I’m not a Jew. None of my family, or anyone I know, has ever been the victim of genocide, but the Holocaust Memorial Day has become of great significance to me over the years.
From the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) website, the Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘The international day on 27th January to remember the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution of other groups and during more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.’
27th January was chosen because it is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.
The Holocaust Memorial Day was created on that day in January 2000, when representatives from 46 governments around the world met in Sweden to discuss Holocaust education, remembrance and research.
At the end of this meeting, all attendees signed The Stockholm Declaration, a document committing their countries to preserving the memory of those who have been murdered in the Holocaust. It was updated in 2020.
So what does it mean for me? As I said, I’m not a Jew, but from an early age, about ten or eleven, when I read Diary of a young Girl by Anne Frank, the Holocaust, and its victims, have never been far away from my thoughts.
An avid reader for most of my life, reading a book a day as a child and as a teenager, I found myself regularly picking up a book about the Holocaust; both novels and non-fiction books and, throughout my life I have been drawn to films like Schindler’s list, and Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s incredible 12 hour documentary of interviews with survivors, witnesses and perpetrators during visits to German Holocaust sites in Poland.
I thought I had a reasonable understanding of the Holocaust, but when I decided to write a novel about the Holocaust, set in Kiel in Northern Germany, I immersed myself in research and, the deeper I delved into the archives, the more I realised how little I knew. Even now, six years of research on, with a million word trilogy under my belt, I feel as if I have only just scratched the surface.
Since I started writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, a day, sometimes even an hour, doesn’t pass without a thought about the Holocaust seeping into my mind and, as the number of survivors still with us dwindles every coming year, we must come to a stark realisation that the only witnesses to the horrors of the Nazi years will be on the written page, or in film archives.
It is imperative that we remember every victim: Jew, Roma, Sinti, Communist, Jehovah’s Witness or homosexual. And that we do not allow Holocaust deniers to go unchallenged.
I’m not a person of faith, but the characters in my trilogy were deeply religious. I do not own a menorah, but I will light a candle on Holocaust Memorial day and stand quietly, reflecting on those who perished, those who survived, those who perpetrated, and those who stood by and let it happen.
For a writer, there is a special thrill when a reader is inspired to be creative after finishing one of their books, especially when it happens twice.
I’d already posted a painting of Der Sturmtaucher, the gaff-rigged ketch which has a central role in The Flight of the Shearwater, sent to me by Mark Jardine, one of my beta-readers, and the owner of a working gaff-rigged ketch called Birthe Marie, a converted traditional Danish fishing boat which he uses to sail visitors around the beautiful islands of Mull and Iona on Scotland’s stunning west coast.
Then, in September this year, William A McMillan was one of the poets reading at an event at the Tidelines Book Festival in Irvine, where I also did a reading from The Sturmtaucher Trilogy. It was a reunion of sorts, but we hadn’t seen each other for a decade. so it was lovely to catch up.
We chatted about my books, his poetry and his art, much of it centred around wildlife and the countryside of South Ayrshire. It was a pleasant surprise to discover our respective new ‘careers’.
Then, towards the end of November, he got in touch saying that he’d been inspired by reading the Sturmtaucher Trilogy to write a poem about a Manx Shearwater, the seabird that runs as a theme through the Sturmtaucher Trilogy (Sturmtaucher is German for Shearwater), in Antje Kästner’s art, in the sailing passages in the North Sea, and in the gaff-rigged ketch named for it.
He’d also done a drawing of a shearwater to accompany the poem. Here is the poem, and the picture.
Gliding low over rising tides
Swooping through scooped out troughs of air
That run beneath the soaring sides
Of mountainous wave crests growing there
Sheer walls of water shall be your home
Cutting your way through the ocean’s grain
Journeying forth by the green spume foam
The shearwater flies, far from safe nests
From cradled burrow to watery grave
The wanderer ploughs on, alone
Her life, an endless long-distance race
Stark sentinel in a timeless place
A streamlined vision of nature’s grace
The salt-laden miles are her dominion
The wind and the weather her constant companion
Crying her song to the fathomless ocean
Surfing the churn of the water’s swift motion
Never halting, never ceasing
She glides out her life in headlong flight
Wing tips circling the depths of night
Drawn by some instinct within her soul
That points her to home where the breakers roll
At last, to the cliff by the soft grass furrow
And the quiescent peace of her own safe burrow
William A McMillan
Many thanks to William for allowing me to post both the poem and the drawing, and to Mark Jardine for giving kind permission to reproduce his painting.
You can see further examples of William’s artwork, photography and poetry on his Facebook page.
This post contains spoilers – please don’t continue reading if you have not previously read The Flight of the Shearwater, the second book in the Sturmtaucher trilogy. You have been warned!
When I’d flown into Hamburg on my 2017 research trip, and picked up my little hired Fiat 500, I hadn’t headed straight for Kiel. I knew that part of my story would take place in Denmark, and I was on the hunt for a very specific location where a yacht could find shelter from a savage North Sea storm, out of sight of the German authorities occupying Denmark.
After a painstaking search, I thought I’d found the ideal place on Google Earth, but I wanted to make sure so, after a short detour to view the western sea locks of the Kiel Canal at Brunsbuttel, where it meets the River Elbe, and its access to the North Sea, I drove through the incredibly flat terrain of northern Germany and southern Denmark in the dying light, finally arriving at the port of Esbjerg on Denmark’s west coast, where I’d booked a room.
Fortunately, the rain had cleared by the morning, and it was a pleasant autumn day. I had a quick look around Esbjerg harbour – I knew the lightship that marked the end of Horns Rev, a long reef that extends over 20 miles from Blavlands Huk, or point, out in to the North Sea, had been preserved, and lay in the Harbour for tourists to explore.
The treacherous sandy reef was to play a significant part in the book.
To my disappointment, the floating lightship museum wasn’t open, so I jumped back in my little Fiat, and headed northwards, following the road out of Esbjerg, through Oksbøl and Børsmose, the roads getting narrower as they approached the dunes beyond Kærgård. A rutted lane ending in sandy open circle brought me to my next destination. I could hear the sea, but I couldn’t see it, although I couldn’t miss the large tripod Kærgård sea mark, looking for all the world like an alien machine from War of the Worlds, high on the dunes above me.
I climbed the sandy path through the scrub and tall Marram Grass, cresting the forty foot dune to find the North Sea surf crashing on the beach below, at the point where Der Sturmtaucher, with Franz, Johann, Ruth and Manny aboard, would make landfall in their search for Blavland lighthouse. The innermost marker of Horns Rev, it’s light would guide them through the storm to the entrance of Graa Dyb channel, and the sheltered waters of Ho Bught, Esbjerg and, more importantly, Ho Dyb, and its narrow tidal cuts among the marshlands behind the dunes of Skallingen.
Getting back in the car, I followed the narrow roads through the sandy, forested heathlands behind the dunes, looking for the next seamark and, as I passed through the campsite that now shelters behind the dunes, I could see the Ringebjerg Beacon clearly in the distance. Like Kærgård, it stood on three legs, a tripod with a diamond shape. Both structures are part of a chain of navigational mark that stretch all the way up the Jutland coast, and were erected in the late 1800s. They are all now protected monuments.
I could have easily walked from Ringebjerg to Blavlands Huk, or point, but time was short so I drove an inland loop round to the car park next to the lighthouse. It was this light, and the one that once mark the tip of Skallingen, that Franz and Johann would use to navigate their way to safety at the height of the storm that almost drowned them.
From Blavlands point, I could see the troubled waters of Horns Rev stretching out far into the North Sea, the swirling currents a combination of tidal flow through the narrow channels of the reef, and the current flowing northwards from the Wadden sea, the coastal strip of water and islands that are the south-eastern limits of the North Sea, part salt, part fresh, from the large rivers, including the Elbe, which pour into it.
I imagined the two terrified Nussbaums watching Franz and Johann wrestle their small craft through the crashing waves of the reef, threading their way through Søren Bovbjergs Dyb, the narrow break in the sandbanks that cut twenty horrendous sea miles from their passage to shelter.
Once through it, they had searched for the lighthouse at the tip of Skallingen, the four mile long spit of sand dunes that protected Ho bucht and Ho Dyb from the ravages of the North Sea.
As I drove through the village of Ho, and out the single track road that took me to the car park half way along Skallingen, I knew I wouldn’t see the lighthouse – it had been removed in 1966 after subsiding foundations had caused it to collapse. The lightweight Iron Structure had replaced a substantial brick tower which had also collapsed, the perils of building on foundations of sand.
I had to walk the last mile or so as the track wasn’t suitable for road vehicles (though I would have given it a go if it hadn’t been a hire car).
At the tip of Skallingen the dunes gave way to a half mile long low spit of sand and, standing at the water’s edge near to low tide, I could just make out the island of Fanø with it’s off-lying sandbanks on the other side of Graa Dyb. A ship passed by, heading out from Esbjerg, heading south and west, and I waved at its bridge. I couldn’t say for sure, but I thought my salute was returned.
Turning landward, I could make out the narrow Ho Dyb channel that curled around the back of Skallingen, between it’s dunes and marshes and the low lying Island of Langli opposite, with its tail of sandbanks that guarded its entrance.
I imagined the calm that would welcome any boat brave enough to tuck itself into Hobo Dyb during the worst of storms. The only question I had was whether the boat would be hidden well enough to escape notice from the German authorities, so I retraced my steps along the track to the car, and drove the short distance to a bend in the road close to where I imagined Der Sturmtaucher would come to a rest if she’d made it to safety. I looked towards Ho Bught, but I couldn’t see Langli, far less Hobo Dyb.
I climbed the fence and made my way cautiously across the rough grassy hillocks, careful to avoid the odd mud filled hole that, as I ventured further towards the channel, began to coalesce into trenches, then water filled creeks. I looked around anxiously: I was on my own, with few people about, and it would be extremely perilous to get bogged down in one of these foul-smelling pits.
Even as the cut I was following opened out into a small, muddy, tidal creek, I still couldn’t see anything beyond the tall marsh grasses and I stopped, knowing that such a creek was an almost perfect hiding place for a wooden yacht, invisible from the road and the main channel.
Reaching the road again, I breathed a sigh of relief at having avoided being trapped in the mud. I drove back along Skallingen towards Ho, stopping when I reached the forest. Parking the car once more, I followed the edge of the forest around the top end of Hobo Dyb on foot. It was rough going, but dryer, and I could now see Langli, with Ho Bught beyond, and Hobo Dyb itself. I reached the small road which led around the shoreward side of the wood towards Ho. I looked out – the start of the rough causeway which could be supposedly traversed at low tide to get to Langli disappeared into the water and I didn’t fancy the walk or drive across it to get to the island, even if I had been there at low tide.
I followed the road around towards Ho but before I got to the village itself, I reached the road to Skallingen again. I looked around. I’d passed a golf course on my walk, and there were a modest number of what looked like holiday homes scattered within the forest, and at its edge. Most were modern but, as I approached Ho, there were some older looking houses among them. Back in 1941, they were probably all small farmhouses, surrounded by fields. In my imagination, the Danish farmers who provided help and shelter to Johann and Manny lived in one of these houses, working the land and fishing in the waters of Ho Bught and Hobo Dyb.
Walking back along the road to Skallingen to my Fiat 500, through the beautiful pine forest, a car slowed down and a Danish couple, with excellent English and a dog in the back, stopped and offered me a lift. They were locals, and were intrigued when I told them I was researching for a wartime book. They were intensely proud that almost all of Denmark’s Jews had survived the Holocaust.
Wishing me good luck with my writing, they drove off – I presumed for a walk along the dunes. I took one last look out at the North Sea and closed my eyes, imagining Der Sturmtaucher sailing out of Graa Dyb with the fog to hide them, heading westward for the east coast of England, and safety for Ruth and Manny, imprisonment for Franz and Johann.
I told myself that one day, I would follow their route, sailing from Kiel to Hobo Dyb, and onwards across the North Sea, but for now, I turned away and walked back down the dunes.
I got back into the car. I had a long way to go, and a few more stops to make.
I wanted to see the Little Belt, or Lillebælt, the westernmost of the three straits that connects the Baltic sea with the Kattegat and Skagerrak, and through them, the North Sea.
It was just over an hour’s drive across to Denmark’s other coast, to Middlefart and the old Bridge which crosses the Little Belt at its narrowest point. I’d studied the three routes Der Sturmtaucher might take from Kiel to Northern Denmark, and I’d decided the tighter, most difficult one close to the mainland would be their passage of choice, with less marine traffic, and a number of quiet harbours and anchorages where Ruth and Manny Nussbaum could remain undiscovered. I didn’t have time to visit the other stops on their journey; Hirtshalls, Laeso, Hjelm, Bogense and Bodjen, but when I looked out across the Middlefart Narrows, I felt that it was the right choice to have them follow the quieter channel. I looked over to the small town of Middlefart on Fyn, one of the large islands that make up almost a third of Denmark’s land area.
I saw the narrow stretch of water, with the bridge and the small harbour opposite as somewhere Der Sturmtaucher might be stopped and searched on its way north with its illegal passengers on board, hiding in the bilges.
I didn’t stay long. The light would fade soon and I had a few more stops on the way to Kiel. I didn’t have to detour much from my route – Flensburg, Schleswig and Rendsburg were all on the road to my final destination.
Flensburg and Schleswig were much as I’d pictured them, both beautiful small waterside cities, their architecture largely unaffected by war, unlike Kiel. I had planned small cameo appearances for both places in the book, but neither would feature significantly.
It was the same with Rendsburg. Situated beside the Kiel Canal, with an offshoot, the Ober Eider, swinging right into the centre of town, the canal that made the inland city a port would play a bigger part in the book, and having seen the western sea locks at Brunsbüttel, and hoping to see the sea locks at Kiel, I wanted to see an inland section of this remarkable waterway, with no other locks along its 61-mile length.
The light was failing but, from Rendsburg, it was only a forty-minute drive to Kiel. Even so, I wanted to get there as sharply as possible to get something to eat and a few drinks down by the water front, to get an idea of night-time Kiel, and to get an early bed; the next few days would be full-on if I was going to see everything I wanted to in and around the city where the bulk of the Sturmtaucher Trilogy was set.
Myvisit to Kiel – The suburbs and surrounding areas
After walking around Kiel for a day, and treating myself to a ‘Hearty Tavern Pan’, as Google translated it, a tasty meal of meat loaf, two types of Würstchen in a beer sauce, and fried potatoes, washed down with a couple of beers, I slept well, rising early to catch one of the first ferries that set sail from Bahnhofsbrücke, the pier near the station.
The Laboe Ferry called in at various points on both sides of Kiel Hafen on the way to its final destination, almost at the mouth of Kieler Förde where it opens out into the Ostsee, or Baltic Sea.
As we pulled away from the dock, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the church towers on one side, and the shipyard cranes on the other. The city centre, around the Innerhafen, is low and flat and only the waterfront buildings were visible but, as we passed the Fischhalle on our port side, and the Arsenal Mole on the starboard, the land behind the west shore began to rise a little; the parks and suburban homes of Dusternbrooker were a backdrop to the former Kriegsmarine HQ and Imperial Yacht club on the foreshore.
On the starboard side, the naval shipyard gave way to the entrance to the River Schwentine, the inlet lined with smaller boatyards on one side, and apartment blocks and parkland on the other, with a marina at its head, near to the Schwentine bridge.
North of the Schwentine, cruise ships and ferries lined the wharfs, instead of the naval ships that victualled there during WW2. The oiling jetties and the moles of 1939 would be a significant part of the trilogy.
Then, as Kieler Förde opened out, and the ferry hugged the east shore, Kiel’s heavy industry gave way to the trees and small sandy beaches of Hasselfelde and Mönkeberg.
Rounding the point at Heikendorf, where Erich Kästner had watched Der Sturmtaucher sail towards the Marine Barrier in Flight of the Shearwater, I could see Friedrichsort lighthouse ahead, at the end of the spit of land jutting out into the Förde, narrowing it to less than a kilometre again, protecting Kiel Hafen from the worst of the Baltic storms, making it one of the largest and safest harbours in the world.
Passing the lighthouse, which Erich and his friends had sailed to blindly in The Gathering Storm, emerging from the fog just as the lighthouse came into view, I could see Laboe ahead, with it’s yacht marina, small harbour and strand, or beach, stretching out as the land curved round to become the Baltic shore. In the 1930s, the harbour brimmed with fishing boats and the ferry docked on the inner pier.
In the distance, the Laboe U-boat memorial, dedicated to submariners killed in the First World War, rose 85 metres into the air, the highest point for miles around. At its base, a restored WW2 submarine, U-995, is open to the public. I’d like to have added it to my itinerary, but I knew that time was limited and there were more pressing places to visit.
This was as far north as the ferry took us, and I stayed on for the return journey. As we left Laboe, across to the west, at Schilksee, I could just make out the Olympic Marina. The games came to kiel in 1936 and again in 1972. The medals for the larger boats were fought out on the course between Freidrichsort and the mouth of the Förde. The races for the smaller classes took place in the more sheltered waters closer to Kiel.
The Ferry called in at Friedrichsort then, heading back to Kiel, it took us closer to the entrance to the Kiel Canal (The Kaiser-Wilhelm Canal prior to 1948), one of the busiest man made waterways in the world. It features in the book, most notably when the General’s yacht passes through it on the way to the North Sea, taking his youngest daughter Antje sailing there for the first time.
Approaching Die Hörn again, and the Keil waterfront, with ships and boats of all varieties, commercial, leisure and naval, I began to appreciate just how much Kiel was first and foremost a port, and how important sailing and seafaring was to the city’s lifesblood, and how well it suited my story.
But there was more I wanted to see.
I’d hired a car when I landed in Hamburg, visiting Denmark for a couple of days before arriving in Kiel. I retrieved the car from the car park I’d abandoned it in and followed the road around end of Kiel Hafen to the Gaarden district of Kiel, on the east side of the harbour.
Adjacent to the shipyards, the districts of Gaarden, Wellindorf and Dietrichdorf had been severely damaged in the allies attempts to shut down production of ships and submarines from the Keil yards, and to prevent repair of any damaged vessels. I wasn’t expecting to find much of the ‘old Kiel’, but the odd building, such as this one on the corner of Preetzer Chaussee and Ostring, had survived.
I stopped at the side of the road and tried to imagine the thousands upon thousands of platers, drillers, riveters, boilermakers and fitters streaming throught the high gates of the shipyards building the battleships, destroyers and U-boats for the rapid expansion of the Third Reich’s navy, some of slave-labour from the work camps located close by, and of the death and devastation that decimated the shipyards and the surrounding districts, and the men women and children lost to the brutality of war.
Deep in thought, I followed the map, turning right off the main road, almost forgetting to drive on the right. A few blocks on, rounding the corner, I was in Stoschstraße, where Samuel and Renate Nussbaum, Yosef’s parents, lived.
I had a scene in my mind, of a woman walking these streets with her children, looking over her shoulder in fear as the black cars and the brown uniforms of the SA scoured the streets for Jews.
A mixture of buildings had survived, facades had been saved and new apartment blocks built with a similar footprint, and it made the street remarkably familiar. A childhood memory of walking down a similar street to catch a glimpse of the QE2 being launched burst into my mind, and I realised that Stoschstraße could be any street in Govan, or Partick in Glasgow, close to where the Clyde shipyards once dominated the city, and I began to feel more of a sense of Kiel as a shipbuilding town.
By the time I’d reached the River Schwentine, crossing from Wellingdorf over to Deitrichsdorf, the sun was splitting the skies and I stopped at the Schwentinetalfahrt, where you could hire small punts to explore the Schwentine river, or take a trip in one of the small tourist boats.
I didn’t stop long – I wanted to see where the wartime naval victualling yard had been – it would become a key location in the trilogy, but none of it remained – instead of the oiling jetties and loading moles, there was a ferry berth and a cruise ship terminal, but Heikendorfer Weg still passed by where the dockyard entrance would have been.
I took the ring road back, for quickness, exiting it at Hamburger Chaussee, the main route to Hamburg before Autobahns were built in the 1930s. I’d found the ideal location for the Kästner home on Google Earth, on the shores of a small lake, Drachensee, on the outskirts of Kiel. A couple of larger lakeside houses sat at the side of Hamburger Chaussee, their wooded gardens running down to the water’s edge, with boathouses, and I could just imagine Admiral Kästner and his family, then his son, General Erich Kästner, living there, sailing small dinghies on the lake in summer; the Nussbaums, their domestic servants, living in a cottage in the grounds. I parked the car and walked along, catching only a glimpse of the lake through the trees, but it was perfect. The house I had in mind for the Kästner’s neighbours, Eberhard and Beate Böhm, and their daughter, Lise, was as it had been in 1933, at the start of the Trilogy.
Leaving Drachensee, I drove on out to Schulensee, the source of domestic water for the residents of Kiel, and turned right, heading for Hassee and Russee, on the main Rendsburg road. I parked in the supermarket car park and walked down by the sports ground to the side of another lake, Russee, slightly larger than Drachensee and on whose shores sat the Nazi ‘educational’ work camp, Arbeitserziehungslager Nordmark.
A concentration camp in all but name, and run by the Gestapo, there was little left, save for a small memorial erected in a clearing, for the German and foreign slave workers who had been sent there to punish them for slacking, or other misdemeanours, and to re-educate them to be ‘model workers’. They died in their thousands in AEL Nordmark, though few people know the history of these camps, which existed in every corner of Nazi Germany.
Although it was a warm day, I shivered as I returned to my car.
I had one last place I wanted to see, a drive northwards to Holtenau, and the locks at the entrance of the Kiel canal. The locks, and the canal, were massive, and I imagined the Kästner family on their sailing trip to the North Sea, and the islands of Wangerooge, Heligoland and Föhr.
I drove back through Wik and the northern suburbs of Kiel, returning to my room in Lange Reihe, to collect my bags, heading for Hamburg and my flight home. I took one last look at Kieler Hafen as I drove along Kaistraße, and made for the Autobahn.
More detailed maps can be found on the website and you can download my route on Google Maps. I’ll be posting about the other part of my trip, to Esbjerg in Denmark. I travelled there before I went to Kiel, but it does contain some spoilers, so I’ve left it until last, and the parts of the trilogy that take place there are much further on in the story.
When I started researching the Sturmtaucher Trilogy back in late 2016, I was dismayed to find that, unlike most countries in Europe, Germany did not allow Google to roll out Streetview. At a stroke, my ability to walk the streets of Kiel and other parts of Germany from the comfort of my writing chair had gone, and while maps and old photographs were abundant and helpful, with a bit of digging, it was harder to get a real sense of the locations I was looking for as I plotted my story.
In 2017, I visited Northern Germany to try and get a handle on the city that would become the centre of my life for the next five years, to get my head around its topography, and that of the countryside around it.
I also wanted to speak to the people who lived there, and walk the streets to see if any of the buildings that I’d located using 1930-40s maps and photographs were still there.
I knew that large swathes of Kiel had been decimated during the latter part of WW2, and that the many of the buildings I wanted to describe had gone forever; the centre of Kiel is largely a new city, arising from the ashes of the old one, and when I arrived, I found it more difficult than I imagined to place myself in the 1930s streets when modern roads and concrete buildings surrounded me.
Then I’d turn a corner and fragments of the old Kiel I’d seen in the photographs would emerge; the occasional row of apartment blocks that had survived; a church, a junction, an avenue of trees, and most of all, the parks and open spaces that had always been there for the citizens of Kiel.
I’d obtained a scan of a British Army map of Kiel from the 1940s in the British Library, with many of the major buildings, factories and utilities identified. I plotted a route on it of all the places I wanted to visit, and wondered how that would translate to modern-day Kiel. With surprisingly few minor detours, I could walk the same route!
I left my rented room in Lang Reihe, where, in the trilogy, Lise and Rudolf Mey would have their first flat, and strolled the short distance to Kleiner Kuhberg, the location of the Judenhaus that housed Kiel’s remaining Jews before they were deported east, to the Ghettos and camps of Poland and Latvia. Despite the shopping centre opposite, a few of the buildings on the other side of the street had just about survived, unlike the Jews who had lived there, and I could feel the past seeping into my bones.
FromKleiner Kuhberg, at the corner of Exerciserplatz, I took a right and headed for the Rathaus, the City Hall. A shell in August 1945, it has since been restored to its former glory. I took a table on the terrace outside the Ratskeller and sat overlooking the town square, renamed Adolf-Hitler-Platz during the National Socialist era.
As I sipped my coffee, it struck me that it looked much the same as in the photograph I’d found of the National Socialist rally in March of that year, where, in The Gathering Storm, Erich Kästner would listen as ‘Stirring words of hate rained down on the crowd from the Rathaus’s balcony to a frenzied clamour of acclaim’.
I strolled around the pleasant waters of Kleiner Kiel, as the people of the city had done for centuries, crossing the bridge, now more of a causeway, that separated its two small lakes.
On its northern shore, in Lorentzendamm, I stopped in front of the City Savings Bank.
The Städtische Sparkasse had just about survived the bombing of Kiel, though it had also been gutted. I had a scene or two in mind for the building, and the financial institution it represented.
A brisk walk away from the city centre, and around another of Kiel’s small lakes, Schreventeich, I could almost imagine the Kästner and the Nussbaum families taking their Sunday stroll through the heavily wooded park around its tranquil waters, before the biting restrictions of Nazi edicts made it too fearsome for Yosef, Miriam, Ruth and Manny to venture out.
The Synagogue, which had once looked on to the lake, had gone, of course, burned out during Kristallnacht in 1938 and demolished the following year.
The spot it had occupied now housed an apartment block, but there was a remnant of original wall in the parking lot with a plaque stating that it had once been part of the synagogue, and a memorial to the forgotten building, and Kiel’s Jews, had been erected on the pavement at the corner of Goethestraße and Humboldstraße. I stood in silence for a few minutes, and closed my eyes.
I already had a cast of characters in my head and, leaving the Synagogue and walking along JungmannStraße, I looked up as I passed what would become the Weichmann’s flat. They were close friends of the Nussbaums, and their home would play a big part further on in the story.
Content that it would fit the bill, I walked on. As I’d wandered around Kiel, I’d kept glancing down at the pavement, looking for stolpersteines, the small brass memorial plaques cemented into pavements all over Europe, each commemorating the last known address of a Holocaust victim; I’d roughly marked them on the crude map I’d made, and I stood for a moment as I found each one, recalling the brief biography that I’d read about the victim who had once lived there, written and researched by Kiel’s present-day schoolchildren and posted on the city’s municipal website. I photographed Getrud Wonker’s Stolpersteine, as I turned into Holtenauerstraße.
The deportation of Kiel’s Jews was overseen by the Gestapo, whose former headquarters were a fifteen-minute walk away. As I walked down Dupplestraße, in the leafy suburb of Dusternbrook, it was hard to believe I was drawing close to the epicentre of Nazi horror in Kiel.
The building itself looked innocuous, now a district police station and surprisingly modern for its age. The only indication that this had once been one of the most terrifying addresses in Schleswig-Holstein is a memorial to its victims on the grassy slope at the front of the building. A sculpture by artist Melanie Pilz, of a rubber stamp suspended above a list of victims, represents the misappropriation of authority for the unlawful killing of millions of innocent people by the Nazi regime.
I stood for a while in silence, still unable to equate the horrors the memorial represented with the peace and quiet of suburban Kiel.
Disturbed, I walked briskly northwards in the longest leg of my tour, towards another remnant of Kiel’s wartime past, this one representing the devastation suffered by the residents of Kiel during the bombing campaign waged against Germany, most heavily in 1944 and 1945.
The Flandernbunker is one of a number of massive concrete air shelters which have survived, largely due in the first instance to the difficulty in removing them, but latterly because they are a large part of Kiel’s history. This bunker has been converted into a museum, Mahnmal Kilian, commemorating both the bunker itself, and the U-boat shelters that were removed and filled in as part of the redevelopment strategy of the industrial east shore of Kiel Hafen. Minimal glazing has been installed to keep out the elements but as you walk through this impressive art space, studying the artefacts, photographs, films and art installations, a coldness creeps across your skin as you imagine the massive walls shaking under the intense bombardment that the RAF and the USAF released on Kiel as the war entered its bloodiest phase.
I’d also arranged to meet one of the curators of the Museum, Steffi Blix, while I was there, and it was great to get the Kiel historian’s insight into the war in Kiel from a German perspective.
As I stepped out of the bunker into the daylight again, I shivered as the bright sunshine slowly warmed me. It was only a stones throw to the northern end of the Keilline, the paved waterfront that runs from the Wik to the centre of Kiel. I’d seen the naval dockyard on the wartime map of Kiel – Tirpitzhafen stirred recognition; who hasn’t heard of the Tirpitz? Both were named after Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the Imperial German Navy.
Modern German warships, part of NATO, now berthed where Hitler’s famous battleships, the Bismarck, the Scharnhorst and the Tirpitz once lay. I tried to imagine the barrage balloons, the multitude of naval vessels, large and small, the throngs of Kreigsmarine personnel, and the air raid sirens, the anti-aircraft guns and the smell of smoke in the air as I walked along the serene waterfront.
I stopped at a café, on a wooden pier jutting out into the still waters, grabbing lunch as I gazed out across Kiel Hafen, full of not-so-distant history.
Stirring myself from the view, I crossed the road and climbed up the twisting path that led to the rise of Dusternbrook, even at just 80 feet elevation, one of the higher points on the west shore of Kiel Hafen. The path threaded through a bank of trees into a leafy avenue, lined by large villas of the style popular at the end of the nineteenth century. Presumably the leafier suburbs of Kiel had suffered less during Bomber Command’s campaign, with many of the houses surviving the war.
I needed a substantial villa for the General’s friend, affluent businessman Oskar von Friedeburg and, looking around, the well presented residences, with their view across Kiel Hafen and their seclusion, were perfect. I walked along Bismarckallee, imagining the curtains twitching at a stranger in the neighbourhood.
From there, it was short stroll down the hill to the former Kriegsmarine Headquarters, where, in the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, General Erich Kästner had his office, in his role as Liaison officer between the Abwehr, the Reich’s military intelligence organisation, and the German Navy.
It features heavily in the story; the General’s position allowed him access to a wealth of information which helped in his quest to protect his treasured Jewish employees, and he often met his close friend, and head of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, in the building that is now seat of state government for Schleswig Holstein.
There is a marina on the shoreside where there had once been jetties for the various small craft that shuttled to and from the naval HQ to ships anchored in the harbour, or to the boatyards opposite. I had a use for them in the books.
The Keilline continues for another kilometre toward the Innerhafen and Die Horn, the last part of Keil Hafen, right in the centre of the city. Reaching the end of the waterfront promenade, I looked over at the Arsenal Mole, where German naval ships replenish their munitions and supplies to this day, and to the still working Howaldtswerke shipyard next door. The other large shipyard, Krupps, has gone, replaced by a cruise ship terminal; Kiel is a popular destination for the multitude of large cruise ships which ply the Baltic sea.
Little remains of the Kiel of the 1930s on the east shore of Kiel Hafen – the shipyards, and the adjoining districts of Gaarden, Wellingdorf and Dietrichsdorf were largely destroyed by 1945.
After a pause, I continued on to the Fischhalle, the iconic fish market building which miraculously survived, and is now a maritime museum. I’d arranged to meet another historian there, a curator of the museum and an academic at Kiel university.
I was a little early, so I took a look around the museum, and, never one to miss the chance to get afloat, I spent a fascinating half hour aboard the preserved 1902 steam buoy-laying vessel, the Dampfschiff Bussard. Fascinating, and free!
Julian Freche, the historian and archivist I’d arranged to meet, was younger than I’d expected, and he gave me a valuable hour of his time, answering questions that were frustrating me in my online research, especially from a maritime perspective. His knowledge and enthusiasm to keep alive the memories of the terrible things that had happened in the city were encouraging, especially when he told me of the lengths the German educational system goes to in making sure the National Socialist’s actions would never be forgotten.
I had a couple more places I wanted to see before dark, so I bade Julian goodbye and hurried along the quayside to Kiel Banhof, the main railway station. Completely destroyed in the bombing, it was rebuilt after the war but in a not dissimilar style. I knew that the railway station would have a place in my books, in fact I’d found a photograph of the Kiel Rabbi, Dr. Akiva Posner, his wife Rachel and their three children at the train station in Kiel in 1933, being seen off by the members of his Shul, emigrating to Palestine in the face of the deteriorating situation for Jewish people and other minorities. He’d warned those Jews who elected to stay in Kiel that life under the National Socialists could only get worse; almost half of them left before the door to emigration was slammed closed.
My last visit of the day, and perhaps the most poignant, was to the the Jewish cemetery on Michelsenstraße, which was badly damaged during the bombing of Kiel, but it survived, and is still used by the Jewish community in Kiel which, remarkably, has slowly grown since the end of WW2 and now numbers are much the same as pre-1933 levels at around six hundred. The sign at the entrance said that the cemetery was closed, but the gate was open, and I slipped in through it. I hoped, by writing the story of Kiel’s Jews, I’d be forgiven for the small trespass. As I walked slowly around the older part of the small cemetery, tucked away between apartment blocks, I scanned the names, making mental notes of them; I’d use a mishmash of these in the trilogy. I let myself out, closing the gate behind me.
My route had brought me back to where I had started. As I walked along Lange Reihe and climbed the stairs to the room I’d rented, I could feel the fatigue in my legs, and my feet were sore – it had been a 16 kilometre walk, and anyone who knows me will testify that I’m not a big fan of this form of ambulation.
I’d gone some way to getting my head round Kiel as a city, but unlike Glasgow, the city of my birth, or Edinburgh, there was no hill to stand on where I could view the city as a whole, to get a better idea of its layout, and how it all fitted together. Yes, I had caught glimpses of the old Kiel, and I’d begun to have a gut feeling about how the story would fit into the city, but I wanted to see the bigger picture and, in the absence of a high vantage point, I know there was only one other way.
I had to see Kiel from the water.
More detailed maps can be found on the website and you can download my route on Google Maps. Part two, exploring the east shore of Kiel Hafen and the surrounding Districts of Holtenau and Hassee, will be in the next post.
To read Getrud Wronker’s biography, download the PDF copy and paste it into Google or DeepL translate.
From an early age, I watched my dad tinker with woodworking, and would always visit my grandpa’s workshop in Rose Street Foundry when we were on holiday in Inverness, where he was a pattern-maker, crafting full size templates in wood that would be used to cast the iron for anything from large engines or pumps to the chairs that hold rails onto railway sleepers. It instilled a fascination for carpentry in my young mind that has never left me.
On the other side of my family, my inspirational Granny Stephen was an unlikely collector of antiques, despite living in a high rise flat in the notorious Red Road estate in Glasgow. It gave me an appreciation for well made furniture.
It wasn’t until I got married, and we moved into our first home, that I had the chance to start making and restoring our own furniture. I made a simple bed, and a coffee table, but they were cruder than I would have liked, with some questionable construction elements (the table had about a hundred screws holding it together, which could only be seen from underneath, fortunately.) On the positive side, I used reclaimed wood whenever I could, whether it was from a local skip, or donated as part of a piece of unwanted furniture.
We lived in a small village in south-west Wales and, once a month, there was a sale of furniture and bric-a-brac in the village hall, mostly from house-clearances of larger houses whose occupants had down sized, and I purchase a wardrobe and a dressing table for four pounds, only to discover that it had been sent to the sale by our next-door neighbour. All that lugging about hadn’t really been necessary, but it made a nice Welsh dresser once it had been converted.
Since then, I’ve gradually tackled more difficult projects, helped by the fact that in 1990, when I started up my veterinary practice, I had a spare shed next door to the surgery which I turned into a proper workshop, installing a second-hand crosscut saw, and making long benches which I still use today.
When I started writing, my love of woodworking and playing football became the backdrop to my first crime novel, The Cabinetmaker. I’d have loved to have been the master craftsman he was!
I retired last year when I was 60, and in doing so, I lost my workshop beside the surgery. Since then, I’ve been searching for a building to use as a workroom but could find nothing close to suitable. A chance conversation with a friend of mine led to me renting a barn he had surplus to requirements and, after the final edits of The Turn of the Tide had been completed, and I waited for the proofs to come back from the printers, I threw myself into converting the empty shell into a suitable workshop. I was to have half the barn downstairs, but I could see that it was probably enough for my requirements and, anyway, I’d spotted a solution to the additional storage I’d need for all my reclaimed wood and salvaged pieces of furniture.
There was a large roof space, and it was ideal as a wood storage loft, but the rafters were unsupported, and would not have taken the weight. Steel beams and pillars were ordered to support a floor, and erected with some difficulty, with the help of a local agricultural contractor and his tele-handler.
In the year since I’d retired, I’d been spending 12-14 hours a day sitting at my desk, writing, editing, making video trailers and designing covers, and this sedentary lifestyle had led to me being the heaviest I’d ever been, so it was good to be doing some physical labour, lifting and laying forty plywood sheets for the loft floor, and dwanging all the beams (a Scottish term for infilling the beams to support the joints in the flooring). Climbing up and down ladders all day was a great workout, and I lost around a stone, and felt the better for it.
There were no lights, and only two sockets at the supply board, so I rewired the whole barn, upstairs and down. An electrician checked the final connections, just to be safe, and we were up and running with light and power.
It was cold, working in the barn over the winter, but Lia, one of my beta-readers, took pity on me and crocheted a wonderful pair of fingerless gloves, with a hat to match. Despite protesting that they were far to good to use in the workshop, she insisted. They do make quite a difference!
I installed the benches and the crosscut saw from my old workshop, and a swathe of racking I’d picked up at a reasonable price on Gumtree. I’d hoped to pick up a staircase somewhere as well, but with nothing coming up, I set about making one. Never having tackled it before, it took me a while to get my head around the angles but, with a home-made router jig, I cut out the rebates on the stringers and cut the steps to suit. With a bit of trepidation, I hoisted it up into position. Amazingly, with only a few minor tweaks, it fitted, with one small compromise. Due to the size of the ‘hatch’ in the loft floor, you have to duck to get up the stairs. Still, it is far better than the ladder I was using before!
I salvaged some old steel beams and cut them to make a frame for a half ton hoist, my friend and fellow lifeboat crew-member, Luciana, a trainee welder in a shipyard, welded it for me. With its own hatch, it allows me to lift heavy items, including furniture, up to the loft.
With all the excellent storage facilities, I’ve been able, for the first time, to have my workshop organised the way I want it, with all the tools in racks for better access, and everything easy to find and get to, it will be much easier to work in.
A number of years ago, I’d rescued an old table saw from being thrown away – its motor didn’t work, but a few months ago, I managed to find a suitable replacement. With new electrics fitted, it is now up and running, as is the wonderfully named Dominion Elliot Minor, a vintage combination woodworking machine, with planer, thicknesser, morticer and tenoner that I found on Gumtree. I had one or two issues setting it up but it has now been restored to its former operational glory.
With the new machinery, it will be much easier to do the projects which have been on hold for the last five years. This includes a new kitchen for the house, which her indoors has been desperate for, and a conversion of my van into a modular camper van. She has been very patient, bless her. I now have no excuses. 😊
So that’s it. Here’s a gallery of some of my furniture I’ve made, restored and converted over the last forty years.
I like to think it is done to a reasonable standard, but when I was asked on my retirement if I was going to take up cabinetmaking as a new career, I had a quiet laugh to myself. I take far too long to make things – any realistic charging for my furniture would be impossible. I admire cabinetmakers who do it for a living – they must work significantly faster than I do!
I have too many interests, I know, and it’s sometimes hard to fit it all in, but each has its own wonderful qualities, and planning a piece of wood, watching the paper thin shavings curl from my grandfather’s old jack plane is still up there with the rest.
It’s the inaugural Girvan Arts Festival from the 11th to the 12th of June, and I’ll be appearing on the programme, closing the festival on Sunday evening. The venue holds about 25, when full. It may not seem much, but it’s a big deal to me.
Why? Firstly it’s my home town and I’ll support any initiative to promote Girvan as a cultural hub.
And because I’ve hidden behind a pen name for so long, it is my chance to showcase my writing in my own community.
But there’s another reason.
As a self-published author, getting an appearance at one of the many book festivals that take place every year in the UK is incredibly difficult; in the ten years I’ve been writing, it has only happened once, despite me getting in touch with more than a few organisers of these events.
There are reasonable grounds for this – why should a festival take a punt on an unknown author, without a publisher behind them to give an assurance of quality, and probably with limited book sales under their belt? If it was me, I’d probably think along the same lines.
Despite that, the one festival that did give me a panel (together with a couple of other self published authors, David Videcette and Alison Bailley) was Bloody Scotland, the world-famous crime fiction festival.
It was a number of years ago when, Bloq, my third crime fiction novel did, for a short time, create a small stir in the crime fiction community, and it is credit to Bloody Scotland that they were prepared to put us on the programme, coming on the back of me doing a couple of pop up book launches at the festival – Street Cabinetmaking for my book The Cabinetmaker, and the Bloq Street Nightclub, selling mocktails to festival-goers in Stirling.
That, a reading at Noir-at-the-Bar in Edinburgh, and a lovely evening with Kirkintilloch Library Book Group being grilled by Sharon Bairden, is the sum total of my public appearances, so I’m looking forward to the upcoming event in the Dome, in Girvan’s Community Gardens, a wonderful venue in a green space at the very heart of Girvan, a stone’s throw from the harbour and the town centre.
I’ll be in conversation with Douglas Skelton, an author with a plethora of crime fiction and true crime books under his belt, who has interviewed some of the greats in Scottish writing, so I was delighted when he agreed to make the trip down to Girvan. And he has connections, with the Girvan area, and with me, long before I started writing.
For a number of years, Douglas and his wife lived in Colmonell, a small village inland from Girvan, with three dogs and a gaggle of cats, and I was their vet while they lived there. Years later, when I started writing, Douglas was a treasure trove of advice on how to get my books out there, which was a real hand up the ladder for me.
We’ll be talking about my books, The Sturmtaucher Trilogy in particular, but we may chat about the writing process too and, of course, we will be taking questions from the audience. Tickets can be purchased on the website. I’d love to see you there.
The Arts Festival is a new event in the Girvan Calendar, joining the successful Girvan Folk Festival, the Ballantrae Food Festival, and the incredibly popular RNLI Harbour Gala as key events in our neck of the woods, and there are a number of sessions over the two days covering everything from fine art, photography and poetry through to music, flowers, and even regenerative farming, so take a look at the programme – there’s something for everyone.
The Girvan Community Garden is a fantastic resource for the people of Girvan, and visitors. It opened to the public in 2011 and has gone from strength to strength. It is entirely run by volunteers and is used for a number of other events throughout the year, and is well worth a visit.
So, please come and spend an hour in our company, and take in some of the other events at the festival, and a look round the garden. You’ll be most welcome.
Ailsa Publishing is me. It only exists to publish my books, to save me having to leave a blank space in the ‘publisher’ field in Kindle Direct Publishing, where both my Kindle books and paperbacks are published, and in Smashwords, which distributes my eBooks to other retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple Books.
But I could have called it Alan Jones Books, which would have fitted in with my social media brand and reflected the fact that I’m a self-published author but, in the beginning, I thought it might look a bit more professional to have a publisher with a different name, not that it ever convinced anyone. 😊
So I scrabbled about for a name for a while, but they all sounded contrived. Living a few yards from the beach, many of them were sea related, but I gazed out, looking for inspiration, I realised I was missing the obvious. There was an enormous rock, staring back at me, so to speak.
Ailsa Craig is a volcanic plug, a lump of granite 1,120 feet high, three quarters of a mile long and half a mile wide. It sits eight nautical miles to the west of Girvan harbour, and it dominates the view of Ireland to the southwest, the Mull of Kintyre to the west, and Arran to the north.
Although many places and organisations are named after the iconic island, in and around Girvan and South Ayrshire, I was quite happy to join them. There’s an Ailsa Street, the now defunct Ailsa Hotel was once a lively hostelry, and the Ailsa Berth is the longest one in the harbour, where the Lady Ailsa used to moor. William Grant and Son produce a malt whisky, Ailsa Bay, at their distillery in Girvan. Further afield, the Ailsa Hospital is on the outskirts of Ayr and, of course, The Marquess of Ailsa owns Ailsa Craig, along with an estate close to Culzean Castle.
The island itself is quite fascinating. The solid, cooled core of a volcano that formed the mountains of Arran, the microgranite rock is particularly hard, making it the material of choice for many of the world’s curling stones, including every stone used in the Winter Olympics since 2006.
The remnants of a narrow gauge railway line can still be seen connecting the quarry at the north end of Ailsa Craig to the jetty near the lighthouse. There is also a second railway which has largely survived, from the jetty to the Gas house, used up until 1911 to transport coal which powered the lighthouse, and the foghorns at the south and north end of the island.
The lighthouse, like many in Scotland’, was built by Thomas Stevenson and was completed in 1886. Along with its two foghorns, it warned shipping of the perils of ‘The Craig’, especially in fog or at night. It was manned until it was automated in 1990 and is now solar powered, still flashing every four seconds, 365 days a year.
Ailsa Craig is often called Paddy’s milestone, due to it’s location at the half way point of the ferry trip from Scotland to Belfast, when the ferries ran from Greenock, further up the Clyde. One of my earliest memories, at five years of age, is passing Ailsa Craig on the way to a holiday in Northern Ireland. The ferries now run to Belfast and Larne from Cairnryan, a much shorter crossing, without the romance of the ‘steamer’ from Greenock.
Back on the island, the ruins of Ailsa Castle, built in 1500, sit facing eastwards, looking down on the lighthouse, half way up to the summit of the island, and the path to the top passes close to it. A small loch, Gary Loch, provided water for the castle, and later, the lighthouse. There is a history of pirates and smugglers, befitting the looming cliffs and caves, and the rocky beach.
Ailsa Craig is now uninhabited, but granite was quarried until the 1950s, and the quarryman’s wife, appropriately named Margaret Girvan, ran a tearoom on Ailsa Craig to cater for the trippers on boats from Girvan. Loads of granite are still taken from the quarry every twenty or so years, for curling stones.
The ‘Glorious’, a local boat, still takes folk out to the Craig during the summer months. They are mostly nature watchers, hoping to catch a sight of the seals that haul themselves out to bask on the rocks of the island’s shores, or the 35,000 birds of the Gannet colony on the south cliffs of the island, the fifth largest in the world.
Birds from Ailsa Craig will travel up to 150 miles to feed before returning to their nests. Gannets are considered of least concern ecologically, with the population increasing worldwide each year.
Puffins have also returned to the rock in increasing numbers since rats were eradicated a couple of decades ago by the RSPB, who now lease the island from the Marquess of Ailsa.
On the lifeboat, we regularly exercise around Ailsa Craig, often ‘rescuing’ people from its rocky shores and the deep water surrounding it. It’s always impressive, sometimes foreboding.
When I chose Ailsa publishing as the name that would go on my books, I knew that the logo had to be the island itself, with its iconic lighthouse, although I had to alter the proportions and scale of the buildings somewhat to fit the outline of the rock and form the letter ‘L’.
It’s the sort of thing that not every reader might notice, but I’ve looked out at Ailsa Craig for the last twenty five years every morning, and every evening, and I love that it’s there on the spine of my books.
I’ll leave you with the view of Ailsa Craig as the sun sets over Kintyre. It never fails to stir me.
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.