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!”

Ch6 pt2 Toulon and the Empire Battleaxe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eh bien, madame?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not for half an hour yet.”

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

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

“We…….ell…….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone whispers something in the thin man’s ear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?

“Well, what have you to sell?”

That, of course, is different.

“Two blankets.”

“Let’s see.”

“With pleasure.”

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

“How much are you asking?”

“A hundred and fifty each.” 

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

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

“Thanks,” I tell him.

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

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

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

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

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

CH6 Pt1 Recovery then Egypt via France.

After spending six weeks at an American transit camp in the small town of Weissenfels, I was flown, cooped up in an uncomfortable aircraft, to London. I had weighed a little under eight stone when the Americans had liberated us. However, they were most hospitable and kind, and fed us well. I looked quite healthy again when I got back home.

I had only been in England for a few short days when I was sent on indefinite leave. But either my friends were in the services or they had grown away from me. Also I was experiencing that peculiar, disheartening feeling which soldiers have when the war seems to be suddenly over, but they have not yet been returned to civvy street. It is a time of frustration when the excitement of ever-present danger has disappeared. Yet it is also a time of self-doubt and fear of one’s ability to cope with the problems of civilian life.

However, there was still a war on in the Far East. Germany and her European allies were beaten, but perhaps I could rejoin the First Airborne Division, who had been sent to Malaya in preparation for the onslaught on the Japanese islands. I wrote to the OC First Airborne Div Signals asking to be taken back on the strength. I later heard that some of my old mates had had the letter read to them. However, there was no way anybody was going to make a special effort to fly me out to Malaya. But, of course, I did not know that at the time.

The crowded streets and dirty buildings of London were becoming intolerable to me. I had a feeling close to claustrophobia. I tried to get myself recalled from leave so that I could resume my service with the army.

I now had the utmost difficulty in getting myself recalled from leave. The army had successfully disposed of me and no longer wanted to acknowledge my existence. But eventually I succeeded, only to find myself sent to a rehabilitation camp for ex prisoners of war. Here army instructors insisted on teaching me all over again how to fire a three-0-three rifle, despite the fact that I had been firing rifles for the past four years. I also learnt anew how to stand to attention, stand at ease, dress by the right, and most importantly, how to “salute the officer.” (Longest way up, shortest way down, fingers together, at the correct angle, almost touching the base of the forage cap). I suffered this very important training for several weeks. Then began a series of shifts from one camp to another during which my chief duty was to peel potatoes.

It was at one of these camps, on the racecourse at the Yorkshire town of Thirsk, that we learnt one day that following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese had capitulated and World War Two was finally over. I am quite sure that we all realised that an era in the history of mankind had finished and that a new and vastly more dangerous one had begun.

By now the pointless fashion in which I had been sent hither and thither had thoroughly annoyed me. Demobilisation was to be extended to avoid a glut of ex-soldiers on the labour market and consequent industrial problems. The fact that I had a job to go back to at the London County Council made no difference. I had at least another year to serve in the army. I therefore resolved to spend it abroad at the army’s expense.

Eventually, after making a nuisance of myself to everybody, I reached a drafting camp outside Newcastle on Tyne. No sooner had I arrived, however, than they stopped sending men to the far-east, and I found myself on a draft to Germany instead. At that time Germany was the one country I did not wish to revisit. My sojourn there as a prisoner had been too recent, and my memories were still bitter. After a prolonged interview with the OC of the camp and frantic negotiations with a comrade to take my place, I finally got myself on a list for a posting somewhere further east.

The war with Japan had been over for a number of months now, and rumours began to circulate that the camp was going to close down. Finally a special order came through that all ex-prisoners of war were to be sent on special Christmas leave, and I journeyed south to London, although I would far sooner have stayed behind.

I came back in time to discover that a further draft – probably the last – was being collected. I was friendly with the sergeant clerk in the company office and with the Company Sergeant Major, and thanks to their influence I was included in this batch of young men who were being sent through France across the Mediterranean to Egypt. They made me a corporal at this stage, as one of the more case-hardened old sweats in this young band of hopefuls. It was the dizziest promotion that I ever obtained in the British army. I was reduced to the ranks some six months later, as I shall relate in due course.

We gathered together on the parade ground one evening, kit-laden and sweating, and journeyed in trucks to the railway station. We spent the following night at a camp outside the twisty-streeted port of Newhaven, and early next morning boarded the sturdy little cross-channel ferry “Isle of Thanet”.

We remained half an hour below deck, awkward and clumsy with our kit bags, valises and life-jackets. Then the motors began to pound, and we set our bows seawards. I climbed on deck, and behind us saw a foaming white wake losing itself in the grey, choppy sea. The chalky cliffs of England, already indistinct, were sinking into the waters of the Channel. Every time that the bows of our ship cut the greyish-blue waves, every time that a little hillock of salt water drenched the deck, the droplets being carried right away to the stern by the cold wind, we were nearer to France.

France! I seemed to have spent half my short life learning her beautiful language. I had also known many of her people. And I had heard many heartbreaking stories of their exile. Yet how many dramas, about which I had never heard, had played themselves out in France during the four years of German occupation! Well, in a few hours we should be treading French soil.

Mack, from Glasgow, one of my new friends, leans over the rail, gazing back towards England. His wife had fallen pregnant to an American soldier. Mack loved her dearly, but had never been able to forgive this infidelity, and they had drifted apart. The memory of her tortured his mind. His reason for volunteering for the draft was to try to forget.

Mack waves sarcastically towards the disappearing shore.

“Bye-bye England. And a soldier’s farewell to everyone, you shower of rotten bastards.” 

I find there the echo of my own thoughts.

Towards midday we drew alongside the silent quay of the little port of Dieppe. This is where the Canadians made their abortive and costly landing in 1942, a rehearsal for the real invasion, which was to come much later. Chains rattled, a narrow gangplank was thrown out and secured by two French seamen in blue caps and jerseys. Then we disembarked and found ourselves in France, a little lost, heavy packs on our backs, and rifles to lean on. Presently some children approached uncertainly, like street mongrels, not sure whether they are going to be welcomed or chased away with kicks. The soldiers dig into their pockets, into their packs and into their gas mask cases, producing sandwiches, which they offer to the children. For the aftermath of war is still with us, the economy of Europe is broken, and food and shelter are at a premium. Chocolate, coffee and cigarettes are the international currency with which one can buy anything.

Some of our soldiers address the children in English, some murder French in the way that only Englishmen can, but communication is established with these hesitant, frightened youngsters. Clearly they see only armed soldiers and do not know what to expect. A kiddy of six or seven years is standing a few yards away from me, his eyes wide, a finger playing with his lower lip. I search in the pockets of my great coat.

“Come on, then. I’ve got something for you to eat.”

Something to eat! His eyes light up. He takes a few hesitant steps. But he is reluctant to come any further.

“Viens ici, mon petit. Don’t be afraid.” 

He comes a little nearer, never taking his eyes off me. During all his childhood his parents must have told him to avoid German troops who have been notorious for picking French people off the streets and sending them straight to forced labour in Germany, or for taking hostages in reprisal for the killing of German soldiers, standing them up against a wall, and shooting them out of hand. In his young mind, all soldiers must be suspect.

The child comes a little nearer, never taking his eyes off me. I have found a bar of chocolate and hold it out to him.

“Du chocolat. Tu le veux? Here, take it.”

We hold our breath, both of us. He is only a couple of feet away from me, but clearly he is scared. But he is tempted. Suddenly he snatches the chocolate from me, scuttles away and takes refuge near a pile of planks. He holds the bar of chocolate against his breast and looks at me, eyes staring, mouth open – a frightened sparrow.

I step forward, but suddenly he turns tail again. Never have I seen an urchin move so quickly. In a moment he has disappeared.

I look at the row of houses opposite. Their walls are still pitted by shrapnel – no repairs have yet been made. To the left, all that remains of a house is a heap of bricks and plaster. A solitary green shutter is still fixed to one wall, and hangs sideways, like a drunken man ready to fall, but clinging stubbornly with one hand. Railway lines run the length of the quay, but higgledy-piggledy, fantastically twisted, no good for anything any more. Maybe the war has twisted the minds of men in the same fashion. To the right a long, white chalky finger, surmounted by a lighthouse, points out into the Channel. How beautiful its whiteness must be when the sun shines, and the waves dance, and the seagulls fly about, at one moment skimming the joyful sea, at another circling the lighthouse.

But the sun is hiding sullenly behind grey clouds, and it seems as if some giant with an immense club has rained down blows upon this town. Dieppe, indeed, has been beaten and ravished by war, which gives death and ugliness in exchange for life and beauty. Even that pretty chalky peninsula is eaten through and through with tunnels, formerly the lairs of German canon, awaiting the approach of the British invasion barges. It is like looking at a beautiful woman whom you know to be eaten up from within by a loathsome disease.

The sky is moody over Dieppe. A cold wind begins to blow, but it cannot blow away the stink of death. This same stale odour pervades bombed habitations everywhere. Only time can cure this stinking illness.

We wait for half an hour, then a dozen lorries – those huge, roaring American lorries, painted grey and with the name of the driver’s wife or girl friend inscribed on the bonnet – come to fetch us. The lorries circle, drive off, and in next to no time we are leaving behind the houses with the picturesque shutters and the hilly streets of Dieppe. On the outskirts of the town, we enter a large camp – a patch of ground, which has been cleared of obstructions and planted with wooden huts. Here we eat in a big communal dining room where pleasant French women show us our places and wait on us. Afterwards we draw blankets and line up at the NAAFI for our rations of cigarettes. 

It is starting to rain as we begin to queue for four o’clock tea, and the dull sky hangs like a pall over the camp. We are happy to receive the order “On the lorries”, and to cross Dieppe once again, this time on our way to the station. The town seems almost deserted. Only a man here in a blue beret or a woman there running her errands glance at us, then turn and continue on their way.

Our train was standing in the station, but we had to wait two hours before it left. During this time workmen with the characteristic French blue beret walked up and down the platform, trying to buy English cigarettes from us. I had a conversation for about half an hour with a young man in his middle twenties who came into the corridor. He had just bought fifty cigarettes and was broke. He told me that the average workman in France received a thousand francs a week which was at that time equivalent to about two pounds ten shillings English, a very low wage. Potatoes, butter and bread, he told us, were rationed, and the cost and conditions of living were worse than under the German occupation. One was free, of course … followed by a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. In further conversation it turned out that he had been a prisoner of war in Germany for five years.

Our train gave a jerk and he quickly turned to get off. I stopped him.

“Attends. Tiens.” I gave him a packet of twenty cigarettes.

“But I have no money to pay you.”

“Forget it. We were prisoners of war together, n’est-ce pas?”

The train groans, moves. We hurriedly shake hands.

“Au revoir, and thanks for the cigarettes.”

“Au revoir, my friend, and good luck.”

He turns again and descends to the platform. I am so sorry for the French. God knows, we have suffered enough from the war in England. But the French were invaded by the Germans, suffered death and deportation during the occupation, then were invaded once again by the allies. It seems to have become the practice that in any European war France is always a battleground. Now once more they have a country to reconstruct. I do not envy them their task.

The windows of our coach had no glass, so we were obliged to improvise curtains from blankets and block up the holes as best we could. The fields outside were covered with snow, and as the train rattled along, a piercingly cold wind sought entry. We were soon bitterly cold, and the position was aggravated by the fact that the heating system had gone wrong between our coach and the one in front.

At every stop I got down, hunted out the stationmaster or the engineer and asked what the chances were of mending the break in the heating pipe. Railwaymen squeezed in between the coaches and made learned examinations. Promises that somebody would do something were given lavishly, and sympathy for us in our travelling refrigerator was extreme. Yet somehow or other the heating system remained useless until the end of the journey.

Camps had been set up by the railway track, and from time to time we stopped to have a meal in some huge barn in the country and to draw sandwiches and chocolate to sustain us on our further travels. At these stopping places, no matter how deserted the countryside, women and their children appeared beside the train, and it was to them that the bulk of our chocolate ration went.

We drew into Toulon at about eight o’clock on a clear, mild morning with the sun shining in a watery fashion. We followed a short, underground passage and found ourselves in the street, the object of curiosity of the passers-by. All traces of snow had disappeared, and a tall, slender palm tree signalled that we had arrived at the Mediterranean coast.