19th October 2010
I first heard from Michael Howard in October 2008, when he emailed me to say he was personally ‘an alumnus of Nachkriegsdeutschland '46/7’ and asked if I would send him a copy of my MA dissertation on ‘Winning the Peace’. He thought it would be of interest to his U3A (University of the Third Age) group, which was studying the ‘Aftermath of Conflict’ in various times and places.
I was very happy to do so, and since then he has been kind enough to share with me some memories of the time he spent in Germany in 1946-47, as Intelligence Officer for T-Force, the secret British army unit first set up in 1944 to investigate and secure research laboratories and factories by-passed by the front-line troops as they advanced into Germany and which later ‘evacuated’ to Britain a large quantity of equipment, machinery, documents and key individuals and scientists.
Michael Howard has now published his memoirs of this time as Otherwise Occupied: Letters Home from the Ruins of Nazi Germany. Remarkably, the 67 letters he wrote home between February 1946 and December 1947 were kept by his mother and these letters, reprinted word for word, provide the chronological framework for the book, with the author commenting, explaining and elucidating various points in the letters to provide the context, or to highlight aspects that now appear important or amusing.
As a result, the book has the authenticity of a contemporary record, (he was only 19 years old when he was first posted to Germany), while the commentary helps the story flow and makes it easy to read, explaining the background to events and who were the various people mentioned in the letters.
The book tells two stories, both equally fascinating. The first is his contribution to the history of T-Force, one of the very few aspects of the Second World War which is still largely neglected by historians. At first, as he wrote to his mother, he was pleased to be given a job that was not a ‘liability to the taxpayer’ and the consequences of which had ‘a considerable and direct bearing on our economic recovery'. By the time he left Germany, his work had become his hobby and he carried on ‘evacuating’ material, as his personal contribution to British economic recovery, in the face of increasing resistance from senior officers and administrators, as the world changed around him and the official British policy was to help promote economic recovery in Germany, rather than extracting what they could in the way of reparations.
The second is a love-story, which ended in neither consummation nor tragedy, of his romance with the daughter of the local doctor, whose house had been requisitioned as accommodation for British officers. The doctor and his family were evicted from the house but were allowed to keep the use of his consulting room and the garden. As his relationship with the doctor’s daughter developed he found, as he wrote to his mother, that ‘to sit in the [officers’] mess evening after evening, discussing the three inch mortar, or the war strength of the armoured division, or re-fighting this or that battle, is infinitely tedious. I would rather spend my time talking to a pleasant and intelligent German than a stupid and uncongenial Englishman.’ It is an unusual love-story, because the power of social conventions, on both sides, persuaded them to control their passions and go their separate ways, she to train as a doctor and he to take up his university place at Cambridge. Since then they have stayed in touch, as friends, for over sixty years.
Michael Howard, Otherwise Occupied: Letters Home from the Ruins of Nazi Germany, (Tiverton: Old Street Publishing, 2010)