The German soldier 'liberated' by D-Day
- 7 June 2014
- From the section Magazine
The events of D-Day are often recounted by Allied troops who took part in the invasion. But what was it like for a German soldier surprised by the sudden - and completely unexpected - arrival of the enemy?
Eighteen-year-old Private Helmut Roemer was the first German soldier to face the Allied invasion of mainland Europe. He was not on the beaches on the day itself, but inland on the night before, when the first airborne British troops attacked.
He was a guard on watch at Pegasus Bridge on the Caen canal in Normandy on the night of 5-6 June, 1944. He had imagined it would be routine duty but suddenly, from the depths of the sky, he heard a "swishing noise", which kept coming closer.
Then there was a loud bang. Initially, he assumed an aircraft had been shot down, but then large gliders capable of carrying 30 men landed ahead of him and disgorged British troops, their faces blackened. They opened fire. Roemer was not heroic - he shouted, let off a flare and ran for his life.
Under Operation Deadstick, Allied planners had decided that the bridges along the canal and the nearby River Orne had to be secured because they were the route which German reinforcements would need to take if the landings on the beaches were successful. They were also crucial for the Allies to get further into Europe.
The liberating troops were on the edge of the bridge firing heavily but Roemer and two fellow soldiers threw themselves into bushes and hid. They witnessed their comrades being shot in the fierce fight to take the bridge. A boat on the canal was sunk.
The troops who attacked Pegasus Bridge were from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, the Royal Engineers and the Glider Pilot Regiment. On the night of 5 June these 181 men were packed into six Horsa gliders in Dorset, in south-west England, and towed by propeller tug aircraft towards the skies above Normandy, then released.
At 00:16, five of the gliders landed close to the bridge - 50 yards away in one case - the sixth landed close to a second crossing. Pegasus Bridge was captured within 10 minutes with the loss of two men from the Allied forces - the first to be killed under enemy fire in the D-Day invasion.
Roemer and his two comrades spent more than a day hiding in their bush on the edge of the canal, drinking canal water. But after 36 hours they gave themselves up and witnessed the first British troops crossing the bridge accompanied by a piper.
"We were exhausted and we decided to hand ourselves over to the British, thinking, 'Either they will shoot us or they'll take us prisoner,'" he says. They took him prisoner and it was the start of two years in captivity which he describes today as "like a holiday camp".
Roemer and his comrades were held on the beach at Normandy, standing for hours in water before being marshalled and conveyed to the English south coast. There they were processed and dispatched further down the chain of captivity. Roemer's pass book has all the stamps of the destinations, from Suffolk to Scotland.
Immediately after their capture they were depressed and frightened, but soon they realised they were going to survive. British soldiers were friendly, getting them to sing German songs. Roemer was surprised to see women in doorways in the south of England looking at him and smoking, something he says German women wouldn't have done in public.
Cambridge University organised courses for prisoners of war and as a result, Private Roemer of the German army learned English courtesy of one of the great English universities. Britain educated the enemy.
Then Roemer and his comrades were shipped across the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia before being taken across Canada by steam train to a camp near Calgary.
This, Roemer says, was marvellous - like being on holiday. There were concert parties at the camp and much recreation. Male prisoners would dress up as female chanteuses and sing cabaret songs.
In 1947, better fed and educated, the prisoners were freed and returned to Germany with barely imaginable luxuries like cigarettes and coffee. He was not greeted with open arms by all - he warned his wife-to-be that he would be seen as a coward. All the same, she married him and they went on to have six sons.
He was depicted in the classic film of D-Day, The Longest Day - he's the lanky German who shouts a warning and then runs. He later returned to Pegasus Bridge and became friendly with Major John Howard who commanded the British operation.
Today, he reflects on those events. It seemed unfortunate at the time but turned out to be very fortunate, not only for him but for Germany - it was a defeat but also a liberation. The presence of the German chancellor at the events commemorating D-Day bears that same message: Germany was defeated but liberated from its own madness.
To this day, Roemer speaks warmly of the British and Canadians and how well he was treated as a prisoner of war. The Allies defeated his country, captured him - and for that, he is eternally grateful.
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