I’m trying to find out some things that have been forgotten, to help me with a story I’m trying to write. The address of a bakery in Bremen in 1945. The date the city was captured. I think that was May 5th, 1945, but I wasn’t there. The day a man in Czechoslovakia decided enough was enough and he was walking home, 700 kilometres, knowing at each step that if the Gestapo found him and checked his papers they wouldn’t bother with a blindfold and a last cigarette.
How do you make that decision? How do you decide that’s it, I’m gone? I’ve never been good at that and luckily my life hasn’t involved decisions as big as that. But I’d still like to find some of these things out. The web doesn’t always help, although it’s easier than it was before that was around. Some of the things you read there simply aren’t true, and some people seem to leave their brains off when they write things.
Were Germans in Hamburg in 1943 evacuated to America?
Where do you even start with that? Why do people hijack airplanes and fly them into the World Trade Centre? It’s the same sort of question. Just totally stupid and self-referential. Y’all’d sure have been all talkin’ Nazi iffen it hadn’t been fer us. And some of it’s just plain wrong.
The first shot of World War II in Europe was fired 20 years, 9 months, 19 days and 18 hours after the last shot of World War I was fired. It was fired from the 13,000 ton German gunnery training battleship Schleswig Holstein.
Well, no. No it was not. I know this for a fact. The first shot of World War II in Europe was fired from a Webley & Scott revolver, in a Mayfair townhouse bedroom, before a ball, when a young British officer was shot. I know. Because he told me.
In one of my lives I’ve had a house in Stow on the Wold, exactly where and just at the end of the time when you might expect to find a still active officer-class survivor of World War II living there, even if he did only just survive. He lived next door to my old house next door to the huge old pub at the bottom of the square. I wish I’d kept it, but the past is another country and besides, the wench who used to call round occasionally may or may not be dead. It was quite a long time ago.
The Major, as he was when I knew him, was just a young subaltern in 1939 but his parents were stonking rich, certainly rich enough to have their own town house in Mayfair. They threw a ball specifically to celebrate their only son’s commission and he decided to celebrate by going with his chum to a decent tailor to collect their brand new dress uniforms for the ball. On their way home they collected the new pistols they were still allowed to buy for themselves in those days, as officers still did and being eighteen or so and there being no television, went to see a cowboy film before they went home to change. Dress uniforms in proper bags from the tailors and brand new heavy black pistols on their belts they went to see their film and got back to Mayfair in
plenty of time to bath and change and lace Brilliantine through their hair, chummed up together in the same bedroom in the innocent manner of the times. Both of them unloaded their identical pistols and tossed the bullets onto the eiderdown while they practised their quick draw in front of the mirror, in the style of Tom Mix and Jimmy Cagney.
My neighbour was the first to get bored. War had been declared and these weren’t toys after all and there was a ball to go to and the little band was warming up downstairs and despite all of this, they were both nominally on active service, so in case the Germans invaded Mayfair that night he re-loaded his revolver and laid it on the bed before he finished dressing in his new uniform and slipped his Sam Brown belt and shiny holster on.
As his chum did, as well, but being not very old, his chum decided to have one last try at clearing leather, as if the armed might of the Wermacht would be stopped in its tracks by a teenager with a pistol who was quick on the draw.
As if in a car crash, as if in a dream, my neighbour told me how although he could see what was happening he couldn’t say anything as his chum picked up the pistol he himself had just loaded, identical to his own except for the then-unfamiliar weight of the six bullets, aimed it at him and pulled the trigger. For fun. Because it was empty.
Except as happens with guns, it wasn’t. After the enormous noise had rolled around the room and the smoke started to clear he walked downstairs, down the huge main staircase, into the room they had been going to use as the ballroom and said “I believe I’ve been shot.”
He never took part in active service, or not outside England, anyway. And that was a true story. I wish I could remember his name but really, it doesn’t matter. What does is that the history books tell just a fraction of the story.
And sometimes, talking only about the very big things instead of the small ones, they’re not true at all.