Geoff Walden

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Berchtesgaden/Obersalzberg

Other Miscellaneous Sites - the U.S. 101st Airborne Division Captures German General Tolsdorff at Hirschbichl, Austria

 

NOTE:  The following story is from Rendezvous with Destiny - A History of the 101st Airborne Division, by Leonard Rapport and Arthur Northwood, Jr. (Washington, Infantry Journal Press, 1948). As I researched this story I began to assume it was apocryphal, as some of the details did not ring true after visiting the reported site of these actions. However, I was able to match up one of the 1945 photos to its current location, proving (to me) the veracity of this story.

   "Three paratroopers and a fire engine figured in another surrender. The paratroopers, S/Sgt. William H. Bowen, Jr. and Pvts. Harry A. Barker and McFarlan Barnson, late in the afternoon of May 6 [1945] found a big oil-burning fire engine, 'with all the gadgets ever invented for fighting fires.' ... Starting out - they were several miles southwest of Berchtesgaden - they drove down the highway hunting diesel oil. Finally, seventeen miles from Berchtesgaden and just over the Austrian border near the settlement of Hirschbichl they came to a blown bridge. Sergeant Bowen started on foot across the foundations; in the dark he felt something poke him in the ribs and heard a German command to put his hands up. In a moment all three paratroopers were facing the burp gun and trying, unsuccessfully, to convince its holder that the war was over.

   "The German prodded the Americans toward a farmhouse. ... They asked if they could be taken to a higher-ranking German officer ... Barnson, who could speak some German, was taken to the ranking officer, Lt. Gen. Theodor Tolsdorf, commander of the German LXXXII Corps. [Tolsdorff's name was actually spelled with two fs.]

   "General Tolsdorf, whose corps had shrunk to about 1,200 men from the 36th, 416th, and 256th Volksgrenadier Divisions with a few scattered Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and SS units, was an interesting character. Thirty-five years old, a Prussian, he had in his eleven years in the army almost set a record for advancement. He had been wounded eleven times, had most of the German awards for bravery, and had earned among his troops the nickname 'Tolsdorf the Mad' because of his recklessness with their lives and his own. ... ["Toller Tolsdorff" was one of the most highly decorated officers in the Wehrmacht, having been awarded the Knight's Cross with Oakleaves, Swords, and Diamonds.]

   "Tolsdorf sent Barnson and Barker back to Berchtesgaden to bring out a surrender party; the ranking man, Sergeant Bowen, was kept as a hostage. The two privates crossed the bridge and tried to start the fire engine; it wouldn't. So they hit the road at double-time and double-time they went all the way to Berchtesgaden. At 1040 a jeep came up to the bridge. ... As they came in sight a German colonel standing with Sergeant Bowen said in English: 'Looks like we can all go home now.'

   "The initial negotiations were entered into without formality by General Tolsdorf (who thought he deserved somebody higher than a captain) and Captain Doughty. Later in the morning Colonel Sink [CO of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment] arrived and accepted the corps surrender, to be effective at 1200 the 8th of May. He ordered Tolsdorf to collect his weapons and ammunition and leave them at designated spots. Tolsdorf was then to form his troops and ... march them to Melleck, a German border town to the north. ... 

   "The style in which the Germans expected to surrender was made clear when Tolsdorf and his staff came down in thirty-one vehicles, loaded with personal baggage, liquor, cigars and cigarettes. There were also plenty of accompanying girl friends. One officer even tried to trade his own pistol for an American .45. That day began what must have been a series of disillusioning days for these troops."

   (Leonard Rapport and Arthur Northwood, Jr., Rendezvous with Destiny - A History of the 101st Airborne Division (Washington, Infantry Journal Press, 1948, pp. 737-740)

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   As I tried to find the location of these events, I naturally traveled to Hirschbichl, and then I began to question this account. Hirschbichl straddles the border in the mountains west of Berchtesgaden. Today, normal automobile traffic cannot drive there from either the German side (part of the Berchtesgaden National Park) or the Austrian side - the road is closed to normal traffic - but one can ride the Post bus up the hill from either side and visit the charming village of Hirschbichl.

   All well and good ... except the hilly road on either side of the border has a 24% grade - one of the steepest found anywhere in the Bavarian Alps. I just could not picture the 101st Airborne paratroopers driving a diesel fire engine up these steep inclines and back down. In addition, I could find no bridge that fit this description, or the photo below, near Hirschbichl.

   However, while traveling back to Berchtesgaden on the Austrian side, suddenly the exact vista of the mountains as seen in the period photo came into view, and it was right at a small bridge.

"At this wrecked bridge Staff Sgt. William H. Bowen, Jr., and Pvts. Harry A. Barker and McFarlan Barnson were captured the night of 6 May. The jeeps belong to the 101st party which came up on 7 May to arrange surrender terms with General Tolsdorf." The modern photo is at a slightly wider angle, but a careful comparison of the mountain skylines and hillsides at the same scale, along with the curvature of the road, shows this to be the same location.
(Leonard Rapport and Arthur Northwood, Jr., "Rendezvous with Destiny - A History of the 101st Airborne Division" (Washington, Infantry Journal Press, 1948, p. 738)

   However, this location is not near Hirschbichl at all! In fact, this bridge is almost three miles on into Austria, down a steep mountain road into the valley below, near a small settlement called Stockklaus. The 101st Airborne soldiers certainly drove a long way looking for diesel fuel! And they sure had to "double-time" a long way back to Berchtesgaden - all the way back up that 24% grade to Hirschbichl and back down.  (MapQuest Map Link)

 

On the left, Gen. Theodor Tolsdorff (second from left, with the M43 field cap and armor crewman jacket) surrenders to Col. Robert Sink (in helmet), near Stockklaus, Austria, 7 May 1945. Unfortunately, I could not find any building near the bridge that showed the same configuration as the building in the photo above - this building must have changed over the years, or perhaps it is no longer there. The photo on the right shows the picturesque village of Hirschbichl, on the border.  ("The Epic of the 101st Airborne," Auxerre, France, 101st Airborne Division Public Relations Office, 1945)

 

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