Forgotten Hero of Bunker Valentin – The Harry Callan Story is an authentic eyewitness account of a POW in Nazi Germany. Funded by the British Legion, it enabled former POWs to return to the places of their incarceration for the annual liberation commemoration ceremonies. For more than two years, we worked long hours; researching, editing and fine tuning my manuscript. It is available in all good bookshops and online from https://www.collinspress.ie/forgotten-hero-of-bunker-valentin.html While on this trip to Bremen-Farge, Germany, Harry, one of 32 Irish-born British Merchant seamen, discovered that there were no records of him or his fellow Irishmen at the camp. An official photograph showing prisoners working on the construction of Bunker Valentin during the second World War
The result is Harry’s story, written in his own voice, as I heard it on those tapes. This information and the trauma of Harry’s recurrent nightmares were all his family knew. That is why, when RTÉ radio’s Documentary on One recorded his return to Germany, they called the programme Clouds in Harry’s Coffee. I travelled to Germany with Harry, visiting the places of his incarceration: Stalag XB Sandbostel; Milag Nord Westertimke; Bunker Valentin Bremen-Farge and the former Arbeitserziehungslager (Labour Education Camp). We made a pact: he would forget that I was his daughter-in-law and tell me everything; the good, the bad and the unspeakable and I would be true to his words, at all times. Some mornings I braced myself for what I had to hear, particularly the harrowing experiences that Harry recounted. It has been my privilege to visit Germany with him to witness the forgiveness and compassion he has for the German people; his interaction with the young students of the region and in turn, their respect and love for him. The three pipes to his left pump cement to the waiting prisoners above
In January 2012, at the age of 88, Harry realised that he was the last survivor of the 32 and that, if he did not speak now, what happened to them would never be known, so I agreed to record his words. We quickly learned that it was not a subject for discussion. By 10am we were ready for a coffee break; coffee plays a significant role in Harry’s life. Eventually, by June 2014 I had the bones of a story that definitely needed to be told and I sought the help of my friend, Helen Dempsey, who had taught creative writing and whose studies included Holocaust literature. Determined to correct this, he began working with local historians and intellectuals. By writing this book, I hope that some of the Irishmen’s families will find closure and that Harry, now in his nineties, will have peace of mind. I met Harry’s German friends, who had been children during the second World War, and local historians at the various interpretive centres. The scheme was facilitated in Ireland by Peter Mulvany of the Irish Seamen’s Relatives Association. I studied the various ships and U-boats which featured in Harry’s story and the service records of their Kapitäne. We would then go for a walk so that Harry could sleep with no nightmares. It is also the memoir of my father-in-law, whose only desire is for the truth about the 32 Irish-born British Merchant seamen to be recorded and remembered by future generations. Along the way, Helen gave me a crash course in creative writing. Each evening, I transcribed what I had recorded that day. I contacted the British Merchant Seamen’s Association, who willingly helped me by explaining ship’s terminology; shipping routes; ships’ histories and patiently answered all my questions. I immersed myself in historical books, war trials and POW memoirs of the period, 1939 to 1945. I also contacted the Württemberg State Library, where the German Navy Archives are housed, and they forwarded me ships’ photographs and graciously gave me permission to use them. Harry Callan in 1944
I researched the history of Nazi camps in which servicemen were imprisoned. A prisoner climbs scaffolding. I decided that I would start with Harry’s childhood and early days at sea; the middle part would be about his imprisonment, liberation and life after the war; the final part would be his return to Germany. Harry Callan laying a wreath at Milag und Marlag Nord, Westertimke, in April 2015
I had never written anything before. For the next six months, I went to Harry’s house every morning at 8.30am with my recorder. In 2005, 60 years after his liberation, Harry participated in a scheme called the Heroes’ Return. Michèle Callan is the author of Forgotten Hero of Bunker Valentin – The Harry Callan Story, published by The Collins Press, at €14.99. I learned the type of questions to ask and when to ask them; when to lighten the mood; when to let the silence lengthen and when to say, “Enough”. It was they who visited the UK National Archives, Kew, and tracked down records of Harry’s comrades for me. As the months passed, I began to realise that this was an important story, not just a piece of family history. Nervously I sat at my keyboard, listening to Harry’s Derry accent in my headset and thinking to myself, where do I begin? It was launched on March 23rd by Commodore Hugh Tully, Flag Officer Commanding Naval Service. In January 1941, my father-in-law, Harry Callan, became a prisoner of war, when his ship the Afric Star was attacked by a raider and scuttled.