In the fall of 1944, about a month after the fall of Paris, the German High Command decided to reactivate the fortifications of the Westwall, which the Allies had come to call the Siegfried Line. Regular troops could not be spared, and tens of thousands of Hitler Youth boys were given the task. Suddenly, our small Luxembourg village was flooded with brown shirts. The village sat at a strategic point between the river Moselle and the highlands, where the valley was flat and wide open. In order to close that dangerous gap in front of the bunkers, an enormous anti-tank barrier had to be dug and fortified. Soon I received orders to detach 60 of my boys to the construction site. The senior Hitler youth commander was perhaps a couple of years older than I. One late afternoon, as he was marching his formation single-file back to the village under the cover of the trees along the road, a marauding British Spitfire pilot spied the column and dove to the attack. Two boys were killed and their commander was shot through the thigh. Late that evening, I received orders from Hitler Youth headquarters in Germany to take his place. That put me in charge of an assortment of units that eventually grew to about 2800 boys and perhaps 80 girls who operated our field kitchens.
The man responsible for the architectural execution of the project was a disabled Panzer first lieutenant by the name of Franz Leiwitz. He was an authentic hero who had lost his left arm in Russia. He had dispatched a total of 14 Russian T-34 tanks and wore the Knight’s Cross around his neck. When I first saw Leiwitz, he was sitting on his horse, watching the construction. He smiled crookedly at me and said, “So, you are now the leader of this children’s crusade?” I was deeply offended by this flippancy, but within days we became friends. It almost certainly saved his life a few weeks later.
Unexpectedly one morning, I was picked up by an SS lieutenant with orders to drive me to a conference. To my surprise, we ended up in an armored train deep in the forest near the German border. There were perhaps 50 of us assembled in one of the long cars, around a narrow oak table. Some were construction officials of the vast government construction agency, Todt, and there were some high-ranking SS officers and a Wehrmacht general, the military commander of Luxembourg. Most of us, though, were Hitler Youth leaders. Then the door opened, and in walked Albert Speer, the tall, bushy-browed minister of armaments and Hitler’s favorite architect.
Speer, an organizational genius, was by then in charge of all war production in the Third Reich and one of the three most powerful men in Germany. After a very brief introduction, he wasted no time in telling us that Germany was in imminent danger of losing the war. We, especially the Hitler Youth leaders, eyed each other in stunned silence. If any of us had told our units what Speer had just coolly told us, we would certainly have been shot. The mere mention of defeat was nothing short of high treason.