Watching the televised Remembrance Day commemorations in the UK this past month reminded me of my dad and his part in the downfall of Adolf Hitler. He was never one to talk much about his war experiences and regretfully I never showed much interest when I was younger. One of the few occasions I heard him talking about it was when we were on holiday at our regular beach cottage at Leisure Bay (on the KZN south coast) some 25 years ago. We were relaxing around the braai one evening with friends when an acquaintance of ours, a historian and journalist (I shall call her Gina), asked him whether he had been in the war. My dad, being partial to attractive and intelligent young women, opened up to her and talked quite explicitly about his war experiences. It helped that Gina knew what questions to ask and how to ask them. Unfortunately I don’t remember much of the detail of that conversation, just that we were all spellbound. My dad never spoke of it again and I never asked.
However, in chats with my mum, I have been able to glean something about his war years.
Edward Charles Peek, more commonly known as Ted, served as a navigator in the RAF in World War II. He was in bomber command, 207 Squadron, which flew Lancaster Bombers. On the 18th December 1944 Ted and his crew were sent on a bombing raid to Gdynia (Poland), the longest flight that they had ever undertaken. It was Ted’s 33rd operational flight over enemy territory. Usually the bomber crews were given a break after 30 ops due to the stress that these missions generated. However there weren’t that many left by the end of the war and so he was not afforded the luxury of leave. Their mission was to bomb a German warship that was docked in the port there. They reached their target that night and dropped a bomb before they were intercepted by German fighter planes (Junkers 88s) which shot them down over the Baltic Sea. They managed to ditch in the sea and release the life raft from the plane after a bit of a panic when at first they couldn’t find the knife in the life raft to cut the rope that attached it to the plane. Their mid-upper gunner had been badly injured in the gun fight and had to be helped out of the plane. It was only once they were all safely in the life raft that the pilot informed them that there had still been a bomb on board when they ditched and that they were bloody lucky it had not detonated on impact.
After several hours adrift they were picked up by the German Sea Rescue, taken ashore and imprisoned, all in separate cells, to be interrogated. Ted was lucky to be debriefed by a German pilot who had himself survived a crash over England. He had been repatriated due to the injuries he had sustained in the crash. Ted felt that, as a result of the humane treatment he had received, the German was more sympathetic towards them. They were held in these cells for 4 days and then marched from Poland to a prisoner of war camp in Germany. When they arrived at the camp, called a Dulag Luft, they found a welcoming party made up of some of their RAF friends. As they swapped tales of derring-do, Ted discovered that one of his friends had parachuted out of his aircraft on a previous raid and had lost one of his flying boots. In the middle of winter he had managed to stay on the run for about a week with only one boot before he was captured by the Germans.
One of the first things that the welcoming party organised for the new POWs was to sit them all down and give them a hot shave. (I can remember my dad telling Gina about this and how much it had meant to the incoming POWs. It still brings a lump to my throat when I think of those young men, so far from their loved ones, finding some comfort in this simple act of kindness.)
Conditions in the camps were not good because by this time Germany was experiencing severe food shortages. The prisoners, however, still kept a sense of humour. They called one of the meals “whispering grass” after a song by the Mills Brothers as it tasted just like boiled grass. Not long after being taken prisoner, the Russian army began to advance on Germany. In order to get away from the Russians, the Germans forced the POWs to march across Germany. En route they were joined by displaced persons from labour camps that were also on the move. This march was a terrible ordeal and many died along the way. Unbeknown to the Germans, Patton was leading an advance into Germany from the West (the Battle of the Bulge). The Russians were coming in from the East. The Russians caught up with the POWs on the march and the German guards who hadn’t made a run for it, were summarily shot. The Russians then marched onward with the POWs and met up with the Americans on a bridge on the River Elbe.
After a bit of argy-bargy (as Edna puts it) the Russians finally released the Allied POWs to the Americans, who weren’t particularly interested in the plight of all the displaced people and, again in Edna’s words, “the poor bloody buggers had to find their own way home”. The Americans took the POWs to their canteens and generously dished out coffee, Hershey bars and cigarettes. Then began the process of returning them home. Once home, they were placed in a holding place to be debriefed. Edna recalls that Ted was not at all impressed with the English reception compared to the welcome they had received from the Americans. “They weren’t even given a cup of tea”.
Edna can remember Ted receiving notice of his commission and how he went up to London to get his officer’s uniform made at Simpson’s in Piccadilly and how dashing he looked in it. And according to my mum, it’s quite true what they say about a man in uniform!
My dad was always very proud of the fact that he had “served his country” and now that I have a young son of my own I am acutely aware of what a life-changing experience it must have been. What a shame that he could not share that with us.
Buona notte, amore
Ti vedrò nei miei sogni
Buona notte a te che sei lontana
[Good night, love
I’ll see you in my dreams
Good night to you who are far away]