When we think of child soldiers most of us automatically think of conflicts in Africa. Harrowing news footage of kids armed with AK47 rifles and grenades and brainwashed beyond belief seem all too familiar to us. But is it a problem that lies mainly in Africa or South America where life is hard and cheap and lives are even cheaper? Well no,and more to the point it’s closer to home than we think.
I can’t help but bring into comparison the stories of 14 and 15 year old British lads joining up in WW1 to fight alongside their fathers and elders. This is an aspect of war that is almost romanticised at the minute and yet rarely, if at all, is it ever compared to today’s plight of boy soldiers around the world. By the time of WW2 lessons had been learnt and joining up took on a stricter and more vigilant approach; that is until things became desperate. We all know of the history behind Nazi Germany’s last throw of the dice and ultimate collapse but what of the months leading up to this point? Germany had been bled dry and not just in 1945. Way before this and even before D-Day, Russia had acted as the vampire and Germany the victim. Manpower was a massive problem to the Nazis as early as 1942 and by the spring of 1943 it was mandatory for all students aged 16 or over to join the Reich Labour Service, most as Flak gun helpers or ‘Flakhelfers’. The stark reality was that many, like the author were as young as 15.
As distasteful as the subject is, this book forwarded me an explanation as to why boy soldiers exist: Desperation and necessity. Germany was down but not out and needed all her men at the front, the children or boy soldiers as Karl Heinz Schlesier describes himself were there to plug the gaps at home in the ‘safer roles’. Again, reading this book you realise just how dangerous it really was in Germany’s towns and cities as the RAF and USAAF and their constant bombing raids caused havoc and mayhem on a daily basis. Schlesier’s Dusseldorf was no exception as he writes his memoirs and brings to life the horror and suffering of a people on the verge of collapse as if it had happened yesterday. It’s fresh and bracing and you won’t miss a beat in this frank and naked account. It’s both funny and serious, happy and sad. There are moments of great poignancy and loss but also of humour and friendship in a place where there should have been none.
I highly recommend this book for those with an interest in WW2 but who are looking for something just a little different. Of particular note, and I’ll throw my lot on the table with this, it contains one of the best prefaces I’ve ever read in a book. Sounds far fetched? Well, I’m not into throwing around loose words and I don’t gamble and (contrary to some views) I’m of sound mind and still I stand by my testament. Its honesty reassures you from the start that this story is going to be nothing other than pure and truthful. The fact that you’re still reading this review means you have a choice to make. It’s a simple one. Buy it and read it.
Reviewed by Phil Hodges for War History Online
FLAKHELFER TO GRENADIER
Memoir of a Boy Soldier 1943-1045
By Karl Heinz Schlesier