Robert Frettlöhr was interviewed for the Second World War Experience Centre in 1999 and has been a Friend of the Centre since its inception.
Robert Frettlöhr was born in March 1924 in Duisburg. His father was the manager of the telephone section of Thyssen, a large steel company and when Robert was fourteen he began an apprenticeship there.
Robert joined the Hitler Youth.
The reason why everybody joined it, particularly me, was because I was interested in gliding and there was no better opportunity than to learn to glide with the Hitler Youth… gliding and building models of gliders etc.
Duisburg had a very small Jewish community but a local store was boycotted because of its Jewish ownership and later its windows were smashed. Robert, as a young man, did not question this.
We didn’t even question or we weren’t old enough to question things. We weren’t allowed to question things as we do now.
Situated near the Dutch border, Duisberg provided billets for many servicemen as the build up began for the invasion of Holland.
As a boy, you admired soldiers a bit – like every lad does. They used to talk to you and, of course, they went and did their battle and came back and they were victorious, and I suppose we shouted “hurrah, you did a good job.”
At the age of 17, Robert received his call up papers.
I went to the medical and I wasn’t a small boy then, I was pretty well developed. They looked at me and said, “heavy artillery,” and I said, “I am sorry, Sir, but I volunteered for the Air Force.”
He immediately approached the Luftwaffe recruiting office next door and volunteered. He was given some leaflets and a consent form to be completed by his father.
In April 1942, Robert began his training in Münster, with the German Air Force.
… we learned how to use the Morse Code and things like that. I was trying to be a wireless operator but it seemed to me that the instructors we had, they were slightly barmy [although] they were excellent teachers, yes, but I thought I don’t like this really so from there I volunteered for the radar section and learned … the whole secret of the radar equipment.
His training continued at several different locations within Germany. In Dresden whilst instructing others to use the radar equipment, he attended the showing of a film about Paratroopers. Afterwards he volunteered to join, much to the annoyance of his Commanding Officer, who drew his attention to the amount of time and money his radar training had cost.
Robert had a very thorough medical examination and was posted to a Para school northeast of Berlin, at Wittstock. Most of his training was intensive physical exercise and combat training. The basic training consisted of six jumps to acquire Paratrooper Wings. The first two jumps were from an old Dornier, the next two from a Heinkel Bomber 111, through the bomb hole. The final two jumps were then from a Junkers 52.
On the Heinkel, you jumped out through the bomb hole. It was like a little opening. You had to go down a couple of steps and you jumped through there like a bomb… the Junkers 52 were a three engined workhorse of the German Air Force. They were a very, very slow flying machine.
In the late summer of 1943, he was posted to the 1st Paratroop Division Pioneers, 4th Regiment, and to a small village on the Adriatic called Tollo.
We lived in the village and then we used to go by truck with all the Teller mines – they were anti-tank mines. At other times we also laid anti-personnel mines. We used to go to the frontline, lay the mines in No Man’s Land and then go back to the village. That was pioneer work.
Early in February 1944, Robert was posted to Cassino.
They knew what was going to happen at Monte Cassino and they needed the Paras to reinforce the front line, because Paras were better trained. We were better equipped in that respect too and we were posted to Cassino. We were the 4th Regiment and we were stationed just behindMonte Cassino. I was a Corporal in the 15th Company of the Regiment.
We went in the beginning of February 1944 and from there on we witnessed the bombing of the monastery. We couldn’t see it very much because the monastery was maybe three, four miles away on top of the hills. We were behind the hills and there was a valley over which the French Canadians were always trying to get through. We were guarding on night duty, with machine guns and all that, and seeing such attempts off, you see. So we were semi front line as well. After the bombing of the monastery, it was taken over by the German Paras and made into what was really a fortress with artillery observers up there as well.
When we were guarding against being outflanked, another para and I had a machine gun post using the MG 42, a very fast gun, very rapid. Anyway, we were in position and through the valley you also got German paras going through with donkeys supplying troops on the hillside itself, but the French Canadians always tried to come through this valley. The artillery used to shell them so much that they retreated sharpish. Well then, one night we did actually need the machine gun. We heard this rustling and I said to my mate, “There is somebody there”. So we got the machine gun ready and we shouted our password in German and nothing came and we called again. [my mate] said “That is enough,” and he let go with the machine gun and the next thing we heard was “hee haw, hee haw, hee haw”. We had caught a donkey which had gone astray and we pulled the thing back and all his legs were shattered, you see. Of course we had to shoot this poor animal.
One day four Para stretcher bearers brought a French Canadian through to where we were. They had a little bit of rest and this poor wounded chap lay there and he – I can never forget his words – he kept saying “water, water” and every time he spoke there were little fountains of blood spraying out from his chest, he was riddled across his chest, maybe three or four bullet wounds, and these lads carried him for another good half a mile down to the First Aid post and what actually happened was the poor fellow died and these lads went beserk. They said they had carried him all that bloody way and then he goes and dies on them, you see, and that is something I do remember very clearly.
Robert was given orders to assist with the transport of ammunition, anti-tank guns and other equipment to troops on the hill top at Albenetta Farm engaged in battle with some New Zealand tanks.
We also had some anti-tank magnet grenades. They were just like an oversized hand grenade which had a magnet on there and each tank always had a point where they could reach, you know. You stick this on the side of the tank, pull the cord which charges this grenade and the explosion would follow. What we used to call the pin, it would bore itself through and blow the tank up inside.
In March, Robert was sent to the ruins of the monastery at Monte Cassino, now occupied by the 4th Regiment. He stayed there for a short time following the Allied air bombing of Cassino town on 15 March.
The town was actually a frontline, by all means a frontline… Seven hundred and fifty bombers bombed the frontline and didn’t succeed. They actually hindered themselves. The tanks that stood in front couldn’t go anywhere near the place because it was just rubble, rubble, rubble, and then the German Paras [from the 3rd Regiment] had a grotto in which they sheltered and when they came out, some were a little maimed. We had to go every second night, down the hill to a point where lorries used to come and we used to take either 24 tins of one pound food which were rations, or kilo loaves of bread and then each had a case of ammunition to take back up the hill again.
A few days later, the Pioneers attempted to take a position known as Castle Hill. Robert took part in the second attack, but the fighting was fierce and the Pioneers pulled back. At the beginning of April, refreshed and with reinforcements another attempt was made, and the Paras held the position for a while.
It wasn’t a pleasant time up there because you were dirty, filthy. You used to get a pint of water, but believe me that pint of water didn’t go anywhere. But there was a lot of alcohol and we all used to drink alcohol, because we always used to say if you get wounded you don’t feel it as much.
On the night of 17 May, they were given orders to retreat.
We didn’t have any tents or sleeping equipment. Because the whole mountain was rock and nothing else, you couldn’t dig into the ground. So what you did, you made a shelter with rocks and we used to go and sleep there during the day. At night time we used to go forward and there was a forward post, a machine gun nest maybe 20, 30 yards to your left and maybe 20, 30 yards to your right were some troops in that distance, and two of us had an outpost maybe 20, 30 yards in front of those people like in a triangle. So, anything that came first, of course, we got it. You used to go in there and you stayed in there all night, obviously, and observe what was going on there checking out if you could see anybody moving. The Yanks used to fire shells with fog grenades and the whole valley and all halfway up the hill was blanketed out.
The Paras went straight up the mountain towards the monastery. They reached the final stretch of road leading to their destination and came under repeated heavy shelling.
So you went up and up and up, and you got through this lot and then you heard one or two lads shouting, “Oh my eyes!” or whatever, or “I have been hit!” and you just carried on. There were no orders then but when anybody got killed you go back and have a look at him. If he gets killed Ok, it wasn’t you, as simple as that. So we got to this grotto and went inside and this officer was there. He said that we were waiting for the shells to come over and in the lull after one lot we went and ran like mad to get round the corner of the monastery wall at the bottom. Yes, and what I remember is a big flash. There was a grenade explosion somewhere in this vicinity … when I woke up my left leg was like a big balloon, but I knew the monastery was only a couple of yards on the left and I knew the way to get in.
So I went in there and then I crawled along to the First Aid post which was down in the crypt, St Benedict’s Crypt, and then they bandaged my leg and they said, “there is no way you can walk”. There were three of us badly wounded and there were quite a few lightly wounded … I wrote a letter and gave it to one of the medics to post when he got out, to send to my parents. I knew I was going to be a prisoner of war. Then the morning came, we heard shouting; “Tommies are coming!”
The approaching troops were actually a Polish platoon. There were only wounded German soldiers left in the monastery and they were taken to the command post of the Poles’ battalion.
The Polish platoon came into the Monastry in the morning and they asked us, “Are there any mines?” and I said, “No, this is the First Aid Post.” So they came in and we talked to them. I talked to the Polish lads. Later many officers came in and an American Reporter who knew more than us. He knew our officers and, can you imagine? We had been in that battle for months on end. We were filthy, we were lousy, full of lice. We were unshaven. We must have looked a hell of a sight and he came in there with an American white trench coat, immaculately clean, and he put all these questions to us, he could talk German. Well I could have killed that bloke, he rubbed salt into the wounds.
Robert was taken down the hill into Cassino, escorted by a Polish soldier. There was an ambulance and some British soldiers ready to take him to an American field hospital where his wounds were tended. From there he was taken, by truck, to Aversa, a village near Naples for further treatment in a prisoner of war camp hospital. When his leg began to recover, about four weeks later, he was moved to a prisoner of war camp in Naples. He was later taken to the harbour and boarded a Liberty ship for a 21 day voyage to America.
I finished up in Norfolk, Virginia and there we were given fresh clothing, American clothing and all our clothes were absolutely useless and full of lice and goodness knows what. We were examined and then we went on a train to Lake Erie and the little town Erie where the Americans had tents which had a wooden frame … and we lived there and we did farm work and all sorts. I was also in charge of all the electrical equipment and generators for the camp lighting. Eventually we were posted to a little place called Kane, which is near Warren in Pennsylvania. I did lumber-jacking in this camp.
In the camp at Kane, the German prisoners were shown a film showing the some of the atrocities the Allied forces had found in the concentration camps.
…we just could not believe what we saw, you see. Because it couldn’t have happened. You see, they wouldn’t do those things, but apparently they did and my interpretation to that is they are, we are extremely guilty of doing these things.’
Robert was taken back across the Atlantic to be repatriated, initially in Belgium and then to a camp in England.
There, in the summer of 1946, I learned to play the double bass and was in a POW dance band which was allowed to play in the local NAAFI social club, at RAF Station Lindholme near Doncaster, and there I met a lady whom I married in 1950. However, before that happened I had been allowed back to Germany on leave, but returned and continued to work in England under POW status and stayed there.
I am very pleased to make my experience available to everybody, especially the younger generation – war is a terrible experience regardless of which side you are on. I hope that everybody will take note and avoid future wars, if possible.
Lt. Kazimerz Gurbiel and his platoon were the first to enter into the Monastry and Crypt, later on the officers, at that time W. Maciejczyk and M. Sas-Skonronski came into the Monastry.
There was a reunion :- A meeting at Frankfurt Airport on 16 August 1985. between Robert Frettlöhr, Kazimerz Gurbiel , Col. W Maciejczyk and Prof. M Sas-Skonronski.
The reason this reunion took place was as a result of some slanderous allegations directed toward the Polish at Monte Cassino in 1944. This surfaced in 1983/84 from a German TV programme, and clearly offended the Polish who denied such allegations, but had no proof at the time from any others.
By sheer chance I heard about this event, and was able to testify their innocence and so clear the Polish name, since I was there and could tell all exactly what happened at that time.
From this I became firm friends with these gentlemen, and continued to correspond and meet with them over many years and at Monte Cassino reunions. In particular, I saw Lt Gurbiel as my ‘salvation’ when he came into the Monastry, I hold him in very high regard.