How far away they seemed now, those early days of his youth before the slow death of this war had began and severed his soul from its fleshy root. Paul opened his eyes and looked at his slumberng comrades. He could not sleep. Each time he closed his eyes and tried to sleep he could once again see in his mind the flames consuming the tanks that had been bombed by the American fighter planes as they retreated from Normandy, he could smell once again the stench of burning human flesh, gasoline and rubber and he would feel sick to the pit of his stomach from delayed fear and shock. He knew sleep was impossible when he felt like this. Better to be doing something, anything, other than trying to sleep. He reached over and pulled a packet of crumpled French cigarettes from the pocket of his black SS jacket and lit one up from the candle in a mess tin that was flickering inside the tank. He breathed out a blue grey plume of smoke and coughed twice. As Commander of the tank he was always the first to wake and the last to sleep, as he felt that he was responsible for the crew.
Johann and Micheal were fast asleep on the floor of the Panzer tank, wrapped in grey wool blankets and both were dead to the world. After 52 hours of non-stop driving and fighting they were all exhausted. Johann was still wearing his radio headset, whilst Michael slept alongside the shells he would load into the cannon during combat. Johnny and Helmut, replacements for Manny and Balder who had been killed three weeks ago, were aleep on the floor alongside .
He remembered the first time he, Johann and Michael had met on the platform of the Unna train station in Westphalia on the 15th November 1943. It was less than a year ago, but it seemed like a lifetime away. Even the memories of his own life now seemed like those of a strangers. He could remember every moment of his past, but it was as if those moments belonged to another person. He and Johann had been wearing their best Hitler Youth uniforms, whilst Michael had been dressed in a dark blue suit, tailored with the most expensive and fashionable fabric, set off with a gold fob watch on a gold chain. With his gold embossed leather suitcase, black umbrella, black polished leather shoes and black velvet fedora hat he resembled a young accountant on his way to work, not a member of the Hitler Youth called up for service. Every now and then he would pull the gold watch from his suit pocket, flip the lid open and then peer intently at the time. Johann though had been a friend of Paul since childhood. They lived in the same street, had been in the same class all through school, the same division during their the years in the Hitler Youth and they had volunteered together for the new Hitler Youth tank unit once its formation had been announced. In the distance the sound of a train whistled echoed eerily. Paul stood up from the bench and listened as the clatter of iron wheels on the tracks grew closer. Finally the train appeared, a huge black locomotive puffing grey smoke that hissed and coughed to a stop alongside the platform.
A guard jumped out of the cab and blew a whistle, “ Right then lads ”, he shouted with a working class Berlin accent, “ Get on board - we have a timetable to keep “. Johann slapped him on the back and laughed, “ I guess this is it Paulie ”, then picked up his small suitcase and sauntered along the platform, jostling past the dozen or so other boys that still loitered nervously on the platform. He jumped on board the train then a few seconds later his head appeared out of an open window, a broad gron on his face “ Come on slowcoach, we can get the best seats if you hurry up “.
Paul bent down picked up his drab brown small cardboard case and ran along the platform to the same carriage that Paul had clambered into. As he climbed the steps into the carriage he looked around him at the familiar station. It was midnight and the stars were shining through the smoke that puffed from the train funnel, and a profound silence had settled over the town. He could see no lights in the windows of the houses next to the station as they had been forbidden by law to reveal lights at night in order to foil the allied bombers. On the roof of the town hall though in the moonlight he could see his friends, Heinrich and Gerhard, on late duty manning the anti-aircraft gun. They were talking and laughing at something in a comic they were reading. Less than a week ago he and Johann had been on the same duty manning the same gun. Now they were going to training in order to form the first Hitler Youth Panzer tank division. He smiled and waved at them, though he knew they could not see him. He turned his back and walked into the carriage.
The train pulled out of the station a few moments later and began heading in a westerly direction. Johann walked down the inside of the carriage until he came to the compartment where Johann sat with his feet up on the seat opposite by a window, so as to reserve that seat for Paul. Paul opened the door, slid it shut behind him and went to sit down. As he did so Johann slid his feet off of the seat and looked out of the window, “ How long do you think it will take us to get there paulie ? “ he asked.
Paulie shrugged his shoulders and replied, “ I don’t know, a few hours perhaps “.
Johann nodded and rested his head against the window, “ Time for a little sleep then I think “, and closed his eyes.
Paulie smiled at his friend. He could sleep through anything. He had once fallen asleep during an air raid, and it was only after Paulie had kicked him hard in the rear, did he wake up and realise that bombs were dropping on the town.
Johann wished he could sleep, but he knew he couldn’t. His mother had been distraught as he said goodbye and this had upset him deeply. His father had been reported missing on the Russian Front for nearly six months now, and both he and his mother knew he was not coming back. To see her only son called up to fight the same war that had claimed her husband was almost more than she could bear. The tears began to roll down his face, and he wiped them quickly away with his hands. Johann was fast asleep and snoring.
The well dressed boy they had both seen on the platform was sitting on the seats opposite him by the door to the compartment of the carriage. As he watched the boy took a packet of cigarettes from his case and lit one up, then walked over to the window.
He nodded to Paulie and offered him his right hand, “ My name is Michael Klein “. Paulie reached up and shook his hand, “ Paul Kohl” he replied. Michael said, “ If the cigarette smoke disturbs you may I open the window ? “. Paul smiled, “ It doesn’t disturb me, in fact I would like to have one if you have one spare “.
Michael bowed slightly and pulled the packet from his pocket and offered one to Paul. As paul put the cigarette in his mouth, the click of a solid gold engraved lighter brought forth a flame and with well practised elegance Michael lit the tip of his cigarette. “ I know we are not supposed to smoke “, he said smiling, “ but I do find they help me to relax “. Paul nodded, “ Thank you ”, he replied.
Micheal smiled and walked back to his seat, opened his suitcase and pulled out a book. Paul could read the title, Ivanhoe, and noted that it was in English not German.
He sat back in his seat and stared out of window. Trees and houses flashed past, blurring into the distance as they flashed down the tracks.
The journey had begun.