In Normandy the Allies were beginning to take substantial numbers of prisoners. They were to discover wide variations in the quality of the troops they confronted. Alongside the SS there were also determined Wehrmacht units who were determined to fight. Yet there were also substantial numbers of foreign conscripts, both soldiers and civilian workers (for the Todt organisation which had been building the defences), who were more than a little ambivalent about their loyalties.
In Cherbourg, which had yet to completely fall, journalist Alan Moorehead observed how the different nationalities reacted to becoming prisoners, how the German officers pretended indifference and contempt, and the German soldiers remained disciplined, while the Russians and the Poles became sullen and resigned, and the Italians remained excitable, pleading that they wanted to fight the Germans now. he sought to discover more about their motivations:
Outside the cage the French had been shaving the heads of two village girls who had slept with the Germans. And now in the dusk they had come up to the gates to jeer and spit at the Germans inside. They began thinking up new lines of invective and the noise was considerable.
The American private on the gate was a good head and shoulders above the crowd. ‘Aw. Git the hell out of it,’ he said at last, waving his gun.
That was the outward scene in the prisoners’ cage, and it made no sense at all. A dozen different nationalities. All of them reacting in different ways, pulling in different directions, speaking different languages. And yet an hour or two since they had all been ﬁghting with a suicidal ferocity. Pillboxes were being held long after their eventual destruction was a certainty. The Russians had been ﬁring right up to the last few yards before they threw up their hands.
And now here in the prisoners’ cage there was complete disintegration, an evident hatred of the Germans. As one group had marched in, a German ofﬁcer had stooped to pick up a fallen cigarette. Before his hand could reach it a Pole ran forward and ground the butt into the mud. Then he turned and laughed in the German’s face.
I found an American soldier who spoke Polish, and we began to talk to the prisoners, especially one man who was more intelligent than the others. ‘Why did I ﬁght for the Germans? Like to see my back? It’s got scars across it from the neck down to the arse. They hit me there with a sword. Either you obeyed orders or you got no food. Certainly I went on ﬁring from the trench. There was a German NCO standing behind me with a revolver. It wasn’t enough just to shoot. You had to shoot straight. If you didn’t you got a bullet in the back. Don’t believe me. Ask the others. Like the Germans? I’d like to tear their guts out.’
Little by little the story came out. The Turkestan carpenter, the clerk from Lvov. The mechanic from Barcelona and the farmer’s boy who was born in Gorizia. These were the children of occupied Europe, and it suddenly became apparent that to ascribe to them the name of ‘enemy,’ or indeed the name of anything, was a ridiculous over-simpliﬁcation.
The word ‘conscript’ came nearest to their condition. But conscription in what circumstances. Nothing had been seen like it in Europe since the Napoleonic wars. Even that parallel was not complete enough. One began to have a vision of the dark ages in Europe, of a period inﬁnitely less moral than the time of the Roman Empire.
This was less than a mercenary army. It was an impressed army. The soldier fought not out of the voluntary desire for money, but out of fear of what the Germans would do to him if he did not ﬁght. He avoided the certainty of immediate punishment from the Germans by accepting the chance of being hit by the Allies on the battleﬁeld. One began to follow the stages of Nazi conscription.
They, the Germans, the master race, the men with all the modern engines of war, had over-run the villages of Europe. France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Denmark, the Baltic States, Poland, White Russia, the Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Rumania and the rest.
They came into the villages in uni- form, riding in armoured cars. They were the overlords, the new feudal masters. They made a great show in front of the unpolitical village boy. They said: ‘This is the new epoch. This is the era of the new god Adolf Hitler. A new uniform and a gun for everyone who wants to follow.’
It was easy enough to dazzle the villager. Instead of milking the cows every night he could swing along behind a military band. He got a new rifle all to himself. There were sports and competitions. Adolf Hitler wanted to build young healthy bodies. Up at dawn. Exercises. Plenty of good fresh food. Solemn and stirring parades.
The boy was one of a team now, an heroic team, a crusader against Bolshevism. And off he went to the front.