It was midday and in twos and threes, the guests arrived at Zum alten Nussbaum or ‘The old walnut tree’, Schwanheim’s own delightfully traditional restaurant. A little awkwardly at first, we made our introductions – descendants of the air crew, from sons and daughters to great nieces, nephews and grandchildren who had travelled from England, France and New Zealand drawn together by an event that occurred just outside this tiny village almost 70 years ago.
Handshakes turned to hugs and early tears were shed by some – all assembled knew that this day would be filled with memories to treasure. Some of the descendants up until very recently hadn’t known that three crew members had actually survived the crash assuming that all onboard were killed.
Our German hosts had spared no detail in their preparation for this day with printed menus and an order of service all bearing the 75(NZ) Sqn RAF insignia. Drinks were poured, treasured photographs and mementos were tabled and shared – stories exchanged and camera shutters clicked. With much conversation, growing familiarity and excitement, we enjoyed our delicious traditional German banquet lunch. The nettle soup, white asparagus and veal were standouts.
Towards 2pm, it was time to leave for the service which was to be held at the actual crash site just outside the village. It would be a relaxing five minute stroll but just before we reached the entrance to the meadow, we were surprised to be halted and ushered into the grounds of the adjacent Schwanheim cemetery where we were told to wait. Much to the embarrassment of our hosts, two members of a neo-Nazi group complete with placards were staging a protest at the site and we were to await their removal by the Polizei before proceeding further. This however, presented the perfect opportunity for us to chat further and take many more photographs before being allowed to continue on our way.
With a clear blue sky and crisp northerly breeze stirring the fresh forest air, it made for an invigorating walk to the site. None of us were expecting to see a crowd but there they stood, quietly and respectfully awaiting our arrival. When I saw the faces of our new friends Hans Rohner, Helmut Andelfinger and their wives, I had to quickly choke back a tear and gather myself.
Janne and I, together with all the relatives were humbled by the attentiveness of the people gathered – many of whom had travelled from adjoining villages and even some from the Mannheim and Ludwigshafen cities – the very recipient area of EE893’s bomb load. Mannheim sustained heavy civilian losses that night and today, here in Schwanheim, we could feel the hurt – I felt that I needed to say sorry.
The ceremony commenced solemnly with prayers and speeches then moved on to the assembly of the memorial by the descendants of the crew. One by one, we came forward to take part. Varnished wooden plaques were affixed into one side and a large piece of heavy armour plate recovered last year from this site was affixed to the face of the memorial stone. The stone had been carefully selected from a local quarry and sited here for this purpose.
Priests blessed the memorial and many heartfelt speeches were made. The local mayors spoke and a camera crew together with several photographers closely covered the ceremony.
After his speech, Will Simes, son of navigator, Gordon Simes, was presented with his father’s map case, flying helmet and combat knife by a local man who had “souvenired” the items as a boy and held them all this time. It was very moving. Gordon presented a plaque bearing the details of the crew, the 75(NZ)Squadron crest and a message of thanks to the people of Schwanheim.
When it came my turn to speak, I asked that we remember all those who died and suffered on that September night, so long ago. I thanked the researchers, the assembled dignitaries and all the people who had come out to take part, singling out those who had made our visit so special. Helmut Andelfinger, who as a 12 year old boy saw the burning bomber sweep across his village of Hauenstein and witness my father hanging by his snagged parachute from the corner of a building. And Hans Rohner, son of the brave German fighter pilot who calmed the angry crowd then rescued dad and carried him wounded on his back to receive first aid. Both men had taken time to carefully recount their stories to Janne and I and offer their hospitality to us. At the end of my speech, I finished with the words, “wir sind alle freunde jetzt – und furimmer”. We are all friends now – and forever.
I was asked to deliver in Maori, the introduction of the letter our New Zealand Ambassador to Germany had sent to the people of Schwanheim – A Maori proverb, He Tangata.
“He aha te mea nui?
“What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people”
The cold wind that afternoon would have been hard on many of the elderly there. Some were in tears and many ready to hug and forgive – It was an incredible experience and a memory that I will hold close forever. After perhaps an hour and a half, it was over and slowly the people made their way back to their homes from this breathlessly beautiful meadow amidst wild flowers and the white blossoms of a wild fruit tree – I could not imagine a more beautiful place to meet your demise.
From the crash site, the descendants and a number of guests then moved to the village fire station where we were entertained with a documentary prepared by researcher Uwe Benkel and his team. Our story, I understand, is to be included in a television documentary for a German audience and perhaps may even be offered to The History Channel. We were served with a variety of Flammkuchen, a traditional dish much a like pizza and originating in this region (Schwanheim being very close to the French border) and we drank German wines and cold weiss bier. Our glasses were dutifully kept topped up by Schwanheim’s Bürgermeister, the affable, Herbert Schwarzmüller and our attention and conversation were in hot demand by all. We were presented with gifts, photographs and even local wines complete with an artist’s impression of the stricken bomber on the label. We shook hands, we hugged, we kissed, we swapped addresses – we made new friends for life.
I cannot thank the organisers and coordinators of this event enough. For us, it has been a life changing experience. We were humbled by the hospitality we received from the moment we arrived in Schwanheim till our reluctant departure three days later. The amount of effort Uwe Benkel, Roland Götz, Lorenz Steiger and their research team put into uncovering and assembling all the facts surrounding the crash was astounding. The exact flight path from where the Stirling bomber EE893, took off from in England, where they were first sighted and how they approached their target, when it was hit by light flak, where it was hunted as it turned and flew low in it’s bid to make Switzerland and finally where and how it was finished off by Luftwaffe fighter ace, Major Heinrich Wohlers. We now know the order in which some of the crew baled out and how the aircraft avoided the village and attempted a crash landing, clipping tall trees and losing a wing causing it to cartwheel and disintegrate in flames. The facts presented, completed the puzzle I had been piecing together for more than 20 years – they made sense – the story could now be told.