Ch6 pt2 Toulon and the Empire Battleaxe

I shall always remember Toulon as a yellow town. The palm trees were quite frequent and exotically noticeable to an English eye. As we approached the outskirts of the town the yellow became more pronounced. Every single house seemed to be yellow. The earth was yellow. Even the buds on the trees and plants were yellow. A yellow landscape. At length we drove into a camp of military huts – it was called a camp, though recent rain had turned it into a yellow bog.

I went to get my hair cut by one of the French barbers – nothing like talking to a barber to get the lie of the land, and we had an interesting conversation for about half an hour. That afternoon, I succeeded with several other comrades in extracting myself from the marsh of gluey clay – which was our camp – and we were free to explore.

We stopped a small, broken-down lorry on the road, and perched atop the drums of smelly swill it was carrying, we rode in triumph to the outskirts of Toulon. We got down to finish the last kilometre on foot, thanked the smiling men who had given us a lift, and began to walk. Civilians passed us, hardly sparing a glance for us foreigners, so used were they to meeting us. But the tongue they spoke was familiar to me and from time to time I caught snatches of their conversation. I experienced that peculiar feeling of empathy I have always had whenever I have had the good fortune to visit France. I felt “at home.”

As we came into the town, we saw a tram – two carriages, one pulled by the other, and no “upstairs” such as we were used to in England. The tram was just starting. We began to run, and jumped aboard. The conductress asked us where we were going, and I commenced a long conversation with her trying to find out the geography of the town on behalf of our group.

Near the town centre we left the tram, and for a few moments watched a group of men playing “pétanque” on a gravel patch by the roadside, quite oblivious of passing trams and motorcars. We cast around for something to eat, but restaurants were out because food coupons had to be given for meals. We stopped at a stall near the pétanque players, where we bought bon-bons and dry biscuits from the woman in charge. Cars passed ceaselessly, trams were grinding and groaning. Everywhere one found typical French cafes, with tables and chairs scattered about the pavement and people seated at them, enjoying a glass of wine. This was the civilised way to live!

It begins to get dark. Shop windows become filled with light. No more “blackout”. How wonderful that is. Towards eight o’clock, after having strolled here and there, we discover a little bistro in a side street. The proprietor is very pleasant, and we make the acquaintance of his sister, a charming lady, and of her son, a kiddie of three or four years old who is called, so he prattles to us, “Pierre”. One day I shall call my own son by this name, but that is a long time off. We take a few glasses of Eau de Vie de Marc, a strong white liquid which the “patron” tells us is the nearest thing he has to whisky. At the end of the evening we leave the estaminet with many fervent declarations of friendship. We catch the last tram, leave it on the outskirts of town, and then succeed, despite the late hour in begging a lift on a military lorry going towards our staging camp. The lorry, which is bound elsewhere, sets us down behind the camp, so we have to climb over a high, barbed wire fence with a ten-foot drop on the other side. No problem for old sweats such as us, especially after having enjoyed excellent French hospitality for most of the evening. 

The following day the results of our splurge in the estaminet make themselves felt, and we suddenly discover that we are short of money. This was a situation that had to be rectified. With unaccustomed foresight I had brought with me a spare blanket, scrounged from the quartermasters store in England. Two comrades had similarly provided for themselves. It was merely a matter of finding someone to buy our blankets in exchange for silver to cross the palms of avaricious shopkeepers. We left early in the afternoon with this mission in mind. 

Near our camp stood a small estaminet where one could drink at rickety tables in a small back room. The proprietress, so rumour ran, had started off by selling wine in the usual way, but had climbed somewhat in the world. At the time of our stay in the district, she found herself at the top of the social ladder, being a Buyer of British Military Blankets. These blankets were, of course, ‘half-inched’ from the quartermaster’s store by the rough and licentious soldiery prior to being flogged to Madame. It was this lady, then, whom we had chosen to be our benefactress. 

We therefore shrouded our blankets in greycoats and set stealthily off, like grave robbers carrying corpses out of a cemetery. We succeeded in leaving the camp without raising the suspicions of the sentry at the gate, and arrived at our chosen bistro. This gem in the heart rural France was a tiny cottage surrounded by green and bathed in sunshine. There were four of us, and we all had blankets to sell, except my mate Mack, who was temporarily rolling in money, having persuaded some gullible person to buy his wristwatch.

Garcon – a glass of white wine each before getting down to business – and Monsieur Mack will pay. (He has agreed to finance the group until our fortunes take a turn for the better).

The wine suitably swallowed and savoured, I make enquiries about Madame for it is a blue-jowled gentleman who speaks French with strong Italian accent who is serving us. Madame? She’s out doing the shopping, but she will be back very shortly. In the meantime, would the gentlemen care for another drink? Well….. why not? Mack is paying. But yes, certainly, the same again. Fortunately Madame arrives just as we are sampling our second drink. Good day, Gentlemen. In what can I serve you? In examining some blankets which we have acquired, Madame. Ah, blankets. C’est bien ca. Faits voir. Let’s have a look.                                                          

We display our wares. She fingers them. Her friendly smile becomes pitying, finally disdainful.

“Eh bien, madame?”

“Gentlemen……what can I say? These blankets are…….’moches’. They are absolutely rotten. I could not possibly buy such blankets. They are made of cotton.”

Consternation. Our benefactress had turned into an ogress. Frantically we sing the praises of our army blankets. These blankets are specially made to keep British soldiers warm and fighting fit. How can she say that they are made of cotton!

She fingers them once more. Contempt and scorn fight to gain control of her curling upper lip. Finally she says, “I should be mad to buy these cotton blankets. But…..you are British soldiers, so I will buy one blanket only.”

“One blanket only? But the others are of fine quality, madame.”

“That is not true. They are made of cotton. I will buy one only.”

Her mind is made up. We leave, having each drunk two glasses of wine. After paying for the booze we don’t seem to be much further ahead. We have sold one blanket and we have two to go.

We direct our discouraged footsteps towards another rustic pub, just by the bus stop. A small, dark haired man receives us. We wash out the dust, which has gathered in our throats since the last bistro, with a glass of beer. The bar tender sees our blankets and asks us how much. What does he offer? – A hundred francs apiece for blankets of that quality. – But that’s daylight robbery. Look, Monsieur, see how nice and soft these blankets are. We might……we just might……consider a hundred and fifty francs apiece, but even then you’d be getting them very cheap.

He scratches his head. It is a hard decision. Would we care to buy another glass of beer each while he makes up his mind.

“All right. But wait, when does the bus for Toulon arrive?”

“Not for half an hour yet.”

“But Madame at the other bistro said it was almost due.”

“Mais non. She must have made a mistake. Another beer?”

“We…….ell…….”

“I will pour it out. The order is four beers, eh, messieurs?”

At this moment the bus drives up. Ah, the horrible liar. He is on the point of pouring out the beer. We hurriedly cancel our order, dash out and climb aboard the bus, blankets unfolded and higgledy piggledy. Quelle pagaille! We have to stand in the bus and get in everybody’s way as we try to bundle our blankets up into our greatcoats and reassume some sort of dignity.

The bus enters Toulon and comes to a stop. We leave and lose ourselves in the little streets, which descend towards the harbour. Even now the masts and funnels of the huge, scuttled French Fleet protrude, mournful and sad, above the waters. After some prodding from my friends I approach a housewife who is standing at the door of her house and say to her in my politest French:

“Madame, would you have the kindness to indicate to me the road by which we may arrive at the black market?”

She looks at me as if I am crazy. Hurriedly I explain that we have some blankets to sell, and she gives me complicated directions. We follow them as best we can and finally arrive at a block of dirty grey cement houses, several stories tall, and seeming to form a separate quarter of narrow, cobbled alleys. On the wall facing us is painted a notice: ENTRANCE FORBIDDEN TO ALLIED TROOPS. The neighbourhood seems deserted as we cross the threshold of this new, mysterious corner of Toulon. We turn into another alley on the left, and suddenly we discover a dozen men behind us who have appeared from nowhere. An Algerian wearing a fez asks us what we have to sell. We show carefully, prudishly, almost shamefacedly, like young ladies of the Victorian era giving a glimpse of their ankles to infatuated suitors, the corner of a blanket. But abruptly someone else pushes the Algerian aside and plants himself in front of us. He is a tall, thin man, well-dressed and handsome in an effeminate way. We talk; we haggle. The Algerian has vanished. We have nearly concluded a deal when a thickset, loutish man, dressed in a ragged military jacket and baggy military trousers, who has obviously not shaved for days, pushes himself forward, feels the blankets, and announces in a voice of authority: “These are lousy blankets.” There is silence. The thin, well-dressed man becomes doubtful, is suddenly undecided.

I say: “Of course, Monsieur, you may refuse these blankets if you like. That is up to you. But I assure you that their quality is of the first class…….”

Someone whispers something in the thin man’s ear.

“Tiens!” he exclaims. “Un flic. Blimey, a ‘tec.”

It is a magic word. The crowd thins. In next to no time the alley is once again completely deserted. We might have dreamt the meeting. Where the “flic” is, I have no idea. We see nobody.

Since our customers have gone, there is nothing to do but quit this quarter of tall, grim, houses. We retrace our steps, turning over in our minds the possibilities which remain. The whole exercise has been most discouraging, and the general opinion is that we must be realistic. Quite clearly the local market for blankets has been over supplied by British soldiers. The Blanket Boom has burst. The market is very bearish with regard to blankets. It is not a seller’s market any more, and to be honest, our blankets are somewhat threadbare, and anyone wanting to buy them must be hard up indeed. What are we to do?

Somebody suddenly has a brainwave. Suppose we give them to Madame, mother of Pierre, who was so hospitable to us yesterday evening. Why not? We’ve walked enough, and we want to take a weight off our legs. We each buy a large sandwich at one of those “baguette” sandwich stalls, and then direct our steps towards the swing doors of the bistro where we have spent the previous evening. Madame spies us through a haze of pipe and cigarette smoke and serves us with beer. Little Pierre sits down with us, and one of the lads gives him a bar of chocolate.

We have put down our greatcoats on another table with the blankets rolled inside them. I am supposed to make the presentation to Madame with an appropriate little speech. I rise to do so – and two gendarmes enter. I sit down again. Mustn’t incriminate Madame before these bloodhounds of the law. We wait half an hour, but the bloodhounds, who have all this time been engaged in animated conversation, seem set to stay all night. We decide to leave and come back later.

After ten minutes’ walk, we come to a fair ground, and stroll along looking at the stalls. One of the lads nudges my arm and asks, “See that bloke looking at us?”

I turn. A thin, unshaven man, with a waggish expression smiles at us from behind the counter of his stall, then points suggestively to our greatcoats. I go up to him, feeling rather annoyed. Is he trying to be funny?                                            

“Well?

“Well, what have you to sell?”

That, of course, is different.

“Two blankets.”

“Let’s see.”

“With pleasure.”

Rapidly the blankets disappear behind the counter where the fellow feels them, judges them.

“How much are you asking?”

“A hundred and fifty each.” 

“Ça va. It’s a deal.” He searches in a greasy wallet. “Here’s three hundred francs.”

Confound it. I might have got two hundred francs each if I’d only asked. Still, never mind.

“Thanks,” I tell him.

“De rien, mon vieux. Don’t mention it.” He extends a filthy hand, which I shake enthusiastically for the sake of the Entente Cordiale.

“And if you’ve got anything else, Monsieur, anything – understand? – come and see me. Come and see me!”

He smiles fraternally, exposing tobacco-stained teeth, as if this underhand deal is a transaction of honour between two gentlemen. I disengage my hand, and we leave the bright lights, the raucous music and the cries of the fairground behind us.

The following day we got up early, boarded awaiting lorries, and drove through a thin drizzle to the harbour. In single file we made our way aboard a large, rusty ship called The Empire Battleaxe, and waited. Towards nightfall we put out to sea. A mist lay about the bay, half hiding the town. Au revoir, France. See you again soon, I hope. Who was it that said the waters of the Mediterranean were blue? The waters are grey and sullen, the rain dribbles down, and I suddenly feel fed up with this pointless military existence I am forced to lead.

I go below and search for the bed graciously provided for me. It is a piece of canvass stretched across a folding steel frame – one folding shelf amongst several hundred others – and I try to sleep. Towards midnight as we get well out to sea, the Empire Battleaxe, which seemed so big in harbour, starts to pitch and toss like a cork. I find that this has little effect on me if I lie still and compose my mind. But many of the lads get up, caught by the diabolical agonies of sea-sickness, stagger to the lavatory, and have a good vomit. Unhappily there are many who don’t make it as far as the ‘loo’, and as the night wears on, anyone who walks between the beds is well advised to do so carefully and watch where he puts his feet. The engines pound sonorously when the propellers are in the water, whirr in a frenzy when the stern is lifted on the crest of a huge wave, and turn madly in the empty air. We are clearly having a most unseasonable passage.

CH6 Pt1 Recovery then Egypt via France.

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.

Ch4 pt5. False starts to the armada.

Then overnight came a development. The Allied forces attacking the Normandy town of Caen had been unable to make much headway, and it was proposed to drop airborne forces behind the town to demoralise resisting German troops. We were confined to camp, maps were studied, and detailed plans were made as to what each company, even each platoon, had to do. Although I spoke French with ease, I had never been to France. Now that I was going, I felt that I would be a very useful fellow to have around. We were all of us keyed up to a fine tension when word came that the whole scheme was cancelled and we could all stand down.

We cursed, and large quantities of wallop were consumed to calm jangled nerves. Subsequently we learned that German anti-aircraft defences around Caen were considerable, and had we gone, the chances were that our slow-moving transport aircraft and ponderous, heavily loaded gliders towed two or three in a line would have been blown out of the sky.

The next place we were to attack was Rambouillet, a small town south west of Paris, but once again the operation was called off. American armor, racing forward, reached the town the evening before we were due to drop.

Plans for operations now came thick and fast. Every other day we were due somewhere else, every other day the project was cancelled. One day we were issued with French money, the next it was withdrawn. One day a party would go out and load jeeps into gliders, the next they would sally forth and take them out again. Now we could go into the village, now we were confined to camp. All the time aircraft were waiting at aerodromes, ready to take off, and the parachutes with which we were to jump over occupied Europe were packed for us to put on. What the hell were our smart-alec brigadiers and generals playing at? It really began to get rather nerve wracking.

Then one morning at about ten o’clock, three RASC lorries whined down the drive, and instead of carrying out our usual task of cleaning the camp, we found ourselves packing up spare boots, shirts, battledress into sleeping bags and loading them on to the lorries. The lorries coughed and moaned away. Jeeps were stacked with equipment. The next morning, at 4 a.m., we were queuing up for breakfast, the cookhouse serving-hatch throwing a cheerful light into the cold, chatter-filled yard where the troops jostled each other. Then the parachute party boarded three trucks, bound for a transit camp some hundred and thirty miles away. The support force would follow later. We were bent double beneath our equipment. We carried lifebelts (in case our plane crashed into the sea), rations (two twenty-four hour packs), small valises (on the hip), rifles, grenades, Bren magazines, bandoliers, and all the accoutrements to delight the heart of a Chicago gangster. Additionally the trucks, which were bulging with sweat-uncomfortable men, carried containers of cable, parachute kit-bags, and a light weight para-motor cycle in a protective frame. Our journey was to last nine hours, and we were most uncomfortable.

The glider party was travelling to a different airfield later, in jeeps, and we rather envied them. Still, in spite of our discomfort, we of the parachute party were glad to crowd to the back of trucks and wave to the townspeople as we passed through populated areas. I guess, when they saw us in our green smocks and great heavy ammo pouches, and noticed the sinister, well-scrimmed steel helmets swinging from the lorry framework they thought (especially the old ladies): “Ah, our boys. Our boys off to France.” And they weren’t so far wrong.

The talk was unusually animated, excited and silly. Everyone felt it was his duty to grin. Corporal K related how he had been winning pounds at cards in the NAAFI, and would now be unable to spend them. Someone else was bemoaning the fact that he had missed out on the issue of his cigarette ration coupon. 

“What do you want that for?” queries the sergeant. “You won’t see the canteen for a long time now.” 

“We haven’t got any French money yet,” murmurs someone. 

“No,” says the sergeant. “Still, you’ve got some francs left from the last scare, ain’t you, Bill? We can sponge on you.”                                                                                            

“Francs?” says Bill. “No, francs very much.” The sally is greeted with gales of laughter. 

”Kill that man,” a voice is heard to demand somewhere from the jumble of blue and white cylindrical “Signals” parachute equipment containers and a heap of camouflage netting. 

“I shall defend myself,” warns Bill. 

“Christ,” ejaculates the sergeant. “You ain’t got no bayonet.” 

“Never mind about my bayonet, says Bill. “I’ll tie me table knife on the end of me gun and look daggers at everybody.” 

Eventually we reached the transit camp, a huge field littered with tents and marquees. Stocks of blankets and paillasses awaited us on the grass. We each drew our share, staggered away to our respective tents, and dumped our stuff in a suitable spot before anyone else got there. I slept next to the door of a big marquee. I liked the open air, with just a bit of canvass to keep off the rain and the dew.

Meal times were a problem at the transit camp. There were three serving tables outside the cookhouse, and food was prepared in bulk by the bathtubful. Breakfast consisted of porridge, bacon and bread which was already partially stale, because it had been cut in such large quantities. For dinner we invariably had gritty potatoes boiled in their jackets, greens and meat, all soggy and becoming rapidly cold in the open air. The sweet consisted of rice and dough masquerading as pudding and soaked in a suspicious yellow liquid called “custard”. The queues for meals were often a hundred yards long and several persons deep. There were many thousands of men in the camp, and it took two hours to serve dinner, which for us was the midday meal and the biggest one of the day.      

The worst meal was tea. This invariably consisted of bread and jam – cheese if you were lucky. The tea was brewed in huge tin canisters half the size of a man, which were normally used as swill bins in the army. We had this drink with every meal of the day, and if one sank one’s scruples it was not too bad. It was welcome, anyway, for the weather was torrid.  

Despite the lack of frills, and remembering that it was wartime, and our seaborne supply routes were constantly under threat, we were fed well in the British army, and I suspect that we did considerably better than the strictly rationed civilian population.

On the day after our arrival at the camp, the lorries took us to an airfield some miles away, where we drew parachutes from a store, fitted them, sweating afresh beneath the weight of our equipment, and then drove to the runway, where our aircraft “P” for Peter was waiting. She was a Stirling, with a hole in the floor like a Whitley’s aperture, only bigger and rectangular instead of circular. Furthermore, you could stand up in a Stirling, so when the time came to get the hell out of there, you just did a conga towards the tail and fell into space, one after the other. We had a lightweight motorbike with us, but it was rather troublesome to throw it through the hole, so we decided to leave it. We could get a bike from other sources if necessary.

The Stirling was what in those days was considered to be a huge kite, and had four engines. Indeed, it seemed to be all body and engines with just a couple of stubby wings added as an afterthought. It always amazed me how Stirlings flew at all, and I never failed to be astonished when I saw one leap into the air at take-off. Actually, Stirlings could not fly at speeds much less than a hundred and thirty miles an hour, so parachutists had to waste no time getting out of them when the green light flashed. Stirlings carried twenty men, and with an interval of a hundred yards between each one, the final result would have been a stick spread out over two thousand yards. On the ground they might have been strung out across fields, rivers, roads and woods, but for mutual safety and effectiveness would have had to get together in very short order. Speed of exit became the essence of the exercise.

We loaded equipment containers into bomb racks, took out our bike, and stacked our ‘chutes in readiness. We did a little “synthetic”, for none of us had jumped from a Stirling before. Then we returned to the transit camp.

This was the moment we had awaited so long. We had subjugated our fears. We were all keyed up to go. Tomorrow we proposed to clamber into the kites, roar into the air, and leap out over German occupied France. As the lorries made their way back, we sang raucously and profanely. This is it, boys. 

On va en finir! Hooray!  

The OC called us together after we had dismounted and spoke to us. Laughing faces suddenly changed. Savage ejaculations broke out and argument was general.                                                                                        

The operation was cancelled. But it can’t be. After all this preparation it can’t be. It is not amusing to be put on and off the rack like this. 

No argument, boys. The thing is definitely cancelled. This evening we go back home.  Oh, hell. Hell, hell, hell!

That night we piled our kit on to the lorries and they took us back to our own camp. This was just one of the sixteen operations which were planned and cancelled between the invasion of Europe and the time, just over three months later, when we finally took off for the continent.

One day in September 1944, we were told that we were to drop in Holland. There seemed to be some doubt as to whether the operation would come off or not, and in the long run we were given four days leave, with strict injunctions to keep our tongues between our teeth about military matters.

The security seemed to be lousy, but four days leave was not to be sneezed at, and I was out of camp the moment I received my pass and hitch hiking to London.

I wanted to see my family, and I wanted to see my girl friend of that moment in time. Unfortunately the meeting was not a particularly happy one. She told me that she had just got herself engaged to a merchant seaman and that in these circumstances the passionate sonata for two which we had been playing would have to wind itself down to pianissimo, with me on a solo instrument. I was somewhat shattered. Chagrin d’amour! I took gloomy leave of my family and returned to the First Airborne Divisional Signals unit.

Back in camp we learned that the operation to Holland was still to take place and that we were to drop to the north of a town called Arnhem, on the lower Rhine. At that time the British Second Army, pushing up through Belgium, had invaded Holland. It was now proposed that the American 101st Airborne Division was to make a corridor north of the advancing Second Army between the Dutch towns of Eindhoven and Grave. The 82nd American Airborne Division should continue this corridor still further north from Grave to Nijmegen between the River Maas and the River Waal, while the British First Airborne Division was to drop north of the American 82nd Division and seize the bridge to Arnhem across the Dutch part of the River Rhine. The Second Army would then be able to advance rapidly, crossing the rivers Maas, Waal and Lower Rhine without difficulty, swerve east and pour into Germany.

It was a daring plan which would shorten the war by many months if it succeeded, but it was perfectly obvious to us of the First Airborne Division that unless we were relieved quickly we should be in a hell of a mess. We were to be the extreme tip of a finger, pointing north up through Belgium and Holland, and we were given two days to hold out. Unless the advancing allied forces reached us in that time we should be cut off, surrounded by Germans and annihilated. Yet nobody worried.

We were issued with Dutch money, twenty-four hour ration packs, bombs and ammunition, but still nobody worried. It had all happened before and nothing had come of it. This would be another false alarm – another cancelled operation. At any moment now we would receive the order to take everything off and return to camp. It was only when aero engines thundered into life and the ground sped away that we realised that this time we were flying to meet our destiny.

As our aeroplane roared onwards through the sky, I could see opposite one of the C47’s keeping us company. It rolled a little like an obese and slightly drunk goldfish. I found it hard to believe that it was racing neck and neck with us through space at nearly two hundred miles an hour. By twisting my head I could look over the parachute strapped to my back and out of the window behind me. There I could see part of the wing of our own kite. How fragile it seemed; how incapable of lifting our immense weight. Beyond that was the tail of another aircraft in our formation. This was all that was visible to me of the armada, which was carrying thousands of men to Holland.