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EARLY DAYS IN GERMANY (April to June 1945)

The first big German town we reached was München-Gladbach (now Mönchen-Gladbach) and the first German civilian I remember, standing on a street corner, was a blonde girl in a dark-blue spring dress. I recall that the driver of my truck looked hard at her and wolf-whistled to himself. The first locomotive we saw as we bumped along through the dusty and scruffy streets was, rather naturally, an American 2-8-0. We turned south here and saw yet another at Bonn, from the Kaisertrasse, the train-spotter's paradise which runs by the west-bank Köln to Koblenz main line. We stayed the night, and  the next three days, in the Johanniter Hospital, between Bonn and Bad Godesberg. This had once belonged to the German Order of St. John and stood about a quarter of a mile from the main line and quite near to the Rhine, but was undamaged. Before the Americans arrived it had been filled with German wounded and these had been evacuated in a great hurry. It had been left in a mess with soiled bedding, stained dressings and so on, so we tidied things up ourselves. There was an American army mobile bath and laundry nearby, so we got welcome showers and haircuts as well as clean underwear.

There was no time in this short halt for anything but cleaning up and getting ready to move again. On the fourth day, our convoy crossed over the 'General Hodges' pontoon bridge to the east bank of the Rhine. This bridge was a wood and steel roadway laid across Rhine barges and was carrying very heavy traffic indeed; lorries, tanks on transporters, fuel tankers etc. It went from Godesberg to Nieder Dollendorf and has long since gone, there being nearby bridges today. We went east through heavily wooded hill country, the Westerwald and the Schiefergebirge. I remember crossing one rusted single-track line, probably at the ruined town of Altenkirchen. We went on and on through woodland as far as Marburg. Here we turned north and, at Colbe, where a temporary road bridge crossed over the River Lahn - no railway bridge at this time - where I saw that first Deutsche Reichsbahn engine, No. 01.1095. Before the War  there was little information available for the schoolboy railway enthusiast about Germany. I could see, however, that the engine was a big express loco, rather like the L.N.E.R. A4s or the L.M.S.R. ‘Coronations’, but I could make out little other than its number and type. I did not imagine then that one of the same class would come to Steamtown at Carnforth, for preservation in Bundesbahn black and red, in the 1970s.

The long day was ending at last as we went up road 252 to Munchhausen. Here I remembered the tales of Baron von Munchhausen read when learning German in the last two years at school. We turned on to road 236 past Bromskirchen, where the three of us had a laughable meeting with the American Army in the following Summer, and through the central crossroads of an upland village, Winterberg in Westfalen, where I stayed for the next twenty-one months. This was the place from which I set out on some fascinating, and often quite unlawful, trips by lorry and train to see what I could of the German railways. We kept on for two or three more miles up to the highest hill-top in the district, the famous Kahler Asten. At 842 metres it is a little higher than Mickle Fell in the Pennines. Today the Kahler Asten is the premier mountain sports venue of northern Germany. There we set up camp quickly as it was getting dark and drizzling. There were German troops round about, from the Army cut off in the Ruhr district. They were surrendering all the time and two of my pals, roaming the hill-top woods a day or two later came across six and promptly disarmed them and marched them into our camp. That first night, I got a guard duty from midnight until 4 a.m., something else to remember from that day! So began twenty-one months which turned out to be almost a railway enthusiast’s delight.

WINTERBERG

As we had arrived at what was to be our final halting-place in Germany, though none of us realised it then, the first thing was to set up the usual R.A.F. camp life; watch-keeping duties, guards, kitchen-work and other manual work in the camp, and journeys by truck for rations, technical equipment and fuel. By late May, men were starting to go home on leave, travelling by truck as far as rail-heads in Belgium or France and then, in the autumn, from Germany direct. Our radar station on the Asten had three ‘slave’ stations; one near Gotha the R.A.F. moved later in the Summer to the Wasserkuppe airfield near Fulda, in the U.S.Zone, which the early Luftwaffe had used for gliding and powered aircraft. The second ‘slave’ was near the Nurburgring race track in the Eiffel hills, then in the French Zone, whilst the third was on a hill-top in the Teutoburger forest near Osnabrück. We had American Army rations at this time; plenty of sweet foods but not much bread. Round about the same period I collected a lot of the small American ‘K’ ration-packs which I used on my railway wanderings in 1946. They contained powdered drinks, fruit and coffee, biscuits and fruit and meat concentrates. We went back on British Army rations in the Summer when the Occupation Zones were set up. An American Armoured Division left and was replaced by British infantry of the 49th West Riding Division (the Polar bear Division), though our nearest army neighbours were a battalion of Royal Scots Fusiliers. All my numbered letters home from the continent were kept by my parents; there were 201 of them by January 1947. They make fascinating reading nearly forty years on. However, they are very discreet about my private railway wanderings. Letter censorship ended in May 1945 but I seem to have been careful not to mention some of my doings in case of random censorship. There is plenty about what we did off-duty, about girls once the  ban ended; the troops called it ‘fratting’, about film shows, prospects of leave and so on. On the matter of ‘fratting, the American Forces Radio, to which we all listened, had a very silly catch phrase, ‘The leopard doesn’t change his spots.’ We reckoned though that the Americans were the biggest 'fratters’ of all! But that is enough of military matters.

Our first change came at the end of April, when the combined unit of sixty-odd men moved into an empty, medium-sized hotel by the forest at the foot of the Asten. It was appropriately called the ‘Waldhaus’. This we called our “domestic” site and that at the Asten summit the ‘tech’ site. We very soon set up aerials etc. at the top of the Asternturm, a high round tower, about 120 feet high with an observation platform at the top, and an empty restaurant building below. These hill-top towers are found everywhere in Germany; the Germans seem to be fascinated by hill-top views. The ‘Waldhaus’ was quite undamaged but completely bare of furnishings, having been used latterly, so we heard, by European slave-workers who took everything when they left. It was there we heard the news of the end of the war in Europe and also the first weather forecasts for six years. Most of us, too, tried venison for the first time. Four of us, W.T. Operators, found a small collection of chamber pots which were very useful at night as our room was far from the bathroom. 

To me the most important thing was to find a complete set of the five-part ‘Reichs-Kursbuch’ of July 1944, published by the Post Office and the Reichsbahn. This was not the familiar book but a smaller text and layout, beautifully printed but with different table numbers to the standard ‘Kursbuch’. Its only weakness was its small, badly set-out maps. Even so it was a mine of information and I spent hours studying it.  It came home with me in 1947 and is still referred to. Towards the early summer, our Commanding Officer, a Canadian with a German name, decided that the fifteen of us on the smaller unit should move down into Winterberg village to a small ‘Gasthaus’ in the centre of the village. My own first meeting with a civilian was when I asked a very attractive girl, the eighteen year old daughter of the widow who owned the ‘Gasthaus’, if she would darn one of my socks for me, in my best school German! This girl married one of my friends in 1949.

NOTE: The abbreviation KBS, followed by a number, is used throughout the text from this point. The KBS stands for Kursbuch Strecke - literally timetable line. Each route, of course, has its only number with subsidiary routes having a letter suffix. Similarly the letters Bw are the letters used by German railways to abbreviate the word Bahnbetriebswerke, or locomotive running depot.

On 9th May, I saw my second German loco, No. 44.905, at Fritzlar on KBS 532. . A few weeks later, I went on duty to Marburg (KBS 520). On the way south we passed a Prussian BR56 and a BR57 (2-8-0 and 0-10-0) on the local Bestwig—Winterberg—Frankenberg line, on a freight (KBS 355 and now open only as far as Winterberg). At Cölbe on the main line there was rail traffic again. I saw a BR52 double-heading a BR44 on a heavy northbound freight. There was a temporary American bridge over the Lahn but 01.1095 had gone. 

In mid-June, I went on the first of my five leave journeys back home, first by lorry to Mons and then on to Brussels, where we took a train from Schaerbeek to Calais. On this run, with numerous stops for the engine, a W.D. 2-8-0, to get up more steam, most of us climbed down on to the track, to pick flowers. On the way to Mons, I saw 01.1097, streamlined and derailed, in a cutting before a tunnel near Düren (KBS 440). This is a very old route and perhaps the best known of all lines to British travellers, running from Belgium to Aachen and Köln. It was out of use with 52 destroyed bridges until May 1946 - so all rail traffic went via München-Gladbach. 

Apart from many Belgian locos at Schaerbeek, a Dutch 4-4-0  3727, and an ex-German 2-10-0, Belgian No. 2514 both passed on Military trains. The journey home to Lancashire lasted five days and the return as many as twelve, though I think I was in ill in bed for two or three days at Mons. The delays, of course, were at various transit camps and barracks, especially when waiting for transport such as a truck from one’s own unit.

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