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reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Ottomar's Odyssey by Robin Cody

By 1944, the tide was turning. Allied air raids hammered railroads and military targets in and around Ulm. When the alarm sounded, Ottomar sprang to his firefighting post, the St. Elizabeth Church, and listened for the drone of Allied planes heading for Augsburg or Munich.

Late at night on December 17, the sound pattern changed. This time wave after wave of B-17s thundered directly overhead and dropped bombs from west to east across his beloved city. The air shattered. The earth shook. Phosphorus incendiary rounds followed the percussion bombs. The sky grew crimson; firefighting was out of the question. Ottomar sought shelter in an underground vault. When he came up out of the ground in the morning, the church was rubble. “Smoke darkened the sky for days,” he writes. “The smell of fire and death hung over the city. . . In the courtyard of a shattered monastery, the bones of buried friars were strewn about. I saw a boy playing soccer with one of the skulls. The memory of it still curdles my blood.”

nazi poster

Nazi poster proclaiming mandatory membership in the Hitler Youth. “The youth serves the Fuhrer. All ten-year olds in the Hitler Youth.”

As Germany’s military position deteriorated, its appetite for soldiers became ravenous. When Ottomar was just 15, he received a letter from the Waffen SS, the elite fighting branch of the Schutz-Staffe.

Lieber Kamerad! the letter began. A single-spaced, whole-page recruiting pitch pandered to his belongingness, calling him du as you would a child or a buddy. “The Waffen SS needs you, German boy. . . It offers what you are longing for, the fight against the enemy of your tribe and the fatherland. Your comrades on all fronts are awaiting you and call to you.”

And then, in larger type: Du bist unser Mann! You are our man!

Next came a compulsory meeting at City Hall for Ottomar’s class. A highly decorated and crisp-uniformed recruiter urged the boys to volunteer for the SS Division of the Hitler Youth, fighting in Normandy. Ottomar didn’t bite. SS recruits had to leave the church, by order of Heinrich Himmler, and Ottomar wouldn’t take that step. “The church probably saved my life,” Ottomar says now. Many of his classmates did enlist in the SS, but Ottomar and a friend slipped out a window. They went downstairs to sign up for the regular army’s tank corps.

He was not yet 16 when his orders came through, in March 1945, nine months after Allied troops hit the beaches of Normandy. Still, morale in training camp was high. “We’ll throw them back into the sea was our motto, and we believed it!” Ottomar writes. “We only anticipated the final victory by our U-Boots, by our superior Panzers, and by the Army that was soon to receive the promised Wunderwaffen—wonder weapons.”

Because Ottomar shot well, he became the gunner on a 45-ton Panzer with a high-velocity 75-mm cannon shooting armor-piercing shells. “In this beast we were unstoppable,” he writes. He and his crew of five shipped out on flatbed railroad cars to the Eastern Front, toward Poland, where the Red Army had broken through German lines. The boys had no idea they would be the last of Germany’s forces to join the battle.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009