The Battle of Kassel from German Eyes

Recently I was reading a random article on Wikipedia about the World War II battle in which American troops captured the city of Kassel in Germany. The Battle of Kassel occurred just a few weeks before the end of the war, and was fought between the American 80th Infantry division under the command of Major General Horace McBride, and a cobbled together force of second-line German troops led by Major General Johannes Erxleben.

In the infinite wisdom of the Nazi high command, the city of Kassel was declared a “fortress” city. As such, it was to be defended to the last, and its commander was forbidden to surrender. What the German commander had left to defend the city with was pathetically inadequate, but to his men’s credit they fought admirably and bravely for three days before their commander bowed to the futility of further resistance and surrendered.

The story of this battle rather intrigued me and I decided to dig into the web in order to find more about what happened. I managed to hit paydirt in the form of an account by the officer that General Erxleben sent to negotiate the surrender with General McBride. Apparently, the officer, Dirk Uhse, who was Erxleben’s adjutant and probably a captain, was to negotiate either a ceasefire to allow civilians to flee, or permission for the German force to withdraw from the city. This was to be an attempt to save either the city or at least the city’s people, from destruction.

I found this on a website devoted to celebrate Kassel’s 1,100 years of history. This account can be found on this page: Die Kapitulation der “Festung Kassel” am 4. April 1945 vor dem Weinbergbunker.

Here follows my translation of Captain Uhse’s German-language account:

The surrender of “Kassel Fortress” on April 4, 1945 in front of the Weinberg bunker
by Dirk Uhse

In mid-March 1945, through a series of coincidences that were so common in military life, I was assigned to the staff of the commandant of Kassel. As an intelligence, legal and orderly officer, I was a kind of “man Friday”. The commandant was Major General Johannes Erzleben, an active-duty officer in the intelligence troops. His being assigned to his home country was due to a war injury that obviously and severely handicapped him. Regardless, as far as I could tell, he tried to the best of his ability to fulfill his difficult and most thankless position as well as possible. Particularly noteworthy is his endeavor to spare the heavily afflicted civilian population all avoidable inconveniences. Unfortunately, his reputation in Kassel was tarnished by the fact that immediately before the surrender he accidentally shot a man whom he thought was a looter. But this act, too, was ultimately due to his constant concern that the civilian population could be endangered or harmed by riots.

His staff consisted largely of older officers who had been relieved from active service for various reasons I cannot go into here.The majority of these officers, however, had always done their often difficult duty. I consider it my duty to expressly acknowledge this. The main task of the commandant was to defend the “Kassel Fortress”. This fortress existed in the largely bombed-out Kassel. I had not seen any defensive structures, unless one would regard some very questionable barricades on the arterial roads as such. The members of the Kassel replacement troops formed the core of the crew. The attitude of these soldiers, some of them very young, some of them aged and often wounded, was highly commendable. They were supported by convalescents, refugees, local air defense, police, labor service and Croatian militia. I don’t know the strength of this garrison. In no case would they have been able to hold the vast city against even an infantry attack. In addition there was the completely inadequate armament. The fortress artillery was, as the saying goes, “represented by flags”, but some non-movable anti-aircraft guns may have been present. Incidentally, one saw infantry weapons that would have been better suited to display in an army museum than in the hands of a combat force.

The more time went by, the more hectic the perseverance slogans became. The terms “final victory” and “miracle weapons” were greatly thrown about. As part of a withdrawal movement (in good German: retreat), a higher command staff came through Kassel, and its commanding officer left us in no doubt as to what would happen to those who would not “hold out to the last”. Then he moved further east. At the beginning of April two representatives of the Reichsführer SS, Heinrich Himmler, appeared in Kassel in uniforms I was unfamiliar with. They looked and acted like gangsters. They too called for defense “down to the last bullet”, otherwise court martials would stimulate the will to resist a little. Then these two resisters disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared. The commandant of Kassel was put under pressure from all sides and in every conceivable way to hold his “fortress” down to the last man.

As March turned into April 1945 the Americans advanced into the areas south of Kassel. The fighting in the “apron of the fortress” flared up. On April 3, 1945, I had been on a motorcycle for most of the day. Late in the evening I returned to the Weinberg bunker, the command post of the town or combat commander. Dead tired, I went to sleep in a corner. In the middle of the night I was woken up and taken to see the general. A younger officer told me beforehand that a negotiator should be sent to the Americans, but the general couldn’t find one. As I entered the command room, I saw General Erxleben sitting at a table, with several older officers around him. There was thick silence. In one corner I noticed the general’s pale and overtired wife, who had accompanied her ailing and needy husband to the bunker and looked after him there. At that time, more than 4,000 civilians are said to have found refuge in the Weinberg. Erxleben asked me if I wanted to go to the American commander on his behalf to parlay. Drowsy, I brought out the obligatory “by your command”. Now the commandant became lively. He told me emphatically that it was by no means an order. Rather, he was asking me to do him this favor and wasn’t going to hide from me that the task would be extremely risky in more ways than one. Now I’m perking up too. But I saw no reason not to comply with my boss’s request. Any child could see that the defense of this so-called “fortress” was madness. The general now instructed me to visit the American commander and negotiate with him either free withdrawal for the remainder of the troops or at least for the civilian population.

Now there was a touching scene. When I took off my pistol belt – I had once heard that negotiators are not allowed to carry weapons – the general’s wife suddenly stepped up to me and hugged me in silence. Then I went on my way, with an interpreter and a sergeant to accompany me. The interpreter, as far as I can remember was a Kassel physician, Dr. Sommerfeld, who volunteered. Accompanied by the good wishes of the guards and bystanders, we climbed over the large barricade in Frankfurter Strasse, across from the former Bleil & Wögerer store, at the foot of the Weinberg. Then we marched slowly and solemnly out of town under the brilliant, bright moonlight. I had asked both of my companions to stay as far back as possible so that we would not be dealt with all at once in the “worst case” scenario. While I tried not to get my feet entangled in the wires of the blown overhead line of the tram, there were occasional shots right and left in the side streets of the Auviertel quarter, individual shadows flitted around the corners, flares went up and splinters and debris hit the plastered walls.

Immediately in front of the gate of the Jäger Barracks I came across the foremost American battle post. He was obviously very tired and dozed while standing. When I suddenly stood in front of him, he was so shocked that he almost stumbled over the machine-gun standing next to him. With the help of our interpreter, I tried to make the very suspicious Americans understand my intention. We were then brought into the anteroom of the former Hussar Casino (the later Paradise Club) under an escort armed to the teeth. Here we were searched for weapons, and everything that could endanger the safety of the US Army was taken from us. Surprisingly, our watches were also part of it. When we voiced concerns about this, they pointed their weapons at us. Then we were led, again under heavy cover, into the courtyard of a property on the left-hand side of Frankfurter Strasse, shortly before the railway overpass. Here the three of us – it was pretty cold – had to sit flat on the floor. Our guards positioned themselves in a semicircle in front of or around us. They passed the time for themselves and us by doing targeting exercises on us. Since they didn’t seem completely sober, this pastime was a bit unsettling, at least for us.

By dawn on April 4th I was getting bored, but we were eventually driven by jeep to a side street between Oberzwehrener and Rengershauser Strasse. An American captain received us in a small family house. He spoke fluent German with no accent. From the phone calls he made in my presence, I deduced that he was some kind of intelligence officer handling prisoner-of-war matters. I was finally able to explain the purpose of my coming to him. After a while, a jeep arrived carrying an American general and his adjutant. The general looked splendid but didn’t speak German. He was polite, but not interested in conceding anything. He had the interpreting captain ask me to convey his appreciation of the brave demeanor of our soldiers to my commander. But he could not approve a ceasefire to withdraw either the troops or the civilians: either there would be capitulation or the battle would resume to its conclusion. Under the circumstances, I believe that my decision to go with the first option was in accordance with my instructions. Those who did not experience bombed-out Kassel and its frightened population back then may condemn me if they dare.

Now that an agreement was reached, I thought it appropriate to mention how we had been plundered of our possessions. I was pleased that an officer was immediately dispatched with me to clarify the matter. Although I understood just as little English as the very personable film star who accompanied me understood German, he managed to conjure up my watch in a very short time. Those of my companions, on the other hand, had disappeared.

On the way back to our lines, the officer led us – apparently not without intent – past the American artillery that was deployed. My eyes overflowed when I saw large numbers of guns in heavy, medium and light calibers in the open space of what was later the warehouse yard. If these ever opened fire there would probably have been nothing left of Kassel – though there wasn’t much left, anyway. In Crede’s Villa (I think it was) we found a large number of American officers. The relatively simple arrangements for our repatriation were established. Then we were driven near the battle lines again. Two company commanders, whose infantrymen had advanced between Landaustrasse and Karlsaue towards Frankfurter Strasse and were skirmishing with our riflemen on and around the Weinberg, took care of me. We crawled and climbed through cellars and laundry rooms, over courtyards and bleaching areas. We “requisitioned” a walking stick and a terry towel from an abandoned apartment, with which we improvised a white flag. Then we sneaked around the corner of Frankfurter Strasse and An der Karlsaue. The two Americans patted me vigorously on the shoulder and had their troops cease fire. Once it had gone quiet for a short time, I dashed towards our barricade with a waving white flag. Despite my German uniform, the perplexed guards greeted us with shots, which, to my pleasant surprise, went wrong.

Then I reported the result of my mission and an hour later I was on the back of a truck that was carrying me into captivity.

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