Ch4 pt4. Sonia Dresdel and Caythorpe

After the Salisbury Plain episode we returned to Caythorpe and the dreary life of an army camp. Our boredom was reduced a little at the weekends. On these occasions there were a couple of army lorries at our disposal to take us into the beautiful city of Lincoln with its cathedral on a high ridge standing out against the sky like a painting.

These lorries were known as “passion wagons.” However, there was strong competition for the favours of the local lassies from the thousands of well-heeled American troops stationed in the area. This led to occasional bloody fights that were quickly broken up by the military police. However for the most part things remained peaceful, and with female companionship scarce, our fellows addressed themselves to the local wallop, which they found palatable and “not a bad drop.”         

Under the influence of this potent brew a member of the Signal Corps one Saturday evening expressed the desire, round about chucking out time, to cast himself into the Lincoln Canal, and thus end his misery. A comrade bet him that he wouldn’t dare so much as wet his big toe, whereupon he threw himself from the bridge into the somewhat stagnant water. Fortunately he had removed his boots before attempting to commit suicide, and was able to swim to the bank, where his waiting mates dragged him out.

News of this exploit spread through the camp, and the following Saturday night at ten o’clock, some twenty Signals personnel, all more than slightly stung from a surfeit of Lincoln wallop, assembled on the banks of the Lincoln Canal. At a command from a self appointed sergeant major they sprang to attention, “got on parade”, dressed from the right, and then stood still and silent in a perfect line. At the command “Off with your BOOTS”, each man knelt down and divested himself of his boots, then resumed his position of attention.

The self appointed sergeant major then addressed his troops. 

“When I issue the command ‘Strip to your pants’ you will remove all clothing except your pants. The word of command will be ‘pants’ and any man who moves a finger before that word will be on a fizzer. Understood? Right, strip to your……..PANTS.”

Every man divested himself of his clothing, then stood stiffly to attention in his underpants.                                                                                               

“Very well done,” bellowed the sergeant major. “You are a fine body of men. Now on command ‘Dismiss’, you will all jump in the canal. And the syllable of command is ‘MISS’. Understood? I want you all to jump together with good discipline, and the object of this here exercise is that you all hit the water at the same time and make the maximum splash, thus soaking these here civilians who are standing watching you on the edge of the canal. All understood? Parade….. Parade…….Dis……MISS!!” 

Twenty men jumped in the canal at the same time, to the amusement of a couple of dozen civilians, most of them young females, who had come to witness this interesting sight.      

The exploit was repeated the following Saturday evening, but this time the crowds were enormous. Everybody in Lincoln seemed to have turned up for the spectacle, and almost everybody in the Airborne Div. H.Q. Signals seemed to have volunteered for the nighttime swim in the near-nuddy.

Alas, the police were not amused, and communicated their displeasure to our OC, Major Anthony. Anthony informed us, with a businesslike twirl of his large ginger moustache and a quick flash of his horsey-looking teeth that, although he appreciated the humour of the situation as much as we, he would in future be forced to award severe punishment to any sporting enthusiast who swam anywhere outside the public baths.

The following Saturday a large crowd began to gather by the canal as early as an hour before chucking out time to get a good position to view the Airborne Signals Aquatic Display. However, Anthony’s stern warning had been taken to heart by most of the unit. Moreover, stalwart policemen paraded the towpath, and the one or two who commenced to shed their uniforms were discreetly but firmly hustled away into waiting passion wagons that had been ordered this particular evening to take off early for Caythorpe. Thus ended a ceremony that, if properly developed, might have come to rival the ancient Lincoln Cathedral as one of the city’s great tourist attractions.

In the village of Caythorpe we had a pub called “The Eight Bells”, but commonly referred to as “The Clangers”. This was the preferred rendezvous for the Airborne Sigs fellows on Friday and Saturday evenings, just after they had been paid and were flush. For the rest of the week when everyone was biting everyone else for the price of a char and a wad, the NAAFI canteen was the common social meeting place. There were thousands of these canteens scattered amongst units throughout the British Isles, and I doubt that we would have won the war without them.                                                                                                                                 

I have spent hundreds of hours in NAAFI canteens all over England, writing letters, reading Spanish books, which used to come from the Argentine, or old dog-eared second hand French novels from Foyle’s Bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London. (There were no imports from France during the German occupation). Or else I would sit with a char and a wad or a pint of beer batting the breeze with my comrades. Yes, the NAAFI canteens were great morale boosters, and no permanent army camp was without one.

One morning, I came into the Caythorpe canteen for the ten-thirty break, feeling in the pocket of my denim fatigues for the wherewithal to buy a cup of tea and a piece of cake – a “char” and a “wad”. No sound came from the door as I approached. The usual chatter of voices was completely absent. I pushed open the door and entered. The canteen was crowded. Soldiers in work-greasy overalls, in battle dress, in brown-green camouflaged jumping smocks, in all kinds of attire, occupied all the chairs, lounged around the wall and sat on the counter. They were listening to the battered radio, and all were completely silent. 

“In the early hours of this morning,” said the radio announcer; “airborne troops were dropped at different points within French territory, followed by reinforcements from the sea. A heavy battle is now continuing to establish a bridgehead on the continent of Europe.”

Airborne troops! We knew who they were. They were members of the Sixth Airborne Division, our friendly rivals, and they were fighting on French soil. The invasion of Europe had begun. But why hadn’t we been used? Might we not go tomorrow, or the day after? Or were they saving us for something else?

An anxious time now began for all of us. We read the newspapers avidly and listened to the radio with greedy ears. The Sixth Airborne Division, their task successfully fulfilled, was eventually withdrawn, and after an initial desperate struggle on the beaches, the invasion of France went on apace.

Still we received no hint of what was to become of us. To add to the anxieties of those of us who lived in London, we learnt that the city was being attacked by flying bombs, launched from sites on the western European coast not yet reached by the advancing allies. These flying bombs had wings like aircraft and were powered by a small engine in the tail. The engine was supplied with just enough fuel to take it to London, and then it would cut out. As soon as it did this, the flying bomb would nose dive, explode on impact, and cause considerable damage. These bombs were nerve-wracking because one could hear each one coming over, and one’s ears were always alert for the sudden cessation of its engine and the explosion which resulted a few seconds afterwards.

My mother narrowly escaped losing her life through one of these missiles. She was walking along a street close to the family flat in Upper Clapton when she heard the hum of an approaching bomb. Nearer and nearer it came until it was directly overhead. Then the engine stopped. My mother had the presence of mind to fall flat on her face. There was an explosion. A house, a few yards away was wrecked, and my mother, choking in the resultant dust, found that she was unhurt. It was a very lucky escape.           

When on leave in London a few weeks later, I was at a theatre just off Leicester Square for an evening performance of the play “This Was a Woman” starring the actress Sonia Dresdel. Miss Dresdel was at the beginning of a particularly dramatic scene, the climax of the play, in fact, when we heard the bomb, very low down, coming straight for the theatre. A few people got up nervously as if to make for the exit. A few disappeared under their seats. I looked around the theatre to see what was going to happen, sensing that the mood was delicately poised and could quite easily turn into pointless panic where people might be injured.

Sonia Dresdel, up on the stage, did not miss a beat. She continued with her scene, her tour de force, as if absolutely nothing was happening. Of course something was happening. Miss Dresdel had also sensed that this was a moment of crisis, and by her superb acting and fine display of courage, she had actually taken control of the audience and forced them to be as fearless as she was and remain in their seats while the bomb passed overhead. The bomb was very close, and its engine cut out and it exploded very shortly afterwards. By that time, the audience was on its feet giving Sonia Dresdel the ovation which she so thoroughly deserved. In a musical show, where there is a fine rendition of a song, the performer may sometimes “stop the show”. This was the only time in my life that I have ever seen a straight dramatic performer “stop the show” by the sheer strength and inspiration of their performance. It has always been a very pleasant memory for me.

Our Spitfire fighter aircraft developed a neat trick to counter the flying bomb threat. They would fly beside the missiles until they got one wing tip just under the wing of the bomb. Then they would lift their own wing and topple the flying bomb off balance so that it crashed harmlessly into a vacant paddock. This was a delicate manoeuvre and regrettably could not be carried out with sufficient frequency to make any significant impact on the flying bomb menace.

Our air force gave the launching sites regular poundings, and eventually they were captured by the advancing land forces, and immobilised. Shortly afterwards, however, London began to be hit with giant rockets able to penetrate even to deep shelters, and to wreak formidable damage. One did not hear them; one did not even see them. Huge explosions just occurred suddenly and without warning. Buildings simply seemed to explode in the air. People began to sense that we were experiencing the pattern of future warfare when large cities would be attacked mercilessly with ever increasingly lethal explosives.

However, as far as we soldiers were concerned, by a grotesque irony, we found ourselves evacuated to the country, leading an idle life, untroubled by the enemy attacks.