"My Dear Krauts" Excerpt Wet Heroes
In an exclusive excerpt from his new book "My dear Krauts," the London Times's Berlin correspondent, Roger Boyes, recalls a painfully funny "reconciliation" tour of Germany with his father, an RAF bomber pilot in World War II.
"How do I look?"
Old, of course. I had studied Dad earlier, seen the bush of grey hair growing out of his supposedly shaven chin, the patches of stubble on his throat which had been missed by the razor. There was a light sprinkling of dandruff on the shoulder of his dark military blazer, like powdered sugar or poppy-seed cake.
"Fine, just fine."
I didnt turn round and continued staring out of the window of the Hotel Excelsior at the Cathedral. The sky, typical for a Rhineland summer, resembled damp brown gabardine. The smell, coming through the crack of the unwashed five-star, 240 a night window, was of wet dog. It had been raining for exactly 11 days. Cologne was at its most beautiful; a widow in grey.
I was still a bit shocked by Dads physical presence. Despite all the hints, despite the phone calls and the letter, I had not really expected him to come. He had seemed so depressed, so incapable of action.
I could not imagine him setting out on the long trek to Stansted airport, standing in the noisy queue for Prolet-airlines and making his way past German pass-control without provoking some kind of international incident. But I had underestimated him.
When I met him in Cologne, he was predictably frail. Somehow though he had charmed the flight attendants I am old enough to remember when they were called stewardesses and at least a dozen passengers seemed to be on first name terms.
The malign influence of Tom was already obvious. Tom had persuaded the airline to supply them both with wheelchairs to speed their way to the luggage pick-up. Tom admittedly had one leg missing but that hadnt stopped him walking a kilometer to the pub everyday or indeed having a number of affairs. As for my father, he had always been a walker, taking time off from my mother and domestic routine, to walk across the Yorkshire Dales. Now, I could see, his leg muscles were beginning to melt.
Dad was still staring at the body length mirror. The army feminises men: no one looks at his reflection as many times a day as a soldier. They adjust the creases of their trousers, cock the angle of their hat. They are as hungry for admiration as a catwalk mannequin. Difficult to imagine them going off later to kill someone. And especially difficult to picture your father killing others. I looked at the sky again: Would the boat trip be cancelled?
"Last time we had contact with Cologne, it was at 18,000 feet," said my father. The city was just zone one, zone two, zone three in those days. This would have been zone one, because of the railway station. Isnt that right Tom?"
Tom had been the rear gunner in the Lancaster piloted by my father. He was, if anything, even more vain than Dad. Sitting on the edge of the hotel bed he was twirling the ends of his waxed ginger moustache. I know that he pretended to the barmaid of his local pub in Deal that he had been an officer, a daring pilot. The moustache was part of the pretence: It was an officers growth, made to point upwards like the handlebars of a mountain bike. Only gay men wax their moustaches nowadays, I had once told him, and he had glared at me as if I had been in the sight of his Browning machine gun.
Tom rose, with difficulty, his arms spread out like wings and made engine noises vroom, vroom through his false teeth. He was, as ever, profoundly embarrassing.
"Maybe you shouldnt over-do the bomber imitation this afternoon," I said.
"You are supposed to be on a reconciliation mission, remember? And you bombed this place flat. I dont think people will laugh too hysterically."
"You leave Tom alone," said my father sharply, as if I were a cheeky 11 year old. "We did what we had to do, and they did what they had to do."
"Aye, only they had camps and stuff," chipped in Tom.
"Well, you did all right out of your camp, as I recall."
Both men had been captured when they were shot down over Aachen and had spent the next 60 years telling stories about their adventures, the good guards, the bad guards. As I grew older and started to watch "Hogans Heroes," I realized that some of the stories had been borrowed from television. Toms leg, supposedly lost when his plane was shot down, was actually amputated in 1957 after an unlucky and very alcoholized exit from a moving taxi. Those were the days before doors were childproof. Even so their war, compared to the Germans they had bombed, had not been so bad: The prison camp was more comfortable than their boarding school, their food was better than Royal Air Force rations, they caught up with their sleep and they were spared from their demanding girlfriends at home whom they later went on to marry and impregnate. War, for them, was a second boyhood.