Former British pilot fights to save Berlin church


Berlin : Charles Jeffrey Gray, a former British pilot, who carried out World War II bombing raids over Germany has joined a campaign to rescue Berlin’s most famous wartime ruin – the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, near the downtown Kurfuerstendamm.

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The church, which was built at the end of the 19th century, was destroyed during a British air attack in November 1943. Only its gaping, ruined tower remained and was later restored as a dark reminder of the war.

Now, the tower is in a state of decay, needing repairs costing 3.5 million euros (about $5 million).

When Gray, 85, read in a British newspaper about the crumbling condition of the tower, he promptly fired off a letter to Wolfgang Kuhla, the chairman of the church’s advisory board, urging that the tower be restored, and a fund launched to help raise the costs of its repair.

“The tower has to remain in place as a permanent reminder for future generations of the horror of war,” Gray warned.

Some 62 years after he dropped bombs over Berlin during nightly air attacks, Gray made his first post-war visit to the German capital last month, armed with a cheque for 500 British pounds ($1,020) to help the repair fund campaign.

Gray was a 21-year-old when first involved in a bombing mission over Duesseldorf in Nov 1943. A month later Berlin was the target. “It was the time of the great air battles in and around Berlin and the attacks continued until the spring of 1944,” he said.

On his return visit to Berlin last month Gray was accompanied by his wife Joan, 87, son Stephen and the 56-year-old’s German-born wife Gerlinde, 54.

In Berlin, they attended a church fund-raising concert at which German Chancellor Angela Merkela also took part in the “new” modern chapel, alongside the ruined tower on the Breitscheid Platz.

More events have since been taking place in Berlin, with numerous politicians and show-biz celebrities supporting the tower restoration campaign. The tower is flanked on either side by modern chapel extensions made of stunning blue-stained glass windows that glow eerily at night.

On Saturday, Berlin’s opposition leader Friedbert Pflueger and city entrepreneur Hans Wall were due to help raise cash for the project on the fashionable Kurfuerstendamm boulevard and neighbouring Tauentzienstrasse.

The German Premier League club has also been involved in the overall campaign and Saturday’s events. The club and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church have something in common: the church was built between 1891-95, and the soccer club in 1892.

“I am certain we will be able to raise a five-figure sum,” said Dieter Hoeness, the club’s chief business executive, confidently.

Meanwhile, Berlin’s city government has also pledged financial support. “The Memorial Church ruin has great symbolic significance for Berlin,” said development senator Ingeborg Junge-Reyer.

Currently, the area around the church is lit by a giant Christmas tree, decorated with hundreds of coloured lights. Nearby, is the traditional festive market, offering a rich assortment of hand-made jewellery, trinkets and warm drinks.