24 May 2013
I’ve recently heard from Mr Harry Furness, who read my previous post on Marriage with ex-enemy nationals and told me that he believes he was the first British soldier in occupied Germany after the Second World War to marry a German woman. It’s a wonderful story:
'I first sighted my bride-to-be around the time that the Ceasefire in Europe was being negotiated in early May 1945; she was hanging washing on a line when I spotted her from a concealed position as I scouted far ahead of my infantry Battalion. I found out later that she was a refugee, having fled with her mother from their home in East Germany to escape before the attacking Russian Red Army reached anywhere near their town. She had only just arrived with her Mother to stay with distant relatives in the small West German town.
The Hallamshire Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment had been advancing fast and stopped just short of Neheim-Hüsten in Westphalia; the Battalion Commanding Officer was aware of the Ceasefire negotiations, but he did not know if this small town would be defended as a last ditch battle action by German soldiers. I was a trained Forward Scout and was sent to reconnoitre if defensive positions seemed likely, so I was definitely the first British soldier to enter this small town. I was able to report back that it appeared to be undefended, and the only German soldiers spotted were all wounded and probably under treatment at the town hospital. The Battalion then entered Neheim in ‘aircraft formation’, which meant a line of infantry on opposite sides of the streets. It was May 1945.
Shortly after, the news of the ceasefire was confirmed, and the war was over.
Close friendship blossomed between both of us, and it was soon obvious we were a perfect match together, so it was sometime around the end of 1945 that we attempted our first application to see if marriage would be permitted, but it was far too early for the authorities to consider, so it was not accepted at that time. In early 1946 we were officially engaged under German conventions, with parents on both sides in full agreement. After this we were busy collecting together all the very many relevant documents needed to obtain permission to marry. There was much confusion at that time over the type of paperwork we might need to complete. Some of the questionnaires were not relevant to either of us, but we slogged on so eventually had a very thick file to satisfy all situations.
Around the time of my birthday, 10th March 1947, my Commanding Officer told me he had been ordered to send me to an Army HQ as a very senior ranking officer wanted to talk with me. As a young Sergeant I admit I was rather overawed at the prospect of a high-ranking officer wanting to see me for I assumed it would be a high-level discouragement discussion. But it wasn’t like that at all. I travelled to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof where an army driver picked me up for my appointment with a brigadier and his aide. Now so very many years after that final interview my memory of all that took place has faded somewhat, but the high-lights still remain of what happened. The Brigadier was courteous to me, almost fatherly in fact. He was well informed of my previous applications to marry, and he knew that I’d been photographed by AFPU [the Army Film and Photograph Unit], and I’m sure that helped my application request.
I do remember it was a long discussion. He wanted to know how I had met my German fiancée and how fluent I was in German … whereupon in view of my interest in languages, he kindly offered to post me to a language school in London to study Japanese. He told me that Japanese linguists would be needed in the Far East. I very politely declined this fine offer as I wished to remain with my regiment until demobilised. He gave me a wise assessment of the resentment we could face following a major war, and he was right about that we eventually found. But before I left his office he told me he hoped that my Bride-to-be and I would have a long happy life together, so I knew right away that he was going to approve my marriage request. That particular high-level final interview had gone very well for which I was grateful. I am sure it was a one-off kind of interview, because typically soldiers applying to marry in Germany at later periods were dealt with by Lt. Colonels.
I mentioned above the Brigadier knew that I had been photographed by AFPU and he spoke about the circumstances. Briefly, in the Summer of 1945 two AFPU soldiers (an officer who did the interview and a sergeant/cameraman) came to Arnsberg Kaserne in Westphalia (a former German army barracks) and took some photographs of me for a series they had just started about soldiers who had distinguished themselves in some way during the campaign across North-West Europe 1944-5. Over the years since the war, that particular photo has been published in several military books.
That decisive interview at the Hamburg HQ gave my Battalion Commanding Officer (Lt. Col.) just sufficient time to rush through planning details for our marriage so the ceremony could take place before the Battalion entrained for our new duties in Berlin. The troop train was scheduled to leave early on the 23rd March ’47. It was packed solid with soldiers and supplies, but even so the Regimental Officers of my Battalion had done us proud, for they had arranged for us a separate compartment garlanded with flowers with a large notice ‘RESERVED FOR SERGEANT & MRS FURNESS.’
During that immediate post-war period I had held the appointment of Regimental Intelligence-Sergeant, and remained so until I left Berlin for final demobilisation. I had always been a specialist. My Wife was given all necessary British documents and later flew to the UK with her British passport. On our arrival in Berlin on the 23rd March ’47, we stayed at first in a small hotel on the Reichstrasse in Charlottenburg, but soon moved into an apartment located just near our barracks in Berlin-Spandau.
Someone must have alerted the German news media that the first marriage was about to take place between an English/German couple in Lüneburg, because they were waiting outside the Church of St Nicholas as the newly-weds came out. Amongst them was photojournalist Josef Makovec of Lüneburg. We know his name because he kindly sent us with compliments several spare prints on which his name was printed. In later years we know he became famous in his profession for his magazine reportage. It was because all our Battalion transport was packed ready for the journey to Berlin, that my Commanding Officer was gracious enough to loan me his personal Jeep for my Wife and I for the trips to Church, and rather curiously we were loaned a tracked Bren Gun Carrier with driver to transport our few wedding guests mostly my Bride’s relatives. It was thoughtful and a kindness I never forgot, for I had always received the support of my Battalion Officers. We had fought together in action and had a lot of respect for each other.
The military authorities can also move fast. By early April ‘47 I had already received a communication from the main York Infantry Depot UK that my Army pay had been increased as a married senior NCO, plus back-dated.
My later civilian work involved much travel, both UK and abroad, so I got to meet quite a few ex-soldiers who had married German girls. All of them had stories to tell, but in each case I found that all had been married months after my own at 12 Noon, 22nd March 1947, so I am inclined to think it must have been the Brigadier at Army HQ and his staff who fast-tracked my application to marry, which very probably makes us the FIRST. Whilst many soldiers had started to organise their piles of documents needed to apply for permission to marry, quite typically the general system was slow, so it was around June 1947 onwards before many got their wishes granted. My Wife and I had already been married at least four months earlier by then, for which I have to thank that Brigadier’s understanding.
At no time have my Wife and I ever sought personal publicity, we are far too reserved and prefer our privacy. Many years ago a TV documentary film company from Stuttgart contacted us and wanted to send a film crew to our home to chat on-camera about our long happy life together, plus they wanted to hear of the many resentments we once had to face (but those attitudes are long past now). We declined their reporting visit politely, not wishing to have our ’15 minutes of fame’ and although at times I have read newspaper features of veterans who had married in Germany, and many had claimed to be the first to marry, their dates were always behind ours.
At the time I’ve written these notes (May 2013) my beloved Wife and I have been together for some 68 years now, and have already celebrated our 66th Wedding Anniversary on the 22nd March 2013 and we’d readily do it all over again.'
Mr Furness provided the following details:
At 12 noon, on 22nd March 1947, Chaplain to the Forces: Captain C.B.G. Apivor C.E. married under British law (English-born) SERGEANT HARRY FURNESS (York and Lancaster Regiment) to ERNA MARIA KARHAN, a German-born national, The ceremony took place at the church of St Nicholas, Lüneburg. Immediately following the church ceremony there was an additional official signing under the Foreign Marriages Act; Army Form A43A. This was confirmed later by GHQ 2nd Echelon with registered number 7783 A43/3B Book of Marriages 11/03. Very soon afterwards a further ceremony took place under German law at the Berlin Hauptstandesamt, registered 249/1947. Thus all international marriage rules were in order. The Regiment moved the next morning following the Wedding to take up their duties as Garrrison Infantry in the British Sector of Berlin. The marriage process had been fast-tracked through the system so that Sergeant Furness could take his new bride through the heavily guarded and restricted Russian Zone to Berlin.
On the Wedding Day, he was 22 years old, and it was his wife’s 20th birthday!