Liberating Bergen-Belsen


tankgroup

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day

My Uncles and my Dad served in the Army idad1942n World War 2, I was brought up on stories of their adventures, like my Dad, Lenny McNeil, lying about his age to follow his brothers into the War.  Dad served in the Infantry, then as a Despatch Rider (a “DR” or “Don Roberts” as they were nicknamed) in France and Belgium, and then as a driver of all types of vehicles, including a Tank Transporter, which he went AWOL with, parking it up in the back streets of Peckham, when he was meant to be driving it to Dover, so that he could see my Mum before he went overseas. A Copper banged on the door of the little terraced house in Vaughan Road, and told him he had to move it as it was blocking the traffic, so my Dad promptly shoved the keys to the enormous vehicle into the Copper’s hand, and said:
“Here’s the keys mate; you f***king move it.”
Then shut the door and left the bemused member of the Constabulary staring at the knocker, mouth agape. Needless to say Dad was back in the Transporter’s cab and off down the Old Kent Road to the Coast a couple of hours later.
But amongst all these stories of cheeky  working class Cockneys with a healthy lack of respect for authority, sometimes leading to spending time in Military Prisons, there was one story that I never heard until the protagonist had died, my Dad’s older half Brother, Uncle Albert. (Top right in the picture above the swastika flag).  That was his story of the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.
Albert was the second oldest Brother, his sunansheadrname was Drew, and he was one of two boys from the marriage of my Grandmother and her first husband, Harry Drew, an Army Deserter and Deal Porter who worked in the Surrey Docks and the Canals of Peckham before World War 1. Deal Porters like Harry carried huge loads of “Deal” or wooden planks, on their shoulders offloaded from barges to be shipped off on horse drawn carts to builders merchants and carpentry shops.  This was a really tricky job requiring skill and massive strength, negotiating narrow walkways between boats, docks, and canals, with a hundred weight of lumber on your right shoulder. Unfortunately Harry missed his footing one day, and was plunged into the filthy water of the Docks and pinned under the weight of lumber he was carrying. He was pulled out alive, but had taken in a lot of the filthy dock water, and he died a few days later from Pneumonia.

arthurpatrickmcneil(01)
My Nan was left to bring up two sons and a daughter on her own. Things looked up when she met my Grandfather, Arthur Patrick McNeil, a Foreman in a Tin Works, they fell in love and married, he went off to fight in World War 1, and managed to survive, although damaged by gas.  They raised three sons and two daughters, as well as a daughter who died young from a measles outbreak after World War 1.  The boys grew up, and like Arthur, went off to War when World War 2 broke out.

Their adventures formed the background that I grew up with, and each one had their own little twist to their experiences on the battlefield.  Many years later, when I was all grown up, and they were all dead, except for my Uncle Sid, I heard a story from Uncle Sid that had never been mentioned before.  I was speaking with Uncle Sid by phone as he lived in Australia, where he had emigrated to after the War as a “Five Pound Pom”.  Sid lived in a Sidney suburb called Cabramatta, what he called “the wild west” of Sidney because of all the drug gangs and shoot outs there. I mentioned the picture of Uncle Albert on his Tank with the Nazi Flag, and he started telling me the usual funny and exciting stories about Albert fighting his way across France and capturing the Nazi Flag shown in the picture, then appearing on the front page of the Daily Sketch for his efforts. He then dropped a bombshell,  Uncle Sid asked me if I knew that Uncle Albert had helped Liberate Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.
I was quite shocked to hear this, as it had never been mentioned before. The story unfolded that Uncle Albert and his Tank Regiment had been sent to Bergen-Belsen because the Germans had asked for a temporary truce because of an outbreak of Typhus at the Camp. A group of Tanks went fully prepared for a trap (if an officer from HQ told you that it was safe to enter an area, it was always assumed that you were actually going in to the area to see IF it was safe!).  The first Tank took the gates of the camp down by driving straight through them to make sure the Germans inside knew they meant business. They entered what they thought would be some form of Prison, but instead found Hell on Earth.
These were men who were by no means soft. My Uncle had killed at a distance, and close up, they risked their lives every day, he understood that sometimes it was just you or the bloke you were fighting, it wasn’t personal.  Jumping out of their Tanks and forming a perimeter, they were met with heaps of bodies; civilians, men, women, and children, casually stacked like sacks of rags. At first this scene of death was accepted as just a result of disease, but gradually it dawned on the British Soldiers that this was more than that, these people had been starved and worked to death. Still they didn’t quite blame the Germans as there were so many bodies, and it looked as if the German Camp authorities may have just been overwhelmed by the numbers that they couldn’t deal with.
As they moved further into the camp, and saw the arrogance and contempt of the guards for their charges, the Penny dropped, and it became obvious that this was, if not a death camp as such, still a place were the weakest and most defenceless were worked to death, and allowed to die stripped of all human dignity.  The anger in the men began to rise.  Even in battle they had not seen horror on this scale, or with this level of casual sadism.

It is worth saying again that my Uncle and his comrades weren’t soft, they killed for a living, and weren’t particularly bothered by it in the heat of Battle.  They had had a world of compassion knocked out of them by a combination of a hard upbringing in the back streets of South London, and participating in the terror of armed combat, but this was something different.  Such pointless cruelty against people who couldn’t defend themselves was beyond their grasp.

While they were trying to take all this in, shooting was heard, and Albert and his friends found some of the young German guards, many barely more than psychotic teenagers, shooting starving inmates for trying to take Potatoes from a pile behind one of the huts. The damn broke, and Uncle Albert and his friends shot some of the guards, and knocked others out cold with fists and pistol buts. As is always the case with sociopathic bullies, once faced with men who could fight back the Nazi guards suddenly lost their appetite for a fight, and instead bolted to the Camp Kommandant for protection. Luckily for them, some British Officers intervened, and warned the Kommandant that if any more inmates were shot, then the British would line up and shoot the guards on a one to one basis. Despite being flabbergasted that inmates stealing food would be allowed to get away with it, the Kommandant had no option but to agree.
Once the camp was secured, other units came in, and it was deemed sensible to move the Tanks on for good Military reasons, and to make sure Uncle Albert and his mates didn’t risk getting put on a charge for shooting any more Nazis without due process, which was highly likely to happen.  The war was nearly over at this point, but those last few months were pursued by Uncle Albert and his Regiment with renewed ferocity. The young men who had come from the back streets of South London to fight in Europe had been hardened by the experience, but knew that were fighting for the right reasons when they entered Bergen-Belsen.

family backyard

My Dad and his Brothers all came back alive, probably to a great extent by cannily disobeying orders. They supported Millwall all their lives, Uncle Albert even had a trial for the team before the war, but decided that being a bus driver would be a better career choice.  None of them were afraid to use their fists if necessary to stand their ground in Peckham, and I’ve witnessed the bunch of them bundle a violent criminal gang out of a pub on one New Year’s Eve,  and I watched my Dad take on two burglars single handed who were trying to force entry to our house, as I said they were hard men.  But despite all stories I was frequently told growing up by my Dad and his Brothers, what my Uncle had seen made his story of Bergen-Belsen was too horrific to bring back to mind, even for these hard men, perhaps something about what Uncle Albert had seen was the reason he didn’t smile much in photos after 1945, as you can see in the group photo above. I can fully understand why he wanted to forget it, but equally: We never must.

 

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Published in: on January 27, 2019 at 5:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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100 years of the Royal Airforce


The Royal Air Force in World War Two undoubtedly saved Great Britain from Nazi invasion, and thereby ensured the triumph of Democracy over Totalitarianism for Europe and the rest of the civilised world.  This was happened when Great Britain stood alone with it’s Commonwealth against Nazism, the most powerful and evil regime the world had ever seen.  The USA was standoffish and equivocal, the Soviet Union busy carving up Eastern Europe in alliance with the Nazis under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  The job of stopping the tide of Nazi conquest was left on the shoulders of a small country supported by it’s loyal Colonies of every creed and colour.

It is fitting therefore on this the 100th anniversary of that brave fighting arm, to mention a couple of members of the RAF that we turned up during our family History research for a couple of families.

The First World War

Canadian Air Acealfredatkey

Alfred Clayburn Atkey was born 16 Aug 1894 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and died 10 Feb 1971.  Although born in Toronto, Alfred’s family headed west to a town called Minebow, Saskatchewan in 1906. When he was old enough Alfred returned to Toronto to work at the Toronto Evening Telegram as a journalist. In 1916 he joined the Royal Flying Corps as a probationary Second Lieutenant.

By September 1917, he was a bomber pilot flying Airco DH.4 with 18 Squadron. May 1918, he was flying a Bristol F 2B fighter/reconnaissance aircraft with “A Flight”, 22 Squadron. Along with Lt CG Gass who was his gunner/observer, he claimed 29 aircraft all shot down within one month.

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In terms of number of claims, Atkey was the top Allied two-seater pilot of the war. His total number of aircraft claimed shot down was 38 (comprising 13 and 1 shared claimed destroyed, 23 and 1 shared ‘Out of Control’). Gass his rear gunner contributed some 13 of these claims (himself the most successful gunner in the RFC/RAF).

Alfred Atkey’s rank was Captain upon leaving the Royal Air Force at the end of the First World War.  he received the Military Cross with Bar. The following was written about him in the London Gazette:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When engaged on reconnaissance and bombing work, he attacked four scouts, one of which he shot down in flames. Shortly afterwards he attacked four two-seater planes, one of which he brought down out of control. On two previous occasions his formation was attacked by superior numbers of the enemy, three of whom in all were shot down out of control. He has shown exceptional ability and initiative on all occasions.”

The following was written when he received the MC Bar:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During recent operations he destroyed seven enemy machines. When engaged with enemy aircraft, often far superior in numbers, he proved himself a brilliant fighting pilot, and displayed dash and gallantry of a high order.”
Alfred married Irene Marshall in 1919 at Portsmouth in Hampshire, more or less within sight of the Isle of Wight where his ancestors had emigrated from 64 years before.
The couple then migrated to the USA, were in the New York area in 1920, and Alfred took the first steps to naturalisation in California in 1924.

naturalisation

For whatever reasons, the marriage didn’t last, and in 1942 Alfred remarried Dulcie May Boadway, they would have four children.

(For more about Alfred Clayburn Atkey’s Family History, see Time Detective’s blog entry here: A Canadian WW1 Knight of the Air, and his son an Arctic Circle Knight of the Road

World War Two

A Hero’s Grave in a small French Town

Tracing through the generations, sometimes a name stands out that catches the eye.  One such was a distant cousin of the Family I was tracing among generations of miners in the Durham Coalfields.  Conrad Larnach.

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Conrad joined the RAF in WW2, and on the night of 15th August 1943,  “The Pride of London” the Lancaster Bomber Conrad was serving in as Bomb Aimer was engaged above France by German fighter Pilot Leutnant Detlef Grossfuss.

The bomber was badly shot up by machine gun and cannon fire, caught alight, and turned upside down in mid-air. Some of the crew attempted to bail out from the burning upended plane, one Sgt Matthews, although badly burned, managed to get out of the plane, open his parachute and evade capture, finding refuge with local French householders who took him to the French Resistance.  the Resistance protected him for three months, until a daring night time pickup in November 1943, by an RAF Lysander aircraft allowed him to make his escape back to Britain.

Sgt Matthews reported that he was told by the local French citizens that the Bomb Aimer, Conrad Larnach, had also managed to get out and land by parachute a distance away from the crashed aircraft, but being badly injured was found by a German Patrol.  This German Patrol instead of capturing him and taking him back as a prisoner, executed him by shooting him as he lay n the ground injured and defenceless.  They then took his body back to the crashed plane to make it look like he had died in the crash. The other members of the crew all appear to have died in the crash having failed to leave the plane. The only body found more or less intact in the plane was Conrad’s reinforcing the story of his execution.

The Germans buried the remaining bodies in the local cemetery at Rugles, and forbade the local French citizens from attending. However at daybreak the following day the Germans were shocked to see that the locals had risked arrest and execution to come out in the night to cover the Airmens’ graves in flowers.

headstone

A local French teenager also reported that for a few days after the crash, he saw a German Luftwaffe Officer come to the sight of the crash every morning to stand in silence looking at the wreckage before standing to attention, saluting, and walking away. His identity is not known, but he may have been Leutnant Detlev Grossfuss the Pilot who had shot the Lancaster down.

The Grave is still tended in immaculate condition at Rugles in Haute-Normandie.

conradlarnachgrave

By a very strange coincidence I was holidaying in Normandy a few years ago, and stood in front of this grave at the time. To see the affection that the French citizens of the village had lavished on the plot in gratitude for the young men’s sacrifice, still to this day, was truly touching.
The photos included here were found at: http://www.aircrewremembered.com/matthews-victor.html
And
http://www.aerosteles.net/stelefr-rugles-lancasterstele

 

If you would like to have your Family Tree Professionally researched, and your Family Story written as an il;lustrated bound booklet to share with your friends and family, then please contact paulmcneil@timedetectives.co.uk for details of our unique service.

 

 

 

Terror from the Skys in the 20th Century


When tracing Family Stories for clients, very often we turn up examples of civilian suffering from the two world wars, and it is surprising how close so many families came to not existing many more due to enemy action.  Here are a few excerpts from the various stories we have uncovered for clients.

The Great War

The Great War as WW1 was known at the time, was the first war that posed the threat ofZeppelinsDocks attack from the air to London. Although aerial attack is generally thought of as happening to the Docklands in WW2, Britain had to suffer it in WW1.

The Kaiser had initially forbidden raids on London and on any Historic Buildings generally, but in 1915 gave clearance for bombing of the London Docks by Zeppelins. These raids were generally ineffective, few getting through mainly due to adverse weather conditions. One night raid on the 7th/8th of September did manage to drop over a hundred bombs in a line across the East End causing damage and widespread fear, although without major loss of life.

By 1917 tactics changed, and the Germans started to use fixed wing aircraft as Bombers rat1917gothabomberher than the less reliable Zeppelins. In June 1917 twenty Gotha Bombers took off from an airfield in Belgium, to mount a strategic raid on London. After an initial attack on Margate and Shoeburyness, the formation headed up the Thames. The noise of the bombers flying in formation drove the curious to watch them pass over, thinking they were British Aircraft. By the time they reached the East End, they saw bombs were raining down on Barking, and East Ham, the explosions tracing a line to Poplar.

1917uppernorthstreetschoolA set of bombs made a direct hit on Upper North Street Primary School in Poplar. One or two 110lb high explosive bombs passed straight through the roof of the school, smashed through the Girls’ classroom on the top floor killing two children by their impact, then continuing straight through the Boys’ classroom, throwing some of the boys through the floor and into the ground floor classroom where the Bombs exploded in the Infants classroom. Sixteen infants aged between four and six years old were killed in the explosion, more than thirty children were injured, some losing limbs

The German bombers carried on to bomb Liverpool Street Station and by 12 noon had crossed the City as far as Regents Park. By the time they headed back for the coast, over five hundred Londoners were killed or injured. Despite some anti-aircraft fire and the scrambling of home defence formations of the Royal Flying Corps, the bombers were not intercepted, and made it back to Belgium without any losses.

On his return the leader of the raid, Hauptman Ernst Brandenburg, was summoned to Berlin by the Kaiser where he was awarded the highest honour for bravery.

Back in Poplar on 20th June 1917 the whole Poplar neighbourhood turned out to pay their respects at the funeral procession of the Poplar children from Upper North Street Primary School. There is little doubt that the Harrigans were in this crowd. The children were buried in the East London Cemetery, and the service took place in the Harrigan’s local C of E Parish Church of All Saints. It was the biggest public funeral for common people ever to take place in the area.

1917funeralroute

The daylight bombers were to return to London on Saturday 7 July 1917, and other bombing raids would take place during WW1, but none as murderous as that on 13th June 1917.

Outside of London

The rest of Britain was not exempt from raids; on 25th September 1916 the Zeppelin L21zeppelindamage off course and looking for a target, saw the industrial fires and chimneys of the Mills and Factories at Bolton. It flew a double loop over the town dropping 25 bombs and killing 13 civilians in residential streets, only causing minor damage to industry and infrastructure. It then flew back to Germany.

There was no panic in Bolton, there was anger and surprise. Two months later L21 was back on a return raid to the Midlands, this time bombing Chesterfield.  This time the raider was intercepted by three RAF fighters flown by Egbert Cadbury, E.L.Pulling, and W.R.Gaynor, who engaged the Zeppelin emptying four drums of ammunition into her, including phosphorous incendiary rounds.  L21 exploded and fell from the sky into the sea ten miles off of Lowestoft, there were no survivors. A triumphant cheer went up in Bolton, no more civilians would be killed in the night by that particular murderous craft.

L21down

World War Two; The Blitz

London South of The River; Bermondsey

By the outbreak of the Second World War, many children had been evacuated from the most vulnerable parts of East and South East London, those parts near the docks, and around major road and rail links. But for the adults left at home, there was also a share of danger once the Germans started bombing London. One account from an eyewitness describes a raid on the actual streets in Bermondsey in 1940 where part of my own Family lived:

“Saturday from 4.30 was a day of terror, I was collecting in Neptune St when the sirens went, and as the planes were overhead in scores I picked up Mrs Rouse’s boy, and she and the baby and went to the Shelter in the Town Hall. We only just got in when Jerry released his bombs where we were standing and demolished Mrs Rouses house plus eight others. What a shock! Well most of the people in this dugout are now homeless as the bombing was unmerciful and hardly a place within a ¼ mile around escaped, except the Town Hall, he started a fire here which I expect you could see in Dormans [our evacuation venue 30 miles away] the all clear went at 6.45 and I was so shaken by the experience, and the screaming women and children, in the dugout that I packed up and made my way home, but most of the roads were roped off, and so I had to go half way round London to get to Canal Bridge, however I thought I would give a call in home before going to Brockley, and got a shock to see Credon Road no 51, 53, 55 got hit, and the next fell in Varco Rd, right opposite the end house; two people killed in this house. Mum and Dad [who lived at number 59] had a shaking up.

The worst part came at night. I had just left for home and got to Canal Bridge when the sirens started, I ran for a dugout in Peckham Park Rd and the experience all South London had to suffer was more than one could go through more than once. We had bombs dropping every five minutes, and I should say there are marks of the raid in nearly every road in SE London, at home they had another on drop at the entrance of the church in Verney Rd, Ilderton Rd every shop has been hit, all Rotherhithe New Road there are hundreds of people killed or injured, when the all clear sounded at five o’clock I had to walk home, and about every hundred yards along the Old Kent Road had been bombed, so you can imagine my feeling as what to expect in Brockley. The first signs came when reaching St Katherine’s [St Catherine’s church Hatcham in Pepys Road SE14] our church got two bombs and is a wreck, Vesta Rd two houses and a number of incendiary bombs, in Drakefell Road, St Asaph Road, Avignon Road etc., one dropped outside the Patton’s but was a dud, what luck!

Well my dear it has given us all a good shaking and are dreading tonight. I can now understand why the government wanted to keep the children away, and am pleased you and Francis have not had to face our terror.”

The map below shows just how close the bombs fell to my relations in Verney Road. The Germans were trying to destroy the network of Canals, Docks, Railway Lines, and Gasworks that clustered in Bermondsey, but to the ffamily it would have felt more personal than that.
bombingcrop

As the water table was so high in the Bermondsey area, there were very few deep shelters around, so the family would have had to have taken cover as best they could in any local shelters, crossed their fingers for luck, and hoped that the bombers didn’t get a direct hit on them.

The picture below of a German bomber over South East London, shows a Bomber’s view of the area, the area on the bomb map above is just little below the tail of the plane in the picture below, where you can see the railway crossing the canal (black vertical line crossing a white horizontal line) the Gasworks can be seen to the south, the complex railway junctions between Bermondsey, and The Bricklayers’ Arms Goods Depot, as well as the long straight line of the Surrey Canal and Surrey Docks separating the Gasworks from the streets to the north of it.  Poplar is the land in the loop of the river to the right.

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London, North of The River; Poplar

The people of Poplar had suffered many miseries from the turn of the twentieth century through the Air raids of WW1, Strikes that meant starvation rations and occupation of the docks by the military in the 1920s, a devastating flood that forced people out of their homes, and the unemployment of the depression in the 1930s, but the 1940s and WW2 would prove to be more fearful times. The Docklands were bombed remorselessly by the Germans during 1940 and 1941.

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From 7th September 1940 London was systematically bombed by the German Luftwaffe for 56 out of the next 57 days, with the 15th September marking the height of the daylight raids. Because of the failure to break the will of the people of London whilst receiving heavy casualties amongst German Pilots from British fighter squadrons during this time of the Battle of Britain, the Germans switched to night-time for most of their raids after the summer of 1940. On the night of 29th December 1940 the Luftwaffe dropped 10,000 fire bombs on London at a rate of 300 per minute, or 5 per second. During the Blitz 28,556 Londoners were killed, and 25,578 were wounded. The bombs that killed the children in WW1 at Upper North Street Primary School weighed 110lbs, the Germans were now dropping bombs that weighed up to 5,500lbs on London in an attempt to level whole streets full of women and children.

The bombing never completely went away, and in 1944 a new terror weapon was unleashed, the V1 Rocket carrying over 2,000lbs of explosives, called a Doodle-Bug or Buzz-bomb by Londoners. People would speak of a “throbbing, droning sound” of the V1 engine, before something looking like a small aircraft with a flame coming out of the back of it, would appear in the sky. Londoners soon learned that as long as you could hear the engine there was no danger, but once the engine cut, the Doodle-bug would plummet to the ground and explode, the best thing was to walk away from the direction of flight of the Doodle-bug, and then hit the deck when the engine cut out. The V1 proved to be inaccurate, and many were either shot down, or “toppled” by fighters flying alongside and flipping them over with their wing tips to disable their internal gyroscopic guidance system forcing them to crash into the fields of Kent and Essex (see picture). 1944V1By August 1944 80% of all V1s launched were being downed by British defences before hitting their targets. By December 1944 allied advances had overrun the nearest continental launch sites of the V1s and attacks reduced dramatically.
Undeterred the Germans next attacked with their V2 Rocket between 1944 and 1945, 1944V12sending over a total of 1,358 to fall on London, like the V1 each one of these carried over 2,000lbs of explosives. Many people believed that these were worse than the V1 as they gave no warning being a rocket that flew at supersonic speeds and against which there was no effective defence, and the only effective way of countering them was to bomb their launch sites, and ultimately shut down production by winning the war.

 

Children were evacuated for at least some of the War, but the adults were forced to put up with the terror from the skies,  Londoners stood up to it, and pulled through, despite the horrors they had witnessed.  London’s morale was never broken.

The Moral of the Story

All good stories have a Moral.  Tracing Family Trees and writing up deep and complex Family Stories for our clients, brings out starkly the tenuous luck that has brought all of us into being on this Earth today.  One bomb falling a little to the left or right, one minute delay in getting to a shelter, and a whole Family’s story could have ceased to exist in a blast of high explosives, and many did.  We should each thank our lucky stars for all of us for getting here today.

If you would like your Family Tree researched, and your unique in depth Family Story Published, please contact paulmcneil@timedetectives.co.uk .

 

 

 

 

 

 

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