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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 June, 2004, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
'I saw British bombs and knew it was war'
On 6 June 1944, Werner Kortenhaus was a 19-year-old wireless operator for the German army. He knew something important was brewing in Normandy.

It was to decide the course of the war and change his life.

Werner Kortenhaus in army uniform
Werner's training didn't prepare him and his comrades for 'real war'

I joined the 22nd tank regiment of the 21st armoured division of the German army in 1943, when I was 18.

The regiment was divided into eight companies; each company had 17 tanks and in each tank sat five soldiers.

As a wireless operator, I made sure communications worked inside our tank and that we could communicate with the other tanks.

We were all young - we weren't generals or anything. When D-Day happened I had just turned 19. I am now 79 - it's that long ago now.

I joined the army straight from school, so I didn't have a family of my own at the time. My parents and grandparents were living in Solingen, near Cologne, where I was born, and where I still live today.

My family didn't generally know where I was, as we young lads were rather lazy and didn't write home very often. Also, I had very bad handwriting and anyway, we weren't allowed to say where we were stationed.


On the 6 June 1944 we were camped near Caen. We had been in Brittany but at the end of April we were moved to Caen as our commander, Field Marshal Rommel, suspected that the landing could take place in Normandy.

Nobody knew for certain when or where they would land, but we all assumed it would happen at some point.

I was with my regiment north of the town of Falaise, 28 km south of Caen - so we weren't right at the front, where the infantry were.

The tank regiments were kept slightly back, to see where the landing would take place. In the night we heard an unusual aircraft noise, from very low-flying, heavy aircraft.

That unsettled us - we didn't know what it meant. We were used to aircraft flying over us at night, but they always flew very high, on their way deep into France.

I now know that they were the six Lancaster planes which had towed British gliders over from England. The gliders landed on Pegasus Bridge at 16 minutes after midnight and captured it.

'This is war'

Having heard the big planes we guessed that something was going to happen. We got ready and stood guard by our tanks.

It wasn't until 0800 that we got the order to march north to Caen. We were amazed that we had to wait so long - we were ready by 0200 and would rather have left under the cover of darkness.

We had the feeling that now things were really getting going. At one point during that day we saw the town of Caen in the distance, and over it a thick cloud, from bomb attacks - and I thought, 'my God, this is war'.

Later we spotted English parachutists to our right in a corn field, but we didn't pay them any attention as that was not part of our orders.

They looked over at us and we at them, but we drove on. It was then clear that this was the beginning of an invasion.

We had been training for many months, so to some extent we felt that it was good that things were finally starting.

But we had no real idea of what war actually was - we only learned that later.

We were young lads, we'd been taught how to work the tanks, and we wanted to actually experience things.

But then in the afternoon we had the first fatality - we were attacked from the air and ran under the tanks, but one of us wasn't quick enough and was killed.

That was a shock for me. We were young and na´ve.

We spent three weeks trying to recapture Pegasus Bridge, without success. All our attempts were fought back and we kept losing tanks.

Of the 17 tanks in my company 15 were destroyed.

Now, after 60 years, I don't understand why they are making such a fuss. I don't think humankind has learned anything
Werner Kortenhaus

On 24 June we were fighting the British west of Caen, with five tanks against their 600. Of course we lost, and I was injured.

After my recovery I went back to the fighting, this time on the Eastern Front, and at the end of the war I was captured by the Russians in Czechoslovakia.

Luckily for me I was released and sent back to Germany, probably because the Russian doctors thought I was too thin. But most of the others spent at least two years in Russian camps.

Werner Kortenhaus
Werner thinks the grand celebrations hide a failure to learn lessons

On the 50th anniversary of D-Day I thought 'well, it's a pretty amazing anniversary, let them celebrate.'

The Germans weren't invited, but some of us went anyway, in small groups, some invited by the French.

But now, after 60 years, I don't understand why they are making such a fuss. I don't think humankind has learned anything.

There have been so many wars since then, Iraq for example, and I think the media should concern themselves more with that.

The veterans from back then will soon all be dead, and now you've got the chancellor going there, probably saying clever things into a microphone, and I think: what's he got to do with it all?

He's got no idea what that war was like.

Well, that's the way I see things now.


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