Poetry2 Pt2 My Way Tour – Darwin

As the trip speeds up and we reach the Kingdoms of the Cattle Barons, the rhythm of the verse alters and breaks into a canter.

A barbeque lunch at McKinlay’s Bush Pub

Was eaten with happy enjoyment.

And numerous flies partook of the feast

Because of their skilful deployment.

We kept them at bay as best we could

With the famous Australian Wave

And sometimes we swatted them dead on the plate

Just to teach those flies how to behave.

After the meal, a young lady in red

Pranced happily into the street.

A huge bull stood there with massive great horns,

Munching grass satisfyingly sweet.

She waved her red jacket right under his nose,

Then turned with expression superior.

But Ted, who was filming this all for TV,

Cried: “Watch out for the bull! Your posterior!”

The lady in red then quite lost her head,

Gave a scream and bolted like lightning.

The bull went on munching, while Ted, cam’ra crunching,

With a grin filmed this drama most frightening.

He’d made it all up – The bull hadn’t moved,

Just stood there all quiet and serene.

But the lady in red stamped her foot as she said:

“I’ll kill Ted!… Or my name’s … not Irene!”

That Friday in Winton the drovers played up.

They were quite well behaved, though, at first.

They came into town and invaded the pubs

Bringing with them insatiable thirst.

The blues mostly started at chucking out time

When the publicans turned off the grog,

They stoushed in the pubs, then they stoushed in the streets,

A frightable, stoushable mob.

The sheilas joined in, trading punches with glee.

They gave and received much contusion.

These cowboys were stoushing all over the street.

God! What an awful confusion!

The cop cars arrived and they turned up their lights,

But the cops didn’t join in the blue.

They smoked cigarettes while the stockmen got decked.

Then they drove off saying quietly, “Hooroo!”

The stockmen and gals at last settled down,

Battered and bruised and well worn.

They had cartons of tinnies they’d brought from the pubs,

So they grogged on and grogged on til dawn.

Then stockmen and dogs with their sheilas and all –

  • (The sheilas were sometimes delectable) –

Drove back to the bush to do some more work,

Leaving Winton once more quite respectable.

And northward, still northward our “My Way” Mob went,

Each day we became a bit wiser:

Saw emus and ant hills, the parched thirsty land.

Then – oasis! The town of Mount Isa!

The Mount Isa Mine yields up fabulous wealth,

Namely silver, zinc, copper and lead.

Isolation is conquered, the wilderness tamed.

And there’s civilisation instead.

The Railways of Queensland are keen on this mine:

The charges it paid for it’s freight

Were sixty three million last calendar year –

A sweet little cop for the State.

When the star spangled velvet soft cloak of the dusk

Thickens – gentle and slow – into night,

Then over the township the mine buildings watch,

Bejewelled with a silvery light.

Our old mate Hill Ted found under his bed

Words of many a popular song.

In our motel at Isa, in a way to surprise ya,

We yodelled and carolled along.

So everyone’s happy – Success to the trip,

Good on you, Teddy old son.

Congratulations from all of our mob

On a job that is very well done.

““

At the Homestead of Springvale we had a good night:

The guests were all Fourex beer slurping.

A talent quest held their attention despite 

A great deal of belching and burping.

Four of our “My Way” mob entered the quest:

It was Ted Hill who held high our banner.

He sang “bye-bye Blackbird” and took out a prize

In his custom’ry debonair manner.

At the end of a quest a gal wandered home,

Turned the doorknob and switched on the lights.

The man on the bed she gave scarcely a glance.

(One avoids nasty masculine sights).

She sank on the bed… The husband sat up.

“Move closer dear…Room I’ve got plenty.”

“My Gawd,” screamed the lass. “I’m in Room Number One!

I should have been in One and Twenty!”

The man then yelled out: “By cripes! Who’s this?

I thought that… that… you were my wife!

Quick – Buzz off for Pete’s sake – Or else I shall be

Up to my eyeballs in strife!”

Another young lady of sixty and five

Hung her knickers upon the verandah.

In the night they would dry…But Ted Hill, very spry,

In the early morn took a quick gander.

He grabbed his equipment and then filmed the lot,

Made the knickers a picture enchanting.

Those knickers a major attraction will be

On the tape of our Mob’s gallivanting.

At Springs Mataranka that self same young gal

Lost her top – “In the change room,” she said.

Her hubby had also lost track of his trunks.

Just what cooks in that old dressing shed?

“Tis said these warm springs have curative powers,

And this claim is most probably right.

Certain it is that at the motel

The bed springs were creaking that night.

And if some good persons should have a few doubts…

… Misgivings…or even concerns…

By hell, we are going to use it up now,

And leave nothing at all for the worms!

So onwards to Darwin with Coach Captain Baz

At the wheel with all cylinders sparking.

Baz drives very skilfully – quiet and polite –

No screaming, no bawling, no barking.

Of a sudden before us the blue sky was grey,

Then came smoke clouds, thick, swirling and black.

We found we were running a gauntlet of flame.

Should we stop? Is there time to turn back?

But Barry drove on through the furnace-hot fire

Til the coach was once more in the clear.

Everyone cheered, and Mavis proclaimed:

“I SWEAR I’ll buy Barry a beer!”

In Darwin just after (with Ted’s helpful hand)

We went to the gleaming casino.

Bright pokies and card games greeted us there,

And something that people call “Keno.”

We stayed there two hours and most dropped a few bob:

Coin is MADE round to GO round, we know.

But Vic came out smiling because he had beaten

The pokies … was rolling in dough.

Our folks hand-fed fish at the edge of the sea

With bread, which the fish suck and eat.

While Ted filmed all this, locals grinned as they watched,

Whisp’ring “Bottoms up! Ooh! What a treat!”

A catamaran took us out the next day

O’er the harbour so blue and so shining.

On the tropical isle of Mandorah we stayed

For an hour or so, swimming and dining.

Pretty good tucker is buffalo meat,

And for fish don’t go past barramundi.

So we ate buff and barra this beautiful day,

(Which is Darwin’s main meal on a Sunday!)

Darwin’s a city most fair, there’s no doubt.

Were we younger in tones quite stentorian,

We’d say: “Let’s pack up mate and bugger the South.

Let’s go north and become… Territorian!”

““

Darwin is booming. The pride of the North

Is up and developing fast.

Cyclone Tracy is gone. Modern buildings abound.

This NEW Darwin city will last.

Many in Darwin have never been south

To the site which gave birth to the Nation.

Instead they look north to horizons quite new,

With confidence, strength, jubilation.

Sydney and Melbourne are foreign to them –

Their fleshpots they calmly ignore.

Yet people in Darwin are thin on the ground

Who’ve not seen at least Singapore.

At Darwin the tides rise and fall many feet.

Crocodiles … Sea Wasps … abound.

Quite natural it is that with such nasty things

There are very few swimmers around.

But when they say crocs waddle up the main street,

Be sure they are having a shot …

Unless your informant has been on the Bundy …

… In which case his brains gone to pot.

At the “Buffalo Shop” Mavis won some dried meat

Which will pregnancy stop – That’s a fact!

You take it NOT AFTER … and NOT YET BEFORE …

But INSTEAD of committing the act!

So farewell to Darwin – we now travel south:

Our schedule will not let us tarry.

All aboard, boys and girls, and move down the aisle.

Put the hoof on the gas, Captain Barry.

When at Springvale we stopped, bathrooms so small we found

That we really could not turn about.

We asked Mavis Senior: :How do you wash?”

She said: “Simple! Head first and arse out!”

On Ted’s shirt young Bev a large button was sewing.

(This is true because everyone’s seen ‘em).

Ted gave a loud squawk, said: “I think you have sewn

The button on my duodenum.”

The clean streets of Katherine come into view

South of Darwin. (Springvale’s down the street).

A further day’s drive down the bitumen, then …

You’ll find yourselves in Tennant Creek.

The manager of our motel at this town

Dashed around at a furious pace.

He was also the chef and, one would have thought,

Was engaged in some sort of race.

That night in the bar he produced a guitar,

Sang love songs in German and Russian.

His fine Russian eyes charmed the girls with their size.

… They were simpering, smiling and blushin’.

Ch12 Pt2 Cundletown

When I arrived in Wingham, the School of Arts had just been taken over by Council as a public library. There were about five hundred books in it of the “Zane Grey” and “Ruby M. Ayres” type. Twenty-one years later we had a rebuilt and enlarged premises with fourteen thousand volumes of fiction and non-fiction covering every possible aspect, and the majority of these volumes I had chosen myself. Even the rather élitist Library Board had to admit that with our limited resources, we were providing an exceptionally good public service.

With regard to our road plant, we slowly increased it until we owned a large range of the most modern machinery, and by this we increased the scope of our work enormously.  

We established an industrial subdivision near the Sporting Complex as well as purchasing land near the Wingham Cemetery and subdividing it for industrial purposes. In this latter area we sold twenty acres to Angus Nugent and Sons Pty. Ltd. for one dollar to bring their tannery from Sydney to Wingham. We then subdivided the balance of the land and sold the blocks at such prices as to recoup our original expenditure. We made the tannery loans under the decentralisation legislation and the Local Government Act, and today they have a very large and viable business, which employs between fifty and sixty people.

We lent thirty per cent of the cost of establishing a factory to R. L. Child and Son Pty. Ltd., manufacturers of hydraulic hose fittings, to relocate part of their Sydney operation to the industrial area next to the sporting complex. They currently employ thirty-five persons, and if the business prospers, they have sufficient land to enlarge their factory four times over. I was pleased by a remark made by the managing director and reported in the local press that he was particularly grateful to the Town Clerk for all his help. Talk is cheap, we all know, but it was rather nice to have one’s efforts acknowledged just once.

The establishment of these industries in Wingham might seem small beer by city standards. But one should remember that in a small country town two new industries employing the best part of a hundred persons with the promise of more means an enormous boost to local prosperity. Another point is that for each industry we succeeded in getting established, the best part of a dozen might have made inquiries, taken up time, raised expectations, then simply vanished. 

In the early days in Wingham, I was one of the founders and secretary and general organiser of “The Wingham Dramatic Art and Musical Company”. We put on some shows of really professional quality, and I am sure Patricia and Peter remember taking part in “The King and I” and other shows. By this means we also raised enough money to build a home for a refugee family whom we brought to Australia from a camp in post war Europe. With this effort we actually put Wingham on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, which I always thought was no mean feat. The family did not entirely co-operate the way we had hoped, and the thing turned rather sour at a later date, but that was not our fault.

We underwent three amalgamation inquiries in Wingham between 1968 and 1979. We fought them all tooth and nail and won the first two. But we lost the 1979 one, and despite mass demonstrations in Sydney at the Town Hall and outside Parliament House by over two thousand people who had travelled especially from the country to protest against a number of proposals, Wingham ceased to exist as a separate entity as from 1st January, 1981. From that date, the Municipality of Wingham, the close-by Municipality of Taree and the surrounding Shire of Manning (less the Tuncurry and Nabiac areas) became known as The City of Greater Taree.

The former Town Clerk of the Municipality of Taree became the Town Clerk of the City of Greater Taree. The former Shire Clerk of Manning Shire became his Deputy. As the former Town Clerk of the Municipality of Wingham, I became the Administrative Officer of the City of Greater Taree. The title was rather grandiloquent. I had no idea what it really meant. The main thing was that I retained my scale of salary and my continuity of service. In a time of recession and unemployment where it would be difficult for a person of my age to get another job, I was grateful for this. I was nearly fifty-nine years of age and had six years to go before retirement. I had been Town Clerk of Wingham for twenty-one years and three months.

So, in August, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and eighty one, it is nearly time to bring this account of a small segment of my family history to a close. Irene and I live in a modest three bedroom brick veneer cottage with a double garage underneath. It overlooks the Manning River at Cundletown, just out of Taree on the mid north coast of New South Wales. We moved here twelve years ago, causing quite a stir in Wingham at the time, for the close-knit population did not fancy the idea of their chief administrative Council servant shifting to a rival town. However, now that I am working at the Council offices in Taree, it is very convenient.

Our children are grown up, and I am pleased with all of them. 

Patricia gained her General Nursing Certificate at the Royal Newcastle Hospital. After travelling to Canada, to her grandfather in London, France, North Africa, Spain and a kibbutz in Israel, she returned to Australia. More study resulted in passing her Midwifery training, to become a double certificate registered nurse. Irene and I were very proud of her for this effort, first because it demonstrated her perseverance and dedication, and secondly because always, throughout her life, she would have a profession to return to in case of necessity. Moreover, to be a good nurse is a help to being a good mother. Patricia upgraded her nursing qualifications and subsequently received the degree of Bachelor of Health Science, Nursing at the Catholic University in Sydney. 

Patricia married Raymond in 1975. Ray comes from old pioneers of the Newcastle district on his mother’s side. On his father’s side, he comes from mixed German and apparently Cherokee stock.  His German grandfather had emigrated to Canada and had married a full bloodied Cherokee woman, who was one of Ray’s grandmothers. This lady had travelled a long way from Georgia and North Carolina, the homeland of the Cherokee Indian Nation up to the 1830’s. The Cherokees of that day were highly successful farmers who competed vigorously with the white man in the agricultural area. So the American army under government orders dispossessed them and drove them westwards. Their prosperous farms were then stolen by the white settlers.

The Indian “Removals” were begun by General (later President) Andrew Jackson, also known as “Old Hickory” because of his hardness of character. They were continued under President Van Buren. The Cherokees were forced to vacate their comfortable homes at a moment’s notice. Soldiers then drove them mercilessly on a long winter’s march across the western plains to Oklahoma. During this terrible march when the icy winds began to blow down from Canada one quarter of the Cherokee Nation perished. The brutality of this North American forced exodus was repeated on a larger scale a century later by Hitler’s systematic concentration and murder of the Jews of Europe. I sometimes think that our grandchildren have a double injection of refugee blood. Perhaps with this they may be doubly endowed with the will to survive. 

Peter took up a Teacher’s Scholarship at the University of Newcastle. With the proceeds of this scholarship and by working shifts at the Newcastle works of BHP, he put himself through the University, obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree, and became a schoolteacher with the New South Wales Education Department. I should be remiss not to record that my father was in Australia when Peter received his degree and was enormously proud to be present at the ceremony in the Great Hall of the University. So were Irene and I.

Peter married Margaret in 1978. Margaret’s background is interesting. She traces her ancestry to a soldier of the First Fleet, and to convicts and soldiers who arrived very shortly afterwards from England, Scotland and Ireland. So within one generation my family, from being very new Australians, related to nobody, became old Australians related to many. 

When Christopher left school, he struck an unfortunate patch. He had matriculated from High School and might have gone to University, but graduates were finding it difficult to get jobs. Indeed, everybody was finding it difficult to get jobs, and a recession of frightening proportions stalked the land. School leavers were major victims, and once having failed to get work, found themselves even more disadvantaged the following year when more school leavers competed with them for insufficient jobs. Meanwhile Mr Malcolm Fraser, our millionaire Prime Minister of the time, well insulated by his inherited capital, his politician’s high wages, non-taxable allowances, free overseas trips and princely superannuation, was telling everybody that “Life was never meant to be easy”.

So Christopher had to get a job forthwith, and any professional studies he took up would have to be done part time. 

Christopher found a job with the Government Insurance Office of New South Wales at their headquarters in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, where he is working hard and saving his money, the classic formula for financial success. Irene and I have confidence in his intelligence and ability. Christopher studied for and obtained appropriate qualifications in the Insurance business.

My father used to say to me that if a man had good children, he was rich. It was a precept with which I agreed entirely.

By these standards, Irene and I are indeed rich. For we have three fine children who, we know, will bring up good children in their turn. 

The grandchildren are, of course, a wonderful additional bonus. They are our future, our posterity. We hope that they make good marriages as time goes by and have good children in their turn. May they have health and happiness. If they have these they will acquire a sufficiency of wealth to meet their needs.

Ch8 Pt3 Escape from Berlin to Haifa

As far as the Rüdigers were concerned, they looked with concern at the future of the little girl in their charge in an increasingly military, racist and anti-Semitic Germany. Irena was also aware of the changes going on about her. Jews were forbidden by notice to sit on public benches, so-called “Aryan” Germans were forbidden to patronise Jewish businesses under threat of severe penalties, and there were always secret police on the lookout for offenders. Julius Streicher’s Der Stűrmer churned out the vilest and crudest of newspaper libels against the Jews. Thanks to unceasing insults and propaganda Hitler’s mania seemed to have communicated itself to the entire nation.

One day Irena came across two boys who were tormenting an old orthodox Jew by pulling his beard. She picked up some stones, threw them at the boys and bluffed them into moving on. It may have been at this time that she finally decided to quit Germany for good and go to Palestine. She always said that she smelt something dangerous and unhealthy in the air. She might have been fourteen or fifteen years old when she made this decision.

During the years following the end of the First World War, the interest in Palestine of European Jewry had been greatly stimulated. This revival of interest was due mainly to three factors. In the first place, the vast upheaval of peoples occasioned by the war had brought Western European Jews face to face with their eastern co-religionists who were in closer contact with the Holy Land. Secondly, European Jews began to have forebodings of new pogroms, especially in Germany as Hitler rose to power. The walls of the ghetto were down, but the new freedom did not necessarily spell security for the Jew. Finally, there was the Balfour Declaration, by which Great Britain gave her support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jews. There had been small Jewish settlements in Palestine since biblical days, but it was at the end of the nineteenth century, during the lifetime of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, that serious if sometimes unsuccessful attempts were made by communities of Jews to return to Palestine and settle there. At the conclusion of the First World War, the Balfour Declaration coupled with the lifting of the Turkish yoke now gave a basis for the realisation of Herzl’s ideas.

In the Germany of the nineteen twenties, as anti-Jewish feeling increased, a movement known as the Jugend Aliyah came into existence through which Jewish children were to be trained for settlement in Palestine. “Jugend” was the German word for “Youth” and “Aliyah” was the Hebrew word for “migration”. Members of the “Youth Migration” movements were sent for varying periods to farm schools in their native countries. They lived in “kibbutzim” or settlements in conditions that tried to simulate those they would find in Palestine. Here they were taught the elements of Hebrew, a dead language which was being revived and which is today the living, universal language of the people of the State of Israel. These Jewish children were carefully watched during their stay at farm schools, for immigration certificates to Palestine granted by the British authorities were limited. Therefore only the best could qualify for them and the Hebrew title of “Halutzim”, or “Pioneers”. The emphasis was on manual work and all-Hebrew speech. By manual work the Jews would redeem themselves and the soil of Palestine. By the use of Hebrew and the renunciation of bastard Yiddish and Ladino they would be truly recreating the spirit of the biblical ancients.

It was to one of these schools that Irena now went, taking tearful leave of Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti, and of Oma and Opa Rüdiger, who had been almost like real parents to her. Her mother put no obstacle in her way and appears at times to have been almost indifferent as to where this new step might be leading her daughter. Despite this, her final acquiescence, which still seems to be shrouded in a certain mystery, was to save her daughter’s life. 

In the autumn of 1938 Irena, 15 years old, obsessed by the idea of going to Palestine, and studying Hebrew earnestly, learnt that she was to board a train carrying Jewish children out of Germany. She had made her own arrangements to obtain a passport stamped “Palästinawanderer” after wrangling her mother’s consent. Although differences of opinion were opening between them, the mother did not want her young daughter to leave Germany. Irena had been in hospital with a lung infection and told her mother that she was signing a release form. The mother, her mind occupied as usual by business matters, signed without thinking. Irena also tried to persuade her brother Heini to emigrate with her, but he declined and thereby tragically and unwittingly signed his death warrant. The great Berlin railway station was crowded with parents saying tearful goodbyes to children carrying lunch baskets and spare clothes. But Irena’s mother was not there to see her off. It was a disappointment etched into Irena’s mind. Thus she quit the land of her birth. 

She was only just in time.       

Suddenly the embers of racial and religious prejudice and violence, fanned so assiduously by the Nazis, burst into flame. Anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out everywhere, and the exodus of Jewish children to Palestine was stopped. By lying propaganda, by offering the traditional Jewish scapegoat as the cause of all Germany’s misfortunes, and by appealing to the basest of human instincts Hitler was propelled to the pinnacle of his power. The long-suffering Jews took the first steps on a seemingly unending path of tears to European concentration camps. And the civilised nations who did not want to know about the butchery beginning in the Third Reich found themselves hurtling towards the most destructive war in the history of mankind.

At a later date gentle Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti were to find death in one of those concentration camps so aptly called by the Nazis “Vernichtungslager” – “Vernichtung” meaning quite literally “reduction to nothingness. 

After Irena had left Germany the Nazis one night smashed their way into the house where her brother lived and sent him to a concentration camp. Heini, a sixteen years old boy, must have wondered why he was so ill treated, for he had broken no law and harmed nobody. His mother, awake at last to the danger, fled to England, where she frantically canvassed a number of her relatives who had settled there to raise enough money to ransom her son. But she was unsuccessful. And then, with a finality which put paid to all her efforts, Germany invaded Poland. Within twenty four hours England had declared war on Germany and all avenues of communication were cut.

Heini Schreiber disappeared from the face of the earth. He became one of the six million victims of the Holocaust and one of the forty million dead from all sides in World War Two.

Irena had escaped to Palestine on one of the last refugee trains to leave Germany. She travelled by way of Italy, where she took ship across the Mediterranean. The crew was Italian and there were many adult passengers aboard. But the youthful refugees formed a large proportion of the travellers.

Although they were little more than children the young emigrants were unnaturally subdued. Only a few weeks before, they had been looked after by parents and relatives. Now, very suddenly, they had to look after themselves and, perhaps, after each other. Without being able to put their feelings into words they knew that they would be without family for a very long time. They knew also that their parents and loved ones in Germany were in great peril. As if this was not enough they were going to a strange country of which they knew nothing. And all the time they were trying to cope with a new and difficult language. This was Hebrew, whose Semitic words, grammar and writing had nothing in common with their native German. 

After ploughing through the blue and mostly calm Mediterranean the ship berthed at Haifa. Irena felt little joy and some trepidation when she first set eyes on the continental-style cafés along busy Kingsway, the picturesque but run-down Arab quarter, and the white, flat-roofed houses climbing up Mount Carmel. In any event, her stay in Haifa was brief. Almost immediately she was whisked away to the long-established kibbutz of Ashtoth Yakov, some miles out of the city. Here the only language spoken was Hebrew. Even though it was understood German was met with a stony stare, so the newcomers had no option but to learn the language. Older kibbutzniks were intermixed with them to teach them agriculture and accustom their ears to the new tongue. 

The trickle of mail from Germany stopped with the advent of the war. The new arrivals felt like total orphans. This was what most of them were shortly to become.

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.