25th January 2009
Eckernförde is a small town in the north of Germany, in Schleswig Holstein. It was formally occupied on 10th May 1945, two days after VE Day, although, according to the local paper, British troops first entered the town four days earlier on May 6th, and the following day a large number of American columns passed through the town on their way further north.
An old family friend recently sent me a newly published book which describes life in the town under British occupation, based on memories and stories told by around 170 witnesses; mostly older people who were there at the time, but in some cases their children; mostly German, but a few British.
As over 60 years have passed since the events took place, we have to ask how accurate these memories are. The author, Ilse Rathjen-Couscherung, said in her introduction that, although in some cases people remembered the same event differently, she was able to cross check accounts and keep contradictions to a minimum. In general, she was amazed how accurately people she spoke to were able to recall how things were at the end of the war.
There was no resistance when the British first entered the town, although both sides were reserved towards the other. However, over time, the local population came to appreciate the role of the British in maintaining law and order, and realised that they had nothing to fear, as long as they followed the rules laid down by the military authorities. Despite hunger, shortage of accommodation, made worse by the influx of large numbers of refugees, a nightly curfew, and an endless stream of orders requisitioning houses and property for British officers and troops, relations between occupiers and occupied improved over time. Many of the stories related in the book describe small favours and acts of kindness, which were clearly appreciated and remembered long after the event: for example help finding a stolen bicycle, help given to a man who had lost one eye, so he could travel to Hamburg to have a glass eye fitted, and personal friendships developed through singing songs or playing music together, despite an inability to communicate with words, as neither understood the other’s language.
I’ve written in a previous post on this blog, about the British documentary film ‘KRO Germany’ which showed an idealised portrait of a British Kreis Resident Officer (or District Commissioner) for another town. It was interesting to compare the film with the descriptions in the book of two KROs for the town of Eckernförde, as this showed how they were remembered by the local population, rather than the image the British authorities wished to present to people back home.
The first KRO, Major, later Colonel Ormsby, who was in the post from 1945 to 1949, was not well liked. He was remembered, by most of those who spoke of him, as remote, harsh, unsympathetic, loud, rude, narrow-minded and domineering. People were afraid of him if he suddenly appeared in the town, with his officer’s staff in hand, in order to personally enforce some rule or other. On the other hand he was also seen as fair and correct and some German people who worked for him spoke of him more favourably. One witness remembered her father saying that his family had been killed in a German air attack on Coventry, but despite this, he was not revengeful: “Er war ernst und streng, aber gerecht und fair.”
According to another witness, Colonel Ormsby was a British Labour Party supporter and in the Autumn of 1946, in the first local elections in the British Zone of Germany after the war, he took the trouble to find who had been members of the SPD (German Socialists) in 1933, and visited them personally, without an interpreter, to try to persuade them that it was important for them to rejoin their former party. One witness related that, during one of these visits, he told them they should take English history as an example, with its 1,000 year experience of democracy. The witness, who was 10 years old at the time, remembered saying that not only was Magna Charta signed in 1215 and therefore not 1,000 years old, but as only a small number of people had shared in its benefits, there was no true democracy in England at that time. Major Ormsby was pleased with this response, which showed that the young boy was able to think for himself.
In September 1949, Colonel Ormsby was succeeded by Colonel Errol Daniell, who was responsible for the neighbouring districts of Schleswig and Flensburg, as well as Eckernförde, and who remained in post until 1954. According to the author, he was well liked by the local population, and worked hard to ensure good relations between British and Germans. One German couple became friends with him and his family, visited him after he left the town, both in Germany and in England, and stayed in touch for many years, until shortly before he died.
Like many other senior British army officers, Colonel Daniell had excellent relations with the local German aristocracy, visiting and being entertained at a number of stately homes. The author describes, for example, the Duchess of Schleswig-Holstein saying in a phone conversation that she remembered him as an exceptionally friendly and sympathetic man.
Finally, there were two stories I particularly liked, both relating to a local drinks firm. The first described how the firm’s bottling room was converted by the British into a washroom, complete with showers and an oil-fired water heater, for the ordinary soldiers. These lived in barracks, with no washing facilities, in conditions far less comfortable than the private houses requisitioned for the officers and NCOs.
The second related to the so-called “Heissgetränk” (or “Hot Drink”), generally sold cold, and produced by the firm in the early days after the end of the war, as a substitute for beer or soft drinks, which were unobtainable. As the firm’s bottling room was in use as the English soldiers' washroom and no new bottles were available anyway, local people could turn up with their own bottles to have them filled. In fact, the drink was no more than coloured water with artificial sweetener. The story went that when they ran out of artificial sweetener, the owner of the firm took two buckets of locally caught herring on the long journey to Leverkusen, where a friendly worker at the Bayer chemical plant there swapped them for some more artificial sweetener.
Ilse Rathjen-Couscherung, Eckernförde unter britische Besatzung (Schriftenreihe der Heimatgemeinschaft Eckernförde e.V. Nr. 14, 2008)