The Ingrid Pitt column: escaping the Nazis

Ingrid Pitt recalls how she survived the war, the winter, and tuberculosis, and discovered a lifelong love of aviation

Ingrid Pitt

The 15th May is one of my favourite dates in the calendar. For a couple of reasons: it’s my wedding anniversary, and it is the date I fell in love with aviation. I must admit that it is not easy to remember a date when you begin to have an absorbing interest in a particular subject but this was an extraordinary time and event.

Just three years earlier I had been a guest in one of Hitler’s notorious establishments in Poland. My mother and I had been separated from my father in 1943 and sent to different camps. Two years later, with the Red Army closing in, the Nazis had decided that they didn’t want to be caught in flagrante delicto. The guards rounded up the survivors and set out with the intention of taking us back to Germany. This idea was soon abandoned when Allied aircraft started strafing the roads whenever they saw anything which assembled a column of troops. During one attack we managed to escape into the forest – in the deep snow and freezing cold. Fortunately we fell in with a gang of fellow desperadoes eager to keep out of the hands of the vindictive Germans.

Our camp was formed around an old charcoal burner’s cottage. It wasn’t the most hospitable place in the world but at least there wasn’t the constant threat of disappearing up the chimney in a puff of smoke. Unfortunately I wasn’t out of the woods; literally and metaphorically. I had always been a sickly child, skinny, a constantly running nose, scabs around my mouth and a tendency to alopecia. Not a pretty sight. By the time a bit of welcome warmth began to creep into the atmosphere I was in a bad way. And my mother had contracted Typhus.

Just when it looked as if, after all our tribulations, we weren’t going to survive the war we were found by the American Red Cross. The war had been over for a couple of months and we didn’t even know about it. They bunged us on the back of a truck along with others who weren’t feeling too chirpy and took us to a field hospital. It was just a large tent but it was the most stable environment we had been in for nearly three years. It was wonderful to be in a proper bed with real sheets and thick blankets. I was diagnosed as having TB. In all we were in hospital for nearly three months. At first I wasn’t expected to recover. What I needed was a bed in a sanatorium on top of a Swiss mountain with lashings of hot, delicious grub and fresh air. There was no shortage of food but luxurious mountain tops were in short supply. My mother recovered more rapidly than I did and was able to take over nursing me towards the end of our stay. I thought we were there forever but my mother told me one day that we were moving on. We had been passed on to a Displaced Persons camp where we would be given the opportunity to begin to put our lives back together again. She sweetened the pill by suggesting that we might find my father waiting for us.

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The DP camp was just the first of many. The people running them were very kind and helpful but there wasn’t much they could do. Literally millions of people were wandering around Europe looking for loved ones and the only means of contact, at first, were pieces of paper pinned on a massive board on the entrance to the camp. For the next eighteen months we stayed for a limited time in one DP camp after another. My mother would spend hours scrutinising the board and talking to anyone she could buttonhole. But there was no news of my father. She decided to make for Berlin where she and my father had lived before the war had turned them into refugees.

But the winter was on us and I was ill again. My mother met a woman from one of the villages we passed through. It was Christmas and she asked us to spend the holiday with her. Panis Philipska was probably an angel in disguise. She put me in a big warm bed and told me not to worry. I promptly became ill. She called in the local doctor and when he was told my history of TB became very solemn. But in spite of this I managed to recover. I thought Panis’s house was the equivalent of a fairy palace and was prepared to spend the rest of my life there. My mother was made of sterner stuff and, when the days began to warm up a bit, decided that it was time to continue our search for my father. I thought she was mad. Even did the unforgivable and begged Panis to let me stay there. She would have agreed but my mother had looked after me through all the grim years and she wasn’t about to let me go now that she thought we were on the home stretch.

The Winter was beginning to close in when we finally reached Berlin. I think we both nearly died of disappointment when we found that our house had been taken over by another family and they had not heard from my father. My mother again pulled herself out of the depths of despair and thought of somewhere else he could conceivably be. He had a business partner before he and my mother had decided to get out of Germany. They had been great friends and she thought Papa might have gone to him. She was right. The reunion, after all that time and danger, was wonderful. We managed to do a deal with the people now living in our house and moved back in. The next year was the happiest I can remember. I absolutely adored my father and couldn’t have been prised from his side with a crow bar. My father had spent most of his life in England and wanted me to live there. I had received little education but he was determined that I should speak English and all our conversations were in that language.

But the idyll did not last. Before the war my father had been a prominent engineer and had reconnected with some of the colleagues he had known in the past. Although he wasn’t well enough to work he still spoke to some of them occasionally. Early in 1948 the Russians gave a little demonstration of power. They warned the Allies that they were closing the corridor through Eastern Germany, which they controlled, to West Berlin, which was controlled by the Allies. It was initially taken as a bit of sabre rattling. Then the Russians started making it difficult for the lorries carrying food and other essentials to get through. My father was informed by friends in the know that it was just the beginning and they feared that the Russians wanted to isolate Berlin completely and take over. The Allies had already started to fly in some of the essentials and children and sick people were being flown out. I qualified on both counts. My father didn’t hesitate. He pulled a few strings and told me that I was leaving to stay with some relatives in West Germany. I was terrified, I felt betrayed. After all we had been through I was being rejected by my family.

My mother and father took me to Templehof Airport. I cried and sniffled all the way. We stood in a queue, cold and miserable, until my name was called. We had hardly spoken since we left home. Now, suddenly I had masses of things I wanted to say. Anything to put off the moment of separation. I tried to cling onto my father but there was no going back. A big, black American soldier carried me onto the plane, a Dakota I found out later, and tied me onto a bundle of packing wrappers at the side of the fuselage. I just sat there and bawled pathetically. There was a roar as the engines started. I raised the decibels to match. After a minute or two the whole plane began to shake as it started to move off. I was practically mental now. The GI who had brought me on board came and tried to calm me down but I wasn’t having any of it. The noise of the plane grew and grew until it felt as if it was beating at me. Then, without warning, the shaking and the noise calmed down. It was so dramatic that I stopped screaming. The GI pointed out of the window. I looked out and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As the ground beneath us dropped away we entered a new world. I sat mesmerised. The plane nudged up through the low-lying cloud and we were in brilliant sun light. Beneath us was a beautiful field of white fluffy cloud. Through occasional openings I caught glimpses of green fields and trees, rivers and little villages. Magic!

The flight was over much too quickly but I was hooked. Still am! My flat is stuffed with model aircraft, pictures and books on aviation. My favourites are the beautiful Spitfire, the lumbering but comforting Lancaster and the elegant Dakota. A month after my trip the Russians closed the Corridor completely and the Berlin Airlift began. It was not a happy time to be in the city but, safe in the west, I was still savouring those magical moments in the air.

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Now, when I sit in a cosy restaurant and have a wedding anniversary celebration I always find myself thinking of that day 60 years ago. Oh yes! The third reason I love 15th May is I met my husband on 15th. May on an aeroplane – and yes – he’s a pilot.

Ingrid Pitt will be back with a new column next Tuesday; read her last one here.