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Willi Kumpka's Soldbuch Story
By Eric Tobey

The following was taken from the Die Neue Feldpost newsletter & was done so with permission of the publisher.  We would like to thank him for his generosity as well as thank all those who have contributed to this article.  It is with their efforts, we are able to share this valuable research with the rest of you.

Leave was over, and it was back to the old grind.  Hauptfeldwebel Willi Kumpka was ready to start fighting that mountain of paperwork that came along with the rebuilding of his company.  It was the end of February 1945, and the 553rd Volksgrenadier Division was in the process of reforming after the battles in Alsace and Lorraine.  As the Spieß, Willi was responsible for keeping the enlisted mens' records organized, and with the large number of recruits coming in and the large number of casualties back in Alsace, there was plenty to catch up on.  He also had to oversee the replacement of the company's paperwork and records that had been lost or destroyed during the campaign -- in fact, one of the first things he did was replace his own Soldbuch, which he probably lost sometime early that year!

It appears that the battalion paymaster filled in many of the pages in Willi's book.  Although the Spieß was normally responsible for all enlisted or NCO records, he wouldn't be allowed to fill out his whole book for himself, and an officer of some type was probably the only person with the authority to do it for him.  Maybe his CO didn't have the time.  On the other hand, there are sections in his book that he filled in himself: he even inventoried his own clothing and equipment, and filled in the appropriate page!  After the important entries had been made, he would have taken the book to his CO for signing and stamping.  The company commander, a Leutnant who was new to the company, would have looked through the pages before signing his name and making it all official with the company seal:

     "One thing here, Kempka.  You wrote your rank as 'Hauptfeldwebel'.  We'll need to do something else here, this is not a rank.  On this line here, we'll write in your rank... O-b-e-r-f-e-l-d-w-e-b-e-l.  There!  Now, get me the date that you achieved this rank and the unit that promoted you, and I'll sign for the change, clear?"
     "Jahwohl, Herr Leutnant."
     "One last thing, Kempka, we'll need a list of your close-combat days to stick in here.  Yes, I think that would put everything in order."
     "Jahwohl, Herr Leutnant.  And pardon me, but my name is Kumpka, Herr Leutnant.  I'm no relation to the Führer's driver."

Not hearing or not caring, the officer pulled out the small assault and close-combat record form and wrote across the top: "Hauptfeldw. Willi Kempka".  Maybe he thought he was flattering the NCO.  I'm sure that if he knew what Erich Kempka (Hitler's chauffeur) was really like, he wouldn't have dared make that particular mistake, not unless he wanted to humiliate or offend his most important NCO.

The officer looked at the cluster of awards on Willi's tunic as he handed him the small piece of paper-

"Get the dates, places and so on, put on here and I'll have to notarize this, too"

Making a vague gesture towards the medals he muttered as he returned to his desk,

"After all, we don't want some party clown questioning all that pretty tinware..."

Grinning at his own little jibe, he thumped a rubber stamp between the inking pad and Willi's book, leaving odd-colored green impressions in the appropriate locations.

A day or so later, Willi filled out the small sheet listing his assaults and close-combat days.  He filled in the lines one-by-one, and the list grew.  Russia, Romania, Alsace, Lorraine.  Stormtroop assaults against Ivan, fighting off the Ami's tanks.  The list grew longer, and longer.  Perhaps this led him to start reminiscing... yes, it had truly been a long, long war... it seemed hard to believe, but there was a time when there was no war at all...

1936 had been a year of change for the 24 year-old soldier from Wiesbaden.  The field-gray uniform had changed -- when Willi had been honored with acceptance into the tiny Reichswehr back in the early thirties, the breast of the tunic had been unadorned.  Now the new government's political symbol was perched above his right breast pocket in a form of a stylized eagle clutching a be-wreathed swastika.  The rapidly expanding armed forces even had a new name; they now called it the Wehrmacht, and new units were being formed as the Führer thumbed his nose at Versailles and began to expand his armed forces.  Willi was one of the experienced soldiers transferred to the ranks of a brand-new formation to give it "backbone"; his new unit was Infantry Regiment 87 of the 36th Infantry Division.  Like most German units, it was a regional group, so Willi's new comrades were all from the Palatinate (Wehrkrise XII) and the barracks of his new unit was located right in Willi's hometown of Wiesbaden.  To show its soldiers how much they were adored and appreciated, the Fatherland was giving out new medals too!  Willi was awarded a handsome medal, of which he would wear the blue ribbon on his tunic to commemorate 4 years of faithful service.  The attention did not stop with medals; Willi was rapidly advancing through the ranks of NCOs, permitting him to add yet more silver to his uniform and more money for his pocket.

Although all this attention was probably flattering and welcome, these men should have seen a resemblance in Adolf to the man who gains the confidence of children and lures them into his house with toys and treats - the experiences that wait on the other side of the threshold are usually anything but enjoyable.

Nevertheless, Willi was probably proud of his success at the time and at any rate it offered many more opportunities than his civilian trade of stonemasonry.  On the other hand, that strenuous trade had undoubtedly had a beneficial effect on shaping his 5'10" frame, for his body build was described as "strong", and a large frame was valuable attribute for the ideal German NCO.

1939 arrived and while the Wehrmacht flattened Poland, Willi's unit sat it out, guarding the Reich's western border from a possible attack from those old devils, the French.  Poland was defeated and occupied while the French reaction amounted to nothing more than a lot of name-calling, finger-pointing, and saber-rattling.  Not much glory to be had on this front, and there was more than one Soldat who was genuinely disappointed at missing out on his chance to win some more Blech ("Tinware": a German slang term for "scrambled eggs", or decorations).

1940 brought another opportunity for gaining combat experience, when France was invaded in May with almost everything the Reich could muster.  Willi's division fought so well that after the campaign it was honored with conversion to motorization.  Of course, German military practice dictated that not all members of a unit were honored in these conversion.  Willi was probably already part of a Troß (headquarters train) in a rifle company, and these elements were horse-drawn in the "leg" infantry units.  According to standard Wehrmacht practice, the horse-drawn elements weren't converted to trucks, but were transferred out instead and reassigned to another horse-drawn infantry unit.  In Willi's case, he was transferred to the 112th Infantry Division which was in the process of forming at the Baumholder Maneuver Area.  Willi was assigned to the 11th Company of the 256th Infantry Regiment, and in May of 1941 he was promoted to the highest rank he would attain: Oberfeldwebel.

The Soviet Union was invaded in June of 1941.  Although the 112th missed the initial attack, it was in action with Army Group Center by August.  By the end of the month, Willi had collected a Silver Wound Badge.  He was back at the front by that winter, and I doubt that he would have forgotten his experiences there.  The 112th Division was among those German units that came the closest to Moscow before the Soviet winter offensive smashed their formations to pieces and the horrible winter conditions reduced the remnants still further.  Supplies failed, and the horses were reduced to nibbling the thatched roofs on peasants' houses.  Soldiers huddled together to get a few hours sleep and never woke up; they froze to death and the snow covered them.  Willi survived it all.

Almost two years later, in September of 1943, Kumpka (now stationed in Germany) was finally recognized for his participation in this winter campaign and give the Eastern Front Medal by a demonstration unit at the Baumholder Maneuver Area called "Lehrregiment 12".  Willi had been in the Army for 10 years now, and was finally gaining a collection of decorations that was fitting for a man with his amount of service time!

The Eastern Front, however, was consuming men at an astronomical rate, and none of the Reich's soldiers could expect to stay in the Hinterland for ever.  October of 1943 found Kumpka in another Wehrkise XII unit, this one called the 79th Infantry Division.  This unit was one of those "Phoenix" divisions: a reborn version of a old outfit that had died at Stalingrad.  Willi found himself in combat again: between October and the end of the year, he was credited with participation in 9 different attacks, counterattacks, and close-combat defenses.  Also in December, the 79th Division (down to Kampfgruppe strength by then) awarded him the Infantry Assault Badge.  It was a pattern that would repeat itself: when Willi's current unit was decimated in battle, his job as Spieß became redundant and he was put into combat.  The attacks and days of "close combat" ended for a while during that last month of 1943, but started up again in March of 1944.  Eight more assaults and "close combat" days were recorded before he was wounded or transferred out in April.  Good thing, too, because four months later, the 79th Division was surrounded and almost annihilated on the Berlad river in Roumania.

The Reich was building new divisions at a furious pace that summer to hold off both the Russians in the East and the US and UK in the West.  One of these new units was called Grenadier Division 553, which was being formed as a Sperr-Division (blocking division) at Truppen Übungs Platz (Maneuver Area) Münsingen.  Unlike his prior assignments, this unit was not composed of men from the Palatine -- the 553rd was a Wehrkrise V unit, which made it a Württemberg division.  By this period of the war, the German Army was not so concerned with keeping the regional affiliations of its soldiers and organizations straight.  By September of 1944, the 553rd was rushed to the Lorraine region of the western front, upgraded to Volksgrenadier Division status (more of an honorific name change than a real upgrade), and thrown into battle against the Allied troops advancing on the city of Nancy.  Willi was a member of the 5th Company, Grenadier Regiment 1120.

The high point for Willi's regiment came in September when the 1120th was sent to defend a patch of woods called Forêt de Champenoux to cover the withdrawal of the rest of the division.  In the words of H.M. Cole:

"With the characteristic zeal of well-trained German infantry, they had entrenched thoroughly, building a line of log-covered dugouts and foxholes ten or fifteen yards inside the forest.  Within the shelter of the woods a few tanks and self-propelled guns backed up the infantry and covered still more entrenchments.  Heavy-caliber mortars were sited so as to lay a barrage on the clearing at the slightest movement from across the road."

When the GIs attacked with tanks and infantry on the 20th, they were repulsed.  Although they made repeated attempts to clear the 1120th out, they could not succeed that day, nor on the next.  Then a prolonged artillery barrage demolished the entrenchments but did not dislodge the defenders.  On the 22nd, the Americans tried a combined attack with the 80th and 35th Infantry Divisions, supported by one combat command of the 6th Armored Division.  The 137th US Regiment finally managed to put enough pressure on the forest to drive the defenders out.  With enemy forces now enveloping both his flanks, the 553rd's commander, Oberst (Colonel) Erich Loehr pulled his survivors back, and was eventually court-martialed for this unauthorized but sensible retreat.

During the battle, an American cameraman was following a platoon of the 137th as it crossed a field and entered the Forêt de Champenoux.  As the GIs were just entering the trees in the distance, he took a picture.  If you look at the picture today, it's not the platoon that catches your eye, but the body in the foreground.  Left behind by his comrades, a lone GI lies huddled in death with his face pressed into the short grass of the field.  A picture like this one is a good "morality check" for the German military researcher.  Reading about German military successes is interesting, but here is a picture of a by-product of their success.  The whole purpose of "our" German soldier was to kill guys from our hometowns, guys with names like ours, who spoke our language.  Definitely a sobering concept, and one that should be remembered by the Wehrmacht enthusiast.

Willi and his comrades were pulled out of the line in October.  The whole 553rd division had been ruined in the space of just a little more than one month, and had to be reinforced.  The reinforcements for the 553rd came from various and sundry places: two "Fortress Battalions", a Security battalion, and an infantry training unit were all transferred en masse to the division and became parts of the revitalized infantry regiments.  Even with the addition of these groups, one regiment (the 1121st) was dissolved along with the 2nd Battalion of Grenadier Regiment 1120.  However, in German Army terms, the Saverne gap in Lorraine in early November.

While Patton's 3rd Army was advancing from Metz, the 7th Army was preparing to clear the Saverne Gap.  In mid-November, the American 44th Infantry and the French 2nd Armored Divisions started an advance aimed at taking Saarbourg.  Among the Landser who stood in their way was Willi Kumpka.

As usual, the Allied attack ground down the German units until they were only shadows of their normal organizations.  The situation became so critical that every available man was pressed into the line.  Although the "Spieß" was normally excluded from combat, the Wehrmacht philosophy was that if you wore a uniform, you would fight the enemy.  When the situation got really bad, it didn't matter if you were a radio man, cook, or wagon driver -- you picked up a weapon and fought as a rifleman.  Commencing with the defense of a town named Blâmont and ending 5 days later with the defense of the road leading from Walscheid to Saarbourg, Willi accumulated enough close combat days to earn him the Close Combat Clasp in Bronze.  After Saarbourg fell to the US 44th Division on November 21, the remains of the 553rd were pulled out and transferred to southern Alsace.  Either that assignment was fairly quiet, or Willi managed to find a more peaceful job, because his string of close combat days ends abruptly with the capture of Saarbourg.

Not only were his contributions in combat recognized, but Willi was also awarded the War Merits Cross with Swords, probably for efforts vital to the functioning of his unit but not directly involving combat.

At the end of January, the High Command decided to pull the 553rd out of the line entirely and rebuild it once again.  Willi got a two-week furlough during which he went to visit his wife named Waltraud in Hannover.  When he returned to his company, he was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class, probably for deeds he performed during the same battles in the Saverne Gap that earned him his Close Combat Clasp.  On February 28, Willi filled out his equipment and clothing list.  All he recorded was the outfit he wore during his leave -- having become rather cagey over the years, he probably realized that the more he listed, the more he would ultimately be accountable for.  Therefore, he kept his list to the minimum for duty in the base camp:

cap shirt handkerchief
wool tunic sweater pants suspenders
wool trousers socks drawers
low quarter boots overcoat belt & buckle

Although the divisional rebuilding was supposed to be completed by March 31, 1945, the Western Front was crumbling fast and half-finished divisions were better than no divisions at all.  So, the 553rd was sent up to the 19th Army sector on March 20.  The division surrendered to the Americans shortly thereafter, and with it, Willi left his 12-year employer for good.  POW stamps on Willi's book recorded his capture, and it took a lot less time for the GIs to relieve Willi of his decorations than it took for him to earn them.

Willi lost his career but survived the war, unlike many of his compatriots who never had to surrender but marched into eternity wearing their beloved field-gray.  On the other hand, it's obvious that he paid an emotional price, because if you look at his Soldbuch picture, you would swear you were looking at the tired face of a man at least 50 years old, when in reality he was only 33.

There are two other things in this Soldbuch of a decidedly non-military nature.  Tucked into the back "pocket" of the book is a pair of pressed Edelweiß flowers and a small lithograph cut-out of clasped lover's hands.  It's hard to associate such human tenderness with the image of General Patton's "kraut bastards" whose guts were going to grease the treads of his tanks.  Although Willi's innards remained in their proper place, there were probably other pressed flowers and romantic mementos that did disappear below a Sherman's tracks, much to Georgie's satisfaction.

Then again, that sad bundle laying in front of the camera near the Forêt de Champenoux probably had Grandpa's bible or letters from the girl back home in his pocket.  Here is another basic, brutal rule of warfare: survival for one soldier usually means somebody on the other side has to die.


- The Lorraine Campaign, by Hugh M. Cole, Center of Military History, US Army, Washington DC. 1984.



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