Colin Anson in recent times
In 1937 Claus Ascher, fifteen years old, was sitting with his father in a café in Frankfurt on Main. There was some heated argument among the patrons, particularly about the destruction in April of Guernica in Spain. The Luftwaffe Condor Legion, fighting on behalf of the Fascist rebellion, had bombed the town. Herr Ascher declared himself ashamed of his country.
Someone apparently slipped away and reported this to the police.
Ascher was arrested a few minutes later, leaving the boy alone. He waited, not understanding what had happened, expecting his father to return. After an anxious hour an elderly policeman came and whispered that Claus should come to the police station. He found his father held in a cell like a criminal. His wife would be allowed to visit him so Claus ran home to tell her. In great distress she came. Ascher told his wife he was not sure how long he would be away. The weather was getting colder, he said, so he would be needing his winter suit. Before bringing it, she must repair the lining of the sleeve. She protested, the suit needed no repairs. He insisted, apparently angrily. He had told her about it many times, he said, and she must attend to it at once. As they parted, he murmured in her ear, “That sleeve is important.”
At home Claus and his mother found the suit, investigated the sleeves and found papers hidden in the lining. They burned them. Frau Ascher saw her husband once more when she took the suit. The Gestapo then took him to Dachau concentration camp. They shot him.
Claus, born in 1922, had been brought up as a protestant Christian. The Family attended the Lutheran church regularly. His father came from a Jewish family but had adopted the Christian religion. Despite the church affiliation, Claus and his father were counted by the Nazis as Jews. His mother believed she herself was not in immediate danger but insisted that her son must leave the country. With her help and support from relatives in America, he applied for a visa to allow him entry to the USA. This was granted but he was put on a very long waiting list, which meant he would not be admitted for years. He did not have so much time. When he reached the age of seventeen he would be conscripted into the army and, as a Jew, would probably not survive long. He applied to Britain. He needed sponsorship, which came through an organization of the Quakers. He would be allowed to enter the UK, not as a resident but nominally ‘in transit’ to the USA. Five days before his seventeenth birthday he was able to board a children’s train which would take him to the Hook of Holland for the ferry. After some highhanded treatment, including body searches, threats and insulting remarks by petty officials at the frontier, the children were allowed to pass. He arrived with intense relief in the Netherlands and thence continued to England. He had the clothes he was wearing, a small suitcase, and his few essential papers.
When the war began, many adult German refugees, including some who had lived in England for years, were interned because of the threat of ‘fifth columnists’ and spies being infiltrated. This did not apply to children. In England Claus was placed in a hutted refugee camp with hundreds of other virtual orphans like himself. During the winter of 1939 – 40 Claus was placed in a farm training centre and worked for several months as a labourer. When old enough he volunteered for the British Army, was admitted and, near the end of 1940, placed in the Pioneer Corps. During the London blitz he worked with the Corps in the city, clearing wreckage, trying to restore vital services, and spending the nights with London folk in shelters as the air raids continued. During the next twelve months the Pioneers worked in South Wales and Liverpool, clearing up bomb damage there.
In 1942 he was called for a mysterious interview in an hotel in London. If he volunteered, his services would be valuable in a newly formed German-speaking Commando brigade. He was sent for training with other German-born soldiers to a camp in Yorkshire. The course was tough. At the end of it, all the men in the group were told they must change their names and adopt completely new English identities. If they were captured by the Germans, their names would betray them and they would be shot out of hand as traitors. They must find English friends willing to have themselves recorded as next of kin, to provide the necessary background cover. A family he had been billeted with in Liverpool after the bombing there agreed to be his nominal relatives.
“What will your new name be?” Claus was asked by the officer who was set to record the new details and issue the requisite army pay book and identity documents. Claus Ascher had hoped to retain at least his old initials but all the names beginning with ‘A’ that he could think of, had been taken. He could not be Andrews, Archer, Anderson, and so on. At a loss, Claus heard an aircraft fly overhead and glanced out of the window. It was an Avro Anson. From that moment he became Colin Anson.
It was ordained that the German Commando troop would go by train to their next training camp. One by one, their old names were called and they boarded the carriages in order. At their destination, they were required to answer immediately to their assumed identities and must use them always. Further training followed, including practice beach landings from assault ships.
In July 1943, now as a member of No 40 Commando, Colin took part in the Anglo-American assault on Sicily. On the night of the attack there was a violent gale, so severe that the defenders did not imagine there could be any action in such weather. They stood down and were taken totally by surprise. In any case, as was explained years later, a clever deception had been devised by the British. It was no secret that there would be an attack by the combined Allied forces somewhere in southern Europe. Sicily was the obvious place. Nevertheless, every chance of diverting attention from there must be taken. It was arranged for a corpse in the uniform of an English staff officer, apparently drowned, to be washed up on the coast of Spain. In a case cuffed to his wrist were plans for landings in the Balkans. The German high command diverted considerable numbers of troops to guard against this possible attack. The first line in the defence of Sicily thus depended mostly on the Italians.
As the landing craft approached the sheltered beaches of Aboukir bay, the water calmed and the Commandos disembarked. At first they met only light resistance from Italian troops but after a week there was heavy fighting against the German army near Catania. The Commandos, about 1600 men in all, launched an attack by sea behind the enemy lines. During this operation, before getting to the beach, the ship Colin was on was dive-bombed. There were many casualties. He was helping one of the other soldiers who had been wounded in the abdomen. He briefly used his own helmet to protect the injured man.
When Colin put his helmet back on he noticed some blood running down his neck. He had felt nothing and thought he had a superficial wound. He asked a medical orderly to dress it for him. The orderly glanced at him in alarm and told him to sit down where he was immediately and not to move. He was beginning to feel shaky and did as he was told.
The orderly had expected him to die where he sat. Shrapnel had removed a part of his skull, exposing the brain. He began to feel very sick indeed, but did not lose consciousness until he was being carried to a field ambulance. He learned later that his heart stopped and started again by external massage. In the field dressing tent, splinters of bone were removed, enlarging the wound in his head. The skin was drawn over the gap and sewn up. He woke after twenty-four hours to find his head encased in a plaster helmet.
He did not die. Passed from one army medical unit to another, he arrived after three months in the military hospital in Cairo. X-rays revealed that the piece of shrapnel that had struck him was still inside his head, having gone round inside his skull and lodged there.
The surgeon promised him that they would be able to fill the hole in his head. It was only a question of finding a piece of bone that would fit. There would be surely be someone, one day soon, with a skull for which he had no further use. He would surrender a piece of it.
The hole in Colin’s skull was closed by a bone transplant.
After a period of healing and convalescence, Colin regained his A1 medical rating and returned to his Commando unit, which was by now in active operations in Yugoslavia. He ended the war in Northern Italy where he used his German language in the management of German prisoners after their surrender.
When he was able at last to visit Frankfurt, he found his mother still alive. He took British citizenship and has lived in England since 1945. He became interested in gliding and became active in the sport, especially taking an interest in the Vintage Gliding Club, which is how I came to know him. The interview on which this short account is based was recorded by Ted Hull. Colin himself has written his own story which it is hoped he will publish.
He is now 90.
The shrapnel is still in his head. It has never given him any trouble. It shows up on X – rays but not in airport security gates.
≈ 1600 words