Friday, 20 May 2011

TRAINS AND FRIENDLY FIRE

Emotions, never far below the surface, erupted when my friend, Larry Best, told me this tale. In the 1960s Larry was a Sabre pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. When he, his wife Debbie, and daughter Denise, were transferred to the RCAF base at Baden Soellingen that housed 3 of Canada's 12 NATO fighter squadrons, they used their first leave to look up Debbie's relatives, including cousin Irvin Zellmer. Here is a brief extract from Larry's account:


"Over local Schnapps and the V.O. Seagrams I brought, Irvin and I developed a warm rapport with him attempting English and me German.


Irvin grew up in Neuburg am Donau near Munchen (Munich). Before the war he was a railway engineer. In 1939 he was pressed into service to drive troop trains throughout Europe. As the tides of war turned against Germany in 1944 it was a daily occurrence for Allied fighter bombers to sweep across the European countryside seeking targets of opportunity. Troop trains were especially sought. Initially, RAF/RCAF fighters would make a pass which gave Irvin time to stop the train while all raced for cover. On the second pass they would blow up the train. Irvin would make his way back to Munchen, pick up another train, only to repeat the experience. He escaped serious injury until late 1944 when a section of fighters strafed the troops racing from the train. Irvin took hits in his back which passed through lungs, blew his left leg off above the knee, and took most of his right hand - a miracle he survived.


Irvin dug up a mememto he had buried and gave it to me for safekeeping as such objects were now verboten in Germany - a bronze and silver swastika, 12 by 15 inches."


POSTSCRIPT: I may have known Irvin. In fleeing the Soviet advance I had tramped many miles in snow but I was also transported by box car, getting to talk on 3 different trains to 3 drivers, all tired, cold, hungry, despondent, and facing a bleak future. One had lost his entire family to our bombs in Dresden, but all remained civil to us "Luftgangsters".


About 03 April 1945 I was among hundreds of Allied POWs being transported by crowded box car from Nurnberg to Moosburg. We had painted Red Crosses on the roofs. Near Regensburg a swarm of Liberators, Italy-based, escorted by Thunderbolts, appeared. Our driver stopped the train by some trees adjacent to farmland. As we raced across the field seeking ditches, nine Thunderbolts peeled off in groups of three to swoop on us, all guns firing. The passes they made lasted an eternity as 50-calibre slugs ploughed the ground on both sides of my prone body, hitting the Australian next to me. Not a pretty sight! We survivors catered to the dead and dying, then were herded back and locked into the box cars. The holed engine was patched up, as was the driver, and we struggled on to Moosburg across the Danube on the sole remaining railway bridge. One USAAF survivor had been a Thunderbolt pilot and recognized the squadron letters. He was furious at them ignoring our Red Crosses and the non-military clothing we long-time prisoners were wearing. He kept repeating "I know those bastards and I will have them all crucified."


There are a few wars that do have to be fought, but all wars leave participants with life-long pain and a sense of shame at belonging to the human species.

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