10th of January, 1946.
Some say the British and Americans were preparing to attack us. I don’t know how that rumour started, but, with not much real information coming from 10th Army headquarters, we soldiers came to our own conclusions.
I do not believe it’s true. Since moving into this village, I have frequently crossed the railway into the British Zone and moved freely about in our little Commer truck. I have even crossed the river bridge into the American Zone and have seen for myself the supply dumps established within easy reach of our bombers should such an attack take place.
Why would our Allies attack us, in any case? Like every man in our squadron, we just want to go home after years of brutal warfare.
It is early morning and I’ve started this diary to fill in the time. There is really not much else to do, now, that everything is at peace. 3 months ago, the British tell me, some young SS boys were found hiding out in the forest. Local villagers had guided the British soldiers to their camp - sick and tired of their petty thefts. They had meekly surrendered, grateful, no doubt, it wasn’t our own soldiers who found them. They had no ammunition and few skills to live out there without supplies and a senior officer to tell them what to do.
Virtually all the villagers on our side of the railway had fled into the British Zone. A few elderly Germans remained behind, but many of the cottages still lay empty. Some were taken over by the Rifle Companies as billets, seizing any comforts left behind. Like ourselves, the Riflemen have few tasks to perform except watching soldiers of the British Army watch them.
But, we and the British get on okay. I can’t say we are the firmest of friends, but that can be put down to the language difficulty. Even we who can speak English have a problem with their accents. Apparently, many of the British come from Scotland and speak in dialects.
Our squadron are all educated men. Formally, we were all students at Rostov University and we enlisted together. In 1939 the University Council decided to form a Defence Squadron consisting of likely students. Our planes were Red Airforce cast offs, I5’s, and incapable of matching the Luftwaffe. Swiftly incorporated into the Air Force when the Germans invaded in 1941, we were given Chaikas, ‘Seagulls’, which were a delight to fly, but too slow to be of much use.
Later, we were introduced to the ‘Victory’ (Pobieda) series, a pre war type that still remains our complement today. As I write, they are all stored in the sheds and hangars about our small airfield as we have had no fuel to fly them for three months.
We were never a first line squadron. In ‘43, if memory serves, 10th Army redesignated us a ‘Light Observation Squadron.’ We were assigned to ‘quiet’ areas of the front, if such ever existed. Nevertheless, few aerial combats came our way and, to a great extent, our ‘Victories’ were hardly tested. We did harry a Junkers one day in ‘44 until it force landed in a field. It took six of us and we tried to hit the crew with our machine guns as they ran for their lives. I believe they are still running. ‘Hawk’ Bogdanovich crashed on landing and broke both his legs, so I imagine honours were evenly shared.
That was pretty much our war. Of course, we strafed German soldiers as we found them, but the Chaikas and Pobiedas lacked the firepower to do little but annoy them. We never got the cannons and rockets that adorned other squadron’s aircraft. The most one could say is, we released more capable squadrons for more important assignments.
A flight of American Thunderbolts fly over near our perimeter. They have done a lot of this, the last month or so. We are not aware of any agreement between ourselves and our Allies that forbids them flying over our Zone. Our shame is, we cannot get our Pobiedas in the air to fly over their zone. Both the RAF and the Americans frequently overfly us, every one of their squadrons, more than a match for our aircraft. I think 10th Army doesn’t want any confrontations so keep our Yaks, MiGs and La5s well out of the way. Perhaps some MiG pilot might take it into their head for a little rivalry with our Allies? Such silly games might cause a serious incident between us? Who knows? 10th Army tells us shit.
The Pobieda is a delightful plane to fly, please don’t get me wrong. It has a strong airframe and a reliable engine, easy to service in the field. It is agile, if a little heavy to control in flight. It makes a reasonable ground attack aircraft, but for its lack of harder hitting weapons. It is no dogfighter, however, and, against German and Western aircraft, it is easily outclassed in speed and all other parameters you care to name.
So, we are patrollers, only, with no border to patrol and no fuel to do it with. What we are precisely doing here in this village I have not been able to discern. 10th Army sends us vague and contrary orders - we are to patrol and observe, but we still haven’t any gas.
Let me tell you about this village? It spans both sides of the railway embankment that forms our temporary demarcation. The Allied Control Commission have yet to decide just where the border lies. A local agreement between 10th Army and the British have decided the railway should serve as the line until our betters reach an agreement. It leaves part of the village in our zone, and part in their’s.
The only road North meanders to and fro between the zones and both of us use it. Over the bridge lies the Americans with their lavish dumps and stores supplying an army slowly being withdrawn. We can drive right up to the wire and call out to their guards - proof enough, I would’ve thought, there is no sinister war brewing. The Americans are more concerned with theft, rather than an attack, for there are no anti-aircraft guns, fortifications nor regiments of tanks ready to counter attack. One gets the sense they are merely waiting to go home, as we are.
On our side, several rifle companies constitute our ‘border force.’ An officious idiot of a 10th Army staff officer serves as ‘mayor’ of our side of the village. He, and his two clerks, spend their time pinning pointless proclamations to a noticeboard outside his cottage ‘town hall’ advising a village population who have largely fled to the British side. To we soldiers, he is something of a joke and lightened the somber mood over the dark days of Winter.
Our airfield had been constructed just before the first war. A small factory made aeroplanes, using the traditional wood-working skills of the area - famous last century as a centre of the German toy industry. After the war the company had collapsed and the airfield and buildings had been used, on and off, by local sporting clubs flying gliders and small aircraft. The Luftwaffe had taken it over as a training field and put down a cement strip. We found a couple of old Jungmanns when we arrived - in poor condition, largely stripped of anything useful, and totally unflyable. These we pushed into an adjacent paddock and left to rust. We cleared all the junk out of the buildings and hangars and threw it out to join the training planes. We used the hangars for our aircraft and made ourselves comfortable in the old staff and administration buildings.
We have few complaints as to our accommodation. It is a luxury compared to some of our quarters over the last four years. We have wood stoves and plenty of firewood from the surrounding forests. We plundered some of the cottages for mattresses, bedding, cooking utensils and other items and our supply truck arrives every few days with fresh fruit and meat. This we complement with a little trading with our British counterparts. We have Scotch whisky, American cigarettes and British beer.
But we are bored rigid with the daily routine, the same stretch of territory and the faces of our comrades who are growing more irritating every day. We are all young men with a thirst for adventure, yet we cannot even take to the air for a change of scenery. If only 10th Army would give us something to do that’s remotely useful, or send us home to gather together as much of our post war life as possible. But, 10th Army keeps its own confidences. It shares no information that makes sense.
I am a major and I lead this pathetic outfit. I cannot say I command through some distinguished record. I was the oldest in our University Defence Squadron and, apparently, one of the more competent flying trainees. I was appointed to command and, when the Air Force took us over, I was given the equivalent rank. Technically, I out rank even the town ‘mayor, ‘ due to seniority. This, the boys constantly point out to him when he seeks to pester the squadron with pointless orders. But, he has rubbed shoulders with the generals so he does need to be handled diplomatically.
Lastly, let me mention our prize acquisition. It is a herd of dairy cows found wandering in the forest. Evidently, the farmer drove them in there to escape the stream of refugees passing through the area. No doubt they would’ve been slaughtered for food. The farmer had not returned to claim his herd so the cows have been added to the inventory of the squadron. It wasn’t hard finding squadron staff experienced with livestock and milking. Fresh milk is something of a rarity in the area and it has led to a booming trade with our British friends.
12th of January, 1946
Much of the border between our zones is unguarded. The railway runs through the forest and, often, there is no accompanying road alongside the tracks. Track maintenance staff had kept the forest back from the embankment about 50 metres to avoid any fires caused by sparks from the locomotive, but that hadn’t been done for a year or more. It never occurred to local, Soviet authorities to do this and the British couldn’t be bothered. In any case, no trains were running on this branch line and never will until the toy and furniture industry starts up again.
To cross over to the British side, and vice versa, is virtually impossible to control. Neither the British nor we Soviets have the manpower for effective border control in any case. I expect 10th Army had a mind to use our ‘observation’ aircraft for this purpose. But, we still haven’t any fuel and no-one up there at headquarters seem willing to order supplies for us. Perhaps that will change when the Control Council reach an agreement as to the final boundary between our two zones?
Occasionally small groups of German civilians filter through the forest to cross over into the British zone. Generally they avoid the village for fear our soldiers will detain them. Perhaps our ‘mayor’ would herd them up for ‘interrogation’? He has little else to control, so, I suppose half-starved refugees would provide an opportunity for him to lord it over someone? In any case, we lack the facilities to process them, should a few SS men conceal themselves among them.
A forest road runs in from our adjacent paddock to run parallel with the railway for a few kilometres. There it peters out into a network of forest tracks and an unofficial rail crossing pre war foresters had made over the embankment with a bulldozer. On the other side is a clearing and a woodsmen’s cottage. It’s a sturdy structure of whole logs, simply furnished for lumber teams. Exploring one day, we came upon the cabin which was occupied by a half dozen British soldiers. We drove there in our little Commer truck - a prize we came upon that must have had an interesting story.
Three months ago when we were posted to the village, we came upon it parked at the side of the road. The British markings had been painted over and we assumed it had been captured by the Germans. Quite what it was doing in the village, I don’t know. We had given it a tankful of gas and it started straight away. We adopted it into the squadron as we were short of transport.
The British soldiers were intrigued with our prize, once we’d assured them we hadn’t stolen it off them. They were of the ‘Royal Sussex Regiment’ and, like us, were waiting for their ticket home. Their sergeant is called ‘Noddy’ and he is something of a wheeler dealer. He is a good talker and, I imagine, intended to return home with a good deal of money in his pocket.
‘Noddy’ could get us ‘anything we wanted.’ SS souvenirs seems to be his forte, daggers, badges and patches, and side arms with the SS emblem stamped into them. I had seen enough of them, personally, but he seemed to have a good supply of Johnny Walker whisky and Camel cigarettes. This was of more interest to the squadron and our bartering continued from that day.
“Noddy’ gave us our own nicknames. My adjutant he named ‘Beaky’, which was difficult to translate into Russian for him, fortunately. Mine was ‘Ivan’ - a rather more innocuous name and I was grateful for his lack of imagination.
We exchanged fresh milk in abandoned, German ‘Jerrycans, ‘ Army vodka and, occasionally, bottles of schnapps gathered up by 10th Army when they moved through the Masurian Lakes area of East Prussia. This rocket fuel had circulated surreptitiously through the various units of the 10th for several months. Again, anything connected to the Nazi SS was worth a good many dollars and anything the boys had collected went into some hard trading. What British soldier of the occupation wouldn’t want to brag to his girlfriend how he’d taken an SS dagger from a German he’d just killed in battle? I’d imagine such trinkets assisted many British soldiers into a night of carnal pleasure once they returned home.
Again, my peace is broken by the terrifying growl of the American Thunderbolts. They are a large aircraft for a single seater and make an appalling racket when flown only a few hundred metres over our heads. The Americans cram an astonishing amount of ordinance under the wings of these aircraft. Perhaps they are only trying to intimidate us? If so, it only increases our longing to be back up flying.
14th of January, 1946.
Yesterday ‘Beaky’ and I met ‘Noddy’ again in the woods. He’d arrived aboard a British, 2 and a half ton truck with canvas sides. The woodsmen cabin was not permanently occupied by guards from the Royal Sussex. Patrols would stop there from time to time to observe the rail crossing and brew some tea. Noddy would usually turn up in a lorry full of things to trade and a driver. Yesterday there were cans of pressed ham they called ‘spam’ together with beer and cigarettes. Noddy wanted some of our Nagant revolvers, but I had to tell him that was impossible. To lose our personal sidearms would be difficult to explain to our superiors and would be bound to result in a court martial for negligence. Our little enterprise would be blown sky high and police would be all over the area. I told him I did not care for Siberia as a place to live. I think he understood.
Noddy’s driver yesterday was a woman corporal he introduced as ‘Emily.’ In three months, I had not seen a woman who was either under 60, or miserably half-starved, dirty and fleeing for their lives. To see a young and pretty one in the uniform of the British Army is a pleasure hard to describe to outsiders. Emily looked like a goddess in khaki with auburn hair and lips I wanted to fall on after months of doing without female company.
I introduced myself with a flourish I thought amounted to charm. Noddy eyed me suspiciously and told me to ‘calm down.’ Emily was married, he said, to a staff sergeant in the Royal Artillery. If he thought I was being disrespectful to his ‘missus’, he said, well, Staff Sergeants were ‘Gods’ who could make your life miserable in countless ways. I’m not sure I believed him. In any case, I doubted this ‘Staff Sergeant’ had a reach as far as the Soviet Army. Nevertheless, I smiled at his advice and kept my distance - vainly trying to avoid sidelong glances in her direction.
Once back at our airfield, I couldn’t vanquish Emily from my thoughts. I think I indulged in a little too much of Noddy’s scotch last night and awoke this morning with a hangover. I signed the Day Orders Beaky placed in front of me - same as yesterday’s - put myself on the sick roll, then went back to my bunk. My adjutant is a good fellow and has been with us since Rostov. He chuckled as I tossed him a packet of Camel cigarettes. He will say nothing about this to the rest of the squadron.
This morning’s fly past by the American fighters is the first time I really wish we had anti-aircraft guns. The racket was like my head was being beaten with hammers. By the monk’s beard, if the Americans don’t start a war, I will.
20th of January, 1946.
Today, we pulled our aircraft out of the hangars and, with the little fuel left in their tanks, ran them all up. It gave the boys some pleasure to see the squadron out in the open, engines running, all in a row. We spent most of the rest of the morning polishing them up to an olive green freshness, touching up the tactical codes on the noses and yellow paint on the spinners. This was an activity all of us enjoyed, mechanics, pilots and the office clerk. With pilots and their mechanics standing at attention by their gleaming machines for my inspection, we were ready for the Americans. But, they never came. This, of all mornings, the Thunderbolts decided to stay parked on their airfield. Once again, they succeeded in irritating us.
My mood had grown from philosophical to downright ill tempered. I have been terse with everybody and such is noticed in a close community such as ours. Idleness is getting me down.
After months of silence, I receive a letter from my Mother. It is neatly sealed with the military censors’ stamp and the contents have whole sentences blanked out. What secrets in Hell could my Mother possibly reveal and to whom? To the USSR’s own soldiers? Good, grief, I swear the Army Censor’s department must be just as bored as we to concern themselves with such things.
My sister is at home after being discharged from the Medical Corps. She is a doctor and we are all very proud of her. Rostov is full of refugees from the Crimea. Many are sick and malnourished and my sister has thrown herself back into her work. My brother has also survived and has been demobilised from the Navy. He had served in the Black Sea on torpedo boats and we are all relieved he has returned.
My Father was killed by German bombs in Rostov early in the war, so my mother had been all alone. I can imagine the joy ringing in our household and longed to be a part of it. Instead, I am stuck in a miserable part of Germany doing not very much at all.
Stepanov has just brought me some disturbing news. A party of NKVD troops have arrived in the village and appear to be taking over the main crossing point. This is not pleasant. The NKVD are not controlled by the Army but the Interior Ministry. They are not to be fooled with. I imagine even our ‘mayor’ is feeling their cold hand clutching his heart. His proclamations are now meaningless without the sanction of the NKVD. It’s now clear who the real authority in the area is to be. Each of us in the squadron knew that rules we had hitherto deliberately ignored were to be enforced.
What then of our little operation with Noddy and the British? What about our occasional sojourn across to the American Zone? Our chats to the storage dump guards - the cheerful chap from Virginia who tossed me a cigar on VJ Day? All these new friends of ours who, we will likely not see again?
On another note, how will the NKVD view the overflying by the Thunderbolts?
25th of January 1946.
I have just endured 2 hours of a meeting with the officer of the NKVD detachment. His name is Grazdhanin and he is a mere Captain. Nevertheless, he read me a list of rules set down by the Interior Ministry for our ‘moral health.’ Although but a Captain, rank is meaningless for these fellows when dealing with the Army. Grazdhanin is a colourless ‘apparatchik’ with few redeeming qualities. One expects a certain affability between soldiers of the same side, but these expectations do not extend to the NKVD.
Our ‘moral health’ is endangered, apparently, through needless fraternisation with our Capitalist allies. All contacts with the British and Americans is to be specifically approved first by the NKVD. Those ‘contact necessities’ are spelled out exhaustively in a list. Needless to say, ‘trading’ is not an approved reason to contact our allies. ‘The exchange of goods for barter or profit is a banned activity that will incur an instant court martial convened by a tribunal of the NKVD.’ There you have it. NKVD Tribunals rarely, if ever, return any other verdict than ‘guilty as charged.’
26th of January, 1946.
Now thoroughly corrupted by the luxuries provided to us by the British, the men have taken matters into their own hands. I am not sure who’s organised this rebellion - I am being deliberately kept in the dark - but the men have organised watchers to carefully note the routine of the border guards. As I noted earlier, the road North meanders to and fro between the boundary, so it was not too much trouble for one of the men to flag down a passing British lorry to deliver a message to our friend, Noddy. Apparently, this fellow needed no description. All the British troops knew of Noddy of the Royal Sussex.
There are only a dozen border troops so they can’t be everywhere at once. Rather, they appear to be concentrated on the three, main railway crossings to examine the papers of Soviet Army lorry drivers. The British they leave alone for fear of aggravating an already tense diplomatic problem. Nevertheless, for Noddy, or Emily, to drive through up to our airfield would surely bring the guards rushing in their wake. Some other means of continuing the trading had to be found that didn’t risk courts martial.
The men of the rifle companies are in the same position. Their Captain came to see me this morning complaining about the NKVD. Apparently, they, too, had been happily trading with Noddy. We now had 140 extra personnel to keep watch on the guards. Nevertheless, we all felt the tension these fellows have brought.
Just now, there was a thunderous fly past - not the Thunderbolts of the Americans nor the Spitfires of our British allies. No, sir, these were Russian and we all ran out to watch. Two squadrons, about 30 aircraft and all Pobiedas. We had no warning - so typical of 10th Army’s treatment of us these last three months.
I immediately rang headquarters. Receiving the usual obfuscation, I told the harried staff officer I would call the Air Operations Officer, Frontal Aviation for the whole of Saxony. I had no idea there was such an officer, but, a few minutes later I get a call back from the same officer I spoke to earlier.
Apparently, a visiting Allied dignitary had requested a joint flypast of Soviet and British aircraft as a display of the close friendship between us. Little evidence of this close friendship is apparent at staff level upwards, but we understand the necessity for gestures. 10th Army explained, they used squadrons that had remained ‘fully operational’ - unlike ours, of course, who had not flown ‘operationally’ or otherwise for over a month.
But, the squadron took all this as good news. If we were not an ‘operational squadron’ then we must surely be ordered to fly to Halle, soon, to be disbanded and returned home. Otherwise, there would be little point in keeping ‘non-operational’ military forces in a forward position. Beaky knocked the top off one of the few remaining bottles of scotch, and my officers and myself drained it dry. All we waited for was our orders from 10th Army.
(Editor’s Note - what the major could not know at this time was a pending agreement between the occupying powers to withdraw the Soviet Zone back to the line of the Werra. The railway embankment in the Thuringian Forest was problematic to defend in the event of the souring relations between the Soviets and their erstwhile allies. A knob of territory to the South in the vicinity of the future East German province of Suhl was given as compensation.
The background to the tension between the Soviets and their allies was disagreement, following the Yalta Conference, on the future of Germany. The USSR wanted a reunified, non-aligned and demilitarised Germany after the Finnish model. The Americans in particular wanted a bulwark against Soviet western expansionism - a Germany leaving the door open to be garrisoned by Allied troops.
The Soviets were also alarmed by the loss of German population moving into the Western Zones through open borders. This placed the whole viability of a Germany under Soviet influence under threat as well as strengthening the hand of the Americans. It was a time of growing paranoia among the Soviet leadership exacerbated by American possession of the atom bomb. The stage was being set for the Cold War.
The major was also unaware of the mechanisations taking place in the Kremlin in 1946. Stalin’s security guru Beria was despised by the Army for his complicity in the Stalinist purges of 1937/38 that saw 400 of the army’s most senior officers executed on dubious charges. While the German invasion had distracted the army, no moves against Beria was possible. But, now, the disquiet of the army plus Beria’s manoeuvring towards the top leadership after Stalin, provoked the First Secretary into clipping his henchman’s wings.
The Interior Ministry, NKVD, was very much Beria’s power base. Stalin set about moving this base out from under him. It was shortly to be split into three. The Militsya (Civilian Police), Border Police and what was to become the KGB were given seperate ministries.
It was never going to be a smooth transition. To Stalin’s credit, there was to be no blood letting, however, Beria’s key men in the NKVD became concerned for their own skins. Kozlov was responsible for Border Policing - he also oversaw the massacre of the Polish Officer Corps at Katyn in April 1940. Despite Soviet denials, NKVD complicity was well-known in Poland and it created a problem the USSR was never able to fully overcome. Perhaps Kozlov’s demise and Beria’s descent might go some way to calming Polish emotions?
So, the major was present at a time of uncertainty and confusion in the Soviet administration of its zone. Local commanders of both the Army and the Border Troops were mindful about rocking the boat and putting their future careers at risk.)
30th of January, 1946.
Today, Beaky and I, went looking for some cows after the boundary fence in the paddock had been partially pushed over. The boys found seven of them, but another three got away into the forest. We took the Commer into the forest track in hopes we might spot them in the underbrush. Cows that do not want to be found are irritating.
We had not gone more than a kilometre or more when we came upon a group on young men. All of them wore some semblance of Wehrmacht uniform, ragged and dirty, and they were all in poor condition. I stopped the truck. Two tried to make off, one practically carrying the other, but the other five just sat and stared through lidded eyes, utterly exhausted.
Beaky followed the other two and fetched them back while I tried to communicate with the others. Two spoke passable English and, with this language, I demanded to know who they were.
They explained they had recently been released from an interrogation camp outside Potsdam and had been on the road ever since. If that’s true, they have covered a fair distance on foot.
They said all of them had been beaten and otherwise roughed up by their NKVD guards. Soviet soldiers had stripped them of their uniform decorations and taken their boots and greatcoats. They had to steal food on their way or rely on sympathetic civilians. Apparently, they wanted to make for Frankfurt am Main in the American Zone. They told me that was their home town, but I didn’t believe them. Many German refugees wanted to go to Frankfurt. It was the American headquarters and the rumour was, suitable German tradesmen could get lucrative jobs stateside.
This presented a dilemma for me. I was sure the Border Guards would not let them through into the British Zone and I was doubly sure they were not in any condition to make it through the forest on foot. One had an old bullet wound in the lung and, by the looks of it, had not been properly treated by Soviet Medical personnel. He was pale, listless, and I thought he might die, soon, unless attended to. I wasn’t confident our medical clinic in the village would bother with an ex-German soldier.
I have to say, that, as with every Soviet soldier, I cannot abide the SS. One only needs to go through an empty, devastated village in the Ukraine or Byelorussia after the SS had visited. One can see the blackened bodies of infants, their parents and grandparents still lying in trenches where they were killed, had diesel poured over them and set on fire in a vain attempt to cover up these despicable acts. The depths of human depravity is exposed for all to see in the ranks of these callous men.
Of course the Wehrmacht cannot be absolved from responsibility. But, at the same time, I know of the inhuman things Soviet army soldiers were ordered to do. Perhaps it’s the same on the Allied side? I do not know.
The choice for soldiers, whether Wehrmacht or Soviet, is between obeying even repulsive orders or execution. Who bears responsibility for such acts lies with the issuers of those orders and a system which doesn’t allow a soldier to refuse on pain of death. We are not all martyrs. Most of us want to survive the war and return home. I’m grateful I never received such orders and thus, never had to make the moral choice.
I made an instant decision to help these men. Beaky and I loaded them into the truck despite their protests. I imagine they didn’t believe we would take them to safety. Nevertheless, after we made them comfortable, I drove the few kilometres to the forest railway crossing, over the tracks, and to the woodsmen’s cottage hoping we’d find British soldiers there. However, it was empty.
I did not expect the wounded man to live long without aid, so, I continued on, down the track I knew lead to the main British camp in the area.
The British guard at the gate was nonplussed when I explained our arrival and called for the guard sergeant, who called his commander. A full Colonel arrived in a jeep and I explained about the sick men. When I showed him in the back of our Commer, he immediately ordered the sergeant to call an ambulance. These Britishers are compassionate men. I felt shame our own medical authorities hadn’t treated these men better.
The British Colonel invited us to the officer’s mess for a meal. Although I wasn’t sure this was a wise thing to do, I was curious how the British soldiers lived. This visit had not been cleared by the NKVD. Beaky and I would be in serious trouble if word was to get out.
‘A meal’ in a British Officers’ mess involved a copious amount of good, German ale with shots after lunch. The Britishers had their own chefs and waiters who brought their food and topped up their glasses. I have to say, it was the best meal I’ve had in Germany and it was well into the afternoon before Beaky and I, swaying a little, made our way back to our transport.
We had not gone far when, who should I bump into, but, the delightful Emily. Beaky smiled knowingly and staggered on to the truck, leaving me the freedom to charm the British female driver.
“I heard you brought in some German soldiers you found in the forest,” she gushed. “Some say they wouldn’t have made it. That’s a jolly good thing to do!”
She acted as if a simple, kind thing to do was unusual for a Soviet soldier. I was mildly offended, but I let it past. There are many things we Russians and the British don’t know about each other.
“Have you heard?” she continued, “Noddy was arrested and is in the hands of the Provosts. Apparently, he’d been stealing army supplies and selling them to civilians. I had no idea...”
I doubted that. Soldiers are the worst gossips in any army. I’m fairly sure she would’ve known of Noddy’s nefarious activities.
I told her I was disappointed our lucrative trading arrangement had to cease - part, because of the increased surveillance on our side and part, because the British entrepreneur had run out of luck. She said, too, it was a pity. Driving the lorry was ‘an adventure’ in an otherwise, rather boring duty in post war Germany. I hoped she hadn’t been ensnared in Noddy’s demise, but she assured me, the Provosts had decided they had their man. She thanked me for my concern with a wink. Things were developing nicely, I thought, but Beaky was growing impatient in the truck. Quickly, I told her I missed our little meetings in the woodsmen’s hut and she said she did too. She then added, she had a day off tomorrow and felt like a ramble in the forest. The innuendo was obvious, I thought, as I staggered back to our little Commer.
The day was starting to dim when we got back to the airfield, but not so my heart that was thumping in my chest. This was a real adventure - one I hoped would leave me with pleasant memories of our stay in Germany. I also, hoped, that I hadn’t misread the signals from Emily.
31st of January, 1946.
The day started out with the threat of rain. It was a grey and dismal morning and, I thought, not a day for adventures. I supposed Emily would postpone her ramble for another day when the weather was more pleasant. Nevertheless, I thought my time was limited - who knows when our departure orders would arrive and Emily, another day off.
Therefore, I set off early down the forest track. Lately, the Border troops had commandeered a jigger that they used to patrol up and down the railway. Since the woodsmen’s cabin is easily seen from the track, I decided to leave the Commer somewhere concealed in the forest and walk the rest of the way. About a kilometre short of the crossing, I drove the truck into a gap between the trees and turned off the engine. For about five minutes I sat listening for any patrols, although I doubted the Border troops bothered much with foot patrols this far into the forest.
Satisfied, I set off with a pack containing some lunch and a bottle of vodka - the only decent alcohol now left to us. Listening nervously all the way to the crossing, all I heard was the twittering of birds and the rustle of leaves. That and the sound of my own heart pounding in my chest.
At last coming to the cabin, I knew instantly it was deserted. There were no British army vehicles nearby and the windows were shuttered. Nevertheless, I approached it cautiously. It wouldn’t be unknown for the NKVD to cross to the Allied zones looking for deserters and such like. I didn’t think it likely, but, on the other hand, I would be in serious trouble if I was caught here.
Carefully, I opened the door. It was, indeed, unoccupied and I breathed a sigh of relief mixed with a little disappointment. I didn’t really expect Emily to be here this early in the morning, but, my anticipation knew few bounds. The thought that she might be here set me trembling.
It was cold, so I set a fire in the stove to warm the place up. I took the chance our NKVD friends wouldn’t bother to inspect a cabin on the British side on the off chance an unauthorised Russian soldier was hiding there. Ever cautious of getting involved in an ‘incident’, I’d imagine they’d leave well alone unless following up on a report.
It was getting on for 11 and I was beginning to despair. I thought to give it to twelve, have my lunch and a good swig of the vodka, then head back to the airfield. I had been reasonably lucky, but I didn’t want to push that luck too far.
By twelve I had already started into the vodka. I was a nervous wreck and, several times, talked myself out of fleeing back over the crossing. I said, ‘she will come’ and set myself little targets of time. The weather was getting worse and a little rain was beginning to fall. It didn’t seem likely she would venture out for a ramble in this weather, but my brain wasn’t making the decisions. That’s when I heard footfalls, a scrape on some gravel, and was instantly alert. Foolishly, I took my revolver from my holster and ducked down behind the rickety old table. What I intended to do with the gun, I had no idea, but it gave me a little courage.
The door handle creaked and the door slowly opened with the squeal of old hinges. There, standing in the doorway was Emily, with her trouser legs rolled up absurdly and uniform jacket draped over her head against the rain.
“Is that you, Ivan?” she called. “Why are you crouched down like that?” she asked.
“I didn’t know who or what...” I started to say, standing up and holstering my hand gun.
“You were going to shoot me?” she replied, staring at my gun wide eyed.
“No, no,” I told her. “I didn’t know who...”
“Just kidding,” she smiled, and my anxiety melted away.
I heard a thunderous roar and peered out through the shutters. Overhead, three aircraft came over, low. One was a late build Pobieda with the 1200hp engine, one an American Thunderbolt and the other, English, a radial engined machine I didn’t immediately identify. I was used to seeing Tempests, but they are difficult planes to fly and require a great deal of maintenance. This aircraft looked a little like an American Wildcat the British Navy called a ‘Martlet’. If so, it was strange to see a British Fleet Air Arm aircraft this far from the sea.
Even stranger to see all the allies flying together. Perhaps it was some demonstration flight that was being photographed for some publication? Emily thought so, too, as she peered out the window with me.
Our heads pressed together out the window long after the aircraft had flown off. I detected a hint of scent. I thought, ‘a woman dabs scent on herself for a walk in the forest?’ It smelled of fresh flowers. I was reminded of the roses planted in our flower box back in Rostov. ‘Where they still there?’ I wondered. ‘Was someone tending them?’ My mother was no gardener. The roses were my Father’s pride and joy. I hoped one of our good neighbours watered and spread compost on them. These are the kind of things neighbours did for each other back in our neighbourhood.
“Penny for them?” she asked.
“What?” I replied, confused.
“You went all quiet.”