Saturday, 13 February 2010

Pistols & Histories

I watched a television programme recently in which the editor of a popular satirical magazine was asked about 'opinion' on the Internet. 'The blogosphere!', he exclaimed, 'You think I should consult the blogosphere? Where everyone writes very quickly about Hitler!' I went to sleep with this on my mind and the next day I woke up and thought, 'well, yes, perhaps it is cranky of me to relate things so quickly to the Second World War?' I went to a post I'd written here a week or so before, found a part of it that contained a reference to WWII German army uniforms and deleted it. After all, I thought, I don't want to be a crazy man that writes about Hitler on the Internet.

This morning I was thinking again about the Record Jumbo air pistol I'd bought in Bristol in the 1990's; I selected the text 'Record Jumbo', right-clicked to do a search and found that the gun was designed by a man called Fritz Barthelmes. (

'The company Barthelmes KG was established in Oggenhausen (district Heidenheim/Württemberg) in 1948 by Fritz Barthelmes. The manufactured products were inscribed and sold with the registered trademark "RECORD”. Mr. Fritz Barthelmes worked over 20 years as a successful senior designer in the arms factory Walther in Zella-Mehlis. He was owner of numerous patents and the designer of the famous Walther P 38.' (

I searched for 'Walther P 38' and found: Walther P38 is a 9 mm pistol that was developed as the service pistol of the Wehrmacht at the beginning of World War II. (

The page that I read about the P.38 didn't contain any reference to Barthelmes, so I followed another link and found: Fritz Barthelmes, born in Zella St Blasii in 1899, deserves to be remembered as the designer of the Walther P. 38, developed in the 1930s when he was chief engineer of Carl Walther Waffenfabrik of Zella Mehlis. The relevant British patent for the locking system is, after all, granted jointly to Barthelmes and Fritz Walther, and it is clear from the testimony of surviving employees that the concept was due more to Barthelmes than Walther. Fritz Barthelmes escaped from what was to be the Soviet Zone of a partitioned Germany in the summer of 1945, settling in the village of Heidenheim, where, ironically, Fritz Walther's fortunes also began a post war recovery. There he formed 'Fritz Barthelmes KG' to make metal goods and, later, starting and signal pistols. Barthelmes died in 1973. (

While I clicked these links another set of links and associations started to open up for me; not between items of data on different servers this time, but between the thoughts and memories that occurred to me when I read phrases like 'designer of the Walther P. 38', or 'service pistol of the Wehrmacht'. I wondered about Barthelmes' escape from the advancing Russian army: what must it have been like to live in Zella-Mehlis at this time? I found a piece about the American 778th Tank Battalion in 1945: On the 11th Division drove. It was almost impossible to keep up with cities and towns reached and passed: Schleid, Rosa, Suhl and Schleusinger all by April 10. Enemy resistance was crumbling; everybody in the battalion who wanted a Nazi souvenir had one, from shiny new pistols to helmet and flags. Suhl and Zella-Mehlis had plants that made hand guns and machine pistols. The plants were full of weapons and parts in bins. The G.I.'s had plenty of ordnance to trade and sell to the Russians at war's end. (

I thought about how strange it was that the gun I bought in Bristol in the 1990's was designed by the same man who'd designed weapons for the German army. At this point some things that my father had written about his time in France during the war came to my mind; he'd been the pilot of a Lancaster that was shot down on its way back from having bombed the V2 rocket site at St. Leu D'Esserent in June 1944. He'd parachuted out of the burning plane and, separated from his crew, had spent some days and nights hiding on his own in the countryside. He was discovered eventually by a group of farmers and Resistance members. I remembered what he wrote about hiding in a corn field: 'I stayed there all day. I had a drink and sucked some Horlicks tablets. The children passed again going home and they still didn't see me. Being summer it didn't get dark till late. I could see a wood in front of me so I went for it. It was an eerie wood with big holes like graves with stacks of wood in front of them, (I realised after they were made as trenches to hide in) it was nearly dark and the wood ended abruptly, one pace and I was out in the open. I stopped dead, someone was standing on the railway bridge about 100 yards away. I didn't move. I stood for minutes hoping that he had not seen me. He moved away. To the left there were some cottages and to the right there was a farmhouse. I decided to cross the railway lines and go across the next field. I was halfway across when I heard a shout, three men were running towards me. In my jacket I had my gun, a Smith and Wesson 38 bore revolver. I took it out. I didn't know what to do. The man whom I had seen on the bridge was the leader of the men, he was the leader of the resistance in that area. With his second-in-command Bernard and the farmer they were the three men who had come to help me. (I was limping quite badly with my knee I had hurt landing). He had been worried when he had seen me because the train on the railway lines I had crossed had been full of German troops.'
My father stayed with the farmer and two members of the Resistance. 'I helped them make the arm bands they wanted for their unit which was about 200 strong, stamping them and painting them with the tricolour & the Cross of Lorraine. Then they realised I was a trained armourer so they dug up all the old guns they had hidden in the church yard next to the farm house under the grave stones in the cemetery and I cleaned Lugers, German and Italian automatics and shotguns which would have blown up if they had ever been fired.'
'The farmer's dad was a baker by trade and he baked bread every day. The trains on the line stopped outside the farm gate, they dropped off coal and he threw loaves into the cabin for them. Other trains traded in tobacco from Belgium. At the back of the château was a wire enclosure about as big as a tennis court with wire dug into the ground. It was full of rabbits (wild ones) so we had lots of rabbit pie.'

'I had two bolt holes, one was through the back window and under the foundations of the house, it was about 18 inches square. The Germans that patrolled the railway line had decided to inspect the property, they did not expect to find anyone, it was just a nuisance trip. Two Germans saw the farmer in the farmyard and stopped to chat to him, we heard a shot so I went to my bolt hole in the back through the window, Bernard followed me and removed the slab and in I went. I had to crawl in some 15 feet and turn the corner so I was out of sight if anyone flashed a torch. If I had been found the Germans would have shot everyone in the house. I could hear things scratching about, I didn't know if it was rabbits or rats. It was very frightening. It turned out that the German soldier had been playing with his gun and when he had put it back in its holster he had fired it and hurt his foot. Bless him.'

So these pieces of writing come to my mind; some are are easy to think about and some are less so. It's easier, perhaps, for me to dwell on the objects than it is to think about the people that were caught up in all this; so these links hinge around the kind of question - were the guns that the German soldiers carried Walther P.38's? - that I see to be at a certain remove from the life of the situations themselves. Or is it perhaps that these things come up because they are linked in my mind by the word 'pistol' and each set of ideas is connected to this central point like spokes to the hub of a wheel? Whichever way it is, when I read about the career of Fritz Barthelmes, this is what comes to my mind. So thoughts about very ordinary objects - about an air pistol - do seem to link very swiftly for me to material that is tightly bound up with events in the Second World War - events that I can only say have for me the most vivid personal interest. Perhaps it's easy to underestimate how much this might be a shared experience for those of my generation? If this is so and we get a glimpse of this through the preoccupations of those who write on the Internet, perhaps this genuinely startles us?

Or I should we accept the view that we're crazy to be drawn into questions like this? These things, after all, did take place more than sixty years ago, twenty years before I was born; perhaps I should be embarrassed that the threads of my associative life are so knotted up with these supposedly distant things?

But embarrassed or not, surprised or not, these links are there; and up to what point, I wonder, is it admissible to publicly confess that this is so? Beyond what point exactly does it become an indicator of a suspicious irrationality to acknowledge the material that does in fact concern us?

There is a risk in disowning these things too quickly, I think; because perhaps it goes so far for us that these associations are not merely things that we have, not just things we possess - like an air pistol, a knife or a pair of shoes; perhaps there's more at stake? Following these links, on the Internet and in memory, it occurs to me that aside from what I have - my things and my thoughts - there's much of what I am that's bound up here too; perhaps these associations are so foundational as in some way to be the material from which we are actually made, the threads out of which our lives are woven? If we dismiss the seeming strangeness of our own particular memories and associations, embarrassed by the insistence of our personal links and concerns, maybe we run the risk of somehow disowning ourselves?

My father never spoke during my childhood about his training as an armourer - not one word; he wrote these things only a few years before he died in 2006; so, in Bristol in the 1990's, I knew not the first thing about them when I found myself compelled - for reasons that were far from clear to me then - to buy an air pistol designed by Fritz Barthelmes.

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  1. Wonderful post, especially the stuff from your dad. Thank you.

  2. Great writing Hubert, please tell us more of your Dad's stories

  3. Great post Hubert, youre bog is becoming more interesting with each piece that you write.

  4. Thanks SBW - I'll put more stuff from my pa's writing in if it feels like a vaguely appropriate thing do do for the particular post. I've been thinking I should build a site for it somewhere.

    Thanks Murphyfish! My 'bog'? Do you have a webcam in my smallest room, perchance? Well, it's good to have a hobby, I guess!

  5. Hubert,
    I especially loved the story about your Dad; my neighbor was in a Nazi concentration camp and told me the story of her time there. These old WWII stories need to be preserved! Thank you.
    take care,

  6. I very much agree with you, Dave. Thanks for commenting.
    With all best wishes,

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