This Sunday is ‘Volkstrauertag’, the German equivalent of Remembrance Sunday or Veterans Day. For obvious reasons it is a bit different here. In particular Germany makes a conscious effort to remember all victims of war, including civilians.
My paternal Grandfather was never in the millitary. This was not because he had any strongly held anti-war convictions, but because he worked on the railways and they needed him to do his job there during World War Two. During world war two, if you were in the south or east of the UK, you were on the front line, especially if you worked on the railways, and three months before the war began my Granddad was made a shunter guard, a “Special Man” -which we suspect meant he was paid as a shunter but worked as a guard- based in one of the biggest freight yards in the Midlands, the industrial heartland of the UK. Freight yards are dangerous places at the best of times, with wagons moving in u predictabledirections, with and without locomotives pushing them. The shunter had to run alongside moving wagons and put the brakes on, then couple wagons together with a wooden pole. During the war there was a strict blackout at night, and all movements were carried out in near pitch darkness, so he would be dodging rolling wagons and trying not to fall over track, run into posts, or trip on point levers, surrounded by several trains full of things like high explosives, weapons, food, oil and petrol, with steam locomotives showing a lovely white plume of steam. And then there would be an air raid.
Beyond the freight yards were factories, each one as likely to be bombed as the trains, and air raid shelters were of limited use right next to a train full of high explosives. In other words, my Granddad spent his working days and nights in the middle of a vast target area, and often the best he could do was put a helmet on and keep working and hope that his yard wasn’t the designated target that night, or that an equally terrified bomb aimer wouldn’t decide to dump his not-very-accurate bombs just as he was overhead so he can try to get home alive.
People regularly worked twelve hour shifts and my Granddad fell asleep riding his bicycle home several times. For guards the shift would end wherever they were at the time, so if he was on a train it could be stopped because of a raid up the line, sent back a bit, and then shoved in a siding until another train passed. He could be dropped off miles from home.
Always assuming, of course, that his home hadn’t been destroyed.
This would happen every night. For weeks. No leave, no ‘rest and recovery’ time, just a 12 hour break and the knowledge that next shift he’d have to do it all again.
Granddad wouldn’t talk about the war. Not many of his generation did: they just got on with what needed to be done, and and if they survived they went back and did it again the next day, so many selfless acts by non-combatants were forgotten. I do remember one conversation we had when I was a child which made me think there was more than he would tell. There was an old war film on television and he suddenly turned to me and said: “Just remember, when we see an explosion there, no-one is killed. In the real world it was different.”
He wouldn’t say any more.