By Andrew LEEMING
Summer 1956 – a moment balanced in time
Lancashire, in the North of England
The children ran down the field, shouting a high-spirited, breathless confusion of Gaelic and English.
The Irish itinerant workers crossed the sea every summer to work on the harvest, digging up the potatoes, then gathering in the wheat, oats and barley. Mr Moorcroft of Moss House Farm had always treated them well, so they returned each year, bringing their ever-growing families with them.
Even as the children reached where the farmhands were digging the rich soil – Ormskirk was renowned for its potatoes – the adults could still barely understand them, such was the excitement in their voices. Gradually, after many questions and calls for calm, the words emerged in slow procession: boys, bicycles, three, foreign.
At the end of a long, summer afternoon, toiling in a wind that had blown all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, Mr Moorcroft decided that the men deserved refreshments. The break would allow him to walk up to the farmyard, to investigate the three boys who were the cause of all the excitement.
There were indeed three of them, each with a bicycle laden with bags. The sunburn and healthy looks told of hours in the fresh air and sunshine, their blonde hair confirmed what the children had already said: they were foreigners.
Two of the boys held back, uncertain, whilst one, summoning the courage to overcome his shyness and speak, stepped forward slightly. In very polite English, he introduced himself as Klaus, explaining that the three friends – Hans-Jürgen and Wilfried were the names of the other two boys – were touring England for the summer holidays. The three came from Hannover in northern Germany and could they possibly sleep in the barn overnight?
Mr Moorcroft, it was said, was a man of few words. The difficult events in his life had left him unable to express affection easily. But, at heart, deep down, he was a kindly, compassionate man, responsive to the open friendliness of the young Germans.
From his pocket, he slowly took out a cigarette. Searching for the matches gave him time to think.
Germans. His thoughts went quickly to Liverpool, just a few miles across the plain to the south, easily visible from his farmhouse on the hill. As the major port on the Atlantic route, almost all of the wartime supplies from North America had passed through Liverpool docks: food, soldiers, munitions, equipment. Apart from London, no other British city had been attacked so often by the Luftwaffe. Of seventeen thousand houses in Bootle, in the north of the dockland, only forty had escaped damage.
From the farmhouse on the hill, the land swept away to the coast: time after time, the orange glow in the sky told that Liverpool was burning once again.
Parts of the bomb-damaged city had still not been rebuilt although the war had ended more than ten years before. The raids had brought terrified families by train to stay on Mr Moorcroft’s farm to sleep in safety, away from the falling bombs. Each morning he watched sadly as they returned to Liverpool, to places of work, to schools, to homes that they hoped were still standing, to loved ones they hoped were still alive.
Feeling proud that he could at least provide a refuge, Mr Moorcroft was conscious that all he had to offer these families was a primitive, derelict large house named Up Litherland Hall, which had been built in 1674, almost three centuries ago. Despite the lack of running water, warmth and electricity, still the families came from Liverpool each night. At least here they would be safe. Safe from the noise, from the flames, from the blasts, from the fear.
The war had also touched the farm directly in another way: Italian prisoners of war had worked in the fields, glad to be safe from the fighting in North Africa and so even tolerating being locked up at night in a small shed adjacent to the farmhouse. Their songs had melted hearts.
Taking his time, he tried to light his cigarette. The wind from the open fields blew the match out. Cupping his hands better this time, he lit another.
His thoughts turned back thirty years to his nephew, Billy, a small energetic boy who was full of curiosity and intelligence. Billy’s mother, Elizabeth, was the older sister of Mr Moorcroft’s wife, Eleanor. The newly-wed Moorcrofts had first lived with Billy’s family on their farm in Maghull.
Germans. Billy had seen the bombing of Liverpool early in the war. He had then volunteered for the RAF to do “his bit”, passed the tests, qualified as a navigator in Bomber Command, made the family proud of him in his mid-blue uniform, the flight training in Canada and his tales of adventure.
In July 1943, returning from bombing Aachen, the last attack in “The Battle of the Ruhr”, Billy’s Lancaster had been shot down over Belgium by a nightfighter. Billy and five members of the crew had been killed. The entire Moorcroft family felt the loss; grief-stricken, his father never recovered from the shock and died in December 1943.
Nervously, patiently, Klaus, Hans-Jürgen and Wilfried waited, tired and hungry.
Their bicycle tour was something that none of them would ever forget. In early August, passing through London they had seen the Queen, the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, and the United States Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, there to find a resolution to the growing international crisis surrounding the Suez Canal.
Many times, as they travelled, they had encountered hostility and aggression when their voices betrayed their nationality. Seeing the ruined buildings in British cities, they had understood.
Their parents had never spoken of how their home city of Hannover had been bombed sixteen times by the RAF, when sixty per cent of the built-up area had been destroyed. Their own homes were close to the centre of the city.
No-one ever spoke to them of the mountains of rubble, the disease, the loss of loved ones, the chaos, the years of life underground in water-logged cellars that were overrun with rats, the stench of unfound decaying corpses buried deep under the destruction.
As young boys at the end of the war, they had been protected, as far as possible, from what had gone before.
But, still, for some time now during their cycle tour, they had talked of going home. It hurt them to be blamed by the British for events for which they could not bear any responsibility. They had hoped for adventure on their travels, but the hostility was they had encountered had soured their experience. Kindness towards them was hardly to be expected.
Perhaps they should turn their bicycles around, leave the farmyard with resigned gestures of thanks and try to find accommodation on a neighbouring farm, although the hour was now late.
Mr Moorcroft pondered, deep in thought still. Perhaps it was time to forgive the past. They were just boys. These three weren’t responsible. What had they themselves suffered during those terrible years?
“Have you eaten? Are you hungry?” Mr Moorcroft surprised them by quietly breaking his long silence. Finally, his cigarette glowed brightly, the smoke billowing in the wind.
“You can sleep in the barn amongst the hay, if you wish”.
Overwhelmed by this unexpected kindness, huge smiles broke out on the faces of the three young Germans. Klaus stuttered his thanks. It had been a long, exhausting day and, yes, they were very hungry indeed.
Andrew Leeming - 21st April 2016