The Storks came Back

Excerpt from Chapter 30, Day of Mayhem

From here he could see far across the meadows, across the railway running through the open grasslands, all the way down to the river and the clustered houses of the village on the opposite bank.

Morten narrowed his eyes. In the distance was a tiny plume of grey smoke moving toward them, hidden by trees now and then. Minutes later he heard the chugging and puffing of a steam locomotive. In another minute the train had appeared. No longer obscured by willow and aspen, it pulled out into the open meadow. It was a long train, rolling by slowly. Another refugee transport, Morten supposed. Each wagon was marked on the sides and on top of the roof with a large red cross painted on a white background.

He tilted his head to listen closely. Was that the drone of airplanes in the distance? He squinted against the sun, aware of his heartbeat quickening. No mistake. A half-dozen fighter planes came skimming over the river valley!

Morten stood on the road unable to move, though fully aware that he ought to run for safety.

The next instant, six Allied fighter planes swooped in over the railway. They made a low pass, turned and came back with guns blazing, strafing the entire length of the train. The steam engine exploded in a cloud of steam and smoke. All along the line of wagons, doors flung open and hundreds of terrified, screaming people tumbled out. They raced across the meadow up toward the road where Morten stood nailed to the ground. The planes returned a second time to fire on the scattered people in the meadows.

At last Morten came to his senses. “Snap, come quick!” They ran to the nearest culvert under the road.

Morten flung himself down and squeezed inside, pulling Snap with him to crouch in three inches of muddy water. The planes came back three more times strafing the meadows as well as the road, before heading west. Relieved of spare ammunition they would indeed have an easier time crossing the sea back to Britain.

He gagged. Those pilots and gunners could not have overlooked the red-cross markings on the roof of the train. And when they swooped down a second and third time to strafe the fleeing people, they would have been able to clearly see the ragged civilian clothes of these refugees. They must have known the train carried no enemy troops.


Targeting civilians during a war is distressingly common

By Hans Larsen

(The German Luftwaffe strafed refugees in Belgium and France, the Russian Army targeted civilians in Germany and the Danish island of Bornholm, and I witnessed, at age 10, the RAF strafing refugees in Denmark)

On rainy days we, children, fought spirited campaigns on the living-room floor with our tin-soldier armies. Battle casualties fell over, got back up and continued to fight another round. There were no civilians in our games.

Then one day on my way back from school during the Second World War (by then in its third year), I made a shocking discovery. I saw at close range how far our childish rules of war turned out to be removed from the real thing — the war that kept ravaging our country, one of the many occupied by the might of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

On that fall afternoon I was biking home from school passing by a freshly plowed field. At the bottom of the field, some two hundred meters down from the road, ran a fenced double track railway connecting the nation’s capital, Copenhagen, with Korsoer, a busy ferry harbor. I was about to turn off the road into a bicycle path, when I saw two trains down there on the tracks travelling in opposite directions, coming under attack from Allied fighter-planes. One train was familiar to me, a school-train bringing older children home from the Cathedral School, the high-school located in the town of Roskilde. The other one I recognized as a refugee-train, a string of crowded freight cars marked with red crosses. The fighter planes destroyed the steam engines of both trains in the first attack – one engine crew perished in the hot steam, I found out later. The planes turned and came back barely clearing the windbreaks around the field. By this time hundreds of people were pouring out of the freight cars, climbing through and over the fence and struggling through the plowed field uphill to where I was standing. The planes flew over low, strafing the people in the field. They turned at the end of their pass and strafed the field once more before gaining height and flying westward to their bases in Britain.

Two days later the last of the dead refugees had been buried in the west corner of the field, hundreds of graves marked with white wooden crosses.

This took place in 1943, and it was not the last war act explicitly taking aim at civilians. Shortly afterwards my family was ordered to vacate our home so the German Army could move in – we were forced to move to the other side of the country, the North Sea coast, to live with my mother’s family. In normal times the journey west, including two sea channel crossings, took about six hours. This time it took six days to reach the west coast. The ferries had been ordered away from their regular crossings, to head south to German held Baltic Sea harbors where massive numbers of German refugees fleeing west, ahead of the advancing Red Russian Army, had collected. Each time a ferry arrived and unloaded its cargo of refuges we stood with other Danish travelers waiting on the dock till the ship was hosed down and returned to regular service, ready at last to receive us, hundreds of ‘regular passengers’ scrambling aboard in a mad dash.

I found a spot on the upper deck and watched the next refugee transport arriving at the dock and unloading large numbers of wounded refugees. The walking wounded did their best to carry or drag the seriously wounded on to the dock. I remember wondering if these unfortunate people might also have been strafed by fighter plane gunners seeking an easy target. One fact of warfare had become distressingly obvious to me at age ten – civilians, even those who obviously were, or could not contribute to the enemy war effort, could be subjected to deliberate attack in wartime. For the remainder of the war, and ever after, I refused to wear the knitted red-white-blue RAF- hat I used to be so proud of.