While researching Hitler’s Last Army I stumbled on an extraordinary story. On 12 September 1947, a group of about 25 civilians – mainly women and children – climbed into the back of a truck which was to take them to their camp after a day spent picking hops near the Sussex village of Bodiam.
The vehicle was crossing the narrow bridge in the village when it crashed through temporary railings and plunged into the river, turning on to its side. Most of the passengers were stunned: some were injured. The canvas cover over the back of the truck prevented most of them from getting out, and they were at risk of drowning.
A fifteen-year-old boy who had managed to struggle free ran for help. The only people he saw were four German prisoners of war from the nearby POW camp, who were working not far from the bridge. Between them the Germans rescued all of the hop-pickers. As one survivor told me in a 2012 interview, ‘One moment we were going along, all singing in the back – then suddenly we were in the water. They [the Germans] were brilliant. They pulled us out and wrapped us in blankets. If it hadn’t been for them, people would definitely have died.’
I still think it’s a great story! It’s certainly thought-provoking. I decided to include it as an illustration of what many people would consider to be unexpected qualities in German servicemen just after the Second World War, and used it as the Prologue to Hitler’s Last Army. (Some readers may be suprised to know that German POWs were still being kept in Britain as late as September 1947. In fact, there were about 200,000 at that time, many of whom were not repatriated until the following year).
I’m grateful to Keith Ennis, whose website, Bygone Bodiam, has been extremely helpful in my research. I recommend it as an extremely interesting read!