Friends not foe: How two Second World War enemies became the best of pals
It was 1943 and both men were soldiers in the Second World War – fighting on opposite sides in the African desert.
Seven decades later and 93-year-old Graham Stevenson, from Walsall, classes German soldier Karl Friedrich ‘Charley’ Koenig as a good friend.
Mr Stevenson, who went on to fight in Normandy, was a machine gunner for the Sherwood Ranger Yeomanry Tank Regiment.
After the battle of El Alamein, he took part in hard fighting all along the way from Alamein through Tunisia – and had just barely reached 18.
The pair first came into contact – without knowing – in Tunisia in March 1943, when the British and opposition tanks stalked one another, engaging in individual battles.
Mr Koenig, aged 94, was part of the German 5th Panzer Division and saw his part in the war come to an end in May that year, when he was taken prisoner by the Americans and transported to camps in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Belgium, and England before returning home in 1947.
In 1991, he sought out the Sherwood Rangers and found Ken Ewing, who was head of the southern branch of the Sherwood Rangers Old Comrades’ Association.
He was invited to join the group as an honorary member and now, Mr Stevenson and Mr Koenig are the only members of the group left alive who fought in Africa.
Their friendship sends a powerful message to future generations.
“Karl wears a British beret and a cap badge featuring the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, my regiment,” said Mr Stevenson.
“He was captured on the desert and whisked off to the United States to a prisoner of war camp.
“He ended up being moved to England when the war was still on – he could speak very good English and was more or less an informal interpreter.
"He was in with a couple who had a son who was virtually his age, who was away at sea.
“It was quite the thing, at weekends, to dress him up in their son’s clothes and go down to the pub.
“Because he had a bit of an accent they said it was their nephew from Canada or something like that.
"He found out who he was fighting against, which was my regiment, and tried to get in touch with us.
“He was given the phone number of the gunner of my tank and we made him an honorary Sherwood Ranger.
"We accepted him, put the tanks away, we weren’t fighting anymore. He was just accepted.”
The two first met one another at the regiment’s annual get-together in Nottingham about a decade ago – and since then, they have spoken almost every year.
Both Mr Stevenson and Mr Koenig, who now lives in Hamburg, regularly visit Normandy for the anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Despite Mr Koenig not being involved, he is welcomed back each year – sporting his adopted British beret with pride.
Mr Stevenson, who was just 16 when he enlisted to join the Army – telling the recruitment officer he was 18 and just days away from turning 19, added: “He always wears the beret – we were in this one town in Normandy and were really going to town.
“Karl was captured in the desert and when we came back and I went to Normany I was badly wounded there – that was me finished with the Army. I got a burst of machine gun fire, which hit my arm.
“When you stop fighting, you’re just two people. If you don’t forgive, you’re just extending the wartime atmosphere. There was some awful Nazis but they were very much in the minority.
"Otherwise they were just the same as we were, they were doing a job they didn’t want to do and had been ordered to do it.”
WATCH a mini documentary about the friends:
- To mark the 75th anniversary of their fight in the desert, the ‘World War II History Project’ is launching a crowdfunding campaign to bring the pair back together this summer in England then Normandy. Heather Steele, from the US, who has gone with them to Normandy for years, wants to record a film of them together. A total of $25,000 (£17,813.25) is needed. Visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/former-enemies-best-friends-friendship-peace/