Everyone has favourite Christmas stories… This bittersweet one took me by surprise.
I was a rookie reporter with The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1985. Researching a feature to mark 40 years since the Second World War ended, I discovered an unusual desert tryst.
Sent scouting by my editor for veterans, I happened to interview the charmingly doughty Dhun Mehta. He flew fighter planes as a young RAF pilot. “I had Christmas lunch and tea with General Rommel, the Desert Fox,” he recollected. Nicknamed for strategising sneak military attacks, Rommel commanded troops stationed in Africa to help ailing ally, Italy, retain hold in Libya.
A wizened, familiar figure at Bombay hospitals in khaki shorts and sola hat, Mehta was a volunteer who regularly read to patients. Regaling them with accounts of his dramatic date in the desert, he also mentioned an earlier “Christmas Truce”, on the World War I battlefield, between British and German soldiers. The fighting suspended for poignant moments, they exchanged gifts and played football together.
Mehta quoted Winston Churchill on Erwin Rommel – “We have a daring, skillful opponent and, across the havoc of war, a great general.” Finally implicated in Hitler’s assassination plot, Rommel chose suicide by cyanide.