KG Haase Veteran Interview: Major Albert Bertsch, Ret.
Kampfgruppe Haase is honoured to count Major Albert Bertsch as a supporter of our living history events. Major Bertsch served in the the Second World War in Germany in Panzergrenadier Division Großdeutschland as a Funker (Radioman) and joined the Canadian Air Force during the cold war.
Medals and AwardsIron Cross, 2nd Class: 21. September, 1944.
War Merit Cross with Swords: 30. January, 1944.
Panzer Assault Badge in Bronze: 10. March, 1944.
Canadian Forces 12 Year Service Medal (no date given)
Interview with Major Albert Bertsch
(Interviews conducted in parts, 2005-2006, Interviews remarks and additions in Italics)
After being on the Russian Front from Spring 1942 until the end of the war I would never be part in any activity that glorifies war. When I realized that the organizers' intentions were to show their students and the general public historical facts and also the cruelty of war I agreed to attend the reenactment in Ottawa (Ontario) in 2004.
When I saw the soldiers drop dead and wounded, though it was not in earnest, I had to reach for my hanky, and I am not ashamed of that.
I was invited to attend reenactment 2005 with my wife Edith and was left with the impressions as the year before. There we met a Stalingrad surviver, Heinz Brandt, who was equally impressed. We also met the organizer, Gene Michaud. My perception of reenactment is positive.
In your experiences in the Eastern Front, did soldiers have the chance to pick up any foreign languages, or were they encouraged to learn Russian, Ukranian etc?
I am not aware of any encouragement in that direction. It was up to the individual to learn the language, and I know of nobody in my surroundings who gave it a try. One member of our company knew Russian. He fell seriously in love with a Russian girl. I don't know if his superiors knew about it and I don't know what became of him.
I don't know wether soldiers' libraries had any language material. But the only library I ever had a chance to visit was in Poltava during a rest period. (There I got Hitler's Mein Kampf. I had no toilet paper and that copy was gradually destroyed by enemy action, though it was poor quality paper for that purpose.)
I was always interested in languages and I tried to learn as much as I could, be it in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Romania. I got a simple Russian beginners book, I think from a comrade who didn't want to learn the language.
The problem of course also was that we had little contact with the civilians.
After the war, were you permitted to keep your awards, uniforms etc? To whom did your gruppe surrender to (ie American/Russian/French etc) at the war's end?
Yes, we were allowed to keep the uniforms and awards. The uniforms were quite often the transitional clothing until normal attire was available again. But they disappeared fairly quickly. Some pieces were altered and dyed.
Our Division: Panzergrenadier Division Grossdeutschland was trapped in East Prussia by the end of the war. Our Commander was Gerneral Lorenz. About 600 men of the Division got out over the Baltic Sea in a tank landing craft crammed like in a can of sardines. Some did not get out and, sorry to say, they had to wait until the Russians got them.
We went to the Island of Bornholm and when we learned that the Russians might try to land there each one received a Karabiner (rifle) and 60 rounds of amunition. We were told if the Russians try to land we shoot, if the Brits come we surrender.
But then we got a Panzerbrame (tank landing craft) the engine of which was broken and were pulled by a tugboat to Heiligenhafen in Schleswig Holstein. There we surrendered to the British. It was a great relief to us. Peace had 'broken out'.
We marched to the Panzerschule Putlos a column of about 600 men singing happily, one british soldier in front and one in the back each one with something like a machine pistol. When we reached our destination the Karabiners were gone and so was the amunition. That stuff got too HEAVY for peacetime.
The war was finally over for us.
As a returning soldier, how were you perceived upon returning to your home town?
Almost every family was waiting for someone to come home. The fate of the soldiers was often unknown particularly towards the end of the war when communication and travel was in shambles. My mother and sisters had no idea were I was or wether I was still alive. My father had died in 1938.
It was a great joy when I suddenly was at the door.
My home town was in the American Sector and I don't know how it functioned, but there was absolutely no reception activity from that corner. Of course everybody knew right away who had returned and questions were asked about loved ones.
I heard about friends and relatives who had died or were missing and of the bombings and deaths in our little community.
As a Funker (Radioman), were there any experiences that were perhaps unique to your service?
The speed of exchanging information between units was one experience. But the text had to be encoded which took a little time. We were never allowed to use open text. But it was certainly faster than using homing pigeons as was still occasionally done in the first world war.
In the first months of 1945 in East Prussia I was assigned for a week or two to a group of Funker (radio operator) who listened to Russion radio transmissions on the frontline. We had specialists there who decoded and translated the messages. It was the only way to gather information because our reconnaissance was then nonexistent. The generals were breathing down our neck hoping to get some idea of the Russians’ intentions.
6: Noted that you entered into service with the Canadian Forces. As a German veteran, did you experience any adversity from your past enlistment in Europe?
When I joined the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) as a Chaplain in summer of 1961 many of the Officers and Men were veterans of the war. Even when they learned of my wartime service in the German Army they showed no antagonism. They were rather interested in my wartime experiences. When they asked where I served and I told them: only at the Russian Front, I got the obligatory answer (with tongue in cheek): "Oh, no German ever fought us at the Western Front." They realized of course that the front stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the deserts of North Africa.
I have never heard anything negative concerning my service in the German Army in my 14 years in the Canadian Armed Forces. After all I was drafted (forced) and had no choice other than being shot.
In retrospect, what did you personally learn from the experiences of war?
War should be avoided by every means possible. I am leaning towards pacifism, but I realize that pacifism is utopian since the human race is not going to change. We are free to choose between good and evil and each will be chosen. So, we are facing an unending dilemma. But let us work for peace. Anyone have a solution?