He was a D-Day hero. She was bombed by the Allies in Dresden. Then they met and fell in love

 

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Shortly after 6am on 6 June 1944, Patrick Churchill, a young Royal Marines commando, waded past the floating corpses of his comrades on to Juno beach in the grey dawn of D-Day.

Eight months later, a 14-year-old German girl, Karin Busch, ran into a sea of flames on the streets of Dresden. She led her screaming twin brother, blinded by the British fire bombing. Their mother had just been swallowed into the burning wreckage of their home.

On a Normandy beach on Sunday, at the main ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of Operation Overlord, Mr Churchill will receive France's highest military honour, in front of an audience of heads of state and royalty. Close by him, watching quietly, will be his wife, Karin, the same girl who fled those Allied fire bombs.

As she and her husband prepared to leave their home in Whitney, Oxfordshire, to travel to France yesterday, Mrs Churchill said: "We called the bombs 'Christmas Trees' because of the way they lit up. But there wasn't much beautiful about what they did. It was war. The important thing is to not forget. Not forget what Hitler did, not forget why D-Day happened."

Of all those whose courage and sacrifice will be saluted this weekend, few can claim to know better the true horrors and injustices of war than Patrick and Karin Churchill. They found themselves at the forefront of the two main thrusts of the Anglo-American strategy to defeat Nazism: a massive land invasion and a campaign to break Germany's will by bombing its cities into oblivion. Their story will place them on a podium this weekend as symbols of the liberation that began exactly 60 year and 11 hours earlier.

Aged just 20 when he arrived at Juno beach, Mr Churchill was a radio operator with 4 Commando, part of the crack British force designated to secure strategic bridges and roads during the early hours of the Allied advance.

When he returns to the wartime beachheads on Sunday, Mr Churchill, a dignified and softly spoken 80-year-old, will step into a carefully choreographed pageant of red carpets, military bands and regimental colours.

The French President Jacques Chirac will award the Legion d'Honneur to one veteran from each of the nations who staged the landings.

But alongside his pride and humility at receiving the decoration for himself and his comrades, the former commando said memories of the destruction that greeted him on that June day will be foremost in his mind. Mr Churchill said: "I shall feel very humbled to receive this medal on behalf of so many and I'll remember what took place. I saw a lot of bodies in the sea.

"But you had to carry on to your objective. You were thinking of the people you had left behind. I saw these destroyed houses, devastated by the fighting. Yet these were the homes of people who after the assault welcomed the troops with open arms. I thought of my own home and how it must feel to see all your memories, all the things you have gathered turned into a ruin."

Turning to his wife, he added: "Of course, you know exactly how it feels, my dear. I know."

While the Royal Marine was battling across Europe against the German army, his future wife found herself coping with the nightmarish results of RAF Bomber Command's campaign to destroy the enemy's urban infrastructure.

Mrs Churchill, 74, a sprightly grandmotherly woman with her hair in a tight bun and the traces of her cultured German accent still evident, described how on the night of the notorious attack by the Royal Air Force on Dresden on 13 February 1945 she and her family had been enjoying a rare reunion.

Her father, Ernst, who was an ethnologist at the university in the city, had just begun two days of home leave at the end of a long recovery from wounds suffered as a military filmmaker in the siege of Stalingrad.

Her elder brother had also just returned home on leave from the German army in France.

Stirring her tea in a china cup as she sat in her sitting room surrounded by memorabilia ranging from a 200-year-old bust of Napoleon to one of the bronze statuettes of Winston Churchill which she makes, Mrs Churchill said: "It was a happy day. We were all back together. I stayed up rather late. I was making crafts, a carpet bag, for my friend."

When the bombing started, Karin, her twin brother and her mother, Margaretha, a well-known mezzo-soprano opera singer, sought refuge in the vaulted cellars of their home. Her father and brother were drafted into efforts to fight the fires which reached temperatures of 1,500C.

Ironically, amid the destruction of what was regarded as the Baroque masterpiece of European architecture and the cultural hub of Germany, it was a British bomb that allowed her to survive.

She said: "A huge air mine dropped with the fire storm. The bombed dropped through our building into our cellar but didn't explode. It was through that shaft that we got out.

"Of course, I had to let go of my mother. We were pulling each other along the ground, wrapped in blankets. But when you clambered outside you had to let go. That was the last time I saw her. She vanished.

"As soon as we got out we were sucked up by the fire storm. My twin brother lost his eye sight. I found him crouching, screaming. It was like looking into a furnace. You cannot imagine. You cannot."

Mrs Churchill, a talented artist with a fierce admiration for Winston Churchill, described how she and her brother staggered through the streets of her home city, already packed with thousands of civilian refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army. She said: "They were bombarding us with phosphorus. It was like napalm, it kept burning, even in water. People were on fire, throwing themselves into the river Elbe. But, of course, they still burnt.

"The next morning was absolute chaos. People piling up corpses. So many. How could you count them?

"They were piled up like logs in a forest, criss-cross. Then they were burnt in the street to stop disease."

Even after escaping the fire storms and being reunited with her father, Mrs Churchill's experiences of the inhumanity of conflict were not over. She was forced to hide in a hollow tree trunk for a day and night for fear of being raped by marauding Soviet soldiers. Then, disguised in school capes that made them look like Red Army sentries when silhouetted, Karin and her blinded brother escaped to the Anglo-American sector of Germany.

If a Hollywood scriptwriter were put in charge of recounting the subsequent tale of Mr Churchill and his wife, the young daughter of a crippled academic and the British commando would doubtless have met as he saved her in the smouldering ruins of Berlin. The reality is that it took 17 years before they met, making their union all the more remarkable.

After the war, Mr Churchill returned to his native Oxford to work for the car maker Morris as a welder. During the battle for Normandy, he was knocked out by an explosion which temporarily wiped his memory of the landings. It is estimated that his unit lost half its men to German forces on D-Day.

This month his wife will travel to Dresden for a ceremony to mark the restoration of the Frauenkirche, the city's destroyed cathedral where on New Year's Day 1945 her mother had sung the Ave Maria. It was Margaretha's last public performance before she was killed, along with at least 25,000 others, by the RAF, in the so-called terror bombing.

For many, such brutal experiences at the hands of opposing and seemingly cruel enemies would be impossible to reconcile into even a meaningful friendship.

In the aftermath of their mutual suffering, a former British commando and a German opera singer's daughter found love, marriage and a joint desire to explain the significance of the events they experienced. After training as a nurse, Karin eventually came to Britain to learn English and was introduced in 1962 to the former soldier, called Pat by his friends. The couple were married only after Karin was forced to return to Germany when her work permit expired and he sold his car to travel to Munich for their wedding. They then returned to Oxford, setting up their own business building architectural models and leading ordinary lives after the extraordinary endeavours of their youth.

Mr Churchill modestly professes himself to be mystified as to why he has been chosen ahead of so many comrades with similar tales of extraordinary feats of bravery to receive the Legion d'Honneur for Britain on Sunday.

The official calculation is based on his valour and the fact that he fought alongside a French commando unit after D-Day. In fact, he is already a decorated war hero. He won a medal for holding his post for 24 hours during repeated SS assaults in the later battle for Belgium and Holland.

Unofficially, however, organisers confirm that the British veteran and his wife will have a symbolic importance on Sunday. One organiser said: "Here are two people who saw momentous and terrible acts of war from opposite sides but came together. It's what commemoration is about."

Indeed, it would be hard to invent a more fitting couple. Gently correcting each other or offering guidance over the details of their recollections as they sat in their sitting room, there is a complete absence of bitterness or rancour.

Mr Churchill, whose father served through the entire First World War, one of only four soldiers in his Oxfordshire regiment to do so, said: "On D-Day I saw lots of German bodies. You just didn't see them as some terrible enemy. You just thought, poor devil. You just thought about them, their parents.

"I went to Normandy on the way back from the war. You could still see the wreckage of the boats that never made it to the shore. I will never forget the sense of the futility of what happened. I am only the custodian of the medal I'll receive on Sunday. I'm holding it for many others."

From Mrs Churchill, there was a similar sense that her suffering is dwarfed by that of others. Asked whether she bore any anger about the destruction of her family, she sighed and gently shook her head: "The cancer of Hitler and Nazism had to be eradicated. It was a terrible thing that this gem of Dresden had to be destroyed.

"It was sad, so very sad. But behind the façade of Nazism, people were being eradicated, destroyed for having one tiny drop of Jewish blood. It was stopped because of people like my husband. I am most thankful for that."

D-DAY EVENTS

TODAY

France, 10.30am, Magneville

Ceremony at RAF monument in memory of paratroopers who died on night of 5 June, 1944

TOMORROW

UK, 8.45am, Portsmouth

Ferries with war veterans cross the Channel to arrive in Ouistreham in afternoon. HMS Gloucester and RFA Wave Knight escort ferries

9.30am, Portsmouth

Flypast by two Spitfires and a Lancaster bomber

France 9.45am, Cruelly

4th/7th Dragoon Guards memorial attended by the Prince of Wales

10.45am, Colleville-Montgomery

Normandy Veterans' Association parade, memorial service and march-past with the Prince of Wales at the statue of Montgomery

11am, Le Mesnil

3rd Parachute Brigade service and march with Prince Charles

3pm

450 veterans on MV van Gogh, lay wreath at sea

4pm

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster in mass poppy-drop off Ouistreham

5pm, Caen

Inauguration of British garden of remembrance, attended by veterans, Prince Charles, ministers and military chiefs

6pm, Benouville

Parachute Regiment and Army Air Corps with Red Devils freefall team and helicopter display

SUNDAY

UK 2pm

Duxford air show

France 8am, Colleville-Montgomery

Wreath-laying at monument to Montgomery, and war graves of Norfolk and Suffolk regiments

9.15am, Bayeux

Royal British Legion Service of Remembrance

10am, Courselles-sur-Mer

Queen at Juno Beach and commemoration of Canada's role in landings

11am, Bayeux

Official ceremony at Bayeux Commonwealth cemetery

1.15pm, Arromanches

Tony Blair, George Bush, Jacques Chirac, Queen and Vladimir Putin attend parade of veterans

3.30pm

Presentation of Legion d'Honneur by President Chirac

4pm, Banneville-la-Campagne

Commemoration at British cemetery

6pm, Arromanches

Final Normandy Veterans Association parade, with Queen taking salute

Genevieve Roberts

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