“I was Rommel’s Barber” – Interview with Helmut Thomasite, an Africa Corp. Tanker
“I was Rommel’s Barber”
Interview with Helmut Thomasite, an Africa Corp. Tanker
by Mike Burnside and Rick Martin
What did you do before the war?
I was born in a very small town. It was so small that there were only several people rich enough to be able to afford cars. Most of us walked or rode horses or bicycles. It was a strange experience because I learned to drive a tank before I ever learned how to drive a car. When Hitler came to power, my parents had very bad feelings about him but he was so popular it was difficult to criticize him or his policies since everyone in town knew each other’s business. When I was ten or so we had to join a civilian works organization which was like a very political form of the Boy Scouts in America. Of course, it was controlled by the Nazi party. It was also the stepping-stone for the Hitler Youth. They recruited from that organization and, if you wanted to keep your friends, you all had to join. We worked on roads, bridges, and things like that. I think it was a way to get us to all “march to the same drummer”. My father wanted me to become a barber like he was so he trained me to cut hair. Then, in the 1930s, I received notice that I had to join the military. At that time you could take a test and then you could choose your armed forces. I picked the tank corp. My parents were not enthused about this as they remembered what happened during the First World War.
Why did you choose the Panzer Corp?
I wanted to drive those new things plus, for a guy who had never driven a car, it was very exciting. They looked like fun – much more fun than being a soldier in the trenches like in the First World War.
What was training like?
First, we had something like American basic training where we learned how to use guns and we did a lot of marching. Then we were transferred to an armored school where we learned how to use a tank properly. We learned how to drive them, fix them in the field if we had to, and use the radios and guns (machine guns and cannons). The idea was that we could do any job in a tank but we could do our specialty really well. My specialty was driving, proper radio use, and some gunnery. We drove open topped tanks that looked like a Panzer I but without the top turret. Those tanks had keys to start them but they also had a crank. We used the crank to start the engine when the tank had been sitting a while without being started. One time our training sergeant made us drive into a shallow river. He turned off our tank and made us start it with the crank while standing in the cold river. We were not too happy about that, but our sergeant said this may save our lives some day. This was all before we invaded Poland so the training was very long and very thorough. We felt very comfortable with our tank skills and when the shooting started we were thankful for the long days in tank school.
What was your first combat?
I don’t remember the exact incident, but the first combat was during the invasion of Poland. I was assigned a Panzer II and that was the tank type I was assigned to throughout my combat in World War Two. We used our Panzer II tanks as scouts, but we did fight a little.
During the invasion of France, we snuck around and scouted French and British positions. The most exciting thing that happened during my time in France was when we were driving our tank down a brick road that was going down a hill. It had been raining and the road was very slick. We drove real fast down that street and we lost control and slid down the hill. I never knew a tank could move so fast! It was like a sled at Christmas. Oh and we had problems with the SS.
You mentioned problems with the SS – what happened?
We Tank Corp. people had great uniforms and we also had much better pay then the average foot soldier. The women loved us. So one day we were at a bar in France, I forget what town, and the women were all over us. Then these SS guys came in. They had much better uniforms and got a better paycheck – they also had a very cocky swagger. The girls all left us and spent the evening with the SS guys. We hated them so much! They were so cocky!
How did you get transferred to Africa?
After the battles in France, we had some downtime where we relaxed, but we also trained. France taught us new tactics of tank warfare which we had to study. I also practiced my barbering skills. I had a beautiful leather bag with all my scissors and other barbering tools, and I cut the hair of people in my unit. This let me make some extra money.
Finally, in early 1941, we got our orders that we were going to North Africa in order to support our Italian allies who were having some problems with the British. We were to be the 5th Light (aka 5th Leichte) Panzer Division. Our tanks and other vehicles were taken from us and shipped overseas by large transport ships.
We tank crews were taken to an airport one morning and flown by way of an Italian transport plane to North Africa. Having to fly on an Italian plane made us nervous especially when we noted that there were no machine gun turrets on the plane. I was given a machine gun by an Italian crew member who told me that if we were attacked by enemy fighter planes, I should stick the machine gun through a fabric patch on the side of the plane near my seat. The patch was near a window that I could look out of. If attacked, I should then try and shoot this machine gun at the enemy plane which was attacking us. This really dampened our spirits and left us feeling very vulnerable. Maybe this Italian guy was joking with us, but it was a cruel joke if it was one. Luckily, we didn’t see any enemy planes during the trip and eventually we landed in Tripoli, which we called Tripolitania.
We were placed under the command of General Rommel, who had made a name for himself during the battle of France. After relaxing and getting used to the hot environment (we had many training films and such as to how to handle the heat and conditions), our tanks, trucks, and halftracks arrived.
We were ordered to immediately put on a parade that would wind its way through Tripoli. Rommel was there and from what I understand this parade was used to make our forces seem more powerful than we really were since there were British spies in the city. My Panzer II drove for many blocks and I remember at one spot the numbers (on the tank) were repainted so that spies would think we were a different Panzer II. They repainted numbers on many tanks and changed little details so that our forces appeared to be doubled or tripled. Rommel was very smart like that.
What was combat like in North Africa?
There were really two combats in North Africa. One was against the flies and fleas which came out of the sand to pester us. I’ve never seen so many fleas and flies. They covered everything and made us ill much of the time. We never seemed to have enough fresh water and food. For a while, we had to bathe in gasoline so that we could save the fresh water for drinking and cooking. Many of us were smokers back then but we learned right away that we shouldn’t smoke after bathing in gasoline. We also ate so much canned sauerkraut that I still don’t like it even to this day. One time we captured a British base and found tons of canned meats which were like SPAM. We loved it and ate so much at first that we got sick. The British also had fresh bacon, so we cooked it, but didn’t drain off the grease. That had a bad effect on us too. We were just so happy to find bacon that we didn’t think.
Combat against the British was tough. They were usually very well disciplined. One time we were stopped outside of a village – I don’t remember the name. The Brits had guns set up and were firing at our forces. We were afraid to advance as we’d already lost some tanks. General Rommel drove up in a big car and asked us “What’s wrong men?” We showed him the positions of the guns and he said “I’ll fix that. I’ll drive ahead and all of you follow me. We can capture the village if we try.” He drove ahead in an unarmored car and stood up in the back seat. We all revved our engines and our tanks and half tracks drove foreword. The Brits (we also called them Tommies), were so shocked by seeing this German general drive towards them in a car that the guns stopped shooting and we took the village. We found no more Brits in the village, but they left all their food and guns and some broken tanks and trucks.
We really loved Rommel. We called him “Papa” but not to his face. He never got angry with us, but he did sometimes get angry with officers and other generals. He wasn’t a Nazi type and I don’t think he ever took the oath to Hitler that he was supposed to. He ate with us and told us to be good young gentlemen. You have to remember that most of us were kids . . . 18, 19, 20, ages like that. We looked up to him so much. We never even heard him cussing.
My Panzer II was a small tank. It only had one machine gun and one 20mm cannon. We looked so tiny next to the Panzer III and really were impressed by the Panzer IV, especially when the F2 came out with its long 75mm gun.
We used our Panzer IIs to scout and also to attack light enemy formations. One time we attacked a convoy and captured an American jeep. This was about the same size as our German jeep which was a Volkswagen. We wanted to try out the American jeep which the British were using, so we decided to drive in to the nearest town and see some belly dancers. My tank crew mates said I should drive, but I had to tell them I couldn’t drive cars as I only knew how to drive a Panzer II. They had to teach me to drive a car! The jeeps were a problem though because they were heavier than our Volkswagen and they kept getting stuck in the sand.
Another time we destroyed a British convoy of trucks and I managed to find an undamaged British officer’s long coat. The desert was very cold at night and we didn’t have enough coats to go around so this was a great find. There was no room to put it in the tank since our Panzer II was so cramped inside so I covered it with a bag and strapped it to the side of our tank. We were driving back to base when the Brits started shelling us. I think they were using mortars but I don’t remember. We got back to base ok, but when I went to get my coat it and the bag it was in were shredded by shell fire. I was so upset. My coat was all gone.
In the course of many months of fighting I had already lost two tanks which were shot out from under me. Luckily all my teammates were ok, but our tanks had been too damaged to drive. The Brits started getting better tanks than we had so things were getting rough. I remember at one point we were pushing towards Egypt and stopped by a ridge. The men said “Look at this!” and off in the distance we could see the city of Alexandria. We were almost at the Suez Canal. If we could capture that, the Brits would lose control of North Africa. I can still remember the gleaming city which was far away but seemed so close. But then we had to withdrawal back towards Tobruk.
I remember when we heard that Pearl Harbor was attacked and that Hitler had declared war on America so that he could support our Japanese allies. Most of us were really upset. How could he bring America into the war? They could out produce us and this just gave us one more enemy to fight. It was at this time that we really began to understand how crazy Hitler was. Not only were we fighting Russia, but America too? “What was he thinking?” we asked ourselves. Some men still supported Hitler, but they were fanatics. How could they support him when he was crazy?
We were also unhappy with the Luftwaffe. We did see many Stuka dive bombers, but we hardly ever saw German fighter planes. The British, and soon enough, the Americans could attack us from the air. We called the fighters that made these attacks “Jabos” and they really did hit us hard. That was the scariest thing about fighting after 1941 – the air attacks were rough. They also managed to sink supply ships and they shot down many supply airplanes. We were always short on equipment, food, water, ammunition, etc. We needed more tanks and trucks, but they hardly ever arrived.
One day our third Panzer II was shot out from under us. We bailed out and could see British tanks approaching in the distance. We ran back towards some four and eight wheeled armored cars, but then I realized that I had left my barber kit in the tank. One of the armored cars picked me up and we drove towards my tank to get the kit. The Brits kept firing at us and we had to turn back many times. Finally, we gave up and had to retreat as the British tanks and troops were getting too close. They probably thought that there were some important war plans or papers in that old Panzer II, but when they checked it all they found was my barber kit. I bet some British family still has that barber kit in their collection. I had to get another kit but, it wasn’t nearly as nice as the one I lost in that tank.
It was after we’d lost our third tank that my officer said to me, “would you still like to be in combat? We can give you anther tank if you want. If not, we can transfer you to a rear unit to be a barber.” It was common at that time for troops who had seen too much combat to be offered a posting behind the lines. I am the most cowardly German to have served in the German army, so I said “Yes” and became a barber at our command post.
Was that when you next saw Rommel?
Yes. One day we got word that he was going to be at our post. He dropped by the barber shop and said to me “I’m a little shaggy. Maybe its time for a hair cut?” I started to cut his hair and he made small talk with me. He asked about my family and where I was from. “Do you have a girl friend?” . . . things like that. Suddenly his aid came in and told him something. He said “I’m sorry, but my hair cut has to wait. Thank you though.” and then he rushed out. I never saw him again, but soon our command post had to move and I was back in a tank. We were in retreat to Tunisia.
Tell us about the end of the Africa Corp.
Well, I remember the first time I saw American tanks. We were looking over a ridge and the Americans were advancing towards us. They had their Sherman tanks and Grants and looked very formidable, but they forgot to camouflage their tanks and trucks. All their vehicles were green and stood out in the dessert like targets. We destroyed many of their tanks. Unfortunately for us, they adapted and kept coming for us.
One day in Tunisia we got word that we had a new German force armed with super tanks. These were the Tiger tanks that the newspaper told us about. I first saw three of them when we were retreating though some town in Tunisia. These huge tanks were parked in a row in the main street. The crews were lounging around and smoking cigarettes and looking at magazines. I said, “Why don’t these super tanks fight the Americans?” and a crew member told me “We have no gas and no ammo for the guns. Right now these tanks give us great shade to relax in but that’s about all they’ll do.” I was so disappointed.
Not too long after this we were ordered to drive to an American base with our gun turrets facing to the rear. The Africa Corp was going to give up.
We drove in to this large base that the Americans had set up. Many of the vehicles had white flags. There were men all over the trucks and tanks. We couldn’t bring all of our vehicles as we were very low on gasoline. We had to park in specific places and then we had to turn in our guns and knives.
There were Americans who spoke German telling us what to do. The Americans were all armed soldiers, but they didn’t seem to want to shoot us, so we were tense but didn’t feel threatened. This was so different than what would have happened had we been fighting in Russia. An American officer stood up in front of us and told us in perfect German that for us that the war was over, and that we had to fill out paperwork, and that we would be well treated. I’m glad he spoke German because I didn’t speak English at that time. I only learned English when I came to America. I thought that everyone would be speaking German so I never bothered to learn English – I was wrong. A German soldier near me yelled at the American officer and told him to “Go to hell!”. Many of us thought that we were dead men because the Americans would shoot us, but suddenly the American officer looked at the man and called him by name. They started laughing. It turns out that this American officer (I wish I remembered his name) was a brother or cousin to the Africa Corp guy who yelled at him. Their family was split by the war with some members fighting for the Germans, and some fighting for the Americans.
Later, we were sent by ships to prison camps in the American South. We were “de-Nazified”; that is we were told that the German government was wrong and that our armies had committed horrible crimes against civilians. Later, after the Americans landed in Europe and drove our army back from France and the other areas, we were shown movies of the concentration camps. I, and many of the other prisoners, were shocked. We had thought we were the “good guys” in the war. Our belt buckles even said, “God is With Us” and we believed this. It was very horrible to see the movies of what our government had done and it depressed many of us. We also heard that Rommel had died in combat with the Americans. Later, we were to learn that he committed suicide as he had been involved in a failed plot to overthrow Hitler. We think he found out about what Hitler was doing to people and tried to stop him. It’s a shame he and the other Generals didn’t succeed in killing Hitler. The war could have ended much sooner. Some of the prisoners didn’t believe that we had killed so many Jews and other people and that the Americans were making fake movies to break our spirits. These fanatics were a small minority of the troops in the prison camp and they usually were talked to by the “good” German POWs.
As the War progressed in 1944 and 45, we were allowed to work on farms in the American South. The men were away fighting the war and we worked the fields. This work felt good to do, but was very hard. It was while I was a POW that I got a letter from my girlfriend. You would call it a “Dear John” letter. Now I had no reason to go back to Germany.
One day our guard let some of us go fishing. He gave us rods and reels and bait and, I shouldn’t say it, but he got us beer, and then he went to town to see his girlfriend. None of us tried to escape. When he came back, we gave him some of the fish we had caught and cooked.
Soon we heard that Hitler was dead and the war was over in Europe. Many of us didn’t want to go back to Germany as we liked it in America. I attended English language classes as well as classes on American culture and democratic government.
Is this when you decided to stay in America?
Well, I was forced to go back home as part of a “repatriation” but, after seeing my parents, I ended up coming back to America. I worked in factory and sales jobs, and finally opened a barber shop in the Midwest. One of my customers was a famous American actor and his family, but I won’t say who he was.
I became an American citizen and married. I raised my family as Americans but told them to be proud of their German heritage and also to be ashamed of what we did in World War Two. I am still ashamed that I was one of the bad guys in a war which didn’t need to be fought.
I liked watching war movies, even if I lived my life on the wrong side. I really liked James Mason as Rommel in the movie “The Desert Fox”. He was very close to what Rommel was really like. That movie is one of my favorites. I also enjoyed “The Star of Africa” which was about the air war over North Africa. I saw that one recently.
Several yeas ago, I went with Rick (the interviewer) and another man to the Patton Museum at Fort Knox Kentucky. I was hoping to see a Panzer II style tank like the one I spent my youth in. I didn’t see one but I did see Erwin Rommel’s painting on the Wall of Heroes display next to a painting of Patton himself. I think the two men could have been friends had they met. I hear that they did respect each other across the battle field even though they never met in real life.
One day, my grandson’s school class was having a presentation for Veteran’s Day. The class wanted to honor heroes. He did a presentation on me while I sat there in class and watched. I was ashamed – I said “But I was on the bad guy side.” He said “Grandpa, you are a hero to me.” That made it all worthwhile.
Helmut passed away in 2010.