|This interview was a contribution from Dr. William Fleenor, made and provided for this site and was the first interview from a German veteran available here. The questions are made by me and rewritten by Dr. Fleenor itself. |
I wish to tank Dr. Fleenor for spending his time with me and my work in this site. Once again Thank you very much.
WebMaster of this Blog - 2000/03/28
1. Please give your name and the ranks you held while you were assigned to the DAK?
Horst von Oppenfeld, Oberleutnant, Kompaniechef, 4. K-10, zuvor Panzer Aufklaerungsabteilung der 10. Pz. Div. Promoted to Hauptmann, 5/11.43, one day before being captured by units of British 8TH ARMY near Hammamet, S.E. of Tunis.
2. Would you briefly describe your basic training in the desert?
There was no basic desert training provided, either before transfer to Africa nor after our arrival there. Our Division, after having lost most of our manpower, vehicles and equipment, were pulled out of Army Group Center in Russia. For all that we knew and expected we were being re-equipped and training newly assigned men for re-deployment to Russia. It was the emergency in N. Africa that prompted our transfer to that front. The High Command's intention was not known to us at that time. Instead, we were told we were to stabilize conditions in Southern France, whose Vichy Government had just collapsed. Without warning, we were then shipped to Italy, awaiting transport to North Africa from Naples. Upon arrival at Tunis' Airport we were transferred piecemeal and deployed near Pont du Fahz (south of Tunis). Our mission: secure the eastern front of the DAK against American and French/Algerian troops. We were surprised to capture some German soldiers who were members of the French Foreign Legion. There was no time for desert training.
3. To which units were you assigned during your DAK service and who were their commanders?
Part of the Panzerarmee Africa, our Division was not part of the original DAK. Having arrived piecemeal and with less than our full equipment, we were utilized more like a fire brigade initially (I believe), under Gen. Nehring, a Corps commander. Not until mid-January 1943 was the Division re-united under our commander General von Broich, who assumed command after General Fisher had been killed by a land mine. Major Heinrich Drewes was the commander of Krad-Schutzen Abteilung 10 (or K 10). I served under his command until pulled out of the front early January 1943.
As "Dienstaeltester Kompaniechef", I was designated as "Fuehrerreserve" to take command of the battalion, in case the commander of the battalion should become a casualty. I did not feel comfortable about that prospect. As an officer of the "Reserve" I had never had a day of "Kriegsschule" or officers training. Meanwhile my father had died. I was granted a 3-week home leave.
4. Would you briefly describe any personal contact you had with Field Marshal Rommel?
When I returned to Tunisia, my Division had just participated importantly in the in the breakthrough Speitla/Kasserine Pass into Algeria, under direct command of Gen. Rommel. It was to be Rommel's last triumph. My fellow officers and men who had participated in the action were impressed by his drive and courage. Immediately thereafter, he was flown back to restore his health which had suffered after years in the desert. So I never had any personal contact with him.
5. Would you briefly describe what it was like being under Rommel's command and what was your personal opinion of him?
Clearly Rommel's reputation and his personality was an inspiration to his troops. This was partly due to his personal courage and partly to his ability to improvise as the situation demanded. The engagements which he designed and assigned to numerous "Kampfgruppen" were so unusual that very often he relied on the impact of complete surprise on the enemy. On the negative side, the Kampfgruppen were rarely dissolved when the anticipated action was completed. They attained a life of their own. Thus it appeared that Rommel fractured manpower and command of troops under his command. He was an admirable field commander. I have read that Field Marshal Montgomery kept Rommel's picture above his desk.
6. What was life like serving in the desert?
Most of my service in North Africa was over the winter 1942/43. Northern Tunisia, especially during the winter months, does not have unpleasant desert conditions. It was considerably more pleasant than Russia and was only beginning to get hot just prior to the surrender in May 1943. I do not recall us having any real problems with provisioning or water during that period.
7. Were you ever involved in any combat action?
Yes. As a company commander near Pont du Fahz I was involved in numerous small unit (recon) actions vs. the U. S. Army and the French/Algerian Forces. Following my return from home leave in mid-February, I was assigned as O I (Erster Ordonanzoffizier) as aide to Col. Claus Schenk Graf v. Stauffenberg, I A (First General Staff Officer responsible for Operations). Obviously our function at Divisionsstab was much less combat than staff work. During the battles of Medinine (vs. British and Commonwealth Forces), El Guettar & Maknassy (vs. U. S. Forces) and Medjez el Bab und am "Kamelberg"(vs. U. S. Forces) we were usually close to the fighting troops. My immediate chief, Lt. Col. v. Stauffenberg was seriously wounded during a planned retreat. Despite the enormous superiority of Allied men and material in North Africa, combat there was not perceived as cruel and hopeless as we had experienced it in Russia. Little more than one year later Claus Stauffenberg placed the bomb under Hitler's desk which unfortunately did not kill Hitler.
8. Would you be willing to relate any interesting stories from your service in the DAK?
Rommel was quoted instructing commanders of various Kampfgruppen. When the leader would say "Jawohl Herr Feldmarschall", according to my estimates that proposed behind the lines encirclement would require a drive of 150 km. Our fuel supply is barely enough for 50 km." Rommel would reply in his Schwaebisch dialect, "drive, drive fast, then you will not need any fuel." (Fahren Sie, fahren Sie, dann brauchen Sie keinen Betriebstoff), meaning to get there quickly, fill your tanks from the enemy's vehicles.
Another unforgettable experience were the comments made by My commanding general (von Broich) upon his return from the last "Kommandeurbesprechung" with the top commanding officer (Gen.v. Arnim). He quoted Gen. v. Arnim as having said "I just had my last phone call from the Fuehrer. He ordered under no circumstances was I allowed to surrender the Africa Korps. But he did not forbid you to do so on behalf of the units you command". Then Gen. V. Broich said to me, "Oppenfeld, grab a motor bike while I attach a white shirt to a carbine". We drove towards the enemy line and he surrendered to a commanding officer of the 8th British Army. The "Limies" received us with the utmost dignity and gave us two options. To reach the designated PoW camp we would either have to walk there (some 50 km), or surrender our arms immediately and be allowed to drive there with our vehicles. As we chose the latter option, we drove through the main avenue of Tunis, a grandiose layout comparable to the Champs Elysee in Paris. We had mixed feelings about this. As the losers and captives we felt depressed, but for us the war was over. To our surprise, the Tunisians lined the streets, waved from the windows, shouting "Vivent les Allemands". Their sympathies were on our side!
9. Do you recall the identity of any of the enemy units with whom you were in contact?
After 57 years, the answer is "no". It would be cheating, if I would refresh my memory referring to the book by Albert Schick, "Die Zehnte P.D.".
10. Have you ever been back to Africa since the war?
I visited Tunisia twice while on business for the World Bank. I attempted to visit a cemetery for the German War dead but the taxi driver only knew of the location for a British cemetery so we went there instead. It was a moving experience.
11. How do you feel about your experiences from the war?
Everyone within the division having shared the experience of the campaigns in Poland, France, Russia and North Africa generated strong fellowship, friendships and incomparable human bonds. But was it worth the suffering, the sacrifices? Clearly no. In one sense I have become a pacifist. In another sense, I feel strongly that a nation must be suitably armed to defend itself and the values of its allies. In this sense I am in favor of using armed forces for peace keeping, while also utilizing diplomatic and economic initiatives to identify conflicts before they explode. Lately the European Union appears to have advanced further along these lines than the United States.
12. Can you briefly describe what you have done since the war?
As a POW in the US I had a chance to rethink my life. I resumed the studies I had left unfinished before the war. Having been expropriated in Soviet occupied East Germany, I had lost my home and all my material belongings. I was lucky to find a semi-professional job with the Ministry of Agriculture, Hessen in Wiesbaden, then as a liaison officer in Berlin and finally with US Military Government, Food & Agriculture Division. During this period I saved enough money to resume my studies in Stuttgart-Hohenheim. I met my wife the former Judith J. Pownall in Berlin and married in Frankfurt. Moving to her home in Rochester, N.Y., I enrolled at Cornell University where I obtained my B.A., M.A. and PhD in agricultural and international economics. I then worked 2 years at Michgan State University, and traveled to the Philippines as a visiting Cornell Professor at the University of the Philippines. After this I started as a consultant to the World Bank. Retiring after 15 years on the World Bank staff, I continued as consultant for World Bank, UNDP (New York), IFAD (Rome, Italy), KfW and GTZ (Frankfurt, Germany). Following my official retirement and after an absence of 47 years, I returned briefly to my home village in Pommerania, East Germany and made a small investment in a company that had rented 2200 ha of Government owned land including my expropriated ancestral property. The venture has been financially successful, owing to the qualifications and competence of the other 5 shareholders. I donated my shares to my two children and one nephew. I maintain liaison between the company and my heirs, visit the company 2 or 3 times annually, less for financial reasons, than for my continued professional interest in progressive agricultural and rural development and the enjoyable human relationships.
13. Do you spend much time on the Internet and are you aware of the sites dedicated to preserving the history of the Deutsche Afrika Korps?
No. Not until Dr. Fleenor told me about it. I am not yet fully computer literate.
14. To conclude, would you please give a brief statement to the visitors of my site?
I am pleased that you and Dr. Fleenor are conducting this survey and wish you success in condensing the thoughts and reports of the few remaining survivors, along with material from other sources, into a meaningful manuscript that future generations may find worth reading. As I am leaving for Germany within the next 3 days, I wrote this in a hurry and apologize for any mistakes and the casual writing.
Thank you very much for spending your time, I wish you the best.
Mr. Horst von Oppenfeld died in August 23, 2010 with the age of 97
Horst von Oppenfeld, was born in Berlin, Germany on July 16th, 1913 and passed away peacefully in Chevy Chase, MD on August 23, 2010. He loved living in Carderock Springs in Bethesda for 41 years. He grew up on his family's farm, Reinfeld, in eastern Germany during and after World War I. At the age of 11 he was sent to Joachimsthaler Gymnasium boarding school in Templin, Germany where he received his diploma at the age of 19. He apprenticed and trained for two years to learn how to run a farm, and ran one of the family farms in Nadrense for a year and a half before he went into the German army to avoid joining the Nazi Party. He was an officer in the 10th Panzer division and served on the Russian front before being sent to the Africa Corps. There he became the aide de camp to Col. Klaus von Stauffenberg, who later made the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler's life(as told in Valkyrie). In 1943, he drove his general to surrender to the British army, and was a POW in Kansas and Rhode Island. ( See Learning Freedom in Captivity, January 18, 2004, by Lynn Ermann in the Washington Post Magazine").
Returned destitute to Germany, he used his English skills and farm experience to work for the agriculture ministry in liaison with the American occupation forces. At a "kostum" party, where the Germans dressed in formal black tie, and the Americans dressed in Halloween attire, he met Judith Pownall, who had dressed as a gypsy. She was a civilian working for the U.S. army. They married near Frankfurt in 1948 and he travelled as a male "war bride" on a troop ship back to the U .S. He enrolled at Cornell University, receiving his BA in 1950 and then his MS and Phd. in agricultural economics.
From Cornell University, he was sent as an exchange professor from 1955 to 1963 to the University of the Philippines at Los Banos. His research into how to apply academic knowledge to the lives of rural farmers led to a published book and improvements in the farmers lives, and a special award from the president of the Philippines. After a year's sabbatical in Ithaca, NY, he joined the staff of the World Bank for 15 years and travelled the world evaluating agricultural projects. After his retirement from the Bank, he continued consulting for the World Bank, the UN Development Program, the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Rome, Kreditanstalt Fuer Wiederaufbau and Gesellschaft fuer Technische Zussamenarbeit in Germany, and the Turkish Development Foundation in Ankara. He spent 18 years consulting, including working with the Grameen Bank to expand Professor Yunus lending program, which has since been awarded the Nobel prize. In 1979 he was working for the UN in Kabul, when the Russians invaded.
After the Berlin wall fell in 1989, he was able to return to the farm in Nadrense he ran at age 25 and reinvest in the farm. As an active shareholder, he visited the farm twice a year until the age of 93 and continued to consult on farm business. In 2005 he and Judith moved to Classic Residence on Connecticut Ave, where she passed away later that year. He loved listening to classical music, swimming every day, making Dagwood sandwiches, good food, wine and conversation, as well as travelling to visit friends and family and see the world. He was a lifetime member of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association and a longtime member of the Order of St. John, which involved lots of volunteer work. At the April 24, 2010 gala for Community Family Life Services he was honored with a leadership award, as a supporter and volunteer extraordinaire for this organization that helps the homeless.
He is survived by his daughter, Anita von Oppenfeld (Steve Wells), his son Rolf von Oppenfeld (Barbara0), grandchildren Alex Wells, Julia, Christian, Erika, Aren and Brigitte von Oppenfeld, nephews and nieces Michael von Oppenfeld (Georgina), Christa Engel (Manfred), and Karin Persson (Hans-Georg) in Europe, and Allen Hopkins (Joan), Judy Tomkinson (Jeff), John Hopkins, and Andy Hopkins of Rochester, N.Y. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, September 11th at 3:30 pm at the German Lutheran Church, 5500 Massachusetts Ave, Bethesda, MD 20816. In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested a donation to CFLS, 305 E Street NW, Washington, DC 20001 or www.cflsdc.org. An online obituary may be found at www.legacy.com/funerals/Rapp-SilverSpring/.
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