Brothers In Arms – Walter Greiner
The 1914 unofficial ‘Christmas Truce’ when British and German soldiers crossed trenches to exchange cigarettes, swap food, sing carols and even play football is one of the most poignant emblems of World War One.
It suggests that despite bloodshed and anguish, what unites us is a common humanity, presaging that war will be followed by peace and the reconciliation of nations.
In 2014, whilst researching some of the forgotten names inscribed upon the Ockbrook and Borrowash War Memorial, ’Unexamined Lives’ uncovered an extraordinary illustration of humanity in action – or, in Virgil’s words:
‘Love begets love, love knows no rules, this is the same for all.’
Walter Day died of wounds at Passchendale on 11th October 1917. He had served at the front for less than six months and his widow, Frances Emily and baby son, Raymond, were left to grieve alone at their home in Borrowash.
Our account of Walter’s sacrifice appeared in The Derby Telegraph’s World War One commemorative supplement and some weeks later, we were delighted to be contacted by his great nephew, Brian Day, now living in Cornwall with his wife, Maureen.
For Brian, ‘Great Uncle Walter’ was just a name, but he was able to tell us about his side of the family and his own story was subsequently published in ‘Bygones’.
Brian has had an exciting life and his beautifully cultivated garden was the subject of a BBC2 television programme, ‘Open Gardens’, presented by Carol Klein.
Yet the most remarkable aspect of Brian Day’s history occurred when he was just nine years old and living with his family in Alvaston:
‘I think around 1947, you could invite two German POWs to Xmas dinner. My father thought it was now time to ‘move on’ and we had two prisoners round to have dinner with us, although we didn’t have much due to rationing……
They were so grateful and the elder one, Alfred was in tears. After they returned to Germany, we kept in touch and Walter, the younger one, returned in 1950 to stay with us for a short time. My father and his friends gave him several things that he could not get in Berlin.’
It was the start of a friendship between the German Walter Greiner and the English Day family that was to last a lifetime and in January 2015, whilst exchanging family news with Walter, who will celebrate his 90th birthday later in the year, Brian Day wrote:
The newspaper story of our family friendship since WW2 has created a lot of interest, and Helen, the author of the article wondered if you would like to tell your story of the time you spent in Derby all those years ago? If you would like to contact her, I can give you her email.’
A few weeks later, I received the following response from Dr Walter Greiner:
I am trying to write my story and hope that you will find it useful for your report. I have some photos and documents which I would like to send you by post if you would be so kind as to mail me your postal address.’
What followed is the story below – and the account of a friendship that has endured for 68 years.
Walter Greiner was born in Berlin in 1925. At the time, Germany was governed by the Weimar Republic, in place of the previous imperial regime. It was an unstable period and the Greiners were amongst many families who struggled to make ends meet and wondered where the next meal was coming from:
‘The economic situation in Berlin in 1925 when I was born was disastrous. My father was unemployed and my mother, my father, my brother and sister and I were hungry all the time. My mother found a job in a small restaurant where she got some food for the family.’
The Depression of the early 1930s was characterised by record unemployment and heralded the Nazi’s seizure of power in 1933 when things appeared to improve (albeit briefly) because Walter’s father found work.
It was a small oasis of calm.
In 1939 a war broke out that in Walter’s words, ‘was unnecessary, dreadful, started by Germany and painful to all of us and the surrounding countries of Europe.’
His father was drafted into the army, and died, aged 54, leaving a widow juggling two jobs and children working outside school hours to boost the family finances.
To make matters worse:
‘We suffered three times being bombed out, losing our dwellings.’
Meanwhile, unbeknown to Walter, the family of the woman who was to become Mrs Brian Day suffered the same fate in England:
‘Maureen’s mother’s house was one of the houses destroyed during an air raid on the Rolls Royce factory in Derby. Fortunately, her mum was outside, hanging out the washing, heard the aircraft and fell to the ground and was uninjured. But the house and possessions were completely destroyed. Maureen had not yet been born.’
In 1943, aged 17, Walter Greiner joined the Luftwaffe as a volunteer. Enlisting as a foot soldier would have meant fighting against the Russian army and Walter already had a love of flying and was well qualified:
‘As a young man, I had already passed by A, B and C certificates in aerial sailing when I was 16 and I loved flying with all my heart. As a soldier, I wanted to be in the air and not marching on the ground.’
He became a Junior Pilot and flew Arado and Klemm planes and also the Messerchmitt 109, the most produced fighter aircraft in history with its closed canopy and retractable landing gear making it the first of its kind in modern-day warfare.
However, Walter’s active service was abruptly curtailed on December 1944 when his plane was subject to a British/American pincer movement:
‘I was stationed on a field airport in France – already surrounded by British and American forces when I got the order to fly my plane – but was stopped by an exploding grenade hitting my plane and me heavily.’
He was lucky to be alive, but escape was never an option. Walter Greiner, still not out of his teens, was swiftly picked up and taken as a Prisoner of War.
Walter’s captors were American soldiers who saw the extent of his injuries and drove him by tank to a field hospital.
The ‘hospital’ had an unusual location (‘down in a coal mine’) and as Walter lay on a table in trepidation, awaiting an operation, he noticed some more welcome peculiarities:
‘I remember the walls were white with bright lights and a large operation table. The young sisters helping the doctors were young and very pretty with red painted fingernails – completely unknown in Germany at that time. Super!’
His stay afforded him little time to make further observations of the same nature because after a couple of days he was flown to England and admitted to an American hospital where he lay, feeling completely at the mercy of his own fighter planes:
‘At night we saw the German V2 Rockets flying to London. And we German POWs were afraid, like the British people living around the hospital.’
Later, he was moved again, this time via a 12 day boat journey from Liverpool, to Boston USA where he became one of the Americans’ Prisoners of War at the Fort Meade camp in Maryland.
During the Second World War, Fort Meade housed about 4,000 German and Italian Prisoners of War and 33 German and 2 Italian POWs are buried in the camp cemetery. The most famous grave is that of German submariner, Werner Henke who was shot whilst trying to escape from a secret interrogation centre in West Virginia.
Fort Meade is where Walter remained for the duration of the war – until in May 1946, he returned to Europe – but not to Germany. Walter and other German Prisoners of War were taken to 1008 POW Camp in Alvaston, Derby.
Alvaston Park, created in 1934, was used as a Prisoner of War camp during World War Two. The Italian prisoners became farm labourers and some of their German counterparts worked at an ordnance depot in Sinfin Lane.
The Day family lived nearby at number 4 Field Lane and in 1947, Brian’s parents, Leslie and Edna decided to offer some Christmas hospitality to two German Prisoners of War from the Alvaston camp. Hostilities were still uppermost in the national consciousness and although the Greiners were as much the victims of Hitler as the Days, the decision to share a meal with two men who had served the Fatherland must have taken a great amount of courage.
Such kindness was not lost upon Walter:
‘Alfred and I enjoyed the meal very much and we thanked Leslie and Edna very much and regretted that we could not manage to bring a bunch of flowers to the lady as well-educated gentlemen.’
The Days continued the friendship. Leslie took his 9 year old son, Brian to visit the prisoners and they, in turn, gave him some hand-made wooden toys. Leslie, a bus driver, then asked permission to take Walter on an outing.
‘The Commander of our camp, Major J.A. Buckenham who appointed me as a Head Clerk in his office, agreed when Leslie Day asked him to pick me up from the camp to show me Derby.’
Walter recalls his excitement and sense that a reconciliation process between the two nations had begun:
‘And so he sat me on his big bus, first floor, first row and I saw Derby from above and was very happy to sit amongst the other bus-using English people and talked to them and they with me.’
By the time Walter was allowed to return to Germany in January 1947, leaving the Days was a genuine wrench:
‘We said goodbye with handshaking and tears in our eyes. We had become very good friends and this friendship has lasted so many years now with the son Brian, and wife, Maureen, continuing.’
When Leslie died suddenly in 1961, it was Walter’s chance to repay the kindness he had been shown:
‘Anita and I helped Edna a little bit by sending money and care packets. We were in touch all the years and our families are very close together in spite of the distance between Cornwall now and Berlin. But Brian continued the friendship by motorcycling with his nephew to Berlin. We had a wonderful time together and Brian liked it very much. I was only sorry that Maureen could not be there.’
When Walter returned to Berlin, he married Anita. They had known each other since they were both 14 years old and their families had been neighbours.
‘We lived with our parents in the same street in the District Prenzlauer Berg. When I was a POW in the USA and in England, Anita was a secretary in Konigsberg (East Prussia today).’
After the settlements agreed in The Treaty of Versailles, following the defeat of Germany in World War 1, West Prussia was granted to Poland and East Prussia, (with its capital of Konigsberg) became a province in the Weimar Republic. When the Russians advanced during the Second World War, the German population in Konigsberg was largely expelled and around 300,000 people died in battles defending the province – or as a result of the ferocious bombing raids.
Anita was one of the residents who had to escape to survive. It was a daunting prospect and she must have been terrified. Walter describes the action she took:
‘She fled when the Soviets came to East Prussia to Berlin. This very long distance to Berlin she had to walk – it took more than 4 weeks. Very dreadful to remember.’
After the war, in 1946, Konigsberg was re-named Kaliningrad and people in Germany, as elsewhere, began to re-build their lives.
The Potsdam Conference (17th July – 2nd August 1945) was convened to decide the future of Germany after the defeat of Hitler. The Allies determined that it would be divided into four occupation zones for administrative purposes and the Berlin that Walter returned to was very different from the city that had been his childhood home:
‘When I was released as a POW, Berlin was a divided city in four sectors, British Sector, American Sector, French Sector and Soviet Sector. They formed the Kommandatura Berlin. When some years were over, the Soviets and the DDR built the Berlin Wall. East Berlin became the capital of the DDR.
The remaining sectors became the city of West Berlin. We managed and were proud to master a one year blockade of West Berlin by the Soviets.’
Again, Walter and Anita were caught up in turbulent times and their freedom was compromised:
‘Nobody could leave the city on the road.’
Yet the ties that had been forged in Alvaston with Leslie and Edna Day and their family endured and some way or other:
‘We kept in touch with the Day family by mail.’
Fortunately, resilience won through and Walter remains proud of the fact that the Russian threat was overcome:
‘West Berlin could not be conquered by the Soviets. We were strong for freedom and peace and helped very strongly for the re-unification of German. And here we are now.’
Walter’s immediate goal, however, was to get a job and his first post was as a Labour Advisor to the British Military Government in Berlin (1947 – 1957).
His stay in Alvaston as a Prisoner of War was to prove useful, because Major Buckenham who had allowed bus driver, Leslie Day to take a German POW on a sightseeing trip to Derby, now came through with a glowing reference.
‘This is to certify that the above-named individual was a Prisoner of War under my command during the period June 6th1946 to January 1947. During this period, he was employed in the Camp Office as Head Clerk, and gave most satisfactory service in all respects. He speaks English fluently and can also read and write the language. He has a very good knowledge of British Army office routine, and is thoroughly trustworthy.
I can recommend him for employment with the Military Government in Germany in a clerical capacity.’
The new post suited Walter and he was a valuable asset to his employers as many organisations are willing to testify, such as The Industrial Welfare Society, based in London.
Writing to Walter in 1953, W. H. Bower, an Assistant Director says:
‘Dear Mr Greiner,
I have now returned to London and would like to send you a little personal note to thank you very sincerely for all the trouble you took in assisting us when we visited the various factories in Berlin’.
T.E. Chester from The Acton Society Trust writes in similar vein on 5th October, 1953:
‘I have already thanked Mr. Davidson and asked him to convey our thanks to you, nevertheless I feel that we owe you a debt of gratitude which can only partly be repaid by thanking you not only in an official capacity but as an individual. It was very kind of you to devote so much energy to our affairs and I can assure you that it was greatly appreciated.’
By 1957, when Walter decided to seek fresh professional challenges, he had established a reputation as an invaluable employee of the British Military Government and received this professional accolade from G.W.J Cole at the British Embassy:
‘I am taking this opportunity to express my thanks to you for your long and loyal service in the labour branch of British Military Government in Berlin and in doing so I am sure I would be supported by Mr Foggon, Mr Amoss and Mr Davidson, and of course by my predecessors Mr Luce and Mr Goddard. We have all had a great admiration for he way you have carried out your duties.’
Walter’s diplomatic skills were put to good use in his next role, as Chief of the Personnel Department at the World HQ, (situated in Berlin) of AG Telefunken, a radio and television apparatus company. He was to remain there for 10 years, leaving in 1968 to become Head of Personnel, Social Affairs and Education at Borsig AG, Berlin, a leading international technological firm. By 1971, he has become the Berlin Representative for Borsig, a Company Director and had acquired a doctorate (Diplom-Kaufmann Dr.rer. pol.).
By any estimation, Walter Greiner’s skills led to an extremely successful and distinguished career, but the greatest accolade was yet to come.
In 1986, the Federal President of Germany, Richard von Weizsacker presented him with the Bundesverdienstkreuz; an Order of Merit issued by the Federal Republic of Germany. The award had first been established on 7th September 1951 by the Federal President at the time, Theodor Heuss. To date, 200,000 individuals, both Germans and foreigners have been awarded the honour and the original decree, signed by President Heuss, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Minister of the Interior, Robert Lehr pledges:
‘ (to)visibly express recognition and gratitude to deserving men and women of the German people and of foreign countries, on the second Anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany ,( I) establish the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. It is awarded for achievements that served the rebuilding of the country in the fields of political, socio-economic and intellectual activity, and is intended to mean an award for all those whose work contributes to the peaceful rise of the Federal Republic of Germany.’
Walter Greiner, ex Prisoner of War from the Alvaston camp, was honoured for a lifetime’s endeavour in the cause of world peace.
His personal life has been similarly happy; largely due to an extremely strong and happy marriage to Anita, whom he describes lovingly as ‘an extraordinary lady with charm and elegance.’
In July 2014, the couple celebrated 65 years of married life, reaching their Iron Wedding Anniversary and their children have also achieved successful careers:
‘Our son Jurgen is 61 and fully engaged with his job as Head of Documentation of Stiftung Warentest (protection of customers by tests). He is living in Berlin and is a good friend of the soccer team Hertha BSC. Our daughter, Birgit is 57 and Professor at the Cork University, Ireland. She is a Dipl Psychologin Master of Public Health, PhD. She often holds lectures at the London University, Stockholm. Copenhagen etc. Her husband has a farm in South Ireland.’
In retirement, Walter and Anita are certainly not ‘slowing down’ and see a great deal of their children and extended family. They are true internationalists and, courtesy of Walter’s long-time role as a Member of the German Economic Council, have visited Australia, South Arica, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Japan, South Korea, USA and Canada. They are regular travellers in England and Ireland, enjoying motoring holidays and returning via Glasgow and Wales. Above all, they value being enthusiastic members of the family of nations:
‘We meet a lot of people and we still have contact with several English families in London and Scotland. We were together with English students at Stonehenge and discussed with them questions about studying at the Free University in Berlin.’
Walter is thankful for the many years of peace that eh ahs enjoyed, but his experiences have taught him never to take stability for granted:
‘Thank God we have had 70 years of peace in Europe and we hope that the negotiations of the French and German Chancellors with Putin will reach a peaceful solution.’
One thing is certain; if there is anything he can do personally to further the cause of international harmony, Walter will not hesitate and it is perhaps the kindness of the Englishman, Leslie Day who set an example in 1947 by inviting two German Prisoners of War to share a family Christmas dinner at Number 4, Field Lane in Alvaston.
Walter attributes his happy marriage to Anita to the fact that they share the same astrological sign; Scorpio. In November 2015, he will celebrate his 90th birthday and Anita will be 89. 2016 is the significant year for Brian and Maureen Day who are already making preparations for their Golden Wedding Anniversary. They will certainly be receiving congratulations from their lifelong friends, Walter and Anita Greiner from Germany.
In an uncertain world, the story of Walter Greiner and the English Day family is an affirmation of hope for the future. It shows that in the darkest of times, man can reach out to man and overcome the barriers of language, tradition and political discord.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, cheered by the strength of his family relationships, a career of distinction and letters from his friends in England, Walter Greiner is full of optimism.
He still has much to do; much to contribute the general good:
‘We are forward-looking, happy and satisfied with our life; thankful to God and helpful to other people. Now – I will be 90 years of age and Anita 89 in November 2015 and we are looking to the future.’