Berlin was built to impress and despite the fact that half the buildings were demolished on a massive scale there was still much in the very wide thoroughfares and open spaces that was to exhilarate me for the rest of my army service.
It was only just a year since the conquest by the soviet army and the population were rapidly trying to get back to normal so that with allied cooperation and supplies most of the main services were operating already including local transport and underground and entertainment.
I suddenly felt transformed into a more civilised world as I arrived in a tree lined cul da sac of houses that could have been one of our better UK council estates. There was no unnecessary red tape as I was ushered into a front room that passed for the COs office at 56 Graves Concentration Unit after having been given a meal that was more like eating at home. Before me stood two officers both of whom looked different to the usual types and I sensed that I had made a good move by volunteering to come here.
However I had little idea of what was ahead in terms of duties and I was just pleased to be in such a relaxed atmosphere.
There were several others with me from all over Germany and I don’t think they realised either in their youth that they had elected to be part of a team that many would not want to be a part of.
It was that sense of boyish adventure and a change of scenery that really kept us happy, not an awareness that upon our shoulders would be the responsibility of giving peace of mind to many families at home.
Major A J E Lange Royal Tank Regt stood all of 5 foot 3 inches and was earlier from North Africa where being so small in a tank was a distinct advantage. He was soft of speech and educated with his printing firm background and a gentleman’s home in Surrey and I at once felt I was more in the company of an uncle, rather than with a commanding officer. His 2nd in command Capt L C Fitzgerald Royal Irish Fusiliers was just as old and just as civilized and also spoke to me as if if I was a normal human being and not just a sapper under command to do a bit of dirty work. Both were in their 50s and this made them command respect from a mere lad like myself without all the military carry on.
The first thing you noticed was the number of sergeants and NCOs to the small total of about 50 souls in all who came from every branch of the service and every part of the UK.
There Highlanders, Paddies, Taffys, Cockneys etc. all from different regiments and kinds of units blended together as a team to do a special kind of work. There were few units like it in the services.
The cook was a real chef called Lazeretti from South Wales clearly with Italian blood in his veins and to crown it all after years of sleeping on floors and worse, here I was with a room of my own with hot and cold running water and a proper bath to hand and there were not too many of them in Berlin at that time.
To my surprise I was quickly promoted to corporal and given charge of some of the office work and specially the map room which was a real thrill because geography had always been one of my top subjects, This excluded me from the outside activities and the military cemetery for several weeks in May and June, instead of which I was helping to plan the journeys for others going all over eastern Europe looking for the fallen RAF.
The weather was so kind at that time and it seemed impossible to believe of all the carnage that had gone on here just over a year previous, but for the fact that a few rusting knocked out tanks still lay around spoiling the beauty of the forest of the Grunwald that lay all around us down to the Havel See.
Can you imagine what it would have felt like if you ever had had a free pass to go around London and London Transport and to enjoy all its entertainment, bars, cafes free of charge. To travel all around on the Berlin transport system without ever having to pay and to be able to buy almost anything with your cigarette ration which was worth many times more than your actual pay was just amazing. Well in fact it felt even much better than that because it was as if Berlin was trying to make up to us a little for the complete breakdown of our normal lives.
In actual fact one didn’t need to spend much money at all because of the cheap facilities at the services clubs as well.
Then came a complete surprise as I was moved with a small detachment in July to a large country house next to a small lake at Ohlsdorf on the outskirts of Hamburg, a city I never thought to see. We were to support similar work here for couple of months where a large civilian cemetery here also enclosed one of ours.
The fallen from the RAF were brought in from outlying areas where they had been exhumed and it was my job to try and identify many of them. I wondered how I would feel the first time round, but it was OK. The next time you explored a corpse it was easier and it all felt so unreal and you felt sort of detached.
There were no real faces to be looked at as they had been in the ground too long and all I could say to myself was “There but for the grace of God go I”.
But for these guys I would be living in slavery or dead. In the evenings I had to catalogue all the belongings I had found and I strung up all the money that they had carried to dry it out pretending I was a millionaire. It gave me a warped sense of satisfaction. Then we would all jump into a truck and explore Hamburg at night and feel human again except for one of the drivers who caused a real bother.
He had got himself really blotto and was supposed to drive us back.
Although only a corporal and with no experience of these matters I had to order him into the back of his truck and get someone else to drive else I would have called the military police.
When we got back he attacked me and pushed me into the large plate glass door at the front of the house. I fell and my hand went through the glass with a bad cut on my wrist and a medical officer had to be called. He told me I was very lucky it had not cut into my main vein for I could have bled to death.
The driver would have to go on a charge but in the morning he made such an emotional apology that I let him off with a severe caution myself, thankful once again to be alive and I didn’t report him in the end. He was one of the chaps who had already been posted to the unit, as a sort of punishment for bad behaviour in the past in the hope that contact with the casualties of war would make him pull himself together! It had the reverse effect and he was soon sent on his way. My dear father never drank even when he was very low and for that I am truly grateful.
I will never forget him as it gave me a scar on my wrist that can be seen today and I jokingly still refer to it as my only war wound.
A few days later I was standing by a graveside and had an uplifting experience.
I turned round startled when I heard a female voice as this was no place for a woman in those days to my mind. It was a lady from New Zealand working for their press and she was on a assignment reporting on one of their heros who had been shot down .
We found him because he had the NZ next to his wings.
I should mention that most of the time we knew who we were looking for based on careful reports sent to us from RAF intelligence and I always had an airforce officer by my side to help me with all their insignia.
Quite often I took myself into what was left of Hamburg by walking to the local station and catching the electric train which just went through one station after another without stopping because there was simply not a building left intact.
My generation had grown used to such devastation but even then it was a spooky experience.
I had won a camera in an army raffle and it made me feel very happy and my old pal Billy Ward had managed to get over as he was still in this part of Germany and we had a good laugh. He had been very keen on dancing before the army and we chuckled about the way he had tried to get me to dance in the boat house back at 508 Coy. It was just as well that no one saw us and got the wrong impression and I did actually learn a few steps.
Coming back one night I had to pass through this vast cemetery late at night and I found the high gate on our side was locked up so I had to struggle over it in the darkness trying not to spear myself on the spikes 8 foot up and with visions of having to spend the night in the wrong company.
During this spell we had a Sunday trip to the sandy beaches of the Baltic resort of Travemunde which was very relaxing in glorious weather playing with local children and we were also joined by some British army girls which seemed quite strange at the time.
This was because I had just decided not to keep the same loyal girlfriend at home any more after 4 years, as the fraternisation ban had just been lifted in Germany and there were too many temptations all around me and life seemed too uncertain.
Typical of the man Major Lange came with us to Travemunde twice and looked such a mere slip of a man in his swimming trunks but always with a smile on his face.
We were not an army unit as such but just a team doing a job.
10 day privilege leaves popped up every 4 months or so and as my spell in Hamburg came to an end I went on a very welcome one, the first time as an NCO.