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Christmas Madonna - Alan N. Owen

Meteorological Office

Royal Air Force HQ

Bad Eilsen, Lower Saxony, Germany

Bad Eilsen was a pretty little spa village near Hanover in northern Germany (Bad is German for bath and all German spas are prefixed with it such as Bad Oeynhausen, the British Army HQ twenty miles away, and also Baden Baden in the Black Forest, the most famous spa town in the country.

The RAF had commandeered all the buildings in Bad Eilsen which they used as their administrative centres in the early years of occupation after WW2. The Meteorological Office HQ was based in one of the many fine building which were scattered about in what was glorious parkland. It was situated opposite the main RAF HQ building which was in the largest hotel in the spa. Our building was much smaller and had been built either as a hotel or a large private house. We were told that during the war Messerschmitt had used it as a drawing office, well away from the heavily bombed industrial areas, but recently I have discovered that it might not have been Messerschmitt but Focke-Wulf.

On Christmas Eve 19491 was on duty in the teleprinter section of the building supervising a group of highly qualified and skilled German operatives who were taking in weather reports from all over Europe and from weather ships in the Atlantic - the latter information coming to us via the French meteorological centre in Paris. It was our job then to retransmit the details to all the RAF stations and other British military centres in Germany. Some of the reports came in normal print on to the teleprinters which were easy to check as they worked just like electric typewriters. Others came in on ticker tape which had to be checked more carefully before they could be retransmitted.

One of the senior operatives (they were all middle-aged because all the young men were either dead or still prisoners of war in Russia) came to me after midnight to report that the Paris line was faulty because they were receiving nothing but rows and rows of X's some of which were overwritten with W’s. I contacted Paris by teleprinter and was told to let it run. They then advised me to stick the sheet up on a wall and stand back and look at it. What we all saw that night, and some of the Germans were moved by it, was an image of the Madonna.

One Christmas eve in Wales in the early 1950s I was putting the finishing touches to a Chianti bottle-table lamp I was making for my widowed aunt who always spent Christmas with us. I needed sand to weigh it down and the only place I knew where I could get some was from the brake box of a guards' van in the local railway station. After hurrying there in the dark to the deserted platform I had my hand well down in the box when there was a shout from somewhere. I was nabbed, but instead of berating me, the guard took me to the engine shed and told me to help myself to some of the better quality sand that was stored there.

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