Interview: Heinrich Steinmeyer - Former POW

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PEOPLE who know Heinrich Steinmeyer regard him as a kind-hearted man. His regular parcels brimming with toys and chocolates have earned him the honorary title of "Uncle Heinz" by many families, and he is a respected member of his community.

• Picture: Complimentary

His generous nature was taken to extremes when he decided last year to bequeath his entire savings and home to the elderly residents of a small Perthshire village. In a gesture some saw as highly ironic, Steinmeyer said he felt compelled to repay the people of Comrie for the humanity shown to him during the Second World War. He had not expected the tolerance and decency shown during his time as a prisoner in Scotland, particularly as he was a member of Hitler's notoriously fanatical SS. That a man closely associated with a regime marked by its cruelty should want to leave such a generous legacy to a place where he was incarcerated triggered headlines around the world.

Sitting in his pretty, well-kept home in Delmenhorst, near Bremen, surrounded by Scottish mementoes, Steinmeyer talks of his hope of making a trip to Comrie, to revisit Cultybraggan where he was held as a prisoner of war. But, aged 85, Heinrich knows this may well be his last visit. His final return to the picturesque little town will be after his death, when he has arranged to have his ashes scattered there.

He has diabetes, but Steinmeyer is otherwise fit and well. A divorcee with no children, he is tanned and slim, and seems younger than his years. The only obstacle to his travel plans is finding someone to accompany him as he doesn't want to drive in the UK.

So why is he so fond of a country where he was imprisoned? His answer is straightforward: "The Scots saved my life three times. The Scottish people showed me mercy."

A member of Hitler's SS Waffen division, Steinmeyer was 19 when he was captured in Normandy on 28 August, 1944. He had landed in France two months earlier, eager for his first taste of combat and a chance to fight for his country.

Recalling his capture, Steinmeyer says: "An armoured vehicle approached the manholes where we were hiding. The British soldiers drove from hole to hole, and shouted, 'Come out'. If the Germans didn't react they were shot. I realised the situation was hopeless. I was in a hole with an 18-year-old. We raised our hands and surrendered. Next we had to empty our pockets and I had two apples in mine. The Scottish soldier had a look at them and gave them back to me. He said, 'You will need them'.

"We were taken to the banks of the Seine and told to wait for a boat to take us across. Suddenly a group of elderly French women wielding butchers' knives and ropes approached us. They spat at us and wanted to kill us because we were SS. The Scottish soldiers drove them off, again and again, until the ferry came. I am 100 per cent sure we would have been killed had the soldiers not intervened."

On the journey from France to Southampton there were many German soldiers on the ship, but Steinmeyer stood out because of his SS uniform. Among the group were several Poles, who hated the Germans.

"We were divided into two groups on the boat. On one side of the rope were the prisoners, on the other the British guards. There were six or eight fanatical Poles in my group who wielded pocket knives and threatened to cut my throat. The Scots guards realised I and the 18-year-old were being threatened and asked us if we were German. We said, 'Yes' and they shouted, 'Come over boys'. We wouldn't have stood a chance if they hadn't done that. They gave us big jackets to sleep on and food. They also gave me my first cup of milky tea – I loved it.

"When we landed in Southampton it was raining and we were put into tents. The same Poles were there and the Scottish guards realised we were being threatened again. The guards told us to come to the house where they were staying. A similar thing happened on the train that took us into England; the guards again intervened and asked us to come into their section.

"You never forget someone who saves your life so many times. I was lucky to be captured by the Scots. Some British soldiers believed all SS had to be killed."

Steinmeyer was classified as a category "C" prisoner and dispatched to Perthshire where he was held briefly in a small camp by Crieff before being transported to Cultybraggan. His "C" designation meant that Steinmeyer was considered a hard-line Nazi, completely committed to the cause and dangerous. Cultybraggan was a camp which specialised in holding those deemed too dangerous to be sent to the other, more liberal, camps that were scattered across Britain.

Steinmeyer insists today, however, that he was never interested in politics, and had no knowledge of the Jewish concentration camps, saying simply: "When I was young you had two choices – you joined the Nazi party or the Communists."

His devotion to Hitler was a devotion to his country, he adds. As a teenager from the small country town of Neustdtel in Silesia (now part of Poland), with only basic education, he was ignorant of the leader's extreme policies. "I was a soldier fighting for my country, like any British soldier," he says. When evidence about the atrocities first emerged, Steinmeyer reacted with disbelief.

He remembers being shown horrific photographs and film from the concentration camps as part of the "de-Nazification" process that Germans underwent at the end of the war. "What we watched was so horrible that I thought it was faked and that it was propaganda. Some of the prisoners thought it was such an outlandish stunt that they even started laughing. If you were caught laughing you were grabbed and told to do exercises outside as punishment.

"When I returned to Germany years later I still found it extremely difficult to believe what people wrote and said about the atrocities. I felt that it was possible something might have happened, but I couldn't envisage the full extent of it."

Today Steinmeyer says he knows the truth. "It was very bad," he says, looking down. "Of course you can't treat people like that."

Steinmeyer believed the concentration camps were being used for German political prisoners. As a member of a combat unit, the camps were not in his remit, and he received no training there. The SS who ran the camps were from another division.

Steinmeyer was trained to fight the enemy outside of Germany: "I was a soldier, not a criminal. I was committed to Hitler because he made things so much better for us. Everything was so different then. We were poor and had no prospects, but when Hitler came into power he said 'I will give you work and bread'."

THE year of Steinmeyer's birth, 1924, was an important one for the Nazis. Having served a prison sentence for attempting a coup in Munich, Hitler returned to the political scene with a renewed vigour. His stint behind bars had deepened his political convictions. He wrote his autobiographical political tract, Mein Kampf, while in prison, setting out his Nazi ideology and the framework for the new regime. On his release, the Nazi party was reformed with promises to improve the lives of Germans who were struggling amid severe economic crisis.

"My family was very poor, like everyone else," recalls Steinmeyer. "We had no money at all. You cannot imagine what a bad time it was."

Massive inflation, triggered by the country's huge debts after the First World War, meant that few Germans could afford even the basics. "There were six in my family – I had three sisters – and we would share one herring. I went to school with one tomato from the garden, and in the summer I had no shoes. You went out to the fields to scavenge for corn lying on the ground, potatoes and rabbits. We had virtually no meat and would eat porridge. People don't realise what a bad time it was."

Hitler was viewed by Steinmeyer and millions of others as a saviour. He created employment through the construction of the autobahns and provided people with child benefit and pensions. "You could eat, fill your stomach," says Steinmeyer, whose father found a job at a brick works, where he worked long shifts seven days per week. "When Hitler came in, we were glad. We had food, work; the streets were safe and we had respect for our elders."

In many ways, Steinmeyer was a perfect candidate for Nazi indoctrination. Fully aware of how unpalatable some of his policies were among the more educated, older generation, Hitler aimed much of his propaganda at youngsters. Speaking at a rally in 1938 he told them: "You, my youth, are our nation's most precious guarantee for a great future, and you are destined to be the leaders of a glorious new order under the supremacy of National Socialism. Never forget that one day you will rule the world."

The "Hitler Jugend" (Hitler Youth) was established in 1926. Children such as Steinmeyer flocked to the organisation, which promised adventure and a release from their impoverished lives. Steinmeyer joined informally when he was eight. "I think that Hitler was good at that time. He fed our stomachs. We were poor boys, from the street."

Given a uniform which he wore with pride, Steinmeyer was required to attend meetings twice a week. He learned skills such as orienteering and how to use air rifles. There were also regular camps, a treat for a young boy who had little experience of fun. But the thing that mattered most was his ambition to become a soldier. His father, Veanhold, had fought in the First World War and would eventually lose his life as a soldier in the Second World War.

"My father never talked to me about politics," says Steinmeyer, "but my mother hated Hitler, to start with anyway. When she got a widow's pension after my father was killed she changed her mind a bit."

Being tall, healthy and sporty, with prized Aryan blue-eyed, blond looks, Steinmeyer was a natural candidate for the elite SS.

"To join you had to be able to trace your nationality back to the 1800s. You had to be tall, have perfect health, including all your teeth and no glasses. I tried to join when I was 16 but they said no, so I joined at 17. At that time I didn't consider myself a Nazi; I saw myself as a member of an elite force and I was proud of it."

Before joining the SS, Steinmeyer had been an apprentice butcher on a pitiful wage. "My motivation (for joining the SS] was I wanted to make something better of my life. The SS was unique in that you didn't need any qualifications to become an officer."

Steinmeyer was recruited to the Waffen SS, a military unit, where he served in the Panzer 12th division, comprised of Hitler Youth members. He trained in Poland to be a squadron leader. "When I came back to Germany they were looking for leaders for the Hitler Youth and I was sent to a division in Belgium, where I was second leader. A week after that I was sent to fight in Caen, Normandy. I landed there on 6 June, 1944."

He was prepared to die for his country. Speaking about his reaction to the fighting in Normandy – some of the most intense of the war – he says: "Your feelings depended on what type of human being you were. Some were calm, doing their duty, some couldn't stand it. No-one in the SS ever said they were worried. I did my duty. I knew when I volunteered what could happen to me. I had no wife, no kids to worry about. You could only make a war with young men, not married men – children take their heads down."

After being captured Steinmeyer was held at Cultybraggan from September 1944 to June 1945. From there he was sent to Watten, Caithness, another maximum security Nazi camp. Cultybraggan was overseen by Polish guards, used because they were generally tougher on the Germans than the British. The guards were stationed around the outside of the camp, to ensure prisoners did not escape. Steinmeyer's memories of the Poles are not favourable. He recalls the murder of one German prisoner, Heinrich Schwartz: "The Poles weren't allowed to come into the camp so (the guard] shot Heinrich through the fence. There was no provocation at all."

Scots guards did roll call and the prisoners were organised into groups. The eldest prisoner in each hut was in charge of the others. The days were long, says Steinmeyer, and the prisoners were lonely. "We used to hear things from outside – people speaking, children laughing, but we weren't allowed out. I never saw Comrie until many years after the war. During the day I used to play chess, 'Skat' and 'Doppelkopf'. There were all kinds of classes, including English classes. We also used to play football against other barracks."

At Caithness, Steinmeyer was under the supervision of a Scottish colonel. "Colonel Murray was a real gentleman. We were allowed to walk along the perimeter of the camp, and he saw to it that there were no Polish guards. When the Scottish soldiers were finished with their dinner, we would be given two plates, one for each hand, and they would fill them up with food. There was a Christian young men's group there who would give us tea for nothing – they never charged the German prisoners."

At the end of the war Steinmeyer was sent to a camp in Ladybank, Fife, where he was allowed to work on neighbouring farms.

"The family had two farms: Turret Farm and Greenside Farm. They used to give us half a crown each night, even though they didn't have to pay us anything. Each night we also got a big slice of home-made cake and some meat. One day I asked the family if I could change my coins into a ten-shilling note. We weren't allowed any Scottish money, so I wanted to hide it. The wife asked me why I wanted the money and I said I wanted to buy a pair of shoes. She asked me what size I was. The next day she went to Leven and bought the shoes plus socks plus shoe polish, and she didn't want any money. Then, when I told her that there was a food shortage in Germany, she sent three food parcels to my mother to help her. They were incredibly kind people."

WHEN Steinmeyer was released in 1948 he decided to stay on in Scotland. He settled in Stranraer and found work on farms in the area. "I was among 30 former German prisoners living in a hostel and I worked on a farm for five years.

"I had a Scottish girlfriend and her mother was dead against it. She went to a policeman and tried to get me kicked out of the place for giving a Nazi salute, which was untrue. She also said I was unrepentant. But the farmer defended me and said that if I hadn't been an honest man then I would not have been working for him."

Steinmeyer vividly remembers a house he saw in Stranraer. "It was beautiful, with a tower where you could see right across the sea to the Isle of Man and, on a clear day, to Ireland."

His eventual return to Germany, in 1970, was prompted by his mother, Lena. Her home town was now part of East Germany and she did not qualify for a pension there.

"My mother wanted me to come back to take care of her. She died soon after I returned. If it had not been for my mother, then I would have stayed in Scotland, perhaps in the house in Stranraer."

He found work at the docks in Bremen and settled in Delmenhorst to build the house which will one day belong to a foundation for the elderly of Comrie. "It was in Scotland that I earned the money to build my house," he says, "so it is only right that it goes back to Scotland when I die."

Steinmeyer now leads a quiet, solitary life. His focus now is simply to return the kindness he received from a country that captured his heart. And, perhaps, to fulfil his dream of making a final visit there, to see again the house by the sea.

&#149 Cultybraggan will be open to the public for the Culty Quake Music Festival, on Saturday, 29 May. For more information on the event, log on to: www.comriefoundation.org