Hamburg, Germany. 1955.
Rather than settle in France, where, heroes or not they were still les salles boches, Gott and Harald decided that the time had come to return to Germany.
They would have liked to visit their old base, but it was in what was now East Germany. “An Iron Curtain had fallen” as Churchill put it “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”. Oranienburg and Stendal now lay well inside the Iron Curtain. Travel would have been difficult, but not impossible. The Berlin Wall, wire and machine guns would not appear for some years, but nevertheless it didn’t seem worth it. To find Russians billeted at Oranienburg would have been too depressing.Apart from that, Gott had no relatives left there and if Sigi had any then he didn’t fancy having to tell them how Sigi had met his end.
So they settled in Hamburg for a while, with Harald’s sister. She was the only member of their families that had survived the war and the years since. She had been away in Bremen the week the Allied bombers erased the rest of Harald’s family.
To regain fitness they took to running laps of Hamburg’s Stadtpark. It had a large lake in the centre and they would run round the lake for hours, building up stamina and leg strength. Then they went to the steel bars in the exercise area where they would do pull-ups, chinning the bar until exhaustion overtook them.
Running in the park was thirsty work, and carrying drinks while running was impractical, so they got into the habit of leaving by the eastern gate, crossing to Wassmannstrasse and visiting the small grocers shop there. Building was going on all around the block that contained the grocer’s shop. The area had been largely flattened in the Allied air-raids on Hamburg, but the grocer had survived.
It amused Gott… He would have liked to have brought Sigi to buy a drink, just to see his face. He had recognised the grocer immediately, and afterwards had checked the name over the door. He was correct, Heinrich Rohme…
The grocer was Heinie, the Jungvolk leader that had so scared Gott and Sigi with his unwanted and barely understood attentions. It was the Heinie that their fathers had turned in to the Party and had seen banished to a camp, to be taught better control of his obsession with young boys and their softer parts.
Gott amused himself by striking up an acquaintance with the man, now a rotund shopkeeper.
Once he had terrorised Sigi and Gott, now it was Gott who could alarm the older man by mentioning Stendal and Oranienburg, and how he had been young there… of the Jugend and Jungvolk. Each time he took the story closer to Heinie’s seedy past the grocer looked more uncomfortable.
Gott smiled at how, when they were in the shop the grocer left his wife to serve any boys that came in for sweets. Clearly he had got used to hiding his interests, and Gott’s stories were close enough to reality for him to fear recognition. Gott played on those fears and enjoyed the man’s discomfort.
He explained to Harald that when they first met, Sigi had been convinced that Harald wanted to get into their pants “just like Heinie” and here was Heinie nearly twenty years later, terrified of being recognised, not realising that he had already been recognised, not appreciating in his fear that Gott was having fun at his expense.
Harald wanted to beat him up. Gott said no, it would be just a temporary, self-indulgent satisfaction. The man couldn’t do much about his desires and, keeping their boys safe was the responsibility of their fathers. They needed to listen to their sons… just as his father and Sigi’s had done.
But, he did get a great deal of fun out of terrifying the man.
When they finally decided that it was time to leave, Gott and Harald paid a final visit to the shop, and as they paid for their drinks, Gott remarked…
“Time to leave Heinie… But before I go… Do you still take boys hamstering?”
Heinie fainted! There was a crash as he landed in a pile of drinks crates. His wife ran out to find out what was wrong.
“What’s wrong?” She asked.
“We were discussing life before the war, when he was a youth leader. I think that the memory of a close brush with death at that time has un-nerved him. Don’t worry, it probably will have revived some pleasant memories as well. Ask him about his work before the war, he has a lot of stories to share.”
Then he led Harald out of the shop, laughing at the grocer’s wife. She was patting her undeserving husband’s cheeks… just as he had patted Gott’s, until Gott’s father had seen him put in one of the first concentration camps as a sexual deviant.
Gott wondered what he would tell her when he revived.
That they were leaving Hamburg was due to a chance meeting in a bar.
“Harald! Gott! My God, it is you!” The shout came from a man their own age.
Gaunt but recognisable, it was Heinz!
Over more than a few beers they brought each other up to date. The last time they had seen each other was a few days before Gott had set out to participate in the fall of Dien Bien Phu.
Heinz had been in Saigon when the surrender of the fortress happened. He had been in hospital with one of the tropical fevers that beset the white man. That was why he missed the last-minute parachute drops of just about anyone willing to jump. He had been more than willing, but even the Legion thought that a man who couldn’t stand reliably without help was better off in bed.
He had survived the fever, and rather like Gott and Harald had reached the end of his engagement just when his ill-health made him more of a burden than an asset. The Legion had shipped him to Sidi-Bel-abbes to recover, and then de-mobilised him to Paris.
On good food and a less violent climate he had recovered well, and had, he said, returned to Germany and rejoined the Fallschirmjäger. They were looking for experienced NCO’s and officers he said.
“You made it to Leutnant by the end. Come back to us… the major will be happy to sign you up!” Then he smiled at a happy thought.
“I shan’t tell him you are coming… He still thinks you died in Vietnam… The expression on his face when you walk in at the gate is going to be worth seeing!” He grinned. “Be sure to let me know so that I can be there!”
They exchanged addresses, and promised to let Heinz know when they were ready to appear at the gate… and hopefully make the major’s day.
It had taken them over a year to regain their fitness, not an ordinary fitness but a paratrooper’s idea of fitness. They knew that what they wanted could only be achieved at the first attempt.
Their appearance at the gate came as a surprise for the sentry at the Fallschirmjäger’s new home base.
The regiment was now an elite unit of the newly created Federal German Army. Enquiries had told them that quite a few of their old friends were re-employed. Fallschirmjäger had been easier to de-nazify than many regiments. It was more than ten years since the war ended but many of the senior officers were veteran members of the old regiment.
As he had done many years before, Gott strode up to the gates and asked for the major by name.
The sentry looked puzzled…
“Major?… Ah, you mean the colonel!” He said. “Who shall I say wants to see him? His adjutant will want to know.”
“Tell him that Gott and Harald have come home and wish to re-enlist!”
In later years, Gott would smile to himself at the memory of how the major, now a one-eyed colonel had come, running to greet them.
It wasn’t dignified and he wouldn’t have run for anyone else.
The sentry had watched in amazement… His colonel was hugging and back-slapping two frail men in cheap French demob-suits!
In the mess they were greeted… perhaps as heroes, perhaps as survivors of some terrible accident… as indeed they were.
It took a lot of massaging of the paperwork. Once again the medical reports were faked. But, this time there was no need for a forger… Gott’s father was long dead… Heroically out of character, the little fat man had died as a Volksturm fighter in the last days of the war, attempting to hold back the Russians.
His mother had died alone… when the Russians reached her… They left her on her kitchen floor.
Mercifully the details of their fates were unknown to Gottfried. There were no surviving relatives and the public records only recorded their deaths as Germany collapsed. It had all happened in the Russian sector, and the Russians were not keeping detailed records of what their men did as they took revenge for the long walk west.
Gottfried and Harald were at last back where they belonged. There were a few officers left who remembered them from the war. One or two of them were old enough to remember the Jugend boys who came for prizes and training. But, to a man, they all knew the story of the boy who jumped for fun, the boy who altered the way they tied their boots… and who was the reason that the men of that particular regiment had a superstitious tradition of always sharpening their knives before a jump.
At first they were simply treated as returning heroes, but they weren’t happy with being used to give lectures and shake hands at recruit induction-ceremonies. They began to train.
Gott set the pace, and did his best to encourage his older friend. Harald never managed to return to full fighting fitness, but that didn’t matter because it would be many years before the new Federal German Army was to fight openly once again.
Long before that though the Fallschirmjägers’ traditional covert skills would be in demand. The Baader-Meinhof and Red Army Faction terrorists would be a suitable target for men who could blend into the shadows. Harald would look after logistics and Gott slipped back into the roles of tactical planning… and leading men into danger.
Gottfried was determined to excel, and it took him two years to achieve the fitness he felt his future required. Then his career took off again.
He was once again leading men.
He had at last fulfilled the promise that had taken him to the Napola… the leadership potential that the Luftwaffe general had spotted when young Gott worried more about the loss of the candidate he had injured than he took pleasure in having beaten him.
Now, he would once again lead men. He would once again be first out of the plane when they jumped.
It was perfect. The jumps were now mainly HALO free-fall. Now even the way they launched into space matched Gott’s personality… They ran down the lowered tail gate of large transport aircraft towards the emptiness and a wonderful view of the countryside far below.
With each promotion he continued to ignore rules and his own seniority. Eventually it was a lieutenant-colonel, then a colonel and a brigadier who ran down the body of the plane and shouted “I’ll see you down there!” as he did the most perfect swallow-dive into space.
When he was made a general they tried to persuade him that he was too old for such nonsense. They said that it would only take a minor error on the part of a rigger while packing his ‘chute and they would all be in trouble… that it was unfair to place such responsibility on the rigger.
He re-assured the sceptics… Firstly he had a reserve ‘chute, and secondly he always packed his own parachute. They checked and indeed he did. To pack them now required special training and specific certification… He had those too.
They gave up… So long as he didn’t get anyone else killed they would allow him to go on risking his own neck.
It was while they were trying to find reasons to keep him behind a desk that they found the entries in his personnel file that spoke of the fight at the Napola, of Gerhard’s death in Crete and the effect it had on him. They read of Gran Sasso and his involvement with Skorzeny. As the war turned bad the records became fragmented. Then there were notes about his time in France’s Foreign Legion, Dien Bien Phu and the loss of friends there.
They came to understand why he was contemptuous of Death. With so many opportunities to take him, Death had always side-stepped the fight.
They decided to leave it up to him… so he continued jumping.
For the first ten years of retirement there were still Fallschirmjäger prepared to take the risk of allowing the old man to jump with them… men who loved to see him dive out of the plane, shouting his joy and defiance.
It took a broken hip and the first signs of osteoporosis to stop him jumping.
His last jump was on his seventy-first birthday.
Les Invalides, Paris. 2012
He had fought Death to the very end, and that had given them time to arrange things perfectly. The Legion had been planning his funeral for over a year before he died. At last, today, they were in Les Invalides, the Soldiers’ Church in Paris, the great church of the Bishop of the French Army.
Guarded by a Legionnaire and a modern Fallschirmjäger, with their guns held reversed in mourning, his coffin stood in the chancel. It was covered by both the French and German flags.
On it were a Legionnaire’s Kepi Blanc and a WW2 Fallschirmjäger’s battered jump-helmet.
A velvet cushion placed on the flags carried his Croix de Guerre and Iron Cross First Class. They had been unable to find his Iron Cross Second Class.
The hum of conversation ended as the crowded church stood. The musicians of the Foreign Legion began to play.
White-robed Petits Chanteurs processed down the nave. Among them a light treble voice struck up Pie Jesu.
The people who planned this day had watched his smiles and tears during his later years, and had taken note. The funeral service, their funeral service, was intended to recall moments that he had treasured, even if the organisers were uncertain of the history behind some of them.
The double column of slight monkish figures solemnly parted as they walked towards the coffin, circled behind it to form a double curved row facing both his coffin and the body of the church. A church that was filled with senior soldiers from all over Europe. Every seat was filled.
One of the young men of the back row of the assembled choir stepped forward, the trebles of the front row parting to allow him through. He was used to moving to the front, at the transient height of his career he had been a famous treble-soliste.
Now for the first time in a few years, he once again stood in front of them.
Facing the coffin, he raised his hands and cued the choir behind him. The tenors and basses mourned their way into Mendelssohn’s Beati Mortui. They had rehearsed it specially for Gott. It was too sad for most concerts or services of celebration, but it was perfect for today. Soldiers tend to be realistic about death. This funeral was not a rehearsal or an optional extra… This was it, and soldiers above all understood that the occasion deserved the utmost solemnity.
It wasn’t just for its beauty and solemnity that the music had been chosen. It was because it could be led by the deepest of the boys’ voices… and the deepest was a specific boy.
The choir-mistress had been asked for Beati Mortui, and she had been asked to arrange for it to be led, not by her, but by a specific chorister.
When she asked why, they told her that the boy was the dead man’s favourite.
She was shocked, but the Legion general hastened to reassure her…
“No, no… nothing like that… He told me on Bastille Day that the young man reminded him of his close friend who was killed when they jumped together as parachutists. It was the invasion of Crete in World War Two. They were very young, not much older than some of your choristers.”
Still shaking her head at the strangeness of soldiers, she agreed.
While the boy was leading the basses and tenors, the general listened and remembered the day he had added the item to the funeral he was already planning, a year before Gott died…
He had asked “Why so sad, Gottfried?”.
“That boy… He reminds me of my Gerhard. He jumped with me… Crete!… He didn’t make it to the ground.”
“I killed the Tommy machine-gunner that got him!”
He had said it with some satisfaction, and what remained to him of a wolfish grin.
My Gerhard… He had said, and the way he said it suggested much more than simple friendship or the comradeship of soldiers. It had sounded much more like the memory of first love.The general had noted it… It was a surprise. He would never have guessed.
He kept the thought to himself, but had then made his request of the puzzled choir-mistress.
The dark-haired young man was only days away from graduation from the choir school, and only months away from being old enough to have joined Göring’s Fallschirmjäger… That was why, puzzled but proud, he was standing alone by the coffin, singing solemn music and taking command of the choir.
The funeral proceeded as funerals do. There was a fine oration in French and then another in German.
“We shall not see his like again… We can no longer ask so much of our young men.”
Those who listened carefully and spoke both languages realised that both speakers had used almost the same words.
Sitting with a Legion General were an elderly Arab and his slightly younger companion. The younger man was clearly concerned for his older friend who sat there quietly crying, tears flowing down his sun-beaten cheeks.
The Legion had sent officers to both the addresses they had for the transport company, in Tunis and Algiers. Fortunately they found him at the shop in Algiers, so Ibrahim was there when the news was broken to him.
The officer they sent had been intrigued to meet the old man. The story of the boy who delivered ammunition and water to the Fallschirmjäger during their fire-fight was well known among special-forces.
If Gottfried had been in the Legion at the time, the boy would have received a Croix de Guerre. As it was he was due an Iron Cross, and that would never have done in Nazi Germany.
In fact he did have an Iron Cross… it was in his pocket, and he gripped it painfully tightly throughout the service.
When they were leaving Tunis to regroup in Italy, the last thing that Gottfried had done was to call a parade of the men who had been with him, who had been saved by the boy’s courage and loyalty… perhaps love even.
Later Gottfried would be awarded an Iron Cross First Class, but until then he would claim to have lost his Iron Cross Second Class during the firefight. Indirectly that was true. At that small parade he had presented Mustafa with the medal.
Mustafa had kept it with pride, and half a century later its sharp corners were painfully present in his pocket.
His story was already well known to the Legion. His name and the name of the transport company had come up when Gott was at one of the Bastille Day Parades. The Legion made a note of it. A funeral was long overdue, and they were determined to make it a funeral that Gott and his friends would remember.
They flew Mustafa and Ibrahim to Paris in a Legion transport plane, Ibrahim had refused to let him go alone.
Nor were Mustafa and Ibrahim the only civilians among all the uniforms. At the back, squeezed in at the last moment were an elderly couple. They held hands, as if married, but in fact they were twins. They had approached a major with a clip-board at the church. They didn’t want much, they just wanted to tell someone who would care that they owed their lives to the man who was being buried,
“We would have died… the SS officer was going to shoot Pierre… and then us, I suppose. This wonderful man in a funny helmet… he had been talking so calmly and quietly to the SS… we didn’t understand his German, but he seemed so calm. Without any warning… he shot the SS officer and his companion killed the rest of them.” She paused for breath, visibly disturbed by the memory.
“We should have died… We never really understood why he did it. I wrote him a letter after the war… He said it had something to do with a friend he lost in Crete… I never understood that.”
The Legion captain she was talking to was paying attention but reading his board as well…
“Mon Dieu! You are Anne-Marie Charrere … and you monsieur must be Jean-Paul, her brother. Come with me. We hoped but, we…come…you are expected.”
The astonished pair were escorted into the church. Their names were on a pair of seats. Beside them was one for their dead brother Pierre.
“But, how did you know?” She asked.
The young officer smiled. “We found your letters and Christmas cards. The ones that you wrote after he returned from Vietnam.”
“Ah yes, his Croix de Guerre. We spotted his photo in the newspaper, I recognised him… he was standing with the President. That’s when I wrote to the Legion to thank him, and he replied.”
“If there had been more time we might have traced you, but we hoped you might arrive anyway… and you have!”
The young man was clearly pleased with himself.
“Pierre, your older brother is not with you?”
“I regret... SS bullets didn’t get him, but Gauloise cigarettes did… five years ago. He would have been here with us. He thought he was dead that day. He and Papa had been with the Resistance for many years, but to be killed over a goat would have been ridiculous! His hair had a silver stripe the next morning… He really was terrified, the SS major’s gun was pointing right at his face when this wonderful man fired.”
The captain looked at his notes again… “And Celestine?”
“Times became difficult… Celestine saved us… she was delicious… I cried for days, but hunger cures sadness, yes Celestine was able to feed us until supplies arrived with the British army.”
“The SS didn’t come back looking for their men?” He was interested now in the history… the adventure. He took Pierre’s vacant seat.
“Yes, they came back. Pierre was watching for them, from the hedgerow. The bodies were so badly burned, the SS just poked about. They spoke to our village gendarme. He said he had seen nothing, just a sudden flash of flame and then the fuel tank blew. He heard an SS man say to his officer that he thought that the men had been cooking in the back of the lorry, and the stove must have blown.” Telling the tale seemed to calm her a little.
“The Resistance followed the men who saved us. For two days they guarded them… in case the SS returned.”
Now that was a part of the story that had not been told before.
At the end of the service the soldier found himself holding the old-lady’s hand. They stood while the Legion Orchestra began the recessional music.
The finest treble and alto now sang Bach’s Agnus Dei. It had been Gottfried’s favourite. He would cry for his lost childhood, the childhood that he had missed in the years that led up to war. For children of that period, childhood was not a preparation for life. With its emphasis on uniforms, weapons, discipline and adulation of their Führer … it was a preparation for death.
At the time of course, it was great fun for the average boy; guns, marching, singing… camping… what wasn’t to like?
But, when the war was over, and everything of that period was disgraced… It left men with very little of their childhood that they were able to look back on with either pride or pleasure.
Solemnly leading the coffin out of the church, the choir processed with the cowls of their monk’s habits covering their heads.
Just one of them stood out as different… Taking up the rear, a few paces behind the others, was the young bass singer, as puzzled as ever, but still doing exactly as he had been asked.
Alone amongst the choir, his cowl was thrown back, his auburn curly hair glowing in the afternoon sun.
He was the generals’ final gift.
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This is the third of a trilogy of novels set during World War Two. As with my earlier stories I have attempted to mix fictional characters amongst real events and real people. If you have difficulty working out where history ends and fiction begins then I have succeeded.The trilogy are: Wandervogel. An English schoolboy and his Jewish boyfriend search for the truth about a parent’s Nazi past and the long walk, the wandervogel that he took across wartime Germany. It’s the stranger and least likely parts of the tale that are true.The Moor.Carlo, an Italian boy walks from Calabria to Rome and in the process finds his life changed. The setting is the invasion of Sicily and then Italy, the defense of the Gustav Line and the battle for Monte Cassino… with the young hero as an active witness to events. It’s the period known as Italy’s Sorrow, when Italy had more to fear from her friends than her enemies.I’ll See You Down There.The Fallschirmjäger were, and still are, an elite special-forces unit of parachutists. They were set up by Goering to rival Himmler’s SS. They spearheaded many of the blitzkrieg invasions. Their WW2 exploits deserve to be better known.
In case a wartime setting didn’t challenge the protagonists sufficiently, I have placed them on the wrong side… that is on the Axis rather than Allied side. I have tried to explore the question “What does a good person do when they don’t realise that they are on the wrong side or that they have been misled?” If they are patriotic or religious that just digs them in deeper.
My heroes start out young, led astray by the patriotism and religion of the adults around them. Their inate qualities are tested as they sort out what is right as compared with what is expected of them. But… while the body count rises, remember that the author is at heart a romantic.
Because I have set the stories as close to real people as possible it’s important that I explain where real people and fictional characters start and end. In this case, Gott, Harald, Sigi, the major and all their close companions are creations of my pen and bear no similarity to real members of the Fallschirmjäger. I have no idea if there is a grocers shop in the Wassmannstrasse in Hamburg. I hope not… Heinie Rohme is pure, or perhaps I should say impure fiction.
I have played slightly with the geography of Stendal and Oranienburg, at times placing them more conveniently close to one another or mixing their facilities. Knives, laces and webbing are fictionalised accounts of the genuine faults that they would have encountered with their early parachutes. I have moved the cast between regiments to keep the story moving. Otherwise the history and campaigns are as accurate as my research and the plot permit, but at the end of the day where there are errors, I would claim that it is fiction.
The account of the Napola and its selection process draws in the main on letters written home by one Leopold Wenger, a Napola student. You are welcome to internet search his name. I don’t give the link for reasons you will understand if you find it. There are Germans of that period who still appear to not recognise the full enormity of what the Nazis did.
The wartime exploits of the Fallschirmjäger have been drawn from an excellent biography of Rudolf Witzig. He took part in Eben Emael, Crete and North Africa. He really did find himself in Normandy fighting the same Robert Laycock that he had fought in Crete… and he really did use a luxury car in North Africa that a grateful Italian loaned to him. He was unique in the way in which he was awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves… The award would be procedurally incorrect because he had not yet been awarded his Iron Crosses First and Second Class. They solved the dilemma by awarding all three at the same time!
The Fallschirmjäger clearly impressed the New Zealanders that they fought on Crete. There is a very strong battle re-enactment movement in New Zealand and the Axis force they have chosen is the Fallschirmjäger. I found a great deal of valuable detail in the information that they provide on their webpage.
Radio news broadcasts of the fall of Dien Bien Phu are among my earliest childhood memories, and Gott can easily be placed there. Well over half of the rebuilt Legion were Germans. Many of them did indeed accept recruitment simply to get food from their Legion captors. I find the story of the non-jumpers who parachuted into the fortress truly inspirational. The book that I used is probably out of print, but its well worth tracking down. It covers the history of the Legion up until the mid 1960s, which was when I bought it.
Generally I have tried to make it clear when I am speaking of real characters, they are either well known such as Kesselring or referred to in detal such as Rudolf Witzig and Otto-Harald Mors. The story of Eliahu Itzkovitz and his killing of Stanescu is entirely historical. The BMC girls and Genevieve are all true. It is anyone that I have sketched in vaguely, such as the major that is fictional. If it is unclear anywhere, please take that character as fiction.
The web provided a great deal of background surrounding the many campaigns. Even Wiki gets it right when there were 200,000 people there to correct them. Though, I see that the Brazilian Division seems to have disappeared from the Order of Battle for Monte Cassino… I must look into that.
The web also provides an opportunity to see the Fallschirmjäger 26th Air Assault Battalion marching in the 2007 Bastille Day parade, just search youtube.
Hitler’s Paratrooper: The life and battles of Rudolf Witzig
The Foreign Legion
Pub Arthur Barker Ltd 1964
Four Square 1966 paperback