Stories of V-E Day: Josef Hoettel

By: Brian Louwers | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published April 29, 2015

 Josef Hoettel (front row, second from left) trained with the German army in Belgium and was later assigned to the 90th Panzergrenadier Division. The division was originally formed for the Battle of Stalingrad, but was instead sent to Sardinia, Corsica and Italy.

Josef Hoettel (front row, second from left) trained with the German army in Belgium and was later assigned to the 90th Panzergrenadier Division. The division was originally formed for the Battle of Stalingrad, but was instead sent to Sardinia, Corsica and Italy.

Photo provided by Josef Hoettel

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Editor's note: This story was included in a full-length C & G Newspapers feature commemorating the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe. The war in Europe ended with the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945. Metro Detroit residents graciously shared their stories in interviews conducted between January and April 2015. Click here for more V-E Day stories from our coverage area.

Josef Hoettel, 90, St. Clair Shores

Josef Hoettel was born in Poland in 1924 in a town that is now part of Ukraine. His German family moved a few times and eventually lived with his grandmother after his grandfather passed away.


At 14, he was an apprentice working in his father’s blacksmith shop. When war erupted in 1939, the family started moving again and eventually ended up in western Poland.


Three years later, he entered Germany’s paramilitary workforce and spent half a year in occupied France. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht, the regular German army, on his 18th birthday and trained in occupied Belgium in 1942. 


“After the training, they put the division together for Stalingrad,” Hoettel remembered. “But then, all of a sudden, Stalingrad was lost. It was already too late for us to go to Stalingrad, and it was a good thing, you know?”


With German forces also losing ground in North Africa, Hoettel was sent to the island of Sardinia, where he fought for six months with the 90th Panzergrenadier Division. They later went to Corsica before they were shipped to Italy, losing men and equipment in the battles along the way.


Hoettel was assigned to battalion staff and carried messages by foot. If that sounds dangerous, it’s because it is. He had a few close calls and saw plenty of action. He never had to eat any messages, as was the standing order when threatened with capture, but there was a time when he narrowly escaped being taken prisoner by the British. Later, he was shot in the leg as he crawled in a ditch under American machine gun fire. He was injured, but cheated death for sure that time. He later found that his coat, pants and wallet — which he still has — were riddled with bullet holes.


Good fortune again smiled on him when he was sent for three days of anti-tank training while the division fought for a second time in Monte Cassino. They’d already been there once and paid a heavy price. 


“After three days, we came back to our outfit. Our outfit was gone,” Hoettel said. “That was my luck again.”


The Germans were still fighting in Italy in the spring of 1945, but Hoettel said everyone knew things weren’t going well at the front, or for the folks back home.


“Nobody talked about the war, but everybody admitted it was lost,” he said. “But we couldn’t say it. We knew about the bombing. All those towns and cities were completely leveled.”


On April 30, 1945, they loaded onto trucks and surrendered as a group to the American forces. The Panzergrenadiers laid down their weapons and spent the next three days in a holding pen where food was scarce. The Wehrmacht’s food supplies were exhausted, and they had only butter to offer the men before they quit. It didn’t get any better after they did. 


Things improved later when he was sent for training as a truck driver. He was then sent to Gibraltar, along with other prisoners from areas of Europe that fell under Russian control at the end of the war. Hoettel stayed there for two years, where the living conditions were comparatively excellent under British control. 


He was finally released in 1947 and went first to stay with relatives in West Germany. Against his better judgement, Hoettel later went back to East Germany to be with his father. But life under Communist rule wasn’t for him. He and a friend later hired guides to lead them back through the Iron Curtain. They crossed a potato field one night in September 1950 and were back in West Germany. It took some convincing, but Hoettel was eventually able to secure the paperwork necessary for emigration to Canada. He arrived in Nova Scotia on New Year’s Eve that December.


He worked on a farm in Canada for a while and spent years as a painter. He later settled in Windsor before he moved to the United States.


After he left Germany, Josef Hoettel married twice and had five children. There are now 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren who affectionately call him “Opa.”

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