The Norfolk girl who fell for a German prisoner-of-war
- Credit: Caroline Carter and family
Janette was just 15 when she first met Kurt - a prisoner-of-war in a camp at Salthouse on the north Norfolk coast.
While waiting to be repatriated after the end of the war the captured Germans cleared mines from the beach, carved toys for village children and even played football against village teams.
In December 1946 a national appeal went out asking people to consider invite prisoners-of-war to Christmas dinner.
Janette’s family ended up inviting three. Recounting the story on the Salthouse village website she explained: “My mother, although we were six of us home at that time, said: ‘We’ll invite somebody.’ “My father used to act as trainer to the local Salthouse football team and he knew the chap who ran the football team for the German prisoners-of-war, so he said ‘We’ll have Paul.’ My sister and I, we happened to know this one who had been a prisoner-of-war in America and spoke English with American slang, you can imagine can’t you? So we said ‘Can we have Helmut, Mother?’ and then mother said, ‘I’ll tell you what, we’ll have a third. That chap who plays the goal-keeper in their football team, we’ll invite him.’ That was how I met my husband.”
On Christmas Eve, Janette joined a group of village girls going door-to-door around the village playing festive tunes on handbells. They played to the prisoner-of-war too and Janette said: “When we played Silent Night, the tears ran down their cheeks.” Her younger sister, Jasmine, had already received a doll’s pram, made by the prisoners. “They were very clever, the prams had wheels that went round and there were dolls’ houses and I remember a big round board with chickens on it pecking,” said Janette.
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After Paul, Helmut and Kurt joined the family for Christmas tea romance blossomed between Kurt and Janette. Within two years they were married with a baby.
Writer Sarah Mitchell came across the story while researching her first novel, The Lost Letters, which is also set in Norfolk during the Second World War. “I found an extract about Kurt and Janette on the Salthouse History Website and was immediately entranced by their story. I printed out the pages thinking it might form the foundation of another novel one day,” she said.
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Several months after The English Girl was published she met Janette and Kurt’s daughter Caroline Carter and heard their full story. “In many ways it's even more remarkable than the story in my book,” said Sarah.
“Caroline told me that Janette was very young when she met Kurt at the Christmas dinner and fell in love with him. Then at 16 she became pregnant and had to leave school because of her pregnancy. Goodness knows what it must have been like to have fallen pregnant at such a young age by a German prisoner-of-war.
“Kurt was then sent to work in Lincolnshire, and apparently every Friday evening he used to cycle to the local train station, spend a night in the police cell by arrangement with the police, get the train to King's Lynn on Saturday morning, then cycle from King's Lynn all the way to Salthouse to spend the rest of Saturday with Janette and the baby, before doing the whole thing in reverse on the Sunday.”
Although the war was over, and the young couple married, the relationship wasn’t universally welcomed. Janette wrote: “I think the village people, individually, they liked the Germans who were here, but the war was very much in their minds still. Some people in the village had lost members of the family. To think that one of the village girls actually wanted to marry a German—that didn’t go down very well.
“I remember people who I’d known all my life who looked the other way when I went past, and I remember one old lady who used to spit on the ground. But not everybody was like that, and we were very happily married for 37 years.”
Kurt and Janette are dead now, but Caroline, who lives in Holt, said: “The baby they had was my eldest brother Michael.”
She said Kurt, her father, had been very happy to stay in Norfolk after the war. “He didn’t want anything to do with Germany,” she said. “His mother had died when he was three and when his father remarried his stepmother didn’t want him so he was brought up by his grandmother." Conscripted into the German army he was eventually captured.
“The Russians were coming in one direction and the English in the other and they had been living for weeks on swedes and turnips. They thought if they were going to be captured they’d rather be captured by the English than the Russians.”
Brought to England a prisoner he eventually found the family life he had never had in Germany.
Sarah, of Letheringsett, near Holt, grew up in Norfolk and had a career as human rights barrister in London before returning to Norfolk to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Her first novel, The Lost Letters, is set in Norfolk and London, during the Second World War and in present day, and was inspired by her mother who was a Wren (Women's Royal Naval Service) and met her father, a rear gunner, while sheltering from a rain storm in a Nissan hut. “I was acutely aware that their young lives had been vastly different to my own, and I wanted to explore and understand that period of history better, particularly from the perspective of women,” said Sarah.
Much of the story is set on the beach at Wells and Holkham – an area Sarah knows particularly well because her husband, Peter, is the managing director of the Holkham Estate.
Her version of Janette and Kurt’s story is set in 1940s Saltmarsh, including the prisoner-of-war camp where Catriona Court now stands, and in Germany as the Berlin Wall falls. Janette becomes Fran in her novel. When the prisoners arrive many villagers, mourning fathers, husbands and sons killed overseas, are horrified and Fran struggles sees them as the people who murdered her beloved brother. But when Fran meets Thomas their connection is immediate and she finds herself falling for someone she had thought was the enemy.
Knowing a relationship would be seen as a terrible betrayal of those closest to her, Fran keeps it secret. Two generations on her granddaughter follows a wartime mystery from Norfolk to Berlin in search of happiness for her family.
Sarah is now working on another novel set in the Second World War and exploring the treatment of foreigners, particularly Germans and Italians, living in the UK when the war started. “It’s another dual timeline novel, with the other timeline set during the pandemic,” said Sarah who also sits as a part-time Employment Tribunal and Asylum Tribunal judge.
The English Girl, by Sarah Mitchell, is published by Bookouture