Excerpt from A Green Hill Far Away: A Sherwood Forester’s Story by Fred Hirst (1998).
Stockport: A Lane Publishers. Reprinted here courtesy of Fred Hirst and A Lane Publishers.
Excerpt taken from Chapter 27: Air Raids. Pte. Hirst was in a POW camp in Munich when this took place...
When I first came to Munich the city had not suffered all that much from air raids and much of it was still intact. It was a beautiful city and the civilian men were often seen dressed in traditional Bavarian costume, which were shorts and broad leather braces with a Tyrolean hat. There were two outstanding landmark buildings which we could see from most parts of the city and we used to call them 'The Pepper Pots'. They were two tall narrow buildings within a few yards of each other, each with a clock face and a green dome top which gave us the idea that they looked like pepper pots. They were still standing at the end of the war, and are still there to this day. Gradually as the constant air raids took their toll the city began to look forlorn and depressing. The trams were single decker and towed two other coaches. But the roads were so damaged that tracks had been laid on the road surface on sleepers similar to rail tracks, so that if they were damaged that particular section could be repaired quickly. Whole areas of the city were now just filled with the shells of bombed buildings and there would be no people there. We often marched to our various labours through such areas. Another danger we had to face was the spectre of unexploded bombs, for they could not be spotted among all the rubble piled up high by the roadside. We would hear some go off almost every day. Vehicles suffering from the lack of petrol had cylinders attached to the side which were fuelled with wood.
During our work on the station and in the city we would often see men dressed in what looked to me like light and dark blue striped thin material pyjamas, accompanied by their SS guards. This dress looked hopelessly inadequate for the bitter winter weather, and when looking at these poor wretches, it showed. I soon found out that these men were inmates of the notorious Dachau Concentration Camp not far away. Of course we did not know just how bad these camps were at the time, but before leaving England we had heard of Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Dachau happened to be the name of one I remembered. On one occasion I saw them from a distance digging out what looked to be an unexploded bomb as we were being transported past, and I also saw them laying rail track on the main station.
On 22nd December, 1944, Munich suffered its biggest raid of the war. The camp inmates had returned from their labours tired and cold, made their meal and settled down for a quiet evening of reading, or chatting about the approach of Christmas and what we would have been doing at home. Very little mail had got through since I had been recaptured, and what had arrived was about three months old. I had received my very first parcel a few days ago from home since being taken prisoner. It was not from my own family and to this day I do not know who had sent it. I think it might have been from some local organisation in Bentley, or even from my old school, but there was nothing to say who it was from. However it was very welcome and contained, I think, 250 cigarettes. Personal parcels from home up to the weight of the ten pounds allowed had been sent by my family but were never received during the whole time that I was a prisoner.
The sirens sounded the alarm at about 7 pm. Following camp standing orders, we turned out the lights in the hut, and putting on our outside clothing made our way to the covered trenches outside which served as air raid shelters for the camp. It was a very cold frosty evening, and seemed even colder in the shelters than it was outside. Our 'callers' would be the RAF who usually did the night time raids.
Soon we heard the familiar sound of anti-aircraft fire which sounded much louder in these trenches than it did in the more robust shelters in the city. We could hear the drone of the planes above and it sounded as if it was going to be a heavy attack by the many aircraft we could hear over the city. We did not, however, hear many bombs drop near the camp and considered ourselves lucky that we had come through this raid with what had sounded to be carried out by a large number of planes.
After about 45 minutes thankfully it was over, and we came out of the shelter to witness a most dramatic scene which seemed to explain the lack of the sound of bombs falling. Looking towards
the city centre the sky was crimson and flames and sparks were flying high in the air which seemed to be across several miles of the city skyline. There was no doubt about it, this incendiary raid had been designed to set the city on fire and at that very moment we could hear the sound of fire appliances racing into the centre. The whole camp was lit up by the flames which would have been at least six miles away. We were stunned. There were lots of other smaller fires dotted around the residential area near the camp.
We went back to our huts, thankful that the camp had not been set on fire, and for the next half hour or so we sat and pondered on what had happened, and what kind of a reception from the residents of Munich we might get tomorrow when returning to our labours, that is if there is anything left for us to do. Then.........with its spine chilling wail which seared through the pit of my stomach, the siren warning began again and we were soon back into the cold interior of the shelters. Again the anti-aircraft guns opened up, and added to that was the unmistakable 'CRUMP, CRUMP!!' of exploding bombs. Again there were many planes taking part as we sat and shivered in that shelter, either from fear or the cold, probably both A loud explosion sent a blast of air through the open end of the trench, and there were murmurs from some of the men, "That must have hit the camp!” The ferocity of the raid continued, and again there was a terrific explosion but at least the shelter was still intact. Gradually the sound of the planes, guns and falling bombs began to ease off, and after a similar period to the first raid we heard the so welcome sound of the 'all clear'. This second raid was almost exclusively of high explosive bombs, and had caught all the fire appliances now in the city. Whether that was by design of the RAF I do not know, but it was a consequence of the raid. It was getting on for half past nine when we again returned to our now cold huts, badly shaken but thankful that the camp and ourselves had survived such a devastating raid. The camp had not been hit, but a bomb had landed about 200 yards away from the perimeter in a field next to the camp. Because of the shutters on the windows most had escaped being shattered. We heard later that the second explosion which rocked the camp had been caused by one of the planes being shot down about half a mile away, landing on a cross roads at the opposite side of the camp. The terrific noise must have been caused by the explosion of bombs still on board the plane. "For you the war is over", my captors had said in Tunisia. I and the others in the hut slept in our clothes for the rest of the night.
The next day our normal work was abandoned and we were taken into the city in trucks. Bomb damage was strewn all along the route, and it was with some trepidation and misgiving that we approached the centre in the truck. Bodies were still lying about and the people looked numbed. There were no demonstrations against us when we got off the truck and were put to work helping these unfortunate people to rescue what possessions they had left. I know that our own country was heavily bombed and suffered greatly, but I could not bring myself to say to these people, "It serves you right for what you did to our country". What it did bring home to me was how innocent children and old people on both sides who have absolutely no control over these events, have to suffer. I saw the fire appliances wrecked by the bombing and now covered in ice, some of them on their side, and the acrid smell of burning buildings which has stayed with me to this day. I saw the hopeless look on old people's faces as they just sat out in the street in the bitter cold on chairs rescued from their homes as snow flakes settled gently on their shoulders, . They looked at us without anger in their faces, just hopelessness. I tried not to feel some guilt for their terrible plight, but it was a severe test of my support of the Allied air tactics. At home people would be saying that the German people should suffer the same, if not more than we did in Britain, but it was not so easy to think that way when witnessing the scenes that we were seeing now. It is human nature to want to help fellow human beings in distress whoever they are, and we felt drawn together in a common fear, making us willing, even though compulsory, helpers to these Munich distressed civilians. I had seen a few horrible things during this war, but never anything like this. What we POWs found hard to take was the fact that, unavoidably, we also were included in the attacks by our own planes. There had been raids before and there were other air raids to follow, but nothing as so devastating and destructive as this one. For Munich it was the knock-out blow. Three days later it was Christmas Day.
This excerpt was added to the Diversity in Retirement website 12 July 2005.
Fred Hirst’s life story: http://diversityinretirement.homestead.com/AlternativeWorkLives/FredHirst.html
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