Tuesday, 24 March 2009

March 1945

One night after my American "friend" and his tank disappeared from the pavement in front of the house Mother and I heard a scratching, scrabbling noise coming from the backyard. It was black night, the only light came from the stars above and even the noise of day, the rumble of machinery and vehicles being moved, the drone of aeroplanes, had stopped. The noise from the frontline was different, sharper, and at the same time, more distant. This was a noise to be frightened of, a secret human presence very stealthily making itself known at the back of the house. Rumours of rapes and robberies were rife, it was as well to remain quiet and unnoticed, not to call attention to one's presence.

The noise continued, becoming more insistent. And then a voice, the merest whisper. "Katie", it breathed, "Katie". Katie was Mother's name.

Mother crept to the back door. "Are you mad", she greeted Father, "there are soldiers all around, patrolling; don't you know how dangerous it is for you to be here".

I have often heard this story told in the years to come, when life was normal again; how Mother received her "heroic" husband who had risked his life to return to her through fierce fighting, a deserter, for part of the way still in uniform, to come to the aid of his damsel in distress, by roundly reproaching him.

Rumours of the American and British advance had reached Father's camp; he knew they must have reached the village by now. Having given up the war as a lost cause long since, he grabbed some rations and deserted, going absent without leave; his one thought to get to his wife and child whom he knew to be unprotected and alone.

He had about 100 km to walk, first through his own lines, then enemy lines. He was in uniform when he started his trek; both sides would have shot him on the spot, had he been caught.

It took him three days and four nights; he spent much of the time hiding in barns and hedges and moved with extreme caution. He was on the wrong side of the Rhine, the river must be crossed by one of the few bridges left standing which happened to be the bridge closest to home.

Before attempting the crossing he made for a farm just inside the German lines. He attracted the attention of the farmer's wife who took him in, hid him in the barn and brought him food and a pair of her husband's dark blue overalls. My Father was a large man, clearly taller than the farmer whose overalls barely fitted him. The farmer's wife hid Father's uniform and sent him on his way with heartfelt blessings. Father told us how she had said she hoped somebody would do the same for her husband, wherever he might be.

My Father was one of the last men to cross the Duisburg bridge before the Germans blew it up. In the chaos a sole man, dirty and ragged, going in the wrong direction, towards the advancing American army gave no one cause for concern; let the fool run towards certain death, if he must.

Somehow Father made it. He had tramped the back roads and country lanes often enough in his life; he knew isolated farms, secretive woods and hiding places. When somebody spied him, some other German, it helped that he was in workman's clothes. Few people risked leaving their shelters, although German units were retreating fast there was still fighting going on, particularly as the American advance approached the river.

Once he crossed the frontline the fighting diminished but he still had to dodge the vast body of military hardware and supply lines. He later said it was his sheer bloody-minded determination to reach us, me and Mother, come hell or high water, that saw him through.

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