Ceremony to mark wartime moment German soldier spared life of Norfolk’s future chief constable
- Credit: Archant
If a German soldier had followed orders 75 years ago he would have killed a British airman. But he saved his life and that airman went on to become chief constable of Norfolk Police. Bethany Wales takes up the story on the day a ceremony takes place in Hethersett reuniting the families of the two men
January 21 1944: Magdeburg, Germany.
A young German soldier stands in front of a group of villagers, armed with pitchforks. They are angry. Moments before they witnessed a bomber explode midair, killing all but one of the British airmen on board. The only surviving member of the crew, Peter Garland from Portsmouth, now lies in the middle of Nazi-occupied Germany. Official orders from the German High Command are to kill British servicemen on sight, but the young German soldier stops the villagers and urges restraint. They refuse. He holds them at gunpoint, protecting his British counterpart, until an ambulance arrives to transport the injured soldier to a Prisoner of War camp.
As medics load him into the vehicle, the German soldier introduces himself. He is Gerard Fricke. Grateful, the injured Brit gifts the Mr Fricke the only two items he has on his person: a two pence piece and a wooden screwdriver with the name 'Garland' engraved into the handle.
The encounter would go on to be significant, not only for the two men, but for the future of policing in Norfolk and beyond.
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Peter Garland joined the Metropoliton police in the mid-1930s. He had trained as a teacher prior to signing up and although the move surprised his family, was determined to climb the ranks of the force.
Bright and ambitious, he caught the attention of his superiors and was awarded the Batten of Honour for being the top student at Hendon training college.
But four years later his police career was put on hold as he and thousands of other young men were enlisted to defend Europe against the Nazi occupation.
He was recruited by the Royal Air Force, where he served as a navigator and bomb aimer in Halifax bombers. Within two years he had completed his allocated 26 missions and was put on a 'reserve' list, training younger airmen before they were sent to war.
However, on January 21, 1944, a crew destined for Magdeburg found itself short of a navigator. Mr Garland was enlisted to help out.
It is not entirely clear why the Halifax went down, but the most reliable account is that it was hit by a German bomber.
As navigator, Mr Garland was lying on his stomach in the Perspex cone nose of the plane at the time and lost consciousness as the plane shattered around him.
Miraculously, the nose was blown from the main body of the plane, and the navigator woke halfway through his plummet to the ground, just in time to pull the cord on his parachute.
Unfortunately, it was too late.
He hit the ground moments after the parachute opened, and was only saved thanks to his Perspex shell, which absorbed some of the impact.
Mr Fricke saw the crash from the Magdeburg army base, yards away from where Mr Garland landed.
He rushed to the scene, arriving minutes before the pitchfork-wielding villagers.
Gun raised, he implored the angry mob to imagine if it was a German soldier in British territory.
"We wouldn't like it the other way round," he pointed out.
It worked and Mr Garland was taken to hospital for treatment.
But his ordeal was far from over.
1944: Stalag-luft 3 prisoner of war camp, Germany
Preparations for the infamous 'Great Escape' had just started when Peter Garland arrived at the camp.
The young man was quickly recruited.
He worked as a "gardener", which involved walking about the camp gently dropping soil dug from the tunnel out of socks in his trouser legs onto the ground and gradually kicking it around until it was gone.
When the tunnel was finished and names were pulled out of a hat to decide who would escape, Peter's name was not drawn out.
Anyone who has seen the 1963 John Sturges film will know this would turn out to be yet another lucky outcome for the young soldier.
Of the 76 men who escaped, 50 of them were later shot by the Gestapo as an example to other prisoners.
Mr Garland remained at the camp for almost a year.
Although he did not speak about his time there, hunger and overcrowding were well documented features of prisoners' everyday lives.
But on January 27, 1945, prisoners were told to prepare to leave.
1945: "The death march", West Germany
Buoyed by reports that the Russian army was on its way to Eastern camps, more than 10,000 prisoners were evacuated and marched westwards.
For six days the prisoners hauled handmade sledges and knapsacks through subzero temperatures and some of the worst blizzard ever recorded.
The party struggled with insufficient food, inappropriate clothing and no medical supplies.
Anyone unable to keep up was shot.
In a diary written onto a piece of scrap tissue, Garland describes being fed soup by a local woman at an overnight farm stop.
One night, camped out in a cow shed in rural Germany, the prisoners woke to discover their captors had fled, having discovered American troops were closing in.
After more than a year in captivity, Garland was flown home.
March 1955: England
Garland was returned to Ely hospital, where staff nursed him back to health.
According to his future wife, Gwendaline, he was in a terrible state, with blackened teeth and chronic back pain.
Despite this, Mr Garland rejoined the Metropolitan Police and married his sweetheart, working his way up to become chief constable of Norfolk Police in 1965.
He was awarded a number of medals in his time on the force, including the Queens Coronation medal and the Officer Order of Saint John.
In 1968 he oversaw the controversial amalgamation of Norfolk County Constabulary, Norwich City Police and Great Yarmouth Borough Police, which changed the way modern police operate in the county.
In the meantime, the young German soldier, Herr Fricke, went back to civilian life.
Trapped in East Germany, he worked on a farm, but continued plotting his escape to the west.
After a number of years he managed the journey, bringing with him only a few important belongings - including the engraved screwdriver given to him by Peter.
Forty-five years after the end of the war, a woman called Mrs Carver visited Germany from the UK and happened to meet Herr Fricke. The pair discussed the UK and he showed her the screwdriver, gifted to him nearly 50 years prior. Mrs Carver informed Fricke that she was from Norfolk, and vowed to reunite the former-soldiers. On her return to the UK, she spent hours trawling the telephone directory. Finally she came across a Mr Garland, and tentatively called the number to enquire if he was the same Mr Garland who had fallen out of an aeroplane. After a long silence, he confirmed he was. A year later Mr Fricke flew to the UK with his nephew to meet the man he saved.
Over tea in Garland's home town of Wymondham, the men caught up on the 50 years spent in separate lives. Mr Fricke told Garland: "I always knew we would meet again."
Since the meeting both men have died but the Garland and Fricke families will meet again today when a ceremony takes place at 10am at Wychwood House on Norwich Road, Hethersett. The screwdriver will be officially handed over for display at Norfolk Police for the foreseeable future.