Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times

Chapter eight

My first overseas posting

 

< Chapter 7 | Chapter 9 >

 My assignment in Bonn saw me installed as a bed-and-breakfast lodger in the home of an elderly retired Buergermeister, Dr Greis, and his wife in Bad Godesberg. 

 

Contacts in Germany

In London, before leaving for Germany I had made friends with Peter Fraenkel, a Jewish journalist of German origin working at Reuters in London. He told me that the one person in Bad Godesberg I should meet was Gerhard Neumann, an artist of some repute, who would help me to settle down. I quickly made friends with Herr Neumann, his wife and two daughters, and it was he who put me in touch with Herr Greis. 

 

No contest for Veronika

The Greises had a rather plain daughter who used to bring delicious breakfasts to my room. But I had already met the lovely Veronika at a dancehall in Bonn and become engaged. I had no interest in the Greis daughter.

Veronika and I were married in a modern Evangelical church overlooking Bonn, quite close to the home of Willy Brandt, Governing Mayor of West Berlin, soon to be foreign minister and ultimately Chancellor.

There was a goodly attendance of Reuter journalists and their wives at our wedding, among them David Rees, Vergil Berger and Peter Johnson. Stephanie Roussel of France Soir was also there.

We spent our wedding night at Veronika’s foster parents’ home in Eheinbach, near Bonn.
 

13 August 1961: constructing the Berlin Wall

Soon after our wedding, Veronika and I travelled to England to stay first with my parents at the William IV pub in Spofforth, and then spent a blissful few days in a pub on the moors at Middlesmoor, above Pately Bridge. Then we travelled to East Germany on holiday to meet her brothers, Siegfried and Jochen, and their families. 

 

A fateful date in German history

On a Sunday morning on 13 August, 1961, Veronika and I were lying in bed on the first floor of our hotel in Rudolstadt, the town where Veronika was born, when the loudspeakers at each corner of the square started to relay an official announcement. 

Measures were being taken in Berlin for the protection of the German Democratic Republic, the loudspeakers announced. The announcement went on to say that the capital of the GDR was being sealed off from West Berlin to protect it from saboteurs and hostile elements. 

 

The writer with his lovely wife Veronika: engagement picture at the William IV, my father's pub in Spofforth

The Berlin wall goes up

After a few minutes of this, I sat up bolt upright in bed and said: “They’re building a wall across Berlin”. Vroni found this difficult to believe, but she started to listen to the repeated announcement, and reluctantly came to the same conclusion. 

That evening we went to a nearby Gasthaus for a quiet drink. A man at a nearby table started to complain about what had happened. 

"It is disgraceful that Germans do such things against fellow Germans,” he said. I realised that the man was putting himself in danger, and told him that I was not disturbed about what had happened. After all, the German Democratic Republic had been losing valuable citizens fleeing to the West at an intolerable rate.

The next day, we were told that the man in the Gasthaus had been arrested.

I immediately went to the police station and remonstrated with the Chief Inspector, assuring him that I was not influenced by the poor fellow’s denunciation .

"It appears that you took the side of the GDR, which makes the offence even more intolerable," said the police chief. Later we heard that offender had been jailed for six months for “insulting the republic.” 

Most of my time in the Bonn office was spent in what was known as “the slot”. This was a desk equipped with a typewriter, with teleprinters on either side, one spewing out DPA copy, from the west German news agency in Hamburg, the other carrying the service of East Germany’s ADN. A glass door separated the editorial from the wireroom, where a team of girls punched our dispatches on tape for transmission to London.

 

A divided city: the Berlin Wall at Zimmerstraße

The sock-darning machine

Our news editor, John Bush, kept a collection of clippings from West German newspapers, so-called “brights”. On quiet weekends, the slotman was required to file some of this material to London as usable news stories. One quiet Sunday, I picked out of the tray a piece about a man who had invented a sock-darning machine. All the user had to do was to insert his stockinged foot into the sensitive machine, which then darned the sock without causing injury. A newspaper in the United States asked for a follow-up piece. As soon as I got the request I smelt a rat. I retrieved the original clipping from the spike, and noticed that the date it was April 1. I had fallen for what the Germans call an Aprilscherz.
When Reuters had to apologise in response to the inevitable complaint, my Bureau Chief, Gerry Long, was furious. “There’s only one sort of sock-darning machine in this world, and you’ve just married one,” Gerry roared.

 

Trial of Donald Hume

One of my first assignments took me to Geneva, where I met up with correspondent John Talbot to drive to Winterthur, near Zuerich, to cover the murder trial of Donald Hume, a British bank robber. Hume had already done time in England for killing his partner, Stanley Setty, also a petty crook. Hume had dumped Setty’s dismembered body from a hired private aircraft over the Essex marshes and served eight years in prison for this crime. The British legal system was unable to pin the murder on Hume. 

On release, he sold his story, admitting the murder to the Sunday Pictorial. Whose readers were fascinated by a front page splash that opened with the words, "I, Donald Hume, do hereby confess . . ." The lurid confession was that Hume had hacked to pieces a used car dealer named Stanley Setty — a murder that in two separate trials the Crown had been unable to prove. Convicted only of dumping Setty's dismembered body from a hired airplane, Hume got off with a mere eight years as an accessory. Upon his release, secure in the knowledge that he could never be retried for the murder, he sold his gaudy story to the Pictorial for 2000 pounds. When this nest egg began to run low, he replenished it by means of a couple of bank robberies. But each time police got enough evidence to go after him, he darted across the Channel to safety.

 

A spot of cash 

Eventually, he set up headquarters in Zurich, where an auburn-haired beauty-shop owner named Trudi Sommer, 29, was only too happy to have him share her apartment. She thought he was a Canadian test pilot named Johnny Bird. 

Then, one night, Hume wandered off to a church, where he drank up all the communion wine. Next morning, armed with a pistol, he turned up at a small branch of Zurich's Gewerbebank to help himself to “a spot of cash.”

When a teller balked. Hume shot and critically wounded him. Scooping up a meager $45, he ran out into the street just as the assistant teller rang the alarm. He killed a taxi driver who tried to stop him, and was finally brought down by a pastry cook after his pistol jammed.

In court, Hume put on a tremendous act, lashing out with kicks at me and other reporters as he was led into the courtroom. He yawned and shouted abuse, as witness after witness told what had happened that fatal morning. When the president of the court, mild-mannered Dr Hans Gut, began with the formality of asking the prisoner his name, Hume snarled at the interpreter: "Tell that bum that he should know my name.”

Hume finally received a life sentence, and after a few years was transferred to England, where he died.

At the end of my Bonn assignment, I was sent for three months to Warsaw to stand in for Vincent Buist. I remember well attending mass at Warsaw cathedral to hear the defiant Cardinal Wyszinski preach, in the vain hope that he would come out with some headline-making anti-communist pronouncement.

All too soon, I was on my way back to Bonn to start my journey to Israel to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Gerry Long, Bureau Chief in Bonn when I arrived there. He went on to become Managing Director

  

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Next: Chapter 9 >> The world's biggest war crimes trial

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Copyright © 2008 Lionel Walsh