Horsham German Club

Viele unserer Mitglieder haben interessante Geschichten zu erzählen. Hier ist eine Auswahl.

Many of our members have interesting stories to share. Below is a selection.

Brigitte Ziegler has written a book on her experiences as a refugee at the end of the Second World War
Peter Collis reports on research into his father's wartime experience

Brigitte's Story

In her autobiographical book "Refuge From a Broken Land" Brigitte describes how she and her family fled their hometown of Insterburg, Prussia (modern day Chernyakhovsk in Russia) just hours before the invading Russian forces in January 1945.

In the Introduction, Brigitte gives a brief history of the area starting with the conquest by the Order of the Teutonic Knights in 1231, Christianizing the native Pruzzen and gradually turning it into a very successful and independent kingdom until it became part of a united German kingdom in the 18th century. Without any warning, Prussia as well as other Eastern provinces of Germany were annexed at the end of the Second World War, having forced 12 million Germans to flee their homes and walk or travel west to flee the ever advancing Russian Red Army.

The family travelled for several days on one of the last trains leaving the region before arriving in a small village in southern Mecklenburg in East Germany. At this time, her father was a prisoner of war in Russia, leaving her mother to cope alone with two small children, unaware of his condition. He didn't return until 1949.

Brigitte with her mother and older brother
Brigitte with her mother and older brother

In 1953 she and her family escaped to West Germany via Berlin, leaving everything behind - thus making them refugees in their own country for the second time.

Arriving in the 'Golden West' of Germany as penniless refugees was not easy for the family, but thanks to her 'courageous and hard working father' life gradually improved. Still, sacrifices had to be made. Brigitte was unable to attend higher education due to the schooling she had recieved in East Germany not being recognised by the West German government.

Brigitte still returns to Germany to see her family and has even returned to Prussia once with a Polish friend. She has not returned to Insterburg, since this is in the northern part which was annexed by Russia. She feels she would be too disappointed to see her once beautiful home town, having been totally destroyed in 1945 and beyond now looking grey, drab and soulless. She says "I have returned to Prussia and visited the town of my grandparents. Although it is now Poland, I felt totally at home. I'm a happy person now. I love being in England and I have a family here, but somehow the feeling of being a refugee is still inside me."

Brigitte was recently interviewed by the West Sussex County Times and you can watch the interview on YouTube here:

To buy a copy of "Refuge From a Broken Land", priced at £9.99, Brigitte can be contacted by telephone on 01403 252581 and on email b.ziegler829 @btinternet.com.

Peter's father's wartime experiences

My father, Martin Arthur Collis, (known as George) was born in Guildford in 1922. He grew up in Compton, and was educated at Godalming Grammar School. After leaving school he went to work for a local firm of auctioneers and estate agents but, after the war broke out, he applied to the RAF and joined in 1940 when he was 18. After basic training he was sent to South Africa for flying training, and qualified as a bomb aimer. He returned to England in 1943 and, after further training on Wellingtons and Halifaxes, joined 576 Lancaster Squadron in 1944 subsequently transferring to 300 ( Polish) Squadron. After 18 missions, his squadron was targeted to bomb Stuttgart on the night of 24/25 July 1944. On the approach to Stuttgart the aircraft was attacked by a Messerschmitt BF 110 night fighter, and both the port-side engines were set alight. The crew bailed out and, miraculously, all seven survived. My father buried his parachute, cut the (Polish) markings from his uniform, and set off in the direction of Switzerland. After a day he was spotted, captured, and taken to the local gaol in the small town of Knittlingen, north-west of Stuttgart. He spent a night in the cell there, was taken by the local policeman to his home the next morning for breakfast, and was then collected by the Luftwaffe and taken to Stuttgart for interrogation. He was subsequently sent to a camp in Poland and then marched in the winter of 1944/45 to a camp near Berlin before being liberated by the Russians. Following recuperation back home in England, my father then went back to Germany following the end of the war, as part of the forces then occupying the country. He was posted to the small town of Bückeburg, near Hannover, in northern Germany where he met and married a German girl, Margret, in 1947. Upon my father's demobilisation, the couple returned to England and he joined the Surrey police. After initial postings in Guildford and Wonersh, he was transferred to Dorking, living in a police house in Fairfield Drive. I was born in 1953 and went to Pixham Infants' School, and then St Paul's. In 1960 my father was transferred to Woking. But he always retained a love of Dorking and bought two houses, in Arundel Road and in Vincent Road, which he refurbished and then let out as bed-sits. So much of his life was centred on Dorking, and he had many friends in the town. My wife and I have lived in Beare Green for almost 20 years and in 2010 I joined the Dorking Town -Twinning Association. In 2012 my wife and I were invited to join Councillor Caroline Salmon, Chairman of MVDC, and Anthony Wakefield, the Chairman of the Association, in a visit to Güglingen to take part in the May Festival there. (There are photos of the Festival on the Association's web-site.) Although I spent most of my summer holidays, and many Easters, with my grandparents in Germany, have a holiday home there, and have travelled extensively throughout the country, I had never been to the area north-west of Stuttgart before. We stayed with a charming couple, Friedlinde and Martin Weber, and I told them my father's story and how he had been captured in nearby Knittlingen. They offered to drive us there to see if we could find the gaol where he had spent the night. Sadly the gaol had been burned down by the invading French troops but the story caught the imagination of our friends in Güglingen who started to wonder where my father might have landed and where the remains of the plane were. Before my father's death in 2008, he had fortunately written his memoirs, and with this, and other research I had done, was able to give them quite a lot of information about his squadron, his crew, the number of the plane and my father's description of where he had landed. Irene Gutbrod, the Chair of the Güglingen Town-Twinning Association then spent countless hours contacting anyone who might be able to shed light on either the landing site or the crash site. Eventually the Germans were confident that they had pinpointed the precise spot where my father had landed with his parachute, helped by an elderly eye-witness who recalled discovering the hidden parachute in some bushes, the next day. I believe that nineteen Lancasters were shot down over Stuttgart on the night that my father's plane went down, and the task of locating the crash remains of his aircraft looked impossible. But the local paper, the Heilbronner Stimme, ran an article about the story so far and, by chance, it was seen by Jörg Mezger, a local aviation enthusiast who has studied the air war over Stuttgart in detail. He was certain that he knew the whereabouts of this particular aircraft, helped by the fact that - unusually - all the crew had bailed out successfully, which meant that the site had never been classified as a war grave. It was nearly always the case that a crashed Lancaster contained the remains of some members of the dead crew, and the fact that this one didn't helped to identify it with certainty. Through Irene, the Güglingen Town-Twinning Association suggested that we hold a small commemoration ceremony at the site where my father had landed, and this duly took place on 19 October. Together with my wife Jan, son David, and step-son Chris, we travelled to Stuttgart on the 18th and stayed with Irene and her husband, Werner. The day itself was absolutely perfect. It was bright and sunny and the pretty countryside around Güglingen, not unlike the Surrey Hills, looked stunning as the sunshine brought out the best in the autumn colours. We first went to see the site where my father had landed, in what had been a corn-field on the edge of a forest. We were shown the bushes where his parachute had been discovered, and the direction in which he had walked. It all looked so tranquil as we gazed down from a small, grassy knoll and looked towards the vineyards just across the valley. The Mayor of Güglingen , Klaus Dieterich, said a few words, and I then gave a short speech. Next we went to the crash site, which is in a forest on a hill. Jörg Mezger had assembled some of the parts - bits of fuselage cladding, hydraulic pipes, engine casings - which I was able to examine and take away. The forest was quiet and peaceful and it was hard to imagine the terror which it had witnessed. After lunch, we drove to the cemetery at Güglingen. My wife and I had said that we would like to plant a tree there in memory of all those, British and German, who had died during the course of the aerial bombing campaigns, and a beautiful spot had been selected for us, just inside the entrance to the cemetery and alongside the chapel. Together with the Mayor we planted a Linden tree, and donated a plaque which we had had engraved on Welsh slate by a company near my wife's home town of Cwmavon, in South Wales. A wonderful surprise occurred over lunch when one of the German guests, Werner Durst, stood up and explained how, after the war, his father had taken pieces of metal from the crash-site to make odd items for his home. He produced a bed-warming bottle which his father had made in this way, and presented it to us as a memento. It seems incredible to think that, 68 years on, our home will be graced by an item made from the remains of my father's plane. We look forward to hosting Werner and his wife when they come to Dorking for Gala Night at the start of December. We flew back from Stuttgart on 20 October, with parts of my father's Lancaster in our suitcase. Finally, 68 years after setting off on its fateful mission, part of ND 984 has come home! And we have some lovely memories, and have made some wonderful friends. The first photo shows my father as a young airman, and the second my family and Irene Gutbrod.

George Collis Peter Collis and family

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