Sunday, 5 June 2011

How my father won the emergency (a.k.a. WWII)

When the German bomber came down in the hills my father led his platoon forward to take prisoners, if they could. This wasn’t an exercise – this was the real thing. He looked back along the line of men that followed him: “Fearful farm lads and a few brash codgers from the back streets of Dublin" – what would they do when they met the Germans who had taken Poland in four weeks and France in six? They were now pummeling England and “how long could the old windbag, Churchill, blow smoke in the face of inevitability?”

He hoped that the Germans were dead.

By the time they found the crash site the day was darkening so he deployed his men around – in a textbook perimeter – to wait for the dawn. As the evening quieted he heard the cattle lowing and a dog bark off in the distance. A curlew called one last time. All the crows flew home but one – the great big Dornier would never take to the skies again. My father waited and he listened. Despite his orders his men talked too loudly and that damned ‘jackeen’, Hackett, lit a cigarette. The dull red tip glowed like a beacon in the gathering gloom and awoke a voice from the downed plane.

“Hey Tommy!”

My father’s men froze.

“Hey Tommy, We surrender.”

As my father hurried to make his decision he was beaten by recklessness.

“We are not feickin’ Tommies ya bollocks, we’re Irish”, retorted Hackett.

“Then what are you doing in England?”

“What are you’se feckers doing in Ireland?”

In the pause that followed my father could hear a whispered conference in German.

“Are you sure we are in Ireland?”

“Of course we’re feickin’ sure – haven’t we lived here all our lives?”

Another hushed conference followed and my father strained to hear the words. He didn’t know the language but he was enchanted by the words. It reminded him of Gaelic – only spoken in anger. He had heard a lot of German on the radio over the last few years but it was always stringent. The language these men spoke was softer and more human. It was delicate like an aroma and was easily whisked away on a passing breeze.

“Okay, Irishman, we are coming out,” the darkened voice called out again.

“Hold your whist a while now,” my father warned, “Stay where you are ‘til morning.”

“Irishman? It is becoming cold and some of my men are injured. You must help us. We have not eaten anything since morning. Can we not be your prisoners now?”

They had all survived with some injuries. They had bombed Liverpool and turned the wrong way when harried by the Spitfire whose cannon fire had shredded most of the dials and gauges and punched a few small holes in a fuel tank. They ran out and landed on a soft hillside, which they had thought to be in Wales.

My father held his side arm ready as the Germans approached. What would he do if they tried to resist?

They wore grey pants and leather jackets. Every one of them now had a cigarette dangling from their lips and as they approached his platoon they passed around a single word that caused them all to smile – “Landesschutzen”.

“Shur-up! No feickin’ Hitler talk around here,” commanded Hackett from behind his Lee-Enfield.

“Who is in charge here?”

“That would be your man – over there – His Excellency, General O’ Murchu himself – the one with the bossy boots!” Hackett tilted his head in my father’s direction.

“I am OberLeutnant Bekker.” The German said to my father as he saluted from the peak of his cap. “My men and I are your prisoners. Please, we need food and sleep.”

“Bart Murphy! Come on with us and we’ll get you all fixed up.”

“Danke sehr, Herr Hauptmann Mur-fee, do you have any water?”

“No but we do have something better – something that will get the blood warmed,” Hackett offered with a sly smile as he pulled a flask from the inside of his mottled brown tunic.