By Len A.Hynds

It was in the year 1944, and we had been at war with Germany since 1939. It would not end until May of the following year, when finally defeated, that country sank to its knees. Very few countries had not been involved, and everywhere had suffered extensive damage, with nearly 55 million people being killed by the end of the war and an untold number injured.

It had been a long hard struggle, but we never doubted that we would win in the end. Every member of my family was involved in this struggle for survival. My father, deaf from the First World War, doing the work of three men. My mother, a nurse, tending wounded soldiers, my eldest sister making shell cases; another in the Red Cross looking after orphans and the youngest sister driving an army ambulance conveying the dead and wounded.

My eldest brother was a prisoner of war in Poland; another taking ammunition convoys to the Canadian front line troops in Holland, whilst yet another was serving on Destroyers fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. We had lost three homes through the constant bombing, and had lived on a near-starvation diet for several years. By lying about my age (telling them I was 15), I had donned the King’s uniform in 1942. I had served in three cadet units that were attached to artillery and infantry regiments, and was now a Cadet Sergeant, with lots of practical experience in shooting at the enemy and trying to kill him. All in all I was a very bloodthirsty young man, but my constant training and experiences had made me like this.

Having set the scene for you, I must relate the strangest Christmas Day in my life. Mum had time off to cook a Christmas dinner for just three of us. Nothing so magnificent as a turkey or chicken (probably horsemeat disguised as something else) when my sister Kit ran in saying that she had her ambulance outside and was conveying a previously wounded German soldier from a military hospital to a prisoner of war camp. Mum insisted that she stop for tea and to bring in the German soldier and his guard as well.

I was horrified at the thought of the hated enemy in my own home; somebody from that nation who had nearly destroyed my world and had caused so much heartache and deprivation to my family. I knew that as a prisoner he could not be touched, but I had been trained to kill the enemy on sight, as he had been, and this was going to be a strange experience. I had never been so close to the hated enemy before. Firing the Vickers Twin Heavy Machine Gun on the cliffs at Ramsgate at enemy planes swooping overhead had been impersonal, just a large black machine, with no real thoughts of the man inside.

He came in nervously, with his elderly soldier guard, and was obviously on edge sitting in an English home. What we had left of it, anyway, and I was astonished at how young he was, not a lot older than me! He was wearing this strange uniform and had apparently been captured on our drive towards Arnhem. In fact, he looked an awful lot like my brother Alf, the sailor.

He could speak English and Mum made a fuss of him, giving him large slices of our Christmas cake, the ingredients of which she had been hoarding for some time, and not to be eaten until later that day. He could not understand my mother and sister being so naturally kind to him, although I kept my distance, deliberately avoiding any conversation.

Mum got him speaking of his own mother and he spoke of how the Russian advance was getting very close to her and he was so worried about her. He spoke of his brothers and sisters, and it was like a mirror image of my own family. As I looked at him I realised that he, too, had been indoctrinated from about the age of twelve to kill the enemy on sight and he really was a mirror of me. I found myself astonished that the hated enemy could have a mother he worried about and brothers and sisters.

He was obviously overcome with emotion at these strange English people who were treating him as one of their own and who seemed to have forgotten all those dreadful war years. I thought he had tears in his eyes when, as they stood up to go, Mum held his hand and patted it, as only a mother can, and wished him well.

My mother and sister taught me a lot that day. That in every country there are many different sorts of people and, quite frankly, I had been so wrong in my blind hatred of the whole nation.

As I nodded goodbye to him, he put out his hand and I shook it. Those eyes looking back at me were so much like my brother's, I instinctively knew that there was empathy between us and the meeting had been a revelation to us both.