At the end of World War II RAF ex-prisoner of war Tom Tate said to his wife, 'I'm never going to Germany again in my life.' Yet, 50 years later, in 1995, he returned to Germany and he has gone there every March since. 'I will do anything to further reconciliation and understanding,' he tells me.
The story of what changed his attitude is the unfolding saga of a small community that has turned a terrible crime into an opportunity to bring two countries closer together. It is a testament, whichever way you look at it, to extraordinary twists of luck or fate or destiny.
In March 1945 Flying Officer Tom Tate was one of the crew of an RAF Flying Fortress in a bomber raid over Germany. It was his 45th sortie. His plane's task was not to bomb but to jam enemy radar. Hit by flak an engine caught fire and 40 minutes later, believing the plane had crossed into Allied territory, the pilot, Flight Lieutenant John Wynne, ordered the crew to bale out while he searched for an emergency airfield. Eventually he gave up the attempt, tried unsuccessfully to bail out and, after the fire burned out, managed to bring the plane home to England.
Tate and the others landed 30 miles west of the town of Pforzheim and were captured. After interrogation they were moved to Pforzheim. They were not to know that three weeks earlier the town had been destroyed by the RAF in a firestorm which in 20 minutes killed 18,000 people, a quarter of the population. As the RAF prisoners were marched through the suburb of Huchenfeld they were stoned. They were then locked up for the night in the boiler house of a local school.
That evening, in revenge for the attack on Pforzheim, a group of Hitler Youth teenagers, under orders from the district commandant and egged on by a mob, overpowered the guards and dragged the prisoners to a cemetery. It was clear to Tate that they were about to be killed. Somehow he broke loose in the dark and managed to get through the crowd and into the woods.
The next day Tate surrendered to the Wehrmacht. A soldier protected him from a second mob, shared his bread and schnapps with him, and gave him clothes and a pair of shoes in which he could walk to the station. He spent the rest of the war in a prison camp. His five fellow airmen had indeed been murdered.
The following year Tate was asked to return to Germany to give evidence at the war crimes trials. In court he stood before the 22 men and youths who had dragged them off. 'I had a feeling of hatred and no compassion,' he says. The commandant was executed, the others given prison sentences. It was then that Tate swore he would never go back to Germany.
The story might have ended there but for former German cavalry officer and prisoner of war Pastor Curt-Jürgen Heinemann-Grüder, who retired to Huchenfeld in 1989 and heard rumours of a wartime massacre. Having established what had happened, he suggested, with the backing of the local pastor, Horst Zorn, that a plaque should be put up as a way of making amends.
Heinemann-Grüder was in close touch with Dr Paul Oestreicher at Coventry Cathedral. Since the cathedral's destruction by German bombers in World War II, it has pioneered a work of reconciliation. Only six weeks after its bombing, the Provost of the time, Dick Howard, made a radio broadcast from the ruins asking British people to say 'No' to revenge and 'Yes' to forgiveness.
Despite criticism from local people the pastors persisted in their conviction. In November 1992 a bronze memorial was unveiled by Oestreicher with the names of the men and the words 'Vater vergib' (Father forgive). At a special service Heinemann-Grüder told the congregation, 'Cowardice is a sin, just like fanaticism; this we confess and we seek forgiveness.'
The widow of one of the murdered airmen, Marjorie Frost-Taylor, was present. She had heard about the event through an article in a British newspaper headed 'German village faces its ghosts' and had been encouraged by Oestreicher to attend. For years she had prayed to know what had happened to her husband: now she felt God was answering her.
During Communion an older man pulled aside one of the clergy and whispered, 'I was one of the Hitler Youth who shot that night. I killed them. Forgive me but I don't have the strength to meet her.' He turned and left.
Renate Beck-Ehninger, who has chronicled the Huchenfeld story in The Plaque-letters to my English godson, writes, 'What a story! For 47 years Marjorie had not known how her husband had died. For 47 years a former Hitler Youth-then perhaps 16 years old - had borne the burden of having carried out a grown-up's command to kill. What would it have been like, had they been able to meet? To this very day it has remained Marjorie's true but unfulfilled wish: "I want to give my hand and say I have no bitterness any more." '
Oestreicher presented Huchenfeld with a replica of the Cross of Nails which was fashioned from mediaeval nails discovered in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. This is an honour that has been afforded to cities which have suffered like Dresden, which was destroyed during the war and has since worked for reconciliation.
Shortly before the plaque was put up, the pilot, John Wynne, was traced and told about the forthcoming ceremony. He had not known of the fate of the five crew members. Then 71 and a farmer in Wales, he felt that a reciprocal gesture was called for and in 1993 commissioned a small rocking-horse for the Huchenfeld kindergarten. It was named 'Hoffnung' (hope) and was presented 'on behalf of the mothers of 214 Squadron RAF'. 'Our future will ride upon her back,' said Wynne as he handed it over to 91-year-old Emilie Bohnenberger who had lost her husband in the war, but had saved another British airman from a mob and later provided a pair of her dead husband's boots for Tate's journey to prison.
A three-page spread, describing what had happened, was carried by the English magazine Saga. Back in England, absorbed in golfing and gardening, Tom Tate, was given a copy of the magazine by a friend, who recommended its tours. He was about to throw it out unopened when an impulse of his 'inner being', as he puts it, persuaded him to unwrap it. He read to his amazement what had happened and got in touch with Wynne who urged him to go to Huchenfeld. Local people, he was told, had longed for years to meet a survivor so that they could express their shame and horror and ask for forgiveness. 'Fate had played its trump card,' says Tate.
His first visit was undertaken with some trepidation. But he reached out beyond his fears to the people of the town. He recognized, he says, that local people who had no part in the crime had lived with this ongoing stigma and he realized how wrong he had been to remain an enemy for 48 years. He told those he met about the soldier who had helped him on the morning of his arrest: 'In the hands of a lesser man I would not have survived.'
Tate met the soldier's son and has since paid public tribute to him in German as 'a noble example of honourable behaviour towards a fellow human being.' This soldier's action had to some extent offset the heinous crimes of the previous day. Tate also met Frau Bohnenberger who had taken a great risk in giving him her husband's boots.
Since then Tate has attended the annual commemoration ceremony every year. He sees the plaque as a powerful symbol of the 'wonderful ties' of friendship which have been established, while the holiday exchange of children between Huchenfeld and Llanbedr, home of John Wynne, ensures that such friendships continue to be cultivated. 'Friendships are most easily made between children and young parents; the relics of war cling to their prejudices,' says Wynne. 'Our aim is that every primary school child in Llanbedr shall have the opportunity to visit Huchenfeld before he or she moves on to secondary school.'
It is an ongoing story. In December 2002 Chris Bowlby made a programme about Huchenfeld for BBC Radio and The Times published an article by him. As a result, Glenn Hall and Richard Vinall, whose fathers had been murdered, learned more about their fate. Vinall hopes to visit Huchenfeld.
Are any of the murderers, like the unknown man who came forward at the service, still alive? Tate would like to meet them. 'I have reached the stage to think they've suffered enough. They have had this on their conscience for 57 years. It is time to forgive and live in friendship and peace.' He often thinks of the terror the people of Pforzheim suffered and tells them that he hopes that 'in understanding and sharing your nightmare memories you will also derive some comfort from me.'
Michael Henderson is the author of 'Forgiveness: breaking the chain of hate'.