Life of WLK
Editor's Note: This is a somewhat expanded version of the original “life story” written in English by W.L. Kreissmann for his family, which he completed when he was 88 years old. It was 34 pages with added picture pages, spiral-bound, with a cover designed by Willi in his own inimitable way. He sent it to me in that same year, 2008, because I had asked him for more information about himself on the German World Alliance forum. I was thrilled to receive it and, after reading it, asked if he minded if I edited it. He answered that he wouldn't mind, in fact he would appreciate it. Over the period of time that I worked on it, we naturally corresponded quite a lot. From what I discovered in our conversations and some pictures he sent me, I noticed that he barely mentioned his most dangerous bombing missions, especially the tragedy at Welikije Luki, and the beginning of the Battle of Kursk when he successfully crash landed his damaged plane in a wheat field. He had not even mentioned his two Iron Crosses, I and II! He agreed to write more about those wartime events and we added it into the narrative. He also provided more pictures which he identified for me.
Considering some of the evolution of his political views that is apparent from earlier to later life, the reader can appreciate that Willi, married to his American-born 2nd wife and with his children born or growing up in the USA, was under the usual pressure to conform to, or at least not challenge, the American popular beliefs about history, even the history he lived through and participated in. This was more true before his retirement than after. Because I was more interested in his early life experiences with his parents and sisters and as a Hitlerjugend than I was in his later life, he sent me two additional essays titled “Confessions” and "Marching Conquerors," which I'm also publishing now for the first time. ~CY
Not Franz Josef, but Wilhelm Ludwig …
Fountains and Cliffs, Highs and Lows in the
Life of WLK
Autobiography by Wilhelm Ludwig Kreissmann
Edited by Carolyn Yeager
Copyright Carolyn Yeager 2013
On October 11, 1919, at the state hospital in Klagenfurt, I tumbled healthy and lively into the world – a year after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy, November 1918, and a year before the plebiscite in Kärnten, October 10, 1920 that regained freedom and unity for my homeland. Not as Franz Josef, but as Wilhelm Ludwig, they lifted me out of the Catholic font. My father picked the name fully aware that his anti-Habsburg attitude would thus be transferred to his young offspring.
At the turn of the century, during his college years at the Egger Teacher Seminary in Klagenfurt, my father experienced his first exposure to German nationalism in the fraternity Arminia. Freiherr von Schonerer, Karl Lueger, Vienna’s mayor, and Freiherr von Gagern were his political mentors. Because of his severe war wounds my father served as a courier between the Austrian army headquarters in Belgrade and the German Army Corps in Bucharest. Following the war, the fighting against the attacking Srbska Htrvatska Slovernska (former Yugoslavia) soldateska, 1919 in Kärnten, and the continuous language struggle with the Slovenia-oriented village priest at my father’s school, marked him as a spirited representative of German cultural policies in our mixed-language region. Throughout the Rosental, he was known as an excellent educator who kept teaching at the grammar school even though he had the credentials for high school teaching.
Early in 1920 until 1930, he found his political home in partys right of center: Landbund, Grossdeutsche Partei SCHOBERBLOCK, and Heimatschutz. All strongly opposed the Social Democrats, representing at that time the rather militant Austro-marxism. From time to time they formed a coalition with the conservative Catholic Christlich Sociale Partei.
Because I spent all my childhood at the schoolhouse where my father was teaching, it’s no surprise that those everyday happenings had their influence on my personality. Very early, I showed great interest in a standard geography work The Kosmos, and Germania magazines, Gustav Freytag’s Die Ahnen, Bruno Brehm’s Habsburg trilogy, the Nibelungen Saga, the History of the Hohenstaufen and Visigoths.
The first four years of attending the Bundesgymnasium (state high school) I spent at the Präparantenheim, a boarding school in Klagenfurt, the capital of Kärnten/Carinthia. What we did during study and leisure time, what friendship or group interest we followed, was formative for our later life. Wandervogel and Südmarktjugend, Kreuzfahrer and the National Socialist Schulerbund; the fraternities “Staufen,” “Normannen,” “Arminen,” “Taurisker” and “Freyonen” welcomed the young students. They were mostly right-wing, with a Germanic nationalistic outlook. No wonder that on January 1933, when Hitler became Germany’s Chancellor, our headmaster marched with his raised right arm, the Hitler salute, through the double line of cheering youngsters. No wonder also that our school was hated by the red sozies, the communists and the black Sturmscharen.
At 11 years old, I carried my Südmark pin and the silver medallion of the NSSchulerbund. We marched through the “Red St. Ruprecht,” a stronghold of radical leftists in a suburb of Klagenfurt, getting egged with rotten potatoes and foul garbage. We demonstrated at the Landhaushof when Chancellor Dollfuss addressed his party followers. We escaped the special mobile unit of Major Wunsch of the city police, running up the steep staircase of the Karfreitgasse. Turbulent times for a young Gymnasiast.
At our classes at the Bundesgymnasium however, there was no politics involved. We had to study hard to pass our examination. Our curriculum included nine subjects, our school hours were from 8am to 1pm. From school, we returned to our boarding house where we spent the rest of the day with study hours after lunch and dinner, then lights out at 8pm for the youngsters up to 14.
When I reached that age, my father thought I might be ready to take the daily 30-minute train ride from home in Feistritz to the city. Each morning at 7, I boarded the train with quite a few other pupils and returned at 1pm, except when I had afternoon Italian or Slovenian language classes. At the start of my fourth year, my classroom changed completely. The student body of about 35 was primarily made up of boys from the Marianum, an institution run by Jesuits, whose goal was to become Catholic priests, with only four Städter (town pupils). I was one of the four.
Dramatic changes also occurred in the Austrian Republic. Two revolts – in February 1934 the Austrian Marxist upheaval and in July the National Socialist putsch. Both were bloody affairs. Hundreds of Socialists were killed by the artillery of the Austrian army while defending the fortress-like apartment blocks in Heiligenstadt, and the Chancellor Dollfuss died of bullet wounds discharged by SS Schutzstaffel disguised as federal police, when entering the offices at the Ballhausplatz. The jails were filled, the hangman’s noose was busy. The first concentration camps after Churchill’s establishments during the Boer wars in South Africa greeted the members from the left and right, Commies and Nazis. Parliament was dissolved. All parties but the conservative Christlich Sozialen were forbidden, and the Ständestaat was announced, baptized after Pope Pius’ Qadragesimo Anno encyclical. It turned out to be an ultra-montane dictatorship and drove communists, sozies and nazis into the underground.
We gathered very openly in the Landdienst Jugend (Youth for Farmers Help). We slept at the farmer’s barns, toiled in the fields and meadows, and entertained the village people after work. We put on quite an entertainment: folk dancing and country songs, puppeteers and short plays, solstice fires and patriotic poem readings. The villagers liked it.
With keen eyes and listening ears we youngsters and many people watched what was going on across the border. Very impressive events! Olympic Games 1936, Volkswagen cars, vacation cruise boats for the workers, full employment. Unemployment, lack of German visitors (the core of Austria’s tourist business) caused increasing restlessness. Posters of the Vaterländische Front were smeared with liquid limestone, utility lines were knocked off, firecrackers discharged. I was punished with four hours Karzer (detention) when my Latin teacher found the Reichssportblatt, a sport magazine showing pictures of the games in Berlin with swastikas all over, in my desk drawer.
The July Agreement of 1937 turned the wheels of history. The Nazi Party was not officially sanctioned, but after leaving classes we could stick a little swastika pin in our buttonhole and greet each other with Heil, without getting jailed. At the government in Vienna, Dr. Seiss-Inquart, as minister, protected those activities; in Klagenfurt, the ex-Austrian army officer Major A. D. Klausner resided openly as the Gauleiter. When Austria’s Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg returned from Hitler’s Berghof, he unexpectedly called a plebiscite, despite the agreement with Hitler, counting on the support of Mussolini, Daladier and Chamberlain which didn't come. He was left out, politically isolated. The next day, Austria became part of the Dritte Reich.
Today’s history tries to describe those events as a brutal military attack on an old, established democracy. I have quite different memories and mental pictures of jubilant crowds, from the Heldenplatz in Vienna to the main squares of all the cities and towns of Austria. Our religion teacher followed his big authority in Vienna, Cardinal Innitzer, and greeted our astounded class with the Hitler salute. (see appended "Marching Conquerors or ..." for Willi's full story on the Anchluss)
I graduated in May and was able to skip my math exam because I had been an Illegaler; did well in Latin, Greek, History and German literature. I was also excused from the obligatory RAD (Reichsarbeitdienst or labour service). Instead, I was asked to organize the Hitler youth – Jungvolk, age 10 to 14 – in our valley. With drums and fanfares, we marched and sang and camped. Some of the oldies still remember those days of youthful enthusiasm. Dressed in our traditional short lederhosen (leather shorts), white shirt and white knee socks, I marched with hundreds of others in the Ostmark column at the 1938 Nurnberg Party Congress, looking into Hitler's eyes at close range.
Two weeks later, on October 1, just short of my 19th birthday, I was called to military service. I spent three days at the new barracks in Linz-Wegscheid, got hit by a brick when a stove exploded, but landed safely, wrapped in bandages, at the airfield at Straubing – Lower Bavaria.
Pilot in Görings Luftwaffe – from Peace to Stahlgewitter
So fast turned the wheels of history around this 19-year-old. After six months of hard boot camp, not in the army but amazingly in the Luftwaffe, I needed the signature of my parents and to pass several examinations in order join the flying school at the same airfield. On April 4, 1939 at 10 o’clock in the morning, I was strapped to the seat of an airplane, an FW 44 Stieglitz. In front was my instructor, Mr. Lechner, clad in a long leather coat, a pilot’s hat and huge goggles. Thus began my career as a future pilot in Göring’s Luftwaffe. I took the advice of Captain von Schenk, the squadron leader, to not answer the call to the Reichsfuehrerschule (SS school) in Potsdam, which probably saved my life. After the war broke out, most of the high-ranked Hitler Youth leaders joined the Waffen SS and were killed in the bloody battles in France and Russia.
After the AB school in Straubing, I was transferred to C school at Kolberg on the Baltic Sea, from there to the Bomber school Thorn (now Thorun) at the Vistula River in occupied Poland, and finally for instrument flight training to Koenigsberg, East Prussia and the Massurian lake area. My mother visited me in early October 1940 in Quedlinburg and cried her heart out. I was ready to join our squadron in France for the battle of Britain. Fifteen feet above the ground level in the hangar my bombardier and I were bent over a bomb sight and looked down at a long rubber carpet where we could find our target – the King V dock at the Thames River, London. The training remained a dry run; after two weeks I got my long overdue home leave. The Battle of Britain was over; we had many crews but no airplanes.
I was ordered to a small airfield on the south side of Berlin – Rangsdorf, at a picturesque lake. For the next six months I was busy flying target pattern for the anti-aircraft batteries around Berlin, getting ready for the expected air attacks. Boring. I was expecting to get a call to attend the air academy close by in Gatow but had to face a bitter disappointment. Way back during my boot camp time, I missed the 10pm curfew and had to spend three days in solitary confinement. The Luftwaffe was quite selective during this time which, in retrospect, was probably another lifesaver.
In June 1941, I was transferred to the Flugbereitschaft (flight crew) of Colonel General Weise in Berlin, who was chief of the German air defense. Four pilots, amongst us Flugkapitän Breitenback from the Lufthansa, took care of their air transportation. From our airfield in Döberitz, the former site of the Olympic village, I took off and picked up the red-striped Colonels at their headquarters at the Reichssportfeld, the site of the 1936 Olympic Games. With the Fieseler Storch – looking and acting like a stork – I landed at the Mai Feld and took off through the Marathon Tor. I crisscrossed Europe – Le Bourget/Paris, Kastrup/Copenhagen, Aarhus, Vienna, Esjberg, and all the cities in the Ruhr and Rhein which just experienced the first Allied bomb raids.
When not flying, we had the best tickets for all first-class cultural events available in Berlin, a city with an unbelievable, pulsating atmosphere. The young Herbert von Karajan and the aged Wilhelm Furtwaengler conducted at the Philharmonic. Maria Cebotari and Benjamino Gigli sang at the opera, while Heinrich George and Gustav Gruendgens, Marianne Hoppe and Kaethe Dorsch played at the Schauspielhaus. Grete Weiser and Theo Lingen joked at the Kabaret. With my girlfriend, Ulli, I attended the final football game for the German Championship in June 1941. At the former Olympic Stadium, Rapid Vienna beat Schalke 04, four to three. All that at the second anniversary of the war, and the first bombs over Berlin.
After several requests for front action, I finally joined the IV group of KG (bomber wing) 53 in ANSBACH/Franconia in April 1942. The war was nearly over for me when I crash-landed a Heinkel 111 after my left engine failed. Three of my crew were severely injured and I hit my head on the instrument panel. Thus, it was already September when I joined the 3, Staffel I /KG 53 in Korovje Selo, NNW Russia with a new crew.
September/October 1942 saw heavy fighting against severe Russian counter attacks, with masses of infantry and tanks, at the Southwest Leningrad front. Gajtolowo, Astolniki, Koslowo and Lytschkowo were embattled in fierce combat. The railway stations Ostaschkow and Molwotizy were crowded with trains full of supplies for the Russian divisions and made welcome targets for our bombing raids. No Russian fighter planes interfered with our attacks but there was heavy anti-aircraft artillery (FLAK) specifically around the railway stations. The first signs of the Russian winter appeared: snow showers and icing in higher altitudes. After thirty troop-supporting missions, my crew and I received the Eiserne Kreuz II (Iron Cross, second class) and the Frontflugspange (a bronze brooch awarded for aerial attacks). Colonel General Keller, Commander of Luftflotte 1, signed the certificates; our squadron leader Captain Groetzinger attached the black-white-red ribbon with the black and silver cross on our uniforms.
Welikije Luki - Little Stalingrad
Alarming reports arrived at our Gefechtsstand (battle quarters) at the Korovle Selo airfield, about 20 miles south of Plesdau/Pskow, on November 22. Russian forces had broken through the thin German frontlines around the Lowat River. The frosty winter made the formerly swampy areas easily passable for hundreds of the small panje sleighs, drawn by small horses and loaded with Russian troops, guns and small artillery. T 34 tanks followed, and the Citidel of Welikije Luki, with around seven thousand German troops, was encircled and cut off but still holding the vitally important road crossing. The heavy fighting depleted their supplies very soon.
Emergency signals reached our group. This is what my logbook and diary reports:
27.11, low level attacks at artillery embankments south of WL.
29.11, low level attack at Russian infantry South of WL.
30.11, low level attack at tanks assembling Nowossokolniki.
3.12, Low level attack at troops and pak guns at a forest clearing NW WL.
6.12 low level attack at troops NW WL.
8 & 9.12, attacks near Issofinowo.
10.12. Low level attacks at tanks near Porschanka.
Those lines read very much like the matter-of-fact daily reports from Hitler's headquarters, but there was terror and death behind those snow-covered tree hedges. Behind the bushes and hay stacks of the frozen marshland sat the Ivans with their pak and anti-aircraft guns smartly camouflaged. I know that members of the 3.GD (mountain division from Kärnten and Steiermark) are fighting down there. Lt. Colonel Sasse is defending the Citadel, and we few crews of group L/KG 53 are taking off from the airfield Korovje Selo, near Pleskau. It is snowing - there are low clouds and really bad weather. Depending on our targets, we carry 50 kg bombs with delayed ignitions, 250 and 500 kg detonation bombs. Our four machine guns and one cannon are loaded with tank piercing ammunition. Every crew is on its own and it is up to the pilot to execute the general orders. Protected by low clouds, we attack troop concentrations, pak gun positions and tanks. Like fiery glowing irons, Russian anti-aircraft shells penetrate the air. We get hits at the wing and fuselage.
On December 10, I fly with Lt. Koenig on my starboard side in bright sunshine over white glaring ground, not higher than 60 ft., and experience heavy anti-aircraft gun fire. Koenig steers off and nearly collides with me. Below are burning carriages, mangled horse teams, chaotic troops. Missions like this everyday until Dec. 17. Snowstorms forecast for the following day halted the operation. Our side had suffered heavy losses. We celebrated a very subdued Christmas with a small fir tree, some candles, and dear thoughts about our beloved ones at home.
Welikije Luki was now completely cut off, with supply only possible through the air. Instead of bombs, we now carried supplies: four 250 kg metal containers loaded with emergency rations, felt boots, wool socks, ammunition, gauze bandages. Two parachute packs are fixed on each of the containers. From December 25 to January 1, we flew that kind of mission. On two of those days, we made a double delivery. It was a low level approach over our targets, a steep dash up to about 1000 feet, then release of the containers and down again to tree top height.
On December 29, I returned with one engine. Either I hit the ground or an anti-aircraft shell hit us, causing the whole plane to shatter. I shut off the left engine and with terrified eyes looked at the shreds of my propeller. But the good He 111 held on and we landed, albeit with holes all over and rattled nerves. Lilienthal and Schmid did not return. We were ordered to rest for two days.
The situation at the Citadel deteriorated from day to day. Some German tanks were able to break through, but their fuel carriers were destroyed by Russian gunfire. On January 11, an emergency mission was ordered by the Wing Commander, Colonel Wilke. Fuel for the lame duck tanks had to be delivered. I was one of the three crews who got the order, along with Lt. Koenig and Lt. Mueller. Two containers, each loaded with 250 liter fuel secured with two parachute packs, were put into our bomb shafts. I started with my A1+EH at 14.52, in light snow with darkness approaching. Our Group Commander, Major Bockrand, issued the following order: "The containers are not to be dropped under 1000 feet. A red beam about 45 kms west of Welikije Luki will be your first approach. The center of the Citadel will be lit up by a large, burning swastika. This is your dropping target. Flying time about 50 minutes. It is up to you how you execute."
We rounded the red blinking beam and steered a compass of 70 degrees. About 1000 feet high, we immediately received heavy flack which felt like being surrounded by floating red irons. Dropping down to the lowest level, but in the same hurricane, we could see the glowing fortress. With full throttle, I pulled away in a steep right turn and climbed up to about 4000 feet. I could see the burning swastika. I pulled the throttle to nil and, like a diving bomber ala Ju 87, we shot towards our target. Heinz, my navigator, watched the altimeter; when he yelled "320 meters" I pushed the release button and pushed the throttle to the brim. With both engines wailing, we shot into the dark sky like a fighter plane. My crew in the back, Kurt, Heiner and Heinz, yelled and shrieked: "They are gliding into the center!!"
At 16.56, DieErde hatte uns wieder – the earth has us again. Not a hole, no shreds, but soaked in sweat. Later in the evening, I was ordered to the telephone. Colonel Wilke praised our performance – 2000 liters of fuel landed safely. Lt. Mueller was also successful. We lost Koenig, a bitter pill.
On January 17, 1943, I flew my 74th mission. Welikije Luki, however, was lost. A mere 130 men were able to break out. Decades later, I was reading about the horrible fate of the remaining troops: All the officers were hung, quite a few soldiers shot, and many died of hunger and sickness. Vae victis.
On January 20, my crew and I received the Iron Cross, first class from the Commanding General Ritter von Greim. Five days later, I ferried a heavily damaged He 111 to Insterburg in East Prussia. Our group was dissolved, my squadron captain received the Knight's Cross and was sent home on a furlough. One crew was transferred to our II Group down south; the remaining three crews had to report to the III Group at the airfield of Dno at Lake Illmen. We survived as a group of 23 airplanes and 115 men ... 23 horrible missions to save Welikije Luki. We were very lucky to have survived.
I got lucky again during a bombing raid in June over the railway junction Wolhov-Stroj, near Leningrad. A Russian anti-aircraft shell tore a big hole into my fuselage and killed my radio operator. Two German fighters from the Gruen Herz squadron winged me back to the Luga airfield.
On the first day of the big battle “Citadel,” July 5, 1943, around Kursk/Orel, four Russian Yak fighters caught me after my second mission and the release of my bombs, and shot my left engine afire. We did not dare to jump, the battlefront was too close. A steep dive kept the flames back and brought us over friendly territory and a huge field with six-foot high wheat. Never in my life did I manage a better landing. The tall wheat cushioned the belly-sliding aircraft and we were able to jump out and run away from the ammunition explosions and flames. A short while later, a German Panzer Spaehwagen (tank reconnaissance vehicle) picked us up and took us to the headquarters of Fieldmarshal von Kluge close by, where we were served with a hearty breakfast and congratulations.
Almost to the day 65 years after my “Opalkowo Calamity,” I received some startling information from a British Wing Commander (retired RAF) Chris Goss. I quote it literally in order to avoid mistakes:
"By the time in question, the Soviet aviation formation in this area
was 16VA (16th Air Army) led by General-Leytenant Sergey Rudenko.
On 5 July 1943, 16VA claimed in total 6 He 111 shot down. The first one was claimed around 8 in the morning, and the other five were claimed two hours later.
At around 8 o’clock in the morning ten Yak-9 fighters, regiment 347 IAP, led by the unit commander Mayor (Major) Vidor L. Plotnikov, attacked a large formation of He 111s and also Ju 87s over the battlefield. Mayor Plotnikov claimed one He 111 shot down. That was the only aircraft claimed shot down by any Soviet fighter pilot in that area at that time, so you must have been shot down by Plotnikov. In addition to the shot down He 111, other pilots in 347IAP claimed a total of two damaged Me 109s.
In fact, 3 Yak-9 of (regiment) 347 were lost during that combat. One more Yak was damaged and performed a belly landing. Unfortunately, Mayor Plotnikov was shot down during his next mission on that day."
Flying status changes and the Arado 234 Jet
Two days later I flew my last war mission, as it turned out. Our group was decimated. The few of us left returned to Gablingen, an airfield near Augsburg/Bavaria. I left for a four-week long home furlough where the mountains and my mother’s food restored my shattered body. Then a cable ordered me to travel to Orleans-Bricy/France where the IV group recouped. A check-up at the Clichy hospital in Paris revealed some cavities in my teeth. Instead of filling, they insisted on pulling two of them over my protest, threatening me with Wehrzersetzung (obstruction). I was mad as a hornet about that, and when I found out that the law school of the University of Strassburg had a session in Paris I asked for permission to attend. To my great surprise, permission was granted. I took up residence at the hotel du Rhone, rue Jean Jacque Rousseau, metro station Palaise Royal. Everyday, I commuted to the Marigny Theater, took notes at the lectures, studied the original Treaties of Versailles and St. Germain at the Quai d’Orsay, and had lunch at the former Palaise Rothschild, now seat of “General der Flieger, Paris.” I gained another trimester of higher education and had a life like the king of France. I knew it could not go on that way, and it did not.
By early October 1943, I traveled by train with a new crew the long way from Orleans to Pervomaisk at the Ukrainian Djester! From Vienna to Krakow to Lovw to Tarnopol to Golta took more than two weeks. From the Palaise Rothschild to the straw-sack and clay floor in a Ukrainian farmhouse. Balanced justice.
Since our wing flew night sorties only at Shitomir where the Russians broke through, I had to sit out. At the medical exam in Paris, they found that I had sustained night-blindness; from now on daylight actions only for me. After Shitomir, we transferred to Kowno, near the Baltic Sea. Again, night missions only, deep into Russia. I was now the assigned ferry pilot – picking up new aircraft in Insterburg, East Prussia, test flying repaired machines. After a short visit at the university clinic in Königsberg, I got the final medical verdict – no eye repair possible. My days as a bomber pilot were over.
Early in April 1944, I faced a monocle-wearing colonel at the personnel department in Berlin. He looked at my papers and sent me to Junkers aircraft factory in Bernburg. For awhile, I ferried brand new Ju 88 G1’s and G6’s to different units and hidden airfields. They then wanted me to get acquainted with all kind of aircraft, so my ferrying schedules changed. Berlin was now my “home.” After a shocking experience trying to fly airplanes out from the airfield at Posen/Poznan when the Russians approached the city, I returned again to Berlin. The daily British “Mosquito” night attacks finally hit my dwelling near Tempelhof. When my new “home” in Charlottenburg was also bombed out, I finally left Berlin.
I was sent to Burg, near Magdeburg, in February 1945, joining the 7th squadron of KG 76 and ready for a fantastic new adventure flying one of the new German jet planes, the Arado 234 B. The previous December, I had a week-long special training: classroom, actual handling of the jet propulsion in the cockpit, and taxing trials. On December 10, at half past three o’clock in the afternoon, I took off from the Burg airport and shot into the clear winter sky.
Two months later, I was one of the very few pilots to fly the jet regularly, picking up a plane at the different factories and facilities, and delivering it to the 7th and 8th squadron of KG 76, which flew missions against the on-rushing allied forces. Several times I was lucky to have avoided airfields being strafed by Mustangs and Lightnings. On February 19, I had to use two Walther rockets to get out of the small airfield of Hildesheim after an emergency landing two days earlier. My destination, Burg, had been bombed. The Allies knew that our jets were very vulnerable at take-off and landing, and watched our approach like vultures. The end of the war was close, even though there were rumors of wunderwaffen and special events beyond our jets and V1s and V2s.
Note: Willy Wenger wrote me in an email of Jan. 28, 2013: By chance, I saw in summer 1944 a new jet ME 262 landing on our airfield (Oschatz, Sachsen), the only jet which landed during summer at that place. For two years now, I know that it was Willi who landed. I saw the pilot in such an aircraft without propeller and we couldn't imagine what kind of aircraft it was.
Dark Days and New Dawning
The commandant of the RLM facility in Grossenhain, near Dresden, where we stayed for a few days, called us four pilots to a meeting on April 17. He told us that the facility would be blown up, that Russian and Allied forces had joined hands at the Elbe River some 100 miles further up, and our five jet planes, four AR 234s and one ME 262, had to be flown out the next day. The Arados were to go up North to KG 76 at the Schleswig airfield, the ME 262 to General Galland at Munich Oberwiesenfeld. I decided to stay with my good friends Waldemar Pollok, Kanngiesser and Winkler who decided to take the northern route. Early the next morning we took off. A low ceiling but open skies in Schleswig made me climb through the clouds, landing 52 minutes later at my destination.
I was the only one who arrived. Years later, I met Waldemar and listened to his fantastic story – hitting a flock of ducks which left him with a shattered cockpit, belly landing in a meadow near the Elbe River, running under Russian gunfire across the bridge, being captured by GI’s, nearly dying at the Rheinwiesenlager, and then recovering as a prisoner in France picking grapes near Bordeaux. I never found out what happened to Kanngiesser and Winkler, even though I tried for years.
A few days later, I again escaped the furor of the marauding allied fighter planes. This time it was not in the air but on the ground. I received the order to pick up an AR 234 at the airport at Lübeck and had to take the train. Two Lightnings strafed the train. With all the other passengers, I ditched into the field. Luckily no one was hurt and the train remained intact. I landed with the F1+CA safely again in Kaltenkirchen. The same afternoon – April 30 – Sergeant Drew, 8th squadron, attacked with the F1 Soviet tanks east of Berlin. As it turned out, my flight the next day, May 1, 1945, from Kaltenkirchen to Leck-Flensburg with the F1+GR was my last “glorious” action as a Luftwaffen pilot. Three days later, the war was over. A Canadian tank division surrounded the airfield and the rest of our group moved into tents in the forest edging the airfield. On May 4th, before the armistice silenced all guns at 8 a.m., six of our AR 234s, amongst them three which I had ferried to KG 76, were ordered to fly to Stavanger Sola/Norway, to expect further directives from there. A very mysterious event.
From the forest camp, we moved to the shores of the North Sea and pitched our tents on the dunes near Husum. “We” now meant all men from the Ostmark, which became again the Republik Oesterreich. For the next four months, we again played soldier. Every morning we marched to the roll call, at noon time to the chow line, and played football and field handball. During all this time I never saw a ‘Tommy,’ even though the land between the Danish border and the Wilhelms Canal, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea included the British-occupied zone of the defeated Germany.
Once a week, a truck driven by one of our members picked up food and other utilities. It seemed as if the British allowed the former Wehrmacht to organize the life of over a million surrendered German soldiers, and it worked. I don’t think anybody in our zone died of starvation or lack of medical care, contrary to the horrible situation at the Rheinwiesenlager in the American zone, where hundreds of thousands of German soldiers and civilians died of hunger, cholera and typhoid fever under terrible, inhuman conditions.
Early September 1945, rumors spread through our camp that we finally would be on our way home, but had to clean up the mess at the VW factory in Fallersleben before we could return. That hit the bottom of my patience. I and three other countrymen decided to leave the camp and head for Austria.
Hoffmann was the fellow who drove the truck to Husum to pick up the weekly provisions. This time he headed south, with three of us on board, until we ran out of gasoline. After a few miles walking, we were able to board a local train to Hannover. From there we took another train, then a truck, hidden under blankets, to Offenburg near Frankfurt, where we climbed on top of a railway car, one of many carrying coal from the Ruhr to Munich.
Dirty from the coal dust, we looked for a shower at the central station and ran into an MP patrol. The tall, black sergeant asked for identification. I handed him my German pilot card. He looked at the picture, picked at my beard, nodded his head and let us go. Hours later, we said goodbye to our friend from Upper Austria and boarded a train to Berchtesgaden, a town close to the Austrian border. Local people told us we should cross the Salzach River at night to Hallein, and there catch one of the regular trucks which transported German soldiers from the hospitals in the Gastein Valley to the border.
We followed their advice and landed, after an eventful night-crossing, at the railway station Pöckstein. There we were warned that on the other end of the Tauern Tunnel in Kärnten (British zone) we were in the American zone, where soldiers were checking and arresting the ones who had no release papers and taking them to a POW camp in Spital an der Drau. That’s all we had to hear – no way were we going to end up again in a camp. Hoffmann and I decided to hide in the electric train engine. The engineer let us crawl beneath his panels after I gave him my leather pilot’s wallet. Thus, we escaped the checking, stepped off the engine at the end of the railway station Mallnitz, and slept in the hay of a farmer’s house, fed by the farmer’s wife with a cup of hot milk and a piece of bread. She was still waiting for her soldier-husband to return.
Next morning, as we two marched along the road toward the next town, Obervellach, a car stopped and a German officer in full regalia “sans swastika” asked us where we were heading. Thus, Hoffmann arrived at his home in Klagenfurt and I stepped out of the car when it reached the Drau Bridge. It required a special pass to cross the bridge to my home valley, now a Sperrzone, but the innkeeper’s daughter recognized me and talked to the British officer in charge of the bridge detail. A few questions and I was on the last leg home to mother’s.
It was pitch dark, the night of September 12, 1945, when, after a few miles of walking, another car stopped. The searchlights went on and the question was asked, “Where are you aiming at?” Identifying myself, I found the driver was Dr. Möbius, the mayor, and as he told me, the new director of the Bären Battery factory in my hometown.
When I opened the door to the apartment, my sister Gerti collapsed on the kitchen floor, my mother raised her hands over her head and screamed out a long OOOOOOOh. We talked until the early morning hours. Hard times had hit our family. My father, denounced by a local Tito partisan, was interned at the detention camp in Wolfsberg, run by the British occupation power. My sister Trudi [for her own safety-cy] had left with her husband for Germany and my sister Gerti was temporarily laid off from her teaching job. Helping farmers with their crop and decorating furniture and interiors kept the family alive.
A Detour On the Way to Peace
Two days after I registered at the mayor’s office to get my food stamps – strict food rationing did exist – the local chief of the Gendarmerie knocked at our door. He informed me that the British FSS (Front Secret Service) wanted to see me – and also suggested I take soap and toothbrush with me. I knew right away what he meant! I had a hunch that I might join my father.
In a room at the local courthouse in Ferlach, a man wearing a British uniform addressed me in a typical Austrian dialect – I faced a Jewish émigré from Vienna. “Tell me, where did you spend the last few months?” So began the interrogation, and I told him of my whereabouts at that time. “Nice fairy tales,” was his response. “We know exactly where you were. You romped in the mountains as a Werwolf with the underground. Show me your release papers.”
“Infamous lies, shameful intrigues,” was my response. There-off, his icy quest: “Admit lying, and come out with the truth!” Mad, and now cocky, I cried out: “I am Wilhelm Kriessmann, seargent and former pilot of the German Luftwaffe, and an ex-POW,” and closed my mouth. His cynical response: “Arrogant Hitler cadet, you are going to regret that.”
This was the end of the “interview” and the beginning of my detention. One day at the county jail, three days at Camp Ebenthal, nine months at Camp Wolfsberg, and eight months at Camp Wetzelsdorf. Not until early February 1947 did I march through the gate of Camp Wetzelsdorf, my spare belongings loaded on a small sleigh, and continue to march through the city of Graz to knock at the door of the parents of my camp friend, and future wife, Annemarie. From September 1945 to February 1947, I had lived as a guest of Her Majesty the Queen of England behind barbed wire. In order to get a few more calories, I cut timber in the Griffner Woods, mined brown coal at the open pits at Koeflach, and did some plumbing at the British Officers apartments in Graz. Free of charge!
While in the two camps, I met not only my father and friends from the valley, but also the former Vice-Chancellor of the Austrian government in the early 30’s, Hartleb. Kernmayr, a former governor of the Kärnten province; Fieldmarshall Kesselring, the Supreme Luftwaffe Commander in Italy from 1944; and Mr. Kasche, Germany’s Ambassador to Croatia I also knew there. I ran into Dr. Wick, the CEO of the Austrian American Magnesite works, as well as the composer Gottfried von Einem, and the renowned archaeologist, Professor Aichinger. All in all, about 4000 men and 200 women.
I also met my former Latin teacher, Dr. Josef Kadras, who accompanied his bishop as vicar general of the diocese when they attended the Palaestrinas Missa Papa, performed by the “prisoner’s choir” of Camp Wolfsberg and conducted by the former inmate Professor Anderluh, on Easter 1956. Also present at the concert was General Roberts, the commanding officer of the British occupying force in Austria, and his staff.
Trade Commissioner in California
Two weeks after my march into freedom, I was a student again. I took notes at Professor Wilburg’s collegium at the law faculty of the Franz Karls University in Graz, supporting myself with a student grant from the governor of my home state, Kärntern, and the exchange of some Dutch guldens and British pounds found in a wooden box in our attic. They were a welcome leftover of Tito partisans headquartered at our apartment, who made a hasty retreat when German troops threatened to cut them off. A pile of Hungarian forints were worthless.
Based on regulations published by the Ministry of Education, the deacon’s office acknowledged not only my trimesters at the University of Strassburg and Berlin, but they also rewarded me with two Kriegssemesters. I had, however, to pass some rigorous examinations. Daily sixteen hours of study at colleges throughout the next one and a half years, and a dissertation on Austria’s civil aviation history, earned me the Doctor Degree in Political Science.
On December 22, 1948, I left the Aula of the university as a proud man and married my camp sweetheart, Annemarie. She was released two months after my “freedom march” and eagerly awaiting her re-employment as a teacher. Professor Dr. Wilhelm Taucher, former Secretary of Trade and Commerce, President of the Styrian Chamber of Commerce and Administrator of the Marshall Plan, Austria, sponsored my further advancement. As one of his favorite students in Volkswirtschaftspolitik (national economic policy), he sent me with a letter of recommendation to the Minister of Trade and Commerce in Vienna. After interviews at the department and the Foreign Trade Commission, I got a job.
Dr. Kafka, chief of the American desk at the Foreign Trade Commission in Vienna, shook my hand and welcomed me as his assistant on February 22, 1949. The following June he quit his job and the chair was mine. In my native language we call that Ausgleichende Gerechtigkeit. A very interesting field of new activities awaited me. The Foreign Trade Commission was renamed Central Office for Import/Export.
Our family, however, was split. My wife Annemarie was teaching at a godforsaken, one-classroom school in Styria. Our daughter Brigitte, born October 4, 1949, stayed with my mother-in-law in Graz, while I boarded first with my aunt and uncle at the Schottenfeldgasse in Vienna and then with friends in Meidling, a suburb of Vienna. Finally we were able to live together at a nice apartment in Vienna’s IV district, directly across from the Swiss Embassy and only a ten-minute walking distance from my office. My wife rode the streetcar to Simmering, where she taught at a public school from May 1950 on. Little Brigitte had a nanny who took her for a daily walk at the Belvedere Garden. I worked hard, and I might say with success, at the Amerika Referat (American Desk) of the Zentrastelle für Einfuhr-Ausfuhr (Central Office for Import/Export).
I met leaders of industry, trade and commerce, high officials of the different government departments. I gained the reputation of a hard-working, successful chief of the American desk, regardless of having no political affiliations. Our office was structured into two sections. The “Western state group” (USA, Great Britain, France, Germany, etc.) was manned primarily by members of CV (Cartellverband), an elite group of the right of center OEVP. The Eastern state group (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania, etc.) was controlled by members of the BSA (Bund Socialistischer Akademiker), the elite group of the left SPOE (Sozialdemodratische Partei Oesterreichs).
As a “political neutralist,” I got involved in a political intrigue with rather unpleasant consequences. The director of our office, the head of the Swiss desk, and I were apprehended and put under custody by an agent of the Wirtschaftspolizei, a special department of the Ministry of Justice. The charge, “abuse of our position,” was an affair out of the blue sky which hit us like lightning. It was obviously a counteraction of the department controlled by the Socialists, whose Ministry of Nationalized Enterprises had been investigated a few weeks earlier.
I underwent long interrogations by agents of the department - and later on by an examining magistrate - and spent several weeks in custody. The charges: favoritism, as head of the American desk, in issuing import licenses. It stirred up the media and the political scene. All the accusations were nothing but political smear. I was released, spent a few weeks restoring my nerves, and was then re-employed as head of the Pound Sterling Block (Great Britain) at my old office.
In August 1952, I spent four weeks in Chicago where Austria participated at the International Fair at the Navy Pier. I was in charge of the Information Office and met quite a few American businessmen, with whom I discussed trade, commerce and industry of Austria and their business opportunities in the USA. One of the highlights was my negotiation with Mr. Gimbel from the well-known department store chain Gimbel Bros. in Philadelphia. He wanted to take the whole Austrian exhibit and show it for a whole month, all expenses paid. In the end, it didn’t materialize, but I gained laurels and was told that further interesting duties might await me.
And so it happened three months later. After several interviews with the president of the Federal Chamber of Commerce, I got the assignment to open the office of the Austrian Trade Commission, US West Coast and left for New York on February 16, 1953. “Acclimatization” at the New York office for four weeks, a two-day visit at our embassy in Washington DC, and an obvious “see who he is” at a dinner party at Allan Dulles’ house, where I was sitting next to his sister – head of the German-Austrian desk at the state department. Dulles’ daughter, married to the Austrian publisher Molden, was present, and so was my colleague from New York.
Nobody in Vienna gave me any instructions. “Go West,” said the ambassador, and I was on my way to Los Angeles to find out. I stopped in Denver to visit with my first “client,” Constam, the US representative of the Austrian lift manufacturer Doppelmeier. He took me to Aspen where we skied a lot and I met Stein Erikson and Christian Pravda and other racers at the Roch Cup. Tanned from the Rocky Mountains sun, I arrived on St. Patrick’s Day in Los Angeles. Dr. Frederick Waller, Honorary General Consul of Austria, greeted me and four days later I had my office on the 4th floor of the 448 South Hill Street building in downtown Los Angeles.
We became life long friends and he greatly helped me to establish myself. For eight years, I was in charge of the office, met many very interesting people, traveled through all the Western states and established lasting trade relations for Austrian companies with their American counterparts. I especially cherish the strong representation of the Austrian Wintersport industry, the Austria House at Squaw Valley’s Olympic Games 1960 (a first one of many more to come), the Austria Week in Aspen, the many speeches at Rotary and other service clubs, and the friendship of Americans I gained during that time.
Austria had no official representation on the West coast. Dr. Waller in Los Angeles, Karl Weber in San Francisco, Harry Bloch in Portland and Hank Simonson in Seattle had honorary positions and were engaged in their private business. They were all very helpful, and with the only survivor, Hank, I still keep up a friendship. That situation brought along additional duties for me which had hardly anything to do with “promoting trade relationships between two countries.”
Three events were especially responsible for a gradual, but very essential change of my mind and attitude. They, together with the years I spent in a country of free speech and personal liberty, formed my own liberal tolerance and openness to new ideas and independent thought.
I spent most of the first six months listening and talking to former Austrians, mostly Jewish refugees, and got acquainted with their traumatic experience. When they asked when I was born, they knew right away that I lived during the Hitler time. They were very suspicious, very irritated, but I told my story openly and completely; argued, pleaded and expressed my deep regrets, and let them know what injustices I also had to go through. It took some time, but with some of them I became good friends.
At our home on Elm Drive in Beverly Hills, we entertained mayors and governors, state officials and artists, politicians and scientists. One visit which still remains so vivid in my memory is that of the former chancellor of Austria, Dr. Kurt von Schuschnigg. Teaching for a time at George Washington University in St. Louis, and lecturing for a short session at the Marymount College close by, he had dinner at our house. I mentioned that he had visited our village and described the scene – “You marched with the mayor and his deputy through a crowd split into halves. On one side hat-swinging people greeting you with Heil unserem Kanzler, on the other side people waving and shouting Zivio nashemu kancleru” – he pondered a short time, then smiled and said, “That’s how I became aware of the bilingual problems of your region.” He returned to Austria a few years after his visit in 1955, teaching at the University of Innsbruck, and died there.
Baron Torresani, a native Südtirolean (South Tyrolean) and a very active monarchist in the Austrian community, invited me to a meeting with Otto von Habsburg, the son of the late Habsburg Kaiser Karl, and his wife Zita. It was a small group and I therefore had a chance to hear and see von Habsburg at close range. A rather small person with fine face and hand features, elegant language and very impressive knowledge of the major political issues of that time. I was deeply moved and promised myself to urge my father to change his anti-Habsburg attitude.
No diplomat anymore – hard way to freedom and independence
In July 1959, my activities were expanded. The Austrian State Tourist Office nominated me as their representative in the eleven westerns states. My staff and I had the joyful task of promoting tourism in Austria and advising visitors about the beauties of our country. I met a new group of officials and had lots of fun. But dirty intrigues with a political background caused my job as the Austrian Trade Commissioner to be terminated in March 1961.
The personnel office in Vienna, loaded with CV (Cartel Verband) members, found reasons to transfer me – a non-CVer and a man with a “political past” – suggesting three far-away posts: Karachi, Djakarta and Riad. I was disgusted and had had enough of these machinations; I decided to settle in America. Friends at the American Embassy in Vienna issued me a Treaty Trader visa and two of my Austrian-American friends sponsored me.
For two years, I worked hard to build up my own import business and then took the opportunity to join a newly formed corporation in San Francisco. As vice-president and junior partner of the American Ski Corporation, I started my job in January 1964 and moved from an old office downtown to a new office/warehouse building in Burlingame. After settling my business affairs, I moved my family from Beverly Hills to San Francisco where we rented a nice apartment on Clay Street.
The year which started so well ended with a tragic stroke of fate. After a six-week vacation with our children in Austria, my wife Annemarie took her own life and left us. It was the fourth of December, in sorrow and despair, apparently out of a deep depression caused by petite mal disease. Deeply shocked, I lost my bearings for a good while. Lilian helped out for a week, after which my sister Trude arrived from Austria and kept the family together. Selflessly, speaking hardly any English, and with a wonderful patience towards my three children, she brought calm and a friendly atmosphere into our home. When she left after six months, a girl from Vienna and two German women from the Bay area kept the household going.
Three years later in early January 1967, I met Gail in Rome. We had met for the first time in 1960 at the Olympic Games in Squaw Valley. On January 12, 1967, we married in San Francisco and moved to Green Street where our son, Marc Eugene, born that same year on December 30, grew up. Happiness returned!
Family, Travels and Retirement
The next forty years were like most people’s entire lifespan: eventful, successful, joyous, but also marked with painful sorrows, harmful grief. Exuberant fountains, sharp-edged cliffs – so is life. All my children married and enjoy their own families. Brigitte’s kids Jake and Willi are young men now. Walter’s son Erik is a star pitcher and on his way to college. Bethsi’s daughter Alexa, our only female youngster, is a volley ball starlet. And our baby duo, Liam and Nolan, hopeful new shoots on the Kriessmann family tree, are Marc's sons.
But we mourned over the grievous loss of our parents. Gail’s mother died in a mysterious car accident, her father from a fatal heart attack. After a long struggle with cancer, my father passed away peacefully. My dear, beloved mother lay down for a noon nap and never woke up, 94 years old. I still shed bitter tears when I think about her selfless, long life. Bitter also the loss of my two sisters, Gerti and Trude, both victims of the merciless cancer. How cruelly Trude suffered, she so helpful at other people’s troubles, heartbroken but so strong in her last hours.
During my very active business years, I traveled every year to Austria, Italy, France and Germany, accompanying my senior partners on our buying trips. A sales force of four men covered the eleven states. I traveled with them through their territory, enjoying the wide, wild West. International fairs in Munich and Las Vegas, four regional winter sport shows and a bi-annual trip to the company headquarters in Boston were part of my responsibilities.
During the off-season months of June, July and August, I traveled with Gail and friends criss-crossing the globe, and continued that delightful custom after my retirement. From the Tsurphu monastery at the Tibetan highland to the Bedouin tents at Zagora, Morocco, from the gravesite of my schoolfriend in Narvik, Norway to the cemetery at Monte Casino, Italy, from the Acropolis in Athens to St. Michele at the French Atlantic coast. I soaked my feet at Lake Baikal in Siberia and spit coarsely on my way to Camp II at Mt. Everest. I tried to hook marlin at the blue waters of Cabos San Lucas and skied in Zermatt and Kitzbuehel, Les Menuir and Lauberhorn, Aspen and Val d’Isere, Vail and Wolkenstein. And every year I bent my head and glanced up to the sky above the Kosiak Mountain and read the names on the copperplate, overshadowed by the wrought iron cross, at the gravesite of my family at the village cemetery in Suetschach.
Since 1984, I’ve enjoyed writing for German newspapers in the USA. First, for the Amerika Woche, then for the Neue Presse, and during the past year for the New York Staatszeitung. The computer, which I hated until I got one, is now my indispensable instrument, not only as a word processor, but also as a means of communication, information and research. When not sitting in front of the screen, I play tennis at the college courts or bike along the Bayshore; in winter I take my boards up to the Sierra. Wonderful are the sunny, quiet hours in the backyard; cheery our dinner parties with family and friends.
For over half a century now I’ve lived with my family in California. I arrived with deep scars and an ominous stigma … doubts and uncertainty. Most of that is gone. This land, its people, the freedom available and the support of family and friends proved to be a great healer. Flags and fanfares, steely thunder of war and heated ideology are embedded in past memories. The search for truth and justice remains strong, and the wisdom of forgiving is renewed. The country of my former enemy became a haven and home for a wanderer between two worlds. ~