The scene and tension are something that Herb Albrecht never forgot.
Working as a plane spotter with an anti-aircraft unit during the Second World War, he’d see a wave of bomber aircraft or fighter planes approaching in the distance.
An alarm would sound, sirens would shriek and flak guns would pound the air with an unceasing whump-whump, whump-whump.
Some planes were shot down, but others would make it through the phalanx of flak fire, and bombs would rain from the sky, exploding on impact with a loud crack.
“You’d be nervous wondering what section of the city they were going to bomb and if you were going to be in that section,” Albrecht said of the mercurial tension he felt during those incidents.
“It was hell on earth — I saw hell on this earth.”
Albrecht, 92, has been confined to a wheelchair since a stroke at age 59. He’s lived quietly at Tsawaayuus Rainbow Gardens seniors’ facility in Port Alberni for the last four years.
His body is slow to move and his right side is paralyzed. The memories come slow over three afternoons, but they come. Because what he saw as a member of the German Luftwaffe in the Second World War is burned into his retinas and into his mind.
Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, marks the day Commonwealth citizens remember members of their armed forces who died in the line of duty since the First World War.
Locally, veterans and supporters gather at a memorial service at the Alberni District Secondary School auditorium then lay wreaths at the Field of Honour and merchant marine memorial.
As the Last Post echoes, the thinned ranks of old soldiers stand in stillness for the minute of silence, remembering past battles and mourning friends who never survived the war.
Nov. 11 is a day for the victors to commemorate, but the vanquished have their memories as well.
Herbert Albrecht was born Sept. 10, 1919 in Kassel, a small town in the state of Hessen, Germany. He was one of three siblings, and had both an older and younger sister.
Albrecht’s pure white hair and ruddy complexion contrast with his neat checked shirt and black slacks as he peers out the window of his room, muted sounds drifting through his open doorway.
Albrecht recalls his childhood, particularly the boys he went to school with. A picture of a castle hangs on his wall. “That’s located in my hometown; I’ve been there several times and remember it vividly,” he said.
The rise of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party served as a backdrop as Albrecht grew up. Unions were smashed, other political parties crushed and their leaders jailed, and the air was rife with militarism as the country marched inevitably into war.
When Albrecht was 16 his younger sister Ilsa died, an event that devastated the family, he said. He told his father he wanted to join the military and his father suggested the ground corps of the Luftwaffe. “He didn’t want to lose a second child,” Albrecht said.
War broke out and Albrecht served at several posts across the European theatre. He remembers the Allied bombings, particularly the continuous thumping of anti-aircraft guns.
He remembers planes being shot down. Some crew members survived and were taken prisoner, he said.
But Albrecht remembers something else — the bonds he forged with the men with whom he served. “We fought together, talked, and we even got drunk together,” he said.
A soldier always has a buddy, he said, and his was Karl Heinz Haas, a boyhood friend from Kassel. “He never survived the war, he was wounded and died in the hospital,” Albrecht said.
Albrecht eventually became a dispatch messenger with the Luftwaffe, a duty he continued with until the war’s end. He earlier attained the rank of Seargent but advanced no further. “I had no military ambitions at all,” he said.
Albrecht’s unit was captured by the British near the war’s end and sent to a POW camp in Yugoslavia. He was there only a short time before he escaped with a few others and was spirited back to German lines.
The flight to freedom was shortlived, though. Albrecht’s unit surrendered to the Allies and the war was over.
Albrecht returned to Kassel, but bombings had reduced it to a bleak and blasted landscape. He points to a picture in a book of a bombed Kassel and it resembles a charcoal sketch more than a photograph.
He made his way to Munich where he went to university and studied law. But Germany was flatlined after the war and there were few opportunities, so he travelled to England, where he worked as a butler for 18 months.
While in England Albrecht visited Canada House in Trafalgar Square and decided he would move to the land of the maple leaf.
“Canada was a country of many nations of peoples, not just one nation of people,” he said. “It seemed like a place for everyone.”
Albrecht joined some 350,000 other Germans who made their way to Canada after the war. He arrived after a nine-day boat ride in Halifax on March 23, 1952.
Albrecht worked a series of jobs in Toronto, Calgary, and Edmonton before landing in Vancouver and finally deciding that Port Alberni was where he wanted to put down roots. Alberni was medium-sized and growing.
“I bought my tickets — one way,” he said.
The first place he lived was the Somass Hotel and his first job was at the Somass Mill, he said.
Albrecht joined the two dozen post-war Germans who lived in the Valley at that time and the number kept growing, he said.
Most post-war Germans got on with their lives in their new country, but Albrecht noticed a schism between pre- and post-war immigrant Germans. The former felt the old nationalism that was brutally displaced. The latter were trying to detox themselves of the poisoning of the same nationalism.
Albrecht’s bride-to-be, Ellen, who he met in England, joined him in 1953 and the two were married in Alberni that same year. She visits him daily at Rainbow Gardens, referring to him often as “schatzie” (love).
Albrecht became a Canadian citizen in 1957. “I’ve been Canadian longer than I was German,” he said. “I’m proud to say I’m Canadian.”
Albrecht left the Somass Mill to work at the plywood division, where he would spend the rest of his working life, eventually rising to the position of production control manager until his stroke in 1978.
He attended Remembrance Day ceremonies before his stroke. He felt awkward at first, then at ease, he said. He attended not as an interloper, but to pay respect to fellow soldiers, he said.
He thinks of the men he served with but today he’s alone with his memories. “There’s no one left but me, they’re all gone now. But I still think of them,” Albrecht said.
Albrecht and his wife never had any children, but have a circle of friends with whom they’ve stayed close.
In 2003, Albrecht self-published a memoir of his experiences entitled Growing Roots. In the tome, published in Germany, he describes how he doesn’t feel culpable for the atrocities the German military perpetrated.
He was a plane spotter and dispatch driver with the Luftwaffe and “…I did not feel responsible for the excesses and crimes of the SS and Gestapo,” he wrote.
Amidst his wartime stories, a blue clad Rainbow Gardens orderly comes to the door and announces that it’s dinner time. Time to put the past away for now, and live again in the present.
Regardless of the victor, war achieves only one thing, Albrecht said: “It is unholy because it destroys all life, that’s what it does.
“It’s disastrous and no good comes out of it.”