Christmas 1945, Hamburg, Stille Nacht, by Harry Leslie Smith

It snowed on Christmas Eve day. It fell like icing sugar and dusted the city as if it were a stale and crumbling Christmas cake. The peddlers, black marketers, and cigarette hustlers scrambled to finish their commerce before the church bells pealed to celebrate the birth of Christ. Along the St. Pauli district, steam-powered trucks delivered beer and wine to the whorehouses who expected exceptional business from nostalgic servicemen. Across the Reeperbahn, the lights burned bright, while in the refugee camps, the homeless huddled down against the cold, warming themselves with watery soup and kind words provided by visiting Lutherans priests.

The airport was somnolent; the service men charged with keeping it operational were as sluggish as a cat curled up on a pillow before a fire. Outside the communications tower, LACs took long cigarette breaks, draped in their great coats. In between puffs and guffaws, they swapped lewd jokes or tales about their sexual exploits with German women.

The air traffic control nest was unmanned for the next few days. The radio transmitters hummed emotionlessly because the ether above was empty and the clouds ripe for snow. Nothing was expected to arrive or depart until Boxing Day. On the ground, the roadways around the airport were quiet because the fleet of RAF vehicles was stabled at the motor pool for the duration of the holiday. Everywhere, it was still, except on the runway where a platoon of new recruits cleared snow from the landing area.

At the telephone exchange, the switchboard was staffed by a bored skeleton crew who waited for their shift to end. The normal frenetic noise and activity from hundreds of calls being patched and dispatched through the camp to the military world in Germany and Britain was hushed as there were few people left to either place or receive a call. Some communication operators hovered around mute teletype machines, which awoke every hour and furiously printed out wind speed, temperature, and ceiling levels, “For bloody Saint Nick,” someone remarked.

This was a unique Christmas because for the first time since 1938, the entire world was at peace. So anyone who was able took leave and abandoned our aerodrome for a ten-day furlough. For those of us who remained, a Christmas committee was formed to organize festivities. The Yule spirit around camp mirrored row house Britain. It was constructed out of cut-price lager and crate paper decorations with the unspoken motto: “cheap but cheerful cheer in Fuhlsbüttel.” In the mess hall, a giant Christmas tree was erected dangerously close to a wood stove by the Xmas team. They had festooned it with glittering ornaments and placed faux presents underneath its boughs. Sleighs and Father Christmas figures cut from heavy paper were pinned to the walls as festive decorations. Mistletoe dangled from light fixtures and gave our dining hall the appearance of a holiday party at a carpet mill in Halifax.

On the morning before Christmas, I negotiated with the head cook for extra rations for Friede and her family to allow them a holiday meal. The cook was an obliging Londoner whose mastery of culinary arts began and ended with the breakfast fry up. Never one to saying no to sweetening his own pot, the cook amicably took my bribe of tailored shirts in exchange for food. He let me fill my kit bag to bursting with tinned meat, savouries, and sweets.

“Give the Hun a bit of a treat tonight,” he said. “Take the pork pie along with a bit of plum pudding.”

Harry Leslie Smith

Harry Leslie Smith was born in Barnsley Yorkshire in 1923. After a stormy and chaotic youth; he joined the RAF in 1941. Smith eventually ended up in occupied Hamburg Germany at the end of the Second World War. He remained part of the peace time RAF until 1947 whereupon, he married and decamped back to Yorkshire with his new bride. Six years of post war England were enough for Harry and his bride and they decided to emigrate to the greener pastures of Canada.

In Canada, Harry Smith worked in the oriental carpet trade. He specialized in designing and importing unique rug creations from all over the Middle East, the former Soviet Block, and Afghanistan.

Since his time in the second world war, Harry Leslie Smith has been an avid reader and writer; who at 87 has found a keen interest in social media and connecting the stories of his past with contemporary audiences.

Currently, he divides his time between Canada, Great Britain, and Portugal.

Find Harry Leslie Smith’s 1923 site here and blog here.  Harry is also on Facebook and Twitter.


Filed under For The Troops, Guest Writers & Bloggers, Special Events

9 responses to “Christmas 1945, Hamburg, Stille Nacht, by Harry Leslie Smith

  1. When I say Harry Leslie Smith’s name as the writer for this most recent theme, I instantly left where I was and came here to read what he had written. Only my second piece from his pen has touched my eyes but oh, oh, so good. Thanks Harry and thanks Karen for bringing us another glimpse of this man’s skilled prose.

  2. I love this piece…I love the realism of it and the textures and the prose…fabulous piece of writing.

  3. This gentleman looks so much like my Grandfather Denlinger it’s scary! He came over to the states from Germany shortly before my Dad was born. My Grandmother hardly spoke any English, a stubborn German woman! This was actually shocking when I came upon this photo! I’ll have to see if I can come up with an old photo of Grandfather to show you!

  4. A nice piece of eye-witness history. Thank you for this.

  5. This encapsulated moment seems especially relevant just now, in the space between our country’s wars; and it helps to be reminded of deprivations worse than our own and know that they were lived through and overcome.

  6. I usually drop everything when I see Harry’s name, too! He writes so I feel it, hear it, smell it… DiAnne, that would be cool if you could find the picture. Thanks everyone for stopping by to visit with Harry. I have read Harry’s The Barley Hole Chronicles, and I hated to put it down. Excellent!

  7. 1923thebook

    Thanks everyone for the very kind words and Happy Christmas!

  8. Sorry I’m late to the party. What an excellent story. I’m always drawn to realism and maintain a collection of books that are vivid memoirs. Found it interesting, that it was the first time the world was at peace. Perfect Christmas story. Thank you for introducing me to Harry Leslie Smith!

  9. Thank you for your comment Patricia. I’d much rather read a memoir of a real person like Harry, than a fluffed up Hollywood memoir! And Harry’s writing is so vivid – it puts you right in the moment.

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