Gerhard Münch

Gerhard Münch was born in 1914 in Vettelschoß near the Rhine river. Hailing from a military family he underwent tranining as an officer. At the outbreak of the war he was enlisted in the 71st Infantry Division which fought in France in 1940 before being deployed to the Eastern Front. Captain Münch commanded a battalion during the assault on Stalingrad. On January 22, 1943, he was flown out of Stalingrad, leaving behind the surviving men of his battalion, among them his orderly Franz Schieke. Shortly thereafter Münch reunited with his wife Anna-Elisabeth and their newborn son. Later in 1943 he was again sent to the Eastern Front. When the war ended he was in Flensburg with the Dönitz Government negotiating with the Allies on the German capitulation. In the 1950s, Münch joined the West German Army and advanced to the position of major general.

When we first discussed our project with Münch he agreed that we take pictures but he did not want to talk about Stalingrad. The memories, he said, were too painful. But after we sat down together in his modern bungalow in Lohmar, near Bonn, the memories poured out, and he spoke for hours on end.

Your unit was one of the first to get into central Stalingrad.

I’ll never forget the time – it was 3:50 PM. At 3:50 PM I sent out the radio transmission to the regiment, it’s also documented in the records: “Reached the Volga”.

As fate would have it I was the commander of the battalion that achieved the breakthrough [on September 14, 1942] and thus divided the Russian front into two parts. Hindenlang played a very important role in this.

Just before then, at the railway station, there was a lot of confusion: it had been bombed, there were railway carriages with the Russians still sitting in them, who were snipers. We then requested an attack by the Luftwaffe, for 2 PM. Above the railway station there was a small hill. A chapel stood on the hill. It is still marked on the maps. And that’s where the last briefing was with General Roske, he was a colonel at the time, and the leader of the regiment. We waited till 2 PM: nothing happened, no one showed up. No Stukas [dive-bombers]. We waited for another fifteen minutes. I decided, if we wanted something, we needed to do it ourselves. It wasn’t far from the railway station to the water – just 600-700 meters. If we wanted to do it, then we would have to do it now. We were just a small group of soldiers. Just when we had reached the railway station’s tracks the dive-bomber showed up and decimated one of my companies.

At 3:50 PM I sent out the radio transmission to the regiment: “Reached the Volga”.

Only four soldiers remained. But – now comes the but: the Russian occupiers, who had a subterranean command post in front of the railway station, they gave up their arms. They were so demoralized by the dive-bombing attack. Now I had more prisoners than soldiers! … In this way we had space, no resistance – till we reached the water. The enormous industrial buildings, we always kept to the left of them, never entering the buildings. No chance, with our small number of men… We thus came all the way to the water. And at the water there were two large box-like buildings. My neighbor, Dr. Dobberkau, took one of them as his domain. And I took the other one. And that didn’t change until the very end.

The Russians broke into this house on the second or third day, as we were sitting in the front of the building. They had blown a large hole in the cellar, and then they showed up with a large combat patrol in the same building where we were. We were defending the first floor and the floors above it; the Russians had occupied half of the cellar. … It was one of the oddest, most peculiar experiences. We sat in the same house – these enormous boxes were about 100 meters wide – we had half, and the Russians the other half. And between us – there was a large room, it must have been a sort of a dining room.

From October [1942] to the end of January [1943] we stayed put at the same spot. Germans and Russians in the same house. … There was a way to get to this dining hall from our side, for the Russians there was also an entrance. … When the Russians ate, we couldn’t disturb them; it would immediately become uncomfortable for us if we did that. We knew they were starting their dining period, when we heard the clattering of pots and pans. So at that point there would be peace and quiet. And when we ate, they had to stop fighting too. One had to accept that existence, side-by-side. Well, both sides dealt very well with the situation, you have to admit. Up until the end phase, when the Russians started using snipers – and they ruled our area. We could no longer go there during bright daylight: not even on errands, or to make a report, nothing. Only in the middle of the night, when it was dark, at 4 AM, that’s when one could go outside. And as commander I had to inspect the entire battalion every evening, in order to show myself to the soldiers – to say “I’m still here” or something of the sort. Things like that play an important role from a psychological perspective, so that the soldiers don’t feel left alone.

The lieutenant only lies down to sleep on his straw bed when the last man in his company has gone to rest.

What kind of feeling was that, to be responsible for men in such a difficult situation?

Back then – with regard to one’s upbringing – one had a sense of duty toward the Fatherland, and if you were in a position of responsibility, also a duty toward the people you were in charge of. The lieutenant only lies down to sleep on his straw bed when the last man in his company has gone to rest. Before he can go to bed, he has to make sure that all his men are getting a good night’s rest. This care for the welfare of the soldiers one is responsible for – this is one of the fruits of the education in the old Officer Corps. One should not misjudge this or ignore it…

It builds a relationship of trust, when the soldiers see the captain. One can talk to the soldiers, they have no inhibitions in the same dirt hole, it doesn’t matter then that the leader is a captain. One has to go through the same tough experiences as the soldiers. And that is how the relationship of trust and respect is built. And it is only out of this relationship of trust that everything that went on at Stalingrad can be explained, how they soldiered on for so long.

In the book, “Hitler’s War in the East,” a situation is described, where sentry soldiers who were under my command said: “We’re no longer going to be part of this.”  I then myself went to take up his post. Took up the machine gun myself, till a replacement arrived from the appropriate company. That took about half an hour. There were three men, one sentry. I took these men with me to the command post. That was in the cellar, it was just as dirty there as it had been in the dirt hole, in that house. There were no longer any floors above the cellar, but the cellar was still intact. And I told them: “You can lie down here, just like I’m camping out.” That’s how it was. And the next day we had just as little to eat for breakfast as they had: dried bread, a piece of horse meat. That was all.

They then saw: “He lives under the same conditions as we do.” Up until then I hadn’t even discussed the problem. And I then briefly explained: “What you did here is refusal to obey orders in active combat. I don’t need to tell you what the consequences are. But we can find a compromise: nothing will happen to you, you simply go back to your posts.” They then thought about it and said: “Captain, as long as you are the leader of this battalion, we’ll stay here and carry out your orders. If you are no longer here, then we will have freedom to act.” And we shook hands on that.

“Captain, as long as you are the leader of this battalion, we’ll stay here and carry out your orders.”

This is how the problem was solved. But it went through the bureaucratic channels, with the Judge Advocate, word got around that something had happened. Someone came to me at the command post and wanted to begin a court-martial and so on. And I said: “I came here from the West, I came to this place with these fellows and they are under my command. And here in this area only one person rules – and that’s me, and no one else. If you don’t like that, you have to realize that I (emphasizes the word) would never ever accuse these men, next to whom I was lying here in the dirt, who have so far saved me.

After Christmas we came to the “Red October” plant.  That didn’t belong to our sector, but to the 305th Division. And of the twelve enormous workshop halls two always remained in the hands of the Russians. We had, I think, ten. And that night when we were relieved, the night of January 6to January 7, we lost at least eight of the halls – perhaps only seven – I’m no longer sure. In any case, we were barely able to… (doesn’t complete the sentence). It was a tragedy. And from there I suddenly received a radio transmission or telephone call: “You are being ordered to corps headquarters”. Seydlitz was the commander there, he had once been with me at the command post and told me: “The Mamayev hill is behind you, whoever controls this hill controls the pocket. And you must stay put here so that the hill is held.” We were able to hold the hill for quite some time. And I had the notion that I needed to tell the commander something about that. But it wasn’t like that at all. I reached corps headquarters, but Seydlitz wasn’t in his room. On the way there I thought about things. Walking from “Red October” up the mountain, past the so-called white houses, behind the mountain, behind the hill, I reached the command post of the responsible regiment of the 305th Division, led by Lieutenant Colonel Wolf. There I was given a motorcycle, which brought me to corps headquarters [at the western outskirts of the city].

In the plain there were thou-sands of soldiers, who couldn’t be buried because of the frost. Thou-sands.

In the plain there were thou-sands (emphasizes each syllable of the word) of soldiers, who couldn’t be buried because of the frost. Thou-sands (emphasizes each syllable of the word). And there was only a narrow path to travel, and because of the wind they were not all covered with snow. Here you could see a head, there an arm. That is, well, that is .. an experience, which… (doesn’t complete the sentence).  When I reached corps headquarters and tried to say what I had meant to say, they said: “No need. You will fly out of the encirclement today.” I thought, that can’t be. I came this far with my soldiers, and now I should leave them? No. Then there was a discussion and I asked: “Don’t we stand a chance? Even if there is a 1 in 1000 chance, I need to take that chance and try to make it reality.” At that moment Seydlitz entered the room, he had heard what I had said, and said to me: “If you have faith in yourself that you can break out with a group of soldiers, then give it a try! But (he then went to his map) the German front is here – it’s 250 kilometers to the German front, which in the meantime is leaving the Caucasus. Do you dare to take this chance?” I then had to say, no, I couldn’t do that.

And then he said: “Drive to the army command and fetch the flight papers.” I then got my flight papers, which are still in my desk.”

  • The certificate that authorized Münch to leave Stalingrad by plane. Dated January 21, 1943, it was signed by Sixth Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Arthur Schmidt .

    The certificate that authorized Münch to leave Stalingrad by plane. Dated January 21, 1943, it was signed by Sixth Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Arthur Schmidt .

On the morning of January 22nd, Gerhard Münch was flown out of the makeshift airfield of Stalingradsky (the Red Army had at that time already captured Gumrak Airport).

The first three aircraft that arrived were HE-111, they dropped meal bombs but did not land. And then, towards nine o’clock, came the “Auntie Ju“ planes [Junkers 52 transport aircraft]. They circled once, then one of them attempted to land, and subsequently did land. But the Russians had meanwhile gotten wind of it and started to shoot into the airfield with artillery. At this point the half-frozen men came out of the rubble and stormed the plane, they wanted to fly away with it. When I showed my papers to the captain of the aircraft he said: “You want to board? You’ll never be able to get in.” I went went in through the cockpit, he let me board and we started.

[Question to Mrs. Münch:] “How were you doing at that time? What went through your mind?”

Mrs. Münch

Difficult to say, especially after our first son was born in July. … He was flown out on the 22nd and I got the news on the 23rd. There was a way to get news via Berlin. I was called down and someone told me there was special news from Berlin. We had a school with many girls, they were also standing outside the school. Some girls called me to come down to the telephone. When I heard it was Berlin, I thought – now it’s over. But the man at the other end of the line said: “Listen, Mrs. Münch, I have good news for you.”

Münch

(speaks slowly, with pauses)  We went without being shelled – I remember that well – to Zverevo, to the north of Taganrog. The army group was in Taganrog. When I landed there, everything fell down. A terrible situation! … I arrived in Taganrog in the evening. I was duly presented to [Army General] Manstein’s chief of staff. They asked me to show where I had come from. They wanted details. I could hardly show anything on the map, I could not remember. A lieutenant, Neurer was his name, was asked to look after me. He took me to the casino. White tablecloths, of course, everything is different behind the front. And I was filthy, unshaven, with a beard, half my uniform stained with blood. I went to the most senior man at the table, he introduced me: “A returnee from Stalingrad, we have just brought him with us.” The senior happened to be my pioneer teacher from the war college. He rose from the table, all had to get out. We went to the adjacent room, and he wanted to know a few things. He offered me a plate with chocolates, which I ate. The lieutenant then led me to a guest room. There was a bed with white linen – I fell into it, dead to the world. For 24 hours I was of no use, did not come to my senses. They tried everything to wake me, and ultimately called a doctor. They brought shaving things …, a new uniform, I was able to bathe. I weighed 106 pounds.

I mustn’t mention it, mustn’t recall anything…
There was no inner healing – the soul could not recuperate.

You didn’t tell your wife what you had seen?

Münch

No, my wife did not know anything.

[Question to Mrs. Münch:] How did you come to know about it? Did you notice that something had happened to your husband?

Mrs. Münch

Yes, there was a great change in him.

Münch

To simply shake the whole thing off afterwards – I couldn’t do that. I mustn’t mention it, mustn’t recall anything. And the radio reports would always go like this: “We are withdrawing, fighting victoriously,” or something like that (laughter in the room). There was no inner healing – the soul could not recuperate. There was no therapy like now, in Afghanistan. I had survived this horror and was back with my family. End of story.

Did it return at night, in your dreams?

Münch

Many a night I lay awake and ruminated, but I somehow coped and absorbed it.

It can’t express it any other way. Bottling things up to a certain point. Later in my life … to this day, the thoughts about the horror go to a certain point in my brain, to a kind of wall. And behind that wall is grief. But I don’t feel this grief any longer. In my case it seems to be blocked. There seems to be a kind of barrier.

After the war I didn’t travel to Russia again. We have two sons, both psychoanalysts. They forbade me to have any contact with that place. They said I would not be able to endure it. By the way, the evening in Limburg affected me so much psychologically, that after getting up I had to lie down this morning. After three hours I became calmer. My sons told me in no uncertain terms, “If you travel to Volgograd, you won’t be able to endure it.” If everything were stirred up again, I would need days to recover. My sons say, “You will have to be placed on the couch – à la Freud – so that you can get rid of it all.” But that does not work with me. I am not well suited to confessions. It doesn’t work that way.

The brain has to calm down slowly, or else all these evil spirits rise again. One can’t just shake it off. It was too cruel. Too cruel, I say. Those who have not experienced it cannot imagine that such things happened. And one should spare the men’s relatives this cruel fact, how their loved ones perished, died of hunger or thirst, or froze to death. Not every family can stand that. And I don’t want that.

What does Stalingrad mean for both of you?

Münch

Everything that is connected with Stalingrad has become a guideline, a moral compass. Whenever the slightest tensions arise, one only has to say the word “Stalingrad“  – and everyone becomes quiet. It is so uniting, the experience for both of us is tremendous…

Mrs. Münch

That was the benchmark. Compared with it, everything that came later was insignificant. To this day!

Münch

Imagine, surviving that place! Fate had taken me by the hand so that I got out of there alive. Why me? That is the question that haunts me again and again.

In November 1942 Captain Münch returned from front leave in Germany to Stalingrad the night before Soviet troops fully encircled the German Army:

On the 22nd I was in Kalach, driving at 2 AM over the bridge in the direction of Stalingrad. Kletskaya was the final [rail] stop. There was already an atmosphere of upheaval. A lot had happened to the left and to the right. Those who were on leave set up alarm battalions. They were asked: What role or job, etc.  And if I had said that I am a battalion commander, I’d have been saddled with a whole battalion of people on furlough, who had no weapons. And many among them were not suitable for war anyway. I took my bag and went out. Outside on the road, a car of my division happened to pass by. I stopped them. Where are you going? We are going to Stalingrad. That’s where I want to go. At 2 AM that night we crossed the bridge at Kalach, around 6 AM the Russians were there.  And when I got to the command post [in Stalingrad], there was an order: break out. Make all preparations for breaking out. The newly imported Captain Münch leads the rear of the regiment. Everything was meticulously arranged – which combat area, where to go, towards the West or Southwest. All injured had to be left behind. Thank God, we hardly had any. I first had to get my bearings and then gave orders. Everything that can’t be used must be destroyed. The position that we had to abandon was partially mined. In that short time, there wasn’t a lot we could do. Shortly before we wanted to start, the counterorder arrived: No, we had to stay there! We now had to clean our positions again, remove the mines. Everything that same evening! It was bad, going back to the old position. Partially destroyed. Then came the famous words: “The Führer has said: ‘I will get you out’.“ And then there was nothing. But our faith was unshakable at the time – our confidence unshakable.

[Speaks about a newspaper reporter from Cologne who had called him a few years ago:]

He had no time to come to the interview. That cast a shadow from the start. He posed stupid questions. He asked: Why didn’t you stop and lay down your weapons? I told him: You don’t understand the soldier’s ethos.  You also haven’t understood the situation of the soldiers at that time. Those who were ten years old in 1933 were twenty in 1943.  They had never heard anything else, only what was whispered in their ears. They had no newspaper, no TV, no radio, all that did not exist at that time. They could not compare. And one has to add that from their point of view the war was initially successful… It was the stupidest question I was ever asked: “Why didn’t you stop?”

Gerhard Münch passed away on December 6, 2011.

2014 © Facing Stalingrad. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise stated, all text by Jochen Hellbeck, photos by Emma Dodge Hanson.
Site by Playfields