Solving the mystery of a Canadian airman's death

BRIAN BETHUNE November 7 2005


Solving the mystery of a Canadian airman's death

BRIAN BETHUNE November 7 2005



Solving the mystery of a Canadian airman's death


IT’S NOT THE WAY Canadians care to remember their part in the Last Good War. On the night of March 5,1945, the RCAF contributed 195 aircraft to the massive bombing raid that levelled the German city of Chemnitz. Weeks later, under the heading “Durch Terror gefallen” (“Killed by Terror”), the local newspaper was still commemorating the 2,100 civilian dead: “Marieluise— it was God’s will that on March 5, we should lose our dear child, age 10; Charlotte Eichbichler—my dear wife with her six children were cruelly tom from me; Helene Schmieder, Ursula Schmieder, Alma Schmieder—it is so painful to have lost my wife, my daughter and my mother all at once.”

The slaughter of the bombing campaign has troubled us ever since, and is one reason Canadians tend to ignore the fact it cost this country dearly too. Almost 10,000 men, nearly a quarter of Canada’s total war losses, died in the air war. The Chemnitz raid took its share:


ground in Germany when 700 bombers at a time spanned the skies. From 80 km away, he watched Dresden burn.

89 young men killed flying or fighting, brought down by freak weather conditions, German defences or friendly fire.

And one airman was murdered on the ground.

A day or two after the raid, a downed Canadian aviator was being taken to the railway station in the small town of Frankenberg, 15 km east of Chemnitz, when several men in civilian clothing rushed out of hiding and beat him to death with clubs while his Wehrmacht escort stood idly by. Peter Hessel, a 13-year-old refugee from earlier raids on Chemnitz, was in Frankenberg at the time, no more than a kilometre from the murder site. But he didn’t hear about it for another 59 years, more than a halfcentury after he had moved to Canada. When Hessel, a retired Ottawa-area civil servant, did learn of the war crime in February 2004, he felt his unique position placed a responsibility on him: “I was right there as a German, and now I am a Canadian. No one even knew who this young

man was. I had to find out what happened.”

The result of a year’s relentless investigation is Hessel’s The Mystery of Frankenberg’s Canadian Airman. In part it’s an absorbing reverse whodunit—Hessel found enough witnesses to be sure the crime occurred, and to believe the culprits were prominent local Nazis, but identifying the victim seemed at times impossible. Canadian war crimes investigators had quickly given up after the war: Frankenberg was in the Soviet zone, and relations were already chilly. In the end, by shrewdly following a single tenuous lead, Hessel learned that the airman was JeanMaurice D’Avril, a 22-year-old Montrealer.

But the book is much more than an account

of solving a mystery. The Allied bombing campaign killed more than half a million Germans—crushed in their homes, roasted alive or asphyxiated. The flyers themselves were in grave danger in the air, as their casualty lists show; on the ground, alone and unarmed among their targets, they were helpless. Hessel notes that at least 45 downed Canadian airmen were murdered in Germany during WSÊBÊÊBKÊÊÊSÊÊBÊM the last 10 months of the war. The vast majority of killers were § men in uniform, from

forest warden, who

were following the lead

of top Nazis like Josef mTËÈ&mÊF’

Goebbels, who called

the airmen “terrorists”

undeserving of the THE MYSTERY OF

rights of POWs. On


the other hand, Hessel pe te r H e sse ¡ ;

interviewed numerLorimer; $34.95

ous Canadian air force POWs who did survive the war, and they recalled being protected from angry civilians by German soldiers.

Hessel displays a rare understanding of both national perspectives. Born to an extended family of Nazi fanatics (his mother excepted) a year before Hitler took power, he was well-indoctrinated as a child. He was on the ground when 700 bombers at a time spanned the skies. From 80 km away he watched the Dresden firestorm and worried about his relatives there. As it turned out, his aunt and two cousins survived the bombing, then killed themselves in despair the morning after.

But Hessel has been a Canadian now for far longer than he was a German, and he honours the sacrifices Canadians made in destroying Nazism. He refuses to call the bombing campaign terrorism. “The Nazis called it that, which is one reason I don’t—they never called what they did to British cities ‘terrorism.’ It’s up to the reader to judge for himself.” Instead, Hessel focuses on reconciliation, stressing it’s time to acknowledge that “Canadians caused great suffering in Germany, and that Germans caused great suffering to Canadians.”

Today in Frankenberg, entirely because of Peter Hessel’s efforts, a plaque at the murder site—carved in English, French and German —commemorates that lonely, unnecessary death, one among millions. At its unveiling on March 6, Lise D’Avril, the sister of the murdered man, met witnesses who saw him die almost exactly 60 years before, a step on Hessel’s road to reconciliation. I?]