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Seventy-five Years Ago Today....

ChrisM

Super Moderator
Staff member
I think I'm right in saying that the liberation of Auschwitz passed, at the time, almost without being noticed. I haven't researched this in detail but I do recall noting that in The Times Archive the initial report, astonishingly, amounted to about five lines, tucked away in some obscure part of the newspaper. What other reporting there was, I don't know, and I certainly wasn't conscious of it myself. Was there ever anything in the Birmingham newspapers?

I suppose it wasn't too surprising if this was a non-event. So much else going on at that moment, not least the end of the Battle of the Bulge which had led to 81,000 American casualties; and much else in Western Europe, on the Eastern Front and in the Pacific. Also it was the Soviet Army which was involved and so news, and any detail, was minimal.

So different a few weeks later when the camps in the West were liberated – names we all know now as well: Buchenwald on April 11th , Belsen 15th, Dachau 29th. Journalists and military film crew closely involved almost immediately. I remember very clearly the day when the Daily Mail carried the first reports, almost certainly of Belsen. My parents didn't want to let me see it and hid the paper under an armchair. That ruse didn't work and so, a week after my ninth birthday, I surreptitiously read everything.

I don't know how long it took for a full understanding of Auschwitz to be achieved and become widely known. But I think it took an age. And now it's a name which will never ever be forgotten and nor should it be.

Chris
 

ChrisM

Super Moderator
Staff member
The liberation of Belsen on April 15th, and especially the images and descriptions which appeared in the newspapers a few days later, made an immense impression on everyone, not least on me. I remember it so well and have never forgotten. For my parents and other grown-ups, I imagine that none of the evils which they had long suspected matched up at all to the reality when it finally hit them.

Eight months later, in December 1945 and long after it had been cleared up, my father saw the camp when he was in Northern Germany. He was photographed outside it. That image has been lost but this is the one he took of his comrade at the same time. The buildings behind the barbed wire are substantial. They are not at all temporary as one might expect from the contemporary newsreels and newspaper images: rather they are permanent and, as my father later noted in the photograph album, designed to be used for many generations to come.

Chris

UkColleagueBelsenGermany1945img343red2.jpg
 

Bob Davis

Bob Davis
The liberation of Belsen on April 15th, and especially the images and descriptions which appeared in the newspapers a few days later, made an immense impression on everyone, not least on me. I remember it so well and have never forgotten. For my parents and other grown-ups, I imagine that none of the evils which they had long suspected matched up at all to the reality when it finally hit them.

Eight months later, in December 1945 and long after it had been cleared up, my father saw the camp when he was in Northern Germany. He was photographed outside it. That image has been lost but this is the one he took of his comrade at the same time. The buildings behind the barbed wire are substantial. They are not at all temporary as one might expect from the contemporary newsreels and newspaper images: rather they are permanent and, as my father later noted in the photograph album, designed to be used for many generations to come.

Chris

View attachment 144136
In 1955 stationed at Minden, a group of us had to go to Hamburg army business, on the way back wè passed through the village Belsen Bergen, as it was lunch time we stopped at the local Gasthaus for ein bier und bratwurst, during a rather uncomfortable stop, the village name was mentioned and the immediate reply was we did not know what was going on etc. Àfter lunch we decided to go and take a look ... it was a beautiful day the birds were singing, we reached what must have been an entrance, went in and somehow it went cold, the birds stopped singing and there was a strange smell, it is all still in my memory. We left immediately and no one said a thing until we got back to Minden
Bob
 

Radiorails

master brummie
The post 66# by Bob is very interesting. I find photographs of those places - there were very many besides the more well known place names - quite distressing. To visit there would harrowing to say the least.
 

Bob Davis

Bob Davis
The post 66# by Bob is very interesting. I find photographs of those places - there were very many besides the more well known place names - quite distressing. To visit there would harrowing to say the least.
Alan
I cannot explain it, it was just a field down a country lane, but somehow the minute we entered, everything altered and even as I write this I can recall the smell, what was also strange was that we were in an Austin Champ with the top down and a trailer behind, all the way up and back as far as Belsen Bergen, we had chatted, laughed and were typically 'squaddies'. From Belsen Bergen back to Minden, we were sombre and silent.

Bob
 

ChrisM

Super Moderator
Staff member
Had a not dissimilar experience when I was in southern Germany in the 1980s.

My colleague and I drew up at our hotel in quite a pleasant little town not far from Munich and I was astonished to find that its name was Dachau. I never realised it was an actual town as well as that dreadful place whose name is so familiar. Couldn't understand why, after the war, they didn't change it. But they didn't, and I suppose that for much of the population of both countries, it doesn't really resonate very much these days, at least amongst the youngsters.

We had a bit of time to spare before supper and so we found the camp. Not much more than a stone's throw outside the town. By then a fairly tidied up Museum. Truly ghastly place, eerie and full of ghosts. Amongst the crimes committed there was a series of medical experiments carried out on behalf of (or even by) the Luftwaffe. Oxygen deprivation and that sort of thing. There was no one there but us and when we left, and were glad to, the guard was obviously waiting for us so that he could lock up. He had the decency not to give us a glare.

Not much to say to each other and I didn't sleep all that well that night.


Now I come to think of it, it was a bit ironic that the following morning we found ourselves trying to sell some bits and pieces to a Munich aircraft engine manufacturer. The chap we were dealing with, now fairly elderly, had as a 19 or 20-year-old been a Focke-Wulf 190 pilot (and was, therefore, I suppose, the theoretical beneficiary of some of this dreadful work carried out just down the road - as was the USAAF, later). Hans was a nice fellow and we liked him. He told us that in late April and the first week of May 1945 he and his Squadron were at a central Berlin aerodrome – Gatow, I think. The planes were there, fuelled up and ready to go. But nothing happened, day after day. Perhaps they were being held in reserve ready to help the escape of some top Nazi, trying to save his neck. Bormann, Goebbels, the Monster-in-Chief himself? Who knows? Eventually they all turned their backs on the aircraft, everything. And just walked.

Hans's opinion was of less historical impact: he thought that his C.O. was just trying to save their lives and wouldn't order his planes up into the air on behalf of a lost cause.

Chris
 

ChrisM

Super Moderator
Staff member
It's Monday May 7th 1945. And it's nearly evening.

I'm sitting at the table in our dining room (which is really our living room). Quite a lot happens at this table. I do my homework here (I've done tonight's although I'm not sure I needed to). Mum, Dad and my sister Sheila write letters, especially to my brother Graham who's still in Italy. Mum does her darning here and sometimes lifts the Singer sewing machine up onto it to do seams on clothes or big things like curtains. Sheila uses it as well sometimes, when she's making dresses from patterns and that sort of thing. I'm not allowed to get anywhere near it. The needle could go right through your finger. Doesn't look to me anything like as dangerous as Dad's Home Guard rifles (he's still got three), or his revolver which I know is in his vest and pants drawer, but it's not worth arguing about because I'm not that interested. Although it IS quite good fun to turn the handle and hear everything whirring and see the needle going up and down and the material moving itself forward underneath it. I wonder how it does it.

Behind me, on either side of the fireplace, are Dad and Mum's leather armchairs. Dad's just got back from work and he's sitting in his, reading the newspaper and smoking his pipe. Sheila is upstairs, getting ready to go out, somewhere. She goes out a lot. To the Youth Club, dances, the ice rink in Birmingham. She's seventeen. Tonight she'll probably be meeting up with her friends to talk about what's happened today. Mum is probably in the kitchen, getting supper ready. So her chair is empty. I glance over my shoulder at it. About three weeks ago the morning newspaper seemed to be rather special. I didn't know why and I wasn't allowed to look at it and my parents wouldn't talk about it. Mum or Dad put it under Mum's armchair to keep it away from me. That wasn't a very good hiding place and, of course, the moment they were out of the way I grabbed it. It was all about one of those camps, concentration camps they call them. I had heard about them before. I think this one was called Belsen which our troops had liberated a few days earlier. The newspaper was full of dreadful photographs and descriptions. I read it all, every word. And I'll probably never forget it. It has just made us all hate the Germans even more than ever. If that was possible. It is easy for me – I have never met a German, except in my nightmares. But Dad had friends there before the war. I expect he is wondering what has happened to them and, if they are still alive, why they have done such awful things since he last saw them.

Every day, we have been getting nearer and nearer to Berlin. I read all about it in the paper every single day. And I had my birthday a month ago. Now I'm nine. My brother is still in Italy, he was fighting last week near Ravenna but everything there stopped a few days ago and we think he is OK. Last Wednesday we heard that Hitler was dead and that was just marvellous. Since then it's been obvious that we are going to win. But they have a new leader now. His name is Doenitz. He says he's not going to give up. And so we have been carrying on, not knowing when it is really going to happen. Or even if.

Anyway, I'm sitting here thinking about what went on this afternoon.

I was in the garden, mucking about. It's been a nice day. I had got back from school and then went outside. Just Mum in the house. Dad and Sheila not home from work. They've both got jobs at ICI at Witton. Don't think I was doing anything in particular. I like our garden and just being in it. Dad has done so much to make it beautiful and interesting. This was it not long after they had moved in, in 1931.

GMWindyridge1931caSepti.jpg

(That's my elder brother. I think it was his first day at Bishop Vesey's in Sutton). The house was brand new. Dad had just started on the paths, They were later done in concrete, marked to look like crazy paving. Tons and tons of it. Of course the garden's got quite neglected over the last few years because Dad has been so busy. He still talks about what it looked like before the war. (And we have colour photographs of it then). But it still looks pretty good to me and now, here we are in early May, and everything is sprouting and starting to flower. Even the spuds are beginning to show themselves.

This is another photo after a lot of work had been done. It's from about ten years ago, in 1935 or 1936. I am only showing it so you can see where I was, this afternoon - near the log at the end of the lawn.

WindyridgeGardenca1936img056.jpg

(As I say, this is an old photograph, taken not long after Dad had done most of the work, about ten years ago. You can see the borders, the rockery, the paths, the swing which looks like the entrance to a church, the pool, Sheila's Wendy house which he built for her 7th or 8th birthday, some of the plants. What isn't there is The Dugout, our air raid shelter. It wasn't needed, then. Then Dad built it just beyond the log and the little cherry tree and I can just remember him doing it. We haven't been down in it for ages and it's starting to get a bit damp and smelly).

So that's where I am at that moment. Somewhere near the big log. I am looking back towards the house, into the sun. Nothing's happening. Then our neighbour, Mrs Bacon, appears and comes to the fence, holding a newspaper and calling out to my mum. Mum comes out of the house and goes over to her. I hear exactly what is said even though Mrs. Bacon is speaking quietly as she holds out the paper. This is all she says:

"Freda, it's all over".

Mum takes the paper and looks at it. They talk for a few minutes. There's no whoops of joy, no clapping of hands. Just quiet chat. I don't think to check if anyone is crying. Grown-ups don't normally do that. Mum did just once, which I told you about before. But you can never tell. Grown-ups are funny people. Perhaps there is the odd tear, again. I'm too far away to see. And anyway, they should be happy, not sad.

Then finally each of them walk away from the fence and go back inside.

Mrs Bacon is probably thinking about her husband. He's been in Malta for years. Now perhaps she will see him again, fairly soon. And Mum will certainly be thinking about my brother.

And that's the moment when I knew that the end had come. Tomorrow is VE Day. No school. Mr. Churchill will be on the wireless at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. And in the evening there is a huge bonfire a little way up the road, here in Streetly, in a field just after Bridle Lane and Puddepha's corner shop. That'll be super. I may tell you about it afterwards.

And as for tonight, I'll go to bed eventually. Just like any other night. Then, after reading for a bit, I shall go to sleep with the world at peace. (Or at least our part of it - because the Japs are still there). That's what will be different. I wonder what it will feel like. I can't properly remember doing it before.

Chris
 

ChrisM

Super Moderator
Staff member
Well, a couple of days have passed and now it's Wednesday May 9th. I promised to tell you something about last night's bonfire.

Perhaps you'd like to know where it was. I'm going to show you Dad's prewar map which tells you. (It also tells you a bit about the northern part of Birmingham at the present time, if you don't know it already. The map was printed in 1938 and nothing has changed much since then). Here it is. It's at the very top of the map. I'm showing you where I live, where the bonfire was last night and also where Dad's friend Mr. Hall lives.

75YearsBonfirew750.jpg

That was the easy bit! I'm now going to do something which is very difficult. Not only difficult but, if I can do it, quite clever as well (I'm sorry if that sounds a bit like boasting because Mum says I should never boast). But this is what I'm going to try and do. I'm going to pretend that I'm not nine but EIGHTY-FOUR!! I'm going to try and think of everything which happened last night which I might still be able to remember 75 years in the future. Yes, in the year 2020. Gosh, that's a long, long way into the future. What will the world be like then? I shall be more than grown-up by that time, I shall be VERY OLD INDEED. Older than Dad and Mum are now, even. Nearly twice as old as them and THEY were born in the 19th century and so they are pretty old as well, already. I don't think I have ever met anyone over 70. But I think that a few people do live longer than that and so I am not asking you to believe the impossible.

Don't ask me why I should try and do something so difficult. I have my reasons. And I bet you are thinking that I shan't even be able to do it. Or even that it's some sort of trick.

But here goes. It's in the next post. I am sorry that nobody took pictures. Dad hasn't taken many for years. I think the film is very difficult to get.

Chris
 

ChrisM

Super Moderator
Staff member
THE STREETLY HOME GUARD BONFIRE
(Endings and Beginnings)

The fire rapidly caught, the flames licking upwards as they fed on the liberal splashing of paraffin. Dead branches and old timber planks began to spit and then crackled and flared against the darkening sky. I was beside myself with excitement. Even a small garden bonfire was a wonderful thing; but garden bonfires were never this huge and they were never lit at dusk, never, ever. I had the dimmest memory of two other large bonfires at night, one which seemed to reach to the very heavens and was accompanied by coloured fire and loud bangs which terrified me. And another, a gentler affair, when my elder sister, in her Girl Guide uniform, held my hand and deeply impressed me by explaining that this huge mound of fire would all have started from a single match. But this was happening here, and now, on a cloudless evening in early May, and I was nine and I was standing in the pasture watching it as the flames grew and grew.

On the very top of the bonfire there were two figures, so far untouched by the approaching flames. But these were no ordinary Guy Fawkes effigies. On the face of one of them had been drawn a cruel, down-turned mouth and a pair of round black spectacles behind which two slitted eyes lurked with oriental menace. But the owner of this threatening, alien face was only the supporting player in the unfolding drama. All our attention was on the other figure. It was dressed in an old Home Guard battle tunic and trousers and under the peaked cap its pillow case forehead bore an easily recognisable slick of black hair. A silly little square moustache above the scowling mouth and a familiar armband removed any possible doubt about its identity. I watched in fascination as the flames crept up towards it. A leg was the first to ignite, followed by the arms and then the whole tunic was burning and gradually the entire figure started to disappear behind a wall of flame before sliding slowly down into the very heart of the inferno. A loud cheer rang out around me. We all knew that the monster himself had probably been dead now for several wonderful days. But at that moment I was yet to learn that he had been disposed of in a similar way: splashed with the contents of a jerrican and then burnt in a shallow trench - just as we were now burning his effigy, but more completely and with far greater ceremony.

Several of my father's old Home Guard comrades were entertaining the crowd with flares and thunderflashes, old training stock which had been carefully retained when the organisation had finally been stood down a few months previously. For us children there was a table with sausage rolls and home-made biscuits and something to drink. Lemonade or ginger beer was dispensed from fat stone bottles into cups. "Drink from near the handle, dear", my mother would always whisper to me whenever I was about to imbibe in a public place. "And avoid any chips". Such advice was difficult to follow on this particular evening, since most of the cups were old and cracked and few had retained their handles. But in any case this was hardly a time for petty rules or worry about life-threatening germs.

The bonfire was now beginning to subside and was eventually little more than a large mound of glowing embers surrounded by an impenetrable wall of heat. I was standing with my father and one of his friends, Mr. Hall, as close to the fire as one could comfortably be, and we were all gazing with fascination into the furnace. At that moment a small boy of about my age, but unknown to me, tore past us between us and the fire.

"Hey, laddie" my father's friend called out in an educated voice. "Where would you be if you tripped over?"

The boy stopped and turned his face towards us, his expression containing all the contempt due to someone who not only has asked a stupid question, but also is an adult who doesn't even know how to speak proper.

"In the foire!" he replied, the intonation one of pure Brummagem; and with a final pitying look in our direction, he raced off again.

Most of the onlookers were now drifting away. We waited until the fire had died down further before finally turning our backs on it. It would gradually cool and in the morning my father and his friends would return with barrow and rake and remove the debris, amongst it Adolf's and Tojo's ashes, and return the pasture to how it was before. Of course they could not remove the circular, blackened scar but they would do what they could and then nature would take over and by the first autumn of peace it would have greened over as though nothing had ever occurred there. And as the following years and decades went by fewer and fewer people would remember the bonfire and the event it commemorated; or even, as they walked over the car park of the 1950's pub, the pasture under their feet on which it had taken place.

We were joined by my mother and Mrs. Hall as we went through the farm gate and turned right to walk along the Chester Road on which our homes stood a few hundred yards away. Past Puddepha's, the little shop on the corner of Bridle Lane where I was regularly sent to buy my father's two ounces of Gold Flake pipe tobacco or my mother's packet of Player's. Then over the mouth of Bridle Lane and past a towering, unkemt, privet hedge on the far corner behind which crouched a row of old cottages. The main road was one of the principal routes out of Birmingham to the north-west, to Holyhead, Chester and Birkenhead; but as usual at night little was moving on it. As we walked along we heard the sound of a car in the distance behind us, coming from the direction of the Hardwick Arms. As it approached, louder and louder, its headlamps illuminated the hedges of hawthorn and privet and the front gardens behind them and cast long shadows in front of us. Finally it roared past us at speed, as though it were celebrating its liberation from the black headlamp masks which had until recently allowed only the faintest of glimmers to light its path. As the single tail light faded, the only reminder of the vehicle's existence was a strange, lingering singing of the tyres as they bore it on its way towards the Parson and Clerk and the Birmingham city boundary. Now again there was utter silence, save for the noise of our footsteps on the gritty pavement. Above our heads the sky was dark. It had already transformed itself into that familiar canopy of black velvet extending from horizon to horizon, studded with pinpoints of flashing diamonds and the steadier glow of tiny pearls. No street lamp, no unending stream of traffic yet intruded upon this complete darkness, nor any longer the distant glow of a burning city. We walked past the houses of our neighbours, the Caultons, Allums, Morgans, Lyonses, Behagues, Farringtons, Parkers, Darlingtons, Prices, Milnes, Brains. Past that of our local ARP warden, Mr. Markwick, who used to erupt from the darkness like a smiling genie and gently admonish my mother for injudicious use of her flashlamp. And past houses where a son or a husband was still far away - Mr. Bacon, Mr. Woodward, Mr. Bullock, my own brother - and where perhaps there lived a young child who knew a father only from a photograph and would not recognise him on his return.

Then we stopped, for here we had to cross the road to our own house. The grown-ups continued chatting, obviously reluctant to let the evening end, as I was too. The suggestion from Mr. Hall of a nightcap resolved the matter and we continued on our way down the road. Past more houses with absent fathers, at least one of whom would never return. Halfway down the hill we turned into our friends' front drive.

Inside the house the grown-ups settled in their armchairs, the men pouring out a bottle of beer and the ladies clutching a glass of sherry, carefully preserved for just such an occasion as this. A large wireless set, for once silent, stood in the corner. I lay on the hearthrug and half listened to the conversation, not consciously telling myself, as I sometimes did, that I must always remember this moment although for some reason I always would. Nor did I ponder on the fact, of which I was well aware, that all the world's horrors had not suddenly become a thing of the past but were still alive and well, thousands of miles away.

As warmth and exhaustion started to overtake me, my mind slowly emptied itself. Tomorrow I would probably think of the delights to which I could look forward: a planned summer holiday and the sight of the sea again, now only dimly remembered after so long; and above all, some time in the now foreseeable future, the return from Italy of my elder brother whom I had not seen for over two years - ever since he walked off down the front drive that day - and was now having difficulty in visualising. But tomorrow was tomorrow and today was still today and it was very late. My parents and their friends gaily chatted away, their spirits uplifted by the thought that they too might again be permitted their own pleasures and the fulfilment of some of their hopes, after years of unrelenting worry and toil. I lay there on the soft hearthrug, still cocooned, still protected, still safe. A delicious drowsiness enveloped me. Then, as the voices faded gradually, imperceptibly, into the distance, I drifted off, off and away, into a deep and dreamless sleep.



Chris
 
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