“We were jaded and callous and accepted everything as it came. And maybe that enabled us, on an everyday basis, to survive.”
Heinz Reinhardt was a German teenager training to be a soldier during the waning days of World War II. Read his account of fighting in Berlin, the air strikes he endured, and how he learned of Hitler’s demise.
This interview has been translated from its original German.
Q: How were things for you, as you were growing up at the beginning of 1944? What kind of feelings did you have as a 15-year-old?
How were things? Well, on the one hand we were confronted, if you will, with the challenge of living away from our parents after having been so used to living with them. And on the other hand, while wearing our uniforms, we had a whole new kind of clout with the girls, who ogled us when we were on vacation, and so on and so forth. So in principle it must have been clear to us at the time that the war with Hitler was finished after the defeat of the Nazis at Stalingrad, but strangely, one just went along.
Q: Were you afraid to be in uniform and prone to attack, or were people afraid most of the time anyway that something could happen?
Well, actually I was never really afraid. These feelings actually only first appeared after one’s first experiences [with war]. We got our first baptism in fire as Luftwaffenhelfer [air defense support personnel] in our position at the flood lights in Steglitz on March 24, 1944. And then when groups of bombers were in approach in the air, of course we got a little queasy, and it even reached the point for some of my comrades to have to seek out the toilet once the alarm went off.
Q: You said “baptism by fire” — what happened there?
Well, that’s… “Baptism by fire” was actually a term, meaning when one sits in the middle of a hail storm of bombs for the first time. There was an attack at night by English bombers on this area in the lower part of Steglitz. We had been devastated by hits on the sports field. We had no loss of life, but for example our barracks — where we were housed — were strongly impacted. They looked like a harmonica, all the walls were standing like that. Yeah, so there was a lot to be put back into order,
and the whole neighborhoods all around — they were of course also hard hit.
Q: Were your pants “full of it,” as one says so nicely? In the night, the first night before the baptism by fire? Were you afraid?
Well, actually not. I personally was not, I have to say that. I can remember that thought: Well, are you going to see you mother again or not? That was my one important question, which I repeated. After all there were quite a few waves of bombers that flew overhead and dropped their cargo. So those were actually my thoughts: Will you survive or not?
Q: Filled more with hate, or more like, so to speak, “This is fate and I can’t do anything about it?”
Well, I can’t say I was filled with hate, since that kind of mood is foreign to me.
Q: So more like fate? You were just there and just had to survive? Or how should one imagine that? It is very difficult for someone today to imagine that a 15-year-old could be a part of war… Do you remember how you were as a 15-year-old in this situation?
That’s relatively hard to answer. We were somehow quite fascinated with the fact that we had gotten into the uniform. And since one wasn’t alone — we were together with our classmates, with whom we had been in school a few years, so that they weren’t strangers, but were people with whom we had grown up. Somehow inwardly, throughout the 11, 12 years of Nazi influence, we still hoped that the whole thing could still take a different turn. Though of course a more sober observation would have proven that this was impossible.
Q: What was your task? You were drafted in January, and received training. What did people tell you your task was?
We came in January to Teltow, and were to receive theoretical training in Teltow. Our command post was stationed in the school there, and that’s also where our theoretical training took place. Our practical training took place at the surrounding positions, where we were introduced to the flood lights to get to know our tasks, and we practiced. At the command of the flood light leader, everyone had to play through his task so that everyone would master it at the actual station. In contrast to an earlier phase in which only flak soldiers were stationed at these positions, at that point there were only the flood light leader and one or two corporals or lance corporals while the rest was manned by air force assistants, so that other flak soldiers would be freed up to act as canon fodder on the front.
Q: Was this a purely technical training, or also an ideological education?
It was theoretical, as well as practical at the flood lights. Everyone had to play through his function over a few weeks, and I can’t honestly say how long that was, but I assume we would have had training of about six weeks in order to get to the station, since I was already in Steglitz at the beginning of March — that I know.
Q: But was there not also an ideological education that came along with that?
Of course lessons like that were always carried out. For example I know that even in 1944 officers of the armed forces tried to solicit us as officer candidates. Even though we were all only just 15 years old.
Q: From their perspective the war wasn’t lost yet. Things had come pretty far in 1944. Many already said that it was time to stop. How was that for a 15-year-old?
I’ve said, and I’ve asked myself often — at the time and also in the years that followed — what was going on, actually? And I have to say, then as before we actually just blindly went along. We thought we had to fulfill our duty at the position where we had been stationed. Yes, we held through all the way until the end, until the days of capitulation to the victorious forces.
Q: Were bombers ever shot down by the flak during these night bombings, and did you see that?
Yes, of course… Though the losses at that time — the time I was there, from January 1944 until capitulation — were relatively minor, and not in proportion with the costs.
Q: So does that mean it was a pretty fruitless endeavor, or how would you put it?
Well, you take the history, I’ll proceed. After Steglitz we were still at the post in Glasow…. The flak towers were equipped with four 12.9-centimeter twin-flak-ordnances. But there were also light flak ordnances: 2-centimeter and 3.7-centimeter. We were at the 2-centimeter-flak-ordnances. And I must say, we weren’t employed even once. We were only on the payroll, since our range with the 2-centimeter ordnances was only 2,000 meters. And the height of attacks got higher and higher, at least 6,000 meters. That was for the big flak, not the small ones.
Q: But you had been trained first on the flak.
At the flak tower in Friedrichshain we of course got our training at the 2-centimeter ordnances and had to be at the ordnances during the alarm and at night. But as I said, we never actually released a shot. While of course the upper levels with the 12.8-ordnances had a lot of work.
Q: Where were you, at the top or on the…?
The big ordnances, the 12.8’s, were held on the upper platform. And then there was the lower platform with the 3, 6, 9, and 12 “swallow’s nests,” as one called them, these extensions from the ordnance tower. There were four such swallow’s nests on the control tower, where the control devices like the Giant Würzburg and other radars stood.
Q: Wasn’t that also a little bit of an adventure for you?
Yes, I would say so. I mean, in principle boys have a strong penchant for technical things, and here one was confronted with that, and had to deal with it, and get to know how to work together. And that was of course not uninteresting.
Q: So a little adventurous?
Something in that direction, yes. Yes, and then we were in the capital, and that was also a part of it. We had an outlet there — we could still go into the city, or what was left of it, and look around.
Q: What was the mood in the city?
Well, we had isolated contact just with a few girls who were in our age group, and their relatives. It’s important to know that in the two towers that belonged to one flak tower — the ordnance and the control towers — that during an alarm up to 45,000 civilians sought and found refuge there. And it was really safe.
Q: Do you remember the first attack?
Yes. Since we at the light flak never did actually shoot because the range was too small, we could take shelter. There were such possibilities for taking shelter. And then we heard our big brothers up above banging, and when eight shots fly into the sky, that really did make a strange noise. On the other hand, we heard the bombs falling of course. So we were always confronted, but because of the possibility of protecting ourselves we didn’t feel compromised or directly endangered.
Q: But that must have been really loud. Describe it…
Well, now I’d like to come at that also from the day attacks. It was the case that there was a division of labor between the English air forces and the American. The English flew all the attacks at night, and the spoilings too, when only a few machines of the “Mosquito” type attacked in a particular space, but still set off the alarm. And the night attacks by groups of English bombers — in 1945 there were only one or two still. So there were more Americans. So you stood at the ordnances, but you’re — how should I say it — you’re useless, since you can’t intervene in the procedures that were being carried out there. That was only possible for the 12.8 up above. That’s where the shooting happened. Then for example there were other situations in which German pursuit planes were employed. Then there was either the Commando “Fire Eater” above the flak transmitter, which meant that the flak, according to the specification of the height, was allowed to shoot at the — as I called it — “Fire Eater 5,000” up until a height of 5,000; and up above the pursuit planes were deployed both day and night. Or there was a general ban on the flak, which was portrayed by the symbol “Diana,” goddess of the hunt. And then the flak was generally quiet.
Q: Did the large ordnances also hit their targets?
That’s hard to tell, since there were lots of bombing attacks then during cloudy skies. The flak could still shoot during that kind of weather as a result of the radar apparatuses that identified the values, so long as they weren’t destroyed by the opponent’s action. On the tubes of our 12.8-centimeter there were 13 rings attached. And every ring was supposed to be a shot. And I can remember that the firing of four other machines was still controversial and awaited approval. The issue was whether there was a rational advantage to be had, and I can’t say whether there was, but where is there reason in war anyway?
Q: Do you remember the huge attack by the Americans on February 26, 1944?
We had our alarm, which was always sounded on time. There were specifications according to a map that showed the quadrants that would be flown over by the approaching groups of planes. And then at some point we recognized that the course was set in the direction of Berlin. Until then the specifications had usually been for the space of Hannover/Braunschweig. And then they came higher, and you didn’t know where — in Berlin or the surrounding area, there were other targets, Potsdam was attacked repeatedly from loads dumped there. But when the smoke signal fell, then you knew more or less whether it was your turn or not, so to speak. And that’s how it was on that day, the 26th of February, 1945, when they attacked the area in which our flak tower in Friedrichshain Park was, and also the neighborhoods around it. One bomb hit our tower, and indeed exactly above the Caesar ordnance. 12 men were killed from it.
Q: Did you experience that too?
No, we were one floor below. I can’t remember that I was present to recover any wounded men, apparently the teams of the other higher ordnances did that. I have no memory of that, merely that we went up days later and looked around to see how it was. Ultimately the bomb fell exactly on the edge, where the munition was below, and that caused an enormous amplification of the effect.
Q: The flak tower couldn’t actually reach very much. Describe that…
Generally the air defense was more of a farce. The Americans and British had sovereignty over the airspace, there was little doubt about that. But things still continued.
Q: And in conversation, did people discuss this fact?
Q: Was it safer where you could take refuge, or elsewhere?
If someone was on the canons, then you were free all around. Exposed to all other impacts. But in the shelter, that was quite protected. I mean, we noticed when something happened up above. The tower quivered a bit, but one can really only say that it quivered lightly. It had an extremely thick layer at the top and thick walls. So really nothing could happen there.
Q: Could you see from your sparrow’s nest how the people surged into the towers before an attack?
With regard to the situation during the day, it was the case that relatively few people queued up. And that’s because most attacks took place during the night. In the period of time from January 1 until the 20th of April almost 100 spoilings took place by English Mosquitos. There were many frightened Berliners then who stood in line since evening time so that they could be the first to get in. And of course even at the end there were people who wanted to get in, but the doors were closed whenever planes were overhead or the machines. The gate had to be shut and of course not everyone was able to make it inside. And that’s how you always saw the throngs of people who came. As soon as the sirens started, masses of people started moving in search of shelter. Those near to the flak tower or other bunkers lived because they had a certain advantage of being able to find protection.
Q: Did it proceed in an orderly way, or was there panic?
A kind of stupidity had spread widely, and they simply lived with this situation. And I should say that this expression, “A horrifying end is better than horror without end,” was heard more and more frequently — we heard it too. And we were no out-and-out Nazis.
Q: Did you hear anything about the people in the tower?
They were spread out in many corridors, and sat on their little suitcases or on some kind of foldaway stools. A few talked with each other. We hardly had any contact with then, because when the alarm went off we had to, as I said, go above to the platform. And the same thing with the all-clear signal: we could go below, but the civilians had also left the tower again.
Q: At some point the Soviet planes came too. How was that?
That was only in the very last days. When the final battle in Berlin was in motion. Then I once saw a Russian battle flyer, the L2, and once… the double-decker that could sail, could fly without a motor. And that had the consequence, for example, that they could fly at night without being heard. We had also excavated a protective trench in front of the flak tower. If anyone smoked a cigarette there, then these flyers saw it and a bomb was thrown out by hand from one of these double-deckers.
Q: Do you also remember the events on top of the flak tower, when there were especially dangerous attacks?
As a result of the fact that we always had tens of thousands of civilians inside the tower, I can remember that for almost the entire time that we lived in the flak tower, we had bugs that were being introduced into the tower. And we were always fumigating against vermin. But they always came back, some people somewhere just brought them with them… Not the most pleasant thing….
We had another hit on our flak tower. And also during a spoiling in the night, an English aerial mine fell onto a swallow’s nest. The 3.7-centimeter light flak canons that stood there, together with a crew of three men, were of course sent down, and the crew did not survive. And we had another hit another time, in which a technical officer at the top of the higher platform was hit by a firebomb. It penetrated into his body, and he died from it. That kind of thing happened too of course. Otherwise, when one sums it up, the losses were extremely minor as a result of the possibilities for shelter that were at hand. The crew of the 12.8 also had a dugout for the times when they were not employed.
Q: Were your nerves shot? Day after day, week after week it continued. How should one imagine the internal constitution of a 15-year-old who lived up top one of these towers?
One simply lived with it. We could gather, even just from the reports from the front, though sugarcoated, that the war was approaching an end. On the other hand, as of the year 1945 we listened, in our room, to the BBC every evening, with that familiar “bom bom bom bom.” One of us who was a talented electrician hooked up a gadget that would interrupt the power when the door opened, so that practically speaking we couldn’t be caught watching it. And from theBBC we always knew where the attacks were and what their effects were, etc etc. It was nearly a kind of vegetative waiting for the end, somehow.
Q: Did you seem at all lost to yourself, up there?
Lost, no, actually. We were among the 20 that were behind the light flak — we resided together, lived together, played each other’s twin head. We had our schooling in there until April 1945, too. A man was there who taught us, our tutor, who came along from the school and who also had a military rank as a constable, but had no clue about the technology or weapons. And then for the natural sciences we had a teacher from here in Berlin, who always came and taught during the day. We always had only meager education, and yet reached a secondary school level one certificate.
Q: Do you remember hearing that Hitler had died? How was that?
The very last day in the flak tower consisted of being in our rooms at night and sleeping, and then we spent the day up above on the platform and waited to see what would happen. Then, on May 1, the command came to clear the flak tower. And we were told then that Hitler had fallen under machine gun fire while protecting the Reich Chancellery. So the Nazi fat cats continued their propaganda and spread their die-hard slogan.
We then left the flak tower in the evening, and took with us what we could. And went in the direction of Schönhauer Allee. And I only became aware of this recently: We went from Schönhauser Allee through the Bötzow district over Greifswalder Straße through the adjacent neighborhood, over Prenzlauer Allee and again through another large neighborhood to Schönhauser Allee, without being touched by the enemy. And that means that the Red Army had, to all appearances, no intention of taking over the tower. Which would have been senseless anyway. One could see from the bullet holes on the Humboldthain [tower] that this would have had basically no effect. So we left the tower with the necessities that we could take with us in our backpacks, then went over Schönhauser Allee, and some of us attempted to escape by going north out of Berlin. Yes, we were near the former Schulheiss Brewery.
Then a Jeep suddenly drove up, with Soviet soldiers and a white flag on top, and we saw clearly then: the war is over and we want to know what will happen. Stupidly, and naïve as we were, we tried to see if we could make it back to Cottbus, but a few blocks later we were prisoners of war.
Q: Once more back to the news that Hitler had fallen under machine gun fire. Did that unleash any emotions for you or for the others?
Well, I think that it had no impact on any of us. Because it was clear that the Soviet troops were standing at and in Berlin, and that other locations in Berlin had just been fought and won. And that the whole story simply had no prospects for success anymore. But we were, as I said, jaded and callous and accepted everything as it came. And I would even say that maybe that enabled us, on an everyday basis, to survive.