Battle of the Bulge Tour Day 3 – Rhine River Valley 2nd Day of “All About Dad” October 16, 2017

We got up, got breakfast and were out by about 9:30 am. We headed to the Rhine River Valley to see the Temporary Enclosures where Dad (and Floyd) were sent to guard Disarmed German Combatants. Here is a link to a Wiki article about the Rhineweisenlagern.

These are very controversial in Germany to this day. German soldiers were intentionally NOT called POW’s as that would afford them protections and certain treatment under the Geneva Conventions. It was decided as early as March 1943 to avoid granting this distinction to Captured or Surrendered German soldiers. Part of the reasoning was that they belonged to a State (Germany) that no longer existed. There were other reasons also. First, that the Allies were overwhelmed with the numbers of Germans they had to take care of and really didn’t have sufficient resources to house, feed, and medically treat them all in such a short time. Germans were surrendering in vast numbers to the Allies to avoid being captured by the Russians as they were advancing across Germany from the East. The Russians got all the way to Berlin and huge numbers of both civilians and soldiers fled before them. Also because the civilians of Germany were going to need food aid. Crops were sparsely grown during the War due to the fighting and devastation. The Allies were concerned that if they fed the German soldiers as required if labelled POW’s the civilians (including all those displaced and homeless by the Russian advance through Germany) would suffer mightily and many would die of starvation.

Conditions in the camps were horrible. At the beginning, was no shelter, sanitation, medical treatment, and very little food. If a German soldier was lucky enough to arrive with a tent, then he had shelter. If not, then he slept under the stars with nothing to cover him but the clothing on his back. There are stories of the soldiers making a “soup” of grass and leaves – until there was none left in the camps – to stave off the pangs of hunger and starvation.

Many died of exposure and starvation. Figures for the death toll vary from 4,000 (American number) to 1,000,000 (a number that a Canadian researcher came up with in the late 80’s – a NY Times review of the book, claims and research with explanations regarding the food situation at the time and reasoning for the policy: which has since been very widely discredited.

Although the numbers vary widely, the fact is that many died in the terrible conditions. At the beginning conditions were dismal, but continued to improve until the Allies turned over management of the camps to the French and English.

German soldiers were widely used by the French and English as forced labor to help rebuild Europe and Russia as well as the damage to the lands Germany captured during WWII. The Russians released the last German soldier held for labor in 1953. England released the last German soldier in 1948, and France used them to clear minefields (obviously very dangerous work) and released their last laborers in 1949.

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In fact, Joseph Reusch, Anita Mitchell’s father, unwillingly drafted at age 16 to the 560th Volksgrenadiers Division (and who was made an honorary member of the 106th Infantry Division Association – the only German Soldier so honored) was sent to England to labor for many years and was not sent home till long after the war had ended.

There were orders that the guards of these camps were not to permit the civilians to provide any aid or comfort to the prisoners. There are stories of German women shot for trying to give food to a soldier in the camps.

First Stop: Burg Windeck. This is the “castle” where Dad says they were billeted. Doug and Carl confirmed this and later, we also had confirmation that soldiers were billeted there from the son of the President of the local historical society that is now restoring the Burg.

It appears that considerable effort has been invested to restore the Burg, however it didn’t look this nice when Dad was staying there.

and here

And here

And here

We were trying to get onto the grounds to better see the Burg, and there was a young man with his child in a stroller on the grounds. He directed us to the gate and let us in. He said his father is the President of the local Historical Society. I think he may be the 2nd Chairman of the society, Herman Peiper. Regardless of his name and title however, Doug spoke to him on the phone and was asked to provide information about Dad and Floyd for the museum they plan to include in the building about its history.

We spent some time checking it out from the outside, and took a lot of pics.

Second Stop:  Then we followed by car (most of) the route Dad and Floyd would have taken to walk from the Burg to the gates of the camp. There is a monument at the location of the former gate. It says:

Diesur stein wurde errichtet zum gedenken an das Rheinwiesnlager in Heidesheim, dort. Waren in den monaten mai bis juli 1945 ca 80000 deutsche kriegsgefangene unter freiem himmel interniert viele von ihnen starben. Ihrer gedenken wir in ehfurcht und trauer.”

“This stone was erected to commemorate the Rheinwiesnlager in Heidesheim there. In the months from May to July 1945, about 80,000 German prisoners of war interned in the open air many of them died. We remember them in fear and sorrow.”

Dad and the 424th were stationed at the Heidesheim Camp from about April 23, 1945 through June 7, 1945 when they were moved to the Dietersheim/Sponsheim camp about 20-25k away from Heidesheim. As they moved prisoners around, released them, or forced them into labor, the camps were consolidated; closing some and moving the prisoners and guards to other camps (which apparently accounts for some of the errors in reporting the number of prisoners who died in Allied custody in the Rhine Meadow Camps reported by the Canadian historian). Heidesheim was closed when the PW’s were evacuated. It was officially abandoned on 6/9/1945 and all the men were moved to Dietersheim.

The area of the Heidesheim camp was (according to Floyd’s recollection) and still is at least in part an orchard. As you can see from my photos, it’s very pretty country. I assume it was not so pretty at the time after the destruction from the war, and the influx of poorly cared for prisoners.

On May 1, 1945 there were 30,000 PW’s at Heidesheim. Total in all the camps was 165,272. By May 9, the total number in all the camps combined had increased by 614,928 to 780,200 prisoners spread out in al the Rhine Meadow Camps.

On May 20, 1945 they started to discharged PW’s and by May 31st they’d discharged 4,129 of them. Also by this time, reports mention that control of disease is improved with adequate water, dispensaries, hospital, delousing and latrines having been made available in all the PWTE’s. The same report dated 3/31/1945 says that a softball tournament was in progress and plans were being made for other team sports and tournaments for the American Soldiers guarding the camps, but was having trouble with implementation due to lack of equipment. Talent shows, movies and USO shows were helping keep the men entertained. The men received training in Military Courtesy, weapons, nomenclature, Geneva Conference, Guard Duty, and German language. Carl says that tourism opportunities were also provided to the American soldiers, so they could see the country. It’s possible that one of these tours was how Floyd got to see the Loreli as he mentions in his recollections.

During May, a few camps were turned over to the British, and still another was closed when the Russian soldiers held there were sent off for re-patriation.

Third Stop: We then drove to the Dietersheim/Sponsheim Camp. The memorial to this camp is literally on the very outskirts of Dietersheim right next to the parking lot for the industrial building. There is a stone and a sign there that it appears most just drive past without really noticing. There are no directions from the main road leading passers by down the one lane track to the memorial literally on the edge of the village. You drive down the track from the main road, past a bunch of Kale fields and vineyards, to find a fence around the industrial building, and some square mesh wire fence dividing the crops from villager’s back yards. On the grassy verge between the fields and the industrial property is the Memorial. It’s actually kind of sad and doesn’t look like it’s visited very often.

Zum gedenken an die kriegsfefangenen, die hier im wiesenlager dietersheim/sponsheim unter freiem himmel lieden mussten oder starben. April bis September 1945.

To commemorate the prisoners of war who died in the meadow camp Dietersheim / Sponsheim in the open air. April to September 1945.

Probably somewhat loosely translated the large sign says:

POW camp Dietersheim / Sponsheim

After the collapse of the German fronts in World War II in 1945, the Allies made millions of prisoners of war within days. Large camps were built to house these prisoners, including the Dietersheim / Sponsheim camp (see map).

At the end of April 1945, the Americans paved a 500-hectare area, and two barbed-wire fences were erected.

Until now, 75,000 to 895,000 people, or even up to 100,000 people, have been lodged in the so-called meadow camps at Dietershiem / Sponsheim. The supply of these crowds was catastrophic; hunger, ill health, death and poor hygiene were on the daily agenda. The prisoners harvested unripe fruit, leaves of trees, as well as grass, and cooked with water rich in chlorine.

It was not until mid-May that heavily rationed foods was provided – too little to live, and too much to die. At the same time, people were at the mercy of the weather. They dug holes in the earth, looking for at least a bit of protection.

In their desperation the trapped prisoners addressed to the population the so-called “hunger-bite”. However, as soon as they attempted to smuggle foodstuffs over the fence into the camp, the population of the surrounding villages was shot.

At the beginning of July 1945 the French took over the management of the camp. After a while the rigid rains loosened, they started to give more food to the prisoners. Sick and infirm they let them go, or transferred them to the camp in Breitzenheim.

In September 1945, after 5 cruel months, the camp was dissolved.

In memory of the many victims who have lost their life in this camp.

As of the end of the May, there were 38,591 PW’s in Dietersheim and a total of 171,411 PW’s total in the remaining American held camps according to the PWTE Report dated 5/31/1945.

Fourth Stop: We then drove from Dietersheim down along the Rhine River to the town of Boppard about 47km away (past the Lorelie) for lunch on the river at the Karmeliterhof Hotel. It’s by the Karmeliterkirche (Carmelite Order Convent and Church) and right on the river. I had a lovely very dry white Rhine wine Mittelrhien Boppard Ham Troken. I was surprised by how dry it was as I’ve always disliked German wines as far too sweet and/or fruity. I enjoyed this wine tremendously though. I wish I could get it here, but it doesn’t appear to be imported.

Fifth Stop: From there we drove another 22 km to Koblenz to see the Deutches Eck the meeting place of the Rhine and the Moselle Rivers. There is a monument there to Wilhelm I. It was destroyed by the Allies on March 16, 1945 when they saw German soldiers exiting the structure under the statue and took it to be a hidden German bunker. The statue was blown down on the first shot. The rest destroyed with 2 more shots. The statue was eventually replaced in September, 1993.

Sixth Stop: From there we drove on 64 km to Ramagen to see the remains of the Ludendorff Bridge. We went up the Erpeler Ley to the top to look over the river to the other side to see the bridgehead on the far side. As we drove up the Erpeler Ley we could see the remains of the battle that was fought on the Ley for the bridge (trenches and foxholes). There’s a museum in the bridge-head, but it was closed by the time we got there.

Then we turned around and headed back in the dark to Groslagenfeld.

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