Prisoners of war
Were the three men dead or alive?
We remember the moment we last saw them.
Between fires of burning paraffin, the propellers pulled them along the ground and eventually away from it.
Climbing into the dark sky, headed for Courcelles.
Three men, two engines, one airplane, two-thousand pounds of bombs.
We stood on the grass of the aerodrome and stared at the plane until it disappeared. Then we listened until the drone of the engines faded to nothing.
For a few minutes, no one broke the silence.
The fires marking the runway continued to burn, assaulting the eyes with their hypnotic glow and acrid smoke.
There’s more of the same from our cigarettes and pipes.
One o’clock in the morning, and a night full of ifs. If their engines keep working, they’ll make it to the target. If they don’t get shot down, they’ll drop the bombs. If they don’t get lost, they’ll have enough fuel to get back. If they’re lucky, we’ll see them in a few hours.
What are these ifs for anyway?
An if does not stop a bullet, or help them find their way, or keep the engines running.
Nor does it answer whether they are dead or alive.
The sun appears. We hear the faint sound of bells from the church over the hill. The tone rings in the ear briefly, and then is overwhelmed by fresh men talking.
The night is over. It is our turn to sleep. It is their turn to work.
We exit the aerodrome like actors walking off the stage as the curtain falls.
But we are not complete. Three of our own are now officially missing.
Handley Page, serial number C9683 has not returned.
The play goes on, but the three men are now part of a different scene, with a different cast of characters.
They are alive, and they are unhurt. Hit by anti-aircraft fire, forced to land near Metz.
Escape into the forest. Running, walking, running, stumbling, stopping, lurching, looking around, what the fuck are we doing?
This is too hard. They walk along the road instead.
There is no food, there are no friends.
Hide in plain sight, they think. But that was never going to work. You can’t return a guten morgen with silence.
Well, you can. But then you get captured and thrown in a holding cell.
The guards are, at least, pleasant. They give the three men food, and they don’t beat them.
But now they are different men. They are prisoners of war.
Their train arrives. They step on board. They know they’re headed for a camp.
Where to? They don’t write their own ticket of course. They don’t know.
First stop is St Avold. Interviews. The “laws” of warfare say that name and rank is all they must reveal.
How can there be “laws” of warfare. Geneva conventions, Hague conventions. You must do, you must not do.
Please. This is a war.
Days and nights on the train, deeper and deeper into Germany, places these three men have never been in their lives, and will never return to later.
A hotel in Karlsruhe serves as the first prison. The town is dominated by the schloss, but they have not been invited to stay there.
At the old hotel, they are confined to rooms. One hour outside per day. Little food. Playing cards.
But then, after three days, a move to the camp proper. Everyone here is British, either a pilot or an observer. Books, parcels from the Red Cross with fresh underwear. Food.
This is much nicer. Billiards, tennis, a concert on Saturday.
Is this in the Hague conventions? You may not kill or torture your prisoners. You may not starve them, either. You must provide them access to cue sports?
After ten days, the tour of Germany continues.
They board another train and see Pforzheim, Mühlacker, Stuttgart, Ulm, Günzburg, Augsburg, Munich, before one last stop and a march outside town to another camp.
No cue sports this time.
Instead, medical examinations and inoculations. For what? They don’t say. Maybe they don’t know.
The unpleasantness is mitigated though. There are always substances that can comfort men. In this case, beer and tobacco.
How is it that a month has passed already?
Shouldn’t they have gone home by now?
The war has gone on for too long.
The war will never be over.
They’re never going home. Or they’re going home imminently.
Time doesn’t fly or run out and maybe it doesn’t even exist. But if humans invented the idea of time, was it so we’d have something to persecute ourselves with?
How long is the right amount of time to be a prisoner of war?
Word in the camp is that the war may end soon. Some call it an early peace. Early? This war is now four years old.
Back on the train. Their time in the Munich region is over. North to Regensburg, then southeast to Ingolstadt. March six miles to a new camp.
No mention of cue sports this time but no inoculations either.
There is music though. Concerts almost every night.
And then word that peace is coming. Rumours. Feels different this time.
Maybe the Germans know that the prisoners are actually the victors.
More food, more music, more laughter.
November 11th. Armistice.
Can they go home now?
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