My journey from the Hitler Youth to Church of England priest

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‘At dawn on 1st August 1944, we were heavily bombarded.

‘First with mortar fire that made us keep our heads down. That continued for a considerable time.

MEMORIES George Gebauer

MEMORIES George Gebauer

‘When the bombardment ceased, we were expecting continuous air attacks. The Lieutenant, about four yards to the right of me, was experiencing his first shelling. He looked somewhat frightened I must say and in a way I really felt for him, as only six weeks earlier I suffered the same experience.

‘The flash of guns, the whizzing of bullets, exploding bombs, the acrid smell of gunpowder... the sounds of battle and war do make you scared and frightened when first encountered.

‘As with everything else, if you live through it you get used to it. At first you duck every time you hear a bullet whizzing past you. Then you remember, the bullet that hits, injures or kills you don’t hear. You get battle hardened.

‘That was the experience the young Lieutenant went through at that moment. But take it from me, you get used to it.’

We were at the cemetery burying the bodies, and then it struck me – here we have people from France, America, Germany, enemies and comrades – and the Americans treated every body alike.

George Gebauer

This sounds like it could be an account of the Second World War from one of our boys over in Normandy. But these words belong to a soldier in the German Army.

Not long after this dawn skirmish, George Gebauer, barely 18, and what remained of his unit were captured by American forces.

Having grown up under the shadow of dictatorship in Berlin, everything George had ever been taught about democracy and the Allied nations was about to be challenged.

George was shipped to Camp White in Oregon, USA where he spent two years from 1944 to 1946 as a prisoner of war.

He says: ‘I had reservations about what would happen next – being classed as a Nazi, you didn’t know how they would react and treat you. I have spoken to current high-ranking officers who were hardly born during the war, and they are amazed at how I speak of my experience – thanks to the Geneva Conventions, we were treated very well.’

He adds: ‘Something I realised when I was in the United States was that the word democracy didn’t exist in my language because there wasn’t any. And if you had asked what democracy was, you were told they are all self-serving, power-seeking crooks. Personal freedom, freedom of choice, that didn’t come into it.’

The beginning of George’s freedom from Nazi ideology was his first days as a prisoner of war near Saint-Lô in Normandy. His task was to pick up the bodies of fallen soldiers that littered the surrounding fields after months of conflict.

‘The picture is still there, I can see it even now. The bodies were behind hedges, trees and goodness knows where else.’

He adds: ‘You are battle hardened in a way, I coped with it as an 18-year-old can. You grow into that situation anyway. There was bombing in Berlin so you had some idea what war was like. It wasn’t sprung on you when you got into battle.’

After the remains had been identified – a difficult task because of their condition – George and his fellow prisoners would clean them with chloride and ensure the correct possessions were buried with their owner.

‘We were at the cemetery burying the bodies and then it struck me – here we have people from France, America, Germany, enemies and comrades – and the Americans treated every body alike.

‘There was no “Here’s a Nazi, lets kick him about” – if they had done, we would not have been surprised, let’s put it that way.

‘To some extent that did change my view in that early stage.

‘As we had more experience with them, especially when I went to the States, we realised the fear we had about the enemy was all unfounded and the kindness shown by individuals every now and then helped us to come round.’

The indoctrination began in 1933, when George was eight. Hitler rose to power and it became mandatory to join the Hitler Youth.

‘I remember that it was very much on the same lines of how the Boy Scouts were run here. We were taught how to light a fire, did map-reading, lots of sport, and went on monthly camping trips.

‘I enjoyed my fellowship with the other boys and the competition, and as you grew up you learned from one another. They were just carefree weekends with our leaders to look after us.

‘But there was always this political angle at the back of it. When Mike [Tanner, who has helped publish George’s memoir] read that section of the book, he said “George - you have been brainwashed, but you don’t know it.”

‘It was true – you weren’t corrected by your elders because they daren’t.’

He says he was also unaware of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis.

‘That is the point of brainwashing – you are taught over and over and again that what you are told is right and not to listen to anyone else.

‘By the time you joined the military you were sold that what Hitler did was right for Germany.

‘He could talk the hind legs off a donkey, and [Joseph] Goebbels was another one. These two were the key – the rest were mediocre by comparison. They certainly were very oral and very persuasive.’

After two years in Oregon George was relocated to Ganger POW Camp No 41 in Romsey, where he was integrated into the British way of life, including being billeted to work on a farm.

He met his late wife Gladys while working on her father’s smallholding in Botley. He continued to learn English – ‘the good, the bad and the swear words’ – and was discharged as a prisoner in 1948.

In 1953, it became legal for an alien from a former enemy to become a British citizen and George was naturalised soon after.

As a German living in the post-war era, George could have been ostracised, but he says he was treated with kindness.

George has been repaying this for the past four decades in his capacity as a priest, which still includes regular services at St Mary’s Church in Warsash and All Saints’ Church, Botley.

He says: ‘The people of Hampshire were so kind and accommodating. There was just no animosity whatever, even in the early days.

‘That still amazes me and will until the end of my days here on earth – the war hadn’t been over 12 months, there were still heartaches and remembrances of those who didn’t return, there were still bomb sites that needed to be cleared, and still they made me welcome.’

Despite the dark times he has experienced, George has always had his faith to rely on.

He says that religion under the Hitler regime was different to today.

‘This was the strange thing – going to church wasn’t encouraged, but Hitler was part of the Roman Catholic Church and he referenced God in a couple of speeches.’

He adds: ‘I was brought up very strictly Lutheran, but then you leave home and you kick it for a while. But the faith kept simmering.’

During the process of writing his book, George and his friend Mike Tanner, 79, got answers to many questions – including why he was relocated to Britain as a prisoner of war. Mike uncovered the truth after a chat with the History Society of Romsey.

He says: ‘The prisoners of war were sorted into three different categories according to their political views.

‘There were the out-and-out Nazis who were kept under lock and key, the ones in the middle who were kept a close watch on, and then those who acclimatised to the democratic way of thinking.

‘George was one of the latter.’

Hitler Youth to Church of England Priest by George Gebauer can be purchased from amazon.co.uk for £10. A kindle edition is available which costs from £5.