Dryburgh (Part 3)

  08 May '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Dryburgh – a novel in parts (read part 2 here)

3. The Wasteland

Disobedience of a direct order from a superior officer had only one consequence. Any court-martial verdict would be a foregone conclusion. I would be convicted and at best sent to the Glasshouse, to a military prison. As much of a punishment would be a sense of shame, of failure, and even betrayal. I would have let down my band of Borderers and brought ill repute on an old Border family. But I still thought it right to stage the execution of the Waffen SS colonel. My promise to the men in the firing squad that I would finish him off myself after more interrogation, his tongue loosened by near-death and the sight of his comrades dying beside him, seemed to satisfy. In the chaos north of Caen, as armour rumbled towards the smoking, disintegrating city, an odd incident like that stood every chance of being forgotten.

Before the march back to the rear, I had the SS prisoners’ hands bound in order to minimise the escort needed. While two Borderers led the four grenadiers in front, I walked beside their captain. Tall, erect, despite an exhausting battle for the city, and with fair hair, he looked like a specimen, the sort that Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and the others had in mind when they ranted from platforms about Das Herrenvolk,the master race. More than once, I had mused on the contradiction: none of the Nazi leadership looked anything like the Nordic ideal they worshipped. Hitler was dark-haired, with a pasty complexion, and had black circles under his eyes even in his pomp, Himmler was chinless, bespectacled and balding, Goebbels emaciated and limping, and Göring fat and jowly. But the man who walked beside me, walking to his death, appeared to be the embodiment all of their poison, of Rassenkunde, the crazy nonsense of race science. Nazism had long struck me as an ideology of narcissism and immense male vanity.

The look of everything mattered. The uniforms, the jackboots, the insignia, the decorations, the Wagnerian names of regiments and units, the universal use of the swastika and the elaborate staginess of ceremonies all added up to the worship of the heroic soldier. When the Pathé newsreels played snatches of Hitler’s speeches, I could understand the harsh and pounding oratory, and the use of the first person plural was constant throughout. We, the German people. We, the soldiers of destiny. We, the children of the Fatherland. But when the crescendo came, ‘we’ became ‘one’. Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer! On the wide cinema screen, the theatre of the rallies was spine-tingling, brilliantly staged as thousands of flags fluttered, stormtroopers marched, searchlights played across the Sieg Heil! chants and the raised right arm of the Nazi salute. Germany seemed intoxicated with itself.

‘Your German is excellent,’ said the colonel suddenly. ‘Do you have German relatives?’ In thirty minutes or so, this man would be dead, bullets having shattered his chest at close range, and yet he was making conversation. Perhaps he might be persuaded to say something useful. Ignoring his question, I asked him why the resistance in Normandy had been so fierce, even fanatical, when it was clear that the Russian front was collapsing and that in time the Allies’ massive superiority would soon overpower German armies in the west. He turned and smiled, indulgently.

‘You have no honour. You cannot hope to understand.’ A shell suddenly burst behind us, but while we flinched, this man did not so much as break his stride. ‘We swore an oath to the Führer, a sacred oath to defend the Fatherland, the holy soil of the Reich.’ With no hint of irony, his voice was even, resolved and not raised. When I said that it was only a matter of time before there was a breakthrough in Normandy, he cut in. ‘We also fight for time. When Germany launches weapons the like of which have never been seen before, it is the Allies and the Soviets who will beg for peace. We have Götterdämmerung. When the Führer calls down the Twilight of the Gods, the roar of their thunder will silence your guns and stop your tanks in their tracks.’

This was more than bombast or the repetition of propaganda about Vergeltungswaffen, commonly know as wonder weapons – although the literal translation is ‘vengeance weapons’, a label that intrigued me. We had heard reports that rockets had hit London but their impact had apparently been negligible. It struck me that this man was talking about something much more powerful, and from personal knowledge of some sort. ‘It will be the Führer who demands unconditional surrender. And I will die knowing that the Fatherland and National Socialism will be triumphant.’ Somehow, it seemed to me, a version of vanity had broken down the colonel’s resolve to remain silent, to give away nothing. To face his death with the necessary dignity, perhaps he needed the comfort of a boast, the certainty of ultimate victory, something to give his death purpose. But Götterdämmerung puzzled me. It sounded less like a glorious Wagnerian reference, and more like a project or a code word.

Once their guards had marched the watching POWs back to their barbed-wire pens and I had dismissed the firing squad, I found myself more or less alone. Jeeps and trucks bounced up the east road into Caen, units of infantry marched past, but no one even cast so much as a glance at a tangle of dead Germans and a British captain. ‘Just stay there,’ I hissed at the colonel. I had found a deserted stable yard nearby and its tack room had survived more or less intact.

‘Sit on the floor in that corner.’ Using my revolver to point where I wanted the German to go, I slid down the opposite wall. The faint smell of oiled leather, the wood-panelled walls studded with saddle racks and hooks for harness and the fact that the only light came from a small window above the feed bins made the place seem closed, somewhere apart from the clangour of war and the roar of battles that raged only a few miles away.

‘What is your name, rank and number?’ The German merely smiled at the formula. With my revolver in my lap and the likelihood that we would not be disturbed, I could wait, take my time. No one was going anywhere. ‘If you could untie my hands,’ said the captain, ‘I could offer you a cigarette. French, I am afraid.’ He held his arms out straight, and once I had cut his bonds, he sank back against the wall. Opening a silver cigarette case, he took one and slid the case across the floor. When the sharp, almost acrid blue smoke filled the space between us, the German began to talk.

‘I am Oberführer Manfred von Klige, formerly of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, recently seconded to the 21st Panzer Division, and now, it seems, your prisoner. May I know your name?’ His steady tone and good manners prompted me to tell him. I wanted him to talk as much as possible, and an exchange rather than a one-sided interrogation might be a better tactic. After I gave him my name, rank and regiment, he seemed to relax. ‘Each Christmas, without fail, the Führer sent boxes to each man in our division. There were bottles of schnapps and excellent chocolate but, alas, no cigarettes.’ Von Klige looked away and smiled at the recollection. ‘He thought cigarettes bad for our health, and so Reichsführer Himmler had to add a carton to our boxes. He simply wanted us to have a happy Christmas.’ Von Klige rolled the Gauloises between his finger and thumb. ‘The Reichsführer knows that even more than food or drink, soldiers need cigarettes.’

Without much prompting or reciprocation, the German began to reminisce a little more, talking of his sunlit childhood on a family estate east of Berlin. ‘We had ponies and horses, and a room like this one where we all used to gather after supper. When I was a boy, I had always to groom my pony myself, clean my own tack and not leave these tasks to others. My father was most insistent. I had a personal duty, a responsibility to do everything for my little horse.’ I looked around at the saddles on their racks with the stirrups hanging below them. ‘That saddle above your head is English, I think,’ he said, ‘perhaps used for hunting.’

I turned my head to look directly above where I sat, and in an instant von Klige lunged across the floor, caught the stirrup iron, pulled the saddle off its rack down on my head, and snatched the revolver. Standing over me, still smiling, he backed away to where he had been sitting a moment before. ‘Did you ever hunt?’ he asked as he sat down, pointing my gun at my chest. ‘Well, did you?’ When I nodded, he went on, ‘So, we share a love of horses, no? And you chose to come to a place like this because you are comfortable amongst all of the bridles, halters and saddles?’

Like a cloud passing over a warm summer sun, the German’s expression abruptly changed, hardened, and he stared directly at me for a moment. ‘But we are not alike, you and I.’ Shaking his head, von Klige continued: ‘No. You are clearly intelligent and you have guessed that I have knowledge of something of great importance. I said too much when we marched from Caen. I should have said nothing of Götterdämmerung.’ Flicking his thumb to check that the safety catch was off, he aimed the Webley straight at me. ‘I am a man of honour, and that is a certainty that shall stay with me for ever.

‘But now, I think,’ the German said, ‘your guessing game has to stop.’ I felt every muscle clench, tried not to close my eyes, and then von Klige put the gun barrel to his temple and pulled the trigger.

21st July, 1944

The night wind blew rain in off the Atlantic. Back with the 1st Battalion, bivouacked in an orchard not far from Caumont, south-west of Caen, I blessed the rain and the break in the weather. Since we advanced southwards into Calvados, it had been oppressively hot and mosquitoes a constant torment. Battle fatigues are not designed for comfort in warm weather and I allowed the Borderers shirt-sleeve order. Waiting is what most soldiers do most of the time and the regulars used it well: washing clothes, cleaning equipment, scrounging and foraging for food, writing letters home but mostly sleeping. As we moved through the farms and fields behind the front line, we found the landscape almost deserted. Any civilians we saw were invariably old people, often in forlorn groups, trudging the sunken lanes behind the high hedges, trying to get out of the way. They seemed pleased to see us, though, and happy to see the back of the Germans. But I fear that the civilians caught in the battle zone have paid a terrible price for liberation. Their towns and villages were often shelled to rubble and the farms looted and destroyed.

In recent days, the first letters from home have been arriving, something that much cheered the men. Knowing that their families are safe is a great comfort in the face of present danger. After all, what were they fighting for, if not hearth and home? Never one to ‘bang on’, my father wrote something more like a report or an inventory. Although he did not explicitly state it, all seemed to be well at Dryburgh House. The lambing and calving had passed without incident despite there being little help on the farms, the hayfields needed rain, and the locality had settled down for the summer with the merciful departure of the Polish Armoured Brigade. There had been a good deal of muttering amongst the Borderers when the popularity of the polite, heel-clicking and somewhat exotic Polish officers had been hinted at. What pleased me most about my father’s letter was not what he wrote but the image of him writing it. Drumming his fingers on his desk, sighing, frequently gazing out of the bay window over the grass parks that led the eye down to the lazy bend of the Tweed, chewing the stem of his pipe, he will have taken an age to write the two pages of the tissue-thin airmail paper he had sent. But I was glad to have it, and for a moment I could feel the breeze off the river on my face.

I wondered about another estate and another father a thousand miles to the east of Dryburgh, not far from Berlin. When von Klige killed himself, I am ashamed to say that I left his body with its ruined head in the tack room, only retrieving and cleaning my pistol. Several SS officers had committed suicide to avoid the humiliation of capture and here was another one. No one would remark on it. For days, I had tried to imagine what had gone on in his brain in the moments before he put a bullet through it. I suspect that he did not trust himself to remain silent under interrogation. The Germans tortured prisoners, and perhaps he assumed the Allies would not hesitate either, especially if I had passed on my suspicions about the importance of Götterdämmerung. That was what he meant by honour, To keep it, to bring no shame to his family, he killed himself.

At midday, a jeep bounced down the narrow lane by the orchard. ‘You are to come with me to Brigade HQ immediately, sir.’ I sat down next to the driver, a private in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Under an awning rigged up to keep the rain off, a field radio was crackling, and around a broad table several senior officers pored over a map. ‘Erskine.’ Colonel Murray walked over to shake hands. ‘There’s a good deal of German radio traffic, much of it in clear, and we want you to listen.’ He gestured towards a chair beside the operator, who slid me a notebook and pencil. ‘Gist of it is’, said Murray, ‘there has been an attempt on Hitler’s life. On German radio this morning; he himself apparently gave details. Sounds like he was bloody lucky to survive.’

August 5th, 1944

In the morning air after rain, you can smell the earth and its rising goodness. Amongst the apple trees of Calvados, the soldiers had churned the grass to mud, but the musty sweetness was still there. Robotically checking over my equipment, making sure everything was in place and in working order, I drifted back to the fields at Dryburgh and the soft, distant bleat of lambs from the high pasture beyond the river. The red earth of Berwickshire will be forever ingrained in my hands.

The waiting was over. Orders had come down from Brigade HQ for a general advance. Morning mist clung to the orchard and did not lift until the afternoon. It muffled the gathering rumble of battle. Now supplied through the port of Cherbourg, General Bradley’s 1st US Army had been massing for days for an attack on German defensive formations. There was talk of a decisive breakthrough, a dash for the Seine and the great prize of Paris. British infantry and armour were to protect the Americans’ flank and prevent the enemy from mounting a controlled fighting retreat and an ability to regroup. Intelligence reports believed that at least two SS Panzer divisions opposed us as well as artillery and infantry regiments. In the wake of the attempt on Hitler’s life, I feared the fighting would be fierce.

Supported by infantry, the Guards’ tank division passed through our lines on its way to attack the village of Estry, astride a strategically important crossroads in the maze of lanes and tracks of the Normandy landscape.

And then it was our turn. That day I was certain we would take casualties. Even though we had armoured support, an infantry assault against a defensive line that had repulsed the Guards’ tanks for three days would mean some of my men dying or being wounded. Having spoken to my band of Borderers, I had to find my own courage so that I could lead them into battle, lead from the front, something commanders had done for millennia.

An hour before the assault was due to begin, we waited behind a blackthorn hedge for the order that would take us to the start line. We had been promised support from the Grenadiers’ tanks and their vicious flamethrowers but in the pauses in the artillery barrage whistling over our heads, I could not hear any engine noise. Word came up the line that our armour was held up in the narrow, sunken lanes and could not break out of them by mounting the high, steep banks and hedgeson either side. When I was told that they could not even get close enough to bring their guns within range of the village, I realised that we would be very exposed if we attacked without the armour.

But we did. Our start line was a stream north-west of Estry, and as the order to advance came, the defenders saw us, found our range and the barrage began. As mortars and shells exploded around us, the air filled with flying debris, clods of earth, limbs torn from shattered apple trees and their bizarre shrapnel of tiny, hard cider apples. But we took no direct hits and moved forwards with great caution, knowing we could soon be close enough to take machine-gun fire.

At the north end of the village, the SS had panzers dug into protective emplacements, their turrets constantly traversing, searching for targets. There were 88mm guns, mortars and machine-gun nests firing from the upper floors of houses. The area around the church, whose spire had been decapitated, was heavily fortified as a strongpoint. And hidden in the hedges, copses and trees, there were snipers. All of them were waiting for us.

From the edges of Estry, I heard the creak and grind of tanks turning. Had the Grenadiers reached the battlefield by another route? But then, swinging into the orchard rolled a panzer with grenadiers running crouched behind it. Such was their determination, the defenders were counterattacking. We withdrew quickly, but still found ourselves under mortar fire. It was clear to me that the SS simply refused to abandon this strategically pivotal village and if they could, would in all likelihood fight to the last man, do what their Führer demanded. We were still in Normandy. It would be a long, hard fight to reach the frontiers of Germany.

Orders at last came to withdraw all of our forces, and the Grenadiers were sent to find a way to block the roads south in case the SS did try to escape. My men were exhausted, sleepless because of the mortar bombardments through the night and sickened by the ever-present stink of the dead cows rotting in the fields around the village. Estry was a charnel house.

Two days later, the guns and mortars fell silent. Under cover of darkness, the Germans had withdrawn, almost certainly because they had run out of ammunition, food and probably, crucially, cigarettes. Slipping past the Grenadiers, moving south, looking for supply dumps, linking up the SS Panzer-Division 21 and others, regrouping, they were clearly determined to fight on.

To the west, Bradley’s 1st US Army had broken through and had begun to break out of Normandy. German forces were too stretched and too sparse to contain such a sustained and powerful thrust. South of Estry we made our way through the farmland, carefully clearing the area of snipers and stragglers. Many of the men were much moved by the terrible suffering we saw in the fields. Cows stood stock-still, lowing in agony. No one had milked them and the slightest movement of their bloated udders caused even more pain. Several of my Borderers had come from farms and I allowed them to relieve the animals’ agony by milking them by hand, the liquid splashing in warm jets on the grass. What reduced me to unashamed tears was the sight of a bay mare and her foal. In one of the fields, the mare lay motionless, bleeding on the ground, probably killed in a crossfire coming from the surrounding hedges. In a hopeless circuit of loss and puzzlement, the foal was walking round and round its mother. So often had this orphan done this that there was a path worn in the grass. One of my men spoke softly to the young horse, stroking its withers, trying to tempt it away with handfuls of torn-up grass, but the bewildered beast would not leave its mother.

31st August, 1944

More than anything, it was the music that lulled me, that drained the tension, that washed like a warm and welcome tide over the images of slaughter. I sat in the corner of a vast mirrored restaurant on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, not far from the Louvre, enjoying coffee and cake, listening to a young woman singing softly at the piano. She wore a flower in her hair. It sounded as though the song was in English, but the sort learned phonetically, with the words blurred together, something about waiting for a train to come in.

After the breakout from Normandy, Bradley’s 1st US Army, General Patton’s forces, the Canadians and ours raced across central France to the Seine. Having learned the art of armed retreat on the Eastern Front, the Germans had pulled back in good order northwards, seeking the sanctuary of the Westwall, the much strengthened Siegfried Line. On 25th August, Paris was taken without a destructive fight. The city of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann, of L’Etoile and Le Champs Elysées, the Left Bank, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower had not been bombed to rubble.

As a German speaker, I had been seconded to No. 30 Commando and the staff of Squadron Leader Godwin. In one of the few flashpoints, we were attacked when we captured a very grand château on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. It had been the HQ of Admiral Donitz, the commander-in-chief of the German navy and we discovered many tons of abandoned documents, a huge cache that had somehow not been destroyed. My team and I were ordered to sort and catalogue it. I had also to help with negotiations. The German garrison had refused point-blank to surrender to the French Resistance and insisted that as soldiers they could only make a formal agreement with opposing officers, either the Free French Army, ourselves or preferably the Americans. For good reason, they were also terrified that they would be lynched by the crowds of Parisians who had flooded onto the streets. My own view was that the formalities did not matter much, but the heated arguments told me that post-war politics was already crackling around the Paris streets like electricity.

I have never been kissed so often and by so many different women as I was in Paris. ‘Vive l’Ecosse!’shouted more than one woman who embraced me – and with more than a peck on the cheek. After all that had happened on Queen Beach and in Normandy, I was proud to wear the regimental Glengarry that marked me out as a Scottish soldier. Paris exhaled with relief at the departure of les boches, the Gestapo, the strutting SS, and exulted in what seemed like a true liberation from years of oppression.

And I exulted in clean clothes, a shave each morning, a bath each week and a billet in the Château de la Muette, Donitz’s former headquarters. From the windows of a bedroom that could have slept twenty, I looked out over the Bois de Boulogne, its lush green grass, mature trees, broad walkways and not a hedge in sight. It was a very far cry from the bunks of the barracks at the regimental depot in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Autumn would tint the leaves soon but it was good to be alive in late summer in Paris.

Our work was straightforward. With characteristic efficiency, the clerks in Donitz’s HQ had filed incoming and outgoing correspondence into daybooks. With Squadron Leader Godwin’s agreement, I decided we would begin with the most recent correspondence and work backwards. Old files dealing with anything earlier than 6th June, 1944, were not likely to be of much use in informing us about current German strategic thinking, the state of their resources or the swirl of politics within the Nazi Party hierarchy.

In the cafés and bars, and even in our mess at the château, I overheard a good deal of jaunty talk about a swift end to the war. The Germans had retreated behind the Westwall but in the process had lost many men as casualties or prisoners of war, and been forced to abandon weapons and supplies that would be impossible to replace. The RAF’s Bomber Command was pounding their cities and factories, and in the east the Russians were at the outskirts of Warsaw, only three hundred miles from Berlin. The Allies would squeeze and starve the Germans into surrender.

The military correspondence told a different story. The pivotal date was 20th July, the day of the failed assassination attempt on Hitler. At that moment everything changed. In the days that followed, the Nazi leadership of Goebbels, Himmler and Speer had declared a state of Totaler Krieg, total war. Every sinew of the German economy would be stretched to the utmost, a Replacement Army would be recruited, citizens in the Volkssturm would be armed and trained, and every last drop of blood would be wrung out of the army. That was where the plotters had found support. The army owed the German people a debt of honour, and of blood. It seemed to me that the Allies’ insistence of unconditional surrender was a propaganda gift to Goebbels. He had been able to convince millions of Germans to fight on regardless of loss, to the last man if necessary, to buy time for the development of wonder weapons, the Wunderwaffen. My own assessment was that the war would continue through the winter and into the spring of 1945, perhaps even longer.

Amidst the chaos of conflicting reports and views, I kept my own counsel amongst my contemporaries. Only in conversation with Squadron Leader Godwin was I completely candid.

3rd October, 1944

Only ten days after Paris had fallen to the Allies, the front line had advanced dramatically, and on 4th September, the great port of Antwerp was captured. Supply lines across northern France had become so extended that an emergency one-way system known as the Red Ball Express operated from the Channel ports to keep tanks and other vehicles supplied with petrol and troops supplied with food and ammunition. The distances were so great that it cost four gallons of fuel to deliver one to the front. That made Antwerp vital. Only a few miles from the German border, it was a deep-water port where tankers could dock. The difficulty was that the Germans still held the shores of the Scheldt Estuary and could easily prevent the passage of sea traffic to the port. The 1st Canadian Army had been handed the task of clearing the estuary, and two battalions of the KOSB would fight alongside them. I found myself in Antwerp to liaise with the Canadians and compile a situation report for my regimental commanders.

The jagged litter of war lay everywhere. In contrast to the miraculously preserved glories of Paris, the ancient merchant city had been bombed to smithereens. I had to weave my jeep between mounds of rubble at the foot of gaunt ruins, many of them gable ends that stood like tombstones. On one of them were the sad remains of three homes: three fireplaces that had warmed families were now somehow obscenely exposed, one with tattered wallpaper flapping in the late afternoon breeze. But even though the price of freedom had been the destruction of their city, the people of Antwerp thanked us for it. When a military policeman stopped me at a crossroads, a group of men working with wheelbarrows to shift the scatter of rubble stopped and waved, one of them managing a passable version of Winston Churchill’s V-sign.

When I reached the Canadians’ headquarters at the port, where the Albert Canal meets the Scheldt, and reported to the adjutant’s office of Lt General Simonds, I was told that a massive bombing raid had begun on German positions at the mouth of the estuary. Hundreds of Lancasters were aiming their bombs at the dykes, the sea defences of Walcheren Island, so that the land behind them would flood. The ground assault would begin in the next few days.

‘There ain’t no high ground around here,’ answered Captain Thomson of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry when I asked if it was possible to find a vantage point where I could look westwards down the Scheldt. ‘But you can get a good idea of the lay of the land from the harbour cranes.’ Helpful, cheerful and generous (giving me a pack of the excellent American cigarettes, Lucky Strikes), Thomson offered to come with me.

Before the war, the second biggest port on the Western European seaboard, Antwerp’s quays were long and broad, and they flanked a wide, canalised sea road. Vast quantities of manufactured goods were loaded onto dozens of merchant ships and raw materials unloaded to feed the factories and the markets of the Low Countries and southern Germany. Taken further inland by barges and onwards from railheads, the great port had grown into a vast gateway. As the evening sun threw the long shadows of the cranes behind us, it sprawled below us as we climbed ever higher.

‘The Belgian resistance did a great job, really brave. Before they evacuated, the Germans set explosives on all the cranes but these guys defused almost every one.’ As we climbed up the iron ladders and crossed the landings to the operator’s box, the Canadian chattered about how, pretty soon, we would be looking east and not west after the tankers began to arrive with fuel and supplies – east to Germany, its borders only a few miles away. ‘Once our guys clear the estuary, the war is as good as over.’ We wound down the windows and focused our binoculars.

At the same time as Thomson and I clanked up the crane at Antwerp, the Americans launched a long-awaited attack on the Westwall at Aachen. An ancient city at the centre of the empire of Charlemagne, what the Nazis called the First Reich, it was freighted with great symbolic significance. Vastly outnumbered and pounded by bombers and artillery, its defenders fought fanatically to prevent the Allies defiling the holy soil of Germany. With only eighteen thousand soldiers, many of them Volkssturm, and eleven tanks, they held a force five times larger at bay.

Throughout the four months since our landing on Queen Beach, I had been continually in awe of the fighting spirit of the German army. Most of our soldiers, British, American and Canadian, were conscripted civilians who would fight against what they saw as a manifest evil, but they also wanted to survive. By contrast, under the Nazis, German soldiers knew that savage punishment, often summary execution, awaited those who disobeyed orders, deserted or even showed something less than total disregard for their own safety. And added to this unbending regime was a visceral wish for vengeance. Many German soldiers had lost family, often children, to the terror bombing of their cities and their rage was further fuelled. For many, four years of fighting on the Eastern Front had forged them into highly professional fighting units, able to improvise and surprise their enemies again and again. I had seen the iron resolve of the Germans at Estry and the Americans saw it at Aachen.

But on 3rd October, 1944, the Westwall was finally pierced north of the city, US units crossed the River Würm, and despite ferocious and repeated counterattacks, they established the first bridgehead inside Germany, breaching the borders of the Reich.

Although Walcheren Island was more than forty miles west of Antwerp, Thomson and I fancied we could hear the drone of the bombers’ engines as the Lancaster pilots flew over their targets and began to turn for home. From our dizzyingly high vantage point we looked directly west over the Scheldt estuary and the billiard-table-flat landscape to the north and south.

Like most of their equipment, the Canadians’ binoculars were more powerful and of better quality than ours. Sharing them meant that one of us could have all-round vision while the other tried to make out detail in the far distance.

But when it came, neither of us understood what we saw. Like sheet lightning but in daytime, a sudden and dazzling flash lit the western horizon. We exchanged open-mouthed glances. When Thomson looked again through his binoculars, adjusting the focus with his thumbs, I heard him whisper, ‘My God. My God in Heaven. What the hell is that?’ He handed them to me. A great distance away, far across the North Sea, it seemed, a giant cloud was rising, forming itself into the shape of a mushroom.

‘What in God’s name is it?’ said Thomson.

Götterdämmerung. It is Götterdämmerung.’


Alistair Moffat was born in Kelso, Scotland in 1950. He is an award winning writer, historian and former Director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Director of Programmes at Scottish Television. He is the founder of Borders Book Festival and Co-Chairman of The Great Tapestry Of Scotland. You can find more of his books here.

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