30th November 2008
Goronwy Rees, the distinguished journalist, writer, Fellow of All Souls College Oxford, Principal of the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, friend of Guy Burgess, and for a time, briefly, a Russian spy, was a senior intelligence officer in Germany for six months after the end of the war. He worked in the Political Division of Military Government, with the rank of Lt. Colonel, reporting to the Political Adviser, Sir William Strang, who was later Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office.
In April this year, I wrote about Goronwy Rees and the six day tour of the British Zone of Germany he made with William Strang in July 1945. The post was based on a chapter from his book ‘A Bundle of Sensations’ first published in 1960.
On a recent visit to The National Archives I found and read his original diary of the tour. This was an official document, circulated to other officers in the British Military Government, not a personal diary for his own use only.
There were a few passages in the diary which surprised me and which did not appear in the book, published 15 years later.
Firstly a short paragraph, which implied that some British officers believed that war with Russia was not only likely, it had already begun, Germany would fight this war on the side of the British and Americans, and German airmen were already being recruited to fight against Japan. “The war between the Russians and the democracies is approaching and indeed has already begun, and Germany will of course be invited to participate. An International Air Brigade is to be formed for use in the war against Japan. Volunteers are invited and will be trained in England. Several offers have been received.”
This was July 1945 and the war against Japan had not yet ended, with the dropping of the Atom Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, but even so this passage seems surprising. If anyone reading this post knows anything about German air pilots recruited to form an international air brigade, to train in England and fight against Japan, please do let me know or add your comments.
Secondly, I was surprised by just how patronising and condescending the following description of Russian and Polish forced labourers, known after the war as ‘Displaced Persons’ or DPs, now appeared, reading it more than sixty years after it was written.
In the diary Rees records how one Brigadier took them to visit a camp where they found the DPs “lying on their palliasses [straw mattreses] embowered in the flowers and foliage which they bring back from the countryside to construct each for himself a tiny green cage, which presumably reminds him of his pastoral home. It is quite impossible to describe in a few words the extraordinary impression created by these half-savage, half animal, yet curiously attractive creatures, who create for themselves in some ex-German barracks the atmosphere of a peasant festival or a horticultural show. It was interesting to hear an officer say that he had become extremely attached to them; it was equally interesting to hear that by their uncouth and savage behaviour they had converted the British soldiers in charge of them from any possible sympathy with anything that savoured of communism.”
Rees himself had been a socialist and communist sympathiser before the war and a strong opponent of fascism. I wonder to what extent his own experience in Germany at the end of the war changed his view of communism and the Soviet Union?
In general though, the description in the book of the high-minded attempts by British Military Government officers to restore a devastated and shattered country, were very similar to the impressions recorded in the original diary. For example, here is an extract (which didn’t appear in the book) describing a meeting with Lt General Horrocks, Commander of 1 Corps:
“Finally the general touched upon the problem of military government from the point of view of our own troops. He said that he regarded our occupation as a school of citizenship both for the Germans and for ourselves, and that he attached the utmost importance to using military government as a means to returning our troops to England as better and more useful citizens. At the present moment, he said, the morale of our troops was very high because they felt that after six years of destruction they were now turning to a constructive task, which would affect the morale not merely of Germany but of Europe. And since it was in the interest both of the Germans and ourselves to raise German economy and German social life to a level which would overcome the dangers of disease, famine and unrest, there was a real basis of co-operation between both parties which it was important to maintain.”
Rees added a paragraph to say he endorsed these views personally, he believed they were representative of the British army as a whole and it was “invigorating and inspiring … to find the Commander and Staff of a Corps, which has fought the Germans from Alamein to the Rhine, now entering on new and even more difficult tasks with a determination to achieve the best not merely for themselves, or for the Germans, but for Europe as a whole.”
The National Archives, FO 1056/540: Goronwy Rees’ tour diary, July 1945
Goronwy Rees: Sketches in Autobiography: ‘A Bundle of Sensations’ and ‘A Chapter of Accidents’ with ‘A Winter in Berlin’, a further autobiographical essay. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001). Edited with Introduction and Notes by John Harris
On Rees acting as a spy for the Soviet Union, John Harris wrote in the introduction: “It appears [from recently available Soviet archives] that Rees for little more than a year (1938-9), and in the anti-fascist cause, supplied political hearsay gathered from weekends at All Souls – most probably on Cabinet attitudes to Hitler and the likelihood of a British stand against him.”