"My Dear Krauts" Excerpt Wet Heroes

Part 3


“Willkommen in Köln,” said the young student guide from the Christliche Hilfswerk, “Welcome to Cologne”.

“Willkommen, bienvenue – vel-kom.” That was Tom and I could sense trouble ahead.

“We are now on our way to the flight school in Hangelar, a little way outside town. There you will meet veterans of the night-time fighter squadron. As you can see from our programmes” – I saw ‘Point 5, 14.30-15.30 – 'spontaneous get together' – "the highpoint will be a joint cruise along the Rhine. Let’s hope the weather improves! In the meantime relax and enjoy your reconciliation tour!”

Sociologists say British and German young people have uniquely short attention spans; only the Americans are worse. But even the non-video game and SMS generations – working mothers in Essen and Leeds, middle managers, stock brokers, policemen – have astonishingly weak concentration. Worst of all are the over-70s. They whine, they demand attention, they pretend to read books but secretly read tabloids like Bild and the Daily Mirror. And that’s just the sane ones.

Sure enough, Britain’s assorted heroes visiting Germany for the first time in 60 years chose not to look out at the new country but rather to launch into a sing-along. “Hitler has only got one ball – and Goebbels has no balls at all!” they sang, linking arms on the backseat. I spotted Tom at the centre of this subversive activity.

“Dad, please tell Tom sometime that Hitler is dead. Goebbels too.”

“Tried to explain it to him, lad, but all he said was: do we have proof?”

I sighed. On the autobahn there was a big sign marked: Wahn ("insanity") 10 kilometres.

The smell of Rinderroulade (roulade of beef) wafted out from the barracks and engulfed the old Englishmen as they tentatively stepped on to German military terrain. This was, I could see, to be one of those intricately planned reconciliation exercises. A few years ago Germans would rather have chewed carpets than touch beef, tainted by British madness. Now beef was on the menu again and one guessed that the welcoming speeches would make some semi-humorous reference to cows. I could hardly wait.

Outside the Fliegerhorst building stood 10 men: 10 to 14 of ours. The odds were good but not conclusive.

“They look bloody fit,” said the parachute veteran who may, or may not, have had a fling with my Mum.

“It’s all those holidays in Majorca,” said Tom, and indeed many of the German pilots had brown parchment skin stretched tightly over their cheekbones.

All 10 stood with their shoulders back and there was not an ounce of fat on them. Our lot were flabby, breathless, flushed and their facial features were so blurred they might as well have been wearing stocking masks.

“Wouldn’t like to meet any of them on a dark night,” said Dad and the others guffawed. Because, of course, these men were the night fighter pilots who had tried and often succeeded in shooting them down.

“Von Beansegg!”

“Von Hamindorf!”

”Zur Buschinfelde!”

The German pilots reached forward and though they did not click their heels and though there was no trace of duelling scars on their cheeks, the British visitors felt quietly satisfied that they had conformed to the cartoon image of the old enemy. One, Oberst Bubi von Kreuznach, even wore a monocle.

The table in the messroom was decked out with plastic model aircraft, Messerschmidt 101s, Lancasters, Heinkels, Halifaxes: the kind that I used to glue together as a child. A little nest of crossed German and British flags made up the centrepiece of the display. The walls were covered with black and white photographs of planes and their crew.

“This was the headquarters of Jagdgeschwader (fighter squadron) 300,” said Oberst Bubi, “we pioneered the tactics of the Wilde Sau – flying into the night, without guidance from below, using our naked eyes and the glare of the searchlights to shoot you down.”

“I Like that,” whispered Dad, “no nonsense about being pleased to see us.”

“One of our first missions was in July 1943 over Cologne, the city you are now visiting. Nine of us, including me, shot down 12 of your bombers. It was very satisfactory. Now I would like to wish you a very pleasant stay. And please enjoy the beef which is from the very best German herds.”

There was a ripple of polite laughter.

“Bit abrupt,” said the parachute officer, “just as well, I suppose, stomach is rumbling like a washing machine.”

I sensed though that there was more at work than the colonel’s sensitivity towards the digestive juices of the British.

“What’s up with the colonel?” I asked one of the German pilots. His name tag said: Borstig. “Is he always like this?”

“Everything is in order, I think,” said Borstig, who had the narrow chest and slight build of a fighter pilot. Some kind of pea soup with sausage had been put in front of us, in chipped white tureens marked with the crest of the unit. Borstig grimaced. He was obviously not a soup man. “Actually, it is more complicated, I think.”

“Tell me.”

“But you are a journalist, I think.”

“It’s ok. I don’t bite.”

„Before you came, we had the old argument, fought the old battle.”

“Which battle is that?”

“The battle for the Ritterkreuz (Knight's cross). Some of the officers here were in a squadron in the Netherlands. If you had good connections you could take off early and shoot down the bombers. There was almost no risk and you were on your way to a Ritterkreuz. For some of the people here today, the Ritterkreuz was everything.”

Borstig ran his hand across his stiff white collar. “We used to say: they have sore throats. There were always rumours that after the war we would be given an estate. Some of these officers were close to curing their sore throats – and then they were sent here. They really had to learn how to fight. It was dangerous as hell. And no way to get a medal.”

“Must have been difficult flying blind.”

“We got shot down by our own Flak. Or we shot our planes by accident.”

“So some people here hate the colonel?”

“And some love him. It is as in life.”

“Why did the haters turn up?”

“The Defence Ministry pays a special attendance fee for reconciliation meetings.”

“Sounds like Germans should be trying to reconcile themselves with Germans.”

“That, young man, is the tragedy of my country.”

“What have you been blabbing on about?” Dad was demanding attention.

“Major Borstig says you should eat your carrots. He says it’s good for your night vision.”

The beef roulade had indeed arrived with carrots. The dish was a smouldering delight, eliminating at a stroke the British prejudices about German cooking.

Even Tom was briefly silenced. This was a mercy. He had spent twenty minutes telling his German hosts about his brilliant piloting skills. The British delegation, knowing full well that Tom was a back-of-the-bus man, started to cringe. Neither Tom nor my father was a great hero. A third surviving member of the crew had told me how they bailed out too early. There had been a chance to save the plane. As they floated to earth – trapped in the glare of the searchlights, waiting to be shot at – they each soiled their pants.

“Never been so frightened in my life,” my Dad admitted later.

Only Tom continued to boast about his wartime career. Sixty years on, the stories had grown and mutated and lost all contact with reality.

The British tucked into second helpings and soaked up the Rhine wine; the Germans politely declined.

“God, no wonder they’re so fit,” said one of the RAF men.

“That’s because they were used sensibly after the war,” said Dad. “They weren’t just dumped like we were. No wonder we let ourselves go to seed.”

A smartly dressed man close to the head of the table coughed. It was the kind of sound you give in England when the doctor holds your balls and says ‘Cough!’ to test if you have a hernia. An abrupt piece of social punctuation. He scraped back his chair and stood up. I had not noticed him before but that very fact told me precisely who he was: a minder from the Federal Press Office which was keeping a wary eye on the great reconciliation process. There was still a nervousness about letting soldiers meet. The minder was in his 30s and there wasn’t – in contrast to the British guests – a crease or crinkle to be seen. His suit was smooth, his shirt, his manicured hands, his tightly sun-tanned face: it was as if a giant steam iron had been applied over his whole body.

“If I might just say a few words on behalf of the federal government,” he said and reached inside his jacket for his notes.

I could see that none of the airmen, not the German or British, could stand him, or his American-accented English.

I took a paper napkin and wrote on top: IMPORTANT SPEECH. The wrinkle-free bureaucrat noticed the gesture and smiled approvingly. The press was paying attention. As he meandered on and on, I drew up a table that seemed to represent my options:

Claudia + - Renata + -
Ready for a fight x Guerilla x
Likes fitness centres x Dislikes sport x
Smoker (like me) x Bites nails x
Flashy car x Bike x
Doesn't laugh x Laughs like a mule x
Sinewy thighs x Green eyes x

I chewed the end of my pencil. Perhaps, in the end, it was the eyes that mattered most.

The smooth bureaucrat smoothly progressed through his speech. A few polished clichés rolled towards me, like glass marbles in a children’s game. Unification, he was saying, was the end of a process and the beginning of a process. Germans could be proud again. I could see Tom was growing restless. The man was on point 8, I could see on his notes, 8 out of 10.

The Oberst, barely able to conceal his impatience, tapped his glass with a spoon.

“Thank you, that was fascinating,” he said to Herr No-Crease, blundering into the middle of a sentence. “But the time has come, I think, for a toast.”

He sprang to his feet.

“I would like to raise my glass to the Queen!”

“To the Queen!”

Dad looked flustered. “What’s the German president’s name again?” “Köhler.”

He rose. “To President, er, Killer.”

The British pilots echoed: “To Killer.”

The Oberst was up again.

“To the great Fliers of the Royal Air Force.”

“Who contributed so much to the urban planning of your cities,” interjected Tom. A chilly silence fell around the table.

“My mother was killed in the Braunschweig raid,” said Borstig.

“And mine in Dresden,” said another officer.

“Just a little joke,” said Tom, not at all abashed and hissed loudly, as if on stage, “you see – no sense of humour.”

It was beginning to resemble a Lunch in Hell.

“Excuse me for a moment.”

I left the room and went towards the toilets. Earlier I had noticed automatic fire sprinklers set in the ceilings; a sensible precaution on an air base with highly explosive kerosene scattered around the barracks. I lit up a Marlboro light, stood on a chair and waited for the alarm system to work. Sure enough, bells started to ring and sirens started to howl. Water gushed out of every sprinkler in the mess hall.

“My God, it’s an air raid,” shouted Tom, “everyone into the bunker.”

Grimly, a clutch of British and German pilots emerged soaking from the building as if they had just been fished out of the Atlantic. The parachuter had grabbed a bottle of wine and taken shelter under the dining table. I hid the stub of my cigarette in the pot of a rubber plant.

“Perhaps we had just better move on with the next part of the programme and forget the spontaneous get together.”

The colonel nodded. Across the camp, fire engines were hurtling towards the building. Soldiers were shouting. Aircraft were being moved into hangars.

“Any casualties?” yelled a medical team carrying breathing equipment on a stretcher. “If you’re uninjured, move as far away from the building as possible.”

“How many anti-smoke masks do we need?”

And, the most intelligent appeal of all: “Where’s the fire?”

“Could be terrorists,” said Dad, looking on the bright side of things. “There could be anthrax in there.”

“I don’t think so somehow,” said the colonel, looking straight into my eyes. I tried to avoid his gaze. Out of the window I could see a fire engine unwinding a hosepipe for the non-existent fire. “You have a very competent rescue service, Colonel.”

“And you, Sir, also have a talent for rescue.” He paused between each word to make quite clear that he was deploying irony.

“No, no, you don’t understand,” chirped my father, “he simply has a talent for catastrophe.”

“Oh, shut up Dad.” It had been another long day.

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