It was a bleak winter’s evening. The almost full moon, now waning, should have guided the people through the darkened city. But on this evening clouds covered the sky over the war damaged city of Berlin. Heaven could not decide whether it should snow or rain. When the Moon shone through a break in the fast moving clouds it gave the appearance that the Moon itself was speeding across the sky. There had been only seven air raids during the month of January, two of these had been during the last two nights when the full moon shone the bombers of the RAF the way to their targets.
The date was important in the calendar of the Third Reich. It was the twelfth anniversary of Hitler coming to power. Normally the Royal Air Force joined in the celebration with a bit of fireworks of their own on those special days. But on that day Berliners looked up at the sky and said, “The Tommies will stay at home tonight.” This gave them the possibility to arrange their own entertainment for the evening.
Tucholsky said once famously, “There is always something,” and so there was. Bomber Command had decided to send a lonely Mosquito surveillance aircraft to take some happy snaps of the celebrating city. “We don’t want Jerry to be too comfortable”, they said. Not much was there to been seen. Only when the cloud cover opened a bit the two men crew in the freezing cockpit could see something. So they let the cameras do some picture taking. Mostly, they saw only the white clouds reflecting the bright moon light.
Mosquito surveillance aircraft
“Why had Harris to send us out on a night like that,” asked the pilot his sidekick.
“To keep Jerry on his toes, I suppose, “ said his co-pilot as he looked through his viewfinder.
Indeed that is what happened: Pre-alarm was given and Berliners did not dare going too far away from their homes. It interrupted normal socialising; if socialising was at all possible in those dark days.
“There is a train pulling into …, wait a minute…,” said the co-pilot as he shone a torch on a map and said, “…Görlitzer Bahnhof”.
“I’m surprised they’re still doing some travelling. Haven’t we destroyed all the railways?” wondered the pilot. They had their instructions to keep the fear level of those Germans up for a couple of hours. The two flyers hoped the sky would not clear enough to allow some Luftwaffe night-fighters to hunt for them. The order was to criss-cross the city a few times and then return with the last fuel.
The train, the two RAF pilots observed through a break in the clouds, came to a screeching halt inside the station and disgorged its passengers; mostly soldiers with their heavy gear. An announcer told them that there was a pre-alarm and nobody was to leave the station. Refreshments could be had at the restaurant. The soldiers had to go to a “Frontleitstelle” where they would receive further directions to their postings or instructions pertaining to their travel.
In the middle of the platform a group of about thirty boys, from a boys home in Silesia, could be seen as they were shepherded towards the exit and then to the restaurant. They all carried their own luggage with difficulty and did not get any help from the adults. They were happy when they got to the station restaurant and were told a warm meal would be served. There was plenty of time as they had to wait for the ‘all clear’. They were told there was only one plane and assured that no bombs would be dropped on them.
They were all tired and hungry. They had been on a hospital train for twenty five days with hardly a change of clothes and not much to eat, except bread and jam. The Red Army chased them from Silesia all along the ever closer coming front. It was a miracle they were not attacked by low flying aircraft. Perhaps the red cross on the roof of the train protected them. During the last four or five hours they had been travelling in a scheduled passenger train through a heavy snow storm. Strangely, here in Berlin they felt save again.
The boys, all Berliners, found tables and chairs in the station diner. After they had settled in they went to the counter where a big elderly woman handed out the meals. One of the boys, Paul, went and asked for some food. An elderly woman smiled at him and asked,
“Are you hungry? And if you are you are at the right place. The bad news is we have only barley soup. The good news is you can choose between dark or white barley.”
Paul did not waste any time and said, “White, please!” The lady filled a bowl with hot soup and handed it to Paul with a smile and said, “Guten Appetit, mein Junge!”
Paul did not need any extra appetite, he was practically starving. He wolfed down the soup and went back for more. “I’m still hungry, could I have more, please?” The lady smiled again and said, “We have plenty and you can come back as often as you like.”
The boy could not remember ever having received such an invitation. This time he took the dark barley and was surprised that it tasted just as good. The other boys at his table did the same and got refill after refill. Finally Paul could not eat any more. He had been eating ten bowls of soup altogether; five of each.
The lonely, freezing airmen in their Mosquito above Berlin did a few calculations and decided with the fuel left they would make it back to their airfield in the north of France. As they left the airspace over Berlin the ‘all clear‘ was given.
“Boys get ready. We are leaving in a few minutes,” called out one of the women who had escorted them all the way from Silesia. When they got out of the station building they were surprised that there was no snow in Berlin. Two large, electric postal parcel vans were waiting for them. They were herded in and soon the vans took of.
The boys were all standing and they were holding on to sides of the van. Paul was lucky enough to be able to look through a tiny window in the front of the cabin and through the driver’s cabin. He could see where the van was going. He was surprised that they went along a street where he could see the viaduct of the elevated train. He knew at once where he was and it made his heart beat faster. Where ever they were taking them, he could possibly abscond and find his way home to his beloved mother.
Damaged viaduct of elevated train
When suddenly the van turned right into a side street, Paul saw through the rear window, that the viaduct of the elevated train became smaller and smaller. It made him fearful that he could lose his direction in the dark. But after only a few minutes, without turning again, the van stopped in front of a large greyish building.
Municipal Orphanage, Berlin
When the boys were standing on the footpath one of the female escorts informed them that they had arrived at the Municipal Orphanage at Alte Jakobstrasse and they would stay there for a couple of days until they were taken to a more permanent accommodation somewhere else in the city.
“Do you understand me?” she asked and further told them, “When you enter the building I want you to be as quiet as a mouse would be, because the other children are already asleep. Do you understand?” All the boys just nodded their heads; only here and there some inaudible “Ja.” . In the dark they could make out a large, grey building. No light could be seen from the windows because of the black-out.
Once inside, they could feel a comfortable warmth greeting them. They had to climb two stories to where their rooms were. Four boys were put into one room. They marvelled at the comfort the rooms emanated. Four beds that had their covers printed with blue clover leaves. The room had an en-suite bathroom with warm water. What an unexpected luxury and that in the middle of a war going on. In Silesia they had only an outdoor l without flushing water.
Without warning they heard that the door to their room was being locked from the outside. They could not escape. Paul was disappointed and he had to wait till the morning. There was nothing he could do at that moment. He was too tired anyway to worry much about it. Quickly he was in bed and fell asleep immediately.
In his dream he experienced once again the blizzard he had seen from the train. Soldiers, carrying their rifles, ran bent through the forest towards their fate. The snow did cover everything. Silence.
Two days later they left the orphanage in a special tram to Wilmersdorf, another suburb of Berlin, to another home that had been prepared for them. This was a stroke of pure luck, because another two days later, on the 3rd of February 1945, the orphanage was totally destroyed in the largest air raid Berlin experienced during the war. It is being estimated that 254 children died when the building suffered a direct hit.
Not long after his mother came looking for Paul and took him home.