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Dam memories

A German village can't forget the infamous World War II bombing raid that led to the drowning of more than 1200 civilians.

In a grove of rustling trees and rocks, rows of men and women pray under a bright late-morning sky. It's the third week in May, and as usual at this time of year, the open-air church service in the German village of Niederense commemorates the biggest disaster to befall this rural area.

Just before 1.00am on May 17, 1943, the British Allies dropped a specially designed "bouncing bomb" into the lake reservoir of the River Möhne. It detonated against the solid dam, tore a 77m wide and 22m deep hole in it and instantly caused a catastrophic flood. The military coup, built around much bravery and secrecy, is the subject of Peter Jackson's upcoming remake of the war flick Dam Busters.

Most members of the Catholic parish who have gathered for the memorial service were born long after that horrific night. But the platform of stones on which they stand was part of a 700-year-old monastery called Himmelpforten (Heaven's Gate). Only a wall ruin and a cross remain of the massive church building that was swept away within hours, taking the priest, his housekeeper and sister with it.

Someone has placed a poppy at the cross. After the small crowd has left, a tall, elderly man with white hair, a smart suit and gentle features says, "British visitors come here quite often." He points at the old iron bell within the stone wall. "This was our original church bell. When the walls collapsed, it started to ring."

He speaks with a mild smile on his withered face. Johannes Sörries, now 82, was a boy at the time, home from school with rheumatism brought on by influenza and unable to walk. His family has owned the Schulten-Hof, a pig farm steeped in tradition, since the 16th century. The day before the face of his home village changed forever had been a beautiful Mother's Day, with clear skies and sunshine. "Bomb weather" was the locals' sarcastic euphemism for it. They had endured some air raids by the British until then, but nothing too drastic - the worst attacks were aimed at the cities. You could forget about the Nazis and the war at times and just be a happy youngster roaming the fields.

When the sirens went off after midnight, the villagers gathered in their cellars. The Sörries family heard loud banging in the distance and the gurgling, terrifying sound of rushing water. Surging up the shore of the valley at frightening speed and taking everything with it was 110 million cubic metres of released lake water. It was pitch dark; the electricity had failed. Someone screamed: "The water is coming!"

The Nazis' security had forced everyone to stay inside, but Sörries' brother Paul carried the sick boy outside. He left him in the grass and ran off. "I have to check on the cows!" They let the screaming cattle out of the stables. By now, people were running up the hill in panic and Sörries was pulled along in a handcart. Below him he could make out floating logs, bodies and animals. Then the fog crept up and covered the horrific scene.

Even today he remembers the sound of train wagons crashing together at the -station, of roofs collapsing, of pigs and children screaming. "How could I ever forget this?" he says.

The high-water mark reached only the garden of his farmhouse, but others were not so lucky. They lost not only their belongings and homes, but also their loved ones. There were heart-breaking scenes. A mother had placed her four children on the door of a barn. The raft could not hold her as well, so she swam through the icy flood for hours, pushing her kids along. When her strength finally faded, her hand slipped off and she drowned. The children survived.

The water retreated in the early morning hours. When dawn broke, it revealed disaster and destruction where farming communities and steel industries had once flourished. It was a devastating sight. Houses were just skeletons of broken beams. Train tracks were folded over in zigzags. Mud-covered bodies were stuck in trees. Within a couple of hours, 1294 civilians had died, more than half of them foreign forced labourers in a POW camp next to the Möhne dam. The highly sophisticated British attack was a major defeat for the German Government, which never revealed the full death toll.

When workers were ordered in from other areas of the country to clear the -disaster zone, they brought foot-and-mouth disease into the villages.

The dam was rebuilt by September. By January 1944, the reservoir was filled up to the brim again. In terms of causing lasting damage to the steel industry, the attack was not the success the British had wanted.

Sörries was drafted, and sent to fight Hitler's war on the Balkan Peninsula, where he was wounded and put into a POW camp. One of his five brothers - a soldier - died just before his 18th birthday. A wooden memory plate for "our dear Norbert" hangs on the wall in the lounge of the Schulten farm. A newer photograph shows Sörries' four daughters. The youngest one was in Indonesia to help tsunami victims.

Sörries' friendly and softly spoken wife, Elisabeth, serves home-made asparagus soup for Sunday lunch. With fondness in her frail voice, she talks about the week that has just passed. On May 17, the villagers walked with torches and in silence down to what is now the ruin of Himmelpforten - something they have done every year for two generations. "All our young ones come along," she says.

Niederense is a quiet place with some old Westphalia architecture among many modest postwar buildings. A big banner promotes a "Thai buffet" at a local eatery. There's a discount supermarket and other obvious signs of contemporary Europe. But on some houses you can still see the high--water mark etched into the plaster where the flood swept through.

Across from the Schulten-Hof is the village museum that Sörries helped set up. Displayed among artefacts such as iron ploughs and butter-making equipment is some of the interior from the vanished church of the Himmel-pforten monastery. Missing pieces still keep coming in. Twelve years ago, Sörries' son-in-law dug out half a statue of St Peter, made from alabaster, while ploughing his field. The head was gone. "That's our best swimmer," says Sörries with a laugh as he points at another saint without arms. "He was carried down the river for 50km and only found after the war."

Sörries, who also wears the hat of museum guide, loves to show visitors around. When in high spirits, he even recites a powerful poem in his local dialect. There's no bitterness, just a love for life and humanism shining through as this humble man talks about the tragic event that has become a vital part of his German biography.

The previous week, a busload of English tourists arrived to visit the sites where the Lancaster bombers crashed. When they arrived at the museum, the Brits were moved as well as excited to talk to a surviving witness of the flood catastrophe. Did Sörries not feel resentful against the "Tommies" (as they were once called by the Germans) about what had happened? "Not at all," he says. "It was the war and Hitler started it. I have no bad feelings whatsoever. And you have to acknowledge the military sophistication behind it all."

When visitors leave the museum, they can pick up a brochure of personal accounts of the night the dam broke. There's an introduction for those who wonder what the lesson of the never-healing scars in Niederense is. It says: "Just like the many victims of the unjust war that is fought in Iraq at the moment, we are sad about the many victims of the [Möhne] disaster. We must not stop to bring about peace in the world."