When Gerd Berendonck was just 10, his father told him a story that would change his life
His father, the young schoolboy learned, only survived the First World War through an astonishing act of “British fair play”.
The lesson would travel with him through his experiences as a PoW of the British during the Second World War to his career as one of Germany’s foremost diplomats.
In the autumn of 1916 Gerd’s father Gerhard, a photographer on a German reconnaissance biplane, was taking pictures of British troops in the Somme offensive when he was spotted by a Royal Flying Corps plane.
Knowing his DFW aircraft would be hopelessly out-powered by the British arrival he tapped on the pilot’s shoulder indicating they should make for home quickly.
This is what is called British fair play. They will not kill someone who cannot defend himself.
The English ace had others ideas, however, and for a few long seconds the two biplanes embarked on a bitter aerial dogfight, rounds rattling at a rate of 700 per minute.
Then Berendonck’s rear-facing machine gun jammed. Now 93, Gerd recalls the day in 1934 when his father told him what happened next.
“My father’s plane could do 10 knots less than the British aircraft so it was only a matter of time before it circled and returned. But his machine gun had jammed. He tried and tried but could not make it work.
The British fighter refused to fire at Gerd's father due to his broken gun
“He watched the British aircraft closing in and stood up to his full height in the rear cockpit, putting his hands in his flying suit. He fully expected the fighter to open fire, to die in the next few moments, and faced his fate.
“Instead of opening fire the British pilot approached and gesticulated, asking why my father wasn’t firing. My father shrugged his shoulders and made a hand signal to indicate his machine gun was kaput. And with that the British fighter pilot laughed, waved and flew away. My father was left waving back, in sheer disbelief and with immense relief.”
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His voice breaking with emotion Gerd continues: “I remember that we were sitting together in our garden. He had never spoken to me before about the war. I don’t know why he decided to tell me that story on that day, 18 years after the event. But I listened with fascination.
“I was mesmerised by every detail. Then my father turned to me and said slowly, ‘This is what is called British fair play. They will not kill someone who cannot defend himself’. I realised at that moment my father could have been killed, his aircraft shot down in flames.”
The story mesmerised Gerd, who learned that day about 'British fair play'
Now in his twilight years Gerd’s last ambition is to find the identity of the chivalrous fighter ace and thank his family.
“For more than 80 years I have known that we owed my father’s life and my own existence to this pilot,” he says.
“It has never left me. All I want to do is to pay my deepest respects and gratitude to his family.”
Though he has contacted the Ministry of Defence for help, 1916 predates the establishment of the RAF and tracing the pilot will not be easy. But the notion of fair play has “occupied his brain” and guided both father and son.
Gerhard Berendonck’s first reaction to a changing Germany after 1918 was to pack his family off to Utrecht in the Netherlands.
“My father was a humanitarian and a monarchist. He studied economics at Cologne University and was a cultured man who had learned to speak Classical Greek,” says Gerd.
“He didn’t like the way Germany was going or the new republic. So he accepted an offer from a friend from his regiment to set up a factory making axles and then he went to the Netherlands to sell bicycles.
Hitler’s rise to power made Germans increasingly unpopular in Holland and by 1936 Gerhard had no choice but to return home. The family moved to Solingen.
In Holland a vocal minority of Nazis were spouting propaganda, says Gerd, “and it became too difficult to stay. The middle classes abroad hated what Germany was becoming.”
By 1942 Germany was in the throes of attempted world conquest and Gerd, now aged 18, enlisted in the forces.
Gerd later fought himself in the Second World War, stationed in occupied Scandinavia
His war was to end as a PoW when he would be given his own experience of British fair play.
“I had always wanted to sail and see the world,” he says. “I decided to join the Kriegsmarine, the navy.”
Gerd spent the first six months in Norway.
“I understood what it felt like to be occupiers. That’s how we were considered.”
After going to officer training academy he commanded a torpedo boat in the Baltic and in September 1944 he was sunk for the first time.
“By then the war had turned for Germany. We had lost Stalingrad, German troops were withdrawing.
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“Many Germans were fleeing westwards as the Soviets advanced. We were escorting vessels carrying passengers from Norway to Sweden when we were dive-bombed by a Boston bomber flown by Soviets.
“His bomb came through our stack and broke us in two. Before I knew it I was in the water. It was so very cold but luckily my leather clothing helped me to survive. Out of our 150 crew only 80 made it.”
In January 1945 the vessel he then commanded was bombed after coming to the rescue of a German transport ship carrying 10,500 passengers which was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine – 9,400 died, half of them children.
“There was no honour with the Soviets,” he says. Then in May 1945, just days before the Armistice, his vessel struck a mine. We were attacked by a dozen Soviet bombers. We sunk slowly.”
Gerd was captured and later sent to Germany, becoming part of the British-led 64th Disbandment Control Unit, set up to find and prosecute war criminals.
“It was the first time I had met British soldiers. They had been in Europe since D-Day and had fought their way to Germany. We were allowed to keep our military hierarchy. There was no hatred towards us. No judgment. We were treated so fairly. Once more the lesson my father taught me came back to me.”
When he was captured, Gerd remembers being treated with dignity as a POW
One day the unit’s British commanding officer Major Brian Smith asked to speak to him privately.
“He talked to me about German propaganda and asked me how many times the German navy claimed to have sunk the Ark Royal. I spotted a magazine, Paris Match. On the cover was a photograph from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“I was angry. It seemed clear from this that the British could do propaganda as much as Germans under Goebbels. I said it was unfair Germans were being portrayed as killers of Jewish people.
“He listened to me. Then he told me that he had been to Belsen and had seen these things himself. He was calm and serious. There was no hatred. I remember staring at him and I knew he was telling the truth. Tears ran down my face. I couldn’t believe Germans could have done what he described.”
Gerd Berendonck joined the German diplomatic corps in 1952 and served all over the world, becoming ambassador in Cambodia, Algeria and Pakistan. The idea of British fair play, of justice, went with me throughout my career. For me it all began with the decision of one English pilot to save the life of my father.”
Will Gerd’s quest to trace that pilot’s family be in vain? “There may be hope,” says John Gilder, of the Western Front Association. Germany keeps good records from the First World War. Through those we can trace Berendonck’s unit and then see which British units were flying at the same time. It’s a wonderful story and it’s worth trying to help him.”
● Anyone with information that could help identify the pilot should contact: email@example.com