Norway’s ‘German Girls’

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After the occupation of Norway, German soldiers were encouraged to form relationships with the country’s women (left) but when the war ended, the girls face bitter retribution by their fellow countrymen (right).

In A Dangerous Act of Kindness, Millie Sanger discovers that you can’t always help who you fall in love with. During the Second World War, thousands of Norwegian women faced the same moral dilemma.

Nearly eighty years ago this month, the Royal Navy took on the Kriegsmarine at Narvik. A month earlier, Hitler had ordered the invasion of Norway but during this first naval battle, Germany lost two destroyers and retired when the third was badly damaged. The naval commanders on both sides were killed in the battle.

More determined than ever to defeat the Germans, a new wave of forces arrived in the Ofotfijord on 13 April 1940. Three German destroyers were sunk and the German crews scuttling many of their own ships when they ran out of fuel. These two battles halved the destroyer strength of the Kriegsmarine.

Despite these early victories, the Allies were forced to withdraw their defence of the country when France fell. Norway was occupied by Germany.

SS leader Heinrich Himmler approved of Norwegian women. They epitomised many of the desired attributes of the Aryan master race and occupying soldiers were encouraged to have children with them. It’s thought that 50,000 women had relationships with German soldiers. These so called ‘German Girls’ faced bitter reprisals when the war ended and they were accused of betraying their country.

In 2018 Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg apologised on behalf of the country for this mistreatment. “For many,” she said, “this was just a teenage love, for some, the love of their lives with an enemy soldier or an innocent flirt that left its mark for the rest of their lives.”

The Real Brigsie

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The real Brigsie Paterson

The real Brigsie Paterson was a wartime friend of my mother’s. She wasn’t a Land Girl, she was a VAD. I remember her as a strong and independent woman. When I was creating Brigsie for A Dangerous Act of Kindness, hers was the face I had in mind.

The real Brigsie didn’t have a secret like the one in my book. My Mum met her at Boyce Barracks where they were both being trained to serve overseas. They instantly clicked and stayed chums all through the war and for the rest of their lives.

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Brigsie with Mike Sutton

When they were out in Graz, Brigsie fell in love with a doctor called Mike Sutton. He was in charge of the Blood Transfusion Service and was known as ‘Blood Sutton’. They shared a love of riding. One Christmas, Mike rode his horse through the hospital, blasting away on his hunting horn to wish Brigsie a very Happy Christmas.

Unfortunately for Brigsie, Mike had a wife waiting at home. One evening in Graz, my Mum was in her bedroom and she heard a hunting horn playing Gone Away. She rushed off to find Brigsie and said, ‘Isn’t that Mike out there at the edge of the forest?’ Brigsie said, ‘Yes. He’s playing Gone Away. It means he’s leaving.’ He was demobbed the next day and she never saw him again.

Brigsie didn’t marry. After the war, she found a new life, farming in Limuru, Kenya. In many ways, she became the Land Girl of my story. I rather think my fictional Brigsie would have done the same sort of thing when the war was over.

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My Mum with Graz and her litter, enjoying the summer on the banks of the River Wye.

My mother and father married and settled in Hereford. They named their first boxer dog Graz, after the town where they’d fallen in love. In 1949, Graz had a litter and one of the puppies, Ranee, was sent out to Brigsie.

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Brigsie out in Limuru, Kenya with Ranee’s litter of seven beautiful boxer dog pups.

When Brigsie retired, she came back to England and settled in Southampton. I visited her during the 1980s and remember that her house was filled with exotic pottery and carvings from her time abroad. I wanted to pay homage to her in A Dangerous Act of Kindness as a thank you for all the wonderful stories and wartime adventures that she had with my Mum.

Franz von Werra

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Franz von Werra with his pet lion cub, Simba

Franz von Werra was the only German prisoner-of-war to successfully escape British captivity and make it back to Germany during the Second World War. He was shot down over Kent on 5 September 1940. He told many different accounts of his capture, sometimes crediting the Home Guard with old-fashioned shotguns and at other times Tommies in full battle dress, bayonets fixed. In truth he was captured by an unarmed cook who dashed out of the kitchen of the searchlight battery near to where von Werra’s plane came down.

Von Werra was taken to the Kent County Constabulary.  Police Sergeant Harrington was on duty. He described von Werra as ‘quiet, polite and correct,’ although, ‘a bit conceited’. Von Werra claimed to be a Baron and to prove he was an aristocrat, he wore a signet ring bearing a crest and coronet. He also said his father owned several castles in Switzerland. Despite these extravagant claims, Harrington found him, ‘confident, alert and highly intelligent.’

Von Werra lost no time trying to escape. He made several audacious attempts, once managing to stay on the run for three days in the Lake District. On another occassion, he got as far as the cockpit of an aeroplane at RAF Hucknall near Nottingham, having convinced a number of people that he was a Dutch pilot trying to reach his unit. They arrested him as he  was desperately trying to work out the unfamiliar controls before taking off for France.

It wasn’t until he left Britain that he was successful. Along with many other Germans, he was shipped out to Canada in January 1941. He escaped through the window of the prison train in Ontario and made the perilous crossing to then neutral America by walking over the frozen St Lawrence river.

When he returned to Germany, Hitler awarded him the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross. He returned to active duty but his plane went missing over the ocean north of Vissingen in the Netherlands on 25 October 1941.