23 Jun 2016

Conversation in a cable car

"Conversation in a cable car" by Ernest Hall, published in May 2016 Southern East Anglia Area Quaker Meeting Newsletter

Many years ago when our two sons were in their early teens (they are now in their sixties!) my wife Heather and I took them to Austria on a camping holiday. Austria is a picturesque country full of friendly welcoming people and I was pleased to be able to exercise the very ungrammatical German I had learnt as a P.O.W.

One day we took a cable car to the summit of the Muttersberg. We shared the cable car with a German family who were the mirror image of ourselves; mum and dad in middle age and two early teenage children. I think that they had a boy and girl. We conversed and I congratulated the father on his excellent English. ‘Ah yes’, he said. ‘I was a POW in England for three years. I worked on a farm. That’s where I learned to speak English’.

I told him, ‘I too was a POW for three years but I only spent 18 months in a working camp (Arbeitskommando) in Germany. My first eighteen months as a POW were spent in a large concentration camp in Italy’. That was why his English was a lot better than my German’

‘Where were you captured?’ I asked him.

‘Tobruk’, he replied adding in case I’d never heard of it, ‘that’s in Libya in North Africa’. It’s a small world! I had been captured in Tobruk in June 1942 and he just a few months later the same year!

That’s not all that we had in common. Like me, he had been a gunner (Kannonier) on a German mobile heavy gun (mine was a 6 in howitzer, his a 155mm gun). Between January and May 1942 (when Rommel launched his major offensive) we had served on opposite sides of the Gazala line. Like me he had gone with his gun and gunteam into the miles-wide ‘operational area’ that separated the two armies. Like us, they had fired at unseen targets under the command of a Gun Position officer who was informed by an Observation Officer and his team who could see the target! At the end of the day a posh voice over the radio would assure us that, ‘Our mobile artillery has been active in the Libyan desert today. There have been several artillery duels and an enemy battery has been silenced’. The ‘silencing’ of a battery usually meant no more than that they had used up their quota of ammunition or had been ordered to be back at base at 6.00 pm, 7.00 pm or whatever. No doubt the German troops were hearing much the same rubbish on their radio.

The realisation that a few years earlier, in a desert land far from either of our homes, this friendly and likeable middle aged family-man and I had been trying (unsuccessfully thank goodness!) to kill each other, reinforced my conviction of the value of our Peace Testimony, far more than any impassioned speeches I had ever heard in Meeting Houses or elsewhere.

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