Off a road in rural Staffordshire lies Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery. In 1959 Britain and Germany made an agreement about what to do with the remains of German military personnel and civilian internees from the two World Wars. It was agreed that Germans who lost their lives in the UK would be transferred to dedicated cemeteries. This is one of them.
Here reside 4992 bodies or ashes mostly of Germans, some Austrians and some Ukrainians. The graves are spread across a large field made from two slopes each bearing the souls from each World War. Each stone represents two people.
This cemetery lies off a road that cuts through trees and heeds you to drive slowly with signs reading, “Deer Killed Last Year : 165.” When I arrived I was surprised to see the cemetery was empty as it was a sunny Sunday afternoon. I had a stroll around and looked at every headstone without fail. They’re are all similar and there’s no ornamentation, no urns, no flowers, no letters in transparent waterproof bags. One distinction is that a few are female. The other distinction is the profession of the dead. There are three well-known flying aces but there’s one big bad boy - Maximilian von Herff who was a high-ranking Nazi commander. He served in the army in North Africa, was promoted to Oberst (colonel) and aged 47 was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. These are bit like the Victoria Cross awarded in Britain and were highest awards to be gained in Germany during World War II.
Two years later and at Heinrich Himmler’s request Maximilian was transferred to the Waffen-SS. He joined the Nazi Party (number 8 858 661) and the SS (number was 405 894). For nearly three years he became one of Himmler’s personal staff and dealt with internal and financial matters that arose from the SS expanding to a million men. He knew of the Final Solution although he claims he wasn’t involved in exterminations. Three days after his 50th birthday he was promoted to SS-Obergruppenführer (SS general).
So how did he end up in the Staffordshire countryside? In 1949 he was captured by British forces and put into a Grizedale Hall, near Hawkshead in the Lake District. This country manor house was used as a Prisoner Of War camp. The fighter pilot Franz Baron von Werra was held there and his famous escape was made famous by the film The One That Got Away. Maximilian probably decided to stay as the camp was christened “The U Boat Hotel” due to its elegant architecture.
Here Maximilian suffered a stroke and was transferred to Conishead Priory Military Hospital, Ulverston where he died aged 52. He was buried but then later re-buried here where I’m standing.
I had a stroll around the place which was noisy with birds –chaffinches kept landing on the headstones. Among the dead are the crews of four Zeppelin airships shot down over the north of England. The headstones are laid out for ease of maintenance and there’s not much to do besides keeping the grass down. A party of German schoolchildren are brought over each year to tend the plots.
It took about forty minutes to find the Maximilians’s grave even though I could read three rows of stones simultaneously. Looking closely in the grass I could see someone had secreted stones in the grass. I doubt presents are allowed though I did see one solitary canary-yellow flower by one of the graves.
How much Maximilian knew about the mass extermination of six million Jews is unknown. The Franke-Gricksch Report written about the invasion of Poland says Maximilian inspected Auschwitz in May 1943. Can a Nazi of such high rank who worked for Heinrich Himmler not have known about the camps? After the war he claimed Himmler abused him by employing him as a whipping boy should atrocities by uncovered. I suppose we’ll never know. These huge crimes make you wonder if there is a God. If there isn’t the evil people go unpunished and get away with it. Is Maximilian as dead as the granite stone he’s under or frying like bacon somewhere?
Looking looking looking…
The prisoner of war camp where he had a stroke…