December 4th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 49
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Tales from the Cookie Box –
Gunter in the War Years
Looking Back
courtesy John Kinnear
Halifax bombers navigators map with Duisburg line hilited
When we left off last week a young Gunter Koci was finishing school in Duisburg, Germany at the age of fifteen in 1943. Keep in mind that war was raging all around at this time and bombing was going on frequently throughout Germany, especially in the area where he lived and worked, the Ruhr Valley.

I will be quoting his comments to me in the accent and language he used as I found it quite engaging and humorous. Gunter was very matter-of-fact about how things were and showed a lot of insight when it came to the significance of what was happening around him.

According to Gunter his mother Selma said to him when he finished school, “My boy, you gonna learn something. We gonna go someplace now, to an office. You have to bring all your certificates from school and give it to that person there and he will see if you are good enough for a trade.”

According to Gunter the man they went to see said, “Yah my boy, what would you like to be?” Gunter said, “I like to be baker.” The man told him that certainly he could be one and gave him a card to take to a bakery nearby that needed an apprentice. So it was that Gunter Koci began his training as a patissier. The apprenticeship was to take three years to get his ticket and he slept above the bakery because bakers, as we all know, get up really early. He was paid $1 per week the first year, $2 per week the second and $10 per week the third. Pretty well all of his earnings, other than that paltry stipend, paid for his room and board there on the second floor.
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The city of Duisburg is in the Ruhr Valley and was famous for its extensive coal mining and industrial metal and steel production. It was pounded mercilessly towards the end of the war to try and shut down this production. Gunter related a story to me about an incident there in 1944 that left me dumbstruck. It went something like this.

Gunter worked hard, was always tired and on this particular early morning was still sleeping when the baker hollered from the basement for him to get up and get down there quickly. There was a bombing raid happening, something that was an almost every day occurrence back then. Gunter sat up in bed and while pulling his pants on heard a loud click in behind him. He turned around to find a hole in his pillow and discovered that an incendiary device (bomb designed to start fires) had gone through it. He looked into the hole it had made, down to the main floor which was tile, and saw that the phosphorus in this bomb was sputtering and beginning to ignite and burn.

Gunter pulled his pants on and ran down stairs to where the bomb was. It was common practice back then to keep paper bags of sand on the window sills to help extinguish these incendiary menaces, so he promptly dumped bags of sand on it until it was out. I contemplated this story for a bit and then realized that the baker hollering just when he did probably saved Gunter’s life as the bomb would most certainly have killed him but, conversely, his quick action with the sand probably saved the bakery and perhaps even those hiding in the basement as well.
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Over 80 million incendiary devices were dropped on Germany through the course of the war. Some types weighed about thirty pounds with a heavy cast iron design to them to help them penetrate deeply into buildings. They must have been moving at a horrific speed by the time they made contact. I have studied somewhat the devastating impacts of this type of “fire bombing” taken to its extreme by the Allies in places like Dresden. Someday soon I will take you deep into the Dresden story and let you decide for yourselves whether it was justified or not.

As an aside I remembered that I have a copy of a particular World War 2 navigator’s map that shows the flight lines from England to specific targets in Germany in 1944/45. It is an extraordinary artifact. Each navigator recorded the date and direction on his flight map of each mission and this one, a Halifax bomber from 408 Squadron, shows directional lines from England to places like Dortmund, Essen, Wesel, Monheim and Cologne in Germany in late 1944 and early 1945. Incredibly, I found a directional line (see photo) dated Dec 17, 1944 that is labeled Duisburg.

Duisburg endured its worst attack on October 14/15th of 1944 when 2,100 bombers from the RAF and the USAAF Eight Air Force hit it with two separate attacks, dropping over 9,000 tonnes of bombs. To imagine Gunter was there on the ground for all of this at that time is almost incomprehensible. Gunter said to me, “I know what war can do. I was there.”
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My reflections on this time of war and my opinions on Gunter’s story are in no way intended to disparage the bravery and tremendous sacrifice that was given by all to end this insanity. There are 10,673 names on the monument at Nanton, of every Canadian lost, that served in Bomber Command during the Second World War. They made the ultimate sacrifice.

So Gunter tells me that three weeks after this incident bombing destroyed the main bakery store front but that the bakery itself survived. By 1945 Gunter and his brother Franz were drafted into the now vastly diminished German Army, given some training and thrown into the resistance effort. This was very close to the end of the war and these young boys were quickly taken prisoner by the British.

A British Army officer asked Gunter how old he was when imprisoned, to which he replied, “Sixteen.” He said the officer then exclaimed, “My God, what is Hitler doing?” Gunter was put into a POW camp at Lubeck for three months before being repatriated back to his home town. Franz was held in France by the Americans and came home some time later. Gunter can even recall the street car (#14) that he took home after being dropped off in Duisburg at war’s end. The man has a memory like a steel trap. One can only imagine his mother Selma’s response to him walking through the door and to her wondering about Franz.

One would be hard pressed to picture the post-war years in Germany, the damage, the chaos and the uncertainty. But for Gunter it was back to the bakery for another year (1946) and then odd jobs for a few until he realized there was no opportunity there. Gunter said to me: “Why would we stay there. This was not our country. This was not our war.”

In 1951 he said to Franz: “We gonna look for another country.” At first they considered Australia but were told then by officials that they were not taking any immigrants at that time. That I discovered was an out and out lie as Australia took thousands of immigrants that year, almost exclusively British to boost their population numbers. There was some pushback in those days within Australia about Eastern Europeans as immigrants. That eventually changed though and between 1949 and 1959 over 160,000 came to Australia from Germany. Like Canada, down under had posters promoting their country as the: “Land of Tomorrow”.
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So Gunter turned his eye westward and said to his brother, “We are going to Canada.”That year Gunter and Franz booked passage to Halifax on the Fairsea a post-war troop carrier rebuilt for migrant service. Franz recalls there was some really rough weather for some of the eleven day trip and that the accommodations were minimal at best. Over a thousand of them were in the bottom of the boat in giant rooms with metal bunks stacked three high.

Here is the testimony of a 1951 German immigrant Dorle Lomas, “The M.S. Fairsea brought Canadian troops to Germany and German emigrants back to Canada. Accordingly the ship was very primitive. I was in a sleeping quarter with 99 other women and their small children. There were no portholes as we were 2 floors below deck. The ship’s propeller was somewhere close behind us, making fearful noises, especially when it came out of the water in high swell. Approximately 400 women and children and 800 men were aboard. There were 4 toilets for 400 women, all not functioning after the first day.” According to Frank Kiesl of Hungary who also rode on the Fairsea in 1951, Everywhere you went there was an awful reek of 'White King' (vomit). People threw up because of the smell not just the swell!”

Gunter and Franz were supposed to land at the famous Pier 21 in Halifax but were told that because the Queen was there they could not land and the Fairsea was forced to continue on down the St. Lawrence to Quebec City, something that still rankles Gunter to this day. From there, in early October 1951, they travelled by train to Lethbridge and then down to the Pass where they wound up at Burmis working very briefly for CPR. They stayed in overcrowded box cars and the work was extremely heavy, lifting steel rails. It was not long before they moved on to Blairmore and found work with Charlie Sartoris at his mill.

Authors Note: It appears my elaborations within Gunter’s story are tending to protract it somewhat so the story will continue next time with Gunter’s early years here and the construction and operation of the Cookie Box. Here is a rough translation of the text found on the picture of the immigrant ship Fairsea:

“No matter the waves come across your boat, Take the wind on life’s journey, Sail along your path, even when the mast breaks, God may be your company, who never will forget about you.”
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December 4th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 49
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