THE HELMUT RUGE STORY
PART ONE -- GERMANY , 1917 T0 1939
MY CHILDHOOD, 1917 to 1933
I was born in the year of "The Turnip", on the 13th January 1917 in Cuxhaven, the only son of Wilhelm and Erna Ruge.
It was the third year of the First World War and Germany was effected by a severe shortage of food and many of
the people suffering economic hardship, as indeed were my parents and sister Gerda, who had been born two
years earlier in 1915. Food was so scarce at that time that even milk was not available and my mother would make
a bottle up for me out of flour and water, hoping that the white colour would fool me into believing that it was milk!
My mother was so upset when she found out that she was pregnant with me, because she could not see how they
could afford to support a larger family, asked advice from the neighbour on what could she do to avoid having the
new baby. She was told to try jumping off the kitchen table and having tried this without the desired effect, then tried
sliding down the stairs, also without effect. perhaps the first example of my desire and ability to survive.
This ability to survive occurred again when I was a baby and was to provide the first memory I have of my life. It
came about when my mother was bathing me and left me in the bath propped up at one end while she had to leave
me to do something elsewhere in the house. While she was away I slipped down in the bath under the water.
Luckily she returned before I drowned, but not knowing this she grabbed me out of the bath, called the neighbour
for help, who held me upside down and shook me to empty my lungs. The first vivid memory of my life is of
coughing then opening my eyes and seeing in front of me the bath tub, my mother and the neighbour Frau
Hochkanstotter. Interestingly, the experience must have had an impact on me because I was never to like
swimming and water generally, although I was to become a sailor and to love the life and the sea.
Another lucky escape. as told by my mother, occurred when my mother was out one day and my sister and I were
left in the house. My sister decided to play with the gas taps on the stove and accidentally, I think, left one on.
Luckily for me the neighbour an the apartment below us smelt the gas and rushed upstairs to find me already going
blue from gas poisoning and got me out into the fresh air before it was too late.
As a child I grew up in the years after the First World War known as the Weimar Republic. During this time
Germany suffered from acute inflation until at the worst period in 1922 it was running at around 2000%. With inflation
as high as this, the cost of goods goes up 5-6% daily and I can remember very well going each week with my
mother and sister to the offices of the Port Authority where my father worked as a ships carpenter, carrying baskets
in which to put the "mountain" of paper money he had earned that week. After receiving the money we would run to
the shops to buy food and whatever else we needed as quickly as possible because the next day the money had
devalued further and the food we could afford to buy was less.
I also remember the day when I was about 4 years old when my mother had arranged for my sister to queue for
meat and for me to queue for milk and butter while she went and joined the bread queue. Having stood in the queue
for hours clutching my coupons, it finally came to my turn, only for the lady in the shop to announce that she was
closing for the day because there was no more milk and butter left. I remember the tremendous feeling of
disappointment and of standing outside the closed shop in tears until my mother arrived with my sister and
I have fond memories of my paternal grandmother, a wonderful old lady born in the middle of the previous century.
Although she must have weighed at least 260 lbs, there was nothing flabby about grandmother, she looked the
graceful lady that she was and would preside over family gatherings like a dignitary in a black silk dress, alert and
She was a keen knitter and a wonderful pastry cook. At Christmas she would knit woolen sweaters and socks for
her children or embroider tablecloths to give as presents and cook the most tasty cakes, biscuits, bread and tarts.
On many Sundays grandmother would visit us because my mother was a very good cook. Whenever it was our
turn, my sister and myself would go to collect her. We would look very smart in our Sunday best clothes, my sister
with her blonde hair brushed and combed so that the parting was exactly in the middle and the hair held by a big red
or blue braid, rather than in pigtails as was normal during the week. For me, I would wear a white shirt with big
mother of pearl buttons to hold up my best velvet Sunday trousers.
With the usual exhortations to be careful we would set from home, holding hands and being extra cautious at two
places on the way where particularly grumpy dogs lived that seemed to enjoy scaring little children by growling and
showing their teeth with my sister clinging tightly to me until we were well out of danger. When we got to
grandmother's we would help her put on and button up her shoes, politely asking her whether we had buttoned
them too tightly.
One Sunday we were walking with her back to our house, she would never take the bus, with us making all the
conversation so that grandmother could save her breath for walking. This particular Sunday was in winter with crisp,
crunchy snow on the ground which caused grandmother to slip and to fall gracefully backwards on to the pavement
on her bottom. She neither cried out nor dropped her silver handled cane in one hand nor her bag, full of knitting
needles and wool, over her other arm. With her encouragement my sister and myself tried and tried to pull her up,
but she was too heavy for us. We were crying with our frustration and shame and not being able to get grandmother
back on her feet. Through grandmother never swore or shouted, only complained that her bottom was wet and cold.
Eventually a passer by arrived and rescued grandmother allowing us to continue home. Grandmother told us not to
tell mother or father as they would only worry for no reason. All she ever said about the incident was "think of what
my bottom must look like how shocked and terrified my bottom must have been and to think that I have always
taken such care of my figure and complexion." Indeed, she was very conscious of her appearance and when at 84
she was operated for breast cancer and had one breast removed, she asked the doctor whether he still found her
attractive with only one breast.
Another amazing story about my paternal grandmother concerned her annual attendance of the gathering of the
Holsteiners' Club. Grandmother had been born in Holstein and, despite being the daughter of a poor farmworker, it
did not prevent her from becoming one of the most celebrated and honoured members of this club in Cuxhaven.
She always opened the dancing with the club president, although she did not exactly dance, it being more a case of
her considerable presence moving, more less, in time with the music, while the other couples adjusted their tempo
to hers, with grandmother telling them how well she used to dance when she was their age.
One year, after she had gone to live at my uncle's house, she had accompanied my aunt, dressed in all her finery,
out to a waiting taxi to take her to the annual Holsteiners' gathering. Because of her size their were only two taxis in
Cuxhaven that had big enough doors and a running board to allow grandmother to get in to the back of the taxi. Not
the fault of her size, more the fault of the fashionable and streamlined cars of that period. Grandmother climbed into
the taxi holding onto the door frame with one hand so that she could lower herself on to the seat. Uncle was a
nervous, restless person and taking no notice of how grandma was doing, slammed the car door and not bothering
to check why it had not shut, slammed it again. My aunt joined grandma in the back seat and they set off to the
party. As was the custom, grandmother opened the dancing and carried on as normal and it was only much later
that my aunt noticed grandmother sitting with an expression of pain on her face, her jaws clenched, speaking in
monosyllables and holding her left hand, wrapped in a handkerchief to her bosom My aunt asked what had
happened and taking off the handkerchief almost tainted and was speechless at the blue black bloody fingers with
deep gashes and skin hanging from them. Grandmother explained what had happened and said that she had not
wanted to spoil an evening so much looked forward to. "Give me some cognac, that will make me feel all right again",
was her response.
A remarkable woman, she sadly died of pneumonia the day after her operation to remove her breast due, it is
believed, to her opening the window in the hospital to get fresh air.
When I was in the German Navy on 'PT' Boats between 1936 and 1939, I lived life in the full and spent all the money
that I earned. I remember going to see grandmother and was astonished when, sitting in her chair, she started to
pull her dress slowly up her leg and over her knee until she came to a pocket in her slip in which she hid her purse,
then slipped 5 marks in to my hand.
My uncle had had a respectable business dealing in heating supplies and his standard of living had always
represented to the rest of the family wealth and an undreamed of social lifestyle. He used to drive to church on
Sundays in his own droshky and my aunt also had a high bred horse for her own use. Sadly it did not take him long to
lose all his money during the depression which followed the First World War, it all went in 6 days. Once he had lost
his money he took any jobs available such as gasoline station attendant or collecting debts for corporations.
My maternal grandmother who lived about 30 kilometers from Cuxhaven would make wonderful sausages and
hams, etc. My father always kept a pig and when it was killed in winter as Christmas approached, it would be gutted,
cleaned and the carcass hung for a least one day in the frost before my maternal grandma would make all her tasty
sausages and hams out of it.
My father was a wonderful man and I could not have asked for a better father. However, he did enjoy a drink and
would come home on occasions drunk For several years he had to work on one of the 4 light ships that were in the
Vogelsand/Elbe estuary (light ship No. 2) which was in one of the roughest, windiest spots in the estuary. He spent
4 weeks on the light ship, then 8 days on leave. Alcohol was not allowed on the light ship, but when he was picked
up and taken on leave by tug, the tug always had beer on board and then, on the way home, he would also stop off
to have a drink, arriving home, to my mothers annoyance, the 'worse for wear'. Sometimes mother would take us to
meet him at the docks when the tug arrived. If she noticed that he was waving in an exuberant way she knew he
had had too much beer on the trip back and would hurry my sister and myself back home before he landed.
While he was working on the light ship. although work is hardly the right word as there was almost nothing for a
carpenter to do on the light ship, so father filled in his time making furniture and other non ship items, he decided
that during one of my school holidays it would be an adventure for me to spend a couple of weeks with him on the
lightship. I was about 10 or 11 at the time and remember that the sea was terribly rough and I was terribly seasick.
One of the old men on board the light ship gave me the following advice, "Be as sick as you can and vomit up
everything inside you, but if you see a little brown ring, swallow it again, because that will be your arsehole!" I left the
light ship after 2 or 3 days when the tug returned on its next supply trip, swaying along for the next two days.
Between the ages of three and seven, before I went to school, one of my closest friends was Hildegard Schrotel. The
Schrotels lived across the street from our house and the father had been a non-commissioned officer in the Kaiser's
navy, but when I knew him was a captain of a customs patrol boat. I spent most of my time with Hildegard, having
no friends among the local boys at that time, and we were very close until we went to school when we seemed to
grow apart. She was in the girls' class where she was always top of the class and I in the boys being taught by a
teacher called Wailer. I think the reason we ceased to be so close is because it was considered "sissy" to play with
the girls and I did not wish to be made fun of by the other boys in the school. I lost track of her when, after leaving
school, she got married to a naval officer and went to live in Wilhelmshaven where he was stationed.
Her brother, Ameise, known as 'Ant', was three years older than me and used me as a guinea pig for his many
experiments. For example he one day made me hold one end of a piece of wire while pushed the other end into an
electric socket in the kitchen to find out what would happen. The result was that I got a dreadful shock causing me
to leap all around his kitchen.
Behind the backyard of the Schrotel house was a football pitch which belonged to and was used by the local navy
coastal artillery unit stationed in Cuxhaven. Attached to the playing field was a small hut where they sold tobacco,
sweets and soft drinks during the games. Because Ant and myself had no money with which to buy any sweets or
soft drinks we, one day, sneaked through his backyard hedge to the hut where we loosened some of the boards to
make a gap wide enough for me to get into the hut. As I was handing Ant a couple of bottles of soft drinks and a bar
of chocolate, the caretaker from the barracks, who also looked after the hut, suddenly appeared behind Ant. He
took us to his quarters and told us that as a punishment we had must report to him every day after school for the
next month to clean up his rooms and the barracks and if we failed to turn up on any day, he would report us to the
police. I think he must have been a wise man because he got us to do these chores which saved him some work
and we escaped worse punishment from the police and our patents.
Ant was a boy of strange ideas. For example, as soon as he could carry an air rifle, he got his parents to give him
one and he became an excellent shot, being able hit a any bird or target right in the centre. In order to show off his
skill, I remember he persuaded one of his friends from school that if he held up a 25 mm length of water pipe, Ant
would show him how he could shoot through the pipe. So he did, but he also hit the boy's finger. We also used to get
great pleasure in digging a hole in the garden, filling it with powder from shotgun cartridges and then running a
petrol soaked thread to the powder, lighting the thread, causing the powder to explode. Ameise joined the infantry
when he left school and was eventually killed In Russia during the war.
Another episode I remember well took place when I was around 5 or 6 years old A friend of my father visited our
house with his son who was half a year older than me. Whilst my father and his friend were talking in the kitchen,
they got the idea to find out which of the sons was the strongest and made us have a wrestling match in front of
them. It was like one of the cock fights I was to see years later in Costa Rica, as we struggled together. To be
honest it was not a fair match as the other boy was not in a good physical condition and was also the most stupid
boy in our class at school and it was easy for me to quickly throw him onto his back. The boy ended up crying like a
donkey, which made me feel bad and I told my father to never make me do such a thing again. In fact the boy's
efforts at school were so bad that Herr Wailer, would end up beating him at least once a day, bending him over a
bench and smacking him with a special stick. As a result his mother used to sew into the bottom of his trousers a
triple thickness of clothe, until Herr Wailer eventually found the extra thickening and suggested to the parents that it
would be better for their son if they did not try and make him immune to the punishment that was being
administered in order to encourage him to pay attention in class. The boy became a painter, like Hitler, but was
never called up to do service in the war because he was considered unfit, having had a major stomach operation,
from which problem he was eventually to die at still a relatively young age.
I started school at the age of six in 1923, finishing my education 10 years later in 1933. Since my father was on
board the lightship when I was 8 to 14 years old, my upbringing came exclusively under my mother's control and
she imposed a strict regime on myself and my sister, so much so that when we went to family reunions, parties and
the like, the other mothers present would say "Here comes Erna with her trained apes." She would dominate us with
her dark eyes and we would never have dared to take a piece of cake without first looking at her to get a confirming
look from her.
During my school years my three closest friends were Hans and Juergen Hadler and Werner Oerdts. Juergen was
the same age as me and my best friend and classmate, Hans a year older and Werner two years older. Both
Juergen and Hans were brought up by their grandparents, because their father had died after the First World War
from wounds he had received and their mother died when Juergen was born.
During summer holidays (4 weeks) we would spend most of our time helping on the Werner's father's farm, bringing
the hay cut in the fields into the barn to provide winter feed for the cows and horses. After the grass had been cut in
the fields and left to dry in sheaves, we would load it into a horse drawn wagon, two of us using pitchforks to lift the
sheaves up to the other two who stacked them in the wagon up to the maximum height possible that would still
allow it to get in to the barn. Once the wagon was full we would climb on to the top of the hay and go back to the
barn. One day when I was riding on the wagon with Herr Gerdts, a friend carelessly passed a fork up to Herr Gerdts
without looking with the result that one of the fork's prongs hit me in the face, in the cheek just below my eye
resulting in a lot of blood, but luckily not blinding me.
It is interesting that in those days the barn and the living quarters on farms were under the same roof with the
farmer's family living over the barn, not separate buildings as is normal these days. One of the benefits of this
arrangement was that the heat produced by the cows in the barn warmed the living quarters above, although the
downside was that the people living there always ended up smelling of the cows.
In the spring vacations we would plant cabbages for a farmer called Fehrs, who paid us 25 pfennig a day, plus a
hearty meal with fried potatoes and a rhubarb compote to finish, and in the autumn we would help pick the potatoes
for Werner Gerdts, collecting them in baskets, then emptying the baskets into sacks and placing the sacks on the
wagon. Some of the 25 pfennigs we each earned was pooled together to buy a football for Werner, Hans, Juergen
and myself to play with.
We never got a pfenning, however, for our work on the Werner farm, as we only helped so that we would be
allowed to play soccer or hockey in one of the fields. It was also a very healthy way to fill in the school holidays.
Throughout my youth I loved to play soccer, starting when I was 10 years old, the initial incentive partly due to the
fact that the local soccer club had their pitch just across the street from where I lived and where, as a result, we
spent a lot of our time. The only inconvenience for me was that one of ours neighbours, called Cors, who also lived
next to the soccer field, had a parrot which had learnt to imitate my mother's voice when she called me 200 meters
away from home to get my attention when I was playing soccer. Many times a game of football would be spoiled when
I would faintly hear my name being called and, whatever the state of the game we were in the middle of playing,
would have to rush off home to see what my mother wanted only to be told she hadn't called me, but as I was back,
could I now go to Steffen's grocery to buy some things. I made a slingshot and would hide behind a hedge and try
and kill the parrot, without success, unfortunately, as it was protected from the stones I slung at it by the cage it was
One of the games myself and my three friends would play in winter was riding the ice floes in Cuxhaven Bay . We
would get on an ice floe as the tide would be going out and ride the drifting floe as the tide moved it around the Bay.
When the floe approached one of the Bay's headlands, we would then get back to land by jumping from ice floe to
ice floe until we reached the beach. This foolish idea came to an end when I was 14. We were out riding an ice floe
as usual, only to find that we could not easily get back to the beach as the ice floes were too small for all of us to
jump on. As I was the smallest, I was chosen to make the trip, so I took off my wooden clogs and in my stocking
feet ran and jumped from floe to floe and luckily made it back to land. I ran to the nearest telephone and phoned the
lifeboat station, where I was known because my father had been on of the volunteer lifeboat crew. The lifeboat went
out and rescued my friends who had drifted about 4 or 5 miles out to sea. The crew gave my friends a hard beating
for doing such a stupid thing as playing on the ice floes and they were hardly walk or sit down for 3 days. Of course,
I avoided the beating because I had not been with them when they were rescued and luckily nobody thought of
punishing me later.
Another of my childhood friends was Hans Oldheifer with whom I would go skating on the frozen dykes in the winter
and who was with me in the school football team. Hans would continue to be my friend in adult life and will appear
again at significant moments in my life.
We continued to spend our holidays and free time in this way throughout my school years until we finally became
dispersed when we joined the armed forces. Werner joined the cavalry, ending up a prisoner of in England until
1948, while poor Hans and Juergen died during the war, the former being killed in North Africa fighting in the Africa
Korps and latter being killed while demonstrating a new weapon to some high ranking SS Generals.
The years 1929 to 1933 were terrible years for Germany under the Weimar Republic, both economically and
socially. Unemployed workers did not know what to do with their time and became involved with the communist
party and its activities. Another outlet was sports and they would play soccer on the pitch across the street from my
house. I would join in these soccer games, together with my Nazi friends Werner, Hans and Jurgen playing hard
and committed games of soccer with these unemployed workers. Later, once Hitler came to power, some
disappeared under mysterious circumstances, some were sent to work on the West Wall, later to become the
Siegfried Line. Only two of the men we played soccer with survived the war, both of whom I met in Cuxhaven in 1947,
in poor health, but still committed communists.
I spent 10 years at school, the first 7 years under Lehrer Wailer who taught us to love nature in the form of the small
forests and heath near to Cuxhaven and, also being the director of the local museum, he would take us to excavate
pre-historic graves and settlements in the area and teach us about our Germanic forefathers, which, I suppose, was
to be the basis for the later development of our belief in the superiority of the German race.
The last 3 years were spent under Lehrer Stueven who taught us mathematics, science and history. These were to
become my favourite subjects because of his wonderful humane and understanding method of teaching. Because
Juergen and myself liked math, we became relatively good at it with the result that Lehrer Stueven would give us
different tasks from the rest of the class for our homework.
The opposite was the case with our German teacher who I despised and I have always felt that this was the reason
for my failure at German, whose grammar I never really understood or learned, even to this day.
The class was a mixed class of 6 girls and 7 boys and since most of the girls did not like math and were good at
German, we would make deals with them to our mutual benefit, they gave us their German homework to copy and
we gave them the answers to the math problems.
In my last year when I was 16, my family being Lutherans, I also went through my confirmation.
In 1933 when I was 16 I could have done a further three years at high school for a college degree in accordance with a
system introduced in the times of the Kaiser. At that time 2 years military service was compulsory, but this was
reduced to one year for those with a 10 year school graduation. This was later to be called "MITLERE REIFE" or
more better known as THE ONE YEARLING (der Einjaehrige). The system was continued after the First World War
in order give better schooling to those whose parents could not afford the costs of high school.
Although I could have continued to complete the full 13 year term with the assistance of a grant, I did not wish to do
so because, firstly, I was sick and tired of school, secondly because there was no work at that time for people with a
higher education, there being many engineers, doctors, etc. forced to find employment as street cleaners or paper
sellers, as was experienced by the son of one of our neighbours who got an engineering qualification but ended up
working as a coat trimmer in a factory.
Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, although I always got excellent reports for mathematics, physics, history and
geography, I only got a grade '3' in German (equivalent to 7 today) which was not a good enough grade for the
semi-bachelor certificate, nor enough for an academic career at any university. In fact I believe I only managed to
get a grade 3 pass through the intervention of my math teacher, Lehrer Stueven, although he did visit my parents to
try and persuade them to let me stay for three more years in school, saying he would give me the extra tuition to make
up my deficiencies in German necessary to meet the scholastic requirements to study for a bachelor's degree.
For these reasons and also because my father would not really have been able to afford to continue to keep at
school, despite the fact I would have got a grant to pay for the extra years of schooling, I left school when I was 16
years old in 1933 to be apprenticed for 3 years with Trulsen, a Ship Broker in Cuxhaven
SHIPS BROKER, 1933 to 1936
Trulsens were a firm of Ship Brokers, one of whose activities consisted of arranging, for a fee, various services to
the ships loading and unloading in the port of Cuxhaven, such as registering in the Port Captains office or Customs
office, repairs in the ship yards, etc.
During my apprenticeship, it was my job to visit the quays in Cuxhaven to try and persuade the captains of the
barges, freighters and other vessels in the port to use Trulsen services. This involved me in having to get up very
early each morning, around 4 am, and cycle to the docks and make my rounds of the vessels in the port.
It was necessary for me to get up early, so that I would be ahead of Willibald Carlsen, the employee doing the same
job as myself for our competitor. This eventually developed into a very unpleasant and unfriendly competition
between the pair of us, which only ended when Carlsen joined the Laisz Banana Company to work in the Cameroon
and finally joined the navy. Not, however, before he had managed to throw my bicycle into the harbour or had
pushed me into a cupboard to prevent me from entering the captain's quarters on a French ship. Without success, I
might add, as the captain was later to give me the job anyway.
The Germany economy was still bad at this time and to help Trulsen cover the cost of my apprenticeship, I had also
to spend time working as a deckhand on two motor vessels, the 'Horst' and the 'Marie' that they owned. We would
take barrels of herrings from Cuxhaven to Hamburg, which would eventually end up in Poland or Czechoslovakia,
and on the return trip load kegs of beer and other merchandise to take back to Cuxhaven. On one trip, while sailing
down the Elbe river at night on our way to Hamburg, the captain, wanting to go below to eat, told me to take the
wheel and to hold the ship on a course to a green light ahead and to call him once the light turned to red. This I did
keeping my eyes on the light which became brighter and brighter as we got nearer, not looking to the left or to the
right, thinking only of the course I had to keep, when suddenly, to my horror, I heard the deep sound of a horn
coming from a large ship and, looking out of the wheelhouse, I saw the immense black bow, 30 meters high, of a
tanker coming towards me. I turned the wheel hard to starboard and, had the captain not quickly appeared in the
wheelhouse, we would have ended up with the ship stuck on a sandbank in the Oste Estuary.
Loading and unloading the herring barrels was awful work, the captain working the winch while I fitted double chains
to a pair of barrels at a time for lifting into or out of the hold. The herrings were salted and the barrels dripped salty
water from them, causing deep burns to my fingers with the result that, at times, I was unable to open my bands
properly and couldn't grip a handkerchief or even be able to put my hands in my pockets.
It was at times like this that I would ask myself why hadn't I finished high school.
I worked for Trulden for three years, before leaving to join the navy in 1936.
Between the end of the First World War and 1933 was a disastrous economic period in Germany's history which is
still reflected to this day in the attitude and fear in Germany of inflation and also explains, in part, how the rise to
power of Hitler was accepted as the one person whose policies offered the German people a solution and a
promise to bring the economically crippling hyper-inflation under control.
I, like the majority of young Germans, joined the Hitler Youth Movement in 1933 after Hitler came to power and
spent part of my spare time (when there was any) taking part in their activities. I became what was called a
'Gefolgschaftsfuhrer' which means a leader in charge of a group of about 100 boys between the ages of 14 and 17
years. I was in charge of a group from 1 of the 4 districts in Cuxhaven (DOESE), which all together amounted to
around one thousand youths, some of whom were still at school and some of whom worked. We would meet once a
week to sing, march, listen to Party indoctrination, carry out pre-military exercises, make love and admire our
Fuehrer. This at least was good for my ego since it was job to march at the front of my group with a big badge on
Thus I filled in my time at Trulsens and with the Hitler Youth Movement while I awaited the time to pass until I could
join the Navy when I reached 18/19.
LABOUR SERVICE, 1936
Thus in 1936 when I was nineteen I volunteered to join the Kriegsmarine (German Navy), but first I had to do, as did
all young German nationals, my 6 months compulsory Labour Service working on Government projects involved
with rebuilding the German infrastructure and industry. In April 1936 I reported to the project to which I had been
allocated, a project involving the reclamation of land from the sea, which by one of those lucky chances that were to
be a feature of my life, was close to my home in Cuxhaven.
This was achieved, first by building a rock dyke, then building up the land. The land was raised by hand digging
parallel ditches, for the 6 hours during low tide, with the mud from each ditch being thrown onto the strip between.
Having completed the two ditches the diggers then moved on to dig two more and so on until the area of land to be
reclaimed was covered with parallel ditches with raised strips of land between.. By the time the last ditches had
been dug the tides had slowly filled in the ditches with silt, so the process would begin again and continue with the
land between the strips becoming slowly higher until ultimately the sea no longer covered the land at high tide. The
digging was done with each man having to dig a section 2m wide by 2m long and 1.5m deep. The digging was hard
because it was always wet heavy mud.
I avoided the inconvenience of having to Labour in digging the ditches. The engineer in charge of the project to
which I was sent was, by lucky chance, at school with my father and on learning who I was allocated me to
helping him set out the lines of the ditches to be dug. This was done by stretching two lines of wire to mark the width
of a ditch then scraping out a shallow grove in the earth before moving on to mark out the next ditch. I am ashamed
to admit that I never had to lift a shovel and "labour" throughout my Labour Service. Whenever I visit Cuxhaven I
see this reclaimed land which is now used for grazing sheep.
THE GERMAN NAVY, 1936 TO 1939
My Labour Service was cut short from the statutory 6 months to 3 months because I was required by the German
Navy to report to a barracks in Stralsund on the Baltic coast to start my basic military training, 'square bashing'.
Here we did our basic training, similar to that in the British armed forces, where we were put through a routine to
destroy our personality and independent will and pride in order to make us totally obedient to any commands that
we were given. As well as the endless parade ground drills, we were given various tests, one of which was to throw
a hand grenade from behind a wall to a tree about 80 meters away. Because of my athletic ability, particularly in the
shot putt, I was the only recruit to reach the tree, which helped me to end up the top recruit.
We were also given 6 hours of verbal and written aptitude and psychological tests, watched closely by supervising
officers, to find out what job in the navy we were best suited to carry out. In my case they decided that I should be a
radio operator, although I had always been interested in navigation and had set my heart on being a navigator,
Interestingly of the different trades in the Navy, the IQ of the radio operators was generally the highest, so perhaps I
should have been flattered, rather than disappointed.
I was at Stralsund for three months from June to August 1936, and was then sent to attend the Radio Operators
School at Flensburg, on completion of which I was posted to Kiel on the Baltic to train on 'PT' Boats, small, light.
fast offshore torpedo craft and the small 250 tonne 'U' Boats and, eventually, to serve for the next three years on
the 'PT' Boats as a radio operator.
I remember an incident that occurred during 1937 when I was taking a weekend's leave from my ship. I was
traveling by train from Kiel to Cuxhaven and when changing trains at Hamburg, I found myself in a crowd of people
on one of the platforms made of men, women and children, many of the men with beards. They were sitting on
trunks and cardboard boxes containing their belongings, with more possessions in hand baggage, many with a loaf
of bread or cabbage in their hands and staring desolately in front of them. While I was looking at this pathetic
mass of people and SS man shouted at me "Do you want to get lost amongst a bunch of Jews who are being
deported to the Balkans or somewhere?" Many of these people would probably have been moved later to the
The German people were experiencing similar events taking place all over Germany at that time and I do not
believe that any German, of that period, adolescent as well as adult can say they did not know that these atrocities
were taking place. It was known that there were concentration camps where anti-Nazis and Jews, who had been
unable to leave Germany to live in other countries in Europe and to the United States, were sent for "re-education".
however, I think that the policy of genocide that occurred in the extermination camps after 1940 was not generally
known by the majority of the German people.
In April 1939 I was sent back to Flensburg to attend a 6 months Non-Commissioned Officers Course. I am afraid
that my efforts in studying took second place to my love of sport and spent most of my time on the course playing
sport, particularly discus throwing, at which I was very good. However, after about four months, with the approach of
the Second World War, the course was cut short and we were given an 'emergency' exam, which I managed to
pass. I was now to be the victim of an administrative error by the Navy that was to have far reaching implications on
my life and to result in where I would ultimately settle for the majority of my life.
Index | next >
Return to: WW2 Pacific Menu
About this page: Ruge1.html -- Early Life of Helmut Ruge of the Graf Spee.
Last updated on October 9, 2008
Contact us at