Heartland heroes: Willi Huber

HEARTLAND HERO: Willi Huber, left, and his wife, Edna.
HEARTLAND HERO: Willi Huber, left, and his wife, Edna.

Canterbury mountain man was a decorated German war hero. MIKE CREAN reports.

The Iron Cross saved Willi Huber's life. The Austrian mountain boy who fought in the German Army in World War II was awarded the highest military honour of Iron Cross First Class for his actions in the great tank battle at Kursk.

As the war neared its close Huber was seriously wounded and taken to a military hospital. Though not fully recovered, he discharged himself and headed for home in Austria.

Chaos ruled on the roads, railways and canals. He risked arrest and instant execution as a deserter. He says the people's respect for the medal he wore assured him rides and he got almost home, to Schladming in the Steria district.

Huber has lived in New Zealand since 1953, mostly in Christchurch. He became prominent in skiing, especially in establishing the Mt Hutt ski area, and in mountain climbing and guiding. He has been honoured at Mt Hutt for his contribution and by the Austrian Government for forging good relations between New Zealand and Austria.

Huber and his wife, Edna, retired to Geraldine after their Cashmere house burned down after the 2011 earthquake.

"I love New Zealand. I never would live anywhere else," he says.

Born in 1923, Huber enjoyed farm life in the Alps. He loved taking the cows and sheep into the high pastures in summer. He would stay in the mountains, climbing for weeks on end. His love of mountains moved him to seek a career in mountain guiding, against his father's wishes that he stay on the farm.

When war came, he realised he would be conscripted so he volunteered in the hope he would have some say in where he served. He was assigned to a motorcycle reconnaissance unit, as machine gunner, and saw action in the invasion of Russia. He got close enough to Moscow to see its city spires and domes. Then the Germans were turned back. He speaks of being stuck in snow and unbelievable cold, with no petrol and meagre supplies, for two months. As part of the general retreat, he was brought back to Germany for re-training in tanks. He then served as gunner in a Panzer tank on the Russian front.

The Iron Crosses (he was awarded a Second Class cross as well) recognised the hits he scored against Russian tanks at Kursk. Asked how many tanks he hit, he replies: "I can't remember and it doesn't matter".

His division was recalled to help shore up German defences in France against Allied invasion. Again, petrol supplies ran short, making battle hopeless. He recalls hearing Allied planes overhead every night, dropping supplies to French Resistance fighters, while the Germans had nothing. He knew the war was lost but fought on. The troops had been trained to believe they could still win and that Hitler's secret weapons would turn things around, he says.

Forced back into Germany, Huber was attacked by a Russian officer who stabbed him in the chest and leg before he could draw his pistol and shoot him. His knife wounds were life-threatening and he needed hospital care.

From hospital he could see boats going up the Danube River. He walked out and began a series of boat rides.

About 90km short of Schladming he had to go into hospital again. While he was there, the war ended. He completed his journey home and recuperated for three months.

Having volunteered for the German Army put him off-side with many Austrians, he says. One betrayed him to the American occupation force. He was arrested and held as a "political prisoner" for 16 months.

Huber believes his background as a country farm boy helped him survive the war.

"I had a logic of survival. I knew what to do in any circumstances - find food etc. I could deal with the country and with people."

Huber next trained and became qualified in mountain guiding and ski instructing. He made many climbs in the alps, including the first ascent of Mt Steinweg. His guiding of an English doctor who had studied in Otago led to an interest in New Zealand. The doctor told him he would love New Zealand and should climb Mt Cook. He urged Huber to apply for a scheme to go to New Zealand with a team of carpenters to assemble Austrian-built kitset houses.

Huber knew nothing of carpentry but applied anyway. He was called to an interview and told the panel he was not a carpenter. They said they knew that, but an English doctor had recommended him as someone who would do well in New Zealand. He was accepted.

He worked on State houses at Porirua for 18 months before being released from his contract. Then he bought a Volkswagen car and, with two mates, headed for Mt Cook. His plan, he says, was to climb the mountain, then return to Austria.

Bad weather made climbing impossible. While waiting for cloud to clear, he met Edna. The former Londoner had emigrated to Australia in 1948 and was at Mt Cook on a tour of New Zealand. They married in 1956 and had four children.

Huber settled his family on Christchurch's Cashmere Hills. He took many jobs to provide a good education for the children. While working at Tisdalls sports and hunting shop on Cashel St he set up the store's skiing department. He was also a commercial traveller in outdoor sports clothes and equipment.

Being in Christchurch allowed Huber to climb and ski in the Southern Alps. He lost count of his ascents of Mt Cook, many of them while guiding foreign climbers.

He was an instigator of Mt Hutt ("Just say I was a pioneer of Mt Hutt," he says modestly.) He did investigations of sites for ski runs and found the route for the access road. He negotiated with European firms for ski lift systems and equipment. He attracted Austrian Olympic ski teams for training camps.

Still there was time for Himalayan climbing expeditions, for teaching skiing and for frequent trips home.

At 90 years old, Huber still has niggles from his war wounds, but remains as lively as anyone 20 years younger.

The Press