Each nation tends to remember the accomplishments and sacrifices of its own citizen soldiers, whilst thinking of the opposing sides as the “enemy”, and without too much thought as to what those people, who lived in the countries which were our enemies in our various wars, experienced in their own countries.
My father and uncles, as well as most of the men in my birth town, not to mention much of the rest of the country, were either called up, or volunteered to serve in that last great World War II. This was repeated everywhere and with Canadians of every birth nationality, or heritage, except for Chinese and Japanese Canadian citizens, who had to volunteer, and in the case of the Chinese were denied
the opportunity, generally, to serve. Japanese Canadians
, if they enlisted, were forced to serve in the European conflict, because they were not trusted to fight the soldiers from Japan.
The Government discouraged Canadians of Asian heritage from enlisting because they knew that Chinese and Japanese Canadians who had served their country in the Overseas Conflict, would be sure to demand full citizenship and voting rights when they returned home and demobilized, an idea which was anathema to many of the white Canadian population. In those days many people in the white population were not happy about the “Yellow Peril” as they designated people of Asian heritage. Also there were the conscientious objectors, and the Doukhobors
, who were pacifists, and not only refused to serve in the Armed Forces (that was one reason they had to leave Russia in the late 1800’s, with the help of Leo Tolstoy), but they refused to pay taxes that would support Armed forces, or Wars in general. This was a sore point for the Canadian Government, even though they had known when the Doukhobours came that they were pacifist communal living religiously dedicated folks, rather like the Mennonites, and Amish, and folks like that. The only wars that Doukhobors wanted to take part in was wrestling with their own spirits to become better Christians.
As a result of this near universal service by most of the men folk in our town, in my childhood, every remembrance day was dedicated to the Grand March down to the local cenotaph, with the bagpipes wailing, and the drums throbbing with grandeur. The adults looked so grand in their Royal Canadian Legion uniforms, both men and women. While the uniforms looked similar, if not identical, women were generally in the Ladies Auxiliary to the Legion, in those days, a parallel organization for the wives of the vets, because only the vets could be Legion Members then. I remember how dignified they all looked, and how solemn we all were, remembering those horrid times, and the loss of so many young Canadian lives.
Invariably there would be slush, and often rain or wet snow on that day, so by the time we had marched to the cenotaph, and then observed the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, with some speeches, and some silence, and some “taps” played sadly on the bugle, and after all the wreaths had been laid down, and we had marched back up to where the Legion Hall was, we would all have wet feet, and wet coats and hats, and would be feeling suitably miserable and then my brother and I would be left to hang out in our car for a while, as our parents did whatever they did in the Legion hall for an hour or so, “chewing the fat”, and likely having a whiskey or two. I recall being bored and just a little chilled but not really cold. Nowadays they would have been in legal trouble over that, but in those days it was not so uncommon for baby sitterless parents, at least for an hour or so.Then it would be home.
Despite this regular occurrence, every year, I never did learn much about what my father had done with his life, when he was in the Canadian Army Forestry Corps. My father was extremely reticent about his experiences in the war, as were most of that generation that I had contact with. I only remember that my mom told us that she had been warned to not wake my dad up if he was sleeping, because he might attack her (from his training I imagine). My brother also tells me that he used to hear my father crying out loudly in his sleep from the nightmares of the war he was having, although I do not remember these myself. But every Remembrance Day, my dad would put his medals on to his Legion Uniform and go to Remembrance day, and likely, despite his own fervent wishes, he would be forced to remember again those horrific days, and the friends and companions that he had lost in the fighting.
Often he would spend the rest of the afternoon having a few in the local pub, to numb his memories again, and when he would return, somewhat intoxicated, only then would he talk at all about his war time experiences. Even then he preferred to talk about the drinking parties and the lovely women that he had pursued, rather than the war itself. There was one part of the war that he often remembered for us, but that was because of what it signified to him, I believe.
He would tell us about the time, he and his buddies were detailed to some bridge destruction to prevent the enemy from crossing this river, but upon destroying the bridge, for some reason in the movements of war, they found themselves behind the lines, in enemy territory somewhat. The solution to this, they dreamed up, was to seek refuge in the basement of a tavern, or somebody’s house, where there was lots and lots of liquor, brandy, wine, beer, whatever it was. They spent a few days partying, as they so loved to do, soused and undetected for some reason until one day a German came into their cellar, yelling “Krieg ist Kaput! Krieg is Kaput!” ("Krieg ist Kaput" means "the war is finished") The war was over, and my dad and his buddies stumbled out of the cellar a bit drunk and hungover, but safe.
He did occasionally mention that word “Ardennes
”, of which I knew nothing much until many years later, with the implication that he had been there, and I remember he mentioned "Arnhem" too.. I discovered later that the Ardennes is a largeish forested area between Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium, an area made famous for us today from Steven Spielberg’s “Band of Brothers”, in which they portrayed an American Army Company, Easy Company, part of the 101st Airborne, through the war.
In December of 1944, General von Rundstedt, and a number of German generals commanded a last ditch massive attack with heavy tanks, artillery and troops, through the forested Ardennes, giving the operation the name “The Ardennes Offensive”, or more commonly, later, the Battle of the Bulge
From what can be seen through “Easy Company’s” desperate trials in that Ardennes offensive, in the television series, "Band of Brothers", I was able to obtain a much better idea of what my own Canadian Forestry Corps father, must have experienced, when he and the other Forestry Corps members were forced to stand and fight the Germans in the woods of the Ardennes. As a member of the Forestry Corps, he was often put in dangerous places, working with the engineers in demolishing bridges, or providing timber for building them.
My dad had been a logger and a miner before entering the service, and was, I believe, familiar with explosives, as well as axes, hand saws, and sawmills. He was certified as a mill wright, a saw filer, and a sawyer, because of his previous experience in the bush in B.C. Mostly, however, in his day to day business, he was not expected to actually have to fight the Germans with his rifle, although the men were very well trained to fight if they had to. Still when the German attack of the Battle of the Bulge came, my father and many of the other Canadian Forestry Corpsmen were forced to fight. One company of the Canadian Forestry Corps, the 9th
,distinguished itself, fighting with the US engineers and other elements, holding back the German advance for several critical days in terribly cold snowy weather. They had been operating a sawmill when the Germans got close, and they had to put down their lumbering tools, and pick up their weapons to defend themselves, and to obstruct the way through for the Germans. Apparently the Americans received a citation for their bravery, but as usual, the Canadians were ignored and forgotten, immediately the fight was over.
We who did not serve there, may wonder what they who did serve, experienced in these horrific struggles of life and death, in the bitter cold, night after night, awake, and dug in, or struggling forward against the winding snow, with flashing and crashing of cannons and the grinding of heavy tanks through the bush; with the sharp crack of rifles, interspersed with the heavy rattle of machine gun fire. In those days, in that setting, you (the soldier) lived with the constant and unremitting expectation that the next moment would be your last. Any moment, some German hiding behind the trees, shivering in his own boots, scared to death of dying, himself, might chatter his machine gun right through your defenseless enemy body, or a shell might detonate right next to you, turning you into an explosion of blood and mincemeat.
You (the soldier experiencing this) had certainly seen enough of that happening around you with those grenades, and those tank shells, and artillery shells, that would blast into the forest, and blow a forest of splinters in all directions, both wooden and metal fragments, tearing into unprotected flesh like a butter knife through soft butter. Maybe this nightmare of a reality, was what gave my dad those nightmares later when he had come home to the peaceful Slocan valley; maybe it was the involuntary remembrance of those horrific days, losing friends, seeing things no one should have to see, committing acts no one should have to commit, even in the service of one’s country, by which I simply mean serving in a fighting Army, engaging in combat with opposing forces, shooting and killing and wounding others with guns and grenades and even knives when it comes to it.
My brother further told me the other day that my father was later detailed to a group who were tasked with going into the villages and cleaning out the "nests" of Germans, which would have entailed house to house fighting, and pretty desperate conflicts, hand to hand at times, with that constant bowel-emptying fear that a sniper will be taking your measure with his rifle. It sounds like a terrible occupation for a Forestry Corps soldier, whose main job is assembling and running sawmills, as well as marking and cutting down trees for the mills. Nevertheless if those were the orders, he would have been out there cleaning out Germans from the towns at the risk of his own life, in fulfillment of his duty as a Canadian Army soldier. If that isn't a bona fide PTSD kind of job, I don't know what one would be.
Unfortunately I never pressed my father to talk about his life in the Army, but was usually content to listen to whatever he was willing to part with, which as I said earlier was mostly stories about the lovely drinking parties and the even lovelier women everywhere he went. There was a standing joke in my house that my brother and I likely had at least a few half brothers or sisters living in the various parts of Europe, through which my father’s Canadian Forestry Corps partied, and chased girls like all the army guys in all the armies did. He used to tell me that really it wasn’t hard for him to communicate with people in Holland, or even in Germany, because, being born in Norway, my dad still spoke Norwegian, and he discovered when in Holland and in Germany, that both of these languages were similar enough to Norwegian that he could understand what they were saying mostly, and could talk to them too. I’m sure this made for a much more interesting time for a person like him, who was a very social kind of guy when young.
Despite, however, his insistence on recalling only the “fun” things about his service in the Canadian Forestry Corps, my dad and his brother, and his future brother in law, came back changed men. They all suffered from PTSD as far as I can tell looking back at them. They all had “demons” that they wrestled with, and sometimes they were OK with that but often not so OK. My father eventually even sought help for his depression in his 40’s or 50’s, I don’t remember exactly when.
Slowly, however, as he aged, and after he retired, it seemed that the demons had finally left my dad in peace, and he was no longer so bothered by all those nightmarish things that happened in the war. I have to admit that I am speculating a lot here, because I am not my dad, and I didn’t think to ask him about it at the time. I just noticed that he became a much more cheerful, happy, friendly, loving man around retirement time. It was never bad enough that he couldn’t cope at all, but it was difficult enough to partially “paralyse” his efforts to establish himself in his business as a logger, and then a sawmill owner. Finally realizing that this was not getting him anywhere, he entered into service with the B.C. Forest Service, where his brother and his brother in law, also worked, although his brother followed my dad into that line of work. For the last part of his working life, my dad worked every year as a fire lookout man, and a good one he was as far as I could tell. But then he was my dad.
In 1980 I got together with and married a lovely young German woman, whose parents were still living in Kassel
, in the state of Hessen, Germany. As a result we found ourselves traveling overseas to pay them visits for six weeks at a time, in the summers for a decade. I went some three times to spend time with my German in-laws, and to explore around Germany in those days before the Wall came down.
For me, raised in Canada, it was truly a mind expanding experience to spend so much time with them, because of the similarities and differences between our two peoples, as well as the wonderful food, the history, the Art, the Music, and architecture that can be found in Germany. It was and is truly a beautiful country, although a bit smogged out in those days. Those were the days of the acid rain kill-off, wherein some of Germany’s replanted forests of spruce and fir, found themselves struggling against the increasing acidity of the rainfall, resulting in many tree deaths, and a certain depressing feeling when coming near to such places. I remember it being a fairly urgent topic of discussion in those days.
My German in-laws lived in the city of Kassel in those days, a city which was the capital city of the state of Hessen, for many centuries, and which, before the war, had been a beautiful, graceful, elegant city, filled with Roccoco, Baroque and Classically styled buildings, the Capital of the state of Hesse-Kassel, and a Princely Seat.
By the times that we were visiting, some of the splendorous old palaces had been rebuilt, but most of the city resembled the East-Bloc style of modernized concrete monstrosities, tied together with streets and streetcar lines, all a uniformly dirty grey. There were lots of trees and green spaces, but it all looked strangely ugly and newish, if you could say 40 years old was newish.
After a while, I learned why this was so. My father-in-law was an amateur local historian, as well as a maintainer and a hiker (usually in a group, often singing, it seems), of the many trails in the area, belonging to a local hiking club. In his “capacity” as “historian”, he felt it was his duty to ferry us around the countryside and show us all the local history, the ancient castles, churches, and whole towns, walled in with lovely Mediaeval towers. He also talked a lot about Kassel itself, the capital of his home state, Hessen. He made a very great big deal out of it too, his love of the "Heimatland". He simply could not understand why we didn't immediately sell everything in Canada, and move to Kassel and make a new life in Deutschland. Even after he visited us in Canada, he couldn't understand that not everyone would see Kassel with the same eyes of fondness and patriotism as he did.
Hessen, I learned from him, is the area from which several Corps of professional soldiers were dispatched to America, to fight alongside the British, in the American War of Independence, in the late 1770’s. They were tall, strong muscled men who often wore huge black moustaches, and, often, a tall conical hat. Various states in Germany were in those days, allies of the United Kingdom. The King of England was George III whose family hailed from Hanover, and who served also as the Elector of Hanover, in the election of Holy Roman Emperors. Britain sent troops to help their German friends back in the 1750’s, during that little worldwide spat known as the “Seven Years War”, or , if you are American, the “French and Indian war” from 1754 until 1763, and yes, I know that’s not Seven years, but that’s what we call it in Canada.
As Wikipedia relates
: "Hesse-Kassel maintained 7% of its entire population under arms throughout the eighteenth century. This force served as a source of mercenaries for other European states.Frederick II, notably, hired out so many troops to his nephew King George III of Great Britain for use in the American War of Independence, that "Hessian" has become an American slang term for all German soldiers deployed by the British in the War."
There was fierce fighting in those days (late 1750's early 60's) around Kassel, and one can even find copies of military style maps of that area from those days, because there were several armies roaming around in there for quite a while. A local palace, Schloss Wilhelmsthal, was centrally involved in some of these battles which raged all over the countryside, drenching the rich and fertile soil with the blood of Frenchmen, and Germans, and English too. The Stanley Kubrick movie “Barry Lyndon” covers this period of war quite nicely, as Barry by his own foolishness winds up in the army, first the British, and then the Prussian, both of which were involved in that struggle throughout Germany.
So because the British King George, had sent his troops to help his German relatives and friends against the French, in that "Seven Years War", when the American War of Independence came around a few years later, the Landgrave of Hessen, Friedrich II, contributed some of his troops to help the British King in America. However, before they left, the Landgrave commanded the troops that each and every man who returned from the war must bring back a bush or tree seedling, or some kind of plant from the New World. And they did, as you can see for yourself, if you happen ever to travel to Germany, and you visit Kassel, and moreover, visit the Bergpark Wilhelmshohe, around the Landgrave’s Schloss (a very large classically styled palace), Wilhelmshoehe (Wilhelm’s “heights”). Already by 1785, there were 431 kinds of plants and mostly trees from North America according
to a German wiki entry.
In the Bergpark, which is in the Habichtswald, you will, in your wanderings find yourself in front of a beautifully built "ruin", which is called the "Loewenburg", or the "Lioncastle". This castle looks like a truly fairytale castle in the woods, partially "ruined", and if you didn't know better, you would think it a real castle, a real ruin. However, it was built as a "Lustschloss" by the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, a "folly", or a "play castle" for his beloved. It was her castle to visit and romanticise about the past like all good classical and romantic people used to like to do. Goethe's "Elective Affinities
" is a good example of a book about these kinds of upper class people in those days. Goethe examines life and love through the dispassionate lens of the chemistry of his day, but includes lots of the day to day activities that such people indulged themselves with. It is truly a fascinating, if depressing book.
You will find yourself surrounded by all sorts of North American trees and bushes, still growing there in the Landgrave’s park. You can look down the straight as a ruler “Wilhelmshoher Allee” to the city “centre” which was not really all that large, as Kassel is a rather provincial city. It is spread out, but not so many higher buildings. There are reproductions of various earlier built masterpieces of the architect’s art, for example, an “Orangerie”, which really was yet another Schloss (palace) in the Roccoco style. There is also a world famous construction at the top of the hill that is behind Kassel, and in line with the Wilhelmshoher Allee, known as the “Herkules”, a monolithic statue of Herkules standing above and lording it over the city of Kassel.
Between the Herkules and the Schloss Wilhelmshohe (the Princely Seat), the entire hillside is a Park, carefully designed and built from the Baroque on down through to the early romantic times.
There is a beautiful water works that cascades down the mountainside in most entertaining and diverting ways, all through a landscape that looks enthrallingly natural, but is entirely designed. The water works ends in the reflective pool in front of the Schloss, where suddenly a fountain will erupt in magnificence some 15 meters spraying majestically into the air, as a summation to the entire entertainment of the water cascades. The water cascades are run at certain times only, not on a permanent basis. The traveler can wander to the top up by the Herkules, around the time they start the water works, and then follow the progress of the water down the hill, all the way to the Schloss’ pool. It takes some time, because of the diversionary efforts of the landscapers, who so excelled in their work. Throughout this part of my story you have seen pictures of Kassel in Hessen, Germany, as it is mostly today, with a few pictures of the old days, when the area around the Schloss Wilhelmshohe was still being developed, to give some idea of the history of the area.
What I soon learned as I continued in my historical learning curve, about many German cities, was that none of these seemingly Roccoco, Classical and so on styled buildings were original. They were all reconstructions, erected again after the end of the Second World War, when so much of Germany lay in ruins, subjected to the bombing whims of Bomber Harris and his loyal crews of Canadians, Brits and other colonials, not to mention the kind attentions of our Yankee friends, with their sky filling bomber fleets.
Speaking of sky filling bomber fleets, on my last trip to visit my German in-laws, in the summer of 1988, I remember we all went for a walk through the Habichtswald on trails through the forest, which contains the Bergpark Wilhelmshoehe, but is larger by far than that park. As we were walking along through the beautiful forest, I suddenly noticed, or was shown by my father in law (can't remember), the topography of the forest floor, through which we were wandering, on our trails. Suddenly I saw that the forest floor was nothing but a Swiss cheese of pock marks and largish craters, filled in and regrown with the forest plants and trees. everywhere i looked I was seeing the results of carpet bombing. Bomb craters absolutely everywhere, overlapping each other even, in Habichtswald, which was not a target, being on the outskirts of Kassel, and being a forested, undeveloped area.
I came away from that walk with a renewed sense of how complete the destruction of the city of Kassel must have been, and ever since, whenever I hear the sound of the water bombers used by our B.C. Forest Service, to attack wild fires, I am taken back to those days, and I imagine the terror that ordinary people must have felt, when hearing first the air raid sirens, and then the thunder of the huge bomber groups as they passed overhead, dropping their deadly loads on their city. There is nothing like the sound of those big aircraft engines, the rumbling strength and power of those propeller driven, bomb carrying, machine gun bristling "Flying Fortresses". The whole body vibrates to that deep shaking roar, what to say the sounds of the bombs whistling through the air to detonate with ear splitting explosions of fire and death.
Early on they began to mount massive bombing raids on German towns and cities, supposedly targeting the military installations, and war materiel producing factories. In the Kassel area
there was a Henschel Panzer tank as well as locomotive factory, which was a major target for the airmen. Henschel made the Tiger I and the King Tiger (II) heavy tanks.
Other targets included: the Fieseler Aircraft factory, an engine plant, a motor transport plant, railway works, Military HQs at Wehrkreis IX and Bereich Hauptsitz Kassel, Central German HQ, highway and railway construction, and the Regional Supreme Court. Despite the obvious targets, Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris had started a new campaign of carpet bombing, incendiary helped, city destruction for its own sake, to terrify the civilians and to destroy the Morale of the German peoples, just as the Germans themselves had attempted during the London Blitz, and through all their attacks on civilian centres in the UK and other targets. It was a bit of “tit for tat”, and it didn’t work any better for the Allies than it had for the Germans, as morale was not destroyed, but rather stiffened by such bombing of innocent civilians.
You can see a colour picture of the ruins after the RAF bombing campaign here
The Fieseler Aircraft works in Kassel made such airplanes as this one:
The bombing was so destructive, and so intense that a writer described it thus (this is only one (although perhaps the most intense) bombing raid):
"The pathfinders clearly marked the target (Martinsplatz in central Kassel) so well that within five minutes the whole ancient town was illuminated. Within the next 80 minutes the waves of bombers dropped at least 1,800 tons of high explosives and incendiaries. The high explosive bombs demolished or extensively damaged buildings, but the incendiaries did the worst damage. Ton for ton, they had been found to be four to five times as destructive as high explosive 1.
The heart of Kassel consisted almost completely of wooden houses. The bombing was so intense that incendiary bombs fell with a density of up to two per square meter. Each building in the city center was hit by at least two liquid incendiary bombs and several of the 460,000 fire-sticks rained on the city.
After 15 minutes of attack the whole inner city was ablaze in a firestorm like the one at Hamburg, creating temperatures of 1500 degrees C. and above. It was consuming nearly all oxygen and sucking fresh air into the fire. People desperately trying to escape the fire zone were caught by the 100 mph wind, stripped of their clothes, and sucked back into the fire. Most residents who fled into the cellars died from asphyxiation.
Only a few minutes after the attack begun, the main telephone exchange was hit and disabled, so fire brigades could not be directed to the places where they were needed. The firestorm was well underway before police could provide communications for the fire brigades, but even then destruction of the city's water pipes made it impossible to extinguish the inferno.
Kassel, which had a pre-raid population of 236,000 (1939), burned for seven days. It is believed that at least 10,000 people died and 150,000 inhabitants were bombed-out that night, and the city center was 95 per cent destroyed. It took weeks to collect all the corpses from the streets and out of the ruined cellars."
By the time of the Battle of Kassel, in late March, early April of 1945, the city had been bombed some 40 times, and one of the raids had been a three day affair, according to my German in-laws, who had been there at the time. That one raid had flattened most of the city; as said above, some 95% of the city was destroyed and in rubble.
The bombing of Kassel was every bit as terrifying for the inhabitants as was the London Blitz for the British (or any city in the UK, or any other country, in Europe, which was attacked in the Blitzkrieg).
During a part of that time, my then father-in-law, was convalescing in the local army hospital. He had been part of the invading forces attacking Russia, as a radio operator. He told us that one day he was out in a vehicle with a group of men, and as they drove along, they approached another group of men, who appeared to be Germans as well. To their dismay these strangers actually turned out to be Russians in disguise, and they immediately ambushed the German vehicle, killing everyone on board, except my father in law, who was seriously wounded, but played dead. After some time, he was eventually rescued and taken to a military hospital, where he lost his entire arm to the surgeon’s knife, badly wounded as it had been.
My father-in-law was a sometimes pretty angry, even cruel man, tormented as he was by his past losses, and by the abuse he had received growing up, much like many other young Germans (and others around the world as well) of that period. When he was younger, before joining the Army, he had been an enthusiastic member of the Hitlerjugend, the Hitler Youth, a paramilitary organization resembling the Boy Scouts, but oriented to Hitlerism and Nazi propaganda teachings, as well as the obligatory exercise, and outdoors activities. For a young person such organisations are very attractive, as they offer a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself, as well as appealing to one's patriotism, and best of all is the uniform. Young people seem to love uniforms. As well as his para militaristic activities, he had entertained dreams of being a musician, and had played violin with a passionate love. Now, with this amputation, cruel fate had robbed him of his greatest love.
Nevertheless, although he was fairly cautious about revealing his own convictions and ideals, when I knew him, I received the very strong impression that he was still somewhat propagandised, or brainwashed about the values of the Nazi Third Reich. As they say, you can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy. As well, the Jesuits used to say that if you would give them a boy at age six, they would have him for life, no matter what his subsequent experiences may have entailed. What one learns early one retains, through all the vicissitudes of life.
I believe that my father in law,suffered from PTSD, which his experiences on the Eastern Front and especially the ambush and near death experience, leading to amputation of his entire arm were more than enough of a possible cause.His mental illness went undiagnosed his entire post war life, with his occasionally terrorizing his family, abusing his children, brow beating his wife, and so on, out of his frustrations and his mental illness, brought on by the experiences in the war, and his earlier very difficult youth. Still even despite all this, you could tell plainly, that when he was himself, he was a kinder and somewhat more loving, if domineering father, although extremely short tempered.
I saw a picture of him in the military hospital shortly after the ambush in 1941 or 42 and a few days after his amputation surgery. There was a lost, shocked look in his eyes, the eyes of a 21 year old boy man, an innocent youngster suddenly made old and speechless by his severe trauma, mental and physical. Like my father, and his brother, however, my father in law managed to salvage enough of himself to lead a productive life after the war, serving as an accountant for many years, to a local electric power company. He loved to garden and both he and his wife were often to be found out in their garden patch.
Still the PTSD simmered underneath it all, and added some bitter and unpleasant tones to his life, that I’m sure he (and his family) would much rather have not been forced to live through. His wife, a nurse, was tough in her own right. We used to call her a “tank”, ein Panzer; even she would laugh about it. She had to be, to be able to live with him. It was difficult to be around his volatile temper, which seemed so easily triggered, for which I now blame the PTSD. I don't know if it was the mental illness and the PTSD anger and abuse, but out of three children raised by him and his wife, none of them stayed in Kassel with their parents. Only one stayed in the country even. The others emigrated to other countries, one going to Switzerland, the other to Canada. The one in Germany, suffered from mental illness, although she did become a medical doctor. She married her psychiatrist, who persuaded her to cut off ties with her birth family, and so she remained out of their lives, mostly.
When we used to visit them, we would spend evenings outdoors, under a nice fibreglass roof, enjoying the closing of the day. They used to recount, on those warm summer evenings, whilst sipping away at a nice cool, sleekly sweating Arolsen Beer, the stories of the past. They used to tell us that when the air raid sirens would go off, they would be paralysingly terrified, and the young nurses like Erika (who was about 17 years old at the time) had to scurry around the military hospital where she worked, getting the men down to the basement air raid shelters before the bombers appeared. People out on the streets had to immediately seek an air raid shelter as well, as did all the citizenry. The palpable sense of urgency and absolute terror communicated itself to me with every word and facial expression that they wore. Occasionally as we would drive down town for some reason or other, my father in law would point out the still standing steel doors in the sides of concrete abutments fronting large hills, saying that those too were air raid shelters. Often people who sought shelter in basements died of asphyxiation or were burned by the magnesium fire sticks.
On one of the major raids, the Bombers let go of some 1800 tons of bombs and some 460,000 magnesium “fire sticks” to start fires, with the intention of creating a firestorm, and destroying the city. The results were truly horrific for the inhabitants of the city. As it says, in Wikipedia, and to remind us: “The fire of the most severe air raid burned for seven days, at least 10,000 people died, 150,000 inhabitants were bombed-out, and the vast majority of the city center was destroyed. The US First Army captured Kassel on 3 April 1945, and only 50,000 people were in residence (versus 236,000 in 1939).”
Then my relatives would move on to the next topic. They would start discussing what the local inhabitants thought about who might be invading their town and area soon. They didn’t know which army might come first, but they definitely had some preferences. They told me that their odds-on favourite invader that they would have preferred to arrive and take over their city was the American Army, because the Americans had the best reputation for treating their enemies well. They had not been fighting the Germans as long either, as they were Johnny-come-latelies to the European conflict. Americans were reknowned for giving out cigarettes, chocolate and nylon stockings and they weren’t quite so trigger happy (in those days).
If the British Army were to arrive, the people of Kassel appeared to be pleased with that as well. The British are famous the world over for their notions of “fair play” and relatively reasonable treatment of their enemies as well. On the other hand there were the Armed Forces of my own country, the Canadian Army, a force renowned throughout the armies of the world as well, even then, for being the best fighters serving under the British Flag, as well as the most feared invaders of territory. The Germans in Kassel were terrified that they might be invaded by the Canadian Army (possibly with my dad marching along in the Forestry Corps!). They told me that the Canadians were the most terrifying soldiers, that they were rough and cruel, and didn’t treat the civilian population very well at all.
people that those Germans wanted to see, was the members of the Canadian Army. There was a very good reason for this. The Canadian Army in both World Wars was used as the edge of the cutting blade of the British Armed Forces. Canadians were famous as being tough, hard to kill, and indomitable in battle. The commentators and historians think it might have something to do with the “frontier” lifestyle of so many of the young men who volunteered. Many were also crack shots, and were an invaluable addition to the combined British forces, just as our Royal Canadian Navy was vital to the protection of the North Atlantic convoys bringing critical equipment, food, and other war materiel, as well as troops, and all that came with them to the shores of the U.K. Although underrated by the British at the time, and given inferior second hand equipment (like we've noticed recently, with the submarine fiasco), the Royal Canadian Navy by the end of the war was the fourth largest navy in the world, and was a major support in the naval war against Hitler. Of course no one but Canadians remember this little fact.
Happy indeed then, were the residents of Kassel, when the smoke of fighting cleared, and they heard their first American accents. After the Battle of the Bulge, also named the Ardennes Offensive, the American army had sent a wing (various units of the Third Army) down towards places like Kassel. By late March of 1945, the American Army was knocking on the door of the city of Kassel, after a brisk but relatively brief (4 or 5 days) exchange with the local defenders. The German Army had surrendered, although having been ordered by Berlin to hold fast to the last bullet. Kassel had been designated a “Festung” (a Fortress), and as such was considered to be a strategically important city, what with the Henschel plant, the Fieseler Aircraft plant, and many other targets. Thus the German High Command had issued the order to stand to the last man, and the last bullet. Luckily for everybody, after three days of assault, the German Commander, a Generalmajor Johannes Erxleben, who was a communications officer with little battle experience, realized he couldn’t win this one, and he finally surrendered his forces, but not before a good fight first.
The victors, much to the joy of the locals, were the American 80th Infantry under General Horace McBride. Soon after this (April 1st -4th, 1945), the war was over, and the people turned to rebuilding their destroyed city, like people all over Europe and Asia. By the time I visited there was not so much of the dignified old Baroque and Roccoco city. Some of the old palaces and other important buildings had been rebuilt, but most of the city was rebuilt from scratch in the modern, concrete, ugly “modern” (if you call 1950’s style modern) style, just as ugly as those unimaginative rebuilds in the East Block. In my mind, Kassel was not a destination of choice, except for the family connection, although I did find the people who lived there to be very welcoming, friendly, and not really any different from my neighbours and family in Canada.
I came away from my experiences in Germany with my German in laws, with a new and expanded appreciation of how one’s view of events depends largely upon the experience that one has had of those events. I came to see more clearly the propaganda that we had been fed subtly through the past clinging on into the present, back in the fifties, when I was a youngster, and the Germans were “Krauts”, and the Japanese (of the war, not our neighbours) were “Japs”. As loyal Canadians, we cordially hated both, and loved to see the John Wayne movies, where he would single handedly win the war against either the “Krauts” or the “Japs”. Of course any German people that we knew, or our Japanese neighbours, of which there were quite a few, were just people. Those names didn’t apply to them. After all they weren’t the “enemy”. And besides the war was over now.
Since the three six week visits I took in Germany, in the 1980’s, the Berlin wall has fallen, the Soviet Union has turned into "Russia Inc.", a Mafioso enterprise, and East Germany is no longer, having joined the West. It is a different country there now. Now is the Eurozone, and European concerns with “Euro” dollars, and creaking financial systems everywhere, looking poised to disperse into clouds of debris as the house of cards is caught up in the winds of Wall Street Greed and collapses, finally, but not without yielding up a few more mega bucks for our friends in high places.
Although it may be easy to get distracted, and feeling lost, it is always useful, and enlightening to contemplate history, such that we might attempt to avoid making the same mistakes our fathers and grandfathers made. It is also easy to get caught up in one side’s version of the events in our common history, unless one is able to interact with and learn from people who were on the other side. In this case you can see that even if we have to fight sometimes, really we’re not all that different, and that we have more in common than we do that separates us. We see too, that often wars are not a solution to our economic and political woes, despite the fact that the old men who lead us like to send the young off to die in wars, especially the young of the lowest classes, as it makes their friends and themselves even richer than they were before. But we won’t go there right now, even though we’ve been there before, over and over, as war after war unfolded, in the service of and for the enrichment of the few elites, and the mangling and murder of the many, on both sides, in that service. What a cost, to fill a few bank accounts!!
Lest We Forget