Four poor Germans, a very long way from home

On a number of previous occasions, I have written about the Allied servicemen who are interred in Penzance Cemetery. There are also four German combatants from the Second World War, all of them buried, quite fittingly, alongside their erstwhile adversaries:

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Ernst Erich Elsperger and Conrad H.W. Schweizer were both members of the German Navy, the Kreigsmarine.

Ernst Erich Elsperger was born on October 27th 1924. He reached the rank of Obergefreiter (Senior Lance Corporal) and died on March 22nd 1945 aged only twenty one:

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Ernst Elsperger is recorded as being a crew member of the U-1169, which was sunk by depth charges from HMS Duckworth, just south of the Lizard. It was commanded by Oberleutnant Heinz Goldbeck who was himself only thirty one years old when he was killed. Here is HMS Duckworth:ff_hms_duckworth_k351

This particular U-Boat, the U-1169, had not sunk or damaged a single enemy vessel in the almost two years since it was launched at Danzig on April 9th 1943. No photographs of the vessel seem to have survived, and neither do any of its captain. Here is the only surviving Type VIIC U-Boat in the world, the U-995, currently on display at the Laboe Naval Memorial near Kiel. It is exactly the same type of vessel as the U-1169. Do not fail to click on the link to the German website, and make sure that you try the Panorama views. They are guaranteed to scare you (top of the tower) or make you very seasick indeed. Look for the yellow circles on the photograph of the tower:

u boat xxxxxxx
There seems to be some kind of mix-up in the dates of Ernst Elsperger’s death as the U-1169 was sunk on March 29th, and the inscription on the grave says March 22nd. It is possible, of course, that he was a member of the crew of one of the other U-boats sunk in the area in early 1945, namely the U-399, the U-1199, the U-1208, the U-605, or the U-1018.

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Conrad H.W. Schweizer was born on January 1st 1915 and died on December 18th 1944 aged twenty nine. He is buried alongside an unknown German naval casualty:

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Both Conrad Schweizer, and the unknown seaman buried in the cemetery, were members of the crew of the U-Boat U-1209 which was scuttled after hitting Wolf Rock near the Isles of Scilly on December 18th 1944:

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Forty four crew members survived and were picked up by the Canadian destroyer, HMCS Montreal. There were nine fatalities, including the Captain, Oberleutnant zur See Ewald Hüsenbeck, who had a heart attack during the journey into Plymouth. This is the Montreal:

HMCSMontreal

This second photograph was snapped by Charles James Sadler, RCNVR, a First Class Stoker who was serving in the Canadian destroyer HMCS Columbia:

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Earlier in the war, the Montreal had rescued 33 survivors from the Norwegian merchant ship Fjordheim, which had been torpedoed and sunk north of Ireland by the German submarine U-482. The Montreal survived the war and was sold in 1947.  It was finally broken up for scrap in Sydney, Australia, shortly afterwards.

The unfortunate U-1209 was built to exactly the same design as the U-1169 and the U-995, (pictured above). It had been launched at Danzig on February 9th 1944, but, exactly like the U-1169, during its entire career, it had not sunk or damaged a single enemy vessel:

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The final grave is that of Richard Hille. Richard was a member of the Luftwaffe. He was in the crew of a Heinkel He 111 bomber of Kampfgeschwader 28, serial numbers 1T+LH, which was shot down on the night of January 31st / February 1st 1941.

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This aging aircraft crashed into the sea off Treen just to the south east of Land’s End after being engaged by a naval patrol vessel, whose name I have been unable to ascertain.

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Richard Hille was the only crew member to be recovered. On his gravestone, the date given for his death is February 12th 1941. This is because it was the usual convention at the time to use the date of the discovery of bodies found either at sea or on the foreshore, as the date of death. Richard Hille’s body was in fact initially recovered from the sea by a Newlyn trawler. The “Western Morning News” newspaper reported therefore, on the Friday, February 14th, that his body had been hauled up in a trawl off Land’s End on the previous Wednesday, February 12th. A report in the “Cornishman” newspaper of February 20th 1941 detailed his burial at Penzance Cemetery with full military honours:

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Finally, two things. Firstly, it would have been totally impossible to write this blogpost without using this source, a forum for exchanging information about the myriad events of World War Two. And secondly, I cannot understand why these four men have never been taken back the hundreds of miles to their own homeland and their own towns or cities. The two U-boats involved caused no damage whatsoever to anybody and the Luftwaffe were never known as war criminals. The four men in Penzance were not members of the Waffen SS or the Wehrmacht. Let them go home at last!

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24 Comments

Filed under Cornwall, History

24 responses to “Four poor Germans, a very long way from home

  1. You leave an interesting question. Without knowing their specific stories, it is sad that these German soldiers bodies have remained where they are. The families that lost these soldiers are families like anywhere else. Do you know if there was any effort made just after the end of the war to repatriate the bodies of soldiers like these?

    We have the opposite issue here! There is much press here about Confederate Army soldiers in various cemeteries. Some politically-driven groups want them moved from their home area cemeteries to some other as-yet-unidentified locations. In my humble opinion, it would be nice if these groups would focus on more relevant issues.

    • I agree with your humble opinion…

    • I have vague memories that efforts were made to repatriate German remains to Germany but as the country was totally devastated from one end to the other in 1946, this may have been too early to find enough functioning cemeteries for them to go to.
      I fully agree that no re-internment should ever be done for political reasons. These Germans did seem to me, though, to have been particularly harmless and, if the present German government were willing to bear the cost, it might be nice to send them back, hopefully drawing a line under the whole sad story.
      And thanks very much for your interest, by the way.

      • I like reading these types of stories about the people of World War II. My Dad, who is 91 now, is a war veteran. He was in the Army and was stationed in Panama just before the end of the war and in the Philippines after the war officially ended. I say ‘officially’ because many of the Japanese on the islands never got the message or did not believe it. The effort to repatriate the Japanese, including the remains, still on the islands was a significant endeavor!

      • When I was in hospital a couple of years ago, I met a Filipino nurse who was there when they found the very last Japanese soldier. He became an instant hero with hundreds of people turning out to cheer him everywhere he went. Perhaps you saw my April 1st article about Nottingham’s very own Japanese soldier!

      • I don’t believe I had heard of Sergeant Sakura and his story until now! Quite a poignant story of the call of duty.

        My Dad was in rehab after a stroke a few years ago. One of the therapists was Filipino and was from the very town where he had been stationed. Many of the landmarks were still there sixty years later, and they talked for over an hour. It was fascinating to listen in on that conversation!

  2. You raise an interesting point. I have come across many Luftwaffe graves through my travels around the country. Their stories are as interesting as any from allied forces and they too have mothers, fathers brothers and loved one back home. I’m sure they too are looking for a closure.

    • Absolutely right! Seventy years after the event, “closure” is surely the most important word. It would be interesting to know though, what any modern Germans, either living in or visiting England, think about this issue. And many thanks for your time, by the way.

      • That’s an interesting point and one that would no doubt cause some debate.

        It’s my pleasure and thank you for spending the time to write these thoughtful posts.

  3. Its a difficult topic to consider. Some families are actually opposed to the idea of removing the graves of their sons in foreign lands as they have been buried once and it seems wrong to remove them again even if it is to repatriate them.

    That was a fascinating post. I use U-boat.net as well for quite a bit of source information. It is a fascinating site. Those panoramic views at the German naval memorial are amazing

  4. Another side to the question. Perhaps it is better to leave the entire crew of a downed aircraft buried together in Hamburg, rather than pay to have them re-interned at scattered cemeteries around the United Kingdom, where they may never get a wreath put on their grave from one year’s end to the next. Thanks a lot for your point, by the way, it was very well made.

  5. Pierre Lagacé

    Never got a notification from WordPress that you had posted this story…
    I have just read the comments which are most interesting.
    I am sure John your post will be as interesting.

  6. Pierre Lagacé

    Great research.
    Now for the hyperlinks…

  7. Pierre Lagacé

    My head is spinning… Love the panoramic views using the mouse.

    • Glad you enjoyed them Pierre! I came across this U-boat on a satellite TV programme recently and they said that it was the only remaining U-boat in the whole world. Above the water, that is!

  8. Axel Niestlé

    Dear Sir,
    I have read your article about the four former German servicemen with great interest. Especially the gravesite of Ernst Erich Elsperger is most astonishing. He is recorded as a crew member of U 1169. The loss of this boat is under discussion more manyyears now, because despite intensive search no U-boat wreck was found yet at or near the attack position by HMS Duckworth for 29 March 1945. Moreover, none of the wartime reports covering the action mentioned the recovery of a dead body, which could be related to Elsperger. The loss attribution of U 1169 to the attack was made postwar solely on the basis of tracking information. Hence it would be most interesting to know, when and under what circumstances Elspergers body was recovered. In this connection the date given on the headstone might give a clue instead of being just a typo error. Any further information would be highly welcome to solve the mystery.

    Yours

    • I don’t have any more concrete information, but I do know that with bodies recovered from the sea, the dates are sometimes the presumed date of death, but more often, the date when the corpse was retrieved. The only way that you might find any more information would be to try the websites which allow you to look at old British newspapers for the area (The Cornishman, the West Briton) and see if anything was printed at the time. Most of these websites will give you a week’s free trial if you watch them for a little while. I would try “Find my Past” (bottom left of the page), and/or “The British Newspaper Archive” You probably know this website, “http://www.naval-history.net/index.htm” but you could use it to search for “Duckworth”, perhaps. Alternatively, there might be a Royal Navy forum where you could look for an answer. Good luck with your researches!

  9. About half of the survivors of U-1209 were rescued by HMCS Ribble which was from the same Escort Group as HMCS Montreal. The Ribble also picked up the body of one crewman who wouldn’t allow himself to be rescued and allowed the sea to take his life. I have photo’s of his burial at sea with the other survivors formed up on deck.
    also, a few survivors were picked up bu an RAF pilot rescue launch.

    • Thanks very much indeed for your input, Ron. I had thought that only the Japanese turned down the offer of rescue, but it looks as if the committed Nazi was also occasionally capable of this graceless stupidity. It’s good to know these extra bits of information, thanks a lot!

  10. i would just like to add to this, my grandfather was on the montreal and Oberleutnant zur see Ewald Hülsenbeck died in my grandfathers arms. Oberleutnant zur See Ewald Hülsenbeck was wearing a skull and cross bone ring with diamonds in the eyes. some of the men on the montreal wanted the ring and once the body was moved below deck some of the men try to take the ring, but by this time the body was bloated. they try to use grease to get the ring off but it would not come off so one man cut the finger off and now the ring is somewhere in ontario canada. my grandfather also got a souvenier which my dad now has, which is a part of the life boat the men from U-1209 were on.

    • Thanks a lot for your very interesting contribution. All of these stories help to produce a fuller picture of events and it ensures that they are never forgotten. Thanks again!

  11. i would just like to add to this, my grandfather was on the montreal and Oberleutnant zur see Ewald Hülsenbeck died in my grandfathers arms. Oberleutnant zur See Ewald Hülsenbeck was wearing a skull and cross bone ring with diamonds in the eyes. some of the men on the montreal wanted the ring and once the body was moved below deck some of the men try to take the ring, but by this time the body was bloated. they try to use grease to get the ring off but it would not come off so one man cut the finger off and now the ring is somewhere in ontario canada. my grandfather also got a souvenier which my dad now has, which is a part of the life boat the men from U-1209 were on.

  12. Jodie

    My grandfather was on the Duckworth at this time. He told me of his ship rescuing a German seaman from the water amidst bodies bobbing to the surface. The German seaman was given a hot bath and a pot of tea which meant that no one on the Duckworth had their ration of tea that evening.
    Thank you for sharing this story. It’s very nice to be able to learn more about our history.

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