Robert Frettlohr was a German paratrooper left for dead at Monte Cassino who saved the reputation of the man who saved him. Robert Frettlohr, who has died aged 89, was a German paratrooper who was badly wounded and captured at Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944. Years later – having settled in Yorkshire with his English wife – he spoke out in defence of the Polish soldiers who had captured him when they were accused of a war crime. He was also an accomplished musician, and was a member of the first band to play at The Cavern, the Liverpool club made famous by The Beatles.
In May 1944 – having volunteered as a paratrooper because the food was considered better than elsewhere in the Luftwaffe – Frettlohr was a gefreiter (corporal) in the 4th Parachute Regiment, part of the elite 1st Parachute Division, which was tasked with defending the hilltop monastery of Monte Cassino. This Benedictine monastery, part of the German Gustav Line, withstood bloody assaults, bombardment and bombing before finally falling to troops of General Anders’s Polish Corps in May 1944. By then Frettlohr was a casualty, having been wounded in the leg by shellfire.
On the morning of May 18 a platoon of Polish Podolian Lancers of the 3rd Carpathian Division finally entered the courtyard of the monastery and rounded up 18 defenders. Ragged, unshaven and exhausted, the paratroopers were at first alarmed by the Polish eagles on their captors’ uniforms. The Polish platoon commander, Lieutenant Kazimierz Gurbiel, quickly reassured them that Poles did not execute prisoners, distributed cigarettes and gave orders for them to be taken to the rear. Frettlohr left of picture
He then descended to the crypt of St Benedict, where he was appalled to discover three wounded men lying close to the altar, among body parts and sacks containing the corpses of former comrades. One of these wounded was Robert Frettlohr. Placing the men in the care of a hospital orderly, Gurbiel then ascended into the fresh air – he and Frettlohr would not meet again for nearly 40 years.
Frettlohr was evacuated to a military hospital near Naples, and from there, via Egypt, to the United States. After the war he settled in England, and in 1950 married Sarah (Sally) Taylor. Her brother Tom – who had been at Monte Cassino with the British Army – was their best man. “Men who have been in the forces have a different understanding than what
an ordinary person has,” he
later said when explaining how he had been accepted by the family. Below: Kazimierz Gurbiel mid centre ‘facing camera’ and Robert Frettlohr – right
In March 1983 a programme on German television claimed that the Polish troops commanded by Gurbiel had executed wounded German paratroopers in the monastery by machine-gunning them and cutting their throats. The German historian Alexander Tiplt cast doubt on the story , but the absence of a surviving witness made it difficult to establish the full facts. Frettlohr, by this time living at Tingley, near Wakefield, West Yorkshire attended a meeting of the Carpathian Association in London at which he identified Gurbiel from a photograph and testified to the good conduct of the Polish troops who had captured him. He followed this a few months later with a statement under oath that no Germans had been shot or had their throats cut, adding: “We were treated well by the Polish soldiers.” At Frettlohr’s request a meeting with Gurbiel was arranged at Frankfurt airport, where Frettlohr thanked the Pole for saving his life. The two former enemies talked for two hours and agreed to meet at Monte Cassino on the 40th anniversary of the battle, May 18 1984.
On that day, having attended Mass at the Monte Cassino Basilica, Gurbiel was mingling in the crowd in the courtyard outside when he heard a cry: “Gurbiel! It’s me, Frettlohr!” The two men fell into each other’s arms and went together down to the crypt where they had first met four decades earlier. Frettlohr and Gurbiel made plans to meet again at the 50th anniversary of the battle, but Gurbiel died in January 1992. Below: Monte Casino 1995
Robert Frettlohr was born in Duisburg-Meiderich on March 28 1924, and for most of his life in England worked for a plant hire firm in Yorkshire. In his spare time he played double bass with the Leeds-based White Eagles Jazz Band. Approached in Liverpool by a young jazz fan, Alan Sytner, the band went with him to a cellar in Mathew Street which he thought would make a good jazz club. Asked what they thought he should call it, two of the band declared: “It looks like a bloody cavern!” Thus was born one of the world’s most famous music venues. The White Eagles were the first band to play at The Cavern and did so regularly thereafter. Among those who watched them were The Beatles, then an unknown local group.
In his later years Frettlohr was closely involved with British ex-servicemen’s organisations and regularly attended Remembrance services. He became a naturalised British citizen in 1968. Robert Frettlohr’s wife predeceased him, and he is survived by their daughter.
Robert Frettlohr, born March 28 1924, ‘crossed the bar’ January 4 2014
By all accounts Robert Frettlohr was a remarkable gregarious man. A keen supporter of the Air Training Corps and a committee member of 868 (Mirfield) Squadron for about 20 years. He was widely known as a war veteran and was interviewed for many television documentaries and books, and was well-known and respected in the community. He also contributed to the British War Museum Archives and the Second World War Experience Centre, a vast archive based near Wetherby. Yours Aye.
Robert Frettlohr of the German 1st Fallschirmjager Division describes the moment when Allied planes dropped their bombs on the monastery at Monte Cassino, one of the most controversial decisions of the war.