Darmstadt, Germany August 23 1991:
On the platform of the railway station, an elderly man and his daughter gathered their belongings and headed for the car hire desk to pick up the car that would take them to a modest hotel in the market town of Darmstadt, an ancient town in South West Germany, only fifteen miles from Frankfurt. The last time Jim MacLaren was here, he was 15,000 feet above the town, wrestling with the controls of a crippled Lancaster bomber and Darmstadt looked like a scene from hell as a result of his, and others’ aircraft unloading tons of high explosives on to the town. He found it hard to believe it was the same place and that anywhere could recover from the hammering they gave this area all those years ago. Now, at the age of 69, Jim MacLaren found it hard to relate this town to the one he only ever saw as an arial plan in an RAF base in Swinderby, Lincolnshire.
The elderly man stood outside the rental office impassively looking towards the city as his daughter collected the keys to their hire car. When she came out, she looked to her father staring into the distance and said,
“Are you alright, Dad?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m fine - it’s just some memories coming back, you, know?”
His daughter smiled and left him to it as she loaded up the boot of the car.
As he stood reminiscing, he was more than a little apprehensive about his destination. He had been to reunions of all the RAF veterans before, and as their numbers slowly dwindled with each passing year, his daughter, Cathy, reckoned it would be a race against time to arrange this particular one. This one was to be different, and not just because he had been
invited at the insistence of the veterans of a particular Luftwaffe squadron, but because he was to find the last piece of the jigsaw of his personal war story. She was helped in these last two years to a great extent by the relatively new wonder that was the internet and the information she was compiling for her family tree, which led her to discover some incredible revelations about her Grandparents, who had a small farm on the Island of Arran .
Her father would openly speak about his war experiences, despite being a prisoner of war for the last part, but he always maintained he was treated well as his captors accepted the inevitable and made preparations to save themselves from war crime tribunals. If anything, his captors were keen to be seen to be treating their prisoners well as they wisely realised that it would be better for them to have the allies get to them before their own increasingly erratic regime did, or even, the Russians. He was shocked to discover that he had been reported as missing, presumed dead, and that the Red Cross had not got word to his parents until he was nearly home, that he had been alive. The Russians that eventually liberated them had been less than efficient or hospitable, too, and had taken such a long time to repatriate them. Their newly liberated allies were less than helpful when they didn’t get what they want and proved a handful of trouble for the weary Red Army. The Russian unit had been more interested in their own territorial gains to be bothered with a few insubordinate airmen, so as they gained territory, they confined them to barracks and got on with their own business. Allies advancing from the west found no trace of prisoners of war where they expected them, fuelling the idea that these men were ‘missing, presumed dead’. Later on, after the war in Europe had been declared over, there had been tardy administration in various records and translations on the way, and this helped to add to the confusion that he was dead. He eventually arrived home after the war to find that his parents still lived on the island he grew up on, but there were a great many differences in the infrastructure in the town. His Father, Andy, however, was very reluctant to go into details about his war years, and even mention of the facilities the town now enjoyed, was treated with a dismissive tone. Jim always thought it odd
that no-one from the island that he knew spoke much about it either. He always felt as though something was being hidden from him – the farm never seemed to produce anything that would make a profitable business and yet he never wanted for anything when he returned. He remembers looking around Whiting Bay and seeing all the houses freshly painted and in good order, all new fences, tumble-down dry stone dykes were all rebuilt and the place never looked better. Everyone in the town enjoyed a lifestyle and facilities better associated with a thriving mainland city. While other areas of Britain seemed to have suffered during the war, Whiting Bay seemed to have thrived from it! He learned to accept it and just thought, at the time, that maybe the Americans had been paying compensation to them because of any damage done by their crashed bombers there. Knowing some of the characters in the town it is just likely that they would seize on the opportunity of getting compensation and make the most of it!
“Come on, Dad,” she said as she dropped the tailgate down.
“Let’s see how much of this place you left standing for us to visit!”
He gave a slight chuckle and said,
“A lot more than we were originally led to believe, I hope! All these years, and I never even wondered what it looked like before the war. It was just a target - a red, map pin on a chart. Looking at it now, how could a town so beautiful have possibly been used for any sinister purpose in a war?”
“I know, Dad,” Cathy said as her father began to well up a little, recalling the cold way they were trained to deliver hell to people who, ultimately, were just like themselves. Jim began recounting the events that led to his raid.
“Darmstadt in September, 1944, was almost a prelude, a kind of macabre dress rehearsal to Dresden - it had always been listed a legitimate target by Bomber Command from the start of the war and the RAF crews were told it had a technical university which was a leader in the research for V-weapons – you know, those rocket things that used to come over.”
Cathy nodded as her father continued,
“The Merck chemical works were also there and there was intelligence to suggest that the next wave of these rockets were being developed at the university. The US Air Force had carried out daylight raids on the town and the RAF came at night to ensure that Darmstadt’s red map pin would never be required again. For the night of September 11, Darmstadt had been chosen to receive the full wrath of Bomber Command.”
Jim took a deep breath as he continued, recalling the event in detail in his mind.
“By the time the raid ended, it was estimated that 12,000 people had paid the ultimate price for the Third Reich. At this stage in the war, we had ‘perfected’ the technique of area bombing to devastating effect in cities like Hamburg, and Darmstadt was to be overshadowed only by Dresden later on to have the dubious distinction of being the most famous recipient of this technique.”
Cathy listened intently as her father talked as never before about his experiences,
“Very few RAF crews knew very much about the town and many thought it was bombed simply as a show of strength to the crumbling Fatherland. We had passed near Darmstadt on a few previous bombing raids to other cities, and indeed many of the boys jettisoned their bombs there when they got into technical trouble or were attacked by fighters. In reality, though, few bombs fell on Darmstadt, either deliberately or dumped, that did any real damage. The raids that had been carried out over Darmstadt previously were light compared to the likes of Hamburg and the towns’ people had a much more complacent attitude to the air raid sirens than their countrymen further North. We all knew about the Mercks chemical and pharmaceutical works which had been targeted by the Americans some months before, and on August 25, just over 200 of us had been sent to Darmstadt, but a series of technical failures, key aircraft shot down and bad luck ( but not for the people of Darmstadt ) they never made any significant impact on the town. Most of the bombers, including mine, went on to join others in the raid against Russenheim instead.”
Jim took another deep breath and continued, “On September 11, however, there was to be no such luck for the people who believed their town was always spared serious bombing because the Prince of Hesse was a relative of the British monarchs and owned property in Darmstadt. It was even believed, among some, that the town would be spared because the advancing Allies would need somewhere of cultural interest to base themselves while advancing through Germany! Night after night the people of Darmstadt watched the raids on other nearby cities and thought that Darmstadt may be spared to provide a billet for these advancing allied armies who were, now, only a hundred or so miles away. We had no idea that the war was in its final stages and we were simply hoping to make it through the next eight missions that would complete our tour and end our war. The odds against actually completing it, of course, were next to zero – a fact that we never spoke about or allowed ourselves to dwell on.”
Cathy held her fathers arm and said, “It’s all history, now, Dad. All in the past. Let’s go and see the place properly.”