15 August 2016
Who was the first serving British soldier or civilian member of the Control Commission to marry a German woman after the end of the Second World War? I first asked this question in May 2009 in a post on this blog on Marriage with ‘ex-enemy nationals’.
Around 10,000 British men serving with the armed forces or the civilian Control Commission married German women between 1947 and 1950. Until recently I thought the first couple to marry were Sergeant Harry Furness and his wife Erna Maria. He was a trained infantry scout and, shortly before the end of the war, had advanced far ahead of his battalion to see if the small town of Neheim-Hüsten was likely to be defended in a last-ditch battle, when he first spotted his bride-to-be hanging washing on a line. They were not able to marry until nearly two years later, in Lüneburg on 22 March 1947. Mr Furness told me their story in May 2013, after he and his wife, who were still both alive, had been married for 66 years.
A few days ago Jim Draper posted a comment on this blog, saying that his mother and father married a few days earlier than Harry and Erna Furness, in Wilhelmshaven on 10 March 1947. Both his parents have now, sadly, passed away, but they believed they were the first, or maybe the second serving British soldier and German woman to marry after the war.
Marriages between German women and British men serving in occupied Germany in the armed forces or the civilian Control Commission were forbidden after the war, but on 31 July 1946 a government spokesman, Lord Nathan, announced in the House of Lords that the marriage ban would be relaxed ‘in cases where the reasons for marriage are good and there is no security objection’. Approval from a senior military commander was still required and the couple had to face a series of strict conditions, including a ‘cooling-off’ period of 6 months from the date of application, when the man had to return to the UK (on his own) for his annual leave.
The regulations did not apply to those who had been demobilised and had already returned to civilian life. This explains why some marriages took place in Britain in January 1947 or even earlier, in 1946. British men were free to marry once they had left the armed forces, but their future wives still had to obtain permission to leave Germany. Renate Greenshields has described in her autobiography, Lucky Girl Goodbye, how she and fourteen other German women travelled to Britain on the ship the Empire Halladale on 18 December 1946, to marry British men they had met in Germany. Her wedding took place in Devon, on 6 January 1947.
This month, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the announcement of the relaxation of the marriage ban, Ingrid Dixon has published a new book The Bride’s Trunk about her mother and father, who were married in Britain on 13 December 1946, a month earlier than Renate and her husband, Tom Greenshields, and three months earlier than Harry and Erna Furness or Jim Draper’s parents.
The Bride’s Trunk tells a fascinating and moving story. Ingrid Dixon’s mother, Minny (short for Wilhelmine), grew up in Aachen, near the border between Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Her mother’s father, Emil, was a trained mechanic who worked as driver and chauffeur for a wealthy industrialist and landowner who lived in a large country house near the city, but left it empty during the war. Emil and his family lived in a lodge on the estate.
Minny and her family had to leave home to avoid the fierce fighting that resulted in Aachen being the first city in Germany to be captured and occupied by the Allies, in October 1944. They returned home in May 1945, after the end of the war, to find both houses filthy and decayed, and much of the contents looted.
At the end of May 1945, when Aachen was transferred from the occupying Americans, who had first captured the city, to the British Military Government, a British Intelligence Unit requisitioned the large house as sleeping and eating quarters. A young soldier knocked at the door of the lodge and asked Minny in fluent German: ‘Could you make us a cup of tea please?’
Jim, the British soldier, came from Liverpool. His father had learned French and German while travelling and working in Europe before the war. Jim left school age 16 but, like his father, he was a gifted and self-taught linguist.
Minny, her mother and brother, were employed by the British troops to keep house and cook for them. By the time Jim was demobilised, the couple had decided to marry. They told their families of their decision in December 1945. Before he returned home at the end of April 1946, Jim wrote a signed and witnessed declaration of intent to marry Minny.
While they were apart, the couple wrote numerous letters to each other, each numbered to ensure none were lost or went astray. They were not able to marry until December 1946, when Jim returned to Aachen to collect Minny and take her to Britain. In the meantime, she had obtained a permit to leave Germany, as at the time, no German nationals were allowed to travel outside Germany without formal permission from the occupying authorities. She was told by the British Military Government official who interviewed her in Düsseldorf that she was the first German woman in the newly created Land, or administrative region, of North Rhine-Westphalia to be granted a permit to leave Germany to marry in Britain.
Jim died relatively early in 1972, but Minny is still alive, now well over 90 years old.
Ingrid Dixon has spent many years researching her parents’ earlier lives in Aachen and Liverpool, how they met and married, and the first few years of their life in Britain. She spoke to family members on both sides and discovered numerous letters and photographs to illustrate the book. She tells a very moving story, which demonstrates the extraordinary commitment that this particular couple, her mother and father, were prepared to make to each other, especially during the months of separation between May and December 1946.
She has given her book the subtitle: A Story of War and Reconciliation. Marriage implied a lasting commitment and required the consent of both parties. It was a public as well as a private act, involving family and friends as well as the two individuals most directly concerned. It also had legal implications, as the German women thereby acquired British nationality and the right to live in Britain. Marriage was therefore the ultimate symbol of personal reconciliation between former enemies, as attitudes changed on both sides, in the transition from war to peace.
The National Archives, FO 1030/174, Marriages with ex-enemy nationals