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Page last updated at 08:45 GMT, Wednesday, 17 June 2009 09:45 UK

'I was Rommel's driver'

I never thought I'd find myself in a radio studio singing Lili Marleen with Rommel's driver, writes James Naughtie.

But there he was - Rudolf Schneider, then an 18-year-old German soldier, a veteran of the Afrika Korps that followed the "desert fox" in the long Africa campaign.

John Riggs (l) and Rudolph Schneider (r)
John Riggs and Rudolph Schneider fought on opposite sides in WWII

He'd been brought together with a British veteran of Tobruk, John Riggs, by the historian Rob Lyman, who has written a new history of the eight months siege of the Libyan port.

We had a conversation just before the end of the programme on Monday and it was obvious that we couldn't leave it there.

So later in the day I met up with Mr Schneider, fresh from the London Eye.

It is his third visit to this country (and he'd spent time here as a POW, milking cows at a farm in the Black Country - rather better than life in Stalag Luft III, I suggested) and in a few minutes his English was flowing well.

Who wouldn't want to hear about Rommel first-hand? He spoke of his popularity with the soldiers, how he ate with them and joined them each night to listen on their field radios to the broadcast of Lili Marleen, the soldiers' favourite song.

They'd listen to the music, think of home, look up at the stars, and cry, he said. Minutes later they would be fighting once more.

With the passage of years come the old stories. How he was present when Count von Bismarck was shot dead, with Rommel standing upright alongside him as the soldiers around cowered for shelter; how he was driving a vehicle just in front of the one in which Claus von Stauffenberg was travelling when he was wounded in an attack by British Hurricanes.

Von Stauffenberg went back to Berlin and it was there that he became the most famous symbol of the discontent in the Wehrmacht about Hitler's conduct of the war and the reality of the Nazi regime, finally leaving a bomb under the table at the Fuhrer's headquarters in July 1944 in the plot that failed by a whisker to put an end to it all.

Rudolph Schneider (seated) during WWII
Rudolph Schneider (seated) photographed in during WWII

The characters leap out of his conversation - young soldiers hardly knowing where they were, the "correct" General Rommel who fought his war with honour; the US soldiers who took him prisoner and sent him to Texas; the English family to whose farm he was subsequently sent until the end of the war, where his task was to milk 42 cows ever morning.

He showed us pictures from the days in north Africa, spoke of the friends that never came back (and of the ferocity of the Gurkhas whom they encountered), and also of his relief that it was a long time ago, and is over.

He asked if I'd like to come to Dresden. I said yes. What other answer could there be?

He spoke the words to Lili Marleen for us. I told him how I remembered the Desert Islands Discs of the late Lord Annan, when he chose the song to remind him of his days in the Army in North Africa, because he'd heard the voices of young German soldiers carried on the night air. Every time he heard it, he said, it moved him to tears.

Field Marshall Erwin Rommel
German Field Erwin Marshall Rommel was known as the Desert Fox

Rudolf Schneider didn't cry, but he spoke movingly and with humanity about wartime and his joy and making friendships half a century later with some of those who been on the other side.

As we heard from Normandy on the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings - for all soldiers - whoever was leading them to war - the most powerful memory was of the friends who never came back, left to lie on the battlefield. They have always had that in common.

And they want to remember it. Rudolf Schneider said that when he was coming here, his son said he shouldn't talk about those far-off days - Don't Mention the War - but how could he do that? He had to speak about it. Quite right too.

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