A German Bride
BookRix GmbH & Co KG
In nineteen forty-six a young German woman falls in love with a British Corporal serving in the Royal Air Force in Germany. Gertrude works in the NAAFI, the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute, a canteen and leisure centre for off-duty servicemen. They marry and she goes to live with him in Britain. In Germany she was known as Gertrud but she changes the spelling and the pronunciation of her name when she comes to Britain, to try to adapt to her new life. This is her story.
Names of cities in the story are shown in their national spelling where they differ from the English spelling – Basel, Hannover, etc.
All characters and events other than those clearly in the public or historical domain are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is entirely coincidental.
Special thanks again to Karin, Jennifer and Rüdi.
All rights reserved 2016 John Catling
“So now you've got everything for the night, Gertrude. I'm leaving you now, but Diana starts her shift in ten minutes, I want to get home early tonight because my young son has gone with his father to a football match and I promised to be there when they come home. There's a drink on the bedside table if you need it and you've already taken the tablets to help you sleep. Diana will be along from time to time to make sure you're all right, and you can call her by pressing the button here if you need her.” Nurse Cynthia moves closer to the old woman, re-arranges her pillows and tucks in the sheet at the bottom of the bed. She looks at Gertrude's shrivelled facial skin, the blotches around her neck, the thin strands of grey hair, the noise of Gertrude's breathing. What is it like to be eighty? Will the old lady die tonight – or tomorrow – or the night after that? She's eaten almost nothing today, only drank a glass of water. And what has her life held for her? There was a daughter who visited once or twice – there must have been a husband, or at least a man. Nurse Cynthia stops wondering.
“Good night, then.” Nurse Cynthia gathers up the soiled towels and her handbag, and goes out of the door, thinking about her little boy and what she's going to give him and her husband for supper. Gertrude, lying in the bed where she will die, is left with her thoughts, if indeed she is still conscious enough to have thoughts.
Was it the war that changed my life? If there hadn't been a war, then I would probably still be living in Darmstadt, dying in a bed with my children and grandchildren standing around me. Instead of that, here I am in Portsmouth, in a different country from that where I was born, with a daughter who comes from Germany to visit me every six months or so. Sometimes I think she only comes to see me because she usually takes back a thousand in cash from my bank account. And Len? Did I want to come to England with him just for a stable life, far from all the destruction of war? Did Len really love me? Sometimes I thought that the bed was more important than the heart, though I liked being in bed with Len, all those years ago. Len and I were unable to have a child, a really loved child, not like my Petra with her tantrums and her refusing point blank to learn English, it wasn't easy for her, almost alone in Germany. For Len and me, it wasn't easy either, but we stuck together. I tried to be as English as I could. Still, I'd like it if Petra could come to my funeral – but has she got the money? She usually hasn't a bean, lives on social security, if I want her to come I'll have to make sure the cash is put aside for her. In my will? No, that's impossible, the will won't provide the cash when she needs it. Perhaps I could put it in an envelope and leave it somewhere, or tell Martha to look after it when she brings me my bank statements next time. I'll tell Nurse Cynthia tomorrow, or the doctor when he comes, or and slowly sleep enfolds the old lady's body.
“Excuse me, are all these apples eating apples or are some for cooking?” The speaker is a Corporal in the Royal Air Force, and he is evidently trying to start a conversation with a tall, attractive young woman some twenty-one years old wearing a rather smart two-piece with the new look skirt-length, who is standing next to him in front of a greengrocer's stall in Wunstorf market. The young woman is clearly a German and not one of the hundreds of refugees, the displaced persons living in Germany after the defeat of the Nazis, driven from their homes in the east or released from forced labour in camps all over the country. Her short blond hair is typical of the former Nazi propaganda leaflets, and although it's now nineteen forty-six and hostilities ceased nearly a year ago, this woman's face shows that the Second World War has left its mark on her soul. Nevertheless, she turns and smiles at the RAF Corporal in what is officially known as his Number One Home Dress, his Best Blue, official uniform for all activities outside the air base, which since May nineteen forty-five has been an RAF station. It's a sunny day in mid April, the buds are coming out on the trees but in north Germany it's still quite cold for the time of year.
“I'm not sure, I think apples for cooking should be greenish and for eating they should be red, or at least part red. Is it important to know? What apples would you recognize?”
“Well, my father was a greengrocer, so I think I would recognize Newton Wonders or Cox's Orange Pippins, but none of them seem to be here.”
Corporal Len Hall, or as he is known in the Royal Air Force, 1020304 Corporal Hall L, smiles back. Corporal Hall is neither tall nor short, he has no exceptional peculiarities marking his clean-shaven face, the brass buttons on his Best Blue jacket are immaculate, he's the ideal type of airman to mount a Guard of Honour at the formal inspection visit by the Air Vice-Marshall which takes place once a year. However, today he's in Wunstorf town, it's not the first time he has noticed this girl, but even if the no-fraternization rule has been relaxed, it still behoves him to be careful. There are all kinds of stories circulating in the airmen's barracks, possibly apocryphal, about dating young women who turn out to be undercover Nazis or are anxious to pass on their venereal diseases to ex-enemies. “It's just that I was asked to get some apples for an apple pie in the NCO's mess – oh I'm sorry, the place where the Corporals and Sergeants eat – and I can't see any kind that I can recognize. At home, I'd look out for Bramleys – they're the best apples for an apple pie, you know.”
“You don't need to explain to me what the NCO's mess is, Corporal, it's the mess for the non-commissioned officers, but I can tell you that you will not find Bramleys in this country. If I were you, I would choose these, I can't tell you what they are but I feel that they will do justice to your apple pie. There are almost no apples left – people that had any ate them in the winter – you know conditions were quite bad here last December-January. Do you work in the cookhouse?”
“No, I was just asked to look out for about thirty kilos of cooking apples. I know it's April and not a good time for apples, but I was asked to look. You know, somehow I recognize your face, lady.” Corporal Hall senses that this latter remark is rather stupid, something with which an eighteen-year old would try to set up an acquaintance with a girl. Though then he realizes that he has indeed seen her before. “Yes, now I know. You sometimes work in the NAAFI in the evenings, isn't that so?”
“Yes, and my name's Gertrud, and if you are going to buy thirty kilos of apples you'll need someone to help you. I presume you have a car or a jeep somewhere near, you won't be able to carry the apples back to RAF Wunstorf by yourself, Corporal.”
“The jeep is in the next street. I'd be glad if you could help me. And my name's Leonard, but most people just call me Len. You don't have to remind me of my RAF rank, for me my name is more important.”
The blond girl helps Corporal Hall select the apples, they are put into several bags and he pays for them. Then, carrying one of the bags she accompanies him down the Langestrasse to where his jeep is parked.
“Do you live here in Wunstorf, Gertrud? How do you get to the RAF station when you work there?”
“Yes, I live here in Wunstorf, my friend Ursula usually drives me, she can borrow a car from somewhere, but it might be prudent not to talk about that. The authorities might not like it.”
“Have you always lived here?”
“Len, one thing is certain in Germany today. Hardly any of the people who are adults in this country can say that they have lived in the same place all their lives. Look at all the refugees in this town, many of them from places as far away as Bulgaria or Romania, they didn't ask to come here and would like to go back home – but you've seen how full the trains are, and they don't have the cash to buy a ticket to get home. And if or when they arrive there, their towns and villages will have changed so much they won't recognize anything, the buildings destroyed or occupied by foreign soldiers, their families or friends disappeared without trace. It will take years for normality to return to this country, but meantime I have a job at the NAAFI and I'm pleased to be helping you to carry your apples. And “Guten Appetit” when you sit down to enjoy your apple pie, Len.”
Len is not quite sure how to handle all this. Gertrud seems quite friendly, yet he's seen enough of the destruction of war in the newsreels at the camp cinema, so does Gertrud regard him merely as an RAF Corporal and thus in some way responsible for the war? OK, in the RAF you got lectures about the onset of war and the Battle of Britain and how important it was to defeat Germany, and now these lectures are centred upon the way the Russians have almost sealed off eastern Europe from all contact with the west. What Len wants to do is to get demobilized as soon as possible and return to England. Perhaps he could try to make closer acquaintance, but so far the conversation has hardly indicated much interest on her part. She's not wearing a ring, but that doesn't mean anything in Germany in nineteen forty-six.
“So you once lived somewhere else?”
“Darmstadt, it's not far from Frankfurt. The Allied forces – I think it was your RAF – bombed it flat one night in September, two years ago. Have you ever heard of it?”
“Actually yes, not the bombing I mean, but I think there was a Russian princess who married a Duke or someone and they built a tower in Darmstadt to celebrate their marriage, and a church like in Russia for her so she could go to church as if in her own country. I can remember seeing a film about it, or it was in a book, there were artists there too. That's all I can remember.”
“Well, the tower escaped the bombing, it's still there today, and the church. Ah, is this your jeep? Here we are then. Nice to meet you, Corporal Len.”
“Just a minute, Gertrud. I'd like to meet you again, but I don't know any places you would allow me to take you. I haven't been here at Wunstorf that long. I doubt if the RAF would let me take a jeep, that's only permitted to senior officers. You could tell me more about Darmstadt, and I could tell you about the town where I lived before I was drafted into the RAF – Winchester, maybe you've heard of it.”
“I'll think about that, Len. You'll see me in any case in the NAAFI when you come in with your mates for a beer at the end of the day, and you can tell me what all you airmen do all day. From what we civilians see, it seems to be very little now that the war is over. Good-bye then.”
Len drives his jeep back to the RAF camp, which consists of a number of large barrack blocks where the airmen live, and small Nissen huts where the different administrative offices are based. Four hundred yards away are the hangars for the aircraft, the dispersal areas where the aircraft park, and the runways. He drives to the cookhouse, where he unloads his purchases and finds that so many of the apples are bruised or worm-eaten that it will be a very small pie.
One of the big advantages of being a Corporal is that Len doesn't have to eat with the lower ranks: as he has told Gertrud, he eats in the NCOs mess with the other Corporals, Sergeants and Flight -Sergeants. However, he is also part of the disciplinary authority of an armed service, so he has a small bunk room at the end of a long barrack room where twenty aircraftsmen and leading aircraftsmen – known as ORs or other ranks – sleep in a row of metal beds on either side of the room. So Len has a little privacy to sleep, read or listen to his radio, but he washes and shaves in what are called the ablutions, which are situated at the far end of each barrack room. This means that for all activities related to cleanliness and digestion – the four SHs as they are called here – a shower, a shave, a shampoo, et cetera, he has to walk through the barrack room, but this gives him the opportunity to cast an eye over the men he is responsible for, and check their general tidiness and the cleanliness of the room itself. In some RAF stations, especially those responsible for recruit training, the entry of an NCO into the barrack room would be announced as soon as he is spotted by one of the men shouting “NCO present!” and all in the room would jump to attention, but Wunstorf is an RAF station with aircraft which two years ago were operational in the war, and now things are much more relaxed, though there are rumours about a future conflict with the former allies in the Soviet Union. Len is on first-name terms with most of the men in barrack room 354, but there are constant comings and goings to and from Wunstorf and these changes help to create a certain distance between the men and the NCO who commands them.
After delivery of the apples, Len walks across to the NCOs mess to see what his mates are up to. There's a radio broadcasting the BBC Light Programme in the background, many of the men present are smoking, a rather worn billiard table stands in the corner. In another corner of this foreign field, newspapers recount the failure of Mr Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, to agree with his Russian counterpart Mr Molotov. Len goes over to Lofty (Corporal Goodman, six-foot-six) and Joe (Sergeant MacNeil, from Glasgow).
“Len,” asks Lofty Goodman, “d'you want to go on the bus to Hannover on Saturday? Jock Glaser is organizing a bus service starting next Saturday. Leave here after week-end parade at 1130 hours, back the same evening at 2330 sharp. Come on Len, do you good. Jock's been in this area for over a year now, knows all the bars and all the places where the working girls work. We'll have a great time, and maybe we can repeat it every week, especially if we can persuade the other ranks to join us, though I don't suppose with their pay they can be much attraction for those girls. Better than staying here on camp, or moping around Wunstorf. I can't go, I'm duty Corporal for our section all this month.” Lofty looks around to see if there are any other candidates for a trip to the “two Ns” as Hannover is known in this part of the world. They all know the joke about the airman who spent all Saturday looking for the town of Hanover, as it is spelled in England, but could only find a town called Hannover with two Ns.
Len looks a little serious. “No, actually, I don't think I will. In fact, I went into Wunstorf this afternoon to collect some apples for the cookhouse, and by chance I met a rather nice blond German girl and I'd like to meet her again, but where could I take her? Do any of you have ideas?”
Shouts of “to bed, take her to bed” punctuate the air, and Bert Hodgson, who like Len takes life a little more seriously and can sometimes be seen reading the Bible, smiles. “It all started with an apple, Len, be careful. But if the weather is fine you could go on a bus that takes you to Steinhude, where there's an enormous lake and you can walk along the paths beside the lake and the rest is up to you...and her. If your girl knows the area she'll know about the buses and where you can have a cup of coffee and a piece of cake – and even at this time of shortages – maybe a dollop of cream on your cake. They say that coffee and cake is Germany's main contribution to civilization.”
“Thanks, Bert. Good idea.”
“Oh Len,” says Lofty, “you can't let your friends down on this. Glaser needs you to make up the numbers. Jock will guarantee you not only a place on the bus but also the girl of your choice. Chuck this other bird, she's probably got a Squadron Leader somewhere, you ain't got a chance.”
“No, no, I rather like the idea of a walk beside the lake. I'll get out my book of Shakespeare sonnets and see if she likes poetry.”
“That's not the only thing he hopes to get out, the old rascal,” quips Lofty, and then the conversation turns to the Derby and the chances for the favourite and what the Daily Express says.
Len realizes, as he walks back to his little bunk room at the end of barrack room 354, that he didn't ask Gertrud about her working hours at the NAAFI. Does she work there full-time, from 1400 hours to 2300 hours? He knows that she lives in Wunstorf. Coming to work in a car with her friend Ursula, that sounds rather suspicious, as if there is something not quite right. What did she say: “the authorities might not like it?” Could these women be stealing cigarettes from the NAAFI, taking them home in Ursula's car and selling them on the black market? There is so much today of what people here call “organizing” - buying and selling anything that can be bought or sold to make a quick profit, no questions asked. Leave nothing lying around, everything can disappear. Could Gertrud live on her NAAFI pay, or is there some other source of cash for an attractive blond girl? He decides that all such speculation is a waste of time, better to concentrate on the Derby, even though it's only in June, and the chances that some outsider will romp home at sixty-six to one. He picks up the Daily Mirror.
Later he goes into the NAAFI and looks for Gertrud but she's not there tonight. He is reluctant to ask one of the other girls behind the counter about Gertrud, that might set the rumours flying. He sits down behind a fried egg and a pile of chips and pulls from his pocket a letter with a British stamp, addressed to:
1020304 Cpl Hall L,
The letter bears a Winchester postmark. Len opens the letter and reads it.
We had such a lovely time on your last leave, I still can't forget it. I told my friend Barbara that this looks like a serious kind of thing, and I wondered why you haven't written more than once – but then I remembered that you told me on THAT THURSDAY – do you remember it – that you had a lot of work to do on the Spitfires and so there wouldn't be much time to write. And in any case you had to write to your mother from time to time to let her know you are OK. I listen to that radio programme “Forces Favourites” every week and hope that they will play the song I chose for you. I wrote twenty cards to Mark Jones, the presenter, to ask him to play it, so keep listening every Sunday at midday and maybe you will hear my name.....and yours. That will be super, won't it, dearest, our names together?
My dad has put his name down for a new car but the garage tells him that because everyone wants a new car, it might not be delivered until nineteen forty-eight at the earliest. By that time you will be out of the RAF and back home here. I'm looking forward to that so very much.
Write soon and lots of kisses and maybe a bit more from
Len folds the letter and puts it in his pocket. The image of the High Street in Winchester and Rebecca holding his arm as they walk past the shop with all those new wireless sets in it, that gives him a pleasant feeling. Maybe we could borrow Rebecca's dad's car when he has it, drive down to Bournemouth, see a show there, then park in a darkened lay-by on the way home. Then suddenly he realizes that his chips are getting cold and his mind sees an image of a blond woman with a somewhat sad face, carrying a bag of apples. Well, you'd only be dating her and talking over coffee and cake, like Bert said, and there's no chance that Rebecca would ever come here to Wunstorf, is there? And in any case I'm not really so enthusiastic about getting engaged to Rebecca, we ought to wait until I'm demobbed. Get married early and then have a load of kids, I'm not sure I want that. There's no hurry now the war is over, it was different in war-time.
The next few nights Len doesn't go into the NAAFI, he has to work late on a Spitfire that needs updated radio equipment, Bert Hodgson is on leave and has got a pass for a flight to Britain, so Len sits alone. However, at the end of the week he goes into the NAAFI again and this time he sees Gertrud, who takes his order for egg, chips and baked beans, and says: “Remember I said I'd like to meet you again? We could take the bus on Sunday to the Steinhude Lake, it's very pretty there and if it's fine we could walk around a bit. Could you meet me outside the camp by the bus stop at 1400 hours then?” “I'd love to” Len replies, “in fact, that's what I wanted to suggest to you.” “OK then, see you Sunday.”
It's another fine day in April when Len walks past the Guard Room and out of the camp, past the big mirror with its inscription “You are now leaving this camp. Are you a credit to the Royal Air Force?” At weekends it is permitted to leave RAF Wunstorf in civilian clothes, and today Len is dressed in grey flannels and a dark blue blazer that he bought on his last home leave, with an RAF crest on the breast pocket. He's wearing dark blue suede shoes and he has also got his plastic folding raincoat in case it rains, as
Verlag: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 09.11.2016
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