After spending six weeks at an American transit camp in the small town of Weissenfels, I was flown, cooped up in an uncomfortable aircraft, to London. I had weighed a little under eight stone when the Americans had liberated us. However, they were most hospitable and kind, and fed us well. I looked quite healthy again when I got back home.
I had only been in England for a few short days when I was sent on indefinite leave. But either my friends were in the services or they had grown away from me. Also I was experiencing that peculiar, disheartening feeling which soldiers have when the war seems to be suddenly over, but they have not yet been returned to civvy street. It is a time of frustration when the excitement of ever-present danger has disappeared. Yet it is also a time of self-doubt and fear of one’s ability to cope with the problems of civilian life.
However, there was still a war on in the Far East. Germany and her European allies were beaten, but perhaps I could rejoin the First Airborne Division, who had been sent to Malaya in preparation for the onslaught on the Japanese islands. I wrote to the OC First Airborne Div Signals asking to be taken back on the strength. I later heard that some of my old mates had had the letter read to them. However, there was no way anybody was going to make a special effort to fly me out to Malaya. But, of course, I did not know that at the time.
The crowded streets and dirty buildings of London were becoming intolerable to me. I had a feeling close to claustrophobia. I tried to get myself recalled from leave so that I could resume my service with the army.
I now had the utmost difficulty in getting myself recalled from leave. The army had successfully disposed of me and no longer wanted to acknowledge my existence. But eventually I succeeded, only to find myself sent to a rehabilitation camp for ex prisoners of war. Here army instructors insisted on teaching me all over again how to fire a three-0-three rifle, despite the fact that I had been firing rifles for the past four years. I also learnt anew how to stand to attention, stand at ease, dress by the right, and most importantly, how to “salute the officer.” (Longest way up, shortest way down, fingers together, at the correct angle, almost touching the base of the forage cap). I suffered this very important training for several weeks. Then began a series of shifts from one camp to another during which my chief duty was to peel potatoes.
It was at one of these camps, on the racecourse at the Yorkshire town of Thirsk, that we learnt one day that following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese had capitulated and World War Two was finally over. I am quite sure that we all realised that an era in the history of mankind had finished and that a new and vastly more dangerous one had begun.
By now the pointless fashion in which I had been sent hither and thither had thoroughly annoyed me. Demobilisation was to be extended to avoid a glut of ex-soldiers on the labour market and consequent industrial problems. The fact that I had a job to go back to at the London County Council made no difference. I had at least another year to serve in the army. I therefore resolved to spend it abroad at the army’s expense.
Eventually, after making a nuisance of myself to everybody, I reached a drafting camp outside Newcastle on Tyne. No sooner had I arrived, however, than they stopped sending men to the far-east, and I found myself on a draft to Germany instead. At that time Germany was the one country I did not wish to revisit. My sojourn there as a prisoner had been too recent, and my memories were still bitter. After a prolonged interview with the OC of the camp and frantic negotiations with a comrade to take my place, I finally got myself on a list for a posting somewhere further east.
The war with Japan had been over for a number of months now, and rumours began to circulate that the camp was going to close down. Finally a special order came through that all ex-prisoners of war were to be sent on special Christmas leave, and I journeyed south to London, although I would far sooner have stayed behind.
I came back in time to discover that a further draft – probably the last – was being collected. I was friendly with the sergeant clerk in the company office and with the Company Sergeant Major, and thanks to their influence I was included in this batch of young men who were being sent through France across the Mediterranean to Egypt. They made me a corporal at this stage, as one of the more case-hardened old sweats in this young band of hopefuls. It was the dizziest promotion that I ever obtained in the British army. I was reduced to the ranks some six months later, as I shall relate in due course.
We gathered together on the parade ground one evening, kit-laden and sweating, and journeyed in trucks to the railway station. We spent the following night at a camp outside the twisty-streeted port of Newhaven, and early next morning boarded the sturdy little cross-channel ferry “Isle of Thanet”.
We remained half an hour below deck, awkward and clumsy with our kit bags, valises and life-jackets. Then the motors began to pound, and we set our bows seawards. I climbed on deck, and behind us saw a foaming white wake losing itself in the grey, choppy sea. The chalky cliffs of England, already indistinct, were sinking into the waters of the Channel. Every time that the bows of our ship cut the greyish-blue waves, every time that a little hillock of salt water drenched the deck, the droplets being carried right away to the stern by the cold wind, we were nearer to France.
France! I seemed to have spent half my short life learning her beautiful language. I had also known many of her people. And I had heard many heartbreaking stories of their exile. Yet how many dramas, about which I had never heard, had played themselves out in France during the four years of German occupation! Well, in a few hours we should be treading French soil.
Mack, from Glasgow, one of my new friends, leans over the rail, gazing back towards England. His wife had fallen pregnant to an American soldier. Mack loved her dearly, but had never been able to forgive this infidelity, and they had drifted apart. The memory of her tortured his mind. His reason for volunteering for the draft was to try to forget.
Mack waves sarcastically towards the disappearing shore.
“Bye-bye England. And a soldier’s farewell to everyone, you shower of rotten bastards.”
I find there the echo of my own thoughts.
Towards midday we drew alongside the silent quay of the little port of Dieppe. This is where the Canadians made their abortive and costly landing in 1942, a rehearsal for the real invasion, which was to come much later. Chains rattled, a narrow gangplank was thrown out and secured by two French seamen in blue caps and jerseys. Then we disembarked and found ourselves in France, a little lost, heavy packs on our backs, and rifles to lean on. Presently some children approached uncertainly, like street mongrels, not sure whether they are going to be welcomed or chased away with kicks. The soldiers dig into their pockets, into their packs and into their gas mask cases, producing sandwiches, which they offer to the children. For the aftermath of war is still with us, the economy of Europe is broken, and food and shelter are at a premium. Chocolate, coffee and cigarettes are the international currency with which one can buy anything.
Some of our soldiers address the children in English, some murder French in the way that only Englishmen can, but communication is established with these hesitant, frightened youngsters. Clearly they see only armed soldiers and do not know what to expect. A kiddy of six or seven years is standing a few yards away from me, his eyes wide, a finger playing with his lower lip. I search in the pockets of my great coat.
“Come on, then. I’ve got something for you to eat.”
Something to eat! His eyes light up. He takes a few hesitant steps. But he is reluctant to come any further.
“Viens ici, mon petit. Don’t be afraid.”
He comes a little nearer, never taking his eyes off me. During all his childhood his parents must have told him to avoid German troops who have been notorious for picking French people off the streets and sending them straight to forced labour in Germany, or for taking hostages in reprisal for the killing of German soldiers, standing them up against a wall, and shooting them out of hand. In his young mind, all soldiers must be suspect.
The child comes a little nearer, never taking his eyes off me. I have found a bar of chocolate and hold it out to him.
“Du chocolat. Tu le veux? Here, take it.”
We hold our breath, both of us. He is only a couple of feet away from me, but clearly he is scared. But he is tempted. Suddenly he snatches the chocolate from me, scuttles away and takes refuge near a pile of planks. He holds the bar of chocolate against his breast and looks at me, eyes staring, mouth open – a frightened sparrow.
I step forward, but suddenly he turns tail again. Never have I seen an urchin move so quickly. In a moment he has disappeared.
I look at the row of houses opposite. Their walls are still pitted by shrapnel – no repairs have yet been made. To the left, all that remains of a house is a heap of bricks and plaster. A solitary green shutter is still fixed to one wall, and hangs sideways, like a drunken man ready to fall, but clinging stubbornly with one hand. Railway lines run the length of the quay, but higgledy-piggledy, fantastically twisted, no good for anything any more. Maybe the war has twisted the minds of men in the same fashion. To the right a long, white chalky finger, surmounted by a lighthouse, points out into the Channel. How beautiful its whiteness must be when the sun shines, and the waves dance, and the seagulls fly about, at one moment skimming the joyful sea, at another circling the lighthouse.
But the sun is hiding sullenly behind grey clouds, and it seems as if some giant with an immense club has rained down blows upon this town. Dieppe, indeed, has been beaten and ravished by war, which gives death and ugliness in exchange for life and beauty. Even that pretty chalky peninsula is eaten through and through with tunnels, formerly the lairs of German canon, awaiting the approach of the British invasion barges. It is like looking at a beautiful woman whom you know to be eaten up from within by a loathsome disease.
The sky is moody over Dieppe. A cold wind begins to blow, but it cannot blow away the stink of death. This same stale odour pervades bombed habitations everywhere. Only time can cure this stinking illness.
We wait for half an hour, then a dozen lorries – those huge, roaring American lorries, painted grey and with the name of the driver’s wife or girl friend inscribed on the bonnet – come to fetch us. The lorries circle, drive off, and in next to no time we are leaving behind the houses with the picturesque shutters and the hilly streets of Dieppe. On the outskirts of the town, we enter a large camp – a patch of ground, which has been cleared of obstructions and planted with wooden huts. Here we eat in a big communal dining room where pleasant French women show us our places and wait on us. Afterwards we draw blankets and line up at the NAAFI for our rations of cigarettes.
It is starting to rain as we begin to queue for four o’clock tea, and the dull sky hangs like a pall over the camp. We are happy to receive the order “On the lorries”, and to cross Dieppe once again, this time on our way to the station. The town seems almost deserted. Only a man here in a blue beret or a woman there running her errands glance at us, then turn and continue on their way.
Our train was standing in the station, but we had to wait two hours before it left. During this time workmen with the characteristic French blue beret walked up and down the platform, trying to buy English cigarettes from us. I had a conversation for about half an hour with a young man in his middle twenties who came into the corridor. He had just bought fifty cigarettes and was broke. He told me that the average workman in France received a thousand francs a week which was at that time equivalent to about two pounds ten shillings English, a very low wage. Potatoes, butter and bread, he told us, were rationed, and the cost and conditions of living were worse than under the German occupation. One was free, of course … followed by a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. In further conversation it turned out that he had been a prisoner of war in Germany for five years.
Our train gave a jerk and he quickly turned to get off. I stopped him.
“Attends. Tiens.” I gave him a packet of twenty cigarettes.
“But I have no money to pay you.”
“Forget it. We were prisoners of war together, n’est-ce pas?”
The train groans, moves. We hurriedly shake hands.
“Au revoir, and thanks for the cigarettes.”
“Au revoir, my friend, and good luck.”
He turns again and descends to the platform. I am so sorry for the French. God knows, we have suffered enough from the war in England. But the French were invaded by the Germans, suffered death and deportation during the occupation, then were invaded once again by the allies. It seems to have become the practice that in any European war France is always a battleground. Now once more they have a country to reconstruct. I do not envy them their task.
The windows of our coach had no glass, so we were obliged to improvise curtains from blankets and block up the holes as best we could. The fields outside were covered with snow, and as the train rattled along, a piercingly cold wind sought entry. We were soon bitterly cold, and the position was aggravated by the fact that the heating system had gone wrong between our coach and the one in front.
At every stop I got down, hunted out the stationmaster or the engineer and asked what the chances were of mending the break in the heating pipe. Railwaymen squeezed in between the coaches and made learned examinations. Promises that somebody would do something were given lavishly, and sympathy for us in our travelling refrigerator was extreme. Yet somehow or other the heating system remained useless until the end of the journey.
Camps had been set up by the railway track, and from time to time we stopped to have a meal in some huge barn in the country and to draw sandwiches and chocolate to sustain us on our further travels. At these stopping places, no matter how deserted the countryside, women and their children appeared beside the train, and it was to them that the bulk of our chocolate ration went.
We drew into Toulon at about eight o’clock on a clear, mild morning with the sun shining in a watery fashion. We followed a short, underground passage and found ourselves in the street, the object of curiosity of the passers-by. All traces of snow had disappeared, and a tall, slender palm tree signalled that we had arrived at the Mediterranean coast.