Kumpka's Soldbuch Story
following was taken from the Die Neue Feldpost newsletter
& was done so with permission of the publisher.
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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!
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...
Now, get me the date that you achieved this
rank and the unit that promoted you, and
I'll sign for the change, clear?"
thing, Kempka, we'll need a list of your
close-combat days to stick in here.
Yes, I think that would put everything in
Herr Leutnant. And pardon me, but my
name is Kumpka, Herr Leutnant.
I'm no relation to the Führer's
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.
officer looked at the cluster of awards on Willi's
tunic as he handed him the small piece of paper-
dates, places and so on, put on here and
I'll have to notarize this, too"
vague gesture towards the medals he muttered as he
returned to his desk,
all, we don't want some party clown
questioning all that pretty tinware..."
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
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...
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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:
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.