Intermission – Personal account from the son of a sailor on Z24

Prisonniers de guerre allemands en Médoc

Translation from the above

By Volker Christoffel

20 Decembre 2016

De: Volker Christoffel

Object: Erbitte Kontaktaufnahme wg. Recherche

Message :

Thrilled by Mrs Scherf’s book about her father, which I came across only three days ago, I found your name and that of Mr Büttner, who can perhaps help me with my research. My name is Volker Christoffel, I am a biochemist, I am 67 years old and I live in Bavaria between Regensburg and Nürnberg, I am a native of Saarland.

My father’s fate has similarities with that of Wolfram Knöchel, but also obvious differences. With my father, I never spoke about his military time. There are no letters. Thirty years after his death, I, an old man, am starting to research and reconstruct the period when he was a soldier and then a prisoner of war.

The information from the WAST (=Wehrmachtauskunftstelle für Kriegerverluste und Kriegsgefangene Wehrmachtauskunftstelle = Wehrmacht Information Service) was marginal but gave me some key dates, which I was able to go further in my research. Thanks to the internet, the research possibilities are good today, and slowly the sources concerning this time – often coming from private persons – are accessible.

August 44

My father is 23 years old, he is the last of 4 sons who are all in the Wehrmacht, their mother is a widow. Despite unrepaired damage, my father’s destroyer has to leave the port of Bordeaux because the Wehrmacht evacuates Bordeaux in August. Sunk on August 24, 1944 just in front of the Verdon harbour – which still exists today – by Royal Canadian Air Force bombers (in front of me a picture taken by the camera of a Canadian bomber).

Z24 under attack

Gathering of the rescued sailors in the “Narvik Battalion” (the name comes from the history of the destroyer Z24 in the North Sea and polar waters). Contrary to the garrison made up of heterogeneous elements of the Gironde-Sud fortress, the men of the Narvik Battalion are indeed well seasoned, as they have been “under fire” for 4 years and are competent technicians. The battalion secures the Gironde-Sud fortress on the entire southern flank of the Gironde. The command is in St-Vivien (All the following elements are taken from the book L’occupation allemande en région Médoc de 2015 and other French sources at my disposal). In April 45, the Narvik Battalion troop, which considers itself an elite battalion, is the only one to oppose the surrender order of the commander of the fortress, and receives, 3 days after Royan, a full load of napalm. Extremely severe losses occur in the bunkers.

On April 20, 1945, at 7:00 p.m., Lieutenant Commander Birnbacher surrendered with his battalion. The Médoc is liberated! The French military nurses perform mass tracheotomies – without success – because the German soldiers are choking. As neither napalm nor its effects are known, the doctors suspect a diphtheria epidemic due to the lack of medication because of the siege.

(NB: the commander later entered the Bundesmarine and received on his departure as Rear Admiral, for his merits in the service of our country, the Grand Cross of Federal Merit. Nobody remembers anymore the hundreds of German sailors he absurdly sacrificed in April 1945)…)


End of April 1945

List of PWs from Camp 184 = Soulac sur Mer, with my father identified as: Sergeant, Staff Company, “Narvik Battalion”.

From that point on, I have no more information.

According to the WAST (Wehrmacht Information Service: Wehrmachtauskunftstelle für Kriegerverluste und Kriegsgefangene): Released on December 26, 1946.

My sister says that our father talked about mine clearance and the extremely harsh living conditions when he was prisoner of war in France.

My older cousin (just a little younger than my father) told me a few weeks ago that my father was reportedly released in St-Avold (near Metz, Lorraine). It is quite possible that he was transferred because, just before he joined the navy, my father had just finished his training as a technician-topographer in the Saarland mines. It is possible that the French were able to get him to work more profitably in the mines of St-Avold. Around St-Avold, there were a total of 4 POW camps (No. 212) with probably more than 10,000 prisoners.

One terrible thing: St. Avold is 10 km from my father’s birthplace. He could have walked there in two hours. The pits of the Saarland and French mines are connected underground. I still remember that Saarland miners used to go down to Merlebach in France, because the distance to their coal pits was shorter from there. Later, my father was a surveying engineer in the Saarland Mines and he mapped the entire West Saarland above and below ground, because the route and profitability of the seams was being studied.

At the end of June (2016), my wife and I went for a week to Soulac and its surroundings, we contemplated for hours the church of Notre-Dame de la Fin des Terres, we went to the church of Vertheuil, we watched the herons from the Guinguette de la Plage, and we crawled into the bunkers with JP Lescorce. But he had no notes or memories of the old camp, whose grounds are now built. Then we went again to Oléron and La Rochelle where my father’s boat had operated a lot – and had also been under repair for a long time.

Concerning the period on the destroyer Z24 I am well informed: during 3 days last autumn I was able to read the war diary of the Z24 at the Federal Archives in Freiburg and to make photocopies of important passages. It is preserved in its entirety! Only the last 9 days are missing, because the sheets sank with the ship. (The war diary was kept every 2 weeks and went up, through all services, to the High Command of the Navy) – and back!

All stamped transmission slips are kept, as well as the bi-monthly reports: “Reporting!”. The reporting service functioned until 1944, despite the bitter lack of equipment). The war logbook of the 8th Destroyer Fleet (Bay of Biscay) and that of the High Command of the Navy (OKM = Oberkommando der Marine) West, which is located in Wiesbaden, are kept in their entirety and provide an overview of the situation!

Life and survival on the ship is terrible to read. Lack of manpower (because of the dead), lack of fuel, lack of ammunition (Potemkin greets you well : instead of mines, they lay decoys filled with sand and hope that spies on the coast or reconnaissance planes will signal the laying of mines), no spare parts because in Germany there are more and more factories and railways that are destroyed by air attacks, constant technical breakdowns, e.g. of engines; every time we go out into the Bay of Biscay, to retrieve crews of sunken submarines, we get bombed by British planes. The worst thing: it was my father who wrote the war diary – he was a flight secretary and a nurse. In some places, there are handwritten entries or explanations added. For example, on the day of the Allied landings in Normandy, June 6, 1944: after the arrival of the dispatch announcing the landing on the signal post, we hurried out of the Bordeaux dock, in order to pass the Pauillac passes despite the low water level, as noted by the captain, and added with my father’s hand: “I informed the crew of the Führer’s order and the situation. »

The war diary, which was extremely detailed, allowed me to plunge completely into the situation at the time. As a former Luftwaffe officer myself, I am well able to grasp the desperate nature of the situations described. (Moreover, the commanders of the ships complained to their superiors with astonishing sincerity). Ugly too: the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) 404 Bomber Squadron still exists today! On its website, the engagements against German warships during the Second World War are accurately described. So I read the situation from both sides: how the Canadians prepared and executed them, what losses they had (they hated these attacks on the 4 ships making up the flotilla, because they had enormous anti-aircraft firepower and there were casualties among the planes every time. I read how the air attacks were experienced on the ship, what damage they caused (partly documented by photos in the war diary), and how makeshift repairs were most often made. In practice, the ship never had the capacity for action that it has on paper. 70 years later, in a completely surreal way, I read this multitude of details. And on both sides this feeling of fear, as soon as you have to go out again, and you know every time that this time may be the last time. The cynicism, when one reads the Führer’s order of December 7, 1944, which says that a superior must withdraw if he believes he can no longer lead his men because he considers the situation to be hopeless. It says how he must proceed – in the end, this means the obligation to entrust command to a man even more unscrupulous. Surreal, when a three-star admiral (Frisius), commanding the English Channel sector, begs his superior in a letter to kiss his wife and children because he thinks it is the end of him and he will not return. One can feel all the despair that reigned in 1944 among the officers as well, because EVERYONE knew that there was no more chance. And it’s all in the original documents. Never before had history been so authentic for me as during those days in the Federal Archives.

With the transformation into the “Narvik Battalion”, the flow of information was abruptly interrupted.

For the captivity at Soulac = camp no. 184, I only know of the handwritten list of the staff company, on which the name of my father (which Mr. Marwedel gave me) After writing all this: I am urgently looking for information :

1. On the Narvik Battalion in the fortress Gironde-Sud. Where was it, what was it doing? Where can I find information? Who still knows about it?

2. On the camp of PG Soulac 184, and, in connection with that, on possible information about my father’s engagement as a POW.

Do you have any idea what archives I could research?

Which people who are still alive could I talk to, people who might still have memories?

Do you have addresses and names of archivists?

Volker Christoffel

Source: Translated from Prisonniers de guerre allemands en Médoc

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