Sunday, 19 April 2009

Beyond the Call

What prompts humans to act the way they do? In the spring of 1945, I was sympathizing with sardines while I was packed into a box car being taken to we-knew-not-where, but feared it was to a fortress where we could be held as hostages for a negotiated peace. We stopped in a huge marshalling yard which we inferred could only be Munich. We were not overjoyed at learning we would park there overnight because, sure enough, Bomber Command made another of its frequent visits just to increase my tally of terrifying friendly-fire encounters. In the morning our guards unlocked the box car doors to give us fresh air as we would have to wait for an engine replacement because an RAF Mosquito had disassembled ours into its component parts. An amazing and dangerous low-level surgical strike at night and a nightmare for us. Somehow our string of box cars was undamaged. On the next track was a similar string of box cars. We could hear moans and groans, so six of us (2 Britons, 2 Canadians, 1 Australian, and 1 Rhodesian) slipped over to unbar their door. We recoiled in horror as we saw a pile of creatures that had once been human. Their bony hands begged for food. We had very little, but gave what we had. Their sunken eyes screamed for revenge.

Several cars away a young SS guard was supervising a group of women slave labourers filling in bomb craters and replacing track damaged in last night’s raid. When he saw what we were doing, he came racing towards us, shouting and raising his weapon to fire. Never experiencing such an urge to kill, the six of us held our ground determined to rush him if he opened fire. Our Australian, who spoke good German, stunned him with a volley of choice German words to describe what we thought of him and warning him to start treating his prisoners like his best friends to escape the hangman’s noose that was waiting for such as he. He yelled back that they were Jewish criminals who had no right to live and that we would now join them. By this time SS guards were racing up from the opposite direction. We had good reason to fear we were about to die. Three of our Luftwaffe guards, common soldiers, emerged from our box cars. One was well into his 70s, another was a frail youth, the third was middle-aged with war wounds. They dreaded the SS and had more to fear from them than we, yet they positioned themselves, unarmed, around us and argued with the furious SS louts that we were high-ranking prisoners of Reichmarschall Göring and were, under no circumstances, to be harmed. Very grudgingly, after a long harangue with them by our guards and our voluble Australian, the SS louts agreed to let the Luftwaffe herd us back into our box cars. Our guards were trembling as they leaped into the box cars with us. They knew they had risked death in what could have been a futile attempt to save us.

This was only one of many occasions where the Luftwaffe saved us aircrew prisoners from the SS and Gestapo and is another reason why I can never condemn a whole nation for the sins of its leaders.

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