the bike. What happened? I had missed to avoid a pothole,  the patched tire on the front wheel came off the rim allowing the inner tube to emerge and rub against the forks (pätsch) and burst (päng).

Now have to walk and push and after a few minutes I arrive at aunt Lina.’s house. She is startled: “For heaven’s sake what are you doing here? The Americans have already arrived in Scheinfeld” (just eight miles away).“

“I will report immediately to you Tante Lina, but first please fix a sandwich for me, I am starving.” While wolfing that down and sipping on a cup of peppermint  tea, I report the events of my day so far. Then we wait for Mr. Bauerreis who does not show up. Maybe his truck has a flat tire, or has run out of wood (the fuel for his truck)? We can only speculate, but at seven-thirty I should not wait any longer. So, I  head home, marching down the street towards the Ehe – bridge, as an Opel Olympia overtakes me. Olive-green, the color of the Wehrmacht, with a large Red Cross mark on the roof. It could give me a nice ride, I am thinking and, on arriving on the bridge the car stops. As I approach, the driver rolls down the window and calls me: “Hi lad, come here!”, And further: “Can you tell me how to get to Schwarzenberg  Castle from here?”

“Yes I can; turn around and drive back to Scheinfeld but, allegedly, there are the Americans already.”  “That’s correct, and that’s why I have to approach the castle from the back. But I am not familiar with this area, and it will be night soon; can you help me?” Of course I can.  As fast as lightning goes through my head, that the shortest way over into the Steinach valley is the small dirt road straight through the State forest to the village of Münchsteinach.  But I want to go to Dettendorf. I could ride with him till Diespeck, and tell him: “Well, then you have to continue on to Diepeck, there you hit the highway, turn left towards Gutenstetten Station, then ….. ”

He interrupts me: “If it suits you, you can come with me and navigate all the way to Schwarzenberg; come, get in!”

While I’m walking around the back of the car, climb in and slam the door shut, I think that is one of these “luxurious” Opel  Olympias my daddy dreams of.  The driver, an SS officer, says that he has to pick up NS party leaders in Schwarzenberg, before the Americans’ arrival there. I tell him how to continue on from Gutenstetten Station, up the Steinach valley through Kleinsteinach, Münchsteinach, Mittelsteinach, Obersteinbach, Lachheim; then left up to Thierberg, there turn right in the direction of Zeisenbronn and at the first opportunity left again, to Klosterdorf and Schwarzenberg.

This part of the Steigerwald I know very well, I may have that well in my genes. All my male ancestors have lived in this area since the Thirty Years War (1618 -1648). A soldier of the Swedish army under King Gustav Adolph founded our clan, staying back with a Frankish girl when the Swedes retreated. “The best thing is, you come along to Schwarzenberg so I cannot go wrong.”  Aha, I think, best for you; and where do I stay if the Goldfasane (a derogatory nick name for high ranking Nazis) are too many and I cannot fit in anymore. I say nothing, but my plan stands.

Upon our arrival in Diespeck, at the stop sign to the high way, I open the door, jump off my seat and run away. “Hey, stay here, you cannot do that,” he shouts after me. But I can and have also luck, because he is currently not getting any further.  A small convoy of Kübelwagen, the Wehrmacht’s equivalent of the Jeep, passes by from left to right in my direction. I weave over to the left side of the high way, negotiating the slow moving vehicles, and the officer can see me no longer. – He spoke “stackered” High German and reminded me of sergeant Möller from Hamburg.  As fast as I can, without getting breathless, I walk on, left into the Dettendorfer Strasse, up the slope, past the Judensäcker (a Jewish cemetery), when a hollow sound reaches me from behind.  I turn around and see a big cloud of dust close to the Bruckenmühle, also one near Neustadt, and hear the thud from there about five seconds later and less loud. Oh dear, the bridges are being blown up, I realize. At Neustadt it is the Heubrücke (hay bridge). The others, further Aisch upward, I cannot see from here. But soon I hear the typical noises, always quieter and with the corresponding delay. I hear also banging coming up from the Aischtal downstream. I am wondering if the Opel-driver made it in time across the Aisch, down there in Gutenstetten?  What may have happened to me if I had stayed with him? Goose pumps crawl up and down my spine! Slowly I relax, turn around and continue my march into the forest towards Dettendorf. And there comes another surprise:  a panzer (tank) troop is hiding there with six Panthers, the most modern and powerful tanks of the Wehrmacht. From the leader of the platoon, a lieutenant, I learn that they are ordered to head for Nuremberg, about 40 km to the East, after Dark will have set in; they have to avoid attacks by fighter bombers, therefor can travel only at night. The young officer invites me to ride on one of the Panthers, but I decline with thanks because I want to get home as early as possible. But I ask him: “Do you know that the Americans have already taken Scheinfeld?”

“Yes, yes yesterday morning we were still there”- Well, and the poor pigs in their fox holes were supposed to defend Dettendorf, while you with your panthers, allegedly  the best tanks in the world, will retreat to Nurenberg without putting on a fight? These thoughts inevitably cross my mind. But I dare not say it. When the troop later rolled through Dettendorf, they took along the damaged tank “parked” in front of aunt Babett’s house. What a great relief for the villagers! How they managed that, by towing or refueling, I had no chance to observe; I was already off to another “mission”. When I told my Mama about the Americans in Scheinfeld and the Aisch bridges blown up and the other details of my excursion to Stübach, she went almost crazy.  Not that she was worried about me in retrospect; no, it was all about dad working a repair job in the flower mill in Rappolshofen, a village down the Aisch river, about seven kilometers away as the crow flies.

“So, you go to Rappoldshofen right away, you tell Papa all you know and help him come here.”  Her verdict is not negotiable, I realize. It does not matter, that I am totally exhausted, hungry again, full of fear and there is no other bike. In no time she organized a replacement and I was on my way. Of course, the bridge at Rappoldshofen was gone too. What to do? The mill and homestead lie on the other bank, Wets of the Aisch. I leave the bike at the bridge head and walk along the East bank until I arrive at the dam in the mill race. Bad luck; the water runs fully over the dam, which I barely see in the dark, but I hear the rush of the water crossing. Thankfully, I know this spot well, had been here quite often. This dam is about ten meters long, across the mill race, its crest about one and a half meters wide and slightly beveled towards the tail water. When the Turbine is powering  the mill, water rarely flows over the crest. Apparently Mr. Knauer has “turned off” operations.  I do not think about taking off my shoes and walk barefoot over to the other side. The risks are incalculable. There is this slippery moss grown on the crest which may make me slip and flush into the tail water. Although I can swim, the water is cold and I do not know what the ground below the dam looks like; I could fall onto rocks, or worse, could get pierced by a left over steel rod. Good thing that the mill is not running with its typical hum, otherwise shouting would be futile. But over the gentle sound of the water, they may be able to hear me. And indeed, after some hefty hallos and huhuuus, I hear my dad calling back. He seams a bit gruff, wondering what I am here for “in the middle of the night” as he puts it. Upon my short report he changes his attitude, sounds almost meek, and I mean to hear a bit of respect in his voice: “Go down the river till Berg (a single home stead about a kilometer downstream) and see if the footbridge is still there. Then come up, and we can go home together.”

“Well, I’ll try.” The footbridge was still intact, and so we made our way home to Dettendorf.  We pushed our bikes; it was pitch-dark, no way to ride a bike. We crossed  the highway down the lower Aisch valley, passed by the Vahlenmühle  into the forest below the hamlet of Altenbuch. We were scared when we heard occasional shots every now and then. The Americans cannot not be here yet, or maybe they are, and a nocturnal skirmish is being fought? We are shaking with fear, also because of the cool of the night, wearing only shirts and pants. Or, perhaps, hunters or poachers are in the forest? However we have a graver concern: we  cannot see the hand in front of our eyes.  Dad is almost night blind and is relying on my sense of direction. So we very slowly soldier on. Finally we do make it; at about midnight, we arrive at Aunt Babett’s house, exhausted but sound. Mama has stayed up and greets Dad with a long lasting hug. I realize I’m of no use any longer and retire to my loft in the attic. Despite the exhaustion I cannot fall asleep for quite a while. I stare at the night sky visible through the gaps left by a few broken roof tiles. I review the events of this day in my mind over and over again and I am certain: this has been the longest day so far in my short life.

Three days later, on Tuesday April 17. about seven in the morning, the Americans reached Dettendorf, and that was the end of WWII for us.

This essay is excerpted from Hans-Armin Ohlmann’s memoirs.