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15 October 2014
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A Long Friendship Part 1: Pen Pals in Cleethorpes and Bremen

by Sutton Coldfield Library

Contributed by 
Sutton Coldfield Library
People in story: 
Vic and Kathleen Miles, Lotte and Richard Barth and their children
Location of story: 
Sutton Coldfield, Cleethorpes and Bremen
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
30 June 2004

This story was submitted to the People's War web site By Sutton Coldfield Library on behalf of Mrs Kathleen Miles and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the sites terms and conditions.

The story begins in 1936 in Cleethorpes, a small coastal town in England, and in Lesum, near Bremen, a city in Northern Germany. An English grammar schoolgirl, who was myself, and a German grammar schoolgirl, who was Lotte Schellhass were given each other’s names and addresses so that they could become pen friends.

I could speak very little German, but Lotte was very good at English, so we were able to develop a friendship through letters, and in 1937 we exchanged visits to each other’s homes. This was not such a common practice in those days, and the local press took great interest in it, photographing the group of girls as they set off in quite small ships to cross a rather large and daunting North Sea.

It was certainly the first time we had been away without our parents, so it was a somewhat tentative adventure. It was easy to pick out the English girls in Germany because we all wore uniforms of white blouses with ties and navy blue gymslips all the time, and likewise it was easy to pick out a party of German girls in Lincolnshire because so many had long blond plaits, and all wore knee- length socks and had interesting blouses and skirts. Some of the girls found it harder to become friends than others of course, because the addresses had been exchanged randomly, but Lotte and I got on well right from the start, and we still have photos of those times.

We continued to write regularly but feelings between our countries became more tense and one day in 1938 my parents received a letter in English from Lotte’s mother saying “You see our dear Fuhrer wants only peace just as your Mr Chamberlain does, and we need have no more fear of another war between our two countries”. My parents, having lived through the First World War, and having heard from me of all the tanks and soldiers I had seen on my visit to Germany in 1937 were not so sure of this. Lotte and all her school friends belonged to the Hitler Youth Movement and many children going back with photos of exchange visits had to hand in all their photographs of their visits, and in hindsight it seemed a good way for the German authorities to pick up quite useful records of many areas of Britain.

Then in September 1939 war was declared and all letters ceased between Lotte and myself, and for five years we knew nothing at all of the lives of the Schellhass family. Living close to the airfields in Lincolnshire, we often heard and saw large numbers of bombers taking off for raids on Germany. My close school friend Constance Phillips who was by now married to one of those young pilots had been one of the girls on the exchange visit and must have thought about her German friend Lisa Gloystein, as I wondered about Lotte, when we knew air-raids had been on cities in Northern Germany.

In 1941 a young soldier named Vic Miles had been sent to Cleethorpes and I had met him for only a few hours before the army sent him on further training, so all our getting to know each other was by writing letters. Whenever it could be arranged we had perhaps a few days leave together and when he returned to England after a long bleak spell looking after anti-aircraft guns in the Faroe Islands, we became engaged. After Vic became a commissioned officer in the R.E.M.E. we got married in March 1944 knowing only too well that the invasion of Europe was near. After one or two hastily arranged weekends together in Kent where the invasion forces were gathering, the day came when the usual letter did not arrive and I knew Vic had gone over on D-Day 3 to France, and from that time he could only get a letter to me when the advance through Europe allowed.

He was an officer with a small R.E.M.E. workshop following the army through the long winter in Holland and finally crossing the Rhine into Germany. For most of our early married life we were apart as were so many married couples then – he in ever-changing dangerous situations and though still only 23 having to make the decisions of a mature, experienced man, and me in the comparative safety of teaching little children in Lincolnshire. Life was very strange for young people and like many of our contemporaries we spent our lives wishing we were elsewhere and, above all, together making our own lives. Where would those lives be and what jobs would the young men find- these men who had gone into the army as boys five years before and now had great responsibilities as officers in charge of men? Sometimes I thought briefly of Lotte and wondered if she had married and if so was her husband anywhere in the fighting near my husband and if so…? Maybe we would never know.

But as the war in Europe was coming to an end, I gave my husband a letter to carry with him in case he ever found himself near Bremen, and now here is the high point of the story as far as I was concerned. One day he was with a convoy passing not too far from Bremen, and he was able to leave the convoy and go to see if Lesum was still in existence, and if the Schellhass family still had any connections there. It was a very slim chance because people’s lives were chaotic in wartime. There was no fraternisation between military and civilians at that time, so when a British Army car pulled up outside the house in Lesum, and an English Army officer got out and started climbing up the stairs to the upstairs apartment, Frau Schellhass and her two daughters who were inside the flat heard his footsteps with fear, thinking he had come to take their possessions, or worse.

He knocked on the door and seeing their anxious faces he said, “Do you remember Kathleen? Well I am her husband!” What a day of the war to remember that was, and they had only a very short time to exchange news of who was alive and who was dead or missing in their family, and Vic had regrettably only a small bar of Cadbury’s chocolate in his pocket to give them before he had to catch up with his Unit. After two weeks I received a letter from nearby Hamburg telling me of this amazing chance that the family still lived in the same house, and were indoors when Vic called. I heard that Herr Schellhass, the father of the family, had died of a heart attack, leaving Frau Schellhass a widow. Lotte I think by then had met Richard Barth who was to become her husband and was then a doctor in the German army. Margarete, Lotte’s sister, was already a widow. Their two brothers were soldiers on the Russian front, and one was already killed and the other missing presumed a prisoner of war. I think this was a typical German family story, and the three females were trying to keep going together with very little food or money, and so few hopes for the future.

The Future

Since the war ended we all know how our two countries have fared and our two families have remained friends throughout. Lotte’s husband retired from being a doctor in Bremen and sadly he has since died. My husband is now retired from being an engineering director of a Birmingham company, but over the years so many visits have been exchanged, not only by we four but by our own children and theirs and even their cousins in Southern Germany.
(To be continued)

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