Grinding to a Halt–Fleeing in Panic
As the Germans waited outside Moscow in the dead of winter, the Muscovites did their very best to remain quiet. All lights in the city were darkened at nighttime, and stealth was the order of the day. The last thing Stalin wanted was to provide an obvious target for German artillery. For the Germans, it was an almost eerie experience to be on the edge of a great city where four million hearts beat, yet to be surrounded by total darkness and absolute silence. The only way the city came into view at nighttime was in silhouette when bombs lit up the sky behind the buildings. Ludwig’s days in Russia were numbered. He describes what happened when the Russian’s mounted a massive counterattack against the encamped Germans:
I remember the night before the Russian attack very well, for I spent it next to one of my friends who spent most of the night gazing at a picture of his family. He told me over and over again that he would never see them again. Nothing I could do or say would comfort him. It seemed impossible, for we were so close to victory. Yet, he was a prophet, for on the morning of the next day, December 6th, shortly after we began to advance towards the city we heard a roaring sound—but unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It wasn’t the sound of aircraft or guns that created such a dreadful feeling; it was the sound of Russian voices, shouting in an ever-increasing frenzy. Soon the German soldiers in front of us started running back towards us shouting, “Go back, Go back!” The Russians had launched their counter-attack, and it would be fatal for my unfortunate friend.
As I started to run with my comrades all thoughts of victory left my mind. Panic ruled the scene. While dashing through an open field I came upon a German officer who was crying like a baby. We Germans didn’t know how to retreat, it seems, for we’d never had that experience. I grabbed the young officer and brought him to his feet, hoping he’d start running again. I didn’t have time to drag him, though, so let go and kept on running as fast as I could. With lungs crying out for air, I’d gained enough distance to pause by another young German soldier who’d been shot in the head. A few of his friends had stopped to help him. His last words, were, ‘You guys are some buddies.” All I could think is that I didn’t want to die here in Russia. Behind me I again heard the swelling noise of thousands of Russian voices. The intensity of their fury flooded my body with adrenaline, and I raced ahead faster than ever before.5
France and North Africa
Transferred to France, Ludwig discovered that there were some openings for motorcycle drivers. He recognized this as the perfect opportunity to continue his military service, but in a non-infantry role. Motorcycle messengers had two jobs; take orders that were too sensitive to broadcast over radio directly to the field commanders and to give rides to officers in the sidecar of the motorcycle. He applied for the position and passed all the tests, but still had trouble receiving approval. The problem was that at this point he was the most experienced machine gunner in the group, and his leaders didn’t want to release him. If only they knew how intentionally ineffective he was in using his machine gun. Fortunately, a senior officer liked his style and intervened to get him transferred as a messenger to the officer’s unit.
That was such a blessing for me, for they replaced it with what became my beloved BMW motorcycle. What a machine it was! Four forward gears, drive-on-side-car, and three extra gears for rough going – plus one reverse gear. What a beauty! Even so, the rain prevailed and shortly after getting my new motorcycle I once again got stuck in a puddle. I hailed a passing Arab with two mules. He was willing to help, but not the mules, even his big stick did not convince them. Who invented mules, anyway? After a short time, a German halftrack came by and pulled me out6.
During the rainy season, German cargo ships were successful in crossing the Mediterranean to resupply the troops and tank companies. The weather grounded Allied planes. It was so bad that there was also little combat activity on the ground. But once the rains stopped, the battle was back on. The Germans immediately launched an assault on the American tank positions and quickly overran them by twenty miles. “The Americans did not have much experience.” Capturing American equipment was awe-inspiring for the Germans; “With all the equipment we inherited from that attack we could have repulsed a full division!” 7 But the best discovery was a trove of American K-rations and C-rations. The American canned food was a luxury for the Germans. The best discovery of all was that the American 105-millimeter guns could not penetrate the new German Tiger Tanks. That’s what enabled them to so easily overrun the American position. Ludwig was impressed by how well the Germans treated the American prisoners – far better than how they treated the Russians. “At least some degree of sanity here.”
As the season continued, the German lines were constantly harassed by the British. On more than one occasion British aircraft did their best to chase down the motorcycle riders, knowing that they carried important intelligence to aid the German cause.
It was about this time that a young German officer took a liking to Ludwig. He got himself assigned as a permanent passenger in Ludwig’s sidecar, except when engaged in battle when the officer had to be at the front lines. Ludwig was impressed with his knowledge and suspected that there was more to him than just another under-officer. Sure enough, six weeks later the officer was transferred to Erwin Rommel’s headquarters as a specialist. Ludwig was sad to see him go, but the fellow promised that he would be back for him.
A few weeks later, Ludwig observed a German ruse that trapped the Americans. Rommel moved forty to fifty tanks out into the open in the middle of a large valley. After a time of inactivity, the tanks rolled forward, turned, completed a loop, and moved back to the original position. The Americans took the bait and moved in to capture this small group of arrogant Germans. But Rommel had positioned his Tiger tanks and artillery in the mountains that flanked the valley, well out of the Americans line of sight, and at just the right moment they opened fire. The Americans were trapped in the crossfire. By nightfall the Germans had destroyed some 240 tanks and taken thousands of prisoners of war. It was a great battle won, “but still we lost the war!” At the time, Ludwig was glad for the victory, for he thought it was awful of the Americans to attack on Sunday. His father cautioned him not to let his anger at the enemy get the best of him. Good advice, considering what was to come.
The next thing to happen to Ludwig was to be transferred to the field headquarters of Field Marshal Rommel. His young officer-friend kept his word. This was an exciting and interesting period in his military service. Once each day he and the other messengers had to take secret orders by mouth only (so that paper copies could never fall into enemy hands) out to the Division Headquarters, and bring reports back. He records that sometimes he was dispatched in the early morning hours with instructions to have a military unit change position, and then watched at 2:00 a.m. as the men in the unit scrambled to comply. Men were almost always tired in war because of disturbed sleep.
Captured by the British
As brilliant a general as Erwin Rommel was, he was simply outnumbered, both by men and equipment. Plus, he was essentially surrounded. To the north was the Mediterranean Sea. To the East were the British and to the West the Americans. Nothing but desert to the south. Thus, it was that one day in early spring Rommel was transferred to France. That left the remaining Germans to continue the fight without their brilliant commander. It took time to wear them down, but on May 11th they were called together and told the truth that on the next day the Germans would surrender. Ludwig was one of the 136,000 Germans taken prisoner. Before that happened, he first buried his officer’s diary in the desert sand in a place where it would never be found, and then he rode his motorcycle to join his old unit.
When the British learned of the intended German surrender, they cautioned the Germans not to destroy their trucks, since that is the only transport they would have. Otherwise, they would walk. The last night before captivity, most of the men got drunk. For them, the war was about to end. At noon the next day, some British officers arrived to take command. Every German vehicle had to fly a white flag of surrender, including Ludwig’s BMW motorcycle. One British soldier tried to knock Ludwig from his machine to steal it, but he gunned it at just the right moment and left the Brit sitting in the dirt cursing him. But his use of the motorcycle didn’t last. Just as soon as they arrived at the prisoner-of-war camp, his beloved BMW was confiscated. Still, Ludwig felt that the British treated the Germans with great respect, not even conducting a personal body search. Even while being transported across a huge tract of desert the British allowed the Germans to stand guard at night, with British weapons in hand. Said a British guard, “If anyone wants to run away, let them. Just give us the courtesy of leaving the rifle here.” The chance of escape or insurrection was nil – for there was 1,500 miles of desert between them and the nearest Spanish colony. Plus, the area was also home to French bounty hunters who would love to collect the reward for an escaping German soldier.
As disturbing as it was to be a prisoner, Ludwig recognized that at long last there was no chance that he would have to break his promise.
More with a Tin Can Than…
When they finally reached the makeshift prison camp, boredom reigned supreme. The most interesting and important thing to happen each day was the arrival of the water and food trucks at 5 a.m. in the morning. Two spoons full of rice and beans, perhaps some condensed milk, or a spoon full of corned beef or other items left the prisoners hungry. Plus, there were no facilities with which to cook. But the ingenious Germans quickly found solutions. Ludwig records, “Take an old gallon tin can, fill the bottom with sand, pour in some gasoline and light it. Two or three men could then heat their food to make it more palatable.” In no time, the Germans started making all sorts of interesting things out of their tin cans, prompting one British officer to declare, “You German soldiers can do more with a tin can than an Italian with a tank."8 That pleased Ludwig.
All in all, he felt the British were very fair in their treatment of the German prisoners. That did not carry over to the treatment they received when transferred to the Americans. Instead of courtesy, the Americans badgered. They loaded their prisoners 45 to a railway car, which left no room to sit or to use the bathroom. While the British had allowed them to travel through the hot desert air with the railcar side doors open, the Americans closed and bolted all the doors and locked the ventilation portals at the top. “Here we found the winds of hate and war still blowing! But, we Germans figured out ways to survive. We pried open planks in the bottom of the cars to use as a lavatory and figured out how to stand on one another’s shoulders until the ventilation portals were opened. When the train started to slow we quickly closed them so the American guards wouldn’t nail them shut.”9 On the last night on the train before reaching Casablanca, some men escaped. Ludwig had no desire to join them since he did not want to go back to fight a war that he did not believe in.
America – Birds in the Golden Cage
After a rolling, unpleasant sea voyage from Africa to Norfolk, Virginia, Ludwig’s group was transferred by train to Ellis, Illinois. This train journey was a very different experience; instead of 45 men crowded into standing room only, two men were given three seats to share on an American passenger train, and delicious food to eat. It was a real luxury. Then, after arriving at Camp Ellis, they experienced an even bigger shock:
At last we were marched off to the mess hall. Here we received a tray with a cup, fork, spoon, and knife and then our tray was loaded up with food. Coming to the table we found cans of grapefruit juice, tomato juice, milk, sugar, ketchup and other luxuries. Was all that for us? It was! We cleaned up every bit, not knowing if we’d ever see that much food again. To our surprise, the American’s told us there were seconds to be had, so we cleaned out the kitchen cupboards, even every crumb of bread. As far as we were concerned this was “paradise” for us; and when we were afterward shown to the barracks, which were in a double-fenced compound with guard towers, double gates, and search lights, we did not care at all because we had found something like a home.
Indeed, we were the birds in the golden cage!
For me, it was far better than the mud, the cold, and endless suffering in Russia, or the hot sand in Africa, facing death 24 hours a day!
The Americans, realizing of course that idleness is the Devil’s workshop, soon put us into work details. At first it was pulling weeds around the barracks, but slowly we got other, more interesting details. Our compound was a camp within a camp, the larger area being used as a training ground for American G.I.’s preparing to go to war. So, soon enough, we had warehouses to work in, railroad cars to unload, wood to chop and a hundred other chores. Soon the guards loosened up and started talking with us, and we of course were all trying to learn to speak English. Saturday and Sunday, we had mostly off, enjoying soccer and other ball games, playing cards and chess. Food was so plentiful, we could not eat it all. What a contrast to Europe – where civilian and soldier both nearly starved.
Every hour we worked we were paid 10 cents, plus $3.00 from the German government per month for toiletries, cigarettes, and even some beer. Of course, you could save you money too, which I mostly did. If it sounds fantastic to you, so it was to us.10
In time, Ludwig was transferred to Rockford, Wisconsin, fifteen miles north of Milwaukee. This was a small camp where prisoners worked for a vegetable canning factory and for area farmers. Security was lax, because the prisoners were trusted now. Lots of people in this area spoke German, and soon the prisoners were considered friends. Another surprise was when Ludwig was interrogated by an American official, who asked detailed questions about where he was from, did he have relatives in the United States, and where they were living? After an hour of this, the man was satisfied and handed Ludwig a care package from his Aunt Francis in Salt Lake City. She had taken the initiative to write to Washington D.C. about German P.O.W.s living in America and they had given her his location. Later he was visited by his Uncle Herbert and Uncle Willi. The world in the United States was a happier place for Herbert Ludwig.
Victory in Europe – New Trials for Herbert
When Germany capitulated on May 8, 1945, there were mixed feelings among the prisoners of war. Some were excited about the chance to go home. Others dreaded it, knowing that their loved ones had been killed in their absence. Many liked their lives in America. Almost all were frightened by rumors that they would not be sent home to Germany, but rather to France to work as prison labor helping rebuild towns and countries damaged by the war. The agitation became so great that a US Army Colonel came and spoke to the group, assuring them that everyone would be sent back to Frankfurt to then be released to go home.
That isn’t what happened. Rather, some of their guards were replaced by American G.I.’s who had been prisoners-of-war in Germany. They were mean to the Germans because they had nearly starved in Germany. So, they cut rations to Ludwig and his group in retaliation. It was only later when the guards started talking with the Germans, that the Americans came to realize that they had received the same amount of food that German civilians and military received. In other words, the whole country was on the verge of starvation and American prisoners-of-war were treated the same as everyone else.
The next unpleasant surprise came when their ship docked in Europe. Not in Germany, as promised, but in France. Ludwig was placed into what was very near to the equivalent of slave labor, working in a coal mine. Here, many of the guards were former Nazi officers, who treated the German P.O.W.s sent to America with contempt. Conditions were terrible, with nothing but 300 grams of bread with a sliver of margarine, and cabbage soup for six weeks. The only thing that saved Ludwig is that he got sick, and was transferred out of the mines.
Still, it looked like his term of service would last at least two years at this hard labor and Ludwig felt it was unfair. Eventually, he and a friend worked out an idea of how they could escape. While working above ground in a lumber yard, the two waited until they were close to an unguarded spot near the woods, and then sprinted for the tree line. After running as long as their strength held out, they found a shell crater from the war and slipped in. Hours later they heard a hunting party but managed to escape detection. After three long nights on the run, they reached the Saarland on the border of Germany and France. Of course, all of Germany was under Allied control, so that was no help. But at least the local people spoke German, which meant that some might help them. Nearing total exhaustion, they decided to travel during the day. Eventually, they ran across a road crew which immediately recognized them as escaped German soldiers. The foreman took them in, helped them clean up and shave in his shack. Another shared a sandwich with them. Then, they pointed them in the right direction with ideas on how to get past the guards.
Along the way, many people helped them. A farmer’s wife gave them bread. A railroad signalman allowed them to sleep in the warmth of his shack for a whole night and then gave them train tickets with a warning as to how to spot French police on the train. Finally, almost on the verge of being discovered by a French guard, they jumped from the train and walked into the British zone of occupation. The French no longer had claim on them. Fortunately, there were no guards—they crossed the line and found a woman who welcomed them home:
Safe? I can’t hold back my tears; can it be true? Oh, great Lord, it must be!! The woman who greeted us takes us into the village where we get fed, lodging, a breakfast, and a packed lunch, and then we are put on a milk truck to take us to the city. We cannot believe that it is real; again, and again I ask the question, is it real? I ask myself if I am sane—am I awake or am I dreaming? For the first time in seven years I need not fear; I am among my people, no one is after me, no one is hunting me, or trying to shoot me or humiliate me. I can move around as a free man. There are no words to describe the feelings—what a load off my shoulders! I will make it home. ‘Thank you, Lord! Thank you’… Finally, after more days walking it’s getting dark. I turn on a lane and a small white wooden fence comes up; it had not been there when I left. White crosses also. I count 42 crosses, casualties of the war in our village. Now I can see our kitchen window with light in it. Oh, my Lord, I see more. I see father, mother, and sister; my head swirls, can I make it without being seen? Down the road, into the yard, up the outside flight of stairs, into the hall. I rap at the door, can’t stand the tension. “Come in,” is the call from father. I can’t move. The door burst open, my sister looks out, her mouth drops wide open. Finally, the silence breaks. “Oh, no, it’s Herbert!!!” she cries out, we embrace. Father and mother join in the embrace; do we need words? Happiness as never more true.11
Herbert was home, his life spared, his promise kept.
After three and a half years helping members of his church in many of the towns and villages in what would become both East and West Germany, Herbert married Inge Benicke. In June 1953, they emigrated to America. Eventually, Herbert’s parents and Inge’s mother joined them in America.
Herbert Ludwig was an invisible soldier only in the sense that he was one of millions in a great conflict. While convinced that his country was in the wrong, he did his duty as best he could while keeping a unique promise that few others have made. He never took a life in war or peace.
- Ludwig, Herbert K. Personal Memoir. Unpublished. 1983.
- Ludwig, Herbert and Borrowman, Jerry. The Enemy Was Me. Unpublished manuscript, 1995.
About the Author
Jerry Borrowman is an award-winning author of 18 books of historical biography, fiction, and creative non-fiction. To learn more, please visit www.jerryborrowman.com.