Jim stepped away from the simulator towards Cathy, just as another elderly man, who had been watching the screen display with a lot more interest than most, approached him, his white hair immaculate and his pale blue jacket displaying the badge of Geshwader 17 Tactical Reconnaissance Unit, and congratulated him on his flying skills in perfect English.
“You are a fine pilot,” the elderly German said,
“You looked so natural with the 109.”
Jim replied, feeling a bit more at ease, now,
“Thanks. I never actually flew fighters, but I would have loved to have got into a Spitfire, you know?”
The elderly German then said,
“You are not the only one to have this wish! We would all have loved to have flown a Spitfire!”
Cathy watched nervously as the elderly German introduced himself,
“My name is Klein. Oberleutnent Jorgen Klein. I am very pleased to meet you.”
He held out his hand, which Jim shook eagerly.
“I’m Jim. Eh, Flight Leutenant, Jim MacLaren and this is my daughter Cathy.”
Cathy smiled and shook Klein’s hand as he bowed his head slightly to her.
“I believe you have met my son, Günter? He was on the front desk when you came in,” Klein replied.
“Oh, Aye, we did. Was that your son?” Jim confirmed.
Klein nodded and then invited them both over to their stand to meet some of the other airmen who had been part of the unit during the war.
As they walked over to the stand, Klein began to give Jim some information on why he was here.
“Your daughter is a fine detective, herr MacLaren,” said Klein.
“It’s Jim,” and Klein smiled and nodded slightly again as if acknowledging the informality.
“It is because of her that you are here, and also the reason that this reunion will be slightly different from all the rest that we normally have.”
Jim looked puzzled, but realised that he may be about to get all the answers to his questions from this one man.
“Let me tell you some details, first. I know, for example, that you were shot down over Darmstadt on September 11, 1944 and that you were captured by a Luftwaffe fighter unit, spending the rest of the war in Eastern Germany. The Russians liberated the camp, although your captors had gone by the time the Russians arrived. The camp was never recognised by the Nazi authorities as it only contained around fifteen prisoners and as a result of this and the Russians apathy, you were reported as missing, presumed dead, and your parents believed you were dead until you eventually came home in late 1945. The camp never kept records and the Luftwaffe unit was disorganised and undisciplined, at best. The Russian liberators were not much better. The Red Cross never even got to hear about it, or the move to the East once the Allied lines got closer.”
Klein then reached over to the stand and picked up a copy of the newspaper that had the two photographs on the front and gave it to Jim. Klein pointed to the picture of himself on it and continued,
“This is a picture of me, taken shortly before I flew on a routine reconnaissance mission over Scotland in October 1944. I was taking pictures of various engineering works and shipyards in Glasgow. From what I understood, there was to be a plan to launch a series of last ditch bombing raids, possibly using the new ME 262 jet fighter-bomber, starting in Glasgow. I ran into some technical difficulty over the West coast and crash landed on the Island of Arran. I too was reported as missing, presumed dead. This would have been five or six weeks after you were shot down over Darmstadt, yes?”
Jim nodded and began listening even more intently, as Klein beckoned Jim over to an area behind the main stand that had some lounge chairs and rest facilities.
“I would now like to tell you a fascinating story regarding your parents and how you and I had much more in common, during the war, than you might ever believe . . .”
Cathy left the two veterans to talk and, unseen, slipped away from the rest area. Her father was now about to learn how his parents spent the last months of the war, and how his life was drawn in parallel, by an enemy airman on his home soil . . .
As Klein told the story, Jim was incredulous and couldn’t believe how it all could have happened. This was a secret that had been kept from him for all these years and at first he felt slightly hurt by the idea that they didn’t tell him, however, they were proud people and he realised that they were worried about how it would look to him and maybe made to feel like they had done something wrong. They were also worried that it may have looked as though they had given up on their son, and replaced him, with a German airman, of all people! Once Jim was home, all their focus and their energies were taken up on the more positive life that the future would bring. There didn’t seem to be any need to go into details of the war any more, it was best left in the past. For Klein, the end of the war and his inevitable repatriation back to Germany, was a similarly low key affair, as the war was left in the past as much as possible and it became a sensitive subject to raise anywhere in Germany. He was able to take most of his share of the money from the scrap metal value of his ’plane, unhindered back to Germany, via the Irish bank account, and after letting it lie low for a while and then investing it, benefitted considerably as a result. He told Jim about having to pretend he was suffering from amnesia as a result of a crash, when he arrived back in Germany, and fortunately, the Allies took care of him and reunited him with his family with no more questions asked! He kept himself as anonymous as possible and told only a few people of his wartime experiences. He sent a Christmas card to Mags and Andy every year until Andy’s death in 1971 and
Mags’ in 1974 and always respected their wish that he never contact their son, Jim. Then in 1990, a Scots girl called Cathy Donald wrote to him via a German journalist with a wish for her father to have his family history updated . . .
Cathy waited, and waited, for over an hour. She could peer through a gap in the blinds and could see that Klein and her father were deep in friendly discussion. The conversation was animated and expressed with hand movements as the two former adversaries relived their pasts. Occasionally, she could see her father wipe away tears as Klein spoke, and these tears were unashamedly shed again when Klein produced the copies of the photographs that Mags had taken as he and Jim’s father dismantled the aircraft. Cathy just wanted to burst in and hug her father, but she knew that her dad didn’t need her just now, and that there would be plenty of time for all that later. Klein told him all about the help he received, and how the people on the island pulled together and how they made money on the scrap metal, and ultimately how they nearly got caught out by the authorities and why Jim never knew very much about those last months of the war back home.
Eventually, the two men were clearly having an informal chat, now, and Jim had stopped being quite so emotional. Klein beckoned Cathy to come in and a young girl who was with the TV crew that had been waiting outside. Klein told them,
“I hope you don’t mind, but our regional television station were very anxious to relay this story, as it is, you will agree, a unique situation in war and has a much more positive side to our history.”
Jim looked confused, and Klein added,
“I managed to negotiate a favourable deal with them. Let’s just say that you will find that your trip to Darmstadt, this time, will cost you, or indeed, us, nothing!”
“I don’t know what to say,” Jim said,
“I am struggling to take all this in.”
Jim looked at his daughter and said to her,
“I can’t believe you were able to find all this out and track these people down. All these years, and I never knew.”
Klein reached over to a box of leaflets that had been sitting on the stand and lifted out a red, velvet covered box, worn in places through to the wood. Klein opened the lid and gave it to Jim. Inside was a small, polished copper model of an aeroplane. It was a crudely cast model of an ME 109 fighter, about four inches long, and engraved on the base of the wings was the name ‘Gustav’ and ‘October 5 1944’. Klein carefully took the ’plane out, held the model in his hands and said,
“This model is made from the copper piping of the very aircraft that I crashed in. I never knew when it was being dismantled, but your father had some of the copper parts made into this by herr Clark. He kept it until it was time for me to leave and he gave it to me as a present as we said goodbye. It was very emotional.”
Cathy and Jim looked at it in some amazement as Klein then said,
“I cannot tell you how much this meant to me during the years after my time in Scotland. Now, in this re-union, thanks to your daughter, I find something that means even more to me – your friendship and a memory of a family you never knew I had . . .”
Klein gave the model to Jim and continued,
“I want you to have it. Take it back home for me as a symbol of a journey completed. A symbol that, as lost sons in war, we all must make our way home at some point. Please?”
Jim was getting very emotional again and stammered,
“I couldn’t . . . I mean, it’s . . .”
“Please. Take it. I think it is important that you have it.”
Cathy smiled as her father’s eyes filled up with tears again and he just said “Thank you,” and then hugged his daughter tightly. Eventually, Jim pulled himself together and said to Klein and Cathy,
“Right, we’d better let these good people do what they have to, eh?” referring to the TV crew waiting alongside.
Jim, Klein and Cathy were fussed over by the television crew and wired up with power packs and microphones. Once they had everything set up and sound levels checked, they did a
couple of practice run-throughs at interviewing the two veteran airmen. They were meticulous in ensuring that everything was right and took a long time to set things up. Eventually they went through the whole interview and asked Jim all about his background and how he joined the RAF and then they turned to Klein and did the same thing, and took endless photographs of the two pilots. They spent about half an hour asking various questions of each of them and relaying the story back that Jim had just heard for the first time. At the end, they arranged to meet Klein and Jim the next day, to do the interview that would make up a television special to be aired on German National TV.
“In the meantime,” the interviewer said to both of them,
“We will let you get back to the conference and take all this in.”
Klein, Cathy and Jim strolled over to the stand where Klein’s unit had their stand and Klein introduced him to all the veterans, one by one on the stand, and they animated chatting and aeroplane talk began all over again as hands were shaken and greetings relayed back and forth in English and German.
Cathy, once again, took a step backwards and gazed from afar as she watched her father relive a past that he never knew existed. She watched as elderly men, once sworn enemies, now shared a common bond between them that ensured that they were forever friends. Her Grandparents’ prediction that Klein’s generation would be the ones to ensure that the horrors of the second world war would never again be repeated, were never realised, however, it was Klein and this elder generation that would continue to provide inspiration for those that want to keep peace.
Cathy watched the scene in front of her and looked up to the banners that also included the names listed of those in the Luftwaffe Units who never returned, thought of all those families who mourned like her Grandparents, and said to herself quietly, “Lest we forget, indeed . . .”
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