It’s official, it's winter - we have snow - Britain has come to a standstill. For a country obsessed with the weather (after all, there is hardly a casual conversation which does not start with a remark about it), we have still not learned 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.
I remember the winter of 46/47 when even a child found little to enjoy; the whole of Europe suffered from catastrophic conditions, snow, frost and ice were a curse; for Germany, a country on its knees, with millions without shelter, fuel and food, this winter was retribution indeed. I was six years old and lived with my parents in a village on the left bank of the Lower Rhine; although we had shelter we had very little food and less fuel. I slept in a tiny glory hole under the roof. The room had a small window with thick panes of glass. Every morning this glass was covered in the most wonderful and intricate patterns of ice ferns and flowers, which I traced with my fingers until they became numb. These patterns were a daily fascination and wonder to me. There was no way of heating the attic, the flowers therefore stayed on the window all winter, the designs changing into ever more spectacular forms, giving me endless delight.
Although a German household was allocated no more than fourteen hundredweight of fuel for the year, there were trains laden with coal from the mining area of the Ruhr on the other side of the Rhine, which rolled through local woods on their way out of Germany. It so happened, that these trains always came to a momentary stop in these woods waiting for a signal to change to green, to allow them passage to the nearby border with the Netherlands. It didn't take long for this to become known in the village. The coal was transported in low-sided, open wagons, with steps or iron bars on the outside. A few village men risked the first raids on the train; when it seemed that the raiders were getting away with it, 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. The villagers crept out and gathered on the edge of the woods, close to the tracks, but still hidden from view. As soon as the train started to slow down, the men broke cover, climbed up the bank and clambered onto the trucks, women and children following behind, but staying on the ground. The men began to shovel coal, most with their bare hands, throwing it from the trucks onto the ground where the women and children frantically scooped it up, into small sacks or baskets; the lucky few might have had a handcart although it was quite difficult to get anything but the smallest conveyance over the uneven terrain of the woods. We lifted our sack on to the crossbar of the bicycle my Dad pushed through the snow and the hidden undergrowth. Father had been seriously wounded in the war and mother was ill with starvation, neither of them was able 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 a few evenings to keep the temperature in the kitchen above freezing. Others were better organized, a family of several men and older children could carry two or three sacks away on every raid. I still have a strong feeling that one didn't grab coal from other families; I was all for picking up the spoils thrown from the train by other children's fathers, but I remember being stopped from doing so.
Inevitably, 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. (The British vice governor of the Rhineland, General Brian Robertson, was apoplectic when he heard that Cardinal Frings of Cologne had apparently, during his New Year’s Eve sermon, given his flock dispensation for stealing foodstuffs and fuel to stay alive.)
We never knew how the military police found out but soon, 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. There was 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 on the coal trains 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; women and children would have been easy prey. It was, of course, bitterly cold - the soldiers may just have resented leaving their vehicles to follow the fugitives into the woods. Did they possibly turn up late occasionally because their barracks were at least warm? It is also possible that the raids were over too quickly for much decisive action. I remember the adults speculating but I cannot remember that anyone came to a conclusion.
During that same winter the villagers were allowed, on several occasions, to help themselves to firewood in these woods, provided they didn't actually fell any trees. Naturally, brush and small trees were taken, but again, it was such back breaking work and so difficult to transport the wood that only the larger and stronger groups profited.
Could permission to gather wood have had anything to do with the authorities trying to stop coal being stolen? I don't know.
Again, mother, father and I set out to gather as much firewood as we could transport on our bicycle. Dad had brought an axe - to chop up fallen branches, he said. Once in the woods we set to work, mum and I dragging fallen branches to Dad who cut them into manageable pieces. We picked up as much of the smaller brushwood, twigs, sticks and kindling as we could, but the whole haul amounted to very little. Dad decided to chance his luck; there was a sapling very close by, nobody was watching, the axe swung --- and landed in Dad's foot, cutting through his boot. There was blood on the axe, on the boot, on the trampled snow; there was also no help for it, we had to collect our belongings and get home as soon as we could, Dad still trailing blood. In the confusion and panic we stumbled through the woods careless of where we set our feet. I was following my parents and remember falling into a deep drift over a ditch, the whole of me disappearing momentarily. In spite of the damage to his foot Dad frantically dug me out, having for minutes lost sight of me. At home, Mum bandaged up Dad's foot as well as she could; I was sent to fetch an old nurse; she came, understood what had happened and did what was necessary. Dad kept his foot, but for a week or more afterwards our little family remained housebound curtailing any attempts to provide more than the most basic heating for cooking our meager meals.
A similar article was first written and posted in 2009 when this blog had hardly any readers. It has been much edited and altered. I was going to offer it as a contribution to the Overcoming Adversity Blogfest“, hosted by writer Nick Wilford but saw too late that contributions should be no longer than 500 words. Sadly, it is now too late for me to change the text.
Nick had asked us to write a piece that revolves around the theme overcoming adversity. The entries will be compiled into an anthology with all proceeds going to his stepson’s college fund.
Nick’s stepson, Andrew, has cerebral palsy and hopes to attend a specialist college in Scotland, but reaching this dream has been difficult.
It is through actions like this that Nick and his family hope to generate awareness and get Andrew the education he needs.
In spite of being unable to take part in this noble effort I sincerely hope that they achieve their goal.