I’ve been an RNLI member for a long time – as a yachtsman, I knew that I could always rely on the organisation if disaster struck, and my crew or myself were in danger at sea, but I’d never considered joining the crew of the local lifeboat – for almost half my working life, I was the sole vet in the practice and was on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so it wasn’t really an option. By the time the practice expanded, and I began to get some time off, I thought I was too old. I knew that 55 was the cut off, and I’d just passed that landmark.
But out of the blue, not long after I’d started writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, the local lifeboat operations manager contacted me to see if I would be interested in being a Deputy Launch Authority for Girvan lifeboat, or DLA for short.
The job is not onerous – the on-duty DLA responds to a request from the coastguard for the launch of the lifeboat and passes the information on to the boat’s coxswain, and gives permission to launch the lifeboat on service.
I accepted, and started popping down to the station during Monday night practices, watching the crew head out on our ALB (All Weather Lifeboat) of the Mersey class, and learning all about the station and the lifeboat from the other DLA, Ian McClymont, an ex crew-member.
When asked if I’d like a trip out on the boat, I jumped at it, and was suitably kitted out on one of the training nights. When they told me the maximum age for being on the lifeboat had been raised from 55 to 65, I didn’t look back.
Within a couple of weeks, I had converted from DLA to rookie crew member. Some of my experience on yachts was helpful – the navigation side of the training is very similar. Just getting used to navigating at 15 knots rather than the sedate 5 knots that I was more familiar was the only issue, and all the ropework was the same. And the support from everyone at the station was incredible.
It was a steep learning curve though, especially when the senior crew suggested that I should go on a navigator’s plan once I’d worked my way through my crew plan. In the meantime, I’d been on my first shout and the sense of satisfaction of being part of a team that had rescued someone at sea was intoxicating.
I attended a couple of courses at the RNLI training College in Poole, an amazing experience – the Crew Emergency Procedures course involved several scenarios where we were dumped in the pool, with waves, rain and darkness to make it more realistic, having to get into life rafts or right our inflatable boat while the ‘sea’ raged around us.
The long-range radio course gave me a commercially endorsed radio operator’s licence, should I ever consider a second career at sea, but it was vital for the effective communication that keeps lifeboat crews safe, and is critical in coordinating every rescue, often with two, three or more agencies involved. No sooner had I passed out as a navigator, the senior members of the crew persuaded me to start training as a coxswain, and put me nominally in charge during a routine exercise. By this time, we had a new boat, the Gertrude and Elizabeth Allan, a Shannon Class, which has a top speed closer to 25 knots, using water jets rather than propellers, and cutting-edge electronics that control everything on the boat, from the navigation and radar systems, to fire-control, bilge pumps and the engines. Each crew member has a job to do, but each seat can take function of any of the main screens, so the radar operator may also control the charts, if the navigator is busy doing something else, like caring for a casualty.
It has two computer servers on board, either of which can run the boat if one fails, and each crew member’s workstation is a computer in its own right, all connected by a ‘bus’ system which means that all the computers talk to each other. A route set by the navigator not only shows up on the helm screen, but is also superimposed on the radar screen, and ‘targets’ selected by the radar operator show up on the chart screen at the navigator’s seat.
The coxswain can rotate around everyone’s screens on his own workstation, making sure the crew are doing their jobs while also coordinating the rescue, and making decisions of a life-or-death nature, for the crew and the casualty. Getting to grips with this, as well as learning how to handle the boat for berthing, and for coming alongside other vessels, was a time-consuming but extremely rewarding task, though splitting my time between writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, working through my coxswain training, and carrying out my duties as a full time vet in my practice was tough, and a few compromises had to be made – I didn’t put my own boat in the water, and sailed only once or twice a year with friends during the five years I was writing the books. And furniture making, which I’d always done, also took a back seat during this time.
But it was worth it, and two years ago, I passed out as an RNLI Shannon coxswain. It was one of the proudest days of my life, and I was only sorry my dad wasn’t there to see it – he was a lifelong supporter of the RNLI. It also saddened me incredibly that Ian McClymont, so helpful to me at the station, and also a very enthusiastic beta reader of The Sturmtaucher Trilogy, passed away last year. He’d become a great friend.
I’ve now been the coxswain on over half a dozen shouts, and for a raft of training exercises. Despite the cold sweat and the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach that always accompanies the pager alert when I’m on-call coxswain, I genuinely enjoy every time I’m in charge of the boat. I know it’s an incredible responsibility, and honour, to be handed the keys for a two-million pound vessel that has to go out in the most horrific conditions, if needed, and that the the lives of the crew and those we are out there to rescue depend on the decisions I make, and I don’t treat it lightly. If I ever feel that I’m not up to the job, I’ll walk away, as I won’t put anyone at risk just because I don’t want to give it up.
I’m hoping, though, that I have a few years left at sea with the RNLI before I have to hang up my ‘yellows’ for the last time, and become a DLA again, perhaps, or help with the fundraising team, to help keep the RNLI’s lifeboats afloat.
On that final note, it would be great if you could find a way of contributing – The RNLI is the only emergency service that relies entirely on charitable donations, and its volunteers depend on the public’s generosity to keep them safe at sea. Check out Girvan lifeboat’s Facebook page for the countless ways you can help.
The narrative of the Kästner and the Nussbaum families ends on the last page of The Turn of the Tide, the third and final book in the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, on the 17th August 1945, although the epilogue provides a short summary of how the members of both families fared in the years following the horrific aftermath of the Second World War.
But I didn’t expand on what happened to those other characters, good and bad, who also had a part to play in the harrowing journey the two families faced from Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 to the Nazi’s defeat in 1945. This post is about the justice served after the war was over, and about some of the characters lives, both real and imagined in the decades following the cessation of hostilities.
A series of war crimes trials took place in Germany, and elsewhere, in the years after the war. The principal Nazi party leaders who survived, and were captured, were tried at the Nuremberg trials, although the whereabouts of a number of the most heinous war criminals remained a mystery, some forever, others for years after the war ended. Muller, the Gestapo chief, Eichmann and Josef Mengele were unaccounted for – Eichmann famously was located in the late 1950s after a tip-off from a German prosecutor and was smuggled out of Argentina in 1960 to stand trial in Israel. He was sentenced to death in 1961 as one of the main architects of the Nazi’s Final Solution.
Mengele lived out the rest of his life in Argentina, then Paraguay, and finally Brazil as investigators tried to find him. He drowned in 1979 but his death remained a secret for a decade or more, and the remains weren’t confirmed as Mengele’s by DNA until 1992.
There were a number of smaller War Crimes Trials, but these dwindled out as it became more important for both the East and the West to allow both of the new Germanies to function as nations, albeit under the military occupation the victors, and most protagonists of the Holocaust, and almost all of their supporters and sympathisers, escaped Justice. In addition, for the bulk of those who were convicted, and given long sentences, early release became the norm and, apart from a few high profile prisoners, there no former Nazis in prison by 1960, the year of my birth, only 15 years after the end of the war.
There were many real characters in the sturmtaucher Trilogy, and I tried to write them pretty much as history presented them, although I obviously fictionalised their interactions with the Kästners and the Nussbaums, and the other fictitious characters in the books.
Of all these real-life people I used in the books, Wilhelm Canaris was by far the most integral to the story and, if you haven’t read the trilogy, the remainder of this article most certainly contains spoilers. For those who have read the books, you will know Canaris’s fate, but it is worth mentioning how he is considered by history. He was a controversial character and his initial support of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party (the NSDAP) was tempered by his gradual realisation that Adolf Hitler was both mad and extremely dangerous for Germany and for Europe, and that the war, and latterly the persecution of Europe’s Jews, should be stopped by whatever means were available to him. It is not known for sure that he was an integral part of the almost successful attempt on the Fuhrer’s life, but it was his connections with the plotters that ultimately sealed his execution three weeks before the end of the war.
In an interesting adjunct, Erica Canaris, his widow, received a widows pension for the rest of her life from Franco’s Spanish government, presumably in recognition of Canaris’s pivotal role in keeping Spain out of WW2.
Of the main Nazis who lived and worked in Kiel, Obersturmbannführer Friedrich (Fritz) Schmidt, Kiel’s Gestapo chief, and the man who built the Nordmark worker’s “education camp”, survived the war, and, under a false name, worked first as a construction worker in Munich, then as a clerk and finally manager for the regional government. His real identity was discovered in 1961 and he was given a short prison sentence for the deception, but did not serve it. He was arrested again in 1963 and convicted of complicity in the murder of four allied officers in 1944. He was released after two years, and returned to work. In 1968, he was re-arrested for his part in the murders, and served another year in prison. He died shortly afterwards.
The man he appointed Kommandant of Nordmark, Sturmbannführer Johannes Post, was tried and executed in 1948, not for his crimes at Nordmark, but for his part in the killing of the same group of Allied airmen that Schmidt was later tried for.
By the time of Post’s trial, the efforts of the war crimes tribunal in the British sectors was largely geared to prosecuting Nazis who had committed war crimes against British and Commonwealth subjects, a policy expediated by the need to have West Germany as an ally against the growing threat of expansion of communism and the Soviet Bloc.
Hinrich Lohse, the Oberpräsident of Schleswig-Holstein and the Reichskommissar for the Ostland, was the top Nazi in control of the most Northern of the German provinces and the occupied Baltic States. Despite overseeing the slaughter of almost all of the Jews, Romani Gypsies and Communists in the areas under his control, he escaped the death penalty and only served 3 years of a ten-year prison sentence due to illness. He lived as a free man for a further 13 years.
Lise Mey, a staunch Nazi supporter and the daughter of Beate Böhm, and the Kästner’s neighbour, is one of the more colourful fictional characters in the trilogy, but three of the many high ranking Nazi lovers she took were real historical figures:
The first of those, Heinrich Himmler, committed suicide in prison after being captured by the allies by biting down on a cyanide capsule when medics tried to examine his mouth, and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, another of her lovers, was captured shortly after the war in an alpine lodge high in the mountains, trying to escape southwards through Switzerland and Italy. He was the highest ranking SS officer to face trial and was executed in 1946.
SS-Gruppenführer Otto Hofmann, the third of Lise’s senior Nazi lovers, was responsible for organising testing for racial selection in the territories occupied by Nazi Germany. He was also a participant at the Wannsee Conference, where the Nazi’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question was ratified. During the war, he was transferred to Stuttgart as SS and Police Leader for South-Western Germany.
In March 1948, Hofmann was tried for his actions as chief of the Race and Settlement Main Office and was sentenced to 25 years in prison for Crimes against humanity and War Crimes but, on 7 April 1954, he was pardoned and released from Landsberg Prison. He worked as a clerk until his death in 1982.
In a fictional aside, at the end of the Trilogy, we find out that Lise has attached herself to an American Major who was besotted by her looks and her sexual allure. I’m sure Lise Mey would have made it to the states and, after divorcing the unlucky major, would have found herself a rich, older husband and a series of lovers, living to a ripe old age, pining for the glory years of National Socialist rule, and for the return of Adolf Hitler as leader, whose death she quite never believed.
Captain Wheatley, the Army lawyer who investigated the Cultybraggan murder of Feldwebel Wolfgang Rosterg, which actually took place at the POW camp in Comrie, went on to become Lord Wheatley. In the books, I wrote Axel Langefeld and Gerhard Schlesinger as part of the group found guilty of the German prisoner’s murder. In real life, five Nazi prisoners, the oldest being twenty-one, were executed at Pentonville prison in 1946 for the crime.
Doctor Kate Hermann, the physician who treated Franz’s injuries in hospital, and saw the first spark of his recovery, was real. She was a Jewish refugee who arrived in Britain in 1937 and was the first female neurology consultant in Scotland. She retired from medicine in 1970 and lived to see the re-unification of Germany, passing away in 2007, in her nineties.
After five years, and over a million words, I came to think of my fictional characters as real people, even those who only played a peripheral part in the story.
One such group were Børge Lund and his family, and his friends, who helped the Kästner brothers and the two young Nussbaums during their voyage of escape. As part of the Danish resistance, their lives would have been constantly at risk, but I like to believe that they would have survived the war.
Because of the rescue, and of the following Danish efforts to obtain the release of the Danish Jews who were the Theresienstadt concentration camp, over 99% of Denmark’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust.
As part of the organisation who rescued their country’s Jews, Børge and the others would have been among those honoured for their collective heroism by Yad Vashem in Israel as being “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Captain Andrew Stanworth and Sub lieutenant Graham Archibald, of HMS Intrepid, the Destroyer that intercepted Der Sturmtaucher as it entered British waters, were both fictional, but their stories had a ring of truth to them. Most officers commissioned in the Royal Navy during the war came through the ranks of the Royal Naval Reserve (professional seamen), or the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve (civilians with no experience, trained first as seamen, with some going on to be officers.)
An intermediate form of reserve, between the professional RNR and the civilian RNVR, was formed in 1936. This was the Royal Naval Volunteer (Supplementary) Reserve, open to civilians with proven experience at sea. By September By 1939, there were over 2000 RNV(S)R members, mostly yachtsmen, who were recruited for active service after a 10-day training course, joining their colleagues from the RNR and the RNVR. Some went on to command vessels, mostly coastal and auxiliary, but a few advanced to command larger naval ships. Almost all were demobilised after the war.
A number of famous public figures came through WW2 with the RNVR, including two of my favourite writers: Nicholas Monsarrat, frigate commander during World War II, and author of The Cruel Sea, reached the rank of lieutenant commander. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, served in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War, and reached the rank of commander. Both used their very different wartime experiences extensively during their literary careers.
I’d like to think that, after the war, Franz and Johann would have looked up the Captain and the Sub-lieutenant of HMS Intrepid to thank them for the way they they’d been treated, and because they’d spared Der Sturmtaucher from her fate as gunnery practice.
I would also have hoped that Johann would have managed to explain his actions to his friend, Lieutenant Maximilian Grabner, and that ‘Maxi’ would have come to forgive him. As for Colin McLeod, I’m sure that the injured merchant seaman and Franz Kästner, the German soldier he befriended, would have continued their acquaintance in Scotland when Franz (or Frank as Colin knew him) returned to Oban to live with Ruth and his new family.
The Weissbergs, who accepted Ruth and Manny as part of their family during their internment on the Isle of Man, and in Finchley after their release, would have stayed in touch with the young Nussbaums, and I can imagine Aaron, Gella and their children would have spent many holidays on the West Coast of Scotland with Ruth and Franz.
With Heinrich Güllich, dead, Carl Meyer, his fellow Gestapo officer, was the most evil survivor of the war, and although in prison, he would have likely have been released during the decade following the end of the war. I suspect he would have finally made the journey across the border to East Germany, and may have found a use for his particular talents in the Eastern Bloc country’s dreaded security services, as a Stasi officer. Like many former Gestapo or SS members, punishment was often a secondary consideration to the need for experienced security personnel, on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Finally, Gus, the elephant seal, watched by Erich Kästner and his daughter Antje at Hanover zoo in 1942 as their world collapsed around them, was a real character. Those of the Zoo’s animals that weren’t killed by the intense bombing of Hannover were evacuated to safety but, sadly, few survived the war, often becoming food for the starving hordes during the destruction of Germany in 1944-45.
After finding Admiral Wilhelm Canaris during my research for the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, and realising he would be perfect as one of General Erich Kästner’s oldest friends, and a close confidant, I delved deeply into the controversial and secretive character’s life. I’m not sure I ever got near to finding the real Canaris, but I wrote him pretty much as history recorded him, taking one or two minor liberties to fit in with my fictional stories – I had him a little jollier than the real-life Canaris, who was reported by his staff to be ‘often taciturn’.
One of the items I found during my research was a translation of a letter written by his wife, Erika, after the war, to General Donovan, chief of the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, and a man who Canaris had dealings with leading up to the war, and during the war itself. General Donovan also was a significant player in the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. In her letter, she strives to make sure that her husband’s name is cleared of any of the heinous crimes the National Socialists had inflicted on Germany, and on the people of Europe.
Here’s the first page of the translated document, from Cornell University’s digital collection:
You can read the whole letter here, but in it she gives a brief précis of his life, including his endless desire to help people, no matter their circumstance. She also states that she knew of his involvement in the July 20 plot, the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, but for me the most telling statement she made was about his increasing dismay at what the Nazis were doing to Germany’s future. She wrote:
After he saw the first bombardment of Warsaw by the German Luftwaffe he [Canaris] returned home, deeply shaken, and said: “If there is justice, and I believe there is, we will go through the same thing. And then God save us.” He also said: ” We are all guilty, all, and we will all have to pay for it.
She finishes the letter with a plea that General Donovan, and history, should think well of her husband.
If I have told you all this, I have done it only for the sake of my husband, in order to show him to you in the proper light, and also, perhaps, in order to convince you, General Donovan, that my husband, together with those who thought and lived as he did, represented the decent Germany, which always existed and which will always exist,
With kindest regards, and renewed thanks, I am
It is worth downloading and reading the letter. From my research, it does seem to sum up the character of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.
And you’ll see why I made him Erich Kästner’s friend.