The October Arundel Gathering, the monthly illustrated historic Arundel talk that I have been fronting for nearly five years now, took many of the regulars by surprise.
This free informal talk at the Norfolk Arms started with a subject matter that was as far from Arundel history as one could imagine.
My wife of 22 years, Susanne, and I had some of our German relatives staying with us which included Susanne’s mother, Kate.
The evening before, Kate had agreed to come along to the meeting and talk about her childhood memories which consisted of growing up in Nazi Germany.
Through an interpreter, those present at the gathering heard that when the war broke out Kate was 11 years old and living in East Germany in a small city of 40,000 people called Nordhausen.
The Nazi’s built a slave labour camp a few miles away and the inmates worked in a huge factory built in caves under the mountains, manufacturing Hitler’s revenge weapons, the V1 and V2, that were later launched against England, mainly against London.
Kate, who was 16 at the end of the war, told the fascinated audience of more than 40 what it was like growing up in the city during the war.
Her father, who was a signalman at the city station, was not a member of the Nazi party and as such, the family were poorly treated.
Their friends were others who were not in the party as this was the only way they felt safe.
Any criticism of the war, the Nazi party or Hitler, could result in a firing squad for the whole family.
In early April 1945, just a few weeks before the end of the war, the city was raided by 250 Lancaster bombers two days in a row and what was an historic city was reduced to rubble.
These were missions planned and carried out by the infamous ‘Bomber’ Harris who was severely criticised for a similar raid in which the city of Dresden was completely devastated.
Missions such as these in the last months of the war were later judged by many as revenge raids rather than strategic.
Members of the audience asked Kate questions about her experiences – for instance, how did they obtain food? The family were friends with a non-Nazi who worked on a farm in a nearby village.
She told how the city had no water, gas or electricity (and therefore no radio) and the residents had no idea of how the war was progressing but were convinced Germany would lose.
Indeed, the first they knew that the war was over was when American troops drove into the flattened city and went to the forest where hundreds of families were living for safety.
They took them, including Kate and her family, back to the city and helped them to start with the rebuilding.
The Americans treated the people well but a few weeks later they abruptly left, only to be replaced with feared Russian soldiers.
This was because earlier in the war the main Allied leaders met at Potsdam and agreed how Germany would be divided once the fighting was over.
The agreement included Nordhausen as part of the Russian sector – spoils of war.
Kate was asked how the Russians treated the people and she said surprisingly well.
She was particularly protected because she was one of those chosen to cook for the soldiers, but, as I pointed out, having tasted her cooking, I was surprised the Russians had not quickly sacked her from that job!
Kate also told the audience that the stories one hears about the Russians looting cities and raping inhabitants in war-torn Germany generally occurred at times when they had just fought a harsh and bloody battle to occupy a particular town or city.
In Nordhausen, the Russian commander gave out an order that any soldiers who raped or stole would be executed.
She was asked if the residents were aware of the forced labour camp.
Unlike many Germans in similar situations who were interviewed after the war and claimed they had no idea, she said all the residents knew and had figured this out using plain common sense.
Train loads of non-German-speaking civilians went into the camp but no one was ever witnessed leaving.
There were also times when the inmates were marched through the city.
However, residents could be executed if caught discussing the subject.
When asked what she was doing during the first bomber raid, she said that she was looking after the children of a friend.
As soon as she arrived at the house, the air raid warning sounded.
They ran to the cellar but Kate ran back upstairs to grab some blankets and quilts.
One of the first bombs hit the house and Kate was hit by the huge shockwave.
She was propelled all the way down the stairs and only survived because the quilts broke her fall.
Kate was visibly upset as she recalled the horror of the situation and being trapped in the collapsing cellar, surrounded by rubble, dust and smoke and gasping for air.
The audience were fascinated by the memories, from a rare first-hand German point of view.
The discussion was non-political and focused on the recollections of a frightened girl during one of the most devastating periods of the 1900s.
Indeed, Kate finished up by saying she and her family had no interest in who would win the war.
They just wanted the death, destruction and suffering to stop.
A member of the audience stood up and thanked Kate for the great privilege of sharing some of her memories with them, which generated a great round of applause.
Another member of the audience stood up and said that he found her memories fascinating and moving.
He went on to thank her saying that he felt privileged to have heard her share what were very personal memories.
Audience members could still be heard discussing her words as they were leaving the lecture, following the usual illustrated talk on Arundel History.
The following morning Kate told me that she believes to this very day that the city was targeted in revenge for the nearby forced labour camp and the production of the flying bombs that had caused such devastation to life and property in London – even though the inhabitants had no involvement in this and would have been executed had they even been suspected of criticising this or the Nazi government.
She also said that as a 16-year-old she had been forced, along with every other resident, to walk through the labour camp by the Americans, and past the mass graves.
Many of the residents were forced to dig the graves and move the bodies into them. Kate still has nightmares about this even today.
• The next gathering will take place in the Ballroom of the historic Norfolk Arms Hotel in Arundel High Street, on Friday, November 13, at 7pm for a 7.30pm start. This informal illustrated meeting will feature the traditional subject matter of the history of the town and people of Arundel.