I escaped from Germany just before war was declared and landed safely in Harwich, England. Things had been getting a little hairy in Leipzig with the Gestapo stopping me on the darkened cobbled streets near the University Hospital.
‘Get your fucking Nazi hands off me you bastards!’ I shouted as I twisted and turned out of their grasping arms that night.
Occasionally, because of my shift at the hospital or a late night debate with my professor or I just wanted to sleep in my own bed rather than on the old sofa in the office I shared with 2 others, I would risk the short walk through the streets after curfew. I walked with my hands in my pockets whistling ‘The Minstrel Boy’. That ballad has been my party piece since I was a child and I often noticed my father wipe a tear from his eyes when I sang it for him. Even now, in my dotage, I will whistle the notes when I am nervous, waiting or thinking through a particularly gnarly problem. My whistle feebly pierced the night black streets.
Hence the attention from this bunch of dark idiots. Everyone was frightened of them but they were just thugs and bullies and I had seen their sort back home in Ireland. I just stared them down, demanding their respect with the words;
‘Ich bin ein Arzt!’
I pointed back to the University buildings over the bridge and they turned slowly to look at the medieval buildings where some of the greatest scholars in any field in Europe had taught and been taught. These fuckers had run some of their best out of the country, men like Katz who’d escaped a few years before to London. They didn’t know how deeply they were scarring their children’s future. The routing of so many of the country’s best scientists would enrich the rest of the world for decades to come, probably centuries. Can you imagine how truly wealthy Europe would be right now if they had nurtured their benign philosophies rather than that warlike nationalism rampant since the Roman Empire? Benign philosophies? Yes, these did exist throughout that continent, still struggling and contorting to escape the claustrophobia of autocratic monarchies.
The Gestapo were unsure what to do with me, this crazy Irishman walking the misty, unlit streets of this dark-age city after curfew. They would never have experienced behaviour like mine before. I suspect it may have skirted just under their standard reaction of beating you to a bloody pulp before asking for papers. But psychology was not my speciality and personally I feel it is because I showed them no fear. And they fed on fear. That is not to say that I did not feel fear. I did! Of course I did! They could make me disappear in seconds as they had countless others before. I would never see my family or friends ever again. It was obvious that the three agents relished this late night encounter. But I played my part in this game and thankfully they relented. Perhaps I amused them.
‘Ich bin ein Arzt!’ I repeated as I reached into my jacket pocket, removing my identification papers holding them out so that they could read. I would not let them hold them, the bastards. Let them arrest me and let them deal with old Gildemeister. He might still have enough clout to get them assigned to refuse collection if they messed with one of his students.
They warned me about respecting the curfew and allowed me to go on to my apartment. This was the first time they had man-handled me and I was suddenly awake to the looming menace of catastrophic violence. The unassailable sureness of their right to control every man, woman and child in the country. The World.
That was the night I realised that Germany was no longer a place for a foreigner. Especially one assumed to be English. The Scots, Welsh or Irish are considered English in Europe and each of us intensely dislikes that assumption. Especially us, the recently independent Irish. I eventually gave up correcting them when I realised that being Irish afforded me minimal, if not imaginary, protection. It was time to for me to leave.
I liked Germany and the Germans and I still do. After a crippling, internecine war and economic depression they had rebuilt their country. For the briefest of times they seemed set to be the standard bearer for a new European tradition. A tradition based upon learning, kindness and the love of making useful things well. I was there and I saw that sudden optimistic shift in the people. God knows the whole continent deserved it after The Great War. We all deserved a peaceful recovery and it seemed, for once, this would happen despite Versailles and its Carthaginian peace. But Germany, like the rest of Europe, was balancing precariously, and tragically fell into the claws of the Nazis. Despite feeling new and modern these ne’er–do–wells conjured visions and predications based upon an ancient empire that ruled with violence, fear and hate.
I still find it hard to believe how quickly they fell into step.
In the creation of enemies we generalize beyond the moment of amnesia. The country of Germany was one of the youngest in Europe, new born at the beginnings of the First War. At that time the people still identified themselves as Saxons or Bavarians or Prussians or one of the other German-speaking areas of the soon to be country we call Germany. All across Europe we were lulled into the false security of the nation-state. The receding tides of empires leaving city-states to mop up and establish government. Not just in Germany. Ireland. Italy was still congealing as a country. The Ottoman Empire was gone and countries scrambled for territory and influence. Borders were being drawn across the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe by bewildered hands educated to control thousands not millions. Not once did any of the major colonial powers stop and to consider the potential results of this feeding frenzy. Not once did they question the wisdom of forcing a new world into a very old shoe. We are still paying for these mistakes in The Middle East and Persia and Afghanistan and Africa. Just as the Irish were paying for the mistakes of The Reformation centuries after Europe had ‘settled down’.
When I entered my apartment that evening I poured myself a large whiskey and gulped it down. I was shaking, allowing fear to go through me like an electric current, feeling the heat of the whiskey trying its best to chase it from my body. I tried to laugh and looked at the near empty bottle of Blackbush. I shrugged, poured the last of it into my glass and toasted the city beyond my windows.
‘Auf Wiedersehen Leipzig. Danke.’
In that darkened apartment I could see well enough to pack two bags. One for clothing and my medical bag. It was given to me by Father and Mother when I graduated medical school. I reminisced about our happily tearful celebration lunch that long ago afternoon in The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. My father patting my shoulder as he handed over the brown leather medical bag with brass fittings and initials BM over the lock.
‘I’ve had Fannin’s fill it with the latest, must-have equipment, ointments and treatments and what-nots.’ he told me.
Then he stepped back, or was rather pushed aside by my mother, finally giving in to her urge to hug me, kissed me on my cheek, took my face in both of her hands and looked into my eyes.
‘Benjamin it is Germany for you. The best medical schools in the world right now and there you will go. To Leipzig University. This country is too narrow for you, my son.’
‘Your mother is right my boy.’
‘Yes, Mother. Yes, Father.’ I replied.
The train trundled me from my reveries as it slowly left Leipzig station in clouds of white steam that lightened the sunless dawn before dissipating beyond the platform. I was in a third class carriage on my way to Holland. From there I would catch the ferry from Vlissingen to Harwich.
Whenever I land in England I find it remarkable how similar it is to Ireland. My recently independent home country busied itself with self-congratulation and manufactured differences between the peoples living on these small islands off the coast of Europe. Because of my studies and my travels I knew that humans had far more in common with each other than we cared to admit in those days. In fact across Europe it was obvious that assigning cultural differences based upon geography or religion had been the cause of countless deaths over the centuries. The Europeans were adept at slaughter and had exported it around the world.
I could see that the Germans had little concept of the relatively new country of Ireland and I suspected that this would be the case in all of the non-English speaking nations of the continent. But the fact remains that whenever I arrive in England I am comforted by the familiarity of the language, the road signs and the people. As I travelled on the early morning train to Dover I noted that the men and the women wore the same type of clothes as they did back home and laughed at the same cartoons in the same papers. I was reminded that most identified differences between us are the manufacture of governments or churches.
After I had safely arrived in England, I called my parents from a public telephone in the comfortable harbour hotel I had found for the night. They were not surprised to hear that I had left Germany as I had kept them appraised in my letters of the worsening conditions in that deluded country. In addition they had been reading the papers some of which did a relatively good job describing the imminent dangers. Most did not. My parents were so relieved that I was back to familiar safety that they did not ask about my unfinished degree.
Neither did my father ask when I would be home. Years later he told me that he knew I would join up because it was the right thing to do. My mother knew it would do no good begging me to do otherwise but she cried and I comforted her as best I could. We surgeons are not known for our gentle bedside manner. I cannot explain why exactly I joined up but I could not leave that black infection to consume the world. I felt that I had no choice but to assist in my own small way in its demise.
Within an hour of my arrival in Dover, tired, hungry and chilled awake by that fresh sea breeze, I enlisted. The army needed doctors and my surgical skills were in demand. I became a Medical Officer in the RAMC – The Royal Army Medical Corps – and was assigned to the local Connaught Barracks. It was soon obvious that I possessed another skill that was increasingly in demand; fluency in German.
It is remarkable how easily I took to military life. Perhaps it was that I was used to discipline. One does not simply become a surgeon without hard work and discipline.
It was a summer’s morning a year or so later, the war that we now called World War II, was at its barbaric heights. Luftwaffe bombers and RAF bombers crossed each other nightly to drop their deadly cargo on each other’s cities. I had finished my breakfast and was about to walk to the base hospital when a private soldier entered with a message. I was ordered to accompany Captain Oakes to a small village about 5 miles away via a rough path along the famed white cliffs. We were to meet with the CO of the local Home Guard and supervise the handover of German prisoners, who had bailed out of their plane the night before only to be captured by the local Home Guard.
Like most military officers I had little time for the Home Guard. They were amateur and poorly trained. I know they have been romanticised but most of my dealings with them were unpleasant. It is likely they sensed our disdain and this did not help in our mutual dealings. Captain Oakes was the best man for this job. He was a local lad so knew the geography and the people well enough. He was not quite as tall as me, most men are not. I am – as my mother would say ‘a strapping’ – 6 foot 3 inches. But Oakes was still over 6 foot and strongly built. Although from a military family he lacked any of that barking gruffness I had experienced with other ‘life’ officers. He could even be described as friendly. With his red hair and moustache he reminded me of an old pal in medical school.
‘Good Morning Pa…Doctor!’ he said, quickly correcting himself, when I called to his office. I smiled and noted, not for the first time, that Oakes was far wiser than normally given credit for.
‘We have a routine mission this morning. Five Jerry airmen have been captured by the local boinks and are currently being held in Darbydale. We’re to supervise them whilst they escort the prisoners back to base. No doubt your German will come in handy. ’
He looked at me with his blue, happy eyes, putting his cigarettes and matches in his jacket pocket. He checked his revolver, seemed satisfied and returned it to its holster which he clipped safely shut. He patted his pockets to check he had everything, looked around his desk as if to make sure before looking up at me to say ‘Ready?’
I was ready. I confess to not checking my revolver before leaving. However, I had checked my medical bag. The plan was for us to get a lift to the cliffs, walk the 5 miles along the cliff path to Darbydale, make ourselves known to the boinks, organise them into a guard and return with our prisoners to the base. With luck we’d be finished by early evening and enjoying a brandy in the mess before it was dark.
Our journey was uneventful and we both enjoyed our walk and the views from the cliff path. The sky was serenely blue, a rare cloudless day, and a warm breeze blew from The Channel, cooling us as we strolled. Oakes asked about my time in Germany and seemed suitably disgusted by my tales. ‘That’s why we’re fighting them. Have to keep that sort of thing out of this country. And yours too.’
I had always enjoyed our conversations and the walk to Darbydale passed quickly. Oakes was knowledgeable having served in India, Sudan and Ireland. Professional soldiers are like surgeons in that they can see the common thread within all humans. They have seen what I have seen, the wincing, writhing and crying from brain flooding pain. And we all laugh at pretty much the same things. Oakes entertained me with his stories of dealing with rebels across the empire. He always ended them by saying;
‘Who’s to say I would do any different if I was in his shoes? Eh?’
We arrived in Darbydale on schedule and we strolled down its narrow streets towards the harbour where we knew the boink’s HQ to be. It was an old shed with rusting signs advertising tyres and engine oil. We walked up to the door and knocked. We heard scuffling from inside and Oakes looked up at me, I could see he was instantly troubled. He knocked again louder and barked an order to open. The door opened slowly and we peered into the gloom. We entered.
I recognised the fresh smells of blood, pain and sweat mixed with the older, pervasive odour of oil and metal. As my eyes adjusted to the shade I saw about 10 guards standing in a circle around a large, muscular individual stripped down to his vest. He was sweating, panting and his hands were bloody. I could see that he had broken a bone or two in his hand. He did not seem to notice. Before him tied into a chair was an unconscious, uniformed man.
‘WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?’
Oakes roared with the force of generations of military leadership behind him. If a caged tiger were unleashed into that hall it could not have commanded more respect and attention than Oakes. Even I started to attention. The Reserves were seared to their positions, bodies erectly to attention and eyes fixed in front. The vest clad individual stood upright and shouted ‘Sir!’
‘Sir!’ I replied.
‘See to that man!’
I rushed to the German airman. He was unconscious. I checked his vital signs, his jaw was broken but he would recover. I gave him some morphine, cleaned up his cut face before opening a bottle of smelling salts. He came too and obviously realised that I was helping him because he smiled revealing broken teeth through bruised lips.
‘Danke…’ he feebly said to me. He was 22 or 23 and his uniform indicated he was the first pilot and commander of this bunch of prisoners. My sons are now his age then and I find it difficult not to see them still as children. What did we do to that generation who fought a war? I gently poured water into his mouth from my canteen and replied.
‘Nicht erwähnen es. Nicht der Rede wert. Ihr Kiefer ist gebrochen, aber Sie werden in Ordnung sein. Verstehen Sie?’
‘Your German is very good, Doctor.’ Like me he had translated the symbols on my uniform. ‘Did you spend time in Saxony?’
‘Yes. Leipzig University. Medical School.’
‘Ahh. I am in good hands then.’ He shrugged his shoulders trying to readjust his body which was still tied to the chair.
‘Release that man!’ shouted Oakes to the vest-clad thug who reacted immediately. Oakes took control. He nodded briefly to me as I helped the pilot to stand.
‘Where’s your CO?’ Oakes asked no one in particular, he was commanding a unit, he demanded and expected to be answered quickly.
‘He’s just popped out and will be back any minu…here he is Sir’
We turned to see a man silhouetted in the doorframe. He was short and round, possibly in his mid-fifties’s and I could hear his asthmatic wheeze, he was a smoker.
‘Boys! Stop! They’re sending us two fucking pros for the handov…Ah…I see they’ve arrived.’
‘Do you realise the trouble you and your…men…are in Captain?’ Tiger Oakes enquired.
‘Well…I…nothing less than they deserve…’
‘Quiet! I will deal with you later! Now prepare your men for an escort party back to base. Monaghan?’
‘Can that prisoner walk?’
‘Good! Captain! Get your men ready for leaving within 5 minutes! And get that man into uniform immediately. Now!’ Oakes did not even glance at the vest clad guard standing in the middle of the room with a confused look on his sweating face. This thug looked at me and whispered ‘Fucking Paddy!’ as I passed him.
‘Yessir!’ The Captain’s name was Jenson and like most Home Guard officers he too had been in the Army between the wars.
‘Robertson! Get your tunic on man! Quickly!’
Within the allotted time Oakes and I were leaving the shady hall with five German prisoners surrounded by ten armed and properly uniformed reserves shouldering their rifles. Oakes held my elbow as I was going to the front of the group.
‘Hold back with me Doctor.’ He whispered. ‘We can keep a better eye on this lot from behind. Quick march Jenson!’
The Darbydale villagers came out to see that strange parade of German airmen guarded by their neighbours, with Oakes and me following as they marched through the narrow streets on a late summer’s afternoon. There were a few insults shouted as we progressed but Oakes’ had a mystical ability to spot potential trouble makers and pin them into silence with a fiery look. Darbeydale is a small village and after a short march we were back on the cliff path.
Upon reaching the path Oakes called for a slower march and we settled into its beat. Oakes and I kept a steady distance of 5 steps behind the overall group. I looked at him and his eyes rarely left Robertson, the thug, who had positioned himself close to the German pilot.
Occasionally Robertson would glare at the prisoner and I could see his jaw clench and twist as if he was about to spit. The young pilot, under the influence of the morphine I had administered, seemed unaware of the hateful gaze and seemed intent on enjoying the view. Whenever he did catch Robertson’s eyes the young man nodded and tried to smile calmly back.
We were one hour from the barracks on the cliff path when it happened. Robertson took a side-step and in one swift, smooth silent movement he pulled back his rifle and drove its bayonet into the heart of the German pilot. Only then did he scream out his rage. The poor fellow dropped dead immediately and Robertson stood over him, panting, still driving the bayonet deeper into the dead man’s body.
He looked around at his comrades, smiled and shouted ‘Come on lads! Let’s kill them all!’
Those were his last words.
Oakes moved towards him, his revolver in his hand, waited for Robertson to turn his face towards him and he fired a bullet into his forehead.
Every one of us was united in shock and fear. Oakes stood still over the bodies of both men.
‘These prisoners are under my protection! If one of you disobeys me I will kill you. Are you all clear?’
I translated his words for the prisoners. Fear turned to relieve on their faces as they understood they were not to be murdered that day. The Home Guard kept their heads down and one of them whispered.
‘Fucking Robertson was always a fucking trouble maker. Nearly had us all killed there.’
Captain Jenson could not stop looking at the two dead men on the path. He had to be shaken by Oakes ordering him to keep his men in control, to get them to carry the two bodies and to move on back to base.
Our little group walked the miles back to the base without incident. Oakes and I continued to keep our distance behind. The guards carried Robertson and the prisoners carried their comrade.
‘Are you alright Doc?’ Oakes asked.
‘I’ll be fine.’ I replied.
‘I know. That first time is always a shock. Thought you might be used to it being a surgeon.’
‘He killed that prisoner…’
‘I saw it coming back in their HQ. I saw that Robertson wanted to kill that poor fellow but our arrival interrupted his plan.’
‘Yes. That is why I held you back with me. To give me time to respond quickly if anything happened. And I saw that the Robertson continued to taunt the prisoner even as we walked.’
‘But why didn’t you…?’
‘Stop him? How? Don’t you realise the Germans, and you and me were all going to be killed? These boys knew I would report them. There might not have been a cohesive plan but Robertson there was not going to quietly allow us to put him behind bars.’
‘They were going to kill us?’
‘Would have too if I had been a little slower with my revolver. I delayed so that Robertson would see me shoot him. It was worth it to let the bastard know he was being executed. Which also helped me regain control of the boinks. They now know I will kill anyone of them quickly and surely.’
‘You saved our lives?’ I asked him.
‘Yes, Monaghan. Our lives are safe for now.’
He smiled and took out his cigarettes, offered me one, which I refused, and he lit up. He took a deep, relaxed drag and exhaled continuing to smile. He kept a close watch on his charges until he reached the base. We both filled in our reports as normal; he didn’t even tell me what to write. I am sure he told the truth in his report but there were no investigations and no further actions taken.
The Reserves, after a mug of tea and a sandwich, were sent back along the cliff walk within the hour.