Ch7 Pt4 Farewell Palestine and the Army.

I only recall one event that was at all remarkable. A few of the officers got the idea that somebody was tunnelling underneath their quarters, so they invaded the billets of us underlings and took up residence with us for a while. Nothing came of it. A few bepipped gentlemen had been taking too little water with their Scotch, and must have been hallucinating. There were definitely no terrorist sappers trying to blow up our beloved officers.

Here are a few lines written at the time to my old friend George Mills, quoted verbatim, because there is no better way to recall the thoughts that were going through my mind at the end of my army service.

Dear George – Just a few egotistical lines because my head is full of words. Today is, truly speaking, my last day in the army. Tomorrow I am going to Haifa to follow a course. I am going to brush up my French – can you imagine that? Of course, it is an excuse to spend a few days in Haifa. I am told that I shall in all probability be recalled before the course finishes, and sent to Sidi Bishr, near Alexandria. There I shall catch the boat for Toulon. At our camp today the lads are going on a route march, but I shall not take part in it. I shall watch them struggle into their kit, and I shall smile to myself and feel very satisfied, for this kind of thing is finished for me. In England I shall exchange my uniform for a civvy suit, and then I shall be my own person again amidst several million others. My apologies for ‘le moi haissable’. But adult peacetime civilian life is something I have never known. I was only nineteen when I joined the army, and very inexperienced. I hope I shall be able to cope. The army is a prison. But as in all prisons, you never starve, and you always have a roof over your head. In civvy street you have to struggle for those things.

The weather is extremely fine today. The sun is shining, and at only nine in the morning I am sweating like a little bull. For the next six weeks the future is all mapped out. I know exactly where I’m going, and the prospect pleases me. After that …….Question mark ! What shall I do when I return to London, when I become once again a small insect striving to maintain himself on the human ant heap? Does it matter that much? All our worries, our battles, our achievements will be insignificant a hundred years from now ..….”

On the 24th August, I left the camp on my way to Haifa. There were nine of us in two jeeps, each of which was pulling a small trailer on which our kit was stacked. After being shut up for so many weeks it was good to drive through the countryside, sandy and arid, but dotted with odd desert plants and with the occasional incipient greenery of young citrus plantations.          

Haifa is a beautiful, sun-drenched city, beginning at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, then climbing up the slope of magnificent Mount Carmel. One has the impression of tiers of seats about an arena. The arena is the Mediterranean, dotted with boats, and the tiers are rows upon rows of square white houses. From the upper slopes of Mount Carmel one does not distinguish the white-capped waves below – one merely sees a vast blue expanse, and one has the impression of being able to step out immediately from wherever one is, and walk upon the sea.

The motor buses climb with difficulty the steep slopes found everywhere. They are single-decker vehicles, and the entrance is next to the driver, who collects the fares and distributes tickets before the passengers take their places. The engines of these buses strain agonisingly as they climb the hilly gradients, but the inhabitants of Haifa do not bother – they are used to the sensation that their conveyance is at any moment likely to run backwards down Mount Carmel.

The Arab quarter, which was supposed to be out of bounds to military personnel, was at the docks end of the town, and was chiefly composed of shops facing each other across narrow alleys. Here one found the inevitable bistros where a radio moaned Arab love songs and the atmosphere inevitably stank. In the streets accessible to motor traffic, one frequently saw armoured cars with machine guns poking from their turrets. Sometimes one would come across convicts in brown uniforms working under the surveillance of an Arab member of the Palestine Police, looking like a Cossack in his tall, black woollen hat. Modern Haifa, we found, was very clean and attractive. In the boulevards, on the terraces of the cafés, people sat drinking coffee or orange juice, this latter seeming to be the national beverage, and talking nineteen to the dozen in many languages although, of course, Hebrew predominated. Incidentally, we noticed that the residents of Haifa suffered from the same delusion as those of Cairo, namely that the English soldier existed solely on a diet of beer, fried eggs and chips. Clothes were plentiful – I noticed this particularly, after the rationing situation in England. But they were very expensive. I paid two pounds for a cotton shirt of very poor finish, whilst one could not get even a mediocre pair of trousers for under four pounds. Jackets followed the same price trends, and one came to realise that when one saw a well-dressed man, one was looking at a walking fortune.

Towards the end of my course at Haifa, I met a young ATS private who was studying music. She was an Algerian Jewess. She had good intelligence, but although at first I did not consider her pretty, she was “très sympathique”. Of course, we spoke French together. Iris was trim and smart, and as I took more notice I began to get a very favourable impression. She took good care of her jet coloured hair, and she had long eyelashes that reminded me of black silk. Her eyes were large and dark brown, and I made myself believe that I could read her thoughts in them. I began to like her a great deal.

We dined together one night in a restaurant in a suburb of Haifa, half way up Mount Carmel, and while we were waiting for the bus to take us back to camp, I somehow started to tell her about my recollections of our poverty in London. She listened with sympathy, and suddenly put her hand on mine.

“…….Mon Cher ami ……….”

The tutoiement mounted to my lips. How is it possible to explain that delicious familiar form of speech, which, in French, enables one to express so exquisitely kindness and gentleness to those who are near and dear? This form does not exist in English, and to me, when one wishes to express tenderness, its absence makes our language seem so harsh.

At that moment the bus came. I helped her in, and we returned to camp. When we arrived there, we sat down outside the canteen in darkness, and talked until long past midnight. I was conscious that I was to leave the following day.

On the morrow, a jeep called for me at midday. Iris and I were talking in the library. Hurriedly I left her to bundle my kit into the jeep’s trailer. Then I came back to her. We touched hands for a moment.

“Don’t forget to look up that friend of mine when you reach London, Jimmy.”

“Which friend?”

“Irena. You will like her.”

“Oh, yes. Irena S.”

Iris had asked me to call on a friend who had served in the ATS with her, and was now living in London, after having travelled there to see her mother.

Iris’s brown eyes surveyed me thoughtfully.

“It’s always the best friends who go away, isn’t it?”

“It is. Goodbye, Iris. Take care of yourself.”

“Goodbye, Jimmy.”

I boarded the jeep. We bumped forward. I waved. Then we were out of the dusty camp and running down the winding road leading to Haifa and the blue sea stretched out invitingly below us.

We made our way back to Sarafand, stopping on the road for a meal at a café run by a Palestinian Sabra and his wife. She was a Jewish girl who had been brought up in the same part of London as I, and when she stopped speaking Hebrew and turned to address us in English, she had a refreshingly Cockney accent which lifted my heart. On the floor of the café, her three young children sprawled happily like fat little puppies. These were the future Israelis. What a lovely country this was. I would willingly have stayed in it. But not as a British Army conscript.

After reaching Sarafand, I caught a troop train to Sidi Bishr – a military camp just outside Alexandria, and after a couple of days here, I found myself one morning on board the ship which was to return me, very much against my will, to England.

I think that quotations from my diary will best tell the rest of the story.          

Friday, September 27th, 1946. (On board the S.S.”Orduña”).

I got up early this morning at four o’clock, being among the first group to leave. At six o’clock, outsize lorries came to pick us up, and half an hour later, set us down at the Alexandria docks. Two flat motor barges approached. We boarded them, and in next to no time, we had been transferred to the “Orduña”, our kit had been stacked away, and we were ready to start.

At the moment of writing, another group of soldiers is struggling aboard. One more group after this, and we will set sail for Toulon. I’m feeling rather sleepy, and I’m not at all happy.         

The waters of the bay are twinkling in the morning sun, naked Arab divers are waiting for people to throw money in the water for them, and in the distance the buildings of Alexandria rear themselves silently against the blue sky. Shall I see them again in my lifetime? With all my heart I hope that I shall.

It is now eleven o’clock in the morning. Well, at least I’ll soon be demobilised. I’ll be free. Then, to hell with the army and to hell with the system where some jumped-up twit with a stripe on his arm or a pip on his shoulder has the right to tell me what to do, even though he is stupid enough to eat hay.

Seven o’clock in the evening.

We left Alexandria at five o’clock. There was lifeboat drill, then we had some food. Afterwards I climbed on deck and made my way towards the stern, just above the propellers. It was very dark, but behind us I could discern our foaming white wake. Beneath the deck the powerful, hidden motors pounded. From time to time a cigarette end, which some soldier had thrown away, described a red arc until it was abruptly extinguished and swallowed by the hissing sea.

On the horizon I could see the brilliant white light of the Alexandria lighthouse, surrounded by a far-off glare. The streets of Alexandria are at this moment blazing with illuminations, and it’s the same in Cairo. The Europeans are going to the cinema – to the “Odéon, to the “Kursaal”, to the ‘Miami”, and to the ‘Metro’. Galabieh-clad men are sitting outside the bistros, smoking their narghilehs, whilst in Maadi lights have been switched on in the clean little villas. You can no longer see the red blossoms on the trees that embellish the settlement, but you can smell them. And you can hear the rustling of leaves and the croaking of frogs in the canal. Ah, yes. I am sorry to leave these shores, and I would give much to remain.

10th October, 1946.

I can’t write any more. I’m a civilian in England. We crossed France and the Channel in a hurry, and I was demobilised on the sixth of October, nineteen forty-six, after five years of military service. Am I sorry to have left the army? No, indeed. I’m glad to be the captain of my soul again. But when I think of my stay in the Middle East, there is a dagger in my heart. To get away, to get away! How I long to get away!”

Ch5 Pt1 Betrayal

Darkness and silence grip the ruined, shrapnel-pitted building which only a few days ago was a luxury hotel. Sometimes the silence is shattered by the crash of a mortar bomb, or the sudden wicked rattle of a machine gun in the distance. Occasionally, the blackness of the surrounding woods is streaked by lines of brilliant tracer bullets, and the trees are thrown into sudden silhouette.

The basement of the hotel is lit by uncertain candles. On the stone floors of the various rooms lie wounded men done up in bloodstained bandages. Some are sleeping, but many are awake and stare up at the ceiling with wide-open eyes. There is no panic, but suffering and death are abroad in this building. The inevitable question many must be asking themselves is, “Has my time come?” None of them wants to die. Their bright eyes, their strained expressions tell eloquently how much they cling to suddenly precious life. To live, to live. Dear God, please let me live. 

The smell of blood, nauseating and faintly sweet, fills the basement. The wounded men’s faces are grey with that faintly greenish tinge which characterises the flesh of a corpse. Sometimes there is a snore, sometimes the soft footsteps of a medical orderly. The sounds of battle beyond the sandbagged windows are muted. The action seems to have moved away from the Hartenstein Hotel and we are all infinitely pleased about that.

We have been in the Arnhem district for nine days. The attempt to seize the bridge has been unsuccessful. The second lift of airborne troops was delayed, and when they arrived they were machine gunned as they descended on the dropping zone. The German resistance proved far stronger than ever anticipated, principally because of the unexpected presence of two Panzer Divisions in the area. We, at Headquarters just outside the town, have been surrounded for a week. We have been mortared, shelled and sniped at within a perimeter not much bigger than a couple of large playing fields. We have been unable to reply because we have run out of ammunition, and in any event our airborne pea-shooters are no match for the heavy armament directed against us. So we have just cowered in our slit trenches watching each other be killed.          

I have seen quite a few people killed, but the ones who make the most impression on me are personal friends. I am told that Scotty, small, noncommittal and never betraying his emotions, was scalped by a piece of shrapnel, and that a tall dark haired corporal who looked after the driving section and was an accomplished dancer had one leg blown off. 

I was incredibly lucky. I received not so much as a scratch, although like all of us, I had some narrow escapes.

Why were we at Arnhem? We did not know. Half the “Signals” personnel could have been at home and nobody would have missed them. I could get in touch with nobody on the wireless set – neither could any of the other operators. The instrument mechanics and electricians who had virtually nothing to do except charge radio batteries need not even have bothered to do that since the radios weren’t working. The dispatch riders, after we were surrounded, sat in their slit trenches itching to get their legs astride a motorbike and praying like the rest of us that the Second Army would roll over the bridges and relieve us in spite of everything. We were very short of water, the Germans having cut the mains supply, neither had we any food. It began to rain one day, and we gratefully put out our mess tins to collect the welcome moisture. I caught some rain from the roof, but although it was fairly clean it tasted unpleasantly bitter.  

It was a few days after we had been surrounded that a flight of slow moving Dakotas came in to drop supplies to us. I shall never forget the bravery of those pilots and the crewmen who threw the hampers out of the aircraft doors. One of the pilots who was killed in this action received a posthumous Victoria Cross, and I do believe that I actually saw the aircraft in question.

The aircraft came in incredibly low – I would have put it at about five or six hundred feet. They flew slowly over us in perfect formation, spawning coloured parachutes with supply hampers dangling beneath them. Cheers came from the dirty, weary soldiers on the ground. Yellow cloths were waved from our slit trenches to show our positions, and someone fired a Verey light. A hundred yards or so away – it could not have been any more – German anti-aircraft guns exploded into vicious action. The noise was ear-splitting. I saw the tails of two Dakotas burst into flame, and they swooped down in a long, flat dive until they disappeared beyond the trees that surrounded us. Another aircraft was hit, but limped off homewards, leaving a thin trail of smoke behind it. A second wave of transport aeroplanes approached, slowly, deliberately, holding absolutely unshakably and steadfastly to their course. They were flying so low and so slowly that they offered sitting targets to the anti-aircraft batteries, now firing as rapidly as possible, but the planes never deviated from their course.

More cheers from our beleaguered group for these brave and gallant gentlemen of the air. More waving of yellow cloths. A praiseworthy and most gallant act, you pilots and crews. Your courage inspires us. But for the love of Mike watch where you’re dropping those hampers. Our perimeter is so small, and most of that first lot fell into the enemy positions.

Suddenly the roaring Dakotas are gone, the anti-aircraft fire stops, and the air is silent. Three quarters of the supplies dropped that day must surely have fallen into the enemy lines. Still, we have one or two hampers of much needed food. Now we shall be able to hold out until units of the Second Army arrive. For even although the bridge has been lost and we are isolated, we still believe that the Second Army will somehow arrive.

It was on the night of the twenty-sixth of September 1944, that it was decided to withdraw what remained of the Division. We had held on for nine days instead of two, and still no help had arrived. All available forces were now concentrated in our perimeter and mortar fire which rarely ceased was decimating us. No good could be done by holding out any longer. We were to creep through the woods in small parties to the river, where boats would be waiting to ferry us across to the other side. Then we should make our way south to Nijmegen as best we could. We of the “Signals” sections were split up into platoons and then took refuge in a coal cellar to snatch a couple of hours rest.

Of course, not every soldier knew where the river lay or the route to be taken to get there. This was known only to the platoon sergeants who were to lead us. In this ignorance was to lie my downfall.                                                                                 

I suppose there must have been about eighteen of us in the cellar. It was pitch black. I was absolutely exhausted. I was close to the door, and stretched out my legs. I could not see the man next to me. The talk between us dies into silence. Coal black ……as black as coal……wake up…… 

“Wake up! Wake up!”. 

“Eh?” 

Someone is shaking me by the shoulder. I cannot see who it is. Ah. The cellar door is open. A thin stream of light from the next room stabs through the darkness. I stand up.    I step forward carefully in order not to slip on the rubbish in the cellar – I think it must be coal, and enter the room where the telephone exchange is installed. The person who has awoken me follows behind. He is a tall, lean young man, and his nickname is Choss. Choss is our pet name for chaos, immortalised by a sergeant major who was better at teaching a squad to form fours than he was at speaking good English. Choss has earned his name by getting himself into awkward situations. 

“Hello, Choss,” I yawn. “Where is everybody? What’s the time?” 

“They’ve gone,” says Choss. “It’s nearly morning, and they’ve all gone. There’s nobody here except the medical orderlies and the wounded.” 

His small eyes glisten in the candlelight. His hooked nose seems like a piece of putty stuck incongruously on his bewildered face. His obvious anxiety suddenly becomes mine also. 

“You mean to say they’ve left us here?”

“Yes. We’ve both been asleep. The others must have been gone at least an hour, probably more. It was pitch black in the cellar. They wouldn’t have known they had left anyone behind.” 

“I had my feet stuck out in front of the door. They must have known.” 

“You might have pulled them back. Or you didn’t feel anything because you were so tired. Or they didn’t notice because they were in such a hurry.” 

“But there should have been a check up of personnel in the platoons to see that everyone was present.”

“True. But the situation was very sticky. They had to get out as quickly as they could.” 

“Then they’ve really left us. The rotten swine.” 

“Who cares if someone is missing when it’s a case of every man for himself?” 

The realisation of the base, unbelievable treachery of so-called comrades who could not even be bothered to strike a light in the in the cellar to see if a missing person was there catches at my heart. No! I refuse to believe it. Choss is wrong. They must be somewhere else waiting for us. I go through the basement, among the wounded, looking for familiar faces. I explore the ruined upstairs rooms of the hotel and find them empty. I speak to a couple of medical orderlies, who display little interest in our problem. They are tending the wounded, and have volunteered to wait for the Germans. But they think that all military personnel have long since gone. 

It’s true, then. They’ve left us. We’re on our own.

Downstairs again, Choss and I debate what to do. Deciding to make a dash for the river, we muffle our boots with pieces of cloth as we had been previously instructed. Stealthily we leave the front entrance and make our way towards a belt of trees. Suddenly – accident or design? – we hear the crump of mortars in close proximity.

Those things are dangerous. We hightail it back to the hotel where we wait for a while. Everything seems to be quiet again, so we steal outside once more and try to get our bearings. The night is dark. The only illumination is from an arc of red tracer bullets seen at some distance through the trees. Well, we certainly won’t be going in that direction. Having established that, we try to work out where the river is and which way we should go in order to avoid the Germans who surround us and strike that narrow segment where we believe there to be a thin, restricted path to escape – always provided, of course, that it has not yet been overrun by the enemy.

But we have absolutely no idea which direction is north, south, east or west, and consequently we cannot even begin to work out where the river might be. The British soldier, as we have so often been told, is not paid to think, only to obey orders. Now we are paying the penalty for not having the first idea about the tactical situation.

We try to work out the odds of hitting the right segment in a circle of three hundred and sixty degrees, and it seems that the odds in favour of stumbling into the German lines and copping a burst of machine gun fire are very good indeed.

We are getting nowhere. We re-enter the hotel and buttonhole a medical orderly. But these fellows are in the same position as us. For days they have been inundated with the wounded. They neither know nor care about anything except trying to save lives within their improvised hospital. Our orderly merely offers the opinion that the place is swarming with Germans, and anybody who ventures very far outside without knowing exactly what he is doing is asking for trouble.

Time is getting short. Surely somebody must be able to give us a lead. Three Dorsetshire Regiment infantrymen are sitting on the stone floor. They are representatives of an insignificant trickle of men who reached us somehow from the Second Army, and are now cut off with the rest of us. They tell us that to attempt to make one’s way through the woods at this late hour is suicidal. They themselves have tried it. Now one of their number is wounded, and they have left a fourth man in the wood. So what do they intend to do? What can they do except to sit down and wait? 

I still cannot believe that this is happening to me. My mind is in a terrible, crazy, unbelieving turmoil. But Choss and I finally agree with a rage and bitterness, which I find hard to express in words, that we have no alternative but to sit down and wait for the dawn. From that day was planted within me a cynicism and distrust of other people, which has never left me. We all learn this sooner or later. My moment of truth was the 26th of September 1944, at Arnhem.

Whilst the decision was undoubtedly the right one, however unpalatable it might have been, I had for a very long time great difficulty in accepting that there was no other way out. It was not in fact until many years later that I learned where the river actually lay. The river – and our escape – lay in fact in the direction of the red arcs of tracer bullets that we saw distantly through the trees. These tracers were fired at intervals to guide our fellows who might have been lost in the woods and bring them to the river. But Choss and I had never been told this. As a result we placed the opposite interpretation on it. Had we made a break for it, we would have gone in a quite different direction, and I think the chances are very strong that we should have been shot and killed. So once again, although we did not appreciate it at the time, we made a correct decision more by luck than judgement, and fortune once more smiled upon us 

In the short time left before dawn, we smash any equipment or weaponry which we can find which might be of the slightest use to the Germans. As the dawn comes up, I slip outside the hotel to a slit trench, where I can see a couple of emergency ration packs peeping out of a haversack which somebody has left behind. I am occupied possibly thirty seconds at this task. I then stand up and turn around. A German is standing about five yards away, holding me covered with a Sten gun with a bayonet attached to the end of it.

“Good morning,” he says to me in English. It is about the only English he does know, because thereafter he speaks to me in German. All of a sudden I am grateful for the six months of German that I did at Parmiter’s Secondary School and the private study I carried out later, for I find that I understand him and can communicate.

He tells me to put up my hands, and orders me cautiously to the shelter of the hotel wall. He then motions half a dozen soldiers who have appeared amongst the empty slit trenches on the periphery to come closer. When we are all together, and with his gun still levelled, he questions me in German, and I answer in the same language, making an occasional paraphrase when I cannot find the exact word. 

“Are there soldiers in the hotel?” 

“No, there are only doctors and wounded people.” 

“They have no weapons?”

“No. The building is now a hospital.” 

He makes a threatening gesture with the Sten gun. 

“You understand that if you are lying and the people in the hospital put up a fight, I shall immediately shoot you. Verstanden?” 

“Ja. Vestanden.”

Whilst he holds me covered his companions dash to the door, stand poised for a moment, then enter quickly, one covering the other in best Hollywood war film fashion. I hold my breath and hope that no nut case inside lets off a rifle. It is most unlikely, but there is always the possibility, and I shall be the first one to cop the consequences. However, in a few moments the Germans come out with some of our medical fellows. They are all talking together – satisfactory communication has been established in a mixture of fractured German and fractured English, and they are making some   arrangements about the care of the wounded.

My captor puts the safety catch on his Sten gun, slings it over his shoulder, grins at me, and sits on a small pony wall outside the hotel. He indicates the place next to him. 

“Here, Mensch. Have a seat.” 

I take a seat beside him, and he pulls out a cigarette tin. There is one cigarette left. He extracts it, measures it carefully, and divides it in two equal portions with his thumbnail, handing one portion to me.                                                      

“Eine Zigarette?”

“DankeschÖn.”                                                                       

He produces a box of matches and gives me a light. He starts to discuss the battle, and I answer him in fractured German. We are like two fellows discussing a football match, rather than two men who, a few hours before, would have murdered each other without a second thought. Such is the nature of warfare, and such is the nature of men. And I personally have long since given up trying to work out where this dichotomy in our psyche will ultimately lead humankind.

They eventually round up a bunch of us whom they have found crouched in slit trenches and hiding in the woods and march us towards the town of Arnhem. A German officer starts us off. Theatrically he points up the road and says with a mocking grin, “Nach Deutschland! To Berlin!” 

The Dutch inhabitants, coming back with blankets and other belongings from the fields where they have taken refuge, wave surreptitiously to us. We meet groups of bearded, battle-weary German soldiers, their grey-green uniforms plastered with dried mud. The few houses we see are smashed and ruined. A couple of Tiger tanks rattle past us, their monstrous tracks shaking the concrete road like a mini-earthquake, their huge top-heavy guns nosing questingly forward. In the turret of each tank a German officer stands triumphantly erect. These are the victors. We are the defeated. The pill is bitter indeed to swallow. Our lesson is beginning.

As our bedraggled column, guarded on either side by German soldiers, marches in the early morning sunlight towards the town of Arnhem, a conversation springs up between our captors and us. A German corporal in front of us speaks excellent English. Has he ever been to England? No. He learnt the language in Germany. Out of books. He voices the opinion that the war will be over in six weeks. Then the allies will pour into Germany, and Hitler will be forced to sue for peace. 

“You have far more material than we. We can’t compete with you.” 

I am talking French to a German marching next to me who was stationed in Paris for two years. An etymological discussion springs up between us. By one of those weird coincidences that you wouldn’t read about, we find that we have a common interest in the niceties of French grammar. Yesterday we were trying to kill each other. Today we are chatting on the friendliest of terms. Yet if any of us prisoners try to make a break for it, the Germans’ short-barrelled rifles will be raised immediately to their shoulders, and they will unhesitatingly shoot us dead, just as we should do if our positions were reversed. C’est la guerre! 

We rapidly leave behind the Hartenstein perimeter with its sickening array of swollen dead bodies, but we must be approaching Oosterbek, for more carnage is in evidence. The shattered houses standing in green fields remind me of dilapidated graves in a churchyard which will soon be covered by the strong, devouring grass. At the roadside I see burnt-out jeeps, bluish and rusty red, like tin cans burnt in a red-hot fire. We pass knocked out German armoured cars, mottled with the zigzag grey-brown camouflage favoured by the Wehrmacht, and the bodies of English and German soldiers still lie by bush and ditch. At one spot I see the corpses of four English soldiers, damp from the recent rain and all slightly swollen. Each corpse has had its head blown off, and there is a blackish, jagged cavity where the neck joined the body. I do not examine the sight too closely. A glimpse is enough. Man is his own greatest enemy, and man’s inhumanity to his fellows is simply beyond belief.

We reach the town centre. More smashed houses. Little single decker trams, windowless and forlorn in the cobbled streets. Half-curious, half-sympathetic stares from the Dutch inhabitants. We must look a shocking sight, muddy, ragged and bearded. We are herded into a garden behind a large hotel where we mingle with several hundred other paratroopers, and where I meet one or two people from our own Signals section. Odd German film cameramen stand around, taking moving pictures of us while we are not looking. When we see them we give the thumbs up sign. Then they switch off their machines immediately and go elsewhere. Suitably cut, I can imagine what good propaganda these pictures will make for their people back home. 

We are questioned in excellent English by interpreters in untidy blue uniforms. What aircraft did we jump from? What brigade do we belong to? Are we tradesmen, and if so, what kind? 

“My name is James Arthur Foxon. My number is …” 

Just give them your name, rank and number, so we have been told. Which of us would ever have thought that we should be doing just that?          

The interpreters smile, “You jumped from Dakotas, didn’t you? You needn’t answer – we know already. You there; you are from the First Brigade, aren’t you? We can tell by the colour of your lanyard. You, next to him, by your shoulder flashes you belong to the Royal Corps of Signals. You are not wearing a dispatch rider’s boots, but you don’t look the right type for a driver or a lineman. You must be an instrument mechanic, an electrician, or a wireless operator. Which are you?” Another smile. “Don’t worry. It’s not really important.” They dismiss us. There’s no doubt that these Germans have an excellent intelligence service. They can tell us more than we know ourselves.

We remain in the back garden until late in the afternoon. From various people I meet, I gather information about friends of mine. Tony got across the river. Up to the last moment he was asking people where I was. Thanks, Tony. But if you’d spared a moment to look in that cellar, you’d have found me. I can’t elicit any information about Dusty, the small, black haired Scotsman who was one of the Chindits in India and had jumped behind the Japanese lines in Burma. Dusty had never ceased to mourn his wife, who had died while he was overseas. Then I met someone who, the day before the retreat, saw Dusty marching with a Sten gun at the ready towards the German lines, “Properly asking for it.” Poor Dusty. Good luck, old fellow. My mate Blondie, tall, lanky and flaxen haired who played such a good tune on the piano, purely by instinct and not by music, has been caught up in the net, and he and I commiserate with each other and exchange experiences.

At about four o’clock we are taken outside, a few at a time, and under close guard. Quickly we are herded into a convoy of trucks. Ours is a small truck – it contains only eight prisoners, a young German driver, fair haired and bespectacled, and a small middle aged guard. The guard lights a cigarette, showing us his empty case and apologising in German for not having any more. He takes a puff, passes the cigarette to the first prisoner, and it circulates several times as we all of us – including the guard – inhale lungfuls of smoke. The conversation is not very bright. A reaction has set in and we are all feeling downcast. The guard obviously has no English. None of us except possibly myself, speaks enough German to say anything sensible to him, and I certainly don’t feel up to it. The road is lined with tall elms and filled mostly with German military transport. Sometimes we see a charcoal burning lorry with a cylindrical container and tall funnel fitted to its side slowly chugging along. The fair-haired bespectacled driver presses his boot on the accelerator and the cobblestones speed away from the back wheels in a grey blur.

Ch4 pt3. Peeling potatoes and Salisbury.

After our jumping course Tony and I had fourteen days’ leave. Then we were posted to the Headquarters Signals Section of the First Airborne Division and stationed just outside the picturesque village of Caythorpe. Caythorpe sits half way between the country town of Grantham, hometown of Margaret Thatcher – the first woman Prime Minister of England – and the lovely cathedral city of Lincoln. Close by was the air force base near to which Lawrence of Arabia had been killed in a motor bike crash in the nineteen thirties. For a few short months we enjoyed living in a lovely corner of England.

Our Officer-in-Charge was Major Anthony a man of considerable personal courage, but intellectually an upper class twit who didn’t know what time of day it was. He made a career of the army, and eventually became a general. Fortunately for the troops under his command a long period of peace ensued and Anthony never had to plan a campaign of action for his troops under conditions such as we experienced during the Second World War.

I recall that when we were going on a firing course to York, I accidently left my greatcoat and mattress roll in the billet when I should have taken them on parade. Instead of allowing me the twenty seconds necessary to retrieve them, the sergeant in charge ordered me into the waiting truck, and we were on our way to York. I was there paraded in front of Anthony who accepted no excuses but sentenced me to seven days CB for disobeying an order. I was therefore confined to quarters for seven days after being out all day on the moors firing live ammunition. It was bitterly cold, and I slept with no blankets, greatcoat or anything. I will never know how I avoided getting pneumonia. What annoyed me more than anything, however, was that I was prevented from making a pilgrimage to the beautiful York Minster. This was a holy of the holies to that wonderful Yorkshireman, my father, and the capital of the universe as far as he was concerned. In actual fact, I had to wait another thirty years – until I made a return trip to England from Australia in 1974, and until I was fifty-two years old – before I ever saw the city, which was of such great importance to my father and his side of the family.

Major Anthony thought it was all very amusing. He had an idea that no soldier was really a soldier until he had been put on a charge and clobbered by his OC. Several weeks later, I went on a few days’ leave with my mate Tony. We overstayed our leave by two days, and when we came back were paraded separately in front of Anthony to explain our absence. Tony, with far more cunning than I, said that he had become engaged to a local girl and had taken the extra two days off because he was besotted with love and could not resist her charms. Anthony awarded him seven days’ CB, saying that he understood the position but couldn’t have his Signallers absenting themselves whenever a beautiful girl beckoned.

When I was paraded before Anthony, he asked me what I had to say for myself, and rather stupidly, instead of concocting a plausible story and thus pulling the wool over his eyes, I told him shortly that I was sick and tired of being mucked about by the army, and when I found myself in such congenial company at Tony’s place at Stoke-on-Trent, I had decided to stay for a while and have a rest from it all.

I had expected a reaction, but not the one I got. Anthony went red, white and purple and seemed as if he was about to take a stroke. Frothing slightly at the mouth, his voice rising to a squeak, he told me that I was a horrible bloody man, irresponsible and unreliable, and ought to be ashamed of myself. His rage was so great that I thought that I had gone too far and would cop a month in the glasshouse. However, he eventually calmed himself, and after a few moments’ silence said in an almost normal voice which shook only slightly that I should be confined to barracks for seven days with my friend Tony T and that we should both peel spuds for the whole of the camp and do other various nasty chores such as cleaning out latrines for that period.

I felt with some satisfaction that this time I had got something back in return for being put on a charge, that I had in some fashion evened the score for my unjust incarceration at York. But Tony was glum and dispirited. As we sat peeling potatoes at night, he would pick up a spud, look at it moodily, then suddenly jam his knife into it savagely, saying as he did so, “You bastard!” I knew that he was talking about Major Anthony.

“I’ll get even with the bastard,” said Tony.

“But how will you do it?” 

“I’ll work something out. You’ll see.” 

About a month later Tony came to me one day all smiles. “I’ve caught the bastard.” 

“Who? Anthony?” 

“Yes.” 

“How?” 

“He’s given me four days’ compassionate leave.” 

“How did you wangle it, Tony?” 

“I told him I wanted to get married. I got one of my girl friends to write me a letter. So he’s given me four days compassionate leave ….. or should I say ‘passionate’ leave?” asked Tony, with a wicked, dissipated leer. 

“But you’re not going to get married, are you?” 

Tony put a finger to his lips ……”Ssshhh.” After four days he returned to camp full of beans and as chirpy as a cricket.                 

“Did you get married, Tony?” 

“Of course not.” 

“Anthony will find out. He’ll expect you to make a pay allotment to your wife. When you don’t do it, he’ll have your guts for garters.” 

Anthony was not long in calling Tony into the sanctum sanctorum to question him about the married state. We watched Tony follow the sergeant major to the company office with fear and foreboding in our hearts. But in a quarter of an hour he was back, chirpier than ever, and smiling broadly. 

“Did you get jankers, Tony?” 

“Jankers? Of course not. I fooled the bastard. I nailed him.” 

“What happened?” 

“I told him that she jilted me,” said Tony. “I told him that I spent the whole four days trying to get her to change her mind. But she wouldn’t budge, so after my leave was up, I returned to my unit, broken hearted and deeply unhappy, but conscious of my duty to my comrades, my country, and to the Airborne Div and Major Anthony. I’ve outwitted the bastard, boys. There’s nothing he can do.” 

In point of fact, there was nothing that Anthony did do. He must have known that Tony had worked a swifty. But he preferred to say nothing and let the matter rest.                                                                                            

During the next several months we spent our time going on exercises, which we called “schemes”, operating wireless links and attending lectures which we had already heard a dozen times over. We went on route marches, hid from the sergeant major, cleaned out the latrines and swept up the barracks. We did everything possible to avoid that black and frustrated state of mind that is the enemy of all soldiers too long in barracks. The French express the feeling by a phrase untranslatable except to a soldier: “Avoir le cafard.” In English it is known as being browned off. This period was enlivened by four parachute jumps, all of which were carried out from DC 47 aircraft. In these a score of men sat in the plane, the static line of each parachute hooked up to a common rail running from one end to the other. When the red light went on, everybody stood up and faced to the rear. When the light turned to green we all sashayed along to the rear door near the tail as fast as possible and stepped out into the slipstream. The dispatcher at the door would be urging each soldier to tread on the head of the man who disappeared in front of him. Although the kites throttled back to about a hundred miles an hour and creaked and shuddered in the process to the point where they seemed about to disintegrate, it was still necessary to jump out with maximum speed. Otherwise the stick of parachutists when they reached the ground would be so strung out that there was a good chance of losing touch with each other. Additionally the enemy would be given a good opportunity to pick us off one by one. So with this in the forefront of our minds and with the dispatcher screaming and bawling at us all the time to “Go, go, go!!” We never wasted a moment in getting out of the aircraft.

Of these four jumps, I remember particularly the one we made over Salisbury Plain. We took off from an airfield near Caythorpe late one evening, flew around all night, and prepared to jump over the vast empty expanse of Salisbury Plain just after dawn came up and flooded the beautiful English countryside with early sunshine.

Now Salisbury Plain has been used for army manoeuvres since time immemorial. I am sure that even the Romans must have used it to practise tactics and outflanking movements. For, apart from the town of Salisbury tucked away in one section and the monolithic Stonehenge in another, Salisbury Plain is empty. We parachutists always had a fear of coming down in a tree or descending on a multi-storeyed house. So I thought to myself, “You’re right this time, Foxon. Nothing can go wrong on Salisbury Plain”. But I reckoned without the ability, which I seem to have on certain occasions, of doing everything wrong.       

We were not jumping at night – everything was clearly visible. We seemed to be at about a thousand feet – plenty of time for a nice ride down to earth. We all got out of the plane at maximum speed – it was a copybook parachute jump. After the first frightening blast of wind from the slipstream which always seemed to blow one all over the sky, and the ever accelerating free fall which snatched the breath from one’s lungs, my canopy opened with a satisfying snap, and I had a few blissful moments to enjoy the ride down and the lovely view of the deserted Plain beneath.

But wait, what is this? There is a bitumen road crossing the Plain, and at the side of the road are telegraph poles with wires strung between them. And the massive timber tops of the poles are sharpened to a wedge shape with a metal cover to deflect the rain.             

The poles are like huge up-pointed spears. I am falling at the same speed as if I had jumped off a fifteen-foot high wall. I get the idea that I am falling bum-first on to the top of a pointed Indian stockade. I shall be neatly impaled up my anus. Ouch! Oh, my God!

But suppose I miss the poles? Then I shall crash through the telephone wires and I have no idea what kind of voltage they are carrying. Perhaps I shall fry. And again if I miss both the poles and the wires, the way I am falling I shall hit the hard bitumen road and break a bloody leg. Oh, Christ!

Furiously I reach up and start to juggle with the rigging leading to my canopy, trying to spill a bit of air to guide my descent. But I must be careful. If I collapse the thing I shall plummet to earth and break my neck. Also I have very little time to manoeuvre – in fact I have no time at all. For suddenly the telegraph pole, the wires and the bitumen road rush up to strike me in that familiar last minute burst of speed.

            I miss the sharpened top of the telegraph pole by a whisker. I feel a series of prickly electric shocks as I crash through the wires, bringing some down and no doubt cutting off several telephone conversations. Now is the time when I shall crash on to the bitumen and break a leg ……… But no, I am suddenly brought to the gentlest of stops, and find myself loaded as I am with heavy equipment standing on tip-toe on the only bitumen road for miles, like a pantomime fairy. As I crashed through the telephone wires my parachute was caught on the sharp top of the pole, and this and the elasticity of my harness enabled me to make the gentlest and most unexpected landing in my entire brief but spectacular career as a parachutist.

Not every jump finished as happily. I was distantly acquainted with a tall, rather well spoken Signaller who jumped from another plane on this day. I never saw him again, but they told me that he had jumped just a little bit too late when his plane was approaching the outskirts of Salisbury, hit the roof of a house, fell off as his parachute collapsed and broke his back. Apparently he was not killed, but he was seriously injured and out of action for a very long time.

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.