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Issue 52 - Wartime romance

Scotland Magazine Issue 52
August 2010

 

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Wartime romance

Heidi Soholt investigates an attraction across barbed wire fences.

He was a German prisoner in one of the country’s most notorious camps, she was a pretty grocer’s daughter from a tiny village in Perthshire.

Their tentative teenage romance, carried out quietly and secretly amid the turmoil of wartime, was to leave an impression that would last a lifetime, and forge close friendships which endure today.

As a 15-year-old country girl, Vickie Ballantyne cared little about politics. Few teenagers in rural Perthshire understood the Second World War, indeed it had even brought with it some small advantages, such as time off school for ‘tattie picking’.

Vickie, who grew up in the village of Muthill, had volunteered for shifts in the potato fields, and was at work one afternoon in 1944 when she heard a foreign voice.

“Can I help you?” asked the handsome stranger, bending down to assist her.

It was a chance encounter that started a most unlikely romance.

Helmut Stenger was aged 18 and had been sent to Perthshire’s maximum security prison, Cultybraggan, after being captured while serving on a German submarine. The young lad had been plucked from the Atlantic Ocean after his vessel was blown up by an American plane. The sub had surfaced for repairs and, having climbed up to the conning tower for a cigarette, Helmut had been blasted into the ocean by the explosion.

At Cultybraggan, in Comrie near Muthill, Helmut lived alongside fanatical members of the Afrika Corps and SS. The camp, also known as Nazi 2, was established in 1939 to house those deemed too dangerous for the UK’s more liberal prisons. Among its inmates were ringleaders of the Devizes plot to break thousands of prisoners out of camps to attack Britain from within. Cultybraggan gained more notoriety after two hangings by inmates of Germans suspected of being British spies.

Life at Cultybraggan was certainly tough, particularly for someone like Helmut. A teenager from the lowest rank of the navy, he was ruthlessly bullied by inmates, only getting some respite when he received parcels of cigarettes to distribute among his tormentors. The camp itself was guarded by Poles selected especially for their hatred of Germans.

Inmates lived in unheated Nissen huts and faced harsh punishments like solitary confinement for any breach of the rules.

Towards the end of the war, regulations were relaxed, and Helmut was sent to a small work camp nearby in Crieff. PoWs were ordered to do gardening and labouring, and Helmut was told to help with the potato harvest where he first encountered Vickie.

“It was awfully hard work,” remembers Vickie, today an 80-year-old grandmother.

“You had to pick the potatoes and then put them in a basket before they were taken by horse and cart to the village.” The pair struck up a conversation and were to see each other many more times. Helmut, who wore distinctive PoW patches on his clothes, was clearly a German soldier, but Vickie was not perturbed by this.

“I just thought of him as Helmut.

He was kind and decent, and seemed different from the other boys.

“At that time in Germany everyone just did what they were told by Hitler. They had to behave themselves. I remember that Helmut wasn’t very keen on Hitler, and didn’t want to talk about him. He was worried in case Hitler rose again, and then anyone who had spoken out would have been in trouble.” Like Vickie, many locals were tolerant of the Germans. Many villagers still remember seeing prisoners arriving at Comrie Railway Station and hearing the songs they used to sing while being marched to the camps.

There are also tales of prisoners enjoying trips to the cinema after being smuggled out of the camp dressed in local school uniforms.

Helmut, who spoke good English, made a big impression on both Vickie and her family.

“He was just so different,” recalls Shirley, Vickie’s younger sister. “He was very mature for his years and really handsome. Incredibly nice and funny too.” Says Vickie: “I remember one day when we were rained off from tattie picking. They put us into the tractor and brought us up to the village and let us off there. They told the prisoners to walk back to the camp. As it was quite a long way, Helmut was worried that the guards would think that he’d run away.

So I said to him to go along to my dad’s shop.

We spoke to my mother who arranged for him to be collected and taken over to Crieff.” Prisoners, recalls Vickie, had dug tunnels through which they would sneak in and out of the camp. “As long as they were back for roll call in the morning they were okay,” she says. “Helmut used to sleep at our house, and sneak back in the morning. My brother, Hamish, would lend Helmut his clothes so that he’d look just like any of the village boys.” Helmut became like part of the Ballantyne family, and his mother, who lived in the USA, would send parcels over to the children.

Helmut also used to share food he received from the Red Cross, particularly as at that Issue 52 • Scotland Magazine 63 Opposite: The barbed wire at Cultybraggan This page from top: A letter sent to Vickie from Helmut; Helmut and Vickie reunited in 2002 at the camp; a picnic with Helmut time the PoWs were allocated a higher calorie intake than local people.

Vickie would take Helmut on picnics and visits to local places. There was also skating and trips to the pictures. Vickie and Helmut grew close, and when Helmut was eventually moved to another camp in Fife, she would travel there to see him.

Helmut returned to Germany after the war, but the pair kept in contact.

He was later to move to the States, where he eventually settled in Arizona with his German wife, Margot.

Vickie went on to marry an Icelandic farmer and they raised their family on a farm near Perth. She lost contact with Helmut for a while before being reunited through the Canada-based Peter McNaughton, who had been contacted by the Stenger family while doing research.

Following this, Helmut made a return visit to Scotland during which he met up with the now-widowed Vickie, and was given a VIP tour of Cultybraggan by its commander. By that stage, the camp no longer functioned as a prison and was used by the MOD for training and other activities.

“Helmut took me inside one of the prison cells and told me he’d been locked in there for three days. Then he mentioned the number ‘3000’ to me. I asked what he meant and he said ‘that’s the number of bricks in this cell’,” recalls Shirley.

Vickie and her family also visited the Stengers in America.

Today Vickie treasures her memories of Helmut, who passed away in 2005. What gives her great pleasure now is the ongoing connection between her and Helmut’s families, an unlikely pairing that really did stand the test of time.