Cathy Donald was 40 years old and worked in the Strathclyde Police records office in Glasgow. Her job involved a lot of archiving and tracing and she had developed an interest in the internet and the seemingly endless amounts of information she could get from it. It was this interest, coupled with the nature of her job that gave her the inclination to look into her family tree. She always found that people she met were always interested in her father’s life and his experiences in the RAF as a bomber pilot and she was always curious about the family connection on Arran and the war years. During all her time working with the Police records, it never crossed her mind that she could probably have found a lot more information on her Grandfather from her own desk, as the records of the fruitless wartime investigations by the Police on the island ‘black marketeers’ were all available!
She eventually locked on to the trail of a German connection in the story, through media reports of a crashed aircraft ‘near’ Arran. There had been talk, on the mainland, in later years that the ’plane had actually come down on the island intact, yet no-one ever found it. It became something of a local folk-lore, an urban myth almost, and no-one ever really took it seriously. When Cathy tried to follow this up, though, she met one elderly man in a care home who had been a reporter for a local newspaper at the time and he was adamant that the story was true. He told Cathy that he had once spoken to a colleague about it and this colleague said that he had been on Arran a couple of years later and had seen the landing site, with evidence consistent with a small ’plane crash. The old man offered to give her all the details when she returned on another arranged visit, but he had died a couple of days later, and Cathy was no wiser about it. Certainly, there were historians who had been
interested in following it up, but with no tangible evidence to the whereabouts of the ’plane, and the islanders silence, it was left as legend. Later in her search, Cathy found a long forgotten photograph, randomly tucked into an old book that belonged to her Grandfather which made her even more curious about her family on Arran. The picture was of her Grandfather and an unknown young man, standing outside his barn – the young man was holding up a heavy looking box and wore a military looking jacket with insignia on, that she couldn’t identify. The back of the photograph had faded writing in pencil that read, “Delivery of the ’B17’s! October ’44”.
With the help of a friend in the Police laboratory, they tidied the picture up and close scrutiny revealed the badges to be Luftwaffe insignia!
“What do you think the writing means?” Cathy asked the technician helping her.
“Well, the B17 was an American bomber,” he replied, peering at the photograph through a small magnifying lens.
“The boy with the box doesn’t look American, though – looks more like a German.”
Cathy stared at the picture in silence, puzzled.
“Doesn’t look like much of a fancy dress party!” the technician in the lab joked to Cathy. Cathy was dumbstruck!
“No. No, it doesn’t” she stammered as she took the photograph off the table and turned to go.
Cathy drove home that night and started searching for some answers to what she thought was a very weird set of events unfolding in her family tree! How could the person in the photograph with her Grandfather be German? She then thought about the folk-lore of the ’plane crash and the missing ’plane and started to think that the ’plane didn’t actually crash in the sea at all, and that it could have landed on Arran, possibly on her Grandfathers land, just as the old man in the care home had been so adamant about.
‘Oh, my god’, she thought to herself,
‘He was supposed to be dead . . . .and Dad was supposed to be dead too. . .’ Realising it must have crashed on her Grandfather’s land, she traced the Luftwaffe insignia through the
internet and via various veterans associations and historic societies, she discovered the man who wore the badges on the photograph was still alive, and was an ex-fighter pilot during the war! His name was Jorgen Klein. The parallel between Klein and her father was uncanny and drove her to find out all she could about the German pilot and how he managed to stay on Arran for all that time, during the war. Cathy, eventually, managed to get in touch with the, now elderly wartime Luftwaffe pilot, who told the whole remarkable story about how her Grandfather had come to the aid of him, when he crashed his ’plane on the farm and he helped piece together the various parts that were missing from her father’s knowledge of the incident. The records of the police and military investigation were all there and it wasn’t until a lead brought her round full circle that she was able to obtain the information on what actually happened with her Grandfather and the islanders who helped him. She read with total fascination about the tests of human endurance, kindness, tolerance, and ultimately, forgiveness by a community of people whom, up until now, she always regarded as fairly set in their ways to the point of being a bit narrow-minded.
Cathy was fascinated by the story and this led her to research even more about the young pilot that her Grandfather harboured until the end of the war. Through her research on the internet and through contact with the pilot via e-mail, she was happy that Oberleutnent Jorgen Wolfgang Klein, was not only still alive, but attended the reunions of his fellow airmen regularly. Her aim was to get him to meet her father and let him fill in the gaps for her father! Her Grandmother, Margaret, or Mags, had even kept notes and a diary of sorts, and had photographs that she took of this era, which made it easy for the authorities in Germany to confirm the identity of Klein. Identification was made even easier by the fact that she discovered more photographs of her Grandfather and a young Luftwaffe pilot standing next to a crashed ME 109 fighter ’plane, with all it’s squadron markings clear to see.
These items of vital evidence came to light, only when she visited Arran one weekend to try and do some research and
had visited Allison McLean, the daughter of Anne and Gordon McCulloch, who still ran the family pub over there with her husband, son and his wife. It turned out that when the war ended and the authorities started to get more interested in the goods and improvements that had suddenly appeared on the island, her grandparents hid all their ‘evidence’ in an old fuel tank, buried in the garden behind the McCulloch’s pub. The ‘B17’ beer production having been hastily stopped at the same time the investigations were being made! Klein had suggested in his e-mails that the ‘evidence’ was probably hidden in McCulloch’s house somewhere before he left, but had no idea where, so Cathy went over to investigate. Allison and her husband had actually discovered the tank when they were digging for a water main repair a couple of years ago. Since the tank wasn’t in the way of the repair, they simply left it where it was. Now that Cathy was looking for the pictures, Allison’s husband casually joked that they were. . .
“. . . probably hidden in that old fuel tank in the garden!”
Both Cathy and Allison turned to look at him in silence and then, both at once, leapt up and headed for the garden . . .
After tracking Klein down in Germany, with the help of a local newspaper, and the evidence she obtained from Christine McLean, Klein invited her and her father over to the next reunion, to be held, appropriately, in Darmstadt. She sent Klein copies of all the old photographs and journals and he confirmed that the young airman was him and confirmed his time spent on Arran. He even confirmed that he had copies of many of these items that her Grandmother had given him as a ‘leaving present’ and that he still had to this day. Klein had been reunited with his family after the war and they found themselves in, what was until recently, East Germany, under communist rule. Klein was quick to recognise that living in the Eastern part of Germany would not be a good move and he and his family managed to move back to Braunschweig, before the border with the East was closed. Klein got settled quickly and worked with the Opel car company after the war, and had risen up the ranks to executive level. He was well known in the University circle for talks, and especially in Darmstadt for lecturing at the technical university
and as a result the local press wanted to do a major feature on his story, and had even suggested that they could get television coverage on it too. Cathy managed to get them to agree that all this must be kept secret for now, as it would be a big surprise for her father. The German newspaper and TV station agreed, not wishing to harm the chances of a good story and even generously agreed to fund the trip over and all their expenses.
Cathy and her father, Jim, got into the car and headed off, tentatively into the Darmstadt traffic. They stopped on the way to the hotel, to have a quick look around the town and get a coffee in one of the small cafes that dotted the once- quaint old town centre. They were admiring the square when they noticed a memorial plaque and paused to read it because they clearly recognized the date – September 11 1944. Cathy had studied some German and tried to read the plaque.
“What does it say?” He asked anxiously.
“I’m not sure,” said Cathy,
“But it appears to be that we are standing in the old medieval square that was destroyed by the raid in ’44. It says something about rebuilding it.”
“It looks like they have tried to recreate bits of it as it was before the war,” the elderly man said.
Cathy suggested they go across the square to a café overlooking the memorial and sit in the late afternoon sunshine. They ordered two coffees and two German pastries, which looked like miniature strudels and got a seat overlooking the square. As they watched the Darmstadters and tourists file by, the elderly man turned to Cathy and said,
“Right, now that you’ve got me here – what’s this all about? Have you found a German relative in our family tree, or something?”
Cathy smiled and said,
“Oh, no. I think it’s much more interesting than that! You won’t believe it, but all I will say is that the reunion tonight will provide you with some interesting answers regarding Grandad and the war.”
Jim looked intrigued to the point of worry. Cathy saw the look on his face and reassured him.
“I can assure you, it is an amazing story, and one that made me feel even more proud of Grandad than I was before I found out.”
Jim, still puzzled, simply looked at Cathy and said,
“O.k, I’ll go along with it for now . . .!” before adding,
“You know, your Grandad or Grandmother never spoke much about the time that I was missing. It’s almost as if they just blotted out that time in their lives. Maybe they were too hurt at the thought of losing a son, I don’t know. I suppose a lot of people would have wanted to do that.”
Cathy, who, of course, knew the truth, was desperate to tell him, but wondered how much her father knew about the time before he came home.
“What happened to them at the end of the war?” she asked.
Jim sighed and said,
“Well, when I came home, they had run the farm down to almost nothing. I remember there was a huge change to the place when I got back. They still had a going concern over there, but basically doing only, potatoes, vegetables, but no livestock. I couldn’t see how anyone, there, was making a living, but they all seemed to be doing very well. The house was always very nice and lot’s of new things had appeared that weren’t there when I left. I knew they and all their friends there, had been doing some dodgy deals since the war began – nothing serious or anything that would hurt anyone, but wee deals that would stretch the rations and provide some luxuries. It was easy to do that then as McCulloch was the only ‘Policeman’ on the island, and he was the chief instigator of many of the scams! I guessed they had been caught out by the authorities somehow and, although they never got jailed or anything, certainly something happened that caused them to keep their heads low and keep silent. I remember hearing that the authorities had been crawling all over the place right after the war but I never asked them about it in case they were embarrassed about it. They eventually told me later that some of them on the North part of the island had been caught with wartime contra-band and had been given a severe ticking off!”
Jim picked up his cup and grinned,
“They never got anything on your crafty Grandad, though!”
Jim drained the last of his coffee and added,
“One thing I do know – we never wanted for much when I came back, so whatever it was, it paid them somehow! When I returned there were street lights, where once there were none, the roads were always in good repair, some of the farm machinery was new, and everyone had nice furnishings. I just presumed they had been handsomely compensated by the Americans after some of their ’plane’s crashed on them! ”
Once they had finished their coffee, they looked around the square for a while and had a look around the shops before getting back into the car and heading for the hotel.
Cathy drew into the hotel car park in Heinreichstrasse and parked their hired Volkswagen Golf next to an expensive looking, large BMW saloon. In the rear window of the BMW was a small sticker, which had the image of an ME109 fighter and the crest of a particular squadron and a motto, which Jim couldn’t read, but knew it as probably one of the fighter squadrons that he would have met, in the skies, some fifty odd years ago. Jim reached into his pocket for his glasses and studied the badge while Cathy fumbled with the car key and the complexities of locking the doors and setting the alarm on the Golf. Once she figured it out well enough to at least lock the car for the night, Cathy unloaded their cases and they trundled them up the ramp and into the reception area where the girl on the reception desk welcomed them with a warm smile and a greeting in perfect English.
“How do they instinctively know to speak English to us?” she thought, as she recalled the uncanny way this happens all over Europe, in her experience at least! Cathy put her case down and said,
“We have a reservation in the names of MacLaren and Donald – two rooms.”
Her father was distracted again and had noticed a sign beside the reception that had the details of the conferences and events that the hotel was hosting this week. Although his knowledge of German was non-existent, he recognised the event being listed
tonight in the Heidelberg suite . . . Luftwaffe . . .Groupen 12 . . .Geshwader 17 . . .and guessed that this was the venue for the reunion. From one of the open doors to the suite, he could see all sorts of displays being set up and black flight cases of equipment being unloaded. The receptionist asked Cathy,
“Are you visiting Darmstadt for a holiday,” and before she could answer her father said, pointing to the board,
“No, we’re actually here for the reunion, here, tonight.”
The receptionist looked puzzled and aghast, trying to figure out how someone with a name like ‘MacLaren’, and so obviously ‘English’ could be involved in a reunion of World War Two German airmen!
“You were in the Luftwaffe ?”
Jim laughed and said,
“No, No. I was invited to it after my daughter, here, did some research – I’ve no idea why I am here, to tell you the truth.”
Cathy quickly confirmed,
“I am researching our family tree and discovered a connection to Darmstadt. The Luftwaffe is part of it.”
She was very careful not to mention the fact that her father had helped to flatten the place, when he thoughtlessly, but without any malice intended, butted in . . .
“Oh, I flew over here many times during the. . .”
. . . and stopped himself short when he realised (with a bit of help from a glare from Cathy!) what he was about to say!
He stopped talking immediately, but knowing that he couldn’t leave a rude silence, blurted out . . .
“ . . .well, you know . . . ” he finished sheepishly.
The receptionist was just staring impassively at him as he said this, making him feel uncomfortable at the memories he was possibly unearthing for her. She then looked down at the names on the booking page and then cried out, trying to get the pronunciation correct,
“Mee-klaren – Mein-klaren – Ah, May-klarn, you are the one in the newspaper today! Ah, it’s an amazing story, I could not believe it!”
She hurriedly leant over to hand over a copy of the local paper, which featured a picture of a smiling, relaxed looking young
man standing in front of the wheel of a Lancaster bomber in an RAF uniform, and next to it a picture of a young German airman in the cockpit of an ME109 fighter, his expression serious and confident.
Cathy was glad her father could not read German as she snatched the paper off the receptionist before the elderly man could get a good look at it.
“He doesn’t know about it yet!”
Cathy said in a panic, a little louder than she might otherwise have wanted and then added, in her normal tone,
“It’s a surprise for tonight!”
The receptionist meekly apologised and took the newspaper back, feeling very foolish that she nearly spoiled something that was obviously to be very special for both of them. Jim, however, was even more suspicious and intrigued as he clearly recognised himself and that very photograph that used to sit on his parents mantelpiece back in Arran. What was this picture doing in a German newspaper? How did it get there? What was this ‘story’? And who was the other person? Jim was even more intrigued!
They got their room keys and as they headed towards the lift, Jim said to his daughter,
“We do have a German in the family tree, don’t we – and he was in the Luftwaffe? Bloody hell, what an irony that would be!”
Cathy sniggered and said,
“No, Dad, honestly – not a family member - it’s nothing like that, I can assure you.”
As they reached the lift, his mind was doing cartwheels in the silence, trying to figure all this out when Cathy asked her father,
“What room number did you get?”
Jim glanced at his key fob and said,
“226 – second floor, I presume.”
Cathy smiled at him and replied,
“I’m on the third, then - 317.”
The lift mechanism whirred and clicked, the single ‘clang’ of a bell announcing it’s imminent arrival to the chosen level, as the elderly man looked around the foyer of the hotel as they waited.
“It’s nice, this – isn’t it?” he said, referring to the hotel, but still wondering what on earth was going on.
“It’s not bad at all, actually. Much better than I expected, considering it’s being paid for by someone else.”
The lift bell chimed once again and the doors slowly slid open to reveal two elderly and quite frail looking women, who smiled politely at Cathy and her father as they moved aside to let them pass, even though there was plenty of room. The two women started chatting away again as soon as they were past and they disappeared into the bar area.
Cathy and her father stepped into the lift and pressed their respective buttons for their rooms.
After the doors closed, Cathy asked,
“You’re not mad or upset, are you?”
Jim laughed slightly and replied,
“No, of course not. My brain is working overtime trying to guess what this could be all about.”
He then turned to her and said softly,
“But I know that whatever it is, you will have done it in my best interests and you wouldn’t do anything to hurt me, so whatever it is – it’s o.k.”
Cathy smiled and leant in to her father, holding his arm tightly.
There was a silent pause.
“I’m going to wear the squadron badge tonight,” he said, without prompt, as if he were making a bold declaration that would meet with disapproval.
“I’m not sure how that would be received by these guys, but you know . . .”
Jim’s tone softened slightly as he continued,
“ . . .I feel like I owe it all the lads who never made it, you know I want to honour them here, too. What do you think?”
Cathy had not really thought about this. It was only natural, she supposed, that the German veterans would be wearing their medals and insignia (although, naturally, the Swastika would not
be among them), but she wasn’t sure what advice to give her father in wearing the RAF insignia.
“Well . . .” she said,
“They have specifically invited you as an RAF pilot, so I would imagine they will expect you to wear something relating to it.”
She then added, half – heartedly,
“Even if it’s just to distinguish you from the rest!”
“When I open my bloody mouth – that will distinguish me soon enough!” he replied.
The bell chimed again as the lift stopped at the second floor.
“Can you manage?” Cathy asked.
“Aye, I’ll be o.k. I’ll get you downstairs in the bar in a wee while, yes?”
Cathy smiled and nodded, her eyes stayed on her father as the lift doors closed.