Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Winter 46/47

Huge news: it's winter - we have snow - Britain has come to a standstill!!!
For a country which is obsessed with the weather (after all, there is hardly a casual conversation which does not start with a remark or two about it), we sure don't know how to cope with it.
However, it's fun for me to wade through deep snow, snug in Aunt Josephine's ancient furs, watching Benno race around and manically bite into it. All his favourite sticks are buried
deep and he digs so hard to unearth them, the snow flies up and covers him too. The only problem is that we can't drive the car: we can't get it over the cattle grids and out of the drive.

Winter wasn't always such fun.
There was a time when frost, ice and snow were a curse and that was the winter of 46/47 in Germany. In fact, more or less the whole of Europe iced over but for a country which was on its knees, with millions of people without fuel, without food, without shelter it was retribution indeed.

As a tiny child I lived in a village on the lower Rhine and although we had shelter we had neither food nor fuel. There were, however, trains filled with coal from the nearby mining area of the Ruhr, which rolled through woods not far off on their way to the Dutch border.
It so happened, that these trains always came to a momentary stop in the woods, waiting for a signal to allow them passage onwards. It didn't take long for this to become known in the village. The coal was transported in open wagons, not very high ones, with iron bars or steps on the outside. A few village men risked the first raids on the train; when nothing happened, others followed suit. Little by little, everyone was involved in stealing coal, my parents and me included. It was always after dark when the raids took place. As soon as the train started to slow down (it was never very fast) the men clambered aboard, throwing down coal with their bare hands while the women and children frantically scooped it up, into sacks or baskets; the lucky ones might have had a handcart, although it was quite difficult to get anything but the smallest conveyance through the uneven terrain of the woods. We had a bicycle which helped with carrying our loot. My father pushed it. My mother was ill with starvation and unable to carry much and I was too small, although I remember dragging a sack behind me until we got out of the wood and my father loaded it onto his back.

Because we were such a small group, we never managed to take much coal, enough for loading the stove once or twice only. Others were better organized; a family of several men and older children could carry two or three sacks away on each raid.

The authorities soon became aware of the raids. The trains never stopped for long, at most five to ten minutes, not enough time to steal large quantities of coal; it was, however, a criminal offence; even people in danger of freezing to death could not be allowed to get away with it.

We never knew how the military police found out but, within a week or two, the raids were regularly interrupted by several all terrain army vehicles arriving along the tracks, lights blazing, whistles whistling shrilly and much confused shouting. The men jumped from the wagons, women and children dragged away what they could and, abandoning the rest, the thieves fled into the woods.

Nevertheless, the raids continued for much of that winter. Not always did the military police get to the signal box in time; sometimes they came when the train was already moving again and the families were just about to vanish into the woods.
I never heard of anybody being caught and punished. Why that is so I don't know. Children and women would have been easy prey. Did the soldiers and policemen resent having to leave their vehicles and follow the fugitives into the dark woods? Why were they occasionally late arriving? Were their barracks too cosy on these bitter nights? Were the raids over too quickly for decisive action?

Or did they have a heart?

1 comment:

  1. Iwas stationed at Bicester part of winter 46/47.Conditions here were as you describe.I'm prompted to comment because our only source of fuel was coal begged from the depot's railway operated by German p.o.w.s (I don't know what their legal status was).


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