From Germany to Yorkshire, via the Luftwaffe

A Slice of Britain: Sixty-five years after VE Day, a German paratrooper who married an English girl finds the former enemies have plenty in common
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The Independent Online

Bob, looking down at a collection of dog-eared pictures on his dining-room table in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, says: "That were me when I signed up." The 86-year-old former paratrooper points out a uniformed man smiling out from a faded photograph.

But something in his accent – and the insignia on his young uniformed self – is not quite as you would expect. Bob – whose surname is Frettlöhr – fought for the Third Reich.

Yesterday marked 65 years since the Allies declared victory in Europe, but, for Bob, the memory is not a happy one. Wounded in the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, he was captured by the Allies and spent the next four years in prisoner-of-war camps in Europe, the US and the UK.

"I was in a PoW camp in Pennsylvania when the war in Europe ended. Everybody was relieved, but the Yanks didn't half rub it in," he says, in the guttural consonants and long vowels of his Berlin-meets-Burnley accent. "The captain who ran the camp wrote a letter to our families, that said we were 'German swine' and defeated. I had to send it to my parents when my 18-year-old brother, Emil, had died the week before the war ended.

"Then they showed us all these gruesome pictures of concentration camps and Dresden, where thousands of people were put in a heap and burnt away. We didn't know there were camps like that. Whether they killed one or 55 million, that should not have happened."

After being put on a ship back to Europe he ended up being held at an RAF base in Doncaster in 1946. There his luck changed. "They desperately needed musicians to play in the social club, and I could play an instrument. There was a double bass there and I've had the damn thing stuck to my hands ever since."

In his study, the contrast of his two lives seems stark. On the left of the window are photos of the Yorkshire Post Jazz Band in relaxed music venues; on the right hang gleaming Luftwaffe plates, badges and memorabilia.

It was through music that Mr Frettlöhr met his future wife, Sally – and which launched a jazz career that would see him playing in top venues around the world. "This English girl walked across the dancefloor and I said to Jimmy, our trombone player, 'Have a look at her, I'm having her', and here I am. I would have gone back home, but when I met Sally, that was it. I was a prisoner of war for a second time."

He married Sally – who died 12 years ago – in 1950. "Of course, people said 'What? You're courting a PoW?' But when they met me maybe they changed their minds. We got on like a house on fire. She had a big family and most of her sisters were married to servicemen. One of them, Tom, was an ex-para, and he'd fought at Monte Cassino, but on the British side. He was my best man. Men who have been in the forces have a different understanding than what an ordinary person has."

Growing up in Duisberg, Germany, Mr Frettlöhr was in the Hitler Youth before he joined the Luftwaffe (pictured below, in 1937, aged 14). "I joined for the simple reason that I was doing a lot of aircraft modelling and it was the one place I could go gliding," he says. "Don't think that we were running around with swastikas all over us; it was more like the Scouts. Many times I have had this argument with people here, who say that the Hitler Youth was organising people for military service, and I say, 'Well, yes, but they did the same here with the RAF cadets and the Army and Navy cadets'."

Mr Frettlöhr feels there is little difference between the two countries he has called home. "I'm British now. I've been nationalised for 40-odd years, and I feel at home. There's no difference really. I always say the only difference between Germany and England is that in Germany the pubs don't close until two in the morning."

He believes that, as a fellow soldier, the fact that he fought on the "wrong" side should be irrelevant. "I didn't used to wear my war medals, but now I can. This November I'll wear them at my local war memorial on Remembrance Sunday, and I'll stand with the other men who fought. It shouldn't make a difference what side you fought on: we're pretty alike, really."