For decades, Michele Callan knew little about her father-in-law’s early life. That he was, at the age of just 16, a British Merchant marine travelling to every far-flung corner of a vast Empire was fascinating enough. But when she went on to discover how the Derryman had spent the Second World War she felt she had a story that had to be shared.
“In January 1941 their ship was attacked off the coast of Africa,” says Michele, “Just off the Camp Verde Islands. They were taken on board and were prisoners at sea from January to March.”
At that point Harry Callan, now 93, was with one other Irishman, Billy English. The pair were taken to a PoW camp named Milag near Bremen in north-west Germany. They spent two years learning to box, play cards, and barter with cigarettes. It seemed that was how they would see out the rest of the war until one day their prisoner numbers were called out and they were told to go the prison gate.
What happens after that is the subject of Michele’s absorbing book Forgotten Hero of Bunker Valentin: The Harry Callan Story.
“When they got to the gate, he realised that all 31 there were Irish,” says Michelle. “The other prisoners in the camp thought they were going to be repatriated but that wasn’t the case. Germany actually wanted them to work for free because they were from a neutral country. But they stuck together and refused.”
The Germans were now in a quandary. Having taken the prisoners out of camp, they could not bring them back without losing face. Repatriation was not an option either.
“In the end they were put into an arbeitserziehungslager,” says Michele. “Basically, people who were put into these places for lengthy periods were worked to death.”
Usually, an arbeitserziehungslager was used for political prisoners or Germans who had somehow insulted the Reich. For mild infractions, prisoners spent 28 days being ‘reprogrammed’ and were then sent home, often broken. Harry and his Irish fellow prisoners, who now numbered 32, would be there for 28 months and it soon became clear what their purpose was.
“They were the first to turn the sod on a place called Bunker Valentin,” explains Michele. “It was a huge structure the Germans were building near the arbeitserziehungslager to assemble submarines in; the size of four football pitches. The plan was to put together five to seven submarines a week from this place.”
Conditions were harsh and compounded by the cruelty of one man in particular, a Kommandant Schauwacker, a sadist who would rub salt in prisoners’ wounds or sometimes shoot them as they tried to get to the medical centre. For five of the men, the workload was too much, and they perished at the camp.
Amid the darkness, there was some light, however. Towards the end of the war, and perhaps with the Allies’ relentless march towards Berlin in mind, the commandant and camp doctor declared the prisoners unfit for work. To stave off boredom the men were offered the chance to help out in the local village. This was something that was not considered working for ‘frei’ as it did not contribute to the Nazi war machine. Harry opted to work for the camp doctor, a Dr Heidbreder, doing odd jobs and chores around his garden. While there, Frau Heidbreder would cook soup for Harry and instructed her children to refer to him as their uncle.
“It was surreal for him,” says Michele. “If you can imagine during the day he was just a worker in a garden and he was treated well but at night time he had to go back to the camp and that was confusing for him.”
From the summer of 1944 to beginning of April 1945, Harry worked for the Heidbreders and formed a bond with the family. “Obviously when the war ended they lost touch,” says Michele. “But in 2006, on one of his visits to help the local historians, he was told that they had traced them and they were reunited.”
Although the doctor’s children are all now in their seventies, they still refer to their former gardener as Uncle Harry.
A few weeks before liberation, Bunker Valentin was shut down and the nearby prison camp cleared out. The surviving Irish prisoners were returned to Milag. After a tense couple of weeks among the other prisoners, who suspected them of working for free, they returned to Ireland. Their welcome home was frosty.
“Billy English gave an interview to an Irish newspaper,” says Michele. “Nobody believed him. They were ridiculed and so the men agreed that none of them were going to talk about it. They kept in touch for a short while but then they needed to move on with their lives.”
For Harry, that involved moving back to Derry. Upon his return it was discovered he had tuberculosis and as a consequence was effectively imprisoned again for a year. After his recovery, he returned to sea but as the numbers of cargo ships docking in Derry declined, he moved to Dublin. While on shore leave, he met his wife and settled on the northside of the city where he still lives today.
Michele, now Harry’s carer, says her father-in-law was unable to speak about the brutality he experienced. He had nightmares and some nights he would cry himself to sleep.
Into his eighties, he had said nothing and then, in 2002, he agreed to revisit the site of his incarceration under a programme run by the British Navy called The Hero’s Return . When he discovered that local historians had no evidence of the Irish prisoners, it galvanised him. He was now determined to give his comrades recognition and began working to preserve their memory.
“When he finally began to tell his story, we were shocked,” says Michele. “Shortly after he went back the first time, I sat down with him and suggested that because there were only two of the men left, the story needed to be told and he agreed.”
Five years on from that conversation, Harry’s remarkable story is now being told. “There’s a school over there that have taken this story on as their project,” says Michele. “Since 2005, they’ve run a commemorative race along the route the men would take from the bunker to the prison in memory of the men. I think it’s great that the generations are carrying on their memory. There was 32 men in this story and there are 32 counties in Ireland and all four provinces are represented. It’s an important story.”
- Forgotten Hero of Bunker Valentin – The Harry Callan Story is published by Collins Press (€14.99) and is out now.