‘Soldier, Soldier’ (Part 2)
Some of dad’s war stories I once wished I hadn’t heard before. In fact, back when I was able to use “I’m a paratrooper” on my quest to get between girls legs, I had no sympathy for him whatsoever when he talked about the time he surrendered. It use to get to me the way he would say, “it was during Holy Week”, as if Holy Week was the reason it all happened. The only person in the tale I could feel any sympathy for was one of dad’s officers, a lieutenant, who took his own life with a hand grenade rather than throw in the towel. He was apparently a staunch Nazi.
As a British Paratrooper I had been taught to believe that surrender was something that happened to the weak. It also meant defeat, and if it did ever happen, say if you were wounded (“Yeah, or had run out of ammo and couldn’t fight no more anyway”), then the last thing your self-respect would allow you to do is talk about it. Never mind to your own son.
Now that I have no need to believe in the wisdoms of the Parachute Regiment (and I concede that at one time I really did need to), I am able to see that there’s no real loss of respect in saving your own life. In dad’s case they had been on the receiving end of Allied artillery for two months and were left with nowhere else to run. With dad though there was more, because after his surrender he changed sides. Something that I could never imagine doing even now as a civilian.
But then I could never imagine how it was to be Polish and in the German army. Dad’s problems began in May 1939 when Hitler’s over-efficient Nazi government held a national census. To help the cause of ethnic purity, there were four questions that placed people into categories, ranging from blonde haired, blue eyed member of the master race to only suitable for railroad cattle trucks. The black type asked: What religion are you? What nationality? What was your mother tongue? And, of what country were you a citizen?
Dad was a Catholic. Which was ok – Hitler was a Catholic (and one, dad would point out in his Jehovah’s witness days, who was never ex-communicated by the Roman church). Dad’s citizenship was also ok – it was German. Where he scored badly was on his nationality and mother tongue: both Polish.
And just in case dad wasn’t already aware of his predicament, five days after German tanks blitzkrieged into Poland, has father was arrested by the Gestapo and shipped to a concentration camp. Which is the equivalent of me fighting in the Falklands, while at home my family is rounded up and imprisoned.
His father had been arrested and shipped off for being no more than a voice within the Polish community in Kirchlinde. With the help and advice of his battalion officers, who were all “good Wehrmacht men”, dad wrote a letter addressed to “Mein Fuhrer”, asking, as a faithful soldier of the Fatherland, for the release of his father.
The reply came from no less an animal than Heinrich Himmler himself. Short and sharp, it said that his father would be released. (Dad kept Himmler’s letter as a memento, but in the final months of the war it was looted from the family home by American soldiers). On his next period of leave dad travelled home to find his father thin and silent. For everyone’s good in the family, the arrest and internment were to be forgotten, never spoken about.
To show just how life twists and turns, a year after his surrender and change of sides dad took a group of German prisoners himself. He stumbled across them in a wood in Holland, and says that at first he tried to shoot them, but his gun jammed. Luckily, they didn’t want to shoot him and were only too happy to surrender – even to a jammed gun.
Like father like son, I took some prisoners in the Falklands, at Goose Green and on Wireless Ridge. I didn’t do anything brave – they just kept appearing with their hands up. Like dad’s prisoners they were also only to happy to surrender, especially the wounded ones.
Except that one Argentine soldier didn’t get to become a prisoner because unlike dad, my gun didn’t jam. I came across him in a trench. He still shouldered a rifle and with no hesitation I moved my finger, it squeezed a trigger, and then he died. By then the war had been officially over for almost an hour, but I don’t think he had heard, and I don’t think that I was prepared to risk the time to tell him.
Before I went to the Falklands another thing dad would say – something that used to rub against my, kill, kill, Para grain – was that a soldier’s shovel was worth as much to him as his rifle. I mean, whoever heard of being able to kill someone with a shovel?
Shovels are something you hate. They’re heavy and awkward to carry. You dig trenches with them – three in the morning after a 10 mile march, digging into slate in the pisssing wind and rain. Shoulder fucking deep. Then I was sent to the Falklands, and I tell you, after the first shell at Goose Green I was digging free of charge.
We were on the way somewhere and had stopped to look at a map and have a smoke. Me? I was getting below ground. I dug in. We all dug in. It became as natural a thing to do as to breath. And if “worth” is life – then my shovel was worth more to me than my rifle. I’ll grant you that it didn’t kill anyone, but it saved me from being killed – which enabled me to tell dad just how right he had been after all.
Dad’s war finally ended in August 1944 when he was injured by grenade shrapnel in Holland. He was shipped back across the Channel to England and then on to a hospital in Scotland.
By the time of his discharge from hospital the war in Europe was almost over, but dad was to make one final journey. As a newly promoted Second Lieutenant in the free Polish army, buttons polished, cap and tie straightened, he set off to return home to Kirchlinde on leave.
It took him 5 days, hitch-hiking across the Channel into liberated France, gettings lifts in jeeps from jubilant GIs, sleeping nights in stations where trains had no timetables.
Over two years had passed. His family had learned via a card from the Swiss Red Cross that he had been captured in Tunisia, but after Holy week, 1943, they knew nothing. There was no way for dad to tell them that their lost son was coming home. So he walked the streets he had played as a child, up the stairs that led towards his old front door, and knocked.
And then there was a joyous, terrible confusion. He held his dad and his sisters again. But discovered that his mother had died of cancer in his absence. My poor dad. Grandad was as proud as vodka punch though to have a returning son who was an officer in the Polish army.
Dad visited his mother’s grave on the first afternoon and on every day of the week that he spent in Kirchlinden. He also visited the local Nazi who handed in the list of names in 1939, the man who had got his dad sent to a concentration camp. “Oh, I gave him a fright,” dad says today, smiling. Though he never drew his revolver. Just tapped it’s holster.
Back in my short hair and short trousers days, I travelled with dad to Germany. The first time I went I was 9: grandad would have been maybe 80. Dad knocked on the door, it opened, a lot of people all appeared at once, and then everyone started crying. Dad was hugged and kissed and wept on and laughed at – even by other men. At meal times someone would remember the family’s past, their bottom lip would quiver, tears would follow, and then the whole table would join in the sorrow. Or was it joy? I was too young to know. I was just embarrassed by it all. Older now, I understand the years they lived through to reach that dinner table. And I realise it was all both a joy and a sorrow.
Grandad in Germany is dead now but his son is still alive. He’s sitting in the room next door. I know because I can still hear him.
So I try to wonder if it was the same for him, when I bang, bang, banged on a biscuit tin as he maybe thought of a field and a potato in Russia. Or the same for him when he needed to cut my meat for me because it was much quicker, less trouble to watch.
Maybe one day I’ll remember my war and hear a voice say: “I know dad, you’ve told me about the Walkman batteries before.”