Harry Smith was stationed in Germany at the end of the Second World War. But amid the devastation he found love, as he recounts in his new book. He talks to Chris Bond.
HARRY Smith has lived through some of the most tumultuous events in modern history.
Born in Barnsley in the 1920s, he survived the Great Depression and, unlike his older sister who succumbed to tuberculosis and was buried in a pauper’s grave, the grinding poverty of his youth.
He also survived a world war and a Cold War and, amid the devastation of the most destructive conflict in human history, found someone who proved to be the love of his life.
Harry, now aged 92, is an activist and writer and in his latest book – Love Among The Ruins: A Memoir of Life and Love in Hamburg, 1945 – he describes how love blossomed in the aftermath of the war.
He paints a picture of a city that had practically been wiped off the map, one that was overflowing with refugees, black marketeers, corrupt businessmen and tired, cynical soldiers who wanted to go home. The book is a snapshot of what life was like in a broken and defeated country, but at the same time it is also a passionate love letter to a woman and, ultimately, a valedictory affirmation of life itself.
Harry’s own war started as he approached his 18th birthday when he applied to join the RAF in 1941. After passing the Morse Code tests he joined the Air Force as a wireless operator. “When I joined the RAF we were fighting a war in order to save civilisation not wreck it, and there was a feeling amongst most people that this was a war that had to be fought.”
However, owing to the inanities of the training system, it wasn’t until the final months of the conflict that he saw much action. He was sent to Belgium and Holland as the Allies painstakingly advanced towards Germany.
As they moved through the Low Countries, he and his comrades were surprised by the living standards they encountered. “What surprised us was the number of houses that had indoor toilets and bathtubs and hot running water. Some people in Britain didn’t have these amenities for another 20 years. I couldn’t get over it. I kept thinking ‘how can they have all this when I have to walk past 10 houses to go to the toilet back in England?’”
However, he soon saw with his own eyes the impact of the dreadful treatment dished out by the Nazis. “The way the Germans had tried to starve the Dutch people was absolutely horrific, so when I finally got to Germany I felt nothing but hatred for the Germans quite frankly. I thought ‘how could any nation treat people the way they did’,” he says.
“My view of Germans at that time was shaped by what I heard on the radio and on the newsreels, and this was of the jackboot tramping all over Europe. So consequently it was only when I’d been in Germany that I realised they were suffering too.”
Harry’s unit was stationed near a village on the outskirts of Hamburg which, surprisingly, had been largely unscathed. “There was no real suffering there, it was the city centre that bore the brunt of it.”
Hamburg was one of the cities worst hit by the Allies. In July 1943, a series of raids by hundreds of American and British bombers pounded the German port. This sparked a devastating firestorm and, along with the raids, it claimed the lives of more than 42,000 civilians and practically destroyed the city.
By the time Harry reached Hamburg the war in Europe had come to an end. “It was absolute devastation, I’d never seen anything like it. There was 20 miles of the city just completely eliminated and a lot of the working class areas were worst hit,” he says.
“It was horrific to behold. People were starving and there were rows of refugees in the streets all heading west to escape from the Soviet Army. People were reduced to living like animals, it was almost like an atomic bomb had been dropped on them.”
Harry grew up in the slums of Barnsley and Bradford but wasn’t prepared for the squalor he encountered in Hamburg. “I hoped that I’d never see such suffering again but I saw German children who were orphans picking up cigarette butts and trying to sell them in the railway station, it was desperate,” he says.
“By this time the German people realised the part they had played in what had happened, but like all nations in times of war they had obeyed their leaders whether they were right or wrong,” he says. “All that ordinary people in any country want is to live a normal life and in reasonable comfort, they don’t make great demands of governments. They just want to feel that their family can be happy and safe.”
Within months of the war ending the city’s black market was thriving, something Harry steered clear of, as well as the German people themselves. However, his attitude gradually softened. “People were selling their heirlooms just so they could afford to eat, and because I had experienced such deprivation in my youth I ended up feeling some sympathy for the Germans.”
Such despair was an unlikely breeding ground for romance. Yet one August day Harry came across a makeshift black market where he caught a glimpse of a girl. “I was standing on a street corner and I saw an older man and a girl bartering. He didn’t interest me but she did, I thought she was absolutely beautiful. So I did something I would never normally do and when she left I went up to her and asked if I could carry her bag and walk her home.”
Using what little German he knew he found out that her name was Friede. But little did he know that this chance encounter would change both of their lives.
Friede lived in an apartment with her mother and an elderly couple who had been left homeless during the war. A romance slowly blossomed over the ensuing months, with Harry taking food and medicine to Friede and her mother, despite the risk of being caught. “In the early days you risked getting in trouble if you were caught fraternising with the Germans,” he says.
The couple got engaged but it took another two years before they received the necessary permission required to marry because Friede was considered a foreign national from a former enemy nation. However, they were finally married in August 1948 by an RAF padre in Hamburg.
They moved to England and lived in Yorkshire for a time before starting a new life in Canada in 1953. Harry and Friede’s love affair lasted for more than 50 years before she died from cancer in 1999.
Their story is proof that not only can love blossom in the unlikeliest of places, it is also the ultimate human triumph. “I say accept love as it comes and accept love as it goes,” says Harry, “because it is the only currency that never devalues us.”
Love Among The Ruins: A Memoir of Life and Love in Hamburg, 1945, published by Icon Books, is out now priced £8.99.