New Communist Party of Britain
"If you want to stop wars you must study how they come about"
Last January there was a ceremony at the memorial to the Soviet dead in the Second World War, which is in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum.
At the ceremony, former Panzer driver Henry Metelmann, who is now a peace activist, spoke of his bitter experiences and afterwards gave a lecture.
This is what he said...
HENRY Metelmann began his talk by thanking the Soviet Memorial Trust for inviting him to speak and introduced himself: "I am working class, with no academic education so don't expect a full academic account of the events of Stalingrad.
"I drove a Panzer tank. It was shot up and I ended up wandering around in the rubble, in the snow, fighting for my life and fearful of death. It was so awful, so awful, so awful.
"I took part in events that caused so much suffering to the Soviet people, and which I always regret, after being conscripted at 18."
Several times he described the retreat from Stalingrad as "Napoleonic" - a rout rather than an orderly retreat, with stragglers running for their lives in temperatures as low as minus 54 degrees centigrade.
"I took part in many battles," he said, "After Barbarossa on 22nd June, there were three main directions of attack and I was in the one that went south, under Manstein, heading for Stalingrad on the Volga and then south to the oil fields of Baku.
Henry Metelmann described how he was involved in many battles and sustained many minor wounds. In 1944 he was wounded seriously and sent back to Germany. After recovering he was involved in some fighting on the western front and ended up surrendering to the advancing Americans, under Patton.
After that he was shipped out as a prisoner of war to Arizona where he was put to work among black people and Mexicans picking cotton.
"Each battle has its own characteristics," he said, "but Stalingrad stands on its own. We were 360,000 at the start of the battle and the Soviet troops numbered one million plus.
"The intensity of the fighting was colossal. The Soviets had no choice but to fight. We were fighting to enslave them.
"We had been told that after we had conquered the Soviets, we would not bother educating them beyond being able to read direction posts.
They would not need to know anything more. They would be our slaves." He went on to say that the Stalin government had been tough, deserters were shot - "but that was the same in our army, or any other". And he added, "Without Stalin's toughness, I do not think they would have pulled through."
Then he described a revisit to the scene 15 years ago. A line of turrets of Soviet T34 tanks bisects the town, marking the furthest point that the German advance reached. At one point it is less than 200 yards from the Volga, their target.
"We thought we were the strongest military force on earth," he said, "And look what happened to us - the Americans should remember that. We had come a thousands of miles but could not manage the last 200 yards."
He pointed out that he was now older and wiser. "This must never happen again. I saw the destruction of Eastern Europe during our retreat. We had been ordered to destroy everything.
"I am fearful that such a catastrophe could happen again.
"Nine tenths of the German soldiers who died in that war, died on the eastern front. That should tell us who won the war. If you look at the American films, you would think they won the war single-handed. They think they won because they're handsome. It was not so, I can tell you, I was there.
"The suffering of the Soviet people was unimaginable. If you want to stop wars, you must study how they come about.
"The Red Army faced what seemed an impossible task and yet, as Churchill admitted, they `tore the guts out of the Nazi war machine'.
"As we retreated we realised what we had done, burning their villages, forcing them out into the bitter cold. We knew how much they hated us. War brings out the worst in people.
"Now looking back, I salute the Red Army and what they did in saving the world from Hitler.
"They lost more casualties than we did. The Red Army was less professional than we who had been brought up for this in the Hitler Youth."
He remembered is own fallen comrades: "We were all victims of a historic process. Why is it we were all victims? We must look for the reasons of why war comes about in the first place.
"Politicians, religion and so on fooled me and robbed me of the meaning of my life.
"I was born in 1922 in Schleswig Holstein. My father was an unskilled labourer and I had a good youth. My parents were loving but poor.
"We saw life from a working class point of view and that is very different from an upper class or middle class point of view.
"If you don't see things from a working class point of view, you don't see life.
"Hitler came to power when I was 10. He was heaved into the saddle of government. My parents hated Hitler. He was not elected by the German people but appointed by Hindenburg.
"My father had a good understanding of politics. He told me, `Hitler has been put there to do a job by those who are afraid of a revolution. He is a leader of a party less than 10 years old. Hitler was a corporal, a vagabond with no education yet he has become Chancellor, head of state, supreme commander of the armed forces.
Yes, he was put there. He was put in charge to clamp down on the German people by the establishment: the landowners, the industrialists, the bankers, the aristocracy and the church.'
"This is how Hitler became Chancellor.
"He started off by setting up concentration camps. Then one of our neighbours disappeared. As far as I know he was not a member of any political organisation but he knew a bit more than most of us. He was the sort of person you would go to for help and advice if you had any problems with the authorities.
"That's the one thing the Nazis didn't like, a clever worker. After that the man's family was ostracised. Everyone was a bit afraid to be seen to be friendly with them.
"My father regarded Hitler as no more than a dog on a long lead.
"When I left school I was apprenticed to be a locksmith. I joined the Hitler Youth as everybody did. Whenever you applied for a job, they would ask you, `What did you do in the Hitler Youth'. You couldn't get a job any other way.
"I loved it in the Hitler Youth. We had good food and good clothes, many of us for the first time in or lives. And we had new history books - all the old ones were thrown out.
"We had camps and sports and military activities. We were encouraged to rough and tumble, to fight, to harden us up. We were also taught how to survive if lost in the wild. We though we were the greatest.
"Then I was called up. I was a locksmith so I was sent to the Panzers." This was in 1941, just before Barbarossa.
Henry Metelmann described his first posting in France, after the invasion, consolidating the occupation.
"I drove my tank to Cap Gris Nez. From there I could see England and thought it would be only a matter of time before we would be over there."
Then he was transferred to the eastern front, to Russia, deep snow and bitter cold. He went with Army Group South, under General Manstein, through the Ukraine as far the River Dneipr and then south to Crimea.
"At one stage we went through an old battle scene. There were many ruined Soviet tanks and one burnt out Panzer tank, just like the one I was driving.
I wondered how on earth the driver would have got out, from right down at the bottom of the tank. Then I realised, he didn't. He couldn't have. I suddenly realised that could have been me." He told of how he had been billeted on a poor Ukrainian peasant family. They had a daughter, Anna, much the same age as Henry.
For the first time in his life, he felt attracted to a young woman but nothing could come of it. "You are the enemy," she told him, "and I wish all the Germans dead and out of my country". "Even me?" he asked.
His confidence was receiving a few dents. Then came an incident that troubled him a lot. During a battle, a Soviet soldier was trying to surrender to his advancing tank. His officer ordered him to carry on regardless - it is a cardinal rule of tank warfare that a stationary tank is a sitting duck - he was ordered to carry on straight over the man.
"I remember once, after a battle, they had a thanksgiving service. I could see dead bodies all around, from both sides. I thought, if they are thanking God for that, this is not my god. I never had much time for religion after that."
He continued: "From Kharkov we drove towards the Volga. On the whole, we were victorious as the Russians withdrew. Some Germans were killed by Russians - violence is the right of the oppressed - but we hated them for it. We burned their villages.
"At one point I saw a young woman dragging two little children out of a burning cottage. They did not want to come; perhaps they had a pet or a special toy left inside. My mate lifted his machine gun and dt-dt-dt, there were three little heaps in the snow.
This is how thin the veneer of civilisation is. It's what war does to us. I was shocked but I never even went over to check if they were dead or not. One of them might have been alive, I don't know. Even if I had found one alive, I haven't the faintest idea what I would have done about it.
"Nineteen-forty-two was a good summer for us, it seemed. We tried to catch the Red Army in pincers but they always withdrew. We though they were cowards but it was not so. The Russians are the best chess players in the world.
"In the Don Bas region we came to a town where there were lots of factories. The Soviets had stripped it bare and moved all the machinery east of the Urals. That is where they mass-produced the T34 tank - the most successful tank in the history of the world. The production of the T34 turned our hope of victory into defeat.
"Along with our army we had some economics officers, they wore green uniforms. They went into these factories and I saw their faces drop as they saw they had bee stripped. They had counted on seizing that machinery.
"We also had some Nazi party political officers with us. They were supposed to boost our morale with pep talks. One evening as we were resting one asked a group of us, `Why are we here?' "Most of us kept quiet, we didn't want to stick our necks out. But one bright young soldier replied, `For the glory of the fatherland'.
"The Nazi replied, `That's all rubbish, we're after oil. When we're finished here, we head south, to Iraq. At the same time Rommel will head from Africa, through Saudi Arabia and we'll tie up with him in Iraq. We want the oilfields'.
"I wonder now, is history repeating itself with the Americans?
"Our group reached the outskirts of Stalingrad and then we were pulled back. We used our allies to protect our flanks, the Hungarians and Romanians and so on. We didn't quite trust them, they were not as professional as we were."
Henry Metelmann then described how the fighting got very tough. "The Russians were not cowards at all. They fought like mad. They had to fight or become slaves.
"On the 19th of November 1942, there was deep snow. We were some way outside Stalingrad. I was not I my tank at the time, we were dug into an earth bunker, waiting.
"The Soviets started a massive military bombardment. We guessed it was the overture to some action. When the noise died down we could hear T34s approaching in the distance. We looked out, there were masses of them coming in a wave after wave.
"As they came closer, they had to cross a ridge just in front of us.
As they did so, just for a moment before they turned down, their vulnerable under-bellies were visible.
"We fired like mad and we put some out of action. But there were far too many, they just came on and on. I hid in a corner of the bunker where I guessed it would be least likely to collapse and kept my head down until it all went quiet.
"When I crawled out, I saw that all my companions, every one, had been crushed as the T34s rolled over. That was the army of Marshal Vatutin, springing the trap that closed on Von Paulus and the 6th Army inside Stalingrad."
Henry then described how, with amazing presence of mind, he collected the food rations of his dead colleagues, made himself a meal and settled down to sleep.
On waking, he gathered food, clothing, boots and weapons from his fallen mates. He had to judge carefully how much he could easily carry and what would be most useful for bargaining if he should make contact with Romanian forces in the area.
The Germans and Romanians were on the same side, but in a situation like that; their help was not something to take for granted.
After that, Henry Metelmann became a straggler, isolated and desperate. "The training they gave us in the Hitler Youth came in useful there. I was able to navigate by the stars. At any rate, I could identify the pole star and I knew if I kept that on my right, I was travelling westward, towards home."
He made contact before long with another German straggler and eventually ended up in a group, travelling westward as fast as they could, through no-man's land, trying to make contact with the German army.
He described how this was a Napoleonic rout. From time to time enough stragglers came together to make some sort of fighting unit, and would then be blown apart again.
They followed their orders to burn everything as they went, forcing villagers out into the freezing depths of winter.
"In one village, we were setting fire to everything, I was told to go and clear one cottage. I went in and it was packed with people, refusing to budge. I did not know what to do so I seized an old man holding a young boy.
I put my gun to the man's head and told the people to leave or I would shoot him. The man then calmly told me I would have to shoot the boy as well. I was stumped.
"An officer came to see what was taking me so long. He just pulled me out and set fire to the building anyway. The people soon came out then. My illusions were being shattered all around. There were many instances of horror like that.
"At another time, I was with a group of stragglers, we were running along a road when a Stormovik Soviet plane came up behind us, machine-gunning as it came. A Stormovik doesn't just fire ordinary bullets, they fire cannon rounds this big," he said, indicating about nine inches.
"We all dived for cover but one of my mates was hit. He was screaming in agony. What could we do? We were on the run and had to move fast. We couldn't carry him and we couldn't just leave him like that to die slowly.
"We had a brief discussion. Our only option was to put him out of his misery. I had to do it. I stroked his head and told him everything was going to be all right while I hid the gun and then shot him in the back of the head. War makes us do terrible things."
Henry went on to say that eventually he too was wounded fairly seriously but was lucky enough to be transported out by the Luftwaffe back to Germany.
"That was my experience of Stalingrad," he told the audience, and then answered questions, about his experiences as a POW. How after the war he had gone back to Schleswig Holstein to find his family and everything he remembered gone and how he came to end up living in England because of an offer of work on a farm.
He now lives in Surrey and has spent his life campaigning for peace.
In informal discussion before the lecture, he told the New Worker that it was when he was a cotton-picking POW in Arizona he witnessed the extreme exploitation of the blacks and Hispanics. "I began to understand the evils of the whole capitalist system then.
"And I came across a few communists who were fighting for better conditions. I had always been taught that communists were the devil, the ultimate evil. But when I found out their aims were to take power and wealth from the rich and hand them over to the workers, I thought what on earth is wrong with that?"
The New Worker - 28th February 2003