Croatia - German War Graves Commision
I have been talking to the guys resposible for the recovery of all of the German soldiers killed during World War 2 that are spread all over Croatia. It was always a plan to one day go and lend a hand in the work they do, it was something we discussed but never really got around to putting a plan in place and it was probaly almost a year after we first spoke when Leo messaged me and said he had a site that I might like to help with. I said, "I'll be there and if it's OK I will bring Alan to help too". With the basics planned and Alan notified that he was coming to Croatia, after all, I didn't really need to ask him. I already knew what his answer would be! We looked into flight... or more like Nell, Alan's wife looked into flights for us! Those were planned and a with a change in each direction wasn't too complicated.
We didn't really have long until the day we left, but those days sure seemed to go slowly! However it wasn't long before we were sat in my house the night before killing time before my wife would drop us off at Stansted airport for our flight! Excited isn't the word for the feelings, its more like surreal feeling that even though you know its going to happen, it's still not actually to happen. We had a kip, Sarah dropped us at the airport, luggage checked in and there it started... we were on our way. Our way to the huge queues around the airport! Eventually we go on a plane and started towards Croatia. Of course I slept the whole way there, slept for all the time we were waiting in Bonn, Germany for the next flight and slept on that too. We had arrived in Croatia.
Now the plan we went as far as, fly to Croatia, rent a car, then drive half way across the country. I do mean half way across it! No joke. We had no clue where we were going, no clue where we were staying, but it didn't really matter. After a really long drive with Alan's sat nav giving is the weirdest instructions like "turn left", but at the same time showing a right arrow on a right turn on the screen; we still eventually made it to meet the guys. Leo who I had spoken to many times, Marko who soon became something of a Legend and Jean-Loup (JL) who Alan was a huge fan of. JL is also know as Crocodile Tears on You-tube and has done similar projects many times over. Despite the excitement of what tomorrow would bring we all went to sleep easily!
6:00 Next morning was bright, we all dressed quickly and were all out the door like a shot. To the bakery on route, Alan I not having a clue what all the food was opted for the most English looking of all the things on display. What was pretty much a sausage roll but with a hotdog inside it. My god those things were amazing! Then to the little shop to get drinks and snacks... in my case, lots of snacks. Then to the site, which was a tiny chapel with a modern graveyard at the front, leading to the really old graves and empty space at the very rear. It was here that a test hole had been made be Leo & Marko a few days before. Unlike most sites, this site had been documented well by the Germans during the war and rows and graves numbers of the soldiers were all recored. Meaning that if we could ID one soldier, we would know how everyone else was around him, and so on. Leo set me and Alan digging in one area and we set to work... first finding that the Croatia version of soft ground differs vastly from our own. However, once down to level (very fast to write... not that quick to dig though) we started to see our first German soldiers remains. Odd items would of course appear from time to time, like combs, watches, buttons, cutlery etc however all these are treated as trash and cannot stay with the bones for the simply fact that all these items only damage the remains further. These are the instructions from the VDK, anyone who tells you 'everything found with remains, stays with remains" is either lying or guilable. I have this conversation with people over and over, unless Croatia has a different VDK to everyone else, then some one is telling porkies!
This particular site was again unusual as the local people have been digging graves for people who have recently passed away. In doing so, some of these graves had been dig through the Germans, some missing half their bodies because their remains have already been removed... where to? Who knows! So there was a sort of urgency with this site. In total, if I remember correctly there was around 150 soldiers at this site. How many we would still be to find and removed remained to be seen.
All the dog-tags (EKs) that were found with the bodies also DO NOT stay with the remains, these are sent to the VDK who archieve them. I say again, NOTHING STAYS WITH THE REMAINS! This isn't us making this up, these are the instructions. Everything other than items that can identify the body are treated as trash and are disposed of. I'm not saying this to make it feel like we are grave robbing, I'm just telling you how it is, if other groups want to pretend the bury everything with the remains, so be it. Those are the sort of groups that hold raffles so you can go and work for free? In fact you have to buy a ticket before you can go and work for free! You then get to pay for your own flights, own accomadation in Riga, only when you get to their site (it's is not actually theres, but you'll give your money to 'that group' and they will pay on your behalf and anything else they want to spend your money on for the over inflatted fees they decided to charge you) is it declared free and part of the prize... remember, you actually paid money for tickets to win to work for free? Bargain right! Anyway, I'm straying off topic!
Each soldiers remains is kept together in a strong black bag (a manly bin-bag) which is numbers and labelled acordingly with the details needed. This collection of bags grew quickly as nobody in this group stops to examine everything single item found like its the sole reason for digging...
Day two was exaclty the same as the first, with the only exception is that we worked a lot more with JL and uncovered a row of soldiers to examine carefully. Even though the paperwork already told us what killed these soldiers, it was interesting to liten to JL explain all the ins and outs of his proffesion. He truely was fascinating to listen to.
The only real change for Alan and I in recovering all these soldiers was when we dug right up to a War Memorial and the next soldier was clear underneither. Upon checking the paperwork, Leo told us that there could be a few more than just that one, but to see what we could do. We started tunneling, the first was easy to get out as we only had to dig under about 2/3 feet to recover all the remains. We could then clearly see the elbow of the next soldiers arm... so there was at least one more. We started making the tunnel al little longer, until the next one was recovered. A quick investigation revealed that there was indeed one more! This was getting a problem now, as our tunnel was now about 6 foot long and went right under this war memorial! We checked in and Leo simply said "do what you can". So we had a look, stomped about, poked and proded and everything was so solid and the ground so compacted that we carried on. It wasn't easy, but the last soldier in that row was recovered and both felt rather pleased with ourselves.
The above video was created by JL, he stopped and filmed all through out the dig, must of the time we had no idea. Hence you can hear lots of background noise from the other 4 of us... in particular myself. Sorry JL!
The week carried on the same way, it's a weird thing to say that all we did was recover more and more soldiers as the days went on. Handling these remains are always treated with the utmost respect, yet sadly they do just become yet another 'set' of bones or even simply just another skull. As horrible and as nonchallant as that sounds, it not only became normal, but the senses and emotions became almost numbed to the fact these were once people who ate, slept and breathed.
Like all good things however, the weeks recovery work came to a close. We didn't get all 150 in that week, but we weren't that far off. From memory it was around a 120, the rest would be recovered the week after by Leo and Marko. The above photo is of Leo sitting and Alan looking through bags of items and the dog-tags that will go to the archieves. The amount of tags that were found was astounding and a wonderful site for a collector like myself to see in one place, the variety of units too was fascinating.
After the last days dig was completed, Alan and I said our goodbyes to the guys and headed off to a hotel in Zagreb. As much as I loved my time staying with them all, I also needed some away time and to relax. I'm one of those weird people who loves people who I like, but too much of a good thing and I start to loose the plot a little. Leo did say we could stay with him and his family which was so nice and I really did feel bad for saying we had booked a hotel and I honestly hope he wasn't offended.
The next day, apart from Alan making me really sick with his driving in Zagreb centre, we got to see the cemetary where 'our' German soldiers would go to their final resting place. Clearly there had already be some evidence of another batching being burried fairly recently as the ground had been disturbed and everything replaced. The large stone plaques bearing the names of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen would eventually bare the names of the soldiers to who we found. Lots of those whos names were read aloud by Leo and JL when we handed them the tags and they were ID'd. Even this simply act of reading these names aloud reminded us that these bones once were people, with names, rank and and trades. It is far too easy to overlook that these were once people and not just unanimated bones.
I would certainly return and help the guys again in Croatia and I know Alan would probably leave now if I asked him. The guys have a great way of working and a wonderful sense of humor, they also know how to treat the people who come to help. On top of all that ehe country is beautiful, the people are wonderful, the hotdog sausage rolls are amazing and the pound goes a long way out there!
We have been speaking about the future projects and other ways we can help. I offered to bring more people than myself and just Alan and there is a possibilty of another two spaces. With no plans set in stone yet, please don't everyone start messaging me if you can all come! Especially if we don't even know you.