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Billy Pilgrim

Sitting here at my desk listening to a radio dramatisation of Slaughterhouse 5.

I studied the novel at Uni, and wasn’t impressed much, except for the fact that the central event of the narrative is the fire-bombing of Dresden by the allies in 1945.

My grandad was there, in Dresden, in 1945. He helped dig out the bodies from the bomb-shelters. Dead, he said. All of them dead. But unmarked too; choked by the lack of oxygen in the air, because the firestorm caused by the incendiary bombs burned it all off as it consumed the wooden buildings that Dresden was mainly built from.

More people died in the Dresden firestorm of February 13-15 1945 than died in the nuclear attack on Hiroshima five months later.

The Americans came over during the day, he said, then the British at night, and they kept bombing for two days, until all of Dresden was destroyed.

He was a POW. A Tommy, captured by Rommel’s army at Tobruk. He once told me a little about what happened at Dresden, and while he tried to explain, tried to describe, what happened, his face became blank with grief and incomprehension.

I listened. Fascinated.

My gran told me once that he came back from the war a changed man; a nervous man, anxious, suffering from malnutrition and what they’d call now PTSD. He came home to a job on the docks, where he worked until he retired.

He’s long dead now, my grandad, but I knew him as the gentlest man I’d ever met. Ever will meet, probably. He told me a lot of stories about his time in the army, most of them good-natured and entertaining.

But Dresden he rarely mentioned, if at all. I don’t think he knew how to talk about it.

I am in awe of men like my grandad. Ordinary men. Gentle. Family men and unremarkable.

They’re giants to me.

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