In Germany after the War

Now, in early 1945, my wound completely mended, I was at last posted back to my regiment, the Essex Yeomanry. After a long slow journey - Harwick to the Hook of Holland, and then on an immensely slow troop train, I finally caught up with them in Kiel. They gave me a great welcome and I soon settled in. The regiment occupied a comfortable barracks overlooking Kiel Harbour, and the men were enjoying a restful life after a long campaign.

At that time, the war just finished, Germany was in a state of chaos. Their economy had broken down and food had been scarce for months; it was common to see men in suits that hung about them baggily because they had lost so much weight, and women and children looking haggard. The country was full of people displaced by the war, and these Displaced Persons (DPs) could be seen, trudging and heavy laden, in a continuous stream along the side of any main road. Or, at a level crossing, one would see a slow steam train go by, overloaded with DPs, some clinging to the sides, some even on the roof - all of them trying to get home or to some place of security. Towns and cities were ruined, and Hamburg in particular was reduced to some miles of shoulder high rubble until one reached the centre was comparatively unharmed. The black market thrived on a currency of cigarettes - for trading not smoking; and I remember the embarrassment once of standing smoking on a station platform, while three obsequious middle-aged men, haggard and loose-suited, waited for me to throw my cigarette stub away.

Against this background of utter defeat, the British, American and Russian armies arrived and set about restoring order, each in their own way. In the British sector, our way was at first to produce a military order of guards, patrols and curfews; this very soon became an established British military Government of civil servants from London, and what at first had been understandably cool relations with the Germans warmed into a cooperation for democracy.

The social attitude to the Germans was interesting. At first, naturally, the Army walked in, requisitioned everything it wanted - barracks, Yacht Club, horses - and treated the Germans in a distant, not to say haughty, manner. They for their part, took this attitude for granted, and I think were humbly relieved that we didn’t behave as they would have done if the positions had been reversed. We were treated to a great deal of heel-clicking and little bows at first, a scrambling eagerness to obey. And yet we made it a rule to be unfailingly polite - perhaps a little terse, that’s all. Anyway, all this began to thaw, because one rule was that there should be no social fraternisation with the Germans, and this proved to be a rule too far. When you’ve got several hundred men in barracks, in a city full of pretty German girls, and when eventually the curfew was lifted, by the end of that summer there were many cases of secret fraternisation going on - commonly known as fratting. A German girl was known before long by the men, entirely without malice, as a "nice bit of frat". And if a man told his mates "I’m going out with my bit of frat tonight", they knew exactly what he meant. Officers were slower to take part in all this, because there were plenty of English girls to be found among the commissioned QA Nurses, girls from Military government and so on.

As 1945 proceeded, life became most enjoyable. The regiment did have some duties - there was one very noisome German prison that one had to do a 24 hour guard duty every so often. But there was plenty of spare time, and we sailed in Kiel Harbour, racing Star class dinghies every Saturday among the sunken wrecks of ships; and we rode German cavalry horses, and generally enjoyed ourselves. Then, in October, the older members of the regiment were de-mobilised and the Essex Yeomanry were disbanded. The younger members, myself included, still had eighteen months or more to go in the Army, and we were posted to various other regiments. I was very lucky to be posted to the Third Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery.

The RHA are regarded as the senior regiment of the army, positioned at the right of the line as any formal military review, taking precedence immediately after the Royal Household troops - i.e. The Household Cavalry and Guards Brigades. So in the Gunners, the RHA is tops. The 3rd RHA was Elmshorn when I joined them, a little town about 20 miles form Hamburg. I went into J battery, which at that time was commanded by The Hon. Tom Addington, an athletic major aged 27, who now lives at Highway farm, Hilmarton.

Among the officers in the other batteries was a marvellous character - Major Jack Tyrell - a weathered little man who would look at home on any racecourse. Jack was then in his mid-thirties; he had joined the RA as a boy-trumpeter in his mid-teens, and rose to sergeant in command of a gun at an early age. This was in the pre-war horsed artillery days. In France before Dunkirk, he won the DEM, and soon after was commissioned. In the Western Desert campaign and subsequently in NW Europe, he won not one MC, but three - all for remarkable coolness and bravery under fire. Quite a hero, but remarkably modest and genial. At some regimental mess gathering, Jack said that as we had a covered riding school and horses, if we wanted to, he’d start a young officer’s riding school; there as a chorus of "But I can ride Jack" - a statement we were careful never to repeat. He started us off bareback, with knotted reins and folded arms, going round and round the school, first at the walk, then the trot, then the canter; we went on until we could jump a lane of jumps, relying like this on grip and balance alone, a wonderful lesson in "going with the horse". It was only then, by stages, we got all the kit back, first the saddle, then the stirrups, then the reins. We did this between tea and dinner every day all through the winter, and by the end Jack had us riding in formation, playing ‘tig’ on horseback, and jumping on and off at the canter, which isn’t as difficult as it sounds. I thoroughly enjoyed it all and felt I had been taught a skill in which I continued to feel utterly confident. By the next summer, we were taking part in divisional gymkhanas.

At the end of 1945, I went home on leave, just before the New Year, having hitched a lift on an RAF Dakota from Copenhagen. I arrived home to find that my dear father had been in bed for the last three weeks and was steadily sinking into a last illness. Ever since his prostatic operation early in the year, he had worked as hard as ever, with an immense overload of work, and had become steadily more exhausted. When he finally found a locum to take over, he retired to bed. He was in no great pain, but obviously getting weaker every day; the doctors were not sure of the diagnosis - it hovered between cancer of the prostate and a recurrence of his old TB. In those days, pathological tests were fairly primitive, and I of course had no medical knowledge; but now with hindsight I think it must have been TB, as he had so little pain. He deteriorated rapidly, but was still able to talk clearly and to the point, and kept his sense of humour. In fact, the day before he died, I gave him a very inexpert shave (the old shaving soap and safety razor kind) and I remember that we both laughed gently at my difficulty with the tricky bits under his nose and round his ear-lobes. Finally, one evening, he just fell asleep and went into a coma, and died at about 3am, very peacefully, with just Mum and I at his bedside.

It was a devastating blow. Mum was utterly heart-broken; he was, after all, only sixty four, and they had had 26 years of very happy marriage together. I felt unutterably sad; I had lost a dear father whom I was just getting to know in a loving and adult relationship, which is rather different from the father-son relationship of adolescence. He had been a great source of guidance, humour and a general attitude to life. However, there was a lot to be done; Mum had to move into a flat to make way for the incoming replacement doctor who bought the practice. Uncle Dud arrived to help sort it out, complete with bowler and rolled umbrella, and he and I marched round Newquay from bank to solicitor to vicar to accountant. The church was packed for the funeral, and as I looked around at the congregation, I thought how amused Dad would have been at the number of non-payers and chronic patients who turned up, including one old boy who came to evening surgery every Friday. Dad used to say of this old chap "Even on the Day of Judgement, he’d be sitting there in the waiting-room, to get his bottle of medicine".

So, a sad return to the regiment after a harrowing leave. I did my best in my letters to keep Mum’s spirits up, but she went through many months of intense grief and loneliness. But youth being what it is, I soon got back into the usual swing and enjoyment of a busy regimental life. 1946 was indeed an enjoyable year - the work consisted of various regimental exercises and firing camps, but these hardly got in the way of a life of riding, sailing, and dinners at the Atlantic Hotel in Hamburg, which had been taken over as a luxurious Officer’s Club. Early in the year, Lieutenant Derek Allen joined the regiment, whom I’d last met when he came out to the Essex Yeomanry as a replacement in Normandy. He and I were in J Battery, 3rd RHA from early 1945 onwards and we formed a foursome with two QA Nurses from the British Hospital in Hamburg. The result was that Derek and I formed a great partnership, driving at speed the 20 miles into Hamburg to take these girls out to the Atlantic for dinner and dance twice or three times a week. Our drive home was slower, sleepy and probably rather dangerous. Derek appealed to me; he was hook-nosed and sardonic, looked rather like Mr. Punch and had a reckless and humorous attitude to life which carried him through. When the regiment moved to Oldenburg in late summer, we lost touch with our QA’s, but Derek and I stuck together in our forays into social life.

Life was not all so flippant however. There were duties. One which came my way was to command a small guard of sergeant and 12 men on a ship load of DPs. There had been a general swapping of DPs in the British zone, with Germans who had lived all their lives in East Germany - now in the Russian zone. The Russians had been particularly brutal about this, and during the winter trainloads of cattle trucks had arrived in our zone, crowded with East Germans, many frozen to death. My turn of duty involved a small German cargo ship, fitted with racks down below in the hold, for all the world like an enormous airing cupboard. Into this ship were packed 400 DPs, mostly Polish, many criminals, and all angry and resentful. As it was a German ship, a British guard was thought necessary. We joined the ship at Lübeck, and took them through the Baltic to Stettin - a slow journey because of fog and wrecked ships jutting out of the shallow waters. At Stettin, we unloaded the frightful cargo and I posted two gunners at the foot of the gangway, on guard with fixed bayonets - a small bit of Britain, far into Russian-held territory! Stettin itself was desolate, with great blocks of flats and wide, wind-blown streets, and muffled East European figures wandering aimlessly. Our next passengers were quite different; the populations of two or three small villages, half-starved Germans, old men, old women and children, as well as those in the prime of life, staggering under the weight of their worldly possessions; but quiet and well-organised by their village pastors. My gunners put rifles aside, and we and the German crew helped them all gently aboard, and took them with all haste back to Lübeck. Nevertheless, two old people died of exhaustion on the way back.

The other serious matter that occurred to me in 1946 was being involved in the trial of 18 German soldiers accused of a "crime against humanity". These men, in the general retreat of the German forces in early 1945 had formed a gang of deserters, led by a Corporal Herold. Herold, in a stolen uniform, had called himself Captain Herold, and he and his gang ran wild generally, looting as they went. They came across a German military prison, for German soldiers who had committed some crime or other, and as Herold’s gang arrived, these prisoners were rioting and a few were escaping. The prison consisted of huts on a desolate moor - Aschendorfer moor. Herold’s men rounded up the escapees and shot them. They then lined up 200 more prisoners, in relays by a ditch and shot them dead with a heavy machine-gun, finishing off any survivors with hand-grenades. Herold’s men then vanished into the chaos of the general retreat.

Nothing more was heard until a POW recognised Herold in a British POW camp and reported him. The Intelligence Service went to work, and produced a mass of evidence from the remaining men from Aschendorfer Moor, and the 18 accused were brought before a British Court Martial in October 1946. As I had been taking my turn with sitting alone on a local government magistrates court, dealing with stolen cows and arguments about ownership of fields, I was sent along as junior member of the Court Martial; there were five of us, the most senior being a Colonel from the Judge Advocate General’s Department.

The trial took 19 days. Everything was meticulously fair. Each of the accused had his own defending counsel, and the prosecution consisted of a solitary British barrister. It was essential that justice was done, and seen to be done; the court was crowded with German civilians and Press, all of whom thought that the British were being a bit prissy and that all the accused should be executed without all the bother of a trial. In the face of all this, I must say the responsibility lay heavy; at the end of each day we five retired to consider the day’s evidence, and as junior member, I always had to give my opinion first; I leaned over backwards to define any weakness in the prosecuting evidence - we all of us did - and it is probable that one or two guilty men got acquitted as a result. But the rest, the guilty ones, got the death penalty, and that’s not something to be treated other than with the greatest care and responsibility. The death penalty to our modern ears, may sound shocking and brutal; but what those men did was shocking and brutal, and in the climate of death and destruction of the last five years their punishment was entirely in context.

It was now six months or so until my demobilisation, and I had the choice of staying on in the army, or not. But I’d had five years of soldiering, and I really did not see myself enjoying the routine of peace-time for ever. My mind turned to other possibilities; Law seemed to me to be too dull altogether, and I knew I would never be any good in "business". So I settled for Medicine - something that would never have occurred to me in my schooldays. The fact that the course lasted almost six years was rather daunting, but I hoped that I would enjoy it. So I had a very busy leave in late 1946, visiting my old house master, Sam Beachcroft, who was a great help about ways and means; he put me in touch with Exeter College, Oxford, where I hurried off to be interviewed by the Dean. He offered me a place at Exeter in October 1947, as long as I passed my preliminary exams, which of course I had not done while doing History at school. I then hastened to get a place on a course at Borland’s, a crammer in Eccleston Square, to take the preliminaries in the summer. I arrived back in Germany with my career mapped out.

My last months in the Regiment were very enjoyable. I was promoted to Captain, which was very pleasing, though my friend Derek Allen would tease me by greeting me in the morning with an exaggerated salute, and an obsequious leer, saying "Good Morning, Captain". I had two skiing leaves in Winterburg, and I met and loved a German girl, Liselotte; she was a set-designer in the theatre and lived nearby. We used to lie and listen to a radio show which amused us - it was American; a quiet American voice would say "This is American Forces Network, Munich and Stuttgart. You are listening to Midnight in Munich, brought to you by Krispo, the breakfast food that makes you wish it was lunch-time". And so on, into the night - simple humour for simple people.

In no time at all, I was suddenly demobbed - via Hull on a cold, cold day where I was given a "demob suit" of appalling cut and texture, plus hat and overcoat. Soon after that, it seemed, I was sitting in a bed-sit with a one-bar electric fire, trying to learn Biology and Botany. What a come-down!

Peter Mitchell’s Memoirs


    part 1

    part 2

    part 3

Early Years

Clifton College

Outbreak of War



Essex Yeomanry