Herr Horst Herrmann
By Malcolm Amy
Horst Herrmann was born on 8th March 1925 in the eastern part of Berlin. The aftermath of hyper-inflation which afflicted Germany in the late 1920s as a result of the harsh conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles meant that Horst knew nothing but hardship as a child. He became a member of the Hitler Youth which took him to the mountains of Bavaria as well as other parts of Germany which due to his circumstances, would have otherwise never have seen.
At the age of 17, and in common with all German youths, Horst had to serve in the Reicharbeitsdienst or RAD (State Labour Service) for a period of 18 months. Unusually this took the form of working as a guard on the suburban passenger trains of the Deutsche Reichsbahn (German State Railways) running out of Berlin. No doubt Horst was given a guard job due to his tall stature which would prove problematic during his military service! When his 18 months with the RAD were up Horst was then drafted into the Army in 1943. When he was issued with his uniform Horst unusually received the M1936 pattern uniform jacket which featured a bottle green collar and pleated pockets. All the others in his group received the standard M1943 pattern uniform jacket which was all field grey and featured un-pleated pockets and would have made Horst’s comrades look rather shoddy in comparison. Oddly Horst was also given a M1916 pattern steel helmet from the First World War which, although heavier and larger than the Second World War helmets, was viewed as by Horst as a good insurance policy due to it being produced of thicker steel.
After completing his basic training Horst was immediately posted, along with 19 comrades of his age group who were also Berliners, to the Eastern Front. They had a fairly bad time, with Horst spending a fair bit of his time in hospital, while in Russia and Horst was told by his Hauptstabsfeldwebel that he was a waste of time and that he was to be sent along with others to “Some God-forsaken Island off the French coast”. What had actually happened was that some General or other thought it was wrong for such young recruits to be in such a place and they were sent to Jersey in exchange for men of a more mature age. So Horst, along with the other Berliners including Herr Georg Brefka (see pages. . .), travelled by train right across Europe in goods wagons until they found themselves on the Docks at St. Malo were some of them saw the sea for the first time!
Arriving on Jersey in September 1943, Horst and his comrades were all posted to the 2nd Company of Machine Gun Battalion 16 with its Headquarters at the La Moye Golf Hotel. Horst later related: “There we were, a bunch of Berlin kids, mixed up with a bunch of middle aged country bumpkins whose accents we could hardly understand!” The “country bumpkins” were mostly in their 30s and all hailed from the Eifel district of north-west Germany where Machine Gun Battalion 16 was originally raised. Horst rotated around the various defensive positions within the 2nd Company which included Wn. Les Brayes, The La Moye Golf Hotel (which formed Wn. La Moye and was the 2nd Company’s HQ) as part of the Company Reserve, Einsatzstellung Höhe 201 (Action Post Height 201) above La Carrière Point and at Stützpunkt Corbiere.
One of Horst’s duties while serving at Wn. Les Brayes was to check a pole mounted detonation cable that connected the position to a redundant French 27cm shell that had been buried below La Rocco Tower. The purpose of this shell was to destroy the Tower should it fall into Allied hands during an invasion. Horst was normally the first to climb the steps leading to the tower's bulwark and he was always worried that, if British commandos had landed on La Rocco Tower the night before, he would have been the first to have a knife in his throat!
[The shell itself was not ‘rediscovered’ until 1995 and safely destroyed.]
During his time at the north facing 10.5cm coastal defence gun casemate ‘K2’ (Kanone = cannon) at Stp. Corbiere, which was his favourite posting, Horst was trained on the operation and firing of the weapon. Due to his height, Horst could never get the seat on the gun adjusted correctly for his size and found that his knees would get in the way of the elevation and traverse wheels during training. He was also, and much to his annoyance, constantly banging his head on the large extractor hood fitted above the gun to remove fumes. This height disadvantage within the confines of the bunker also meant that Horst was given an end bunk bed so that he had room for his feet to stick out! On the night of D-Day, June 6th 1944, Horst was on duty in K2 and had to sleep fully dressed complete with his Jackboots so he was immediately ready for action.
Horst was nearly court-martialled twice while stationed at K2. The 1st was when he took part in his first ever live firing training exercise on the 10.5cm gun with him serving as an ammunition handler. Horst was standing behind the gun at the point of firing and having never experienced such a weapon being fired inside the enclosed space of a bunker before, the shockwave and noise created at the point of firing took him completely by surprise and sent him flying backwards out of the gun room, much to the surprise and displeasure of the bunker commander! On Horst’s second live firing exercise with the 10.5cm gun, he was given the job of actually firing the gun which was achieved by pulling a lanyard. On being given the command to ‘Fire’ Horst went to pull the lanyard but it slipped through his fingers due to his hands being very sweaty with nerves. The Bunker Commander, Feldwebel Werner Hentrich, assumed that the gun had misfired and immediately ordered everybody out of the gun room on the double. Needless to say that Horst was not very popular afterwards and was threatened with a court-martial!
During Horst’s third live firing exercise he was being instructed in the aiming of the 10.5cm gun and he was seated on the weapon operating the elevation & traverse wheels whilst aiming at the chosen rocks in front of La Rocco Tower as viewed from the gun. Having already experienced the shockwave and noise created when the gun fired, Horst was ready to tense up and flinch at the point of firing. The soldier who would pull the lanyard for firing the gun was just as nervous as Horst and when the command to ‘Fire’ was given the firing lanyard momentarily slipped in his sweaty hands as he pulled it causing Horst to tense up to early, and as he did so he altered the gun's angle slightly before it actually fired! The angle was enough to cause the fired shell to deflect off of the target rock rather than having a clean strike and Horst saw through the gun sight what looked like a "puff of dust" rising from the top of La Rocco Tower! In fact the shell had hit the southern machicolation at the top of the tower (which caused it to collapse post war). Horst kept this incident quiet as the soldiers were under 'strict orders' not to hit La Rocco Tower as it was viewed as a historical monument by the Germans. Horst was lucky that the shell being fire was only a training shell as had a high explosive shell been used then a sizable chunk could have been taken out of the tower.
He also trained on the M19 5cm automatic fortress mortar which was mounted in a neighbouring bunker to ‘K2’ (See Engelbert Hoppe) and during one of the very few live firing exercises undertaken on the M19 Horst and several comrades loaded the mortar ready to fire off several rounds (the mortar could fire up to 120 rounds per minute) and, while leaving one man to fire the mortar, they all ran outside to watch the mortars exploding onto some rocks in the sea that were the chosen target. Horst was trained on several other types of weapons including the 3.7cm Pak Anti-Tank gun. This gun was, by 1943, hopelessly obsolete due to its inability to penetrate the armour of enemy tanks which earned it the nickname of ‘Door Knocker’ by the Russians. No doubt Horst had seen how ineffective it was while serving on the Eastern Front and commented that “The only thing it was good for was opening barn doors!”
As with most soldiers, Horst trained in the operation and deployment of the M.G.34 machine gun, and again due to his tall build Horst was felt to be best suited to carrying and caring for the machine gun and also its heavy, 20 kilogram, Lafette 34 tripod mounting (a task that Horst blames for his back problems in later life!). Another problem with the M.G.34 was its need for constant cleaning and maintenance. After manoeuvres, which were normally conducted in the Sand Dunes of St. Ouen’s Bay, it was Horst’s duty to clean the machine gun upon his return to the bunker and he would wearily comment during his return visits post war that the sand would always find its way into every working part even if the gun had not been used and required a full strip down, much to Horst’s annoyance as he would then need to spend his free time doing it.
Before D-Day, live firing of the various machine guns would be carried out on a regular basis. A flare would be fired at 7pm from Machine Gun Battalion 16’s Headquarters at the Alexandria Hotel which was the signal for every machine gun in St Ouen’s Bay to fire off fifty rounds. Apart from watching as “the whole bay exploded from all the bunkers”, the crew of ‘K2’ would also empty out the gunpowder from the rifle rounds onto the crew room table and set fire to it for entertainment. Another interesting point is that Horst (along with all soldiers) was forbidden from going more than about a thousand metres from where he was stationed without a good reason. So, for example, if Horst wished to go to town he would have to have a good reason for doing so he would make up an excuse like he had to visit the dentist etc.
The barbed wire perimeter fence, which encircled Stp. Corbiere, contained tripwires which were attached to ‘Lichtminen’ (Light mines). These ‘mines’ consisted of a flare gun cartridge and a tripwire activated firing pin which would alert the presence of anybody attempting to cross through the barbed wire. The trip wires were extremely sensitive and were often set off by the nocturnal activities of rabbits! The second time Horst nearly ended up being court-marshalled involved the ‘Lichtminen’. Along with some comrades, Horst was larking around in front of the bunker when Horst accidentally stood on a tripwire which didn’t just set off one but a vast quantity of flares off in all directions! Unfortunately for Horst the Naval personnel manning the nearby observation tower were not amused by this sudden firework display and lodged a complaint. Horst was threatened with a court-martial for his behaviour but got off with a warning!
Horst found that sentry duty, a soldier’s most loathed job, was a wonderful experience at La Corbière during the night with the soft air and the sound of the sea. During a full moon the headland took on a very romantic feel with the granite sparkling in the moonlight, yet always in the back of Horst’s mind was the possibility that there may be a Commando creeping up behind him, cheese wire in hand, ready to silently dispose of him! During his first days at Stp. Corbiere Horst, along with the other soldiers, had noticed the presence of a feral tabby cat that lived in the area and it wasn’t long before the soldiers where petting and feeding the cat. Knowing it was onto a good thing the cat moved into ‘K2’ and was soon adopted as a mascot by the gun crew. Sadly the cat’s days were numbered! During the time of starvation in the winter of 1944/45, when hunger controlled everything, the poor cat was killed and consumed for food. When Horst related this story in May 2005 he still had tears in his eyes for the fact that he and the rest of the crew of ‘K2’ had to kill their beloved mascot for food. He also remembers having to go and pick stinging nettles to make soup.
In early 1945 Horst was at the 10.5cm coastal defence gun casemate at Resistance Nest La Carriere playing a game of cards with some of his comrades while discussing how to obtain more food. One of his Comrades, who had been drinking, stated “I shall get us some food! There are rabbits outside in the minefield!” and with that he jumped up and ran outside towards the minefield before he could be stopped. Horst leapt up and gave chase and with a flying rugby tackle brought his drunken comrade to the ground just as he was reaching the minefield perimeter fence and thus averting a disaster.
For the last few weeks of the war Horst lived at ‘Bracken Hill’ on La Route Orange and acted as an ‘assistant’ for the Battalion, and former 2nd Company Commander, Hauptmann Schellenburg who resided at La Moye Manor. Horst got this job because as he put it “I was a good scrounger!” One day Hauptmann Schellenburg ordered Horst to cycle to St. Helier and collect a quantity of sugar beet syrup. On his return journey temptation proved too much and Horst would stop every now and then to take a sip of the sweet syrup and by the time he had returned to his Commander the lot had gone. Hauptmann Schellenburg asked “Why did you drink it?” and Horst’s reply was “Because I was so bloody hungry!”
Horst left Jersey as a prisoner of war on 12th May 1945, and what he thought was his last sight of the Island was watching the roof of the Grand Hotel at West Park fading away into the evening mist. Like many other German prisoners he worked on farms in and around the St. Neots and Godmanchester district of what was then Huntingdonshire. By 1947 these Germans, although still normally prisoners, were able to come and go as they pleased outside of working hours. By now Horst had acquired a small white dog as a pet and, while out walking by the river one evening, the dog jumped up onto the new white coat being worn by a young lady. “Don’t do that” Horst said, “You’ll spoil the lady’s nice coat!” And so they began chatting. The young Lady’s name was Barbara, recently demobilised from the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, and it was not long before they were married.
When Horst was officially discharged from captivity in 1948 he was given the choice of ether returning to Germany or staying in Britain. As his former home in the eastern part of Berlin was now in the Soviet Zone Horst’s father advised him to stay away for a while as things were hard’ “I stayed away for a while and in the end, for good.” So Horst elected to remain in Britain and was obliged to work on farms while living in a two roomed cottage with no running water and no inside sanitation. Eventually things improved and the couple were allocated a council house and Horst obtained employment with the Coalite division of ICI in St. Ives where he rose to the position of Chief Clerk.
Horst decided to return to Jersey in 1980 and Barbara later related how Horst was up early in the morning on the deck of the Sealink ferry as it entered St. Aubin’s Bay to get his first glimpse of the roof of the Grand Hotel as it emerged out of the mist! During this holiday they visited the Noirmont Command Bunker despite Barbara being uneasy about the visit and what reception Horst would have if he said he was a former German stationed on the Island. At the end of their tour of the bunker Horst introduced himself to Bill Rogers who was acting as guide and explained that he had been stationed in one of the gun emplacements at La Corbiere, ‘the one below the crest of the hill and reached by a footpath from the main road, shortly after it begins the descent to Petit Port’. Bill welcomed Horst with open arms and explained that his old bunker had come into the care of the CIOS the year before and, although not yet open to the public, asked Horst if he would like to visit the bunker. Of course Horst said yes so arrangements were made for him to be taken there by Michael Ginns, then secretary of the Channel Island Occupation Society. When re-entering ‘K2’ Horst was overcome with emotion as happens to many former German soldiers when they return to their former postings.
Thereafter Horst joined the CIOS with him and Barbara returning to Jersey almost on a yearly basis. When ‘K2’ was open to the public during his holidays, Horst was usually on hand to answer questions about his time as a member of the occupying forces, much to the amazement of visitors. One of his favourite tricks was to quietly stand in the vicinity of visitors studying the ‘Do They Ever Come Back?’ display about him, and to watch their reaction as it gradually dawned on them that the unassuming gentleman just behind them matched the photographs on the wall! While he was at ‘K2’ during one of its openings a lady was ranting on about how awful the “Bloody Germans” were! With great solemnity Horst said “and what would you say if I told you I was one of those bloody Germans?” She was lost for words! But they had a chat and ended up by shaking hands. During another bunker opening, with Horst in attendance, a former member of the Tank Battalion on Jersey turned up and they were left to talk. Afterwards Horst said that he had found it quite difficult because he had forgotten so many German words! He never lost his guttural German accent, but he became so anglicized that he even dreamt in English.
Horst’s proudest moments occurred during the celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the Liberation on May 9th 1985 when he was present at the Occupation Society’s annual dinner held at the Grand Hotel with the Lt. Governor of Jersey as principle guest, and on 12th May, at a service of remembrance held at St. Brelade’s Church (the former location of the German Military Cemetery in Jersey) where he laid a wreath at the parish War Memorial to the memory of all the war dead of Jersey. Horst continued to visit Jersey on a yearly basis up to 2006 with his last visit to his former posting in 2005, then in March 2007 came the sad news that Horst had passed away just four days after his 82nd birthday.