Ch 11 Holocaust survivors

One other thing worthy of mention happened while we were in Kempsey: Irene discovered that she had some family in Melbourne. We learnt of Sophie’s existence through a letter from Irene’s mother, but as we only knew her maiden name, had some difficulty in tracking her down. We took the Morris Minor to Melbourne, and when we eventually did find her, we discovered that by a coincidence, she and her husband lived in the next street to our old friend Max, who had been so kind to us when we first arrived in Australia. 

Sophie was a small, dark haired, soignée, charming woman of excellent intelligence. Her husband, Abe, who was ten years older than she, was a typical European intellectual, ready to discuss any of a dozen subjects at the drop of a hat. By profession he was an industrial chemist; by inclination, a pianist, and he played that instrument with considerable skill. They were not typical Australians; they were typical Europeans of the tolerant, well-educated middle class. If the analytical intelligence, tolerance and understanding they brought to Australia were to become part of the Australian ethos, then Australia would surely benefit.

Sophie spoke English with barely a trace of accent. Abe was grey haired, hawk-faced, and spoke still with a strong German accent. The knowledge they both had of the English language was, however, encyclopaedic. I had always fancied myself as having something better than average skill and vocabulary in my native language, and I was chastened when they both beat me easily at Scrabble.

They had a daughter, Freida, who later married a young engineer, also the son immigrants. I always thought that there was a strong facial resemblance between Freida when young, and Patricia’s little boy, my grandson.

This side of our family was uncompromisingly, (if liberally), Jewish. By “liberal”, I mean the usual interpretation given to these matters. That is to say, customs are kept only if they fulfil a religious purpose, and a very wide tolerance is shown regarding religious matters. In the final analysis, however, a Jew is a Jew, even though one’s personal religious faith may wane on occasion. Moreover, to be a Jew is something of which one can be justifiably proud.

The story of how Sophie and Abe escaped the Holocaust and came to Australia will bear telling very briefly, as a representative of so many others.

Abe and Sophie were married in Germany just before the war. He had obtained his degree and was starting to build the foundations of a career. Because the threat from Nazi anti-Semitism had became so obvious, Abe planned to escape Germany, promising to send for Sophie as soon as he was able to establish himself in a more civilised and less murderous society. As for thousands of Jewish people, things did not proceed smoothly. 

On Nov 9 1938 a violent pogrom against the Jews was carried out across Germany. It became known as Kristallnacht. Thousands of men were rounded up and sent to newly built concentration camps. Abe was lucky. Several thousand men were allowed to be released to England, as long as they already had travel documents. 

Back in England, an old army camp at Sandwich, Kent, was generously offered for the protection of these men rescued from incarceration on Kristallnacht – it became known as Kitchener Camp. The men had to leave Germany immediately, without any chance of notifying families.

It is only with hindsight that Irene and I understand the difference between the fate of Abe and that of Irene’s brother on that night. Abe had seen a bleak future and had already taken steps to leave. Irene too had had the foresight to arrange travel to leave two weeks earlier. At 18 years old, Irene’s brother Heinrich did not listen to the exaggerations of his little sister, preferring to remain in Berlin with his mother. Only two weeks later, his mother regretted her insistence that Heini remain with her. Despite her pleadings and offers of money, Heinrich, having no travel documents, was rounded up and marched to the brand new, mass extinction gas chamber.

Sophie was also forced to leave Germany and seek refuge in France in order to save her life. Sadly, shortly after the declaration of war, the Germans pushed the English out of Europe and overran France.

Neither Sophie nor Abe knew the fate of the other; their families had been dispersed or sent to concentration camps. Thus, they lost touch with each other for seven years, not knowing whether the other was alive or dead.

Just when there seemed to be some hope for Abe and others welcomed into the camps at Richborough, the harsher face of England showed itself again. As they had done 160 years before, the “powers that be” decided it was time to deport its “enemy aliens” to Australia.  2542 men were put on a ship with only a 1600 person capacity and sent off across wartime waters, including some Italian survivors of a rescue ship that had been taking them to Canada. Abe’s story became a part of the infamous events aboard the ship Dunera. Alongside more than 2000 Jewish, genuine refugees fleeing murder by the Nazi regime, the British included a few hundred Germans and Nazi sympathisers. Combined with poorly trained crew and officers, the detainees were despised, robbed and abused, as if they were all “the enemy”. The hellish trip finally ended on arrival in Sydney on the 6th September 1940. Several months elapsed in the dust-ridden New South Wales internment camp at Hay, before men like Abe were officially recognised as genuine refugees. Despite their journey, Abe and others took the opportunity to volunteer for the Australian Army, seeking to contribute in some fashion to the defeat of the bestial Hitlerian regime that had brought death to so many innocent people.

Unfortunately, while on a training exercise, Abe broke his leg and was invalided out. The resilient Abe then got a job as an industrial chemist with a private firm in Melbourne, and set about establishing himself in this new land.

Back in France, Sophie fled to the southern unoccupied zone and obtained work as a “domestique” or servant girl. She spoke good French, but unfortunately with a recognisable German accent. She explained this by pretending that she was an Alsation – a native of that province on the borders of France and Germany which has been alternatively French and German so many times that the inhabitants are mostly bi-lingual and seemingly fight every other war on different sides. 

She changed jobs from time to time, the more so after the Germans occupied the southern part of France. If her employers suspected that she was something other than what she pretended to be, they said nothing, until the time when the Gestapo eventually caught up with her. She was betrayed, captured, and sent to a French concentration camp erected on French soil with the concurrence of the collaborationist Pétain Vichy Government. Conditions here were normal for concentration camps – a bowl of cabbage soup, and a small piece of bread each day if one was lucky. It was not long before people began to die of disease and malnutrition. When they died, the bodies were wrapped up in shrouds, carried outside the camp in stretchers at night, and left there, to be picked up in the morning by the burial carts.

One day a rumour sped through the camp like fire. The Jewish prisoners were to be collected together and sent in railway wagons to the gas ovens of the “Vernichtungslage” in Germany and Poland. Once one was in the railway truck, one was as good as dead. At the same time, escape from the concentration camp was virtually impossible. Sophie sought desperately for a plan to save her life.

With ingenuity and determination, she hoarded her bread ration every day. The bread thus saved was used to bribe a guard to wrap her in a shroud as if she were dead, and leave her outside the camp with the bodies one evening. That this was done is not as surprising as you might think. The guards were also poorly fed, and many not totally committed to their work. At dead of night, she cautiously unwrapped her shroud and ran away into surrounding forest, putting as much distance as possible between herself and the concentration camp.

Once more she supported herself by domestic work, keeping herself to herself, moving whenever she felt it necessary, always on the lookout for a sign that some person may have suspected her secret and betrayed her to the Gestapo. Somehow she survived until the Allied landing in Europe. Her relief when the terrible fear of betrayal and death was finally lifted would be hard to describe in words. 

Luck, or fate, can play an equally terrible or fortunate part in our lives. Sophie’s name had been registered on a Jewish Survivors list, by the Red Cross. As fate would have it, friends in New York, who were already in contact with Abe in Melbourne, saw this particular list. Overjoyed on learning this wonderful news, Abe was able to secure passage for Sophie from Marseilles to Melbourne, via Tahiti. Sophie put her language skills to good use, acting as an interpreter aboard ship.

After seven long, anxious years, Sophie and Abe were united again; a happy ending for two people, tinged with sadness and the memory of so many whose stories finished in a different and tragic way.

CH9 Pt3 Ceylon / Sri Lanka

Finally, at midnight, like a cork out of a bottle, we left the Gulf and the ship thrust itself into the Red Sea. The next day it was glistening water on either side, sweltering heat, porpoises and clouds of flying fish emerging with a whirring sound from the water, flitting through the air for several yards before falling back into the sea.

We stopped briefly at Aden: an incredibly rocky and barren place, rising straight out of the sea. From the ship we saw several white houses, a clock tower and various wireless aerials rising from the summits of rugged slopes. The vendors in their cockleshell boats were similar to those at Port Said except that they seemed to be mostly African or Indian. There were none of the half-Europeanised Arabs such as one found in Egypt. African divers swam about the ship as we looked over the rail.

“Throw! Throw! Hi! You got sixpence? Throw!”

Thus far east then, has the English language penetrated, and thus far the tentacles of the old British Empire, now sadly disintegrating. The divers diligently avoid a police launch. The crew, smartly dressed with black puttees and black fezzes, stands stiffly to attention. I notice particularly the flag fluttering at the launch’s stern. It is a British ensign with two large-sailed Arab dhows enclosed by a circle in the bottom right hand corner. How much longer will that relic of Britain last?

As we crossed the Indian Ocean, a heavy swell developed, but the stabilisers kept the ship on a reasonably even keel. It was very warm, and at night Irene and I slept on the top deck, as did at least half of the passengers on board. We were all getting to know each other fairly well, and scraps of gossip began to be bandied about the ship. Mr “A” has had a serious tiff with his wife over her supposed infatuation for Mr “B”.  Mr ”C”, a cultured man, though of a powerful physique, has quarrelled with two other passengers over the division of food at table, and has relieved himself of some most uncultured language in the process. Three young New Australians have been brought into the world since we left Tilbury, notwithstanding the fact that women more than three months pregnant were not supposed to travel. (I always suspected that our own medical examination was more than somewhat cursory). Old Tom, who has been to Aussie before, relates how, in the outback in the twenties, he was nearly speared by Aborigines, only escaping because he left a bundle of clothes in his tent wrapped up in blankets, but actually slept in the bush. Mr “X” who is a former soldier is going to drive bulldozers in open-cut coalmines, and is always making plans to bring out his wife and children whom he misses deeply. However this does not prevent him having a torrid shipboard romance with Mrs “Y” who is on her way to rejoin her husband. Mr “W”, who was stationed during the war in Sydney wonders how many of his old girl friends will be married and whether Australian beer is still as strong as it used to be. He has it in mind to marry one particular girl, and the question of employment is uppermost in his mind. That subject probably worries us all, but there is little point in considering it until we reach Australia. It is then that the “New Life” will begin.

It was about half past ten one night a week later that we began to see lights ahead – almost the first sign of land since Aden. Rapidly they became brighter and more numerous until we were passing along a channel marked with buoys which gleamed wanly, like oil lamps in the darkness. Within a short while we were well within view of the intermittent, dazzling beam of a lighthouse. Then suddenly, on the port side, a cluster of red and white lights surged towards us out of the darkness and a small white-painted launch came alongside. A rope ladder had been slung down from the Ranchi with two dangling thongs protruding. A man in a white shirt, shorts and raincoat stepped on to the side of the launch, grasped the thongs and swung himself towards the rope ladder, up which he proceeded to scramble. The pilot was coming aboard to take us into Colombo Harbour.

In the morning, we found ourselves anchored within the harbour in the company of many other vessels. The sea on the other side of the harbour wall heaved and swelled and periodically smashed itself into sparkling white smithereens against the unyielding stone. A small launch took us ashore for a rupee apiece and put us off at the main jetty. Beyond, in one of the major streets of Colombo, rickshaw coolies in loincloths and makeshift turbans, or patched shorts and battered hats pestered us to hire them.

“Take you to native quarter, bazaar, Cinnamon Gardens, sair. One rupee. Very cheap.”

“Madam! Take you for tour of Colombo. All the sights. Very cheap.”

So English is the lingua franca even in Ceylon. Australia is the next stop. Then comes New Zealand, and the next major country round the world is North America. English has indeed encircled the globe. However, the rickshaw pullers clearly do not understand the word “No”. If you tell them you don’t require their services, they grin villainously and say: “All right, sair. By and by.” They then continue to follow you, keeping up a running commentary on the attractions of Colombo.

Irene and I strolled along, following the little single decker trams until we came to a market quarter. In many ways, this resembled the Sukh in Cairo. Certainly if you closed your eyes and inhaled the awful odour of human and animal smells, cooking, and rotten fruit, you could easily imagine yourself back in Egypt. Yet the people were entirely different. There was almost no European or African racial admixture. The people were either dark brown or golden brown skinned, with straight black hair often done up in the case of the men in a bun at the back of the neck, although many had western-style haircuts. The men generally wore an ankle-length skirt of patterned material with either a shirt tucked in, or a small jacket. The women wore a similar skirt and a small bodice-cum-brassière. Most of the women seemed to take very definite pride in their appearance, and a few were strikingly beautiful. Silken saris were also frequent, and fitted most becomingly into the general picture. Some of the women were dressed western-fashion, and among the businessmen of the community one saw white ducks and white topees.

The traffic of Colombo consisted of the small, rattling, single decker municipal tramways, lean rickshaw men, trotting barefoot, with bicycle bells screwed to the shafts of their conveyances, modern motor cars, carts with curved, plaited straw awnings, drawn by incredibly small bullocks, and red double-decker buses which, incidentally, were run by a private company, and imported from England. Irene and I boarded one of these buses after seeing the native market, and travelled to Mount Lavinia, on the coast about half an hour’s ride distant.

At the time of our visit, this country had recently become independent from British rule, but was still known as Ceylon. Since 1972, it is now the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. 

We got chatting on the bus to a smartly dressed native of Ceylon. He was employed by the bus company, and spoke perfect English.

Education was free and compulsory in Ceylon, he told us. Children with the necessary ability could go to University without payment. He himself had got his school certificate, which meant that he had roughly the same education as I. My mind slipped back to a few tattered, deformed, dirty child beggars I had seen only a short while ago in the native quarter, who I am sure had never seen the inside of a school in their lives, but I thought it might be bad manners to question our friend about this on such short acquaintance. Nevertheless, our meeting strengthened my impression that Ceylon was a civilised country, which was pressing ahead. Kandy, said our friend, was the best place on the island for Europeans – elevated, picturesque and cool. It was a pity that we were stopping only a few hours. We ought to have seen Kandy.

He was evidently very enthusiastic about his country. Almost everyone on the island understood some English, although the mother tongue of most was Sinhalese. Schooling in English had fallen behind but they would pick that up – they must, for all the best technical books were written in English. Rain had drenched Ceylon for the previous three days, but we had arrived at an opportune time when the sun was shining.

Our bus ran roughly parallel with the sea on the way to Mount Lavinia, and we passed some lovely bungalows with shady verandas and orange tiled roofs, clearly the properties of wealthier inhabitants. Inevitably there was also the odd super-modern cinema with its captions in English and Sinhalese, the latter so different from the dots and squiggles of Arabic, but still looking like some weird and heavily written shorthand.

Alighting at the bus terminus, we walked along a road of orange-roofed single storey homes, past a school where dark-eyed, dark-haired boys and girls sat chanting their lessons. As we topped a green rise, our view looked down on the yellow sand and gentle surf of Mount Lavinia Beach. The pure blue sea heaved itself into long, glittering rolls sweeping shorewards and finally spreading themselves in a creamy, hissing confusion on the golden sand. And all along the beach were palm trees. But such palm trees! Incredibly tall, incredibly slender, with a green, coarse tuft of leaves at the top, and a cluster of nestling green coconuts.

After filling our eyes with the beauty of this scene, Irene and I went up to the Mount Lavinia Hotel, an imposing building at the end of the beach. We wondered whether the ten rupees, which were all the money we had brought ashore, would be enough to buy us a drink. We sat in the spacious, luxuriously furnished lounge and gazed at the dazzlingly bright beach with its background of palm trees. A waiter came to us, took our orders, and returned with two very large glasses of iced lemonade. Sixty cents for the two of us! I gave him a fair sized tip in my excess of relief.

We bought a few souvenirs for the children of Oll and Alma P in Australia, all at a very reasonable price. Then we caught a bus back to the centre of Colombo, looking down from our top front seat at the strange shops and bistros, the orange tiled houses, the cars, the rickshaws, and the policemen. The Ceylon police struck us as being fine, upstanding fellows. They were tall, well-built, dark skinned men, dressed in slouch hats, khaki jackets and shorts and black puttees. When directing the traffic, they stood on little raised pedestals in the centre of the street, with a small umbrella like arrangement suspended over them to keep off the sun.

We returned to the Ranchi, having seen as much of Ceylon as we could during the few hours allotted to us, and having spent only ten rupees, much to Irene’s delight.

Well, a penny saved is a penny earned. And in just over a fortnight, we shall arrive in Sydney, where Oll and Alma will be waiting to meet us. Then we shall need every penny we can muster. During the whole of this trip, we have spent slightly less than five pounds. Other migrants have spent several hundreds. If they have money, then they may well have more money than sense. As for us, we don’t expect to get it easy. We are preparing for a struggle. England is a long way behind. But we don’t feel homesick.

We are going home – not leaving it.

Ch9 Pt2 On the Ranchi to Suez

In the past the authorities at Australia House, despite a pile of correspondence and repeated interviews, had always regretted that they could do little to help us. Now they made up for all their previous dilatoriness. Medical examinations and an interview with a selection committee followed each other rapidly. Finally, four months after Oll’s nomination, on my twenty-seventh birthday, we received a telegram from Australia House saying that we were due to sail within the week. 

Hurried goodbyes were said. It was impossible to visit all our friends and relatives. I resigned from the London County Council and got my severance pay. In twenty four hours, Irene sold all the furniture and other articles in our flat which we had saved every penny to buy. We made arrangements for a carrier to take charge of a large trunk containing all the personal belongings we wanted to take to Australia. Getting that trunk down four flights of narrow, twisting, old-fashioned stairs was a back-breaking job.

One late morning in May, we said goodbye to my father who had come to see us off at St. Pancras Station. We had taken leave of my own mother and Irene’s mother previously. Neither had wanted to come to the station for fear of becoming upset.

Even in 1949, if one went to Australia, one did not come back for a long time. The airfare was beyond the capacity of the ordinary working man, and the duration of the trip was such that most people could only afford to make it once or twice in a lifetime. In a way it was, to most English people, still a sort of transportation sentence.

We were never to see my mother again. We saw Irene’s mother once more. I was privileged, however, to enjoy four protracted visits with my father, some in Australia, some in England, before he eventually passed away.

Our train had been specially laid on for migrants bound for Australia, and we thus had a sense of common destiny, and of leaving the land of our birth quite possibly forever. We piled out of the train at Tilbury, on the Thames Estuary. The railway terminus was very close to the dockside. We had barely time to touch the English earth of the quay in valediction before we found ourselves walking up the gangplank and aboard the P and O liner Ranchi.

We were ten people to a large cabin, males in one cabin, females in another, of course. It was certainly not a luxury cruise, but compared with what we had known in the army, and considering the fact that the journey was free of cost, neither Irene nor I had any complaints at all. We thought that it was a very fair thing. When our bags were stacked, we went up on deck. My thoughts were mixed as I looked at the broadening estuary as it merged with the sea. We were taking our last look for many years – perhaps for always at the “Old Dart” – England – the country which had moulded me, the country which had confined me, my parents and my grandparents to the “lower orders” of society. Yet it was also the country that had offered Irene and her mother, and many other thousands of refugees, protection from a tyrannical Nazi regime. It was ironic that tolerant, kindly England, which had given life to so many of the downtrodden, had at the same time forced so many of her sons and daughters to seek a better life elsewhere. As I leant on the paint encrusted rail of the SS Ranchi, looking at the cranes on the murky wharf side, the waving groups of well-wishers, and the squat sheds became silhouetted against a lowering sky. I reflected how strange it was that a worldwide English speaking brotherhood had evolved, very largely as a result of an enormous emigration from this tiny island.

The voyage of the Ranchi was uneventful. From Tilbury docks we made a straight run for Port Said. One afternoon ten days later, we drew slowly towards the indistinct outlines of the ships and buildings of this gateway to the east. An hour later we were steaming slowly into the actual harbour.

As we drifted past the big ocean-going ships, the palm trees, the buildings with their signs in Arabic and English, a mosque-like edifice which appeared to be a hotel, and the yellow cement police station, we were surrounded by rowing boats filled with merchandise. Below us swam a brilliant array of multi-coloured handbags, pouffes and tapestry work. As the oarsmen of the little cockleshell bumboats pulled frantically to keep abreast of us, vendors stood upright and shouted hoarsely while waving brightly coloured wallets with extravagant designs of the Pyramids, camels and palm trees on them. Strings of beads, green unripe bananas, peanuts and wide brimmed straw hats were offered. As we slid to a standstill and ropes secured us to the wharf, strings with bags attached to them were thrown up to us with remarkable accuracy, money passed downwards, and Egyptian curios upwards.

A fussy little launch chugged around, flying a flag with a white crescent moon and a star on a green background. White uniformed policemen stood at its sides, with fezzes and rifles. Some of them finally climbed aboard our ship. “Watchmen” were there too, in European clothes, to see that fair trade was carried out between the passengers and the Arab salesmen below.

Egypt is a country of mixed races – African, Arab, Greek, Italian and Turk mingle here. Some of the vendors and policemen have white skins, others dark, and there are all manner of shades in between. All this I have seen before, but I got the same thrill as when I first steamed into Port Said with a boatload of troops one black and silent night in 1946. As for Irene, she was as excited as I had ever seen her, dashing here and there and talking to everybody in Arabic.

I noticed particularly that the vendors took great care to exorcise the more colourful flights of English from their conversation. No doubt one converses with tourists, (which they undoubtedly thought we were), on a slightly higher plane than with the rough and licentious soldiery. However, they exercised their usual technique of asking three times as much for an article as it was really worth, and then allowing themselves to be beaten down. Irene bought a wide brimmed straw hat for four shillings when twelve and sixpence had been originally asked. I got a piece of tapestry work depicting mosques, minarets, camels and Bedouin for Alma P, wife of our sponsor in Australia. The price asked originally was three pounds fifteen shillings, but we got it for one pound five shillings and six cigarettes. We had still probably been swindled. But bargaining is fun.

Night falls at last. The dirty waters of Port Said twinkle and shimmer in the glare of the wharfside lights, just as they must have done every night since my last visit there; just as they would do for interminable nights into the future. Astern of us, dancing on the skyline, are the winking lights of the city’s night spots. A few vendors still row around hopefully below us, with lanterns illuminating the wares in their little boats.  

The big, black water barges pull away, and the floating pipe, which has been pouring oil into the Ranchi from ashore, is withdrawn. We are due to sail at half past ten and for the greater part of the night we shall be creeping through the Suez Canal.

At exactly ten thirty a police launch comes alongside, and a Suez Canal official climbs aboard. His business does not occupy him very long. He leaves. The gangplank is hauled up by a team of Indian seamen, and we begin to crawl through the Suez Canal. The sandy banks are walled up to a few feet above water level so that they will not cave in. The scenery is mostly barren – sand – the odd clump of palm trees – occasional bare military encampments. At night, every ship passing along the Canal switches on a powerful searchlight in its bows, and the murky waters, with their navigable depths marked by buoys, are lit up for many yards ahead. During the day the waters of the Suez Canal are green, and seem faintly stagnant. Often clouds of mud appear in the ship’s wake as it slides cautiously along. According to the charts, the average depth of the Canal is between 35 and 40 feet.

The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, and is 87½ miles in length. Of this 66½ miles is actual canal, and the rest of the distance is made up of channels dredged through Lake Timsah, and the Great and Little Bitter Lakes. Traffic is controlled by thirteen signal stations alongside the Canal. We passed through the greater part of the Canal at night, but in the morning crept slowly through Lake Timsah and were able to see the township of Ismailia, looking strikingly green and prosperous against the barren yellow landscape. This town was to be badly shelled in one of the later Israeli-Egyptian conflicts. We saw also big, dirty dredges, with their equally dirty crews. Approaching Suez we passed a massive war memorial erected on a hillock of sandstone, and bearing the legend: “Défense de Suez 1914-1918.”

It was on the day that we passed through the Suez Canal that our stewards appeared in all-white uniforms. The head steward, with his black and gold epaulettes, looked like some South American admiral.

In the late afternoon we came to the end of the monotonous Suez Canal. During the last stretch, between the Bitter Lakes and the Gulf, we came across bomb craters by the side of the Canal, and the twisted and torn hulls of ships which had been sunk during the Second World War and hoisted out of the water on to the sandy bank. Suddenly, there was Suez on our right: white houses, palm trees, macadamised roads, square harbour, and an Egyptian ship lying at anchor and letting off vociferous steam. A busy tug approached, our pilot climbed down the side of our ship and stepped into it. The tug veered away, and suddenly the Ranchi’s engines thundered and we started to put on speed.

That night we steamed at full tilt down the Gulf of Suez, while behind us the waters tumbled and foamed madly. Earlier in the evening, while the light lasted, barren rocky desert had been visible on either side. Now it was pitch black and we were really pounding along. A following wind, created the effect on deck that the air was still, and it was very warm. The smoke from the Ranchi’s huge black funnel poured straight up into the sky, and the night was glorious with stars.

CH8 Pt1 Meeting Irena

After I had been back in London four days, I took the tube train across the city to Willesden to look up Iris’ friend, Miss Irena S. I did it from a sense of duty without any great enthusiasm. I was back in civvy street, still on leave, trying to find my bearings. But I felt like a fish out of water and I was very unsettled and unhappy. Much as I had detested the army, I could not see how I would ever settle down to a civilian job in London. The very paving stones shrieked to me of the days I had spent walking them when I was a poverty-stricken boy. The aftermath of war did not promise any greater prosperity. Taxes were high, everything was enormously expensive, while wages were low. I began to see more years of dismal struggle ahead. Had we all been through the war for nothing beyond this? How was I to find some avenue of progress?

I came to Willesden at lunchtime, and knocked at the door of a suburban house. It was opened by a spectacled, middle-aged woman.

“Irena?”

“Certainly.”

“Irena!” she screams up the stairs, and in a few moments Irena comes clattering down. She is in her early twenties, straight-haired and long, fine features in which I can somehow sense her Polish ancestry. I notice that she has a very good figure. She addresses me in excellent English with a faint accent that I found difficult to place.

“Good afternoon. What can I do for you?”

“I’m from Iris. I’ve just returned from Palestine.”

“Oh, yes. I received a letter from her a short time ago. How is she?”

“She’s in good health, and sends her best regards.”

And so on and so on, until Miss Irena suddenly says, “I have to go to work now. This is my lunch hour. Couldn’t we meet tonight and talk?”

Meet and talk? The whole night long? Oh, but I can’t. I am absolutely browned off and fed up, and the last thing I want to do is make polite conversation with Iris’s friend. Anyway, the girl is Jewish. So it’ll be a platonic emotionless exercise from the start, because Jewish girls don’t go for goyim. I just couldn’t stand up to such frigidly polite protracted make-believe in my present poisonous mood.

“You can’t make it?” Miss Irena is saying. “Why? Have you got a date?”

I can see that she is prepared to argue the toss, but before I can stop the words, I have admitted that I haven’t got a date.”

“I haven’t got a date either,” says Miss Irena. “So I’ll meet you outside the underground station at six.”

She gets ready for work, and I take a train back to the west end. Miss Irena is apparently a forceful character with a way of handling things. Oh, well, I suppose if I’m with somebody else it’ll leave less time for introspection.

At six o’clock a train from the west end redeposits me at Willesden where Miss Irena, with her hair newly set and her nose daintily powdered is waiting for me. Where shall we go? Back to the west end, of course, decides Miss S, and I agree with that, because that’s where the magic of London resides. So back we go, and I begin to think that maybe it’s not so bad. I’ve been out of the army four days, and it looks as if I’ve already got myself a girl friend. We spend the evening arm in arm walking through the cool London night, listening to the never ceasing rumble of the traffic, and talking interminably.

Near Victoria Station, on the way to Westminster, Miss Irena suddenly discovers that her high-heeled shoe is pinching, and stands on one leg to adjust it. By God, what lovely slim ankles and shapely calves she’s got. I really like that in a woman! As she adjusts her shoe, she leans on me for support. Hmm! A figure as slender as a reed, but as feminine as the Venus de Milo. I like that too!

The cool breeze lightly touches our faces. It is October, and the northern winter will soon be with us. The traffic rumbles. The twinkling lights of the great city are echoed by the twinkling stars in the cloudless night sky above. Later, as we approach the Houses of Parliament, Miss Irena feels tired, so we sit on a bench near the statue of Abraham Lincoln. Later still, Miss S remarks that it is turning rather cold, and moves closer to me for warmth. I put an arm around her, in a fatherly, protective fashion. But somehow this seems inadequate. And finally, beneath the yellow, illuminated moon face of Big Ben, I find myself kissing Miss Irena with unrestrained and very unfatherly enthusiasm. She is wearing a ruby red lipstick that tastes as sweet as sugared strawberries. By gee, I like that in a woman!

All good things come to an end. As we rise to go, Irena says, “The very first moment I saw you I knew you were the man I was going to marry.”

I seem suddenly to have jumped six feet in the air. Whoa!! Hold your horses, Sis! We were just having a matey smooch. A simple kiss between friends. Nothing more.

Shut your noise, Foxon, and save your breath. You have just had your first experience of the steel trap Irena mind. You clearly don’t know it yet, but Miss Irena has already crossed her Rubicon, and that means that you’ve also crossed yours.

I capitulated shortly afterwards, and we were married in April, 1947, at the Willesden Registry Office in north London. This was the last day of the income tax year, and I got a taxation rebate for supporting a wife for the whole of the preceding twelve months. Irene and I were equally happy about such a good bit of business. Several years later, when my brother got married, he worked it the same way. Nobody in our family likes paying taxes.

Irena had been in England just over a year when I met her. On arrival in the country, although she had picked up a great deal of English in the Middle East, her grasp of the language was still not perfect. German was her native language, Hebrew was still her second language, and English number three on the list. However, she insisted, as always, on speaking only the language of the country she was in. As a result of this, at the time of our meeting, her English was fluent, apart from minor errors such as saying “mit” for “with”, or ……..”putting a spook in his wheel,” or …….”screaming like a horse on fire…….”

“Like a house on fire, darling, not a horse on fire.”

“But why not? A horse would scream if it was on fire, wouldn’t it?”

How can you beat feminine logic?

Irene was born in Berlin of Russian-Polish parents. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was a Polish rabbi from Cracow. He studied Torah and Talmud, preserved the Faith amongst his congregation, and sought with reverence to obey the will of the Master of the Universe. Later the family moved to Berlin where Irene’s brother Heini was born, followed soon after by Irena. Her father was a fine-featured man whose face clearly showed sensitivity and intelligence. He had been an officer in the Russian army during the war. He adored his small daughter, and lavished kindness and affection on her. He liked to go to boxing matches, and whenever he did so, took Irena with him. She loved her father above every other person in the world. On Irena’s birth certificate, her father’s profession is shown as “Kaufmann” – buyer.” The whole family was engaged in the garment trade, mostly in the sale of dresses in shops. They seem to have led a reasonably prosperous and happy life in Berlin, where they apparently had relatives, until the sudden death of Adolf S when his daughter Irena was seven years old. He had seen the rise of Hitler’s Brownshirts and survived the ruinous period of monetary inflation after the First World War. Mercifully he did not see Hitler’s final accession to power in 1932; neither did he have to suffer the terror, heartbreak and foul murder of the holocaust.

But to Irena the death of her beloved father was a terrible blow, which all but broke her heart.

Irena’s mother, Berta, was a strong-minded, attractive woman, who came originally from Cracow in Poland. She spoke Polish, Russian, Yiddish and German. When she came to London in her early forties, she added English to her list of linguistic accomplishments. She might never have passed a degree in a University, but she never failed to know what was going on in any of her several languages, neither did she ever fail to make her point of view known to other people, no matter how fractured her grammar might be. She was a strongly built woman, but was always carefully corseted. If one applied the description “handsome” to her, it would be appropriate. She had very fine features, not a bit like the “Jewish” features of popular imagination. She dyed her dark hair blonde, and piled it artistically on top of her head. She looked exactly like one of Hitler’s fantasy “Aryan” maidens. The notices forbidding Jews to sit on certain seats or to enter certain public places never bothered her. She treated them with the contempt she so rightly thought they deserved. Her own mother, Esther, continued to live in Cracow in Poland, and Irena’s mother never failed to visit the old lady regularly and to look after her, even though, with the approach of the second world war she began to risk her life in so doing.

On September 1st, 1939, Germany attacked Poland, and on September 3rd Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. With the German forces nearing Warsaw, the Soviet Union also attacked Poland. On September 28th, with most Polish resistance suppressed, Hitler and Stalin signed an agreement dividing Poland between them. Germany took the western and central part of the country, including Warsaw and Cracow. The Germans treated Poland with the utmost brutality, exterminating the educated class and more than 3 million Jews. Bearing this in mind one can only make the most pessimistic assumptions regarding the fate of “Grandma Esther” 

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.

Ch4 pt2. Parachute training.

At peaceful Penrith we hoped that our 79th Armoured Division would be posted to some busier position. The trouble was that the 79th Armoured was a secret and experimental division. We had all had to sign an Official Secrets Act undertaking not to reveal anything about our divisional operations. The Division contained a number of experimental tanks of various types, but the type we saw most of was a tank with a searchlight mounted on its turret. Several tanks would advance in darkness on a broad front. Suddenly each tank would switch on its searchlight, and the lights would begin to flash on and off with enormous rapidity between one tank and the other. The ground in front of the tanks was illuminated as bright as day. But to enemy gunners facing the approaching tanks the effect was dazzling and the fantastic speed with which the synchronised lights changed from one tank to another made them an almost impossible target to hit.

Behind the tanks came masses of infantry. When these strange tanks eventually came close to the enemy positions, hordes of infantry would appear from nowhere, and the effect was quite shattering.                                           

Because of the experimental nature of our division it was based more or less permanently in England and any transfer out of the division was almost impossible to obtain. Tony and I had at various times volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment, the Commandos and the Merchant Navy, but our applications had never got past the OC’s desk.

At this time it was becoming obvious that an invasion of Europe either from the Mediterranean area or across the English Channel would be attempted in the close future. Posters called for volunteers as parachutists. They showed a strong-jawed, smiling man in a parachutist’s round steel helmet standing confident and strong in a camouflaged jumping smock, pulling on the harness of his parachute, after having just landed, preparatory to collapsing the chute. Every time I looked at that poster I thought what tough-minded men those parachutists must be. Equally I thought that I should never have enough courage to jump out of an aircraft. And the more the thought came into my mind, the more an urge nagged me to have a go at it, just to prove to myself that I could do it. 

One afternoon as Tony, Basil and I sat peeling potatoes outside the cookhouse, I said, “Why don’t we volunteer to be parachutists?” 

“H’mm,” said Basil. 

“Th’ moost be daft, lud,” said Tony in that excellent simulation of a Yorkshire accent which he always used when he wished to demolish one of my arguments.

“They drop you miles behind the enemy lines, and if you don’t break your neck on landing the enemy machines guns finish you off when you get up. Of course, if you fly in American aircraft as likely as not you won’t even get to your target. The navigator’ll make a mistake and they’ll drop you in the sea.”    

“That’s as may be”, said Basil. “But as I see it this war is essentially a fight against evil, and it’s up to us to do what we can to see that we come out victorious.”

“For crying out loud,” said Tony, throwing a peeled potato into the bucket of water, “think straight, Basil. The trouble with Jimmy here is that he can never rest content with what he’s got. He’s always poking his nose into something else and, mark my words, he’ll end up in a mess. Think of all the things we’d miss in this town. We know the people. We’ve all got our feet under the table somewhere. We’ve got nice little jobs on the telephone switchboard or running a wireless link. What more could anybody want? Why, I even get free beer at the pub where I know the barmaid.” 

“All you think about is free beer at the pub, you rat,” grinned Basil. 

“And what is there to think about that’s more important?” queried Tony. “No, no. Forget this silly scheme, James, and don’t upset my mental equilibrium by putting foolish ideas into my head.” 

Basil made some remark about Tony’s complete lack of mental equilibrium, and the usual banter resulted, in which the original subject of discussion was forgotten.

Tony and I went down town that night for a couple of beers while Basil stayed in camp. I don’t know whether Tony got his for free from the young barmaid that he knew, but I’m fairly certain that I paid for mine. When we got back, Basil was waiting for us with a piece of paper.          

“Sign this.”                                                                                                      

“What is it?”                                                                                        

“An application to join the parachute battalion.” 

“On a night like this I’ll sign anything,” said Tony, and did so with a flourish. This left me with very little alternative but to follow suit.

The application went to the OC’s office next morning. Three days later Tony and I were ordered to a selection camp for parachutists near the town of Chesterfield. (They have a church there with a famous leaning spire). Here we were to be examined by various medical men and psychiatrists (known to the rough soldiery as “trick cyclists”). Having successfully passed this lot we were then sent on to a neighbouring camp that boasted the toughest battle course in the whole of the British Isles. 

“When I think of the comforts I’ve left behind,” said Tony, “I could shoot that Basil.”    Basil had not been released from the unit. He stayed behind to preach more sermons and meditate upon the inscrutable ways of Providence.

We survived several weeks of battle course toughening up during which we climbed trees, walked tightropes, waded through rivers, and crawled through muddy subterranean tunnels. Then we were posted to Ringway Aerodrome, near Manchester, where we were to undergo our actual jumping course. Soldiers of many nationalities besides our own were training there. We found Frenchmen, Norwegians, Danes, Poles, each of whom was waiting for his own personal opportunity to go back to Europe. The instructors were R.A.F. sergeants – pleasant, friendly men, who leapt out of aeroplanes as casually as the average man catches a train to go to work.

We were to make three jumps from a static balloon – one at night – and five from aircraft. Before we tackled the first balloon, however, we had to do several days of “synthetic” training.

Paratroops were generally carried by Douglas C.47 aircraft, with an exit door in the side near the tail. But we were jumping from Whitley bombers through a hole in the centre of the flooring. We therefore spent day after day jumping through similar apertures that had been rigged up in the huge hangars, which served as gymnasia. (Tony likened these apertures to outsize lavatory seats). This was called “synthetic” training. One sat on the edge of the hole, one’s head raised. Then one pushed off, trying to maintain a position of “attention” as one fell. Woe betide the person who gave way to the temptation to look down. The weight of his head would tumble his body forward and he would catch his head a nasty blow on the opposite side of the hole. This was known as “ringing the bell,” and anybody who did it was supposed to buy his comrades a pint of beer. Of course, in the gymnasium one merely landed sprawling on the mats below, but if one “rang the bell” when jumping from a balloon or Whitley aircraft, it might have meant turning a somersault in mid air, with the consequent danger of becoming tangled in the rigging lines of one’s parachute. Some of the synthetic training devices were very ingenious. I well remember one of them. We would jump from a platform forty feet up in the roof of the hangar, a harness and rope attached to our shoulders. As we fell the rope set in motion a huge fan that, with a noisy whirring sound and by its wind resistance, reduced our acceleration to the ground – a real fun machine.   

Our parachutes were packed by girls of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in a special room with long tables that nobody else was allowed to enter. The ‘chutes had to be packed carefully in a certain fashion, and a man’s life depended on the care and accuracy with which these girls carried out each job. Failures were almost non-existent but no girl ever knew who had been allocated ‘chutes which she had packed.   

After a fortnight of synthetic training, we were due to make our first parachute jump from the basket of a captive balloon. The day after I completed this jump, I wrote an account of the experience while it was still fresh in my mind. I have never changed a word of it, and present it here exactly as I wrote it, for I think that it truly recaptures the mood of that moment.

We are due to make our first parachute drop. In the half dark of a cold, early morning, we draw our ‘chutes, holding them like delicate, newly-born babies, and then crowd into the trucks which are to take us to the dropping zone. The instructor tells us that a cold day is always better for jumping, since the parachutist falls more slowly to earth and makes a softer landing. But the frozen ground looks hard enough to us, and subconsciously we think that if our ‘chutes fail to open we shall hit the deck with a hell of a jolt. Still, even if it were midsummer and the fields were ploughed soft, we should come a pretty cropper just the same. So why worry? 

Somebody tries to start a song as we hurtle through the countryside. 

“I’d like to find the WAAF who put a blanket in my ‘chute, 

I’d like to find the WAAF who put a blanket in my ‘chute, 

I’d like to find the WAAF who put a blanket in my ‘chute, 

‘Cos I ain’t gonna jump no more  ………                                                            

Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die  ……………” 

But his efforts are not appreciated and silence grips us. It is said that the truck ride to the dropping zone is the most dangerous part of a day’s jumping, but we do not entirely believe this. We only know that every minute brings us nearer to our task, and the blueness of our flesh and the shivering of our bodies are not entirely due to the coldness of the weather. We feel like men condemned to commit suicide.

We reach the dropping zone at last, tumble out of the truck, and with half frozen fingers fit on our ‘chutes. The first jump is to be made from a balloon at eight hundred feet. 

“Look,” cries somebody, “There’s one of ‘em.”           

A voluptuous, bell-shaped ‘chute is descending through the morning mist with a small, bent figure suspended beneath it. It is a beautiful sight, and our eyes go automatically to the balloon whence the parachutist came. The balloon hangs in the air like some tremendous sky-slug, its silver vastness turned gold by the first rays of the morning sun. Soon the whole world will be warmed by those rays, but for us on the ground the shivering and cold queasiness will not cease.

Looking around we notice that there are three balloons working and the sky is filled with drifting figures. One continually hears the satisfying snap as the ‘chute opens, the crackle of the silken canopies as they are dragged through the air, and the owner is airborne. 

With our harnesses fitted tightly, and our packs heavy on our backs, we waddle across to our balloon. Parachutists! Men of iron! What bloody rot! Right now we feel like men of jelly. We have to line up for our balloon behind several others, and watch them go up five at a time and then come falling out of the circular aperture in the bottom of the balloon cage. 

One of the lads tells a funny story and we all laugh like hyenas. Another chap strolls past us with a ‘chute rolled up roughly under his arm. He has just done his jump. 

“Piece of cake,” he tells us, and sticks out both his thumbs.

“Sure,” we say, grinning at him, and giving him the “thumbs up”. 

“Piece of cake”. But our knees are like water.  

Finally it is our turn. The balloon has been brought to earth, and its fat, flaccid expanse drifts just above our heads. We clamber into the cage, and all tremble with cold and apprehension. The winch begins to grind, we rise, and looking through the aperture realise that the people on the ground are suddenly ridiculously small. We have no feeling of height; it is just too stupid that that fast receding matchbox is a hut, that that winding ribbon like a snail’s track is a path. But nevertheless when the cage sways a little we all hang on like mad, even though in a moment we are to fling ourselves into space. It is nearing Christmas, and the cheery-faced instructor with us starts a carol as we go up. Grinning inanely we bawl “Good King Wenceslas” at the top of our voices, until abruptly the grinding winch stops, the balloon stops, and the carol stops too.

The cage sways a little. This is it, boys. It’s a piece of cake. Courage. And to hell with them.                                                                                                           

“Action stations number one,” orders the instructor, briskly. “Feet in the hole, head raised.”                                                                                                          

I am number one, and do as I am bid. I am going to jump, and nothing will stop me. I will not look down. No reason to. It is only the gymnasium floor beneath me, six feet or so below. There is no need to worry. 

“Go!” screams the instructor, and I find that, discipline having come to my aid, I have jumped.

Rushing wind. Ground still far away and unreal, swaying dizzily. Kaleidoscope. Huts, snail’s track paths swinging to meet me. I put up my arms in a subconscious attempt to ward them off, but discipline intervenes again. I must maintain a position of attention, and I force my arms to my sides. The static line rips from the back of my ‘chute and strings break with little jerks. I am helpless. I gasp in involuntary fear. Oh, God!

Then I am suddenly suspended between sky and earth. Looking up I perceive taut rigging lines stretching up to my canopy, and I realise with dumb, inexpressible relief that I am airborne. I murmur a prayer of thanks to the dear, sweet virginal WAAF who packed the ‘chute, and then hear an instructor’s amplified voice floating up. 

“Prepare for landing. Prepare for landing.” 

So far I have had no sensation of falling, or even floating down. But abruptly the figures and shapes on the ground become real and rush up. I watch the ground, timing it, and then find myself lying down. I have hit the deck. I’ve landed.           

I do not feel scared any more; neither do I feel wildly exhilarated. I am merely mildly curious to know how it all happened. I am quite warm, and this is surprising, since we were all freezing a few minutes ago in the balloon. 

The balloon. 

I glance up at it, floating high; high above. Did I really jump from there? Of course I did. It’s a piece of cake.

Ch4 pt1. In His Majesty’s Service.

I got up early in the morning of 21ST October, 1941, ate a hearty breakfast, then caught a bus to take me on the first part of my journey to join the army. The bus was held up in a traffic block in the cobbled Essex Road. Slowly it crawled on to “The Angel” public house and then accelerated downhill and arrived quite rapidly at King’s Cross railway station.

I boarded my train with a few minutes to spare and found myself a seat as we began to move out of the dim, curving platform. The sun shone through the windows and foretold a fine day. There were several soldiers sprawled about the carriage, but they did not talk much. Mostly they sat and read with quiet, serious expressions on their faces, or they lay back and slept.

I did not feel any regret at leaving home. I now detested London. At one time, as a boy during the peace, I had thought it romantic to trudge through the dimly lit streets of the dock district and watch the big ships arriving from strange lands; or to stand on Tower Bridge and gaze at the magnificent display of light from up river. However, I had now come to perceive clearly that there were two Englands: the haves and have-nots – and my people belonged to the latter. I saw equally clearly that the war had to be won, for Hitler’s philosophy of the superiority of what he was pleased to call the “Aryans” and the inferiority of everybody else was intolerable and would have led to the ruination of all of us. Yet by the same token I was as sure as I had ever been of anything that the successful conclusion of this war would have to be followed by a radical change in English society.

I was thus entering the army as a young and very inexperienced lad who already had an inbuilt suspicion about the competence of the officers in charge of that army to lead it. As for London, I saw it as a huge repository of working class industrial cannon fodder with mansions, sumptuous restaurants, limousines and theatres for the fortunate minority who had mostly inherited their wealth. For people of my class, the city was an ugly, petrol stinking ganglion of streets; a prison that had confined me since childhood and my mother’s people for generations.

But I was escaping from the prison. The sun gleamed brightly through the windows, and the train clattered merrily along the rails. Escaping! Escaping!

The small Yorkshire station became quite crowded as the train ejected a disproportionate number of passengers, all carrying cases like myself. I surrendered my ticket at the gate and walked into the street. I felt that I would have known this was a Yorkshire town if I had been dropped there out of the blue. Half a dozen coal-begrimed miners passed, and the small, box-like houses were built in long parallel rows.

The young men with cases were milling together into something like three ranks under the direction of a lance corporal, and I squeezed myself between them and shuffled into line.                                                                                            

“Atten……shun!”  

A scrape of feet.                                                                     

“Right turn!” 

Clumsily the line faced to the right.            

“Gawdelpus,” barked the lance jack in charge. “What a sloppy lot. You’re a shower ….. What are you? Pull your stomachs in! You look like a bunch of pregnant ducks.”      

This sally was followed by what might have been described as a pregnant pause while stomachs were duly pulled in. 

“Quick march! Left, right, left, right.”                                                           

The line moved off. A group of young men in khaki grinned sardonically as we passed. They had been in the army five weeks, and considered themselves old sweats. Someone in the front started to sing, and soon the song spread along the whole column. The lance corporal barked encouragement.                                            

“That’s the ticket, lads. Sing up. Swing those arms, now. Straighten your backs. Bags of bull.”                                                                                                

We lengthened our stride and duly straightened our backs. We stopped walking and began to march. We were passing through the town centre, and people turned to stare as we swung by. We held up our heads and sang lustily. Stare, you civvies, stare! We’re in the army now. We’re soldiers of the King! 

At the small Yorkshire town of Osset we were subjected to six weeks of intensive foot and arms drill commonly known as “square bashing”. We were also instructed in the art of firing the three-0-three Lee Enfield rifle and received some instruction in the working of the Bren gun and Thompson sub machine gun. We were all then very relieved to be sent to various technical training battalions in and around the drab, cotton-spinning town of Huddersfield – ‘Oodersfield’ to the locals. This was where my Yorkshire grandmother had been born and bred. We were now members of the Royal Corps of Signals, often abbreviated to “Royal Corps of Sigs”, but known to its irreverent members as the “Royal Corps of Pigs.” I was to be initiated into the mysteries of wireless operating, and found myself with several hundred other men billeted in a huge disused factory filled with rows of double-tiered bunks. We were split up into squads, and I became a member of 93 Ack Squad, composed of nineteen year olds like myself.

We were a noisy, unruly squad, and since the accent was now on technical training rather than on discipline, we got away with our unruliness. We were young and did some silly things. I remember the occasion when, as some sort of a gesture of independence we got together and all agreed to grow moustaches. Beards were forbidden, but moustaches were permissible. Thus after a few days every face in the squad – and there were some most unlikely ones – began to sprout whiskers. They called us the Clarke Gable Squad.

Tiny Mac, who was barely nineteen years old, grew the best moustache of the lot. Despite his small size, he had a fierce beard, and grew a huge black walrus moustache that practically covered his mouth. Poor Mac. He was wounded in an engagement with the Japanese at Imphal in Burma, and later they came and blew up the hospital where he was a patient.                                                                                    

Good luck, Mac. You are not forgotten.       

At the end of our course, the whole squad was sent on draft to India, but some star guiding my life decreed that I should catch mumps. For a couple of weeks I mooched about the isolation hospital with a face swollen grotesquely to twice its normal size. Then came convalescence. But when I was ready to face the world again, Squad 93 Ack was on its way to the Far East.                                           

I envied what I considered their luck in being sent abroad, but could do little about it when I was posted to an armoured brigade stationed at Staines, on the River Thames, just outside London. I was consoled by the fact that I got regular weekend leaves from here, but after a month the unit suddenly packed up in the perverse way that army units have, and we moved north to the Scottish border. We cruised around aimlessly for a week or two, then settled down at the village of Clifton, three miles outside the small town of Penrith, in the Lake District. Penrith itself was about twenty miles south of Carlisle, close to the Scottish border. Here we were to remain for two years as part of the 35th Tank Brigade of the 79th Armoured Division.       

In many ways I enjoyed my stay here. I came to appreciate what life was like in a very small town as opposed to a very large one, and the hospitality of English north-country folk to strangers came as a revelation to me after the indifference of Londoners. I also had the opportunity of getting to know the beautiful Lake District of north England. I saw Ullswater in shifting mist and Ullswater in sparkling sunlight. I marvelled at the glorious views from windswept Hellvelyn, and I tasted the cold water of clear mountain springs. All this I much appreciated, even though my travels by lakeside and over steeply rising fell took place during the course of gruelling battle training arranged by a diabolical O-C.

I had two special friends in this unit. One was Basil, a black haired, blue-jowled, slim young man, the original Mr Nice Guy. Basil was studying theology and trying to make up his mind whether he was divinely inspired to take up holy orders. (He finally decided that he was not, and contented himself with lay preaching). Basil was always sincere and ready to help others in any way he could. Some took advantage of him at first, but his honesty and friendliness eventually gained him the respect of all who knew him. Basil was a Methodist, the first I had known, and for the rest of my life I was always predisposed to look upon any Methodist of my acquaintance with favour until such time as they gave evidence to the contrary.

My other friend was Tony. Tony was the same age as Basil, but was notwithstanding rapidly losing his hair. He was smallish in build and rakish in character. His intelligence was considerable and his cynicism unbounded. He had a taste for strong drink and an eye for pretty young women, having in this latter connection a way of leavening a searching stare with a flattering compliment. We made fun of him by attributing the bags under his eyes to dissipation, but nothing could annoy Tony

“Eat, drink and be merry, comrades, for tomorrow we die. Jimmy, are you going to buy me a pint of beer?”                                                                      

Tony had been a journalist in civvy street, but had given it up to go into the Post Office. Like me, he still had a hankering for scribbling and, like me, he doubted his ability to make a reasonable living out of it. 

We had a good time during our two years at the little town of Penrith. We got to know all the people and we were well acquainted with the local pubs. We scraped acquaintance with one or two of the local girls and “got our feet under the table” at their homes – that is, we were welcomed and treated like members of the family. Every Saturday we visited the local hop at the large hall in the centre of town with its rustic orchestra. I even started to attend a Penrith evening class to brush up on my shorthand and learn a little bit more about English literature and the French language.

My principal dislike was for the army discipline that became increasingly pettifogging and irksome. This discipline seemed to mirror the class structure of English society. You simply did not become an officer in the British Army unless you had received instruction in a certain type of accent, which betokened your superior class. In addition, you behaved with arrogance to those below you and made it always clear that they were expendable, at the best slightly idiotic, and always beneath contempt. It was the “them” and “us” syndrome we had known all our lives. I had no illusions about it, and found it completely unacceptable, although there was nothing that I could do.

We were all becoming restive, and would have welcomed transfer overseas and some concrete task to help finish the wretched war, rather than the necessity to continue vegetating in England.

At the time that we were in the Lake District, the Germans and the Russians were locked in bloodthirsty and seemingly interminable battles on the Russian Steppes, costing each nation the flower of its manhood. In North Africa the British Eighth Army under Montgomery had broken out of Egypt and chased Rommel’s Afrika Korps westwards across Libya. The Americans, who had invaded Algeria had raced in the other direction to close the jaws of the trap, and the German North African Army had been evacuated across the Mediterranean back to Europe. The Anglo-Americans had then invaded Sicily, crossed the Straits of Messina, and were now engaged in pushing the German-Italian armies up the boot of Italy.

In the Far East there was another war. This was much less publicised in England. There the British had finally secured the gates of India against the Japanese, and were forcing them back into Burma. One saw occasional film clips of Australian troops in action in New Guinea. And the Americans were doggedly thrashing the Japanese on land and sea in the Pacific wherever the opposing forces met. 

In the Atlantic, the German U-boat menace was being met and mastered. And now the combined English and American Air Forces were beginning to mount horrendous bombing strikes against German cities. The Allied superiority in men, material and technology was plain for all to see. Victory was not yet within our grasp. But it was clear that this terrible conflict, now working up to a murderous crescendo, would see the final victory of the Anglo-Americans and their allies.