How fate played its hand for two soldiers in WWII
Peter Clarke and Ted Winkler coincided for a fleeting moment in the Battle of Winnekendonk.
Binbrook in the Lincolnshire Wolds was the home of Alderman Woodthorpe Clarke, who died unexpectedly in 1916. He was JP, Chairman of Louth RDC and Lord of the Manor with 2,000 acres. His son, Henry, succeeded. He had joined up as a boy and served heroically at the front where he was wounded five times and awarded the MC. When hostilities ended he turned down a position in the regular army – a decision he always regretted – to take over his inheritance and to marry Lillian after a whirlwind romance.
Life for the couple began well, and on 29th May 1921 a son was born and christened Peter Henry Woodthorpe. But their luck changed. A severe drought was followed by the government imposing austerity to repay wartime American loans. Among other measures, the 1920 Agriculture Act and its farm price support was cancelled in The Great Betrayal. A worldwide grain surplus caused prices to collapse below the cost of operating the farms. Henry was forced to sell up at a time when one quarter of England’s farmland changed hands for as little as £10/acre. The landed class was virtually eliminated, but Henry felt obliged to look after the farm labourers, whose income was drastically reduced. The money Henry got for the farms he passed on to alleviate the distress of the Binbrook villagers who had nobody else to turn to. By 1927 the money had all gone and Henry joined the Lincolnshire Special Constabulary, to retire as an inspector in 1968.
Eilbek is a suburb of Hamburg where the wounded Robert Winkler returned in 1918 with the Iron Cross First Class. He lost his right hand fighting in the Hindenburg Line and after gangrene set in his lower arm had to be amputated.
The German army was defeated in the field but, to avoid the humiliation of occupation, its generals ordered the politicians to seek an Armistice based on US President Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points – a main objective of which was to open the British Empire to American trade for the benefit of Wall Street. The resulting Versailles Treaty of June 1919 included reparations which the German generals denounced, claiming the army had never been defeated in the field and convicting the Weimar politicians of treason and being Jews.
Into this toxic brew, made worse by JM Keynes’s condemnation of Versailles, Robert and Anna Winkler gave birth on 4th December 1920 to Eduard Friedrich, called Ted. The next three years saw hyperinflation as Germany tried to inflate away its indebtedness. Robert accepted the narrative that the politicians were to blame and, although a nationalist more than a socialist, he joined the Nazis in 1927. He saw the need to fight the communists for control of the streets of Eilbek, using his wooden arm as a weapon. The Nazis took power in 1933, and promptly dropped Robert as a cripple, which made him deeply cynical about their motives. His communist neighbour was removed to a concentration camp and returned a broken man. Robert’s gangrenous arm could not be cured, and in 1937 he died in agony when the infection reached his shoulder.
The economic and social improvements achieved by the Nazis, and especially their elimination of unemployment, impressed Ted and everyone else. He was non-political and his interests were in gliding and ‘degenerate’ jazz, which he listened to at the US consulate. This brought him to the attention of the police. They marked his record as ‘politically unreliable’ to ensure he was never promoted above the rank of corporal. His Jewish girlfriend vanished without warning, and only post-war could he imagine her fate.
In 1933 Peter followed his father to Repton, paid for by an uncle. Repton was a public school since made notorious by his contemporary, Roald Dahl, for bullying and beatings. For Dahl the best thing about Repton was that it left boys free to go wherever they liked when nothing was happening. Being good at games, Peter was treated with civility by the staff and respect by his fellows. He became captain of cricket and a prefect. He received an England trial as a bowler and was offered a place on the Nottingham County cricket team. At 6ft 2in tall, he was handsome with a charming smile, and is thought to have had a girlfriend in Tealby.
In August 1939 Peter’s father, Henry, was called up for service in France, and Peter went to Sandhurst. This left Lillian alone, and she befriended Mr W Gribbin, the engineer in charge of the construction of Binbrook airfield. Divorce followed and, having lost both her sons, she and Gribbin emigrated to South Africa after the war when Henry remarried and had a son, Stephen. Peter did well during his three months at Sandhurst and was commissioned on the last day of 1939 into the Lincolnshire Regiment.
Peter spent six months training in Lincoln before joining 2 Battalion at Castle Cary on 9th June 1940. He was promoted Lieutenant in July 1941, Captain in September 1942, and Major in August 1944. He appeared fearless of personal injury, at least before Winnekendonk, but had a fear of heights. He was strong on discipline, even threatening to shoot a deserter, and worshipped by his men; for example, after returning from night patrol he invited his bodyguard to have breakfast with him, telling a critical fellow officer to go away and leave them in peace. He was twice evacuated with wounds; on D-Day with shrapnel from a German aircraft bomb, and on 18th September 1944 when wounded in the face by a booby-trap when crossing the Escaut Canal, but carrying on to earn the MC.
Ted Winkler was ten when he became fascinated with gliders. In 1932 he joined the DLV sporting club. It was taken over by the Nazis, which made him automatically a member of the Hitler Youth. He first flew a glider in 1935, and in that same year joined Menibum in Hamburg-Harburg on a five-year apprenticeship to qualify as a Flugzeugbauer (aircraft constructor). This was part of a successful Nazi scheme to mass-train German youth in productive work and which became, along with the cancellation of foreign debt, the real driver of the post-war German economic miracle. Ted qualified in 1939 in what became a reserved occupation. He moved in 1941 to Graudenz in Poland to repair damaged Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter aircraft. In 1942 he was called up into the Luftwaffe and given specialist armourer training. In early 1943 he was transferred into the new 18 Luftwaffen-Feld-Division in the Pyrenees, which moved to the Pas de Calais in April 1944.
On 8th August 1943 Ted took home leave in Hamburg, only ten days after it had been devastated by a firestorm caused intentionally by Bomber Command. Binbrook’s aircraft participated. Ted’s mother lost everything except her life and the family’s documents by sheltering in a Hochbunker. She was evacuated to Poland. Ted stayed for several weeks, charged with dynamiting unsafe house frontages to make the streets safe.
Ted was at Istres-le-Tubé in the south of France in June 1944 as ground-crew for Junkers Ju 88 bomber aircraft, where he pocketed the air-dropped safe conduct pass signed by Eisenhower that he would use at Winnekendonk. In July 1944 he was selected, and sent in Kesselring’s personal Ju 52 to Augsburg, Dresden and Leipzig, to manage unofficially, and secretly against Hitler’s edict, the fitment of cannon to the Me 262 jet bomber. In November 1944 he was recalled to the colours in Lüneburg and chosen as armourer for the reformed 7 Paratroop Regiment. Ted moved to Wageningen in December 1944, relieved to have avoided posting to the Eastern Front. In February 1945 his unit moved south to Kervenheim, and on 2nd March 1945 he was ordered to destroy his armourer’s tools and join his unit in Winnekendonk, just west of the Rhine.
Ted arrived at the junction outside Winnekendonk armed only with a pistol. He was directed to join army anti-tank gunners who were taking shelter in a root cellar on Hestert, when he looked back and saw 400 Lincolns supported by fifteen Churchill tanks approaching under heavy fire 200 yards away on both sides of the road. Ted was defenceless, so summoning up all his courage he walked towards the Lincolns, waving his safe conduct pass but risking being shot by them or shot in the back by his own side for desertion. While Ted surrendered, a mortar bomb killed Peter Clarke on the other side of the road.
When convalescing in Binbrook in 1944, Peter wrote presciently in the flyleaf of his books: ‘PHW Clarke, KIA 1945’ (Killed In Action). His finite stock of courage was almost used up both from leading his men so often ‘over the top’ into mortal danger and from being wounded on D-Day and at the crossing of the Escaut Canal. Sgt Gilleard told this author that Peter was most unhappy with the rushed and unprepared attack at Winnekendonk at 5.45pm. He was killed while leading his men on the most exposed part of the battlefield. Maj Leslie Colvin MC, this author’s father, found Peter after midnight on the ground as if asleep, and said he was killed without a mark on his body by a German bouncing mortar bomb found nearby. Peter’s death, together with twenty others and eighty wounded, devastated the battalion, which had, with magnificent support from 3 Scots Guards, prevailed against strong opposition. Peter’s commanding officer, Maj-Gen Cecil Firbank DSO and Bar, described him as quite brilliant and destined for the top. He was one of the small group of officers landing on D-Day who made 2 Lincolns, in the opinion of Maj Gen Bolo Whistler, the best battalion in the division, and arguably the army.
After surrendering, Ted was moved from one POW camp to another for the next three years. Outside Brussels he was among a crowd of prisoners madly cheering an Me 262 jet fighter, armed with cannon to Ted’s design, destroying two Allied aircraft. In Jabbecke he was starved on a ration level used in concentration camps, and he weighed only seven stone when shipped to England on 19th May 1946. There he went through sixteen camps until released in December 1948, spending January 1949 in Hamburg. The aircraft industry in Germany was reduced to making bubble cars, so Ted returned to England initially to make jigs for Blackburn Aircraft, and then moved to Priestman Brothers in Marfleet for thirteen years. In 1954 he became a British citizen.
His first marriage to June ended in divorce, but his second marriage to Thelma was very happy. He became a partner in Modern Metal Finishes in Hull, retiring in 1979 in Hedon. There he is well known as a local historian, aviation expert and numismatist, as well as devoting time to the Handicapped Club and Red Cross while founding a charity in honour of Thelma who tragically died far too young.
This author lived in Lincoln at 4 The Grove during the war before leaving for Germany. He returned in the 1950s to live at 15 Massey Road and 27 Lee Road when attending Lincoln Grammar School in Wragby Road, before going to University and moving away permanently.
This article is based on The Noise of Battle: the British Army and the Last Breakthrough Battle West of the Rhine, February-March 1945, by Tony Colvin, and published by Helion & Co. ISBN: 978-1-910777-11-4. It is available from the publisher, selected bookshops and from www.amazon.co.uk.
More information on 2 Lincolns is available in Mettle and Pasture: The History of the Second Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment during World War II, by Gary J Weight and published by Helion & Co. ISBN: 978-1-909982-14-7. It is available from the publisher, selected bookshops and from www.amazon.co.uk.