The death of Michael Cister
by Paul Angerer
On 16 January 1944, a bitterly cold and sunny Sunday in Klagenfurt – 80 years ago to the day when this story was published – a group of prisoners of war assigned to work camp 10.029/GW in the Waidmannsdorf district were ordered to clear the frozen Lend Canal of snow, so the citizens of Klagenfurt could go ice skating.
Shovelling snow was typical of the kind of work prisoners of war were given during the winter months, and it was derisively referred to by them as “swinging the banjo”.
One of the prisoners of war assigned to shovelling snow that day was the South African Michael Cister. Born on 2 March 1924 in Stellenbosch, a university town in wine country north of Cape Town, he joined the merchant navy when he was still under age, serving as a simple galley boy on the British tanker “Eleonora Maersk”.
During the fight for Greece in the spring of 1941, the ship anchored in Souda Bay on Crete, where it supplied the British units stationed there with fuel. On 17 May 1941, three days before the Germans invaded the island, the “Eleonora Maersk” was attacked and sunk by German fighters. Barely half of the crew of 44 survived the attack; seven of them, including 17-year-old Michael Cister, were taken by the Germans as prisoners of war.
After spending more than one year in the German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag XVIII D in Marburg (Maribor) in Slovenia, Cister was transferred in July 1942 to Austria to prisoner-of war-camp Stalag XVIII B (Wagna). From there, he was moved in March 1943 to prisoner-of-war camp Stalag XVIII A in Wolfsberg, from where he was finally assigned to work camp 10.029/GW in Waidmannsdorf.
The prisoners of war clearing snow from the iced-up Lend Canal were guarded by an elderly soldier by the name of Andreas Sihler. Born on 8 March 1900 near Klagenfurt, Sihler had served in the Austrian-Hungarian Army during World War 1. When the war ended, he continued to serve for several years in the Austrian Army, or Bundesheer. Upon leaving the army, he took over a farm to the north of Klagenfurt.
A committed Hitler supporter, Sihler joined the National Socialist German Workers Party of Austria as early as 1933, when it was still illegal. After the German annexation of Austria in 1938, Sihler enjoyed a rapid career as mayor and local Nazi group leader of Lendorf, a village to the north of Klagenfurt. As a farmer, he was exempt from military service in the early war years. Only at the end of 1941 was he called up and, after brief basic training, sent to the front in Finland. But he was soon back home again after falling ill. He recovered and returned to active duty, serving in a number of units before he was finally assigned to 6th Company of Landesschützbatallion 910, a home guard unit tasked with guarding the prisoners of war at work camp 10.029/GW in Waidmannsdorf.
The prisoners of war working on the Lend Canal were not overly concerned when the air-raid sirens suddenly went off at 11:25. Enemy bombers had often been seen flying over Klagenfurt, but they had always dropped their bombs elsewhere. But this day was different, since the Allies had decided to target Klagenfurt main station and a nearby aircraft factory.
A total of 90 U.S. B-17 bombers, famously known as “Flying Fortresses”, dropped their bombs over Klagenfurt that day. Many of the bombs missed their intended targets and landed instead near the end of the Lend Canal in the centre of town – known as Lend Harbour – where the prisoners of war were working under the watchful eyes of their guard. The men had not been able to find shelter quickly enough and had absolutely no protection against the hail of bombs.
The guard Andreas Sihler was hit in the temple by a small piece of shrapnel and died immediately. The South African Michael Cister was so badly wounded by the pieces of shrapnel flying around that he died of his wounds in a Klagenfurt military hospital three weeks later, on 6 February 1944. Seven French prisoners of war working at the Stoiser & Wolschner concrete factory were tragically killed when the trench they were sheltering in close to the main station suffered a direct hit.
The first air raid on Klagenfurt, which lasted only 15 minutes, killed a total of 228 people.
Andreas Sihler was buried in the cemetery at Emmersdorf, near Klagenfurt, on 19 January 1944. He was survived by his wife, a daughter, and five-year-old son Horst-Dieter.
Michael Cister was buried at Klagenfurt’s Annabichl Main Cemetry. On 9 February 1944, a funeral parade was held in his honour at the prisoner of war camp in Waidmannsdorf. After the war, Cister’s remains were transferred to the Klagenfurt Commonwealth War Cemetery, which is in the district of Waidmannsdorf.
The Allies initially only learned of Michael Cister’s death by chance, when British censors intercepted a letter from the prisoner of war and former medical officer Captain James C. Munro, who had for some time been responsible for the medical care of the prisoners of war in work camp 10.029/GW. On 4 March 1944, Munro had written in a letter to his wife “One of my Klagenfurt boys – Micky Syster died – he was a South African Seaman and a very nice lad.”
Cister, as a member of the merchant navy, had never been registered as a prisoner of war by the International Red Cross, and it was not possible to officially confirm his death, or inform his family, until early May 1944.
In 2015, 70 years after the end of the war, a memorable meeting took place between the son of the guard Andreas Sihler and the son of an Australian prisoner of war, Kevin Byrne, who had spent almost four years in work camp 10.029/GW in Waidmannsdorf.
Horst-Dieter Sihler, Austrian film critic, writer and poet, died on 30 October 2023. In a poem, he wrote of his father’s death:
papa war nicht mehr da
traf nur die kirche
der dort häftlinge
klagenfurt und papa
erlebten den ersten bombenangriff
er überlebte nicht
papa war tot
papa was gone
an ami pilot
the railway bridge
hit only the church
the lend harbour
klagenfurt and papa
experienced the first air raid
he did not survive
papa was dead
Translation by Paul Brazell
16 January 2024