Parachute to Berlin
“Lowell Bennett did not write as a journalist but in the honest and human prose of the best in memoirs, a work well received in 1945 that still takes the reader on a great adventure today.”
Lowell Bennett was the rare western journalist in Nazi Germany during the British bombings in World War II. He came to dispute the claims of any value to that campaign. Parachute to Berlin reprints his 1945 memoir.
Even without World War II, this American from Kansas City, Missouri, had lived a life of great adventure that would have provided grist for any number of novels. Before traveling the world as a sailor, he had moved across the country on boxcars, working different jobs in different states during the Great Depression.
As the war began, Bennett tried unsuccessfully to join the Finnish resistance to its invasion by Russia and then the French Foreign Legion. Bennett did become part of an American ambulance corps in France and was captured by the Germans in 1940 before escaping to the free French in London. He somehow became a journalist and reported on the American campaign in Tunisia, also the subject of a book that he published during the war.
The foreword by the author’s son might have included more details on his father’s life. Any experiences that Bennett had with the Blitz and its survivors would have made an interesting contrast with this memoir.
Bennett gives a gripping detailed, and highly personal, account of his flight in a bomber over Berlin, the destruction of the aircraft, and his jump to safety amidst an air battle in freezing December weather over the burning Nazi capital. “The tumulus jigsaw of color and sound, of consuming fear and bewilderment and wonder—an experience beyond description.”
Bennett parachuted into a swamp. Despite hiss ineptitude, he survived thanks to the decency of Germans who had suffered terribly from the bombings. Two civilian correspondents were in planes shot down in that raid, but they died in their planes.
Aside from the civilians and the Russian prisoners cleaning up the wreckage, Bennett found that Berliners tried to carry on their lives in their increasingly burned and wrecked city. Streetcars still operated, trains continued to run, the streets suffered little from bombs designed to destroy buildings, and German tanks joined bulldozers to clear the rubble.
“The Jew in Berlin was conspicuous for his absence” (a few were seen, however) and signs hung everywhere warning of spies. Half of the city’s population had been evacuated. “It was,” however, “a picture of a population fighting hard with every means at hand of preventing desolation from overwhelming them.”
These people showed “their fatigue and nervousness” and Berlin had a “sterile, deserted appearance.” Prisoners of many nations gave the city the appearance of a giant prison work camp for cleaning up the mess made by the bombings. Germany’s capitol was “graver, more depressed, and lugubrious, and far more heavily bombed” than London had been.
Unlike in Britain, stores were stocked and lines seldom formed. The remaining Berliners seemed to have their needs better met than the civilians in London, due to the failures of the British blockade and an enslaved continental empire. The Royal Air Force even helped by dropping counterfeit ration coupons!
Bennett and the captured airmen he met seldom encountered harsh treatment from their captors or the civilian population. The Germans had a file on Bennett from when he was previously captured. An interrogation in Frankfort proved more than civil. After “tea” became a full meal, a few questions were asked, and negative responses were accepted without comment.
The decorated Luftwaffe Lieutenant Joseph Bonner did the “questioning” although he shared extensive information with Bennett on what the Germans knew of the allied air forces and losses. The reader is left to wonder how long any allied secrets were kept from the Germans.
Lieutenant Bonner even took Bennett on a week-long tour of Germany. Bennett saw much the same situation where the allies had also ineffectively bombed other parts of the country. Incredibly, the submarine works in Hamburg continued in full operation while block after block of civilian housing, replaced with temporary wooden homes in the countryside, lay in ruins.
Even in the all-important industrialized Ruhr Valley, the hugely expensive allied air campaign did little damage to German war production but did inflict tremendous losses on the civilian population. Bennett wrote of the “wasteful dropping of bombs” “in a stultified policy of morale bombing.” Nowhere in Germany did they see any of the signs of revolution and popular uprising described in allied propaganda.
Bennett found the situation “all somewhat fantastic, more a dream than a reality.” Taken to Greece, the author and fellow prisoners found themselves cheered by crowds everywhere except when their train passed through Bulgaria and Germany.
The author’s experiences with other interrogators alternated between boring, entertaining, and informative rather than stressful. “German persistence and thoroughness have been seriously misidentified as brilliant craftiness.”
Bennett finally escaped from a hotel in Berlin and hid for weeks in Prague. Even in Czechoslovakia, the author found little left of any war resistance despite the hatred that many, but not all Czechs, had for the Germans. The author even managed to smuggle out a news story to his newspaper.
Recaptured, Bennett was not tortured but he was sentenced to death for espionage. The sentence was reduced to confinement in Stalag I for the rest of the war. He was eventually liberated by the Russians.
Lowell Bennett did not write as a journalist but in the honest and human prose of the best in memoirs, a work well received in 1945 that still takes the reader on a great adventure today. The author raises blunt questions about the failure and waste of the allied air campaigns that might also be asked of the United States in Korea and Vietnam years later.