Königsberg: the name has two strong associations for me, both connected with the Second World War.
The first concerns the air raid by RAF Bomber Command. The official campaign diary states that: “on the night of 26/27 August 1944, 174 Lancasters of No 5 Group (were despatched) to Königsberg, which was an important supply port for the German Eastern Front. The route to the target was 950 miles from the No 5 Group bases. Photographic reconnaissance showed that the bombing fell in the eastern part of the town but no report is available from the target, now Kaliningrad in Lithuania. 4 Lancasters lost.“
My Dad often reminisced about the flight to Königsberg and back, a journey of almost 2,000 miles lasting 10 hours 10 minutes, and ending in an unscheduled landing at Honiley on the last drops of fuel. Since the Flying Fortresses aren’t mentioned in the campaign diary, I can only assume that they were there as part of 100 Group’s “ghost flyers”, giving bomber support and protection to 5 Group. Writing about it much later, Dad recalled:
“One chap in our billet … took a fancy to a pair of blue and white pyjamas I had. I told him that if we got the chop he could have them. We had taken part in the Koenigsberg attack and been diverted to Honiley near Coventry, landing there at 06-55 after a ten hours and ten minutes Squadron airborne record flight. Of course, because we hadn’t returned the previous night, he had come to the conclusion that he would exercise his right! But he gave them back with no hard feelings.”
Page from Dad’s logbook. Night flights in red.
It’s difficult nowadays to appreciate what a ten-hour flight over enemy territory and the North Sea in a 1940’s bomber must have been like: flying at an altitude of between 10,000 and 30,000 feet with no heating, no pressurised cabins, just the freezing cold and your flying suit and boots to keep your body temperature even. No comfortable seats, either, and I know my father suffered badly from airsickness. Again, from his memoirs:
“I used to get airsick very often but I learned the trick of sticking two fingers down my throat to make myself sick when I began to feel rough, open the side window, and with my head turned aft, rid myself of stomach contents. I could then carry on with my job. But I was caught out one day when I didn’t turn my head quickly enough, and spewed into my oxygen mask. Scrub as I would afterwards, I could not rid the mask of the smell, so after a week I had to exchange it for a new one.
Johnny used to tease me at the after-flight meal, saying “How about a bit of greasy pork, Ron, going up and down your throat on a piece of string?” He’d never been airsick and didn’t realise how it felt until one night when we had been in ten tenths cloud and great turbulence, having climbed up to 26 thousand feet and descended to 12 thousand without getting out of it, the whole crew except George and Freddie succumbed. Ricky, our bomb aimer, had been eating chocolate and was flying in the top turret – George’s peaked cap was just below the turret and received what Ricky rejected. I was sick into the tail wheel hand-cup into which I would later have to plunge my hand to lock and unlock the tail wheel to taxi to dispersal.
At the after-flight meal, it was my turn to ask Johnny “How would you like a piece of greasy…?” I got no further: he was up from the table like a shot and off into the ablutions with his hand over his mouth. But I felt sorry for him losing his meal, although I enjoyed mine. And he never ribbed me again.”
Listening to my Dad’s stories, I was familiar with the name of the city of Königsberg from a fairly early age, knew that it had been badly bombed and also more or less where it was located.
Ironically, twenty years after my father’s participation in the raid on Königsberg, I was married to a German and discovered I had a sister-in-law in East Germany who came from a village near there. Because of the division of Germany, I didn’t meet her until the nineteen seventies, when we became very good friends.
Eva’s story showed me the other side. The brutality of the Red Army and the exhortations of Ilya Ehrenburg were well publicised in the Third Reich:
“Kill! Kill! In the German race there is nothing but evil. Stamp out the fascist beast once and for all in its lair! Use force and break the racial pride of these German women. Take them as your lawful booty. Kill! As you storm forward. Kill! You gallant soldiers of the Red army!”
It seems necessary in war to dehumanise and demonise the enemy, otherwise how can you go on fighting and killing? Horror and evil are the result. The people in the path of the Russian advance through East Prussia also knew what had happened in villages like Nemmersdorf.
Eva was a little girl in 1944, and remembers her father, who was a soldier in the German army, coming to their house secretly in the dead of night and having a hurried, whispered conversation with her mother. She deduced later that he must have deserted. In any case, she never saw him again and two days later she was told that her mother had drowned herself in the river Pregel. She and her two little brothers were bundled up hurriedly by a neighbour and they joined the masses fleeing westward.
The Russians soon caught up with them, and provided an army “escort”. Eva recalls how women would be pulled out of the group when they stopped to rest in the evenings, and their screams as they were raped and murdered. One soldier took a liking to her, though, and helped her, although his favourite game when they paused for the night was to use her hand as target practice for his knife throwing. Luckily, Eva was quick and always managed to snatch her hand away in time.
Eventually, she and her brothers were handed over to a displaced children’s home, where a doctor examined her and her brothers and concluded that they were about 6, 4 and 2 years old. Eva didn’t know their exact birthdays, so they were randomly allocated a date of birth based on their physical and mental devlopment. Eva had been very conscious of her responsibility as the big sister and was upset that in the home she was separated from her little brothers. She never saw the four-year-old again, and her baby brother only once, when he was very ill and she was allowed to visit him. She assumed he died, but she wasn’t informed.
After the war ended, thousands of German families had been split up and many people were desperately searching for their relatives. Parents would turn up at the home hoping to find their missing children, and Eva always hoped that some day a couple would come and claim her, although she knew deep down that her parents were both dead.
Eventually, when she was ten, she was adopted by a childless couple who were kind to her, but expected her to repay their kindness by housework. And at last she was able to start school, where she finally learnt to read, write, and do basic arithmetic.
When she was thirteen, her adoptive father began sexually abusing her and at the age of only fourteen she had a baby. However, she continued to live with her adoptive parents who brought the child up as if it were their own while Eva, who now had to leave school, went to work. Eva never complained about this situation, but always remained grateful to her adoptive parents for giving her a chance in life and for their love. Later she married my brother-in-law – yet another story! Amazingly, Eva turned out remarkably well-balanced and “normal”.
A few years ago, Eva joined a group of elderly people who, like her, had fled from East Prussia, and they travelled to the village where she was born. She thought that perhaps she might find something familiar, or even someone who remembered her parents. But no. The area is now part of the oblast, the so-called “free economic zone”. It was rebuilt and resettled by Russians, and she could find nothing at all that looked remotely familiar. Attempts to trace her brother also failed.
My father and Eva never met, but I know that if they had, they would have got along well. They were interested in knowing about one another. Their link was Königsberg.