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Friend or Foe

by csvdevon

You are browsing in:

Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
csvdevon
People in story: 
William Machin Paul Fingerling
Location of story: 
Yorkshire, Dunkirk, Normandy, Germany
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A5909790
Contributed on: 
26 September 2005

This is the true story of two boys, one German and the other British; both were 13 years old in 1930. Both boys had a similar upbringing, Paul in the industrial area of the Ruhr in Germany, and Bill in the South Yorkshire coalfields at Doncaster.

Those days were known as "the hungry 30's". Unemployment was rife, poverty the order of the day, and when a German firm called Bembergs, whose headquarters were at Wuppertal in the Ruhr built an artificial silk factory at Doncaster, it brought bread and butter to many of the unemployed in Doncaster. When the factory was ready for production, Bembergs sent over a number of their experts, along with their families, to train the British workers in the art of spinning arrtificial, silk, and factory adopted the name British Bembergs.

About that time the Doncaster council built a housing estate near its well known racecourse, and had an agreement with Bembergs to house the majority of the Germans sent over, in apperciation of the jobs created for some of the towns unemployed.

Paul, his father and mother were allocated a house in the same street in which Bill lived, and soon they struck up a boyhood friendship. That friendship lasted until Bill joined the Army at 17 years of age in 1934.

One year later Paul returned to the "Fatherland" for his spell of conscription in the German Army. Bill was posted to Egypt and later to Palestine helping to protect the Jews from the wrath of the Arabs. Paul's mother was friendly with Bill's mother, so both were kept informed about each other's welfare by the respective parents. In March 1939 Paul was in Prague with Hitler's invading forces, then on the 3rd of September 1939 the bubble burst and Britian declarred war on Germany.

Bill joined his unit at Aldershot. Paul's parents along with all the other Germans in Doncaster, were sent packing back to their native land. On the 18th of September, Bill left Newport Docks with the British Expeditionary Force on the Ulster Prince bound for Nantes on the River Loire. Just outside the Bristol Channel, he saw the first realities of war, wreckage from the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous, torpedoed by a U Boat the day before. Bill's unit moveed from Nantes to northen France, and was there for seven months (the phoney war period). During this time, he thought a lot about Paul, and could not get used to the idea that his former friend was now his enemy. Although it would be a million to one chance, the prospect of meeting up with Paul, and what they would do under the circumstances, often plagued his mind.

On the 10th of May 1940, the Germans launched their attack on France and Belgium. After three weeks it was all over, the sheer weight of the German forces pushed the BEF to the French/Belgium coast. Bill was evacuated from Dunkirk on the 31st of May. The chances of meeting up with Paul had been very remote, and his thoughts had centred more on his own survival. After a spell in Northern Ireland, Bill returned to England, his unit was under orders to train for Operation Overlord. In June 1944 on tank landing craft heading for the Normandy Beaches, the thoughts of meeting Paul (or the passibility) surfaced once again, and they remained with Bill for the next eleven months. From Normandy, through Belgium and Holland and onto Germany. He arrived at Lubeck on the Baltic coast the day that the war ended. It was may the 8th, also Bill's 28th birthday. Paul would also be 28 years old. Bill's unit eventually moved into somee German Army barracks at Neumunster near Kiel. The camp had recieved considerable attention from the RAF. Consequently, not a pane of glass in any of the windows had survived. The royal Engineers, who were repairing the barracks, gave Bill the task of taking a convoy of vehicles to one of the few remaining glass factories that was still in production. This was near the town of Wuppertal. He had to pick up a load of glass for the barracks that the British Army now occupied. After a two day journey, Bill arrived at the factory, and after the completion of loading, there were a few hours to spare before starting on the return journey the following day. Bill spent these spare hours driving the few miles to Wuppertal, the home town of Paul.

The place suffered complete devastation by the RAF. The overhead railway (for which it was famous) hung in grotesque shapes over the town and the river Wupper. Bill wound his way through the rubble, and eventually arrived at what was left of the great Bemberg silk factory. The gatehouse was intact so Bill went inside. The first German that he saw was one who had been prieviously working in Doncaster six years ago.

He asked the German the whereabouts of Paul's parents and was told that there were bomb damaged flats in the Acker-Strasse. Bill located the building, and paused for a moment before entering, his thoughts went back over twelve years when Paul, then in Doncaster, invited him to visit him in Germany some time. In those days Bill little thought that he would be making the visit under that present circumstances.

The flat was in the basement, all that was left of the building, he knocked somewhat aprehensivley on the door, it was opened by Paul's mother, she froze on the threshold, as though she had seen a ghost, then she threw her arms around Bill. In broken English she said "wilhelm, i knew you would come." After drying her tears, she recovered her composure, and over a cup of Erstaz coffee, Bill asked about her son, Paul. "Paul ist tote" She said. He had died somewhere in Russia. As Bill drove back to his unit, he reflected on the past fifteen years since his boyhood, and now the curtain had come down, he was truly thankful that the million to one chance of meeting his former friend, as a foe, did not materialise.

The German boy was Paul Fingerling, now burried in Russia. Who was the other boy? Bill Machin, CSM, 35 coy, RASC. 8 corps British Liberation Army.

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