I was ten years old in 1973, when my parents had saved up enough money for our first package holiday. Like many British families at the time, we went to Benidorm, which was already a concrete jungle of hotels and restaurants. What none of us had appreciated when the holiday was booked, was that the hotel we would be staying in was pretty much divided 50:50 between English visitors and Germans.
My parents spent their days beside the pool, behind books or newspapers, and being fair-skinned and freckly, getting up every twenty minutes or so to tilt the beach umbrella to give them maximum shade. I spent most of my time in the pool, swimming, diving and floating. As an only child, I had nobody much to talk to, until I met a couple of German girls. The older one was already learning English at school and was pretty good. Her name was Ute. So we got talking, and competing to pick up objects from the bottom of the pool, and racing and splashing. Sometimes we would stop at the poolside cafe and buy some delicious iced chocolate drink that I certainly never found in England.
Ute’s parents seemed to spend all their time playing cards in the hotel bar with the other German families. I said hello to them a couple of times but we hadn’t really talked, not even with Ute as translator. But one day we hatched a plan that our parents should meet each other, so the next time we were passing through the bar on the way back to our room, I nudged my parents towards one of the card school tables, and we made an introduction.
George Sutherland, my father
Even at that young age, we knew this was a big deal. My father, who was born in 1925, had joined the RAF in 1943, and after training, ended up in 617 Squadron, under the command of Group Captain Leonard Cheshire. 617 had become famous earlier in the war as the Dambusters’ Squadron, but Dad told me the heroes had long gone by the time he joined, leaving only an awesome reputation to live up to. He was a raw recruit from Byker but had made the rank of Sergeant, even though he didn’t turn twenty until the week after VE Day. Sergeant George Sutherland was a radio signals operator who flew in the belly of Lancaster bombers. He told me he’d only ever flown a few training missions over Denmark before the war ended, but I know now that 617 was involved in the brutal bombing raids over Dresden. And that’s all I know about his war, except that he had a perfect recall of Morse Code and knew how to cook fried eggs and fried bread, having learned how to cook on a Nissen hut stove in Inverness. One day maybe I’ll search for his war records.
Herr Siebald, Ute’s father
Ute’s father, Herr Siebald, was a few years younger than my dad. He’d been a member of the Hitler Youth, which was pretty much compulsory in those days. He remembered hiding under his bed in Dortmund, when the Lancasters were flying overhead. It would be too much to assert that my father flew over Dortmund and that one of those bombs narrowly missed killing my friend’s father. That probably did not happen. I guess both boys had been terrified on many occasions.
I don’t think my father had ever met a German face to face before. I would suspect that Herr Siebald had never met an Englishman before, either, but here they were, sharing a conversation for a few minutes because their young daughters were friends, and had wanted them to meet.
After that holiday, Ute and I were pen friends for a few years. Envelopes would travel across Europe, covered in cartoons and stickers and flowers drawn in felt-tip pen. Once, Ute wrote on the back ‘Please hurry Mr Postman, Judi is waiting for this letter’. I’m sure I helped with her English skills. The secondary school I ended up in taught French and Spanish, so we never corresponded in German. It was my job to find as many David Cassidy posters as possible from Jackie magazine for Ute’s bedroom wall. At Christmas, we sent presents. I remember a huge cardboard box arriving, filled with chocolate and soft toys and some very fancy notepaper so I could write more letters. I was a bit embarrassed at this largesse. We knew, of course, that Germany was a much richer place than the UK at the time; Ute’s family had spent three weeks in Benidorm, when we only had two.
Less than two years after our Benidorm holiday, I was in hospital, with an injury to my spine that warranted a fairly serious operation. I had heard that there was going to be a vote about whether the UK should stay in the European Community or not, and I asked my parents if they would bring in the leaflets setting out the arguments for both sides. After reading them carefully from my hospital bed, I asked my parents if they would please vote to stay in the EC. I was thinking about my friend in Germany. I think my parents did vote to stay, but mainly because my father worked for Michelin tyres and knew it would be good for the French company to operate as freely as possible in the UK. I wonder if that bizarre conversation with ‘the Enemy’ even crossed his mind.
Ute and I drifted apart when we reached our mid-teens and gradually the letters stopped coming. I never saw her again. I searched the internet for her a while ago and I think I found her, with a different surname, on the staff list of a school in Dortmund. I wonder if she teaches English. I hope she’s having a lovely life.
No more room for war
And this is why I was always such a fan of the European project; because two men who might cheerfully have killed each other thirty years earlier could meet and understand each others’ stories. I remain convinced. Surely if we can meet face to face, talk to each other, and our children can play together, there should be no more room for war.