Lorre Sebbings – life in Germany during the war

Annelaure (Lorre) Stebbings was born in Bielefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, in north-west Germany, on 25 May 1926 and grew up there. As an only child she went to a kindergarten at the age of two because her mother wanted her to be with other children. She started school at the age of six, as was the norm in Germany. Her father was then a chauffeur to a very rich man who owned about six cinemas in the town. This meant that he was abroad in different countries quite often as his boss was involved with the film industry. Her mother didn’t work. Lorre went to a Lutheran church Sunday School every week as well as day school.

When Lorre was nine she very nearly died. Like most Germans she lived in a block of flats. An epidemic of diphtheria had spread very quickly because of the close proximity of children living near each other and playing together. The doctors were overrun with cases and, although a doctor had promised to call one afternoon to see Lorre who had a high fever and her throat was swelling, he did not come until the next morning. He rushed her to hospital and gave her an enormous injection. He told her father that without it she had about 20 minutes to live. She thinks that the shock of nearly losing their beloved daughter made her parents decide to have another child and about a year later she had a brother.

Life was very pleasant for Lorre as a child and she was too young to be aware of Hitler. She didn’t want to join the Hitler Youth movement as she got older but was pestered to do so. She did eventually but all she did was to sign her name on a piece of paper.

World War Two had begun by the time Lorre finished school at the age of 14. She didn’t go to college as only the well-off could afford to do that. So, because it was compulsory, she had to do a year in someone’s house before she could get any job. At the start of the war very few women were in full-time work in Germany. Hitler had decreed that their job was to stay at home, and be good housewives and produce as many children as possible. But because of the skills shortage in Germany, a law had been passed in 1937 which meant that women had to do a ‘Duty Year’. This meant that they had to work patriotically in a factory or a person’s home for a year to help the Nazi’s economic revival.

In Lorre’s case it was helping in a household where there was a large family. She did her year but wasn’t happy with the first family she was with. At the end of the year she went to work in what had previously been a suitcase/fine leather factory but was now making armaments. Her work involved putting a stamp on to iron containers for shells. If she had been a big strong girl she would have helped a farmer.

There was rationing and in 1940 the sirens were going off every night because of enemy bombing raids. At that time Lorre’s family were living on the edge of the town, but her father’s boss had a beautiful flat in town and he encouraged them to move there. Most German houses had a cellar and, when the bombing started, that is where they would go. One afternoon there was severe bombing and Lorre just managed to slide into the cellar. When the raid was finished they left the cellar only to find that their block of flats had completely gone. Her family was left with nothing apart from a little handbag her mother was carrying. They family were left bewildered and realised that they had to go their separate ways. Lorre’s father went to his sister outside the town. Her mother and brother went to another sister of her father and Lorre went to a sister of her mother. This continued for some time, but they remained in contact with each other. The aunt she was staying with dug a trench in the field to go to when the alarm sounded. As they were out in the country there was not so much bombing there, but the city was still being constantly bombed.

The family really wanted to get back together and so when a solicitor friend of her father vacated a flat in the city and offered it to them they moved in. They lived in this flat for a while but were still running almost every night to the cellar. They weren’t always bombed but still went to shelter in the cellar when the siren went off. It was very frightening. The family appreciated that the British bomber crews tried to hit set targets. When the Americans entered the war, however, bombing was far more indiscriminate and conditions deteriorated. Sometimes when one raid finished another would begin almost straight away. Lorre’s family didn’t feel safe in the town so they moved to the outskirts near a mountain inside which was a shelter. They felt they would be safe in there as long as the Americans didn’t bomb the shelter’s entrances and exits as they had done in Hamburg where hundreds died. They had to run up the mountain when an air raid started. As the raids were coming so often, the family spent every evening as a matter of course in the mountain to avoid having to run up it at the sound of the siren. When the ‘all clear’ went they would return home.

At the end of 1944 Lorre received a letter telling her to report to a town on the River Ruhr where she would be drafted into an anti-aircraft facility. It upset Lorre to leave her parents again and she cried every day. The US soldiers were moving in from France, and the noise and shooting at night was dreadful. She felt by this time people were wanting the war to end. She was sent on a quick six weeks course to train to use Morse Code before being posted with some other girls to where the anti-aircraft guns were so that they could send messages in Morse Code should everything collapse. It was a dangerous place to be and it meant a lot of running to bunkers. They kept being told that the ‘Yanks’ were coming nearer but that they had to be there with the men underground. She was told to be brave.

The Yanks were moving even closer and early one morning she was told to leave, as the person in charge did not want to be responsible for women being there. Lorre and two girls departed eastwards and went along the autobahn on foot for two days with people giving them occasional lifts. Enemy planes flew low overhead and they had to dive into the embankment about twice a day to avoid them. When she had to leave the autobahn after two days on it, she met an old farmer who felt sorry for her and gave her a lift part of the way to the place where her family had lived near the mountain. It was still there, but her mother and brother had gone to farms in the country as they had been evacuated. Lorre stayed with a neighbour and was able to get in contact with her father. She walked to the farm to see her mother, who was living in one room with her brother, and joined them there. They cooked in one corner of the room and her brother slept on the floor.

Then the war finished and the US Army came. They thought at first that everyone was a Nazi which wasn’t true. Food was in very short supply and Lorre and her family were often hungry. Farmers were still growing food but it didn’t go to the shops. Money had depreciated in value and, until the new rate of exchange came in, shops were not opening. Women travelled to the country on a little train each day to the farmers to get work and collect a little food such as a few eggs or strips of bacon and a bit of flour. Lorre heard that some Yankee soldiers stopped the train in the middle of nowhere and took the food off the women, as they didn’t want them going there. She thought it totally wrong as the women had put in a day’s hard work for a little bit of food for their families.

The Yanks settled into a big country house before moving south and the area was taken over by the British. Lorre had had private English lessons and this came in handy. Because she spoke English she had various jobs and sometimes worked away from home as an interpreter. The last job was in an office that dealt with army vehicles. Her first husband was the boss and was about to be demobbed. He wanted to marry her and for her to join him in England. She deliberated for some time, but desperation over life in Germany made her decide to go in the hope of a better life.

Lorre got married and lived at first in lodgings at Ely in Cambridgeshire where her husband was a barber. Then a job in Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire came up for him which had a flat to go with it, so they moved there. It was not a happy marriage and she was very homesick, but she did have two lovely children. She would have returned to Germany if she could have taken the children and her parents would have welcomed her back. Her husband wouldn’t allow them to go and she couldn’t make him, as the children had been born in England. She stayed with him as a housekeeper until her children left home. Lorre had another life and happiness for seven years with her second husband until he died in a road crash in about 1984. She missed him terribly. He was a church organist and they loved to go to concerts together, including the Proms in London. They went to Germany for holidays. She lived in Abingdon as a widow for over 30 years. Lorre was a worshipper at Radley Church.

Interviewed by Tony Rogerson on 14 May 2012