To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.
My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.
They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.
They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.
Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.
He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.
In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.
During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier. This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.
I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.