Hamburg 1947


Twenty-two years old and ready for peace, Harry Leslie Smith has survived the Great Depression and endured the Second World War. Now, in 1945 in Hamburg, Germany, he must come to terms with a nation physically and emotionally devastated. In this memoir, he narrates a story of people searching to belong and survive in a world that was almost destroyed.

Hamburg 1947 recounts Smith's youthful RAF days as part of the occupational forces in post-war Germany. A wireless operator ...

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Twenty-two years old and ready for peace, Harry Leslie Smith has survived the Great Depression and endured the Second World War. Now, in 1945 in Hamburg, Germany, he must come to terms with a nation physically and emotionally devastated. In this memoir, he narrates a story of people searching to belong and survive in a world that was almost destroyed.

Hamburg 1947 recounts Smith's youthful RAF days as part of the occupational forces in post-war Germany. A wireless operator during the war, he doesn't want to return to Britain and join a queue of unemployed former servicemen; he reenlists for long term duty in occupied Germany. From his billet in Hamburg, a city razed to the ground by remorseless aerial bombardment, he witnesses a people and era on the brink of annihilation. This narrative presents a street-level view of a city reduced to rubble populated with refugees, black marketers, and cynical soldiers.

At times grim and other times amusing, Smith writes a memoir relaying the social history about this time and place, providing a unique look at post-WWII Germany. Hamburg 1947 is both a love story for a city and a passionate retailing of a love affair with a young German woman.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781462062478
  • Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/7/2011
  • Pages: 212
  • Product dimensions: 0.63 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt


A Place for the Heart to Kip

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Harry Leslie Smith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-6245-4

Chapter One

1945: The Conditions of Surrender

I don't know why, but the winter rains stopped and spring came early in 1945. When Hitler committed suicide at the end of April, the flowers and trees were in full bloom and the summer birds returned to their nesting grounds. Not long after the great dictator's corpse was incinerated in a bomb crater by his few remaining acolytes, the war in Europe ended. After so much death, ruin, and misery, it was remarkable to me how nature resiliently budded back to life in barns, fields, and across battlegrounds, now calm and silent. The Earth said to her children; it is time to abandon your swords and harness your ploughs; the ground is ripe and this is the season to tend to the living.

I was twenty-two and ready for peace. I had spent four years in the RAF as a wireless operator. I was lucky during the war; I never came close to death. While the world bled from London to Leningrad; I walked away without a scratch. Make no mistake, I did my part in this war; I played my role and I never shirked the paymaster's orders. For four years, I trained, I marched, and I saluted across the British Isles. During the final months of the conflict, I ended up in Belgium and Holland with B.A.F.U. My unit was responsible for maintaining abandoned Nazi airfields for allied aircraft.

When Germany surrendered to the Allies in gutted Berlin, I was in Fuhlsbuttel, a northern suburb of Hamburg. At the time, I didn't think much about Fuhlsbuttel, I felt it was between nothing and nowhere. It was much like every other town our unit drove through during the dying days of the war. Nothing was out of place and it was quiet, clean, and as silent as a Sunday afternoon. Our squadron took up a comfortable residence in its undamaged aerodrome.

While I slept in my new bed in this drowsy neighbourhood; the twentieth century's greatest and bloodiest conflict came to an end at midnight on May seventh. On the morning of the eighth, our RAF commander hastily arranged a victory party for that afternoon. The festivities were held in a school gymnasium close to the airport.

The get-together might have been haphazard and the arrangements made on short notice, but there were no complaints because death was now a postponed appointment. Our individual ends, from road accidents, cancer, or old age, were to be pencilled in for a date in the far distant future. There was a lot of excitement, optimism and simple joy generated during the party because we were young and pissed on free beer. RAF officers, NCOs, and enlisted men marked the passage from war to peace, dancing the bunny hop in the overheated school gymnasium.

No one considered or asked on that day of victory, "What happens next?" That was tomorrow's problem. I certainly didn't question my destiny on that spring afternoon. Instead like the Romans, I followed the edict: carpe diem: I ate too much, I smoked too much, and I drank too much. And why not, I reasoned, the war was over and I had survived whereas a great many had been extinguished as quickly as blowing out a flame on a candle.

I still didn't want to think about tomorrow, even when our victory party was no more than a hung-over echo of patriotic songs and dirty limericks playing inside my head; I was content to wait and watch. I was perfectly happy to observe my mates plod onwards like dray horses trotting back to their old lives. I was satisfied to enjoy a moment that wouldn't last, peace without obligation. I relished the mundane luxury of sitting on a bench with a cigarette between my fingers. I indulged in the sensual pleasure of feeling the warm spring sun hover over my face. I was liberated from home and the dismal dull world of a mill town, where one's life was charted to end as it began: in a tenement house, under grey dense skies. I wanted to simply enjoy and savour my release from the threat of death.

During those first few days of peace, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of good fortune. It was really blind luck that I had endured. My survival was the mythical lucky dip at a fairground raffle. I was alive while millions of combatants and civilians simply perished in this long and brutal conflict.

It wasn't long after road workers had swept the streets clean from our victory parade that I began to realize my four years of service to the state hadn't altered me greatly. Perhaps I was a bit more educated and less naive about the world. I had certainly acquired some now- redundant skills in marching and Morse code. I was also more aware that suffering and hurt was not a commodity in short supply. Possibly an outsider may have even considered me more cynical and crass after my years with the RAF. Yet underneath my cocksure attitude, I was still the same, self-conscious, lonely, awkward teenager who had volunteered to join the RAF in December 1940.

No matter how relieved I felt with Hitler dead and peace at hand, it reminded me that my personal destiny was now my own responsibility. Considering that the war rescued me from the nightmare of my past life; I was a bit frightened by peace. I was comfortable in my RAF blue uniform, which made me look the same as Bill Jones, Will Sanders, or a multitude of other boys from counties all across Britain. I didn't want to be Harry Smith, from Halifax, former manager at Grosvenor's Grocers, son of a cuckold, from the backside of town.

So for as many moments as I could grasp, I took smug comfort in the anonymity of military life. I relished the new laid-back approach both officers and NCOs took to commanding our group. It was a simple decree to live and let live. As long as there was no scandal, we were allowed to pursue our own past times for amusement or profit.

As the spring dissolved into summer, I began to appreciate that the war had been relatively harmless and uneventful for me. My life must change, I ventured, because I was one of the fortunate few; I was healthy and alive. The question was how to modify my existence that had been chartered since my parents' rapid and one-way descent into poverty and rough living.

While shaving one morning, in the wash hut, I said to my mate Dave, "I don't know what to do with myself. I don't want to be working at a mill back in Halifax or be a grocer."

Dave took a while to reply because he was absorbed in taking careful strokes around his chin with the razor. "It's all in the cards you are dealt before you are born. Some get a lucky hand while others get shite. If all you get dealt is deuces, there's nothing you can do about it, except learn how to fucking bluff." Dave paused, looked at his clean face, and added as an afterthought to the rules for a successful life, "You also need a good fry up in the morning."

Was he right? Was it just down to luck? He might have been on to something. So far, every direction my life had taken was a simple act of chance or whimsy. After all, flat feet and a flaccid patriotic sentiment led me to the doors of the RAF. Most likely, had I picked another branch of the armed forces; I would have ended up as a name stencilled on a cenotaph to be washed in the indifferent rain falling on Halifax. So, for the present, I left my life in the hands of fortune reinforced by bullshit.

On the days I was permitted to leave our base, I strolled until my legs ached, exploring my surroundings as if they were the ruins of Troy. To remain alive in 1945, the Germans were reduced to the most primitive form of commerce; they bartered and begged, and they did it in every imaginable location. I encountered Germans in back alleys, street corners, or by the entrance to the train station, huddled in small groups trading their heirlooms for food.

In the beginning, I was emotionally detached from Germans and the destruction around me. Their suffering played as blandly as a sepia- toned news reel at the Odeon Cinema. The immensity of the pain endured by both the innocent and the damned was too much for me to absorb. What lay outside of my privileged life in camp was a festering sore that fouled the air. I tried to keep my distance from the Germans and their troubles.

Keeping my heart cold and lofty didn't last long because I was a young man looking for a bit of emotional adventure. Within two weeks, I was trying to start conversations with young German women. When I called out, "Excuse me, Fraulein," most walked by me or jumped over to the other side of the street. Some women smiled politely or giggled to their girlfriends at my bad accent and my limited vocabulary.

This game ended for me on the day I travelled up Langenhorner Chausee, in Fuhlsbuttel. It was a road populated with attractive two and three-story apartments, which were shaded by linden and cherry trees. It was a middle-class neighbourhood that stretched towards the horizon in relaxed prosperity. The street was a quiet and pleasant quarter that seemed immune from the tragedies unfolding all around it. It wasn't until I walked further up the road that I discovered no district in Germany was inoculated against hunger.

On the other side of the street, a commotion was brewing between an elderly man and a young woman. They were haggling over the value of a silver fork for a packet of cigarettes. I loitered and observed them struggling to barter their way out of starvation and ruin. Suddenly, I noticed a woman that made my heart and head stumble in aroused confusion. It appeared she was also bartering for food, but there was something different in her body language. It suggested to me a dignity and a pride that wouldn't yield to her circumstances.

Extraordinary, I thought and I said aloud, "You are beautiful." Afterwards, I did something rash; I displayed a confidence I generally lacked, unless full of beer. I barged into the young woman's life. It was reckless, it was foolish, and perhaps it was even desperate. It also proved the extent of my loneliness or established my habitual foolishness to fall in love with foreign things. During our first encounter, she was moderately indifferent to my entreaties. Perhaps she was even amused by my stilted German and my pushy courteousness. On instinct, or possibly it was a girlish whim because I seemed harmless, she graciously allowed me to walk her part-way home.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Elfriede Gisela Edelmann," she quickly responded.

I tried to repeat the name, but it jumbled out horribly wrong.

She laughed and said even though we weren't yet friends, "Call me Friede, it is easier."

I must have left a favourable impression because Friede agreed to meet me for a picnic the following week. So began my slow and irresolute courtship with this extraordinary German woman.

Perhaps the term woman was too advanced because she was only a teenager. However, at seventeen, Friede had more style, sophistication, and charm than anyone I'd ever met, dated, or simply lusted after. She possessed a sense of mystery because there was something unknowable and impenetrable about her personality. It was as if there was a sunspot against her soul. Perhaps Friede created this emotional no man's land around herself because she had encountered evil in Hitler's Germany, or perhaps because she harboured some unhappy family secret. Whatever the reason, she was an enigma who was hard to fathom, but easy to love.

It was primal, it was emotional, and it was natural, but I wanted to get to know her better. I also wanted to sleep with her and I would do anything to get to that end. At first; I took her on innocent picnics. I snatched food and wine from the RAF mess hut for our meals. I believed I was being cavalier. I thought Friede might even consider me cosmopolitan when I lit our cigarettes like Paul Henreid for Bette Davis, in the movie Now Voyager. She only smiled or laughed light-heartedly at my decorum. Initially, I didn't understand that she lived in a completely different world than mine. Her universe had more immediate problems and concerns than if the wine was chilled. After a while, I began to understand that her community was in serious trouble and was suffering from a severe lack of food and medicine.

It was during an afternoon lunch on the banks of the Alster River that some of her real misfortunes and sorrow crept up on me. While she sunned her bare legs, I noticed they were covered in tiny blisters and ulcers. Friede registered my awkward stare and smiled.

"We have no vitamins, liebchen. There's nothing left to eat: all of Germany will die from scurvy like we are on a polar expedition."

"Why don't you have any vitamins?" I innocently asked.

Friede explained that for most Germans, the last year of the war had been very difficult. Their cities suffered round the clock bombardment, while the Allied armies began a massive land offensive against their nation. In the final months of the war, food supplies for ordinary citizens ran out. Friede and her family lived off a soup that tasted like rainwater and ate bread made from animal feed.

"After the Russians crossed the Oder River in January 1945," Friede explained, "everyone knew the war was lost. It was only matter of time until we got a taste of our own medicine. I was terrified by who our new masters would be: Russia or America?"

"It was a good thing we Brits got here first before the Russians could get their hands on Hamburg," I replied.

Friede laughed at my simplistic response as she retorted, "It is sometimes hard to tell if Britain is the best jailer. You British treat everyone as if they are Nazis and deserve to be punished."

"How do we do this?" I asked.

Friede looked at me and smirked. "Our rations are table scraps for a dog. People are expected to remove rubble from the cities, but are allotted just 1200 calories of nutrition per day. Britain keeps my people on the edge of starvation. Have you seen the bread they give us?" she demanded angrily.

I had seen Germans queue impatiently for this almost-inedible food. At one time, I had even witnessed soldiers toss dense bricks of blackened dough to hungry crowds. It was a miserable ration to feed anyone. The ingredients were a dubious mixture of sawdust and salt, with a trace amount of flour that bonded the indigestible product together. The bread was baked in the morning and if you didn't consume it by late afternoon, thick green mould would burrow its way to the crust. Sometimes, I caught sight of vagrants in the shadow of bomb-damaged buildings, who had somehow got their hands on the thick rotten bread. Famished, they would stuff it into their mouths and wash it back with water scooped from the street gutters.

Friede continued and said that many believed the victors treated Germany like they did in 1918. "The Allies will let the German people starve to death."

"What do you mean?" I asked defensively.

"Unless you are wealthy, you can't buy food anywhere in the city. Mutti must travel north up into the countryside," Friede told me in a halting voice. "She sells our belongings to the farmers who give her a few eggs and a rotting turnip in exchange. How will we live once all of her jewellery and silver is gone? Mutti says the farmers act like pirates. They have no pity on the city folk and will rob you of everything you own for a morsel of food. People say the farmers are rich from the city's misery and have Persian carpets in their pig sties."

Afterwards, I thought my invitation to a lunch by the river seemed nothing more than a cynical gesture. I blamed myself for not understanding her difficulties sooner because I had endured a similar hunger in my childhood.

My growing affection for Friede drove me to become a conspirator in her survival. I obtained food for Friede and her family by the old and reliable methods my mother had taught me: if you can't buy it, beg for it, and if you can't beg for it, nick it while God and the holy ghosts are down at pub. So, from storage units on our base, I snatched anything I thought useful to them, from food rations to soap and medicine. I wrapped up the contraband in a blanket and smuggled it out of camp in a haversack.

Perhaps I was correcting the wrong done to me as a starving boy? Perhaps I was buying love and loyalty with a loaf of bread? I didn't know or care. I knew winter was coming and without someone like me; her family would starve to death like thousands of other Germans, hobbled by this devastating war.


Excerpted from HAMBURG 1947 by HARRY LESLIE SMITH Copyright © 2011 by Harry Leslie Smith. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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