Back on Track…

standing_road_sign_blank_text_10923With my other project momentarily finished and the material from the Bundesarchiv in Freiburg now on my computer, I have restarted working on The War Diary.

Plenty of new material also means some more thoughts had to go into the structure of this site – and that comes with restructuring the current content carefully. The site’s organization is explained here. Unfortunately, this will result in some broken links where references have been made to previous pages. I will try to eliminate most of the impact but I cannot promise that I will be able to catch every eventuality.

With that said: back to work & enjoy reading!

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New Material coming in…

As you know, I have been “hunting” new material for this web site – some of it coming from the Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv in Freiburg, and also from reviewing some of the items left behind by my grandfather that have not received much attention in the past two decades.

From the Militärarchiv, I am expecting a delivery in the next few days – main item here is the Kriegstagebuch der 6. Armee, the 6th Army’s War Diary.

From the stack of items left behind by my grandfather, I have received a set of original maps that he must have had with him during the War against Belgium and France. Among them are

  • Karte von Belgien 1:100.000 Sheet Nr. I – Brügge
  • Karte von Belgien 1:100.000 Sheet Nr. V -Brüssel
  • Karte von Belgien 1:100.000 Sheet Nr. IV – Tournai
  • Zusammendruck 1:300.000 Dover – Laon
  • Zusammendruck 1:300.000 Paris – West – Moulins
  • Carte de France et des Frontiers 1:200.000 – Sheet 4 – Lille
  • Carte de France et des Frontiers 1:200.000 – Sheet 9 – Amiens
  • Carte de France et des Frontiers 1:200.000 – Sheet 10 – Mézières
  • Carte de France et des Frontiers 1:200.000 – Sheet 17 – Châlons
  • Franz. Einheitsblatt 1:80.000 St. Omer
  • Franz. Einheitsblatt 1:80.000 Calais-Boulogne
  • Frankreich 1:25.000 Cap Gris Nez Nr. 7-8

All maps are in a reasonably good condition, some more, some less – given that they are 75 years old and have been “in the field”, they are just fine.

Image 01 - Map Brussles

But the maps are more than “just maps” – which would be good enough. They also are – at least partially – a personal account.

Image 02 - Map Brussles - Details

Some of them have Route Markers on them – if compared to the diaries, I am sure they show the movements of the unit.

Image 03 - Details with Markings

One has markers on them – not exactly sure at the moment, what these are but maybe I will find out at some point.

Image 04 - Gun PositionsFinally, some of the more detailed ones show the unit’s firing positions – which also is something very interesting.

All of this material needs to be reviewed and prepared – I am still not done with my other project but some time soon, I have another visit to Freiburg coming up and I will continue reworking some of the already existing posts and then extending this website further.

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Got Facebook? There is a Page to keep you informed about Updates…

media_icon_like_400_clr_9163Like what you found here? Also got Facebook? Guess what, we have a way to make it easier for you to follow this site and discover new entries quickly and easily.

Go to our Facebook page – give us a ‘Like’ if you want. This will put us on your timeline (depending on your settings, of course) and when we update the site here, we will post you a link there.

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About the things to come

On this day, a century ago, my grandfather Hans Zapf was born in the city of Oschatz in Saxony. I don’t recall much of him, except for an old man sitting in his chair, solving his crossword-puzzles. I cannot remember him talking much, I don’t recall any stories that connect me with him. Unfortunately, in his lifetime, we did not have a relationship.

That, however, changed after he passed away in 1994. Hidden from his family – and discovered by coincidence – he had kept a secret treasure: a set of three diaries and about 700 black & white photographs describing his time in the German military in World War II. The complete account of an educated man, which in the months to come will be published through this website.

By researching his account and the general historic settings surrounding it, I have also started to discover my grandfather. But more importantly, I think that his account should not remain hidden and kept from public.

His diaries will take us back in time, to 1940, and to the War in the West, his time on the British Channel and later the nine hundred days at Leningrad. I am trying to present what my grandfather has in his diaries but I will amend it with the official sources and today’s known history to put things into perspective.

This is not an account given for glory, this is an account given to learn from – because only if we know our history, we can prevent repeating the errors of the past. Given that the first entry in his diary is dated January 11th, 1940 I will post the first entries January 11th, 2015 – 75 years after he had started his account.

Meanwhile, you can learn a little bit about my grandfather by taking a look at the following pages. Please also consider the background information and the content advisory.

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May 30, 1940 – In Flanders Fields

The Battle of Belgium is over, at least for my grandfather’s unit. While Allied troops continue to withdraw from Dunkirk (and in the end, more than 330.000 men will have been successfully evacuated) my grandfather and his Commanding Officer are taking a tour of Flanders Fields.

1940-05-30aTheir first stop is the city of Ypres (1) – Ypern in German. The diary’s entry provides a fraction of a hint of my grandfather’s thoughts: “Ypern, die Sehnsucht der deutschen Soldaten im Weltkriege.” – roughly translated into “Ypres, the town German Soldiers had been longing for so much in the Great War” – or a bit more freely: “Ypres, so close, yet so far for our soldiers once”.

To understand the line, one needs to know the following: the town was of strategic importance to the German forces in World War I – here, in the plains along the French-Belgian border, some of the most fiercely and and most horrific battles of the “War to end all Wars” were fought.

The city was never taken by the Germans but three battles were fought around it: the First Battle of Ypres in late 1914, the Second Battle of Ypres in Spring 1915, and the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. The battles had no winners – the German Army never took the city, the Allied Forces never pushed the Germans off. The city was in ruins after the war and about 750.000 men had been killed or wounded or went missing.

Soldiers from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Belgium, Algeria, Morocco, and Germany are buried in Flanders Fields or on the numerous war cemeteries around Ypres.

And now – only 23 years later – Germany did indeed win the Battle for Belgium in just under 20 days. France would fall not much later. Which explains the obvious satisfaction of my grandfather when seeing the German flag over the Cathedral of Ypres.

They went on to the German War Cemetery at Langemarck (2). The little village is located to the north-east of Ypres and played a central role in the First Battle of Ypres: German reserve troops, led by inexperienced officers, were slaughtered in a skirmish without aim and result. To obscure the obvious waste of life, the German High Command issued a false version of the events, thus initiating the legend of a heroic self-sacrifice by Germany’s youth. The myth was obviously maintained later – my grandfather’s words recall it: “Hier liegt Deutschlands Jugend.”“Here, Germany’s youth is buried.” – of course, he is right but not in the sense of the myth: at Langemarck, about 44.000 German soldiers have been laid to rest.

Image 01 - War Cemetery LangemarckBut my grandfather and his CO did not only pay tribute to the German soldiers of the Great War – the also must have visited at least the Canadian War Memorial Saint Julien on the other side of the town.

Image 02 - Canadian War MemorialI would like to take this stop as a matter of respect for the fallen soldiers of other nations, certainly not as a sign of dishonoring the site.

But their tour is not all sight-seeing – it also serves a purpose: they are continuing to Staden (3), a town which they had fired their heavy artillery on only a few days ago. They are searching the impact craters – possibly an assessment of their accuracy.

Somewhere along their trip, they also came across a column of Belgian Prisoners of War. Showing their photo here is a tribute to them – they have fought bravely in a battle they could not win.

Image 03 - Belgian Prisoners of WarBut they are not only seeing the Belgian Prisoners – they also come across freshly buried German soldiers. No further information but this is one of the passages in the diaries that almost provokes a personal comment:

From our position in history – 75 years after the events and with a good knowledge of where all this was leading to – it is easy to ask “Why did he not make a connection? Why did he just honor the graves of soldiers wasted no 25 years ago and not see the same happening over the graves of his comrades which had died only days ago? Shouldn’t he have seen it coming? Couldn’t he have known? It was all there, right before his eyes…” – to answer this question is much more difficult than to ask it.

I don’t know what he was thinking – I don’t know if he had been thinking about it at all. But if he did, we need to take into consideration that he – like many others – was a child of his times. His view of the world and on this war most likely was dominated by the view many in Germany had on the Treaty of Versailles and the resulting situation in Germany after World War I.

I can relatively safely assume this because of other documents we did find with the diaries and photos – on one of them, he did mark two of the goals the NSDAP has propagated: equal rights for Germany amongst other countries and cancellation of the treaties of Versailles and St. Germain.

It is not that he was forced to go to war – the diaries quite clearly say he wanted to. I also think, he was convinced of the course – they thought, they had a right to fight for Germany’s goals, even at arms.

Considering that this was the message Germany was hearing right after World War I, through the time of the Weimar Republic and more aggressively after January 1933, I can only conclude: Propaganda is a powerful thing. And even intelligent and educated people (to whom I would count my grandfather) can fall for it. Absorb the ideas. Draw conclusions they feel to be right but are considered wrong afterwards. It does not excuse anything – but maybe it helps to understand. And prevent the same thing happening again one day…

Back to the diaries: after having found their rounds at Staden, they must have turned around and headed towards Ypres once more: in Poperinge, west of Ypres, they are encountering German troops, passing by, they are heading over to Kemmel (5) and Wijtschate (6) – more battlefields of World War I.

Map 01 - Ypres and areaFinally, they have been heading back to St. Louis where they were still located – they would not engage in the fighting in Belgium again although the evacuation of Dunkirk would last to the first days of June and heavy artillery would certainly have been an option to interfere with it if the German High Command would have wanted to do so…

1940-06-02Instead, on June 2, 1940, my grandfather “adopts” a dog – a German Shepard he names Riko. It would be their last day in Belgium.

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May 28, 1940 – The Belgian Army surrenders

1940-05-28The remains of the Belgian Army which were now located in the area southeast of the city of Bruges on the flat country side, the sea in their backs, had no further options – they could not free themselves, there was no hope of support, there was no room for any further withdrawal: the air was dominated by the Luftwaffe, the railway lines to Dunkirk cut. The remaining units were intermixed with the civilian population living in the area – any continued resistance would have been futile.

As a result, the Belgian King Leopold took the only reasonable way out: he asked for an armistice. The included map – courtesy of www.wwii-photos-maps.com – shows the situation around Dunkirk on May 28, 1940.

Map 02 - Original Situation Map May 28, 1940My grandfathers diary reflects the victory in the Battle of Belgium only in a single sentence – they had been informed of the unconditional surrender of the Belgian forces. Like with so many other events, I wish he would have given away a little bit of his emotions – in this case, he did not.

Which leaves me the last thought of the day: the Belgian Army had defended their country bravely and by all means. Together with the British and French fighting units, they were the ones that allowed the Allied forces the evacuation from Dunkirk by holding on to their positions as long as possible, fighting a superior enemy force. When there was no way out, they agreed to an unconditional surrender, not wasting any more lifes than that invasion had already cost. Not many leaders in history had the courage to end the fighting when they had run out of options. The Wehrmacht – victorious this time – was about to find that out some 30 month later on the western banks of the Volga River.

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May 27, 1940 – “Operation Dynamo” begins

1940-05-27The situation is now getting desperate for the Allied forces – the Daily Reports are providing the following information:

“A Belgian peace negotiator shows with with XI. Corps, asking for a cease fire. We demanded unconditional surrender. No further details known.

[…] East of Roeselare, Belgian forces are maintaining their links with the British Forces on the railroad to Ypres. British and French forces are defending their positions in the pocket by all available means. South-east of Ypres, three British battalions are fighting with great persistence, continuously running counter-attacks on our bridgeheads […]

The force of artillery fire from the area around Lille is weakening, south-east of Lille, the enemy has retreated from the positions between Mouchin and Valenciennes, also the positions between Denain and Douai have been abandoned. Enemy forces are quickly retreating to the north-west.”

What happened? First of all, the pressure of the Wehrmacht was beyond the defensive capabilities of the Allied forces. Secondly, the Allied Command had finally decided to not burn their remaining forces in a useless fight but to evacuate as many man as possible from port of Dunkirk and the surrounding beaches. Operation Dynamo was now in full effect.

1940-05-27 - Lage West HGr. B

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May 26, 1940 -The Fighting continues

1940-05-26The guns are still in their firing positions at St. Louis (1), east of Courtrai. Their targets for the day (or rather the night and the day) are Lichtervelde (2) and Pittem (3).

Map 01 - S. Louis, Lichtervelde and PittemTheir rounds are going straight into the retreating Allied troops – by May 26, 1940, the German Divisions had continued to push the Allied forces back, the pocket was now quickly shrinking.

1940-05-26 - Lage West HGr. BIn the north, the Belgian Army is retreating to the area around Thielt (which is east of Pittem), in the center, the French and British forces are holding their positions.Still, the Wehrmacht is gaining ground. By now, many of the Allied forces were concentrated in and around the only remaining port, Dunkirk.

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May 24, 1940 – Over the Scheldt River to St. Louis

1940-05-24Between Ghent and Courtrai, the Wehrmacht had managed to break the last defensive line of the Allied forces, the mass of seven Infantry Divisions has crossed the river Lys.

Note: at that time, an Infanry Division roughly counted 18.000 men – assuming that not all Divisions were at their maximum strength, about 100.000 – 120.000 men pushed the Allied forces back on a front line of about 40 kilometers.

1940-05-24 - Lage West HGr. BThe Daily Reports summarizes the situation:

“Between Ghent and Courtrai, our troops have crossed the Lys river, we are pushing westward. At the river, the Belgian troops are maintaining their positions in some places, others have withdrawn, despite their orders to defend. The units are more and more mixing up, their fighting power has been further reduced.

On both sides of Coutrai, and in their positions at Tourcoing and St. Amand, the British and French are holding on, defending persistently.”

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May 23, 1940

1940-05-23While there is nothing to note in my grand fathers diary, there are photos from their battery at Klijpe.

Image 04 - KlijpeThat seems to be one of the guns, with the second one setup nearby…

Image 05 - KlijpeIn the north, the Wehrmacht captured Terneuzen and Ghent, forcing the Belgian army to retreat.

The Daily Report once more provides an overview of the situation from the German point of view:

“In the north, generally successful. Our forces have taken Ghent. North of the city, four bridgeheads over the channel established. Between Ghent and Tournai our troops have forced their way over the Scheldt river. Enemy is withdrawing to Rubaix, Tournai is taken. South of Tournai, enemy is holding positions.”

For the remaining days until the surrender of the Belgian Forces on May 28, 1940, I will try to include the individual allied units (as far as they have been known and covered in the German situation maps).

1940-05-23 - Lage West HGr. B

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