There are many ‘Dad’s Army’ style enemy stereotypes about both the Italian and German soldier from the second world war. The Italian soldiers were often accused of being submissive and lazy that is until an opportunity came along to be Casanova. The Germans were emotionless and humourless with a ruthless evil persona. You have all heard of these exaggerated type of characteristics linked with the soldiers from both nationalities, right?
Elements of truth will be evident in both of the sweeping generalisations but when some German prisoners arrived in Sandbach Heath many of the traits of the Italians were firmly established for one POW in particular. His necessity to throughly scrub and clean an inhabitable camp never helped with the (at the time) fragile relationship. It also cemented for this new arrival, in his mind the typical Italian characteristics that would stay with him for many years after the war. There is also some indication that at the time, some locals in Sandbach were also happy to see the back of the Italians and actually welcomed the German’s arrival.
The following quotes were taken from a German prisoner of war who was stationed at the Sandbach Heath Camp after the war at some point in 1946. Around a platoon strength collective of captured German soldiers were offloaded at Sandbach station and marched the long route to their new accommodation at Sandbach Heath.
German POW Franz Mohr;
We still had our hobnailed boots on and the English sergeant that was in charge he said, ‘Now then show them what you can do’…
A German POW took over and translated for the sergeant to get the Germans moving;
ACHTUNG! LINK, RECHT. MARCH
Franz then recalled the town’s historic monument;
We walked around the crosses at Sandbach
One, two, one. two, thumping out a rhythm with our feet, made a noise as well
Imagine this…in the middle of Sandbach post second world war, captured German soldiers being marched through the town with their hobnailed boots thumping and crashing down on the cobbles as they step in time. Quite a rare sight, it obviously attracted some attention and according to Franz they never got the hostile reception from the locals that you might have expected.
People opened their doors and someone clapped.
In fact, we found out later they were glad the Germans came and the Italians went
Franz Mohr’s attitude and resent towards the Italians was typical of most Germans at the time. However, Franz did have first hand experience of fighting side by side with the Italians on the Eastern front against the Russians. He also attributed blame to on duty Italians for the Russians breaking through their lines as his regiment took their turn to rest. Franz had also served in Italy which is where he would finally be captured and shipped to America where he would start his life as a POW. Eventually he made the long journey to Sandbach Heath where he also went on to work at other local farms before eventually settling in the area.
This attitude towards the Italians is also to some extent proven to be unwarranted though. The Italian lack of bravery myth is also contradicted by high ranking German generals who held some Italian regiments in high regard. In the North Africa campaign the Italian leadership failed to supply and equip their soldiers adequately which made them in-effective as a military force and more likely to be turned over rather than lie down and roll over as is often indicated. The average Italian soldier would see the better equipped German and Allied Soldier so never really felt supported by their superiors. This obviously wasn’t good for morale within the junior ranks fighting on the front line and also meant less commitment as they felt their leaders were at times not worth fighting for.
I believe this lack of loyalty to the Italian leadership is misunderstood and has lead to the perception that their work ethic was also lacking too.
Remember this event? Got more stories about Sandbach during WW2? Do you know of camp, prisoner or soldier pictures taken locally? Maybe you know a surviving POW in the area? please get in touch!
Source for quotes;
Franz Mohr, 1922 – 2013
Embracing the Enemy – Mark Tyrrell