Colin and Alice Anson were two strangers, living in the shadow of the Third Reich, whose extraordinary lives became intertwined in 1940s London when they made a pact to become British.
Colin, brought up as Claus Leopold Octavio Ascher, had fled his native Germany just days before he turned 17, when he would have been conscripted. He went on to serve in the British forces, training as a Commando at Achnacarry in the Scottish Highlands and operating with X Troop.
Viennese schoolgirl Alice Gross, just 14 when she left Austria after Hitler’s Anschluss annexed her homeland, became a WAAF photographer, helping to pinpoint the site of the V1 flying bomb launch site.
They met, by chance, in a London cafe and shared the desire to wholeheartedly embrace the country that had taken them in. They spent the following 67 years together and died only 11 days apart, survived by their children, Barbara, Diana and Edward, seven grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Alice Hedy Anson, WAAF, photographer and charity volunteer
Born: 22 September, 1924 in Vienna, Austria. Died: 16 June, 2016, in Watford, aged 91.
Alice Gross was a 14-year-old schoolgirl when she escaped the tyranny of Nazism, thanks to her grandfather’s business contacts in Europe.
Having witnessed the Anschluss and the presence of Hitler in her hometown of Vienna, her middle-class Jewish parents, though not religious, knew they would be targeted and took the decision to send her to live with a family in Surrey.
Travelling alone, she left the Austrian capital in 1938, arriving in Coulsdon where she was taken under the wing of the family who treated her as one of their own eight children. Though she spoke little English she became the mother’s help until being reunited in England with her own parents who had managed to secure a domestic service permit for her mother and entry visa for her father.
They rented a house in Finchley and young Alice became an apprentice dressmaker, working in various large London stores.
In 1942, when she was still just 17, she volunteered for the WAAF and was called up the following year. She had hoped to be a driver but was detailed to work as a clerk and posted to Hertfordshire, to a Observer air crew training station. There she organised transport before requesting the chance to train as a photographer.
After a three-month course at No 1 School of Photography, RAF Farnborough, she became an Aircraftwoman 1st Class and was sent on two postings, neither of which had a photo section. At one she even ended up helping the dentist, mixing fillings.
But by the summer of 1944 she finally got to work in the photo section – at HQ Bomber Command in High Wycombe. One of her most significant tasks involved a tiny, postage stamp-sized section of an aerial photo taken in the north of France. It was to be copied, enlarged and sent for analysis. It turned out she and her colleagues had helped to pinpoint traces of rails leading underground to the Hitler’s VI flying bomb launch site.
She later served at the bomber airfield RAF Sturgate where she had to develop and print rolls of five inch film taken by the bomb aimers’ aerial cameras. Post-war she volunteered to serve in Europe but was posted to Egypt where she served at Ismailia, Kasfareet and Deversoir air bases before being demobbed on 1 January, 1947. Returning home to Finchley she found work initially as a photo printer and then as an agency photographer, covering events in the rag trade for Drapers Record magazine. She later worked for a society photographer, covering a wide range of events, and had some images published in Tatler.
There were few women photographers at that time but unfortunately her career was curtailed as the job was temporary and she never worked again as a photographer, doing general admin work instead until marriage and children followed.
She met her husband Colin in a London cafe, in 1949, while she was taking tea with her mother. He was catching up with an old colleague in the Pioneer Corps who recognised her mother as someone he knew from Vienna. Alice was duly introduced to the handsome former Commando.
They married in 1951, moved to Finchley, and after the births of their two daughters and a son Alice returned to work and managed a laundrette. However her life changed completely when she read about psychotherapist Diana Priestley who had established the Working Association of Mothers, a charity organising holiday activities for one-parent and working families.
Inspired and intrigued, she met Priestley who encouraged her to follow her lead, which she did for four years, catering for 150 children every holiday. They later linked up with the organisation now known as Gingerbread, which she worked with for a decade, before becoming involved with Women’s Aid, setting up a Women’s Centre in Harrow and training as a Rape Crisis counsellor.
It was really through working in the laundrette that she had realised her strength lay in her people skills and when she recognised a need she began doing something about it. Among the achievements she was particularly proud of was a run-in she had with clean-up campaigner Mary Whitehouse, over a controversial sex education film in the early 1970s.
Alice had organised a screening of the film which had been condemned by Mrs Whitehouse. When the disgusted campaigner turned up at the event and castigated her, asking if she would let her daughter see the film, Alice ordered her middle child Diana, who was in the audience, to stand up and promptly introduced her mortified daughter to the irate objector.
The feisty volunteer, who continued to support the Women’s Centre until she was into her 90s, also became involved for a time with the Vintage Gliding Club, along with her husband who was president of the London Gliding Club. Both felt completely British, totally at home here and very rarely spoke German after leaving their homelands. Crucially, they also shared a great conviction about what they felt was right in life.
Colin Edward Anson, Commando veteran and businessman
Born: 13 February, 1922 in Berlin, Germany. Died: 27 June, 2016, in Watford, aged 94.
Claus Ascher, the son of a brewery owner of Jewish descent, was raised in his mother’s Protestant faith and grew up in Germany enjoying a happy, middle-class life until her was 15.
All that changed when his father, an outspoken critic Hitler, was arrested in September 1937 and taken to Dachau, one of the Nazi regime’s first concentration camps. He died less than a month later.
Young Claus had to work to support the family and became an apprentice at an asbestos works. But by early 1939, after the Kristallnacht arrests of thousands of Jews the previous November, his mother insisted he leave the country for his own safety. He boarded a Kindertransport train on 7 February and felt the greatest emotional relief he had ever experienced when they crossed the border into the Netherlands.
In Britain he was sent to work as a trainee market gardener at an agricultural training centre in Wallingford, Berkshire but enlisted in the army in 1940, joining 87th Company, the Royal Pioneer Corps which, at that time, was the only British military unit in which enemy aliens could serve.
Decades later, in a speech at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), he recalled how he had then been recruited into the crack Commandos.
“Whilst the 87th Company of the Pioneer Corps was stationed at Liverpool and then in Wales, a mysterious member by the name of Hartmann joined us, who spoke German with a distinctive Swiss intonation. He was vague about his background and did not explain how he came to be among us but probed our motivations and attitudes. Some of us with a German background were ordered to report at the Grand Central Hotel in London’s Marylebone Road, which was then a transit hub, and those of us who survived the vetting process were informed that we had been accepted for a Commando Troop.”
For security he had to change identity and was at a loss when asked to provide a new surname. Glancing out of the window at an Avro Anson aircraft overhead he instantly became Colin Edward Anson, hanging on to his old initials, CA.
At the Achnacarry training base, known as Castle Commando, near Spean Bridge, they endured a punishing regime, pitting themselves against all weathers in the rugged Scottish hills, using live ammunition and explosives, learning unarmed combat and how to operate with killer stealth.
Their No 3 Troop, 10 Inter-Allied Commando, known as X Troop, then split into small groups attached to other commando units which required German speakers. In 1943 Anson went to with No 40 RM Commando on Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, where he was wounded so severely he was not expected to last the night.
In Augusta Bay, while preparing to land behind German positions at Catania, his assault ship was dive-bombed by German Stuka aircraft. Unaware a piece of shrapnel had penetrated his helmet, he helped other casualties during the night until finally realising he was bleeding. He later learned his brain had been exposed and the medic thought he would die.
However he survived delicate brain surgery, performed in a field hospital in an olive grove, and awoke the next day sporting a plaster of Paris helmet on which the marines drew a Commando dagger badge. He then spent three “soul-destroying months” recovering.
Back in fighting condition he joined No 2 Central Mediterranean Commando Brigade and spent the summer of 1944 raiding German island garrisons and shipping in the northern Adriatic. On the island of Brac he was involved in a raid, alongside partisans, to divert the Germans away from the hunt for Yugoslav revolutionary Marshal Tito, who was hiding in a cave in Drvar (correct). “We stayed as long as possible, with the SS Panzer Division Prinz Eugen heading towards us, and hoped the action may have helped in Tito’s escape.”
He went on to serve in Albania and helped to liberate Corfu. After the war he was attached to the Control Commission for Germany, posted to Frankfurt to join the Field Intelligence Agency, Technical. The work involved translating records of industrial, medical and scientific developments plus some records of the Ministry of Weapons and Equipment under Hitler’s architect Albert Speer.
Whilst there he managed to trace his mother and start arrangements to bring her to Britain where she was subsequently able to see her grandchildren grow up. His unrestricted access to German documents also allowed him to discover who betrayed his father to the Nazis. He was tempted to visit the culprit and invite him for a walk in the forest from which only one of them would return. But he decided it was not his place to take another life for revenge.
Back in London, where he married his wife Alice in 1951, he worked for various travel companies, sold Encyclopaedia Britannica, began a business making shredding machines and then ran a warehouse and shipping arm of a motor switches and accessories business. Then, a few years ago, whilst travelling through Austria by train, he and Alice had an astonishing encounter with a fellow passenger. Also a war veteran, he turned out to be one of the Stuka airmen who had attacked Anson’s ship off Sicily. “He may well have been the Stuka pilot who made me a present of a piece of excellent German steel,” Anson noted wrily.
He had not seriously expected to survive the war in the Commandos, as he explained to his audience at the IWM, but there was job that had to be done. “I wanted to repay my debt to Britain for saving my life.”