Happy Canada Day, readers! As our country’s 151st birthday falls on Sampleday—I mean, Sunday—this year, here’s a sample from a story about a great Canadian returning home after a decade, and a world war being away.
This excerpt from Walking Out of War (Book 3 of the Eastern Front Trilogy) describes Maurice Bury’s first attempt at repatriation, in the shattered city of Berlin in late May, 1945.
No gardens bloomed. No window boxes proved the homeowner’s gardening skill in May. The sunshine was warm, but there wasn’t a living tree on the Unter den Linden, the street named for the trees that once lined its length.
Maurice picked his way through the shattered city, climbing over pieces of buildings and statues, dodging the trucks and jeeps that zipped officiously along the few streets where tanks and construction machines had cleared paths through the rubble. Water dribbled from broken hydrants and from the ends of pipes where bombs had blasted the streets into craters. Few windows contained any glass. No streetlights worked, but aside from official jeeps, Land Rovers and trucks, and the occasional tank, there was no traffic.
Gradually, he made his way to the Charlottenburg section of the former Nazi capital, the British-occupied zone. He found the British headquarters, in a once-white, five-storey office building with a concave-curving front.
Official and army vehicles made a barrier across the front. British soldiers stood guard beside the broad main doors, through which streamed men in uniform in both directions.
Long lines of people in civilian clothes stood along walls in various places on the main floor. Non-commissioned British soldiers bustled along the corridors, bearing messages. Occasionally, he saw French or American officers. He stood up straighter when he saw a brown uniform with maple leaves on the sleeves, but the tall man disappeared around a corner before Maurice could catch his eye.
Two Soviet officers strode down the hall. Maurice tried to fade into the wall until they passed him.
He stopped a friendly-looking sergeant, who directed him to an office on the second floor. He got in a lineup and finally stood in front of a young, blond lieutenant behind a small wooden desk. He summoned his best English to explain his case.
“I’m sorry, Private,” said the lieutenant. “Majah Owens cannot see you without an appointment. Can you come tomorrow at—” he looked down at an appointment book placed precisely in the centre of the desk—“ten o’clock?”
Maurice thanked the lieutenant and strode out of the building as quickly as he could without drawing attention to himself. Frustration burned behind his ears. I should be used to waiting by now. One thing that unites all armies in every country in the world is the way they make you wait.
He made his way back to the centre of Berlin, occupied by the Soviet Red Army. The city looked unreal, a living nightmare of blasted buildings, cratered streets and military vehicles. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers from around the world jammed the streets. Maurice dodged as an American jeep roared down the centre of a cleared street, swerving drunkenly from one side to the other, narrowly missing twisted lampposts. He saw grinning GIs and two desperate-looking young women, their blouses blowing open. The men held bottles of wine.
He passed groups of soldiers drinking beer. Along one less-damaged street, more GIs smoked at open-air cafés and bars, chatting up pretty young girls with haunted eyes.
Two weeks had passed since Hitler had committed suicide and the Germans had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, after the Red Army had conquered half the city and killed most of its defenders.
Fighting continued after the formal surrender. Fanatics continued to fight from isolated bunkers or defended positions. Stubborn German occupiers continued to fight the Canadians in the Netherlands until May 5, and even a day later opened fire on celebrations in Amsterdam. In Czechoslovakia, resistance fighters rose up against the German occupiers as the Red Army began the Prague Offensive. Colonel-General Carl Hilpert only surrendered to the Soviets in the Courland Pocket, near Memel, Lithuania on V-E Day, May 8.
The war was over, and the occupation began. The Red Army set about burying the 18,000 men it had lost in the Battle for Berlin.
Walking back to his unit in eastern Berlin, Maurice remembered how his commanders had given their men almost completely free rein in Berlin. The commissar— Maurice still hadn’t learned his name—had said, “We were strict about respect for civilians in Lithuania and Poland. But now, we have defeated the German pigs.” He held up a poster depicting a proud Red soldier. The caption read “The hour of our revenge has struck!”
“Take what you need from the Berliners. Take what you want.”