Wednesday 28 October 2015

Do Bunny Down: when shared war stories can help to heal

Do Bunny Down: when shared war stories can help to heal

When researching biographies I am privileged to meet and exchange letters with many people whose observations, perspectives and actions present new insights into the past, and sometimes into the present. My current work, on two remarkable female pilots from the Second World War, has led to interviews with veterans and other witnesses from several sides of that terrible conflict. As always, many tales have emerged that have no bearing on the story I am telling – but which I cannot bear to let go unrecorded. This is the story of some USAF servicemen who crashed into an enemy field, and the young German boy who was desperate to find them...

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)
On 25 March 1945, twenty unescorted US B24 bombers were releasing their lethal load over their target when they were attacked by a set of seven of Messerschmitt Me262 jet fighters whose approach had been deliberately concealed by the glare of the sun. These pioneering machines were far faster than any Allied planes, and they were about to show how devastating they could be to heavy bombers. Their first target blew up in mid-air. Only the navigator survived after he was blown free from the nose of his B24. Crew in the other planes saw his boots suddenly jerked from his feet as his chute opened above him. He was taken POW. The lead bomber in the formation was then attacked, and tragically spiralled down into a shoe factory in the town below – loss of life unknown. The three of its crew who managed to bail out were all also captured. A third, badly damaged, bomber made it to the Swedish coastline, only to swing round and ditch into the Baltic Sea to avoid crashing into local housing. Its surviving crew were interned in neutral Sweden. 

The crew of the Do Bunny,
Charles 'Chuck' Blaney is standing, back right.
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Another plane, the Do Bunny, also took extensive damage. Having been caught in a storm of cannon shells, one engine burst into flames and had to be shut down. The attack had left no time to close the bomb-bay doors, and damage now made this impossible. Despite returning fire, the Do Bunny took several more hits, eventually leading to the loss of a second engine - with one of the propeller blades left dangling below. ‘Time seemed to stand still’, the radio operator and top gunner, S/Sgt Charles ‘Chuck’ Blaney, later wrote. ‘The flight engineer was knocked out of his top turret and he dropped to the flight deck. The plexiglass in the rear tunnel shattered in the tail gunner’s face. Fuel and hydraulic liquid from pierced pipelines were pouring and swirling out of the still open bomb bay, which we were never able to close. Do Bunny was in real trouble.’ 

Charles 'Chuck' Blaney
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Suddenly the attack ended. Perhaps the Messerschmitts were out of fuel or ammunition. Either way, forced out of formation, the Do Bunny began a slow descent while its crew threw out ‘everything that was not nailed down’ to lighten their load. When a third engine packed up it was clear that they were not going to make it the last 220 miles to friendly territory. Opting to stay together instead of bailing out, they prepared to make an emergency landing.

Down below, a class of schoolchildren in the German town of Soltau were watching the crippled plane bleeding smoke across the sky. One girl shouted out, and twelve-year-old Gerhard Bracke rushed to the window to look but, by the time he got there, the Do Bunny was already out of sight. Disappointed, Gerhard decided to search for the remains of the plane on his own, as soon as he got the chance. Lt Joachim Grauenhorst, the Wehrmacht officer in charge of the Soltau Riding Academy, had also witnessed the B24’s final descent. Surprised not to hear an explosion soon after it had passed directly over the Academy building, he quickly assembled some soldiers to find the downed plane.

Gerhard Bracke in 1944
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)
Inside the coasting Do Bunny, ‘all went well until a wing dipped into the ground as we lost speed,’ Blaney wrote, ‘and then all hell let loose’. The torn, burnt and battered B24, riddled with hundreds of bullet holes, broke apart on impact. Miraculously five of the nine crew managed to jump to safety. It was not long before they were joined some scared and angry locals, some carrying pitchforks, followed by Grauenhorst and his soldiers who kept the crowd back while they began working to free the last four of the crew still trapped inside the wreckage. Incredibly, despite injuries including a broken leg, none of them had been killed.

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)

The prisoners were escorted to the town square. Here two SS officers started building up the growing crowd’s resentment against the Americans as an enemy bomber crew. It was probably only because Grauenhorst had command of several soldiers that, after some tense moments, he was able to take the men back to the Riding Academy under his command. Here they were locked in the stables, partly for their own safety. ‘He probably saved all our lives’ Blaney believes.

Lt Joachim Grauenhorst
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney) 
A passionate member of the Hitler Youth, Gerhard was keen to learn everything about the downed B24 and the enemy soldiers being held at the Academy. After school that afternoon he went exploring until he found the crash site. There he stood in awed fascination, looking at the wreck with its crushed nose, splintered fuselage and open bomb-bay doors which were now cut into the ground. It was a seminal moment for the impressionable boy, and he stayed for a long time.

The next morning the Do Bunny’s crew were driven to an interrogation centre, and started the long journey to a prison camp. They were liberated by the Russians in late May 1945.

Gerhard was still a schoolboy when the Second World War ended. He grew up to become a respected biographer and historian of the war. During our conversations, he not only told me about the downing of the Do Bunny, but of a rather wonderful postscript to the story.

Many years after the war, Gerhard spent some time researching what had happened to the Americans who had so miraculously survived the Luftwaffe attack and their own crash landing. Having tracked down Chuck Blaney and the other surviving crew members, he arranged a 50th anniversary reunion. In 1995 he travelled to Ohio, USA, to join them. With him, Gerhard brought a biography of the Luftwaffe pilot who had shot them down. Fighter pilot Ace Lt Rudolf Rademacher had survived the war only to die in a glider crash in 1953. Gerhard had also found the archived ‘missing crew’ reports from the other B24 bombers in the formation, and old photographs of the destroyed Do Bunny from the Soltau local newspaper. But what touched Chuck Blaney most was the warm personal letter Gerhard brought from Joachim Grauenhorst of the Soltau Riding Academy, along with an invitation from the Mayor of Soltau to a reunion in their town the following year.

Soltau newspaper coverage, 1995
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Former enemies, Gerhard and Chuck are in touch to this day. 'He is still a best friend forever', Chuck told me touchingly of Gerhard. Both men were pleased that there is continued interest in their story, and that it might now reach a new audience. Sometimes, when certain people find themselves acting for, or representing, one side of history or another, it appears that time, rather than ideologies or national boundaries, is the greatest barrier. How awful it is, among the many terrible tragedies of the war, that a German shoe factory was hit by a downed American bomber, and that so many airmen lost their lives altogether. But how uplifting that one young witness to history was compelled to restore the common bonds of humanity between people once torn apart.

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Wednesday 7 October 2015

Distinction or Discrimination: Honouring the female special agents of the Second World War

The names of 75 courageous women from 13 nations are etched into a beautiful memorial at RAF Tempsford,   home of the Special Duties Squadrons during the Second World War. These are the female special agents who volunteered for active service behind enemy lines as couriers and wireless operators, running escape lines and leading partisan armies. All were brave, and all deeply committed to the Allied cause, but they had little else in common. Although most were British or French, there were also women from the Soviet Union, Belgium, The Netherlands, Ireland, America, Switzerland, India, Australia and Chile, as well as two from Germany, sent in to support the domestic resistance, and two from Poland, including Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the subject of my last biography. Some were lucky, others not, many were beautiful which had its own pros and cons, some were plain, and one had a prosthetic leg. Most female agents were effective, at least for a short while, and Skarbek survived in active service for six years. The huge contribution of this diverse group of women came at a high price. 29 were arrested and 16 executed. One more chose suicide with her lethal ‘L’ pill.

Some of the names on the Tempsford Memorial
Today there is increasing interest in these women. Over the last few years there have been many new biographies and anthologies about them and several memorials. Tempsford is important in that it is the only one that pays tribute to all the women by name. Its marble column stands on a granite plinth collectively honouring the two special duties squadrons that flew them into enemy occupied Europe, but there is no reference to the male agents. Perhaps now we need to ask why is it that we still distinguish heroines from heroes. After all, the Special Operations Executive, better known as SOE, was in many ways a great gender leveller. Selected women and men went through the same training, including in the use of guns and explosives, and silent killing, and were armed and sent to work alongside each other in the field.

It was, however, precisely because they were women, that these female agents were so valuable during the war. Unlike able-bodied men, civilian women travelling around France by train or bicycle attracted relatively little attention. This meant they were better-placed to serve as couriers between different resistance circuits or groups of Maquis hiding in the hills. Women transported messages, micro-film and radio codes, as well as heavy equipment such as weapons and wireless transmitters to arrange the delivery of agents and equipment, etc. Some of them, notably Pearl Witherington and Nancy Wake, went much further, commanding resistance armies of 2,000 men, and, among other achievements, Skarbek persuaded a German garrison on a strategic pass in the Alps to defect.

Skarbek, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent, was employed in December 1939. Eighteen months would pass, during which time she served both across Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, before SOE was even officially established. The first female covert radio operator to be flown into France, Noor Inayat Khan, left England in June 1943. Even at this point, women in the British military were not officially allowed to carry guns or explosives. To circumvent this, SOE enrolled women into the FANYs, which officially operated outside of the Armed Forces but still theoretically offered some protection under the Geneva Convention in the event of capture, and provided pensions should the women become casualties.

Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville,
courtesy of Christine Isabelle Cole, Bill Stanley Moss papers
Churchill had approved the employment of women in SOE, but their role was not made public until some time after the war for fear of a backlash. Meanwhile the women who had survived found their achievements were underplayed and their skills undervalued. While Skarbek’s male colleagues were reassigned to roles overseas, after she turned down a series of secretarial jobs for which she was monumentally unsuited, Skarbek was dismissed as ‘not a very easy person to employ’. Meanwhile the official papers sent to her were accompanied by belittling notes such as ‘Hope you are being a good girl!’ Even the honours the women received were less than their male counterparts, as women did not qualify for British military awards. Many felt bitter about this, but none expressed it as succinctly as Pearl Witherington. After being awarded the MBE (Civil), she famously commented that ‘there was nothing civil’ about the work she had undertaken.

It was only in the 1950s that the women’s stories began to be told. Having signed the official secrets act, many of the women, like the men they served with, refused to talk. Others, such as Odette Hallowes, spoke out, or like both Hallowes and Violette Szabo who had been executed at Ravensbrück, had their stories retold in biographies and films. And so the myth-making began. All too often, female agents and other women in the resistance have been honoured more for their courage and great sacrifice, than for their actual achievements. It has been judged more important that they tried, than that they succeeded. When the women did achieve, they still seem to have been feminised in the retelling, their beauty and sacrifices emphasised and their rough edges smoothed over. In order to be celebrated they have been, in effect, often recast as victims, rather than simply as heroes.

Ironically perhaps, today we need to reconsider the female special agents not only because historically they were marginalised but because, all too often, when given attention they have been judged as women, rather than as individuals doing an extraordinary job. If you have been the business of special operations, it is clearly self-defeating to be elevated as a heroine if at the same time you are diminished as an independent agent.

courtesy of Pawel Komorowski

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